Idolatry and Science – chapter 3 of my book

(Shorter – 4500 words – and easier to read than the transcript!)

Chapter three – idolatry

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6)

“Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 19)

Jesus repeats and amplifies this when he says “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” (Matthew 22.37)

If this is the first and greatest commandment – so that, if we fail to keep this commandment, we fail in our duty as Christians – what does it mean? How are we to keep it? Answering those questions is the burden of this chapter.

I would like to begin an explanation by talking about an obscure rail road foreman from the nineteenth century by the name of Phineas Gage1. Gage was working in the Vermont area clearing land for the building of a new rail road when he had a rather dramatic accident – a tamping rod (used in the controlled explosions) was propelled up through his head, entering at the eye and leaving through the top of his skull. Those who were with him thought that it must have been a fatal accident, but Gage survived. That is, the physical form of Gage survived, for following the accident his personality seemed to be completely different. Whereas previously he had been sober and responsible, now he could not hold down a job and was delinquent and uncouth. He ended up being part of PT Barnum’s travelling circus, where he was exhibited – with the tamping rod – as a modern miracle.

According to a modern neuroscientist’s reconstruction, what had happened to Gage was that his capacity to exercise judgement had been destroyed. Consider what happens in a game of chess. There are a vast number of moves that are possible at any one point in the game and a competent player will immediately discount some of those moves as being ones likely to cause a defeat. Unlike with a computer, this is very rarely done on the basis of a full analysis of all the permutations that might follow (our brains are not that efficient); rather it is done on the basis of a judgement about what constitutes good and bad moves.

In the same way, in order to function in our normal, daily human lives we have to exercise judgement regularly, from when we get up in the morning, through all our daily interactions and deciding when to go to bed. Without that capacity to judge and decide we relinquish something essential. Antonio Damasio describes dealing with one patient [suffering from anasognosia#] and trying to establish a time for a next appointment. The patient deliberated for over half an hour about the various different options and only concluded the analysis when Damasio himself expressed a clear preference for one date.

The particular area of the brain that was damaged in Gage, and with the patients suffering from anasognosia, related to the ability of the brain to process information from the body, especially the viscera – in other words, our emotional reactions. Damasio writes that ‘it makes no sense to exclude emotions from our conception of the mind’. What seems to be happening in some neuroscientific circles today is a return to the classical understanding of human understandings and cognition – that our emotions are an essential part of the process, that our emotions are the means by which we evaluate information and make decisions. This truth was obscured by the Enlightenment perspective that reason and emotion are necessarily opposed, and that the path to Enlightenment lay in repressing and controlling our emotions wherever possible. (In contrast to this the great spiritual traditions have always been concerned with educating our emotions – a very different thing.)

What I am describing here can be easily shown. Compare these two statements:
a) your spouse is a teacher;
b) your spouse is an adulterer.

Most normal people would react differently to these two statements, simply because one is more ‘value laden’ than the other. In other words, we care about some things more than other things. In terms of deciding what is most important in life, our reasoning can’t give us answers on its own. We have to involve our whole bodies, our whole souls – and hence, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul”.

Now two analogies, to bring out what I am trying to describe. First, imagine a map, imagine that it represents our understanding of the world, with different areas of the map corresponding to different areas of our lives, and some areas are given more space than others – so our immediate families get more space than distant relatives and acquaintances. That might be a normal map. Now imagine that someone who is really, really interested in castles is forming their map, and on their map there is a tremendous area given over to castles. If we were able to compare maps, this map would stick out because it had so much space given over to this one element, emphasised well beyond a true proportion. In other words, their map is distorted – this person actually understands reality differently, as if they were wearing lenses that blurred their vision.

The second analogy is of a spider’s web, whereby the spider’s web is the map of an area. There was a series of experiments where spiders were fed certain substances and they saw what difference it made to the web they spun. A normal good spider’s web is fairly uniform, regular and it covers the area where the spider is trying to catch food. So that’s that’s a true spider’s web, it’s a sensible, realistic spider’s web. However, spiders that had been fed different substances all had things wrong with them. The spider fed LSD spun a disconcertingly perfect web; the one fed marijuana did not complete the web; the one fed caffeine had the worst web of all. This is a good symbol for what can go wrong when our judgement is impaired.

The point is this: we can think of our reasoning ability, our logical processing ability, as being like a blanket spread over our emotional understandings. If the emotional understandings change, then the reasons follow it, the shape of the reason will follow it. Our emotional life is the bedrock and our reason simply flows over the top. There is a wonderful book by Martha Nussbaum, an American philosopher, called “Upheavals of Thought,” where she goes through great classical literature describing how this happens. It is something which is very much a current interest of contemporary philosophy and neuroscience. But it’s not a new insight.

The philosopher David Hume once said that “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” So reason is a tool; our logic, our reason is a tool, and it rests upon our emotional constitution – and our emotional constitution is concerned with values, with what is perceived as important. Some things are perceived as more important than others, and we react differently due to those emotional differences.

Now I can explain what idolatry is. Idolatry is making something more important than it really is. Simple as that. Contemporary theologians have a phrase about “making the penultimate, ultimate”. It comes from a mid twentieth century theologian called Paul Tillich, and this was the academic insight which I grasped when I was an atheist (I am sure it was one of the major reasons why I moved away from atheism because once you realise what idolatry is, then of course you don’t want to make things more important than they really are and logically, once you have accepted that you can’t get away from the reality of God). Making something which is penultimate, ultimate, making something which is important but not the most important, into the most important thing – this is what idolatry is. It is getting our priorities wrong.

