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04/29/10

Permalink 10:24:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 1168 words   English (US)
Categories: Morality

Can Ethics be Objective?

One component of rational thinking is a sense of right and wrong. Nearly everyone should have some idea that certain actions or states of affairs are better than others. Similarly, nearly everyone should have an understanding of value and some intuitive evaluative ability. The different ways of interpreting of these phenomena constitute the different theories of value. Ethics, also known as morality, is where values and actions come together. I want to take a close look at this today, specifically the question of whether or not ethics can be objective. This is a contentious issue. Most people, it seems, tend to think that ethics can be objective, but would probably have a hard time defining exactly what ethics should be understood by everyone, in all cultures, no matter what experiences they have had in life. Some people have given up on the idea of moral objectivity and instead argue that morals depend on one's culture and life experiences.

The first thing I want to do in trying to address this problem is to establish some clear terminology. Even though people often speak of “objective” as referring to things that are true regardless of anyone's point of view, the truth is that objective actually means a treatment of things that attempts to be from a neutral point of view. I believe that objective knowledge is possible, but it will never be perfect. There is a different term that should be used to speak of morals that one believes to be real aspects of the world instead of mere figments of the imagination, and this term is "moral realism". To put this another way, moral realism is the theory that moral beliefs can be mind-independent facts.

There are some prominent materialist philosophers who say that they are moral realists, but when they describe the type of morality that they believe in, it is clear that what they are talking about is the morality that people have evolved to have instinctually. This theory is called “evolutionary moral realism”. There is a lot of evidence that humans instinctually care for the well being of others in one’s own group and also hold others accountable for transgressions against members of the group. This understanding of morality is therefore purely descriptive of human nature within a deterministic system.

Evolutionary moral realism differs from normative moral realism, in which one believes that things ought be a certain way or that people should act in a certain way because such states of affairs or actions would be better, not purely as a function of anything physical such as the instincts people have evolved to have, but at least partially for reasons that ultimately transcend the physical world. For example, if someone believes that oppressing others is always wrong even though humans have an instinctual predisposition to favor their own group over others, and this person does not otherwise explain how this belief is descriptive of something in the physical world, then this implies that this person believes in normative morality.

Although it may sometimes seem like material things or physical actions have inherent positive or negative value, these attributes can neither be found in any material thing nor any physical action through any amount of objective investigation. Since the theory of normative moral realism postulates the existence of morality that is ontologically distinct from anything physical, it is incompatible with materialism. Therefore normative moral realism depends at the least on some form of dualism and any normative moral statements (that are not somehow qualified in a way that ultimately makes such statements descriptive of something physical) also depend on dualism.

If one believes that some sort of morals are true regardless of anyone’s point of view, then according to philosopher James Rachels, this invites some problems that an adequate theory of morality must be able to solve. Rachels speaks of the difficulty in trying to form a theory of objective morals. For descriptive morals, this need not be difficult in principle because such morals must be a function of that which can be known objectively, so modern science should be helpful here. On the other hand, normative morals ultimately derive, at least partially, from reasons that transcend the physical world. Because of this, knowledge of normative morals is highly problematic.

There may be those who will argue that certain normative morals can be known a priori. The only a priori knowledge that is objective and in no way depends on experience must be entirely based on how the physical brain works. It is impossible for the internal workings of the physical brain to be based on something that transcends the physical world. It is a logical possibility for the physical brain to have some connection to something nonphysical, but any new information that comes from such a connection would have to be considered a type of experience, and thus would not be a priori.

This seems to leave open the logical possibility that normative morals could be known a posteriori. But even if there is a logical possibility that the physical brain could be connected to something nonphysical, only the physical part could be known objectively. Perhaps in such a situation the brain might have some knowledge of what is happening in the nonphysical realm, but such knowledge could not be objective. The only possibility that remains for normative morals to exist is if they begin as subjective knowledge that can then be made intersubjective through communication and mutual understanding. Therefore with regard to normative morals, it is assumed that Rachels’ problems are those that an adequate intersubjective theory must be able to solve.

The problems that Rachels mentions are as follows (paraphrased slightly):
The ontological problem: an adequate theory must account for ethics without assuming the existence of anything that does not actually exist.
The epistemological problem: if we have knowledge of right and wrong, an adequate theory must explain how we acquire such knowledge.
The experience problem: An adequate theory about ethics must account for the phenomenology of moral experience.
The supervenience problem: An adequate theory must be consistent with the supervenient character of evaluative concepts.
The motivation problem: an adequate theory must account for the internal connection between moral belief and motivation (or if there is no such connection, it must offer an alternative account of how morality guides action).
The reason problem: An adequate theory must account for the place of reason in ethics.
The disagreement problem: An adequate theory must explain the nature of ethical disagreement.

