Religion

My favorite Christian author

I’ve recently discovered that there are quite a few Christian readers of this blog, that “we” (as in “we Skepchicks”) includes not just atheists and agnostics, but also a fair number of moderate or liberal Christians. 

With that in light, I’d like to talk about my favorite Christian author.

Yes, you read that right. I have a favorite Christian author and it’s not because I like poking fun or tearing apart religious arguments. I actually enjoy reading his books, and I agree with a lot of what he has to say. No, it’s not John Shelby Spong, atheist in sheep’s clothing, but an evangelical Christian whose writing I did not discover until I was already an agnostic.

About a year ago, I bought a copy of Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America: An Evangelical’s Lament by Randall Balmer.

In this book, Balmer speaks out against the abuses of fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity. He has a platform that I, as an ex-Christian, can never have. My credibility is ruined with most conservative Christian readers because I have rejected the basis of their entire world view. Balmer, on the other hand, has managed to hold onto some remnants of his faith, and therefore has a platform to speak to people who would never listen to me. Of course, some will say he’s not a “real” Christian, so in the beginning of the book he flaunts his evangelical credentials just enough to let readers know where he’s coming from.

My born-again Democrat-voting mother took my copy of Thy Kingdom Come and has been passing it around her church. (You can bet there’s no way she would have given a second look at any of my atheist books!) Recently she asked me if I’d buy her a few more copies because she has too many people to share it with and she wants as many people as possible to read it before election day.

One of the most interesting things I’ve found in Balmer’s writings is his discussion of the birth of the religious right. Although they claim a moral high ground by saying that conservative Christians entered politics en masse to fight against abortion, this is a flat out lie. In reality, according to one of the founders of the political movement that eventually be came known as the religious right, “what got us going as a political movement was the attempt on the part of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to rescind the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University because of its racially discriminatory policies.” These people supported Bob Jones University. They joined together to fight against civil rights and equality. So much for the moral high ground. You can read more about this and listen to an interview with Balmer here.

I first stumbled onto Balmer’s writings several years ago when I saw the PBS series, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, and purchased the accompanying book, which has since become one of my all-time favorite titles. This book is a tour of evangelical Christian churches in the United States. When I read the book in the late 90s, it was like I was going back in time and visiting the earlier parts of my life. For anyone who wants an unbiased (not Jesus Land) view of what it’s really like inside normal evangelical churches, this book is a must read. 

Balmer’s newest book is God in the White House:A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. You can read an excerpt here.

As enlightened as he may seem, Balmer, is no fan of the Enlightenment. In an interview with World Magazine, he said:

As a person of faith, I decided years ago that I would refuse to allow the canons of Enlightenment Rationalism to be the final arbiter of truth. I elect to live in an enchanted universe where there are forces at work beyond my understanding and control — and where faith, not empiricism or complex apologetic proofs for the existence of God, serves ultimately as my guide …

This is where Balmer and I part company. I often wish I were still a Christian so I could have his type of influence, and because I would love to live in a magical world as well. Who knows, if more Christians were like Balmer, maybe I would still be one. But I doubt it.

Belief in the soul, God, and the supernatural flew away from me as I read about cognitive science, cosmology, and biology. But I never would have chosen a life without faith. I also would have chosen to live in a magical, spiritual world. I think most people would as shown by the popularity of all kinds of fantasy fiction in print as well as on film and TV. Magic is beautiful and, in a way, it is true that the Enlightenment robs us of that. A lot of people find this depressing and unsatisfactory, and I can understand their viewpoint. 

The reason, I think, that many people can’t find awe and wonder in a universe without God is that they don’t understand science. “Science” doesn’t sound romantic to people. It sounds like a high-school course that they hated. Spirituality seems warm and comforting while science seems cold and clinical. This is far from the truth, as Sam recently mentioned in a post that is so beautiful I won’t even try to repeat anything he said. I would just note that one of my goals as a writer is to find a way to present the wonder and awe and beauty and comfort that can be found in a rational viewpoint and to help people understand that religion is not the only, or even the best, path to finding enlightenment and transcendence. So look for more on this topic from me in the future.

One cannot choose what one believes–regardless of popular opinion–and so I am stuck being an atheist because I just can’t convince my self that the supernatural exists, never mind that the specific deity described in the Bible is real and the only true God. It’s not what I would have chosen, but I’m happy with where I find myself today and I wouldn’t go back even if I had the chance.

The question is, must I be unhappy if other skeptics find themselves somewhere else? Does belief in one thing that I consider untrue void any other skepticism a person exhibits? When does belief become faith, “the evidence of things not seen,” and begin to counteract the ability to think skeptically? I don’t know.

writerdd

Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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93 Comments

  1. Awesome. I’m going to check out Balmer. It might be worth sending a copy of Thy Kingdom Come to my mother-in-law. She has a nasty habit of leaving her Rick Warren books and Chick tracts lying in strategic places around the house every time she visits.

  2. JSug, I agree. I think it shows that you are sensitive to her beliefs, even if you disagree. I try to give my Christian relatives books they can relate to but that might stretch their minds a little bit. If they are not flexible, who knows, it might even create a crack! :-)

  3. I would also recommend Misquoting Jesus, for anyone who thinks the Bible is innerant. It’s written by Bart Ehrman, who learned Hebrew and Latin just so he could research the manuscripts that make up the New Testament.

    Spoiler: He found so many errors that he became an agnostic. Still, he does go through and explain how he became one, pointing out the various problems that he came across.

  4. As a person of faith, I decided years ago that I would refuse to allow the canons of Enlightenment Rationalism to be the final arbiter of truth. I elect to live in an enchanted universe where there are forces at work beyond my understanding and control — and where faith, not empiricism or complex apologetic proofs for the existence of God, serves ultimately as my guide …

    Regardless of Balmer’s other positive qualities (and I’m not saying they don’t exist or are not good in themselves), this quote discloses a whopping foundation of intellectual dishonesty, of willful self-fraud.

    I can’t even wrap my head around the notion of “choosing” to believe in fantasy over reality, let alone committing the incredible act of doing so consciously and intentionally. Beliefs are based on experience, whether that experience is first-hand or is based on input by others (i.e., upbringing and education, whether good or bad). If a person’s experience has brainwashed him into thinking that fantasy is reality, I don’t entirely blame him for that; it’s hardly his fault that he was brainwashed.

    But when you have broken out of that brainwashing so that your experience finally shows that you have solid physical evidence and rationality on the one hand and sheer fantasy and wish-magic delusion on the other, and you consciously defy rationality to choose to believe in the latter over the former, it’s — well, I don’t even know what to call that. “Intellectual dishonesty” doesn’t seem to even begin to cover it, but “insanity” seems too vague and overused (and also suggests that he lacks the critical facilities to render a rational choice in the first place, which he seems otherwise perfectly capable of doing). At any rate, it utterly mystifies and exasperates me that an otherwise clearly intelligent person would do such a thing.

    ~Wordplayer

  5. If you think that science and reality can provide this sense of wonder and that religion is not the best path to transcendence, how can you say that you would rather have fooled yourself into believing a religious falsehood? Does that not imply that you believe the religious experience of life to be the superior one, if only on a personal satisfaction level?

  6. Kaiyote, I wouldn’t choose that now! But I certainly would have chosen it when I was going through the transition.

    I didn’t know enough about science to appreciate the wonders of the universe, both large and small, and I was afraid that I would miss out on some larger spiritual experiences if I lost my faith.

    I don’t think we unbelievers do a very good job at communicating or sharing those types of experiences that religious people talk about all the time, so from an outsider’s view, it can seem like that magical element is missing from our lives, but it’s not even though we don’t believe in literal magic.

    And many unbelievers flat out deny that they have ever had any spiritual types of experiences and they ridicule those who feel a need for that kind of transcendence. That’s a real shame if you ask me.

  7. And many unbelievers flat out deny that they have ever had any spiritual types of experiences and they ridicule those who feel a need for that kind of transcendence. That’s a real shame if you ask me.

    Writerdd, perhaps it’s just that we have similar experiences, but we don’t necessarily see them as “spiritual” per se. I know that I can swoon like a romance-novel ingenue — on the inside — when I contemplate profoundly awesome things about the universe. And I’m a longtime fan of astronomy in particular, so I’ve had plenty to wow me. But until recently it never occurred to me to think of this “geeking out” at natural wonder as being equivalent to a “spiritual experience.” Could it be?

    Because such things are ultimately subjective, of course, I can’t tell for certain, but I gather that this feeling I get at those times is comparable to what spiritually minded people mean when they refer to “transcendence”; the best analogy I can think of is that it’s like an orgasm of a purely mental/emotional sort, rather than sexual/physical. The euphoria seems comparable. Does that sound about right?

    As for unbelievers not doing a very good job at communicating or sharing such experiences, perhaps you’re right. But because transcendence is so personal and subjective, it seems that any fault of communication or descriptive sharing must be equally borne by both sides, since the religious don’t seem to do a very good job of conveying it to us, either (well, at least to me). Then again, because of the subjectivity factor, we may just have to accept a total impasse on the subject, on both sides.

