Drifting deeper into agnosticism

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Certainty and agnosticism are about what we think we know or don’t know, while religion and atheism are about what we believe or don’t believe. My position for the past 20 years has been agnostic atheism, or “weak atheism”: I don’t know if God exists, but I doubt it. Lately, however, my emphasis has leaned more heavily toward agnosticism.

Few people are really moral relativists

There are two reasons I can’t be certain that there is no God. One is the observation that most people, myself included, reject moral relativism. If you agree that a murderer did nothing objectively wrong because what’s right or wrong is up to the individual (or to the culture) then you’re a relativist. But most of us think certain actions are wrong no matter what some people might think, which implies objective morality.

Further, Arcdigital.media editor Berny Belvedere points out that the idea of progress implies a standard of higher and lower morality. If there’s no objective moral standard then the abolition of slavery was a horizontal shift rather than a vertical incline toward a higher morality.

In my opinion, God is the most straightforward way to assert objective morality. But there’s widespread disagreement on what God’s moral standards are. You could even argue that God’s morality is relative because God could have a divine change of mind (though most religions say this wouldn’t happen). But even then God’s morality would still be the final standard.

An alternative is to use observable suffering as a metric—including the fact that in most circumstances we all wish to avoid suffering. However, as Jonathan Haidt points out in The Righteous Mind, avoidance of suffering is inadequate to fully explain human morality. In other words, avoidance of suffering is a type of relativism, albeit a robust one.

Something must exist without causation

The second issue is that most of would agree that some things can exist without having been caused. The question of who created the universe (or multiverse) leads to the question of who created God, and an infinite regress. Theists say God is self-existent, but many scientists say it’s the universe that is uncaused.

But what’s the difference between an uncaused God and an uncaused universe? Conscious intelligence is a deeper question. If God exists then presumably God acts intentionally. But the universe is not conscious. Cause and effect is mindless.

The scientific challenge of claiming the universe is without a cause—even that cause and effect didn’t exist before the big bang—is falsifiability. But neither can God’s existence be proven. If God is infinite then quantification of the divine is impossible. Besides, if God could be proven like a geometry problem then faith would be unnecessary.

Deism

The belief in a conscious intelligence that created the world, including moral standards, is emotionally appealing to me. But I’m cautious about believing something just because I want to. And I cannot honestly believe all the details of Christian belief, such as the virgin birth, resurrection, and other events that suspend the laws of nature.

My inclination is to shrink God to something more palatable: a God who is powerful enough to create the initial conditions for a life sustaining universe but not powerful enough to control every detail of how it unfolds; and a God who is primarily a morally inspirational force rather than one who intervenes directly. But to a certain degree this approach seems contrived.

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Outrage: Passion as a disease of the mind

What Stoicism says about resisting manipulation.

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© Dave DuBay

Resisting cultural forces requires constant effort. The unending stream of media and entertainment is background noise that influences us more than we’re aware of or care to admit.

And as Russ Roberts points out on his Econtalk podcast, the internet age enables us to customize our newsfeeds to amplify our biases and suppress viewpoints we disagree with. It’s not that human nature is more tribalistic today. It’s just easier to indulge our tribalism compared to decades past.

To make the walls of my bubble less opaque I follow conservative publications such as the National Review and Fox News; progressive outlets including The Nation and The Progressive; and Reason, a libertarian magazine.

What they all have in common, however, are headlines designed to elicit outrage. If you don’t share their bias then the outrage often seems silly. But if you do share their bias then the headline easily evokes anger.

Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca writes in letter LXXV that,

“Passions” are objectionable impulses of the spirit, sudden and vehement. They have come on so often, and so little attention has been paid to them, that they have caused a state of disease.

This disease of the mind is

a persistent perversion of the judgment so that things which are mildly desirable are thought to be highly desirable. Or if you prefer we may define it thus: to be too zealous in striving for things which are only mildly desirable or not desirable at all.

This doesn’t mean, for example, that we shouldn’t oppose separating children from parents who have illegally entered the United States. But outrage over minor things like the latest mean tweet can diminish the seriousness of issues such as separated families. Furthermore, anger and outrage, including wanting revenge, can cloud our judgement and lead to irrational behavior that fails to achieve justice—or which in the long run might actually make things worse.

Notice how our reactions to harmful things is too often an overcorrection. Street drugs can be harmful, so we throw a pot smoker in prison for 10 years along with murderers and rapists. Globalism sometimes neglects local concerns, so the president declares NATO a foe. Capitalism someones exploits low income people, so we must turn to socialism—even though capitalism has greatly reduced poverty.

But outrage is seen most loudly on social media. Its anonymity—particularly that you don’t actually have to face the person you’re insulting—incentivizes people to say all sorts of horrible things. The problem isn’t just that they think they’re doing no wrong. Most do so self-righteously, implying their moral superiority. The desire to punish transgressors can create irrationality to the point of causing even greater harm. That’s why murders of intimates are often more vicious than murders of strangers.

Stoics philosophy claims that events don’t harm us. Rather, our thoughts about these events harm us. That is, we can choose to put our passions aside and do the right thing even when something unfortunate or harmful happens. Physical or psychological harm may occur, but only we can harm our souls.

