Exploring the interplay between ortho-doxy (right belief) and ortho-praxy (right action)...

...and encouraging a life where these intertwined thoughts and deeds simply happen... by default.

10 December 2007

true love: stranger & friend

A very recent post had a moral bent, and the ensuing comment-discussion quickly observed that morals are based on values and eventually focussed on the question of what (if anything) underlies our values. In other words, are values grounded 'on' anything? Or, are they as free and changing as the various expressions of human cognition/thought? In this post, I want to try to explore this question further. Just one thing before I begin:

A request for discussion of this post:
I do not wish for this exploration and discussion to be hi-jacked by various statements (of any kind) about what 'the Bible says', and what that supposedly means. Do I think that the Bible has something to say in this exploration and discussion? Most certainly. But many assertions (both 'positive' and 'negative' ones - if I may put it like that) can derail the conversation before it leaves the station. My desire is not to have this conversation in the usual verse-quoting and scoffing fashion, but rather as thinking human beings - with whatever anthropology you bring to the table. And for Christian readers, it is my conviction (I believe C.S. Lewis once said something similar?) that if we can't discuss our beliefs in non-religious --or non-'bible'-- language, then we either don't actually believe those things or we are totally out of touch with the world. Now. Let's think together about this question.

First, we should observe that a conversation about absolute or universal principles, values and/or morals is really a conversation about what is called 'truth'. So we'll use that word here. Secondly, the discussion is often characterised by what I see to be a false choice between two views (including views that are closer to one or the other of these two):

  • The 1st view we will call 'absolutism'. This is the idea not only that there is absolute truth, but that we can and/or do fully know it.
  • The 2nd view we will call 'relativism'. This is the idea not only that there is no absolute truth, but that we couldn't and/or wouldn't know it even if there were.
'Accessing' Truth?
I suggest we have this false choice because (even though our beliefs may vary) our thinking and discussing is still largely shaped by Greek philosophical categories. More specifically, modern Westerners still think in terms of a dualist split between matter and spirit. Matter being the stuff that is less than important, and spirit being that which is most important. This directly affects how we still think about 'truth.' Popular culture still thinks of truth as unchanging, static, pure, 'up there', and needing to be 'accessed' and/or 'brought down' to us. [See diagram: I made it, isn't it neat? :) ]

What happens, then, is that the 'absolutists' not only claim total (or at least partial) 'access' to this body of 'truth', but also claim to know precisely how it is to be worked out in the context of daily life or a specific situation. Now, the 'relativist' would say that this 'truth' is not absolute, but that it changes depending on the context. Some relativists (many atheists?) would even say quite simply that there no 'up there' kind of 'truth', and that we've got nothing but 'context', which we respond to in various ways, resulting in various mental constructs which are held to be 'truth' for that person or culture.

Why do we have this false choice? Why this spectrum between absolutists and relativists with no seeming middle ground? Could there be a third way of seeing how 'Truth' works? If so, how might we understand (or even imagine?) such a thing?

A more 'down to earth' Truth?
Indeed, the English word 'truth' can represent various ideas for various people, and even one person might use it to mean slightly different things at times. Often, it's used in a kind of verifying way, with things that can in principle be verified: "Is it true that Dad is coming home early tonight?" Other times it's used for inquiry into less verifiable things: "Is it true that Macintosh computers are more sleek and stylish than PC's?" Other times the usage is to gain information that might be 'hidden' for various reasons: from "Did you eat the last slice of pie? Go on, tell me the truth!" to "Where were you last night? Tell me the truth!"

The interesting thing about all of these usages is this: They have nothing at ALL to do with an 'up there' kind of truth. Instead of having to do with floating principles in the sky, all these usages have to do with real situations - real life, the real world. So, in case you need me to say it clearer, truth ain't 'up there'! So, at least concerning the existence of an 'up there' kind of truth, I am in agreement with many relativists.

But, I am not a moral relativist, nor do I believe that truth (wherever it is 'located' or whatever shape it is, etc.) is relative. So what does my picture of truth look like? Well, I don't plan on trying to 'describe' an idea as huge as 'truth' with a few sentences... that would be silly. But I do want to present one way of which I think truth can be 'known'.

Now, my use of the word 'known' warrants an entirely separate discussion about epistemology, but suffice it to say that I'm not talking about 'knowing the truth' like one knows that 2+2=4. Rather, I'm talking about something much like 'knowing' you've just said either something entirely inappropriate which you wish you could take back or something entirely appropriate which simply had to be said at exactly that moment...

Truth Transcending Tensions?
When I picture truth, I think of Love. What a shame that the word 'Love' can mean mere feelings, as the phrases 'falling in love' or 'I don't love you anymore' or 'I love creamy Jif peanut butter' would suggest. But the attitude, mentality or disposition of selfless, patient, tolerant, kind Love remains.

I discussed this a while back in another post, but I'll summarise here. Love resides in what might be called the 'tension' between 'self' and 'other'. Tom Wright (who is drawing on the thought of Bernard Lonergan) puts it this way: "the point about love - the epistemology which love generates - is that love both affirms the other-ness of the object [objectivity] while remaining in deep, rich and close subjective [subjectivity] relationship to it. Love transcends the objective-subjective divide."

I lov... um... well, I fully agree with that. :) Love transcends more than the objective-subjective divide, however. Life is just cram packed full of tensions which Love transcends. Male-female; Order-Chaos; Logic-Emotion and more.

True Love?
Just before closing this post, I want to say one more intentionally paradoxical thing about Love. I want to suggest that Love is (as the title of this post suggests) both the most foreign and the most familiar thing to us.

On one hand, it is familiar; we know what it looks like. We've seen it - if but for a passing moment. In living rooms, at coffee tables, through tears - both of joy and pain. Strangely, we know what Love looks like as much from its absence as from its fleeting presence. Like a beautiful garden that has been 'let go' and is now over-run with weeds and tall, unkempt grass, we 'know' what it's like to see Love fade away - just out of reach, just around the corner.

