Memento mori

Clint asked:

What memento mori wants to tell us? 

Answer by Gershon Velvel

‘Remember that you’re gonna die!’

Glancing through the first few results on Google, you might have seen this:

…the medieval Latin Christian theory and practice of reflection on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly life and the transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits…

or this:

…the ancient practice of reflection on mortality that goes back to Socrates, who said…

(You have to click to see how that sentence finishes but I’m guessing, from my recollection of Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, that it has something to do with Socrates’ belief that the body is the ‘prison house of the soul’.)

But that wasn’t what you wanted to know, Clint, was it? Why do we have to reflect on our inevitable death? Really? What’s the use of it?

As philosophers do, I’d like to consider a thought experiment, as a way of aiding our imagination, or ‘pumping intuitions’. Suppose that you found out about an evil conspiracy involving your death, or apparent death. You are going to be secretly kept alive and tortured, for weeks, months, years, incessantly without mercy or relief. But until then, you still have your life to live — supposedly?

There are various ways you might try to fight this, refuse to accept that this will happen to you, or look for ways to escape (a kind of ‘Logan’s Run’ scenario). But let’s assume that the conspirators are some powerful alien species that holds all human life in contempt. They are super beings — and you don’t have any Kryptonite.

Wouldn’t the best course of action be to forget? The time for the execution of your sentence is approaching, day by day, hour by hour. How could one think of anything else but how all this is going to end? If, maybe, you could get hypnotised so that the knowledge was erased from your memory at least you could enjoy the life you had left. That seems to me the only rational thing to do under the circumstances.

The torture scenario isn’t just something I made up. It is very real. It’s called ‘going to Hell’. And even if you are Heaven bound, there’s possibly thousands of earth years (according to one estimate) of painful Purgatory where every sin you ever committed is examined from every angle, like in a court case but a thousand times worse.

People believe this stuff, and still go on living regardless. You try to reduce your sinning to a minimum, repent and repent, etc. Personally, I think hypnosis is still the better alternative.

To me, necessary reflection on death only really makes sense if death is really death, the end of everything, no afterlife, no post mortem examination of how well or badly you lived, just… nothing.

Just Nothing. Can you imagine Nothing? Can you conceive of the possibility that at some point in the future there will no longer be any ‘you’?

Speaking for myself, some days I can and some days I can’t imagine it. I  wonder whether knowing I am going to die does, or should make me pause before spending my time in frivolous pleasures like going down the pub, or glorying in my academic achievements, or gloating over my priceless collection of early Star Trek figurines.

It’s all going to go, will be gone when Nothing comes. No more beer. No more glittering prizes. No more Star Trek.

Then again, I wonder whether my being here at all isn’t the bigger mystery, considering how vastly improbable it was that I should ever have come into existence. Have you ever considered that, Clint? It’s a doozy.

All in all, I think the jury’s still out on whether we should spend much time, or any time thinking about death and what it means. I guess part of assuming the role of the ‘philosopher’ it is inevitable that one will spend more time thinking about death than the average, and possibly more than is good for you. But there you have it.

Evidential argument against God trumped

Philo asked:

Does the following successfully establish a presumption of strong global atheism?

“Define strong global atheism as the view that there is no god. There is a presumption of strong global atheism because theists propose the addition of a supernatural entity (a god) to what is already known to exist (the natural world). That is, theists make an extraordinary claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of such evidence, strong global atheism is warranted.”

Answer by Gershon Velvel

As a would-be atheist, I am the first to admit that there is a lot of stuff I don’t know. To paraphrase a remark I heard somewhere, ‘there are unknown unknowns’. It’s bad enough not knowing stuff, worse when you’re not even able to form a conception of the kind of thing that might be missing from your inventory of knowledge.

Not knowing what I don’t know in relation to the God question, I feel somewhat queasy about any argument based on evidence or the lack of it. By saying that ‘evidence is required’, you are issuing a challenge, a challenge you believe cannot be met. But you are leaving the larger claim completely unchallenged: the claim that the God-hypothesis makes some sort of sense. If it didn’t make sense, how do you even know what you are talking about?

First of all, we need to explore a relative side issue. Does the claim that some ‘supernatural entity’ exists require ‘extraordinary evidence’?

