All posts by prc

For and Against The Case for Christ

The Case for Christ, by Lee Strobel

One of the best Christian apologetic books, “The Case for Christ” makes a weak, diluted case, which says volumes about the field. It is written by an apologist via interviews with apologists. Strobel appears to take on a skeptical role but his acceptance–hook, line and sinker–of poor or speculative explanations for everything from the existence of Jesus to the question of divinity makes one wonder about the sincerity of his effort. If one grants that sincerity then Strobel is displaying a large dose of believence (credulousness).

Stroebel incessantly ignores or gives insufficient arguments against common explanations like myth-making or the possibility of Jesus as an everyday preacher. The argument is made that Jesus’ resurrection must have been true because without it the Christian faith would fall apart… Um, yeah. So he goes with a belief conclusion. This type of forced reverse logic is common with apologists.

One can give the benefit of the doubt for some questions like the existence of Jesus, but Strobel does not raise the burden of proof for supernatural events like Jesus walking around after death. Sorry no, for something like that you’re going to have to do better than ‘people said they saw him.’ Walking dead is no sleight of hand card trick.

For those who want to believe in Jesus and the whole package (biased by that condition) this book will probably do the trick. But those with unclouded reason will recognize the quick insufficiency of Strobel’s conclusions. This point is punctuated in the last paragraphs where he puts forth a horrible analogy, comparing seeing a physical person in real life with “…the witness of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.” No, these two things are not alike.

You are credulous, Mr Strobel. Case closed.


The Case Against The Case For Christ, by Robert M Price

Robert M. Price’s “The Case Against The Case for Christ” (Lee Strobel’s popular book) is both a critique of Strobel’s book and its specific arguments. On the overall book Price points out the major methodological flaw, being a collection of interviews with Christian apologists rather than a diverse set of scholars on various subjects from the historicity to the divinity of Jesus. Price knows who many of these scholars are, meaning they are not inaccessible.

He cites them, others similar and his own analysis and yields alternate explanations of oddities in biblical content. He also compares the Bible to other writings of the era, noting similarities in style, content and purpose. Going further back he notes the same in much earlier writings. These draw a historical trend line as evidence of Christianity being yet another religion derived from previous supernatural beliefs, many rewriting similar elements (virgin birth, flood story, death and resurrection) while adding their own cultural spin.

Of interesting note is his observation that ancient writers often prioritized purposeful messages over historical accuracy. Their point was lesson, not history. Too, “authors” were not always those who wrote the material but attributed to those whose name would give the content more legitimacy. Similarly, named authors could be compilations of writers unified into a fictional name (ex Moses).

Moving forward to gospel times, Price points out the same pattern on a small scale–the Gospel of Mark being the earliest writing then the others being rewritten and elaborated on in a pattern consistent with mythopoeia. For more detail on this see Richard Carrier’s “On the Historicity of Jesus.”

But Price is just one person so let’s put him under the same critical microscope I previously put Strobel (see my review of “The Case for Christ,”…). Price’s hypotheses of this or that circumstance are rational but generally lack sufficient evidence–particularly corroborating evidence–to make them the reliable most-likely true historical conclusions. Is this a criticism? No but it is a limitation. We are observing a researcher trying to put together pieces of a story puzzle to find a factual story beneath, if one exists. Contrast this to an apologist whose methodology is to twine together, often rationalize, puzzle pieces to a preferential storyline. Price shows himself to be more credible by following through on what he realized he must do to investigate naggingly inadequate apologetic arguments, ironically in a attempt to resolve those inadequacies:

I knew it was a matter of basic honesty that I had to place myself, for the moment, in the shoes of the nonbeliever if I were to evaluate each argument for the historical Jesus or for Bible accuracy. I knew it would be phony for me to try to convince others by using arguments that I did not actually think were cogent. I didn’t want to use any tactics, say anything that might work, as if I were used car dealer or a mere propagandist.

His journey led him to disbelief. Others with the same intention from the same starting point reach a different conclusion. The difference with “The Case Against The Case for Christ” is that there are no dissonance-inducing moments here, no extrapolations of under-justified preferences, no hypotheses miraculously elevated to Law. I cannot say the same for any apologetic book I have read. Not one.

So in the end give both men their shot. Read Strobel’s book and read Price’s book, one after the other. See where you land.


