How to Choose a (Bible) Translation

Choosing a Bible translation is not easy or straightforward.

While readability or comprehensibility are important, accuracy reigns supreme, for the simple reason that inaccuracies may be defined as failures of translation. A failed translation is an invention of the translator rather than a representation of the intent of the original author. The author's thoughts must first be "translated onto paper," and from there they are translated into English (or the language of your translation), and from there into your own mental representation of their meaning.

So accuracy beats out readability and comprehensibility, which are also important (as is beauty/poetry). Things are not quite as "accuracy wins," however, because what a translation does, ultimately, is convey the thoughts lying behind the original text into the reader's fallible human understanding, and we are each capable of different degrees of understanding depending on how hard we try, our background knowledge, and maybe our native smarts as well.

A careful, responsible reader naturally graps that he must work hard to grasp the full and rich meaning of a difficult text. Hence it is probable that a diligent scholar working primarily with a "paraphrase" text might, by consulting several commentaries that take apart the key terms, actually come to understand the text better than someone who uses a "literal" or "formal equivalence" translation.

Moreover, many of the more literal translations, like the King James Version, tend to choose more precisely correct words and phrases that, it so happens, are uncommon, abstract, or require background knowledge to understand. Unless a reader makes a genuine effort to engage with the text—to double-check that he really does understand what is going on—then the more "precisely correct" word may leave a fuzzier representation of the original author's meaning in his head than a "roughly correct" word would.

Indeed, it seems probable that if you wanted to read a translation and have the very best chance of getting utterly confused about the meaning of the text, you would choose a difficult, strictly literal translation and then read it quickly and without assistance. If you must read a relatively difficult or obscure text, like the Bible, quickly and without assistance, it is highly probable that you should choose a paraphrase, because then you will emerge from the experience with more of the original author's thoughts.

But make no mistake: if you read a paraphrase, you will fail to understand many things, maybe mostly unimportant things, but some more important and occasionally even crucial things. This is because the meaning you glean from a paraphrase uses more familiar concepts, while the original text is naturally difficult for you because the thoughts behind it are sometimes quite simply unfamiliar concepts. You cannot properly translate the Bible into "modern colloquial English" for the very simple reason that "modern colloquial English" draws on or expresses a conceptual scheme—an integrated set of concepts representing the world—that is quite different from the conceptual schemes used in the Bible.

When you read news or a blog post without difficulty, the reason you understand it easily is that you and the author draw on the same background knowledge and use words or concepts in a similar way. Ancient, obscure, technical, and academic texts are hard to read because they require background knowledge you lack, or because they use words or concepts you have never encountered. This is not to say you cannot learn the background knowledge and concepts, maybe even easily; but it is to say that you must actually take the time to learn, or you simply will not understand the text.

What do these observations entail about translations? By themselves, they do not really help us to choose a translation, because the choice of a translation does not solve the problem of getting correct understandings from a text. But they do entail something important about how to read hard texts, and the Bible in particular.

If our goal is to get the most accurate possible understanding of the text, then we must indeed begin with a literal translation. A paraphrase like "The Message" or "Easy-to-Read Version"—and even a "dynamic equivalence" like the "Christian Standard Bible" or the "New International Version—will substitute modern English words and phrasings in place of more obscure ones, as long as they are "good enough." This is "dangerous" for purposes of getting the most accurate possible comprehension, because it gives you a false sense of understanding: you are missing something from the text, and you do not even know it, because it is systematically hidden from you by a misleadingly "simple" word choice.

An example (chosen more or less at random) should make this point clearer. The Good News Translation—a paraphrasing translation—renders Proverbs 15:4 as: "Kind words bring life, but cruel words crush your spirit." This utterly leaves out an essential reference to the "Tree of Life," as in the (more literal, but still "dynamic") English Standard Bible: "A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit." This reference, which requires background knowledge from the book of Genesis, adds richness to the text (the Tree of Life in the Garden of Evil literally gave sustenance to the first humans, but was available to them only as long as they lived in purity, according to God's commandments). This suggests that the gentle words in question give us sustenance of some sort.

But the New American Standard Bible, a literal translation, goes one step further: "A soothing tongue is a tree of life, But perversion in it crushes the spirit." The translators chose the rather obscure phrase "soothing tongue," which the GNT rendered as "kind words" and the ESB as "gentle tongue." What is the original Hebrew word for "gentle" or "soothing" here? Apparently it is "marpe'" (מַרְפֵּ֣א), which one lexicon says means "curative, i.e. literally (concretely) a medicine, or (abstractly) a cure; figuratively (concretely) deliverance, or (abstractly) placidity." Strong's Lexicon glosses the root of this word as "1) health, healing, cure 1a) healing, cure 1b) health, profit, sound (of mind) 1c) healing 1c1) incurable (with negative)."

So the GNT's rendering of "kind," while in the right ballpark and "gentle" suggests a sort of kind care, neither suggests the healing ministrations of something that "soothes" an (unhealthily) irritated friend. Perhaps "healing words" would suggest the original thought most plainly.

By the way, we might encounter a problem with the King James Version, namely, that it renders Hebrew and Greek (very precisely, yes) into common English words as they were used in the 17th century. Hence the KJV has the phrase in question as "wholesome tongue." We think of "wholesome" as meaning supportive of good morals, but that is not quite what the Hebrew text meant, so the KJV rendition is actually misleading unless you also know that "wholesome" also can mean "healthy" (as in "wholesome food"). So, basically, stay away from the KJV unless you have read a lot of early modern texts (like Shakespeare, Milton, Hobbes, and Locke) and such different shades of meaning are familiar to you. I have read quite a few of such texts and am often on the lookout for shades of meaning, so I rather like it.

Also by the way, you might have wanted me to explain the verse in question, so here goes. Proper comprehension of a text always requires context, so here are the first six verses of Proverbs 15 (KJV translation):

1 A soft answer turneth away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger.

2 The tongue of the wise useth knowledge aright: but the mouth of fools poureth out foolishness.

3 The eyes of the LORD are in every place, beholding the evil and the good.

4 A wholesome tongue is a tree of life: but perverseness therein is a breach in the spirit.

5 A fool despiseth his father's instruction: but he that regardeth reproof is prudent.

5 A fool despiseth his father's instruction: but he that regardeth reproof is prudent.

6 In the house of the righteous is much treasure: but in the revenues of the wicked is trouble.

So the proverb is placed among others that talk about, essentially, wise words, the understanding that they reflect, and the consequences of using them (or not). It immediately follows a verse that says that God sees both evil and good. Now, the Tree of Life was a symbol of wholesomeness (in both senses) within the Garden of Eden, and you will recall that there was another tree there, that of the Knowledge of Good and Evil or as I like to put it, the knowledge of how to become evil.

So in this context I would explain the verse this way. He who speaks words that soothe or heal, not merely emotionally but, especially, morally or spiritually—so the words heal the soul, both the speaker's and the listener's—acts in the same sort of life-giving way that the Tree of Life did in the Garden. By contrast, speech that is "perverse" (Strong's says the word is סֶלֶף, which can mean twisted, crooked, and overthrown, a word used often in the Old Testament to describe things that are not functioning well, that are out of joint or indeed unhealthy) is a "breach" (שֶׁ֣בֶר: crushes, breaks) in the "spirit" (בְּרֽוּחַ׃: originally, wind, but meaning the potentially holy inner part of us). In other words, "crooked" words reflect a morally twisted soul.

A briefer but still accurate paraphrase: "He who speaks healing words gives life as the Tree of Life did; but crooked, sick words morally crush the spirit."

"But," you say, "isn't it better just to paraphrase that as 'Kind words bring life, but cruel words crush your spirit'? Isn't that good enough?"

Sure, it might be good enough for some purposes. The problem is that you are getting a stripped-down, watered-down, blurry version of the original thoughts, a version that is not integrated into the original conceptual schemes that become clearer and more fully accessible with the help of a literal translation and the use of commentaries (and other reference tools).

If the Bible really were the inspired word of God, that would mean getting the original meaning as precisely as possible is very important.

Of course, reading the text in the original languages would be best.

"But wait, Larry, what is your favorite translation?" I don't have one yet, although I tend to switch between the KJV and the NKJV, which simply updates some of the confusing word choices of the KJV. When I want to read a passage quickly and I just want to get the gist, I sometimes read the most paraphrase-y of paraphrases, "The Message." But to pick a favorite for careful Bible study, I would have to answer many other questions, such as, "Which are the best source Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible?" and others. I have no time to dive into all that. My point above is relatively simple: the reason a literal translation is best, for purposes of serious Bible study is that it will greatly facilitate the difficult but important job of understanding the ideas behind the original text most fully and accurately.


On the Soul

Discourse about the soul is ancient, continues to this very day online and in academia, and spans many languages and traditions, with research spanning multiple disciplines and, all told, literally thousands of relevant books. I cannot hope to do all of that justice in this essay, so I will not try. My aim is much more modest: simply to satisfy myself, for now, on two questions:

  1. What is the soul?
  2. Does the soul exist?

As a philosopher trained in analytic methods, I will begin by talking about words a fair bit, for the simple reason that this is an excellent way to clarify precisely what the subject is. Some, but certainly not all, philosophical problems can be resolved by carefully examining how we use words.

Let me dive into the first question without further ado.

The Sort of Thing the Soul Is

Socrates, probably just after having asked ti esti?

With any ti esti question (Greek for "what is it?"—famously, Socrates' type of question), the first thing to do is to circumscribe the concept to be defined or analyzed. To this end, I can think of several subsidiary questions, but here is a good place to begin: Is the soul something different from the mind? After all, the mind is something that many of us acknowledge exists; but if we say it exists, do we thereby affirm that the soul exists?

It does not seem so for the simple reason many people are happy to acknowledge that the mind exists, while believing that the soul either does or might not exist. In any event, the concepts seem to be distinguishable, even if the things themselves are not. And even if I decide they ultimately are the same, it will be good to settle on which concept I take to be my target to analyze, because the words, clearly, have different semantics.

It is relatively easy to concede that the mind exists, because it is a much broader and as it were forgiving concept. I mean, there are substance theories of mind as well as bundle theories of the mind; even behaviorist and reductive materialist theories, which deny any inner experience or "qualia," have been construed as "theories of the mind."

Hence the mind is not the thing I want to focus on. The soul, whatever else it is, is irreducibly spiritual, mental, or "inner." Moreover, while we need not endorse any particular theory of substance, the mind is held to be an object of some sort and not merely a bundle of properties, actions, habits, states, or events; it is correct to attribute properties, actions, etc., to it (you cannot correctly attribute properties to a bundle, I think). It simply cannot be a theory of the soul to say the soul just is some mental event such as the perception of a bird or the memory of a smell, or a state of pleasure or pain, or the habit of thinking, or an instance of cogitation. That is simply not the sort of thing a soul is. Such mental events might, perhaps, be said to occur to or within a soul. Nor can a soul be a "bundle" of many such items. A soul is said to be that to which such events occur, if it exists.

Not an accurate depiction of what the soul does.

So far, I seem to have identified at least three things that characterize the concept of the soul, that help to distinguish it from other, related concepts: first, it is irreducibly spiritual and not material, whatever that means; second, it is an object (a proper subject of attribution); and third, mental events such as seeing or feeling pain or imagining are all, at least possibly, things that occur within a soul. So if materialism (or physicalism: I use the terms interchangeably) is true, then souls certainly do not exist; if there is nothing like a substance, object, self, or subject of experience, then souls do not exist. On the other hand, it does not immediately follow that, if materialism is false, therefore souls exist. Nor is it very clear to me that if we have an immaterial self or mind that is the subject of experience, that that is the soul. But maybe it is. I will examine that question next.

The Semantics of 'Soul', 'Mind', and 'Self'

If I have a pain, or see the clock on my wall, or remember an appointment, we can (although some do not want to) say that I (emphasis on this word) am the subject of such pains, perceptions, and memories. But am I my soul? If so, then my soul is the subject of mental attributes. Now, again, those willing to countenance the existence of minds are happy to say that pains, perceptions, and memories are had by minds and, less often, by selves—but, again, not nearly as often, by souls.

