Monday, June 24, 2013

The Failure of Superficiality

I am convinced that most of people tend to think very superficially about the issues of life. We form our opinions about right and wrong without much genuine thought, even though we might use sophisticated words and ideas to express it. This is perhaps because we are self-deceived, thinking ourselves to be wise. It is perhaps because we are hoping that the mere expression of our thoughts will validate them.

Today’s example comes from a traveler, who claims his experiences of school and travel have convinced him to be a humanist, to believe that there is nothing supernatural. In other words, he’s an atheist, though he says he doesn’t like the word. However, another name won’t change the issue.

In the article, he has some thoughts worth thinking about, a bit more carefully than he has thought about them so far.

By way of introduction, he describes himself as from a religious background (Catholic) but claims that going to university had an effect of turning him away from that:

Science (not just physics, chemistry and biology, but even the science of human behaviour; psychology) tends to explain many things about how the world works. There are still some questions left unanswered, but religion never satisfactorily provides those answers to me, over a much more honest “We don’t know”.

This sentence alone raises a few points of question.

It is true that science tends to explain many things about how the world works. But why does science itself work? And why is there any reason to have  confidence in science? And why would that contradict the existence of the supernatural? I would suggest these are questions that must be answered.

It may be true that religion never satisfactorily provides those answers. But what if that says something about you, and not much about religion? And doesn’t the science you appeal to (which explains “many” things, but not all things), also frequently appeal to “We don’t know”? Why is it okay for science to say, “I don’t know” but not okay for religion to say, “I don’t know”?

In other words, at this point, superficial thinking as led you to accept something you have no warrant to trust, which frequently ends up at the same place you don’t like about religion (i.e., “We don’t know), which reveals a double standard. So why is the humanist way any better, particularly given all the failures of humans for millennia?

Our author further muses on the possibility that the lack of religion removes moral restraint, thus allowing one to live however he wants, particularly when traveling in places he is unlikely to return to to experience the outcome of his actions. In response to this, he says,

I don’t need a force [i.e., religion] to punish me for doing evil; empathy is all I need to make sure I don’t leave a place worse than when I got there.

This too raises questions: How does he define “worse”? What standard does he use? He later appeals to a “good moral standing” and being a “good person.” But how does he determine this, particularly in different cultures? If he appeals to some to some tribal or cultural sense of good and morality, then he has no guarantee that his own sense of evil or good has any meaning in the particular place he happens to be. Who is to say that good and evil in place X is the same as in place Y? Or that it is the same in place X today as it will be in place X tomorrow? Should you doubt the possibility, just remember race relationships both now and in times past. It is not the same everywhere now, and it is not the same today as it was yesterday. Without any overarching morality, we have no basis on which to condemn anything—past, present, or future.

Furthermore, what if good in place Y requires him to violate his own sense of moral understanding and satisfaction? After all, he has already appealed to his own sense of satisfaction as the judge of morality and truth. He is now placed in the position of possibly having to deny his own sense of truth in order to do good in light of another person. This would be truly unsatisfactory. It places one in a “no-win” situation.

Yet again, what if, in his travels, he finds that someone’s idea of “leaving the world a better place” means killing this author? Is that acceptable? Why or why not? If the task is to leave the world a better place, and that is decided according to each individual, who can argue against someone else’s idea, even if it means your own death? You have already conceded the fatal flaw—that there is no overarching sense of morality in the universe, or at least there is no reason for one, that would preserve even your own life. And so your own standard, you cannot complain if someone kills you because it leaves the world a better place.

What if, in his travels, he finds that the basic sense of good and evil is the same all over? In fact, this is what we do find, and he agrees when he says, “humans have a lot more in common than we think.” That’s not to say that all culture are identical, but that there is a basic sense of right and wrong in all cultures that is very similar. Sure it is greatly distorted sometimes, but it exists. How do we explain this commonness in all cultures in all times? The answer is actually easy: The image of God in man which mediates a common grace to all cultures. But if you deny the supernatural, you have no explanation for this commonality.

What does he do about negativity and problems? He says,

I very simply try to not think about such negative things. I don’t see the point; every moment I think about the afterlife or lack thereof is time wasted in this life.

This, again, has problems. First, how does he know something is negative if he hasn’t thought about it, or at least thought deeply about it? Perhaps further thought would remove negativity, or create additional negativity. Second, will ignoring problems make them go away? Is  it really wasted time to think about the more significant things in life?

He says,

I only have one life, and I intend to use it wisely; living it, experiencing many things, meeting many wonderful people, increasing my chances of interesting things happening to me, trying to make a place a little better when I leave it, maybe inspiring a few people with this blog, and doing whatever else I can to leave a real mark in the world. That will be my “legacy”.

I would suggest that superficial reasoning has led him to adopt a position that may be true, but has no justification. He can’t explain why anyone should trust science. He can’t explain evil or morals by the value system he professes.

All of which points to a basic truth: He has denied the only thing that can explain anything, even everything, in this universe. Simply put, the existence of God (the supernatural) is the only explanation that account for the world as we know it.

Deny God and you deny any meaning. You have become a nihilist, or at least you should become one. I think this is the position of Francis Schaeffer who talked about the circle and the line of despair. The non-theists attempts to draw a circle large enough to encompass reality failed and led them to fall below the line of despair. The philosophers, and later the theologians such as Barth, Tillich, and Neibuhr, did not actually fall into pessimism, but it was only because they were nonrational.They gave up a unified theory of knowledge, and could not live in the world they created.

Once we deny the supernatural—the one true and living God—we have denied the only thing that can explain anything, even everything.

Of course the Bible prophesies this when it talks of those who suppress the truth of God in unrighteousness, deny the plain evidence of his invisible power and Godhead which is clearly seen through what has been made, and exchange the truth of God for a lie. They have professed themselves to be wise; they have become fools.

And fools find it very hard to live life in God’s created world.

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