Religious Science

I have a better internal and intuitive understanding of folklore and myth than science and technology, so in that way fantasy is easier.
-Sarah Zettel, novelist

Josh Peck is a self-described biblical researcher, author and online show host. He has written several books, including “Quantum Creation,” a book about prophecy and “quantum physics from a Christian perspective.” You may be thinking that there is no such thing as “quantum physics from a Christian perspective,” but Mr. Peck tells us otherwise. He explains there is nothing wrong with the experimental results of science, just the interpretation by those who do not cross-reference the holy book. He claims no conflict between science and religion because:

“When we have the proper interpretation of scripture and the proper interpretation of scientific observation, they should both agree in full. They both should act as two pillars holding up the true understanding of reality. If they do not agree then one or both of the pillars are broken and must be fixed, otherwise the whole structure will come crashing down.”

In other words, scientific observation and scripture have the same level of legitimacy and since scripture is correct because, you know…word of deity…any scientific finding that conflicts with scripture must be reinterpreted until it matches. There now, no conflict.

It is hard to swallow that this bastardization of sound methodology is what many believers call science. It is not, though this is what is being taught to the faithful uncomfortable with scientific findings that imply their deity is not the creator of the universe. Their thinking is rationalization (conscious and unconscious) biased by a presupposition of biblical inerrancy. The cognitive blindness is stunning, truthiness applied like a taste preference.

Interestingly, this type of science-off-the-rails often does include some true science. It may even include a great deal as this presentation by Jason Lisle demonstrates. However where Dr. Lisle goes off track can be hard to decipher if one does not already have strong science knowledge, an inherent problem. If one has been raised with a religiously dominated education where evolution, geology and psychology have been replaced with creation myth, a flood story and objective moral rules, it is nearly impossible to notice the slips. To a student listening to this mangled science such presentations can appear to reinforce scriptural texts. Passages are “matched” through numerology-like  pattern recognition, subjective interpretation and prophesy-alignment presented as evidence.

Real science does not operate in this manner. It works on a much tougher playing field where objective evidence rules. Results only sufficient for subjective interpretation are used as guideposts for further investigation (and replication by other studies); they are not touted as final conclusions to be taught to the public. (Note: despite this standard practice scientists are human and can overstep at times, but the fields are aware of this, constantly open to  internal criticism and correction. For good coverage on this, check out Robert Burton’s “A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us About Ourselves.”

The vast majority of scientists follow evidence where it leads them. Often this disagrees with chunks of what religiously-filtered “science” teaches. A young believer can find themselves stuck trying to understand these different positions, akin to being asked to take sides in a parental dispute. Worse, parents and preachers may fight back with accusations of academic conspiracy and ivory tower arrogance. If a student buys this defense they not only learn bad science, they learn to mistrust true experts and even the scientific method.

If a student is able to remain objective she will find the position conflicts unresolvable; where there is disagreement, one side is right and one side is wrong. Contrasting this, a true believer (defined as one unwilling or unable to de-sanctify false beliefs) will learn to swim in a fog of cognitive dissonance, motivated reasoning tools at the ready, perhaps for the rest of her life.

Another feature in hesitation to accept scientists conclusions can lie in the personality trait of mistrust. You know the accusations—scientists are money mongers who deliver results their patrons desire, universities are places where snobby faculty pretend they are smarter than the rest of us, arrogant intellectuals create fancy jargon so they can talk over our heads. Tables are turned with true scientists being branded as pseudoscientists.

The believer’s solution to this supposed deception? A call to individual critical thinking (paradoxically), self-evaluation of experimental results. In other words a belief that a single person, believent and less educated, is more likely to make a better conclusion than a highly educated specialist.

This is purely wrong. First, anyone with less information is by definition less capable of making a better judgement than one with more information, though admittedly we must be wary of researcher confirmation bias. Second, this type of self-confident believer puts more weight on intuition (Type One thinking) than is valid. (See Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow.”) Third, individual conclusion, be it by a highly educated researcher or an individual, is prone to error—exactly why scientific conclusion relies on expert consensus, not expert opinion. Further yet, scientific consensus is subject to longitudinal review—study over time—subject to future refinement or replacement.

Meanwhile unscientific believers apply the tools of intuition, apologetics, argument and reinterpretation to scientific findings, mushing results into scripturally-shaped conclusions of their satisfaction. Have you ever watched a numerologist finding patterns everywhere they look? It really is amazing, the mental gymnastics humans are capable of.

Argument is not evidence, nor philosophy experimentation. Bias avoidance does not include presupposition; it starts with a null position. And “not considering deity” is not a presupposition; it is an appropriate “we don’t know” starting position.

Sadly, expect religious scientism to continue because it appears to relieve believers of some of their dissonance. Many of their conclusions will be wrong of course but lay believers may not recognize this.

Spins your head, doesn’t it? Keep this in mind the next time you consider popping a chad for a candidate who denies climate change, supports funding educational vouchers, or advocates shutting down the Department of Education. Meanwhile teach your children well. Give them science toys as gifts. Challenge their minds. Foster curiosity, wonder and intellectual interest. There is a big real world to learn about and it is much more accessible if they do not have to first dig themselves out of a false information hole.