So, is the soul, if it exists, supposed to be the subject of experience—or would it be something else? How we answer that question depends entirely on our specific notions about the soul, but in the Western (Christian-influenced) world, we speak about the soul in various quite relevant ways such as:

  • "Caring for the soul": Ensuring that your moral habits and religious, maybe especially prayer, practices are excellent.
  • "A wounded soul": A depressed or bereaved person, or perhaps a person whose faith in God is weak.
  • "With all your soul": With faithful feeling or earnest motivation.
  • "Kindred souls", "soul-mates": People who relate to one another, often due to some similarity, at a deep level.
  • "A feeling deep in my soul": An intuition, emotion, or conviction that perhaps you cannot account for but which you feel strongly.

These sorts of phrases indicate that indeed the soul, whatever else it is, is spoken of the subject of at least some of our experience, but perhaps especially our deeply-felt emotions and convictions. Can we also attribute evanescent and trivial sensations, feelings, and memories to the soul, or not? I can see a case being made both ways: in describing some slight twinge of pain, we rarely say our "souls" experience such things; we are more apt to attribute such things to our minds or even our bodies (or nerves or brains).

This suggests that 'soul', 'mind', and 'self' differ in function, i.e., the purpose to which they are put in our conceptual schemes. It seems that all three can be the subject of experience. What, then, is the function of the concept of the soul, and how does it differ from the functions of 'mind' and of 'self'?

The usage examples given above suggest that 'soul' is pressed into service when we want to speak of our deep feelings, passions, and religious faith. 'Mind' is much more general, although in ordinary language it tends to be pressed into service when we are speaking of the intellect, i.e., mental activity involving abstract knowledge and logic; although it certainly can be used much more broadly than that. As to 'self', especially insofar as it is used in pronouns like 'himself' and as a strict synonym of 'ego' and 'I' (when referring to one's own self), this is colloquially pressed into service rather imprecisely to mean both mind and body, "the whole package," and especially as it exists through time. 'Self'-talk often is used to talk about whole individuals rather than of just the mental or spiritual activity of individuals.

Another important functional difference between 'soul' and 'self' on the one hand, and 'mind' on the other, is that the former are sometimes spoken of as existing after death—the 'mind', per se, not so much. Probably the reason for this is that minds are associated with embodied experience, i.e., with how we interact with the world, beginning with the senses. If we live on after death, the part of us that lives on might not interact with the world, and certainly not through the senses. This might also be why it is strange to attribute passing bodily sensations to the soul.

But just because we in modern colloquial usage speak about the soul this way, it hardly follows that, if the soul exists, it should be considered to be a different item in our ontology (set of distinct items that we say exist) from minds and selves (not to mention spirits). I maintain rather that, however these words differ in conceptual or linguistic function, all three are often taken to refer to a subject of experience (understood broadly, meaning a subject of mental attributes), assuming indeed there is such a thing as a subject of experience. Now, it is conceivable that we have two different subjects of experience within us, a mind and a soul; but this specific suggestion is rarely made and I, at least, am not aware of having such a split personality, as it were. I might come back to this issue.

So, although they have different semantic functions, I am inclined to take 'soul', 'mind', and 'self' as synonyms in the sense that they have the same referent, namely, a subject of experience or of mental attributes. The terms refer to the same ontological items. Again, another synonym would be the "I" or the "ego" (which is just the Latin word meaning "I"), as long as this is understood to exclude the body.

Introspection, sort of

Introspecting the Soul

So I say that I or my self is, in a sense, my soul. So what am I? What is my soul? I say in turn that this cluster of semantically related concepts all refer to the same thing, namely a subject of experience. So the soul, whatever else it might be, just is the subject of experience, assuming the subject of experience exists. So if we want to know what the soul is, we should examine what a subject of experience is. There might be, and doubtless is, much more to it than that; but it is at least that.

As it turns out, this is not at all an easy question. We have an intuitive understanding of what it means, and can easily give examples in language that seem to refer to a subject of experience, but explaining what this item is is by no means simple. Whole books are written about it, including one called The Subject of Experience by Galen Strawson. But I have no time to review the literature, and it is not as if I have not already read a lot of the historical source literature about the problem; Descartes, Locke, Hume, and Kant all have important things to say. But I am going to dive in with my own narrative—here goes.

Let me quickly mention the notion that the subject of experience, whatever it is, just is the brain or nervous system. On first glance, this looks like nonsense. The reason is that the brain has a number of physical properties that it is utter nonsense to ascribe to my soul. My brain weighs about three pounds; my soul does not. And while it seems to make more sense to ascribe mental processes like feelings and thoughts to the brain, we are not now talking about a mental process but instead about a subject of experience. Here, of course, is where physicalists say that that is why they say a subject of experience does not really exist. The "feels" of your experience are just what your brain and nervous system is like "from the inside," so to speak; but there is no immaterial soul or self lying behind it, except as a spurious mental construct. I will return to this view later.

To bring out an insight about the subject of experience, let me draw your attention to the phenomenon of the internal perception of one's own body, called proprioception. I will spend a bit of time on this, but I have a specific reason for doing so.

Proprioception is different both from sense-perception insofar as the senses we use to perceive the external world do not appear to be involved (although scientists have described many systems used for proprioception). If you feel an ache in your legs or a tickling sensation under your nose when nothing is tickling it, or if you feel your body to be hanging upside down or to be in motion or falling, you are experiencing proprioception.

While it is possible to sense specific parts of your body, it is also possible to sense your entire body, as when you have the feeling of dizziness. Just as you can have proprioception of missing "phantom" limbs, such whole-body proprioception need not be veridical (genuine, accurate); you can have the feeling of dizziness and spinning even when your body is at rest.

Through proprioception, you become aware that you are dizzy.

As you can see, there are two different kinds of subjects of proprioception: individual body parts and the entire body of which they are parts. This is true whether or not a certain internal sensation is veridical.

Now we can draw an analogy. Consider first that we can sense what is going on inside our own minds via the process, or "faculty," called introspection. Just as there is proprioception of a specific pain in my stomach, there can be introspection of a specific instance of remembering a childhood ball game. But just as we can say there is proprioception of the entire body, can we also speak of introspection of the "entire mind"? And would that not be introspection of the soul?

What would introspection of the soul be like? Again, just as we have a sense of passing internal sensations that are part of an entire body (that we can also sense), so also we can introspect various passing thoughts, emotions, imaginary fears bubbling up from the subconscious, all of which are part of yourself. Just as you have a generalized sense of your body quite apart from any specific sensation you feel within it (or about it), you can have a generalized sense of your whole mind, or soul, or yourself.

How would you go about trying to persuade yourself that you have the capacity of such "whole mind" introspection? In much the same way you persuade yourself that you have "whole body" proprioception: you cut out localized, specific sensations. After ignoring all the various pains, pressures, positional information, etc., about your body, there remains a sense of your whole body. Similarly—and it helps if you close your eyes and retreat to a quiet, unbusy place—if you ignore the passing thoughts, imaginings, memories, and perceptions, as you attend to what is passing in your mind, you do, contrary to Hume, find that you are aware of something in addition to all that.

The proposal, then, is that that is you: your listening self. Your soul.

If this is correct, then it is perfectly natural if it said to be in prayer or meditation that we best come in contact with our own souls. Both of those involve tuning out the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of both external sensations and undisciplined internal thoughts, and instead focusing on the "still small voice" of your conscience or best self in conversation with God, in the case of prayer, or on nothing at all except the bare self, in the case of much of meditation. Even when we are lying in bed with our eyes closed, waiting for sleep, behind the mad rush of worries and happy thoughts, I propose we can more easily distinguish in our awareness that which has the thoughts.

We are, I maintain, well acquainted with our souls, even if we cannot articulate this acquaintance very well. Of course, the soul- and self-deniers will say that this hard-to-articulate sense of ourselves does not show that there is in fact a soul. It is, at best, a piece of highly fallible evidence, they will say. But I maintain, to the contrary, that there is no reason to doubt this internal evidence. The sense of our selves—and that it is our selves, or our souls—is as clear, if we know how to attend to it, as any other evidence we can have from the senses or from introspection.

Descartes

It was on the basis of something like this introspective argument that Descartes concluded, in the Second Meditation, "I exist." And his focus was indeed on himself and the nature of this "I" that exists. The mind, he thought, was better known than the body. As he puts it:

What is the 'I' that seems to perceive this wax so distinctly? Surely I am aware of myself not only much more truly and certainly, but also much more distinctly and manifestly. For if I judge that wax exists from the fact that I see this wax, it is much clearer that I myself exist because of this same fact that I see it. Possibly what I see is not wax; possibly I have no eyes to see anything; but it is just not possible, when I see or (I make no distinction here) I think I see (cogitem me videre), that my conscious self (ego ipse cogitans) should not be something. ... Further, if the perception of the wax is more distinct when it has become known to me not merely by sight or by touch, but from a plurality of sources; how much more distinct than this must I admit my knowledge of myself to be! No considerations can help towards my perception of the wax or any other body, without at the same time all going towards establishing the nature of my mind. And the mind has such further resources within itself from which its self-knowledge may be made more distinct, that the information thus derived from the body appears negligible.
Descartes, Second Meditation, trans. Elizabeth Anscombe and Peter Thomas Geach

Wax, which occasioned much discussion about the thing that senses it

Philosophers have long contradicted Descartes, saying that all he introspects is a sensation (or imagination, etc.) of the wax, and not himself, i.e., his self. But it is clear from a close reading of the text that Descartes is very specifically claiming to know not merely a sensation within him, but indeed his self. He does not say he is "thinking" or "thoughts," but a "thinking thing"; he is a res, not merely cogitans. And while he does not use the language of "introspection," it is clear that he and his argument depend on introspection of himself.

I can endorse this in my own case: that these passing thoughts I have are occurring to me, to myself. I would quite naturally use the word 'I' in attributing them to the object to which they occur, to, as it were, their owner. I only go a bit farther, when I "close my eyes," "stop up my ears," and "turn away my senses from their objects" (as Descartes puts it in Meditation Three), and claim that I can positively introspect that whole mental self, just as I can without any trouble "propriocept" my whole physical body.

Does the Soul Exist?

If we can (veridically) introspect the soul, then of course it exists, just as you could not (veridically) perceive a tree without the tree existing.

What we have not established, however, is that the thing we decided we could introspect deserves to be called "the soul." I said earlier that the soul is (1) irreducibly spiritual, (2) an object, i.e., proper subject of attribution, and (3) has mental events such as thinking, intending, remembering, and perceiving occurring within it. It seems to me this is a good set of requirements for a soul, so if we have good reason to think something satisfies (1)-(3), then it is a soul.

I can introspect, I argue, my "whole mind," i.e., something analogous to proprioception of my whole body. I can also introspect that various mental events occur within this thing I also introspect; i.e., I am aware of pleasures, pains, and ideas occurring to (or "within") myself. All I mean is that when I, for example, remember a pleasant walk from earlier in the day, and then close my eyes and introspect my "whole mind," then of course the thing that I am introspecting just is that which has the memory: it is myself. So this object of introspection satisfies (3). But at the same time it satisfies (2), because it is I who remember.

Heavier than my soul

The only thing left to establish, at least to my present satisfaction, is (1): that this soul is "spiritual," whatever that means; and to establish this, it suffices, I think, to establish that it is not physical. I raised this question earlier when mentioning that my soul does not weigh three pounds although my brain does. This line of thought is worth spelling out in more detail.

This is a commonly-employed argument for dualism: that there are things true of the mind, or mental events, which are certainly not true of physical (brain) events. I can introspect the experience of yummy delight in ice cream, but in so doing, I am not coming to know any brain event. Even if there is some assignable brain event that invariably accompanies pleasure in ice cream, that pleasure, which is wholly accessible to me, is utterly unlike any firing of neurons.

