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Chapter 3 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis 
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 Chapter 3 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Chapter 3
Finding Purpose in a Godless World
by Ralph Lewis


Please discuss Chapter 3 of Finding Purpose in a Godless World by Ralph Lewis in this thread.



Wed Aug 01, 2018 11:58 pm
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Post Re: Chapter 3 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Here we get to the heart of the matter. And I fear Ralph Lewis backed off from it, philosophically at least.

Lewis tells persuasive tales about clients who came to him with depression that seemed to be linked to philosophical pessimism and the lack of defined meaning in life. He liked exploring existential questions with them, but in the end that made no difference but pharmaceutical anti-depressants changed everything (in most cases) and the existential doubts melted into curiosities of doubtful relevance.

So far so good. If we are "meaning machines" meant to find some sense of importance in relatively abstract commitments, then surely it makes sense that we would sometimes fail at this and do a relatively bad job. It is, after all, only one strategy for engaging life. It would be easy to make an argument that the problem is social - that is, that we as meaning machines are meant to find our relevance within a fairly small group of people who share a common destiny. A tribe or village of 100 to 150, as Yuval Noah Harari would have it. And with the breakdown of such intense groups in modernity, our equipment may not be up to the job of summoning such a sense of meaning with people who relate to us mainly instrumentally, as means to their ends.

I have some doubts about his characterization of the role of biology, and will take them up when we reach Chapter 8, which he promises will concern itself with the topic. At this point let me simply say that he seems to ignore the possibility that our sense of meaning is a "spandrel" generated as a side-effect of things with other purposes. His comparison to a peacock's tail is an interesting one, precisely because our achievement of a sense of meaning functions in ways that are contrary to the ways the peacock's tail functions, though in some ways they overlap also. This is a knotty knot to untie.

He brings up two items that are crucial to the topic of the book's title. One is absurdity. The second is that others care about what we value.

I think his understanding of absurdity is insufficient. What's to understand, right? It's absurd! But absurdity is the result of a philosophical question. That is not to denigrate it, but to begin to have a sense of where it fits. Philosophers have an aversion to what Daniel Dennett called a "skyhook": a mechanism whose function is impossible, claimed to be possible based on the immense distance to where the mechanism's key workings reside. So when someone claims that the task we have taken on is meaningful, the philosopher naturally wants to know "how do you know it is meaningful?" and to trace the mechanism of meaning to some basis in reality. They want to know the ontological status of that meaning.

Kierkegaard, and perhaps others before him (Belaqua would know about this, if he is lurking), recogized that there is no ontological basis for it. It is the scandal of the particular. It is the absurdity of life. But it is only absurd (i.e. senseless) from a particular point of view. If you expect that all meaning can be accommodated within a system, as Hegel suggested, in which every thesis and its antithesis will, given sufficient thought, resolve into generating a synthesis, and some grand synthesis will accommodate everything there is to say about what is to be valued and which values take priority, then we can always refer our choices to that meaning structure and derive (a key word) their meaning from the grand system.

I am a fan of "systems of meaning". I think the human mind glories in finding patterns and universals to what matters. Perhaps in Chapter 8 more will be made of this. But Kierkegaard insists that life works differently. Life finds meaning in the living, in the absurd conviction that Person A is the right partner to make my life with, and the absurd conviction that I was born to surf (or whatever), and the absurd conviction that if I do a kindness to a homeless person I am doing it to my lord and savior Jesus.

Thus the absurdity of meaning is no more absurd than simply asserting that there is no skyhook giving ontological status to the meaning of the choices which matter most to us. Kept in its limited framework, related properly to the big questions, that is a pivotal point of perspective. Heidegger spelled it out with great care, as Robert Tulip so kindly exposits.

Which leads to the fact that what we do matters to others. We care about each other's values, to put it plainly. Therefore, even though we may not be able to prove to others that what we find meaningful "really" matters, we are invested in persuading them of it.

Done wrong, this leads to the Iris Murdoch formulation "I don't believe Jesus died for our sins and rose again, but I want others to believe it." That's cheating. That's a form of bad faith. Done right, we learn to formulate narratives that we expect will convince others because we find them convincing.

Which leads to the wonderful paragraph in the middle of this chapter, saying

Ralph Lewis wrote:
As many people know, when you live your life with commitment to others, a lot of really good things happen to you. Your own life becomes much more satisfying, enriched, and meaningful. There are few ways to feel that your own life matters more than being committed to other people. And people will generally reciprocate your caring and devotion.

Lewis, Ralph. Finding Purpose in a Godless World: Why We Care Even If the Universe Doesn't (p. 86). Prometheus Books. Kindle Edition.


