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Presentation: What Is Morality?

Introduction

I want to talk about ‘what is morality?’, both myth and reality. This talk is not about how you should behave: I’ll leave that to theologians, philosophers, and social reformers (and, perhaps, humanists). Each of us has a perspective of the world, through which we try to make sense of ourselves and things that happen to us. This is often referred to as a world-view from the German Weltanshauung. Tonight, I want to examine one aspect of that perspective, the moral world-view. My talk will be in two parts. Firstly, I want to survey three different ‘takes’ on morality, that of religion (evangelical Christianity), philosophy (modern analytical philosophy), and psychology (social psychology). And, secondly, I shall present a framework that attempts to explain the presence of varied moral practices around the world in light of our common biological evolution and our diverse cultural backgrounds. [Refer to handouts.] 

What is morality?

Necessity of God

In March, 2010 Richard Dawkins appeared on ABC television program Q&A[1]. This was part of his lead-up to being the keynote speaker at the World Atheist Convention in Melbourne. An audience member asked the following question that assumed the necessity of God for morality.

 HAMZAH QURESHI: My question is for Professor Dawkins. Considering that atheism cannot possibly have any sense of absolute morality, would it not then an irrational leap of faith, which atheists themselves so harshly condemn, for an atheist to decide between right and wrong? [Notice the assumptions in his question: God is necessary for absolute morality (I probably agree with this), which is necessary for deciding right from wrong (I disagree with this).]

By the way, Dawkins’ unsurprising response was questioning which parts of the Bible give us the morality he speaks of. By ‘cherry-picking’ scriptures, traditional Christians so often embrace palatable passages as universal truths and reject the unpalatable ones as simply reflecting past times.

In an earlier debate between Paul Kurtz and John Frame[2] titled Do We Need God To Be Moral? , Frame argued:

Moral values are rather strange. We cannot see them, hear them, or feel them, but we cannot doubt they exist. A witness to a crime sees the criminal and the victim, but what is perhaps most important remains invisible – the moral evil of the act. Yet evil is unquestionably there, just as moral good is unquestionably present when a traveler stops to help the stranded motorist on a dangerous stretch of highway.”

John Frame quite eloquently objectified harmful acts as evil, nicely tapping into our intuitions about human behaviour. Frame then continued in the debate to assume the separate existence of evil as self-evident and linked that to the necessity of God to explain the reality of moral good and evil.

George W. Bush regularly claimed that he was commissioned by God to rid the world of the evil of terrorism. In a 2005 BBC series Palestinian ministers claimed Bush said, ‘God would tell me, “George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.” And I did, and then God would tell me, “George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq.” And I did.’[3]

As the website CommonDreams.org commented:

From the outset he has couched the “global war on terror” in quasi-religious terms, as a struggle between good and evil. Al-Qa’ida terrorists are routinely described as evil-doers. For Mr Bush, the invasion of Iraq has always been part of the struggle against terrorism, and he appears to see himself as the executor of the divine will.

For traditional Christians, God/Jesus is both a moral role model and moral rule-maker. As a ruler-maker he: (1) defines right from wrong; (2) shows the behaviour and beliefs necessary to be good (usually through scriptures); and (3) gives us motivation to be moral in this world. Virtues for Christians are humility, compassion, and discipleship with an eye to a future reconciliation with God in this world or the next. Many Christians feel morally obligated to evangelise, to bring the ‘good news’ to others.

Contrast this to Judaism: ‘Judaism does not subscribe to the doctrine of original sin, but believes each human being to be born with the potential for doing both good and evil. The individual has to bear the responsibility for his or her actions and life becomes a struggle between the inclination to good and the inclination to evil.[4]

Morality as Reasoning and Logic

Western philosophy presents a different view of ethics and morality, one based on human reasoning. Since the Enlightenment, philosophers have sought to find a few abstract rules to apply to all moral situations, to allow a kind of moral puzzle-solving. Should you remove the life-support from a person in a coma who has little or no chance of regaining consciousness?

Both popular ethical frameworks, utilitarianism – goodness is evaluated on outcomes – and deontology – correct application of universal rules (concerned with intent rather than outcome), seek to find and apply common abstract laws to all moral situations and dilemmas. Ethical thinking is almost a process of logical decision-making, a rational process of sorting through the choices and their implications. Unfortunately these approaches, in their simplicity, can lead to morally unintuitive solutions – killing one to benefit many or telling the truth to lead to even greater harm.

This almost formulaic approach contrasts with an earlier view of seeking to identify and emulate the qualities of a virtuous person. Virtue ethics, as it is called, was dominant in Greek and Roman times and even into the early Middle Ages. There has been some revival in recent times. Typical qualities of virtue were wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Morality was seen as complex and learnt over a long period by emulating the actions of the virtuous, by doing rather than analysing.

Human behaviour and Morality

Modern psychology tells us a different, more complex, story about our behaviours, reactions, and moral intuitions.

Firstly, much to the surprise of many, we actually handle most daily interactions with our environment, including others, automatically and outside of our own self-awareness. Emotional responses and feelings give us some feedback on these interactions. The subconscious has evolved over millions years to respond efficiently and rapidly to a diverse range of stimuli. In computer terms, it is adept at parallel processing. Unfortunately, like all large, highly structured objects, our subconscious is very slow and ‘reluctant’ to change – it is subject to considerable psychological inertia. Furthermore, due to evolutionary demands, our subconscious takes a negative view of the world, alert to any potential physical and social threats, real or imagined. In social terms, personal slights, diminished position and power, increased constraints, in fact, anything that may threaten our well-being is quickly picked up on the subconscious radar as potential threats. As you can imagine, this makes sense in evolutionary terms. It is better to have potentially false positives by running away from a bush moving in the wind than staying around to be another animal’s next meal.

Our consciousness evolved much later to support our subconscious processing, to give us the evolutionary advantages of planning, organisation, and conceptualisation. Compared to our subconscious, our consciousness is rather limited, in being able to concentrate on one thing at a time (despite female claims) and for limited spans of time. Again, in computer terms, it is limited to single-tasking and, probably, is still in beta.

