Friday, February 15, 2019

Straw Men

“You cannot put straight in others what is warped in yourself.” - St. Athanasius

A: I think the universe is a fundamentally good place.
B: I disagree. The universe is a pretty messed up place.
A: Why do you say that?
B: On a cosmic scale, the conditions for life are rare and fragile, with reality being dominated by mostly chaotic or catastrophic conditions, and everything we see will be gone forever in a few trillion years. The universe will slowly dissipate into a cool soup of fundamental particles. At a human scale, there's nothing stopping bad things from happening to good people, and this happens all the time.
A: On an individual scale, the condition of being alive is amazing and wonderful. Given the right perspective I can turn my bad experiences into assets. People might throw bad ideas at me all day but they can't take away a good idea.
B: Badness, evil, despair and suffering are pervasive. The perspective you idealize is a luxury among other rare luxuries which are not distributed equitably, and even such a perspective can't be relied upon, and in the end it will prove hollow.
A: On the contrary, good ideas and hence good perspectives, are absolutely free. We can only blame the poor distribution on ourselves, not on the universe. And rather than being hollow, a good thought, a wholesome mindset, is what makes the world full, is what leads us to see its fullness. Everything, ultimately, is good.
B: I don't think it's that simple.
A: So what is your position on "everything"?
B: Nihilism. But a friendly nihilism. There are no absolutes, no ultimate truths, only personal, relative truths. But it's possible, and preferable, for people to behave altruistically, and there are even enough motivations for good behavior that some part of humanity behaves that way. There's no meaning to any of it, but we can pick our chins up and get through life as nice people before we die, knowing that we're making experience better for others.
A: It's hard to prove the absence of something. Especially something as big as truth.
B: Truth is in the mind of the beholder. There's no need to disprove the little beliefs we have as individuals. They just happen not to be real, not objectively real, anyway.
A: Do you not believe that the Moon exists objectively?
B: It exists, but has no ultimate meaning. There's a hard reality out there, but it is subjectively experienced and has no meaning of its own. The meaning is a mental construct.
A: Is what you are saying "true"?
B: My statement of the absolute non-existence of ultimate truth or real meaning is a reasonable conclusion one can arrive at, and I assume that I'm in good company. I think all assertions to the contrary can be proven false.
A: Hm. I think absolute truth exists. How are you going to prove that false?
B: You believe in this thing you call 'absolute truth', but from where I'm sitting it's just two words you strung together to express a sentiment, an idea, which is just an idea, and has no ultimate meaning.
A: Doesn't this approach cancel itself out at some point? If you are only stringing words together to express a sentiment, then your 'sentiment' has no greater value than mine.
B: I do my best to assert neutral hypotheses which are amenable to rational exploration, I suspect that you have not limited yours in this way.
A: You don't think it's possible to rationally arrive at an assertion of absolutes?
B: No. Absolutes are over-reaching extrapolations.
A: Absolutely all of them?
B: They all lead in circles. You can't rationally prove an absolute.
A: Maybe, maybe not. But you haven't proven your position at all, you have only made an assertion.
B: Only for lack of time.
A: I'm going to have to say that without absolutes, philosophically speaking, nothing else could exist. An argument that does not address "ad infinitum" leads directly to "ad absurdum".
B: But these absolutes are only in your mind.
A: I think they go a little deeper than that. Literally, if a photon does not have zero mass it couldn't be moving at the speed of light. If space had a limit, there would be a point which lacked adjacency. Twisting it into a circle (i.e. a curved universe) does not get "around" the problem in any real way, it just obscures the truth of the matter: rather than an 'excluded middle' there would be an 'excluded outside'.
B: You can't project such an infinity as you see in nature into the realm of thought. Thought is just a side effect of natural processes anyway.
A: There you go with your subjective sentiments again. This time its epiphenomenalism. How can you even approximate truth, or create something like it, if truth is a complete fabrication? There has to be some kind of reality in order for anything to be real. And what would a partial reality even be? We don't have to have a personal experience of an absolute to see that it exists. You've agreed that the Moon constitutes a 'hard reality' and I imagine you'd put math and the laws of physics into this same category. It sounds to me like you do believe in absolutes, you just color them in differently from me.
B: Of that hard reality to which we are referring, I say it is devoid of meaning or personal characteristics. It is a bare medium which feeds into our senses, and, indirectly, from which our senses are derived. The idea of absoluteness is yours, not its.
A: My idea matters little. If there is something from which everything we know arises, which is as real as we are able to define, then it's a very close match in my 'inner google' when I type in the keyword 'absolute'.
B: Well, it's meaning I'm saying doesn't exist, not reality. And without meaning, what is reality?
A: Not to wax circular, but how would we be able to have this conversation if meaning were not a real thing? You and I cannot deny the experience of our admittedly limited and faulty experience of meaning. In order to say that meaning itself is not real we have to deny even the little we have. Let's talk about something slightly more basic than meaning, like goodness. Our ideas about goodness are obviously frail, human ideas, but we know better than to say we have no idea at all. And to deny that goodness exists at all implies that our absolutely most deeply held values are utterly groundless. We may as well eat our children as feed them. Like it philosophically or not, we care too much about both meaning and goodness to not honor them in our actions. We behave as if they were both real.
B: You call these operational principles 'meaning' and 'goodness', and I don't disagree with your results. Mine are quite similar. But I don't agree with your methods. Somewhere within me I comprehend what I should or should not do, but I don't trace this source to anything like an absolute. Perfection is not required for goodness.