This is the fundamental appeal of religion with an internally oriented theology (based with reference to Atman, the soul, rather than Brahman, the Universe). Don't believe living for the sake of others is rewarding and rich and satisfying? Come try it for a while! Come and see.



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Post Re: Chapter 3 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Hi Everybody,

First I confess that I don't have Lewis's book, and probably won't be buying a copy. I read the parts of it that are available for free on Amazon, and I've been reading the excellent summaries on this thread. So I hope it's OK for me to comment.

(But this is my summer to read The Tale of Genji all the way straight through -- all 1300+ pages -- and if I stop to read something else it will interfere with my languid aesthetically melancholy mood. Ah! The fleeting beauty of the summer blossoms! My sleeves are wet with tears........)

First, I was a bit disappointed with Lewis's approach to God. I suppose a book of this sort demands a clear and concise definition, but the God he doesn't believe in is a kind of popular dumbed-down version. The one where, if supernatural stuff doesn't happen, we don't believe in it. This is the same Nobodaddy that Hitchens, et.al., also don't believe in. But it is more like a magic Demiurge than the God of Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas. It is the God that people who have never read any theology think that Christians believe in.

Second, people who think of God that way, and then decide (very understandably) that such a God doesn't exist, seem then to pivot over too easily to a view of life as absurd. Either God planned everything on the big drawing board in the sky, or life is without meaning. That's way too easy.

I think this comes from scientism. People think that if meaning isn't a quality that can be detected empirically in the molecular make-up of something, then it must not exist. But that is a category error, surely.

Harry, I am embarrassed to say that I haven't worked on Kierkegaard yet. But I read Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy with a group recently, and it's easy for me to structure the problem through his terms -- which I think will also give me a hint toward Hegel, etc.

As you know, Nietzsche claims that the world is Dionysian chaos. That is the truth behind things -- no meaning. For him, meaning is carved out of the chaos by the Apollonian faculty. It is a dream image, which people share, more or less. Now I think it would be a mistake to say that since meaning is created by people that it doesn't really exist. True, it is a social construct. But social constructs are real things. They exist before, and independently of, any individual. If we suddenly forgot all the social constructs, and couldn't perceive them in the world, we would be insane.

So for example, you walk around the city, and all you see is pavement and signs and buildings and stuff. There is no meaning in those things in the same way that electrons and protons are in them. But our experience of the city is nonetheless an experience of meanings. I do a thing where I have the people in the reading group look up at the ceiling, and then I ask them what color is the chair they're sitting in. Usually they don't know. They saw the chair just enough to deduce its meaning and use, they sat down on it and didn't fall on the floor, but didn't really look at it. We could say they saw only its meaning, and not the thing itself.

Quote:
If you expect that all meaning can be accommodated within a system, as Hegel suggested...


This I think is the key. Meaning is created in and through a system. It is a system that humans all pretty much share. It is not intrinsic in that, if all the people died it would stop. When the cockroaches take over in a few years, the meanings will be different. But as long as there are people, it is not just fiction.

And this way of thinking goes back at least to Aristotle, right? For him, ethics is ethics for people, based on what we are as people. It is not independent of our human condition.

And here, Robert (if you're reading) I think we're up against Heidegger's concept of "thrownness," aren't we? I may be wildly wrong, but it seems to me that we as individuals are thrown into this system of meaning, like it or not. And that's important because it means that despite being non-physical, meanings are also intrinsic aspects of the culture we are in. Hitchens-type atheists are wont to say that since there is no God and no absolute meaning handed down, then we are all to make up our own meanings in life. But that ignores the fact that we are inevitably and invariably born into culture, and culture determines meanings that individuals are not free to dismiss. This could easily extend to issues of "how should a person live his life?" because it means that within human culture, we are not free to choose our personal meanings -- or not entirely so.

Earlier Harry mentioned Popper's World Three, and this seems important to me here. Popper gives the example of a Beethoven symphony. Not the score for the symphony, but the symphony itself. The symphony, he says, has real existence, despite being a human-created mental construct. It exists as long as anybody knows of it, even when it's not being played. And due to this type of existence, it is real and meaningful to discuss its qualities objectively -- whether the 5th is better than the 9th, whether a given performance is better than another, etc. My conclusion is that meaning in the world is similar.

As I say, I haven't read the book, so if I'm off on a tangent (or two or three) I hope you'll forgive me. I'll be looking forward to reading further summaries.

(But look! The summer moon is pale and wan! And now I will write a sensitive 17-syllable poem with 12 literary allusions for a lovely lady in white face-paint...)



