Are You a Practical Existentialist?

19 08 2010

For many years now I have spent a significant amount of time speaking to college students at campuses around the Chicagoland area. What I love about speaking with college students is they are in an environment of idea exchange and they enjoy engaging in thought provoking conversations. I often ask students where they find meaning for their lives and I often get answers in a similar vein; they usually tell me that meaning is wrapped up in what they will do with their lives or with whom they associate. That is the answer of a practical existentialist (whether they know it or not).

Some of you may be asking, what is existentialism? It is a philosophical system that has been attributed back as far as Søren Kierkegaard, a 19th century Danish philosopher. This system of belief can be boiled down in its core to the statement, existence precedes essence. The opposite view would be called essentialism and would hold that essence precedes existence. So, for the existentialist, what we do gives meaning to who we are. Our existence determines our essence. Friedrich Nietzsche was another famous existentialist as he pursued his “will to power,” his quest for the overman (sometimes referred to as the superman).

I often hear people say that they determine their own meaning; in fact, it has become a rather common mantra in our days. The question is, can we determine our own meaning and purpose? I obviously don’t think so as I believe that ultimate meaning and purpose always comes from the designer and creator. In our case, I believe that we are designed and created by God who gives us our ultimate purpose and meaning. However, what if we were merely the product of some blind process of natural selection. I say blind (which some evolutionists would dispute) as it is not guided by anything other than events which have no foresight as to what the end result will be (it is hoped it is survival). But, is survival a purpose for a person’s life? I think it can be an outcome, but as a purpose, I think it is a rather hollow one, if it is one at all.

One could always ask, is survival an end or a means to a further end? I don’t think that survival is an end, but merely a means to a greater end (child rearing, experiencing the world, etc.) Then we need to ask the same question of those, “are they ends or means to a greater end?” Let’s take child bearing and rearing. Is that an end or a means to an end? It seems that it is a means and not an end in itself Yes, we enjoy our children, but when we consider child bearing and rearing, we would then have to say that our children have that end as well, as will their children, and their children, ad infinitum. It seems to me to be a means and not an end in itself. We need to consider each of these supposed ends and question whether they are truly ends or simply means to a greater end.

A second question to ask is, what would happen if I lost that which gives life meaning and purpose, could I go on with life or would it all be over at that instance? Most people, when I ask them that question, will tell me that they would go on, which indicates to me that it is not a true purpose or source of ultimate meaning. True and ultimate meaning, when taken away, would and should mean that life is over for us – we have no purpose for living any longer. True, some people feel that at the loss of a loved one; however, even if for a little while, they continue to live and survive. I believe that if that source of ultimate meaning ceased to exist, then we would cease to exist. If we continue to exist after that thing ceases, then it means that we had some other hidden purpose that kept us going.

The Apostle Paul said it well, “If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor. 15:32) But, as he said earlier in that chapter, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (15:20) Paul concludes this chapter by writing, “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (15:57-58) Our labor is not in vain because God has created us for a purpose and with a mission, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) Jesus said that on these depend all of the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 22:40).

Our purpose, as defined by our Creator, is to love him and to love our neighbor. These are ends in themselves rather than means to a greater end. Sure, loving God and our neighbors can produce benefits; however, that is not why we are to love them, we are to love them because that is the purpose for which we were designed and created and we are fulfilling that ultimate purpose. God is relational and he created us to be in that relationship with him and with others whom he has created. That is our purpose and that is what gives us ultimate meaning. So, are you an essentialist, who believes that God defines our meaning, or an existentialist, who believes that we define our own meaning through what we do? Something to think about…

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36 responses

22 08 2010
hollyordway

That’s a very good point about the distinction between essentialism and existentialism.

I wonder, though, how many practical existentialists there really are, in today’s culture? It seems that more and more our culture is trending toward the denial of meaning and a rejection of purpose, in practical terms at least. Consumerism and the current sexual culture both seem to point toward pervasive hedonism rather than a search for meaning.

I think Frankl’s book is really very important, because he cuts against the grain of hedonism. In Man’s Search for Meaning, he holds “meaning” to be the highest good, rather than happiness. In a particularly relevant passage, he argues that one can never obtain happiness by searching for it, or trying to get it. Happiness can only occur as a byproduct of working toward a larger goal.

This really challenges the pleasure-seeking and happiness-seeking mentality that I see around me, what I think Schaeffer calls the quest for “personal peace and affluence.” In that sense, the Gospel would have a much better chance of being heard if more people were existentialists of Frankl’s vein — among other things, because he is very clear on intrinsic human dignity, and on meaning being possible to find even in utmost degradation and deprivation.

The question to ask, I think, of existentialists like Frankl is: WHY do we seek meaning? Why is it so necessary for our flourishing, or even our survival, to have transcendental meaning? The answer to that question can only point outside the self.

22 08 2010
veritasnetwork

Heidi,
I haven’t finished reading Frankl’s book yet, so I can’t comment on his portrayal of existentialism. However, I do believe that the number of practical existentialists in our culture is quite high as people seek meaning from what they do rather than who they essentially are. I think that for many, this pursuit starts innocently enough as our culture screams, “you are what you do!” I mean, how often is the first question we ask of a new acquaintance, “so, what do you do?” We then go on to make judgments, whether subconsciously or consciously, about that person based upon his or her response. How many are suffering depression these days because they lack a job and an identity that comes with that job? (I don’t mean those who are depressed due to the inability to support themselves)

So, what about the hedonists in our society? I think that many of them are seeking meaning from what they do as well. However, given the means and the opportunity, I think that that pursuit can quickly spiral out of control. Think of people like Lindsay Lohan, Brittany Spears and others who have both the money and the opportunity to pursue their desires without many constraints – I don’t think it was much different from the author of Ecclesiastes who said “And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.” (Ecc. 2:10) He eventually realized that this pursuit was like striving after the wind – one never catches the wind, nor does one find meaning if fleeting pleasures.

As I mentioned, I often ask people where they find meaning and it is usually in fleeting things, or even, fleeting pleasures. The problem is that these things are fleeting, yet the person continues to live after they have lost their appeal or go away completely. This is why I point them to heaven to find their meaning and fulfillment in God through Jesus Christ as he is eternal and the only true hope of real, lasting meaning. It is joy that we seek, and not just passing happiness. As Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

Thanks again for the thoughtful comments.

27 06 2014
Randy Zeitman

Hi Holly,

I offered another answer far below but I’d like to offer the thought that, strictly speaking, practical existentialist seems to be a contradiction since practical means (conventional) value and existential is about non-conventional value (self-value).

But practically speaking its not because it’s one or the other … you’re either gauging value through external convention or internal existence. We switch, it’s never both. How can one hold more than one thought at time?… we can’t … we switch, fast.

“Why do we seek meaning?”

Well this is the same as asking why there is existence. It’s not a fair question … it’s self-defining. What color is green? Well there’s no need to ask … green defines green… it’s a core definition.

Why do we seek meaning? … because meaning means ‘to give value’ so the very nature of discussing ‘meaning’, means, to seek (or distinguish is you’re a thesaurus).

(Else you’d be talking about green without any reference to a color.)

“Happiness can only occur as a byproduct of working toward a larger goal.”

I don’t know… can you be happy right now by being grateful. Try it. If you sincerely give it a fair try and ‘be’ grateful (100%, not acting), then you’ll see that happiness is a short fallout away.

24 03 2012
daniel nour

How important is purity to your existance? Especially “holy thinking”, that is, clean-mindedness in the Christian sense?

24 03 2012
Paul Rupple

Daniel,

We are called by the Christian Scriptures to be “an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12). Paul also writes that we should, “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). Do we ever achieve this completely in this life? No, not completely. However, we are called to continually strive toward purity and holiness.

26 09 2012
Hywel

I loved this article. It reminds me of something a friend said, she was an atheist working at a Christian service organization. She had to keep her identity a secret because the organization wouldn’t hire non-Christians and required their employees to sign a form saying they did good in the name of Christ.

During the workday she would find fellowship with her coworkers and find some meaning by helping oppressed populations, but she said it made her so sad that on the deeper question of “Outside of making the world a better place with less intense suffering in it, what’s the point?” they all had an answer – God – and she didn’t.

It can be very lonely being an atheist! Not only do you not have the eternal comfort and love of an endless god, but you also feel alienated from a large portion of your fellow human beings who already have an answer to the big questions that doesn’t comfort you or provide you with any consolation.

26 09 2012
Paul Rupple

Hywel,

Thanks for your frank and honest reply. I would say that the atheist, practical or otherwise, does not lack the love of God, but may not recognize the love of God. If God exists, and I believe he does, and he is who the Bible says he is, and I believe he is, then he is loving toward us whether we recognize him or not. With that said, he will not force a relationship between he and us, so if we choose to reject him, he will accept that. That rejection carries consequences of the person being accountable for his or her own condition, but it is a condition that has a solution and a door that is always open during this lifetime. I’m saddened to hear of people living in secret, fear, or rejection, that was not the purpose for which we were created.

Paul

27 09 2012
Hywel

I forget the exact wording, but there’s a C S Lewis quote I heard in a debate once which really touched me, “If I discover within myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, then perhaps the best explanation is that I was made for another world.” (sometimes it seems a bit too death-culty/life-hating, but other times it pricks my imagination with ideas of a loving-eternal rather than a cold-empty-eternal!)

I suppose the challenge for a Humanist would be to see people and children and life as ends in themselves, rather than as a means to any other end. For me emotion plays a large part in if this works out or not – there are days when life seems so beautiful to me that it is easy to see the most mundane existence as a perfect, blessed end in itself, and there are other days when life seems so empty and pointless that it couldn’t possibly be worth it unless there was some higher meaning. I would like to get to a solid point of view on the subject, but perhaps working out how to strike the balance is what being human is all about!