By now we have conceded that normative ethics cannot be objective. But can any ethical theory solve these problems intersubjectively? I have an answer for this, which involves spirituality and valence, and I will be discussing this more over the coming weeks.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Is there any possibility that ethics can be objective, or does it always come down to subjective points of view? Let your voice be heard in the forum. You can also email the me at brandon@enlightenedworldview.com

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04/21/10

Permalink 10:23:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 953 words   English (US)
Categories: Why I am not a Christian

Why I am not a Christian, Part 3: The Most Holy Sacrament of Communion

Today I continue my “Why I am not a Christian” series by examining the Roman Catholic concept of holy communion. Some posts in this series deal with general Christian themes, such as the last one, which was on the idea that Jesus Christ died for our sins. But some posts, including this one, deal with issues that are mostly or entirely Catholic in nature. For me, that which is Christian in general and that which is Catholic blend together because of how the religion was taught to me. I will be dealing with more general Christian themes in forthcoming posts.

I was told of the importance of holy communion from when I was five years old. For those who don't know, communion is the part of a mass service where the congregants each take a wafer of bread and a sip of wine, which according to Catholic dogma, is supposed to be the body and blood of Jesus Christ. I was told that this is the most holy sacrament. Sacraments are an important part of Catholic dogma and can be defined as situations in life where one has a special connection with God. Other sacraments besides communion include baptism, marriage, confession, etc. The church makes clear that what begins as ordinary bread is trans-substantiated into what is literally the flesh of Jesus and what begins as ordinary wine is also trans-substantiated into what is literally the blood of Jesus. We are all told that it is very important to eat Jesus' flesh and drink his blood, because through this we can achieve everlasting life.

When I was seven years old I began to prepare for my first holy communion, which involved studying Catholic dogma and learning about communion and other aspects of the faith. For many children, first communion is an event that is taken quite seriously, involving a special mass for the event where the children dress up and some degree of pomp and circumstance is included. For me, it was more low key, but it was still seen as important to my family.

In every Catholic mass, there are special rituals for communion. The most important ritual, according to the church, is where the priest asks Jesus to sanctify the host, which is supposedly where the bread and wine turn into Jesus. Later, the priest holds up one of the wafers and says “This is the lamb of God which takes away the sins of the world, happy are we who are called to his supper” whereupon the congregants need to say “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed”. The idea behind this is that if one is not worthy to receive communion, then when they eat it it will return to being ordinary bread and wine.

I began to have questions about communion in my teenage years. The church leaders insisted that the sanctified host was literally the body of Christ, but of course it still looked and tasted like bread (the wine was optional and many of us opted out because everyone drinks from the same cup and there are health concerns). In other Christian denominations, including Episcopalian, communion is merely supposed to be a symbolic representation of Jesus instead of literally being Jesus himself. This would of course make more sense and would be more coherent with the plainly obvious observation that the sanctified host appeared physically the same as the ordinary bread that it came from. The Episcopalian dogma made more sense, but the church made clear that this was wrong. They said that we just needed to have faith that communion was indeed the body and blood of our lord Jesus and that through this our sins can be washed away and we can achieve everlasting life.

I thought about this quite a bit and I theorized at the time that there was a certain nonphysical spirit of Jesus that somehow inhabits the bread when we believe that this is possible. I reasoned that just as a soul inhabits a human body, so can the soul of Jesus inhabit communion wafers. One problem with this is that it is actually against Catholic dogma because technically the bread is supposed to physically become the body of Christ. Another problem with this is that it still does not make any sense for several reasons. How can a soul inhabit a piece of bread? Perhaps a soul can inhabit a body, but the way we know that is because the body is moving and breathing. A piece of bread doesn't move. Also, why does one have to eat the body of Jesus and drink his blood? This seems like some ancient barbaric ritual. And why is it necessary to have this ritual in order to achieve everlasting life? If there is a such thing as everlasting life, why would God make us go through this ritual of eating part of his son in order to achieve this?

I was told from an early age of the importance of communion, and I did believe that it was important for a few years. As I reached adulthood, I no longer thought it was important, though for a while I still had some faith in the Catholic Church and in the Bible and in the divinity of Jesus. As I realized the incoherence of this concept of holy communion, this was one step towards my eventual realization that Christianity is false and that I needed to find a more enlightened worldview.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Is faith virtuous, or is it harmful? Let your voice be heard in the forum.
You can also email the me at brandon@enlightenedworldview.com

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04/14/10

Permalink 10:16:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 927 words   English (US)
Categories: News

Unified Deism and how My Work Relates to it

A new Deism social networking website was recently created called Unified Deism, and can be accessed at unifieddeism.com. This website is intended to allow for more expansive and integrated social networking than was previously available through the various Deist Alliance websites. This website was created by Dave Gaddis of iDeism, Chuck Clendenen of Nature's God, and Peter Hilbig of Positive Deism, among others.

