Travels in Elysium
While it is tempting to embrace subjectivism when it comes to matters of art, experience has shown me that what I feel about a work merely reveals what I feel. When I was more foolish, I took this feeling to reveal the quality of a work. However, I have found that works that I rather like can actually be of rather poor or dubious aesthetic value while I can also recognize the aesthetic merit of works I dislike. I make these points because honesty compels me to say that I did not like or enjoy Travels in Elysium, which is billed as “a metaphysical mystery set on the Aegean island of Santorini.” The work did remind me a bit of the most famous “metaphysical” mystery books, namely Dan Brown’s works—which I also do not like or enjoy. I do freely admit that the failing might lie within in me rather than within the pages of this book. I will, however, endeavor to present a just assessment of the work.
The protagonist of the tale is 22-year-old Nicholas Pedrosa who is drawn into the drawn out story by Marcus James Huxley, an archaeologist (or something like that). Huxley has found 5,000 year old writings on Santorini and Pedrosa is hired to be part of his expedition to uncover the ancient mystery of what happened to the people when their city was buried by a volcano. Unlike in Pompeii, there are no signs of the inhabitants. Pedrosa also walks into another mystery: Huxley’s previous “young assistant” has died.
Azuski endeavors to work in some philosophy, namely Plato’s (rather brief and not very philosophical) tale of Atlantis. Being a professional philosopher, I am generally interested when a work of fiction makes effective use of some aspect of philosophy. However, the tale of Atlantis is more a work of Platonic fiction than Platonic philosophy. The mere fact that something is written by a person who is a philosopher, even in the context of a philosophical dialogue, need not make the content philosophical. However, people tend to take a broad view of philosophy—most especially when it comes to the much distorted field of metaphysics. As such, this could be regarded as a metaphysical mystery with philosophical elements—at least in some sense of these terms.
In the course of the story, the narrative shifts around in time—jumping from the present setting to the distant past and back again. While I do enjoy a well done time shift in a narrative, the shifts in this novel are abrupt and rough in a way that seems to disjoint (rather than enhance) the narrative. I will note that some readers might be more adept than I in such matters, so perhaps this is a failing on my part as well.
Some critics have already pointed out that Azuski’s tale suffers from technical defects, namely in regards to his descriptions of how archaeology is conducted and how active and erupting volcanoes work. While such errors can be regarded as a defect in a work, I tend to go with Aristotle in this matter. That is, such errors are faults, but they are not defects in regards to the artistic aspects of the work. To paraphrase Aristotle, to badly present the facts of archaeology would be a factual error, but to present a story of archaeology poorly would be an artistic error. There is also the fact that, as readers will find, perhaps the seeming errors are not errors because of the final “twist ending” of the story. But, as just noted, from the standpoint of assessing the work as a work of art (and not a report on archaeology or volcanoes) what matters is the aesthetic qualities.
Some works are so well-written that reading them is like sledding down that perfect snow covered hill: the mind goes smoothly and pleasantly over the words. While such works can contain matters that must be wrestled with, the writing aids one in this struggle rather than impeding it. When I started reading the work, it reminded me of the times when my sled ran out of snow and hit patches of dirt or gravel—slow and painful going. Since I was asked to review the work, I pressed on. The sledding improved a bit, but it was rather like sledding in a storm—I found the work confusing (and not in the good way that a mystery should be initially confusing). Again, this could be a failing on my part—I am not, as a rule, much of a mystery fan. However, I will say that the author seems to overuse the red herring device and does not use it to good effect (that is, to advance the plot and enhance the mystery). It felt as if the author had written multiple stories and, not wanting them to go to waste, simply copied and pasted them into the text of the novel to serve as red herrings.
After 538 pages, the novel ends on page 539. To avoid spoiling to book, I will not reveal the “surprise” ending. However, I did find the ending disappointing and unsatisfying. I had hoped to at least be rewarded with an original and interesting ending after slogging through so much text, but this was not the case.
This novel had, I believe, considerable potential. However, it would have benefited greatly from some considerable pruning, editing and rewriting. While I did not enjoy the book, those who like Dan Brown might find this metaphysical mystery appealing. Kirkus has a very positive review of this book and I recommend that readers of this review read that to get an alternative view of the text.
As mentioned in the previous essay, Candida Moss’ the Myth of Persecution got me thinking about the notion of the good death. Her mention of Socrates and discussion of the stories of martyrdom reminded me that a considerable part of the Apology is about death and why it should not be feared.
In her book Moss makes an interesting argument in which she endeavors to show how the death of Socrates and other ancient philosophers shaped the later Christian martyrdom. One similarity worth exploring further is the idea that the philosophers and Christian martyrs face death bravely. To use the most famous example, Socrates faced both his trial and death with considerable courage. Or, perhaps a better way to put it, a lack of fear. Since Socrates, unlike most martyrs, presented a detailed case supporting his view that death should not be feared, his story makes an excellent point of focus.
Socrates gives multiple arguments to support his claim that death should not be feared. I will present a summary of each as well as commentary.