27 09 2012
Paul Rupple

I too like that quote from Lewis. I don’t think he is trying to portray a “death-cult/life-hating” attitude, but rather a, “this world is good and is pointing us to the fact taht there is something even better awaiting us.” I think of another quote from Lewis’ book The Weight of Glory, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” This is not to say that drink, sex, and ambition are bad in and of themselves, but that they are not the ultimate fulfillment of what is intended for us.

Your struggle reminds me of an ongoing conversation I’ve had for many years with another friend of mine who is also a graduate of NCC (he studied philosophy under Dr. Lehe, who attended the last two sessions of the science/faith discussion last spring). My friend and I were part of a book discussion group and reading a book entitled, Human Natures, by Paul Ehrlich, a Stanford professor of biology and the person who predicted a population explosion in the 80s. The book was a detailed discussion of evolutionary theory and though my friend was a committed evolutionist, he began to be troubled as he read this book (and it really wasn’t the book, but the implications of macroevolution that began to trouble him). He said after we had read a few chapters, “If this is true, then I don’t see how we come out with telos (purpose).” I told him that it was a good concern and one worth continuing to think through as we read on. My friend is working on his masters in philosophy and still wrestling with the question.

I suggested to him that he read the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. This is a book written, it is believed, by King Solomon. The author describes his wealth, possessions, relationships, and wrote, “whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.” However, after describing all of this he concluded, “I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun “ (all from chapter 2). He wrote in the next chapter, “he has put eternity into man’s heart” (chapter 3).

Augustine, after his own pursuit of pleasure and meaning concluded, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Jesus of Nazareth explained why he had to come into the world, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10).

I think that your instincts are right in both directions. We do see glimpses of the beauty of the world and the way that it was intended to be. We also see the effects of our fallen natures in this world which can leave us in despair. I think that Lewis, Solomon, and Augustine were all suggesting the same thing that you are experiencing. We see a world of beauty that promises us much fulfillment, but never seems to fully deliver what we are looking for leaving us restless. We can, like Solomon (assuming we have his vast resources) test all the various roads to fulfillment, however, none will deliver more than temporal pleasure. However, something greater is promised to us than mud pies, our minds and the spiritual aspect of who we are point us to that conclusion. Jesus came to restore what man had broken and to return to us what we had lost. I would love to talk to you further about my journey to these discoveries.

27 09 2012
Hywel

The only thing I don’t get about your friend who read Human Natures is when he says, ““If this is true, then I don’t see how we come out with telos (purpose).” Surely if Christianity is true then when we study human beings in a materialistic way they should appear lacking in purpose, meaning we have to turn to spirituality, or a supernatural dimension to find teleos. If evolution revealed human nature complete with purpose written in the genes then we wouldn’t need to turn to Christianity for purpose. The theory of evolution, depending on how you interpret the evidence, seems to me to rather depressingly reveal “all is vanity and a striving after wind”, and that we can’t look to our genes or the natural world for purpose but must construct it ourselves (if we’re Humanists) or find it in the supernatural (if we’re theists.) Both leaps of faith, I think.

Like William Lane Craig says, just because Hitchens points out that natural history is incredibly cruel and depressing, that doesn’t prove that there isn’t an all-powerfull all-loving God and that all this waste and suffering isn’t part of his divine plan.

Do you think he would agree? Or am I misinterpreting his thoughts?

27 09 2012
Paul Rupple

Hmm, those are interesting thoughts. If I understand my friend’s view correctly, he would say that if all we are is the result of physical processes, meaning that we are only physical beings, then telos does not exist. I think that at one time he would have agreed with you that a person can define his or her own meaning, but that was when he held an existentialist view of the world, I don’t think he holds that any longer and probably didn’t when we were in this discussion.

As for the supernatural being a leap of faith, I guess you would have to define what you mean by your use of that term. Some people attach or imply the term “blind” before this term and I don’t see faith that way, at least not the faith to which I ascribe. I do know that some people take an irrational leap of faith, however, even Kierkegaard, to whom this phrase is often associated, didn’t take an irrational leap of faith as many believe. He believed that God was the only truly rational “system” (being) that existed and that we, his creatures, can never be completely rational. In other words, Kierkegaard himself was a rationalist of sorts. Although we cannot know God exhaustively, we can know him meaningfully. I believe he has revealed truth about himself to us and given us the rational capacity to understand and relate that truth to him.

As for William Lane Craig, I don’t know that he would necessarily classify waste to God’s economy. We may see aspects of the world as waste, e.g., what appears to us as gratuitous evil, however, it may only appear to us as gratuitous evil because we don’t have a full perspective and understanding of reality. So, though we cannot understand God or our world exhaustively, as I said earlier, does not, I think, mean that we cannot understand God and our world meaningfully. I think that is one of the conclusions to which Viktor Frankl came when as he sorted through his past experiences and counselled the many people that he did throughout his life and as he wrote his book.

28 09 2012
Hywel

I think the problem is that I don’t understand what “telos” means exactly when he says “if all we are is the result of physical processes, meaning that we are only physical beings, then telos does not exist.” “Teleos” is “purpose” right? So is he saying 1) the fact that many humans live purposeful lives means that evolution (with it’s lack of purpose) can’t be true? Or 2) is he worrying that if evolution is true, there is no innate purpose to the universe that will be provided for him?

29 09 2012
Paul Rupple

I thinkt there is a difference between the subjective feeling or belief that I am living a purposeful life and the objective existence of purpose in the universe. A person can feel the subjective experience of living a purposeful life by helping the poor like Mother Teresa did, or by flying a jet liner filled with people into a building filled with people as the 9/11 terrorists did. In both cases what the people did seemed to be driven by their subjective life’s purpose and if that that is what determines meaning for our lives, we are not in a position to say that one was better or worse than the other; the were merely different means to the same end – the pursuit of purpose or meaning. However, if purpose is objective and discovered rather than determined by each individual, we can measure what each did against that standard and determine whether one was a better expression of our telos than the other.

If I determine my own meaning as the existentialists believed, than what I do determines who I am. If telos is external and objective, than who I am should direct what I do. So, it seems that either we determine our own meaning and purpose and there is no difference between one person’s expression versus another’s or meaning and purpose is external to us and there is a meaningful difference to those expressions.

29 09 2012
Hywel

“In both cases what the people did seemed to be driven by their subjective life’s purpose and if that that is what determines meaning for our lives, we are not in a position to say that one was better or worse than the other.”

What is the alternative to subjectively determining our purpose? How can any of us claim to know what our objective purpose should be?

30 09 2012
Paul Rupple

Those are good questions. Really, there are two questions at the root. First, does objective meaning exist? That is a metaphysical question. Second, if metaphysical objective meaning exists, how can we know what it is? That is an epistimelogical question. I think that if the answer to the first question is no, then the answer to the second question is irrelevant. We may pursue ideas that we feel give us meaning, but again, I don’t see how the 9/11 attackers meaning is any better or worse than the person who devotes his or her whole life to serving the poor.

If objective meaning exists, it has to be discovered, it cannot be determined. We can discover that meaning in a number of different ways. First, there is revelation, which can take different forms. We can receive direct revelation from a divine source. We can receive indirect revelation through external sources like commonly shared experiences, morality, conscience, and other sources. The indirect sources are a bit harder to read and understand and we must take greater care with them, but I think we all have experiences that would point us in a direction.

For example, there are moral tenets that are commonly agreed upon across cultures and those would be indicators that there is such a thing as objective morality. If there is such a thing as objective morality, it would also point to an objective purpose or meaning for our lives. If the opposite were the case, that objective meaning or purpose didn’t exist, it would also be difficult to give a basis for objective morlaity. If there is no meaning or purpose for our lives, then it would seem difficult to say that there is an objectively wrong way to treat humans. This is probably the best indirect source that I can see that points us to the existence of objective meaning and purpose.

1 10 2012
Hywel

Both the 9/11 terrorists and Mother Theresa would claim to have had direct and indirect revelation of objective truth, so even if objective morality exists (we take the metaphysical question as answered) then how do we know which one was really objective truth (the epistemological question)? Don’t we still have to resort to the subjective process of reasoning about the well-being of sentient creatures to decide which one we feel/think is moral and which one isn’t, and then call that “objective”?

I feel like the idea of revelation of objective morality is senseless, because if there is objective morality we have to subjectively reason for ourselves about what is good and bad, and if there isn’t objective morality we have to subjectively reason for ourselves about what is good and bad.

1 10 2012
Hywel

Often when atheists say they think morality must be subjectively decided by human beings, some Christians say “Aha! That’s moral relativism! You can’t prove burning people to death is anything more than just your opinion!”

But they don’t admit that they are in the same position – the popes, the priests, the rabbis and the average believers decide for themselves what they think is “objectively” true, and who’s to say one person’s “objective” truth is better than another person’s “objective” truth?

When a Christian says, “With Christianity I can say burning people to death is objectively wrong because [such and such revelation of objective truth about not burning people]” an atheist could say, “Aha! That’s moral relativism! You can’t prove the wrongness of burning people to death is anything more than just your opinion of objective truth!”

It’s that “just your opinion” that seems to be placed on the atheist but not on the Christian. Whereas I think the problem for the human family is that it has to be placed on both – we’ve only got our moral opinions, feelings, ethical philosophy and debate.

4 10 2012
Paul Rupple

The question is, when two people claim to have objective truth and they contradict each other, does that negate the existence of objective truth or simply indicate that one or both may be wrong? If the latter, does that indicate that objective truth cannot be discovered and tested?