    ~Wordplayer

  8. Yeah, that sounds about right to me.

    I don’t think it has to be a total impasse but maybe it’s just people like me — who have lived on both sides — who can figure out how to bridge the gap with some kind of communication.

    I’d like to think that more people would leave religion behind if they realized they can keep “growing spiritually” etc. as unbelievers. The language is just so imprecise and it suffers from historical baggage.

  9. Yeah, I’ve felt some pretty profound things in my life, but I’m not about to describe them as spiritual. Now, since I have a lifetime of nonreligion, I can’t really speak to how things affect a religious person or how similar the feeling might be. I can,l however say, that I wouldn’t trade my experiences in the real world for any amount of transcendent experiences of the imaginary.

  10. As a life long athiest I just wouldn’t describe any experience of mine as spiritual – much like Rystefn explains. It just isn’t a word I would use. I argue about it with my friends sometimes because they see the spiritual in awe for the universe etc but it just doesn’t seem the same to me. The word implies something supernatural (something of the spirit world).

    On another note I really couldn’t agree more with Donna when she wrote:
    “One cannot choose what one believes–regardless of popular opinion–and so I am stuck being an atheist because I just can’t convince my self that the supernatural exists, never mind that the specific deity described in the Bible is real and the only true God. It’s not what I would have chosen, but I’m happy with where I find myself today and I wouldn’t go back even if I had the chance.”

    I wouldn’t choose the God of the bible necessarliy but a world with magic would be so cool. I think I would choose the Harry Potter universe! :-)

  11. Screw your Harry Potter universe – in a world with magic, I want to be the only one who has it! Now that some global domination in the making, right there…

    If it wasn’t for physics and law-enforcement, I’d already rule this pathetic little rock.

  12. “I elect to live in an enchanted universe where there are forces at work beyond my understanding and control ”

    uh….I find the universe enchanting, too. Probably even more so than a goddidit person, since they can look at a nudibranch and just say “goddidit” while I look at it and my mind gets blown. It would seem to me that the world is a lot LESS “enchanted” if you think you know exactly what’s going on. And wouldn’t religious people think that they had a lot more control (get saved, go to heaven) than us wily naturalists?

  13. oops, probably should have read the other comments before being all redundant? but I shall now comment again! on a comment!

    “the best analogy I can think of is that it’s like an orgasm of a purely mental/emotional sort, rather than sexual/physical. The euphoria seems comparable. Does that sound about right?”

    this made me think of another way that one can achieve a “transcendent”state : the arts! when I paint something that rules, I can sometimes literally feel high. Or when I see an awesome painting.

    When I hear certain tones or even just phrases of music that I anticipate, I get crazy goosebumps, my scalp contracts (feels like someone massaging!) and depending on the song (I’m not even talking about lyrics) sometimes I even cry. I think they have some kind of syndrome name for extreme musical sensitivity but whatever. Wouldn’t trade it for all the magical thinking in the world.

  14. Magic, wizards, dragons, demons and all the rest really do exist. They exist in the shared creation we call human culture.

    Atoms, aardvarks and arsenic also exist – but for a different value of “exist”.

    (Abelian groups _also_ exist, but whether they belong in one of the above categories, both, or neither, I can never quite decide.)

  15. Okay, as one of those that self-labelled as Christian-sort-of, I’d say stay away from anything that is Christian self-help or Christian Tom Clancy or anything you’d get in the magazine aisle of the supermarket. Basically, avoid anything that could be labelled “Bible For Dummies”.

    That said, anything by Karen Armstrong is an interesting read. She does a great job of tracking the histories of religions and started as a nun, converted to atheism, and has most recently been described as a freelance monotheist. Quite thoughtful.

    Beyond that, I’d say that “spirituality” is a fundamentally subjective experience so I find literature and poetry that speak to that corner of the brain to be much more provocative and useful. Here the list could be endless, but Emily Dickinson would be at the top. (I’d also include HP Lovecraft, but the little part of me that is still a good Catholic boy would take offense …)

    In other media, I loved the movies, Dogma and Life of Brian, but other Christians weren’t so keen. Bill Moyer’s PBS series on Genesis was fascinating – he had guests from different religions and traditions discussing their perspectives on the Genesis stories.

    And the thing I’d put on everyone’s list is NPR’s Speaking Of Faith with Krista Tippett. She interviews thoughtful people of different traditions (from evangelical to Quaker to Buddhist to humanist). I found her interview with an Islamic British ex-extremist to be quite interesting. Check it out – no one will try to sell you anything.

  16. This is from the book “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”

    I promised to work, but still bet that he couldn’t teach me to draw. I wanted very much to learn to draw, for a reason that I kept to myself: I wanted to convey an emotion I have about the beauty of the world. It’s difficult to describe because it’s an emotion. It’s analogous to the feeling one has in religion that has to do with the generality aspect that you feel when you think about how things that appear so different and behave so differently are all run “behind the scenes” by the same organization, the same physical laws. It’s an appreciation of the mathematical beauty of nature, of how she works inside; a realization that the phenomena we see result from the complexity of the inner workings between atoms;a feeling of how dramatic and wonderful it is. It’s a feeling of awe-of scientific awe-which I felt could be communicated through a drawing to someone who had also had this emotion. It could remind him, for a moment, of this feeling about the glories of the universe.

  17. As another Christian who enjoys reading your blog, I would also suggest reading “The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church” by Greg Boyd.

    To me, one of the biggest problems is that most people equate one form of conservatism / liberalism with another. If you’re theologically conservative or liberal, you must also be in political, social, cultural and other areas as well.

    What’s more interesting is the radical shift that’s going on within traditionally white, middle-class evangelicalism, starting with the Gen X’ers. This article, out of a fairly conservative denomination, tells the story quite well:
    http://byfaithonline.com/page/ordinary-life/poli-sigh

  18. I know I’m coming in late for this conversation, but I think I can explain why many people “choose” to believe in an enchanted universe, because up until recently, that is exactly what I did.

    A lot of christian – atheist converts don’t just lose faith over night. Many take baby steps as their logical thinking side fights with their religious upbringing. Little by little, you believe in the bible and preachers less, and find fascination with the world explained through science a little bit more. But the “big” jump, which causes a lot of people to cling to their faith, is the fear of death and hope for an afterlife. I used to be so afraid of the idea that it all just ends when you die. No more experiencing, observing, or interacting with anything, no more sense of self. With everything there is to see, do, and learn – there’s no time for dying, at least from my 24 year old perspective. So, more or less, clinging to a belief of a supernatural being that loves us and saves us from the finality of death, for many (but not all) people is a comfort and a way to get to sleep at night. I’m not yet at the point of calling myself an atheist. If anything, I’d call myself a deist because I believe that the possibility is there that there is a being that we could credit for our universe, but whether or not he/she/it acknowledges and is concerned about our existance any more than we acknowledge and care for the microbes and dust mites on our skin, is open for debate. It is a theory that science can’t touch because we are confined by the walls of our universe, and so I have no shame in indulging myself with belief in that small (and somewhat pointless) possibility.

  19. “Magic is beautiful and, in a way, it is true that the Enlightenment robs us of that.”

    ———–

    People. We live in a world where people routinely fly through the air.

    We have travelled to the moon.

    We can move faster than sound travels.

    We can speak to each other across continents using tiny boxes that shoot invisible rays that carry our voices and pictures and words.

    We can reattach severed limbs.

    We can see billions of years into the past.

    I don’t choose to live in a magical universe filled with forces beyond my understanding or control, because its wonders are pathetic ghosts of the wonders that really exist in the universe filled with forces beyond my knowledge and control that I already live in.

  20. writerdd:

    Manning’s most famous book is “The Ragamuffin Gospel” The main thrust of the book is that when looking at the life of Christ, we see that his message is for the marginalized, unwanted, broken, etc. In essence, I believe that his approach to faith and life is long lost on modern fundamentalists and evangelicals.

    The point here is that if the “moral” majority actually took the hard sayings of Christ to heart and truly put that faith into action, I don’t think the us/them animosity would be nearly as bad. Instead, you would have a group of people who, admittedly, believe in some pretty wacky stuff, but show love and respect for everyone.

    While I don’t hold any expectation that your views will change, I think it may be something you’d appreciate from a literary perspective.

  21. People. We live in a world where people routinely fly through the air.

    We have travelled to the moon.

    We can move faster than sound travels.

    We can speak to each other across continents using tiny boxes that shoot invisible rays that carry our voices and pictures and words.

    We can reattach severed limbs.

    We can see billions of years into the past.

    I don’t choose to live in a magical universe filled with forces beyond my understanding or control, because its wonders are pathetic ghosts of the wonders that really exist in the universe filled with forces beyond my knowledge and control that I already live in.

