Pharisees and religious authority

There was a religious group in Israel around the time of Jesus. It played an important role in the contemporary theological and legal climate. Its teachings were very influential on later Christianity and Judaism. However, Jesus didn’t like that group. Knowing this and nothing else about them, most Christians proclaim that the Pharisees were hypocrites.

The logic is simple. Jesus was God. God can’t be wrong. Therefore anything Jesus says is true and requires no further investigation. Chapter 11 of Luke describes his attitude. A Pharisee invited him to dinner. He expressed surprise when his guest didn’t wash his hands before eating. Jesus proceeded to launch into a tirade against his hosts, calling them “full of greed and wickedness” and claiming they “neglect justice and the love of God.” A legal scholar pointed out to Jesus that he was tarring a bunch of people with a broad brush, and Jesus then added legal scholars to his rant. In other words, he burst into a rage like a five-year-old because he was asked to wash his hands before eating.
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Aristotle’s concept of happiness

In the Nicomachaean Ethics, Aristotle writes that happiness “is not a disposition” and “we must rather class happiness as an activity.” This doubtless sounds odd to many people, but the word has many meanings, and we’re looking at a translation (in this case, by W. D. Ross) from the Greek. The original word was probably “eudaemonia,” for which “happiness” is only a rough equivalent. “Good living” might be more accurate. Further on he writes that “the life according to reason is best and pleasantest, since reason more than anything else is man. This life is therefore also the happiest.”

He is careful to distinguish happiness from pleasure and amusement. “The happy life is thought to be virtuous; now a virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement.” Specifically, it’s the exertion of the mind, because our reasoning capacity is the most important thing about us. It’s desirable in itself, not for the sake of some further goal.

This is an attractive thought, that the process understanding is the best thing. At the same time, there’s something passive about it. The best thing for Aristotle is the contemplative life, the life of the philosopher. He thought he had the best job in the world, and that’s not a bad thing. But it lacks something in engagement with the world. Reason may be our most distinctive characteristic, but we’re beings of both body and mind.

Aristotle lived in a time when people hadn’t fully developed the idea of reason as a means to improving the human condition. Archimedes lived about a century later and was one of the people who advanced the use of reason for practical purposes. The important point which Aristotle made is that happiness (or the good life) comes from thinking, not from pursuing physical pleasures, and that it’s active, not passive. It’s necessary to understand this much before discovering all its practical applications.

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Living like a libertarian

Over time, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the best thing I can do as a libertarian is to live like one. That is, I need to live in a way that, as much as possible, doesn’t benefit from or support coercion. This is more important, and more satisfying, than political activity.

Governments offer carrots and sticks to bring people more closely under their influence. The purpose of the carrot is to get you to come within reach of the stick. Learning not to run after the carrots is the first step.
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Notes on life and mortality

To preface this, I’d like to reassure anyone reading this that my health is good and I have no expectation of dying soon. However, going by years, my life is more than half over. Barring a breakthrough in life extension, I probably don’t have more than three decades left. That means I think about death occasionally. Getting my thoughts into a public essay helps to clarify them.
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What we can learn from Phil Robertson

Let’s make a few things clear at the start. I don’t want Phil Robertson censored. I don’t want him to lose his job. If someone acts on his claims and kills people, it’s the murderer’s fault, not Robertson. In fact, I think we can learn something from his words, in a perverse way. Here’s what he said:

I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’

Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.’

If it happened to them, they probably would say ‘something about this just ain’t right.’

Phil Robertson (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)Well, yes, something about that would not be right. The same thing would not be right if fanatics broke into Robertson’s home, claimed that Christians say there’s no right or wrong, and raped and murdered his family. But the clear implication is that the atheist would be wrong, that in fact there is no right or wrong if the target of violence doesn’t believe a deity exists.

I wanted to make sure I was understanding Robertson correctly, knowing how distorted media accounts can get. It was conceivable his next words were, “Of course something about this ain’t right. People don’t stop being human just because they don’t belong to your religion.” However, I haven’t found any claims that his words were ripped out of context. I did find a defense of Robertson by someone named John Nolte. This piece calls the denunciations of Robertson “ignorant” and “bigoted.” Nolte says Robertson was making “a perfectly valid point about a Godless world in which there is no Ten Commandments and by extension no basis to judge right from wrong.” This clarifies an important point: the scenario applies not just to atheists but to anyone who doesn’t have a belief system that includes Moses. He could equally well have talked about raping and killing a “little Hindu wife” or “little Buddhist daughters.”

I don’t think he’d act on that principle and murder unbelievers, but there are people who do just that, for the reasons he gave. They kidnap, torture, and kill on the principle that anyone who doesn’t recognize their form of religious authority falls outside all moral consideration. Robertson points to the Bible as his revealed moral authority, and Islamic State and Boko Haram point to the Quran, but there’s no way to decide which is the “true” one.