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Post Re: Chapter 3 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Belaqua wrote:
First I confess that I don't have Lewis's book, and probably won't be buying a copy. I read the parts of it that are available for free on Amazon, and I've been reading the excellent summaries on this thread. So I hope it's OK for me to comment.
Okay, so no pressure to summarize accurately or anything. Well, since the usual custom is to read the book without commenting on it, I think we ought to be able to make room for those who comment on it without reading it. Besides, a lot of the comments spin off into comments on comments anyway, so I see no problem with starting out there.

Belaqua wrote:
First, I was a bit disappointed with Lewis's approach to God. I suppose a book of this sort demands a clear and concise definition, but the God he doesn't believe in is a kind of popular dumbed-down version. The one where, if supernatural stuff doesn't happen, we don't believe in it. This is the same Nobodaddy that Hitchens, et.al., also don't believe in. But it is more like a magic Demiurge than the God of Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas. It is the God that people who have never read any theology think that Christians believe in.
I find myself disappointed (my sleeves are dry, but my head shakes sometimes) that none of these books comment on the God of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" which is theologically well respected and authored by someone of the same faith as this author. Without even asking for a "spirit of Love" or similar formulation, it would be great to hear about Kushner's God who cares about our suffering but cannot do miraculous acts to stop it.

I think to work in the Lewis's psychological expertise, it probably saved trouble just to deal with the knee-jerk God of the foxholes, the one people take out of a place normally ignored, like they do pictures of their family, when the occasion arises. I don't think he is really aiming to convince anyone about God, nor to rant like Dawkins or skewer like Hitchens. I am in it for the psychological perspective on meaning.

Belaqua wrote:
Second, people who think of God that way, and then decide (very understandably) that such a God doesn't exist, seem then to pivot over too easily to a view of life as absurd. Either God planned everything on the big drawing board in the sky, or life is without meaning. That's way too easy.
Well, despite Lewis' avowed love of the Existentialists, extolling Camus' "Myth of Sisyphus," for example, he doesn't really seem to believe anything very nihilist either. Rather he is on the lookout for "erroneous meaning" arising from our emotions backed up by a slavish and slovenly reason. This chapter appears to suggest that he is going to distinguish between a psychological "sense of meaning" and a derivable "conclusion of meaning." And I might be willing to go there with him, depending on how solidly he analyzes the matter.

Belaqua wrote:
Harry, I am embarrassed to say that I haven't worked on Kierkegaard yet. But I read Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy with a group recently, and it's easy for me to structure the problem through his terms -- which I think will also give me a hint toward Hegel, etc.
No reason to be embarrassed. I am still quite taken with SK, but re-reading three of his best works has reminded me how much he was a creature of his time and place. His ability to lift up a philosophical version of the great Christian themes is wonderful to me, as I have already found these themes meaningful, but his irony now feels as cramped by early 19th century Lutheran culture as Plato's irony (in the mouth of Socrates) feels cramped to me by Plato's limited knowledge of the world and political stalking horses. Both are still amazing doors to insight, but both are also unable to make the transition to current relevance that their philosophical derivations do.

Belaqua wrote:
As you know, Nietzsche claims that the world is Dionysian chaos. That is the truth behind things -- no meaning.
As long as we are confessing, let me say that I have read very little of Nietzsche. I have not made it through even a single chapter, despite downloading several free versions in Kindle. Yet Kushner (of "Bad Things") takes the same view - the universe, "things", are not organized by any meaningful process other than whatever rules of causality we can work out scientifically.
Belaqua wrote:
For him, meaning is carved out of the chaos by the Apollonian faculty. It is a dream image, which people share, more or less. Now I think it would be a mistake to say that since meaning is created by people that it doesn't really exist.
We have been reading through Yuval Noah Harari's "Sapiens" and he works on the same themes. He talks about "stories" or "myths" and then uses nations, constitutions and money as examples. A bit of a cheap claim to novel perspective, but anyway he is not just trying to disrupt complacency but also gets into the mechanisms a bit. I feel that he has come to the same conclusion I did, when reflecting on these exaggerated claims, that they are descriptions, or perhaps justifications, of processes already in place. As such, they are more about the communication concerning these processes than they are about the actual enforcement or establishment of the systems.

One of his examples, worth reflecting on, is the caste system of Hinduism. We know this is created by an invasion of Indo-Europeans who subjugated previous residents, who mostly had darker skin. To this day there is a strong correlation between skin lightness and status of castes. The present-day BJP claims to believe the mythology spun to justify caste, that lower castes are reincarnations of people who were careless or hostile to others in the previous life, while higher castes reincarnate the good guys.

It is probably possible, like the Congress Party tried to do, to replace the social organization by caste with something more suitable to modern economic functioning. Belief in the mythology is a barrier to such a replacement. But the point I would make about this is that an Apollonian process of discerning "what makes sense" is much more able to have its current results modified by persuasion than is a set of claims to supernatural insight (Jovian?) about the workings of the alternate reality.

