Saturday, March 30, 2013

Pope Francis, at least make your lies useful

In the homily of his Holy Saturday mass, the new pope, Francis, said this:
[There is] [n]o situation God can’t change, no sin he can’t forgive if only we open ourselves to him.
This is a lie, of course, and it only takes a little bit of looking around to recognize it. That's why I call it a lie instead of an error. Pope Francis is an educated man. He's not a moron. He knows it isn't actually true, whatever he has deceived himself into thinking or however much he values orthodox platitudes.

I want to modify Francis's statement to consider it slightly differently. If you'll indulge me:
There is no situation modern medicine can’t change, no problem it can’t fix if only we make use of it.
This is also a lie, of course. There are a large number of problems that modern medicine can't fix, and they are so numerous as to be exempt from having to list examples. On the same criteria I've judged Francis's statement a lie, this statement is also a lie. It is worth noting that no doctor, no nurse, no scientist, no researcher, no academic, and no medical expert of any kind makes this claim, even about incredible medical advances that may await us in the coming centuries.

If I take a consequentialist tack, though, and examine the results of embracing these two beliefs, what is the likely outcome? Well, surely believing this claim about modern medicine would make for many gross errors in judgment with catastrophic results in many cases. On the other hand, since God almost surely doesn't exist and more surely doesn't do anything, it must be the case that the statement about God, if taken seriously, would inherently lead to more disastrous gross errors in judgment. At least relying upon modern medicine would help in cases where modern medicine can help.

That is, on believing the second lie, we should expect to see many of the same errors but millions and millions of successful cases that would have failed under the God lie. Thanks, Francis, for your feel-good rejoinder of dangerous nonsense. Faith healing deaths are one example where preventable tragedies happen because of believing what you said.

Had Francis uttered the second lie and then gone on to qualify it, mentioning that it is most wise to lean upon the understanding where we have it, for example regarding questions surrounding birth control, AIDS, and abortion, he would have made a vastly more useful statement than the hollow one he made, without even bothering to examine the rubbish about "sin" (which contradicts the scriptural claim in Mark 3:29 that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit--not rape, not enslavement, not brutal homicide, not genocide--is an unforgivable sin).

Of course, as it is a lie, I do not encourage anyone to put belief in a statement as ridiculous as that medical science can fix any problem, but in the right spheres, those regarding the health of our bodies and increasingly of our minds, I put medical science way, way ahead of "God," whatever Francis means  by that word.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Didn't Jesus make it clear? No.

"Love thy neighbor as thyself"? The bible is hardly clear on this?

"Love thy neighbor, bro." From homebrewedchristianity.
I got this common question on the Twitters yesterday from a "far left" Christian trying to defend his beliefs that Christianity has no basis for being an anti-homosexual collection of organizations. Of course, holding such a position can be done, and is, particularly by the Episcopal Church and a growing number of other churches (contrast Pope Francis: "gay marriage is a machination of the Prince of Lies"). Holding it also requires some careful games with a few books of the bible, not least Leviticus and Romans.

I'm not particularly interested in getting into the debate about whether or not Christianity should be pro- or anti-LBGT (ethically, pro; theologically and doctrinally, anti). I want to discuss if the bible, and Jesus, is clear about the "love thy neighbor" thing. My answer is "No."

"Love thy neighbor," while listed as the second great commandment of Jesus by the Gospel writers (actually a summary of the last six of the Ten Commandments, the first four summarized under "Love thy God before all else," the first great commandment of the Gospels), is hardly a theme that is clear scripturally or in interpretation.


This passage from Matthew, and its parallel in Luke, is famous for disturbing clarity on the matter of loving one's neighbor, as it advocates division, potentially violent if at need, and even against one's own family, kin being closer than neighbors:
Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it. (Matthew 10:34–39, New American Standard Bible)
 The parallel passage in Luke reads:
I have come to cast fire upon the Earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished! Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. (Luke 12:49–53, NASB)
It's not surprising that these passages have been described as "the most uncomfortable" for Christians. They don't seem to resonate with the message of "loving thy neighbor" or extending fraternal love and charity to everyone. In fact, there's good reason to read it as Jesus being a socially conservative reactionary who is establishing an apocalyptic cult.