So, a more realistic way of seeing the relationship between our subconscious and our consciousness is, perhaps, using the metaphor of our all-powerful subconscious as an ‘elephant’ with our consciousness considered to be its ‘rider’. The rider cannot directly force an elephant to do certain tasks through a battle of wills alone. It requires years of training of the elephant by the rider, and experimental evidence suggests something similar applies to us. So at different times the rider and elephant can work together as a well-oiled team and, at other times, they can be at odds.[5]

Some possibilities for this retraining our elephant appear to be the longer-term approaches of meditation and cognitive therapies and, even, short-term strategies with drugs like Prozac (of course with all its potential side-effects). Each approach seeks to re-train or change the ways the elephant works. Even changing one’s environment, like banning all fattening foods from a household as part of weight reduction program, takes a similar approach. By the way, this idea of change is not new and has been reflected in many traditions. Buddhism comes to mind as one that has always sought to challenge our concept of ‘conscious control’.

Secondly, we have a wonderful ability to overestimate our morality while being critical, perhaps hypercritical, of others. (Matthew 7:3 ‘Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s* eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?’[6])  Even when researchers highlighted this to participants, they saw that as useful for spotting how others fooled themselves. Perhaps the rider is also our P.R. consultant, spinning our most acceptable life-story.

Thirdly, we often oversimplify violence as between the all-good and the all-evil with the victim as totally innocent and the perpetrator as totally culpable.  We automatically assume the victim’s view represents the ‘real’ situation, while research shows a typically more complicated reality. Bush’s war on terror was filled with these over-simplifications, leading to many tragic consequences.[7]

Here are some other experimental results of psychology that question our notion of conscious moral decision-making:

  • We rationalise many of our moral reactions, even though the explanations have often little to do with the situation under question. Experimenters deliberately posed morally problematic situations but with no obviously harmful outcomes. Case studies, involving eating human flesh and sibling sex, caused strong moral reactions where participant justifications are challenged by the experimenters. Participants changed their objections until finally admitting to having no plausible reasons. ‘It just is.’ The rider now becomes the lawyer rationalising our automatic reactions.
  • Researchers have discovered the influence of ‘priming’ on our attitudes and reactions. Experiments of selective word-games with deliberate word associations demonstrably affect the subsequent attitudes of subjects without their awareness. Even hot and cold can affect our responses to people. [Discuss relevant experiments.]
  • Twins experiments demonstrate the significant role of genetics in our reactions to others across all our traits. …the “giggle twins” (so-called because they “laugh and fold their arms the same way”), Barbara Herbert and Daphne Goodship spent the first four decades of their lives apart. In the time following their reunion, they’ve discovered some remarkable parallels in their lives — both had miscarriages followed by the birth of two boys and then one girl.[8]

So, perhaps, David Hume, Scottish philosopher (1711-1776), was correct from the perspective of psychology in saying, ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”[9] [10]

Summarising the Moral Views

What does all this mean for morality? Ironically, religion and modern philosophy are similar in seeking to apply universal rules to our moral lives, rules independent of individuals and cultures. On the other hand, religion and psychology both propose long-term strategies for shaping moral lives through rules, principles, and practice. However, unlike other views, psychology recognises the fallibilities of our self-perceptions and influences of local cultures on moral intuitions. Each view makes very different claims of authority. Religion claims transcendental authority; philosophy claims universal reasoning; and psychology claims observed social behaviour.

What is morality? Is it transcendental rules or universal logic or part of culturally-based human behaviour?

What should we do? Should we obey divine laws or apply moral reasoning or train the ‘elephant’ to be virtuous?

Few Final Remarks

(1) The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy takes a more nuanced and Earthly view, equating morality to more like a backyard game of baseball or cricket. It is public, informal with no arbitrating authorities, and replicated from yard to yard often with considerable variety.[11]

(2) Universal moral proclamations and observed human behaviour seem worlds apart. We observe an amazingly diverse range of moral practices across cultures, even within our own. Euthanasia, abortion, and same-sex marriages and adoptions all evoke strong, even violent, reactions within Australian society, let alone across the world. Do North African women circumcising their daughters, even violently, see themselves as being immoral or are they just doing what is right and necessary in their culture? I am sure the Twin Tower bombers considered themselves on a great moral crusade. (I apologise for the irony of the term ‘crusade’.)

Changes to our moral intuitions even happen over our lifetimes. For many today, homosexuality is not evil but an expression of personal choice, attempts to find happiness. Only a short time ago it was considered immoral and declared illegal across our society. On the other hand, tobacco smoking has moved from being chic to an almost that of a social and moral pariah with ghettos of smokers outside every work place.

(3)     We intuitively hold to many ‘folk’ notions about the world that are unsupported by evidence. The world is a battle ground of good and evil forces, where good strives to overcome evil. Our religious traditions have encapsulated this concept in their theologies. We also believe in some sort of universal justice or balance, where ultimately good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people. This justice may be occur in this world or the next. So we often struggle to find meaning when the good appear to suffer unnecessarily.

 Moral Foundations Theory[12]

Jonathan Haidt (University of Virginia) with other researchers have proposed a framework to explain and understand the diversity of our moral intuitions. Haidt compares our moral intuitions to taste, where we have evolved capacity to distinguish between bitter, sweet, and sour and still have developed an endless variety of cuisines. Similarly with morality, we have evolved some common psychological states or moral potentialities that have been enabled and shaped by personal histories and cultures. However, unlike traditional liberal thinking about morality, Haidt argues that many cultures and communities place as much moral weight on group identity issues and bodily cleanliness as on individual well-being and rights. Let us work through the handout to learn more.

Thank you


[1]http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s2831712.htm

[2]http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/1996Debate.htm

[3]http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2005/10_october/06/bush.shtml

[4] Carl S. Ehrlich, Understanding Judaism (London: Watkins Publishing, 2010)

[5] This metaphor was proposed and developed by Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia. http://people.virginia.edu/~jdh6n/

[6] NRSV, http://bible.oremus.org/

[7]Roy F. Baumeister, Evil (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1999)

[8]http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/life/genetic/twin1.htm How Twins Work

[9]David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, (2.3.3.4)

[10]Positive Psychology, founded by Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, is one attempt of applying psychological research to improving human fulfilment and happiness. Seligman says that Positive Psychology is ‘a science of positive subjective experience, positive individual traits, and positive institutions promises to improve quality of life and prevent the pathologies that arise when life is barren and meaningless.’ http://www.bdp-gus.de/gus/Positive-Psychologie-Aufruf-2000.pdf

[11]The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy 2nd edn.  2006 ed. Robert Audi, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge p586

[12] See http://faculty.virginia.edu/haidtlab/mft/index.php for Moral Foundations Theory

Naturalism as a viable world-view (part 2)

Naturalism

Let us look at some foundational beliefs or truth claims of Naturalism.

