As promised in my last post, here’s a very preliminary mapping of key beliefs in my personal belief system, in an order I would consider to be fundamentally sequential as axioms to agree upon, before any useful debate can be had on specific issues of morality or policy. I imagine this as a series of rooms with doors leading to subsequent rooms. If you were to enter this dungeon and progress through the rooms matching your beliefs, at the end, if you open the “universal well-being” door, you’d find me; and my theory is that we’d be able to agree on nearly every important issue, given a similarly systematic employment of empirical reasoning with a consistent moral calculus. But to get there, I’ll briefly describe each of the stages in the figure below:
Relative Truth vs. Absolute Truth
I believe this is the most fundamental axiom on which two people must agree if their worldviews are to be compatible. Sadly, the “correct” answer is less obvious than I thought it would be for our country. Basically, we could label the “relative truth” door “alternative facts”, and if you were to enter it, you’d end up in a hole with the likes of Kellyann Conway, Sean Spicer, and President Trump. And anybody else you’ve ever met who believes that reality can be two things at once. Now I’ll note here that I’m not even talking about honesty vs. dishonesty here. If somebody is lying to you, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they believe in “relative truth”; they may very well have one belief and are simply manipulating you for some ulterior motive. I find that much less problematic than true disillusionment, which I suspect may have creeped into the Trump administration and devout Republicans, or will inevitably take root like a cancer as their only stalwart against existential crisis. Of course, the already mentally unstable have long since taken the door to relative truth, but you probably would have considered it impossible to align with them anyway. The final key group that may take that door are religious people, especially “moderate” Christians and Muslims, who proceed through life with the burden of cognitive dissonance, simultaneously believing all that the human projects of science and knowledge have uncovered and their sacred texts. I’ll even gladly let true believers pass through the same door with me to absolute truth, to pick our battles in the next room; but if you are comfortable living on a planet that is simultaneously 6,000 and 4.5 billion years old, I am uncomfortable debating literally anything else with you. Finally, so as to be fully inclusive, I’ll throw pseudo-psychologist Jordan B. Peterson through the “relative truth” door as well before closing it (read my previous thoughts on him).
TL;DR / contextualization of this section to what you’re probably currently focused on: I do not believe there is any useful strategy against the Trump administration without first settling the argument on relative vs. absolute truth. So don’t waste your time on anything but actively exposing their dishonesty, if that is in fact what’s happening, or surgically rewiring the mental constructs in them and their supporters.
Faith vs. Reason
Unfortunately, I believe many of my readers and I will go our separate ways from this room (though, as I have indicated with a dotted line, we may meet again later on). Essentially the two doors I have framed here correspond to the following statements: either (1) you believe that absolute truth is determined by a Creator who will grant you paradise in the afterlife if you follow his divine laws, or (2) you accept that there is nothing after you die, that paradise is unattainable, and that all we’ve got to understand reality is the mental faculty in our brains. The labels “faith” and “reason” are oversimplifications of a series of complex steps embedded here, but hopefully what I’m getting at is clear. To enter the “faith” door is to believe in things which cannot be proven, starting with your sacred texts, and extending potentially to anything else. To enter the “reason” door is to live a much more difficult life, in which nothing is certain, nothing is definitively provable, only testable and consistent with observation until proven wrong. As I indicate, the “reason” door leads you quickly down the hall to the principles of empiricism, logic, the scientific method, and some of the foundational scientific theories we have, like Darwinian evolution.
It’s worth mentioning that faith, as manifested in superstitious and religious belief, very likely arose from natural selection as tendencies to over-assume that the rustle in the grass was a deadly predator, as opposed to just the blowing wind. Feed that basic phenotypical behavior through the cultural mechanisms of our early tribal societies, and you get explanations for everything we could not yet understand through tools of science, and over-triggered habits-turned-rituals like sacrifice and sacred texts, which made life simpler to understand, but ultimately held us back in moral and intellectual development for millennia.
In fact, the “virus” of religious belief is so strong that, through deep cultural embeddedness, it continues to afflict a majority of us on this planet. Yes, a made-up, immutable belief system in practice does not negatively affect your well-being and may even be the surest way to survive, but I invite you to seriously consider the utility of faith when it enables humans to reliably commit and justify the most heinous of acts, like suicide bombings and systematic persecution. Of course many immoral acts remain to be addressed in the next room, but to break free of faith is to break free of our most fundamental and vestigial of crutches. And as I have to always qualify, to break free of faith DOES NOT mean you have to abandon the benefits of community and spirituality that many associate with religion. Why must those be tied to faith? Why can’t we, as humans, design institutions and cultures of secularism that can completely replace religion? That possibility awaits through the door of reason.
