Gideon’s Sermons #1: On The Limits of Goodness

This is a sermon given by a young cleric I role-play as in a Pathfinder campaign.

I cannot say I agree with all of the thoughts and opinions expressed by Gideon, but I think he provides an interesting perspective on goodness in a somewhat Stoical light worth considering.

Doom and Cookies

Starday – 14th, Sarenith

What are the limits of goodness? Should we care only for those who care for us? And should we hurt those who hurt us?

I will begin by telling you to not work against your fellow man—envying, hating, abandoning; to do so, is to work against yourself. Remember this: There is nothing that an evil man can do to you that can take away your goodness.

Each of us is faced with the same struggle—between doing good and doing evil—and it is within the reach of each of us to do one or the other.

There was a boy foolishly waddling about the edge of cliff. Expectedly, he slipped, barely catching himself on the cliff’s edge. Each time he tried to climb up, he slipped further and his grip was becoming weak. As he cried out for help, a man approached and stood above him.

The…

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Esse

Singer Sargent, John - Atlas and the Hesperides

Singer Sargent, John – Atlas and the Hesperides

I’ve gone through quite the ordeal. It’s affected my academic studies, philosophical writing and thinking, perception of myself, attitudes towards relationships, and overall productivity. The details don’t matter so much as the consequences. This article is a mix of a few journal entries and the resulting philosophy that arose as the results of my actions. September 8th was easily the worst day of my life, the following months of dealing with the fallout have been.. difficult. As Epictetus says, “It is difficulties that show what men are.” As for what I am… I haven’t exactly shined in the last few weeks, but the act of purifying a metal doesn’t happen all at once, it’s a process.

That being said, this article is divided into three parts.

The first part, “Unfinished Thoughts,” is my reflections over the preceding month — still in the midst of the fallout of recent catastrophes. It is where I began to question myself.

The second part, “Psalm 91,” follows a few days after “Unfinished Thoughts.” This entry shows the initial fruits of my reflections and sets the stage for following weeks.

The final part, “Rebuilding,” comes near at the end of a month of living in accordance with the philosophy developing in “Psalm 91.”

Just as a heads up, these are long and rich in adolescent angst as I wasn’t intending to write these for an audience (probably full of typos too). I think it’s important, however, to see how my inner thoughts have progressed in order to get a better understanding of where my expressed thoughts originate. I haven’t written much of my own philosophy on my blog in a long time, but in the light of recent of revelations I feel I will have plenty to write on and the motivation to do so.

Unfinished Thoughts (October 4th, 2013)
I have decided that something needs to change. I’ve been relatively the same person for a while and… it hasn’t gotten me far — at least not as far as I could have gone had I been a slightly different person. I often took pride in saying that I was a very stable, steadfast person — but… something needs to change.

As an atheist, I still cling to vestiges of my Christian morality.
As a materialist, I still hold to some sort of immaterial idealism.
As a skeptic, I still believe that some truths are certain.
As a pessimist, I still remain hopeful; what for?

I maintain rigid standards pertaining to what I expect of people and from myself and, without fail, these standards are never met. I realize now that these “standards” seem to function more as limitations than as guidelines. No longer do they inspire, only impede. Perhaps the direction I seem to be advancing towards is a way of hitting rock bottom, but I see it as finding a new foundation.

I sacrificed definite pleasure for possible fulfillment and it has left me empty. I’ve maintained that love and happiness aren’t feelings, they are states of mind — ways of living, ways of thought… but I believe now that I was just deluding myself, once again, in the pursuit of unrealistic goals. Love is a feeling and the experience of happiness is nothing but another feeling constructed from many other pleasant sensations. Love, like all feelings, is fleeting. The disappointment of this realization will fade as well, either with the passage of time or of myself — but fade nonetheless.

The time has come for fight or flight — to become a different man or retreat into the comfort of past delusions.