If we fail to pay attention to the constant barrage of daily outrages, however, we can get caught up in a pattern which can lead to a disease of the mind—a pervasive anger that never quite seems to resolve. And by paying attention I don’t mean becoming outraged, but rather being aware of the attempt at manipulation so that we can step back and not take the bait.

Stoicism might not be a bummer after all

I’ve heard the Dude is Epicurean. He follows the pleasure principle. Take ‘er easy.

And he’s anything but unemotional. I’ve never heard anyone say Mr. Spock is a dude.

But wait a minute. The Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski is a tale of the Dude being very unDude.

A carpet pisser ruins his rug. And that’s a bummer, man. That rug really tied the room together.

There are two Jeffrey Lebowskis. The Dude is an unemployed aging hippie. The other Lebowski is a millionaire (sort of) whose young trophy wife owes money to known pornographers. It takes the goons a while to figure out they’re at the wrong Lebowski residence.

The Dude was about to realize it’s all part of the durned human comedy. Except his bowling buddy Walter convinces the Dude that he’s entitled to compensation. And the Dude gets uptight and decides to confront the Big Lebowski.

A Stoic dude would have been like, “Amor fati, man. It’s just a rug.”

But in the Dude’s mind the rug is not a preferred indifferent. The soiled rug didn’t mess with his eudaimonia. The Dude’s belief that he was done wrong did that.

The serenity prayer is Stoicism in one sentence: change the things you can and accept the things you can’t change.

Stoicism isn’t emotionless. That’s just being a human paraquat. Calmer than you are. Shoosh.

So someone peed on your favorite rug? Sometimes you eat the bear. And sometimes the bear, well, he eats you.

A wiser dude once said, “Life is change, but that’s only a bummer if you think it is.” Is that some kinda Eastern thing? Far from it. It’s Marcus Aurelius. Maybe I paraphrased a bit. Whatever, man.

Back in the day, Stoics and Epicureans were bowling for different teams. Maybe we still are. But it’s not about winning the semi-finals. It’s how we play the game.

Putting negative emotions in perspective makes us chill. Anger, greed, lust, fear, jealousy are just different words for uptight. In the final estimation Stoicism is about being a good person. And it’s hard to be dudely toward other people if you’re uptight.

But not freaking out over stupid stuff takes a little self-discipline. The Dude wouldn’t have had to put up with all those ins and outs if he hadn’t been greedy for a cut of Mr. Lebowski’s money in the first place.

Stoicism and Dudeism are compatible. Parts, anyway. Some guy peed on your rug? Forget it. Let’s go bowling.

Keeping partisanship out of Stoicism

Honest people may disagree on what is just.

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© Dave DuBay

Stoicism is primarily about justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom. Mitigating negative emotions by distinguishing between what is up to us and what is not up to us—and what belongs to us and does not belong to us—is a way to practice these virtues.

But politics, like religion, is increasingly a moralistic endeavor. Conservatives, progressives, centrists, and libertarians all believe that their political ideology is the wisest and most just. It was simply a matter of time before some Stoics would start suggesting that a true Stoic must endorse this or that political ideology.

Partisan politics, however, undermines trust and respect in a group. It shows a failure to understand what’s your and what’s not yours.

I’ve seen a few Facebook posts promoting psychologist Jordan Peterson as a Stoic hero. Peterson’s big idea is that you will only create chaos if you try to change the world before you get your own life in order.

But his politics often overshadows his self-help message. Peterson shot to fame with his vocal opposition to adding gender identity to Canada’s civil rights law.  Most legal experts, however, disagree that people will be forced to use alternative gender pronouns.

Peterson sees pronouns as a symptom of a larger problem. He rails against “postmodern neo-Marxism” (a straw man conflation of two different things). And his caricature of the left has caught the alt-right’s attention, though Peterson condemns the alt-right.

Meanwhile, left leaning Stoics are pushing progressive politics. Author and philosopher Massimo Pugliucci recently wrote on his blog that of course Stoics should call themselves feminists and support other progressive social justice causes.

I disagree with Massimo, however. I don’t disagree that feminism is about women’s equality. But women’s equality and gender equality, though related, are not the same thing. Further, feminism is only one of many ways one can support women’s equality. And I disagree with feminism’s frequent anti-male rhetoric, the way it ignores issues other genders face, and the popular claim that conservative women cannot call themselves feminists (especially if they’re pro-life).

I also disagree with the frequent progressive failure to reject bigotry as a matter of principle (e.g. “It’s not sexist when women say derogatory things about men,” “African-Americans can’t be racist,” or “Religion is just an excuse to discriminate.”).

Not being a progressive doesn’t imply lack of support for social justice. I believe that the equal rights of the individual are the basis for universal human rights. Further, these rights exist independent of government, and government’s first task is to protect these rights by not placing restrictions on how you live your life (so long as you don’t impose yourself on others). And I endorse the belief that people should be judged by their character, not by their race, sex, gender, religion, etc.

But I am not about to say that Stoics should be classical liberals. Other people’s choices don’t belong to me. Rather than say that Stoics must adopt certain political labels or causes, my position is that if a Stoic claims to value justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom then it is that Stoic’s responsibility to develop political positions that reflect this. Honest people will disagree, however, so this means there will be conservative Stoics, progressive Stoics, centrist Stoics, libertarian Stoics, and so on.

The best response to someone who says that a Stoic should adopt this or that political label or position is: “That’s not up to you.”