The Unfinishable Scroll
A Note from the Author: Some false information about me has turned up on the web. Follow this link to get the facts about my background.
Blog home page
Mark Sharlow home page
Other Important Things:
Contents by Year:
Contents by Month:
|Wed, 31 Dec 2008
One of the standard arguments for atheism goes like this:
"Religion is responsible for many of the world's evils (the 9/11 attacks, the Inquisition, the Crusades, oppression of women, abuse of children, and so forth). Therefore, the world would be better off if people did not believe in God."
This argument comes up again and again in discussions of atheism. Atheists state the argument in various ways - some short, some long - but all the forms of the argument amount to the same thing.
No matter what the atheists tell you, this is one of the most preposterous arguments in the world.
The main problem with this argument is obvious: not every form of belief in God promotes the evils blamed on religion. The atheist argument only hits the forms of religion that do promote evils like these. The argument might work if aimed at fanaticism, extremism, or cruelly strict and prudish forms of religion. However, it can say nothing about more reasonable forms of belief that do not promote these evils. This fault in the atheist argument has long been known, but some atheists just don't seem to get it.
It is possible to believe in God and also deny most of the dogmas of conventional religion.
You can believe in God and also be against all forms of war. (Pacifist Quakers do this today.)
You can believe in God and also reject the use of force to spread your religion. You might even think God wants people to believe only through a free, uncoerced decision to believe, and not through any kind of force. Some believers think that way.
You can believe in God and also believe in human equality, kindness, and mercy. You can believe in God and support the quest for an end of oppression in the world. Martin Luther King did that.
You can believe in God without believing in religious doctrines that are likely to promote cruelty. You don't have to believe in hell. You don't have to believe that only members of your religion go to heaven. You don't have to believe that God wants us to be afraid. You can believe in God without believing in a cruel God-image derived from the earlier books of the Bible.
It's possible to believe in God, and yet reject all the evils done in the name of religion. It's possible to believe that God disapproves of these evils.
It's possible to believe in a God of love, goodness, beauty and freedom, instead of a God who promotes suicide bombings, sexual repression, and bigotry.
So what happened to the atheist argument? When you think carefully about it, the argument just goes away! It stops being convincing - like a magic trick once you see how it's done.
It is vitally important that we oppose the evils done in the name of religion. However, belief in God is not the real source of those evils - and atheism is not the solution to them.
posted at: 15:31 | path: /religion/atheism | persistent link to this entry
Wed, 29 Oct 2008
I've added a lot of new material to my main site, Brain, Time and Cosmos. Things to look for (all in PDF format):
As of the date of this post, these writings all are listed in the "What's New?" section of my home page.
posted at: 00:23 | path: /general | persistent link to this entry
Wed, 24 Sep 2008
As readers of my political website know, I lean toward libertarianism. Libertarians usually oppose government intervention in markets. However, I think the U.S. government's impending Wall Street bailout is OK if it's done the right way.
Why would I think this?
Because the bailout would reduce, not increase, the effects of government interference in markets.
Corporations, as we know them today, are creations of governments. They are extremely powerful creations. Corporations are legal "persons" with powers and privileges that no real person can possibly have. For example, corporations can own other "persons" of their own kind, and potentially can exist forever. The special legal status of corporations is the main force that lets some companies become tremendously large and powerful.
Some so-called libertarians seem to think a "free market" is a market in which corporations are allowed to run wild. This is not what real libertarianism is about! A truly free market, with only a minimum of government intervention, would not contain state-created corporations at all. A market dominated by state-created corporations is not even close to being free.
In today's world of state-created corporations, corporations have a big advantage over individuals. Workers need corporations much more desperately than corporations need workers. The corporations' extra power originally comes from the state. This extra power lets corporations grow much larger and more powerful than a truly free market would likely allow.
Today, some corporations are so large and powerful that their collapse would be a humanitarian disaster. Their failure would affect the markets in ways that could damage the lives of countless hardworking people.
Is the government justified in trying to prevent this collapse? Yes. True, a government bailout is a violation of the free market. However, the bailout is a way of correcting the effects of an earlier, and much worse, violation of the free market: the government's own creation of corporations.