Inter-Religion Clashes

All the religious wars that have caused blood to be shed for centuries arise from passionate feelings and facile counter-positions, such as Us and Them, good and bad, white and black.

-Umberto Eco

A video has been posted showing a British Christian group, Britain First, walking into a Luton neighborhood (a suburb of London) with a concentrated population of Muslim citizens, intending to antagonize them with large crosses. As expected both sides quickly engaged in angry shouting and middle-finger brandishing. The exchange is unsettling, though no violence ensued.

As demographics grow and shift we will watch this type of event happen with greater frequency. Though groups of humans will always find ways to conflict with one another there is a desire among many to have us grow out of this part of our nature. Do we really have to continue a conflict that has been raging regionally since 700 A.C.E.?

I remember watching a movie about Camelot years ago, Arthur the good king coming to power replacing the bad king of yore. It was exciting, romantic, righteous and triumphant. Years later it occurred to me that this narrowly-timed story, a mythical consolidation of English kings, would be but a happy(ish) episode in a long line of sad stories. Without a system to cultivate good kings it was likely that despicable kings would follow as common as not. The average person, largely powerless, would be dragged through the reign of one ruler after another, stability and happiness in their lives subject to rounds of Russian Roulette leadership quality. (See too Russian history when murder and assassination was the typical method of succession for centuries.)

This is how it feels watching religious adherents clash—endless rounds of righteous rivalry teeing up to claim territory. (This is not to imply that one side is better than the other. Certainly there are differences; your viewpoint can apply those labels.) Though both religions have scriptural elements that teach of peaceful coexistence they also teach the opposite, that their worldview is the holy correct one and the edge of the sword should be taken up in defense and offense. It is far too easy to cherry-pick justification into righteous conflict. From Roman era conflicts to twentieth century Christian/Protestant battles to Islamic sectarian rumbles of today, mankind has seen uncompromising threats of misery from literalists, aimed at those who do not yield from without or stay true from within.

But we no longer live in 3000 B.C.E., 700 C.E., or 1800 C.E.; we live in a time when the findings of physics, astronomy, biology, cognitive science and geology have demonstrated that the existence of deities is…no longer the most likely explanation for reality. However we are stuck with brains that evolution has provided—prone to belief. It feels archaic to be among those who hiss, fume and attack in the name of religion but this is modern. It is present day. And a few miles from such street conflicts colleges teach evolution, secular courts enforce civil laws, and stores sell meat products that have not been sorted by cloven hoof. Collectively, we are of mixed mind.

Humanity seems to be going through its adolescent phase—persisting with its early intuitions while, holding a thickening encyclopedia of new knowledge, not yet able to let the new information revise the old. This growth arc, the lifespan of intellectual humanity, seems to be thousands of years long. In maturity years we have just passed our teens.

Can we use cultural tools to help this maturation, to help strong believers get along despite their impulses to not? Hopefully but the time scale remains unknown. It will take an unprecedented shift within religious communities led by the leaders within. Sacred needs to be corralled. This is not to suggest that strong believers give up their belief; that aspiration is unreachable. But why can’t they agree to let God make the judgments in His appointed time (end of natural life) instead of mortal humans making and imposing judgments here and now? Where is the trust in the deity? Where is the mortal humility? Must we continue to site writings of human leaders, old and new, to force faith and impose harm onto others? Doesn’t our mortal imperfection disqualify us from imposing irreversible punishments on other mortal beings? Are we that arrogant, that unable to control our tribal impulses?

Scriptural interpretations are just that—interpretations. They may be flawed. This does not mean the scriptures are wrong, but our readings of them can be fallible. Every holy person who has disagreed over the smallest scriptural word, phrase or passage—over thousands of years—has proven this. Sounds like a decent basis for minimally, not harming one another.

In light of these issues, not the least of which are ongoing terrorist bombings, can we also agree to do more as a global population? How about an annual Copenhagen-style worldwide conference on the issue of religious conflict, on the scale of what we did to battle the HIV crisis? Time sensitive. High on the priority list. Ongoing. Until we are done. If we can’t evolve our biology out of religious conflict can we at least evolve our culture?

The Worldview Fallacy

Nothing is more dangerous than a dogmatic worldview—nothing more constraining, more blinding to innovation, more destructive of openness to novelty.
-Stephen Jay Gould

“A particular philosophy of life or conception of the world.”

