I’ve argued against religious faith quite frequently on this blog, on facebook, and on Yahoo Answers. My primary philosophical objections to religious faith are here: http://fensel.net/2012/08/02/why-i-hate-religion/, and I stand by each of the points I made in that post. Religious faith is a vice, that prioritizes faith over critical thinking, trains people to subjugate themselves, and replaces humanity as the final end in moral thought.
The purpose of this post is to show the one argument I consider to be valid for religious faith. This argument follows directly from my own views on value and morality, so I am committed by my own argument to accept it.
First, I am working on the assumption that there are no good epistemic reasons for religious faith. Meaning, there are no facts that inductively support the truth of any religion. I find this assumption strong, and am fully convinced that it is true. There are no good scientific arguments for religion, and the only surviving metaphysical arguments are weak (the moral argument and the ontological). Further, as I will argue in a future post, there is no way to use natural evidence to support supernatural conclusions. Only if you assume that your sensations are supernatural evidence can they support supernatural conclusions (and your assumption will make your argument question-begging).
Beyond epistemic reasons, people could have practical reasons to have religious faith. Famously, Pascal argued that people have a practical reason to believe in God because the belief might be instrumentally valuable in achieving infinite bliss. Even though there is no epistemic reason to believe that God exists, the belief is practically useful to have–it might benefit you to have that belief.
Pascal’s argument does not work, for a number of reasons (possibility of different Gods, opportunities lost during life because of religious faith, possibility of God being pissed that you treated your life like a casino gamble). But, the practical approach does provide the best way to justify religious faith. Here’s how I would, if I were a religious person:
As I’ve argued before, we find meaning in the things that we choose to find meaning in. This meaning makes our lives worthwhile, and we have a rational motive to pursue that meaning. If religious faith provides an opportunity for meaning, and no alternative approach can provide an opportunity for the same degree or better of meaning, then you have a reason to have religious faith. This reason is practical, not epistemic-religious faith may not be true, but it is useful for you to have. The usefulness of religious faith is its instrumental value in promoting meaning in your life.
The reason this argument would work (assuming that you actually do have the highest opportunity for meaning with religion) is that it focuses on your rational will, and how you choose to value things. If you choose to value meaning over truth (and I’d argue that everyone does, or at least, everyone should), then you can potentially have a reason to reject truth in favor of religion. As Nietzsche argued-why value truth, and why not value falsehoods? If you place more value/meaning in religion than in truth, and religion provides the best opportunity for value/meaning, then you have a reason to have religious faith.
-End notes: Obviously, I do not recommend you abandon truth for religion. The argument only works in very unique cases, and is only meant to show how it is possible to practically justify religious faith. Further, I believe placing value in truth is one of the first steps you need to take as a rational person–I fail to see how you could develop a coherent life without first putting some value in truth. But, if you haven’t made this step, and you would rather value religion than truth, then there is no way to rationally persuade you otherwise. Epistemic arguments are convincing only to the extent that you value truth. If you only consider practical arguments, then you might have a reason to find meaning in religious faith.
My focus in philosophy recently has been on my writing sample for graduate school. I’m working through Christine Korsgaard’s Creating a Kingdom of Ends, using Bernard Williams’ “Internal and External Reasons” essay as a starting point. Korsgaard’s theory is a Kantian method of constructing morality from the internal perspective, or the perspective of a rational being.
Starting from a rational standpoint, Korsgaard effectively tries to find a workable morality. It’s a progression of thought, starting from “I exist as a rational being” to “these are the types of constraints I accept for my existence”. The goal of this school of thought is to eventually find a pathway of sorts, that connects our perspective to moral guidelines that can be rationally followed.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I find this approach the most plausible. The most appealing part of Korsgaard’s argument is that it starts from a perspective you can relate to, rather than starting with laws that you are supposed to be subject to.
