Seeker of Truth

Ruminations of One Suspended between Catholic Christianity and Scientific Utopianism

Location: Washington, United States

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Quest for Values in a Godless Universe - bottom up

I once met a very nice lady, who professed to being both an atheist, and a pacifist. I guess there are a lot of people like her. Many of my non-christian, non-muslim non-jewish etc. acquaintances are truly 'nice' persons, perfectly friendly, a bit charitable, good-natured overall. Maybe it is the influence of their genes, programmed no doubt to produce efficient survival machines, alas pleasant ones. Or possibly their brains have been infested with goodness memes, blocking any stubbornness of reasoning which might question why a person who is not bound by any higher authority should adopt a personal philosophy not altogether different from a religiously motivated one. My problem with this situation is, that I find no foundation for such ‘goodness’ other than vague concepts like character, constitution... A religious person can surely be a great sinner, and outdo the best of his pagan competitors in wantonness. History has given us many examples of that. However, it also abundantly clear, that such behavior is wrong within that person’s cultural beliefs, and those are not mere individual fancies without base, but edifices of thinking which have been contributed to by countless people before him, and have cropped up in numerous civilizations. Often they are referred to as ‘natural law’ because those concepts of right and wrong are thought to have been laid down by God himself.An atheist/materialist, on the other hand, might be a ‘good’ person simply because they have not considered deeply enough the basis for their actions, thereby missing the fact that the best that can be said for their conduct is that it is a sort of self-domestication. During the twentieth century, when both fascism and communism rose so rapidly to power and infamy, secular people in the remaining free nations found it difficult to erect an intellectual defense against such doctrines, and were it not for the fact that nazism was eventually the formal enemy in a world war, there would probably be as many nazi sympathizers here in the US as there still are communist ones. Especially intellectuals and artists, who consider themselves above superstitious beliefs like religion, fall prey to the lure of totalitarian utopias, in one form or another. It is hubris that leads them there, the conceit that their own intellect is formidable enough to discern the truth without recourse to a guiding framework. The simple man, devout in some theological belief system he does not fully comprehend, can nonetheless reject aberrations of human thought easily. ‘They are evil’ he might say, and be done with it.How do we then establish values in a materialist universe? One notion is game theory and related mathematical frameworks, which might serve to weigh decisions properly. But then the questions becomes: What is a proper course of action in a world without an absolute standard? Ladies and gentlemen, much can be said about the atrocities committed in the name of religion, first by Christians, now by Moslems, and others, of course. But at least all those who believe in religion have a yard stick to gauge their actions against, even if they do a horrible job of it. The materialist has none, and I have some dire predictions how ‘morality’ might be enforced in the technocratic society of the future. More of that in a later post.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Purpose of Life

Believing in God, in heaven, in an afterlife all would seem to make for a significantly different outlook on life than a rational-materialistic view of things:Medicine would be the most important technological issue for the non-believer, as it adds precious days and years to his otherwise limited existence. That and safety, from accidents, from violence, war, natural disaster. At virtually any price. At the expense of any value, of friendship, honor, marital or family bond. Note, that many atheists/materialists may disagree with that assessment, and may indeed practice a different way of life. My point is, that from a purely objective/rational perspective, none of these alternatives are justifiable, and are in fact inconsistent with the premise that there is no higher reality.Pleasure, in the form of material riches, entertainment, mind-altering drugs, is easy to justify and consistent with the atheist world-view. Hedonism and egotism are logical and the norm; cooperation with others would be instituted according to principles of game theory and similar scientific constructs.True elitism ought to flourish: A minority would coalesce into a cooperative by virtue of a simultaneous realization of the benefits of doing so, and a lack of scruples. Those 1 or 10 per cent of the populace would ‘domesticate’ the rest, maintaining in this so-formed ‘herd’ the illusion of the old value system. They would encourage a work ethic, honesty, and above all, pacifism and obedience to authority - namely to them who rule. I am not sure that we do not already have such a system in at least its early stages - note the number of cultural icons whose status is completely unchallenged by the people. One can be as undeservingly rich and wanton as one wants to be, as long as it is as an actor, singer, athlete or the like. A celebrity, in other words. Of course one has to pay lip service to ‘leftist’ beliefs, pretend to fight for the people, but words have always been cheap, and action is not really required.For the believer in God and the life after death, there really is no sense or meaning in technological progress, whether medical or otherwise. Death is an opportunity to ascend into the heavenly realm, sickness a temporary inconvenience compared to the timeframe of eternity, and earthly luxury can only be a pale imitation of paradise.As a child, growing up in a catholic milieu, I never understood why people would be so upset about the death of a loved one, especially if the person was of an age where people tend to die. I was rebuked by my family that I was too young to understand then. I guess I am still too young, and my charge remains: People who overly mourn death while professing to a belief in an afterlife are hypocrites. The same sentiment goes for all those who hoard money, who indulge in carnal pleasures, and so on...By the way, it is not scientific evidence, but anecdotal, yet I see very few grossly obese people in catholic church, far fewer than at the secular government agency where I work. Proof of my theories?Living consistently with one’s values would be the most important thing to do for the believer. Misery and death ought to be preferred over ethical compromise. Not an easy route, compared with the ‘hedonistic conspiracy’ scenario outlined above.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Are we alone?