On the other hand, it is foreign - totally other. Hundreds of beds in a clothing factory providing a few hours of rest for hundreds of human bodies which will awaken the next day to produce thousands of garments underneath florescent light to be shipped across a body of water for other human bodies to purchase at 'everyday low prices' in various large retail buildings in other countries, underneath all-too-similar florescent light. Love is a pipe dream. A silly notion. All that matters here are dollars, cents, profit margins and stock dividends.

Yes, I am suggesting a contradiction. We know exactly what Love is, and yet we have no idea what Love is.

(I look forward to rationalising about such a wishy-washy thing!)


Damian said...

Hi Dale, for what it's worth here is my current view of morals (and this view has changed wildly over the years so take it with a grain of salt):

I think that we humans are apt to personalise too much and this tendency gives us the concepts of 'good' and 'evil' which, in my opinion, are children of absolutism.

The real world that we inhabit tends to be a world of gradients and our desire to draw lines in black and white are sometimes useful, sometimes harmful.

I find it useful to compare what we call 'morals' to behaviours we can observe in various other species. You get a sense of this gradient when you look at a praying mantis eating her mate, a healthy chimp helping an elderly chimp in what appears to be pure altruism and a human going postal with a gun in a shopping mall.

There are just so many overlapping actions, consequences and possible triggers that it seems childish to cut humans off from the rest of the species and then draw crude lines of good and evil in their behaviours.

I suspect that the morals we hold to are a result of our belonging to a society and that most of these morals have been more to do with 'benefit' than the personification of 'good'. Some morals that may have worked in the past may no longer be necessary (take the issue of homosexuality for example - not much good if you are a small clan barely clinging to existence but not an issue now) and some morals we have to make up as we develop different types of society (women's suffrage, equal rights for all, etc).

I often find that labelling something as 'evil' actually puts a stop to finding out what the real cause of the problem is. If someone murders your child it's tempting to label them as 'evil' but where can you go to from there?

Sorry if I'm not being coherent - it's late and I'm tired.

That's pretty much where I'm at at the moment but I'm open to discussion. (In fact, I live in Northcote if you're ever up for a coffee and a yarn).

dale said...

Thanks Damian,

I don't think I even used the word 'evil' in my post at all? Sure, the idea of 'evil' certainly relates to the idea of 'truth' though...

Northcote, aye? Who knew! :)

I do love coffee... flick me an email at dale(at)nbc(dot)org(dot)nz



Damian said...

Ha! Yes, I've just gone back and read everything in context and, yes, I completely went off on a tangent - sorry about that. I blame tiredness.

Ian said...

Thanks Dale, an interesting post and great diagram... truth raining on the parade of context :)

However I am struggling a bit to figure out the message you were pushing for - or more precisely, I am not quite sure how the conclusions about love tie in to your first paragraph... I am quite keen to discuss either, or even to explore the link, but I'm not quite sure where you were aiming :)


dale said...


Hehe... No worries about the 'tired tangent'... I'm quite the tangent-er myself!


Thanks for the positive and probing comment. The basic point I wished to present might be worded something like this:

Like Truth, morality (which is really a nasty sounding word anyway) is not 'in the sky' waiting to be brought down, but rather is more 'down to earth', and is 'grounded' or based on 'Truth', which I like to picture as Love. It is a 'morality' grounded on this Truth and/or this Love which can begin to be 'universal' or 'absolute' - though I would prefer the terms 'all encompassing' or 'enveloping' or some large-sounding thing like that... :)

Help? No?


Ian said...

I'm still not sure I get it but to paraphrase/reinvent (lol) what I think it is in my terms, would this be close?

1. There are no absolute values or morals in the sense that killing is wrong regardless.
2. However for each moral situation there is a fundamentally right decision that is universal in the sense that everyone would agree on the most moral action for any given set of fully known circumstances?
3. Then love squeezes in somewhere above my head? ;)

I get the feeling you are heading somewhere fruitful so lets keep pursuing this (and forgive my probing, I want to make sure I really understand the core of what you are saying lol)


dale said...

Thanks Ian,

Let me try rephrase your paraphrase/reinvention... :)

1. Morality is all encompassing, such that ALL situations are charged with moral potentiality. There is adaptability and coherency to this morality.

2. In this all-encompassing sense, there is a fundamentally 'true', 'right', 'good', 'moral' decision that is universal in the sense not that everyone 'agrees', but that the decision 'lines up with' or is in 'harmony' with this adaptable-yet-coherent morality (which is based on Truth pictured as Love).

3. Love is the picture-description of Truth which all 'Loving' and 'True' morality is based on. (And at lest grammatically that should make sense!) This Love is not above anyone's head, but seen in the paradoxical complexity AND simplicity of life experiences.

4. (just to say more!) This morality is on one hand flexible enough to handle life's diversity - meaning, this morality is not to be imagined as 2 lists in the sky, one 'moral' and the other 'immoral', with some actions on the 'moral' list and others on the 'immoral' list.
On the other hand, this morality is coherent enough to handle life's unity- meaning, this morality plays out in consistent and familiar ways, creating moral 'patterns'.

Too much emphasis on flexibility = to head toward relativism

Too much emphasis on coherency = to head toward absolutism


Damian said...

Actually, in reading your further clarifications I would like to reinstate my first post as I think it was actually quite relevant to the underlying tone of this post.

When you say "Morality is all encompassing, such that ALL situations are charged with moral potentiality. There is adaptability and coherency to this morality." - are you referring only to human situations or would it possibly include the actions of chimps or even the actions of supernovas?

If only humans, why?

Ian said...

Thanks Dale, I think I follow... kind of :) Can you think of a good hypothetical example where we could explore the details of your idea? It might help firm up the idea.

However to take it to the next level, what do you think is the mechanism for which this adaptable-yet-coherent morality is expressed and then acted upon?


dale said...