    A point I have often made (in different words) to people who babble about a “sense of wonder” being a valid excuse to lie to their children.

  22. I guess it just shows that humans can find wonder and awe just about anywhere, no matter what they believe or do not believe.

    But I don’t really think anyone wants to be a muggle! :-)

  23. People. We live in a world where people routinely fly through the air and drop bombs on other people.

    We have travelled to the moon and will cross the street to avoid homeless people.

    We can move faster than sound travels, but mostly we sit on the couch and watch Oprah.

    We can speak to each other across continents using tiny boxes that shoot invisible rays that carry our voices and pictures and words and rarely say anything that isn’t just more babble.

    We can reattach severed limbs, but mostly we let poor people in other countries get bits blown off. Sometimes, we even make the bombs look like toys so we can target kids too.

    We can see billions of years into the past, but may destroy human life on this planet in the next few generations.

    I don’t choose to live in a universe where I don’t atleast try to get beyond benevolent self-interest and if that road takes me through the teachings of Jesus, Buddha, Socrates, Carl Sagan, and Steven Pinker.

    I love science. I’m impressed by science. I hope we go to Mars. But until science figures out how to get us all to behave decently to each other, I think there is room, there must be room, for other lines of inquiry into the human condition. If wanting to get to a place where I don’t despise the idiots that cut me off in traffic is yearning to live in a magical universe, I guess I’m guilty. Either way, I still believe a plane flies using aerodynamics, not fairies.

  24. “I love science. I’m impressed by science. I hope we go to Mars. But until science figures out how to get us all to behave decently to each other, I think there is room, there must be room, for other lines of inquiry into the human condition.”

    ———

    Hear that? Its the sound of goalposts moving. First, science had to provide a sense of the wondrous and the mysterious, which it does, to anyone who is paying attention.

    If the idea of a nuclear furnace burning at unimaginable heat and pressure pouring radiation across vast, incomprehensible differences where it nurtures and protects a microscopic ecosphere of seemingly limitless complexity doesn’t fill you with a sense of awe, I don’t know can.

    But no, that isn’t enough. Just showing us how huge the universe is in comparison to our tiny imaginations isn’t enough. Now science has to provide things that religion and philosophy merely promise, solve problems that these “other ways” seem to thrive on…

    Which it might. Certainly, the study of how to get along would benefit from a scientific, empirical point of view. A metric. Some theories. Some tests.

    Science, in other words.

    Robot cars will solve your traffic problem, of course… but will that satisfy you that we’re really on to something with this science thing? Its not just a way of knowing its the ONLY way of knowing that you know.

  25. Well, I was hoping we could talk about how evangelicals are starting to criticize the religious right and to speak out against fundamentalism and extremism in their own ranks and about the future of religious-political interactions.

    But since we’re on this other subject…

    Science most certainly is not the ONLY way of knowing. Now, don’t get your panties in a wad. I don’t mean that we can know things by ESP or special revelation or astrology or any of that nonsense. But science — knowledge about facts — is not meant to be a moral arbitrator or to give us meaning in our lives. Facts are neutral. We have to decide what is right and wrong and what is meaningful, and we have to come up with the information we use in making those decisions one way or another. It doesn’t come from knowing anything about atoms or light waves or the composition of stars and DNA or even knowing about evolution and neurology.

    We know a lot about ourselves from subjective introspection and from our relationships to one another and from literature and the arts and from philosophy. (We could also learn from history, but we don’t seem to be very good at learning lessons from the past.) These are different — and valid — ways of exploring human nature and learning about ourselves as conscious beings. The need for this kind of knowledge will never go away.

    It’s probable that with the study of the brain and evolution that we may find a way to scientifically understand these topics in the future. Meaning that we will probably be able to scientifically understand how morality evolved and how and why people feel the need to have a purpose and to do things that are meaningful to them (we are already starting to hear ideas about these things). But science will never be the ONLY way to talk or know about these things.

    Science can never tell us what is right or wrong, nor can it tell us how to live fulfilling and meaningful lives.

  26. “Science can never tell us what is right or wrong, nor can it tell us how to live fulfilling and meaningful lives.”

    ——–

    I don’t agree. At all. I think that I can make a convincing argument that ethics are a fundamental property of the universe, discernable by science. I think that if we agree on what we want to maximize, science can help us learn how to do it.

    I think that the idea that somehow naturalistic inquiry has nothing to say about “right” and “wrong” robs those words of any meaning.

    Look, I’m an artist. I’m a painter and a writer and a musician and a hacker, and I’m as much a worshiper of creativity and beauty as anyone. I get that there are lots of ways of BEING, and lots of ways of EXPLORING, and lots of ways of EXPERIENCING. And we get lessons from all of them.

    But there is only one way of knowing, in the sense of knowing with any certainty.

  27. I’m not saying that we can’t learn about where ethics comes from by science, but science can’t tell us which choices are moral and which are immoral. That’s not what science is about and “right and wrong” are not physical properties of the universe. I don’t believe that ethics exist in any platonic sense.

  28. P.S. Another topic about which my feelings are conflicted. I am not a multi-culturalist or a relativist — in that, I do not believe that all cultures and moral systems are equivalent. On the other hand, I don’t think that morality is absolute or that morality and ethics even exist without consciousness and culture.

  29. Platonic? Whoa, hoss… no platonists here.

    Observation teaches that right and wrong, morals, are properties of living systems. They don’t exist outside of them, as far as we know. We can learn about morals (not where they come from, but what they are by observing living systems.

    One thing we learn is that ethics exist without human consciousness or culture, because chimpanzees, wolves, horses, and monkeys have behaviors of right and wrong, justice, fairness, and other concepts that we think of as ethics or morals.

    I hold, based on this evidece, that any sufficiently complex system will exhibit ethics as an emergent property, like language or swarm algorithms. If I’m correct, right and wrong are properties of the universe in the same sense as the strong force, the weak force, emergence, and entropy are properties of the universe.

    If science can’t tell us what choices are moral and which are immoral, what can? Culture? Religion? Cultural and religious morals are mere fashions… it was cultural morality that gave us manifest destiny and the war on drugs. Philosophy? Which one? Ayn Rand or Karl Marx? On what grounds do you pick one?

    Well, you have to pick some core values, and your choice is mostly arbitrary even if you have some science to back it up. And then you can ask yourself, scientifically, whether or not particular choices are moral or immoral based on whether they do or do not support those core values. And this is a scientific question, because it has to do with the prediction of outcomes.

    Somehow, as a society, we’ve bought the story that science can’t inform us about they mysterious or the wondrous, that science doesn’t inform us about good and evil, that science is nothing but cold, passionless pursuit of bits of knowledge about facts.

    This is clearly bullshit.

    Science is the construction of rigorous descriptions. It is of course filled with passion, and argument, and competing descriptions. It isn’t just facts, its the context for the facts, its relativity, gravity, evolution… all the brilliant frameworks that provide a grounds for understanding and prediction, and not just bean counting.

  30. So… Science can tell us if a choice is moral or immoral based on an arbitrary value we make up for morality? Yeah, that looks to me as though that’s not science telling us what is moral or immoral at all, just whether or not an action or decision holds with another decision we’ve already made. You have to feed in your own philosophical ideas of right and wrong, which science did not tell you. Your model falls apart rapidly.

  31. “you have to pick some core values, and your choice is mostly arbitrary” – precisely. Thank you for agreeing with me. Since I can’t depend on double blind trials to tell me whether to kill Hitler’s pregnant mother if I had a time machine, I turn to the humanities, philosophy, and religion to consider the question.

    And I agree, if I decide it is moral to feed the starving, I will use horticulture and agronomy to best do that. And I will feel a sense of wonder about it, but I know that my valuing the extension of other people’s lives is ultimately a choice – somewhat arbitrary. But some will say, what about evolutionary psychology? Maybe trying to save others offers evolutionary advantage?

    If the Aztecs had evolutionary psychologists, they might look at me as a deeply immoral person for wasting food on folk they’d like to sacrifice to the snake god. The insights they offer into altruism and other behaviors is great, but how do we wind the clock back to homo habilis and run the trial again? We can’t. Until they can start engaging in meaninful experimentation, it is just speculation and philosophy.

    As for religions and cultures being mere fashion, maybe. Do cultures get morality wrong – in my opinion, yes. Manifest destiny – bad. War on drugs – stupid and hypocritical. The list is endless, but then again the voices of opposition are also endless (sometimes distant and weak, but endless). The question is do cultures or religions evolve in response to the environment? If they do, then how are cultures different from an enlarged frontal cortex or reduced body hair other than their transmissions through memes not DNA?

    Now is the point you can argue that I’m suggesting progress, higher culture, etc. Not really. I would suggest that our civilizations and religious traditions and anything that would fit under the notion of cultural memes are adapting or dying based on our current over taxed, over crowded, over polluted environment. By necessity, cultural variations and adaptions will confront the challenges and hopefully one that doesn’t suck too badly will emerge to get humanity to a more stable condition. But then I stray from the path.