Though these passages are well-worn, for brevity we'll skip some of the others that might be relevant, even if we just stick to Jesus (a favorite such example is the withered-branch cast into the fire, John 15:6). If we venture into the rest of the New Testament (e.g. Romans 1, relevant to the LBGT question) or, heavens forbid, the Old Testament that "good" Christians want us to ignore, I'd say we're on firm ground to say that the bible is not clear about the command to 'love thy neighbor.' This isn't because the sentence isn't clear but because of so many other contravening themes.


Here's the real rub. Even if we take the claim that the bible is abundantly clear and unambiguous about "love thy neighbor," interpretation steps in to muddy the waters yet again. Christians like to say that this is "fallible man messing up God's perfection," but that's rubbish. If the bible was really clear on it, no such variation in interpretation would be meaningful. The really bad part is that the really nasty parts are more theologically grounded than the patty-cake liberal interpretations are too.

Take the Westboro Baptist Church, the "God Hates Fags" guys. They went on Russell Brand's show not so long ago, and the video clip went viral. It's worth a look because it changed how I think about them entirely.

It changed my thinking about them forever? Yup. They're not just a bunch of assholes, they're a bunch of theologically grounded assholes.

If you watch closely, you will see that the essential claim of the Westboro Baptist Church is that their outrageous protests and extreme hatred of the "sins" of LBGT are a manifestation of this very command of Jesus to "love thy neighbor as thyself." Their case is better than the love-everybody and be nice to them liberal Christian case too.

Why? Christian theology. If one actually accepts Christian theology, there are two key points that the WBC isn't ignoring:
  1. God is a reality and is how He is, whatever people want to think, however much or little they like Him or the situation (strongly supported biblically), and
  2. The wages of sin are death and eternal torment in hell. This is a maximally bad situation, and the imperative of love in this life is therefore not to make people feel good, be happy, or have good lives, but rather to avoid hell at any cost.
We might argue that this is a weird definition of love, or even one that's a horrible perversion of it, but I don't say it's not. I'm only saying that it's firmly grounded in Christian theology and scripture. Don't blame the interpreter, then, blame the source.

Of course, the WBC folks could be lying, as many have suggested--that they're professional trolls and provocateurs. This may be the case, but it's immaterial. They reveal that the bible is insufficiently clear to interpret what Jesus' actual commands for Christians are and that the most theologically grounded interpretations are almost universally reviled.

The core problem:

What the WBC's definition of "love" lacks, however much theological basis it has, is salience. That definition of love, particularly in the absence of evidence of the existence of heaven, hell, and God, while in the presence of copious evidence of real-world harm, doesn't have any salience. We reject it, and we do so viscerally. It's inhuman. It's unnatural. It's disgusting. It's grounded in Christian theology, however much liberal Christians want to play with the words.

The core problem here is that theology provides absolutely no methods by which we can determine which interpretation is the one that Jesus (and God) really mean for us to follow. Should we love each other as we actually understand that word, as is elaborated up on in other parts of the scriptures (notably in Ephesians, e.g. 4:32: “And be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you”)? Or should we take the threat of hell seriously and see the WBC as acting from a profound source of higher, eternal love? We have no method to decide.

In the absence of a method, my recommendation is to err toward salience, but not because of Jesus or any other ancient book. We have evidence for real-world flourishing and suffering. We have no evidence for God, heaven, hell, or any of the theological claims of Christianity (or any other religion, as a matter of fact). Put another way, luckily for us, Christianity isn't true, and so we don't have to accept the WBC's broken definition of "love."

