Who First Created the Gods?

Sitting at the bar last night,
I said the poets had created the gods.
But Panda, who quite obviously
Knew nothing about such matters,
Said the philosophers had created them
Hence bringing mankind the blessings
Of meaning in life.

Thus, we reached an impasse
That reduced us to an estranged silence
Of a quarter hour while we sat
Like twin sphinxes staring ahead
And all too aware of each other.

Presently one of us quietly sighed
Which was like a bomb going off.

So we began talking at once,
Our estrangement forgotten, buried
When we spoke over each other to resolve:
‘Twas the Scots who had blessed
Mankind with its meaning
By being first to create
The best single malts!

Late Night Thoughts: Friday, March 17, 2017

I turned 60 a couple months ago. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about getting older has been that I don’t worry as much about my mistakes as I used to when I was younger.

I still make as many — or even more — mistakes as I ever did, but I just don’t worry about them as much. Instead, I let the victims of my mistakes do the worrying, for part of my getting older has been my learning how to properly delegate responsibility.

I recently got involved in a discussion of nudity.  Someone said that nudity was against Christian principles for women.  That is, women should be modest in their apparel.

Then someone else pointed out there wasn’t much that was more modest than nudity.  “Hard to put on airs when you ain’t got nothing else on.”

Do you suppose American women, by and large, have similar handwriting?

At least, it’s my impression that a woman’s handwriting usually resembles other women’s handwriting to a greater degree than a man’s handwriting is apt to resemble other men’s handwriting.  Put differently, it seems more difficult to tell women apart than it seems it is to tell men apart.

If that is indeed the case, then why is it the case?

And if it is true of American women, is it true of women elsewhere?

I’ve heard people say we can never know for certain what it feels like to be someone else.  But is that really true? Is it never possible to know for certain what it feels like to be someone else?

Yesterday, I was with my friend Don for a late lunch. Don and I go back a long ways and we know each other pretty well.

At one point during our lunch, he said something that was so profound it went completely over my head and I couldn’t even begin to fathom what he meant.  I felt lost and stupid.

Then I suddenly realized: “Surely, this is what it feels like to be a politician!”

Who am I?

If you ask most of us who we are, we will answer you by naming one or another relationship. We are, for instance, a husband.  Or a golfer.  Or a businessman.  But to say we are a husband, or a golfer, or a businessman, is each case to define our self in terms of the relationship we have to something.

In contrast, we tend not to define our self in terms of what is happening with us at any given moment.  I do not think of myself as someone whose shoulder is itching. Or as someone who happens to be looking at a computer monitor.  Or as someone who is wishing it was dawn.  All of those are transient things — too transient for me to think of them as “me”.

Yet, being a husband, a golfer, or a businessman are also transient.  That is, if you really think about it, you are not simply “a husband”.  You are only sometimes a husband.  Just as your shoulder only sometimes itches.  And it is only a convention of thought that you imagine yourself to always — or continuously — be a husband.

The Cosmic Dancer, declares Nietzsche, does not rest heavily in a single spot, but gaily, lightly, turns and leaps from one position to another. It is possible to speak from only one point at a time, but that does not invalidate the insights of the rest. – Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968, p. 229.

While it might be true Nietzsche never wrote what Campbell attributes to him, Campbell’s “paraphrase” of Nietzsche’s views ranks as a sharp insight in itself.

We humans sometimes wish to construct systems of thought — worldviews — that are consistent throughout and encompass everything.  Yet, such “views” are simply beyond us, and might even be logically impossible.

So, perhaps the best we can do is to become Cosmic Dancers.  That is, folks who are capable of looking at things from many angles and perspectives, who are capable of dancing between views, but who do not settle dogmatically on any one point of view.

The mane is thought to keep the neck warm, and possibly to help water run off the neck if the animal cannot obtain shelter from the rain. It also provides some fly protection to the front of the horse, although the tail is usually the first defense against flies.

Wikipedia

I’m not buying it.  I find it implausible that manes would evolve because horses with manes had warmer necks, and that their warmer necks proved to be significant to their reproductive success.  There must be some other reason manes evolved.