  32. You have to feed in your own philosophical ideas of right and wrong, which science did not tell you. Your model falls apart rapidly.

    ——–

    I’m not being clear, sorry.

    The arbitrary choice isn’t a choice about right and wrong, its a choice about what things you want to maximize. This is an arbitrary choice, but it isn’t an open choice, because ethics are not arbitrary or cultural in construction. Ethics are a property of sufficiently complex systems, and so your choices are going to be bounded by what is ethically possible for humans.

    There are things that we have learned through science about primate ethical systems. We know that out-group violence is a norm, that in-group reciprocal altruism is a norm, and so forth. So we can, by studying anthropology and primatology, learn about what is ethical for humans.

    In other words, ethics is a discovery, not an invention.

    In this model, the model of ethical dymanics, we can choose to define “right” as those things which tend to decrease ethical friction and “wrong” as those things which tend to increase ethical friction. And we can quite literally measure this in calories. That is, it costs more calories, overall, to steal a T.V. than it costs to get a job and purchase one.

    Could we choose to define right and wrong differently? We could, but if we did, we’d find that the most successful societies were the most immoral, which would be a weird result that required some explaining.

    The decision to care about the lives of other people is not arbitrary at all. That’s a basic function of human ethics and its deeply ingrained in our nature. There are a large number of reasons we are like that. Our ability to model other people’s emotions (a big survival trait) creates concern for those people. To say this is arbitrary is like saying gravity is arbitrary.

  33. In fact, I just wrote a micro essay about what ethics actually are, where they come from, what they are a property of, how we can learn about them, and why a particular definition makes more sense than another definition. If you have questions, ask away, if you have a counter argument, present away, but if all you’ve got is a meaningless aphorism like “ethics has few, if any, absolutes” why comment at all?

  34. “Many people do define right and wrong differently. Fundamentalists and I, for example, have diametrically opposed ideas about what is right and what is wrong in most areas.”

    ————-

    I know. That’s because most people’s ideas about ethics boil down to statements of local opinion. I’m proposing that the words “right” and “wrong” have meanings that are not dependent on local opinion, more concrete than local opinion and that therefore, we can actually use science, or a the tools of science, to make judgements about your local opinion in the context of actual, observable, ethics.

    And yes, this is off the topic. But its off topic because I originally commented that science provides much, much more wonder and beauty than magic (after all, science works) and then got challenged on the power of science to do even more than that.

    Besides, aren’t the best conversations the ones that run off the rails and into weird places that you never dreamed they’d go?

  35. You just wrote a micro-essay, ok, I’ll grant you that, but I see nothing in it that comes within ten miles of attempting to give an actual scientific definition of the words “right” and “wrong.” You babble some junk about “ethical friction,” sure, but now you have to define “ethical friction” for that to make any kind of sense, don’t you? The closest you come to saying what is and is not ethical is simply what people do. What is a societal norm is ethical? So out-group violence is ethical?

    Seriously, are you actually advancing that somehow your “scientific” definition of good and evil is complete moral relativism? Please, tell me I’m managing to completely misunderstand what your saying, because that’s the best I’m able to get out of your posts.

    What I find most disturbing is that, in the end, you seem to equate success with morality – as in “If it works, then it’s the right thing to do.” In this sense, might makes right, and military power is the highest essence of morality.

  36. I’ve heard it suggested, but I don’t remember where I encountered it at the moment that ethics and morality may be a similar phenomenom to language. Essentially, our brains are predisposed to have an ethical system and there may be inherent rules or grammars that underlie the formation of ethics as there are rules that underlie the formation of languages. But studying the rules of formation doesn’t tell you whether you should speak French or German. The forms may be guided, but the content remains somewhat arbitrary … picking a best morality scientifically is like picking the best bird. Whether you want a sparrow or a vulture depends on your context.

    So study the evolution of ethics, sure; but claims about what are best are ultimately arbitrary.

  37. “In this sense, might makes right, and military power is the highest essence of morality.”

    ———

    Except that military dictatorships are incredibly unsuccessful compared to liberal democracies, and military power is much more costly to all parties than peaceful trade.

    What strikes me as odd about Rystefn’s critique is that everyone in this conversation but me defines moral as “My local opinion of what is correct behavior in a group”. You’re all moral relativists except me.

    And yet, you bring up the idea of out-group violence or military dictatorship as if it is obvious that this incorrect behavior, somehow. But what standard can you possibly produce to show that military force or wholesale murder is wrong?

    At least I’ve got a metric, some way to measure that. It costs more calories to kill a bunch of people than it does to make friends with them. So killing them is wrong.

    In my model, right refers to actions that tend to decrease friction. Wrong actions increase it.

    What is ethical friction? Think in terms of economics, its the second order costs of your behavior. My favorite example is theft, because it is so clear cut. If you steal my TV, the manufacturer has sold one TV to me, and then you paid an extra cost to get that same TV. However, I’ve lost my investment in the TV. You’ve moved the cost of your TV from you to me, and you’ve lost something in the process (the effort of theft).

    If you look at most acts that are considered unethical in almost every society, they usually have to do with imposing the costs of your actions on a different member of the in-group.

    I mean, obviously I’m working on this. It isn’t like I have a perfect theory. But other people are working along the same lines, Michael Shermer for one, and I think that there is something to this.

    Claims about what is best is entirely dependent on what you consider best, true, but that doesn’t mean that morals are relative. It means that “best” is a fuzzy concept. It may not have a place in a discussion about ethical systems, because you can’t define it.

    But the main point is that whether my model is a good one or not, you can’t just decide that some area of human inquiry is off limits to science. That’s nothing more than a morality of the gaps argument. You have to justify why ethics are off bounds for science, and the fact that you disagree with me is hardly sufficient grounds.

  38. A young orphan hangs around the neighborhood. We let him eat out of our garbage cans. It is moral because we expend no extra calories and there are no secondary costs. The garbage collector still gets the same amount of pay. One day I am sitting on my balcony sipping a beer and see a pack of pit bulls attacking the kid. I could get my gun and save the kid but I would expend too many calories. There are no secondary costs if they kill him because he has no relatives and everyone thinks he is a pain anyway. There are added benefits because his dead body will help fertilize the lawn. I have therefore acted morally.

  39. Sounds right. I’ve listened to some Steven Pinker interviews in the last few months and probably picked up that line of thought from it.

    As for being a moral relativist, I’m not … I’m a skeptic. I believe outcomes can be measured and someone striving to be ethical should not ignore science, but I still don’t see how you’ve escape an a priori assumption about what to value. I may look at the television question and do the math differently. I conclude that my offspring are more genetically fit than you and yours and that for the long term benefit of the species, I choose to reallocate your television and other resources to my children. Do I believe this personally? No. But if you argue for a moral code based on maximizes resources for people, presupposes that people are a good thing.

  40. You could do the math differently, but of course from a societal standpoint you’d simply be wrong. You can’t actually magically make the cost of theft go away by being a theif. The cost is there, you’ve just moved it on to someone else and the system itself has lost energy. It really doesn’t matter what you think or conclude about it, the math is independent of your local opinion. You’re making the same mistake that orphan guy is making, you think that somehow I’m talking about individual fitness, but I’m not. I’m talking about ethics, which are an emergent property of societies, not individuals. It also has nothing to do with maximizing resources. It has to do with MINIMIZING LOSS FROM FRICTION. You can’t eliminate these costs, but you can reduce them. The orphan exmaple is interesting because it presupposes a value on human life, which is another point that needs to be made. Of course, when I’m discussion human ethics, I assume that humans are worthwhile. From the perspective of wolf ethics, this may or
    may not be true, but from a human perspective, they are. That’s because the ETHICS ARE A PROPERTY OF HUMAN SOCIETIES. Only in a relatavist ethics do I have to justify the value of the system according to some magical outside standard. In any case, it seems that, first of all, having crazed dogs run around killing people is bad for a society. So that’s point one. Point two is that compassionate societies tend to have higher standards of living. The homeless child is a total waste of potential, and society is losing lots of calories by ignoring him. So the hypothetical guy who watches him get eaten by dogs has committed two unethical acts.
    Finally, on moral relativism. Yes, you are a moral relatavist, if you think that I need to justify the value of people when discussing human ethics. You’ve reduced ethics to local opinion, where there is no way of judging between an ethical system that encourages theft and one that does not.

  41. Scratch that. One unethical act. Letting the kid eat the garbage is fine. Sub-optimal, but there isn’t neccesarily an ethical cost. However, when the kid grows up, you could have a problem with street crime, especially if you have a lot of homeless kids. Its probably better for society to be compassionate to the kid early.

  42. Right, but what then constitutes human life. Are all people under your ethical scheme valued equally? While that may be a guiding principle of Western democracies, it certainly isn’t an emergent property as of yet in many other cultures. Do future possible generations warrant equal consideration and weight ethically?