Saturday, March 23, 2013

It's the ritual, but it's not the ritual

I'm going to disclaim this post at the very beginning: I haven't researched this yet. This is, after all, a blog, and I don't carry the kind of professional weight as someone like Sam Harris, so I don't (yet) have to be so careful. I want to use this post to throw some ideas out there, and as I mull it over, the research will follow. Thanks for taking this with that grain of salt.

I'll also qualify it up front. I've been thinking about religion and "God" a lot differently than I had been lately. I can say that, almost surely, this will not result in a religious conversion for me--particularly to a religion like Christianity which is patently untrue to anyone willing to examine it closely and, frankly, fails morally as well. Because I think bad metaphors maintain the God delusion, I won't ever say that I think God exists (unless credible evidence lands in my lap, of course), but I no longer think religious people are as deluded, dishonest, and/or deceived as I did when I wrote God Doesn't.

Essentially--and this may constitute my next major writing project--I think that theists really do mean something substantial when they say "God." I don't think it's what they think it is, though. In fact, I don't think they know for sure what they mean. This question, however, is the one playing most with my mind lately, and this post arose from a thought I had yesterday while mulling it over.


Rituals play a role in essentially every religion*. They aren't limited to religions, of course, but if you find a religion, there are rituals involved. Rituals are pretty powerful things, if you've ever been involved in organizations that use them in a way that you can take seriously. And that's the rub--outside of the right context, which is frequently religious, rituals tend to feel very, very silly indeed. Certainly, many atheists reject rituals as being mostly supercilious, if not outright silly, but that stems from failing to get properly psychologically involved in them. Do they do magic? No, but they do work powerfully upon our psychology if we invest in them.

*One of those unresearched points that I strongly suspect is true. It is possible that there are ritual-free religions, I suppose, but I don't know of any offhand.

This makes me think that rituals are probably pretty important and pretty valuable, particularly since sharing a ritual has a profound psychosocial bonding effect upon those who are able to get into them. In particular, shared ritual is capable of creating healthy and strong camaraderie, and that has been demonstrated to enhance both quality and quantity of life--a point the religious often argue to attempt to enhance their credibility.

The thing is--and this is my epiphany here--I don't think it matters what the ritual is, just that there is a ritual that binds people together. The obvious arbitrariness of the ritual itself makes it hard for skeptical-minded folks to get sufficiently into them to understand their value, but for those who have experienced them (like the religious), the value is undeniable, even when it cannot be pinpointed on the ritual behavior.

So, I am starting to strongly suspect that ritual matters on a psychosocial level--and may be some part of what underlies the real meaning of "God"--although the rituals themselves are arbitrary, which makes them hard to accept as being meaningful. I'd appreciate insight and discussion.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Pope Francis and poverty

I keep hearing about how the new pope, Pope Francis, as he has styled himself, is a big opportunity for renewal for the papacy and the Catholic Church because he is primarily focused upon poverty and is famous for his humility. I'm skeptical of the depth of his concern about poverty and want to state clearly why.

Pope Francis at his first Mass, from Discovery News.
Let's be fair first. The new pope has repeatedly urged the people in his diocese and beyond to ignore installation ceremonies, choosing instead to donate to charity the cost of travelling to and attending the ceremonies. He did this when installed as Cardinal in Buenos Aires, and he did it again when installed as pope. In words, in some deeds, and in what we might assume is genuine heartfelt concern, he reaches out to the poor and hopes to elevate them. I won't condemn a man for that--his heart, as we say, seems really to be in the right place.

This, though, reveals again Christopher Hitchens's repeated injunction that religion poisons everything.

How? It is not possible to be strongly concerned with poverty while holding to Catholic orthodoxy about birth control and abortion.

Another line from Christopher Hitchens reveals part of the reason. He indicates that the single best way to eliminate poverty and to transform a poor nation into one with better opportunity is to empower women. When women do not have a strong degree of autonomy over their reproductive lives, over their own bodies, they are not empowered, and poverty is not truly being managed in an effective way. All of the heartfelt pleas, calls for donations (which we know will not be enough to make a dent in the real problem), and all of the words that might motivate people to be kinder, gentler, and more generous with the poor fall hollow because of their lack of efficacy in addressing the real causes of the continuation of the juggernaut of poverty.