Who am I and who am I to be? As a philosopher, I’ve held “Know thyself” as the one immutable and ineffable maxim by which all other insights can be revealed — but this strangely existential axiom is seen very differently through the lenses of different philosophies — materialism, idealism, rationalism, nihilism, etc.

Perhaps there is a sort of irony that the man who is best known for discussing knowledge of one’s self is the same man who claimed to be wise only because he knew nothing. Does anyone truly know themself? Better question: Can anyone?

In an attempt to discover myself, I have forged myself a new name, new friendships, severed old aspects of myself and ties to people in my past — my entire image and personality is a construct, which is to say, it is artificial.

The first question becomes: How does one find who they actually, naturally are? Simply by virtue of being human it would seem that anything we touch becomes invention. There seems to be nothing that is naturally us, except for those feelings which are ever fleeting — coming to us and leaving us just as quickly.

Anything beyond sensation — consideration, reflection, self-control — is artificial. And is that bad?

The second question becomes: Does it matter?

If we are thinking creaures, then it seems only natural that we think. If feelings would conflict with our reason, then it becomes a choice over which side will fold; to give in to desire, cravings, and sensation or to go in the direction of thought and reason — or perhaps it is a balancing act.

This spattering of thoughts, this shotgun blast of ideas, has been ricocheting through my head without letting me fully grasp anything. Every idea feels unfinished. I feel like I’m currently afloat, waiting for the hint of land, with nothing but more ocean in sight. Without a god, it would seem, that there is no hope of a dove returning to me with an olive branch during this deluge. And yet.. I have no faith. How can I believe?

I would give up eternity for just one moment. I would give everything away for just one thing.

One moment of certainty, just one absolute truth, is all I want. When even the most seemingly certain things can be dissolved under sufficient scrutiny — what can keep us grounded?

I have had my problems with trust in the past, especially in relationships, and once again I have learned this hard lesson. If I ever trust someone with all of myself ever again, if I ever let down my walls and defenses to trust anyone with all of my heart and mind (dare I say with all of my soul?), it will only be due to my own fallibility, weakness, and inability to stay true to reason.

Psalm 91 (October 8th, 2013)
I can see the incoming collision.

I have the ability to move out of the way, but I see it coming, and I welcome it. I see the pain it will cause, the people who will morn the loss of the boy they loved, the coming tragedy to those who could honestly say they cared and… I welcome it. I see the regret, the remorse, the mess it will make and, grudgingly, I welcome it.

I never wanted this — but I can’t bear it being any other way.

I can see the incoming collision; the collision of my morality and the rocks.

I was promised angels. He said He would command His angels to guard me that they would lift me up in their hands, so that I would not even dash my foot against a stone.

But.. I don’t see any angels here. In fact, I see nothing but the incoming rocks.

If man is truly the measure of all things, as the sophists said, then I have nothing to fear.
If there is nothing but matter and void, as the materialists said, I have nothing to fear.

I have always been fairly conservative, not in my political values, but in my morality. I’ve never been one for drinking, drugs, promiscuity, partying, self-destruction of any sort…

But, when I hit rock bottom, the parties will rock.

Rebuilding (November 6th, 2013)
O Crito, if it thus pleases the gods, thus let it be. Anytus and Melitus may kill me indeed, but hurt me they cannot.
–Socrates

That which makes the man no worse than he was makes his life no worse: it has no power to harm, without or within.
–Marcus Aurelius

I have let the actions of other people wound me and, ultimately, I have changed because of it — but I have a choice. Nothing has changed me, I have changed because I was weak — but even this weakness is a choice. I can choose to be scathed or I can choose to express apatheia. It is the choice not to falter in the face of hardship that defines virtue and lately I have been a very unvirtuous person. I’ve compromised my deepest principles and I’ve dishonored myself and others. I attempted suicide, but not physically; I attempted to kill what made me who I am.

I see myself as artificial; I am a construct. Each choice I make is another brick in the structure that is my self. What I’ve started to construct lately is ugly throughout and it needs to change.