It depends. The supernatural entity in question might be rather small and localized: a poltergeist, for example. Admittedly, if someone makes the claim that they have a poltergeist in their home, you are going to want to sift the evidence very carefully indeed. But if you are in the living room, with all your fancy electronic equipment, and objects start flying across the room for no reason at all, there comes a point where you have to say that the evidence of something matching the description of ‘poltergeist’ is overwhelming.

Is this likely to happen? I don’t believe so. David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion makes the point that even with seemingly ‘overwhelming evidence’ you have to consider the balance of probability: the chance that science is fundamentally flawed, and the natural world is not all there is, versus the chance that someone has played a very clever trick or that you’re having a hallucination, or whatever. But then again, if poltergeists became a regular occurrence, that argument would start looking rather thin.

Back to God. There is a case for saying that the flaw in the evidential argument gives the theist all they need. If you allow that the notion of God as a supernatural entity makes sense, then you have to allow that there is some possible world (I mean logically possible not ‘nomologically possible’) in which God exists. God isn’t just some very powerful supernatural being. (That would be the Devil.) God is a necessary being. So far as anyone existing in that logically possible world — call it the God-world — is concerned, God exists in ‘all possible worlds’. By a simple application of modal logic, if God exists as a necessary being in some possible world, then God exists in all possible worlds. Ergo, God exists.

I’ve just offered a version of St Anselm’s ontological argument updated with contemporary possible world semantics. As it stands it sounds pretty convincing, doesn’t it? Intuitively, it just seems a mistake to concede that much to the theist. Then again, maybe you could resist the argument by tweaking your modal logic so that ‘all possible worlds’ means something different in different possible worlds (look up ‘possible worlds’ and ‘accessibility relations’) but that looks like desperation to me.

Sins of the nihilist

Kenny asked:

Could a non-believer in a god sin? 

Colin asked:

How would a philosopher evaluate Aleister Crowley: ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’? 

Answer by Gershon Velvel

What is a ‘sin’? I read in Wikipedia:

“In a religious context, sin is the act of transgression against divine law. Sin can also be viewed as any thought or action that endangers the ideal relationship between an individual and God; or as any diversion from the perceived ideal order for human living. ‘To sin’ has been defined from a Greek concordance as ‘to miss the mark’.”

What is wrong with that statement? — You might think that the last sentence doesn’t seem to fit here at all.

Aristotle in his Ethics gives the example of an archer aiming a bow to illustrate ethical judgement. Making correct judgements is something that requires care and the appropriate training. In archery, you have to allow for the distance of the target, the direction and strength of the wind and so on. In a competition, where you have the final shot and need to score at least a ‘9’ and your arrow only hits the ‘6’ ring, you’ve lost, and maybe your team lost too.

And so it is, the Greeks thought, with ethical judgements. When you need to take care, and you ‘miss the mark’, that’s something you might regret, possibly for a long time. The assumption here is that one is aiming for the mark. We want to do good, do the right thing.

It might be something seemingly trivial. The doughnuts in the supermarket you thought were jam doughnuts turned out to have a vanilla filling. No big deal, but suppose that this was a cancer patient’s dying request. Regardless of how your friend takes the disappointment, you castigate yourself for not taking sufficient care to look at the label first. The shelf said ‘doughnuts’, and you assumed ‘jam doughnuts’. And now it’s too late to make amends. Your lack of care is the thing that rankles. You feel guilt.

Not a ‘sin’? What would Jesus say? Callousness, not taking care, is the ultimate sin in a religion based on the precept of ‘love’. Let’s suppose that just as you were approaching the doughnut shelf, you remembered that you had to make an appointment to get your piano tuned. That stray ‘selfish’ thought at a time when your friend’s need should have been uppermost in your mind was all the distraction you needed. — It’s not difficult to see why a thinker like Nietzsche would discern a cruel streak underlying the religion of loving kindness.

Then what about real criminals? The story, as a Greek would tell it, is that through a series of ‘missed shots’, you deviate further and further away from a correct view of the target. For example, you come to believe that a successful robbery is something to be proud of, rather than ashamed. This is the staple of gangster movies: loyalty, obedience, punishment and reward are concepts that every gang member implicitly understands. As the saying goes, ‘there’s honour amongst thieves.’