Good question. It is at this point that I would say that yes, all of the universe is in some sense morally responsible, but humans have by far the highest level of moral responsibility. Our actions have massive consequences to various bits of the universe around us - both to the human 'bits', and other 'bits' (animals, nature, atmostphere...) Yes, morality is a cosmic thing, but humans have the most moral responsibility. Certainly this fits with our experience; we don't expect anyone but humans to sort out poverty, war, etc.


A hypothetical example? Well, 'killing' might be a good one? I am not, for example, a vegetarian. I think it is morally OK to kill and eat animals. I do, however, think that it can be morally un-acceptable to kill animals in specific situations (endangered species, and other reasons?). Further, on killing humans, I do think that killing in order to protect and preserve the life of others is morally OK. Killing then, becomes a morally 'neutral' term, and 'murder' becomes the term associated with immoral killing.

You won't like my ideas about the mechanism... I have a theistic worldview. :)


Ian said...

I'm not sure how that example differs from a relativistic point of view? It all comes down to what value you put on things. There is no real value to killing per se, but there are consequences (with both positive and negative values) of killing?

By definition you must have moral relativitism unless there are absolutes involved. You can talk about the consistency of values amongst cultures as indicators that while relative, there are general agreements on values which gives us an impression of possible absolutes. But that is still an entirely relativistic model because it has actually demonstrates value we have associated to social cohesion, and this itself can also be measured against other options in terms of its value.

I am not sure there is even a possible middle ground so maybe that fundamental idea is worth exploring further?


dale said...

Thanks Ian,

The Absolute Truth, I'm trying to say, is a Truth that is (absolutely) like Love.

And yes, the other paradoxical thing I'm saying is this: One one hand, this 'Lovely Truth' is not all-encompassing simply because of consistency accross various cultures and peoples. It is more "stable" and "grounded" than that. One the other hand, however, it is not so "stable" and "grounded" that it cannot 'flex', 'reach', 'strain' and otherwise 'adapt' to be true in many various contexts.

Love is like that. It's not one-dimensional - so to speak.

On middle-ground:
It is precisely this seemingly impossible middle-ground where I'm suggesting that Love resides. If if were easy, it probably wouldn't be Love! :)
It's both obvious and elusive; strange and familiar; foreigner and friend...
It transcends the divides of object/subject, liberal/conservative, republican/democrat, capitalism/communism,
I'm rambling...

dale said...

I also want to say something else really important about this Love I'm describing...

Very often - too often - my life does NOT look like this 'Lovely Truth' I'm describing...

That which I want to do, I don't do...

This too, is, I suspect, an all too familiar experience that is ubiquitous in human experience.


Ian said...

My somewhat tenuous grasp on this concept is slipping again :)

So to get this right, Love is defined as the bit that connects two otherwise paradoxical concepts? And that includes connecting absolute relativism?

(yep I'm struggling lol)

Perhaps to take this in a slightly different direction, what observations/ideas could we explain with this notion that absolutism or relativism couldn't explain?


dale said...

Grasp slipping? struggling?

Good! :)

I suggest that while we may struggle to present a logical 'outline' or 'diagram' or 'bullet-point break-down' or 'flow-chart' of how Love 'works', at the same time, we all 'know' (emotionally, socially, intuitively, personally, relationally - dare I say 'spiritually') what it is. Times when we've known we or someone else was not loving. Times when we or someone else WAS loving.

The 'mechanism' if you will - is Love itself.

And yes, I'm suggesting that this Love (Truth as Love, etc.) is a spiritual thing. So - in a very key sense - a parallel discussion is that of the 'what/how/etc.' of 'spirituality'.

So, quickly, I want to say that for too long we've thought of 'spirit' in Platonic terms and with Platonic categories, which sharply separates 'spirit' and 'matter'. I'm suggesting that ALL things are spiritual, and that spirit and matter are 'interwoven'.

No, this doesn't mean that matter IS spirit, (a more pantheist view) but it certainly doesn't meant they are to be held at a distance, so to speak...

I'm sure this is boring you... :)

("Dale, you lost me at 'spiritual'...")


so anyway...

"Perhaps to take this in a slightly different direction, what observations/ideas could we explain with this notion that absolutism or relativism couldn't explain?"
Well, you're a relativist, right? Don't you think that this basically explains everything? And, consequently, don't you think that absolutism effectively explains nothing?


Ian said...

It almost feels to me like you are going down Pirsig's road to quality - everything makes perfect sense provided you refrain from defining the fundamental thing which you use to explain everything else... I personally think what we experience/describe as love is adequately explained by evolutionary neurology lol. However that makes it much less useful to your argument here, so you might need to define what you mean it much more rigorously to get around that problem.

It's not that you "lost me at spiritual" - I just think that's the point where the speculation departs from the evidence ;)

"Well, you're a relativist, right?"

Only in the sense I think thats the only option that makes sense of what we actually observe. I don't have any kind of fundamental commitment to it.

"Don't you think that this basically explains everything?"

I can't think of any observed phenomenon it can't offer a coherent explanation for, if that's what you mean :)

"And, consequently, don't you think that absolutism effectively explains nothing?"

Not at all. However I cannot think of a single absolute value that actually fits the whole set of moral behaviour observed in the world, nor can I think of a mechanism by which it could do so. Therefore it is a substantially weaker proposition than relativism in my opinion.

My point here was that if you can't add to the explanatory power of relativism, and you end up with a much more complicated theory with much less certainly explaining the same observations, and you end up running into Occam's razor.


Damian said...

Ian said: I cannot think of a single absolute value that actually fits the whole set of moral behaviour observed in the world, nor can I think of a mechanism by which it could do so.

Hear hear.

dale said...

Thanks Ian,

It's good and fun interaction. (And kudos for getting Pirsig's Road and Occam's Razor into the same post!) :)

Let me offer some more thoughts...

First of all, I want to be clear that my presentation of a universal (all-encompasing, etc.) yet relative (adaptable, etc.) morality is NOT an attempt to 'fit the whole set of moral behaviour observed in the world.' To me, that would seem like an attempt to build a morality out of what people do; I'm suggesting an all-pervasive value and ethic of Love which is both seen and not seen in the world, so therefore it would both 'fit' and 'not fit' with the whole set of moral behaviour observed in the world.