    If I posit that future generations have equal right to the planet as I do, why not unleash this or that plague or disaster to cull the current overpopulation in hopes that future generations will learn to live more sustainably and increase human population over time?

    Or ought we value some individuals more highly based on their ability to minimize friction or through some other metric? Is a pregnant woman, one, two, or many considering the possible future generations? Is some who is sterile, less valuable since their future procreative abilities wouldn’t be wasted if they died early? Is some who is brain dead, one, half, or zero? If there were two homeless kids, do I save the one with greatest potential first (and greatest potential for what?)

    In short, societies make ethical judgements of the value of humans all the time. Who gets the good education? Who gets what medical treatment? Etc. Clearly, a judgement has been made about the relative value of Ted Kennedy’s remaining time over someone else for whom the treatment is unavailable.

    Returning to the thief analog for a moment, if I steal the medications to save the life of a child when they would have otherwise gone to an old man or woman, it that an ethical act? I’ve introduced new friction and waste into the system by stealing, but the resource was arguably misallocated to begin with.

    Again, I don’t think of myself as a moral relativist; rather, I am a moral specifist. Ethical principles , if universal, still apply to real world, untidy circumstance.

    As for friction (I prefer the term waste), I also believe that it is a great candidate for a universal human ethical principle. I think people ought to dig up their front lawns, plant a garden, harvest rainwater, and generally use fewer resources which is a lifestyle I hope to migrate my family towards (living in an apartment in a foreign city, I can only grow a few feeble cucumbers and hope that the banana tree eventually bears fruit). So what did you have for dinner? How many food miles did it travel to your plate? Did you walk to work or take the bus?

    And I am willing to base my ethics on what is good for human beings, but it still gets complicated when you try to draw a circle around humanity. Which is better? A planet with 20 billion people with short, hard lives or a planet with a 100 million people who through medicine live indefinitely long lives and who know peace, prosperity, and meaning. And I also appreciate that if SETI eventually comes back with results, I may feel compelled to expand my ethical boundary to include other sentients.

    Finally, if ethics are the property of human societies, what are human societies? Did homo habilis have ethics living in extended family groups (or for that matter, contemporary hunter gatherers)? Do ethics require certain memetic notions of self and other to emerge before they can come into being or is biology enough? If biology is enough, then why specify human society as the precondition for ethics? If two caveman skeptics wander into the woods, can they be ethical or does it take a whole village?

    Cheers.

  43. Interesting that I’m somehow a relativist in your book because i questioned your stance without in any way stating or referring to my own. Nicely done. That’s a fine bit of conclusion-jumping, I salute you.

    Except that military dictatorships are incredibly unsuccessful compared to liberal democracies, and military power is much more costly to all parties than peaceful trade.

    Really? Why don’t you name me a single nation is the history of humanity whose power was NOT derived from military might? ALL power in this world comes from one thing, and one thing only – the power to bring physical harm to others.

    Of course, your statement here is completely and utterly wrong anyway, because liberal, egalitarian Rome certainly succeeding in creating their hugely successful civilization through peaceful trade… I mean, those savage, militaristic Carthaginians never stood a chance in the face of such advanced peaceful trade, right?

    And yet, you bring up the idea of out-group violence or military dictatorship as if it is obvious that this incorrect behavior, somehow. But what standard can you possibly produce to show that military force or wholesale murder is wrong?

    No I don’t. I ask you if that’s what you’re advocating. It seems you are, even if you don’t quite realize it. You clearly assume yourself that it is wrong, otherwise, you would not have resisted the idea that might makes right so strongly before, with a clearly fallacious argument.

    At least I’ve got a metric, some way to measure that. It costs more calories to kill a bunch of people than it does to make friends with them. So killing them is wrong.

    …unless you actually look to the long-term. In which case, it is often FAR more calorically efficient to kill them and take their stuff than to trade for it, especially if, for example, you come from a harsh and frozen wasteland, and the stuff you are taking is, say, nice fertile farmland flush with resources. Again, YOUR model advocates ultimately that might really does make right and military power is the ultimate arbiter of morality. If you find something wrong with that, maybe you should ask yourself if you really accept your own model rather than deny the clear results of the philosophy contained therein.

    Think in terms of economics, its the second order costs of your behavior. My favorite example is theft, because it is so clear cut. If you steal my TV, the manufacturer has sold one TV to me, and then you paid an extra cost to get that same TV. However, I’ve lost my investment in the TV. You’ve moved the cost of your TV from you to me, and you’ve lost something in the process (the effort of theft).

    I’ve lost? Minor effort in exchange for the TV? By that definition, the person who paid for it lost as well, since they put in much more work earning the money than I did to steal it… Moreover, what do I care if the person I stole from lost out? By your ethical model, that only matters if I stole from a member of my own “in-group.” So who defines who is part of my group, and who is not? Out-group theft is surely the most efficient means of gaining nearly all resources. If stealing wasn’t easier than working, thieves would work instead for the most part. A thief of even moderate skills can easily make off with $20k in thirty minutes of work. Do you know anyone who makes $40,000/hour? It’s a lucrative business if you have the brains to know where to find the right mark, and embezzling/fraud is even more efficient. Therefore, since stealing from an out-group the most efficient way for a group to succeed, it is the only morally right way to proceed by your model.

    Again, if you disagree with these conclusions and try to again strenuously argue against them, you will 1) fail, and 2) show that you yourself are presupposing certain things to be right or wrong.

    Bottom line: If your society tries to trade and make friends, and mine just kills you and takes your stuff and your land, and enslaves your population to work on our farms for us, so we have the free time to train up and go kill the next society over as well, by your model, we are a shining example of morality, as there is little or no loss of resources to us by this lifestyle. War is only costly if the other side is also fighting. If your society tries to trade, and mine just sneaks into your camp at night and takes it all then laughs at you the next day, we are a shining example of morality, since we have expended only a fraction of the effort it would have taken to produce those goods or to have produced similar goods for trade with you. Sure, eventually, people will stop trying to trade with us, but by then, or superlative skills of stealth and security will greatly enhance our ability to stage a guerrilla assault as we proceed to the “kill you and take your stuff” level of morality, right? It’s simply the most ethical and moral progression of a society, isn’t it? Of course, if we come across another highly advanced and moral society, then it will be in our best interest to make peaceful trade agreements with them, because we’re both on the good-guy’s team, so we shouldn’t be fighting one another… especially while there are all those wicked and immoral friendly mercantile nations out there to crush and subjugate…

  44. Okay… Mark, interesting points, obviously you can ask questions faster than I can answer them. Most of these answer themselves once you get that by my definition of ethics, wolves have wolf ethics, dogs have dog ethics, chimps have chimp ethics, and we have human ethics.
    Rys… dude. Only a moral relativist could put so much wrong into one post. Not only aren’t you understanding (or apparently even reading) what I’m saying, you’re also wrong in your own basic premise.
    It does not take a fraction of the energy to raid a neighboring territory to take their goods as it does to produce them. One reason is that producing goods creates wealth in the form of intellectual capital. Another is that it isn’t cheap to train for battle. A third is that even token resistance can be extremely costly. Maintaining a warrior society (weapons, armor, training) is not cheap. You have so many bad assumptions I don’t even know where to start.
    None of which addresses the central issue of whether science CAN address ethics. You’re making wildly innacurate attacks at my model, sure (clearly, as I said, without reading my posts with any care), but you aren’t addressing that issue.

  45. BTW, I say that everyone else in this discussion is a moral relativist not because you disagree with my model, but because you disagree with the premise that ethics are an observable property. If ethics cannot be observed, if they do not exist and science cannot inform us about right and wrong, then either ethics are supernatural and therefore imaginary or they are merely local opinon. If I’m missing a possibility, I’d like to know.

  46. Only a moral relativist could put so much wrong into one post.

    That’s an interesting assertion, and flagrantly wrong. Even if ever word in it were wrong, anyone here could easily demonstrate just how off the mark you are with such an assertion, and more to the point, ad hominem, and therefore completely without weight or merit of any kind.

    It does not take a fraction of the energy to raid a neighboring territory to take their goods as it does to produce them.

    Really? I’d like to see you back that up. It’s easier to scrape a bare minimum of survival from a frozen rock in the North Atlantic than it is to hit some squishy French villager with a rock and take his lush, fertile land? History and common sense would indicate otherwise.

    …it isn’t cheap to train for battle.

    It can be. I mean, if you’re already fighting off wolves and polar bears and suchlike, how much extra training is it to learn to stick your sharpened stick into a person instead?

    even token resistance can be extremely costly.

    Hence the wonderful stealth skills I already mentioned. Are you paying attention, or do I have to spell this out for you? I’m not sure I can put my example more simply, honestly.

    Maintaining a warrior society (weapons, armor, training) is not cheap.

