Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Random quick takes

How about, instead of having a set day for quick takes, I just do them whenever?  Is that too uncool?  It's just that for weeks I've planned to do them on Friday or Saturday and either forgot or didn't have time.


Our biggest bit of excitement lately was the Sunday before last, when Michael poked Marko in the eye with a plastic popsicle stick.  Marko came out of the bedroom screaming with all his lower eyelashes folded to the inside.  I corrected that but he was still screaming, so I pulled down the lid and could see a horrible red area on his eyeball as well as a corresponding bit on the inside of his lower lid.

We thought about taking him to the ER, but he was comforted with an ice pack and Dinosaur Train, and he said he could see fine, so we didn't ..... but John was really stressed out about it, so I did some googling that evening.  Turns out it was a conjunctival abrasion and/or hemorrhage, neither of which is serious, but with the former there is a slight risk of infection.  And if it does get infected, the patient can lose vision in that eye in a matter of 24 hours.  Cue major freakout from me.  That escalated the next morning when I tried to test Marko's vision again and he said he couldn't see my fingers because "everything looked dark" in that eye.

So we made an appointment for him that afternoon, at a new doctor's office we'd never been to before.  I am very glad we did, because it was a chance to discover this doctor is THE BEST.  Like, even better than my previous doctor, whom I liked as well.  He was super gentle with Marko and got him to finally relax and admit that he could, in fact, see out of his eye.  I don't know if he was messing with me earlier or if perhaps his vision was partly fuzzy, but anyway it was a huge relief to me that he could see.

The doctor put some dye in his eye and looked at it under a black light to confirm that yes, the sclera (white part) was abraded, but since it was nowhere near the cornea (clear part) it should not affect his vision.  He told me it would heal quickly and gave me a prescription for some erythromycin ointment to put in Marko's eye.


Well, that went fine for that day and the next, but by Wednesday morning Marko's face looked blotchy, and by that evening it was looking puffy and had broken out in rashy bumps.  I figured it was the antibiotic, which the doctor confirmed for me on Friday.  With the help of Benadryl we've gotten rid of the rash at last, but that's going to have to go in my records -- no erythromycin for Marko anymore!  I'm glad he's never had to have it before -- Marko is the first of any of the kids to have to take an antibiotic.

We also learned on Friday that Marko's eye has entirely healed, thank goodness.


Within a couple of weeks Miriam has turned from "walking baby" to "definitely a toddler."  I don't know what the difference is, exactly.  It's just that she doesn't demand to be held very much, and when we go places she's always running away from me instead of clinging.  At home, if I look away from her for ten seconds, she is climbing on something.  One time she was napping inside and I was keeping the kids entertained outside, when I saw her looking at us out the window.  She had crawled off the bed, opened the bedroom door, walked out into the living room, climbed on my desk chair, and climbed on my desk ... without making a peep.  So it looks like we can't do that anymore.

She climbs the rocking chair and stands on it.  She climbs on Michael's bed and from there to the bedside table, so that she can mess with the blinds.  If the boys leave the laundry-room door open for even a second, she follows them to get to the back door so that she can try to climb down the concrete stairs.  (This last one really scares me.)  So I have to be on her at all times.  If I go ten seconds without looking at her or hearing her, I start frantically checking around for her because I know just how fast she can get into trouble.  Small wonder that I live for her naptime.  I need some seconds in my day without that level of anxiety.


The bright side of this is that I no longer feel like the mother who's always stuck taking care of the baby so that the big kids have to play by themselves.  Now, they all would rather be together, so I get to join in and have more fun.  Going places is still stressful, especially with Miriam heading for the hills every other second, but somehow it feels more like a fun family outing.

The other day we went to the library.  It was fun, the kids played, Miriam pulled books off the shelves.  While we were there, a huge storm rolled in.  So when we left, we practically had to wade to the car.  We had to stop at the store on the way home and got soaked.  So after I'd gotten the one thing I'd meant to buy (mint extract) and the five things I didn't (including apple turnovers as a "you were so good in the store" treat -- I'm such a sucker when I'm hungry) and we were back in the car, I decided to just hang for a bit instead of driving home while it was raining that hard.

We sat on the floor of the van, eating apple turnovers and reading library books while the rain sheeted down the windows.  And I thought .... this is my life now.  Big kids.  Fun.  Moments for the memory book.

Moments like this are like happiness in the bank, for later when the kids are squabbling and Miriam won't go to bed on time.  I can remember that it's not all whining and shrieking, that they are really sweet, fun kids who I am lucky to be with.

Marko especially.  Because there's nothing to remind you how much you care about someone than to worry about them when they're sick or hurt.


I don't want to neglect Michael in this post, but I hardly know what to tell you -- he's the same as ever.  Goofy.  Doesn't give a rip what you think of him.  Cute as a button.

Also perhaps harboring a touch of womb envy.  Well, he just wants to be exactly like Mama.  He often asks if there's another baby growing in my belly.  When i say no, he asks if he and Miriam can get back in there together.



I've just finished the incredible crunch time that is plum harvest season each year.  Our dwarf plum tree never seems like it could produce that many plums, but every year we've lived here except one, it's given us bushels.  It's amazing to watch and exhausting to deal with.

The thing is, plums are ripe for about one day.  Monday, they're too sour.  Tuesday, they're perfect.  Wednesday, they start to rot.  At least in my experience.  It doesn't help that many of them are bruised from getting knocked off the tree by individuals who will remain nameless.

Since they tend to fall off the tree the second they're perfectly ripe, whereupon they get bruised and eaten by bugs in a matter of hours, I've learned to pick them unripe and bring them in to ripen.  But then my table is covered with plums, every bowl and pot I own is covered with plums, and I have to monitor them constantly to make sure I do something with the ripe ones before they rot.  Also we wind up with fruit flies in the house.

This is not even the worst of it.

In the end I put up quite a few jars of sauce and jam, fed massive amounts to my kids, and shared some with the neighbors.  I wish I'd counted quarts -- I'd guess 10 or 12.  Enough to overcrowd my fridge and fill about a third of my laundry-room freezer.

