Sunday, January 01, 2006

A message for a new year...

I hope to start 2006 with an upbeat tone -- something bright and hopeful. For, indeed, I am a hopeful kind of guy. I believe in our future. I have to. I have kids.

Moreover, I deeply believe that true hope is engendered much less by absolute faith in a narrow set of prescriptive dogmas, than by the kind of curiosity, hard work and steady devotion to ambitious self-improvement that are obviously built-in to human nature, whether you think this happened via evolution or a grand design. That -- at least -- is the sermon taught by our long and fitful upward slog, from both Eden and the Caves, gradually coming to perceive and appreciate the dauntingly awesome complexity of this titanically vast Universe.

A complexity that we had better embrace. For no narrow doctrine can encompass it. Nor can any single mind grasp it. (Imagine the utter arrogance of those who claim that a few words, scrawled on ancient scraps of paper are the culmination of all discovery and revelation! Those words may be precious and offer some valid lessons. But to say “that’s all we need to know!” when obviously it’s a drop in the great sea....)

What seems to be possible is that together we can grope at the complexity -- like those blind men and the elephant -- reporting our findings to each other, criticizing and praising and comparing notes, combining insights from faith and reason and science -- and fearlessly throwing out whatever superstitions or failed hypotheses have failed to sustain. Continuing to build on the best old and new notions, testing and demolishing and rebuilding, so as to make even better our next shiny models of the world.

This process frustrates and terrifies millions of our neighbors, who need definitions that are prim and authoritarian, from Platonist philosophers to retro-dogmatists of all stripes. Those who need a sense of prescribed order range from Marxists to PC-postmodernists, to social darwinists, from market mystics, to Randians, to fundamentalists. To all of these prescription junkies, the enlightenment worldview seems vague, much too fluid, scattered, maybe even immoral.

But the ultimate sermon of our era is that this method works, far better than those of the past, when pyramidal hierarchies of sword-bearing aristocrats and domineering clergy told everybody else precisely how to behave. How to think. This new way is the only approach that has ever helped large numbers of people to thrive and do mostly good things, mostly of their own free will, despite our human propensity for rationalization and self-delusion.

This project is disdained by some as “humanism”... a new form of idolatry that raises and deifies Homo sapiens, aiming to topple God from his proper place as our loving guide. And there are a few caricature-types who go that route, never admitting that they are like their adversaries in many ways... that frenetic atheists are -- emotionally -- creepily similar to their hyper-religious foes.

No, it is possible to include God in fascinating discussing that admit the fundamental fact surrounding us. (I call it the Big Sermon.) The blatant ambiguity surrounding matters of faith. The fact that prayers, if answered, are answered within. Likewise “miracles.” Hence no one can ever truly and decisively prove or verify a darned thing. Indeed, the lesson must be that a benign Creator -- if one exists -- clearly chose ambiguity and distance for some reason. Not as a cruel and infantile “test of faith,” but as a very clear sermon that we are supposed to stand up look around, and figure things out for ourselves.

I will get to some of this later, in the “Twelve Questions” essay. But for now, I invite you to picture two versions of a beneficent Creator. One who cares about us and what we do.

--- Version one ferociously punishes anyone who dares to lift a head and question. This one damns to cruel torment anyone who fails to recite exactly the right set of incantations, in exactly the right way, with exactly the right mental attitudes. The jealous craftsman of a narrow cosmos, just a few thousand years extant, He rants and denounces and bitterly resents any questioning, offering us only two possible outcomes -- either perpetual thoughtless torment or endless thoughtless bliss. The choice is supposedly up to each of us...

....and yet, He never steps right out -- unambiguously booming from the sky -- to make the two doorways clear.

. No, in order to pick a path between two discrete and simplistically diametric conditions -- heaven vs. hell -- you must successfully choose one specific set of written incantations to recite, with utter and unquestioning faith, from among all of the other prescriptive incantations that are offered, out there. Choose the wrong one -- even with utter sincerity -- and you roast.

What a guy. Only there is another version.

-- A craftsman of mind-boggling subtlety, who formulated Maxwell’s Equations and all the other staggeringly beautiful innovations of math and geometrodynamics and quantum subtlety that translate into “let there be light!” Whose vast universe spans billions of years and may encompass a plenitude of living worlds.