Secondly, let me say that I am not trying to find a 'hole' in evolutionary neurology (or whatever), and then say 'See, that's the Love bit' or 'See, that's why a spiritual dimension to life exists', etc.
Evolutionary (and other fields of) neurology will ask and answer whatever questions they will. What I'm talking about is not a 'filling of the gaps' that these disciplines might leave, but rather trying to express how we can understand or picture how this spiritual, loving Truth works with, in and through our neurology, sociology and whatever other processes we can see...

Further, I'm not trying to 'prove' or 'define' anything. I'm suggesting what a universal-yet-adaptable kind of morality might look like and how it might function.

It also might be interesting for us to chat through the implications and/or practical out-workings of our various versions of morality. Because, practically, we probably share many of the same basic values anyway...

Very interesting stuff!


Ian said...

My point was that any theory we have about how anything works must be somehow linked to observations of the thing you are explaining actually working, otherwise it doesn't really mean very much.

To reiterate a point I made earlier, moral behaviour is not an example of this moral scheme "working" - the scheme works at a different level, either informing decisions or informing judgments of actions. I strongly argue that no action is in itself immoral - rather it is judged moral or immoral within its context.

The question (I think) we are exploring here is whether or not every "judger" of an action should come to the same conclusion as to an actions morality or otherwise, why they will or wont, and the implications for our behavior from that. Does that summarise how you see it?


dale said...

Thanks Ian,

Good thought-out comment.

"...any theory we have about how anything works must be somehow linked to observations of the thing you are explaining actually working, otherwise it doesn't really mean very much."
Well, if love was a gas, like hydrogen, it would be easier to demonstrate how it 'works'. But (even though that isn't the best analogy) the thing I'm suggesting about Love is that it isn't being worked-out in a uniform, consistent, or otherwise 'normal' way. I'm suggesting it is 'abnormal' even... It only goes where it is allowed, so to speak... :)

"...no action is in itself immoral - rather it is judged moral or immoral within its context."
And, as I've said before, I don't know any action that has no context or consequence, so rather than so sharply divide 'action' and 'context', I imagine them as generally inseparable. Even with the sharp divide, however, would I be wrong to say that your view is that even these 'context-considerate' judgments are still without an all-encompassing basis? In other words, are not your 'context-considerate' judgments still fully relative?

(by the way, please don't hear me arguing against the essential need to appreciate context in moral considerations)

So, the way I would describe the dialogue is this: We are exploring whether or not every 'judger' of an action should come to the same conclusion as to an actions' morality - with context and consequence considered.
As for why they will or won't, I'm pleased you used those words instead of 'do or don't' because I think the choice to Love is just that - a choice.
As for behavioural implications, I suggest that choosing not to Love is to choose to harm. Either an 'other' or 'self'.

Going to bed now! :)


A. J. Chesswas said...

Hi Dale, I like the way you're trying to tackle love here... but it amazes me how you guys have gone for so long without anyone trying to define love... how do you know what each other are talking about?

You're getting close dale, it is reminiscent of reading Christopher Alexander's attempts to define the "quality without a name"...

but anyway, I think you're going to need more axioms than just love to explain morality. I think concepts like honour and dignity also need to be explored, and inherent to those is a proper understanding of normative human psychology, physiology, sexuality and, dare I say it spirituality, and a consideration of the concepts of sin and concupiscence...

and then you will eventually have to resign yourself to a Calvinist understanding of revelation which stunts any hope of engaging in universally-inclusive axiomatic moral debate...

Ken said...

I am all for definitions. But while we are at it we shouldn't ignore the physiological correlates of phenomena like "love."

I may be being a bit provocative but can we really ignore Oxytocin)for example?

I am not advancing a naive reductionism. Just saying that in discussing such things we should look at what has been discovered form scientific investigation. It might help us understand how "love" develops, why it is so strong (eg. mother/child bonding).

It would be interesting to think about other physiological correlates of other aspects of morality.

dale said...

Thanks A.J.,

To me, trying to 'define love' would be something that is always done 'in part'. What I've tried to do here is to present 'Love' as a picture of the kind of 'Truth' on which a universally relevant (though still fluid and 'alive') morality could be based.

In a sense, my comments along the way do lean toward 'defining love' (or trying to), but I hope I've maintained the feeling that Love is still beyond our ability to define. This is part of what I'm getting at when I talk of humans BOTH 'knowing' and 'not knowing' what Love is...

On additional axioms, the ones you list are indeed worthy of discussion, and would relate well to the conversation. However, I'm curious what you mean by 'normative' human psychology? Human psychology is quite a diverse thing, is it not? What do you mean by a 'proper' understanding?

As for your notion (perhaps you're kidding? I couldn't tell...) of a Calvinist view of revelation, I am committed to the idea that there is such a thing as general (universal) revelation. And even if a Calvinist were to object that this 'general revelation' that I speak of is not 'redemptive', it remains (I think) that it is at least something of a basis for 'universally-inclusive moral debate'... All we need is a healthy view of Imago Dei.

dale said...

And thanks Ken, for a good comment.

I certainly want to fully endorse the exploration of such 'physiological correlates'. Or in other words, in my view, the conversation about a spiritual truth described as or pictured as Love does not mean ignoring Oxytocin. :)

The thing about morality, however, is that it has to do with choices. We are biological organisms, no doubt, with chemicals being released, viruses roaming, cells multiplying and much more. But somewhere in there, we have very real choices that can be made in spite of our biology, culture, up-bringing or whatever. We can make choices...

Gotta run...


dale said...

Let me rephrase that last bit...

Somehow, somewhere, we make very real choices. Our choices coincide with lots of biological/physiological activity, no doubt, but our choices are not themselves that activity.