Socrates first argument, which I will call the ignorance argument, runs as follows: As Socrates sees it, “no one knows if death may be the greatest good” and hence if someone fears death, they are making an error. This error, for Socrates, is to have the mere pretenses of wisdom—believing that one knows something he does not.
Socrates, who well known for his claim that his wisdom amounted to knowing that he knew nothing, claims that he does not know about death. He does, however, claim that he knows that he should not fear or avoid a possible good (which death might be). Rather, he should fear and avoid a certain evil—in this case, injustice. Thus, Socrates two main reasons here for not fearing death are that 1) he does not know if death is good or evil and 2) he fears injustice as a known evil and will choose death, which might be good, over being unjust.
As might be suspected, the Christian martyrs would not, in general, lack the fear of death for the reason that they accepted their ignorance of the matter. As Moss notes in her book, the generally held view was that martyrs were guaranteed not only heaven, but also premium treatment. However, the Socratic influence can, perhaps, be seen in the notion that the Christian martyr stories often involved the martyr facing the same choice as Socrates, namely giving up his principles to avoid death. Like Socrates, the martyrs elected to avoid what they regarded as the known evil.
In terms of courage, facing the unknown nature of death would require some degree of bravery. After all, while it could be good, it could also be bad. Socrates does, of course, seem to be assuming that any possible evil of death would be less evil than injustice. As such, it could be claimed that his choice is not a matter of courage—after all, he is merely choosing something he does not fear (death) over something he does fear. He can, obviously enough, be regarded as brave from the perspective of people who do fear death.
Socrates’ main argument as to why death is nothing to fear is his famous dilemma: he claims that “death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness or a change and migration of the soul from this world to another.” While some might fear the nothingness, Socrates does not—he regards it as a great gain, like a sleep undisturbed even by dreams. The other option, as he sees it, is even better: what we would now regard as a heavenly afterlife in which one is judged by those “who were righteous in life” and is, for good measure, happy and immortal.
Interestingly enough, Ecclesiastes 9:5 seems to match what Socrates: “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.” There is also the more popular view that the good go to Heaven when they die—where they are, as Socrates said, happy and immortal.
While some claim that Socrates is merely trying to calm his friends, the argument is worth assessing in terms of whether or not it shows death is nothing to fear and also in terms of how this connects to the matter of bravery.
On the face of it, if Socrates actually believed the claims in his own argument, then facing death would not seem to be a matter of courage. After all, facing something that one does not (and should not) fear is not courage. To use an analogy, suppose we are in a house and hear a strange noise coming from the dark basement. If I have no idea what is down there in the dark, then it would (or could) be brave of me to go into the dark to find out what made the noise. However, if I believe the noise is being made by my husky pursuing a cat, then it would be no braver of me to go into the basement than it would be for me to eat some ice cream—after all, I would believe that I was not facing anything bad. As such, if Socrates believed that death was really nothing to fear, than facing it without fear would not be courage.
As should be obvious, Socrates can be easily accused of presenting a false dilemma. After all he offers two alternative when it is easy enough to imagine post-death experiences that are very horrible indeed, such as Hell or a Hell like place where people are unhappy and immortal. Such fates would presumably be something to fear. What would be needed is, of course, evidence that only good things can happen to the good. Naturally, Socrates clearly believes that he is good, just as the martyrs are presented as being good.
Socrates does, of course, make exactly that claim. Near the end of the Apology he says, “no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death.” While he is aware that he has been sentenced to death, he does not regard this as a harm, since he is sure that he has not been “neglected by the gods” and, famously, his little voice did not stop him from choosing the course he followed.
Not surprisingly, a similar view is held by the martyrs—at least as they are generally portrayed in the stories. That is, in the stories they receive a proper reward for their martyrdom. If a martyr knows or at least believes that death is actually a great gain, then choosing death or accepting death are not acts of courage. After all, if I choose ice cream or accept a bowl of it, I am not thus a brave person.
The obvious reply is, of course, that the process of death tends to hurt—especially the deaths that the Christian martyrs are said to have experienced. As such, it could be argued that they had physical courage in that they were willing to face the pain that stood between them and their reward. Going with the ice cream analogy, I could (perhaps) be called brave if I had to win my ice cream by enduring some modest amount of pain (after all, I am just getting ice cream and not Heaven). Then again, perhaps enduring some discomfort for a gain is not courage at all, but merely a desire for gain that is stronger than the pain.
The murders at Sandy Hook Elementary school brought the problem of evil once again into the media spotlight. While the specifics of the matter change with each horrible incident, the basic question remains the same: why does God allow evil to occur? I have considered this matter in various other essays, but here I will take a look at what two prominent members of America’s religious right have said about the matter.
Former governor and one time presidential contender Michael Huckabee said “We ask why there’s violence in our schools but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage because we’ve made it a place where we don’t want to talk about eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability.”