Firstly, like most people, naturalists are realists, believing that there is an external reality independent of our thoughts and perceptions. So if we see a chair in a room, not believed to be an illusion, we assume the chair will still be in the room even after we have left. All this is uncontroversial as, overwhelmingly, most people hold the same view. It is worth noting that philosophers often distinguish between naive and critical realism with the former accepting perceptions ‘as is’ and the latter seeing our perceptions as heavily interpreted.

Interestingly, the opposite position of idealism sees our reality as a human (social) construction. Of course, this will be a more challenging concept for most. Before scoffing at even mentioning this alternative view, we need to recognise that without a god-eye’s view, independent of any particular world-view, we have no simple way of proving the truth of one view over another. That is why philosophical scepticism can so effectively question our fundamental assumptions about life, even something as fundamental as an independent external reality. However, perhaps, that discussion is better left for another time.

Secondly, naturalists believe we are part of a single reality that is both orderly and knowable, at least potentially. Unlike most religious world-views, Naturalism has no sense of the reality being inherently mysterious. Naturalists envision a single connected physical reality of mass and energy, existing in time and space (at least according to today’s best understandings), all derived from the same ontological ‘stuff’. This reality is often referred to as ‘nature’. I should note that the connections of nature are seen as strictly non-conscious in any sense we understand that term. Therefore, for consistency, naturalists reject any sense of a design, purpose, or meaning coming from some cosmic consciousness. Naturalists would see this as wishful thinking, a concern about being unloved in an unloving (and unlovable) universe, the well-known absurdity of existentialism. I am happy to explore that idea further during later discussion.

Therefore all causes and explanations of our existence and our experiences – behaviour, aspirations, feelings, self-conceptions, spirituality, and so on – are ultimately attributed back to physical causes, even if we do not yet understand those connections or associations. As soon as the body and brain stop processing, so does our self-awareness.

So how do we know about this physical world? We do this through human perception supported by human reason. It can be immediate – I see or hear now – or from memory – I perceived those things yesterday – or from the testimony of others – they told me of their perceptions. Of course the vast bulk of our knowledge is from the testimony of others as part of our shared social knowledge. Similarly our perceptions can be direct or through specially constructed instruments to enhance our perceptions. As an aside, we need to recognise that all perceptions are sense experiences, interpreted within our respective social and cultural contexts. No observation is made uninterpreted. Therefore, in philosophical terms, I would expect most naturalists to be empiricists with knowledge coming from those interpreted sense experiences of the external world. To quote a famous television series “the truth is out there”.

Therefore it is not surprising naturalists look towards the empirically-based sciences, like natural sciences and most social sciences, as primary sources of information about the world. And why should this not be so? Of all our human projects, the modern sciences have provided the most reliable information about the world – much more reliable, for example, than the revelations of self-declared mystics over the years. And this is despite failings throughout its history. The success of the sciences over the last few hundred years has been, to no small measure, in using methods to reduce human bias, wishful thinking, and perceptual errors. Combining controlled experimentation, well-supported consistent reasoning methods, and open discussion with peer criticism, the sciences gather, analyse, and explain data very effectively about our world. Put simply, the sciences define the external reality for a naturalist, and the rest they consider to be human wishful thinking.

As the sciences are a foundational part of a naturalist’s world-view, let us look at the nature of science, even briefly. Science develops models to explain and understand the world we inhabit. Some areas of science require specialised mathematical languages to express concepts, where our everyday human languages are inadequate. This often leads to confusion when scientists use everyday terms metaphorically to explain their research areas. Religious terms, without their theological meanings, become popular metaphors to express their awe and wonderment. It becomes amusing when religious apologists then seize these opportunities to claim a scientist’s belief in god. In this context, another Einstein quotation comes to mind: ‘I am convinced that He (God) does not play dice.’ And just for the record, Einstein wrote in a private letter to philosopher Eric Gutkind, ‘The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.

Although on-going scientific research leads to the questioning and adjusting of models, Thomas Kuhn famously showed that this model-making is itself set within and defined by the prevailing paradigm of the time, and that paradigm both frames the questions asked and guides research along particular pathways. So it is probably more realistic to see science as socially-based intellectual activities and to treat “objective” knowledge as something more akin to commonly accepted social knowledge, arrived through agreed observational methods supported by special reasoning techniques. Do not get me wrong. The social nature of science does not reduce its efficacy and the force of science’s explanatory work. We just need to recognise that science is a part of our social enterprise rather than some sort of independent fact-driven objective process. Sometimes these two conflicting views of science are contrasted it as archaeology, uncovering facts, versus human construal, making human-constructed models. Finally, another way of considering this is to see science as dealing with transitory scientific objects rather than the more enduring external objects themselves. So, over time, the ‘sun’ as a scientific object varies as our understanding of the sun varies, but the ‘sun’ as an external object is still essentially the same sun. All this could be summarised with the aphorism, ‘the map is not the territory’; often associated with Alfred Korzybski, founder of General Semantics.

Today science is almost unquestioned in its knowledge-making about the external world. But how does it deal with our inner world – the world of consciousness, free-will, the self, and sensed spirituality? The explanations of neuroscience, for example, involving neurons and synapses seem unsatisfying to most and fail to capture the essential human qualities we associate with them. Though naturalists believe that all human experiences have physical causes, they too often want to describe and explain consciousness, for example, in terms other than its underlying physical processes.

It is worth here drawing a distinction between reductive materialism and Naturalism. Reductionism is the process of understanding the whole by examining its parts, and this methodology has been and continues to be a very successful analytical approach for most sciences. Therefore a radical reductionist would seek to reduce all human experiences to physical descriptions and explanations, such as body-brain processes. In their world, mind states and mental processes do not exist. Patricia Churchland, a philosopher at the University of California who promotes eliminative materialism – a radical form of reductionism, is famous for describing and explaining consciousness and other ‘I’ aspects of ourselves as brain processes to rid us of myths like the ‘mind’ and the ‘soul’.

Many naturalists are comfortable describing our inner world in language not directly linked to physical causes. They will even entertain such concepts as emergent properties to acknowledge that there may be higher-level properties not directly attributable to, but still dependent on, specific physical processes. Perhaps, this is analogous to discussing the aesthetics of a chair without referring to its sub-atomic particle structure. However, it should be stressed that ultimately naturalists still regard all human experiences as having necessary underlying physical causes and nothing else. So a naturalist may be comfortable attending a yoga class for health benefits but would reject any talk of extra-physical explanations with mysterious energy forces and universal connections.

So what are some implications for a commitment to an empirical understanding of the world, especially from that of science?