For the faithful, God is the single most important thing in life. Moreover, if God is at the centre then everything else falls into its proper place. This is not an insight restricted to Christianity, or even restricted to Judaism and Islam as well. The beginning of the Tao Te Ching says “The tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao” If it can be named or described it is not the ultimate. Anything which we can specify in words, anything that we can point to is not the ultimate. We cannot capture God. God always eludes us. Our brains cannot capture Him.

One abstract rule for this is: “God is never the member of a class.” We can think of a class of objects, a class of things which are green, a class of things which are wonderful, a class of things which exist. God is never the member of a class. So in strict terms, God does not exist. We have got a very good idea of what it means to exist: we have myriad objects within the universe as examples. However, God is not an object within the universe. God’s existence underlies everything else, but to say strictly philosophically speaking that God exists is to go beyond what we can actually say. This is very important: God is always beyond us.

A different way of putting this is to say: only the holy can see truly, it is only the saints who can see the world clearly. In so far as our hearts are set on God then we see the truth. If we don’t have our hearts set on God and God alone then our vision of the world is more or less distorted. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

What are the ways in which this idolatry can form? Monolatry is when you worship one thing, that is, give highest value to it, and that one thing then becomes the most important thing in your world and everything else has to shift around it. You might be an absolutely dedicated football fan and you have to go to every match that your team plays. You might be obsessive about a television serial and insist on watching every episode no matter what else is happening. Once you have grasped what this is you can see it everywhere. The golden calf is a wonderful image for this. For most people, it’s not as clear and you have polytheism, many gods. It might be – oh, my family has this much importance, my work has this much importance, my friendships have this much importance, my pleasures in life, this has this much importance and there is nothing beyond them. This is where most people actually live, navigating between different competing interests, muddling along, but there is nothing which integrates them. There is nothing which puts them all in their proper place and actually allows them to flourish fully, to be fully human. Another option is simply chaos. Which is the position that Phineas Gage ends up in. They are driven by the momentary impulse, it becomes a biological thing. Rather like the dogs in ‘Up’ whenever a squirrel is mentioned, the dog will just pursue whatever the impulse is. Again, there are many people who function like that.

Everyone has a hierarchy of values – the truth is that everyone worships something. It’s impossible to be human and not have a sense of some things being more important that others, everyone builds their life around something. Now it could be that they build their life around various things, like polytheism, but everyone has a sense of what’s important. This is the sense in which it is true that everyone has a religion, and some religions are not as helpful, as holy as others. To quote Bob Dylan, “You’ve gotta serve somebody.”

Where the value system is severely distorted it is often described using the language of addiction – a clear example is an heroin addict – the process of being addicted to something where the life, the wider richness of life gets drained out and all that the junkie can do is think about their next fix. They gear their life around getting the money to get their next high. That is a very good image of what idolatry is. It doesn’t have to be a physical addiction, it can be a mental addiction as well.

An important truth about idols is that idols give what they promise. If an idol is worshipped, the idol will grant the worshippers’ requests. Heroin, to take that example, does give a tremendous high – it gives what it promises – but it takes away life in exchange. That is what an idol is. Mammon, for example, the god of money or wealth (an idol which Jesus talks about which is still very prevalent in our society) – if you worship Mammon, if you structure your life around Mammon, you will gain wealth. That is a spiritual, practical law, if you worship wealth, you will become wealthy. The kick is that you will lose your life in the process. Your life will be drained away. For what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but forfeit his soul?

Jeremiah: “Everyone is senseless and without knowledge, every goldsmith is shamed by his idols, his images are flawed they have no breath in them, they are worthless, the objects of mockery and when their judgement comes, they will perish. But he who is the portion of Jacob is not like these, for he is the maker of all things including Israel the tribe of his inheritance, the Lord Almighty is His name.”

In other words, if you worship the living God you gain life, life in all its fullness. This is what Jesus came to grant us. To reveal the living God and to give us that life, life in abundance, which is His intention for us. However, if you worship any other God, you will get what those gods can provide, and they will take your life in exchange; they will destroy life. It is only the living God who grants life, that is why the first and greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.
Ludwig Wittgenstein once said: “We feel that even when all possible scientific questions have been answered the problems of life remain completely untouched.”

How is it, then, that in a culture with such a long and profound Christian history, we have forgotten about idolatry? In a word: science. Science is the predominant idol of our age. There are two ways in which science can become a idol. One is to say that scientific truth is the only truth, and that’s called positivism. This approach took shape in the nineteenth century but it is implicit in much that goes on for a hundred years before then. Positivism argues that only things which can be established by reason or by empirical proof and investigation are valid knowledge. Anything else gets kicked out. Hume, who in other ways is quite sensible, says, “If we take take in our hand any volume, of divinity or school metaphysics for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” That’s the attitude of positivism.

The other way of turning science into an idol is to say that scientific truth is the most important truth, to say that what we gain from these processes of scientific investigation, this is more important that anything else. This is actually the idolatry of fundamentalism, and it has had a pernicious effect upon Christian faith. It is not commonly understood that Biblical fundamentalism springs from the scientific revolution, because it interprets the Bible through a scientific lens. The Bible is put through a meat grinder because what you want out from the end is a scientific sausage. Particular forms of knowledge are seen as higher than others – science is seen as the most valuable – and so, in order to preserve the value of the Bible it has to be seen as the most authoritative scientific text. That is what fundamentalism is, that is how it functions.