I think that objective truth exists, including moral truth, to deny the existence of objective truth seems to be self-defeating. To deny the existence of objective moral values and duties would be to claim that there is no real moral difference between loving your neighbor and killing your neighbor. There would be no real difference between the 9/11 terrorists and Mother Teresa. Does that mean that people can be deluded or mistaken about their beliefs? Sure, that happens even in fields like science where there are differences in how data should be read and interpreted. Yet, differences in understanding in either area doesn’t negate the existence of objective truth or even the ability to discern objective truth from error.

Yes, we live in an age where moral attitudes and beliefs are changing, however, that doesn’t mean the the morals themselves are changing. The passing of time doesn’t change truth.

You say that the idea of revelation is senseless because we still have to subjectively reason to what that morality is and you say the same is the case if objective moral value doesn’t exist. While there is personal reasoning involved in understanding any truth, that doesn’t mean that the truth itself is subjective.

I have to use logical reasoning to conclude that A cannot also be non-A in the same way and in the same sense (logical law of noncontradiction); however, it doesn’t mean that my conclusion is subjective in nature. That is to confuse two senses of the word subjective. It is subjective in the sense that a subject used his/her reasoning to arrive at the conclusion, but not subjective in the sense that the conclusion is relative, rather than objective in nature. There is an equivocation in the term subjective occurring that needs to be accounted for in the sentence.

However, if morality doesn’t exist objectively, then morality doesn’t really exist at all. All we have left are personal or group preferences which are truly subjective in nature. In this case, truth is based upon the subject and is, by definition, subjective. When we use the term relativism

If morality exists, it, like other forms of truth can be discovered. We can first begin by tracing morality back to that which objectively grounds it. Objective morality must have an objective source. Since commands come from an intelligent source and duties find their ultimate fulfilment in a personal source, then it is reasonable to conclude that this objective and personal source is discoverable and has communicated with us.

If you are correct in assessing that the Christian is resorting to relativism in his/her claim, then one cannot say that burning people to death is wrong. Is that what you are arguing? It seems that that is the logical conclusion of what you are saying, but I don’t think either one of us would accept that conclusion. Both of us, I believe, would say that burning people to death is wrong as are all other forms of murder. The question is whether either of us can ground that believe objectively? I believe that Christianity gives us that grounding, however, I don’t see it coming out of naturalism or materialism. If you believe you can, I would be willing to consider your argument to that end.

I do want to clarify one point you make, objective truth is not the same as opinion. I can have an opinion that corresponds with objective truth, but not an opinion that can become objectively true. Where we seem to differ is whether we can discover objective moral truths and know them to be objective moral truths. I believe we can. If we can’t, then all moral statements are nothing more than opinions and morality becomes delusory. Again, I don’t think either of us would be comfortable with that conclusion.

5 10 2012
Hywel Griffith

There’s lots to sort through here, haha! Thanks for clarifying the two definitions of subjective. I think it’d be cool to hear your definition of objective morality too, cos I think that might be adding complications to the discussion.

You spent a lot of time saying objective morality HAS to exist because otherwise there’s moral chaos. I wasn’t asking if objective morality exists or not (the ontological question), I was asking how you know your moral opinions are objective truths rather than just relative moral opinions (the epistemological question)? You haven’t explained how we get from my Humanist statement “I think burning people to death is morally wrong because it causes human suffering” to your piece of divinely-sanctioned objective truth “I KNOW burning people to death is OBJECTIVELY wrong because…”

The only answer I can see you giving to the epistemological question of how you ground your personal opinion in objectivity is “Christianity gives us that grounding.” but this doesn’t explain much to me.

You ask me to ground ethics objectively in materialism and naturalism, but the point is that I’m not trying to get to objective morality, I’m arguing for a rationally and compassionately argued human-centric morality, that is open to improvement and discussion. You say that if morality is just opinion then it is just delusory, but this doesn’t logically follow – an opinion can be well-founded, widely corroborated and almost undeniable, or it can be shakily defended and laughable. Because I don’t think there is a discoverable objective morality doesn’t mean I can’t hold the opinion that burning children to death is bad (bad in my opinion, of course, not bad by any non-human standard of objective truth.)

Perhaps we could go through a practical example to see how your moral reasoning ends up with the objectivity that my moral reasoning lacks? A practical example that demonstrates how you can go a step further than me and ground your personal moral opinions in the “objectivity” of Christianity.

EXAMPLE: If I am gay, in love, want to make love with my partner and commit myself to them through marriage how do I go about finding out if these are OBJECTIVELY moral or immoral actions?

So two questions: what is your definition of objective morality? And show me a practical example of proving your moral opinion to be objectively true with the example above (whether you believe it to be objectively permissible or objectively forbidden.)

5 10 2012
Hywel

Lot’s to sort through here haha! Could you give your definition of “objective morality” before I reply? I think that might be confusing the conversation a bit

5 10 2012
Paul Rupple

Sure, objective in this senses means that it exists independent of whether we think it does or not. It would mean that moral values and duties exist independent of us and are not dependent upon us for their existence. Objective moral values and duties also have a universality to them and are not bound by time. I hope that helps, but it may need a bit more fleshing out.

6 10 2012
Hywel

That’s great, I think the problem is that in your response to my initial question – “if objective morality exists (we take the ontological question as answered) then how do we know which one [9/11 attacks or helping the poor, is] really objective truth (the epistemological question)?” – you mostly kept answering the ontological question, saying objective morality HAS to exist or there’s moral chaos.

But my question is on the epistemological issue. How do we get from my Humanist statement, “I think burning people to death is morally wrong because it causes human suffering” to your divinely-sanctioned objective moral statement “I know burning people to death is OBJECTIVELY morally wrong because…” That’s what I don’t understand?

I completely disagree with your statement that “If we can’t [discover objective moral truths], then all moral statements are nothing more than opinions and morality becomes delusory.” Not all opinions are necessarily delusions. They just aren’t objective truths. There is a range of opinion, from unfounded to well-founded. I think it is a well-founded human opinion that causing human suffering is morally wrong.

You can’t come back and say “You can’t use words like “morally wrong” on atheism” because I can obviously say that anything that causes as much undesired human suffering as the 9/11 attacks is morally wrong based on a human-centric morality. I just can’t say “It is an objective fact, independent of human minds, that the 9/11 attacks were objectively morally wrong.” (You can’t redefine the words “right” and “wrong” to mean “objectively right” and “objectively wrong” so that you can say to atheists “Well how can you say ANYTHING is right or wrong on atheism?” I think William Lane Craig has a right to do so with Sam Harris, because Sam Harris was defending the idea of objective morality, but it would be a slippery dishonest tactic to use in talking to me, because I’m not claiming objective moral truth, just a faith in human-made values.)

So the epistemological question still stands unanswered. How do you decide which of your personal moral opinions are also objective truth? The only answer you gave to my question I can see is that “Christianity gives us that grounding.” But there are competing interpretations of Christian ethics so we’re back to human opinion (again I’m not saying there isn’t objective truth, just that if Christianity is subject to multiple interpretations, we’re still relying on human discernment of moral truth, one person’s word against another.)

Perhaps we can go through a practical example to see how you can go from making a statement of moral opinion (like I can) and onto making a statement of objective universal moral truth (like you claim you can with Christianity.)

1. I am gay, I love my partner, I want to make love to him and marry him. What are the practical steps I can go through to make sure my moral opinions and conclusions on whether I should do any of the above are in line with the objective moral truths of the universe?

6 10 2012
Paul Rupple

I don’t think that I argued that objective moral values HAVE to exist, but that we intuitively know that they do exist. In other words, though some people might argue that morals are relative or subjective, there is no one who lives consistently, nor could live consistently to that belief. No, I think that we both understand that objective moral values exist and you seem to indicate that in your next paragraph in pointing to the moral wrongness of burning people alive and causing unnecessary human suffering. I would agree that this is objectively wrong (for that seems to be what you are arguing). The questions are, on what basis is this behavior objectively wrong and how do we know that it is wrong?

I think the only possible answer to the first question is that it is grounded in the fact that objective moral values and duties are grounded in God’s nature and revealed by him to us via his direct revelation, our consciences, and via the reasoning ability that he has given to us (for I cannot ground reasoning abilities apart from God either, but that is another discussion for another thread).

However, you ask how I distinguish the humanist belief that burning people alive is wrong to the divine revelation that burning people alive is wrong. I would start by saying that I see no objective grounding for the humanist statement and that for that reason, apart from God’s existence and revealed truth, I see no reason to conclude that the humanist statement could be true in an objective sense. On the other hand, if moral values and duties are grounded in God’s eternal nature, they can be objectively grounded. So the only remaining question is whether I’ve understood God’s revealed moral will correctly. To that I would say that we have the record of God’s revelation in both the Old and New Testaments and through Jesus’ life and teaching. We also have the confirmation of our consciences and our reasoning.

Regarding my statement about moral statements being delusory apart from God’s existence, you reply that not all opinions are necessarily delusory, however, I wasn’t speaking about all opinions, I was speaking specifically of moral opinions apart from an objective grounding. I see no reason why this would not be the case if there is no objective grounding for morality. People would simply be expressing their preferences, not real moral oughts. This would apply to your view of 9/11. If objective moral values don’t exist, I see no reason why you are doing anything more than expressing your preference and the preference of those who agree with you. Maybe you could explain why this wouldn’t be the case.