A. J. Chesswas said...

what I'm getting at, is some idea that there is a normative blueprint of the pathos we aspire to know and feel to be fully human. Experience and knowledge of honour and dignity are part of that. We live in a world where people profess to want to be casual, relaxed, easy-going, care-free, and inevitably immoral... but while this is something they profess, often beneath that profession is a desire to achieve higher standards of excellence, self-control and achievement. By normative human psychology I mean the real, true aspirations that make a person fully human - the truth that sets a person truly free, as Jesus would put it...

Regarding revelation, I am particularly interested in how the fall, and our sinful nature, affects our ability to make proper judgments without being clouded by our own guilt and shame. Ie, we feel shameful about our sexual behaviour, but feel powerless due to our concupiscent nature, so rather than openly studying social science and physiology that tends towards a heterosexual and monogamous normativity, we try bias ourselves towards work that returns the opposite results. In Romans 1 Paul talks about the way that a perverted sexuality will inevitably lead one towards deception. You must have noticed the correlation between liberal views of sexuality and liberal views of concupiscence (they prob don't even know the word!) and Christology...

"All we need is a healthy view of Imago Dei" - and how do we obtain this apart from God's grace, and our salvation from our sinful nature?

dale said...

Thanks A.J.,

I like the bit about how the desire to be 'casual, 'relaxed, easy-going, care-free', etc. are inevitably immoral. Those notions (as grammatically seen in the 'care-free' one!) reflet a careless-ness toward not only 'others' but even 'self'. To not care is to not Love.

On other matters, it is precisely because I have a 'more than scum' view of Imago Dei that I would think that inclusive moral dialogue could be fruitful. Abraham didn't have the Bible or even the Law of Moses, yet was equally as morally responsible as any of us. I'm not trying to down-play the Bible's role in life (that's another discussion), but I do think that a conversation about morality can be had with other-than-biblical language.

But, to quickly respond to you, whatever Genesis 3 is saying (or not saying), this did not completely undo the glory of Genesis 1 & 2. Psalm 8 talks about humans being 'crowned with glory and honour'.

I don't buy everything Rob Bell says, but one thing I like is that the main point of Genesis 3 is not that it 'happened', but that it 'happens'.


A. J. Chesswas said...

haha I'm a pretty big fan of Bell, and the comment you quote is probably the comment that bugs me the most! The fact that the fall happened is one of the most illuminating and informative events for our understanding of human nature.

When I talk about revelation I'm not talking about The Bible. I don't think that it is The Bible that illuminates truth and convicts us of true morality. It is God's spirit that does this - whether to you, me, Abraham, Ken, Ian, Frank, whoever - it is always the activity of God's spirit that frees us from the grip of our sinful nature, not our study of our book. It is only once we are liberated by the spirit that we canm appreciate the book.

I agree that we certainly retain the imago dei. We are totally depraved, but we are also totally in the image of God. Just like Jesus was both fully God and fully man. The human person is not a pie that can be broken into good/bad divine/human. We are more like onions, we have layers...

dale said...

Thanks A.J.,

(I'm curious - if the fall 'happens', doesn't that still 'illuminate' and 'inform' our understanding of human nature?)

OK - good. And it is this spirit of Love (available/open to all) that I'm trying to explore in conversation here...

Imago Dei:
Pies v. Onions... :)


A. J. Chesswas said...

There's a lot of ppl who are skeptical of love... yeah deep down we all want it to be true and real...

I remember talking to an "Atheist", I said one of the biggest evidences I had that God was real was the way that since I came to know his love in Christ, I also had the ability to love everyone, including this Atheist chap I was talking to... he said that he couldn't believe that I loved him...

Without knowing God's love it is very difficult to believe in love, and even to show sincere love... but there is something in all of us that wants God's unlimited love for us to be true, and the more we trust this longing, then the more we are led to Christ, and to trust in God's love as evidenced in the life, death and resurrection of Christ and the blessing and assurance of his spirit to Christian morality; and inevitably to Christian morality...

dale said...

Thanks A.J.,

Yes, that suggestion that we are both 'skeptical' and at the same time 'not' was part of what I was getting at since my original post...

As for your 3nd paragraph, So how can we translate that to non-bible language?

A. J. Chesswas said...

yes, and the longing to believe in love is similar to the longing to believe in honour and dignity...

the way I see it, it is only God who is able to set us free from the trappings, and the guilt and the shame we feel, in our bondage to the sinful nature, and our feeling that we are incapable of love, honour or dignity...

some are set free by the spirit of God, through the power and authority of Jesus Christ without even knowing it. They haven't heard of Jesus, or are rightly skeptical of what they have heard and the way it has been presented. To these people, morality remains something that is common-sense to them, and if we talk about concepts like love, honour and dignity they should understand the language...

Then there are those who are both set free to love, and know how and why they have been set free to love. These people can understand the mechanics, if you like, of their morality, because they are willing to take seriously the Christian gospel...

not sure if i have answered your question... are you saying love, honour, dignity, is Bible language?

dale said...

Phrases like 'the christian gospel', 'the power and authority of Jesus', 'the spirit of God', 'sinful nature', 'God's love', 'came to know his love in Christ', 'resurrection of Christ and the blessing and assurance of his spirit...' - these are all phrases you and I hold dear, but quite clearly are also 'bible-talk'.

Now, of course, there is not some hard line between 'bible words' and 'non-bible words' or whatever, but I think you know what I'm talking about. Love, honour, dignity and other such terms are perhaps 'in' the Bible, but they are also terms which are --at least at times-- more helpful than our jargon.

For example, 3 athiests (Ian, Damian and Ken) have commented here. I think we'll have more fruitful dialogue if we cut the Bible-jargon - that's all I'm saying.

Like, when you talk of the 'mechanics' of being set free to love, Ken (for example) would likely say that the only 'mechanics' involved (in whatever we mean by 'being set free') are physiological, biological, or social 'mechanics'...

I just have this under-lying feeling that we Christians keep expecting non-Christians to cheerfully use and understand our terms... Like, 'Well, let the spirit open your eyes, dude.'

