Wednesday, January 01, 2014

A Message for a New Year

Message-New-Year… here is a “Brin-Classic”   that I’ve updated as my wish for all of you as we embark upon a new era…
I hope to start 2014* 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 not by absolute faith in narrow dogmas, but by curiosity, hard work and devotion to self-improvement – and love, of course -- traits that are built-in to human nature.
Whether you think they became part of us via evolution or a grand design, doesn’t really matter, at one level. The sermon taught by our long and fitful upward slog, from either Eden or the Caves, consists of generation after generation gradually coming to perceive and appreciate the dauntingly awesome complexity of this titanically vast Universe.
A complexity that we had better embrace, in all its ironies and contradictions. For no narrow doctrine can encompass it. Nor can any single mind grasp it. (Imagine the 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, reason and science -- 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, too fluid, scattered, 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 everyone 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.
== Narrowing it down to two versions of God ==
No, it is possible to include God in fascinating discussions 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.
AmbiguityIndeed, 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 and look around, and figure things out for ourselves.
I will get to some of this later, in the “Twelve Questions” essay that I have promised you since the 20th Century. 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 old and a few million miles 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 (Monty Python fashion) -- 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, because that’s the one taught to you by loving parents -- 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. As co-creators.  As science has already clearly empowered us to do.
Okay, I’d still have a bone or two to pick with that fellow.  But at least He’d be impressive…
…and of course, there is the third possibility.  That we create Him. (Or Her.. It-ALL or I-am-what-I-am.) I’m not dogmatic about it, but that certainly seems the most likely case. With the point being that open, contingent minds can and should approach all this in a sense of exploration.  Even fun.

Because that's the hand we were dealt.
== Back to our mission ==
That was a bit of an aside. But it all comes back to the basic issue that’s at stake.  No matter whether we are in this alone, in a daunting-challenging cosmos, or not.
We have to keep believing in our ability to do well.
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.  To prove ourselves before the universe… to the only evaluating eyes that truly matter.
Our descendants.


34 comments:

Bluebottle said...

So while we are tolerating different opinions lets also look back. How old is the Earth and how long does take geographical features to form?

Lincoln Cannon said...

Beautiful -- thank you, David

Adrian Durlester said...

Well stated, but disappointing that you still didn't make any attempt this time around at avoiding gender-speicifc references to a deity.

Tacitus2 said...

Your Bloomberg piece was nicely done. And with a link from the mighty Instapundit it will reach many eyes.

Best wishes for '14.

Tacitus

Alex Tolley said...

I would phrase all this more simply as: Whatever the reality of a creator - none/dead/living/personal - it is our response that is important.

Suppose that science was able to prove that there was a deity that created the universe. Should our response be to "worship" it in some way, or rather to understand the it. Supplication seems to me to indicate fear - be obsequious, don't incur any wrath, perhaps get a request or two granted. etc, etc. Or should we boldly stand up and ask questions - who are you, what are the limits of your powers, etc, etc.

Of course the fearful will demand that the questioners stop, in case bad things happen. Worship, don't question or seek direct answers, or you may visit terrible consequences upon us all.

But wait, isn't that what the anti-METI folks are saying too, albeit in the small and without the worshipping?

Hamna Abobaker said...

Great Message. Thanks for sharing it.
free prestashop themes

occam's comic said...

Hi David,
Happy new year.

I am surprised that you have such a constrained view of what “God” can be.
I am not sure why you think that “God” needs to have a penis, but hey, that is a common prejudice.

For myself, I reject all three viewpoints you present, the God of the Bible, The God who sets up the universe then goes away, and the No God exists. I see myself (and everyone else) as a small, temporary living manifestation in an enormous global system that has been alive for billions of years. This long lasting, global, living system is my God. It did not create the universe, It is not omnipotent, nor omniscient, but every living thing has ever existed is part of It and owes its existence and is shaped by It. It brought me into existence but does not threaten me with hell nor promise me heaven but does allow me to experience the wonder, beauty and terror that comes with living.

Alex Tolley said...