. One who clearly left the workroom door unlocked and all His blueprints on the table, for bright, upstart apprentices to decipher, exercising their curiosity and impudent minds, the way the brightest and best young apprentices always have.

. One who clearly has intent that we should figure it all out.

. One who may even have in mind work for us to do.

That was a bit of an aside. But it all comes back to the basic issue that’s at stake.

We have to keep believing in our ability to do good.

To learn new things... to re-evaluate our dearest assumptions... and listen to things that other people have learned.

To improve ourselves, our children, and our world.



Scott said...

Yes! Thank you, David. I love how you write about this stuff. Happy new year to you and keep up the great work.

Mr. Furious said...

"...from both Eden and the Caves..." - let it be! David, you're good at reminding us how much room there is in the Big Tent for all those who have faith in the potential for progress.

In the middle of "Glory Season" - the use of Life is rad.

Rob Perkins said...

David, that's the sort of thing I could read aloud from the pulpit (I get a chance perhaps twice every two years), and declare the second conception of God "ours".

Great, optomistic stuff. I'll teach it to my kids.

Brother Doug said...

Amen this is powerful stuff. Even some hopeless romantics love spiritual, humanist, rationalists like Baruch Spinosa. I used to discuss these kinds of ideas with religious conservatives and they would end up agreeing with me. Even better when espoused by a scientist. Einstein made some great comments in a similar vein. This is the weak spot of the republican party. Break off the conservatives who secretly don’t believe in Dogma and the neo-con coalition will collapse like a house of cards.

Dan said...


Well said. As for a Creator leaving us with ambiguity for a reason - I completely agree. There is nothing more inherently "ours" than free will. A creator constantly giving marching orders for every little thing would benefit no one (neither creator or created), and nothing would be learned.

Indeed, as you say, we are here to learn - to "uplift" ourselves. Whether one believes in God or not, humanity's common pathways generally remain parallel in our quest for improvement as a species. And those paths are not as exclusive to one another as they might seem.


Thane Walkup said...

There's a quote somebody passed off to me that sums it up much more sussinctly - I'm sure thirty seconds and google could clear up who said it, but I'm lazy:

Any deity worthy of a graven image can cobble up a working universe complete with fake fossils in under a week - hey, if you're not omnipotent, there's no real point in being a god. But to start with a big ball of elementary particles and end up with the duckbill platypus without constant twiddling requires a degree of subtlety and the ability to Think Things Through: exactly the qualities I'm looking for when I'm shopping for a Supreme Being.

JAK said...

David: Man, when you've got it, you've got it. I dearly love your seccond option. Alan Watts has some things to add to this discussion. In "The Book", he discusses the existence of God with children who ask about such things.

One of his comments follows: "God also likes to play hide and seek, but because there is nothing outside God, he has no one but himself to play with. But he gets over this difficulty by prentending that he is not himself....He pretends that he you and I and all the people in the world, all the animals, all the plants....In this way he has strange and wonderful adventures, some of which are terrible and frightening.....when God plays hide and pretends that He is you and takes him a long time to remember where and how He hid Himself.....But that's the whole fun of it...."

It's a bit simplistic, but it does a nice job of explaining to children the mysteries that confront them.

I suspect we are all part of some sould entities that get back together between lives to help in the game.

Keep up your good works.

Mitchell J. Freedman said...


I did not know you had a blog! I am very glad to learn of it, and placed it at my own blog links.

Anyway, your article on ambiguity and uncertainty that should cause us to be more humble in dealing with each other is spot on.

Michael Harrington, a self-described "democratic socialist" (in the Debs/Thomas tradition, not hard left "tradition"), wrote a book in the mid-1980s called "The Politics at God's Funeral" which made this point in a very readable but scholarly, as well as humane, manner. It is worth a review by anyone interested in this discussion.

Mr. Furious said...

A friend I sent this post to pointed out that both David and JAK used male language for God. I don't think either of you are intentionally characterizing the "version 2" Creator as exclusively human-male; but the gendered language does carry weight, especially for children, who will pick up on these metaphors and how we use them.