To which an atheist most likely will angrily (although perhaps patiently?) mutter something under their breath and walk away...

A. J. Chesswas said...

what do u reckon fellas?

Damian said...

I think the naturalistic explanation requires a lot less convolutions than the spiritual one. It may not have all the answers but the answers it does have require no leaps of faith and are testable.

A spiritual or Biblical explanation for the origin of morals or love doesn't explain what we can observe in other species to varying degrees.

From a personal perspective, I have experienced deep (perhaps transcendent) love as a Christian but I've felt exactly the same emotions since then as an atheist.

When I hear "the fact that the fall happened" and other Biblical presumptions I can't help but hold anything that proceeds after that at arm's length and other overtly religious language has the same effect.

There is some really interesting stuff coming out of cognitive neuroscience at the moment too. I'm not all that up on it but I hear the occasional snippet about fMRi and various regions of the brain that are being discovered that are responsible for feelings of love and spirituality.

In my opinion if you are looking for the source of these emotions you'd make far more ground researching the recent findings in science than you will by trying to attribute it to something external. At the very least you should look to these findings for balance if anything.

Ian said...

"Somehow, somewhere, we make very real choices. Our choices coincide with lots of biological/physiological activity, no doubt, but our choices are not themselves that activity."

I am curious what could make the choices if it is not biological/physiological activity?

Re: 'Well, let the spirit open your eyes, dude.'

I wouldn't mutter and walk away because of that. The problem is that if you fall back on statements like that you have explained precisely nothing, you have only pushed the need to explain somewhere where you don't feel so compelled to deal with it. How does the spirit open your eyes? What is the spirit? What part of the brain reacts to this opening? Etc etc. And what's more we are still left with the original questions unanswered :)


dale said...

Hey there, Damian,

re: naturalistic v. spiritual explanations
As I've said to Ken and Ian for a while now, I am less than comfortable with the word 'natural' (and therefore also 'super'-natural). The spiritual/physical distinction is yet another that I think is unhelpful in many conversations. Perhaps many of the convolutions have resulted from these kinds of over-distinctions. In other words, Spirit is 'natural' in my view.

experiencing love
Absolutely. My view is that Christians don't have some kind of a mortgage on Love!

biblical presumptions
See what I mean, A.J.?

brain and 'something external'
I am amazed at how complex our bodies (and the bodies of other animals) are. To think of all of the chemicals being released at various times, and doing various things around the human body; causing us to feel this or sense that - AMAZING. But seeing what chemicals create what feelings or which regions of the brain have to with which senses still leaves the observer or the self - the person/being that makes choices. And I want to stress that I'm not talking about an immortal soul or something like that. Whatever and wherever the 'choosing entity' is, it is inseparably woven into our very physical bodies; chemicals, synapses and 'rushes of blood to the head' included.

Precisely because my view of spirit is so inextricably woven into my view of physicality, I'm finding the concept of 'balancing' my 'spiritual beliefs' with 'findings in science'... Does that make sense the way I've said it? I don't think there is some 'gap' in our physicality where our 'spirits' live.

Cheers, it's good stuff!


dale said...

Thanks Ian,

(our comments overlapped each other!)

Yeah, if we have apriori knowledge that humans are only bio/physio organisms with no spiritual dimension to their nature, then we should be curious. But if we are open to the idea that a part/dimension of humans is the self/observer/perceiver/thinker/etc.
then we can simply say that 'I' make the choices. 'I' make the observation. 'I' hold the perception. 'I' think the thought. And yes, all of the bio/physio bells and whistles work amazingly correlative to these...

As for the Christian jargon, yes I agree. It's often a way of retreating into a safe place where you don't have to encounter others that use other words, etc. :)


Damian said...

Dale, I'm a little confused as to what your definitions of 'natural' and 'spirit' are. How would you distinguish between the imaginary and the real? How would you propose you could observe and test this 'spirit'?

In science there are some very weird things (quantum mechanics springs to mind) that are barely understood but we are able to observe the effects and make numerous predictions all the same. In fact, quantum mechanics produces some of the most accurate predictions in all of science.

What I see that sets 'weird' stuff in science apart from your concept of 'spirit' is that you aren't putting forward a means to observe or test your hypothesis.

Have you had the chance to look into some of the recent findings in cognitive neuroscience yet? Also, you may be interested in Dennett's recent lecture on consciousness (with regard to your mentions of 'I' and the self).

Anonymous said...

"The thing about morality, however, is that it has to do with choices. We are biological organisms, no doubt, with chemicals being released, viruses roaming, cells multiplying and much more. But somewhere in there, we have very real choices that can be made in spite of our biology, culture, up-bringing or whatever. We can make choices..."
We may get into an infinite regression here, Dale, but I am pretty sure we can find physiological correlate of choice too. In fact, I understand there is some work detecting the brain activity related to choosing - but occurring a measurable amount of time before the subject is conscious of choosing!

It's a complex area - but one being actively discussed and investigated at the moment. Dennett and others refer to the problem of the "ghost in the machine" the (perhaps natural) desire to always want something (unspecified) beyond what we can (potentially) detect. As Dennett points out, with that approach we still have to understand the ghost - so it doesn't answer the problems (unless we find evidence for it - that will give us something else to look at).

By the way, Sam Harris has just published an interesting paper showing the fMRI brain activity related to belief and disbelief. Apparently disbelief is associated with part of the brain which also is associated with feelings of disgust.

It's a fascinating area, difficult to get one's head around, but full of promise.

dale said...

Thanks Damian and Ken,

Thanks, I'll try to have a look at the Dennett lecture.

Yes, I've been fascinated by what little I've seen relating to Q.M. - esp. the experiment where photons behave in wave-like or particle-like ways, depending on whether it's 'observed'... Very interesting indeed that such a partially understood field could produce such accurate predictions.