A: Again, you seem to believe in the same thing I call an 'absolute', but call it by a different name. In the mysterious unknown depths of your inner world you experience a sense of right and wrong, and you live by that. Let's make a mathematical analogy. Let's say that right is + (+1) and wrong is - (-1). Our sense of some specific bad thing, like jumping off a building, is clearly bad, but due to our limited capacity we can't make absolute measurements. So we get something like 98% bad and 2% good. But if bad and good are just relative vectors, then these readings become meaningless. If we don't know which way 'up' is, we can't jump. If we don't know what 'bad' is, we might jump when we shouldn't. Goodness in the sense of being preferable to badness certainly exists in an absolute sense in our process of living, thinking, feeling and deciding.
A: This sort of absoluteness of our fundamental concepts might be inward, but this inward world seems a lot more real to me than the outward world you have described. You are saying that this cold, insensate outer stratum of hardcoded rules is what really exists, but is empty of meaning, but that this warm, sensate experience of humanity, with its inwardly very real reference points of bad, good, up and down, does not exist. It seems you have completely inverted your experience, and perhaps put your philosophical batteries in the wrong way. And we haven't even gotten to the subject of where those rules came from.
B: I suppose we agree that the concept of an absolute is a real concept. As real as a concept can be, anyway. The pole on a globe gives it orientation, and an absolute like perfection orients the concept of goodness. But there's no real pole there, it's a theoretical reference point.
A: I think our disagreement is at a more fundamental level than can be reached intellectually. These are parallel lines that could go forever.
B: So you think rational discourse can't solve this?
A: Both of us could proceed along lines that are completely rational and still never intersect.
B: Are you sure yours is rational?
A: Yes, absolutely.
B: Surely it would be possible to examine our respective observations and conclusions.
A: We would find them iron-clad and consistent. Within their respective realms of underlying assumptions. I'm not referring to the kind of assumption that can be examined intellectually but to the sort upon which the intellect rests. These would be givens like "identity" and "commutativity" in mathematics.
B: Sure, I'll go with the given of "rational inquiry" and you can do whatever you do.
A: But what you are calling 'rational inquiry' is only rational relative to your bedrock assumptions about logic and reason, and is only inquiring relative to what you allow to be considered as unknown.
B: If the intellect is always relative to personal assumptions, you have proved my earlier point, that all truth is relative and meaning, being relative, is meaningless.
A: Assumptions can still be true or false, and not just relatively true or false, but true or false with respect to a real frame of reference.
B: In other words, your assumptions are more true than mine.
A: If only we could examine these fundamental choices without the blurry lenses of the intellect, then we would both see the truth.
B: Maybe your intellect is blurry.
A: The intellect is a tool with limited capacity. It does not tell us what is fundamentally true, it operates from the baseline of our fundamental perspective and serves that set of assumed truths that we ourselves feed on. It reinforces what we already believe. Our intellect can only be perfectly clear when it does not question its motives. But those motives are often wrong. Honest blurriness is preferable to false clarity.
B: Sorry, but I'm going to have to doubt the honesty of your intellect. You are feeding it absolutes and other such mysticisms and calling that a healthy diet.
A: Again, we're going to have to return to the fact that your assumptions are fundamentally different from mine, and that they are in fact assumptions. If you were to turn your sights on your own assumptions about truth, meaning and reality you would find them to be quite arbitrary. For instance, you believe that absolutes are imaginary because you believe that personal experience is imaginary. You do not deny that absolutes are as 'real as a concept can be', but you deny that concepts can be real because, again, you believe that personal experience is what is imaginary, and the objective world of laws and measurements is what is real. And, unsurprisingly, you find that impersonal and indifferent world to lack meaning. You have labeled your own immediate experience, the one thing we experience directly, the only thing we experience, really, as unreal, and your ideas about it, or to be fair, societies shared ideas about it, as what is truly real. But we experience those ideas inwardly, as experiences.
B: You seem to be leaving out half of the puzzle. We perceive through the senses, but through the senses we perceive that our senses are contingent upon a body. If we lose an organ of sense, we lose that sense. If we can't sense without that 'cold and indifferent world', then who is ontologically prior to who, eh?
A: Yes, our senses of the world require a part of the world (organs of sense) in order to operate, but the organs of sense cannot operate without someone to look through them. If you pull the blinds across my window I don't stop seeing, I just stop seeing what's outside. The world can't leverage that for ontological priority, sorry.
B: But from my perspective the "you" behind the senses is your brain, and that also comes from the world. So there's nothing on the other side to battle the world for ontological supremacy.
A: Got a proof for that, buddy? I mean for your statement that we are our brains. Or am I supposed to take that on faith?
B: Regardless, the most you can argue for is ontological equality between your (I say mythical) self, and the world.
A: It's all I need to argue for to demonstrate that our intellect is limited to our fundamental beliefs and perspective.
B: I say those fundamental beliefs and perspectives are pre-rational, sub-intellectual, primitive mammalian instincts that we need to transcend.
A: It's pretty easy to show that they are supra-rational, not sub-rational. We're talking about extremely fundamental ideals and very philosophical notions, like whether consciousness or the world is more real. I have a hard time imagining something sub-human forming strong opinions on such things. We're talking about topics the intellect can't open because they are atomic, they are assertions of basic values.
B: I can break apart the valuing of something you deem fundamental, like altruism, and explain it in terms of evolution.
A: But such an argument only makes sense to you and only seems relevant because you lack a belief that goodness is real in and of itself. An evolutionary rationale for altruism hinges on deep extrapolation and shallow supposition. It assumes that the only reason people are capable of behaving well is not a reason at all, and that what we think is love or a highly disciplined regimen of adhering to strict ideals of goodness is, in fact, controlled by our DNA. An explanation that says it is involuntary is ridiculous. I'd call it manufactured meaninglessness. This could be where your nihilism is coming from: all this meaninglessness you are manufacturing. These silly roundabout explanations that are really no more than evasions of what would otherwise be self-evident truths derived from your immediate personal experience.
B: But my perspective is that you are living in a fantasy world. That you are too soft, perhaps, to accept reality at face value. Maybe you're a little too secure in your life and you feel it's safe to dispense with rigor and accuracy, and strict attention to detail when it comes to this whole 'truth' business.