Belaqua wrote:
True, it is a social construct. But social constructs are real things. They exist before, and independently of, any individual. If we suddenly forgot all the social constructs, and couldn't perceive them in the world, we would be insane.
The term "intersubjective" seems to be very helpful in thinking about this stuff, since it dispenses with the absolutism of claims to "objectivity" while recognizing that social constructs are real things.

Belaqua wrote:
They saw the chair just enough to deduce its meaning and use, they sat down on it and didn't fall on the floor, but didn't really look at it. We could say they saw only its meaning, and not the thing itself.
That's a good example, probably helpful for thinking about art in particular. On our Jung thread, which was basically Robert and me, the subject of synchronicity or "acausal significance" came up. My version is that synchronicity, or astounding coincidences if you prefer, represent nature "rhyming with itself." That is, something about it raises claims to our attention which seem to represent causal processes, but actually embody our sense of the significance of the matter.

Belaqua wrote:
Quote:
If you expect that all meaning can be accommodated within a system, as Hegel suggested...


This I think is the key. Meaning is created in and through a system. It is a system that humans all pretty much share. It is not intrinsic in that, if all the people died it would stop. When the cockroaches take over in a few years, the meanings will be different. But as long as there are people, it is not just fiction.
There is an iterative "dialectical" process, I think, between inductive discernment of meaning systems, and deductive conclusions based on a particular system (such as "that chair will do, whatever its color"). Anthropologically, the systems of meaning tend to change depending on what works. I like Peter Berger's example that fat women were perceived as beautiful in Rubens' day (and, to some extent in present day Africa) because they represent to the world the status of their husband who can feed them well, while thin women are considered more attractive today, based on the ubiquity of ample food that robs fat of its status.
Belaqua wrote:
ethics is ethics for people, based on what we are as people. It is not independent of our human condition.
Well, I never quite thought of Aristotle as an existentialist before, but there is truth in this observation. And of course that tends to help us see his "errors" about women and slaves as perhaps more success than failure, given the difficulties of achieving democracy or an educated, cultivated life at the time.

Belaqua wrote:
And here, Robert (if you're reading) I think we're up against Heidegger's concept of "thrownness," aren't we? I may be wildly wrong, but it seems to me that we as individuals are thrown into this system of meaning, like it or not. And that's important because it means that despite being non-physical, meanings are also intrinsic aspects of the culture we are in.
Robert has presented some of this about "thrownness" already on previous threads. I find it helpful as insight, and a place to start. If there are already systems in place, and a superstructure of stories about the reasons for these systems, we can critique them based on problems we believe we see, and perhaps even better we may be able to propose changes or tweaks to make the systems work better.

Fundamentalism may be seen as a certain set of claims about which critiques are admissible. Critiques which involve denial of the usual supernatural creeds are not admissible, nor are critiques which claim some higher basis of authority than the revealed scriptures. Scriptures play a powerful role in fundamentalisms, not present in, say Hasidism (which works from relatively modern revelations even though it tends to assert that they are fully compatible with Torah and Talmud.)

Belaqua wrote:
Hitchens-type atheists are wont to say that since there is no God and no absolute meaning handed down, then we are all to make up our own meanings in life. But that ignores the fact that we are inevitably and invariably born into culture, and culture determines meanings that individuals are not free to dismiss. This could easily extend to issues of "how should a person live his life?" because it means that within human culture, we are not free to choose our personal meanings -- or not entirely so.
Well, it hinges entirely on "not entirely so." We are not yet very good at all at figuring out which systems we are critiquing, much less how to go about it successfully. Science has made us pretty good at critiquing claims about origins, for example, and what heavenly bodies circle around what. As a result, some of the understandings involved in traditional religion can be set aside, and so the claims of absolute authority for past revelations can be set aside. But claims about the basis for structured, regulated living are not as easily deconstructed.

Belaqua wrote:
Earlier Harry mentioned Popper's World Three, and this seems important to me here. Popper gives the example of a Beethoven symphony. Not the score for the symphony, but the symphony itself. The symphony, he says, has real existence, despite being a human-created mental construct. It exists as long as anybody knows of it, even when it's not being played. And due to this type of existence, it is real and meaningful to discuss its qualities objectively -- whether the 5th is better than the 9th, whether a given performance is better than another, etc. My conclusion is that meaning in the world is similar.

I really like this example, and the openings it provides for discussing "meaning" without having to worry about whether it is "real" meaning or just "intersubjective" meaning or even "arbitrary" meaning.

But of course it begs the question of what is being referred to by "God." We can objectively discuss the sociological phenomenon, or the theological constructions, but one of the main modern theological claims is that these are only (potential) pointers to God, not God's self.