Worldview is often sited by religious believers as an authorization for logic that yields their desired conclusions. An example of this came up recently at a debate (not mine but attended) where a believer didn’t like a scientific conclusion. He dismissed the evidential outcome, replacing it and stating that his own conclusion was valid given a Christian worldview. In other words, he didn’t like the real answer so he changed the rules of analysis.

Worldview has nothing to do with fact. It is an overlay that makes one prone to bias, particularly a worldview based on the sacred texts of a deity. When a person places an immutable prerequisite in front of their thinking, logic becomes unreliable. If a conclusion conflicts with the precondition it is rejected then modifications are applied—bias, rationalization, reinterpretation of evidence, dissonance-reducing confabulation—until an acceptable result is reached.

Worldview has been described as seeing through color-filtered glasses, usually rose-colored to represent a desirable bias. While there is something to this concept—we are all influenced by our knowledge and environment—it is incorrect to assume that all worldviews are equally valid. My Christian friend could have been confronted by a Scientologist, claiming that her worldview accepts that emotional baggage is traceable to engram-inducing in-utero trauma. He could have been confronted by an astrologer whose worldview holds that good and bad days are due to planetary alignment. But on this day he was confronted by a scientifically educated person with high confidence (from the knowledge of a consensus of cosmologists and physicists) that the universe is 13.72 billion years old, rather than the 6000 years his book implied.

Putting forth a false worldview as an analytic shield is like pretending to throw a magic spell that automatically elevates your conclusions to incontrovertible “truth.” At best it is a demonstration of believence in full bloom, at worst a dodge or manipulation.

I have also seen worldview used to encumber when, seeing their own argument attacked, a believer tried to counterattack but accusing his opponent of having her own falsifying worldview. This tactic is reminiscent of the accusation that atheists practice a religion—faith in science. In other words, the childish ploy of “Oh yeah? Well you too.” Not exactly high debate. The problem again is the assumption of balance, this time to an equally low level, not admitting (or worse not recognizing) the deficiency of this plane.

Some will retort that validity is in the eye of the beholder. Who is either side to judge whose worldview is valid and whose is not? Why not default them to equal footings? Rubbish. The best source of knowledge is a consensus of a majority of educated specialists within a particular field, unless of course the subject has already been dismissed (I’m thinking astrology here). Experts don’t always turn out to be correct but they have the best chance of being so. When the consensus shifts, so does the best current knowledge. Is this an Argument From Authority fallacy? No, because a consensus is not a single authority, and we simply do not have a more reliable method. Conception and non-evidential belief don’t even come close. Would you rather be subject to an Argument From Ignorance fallacy?

Until recently we have thought of these tactics as misrepresentation but it more appears to be honest belief, sad evidence that apologetic teachings are having some success molding opinions. Believers are not unthinking followers but apologists seed and feed their opinions. Given that these followers have a propensity to accept religious views, they then become resistant to physical explanations of nature. Worse, creation rationalizationists are laying claim to science itself, arguing that science is now proving deity and accusing real scientists of being the deceptive, illogical ones. It’s a classic attack switch tactic—take what your opposition accuses you of and reverse its direction.

Time will tell if the worldview tactic holds up. So far it’s providing many with a comforting belief bubble, a safe haven to reduce the dissonance stress of being in disagreement with the world’s most prominent scientists. But bubbles are thin…and they can pop.

Social Norms By Default

No longer lend your strength to that which you wish to be free from.

Several years ago I was given a work assignment that took me to a rural community in central California known for having more cows than people. It was a typical assignment, a two day temp job in a pharmacy. I liked registry work because it took me to new places to see new sites and meet new people. This one however had me working with a type of person I had never been knowingly exposed to.

He was a highly educated man, a pharmacist of some years, a pleasant and genial guy. Our conversation was friendly as we started the day before the patients arrived. I don’t recall how the topic came up but we somehow found ourselves discussing gay men. Actually, discussion is the wrong word because a statement he made stopped the discourse in its tracks; this intelligent, educated man stated with absolute certainty that all gay men were pedophiles. According to him it was a well known accepted fact. I was stunned, not only by his surety but the casual comfort with which he said it. He was incorrect, unknowingly offensive.

What of others hearing our conversation? Were they of similar mind? Were they as offended as I but accustomed to his beliefs, unwilling to counter him at possibly the cost of their jobs? Did they disagree but remain passive, letting his comments roll off as if harmless?

Being a hired temp help I didn’t want make a stink but just couldn’t let this opinion stand. So I challenged his statement, only to be countered with anecdotal “evidence” for his point. My job that day was to do a job and represent my company well so I didn’t debate further, but I made it clear to him and in a purposely loud enough voice for those within earshot to hear that we had a strong difference of opinion. The conversation ended and we proceeded with our work day.