A: Wait a minute, you're the one who doesn't believe in truth.
B: I mean truth in terms of seeing things for what they really are.
A: Good, me too.
B: I think you are fictionalizing things like goodness and meaning, and manufacturing an elaborate fantasy world to support your dreamy ideals. How can that be 'seeing things for what they really are'?
A: Every part of what you call an elaborate fantasy world is grounded in rational examination. To the best of my ability it is founded on a foundation which has been double and triple checked. Your accusation of fictionalization is based on something I see to be a fictionalization. But wait a minute, if you see truth as 'what things really are', then you are certainly behaving as if truth were real. And how is it you able to care about something if you don't believe it is real?
B: I think our mental constructs about things like truth and goodness are very similar. I just don't take things as far as you do.
A: Maybe you should try it. Self-examination is good for you. It's good to hear you have a mental construct for these things, even if you think they aren't real.
B: We could dig into what truth and goodness mean, but we're not going to reach any mythical absolutes by doing so.
A: Are you sure about that?
B: Do you seriously think you'll convince me of anything?
A: Who knows, let's just look.
B: Ok. Truth is what things really are, what they are when you examine them closely, from many angles, and repeat the measurements, and so on. It is arrived at by applying rigor. Goodness is that which leads to well being, generally, which is ultimately subjective, but can be approximated by things like not experiencing suffering.
A: You've described how to obtain truth, not what it is. Saying you found some truth, what use would it be?
B: Well tested truths build foundations of knowledge. Trust in ideas lets you build them into higher level meanings which have emergent properties. Cells are simple but you can make an organism from them.
A: I agree that trust is a critical ingredient. Practically all the knowledge we have comes from others. Who we trust determines from whom we are willing to receive knowledge. Trust is so powerful, in fact, that we can be led by it into positions that seem absolutely contradictory. And which hold together quite consistently, all the way down to the roots of that trust.
B: Truth is not a cultural artifact. What really is, is, independently of whether we got it right.
A: Now we're getting somewhere. Truth does objectively exist.
B: Well, in a very limited sense of the word "exist".
A: Well, saying there are two different, well established 'cultural' views of truth that contradict. How are they going to resolve this? Neither side believes they are wrong. But only from a position of extreme (and irrational) relativism could they both be found to be right. But let's see if we can go farther than trust. Trust just opens the door to belief in fundamental premises. It isn't truth itself. At a pretty basic level, I suppose, a fundamental premise is a statement of value, of something being not just true, but good. Logic can't tell us what we ought to do, only how to do it. It is what we consider good which defines our goals, our fundamental values.
B: So you're saying that, for example, my belief that our minds arise from our bodies as opposed to your reversed view, is based on an assessment of goodness or value which extends out of the reach of my rational mind?
A: What in your view seems better than my view?
B: Well, I trust in the authority of science. That they mean well and are trying to do good. They are far from perfect but I feel a vague sense of that group leaning toward goodness. And I associate your views with mystical loonies and religious people, and those I see as leaning toward delusion, toward imposing their morality on others, that sort of thing, which is certainly not evil in most cases but I see it leaning away from goodness, on average.
A: Does that include me?
B: Of course I see you as a mystical loonie. I associate "intelligence" with those views that align with scientific progress. I see that progress as having proven these views. And the whole direction of scientific progress aims to help people. Religious people say they'll help people but I don't see the evidence.
A: But science has nothing to say, no evidence, no proof of any sort, only empty suppositions, about things like whether or how the mind is related to the brain, the realness of absolutes, or for that matter anything to do with meaning, value or goodness. And it certainly has no evidence related to God, or any understanding of the religion perspective for that matter.
B: Well, those things just smell funny to me.
A: So truth is a matter of aesthetics? The smell may be coming from you. This is sounding like confirmation that your views are based outside of your rational mind.
B: Well, I may have started out from non-rational origins but I've confirmed my views with rational content. I'm not convinced these origins are super-rational, given that they seem so sub-rational, so arbitrary.
A: I don't think our particular origins are super-rational. I think they are made out of something that rationality can't access. Something which, when properly practiced, does properly transcend the intellect. We just happen to be trusting when we're young. If we were as trusting now we'd have a lot more flexibility with regard to our fundamental views.

C: Hey guys, I couldn't help overhearing your conversation. Mind if I butt in?
A: Uh, ok.
C: Ok, I'll be blunt. You're wrong, B, and your arguments are weak and only half right, A. B, your battery is plugged in backwards. You can't deny the reality of truth without sawing your brain off. Nihilism is a weak man's excuse for sleeping in late and missing the party for people who take thinking seriously. The only way you can prop up something so weak is by relying on fads and the baseless mutterings of famous mentally deficient people, people who are, to be polite, philosophically challenged, and can't find their own qualia with both hands. You need to get a grip on your direct experience of reality and stop fantasizing that it's a fiction. And A, I know you see a corner of the truth but you are soft-peddling it. Let's just get straight to the point: Jesus is Truth. And the Way and the Life too. That's the actual, real, essential Truth, so let's start there, rather than trying to spiral inward in some clever academic way. Ultimate truth is way too big for us to find on our own, the closest we can get is some kind of lame but well meaning apophatic koan. We can become decent, nearly self controlled, well meaning human beings without Christ but we can't actually become good without capital G Goodness. I see you flinching, B, because you can't handle the intersection of ultimate truth with historical reality but that's what happened. God came to earth. Not like in the cheesy science fiction way you think people believe it, but in the cream-of-the-crop ancient philosopher way that expresses the highest ideals we are capable of perceiving. People, the wisest, most driven and intelligent people, who spent their lives straining for truth with senses sharper than ours and experiences more gritty and sincere than ours, were blown away to the point of martyrdom. Christ conquered sin, death and the devil. The people who understood what this actually means, the people who thought carefully about each word and really took it in, people who understand the metaphysical significance of the whole story, and "get it", said, "this changes everything". And it completely transformed them.