This is the first year I've successfully made actual jam.  The trick of it, apparently, is to use way more sugar than I think is reasonable.  Then you cook it down till it's maybe 2/3 of what you started with.  Many of the batches did not jell, presumably because I didn't use enough sugar, which was because I always underestimated how much I needed to get from the store and kept running out.  But thick plum sauce is tolerable on sandwiches and heaven on vanilla ice cream.  Or Greek yogurt.


Now that we're finally through that, the cucumbers are the ones overwhelming me.  I keep missing them at the tiny pickling stage and getting them at the giant blimp stage.  They're kind of watery at that point, but still good to eat .... except when you have a dozen of them.  Then what are you to do?  I made a giant salad out of them (cukes, salt, yogurt, dill) and brought them to a potluck.  At the end there was still lots left, but I begged off taking it home .... "PLEASE someone take these leftovers!"  Luckily there were people who weren't as tired of cukes as we are.

I've made sweet pickles, sour pickles, and fermented pickles, whole and slices.  I've made cucumber soup (grated cukes, avocado, cilantro, onion, sour cream, lime juice) and cucumber smoothies (grated cucumber, honey, yogurt, mint).  I've dressed them with salt and vinegar, and with lemon juice and dill, and with ranch, and with sour cream and horseradish.  They really are delicious.  But they just won't stop!  Right now I have three big ones in the fridge, five big ones on the table, and about eight big ones still outside that I am leaving there because I don't know where else to put them.  Also a bowlful of small ones soaking in salt water for more pickles.

The trick, by the way, of fermented pickles is to leave them whole.  I have tried many things to make slices without them going soggy, and mostly they go soggy anyway.  But if you must do it, put a raspberry leaf in each jar.  Or an oak or grape leaf.

Tomatoes are rolling in, but I'm quite disappointed to find that all the volunteer plants that came up are cherry tomatoes.  Not that cherries are good, but they take many times the trouble to pick, and they're not handy to slice onto a sandwich.  I should have just bought seedlings!

What's new for you?  Also, does anyone want cucumbers?

Monday, July 27, 2015

The downsides of atheism

Considering I recently wrote about the problems with Catholicism, I figure it's time to talk about the problems of atheism.  Sure, there are other religious possibilities, but these are the two that appear to have a pretty strong intellectual defense.  However, my doubts about Catholicism haven't sent me straight into the atheist camp, and this post will explain some of the reasons for that.

I think all of the flaws in atheism can be condensed by saying, it's not to a human scale.  Atheism assumes the universe was not made for humans, and therefore it doesn't have to make sense.  Even if true, that can be a difficult viewpoint to live with.  The human mind constructs narratives out of everything it sees.  It constantly tries to reduce what we experience to something comprehensible and consistent.  What if the world's not like that?

In atheism, you have to deal with the scale of the universe -- immeasurably vast, and completely unconcerned with you.  Your life may have repercussions all over the world, and that still doesn't make a huge difference from the universe's point of view.  It's nice to think there's something out there even bigger than the universe that cares what you do.  If there isn't, it's hard not to feel insignificant.

Atheism does not provide meaning for you.  Sure, you can make your own, but you always have to face the reality that it's something you made up.  When I was a kid I used to go through my mom's CCD teacher manuals.  I'd read the questions, close my eyes, think of the answer, and then check to see if I was right.  "Theological virtues?  Faith, hope, and charity.  Bingo!"  But sometimes the answer would be the one I most hated .... "Answers may vary."  Answers may vary?  Then how do I know I got the right one?  If there's no teacher, there's no back of the book, and no way to be sure you're doing it right.

It also doesn't give you prepackaged answers.  Should you take a job that pays well, or a job that makes a bigger difference for others?  Should you have a baby?  Should you lie to protect someone else?  It's like you have to reinvent the wheel.  You could read the best moral philosophers in history, but there's always some disagreement, so in the end it's still down to you.  Wouldn't it be nice to outsource this to an expert who would give you a tidy framework to make decisions with?  Well, it certainly would, if you could know they could be trusted, and if you don't believe in any religion, you don't have access to anyone you trust as much as religious people trust God.

It can be exhausting to try to answer questions like this.  You probably have a life you'd like to be living, and taking time out of it to ponder the meaning of the universe and your life can distract from that.  Who can tell you how to balance existential reflections with real living?  Yet again, no one but you.

Atheists are so heterogenous that, unlike most religions, you can't assume another atheist will think anything like what you do about life.  They might not share your morals.  That is probably part of the reason why atheists don't always have a strong community to look to.  That, and that religion itself is a community-supporting structure which binds people together much more tightly than other groups generally do.

Atheism doesn't come with spirituality .... how to mark the passage of time, how to experience transcendence, how celebrate life events.  Any ritual you want, you have to make up, which feels a bit like playacting since it doesn't come with the weight of tradition behind it.

And atheism doesn't have an answer to death.  At a Christian funeral, people say, "We will miss him, but he is in a better place.  Our grief is temporary and we will see him again someday."  An atheist can only think, "He no longer exists.  And someday I too will no longer exist."  It's hard to even think about death from an atheist perspective -- what does it even mean to think about no longer existing?  What will that "be like"?  Obviously it won't be like anything if there is no one to experience it.

Many people I know think that the time of a person's death is fated somehow.  It's out there, sometime, and though they don't know when it is, they act as though they had no control over it.  This is a comforting illusion, but in reality many of the ways a person can die are preventable.  So you start to worry: if I get into a car, will I get in a wreck?  If I don't get this mole checked out, will I die of cancer?  It can spur you to make better choices -- the illusion of invulnerability can inspire some stupid decisions -- but it can also increase your anxiety.  Even in small things, you can't say there is someone looking out for you.  There is no reason bad things won't happen to you.

An atheist has no one to thank.  Sometimes life is so intensely beautiful, so precious, that you need to say thank you, but if there is no God, there is no one to hear you.

I'm sure there are more, but I'm going to stop there.  Some of these needs can be fulfilled by other groups besides the big umbrella of "atheism" -- there are communities like rationalism or humanism that have more specific goals.  Some are just things you have to learn to live with. 