Regarding the issue of competing interpretations of Christian ethics, I would say that we use the same tools available to us to discern between any other competing views of a system of beliefs. The fact that we have competing views in no way means that all views are equally valid or equally well supported. We have competing views on scientific theories like evolution or global warming, however, it doesn’t mean that the competing views mean that we cannot discern the truth of the matter or that each is equally valid. The same is the case whether it is competing religious views or competing views within a system like Christianity. We have the Scriptures against which we can test the competing claims and we can make valid arguments for one view over another to arrive at the truth of the matter.

This message is getting long so I will answer the last question in your post in the following reply.

7 10 2012
Hywel Griffith

Before I read the rest of your response you’ve missed (or ignored) everything I said in your first paragraph! You said: “we both understand that objective moral values exist and you seem to indicate that in your next paragraph in pointing to the moral wrongness of burning people alive and causing unnecessary human suffering. I would agree that this is objectively wrong (for that seems to be what you are arguing). The questions are, on what basis is this behavior objectively wrong and how do we know that it is wrong?”

I clearly didn’t make a case for the objectivity of my moral statement, you completely ignored and rephrased my argument, I’ll copy and paste it and see if you’ll address it again. “I can obviously say that anything that causes as much undesired human suffering as the 9/11 attacks is morally wrong based on a human-centric morality. I just can’t say “It is an objective fact, independent of human minds, that the 9/11 attacks were objectively morally wrong.” (You can’t redefine the words “right” and “wrong” to mean “objectively right” and “objectively wrong” so that you can say to atheists “Well how can you say ANYTHING is right or wrong on atheism?” I think William Lane Craig has a right to do so with Sam Harris, because Sam Harris was defending the idea of objective morality, but it would be a slippery dishonest tactic to use in talking to me, because I’m not claiming objective moral truth, just a faith in human-made values.)” I’ll add here: faith in human-made values that may change with time due to the changing nature of human existence.

I’m really not sure how to debate this subject if you won’t address my points, but instead blatantly and drastically change my position and respond to that instead.

6 10 2012
Paul Rupple

In regard to your question about homosexuality, we can apply a couple of principles to it. First, we must look at whether we were created with a purpose or not. If not, we can do as we please, as there are no restrictions as to how or what we do with our bodies or the bodies of others. If we were created with a purpose, we must examine what that purpose is and whether a particular behavior is in line or out of line with that particular purpose.

Second, we can look at the particular behavior, in this case, it is sexual behavior, and ask what is its purpose and function. If the particular way that I am exhibiting that sexual behavior is in line with the function and purpose for which it and I was created, then I am in line with the intention of the creator. If not, then I am out of line.

So, what does the Bible tell us is the purpose of man? Well first, it tells us that man was created in God’s image to be rulers over the earth (Gen. 1:26-27). God also made woman out of man to be joined in a one flesh relationship with him (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:5-6; Mark 10:8;Eph. 5:31). So, apart from God, the closest relationship that man will and can ever have is with his wife and vice versa for the wife. In fact, this was why marriage was ordained so that this relationship would not be diluted. This is also the reason why we are told not to join ourselves to prostitutes (1 Cor. 16:6) or any other sexual relationships outside of marriage.

This would include, and especially so, same sex sexual engagement. In essence, God calls this an abomination (Lev. 18:22; Lev. 20:13; 1 Kings 14:24) and wicked (Judges 19:16-24), and brought about the second worst judgment in the Bible other than the flood because of it (Gen. 19:1-11). It is also condemned in the New Testament (Rom. 1:18-32; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; 1 Tim. 1:8-10; and Jude 7).

The question is, why? I think that this can be answered in a couple of ways. First, as I mentioned, marriage was to be a reflection of God’s relationship with the church (those who trust and follow him). The church was seen as the bride and Jesus the groom (Eph. 5:25-27; 2 Cor. 11:2; Rev. 19:7-9; 21:2,10) so the picture of marriage was intended to reveal a greater truth. Homosexuality is a corruption of that picture and a rebellion against the truth that it reveals. Second, homosexuality and cult prostitution were common practices among those involved in pagan cult rituals. Those who worshiped the pagan Baals were involved in this type of practice, along with child sacrifice and many other practices that God considered abominations.

The bottom line is that these were practices that were acts of rebellion against God and his rule and authority in our lives. They were considered no different than any other type of sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, people who practiced slavery, liars, or perjurers (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10). In short, these practices are considered by God to be contrary to the purpose for which he created us and a rebellion against the image bearing to which we’ve been called.

I say all of this to say that there is a reason behind God’s abhorrence to these practices, yes, practices as there is more that he abhors than just homosexuality. I also want to say that because God abhors these practices does not mean that we as Christians can express hate toward those who engage in these practices. We are all sinners, myself included, and God hates sin because it is contrary to the purpose for which we’ve been created and therefore, ultimately harmful to us.

God wants the best for us which is why when we were still rebellious against him, he sent his son to die on the cross for us. Jesus willingly set aside the glory of his heavenly throne to take on human flesh, to live among us, and to die at the hands of his creation so that we could be saved from our rebellion to him. He did not have to do this, but he willingly did it.

I’m not saying that homosexuality is some super sin, it is not. In fact, as I’ve shown, it is no worse than many sins that we consider common and that many no longer consider sin, such as sexual immorality and adultery. Our society glorifies many of these sins and tries to normalize the rest. Yet, God still considers them to be rebellion against him and as the creator and ruler of the universe, he has every right to hold us guilty of insurrection. Yet, though we are guilty, Jesus came to take our punishment and to restore us to right relationship with God and to the purpose for which he created us so that we can enjoy and live according to that plan and purpose eternally.

It is not about condemning homosexuals, or adulterers, or any other sinner. We have condemned ourselves by our rebellion. What the story of redemption is about is rescuing us from our rebellion and restoring us to our ultimate purpose. I hope that makes sense.

7 10 2012
Hywel

Thankfully you made no arguments for how you know your reading of the Bible is objective truth rather than just “your preference”, (to use your label for moral opinions that human beings hold), otherwise you would be right to say that homosexual love and things like divorce are objective wrongs.

1. I’m not claiming objective morality (repeat, I am not claiming objective morality)
You don’t seem to be debating with my points, just blatantly and drastically rephrasing me, and addressing your straw man argument. In your first paragraph you say: “we both understand that objective moral values exist and you seem to indicate that in your next paragraph in pointing to the moral wrongness of burning people alive and causing unnecessary human suffering. I would agree that this is objectively wrong (for that seems to be what you are arguing).” I never said objective values exist, I said that human opinion IS all we have, even saying it is morally wrong to burn someone to death is a human moral OPINION, well-founded on the knowledge that most human beings don’t want to be burned to death because it would cause them great suffering.

You can’t keep arguing with things I haven’t said, I didn’t say I believed in objective morality. I’ll copy and paste what I did say: “I can obviously say that anything that causes as much undesired human suffering as the 9/11 attacks is morally wrong based on a human-centric morality. I just can’t say “It is an objective fact, independent of human minds, that the 9/11 attacks were objectively morally wrong.” (You can’t redefine the words “right” and “wrong” to mean “objectively right” and “objectively wrong” so that you can say to atheists “Well how can you say ANYTHING is right or wrong on atheism?” I think William Lane Craig has a right to do so with Sam Harris, because Sam Harris was defending the idea of objective morality, but it would be a slippery dishonest tactic to use in talking to me, because I’m not claiming objective moral truth, just a faith in human-made values.)”

You haven’t addressed this point, that I can say that something is morally wrong without claiming objective truth. Instead you tell me that I claim objective morality, and the explain I have no grounding for it. I’m not sure if there is any way to debate subject if you don’t hear me on this point.

2. Preferences versus oughts
I’ll address your question: “if there is no objective grounding for morality People would simply be expressing their preferences, not real moral oughts. This would apply to your view of 9/11. If objective moral values don’t exist, I see no reason why you are doing anything more than expressing your preference and the preference of those who agree with you. Maybe you could explain why this wouldn’t be the case”
This is what I’ve been saying the whole time, our moral opinions are preferences, there are well-founded preferences and ill-founded preferences and the criteria for judging well-founded and ill-founded come from our conscience, our ethical philosophies and our cultures. These things will pale in comparison to a magical divine source of eternal truth, but that doesn’t make them useless. If I try and think of the highest number I can think of without head exploding you can always say “Sorry Hywel. I just thought of a magic number that is higher than any number a human can think of, so your number is quite low in comparison.”

3. Your homophobia
I’m glad you pointed out that homosexuality is one of many “sins” God abhors, but this doesn’t absolve you from my Humanist ethical perspective of the gross and despicable moral wrong of homophobia. I would love to be able to say, “Paul, you are an objectively immoral person for being homophobic.” but I can’t. It is a moral opinion of mine. I think a more well-founded moral opinion than yours that you are not doing anything morally wrong by being homophobic.

4. Contextualizing homophobia amongst other forms of bigotry does not dilute the awfulness of holding homophobic beliefs
When you say, it’s not about condemning homosexuals because there are other sins (I find it equally offensive that you would claim my mother and father’s second marriages are a sin, having come after a divorce, deligitimizing their love) and admitting you are a sinner too, you cannot put yourself on the same level of suffering gay youths can experience by being told the love they feel is a sin. Please do not imply that you suffer the burden of being told you’re a sinner in the same way that a gay person does in this disgustingly homophobic society. If you feel you can equate your sens of guilt with the sense of guilt you would encourage in gays you are colossally ignorant to the suffering your beliefs cause in the lives of millions of people.

This is where I have the most trouble with our conversation. I learn so much about philosophy and logic, but it sometimes overwhelms that you make a plea for believing in objective morality while being such an immoral person in this one facet of your beliefs. Do you raise your children to be homophobes too? And worse still to believe that their homophobia is OBJECTIVELY morally right?