C: That's what the truth does, it completely transforms you. But only when you actually look at it straight. Not through delusional, self-serving fantasy glasses, B, and not in curvy, abstract, philosophical sideways glances, A. Any questions?
A: Uh.
B: Hm. You claim knowledge of absolute truth. Can you prove you have this?
C: Nope. I can't. You would have to examine it honestly, yourself. Next?
B: Excuse me, I think I know something of what you are claiming to be true, and I don't see how staring at it more will cause me to see something I didn't see before.
C: It seems pretty clear you haven't looked closely at all. You seem to not even understand the basic vocabulary of direct personal experience of religious experience. You have to actually try, and you haven't done that. You have a heart, right? Look into it as honestly and deeply as you can, then try harder. And consider death seriously, not with avoidance, and try to let it sink in, what it actually means. As long as you're trying to impress someone else you're not looking the right direction. As far as dealing with all your over-the-top judgments about religion, just consider something really simple: if you were to judge science by the meanest, dumbest scientists you could find throughout all history you wouldn't believe in that either. Dig for gems, as critically and scientifically as you want, within the field of religion. If you can suspend your disbelief for long enough to understand what it actually is you're discarding you won't discard it. Think of religion as a science of what actually matters to us: meaning, value, and goodness. Those pinnacles of our common philosophical and metaphysical quest. Not for happiness or pleasure but for their source. You keep digging back behind the things we think we value and you get the the things that actually have value. But like the man said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick." You're not going to hear a word I say, or understand it, as long as you're pretending to be self-sufficient and content with your miserable rations of stunted, processed, diluted, self-serving, and seriously bent truth.
A: I do actually happen to agree with you.
C: I appreciate that, but I can hear your hesitation. If you're not bold with the truth, but instead put it in italics and a faint gray font, it isn't the truth anymore. Jesus is our Lord and Savior, and you can't just "get it" intellectually, file it away somewhere, and pretend that your watered down experience is the real thing. It's a life or death matter, here. What matters most turns out to be absolute Goodness, or in plain speech, God. That ultimate pinnacle of Truth is where we have to turn if we want any share in any kind of Truth. Our watered down, carefully hidden and nicely dressed up springs of little t truth are going to dry up some day. Sorry, but you need to "up your game" a bit. It's not like there's one kind of truth for heroic people from the good old days, and another kind for us soft, modern people.
A: Uh...
C: It's ok, I'm not trying to say you are totally lost like your friend here. But you haven't established yourself on higher ground than him, really. None of us have. We're all sinners. All we can do is point to the Truth. To the Lord. Glory be to God, and not to us. Sorry, B. I'm not lying when I say I'm a worse sinner than you are. I envy your clarity of mind and your, what do I call it? Innocence. But the truth is the truth and I have to say it like it is.
A: Hm.
B: Hm.
C: Hm.
A: Something that confounds me is how to be bold and direct without first establishing the vocabulary. The words we use are loaded in a good way for us, and are either completely unloaded, or loaded in a bad way for our neighbors. I don't want to say something that sounds bold to me, then feel like I've done my duty, but what I've effectively said was completely alien, or alienating. I want to share these pearls but the groundwork has to be laid. I don't want to drop them into a muddy swamp of misunderstanding. When the apostles came into a Jewish town saying 'repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand', their audience knew exactly what they were referring to because they had context. I don't think St. Paul, when he arrived into a gentile city, was using insider terms. I suspect he was learning where the "hooks" were that he could use to explain things to people. Like in Athens when he discovered the "unknown god".
C: If you orbit forever you're not going to do any good either. In the same way that you need to be bold with God because you are sinful but you know he loves you anyway, you need to be bold with your friends, to the extent you have established a level of trust. There are some criteria for when you can shine from a lampstand instead of from under a bushel, but we're not allowed to lean into our excuses, and most of the time it's our own pride that's at stake, not someone else's danger of misunderstanding.
B: Excuse me, are you discussing how to convert me?
C: Actually, we're still discussing "truth" and how to consistently express it such that it is still true.
B: I agree about the problematic vocabulary, and I don't appreciate the analogy to mud and swine. I completely don't follow how "truth" for you can be equated to a historical figure, regardless of how much esteem you have.
A: Backing up a step metaphysically, it's God who is Truth. The creator of physical laws is in a pretty good position to say what is true, after all. Our design as humans, the design of our consciousness, of our conscience, leads back to our ultimate need for meaning, for goodness, for Truth. And that truth is not to be found in other created things, but in the Creator Himself. So, God, as understood as the ultimate creator of all, can be logically equated with our highest goal and function as created beings. And Jesus is not just a historical figure, although he certainly is a historical figure. He is God, come to earth, not just to teach us, not just to model good behavior, but to lead us back to Himself. To clear the way, to repair our fallen nature that is set on seeing goodness and truth as something much less than what they are. He is not some strange, hard to comprehend alternative to our best efforts at understanding truth and goodness. He includes all that is good in those best efforts, while completely transcending them. He is, in fact, the answer to our deepest questions, and the appropriate place for all our trust and all our devotion, along with all our enthusiasm, gratefulness and vitality.
B: All of this seems to hinge on there being an ultimate creator of all, and on Jesus being the same being.
C: The denial of an ultimate creator of all is untenable. I mean, you are free to hold the position but it isn't rational. Any possible finite system you might imagine has to have come from somewhere. And that origin can't be simple or lifeless. How can something like quantum physics arise from nothing? And how can something arise out of nothing to begin with? We have ourselves as proof that the universe is able to produce persons. To imagine that persons can arise out of nothing is magical thinking. It's a little less irrational to believe that there is an ultimate creator who is not also good, but this also falls apart rather quickly.