While Huckabee’s remark has been taken as claiming that God allowed the massacre because American public schools do not religious activities (such as prayer) and religious education (as opposed to teaching about religion), it can also be taken as expressing a slightly different view. Rather than claiming that God is being spiteful and allowing children to be slaughtered because He is experiencing a divine anger, Huckabee could be taken as asserting that the killings at schools occur because people do not have the proper religious education in public schools. Presumably Huckabee believes that if people received the correct religious education in public schools, then such killings would be less likely to occur.
The idea that the correct moral education will result in better behavior is an old one and was developed extensive in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics—although I am sure that Huckabee and Aristotle would disagree about the specifics of the education since Aristotle was not a Christian. As such, if Huckabee is simply claiming that the killings at schools are caused by a failure of moral education, then his claim has some degree of plausibility. Of course, whether or not bringing Christianity back into public schools would reduce the chances of violence in America is another matter. One interesting point worth considering is that as people like Huckabee claim that society has grown worse as it has allegedly “removed God”, Steven Pinker argued in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that violence has been on the decline. While correlation is not proof of causation, this is a matter worth thinking about especially since Thomas Hobbes noted that one major cause of violence is disputes over religion.
Turning back to the problem of evil, Huckabee’s explanation does not really address this concern effectively. While it might explain why people do bad things in terms of a lack of proper education, this does not explain why God would allow the children and the faculty of Sandy Hook to be slaughtered. Bryan Fischer does, however, take this matter on directly.
Speaking about Sandy Hook, Bryan Fischer said “And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve got to invite me back into your world first. I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted. I am a gentlemen.”
Fischer’s explanation is very straightforward: God is too polite to go where he is not invited and hence He allowed the slaughter of children. This seems problematic, to say the least.
On the face of it, Fischer seems to be claiming that God’s sense of etiquette trumps His morality. That is, He would permit slaughter to occur rather than act in a way that might be regarded is impolite. This certainly seems to be an implausible claim. After all, consider the following analogy. Suppose I was accustomed to stopping by a friend’s house to get a drink from his garden hose while on my long summer runs. But then he got divorced and his wife got the house. While she does not dislike me, she asks me to no longer stop by to use the hose. Now, imagine that I am running by one day and she and her daughter are being attacked in her backyard. While I could easily defeat the attacker and save the two, I just run on by because I am no longer invited there. Intuitively, that would be morally wrong of me—even if I elected not to engage the attacker, I should at least do something. Also, if my reason is that I am not invited, then there are two obvious responses. First, it seems intuitively plausible to hold that my moral duty to help people in danger outweighs my moral duty to not be impolite. Second, it seems reasonable to think that my friend’s ex-wife and daughter would be happy to invite me to help them in their time of need. Obviously, since I am a decent person I would rush to help the two people in danger. If God is at least as good as me, He would presumably do the same. Also, God has nothing to worry about—the attacker would pose no threat to Him.
Another point of interest is that Fischer certainly seems to indicate that God would be glad to protect children if he were invited back. If he were right about this, this would seem to indicate that God would protect children in such circumstances. However, he seems to be exceptionally wrong about this. After all, God has allowed people of faith to die. He even has allowed children to be murdered in His churches. As such, the idea that God would protect children if we only asked him seems to be absurd. People have obviously asked and God has done nothing.
Of course, it could be countered that people have failed to properly invite God—that is, God would have helped if they had asked in the right way. Going back to the analogy given above, this would be like me running past by friend’s ex-wife and daughter and refusing to stop because their cries for help were not worded properly or otherwise defective. However, I would obviously help them regardless of how they requested aid—that is what a decent person would do. As noted above, presumably God is at least as good as I am, so if I would help regardless of the wording of the invite, so would God.
Overall, Huckabee and Fischer do not give an adequate response to the question of why God allowed the slaughter to occur. To be fair to them, no one ever has and probably no one ever will.
In general, will is a very useful thing to have. After all, it allows a person to overcome factors that would make his decisions for him, such as pain, fear, anger, fatigue, lust or weakness. I would, of course, be remiss to not mention that the will can be used to overcome generally positive factors such as compassion, love and mercy as well. The will, as Kant noted, can apparently select good or evil with equal resolve. However, I will set aside the concern regarding the bad will and focus on training the will.
Based on my own experience, the will is rather like stamina—while people vary in what they get by nature, it can be improved by proper training. This, of course, nicely matches Aristotle’s view of the virtues.
While there are no doubt many self-help books discussing how to train the will with various elaborate and strange methods, the process is actually very straightforward and is like training any attribute. To be specific, it is mainly a matter of exercising the capacity but not doing so to excess (and thus burning out) or deficiency (and thus getting no gain). To borrow from Aristotle, one way of developing the will in regards to temperance is to practice refraining from pleasures to the proper degree (the mean) and this will help train the will. As another example, one can build will via athletic activities by continuing when pain and fatigue are pushing one to stop. Naturally, one should not do this to excess (because of the possibility of injury) nor be deficient in it (because there will be no gain).
