Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Curse of Episodic DLC? Brief Thoughts After Burial at Sea Part 2

So I just finished playing Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea - Episode 2. When I first heard that they would be doing episodic DLCs, I cringed a little. Valve made that same decision with Half-Life 2, and while HL2: Episode 2 was great, it didn't quite live up to the original game, and we're still waiting in indefinite limbo for Episode 3. I had hoped that maybe Irrational would have gone with DLCs that weren't directly related to the main plot of Infinite, and we might be delivered a conclusion to Elizabeth and Booker's story sometime in the more distant future, in the form of another stand-alone sequel.

Personally, I feel like episodic DLCs are flawed by nature and are an unwise move for successful game franchises. I can think of a number of enjoyable expansion packs and DLCs that don't directly continue the original game's main story, such as Half Life: Opposing Force, Skyrim: Dragonborn, Fallout New Vegas: Dead Money, and Dishonored: The Knife of Dunwall. There are countless other examples. What I can't think of are many DLCs that continue the original story in a way that lives up to the game they're expanding upon, especially when they're as short as 2-3 hours in length.

If you've read my article on Religion in Bioshock Infinite, you probably picked up on the fact that I really admire and adore Infinite. There is so much to appreciate in it, on lots of different levels. The Burial at Sea DLCs are so tame by comparison that it's hard to believe they came from the same team. Sure, I found bits to like about each of them, but I feel like Infinite deserved a conclusion more fitting than it has received. I know it's all too easy to cast blame on the creators, on the pressure they faced from fans, or in any other direction. It's worth recognizing that part of the appeal of Infinite was its innovation - innovation you won't generally get from sequels. However, Infinite itself is a sequel, done in an extraordinarily creative way. It would have been nice to see another chapter in the Bioshock franchise take on a similar approach.

Burial at Sea Episode 2 drives home something that I've noticed about episodic DLC ever since the Half-Life franchise started using them. Episodes just don't allow for the kind of creative freedom that make outstanding games so outstanding. It was six years from Half-Life to Half-Life 2. It was also six years from the original Bioshock to Infinite (recall that Bioshock 2 was developed by another studio). It was five years from Oblivion to Skyrim. It was four years from Portal to Portal 2. My point is that all these great games had time to knock around ideas, to troubleshoot things, to revise and refine concepts, eventually coalescing into the landmarks that we know them as today. Episodes, on the other hand, are often rushed out to shelves under a year or two after the original game is released.

One of the things I find fascinating about games like Half-Life and Bioshock is how much they changed over the course of their development. There are all kinds of crazy ideas game designers come up with and fortunately abandon in the early stages of development. Some ideas are even better, it seems, than the finished product. A lot gets left on the cutting room floor for a multitude of reasons, but what's most important is that behind it all there is ample time to brainstorm. Time to come up with ideas, time to let those ideas sink in, time to test them against all kinds of battery, time to reshape them, time to contrast them with other ideas or with new ideas, and time to trash them. Speaking as someone who has done some non-professional game modding and designing in the past, I know that inspiration can often times come when you least expect it, not to mention from the oddest sources. This isn't only true of game development, either, it's also something I find in writing, creating YouTube videos, and playing music.

Of course, DLCs aren't starting from scratch, so they won't need four to six years of development time. Nonetheless, a more lax schedule undoubtedly provides for more opportunity to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is why I think the best DLCs tend to be indirectly related to the stories they're expanding on. So much goes into the main plot of a game life Half-Life 2 or Bioshock Infinite, whereas telling a different character's story in a DLC, or visiting a different location in one, doesn't require as much effort and doesn't attempt to force a conclusion out of characters and a setting that took so much time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears to develop. I tend to think of it like the suspension of disbelief that directors ask of their audience. We can tolerate variations on a theme, because that's what DLCs are supposed to be, but asking us to swallow a true sequel in the form of one or two short DLCs is asking too much. It seems like, by its nature, such a thing will feel contrived.

This is my initial impression after finishing the Burial at Sea DLCs. Both parts were fun and entertaining in their own ways, but they lacked that special ingredient, if you will. Infinite was epic as hell. I read a review somewhere calling Burial at Sea "fan fiction", and I think there is no better word for it. It ties together many threads that were already suspected by the end of Infinite, so in that regard it feels quite on-the-nose. New surprises seem to lack impact, and some plot details, like Elizabeth's relationship to Sally, feel forced and difficult to buy. By the end of Episode 1, I had hoped Burial at Sea would be just an alternate reality sort of tangent, but Episode 2 pretty well lays that hope to rest, as does Ken Levine's announcement of Irrational's closing, and handing over the reins of Bioshock to 2K.

Who really knows what the future will hold, though? I don't think most Bioshock fans expected Levine would return for a sequel until it was announced some three to four years after the original. Judging from the interviews I've heard, Levine didn't even expect it himself. Perhaps the Bioshock franchise has more in store and perhaps Booker and Elizabeth's story is not yet over. What seems likeliest, though, is that the gaming industry will not ditch the disappointing episodic DLC model anytime soon. With the success of titles like Half-Life 2 and Infinite, why not put out short little bite-sized expansions, both to satiate consumers and bring in more money for the company? If you want to see how a story plays out, you get to buy two or three additions instead of one that really gives you your money's worth.

I suppose the only people we can actually hope will listen to gamers are the developers themselves. The business executives certainly won't. It always sucks to see a beloved title become another Call of Duty, shelling out sequel after uninventive sequel primarily to capitalize on a booming market. Please, game developers, resist the urge and the pressure to cram resolutions to a story that you painstakingly crafted over the span of several years into the deathtraps that are episodic DLCs. The characters, settings, worlds, and atmospheres you've created deserve so much more than that.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Stop Pretending Your Standard is God's Standard

It always amuses me when Christians try to defend their beliefs by essentially belittling their own powers of reason and observation. 'I don't know if I trust myself enough to think I can figure it all out on my own.' 'I think it takes tremendous faith to believe you know better than god.' While statements like these largely straw-man the atheist position, they also reveal one major assumption behind most forms of theism that actually played a pretty big role in my own loss of faith. 