B: How so?
C: "If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself". You can't have an ultimate source of being that is divided against itself. And that's what evil is, really. In order to exist, let alone thrive, something has to be founded on what we call "goodness". That which is good, that which works, that which ultimately makes sense. Goodness might occasionally need to allow something bad but it will always be the best thing in the long run. Sometimes the very long run.
B: The level of evil that's immediately visible around us would seem to disprove what you are saying. Or to instead prove that the ultimate good you speak of is so large that it doesn't apply to us.
C: "My kingdom is not of this world". If you look in terms of crude, materialistic priorities of course you see a world full of victorious evil. But no one is required to behave evilly, or to be tainted by having evil done to them. Being itself was made good, and it still is that way at its center. But it requires Christ to break through the shell of our bad inclinations and mindset, and to set free that mustard seed of goodness within us. God's goodness absolutely applies to us, at our scale, in our own history. He became a man. We can't claim to be outside the jurisdiction of his love.
B: It still seems to me that an intelligent ultimate creator is not consistent with what we see around us. And that there is nothing about your story which makes it more compelling than any other story out there.
C: Well, you haven't heard it yet. "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will eat with him, and he with me." Once God comes in and eats with you you won't feel the other stories have any value at all.
A: We all have an inbuilt thirst for truth and meaning, and this is what ultimately drives us, most of us hopefully, to seek the match for this God-shaped vacuum. The more you explore the shape of this hole the more you find that religion makes sense, and if you have the freedom to really compare the shape to these 'different stories', you find that some fit much better than others. And not just in a "this fits for me" way, but in a very universal way, where you see that what is really true is true for everyone. But it's the fit within you driving this, so it's always important to apply it to yourself very well before whacking others over the head with it. Sorry, C.
B: So among those who happen follow their dreamy, mystic vision, not knowing where it will lead or even why they are following it, some will be saved. And for the rest of us, eternal torment in outer darkness? There is a sharpness to this cutoff between saved and unsaved, combined with a blurriness about what one actually does or why, which strikes me as arbitrary, unjust, or simply fallacious.
C: God doesn't punish, he only saves, and that only if we let him.
A: Let's look at this experientially. There's no doubt that we're going about our lives in a state of confusion and in varying degrees of non-requital. We are all sick, whether we admit it or not. That God-shaped hole only gets bigger and deeper and more abrupt as we go on through live trying to fill it with the wrong things. Rather than talking about what happens after death, let's talk about what's happening right now. Are we in heaven or hell? Looking at our existential situation, looking at our having or not having found what we're after, what would we call that state of having not found purpose, meaning and truth versus having found it? I'd say that from the perspective of having found it, the other state would look a lot like hell. And the best you'd be able to say about that other state, from not having experienced the other, is that the best it gets is mild anguish, a sense of enduring incompleteness. Now, without invoking any kind of external force, imagine having to live in one state or the other for a very long time. The anxiety on the one hand and the relief on the other would only grow. So we can think of the more colorful depictions of heaven and hell as real directions, and we can also think of them as being right here, as being potential states of being that we really inhabit.
C: If you know you have a disease it's foolish not to seek a cure, or to try to convince yourself there is no cure. It's not like God isn't doing everything He can to save us from ourselves.
B: Sorry, I don't see God's efforts to save me, unless you think you are it.
C: God does reach out to us through other people, all the time. And even misfits like myself can be used, so it could be God reaching out to you. But it has nothing to do with me, other than that maybe in some small way that I can't claim any credit for I'm doing God's will.
B: Well, I resent the prospect of being tortured for all eternity. That strikes me as unfair. As infinitely unfair.
A: Sticking with fundamentals, I'm going to say that anything bad about our future is our fault, and that every bit of design and will on God's part is toward our salvation, toward rescuing us from ourselves, basically. Natural consequences are what we're up against, not God.
B: But if God designed those natural consequences, then how does that make this our fault?
A: The natural consequences are there for our good, for us to learn and grow. We manage to manipulate them away from their intended use, and turn them into the basis for hellish experience, for ourself and others. Evil is the misuse of good things.
B: If there is a harsh cut-off, if this is a timed test so to speak, then the element of unfairness seems to be solidly in place.
A: There are certain parameters of being that can't be circumvented without invalidating being itself. If we are given infinite time to make good choices that effectively immortalizes sin. (This is why Adam and Eve were thrown out of the garden: so that sin would not become immortal.) If you put an impenetrable wall between beings and really bad choices, then they cannot learn how to exist without this boundary, they grow up incomplete, crippled. God does create good natural consequences, but we have the ability to ignore them. And even to actively numb ourselves to what they show us. When we hurt someone, our empathy is triggered. But we can suppress that. A self-absorbed life is miserable way before it becomes eternal. But we can convince ourselves that it is what we want. And there's a quote I like: God gave the apostles the keys to Peter, but he kept the keys of death and hell to himself. We can bless people, we're not allowed to curse them. Or to make any kind of judgment about their consignment to eternal torment.
C: Let's not water down the warning signs, shall we? If a sign says "eternal torment 15 miles ahead", we need to know that we immediately pull off to the side of the road and reconsider our direction. If it is four pages of 8 point text listing in great theological detail where it is exactly this road leads, along with all the caveats and conditions, it's not going to be read, and even if it is, it won't be understood. This isn't to say that the bold message of warning is only for lesser folk. All of us are prone to hurtling down the slippery slope of self-will, and once we get going we don't read so well. It's not a false message, after all. It's quite true. You can study what's really behind it for years, but then you'd look back on it and say, "wow, that's true, I wish I had just taken it at face value, trusting in the good will of those who put the sign there for me".
B: Forget about me. I think most of the world is not in alignment with you and is culturally set in a different grain. The vast, vast majority of their children are going to follow in their footsteps, which you say are wrong. How does that add up to being fair?