I have an intuition that what is up in the air is the question of what kinds of processes for "creating" or "finding" meaning are likely to avoid doing violence to our "thrown" sense of meaning. Obviously I don't buy the fundamentalist line, and would urge anyone interested to consider what they think its basis is. But I have used the term "nihilism" for processes which treat meaning as arbitrary, and so far I am willing to stick by that.

Behind that is a tension between our sense that all meaning should harmonize, so that the same organizing principles apply equally to all claims of meaning, and our desire for meaning to be grounded in emotional intuition. Obviously we cannot force all the tangled connections to work, but neither can we let go of a sense that there is reason and purpose in the process itself, so that some organizing principles "ought to" work.



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Post Re: Chapter 3 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Belaqua wrote:
Either God planned everything on the big drawing board in the sky, or life is without meaning. That's way too easy.

I think this comes from scientism. People think that if meaning isn't a quality that can be detected empirically in the molecular make-up of something, then it must not exist. But that is a category error, surely.
I recently read the passage in the Yuval Harari book "Sapiens" about polytheism. Harari gives it an interesting spin (probably didn't originate with him, but it pulls together many strands of understanding) in which some implacable stand-in for "Reality", such as Fate (Moira), is essentially ignored and The Gods are the ones we try to flatter and appease in order to get more stuff, or be more secure. Apparently the Norse had a similar construction, in which the Gods would,e.g. go down at Ragnarok before some implacable reality more powerful than they are. (And if not, why would Father Odin have to give up an eye for Wisdom?)

In this sense polytheistic religion is more like animism, perceiving mysterious forces in the events we don't understand, than it is like monotheism. And of course monotheism has moved in somewhat the same direction in recent decades, with the shift towards incarnational theology. As Kushner put it, reality is chaotic, with volcanoes erupting and monstrous genetic diseases happening to us. Incarnational theology tends to see God's role in this as taking the form of us intervening to mourn with those who are slammed by tragedy and to provide a safety net for their physical needs.

Belaqua wrote:
As you know, Nietzsche claims that the world is Dionysian chaos. That is the truth behind things -- no meaning. For him, meaning is carved out of the chaos by the Apollonian faculty. It is a dream image, which people share, more or less.
In some sense modernity has become a struggle over how meaning will be made, or perhaps, re-made. It is not a tug-of-war so much as it is an architectural competition. The academic approach hopes for the solidity and reliability of science, evidence, fact and reason. The traditional approach hopes for the solidity and reliability of a sense of order that comes from time-tested authority structures. Neither approach is entirely persuasive, but it is safe to say that when either approach takes the attitude that only its virtues may be considered, then it becomes oppressive.

What we have seen recently is that when Reality seems to be failing on a large scale, most people are reluctant to put their faith in the academic approach. And I suppose that is for good reason, having to do with the artificiality of "theory" and the shifting verdicts of "evidence". (Just look at nutritional "doctrine" over the last 50 years if you don't believe me.)

But in a liminal time such as ours, with multiple crises happening at once and tensions pulling in many directions, leadership needs to have some qualities of being able to appreciate different meaning systems and their different virtues, and be able to cobble together rationales for courses of action which do not deny any of those virtues. Clinton and Obama had the smarts for that, but Obama lacked the ability to make emotional connections that matched the difficulty of the times, and Clinton lacked the character to keep pushing for better answers.

Belaqua wrote:
Now I think it would be a mistake to say that since meaning is created by people that it doesn't really exist. True, it is a social construct. But social constructs are real things. They exist before, and independently of, any individual. If we suddenly forgot all the social constructs, and couldn't perceive them in the world, we would be insane.
Our vocabulary for all this sucks. When we say that phlogiston does not exist and oxygen does, we are asserting something about our models of the world. To say that social constructs are real things is to say something quite different about the modeling process. But our poor neural connections just look for a match with however we are used to constructing "real" and start reinforcing things as if they have the reality of oxygen when in fact they only have the reality of heteronormativity.

"Fiction" certainly does not capture the matter. "World of Warcraft" is fiction. The urge to be there for your buddies, part of what made WoW succeed, is not. In between the two states, we find the linkages between causes and effects that give significance to particulars. These are contingent, but they draw on the absolute for their emotional resonance. It is this emotional sense of the absolute, I suspect, which causes people to share what you called a dream image.

Our thrownness includes a lot of contingent connections which still work for some and are very dysfunctional for others. To some extent we could use "technologies" of improving meaning. That was what "The Nanny Show" was about, for example. By demonstrating effective ways to solve the problems of raising kids, whole systems of meaning were re-cast. I know people who seem to think taking prayer out of school was the beginning of a slippery slope to the end of civilization, based largely on their impression that "those little shits" are hopelessly chaotic and rebellious and need a firm authoritarian hand, blessed by the threat of Hell, to keep kids under control and launch them toward responsible adulthood. While such a reading is not entirely foolish, it turns out there are better solutions to the problem cited.