Wittgenstein again: “People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians etc., to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them, that doesn’t occur to them.” In other words, scientific knowledge and awareness, compared to the knowledge and awareness that can come through understanding poetry or art or great fables and stories, one form of knowing is considered vastly more important than the other. In fact narrative is the most important. Our way of telling stories to each other is the means by which our emotional bedrock is formed. This is why the Old Testament says to the people of Israel that they must tell their children this story about the Lord leading them out of Egypt, why Passover is important, “why is this night greater than any other night”, and they tell the story. This is why we have the Bible as it is, because the Bible is a story. It’s not because we can extract scientific facts from it, it is because this story governs our story. That is how and why the Bible is inspired by God. This is the story of God’s actions in the world, within which we fit and that is why the Bible is the supreme text.
Romans 12 v 32: “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is, His good, pleasing and perfect will.”

This idolatry of science is something that our culture has recognised repeatedly, but the criticism has only been able to be voiced at the margins of society, amongst the poets and playwrights – those whose academic credibility is not strong. The mythology of Faust developed when the scientific revolution was taking off, and it captures the truth: Faust sells his soul to the devil in order to gain some scientific knowledge and only realises at the end that it was a bad bargain. Or the the legend of Frankenstein, or any of the myriad stories when you have got this white-coated mad scientist, “Aha, I’m going to discern the truth of the world”, and terrible consequences follow. They are all describing consequences of an idolatry, where science is given more value, more importance than it deserves, and life becomes damaged or destroyed in consequence.
In the film “The Matrix”, the heroes are kept within a machine world. They have electrodes implanted in their brain which give them the illusion of living in a real world and our hero, Neo, breaks out from this. In order to break out from it (because he realises that something is wrong) he goes to see Morpheus who is the terrorist, who the authorities are trying to correct and suppress. Neo has this conversation with Morpheus, and Morpheus says: “Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain but you feel it. You have felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

We know that there is something profoundly wrong with our world, but we have not been able to put our finger on it. What’s wrong with our world is that it is profoundly idolatrous, it is not built upon the love of the living God. Our society, the things which our society values and esteems and rewards, these are all idols. None of them in themselves are intrinsically wrong, Mammon, for example, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with material wealth, God promises the Israelites the Promised Land which is a land flowing with milk and honey – this is a vision of material wealth. But our society has elevated material wealth above God; it has been given too much importance. Now because our society has forgotten God, has turned it’s back on God, we are living in a profoundly distorted and dehumanising system, and in so far as we live and share in this society, we are sharing in that distorted life, and deep down we know that it’s wrong. Do you know what I’m talking about?

I am talking about the idolatry of science – that scientific knowledge is seen as either the only valid knowledge, or the most important knowledge. Both of those attitudes are idolatrous and destroy life. However, what we need to remember about idols is that they begin life as something good, they have simply been elevated beyond their proper importance. So what is the original goodness and holiness in science? I would say that the holiness in science rests upon setting the emotional desires of the investigator to one side. There is a Greek word apatheia – think of the word apathy, which is what that word has now come down to us as. It means being uncommitted or uninvolved emotionally – an emotional distancing. This happens in science because the scientist is pursuing the truth about the world. What they are after, what they are trying to attend to, is what the world is actually like – not what they want the world to be like. So a true scientist will put their own desires to one side, they will submit to the process of scientific method, in order to pursue the truth. This requires a discipline, a training. You have to be trained in the attitudes of science, you have to learn what I call the apathistic stance. In order to become a scientist you have to be trained in how to investigate. I remember my ‘O’ Level Physics and Chemistry, where the scientific method was spelt out: this is what you do in order to ensure that your own biases, your own emotional desires, are put to one side. There was a particular method, a process in order to investigate things.
Now this is a spiritual discipline, it is a form of holiness. It is one of the core spiritual disciplines about keeping our own emotions and desires in check. I talked earlier about ‘only the holy can see truly’, and that is the Christian expression of this spiritual truth, but there are parallels in other faiths. In Buddhism, for example, this teaching is much clearer than it is in most forms of Christianity – in Buddhism it is described as the elimination of desire, for they see desire as the root of all suffering. The Buddhist’s aim is ‘a perfect state of non-attachment’, to become completely unattached to the world and when you gain this state of being unattached to the world, you see the world clearly. (By way of a side track, Christianity is about the formation of desire, it is not about the elimination of desire.)

Let us return to the apathistic stance. Remember: emotions are cognitive. In other words we learn things about the world through our emotional reactions, and our emotional reactions can teach us. This process of apatheia, the apathistic stance, is a way of learning more about the world, of learning in particular more about the physical and natural world, because the physical and natural world doesn’t really depend upon our emotional reaction to it. Our emotional reactions do not govern the truth. As with all tools, however, we need to learn how to use them properly – and this has not happened with regard to science. This process of emotionally disengaging from what we are trying to discover in order to discern more truth, learning how to put our own desires to one side, this discipline is a tool, and we need to learn how to use the tool, how to put it into a broader framework, a broader vision. We are not here to worship the tool. That is what the idolatry of science is. When Positivism says that scientific knowledge is the only knowledge, this is worshipping the tool: it is the intellectual equivalent of walking around with a hammer chanting “this hammer’s going to save me, this hammer’s going to save me.” Once you understand it, it is obviously ridiculous behaviour. The use of a tool requires power over a tool and the ancient language which talks about how to gain power over a tool is the language of virtue (virtue simply means power). We need to change our desires, our will, and become virtuous again. We need to will towards the highest virtue: the love of God.
What the prophets teach is that God doesn’t allow idolatry to continue forever, that he will bring to an end such idolatry in wrath and fury. Our present way of life cannot continue, exponential growth within a finite environment cannot continue. This is good, for our present way of life is a terrible, terrible pestilence on creation. Our way of living – the western way of life, with its excess consumerism, all the things which it holds up to be of value – this way of life destroys life. The vision of Christian life, of full humanity, is that there is a way of life shown to us by Christ which allows us to be all that God wants us to be. However, in order to get to that Promised Land, we need to see and perceive the truth about the present way of the world, in order to reject it, in order to say this is false, this is idolatrous, this destroys life – and I choose life.