Put simply, we are the sum of our decisions. It’s not who we are on the inside that defines us, but the actions we choose to express.

I have made the mistake of denying reason by living for a god and I have made the mistake of denying myself by living for another person and in response to the failure of the two I began to live for a sensation, for pleasure — but I’ve realized that the only worthy thing I have to live for is myself. Likewise, any other person should live for his or her own self. It’s only by first knowing yourself that you can know another; it is only by first loving yourself that you can truly love another. I’m not advocating selfishness here, but the cultivation of the self so one can flourish with others.

First take the log out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
–Jesus

I recently confessed my transgressions to someone and it seems the thing I was most ashamed of was that I had begun heeding Ayn Rand — but now I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. One thing she wrote in particular struck me and, over the past few months I’ve contemplated it, I’ve decided that it is a better foundation than any for where to begin repairing the wreckage I’ve made of my self: I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

If I could do it now, I would brand myself with those words, this oath. I will never let another person wound me as I’ve been so wounded. I will never live for another or by another again.

To be the man I want to be, the man I should be — nothing seems more natural, more authentic, or more virtuous than this.

The Use and Abuse of Pascal’s Wager

Since writing my first article on Pascal’s Wager I haven’t come across any significant criticisms, but the fallacies abound. This isn’t as much a revision of my first article as much as it is a second editionexpanding and elaborating on some key points, proofreading, and sharing newer criticisms of the Wager.

It isn’t often that I hear an appeal to Pascal’s Wager explicitly but I still hear his famous idea echoed when people ask me in regards to belief, “What have you got to lose? Why not believe?” and “Don’t you see how beneficial belief in a God would be?” Pascal’s Wager, while a fine contribution to the archives of philosophical thought-experiments, is a poor reason for believing in a god, much less the Christian God.

In this article, I will explain some of the flaws in this wagerespecially those arguments that would propose that this wager is somehow evidence for God.

Introduction to Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s Wager was first formulated in Blaise Pascal’s book, Pensées, primarily taken from part III, §233. Though he never explicitly formulates his wager in the way it is commonly described, here is what the text says, very much shortened, on the matter:

“God is, or He is not” but to which side shall we recline?…A Game is being played…where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason…you can defend neither of the propositions…But you must wager. It’s not optional. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing…Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

Pascal, not being a hypocrite, tells us at the end of this discourse which decision he has made, imploring us to do the same.

[K]now that it is made by a man who has knelt…in prayer to that Being, infinite and without parts, before whom he lays all he has, for you also to lay before Him all you have for your own good and for His glory, that so strength may be given to lowliness.

Because the argument is commonly proposed by Christians, and Pascal himself was a Christian, the formulation of the wager tells us that if one is a Christian and correct, he has everything to gain. If one is a Christian and wrong, he loses nothing. Likewise, if one is an Atheist and correct, he gains nothing. If one is an Atheist and wrong, he suffers eternally.

So if we were to chart it out, it would look something like this:

Wager on God’s Existence (Theism) Don’t Wager on God’s Existence (Atheism)
God Exists Eternal Gain (Heaven)
Eternal Loss (Hell)
God Does Not Exist No Gain/No Loss No Gain/No Loss

Clearly, being an atheist or non-believer is a surefire way to lose this gamble for eternal loss and eternal gain.

Surely, one can’t win if he doesn’t play but it is important that we understand what game it is we are playing when we decide on our wager.

Problem I: The Problem of Other Religions

The first problem seems to arise when we assume that our only options are the Christian God or no god. Christian’s have their revelations and their holy books on which they base their faith — as do the adherents of other faiths. Muslims have the Qur’an and the majority of Jews entirely ignore the New Testament, which makes them advocates of claims incompatible with those of the Christians (the rejection of Jesus as the son of God being the biggest deal-breaker). Outside of the Abrahamic faiths we have myriad others which profess an entirely different god (sometimes even more than one) each with their own unique punishment for sinners.