I once, as a physicalist, thought I had a response to this: there is no need to be able to introspect the appearance or anything, really, about the underlying physical state of a mental event. Having a certain experience just is the system's natural response or operation when a certain corresponding brain event is occurring. There need be no expectation of an ability to introspect anything about the underlying brain event.

I now see, however, that I was only grasping at straws with this response; I was not taking the problem seriously enough. The physicalist's claim, again, is that mental events just are brain events. But if that is true, then when I am coming to know a mental event, then I am coming to know a brain event. On the physicalist's view, they are supposed to be the same; so, clearly, they are not the same. There is no easy response to this argument. It is simple, to be sure, but it is powerful.

Now, I cannot pretend that this brief discussion puts physicalism to rest for good. I state it here only by way of explaining to you, the reader, and to myself why I have come to this conclusion now. While being irreducibly mental might not be quite the same as being "spiritual" or "of the soul," I have already established that the soul is held to contain (or be subject to) "mental" events just as the "mind" and "self" are. Indeed, I am satisfied, so far, that the soul, the mind, and the self are the same. So if various mental events are "irreducibly mental," that by itself establishes that they are "irreducibly of the soul," or spiritual.

So the "whole mind" or soul we can introspect satisfies condition (1) as well. "I" am a subject of experience, of various mental events, and these are indeed irreducibly mental.

So the soul exists.

The Knowability of the Soul

We know a great deal about "what goes on" in our own souls, particularly if we are at all reflective. If the arguments above are correct, we can also know that we can (and often do) introspect a soul—something that is properly called our own soul. But that is not to say that we understand what our souls really are. We have no idea of what "soul-stuff" might be (in ancient times, it was held to be "breath").

It is around this point in the narrative (if not much before) that we are likely to see an outburst from physicalists, who see exasperating, willful ignorance at play here. After all, they say, we are learning more and more about exactly how the mind is encoded in the brain. We can locate specific mental processes in specific parts of the brain. We are learning more and more about the biochemistry of the brain, and thus how specific drugs affect the brain. For 25 years we have even been able to communicate via computer connections with the mind via the brain's predictable architecture (i.e., the so-called brain-computer interface). Scientists have even observed how the MRIs change when a subject is introspecting rather than paying attention to sensory information. What is this if not the discovery of ever greater detail about the underlying physiology of the mind and of evidence that undermines the existence of a soul?

Maybe more to the point, why is there any need to posit the existence of some spiritual feature—a "subject of experience" that is a soul—only to declare it to be unknowable? Why should the physicalist not laugh this claim to scorn? The soul does seem unknowable, indeed; but perhaps the reason for that is that it does not exist. And there something else to justify such scorn, more than just a failure to respect Occam's razor ("do not multiply entities unnecessarily"); there is the keen awareness by an irreligious, rational scientist confronted with a belief that shows every sign of being motivated by the wishful thinking of religion. After all, it is precisely the belief in the soul that permits us to believe in life after death, in a higher state of being (e.g., existence in heaven), and indeed in God (or the gods), who is (or are) supposed to be a "great soul" who can help and comfort us as, various religions have repeatedly confirmed, nothing else can. The secular scientific mind not only concludes that there is conclusive evidence against the soul, but also that the belief in the soul is transparently biased and irrational. How can the soul be defended against such an onslaught?

As the soul is nonphysical, you cannot make a picture of it. This is not the soul.

The physicalist is well advised not to be too smug. Other philosophers and scientists think that, despite progress in brain science, we will never "crack consciousness," a problem that bears a close relationship to understanding what the soul is, insofar as what David Chalmers called the "hard problem of consciousness"—the subjectivity of experience, the "what it's like"-ness of consciousness—is evidence that consciousness will never be reduced to any physical thing or process. A few scientists even think we can learn about the soul from quantum physics—I have not tried to understand why they think we could, but a few seem to think so.

It may be more apt to take any such strange frontiers of physics—which presumably do not make people doubt the existence of physical objects—as a metaphorical illustration of why we should not be terribly disturbed if it should turn out that we still do not know what the soul is, despite knowing more and more about psychology and brain science.

For all his smug scorn, there is no good response to the Cartesian argument that we can introspect the soul with a high degree of certainty, in much the same way we have proprioception of the whole body. This is because such introspection is data, not theory. To be clear, there is theory involved, namely, that what is introspected deserves to be called the soul. But that is something I have established, so far, to my own satisfaction.

As I said, there is a great deal we know about our souls—i.e., about what they do and experience. The thing we do not know is what they are. This is no more a confession of intellectual bankruptcy than would be a 17th-century scientist observing confidently that there are physical objects without knowing that they are made of atoms.

The nature of the soul, and the many and detailed features of subjective human experience, "spiritual" and otherwise, is simply not discoverable by any examination of physical stuff. That is merely a reflection of the fact that they are not physical. And that means, in turn, that the scientific methods that work only on physical stuff will not work on mental or spiritual stuff. Again, we cannot infer what anything is like from the most advanced and complex understanding of the brain and nervous operations. Remember that there are many states the mind or soul can be in. Philosophers may say the soul is a "simple" thing, but how it interacts with the world is anything but simple.

"I am the captain of my soul," something very rich and complex—not simple.

It is not as if the rich experiences of fully human lives, and everything they entail, are trivial. No, the stuff of our souls is precisely the stuff we write our greatest literature, poetry, and philosophy about. This is what inspires those religious sentiments that lead people to worship and sacrifice.

We, those of use who believe in souls, need not be irrational or anti-science. I do not wish to deny or minimize any of the scientific discoveries made about the operation of the brain. I concede entirely—why would I not?—that our inner lives are deeply tied up with the operation of the brain, somehow. I am sure Descartes would not have wished to deny that, either, had he learned the details. I remember the class laughing in 1987 when we first read Descartes, since he thought the seat of consciousness was the pineal gland. I think we are not apt to laugh quite so much anymore, since we discovered a place in the brain that seems to be responsible for consciousness, the claustrum, can be stimulated in a way that causes instant unconsciousness. It turns out that the claustrum is not that far from the pineal gland; Descartes was not far off.

There is no amount of discovery of the neural concomitants (things occurring together: I choose the word deliberately) of mental phenomena that will render introspection and proprioception irrelevant. Data from these purely mental abilities of ours will always undergird any future conclusions of brain science. Brain science is downstream of introspective psychology and always will be. Discoveries made about brain science, therefore, cannot refute the datum that I am aware of my soul.


A Rationalist Approaches Christianity

I am privately linking from here (below) a new essay about Christian religious epistemology, 20,700 words (if you can believe that). Here is the first paragraph:

The purpose of this discussion is to determine whether I should—whether it is rationally justified to—conduct a systematic study of natural and revealed religion, in order to decide whether I can in good conscience declare myself to be a Christian.

The question I examine is not whether Christian belief is (or can be made) rational. That is a very big question. Instead, I examine something more preliminary: Whether a person in my present position could explore Christian belief rationally despite some admitted biases, whether on various bases a peremptory judgment may be made against Christianity, what a rational procedure of exploring it might look like, whether such a procedure is consistent with my long-standing methodological skepticism, and finally, if so, whether I should in fact give up that skepticism. Inter alia I do explore what underlay and initially kindled my recent interest, and later also I share what specific (mostly philosophical) lines of thinking I have explored that gave me hope that a rational Christian belief might be possible.

The essay is here (210K, password protected); I have given some people the password. If you don't have the password but want access, send me an email at larry (at) sanger (dot) io.

I will probably post a later version of the essay here on this blog after I get feedback.

Please add your comments on the essay here, below!


Why God Might Exist: A Dialogue Concerning Unnatural Religion

Modern religious skeptics often declare that the reason they are atheists is that there is no good evidence for the existence of God. It is as if they were mere dispassionate judges, and no one has yet submitted adequate reasons to adopt a belief in God to them—the immaculate Tribunal of Reason, of course. Such self-described rationalists vehemently deny making the claim that God does not exist, and thus they reject the notion that they must have positive arguments for the conclusion that God does not exist.((If they are sincere, then I would call them 'agnostic' and not 'atheist'. Most self-identified activist atheists—i.e., aggressive "New Atheist" types—think 'atheist' means simply 'one who lacks a belief in a god', and that 'agnostic atheist' is not a contradiction, but this is neither the common usage, nor was it ever my usage, of these terms. Fortunately, this semantic dispute does not matter much to the present discussion.)) If their supposedly rational stance were sullied by a positive declaration that God does not exist, then they would have to have positive arguments for that declaration.

New Atheists. Submit your arguments to their Tribunal of Reason. They're better than you.

So, naturally, they want to avoid such a commitment. This seems reasonable. After all, it is among the canons of rational skepticism, if anything is, that we avoid unnecessary commitments. The modern skeptical view is that both the existence and the nonexistence of God are just such unnecessary commitments.

The Supposed Absurdity of God

As I was reflecting about my own lack of belief, it occurred to me that one of the most persuasive arguments against God—certainly one that I personally have taken very seriously—is a Humean argument,((David Hume makes a similar argument in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.)) as follows.

Absurd or no?

Whatever else the Judeo-Christian God is supposed to be, he is supposed to be a soul, albeit a very great and important soul.((For the sake of this argument, I am setting aside any doubts about what souls are and whether they exist.)) Now, the only way we have of conceptualizing what souls are is by comparing them to minds. And while we have plenty of experience of our thoughts interacting with our bodies to create stuff like houses and cakes, we have absolutely no experience whatsoever of a mind-like entity creating an entire universe ex nihilo (from nothing) without the use of a body. Especially to the 21st century scientific mind, increasingly well understood as it is by neuroscience, the idea that something like this lump of grey matter might, just by an exertion of thought, cause a universe to pop into existence is not just unsupported and hard to conceive of, it is just ridiculous.

Now, you do not have to conclude from that argument, "Therefore, God does not exist." But if the above is your earnest reasoning, then surely that is the conclusion you come to.((Well, not necessarily. You could take credo quia absurdum est seriously.)) And as I think very carefully about my own past mental states, it occurs to me that that is how I have thought about the matter, although I did not want to admit it to myself. I wanted to avoid drawing the conclusion that God does not exist in order to avoid a rational and rhetorical burden of proof, but in all honesty I reflect that I did, in fact, draw that conclusion. I was never sure, of course: I take my methodological skepticism seriously. But look here, if by definition 'God' refers to a soul that created the universe, if the only way we have of understanding that basic claim is by analogy to our own human minds, and if it is absurd to suppose any such thing might create solid matter with mere thought, then that absurdity definitely suggests that God does not exist. So no such whole-universe-creating soul exists.

Still does not appeal to me. (Tertullian did not say this.)

As an argument for the conclusion that God does not exist, this is not a deductively valid argument (it is an argument by analogy, after all), but it is inductively strong and very persuasive to me. That is, this argument is by itself a persuasive reason, maybe the very most important reason, that I personally could not take theism seriously. Minds do not create matter, and certainly not ex nihilo. I often went a step further, by way of hedging: if there is a God, then I have no idea what sort of thing God could be.

World-Building Tech Might Exist. So God Might Exist.

Recently, I have been re-examining arguments on all sides in the philosophy of religion. As I thought again about the argument above, it suddenly occurred to me that I had since more or less refuted it. How?

A couple of years ago on this blog, I did a bit of speculative philosophy. Modern technology, I wrote, would have looked like magic to people long ago. It is not hard for us to imagine a Matrix-type AI system that constructs the very world we seem to live in, some centuries from now. Now, I wrote in that blog post, let us extrapolate even further:

Mr. Anderson, a creation of a super-intelligent AI.

We literally cannot imagine what scientific discovery and technological innovation will make available to us after 500 or 1000 years. Now let’s suppose there are advanced civilizations in the galaxy that have been around for a million years.

Isn’t it now hackneyed to observe that life on Earth could be a failed project of some super-advanced alien schoolchild?((A suggestion again from Hume's Dialogues.)) After all, we already are experimenting with genetic engineering, a field that is ridiculously young. As we unlock the secrets of life, who’s to say we will not be able to engineer entirely different types of life, every bit as complex as the life we find on Earth, and to merge with our inventions?