As far as simple and easy ways to train the will, meditation and repetitive mental exercises (such as repeating prayers or simply repeated counting) seem to help in developing this attribute.
One advantage of the indirect training of the will, such as with running, is that it also tends to develop other resources that can be used in place of the will. To use a concrete example, when a person tries to get into shape to run, sticking with the running will initially take a lot of will because the pain and fatigue will begin quickly. However, as the person gets into shape it will take longer for them to start to hurt and feel fatigued. As such, the person will not need to use as much will when running (and if the person becomes a crazy runner like me, then she will need to use a lot of will to take a rest day from running). To borrow a bit from Aristotle, once a person becomes properly habituated to an activity, then the will cost of that activity becomes much less—thus making it easier to engage in that activity. For example, a person who initially has to struggle to eat healthy food rather than junk food will find that resisting not only builds their will but also makes it easier to resist the temptations of junk.
Another interesting point of consideration is what could be called will surrogates. A will surrogate functions much like the will by allowing a person to resist factors that would otherwise “take control” of the person. However, what makes the will surrogate a surrogate is that it is something that is not actually the will—it merely serves a similar function. Having these would seem to “build the will” by providing a surrogate that can be called upon when the person’s own will is failing—sort of a mental tag team situation.
For example, a religious person could use his belief in God as a will surrogate to resist temptations forbidden by his faith, such as adultery. That is, he is able to do what he wills rather than what his lust is pushing him to do. As another example, a person might use pride or honor as will surrogates—she, for example, might push through the pain and fatigue of a 10K race because of her pride. Other emotions (such as love) and factors could also serve as will surrogates by enabling a person to do what he wills rather than what he is being pushed to do.
One obvious point of concern regarding will surrogates is that they could be seen not as allowing the person to do as he would will when he lacks his own will resources but as merely being other factors that “make the decision” for the person. For example, if a person resists having an affair with a coworker because of his religious beliefs, then it could be contended that he has not chosen to not have the affair. Rather, his religious belief (and perhaps fear of God) was stronger than his lust. If so, those who gain what appears to be willpower from such sources are not really gaining will. Rather they merely have other factors that make them do or not do things in a way that resembles the actions of the will.
The stock problem of evil is that the existence of evil in the world is incompatible with the Philosophy 101 conception of God, namely that God is all good, all powerful and all knowing. After all, if God has these attributes, then He knows about all evil, should tolerate no evil and has the power to prevent evil. While some take the problem of evil to show that God does not exist, it can also be taken as showing that this conception of God is in error.
Not surprisingly, those who wish to accept the existence of this all good, all powerful and all-knowing deity have attempted various ways to respond to the problem of evil. One standard response is, of course, that God has granted us free will and this necessitates that He allow us to do evil things. This, it is claimed, gets God off the hook: since we are free to choose evil, God is not accountable for the evil we do.
In a previous essay I discussed Republican Richard Mourdock’s view that “Life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.” In the course of that essay, I briefly discussed the matter of free will. In this essay I will expand on this matter.
For the sake of the discussion, I will assume that we have free will. Obviously, this can easily be dispute, I am interested in seeing whether or not such free will can actually get God off the hook for the evil that occurs, such as rape and its consequences.
On the face of it, free will would seem to free God from being morally accountable for our choices. After all, if God does not compel or influence our choices and we are truly free to select between good and evil, then the responsibility of the choice would rest on the person making the decision. It should also be added that God would presumably also be excused from allowing for evil choices—after all, in order for there to be truly free will in the context of morality there must be the capacity for choosing good or evil. Or so the stock arguments usually claim.
For the sake of the discussion I will also accept this second assumption, namely that free will gets God off the hook in regards to our choices. This does, of course, lead to an interesting question: does allowing free will also require that God allow the consequences of the evil choices to come to pass? That is, could God allow people moral autonomy in their choices, yet prevent their misdeeds from actually bearing their evil fruit?
One way to consider this matter is to take the view that free will requires that a person be able to make a moral decision and that this decision be either good or evil (or possibly neutral). After all, a moral choice must be a moral choice. On this approach, whether or not free will would be compatible with God preventing occurrences (like rape or pregnancy caused by rape) would seem to depend on what makes something good or evil.
There are, of course, a multitude of moral theories that address this matter. For the sake of brevity I will consider two: Kant’s view and the utilitarian view (as exemplified by John Stuart Mill).
Kant famously takes the view that “A good will is good not because of what it performs or effects, not by its aptness for the attainment of some proposed end, but simply by virtue of the volition—that is, it is good in itself, and considered by itself is to be esteemed much higher than all that can be brought about by it in favor of any inclination…Its usefulness or fruitlessness can neither add to nor take away anything from this value.”
For Kant, what makes a willing (decision) good or evil is contained in the act of willing itself. Hence, there would be no need to consider the consequences of an action stemming from a decision when determining the morality of the choice. An interesting illustration of this view can be found in Bioware’s Star Wars the Old Republic game. Players are often given a chance to select between light side (good) and dark side (evil) options, thus earning light side or dark side points which determine the moral alignment of the character. For example, a player might have to choose to kill or spare a defeated opponent. Conveniently, the choices are labeled with symbols indicating whether a choice is light side or dark side—which would be very useful in real life.