“I have set before you this day a choice, choose life that you and your descendants may live.” That is what God says through Moses to the Israelites in the desert. I think we have to hear those words today. The crisis which will break our civilisation down has begun.

18 thoughts on “Idolatry and Science – chapter 3 of my book

  1. I think you are trying to promoting subjectivity over objective science in order to promote objective value systems over subjective value systems. This is a wee bit backways.

    The conflict is as old as Christianity itself as the biggest challenges to faith came first from the Greek philosophers, then from enlightenment philosophers then from scientists. The challenge is this: Why is faith valid? And what better way to defend faith than to slander objective reason/science as oppressively stifling emotion and by claiming emotional judgements are just as rational because reasoning always has an emotional element. Then you do a sleight of hand and now claim it’s perfectly acceptable to attempt to control emotional judgements through ‘spiritual exercises’ and by making God the centre of your life: everything will magically fall into place, we all become fully human and all we have to do is to have faith in your God. Control through objective reason, bad. Control though faith, good.

    Reasons vrs emotion : Humes, Ayn Rand etc mistake was excluding all emotion from their definition of reason. This is not to say all emotional judgements, eg faith, are valid.

    Scientific positivism: We should divide science into the hard and the soft sciences. The hard sciences – physics, biology etc are solid. The soft sciences – social science, economics, psychology – were founded by the positivism movement and whose origins are mostly forgotten by their practitioners. I don’t know any actual scientists who think science is the only form of knowledge. Even Richard Dawkins doesn’t claim this. This does not free us to believe whatever we want. Our belief systems, judgement calls are arbitrary unless they are derived from firm reality. And that reality is best revealed through objective science, not magic thinking. Yes, we need to make judgements which are mostly emotional. That’s not the point. Science is a starting point and only a starting point, not the entire picture. Faith is not even a starting point. You for example started your chapter with a little bit of science which was good to see.

    The scientific method does not stifle emotion. It contains procedures and processes designed to prove or disprove a theory. Rationalism is not the same as science or positivism.

  2. For me, the question is essentially one of epistemology. Why should I care about your judgement or your subjective emotional whims or your intuition? What when your intuition contradicts my intuition? Fine, you worship a God-not-a-thing and claim the bible keeps your ‘moral compass’ straight. Why should I accept that? I intuitively think your God is not real. My
    emotional judgement says all Gods are a man made fiction created in the face of certain death and an uncaring universe. Why should you accept my judgement? Maybe I am too prideful to submit myself to God. Maybe I am in denial. Maybe I am afraid of judgement and of justice.

    How do two theologians tell who is interpreting a passage correctly and who is not? I’ve absolutely no idea. There are hundreds
    of Christian sects out there all teaching a different interpretation, from a different version of the bible; half a dozen major religions, countless philosophy belief systems and limitless new age woo-woo. How do we tell which are full of crap? The standard approach is to shop around until we find a brand that fits well then call that brand The Truth.

    We don’t need to worship the tools of science and logic understand we need a way of sorting the false claims from the true claims. Religion
    simply does not have any such means. Promoting emotional judgements and intuition over objective reason and actual evidence is not good enough because the epistemology is missing. In order to justify faith, you are trying to be subjective when we should be objective.

    Yes, the ‘how do we live our life’ wisdom is more important in general than scientific facts. No, that doesn’t excuse religion. Now you are trying to be objective when you should be subjective. This is one of my biggest complaints about religious people: They either ignore or attempt to discredit science when it casts doubt upon God not-a-thing. We are told we can’t understand Gods great plan, we don’t know how we fit into his will, that reason is prideful or oppressive. Then they turn around and lecture people on how to live their lives and what their values should be based upon absolute nothing more than book cobbled together by a political commission around 2000 years ago ! A book they can’t even agree how to read ! I just find it baffling and dangerous. This is a religious form of logical positivism : epistemic relativism.

    “This truth was obscured by the Enlightenment perspective that reason and emotion are necessarily opposed, and that the path to Enlightenment lay in repressing and controlling our emotions wherever possible.”

    What is the difference between controlling emotions and your spiritual exercises? Are we only allowed to attempt to control emotion after we accept emotional faith is actually valid grounds for believing in God?

  3. “Our present way of life cannot continue, exponential growth within a finite environment cannot continue. This is good, for our present way of life is a terrible, terrible pestilence on creation. Our way of living – the western way of life, with its excess consumerism, all the things which it holds up to be of value – this way of life destroys life.”