There has been some controversy,  which appears to have been demonstrated as spurious, that the new pope has misogynistic leanings. Whether or not he has those overtly oppressive views toward women is immaterial, though. Until the strongly orthodox Bergoglio, or Francis if you want, is willing to use his power as pope--absolute, divinely chosen, infallible monarch of the Catholic hierarchy--to reverse Catholic orthodoxy on birth control and abortion, at the least, he denies women the degree of autonomy over their own bodies that actually allows for their empowerment, and he reveals that his concern for poverty, however earnest, is merely superficial. To deny birth control is to deny women's empowerment, and that is to hold people bondage in poverty.

Pardon me, then, while I look on at the hope of a new pope, a humble man who allegedly cares deeply about poverty, as little more than the same demon in a new mask. He can spare me the lines about his concern for poverty until he's willing to let that concern create the action that we know is necessary for real success.

Monday, March 11, 2013

More on the moral debate--three dimensions, moral relativism, what 'atheism' lacks, and common ground

Quite early in my blogging here, I wrote a piece about morality attempting to integrate the works of psychologist Jonathan Haidt and neuroscientist and moral philosopher Sam Harris. Please, consider reading it: "Reframing the Moral Debate--A Complaint about Imprecision." I received some criticism for that piece, which is probably fair--I certainly wasn't an expert on Haidt's take. I was told that I, like Harris, do not understand morality, and I defended myself on that point (and still do) by noting that I understand something of salience, which is what I believe Harris is actually calling for in the moral debate. Certainly, though it may be moral according to the forgoing understanding of morals to engage in certain acts of ritual purity, like eating certain kinds of tasteless wafers while professing to believe wholeheartedly that they are the body of a dead Jew that preached twenty centuries ago, this behavior lacks salience in the way that saying it is immoral to kick a dog captures.

After having read some more of Haidt, I feel I have a better understanding of his position on the matter and would like to make another small bit of commentary. I really like Haidt's expression that morality is, in a meaningful way, a third dimension in psychosocial valuation, to go along with kin-closeness and status. This strengthens my resolve that what I said in that earlier piece is really on to something--that Haidt's moral normativism creates a "framework morality" dependent upon the framework itself while Harris is striving to connect morals to the firm salience of flourishing and suffering--although I did miss an important component of what it means to be salient, which I'll elaborate upon here.

The Old Thinking

To quickly summarize the previous post for those unwilling or unable to read it just now, it strikes me that under moral normativism actions like ritual sacrifice (of animals or humans) can be defended as being important moral goods, but from the outside of that moral system, this kind of framework presents a major stumbling block to accepting the term "moral" for it. Though sacrifice is often a part of religions, other religious practices that are rather clearly harmful (from the outside) frequently fall into this category of being a moral good from within and a moral failure from without. I posited in the previous piece that it is conceivable that a moral framework could emerge that is fundamentally harmful and therefore in which "good" behavior within the social network embracing that framework is actually "bad" behavior from a position of the salience of well-being versus suffering (or flourishing versus harm, or whatever set of terms that philosophers want to tear apart and yet still plainly resonate with us).

I would clarify my previous position by noting that such inherently subjective valuations as moral norms (what I referred to as morals within a particular framework) can meaningfully be compared even without having to appeal to overwhelmingly clear definitions of "well being" and "suffering." Indeed, it can be done without selecting a preferred moral framework, as I would now argue that we each necessarily operate from within at least one such thing. Enter the dreaded moral relativism.

Moral relativism usually posits that we are unable to judge moral systems against each other, but if we extract from that a particular nugget, then we find something profoundly useful. If we accept that we are unable to judge moral systems against each other absolutely but can do so relatively, then we're in business, because at that point, we can start to evaluate any particular system in all of the others that we are considering. While I cannot guarantee that this method would provide the kind of rock-solid information that we could use to build an optimal moral system for many, most, or all people (since this is not my area of research), I can say that such a study would be very likely to be profoundly useful at paring away the peculiarities of particular frameworks (often, as in the case with religions and sacrifices, based upon ancient superstitious beliefs) to get at a more salient core.