Most recently, I heard David Robertson give voice to this assumption in his second debate with Matt Dillahunty on the UK Christian radio show Unbelievable. David said he doesn't judge Jesus by his standards, he judges Jesus by Jesus' standards. When Matt rightly called this out as circular, noting that even Satan would look right by Satan's own standards, David disagreed and denied that he's in a position to judge, being that he can't trust himself absolutely. Fortunately, he has god's standard to rely on instead - or so David thinks.

The problem is that such a position is entirely untenable. Whatever one believes about divine revelation, it cannot be the case that revelation is ever given in a completely uninterpreted, unfiltered, and direct way. The process of revelation, whether denoting anything true or not, always involves a sender and receiver; divine beings (god, angels, etc.) send revelations, which we human beings receive. To suppose otherwise is not just to move beyond revelation, but to suppose that there is no real distinction between humans and the divine, that we are synonymous with god in some sense. Perhaps, like Bishop George Berkeley thought, we are only ideas in the mind of god. Of course, such a radical view has plenty of its own problems, not least of which would be asking which divine mind we do inhabit.

If revelation has to be transmitted to us, by its nature, then what guarantee is there that it's transmitted accurately? More to the point, even if it is transmitted accurately, what guarantee is there that we've received it accurately? We know of many cases of transmitted information getting 'lost in translation' - radio signals, written texts, cultural norms, computer codes, even genetic material. Where there are senders and receivers, there are often errors occurring at several points along the way. Mr. Robertson likely finds it plausible that believers in other faiths might have malfunctioning receptors, could have been sent a corrupted message, or perhaps received their beliefs from a dubious source. What makes him think, against these alternatives, that he has truly received god's standard through divine revelation?

As I'd bet, there are only two responses someone like David would give. His revelation is trustworthy because god has protected its transmission, or his revelation is trustworthy because it has the sort of evidence and reasons it would need to be trustworthy. If the latter is the case, David must either admit there is, in fact, some personal standard he's using to make judgments about revelation, or he must continue to deny this and, in effect, retreat to the former response. However, the former response is nothing but an assumption - an article of faith - until support is given for it. When that support is provided, it will either be based on god, as ascertained by revelation, or it will have to be based on something independent of god. So round and round it will go till Robertson arbitrarily decides to stop questioning and rely on faith, or till he decides to join the rest of us who recognize the inescapable nature of perception, and finally starts talking standards of belief in a manner we can actually understand and assess.

I want to be clear, though, that I am not insinuating that we should fully trust our own senses to guide us to the truth. The problems I've noted as arising from methods of transmission arise in more areas than just religious revelation. There are many conceivable situations where it's not a good idea to depend on our intuitions and common sense, and psychology tells us there is much about the way our minds work that can cast doubt on the accuracy of such easy means of decision-making. Yet if we take these situations to indicate a general unreliability about ourselves, the conclusion that necessarily follows is not Christian theism, but solipsism. If we can't trust ourselves to reason about matters involving god, we certainly can't trust ourselves to reason about divine revelation. Nonetheless, a great many theists do, including David Robertson. The irony is that even his statement about not being in a position to judge Jesus by his own standard is itself a judgment call, as it is to judge that the sentence 'Jesus is good' comes from a divine source.

What I find particularly appalling about all of this is not the flawed reasoning, or even the hypocrisy behind it, but the way Christians like David use it as a platform on which to exalt themselves in false humility. The obvious implication is that someone who follows the perfect standard of an all-knowing, all-good god is in a better epistemic position than someone who doesn't. Though I can't deny this in principle, I can deny the naive substitution of one's own standard with 'god's standard', as Robertson attempts to get away with. If one wants to claim that the rule they live by is divine, let them state their case and support it with reason and evidence. If one wants to make the less fantastical claim that they try to make their own standard comport with a divine rule of law, this, too, at least is fertile ground for discussion.

But, please, stop pretending that your standard is god's standard rather than your own.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Bill Nye, Ken Ham, and Starting Points

Initially I had no intention of watching last night's creation versus evolution debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye. I have listened to more than a fair share of other such debates, read numerous books on both sides of the argument, and - perhaps most importantly - I am very familiar with Ken Ham's position. I used to frequent Answers in Genesis when I was a believer, and I've watched scores of videos deconstructing Ken's claims. I knew Mr. Ham-fisted would basically hit the same five or six notes he always does, with precious little deviation:

  • There are gaps in the fossil record.
  • Evolution cannot explain the origin of life.
  • Evolution cannot explain the origin of the universe.
  • Evolution cannot explain the laws of logic.
  • 'You weren't there, were you?'
  • The Bible has all the answers.
After finding myself with some free time, and seeing friends commenting on the debate online, I decided to fire up the stream and check it out. I only caught things from the rebuttals and on, but the first words I heard out of Ken Ham's mouth told me I hadn't missed anything. "I would like Bill to explain where the laws of logic come from." Yes, Ken, we know you would. You're at the wrong place for that, though.

Evolutionary theory is not a theory about the fundamental foundations of reality. It's not a theory about the nature of logic, even. It's also not a theory about the origin of life from non-living matter, the origin of the universe, or the origin and meaning of morality. As everyone who stayed awake in Biology class knows, the theory of evolution is a theory about the diversity of life. It explains why there are so many different lifeforms, including us. It tells us that random mutations in our genetic material are 'selected' by mother nature in ways that favor our survival. Those organisms that miss out on mutations that allow others to endure a hostile environment, or to stand a better chance of finding a mate, do not reproduce and eventually die out. Different species emerge when one group of organisms evolves to the point that they can no longer produce viable offspring with the other group(s).

Now, of course that's a very cursory and simplified explanation of evolutionary theory, but there it is. The theory doesn't purport to answer how the first cell came about, how the cosmos began, or anything of the sort. There are other scientific theories attempting to resolve those questions, but evolution by natural selection is not one of them. In making such demands of evolution, Mr. Ham-bone only showed that he doesn't actually understand the theory he's pretending to refute.

But consider what Ken is proposing in place of evolution. His "theory" (which is not a theory in any scientific sense, as Bill Nye adequately demonstrated in the debate) is not simply a competing explanation for the diversity of life. Creationism does purport to answer questions about the origin of life, the origin of the universe, the origin of morality, the nature of logic, the fundamental foundations of reality, and lots more. The creationist claim isn't just that god made humans, or that god made all living matter. There is no room for alternate possibilities in creationism; it can't be that god made life, but we don't know where matter came from, or that god created the cosmos, but logical absolutes just are brute facts. If you permit any alternative explanations, you leave space for the puzzling question of why one and not the other. Why can't other things be brute facts, too? Why it isn't acceptable to say we don't know where the universe came from and leave it at that?