If Kant’s view is correct, then God could allow the freedom of the will while also preventing evil choices from having any harmful consequences. For example, a person could freely chose to rape a woman and the moral choice would presumably be duly noted by God (in anticipation of judgment day). God could then simply prevent the rape from ever occurring—the rapist could, for example, stumble and fall while lunging towards his intended victim. As another example, a person could freely will the decision to murder someone, yet find that her gun fails to fire when aimed at the intended victim. In short, people could be free to make moral choices while at the same time being unable to actually bring those evil intentions into actuality. Thus, God could allow free will while also preventing anyone from being harmed.
It might be objected that God could not do this on the grounds that people would soon figure out that they could never actualize their evil decisions and hence people would (in general) stop making evil choices. That is, there would be a rather effective deterrent to evil choices, namely that they could never bear fruit and this would rob people of their free will. For example, those who would otherwise decide to rape if they could engage in rape would not do that because they would know that their attempts to act on their decisions would be thwarted.
The obvious reply is that free will does not mean that person gets what s/he wills—it merely means that the person is free to will. As such, people who want to rape could still will to rape and do so freely. They just would not be able to harm anyone.
It is, of course, obvious that this is not how the world works—people are able to do all sorts of misdeeds. However, since God could make the world work this way, this would suggest various possibilities such as God not existing or that God is not a Kantian. This leads me to the discussion of the utilitarian option.
On the stock utilitarian approach, the morality of an action depends on the consequences of said action. As Mill put it, “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” As such, the morality of a willing would not be determined by the willing but by the consequences of the action brought about by the willing in question.
If this is correct, then God would need to allow the consequences of the willing to occur in order for the willing to be good or evil (or neutral). After all, if the willing had no consequences then it would have no moral significance on a consequentialist view like utilitarianism. So, for example, if a person freely wills to rape a woman, then God must not intervene. Otherwise He would be interfering with what determines the ethics of the willing. As such, if God did not allow the rapist to act upon his willing, then the decision to rape would not be an evil decision. If it is assumed that free will is essential to God being able to judge people for their deeds and misdeeds, then He would have to allow misdeeds to bear fruit so that they would be, in fact, misdeeds. On the usual view, He then punishes or rewards people after they die.
One rather obvious problem with this approach is that an all knowing God would know the consequences of an action even without allowing the action to take place. As such, God could allow people to will their misdeeds and then punish them for what the consequences would have been if they had been able to act upon their intentions. After all human justice punishes people even when they are prevented from committing their crimes. For example, someone who tries to murder another person is still justly punished even if she is prevented from succeeding.
It might be countered that God can only punish cases of actual evil rather than potential evil. That is, if the misdeed is prevented then it is not an actual misdeed and hence God cannot justly punish a person. On this view, God must allow rape in order to be able to toast rapists in Hell. This would, of course, require that God not consider an attempted evil deed as an evil deed. So, actual murder would be wrong, but attempted murder would not. This, of course, is rather contrary to human justice—but it could be claimed that human law and divine law are rather different. Obviously humans and God take very different approaches: we generally try to keep people from committing misdeeds whereas God apparently never does. Rather, He seems content to punish long after the fact—at least on the usual account of God.
I have always included a section on the afterlife in my Introduction to Philosophy class. As bit of grim humor, I tell my students that this is one philosophical problem that has a definite answer—unfortunately getting that answer requires dying.
Not surprisingly, students often point to examples of experiences in which people are technically dead, but are restored to life. People who survive these encounters with death often speak of strange experiences that they sometimes take as evidence for the afterlife.
One of the best publicized examples of this is the case of Dr. Eben Alexander, a Harvard neurosurgeon. After being put into a coma by bacterial meningitis, he had a death and revival experience which he has extensively publicized. He has also written up his experience as a book, the aptly named Proof of Heaven.
While Dr. Alexander’s case was given extensive media coverage because he is a Harvard neurosurgeon, his case is otherwise not significantly different from other such cases and can be assessed as they have been assessed. Naturally, it is worth noting that his medical training does give him credibility as an expert on neurosurgery. However, as an observer of the afterlife he would seem to be no more (or less) of an expert than anyone else. That is, his expertise in neurosurgery would not seem to apply to metaphysical experiences of the sort alleged to have occurred.
One stock criticism of the near-death experience is that a person who is revived is not properly dead. After all, they are revived shortly after death rather than resurrected or raised from the dead. As such, there is the rather legitimate question of whether or not they are even dead in a manner that would allow them to experience an afterlife, should it exist. They might just be “mostly dead” rather than “properly dead” and hence any experiences they have would not be experiences of the afterlife.