So if we want to make a variation of Pascal’s Wager to factor in these other faiths, we realize that even without factoring in atheism as an option, the odds will be highly stacked against us. Imagining that one can only place his bet on the belief in one of these religions he runs the risk of suffering one of the other punishments.

Luckily, we can narrow down this list of possible rewards and punishments because not all religions require belief. For example, in some strains of Buddhism, one is judged on his merits rather than the beliefs he holds. This being the case, in my variation I have selected a few religions which, when ascribed to fundamentally, can conceivably promise reward or punishment based on belief (though works do play a part in many of them as well!).

Christianity is true Islam is true Judaism is true Sikhism is true Zoroastrianism is true
Wager on Christianity Eternal Gain
(Heaven)
Eternal Loss (Hell) No Gain/No Loss (Sheol) Limited Loss (Naraka) Limited Loss (Suffering until the Day of Judgement)
Wager on Islam Eternal Loss (Hell) Eternal Gain
(Heaven)
No Gain/No Loss (Sheol) Limited Loss (Naraka) Limited Loss (Suffering until the Day of Judgement)
Wager on Judaism Eternal Loss (Hell) Eternal Loss (Hell) Eternal Gain
(Heaven)
Limited Loss (Naraka) Limited Loss (Suffering until the Day of Judgement)
Wager on Sikhism Eternal Loss (Hell) Eternal Loss (Hell) No Gain/No Loss (Sheol) Eternal Gain (Unity with God) Limited Loss (Suffering until the Day of Judgement)
Wager on Zoroastrianism Eternal Loss (Hell) Eternal Loss (Hell) No Gain/No Loss (Sheol) Limited Loss (Naraka) Eternal Gain (Heaven)

If we are to take such a wager, it seems the most practical mode of thought would be to adhere to the faith with the worst punishment — thereby removing it as a possible repercussion for one’s belief. Therefore, we can rule out Sikhism and Zoroastrianism because their punishments are finite (however long — 8.4 million life cycles in Naraka in the case of Sikhism) and Judaism because there is no harsh punishment.

Unfortunately, a further problem arises still when we consider that there are different variations of each faith. Some Jews profess there is a hell while others hold to a more Buddhist-like notion of reincarnation. Some Christians believe that God won’t punish someone for their sins if they repent even after death while others believe that God has already elected those who will enter into heaven rendering one’s belief as arbitrary.

In Christianity alone it seems that the existence of all the different denominations (that make mutually exclusive claims as to what precedes salvation) would already illustrate the high improbability that one places his or her bet on the correct option. This is to say that if one adheres to the tenets prescribed as a Roman Catholic he may have very well lost favor in the sight of the Southern Baptist’s god or Lutheran’s god. If one is a Mormon he will have committed sin in the eyes of the Jehovah’s Witness’s god by his heretical beliefs. If one is a non-denominationalist his beliefs may have damned him from the moment he started reading this article on his computer in the eyes of the Amish Mennonite’s god.

Problem II: The Nature of God

The second problem is much in line with the first in that we cannot know the nature of the god in our wager. Before contemplating how exactly we would worship this God (or Goddess; or God-like entity; or plurality of beings, etc.) through a life of religious fervor, we must be sure of what His (Her, Its, Their, etc.) nature is.

Blaise himself seems to have run into this wall as he scripted his famous wager.

If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is. This being so, who will dare to undertake the decision of the question? Not we, who have no affinity to Him.

Who then will blame Christians for not being able to give a reason for their belief, since they profess a religion for which they cannot give a reason?

Blaise’s admission of uncertainty is the core premise of his wager, but seems to be poorly represented. The reason we wager, in his view, is because we do not know the nature of God. But is a God who rewards the believer and punishes the wicked the only God we can conceive of? In my view, this conception is very unimaginative and below I will compile a new chart to list possible “natures” which a God could conceivably have. I’m sure others have compiled even more comprehensive lists, but I think mine illustrates the point.