The Newer Thinking

So, after reading more Haidt and seeing more clearly where he's coming from, I see more plainly that moral valuation is a component in an immensely complex psychosocial phenomenon by which we evaluate one another. As mentioned, morals seem to be a "third dimension" of human psychosocial valuation, one that seems invisible although that feels dimly perceptible until it is made plain, at which point it seems rather apparent all over the place (itself an interesting psychological phenomenon).

These three dimensions in which we evaluate each other to varying degrees are kin-closeness (how close a family or friendship tie we have established), social status (how well known or important we are in the social circles that matter), and morality (or goodness, or divinity, or purity, or lots of words that capture the broad meaning of the word "goodness"). I'm not entirely sure, but it seems rather apparent while thinking about it that these dimensions are not necessarily completely independent. For example, one can achieve status within a community like a church simply by scoring profoundly well in "goodness," and communities like church operate to create a sense of kin-closeness among a relatively small group of strangers.

In fact, at this point, I'm almost willing to conclude that religions, in their enduring psychosocial roles (their explanatory roles being dead for at least 150-400 years now), are primarily a system hack by which people can obtain a path to creating, maintaining, and renewing individual self- and interpersonal valuation schema primarily along this third dimension of interactions. This would explain neatly why science hasn't killed off religion yet, despite the overwhelming obviousness with which religion continues to embarrass itself in the "truths about the world" department. It's good at psychology, in a twisted sense.

In that sense, then, religion is a very natural thing for people--because it is easy. Social valuation is an incredibly complex phenomenon, and it would do us well to have shortcuts when trying to navigate its tricky, dark forest. That these shortcuts come at a substantial price may indicate that the shortcuts are actually that valuable to our species to have survived the plain failure of being able to prove themselves useful for anything else--indeed, they're more often dangerously wrong than they are right, even about the psychology I claimed that they're good at.

How atheism "lacks"

Atheism, then, requires people to approach life without this system hack, or using other less-clear proxies for it in place (since we will all be involved in moral frameworks anyway as a product of our at least three-dimensional social valuation psychology). Religion makes these matters black and white, simple. Little thought is needed to process the enormous complexity, and the overall complexity of the problem is simplified enormously by accepting the invalid premise that goodness and badness can be made universal--the belief that gives rise to the other common myth and religious goal that peace can be achieved if everyone is on the same religious page.

In a purely secular society, we would have to face the reality that we don't have a cut-and-dry rulebook on goodness and badness that would work for everyone, even if a perfectly salient scientific moral framework could be developed that optimizes clear and accurate notions of flourishing and suffering. By fully respecting the fact that variations in psychology and social valuation exist across individuals, not only would we have to work far harder at moral and social valuation as individuals within society, we would face the challenge that the framework itself is fuzzy. More work is harder, and it may be very difficult for this kind of work to play out effectively in those less capable of understanding complex abstract ideas. A complication is that some people's morals within this fuzzy sea may literally have to be taken, from their perspectives, as inviolable absolutes--something that makes it much harder to manage.

It's really worse than this too if we want to point to where "atheism" is lacking (quotes because atheism is not a thing). Maybe, in fact, we can point blame here at all of the Enlightenment's thinking, illustrating what it missed in its call to logical reasoning as the foundation for all effective thought. This third dimension of psychosocial valuation, since it is so often arbitrary, based upon superstitions, contradictory across cultures, and sometimes downright harmful by any salient measure, has sort of been suppressed. My experience has been that many atheists act rather as if this third dimension is purely arbitrary or, at best, subjective, and thus is essentially immaterial. The problem is that this attitude contradicts the reality of psychology.