Belaqua wrote:
Harry wrote:
If you expect that all meaning can be accommodated within a system, as Hegel suggested...

This I think is the key. Meaning is created in and through a system. It is a system that humans all pretty much share. It is not intrinsic in that, if all the people died it would stop. When the cockroaches take over in a few years, the meanings will be different. But as long as there are people, it is not just fiction.

And this way of thinking goes back at least to Aristotle, right? For him, ethics is ethics for people, based on what we are as people. It is not independent of our human condition.
The problem of competing systems of meaning is baked into the Bill of Rights. For me, the reason for insisting on freedom of expression is the urge for those who support the practice of a particular meaning system to foreclose other meaning systems, using force rather than persuasion.

This is Marx's insight about the superstructure, if I understand it correctly: the stories we tell about how the world works will be selected for those which reinforce the class power structure, preferably (to the powerful) if they reinforce it in a covert way. Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch and the Fox News enterprise made a business of this. Some would say the Clintons did as well, but at most it was a very different agency at work.

Belaqua wrote:
we are inevitably and invariably born into culture, and culture determines meanings that individuals are not free to dismiss. This could easily extend to issues of "how should a person live his life?" because it means that within human culture, we are not free to choose our personal meanings -- or not entirely so.
So we are getting into the central knot of the problem. Meanings are emotional connections. If other people's emotional connections are toxic to us, we may not be free to dismiss them but we may feel we must oppose them. This is very much what motivates "The God Delusion" and the like. Dawkins and the other anti-theists are urging a basis for critique, an alternate system of meanings, on those who are on the fence, or open to alternative readings.

I would say the essence of a truly Christ-like approach to such clashes would be that one persuades by example and relationship first, only secondarily by appeals to vague doctrines of "the way things work," and not at all by force or compulsion or exclusion. Christendom has had that wrong for a long time now, and is reaping some of the bitter harvest in the form of exposure of its child abuse handling.

This book purports to take on the issue of emotional distortions of the perception of cause-effect relationships which build our systems of meaning. The author gives many examples of partial systems which are built almost entirely on these emotion-based distortions. And, following Michael Shermer, he wants to propose that ideas about God are fundamentally of that type.

What I find lacking in such an approach is that there is this sense of universal value, nebulous but powerful, behind our judgements of meaning systems, your "dream image", and this sense of universality gives religious systems their strength. And just asserting that this sense is more emotional than rational doesn't give us any rational handle on its operation, or ways to critique its perceptions.

It would be useful, I think, to bring in psychologists' understanding of the difference between the perceptual, or "System 1", process of interpreting events (using Kahneman's vocabulary from "Thinking, Fast and Slow"), and the more careful "System 2" process of testing interpretations or analyzing events. I am pretty well convinced the distinction is hard-wired, i.e. that one system works one way and the other a different way, neurologically.

So I want to put forward a hypothesis that the sense of universality of a moral judgment draws almost entirely on System 1, (i.e. perceptual,) connections. (This is pretty much Haidt's claim about elephants and lawyers). For one thing we lack a careful, reasonable, logical system capable of constructing an actual system with the property of universality. We can use Kant/Rawls to test claims of justice, and Heidegger/Buber to test claims of righteousness, but these are not even close to offering an objective system with something resembling the completeness of our scientific understanding. In addition, we do have a fairly well-developed BS-detector which throws out claims to universal appeal which violate our sense of innocence. Essentially, nothing a lawyer says on behalf of a client will get by our BS-detector without careful System 2 checking. But how do we do that checking? Evidently that kind of checking is a role, maybe the role, of explicit systems of meaning.

And since different people will have very different (emotional) readings on the "universality" of different meaning systems (or else why would there be more than one?) we need freedom of thought and freedom of expression.



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Post Re: Chapter 3 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Belaqua wrote:
First, I was a bit disappointed with Lewis's approach to God. I suppose a book of this sort demands a clear and concise definition, but the God he doesn't believe in is a kind of popular dumbed-down version. The one where, if supernatural stuff doesn't happen, we don't believe in it. This is the same Nobodaddy that Hitchens, et.al., also don't believe in. But it is more like a magic Demiurge than the God of Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas. It is the God that people who have never read any theology think that Christians believe in.


I think the concept of god that's best used in a book of this sort is the one most widely believed. Otherwise the target audience is so narrow that it's academic. I think there are far too many conceptualizations of god, when you start comparing the finer details.