The government entity that bails out the corporations need not be the same one that granted the corporate charters. There are Federal and state governments, and different departments within each of these. The point is that government power created corporations, and now government power is being used to mitigate some of the effects of that creation.
Like all modern corporations, the corporations being bailed out were not part of a free market to begin with. They were created with the help of government power. By preventing the bad effects of their collapse, the bailout would reduce the effects of government power more than it would increase those effects. Paradoxically, the bailout could make the market more like a free market.
So, should libertarians tolerate the big bailout? Yes. The bailout is a government intrusion into markets, but it will reduce the damage from a worse government intrusion that is built into our present economic system. The bailout is the lesser evil.
This toleration of the bailout comes with one warning: the bailout must be done right. It must be done in a way that prevents damage to working people, not in a way that simply lets the ultra-rich get richer.
Aside from the bailout, this same logic holds for many of the laws designed to regulate corporations. Such laws are designed to restrain corporate power that originally comes partly from the state. Viewed in this light, regulation of corporations can be a way for the state to help undo some of its own excesses.
Ideally, our society would be able to do without state-created corporations and their excess powers. This is not an impossible dream. The libertarian economist Murray Rothbard described a business structure, not backed by state power, that is like a corporation in some respects. Perhaps this structure, or other arrangements, will replace the modern corporation. But unless and until this sweeping reform happens, careful government regulation of corporations will prevent a bad situation from becoming even worse.
 On the expansion and dangers of corporate power, see especially: Ted Nace, Gangs of America (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2003), and Walter Lippmann, An Inquiry into the Principles of the Good Society (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1937), pp. 13-19, 308-310.
 Murray N. Rothbard, Power and Market (2nd ed.; Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1977), pp. 79-80.
posted at: 23:59 | path: /political | persistent link to this entry
Sat, 06 Sep 2008
The left wing and the right wing are not the world's only political choices. Go beyond left and right - to the future!
For further details, read my new political statement, Manifesto of the Good Society. The document is in PDF format.
Be sure to visit the rest of my political site too.
posted at: 02:27 | path: /political | persistent link to this entry
Thu, 07 Aug 2008
Is matter the only reality?
Is there anything in the cosmos beyond physical substances and forces?
Religious teachings usually answer "no" to the first question and "yes" to the second. Most religions claim that the universe contains spiritual things, or spirits, as well as physical things.
Most Western religions teach that God is a spirit. Most of these religions also teach that the human soul (the innermost self of a person) is a spirit.
Different religious teachings have different ideas about spirit. Many believers seem to think of spirit as a substance or stuff that is invisible but real. This substance supposedly can act on matter, producing the connection between body and soul.
This idea of spirit is interesting, but it has a serious drawback: it depends almost completely on faith.
Science hasn't found any need for the idea of spiritual items or substances that affect the material world. Instead, scientific findings suggest that the human brain "runs itself," in the sense that it doesn't need a separate soul to make it work properly.
Some people claim that parapsychology provides evidence of a soul, but this claim is extremely controversial.
Philosophy has more to say about the soul, but still not enough. Some rationalistic philosophers, such as the brilliant Descartes, have believed in a separate soul that influences the body. However, there is no widely agreed-upon rational line of argument for such a soul.
This leaves religious believers in a pickle. If they believe in spirit, they must rely on faith to support their belief. This makes their position unconvincing to those who don't happen to believe the same way. It also makes them vulnerable to atheists, who can simply laugh at the whole idea. Many modern atheists believe that science is the only important form of knowledge, and that faith should play no role in human thought. According to today's science-based antireligion, the mind is only a property of the brain, and therefore there is no soul and there is nothing spiritual in human nature.
This disagreement between believers and atheists rests partly on a mistake. Neither side seems to realize that the universe, as known to science, already contains items that are not physical objects. We don't have to believe in these items through faith; they are right there in the scientists' universe. What is more, if the mind is a property of the brain, then the human self is one of those remarkable items!
What are these remarkable items?
To find out, let's start with some basic observations.
The universe contains physical objects, like sticks, stones, stars and atoms. However, those objects never exist alone. Each physical object has properties: its shape, color, weight, and so forth. In other words, there are not just physical objects. There also are properties of physical objects.