In the universe that is top-down, made by God, it is entirely possible that we are the only inhabited planet in a multi-billion lightyear edifice, or an even bigger one, for that matter. Why that should be so, I cannot begin to imagine. Maybe at some point, we are meant to inhabit it all :)What about a bottom-up universe? How unlikely would life have to be for us to be alone? Limitations have been postulated, about the lack of technologically advanced civilizations, about their propensity to die out, by their own hand or through whatever catastrophe might befall them. Then there is the speed of light limitation, and cosmic radiation, all of which make interstellar propagation near impossible.Are those realistic barriers, though? Our own lack of technological know-how makes every generation of scientists believe that they have almost discovered all there is to discover, with just a few points to clear up. Nobody, of course, can fathom things that lie completely out of one’s frame of reference, such as relativity and quantum mechanics were a good hundred years ago for the scientists of the day.Which brings us to the sociological arguments: Advanced intelligences do not contact us, because a) they do not want to interfere in our development, b) they are so far ahead of us that we do not even recognize them as lifeforms, c) the universe is so big that nobody has happened upon us, or d) some combination/variation of the above.Part of why these arguments are so hard to meet is the fact that they are essentially faith, of a non-religious type. We are asked to accept their underlying premises, not in so many words, but still. There is a good deal of anthropomorphization going on, the attribution of human characteristics to non-human entities. For instance, the non-interference theory stems largely from the currently trendy belief that european imperialists destroyed all these thriving indigenous cultures world-wide by their arrogant meddling, and by extension, that any truly advanced race would never commit such a faux-pas. One might of course quite equally argue that any truly advanced civilization would meddle exactly this way in any primitive civilization it encounters, and thereby raise it up, or destroy it, or whatever. In short, we are bringing our (or rather, some people’s) current world-view, whose validity is unknown, to bear on a situation equally unknown.Fact is, there is a very large universe with probably lots of planets, at least some of which ought to sustain life, or maybe even places we don’t consider habitable might give rise to life, to consciousness and to technology. Nobody has made contact with our planet, and our search for extraterrestrial life, or rather technology, has yielded nothing to date. Maybe it’s too early to tell yet, but then, what if there is nothing anywhere, except for us? SIgn of divine plan or freak accident of nature?

A catholic planet!

What if the whole planet was Catholic/Orthodox? Country after country, the same faith, with local color, mind you, but the same nonetheless. One church, one religion... (Pagans, Jews, Protestants et al may substitute their own religion of choice here. The difference within the bounds of our thought experiment may or may not be negligible) What would a global religious monoculture mean for politics, for science, for the arts? And how much would the flavor of this world-religion matter? I will look here strictly at the Catholic example, and assume that Catholicism somehow just ‘won out’ over all other religions, i.e. there was no force involved in bringing about such a result:One would expect a firming of morality, with a sharp decrease of all types of hedonism. Assuming the world population actually believes and follows the tenets of its creed, we should have a massive change in pop culture, away from themes of sex, violence and other sensual pleasures. One would likely find an increase in hypocrisy, a ‘doing behind closed doors’ of what is publicly unacceptable. Heresy would become an important sociocultural issue again. No more free for all when it comes to the establishment of religions.Both major political camps would suffer substantial losses: Capitalism for its emphasis on material production and cult of wealth, socialism for its materialist underpinnings and lack of stable values. Possibly a whole new party system might emerge with factions we cannot imagine. The church would itself become a major political force, and would probably have to strengthen regional independence to avoid fracture. At this point we have roughly an Eastern Orthodox and a Western Catholic branch, which are separate but almost in complete communion, close enough to look at them for working models on how one would structure a world church and avoid an endless succession of schisms because the cultural differences are too large from one region to the other. I foresee this as much more of a problem if the church is universal, as she is not now.Science would likely slow down because of the lessening of the capitalist drive toward consumption rather than from church efforts at dogmatic control. This will be a crucially important relationship to regulate, similar to our current distribution of democratic powers. For I do foresee that in a religious monoculture, politics would take a backseat to the dialogue (or struggle) between religion and science.All other religions would have been either assimilated or died out. This process is impossible for me to conceive in detail, but not in principle. It is what would contribute the most to the regional and ethnic flavor of the church. We do not want our religion to be a Wal-Mart, or a McDonald’s, where each store is essentially the same as every other. Our church would be like true human culture, with numerous regional and local idiosyncrasies.What we call the third world would likely see an upswing of its fortunes, mostly because its dictators would not be tolerated. With corruption and violence declining sharply, modest wealth will be possible.What pitfalls are on our road to glory?Human nature: Many prefer violence to peace and will try to take advantage of the essentially peaceful nature of a religious society. Turning the other cheek will not work with the bully-boys that one encounters at all levels of a tyrannical regime. Reproduction control based on abstinence is a very long shot, increasing populations worldwide and endangering the future welfare of humanity on this planet.Degeneration into debauchery as happened at various times in the church’s past, with widespread hypocrisy and mere lip-service to religious tenets. Another protestant reform is only one such failure away.Autocratic tendencies within the church, overemphasis of central control, or its opposite, a dilution and provincialization of the creed.