The contradiction of this approach, which is the general problem of all morality, is trying to connect our nature as rational beings (we strive to better ourselves) with the demands of any type of morality (sometimes going against self-interest). My work has been trying to find some justification for choosing to go against self-interest, and how this can be explained in way that might apply to all people.
I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the way to explain morality in general is through an understanding of rational value as finding meaning in life. The rational perspective is one that takes what it has (our lives) and finds something in it to be worthwhile.
The idea behind it is actually pretty simple. We didn’t have much choice where we were born, the genetics we have, or the universe we live in. What we do have control over is our perspective of it-how we choose to view our lives. If it is rational to pursue meaning in life, our rational nature motivates us to find meaning where we can. In the most literal sense possible, we improve our lives by finding meaning in as much as we can while we are alive.
We construct moral guidelines for our lives when we find we have reason to value others and the effects our actions have on them. To do so is a free choice, as no theory can make a choice you can clearly make (act immorally) logically impossible. If you choose to find meaning in other people, they give you a reason to act morally (against immediate self-interest).
Through writing and working with this philosophy, I’ve acted on the principles I believe are justified by rational nature. In simple terms, this means I’ve tried to find meaning in as much as I am capable of. It’s a continual process of maximizing the time I have to live, finding as much value in my experience as I can.
I still have a lot to work out for a complete understanding of meaning (if that goal is even possible). My basic understanding of of life’s meaning is, as I’ve argued before, what we choose to find value in. The freedom in this process correlates with your capabilities-you can only find meaning in as much as you are capable of. As I’m experiencing, these capabilities stretch beyond what people generally do. We have natural tendencies toward safety and the familiar, and fear can keep us from stretching our perspective too far. However, if we are rationally motivated to find meaning in life, we have rational reason to find meaning in whatever we are capable of. A workable understanding of this philosophy, as I’ve taken it, is to find out what those capabilities are and maximize the value you find in life.
I’ve talked a bit before about the nature of reasoning, and I think it’s best described as the ability to link truths to other truths. A really simple example would be reasoning from the truth that “it is raining” to “it is not not raining”.
I’ve briefly talked about how this provides an initial problem-how do we come to our first truths? Here we have to introduce the concept of “a priori knowledge”, that we can know without experience and without needing other truths. There might be only one piece of a priori knowledge (I exist), or more, but it at least provides a starting point to derive other truths from.
Value, however, is a different matter entirely. I’ve seen a lot of debates about the idea of “objective value”. This, almost by definition, means nothing. If value isn’t from a subjective viewpoint, what is doing the valuing? Is anything valuable to an atom?
The very concept of value entails that there is some entity that judges something to be a positive thing, whether intrinsically or instrumentally. Think of it-if no life in the universe existed, would anything be truly valuable?
Here’s the problem: how can we reason from objective truths to subjective value? The simple answer: we can’t. The long answer: seriously, we can’t.
The disconnect between objective truth and subjective value is similar to the “you cannot infer an ought from an is” discussion. The ought from an is discussion is about morality, and it basically claims that you cannot infer a normative statement like “you should do x” from any objective statement such as “y is the case”. I feel this boils down to one idea: we are each the ultimate decider for our own actions and viewpoints. It isn’t possible for their to exist an objective value outside my own subjective value system that could override my own judgments.
The answer to both, I argue, lies in the possibility of subjective value systems that people do not actually choose for themselves. Basically, people already value certain things, and then we can infer what people are obligated to do from the things they already value. We can infer an ought from an is, because the is involves subjective value rather than objective facts.
To clarify, the reason we need certain values that we did not choose is that reason cannot provide us with a justification for value in and of itself. So, consider the idea that I should value humanitarian work. I cannot derive “I should value humanitarian work” from only “this is what humanitarian work is”. I need something along the lines of “I value x”, “humanitarian work promotes x”, therefore, “I should value humanitarian work”. You then can take the question back to “x”. Why should I value x? Either I have no reason to (and I just do value x), or there must be some value y where “I value y”, “x promotes y”, and therefore “I should value x”. If the latter option is correct, then do the process again, and you’ll eventually either reach a value that has no reasons for it, or start an infinite regress. Since an infinite regress is impossible, there must be some value we hold for no real reason if we are to have any values at all.