On finding a phyiological correlate of choice (and even related brain activity preceding consciousness of choice), I have absolutely no problem here. I might want to patiently wait a few years for conclusions to firm up a bit, though. Like perhaps the brain activity 'before the choice' is simply the brain going through all of the various comparisons and deductions neccessary to make a choice ("well, if I do 'a', then 'ax', and if I do 'b', then 'bx', and if 'c', then 'cx'..." etc.) And I'd be interested to see how the moment of 'choice consciousness' was measured; surely not "when you know you've made your choice, press this button." :)

Indeed, a complex area. And I really resonate with the 'ghost in the machine' analogy. It's obviously provocative of popular notions of 'the soul', etc. I would see this as something that is 'woven' into the bio/physio qualitites of 'us'.

Further thoughts,
I'm well aware of some attempts to 'prove' the existence of God or a spiritual dimension by way of finding a 'gap' or 'hole' in science or whatever. I'm not interested in that approach. I think science honours the Creator! :) Even if a scientist doesn't acknowledge one, the very pursuit of understanding, I think, is... I don't know... godly, or something. :)

Anyway, I suppose it's not surprising that in a post about morality we'd eventually get into a discussion about the nature of the human choice.

I have an underlying feeling that human responsibility is (for want of a better way of saying it) being downgraded here? You guys aren't saying that we don't actually make choices, are you?

I'm committed to the idea that we most certainly do make choices, and are responsible for the choices we make. And you don't have to believe in the Judeo/Christian God to believe in human responsibility. We're responsible to other humans, to ourselves, to animals, and the rest of creation ('nature').

I'm rambling again...


Damian said...

Free will is a whole topic on it's own and you might want to address it in another post. I personally don't know where I stand on the issue and would love to explore it.

Back to the issue of naturalist explanations (and I know you don't like the distinction but I believe there really is one): There are some really useful historical cases that we can learn from where science has made an advance that challenges ideas that we hold to be 'instinctive' (for want of a better word).

Case 1:
Before Copernicus and Galileo we saw that the sun, stars and planets moved across the sky and so it made instinctive sense that they were going around us. Scientific observations helped us to make a paradigm shift where a heliocentric model of the solar system explained why the planets appeared to wander across the sky. Accurate predictions were able to be made using this new model.

Case 2:
Before Darwin we saw that people could build clever things and we saw that life had the appearance of being 'built'. It made instinctive sense to imply a creator much more impressive than ourselves. Darwin observed the relationships between species and showed how descent with modification through natural selection explained the variation we see in living organisms. Using his model we are able to make accurate predictions about what types of fossils we would expect to find in different geological locations, what genetic information would be shared between species and much, much more.

Case 3:
Before today we instinctively thought that there is an 'essence' of ourselves that exists separate from our physical selves. Today hypotheses are being developed that indicate that this feeling we get (along with perhaps our sense of spirituality) is a direct result of physical processes. We're not there yet but the progress is looking really good and we are able to make predictions about things like "a certain area of the brain will light up when someone is thinking about God and when we poke it we can make them have a God experience".

The point of these three cases is that it's perfectly natural to instinctively believe something but where we can say "it certainly appears that the sun goes around the earth and that something must have designed these intricate living things" an even more valid question to ask is "well, what would it look like if the earth was spinning while orbiting the sun and what would it look like if all living things have offspring that mutate and only the best-suited survive?".

The old instinctive explanations for these questions were inadequate in that they required enormous convolutions and patches to explain the wiggly path of planets and the varying similarities between species.

I would contend that the current questions we have about the origins of morality and the sense of 'self' and spirit appear to be undergoing the same process as case 1 and 2.

We instinctively feel that there is an external driving force for our morals and we feel the ghost of ourselves but we need to start asking "well, what would we expect to see if morals develop gradually over time as a function of society and how would a representation of 'self' appear to a machine if it were to become self-aware?".

IMHO, as we make more and more observations the old explanations are requiring more convoluted patches and the 'naturalistic' explanations are making more sense with every new bit of research.

Ian said...

Excellent post Damian :)


"then we can simply say that 'I' make the choices. 'I' make the observation. 'I' hold the perception. 'I' think the thought."

As Ken mentioned this doesn't really answer anything, you still have to explain what the "I" is, AND you are no closer to finding a mechanism by which "I" can actually influence the implementation of the decision. In other words all that has really happened is that the problem has got more complex for no apparent reason :)


dale said...

Thanks Damian and Ian,

I actually think the concept of free will is very much related to this discussion. Perhaps another post targeting that would be interesting, though...

I think it relates precisely because I'm committed to the idea that we have 'control' over our bodies. In other words, we direct, guide, steer and dictate what the bio/physio part of us does.

By the way, in the context of this conversation, I'm not talking about 'free will' in theological terms (i.e. - Calvinistic determinism v. Arminian freedom, etc.). I'm simply saying that we control our biology, rather than the other way round.

Case 1
Bravo. Given.

Case 2
(insert shoulder shrug here) You know I'm OK with evolutionary theory, but I still don't grasp it all. What I do know is that any scientist who dares challenge it gets either fired or accused of all kinds of evil. Is something wrong when the boundary marker for 'real science' is unswerving commitment to and acceptance of Darwinian theory? Again, please don't call me anti-science... I'm very much for it.

Case 3
Again, I concur that we can observe bio/physio phenomena that correlates to 'spiritual feelings' or whatever, but these are the mechanics of how we 'feel' things, not explanations of how we 'choose' or 'observe' or 'perceive'. And (just nit-picking) your last sentence under Case 3 really should speak of 'spiritual thoughts/feelings/experiences' instead of 'thinking about God' or 'a God experience'...

It's perhaps an old analogy that has a well-known rejoinder, but (here goes) when I move my arm, we can observe all kinds of muscles and tendons working, and blood flowing; but why did I move my arm? I chose to. And my choice to move my arm, of course, involves cognitive processes (including bio/physio phenomena) in the brain, yes; but the the choice is not itself these cognitive processes. I'm not trying to propose a 'choice in the gap' nonsense. I'm just as clueless as anyone as to what the 'mechanism' is for a choice, but we still make them.

I think my comments above could apply in response to you as well.