Truth is out there: whatever it is. A naturalist sees a single physical reality, best understood by our empirically-based intellectual endeavours – natural sciences, most social sciences, historical research, and so on. The resulting knowledge-base – ever-growing, critically-evaluated (and re-evaluated) – is then the best bulwark we have against human wishful thinking, religious delusions, and wild shamanistic claims. (Of course, we are familiar with now famous semi-religious claims of Steve Jobs for his iPad that, obviously, got through this guard.) This knowledge-base can and will change regularly both at the margins and sometimes in fundamental ways from the on-going research and, perhaps surprisingly, from changing social contexts.

Critics of Naturalism see its weakness as depending on something so changeable and provisional as scientific understanding. It is true that speculations, questioning, and changes are significant at the frontiers of science – the very small of Quantum Physics, and the very large and very distant of Cosmology. Fortunately the vast majority of scientific knowledge is highly stable and usable. Even though this is so, we still need to leave claims of certainty and absolute truth to the imaginings of Evangelical pastors. Again, Einstein said, ‘…shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.’

What about me? Appealing to our empirically-based knowledge seems least satisfying for relating the perceived significance and reality of our inner worlds. An aside is useful here. We can see our relationships with others in ‘person’ perspectives. I am my first person; you are my second person; and he, she, they or it are my third person. (Some theologians argue that religions are about second-person relationships with god, while naturalists see all of religions meeting strictly first-person needs.) The empirical sciences describe the world in strictly third-person terms to retain independence of any particular view. On the other hand, our inner worlds are strictly first-person with only us having privileged access. We assume others have similar inner worlds by analogy from their behaviour – they sound and act as we do. As I have said, naturalists are committed the inner world coming from physical causes – it ends with the expiration of our physical bodies. Incidentally, our ability to simulate our inner-world feelings on demand with drugs and electrical stimulations supports this view.

However naturalists have no easy way of addressing people’s desire for some grand purpose, for feeling significant in a larger indifferent world. Naturalists have no mysterious beings, forces, and essences to evoke for placating our sensibilities. Religions grew out of that need with complex practices, beliefs, and creeds. On the other hand naturalists, unlike their eliminative cousins, will engage in emotion talk to access and enjoy those feelings in their own terms to give some inner purpose and happiness. By subscribing to physical causes, naturalists treat an empirically-based physical view as a “reality check” against extravagant extra-physical claims.

Morality is a social business. Unlike traditional religious people, naturalists see morality as a strictly human social affair having derived from biological evolution (giving us the common things), enculturation (giving us the multiple variations), and genetic inheritance. My handout, Naturalist Morality, [to discuss] shows some of the extensive inter-disciplinary work being done by philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, and sociologists today to describe and understand naturalistically the intuitions we call morality. The bottom line is that there are no absolute moral injunctions or laws given to us from outside our physical world. Ultimately, I would expect that there will be less ‘shoulds’ from Naturalists than many religionists. Hopefully, they would be less prescriptive about human behaviour than their religious counterparts.

Naturalist uncertainty versus Christian mystery. Both Naturalists and Christians recognise the finite nature of humans and, therefore, our inability to see the reality ‘as it is.’ (A question for discussion: should even talk about reality ‘as it is’, as our reliance on perceptions, ideas, and revelations make reality somewhat problematic?)

For Naturalists, using science as a primary source of knowledge, it is the recognition that all our perceptions are interpreted by physical processes, set within our personal, familial, and cultural histories. Scientific research is based on uncertainties and probabilities through the use of measuring instruments, observer involvement, and deriving generalisations through induction from the particulars. This is well-known and accepted in science and, even, celebrated by some.

For Christians and people of most religious traditions, the ‘mystery’ represents a permanent gap between claims of human understanding (knowledge derived from people) and claims of religious revelation (knowledge revealed from god through tradition). Faith is the acceptance of this mystery as a necessary part of the religious world-view. Christian claims of Jesus’ physical resurrection after his execution is seen a mystery, unquestioned and accepted by the faithful, but inexplicable by human knowledge and reason.

Perhaps, whereas the Naturalist sees uncertainty as a limitation of process and one to be continually tackled and questioned, a Christian would see the mystery as an inevitable part of belief in their religious traditions.

Seeking Happiness for a Naturalist

Finally, Naturalism offers no simple directions of how to achieve happiness, or even whether or not that is at all possible. Perhaps, one can do no better then look back to a very early Naturalist, Epicurus of fourth century BCE Athens, who had the following advice:

  1. Keep close contact with family and friends over your lifetime. Epicurus essentially started a friendship cult.
  2. Live a moderate, debt-free life (to reduce your worries).
  3. Leave time for personal reflection and contemplation.

Thank you.

Comment: 5 Myths about Diet & Weight Loss

Obesity is one of the greatest challenges societies face over the coming years. Australia as well as other developed countries around the world have ever-increasing numbers of overweight children. Is there a magic silver bullet to reducing your weight? Despite promises from television and glossy magazine advertising the unfortunate answer is no. Shannon Wills, who writes on health at Physical Therapy Assistant Schools , has kindly offered to highlight five common myths about diet and weight loss. I can speak from personal experience that these should be taken seriously. She welcomes your comments at her email id : shannonwills23@gmail.com.

Alex McCullie

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5 Myths about Diet and Weight Loss                                                    Copyright © 2010 Shannon Wills

They do the rounds every now and then, and because people tend to believe all that they hear if it’s repeated often enough, fiction becomes fact and myths become reality. There’s a lot of misinformation relating to diet and weight loss, and if you’re not really aware of what’s right and what’s not, you could end up jeopardizing your weight loss program. If you want to lose weight the right way and keep it off, you must be aware of the following myths:

  • It’s ok to starve because I need to reduce my calorie count: Yes, you do need to eat fewer calories than you burn if you want to lose weight, but that does not mean you must starve yourself. Some people think that eating a piece of cake for lunch and then skipping dinner is the right way to lose weight because as far as they’re concerned, they’ve hit their calorie count ceiling with the cake and are not supposed to eat anything else for the day. If you starve or if your meal times are very irregular, you risk increasing the production of gastric acid in your stomach, and this may cause ulcers. So eat balanced meals instead of binging on one and starving for the other.
  • Diets restricted to one food group help you lose weight permanently: Diets like the Atkins method where you are allowed to eat any kind of protein while totally omitting carbohydrates your food touched the peak of popularity before they crashed down to earth. Although it may seem like you’re losing weight initially on a protein-only or carb-only diet, your body is deprived of essential nutrients when you neglect certain food groups. The best way to lose weight and keep it off is to eat sensibly, in smaller portions and only when you’re hungry.  
  • You can lose weight without exercising: Some people think that dieting is enough to help them lose weight because it’s the calorie count that matters. When you lose weight because you’re not eating enough, you start to look haggard and your skin hangs on to your bones when the fat disappears. Your immune system becomes fragile, your bones and muscles become weak and brittle, and you’re prone to injury and illness. Besides, if you don’t eat enough, your body goes into starvation mode and starts to conserve the fat that you do have in preparation for the lean times to come. If you want to lose weight in a healthy way, you must exercise regularly besides following a diet. You don’t have to sweat it out every day and struggle to exercise, even an hour of walking every day or four days a week is enough exercise for the average human being. You need to exercise smart, not take the no-pain, no-gain route.
  • Once you lose weight, you won’t gain it back: Don’t assume that any weight loss you’ve achieved is permanent. If you stop exercising and revert back to your old eating habits, you could very easily gain all those pounds that you worked so hard to lose. Weight loss must be a way of life, not something that you adopt for a few months and then give up because you’ve achieved your goal.
  • It’s all genetic, so it’s ok to blame my genes if I’m fat: Yes, our genes do decide where and how we put on weight, but that’s no reason to avoid exercise. If your genetic makeup is predisposed against you, you must work even harder to reduce weight. Once you get used to exercise and a healthy diet as a way of life, you look and feel much better because your health improves, you look great, and you lose weight.

By-line:

This article is written by Shannon Wills, who writes on the topic of Physical Therapy Assistant Schools . She welcomes your comments at her email id : shannonwills23@gmail.com .

Feel free to download a pdf version (right-click to save) of this document.

Comment: Atheist Bluffer’s Guide to the Bible – NT part 1

Defenders of Christianity often escape criticism by referring to atheist ignorance of true Christian beliefs. Even though their beliefs vary more than Christians like to acknowledge, we can have some “showy” knowledge of the New Testament to throw into the conversation. Christians are surprisingly ignorant of their own sacred texts.

The New Testament, essentially a new covenant with God, is a disparate collection of 27 books written in Greek somewhere between 70CE and 150CE. Most believe Jesus was executed about 30CE. The collection of books was canonised, made the measure of true Christian beliefs, some 300 years later. Our English translations come from scholarly reconstructions from Greek documents and fragments as well as later Latin and Coptic translations. Ironically the most popular English translation, the Authorised Version or King James Version, is considered one of the most unreliable.

Do we have the ‘original versions’?

No, we only have only copies of copies of copies and so on. P52 is the earliest fragment, in Greek, of John 18:31–33 and dated around 125CE. We also have later fragments or pages as well a limited number of books or codices, such as Codex Sinaiticus, dated around 350CE. These later codices contain writings that partially correspond to today’s New Testament. For example, Codex Sinaiticus contains the earlier Latin translation of the Old Testament (Hebrew scriptures), much of the New Testament, and extra non-canonical writings like Epistle of Barnadas, a very anti-Jewish text.

What were the first and last writings of the New Testament?

Interestingly, for most Christians, it was one of Paul’s letters, 1 Thessalonians, written around 50CE. The last was probably 2 Peter around 150CE. Most scholars agree that the Gospel of Mark was the first of the gospels, not Matthew as printed in the New Testament. Mark’s gospel was written around 70CE.

Who wrote the gospels?

Most scholars agree that the gospel writers are anonymous, despite the traditional church assignments to apostles or companions of apostles. We can speculate that they were reasonably well-educated Greek-speaking Jews living somewhere in the diaspora, Jews living away from ‘Palestine’. Jesus and his immediate followers would have spoken Aramaic, the common semitic language of Palestinian Jews since the Babylonian captivity some 500 years previous. Like 90% or more of local population, Jesus and his followers were probably illiterate.

More next time…

Alex McCullie

News: Importance of Religion to US – Gallop

While religion is becoming less important to Australians, it still is big part of the US daily life. Here’s a state by state breakdown (10 top and 10 least plus overall) from the Gallop poll article.

Alex McCullie

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News: UK Man Shocked with No God Messages

The UK bus “probably no God” continues with a London business driver being horrified at seeing the bus messages questioning the existence of God (see article at Christian Today website). Why are religious people so fragile even with the most moderate questioning? Is this the problem of faith with no evidence?

I should complain every time I see a “you will be saved by God message”.

Alex McCullie

previous related blog entry


Article: Seeking Mark’s Jesus

Who was Jesus according to Mark?

The New Testament gospels are our only real source of information about the activities and sayings of Jesus and each gospel presents a different persona, especially between the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke and that of John. And when you include the non-canonical gospels like the Gospel of Thomas, you are presented with many different and often irreconcilable versions of Jesus.

I decided to look at Mark’s gospel. Beware I’m an ordinary reader and not a theologian nor a New Testament scholar. Historians mostly agree that Mark’s gospel is the earliest canonical gospel and both Matthew and Luke use it for their writings. Mark’s gospel was written around 70CE, some 40 years after Jesus’ death, and it draws from stories told within Christian communities. As an aside, most scholars agree that the New Testament books were written in Greek and the Old Testament books were written in Hebrew. Jesus and disciples probably spoke Aramaic, a Semitic language similar to Hebrew.

We know little of Jesus from non-Christian sources. Jesus was born in Judea or Galilee around in 4 BCE and was executed by the Romans between 29 and 32CE for insurrection. He founded a small Jewish religious sect that continued after his death and expanded to become the official religion of the Roman empire under Constantine. Our knowledge of Jesus’ activities and teachings come from the canonical and non-canonical gospels but cannot be verified by external sources. Even though you’d think that their efficacy should be treated as religious faith alone, scholars are able to apply secular techniques to establish likelihoods of their accuracy. As one example, the Jesus Seminar, a group of liberal New Testament scholars, attempts to identify the actual sayings of Jesus. The Seminar estimates that 20% or less of Jesus’ sayings can be actually attributed to him. Other examples of fine secular research are the extensive and impressive writings of Professor Bart Ehrman.

Let’s be clear about the purpose of a gospel. It was not a biography in any modern sense but proclamations about the ‘good news’ of Jesus for Christian communities and potential converts. Some took a predominately narrative form like Mark and others were simply sayings like Thomas. So the intended readers or listeners were Christian and already believed in Jesus as the son of God. Mark sprinkled his gospel with explicit references to Jesus’ divine nature for the faithful. I’ll simply look at how Jesus was presented to his contemporaries and perhaps understand his mission.