The point to this story is not to advocate aggressive action to every injustice but to not let improper, untrue opinions stand unchallenged. If we don’t do so these norms will stand by default, lingering harmfully long past their day. Society evolves by what people know, what they accept and what they believe that other people find acceptable. Racist jokes, cruel statements, hyperbole spoken as factual, easy disrespect, dehumanization of opponents, labeling ignorance as stupidity, thrive in this environment. We can help norms evolve more quickly by publicly countering incorrect, outdated and undesirable behavior, reducing the harm that perpetuation otherwise causes.

At each moment in time (and with each society) there are opinions and behaviors that the majority of the population condones. Think of child spanking as an example, now considered unacceptable by most. The population holds three subsets—those who condone the practice, those who don’t and those who are undecided, by intent or disinterest. Within the disagreers and the undecided are individuals who remain silent of their opinion. This silence causes bad behavior to linger beyond its day—a social norm derived from tradition and now set at this default—a wrong tolerated by indecision and inaction.

What is in the minds of the silent dissenters? What motivation could they possibly have to tolerate offensiveness? Admittedly there are prices to be paid for speaking out—the loss of a job, shunning by family, mockery by coworkers and friends, the attention of being outside the local group’s opinion. We all know our personalities, our circumstantial strengths and limitations. The decision to counter bad ideas publically is by necessity a personal one, but it must be considered when opportunity arises. If we truly want to live in a world that is how we believe it should be, then we need to direct our lives toward a position of being able to speak up and promote what we believe. That is the least. At best we can do much more.

Wait, I can hear what you’re thinking now—promoting opinion or belief over truth? Granted this is a double-edged concept, a tool that can be put to good use or bad, imposition of majority opinion over the minority. Welcome to real life; nothing is simple. No method is always correct. Certainly there will be setbacks as many people believe incorrect things. Our country’s founders knew this when they built a system that balances majority and minority rights and opinion. In the long run, the best outcomes come from informed people having spirited public debate. This is what I am promoting. Let the opinions breathe. Help the outmoded ones fade into history. In the long run, correct information wins out over incorrect.

Despite the impression of the daily news, humanity has gotten much better over the millennia. Civilization continues to evolve. And in our daily lives we can have an impact one personal comment at a time, especially in the presence of others whose opinions we do not know. Standing up, speaking out, wearing an identifying t-shirt, displaying social media tags, will always encourage the silent agreers to join the action and make themselves known, widening the circle of acceptance.

Is it not in your nature to be outspoken, to be a leader? As this video demonstrates, that is not even necessary. Changes come not just from the ones who make the first moves but from those who follow, especially the first followers. According to your skills, be aware of opportunities for both.

The Role of Philosophy

What is your aim in philosophy? To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.
-Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Blood from the right chamber of the heart goes to -vena arteriosa – lungs – arteria venosa – left chamber…”
-Ibn Nafis (1210-1288 AD)


“We likewise discover that there cannot exist any atoms or parts of matter that are of their own nature indivisible.”
-Rene Descartes (1596-1650)

Philosophy is proto-science, the development of hypotheses and the testing of these by thought experiment using the tool of logic. Its limitation, as the above quotes demonstrate, is that its conclusions cannot be raised to a level of strong confidence since, evidence not being part of the process, there is no way to tell which conclusions are true and which are false. Sometimes it results in a hit, sometimes a miss. This is not to say that philosophy is useless—it is in fact essential—but that its conclusions are preliminary. They are the end of a road that does not continue unless and until evidence becomes available to progress the investigation with physical experimentation. The samples above are both reasonable and logical, however only one is correct. In time, evidence arose and accumulated to elevate one to the level of high theory while the other has been relegated to the dustbin of ideas that didn’t pan out.

Ask yourself then: before evidence was found to substantiate or destroy the hypotheses, what degree of confidence should have been stamped upon its plateaued conclusions? Sans evidence can any confidence even be assigned? In other words, can the output of philosophy be considered truth?

The answer is no, in of itself. Although it may derive what later becomes learned as truth, until that result is proven by evidential experimentation of positive result, a philosophical conclusion is held in a waiting position, cued up hopefully for the scientific method to take the baton and move forward. But if no runner comes along—no evidence arrives—then conclusions remained cemented at this level they have obtained, able to advance no further. They are refined speculations, educated guesses, reasoned options, even hopes.

Of what use then is philosophy? Tremendous use, particularly when evidence has not yet been discovered or when evidence may never be discovered. For the later consider the question, what is “importance?” As an abstract concept, there is no way to discuss this question without thought argument. The outcome therefore remains hypothetical and conceptual. A vase may be important or unimportant for a variety of reasons but its physical properties do not change according to its deemed importance. This is analogous to a truth vs the perception or knowledge of a truth; a truth exists independent of any knowledge or perception of it. Yes, a tree falling alone in a forest does make a sound.