Paul!? come on? Can’t you admit that even if objective truth exists, you may not be right about your interpretation of it with regards to homosexuality? Or are you certain it is objective immoral?

7 10 2012
Paul Rupple

I’m not sure what you mean by “my reading of the Bible is objective truth.” The objective truth is in the words of God, I am either reading those words accurately and understanding them as intended by the author or I am not. To say that my reading of the Bible is objective truth is not an accurate way to speak. Again, my reading is not the objective truth, the words that I’m reading are the objective truth. Your words betray a bit of postmodern epistemological thinking. We have plenty of tools to apply when reading an ancient text to help us to understand it correctly as the author intended and those tools are applied in my reading. Therefore, my reading can reflect the understanding of the objective truth conveyed by the author.

The other alternative is that no one can understand everything and that everything is relative to the reader, but that doesn’t seem to be the case as you seem to understand my words conveyed to you accurately. So, I think that I can understand what God has conveyed through the authors of the books of the Bible accurately and know that when he says a particular practice is wrong and that objective truth is conveyed by God to us through the authors, that I have understood objective truth.

1. So, are you really claiming that burning people alive is not really wrong, but just that you don’t prefer such behavior? If that is the case, then the person doing such an act would be well justified to tell you to mind your own business and keep your opinions to yourself. Right? If it is grounded in opinion that most people don’t like to be burned to death, again, I could say, so what. Suffering is just a sensory input, it is neither good or bad given the lack of objective moral values. Sure, many people don’t prefer such strong types of sensory inputs, but, if you are right, the I don’t you can say that causing human suffering is wrong for anyone other than yourself and those who happen to agree with you. Yet, if someone didn’t agree, say the 9/11 terrorists, then they can say, “mind your own business and leave me to mine.” Yet, the reason that I think you believe in objective truth is that I think you will severely disagree and claim that what the terrorists did was wrong and that they should not engage in such behaviors. But you correct me if I’m wrong.

2. When you say, “judging well-founded and Ill-founded” you seem to imply that there is some external standard by which to measure whether preferences are good or bad. What is that external standard and on what is it based if not other preferences? Who judges whether those preferences are well-founded? We are seemingly in an infinite regress of prior preferences with no basis to really judge whether these preferences are good or bad because everything is subjective. That’s what preferences ultimately are, subject relative. I prefer coconut ice cream and don’t prefer parmesan cheese. My preferences are my preferences. There is no judging whether they are right or wrong preferences as they are my preferences.

3. The term “homophobia” is an ill-used term in our society. A phobia, according to Merriam-Webster, is “an exaggerated usually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular object, class of objects, or situation.” You have not shown that God’s view of homosexuality fits this description, let alone my views, so I think your accusation is ill-founded. You are consistent in saying that your assessment that homophobia is a “gross and despicable moral wrong” is your moral opinion, but to say that it is more well-founded still leaves it in an infinite perspectival regress that becomes meaningless. I would ask, “well founded in relation to what and on what basis?” You would have to say that it is all down to preferences as there is no grounding of those preferences to an objective standard of better or worse, they are ultimately just different preferences. Now, you could say it is a better preference for you, but that doesn’t mean anything in relation to my preferences for me or another person’s preferences for him/her.

4. Again, you seem to be indicating that homophobia and bigotry are more than just your preferred beliefs, you seem to want me to adopt them as better than my beliefs, but there is no better or worse if we are left with only relative preferences. Terms like homophobia and bigotry are no longer morally loaded terms, they are merely descriptive of behaviors that you may or may not deem to be preferable or not preferable.

I don’t know why you get offended if my preferences are different from yours. I don’t get offended when my wife or daughter eats parmesan cheese, though I can’t stand the smell of it. That is their preference. My wife is not offended when I eat food with cilantro, though she has the same reaction to it that I have to parmesan cheese. I don’t criticize her tastes for being different from mine and she doesn’t criticize my tastes for being different from hers. They are just preferences, after all.

Yet, you seem to think that you can criticize my preferences for being different from yours like yours are better than mine and I don’t see the basis on which you do that. BTW, I never said anything that would ever imply that your parents love is not legitimate, you have completely read that into my views. My wife was divorced before we married and our love is no less legitimate than a couple where neither party was ever divorced. I’m not sure how you came to that conclusion based upon what the Bible teaches. The truth is that sinners are offered forgiveness and redemption by Jesus. I too am a sinner and my wife married me despite that fact.

You have read a great deal into my post that wasn’t there. I don’t believe that anyone should be bullied or mistreated for whatever view or sin in which they participate. That is a separate issue and just as much a sin as any other. It, like many other sins, is a rebellion against God since the person is treating others as a lesser being because of behavior or views that the person holds. Now, this is not to say that the state cannot punish behavior deemed illegal, but as far as I know, homosexual practices are not treated as legal offenses unless a minor is involved. With that said, it still doesn’t change God’s view of the behavior and why God considers it and other behaviors to be contrary to the purpose and plan for which he has created humans. You have not even addressed that part of the discussion. I’m really troubled that this conversation has become so emotional. I know many homosexuals, I used to live in a neighborhood of Chicago that had a high population of homosexuals, including the ward alderwoman. My next door neighbor for those six years was openly homosexual and we were good friends.

To label a person as a homophobe and then write them off as such is, to me, extreme and unfair. It is the same thing that you seem to abhor with those who label homosexuals and then write them off as such. I really don’t understand why, if you don’t like the behavior when people do that to homosexuals, you would turn around and do the same to me? You asked for my view and must have had a good idea that I, as a Christian, would believe that the Bible contains truth and that one of the truths contained therein is that homosexual practices are considered to be sinful to God. I’m not sure why you would ask that question and then condemn me for answering it the way that you probably expected me to answer.

I don’t condemn homosexuals. I had a long conversation with one of your friends last fall who confided that she was a lesbian. I would hope that she didn’t feel condemned by us after she revealed that to us because I don’t think I did anything to convey that as it was not even in my mind to do so. I may be wrong in my understanding of the Bible, but you would have to explain how I am wrong, how I have misunderstood or misinterpreted God’s intention in these passages. If i’m wrong, I will be more than happy to change my view. But, I will have to be convinced by God’s revealed word to us as man’s opinions are constantly in flux and not a good basis for grounding moral truth.

Hywel, I’m not trying to offend you, I’m trying to have a civil exchange with you. I think we should be able to speak on these subjects without labels and name-calling. I would like to continue our conversation and see if we can’t come to some understanding. I know that this is an emotionally charged issue, but we won’t get anywhere if it resorts to emotional attacks and labels.

8 10 2012
Hywel

Of course I would never imply that you would bully or judge a gay person, I didn’t suggest that, (I specifically said “I know you would never attack or bully anyone on the basis of their sexuality”) but perpetuating the belief that homosexual relationships are abhorrent and corrupt greater truths about marriage is laying the philosophical grounds for the violence enacted upon the LGBT community, and the levels of depression and suicide reported within it. That upsets me, it upsets me that you are a part of that, even if you do have gay friends and you don’t judge gay people when you meet them.

And I’m sorry if the terms “homophobe” or “homophobic” seem like name-calling, I do stand by my opinion that it is vile to perpetuate the idea that the love-lives of gays are wicked and corrupting of a greater truth, but I think my tone may have been too harsh. I think it would be more accurate to say “your views are heterosexist” rather than “you are a homophobe.” I think that term better shows that while you do not fear or hate gay people, you do privilege heterosexual relationships morally and consider homosexual activity to be somehow morally vile, and that this has structurally devastating effects on the LGBT population. People who opposed interracial marriage may not have been afraid of people of colour, but I don’t know what else I would refer to their beliefs as other than racist. People who didn’t want to grant blacks civil rights may even have had neighbors and friends who were black that they respected, it doesn’t mean that their beliefs didn’t cause immense suffering for people in that group. What would you say to someone who was speaking racist opinions? Would you worry about offending them and being just as bad and judgmental as they are by calling them out on their racist comments and referring to them as being a racist person? And would you tell someone who got emotional around racist comments that they shouldn’t get emotional? (And do you think being racist is worse than being heterosexist? And if so why?)

And to be honest Paul if you’re going to claim the creator of the universe deems that certain people who are different to you have abhorrent loves and family lives then you’re going to have to get used to the idea that some people might find your beliefs and you yourself to be vile. I don’t think that you’re a vile person, I do think your beliefs about homosexuality are vile. I don’t think you can legitimize the damage that perpetuating the idea that homosexuality is abhorrent does by saying “but I still love you, and it’s not my place as a fellow sinner to judge you.”

I think this is an example of how religion can make an otherwise good person do bad things. I respect you as a friend, that’s why I spend so much time sharing my thoughts with you and putting a lot of my most uncertain beliefs out there for debate, and to be honest I know you don’t have to be having these conversations with me and I feel incredibly lucky that you do and that I can explore such important issues. I’ve learned more through these conversations than through my papers in my Ethics class. But I have to call something I find vile what I think it is. I know you are clearly a compassionate and considerate person from your indulgence of my boundless questioning, haha! But again, I have to be able to, as a friend, point out when I think something you believe is vile.

I didn’t bring up homosexuality to trick you, but while talking about objective moral truth and the weakness of my Humanist system of ethics I had to bring your belief that homosexuality is objectively vile into the conversation because it raises the question of trusting “objective truths” in books over the reason and emotion of human beings around you.

