Against hedonism

We can define hedonism as the conjunction of two propositions.

  1. One ought to seek out pleasurable experiences.
  2. One ought to avoid painful experiences.

where ‘pleasurable’ and ‘painful’ are understood expansively.

What is problematic with this view? At first blush, it seems unproblematic – almost trivially true. Of course one ought to want more pleasure and less pain. All I want to show here is how this is problematic from a biological perspective. Let’s consider the second proposition first.

What is a painful experience? Biologically speaking, painful experiences exist in order to guide an animal in avoiding a situation where there is damage to that animal. In other words, from a biological perspective, the important part isn’t the experience of pain but what that indicates.

Similarly, consider pleasure. In natural conditions, feeling pleasure would probably indicate that what one was doing was helping the organism to reach its goals, where the goals would typically be designed into the organism, centering around things like getting nutritional food, reproducing, keeping the right temperature, and so on.

Nowadays, we can see how the sensation of pleasure can misfire, biologically speaking, leading us to behaviour that moves us away from the things the sensation was designed to move us towards. Overeating, for example, can be motivated by a pleasure in the foods, yet given various ‘junk food’ available today it can lead to nutritional deficiencies, obesity, diabetes, and so on.

So, it seems obvious that biologically speaking, hedonism doesn’t make sense at least when operating in an environment that is substantially different from that for which the organism is designed.

Masculinism

“Women must be liberated from the modern “emancipation,” which is really slavish compliance to a Calvinistic and masculine ideal[.]” – John Senior, The Restoration of Christian Culture (1983), p.51

Senior is correct, in that many aspects of what is now called ‘feminism’ hold traditionally masculine values as more important than traditionally feminine ones. In this sense, ‘feminism’ is a misnomer, and ‘masculinism’ is more suggestive.

 

The virgin birth

One aspect of Christianity that is prominent is belief in a virgin birth – Mary conceived of Jesus ‘directly’ from God. If we take the story literally (it resonates with various other myths, many of which would have been known in the Mediterranean at the time, so it is not clear to me what the reader is supposed to take from the claim), then an argument against it goes as

a) The claim is that Jesus was conceived from God by a virgin, but we now know that virgin births do not occur naturally among humans. Therefore, Jesus was not conceived by a virgin.

I think many secularists actually follow this line of thinking when denying the virgin birth. Yet, a moment’s reflection shows it is not a good argument.

The problem here is that ancients also knew that virgin births among humans do not occur naturally. The whole point of the virgin birth is that it is an unusual (perhaps unique) event. Saying we don’t see it happening today or that it doesn’t occur in nature (which would condition our sense of what can or can’t happen) is true but not to the point.

Rather, there is a premise required for the argument a) above, which is

There is no such thing as miracles.

If there are no miracles, and if virgin births don’t occur naturally, then the conclusion is much stronger.

However, now the argument has to rely upon a much more sweeping argument, namely, the argument to show there is no such thing as miracles.

My guess is that most debates about supposed miracles between secularists and theists aren’t primarily about the evidence for the miracle in question, but a more general claim. As in many beliefs, there is a cyclical component to this (if you don’t believe miracles can occur, you are less likely to think a specific instance of a supposed miracle actually occurred, which in turn helps support your more general belief).

What is the purpose in Christianity?

The purpose is not pleasure, nor is it even happiness. Rather, the purpose is to do important things.

This is specifically Christian because it is to do important things that God calls one to do. One figures out what God is calling one to do through the practice of discernment.

Why do important things that God calls one to do? Because God is able to see what’s really important.

The Christian conception of God and the start of science

It was only because Europeans believed in God as the Intelligent Designer of a rational universe that they pursued the secrets of creation. In the words of Johannes Kepler [(one of the most distinguished astronomers in the history of science)], “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony imposed on it by God and which he revealed to us in the language of mathematics.” […] Perhaps the most remarkable aspect to the rise of science is that the early scientists not only searched for natural laws, confident that they existed, but they found them! It thus could be said that the proposition that the universe had an Intelligent Designer is the most fundamental of all scientific theories and that it has been successfully put to empirical tests again and again.” – Rodney Stark, Bearing False Witness (2016), p. 162

My guess is that Stark is probably correct, and that the standard story that Christianity stood in the way of the rise of science is just about the opposite of what actually happened.

God and learning

God said: I send people adversity in this life to teach them that this imperfect world is passing away, and this life is not their goal. I am their goal. – St. Catherine of Siena

If spiritual mastery (‘theosis’) is one of the main goals, then there are going to be experiences in life that can move us towards that mastery. If spiritual mastery is roughly cumulative (you have to learn a before moving on to b, as in many domains), then it would make sense that you keep getting a similar opportunity to learn something, until you gain the relevant skills. (ThinkĀ Groundhog Day, where Phil experiences the same day over and over until he transforms, or moves towards theosis.)