Christine Korsgaard goes into this idea, and argues that the fact that we act at all proves that we are obligated to value ourselves as an end. After all, if we didn’t value ourselves, why would we act to promote that value?
What I am ultimately hoping to prove is that we already, in fact, have the value that we should value others. As I mentioned in my last post, it is impossible to derive “value others/morality” from “I only value myself”. If morality is to exist at all, then there must be a “I value others” trait that we have and do not need nor have reason to choose.
There is a logical relation between happiness and events/things that I referred to and used in my previous post, but I don’t think I explained it explicitly enough. So here goes:
Why do we value certain things? So, why do we value good food, good jobs, etc? The answer, according to Aristotle (who I roughly agree with here), is that all our actions must end with some ultimate end, namely happiness. So the things (food/jobs) are valuable because they produce happiness, so they are instrumentally valuable whereas happiness is intrinsically valuable.
The point to notice is that the “reasons” for being happy aren’t intrinsically valuable. Realizing that happiness is the intrinsic value brings up the question: why not just pursue the intrinsic value, and not arbitrarily assign necessary conditions for happiness to purely instrumental values.
I’ve written before on the idea that in life, finding meaning involves forming your own conception of what is valuable in life (
). I purposefully left what this meaning could be blank, I find that it has to be a variable depending on the individual person. What is valuable to me might not be to you, and so forth.
However, there is some universal idea of happiness that people have that we may all share. Happiness is an incredibly difficult word for me to define without providing a circular definition, but it implies a basic idea of enjoyment, satisfaction, and coincides with whatever people think has meaning in life.
Movies, quotes, etc. have perpetuated the idea that their is some pursuit of happiness (which happens to be the title of a really good movie). Meaning, there is some end goal that people are pursuing that will result in happiness. Since we all want happiness, we should all pursue it, and we find our own ways of doing this.
A lot of people would reply that happiness is not something to be pursued, and that people have to learn to be happy with what they have (I’m one of those people). In general however, this idea can often be boiled down to one idea: you already have enough reasons to be happy. The people in your life, where your at, family, etc. are often the “real reasons” that people will use to show why you should be happy with what you’ve got. This contrasts with the successful, rich, perfect family ideal that some people use to pursue happiness. If these were the only two options, I would obviously go with the former-learn to be happy with the things you already have.
The point of this post, however, is a rejection of the idea that you already have things in your life that give you reason to be happy. Meaning, you shouldn’t be happy because you have a nice family/job/relationship/etc. The reason for this is because under this system of logic, happiness becomes a result of what you have, justified by the things you have. Meaning, you are happy because you have a family.
Instead of being happy because of the family, you should be happy because being happy is worthwhile. Happiness is, as argued to some degree by Aristotle and utilitarians, the only valuable end. So, if you were strictly logical, you would reason:
1. Happiness is intrinsically valuable.
2. There is no such value that happiness could be worth sacrificing for.
3. There is no reason, other than to improve happiness in other places, for you to be unhappy.
What I am effectively saying is, you always have a reason to be happy. Since happiness is valuable at all times, you should always be happy. Other values, such as other people’s opinions, social status, money, etc., are not intrinsically valuable. Their instrumentally valuable only as much as they relate to your own happiness.
This probably doesn’t seem like I’m saying much, but discovering this idea, and actually understanding it, defined who I am possibly more than any other revelation. Consider what I’m saying: there never needs to be a reason for you to be happy. Happiness, due to it’s intrinsic value, is reason in itself for you to have it. So, you are happy because you want to be happy.