In millennium past, philosophy has had a great role in leading us toward truth, though for every truth eventually matured to fact many alternate dead ends were abandoned. We kindly tend to remember the successes and forget the failures. We revere Isaac Newton for his Calculus and Theory of Gravitation while diminishing to trivia his efforts in alchemy and apocalyptic prophesy.

Though the knowledge we have gained from the last four hundred years of science has reduced the realm of philosophy—natural philosophy in particular–but there is still much we do not know. (Indeed we don’t even know how much we don’t know, so perhaps philosophy should be considered to have just moved on to new territories.) Thus philosophy will always have an important role. While science continually moves into new areas, it is often philosophy that first helps us imagine beyond the current one*. And if the history and progress of the philosophy-science team has taught us anything it is that there will always be new horizons.

However, there is a problem. Among the believent, (those with a propensity to conclude belief, particularly when evidence is scant or nonexistent), philosophy is often used beyond its boundary. When faith is criticized or considered insufficient, deities are often rationalized by argument. Religious apologists lacking physical evidence of the supernatural (by definition) make philosophical arguments to justify not only scriptural teachings but their preferred deity’s existence. This would be fine if only done to the degree of hypothesis without confidence, but they often treat their conclusions as raised to the level of likelihood, even seeing them as “truth.” This is typically an honest error, motivated reasoning being in full bloom, but it is nonetheless incorrect. Problematically, when people group and reinforce such beliefs, the result is a deficit from reality that can result in ideological, educational, political, even physical conflict.

A bigger problem: when one can generate a conclusion that is intuitive or desirable, avoiding the discomfort of the unsatisfactory, the unfamiliar or the unanswered, the search for knowledge stops and sometimes inconvenient evidence is suppressed. This is common because evolution has sculpted us to be intuitive. Intuition is a quick-decision neurological shortcut that enhanced our survival in an environment where there was often no time for slow, deliberate consideration. Infinities, time dilation, “nothing” before the Big Bang do not make intuitive sense yet they have non-supernatural explanations. But settling on a deity explanation, fanciful and teleological, is intuitive and comfortable.

So use philosophy wisely. Value its contribution in the past, present and future. But be aware of its limits and our bias to use it beyond its ken. If truth is what you’re after, philosophy is just the first step.


*Science does not progress only by the philosophical generation of hypothesis. Given the knowledge base we’re standing on now and the technology available, much (most?) of new science is investigating questions that previous work exposed. Just ask anyone who is involved with a planetary exploration project; the backlog of data to be analyzed is monstrous, not even including the reconsideration/revaluation that future findings will trigger. Almost everything we learn generates exciting new questions. Mathematics too is a field that proposes and generates new horizons, particularly in cosmology.


A Ranking of Values

For me, human rights simply endorse a view of life and a set of moral values that are perfectly clear to an eight-year-old child. A child knows what is fair and isn’t fair, and justice derives from that knowledge.
-Tom Stoppard

“A person’s principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important in life.”

“A person’s standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do.”

Perhaps the strongest thing that drives me is the thought that some people are working with beliefs and information that is untrue. The range of this is wide, from youthful beliefs that others care much about what they think, to world-shaking Kool-Aid parties to bring about an imagined transition to a next life. Too much of our populace is moving backwards in what is believed matching up with what is true.

My journey to understand this phenomenon has settled into a very simple goal—seeking truth, whatever the answer. By necessity then truth itself must be a value to uphold, perhaps the highest. From this all else will follow. Only with the truth, or more accurately our best estimation of truth at any time, can we best accomplish everything else that is meaningful to us.

Once truth was labeled as a high value it got me wondering what else should be on the list so here we are. Admittedly this is a soft list. With time, thought and input from others I’ll probably shift items around. There is also some mea culpa here; while the order makes sense in a way of what should be, I’ve been less than optimal in responsibility to family vs self. Trying to be better at it these days, especially in awareness.

The sequencing task was interesting. Some interactive logic raised its head, not unlike Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics.” That’s how Truth got demoted to Number Two. Below that it was a process of reverse prioritizing—what should be degraded in the service of upholding the one above.

You’re probably already thinking about what your list would look like so to help with alternate concepts, check out this site as a reference: Steve Pavlina gives us 500 “value words” to choose from. I’ve taken another approach but like his too so have selected some to clarify each section below.

  1. Human Life

It’s interesting to note that we can justify breaking even this top code by sacrificing one life to save two. Abortion is up here too, a difficult issue with strong logic on both sides. And of course “Would you go back in time and kill Hitler?” is on this shelf, albeit philosophically. Well, would you? Easy yes for me.