C: First of all it's not up to me to say who is saved, I can confidently leave that to God, who is far more loving and forgiving than I am. Christ is the Way to salvation, and the only way, but: "No man can come to me, except the Father who has sent me draw him". We absolutely need to share the good news with people, but we should be under no delusion that we, personally, are the only path to salvation for any other person. God has this.
A: The net effect of bad influence in the world is a truly horrific thing. We can't ignore that in our equation of what our obligations are. God may have everything covered in an ultimate sense, but it would be foolish to think that we can sit idly by and watch, and imagine ourselves to be doing God's will.
C: Exactly. This is our mess. Whether we're culpable or not, we're responsible.
B: Let's get back to the topic of truth. I would define truth as what really is. And my perspective is that what is ultimately real is solid, objective and impersonal, yet our understanding of that is always imperfect, is always an approximation, and is itself a shadow flitting against a wall. There is no there there. I agree that we feel like we are here, and that we should treat one another as if there was someone there, but the kind of reality we possess as people is really not quite worthy the name. Experience is vivid, but the meaning and depth associated with it is so elusive and transient that I just can't bring myself to believe it has an existence that is real at all. Meaning itself seems to me an accidental byproduct of a collision between my experience of self and the world. It seems to be something I spin into existence when I feel a certain way, and which goes away as soon as I stop generating it. The more flighty my personal experience, the more reality I confer to what is impersonal. My thoughts appear to be entirely my own, and though I find myself in agreement or disagreement with others, I do not see powerful evidence that any meaning I experience has any real relationship to that experienced by others. Therefore, I say that my direct experience, my full, waking experience with all the faculties I can muster, says that absolutes, and hence, ultimate meaning, are a sometimes vivid personal experience, but are not truly real in the sense of being consistent, solid, self-existent things.

A: Not having found meaning is certainly not evidence that it is not real. Rather, I think, having experienced it at all is evidence that we've tasted part of something real. We have the capacity to feel that something matters, that something is real, to go through our life seeking that which is good. To deny the existence of the reality of what we strive toward is the same as giving up hope. We may continue to try, but without hope we are only half-trying, feebly reaching toward a goal we no longer believe to be real. Our goals at a given moment may in fact be wrong. But it is ridiculous to deny the existence of something worthwhile we could possibly do. If our goals were to be aligned with that worthwhile something, then our goals would be toward something real. How can we deny, however indirect or incomplete our experience of it, that we participated in something that had real meaning? One could attempt to string together a belief that though some things are worthwhile, there is no underlying worth. That the concept of worth is empty, but that somehow we are not going to lose track of the difference between good and evil, helpful and hurtful, engaging and depressing. We can pretend that the illusion of worth is psychologically, functionally important. We could tell ourselves that we must foist this belief on ourselves just far enough that we are high functioning members of society, but no further.
A: Denial of the existence and reality of goodness, or meaning, or truth, certainly undermines our own well being. But it is also unfounded. Our not having found the ground of these things is not proof that they do not exist. Let's retain hope that the things which matter most to us, yet are elusive, do in fact exist. The fact that they matter to us, and make a difference in our lives, would seem to point much more to existence than non-existence.
A: The contrast between a world in which meaning and goodness are real and one in which they are not, would be very stark, I think. Are we completely alone in a cold and indifferent universe, with what we honestly, sincerely love the most being a complete fabrication, and what we absolutely, certainly detest the most being equal in value? With nothing to support our most basic inclinations or ideals, not even each other, because lacking the substrate of shared reality even our most fundamental axes of right and wrong are arbitrary and therefore doomed to be orthogonal to one another?
A: Or is it one in which goodness is possible? Are we honestly going to dismiss the goodness we see as random and meaningless? Are we going to dismiss everything of value through a lack of faith? By denying the reality of goodness we are pitching our weight in the opposite direction.
C: Take our Lord Jesus Christ, for instance. If we look honestly at His life, at his goodness and His sacrifice, how can we then turn and say that goodness is not real. "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends." The only place we can honestly point to and say goodness is not real is ourselves, when we deny true goodness.
B: I can see how a genuine belief in the possibility of goodness is important. But how does this lead to absolute goodness? The Moon can be real without being absolute.
A: If our belief, however genuine, in goodness, is individually based, it is ultimately arbitrary. If a few people agree on goodness, they have a small circle of goodness, but if this goodness isn't good outside that circle it's too small, and may not be goodness at all. You can't place a limit on goodness. If you do, it ceases to be good at some point. As long as something is ontologically prior to what you're calling goodness, it is less than good. Real goodness has an infinite diameter, it's universal.
C: But goodness is not just some abstraction that has to be infinite in order to convince us. It has to be Real with a capital R. And it can't be some concept that requires interpretation. Goodness is a person. Goodness is God. Goodness is bigger than us, more human than we are, more loving than we are. Our telos can't be behind us, it has to be ahead of us. And it's not like there isn't proof of this. God came to earth, into time and into our history, to retrieve us and set us straight.
A: The much-too-small relativistic kind of goodness says that it is personal, that it depends on an individual person for its definition and existence. It says "what seems good to me is good". Obviously that kind of goodness is not good at all to anyone else, but this definition at least admits that goodness is something that comes from within, not without. That is, it comes from a person. That's an important insight. Goodness is pretty abstract outside people but it's very tangible inside people and between people. In order to have a big enough goodness that it is really good, you have to extend the size of the person, out past the individual, out past the group, and onward. But at no point does it become impersonal. It's still based on inwardness, on experience. The source of ultimate goodness, that is of real goodness, has to be personal. You can't stop at pantheism, either, saying it is just a mysterious glomming together of every being. Obviously we're not the producers of goodness together, we're the consumers of it. So it's bigger than all of us, and still personal. And if you reflect on what goodness is, you quickly see that the source has to have all the attributes of a person; it has to be someone, it has to have awareness, memory and intelligence, it has to have will. There has to be a there there. If we call this ultimate source a theory, then we're saying there is no ultimate good and the whole tower of goodness crumbles.