But what would that be?

I was thinking sexual selection.  That is, I was thinking manes are like the male peacock’s tail.  It provides no survival advantage, but the female peacock’s like it. So the females pick the males with the best tails to mate with.  That’s what I was thinking.

But then I remembered that both male and female horses have manes. So now I’m thinking sexual selection probably isn’t the reason horses evolved manes.

But what is the reason?

For the sake of discussion, let us assume there’s an able god.  By “able”, I mean that god is capable of doing anything that does not violate the rules of logic.  For instance, it can create the universe, but it cannot create a square circle because a square circle is logically impossible.

Next, let us assume that god unconditionally loves all of creation, including each one of us.

Is that scenario logically possible?

Well, I think it is possible. I would not account it very probable. It’s not something I’d bank on.  But possible?  Yes.

Now, let us assume the same two conditions — an able god and that god’s unconditional love — plus a third condition.

The third condition is there exists a hell that is a part of creation and to which people are sent after their death if they disobey the god.

Is the new scenario logically possible?

I do not think so.  Instead,. I think the new scenario involves a logical contradiction and consequently cannot exist.  That is, it cannot be real.  But what is that contradiction?

Well, how can you logically have an able god that loves you unconditionally and also causes you to go to hell if you disobey that god?

So far as I can see, you cannot.  An unconditionally loving god would neither impose a condition upon it’s love ( i.e. if you do not obey me, I will not love you) nor would an unconditionally loving god, if it were able to prevent it, allow it’s beloved to come to harm (i.e. if you do not obey me, I will cause or allow you to go to hell).

But what do you think?  Is it an amusing logic puzzle?  Or have I just had too much caffeine again?

Four Quotes From Voltaire:

Les habiles tyrans ne sont jamais punis.

— Clever tyrants are never punished.

C’est une des superstitions de l’esprit humain d’avoir imaginé que la virginité pouvait être une vertu.

It is one of the superstitions of the human mind to have imagined that virginity could be a virtue.

Nous cherchons tous le bonheur, mais sans savoir où, comme les ivrognes qui cherchent leur maison, sachant confusément qu’ils en ont une.

We all look for happiness, but without knowing where to find it: like drunkards who look for their house, knowing dimly that they have one.

Il y a eu des gens qui ont dit autrefois: Vous croyez des choses incompréhensibles, contradictoires, impossibles, parce que nous vous l’avons ordonné; faites donc des choses injustes parce que nous vous l’ordonnons. Ces gens-là raisonnaient à merveille. Certainement qui est en droit de vous rendre absurde est en droit de vous rendre injuste. Si vous n’opposez point aux ordres de croire l’impossible l’intelligence que Dieu a mise dans votre esprit, vous ne devez point opposer aux ordres de malfaire la justice que Dieu a mise dans votre coeur. Une faculté de votre âme étant une fois tyrannisée, toutes les autres facultés doivent l’être également. Et c’est là ce qui a produit tous les crimes religieux dont la terre a été inondée.

Formerly there were those who said: You believe things that are incomprehensible, inconsistent, impossible because we have commanded you to believe them; go then and do what is unjust because we command it. Such people show admirable reasoning. Truly, whoever is able to make you absurd is able to make you unjust. If the God-given understanding of your mind does not resist a demand to believe what is impossible, then you will not resist a demand to do wrong to that God-given sense of justice in your heart. As soon as one faculty of your soul has been dominated, other faculties will follow as well. And from this derives all those crimes of religion which have overrun the world.

(Source)

A while back, I was sitting in a coffee shop when I noticed — just beyond the window — a girl of about 14 or 16 dressed in a highly sexualized manner.  That is, her clothing was flamboyantly sexual even for an adolescent.  Moverover, she was flirting with a boy, who appeared a bit older than her, and she very soon straddled his lap in order to grind against him.  I couldn’t recall when I had last seen in public such an overt display of sexuality — outside of an erotic dance club.

Now, the girl was not physically attractive by American conventions. For one thing, she was much too fat to be fashionable.  For another thing, she had a rather plain face thickly coated with cosmetics.  And, though her clothing was notable for being revealing, it did not seem that she had put much thought into the combination she’d chosen.