However, creationists are not so concerned with how god created any particular thing as much as they seem concerned with that he created it. Creationism is the bizarre "theory" of everything that offers no explanatory mechanisms for what it pretends to explain - indeed, it even seems incapable of providing them! The Bible might say that god spoke and the world came into being, but this bald assertion could hardly be called a mechanism for explaining the actual process of divine creation. For one reason, it makes no sense of the fact that we find layers upon layers upon layers of working parts inside everything in the universe, down to nearly inconceivable subatomic scales. If a watchmaker could construct a watch simply by speaking it into existence, it seems absurd to think he would still bother to do it in such a way as to assemble gears, springs, glass, and all the individual parts into the whole. Why not just create a magic, irreducible watch?

Any answer to the question can only be speculation, no less conjectural than entertaining an answer to how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. And here is where the real trouble begins, because with no mechanism to make predictions with, or to test and experiment with, creationism is dead on arrival. It's not science, nor is it a theory. In fact, I don't see how it qualifies as any good kind of explanation at all, even to the "who" question. When archaeologists ask themselves who built Stonehenge, they don't just consider identities of different ancient peoples, they consider the resources that were available to them, the knowledge they would have possessed, and, most importantly, how they might have used their resources and knowledge to construct the monument. Unfortunately, the construction methods used at Stonehenge are still a matter of widespread debate, and so too, as we would expect, is the identity of the builders. Even though there are many old legends attributing the site to different sources, the question of who built Stonehenge remains as speculative as how they built it.

This is what amused me about Ken Ham's frequent appeal to "starting points" during the debate. His starting point he proudly declared to be the Bible - a collection of old documents that have been given countless interpretations over the centuries, which are known to have been redacted and borrowed from earlier stories, [Origins of the Old Testament] which show evidence of anachronism, [Finkelstein, The Bible Unearthed; Cline, From Eden to Exile] and which have all the hallmarks of a pre-scientific worldview. [Paul Tobin, The Physical Sciences] On this foundation, Ham wants to build his case for his "theory" of everything that is incapable of providing explanatory mechanisms for its claims. It's not hard to see why this is an inadequate starting point... unless you're wearing Ken's "biblical glasses", or dogma blinders as I call them.

Ham-ster man's other two notes, about the gaps in the fossil record and indirect observation, go to show that in addition to having no clue about what evolutionary theory posits, he also has no clue about what is important in a sufficiently explanatory theory. I would like to see him ask a homicide detective if he was present for the murder he's solved on indirect observations. Ken seems to have this crazy idea that eyewitness testimony is the strongest kind of evidence one can have for anything, and while I can't help but suspect it has something to do with his faith in the orthodox view of the gospels, I can say there are tons of studies by Elizabeth Loftus and others showing that eyewitness memory is, in fact, quite easily fooled. Likewise, the gaps in the fossil record as not as significant a challenge to evolution as Ken would like us to believe. [Kathleen Hunt, Transitional Vertebrate Fossils FAQ] Even generally speaking, the fact that a theory cannot account for absolutely everything it describes, or that it relies on indirect observations, is not going to undermine that theory as badly as it will if there is no working mechanism. Mechanisms allow us to make predictions and test claims in ways that can resolve apparent gaps and strengthen our confidence in a theory.

I should say I do think we all bring our own unique perspectives to the table of discussion and debate, but whether it's accurate to call these "starting points" is another question. Have we come to these points by a priori or a posteriori means? Frankly, I'm less interested in that argument than I am in how you think you can demonstrate the truth of your claims. Even if you want to start with an assumption and try to show how much sense everything makes if we grant it, you still need to state your case and expect that assumption to be questioned. When Ken Ham calls the Bible his "axiom", I think he abuses the concept of an axiom. The Bible is not self-authenticating in any sensible way, and there are, as I've already noted, quite a few problems with it.

On the other hand, it seems to me that there can be axioms that are far more defensible. Ken ironically asked Bill to account for the laws of logic, but the law of noncontradiction and the law of identity can be taken as self-evident axioms in a way that the Bible cannot. If one were to try and show the law of noncontradiction to be false, for example, she would only wind up affirming it. To meaningfully undermine the law of noncontradiction, you would have to assume that the law could not be both true and false simultaneously. But this assumption is what the law of noncontradiction states. There is no analogous manner in which refuting the Bible would be to affirm the Bible, and if the laws of logic are conceivably self-evident in this way, there is actually no need to account for them - they account for themselves.

What all could be built on these sorts of axioms is a subject for another time, and it's important to remember that the creation/evolution debate is a different ballgame. While I was at first slightly perturbed by Nye's refusal to even acknowledge Ham's red herrings, perhaps it was a good move to not let things descend into a deeply philosophical quibble that would've been ultimately irrelevant. Evolution in no way conflicts with, or establishes, the laws of logic, for reasons already given.

Nye did do an excellent job of showing that he really knows science and the scientific method, however, and Ken couldn't help but preach to the converted, since it's all he knows how to do. In a debate where science is meant to play so eminent a role, Ken only hurt himself by appealing to scriptural authority and to vague individual authorities, rather than keeping the discussion centered on facts and evidence. But then again, after all we've seen that Mr. Ham doesn't know, it shouldn't be surprising for me to say that I don't think he knows what makes facts reliable facts, and what makes evidence good evidence. To quote mine a passage from a very old book, if one were to write down all that Ken Ham doesn't know, "I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written."

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Why an Atheist Forgives

I have personally met some pretty despicable people in my life. I have been threatened too many times to count, I've been assaulted, viciously demeaned, and plenty worse. But there's a world of difference between that and having to see loved ones or close friends go through such mistreatment. There's a universe of difference between that and knowing that those you love have endured deeply personal pain you will never experience. I have friends who have been discriminated against in absolutely deplorable ways, friends and family members who have been mercilessly harassed, friends and family members who have been violently assaulted and sexually assaulted - some as adults and some as children - and friends who have been raped. I know I am not alone in the company I keep. It's a depressing fact that we all likely know people close to us who have been physically and/or mentally abused by others.