B: Does the tower really crumble? Why can't ultimate goodness be something aspirational, in which we all work together to find and express a common vision of goodness? Not a vision that already existed but a new one which we are creating together. Isn't a goodness that we discover together and which was not there before we discovered it just as good as a pre-existing goodness?
C: If I discover a law of physics, it would be crazily delusional and egotistical to imagine I invented it. The law was already there. What makes goodness good? How could I ever claim, regardless of how much goodness I discover, to be its inventor? I didn't even make my capacity to experience goodness, let alone the field of experience I'm experiencing it through, or my senses. If I discover something sweet, did I invent sweetness? There's no "discovery" of goodness that can get more fundamental than my inward capacity to discern goodness. Real goodness is an infinitely deep mystery which we will never exhaust. And we're certainly not going to get far if we don't acknowledge its source, Who is God.
B: I need some kind of evidence that God is the source of goodness. I don't have any experience to base that on. The idea that goodness is actually real is appealing; very appealing, in fact. But why should I believe it? What would convince me? And most importantly, I think, how can I know it's true? It wouldn't be a good belief if it turned out not to be true. To some extent I can believe that a belief can be merely functional, that it serves an important psychological or social function and does more good than harm without needing to be true. But I'd need to be convinced of that, even, to believe it.
A: Something people often don't realize is that they already believe everything they believe on faith. Not believing in God is arbitrary and is not based on any kind of evidence. Rather it is based on a personally selected set assumptions, on choosing one philosophical position over another. Back to what we were talking about earlier, it is based on trusting people who have that belief. Or on distrusting people who don't. I'm not saying our fundamental beliefs are arbitrary, I'm saying two things. That first, they are subject to our conscience, which overrides reason, and second, they can only be examined and understood in ways that are very different from ideas and concepts. We can describe them using philosophical or theological terms but those terms are just ideas, and our beliefs have no obligation to listen to them at all. We have to choose, at a pretty deep level, to feel or not feel what those ideas, what our whole experience, rather, is saying.
B: Whatever you call it, I'm not seeing the evidence, and I still feel suspicious of your theological ideas.
C: We've been talking about goodness, let's talk about love. Love conquers fear, and it also conquers suspicion. It's not us you need to trust, it's God's love you need to feel, or at least to understand in some small way, so that you can feel some small part of it. We all have a built in capacity, a slot in our mind and heart for some kind of god to worship and believe in. The ultimate reality of things, and of our experience. We all color it in some way. If we say we don't believe in God, we're coloring it in as something completely impersonal, a set of laws or principles, a disinterested, blind or uninvolved watchmaker. We either believe in a god who is good, or something less than good. That he cares about us or that we are on our own. Certainly it's not up to us to say what is really true, but it's foolish for us not to figure out what is. And we're surrounded by this world we're experiencing. Is it good or not? And we can't judge it by how we misuse it. We have to look at the design, at its potential. Let's not look into the mirror and judge that. And let's not pick out every case of suffering we can think of, and judge that. Most suffering is a product of our own bad choices. Can we honestly say that free will is a bad design, a bad idea? Can any of us think of a better solution, a better design that would allow free will but not let us use it poorly? And when we suffer, not other people I'm saying, just us, isn't it always possible to look up, to seek out a good way of understanding the experience? Of letting it build character rather than create a toxic pool of resentment? With God, we can easily look up, because we know He is Real. This is one powerful point of evidence: that when we fill in that "who is god" box with God in the flesh, with Jesus Christ, everything clicks into place. Our own suffering is no longer the same because we have a rock to hold onto. The whole world becomes better from the inside, so to speak. Truth and goodness get a name, a direction. We know we'll never own them, or fully understand them, but we'll always have them more intimately than we could have hoped or dreamed. Compare that to godlessness if you will. There's no comparison.
B: It still seems like I would have to experience that for myself in order to believe any of it.
C: I'm just saying to question the beliefs you have already chosen, to admit those choices were arbitrary. They'd have to be arbitrary or you'd have no doubt about them. When you experience love you don't doubt it, and you see that doubt is exactly what extinguishes it. In a relationship, you don't endlessly pick and criticize the relationship itself. You can certainly examine the relationship, find ways in which you are not treating it well, correct your assumptions and views around it, but to question it in the sense of undermining its validity is just mean. There's some level at which you are already in relationship with God, it's just not a conscious, healthy, positive relationship yet. At the moment, if I heard you right earlier, you think God is very distant and uncaring, that we're on our own, and that all he's given us is the barest essentials: matter, energy and flaky wisps of consciousness. That he doesn't really care what we do with it one way or another. But you still care about goodness, or you wouldn't imagine it to be better than badness. And at some level you realize you miss God, because you would prefer goodness be real.
B: Even if it turned out to be psychologically effective, that wouldn't, in itself, prove it true.
A: What do we ever have besides our personal experience? Personal experience includes both belief and rational conviction.
C: Our relationship with God is deeper than we can reach with the intellect, like it or not. Not that we shouldn't exhaust our intellect and everything else at our disposal, in the service of that relationship. We definitely should. But we have to be very careful about what our intellect is serving. It is, for instance, actively trying to avoid a particular perspective because it is more comfortable with another one? If it really knows the difference between a good perspective and a bad perspective, that's called discernment, and it's a good thing. But all too often we operate on less than perfect motives, and we're less than perfectly clear about why we're doing something.
B: I don't mean to repeat myself endlessly, but it seems I would require a particular experience, which I have not yet had, in order to lead me to think about things the way you are describing.
A: Hm.