A second stock criticism is that the person who reports on near death experiences is not experiencing an afterlife, but is in a state of dreaming or hallucination that is mistaken for the afterlife on the basis that they were “mostly dead.” Critics routinely point to the similarities between near death experiences and drug experiences and the case of Dr. Alexander is no exception. It certainly makes sense that a dying brain would experience dream or drug like experiences that have no connection to the afterlife.
The cutting edge of these criticisms is to be found in Occam’s razor: the experiences can be explained adequately without postulating a metaphysical afterlife. As such, the explanation that the experiences are occurring within a dying (but still living) brain is the better explanation.
Aside from Dr. Alexander’s fame, there seems to be no real difference between his experiences and those reported by many other people before him. Given that these cases do not provide proof of heaven, then neither does his case.
Naturally, I would like to believe in the sort of wonderful afterlife claimed by Dr. Alexander. However, wishful thinking is not proof.
In a recent debate, Republican Richard Mourdock was addressing the subject of abortion. After noting that he believes that abortion is acceptable only to save the life of the mother, he went on to say: “Life is that gift from God. I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.”
As might be imagined, Mourdock has come under attack for his remarks. These attacks have primarily focused on what his claim indicates about his view of women and the sort of legislation he is likely to support.
Rather than address these matters, I will instead focus on his claim that if a woman gets pregnant from rape, then God intended it to happen. While this matter deals specifically with rape, it is part of the general problem of evil. This is, of course, the problem of reconciling a certain conception of God (all good, all powerful and all knowing) with the existence of evil (in this case rape). It also falls under the general subject of God’s causal relation to the world.
While he might not be aware of it, Mourdock is presenting a view of God that has been argued for by theologians and philosophers. To be specific, this is the view that God is the cause of all that occurs and that nothing occurs contrary to God’s intention. For example, Hume in his essay on the immortality of the soul, writes ”as every effect implies a cause, and that another, till we reach the first cause of all, which is the Deity; every thing that happens is ordained by him…”
As far as things happening against God’s intention, this would seem impossible given the usual conception of God. After all, things could only go against His intention if He lacked the power to do otherwise or the event in question took place without His knowledge. On the assumption that He is all knowing and all powerful, then events happening contrary to His intention could not occur. Thus, if someone becomes pregnant from rape, then God (if He exists) intended that to happen-just as Mourdock claimed.
One reply to this is that God allows things to happen contrary to His intention, such as pregnancy arising from rape. The obvious reply is, of course, that if allows it and could prevent it, then He does intend for it to occur. If He cannot prevent it, then this would entail that God is rather different than the stock conception of a perfect deity.
It might be replied that God allows things to happen contrary to His intention because of free will. While this might get Him off the hook in regards to allowing rape, it does not do so in the case of pregnancy. After all, God could allow rapists the freedom to rape and still prevent rape from causing pregnancy. He could, for example, give women that pregnancy shut down system that Akin infamously mentioned. Or, even better, he could allow people the free will to chose to rape but prevent them from ever acting on that choice. As such, it would seem that if God exists and matches the stock description, then God does intent for the pregnancies that arise from rape.
There is, of course, still the question of whether not women should be legally compelled to endure such God intended pregnancies. It could be argued that since God intended the woman to get pregnant from rape, then abortions should not be allowed since God’s intent should not be violated. The easy and obvious reply to this is that the same logic would entail that we should do nothing in response to anything other than to accept it rather than go against God’s intent.
It can also be argued that we can determine God’s intent by allowing abortion in such cases. After all, if God intends for the pregnancy to go through, then God can make that happen. If the abortion succeeds, then either God intended for it to succeed (and thus the abortion should have been conducted) or God is lacking in some manner (or does not exist).
Since I am a philosopher, it is hardly surprisingly that I also like science fiction. On specific genre within science fiction is that of alternative reality. In this genre, a fictional world is created that is just like the actual world except for some key differences. In the case of alternative history fiction, the key differences arise due to some change in historical events—thus creating an alternative fictional timeline.
The idea that the world could have been different is not only a matter for science fiction, but is also a matter of considerable interest in philosophy and science. Philosophers have long written about possible worlds and scientists got into the game fairly recently. From a philosophical standpoint, writers who create alternative histories are making use of counterfactuals. That is, they are describing a world that is counter to fact. For example, an author might explore what happened if the American Civil war ended, counter to fact, with the country permanently divided. As another example, an author might set her story in a world in which the Axis won the Second World War. A recent example of this sort of counterfactual alternative history is the movie Inglourious Basterds. This is a rather clever piece of science fiction in which Hitler is assassinated by Jewish soldiers. There are, of course, also more extreme versions that slide towards fantasy, such as the tale in which Lincoln hunts vampires.
In addition to liking science fiction, I also like politics. Interestingly enough, recent American politics seems to involve some interesting exercises in alternative reality fiction and counterfactual history.
While political narratives typically distort reality by including straw men, lies and partial truths, some narratives actually present entire counter factual worlds. In some cases the extent to which the reality of the speech differs from the actual world would seem to qualify the speech as science fiction. After all, it is describing a world somewhat like our own that does not exist, except in the imagination of the creator and those that share the creator’s vision.