When I was a Christian, forgiveness came easy. If I were wronged in any way, I would forgive the person who wronged me. Why? Because god forgave me, because Jesus taught the virtue of forgiveness, and therefore it was what a true follower of Christ should do. Forgiveness came easy because it became a duty, an obligation, and a routine practice for me, just like prayer. To not forgive was to spurn god's forgiveness of my own detestable sins, and to disobey Christ's commands (Mark 11:25, Matthew 6:14-15). Forgiveness also became an opportunity to show what a faithful believer I was, and to spread the gospel every good Christian holds dear. If I really was forgiven, I would forgive others.

To make a long story short, I became an atheist in 2007 after struggling for quite some time with the reliability of the Bible, the problem of evil, the way in which other religions used similar arguments for their own teachings, and the big question of why faith should be esteemed at all. A year later I started my website, Godless Haven, and began writing my thoughts on religion, atheism, morality, and other related subjects. When I tackled the problem of evil, I tackled it logically, and when I discussed meaning and value from an atheist's eyes, I did it matter-of-factly. Yes, sometimes life sucks, I seemed to say, but we should remind ourselves that it's most important to embrace reality as it is, and to find hope in the little things.

I remember thinking at the time that some of my remarks on suffering felt a bit feigned, being that I had next to no experience with what many would call "real life hardships". Over the past year or two, this has stuck out in my mind as I've had a number of those hardships, one after the other, seemingly unrelenting at times. Though I still find there is plenty to be glad about in my life, I've come to realize that I feel the pain of others much more deeply than I might have expected some while ago. Of course, I grew up hearing so many stories of how often we are not ready when major life suffering hits us, so perhaps I should've known better.

There have been times I've wanted to break everything around me, to set fire to anything in sight, and then collapse to my knees in tears. There have been times where all I can do is clench my fists and try to let out shallow, heavy sighs that sting with every breath. There have even been times where I've felt I could beat and strangle the life out of someone who's hurt those I love. I've sometimes questioned why it matters to forgive monsters, why think revenge would be unsatisfying. Just because it's good to forgive in a certain situation, or even in most situations, that doesn't mean it's always good to forgive, does it?

It's no big secret that atheists are maligned in the Bible, and by many people still today, as being angry, callous, unforgiving, and unloving. If you don't believe in a god that forgives us and keeps us accountable, then why care about forgiving those who have seriously wronged you?

Some time ago, I made the mistake of reading something unbelievably hateful that was said to one of my loved ones. It filled me with emotions I thankfully don't often feel so intensely. It was one of those things that can't be unlearned, no matter how much you might wish it could be. Since that time, it pops into my mind in different contexts, turning my mood upside down, usually with little warning. I've repeatedly asked myself why I couldn't have just refused to read what I read; perhaps I would have been better off not knowing so much. What good could have possibly come from reading it?

The other night I realized that as painful as it was for me to see the hateful message, I only know a fraction of the story. The person I love has had to deal with that and much more, undoubtedly much worse. By being more aware of their situation, I will hopefully be able to be more helpful to them. Watching my own behavior, doing my best to be a source of comfort when I can, and learning to stand up and speak out when I come across other similar situations, will all make for a better direction for me and my loved ones than if I were to persist in anger and retaliate. There is nothing worthwhile to be gained, and so much to be lost, from allowing rage or depression to consume you.

One reason I will forgive is that I understand that the alternative is poison. We all suffer when we spend all our time reflecting on the tragedies in our lives - we slip into the darkest spells of sorrow that inevitably affect those around us. Many families have fallen further apart when revenge comes into the picture. The evidence for the effects of forgiveness and resentment is not all anecdotal, though. Psychological studies like Van Oyen et al. have shown a correlation with physical health. Not just for my own sake, but also for the sake of those I care about, I need to find ways to deal with pain and suffering that are healthy and helpful rather than corrosive. Forgiving the people who have wronged you still acknowledges that they have wronged you, but you make the conscious choice to let go of harmful attitudes and behavior.

Another reason I will forgive is because monsters are not born from a vacuum. It can be exceedingly hard to think of a hateful person as a person, but when their actions strongly show that they dehumanize others, it has to be recognized that they did not likely learn this all on their own. Monsters are nearly always created from other monsters, even if the other monsters are personality disorders instead of persons. Though none of that makes it right, I find it does make it somewhat easier to forgive the person who hurts others because hurt is all they've ever known. It's also worth remembering that we rarely get the full picture of what anyone's life is like.

Personally, I feel that these are both better reasons to forgive offenders than that the Bible tells us to forgive, that Jesus taught forgiveness, or that god forgave us. The forgiveness that I practice is not an obligation, not a duty, and most certainly not an opportunity to show what a good person I am, and I think that's precisely what makes it meaningful. Forgiveness that comes easy is cheap forgiveness. How can you truly forgive another person from the heart when the reason you're forgiving them is more like a court order from on high than any personal reason? Some might say that it's actually Christ in them that allows them to forgive others more freely, but this raises the question of what is being called forgiveness (perhaps theirs is a routine, almost carefree practice like mine was... and is that really forgiveness?), and there is just no data showing whether or not Christians really are more forgiving than non-Christians.

The fact is that we need each other, especially when turmoil hits. I've recently been reading a fascinating book, The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers, wherein author Daniel Schacter describes the work of psychologists Daniel Wegner, Terrence Keane, Stevan Weine, and James Pennebaker, showing the importance of "confronting, disclosing, and integrating the experiences we would most like to forget" in safe environments with those we trust. In several studies, sharing with others has even helped to reduce flashbacks and intrusive memories that haunt sufferers of PTSD. One would not be grasping at straws to imagine how this kind of research can help us appreciate the need for forgiving ourselves, as well as forgiving those who have wronged us.

I feel that I am better able to confront and address problems of forgiveness now as an atheist. To me, there is no question of why god allowed x to happen, or what moral lesson he wants me to learn from x. There is no infinitely forgiving deity I can turn to when I screw up with others, or when I have difficulty letting go of things. If I have offended someone, I have to make it right with them. No one else is able to accept on their behalf, and no one else is able to apologize on my behalf. If I should forgive someone, I have to be the one to forgive them. No one else is able to forgive them for me, and no one else is able to experience the gift of my forgiveness for someone else. While this does indeed allow us the freedom to go on indefinitely being unforgiven, or unforgiving, it does not eliminate the psychological, social, and physical consequences.