...

But what if there is some alien race that has evolved past where we are now for millions of years. Imagine that there is a billion-year-old superbeing. Is such a being possible? Consider the invention, computability, genetic engineering, and technological marvels we’re witnessing today. Many sober heads think the advent of AI may usher in the Singularity within a few decades. What happens a millions years after that? Could the being or beings that evolve create moons? Planets? Suns? Galaxies? Universes?

Now, I do not claim to be able to draw any positive conclusions about the universe from this sort of argument, though some bolder people do.((Most famously, Elon Musk says that we are probably living in a simulation, i.e., something like The Matrix is not just possible, it is probably true.)) But it occurred to me that maybe there is a good answer to the atheistic argument above. To wit:

As it turns out, our souls—our minds, anyway—individually or collectively, in the distant future, might be able to create a universe. If we can cleverly conceive and take seriously the possibility that some ultra-futuristic humans, or human-AI hybrids, might create planets, stars, galaxies, and ultimately universes, then it is possible that God—a "great soul" and creator of the universe—exists. The suggestion that such a powerful "mind" exists is not absurd.

A lot of people seem to think so. I'm still thinking about the one, and that is enough.

Is the Existence of God Still Absurd?

I can imagine the atheist responding, "But God is supposed to be unlike a futuristic Matrix-creating AI; he does not create machines that fool us into believing that we are living in a real universe instead of a simulation. He creates the universe itself, the real deal. Moreover, he is supposed to do this ex nihilo, which no one says we do."

This atheistic response does not take the argument seriously. We are to imagine a billion years of technological advancement, with the assistance of an AI accelerating discovery even beyond present levels, which are historically outrageous. We can imagine future engineers tapping into the levers of planet-building as in Niven's Ringworld and Dyson spheres. We can imagine more than that even. Moreover, we are already engineering brain prostheses, and theorizing how we might upload our brains into computer systems. It seems possible that some future mental structure—no longer neural, but still mental or soul-like—might create a universe with a thought. We cannot rule this out as absurd.

Cosmic Megastructures - Could We Build a Ringworld?
Ringworld

"Ah," says the atheist, "but you are still imagining creation happening within an already-existent universe. You are not imagining the creation of an entirely new universe ex nihilo. You have never addressed the absurdity of that."

True.

But I notice that the atheist is retrenching to a much weaker position.((At this point, if I wanted to get into the weeds of abstract philosophical theology, I could talk about creation of a contingent, dependent universe ex nihilo by a necessary, independent being, but that would be a distraction, and I want to focus on the argument at hand.)) Initially, my (Humean) argument persuaded me that a universe-creating mind was absurd, yet here I find myself quite able to take seriously the suggestion that future human minds might be able to create universes with a thought. I am not saying that I think such a wild science fiction story probable, only that it seems conceivable just by extrapolating from the technological advancements we have seen so far. The only thing I continue to find puzzling is the idea of creation ex nihilo. And that is not exactly absurd, but only a difficult problem; after all, physicists do have any clear cause for the original state of things that gave rise to the Big Bang.

But even on that point, though, I have a sobering realization: one of the denizens of a future human-created universe might well look back at the initial state of that universe and wonder how it was created ex nihilo. The builder of that artificial universe might hand down messages that he is the creator of all. The denizens would be in precisely the same situation with regard to their artificial universe as we are with regard to our (hopefully) real universe.

I am not suggesting that we are living in a simulation or an artificial universe. I am only suggesting that if we can cheerfully conceive of such possibilities without shouting "absurd!", then it should be much easier for us to cheerfully conceive of a universe-creating God.

If world-building technology might exist someday, God might exist today. And frankly, this rejection of my earlier Humean argument gives me more reason to re-examine other arguments about God.

If this book discusses natural religion, this blog post must discuss unnatural religion.


On Attitudes Toward Evil

As I have been thinking in recent months both about different religions—but especially Christianity—and about evil in general, it strikes me suddenly that how different worldviews regard evil is deeply important. This is especially important to me now because of the stunning and sickening amounts of evidence that has emerged that many, not just a few, of our supposed "elites" have been involved in one of the very most evil of human activities, the enslavement and rape of children.

Secular Western Society

It has always been my view that evil, properly so called, is a real and horrible thing, though I did not until recently formulate any clear idea about what it was. But I knew my position was not the intellectually fashionable one, looking at most "sophisticated" modern art and culture, as well as the discourse about evil. The fashionable view seems to be that, while activities traditionally regarded as evil might be abhorrent, there is a certain degree of rebel "cool" and authenticity about them—even about destructive crime. Thus, somehow, The Godfather films, about murderous thugs, are regarded as the pinnacle of sophistication. The callousness of a film like Natural Born Killers is ignored while its edginess is celebrated. The music of criminal gangs literally celebrates crime and is regarded as the trendsetter of cool. So, surely, it is sickeningly appropriate that some of our most admired leaders in politics, science, and entertainment would be close partners and friends with Jeffrey Epstein, a child trafficker.

Of course, most of us are, or claim to be, sickened and shocked by such behavior, and if we happen to enjoy entertainment that seems to elevate evil, we say it is just fantasy. Rarely do we ask ourselves why we find depictions of evil so exciting, attractive, and sophisticated. Similarly, we tend to look at entertainment that elevates honesty and goodness as insipid, boring, and vulgar—or perhaps that is just how the entertainment that Hollywood produces turns out. Movie villains are always the interesting, complex characters; heroes are always dull and flat.

But what should we think about evil? If we put the question seriously, secular scientists and scholars assure us that evil does not really exist. Their views, though doubtless presented as the height of sophistication—because only intellectual sophistication could explain why someone might take such a bizarre stance—strike me as themselves merely naive, if not positively corrupt and dishonest. But more on that anon.

I mention the views of modern, secular Western society toward evil, because I want to compare them to some ancient and religious views of evil. I will save the Judeo-Christian tradition for last.

Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, and Manichaeism

These ancient views embrace the notion that there are two different forces at work within the universe (and by extension within human society), one good and benign, and another evil and malevolent. Thus the view is, in general, called dualism (not of mind and body, but of good and evil as cosmic forces). The struggle between these two cosmic principles is at least part of what leads to suffering.

Now, I am not a historian or religious scholar, so I cannot speak on this with any authority, but it seems to me the key motive behind such dualism is not merely to explain the existence of suffering. It is, also, to explain the evil tendencies within us. If there is a noble struggle, it is the struggle to purify one's soul of the evil in which we are enmeshed. But the power, ultimately, is more or less balanced and not all on one side as in Christianity.

Hinduism

Hinduism predates the aforementioned religions, and it has similarly dualistic notions, but instead of there being two opposing (and specifically personified) forces, it is typically said that there are good and evil in all of the Hindu deities and in all of us, although the gods are generally held to be good and there are supposed to be evil demons opposed to them. The admixture of evil, or bad karma (behavior), in human life is why one of the key requirements of dharma (law) was to live unselfishly and to ritually purify ourselves (not unlike in the Old Testament Jewish tradition).

Buddhism

Compared to Hinduism, Buddhism's stance on evil is relatively simple: while it is crucial that we avoid bad karma, as with Hinduism, the truly enlightened view, which we will have if we achieve nirvana, is the elimination of ego and the illusions of the world. As with Hinduism, this is inherently complex and confusing. But the idea seems to be that evil exists and matters for purposes of weighing up your karma, but it does not really exist if you have achieved nirvana. Since nirvana is a higher, more enlightened state, it seems that Buddhists hold that evil does not really, in fact, exist.

For both Hinduism and Buddism, it is because we are inevitably mixed up with evil throughout our lives that we end up being reincarnated instead of being liberated.

The New Age Movement

While the so-called New Age movement is very diverse in outlook and it is hard to generalize accurately, one of the most common strands one finds in it is gnostic dualism—the rejection of an all-good, monotheistic divinity—via "theosophy." But unlike ancient dualists, New Agers believe that good and evil, though they appear to be at odds, do not really exist, because they are subjective creations of the human spirit. In the New Age of Aquarius, such old ideas will pass away as we all attain some sort of enlightenment, possibly to realize that we are all part of a single universal soul or spirit.

There is something seriously wrong about the notion that evil does not exist because it is a mere construct of unenlightened people; that is a positively pernicious idea that only Buddhism avows. Again, this is not my area of study and so I am only guessing, but the notion that evil seems to be so only due to an unenlightened perspective is not apt to be comforting, in the long run, to those who have suffered from monstrous human evil. Indeed, this strikes me as the sort of doctrine that abusive cults might use to blind their followers to the injustice done in the name of "enlightenment."

The Judeo-Christian Tradition and its Difference

While cognate ethical concepts are to be found across all or most religions, the Judeo-Christian tradition truly stands out in one particular: there is, in fact, one thing in the universe that is utterly pure and holy, namely God, and we fall short of God's purity, which is why it is essential that we be redeemed.

While Jews and Christians traditionally believe in demons, who can be one cause of evil, we fallible humans do not need their help. Evil lives in us due to "original sin," which can be understood as the doctrine simply that we, all of us, inevitably do choose to do something sinful before too long. In this this realistic moral assessment of human fallibility, Judaism and Christianity are much the same as most other religions.

Again, where this tradition differs, however, is in the notion that above us there is an utterly good God. This God does indeed desire for us to live humbly, fairly, and compassionately; most religions are concerned for us to do that. But the God of the Bible (in both testaments) in addition says that the only way we can have a chance at a life made holy is not through any sort of "enlightenment" in the next world, not through not by fighting off opposing forces by which we are inevitably contaminated, not by being joined to a world soul, but—while remaining a separate individual in this world—through the redeeming grace of God. That means that God basically forgives your sins, but only if you have subjected your sinful will to his. God is willing to as it were wipe your sins clean if you are sincerely willing to be made an agent of his (pure, all-loving) will.

Now here's the question: Is the notion of "saving grace," as I have quickly and roughly explained it, a difference that might actually matter?

I think so. All of these other religions have human beings mixed in with evil forces which they cannot properly fight; ultimately, in an enlightened state, the evil on Earth is held not to exist, or not to matter. That seems to imply that it is a matter of perspective—as certain New Agers put it most straightforwardly—that there is, in fact, truly evil in the world.

The Judeo-Christian view is that evil certainly does exist and it absolutely does matter. It is not obviated by a shift in perspective according to which we are one with the universe. We remain individuals throughout. We must, quite individually, take responsibility for our evil, period. But with the help of God, i.e., if we (again individually) enter into a certain kind of relationship with God, then our evil is forgiven or redeemed.

Secular Western Society Redux

If you now want to review what I said about the cynical views of secular Western society toward evil, you will find they have more in common with non-Christian religions than with Christianity. Like dualistic views, Hinduism, and New Age philosophies, we live in an inevitably messy world and are thrown upon our own resources, at least in this world. But, again like Buddhism and New Age philosophies, evil does not really exist according to a more enlightened (scientific, scholarly) views.

What do you think? What have I missed?


Why I Have Not Been a Christian, and Why That Might Change

A Personal History of My Nonbelief

I think I lost the faith I was raised in (Lutheran) when I was 16, a few years after the family stopped going regularly to church. That was when I first started studying philosophy more seriously. To be specific, I stopped being Christian because I stopped believing in God.

A methodological skeptic

I had no particularly special reason to reject belief in God, back then; it was just heaved overboard with virtually all my deepest beliefs when I went through a process of systematic doubt, one not unlike Descartes'. Before I had read Descartes, I decided that it was extremely important that I have the Truth, with a capital T, in all its depth and complexity. So I decided that the only way to arrive at that would be to systematically study philosophy and to begin by ejecting all my beliefs, a stance called methodological skepticism. The belief in God was, of course, one of these, although I think I had already started to doubt a year or two before the philosophy bug bit me.