    Consumption is based upon marketing which aims at controlling the unconscious values of mass demographics of people.
    To control their intuition, judgement and emotional whims. The means to counteract this manipulation is not privileging emotions over objective discussion. Neither is making God not-a-thing the single most important thing in your life (prosperity theology?!) to somehow improve your emotional judgement. The correct solution is dragging this emotional manipulation out into the open and shining a
    spot light of reason upon it’s trapped corpse. Having recognized its form and influence, then and only then, can we
    fight it. This is essentially a moral struggle for virtue of the self, based upon reason against unreasonable desire. This is using our tools, not worshipping them.

  4. Sam,
    I can’t believe you are actually pushing that “science is a type of religion” bullshit.

    There is only one truth. You can brand it whatever you want, scientific, religius, whatever. God exists or he/she/it/they does not. You might claim God is beyond our understanding, great; there either is a God or there isn’t. Existing happily outside our understanding or not.
    I can’t remember the last time I read such awful nonsense about science. If you are under the impression that scienists are emotionless truth-bots then you haven’t spoken to very many scientists. Worshipping science. For fuck sake Sam. This is just so poor. It smacks of despiration to try poinon the well of objective truth seeking. Lets pretend it is inhuman somehow. Consider all of the scientists trying to cure cancer at the moment. Is that an unemotional effort. Have we obviously desided for entirely emotional reasons that curing cancer is what these scientists should be devoting their efforts to. We just know better than base any cure on our gut feelings. The scientific method is employed by scientists for one reason. It works.

    Emotion is a vital part of our thought process. Neither thought nor emotion is slave to the other, it is like saying that in water oxygen is slave to hydrogen, that hydrogen is the bedrock on which water is based. Water is oxygen and hydorgen together, neither is more watery than the other. Without either one, you can’t have water.
    What science has come to understand is that reason is a better guide to the truth than emotion. Truth, the word almost has a connotation of “you aren’t going to like this”. We often don’t like the truth, we are often disappointed by it, saddened by it. It doesn’t give a hoot. The truth is the truth is the truth. You can prattle on about your intuitions all day long and make grand presumptions about what we all know deep down. Ultimately all you are doing nothing more than sounding out your own perspective. Thats fine, of course, feel free. Don’t be so sure it is wisdom though or truth.
    If we all took our truths to be what appeals to us emotionally, we would live in a society of absolute chaos.

    You use grand sounding ideas like “destroys life” or “grants life”. Pure nonsense. What does that practically mean? Like more peotic religioous babble, you can change what it means to suit the occassion. Do you mean life after death? Something more here-and-now? Happiness?

    I find the notion of putting that God (which you don’t and can’t understand….and yet you know what he wants and what motivates him) central to a life to be about the most depressing and life-stifling thing I can think of.
    If I knew for a certainty that your God, the one described in the bible existed, I still wouldn’t worship it. I think the God of the bible is an immoral and frankly evil creation.

    The very concept of worship is sickening.

    Incidentally Sam,
    being human you cannot cognate “God” entirely free from all characteristics or forms. You nessesarily must consider the concept within parameters, otherwise you would not be able to ditinguish the idea “God”. From your own perspective, you are necessarily an idolator.

    Where was Gage’s soul Sam. Did he have one? Did it decide to change radically after his accident?
    If he went off to heaven when he died, which version of him would exist there?

    do you think that homophobia in Chritianity (declared by God) promotes life or destroys life?

  5. First off, I should have made clear that this is part of a book aimed at Christians, so some of the more fundamental issues won’t get explored (they’ll be explored in my other book – see eg here: )

    Second – I’m really grateful for feedback, even if I don’t engage with every detail in these comments! It helps do the work that I can’t get an editor to do…

    Objective/subjective – I don’t get into the epistemology in this book, and as it happens, I think that division is rather suspect. The final determinant for me is a lived out life – which is why truth is in the end a person, not a concept – ‘by their fruits you shall know them’. Those who do good things, whose lives exhibit the fruits of the spirit (love, joy, peace, gentleness, kindness, self-control etc etc) – these I think of as being close to the truth. Those that don’t, don’t.

    The way of faith, as I understand it, is about aligning our emotional judgements in such a way that those fruits are generated. This involves clarifying and purifying our emotions – our ‘hearts’ – so that, for example, we are able to forgive and pray for our enemies. It’s a hard and life-long task, but it’s the only one that I know of that gives any peace.

  6. “We know that there is something profoundly wrong with our world, but we have not been able to put our finger on it.”

    Forgot to mention that I detect the ghost of Pirsig hovering over that entire chapter!

    If we strip out the God and Idolatry talk, a lot of what you said is echoed by several other philosophers following other systems. For example modern day Stoic William B Irvine (clicky the link, you can read of opening chapter on amazon).

    They are plenty of other alternatives, some more reasonable than others. So what I’m confused over is how do we choose among them? I honestly don’t know. Do we reject them all on the grounds that the sheer diversity of views is proof enough that they all wrong? Do we accept one and dogmatically assert this one belief is the Truth? Do we pick and choose based on what works for us and admit it’s nothing more than subjective psychological preference, like choosing a brand of clothing or a taste in music? Possibly the last but some people need to believe in the Truth with a capital T.

    But the real problems come when this spills over into the political sphere.

  7. Sam, this is really pretty good – accessible would be the right word. But uhhhh, how do I get a copy?

    I would expect all the long term readers of your blog should recieve a free transcript in the least, but I really prefer hard cover.

  8. CC,
    I made up a long drawn out response, but then I realized that maybe I didn’t understand you properly. So let me ask you, when you say there is only one truth, what do you mean by that? You follow that up by saying that God either exists, or he doesn’t exist, but I guess I’m not really sure what you mean by existence.