Wager on God’s Existence Don’t Wager on God’s Existence
God exists and rewards believers of all faiths and punishes non-believers Eternal Gain Eternal Loss
God exists and rewards non-believers and punishes believers of all faiths Eternal Loss Eternal Gain
God is infinitely just and rewards people based on merit and not belief Possible Eternal Gain/Possible Eternal Loss Possible Eternal Gain/Possible Eternal Loss
God did not create an afterlife Finite Loss Finite Gain
God is infinitely merciful and understanding Eternal Gain Eternal Gain
God only punishes people who believe in false gods Possible Eternal Gain/Probable Eternal Loss Eternal Gain
God only rewards people who believe in the correct god Possible Eternal Gain/Probable Eternal Loss Eternal Loss
God does not exist Finite Loss Finite Gain

As mentioned in my introduction, being an atheist or non-believer is a surefire way to lose this gamble for eternal loss and eternal gain — but those who are on Blaise’s side of the wager do not factor in that if we believe in a God who doesn’t exist and fashion all aspects of our lives around fallacious tenets and make sacrifices accordingly, we will have wasted the only life we know we have for something only speculative.

It is for this reason of a definite life versus a possible afterlife that I am in disagreement with those who say that if God does not exist then our only option, whether believing or disbelieving, is No Gain/No Loss. We need not be a nihilist to be an atheist.

Problem III: Truth, Utility, and Futility

There appears to be another problem with Pascal’s Wager when it is used as a form of evidence in that it merely discusses the utility of a belief if that belief were to be true. This, however, does not lend any credence to the proposition that the belief is actually true.

Simply seeing something as a safer belief is not an argument for the truth of the belief, it merely shows how the belief is useful. I’m sure that there are many beliefs that would lead us to all to live happier lives, but the question boils down to a matter of values: do we value truth?

Are we philosophers or mere hedonists?

Problem IV: Choosing to Believe

There is a false premise at the core of this wager: we cannot choose what we believe. We are lead to believe by that which we understand to be the truth (i.e. what is evident).

I cannot choose to believe something because it is convenient or makes me happy. I may want to believe I am a millionaire, but without the millions of dollars that would constitute the evidence, I will not be able to convince myself. Of course, it could be the case that I have become delusional and believe I am a millionaire without evidence, but even so — I haven’t selected my delusion. Furthermore, if I knew it to be a delusion I would know it is false and would therefore be unable to believe it.

The philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris addresses this idea directly and humorously:

Reason is a compulsion, not a choice. Just as one cannot intentionally startle oneself, one cannot knowingly believe a proposition on bad evidence. If you doubt this, imagine hearing the following account of a failed New Year’s resolution:

“This year, I vowed to be more rational, but by the end of January, I found that I had fallen back into my old ways, believing things for bad reasons. Currently, I believe that smoking is harmless, that my dead brother will return to life in the near future, and that I am destined to marry Angelina Jolie, just because these beliefs make me feel good and give my life meaning.”

This is not how our minds work. To believe a proposition, we must also believe that we believe it because it is true.

Note that there are people who are faced with scientific evidence and maintain beliefs that oppose it. The evidence supplied by science does not sway them, but this is not because they are choosing not to change their mind, it is because they are not swayed — having a round planet is just hard to fathom and billions of years of variation in life is hard for many people to wrap their minds around. They have been previously convinced of something else due to indoctrination, misplaced trust, incompetence, or ignorance — none of which were their choice. Unless that something else is uprooted and then weighed honestly against the evidence their mind will not be changed.

Being slaves to the evidence is what it means to be reasonable. If we do not have good reasons for believing then we are unreasonable and the discussion cannot proceed. Understanding that a belief may be favorable or unfavorable will not sway a reasonable person into believing it — therefore, Pascal’s Wager — especially when pressed into the function of evidence — is a sham from the start.