    It does, however, pay for itself. As I said before, history backs me up here. When a warrior culture crosses paths with a trading culture, Rome kicks the snot out of Carthage. The only thing Carthage ever managed to do in that exchange was trade goods to another warrior culture (the Celtiberians) to fight for them, and all that did was piss off the Romans so much, that they sailed to Carthage and crushed them utterly.

    You have so many bad assumptions I don’t even know where to start.

    Are you talking about my assumptions that the most successful and enduring cultures history can show us were the most successful and enduring? My assumption that Rome was a culture of war? My assumption that Rome defeated mercantile Carthage? My assumption that the Vikings came from the north and crushed the peoples of Europe? Perhaps my assumption that you actually thought through what you were saying, and should have known all this already? I guess the last one was a bad assumption, but the rest I stand by.

    None of which addresses the central issue of whether science CAN address ethics.

    I never said it couldn’t, did I? I’m not attacking your basic premise, I’m attacking your model. I think the basic idea that science can actually speak to morality and ethics is an interesting one… you’re the one so vehemently rejecting the results of applying that model to the real world. You don’t like the results, so you deny them, despite the fact that the Hun, the Vikings, the Romans, the Mongols and myriad other warrior cultures were demonstrably the most successful of their respective era and locations, and despite the fact that, by your model, this defines them as the most moral.

    BTW, I say that everyone else in this discussion is a moral relativist not because you disagree with my model, but because you disagree with the premise that ethics are an observable property.

    ..and yet you accuse me of failing to read your posts, despite the fact that I clearly address your statements point-by-point. You have rarely, if ever, actually directly addressed anything I’ve said here, and you constantly put words into my mouth as a form of personal attack. I have no particular problem with the philosophy or moral relativism, but you certainly seem to, and apply it to me as a form of personal insult when I have clearly said nothing to indicate that I actually believe such. Not here, nor anywhere else on this site. If you think I have, kindly point it out. If you can not (and I’m sure you can’t), then kindly at least attempt to address my actual points instead of blithely ignoring them and tossing around diversionary tactics willy-nilly.

    Honestly, you should expect to be called out on such things around here.

  47. I do want to address, briefly, the idea that my model leads to “might makes right.” This is only true if you make some tragically bad assumptions. For example, you have to assume that no one ever resists the use of force, which is a bad assumption. You have to discount the fact that both parties gain in a trading situation, both in internal productivity and in knowledge. You have to assume that it doesn’t matter how the costs of behavior are distributed, but that is exactly the opposite of what I’m actually proposing… I’m proposing that those costs are unavoidable. But most of all, you have to misunderstand the entire model. This is not a model of individual behavior. Of COURSE a person can get ahead by being unethical. They simply move the costs of their bad behavior onto other people. But for society, this is a net loss… in other words, the more theft, the less production.

  48. Lets examine Rome v. Carthage. Was this a case where a society that just wanted to trade faced a society that did not want to trade at all?

    No. Carthage had an accomplished Navy and a large empire. They fought three wars with the romans. The romans had an extensive trading empire. Neither civilization was one or the other, and the idea that they were is erroneous.

    As for whether you are addressing my model… no. You aren’t. You are addressing a straw man of the model with bad history and worse assumptions.

  49. I can’t get over the comparison of the Romans to a raiding culture. Are you high? Have you seen all the shit they built? The aquaducts, the roads, the baths? Seriously, join me in reality.

    Sorry to have put you on the wrong side, by the way. But like I said before and will say again, there are only two choices, scientific ethics and relativism.

  50. Did the vikings win in Europe? Or did their way of life completely disappear into a mercantile culture?

    There actually may be a tension between culture and ethics. I’m not sure. But it seems plausible.

    Does force increase loss from friction. Of course it does. As to whether the person who manages to impose the cost of their immoral actions on other people… its true, they may not care, and they may get away with it. But they live in a poorer society than they would if they did not cause extra friction. And you know, there can be unethical success, the trick is simply moving the cost.

    I’m not dodging anybodies arguments. But I don’t think that Rys is addressing my argument at all.

  51. *shakes head* I didn’t say Rome was a raiding culture. I think you got mixed up. I was making multiple examples. The Vikings were a raiding culture. They were also a trading culture. It’s not a dichotomy, but a scale. I was simplifying to make a point. You didn’t seem to be able to grasp what I was saying when I didn’t. Looks like you just fail to grasp altogether, which I’m beginning to think is willful, honestly.

    I mean, seriously:

    there are only two choices, scientific ethics and relativism.

    Hello? False dichotomy, anyone? Scale. Imagine a line with a slider, not an on/off switch.

    Yes, I have seen the things the Romans built. In person, with my own eyes, no less. It’s quite impressive, but it was not built on trade. It was built on conquest. Do you know what conquest is? It’s when the raiders don’t leave after they kill you and take your stuff. Of course, there was some degree of trading going on, but it was the sword that built the Roman empire. I’ve seen one of those, too. Ugly, brutal thing, but highly efficient. Very little in the way of wasted calories, even in the face of overwhelming numbers. Much easier than mining, farming, and all that work. Just stab a few guys, then make the rest do the work. Most Roman citizens were unemployed, you know. Lived off of the backs of the conquered. Conquered out-groups, no less. Highly moral and ethical society, those Romans.

    As for Carthage, yes, it was quite the empire as well, but it was primarily a mercantile Empire. Most of its military, including its vaunted navy, were mercenaries. Hence my specific reference to Hannibal and the Celtiberians.

    Did the vikings win in Europe?

    Yes. Their way of life did NOT disappear into some mythical European mercantile culture. The rest of Europe was in the Dark Ages at the time. Feudalism. Petty military dictatorships. The Vikings won, and imposed their own culture onto the rest of Europe. They were not assimilated, they were conquerors in the completest sense… Honestly, that’s like saying the Euro didn’t win America, they just completely disappeared into the native culture. It just didn’t happen that way.

    More to the point, however, ALL cultures MUST have a strong military to enforce their imaginary happy trading, or some raiders will just take everything from them. If you already must have an overpowering military anyway, it’s a waste of calories to build and maintain it if you only use it to enforce equitable trade, when you simply take completely for a slight increase in cost.

    You like to pretend that either this is somehow unethical in your philosophy despite the fact that it is clearly the more efficient method by claiming that the out-group paying the cost must be included in the equation, but you’ve never yet said why this must be so. If the wolf’s ethics don’t apply to eating sheep from a human flock, why the Hell should a Viking’s ethics apply to taking grain from a Frank? Or a Roman’s ethics apply to taking land from the Greeks? Or a Hun’s ethics apply to taking gold from the Romans?

    You call this “unethical success,” but if the cost is moved beyond your own culture, and ethics is supposedly a cultural assessment, so shouldn’t it be completely ethical by your definition to do so? Furthermore, since you earlier defined ethics as including success (“Except that military dictatorships are incredibly unsuccessful ” is your entire argument against them ethically), shouldn’t “unethical success” be a contradiction in terms?

    In short: DO NOT say I use “bad history” when I’ve simplified it over and over since you constantly failed to understand the points I was making until I was reduced to painting essentially a characiture to make my point. I dumbed it down for your benefit, not out of a failure to understand history, and either you very well know it, and are engaging in the worst sort of underhanded argument techniques, or you’re just too foolish to wrap your brain around anything which doesn’t comply with your preconceived points… If there’s something I’m missing in between, feel free to point it out, but I utterly fail to see it. DO NOT say I’m using faulty assumptions about the nature of war, theft, and raiding when you can’t even pretend to back up your assertions that it is inaccurate… Or do you honestly think it’s easier to farm on a frozen rock and fight polar bears than to slap a few soft Byzantines and take their food,then live in the lap of luxury?

  52. Okay, let me simplify my questions. Given a limited number of calories available for food and work and granting that waste is bad, how do you determine how to allocate resources? Do I fill up an SUV with ethanol or do I feed someone for a year … and if the person had a terminal disease or was a mass killer … or I’m going to use my SUV to deliver puppies to orphans? Once we agree to make the most efficient use of energy, how do we decide what constitutes waste? Medicare? Hubble? Feeding convicts? Blogging?

    Perhaps, it is better to think of an injunction against waste as a meta-ethic or a metric to measure the implementation of one’s ethics.

    PS You keep saying killing people is a waste. What if I get in my time machine and kill Hitler’s mother? Arguably, that would be short term waste for long term savings if it prevented or lessened WWII. Where do you draw the lines around the calorie system to give yourself boundaries to measure by?

  53. The vikings converted to Christianity. They were therefore assimilated. They left linguistic footprints but didn’t take over the language. They therefore did not conquer.

    Anyway, arguments of history aside (and I’ll explain why presently) I’m not misunderstanding your points. You are misunderstanding mine, that is, you keep thinking you’re addressing my model but you actually aren’t, and you think I’ve said a bunch of shit about war, Rome, Carthage, and trade that I haven’t said at all. What I said was, I’m not talking relativism, and I’m not saying might makes right.