    Here’s the deal, I understand to some extent your objections to Sam, but at the same time I don’t think they really apply to what he’s saying. First off I think both of your views of science and truth are radically different. I think the first stumbling block in the misunderstanding between the two is exactly what do you think science is, and exactly what do you think science does?

  9. T.O.,
    you said:
    “They are plenty of other alternatives, some more reasonable than others. So what I’m confused over is how do we choose among them? I honestly don’t know. Do we reject them all on the grounds that the sheer diversity of views is proof enough that they all wrong? Do we accept one and dogmatically assert this one belief is the Truth?”

    You know what, I hate to even say this because I know how it sounds. But.. This is like walking up to the all you can eat buffet line with Sam and saying, “There are plenty of alternative things to eat here. I’m confused, which should I eat? I honestly don’t know. Do I reject everything on the grounds that the sheer diversity of foods is proof that they are all crap? Or do I accept one and assert that this one is best?

    I guess what I’m really saying is, “when you’re hungry, can Sam eat for you?”

    Of course he can’t. I mean sure he can give you a science sausage, but you have to eat it.

    So here’s the thing, so long as you put up Logic and Reason as the prime idol in your life, you’ll never be able to make a choice. You’ll forever be hungry, and I think that really sums up (for me anyway) a big part of the point. Science, logic, reason, etc., are merely tools, not answers – they’re means to specific human end, not means to The end (whatever that is). Imagine the cliché’ nerd who measures the distance and air speed to the basket before shooting the ball. In the end not only does he miss the shot, but he’s ran out of time. And that’s idolizing the tool over God in a nutshell.

    This is represented quite well in the Buddhist parable, “The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap. The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare. Words exist because of meaning, once you have the meaning, you can forget about the words.” i.e. you have to learn when to put away the tool, and when to pick it up.

  10. Sam,

    I find the reasoning in this to be highly suspect, although I pretty much agree with the conclusion (don’t idolize science — or anything else). In a way, I see your treatment of reason vis-a-vis emotion to be a continuance of seeing them as contrary, even if you don’t want them to be. In my view of human nature, they are no more contrary as reason is with, say, digestion.

    Briefly, here’s how I would put it. Emotions follow beliefs. That is, they are involuntary reactions we have as things happen to us, but what they are (and how strong) depends on how those things are evaluated (subconsciously) by our beliefs. Hence, they are data that, if we are self-observant, tell us what our beliefs are — in particular, in this context, what we idolize. But the only way to change beliefs (short of personal revelation — different data) is through reason.

  11. Andrew,

    So let me ask you, when you say there is only one truth, what do you mean by that?

    I’m sure how to be more explicit on this. I’ll try an example. Lets say I have a football which is white. I define white to be the frequency of light waves (of an already known fequency) reflected from the surface of the ball. This particular frequency is being declared “White”. Assume that someone else comes along and decides that this particular frequency of light should be called “black”. Both of these positions are perfectly fine. It would be correct to say that for the people identifying the frequency as “black”, the ball is black, and for those calling the frequency “white”, it is white. Are we dealing with more than one truth?
    If we all agree that “colour” is nothing more than light frequencies then the ball is a definate colour. We are only arguing about what to call it. It will never, ever be the case that objective reality is actually diffenent dependant on your beliefs. There is only one truth. We may not know what it is, but that won’t bother objective reality in the slightest. 😛

    You follow that up by saying that God either exists, or he doesn’t exist, but I guess I’m not really sure what you mean by existence.
    I mean objective existence. That there is something that might be called “god” which exists independantly of the minds of religious people. If God is to be demoted to nothing more than a meme, then I agree whole heartedly that God exists.
    Sam can waffle and talk nonsense about God not being the member of any class all he wants. He/She/It either objectively exists or doesn’t. We can argue about the terms of this existence if we want to, though I am not sure what the point would be. It would be a bit like arguing about what eye colour martians have. It is worth noting though, that in order to fulfill the requirements of most religious traditions, particularly the abrahamic religions, God’s characterists can be at least partially understood.

    Consider this
    What the prophets teach is that God doesn’t allow idolatry to continue forever, that he will bring to an end such idolatry in wrath and fury.

    Sam wants to play both ends of the “what we know about God” spectrum
    He will claim on the one hand that we cannot know anything about God and then on the other hand start telling us what God’s characteristics are.
    For Sam’s own statement above, if true, can we not derive that God is a member of the class of all things that are furious and the class of things wrathful?
    By extention we can say that God is emotional. We can say that God punishes, and by extention that God wants people to operate in accordance with certain rules. He is a rule maker. He is capable of voilence.
    We can infer even futher that God holds himself above his own laws. There doesn’t appear to be the same stricture against murder for God as there is for humans.

    Sam changes his position on how knowable God is depending on what he wants to say. I call bullshit on that.

    On a general note, my objection to Sam’s notions of idolatry are simple. He starts with the assumption that anyone not worshipping his God must automatically be worshipping something. That idea smacks of setting up the world to match what you want to say rather than taking reality as it is.

    I have never encountered or read any scientist who worshipped science. Many have a profound respect for the power of the scientific method to uncover the truth about our world. Not at all the same thing, to my mind at least.
    By Sam’s own definition of God, that God is an idol if assigned to any class, he must, necessarily, be an idolator himself. In beautifully ironic fashion, Sam Idolizes his God. He does so in every meaning of Idolizing. So much so in fact that if you don’t worship his God you are mentally and emotionally unhealthy.

