Monday, March 2, 2009

Material Objections

"You don't believe in me," observed the Ghost.

"I don't," said Scrooge.

"What evidence would you have of my reality beyond that of your senses?"

"I don't know," said Scrooge.

"Why do you doubt your senses?"

"Because," said Scrooge, "a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"

"A Christmas Carol"

Two links on freedom and belief:

1. Courtesy of Arts & Letters Daily, an intriguing article on the brain's reward system describes the case of a woman who suddenly developed pathological gambling after taking dopamine for Parkinson's disease. This sort of story punctures our more overblown conceptions of free will (as did the obesity post a few days back), even if we can't do without some form of it, albeit perhaps in shrunken form.

The article also argues that gambling, including that heretofore respectable form of the stock market, deprives the dopamine system of its rationale by disconnecting effort from emotional reward. Throughout evolutionary history effort did not always pay off, obviously, but effort and skill were proportional to success--spearing the prey or winning the girl or guy--often enough to make dopamine's rewards meaningful. Both gambling--by making the payoff random--and drugs such as nicotine and cocaine--by making the payoff guaranteed--short-circuit the meaning-making function of the dopamine system.

2. At A Commonplace Blog D. G. Myers mounts a worthy defense of theism and tolerates my agnostic remonstrations. As usual, I argue that the quandary is not belief in God in the abstract, but rather the extreme multiplicity of religious conceptions across geography and history; absent the accidents of disposition and upbringing, there is no compelling justification for specifying God beyond the ultimately absent and inscrutable place-holder of value. That is, we cannot justifiably specify God in sufficient detail for belief in "Him" to make specific moral or metaphysical differences in our lives. We are left with mere wonder.


vanderleun said...

"That is, we cannot justifiably specify God in sufficient detail for belief in "Him" to make specific moral or metaphysical differences in our lives. "

And yet we see and know, in thousands of lives known or reported, that it is precisely the belief in "Him" that does make for specific moral and metaphysical differences.

The existence or nature of God may well be up for debate, but I think that the effect that belief in God makes in the moral and metaphysical lives of billions is beyond question, now and throughout recorded history.

Conversely, we can also see that absence of such a belief can well lead to vast moral catastrophes of an unprecedented scale in recent history. (Not to say that the obverse has not also been true.)

Perhaps it is true that God is a myth. But He seems to be a very necessary myth. And it would seem that without it, the people wither.

Novalis said...

Yes, the notion of God would seem to be necessary for most human societies to function. And yet life must have a meaning, and ethics a basis, regardless of whether God is held to exist.

A few years ago I was discussing religion and ethics with a psychiatry resident, a likeable and thoughtful fellow who was also a devout believer. At one point he acknowledged, a la Dostoevsky, that if he concluded that God didn't exist, he would see no reason not to indulge in whatever mayhem necessary to satisfy his whims or gratify his desires. This scares the hell out of me--on such a slender metaphysical postulate civilization rests.

Anonymous said...

'God' is the spiritual magnetic north; the totalisation of the relentless human inclination for pattern affinity and the interpretive illumination thereof; the eternal fractal that spirals into repetitve meaning/unmeaning; the gloss, the fundament, the sinewy cohesion that synchronises forms and life in spite of decay and the entropic nature of beingness; the toneless colour that infuses with a blind seeingness; the structural negative space that concretises substance; the eternal present.

Spirituality is the ultimate dopamine mediated gamble that paid off at some stage in the evolution of human consciousness and scarred them for life in an endless loop of loopy self-feeding reward driven belief.

It's mostly just fear and guilt, really.

vanderleun said...

And if you would see the result of the absence of spirituality grounded in some base ground of being, you have only to look about you.

It's not pretty.

Novalis said...

Anonymous--fear and guilt, yes, but also the wish for a reliable spiritual magnetic north, the impossible possibility, like free will. Both free will and the concept of God, Kant argued, are necessary yet beyond the realm of reason. But to paraphrase Wittgenstein (philosophy 101 I know), whereof reason cannot speak reason must remain silent. Perhaps we can only hum God--God as melody, without content technically, but crucial as form (even if only the contour of an absence). Agnostics can manage only a minor key. And let us not forget the naturally unmusical...

Retriever said...

You might find food for thought in Job 38. Then again, it might just madden you.

Personally, after being raised Episcopalian, two Ivy degrees, work in human rights, then the ministry, then a mom, then a day job, I'm happy now as a Christian who is evangelical but not fundamentalist.

I like the words of Jesus when he said "By their fruits ye shall know them." I also love his promise of "I am come that ye may have life, and have it more abundantly."

I'm sure that if you see loathsome hypocritical Christians, you probably despise the church. That was true for me in youth attending beautiful and soulless Anglican worship with toadie priests. But if you find a loving congregation who testify to the power of God to transform their lives, and who show Christian love to the hurting world, it's hard not to be convinced.

One good cliche about it is that Christianity isn't taught, it's caught. People sometimes say that the church is a bit like the way you M.D.s are trained, learn it, do it, teach it (apologies if I havent got the phrase exactly)

I often wonder what it must be like for a highly educated agnostic like yourself living in the Bible belt. I should imagine it must be excruciating at times. About as painful as for a liberal to be cooped up on a plane next to some Ugly American, like the book of the same title.

Karl Barth, the German theologian, was once asked to summarize all his life's work (indigestible tomes of theology). He replied that it was "Jesus loves me,this I know, for the Bible tells me so" that he had learned in Sunday School.

I don't say any of this to convince you or to insult your intelligence. The "no atheists in foxholes" is probably part of my own family's fervent faith-- so bludgeoned by tragedy, only sustained by faith in God.

I don't, however, share your problem with the multiplicity of religious conceptions. It's just as a woman in our church described the Trinity as like a person who is parent, sibling, spouse or some other role, one person with many manifestations.

ALthough I personally get sick of people endlessly quoting him, C.S. Lewis writes well about this in "the Last Battle", where it becomes clear that God's true followers are not necessarily those those labelled or self-perceiving, but rather those who are virtuous, honest, altruistic, etc.

Sophocles said "Wonders are many and none so wondrous as man" (sic?) So of course there are multiple wondrous ways that people conceive of the divine and worship Him/Her/Whatever.

Wonder is a good place to start.

Novalis said...

Thanks for this--much food for thought.