Firstly here’s some background about Mark and his gospel.

Traditionally Mark’s gospel has been attributed to John Mark, a companion and personal secretary to Peter. This attribution made 60 years after writing is probably more about credibility within early Christian communities than any real historical accuracy. All we can guess is that the author was a well-educated Greek-speaking Christian: very few people in the first century could read or write let alone write a full book. It is also worth noting at this point that Jesus and his disciples came from the lowest parts of Jewish society and therefore were most probably uneducated and illiterate. For simplicity, though, I’ll refer to Mark as the author of this gospel.

Mark’s gospel is a rapid-fire narrative covering the last year of Jesus’ life – (1) Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist; (2) his gathering of disciples; (3) listing miracles he performed and parables he delivered; (4)disagreements with local religious leaders; (5) entry into Jerusalem and rampaging of the Temple; (6) the last supper at the Passover and his arrest; (7) his trial and execution; and (8) the empty tomb after execution. Curiously there is no mention of Jesus’ virgin birth. This does not seem to be oversight as his family later saw Jesus as mad (3:21). It’s hard to explain that if his mother already knew of Jesus’ divine nature at birth. Another amazing omission is his appearance to disciples after resurrection, which is arguably the core part of the Christian faith. Most historians agree that the reappearance stories in Mark (16:9-20) were added by later copyists and editors of the gospel. Finally, after my first reading I couldn’t help wonder what was Jesus doing for his previous 29 years prior to this final year of ministry. Again the gospel is not a biography and so this history wasn’t theologically important to Mark. Again, it’s important to remember that a gospel is primarily a theological document more than a historical one.

Now let’s look at Mark’s Jesus. He was an itinerant rural Jewish healer who preached an apocalyptic message of the imminent overthrow of Caesar’s rule by that of God. A future “son of man” would replace Roman world of power, privilege and corruption with a loving kingdom of God. Jesus expected this to happen within the lifetimes of his disciples (9:1). He taught this message to his closest disciples as secret knowledge but ultimately the knowledge that would lead to his execution for sedition. Is this the true secret that Judas Iscariot betrayed to the authorities as suggested by some historians? Throughout most of the gospel, Jesus’ preachings were neither truly understood by his closest followers nor accepted by most Jews including family and friends and local religious leaders. Jesus’ demand for secrecy on one hand and his preaching in confusing parables exasperated the situation. Ironically he would then express frustration and disappointment with his disciples for their lack of understanding.

Despite some local crowds in rural areas Jesus went relatively unnoticed by Jewish authorities until he entered Jerusalem during the Passover festival – a politically very difficult time for the Roman occupiers. The Passover symbolised a previous time when the Jews were freed from foreign oppressors. His predictions of ending the Roman rule and co-operative Jewish elite with his disturbances at the Temple inexorably lead to his arrest by the local Jewish leaders and his subsequent execution by the Roman authorities. This was a typical way of handling a perceived public threat.

As a messiah Jesus appeared vastly different to most Jewish expectations. Jesus fell short of their King David-like hero who would rid the Jews of the Roman oppressors by military force. And, frankly, he doesn’t fit the modern day hero concept either. Only years of Christian teaching encourage us to define a saviour or messiah as one who suffers and not one who is strong and powerful enough to oust oppressors. We are unable to see this dissonance.

Even after Jesus’ death, Christians worked hard to avoid the linking of his death with the Old Testament curse of the hanging man (Deuteronomy 21:20-23). Ultimately I couldn’t decide how Jesus saw himself. Was he the “son of man” and heralding the kingdom of God or was he awaiting the “son of man”? And did he see himself as the unique son of God? Many historians do believe that Jesus believed he was or would be “king of Jews” even though that expression wasn’t later used by Christians.

Overall Mark makes the “suffering and misunderstood messiah” the major motif of the gospel. I felt that Jesus’ position is largely self-imposed. However it is easy to relate to Jesus. He appears more human than divine by displaying many of our qualities and weaknesses – compassion to help the inflicted; acceptance of the shunned; annoyance and anger with confused supporters and enemies; fears of his pending death; and finally doubts with God at Jesus’ death with his famous cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34 from Old Testament Psalm 22:1)

A famous turning point in the gospel when Jesus had to prompt their understanding:

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” (Mark 8:29) – at last thought Jesus.

Even then they didn’t understand the purpose of Jesus’ intended suicide to save humanity. At times the gospel is like a comedy sketch where the audience knows the purpose of the protagonist but the stupid characters do not. We feel like shouting out. I guess that makes for good story-telling and was part of the Mark’s motivational techniques for the faithful.

Finally here are some observations.

Mark seems preoccupied with human weakness, suffering, ignorance and fickleness. He shows this through the very human Jesus, the afflicted, the disciples, local religious leaders and even Jesus’ own family and friends. Humanity, without Christ and forgiveness, is full of anger, fear, distrust, stupidity and fickleness. Only at the end of the gospel does Mark offer hope through the “rising” of Jesus as announced by the unknown young man in the empty tomb (16:6).

I find Mark’s Jesus a very confusing character. His healings and teachings seem erratic as he and his disciples wander rural Galilee almost deliberately avoiding the cities and crowds. Despite separate instruction his disciples were for the most part unable to understand Jesus. Family, friend and former acquaintances rejected his teachings. Even Jesus doubted his own mission. Today we would see him as well-meaning and very disturbed person who needs help not punishment. Perhaps that is Jesus’ legacy to humanity – prefer to help and support others in distress and not to punish them.

Alex McCullie

Article: Science and Our Fall from Grace

pdf: Science and Our Fall From Grace (right-click to save)

500 years ago most people believed that god created the universe with Earth at its centre and created all living things. Man and woman were made in god’s image and endowed with non-physical souls that continued after death. This was the teaching of the Christian church. Using the bible, Archbishop Usher (Ireland) in 1654 calculated the age of Earth as 6,000 years old and even named the date and time of its creation.

Today science tells us that humans evolved through physical processes like all other living things over millions of years. Our planet is 4.6 billion years old and revolves around a sun that is situated in a remote part of a very large universe. Science explains our perceptions, thinking and emotions in physical terms without needing souls, separate ‘minds’ and after lives.

So what happened?

Three scientific developments have severely shaken beliefs in our special role in nature; in fact have lead to our “fall from grace”. The Copernican revolution showed that the Earth is not the centre of the universe. Theory of Evolution proposed a strictly natural explanation for the development of all living things including humans. And, over the last 30 years, Neuroscience is providing physical explanations for our perceptions, feelings and thoughts – traditionally seen as part of a non-physical mind.