Unified Deism is also an attempt to extend Deism to a comprehensive worldview. The following excerpt from this document lists the principles of Unified Deism:

Unified Deism holds three principles paramount:

  1. We believe that God exists based on reflective reason, personal experience, and observation of nature.
  2. We believe that fellowship, community, and mutual respect are essential components of life.
  3. We believe our principles should evolve with societal progress and our knowledge of the universe. We are further guided by these principles (not listed in priority order):
  4. We believe everything we need to know of God can be found in the universe itself.
  5. We do not believe God acts in the universe in ways that contradict natural law, but do not deny the possibility.
  6. We believe that human beings are capable of having profound experiences of God, but hold that such personal revelations are true only for themselves.
  7. We believe in the intrinsic value of life and advocate honesty, prudence, compassion, and justice in our dealings with one another.
  8. We believe people should be free in all aspects of their lives, provided they do not disturb the peace, happiness, or safety of society.
  9. We encourage all to advance the human condition within their personal capacity to do so. However, we believe religion should be separate from government and neither this nor any Deist principle should be used to justify political positions or causes.
  10. We believe that religion is a personal matter guided by the dictates of conscience. We do not advocate efforts to convert people to Deism, but instead endeavor to promote Deism and educate those who are interested.

I am in full support of this new website and the principles outlined above. I was thinking about how I can define how my own efforts as the main contributor to this website and occasional contributor to other websites relate to Unified Deism. Well, this site has multiple purposes. In the main, static portion of this site, I begin by encouraging freethought and I invite visitors to follow my thought process, which for me leads to a worldview that includes Deism, humanist ethics, and spirituality. I try to make a case for each of the several aspects of my worldview by relying on scientific evidence, reason, and descriptions of my own subjective experiences to serve as a guide to the visitors who is trying to form their own enlightened worldview. As it happens, every point I argue for is consistent with the principles of Unified Deism, as far as I can tell.

Though the principles of Unified Deism are simple and intended to serve as common ground for people of various Deist backgrounds, within this site, one thing I do is to analyze the bounds of these principles, both the core principles and the guiding principles. For example, the first principle says that we believe that God exists, and I try to look at what exactly is God and what implications this has on other fields such as science and mathematics. Another principle says that we believe in the intrinsic value of life, and I try to look at why this is the case and specifically whether there are reasons to limit intrinsic value to certain types of life forms. Another principle says people should be free provided they do not disturb peace, happiness, or safety of society, and I try to analyze what types of actions disturb others and which do not. Another principle suggests that we work to improve the human condition within our capacity to do so, and I try to analyze how we can improve the human condition.

I only get into this level of detail within this blog and also in the forum of this website. At times, the analysis leads me to form opinions on controversial issues such as abortion, euthanasia, etc, though I do try to stay away from politics within my site. I do not intend to create a wedge between people with my analysis and stating my opinions. I try to always base my opinions on observation and reason and I also admit that I am not 100% sure about any of these complex issues.

My website is both for freethinkers who are in the process of forming their worldview and also for those who are interested in more detailed analysis of issues relating to God, ethics, spirituality, and other philosophical topics. I believe that staying active within the Unified Deism community and working within the Unified Deism framework will allow my work to reach a larger audience. Dave Gaddis also told me that my analytical approach is critical to helping Unified Deism remain current. Reaching a larger audience is a great thing, not just for my own sake, but I do believe that much of my writing can help people. This is certainly true of the writings of Chuck, Dave, Peter, and the other contributors. Intelligent and insightful Deist writings can be very helpful to people who are trying to find a rational way of making sense of the world and have realized that no revealed religion can truly offer this. Thanks to all of the contributors and I feel we'll have a great future working together!

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04/08/10

Permalink 09:37:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 802 words   English (US)
Categories: Words and Meanings, Morality

What is Value?

We all have things that we value in life. Many things have a certain value to us while having a different value to others. Some things, such as money, are supposed to have a fixed and universal value. Some things, such as a hammer, have value because of what they can do. Other things are thought to have intrinsic value, which means that these things have value based on what they are. For example, some have argued that things such as happiness, love, and life have intrinsic value. Things that do not have intrinsic value but can work to produce or preserve things that do have intrinsic value are said to have extrinsic or instrumental value.

