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Collie muse

February 2019

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Collie muse

But it's for a GOOD cause!

I've had a restless night's sleep; I've been fascinatedly struggling with some moral questions which hadn't previously occurred to me. Some friends and I had dinner last night (in air-conditioned culinary glory, thank goodness -- but that's another story ;), and one of them had just read a book titled The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris.

This wouldn't be that big a deal to me ordinarily. I've struggled with my issues concerning organized religion for a few decades now. I've tried to understand the process of religious and cultural ossification, as in how it is that every modern religion I've studied has started out with wonderfully kind, generous, egalitarian views on life and our living together in this world... yet somehow invariably ended up re-shaped into secularly powerful, emotionally disturbing, savagely bigoted, intellectually stifling organizations dedicated to maintaining the status quo.

I've also struggled with the role of both education and the individual, in the process of trying to grasp what invariably goes religiously wrong to create rigid, heartless dogma that degrades the human dignity of one group in order to privilege another group. I used to believe education was the way to free individuals from charismatic fundamentalist bigots who cloaked their fear and hatred in the beautifully disguising camouflage of "God says so."

Then I met someone who was honest (or fearful?) enough to tell me the truth about his motivations, and I discovered those that follow thoughtlessly do so because they want to. I was appalled and revolted... but I also believe in free will. If sheep-like individuals choose to follow charismatic individuals who degrade, abuse, and lie to those who follow them, in order to achieve personal goals of power and influence -- and the followers know they're being so used, and still they follow -- then the followers have made their choice. I do not have the right to tell them how they should live their lives.

So why is this important? My friend was inspired, and wanted to talk about the book and religion and what was happening in the world today. He specifically wanted to talk to me, he said, because of my background in skepticism, logic, anthropology, comparative religion. He half-jokingly (I think?!) said he wanted me to talk him out of his conclusions after reading the book. He loaned me the book, and borrowed a whole bunch of books from me so he could do more research.

Here's what got me: my friend wasn't talking just about what was happening in the world today. He was talking about how folks might change things for the better; about how the culture might be turned around so he could be proud of his country again. This is something I'd half given up on, myself, because I couldn't figure out how to accomplish sweeping, wide-spread change.

Oh, I write my Firestarter articles, I try to get my beliefs out to an ever-widening audience, I make sure I can defend my thoughts logically and persuasively, and I change my mind when I find better data... but that's all just the efforts of one individual. My friend was talking about cultural change, with a long-term plan. And... he made sense. And most of all... my friend is a Scarily Intelligent Man.

I say this with no false pretensions or fishing for compliments/reassurance. I know I'm supposedly very intelligent also, based on testing experience (i.e. multiple IQ tests as a child and my ACT/SAT scores), the comments of others, and personal experience (such as trying to explain to baffled others what I see as obvious -- and which is later proved to be true). Nevertheless, this guy is so mentally fast he's scary.

Is he on the right track? Am I worried about reading this book because I'd made my peace with having little-to-no real effect on the world -- and the prospect of being part of something truly life changing and human affirming demands I give up my previous certainty? Is it the the loss of conviction scaring me, or does this sound just too tempting, too good to be true?

So he asked me two questions (or question sets, I guess I should say) to which I do not yet have answers. The first question set is about torture. I'd previously decided, through personal introspection, that any form of non-consensual physical damaging of another which degrades human dignity is not acceptable. My friend gave me a hypothetical:

"Let's say you've captured a mad bomber. He's planted a bomb somewhere in the country which will kill thousands, and it's set to go off in a few hours. You know that giving this guy a few minutes working-over in the back room with 'Guido' will cause him to sing like a bird -- and the unwitting hostages will all be saved. Do you torture him?"

It was a hard question, because it has unpleasant ramifications. If I agree to torture one for the benefit of the human dignity of thousands, then why not agree to torture one for the benefit of only one person's human dignity? Or why not torture many for the benefit of one? For that matter, what if I didn't even have to touch the guy I'm torturing? What if I could just give him a pill which would remove his voluntary muscle control and cause him intense pain for about an hour? I wouldn't have to "dirty my hands" at all, right? I wouldn't be being physically violent at all, right? That'd be good, right? Right?!

I didn't know what to say. I'm a pragmatist in some ways -- I want to save the thousands! I don't want to beat helpless people up just for revenge! The underlying moral principles I'd been basing previous conclusions on, regarding human dignity and correct behavior, couldn't give me an immediate answer.

The second question was simpler: if every organized religion has, somewhere in its dogma, the command that one must murder unbelievers... then isn't religion ultimately bad for us as a species? Wouldn't it be better for us, as a species and individually, to get rid of all the limiting archaic beliefs which degrade our human dignity? If we didn't waste time and energy on intellectually murderous thought patterns, mightn't the species grow and thrive?