So, it wasn’t long before I began to wonder whether the poor girl might be suffering from low self-esteem.  That is, it seemed possible that she thought of herself as not having much to offer the boys besides sex.

I was thinking along those sad lines when I heard a male voice at the table behind me say, “God! Look at that slut!”

Of course, I don’t know whether he was talking about the girl, or about someone else.  I didn’t ask.  Yet, I assumed he was indeed talking about the girl — and that made me feel old.  Old and tired.

You see, the one attractive thing I had noticed about the girl in the few minutes I’d been watching her was that she seemed so full of life.  Even if her dress and mannerisms were motivated by low self-esteem — and I didn’t know that for certain — she appeared at the moment happy.  She was, if only for a while, the queen of her universe.  It wearied me to think anyone would simply dismiss her as a slut.

What is Philosophy?

Like most normal people, I have my days when I bounce out of bed in the morning enthusiastically eager to discuss the origin, nature, and uses of philosophy.  If today happens to be one of those days for you, you’re in great good luck because the origin, nature, and uses of philosophy are by chance the very topics of this exquisite blog post.  How happy you must be now!

A few months ago, I was discussing the origins of philosophy with someone, and they insisted that philosophy dates back some 4,000 or more years to a certain Egyptian whose name I have sadly forgotten now, but who wrote a book of wisdom literature.

They were quite sure that particular gentleman had created philosophy because they had read about it on the internet.  Of course I have nothing against ancient Egyptian wisdom literature.  (“Dost thou not spit upon the Pharaoh’s face, my son, unless his beard be upon fire”.)  But in my view of things, wisdom literature — no matter how good and wise it is — is not necessarily philosophy.   In fact, most wisdom literature even today has absolutely nothing to do with philosophy at all.  Absolutely nothing!

Unless.  Unless we are defining “philosophy” the way many of us commonly do define it.   For many of us, the word “philosophy” is almost synonymous with the word “opinion”,  and especially an opinion that might be seen as wise. “My philosophy about people is that if you treat them with the respect and decency they deserve as humans,  then it’s far easier to snooker them into giving you the money you wish to cull from them.”   I call this kind of philosophy “street philosophy” or, when I’m trying to be fancy-pants about it, “informal philosophy”.

Street, or informal, philosophy should not be confused with academic, or formal, philosophy.  The latter is philosophy as practiced by such great and polished minds as Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Sunstone, and  a host of others.  I’ll have more to say about the distinction between the two kinds of philosophy later.  For now, it is sufficient for us to recognize that formal philosophy is quite distinct from mere opinion, no matter how wise that opinion might be.

The origin of formal philosophy is traditionally assigned to one man, Thales, a Greek who once lived in what is now Turkey.  About 2,500 years ago, Thales somehow came up with the-radical-for-its-time-notion that natural events — such as thunder,  an eclipse of the sun, or a good harvest — can always be explained in terms of natural causes discernible to human reason.

Put a bit differently, Thales insisted that whatever happens in nature has, not a divine or supernatural cause (or at the very least, not just a divine or supernatural cause), but a natural cause.  Then he went a step further to also insist that we can figure out what that natural cause is via our ability to reason about things.  So, for instance, instead of simply supposing that thunder is caused by a god, we can sit down, reason about it, and perhaps figure out what is the natural cause for thunder.

This was an entirely radical new idea. You can read one ancient text after the other, and no one else anywhere in the world before Thales is trying to explain all nature events in terms of natural causes discernible to reason.  Not in pre-Thales Sumerian writings.  Not in pre-Thales Egyptian writings.  Not in pre-Thales Indian writings.  And not in pre-Thales Chinese writings.  Instead, everywhere it is commonplace to assume that natural events can and do have supernatural causes, unless some natural cause of them is quite obvious.

That is, while you might be aware even before Thales that the arrow you shot through the heart of a deer caused the deer to die — because the cause of the deer’s death is immediately apparent to you — you would not before Thales assume that any and all natural events have natural causes.  If the natural cause of a natural event was not immediately apparent to you, you would most likely guess that the cause of the natural event was something supernatural, or at least mythical.