That means, then, that "atheism"--when it devalues this dimension of psychosocial valuation--appears to be lacking something profoundly important. Not only is this unattractive for theists, it's downright terrifying. Theists capture this fear in their famous scariest-ever sentiment: "If there is no God, then there is no God's law. Then there is only man's law. And if there is only man's law, then no one has to follow that, so we'd all be raping and murdering and stealing without God's law."

Contrary to how it plainly is heard to those outside of theism--that without God they'd be rapist murderers that steal--this sentiment is most likely to be an expression of fear at abandoning a core part of their psychosocial valuation structure, one that they feel "atheism" cannot adequately provide replacement for. This, incidentally, is why they will band together as "theists" who usually hate each other against "atheists" as well. Atheists really are outsiders because we don't even offer a clear replacement for the third dimension of psychosocial valuation.

What atheism lacks, atheists don't

Of course, any atheist will rapidly tell you that we do not lack a sense of morality, goodness, and decency, even if we're reluctant to refer to it as "divinity" or talk about "ritual purity." Indeed, we have it even if we downplay the value of this third dimension as being subjective or arbitrary. What we don't have, though, is a playbook that we suggest or require that everyone follows. We mostly require ourselves to work out our morals for ourselves, which is hard, worthwhile work that might explain why there are relatively so few atheists in prisons.

Of course, we are lying to ourselves here too--we do have a playbook. It's just invisible. Novelist Daniel Quinn referred to it as "the whispering of Mother Culture" in his book Ishmael. We're raised by people in a culture with a prevailing psychosocial valuation structure already in place, and it forms the foundation for our invisible playbook. Theists contribute heavily to this playbook, which explains why in the West we virtually associate the word "naughty" with sex.

(As an aside,  this is why I agree with a friend of mine who has suggested that there are no "atheism to Christianity" conversions in a nation like the United States--our entire culture is already built on Christian moral norms, and so a conversion is merely an acceptance of a community and a few unlikely propositions. The foundation for Christianity was in the person all along, and the "conversion" can usually be explained largely by that.)

This invisible moral playbook, then, is important because it reveals a critical truth: the "atheist" playbook on morals is essentially the same playbook by which most Christians operate. The difference, which is even more important, is that the atheist moral position is willing and able to question the precepts in that playbook and modify them according to perceived salience, rejecting the arbitrary, superstitious, harmful, and stupid without having to engage in lengthy rationalizations of it. The return is the rejection of many distortions and abject moral failures canonized in religion for a variety of purposes, but the cost is in having the playbook become necessarily fuzzy, invisible, and more difficult to figure out.


If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Back to meditation

I used to meditate a lot, like a lot. Like 1-2 hours a day, at the least, essentially every day. I maintained this for probably two years, and then, like so many other things, the practice kind of petered off. On occasions since, I've dabbled back into the practice, of particular note last summer when I flew a bit too close to the sun, as it were, by being to rigid in my practice--which actually resulted in an injury! I've started up again over the last month or so, and so I feel it's a good time to talk a bit about it.

Meditation is of profound use, I feel, based upon my experiences with it, and research backs this claim up. Indeed, outside of that lovely Forbes piece by Alice Walton (which links to a few research studies on meditation), it is discussed in rather glowing terms by psychologist Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis, where he compares the practice to a panacea that is available nearly for free--it requires literally only a small amount of your time, ten minutes a day having been demonstrated to be sufficient for significant benefits.

My personal experiences with thinking meditation would be good for people do not end at my own experiences with the practice. Literally daily I speak with people who almost certainly could benefit from taking up the practice (a free and easy claim to make since the research suggests it benefits everyone). I hear specific symptoms that are common and that the regular practice of meditation has had dramatic effects upon in my life, not limited to insomnia, being stressed out, difficulty concentrating, obsessive worry, and, surprisingly since it takes up some time to do it, feeling like there isn't enough time to do the things that "need" to be done. There's actually another, worse indication for the need to meditate, but I will reserve it for a moment.