Completely OT from this thread, but I thought well worth posting.

A presentation on the technical scope of NSA spying.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0w36GAyZIA&feature=player_embedded

I don't know whether to raise the white flag and agree "The Transparent Society" was absolutely correct in saying that complete surveillance is inevitable, or to support those who want the NSA securely chained.

Randy Winn said...

"We have to keep believing in our ability to do well."

Indeed. IIRC it was Acquinas who said that despair is the one unforgivable sin, not because it cannot be forgiven, but because the one who commits despair denies the possibility of foregiveness. Translating Acquinas into more modern language: All other errors ... greed, sloth, envy, et cetera ... can be overcome (or even put to good use), but despair is the one mental attitude that can absolutely prevent progress, but it denies the capacity to progress.

(FORK: Joyce Carol Oates had a different opinion.)

---

@occam's comic:
Of course God has a penis: About 3.5 billion on Earth alone - plus slightly more vaginas - and some number of intermediate forms. There really needs to be a pronoun invented for such a massively redundant gender identity

---
@Alex Tolley
It seems to me that there are very few moral choices that really depend upon the nature of God. If you are choosing whether to steal a lollypop from a child, it really doesn't matter whether the Big Bang or Creationism is true; if you refrain from stealing the candy only because you fear God will send you to Hell, you are not really good at all, but merely economically efficient (...although some political theorists might argue those are the same thing).
Thus while I don't deny the appeal of trying to understand God, I'm unconvinced as to the utility. Indeed, if there *were* proven a usefulness to understand the nature of God, scientists may well seek to study the phenomenon to develop a theory engineers could put to use. For example, if prayer really could alter the outcome of football game, I can imagine a crowd-sourced prayer project affecting Superbowl gambling. This would not only reduce God to yet another force of nature, but undoubtedly lead to government regulation of the allowable uses of prayer (e.g. in wartime it would be treason to pray for the enemy; in gambling it would be illegal to invoke the Deity).

LarryHart said...

Randy Winn:

It seems to me that there are very few moral choices that really depend upon the nature of God. If you are choosing whether to steal a lollypop from a child, it really doesn't matter whether the Big Bang or Creationism is true; if you refrain from stealing the candy only because you fear God will send you to Hell, you are not really good at all, but merely economically efficient (...although some political theorists might argue those are the same thing).
Thus while I don't deny the appeal of trying to understand God, I'm unconvinced as to the utility.


Thank you!

I've been asking the question for a long time--can anyone provide an example of a moral choice to be made where the correct answer actually depends on the existence of God. I mean a choice between doing A and doing B (and maybe other choices too) where if God exists, then A is the right thing to do, but if God does not exist, then B is the correct choice.

It seems to me that if God exists, then He wants us to do the things we would regard as "good" in any case, and if God does not exist, there is no harm in doing the things we'd imagine He'd have asked of us.

Alex Tolley said...

It seems to me that if God exists, then He wants us to do the things we would regard as "good" in any case

I disagree. If you acted in accordance with God's actions as written in the Old Testament, you would act against your likely moral compass. We've also created ways to allow us to do things we would normally reject, like war. Luckily for believers in various Gods, they all seem to allow war. But if they didn't...?


Thus while I don't deny the appeal of trying to understand God, I'm unconvinced as to the utility.

Does there have to be utility, rather than just understanding? But wouldn't we need to understand a creator in order to understand which laws of the universe are designed, vs not? If the creator was like a game designer, some rules of the game's operation would be designed, whilst the underlying physics of the hardware would not be. What if we could determine which are designed and which we may be able to change ourselves?

Randy Winn said...

@Alex Tolley - One of the finest passages in English literature deals with this precise topic. Huckleberry Finn had been taught that helping a slave escape was stealing, yet the slave in question was his friend Jim...

"I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming."

Now had I the same belief, I would probably be too cowardly to make that choice, but that's not the point. Either way, ee don't need God to tell us the moral choice is to free the slave. If God disagrees, per the Old Testament and the New, then our choice may be to calculate whether it is to our personal advantage, but that (Objectivism aside), is an entirely different question.