Conversely, this means that you never really have a reason to be unhappy. Being unhappy diminishes the value of your happiness, and their is no separate value that could logically justify this.
To apply this idea (that I imagine is sounding like obvious stuff, but I can’t stress enough how different life is if you actually hold this belief), reflect on yourself when your at times of high happiness or high misery. When your really happy, do you always have a justification outside of happiness (ie are you only happy when something goes really well)? When your really miserable, do you think you have reasons to be (like saying: I’m sad because of ____)? The idea of this post, that I hope comes across, is that both of these reasons are completely illogical. Failing a class, losing a job, etc. are not reasons to be unhappy. They are reasons to do other things (like look for a new job), but feeling unhappy about it literally is only a negative value that improves nothing.
Two possible objections:
1. If you buy into Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, you might think that you need food/shelter/security before you can feel truly happy. This might be true, as people might be animals that need these basic necessities before being able to escape stress of fearing death. However, to respond, I would simply say: the lack of those things aren’t truly reasons to be unhappy. We may be incapable of avoiding unhappiness in these situations, but we are also not purely logical creatures. The point of this post is simply that, if we had perfect logic, we would realize that we should always be happy. (Side note: the ability to be happy for no outside reason, or to be happy when we think there are reasons to be sad, is not easy. As illogical animals, we don’t have the ability to act and feel logically at all times. So, as illogical animals, we should simply try to be logical as often as possible. Just, when reflecting on this, at least realize the logic even if your emotions won’t listen).
2. The happiness of ourselves isn’t the only end worthwhile, as we also value the happiness of others (if this is true, I can potentially prove morality, but I am working on it and it isn’t easy). What this entails is that perhaps when the happiness of another is decreased, or worse ended, we might have a reason to be unhappy as something we value for its own sake is gone. However, the logic still goes against this. Being unhappy does not improve the happiness of others that we value, so the unhappiness is not intrinsically or instrumentally justified. However, I would never advocate someone being purely reasonable in all areas, as value itself is slightly unreasonable (I’ll get into this in a future post). It would be wrong to expect people to be able to logically deduce that they shouldn’t be sad when a relative dies. However, this only applies in extreme cases, and in almost every other area, it is not intrinsically or instrumentally worthwhile to be unhappy.
Christmas season is perhaps the biggest pinnacle of materialism/consumerism, so I thought it would be fitting to write about it now.
Originally, I think the attack on materialism was just: a lot of times, people value material things over more important matters and it is a moral negative. But, I think it has gotten to the point that the attack is being used too loosely. An example would be someone who condemns materialism/consumerism in all cases, such as condemning the mass spending for Christmas.
For my defense, I want to distinguish between two ways to condemn materialism: 1. Condemning when someone unjustly values materials over something more valuable (like people). 2. Condemning when someone highly values materials.
#1 is the original source of the attack on materialism, and I believe it is just. It falls in line with my consequentialist view and the utilitarian view. The key, though, is that the moral negativity comes in the overall harm in the situation-the thing being unjustly valued over. For example, if someone chooses a car over their children, the negative morality comes from the harm, whether direct or indirect, to the children.
#2 has become confused with #1, and I think this is unjust. Effectively, #2 claims that highly valuing materials is intrinsically a negative value-the negative moral value is no longer dependent on the harm that #1 focuses on.
To refute #2, I ask: is valuing materials an intrinsically negative moral value? I find this absurd-who is the victim when someone values an item? If there is a victim, the negative moral value lies in the harm to the victim. If there is no victim, why is it wrong? If the person highly values it, and isn’t hurting anyone with his/her materialism, wouldn’t the value be a positive moral value, since the material gives the person happiness?
Further, as I have argued for in my previous posts on meaning, life’s ultimate meaning lies in what a person values. If an individual values materials, and that value is not harming any other values, then the individual’s materialism is actually enhancing the meaning of their life. In simple terms, since what makes you happy gives your life meaning, materials can give your life meaning if it makes you happy.