In an earlier essay I discussed the extent to which facts have been rejected in favor of what could be regarded as counterfactual views of reality and this matter has been addressed by others. One interesting addition to politicians presenting limited counterfactuals is the creation of entire counterfactual narratives, some of which can be regarded as complete alternative histories and descriptions of alternative realities. For example, the Republican narrative of the Obama administration is that it is some sort of secret-Muslim socialist tyranny that is at once ineffective and a relentless destroyer of jobs and liberty. Paul Ryan’s speech is an excellent example of this sort of narrative. The world he describes is somewhat like our own and a version of Obama is president of that America. However, the world of Ryan’s speech differs from the actual world in many important ways, as presented by Sally Kohn over at Fox. The actor Clint Eastwood also nicely illustrated the counterfactual approach of the narrative by blaming Obama (or rather a chair standing in for Obama) for the invasion of Afghanistan—which happened long before he was president. Romney is, interestingly enough, creating his own counterfactual history regarding his past but also being targeted by the Democrats attempts to craft a narrative in which he is an uncaring oligarch who will take the country back to Bush’s policies. Political people also spin positive narratives, typically creating fictional pasts of an ideal world that never was and also of a wonderful world that never shall be. While I could list examples almost without end, to keep up with the latest truths, lies and distortions from politicians and pundits of all stripes, PolitiFact is an excellent source.
In the case of science fiction, the authors are aware they are creating fiction and, in general, the audience gets that the works are fictional. Of course, there can be some notable exceptions when fans lose the ability to properly distinguish counterfactuals and alternative histories from truth and history. William Gibson presents an innovative fictional example of reality failure in which a photographer assigned to take pictures of surviving 1930s futuristic architecture begins to slide into an alternative reality, the Gernsback Continuum, in which the world of 1930s pulp science fiction became real. This story can now serve as an interesting metaphor for what happens in the alternative realities crafted by the creative minds of political speech writers and political pundits. They are, indeed, engaged in works of creativity: changing facts to counterfactuals and presenting fictional narratives of a world that was not, a world that is not and a world that almost certainly will not be. As in the “The Gernsback Continuum”, people can become drawn into these alternative realities and live in them, at least in their minds. This creates the fascinating idea of people living in fictional political worlds that are populated by fictional political characters. Naturally, it might be wondered how this would work.
One obvious explanation is that people who do not know better and who are not inclined to engage in even a modest amount of critical thinking (checking the facts, for example) can easily be deceived by such fiction and accept it as reality. These people will, in turn, attempt to convince others of the reality of these fictions and they will also make decisions, such as who to vote for, on the basis of these fictions. As might be imagined, such fiction based decision making is unlikely to result in wise choices. As I have argued in a previous essay, people tend to not be very rational when it comes to political matters. Even when a factual error is clearly shown to be an error, people who accepted the claim because it matches their ideology will tend to be more inclined to believe the claim because (and not in spite) of the correction. This has the effect of making true believers almost immune to corrections in the case of factual errors. While this is clearly a problem for those who are concerned about facts and truth, this supplies those who spin the counterfactual narratives with the perfect audiences: believers who will reject challenges to the narrative in which they dwell and thus are willful participants in their own political continuum, be that the Republican Continuum, the Democrat Continuum or another one. For these people, art does not imitate life nor does life imitate art. Life, at least the political life, is art—albeit science fiction.
I’m a fan of science fiction and I especially like alternative reality sci-fi. In this genre, the fictional world is like our own, only with important differences. Philosophically, these writers are engaged in counterfactuals. That is, they are describing a world that is counter to fact. For example, an author might explore what happened if the American Civil war ended with the country permanently divided. As another example, an author might set her story in a world in which the Axis won the Second World War. One specific example of this is Inglourious Basterds, a nice piece of science fiction in which Hitler is assassinated by Jewish soldiers. There are, of course, also more extreme versions that slide towards fantasy, such as the X-Men First Class movie (although they are presented as mutants, their powers are more akin to magic than anything that could be based in science) or the tale in which Lincoln hunts vampires.
I also, like many Americans, like politics. Interestingly enough, I can satisfy my cravings for science-fiction and politics at the same time by watching some of the political speeches being given these days. While political speeches often distort reality by including straw men, lies and partial truths, some speeches actually present entire counter factual worlds. In some cases the extent to which the reality of the speech differs from the actual world would seem to qualify the speech as science fiction. After all, it is describing a world somewhat like our own that does not exist, except in the imagination of the creator and those that share the creator’s vision.
Paul Ryan’s speech is an excellent example of this sort of science fiction. The world he describes is somewhat like our own and a version of Obama is president of that America. However, the world of Ryan’s speech differs from the actual world in many important ways, as presented by Sally Kohn over at Fox. The influences of another fiction writer, Ayn Rand, certainly seem to have helped shape his fictional world. While I specifically mention Ryan, I am confident that the Democrats will present some of their own alternative realities at the upcoming DNC.