"What if we could determine which are designed and which we may be able to change ourselves?"
Certainly, we can turn God into just another force of nature, to be studied,understood and manipulated. For example, crowdsourcing prayer to influence sporting events would be greatly enhanced with a better understanding of how God chooses to grant victory. I'm not sure this is what the godbotherers (to borrow from Pratchett) would like.

Jonathan S. said...

Interesting how some people focus on a pronoun.

English doesn't really have a good neuter case for living (or supernatural) beings; "it" is usually taken to refer to an inanimate object or primitive life form such as an amoeba, or sometimes to an animal whose gender is uncertain but unimportant. Those whose personal identity is thoroughly tied up in their gender identity sometimes try to force ugly neologisms like "xe" on us, but so far have proved unsuccessful.

Further, if debating the nature of God, it is necessary to engage His fan club in terms they'll understand. Your typical, say, Charismatic Protestant isn't going to respond well to any discussion of God that doesn't reference their faith in Him as the Father.

It helps to discuss matters with people in their own language, when possible.

Glen Wells said...

Interesting... once

Robert Sandstedt said...

More people need to hear the message that deeds good or bad are what they are, regardless of intent or belief.

Paul451 said...

Alex,
"But wait, isn't that what the anti-METI folks are saying too, albeit in the small and without the worshipping?"

No. We (at least this anti-METI guy) are saying that we can wait until we know more. Are you really so important that the "Everyone look at me!" message has to be shouted in your lifetime?

I'm just asking for a few centuries. A millennia at most.

LarryHart,
"can anyone provide an example of a moral choice to be made where the correct answer actually depends on the existence of God."

Genocide against the infidel. Suffering a witch to live. Wearing two different fibres at the same time or planting two different crops in the same field.

["Thus saith the Lord of hosts ... go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass." This is followed with the shunning of Saul because he only destroyed what he thought was bad, saving the rest for his people, and therefore disobeyed God and had to be rejected.]

As Dawkins (I think) said, good people do good things, bad people do bad things. But for good people to do bad things takes religion. (I'd say, any strong ideology.)

Randy,
Re: What if we proved God.
I like the absurdity of the idea of engineers harnessing God as a predictable force. Kind of like SMBC's take on the "more efficient use of Superman".

I've often chuckled at believers asking atheists "but what would you do if science proved that God existed?!" because it seems to me that they haven't really thought through what happens to their church once theology becomes a branch of physics.

Alex Tolley said...

We (at least this anti-METI guy) are saying that we can wait until we know more. Are you really so important that the "Everyone look at me!" message has to be shouted in your lifetime?

Not a fan of Starfleet (To boldly go...), and in particular Kirk's actions, then. ;D Kirk isn't the type to observe: "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread".

" they haven't really thought through what happens to their church once theology becomes a branch of physics"

I vote that as comment of the day. Love it.

LarryHart said...

Paul451:

LarryHart,
"can anyone provide an example of a moral choice to be made where the correct answer actually depends on the existence of God."

Genocide against the infidel. Suffering a witch to live. Wearing two different fibres at the same time or planting two different crops in the same field.


No, see that's a different question--whether or not one believes in Scripture. I understand that belief in God is a necessary condition to believing that a particular religious code has moral force, but it's not a sufficient condition. I'm perfectly willing to accept the possibility that God (an omnipotent Creator of the Universe) might exist, but I don't believe the Bible is His inerrant word. So no, I don't accept that killing Jews or killing Christians or killing Muslims is an example of "the right thing to do" if God exists.

Nice try, though.

Keith D. Halperin said...

"Suppose that science was able to prove that there was a deity that created the universe."
Since this "proven" deity would *unlikely to resemble any deity currently envisioned (except perhaps in the most metaphorical sense), this would settle virtually nothing.


*http://www.amazon.com/Beware-God-Stories-Shalom-Auslander/dp/0743264576, http://hitchhikers.wikia.com/wiki/Mice)

David Brin said...