For most of the things we value, even the things that we cherish, if we look closely we will see that these things do not have intrinsic value. A sentimental item that reminds one of a special time, such as a photograph or letter, does not have value because of what it is, but because of how it makes one feel. If you look at all of the things that you value, can you identify anything that does indeed have intrinsic value? Many things, such as a hammer, will have instrumental value in creating things that also have instrumental value, such as a house. A house has instrumental value to provide shelter. So there is often a chain of one item providing instrumental value for another item that also provides instrumental value for the next item and so on. If you look at all of the items that are valuable to you and to others, can you see any place where this chain ends? Is there something that has value for what it is rather than providing a way of creating or preserving something else?

From my experience, I will say that happiness is one place where this chain ends. Happiness has intrinsic value. What I mean by this is my nonphysical experience of happiness. In previous posts, I have explained how, through introspection, I have discerned that there is an element of my first person experience that is nonphysical, and this is called qualia. This experience is certainly caused by what is going on in the physical universe, but the actual experience is altogether distinct from anything physical. The same goes for happiness. At the physical level, there are chemical reactions in my brain that are associated with happiness, and this apparently causes my soul to have some degree of positive experience. Of course, sometimes the experience is some degree of negative as well, and these experiences are caused by reactions in my brain that are associated with sorrow.

These nonphysical experiences can be any degree of positive or negative. This is a measurement of value, and for this reason I call it valence. This concept is quantitative, but it is also absolute, in the sense that it is not purely comparative. The word “absolute” has different meanings in different contexts. In this context it does not mean “complete, utter” or “without exception”, so please don't get confused. “Absolute” in this context refers to a quantity that is anchored at a certain point to the fabric of reality. This differs from relative quantities, such as size and speed. For example, one object can be big if it is bigger than another, but this is purely comparative because there can be other objects that are even bigger. There is no object that is absolutely big. On the contrary there are experiences that are absolutely positive. Once again, this does not mean that these experiences are the best possible, but that they are simply positive because they are on the positive side of the neutral point. Even if they are are only slightly positive, they are still positive. Even if one is wishing an experience had been more positive, this does not make this less positive experience actually negative. If this seems to be the case for some people then this is because they are not able to be content with what they have, which is an attitude that unnecessarily creates negativity. Only experiences that are genuinely on the negative side of neutral should be considered actually negative. This is the nature of valence.

So one thing that has intrinsic value is positive experience. What is going on in the brain that causes the soul to have positive experience does not have intrinsic value. No physical thing can have anything more than instrumental value. I believe that there are other things besides positive valence that have intrinsic value, but I will save this for a future posting.

What are your thoughts on this topic? What in this world has intrinsic value? Let your voice be heard in the forum.
You can also email the me at brandon@enlightenedworldview.com

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04/01/10

Permalink 09:36:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 853 words   English (US)
Categories: Why I am not a Christian

Why I am not a Christian, Part 2: Jesus Died for our Sins

Today is Holy Thursday and tomorrow is Good Friday. What better time to take a close look at the near universal Christian belief that Jesus died to save us from our sins?

Let me begin by describing my personal experiences in the Catholic church with regard to this. Growing up, each year leading up to Easter, we heard a lot about the last days of Jesus' life and the torment he was subject to and the sacrifice he made. We were supposed to grieve for Jesus and feel genuine sorrow that he was tormented and that he passed on Good Friday. We were then supposed to feel elation and joy that he resurrected on Easter. After all, he did all of this for us.

But starting when I was a teenager, this didn't make too much sense to me. The idea is that Jesus had to die for our sins because a price had to be paid for the fact that we, all of humanity throughout time, had sinned. It is not that we, the sinners, had to pay, but that someone had to pay, and Jesus laid down his life to pay so that we would not have to do so ourselves. When I was six or seven I heard of Jesus' death and how it was important, but when I heard the details in later years of why it was supposed to be so important, it didn't make any sense.

Where do I begin? Well, let me begin by asking why the perpetrator of the sins does not have to pay? I had actually heard that people who sin and don't repent pay by going to hell. So it was inconsistent. It makes sense to me that people who kill and rape and steal and ruin people's lives should pay. If someone who commits horrible sins repents, then they have to make it up somehow. They can't just say they are sorry and believe in God and everything is okay. Or at least that's what it seemed like would make the most sense to me. I was in support of repentance in principle, but I was just thinking that they should have to really prove that they are sorry to a degree that is proportional to the damage that they caused. I liked the idea of people being able to turn their lives around, but I did think that they should pay some price, not eternal damnation, but still a price, for their sins and that this price should be a more difficult and drawn out repentance process. This seemed like justice to me when I was a teenager and it still makes sense to me now.