All of these are problems, not with the intellectual possibility that atheism is true, but with the human mind.  Atheism doesn't have an answer to our longing for permanence, for certainty, for hope of eternity.  I don't think these desires are proof of anything -- I don't think the universe is obligated to provide me with the things I wish for -- but they are there nonetheless.  Atheism is not to a human scale.  I don't know that I'm resigned yet to that.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Inner space

Last week Belfry Bat said that he knew people who didn't believe in consciousness.  I can't quite fathom that.  The one thing that I can't deny at all is that I am having experiences.  What my experiences mean, how grounded they are in reality, and what they tell me about my nature are all subject to doubt, but the fact that I'm having them isn't.

No one knows for certain what consciousness is, where it comes from and how it works.  We know we are conscious of things that happen in our brain, but there are some things our brain does (controlling our endocrine system, for instance) that we're not conscious of.  There are some things that exist on our brains only subconsciously that can be brought to the surface later.  We know we're not really conscious when we're asleep, and as for whether consciousness exists after death -- it's not possible to be empirically certain of that.  And why there is this knowledge of being an "I", of being someone who is having experiences .... no scientist has been able to say. 

So for every person there are two possible realities: what is outside of us, and what is inside.  All we know of the outside is what filters through to the inside -- what we sense, and what is constructed into an intelligible reality by the brain.  When I look around my room, my eyes are aware of only color and contrast, but my brain figures out the shape of the room and where each object begins and ends -- something cameras are still learning how to do.  And then another part of my brain puts a name on each thing that I see -- my desk, the wall, my cat.  I have feelings about some of these things, and I'm also aware of feelings that are lingering inside me from other experiences.  I can see my hands on the keyboard, but I can't see my face -- except the side of my nose.  My mind is able to picture what I look like anyway. 

It is not possible to have an objective view of reality, because everything that is perceived is perceived from a certain point of view.  But we can imagine what an objective view would look like -- reconstructing the scene from above, for instance.  Physicists might tell me that my desk is really constructed of atoms, and that my hands aren't really touching my keyboard, but that's just another point of view -- one which is constructed very logically, but one which I'm not capable of directly perceiving.

When I look out on the world, or when I reflect on my memories, or when I theorize about the true nature of the universe, I'm making a duplicate of the universe inside my mind.  Here in my inner world, I have everything from facts about Pluto to memories of my childhood.  My late grandfather lives here, and the house I grew up in, and the heroes of the stories I write.  A holly tree cut down a decade ago is still growing in here.  I have poems and works of art, songs and dreams.  It's a world that I can try to share with others, but all I can do is give them a shape for their own images they're constructing inside their minds -- which won't look exactly like mine. 

I remember being about twelve years old and wishing telepathy were real.  I didn't just want access to someone else's surface thoughts -- I wanted to know everything about another person, and for them to know everything about me.  I've since realized that it would take a lifetime to learn everything about a person, because it took a lifetime for them to become what they are.  I don't even understand myself all the time!  Thinking about my twelve-year-old self is a bit of a mystery -- I don't have a full memory of that time, only scattered recollections (plus some journals and fanfic I no longer enjoy reading).  I know her better than I know anyone else alive -- but I don't know her fully.

There's a Rush song that goes, "We are secrets to each other / Each one's life a novel no one else has read."  It's true -- even if a biographer should seek out every word I said, every letter I wrote, every photograph ever taken of me, they wouldn't be able to capture the whole of my interior reality.  What's more, even if they could, no one would have the time to read it!

Sometimes I might wonder if the inside of other people is at all like the inside of myself.  Perhaps I am the only one who really thinks and feels -- the rest of them are just unconscious automatons, simulations.  Or maybe people of my ethnic group are like me, but others are not.  Or maybe they are somewhat similar, but their experience of, say, the color blue (a mental construct by which we understand certain waves of light) is nothing like mine.

But the situation's really not so grim.  We can speak to each other and exchange information about our inner realities.  While we will never fully understand exactly how another person experiences the color of the ocean, or how they feel when they hear a Mozart sonata, we can say "blue" or "beautiful" and know that they are experiencing a reality like ours.  Sharing with others is one way we check our experience against reality -- I see a mountain, and my friend sees a mountain too, so it can't only be an illusion.

Plato said that these realities must be outside ourselves, and indeed outside this world.  If we all see beauty, Beauty must be out there somewhere.  Another person might say "Since beauty does not exist by itself, it is only an illusion."  I would say, "There are things that exist in all our minds at once, and even if they don't have a separate reality of their own, they have a reality in our inner worlds."  That is, just because beauty does not exist apart from the minds that perceive it does not mean it is not real.  Blue is an experience that could never be explained just by recourse to what wavelengths of light that produce it, but we all know what blue is, as long as we've seen it.  Even if it doesn't look exactly the same to each of us, it is similar enough to give all of our experiences of it a kind of commonality. 

So love is real, and beauty, and goodness, and sadness.  All of these are real, even though they are objects of inner space.  Since they guide the actions of people -- beings who exist on the outside as well as on the inside -- they affect the external reality.  Because we share an idea of goodness, we follow it with our actions and change the world.  Someone's idea of beauty might result in a painting or a sculpture -- something which might perhaps be of no importance to an "objective beholder," if there could be such a thing, but which matters to humans because we all love beauty.

The question which has troubled me for so long is this: is God one of these ideas, a dream (as I put it) of the world-soul, a thought we are all thinking together, something we have created which says something about us and what we all have in common . . . or is God something outside of us, a part of reality, which (if we want to be wise and truthful) we should seek out and strive to conform our images to? 

Either way, it seems undeniable to me that God matters.  Because if it is a name we give to the highest thought we can think, the greatest thing we can imagine, the guide of all ... then the shape we ascribe to him will change the way we act more than anything else could.  And if God is an external reality, he and only he is the true observer of all that we are -- the only person who could truly share our inner space with us, and preserve it after the exterior reality is gone.  That is why I continue to search, even though I can't find anything beyond the most doubtful clues.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The problems I have with Catholicism

I've been trying to write this post for awhile.  My original intention was to write a separate post for everything on this list and then link them up, but I think instead I'll publish this first and then write separate posts on any topic that seems to garner some interest.

Please don't take this as a "why I left the Church" post.  I am still attending Mass.  I think it's equally inaccurate to say "I am a Catholic" and "I am not a Catholic" so I try to avoid saying either.  For all the reasons below, I think the idea that the Church is a trustworthy guide to truth is a dubious claim; but on the other hand, I'm way too attached to it to just walk out the door, so here we are.