There are certainly times and places for he/she language for God, but in the spirit of the New Year's Big Sermon, gender-neutral language may be best.

Tony Fisk said...

David, a nice piece on which to start the new year.
However, I find it rather sad that the image of an all-parent who wants the children to grow up is such a novel notion! (Although one who wants the children to grow up in their own image might be a little more radical)

@Mr Furious: to maintain a gender neutral balance, perhaps creator meme #1 can be referred to as 'human female'?
(OK! Maybe not...;-)

Rob Perkins said...

Gramatically speaking "he" is an acceptable gender-neutral pronoun. I'm sure that offends someone, but I'm also sure that he and we can reach accord about how to change that.

"They" is also becoming an acceptable gender-neutral singular pronoun, it turns out, but it's still a little mind-woggle for me to hear it in terms of God. (who I do not believe in in Aristotlean terms)

I'm sure if someone is offended, they can let us know how to work out a peaceful accord.

I also ran across a person who chose entirely new pronouns which were gender neutral. If ey is not familiar with such pronouns, ey may find eirself thorougly confused!

Which one sounds the most conversational? Well, the second, these days, with the first in, um, second place... :)

Mr. Furious said...

@Rob - I'm with you on the grammar.

But if I can infer from the names comment-writers have chosen, we're more than half male. And though "he" may be grammatically gender-neutral, I don't imagine it sounds neutral to female ears.

In most situations, "God" and "God-self" can be used. These are not especially poetic, but revision easily leads the non-gendered-ness slip into the background, often replaced by more illustrative and creative language than at first!

It's really not about stepping on anyone's toes... it's about whether it's appropriate, when referring to the God of the Universe, to default to he-language (which immediately places distance between this God and half of the human race). It seems to me that the very nature of this God is non-gendered, and it would be right to use words that communicate that.

Gendered terms can then be used at specific times, for specific metaphorical purposes.

Anonymous said...

"What seems to be possible is that together we can grope at the complexity..."

Which reminds me of "The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations" which I recently read. (anyone else here read that?) It tries to show what about groups works and doesn't work.

On a similar note, last year I read "The Transparant Society" by some guy...=) and there was a comment that scientist-audiences were a tough sell for the message (openess and accountability are Good Things(tm)) because to them, it was obvious. I'm not sure why exactly this would make it a tough sell (do they not believe in the amount of opposition to this idea? or that it isn't 'obvious' to everyone?)

As for your two deities,

Well, of course I would choose the second to the first, and maybe respect the second...

...but I would have to question the
"subtlety" of a creator that would decide,

"Hmm, think I'll set up the initial conditions that will lead to a coalescing universe, with evolution leading to organisms that feel immense pain and die by the truckloads-hey, death, what a great idea, 'clear' the decks of the old while scaring the shit of the old, new, and everyone else, what an ideal set of conditions for progress-and will eventually result in rapists, mass murderers, and nasty new dieases that strike down truckloads of innocents before anyone knowledgable has a clue how to treat them. All in the name of 'free will.'"

Sorry to sound so dismissive of the idea (I like your line of thought, I just need to work on it a bit. I just can't believe in a being that doesn't believe in clear communication.)

As for thoughts on improving ourselves, our children, and our world..well, I'm still working on it!

(I recently finished "Earth" by "That Same Guy(tm)" and am mulling it over. Besides the essays you've put up on amazons, I'm a bit curious as to how/whether this blog has affected your thought processes for your next novel, whatever that may be.)

Lastly, anyone here read the book "Liars, Lovers, and Heroes, what the new brain science is teaching us?")


Fhydra said...

@Mr. Furious,

Well, some female ears would consider "he" gender neutral if it's in reference to God. It just depends on who's talking and what their idea of God is. There's a difference between saying "he" for grammatical reasons and saying "he" because one believes in the literal truth of the bible.

I think that you want gender-neutral pronouns since it would distinguish us from our opposition. We have a free God that's not constrained by nature and dogma while others have a cruel God that's shadowy and judgemental. Maybe referring to God in a gender-neutral language would give people a subtle clue to our beliefs right from the start.