Harry wrote:
Meanings are emotional connections.


I think some meaning is purely sterile and informational. Most would be a blend - pathos+logos? I think many people view meaning in a polarized way, seeing only the emotional or the logical connection. Worldviews are built on this bias by both parties when one or the other is viewed as having primacy.


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Post Re: Chapter 3 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Interbane wrote:
I think the concept of god that's best used in a book of this sort is the one most widely believed. Otherwise the target audience is so narrow that it's academic. I think there are far too many conceptualizations of god, when you start comparing the finer details.
I am willing to go along with the author for the sake of hearing what he has to say. So far it seems to me he has raised some of the most important questions for sorting out the psychology of meaningfulness (or importance) and I am able to make connections I probably would not have without them.

However, I'm not sure a "book of this sort" is going to avoid doing violence to the real issues by settling for "the [concept] most widely believed." Just as an example, he is quite willing to throw in paranoid delusions along with inklings about creation as two different examples of the same phenomenon (overperception of causality). Since the emotional connections behind the two "overperceptions" are completely different, I am not satisfied that he is really lumping together two phenomena which mainly illustrate the same mental laziness.

Lewis sort of addresses the "many conceptions" problem at the beginning of the book, and acknowledges that he is leaving out more sophisticated versions, including some that have no element of the supernatural in them. That is well and good, and given the variety of conceptions, may have been necessary. But as I read on I get a strong impression that he only wants to critique this traditional, supernatural-based, conveniently helpful notion of God on the grounds of emotional distortions of cognitive processes. If so, that is far too reductionist for me, and should be confronted with the fact that much of the leadership in religion is actively engaged in trying to get people over these problematic ideas on theological grounds.

It leaves me with the feeling that someone is trying to critique common practice of a social system on the basis of something that is already being rejected by the social system itself. If you did that to forestry you would be spending your time critiquing clearcutting with the implication that no cutting at all should be done, in flagrant ignorance of sustainable forestry principles.

Interbane wrote:
Harry wrote:
Meanings are emotional connections.


I think some meaning is purely sterile and informational. Most would be a blend - pathos+logos? I think many people view meaning in a polarized way, seeing only the emotional or the logical connection. Worldviews are built on this bias by both parties when one or the other is viewed as having primacy.
Well, I am sorry for abuse of vocabulary. It is clearly true that the flattened, value-free meaning of the term "meaning" is a valuable one. I could follow the practice of the people who are talking about "mattering theory" if only because that sounds so jolly and post-modern. But I get my own jollies from arguing that the meanings that matter are the ones that are emotional.

That isn't particularly fair to your point either. The cause-effect relationships which are purely informational obviously play an enormous role in shaping our perceptions of what matters and why. I was after the neurological issue - what kinds of connections cause things to register as mattering? Answer: emotional connections. All the interesting cases involve interpretations based on beliefs about fact, but somehow the limbic system is reaching into our neocortex and telling us which beliefs about fact matter, and the connections based on that limbic system involvement are the ones we should be sorting out. Haidt made big strides in spelling out some of the geography of those connections, but I think we have a long ways to go yet.

As an aside, pathos+logos sound like pathology. We have to be able to find better terms.



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Post Re: Chapter 3 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Harry Marks wrote:
Interbane wrote:
I think the concept of god that's best used in a book of this sort is the one most widely believed. Otherwise the target audience is so narrow that it's academic. I think there are far too many conceptualizations of god, when you start comparing the finer details.
This comment relates more to Chapter Two, on the unreliability of subjective perception, than to Chapter Three, on expecting the universe to care, but no matter, it is an interesting point. Lewis is critiquing the concept of God as imaginary. But like Dawkins in The God Delusion his field is social psychology, exploring how people believe crazy things. Lewis is engaging less with a coherent concept of God than with emotional myths that appear in a range of mental illnesses including on a sub-clinical spectrum. As long as he is honest about that objective Lewis is okay, but that means his analysis is primarily sociological and psychiatrical, not philosophical.
Harry Marks wrote:
However, I'm not sure a "book of this sort" is going to avoid doing violence to the real issues by settling for "the [concept] most widely believed." Just as an example, he is quite willing to throw in paranoid delusions along with inklings about creation as two different examples of the same phenomenon (overperception of causality). Since the emotional connections behind the two "overperceptions" are completely different, I am not satisfied that he is really lumping together two phenomena which mainly illustrate the same mental laziness.
Comparing paranoia to the mythology of creation is interesting if confusing. Reading Chapter Two, where these issues are raised, I’m not sure he is lumping them together, although some might read it that way. He is too smart to support the atheist motivated reasoning that would conflate the psychological delusions involved in paranoia and creationism, even if some creationists are paranoid. While creationism involves delusion in its popular literal forms, the Genesis myths also have allegorical meaning and link to ethical visions that help to explain their enduring influence. This sort of conflation, which I don’t agree Lewis suggests, involves a political agenda of hostility to religion, failing to explore how beliefs that are on the surface literally false may conceal symbolic and moral truth. Lewis has a robust scientific attitude, meaning he gives fairly short shrift to anything mystical.
Harry Marks wrote:
…impression that he only wants to critique this traditional, supernatural-based, conveniently helpful notion of God on the grounds of emotional distortions of cognitive processes. If so, that is far too reductionist for me, and should be confronted with the fact that much of the leadership in religion is actively engaged in trying to get people over these problematic ideas on theological grounds.
That illustrates the challenge of building a conversation between theology and psychiatry. Perhaps Lewis’s opinions are constrained by the views of religion he encounters among people suffering from mental illness, which would lead him to discount the potential rationality of theology.
Harry Marks wrote:
It leaves me with the feeling that someone is trying to critique common practice of a social system on the basis of something that is already being rejected by the social system itself. If you did that to forestry you would be spending your time critiquing clearcutting with the implication that no cutting at all should be done, in flagrant ignorance of sustainable forestry principles.
You are too sanguine here about the extent of self-criticism in religion. The absence of critical debate within religion is ironic in view of all the hypocritical wailing among the faithful about confession, repentance and honesty. My impression is that suppression of dialogue within religion remains far more widespread than your forestry comparison would suggest. Forest science seeks to be evidence based, whereas religion remains primarily emotion based.