Alexander Pope said, "To err is human; to forgive, divine." I think he was half-right. We human beings certainly do err, but it is that notable flaw about us that makes us what and who we are, and gives us reason to forgive. Whoever needed to be forgiven for something they've done right, and what sort of divinity would create and deal with creatures like ourselves, that could not itself be prone to error? No, I say, to err is human, and to forgive is all too human. I don't forgive because I am a non-believer, nor do I think believers forgive because they are believers. I think we forgive because we are human and because we stand in the best of all positions to recognize this, and the meaning of it, in others.

I forgive you because I need to, because my friends and family need me to, and because you - whether you acknowledge it or not - also need me to.

Van Oyen, C. Witvilet, T.E. Ludwig and K. L. Vander Lann, "Granting Forgiveness or Harboring Grudges: Implications for Emotions, Physiology and Health," Psychological Science no. 12 (2001): 117-23.

Monday, October 21, 2013

In Defense of Atheist Churches

On a recent episode of the Reasonable Doubts podcast, ex-minister Jerry Dewitt shared his intentions and ambitions for the Community Mission Chapel, a secular church where he preaches a message of humanism. You won't find god there, but you will find lessons and teachings on love, hope, purpose, truth, and other familiar concepts. Dewitt's ideas seem to be part of a growing push among secularists aspiring to develop a greater sense of community. Earlier this year, the Sunday Assembly in London attracted large numbers of attendants curious to see what a so-called atheist church looks like. Atheist speakers like Alain de Botton have encouraged non-believers to embrace and learn from certain aspects of religion, particularly the social components found in ecclesiastical environments.

Predictably, the response to these new initiatives has been mixed on both sides. Christian apologist William Lane Craig has criticized the efforts of Dewitt and others, suggesting that their messages have no real substance without a transcendent deity behind them. The atheist blogosphere has no shortage of voices decrying any attempts at organizing that could be construed into an argument for atheism being a religion. But at the other end of things, there are also those who see the value in having a network of support like most congregations provide. Even simply having a weekly place of respite from our predominantly religious world, where one can gather with like-minded people, can be its own reward.

I used to count myself among those who contend that anything resembling religion should be anathema to atheism. No sacred texts, no liturgies, no icons, no prophets, no evangelists, and definitely no churches. All such things are permeated by corruption and serve to foster blind obeisance. Undoubtedly, they can and do often suffer from those problems, and history is rife with prime and perturbing examples. Yet we have to be cautious that we don't toss the baby out with the bathwater. Nietzsche saw the world as infused with innumerable crumbling theistic assumptions, but even he didn't conclude that there would be nothing worth salvaging from the ashes of religion. Whether or not there are any gods, angels, demons, or spirits, religion is a human enterprise. Perhaps, like us, it has its good as well as its bad traits.

I'm regularly disappointed by how few atheists seriously consider what evolution and social psychology tell us about religious belief. It's not something that can be knocked down in one shot with a silver bullet argument. It's not going to fade away and be replaced by widespread reliance on reason and evidence. Religion hasn't only survived through bloodshed and oppression, even if they've played a significant role in its history (like they have for much of human history in general). Religion persists for other reasons. They're not the cosmic sort of reasons, nor are they necessarily the memetic sort. Put simply, there are things about religion which are apparently appealing enough that we have sustained it since before recorded history.

However, I would disagree with some theists like Dinesh D'Souza, who assert that the survival of religion says something about the goodness or truth of its claims. I'm most sympathetic to the view of Pascal Boyer espoused in his seminal work Religion Explained. What exactly religion fulfills in us is a matter of no small debate, but there is some basis for thinking that it appeals to needs and desires that go deeper than the belief in a transcendent or personal creator of the universe. I believe this is well indicated by the grand variety of opinions on what god is, how many gods exist, what their roles and attributes are, etc. This part of religion seems quite amorphous in contrast to more inflexible parts of it, such as morality and community. As far back as our records go, we find community participation and moral codes to be fairly consistent aspects of religion. Even today in individualistic societies like the US and Great Britain, where religion is believed to be a more private matter, there are many strong communities of faith.

I can see atheist churches meeting the needs of religion without the god stuff, because I believe that's practically what religion itself already does for many. What should be so different about an atheist church and a college lecture hall? What about a local community center? A school of philosophy? Likely due to cultural influence, we seem to attach a different mood to the label of "church". A college lecture hall is for college students, and sometimes consists of dry and boring content, as can a school of philosophy. Local community centers are usually event-driven, but also have the connotation of being made up of 'good citizens'. Churches, on the other hand, are intended to be welcoming and inviting, whatever your background. Much more than a lecture hall, community center, or school of philosophy, they appeal to our needs and desires as social creatures.

To be frank, I worry that we risk sacrificing too much if we concern ourselves more with how our views and actions appear to other people than with the values we claim to have. Atheism should not mean every man for himself, or every woman for herself. We shouldn't create an atmosphere of isolation solely in the service of making it easier for us to fend off theistic criticisms. Dogmatic believers will mislabel atheism a religion as long as it suits their agenda; it's truly not contingent on anything we do. There is more that can be had from atheist churches than from conventions, meet-up groups, and whatnot. Of course, no atheist is obligated to attend an atheist church, but for those who want the fellowship - which I remind you is not a concept on which the religious have any exclusive claim - it won't hurt anything if those opportunities are available.

Dewitt and Jeremy Beahan make many great points, one of which is that we don't just benefit from moral instruction, but from moral conversation as well. Activating concepts in our minds is part of what helps to make us better people, and imagine what will be contributed to critical thinking in an environment where questions are actually expected and cultivated instead of discouraged! Perhaps there could even be lessons learned from William Lane Craig's bizarre and careless dismissal of subjective meaning and purpose, as if some absolute cosmic brand is the only kind that should matter to us.

I have to admit, I would probably not regularly attend an atheist church myself. My reason, though, would be mostly due to my past as a religious believer, and not any personal aversion to it. I'm quite content having my weekends free and not hearing cheesy godless hymns or corny parodies of invocations. But I also recognize that many who feel lost after walking away from their faith, who have never had a church experience, or those who just like being around fellow non-believers, may find enjoyment in it. In addition, I happen to know many religious people who have never cracked an atheist book, or sought out an atheist to ask an honest question. If they were suddenly invited to an atheist church by a friend, maybe they would go and possibly hear some answers to the questions they've been afraid to ask.