A round stone has the property of roundness. A yellow star, which gives off mostly yellow light, has the property yellow. (Colors, after all, are properties.) A hexagonal snow crystal has the property of hexagonality. (It might not be a perfect hexagon, but still it has that property.) A diamond has the properties of solidity and transparency.
Roundness, yellowness, hexagonality, solidity, and transparency. These are not physical objects. They are properties of physical objects. They are not physical objects - yet we find them in the real world.
We don't live in a world of physical objects alone. We live in a world of physical objects plus their properties.
There are at least two kinds of items in the universe - (1) physical objects, and (2) properties.
Someone might object to this statement by arguing that properties really don't "exist" at all. Maybe there are only physical objects, and although we can talk as if the properties existed, it's only the physical objects that really exist.
Philosophers have been debating this question for thousands of years. The debate goes back at least to Plato and Socrates in ancient Greece. Philosophers have a name for this question (I'll mention it at the end of this post), but the name doesn't matter. The question is: Do properties really exist?
I think this question depends on confusion about the meaning of the word "exist." If someone asks whether properties exist, I'll answer the question with another question: What do you mean by "exist"?
If you think "exist" means "be a physical object," then the answer is no - properties don't exist, because they are not physical objects.
But if you think "exist" means "be something" (be any kind of item at all), then properties do exist.
I've written a philosophical paper on this subject, where I went into more detail and covered some points that I've skipped over here. The main lesson of that paper: We can safely assume that properties exist.
Properties exist for all practical purposes. The people who have to work with properties act as if properties are real. Colors are properties. No painter would dare to claim seriously that there are no colors in the world! No weather scientist would claim that ice crystals are not really hexagonal, just because some philosopher said the property of being hexagonal doesn't exist.
To insist that properties don't exist is to cut off the idea of existence arbitrarily - to limit existence artificially to concrete, individual objects like physical objects. If existence includes everything found in the universe, instead of just concrete physical objects, then properties exist. They exist as properties instead of as physical objects - but that's just another way to be real.
So properties are real for all practical purposes.
The world in which we live is not a world of physical objects alone. It is a world of physical objects plus the properties of physical objects. The properties are real items too - just as real as the physical objects, but existing in a very different way. The properties are not simply globs of matter and energy, like physical objects. Instead, they are qualities, features, or patterns in the physical world. They are real items that are found in physical objects, but that are different from physical objects. (For example, the property of roundness can be found in the sun, the moon, or a coin - but roundness is not the sun, the moon, or a coin. It's a property that all these objects have.)
What does all this have to do with spirit?
If properties are real, then spirit doesn't have to be a substance or stuff. Instead, it can be a property!
Instead of being an invisible substance, spirit might be a property of physical objects. As a property, it would be every bit as real as the redness of a sunset, or the hexagonal shape of a snowflake, or the brilliance and transparency of a diamond.
If spirit is a property, then the human brain could indeed have a soul. Science suggests that your personality or self is a property of your brain. If so, then that property might be your soul.
The nice thing about this idea of the soul is that it's hard for skeptics and atheists to attack. If you believe the soul is a property, then the skeptical argument that "the self is just a property of the brain" doesn't disprove the soul.
Skeptics try to debunk the soul by claiming that the self is "only" a property of the brain. The skeptics had better watch out! They are making a serious mistake!
The skeptics begin with the idea (suggested by science) that the self or personality is a property of the brain. From this, they argue that the soul is nothing - that there is no soul.
But wait a minute!
The skeptics say the self is a property of the brain. However, we have found that a property is not just nothing. In its own way, a property is quite real!
If the self is a property, then the self has a real existence of its own - just as real as if it had been a real ghostly substance. By saying that the self is only a property of the brain, the skeptics are admitting that the self is real. Worse yet for them, they are admitting that the self has a type of existence that goes beyond the existence of physical objects!
The skeptics might not realize they are admitting all this. However, if properties are real in any way at all, then this is where their "skepticism" leads.
Without realizing it, the skeptics have painted themselves into a corner, and admitted that people have souls of a sort!
Granted, these souls are a little different from what most religions teach. They are properties, not ghostly supernatural objects. But the important point is that they are real.
Once we admit that properties are real, then the skeptical view that the self is a property of the brain becomes almost the same as the religious belief that people have souls distinct from their bodies. The property of the brain that we call the self is an entity different from the matter of the brain - just as the yellowness of the sun is different from the sun itself.