I hope you don’t think I flippantly or recklessly tried to attack you for no reason, but I must be honest that one thing that depresses me about the world is the human rights of the LGBT population and that heterosexual people who aren’t active allies in being part of the solution upset me, let alone people who I think are actively part of the problem. I have never learned as much about the nuance of belief and motivation of someone who is on your side of the debate as I have in this conversation, and for that I sincerely thank you.

8 10 2012
Paul Rupple

Just to let you know, this post is long, so I’m splitting it into two posts. Sorry for my blathering on.

I know that you didn’t accuse me of bullying directly, however, it was implied in your note that my beliefs could lead others to bully others. The problem is that it happens with people who are in or support the homosexual community as well against Christians. This was recently demonstrated by the appropriately named, Dan Savage, who regularly comes out in full attack mode against Christians in the name of “anti-bullying.” Even the use of the term homophobic is used to intimidate those who consider homosexual sex unnatural and immoral. You were quick to use that term against me, while not even engaging with the argument I gave to back up the God’s commands in relation to these and other sexual practices (and, you will remember that I didn’t just focus on homosexual practices, but also included other practices that God has told us don’t comport with the purpose for which he has created us.)

Another inconsistency that I’m troubled by is that you are upset with me for holding a view that God has revealed truth to his creation and that one of those truths is that homosexual sex is abhorrent to God. In other words, you have labeled me (homophobic) and judged me based upon who I am, a Christian because the Bible which is one of the centerpieces of who I am says something with which you don’t agree. It espouses a preference which you don’t prefer, but if morality is just preferences, I’m not sure why you are so upset by it.

You continue to want to label me and I’m not sure what that does for you except allow you to treat me as a caricature rather than a person. Isn’t that one of the problems that you have with the treatment of homosexuals? People label them, caricature them, and then either write them off, discriminate against them, or abuse them based upon that caricature. It is a way of dehumanizing a person and I’m really surprised that you as a humanist would resort to such a dehumanizing practice. You and I are both human persons, whom I believe are created in the image of God and should be treated as such. It is the reason that I don’t like labeling people as homosexual, heterosexual, bi-sexual, pan-sexual, a-sexual, transexual, or any one of the other plethora of labels floating around about a person’s sexual practices. I don’t think that a person’s sexual practices should define who that person is. I think it reduces people to the existentialism that I wrote against in this very article to which this comment section relates.

Existentialism says that what we do defines who we are and I think that is a false and dangerous point of view. Now, I’m sure that many in the homosexual community would say it’s the other way around, that who they are defines the type of sex in which they engage. Still, they define themselves by the type of sex they practice and I believe it is purposeful.

Regarding your comparison to interracial marriage, I know of many African-Americans who find such comparisons offensive, inaccurate, and scurrilous. The people who opposed interracial marriages did it for irrational reasons. Yes, some tried to justify it Biblically, but there is nothing in the Bible that could be used to justify such a view. In fact, if you examine Jesus lineage, it includes Rahab, a Canaanite woman and Ruth, a Moabite woman. Both of these women had interracial marriages. We don’t know who Rahab’s husband was, but Ruth’s was Boaz, a direct descendent (probably grandson) to Rahab. These people arguing against interracial marriages had no Biblical justification for doing so. I could go into a whole long discussion on this issue, including its history and background and I think you might be surprised from where much of the motivation for racism comes, but it is not a properly understood Bible. By the way, my kids are adopted from China, so they will likely have interracial marriages as they are now living in the U.S.

Your question, though, is what would I say to a person expressing these views? I would say the same thing that I said to you, we are all created in God’s image with a purpose and our skin color or ethnicity is not the defining aspect of who we are, we are first and foremost children of one God and made in his image. That image-bearing had nothing to do with skin color or any other physical feature since God, the Father has no physical features and even Jesus’ physical features while he was on earth didn’t define who he was. What defines us is our God and what completes us is to be in right relationship with him.

I don’t make such claims. This isn’t about love or families, it’s about sexual practices as far as I read what God has to say about the subject. I understand that some people find God’s word vile and I am sorry that they do, but that is the effect of the fall that has impacted all of us at some point. We are all rebels against God at some point in our lives, some, unfortunately, remain that way throughout their lives. When you say that you find my beliefs vile in regard to homosexual sex, what you are really saying is that you find God’s word and standard vile. I’m not so concerned about what you think of me as I’m not what is important, however, it is important what you think of God as it has eternal ramifications.

Your complaint is really not against me as I don’t go around talking about homosexuality – it was you who raised the issue and you now have your opportunity to attack the answers I gave and insinuate that I am somehow guilty for the fact that some people feel attacked by views that I don’t go around spreading. If you didn’t want to hear these views and to be offended, I wonder why you asked the question in the first place. Again, you know that I’m a Christian and I wonder what answer you were expecting to hear from me?

Continued in next post…

9 10 2012
Hywel

1. I obviously wasn’t accusing you of being racist and against interracial marriage (so you didn’t need to go off defending yourself against those accusations) I was drawing a comparison to illustrate that when someone holds racist views you wouldn’t call me a bully or say I was dehumanizing them by referring to their views as racist, and the same applies for heterosexism. I am not a bully if I ask someone about their beliefs on homosexuality and then point out to them that some of those beliefs are heterosexist. Critiquing heterosexism and oppression wherever I see it is completely in line with my Humanist views. I am not dehumanizing you by saying your views are heterosexist. I would be dehumanizing you if I said you have no empathy or understanding, you are less than human for believing gays are abhorrent. I never accused you of that. I said you were a compassionate and thoughtful friend whose views on homosexuals are vile, disturbing and upsetting.

I also never equated the experience of oppression for homosexuals as the same as the experience of oppression for people of colour, but they’re both forms of oppression, and there’s no need to hierarchize them, they both need our urgent attention. Omi Jones is a queer black woman who is an activist who helps allies to women, the queer community and people of colour negotiate these discussion of what she calls the new racism, the new sexism and the old homophobia (what she means here is that while sexism and racism still exist they are in subtler public forms now. We are a society that won’t accept open statements implying the inferiority of women or people of color, but for some reason it is still acceptable for people to voice the moral inferiority or abhorrence of homosexuals – your comments would attest to this, and it seems your belief that you shouldn’t be critiqued for repeating God’s heterosexism could be a belief that contributes to this continued open heterosexism.)

2. Just because you think Dan Savage bullies and dehumanizes Christians that doesn’t mean it absolves you for holding heterosexist views that lead to the bullying of homosexuals. Dan Savage doesn’t represent all homosexuals and two wrongs don’t make a right. (And you can’t defend yourself by saying you don’t go around talking about it, because it clearly comes up with young people, for example Andrea raised the subject with you – who you are lucky you didnt upset or trouble by virtue of the fact that she wouldn’t take your views to heart because she has absolutely no belief in a deity that might judge her, but my lesbian friend Lauren would have been deeply hurt and shaken as a queer Christian when she was younger, but luckily she too has learned not to be upset by the anyone who would believe their all-loving God would consider her love abhorrent. I wonder if you ever have unknowingly spoken to a gay Christian who trusted your reading more than Lauren and Andrea would, who has had to go home feeling that their own God abhors them for the love they feel for their boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s must be a chilling thought for you to consider. Especially when you think about the high levels of depression and suicide in the young homosexual population.

I am just stating facts, I am not bullying or dehumanizing you by narrating to you the damage your views potentially do in the world. Gay youth leave conversations with people who share your beliefs, who are as compassion and well-intentioned as you, and are crushed by the logical consequences of that conversation. If this upsets you, perhaps you do need to question your reading of the bible. Perhaps your heart and your conscience (perhaps the true spirit of a god inside you) is conflicting with your acceptance of a literal reading of tne Bible? Do Christians have to be heterosexist to believe in the divinity of the bible?

3. You keep implying I can’t make any moral statements without those terms being based in God (ignoring the hundreds of times I suggested we can refer to good and bad with moral authority even if we’re not referring to objective good and bad with objective authority, without slipping into the extreme moral relativism that you’ve been using to characterize my beliefs.) If I judge morality as being grounded in the well-being of human beings then your constant repetitions of that same point are tiresome. Very tiresome.
Referring to what I hold to be my moral beliefs as my “preferences” was an act of philosophical humility, learning from your side of the debate that I don’t have objective truth on my side. I could say moral beliefs, moral principles, even moral laws – which I learn from human thinkers, ethicists, lawmakers, all of whom need nothing but a concept of human dignity to ground their moral systems

If the nonreligious want to define good and bad based on how acts affect the suffering or dignity of sentient creatures, you can’t tell them they can’t. You can tell them they dont have objective truth, but you cant police the language they use, and its complete rubbish to say “You cant say anything is bad without God.” Completely drivel, that contributes nothing to a human discussion of morality, law, and the invention of human rights.

Again, if your only response to this is going to keep being “How can you say something is bad/vile/offensive without God” then I think we’ve reached the depth of your critique of the Humanist pursuit of morality. You’ll keep coming back with – you can’t say bad without God, you can’t say vile without God. Which shuts down the conversation without looking into how we might construct a shared global morality. I have enjoyed our conversation but I must admit it gets limiting how much I can learn about human morality when your only thesis is “If it isn’t on God, it isnt morality.”

My final note on using terms like good or bad without claiming objectivity is: Seriously Paul, what do you think the difference is in stating a moral opinion/preference/principle with regards to homosexuals and stating a preference of cheese? What might be the difference in holding an opinion or preference regarding cheese and homosexuals? What might be the difference between choosing whether to burn someone to death and choosing which piece of cheese to eat? Paul, what do you think might be different about those acts? Perhaps it is that opinions about homosexuals and burning people involve other sentient beings rather than just our own subjective experience, so they go beyond being indiviudal preferences based only on something like taste buds and become shared preferences or cultural values. It involves balancing our own conscience against the living voices of other human beings – sentient beings who have emotions, desires, can feel pain and joy and through the shared concensus of many human-made systems are endowed with human rights. Whereas cheese doesn’t.