What is science?

There are many definitions of science.

Science is the concerted human effort to understand or to understand better, the history of the natural world and how the natural world works, with observable physical evidence as the basis of that understanding” (Bruce Railsback, Professor, Department of Geology, University, of Georgia)

The scientific method seeks to explain the events of nature in a reproducible way, and to use these reproductions to make useful predictions. It is done through observation of natural phenomena, and/or through experimentation that tries to simulate natural events under controlled conditions. It provides an objective process to find solutions to problems in a number of scientific and technological fields.” (Rutherford & Ahlgren, Science for all Americans 1990)

These definitions and others show that science is empirically-based. Ultimately its knowledge is based on observations of the physical world from a third-person perspective. Scientific work – observations, experiments, hypotheses and theories – is conducted rigorously to reduce the effects of human wishful thinking and biases. Conclusions are open to criticism through peer review before being published in journals. The scientific community attempts to minimise deference to authority and not to rely on unchallenged texts and claims. Many writers refer to the methods of science as methodical materialism or methodical naturalism. Even scientists with strong religious beliefs conduct scientific research on this basis.

By using empirical methods, modern science has successfully replaced superstitions with reliable physical explanations in our world. Science generally takes a bottom-up approach when researching and explaining the world by examining the parts to understand the whole. Religions, on the other hand, usually provide edicts, rules and explanations from broad articles of faith and apply them to specific situations in a top-down fashion.

Science works with a number of widely-acknowledged assumptions, namely:

  1. Nature is orderly, i.e., regularity, pattern, and structure. Laws of nature describe order.
  2. We can know nature. Individuals are part of nature. Individuals and social exhibit order; may be studied same as nature.
  3. All phenomena have natural causes. Scientific explanation of human behaviour opposes religious, spiritualistic, and magical explanations.
  4. Nothing is self evident. Truth claims must be demonstrated objectively.
  5. Knowledge is derived from acquisition of experience – empirically – through senses directly or indirectly.
  6. Knowledge is superior to ignorance.

Assumptions are adapted from Chava Frankfort-Nachmias and David Nachmias, Research Methods in the Social Sciences. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1996

Finally we should say what science is not. Firstly science is not art with individual artistic expression. Nor is it technology, such as nuclear power plants, even though technology utilises scientific knowledge. And, finally, science isn’t philosophy or religion. Science does not attempt to talk about human purpose or happiness even though scientific research may contribute to understanding our place in the world.

Copernican revolution

Between 1543 and 1633 Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo published theories and research that overturned people’s traditional view of Earth at the centre of the universe. Their work replaced the traditional Ptolemaic Earth-centred view with a new heliocentric model. Not only did they challenge people’s natural intuitions about Earth but also the church teachings about god and man’s special place. Despite powerful church opposition like Galileo’s conviction of “grave suspicion of heresy”, the heliocentric model became the accepted view of Earth and the solar system.

So we were not at the geographical centre of god’s creation after all.

Theory of Evolution

In 1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of the Species overturning the universal belief that we were the special product of creation. The theory of evolution saw humans as having evolved naturally like all other living things. Adaptation of organisms to local environments was proposed as the primary process driving the evolutionary development of living things.

Evolution directly contradicted the creation stories of most religious texts including the Genesis story of the Christian bible. In particular, evolution questioned notions of implicit human progress towards perfectibility as well as our natural superiority and dominion over other living things. The view that the world was populated with a hierarchy of fixed species became obsolete. Worse still, human beings were now seen as having evolved from the same ancestors as “Iesser” animals and, under different circumstances, may not have evolved at all.

Evolution is almost universally accepted by the scientific community with overwhelming evidence from a variety of disciplines. However, not surprisingly, evolution continues to be seen as threat for many religious people and is regularly challenged by well-funded groups. Creationism and Intelligent Design movements are recent examples.

So humans have evolved through natural and blind processes of chance and adaptation.

Neuroscience

Over the last 30 years the neurosciences have researched mental processing as physical brain activity. Specifically, neuroscience is effectively exorcising the “ghost in the machine” – the soul.

There are three areas of study. Firstly, cognitive neuroscience directly relates thoughts, perceptions and emotions to the functioning of the brain using advanced imaging techniques. Behavioural genetics links genetic information with behaviour through research programs such as with separated twins. And, finally, evolutionary psychology examines the mental capabilities as an evolved brain with a series of sub-systems that resulted from environmental adaptations.

Neuroscience research is new and ever-changing. However some conclusions seem clear. Firstly, our brain and its processing are more like a chaotic Chinese restaurant than a well-designed computer. Secondly, most of our mental processing is subconscious with very little reaching a conscious level. Thirdly, our brains are very creative at filling information gaps with explanations that may or may not be true. In most situations our folk theories and rule-of-thumb processing work satisfactorily as we evolved that way for survival. However our thoughts, feelings, attitudes and beliefs can also be very unreliable and self-deceiving. A final conclusion suggests that we need to rethink our understanding of free-will. Neuroscience suggests much less freedom than we intuitively believe.

Neuroscience tells us that our mental processing operates in a very approximate, self-fulfilling way and suggests the need to maintain a healthy scepticism regarding information and situations we come across. Finally don’t forget that most cognitive processing is handled subconsciously by our brains.

Final Comments

Today’s science provides better grounded and less mysterious explanations for the physical world than religions did some 500 years ago or even today. The results of scientific research with the reasoning of philosophy offer wonderful opportunities to explore the human condition and to lead to more fulfilling lives less reliant on wishful thinking, revelations, faith and superstition.

References

Kitcher, P 2007, Living with Darwin, Oxford University Press
Hauser, M 2006, Moral Minds, HarperCollins
Pfaff, D 2007, The Neuroscience of Fair Play, Dana Press
Mayr, E 2001, What Evolution Is, Basic Books
Lakoff G & Johnson, M 1999, Philosophy in the Flesh, Basic Books

Good reading

 

© 2008 Alex McCullie

Article: Atheism and Agnosticism – meanings

pdf: Atheism and Agnosticism (right-click to save)

Typically atheism and agnosticism are seen as alternate positions of disbelief in a god. The atheist is perceived as taking the harder line of absolute rejection whereas the agnostic has a more diffident position of uncertainty. Even today agnosticism is probably seen as a more socially acceptable and reflective view.