In the end though, actions show who we are more than our choice of words. God probably doesn't care whether you referred to him as he/she/they/we/it/ey. God's probably more interested in how eveyone's figuring everything out.

reason said...

I'm open to all possibilities, including deity 2, but perhaps there are other possibilities (anyone). I'm still a bit confused about why this deity would have much interest in such imperfect and insignificant creatures as ourselves given the enormity of the universe.

But where I perhaps want to throw some limits in on the optimism score is the implicit assumption that we have the perceptual and intellual capability of satisfying our great curiosity. There is only so much we can see and understand, and my guess is that will stop us in the end. Hence, the great temptation for the masses to say - why bother?

Mr. Furious said...


You and Rob have both brought up "he" in gender-neutral terms; here is the first time I think I've encountered that. To me, it seems not to recognize the everyday meaning of "he." If I ran around referring to God as "she," I'd definitely raise some eyebrows and maybe step on some toes; "she" in reference to God is heard as gendered. Why then is "he" not?

Great that "some" fems aren't bothered by he-language; what about the others?

Gender-neutral God-language does distinguish us, but again (like not giving offense) that's not the point. My question is; what's the best kind of language to use when referring to God (version 2:-). My answer is gender-neutral language, because that best reflect's God's character.

Mr. Furious said...

*I'm invoking the Brin-clause for not editing grammar too carefully on the blog... "reflect's" :-)

Frank said...

David Brin: "The blatant ambiguity surrounding matters of faith."

And ironically faith is usually utilized to exorcise ambiguity from ones philosophy.

Rob Perkins said...

The use of "he" as a gender-neutral pronoun stems from older studies of Latin, according to what I've read. (English grammar, itself, appears to be a 19th century contrivance, intended to get us all reading and writing uniformly.)

In that sense, since the students of Latin back then were nearly always boys and men, one doesn't have to attribute to malice to see why "he" became the gender-neutral pronoun, that is, the pronoun used when noone was thinking about gender.

It's a convention, nothing more or less. I think the best guide when writing anything, including choosing gendered pronouns, is to remember one's audience. Most people, even these days, don't think twice about grammar, but still comfortably accept the conventions, and become uncomfortable when they're violated. Sort of like using the wrong article with a German noun. Won't change the overall meaning, but the Germans around you will squirm.

And in any case, do we want to suppose that the second-definition God-as-ground-of-all-being, standoffish as He is, cares more about the gender we use to describe Him? (That captalization is also a grammar convention.)

Or, if we wish (as I do) to reject Aristotlean and Greek-philosopher underpinnings when defining "God", are we absolutely sure He is not male?

As to the criticism that the universe is one of death, well, while it's self evident that death exists, it is not immediately evident that death is the same as annihilation.

David Brin said...

I have long ago concluded that there is only one possible solution (other than atheism) to the "Problem of Pain". (The quandary of why the Creator allows suffering and death.)

That solution is that we individuals are like cells in something larger. We do not mourn dead skin cells, so long as they have functioned and lived well.

It seems callous from the level of the cell. This particular cell resents it! And yet, at least it makes sense. It supposes that collectively we may matter and the good of all should be our focus.

In contrast to the ultimate selfishness that is inherent in most religions today... the notion that my first priority should be the salvation of my own soul.

Ponder a saint, bravely suffering martyrdom on a pyre. Bravely? When she has convinced herself -- utterly -- that a brief discomfort will be immediately followed by eternal bliss?

Well, yes, that's brave. But there are braver things.

Rob Perkins said...

Such as?

I think the "Problem of Pain" is not directly answerable from our perspective. It isn't so much that we don't have our hands on the elephant as that we have hands too small to feel the elephant at all.

For example, why do we unquestioningly suppose that our perception of time itself is untranscendable? ("Eternal" being the opposite of "Temporal", for example. What if it isn't?)

Start bandying metaphysics like that around, and I think we'll quickly determine that we can think of a philosophical framework which explains whatever we think is wrong with the universe.

Though, I *do* like David's answer in a very general sense, in that we individual pain-suffering humans are part of something much, much larger...

Rob Perkins said...

"In contrast to the ultimate selfishness that is inherent in most religions today... the notion that my first priority should be the salvation of my own soul."