So, ultimately, consider each condemnation of materialism. Does each condemnation refer to a harm separate from the materialism? If not, then the condemnation is unjust. These condemnations of materialism have wrongly put intrinsic negative moral value in materialism instead of the harm that materialism can cause.
-Note: I took a week off from my blog for Christmas, but will try to have an additional one soon to make up for the lost week.
A few months back I wrote posts on what the absurd is, and how I feel life’s meaning should be evaluated. I’d recommend a reading of those posts (categorized under “Meaning”) to better understand this post. However, here’s a quick summary of the ideas:
The Absurd: the idea that life is meaningless, and everything we do is arbitrary/accomplishes nothing of purpose.
My view of meaning: Meaning is subjective, and a life is worth it if the person who lived it would rather have lived than never had a chance at life.
The purpose of this post is just an open question for those reading: what would make your life worth it in the end? Or, for every action you do, play the “why” game with yourself. If you are going to college, why? If it is for a job, why do you want a job? And so forth.
The idea is that you’ll ultimately end up with what you view as worth working toward. This is loosely Aristotle’s idea of the ultimate end of all actions. He believed it was a happy life (though his view of happy was a bit different), and I believe most people would agree. To be clear, happiness isn’t a simple evaluation of shallow pleasure. Higher order pleasures, such as love/fulfillment/accomplishment/etc. are often much “happier” than bodily pleasures such as food (though not always, depending on the food).
So for each person, the idea of what happiness is might differ. Personally, my view of happiness involves meaningful relationships, a lot of relaxation, new experiences, and being able to enjoy simple things.
So the “absurd” would involve any actions that don’t ultimately aim toward the person’s ideal of happiness. Getting caught up in the absurd would be obsessing or getting stressed over matters that aren’t ultimately aimed toward that ideal of happiness. Social status, parental approval, and misplaced priorities would be examples.
I can’t really go into detail, as everyone’s lives are different and therefore so are the goals. What I’m interested in is what people think of when they go through the questions above, and how often people do things that aren’t really in their ultimate interest.
A key note: Too often people confuse the ideas of “meaningful” and “useful”. A job, money, success, etc. are all seen as markers of a fulfilled life, and those who work toward those are often seen as using their time meaningfully. On the other hand, games like WOW or things like fantasy sports are seen as time wasters, and people on WOW are often told they are “wasting their lives”. The point of note, and the idea behind this post, is to refute those conceptions. If the career-minded person is unhappy, and success won’t bring them happiness, then they are wasting their life. If the WOW player enjoys his life, then they are living their life with meaning.
Imagine that, before you were born, you were given two options:
1. You live for a total of 80 years. For the first 79 years, you are happy with your life and you feel like life has meaning. However, in the last year you lose everything you had, and live out your last year miserable and you die unhappy.
2. You live for a total of 80 years. For the first 79 years, you are miserable and do not feel like life has meaning. However, in the last year you experience a sort of enlightenment and find meaning in what previously made you unhappy. You live out your last year happy and die content.
Which option would you choose?
A lot of movie plots seem to value #2, and some people may also see it as preferable. No one wants to die unhappy, and it would be difficult to accept #1 knowing that your last year of life would be miserable. There’s a certain appeal to the good ending of #2, as opposed to the tragedy of #1.
However, most people have also heard that “it’s about the journey, not the destination”. In the hypothetical scenario above, #1 has the better journey, while #2 has the better destination. Additionally, in a strictly utilitarian sense, #1 is a life of greater value because it has greater aggregate happiness.
I would like to see responses by anyone who has a strong opinion one way or the other, so I’m not going to argue that either is the better option.