With God in the picture, it seems we are playing a different game entirely. Whatever we conceive as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, the word of God is the final arbiter. Ethical laws are God’s laws. The religious concept of ‘sin’, in essence, recognizes the fundental difference between which actions you or I call ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, and those which are so in reality. No room for quibbling.

God doesn’t need to give a reason for His commands. If the command is, ‘Never mix cotton and wool in the same garment,’ as the priests of ancient Israel told, then regardless of the whys or wherefores, by ignoring God’s law you have defied God. You have deliberately stuck your finger in God’s eye. No punishment is too severe for one who defies God.

‘Missing the mark’ in an archery competition or some other sport, is something to regret. You mentally go through the motions, trying to work out where you went wrong. We all make judgements we regret. The feeling of guilt implies something more, over and above regret: the sense of accountability. It needn’t be accountability to another person or persons. As a would-be follower of Aleister Crowley, you might feel guilt about failing to take an opportunity to enjoy carnal delights because of the vestiges of a ‘conscience’ instilled by your strict religious upbringing. You have sinned against your ‘true nature’.

As a non-believer and nihilist, this makes sense to me, although, to borrow from Oscar Wilde, sin is ‘not one of my words’. Things are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for me simply by virtue of the things I care about. When I aim to do better, and do worse, then given an appropriate context that is something to be feel bad about, guilty, even. But ‘sin’? Pass.

A fate worse than death

Rehan asked:

If human have an innate will to survive, shown by the fear of death, does this not prove there is no afterlife? Why would human fear death if there was something after it?

Answer by Gershon Velvel

People live from day to day, nourishing their hopes and dreams, and also fearful of bad things that could happen to them, like illness or injury. Or death. Experience — for most of us, this means watching the TV news — teaches us about all the good or bad things that could happen. Like winning fifty million on the Lottery, or being brutally raped and murdered by terrorists, and everything in between.

Is that it? Not at all. Not a bit of it. The human mind and frame are limited in their capacity for happiness and pleasure. There is only so much you can take before you are completely, and blissfully sated. For me, freshly fried fish in golden batter with chips and lashings of salt and vinegar goes a long way towards achieving that goal, but everyone has his or her own preference.

As for the bad, that’s a different story. Because there is no limit to how bad things can get. That’s how the famous mathematician Pascal was able to persuade himself that religion is the only rational option. Even the slightest chance of eternal damnation is sufficient argument for treading the strict path of righteousness, which for him meant Christianity.

You’ll find plenty of discussion on the Internet of ‘Pascal’s Wager’ as it is called, many complaining that Pascal’s argument is less than compelling. Why should the slightest, slightest chance of something bad bother me? The problem is that people seem to have such feeble imaginations. George Bernard Shaw, in his play Saint Joan, with more than a bit of tongue in cheek describes Hell as place where people are drunk all the time, a never-ending party for the wicked. Then again, if you think about it, the impossibility of ever getting the chance to sober up is a pretty hellish prospect.

Today, Hell has become glamourised. Hell is cool. Watching TV episodes of Lucifer or Constantine, it seems the human taste for sexy devils and demons is nothing short of voracious.

By stark contrast, hidden away on the Pathways web site is this description of Hell excerpted from the Bahar-e-Shariat:

“The Kafirs (infidels) in Hell will have to drink boiling oil-water, after which their bowels and intestines and stomach will be break into pieces. The consumed water will then come out of their stomach like curry and will flow down to their feet. The skins of their bodies will become thick up to 42 yards. Their tongues will be hanging out of mouths up to a length of two miles. The passerby will walk trampling upon these tongues.” (Six of the Best: Glyn Hughes)

In the original text, the account is a lot longer and even more fearsome. The description of Paradise from the same book is, for me, far less convincing. As I said before, there is only so much pleasure a man (or woman) can take before one is sated.

I don’t actually believe that I will be going to Heaven or Hell. But what’s belief got to do with it? What does it matter whether you believe or disbelieve? Those are just things people say. What people say ultimately doesn’t mean a thing. Truth be told, death as the absolute end of everything, death with no afterlife, isn’t so fearsome. If you’ve reached the absolute end then you’re safe. You should be afraid to be alive.

Is religion superstition?

Richard asked:

Given that religion is a subset of superstition, why is there no philosophy of superstition?