So it appears that the skeptics and the believers are not as far apart as they seem.
Religious believers might have a big problem with this idea of soul-as-property. They might think that if the soul is a property of the brain, then the soul cannot be immortal. Skeptics often use this argument to debunk the idea of an afterlife: if the self is a property of the brain, then it must cease with the brain.
But things are not so simple!
I'm not going to make an argument for (or against) the afterlife here. I just want to point out that if the soul is a property of the brain, then the soul still might be immortal.
After the end of the brain, another brain could have the same property!
Most religions believe either in a nonmaterial afterlife, like Heaven, or in reincarnation. If you believe in reincarnation, the idea of your self ending up in another brain is nothing new. If you believe in Heaven, then you still can believe that the soul is a property - if you are willing to believe that there are bodies of some kind in Heaven, with brains of some kind!
I'm not suggesting that any of these beliefs are true. I'm not going to take a stand for or against belief in the afterlife. My point is just this: that the property version of the soul does not rule out belief in an afterlife. It also doesn't force you to believe in an afterlife. It just leaves the question of the afterlife open, for you to decide for yourself.
So we don't live in a world of things alone. We live in a world of things and properties. Once we realize that, and take the reality of properties fully to heart, we begin to see what spirit might be. The world of spirit might not be supernatural at all. Instead, it might be a part of the world of properties - the part that contains a mysterious and complex property of each of us, the property that we call the self.
I'm including these notes to thank the sources of some of the ideas in this post, and to fill in some technical details that students of philosophy might find interesting.
The name of the question of the existence of properties and such is "the problem of universals." (Technically, the question "Do properties exist?" is only part of the problem of universals, but it's the most important part.)
My position that properties are real is a milder version of what Plato thought about properties (the so-called "Platonic realist" view). However, you don't have to believe everything Plato said to accept my view of properties! (See this paper for details.)
The idea that the soul is a property of the body, but still is an item distinct from the body, is a version of what philosophers of mind call "property dualism." (Property dualists usually don't use the idea of "soul" - often their position is that conscious experiences are nonphysical properties of the brain.) Property dualism is different from "substance dualism" - the idea that the soul or self is a kind of mental substance associated with the body. Descartes was a "dualistic interactionist" - a substance dualist who thought the soul could act on, and be acted on by, the body.
The idea that the soul could be immortal even if it is "only" a property of the brain is not new. Plato thought of the soul as something sort of like a property (an "abstract object" as philosophers would call it today). Plato thought of the soul as immortal. See this paper of mine for my take on Plato's view of the soul. The idea that the self, as an abstract object, might be potentially immortal comes up in modern thought, for example in Daniel C. Dennett's book Consciousness Explained. (I disagree with Dennett on some important points - see this paper - but this idea is interesting.)
(This post was slightly reformatted after posting.)
posted at: 01:50 | path: /mind | persistent link to this entry
Sat, 26 Jul 2008
Two of my full-length books, The Unfinishable Book and God, Son of Quark, are now available for sale as PDF ebooks. Visit this link to find out where to get them.
Also, my short ebook Poetry's Secret Truth has been re-released. Visit the same link to find out more.
posted at: 22:01 | path: /general | persistent link to this entry
Wed, 23 Jul 2008
Interested in science and religion? I've written two short ebooks on this subject. To buy them, or to buy my longer book From Brain to Cosmos, follow this link.
posted at: 01:00 | path: /general | persistent link to this entry
Have you read all the news stories about the physicists' search for a Theory of Everything - also known as a TOE? This theory, if found, would describe the tiniest parts of matter and the natural laws that govern them. The discovery of a correct TOE would be a huge achievement for science.
There's another theory that might be as important, in the long run, as the TOE. This is the theory of knowledge - which we might as well call "TOK" to keep it short.
Let's talk about TOK for a few minutes.
TOK is not a single theory. It's a whole branch of knowledge that studies how people know things, and that tries to find the limits of what we can know. TOK is like a science, but it isn't exactly a science, because it deals with problems and questions too basic and slippery to solve through scientific methods alone. Instead, TOK is considered a branch of philosophy. Like other branches of philosophy, TOK uses logic and reason, more than experimental facts, to try to answer questions about human knowledge.