The reason I desperately wanted the Truth and went through what was an intellectually and even to some extent emotionally wrenching period for some years, in my late teens, is that I had come to understand that the truth about how to live and how to think about the world was actually extremely important. One example I gave myself was some people I knew who had gotten deeply into drugs. I knew (because they told me) that they thought drugs were really cool, that they could expand your consciousness, man. But I watched as several of those people descended into what looked to me like a brain-dead stupor and even crime. It occurred to me that their former beliefs about drugs turned out to be not just false, but quite dangerously false. I then extrapolated from that example to many other life situations. In this way I clued myself in to an idea that I think many adults never do learn—that errors in our thinking that have consequential impact on our lives tend to be systematic and deep. They tend to be about important, broad matters, often aptly described as "philosophical" even if a person knows nothing about philosophy.

Veritas

This is not to say I had no thoughts whatsoever about proving the existence of God. It was obvious enough that belief in the existence of God was, to be sure, one of those extremely consequential beliefs, with systematic, deep impact on our lives—enabling, as it does, an acceptance of various kinds of (theistic) religion and everything that entails. But none of the arguments I encountered seemed adequate. For example, I seem to remember criticizing the cosmological argument, that the universe must have had a beginning and that there must be some explanation of that beginning that was outside of time. Well, doesn't that mean there might have to be some explanation of this entity that exists outside of time? What does it mean, anyway, to exist outside of time? Sounded like potential nonsense, and I did not want to accept anything that I did not quite clearly understand. And perhaps the universe always has existed and that there was indeed a cause of the Big Bang in some unknowable state prior to it.

My formal study of philosophy in college and then grad school (lasting from 1986 until 2000) did not change my skepticism. I remember a student at Ohio State coming up to me around 1995 and asking what my response to the fine-tuning argument was, and I had to concede that I didn't have a response off hand, and that it was certainly among one of the strongest arguments for the existence of God. In fact, I was much struck by this fact, at the time, and it made me wonder if perhaps I was not giving theism short shrift after all. Later on, in 2003-5, I taught philosophy of religion a few times at Ohio State, and learned about the arguments in more depth. I was able to explain the arguments both for and against the existence of God with enough plausibility that the class was evenly divided on the question, at the end of the term, of whether I myself was a believer, an agnostic, or an atheist. I never did tell them that I was an agnostic, in fact.

Might exist

How I Might Become a Christian

It is 2020. Has anything changed? Well, yes. I find myself taking theism in general and Christianity in particular much more seriously these days. I notice, of course, that this runs directly counter to my old methodological skepticism, which has not really changed, in general. So let me explain a few things I now believe about Christianity, and why I might make an exception to my skepticism for it.

The first thing I want to point out is that, now that I am older and more experienced, the dangers of false belief—i.e., the moral hazards to me, personally—do not seem to be nearly as pronounced as they might have been when I was younger and relatively naive. My experience of life means that, even if I do accept something quite incorrect, I am less likely to get involved in something life-ruining at this stage in my life.

Was He a zealot?

Besides, in the case of Christianity, decades of experience have brought no great and deep insights into anything that I would call dangers associated with Christian religious practice. This isn't to say zealotry and radicalism don't exist, which of course they do; it is just that I know that I am very unlikely to get involved with them. This is true of the most sincere believers I know. They are, quite simply, extremely pleasant people to be around, and they are, far from being crazy, some of the most sane and grounded people I know. It is also quite plausible that it is their faith that has grounded them. They take morality seriously, as something they should act on. They understand and live by the notion of Christian humility and charity, the combination of which make them perfectly docile.

Meanwhile, the more I have learned about the psychology and practices of both atheism and left-wing thinking, generally speaking, the more I am forced to admit that no small amount of my own nonbelief might have been rooted in not just general skepticism but also in propaganda. In short, modern Western society, especially in academic and intellectual circles, is deeply hostile to Christianity, so that it simply has not been given a fair shake. I don't just mean that Christians have been made to look like bigoted fools—though indeed they have been so slandered—I mean the best side of the religion has been systematically hidden. It has not been shown to the best advantage.

I'd like to read a few books like this

In practice, this has meant that I have not been exposed to the best versions of the arguments for God and Christianity, I have not really understood the Bible (and also did not grasp that there was something quite interesting to understand), and I have been largely ignorant of the details of Christian apologetics. In a society more sympathetic to Christianity, those possessed of the more compelling arguments for God would receive a more frequent hearing, I would have studied the Bible properly at some point (I am reading it all the way through for the first time now), and I would be more thoroughly familiar with apologetics as its elements would be both commonly studied and "in the air."

I am not ready to call myself a Christian because I am not ready to declare and defend a belief in God. But, privately and publicly, I have been re-examining many of the, to me quite familiar, arguments for the existence of God, and I have come to a new perspective on several of them.

Reflections on Philosophy of Religion

Any one argument for the existence of God is not particularly persuasive, but taken together, they are more so. If you take the various specific conclusions of specific arguments as data, then "A personal God with whom it is possible to have a personal relationship" becomes an explanation of the set of them, and thus the conclusion of an argument to the best explanation (also called an abductive argument). In other words:

  1. Probably, there is something outside of space and time that explains why there is something rather than nothing.
  2. Natural laws and constants seem fine-tuned for the existence of matter and the rise of life.
  3. We have experience only of minds producing such timeless or abstract things as natural laws and constants.
  4. The only explanation we seem to be able to come up with for why there are these natural laws and constants is that they are aimed at, or have a purpose or function of, the origin of the universe and ultimately of the life we see around us.
  5. Any such purpose would seem to be benevolent and to suggest rules for us, insofar as it allows us to live well, if we live in accordance with our nature and circumstances on earth.

I hear he had some arguments for God

Individually, conclusions like 1-5 look relatively weak, but they are, nevertheless, in need of some explanation or response. (Perhaps I could add to this list.) We can respond critically to each of them, indeed, which is what I have been doing for decades. But an idea I never have really taken seriously, until quite recently, is that we can explain them all together by reference to an eternal, non-extended mind-like entity, originating not only the universe but the laws according to which it runs, which entity has purposes and even benevolence toward life. Thus all of the various "arguments for the existence of God," or several of them anyway, become so much data, or explananda, for a single overarching argument to the best explanation, the explanans being the ordinary notion of a personal God.

I'm not sure precisely what to make of this argument—not that I haven't had thoughts about that. I might elaborate those thoughts later.

Said he believed anyway, go figure

Anyway, to get from there to Christianity, it is necessary to move well beyond what philosophers call "natural religion," i.e., conclusions you can arrive at without any "revealed religion." Why should the God of the Bible (called variously Yahweh/Jehovah, the LORD, and Jesus) be identified with the entity posited as an explanation of 1-5? I'm working on an answer to that as well. It's not simple.

For one thing, it requires that one grapple with the idea of the soul or spirit, of a mental entity independent of any body. While I have always thought it to be beyond doubt that there are mental experiences and hence minds in some sense, the notion of a mind independent of any body (so, a soul) has always seemed puzzling to me. Frankly, one of the stronger arguments for souls is near-death experiences, a reported phenomenon I have never been able to rule out.

But this would mean I would have to re-evaluate the physicalism I have long adhered to, when it comes to philosophy of mind. I have thought that the mind is a property of the body, and the thing that makes it seem to be so completely different from anything material is quite the same as what makes the problem of universals so puzzling: what are properties, anyway? I'm not quite sure I can see my way clear to abandoning that rather elegant solution. But I can admit that, even if (as Hume emphasizes) I cannot introspect a self independent of any passing thoughts or feelings, I do seem to have a sense of a self. I always thought of that as being my body (so that my thoughts are properties occurring to me, a body). But I suppose now that there is something rather absurd about that suggestion. I mean, look, when I say that I'm happy or sad, thoughtful or confused, virtuous or weak, am I referring to my body (such as my brain)? Surely what I mean—and this is an important point, since the whole argument turns on what I am introspecting—is something quite different from my body. Which part of my body is happy? My mouth, which smiles? No. My head? Don't be silly. My entire body without any differentiation? That does not make sense. My brain? That seems more plausible, but I'm not thinking about my brain, surely, when I say I am happy. No, it's my self I mean, which is something I have a definite sense of and which is different both from my body and from any particular idea or feeling I have.

Well, it's possible.

This probably doesn't quite entail that I have a soul, much less that I have an immortal soul. Anyway, I'll leave that there for now.

In any case, if I am going to take all of these things seriously, and consider embracing a belief in God, let alone in Christianity, then I admit that I would have to abandon my methodological skepticism. And I am not really sure I want to do that, as it seems to me it has served me well.


How I'm Reading the Bible in 90 Days

The Bible is easily the most influential book of Western literature. If you haven't read any part of it at all, you aren't educated, period. But, for that matter, if you haven't read it all the way through, then again you still have a massive hole in your education. That's what I told myself last month, deciding once and for all to fill in that hole.

I guess I'm still an agnostic, but let's just say I'm newly curious. I might explain why later on, but for now suffice it to say that for many years I was not particularly curious about the possible truth of monotheism or Christianity in particular—and now I am.

So last month I decided to start reading the Bible all the way through. While I had read quite a bit of it when I was a kid, then a chunk (25%?) again to my boys over the last decade as part of their homeschooling, I never did read the entire thing cover to cover. Maybe more importantly, I never really did understand it. Now that I am reading it, I am understanding Christian (and Jewish) theology much better than I used to.

Even with great care, the big problem about reading the Bible is understanding it, because it is a difficult text. I don't care if you are super-smart and have read lots of difficult texts; if you haven't read the Bible in particular, then you won't understand it without a lot of help, period.

For such a truly ancient book, the Bible is actually quite an amazing piece of literature, history, theology, and philosophy, if you didn't know. Not for nothing has it dominated and shaped Western civilization. Not for nothing did most the greatest minds of Western civilization (most philosophers other great minds such as Sir Isaac Newton) admired it for millennia. It may be confusing and confounding, but it is not stupid. It makes a lot more sense and is much more consistent than many atheists and agnostics believe. I am not declaring here that it is the Truth, but I am declaring that it is far more coherent and intelligent—again, properly understood—than many people in our modern, secular culture know. They think it's stupid; the reason they think so is that they don't understand it. Period. The significance of the Bible text is complex, layered, and deep. But you can't understand that significance without reading it, studying it, and getting help (see below) with your study.