Answer by Gershon Velvel

There’s a scene towards the end of Deepwater Horizon (2010), a dramatization of the 2010 offshore BP drilling rig disaster, when the rescued survivors all kneel and recite the Lord’s Prayer. Which got me thinking: what about the Atheists? weren’t there any? If you were there — cut, bruised, burnt, half dead from exhaustion — would you be so churlish as to remain standing, stuck right out there in the middle, spoiling the vibe?

Probably not, and what does that mean anyway. To kneel requires a tiny self-sacrifice, in the larger scheme of things. Let others enjoy the comforts of their ‘superstitious’ beliefs.

There is a ‘philosophy of superstition’. The classic text is David Hume Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) which includes a compelling description of the way human beings seem to have a irrepressible bias towards believing in the improbable and the fantastical — the very opposite of the way you would expect beliefs to be formed in response to experience.

From an evolutionary perspective this seems strange. What use is a belief-forming mechanism that leads us to form false beliefs? That is a question that Freud addressed in his account of the stages of human development from the ‘omnipotence of the ego’ to the ‘reality principle’. A crude way of stating this would be that those who are more tempted to belief in the fantastical — whether it be the doctrines of religion, or Illuminati, or crop circles, or the Law of Attraction — haven’t quite made it in their cognitive development.

However, I don’t accept your premise that religion is superstition. That’s not even close. Marx was getting warmer when he said that religion is the ‘the soul of soulless conditions, the heart of a heartless world’. If the world wasn’t so bad, the oppressed wouldn’t need to drug themselves with religion.

Humans seem to have an innate tendency towards needing someone or something to thank, when thanks are due, or call for help when help is needed. Each and every one of us was once a helpless infant, and dire circumstances bring out the helpless infant in all of us. Those feelings are genuine and real. It doesn’t mean that you are infantile.

As the movie illustrates, humans also like to pray together. It gives them a warm feeling of solidarity, the celebration of communion as  the British existentialist John Macmurray called it in his Gifford Lectures (Persons in Relation, 1961).

Despite those undeniable facts, it has been proved sufficiently many times to not require further proof, that a person can live a full human life without the crutch of religion to lean upon, and many in fact do.

As an atheist, I hold that religion is a serious challenge, which needs to be overcome if the human race is to move forward and take responsibility upon ourselves for making the world better for every living being. Regardless of its touted benefits, religion has all the hallmarks of an infectious and debilitating mental illness. Finding the correct diagnosis is crucial for achieving a lasting cure.

Forgive me for my failures

Deb asked:

If someone is asking you to forgive them for their ‘failures’, is that too non-specific to actually forgive? I would respond that ‘failing’ at something is not something to forgive. I don’t want to ask for specifics but I don’t take forgiveness lightly and only want to extend it when I actually mean it. Your thoughts?

Answer by Gershon Velvel

If this was our rival web site — whose name I will not mention here — you would be treated to a long lecture on the ‘concept’ of forgiveness and its ‘logic’. The problem is, we are dealing with personal relationships, which are not necessarily governed by logic but what one might call dialogic. Dialogic focuses much more on nuance and context, then on the strict and literal meanings of words.

Let me give some examples:

A: “Forgive me for my failures.”
B: “Which failures are you talking about exactly? Your failure to remember my birthday? or your getting drunk and ruining last night’s dinner party? or not winning the contract that was a ‘dead cert’ and was going to pay for our Caribbean holiday? or…”

A.”Forgive me for my failures.”
B. “Do you mean Robert, or Dennis, or Nigel, or Jeffrey, or…?”

A. “Forgive me for my failures.”
B. “Well, I forgive you for being such a failure.”

Lacking further context, one’s judgement must be provisional, but my initial sympathies are with A in the first and third of these exchanges, and with B in the second.

Doesn’t it say in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Forgive us our sins…’? Imagine God saying in reply, ‘Tell me which sins you are talking about and I’ll tell you whether or not I forgive you!’

In the third case, a person who admits to having ‘failed’ on more than one occasion is certainly not admitting to being a ‘failure’. On the contrary, the implication may be that there are a lot of positive and good things to put on the other side of the scale to balance the bad.