While I do enjoy speculative fiction and alternative histories, I would prefer that they not be presented as the truth. Honest writers have the decency to label their fictions as fictions, something that politicians do not do. This is, of course, dishonest and also has a negative consequences. After all, people who do not know better and who are not inclined to engage in even a modest amount of critical thinking (checking the facts, for example) can easily be deceived by such fiction and accept it as reality. These people will, in turn, attempt to convince others of the reality of these fictions and they will also make decisions, such as who to vote for, on the basis of these fictions. As might be imagined, such fiction based decision making is unlikely to result in wise choices.
While creative counter factual fiction does have its place, politics is not that place.
Back in my undergraduate days I was a participant in a faculty-student debate about artificial intelligence. While almost all of the details of the debate have long since faded from my non-artificial mind, I still recall one exchange very vividly. The professor on the opposing side said that I believed in free will because I wanted to take credit for my successes. Being filled with the pride of youth, I replied with something to the effect of “of course, they are my successes.” I also recall showing some small wisdom by adding something like “my failures are also mine.” This was probably my first real attempt at reflecting on the extent to which I was responsible for my successes and failures. Naturally, this also got me thinking about success and failure in general and not just the specifics of my own victories and defeats.
Not surprisingly, I have thought about this matter over the years, often in the context of teaching. To use a small example, I have noticed that students who do well say things like “I earned an A” while students who do poorly typically say things like “the professor failed me.” At the start of each semester, at least one student will ask me if I fail students. My reply, which I make with a smile, is always “No. People fail themselves. I merely record the failure.” I follow that by saying that students have every chance to succeed and that I will do my best to ensure that they get the grade they earn. As might be imagined, being a teacher does tend to get a person thinking about who is responsible for the success and failures of students.
The matter of responsibility in regards to success (and failure) obviously extends far beyond the classroom. Thanks to a July, 2012 speech by President Obama, this matter became the focus in the political battle between Democrats and Republicans. The key part of Obama’s speech is as follows: “…Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own.… If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
While some Republicans decided to interpret Obama as claiming that business owners owe all their success to others (especially the state), the most plausible interpretation is that Obama is claiming that people who are successful in business owe some of their success to others, including the state.
Mitt Romney, who was very critical of what he claims Obama meant, actually presented a very similar view about success back in 2002: “You Olympians, however, know you didn’t get here solely on your own power. For most of you, loving parents, sisters or brothers encouraged your hopes. Coaches guided, communities built venues in order to organize competitions. All Olympians stand on the shoulders of those who lifted them. We’ve already cheered the Olympians, let’s also cheer the parents, coaches and communities.”
As with Obama, the most plausible interpretation of Romney’s remarks is that he is claiming that the athletes who made it to the Olympics owe some of their success to others.
These claims about success in business and sports seem to be intuitively plausible. Obviously, people do not appear as grown, educated adults ex nihilo via the power of their own will. Less obviously, but still rather obviously, business owners do not create their business out of nothing. To use a silly example, a business owner obviously does not invent the currency used to conduct business. In the case of Olympic athletes, they obviously do not just appear on the starting line with no support or assistance from others.
Outside of the reasoning damaging sphere of political rhetoric, the idea that people owe some or even much of their success to others (and perhaps even to the state) certainly seems intuitively plausible—at least enough so that anyone who claims to be entirely self-created would shoulder the burden of proof. In any case, I would infer that anyone who can engage in such an act of self-creation would easily handle something as trivial as providing evidence of his/her amazing origin.
Assuming that I am right about this matter, the interesting question is not “do people owe some of their success (and failures) to others?” but “to what extent do people owe their success (and failures) to others?” Making this discussion manageable does require certain assumptions that can, of course, be challenged. I will be assuming that people have meaningful agency and that the universe is not strictly deterministic or entirely random. To illustrate this, I will use the example of a prize drawing after a 5K race. For those not familiar with such events, some races feature the usual earned awards (what the runners get for running well) as well as a prize drawing. One common way to do this is for the race director to pull out a runner’s race number from a bag. Interestingly, people often applaud as loudly when people win the (hopefully) random prize as they do for people who earn (hopefully) a trophy.
In a deterministic universe it makes little sense to speak of meaningful success or failure. To use my analogy, if I “win” the prize because it is determined that I will win (that is, it is rigged) then I have hardly succeeded and the others have hardly failed—there is no victory, there is no defeat.
The same holds true for a completely random universe. To use an analogy, if I “win” the prize because my number is pulled by pure chance, I have not succeeded and the others have not failed. Things have just happened by chance.
Success and failure, then, would thus seem to assume that the agent has a meaningful role in the outcome. Going back to the analogy, while I would not have succeeded by “winning” either a fixed or random drawing, I could succeed by winning a trophy in the 5K via my efforts. Naturally, the nature of this agency in even something as apparently straightforward as a 5K race is something of a mystery. However, for the sake of the discussion that will follow in additional essays, I must make this assumption of mysterious agency. After all, I want to think I earned all those trophies and I am obligated to accept the disgrace of my failures.