So, as shocking as this may seem, my moral opinions are different from my opinions about cheese because my moral opinions involve consulting the wishes of other sentient beings. Your moral opinions (and they are just opinions Paul, you don’t have objective truth, no human does) involve consulting a book. I will always trust the lived experience and eloquence of human beings over the potential divinity of a man-made book. You don’t trust the moral discernment of homosexuals about their own lives but you trust the “objective truth” of a book? I am SO glad I am someone who can doubt revealed objective morality and follow my conscience and listen with empathy and skepticism to the voices of others about what we should deem good and bad. (“How can you even say something is good or bad?” you’ll cry! And round and round we go….)

If you have anything more to say on the subject of objective morality I will surely read it, but I must admit we are going round in circles on this topic so I think I’ll leave any more replies for now and just ponder any final points you’d like to make.

12 10 2012
Paul Rupple

Hywel, I had a long reply typed out and almost finished to send and then changed my mind and decided to send out a much shorter, simpler reply. I think the length of replies is confusing some of the basic issues of this discussion. This is a very serious topic, the existence or non-existence of morality, with deadly implications. Yes, let me repeat, the existence or non-existence of morality. If morality is not grounded objectively, then it doesn’t really exist. As I’ve indicated before, if morality is not objectively grounded, philosophically it is called moral anti-realism or moral non-realism. They don’t really exist.

I’m very confused by your recent reply and, to be honest, many of your previous replies. Why? Because I still see a great deal of inconsistency in your dealing with your own moral beliefs and the outworking of those beliefs. You’ve indicated that you don’t believe that morality can be objectively grounded, which means that you hold to a view of moral non-realism/moral anti-realism.

Maybe we can start by refining the definitions of objective and subjective, something I should have done earlier, but as the conversation has gone on it becomes more apparent that it is necessary. When we say something is objectively true, we are saying that it is true of the object in question. It is a mind-independent fact. When we say something is subjectively true, it is true of the subject that holds that believe. So, objective morality would mean that it is true of the behavior or thought that it was either moral or immoral. When I say that something is subjectively moral, I am saying that is true for the person who holds that view, but not necessarily true of the action or thought. If objective morality does not exist, then you can remove the word “necessarily” from the previous sentence as the believe would not be true of the action or thought.

Now again, you claim that objective morality does not exist, which means that any moral statement is true of the speaker but not of the action or thought. So, when you say that heterosexism is wrong, I learn about you, but not about heterosexism. When you say that it is wrong to tell a person that homosexual sex is a sin, I learn about you, but not about the nature of the person speaking about homosexual sex. That is why I keep speaking about morality as preference and not as fact if your view is correct. There are no moral facts if objective morality does not exist.

So, if you call a person a racist, you are saying that you believe that racism is a bad behavior, but you are not saying that racism is actually a bad behavior. When you say that making sentient beings feel bad is wrong, you are saying that it is wrong for you, but not wrong as a fact about the treatment of sentient beings. I know that you feel emotionally tied to these beliefs, but that doesn’t make them true of anyone else except you. In fact, each person is an individual with his/her own subjective views, so you cannot even say that your beliefs are true of another person. Each person can only have his/her beliefs, they cannot even share beliefs given this view. Yes, there may be similarities, not not the same beliefs as they are person relative.

You say that there are differences in preferences for non-moral and moral opinions, but that is only to set up a false dichotomy between “moral” and nonmoral opinions. For, what are morals but just another category of beliefs if objective moral values don’t exist. One might even say, and I know this will sound controversial, that a category called “moral” is just a useful fiction to try to manipulate the behaviors of other sentient beings. I mean, what else could it be? Morality doesn’t really exist given your view. Again, in philosophy, the term for moral subjectivism is moral anti-realism or moral non-realism. Those are not my terms, they are just stating the logical conclusion to the view.

I know you consider yourself a humanist, but that is just an ethical system built upon a subjective foundation. I’ve interacted with humanists in the past and always ask, who determines what is or isn’t human well-being? How can I be responsible for another person’s beliefs if each person’s beliefs is relative to that person. Given subjective moral beliefs, I’m not sure how my beliefs could influence another person’s beliefs, just as I can’t change a person’s taste for food by sharing what foods I prefer. I tried it with my younger daughter. I told her that preferring parmesan cheese was wrong. She just shrugged her shoulders and told me she was going to keep eating it – even in my presence.

Expressing my beliefs doesn’t impose my beliefs on anyone, just as you expressing yours doesn’t impose yours on me. You can tell me that heterosexism is wrong and that doesn’t bother me, mainly because I have never heard the term before and don’t even understand what’s wrong with it. It has been the noncontroversial position throughout history and across cultures. I’m not sure on what basis you now find it to be a controversial view, especially since objective moral values do not exist as you see it.

I wonder if you could help me to understand the dissonance between your stated position and the one that you live out and seem to want to impose on others. I don’t mean that in a mean way, I’m simply trying to understand how you justify this difference between saying that morality is subjective, but that it is wrong to express a moral view on homosexual acts that is contrary to your own.

8 10 2012
Paul Rupple

Part two of the post…

Hywel, I’m experiencing a bit of confusion in your approach to me and this subject and the subject of morality overall. You spent a lot of words in previous posts trying to convey that morality is mere preference and not objective in nature. Now you are spending a lot of words trying to convince me and shame me into believing that my preferences are somehow inferior to yours, but that implies an external standard against which both sets of preferences could be measured and that doesn’t exist in your reckoning. Yet, here you are attacking my views as if they were somehow wrong when there is no real wrong, only differences of opinions.

You have used the word, “vile” eight times in your post as if vile is something bad when there is no bad. Speaking of “bad,” you used that term twice in your post, saying, “I think this is an example of how religion can make an otherwise good person do bad things.” Bad is person relative, so I would assume you don’t mean bad as an objective term, but merely as something you don’t prefer. Yet, I get this sense over and over that you really mean, bad, as in bad for all, not just bad in your eyes and in your opinion. You seem to want me to believe that this is really bad and I don’t see how you make that leap to speaking of bad as if we are both talking about the same thing.

There is a point of tension that I am seeing all through your posts. On the one hand you want to deny objective moral values as they have no place in a non-theistic ontology. Yet, on the other hand, you see these beliefs that you want to say are bad, not just in a “l don’t like parmesan” way, but in a “That is wrong!” way. Yet, the only way that you can really claim that is if God exists and if God exists, then it would seem that he has something to say about who we are and how we should live to experience the greatest joy and happiness over the long term.

I appreciate that we can have this discussion and respect you for being open about your views. I am not offended nor put off by having the conversation and hope you are not either. The main thing that we are both seeking, I hope, is truth and truth cannot and should not stand on its own, it must be matched with love. I know that this is a very “charged” topic and I don’t treat it lightly, nor do I try to treat it flippantly. I know that ideas have consequences and if this idea stood on its own in the Bible, I would be greatly troubled by it.

However, when it is put into context of the whole of God’s revelation to his creation, I know that it is part of a redemptive story that absolutely astounds me every time I think about it. To think that God created us to be in relationship with him so that he could bless our lives beyond our wildest imagination and yet, in the midst of that blessing, God’s creation rebelled against him. We shook our fist at God and said, “Get out of my life! I will live my life as I see fit!” God will not force himself upon us and allowed us to go our own way.

Unfortunately, that way has led to massive suffering, war, disease, crime, hatred of our fellow humans, destruction of our planet, and much, much more. Yet, in the midst of this rebellion, God left his place in heaven to take on human flesh to live among us and proclaim hope and restoration if we would turn back to him. What did we do? We hung him from a tree to die the most ignominious form of death invented and available at the time. While on the cross, his last word was, “tetelestai,” a Greek word rendered in English as “it is finished,” but meaning literally, “paid in full.” Jesus took our sins upon him, even the sin of hanging him from the cross, and paid the penalty of taking on God’s wrath, the wrath that we deserved for this rebellion, so that we could receive his righteousness in return and be restored in right relationship with him.

It matters not what the sin is, if we will come to him in humble repentance and trust in him and his death and resurrection, the payment he made applies to us and our sins. He didn’t need to do this. We weren’t owed anything. He did it willingly and freely for us.

You may say that God is evil for condemning sins, but he doesn’t leave us in that condemned state. He took our condemnation upon himself so we could be free from it. We willingly chose to rebel and he willing chose to save us. it doesn’t seem fair. We deserve to be punished, he did not. He is God and we killed him (yes, all who have sinned and rebelled are culpable for his death), yet, he forgives us if we desire it. He won’t force us to repent or to spend eternity with him, but he offers this free gift if we will accept it. That is a more complete picture of the Bible. God created us in his image and knows what is best for us, but will not force us to accept the best. He has given us free will to choose for ourselves.

The Israelites were presented this choice as recorded in the book of Deuteronomy, ““See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you…But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish…I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life…loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days…”

I encourage you too to choose life.

7 10 2012
Hywel

(excuse my typos but homophobia does get me riled up! My girlfriend has experienced some homophobic hostility in the south while working on the Obama campaign because she has short hair, and someone who lives where she is working just came out to her and she saw his isolation and suffering first hand. I know you would never attack or bully anyone on the basis of their sexuality like that, but you are a part of the problem, you perpetuate the philosophical groundwork (homosexuality is objectivly a sin) for homosexual bullying and violence to occur, and even without the bullying and violence just the fact that you believe those things can cause immense suffering for LGBT youth and adults, particularly those in the Christian LGBT community. I implore you to reconsider your beliefs on this subject. Starting with questioning the objectivity of those beliefs.)