I don't know yet, and the questions deeply disturb me. I'll have to think about this.

Collie's Bestiary


Terry Pratchett wrote that, if you are ever going to find yourself completely in someone's power, pray that that person is an evil man. An evil man will gloat, drag it out, enjoy every minute of it, and give you multiple opportunities to escape and time to stall. A good man will do what is necessary, dispassionately and immediately, and make it as quick as possible.

If this man is a mad bomber, then ... well, I would be able to do it. Paradoxically, the fact that torturing someone would make me miserable and haunt me for the rest of my life is precisely why I would be able to do it.

But what if the man has dangerous ideas, ideas that could bring down the society we live in? Would we be justified in sending him to Madame Guillotine, an instant, painless death, if that would preserve society and prevent thousands from dying in a revolution?

And moving in the other direction, what if the man is loose, standing in a room with a detonator rigged to a whole lot of explosives. He's walking towards the detonator switch and, if he hits it, he'll bring down a city block and kill millions.

I've got him in my sniper sights and I can take him down completely safely. I doubt many people would hesitate to pull the trigger ... and yet I think a lot of people would be unwilling to inflict pain that leaves him alive in order to save the same number. What's the difference? What choice is being made?

There are a lot of very hard questions involved here.
But what if the man has dangerous ideas, ideas that could bring down the society we live in? Would we be justified in sending him to Madame Guillotine, an instant, painless death, if that would preserve society and prevent thousands from dying in a revolution?

I agree with you that I would be able to torture one person for the definite good of many, and that I could do it in part because I'm a good person. This, however, has crossed a line. Any person who followed the dangerous ideas of this person would be doing so of his own free will. I have the right, perhaps even the responsibiity, to argue with him, to change his viewpoint or limit its appeal to others, so as to stop a revolution. I have the right and the responsibility to prevent him or anyone else from killing innocents in the name of his idea. But I do not have the right to prevent his idea from being spread and spoken aloud. That's free speech. It is inviolable.
My original draft had the speaker being executed by being nailed to a tree and then stabbed with a spear ... that's just the issue.

From a cold, logical standpoint, the argument could be made that ending one life to save thousands is justified -- assuming you don't martyr him and turn his followers into fanatics. But the method by which those lives would end is very different; vital societal change is often brought about through painful means. Even if these ideas are dangerous, the proper response is to attack the ideas, not their promulgator; killing him is not only not justified, but won't work.

There's also the point that revolutions don't always come back around to naught. Generally, if the actual change of power is peaceful, then even if violence follows in defense of the new regime it won't necessarily lead to terrors and purges. (The American Revolution was largely peaceful, even if it was immediately followed by a war.)

Now here's a question. Suppose this speaker really is an evil person, deliberately spreading chaos for the power it gives him. He's charismatic and influential, a Jim Jones type. You can argue against him all you want, but since he doesn't base his speeches on logic he will always be able to find more followers. He's been caught, sentenced to community service and/or fines repeatedly, but his followers support him and he's back to his old tricks inside of a month.

Is there a line that this version of the speaker can cross which will justify silencing him by force? (Not necessarily fatally; we could just throw him in jail.)

And no, I don't have a firm answer to this question -- crimes like Inciting a Riot have always been a little skeevy to me.
It's playing with fire. I'd say your friend has a bit of learning from the mistakes of the past to get started on, for it does not matter how well-intentioned or benevolent a religious leader is-- power corrupts, and while some intelligent idealists are able to avoid the pitfalls, their successors rarely are of the quality, and they subsequently manage to undo everything the founder worked to build, twisting the movements into hideous parodies of truth and ideals. There were no Caesars who came close to matching the first, Iulius, in terms of leadership ability, charisma, and responsibility. The men who took up the reins of Christianity bastardized Jesus Christ's vision of enlightenment and ushered in the Dark Ages. And just look at where Joe Stalin took Lenin's movement. It's simply not a matter of "if" an institution of organized religion (and yes, I do lump socialism/communism into the category, for the state simply becomes a surrogate for metaphysical superstitions) will go bad, it's a matter of "when".

Moreover, quick fixes are rarely of any quality or endurance. People who are given the proverbial fish will continue to seek a source of spiritual/intellectual nourishment handouts from whoever will give out such things on the easiest terms, regardless of how they might have to sell out ideals or ethical considerations, for they have not been taught to question and analyze or think for themselves, they just do what they're told in the spiritual soup kitchen line. It is, of course, much harder to "teach the man to fish", to give people the tools to obtain their spiritual and intellectual nourishment, and change tends to be very slow and a battle for each individual, but it's the only way to affect a lasting englightenment across a culture.