Back to the idea that someone has to pay a price, but not necessarily the actual sinner, this is ludicrous. This seems to only make sense in a small tribal court where the tribal elders will be happy if someone pays a price for a wrong but they do not care who, because in this tribal situation, order is preserved either way. I would certainly think that God would not work this way. It is, after all, God who would be demanding that some price be paid, wouldn't it? Wouldn't God be the one demanding that someone lay down for the sins of mankind, but not necessarily the sinners themselves? Why would God have the flawed logic of a tribal elder who is just trying to maintain order among the tribesmen?

And while we are on this subject, since Jesus is understood to be an incarnation of God himself, why does it make sense that God as Jesus dies to please God's desire for someone to die for the sins of mankind? And here is another thing that I could never understand: why are we supposed to mourn for Jesus' death when he is God and therefore nothing bad can ever really happen to him? How bad can it be that he got whipped a few times and got nails driven into him if he is, after all, an incarnation of God? Why is it such a great thing that Jesus died, when this could not possibly have negatively affected God, which is what Jesus was supposed to be, right?

This is about all I can write about right now without getting too ahead of myself. I want to write a separate posting for each of the following subjects in the coming weeks: 1) Was Jesus the son of God? 2) Holy Communion as the "Body of Christ" 3) How did Christianity become popular?

In closing, I will just mention that this obsession with the death and supposed resurrection of Jesus, and my conclusion that these beliefs don't make sense, let me to focus less of Jesus than other Christians in my late teenage years and early twenties, which eventually resulted in my decision to renounce Christianity. I will explain this more in future posts. Thanks for reading.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Is Jesus the son of God? Let your voice be heard in the forum.
You can also email the me at brandon@enlightenedworldview.com

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03/25/10

Permalink 09:33:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 558 words   English (US)
Categories: Secularism is Flawed, Words and Meanings

What is Spirituality?

The tagline of this website says “A Quest to Unify Spirituality, Ethics, and Deism” (edit: as you can see, the tagline no longer says this, but these three concepts are still important to this site). I have posted a few times on Deism and I will be sure to post more on Deism in the future. I also have planned an upcoming series of posts on ethics. Today I want to analyze the concept of spirituality.

What is spirituality? This word means many different things in different contexts. In general, “spiritual” refers to that which is immaterial or incorporeal. “Spiritual” also often refers to a transcendent experience, either within a religious community or by one's self. In a similar sense, “spirituality” can mean the experiences that people have to realize their own immaterial essence, which can be called the spirit or the soul.

Wikipedia defines spirituality as “an ultimate reality or transcendent dimension of the world; an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his or her being, or the 'deepest values and meanings by which people live.' Spiritual practices, including meditation, prayer and contemplation, are intended to develop an individual's inner life; such practices often lead to an experience of connectedness with a larger reality: a more comprehensive self; other individuals or the human community; nature or the cosmos; or the divine realm. Spirituality is often experienced as a source of inspiration or orientation in life. It can encompass belief in immaterial realities or experiences of the immanent or transcendent nature of the world.”

I have personally had spiritual experiences and I can attest that there is a heightened sense of realization of the self that comes during these experiences. One is able to put all prior knowledge into context and to find true personal identity in a self that transcends the physical world. Spiritual experiences are truly enlightening, but at the same time there is a sense of wonder and awe when one realizes that they are part of a system so much greater than their own self and that they can live in harmony with this greater system.

One way of starting the process towards spirituality is to introspectively focus on one's own consciousness. Once this has been established, I would recommend calmly meditating to clear one's mind of the cares and worries of the day. Try to focus on the conscious experience and see where this goes. Spirituality is more about the journey than the destination. For me personally, I prefer experiencing spirituality alone, but for many people, spirituality is a group exercise that is often conducted in churches and temples. Such spiritual gatherings have the added bonus of bringing people together and forming bonds among them.

This is one positive thing that I remember from childhood through young adult years in the Catholic church and also in college being a part of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. Now in my early thirties, I am am a different person and my beliefs have changed quite significantly. I have many differences with these and other Christian organizations, but I do remember some of my experiences with those people being quite positive.

What are your thoughts on this topic? What place should religion have in the modern world? Let your voice be heard in the forum.
You can also email the me at brandon@enlightenedworldview.com

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03/18/10

Permalink 09:30:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 700 words   English (US)
Categories: Why I am not a Christian

Why I am not a Christian, Part 1: The “Virgin” Mary

I want to begin a new series of posts that give some details about my thought process that led me to renounce Christianity. As I stated in earlier posts, I was raised Roman Catholic and I was a practicing Catholic until my mid 20's. I am now 31 years old, so it was not really that long ago that I stopped having faith in Jesus, the Bible, and Catholic dogma.