As I first post this, I've done 30 days of my Bible-in-90-days plan, and I've been clued in to some modern discoveries, ideas, and tricks for doing this. I thought I'd share them, if for no other reason than to memorialize this for myself in case I want to do it again sometime:

  • You don't have to use a printed book to read the Bible. I'm using several apps concurrently. This is lighter, easier, and comes with audio and multimedia built in.
  • Top Bible apps? I have reviewed a lot of Bible apps fairly closely. At present (this could easily change), there are five stand-outs, all iPhone apps since I don't use Android: YouVersion's Bible app, Tecarta Bible, Bible Hub, Logos, and BLB (Blue Letter). None of these is perfect (they should contact me and I'll tell them how to improve). What do these excel at?
    • YouVersion's "Bible" app: The plethora of great reading plans (see below), the audio versions, and good but not perfect UX (design/ease of use), especially when it comes to switching between translations. Unfortunately, no commentaries available.
    • Tecarta Bible: Excellent (still not absolutely perfect) UX, good audio versions, free built-in commentaries. You might want to buy a commentary, and if so, I'd recommend doing it through this one because of the design (and they have dozens available, pretty cheaply too).
      Note: As reading hubs, the above two are the best I've found so far.
    • Bible Hub: While the design (it's an app wrapper for a website) might be off-putting, they've got massive numbers of free commentaries that have become my go-to place for second opinions. The amount of free study/scholarly resources packed onto the website is amazing and as far as I can tell, superior to any other app's by far. Just for example, check out this array of free commentaries on one Bible verse. So, that's in the app. If only they would improve their appalling UX...
      Note: The above three are the ones I've been using on a daily basis for the last two weeks or so.
    • Logos: Lots of free resources, particularly the Faithlife Study Bible and online dictionary. The UX is "clever" but actually clunky, so I don't use it much; I can see how some might like it. Especially good for word study and serious Bible scholarship.
    • BLB (Blue Letter): tap a version, get a bunch of resources including, again, a bunch of commentaries. Bible Hub is probably better. Good for word study.
    • So in general, I am currently using YouVersion for the reading plan, actual reading, and audio; Tecarta Bible as my "go-to" commentary; and others for backup commentaries. I also use a Bible dictionary app and a backup Bible atlas map when the commentaries fail me.
  • Here, let me try. If anyone reading this wants to pay me to plan out an open source, collaborative Bible study app from the ground up, I am willing to do so for a fee (gotta eat). If well-coded and my UX/design recommendations were followed, it suspect would blow all others out of the water. Gee, that doesn't sound like Christian humility, does it? Well, let's just say I find these apps frustrating, as useful as they are, and that it is easy for me to imagine how to improve them by using the best ideas from all.
  • Listen to an audio version while you read. Maybe this is a matter of taste, but I find that if the text is coming in through the ears as well as the eyes, I'm able to focus and understand better. But be sure you pick a decent audio version. There are a lot of clunkers, it seems to me. A lot of "dramatizations" in which the voice actors actually try to act out different parts leave much to be desired. I ended up preferring the deep British voice (free) that goes with the KJV in the YouVersion. No nonsense, no strenuous attempt to interpret the text or "do voices." But it does read expressively, and not blandly, as many other (free) audio Bibles do.
  • Play with app reading settings. Your overall experience may be changed significantly, maybe even profoundly, by changing any one of these variables in your app, so play around with these:
    • Bible version/translation: KJV for literality and purism, NASB for (maybe) scholarly accuracy, ERV ("Easy-to-Read Version") for ease of reading, etc.
    • Go-to reading app. You might prefer one I haven't listed. Go with the one that's easiest for you to use.
    • Go-to commentary. Do try several. Some are free, and some other feature-rich ones are quite cheap (less than $10) if you purchase through the app.
    • Go-to sets of reference (maps and Bible dictionary). Super important if you actually want to understand what's going on, which you should, because your commentaries won't always answer your questions properly. Keep trying until you get a set of reference materials that always answer your questions satisfactorily.
    • The speaking voice. I keep coming back to that deep-voiced British guy after trying out others. Frankly, I can't stand the ones who lamely try to act out parts and get them totally wrong.
    • Reading plan, if you use one, which I recommend (see below).
    • Font style, font size, and background (white or black). Yeah, those things make a difference too.
  • Making sense, important. But back to strategies I'm following. In general, do make a real effort to understand the hard vocabulary as well as the person, tribe, and placenames. If you don't, then yeah, it's going to be merely puzzling and look like ancient nonsense to you. If you do, a lot of things start falling into place. Individually it may not matter whether Og or Abimelech was a king, priest, or general, or whether he came from came from Shechem, Moab, or Bashan, but attention to the full set of these details will help the whole to come together much more coherently.
  • Translation switching: for vocabulary. Pick a literal translation (I use the KJV) and stick with it. This can be harder to read but it will get you closer to the original thoughts than versions that are basically just rewritings. I gathered from a few different reliable sources that Bible scholars also like the NASB (North American Standard Bible). Still, I look at other, easier versions when I have trouble with the actual vocabulary of a verse (YouVersion's Bible app is great for this: just tap on a verse, then tap "Compare"). This can be faster than consulting a commentary, if your issue is just about vocabulary.
  • Study Bible: for proper nouns. While switching back and forth between versions can help you puzzle out some archaic vocabulary, the person, tribe, and placenames require other kinds of resources to make sense of. The most efficient way to make sense of this is to use a study Bible (that's what I do, anyway), especially one that comes with many detailed maps integrated just where they are needed (ESV Study Bible is what I use in no small part for the maps). But no study Bible seems to be complete, so the more the better. A Bible dictionary/encyclopedia will often help answer more general questions the commentaries don't cover (like "Who was Abimelech again?").
  • Intros: background for theology, culture, history, archaeology, etc. If you're not familiar with the Good Book, you can't just read the thing straight through. Especially if it's your first time reading the Bible, you definitely will not understand it if you don't have the assistance of not just commentaries, but also introductions or lectures. Book introductions (e.g., an introduction to the book of Genesis) or video lectures (which cover similar information) are essential to understanding the theology of the Bible above all, which is kind of the whole point, but also the narrative structure, which is important if you want to make sense of what you're reading. I've been reading my study Bible's text introductions sometimes, and always also watching short YouTube videos.
  • Study the general concepts. Sometimes you'll notice certain concepts coming up again and again without much introduction or explanation, things like covenant, sacrifice, various angelic beings, redemption, forgiveness, etc. When you come across these and you really have no idea what they really mean, look them up and read several paragraphs about them, at least. If you don't have at least some rough understanding of those (and quite a few other) concepts it is absolutely certain that you will not understand the Bible. Many of those concepts are very unfamiliar to modern, largely amoral, secular minds, and require special explanation.
  • Reading the Bible in 90 days is doable and is a good idea. There are lots of "reading plans" built into several Bible apps, including the top two listed above. Again, YouVersion's Bible app has the biggest selection that I found and their reading plan feature is very well designed. Now, most whole-Bible reading plans are for 365 days, but that struck me as being too slow. For one thing, as with any body of knowledge (think especially of foreign languages), the more you jam it all in together in a relatively short space of time, the more mental connections you will make and the better understanding you will have. So I experimentally tried out the 90 day plan, and worked my way up to doing all of a day's work in one day. I think requires something like 90-120 minutes per day—maybe sometimes more. This includes consulting resources such as commentaries.
  • On "The Bible Project." So a seminary professor and a writer got together with a team of dozens to produce some quite well-made, opinionated, extremely informative videos about not just every book of the Bible, but how to read it and various Biblical concepts. These videos are part of a daily orienting "devotional" that goes along with the reading plan I chose. I'm not 100% sure I trust the theology of these videos (er, so do they really think the seraphim are flying snakes, like the pagan Egyptian critters?), but they sure are handy in how they encapsulate a lot of information briefly. I'm checking out other video series as well, anyway.
  • Do searches on critical questions. Naturally, if you're the least bit curious, you'll have hard and critical questions. Why does God seem to be so, um, harsh in the Old Testament? What really do the Israelites have to atone for? What's the point of all the sacrifices? Is there any real reason to take the history of the Gospel story seriously? Etc. Use your search engine of choice to look up the answers. You might or might not be convinced by the answers (I'm afraid I'm not, in some cases), but if you don't know how intelligent, well-informed, and committed believers answer such questions—and especially if you assume that they have no answers to such questions, because they're not smart enough to think of the questions or take them seriously—then again, I guarantee you simply won't understand what's going on when you read the Bible.
  • Do not zone out and let the words wash over you. Look, maybe you don't need to understand everything in the greatest detail, as a serious scholar does, but if you let a verse pass you by and you can say to yourself, "Wait, what did I just read, and what did it mean?" and you don't know, then you're not really reading. You're sort of pretending to read. Don't do that. If you let whole sections, chapters, or books go past you when you're on autopilot, I guarantee you'll miss something important. The only time when you can safely skip something is when you're going through "the begats," the repetitive details of sacrificing (but going through one of the repetitions seems necessary), the word descriptions of boundaries of the territories of the twelve tribes, and other such things that are best regarded as reference information inserted into what is otherwise a narrative.
  • I walk and read. I happen to pace through my whole house as I read, getting my hourly walking minutes in (something I do for health) and my reading time in. By the end of the day I've finished my day's reading. If not, I do another half-hour's reading after the kids are in bed, no problem. Maybe you can read while on the train, or while on the treadmill, or whatever.

There are of course many other things I am not doing (or, not so much) and that at a future date I might recommend: Bible study groups, both online and in face-to-face; getting help from an actual human being (always a good idea); doing a course on the whole Bible concurrently with reading (something I started on The Great Courses Plus, since we have a subscription, but found was too much of a commitment to do along with 60-90 minutes of daily reading).

Anyway, there you have a catalog of strategies I've followed the last few weeks. Since I'm far from being an expert on any of these subjects, I submit these just as ideas, and maybe more experienced people will be able to give me more ideas as well.


A Theory of Evil

First posted Aug. 16, 2019. Revised and reposted Nov. 4. Good to read alongside "Why Be Moral."

For a long time, the nature of evil eluded me. But dark contemplation of the Jeffrey Epstein case and of the very existence of pedophile rings has clarified the nature of evil for me. Here, then, is a brief and provisional theory.

Evil is contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others.

Evil is contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others. I will explain what I mean by this, but first let me clarify what, on this theory, evil is not.

One personification of evil: Jeffery Epstein

First, evil is not contempt for this or that person; contempt can be deserved. Epstein himself richly deserves our contempt. But evil is something more far-reaching: it is contempt for the humanity of others. That qualifier is very important, as we will see.

Another thing evil is not is mere old-fashioned, curmudgeonly misanthropy. Misanthropes might claim to "hate everybody," and they are very much distrusting, but they aren't necessarily bad just for that. Most self-described misanthropes do not hate human life as such; they're just deeply, profoundly disappointed with everyone. They have ideals that we fall far short of, and it is actually their unyielding principles that make them misanthropes. They are impressed with the idea that we are all sinners, so they have not given up the idea of sin. They do not reject the principle that we should value all human beings; they just believe that, due to the inevitable foibles of humanity, we cannot justify admiring or trusting anyone. Distrust and disappointment are not evil at all.

Quite a good book

I have come to the conclusion that a proper understanding of evil—i.e., understanding the very idea of contempt for the humanity of some others—is profoundly important if you are to have a mature, clear-sighted view of your own life and of the world and its history. We might define naïveté as the failure to accept that anyone has such contempt. I have been rather naïve, in this sense, all my life. I have always liked Will Rogers' charming sentiment that he never met a man he didn't like. I have become increasingly impressed, over the years, by the Christian elevation of love, or agape, as a virtue—love for one's fellow man. I thought it was something of a failing in myself that I disliked some people. One of the fictional characters I rather admired was Dostoyevsky's Idiot, Prince Myshkin; his trusting nature, his unwillingness to accept the existence of evil, was his problem, too. I am coming to the conclusion that I myself have been rather idiotic about evil, and that has to end.

Kant

An evil person looks at another person and says: this is a non-person; this is a piece of trash; this is an obstacle or tool to be used and then discarded. Psychiatrists call such people sociopaths. A Kantian would say they treat others as mere means to their selfish ends, not as ends in themselves. That formulation is close, perhaps, but limited. After all, there is also a kind of nihilistic evil, which seeks to destroy pointlessly, due to the deepest contempt for a person, and hatred of their humanity as such—not to advance any further goal. Such dark, twisted, broken souls exist in real life, not just in horror stories.

With that long preamble finished, let me now explain what I mean by the key phrase "contempt for the humanity, the human life, of others." How do I distinguish this from mere contempt of some disagreeable human feature? If the big bad boss sees that an employee does poor work, the big bad boss might look down on, or have contempt, for the employee, but it might be due only to poor work. The stereotypical mean girl in high school has contempt for "ugly girls" and "nerds," but that might only be contempt for ugliness and nerdiness.

However nasty they can be, I don't propose to call the boss or the mean girl positively evil unless they demonstrate contempt for something deeper: their target's humanity.

Not quite evil

So, what is that? I add "human life" as a clue: I mean contempt for the very life or existence of a person, not just for perceived weaknesses, faults, sins, or mistakes. This could entail careless disregard for a person's mind or body, or both; it could entail active desire to harm without regard to ultimate consequences. Certainly this comes in degrees. Perhaps a bully who relentlessly teases is on the road to something like evil, if over time it becomes clear that the bully thinks of the person as merely a plaything for pleasurable torture. But most bullies have some regard for their victims: killing, for example, is out of the question. An accidental killing would inspire deep guilt in most of the world's bullies, who are merely bad, not evil. Lack of a sense of guilt indicates positive evil.