That all said, the only things on the Earth that resembles benevolent movements are not really centralized, they haven't fallen in any significant ways to corruption, but also aren't terribly popular because of their elevated levels of personal accountability. These would be Buddhism/Taoism and related spiritual movements. And they're not organized or led by anyone except for what amount to consultants. I fear your friend is only correct in that most people simply don't want to be personally accountable, they don't want to think for themselves. They want to be spoonfed, and until they learn to obtain and cut their teeth on real mental nourishment, there will never be real enlightenment.

On your pragmatic arguments regarding torture, they're trying to sneak under the tent flap into the Utilitarian camp. That's a whole can of worms, and hits the nerve of, "Well, if you'd torture a bomber to save a thousand people, would you torture or kill one innocent person to save a thousand," and well beyond. This is where J.S. Mill's work comes in, I tend to have a very utilitarian sense of government and justice, and later on found out were actually fairly close to Mill's philosophy. Really, the terrorist-torturing question isn't hard for me at all. I would do all that was necessary to torture his/her secrets out if I knew for certain s/he was guilty of such a violation of the social contract. Such a person gives up any and all expectations of rights under said contract when perpetrating such a breach.

But again, the real catch with facilitating social progress through reason (philosophy) is that not only is it terribly difficult to motivate people to abandon the soporiferous tripe that is religion, but even if they do move on, everybody will drink from a different spring and may have even more trouble agreeing on anything. And obviously there are some folks who may be less than intelligent and utterly lack the ability to take on such an obligation as learning the tools they need, and the only thing more dangerous than a mindless religioso, is a mindless philosopher.
Nicely put. Much clearer than mine.

Thanks! Much longer than yours too, as verbose as I tend to be. I was appalled earlier this morning at how a friend managed to sum up an entire paragraph of my thoughts in 3 words: "static inkblot test". Which yeah, that's was dead on. I'm going to one-up him though, and go write at least 2 paragraphs on it now! Harumph.
Well I value Clarity over Brevity, but it takes a while to figure out if it represents clarity or just verbosity. Still a good single line of truth is golden.

The men who took up the reins of Christianity bastardized Jesus Christ's vision of enlightenment and ushered in the Dark Ages.

This is a bit simplistic. The Roman Empire fell for a wide variety of reasons, and Christianity was one small part of them. The Dark Ages came about because of a society falling apart at the seams - take the hub out of the wheel, and the spokes and frame won't be able to support it.

It could be argued that the feudal society based on the idea of each person responsible to his lord and each lord responsible both up and down the line - taking care of his people, and owing fealty to the lord the next rung up - was actually much kinder and more Christian than what would likely have happened otherwise. Without that responsibility to each other, the little guys would have been in even worse shape, and power would simply have passed from strongest to strongest with no particular rules for how it was to happen, and bloodbaths every time a lord died. Granted, there was a lot of that - but less than there would have been without a clear fealty system.

People tend to look at all the bad things done in the name of Christianity, and ignore the good ones - and there have been good things. How many orphanages, schools, universities, poorhouses, and other social welfare establishments were being run by churches for fifteen hundred years before governments started taking an interest? There were always problems with them, of course, but there are problems with anything run by a large group and for a large group. The fact is, the Church has been responsible for saving more lives than have been taken in its name, over the course of history as a whole.

In short, I would tend to argue the point that religion always leads to dangerous violence and us-against-them hatred. Human nature leads to those things. Religion is either used to support them, or stands in opposition to them. It's a tool of humanity. Don't blame the saw for cutting down the tree; blame the lumberjack and the person who paid him.
Well. Im not entirely sure I understand this dilemma, but then I think my views differ significantly from yours. TO the answers to the two questions, for the first one, it's a definate yes. The second one, is an I don't know, but edging towards yes. I am not opposed to relgious people, but I am wary of organized religion. But the problem I see, is that thet "murderous thought pattern" will find an outlet other than religion, My short hand has always been that the precepts of a religion is so that it gives less intelligent people a guidelines in which to live and organize their lives to produce the least friction with others within the comunity, and for the More intelligent, and moral chart, for their moral compass, so that they do not succumb to gross exceptionalism. And it can be used to unite the community to resist outside forces, physical or in often time, mental.Which can be both good and bad. The problem is that Humans see themselves mostly as members of a community, rather than a species.

I see any "Sweeping Cultural Change" as resulting in conflict, and the number people disturbed or killed in revolutions as being possibly equivalent to the bomber's intent as well.

But the problem I see, is that thet "murderous thought pattern" will find an outlet other than religion

This begs the question, do you think that it's possible to either channel these murderous impulses into a safe (or even beneficial) direction, or is it simply a matter of finding a belief structure that suppresses and minimizes their effects?
This begs the question, do you think that it's possible to either channel these murderous impulses into a safe (or even beneficial) direction, or is it simply a matter of finding a belief structure that suppresses and minimizes their effects?