Let me begin by saying that I never fully believed everything that I was told to believe. I never fully accepted all of the Catholic dogma. One thing that struck me as odd when I was young, probably elementary school age, is the Catholic obsession with the virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. She was almost elevated to the level of a god, and this seemed wrong to me. In my household, there was a 5 or 6 year period where my Mom wanted us all to say the rosary regularly. For those who don't know, "saying the rosary" is reciting a set group of prayers with the aid of a beaded necklace, which is, as you might guess, called a rosary. This involves saying 10 Hail Mary's and 1 Our Father in repetition, and occasionally saying other prayers like Glory Be, etc. I couldn't understand why we were supposed to say 10 prayers to Mary and only 1 to God. It got really repetitive too. Really annoying.

Mary was referred to as "Mother of God", yet I understood God as being above all! I did believe at the time that God came to earth in human form as Jesus, but that Mary was only the physical mother of Jesus, not the actual mother of God.

We were told that Mary never sinned. I learned though that the Bible never said anything of the sort. I do not any longer believe that the Bible is true. There is overwhelming evidence that quite a bit of the Bible is false, and that it only has the occasional half-truth, but at the time I did believe that the Bible was true because I had been told this and because I hadn't actually read much of it myself.

And of course Jesus' mother was often referred to as the "Virgin Mary", yet the Bible does not say that Mary was a virgin her whole life. It does say that Mary was a Virgin when Jesus was conceived and later born, but in the Gospels it does refer to Jesus' sisters and brothers, and there are two books of the Bible that are purportedly written by Jesus' brothers. Another interesting thing is that the Bible implies that Jesus was a direct male-line descendant of King David through Joseph. The Bible refers to Joseph as Jesus' father. At the time, I was confused about this, but now I know that Jesus did of course have a father and it was Joseph. Mary was not at all a virgin when Jesus was conceived. Joseph is responsible for that.

Probably the reason why the church wanted to make such a big deal about Mary being a virgin is because of fear of sexuality. They like the concept of motherhood, but fear sexuality so for them the ideal would be a mother who is also a virgin. They like the result, but not the means, even though the means are perfectly natural. The legend of virgin birth may have been inspired by earlier Egyptian myths that were similar. Also it might have started as a misunderstanding of Isaiah's prophecy that a young woman would give birth to the Messiah. In Hebrew, the word for young woman is the same for virgin. I have no reason, though, to believe that Isaiah did anything more than make up his so-called prophecies. I also have no reason to believe that the concept of a messiah actually exists.

I think I will stop for now. In future posts, I will be covering more Catholic concepts such as communion and sainthood and general Christian concepts like the Bible and Jesus.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Is faith virtuous, or is it harmful? Let your voice be heard in the forum.
You can also email the me at brandon@enlightenedworldview.com

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03/09/10

Permalink 09:06:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 1314 words   English (US)
Categories: The Mind

How Libertarian Free Will can Coexist with the Laws of Nature

Most people feel like they have control over what they do and that therefore they and all other people who are mentally competent are ultimately responsible for their actions. The different ways of interpreting this phenomenon can be considered different understandings of the term “free will”. This term has different meanings in different contexts and the meaning that one gives to this term has important implications for metaphysics and ethics.

Determinism, the belief that all events are caused by prior events and that all eventual outcomes are predetermined, is often understood to be incompatible with free will, though not to so called “compatiblists” who may say that they believe in determinism, but also say that they believe in what may be called a variety of free will. The variety that compatiblists speak of is not libertarian free will, which traditionally is understood to mean that there is no causal chain that determines an agent’s actions prior to the agent freely choosing them. To put this another way, if libertarian free will were true, then one's actions would not entirely be determined by the laws of nature, including human nature the laws of nature that seem to underlie human nature, including biology, chemistry, and physics. If libertarian free will were true, then one's actions would have to at least partially be caused by nothing other than one's own free will, and ones own free will would then in turn not be determined by anything else.

When such compatiblists speak of free will, they may instead be referring to the abilities of certain complex beings living within system that is actually entirely deterministic. A being has this variety of free will if they are able to conceptualize external reality and to mentally represent and deliberate over possible actions, even though this system is deterministic and therefore the eventual actions performed by each being are predetermined.

For some people though, it is not enough that they simply deliberate over multiple possible options if the end result is ultimately predetermined by physical laws. Some philosophers have argued that people have libertarian free will. I tend to agree with this view. I do not deny that the laws of physics govern the operations of the human body, but I do believe that it is possible to reconcile the physical world with the theory of libertarian free will.

There are problems with accepting the theory of libertarian free will, including the apparent scientific counterevidence and the difficulty in coming up with a coherent metaphysical system to support it. For starters, the physical world appears to be deterministic. Overwhelming empirical evidence shows that everything that happens is caused by physical laws, not by the chosen actions of agents. The human body, including the brain, is physical and is driven by physical laws.