TOK is not new. People have been studying the theory of knowledge for a long time. In fact, philosophers have given TOK a second name that comes from ancient Greek - because the ancient Greeks studied some of the questions of TOK. (I'll mention the other name at the end of this post. For now I'll just say it starts with an e.)
Here are some of the questions that people who study TOK have wondered about:
These few questions should give you some idea of what TOK is about. TOK is the study of knowledge - where knowledge comes from, how we can find knowledge, and what we can and cannot know.
Does all of this stuff matter? What does the study of knowledge have to do with you, right now, today?
TOK matters because you probably already have opinions about it - even if you have never heard of TOK before. What is more, those opinions help to decide what you can think and believe about many other things!
TOK is not just a game for philosophers. Nearly everyone has opinions on some of the questions that TOK asks.
For example, some people don't believe anything that isn't scientifically proven. (You've probably known people like that. I sure have.) That's an opinion about what we know - the opinion that if it's not scientifically proven, we don't truly know it.
Other people like to rely on their intuition, and feel that intuition is more dependable than rational thought. That's also an opinion about knowledge - the opinion that intuition is a more dependable source of knowledge than reason.
Some people believe that the teachings of religious faith are a form of knowledge. Others strongly disagree.
All of these opinions are about the sources and limits of knowledge - so all of these opinions are part of TOK.
So why does TOK matter to you?
TOK matters to you because it affects what you believe about other things besides knowledge. Your opinions about knowledge affect how you think and feel about other things. Here are some examples:
Your opinions about knowledge can have a huge impact on your opinions about some very important issues. Many of the ongoing disagreements in today's world are partly fights over TOK, though they seem to be about something else. The prime example is the debate between science and religion. This might not seem like a disagreement about TOK - but that's mostly what it is!
Atheists who deny all religion, but who believe in science, actually hold a strong opinion about the nature of knowledge - whether they realize it or not. They believe that conclusions of science are real knowledge, but the doctrines of religious faith are not. Thus, science-based atheism actually is a thinly veiled opinion about TOK.
Those who believe in religion, but who deny parts of science (like the seven-day creationists), also hold an opinion about the nature of knowledge. They believe that faith, or religious revelation, is a more dependable source of knowledge than is science. That's an opinion about knowledge, so it's a position on TOK.
Some religious people don't emphasize faith, but instead rely on personal spiritual experiences to answer their spiritual questions. This is especially true of adherents of Eastern teachings that emphasize meditation. If you think that you can know something important through meditation, that is an opinion about the sources of knowledge - so it's an opinion about TOK.
It's beginning to look like the "war" between science and religion is mostly a scuffle between different ideas about TOK!
The study of TOK might even help us understand religious fanaticism - a problem which, of course, is sadly relevant to today's world. Religious fanatics often think the traditions of some religious sect are so important that it's OK to harm people for those traditions. On the other hand, a normal, nonfanatical religious believer usually has some sympathy or compassion for others. Such believers tend to ignore or soften any cruel traditional beliefs, instead of following those beliefs strictly. Thus, the normal believer often trusts moral emotions, like compassion, as sources of knowledge about how to behave. The fanatic does not take these emotions nearly as seriously as he takes the literal words of his religion. The difference between the normal believer and the fanatic is a difference of character and heart - but it also involves a hidden difference in TOK.
Yes, TOK can be that important!
This brief foray into TOK teaches us some lessons. Perhaps the main one is this: We cannot get our ideas about morality and religion straightened out until we get our assumptions about knowledge straightened out. The endless debates about religion, atheism, and science will never cool down as long as we fail to think clearly about what knowledge is and where knowledge comes from.
If we want less confusion in our world, let's start by having more TOK!
P.S.: The other name for theory of knowledge, or TOK, is "epistemology" (e-PIS-ta-MAHL-uh-jee). Philosophers use "epistemology" and "theory of knowledge" to mean the same thing - and I've even seen some of them call it "TOK."
posted at: 00:49 | path: /knowledge | persistent link to this entry
Fri, 11 Jul 2008
Still No Disproof of Free Will
Thu, 03 Jul 2008
Welcome to my Blog!
© 2008–2013 Mark F. Sharlow — privacy and legal notices
Powered by Blosxom