    Let me restate the model.
    1. Ethics are a property of complex living systems.
    2. Different systems have different ethics.
    3. Human ethics are an emergent property of human social dynamics.
    4. Human CULTURE is a DIFFERENT property of human social dynamics.
    5. Culture and Ethics can be in conflict.
    6. It is always possible to move ethical costs from one person to another. This is considered unethical when done between in group members.
    7. Someone has to bear the cost of unethical behavior.

    You could conclude from this that might makes right, or that it is ETHICAL to transfer costs to an out group member, as Rys did, but that conclusion is not implied in the statement of the model. In fact, the model predicts that if no unethical action is taken, but a reciprocal trading situation is set up instead, wealth will increase in both groups. And of course this is the case.

    Now, one thing we know is that human society basically didn’t increase much in wealth from hunter gatherer times to about 1800, in terms of per capita income (check the beyond belief 2 videos for some evidence of this). It was only after the advent of humanism that we see real increase in human productivity and wealth.

    Why? I’m not sure. But I think that it might have a lot to do with the rise of humanism. It seems to me that you see real gains in wealth whenever ethics are followed more closely.

    As for Marks questions… no, really, I don’t have answers. But you have misunderstandings.

    We aren’t agreeing to make the most efficient use of energy. We’re agreeing to avoid making other people bear the costs of our actions. Different thing entirely. Does this change your questions?

  54. The vikings converted to Christianity. They were therefore assimilated.

    So did the Romans. Does the mean they were assimilated into Palestinian culture?

    They left linguistic footprints but didn’t take over the language. They therefore did not conquer.

    Wait… The definition of conquest is taking over the language? Sonofabitch, and here I always thought it was taking over the physical place. Huh, I guess you learn something new every day.

    You are misunderstanding mine, that is, you keep thinking you’re addressing my model but you actually aren’t, and you think I’ve said a bunch of shit about war, Rome, Carthage, and trade that I haven’t said at all.

    No, no.. I didn’t say you specifically said it – I said that this is where your model leads. you apparently seem to have sort of issue with this, which indicates to me that you have a problem with your own model.

    6. It is always possible to move ethical costs from one person to another. This is considered unethical when done between in group members.

    You could conclude from this that might makes right, or that it is ETHICAL to transfer costs to an out group member, as Rys did, but that conclusion is not implied in the statement of the model.

    Wrong. Since SOMEONE must bear the cost of ANYTHING, and it is unethical to place that cost upon a member of the in-group, it MUST, ethically, be placed on a member of the out-group. There’s no room in your model for anything else. Reciprocal trading is nice Utopian ideal, but in the real world, it doesn’t work. If you have no military, you cannot expect equitable trade. Therefore, you must have a military. The cost of training the military must come from somewhere, and placing that cost on the in-group is unethical, therefore, it MUST be placed on the out-group. The only ethical way to live in the real-world, where other people have military capacities is to raid and/or conquer to pay for your own fighting ability.

    Moreover, even in your Utopia, where no one fights, it is still unethical to not fight, since you are placing the cost of goods produced by the out-group onto members of the in-group, when said costs can be placed on the out-group. Your ethical model requires raiding/conquest.

    If you don’t like this conclusion, you need to take another look at your model and decide if it really speaks for you.

    …of course, maybe I shouldn’t expect you to understand, since you seem to think that Dark Ages, feudal Europe was a fun-happy trading culture, and not a series of military dictatorships.

  55. Rys, there isn’t any evidence of any kind, anywhere, that the Vikings conquered Europe “in the most complete sense” or however you put it. They simply didn’t conquer Europe. But I have no interest in arguing history with you, first because you seem to have a very personal view of historical facts and secondly because you keep ascribing points of view to me that I don’t hold and its pissing me off.
    _______________________________________________________________________________________
    Okay. The only part of your post that had any connection to a point that I made or attempted to make was the bit about costs and militaries. Allow me to expand my points: It is considered unethical to IMPOSE costs on a fellow in-group member. What does this mean? It does not mean, as you have interpreted it to mean, that it is considered unethical to grow food, build trade goods, or engage in trade with in-group members. In these situations we see that there is a minimum of friction, and of loss. In fact, everyone seems to gain by these activities to the extent that they are not coerced. What it does mean is that it is considered unethical to steal from fellow in-group members, or commit violent acts towards them. Considered being the operative term. I’m going to switch terms here, and use ETHICS to describe observable ethics, and MORALS to describe the local opinion. So its immoral to steal from a member of the ingroup. It is also ethically negative, that is, the group loses calories to friction.

    The fact is, though, that even if you push the friction cost of theft to an out-group member, the friction loss still occurs. Its unavoidable in coercive transactions. However, cooperative transactions can be energy positive, that is, you gain more energy from the transaction than you lose from friction. This is ethically positive.

    This ethics is DESCRIPTIVE, by the way, not PROSCRIPTIVE. It has nothing to do with utopianism… I don’t know where you got that idea.

  56. Yes, the austin dacey interview was really fascinating. Stuart Kaufman’s talk at beyond belief 2 was really fascinating as well, and sort of explains some ideas about emergence that I’ve shamelessly stolen.

  57. They simply didn’t conquer Europe.

    I’m sorry, you’re right – the Israelis did, because Europe converted to Christianity. That is what you said, right?

    you keep ascribing points of view to me that I don’t hold

    Do I? Really? Does it feel good? Do you like it? No? Then why the Hell do you feel so free about it? How many times did you call me a moral relativist? Even after I explained to you that I don’t hold to that philosophy…

    I think it’s fitting that you’re getting pissed off about it. Most people do when you throw their own bullshit back at them.

    I think I’ve made my point here.

  58. I don’t think you’ve made a point at all. If you were deliberately making misstatements about my position in order to piss me off, I’m not sure what point you would be making. And actually, I apologized for misunderstanding where you were coming from. I thought, when you said that you didn’t think there were scientific definitions of right and wrong, that you meant it. Later, you said you were on the fence on that issue, so I apologized for misunderstanding you. I’ll do it again: my bad, dude.

    Of course, as I explained, I think that ultimately, all philosophical positions that make ethics proscriptive are relativist positions. The reason for this is that ultimately, you have to justify why your position is superior to some other, or you have to accept that it is not. If your position is equivalent to all other ethical positions, than your ethics is merely opinion and therefore is morally relativistic, there’s no grounds on which the other party can be wrong. If you assert superiority in your model, you have to have a grounds to do that from.

    My assertion is that the only grounds on which that can be safely done is the grounds of what IS, because everything else devolves to local opinion or some set of assumptions that your opponent does not share. I think that my ethical system, the descriptive system, rests on the minimal assumptions that are sort of universal to everyone: that we can treat the universe as if it exists. So I consider PLATO to be a moral relativist. I’m not sure about KANT. Pirsig and Dennett are not relativists. But Dennet would argue that science can and does provide a basis for morality, although he would argue with my formulation, I’m sure.

    I hope that makes clear to everyone that when I’m using the phrase “moral relativism”, I’m using it in a different sense than you might be used to. I did try and explain that, but perhaps it got missed in the flurry, and perhaps I simply did a poor job.

    On to language and contest. Your original claim was that the vikings were conquerers in the most complete sense, that they imposed their culture on the rest of Europe, and that I might as well claim that the Europeans were assimilated into America as claim that the Vikings were assimilated into Europe. These are your statements, from post 70.

    So, in America we see that the Europeans achieved linguistic, religious, and territorial conquest. They destroyed native religions and languages, many of which have been lost, utterly altered the culture of every tribe they encountered, and now comprise the dominant ethnic group (for now, anyway) in most of North America. This is what your comparison looks like.

    The Vikings didn’t achieve anything like the European level of territorial conquest. There are huge swaths of Europe that never saw a viking invader. They didn’t conquer linguistically, most of Europe retained Romance languages. They didn’t impose any cultural institutions in most of Europe. They didn’t leave any artifacts in most of Europe. And of course, they had to convert to Christianity as part of a treaty in England. These cases are only parallel in fantasy, not reality. Sorry to shorthand it with two sentences, but your original claim was so far out of wack with reality that I didn’t think more was needed.

    I think I’ve probably made my point there. It was a side note, but you pushed it.

    As I said, I’m still working on the moral dynamics model. So thanks for helping me hash out some details and see where my presentation can be more clear.

  59. *shakes head* Apparently you missed the part where I defined precisely what I meant by conquest.

    Do you know what conquest is? It’s when the raiders don’t leave after they kill you and take your stuff.

    In that sense, the Vikings conquered Europe in the completest sense. If you think there are huge swaths of Europe which never saw a Viking, you’re sadly mistaken. There are some smallish bits scattered about, but huge swaths? Are you taking into account such groups as the Varangians when you make statements like that? You should be. In this sense, it is quite parallel to the European conquest of America as well. The raiders still haven’t left in both cases.