Trigger warning: if my blog always throws you into a faith crisis, and you don't want to have a faith crisis, don't read this.  On the other hand, if you are already in one, you're probably not going to be able to help yourself.  Just don't blame me if it makes it worse.

1.  The Old Testament.  Just the whole doggone thing.  I was doing really well just reading it symbolically, until I found out that the Church is really pretty clear about what it means by inspiration.  Whatever is intended by the author, that's what the passage primarily means.  You can't say that a bronze age nomad wrote a text from his own point of view, and God made sure to make his own message come across in a symbolic way despite the nomad's ignorance.  No, we are supposed to believe that that nomad said (for instance) "God hardened Pharaoh's heart" but what he really meant was that God permitted Pharaoh's heart to be hardened.  And that really does not appear to be the case.  There are hundreds of problematic passages, each one easily resolved if you assume it's just a person's culture speaking, but impossible or improbable to interpret as what someone would actually say if God had revealed to them exactly what to write.

Are we honestly going to say that God was in total control of every word of the Bible, and it does say you should beat your slaves, but he never bothered to say that slavery was wrong?  I can't do it.  I could write a whole post on problematic Bible verses ... but I think you all know at least some of the ones I mean.  Just open the Bible at random and see if you can get through a single page without running into something that just doesn't seem like what an omniscient, all-loving God would say.  Or go here.

Of course you could believe that God did all the awful things attributed to him and just isn't what we would consider "good."  But then you're going to have to ask if it's good for you to worship somebody like that.

2.  The death penalty.  Oh, don't get me wrong, I agree totally with John Paul II's argument against it.  The problem is that it seems to go completely counter to the Church's prior teaching about it.  I'll throw out this link as an example, but there's lots more out there.  At one time, the death penalty was considered obligatory -- we have to put to death certain offenders.  Now we are told it's better not to.  It seems that if justice demands death for certain criminals, it would be unjust not to do so.  If it's better not to do it, then it never can have been a matter of abstract justice to do it.

3.  Women.  We now believe that women are complementary to men; no one exactly knows what that means, but it has something to do with women being equal but different.  However, that is not at all what the Church believed for the first 19 centuries.  And again, you have to ask -- if God was steering the boat, why couldn't he have revealed that little detail a bit sooner?  Instead, women are painted as unclean, sinful, and inferior in almost everything the theologians came up with.  It seems like God must not care very much about half of humanity if he didn't bother revealing that we are equal for all that time.

And I have tried and tried and tried, and I never did find an argument for the male-only priesthood that didn't, in the end, boil down to sexism.   Generally these arguments are predicated on a strict kind of gender essentialism that modern science just doesn't support.

4.  The Church's teaching about salvation without baptism has mutated past all recognition.  It used to be thoroughly understood that non-Catholics all went to hell.  Now we don't think that anymore.  I agree with the new way, but I can't come up with any valid explanation for the old way -- how it can have been anything other than infallible teaching that we have since abandoned.

Every time the Church pulls one of these, there's some schismatic/heretical group which refuses to accept the new teaching.  I don't understand this -- it seems to me that if you are part of a church that banks on never changing its teachings, and you believe it just did, that would disprove the whole thing and you might as well give up the idea that tradition is in any way meaningful.  But instead they believe that Jesus protected the Church from error up to (insert date) and then stopped.  That's absurd.  If God was speaking through the Church then, he must be now; since the two are contradictory, it follows that neither one can be from God.

5. Infallibility.  The Church makes a big, disprovable claim -- that anything defined infallibly will never change -- and it claims that sure enough, it never has.  But if you go through history, you can find lots of things that the Church was very sure about at the time (like "no salvation outside the Church" above) and later decided that it wasn't defined infallibly the first time, or that they didn't really mean it the way it sounds.  For the Church's claim of infallibility to be meaningful, we should know what is and isn't infallible.  Instead, there's a wide variety of opinion about what is or isn't.  If people assumed "pagans go to hell" was a sure thing for thousands of years, and now we think it's not, what else do we believe now that our descendants will abandon?  I have gotten into quite involved discussions with people about "is X teaching infallible" and the short answer is, nobody knows.

6. Hell, purgatory, and indulgences.  I have written before that I think it's incompatible with God's goodness for hell to be a place of God's direct punishment.  The more progressive view is that it's just a place of privation, where people who don't want to be with God go to be without him.  In that case, purgatory is where you go to prepare yourself to be with God.  The souls in purgatory aren't ready for God, and it just takes time for them to work through the things keeping them from him.  But if that is true, what in the world does an indulgence do?  Indulgences are about paying off a certain penalty.  Makes perfect sense if sin is like an overdraft at the bank, which someone else could pay off for you, but why does God have to treat sin like that?  Is God not free to waive purgatory with or without the indulgence?  And if he can waive it without the indulgence, why bother with purgatory in the first place?

7.  The Church's distinction between natural family planning and artificial birth control seems a little sophistical.  Why focus on individual acts instead of assuming union and procreation are the ends of sex throughout the whole of the marriage?  Most of the arguments I heard growing up against birth control also work against NFP -- stuff like "God will provide for another child" and "who knows, the child you conceive could be the one God plans to use in some special way."  So I always planned not to use NFP either, I was just going to have kids as they came, and that's what we did with the first three kids.  These days, I do understand the difference, and it's working okay for us so far.  But I've been hearing more and more stories from other Catholic couples about how they have been put in very difficult situations by this teaching: marriage taking a beating from excessive amounts of abstinence, very grave reason to avoid pregnancy, but if you sin you go to hell.  What exactly is the right choice then?

I guess I always assumed God just took care of this stuff.  I assumed you'd get good results if you followed God's will.  But from what I've seen in the lives of people I know, God doesn't take care of this stuff.  Sometimes -- even often -- Catholics pay a price for following the Church's teaching and don't get any benefit from it.  How can this teaching be true if it's harmful?