I have always wondered if there may not be some kind of great potential for sophisticated, multi-player war games as a means of channelling aggressive instincts.

There's also the questionable morality of the hunting preserve -- which is more important to provide to meat animals, a natural lifestyle or a painless death? If it's the former, hunting might provide an outlet for the killing urge.

I'm not sure that any ideology can possibly channel the killing urge usefully. The moment one includes killing human beings as a possible solution to problems, it begins to look like an attractive option in more and more situations. Unimaginative people crave simple solutions to complex problems, and the easiest wrong solution is usually a gun.
Not sure. From hanging around collie13 in the past, I pick up a few half remembered facts about various cultures. :-) There are a few where crime is nearly unheard of, with very low (but still extant) incidence of murder within the group. These tend to be cultures that are generally small groups, usually "family" groupings. But even then, fewer of these cultures don't have a "Beware, and be prepared to kill the other. The Bedouins have superb hospitality, in the face of a hostile environment. Even they, though have, carry, and know how to use weapons. I would have to say that a pessimistic forecast is probably the more accurate, and that the "murderous thought pattern" will be with us, regardles of what we do, though some things may make it less apparent with some methods than others, but the more repressed and the more rare the incidents may be, the more horriffic they will become. To me the beneficial redirection of that tends to be the Military, in combat, but that falls afoul of the "Whole Species" outlook of above. But even in the military you have murder occcur, as well as other crimes.

I like your analysis. It really hits the mark from what I have found.

Having been in the "mindless" religious dance for most of my youth, it took years to "rinse the brainwash", small steps indeed. However, about 10 years it was cemented in my mind that organised religion, did not fit with my profile anymore. Not satisfing my hunger for more knowledge. My spiritual development did not come from outside sources. It came from inside, and small epiphanies along the way. And I want to thank you for my latest epiphany, through your words, it came to me.

Jesus taught his apostles(sp?) to teach others "how to teach". (from what I have read and was taught). But these others they taught, didn't teach to "teach". They taught to immulate God. And they branched off and created many different points of view like a broken mirror. Giving a shard of truth to each one that branched off. And as the main religions branched, the lost more and more of the original Mirror, that was taught to man from Jesus. (my analogy)

Now, since these truths have been lost the organised religions of today have completely lost what those base teachings were, and I find I can't accept them.

I have investigated many religions. Not all of them of course. I didn't need to when I found my own believe.

I wanted to explain where I am coming from when I say, I wouldn't torture the bomber. I would isolate him and let him watch. I wouldn't watch. Nor would I give him the opportunity to see the horror on my face or reactions to his "actions".

He will have to live with the "act" for the rest of his life. Dark evil will reveal their plans, they have to.. It's something in the psychosis, Why do this evil if no one is going to "care"?

Obviously it would be difficult if not impossible to abscond him from seeing the distress that people would exude. However, You have to take the chance, that this sociopath will eventually mutter his plans to the air, and with in time to save those who might die.

Utopian? Maybe, Pragmatic? don't know. What I do know, is his free choice to do this, is worth as much as MY CHOICE at any time in my life. And should you remove the "free" will at all, then you have destroyed the very essence of the base of my "belief". Solving issues from a different perspective isn't going to be happening in our society very soon. But it helps me sleep at night.

finding the level of foreknowledge absurd
evidence identifies bomber assumed, bomb is in place and timing maybe
knowing someone will answer correctly within minutes and thousands saved...
seeming as likely the one posing this question knows the bomb location
Mmmm... Chemical/lie detection methods and actual police work my vote
presented torture/timing more likely to damage the wrong persons, saving no one
assumes murderous dogma universal/unchanging, that the Inquisition continues example
more often corruption/power is refocused/directed by individual leaders not held in check, religion their facade
dwells too within religions universality of love for all, teachings of tolerance
curious what such teachings might otherwise be labeled but a faith
I find that morality is inherently illogical. I wouldn't torture the bomber because I don't believe torture is an effective way to get information; but the premise of the question is that torture is effective, and in that case I'd have to say that torturing the bomber is the 'correct' moral act - and that torture is immoral. As you see, logically inconsistent.

I believe in original sin, but not the original sin of the bible. If moral actions is logically inconsistent with itself, then sin is inevitable, at least in theory. I know, in practice one can always have what I call the Galahad syndrom (or the Captain America syndrom) - the character or person who by chance and serendipity (and sometimes cleverness) never faces a situation where the logical inconsistency of morality comes into play, and who therefore can remain pure. The rest of us - those without such plot immunity - will eventually do someone or something, or ourselves, illegitimate harm, thereby committing a sin.

I've had to deal with this on a small scale of course - the kind of little moral decisions we make in our ordinary lives; I pray I never have to deal with it on a large scale. I don't ever want to have to decide to hurt one person in order to save many.