But clearly, evil is not an all-or-nothing affair. There are degrees of evil because there are degrees not just in the scope of one's contempt for humanity (as I will explain shortly), but also in the amount or strength of one's contempt.

I take the latter to be a truism: some people are merely bad, some are inconsistently evil (for example, reformed), and some are "pieces of work." The concept of a "piece of work" has long interested me. Perhaps it can be understood as a person who consistently has a mild amount of contempt for the interests of those who surround him, but who hides this contempt well. In any event, bad sorts have contempt for the basic humanity of others, contempt that waxes and wanes with their moods, their society, substances imbibed, and even their philosophy or religion.

Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son

But generally, I think that for us to call a person evil requires strong and consistent contempt for the humanity of others. By the way, whether a person actually acts on their contempt seems unimportant. An evil monster, locked away with no opportunity to work evil, is still an evil monster.

How should we understand the other key term, "contempt"? A brief gloss is "considering someone to be inferior or worthless." It is typically regarded as an emotion, but there is a distinguishable attitude of contempt as well, one that could be cold and unfeeling, insofar as it merely involves a low evaluation of others. The attitude of contempt would be the contemplation of another person as being unimportant. Someone who regards some others with "nothing but contempt" will not credit them with rights, interests, or consideration typically accorded to (respected) peers.

But contempt for the humanity of others is a special sort of contempt. Note that we sometimes speak of dignity as a sort of "baseline value" that people have, in virtue simply of their being human. Contempt for the humanity of others, then, is the denial of their basic dignity. One who has such contempt denies his victim—deemed "scum" or "trash"—any rights, interests, or consideration.

Contempt for the humanity of others, then, is the denial of their basic dignity. One who has such contempt denies his victim—deemed "scum" or "trash"—any rights, interests, or consideration.

Root of all evil?

Evil is essentially dehumanization. If love of money is the root of all evil, that would be because it reduces human beings to commodities—which is to dehumanize them.

So far I have omitted to mention the varying scope, or target, of evil. Sometimes, the scope is quite narrow. A person obsessed with just one other person can have quite evil feelings and motives toward just that person. Perhaps this is how we should understand certain relationships that go terribly wrong. In addition, some criminals who are prone to outright evil may experience that type of contempt—for the humanity of their victims—on an individual basis. Two particularly evil crimes often directed at individuals are murder and child rape.

If evil can be manifested toward single individuals, can it be manifested toward families and small groups? Certainly it can. The motive of revenge may be understood as the utter rejection of the humanity of a person, well beyond a righteous demand for justice. When the revenge motive occurs to an extreme degree across families, clans, and gangs, we have a blood feud, which is sometimes regarded as a particularly dark sort of evil: members of opposing tribes regard each other as worthless vermin in need of extermination.

"I am a man."

Widening the scope even further, racism is revealed as one of the varieties of evil: it involves the very destructive notion that there is no difference among all members of a race, that they are all equally undeserving of respect. It can be horrifically evil in its more extreme forms, in which contempt rises from lack of respect as a peer to positive desire to harm or exterminate some dehumanized vermin.

War crimes are a tremendous evil: they reveal profound contempt for the humanity of the enemy. War is a terrible plague, because success at the endeavor often seems to require that one dehumanize, or lose all respect for the humanity of, one's enemy. By contrast, noble warriors have respect for their foes and refuse to treat their humanity with contempt. Perhaps that is an old-fashioned notion of war, but it seems the only defensible one. Good soldiers may have to participate in terrible, destructive battles, but they never sink to the level of war crimes because they retain a basic respect for the enemy's humanity. I wonder: Is war psychologically devastating for very good people, unusually so, because it requires they kill people they respect?

Child rapists would have to have contempt for the minds and bodies of the most vulnerable human beings, for their basic humanity, to mistreat them so appallingly.

Jimmy Savile—a child rapist, pure evil, was knighted and allowed to thrive for decades by powerful people. Ask why.

One very broad possible scope (21% of the U.S. population) is children. There are some people in the world—believe it or not—who have contempt for the humanity of children. They are the child rapists. They would have to have contempt for the minds and bodies of the most vulnerable human beings, for their basic humanity, to mistreat them so appallingly.

In the broadest scope, there is an evil, if thankfully small, movement afoot in the world. It appears to be hostile to human life as such, wherever it occurs. In lieu of a better word, which I couldn't find, I invented one: antivitism (anti-life-ism). This is, I want to suggest, an evil movement, however organized or disorganized it might be. "After birth" abortion and active euthanasia of teens for depression are two examples: only those contemptuous of the value of human life as such could champion such things. Again, pedophilia advocacy is another example: the harm to children is so horrible and so obvious that it seems only contempt for humanity as such can explain the defense of it.

One strand of this movement does have a name: antinatalism. As a dictionary definition has it, this is "a philosophical position that opposes human procreation, holding it to be morally wrong." More generally, antinatalists hold that human life is itself a tremendously bad thing, as they never tire of telling you.

One of the original anti-natalists, Théophile de Giraud

Now, let me be fair: I don't claim that antinatalists feel contempt toward their fellow humans. They certainly sympathize with human pain, which of course suggests decency. But anyone who takes such a theory seriously enough to act on it, I think, would have to be among the most inhuman monsters conceivable. If human life is on balance so awful, then the antinatalists would seem to be doing us all a favor by literally putting us out of our misery. This does raise an interesting theoretical challenge to my definition of evil: if antinatalists have contempt (as in, a very low estimation) for human life, but they do not in any obvious way have contempt for people, are they evil according to my definition?

My response to this is not to revise my definition of evil but to accuse antinatalists of incoherence. If they value human pain, then as a matter of fact they do value human life over human death, regardless of their protestations. Please, though, antinatalists, remain incoherent if you must remain antinatalists; please don't start taking your contempt for human life to heart.

I accuse no one of evil of the broadest possible scope, for the simple reason that the accusation would be absolutely extraordinary, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Perhaps some of history's worst murderers were that evil—perhaps many. I would not rule that out.

Luis Alfredo Garavito Cubillos, The Monster of Génova, admitted to rape, torture, and murder of 138 children and teenagers

So much for this brief discussion of the scope of evil. Next I want to maintain that it is of the utmost importance that we accept that evil actually exists. Naïve people have had too little experience with extreme evil to accept that it exists. They react with horror and incomprehension when confronted with it. I myself have willingly used the concept of evil (as in essays I linked to above about murder and child rape) but with some incredulity. I suppose I used it as shorthand for "extremely bad." That's not wrong, but it fails as a definition because it leaves out the essential feature of contempt for humanity.

The existence of evil is simply hard for some people to accept, and that is precisely because they can't imagine anyone having such contempt for innocent life. It was only after wrestling with the Epstein case—only after confronting the increasing evidence from this case from my own lifetime, of monsters callously, deliberately, joyously violating innocence, demonstrating extreme contempt for the human life in their sway—that I was really able to believe it.

A modern impulse, which looks naïve, is to be highly suspicious of the concept of evil. Old-fashioned ideas of evil strike "sophisticated" people, sometimes, as mean, stupid, and insensitive. So they try to sympathetically "understand" evil, to explain it reductively in terms of vague, impersonal root causes rather than the unambiguous attitudes of specific, real people.

I don't recommend it

This modern notion that the concept of evil is somehow insensitive is highly pernicious, I believe. If we are not willing to name evil as such, we will understand evil motives badly, we will judge evil actions improperly, and we will punish evil crimes leniently. To deny that evil exists is to make it easier to be evil.

Indeed, in the last few generations—since in the mid-20th century—clinical, merely descriptive, sympathetic, and even celebratory depictions of evil have become the norm in Western culture. I will not here speculate on why this has been the case. I will say, however, that I believe this attitude to explain why crime rose in the same time period (until mass incarceration began), and why horrifically evil crimes seem to have proliferated and to have become ever more popular to this day.

This is a result of the moral abyss we find ourselves in—an echo from its depths, so to speak. If we fail to credit evil people fully with their inhuman motives, if we fail to contemplate head-on the tremendous destructive force of their contempt for humanity, then we allow evil to thrive. That is a fact, a very awful one. It should give us all pause.

If we fail to credit evil people fully with their inhuman motives, if we fail to contemplate head-on the tremendous destructive force of their contempt for humanity, then we allow evil to thrive.

We have been allowing evil to thrive. A good first step to stopping it is to re-examine the notion of evil and begin, once again, to name it for the unspeakable, but very real, horror that it is.

I leave you with a related thought.

What makes humanity loveable, and what inspires the most devotion toward heroes and leaders, is the capacity for creation, the ability to invent, build, preserve, and restore whatever is good, i.e., that which supports and delights flourishing, well-ordered life. What makes evil individuals worthy of our righteous anger is their capacity for destruction of the good, due to their contempt for human life as such.

Ary Scheffer, The Temptation of Christ

If so, then the love for God may be understood as a perfectly natural love of the supremely creative force in the universe. For what could be greater than the creator of the universe, and what could be more loveable? And then it certainly makes sense that they would regard Satan as a force most worthy of our hatred and condemnation, since Satan is held to be an essentially destructive entity, the one most contemptuous of human life as such.


On the clash of civilizations

There is a global conflict underway. A good way to understand it is by looking at the different interests that are coming into conflict. And a good place to begin is, of course, with:

The immigrants. People from the “global south” are immigrating north, inspired by the images of prosperity they see on television and the Internet and drawn by ever easier and cheaper transportation and lax immigration policies. In some cases, they are actually escaping real oppression. In most, however, they are merely running from poor, backward, relatively lawless, and restrictive systems. In any case, there is certainly mass immigration, mostly northward.

The conservatives. Conservatives view the demographic and cultural changes that this mass immigration brings with alarm. They have many different concerns:

  • If demographic trends continue, it is easy to see how Christianity (or more precisely a slightly Christian secularism) might well be replaced in Europe by Islam within a few generations.
  • Already, the presence of Islam in Europe is changing some legal processes, and Sharia law could well be instituted in some places before that much longer, if the Muslim population continues to grow.
  • In the United States, immigration from the global south means more Democratic voters and more enthusiasm for socialism. Conservatives don't like that.
  • In general, Western civilization (religion, languages, tastes, mores), maybe especially in Europe, are weakened as non-Westerners move in.
  • In Europe, places that have been largely free of crime for generations are suddenly dangerous. In America, a talking point (I'm not sure how well supported it is by statistics) is that there is more crime if we have more illegal immigrants.
  • And yes, for some there is surely a racial element to their concern: they don't want Europe, or America, to become less white.

The nationalists. I make a separate category for the Japanese, Hungarians, and others who are broadly opposed to immigration, period. They may be distinguished from Western conservatives who are often perfectly happy with a fair bit of immigration, just not unregulated, indiscriminate, and too much immigration. The Japanese, Hungarians, and quite a few others simply don't want to change the character of their societies, as immigration might well do. They look at the effects of immigration on Europe and America and say, "No thank you."

The progressives. On the other side, there are many progressives and liberals, as well as many libertarians, who essentially want there to be open borders. As with progressives' demands for censorship, their increasing moral fervor for open borders is evident, but they don't often want to admit it in so many words. But the reasons for the stance are clear:

  • These are disadvantaged brown people who need our help. Why not give it to them? To exclude them from sharing in our prosperity is racist.
  • Indeed, the conservative position is easily dismissed as racist, which by contrast gives progressivism a brighter moral luster. (That isn't an argument progressives make, but it certainly seems to inspire them.)
  • We can expect greater support for socialist, globalist projects from immigrants, who are more left-leaning. We can do more for them, and they will be grateful to and supportive of our programs.
  • If the "Western" or "white" character of European and American civilization are in decline, let it decline. If there are people reproducing more, who can support social programs arriving from other places, that's a good thing, not a bad thing.