8.  The problem of evil and related paradoxes.  If God can do anything and cares about us, why did he construct a universe with so much suffering in it?  Also, if God wants us to know him, why not reveal himself more obviously?  And if God wanted us to be reconciled to him after original sin, why didn't he just do that instead of waiting centuries and then sending his son to be killed?  These questions have answers, but I've never considered the answers to be very good.  Any limitations put on God as part of the answer seem to cause a paradox: if God can't make us virtuous without suffering, or if he can't forgive sin without sacrifice, or whatever, who made the rule that he couldn't?  These things don't appear logically impossible.

9.  I always thought it was sufficient proof of the Church's divine origin that it triumphed over all the other brands of nuttiness circulating in the first few centuries -- Gnosticism, Monophysitism, Arianism, etc.  But it makes better sense to say that all of those sects had a shot at "winning," but the Catholic Church is the one that actually won, and history is written by the winners.  Writers who disagreed with the winning viewpoint were labeled heretics; many of their writings were destroyed under Constantine.

For instance, we were always taught that the form of the Mass was established by Jesus and used more or less the same (at least in the Eucharistic Prayer) from the Last Supper on.  And yet here are the words the Didache -- written close to the time the Gospels were written down -- includes:

"Now concerning the Eucharist, give thanks this way. First, concerning the cup:
We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever..
And concerning the broken bread:
We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever."

 That doesn't seem even recognizable!  No reference at all to any belief in it being Jesus' body.  Did the Christian community not believe it was at that time?

10.  This one's not so much a problem as a lack of a solution: my one really rock-hard reason for belief was that Jesus rose from the dead, and we know he must have because his apostles died rather than deny him.  Right?

Actually there is no good historical evidence that any of them died as martyrs.  The "acts" of their martyrdoms were written centuries later; there is no reason to believe that they weren't just made up to give glory to people's favorite saints.  And if you take away that really solid piece of evidence, the possibility that one or more people were lying about the resurrection seems a lot more credible.  Given that, I can construct a plausible scenario for how Christianity could have gotten going without the resurrection.

There may be more, but those are the biggest ones.  You see it's not one issue but a multitude of issues.  Any one of these can be explained away a bit by saying "but that's the only weak point in an otherwise very strong framework!"  But with that many holes, and no really firm evidence to override them, it just doesn't look like a strong framework anymore.

I post this to invite argument.  If you think any of these points are incorrect, please feel free to try to convince me.  You know the drill: I would like to believe, so I am very willing to entertain your arguments, but I also am unconvinced that I should believe without evidence.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Is and ought

In the past week or two I've tried out and discarded a number of blogging ideas.  I keep wanting to argue "I'm not bad or stupid for not believing," but there seems to be no way to argue that without sounding like I'm saying "you are bad or stupid for believing," and I don't think that.  I'm not even interested in talking anybody else out of believing; lucky you, I say.

So today I'm going to talk about something else: morality, specifically the relationship between what is (facts) and what ought to be (moral imperatives).  There's an old philosophical dilemma that you can never go from facts to moral imperatives because ought doesn't depend entirely on is.  If the fact is that stealing your sandwich will make you mad at me, but I will also get a sandwich, what does that imply I should do?  Nothing.  It depends on which I want more, the sandwich or your good opinion.

Because of this many people think that morality is not possible for atheists; without God around to tell them what they ought to do, they have no choice but to drift along on autopilot, doing what they "feel like" or what is socially acceptable, but with no real reason why they don't just murder everyone they don't like.

I find that a little silly.  If you are religious, take a moment to think about what you would want to do, if God told you he didn't care one way or another and was interested to see what you chose.  Do you think you would very much enjoy betraying your friends, killing your parents, or hurting your children?  Not so much.  You care about those people and so you don't want to hurt them.  You want to make them happy.  In short, you love them.  Most people do.

And if you take as given that you love others, and that most people do, then you can give some thought to what sort of life you should live that will be good for others as well as yourself.  The details of that discernment rely entirely on what is: will this or that politician enact better laws, will this or that parenting method help my children, will this or that action make my friend happy.  All it takes is one simple assumption -- that you care about other people -- and after that you can go with what is.  It's also pretty fair to assume others also care about other people, and you can argue from their empathetic feelings to more specific moral rules: if you agree that other people feel as you do and are as important as you are, you should want their benefit, and look, X is to everyone's benefit.

But what's interesting me lately is the opposite question: is it possible to obtain ought without is?

I was discussing Pope Francis' new encyclical with someone, and we were arguing whether it had anything infallible in it.  I pointed out that the pope is never infallible about science, just about faith and morals.  So he might be wrong if he says "CO2 is causing global warming," but he should be preserved from error if he says "all Catholics should turn off their air conditioning."  (He didn't actually say that.)

Well, that's the theory, but what would be the point of turning off the A/C if global warming isn't actually going on?

I tried comparing it to Humanae Vitae, which most conservative Catholics will agree is infallible, but I found myself asking for the first time, if some of Paul VI's facts are incorrect, does that affect his conclusions at all?  Say, if birth control doesn't actually have the bad effects he says -- if it's discovered it strengthens marriages while NFP causes divorce, or whatever.

If he weren't pope, it would have to.  You can't come up with good moral rules without good facts.  This drives me crazy in many other debates, like the death penalty.  If the death penalty does not actually reduce crime, that is vital information to know!  And yet I've gone through some impressive debates on the topic where facts aren't even mentioned, except for quotes from popes. 

Now the Catholic assumption is that even if the pope in question doesn't have access to all the facts, that's okay because the Holy Spirit will preserve him from error.  It's also a Church teaching that if scientific facts appear to conflict with revealed truths, one is interpreting one or the other wrongly.

I think the Church does very well when it allows teachings to change based on new situations or newly discovered facts.  Getting rid of the idea of limbo makes sense considering the previously-unknown fact that as many as a quarter of babies conceived are miscarried.  That fact seems to make it much clearer that God wouldn't deprive that many people of heaven. 

However, it makes for problems with the idea of infallibility every time a teaching is changed.  There are some things that maybe could stand to be reformed by facts, but which won't be because Catholics believe the previous teachings were infallible the first time.  The Pope and bishops can't say that owning a person is intrinsically evil or that the death penalty is never acceptable, because that would contradict prior teaching.  So instead they have to put up with people dismissing the new teaching as "only prudential."