So yes, atheist churches could split, they could have to ask their congregations to help with funding, they might have to face corruption and any other problems many churches face, and they likely wouldn't help to make us look less religious to the diehard anti-atheists out there... but do those costs really outweigh the benefits? If organizing is what it takes to get our voices heard politically, to dialogue with other communities in a more meaningful and productive way, to bring us together to affect greater change in social justice issues and other causes, and to better fulfill some of our personal and social needs and desires, then I can't be opposed to the idea of an atheist church.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Delusional Thinking About Generation Y

A recent article at The Huffington Post titled Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy has been stirring up controversy lately. In the article, the claim is made that Millennials are displeased with their lot in life not because they've been dealt a bad hand economically or personally, but because they are convinced they're special, they're overly ambitious, and they're delusional. If you think this summation of the article is even slightly inaccurate, read it for yourself. There have already been some great responses, but there are a few additional points I'd like to make.

I was born in 1985, so by most estimates I am among Generation Y, but just on the cusp of it to where I was also once included among Generation X. In the Huff-Po article, they define Generation Y as those born from the late 70s to the mid 90s, which overlaps ambiguously with other definitions of Generation X as extending to the early 80s, as well as other definitions of Generation Y which claim a starting range as late as 1983. There are problems with lumping all different types of people, from different environments, into such vague categories to begin with, but this is one major reason I hate generational labels. The lie to such labels is that they imply that practically all men of the Greatest Generation were honorable men, or that practically every one of the Baby Boomers experimented with drugs and had lots and lots of unprotected sex. We class things by labels because of trends and stereotypes, but when we begin to use those labels to further said stereotypes, we venture past the domains of history and anthropology and into the domain of prejudice.

I could provide anecdotes about myself and my experiences with the work force, but I see them as being irrelevant to the gist of what is objectionable about this article. It's not saying that there aren't some hard-working, happy people among Generation Y. It's not even saying that there aren't some Generation Yers who get the unlucky end of the stick through no fault of their own. But what it is strongly suggesting is that there is a general problem of entitlement among this current generation of youngsters. I'll be the first to admit that I've worked alongside plenty of guys and girls in my age group who are incredibly lazy, incredibly hostile to others, and incredibly selfish. Then again, I think we've all also worked with people like that who belong to older generations. Anecdotes will only get us so far.

It's interesting, though, that the author of the Huff-Po article doesn't even bother with anecdotes or any kind of evidence for that matter. Many of his claims simply go unsourced and unchallenged. The crux of his article is simply an assertion. He specifies a subgroup (?) of Generation Y to which he gives the acronym GYPSY, for Generation Y Protagonists and Special Yuppies. Sounds convoluted, sure, but the intent is obviously not descriptive as much as it is derogatory. GYPSYs, he argues, think they're super special, they're overly ambitious, and they're pretty darn delusional. Now, as the question mark implies, exactly how much of Gen. Y do these GYPSYs occupy? The author says "a large portion". Well, what is a large portion? 90%? 70%? 51%? Unsurprisingly, no evidence is produced for the GYPSY delineation. Also, unsurprising is that there is no substantiation for how, why, or if in fact GYPSYs do consider themselves more special or are more ambitious than older folks. The most the author provides is a study by Paul Harvey.

I've only read the abstract and some discussions of Harvey's study, because it's unfortunately not available for free online, despite my best efforts to obtain it. However, the abstract and title say nothing at all about Gen. Y or about younger participants. What the study investigated, according to its own authors, was "two behavioral outcomes of entitlement — political behavior and co-worker abuse — and the mediating role of job-related frustration." It sounds like claims about Gen. Y are merely based on a statistical correlation, and this is confirmed in another article about the study, claiming that Harvey's data shows Gen. Y participants scoring 25% higher on measures of entitlement than those aged 40-60, and being twice as likely to rank in the top 20% of entitlement as those 40-60.

The real question is what the entitlement measures are that Harvey and others are using, and what factors might lie behind these figures that are often nakedly thrown around. There is research, like that by Paula McDonald, showing that younger workers are unfairly dismissed more often than older workers. McDonald has some intriguing things to say about the perception of Gen. Y held by many employers:
These young people don't match the Generation Y stereotype of savvy career-builders. They are perceived as being disloyal job-hoppers, but that is an unfair accusation because young workers often have to cope with insecure work environments, low wages and anti-social working hours.
Some employers exploit the vulnerability of young employees and capitalise on their inexperience, limited representation and relative difficulty in seeking legal advice. Some also treat young workers as disposable, especially in this sample who are generally low skilled and who work in precarious, casual positions. These workers are often treated more unfairly because they are more easily replaced, compared to highly skilled workers who are more difficult to replace.
Sadly, I can relate to much of what Ms. McDonald mentions. I have gone through a number of brief stints at jobs for various reasons. Some were admittedly my own fault, or my own decision to quit, but others were not. I worked for a company that regularly over-hires when they open new stores, and being unaware of that at the time, I took their offer and then had the frustrating experience of rapidly losing hours after we opened the store. I have been harassed by co-workers before, cheated out of money, and dismissed over taking two legitimate sick days in a 6 month period. I'm smart enough not to include all these stints on my resume because I imagine how they would look to an employer in this age when employers treat your application purely as a document that should benefit them, rather than putting a face with the document and seeing its origins in an actual person. But I don't expect everyone in my age group does this.

Research like Ms. McDonald's raises the question of what direction the correlation goes. Are younger people more likely to feel entitled than their peers because they have terribly high self-esteem, or does employment treat them in ways that force a sort of bolstering of their self-esteem, which takes on a sense of entitlement? Psychologists have seen the same effect in other circumstances - challenging someone's religious beliefs, or political beliefs, will often result in what are called dissonance reducing strategies. Rather than letting ourselves be beat down or curtail to the first criticisms we receive, we want to defend ourselves and reaffirm our beliefs about ourselves, and this is not always a bad thing. If there is this popular perception of Generation Yers as being over-zealous, arrogant hotshots, and this perception influences how employers treat younger employees, it would make sense that many young people react in ways aimed at reducing the dissonance of being treated so unfairly. Of course, to others, this may appear to only confirm their stereotypes.