" they haven't really thought through what happens to their church once theology becomes a branch of physics"

I agree! Indeed, in KILN PEOPLE the latest science is "soulistics" or the imprinting and copying of souls into clay….

TheMadLibrarian said...

Alex, maybe you're thinking of a ST:TNG quote: "Fate: Protects fools, little children, and ships named Enterprise." :D

TheMadLibrarian
ternegi: New Year's Day on another world

Randy Winn said...

@Paul451 -
It is conceptually possible that God exists and is Evil, e.g. commanding genocide, slavery and all that.

That *still* would not help us make moral choices; it merely informs the economic aspects of our choice, e.g. whether we are willing to pay the cost of going to hell in order to free the slave.

I appreciate that this analysis condemns much of the Old Testament and even parts of the New, in particular "The Letter To Philomen", as evil. Let us hope that is solely due to the flawed nature of Scripture, as LarryHart seems to suggest.

All - Is God a wave or a particle?

What might be the attributes of the "godon" ?

Is there a godon anti-particle ... and if so, could we generate God by generating godon/anti-godon particle pairs near an event horizon?

OTOH is god is neither wave nor particle, but something more exotic such as the field in which particles & waves exist ... perhaps how prayer works is by warping godspace.

Tacitus2 said...

Mad Librarian

The ST TNG quote is hardly original. It hearkens back to the supposed quip from Otto von Bismarck regarding a "Special Providence that watches over drunkards, children and the United States of America".

Only problem is that he never said it, and seems never to have repeated the partial version attributed earlier to Abbe Correa.

Still a good thought though...

Tacitus

Beau McElhattan said...

Thank you for this, David. In a world filled with chaos, it's nice to sit back and read something that can restore sanity and give hope for unity. No matter what stripes we happen to wear.

Happy new year!

LarryHart said...

Clarifying my point on God-dependent morality...

Most responses have been of the type "If God exists, then the instructions in the Bible dictate morality. If He does not exist, then something else does." I personally don't subscribe to that view of things.

Consider the laws of mathematics. From George Orwell, we know that "2 + 2 = 4" is a true statement, regardless of what the Party tells us. It's also true regardless of what God tells us. If God is omniscient and beneficent, He might help us out by giving us the answer by revelation. In that sense, many people who don't understand math might take "2 + 2 = 4" to be true on faith.

But the mathematical statement is not true because God tells it to us. Rather the opposite--God tells it to us because it is true. Were God not to exist, the statement is still true. We just have to figure it out for ourselves.

I'm saying, or at least hypothesizing, that rules of morality are likewise. If God exists, He wants us to do whatever is good, independent of His existence. The choice of "What's the right thing to do?" might be easier with God helping us than it would be to determine without Him. But I still can't envision a scenario where "The right thing to do" actually changes on the basis of the existence vs non-Existence of God.

Alex Tolley said...

@Randy Winn, @LarryHart - perhaps you can reframe teh God and morailty problem as an actual thought experiment, because I cannot see what would be a valid experiment.

@LarryHart. You are assuming that morals are culturally universal. This is not the case. How does that fit in with your statements about truth and morality?

David Brin said...

onward

Paul451 said...

[To avoid munging the new thread]

LarryHart,

My point was that if God exists, morality is whatever God defines. That's what morality is. As an atheist, I believe morality is cultural (although strongly influenced by genetics); but that's only because I don't think God(s) exist so I'm trying to co-opt a useful word.

But a believer thinks morality is divinely defined and absolute. The only "variability" is based on our ability to understand God's Will.

If God exists, and is the normal jealous God, then he may want people to kill the unbelievers. Murdering, or even genociding unbelievers is thus entirely moral. Hesitating to do so is immoral. (The lesson of Saul and the Amaleks. Saul's actions were immoral because he didn't genocide hard enough.)

If God doesn't exist, killing people for their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) is almost always immoral.

LarryHart said...