Another issue is that Catholics like to push inaccurate facts just to prop up the idea that the facts and faith will never contradict.  Which is where we get the supposed fact that NFP-using couples never divorce.  I dug up the study and what it actually said was that NFP-using couples are all currently married.  Which is .... unsurprising, don't you think?  If you're divorced, you presumably don't need to chart.  There are also inaccurate facts passed around about various birth control methods, to the point that I never believe something from a Catholic source till I've double-checked on a secular source.  Too often, they exaggerate or overstate things.  Like how birth control pills are mutating fish -- apparently it's mostly other pollutants.  How can we trust Catholic sources when they have a bad track record about reporting accurate facts, because the conclusion they want to prove is decided in advance?  (Ditto for political groups with different foregone conclusions.)

So, if the Church is true, there are two paths to "ought" -- either to look at what is, take love of neighbor and the common good as given, and draw the best conclusions you can; or to follow what the Church says.  Both should give the exact same answer, because truth, of course, comes from God.  Certainly most Catholics I know, when asked about the moral law, will argue that it is for our benefit.  They try to show that gay marriage or birth control or what-have-you is not good for us, but bad.  God isn't just making up rules to test us, he's just the one with a birds-eye view of human nature telling us what will truly make us happy and what won't.  If we were to investigate statistics about groups living out Catholic morals and groups abiding by other systems, we should find the Catholic one has the best results.

My question is, if you take the first path -- being, of course, as logical and impartial as you can, because that's the best way to find out facts -- will you really get the same answer as you do when you take the second?  Does anyone want to predict what would happen?

I think I would predict that these two courses are not so different as all that, for one thing.  Atheists are not, for the most part, living lives of utter dissolution; they don't cheat or steal or lie more than religious people do, because they have come to similar conclusions about morality from different sources.  And that is what you should expect if you are a Catholic -- the moral law is rational so there's no reason they wouldn't be able to figure it out.

On the other hand, there are some points of divergence between what religious and non-religious people believe, particularly when it comes to sex, and it would be very interesting to see if there was one set of sexual ethics that can be proven to make a society flourish and the people in it live happy lives.  Having not put serious study into it, I can't tell you what the answer would end up being, but it should be something we're able to find out.

And if we did figure it out, and non-religious people all adopted that, because they were happy to do what was necessary to love others and promote the common good?  Well, I predict further that if there was any difference between it and Catholicism, it wouldn't change anyone's mind.  Catholics would say, "But it can't be good, because those people do xyz and we think that is bad!"  Atheists would ask, "Why is that bad?" and Catholics would respond, "Because God does not want you to.  That's why."

And that's why Christians of every stripe will never admit that atheists can be moral.  There are some moral laws in religion which you can't derive from reason, because they are specifically laws that relate to God.  But as far as love of one's neighbor goes, I think you absolutely can go from is to ought and unbelievers do it all the time.

But ought without is?  I don't think you can.  I can't know if I ought to turn off my A/C until I know whether the earth is warming.  I don't know if I ought to oppose gay marriage until I know if there is any harm to it.  And I don't know if I ought to worship God until I know whether it is the case that he exists. 

And that, if you've been following along, is why I can't possibly be moral.  If I don't know what you know, I can't make the choices you think are right.  And there I was thinking I wasn't going to be talking about whether my lack of belief makes me a bad person!

Monday, June 29, 2015

The epistemic bar

Sometimes I read comment debates between atheists and Christians.  It's less fruitful than one would hope.  Every time, it devolves into an epistemic debate -- where they argue, not about the facts, but how strong a proof a person should need.

The atheist position is, "I disbelieve unless I am given very strong evidence for belief."  The Christian one is, "I believe unless it is categorically proven false."  Then they fight with each other about what the proper level of evidence needed really is.

The trouble is, as long as the question is in any way uncertain, there is no solution to this debate.  There is no categorical proof available.  That's sort of the point of religion -- it's about spiritual realities which you can't see or touch.  And the human mind is not capable of easily grasping probabilities.  Ignorance is something it has a lot of trouble with.  It is not really possible to be 20% sure of something.  How do you act when you are 20% sure?  To deal with this reality, you round down to nothing, usually, but you could round up if you really wanted to.  When I look at the weather forecast, I generally think of any lowish chance of rain (like 30%) as "not going to rain" and any highish chance (like 70%) as "going to rain."  Only at a really ambiguous number (like 50%) will I admit that I actually don't know.

So the real question between atheists and Christians is, which way do we round?  If we are 20% sure Jesus rose from the dead, should we act like it's true, or false?

Christians make the argument that they want to believe anyway, because of the benefits of belief, because the possible reward (heaven) is so high, and because they don't want to take the risk of disbelieving if it's true and perhaps going to hell.  (Now some people don't say that -- they say they wish it weren't true because being a Christian is hard.  But that means this argument doesn't work for them, and they should require more proof than the one who wants to believe.)

It seems to me that complete certainty is not possible in our current situation.  Therefore, depending on how you round, you could go either way.

The trouble, for the religious side, is where to place the epistemic bar so that you can believe all the truths of the Christian religion and none of the things that you don't want to believe.  That is, you have to come up with a standard of proof that Jesus' resurrection passes, but the resurrection of Proteus fails.  You want to set the bar so that the sun dancing at Fatima passes and the sun dancing at Medjugorje fails.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have to be credible witnesses, but not Muhammad, Joseph Smith, or L. Ron Hubbard.

For the atheist side, the problem is that they come up with a standard of proof that wouldn't allow them to believe in, say, Hannibal.  Hannibal has no contemporary attestation either.  On the other hand, no self-respecting historian really does believe the odd bits of the Hannibal story -- miracles, prophecies, and so forth.  It's not well-attested enough for that, and anyway the existence of the supernatural is usually taken as negative evidence in a text -- I sure discount that stuff when I read history.  And historical figures like Alexander the Great, Pontius Pilate, Socrates, and so forth do have multiple independent contemporary sources about them -- including critical ones.

The reality, which no one seems willing to face, is that historical "truth" is really no better than an educated guess.  This link says it very well (I recommend the whole thing): "The historian's 'truths' are derived from analytical evaluations of an object called 'sources' rather than an object called 'the actual past.'"  The past itself is not available; all we have is what is written down.