So this is the Free Speech analog value—sounds obviously and simple but it’s not as clear as it seems when put into situational context. Still, it’s a strong place to start.

Value words: Reverence

  1. Truth

This has such high placement because almost every decision, every judgment is maximized when input is correct. We too often operate on belief, but if belief is the know-it-all Uncle at the Thanksgiving table who nobody has the energy to counter, then truth is the wise old grandmother who actually knows what’s what, even if she isn’t putting forth the effort to shut him down.

Often it seems pointless to counter people with wrong opinions strong as they may be, but there has to be a line. Actually, I can define two lines.

The first is stepping in when someone is putting out offensive or blatantly untrue information. If nothing else I want them to know that what they are saying is not acceptable in society, to say or to impose on others to hear. Think racist putdowns, homosexual slurs (had a coworker going on about gay men all being pedophiles).

The second is mistaken belief that we know to be untrue, such as a stance that we never went to the moon or that climate change is not caused by human activity. Here, I want them to know that their opinion is being challenged; hopefully others nearby will then speak out, the result being truth becoming majority opinion.

Value Words: Accuracy, Correctness, Credibility, Deference, Fidelity, Honesty, Learning, Precision, Sacredness

  1. Responsibility to Family

Honestly this is a tough call between self and family, especially if taken to a sacrificial extreme. What each of us would do in a life-and-death situation probably can’t be known until being in that situation. Evolution theory indicates that self preservation should come first, unless the fractional benefits add up sufficiently—three brothers beats one you (50% x 3 > 100% x1 of the same genes).

Most of us will answer this easily however if comparing ourselves to our children. We would willingly sacrifice ourselves for them, especially in their early vulnerable years. Biological instinct is strong.

Value Words: Care, Duty, Love, Loyalty, Protection, Support

  1. Responsibility to Work

While it’s easy to justify leaving work to rescue a hospitalized family member, that impulse is countered by logic that the job is what provides self and family with food and shelter—short term vs long term effects. In theory one can always get another job. I’m guessing people will place this one up and down this list.

On a personality level, this and the responsibility categories that follow—collectively responsibility to non-self—implies what type you are.

Value Words: Accountability, Attentiveness, Commitment, Dependability, Diligence, Duty, Loyalty, Obedience, Prosperity, Reliability

  1. Responsibility to Self

From an evolutionary perspective this would be much higher, at least prior to successful reproduction. And we all have a responsibility to make ourselves happy, love ourselves first, enjoy our one and only not-God-given life, yes? Ayn Rand would agree. Seriously, what would life be without ComicCon and classical music? Service to others is important but ultimately we are the “I” in our heads, a small piece of the universe that has become aware of itself by whatever cause. This also means learning as much about life, the universe and everything as possible. For me this is reading, attending talks and listening to others. For most travel and expansive experiences go here.

Value Words: Achievement, Awareness, Care, Comfort, Consciousness, Experience, Fitness, Fun, Happiness, Health, Introspection, Knowledge, Learning, Pleasure, Rationality, Security, Sexuality

  1. Responsibility to Others

This is a big one for me, which is how I know I’m a liberal by personality. I recognize my bleeding heart, clear as day. From another perspective, every time I walk past someone else’s left-behind dog poop I want to etch their car with “Do Unto Others.” How do some people operate with so little consideration for others? By having a different type of brain.

Value Words: Acknowledgement, Altruism, Awareness, Benevolence, Compassion, Courtesy, Diversity, Empathy, Fairness, Friendliness, Honesty, Kindness, Patience, Respect, Sincerity, Understanding

  1. Responsibility to Society

An extension of the Do Unto Others instinct with a dash of paternalism yields a desire to care for society beyond my extended kin. We vote to make our preferences known, recycle to protect resources and construct like the United Nations to define and extend rules of civil decency. We are unavoidably interdependent now. Corporations are global, making their reach wider, their shareholders unbordered. This is a good thing since interdependent groups have a self-interest to avoid conflict. Economic theory points this out too—every seller requires a buyer, every product sale to a foreign country is money pulled into the source country (in theory).

There is value in preferring our home city, state and country but the world has less strife when we remember that those on the other sides of borders are basically the same, with mirror interests of equal value. Certainly they have equal rights to profit, liberty and safety, to the extent that they are not trying to pull such off at our expense (we or theirs). Win-win is a better strategy than win-lose. Evolution has figured this out as the process of reciprocal altruism.