  12. To (re)use the Matrix riff; if I write (and compile and execute) a computer programme, do I exist within the running programme? Of course I exist within the whole extended system, but not within the running programme.

    Can any sense be made of the phrase “objective existence of the universe’s creator”? It just doesn’t grok for me when considering the subsystem of “the universe”.

  13. Given the following (OED) definition, I think that the elevation of other aspects of our common cultural life can be very well described as having “worthship” ascribed to them in the second sense of that definition (i.e. section 2).

    Worship, v.

    [Early ME. wur{th}-, wor{th}scipien, f. wur{th}-, wor{th}scipe WORSHIP n.]

    1. a. trans. To honour or revere as a supernatural being or power, or as a holy thing; to regard or approach with veneration; to adore with appropriate acts, rites, or ceremonies.

    b. transf. To regard with extreme respect or devotion; to ‘adore’.
    Phr. to worship the ground (one) walks or treads on.

    c. absol. To engage in worship; to perform, or take part in, the act of worship.

    2. a. trans. To honour; to regard or treat with honour or respect. Obs.

    b. To treat with signs of honour or respect; to salute, bow down to. Obs.

    c. To honour with gifts, etc. Obs.

    3. To invest with, raise to, honour or repute; to confer honour or dignity upon. Obs.

  14. CC,

    I can’t think of any sense of the word “objective” that would allow me to say that consciousness “objectively exists”. But one cannot deny the reality of consciousness. Therefore, that which one wants to include in “the real” cannot be restricted to that which “stands out” (ex-sistere). So one might say that consciousness is, in our experience, the background of all that does stand out, and as such, cannot be the member of any class, as there are no properties, characteristics, or whatnot according to which a class assignment can be made. And yet, one cannot also say that consciousness has no role in what happens (well, one can — the position that consciousness is purely epiphenomenal, that free will is an absolute illusion, etc., a position as impossible to sustain as, from the opposite side, solipsism).

    Now the preceding paragraph does not in any way demonstrate the reality of God, but it does indicate how one might think of God as real, but not “standing out”, not the member of any class. Thus, to “believe in God” can just mean to believe that that which is behind all that exists, and behind the restricted consciousness of human beings, is itself aware of that which it sustains in existence, and that in some analogical sense of the word, loves it. Philosophically (bracketing the love part), this is just a claim of idealism over materialism (or dualism), and as a metaphysical position it is consistent with all our experience, and all of our scientific knowledge. I would argue that it is also consistent with the reality of consciousness, while materialism is not, but that is an argument for another time.

    Adding the “love” part comes from revelation, either from having a mystical experience, or accepting the authenticity of someone who has. But, I hear you saying, doesn’t that put God in the class of “things that love”? Well, no, because God is not a thing that loves, but love itself — or so the theologian will claim. Well, then, isn’t love an emotion, and so a member of the class of emotions? Well, no, that is missing the analogical use of the word ‘love’ that is being used when one says “God is love”. But (I imagine you replying), that is just mystery-mongering. And to that I say, yes it is, though naturally I would object to the somewhat pejorative word ‘mongering’, and to the word ‘just’. Rather I would say that the mystery is a fact we religious people must deal with, and the only means we have if we want to talk about it are analogy and metaphor. And, of course, in the history of this talk, all too many have taken this wrong way, as of course, do most atheists.

    To sum up, if you are a materialist, then all this talk is useless mystery-mongering, but if you are an idealist, then it makes some sense. So there is no point in arguing against theism (or religion in general) by attacking particular bits of baggage that have accrued to the word ‘God’ — the better sort of theologian also does so. What you need to do is affirm materialism, which is to say, affirm something that is no more demonstrable than is idealism — though I would say is less so.

  15. Scott,
    That is all just waffle to me, to be honest.

    You can’t say that consciousness objectively exists?
    I don’t know where to start with that 🙂

    Personally I do think you are mystery-mongering as you put it. Admitting it doesn’t absolve you of it. You are conjecturing meaningless notions that don’t make any sense and pretending that it is only with a more cultured and evolved sensibility that you somehow sense God in all this mysterious wordplay. God is love. That means exactly nothing. It makes no sense. Love is love, God must be something else. Oh but how crass of me. There I go being all literal again. You don’t actually mean God is love….. you want to mean it in some sense but don’t want to actually clarify. You will then run for the cover of the ineffable nature of God.

    Personally, I think all this doublespeak is designed to allow yourself to believe what cannot be shown in any rational way. As humans have been proving since there were humans, we have an uncanny knack for not seeing the flaws in ideas that we want to believe in. The more we want to believe, the flimsier the justifications need be to sustain our belief.

    You seriously need to get over consciousness :). It is not magical or even all that mysterious. It is the result of the many components of the brain operating simultaneously. Destroy any of those components and the consciousness will change (As is Sam’s Gage example). Destroy enough of those components and the consciousness will degrade to the point of animalistic stimulus response. Keep destroying components of the consciousness machine and it will stop working. There is no more to it than that. Every experiment in neuroscience supports a materialist explanation of consciousness. None support any kind of magical or supernatural explanation.

    You assert :
    Philosophically (bracketing the love part), this is just a claim of idealism over materialism (or dualism), and as a metaphysical position it is consistent with all our experience, and all of our scientific knowledge. I would argue that it is also consistent with the reality of consciousness, while materialism is not, but that is an argument for another time.