So we could have an amount of proof which isn't really good evidence of anything.  Jesus lived among mostly uneducated people in a place that wasn't the center of literacy.  It is quite credible that he should live his entire life without anyone writing a contemporary letter about him, without having become the subject of a satire by one of his enemies, without having been mentioned by Philo of Alexandria or Pliny the Elder.  It is entirely unsurprising for the new founder of a religion to be noticed exclusively by the members of his own religion during his lifetime.  Who else cared enough to write?

On the other hand, it is also entirely credible that a new religion could be founded on a falsehood -- most religions have to have been, if only one can be true!  It's credible that, within the fervent atmosphere of a new religion, myths could spring up and be encoded in sacred books within a very short time.  Regnum Christi had a little book called Perspectives on a Foundation which would seem like a credible source.  It was written by Legionaries, within the lifespan of the founder, from primary sources (mostly the founder himself).  But it was pretty much total fiction from beginning to end.  I, as a member of that movement, had no way of knowing it wasn't true and no reason not to believe it.  There's no popular rebuttal published, because only movement members cared about it!  All of us would normally discount anything said about L. Ron Hubbard by Scientologists, anything a Mormon told us about Joseph Smith, and anything Muslims say about Muhammad.  We know that their faith and zeal prevents them from being skeptical and objective.  When you take that standard and apply it to the sources about Jesus, the whole New Testament is suspect and you are down to two references to him in the historical record -- neither of which is very informative.

And we know that, a few short centuries after the birth of Christ, zealous Christians deliberately destroyed all anti-Christian writings they could find, as well as heretical material like the gnostic Gospels.  So who knows. maybe there was good evidence against the Resurrection that no longer survives.

Honestly I find both stories credible, and neither case rock-solid.

So, given that, what do you go with?  Like I said, you can't actually be 30% sure Jesus rose from the dead, because the mind doesn't work that way.  And how can you be 30% of a Christian?  "I don't know" gives no guidance about your life choices.

There are two possible answers.  Round up is what religion demands.  Take a small amount of certainty and round it up to total certainty.  Eschew doubt.  When someone asks you if you believe, don't say "maybe," say "yes," even though you aren't sure at all.

The other option is round down, to say that without good evidence you will not believe.  That's what you would do if someone told you 9/11 was an inside job, or that the government is poisoning us with chemtrails, or that you live inside the Matrix.  You would say, "Interesting theory, but you haven't proved it yet.  I'm not going to change the way I live until I'm sure."  But then you have to go on in your life, wondering if there is a more out there, a beautiful reality which you are missing out on.

There's just one thing that gets me: if God is real, if Jesus saves, if the main concern of Jesus is to get us to believe in him, why would he leave us in a state like this, where our entire salvation hinges on a rounding error?  You would think he would be very careful to make it clear.  While it's credible on a natural level for there to be as little evidence as there is, if the whole thing is of supernatural origin, it would have been quite simple for God to make sure we had better sources.  Why didn't he?

The best answer I've heard to this is that God doesn't leave it to the historical facts.  He inspires each individual separately, giving us our own evidence for belief.  If you pray to him, he will give the gift of faith, or a miracle, or a fantastic coincidence -- something that lets you be really sure it's true.  After that, it's up to you -- believe or not, having been given exactly the evidence that you need.  The only flaw to this is that it has not happened to me.

As a result, the only possibilities I can think of are as follows:
1.  Christianity is false.
2.  Christianity is true, but it's a Calvinist version, and I am predestined to hell.
3. Christianity is true, but God is waiting till a better time in my life to reveal it to me.  A correlate is that he's okay with my not believing now.
4.  Christianity is true, but God knows it would be harmful to me personally.  He knows I'm obsessively conscientious and will make myself miserable trying to follow it all.  So he withholds proof so that I will not feel pressured to live that way.  He thinks I'll live better without knowing about him, and then he can clear it all up with me in heaven.

Can you think of any more? Anyway, that answers that objection.  The  one answer I won't accept is, "Because God wanted to give us the chance to believe without evidence," because God also didn't give us evidence that it was a good thing to believe without evidence.

Emotions might be a substitute for certainty.  If you feel God is out there, that could be enough.  But it seems to me this conclusion has two correlates: first, when you stop feeling God is out there, you should stop believing; and second, if your interior sense of God conflicts with something organized religion tells you, you should go with your feeling, since it's your ultimate source of belief in the first place.  Sure enough, there's plenty of religious people who believe in this way.

There is no real answer to the question, "Where should you put the epistemic bar?"  That is, what is the point at which you stop rounding down and start rounding up -- what amount of proof is enough to go ahead and assume it's true.  It comes down to a choice -- and that's why believing or disbelieving is almost always a choice.  If something is proven, you have no choice but to believe it.  I can't believe the sky is green.  But if there's any doubt at all, any wiggle room for disbelief, you can always make that choice.  That is why Christians say that if atheists wanted to, they could choose to believe (just set the bar lower!) and atheists say Christians are choosing to believe what they do because they prefer it (because they could always set the bar higher).

However, is one choice better than another?  Scientific thought suggests 50% is a good level.  If you are more sure than unsure, you should believe while leaving an open mind in case you learn more information.  If you're less sure than unsure, you should disbelieve.  And you should always be aware of the possibility that you are wrong.  Science has no room for "faith," because the very definition of faith is taking insufficient evidence -- something that doesn't lead to unavoidable certainty -- and treating it as if you were sure.

In fact, I can't think of a single area outside of religion where this is a good decision.  When I chose not to vaccinate my kids, it was with the understanding that I wasn't sure it was the right choice, I should keep an open mind to further information, and reassess as appropriate.  (I'm thinking it's probably about time to give at least Marko a few shots, by the way.)  When I was convinced by the evidence for evolution, I kept in my mind that it's not a sure thing and I shouldn't act like it is, even though the evidence is pretty good.  With religion, we are urged to take any evidence, even if it's not at all close to overwhelming, and stop considering other possibilities as soon as we have it.

If the common ground between atheists and Christians in this argument is "you should use the same epistemic bar for religion and other things," I think the atheists win.  Christians do not actually use the same epistemic bar for religion and other things, and if they did, they would be excessively credulous and much too stubborn about changing their minds when they were wrong.