7 10 2012
Paul Rupple

I understand your frustration in this type of behavior. It is inexcusable and uncalled for. It is not the type of behavior that Jesus exhibited and I don’t know why some people who call themselves Christians feel justified to resort to this type of offensive, let’s call it Pharisaical behavior. Jesus condemned such behavior.

Remember, Jesus hung out with tax collectors and sinners. His inner circle included Mary Magdalene who may have been the woman who was caught in adultery. The woman who anointed Jesus with oil may have had that much wealth from an immoral life she lived. Jesus also spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, knowing that she had had five husbands and was living with a man not her husband. He didn’t condemn her, he also didn’t hide the fact that he knew about her lifestyle, yet, when he revealed that to her she didn’t feel condemned and walk away, she continued to ask him questions and told the town that the Messiah had come.

We are to follow Jesus example. We don’t avoid the sin a person is engaged in, but we let people know that the sin has been paid for by Jesus on the cross. Jesus was invited to the home of a couple of tax collectors, including Zacchaeus, who knew that he had cheated people, but asked Jesus what he must do to make it right. Jesus told him to restore what he had taken multiplied back to the people he cheated (he didn’t let him off easy) and Zacchaeus did it joyfully as he had received something greater, eternal life from Jesus.

I believe you are really posing some questions to me: 1) do I understand the Bible correctly?; 2) if I understand the Bible correctly and it says that homosexuality is a sin, how should I respond to those engaged in that behavior?; 3) if the Bible is correct, should I reject it in light of current attitudes about homosexuality?

I believe I understand the Bible correctly, but am willing to engage in that discussion if you believe differently. In regard to question to the second question, we are called to love people, no matter what their behavior, and call them to a relationship with Jesus, the one who created us, knows us better than we know ourselves, and who saved us from our sins. Regarding the third question, as I said in the earlier post, people’s attitudes and moral inclinations change and are not a good gauge for what is or isn’t good or bad behavior. I believe that the Bible is the record of God’s revelation to his human creation and bears the standard by which we should live. It tells me to love people and the most loving thing that we can do to love people is to call them into relationship with the God who created us and loves us.

You don’t know much about my background, but I don’t come from a Christian background and didn’t come to a relationship with Jesus until I was in college. My family is marked with alcoholism, sexual sin, and many other issues that led all three of my brothers to untimely deaths. I was going down that same course until the Lord turned my life around. I believe that I too would be dead today if it weren’t for the work that the Lord did in my life. I am not a sinless individual to this day, so I have no basis on which to judge others, God is the only one who can do that. My wife too comes from a family with alcoholism and many other issues and she too was saved from many bad choices in her past. God brought us together and built a love for each other despite the failures of our pasts.

If you see me as a judgmental person, then you really don’t know me. I hope that you won’t be judgmental toward me, but will be willing to get to know me. You will hopefully learn that because of Christ I can recognize my own failings and also that I have no basis on which to be judgemental of others. Now, that’s not to say that I may not slip from time to time, I am still a sinner after all, but it does not, I believe, characterize my life.

27 06 2014
Randy Zeitman

Conventional vs. Existential (the dist

Buddhism says ‘to want is to suffer’ but what it doesn’t (clearly) distinguish the two domains of reality being conventional and existential.

In very short, conventional means to measure/compare – conventions are standards of assessment.

Existentially means without measurement – everything is already, always, innately ‘perfect’. A diamond is conventionally worth more than a rock but existentially they have equal value.

Since states of being can’t be measured we’re never truly certain about our situation in any given moment, and desperately wanting certainty in anything and everything, we suffer.

Examples of conventional suffering:
“I don’t know what she’ll say when I ask her out.”
“I’m not sure this work is good enough.”
“I am not good enough.”

But existentially everyone is good enough (perfect) and therefore believe (or rather know, existentially axiomatically) they’re worthy of love and belonging.

Here’s a quick exercise to demonstrate how to switch between conventional and existential and remove suffering.

Pick something you’re uncertain about – something that causes stress, angst, frustration, whatever you like.

Exs:
“I’m not sure I’m ready for the test.”
“I’m not sure he/she loves me.”
“I don’t know which to buy.”
“I don’t know what to do to get what I want.”

Ask yourself how stressful it is on a scale of 1 to 10 . Lets say it’s a five.

Now ask yourself how certain you are that you are suffering (regardless of whether it’s a value of 1 or 10).

In other words, we’re asking ourselves, and getting clear about, ‘how certain am I that I am uncertain?’

(take 1-3 minutes to do this…)

On a scale of one to ten how certain are you about being uncertain?

Hopefully you’ll find it’s a ten because everyone, always, is 100% certain about their uncertainty.

Focus on that particular thought… the certainty … you’re sure that you’re certain that you’re suffering … like you’re preparing to convince someone that you’re sure about it.

How does that feel? … to focus on the certainty?

On a scale of 1 to 10 what is your level of suffering?

When I re-focus on the certainty (of my uncertainty) I find the suffering is gone.

Rinse and repeat.

I think ‘self-actualization’, practically speaking, the skill of being able to switch from participant (conventional-suffering) to observer (existential-freedom). ((If you’re a computer programmer you may analogize this to pointer/handle.))

If you are suffering – feeling ‘not good enough’ then you’re measuring something – a convention. To be good enough you have to give up the desire to be good enough.

It seems very much like falling asleep – you can’t watch yourself fall asleep – you have to essentially ‘give up being awake’. At the moment you fall asleep you’re completely vulnerable and is proof you can be vulnerable at other times.

– Randy Zeitman (December 2, 2013)

28 06 2014
Paul Rupple

Randy,

Thanks for the comments. Regarding the idea of the word practical, I think you are referring to another use of the word that is different from how I am using the term. What I mean by that is captured in the dictionary definition, “of or concerned with the actual doing or use of something rather than with theory and ideas.” So, to be a “practical existentialist” would be a person who acts the part of the existentialist without being concerned about defining or even knowing that such a philosophical point of view exists. The person finds meaning in what he or she does, rather than meaning being essentially true of the person and therefore the acting is a outworking of the meaning. As I stated in the article, in existentialism “existence precedes essence.”

You also say, “Well this is the same as asking why there is existence. It’s not a fair question … it’s self-defining.” Here I would beg to differ with you. In fact, I am speaking to a group of young people this week on topics very related to this one and yesterday spoke of Gottfried Leibniz’s question, “Why is there something rather than nothing at all.” A question that is basically the same as why is there existence? Leibniz and others didn’t think this to be a circular question at all and it only begs the question if you assume that our existence is necessary rather than contingent. I see nothing about our universe or us in particular as a species that would indicate that our existence is necessary. Just because we exist does not address the question of why we exist and it should not be assumed that we know the reason why, just because we do. However, it’s possible that I misunderstood your point, so please clarify if I did.

Asking why we seek meaning is a fair question and not one to be assumed just because we do. Here’s an example that I shared with my students yesterday that may help. I closed my eyes and typed on the page – a mix of letters and symbols in random order and spacing. Without telling them what they were or why they were the way they were, I asked them the meaning of the letters. They came up with many responses, many very funny. Then I told them what I had done and that the letters had no meaning to me except that they had no meaning – which one student did correctly guessed. The idea was that as much as they all ascribed meaning to the characters on the page – none of the ascribed meanings were meaningful. Yet, we all wanted to ascribe meaning to the letters – we want to understand our world.

If we are the product of a blind process, like my blind typing on the computer keyboard, then there is no meaning to the universe and our lives in particular – we are just the random output of a blind and indifferent process. Our question is then as meaningless as our existence or the existence of the typing on that page. However, if our universe and our lives in particular are intentional and truly purposed by the creator, then it is very appropriate to ask, what is the purpose, what is our telos. Why are we here and what is our mission?

I would agree with you about happiness and disagree with Frankl in his definition. Frankl was an existentialist and therefore, his answer that happiness comes from working toward some larger goal would reflect that. I believe that is what Holly was saying in her reply, that we need to understand the essence of our existence to understand our meaning.

I’m not sure that the only two choices are conventionalism vs. existentialism, if that is what you’re indicating. As I’ve argued, essentialism is another, and I believe, a more coherent understanding of the world in order to understand meaning and purpose. Conventionalism merely takes you to a different level of relativism. We are simply moving from defining morals and meaning from being individually based to being based upon a group of individuals with whom we subjectively identify and who among them come to some subjective understanding of what’s right and what’s wrong – what’s meaningful and what’s not. However, who is to say that their understanding is better than another group’s understanding? There is no objective standard by which to measure.

You have also subtly contradicted yourself with your uncertainty example. You ask us to rate ourselves on a scale of 1-10 (assuming that 10 means completely certain) on the question, “how certain am I about uncertainty?” Then you say “Hopefully you’ll find it’s a ten because everyone, always, is 100% certain about their uncertainty.” But that is a self-contradictory conclusion. If someone is always uncertain, they should be uncertain about their uncertainty as well, so they should be some percentage uncertain about their uncertainty, which means that they would believe it’s possible to be certain about certainty. It would seem to be special pleading to say that we should be uncertain about everything except uncertainty.

Given that thought, the rest of your argument seems to break down. Buddhism has good goals and some right ideas, but misunderstands, I believe, the human condition and the answer to that condition. It has an overly optimistic idea that through contemplation humans can escape the fallen nature that grips us.

Paul

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