Amongst atheist communities the meanings of atheism and agnosticism cause considerable debate and angst about which, if any, truly reflect people’s positions. Many dislike the term atheist as a “belief in opposition” and seek alternatives like non-theist, naturalist, physicalist or materialist, free thinker, humanist and non-believer, even though some can have quite different meanings.

Atheism and agnosticism have very different etymologies. Atheism is literally without (“a”) gods (“theos”) from Greek and has a long history of use. Socrates was accused of atheism for not worshipping the gods of Athens. Early Christians were similarly accused by their opponents in Roman Empire. Atheism was usually used as a derogatory term for not believing in the accusers’ gods and not total rejection. Even though agnosticism uses a method of construction – without (“a”) knowledge of the divine (“gnosticism”), it was only coined publicly in1869. Prof Thomas H Huxley, an English biologist, was concerned like many others with the definitive nature of atheism and felt that agnosticism was a more reasoned stance.

Most dictionaries provide two similar but distinct meanings for atheism – a disbelief in god and a denial of the existence of god. For example,
•    Disbelief in or denial of the existence of God or gods.
(http://www.answers.com/atheism)

Many writers refer to these positions as weak or passive (“disbelief”) and strong or active (“rejection”). Despite seemingly similar these positions are quite different. Imagine arguing either of these stances with a believer. Holding a weak atheist position requires you to refute any arguments seeking to prove the existence of god. This is similar to not believing in any number of ideas like unicorns, ghosts and Iraqi WMD. The believer has the responsibility to convince. The fact that billions of people believe in a god or gods does not constitute a proof.

Alternatively, supporting strong atheism requires that you refute proofs of god’s existence and, more importantly, prove that god doesn’t exist. Unfortunately as no definitive proof exists one way or the other, this strong position seems ultimately impossible to support. There is a slight wrinkle here, though. A strong atheist could reasonably ask “what do you mean by god?” There are many arguments around the apparent contradictory nature of some conceptions of god, such as the presence of an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving god with the freewill and existence of evil.

Many of today’s strong atheists prefer to talk about probability rather than certainty of the non-existence of god. Richard Dawkins makes this point in “God Delusion” by describing god’s existence as highly improbable.

Instead of separating atheism and agnosticism I prefer to talk about the belief in existence of god (metaphysics) and claimed knowledge available (epistemology). So a strong atheist would have no belief in god and would also believe that we have certain knowledge of that. The weak atheist would have the same belief but make no claims about knowledge. The typical non-believing agnostic would also not believe in god but have doubts about whether or not it is ultimately unknowable.

References

Craig, E. 2005, The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Routledge, London.

Flynn, T. 2007, The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Prometheus Books, New York

Martin, M. 2007, The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Benedict, G. 2008, The Watkins Dictionary of Religions and Secular Faiths, Watkins Publishing, London

© 2008 Alex McCullie

Article: Is there a God?

This question was posed by Philosophy Today magazine. Here is my answer…

It’s not necessary.

This deceptively simple question has such profound implications for our sense of independence. I take a bottom-up approach to understanding reality. We have developed coherent and comprehensive physical explanations for our world. Using empirically-based sciences, we continue to build an understanding of the living and non-living aspects as it is now and has been over its 4.5 billion year history of Earth. There are still gaps in our knowledge and will also be so. Either way the growth of awareness of the physical reality over the last 500 years has been extraordinary by any measure.

However there still seems to be a significant ontological gap between the third-person physical explanations of the world and our rich first-person experiences. But is there?

Consider the following. Imagine all humans suddenly dying or consider the Earth some 750,000 years ago. Either way there would be no self-reflecting living things with personal experiences or imaging’s that concerns us today. The physical explanations of reality would be fully satisfactory, if somewhat incomplete. So the need for this gap does seem to depend on having animals like us with the ability for self-reflection. To put this timeframe into perspective we evolved to our present form some 100 000 years ago about 0.002% of the history of Earth.

We have a couple of ways of dealing with this gap. Firstly, we could infer an ontologically separate non-physical reality (NPR) – many people do. This reality could be as large as a parallel version to our total physical reality. Many see this type of NPR being filled with an all-powerful being as well as being a repository for the non-physical aspects of dead human beings – their ‘souls’. Or, for many, the NPR could be as limited as a repository for our first-person conscious processes – the “mind” – residing somewhere in the brain. This very limited form of NPR would disappear with the death of the host.

All versions of NPR seem to solve the dilemma of the gap between physical existence and your personal experiences until you delve into the detail. Immediately you notice two things. There is no physical evidence that these NPRs exist. That may seem self-evident as they are “non-physical” realities. Also there seems to be no satisfactory explanation of how these NPRs interact with the everyday physical world. For me, explanations around miracles, magic and supervenience do not “cut the mustard”. They are non-explanations and shouldn’t be considered enough to be convincing.

Given the main question let us concentrate on the universal NPR with an all-powerful being. The first difficulty is which one? The obvious sources of information, other than personal wishes or desires, are the many human religions. Given the age and obscurity of their sacred texts, most believers rely on interpretations from the religious leaders for their understanding about NPR. Even then the variations and contradictions of teachings within each religion and across different religions are staggering especially when presented with such certainty. Given the variations of theory and teaching surely a person’s belief must be an accident of birth both time and place.

From my limited observations there seems to be only a few common factors amongst the religions. There is a certainty that their version of NPR exists (often with an all-powerful being); that the universe has an underlying purpose; and that knowledge of this will give you an insight to the meaning in life. Many use the promise and threat of life after death to control people’s behaviour. No evidence other than personal revelations and testimonies are offered to support these beliefs. Even here the religious theories are malleable with regular adjustments to confirm to society expectations. Their “absolutes” is more “relative” than they wish to admit.

“The Vatican has overhauled its list of mortal sins, adding several more to cope with the age of globalisation.”
http://www.theage.com.au/news/world/list-of-mortal-sins-gets-longer/2008/03/10/1205125804885.html

Alternatively, we could work with a physical view only. It is reasonable to expect that science will provide better explanations as to how the brain processes perceptions, feelings and cognition to manage our body’s interrelationships with the external physical world, including social relationships. Newer theories arising from neuroscience, linguistics and philosophy are proposing ways of understanding the human condition such as morality, aesthetic appreciation and socialisation. Theories like “embodied realism” provide satisfying explanations for human cognition within an embodied relationship with our environments.

Moreover there may always be a separation between third-person knowledge and first-person experience. And is that really a problem? You can still enjoy music, films, plays and art without participating in a romantic fantasy that will never fulfil its promises.

© 2008 Alex McCullie