But is it really agreed?  What do you think?  On what grounds can religious truth require a lower epistemic bar than other things?  The potential rewards are huge, yes, but so are the costs.  Religion requires of us many things that are painful and difficult, and sometimes it requires things which would be seen as immoral from outside its perspective.  And what if one religion is true, and it's not the one you're currently in?  Surely in that case you are obliged to keep looking.

Is there a level of evidence at which it is the right choice to switch from rounding down to rounding up, and if so, where is it?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Guns and virtue ethics

After every mass shooting, we get another replay of the gun-control debate.  One side says, "This would have been prevented if only we didn't have legal guns."  The other says, "This would have been prevented if only everyone there had had a legal gun."

I'm not going to address that, because honestly I don't know.  I think that guns should be kept out of the hands of criminals if at all possible, but at the same time it seems unreasonable to keep guns out of the hands of hunters, people living in remote areas, and so forth.  And really I have no idea what the statistics really show, whether it is possible to keep guns out of the hands of criminals or whether armed civilians prevent crime.

What I want to talk about is my own personal choice not to use a gun.  It's something I've struggled to explain to others for years, and lacked the vocabulary to explain until I read about virtue ethics.

Virtue ethics, in the words of my friend Seeking Omniscience, means that "virtue is fractal," or in the words of Jesus, "the one who is faithful in small matters will be faithful also in large ones."  That is, you don't make ethical decisions based on a one-time, logical consideration, but based on your habits.  If you have the habit of treating others with respect, you will become a respectful person.  It will be against your nature, after awhile, to be disrespectful.  Aristotle tells us that the most virtuous man isn't the one who does good things with immense effort, but the one who does them easily, because they are habitual.

I've understood this for a long time, though I couldn't explain it.  I know that every action I take is a choice to shape myself in a certain direction.  Even the thoughts you think, the things you let yourself imagine, shape your future actions.  You can't make a decision in isolation that doesn't affect the sort of person you are.  So when utilitarian ethicists or Catholic death-penalty promoters try to explain the sort of scenario when taking one life is morally acceptable, all I can think is, "But what is the effect on the person who has to take that life?"

There are different virtues, and different ways you could shape yourself which could all be morally good.  A soldier might be habitually a violent man without being a bad man.  We ask him to make the sacrifice of forming violent habits because we need that in some cases.  But when he comes home, he is going to have to struggle to form new habits which work better in civilian life.

As a mother, I desperately need to be gentle and non-aggressive.  I have a nasty temper, but through constant practice I have trained myself (for the most part) not to lash out defensively.  Instead I hesitate before acting and try to think before I speak.  I train myself to think of hurting people, by word or action, as completely beyond the pale.  It's a daily struggle, but I think I'm doing okay at it.

But last year, John suggested we should get a gun for home defense.  I told him that I didn't have a problem with it, provided I would not be expected to use it.  He was confused -- don't I believe in self-defense?

I do, in the abstract.  I think that if a violent person breaks down my door and threatens to hurt my kids, I would be well within my rights to shoot him.  It would be a morally good action.  However, I also don't think I would be capable of doing it.  I would hesitate, and the invader would easily overpower me, take the weapon, and train it on me.  I know that's how I am -- being naturally a timid person plus having trained myself to be nonaggressive at all times.

"Okay," said John, "so why don't you go to a shooting range and practice with the gun until you felt you'd overcome your hesitation to firing at an invader?"

I couldn't give a good answer to that, so we ended up abandoning the conversation, but let me try to explain it now.  I think that if I practiced shooting a gun, visualizing scenarios where I would need to kill someone, I would be changing the sort of person I am.  I would be making myself more suited to be a home defender but less suited to be a nurturing parent.

Now, that's not a bad thing in every scenario.  If I lived in a wartorn nation plagued by roving gangs, I would get the gun, practice with it, and if it made me worse at keeping my temper, that would just be the price my kids would have to pay for safety.  But in reality, home invasions are extremely rare.  If I spent a single hour of my life preparing for it, I would be spending a disproportionate amount of time, compared to the risk.  If I want to save my kids' lives, I should instead take a first-aid course, learn CPR, learn defensive driving, buy top-rated carseats, cut sugar out of their diets, teach them how to cross the street carefully ... there is no end to better uses of my time, when it comes to reducing risk to their lives, than learning to shoot a gun.

But besides all that, I think that it is impossible to train for combat without changing the way you see the world.  Some gun owners I know have told me that they constantly survey their environment for dangers and make contingency plans.  Is this a good use of their mental energy?  Are they more likely to need to shoot someone in a crisis or to develop a stress-related illness from their constant vigilance?

It seems to me that if you carry a hammer everywhere you go, more and more problems start to look like nails.  Certainly we've seen that with the police. When they make a mistake and shoot an unarmed person, their defenders remind us that they are trained to react quickly and have no way of being sure the person is not armed.  Perhaps it would help if they spent fewer hours shooting human-shaped targets and more hours walking through scenarios with harmless civilians, especially children and the mentally ill.

Doctor Who is another example.  The Doctor would be a lot more efficient at taking care of alien threats if he would carry a weapon; but on the other hand, with a quick fix like that available, would he realize the many situations when weapons aren't called for?  Considering that he is a time-traveling supergenius of incredible power, there is nothing more important than for him to practice virtue.  No matter how tempting it might be to commit one little atrocity here or there for a really good reason, it would send him on a course which he might not be able to correct.  And then the whole universe would be threatened, as a Time Lord without a conscience goes marauding around.

A negative example is found in the show 24.  In season one, Jack Bauer only tortures really bad people, when it's really necessary.  By season three, he's torturing everybody, all the time, even people who seem quite obviously not guilty of anything.  It's become a habit with him, so that he isn't capable of seeing what the viewers are, that the prisoner is not a threat and doesn't know anything.

So I've made the choice that the sort of person I am is the sort of person who does not use a gun.  Others might make a different choice, based on the sort of person their state in life requires them to be.  My point is just that it's not as simple as saying "Self-defense is morally legitimate, therefore I should own a gun."  I do believe self-defense and the defense of the innocent are morally good, but I don't believe that a situation that requires it is likely enough to merit changing the sort of person I am.
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