Value Words: Accountability, Commitment, Community, Connection, Country, Duty, Impact, Justice, Liberty, Organization, Peace, Prosperity, Resilience, Security, Stability

  1. Responsibility to Future

This takes responsibility to family, others and society one step further thanks to our abstract-thinking big brains. We are no longer a species of three million beings. There are few, if any, homesteading land rushes in the future of mankind. Rare earth metals are now shorter in supply, prone to political play as China begins to monopolize these commodities (though two generations ahead will likely be mining asteroids). Global temperature rise will not reverse itself without significant human intervention. Attention investors—get into the carbon sequestration market on the ground floor! People with children have an increased motivation to pass forward an unruined world. The life of each generation has become dense, not only in population but information and interactions. Every generation naturally strives to have their offspring do just a little bit better.

Value Words: Accountability, Advancement, Change, Commitment, Continuity, Endurance, Inventiveness, Longevity

  1. Learning

Some people don’t have this interest and there’s nothing wrong with that if they so choose. To those who are content with unending days of porch chair rocking, I tip my hat to your ability to bask in that satisfaction. For me though, especially as an atheist highly confident in the existence of only one life, I am driven to learn as much about this universe as possible, for as long as my mind spins. There is satisfaction in learning something new but also an awareness that each bit of information adds to the knowledge pool, helping me make progressively better decisions. For example, I no longer eat donuts multiple times a week because…you know…knowledge.

Seriously though, it was the stress of not understanding why people had vehemently conflicting opinions that induced me to start this study and eventually this blog.

Value Words: Achievement, Awareness, Challenge, Discovery, Exploration, Growth, Inquisitiveness, Introspection, Knowledge, Openness, Understanding, Wisdom

  1. Animal Life

I’m surprised this almost got pushed off the list but it shows how many things are important, how rich our lives are. We are animals. We evolved from animals. We can see our ancestry in their eyes, even the yard lizards who stare blankly into the distance. Every animal we see is a reminder of common ancestors, of a path commonly travelled a thousand million years in the past. The least we can do is to share the space with them.

Value Words: Balance, Connection, Diversity, Harmony, Protection, Preservation, Sharing


What does your list look like?

The Pattern of Your Life

Find beauty not only in the thing itself but in the pattern of the shadows, the light and dark which that thing provides.
-Junichiro Tanizaki

Imagine a sky-high viewpoint, a moving dot below tracing a line everywhere we go in life. It records our movement from home to work, to the store and the weekend park, day after day, month after month. The line forms a bright zone where we spend our most time, documenting not necessarily where we wanted to go but where we had to go—too much of our lives spent at work, not enough time in the world beyond our typical paths. There are a few outcroppings, vacations of unretraced paths one hundred miles and rarely a continent away. And always back.

The pattern draws a story of our life, an image more unique than a fingerprint, distinct for every person who has every lived. Are you happy with the path your life is tracing? Would you prefer it to be different in any way?

Now imagine another dimension, a plane (A) representing all the knowledge of mankind. There is history here, geography, physics, religion, astronomy, biology, economics and art, each spanning a wide terrain. A parallel plane (B) underlies with continental zones of abstract subjects—imagination, emotions, feelings, sensory experiences and pure concepts. Each coordinate point on these planes represents a single piece of information. The shape of a maple leaf is at A324,68221, love for a newborn puppy at B5489,44395.

Now picture your life’s knowledge, a subset of this whole illustrated on these planes. When you experience one of these discrete elements—learn a certain fact, see a new thing, think a new thought—a pixel lights up. It stays on forever, brightening if you experience it more than once. This shining tapestry expands with each moment of your awareness. Finally at the moment of your death, the painting becomes static and the record is filed away for eternity. You have made your mark. Never again will there be another you, the same pattern of experience.


Finally let’s say there is a librarian who guards these eternal records, a Keeper of the Patterns who knows what is true and false of all your known things. We’ll call her Gad. She can show your life pattern to others, displaying it in three ways—your knowledge in total, all of your knowledge that is true, and all of your knowledge that is false.

So what do your life boards look like? How much knowledge have you touched in your days? How many places have you gone and how much does your movement represent where you wanted to be? How much of your experience is informational, how much emotional? Despite your knowledge that you believe to be true, how much does Gad reveal to be false?

For every point of truth there is a matching falsehood. It is easy to pass through life unaware of the validity of what we experience. Faith implies nothing about truth, though when it conflicts with reason may imply the opposite. Seeking the truth takes extra desire and effort. You must be able to question what you know, even sacred knowledge. To experience the most truthful life, truth itself must be a sacred value. Any fact may be falsity masked even if sincerely gained; the value in a piece of knowledge is not only its information but its correctness.

On these canvases of experience and knowledge—the pattern of your life, the planes of your knowledge and emotions—strive to make the most of your years of awareness. A grand and truthful pattern is a life well lived.