Robertson and IS believe that humans are incapable of moral knowledge on their own and that anyone who doesn’t follow divine authority doesn’t count as a human being. For Muslim fanatics, this applies even to people who don’t hold their exact interpretation of the Quran; they kill more Muslims than non-Muslims. There’s no need to feel moral doubt while committing mass murder, since apart from God’s orders there is no right or wrong.

It’s an escape from personal responsibility. The people who accept this view don’t have to bear the burden of deciding what’s right and what’s wrong. By accepting that they’re incapable of independent moral judgment and have to follow divine orders, they escape the need to think and the risk of doubt. The ones who take up violence literally would rather die than think.

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NH Liberty Forum 2015

New Hampshire has a lot of liberty-related events, and the one I attend most often is the Liberty Forum. This year it was in Manchester and had its usual excellent lineup of speakers. I ran into some people I hadn’t seen in years, as well as seeing writers whom I frequently read, and generally enjoyed it.Vendors at NH Liberty Forum 2015

There’s quite a range of people at these events, but the atmosphere was friendly and casual, not too different from a science fiction convention. Some people were rabid supporters of single causes; others took a broader, more philosophical or lifestyle-related approach. The events I attended focused more on the latter. David Kelley gave a talk on the importance of philosophy, William Thomas presented the case for limited government, and the Atlas Society had a table. I found out that it’s holding its 2015 summit in Nashua, almost within walking distance of my home. I mentioned this on Twitter with a sigh (which was corrected to a shrug).

Nick Gillespie at NH Liberty Forum The talk which gave me the most new information was Charlie Arlinghaus’s on New Hampshire history. Knowing how recently New Hampshire had laws on the books requiring the maintenance of Protestant ministers (though they weren’t enforced) gives some perspective.

Most of the people there didn’t have the level of technical savvy I often take for granted, and the tech items I attended weren’t very impressive. The presentation on “Cryptography in one lesson” was good but didn’t tell me anything new, being aimed at a general audience. A presentation on “How activists solve problems in the digital age” sounded like a sales pitch for Google, and when the speaker used the words “It’s not as good as Outlook” for something other than eating camel dung, I gave up and left. But I had fun hanging around the Think Penguin booth. These people sell interesting stuff, including a router with completely open-source firmware. I may get back to them at some point.

There were a couple of closing items today (Sunday), but I didn’t go back for them. It was an enjoyable conference and I’m looking forward to the next one.

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Nathaniel Branden

Nathaniel Branden died on December 3, at the age of 84. Whatever the mistakes he made in his life, he has to be credited with bringing Objectivism to a larger audience. At the same time, his Nathaniel Branden Institute promoted the ideological conformity, the idea that almost any disagreement, even in tastes, is a sin, which has tainted the Objectivist movement ever since. Reason and unquestioning agreement are totally incompatible, as he later came to realize.

Branden’s The Psychology of Self-Esteem presented an idea which was later widely adopted, if only in name. In The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, he wrote:

Self-esteem is the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as worthy of happiness.

The “self-esteem movement” picked up part of the basic idea but turned it into something to be achieved with sheer positive thinking, rather than something that’s built up through decisions and actions. Conservatives, for their part, have often regarded self-esteem as the sin of pride.

I’ve found it valuable to remember that self-esteem builds on itself. If you’re confident in your ability, you’re motivated to take the actions that will lead to success and to keep going when it gets hard. Being successful gives you more confidence. However, we all experience strings of failures in our lives, and we need a more enduring kind of self-esteem to get through those, a sense of personal integrity and worth and a philosophical view that regards success as a possible and worthy goal. Branden wrote: “What people think, what they believe, what they tell themselves, incluences what they feel and what they do. In turn, they experience what they feel and do as having meaning for who they are.”

We’re so often told we should be “selfless,” that “there’s no I in ‘team,'” etc. People are pushed into self-doubt and self-disparagement in order to make them easy to manipulate. Branden helped to push back against this idea, to tell people that their personal worth is theirs to lay claim to and develop.

My mind is not a junkyard

Once I ran across a song called “My Mind Is Not a Junkyard.” I had high hopes for the title, but it turned out to be just a complaint about Internet porn. What I hoped for was something about treating one’s own mind with respect. Maybe I’ll write that song myself.

What reminded me of that this week was a comment in an article by Andy Ihnatko. It’s nominally about whether religious people can believe in evolution (of course they can), but the part I want to focus on here is:

The folks who subscribe to that kind of idea readily concede that it’s a matter of personal faith, not a matter of provable science, and they know that the correct answer to the demand “Prove it!” is “Why?” You only need to prove something when you’re trying to convince the rest of the world they’re wrong, or impose your personal beliefs on them. And I think most religious people are secure enough in themselves and their faith to see the vulgarity of such motives.