Even more importantly, before Thales, people did not assume that the natural causes of any and all natural events could be figured out via reason.

As Thales’ influence began to spread outward from his home in Asia Minor, people began to increasingly demand rational explanations for how natural processes made things happen.  And, eventually, this mode or way of thinking about things not only got philosophy off to its start, but also in the end gave rise to the sciences.

So, formal philosophy got started about 2500 years ago with one man, Thales, who somehow came up with the radical notion that natural events have natural causes, and that human reason can discern those causes.  Isn’t it exciting to know that?  I’m excited; I hope you’re excited!

Are you excited yet?

To go on: Reason, as you might suppose by now, is the core of formal philosophy.  Or, to be a bit more precise, the core is logical reasoning.

Academic or formal philosophy, then, differs from street or informal philosophy primarily in what constitutes good grounds or good reasons for holding an opinion.  In street philosophy, just about anything goes.  Sometimes, the only criteria for accepting something is that it emotionally feels right to you, or that it makes you feel good.  So, if someone says to you, “The meaning of life is to find your gift”, you say, “Yeah, that’s right” or “Yeah, that’s true”, if the statement feels right to you, or if it makes you feel good to believe that it’s true.

Formal philosophy is very different from that.  It crucially depends on logical reasoning, and — at least, ideally — rejects any notions that can be demonstrated to be irrational.  It is like a game with only one crucial rule:  You can claim pretty much whatever you want to claim as true, but you have got to back up your claim with logical reasoning.  If you do that, then you score.

Of course, if you fail to do it, then your opponents (other philosophers for the most part), who are always on the lookout for flaws in your reasoning, will gleefully reduce your arguments to finely chopped tears-inducing pieces of onion, which they will then saute on high heat before your very own watery eyes — all the while using logical reasoning of their own to accomplish the cookery, and probably cackling to themselves while they do it.  But that’s the game of philosophy.  It’s one crucial rule is that you must back up your truth claims with logical reasoning, the more rigorous, the better.

Now, to be reasonably cautious, that’s a little bit over simplified, but I nevertheless do believe it to be largely true.

Of course, Good Old Thales was wrong about one thing. He believed that reason alone was sufficient to discern the natural causes of events.  And that was the popular opinion for quite a few centuries after him.  But, as we now know, reason alone is not sufficient.

About 500 years ago, Galileo demonstrated by making several discoveries about the natural causes of various things, that logical reasoning requires a partner: Empirical evidence, or observation.  Alone, both reason and observation are each inadequate to reliably discern the natural causes of natural events.  But woven together, they become that powerhouse of knowledge that we know today as the sciences.

It is commonplace to point out that “philosophy never solves anything”, and in a way, there’s truth to that.  Philosophy has a traditional set of problems or issues, such as “Does god exist?”,   “What do we know and how do we know it?”,  “On what ethical principles, if any, can we base our morals?”, and so forth.  And it is true those problems have been discussed by philosophers for hundreds or thousands of years without the philosophers for the most part coming to any ultimate agreements.

Yet, even though philosophy seldom arrives at any ultimate agreements (e.g. “God does indeed exist.”) it often arrives at agreements about what is a rational or an irrational approach to a problem or issue.  For instance, philosophers long, long ago agreed that “I simply feel there must be a god because if there is not,  my life will be without meaning” is not a rational basis for believing there actually is a god.  There might still be rational grounds for believing there’s a god, but everyone now agrees that is not one of them

But, if philosophy is not useful to reliably discern the natural causes of events, then of what good or use is it?  There are a small handful of answers to that question, but perhaps one of the simplest ones is this: Philosophy has worked reasonably well — or even quite well — as a means to asking the right questions.

The crucial importance of asking the right questions was pointed out by Einstein, who said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes”.

Indeed, when Thales insisted all those many years ago that natural events have natural causes discernible to reason, he was in a very effective sense changing the question of what causes things to happen, and in doing so, he  eventually (and fruitfully) opened the door to the scientific investigation of nature.  It is in fact possible to view the whole 2500 year history of philosophy as a dialog conducted over the ages — a dialog whose main benefit to us has been the discovery of the right or most fruitful questions to ask.