    Aside from the fact that any made up story (The universe is founded on a base of pure sarcasm. It is behind the restricted consciousness of human beings, is itself aware of that which it sustains in existence, and that in some analogical sense of the words, makes sarcastic remarks about it) is consistent with all our experience, and all of our scientific knowledge, Occam would be horrified by that level of utterly unnecessary assumption. It is only consistent because it does not actively do anything or manifest in any way and is therefore scientifically a non-entity. Incidentally, I would disagree that our experience maps to such assumptions. In my experience the universe operates entirely as an unguided set of processes. There is no evidence at all that anything else is present or at work.

    Any experiment in neuroscience shows distinct components of our brain responsible for difference facets of what we would call “consciousness”. Personally, I have come to believe from the evidence that consciousness is nothing more than a complexity barrier. Even some animals exhibit behaviours indicative of a basic consciousness.

    Let me ask you something plainly. Do you believe in an immortal soul?

  16. Eliminative materialism, in as much as it tries to explain consciousness, also rests on unnecessary assumptions, once we dump the folk physics of the Newtonian mechanistic universe. The universe is not the closed system we once thought it was (whether seen microscopically or macroscopically), so why assume the mind is?

    “Today, on the brink of the twenty-first century, we can see that Ryle was right to dismiss the notion of the ghost in the machine–not because there is no ghost, but because there is no machine.” – Davies and Gribbon

  17. CC,

    Personally, I think all this doublespeak is designed to allow yourself to believe what cannot be shown in any rational way.

    Actually, I came to accept idealism through reason, and only because of that started to think of myself as religious. Leaving the religious aspect aside for the moment (one can be an idealist without being religious) that is the point I was trying to make. You think you are being rational in rejecting idealism, while I think I am being rational in rejecting materialism. I give my reasons for rejecting materialism (and for being religious) here, and if you also read the comments, in particular the sixth, you will find my rebuttal to your argument from mind/brain correlations. (You will, I think, also find your more general arguments represented by Ron further down.)

    So who is the more rational? Well, here is why I think I am. I know the way you think, and I know it because I once thought that way, and thought of people who were religious the same way you do (and still do for many, like fundamentalists). But I have seen no indication that you know how I think, as is shown in the line I quoted at the top. To put it another way, I have had to learn a new language game in order to think realistically about consciousness and the metaphysical and religious questions it entails, and you do not know that language game (which is why you call it nonsense and doublespeak). On the other hand, I know your language game, because I spoke it for years, but now find it inadequate.

    Now, though I am not a Christian, I can find areas of agreement (and disagreement) with Christians like Sam because we share this language game. In fact, one doesn’t need to be religious (as I define the term) to partake in it. But one does need familiarity, and the only way to gain that familiarity is by using it, and I suspect the only way to gain that familiarity is by reading mystics and theologians with respect, and not from an a priori position that because they are not materialists, they must be wrong.

    And yes, I think it likely that we, in some sense, continue to exist after death. I would not call it a “belief”, however. As an idealist, I accept it as a possibility. There is some anecdotal evidence for it, though of course, there is nothing conclusive, but as an idealist I do not reject it out of hand. For that matter, I would not call my religious opinions “belief”. Just an intellectual choice I have made, which could be wrong.

  18. Scott,

    Don’t confuse rejection of an idea or a mode of thought with lack of understanding of it.

    To put it another way, I have had to learn a new language game in order to think realistically about consciousness and the metaphysical and religious questions it entails, and you do not know that language game (which is why you call it nonsense and doublespeak)

    When a very young child who has not yet developed an understanding of the theory of mind proclaims with confidence that another child who has not seen inside a box he is holding will know what the contents are; do you have to share his view of the world to understand his view of the world?

    I beleive that it is wishful thinking that allows you to play this language game, as you call, seriously.
    You are making the rather irritating claim that I have to share your delusions before I have a right to claim they are delusions. This is an age old tactic of those wishing to endorse ideas that there is no rational reason to accept. How often do fundamentalists claim that if you only ask Jesus to come into your heart sincerely….. in other words, believe in Jesus and then you will believe in Jesus.

    And yes, I think it likely that we, in some sense, continue to exist after death. I would not call it a “belief”, however. As an idealist, I accept it as a possibility

    If you think it likely then I would categorise it as a belief. You are mixing language. I am certain it is a possibility that I will the lottery, that says nothing about how likely it is.
    You have exactly zero rational reasons to believe it likely. I am sure you have very many emotional ones to believe it.

    For that matter, I would not call my religious opinions “belief”. Just an intellectual choice I have made, which could be wrong.

    A choice between what exactly. The infinite number of possible states of existance and you happen to choose (as though it were a level playing field) God of some variety. I would categorise your choice as religious.
    Presumably, you accept that there is a possibility that we are the science experiment of an advanced alien civilization who are using us to study the evolution of society. How seriously do you take that unevidenced notion? Not very I will wager.

    I commented on the linked blog post.

    Eliminative materialism, in as much as it tries to explain consciousness, also rests on unnecessary assumptions, once we dump the folk physics of the Newtonian mechanistic universe. The universe is not the closed system we once thought it was (whether seen microscopically or macroscopically), so why assume the mind is?

    Folk physics?

    I wouldn’t be quite so fast to junk the “folk physics” in favour of what is often little more than wild speculation. Certainly advancements in physics call many of our presupposed notions about the universe into question but I have yet to encounter anything in physics, biology, chemistry or astronomy, the even in the slightest, suggests there is anything but physical matter in our heads.
    More mystery talk.

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