First, after mentioning that meditation has helped with every one of those symptoms for me, sometimes with amazing efficacy, I want to qualify why I've put the word "need" in quotations there, indicating that I don't think it's really need to do most of what we perceive needs to be done. Why do I think that way? Meditation. Meditation, practiced well and regularly, has perhaps no greater power than to shift perspective on what is and isn't urgent, on what is truly important and thus on what can simply be let go of. Here, then, lies its seemingly magical power of taking up some of our time in exchange for feeling like we have far more of it. When we are able to achieve the benefit of meditation practice where we are able to let go of our preoccupation with that which "needs" to be done, suddenly it is as if there is simply more time in which to do things.

This benefit, for what it's worth, cannot be achieved by forcing it--which is true generally of meditation (a topic for a future essay, I think). While a decent meditation practice can be scheduled and even pressed into a box of time in a schedule, one simply cannot force the process of mental release required to achieve this particular benefit (which may be at the root of much of the benefit of meditation generally). To attempt to force it is to put it on the list of things to achieve which is to miss it entirely. Indeed, this is to fail at succeeding to meditate at all, although there are still benefits to quiet sitting and the simple reality that this difficulty will present itself at the start of essentially every meditation practice session except, perhaps, in cases of extreme development in the art. The challenge of meditation is in learning to let, not striving to do, but not-doing is harder than doing.

All of the last two paragraphs, just above, could be blossomed out into full-length treatments of their own (perhaps chapter-length, actually), and I will leave that for the present. It doesn't need to be done now, after all.

To return to the most pressing indication for the need to introduce meditation that I think I run into--and I run into it frequently--I'd like to mention when people tell me that they cannot meditate because they simply feel like they cannot be quiet with themselves for that long, that it will drive them crazy or that it gives them a sense of impending doom. This sounds like hyperbole on my part to say that it's common, but I probably talk to a different person at least once every two weeks who expresses this difficulty. Additionally, it is vastly more frequent for me to run into people (not just teenagers) who feel that they cannot live (or sleep, sometimes) without some kind of background noises from television, radio, or music going on.

For these people, the thought of sitting alone and in silence, even for a span as short as five minutes in some cases, is simply overwhelming. This is a profound sickness.

My usual advice is to start small and stretch, sitting quietly for maybe only a minute at a time, then later for two, then three, then five, and it seems to be successful in the relatively rare instances when it is tried. It suggests to me that we might also need to quiet some of the incessant barrage of noise that we feed into our lives, turning off televisions, radios, and even music (as glorious as it is) until we find some comfort in silence and lose trepidation about being along with ourselves.

If you meditate and want to share your thoughts about it, I'd love to hear them.


If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.

Friday, March 1, 2013

A key difference between theology and science

Yesterday I posted a relatively short piece about Gödel's ontological proof of the existence of God (and Alvin Plantinga's, incidentally, as I think it is likely to be a derivative). Tonight I want to post a truly short piece branching off from that to illustrate a (perhaps the) key difference between theology and science.

To really get the full effect of this, I suggest that you take a moment to go to the Wikipedia article for Gödel's ontological proof (Link) and also the one for the modal logic that it depends upon (Link). Now take a second to let your eyes uncross so I can make my point.

Here's a key difference between theology and science, without even having to make claims like that "the core of theology is shifting the burden of proof" (quoting myself here). Ontological proofs that rely upon modal logic are abstract nonsense, and it shows nothing but desperation on the part of the theist to rely upon them because the theist's goal is not to prove that they believe and worship some abstract nonsense.

Now imagine, in contrast, that a scientist were to attempt to demonstrate the existence of a dairy cow via convoluted and nearly impenetrable arguments using modal logic instead of a simple trip to a farm.
A dairy cow that is not impressed with ontological arguments.


If you enjoy my writing, you can read more of it in my first book, God Doesn't; We Do: Only Humans Can Solve Human Challenges. If you choose to pick it up, I thank you for your support of myself, my family, and indie authors in general.