What about the older generations, why wouldn't they react as strongly? Certainly some of them do, but I think some of the stereotypes here can also be true. There is more a sense of collectivism among older generations, and an increasing sense of individualism among younger people, even in countries like China. It's not a stretch to imagine that a greater focus on team-playing means one is less likely to be discriminated against by employers than those of a more individualistic bent, and one may even shake off such discrimination more, in the interests of solidarity. There are upsides of both perspectives, I would argue, but also downsides. Employers do need employees that get along well with others, but in our increasingly technological and specialized world, it's become ever more important to recognize the unique abilities of individuals. Towing the line for its own sake is no longer an acceptable policy, and if Gen. Yers are reacting negatively to this sort of foolish standard in the work force, who can blame them?

One other major problem I have with the Huff-Po article, and with Harvey's study, is that they don't consider the role of economic factors. Let's ignore the wealth of data on the enormous increases in college tuition, rental rates and housing, and medical expenses in the US, as well as lagging wages, unemployment, and unforgiving hours in contrast to the rest of the world. Perhaps Generation Y is unhappy not because we think we're special, or because we have unrealistic expectations, but because the very same people who once told us we are special and encouraged us to follow our dreams are now telling us to stop whining and learn to be content with the mess we've been left. We're paying more for education that is less likely to land us steady jobs than it was for our parents, we're enduring rental and medical costs that are higher than they were for our parents, and the work force is not only unable to keep up with these rising expenses, but even discriminates against us at times and takes advantage of the less knowledgeable among us.

Fortunately, we are living in the information age, where these problems are broadcast all over television and the internet. We are painfully aware of the bigger picture because it is constantly repeated by the media, since fear sells. It isn't that any one of us has drawn the short stick, it's that things are not generally going well. Yes, there are young people like Mark Zuckerberg who have been lucky enough to strike it rich at the end of all their hard work, but it's just as unfair to judge our generation by them as it would be to judge older generations by figures like John Rockefeller, Howard Hughes, or Bill Gates. Perhaps Generation Y is unhappy because we are more aware of our situation than previous generations have been, thanks to the prevalence of information now. It's easy to hope for the future when you're unaware of what future projections show. But when those projections are confronting you 24 hours a day on every major media outlet, it can be difficult to find that glimmer of hope on the horizon.

At the end of the article on Huff-Po, the author gives three bits of advice, including the following gem:
Stop thinking that you're special. The fact is, right now, you're not special. You're another completely inexperienced young person who doesn't have all that much to offer yet. You can become special by working really hard for a long time.
Entitlement is necessary to action. If the Allied forces had not felt entitled to live in a world free of the genocidal tyranny of Nazism, we would not know that generation as the Greatest Generation. If civil rights activists had not felt entitled to live in a society where all people are treated as equals, we would not know their generation as the generation that ended segregation. Complacency is the antithesis of action. It's not arrogant or unrealistic to feel entitled to earn more for less work, to get more time off and more benefits. Did the industrialists denounce similar concerns voiced by the early unions about working conditions? Upton Sinclair certainly stirred the hornets nest with The Jungle, yet who today would call his concerns arrogant or unrealistic? True, the danger and corruption found in the work force now is a different breed, for the most part, but it is still undoubtedly there.

The irony of the quote above is the last sentence. What is it about working "really hard for a long time" that confers specialness on someone? Isn't the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results? It seems like a fine line between being special and being insane, then. Maybe we ought to survey older folks and ask them if they feel like their years of back-breaking toil have made them any more special than getting married did, or having children, or helping others, or finding those little things in life that give it a unique kind of meaning, like discovering a joy for art, music, literature, science, etc. The con is that throwing oneself into a job for years of your life does not make you special. Rather, it's what you set your mind to that matters, and if wanting a better way of living makes Generation Y seem delusional, then I will happily count myself a member.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Does William Lane Craig Actually Believe in Evil?

If it's right for someone to permit some event, then his action is just right... On my view, the wrongness of an action is determined by its being forbidden by God. An action is morally permissible if it is not forbidden by God. Now obviously God didn't forbid permitting the Haitian earthquake, so it has the right-making property of being permitted by God.
-William Lane Craig
The above quote is from a debate between Michael Tooley and William Lane Craig. In the debate, Professor Tooley focuses largely on the evidential problem of evil, which forms the context of this quote. Craig disputes Tooley's ideas on balancing right-making and wrong-making properties to determine the overall morality of an action, instead declaring that whatever god allows is what's right. There are no exceptions, he wants to emphasize, which he indicates by his bold remark about the 2010 Haitian earthquake being right simply because god permitted it to occur.

Let's consider the implications of these statements. According to Craig, anything that has happened has been right for god to allow, since rightness is, by definition, whatever god allows. This doesn't just mean the Haitian earthquake, but also includes the centuries of bloodshed known as the Crusades, the horrible tortures during the Inquisition, the terrible suffering of the Black Death, the slaughter of Native Americans, the ruthless regimes of Stalin and Pol Pot, the mass rapes committed during the Bosnian War, Hitler's extermination of millions of Jews, the child abuse epidemic within the Catholic Church, and much, much more. It will not do to credit any of these to human will because, as Craig explains, whatever god permits is right. There is no wiggle room. To entertain that allowing these atrocities was anything but right for god would be to suggest that there are moral ambiguities or moral evils which god could commit, and Craig can't have that.

This raises the question, then, about what evil actually means on Dr. Craig's worldview. He says that wrong action is whatever is forbidden by god, but if god exists, he has historically allowed rape, murder, torture, child molestation, slavery, racism, sexism, cannibalism, genocide, injustice, and a litany of other ills. Is there anything that god could not or would not allow? It seems hard to imagine what he could be withholding from our world, so perhaps it's not any of the acts themselves that he would forbid, but just a certain severity of them. God only allows the amount of evil that's necessary for us to be free agents. Craig has claimed this in several debates.

However, it's difficult to make a persuasive case for this when looking at some of the atrocities of history, particularly the ones I've already elaborated on. It also implies that god has some puzzling priorities. Is free will that worth it to god that he would allow six million Jews to die in Nazi Germany? Add to that the deaths from the other mentioned atrocities, as well as additional unmentioned ones, and the death toll climbs staggeringly high. There are over 774,000 words in the Bible. In order for god to give us free will, more than ten times that number of human beings have had to suffer and die in agonizingly cruel and reprehensible ways. Craig encourages us to trust our intuitions about the existence of objective moral values, yet we're supposed to suppress them when they tell us that there is too much pain and evil in this world for a perfectly good god to be running things.