I come from a tradition which insists that the salvation of one's own soul is impossible without one making a concerted and specific effort to relieve suffering and *share*, is that I don't think your characterization of "most religions today" as selfish endeavor is entirely fair.

Certainly, millions suppose that they ought to save themselves, and a largish subset of those suppose that's as far as one need go, but I disagree that the selfishness is inherent in the systems.

Frank said...

David Brin: "That solution is that we individuals are like cells in something larger."

I can't see a lot of people getting their spiritual kicks out of that 'solution'. Why worship a god if He or She doesn't help us when we are in pain or doesn't even mourn our suffering because we're just cells? Besides that, cells are not conscious, people are. Letting them suffer when you can help is immoral.

GreedyAlgorithm said...

Frank said: "Besides that, cells are not conscious, people are. Letting them suffer when you can help is immoral."

Why should letting someone suffer be immoral? Who sets this 'morality', anyway? Is it the elusive 'humanity' that decides what is morality? Unless there is something greater than the individual, morality can be nothing but a mechanism to try to solve the prisoner-dilemma that is life.

And if a higher collective humanity's consciousness is to our own as ours is to a cell's, what then?

neuralgourmet said...

David, you said, "I have long ago concluded that there is only one possible solution (other than atheism) to the "Problem of Pain". (The quandary of why the Creator allows suffering and death.)"

OK. I'll bite. What's wrong with atheism? :-)

Anonymous said...

"That solution is that we individuals are like cells in something larger."

I've often thought along those lines, but I don't see them as a solution to the issue of death.

I'm willing to float reincarnation, transcendence to a new level of existence, a "reboot" of sorts and the rest as possibilities, but I want proof, and I have no memory of past lives (nor do I see any evidence of anyone "remembering" lost, valuable, and testable information.)

Again, I think that charity is a great idea, and I'll try to make some improvements, but I don't believe that they are a ticket to heaven without some evidence.


Frank said...

GreedyAlgorithm: "Why should letting someone suffer be immoral?"

I'm just going to assume that's a rhetorical question...

"Who sets this 'morality', anyway?"

Well, for me, I do. Yes, you can argue there is a standard, a norm, but in the end we all decide for ourselves which morality to follow. Would you worship a god who does things that are immoral in your eyes ?

"And if a higher collective humanity's consciousness is to our own as ours is to a cell's, what then?"

Well, I certainly don't think that a (godlike?) collective humanity is somehow exempt from a morality that it expects its members to follow even when it's 6 billion times "greater" than one of it's individual components. Resistance is NOT futile :)

Anonymous said...

Now that im over my huff, What is so scary about death? Why are the occidentals so fearful of it? Before you were born, you didnt exist - why does times arrow make the certain future - that you will cease to exist - more scary than the past?

Pat Swan said...

There is a preponderence of opinion, David included, that mans works - essentially adding complexity to a universe strangely devoid of it, is an Important task. But where one sees complexity - "pink" noise as Mr. Gell-Man says, the other sees dancing shadows - a projection of complexity on what is merely random

Pat swan said...

(due to the 300 char limit)

That being said, we can measure space, we can sequence - if not actually measure time, but so can a bacterium. Our awareness of this process gives us no more right to claim it as unique than a dog catching a frisbee can claim himself the discoverer of calculus. But a dog cant talk, and we can - so we talk it up.

Pat Swan said...

(again due to the Limit)
The paradigm of a human utopia based on continutity, the benevolent exploitation of resources and a common understanding has one basic flaw: it relies on human beings. It is possible that a modified, more physically abstracted bunch of creatures could sustain such a situation for a limited duration, but not homo sapiens. The chemistry and phylogenesis is all wrong for this outcome. And no shoehorn in the world will make it so.

Wisdo said...

at the risk of spamming (thank you monty python)
my last comment is this: It is unlikely that living creatures can ever hope to become predation-independent. It is endemic in all life processes. I urge you to read Greg Bears book "hammer of the Gods". An unfortunatly titled book that nevertheless concisely deals with the problem of an "open galaxy". Yes there could be wolves in the forest. In all likelihood there are, but as Orson Welles once put it: "we are behaving ourselves far better out there, than we ever have here".