    If you’re still lost, I think I’m just going to ha

  60. I’m not lost at all. You made a comparison. It is a terrible comparison.

    You said that the Vikings imposed their CULTURE on Europe. But they didn’t impose their language, religion, fashions, farming methods, music, or political structure. Where they stayed, they adopted local customs, local religion, local brew. In other words, they assimilated into the local culture. But hey, if you want to define “conquer” as “left a few colonies that were eventually absorbed into the greater culture” be my guest.

    But a comparison to the European conquest of the Americas, where the conquerers actually imposed their culture on the conquered, is not even remotely in line with any historical evidence. The vikings did not impose their culture on the rest of Europe.

  61. That’s interesting, since we STILL have significant parts of their languages, religion, fashions, and political structure. Of course, their farming methods, living on a frozen rock and all, we swiftly replaced with the farming methods of the soft, fertile lands they took, and it’s difficult to say how much of their music might still survive, since they didn’t exactly have a method of recording it in the 800s and all…

    Of course, this is the part where you say I’m wrong, as evidenced by the fact that we are clearly living in a feudal society which lacks the words sword, boat, channel, fjord, and hundreds more I don’t care to list for you at the moment, and none of us has so much as heard the name of Thor, much less named a day of the week after him.

    Yeah, I’m done here.

  62. Oh, I get it! You meant that the Vikings conquered ENGLAND! Yeah, they definitely had a huge influence there, and of course the Normans, who were a fusion of Viking and other cultures, did conquer England finally. Ironically, they were in a three way battle with the Saxons and the Vikings, but yes, the Vikings had a huge influence on English culture.

    And of course, large parts of America were settled by Danes and Norwegians and other direct descendants of the Viking culture, so we’d expect to see a lot of those influences, especially in the midwest.

    My bad, dude, I thought you meant EUROPE, you know, that place across the English channel where they speak Romance languages? France, Spain, Italy?

  63. What? I am perfectly happy saying that my Sermon on the Mount based ethical system with a few other things thrown in is preferable to Nazism, Stalinism, Aztec human sacrifice, etc. Furthermore, my position isn’t invalidated if I then say that Buddhism, liberal Islam, secular humanism, or some other ethical system may not work better for others.

    As for the notion of descriptive ethics, poppycock. T’is experimental psychology which I respect and adore, but it ought not tell me how I should live my life.

    I want ethics to be proscriptive. I want them to be a memetic challenge to the demands of biological evolution. Perhaps, the ethics given to us by our biology would still suffice in extended family groups wandering around east Africa, but we are beyond that. We have to deal with bank accounts and bad drivers and office politics and the many other travails of civilization.

    That is why Hammurabi and Moses and Justinian and all the others set down laws. The ethics of hunter-gatherers are vestigial when you move people to the city. It is memetic evolution in response to a new environment. And this is where I am happy to be a relativist in your eyes, I believe we are slowly adapting the proscriptive ethics to better live in the environment we are creating. Ethics are transitional, a compass pointing the direction, not a beaker measuring an amount.

    But ultimately, you are absolutely right – I misunderstand how your descriptive model has anything to do with ethics. You offer us a sterile, flawed model then say we lack understanding? Please, explain how ethics are different from instincts in your model, because silly me, I always considered them to be a cultural, memetic phenomena passed from person to person. Perhaps reading Kant or Plato only triggered the instinctual ethics already present.

    PS Correlation does not equal causation – perhaps, wealth and productivity led to humanism or perhaps, something else caused both or perhaps, they are incidental. Perhaps, you’d care to rewind the clock and take another go at it. Given the Greco-Roman natural materialsim we see in some philosophies, I put the delay in the rise of humanism down to lack of technology, but I can’t prove it. Can you?

  64. I never said that the vikings didn’t invade Europe. I didn’t say they didn’t leave colonies where they were influential or left linguistic footprints.

    I said they didn’t conquer and impose their culture on EUROPE in the same sense that Europe did on America. They didn’t. Your comparison was and remains completely ridiculous.

  65. To start with, I never said it was your fault that you didn’t get what I was saying. Its clearly my fault, because I’m not explaining myself well.

    There’s a lot in your post to address, but I want to focus on one thing. Ethics are different from instincts in that instincts are properties of individuals and ethics are properties of societies.

    As such, there is often conflict between ethics and instincts, or ethics and culture.

    I don’t really see my system as sterile. I see a way out of the trap of relativistic, culturally based ethics.

    On what grounds can you make the argument that Hitler’s brand of Christian ethics is inferior to your own? Or even different at all?

    In my system, I can at least talk about the ethical friction of the Hitler version, versus the ethical friction of yours. I can point out that these are objectively, measurably different.

  66. First, I don’t believe Hitler had Christian ethics. To the extent that he had such a system, it was based on a dubious Aryan occultism.

    Why is mine better? I could argue that cultures in which a Judaic, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or other such ethical system have survived longer than Nazism or Stalinism and therefore it is suggestive, but not proof that they are promote societal survival better than other more exclusivist ethics.

    But beyond that, I’d say that I have certain postulates about the value of human life, happiness, etc. that allow me to weigh the relative usefulness of different ethical systems and develop theorems about what to do in specific ethical dilemmas. For example, needless suffering is bad. Killing people is bad. Etc.

    And yes, I know from the outset that these are postulates that cannot be proven. Now, it may be the case that some of these may be empirically “discovered”, but I remain dubious. I would argue that at the base of most inclusive, universal ethical systems that you extend the treatment of kin or in-group members to the wider population.

    That is where I think descriptive ethics necessarily falls apart as the normative behavior will inevitably be to treat one’s tribe differently from other tribes (Nazism just defines the tribal boundary in a big way versus Christianity or Buddhism or others which at their best define everyone and sometimes every being as in the same tribe). I believe to the extent that we can extend ingroup behaviors to others and regard humanity as one large ingroup, we stand a better chance of having a humane, enduring species. But since it doesn’t come naturally, we need proscriptive ethics.

    Why is my approach better than others? It may not be, but I try to follow values that won’t see humanity extinct in a century or two. If that’s just my selfish genes talking, so be it.

  67. “First, I don’t believe Hitler had Christian ethics.”

    Then you really need to read Mein Kampf or some of Hitler’s speeches. Here’s a choice passage:

    “The Jew himself is the best example of the kind of product which this religious training evolves. His life is of this world only and his mentality is as foreign to the true spirit of Christianity as his character was foreign to the great Founder of this new creed two thousand years ago. And the Founder of Christianity made no secret indeed of His estimation of the Jewish people.”

    You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts. Hitler was a nut, but he was apparently a christian nut.

    “I would argue that at the base of most inclusive, universal ethical systems that you extend the treatment of kin or in-group members to the wider population.”

    This is exactly where a descriptive ethics leads you. Because you can see that the ethical friction exists whether it is being paid by in group or out group, and that the position of mutual benefit (treating everyone as in group) leads to less loss through friction.

    In other words, objectively, its ethically positive to expand the in-group.

    “Normative” really only matters in terms of proscriptive ethics, where right and wrong are matters of local opinion and normative defines ethical. In a descriptive ethics, there is a way to judge the value of normative behavior according to an objective standard.

    Without that standard, there is no reason to think that needless suffering is bad or even a way to evaluate whether suffering is needful. Many christians justify the suffering in Hell as a needful part of the universal plan… so who can blame Hitler for thinking that suffering was a needful part of HIS plan. After all, he was merely getting a head start on the suffering that the Jews, homosexuals, and atheists were going to suffer for eternity anyway.

    A descriptive ethics takes humanity as a good by definition of humanity. It doesn’t actually require an additional step, it describes what is.

    Part of the problem here is, in my opinion, that modern philosophy is trying to replace god with something else rather than trying to develop a philosophical position for a god free universe.

  68. You are going to preference would Hitler had to say for public consumption in a country where the only potential opposition of note would have been German Catholics? What a politician says to the public?

    I can toss out quotes too. From wikipedia – There is less controversy about other statements. Joseph Goebbels notes in a diary entry in 1939: “The Führer is deeply religious, but deeply anti-Christian. He regards Christianity as a symptom of decay.” Albert Speer reports a similar statement: “You see, it’s been our misfortune to have the wrong religion. Why didn’t we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good? The Mohammedan religion too would have been much more compatible to us than Christianity. Why did it have to be Christianity with its meekness and flabbiness?”

    But if you want to call him a Christian, okay. I prefer my understanding of Christian ethics and morality to his (and for that matter to those that whack people over the head with Hell and damnation and such). I just don’t equate “The meek shall inherit the earth” with panzer divisions.

  69. Well, Mark, the problem is that I have absolutely no way of knowing what Hitler actually believed, nor does anyone else. What I do know is that he created an explicitly Christian ideology for public consumption, and it is that ethical system that I am asking you about, not his private feelings.

    I prefer your point of view as well, don’t get me wrong, and I know why I do. My question is: can you tell me why I should think that suffering is a bad thing? What’s wrong with (enter icon of evil)? Is there any reason beyond your local opinion that we should be appalled by the Road of Bones (to pick an atheist state atracity).

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