It could be argued that prioritizing free will over the prevention of suffering and evil is itself an evil. In fact, we recognize something like this when we prevent our children from doing things that would be otherwise harmful to themselves or to others. We stop them from exercising their free will, while we simultaneously teach them why what they want to do is wrong, so that some day when they mature, they will hopefully make better decisions. We don't just talk the talk, we make them walk the walk, too, if we are responsible parents. Until they mature, they won't appreciate the wide array of complex issues in the moral sphere. Now, if god exists, and if his grasp on morality is far more perfect than ours, why would he not be like the understanding parent who guides her children in more than just words, knowing that they don't see what she sees?

When responding to the problem of evil in his debates, Dr. Craig very often raises the possibility of unknown reasons god might have for allowing the existence of some evils. The atheist, he challenges, must prove that god can have no such reasons in order to claim that there are unnecessary evils, and of course Craig doesn't think this can be done, since we are all limited in our capacity for knowledge. It could very well be that there is nothing god would not allow, and that therefore there is no such thing as evil for god. In a sense, this looks like what Craig believes. He might say god could not contradict his own nature, but if his nature already allows for acts of rape, murder, torture, child abuse, etc., what reason is there to think that anything could contradict god's nature?

William Lane Craig is a Divine Command Theorist. He believes, as he's explained in numerous debates, that god's nature is good, and that his commands flow from his nature. But, like I just stated, things like rape, murder, torture, child abuse, and so forth, are apparently consistent with god's nature. After all, if god permits something, it must be right for god. To say these things are inconsistent with the divine nature would be to say that they would not be allowed by god. However, they certainly have happened in our history and continue to happen. So now the troubling question. If god's nature is consistent with these heinous acts - if he has permitted them to take place - why would we think he might not command us to commit any of them? If Dr. Craig is right about god only allowing the minimal amount of evil for free will to exist, and having hidden reasons for allowing apparently unnecessary evils, and historically having permitted only that which is right for him to permit, then what stands in the way of god commanding us to commit acts of rape, murder, or child abuse, if they will fulfill some godly purpose?

Craig is known for sometimes quoting Dostoevsky - "without god, everything is permitted" (this quote is not exactly accurate, though). But here we start to see that it's actually Dr. Craig's worldview that seems to permit everything. In fact, even the apostle Paul said as much in 1 Corinthians 10:23 - "All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable" (NAS). Paul encouraged the believers of his day to eat meat sacrificed to idols, because they knew idols were just wood and stone. But if eating the meat might cause a fellow believer to stumble, Paul said, you should not do it. In other words, if your conscience is clear before god, everything is permitted... just don't lead others into temptation. Paul's opinion on circumcision is very similar; fine for some, bad for others.

Another quote Craig is well known for presenting in debates is from Michael Ruse. Without god, "ethics is illusory," Bill cries emphatically to his opponents. On the contrary, though, it would seem that with all the unbelievably hurtful and immoral acts god has permitted down the course of history, ethics is inescapably illusory on Dr. Craig's worldview. God's nature is consistent with allowing every conceivable evil, and his commands, flowing from that nature, come with no guarantee of being any different. If we're to believe the traditional account of the fall of Lucifer, god even allowed the emergence and continued existence of Satan, the embodiment of pure evil. With so ambiguous a nature, there is literally no reason to think god would never command any act that we would normally regard as evil. 

This is why William Lane Craig's excuses fail when he attempts to distinguish between what theists believe about god's nature being good and how Divine Command Theory is often understood as positing that good is whatever god commands. On either account, goodness has no normative force, no distinctive essence. God will be just as good to allow someone to feed the starving emaciated children of Haiti as he will be to allow the Duvaliers and others to exterminate them in the cruelest ways. God will be just as good to command the feeding of five thousand as he will be to command the genocide of entire peoples (Deut. 2:34, Joshua 6:21, 1 Samuel 15:2-3). On Craig's view, there is to be no real distinction between these extremes that the overwhelming majority of us would recognize in clear terms of right and wrong. So long as god has prescribed or permitted them, none of it should be called evil. 

Only what god forbids is wrong. But when he forbids the same acts he has otherwise allowed, we see the uselessness of such a framework. Morality is reduced to a matter of "do as I say, not as I do". As previously stated, even if we suppose god has hidden reasons for commanding what he does, the fact that his nature is consistent with allowing every conceivable evil makes it fairly dubious that all those reasons are justifying reasons. Particularly in the case of animal suffering, there seems to be an evil that is without justification. Apologists often assert that god allows human suffering to bring us closer to him, but animals do not participate in relationships with god, according to Christian doctrine. Their suffering, then, would seem to be unnecessary.

There is something that appears insufficient to me about this distinction between what god allows and forbids, too. Philosophers and ethicists test the strength of their moral theories by holding them up to our moral experience and moral intuitions. I don't think any of us can argue that we perceive certain actions as being right and certain actions as being wrong. There are grey areas, to be sure, but we can also distinguish between many different acts and form judgments accordingly. In other words, good moral theories have some capability to predict or elaborate what actions will be right or wrong in hypothetical scenarios. Dr. Craig's Divine Command Theory lacks this capability, in my opinion. It cannot judge an action even when all of its consequences and causes are taken into account. The only time it will be able to make a judgment is when that additional information exists: does god will the action or does he forbid it? Scripture can be no help, since god has willed and forbidden murder at various times, for example, and - to bring things back around to where we started - history also records the terrible things god has permitted.

In conclusion, I'm not convinced that William Lane Craig actually believes in evil, despite his insistence that he does. At best, it must be a pale vestige of what he demands of the atheist - a bizarre sort of wrongness that rests on the nature of a morally ambiguous being that has historically contradicted our most basic moral intuitions. What can it mean to call rape evil under Craig's view of morality? It can't mean that god's nature is inconsistent with rape, because he has allowed it for centuries, and god cannot permit what is wrong. It can't mean that god disapproves of rape, because it is consistent with his nature. The most it can apparently mean is "god says no to rape in this instance". Why this instance? Why say no at all? Perhaps he has some hidden reason. Or perhaps the hidden truth is that ethics is illusory on Dr. Craig's worldview.