Problem V: A God Worthy of Worship

Ultimately, this wager hinges on a deity who takes account of an incredibly arbitrary factor, belief, while ignoring something much more important, merit.

If it is truly by faith alone that we are to receive salvation and not by works, then faith is empty — the epitome of unreason. A god who would deem faith in himself necessary for the works of man to play any role in salvation or damnation is a prideful, arrogant, and jealous god — a god who never got beyond the egocentric phase of toddler-hood. Shame on those who expect us to be delighted at the prospect of singing “hosannas” to such a pitiful being for eternity.

If a deity were to hinge salvation on belief and didn’t provide evidence, then such a deity would be either sadistic or incompetent. Furthermore, if this deity were to care more about belief in himself instead of merit, he would be forgoing justice. The only rectification I can imagine of this extreme injustice would be through some form of mercy in which the deity would allow those who did not believe to withdraw their disbelief when faced with his reality — not doing this would further stack “unmerciful” onto this deity’s résumé.

Prideful, arrogant, jealous, sadistic, incompetent, unjust, and unmerciful; not a single one of these appears to be a trait that a good god would share, therefore the god of this wager is not a god worthy of worship.

Conclusion

Before Blaise formulated his famous wager, the problem of belief and its divine corollary was considered by many philosophers. The philosopher for who has influenced me the most on the matter is the ancient Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius.

Although a polytheist himself, in the second book of his Meditations, Marcus writes millennia earlier,

Since it is possible that thou mayest depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly…[I]f there are gods, [it] is not a thing to be afraid of, for the gods will not involve thee in evil; but if indeed they do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of Providence?

We see then that whether or not a deity exists, one should live a virtuous life. If the deity is just, then it is not a thing to be afraid of. If it is unjust, one should not wish to worship it. If the deity doesn’t care or doesn’t exist, then what does it matter? One would have lived a worthwhile life — with the people who survive him able to benefit as a consequence of his living.

Let us revisit that question of belief: what have we got to lose in structuring our lives around an unsubstantiated belief? We have our only life, which consists of everything we know we havethis is what we are wagering; this is what we have to lose.

The only reasonable choice is to not take part in this silly wager on belief and to wager instead on virtue.

Christopher Hitchens

What is lost when we die and what remains? Do we leave an impression behind? Will that impression simply wash away? All the rivers run into the sea and still the sea is not filled.

The wisest words I have read on death to were written by Marcus Aurelius.

If any god told you that you shall die tomorrow, or certainly on the day after to-morrow, you would not care much whether it was on the third day or on the next, unless you had a very degraded spirit for how small is the difference? So think it no great thing to die after as many years as you can count rather than tomorrow.

Think continually how many physicians are dead after often fretting over the sick; and how many astrologers after predicting with great pretensions the deaths of others; and how many philosophers after endless discourses on death or immortality; how many heroes after killing thousands; and how many tyrants who have used their power over men’s lives with terrible insolence as if they were immortal; and how many cities are entirely dead, so to speak, Helice and Pompeii and Herculaneum, and innumerable others. Add to the total all whom you have known, one after another. One man after burying another has been laid out dead, and another buries him: and all this in a short time. To conclude, always observe how ephemeral and worthless human things are, and what was yesterday a little mucus to-morrow will be a mummy or ashes. Pass then through this little space of time in the way of nature, and end your journey in contentment, just as an olive falls off when it is ripe, blessing nature who produced it, and thanking the tree on which it grew.

Be like the cliff against which the waves continually break, but which stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.

In reading Christopher Hitchens’ last Vanity Fair article, before his death yesterday, you can read the thoughts of a man who lived as such a cliffstanding firm against turbulent waters. Battered by cancer and the radiation to combat it, he pressed on to a bitter end but left behind sweet memories to those, such as I, that regard him as the intellectual hero he was.

Christopher Hitchens will be sorely missed and fondly remembered.