C: You know, it doesn't hurt to consider, every once in a while, the historical reality of what happened 2000 years ago. It's not like this is completely abstract and wholly inward, you know. Something did actually happen, which, if we don't choose to doubt happened, is sufficient evidence all on its own.
B: It seems culturally specific to me. There are so many competing claims for ultimate truth, my allegiance doesn't just automatically fall to one group's explanation of history, because of course every group claims that their explanation of ultimate truth ties into a version of history.
C: Ours happens to be the most thoroughly documented and widely held, by the way. And there really aren't that many views that are widely held. Roughly, 1/3 of all humanity believes in Christ, historically and in terms of being God, 1/4 are Islamic which certainly believes in God and backs up at least part of the Christian message, 1/6 are Hindu and believe in some number of gods, and 1/6 don't believe anything, but the majority of that unbelief is due to communism, not choice. The remaining 1/12 are mostly Buddhist and animists. The non-religious perspective is very new and is not widely adopted. I'm not saying that the majority determine what is true, just that there aren't that many views to sort through. There's enough evidence that Jesus lived and was crucified that one can't deny it happened. The argument is over what really happened. Were all those martyrs delusional or heroic as they went to their horrific deaths? Were all the witnesses to the resurrection lying? It seems to me that you have to construct a really elaborate conspiracy theory to disprove that all those people experienced what they said they did. And to try to explain what they experienced in some way other than they did requires quite a bit of reconstructive creativity. The early church's explanation for its experiences is the best fit for what they experienced. It's much simpler and more viable than the alternatives.
A: There is a confluence of evidentiary streams here. We have a built in need which God fills, a deep psychological efficacy showing that He does in fact fill this need, a powerful rational argument, and historically there is a big flashing red sign pointing to a mountain of evidence. On the other side there is no actual evidence, only denial of evidence and tradition based on supposition and aesthetics. The counter-arguments all look like attacks on straw men to me. I have yet to see an argument against the fundamental tenets of Christianity that understands what it is criticizing.
B: Wait, a minute. You're claiming that I'm attacking straw men which have no bearing on your real perspective, but am I not myself a straw man that you have set up in order to strengthen your own culturally specific perspective?
A: A straw man? You?
B: Yes, I think an ordinary person would not put up with what I've put up with, and someone worthy of this debate would have stronger arguments, held with deeper conviction. This is not to claim humility, but rather to accuse the author of our dialog of not putting quite as much punch into my lines or into my personality as he has with the two of you.
A: Well, the author, I believe, is only willing to go so far with your views, as he finds them unwholesome.
B: Do you see what I have to put up with? Be that as it may, the author is not going to accomplish his ulterior motives if they are so visible and close to the surface.
A: Perhaps he doesn't seriously intend to address those deeply opposed to his views, and really, he is only preaching to the choir. I don't mean to bring up pearls and swine again, but if someone doesn't have any kind of inward experience of God, what's the point in arguing with them about theology?
B: I suppose in this case you are insulting me slightly less than if I were not a straw man. My positions, being relatively moderate and my demeanor being moderately thoughtful, classes me outside of those undeserving of said pearls. But is the author doing a service to the choir by pulling my punches?
C: If I was in the choir, I'd prefer not to be punched. It's understandable to not strongly espouse views you find abhorrent.
B: Even as a straw man I'm offended by that. I am certainly not perfect but I arrived at my views honestly. I was raised without religion, in a non-religious atmosphere. At no point did I rebel against any kind of moral standard, but rather I've lived up to the highest standards represented to me by all available role models. I'm certainly not in the top of my class in any regard but I am a solid B student in terms of aspirationally good behavior. If you are going to represent "the light of the world" to me, you will need to draw me in more skillfully and more sensitively. You will need to address my present perspective much closer to the roots of my fundamental beliefs, and they are going to be more real than you imagine them. You might, by putting yourself in my shoes, even experience a taste of my doubt and disbelief. If you think that will be poisonous to you, you are probably missing one of your own commandments. You can't love your neighbor without smelling him, and if you don't admit you smell just as bad, I believe you're breaking another of your commandments.
C: I'm obliged to love you like a brother, but I'm not obliged to burn incense before your idols. And I think it's better for everyone if you don't go too far into the dark pit of bitterness, speaking with the tongue of a serpent. That said, if you or the author want to present a stronger argument, I'm in no position to stop either of you.
A: Personally, I have no ambition of converting anyone. That's God's job. My job, I think, is largely to figure out what my job is. Part of it that is clear enough is that I have to be honest, and I care about all of this too much to not speak at all (though maybe I should try that). So that leaves me just trying to speak honestly about what I've experienced. I care how people react to that and I sincerely hope my words lead them toward God somehow, but I have no power over their relationship with God. Besides, my hands are full working out my own.
C: I think it's clear we have to try to bring people toward God. We have to share what we've received.
A: But we won't help anyone through untethered, undisciplined blathering. And especially not through misrepresentation. Without a solid base, without being at the level of a saint in fact, it's probably better to be silent.
C: I fear that you and I are one straw man together, you too timid and me too bold. I suspect our author is a bit confused and expects us to argue.
A: I'm in no position to argue for timidity, I just lack the insight and clarity to speak anything boldly. If the spirit moves me I don't plan to be timid, but I do need to learn quite a bit of discernment before I'll be able to trust that it's the Spirit moving me.
C: Be careful, excessive cautiousness can serve as a mask for evil things. At some point you have to take up your cross and march, even if you don't know the way.
A: Well, I think it's time we resolved into one amorphous projection of being, and wrapped up our conversation.
B: Cool, can I come too?
C: I guess so, provisionally.
A: Ok, see you all later.
B: Bye.
C: Later.

"Intellect: "By convention there is sweetness, by convention bitterness, by convention color, in reality only atoms and the void."
Senses: "Foolish intellect! Do you seek to overthrow us, while it is from us that you take your evidence?" " - Democritus

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