There are a few other uses of philosophy, but that seems to me one of the most important.  I hope this essay will be of some use to you in furthering your understanding of philosophy.  If it happens to be so, I should like to point out that grateful donations of cash can be made to me by calling 1-800-SunstonesScam.  On the other hand, if it has not been of any use to you, I should as readily like to point out that I am personally just as surprised as you are about that, and that I have a very strong suspicion some god wrote the whole thing while I was sleeping, and then signed my name to it.

Let Us Suppose There is a God…

Let’s suppose, for the sake of discussion, that there is a god.  Let us further suppose, that god is genuinely beyond understanding.

In other words, we are not merely paying lip service to the notion that god is beyond understanding — while we all the while ascribe one trait after another to that god.  No, in this case, let us suppose this god is genuinely beyond understanding.

Given those two conditions, would it make sense to conduct our lives in any way differently than we would conduct them if there were no god?

Why Did Humans Invent the Gods?

I think I’m headed in the direction of becoming a very disagreeable old man.  I think that might happen to me because I have a number of pet peeves.  Peeves that are meaningful only to me — but which I increasingly lack the wisdom to keep to myself.  And one of those pet peeves became inflamed tonight.

I have for years held the opinion — rabidly held the opinion — that E. B. Tylor was mistaken. Tylor, who was born in 1832, was the anthropologist who coined the notion the gods were invented to explain things.

I don’t think Tylor had any real evidence for his notion the gods were invented to explain things.  I agree with those folks who say he was speculating.  Yet, his notion can seem plausible.  And I suppose that’s why his notion has caught on.  So far as I can see, Tylor’s notion is the single most popular explanation for the invention of deities.

Basically, his notion goes like this:  Primitive humans did not have the science to know what caused thunder, so they invented a god that caused thunder.  In that way, their natural curiosity was satisfied.  Again, primitive humans did not know what caused love, so they invented a god that caused love.  And so forth.

Tylor’s views spawned the notion the gods would sooner or later go away because science would sooner or later replace them as an explanation for things.  Of course that hasn’t happened.

A number of scientists have come up with much more interesting theories about the origins of deity than Tylor came up with.  But those theories haven’t had the time to catch on as widely as Tylor’s. Nevertheless, the gist of the current thinking is that our brains are somewhat predisposed to belief in supernatural things — from ghosts to gods.  I have posted about those new notions here and here, but for a more comprehensive look at the new notions, see the recommended readings at the end of this post.

__________________________________

Recommended Readings:

Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.

Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion.

Does God Look Like You?

At the moment, there happens to be an invisible, undetectable squirrel in the tree beyond my window.  Although the squirrel is undetectable, I have been debating all morning whether it resembles a real squirrel or is more of a spirit.

Personally, I don’t see how my inquiry into the undetectable squirrel in my yard is any different from the dialog I recently witnessed between two believers.  One was accusing the other of lacking a sophisticated view of god because the other thought god looked like a human.  “There’s a difference between a physical body and a spiritual body”, he said, “God is a spirit.  Do you really think He looks like you?”

It’s beyond me how you can posit an indivisible, undetectable squirrel, and then argue over what it looks like.  But what am I missing?

Why Was Sodom Destroyed?

Your elder sister is Samaria, who lived with her daughters to the north of you; and your younger sister, who lived to the south of you, is Sodom with her daughters. You not only followed their ways, and acted according to their abominations; within a very little time you were more corrupt than they in all your ways. As I live, says the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.

Ezekiel 16:46-50

The strongest argument for the existence of Yahweh just might be that He is necessary to explain why America is on the cusp of destruction today.  It was only a dozen years ago, folks were talking about the New American Century — as if it were inevitable.  But it seems that it sorely pisses off Yahweh when a rich, prideful nation refuses to aid the poor and needy.

“Therefore I removed them when I saw it.”

Quick! Hide the underclass!  Ah, too late!