My last thought here, though this merits a much deeper discussion in the future: the hardest thing about getting somebody to backtrack from the door of faith and willingly walk through the door of reason, in my experience (yes, even personal), is the deep existential depression that can sink in when the securities and promises of eternal paradise with God disappear. To see how powerful faith is, you need look no further than the poor souls who stand at precipice of doubt, a community and eternity of love behind them, and a different kind of eternity of meaninglessness awaiting them in the abyss below. I completely understand how difficult the jump is, and I think atheists can do no better than to be dutiful supporters, pointing out the solid footing shrouded by the mist. That solid ground is the realization that the question “what is the meaning of life?” is in fact part of the problem, that to find satisfaction is to find that the question doesn’t matter, that without “right”, “less wrong” is good enough. If you are struggling with this, please reach out to me and we can talk it out.
For those following along from the political arena: what does this mean in practice? Most obviously, I think separation of church and state is essential, and it pains me to see Trump wants to “destroy the Johnson Amendment”. Next, if you are a liberal and are fighting against conservative values, it’s probably already clear that it’s religious conservatism that’s gotta go first, from textbook Creationists to stem cell research opponents to radical homophobes. But finally, if you are a liberal you must also identify your own faithful convictions, be they religion or simply dogmatic faith in everything that comes out of left-leaning media sites being correct, or every victim being guiltless, or every “freedom” being tolerable. Only then should you confidently walk through the other door, and commit to the only dogma left: faith in reason.
Local Well-Being vs. Universal Well-Being
The long journey through the last two rooms have finally led to the actual start of moral values. Your choice of faith or reason simply provided you with the tools (easy or hard) to discern right vs. wrong, but in this room, you now have to choose your framework of valuation. There is a dotted line from the “faith” door to this room, because, depending on what religious beliefs you subscribe to, you are in fact still choosing between one of these doors. Probably, if you are religious, whether you’d like to admit it or not, you’re going to pick the “local well-being” door, because your essential goal as a Christian, Jew, or Muslim is to reach eternal paradise and a personal relationship with your God (other faiths like Buddhism are intriguing exceptions to this generalization, proving that religions can map onto a variety of value systems, some great by my standards, but are problematic ultimately because they are unaccountable to reality). Even if you’d like to think that your time on Earth is meant to bring as many nonbelievers with you to Heaven, and that that constitutes a concern for the well-being of others, I invite you to seriously consider the following paradox: in situation (1), you and your loved one both get to Heaven, and in situation (2), only you get to Heaven; in either case, your religion forces you to accept that you still have achieved eternal, unimprovable happiness with God, so whether or not your loved one made it with you will simply cease to matter once you pass through those Pearly Gates (please enlighten me if you are religious and have a defense against this seeming hypocrisy).
So the alternative door here is what I call “universal well-being”, and unfortunately, like “reason”, it is a difficult path fraught with philosophical problems, but it is the door I believe all of humanity must willingly enter if we are to reach anything like “heaven” in the only reality we’ve got. By universal well-being, I simply mean that you commit to the subjective opinion that every conscious being has value proportional to their level of consciousness. Again, I have skipped a few intermediate steps here which someday I can expand upon, but basically back in that hallway with “empiricism” and “Darwinism”, you would also have to accept that consciousness exists, and that conscious beings are capable of suffering, and that not-suffering is better than suffering, and that there is some kind of absolute truth when it comes to measuring a global amount of suffering, even if we don’t currently (or may never) have the tools to definitively measure it. Then you can view the doors of local and universal well-being sort of as doors of empathy and compassion, where empathy is a valuation of individual humans you directly encounter, like a point source of caring that dissipates as you move away from yourself, and compassion is a rational and consistent valuation of suffering as it occurs, no matter how far from you. If this distinction is new and alarming to you, I invite you to read Paul Bloom’s work “against empathy”, but as a simple example, consider that a single violent crime in your immediate community reliably matters to you more than hundreds of thousands of refugees suffering on the other side of the world. This, like superstitious belief, is simply a vestige from our simpler days as early humans in small groups, where compassion simply was not necessary as a concept. Now, we have to activate the better angels of our “nature” through unnatural tools of statistical reasoning; that is the only way to donate ethically (aka effective altruism), if you donate at all. Anyway, if this all tracks with you, then, like me, you either believe or aspire to believe that all human beings are truly created equal, and that moral calculations are generally best made on the basis of body count (whether or not the calculus is easy is another matter). Add on the natural corollary that other conscious beings, like cows and chickens and maybe extraterrestrial life, are just as worthy of our moral concern if they are conscious, and you are ready to walk through this door, behind which I’d be waiting to greet you, highly confident that we share the same values.
Final notes, before I run to catch my train. First, as I have drawn the dotted line, it’s quite possible that faith can get you to believe in “universal well-being”, meaning we are mostly compatible in our beliefs, but the problem that follows is that we won’t be able to analyze and interpret real-life issues like gun control, abortion, climate change, etc. without a similar competency around empirical reasoning. Second, for those who have fully committed to absolute truth, reason, empiricism, and Darwinism, and finally universal well-being (which, I’ll add briefly but can explore more deeply in the future, is a kind of defiance of our selfish genes which makes us a post-Darwinian species and, I believe, is necessary for us to prevent our own extinction and become an interstellar species), we have only just begun the real journey of bettering our society, discovering our true beliefs on political and policy issues, and fighting intellectual dishonesty.