Now consider this talk from Sal Khan, in which he discusses mastery-based learning. His basic point, using mathematics as the main example, is that in certain domains learning is cumulative, and if you want to master it, you can’t just get 75% of the material at level 1, and so on. If that happens, you will soon reach a block before you achieve mastery. Instead, you need to get near 100% at each level. The basic idea is in cumulative domains, you are greatly benefited by going again and again until you get near 100%, then moving to the next level. (Therefore, the main method of learning in most schools is basically flawed.)

If spiritual mastery is similar in ways to mathematics, and God is indeed sending situations to help in theosis (as St. Catherine of Siena claims), then you would expect that people will experience a certain situation until they get the relevant spiritual skills, just as a wise teacher would do when it comes to any cumulative domain.

So, the basic question when encountering a situation is ‘What can I learn from this?’ and ‘What transformation can I make on the inside, that will make me better?’ Often, once you change, things change.

Spiritual warfare and secularism

Christians typically are familiar with the concept of spiritual warfare, but to a secular modern, the term might sound like gibberish. It is presumed false at best and nonsense at worst, because it probably refers to nothing.

The thinking goes like this. ‘Spiritual warfare’ refers to the devil or demons (fallen angels, purely intellectual beings who have disobeyed God, triggered by the sin of pride) acting to persuade humans to disconnect themselves from God. Yet, the devil or demons don’t exist. Therefore, spiritual warfare doesn’t exist.

The error here is in focusing on the theoretic instead of the practical. Since spiritual warfare is all about the practical, what ought to be of interest is how Christian strategies on this impact day-to-day life – does it help people to get better at or respond better to things? If so, there’s something important about the concept of spiritual warfare in the Christian tradition, even if the theory is ultimately in some way significantly mistaken.

To begin to show why ‘spiritual warfare’ is a relevant and interesting concept, even to a secular modern, I want here to map the term onto a term that modern seculars will understand. It is probably the best equivalent in the secular lexicon to ‘spiritual warfare’. To begin to understand it, we can think about psychological warfare.

Psychological warfare, from psyche (‘soul’ or ‘spirit’), is something most people can easily see is regularly occurring around them. For example, different countries have different interests, and will try to persuade people to take this or that position on some issue. Similarly with political parties, or companies.

The main tool with which these organizations fight is the media. Obviously, the extent and duration of media exposure is increasing. This means there is more potential for those organizations to engage in psychological warfare.

Many Christians believe there is unprecedented spiritual warfare occurring now. To see how this might map onto something important, consider that many Christians also believe that the main conduit of much of this is the media.

So, recognizing spiritual warfare or psychological warfare being conducted through the media is a point of contact for both Christians and critical-thinking secular moderns. It also opens a way for secular moderns to understand what Christians are talking about, without merely dismissing it as gibberish.

Simulation theory is a new theism

This article titled ‘Is our world a simulation? Why some scientists say it’s more likely than not’ describes an intellectual movement, including Elon Musk, which holds that we live in a computer simulation.

I’ll leave to the side the arguments for such a position (including arguments about the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness), and focus on what the position is. They are positing that the universe was created by an intelligence (or intelligences). It’s a kind of theism (my impression is that many advocates seem unaware of this – it is irrelevant that the creator is a ‘posthuman civilization’ or what have you), and generates similar problems to ones Judaism or Christianity attempt to answer (do we get an insight into the creator’s mind or purposes in seeing the universe? how does the creator effect the universe? can we interact with the creator? is the creator something like omniscient in this universe? omnipotent? and so on).

It is not surprising that a powerful aspect of technology (computer simulations) would be applied to create a new form of theism. It is similar to the historical movement to think of the universe as a precisely tuned machine (such as a clock), when machines like that became common several hundred years ago (often, this form of theism emphasized something like a form of deism – the machine maker set up the universe and then let it work away).

So, developments in technology cause developments in theology.

What is the Kingdom?

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in Heaven. (Matthew 6:10, King James Bible)

And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:21-22, King James Bible)

What is the ‘Kingdom’? In contemporary terms, it is a grass-roots, metapolitical movement, which comes out of the theosis (spiritual development) of individuals and then the actions they take.

 

Antifragile processes

Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) is largely a collection of practical tricks for changing how one thinks on an habitual basis and therefore acts (i.e., theosis).

These practical tricks are part-and-parcel of kinds of Christianity, and Peale (a pastor) explicitly couches them in the Christian Gospel. The Gospel isn’t incidental to many of the practices – rather, the practices are closely connected to parts of the Bible, and probably generated in part by reflection on those texts (so, the texts acted as a kind of heuristic).

In light of work by Nassim Taleb on antifragility, the following one in particular I found interesting

6. Avoid argument, but whenever a negative attitude is expressed, counter with a positive and optimistic opinion. (p. 172)

The trick here is to create an ‘antifragile’ process (something that gets stronger when exposed to intermittent stresses, such as a muscle gets stronger when lifting weights, say). A negative attitude, which ordinarily might damage a positive attitude, is used as a stimulus to create a stronger habit of focusing on positive or optimistic ways of thinking. A nice trick.

Many antifragile processes are part of Christian practice, just as they are with certain kinds of Stoic thought and practice. For example, detachment from material wealth means low downside to lack of material wealth, but upside to having material wealth (as with Seneca).