It's really fun thinking about all this, and I genuinely enjoy it... :)


Ian said...


Don't mind me while I drift off topic to address a minor point lol...

"What I do know is that any scientist who dares challenge it gets either fired or accused of all kinds of evil. Is something wrong when the boundary marker for 'real science' is unswerving commitment to and acceptance of Darwinian theory?"

I don't think its quite that bad :) I have heard of instances where creationists have been effectively fired from teaching evolutionary biology because they stopped believing in it. But thats a little different to what you are suggesting :)


Right back to the track:

"And my choice to move my arm, of course, involves cognitive processes (including bio/physio phenomena) in the brain, yes; but the the choice is not itself these cognitive processes. I'm not trying to propose a 'choice in the gap' nonsense. I'm just as clueless as anyone as to what the 'mechanism' is for a choice, but we still make them."

I don't think we have sufficient knowledge to rule out that its from these cognitive processes. Nor do I think we have anything close to an alternative that could explain it. And I'd go further and argue that it looks in general terms pretty much exactly like one would expect from the emergent properties of a complex system.

In other words I don't think we can justify saying "the choice is not itself in these cognitive processes" when that is exactly what it could be.

Damian said...

Yes, in Case 2 there are many scientific arguments within the field of evolution but the overwhelming scientific consensus is that the general mechanism is spot on. Intelligent design is the creationist argument repackaged and it's as intellectually bankrupt as modern day geocentrism but has dramatically more funding which makes it more appealing to those not willing to look a little deeper.

As for the case for free will I think it's helpful to walk through the gradient of nature to see where this free will may occur (if indeed it does occur at all).

Start with an amoeba. It's a fairly simple organism and I don't think many people would have a problem with the concept that it's a purely mechanistic creature. Or is that a bad assumption? If you think that free will exists even on this level let me know and we'll explore the mechanisms of DNA and amino acids.

Progress to a nematode worm. They not that much better. Just more cells and perhaps a more diverse diet. They don't seem to be making choices of any significance and they probably aren't learning anything.

How about plants?

Ant? They display some remarkably complex characteristics but as far as we can see they are just results of mechanistic creatures with limited sets of inbuilt - and perhaps some learned - instructions. When you look at a colony as a whole you'd be tempted to think it really 'knows' what it is doing. I mean, they actually 'farm' aphids! I've watched them do it. There is such a sense of purpose to all the actions of the ants that it seems almost unreasonable to think that they might not actually be little intelligent beings. But their behaviours can be explained in a purely mechanistic way.



Parrots? They're clever little buggers. They use tools, can show frustration, fool around, communicate and so on.

How about chimpanzees? Now we're talking. They appear to be able to continually learn in ways that ants are not capable of. They can use tools, they can communicate, they can show huge ranges of emotions, they can 'break' and go bad, they show altruism, and on and on. It certainly looks as if they have free will but where did this happen or is this just a more advanced version of the illusion we had with the ants?

Humans? In this gradient we're only mildly more interesting than the chimps and surely any argument for free will must have occurred a few creatures ago?

Like I say. I really don't know whether we have free will or not. Perhaps there is no distinct line where free will starts and where it ends? Perhaps we have imbued the notion of 'free will' with more status than what it deserves? Perhaps it's just a gradual measure of complexity and not an on/off state?

I don't know.

What do you think? Where do you think free will occurs in the gradient of nature? (or even in the gradient of a human life? Blastocyst? Foetus? New born? Five-month-old?)

Anonymous said...

"What I do know is that any scientist who dares challenge it gets either fired or accused of all kinds of evil. Is something wrong when the boundary marker for 'real science' is unswerving commitment to and acceptance of Darwinian theory? Again, please don't call me anti-science... I'm very much for it." Despite your protestations I personally think this sort of misrepresentation is actually anti-science - an attack on science.

You see, science doesn't work this way. Inevitably Darwin's theory (evolution by "natural selection") becomes obsolete, is superseded by new theory, developed from empirical testing and observation. "Natural selection" is no longer accepted as the only evolutionary mechanism. And there is all sorts of debate and criticism arising as a matter of course in modern biological sciences. One example I am aware of (I'm not a biologists) is James Shapiro's "Sentient Cells" idea. How could this happen if the old ideas aren't challenged?

Every scientific theory, to be living, has to have challenges. This is happening to evolutionary theories all the time.

Scientists get sacked and demoted for all sorts of reasons - I have seen a lot of this in New Zealand, basically resulting initially from funding cuts but also involving performance issues. The latter has been an issue for some of the claimed problems with individuals in the US who didn't get tenure.

But this sort of presentation of the issue is very much a political tactic used quite dishonestly by the Wedge people who have a declared aim of undermining and replacing modern science with "theistic science." Their tactic has some success with Christians (their declared "constituency") for obvious reasons. But many (perhaps most) Christians have not succumbed, been able to see it for what it is, and stick with their theological acceptance of a rational ordered world where science should not have supernatural "explanation" imposed.

Dale - you claim to "know" "that any scientist who dares challenge it gets either fired or accused of all kinds of evil. " To me that is a serious claim, and a serious attack - an attempt to undermine the standing of science. If you are honest about this knowledge then give us the information. I challenge you to write a post justifying that claim, put up the evidence, let us assess the evidence and draw our onw conclusions.

dale said...

Hey guys,

I've been flat out yesterday, and I'm away today till late tonight, so I'll try to respond Saturday, OK?



dale said...

I'm putting up a cre/evo/i.d.-ish post for discussion of those issues... Important things to hash through... Will hope to have new post up soon...

Also am keen explore some things relating to ethics/morals/values/etc. here...



dale said...

New post still coming...

Just didn't want to forget something I wanted to say (with specific reference to Ken)...

I really should simply and humbly apologise for at least the way I spoke of 'knowing' that scientists who challenge evolutionary theory get fired, etc. As you say, that's a rather huge thing to say, and I was too strong.

I will raise a few cases in the new post, but in a much more established context than our commenting above...

Cheers for now,