It is important to point out though that modern science appears to show that the world is not completely deterministic. Scientists use the principles of quantum mechanics to make predictions at the smallest level of understanding. Most scientists say that the exact position and velocity of subatomic particles is indeterminate and that the effects of these indeterminate events can be very significant. Now, there are several competing interpretations of quantum mechanics, but the fact that the jury is still out on which, if any, of these is correct and which can be ruled out, and the fact that some of these competing theories do allow for indeterminacy, seems to leave open the possibility that libertarian free will can coexist with the physical universe. Some philosophers, such as Robert Kane, believe that the indeterminacy of these events leaves wiggle room for an agent to act with free will in the world.

There are many scientists and philosophers who believe that even if the physical universe were to some extent random, as it appears to be, that there is still no room for the sort of freedom that libertarians believe in. This may be the correct analysis based on the assumption that random events have no definite cause, but this assumption cannot be epistemically justified. The only situation where an observer can call a phenomenon random is if there are repeated events where the observer is not able to predict the outcome. Take for example someone observing the results of repeated rolls of fair dice. The observer is not able to find any pattern to the outcome, regardless of the number of observations. This is similar to scientists making observations of quantum events; such scientists only see lots of unpredictable occurrences and are unable to make definite predictions regardless of how many observations are made. A definite prediction would be one where the observer is able to predict the exact outcome of a given quantum event, and scientists are not able to reliably do this. They may be able to make statistical models that will predict the likelihood of certain actions, but these models are only applicable to a large amount of data gathered from repeated observations.

If one looks at what is going on in this and similar situations, the words “random” and “indeterminate” can only accurately refer to epistemic situations. Although these terms are sometimes meant to refer to specific metaphysical theories where there is no cause behind certain events, such uses can never be justified because there is no way of verifying that there is, in fact, no cause behind the events. There very well could be a cause behind any event labeled as random, even though the observer may fail to see this. If one observes random events and concludes that there is no cause behind the events then this is a misuse of the principle of induction. The correct use of this principle is to observe repeated events and to theorize the cause of the events, and from this one is able to know the laws of nature. When one concludes that there is no cause behind a certain set of repeated events, this observer is essentially trying to use the principle of induction to say that, in the present situation, the principle of induction can never apply and that there is no law of nature.

With the more accurate use of “indeterminate” as mentioned above, it is wrong to conclude that there is no room for libertarian free will within the indeterminate physical world. But it is important to make clear that libertarian free will is in theory only possible if an agent’s choice is the cause of the event. This means that the agent’s free choice causes an event to occur and that the agent’s choice is itself not caused by any prior events. From an objective standpoint, the event that is the result of the agent’s choice would appear random because the observer would never be able to reliably predict the agent’s free choice.

I believe that libertarian free will is true. I believe that, at least some of the time, my actions are at least partially determined by my own free choice. Certainly most of the time my actions are determined by human nature, and by my personality, and by my experiences in life, but all of these factors put together do not determine my actions 100% of the time. There is a slight variation in my actions, and the actions of all mentally competent people, that cannot be attributed to human nature, nor to personality, nor to personal experiences. Our actions are, in small and subtle ways, determined by our free will. I conclude this from introspection, where I carefully examine my personal experience. I have the experience of choosing what to do, and I also have the experience of passively allowing my body to choose for itself. I know the difference from experience.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do people have free will? Let your voice be heard in the forum.
You can also email the me at brandon@enlightenedworldview.com

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03/04/10

Permalink 08:58:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 148 words   English (US)
Categories: News

This Site has been Accepted into the Deist Alliance!

I just received word that myself and this website have been accepted into the Deist Alliance, which is an organization of individuals and websites for the purpose of promoting Deism. I applied for this membership when this site went live a few months ago, and I was told that the members felt it would be best to wait a while and see how this site develops. I am honored by their acceptance and I look forward to greater involvement in the Deist community.

Probably within the next few days I will update this site with links to all other current Deist Alliance members. There are also other changes that I plan on making when I get some time. Thanks to all who have made this possible, including the members of the Deist Alliance and everyone who has visited this site since it went live a few months ago.

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02/25/10

Permalink 08:57:00 pm, by Brandon Norgaard Email , 1178 words   English (US)
Categories: The Mind

How One's Personal Understanding of Consciousness can Lead to a Realization of the Soul

Last week, I wrote about the “Hard Problem of Consciousness”, which deals with how there can be an element of our experience, called qualia, that is altogether distinct from anything in the physical universe. Not everyone agrees with this, but many people are convinced that they have so called “phenomenal consciousness”. Just to recap, phenomenal consciousness differs from “conscious awareness”, which can be studied scientifically and is unquestionably a function of the physical body. Although it is difficult to understand how conscious awareness works in humans, this is relatively easy compared to trying to understand phenomenal consciousness, which is why is it known as the “Easy Problem of Consciousness”.