If we were being logical, then one could make the point that not all sins/ transgressions are ‘failures’. In order to fail, you have to try. The problem with this is that it is a very human failing to be incapable of ‘trying’ when one needs to, lacking the will or motivation. ‘Try to pull yourself together!’ is not something that it is appropriate to say in many situations where we are tempted to say it. You have to bite your tongue and offer a strong hug instead.

‘Forgive me for my failures’ can be a way of saying that you wanted to be more, but this is the very best you can do. Or it can (as you say) be a way of evading responsibility by retreating into generalities. You can glory in your ‘failures’, be proud that you failed, or experience anguish at the self-knowledge that when the chips are down you have repeatedly failed those who depend on you.

All of these things can be forgiven in the appropriate context. Habitually evading responsibility is an unpleasant character flaw, one that can be difficult for others to address, whether sympathetically or unsympathetically. Whatever they say, you believe in your heart of hearts that ‘it isn’t my fault’. Even that may be forgiveable.

I am not going to spin this out into a long essay. The short answer is that the ‘specifics’ are always relevant. No philosophical pronouncement can decide the question, even when the external facts are known — because the two partners in dialogue know more than just the external facts. They are in a continually adjusting dynamic, each making the best effort they can — or not, as the case may be.

One generality one can offer with confidence is that when breakdown of dialogue does occur, most often both parties believe that they are the one who has been ‘wronged’.

I want to live forever

Dennis asked:

Why is life on Earth so precarious, with old age and death necessary?

As the truths of metaphysics and overcoming of aging is on the human threshold, it looks like that is what humans were designed to do — True?

Answer by Gershon Velvel

Let me make a confession, Dennis. I want to live forever. I really do. And I also want to know the ultimate nature of reality. I mean, really know. And do you know what? In my mind, somehow the two are inextricably linked. If I knew the ultimate nature of reality, I could not die. Death would be impossible. And if I found a way to escape death, now and forever more, I would surely know the ultimate nature of reality.

Actually, that’s not a new idea. That’s what Jesus told his followers. ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life,’ he famously says to Thomas (John 14:6). For many millions of people, the Christian (not only Christian) ‘family story’ IS the ultimate reality, and sincere belief is all you need — to live forever.

And if you are a philosopher, on the track of truth — or so you hope and believe — does that necessarily mean you have to be a sceptic, accept limitation and finitude, Heideggerian ‘being towards death’ and the ultimate nihilation of everyone and everything you have ever cared for?

If that thought makes you depressed, then maybe Plato is more your man. Actually, the Pythagorean idea of reincarnation — the Pythagoreans were one of Plato’s major influences — is not a million miles away from what the contemporary philosopher Daniel Dennett preaches. The self is just a program (a Pythagorean ‘number’ — it could be a Gödel number, get it?). Logic and set theory are eternal, true in all possible worlds. The Dennis-program is eternal. All you need is suitable equipment to ‘upload’ it to and off you go. Again. And again, for ever.

All material structures are finite by their very nature. Nothing can escape the ultimate death of this material universe. But sets and numbers don’t need a ‘universe’, because they form a permanent universe of their own. Your fragile human body will certainly die, but the possibility that YOU will come back is logical, not physical. The ultimate nature of reality is just as Plato said: logical and rational. The eternal Forms. And you — a ‘soul’ — are another entity of a similar kind (‘akin’ to the Forms, as Plato claims in the Phaedo), logically indestructible.

I’m not going to attempt to fill the serious logical gaps in this story, because although you ask whether your idea is ‘true’, I don’t think truth is really the issue. (You weren’t seriously thinking that somehow technology will solve the problem of human finitude, were you?!) This is about what you and I want, deep down. Trying to understand what that is about.

As a matter of empirical fact, or, rather, speculation, it is conceivable that human beings and all life on Earth were designed — say, by a superior multi-dimensional alien race. Why not? Maybe the multi-dimensional aliens didn’t need to ‘evolve’. Make up any story you like. But, obviously, it’s not going to solve any problem if the aliens are, essentially, in the same predicament as we are, dependent on a long chain of contingencies that could alter at any time, leading to their total extinction.

That’s not what we want. That’s just another ‘story’. So all all that’s left is metaphysics. See if you can improve on Plato. So long as you are on the way to a solution, however long that way may be, there is always hope. — Better put that thinking cap on!