Thursday, December 17, 2009

What "I Ought To" Really Means

I'm working on Chapter 5 of Mere Christianity, and it occurred to me that Lewis is mistaken about the uniqueness of what he terms Moral Law. He notes that there is often an impulse that we ought to do good, even when we don't want to. And from that he deduces that this impulse, unlike all other impulses, must be a natural law implanted by a supernatural mind. Aside from being a humongous leap, stealthily importing a lot of assumptions not made explicit, this ignores the simple explanation of cost-benefit analysis and the difficulty of delaying gratification.

When we say, "I really ought to . . . " whether it regards going to the gym, giving to a charity, or abstaining from an extramarital affair, aren't we really saying, "I highly value an overarching or future benefit that requires this action, but there are powerful immediate benefits to not taking this action." The struggle isn't the result of a fallen nature battling with a God-given Moral Law, but simply the difficulty of turning down present goodies to obtain future ones. Remaining on the couch, keeping all your money to buy fun stuff for you, or having that smoking hot infatuation sex will all feel really good in the short term, or when we only focus on our immediate desires. But we are also aware of the wider picture, in which other (selfish!) motivations require that we do the opposite.

I just don't see why this has to rise to the level of the supernatural. Unless you are steeped in a Christian culture already. In Lewis's case, I suspect not only did he work out the "logical" steps to his conclusion AFTER coming to it, but that Christian moral teachings influenced how he looked at the issues. It might not occur to a person schooled in the Ten Commandments that adultery actually has some benefits - we all know adultery is wrong, wrong, WRONG!!!

While Lewis is really good at couching his arguments in convincing-sounding analogies, I think he fails at both perspective and imagination.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Mere Christianity - Not Impressed So Far

I'm on Chapter 4. I'm continuing even though Lewis has instructed me to stop reading. (He says anyone who doesn't agree with his first argument should give it up.)

It boils down to this: because most people feel some sense of fairness and overarching morality (not only "I don't want you to do that" but "You shouldn't do that - it's wrong."), that means there must be an immaterial Lawgiver who put a sense of Moral Law in each of us. I think all of this is perfectly explicable by evolution and socialization. And supported by the indications we see that other animals have "moral codes," such as "Don't eat before the higher-ranked wolves" or "Don't have sex with anyone but the Alpha chimp, unless you can be really sneaky about it" (guilt!).

He also completely overlooks the selfish value of benefiting society. He starts well, saying, "[Human beings] see that you cannot have any real safety or happiness except in a society where every one plays fair," But three sentences later has completely forgotten this concept, and says it's silly to say it's good to benefit society, because wanting to benefit society is unselfish, so it's just begging the question. Except he started the conversation with an admission that helping society helps the individual!

He also misses the fact that human behavior all takes place in roughly the same environment, and this was probably even truer when evolutionary pressures were at their greatest, so it's not a supernatural-level surprise that we are hard-wired and socialized via long tradition to adopt similar cooperative behaviors. It becomes a (granted, complex) series of "if-then" statements: If no one in a clan can trust each other, they fail to cooperate and all die; If most people in a clan feel significant psychological pressure to be trustworthy, they can cooperate and survive.

If Lewis considered engineering, one wonders if he would find an extra-universal entity that bestows the Law of Design. "Look, all people throughout history have made boats that displace more water than that equal to their weight. Clearly this means there is a God of Boat Design!"

Friday, December 4, 2009

Talking About Death

Humanist Homeschool Mom has a post referring to her article, "Mommy, what happens after I die?" It prompted me to compile some of my favorite bits & pieces about a naturalistic approach to death.

First, the quote I commented with: ""I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it," traditionally attributed to Mark Twain.

Then there's this lovely bit by Aaron Freeman, which can be heard at

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you'd hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you'll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they'll be comforted to know your energy's still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you're just less orderly. Amen.

Finally, there's a nice scene in the movie Houseboat, with Cary Grant and Sophia Loren, that expresses the same kind of sentiment. The widower explains to his grieving son that nothing is ever really destroyed or gone, only changed in form.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Do you have Krismas in France? Kriiiiiismaaassss!

Maybe Ricky's mom was actually asking a coherent question there!

Well, probably not, since Krismas was named only a few years ago. But I kind of like the idea. It's what we've been celebrating lo these many years - a Christmas-type celebration without any religious belief.

It seems a little blasphemous at first, but heck, Christmas is just a hijack of pagan solstice festivals, grafted on to the birth of Jesus.

So Merry Krismas, in addition to Solstice and Humanlight!