What I do want to point out, though, is that I intuitively believe that more people will choose #2 over #1 (backed up by the very small sample size of people I asked). From this, I want to draw a contrast with the way Protestant Christians view eternal salvation. Again, imagine two different people:
1. Mike lives a life of charity, and spends the majority of his life helping the poor. He is also a devout Protestant who believes in the divinity of Jesus. However, in the last year of his life, his wife dies. Mike is unable to recover from his grief and grows bitter at the God that he believed in. He renounces his faith completely and lives the last year of his life cursing God and the rest of humanity.
2. Sam lives a selfish life, and spends the majority of his life making money through legal but dishonest ways. He never considers the possibility of a God, and doesn’t care for any religion. However, in the last year of his life, Sam experiences a sudden change of heart and becomes a devout Protestant. He believes in the divinity of Jesus, and spends his last year of life helping the poor.
If there is a heaven, does Mike and/or Sam deserve to go there? Mike spent the majority of his life helping people, and ended up helping far more people than Sam did. Also, Mike spent far more years believing in Jesus than Sam.
The issue with standard Protestant teaching is that Sam would go to heaven, while Mike would go to hell. Despite Mike’s good works and lifelong faith, he would not be saved because he died without believing in Jesus. Sam, on the other hand, gets completely forgiven for his life of dishonesty and goes to heaven.
These issues are caused by a few ideas central to Protestant (as well as many other denominations) ideology. Believing in Jesus to be forgiven of sins is the only way to heaven. Mike would not have been forgiven for any of the sins he committed in his last year of life. Sam, by repenting in his last year, would be completely forgiven of his sins. But is this right? Imagine an extreme example: Mother Theresa questioning her faith in the last year of her life, and Adolf Hitler repenting in the last year of his life.
This presents a dilemma for the Protestant faith: either the doctrine of forgiveness is flawed, or Sam and Hitler are more deserving of salvation than Mike and Mother Theresa. If anyone who believes in the Protestant view of forgiveness is reading this, I would like to hear what you think in the comments.
Currently in finals mode, so haven’t been able to keep up my posts. I’ll try to post more next week since it’s spring break, and from then on should get about a post a week for the rest of the school year.
In a post a while back I talked about the idea of the “absurd” and how our lives are arbitrary and meaningless. My conclusion was that meaning is conceivably possible if a life has some value “X”. I want to try to define that X.
First, the value has to be subjective, objective, or some combination of both. Objectively, though, what defines value? I am a strong believer that there are intrinsic values to things (life, happiness, absence of pain) that determine ethical laws, but I don’t believe meaning falls under the same category.
I am going with the subjective route. If a person believes that their life has meaning from value X, I don’t believe it matters if other people disagree. The cause of “X”, whether it be doing good to others, being happy, or so forth, is difficult to define. This is where I think the subjectivity has to come in. Something that might seem valuable to me may be worthless to another. The cause of value depends on the situation, tastes, and goals of the person doing it.
Since the cause of “X” can vary, I think the way a person sees X can also vary. To generalize, I believe that a life of meaning is one where a person says “I’d rather have lived than never have lived at all”.
Basically, a theoretical end of life moment is needed to evaluate a life. If a person at the end of their lives would have preferred to live their life rather than never had it, then it had some positive value of “X”, and therefore had meaning. If a person at the end of life would have rather never had it, then it had some negative value of “X”, and therefore did not have meaning.
This method of determining meaning in life would give more lives meaning than most, and I think that’s a good thing. Too often I think meaning is put on a far off pedestal as something only a few people really achieve. To counter that idea, just imagine any regular person’s life who was glad they had a life. To them, their life was worth more than nothing, and therefore has meaning to them. If it has meaning to them, I don’t see how anyone can claim there was no meaning.
This theory does have some objection to it. A mass murderer who killed thousands of people but thought it was worthwhile would by this definition have meaning. As weird as it sounds, I think that his life would have meaning. The only way to go against this is if there are objective laws for meaning, which I believe don’t exist. His life would indeed be incredibly unethical, but if he thought it was meaningful, it has the subjective value of meaning.