Paul 451 (and Alex Tolley too):

I realize the point I am attempting to make is atypical, but I am asserting that morality is only "what God defines" in the sense that mathematics or logic are "what God defines." The math and logic examples are easeier to understand--God may define the rules, but He doesn't do so arbitrarily or at a whim. He is an Authority because His understanding is so much greater than ours, but He can't make two plus two equal five. Or He could, but won't, because He knows better.

I'm claiming the same is the case for rules of morality. Granted, they are harder to understand without God to dictate them to us. But I believe that if God exists, the rules He would tell us to follow are (in Dr Brin's words) "what we should be doing anyway", whether He existed or not.

When you say "If God exists and is the normal jealous God, you are adding a new variable to the equation. I'd say the "normal jealous God" is not an authority on morality. Or are you arguing that if God exists, the the mathematical pi is exactly 3, as implied in the Bible? Because to me, the two things are exactly analogous.

LarryHart said...

@Alex Tolley

It's hard to make a testable experiment that revolves around what kind of a universe we live in, because there's no way to try it out in a universe with God and another universe without God. Nevertheless, I will try to explain better what I am not saying. I am not starting with the premise that we already know God's word, and that if He exists, it is moral to follow that word, but if He does not exist, then it is ok to disobey that word.

I'm proceeding from an assumption that even if God exists, He has not made His word clear to us. So, for example, if your religious belief is that abortion is murder and is therefore immoral, what you are saying is that God would prohibit that action because it is wrong, not that it is wrong (only) because God says so.

The question is not to provide an example of something that is morally right if God does not exist, but wrong if He exists and prohibits the action. My presumption is that if God would prohibit an action, then that action is immoral whether or not God exists. The only variable is the existence of God, not anything He has supposedly (but not unambiguously) told us already.

Clear as mud, yet?

Alex Tolley said...

@larryHart

prohibits the action

Under what circumstances would you accept this prohibition as the word of God? Isn't that the point of scripture, rather than the Medieval acceptance of what possible schizophrenics say? A crowd might be better, or even a miracle, but we haven't seen any that withstand scrutiny or can be explained by mass delusions (like lights in sky = aliens).

My presumption is that if God would prohibit an action, then that action is immoral whether or not God exists.

That presupposes an outcome. Different cultures have different morals. Therefore whatever God says on a moral issue that is addressed by cultures, but have different responses, one of them, at least, will be wrong. An example is infanticide, which was accepted as moral once. Or slavery to take another example. In both cases your supposition is that these actions must have been known to be immoral, although we know that is most definitely not the case with slavery.

LarryHart said...

@Alex Tolley

Since we have competing and conflicting scriptures to choose from, that only serves to confuse the issue. But you are helping to demonstrate why the question is so difficult.

Cultures contribute to defining morality, sure. But cultures can also be immoral (antebellum South and Nazi Germany come immediately to mind). Only God can be said to be incapable of error on the question, but then He hasn't seen fit to communicate morality to us in an unambiguous way. Slavery and Jew-hatred (for example) were each sanctified by religious authorities at the time they were practiced.

So you might conclude "If God exists, then slavery and Jew-hatred are moral. If God does not exist, then they are immoral." But to me, that makes no sense. If God would actually approve of such things, then they must be moral even if He does not exist. And I would then be as bad at choosing morality as I am at picking stocks.

On the other hand, if those things are (as I believe them to be) imoral, then God (if He exists) would rule them so.

I'm not claiming to have definitve, self-evident answers as to which actions are moral and which are not. What I am claiming is that you either believe the teachings of Jesus or Muhammud or Whoever, or else you don't. Those teachings don't gain any extra force just because you perceive God to exist. Not unless you also perceive God's endorsement of the particular teaching. And God's endorsement is a separate variable.

We're going in circles now, and I doubt I'm convincing you of anything, but hopefully you see where I'm coming from.

David Brin said...

The one Sermon is preached by the ambiguity of God's objective silence. He could easily open the clouds as in Monty Python and clear up all the confusion. The sermon says "figure it out for yourselves, as if I am not here."

onward...

hạt hạnh nhân said...

THank you!