As I wrote in my previous post, David Chalmers, who is known as one of the foremost experts in phenomenal consciousness, believes that it is a logical possibility for there to be a physical twin of himself that is exactly the same as him, down to the molecular level, and yet does not have phenomenal consciousness. This “zombie twin” would behave exactly the same as the real Chalmers, and no amount of scientific study could ever differentiate them, but only one of the two has actual experience of seeing, hearing, etc. Both have all of the brain functions associated with all senses and emotions and both have all of the brain processes associated with thoughts, but only one has the first person experience of sensing, feeling, or thinking.

I'm sure this proposition must seem absurd to many people. This idea has been roundly criticized and dismissed since it was first conceived many years ago. But there are many people who agree that this is a logical possibility, and I am one of them. What I want to explore now is the implications of this knowledge.

If one accepts this proposition as a logical possibility, this does invite an interesting paradox: how does the real Chalmers know that he is not the zombie? If both the real Chalmers and the zombie Chalmers were 100% identical, wouldn't they both insist that they are the real one? Wouldn't they both insist that they have qualia, while the other does not? Chalmers' answer to this is “From the first-person point of view, my zombie twin and I are very different: I have experiences, and he does not. Because of this, I have evidence for my belief where he does not. Despite the fact that he says the same things I do, I know that I am not him…because of my direct first-person acquaintance with my experiences.” (The Conscious Mind, page 199)

If Chalmers is correct in saying this, then this means that he must be experiencing more than his zombie twin. But how can this be possible if they are both physically identical? Chalmers' body is completely physical, yet his qualia are nonphysical. How can a physical body get information about nonphysical phenomena? Well, perhaps there is some way that qualia can be known to the physical body. Perhaps it is the physical perception of things that creates qualia in the first place, and that after the qualia occur, the brain somehow knows about this phenomenon, even though this phenomenon was nonphysical and the brain is physical. This may seem impossible, but if qualia exist and one can come to know about them, then this is the best explanation. This means that there must be a communication between the physical and the nonphysical.

This also means that the original premise, that there could be an exact twin of a person who is the same in every way except that they don't have phenomenal consciousness, cannot be completely true. If one has qualia and knows about it and the other does not, then the physical body that knows about the qualia is slightly different than the zombie. They can be completely identical up to the point where the nonphysical realm communicates with the physical brain of the real person, but as soon as the real person receives this communication, and the zombie does not, then there is a physical difference between the two.

The main question here is what is going on at in the nonphysical realm? At this point, we just know that there is qualia that is caused to occur by a physical brain perceiving something or feeling something or thinking about something. We know that certain details about this phenomenon are sent back to the brain so that the brain can report on this and insist that qualia are real and distinct from anything physical. The brain does not actually experience the qualia, but is able to know something about qualia so that it can discern that this is different from its own perception of the physical world, which is an altogether robotic operation, since it is purely physical. It can discern between the two, though it doesn't really understand what qualia are.

From my experience, it seems to me like I do know what qualia are. I know that my brain cannot understand this experience because the brain is physical, so then what does understand this experience? The best explanation is that there is another entity that is experiencing the qualia. This nonphysical entity is called the soul. Just as Rene Descartes long ago reasoned “I think, therefore I am”, I have gone through thought process that is in some ways similar to arrive at a similar conclusion.

The way it works is that each of us has both a body and a soul. Collectively the nonphysical soul and the physical brain can be called the mind. When the body senses something or has emotions or thinks about something, this causes the soul to experience qualia. Take for example when one sees something. First the light rays enter the eyes, then this causes the brain to form a purely physical mental representation of the object, and then this causes the soul to experience qualia, which is the first person experience of sight, and then the brain comes to know that this experience has occurred separate from its own perception, which is how the body is able to report that there is an element of consciousness that is beyond the physical universe.

And so we can come to understand that we all have souls. There are many questions that arise from this realization regarding the relation between the body and the soul, what types of beings have souls, how does this begin, how does it end, what is the nature of the soul, and there are many important ethical considerations that this realization brings up. I will try to address these in the coming weeks and months. For those who have read this far, I'd just like to close by saying that analysis of questions about the soul form the most interesting portion of my (as yet unpublished) book. The book deals with these issues in more detail than I can get into with just a blog.

What are your thoughts on this topic? Do souls exist? Let your voice be heard in the forum.
You can also email the me at brandon@enlightenedworldview.com

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