Is it really beautiful?

One of the problems I’ve tended to have with materialism is how it seems to place into my own (subjective) mind (actually brain… and hence render them largely delusional as it relate to the universe itself). This isn’t only the case with my religious ideas, but also the ideas I have of good and evil, and even the idea of me.

How do I get there? After all, I don’t doubt that some materialists have every bit as high a moral code that they live by as I do, and even arch-materialists can work to do great things in the social sphere based on what they seem to think is a call to justice that is demanded of all of us. Heck, when Christopher Hitchens subtitles his book “How Religion Poisons Everything”, I think he is claiming that religion is, objectively and independent of subjective opinions on the matter, a bad thing.

The problem is, ironically, best exemplified by the use of Occam’s razor in materialism to deny the supernatural. Occam’s razor (which nicely trims Plato’s beard) is the principle that, all things being equal, the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is most likely the correct one. The result is that since science is more than capable of coming up with material explanations for most things, that it is rational to assume that science will come up with material explanations for all things.

What then of ideas and concepts that do not seem to be solely material, such as the existence of subjects other than me, or transcendent morality, aesthetics, or even the idea of “me”? Materialism would claim that all of these are simply the result of material processes in the brain reacting to external stimuli. ie. whatever these things are, they exist only in brains, and any seeming transcendence is simply the commonality of human experience.

This means that a painting is not itself beautiful, but instead makes me feel good (whatever “me” is). It means that torture is not independently wrong, but simply something that I find abhorrent. It also means that my most directly experienced object, since it cannot be materially experienced (namely the “I”), is simply something “I” mistake for a person when in fact it is noting more than the collocation of atoms. (at this point, if “you’re” following me, you might be giggling, as “I” am…”I”‘m guessing most people rightly find this silly).

In any case, not taking it all the way, and assuming “I” exist, which is a properly basic idea if ever there was one. The

materialist conception seems to eliminate transcendent morality and beauty because those concepts exist only in human brains.

and were human minds to cease to be, so would those concepts. The result is that nothing is evil in itself, and nothing is in itself beautiful. There is no contrast in reality between the beautiful and the ugly (just personal psychology) or between the good and the evil (just personal taste).

Thus we come to a statement someone recently used on me to try to claim the rationality of his belief structure:

“Can’t we just say the garden is beautiful, without attributing faeries to it?”

He apparently wanted to mean that there was no need to credit a ground to the beauty of the garden, just the bare fact of it. But my response is that he has already appealed to “faeries” in claiming that beauty is a proper descriptor of the garden rather than simply his experiences of the garden. That I choose to think about that ground, and indeed have a name for it (God), has already been assumed in the statement.

Of course, no one needs to take my route. Maybe morality, beauty, subjectivity (and if you think about it, logic, mathematics, reason and even knowledge itself) really are just modes of human thought that are not true of the universe itself, but only categories we humans find useful. Maybe Occam’s razor really should be used as a law of reason, rather

than simply a priciple. Humanity has had large groups already in that camp (many forms of Zen Budddhism for example).

Such a route seems unlikely to further science or society, however, since the simplest explanation of the universe is still (as it was in first year philosophy) solipsism. In this case Occam’s razor seems to be instead a guillotine.

In the end, I think that our experiences should only be attributed wholly to delusion with evidence that it is, in fact, delusional.

It is for that reason that I would say that Handel’s “Messiah” really is beautiful, that evil really is fundamentally wrong, that reason really talks about the universe and not simply the categories of data that enters my sense receptors, and that there is real good in the world (not just things that are good on opinion).

Humility and the Triumph of (Over)Confidence

So this morning I again ran into the issue of fan death in Korea through a facebook comment, and I had a chance to reflect on my experience…

A quick explanation: Fan death is the belief that if a person on a hot day closes off their room and falls asleep with a fan pointed at him, there is a chance that he will die.

Sounds kinda strange, especially coming from a country with an extremely high level of scientific education. There is no shortage of people who think this is a very stupid belief, and to be honest, I used to be one of them. But then, I actually got past my immediate dismissiveness and looked into it a bit. Now, I’m still not sure I’m fully convinced of the need for timers on fans (which are standard in Korea), but I do have to agree with some climatologists and the American EPA (see appendix B)  that there is at least something to this.

So what happened here? Why was I so convinced that people who believed something that was easily checkable were wrong simply because their belief did not fit into my preconceived ideas. I had forgotten the fact that it is best to not just know THAT something is incorrect, but do the work of finding out why it is incorrect. I think this is one of the reasons

behind the Biblical statement that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”. (Ps 111:10, Pr 1:7; 9:10) That is to say, you will be strikingly unable to learn if you believe yourself to be the apex of knowledge and truth (thus have no fear of God).

I think this is common in society at large as well. Reading opinion pieces in the world’s newspapers, you will often find them full of confident assertions (some true, some less so) with little basis in either argumentation or reference to some place where I can go check myself. It seems to be part of almost all debates (climate change, capitalism/socialism, religion, politics, and on and on).

The upshot is that I wonder if the dominant culture has trained people to be so confident of their own beliefs, that very few people are even listening to opposing positions anymore, and even fewer are learning anything.

Online Reading, January 23, 2008

Economics: Given the Roller-Coaster that is the present Canadian Stock Market, I’m sometimes thankful I’m too poor to have investments. The stress might kill me.

Euthanasia: Isn’t it nice we have human rights boards so that people who decide that they can alleviate the suffering of their children by murdering them, can get help in seeking parole?

Alternative Religion: Not too happy with Christianity? Become a Jedi!

Offense: An older article, but another thing we can thank Canadian Human Rights Tribunals for: court cases based on somebody feeling offended at something printed.

Online Reading (December 11, 2007)

Manners: A brilliant article by Mark Steyn on rudeness and the what it says about society.

Environment: An Australian professor believes that there should be a tax on having excess children, to better help the planet.

Canada: A young Muslim woman in Canada is murdered, and her father is in custody. There seems to have been a disagreement about her not wearing hijab to school.

Epistemology: A thumping good article on Christian worldview is posted at The Gospel Coalition.

 Anger: Okay, I know that stories in the paper aren’t to be believed at face value. But if you read this story without getting angry, you are a far more gentle person than I.