The elites. Closely overlapping with, but distinguishable from, the rank-and-file progressive viewpoint is what I will call the elite viewpoint. Their concerns are perhaps hidden and cynical but no less real and influential:

  • We need cheap laborers and "guest workers." These immigrants do jobs our own people are not willing to do. Few will actually admit to thinking so, but a view aptly described "elitist" is that society actually needs an underclass and European and American societies need to replenish theirs.
  • Immigration is shaping into a massive left-right fight, and that's a good thing—it justifies concentrating power in the hands of the more enlightened power centers of Brussels and Washington, D.C., as well as justifying the seizure of new powers that, formerly, liberals would never have agreed to (such as control of speech and mass surveillance).

This conflict has come to a head recently—why? It seems to be a combination of factors. There has been lax immigration enforcement for generations; this has led to a growing flow (and now a flood) of immigration, including illegal immigration especially recently; there is again especially recently widespread pro-immigrant sentiment on the left and among elites, which has given political cover and support for expanded bases of social support; in recent years, tolerance of illegal immigration has become de rigueur, with signals everywhere in mass media indicating that complaints about illegal immigration is politically incorrect; meanwhile, some of the ill effects of illegal immigration, especially crime in Europe and political chaos in the U.S., have made immigration in general an important hot-button issue; and, finally, the urgency of the issue has radicalized some, who are all but declaring that they are in favor of open borders.

In other words, things are coming to a head especially because our elites and progressives seem increasingly openly in favor of open borders, and the borders really have been opening up. This would seem to entail an enormous change in global civilization; and it makes an adjudication of all of the issues listed above (and below) incredibly important to settle.

In a blog post last March, I asked whether Western civilization is collapsing. In the end, I didn't find the question all that fruitful. Conservatives say yes, progressives say no or who cares, but it doesn't seem that anything is going to be settled by discussing that question. I think it might be more enlightening to ask another: What do we want the world to look like?

The main options of immigration policy seem to bear directly on this question: open borders (as many progressives and libertarians want); the status quo (which nobody seems to want, but which seems very difficult to escape); traditional regulated immigration (which we all say we want, except for the explicitly open border radicals, but which the Establishment resists tooth and nail); and very little or no immigration (a la Japan).

The question is what we want the world to look like. It is difficult to clarify exactly what this important question even means.

But perhaps "What immigration policy do we want?" is not the question I want to ask. I'm asking a philosophical question that is, perhaps, prior to or in any event seems logically bound up with questions about immigration policy. The question is what we want the world to look like. It is difficult to clarify exactly what this important question even means.

It is tempting to place before the reader a few choices:

  • Traditional pluralism. We want a smorgasbord of different nations, each having a different language and culture, a national religion, etc. In other words, more or less how the world was before the advent of globalism...and colonialism.
  • Monoculturalism. We want a single global monoculture, everyone speaking the same language, having the same secular beliefs, democratic socialist politics, a vibrant culture of entrepreneurship, globally regulated Internet, etc. Eventually, a single world government.
  • A midway position. Something in between these, more or less like what we have now. Maybe there will be a lingua franca like English and "best practices" for business and technology, and plenty of intermixing, but most countries (there will always be exceptions like the United States and Canada) will retain a national identity, even if they are members of superstates.

Then we might ask on what grounds we can adjudicate among these—and then proceed to the debate.

But this is also not quite an honest sort of debate to have. It is not unlike imagining what your ideal state would be like, and then telling an elaborate story about Utopia. This is fairly useless because unless Utopia is possible, then you're simply telling a story. If you can't rationally expect to be able to bring about your Utopia—if there is no clear way to get from here to there—then taking half-steps in that direction might well prove to be disastrous. For example, you might say you want a global secular monoculture, but if you expect to get one by advocating for open borders in the E.U. and the U.S., don't expect to usher one in anytime soon. How are you going to get the rest of the world on board? And wait a moment—do you want the rest of the world on board? Or is it only the Western world that you want to lose any cultural distinctiveness? Would you prefer to have that (or to tolerate that) in Japan, Indonesia, Somalia, and Argentina?

So I don't want to invite speculation on what your Globutopia would look like. It seems to me that the question really is "Do we want open borders—and if not, what sort of immigration policy?" after all. This is the relevant question in the sense that it is essentially the question we disagree on.

That is not to say there are not more fundamental questions than that. For example:

  1. Is it preferable that all or the vast majority of people in a country share the same culture—language, religion, traditions, mores, broad political culture (in the U.S., our "civic religion"), etc.?
  2. Is it preferable—if it is possible—that all the world share the same culture?
  3. Is it preferable—if it is possible—that all the world have roughly the same amounts and types of cultural difference among different countries? So it's not a global monoculture, but global multiculturalism spread out everywhere.
  4. Is it possible for human beings with radically different cultures to get along very well in the same country? If it's a problem, how much of a problem is it? What is the best solution to that problem?

These are essential, fundamental questions. If we don't know our answers to these questions, it seems unlikely we will be able to defend our answers to "Do we want open borders?"

I would love to make advance tentative answers to those questions, but they are very difficult and I don't want to go on for much longer. Probably many of you would be uncomfortable if I were to put these questions to you; that is probably why we don't talk about these essential questions very much. They are deeply uncomfortable questions. They are politically fraught. But they are still important.

Here are a few notes on the four questions above:

  1. Suppose I say, thinking of a country like Ireland or Japan with a fairly distinctive culture that seems charming in various ways—that seems to benefit in various ways from being homogeneous—that it is a grand thing for everyone to share the same culture. Well, what does that say about the United States or India, countries with large minorities or various distinctive cultures? "Diversity is our strength," we are told. Is it sometimes a strength and sometimes a weakness? Or what?
  2. Suppose I say, thinking of various dystopias and the morass that is global entertainment culture as interpreted by Hollywood (and its imitators elsewhere), that a global monoculture would be a massive mistake? On the other hand, I've observed many college educated people around the world going to similar hotels, restaurants, conferences, entertainment venues, riding in similar cars and trams, using similar tech, starting similar startups, etc., in New York, Paris, Dubai, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. They seem to like it. Everybody is nice and speaks English at their conferences. Is that so bad?
  3. The idea of global multiculturalism (like, Christians and Buddhists in equal numbers everywhere) strikes me as interesting but deeply implausible. Only educated cynics, mostly but not only Westerners, view religion as a smorgasbord that you can pick and choose from. That approach seems insincere and glib. Most of us think there are differences here that really matter. Surely the idea of "global multiculturalism" is not really possible. Is it?
  4. Then there's the big question: Can people with radically different cultures be expected to get along in the same countries? Well, they certainly have to, that's for sure. I don't support religious wars, for example, or race riots, or (as in the U.S. lately) political skirmishes that resemble nothing so much as brawls between fans of opposing sports teams. But if it's a problem, what's really the solution? In the U.S., political differences have gotten so bad that some suggest we split the country in two—because we can't get along. Terrible idea, I'm inclined to think.

I haven't even mentioned another essential question to our current problem: Do we in the West have any special obligations to the people of the global south, either because their countries were formerly colonized, or because the West is more privileged? That's a question we might want to answer separately even if we think we have the other ones figured out.

There are, in fact, other crucial and fundamental questions. Here's another one: Are all cultures of equal value? Should some religions, for example, be stamped out? Don't act all shocked, now. Some atheists think Christianity should be stamped out. Some conservative Christians want Islam in Europe and America stamped out. Muslims seem to want all other religions stamped out (but maybe especially Judaism). We're probably all glad that human-sacrificing religions are gone.

What the hell do we want?

We should be talking about all of these issues and not letting them be settled by default by our elites.

Maybe I'll hazard some answers later, but I'll give you the floor now, if you're brave enough.


Gay activists and Hollywood liberals vs. traditional Muslims vs. free speech liberals

Here's a richly ironic slice of our strange, sad old world in 2019.

Ellen Degeneres is (quite rightly) protesting the Sultan of Brunei for introducing the death penalty (stoning to death) for gay sex. He's also executing people for adultery, but Ellen doesn't mention that:

https://twitter.com/TheEllenShow/status/1113177461276082177

To this, a reply was posted by an account, "Jihyo" (apparently, the name of a Kpop singer), who claims to be a Demi Lovato fan and medical student, and who writes various pro-Muslim comments. The reply was:

This is a Sharia law in Islam. And lgbt is never okay. I am an educated person & a medical student. In gynecology, urology & dermatology departments, we often get gay patients with terrible diagnoses. They always come with complaints relate to their sexual activities.
(I'm not embedding this because it repeats that Ellen tweet also might well be removed anytime by Twitter. But that's just a cut-and-paste quote of what "Jihyo" wrote.)

In the ensuing war of words, which you can easily imagine if you don't look for yourself, "Jihyo" is taken to task for being "cruel and inhumane," for being not in the "21st century," an "offensive agitator" and "nasty," etc.

One person more seriously responds that "there is no religious justification for this punishment." This is an interesting formulation: does the person mean that no religions cite any justification for stoning gays to death, or that no such religious justification would succeed if attempted?

For their part, the Sultan, his people (who perhaps understandably do not criticize his policies), and this "Jihyo" clearly disagree with both interpretations, as do many other Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, northern Nigeria, Yemen, and others. All have the death penalty for gay sex.

So now we have the interesting spectacle of Ellen, along with reliably progressive celebrities like George Clooney and Elton John, criticizing the Sultan of Brunei for a policy that they might or might not realize is already practiced in the most devoutly Muslim countries of the world.

And, interestingly, nobody is calling them "Islamophobic."

Well, why the hell not? Shouldn't they be called Islamophobic? What gives? If a conservative, or Allah forbid an alt-right conservative, were to dwell for long on the precise same facts about the modern Islamic world, if they were to call traditional Muslims "cruel and inhumane," not in the "21st century," an "offensive agitator" and "nasty," etc., then what would happen to them? Well, the U.K., Canada, Austria (probably all of the E.U.), and other countries do criminalize criticism of Islam—whether such laws should, in fairness, apply to Ellen's criticisms of Muslims seems unclear.

The weird unresolved tensions and rich ironies on display here are no doubt what caught the attention of a Paul Joseph Watson, who has worked for Alex Jones' Infowars for many years. Once, he called himself a member of the "alt right," before the term became much more clearly associated with fascism. He is, whatever else he is, an avowed foe of the left. Earlier today he posted an article on the kerfuffle titled, "LGBT vs Islam (Choose Your Fighter)," and wryly observed, "This one isn’t going to end well, is it?"

But is it only erstwhile "alt right" people like Watson, and free speech zealots like me, who observe the ironies involved here? Of course not. Old-fashioned Bill Maher could be counted on to notice the weirdness, too. He criticized Clooney for proposing a boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel: "What about Saudi Arabia? If you really want to get back at them, stop driving or using oil."

Gay conservative Andrew Sullivan made some well-placed observations on Maher's show as well: "The nice thing about a free society is that you can have a political life and then you can have your actual life. Not everything has to be political." He added, "We shouldn't be dictating our lives by religion, according to the dictates of wokeness. It kills the vitality of a free society."

Sadly, this hullabaloo will all probably disappear in a week's time. Brunei will start executing gays, just like Saudi Arabia. Gay activists will go back to making common intersectional cause with Muslims from countries where those same gay friends would be executed. After a few years, self-righteous (but strangely unreflective) Hollywood progressives will once again start checking in at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Europeans and Canadians will keep enforcing blasphemy laws against Islamophobes who criticize Islam, even when such unwoke cretins are criticizing Islam for executing homosexuals—as long as the cretins aren't too powerful and aligned with the left, of course. Then it's OK. Then they're not Islamophobes.

Attempting to make sense of all this, the beautiful people will placidly declare that they "contain multitudes." Life will likely go on much as before.


Until this year, when I decided to lock down my cyber-life and reformed how I use social media, instead of writing the above, I would have just posted some snide remarks on Facebook or Twitter. But since I've quit Facebook and don't use Twitter except in service of media I have some control over, i.e., Everipedia and this blog, now I have to consider whether the issue is worth making a whole blog post over. In this case, I thought so.