He’s saying proof is only for persuading others, and even then it’s vulgar. Most people don’t say so outright, but it’s common for people to think of proof as something for public discourse, not for themselves. This amounts to making second-class citizens of their own minds. They’re granting a higher level of respect to other people’s minds than to their own.

It takes courage and practice to follow one’s own judgment. For most people, it’s easier to take something they’ve heard from someone else and toss it onto the debris pile of their minds. They don’t think about how well-supported it is till someone challenges it, and even then they’re more likely to care about winning an argument than checking their own premises. Or they may not even care that much about proof, taking the bumper-sticker attitude of “God [or some other authority] said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” They’re the mental equivalent of hoarders, hanging on desperately to whatever is inside their heads.

Finding libertarian hope

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
— Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

In an exchange of correspondence with a friend, I said that there’s no short-term libertarian hope for America, since not just the government but the population is corrupt. He replied characterizing people as depraved. This wasn’t something I could agree with; it’s the Salvation Army that thinks everybody but them is “totally depraved.” It got me to thinking about the difference, and ultimately to recognizing that there is hope, even the way things are.

When I say Americans are corrupt, I don’t mean they’re horrible people; I mean they’ve they accept horrible things because they’ve been bought off. It’s more important to them to get stuff at other people’s expense or to get dubious protection against tiny risks than to keep their freedom. They’re the people who Ben Franklin said deserve neither liberty nor safety.

In other ways, though, these are mostly good people. They’re privately honest while accepting public dishonesty. They respect the rights of others in person while raping them through the ballot. They wouldn’t rob anyone with threats of force, but they ask their representatives in Washington to.

It’s a matter of what they’ve learned to consider acceptable. Rather then being considered horrible for endorsing robbery by proxy, they’re applauded for their “civic spirit.” In other cultures and times, people have accepted and applauded much worse things — slavery, tyranny, and religious persecution — while taking pride in their personal honor.

We can’t expect libertarian ideas to turn a culture around in a short time. We can hope, though, to make things better than they would have been otherwise. Then perhaps they can get better still, and perhaps at some point opportunities for major change will arise. If not, we may at least help to hold off disaster. Some people think it’s better to let the system collapse, but I wouldn’t want to live in the world that would follow the last chapter of Atlas Shrugged.

Some things have lately changed for the better. There are more legal options for domestic relationships in many places. Some serious restrictions on free speech that were called “campaign reform” have been struck down (and it’s fun to hear progressives howl in outrage). A number of restrictions designed to sustain business cartels have been struck down. Attempts to criminalize recording police activity have been resoundingly defeated. Many things have gotten worse, but the point is that libertarian efforts have helped make things better than they would have been otherwise.

Sure, we’d much rather see government carved down to its proper functions, such as putting Bush and Obama in jail, but we can only deal with the world we have. We have to look for the victories we can get, rebut fallacies, and promote better ideas. It’s not much, but the alternative is giving up.

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A sequence of gods

How plausible do I find it that God exists? Well, “God” is a poorly defined term, corresponding to many different ideas. Let me recast the question in terms of some specific hypotheses. (There’s a peculiar idea floating around that to qualify as an atheist, you have to have decided beyond all possibility of further argument or evidence that there can’t be a deity. The people who offer this definition are projecting their own faith-based mode of thinking onto others. Atheism is non-acceptance of the existence of a deity, not non-consideration of arguments for one.)

Could an intelligent being have created the universe? A cheap way out is to answer that the universe is everything that exists, so no creator can lie outside it. But let’s take “universe” to mean the space-time bubble we know about, the limits of the remnants of the Big Bang and of what the best instruments can detect. There’s no telling what lies outside it, if anything. I find the hypothesis that an intelligence created it less implausible than the one that it just popped out of a fluctuation in the vacuum state, which isn’t saying much. But it’s all a matter of idle speculation; there’s no convincing evidence for or against it.

Could this intelligence be one that knows about every detail of the universe and can intervene at will? This is much more of a stretch, but I can’t rule it out a priori.

Does this all-knowing, all-powerful intelligence care about the inhabitants of our planet, and does it purposefully allow so much suffering that can’t be attributed to anyone’s choices? That just doesn’t make sense.

Does it care about what people think of it, and does it reward and punish people eternally for their beliefs and religious practices or lack of them? That’s insane.

Did this being create everything from the planet through the human species in six days, plant consistent evidence to the contrary, drown almost the entire world’s population, kill tens of thousands of Egyptian kids on account of their Pharaoh’s policies, enact death penalties galore, and order the massacres of Jericho and Ai? There are limits even to insanity.