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Post Re: Chapter 3 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Belaqua wrote:
This I think is the key. Meaning is created in and through a system.
Hi Belaqua, thanks for engaging on this basic problem of the source of meaning. Yes it is true that meaning is created in and through a system. Another word for system is story. Our cultural mythology gives us a seemingly coherent vision, with only so much meaning as there is coherent narrative, since both meaning and coherence are about how things hold together and relate in a logical way.

The existential problem is that old myths are breaking down and we often do not have coherent visions able to replace them, producing a sense of anxiety.
Belaqua wrote:
It is a system that humans all pretty much share.
Not quite sure what you mean by that, given how ideological clashes reflect different systems of meaning. Changes of paradigm involve revision of basic assumptions about meaning, notably on this existential problem of how life reaches toward the infinite, or whether meaning is intrinsically finite.
Belaqua wrote:
It is not intrinsic in that, if all the people died it would stop.
Yes, this raises the distinction between description and construction within theories of meaning. Description is intrinsic, in that an apple is intrinsically an apple, whereas construction, our sense of what is important and valuable and meaningful, is inherently related to the human perspective.
Belaqua wrote:
When the cockroaches take over in a few years, the meanings will be different.
Some people don’t share the systems of meaning that allow that assumption. Leaving aside the senses of meaning involved in optimism and pessimism about human extinction, it can be argued that meaning is a function of language, so organisms like cockroaches that lack language have no system of meaning beyond the implicit meaning of instinct.
Belaqua wrote:
But as long as there are people, it is not just fiction. And this way of thinking goes back at least to Aristotle, right? For him, ethics is ethics for people, based on what we are as people. It is not independent of our human condition.
Construction of the idea of the good can arguably also be found before Aristotle in Plato, indicating that existential realism is intrinsically central to philosophical ethics.
Belaqua wrote:
And here, Robert (if you're reading) I think we're up against Heidegger's concept of "thrownness," aren't we? I may be wildly wrong, but it seems to me that we as individuals are thrown into this system of meaning, like it or not.
I read Heidegger a bit differently. This idea that we are thrown into a world of immersion and involvement is about how our past conditions our situation through facticity. But he argued that we construct meaning by projecting upon future possibilities, as something that is always forward looking, revealed in the present as the moment of vision, engaged in relationships of care.

This finite temporal structure of human existence defines care as the meaning of being, as Heidegger’s central systematic idea in Being and Time. Facticity alone provides an inauthentic sense of meaning, whereas authentic care is existential openness.
Belaqua wrote:
And that's important because it means that despite being non-physical, meanings are also intrinsic aspects of the culture we are in.
And yet the problem for philosophy, which I think Lewis usefully explores, is that received cultural meaning embeds dubious assumptions and so is not always what it appears to be.

Phenomenology, in Husserl’s sense of allowing phenomena to reveal themselves, demands a resolute effort to analyse presuppositions. Heidegger applied his method to the existential problem of the disclosure of truth in moods, in terms of being in the world, while recognising that ‘world’ is not a physical thing but rather a construction of human spirit.
Belaqua wrote:
Hitchens-type atheists are wont to say that since there is no God and no absolute meaning handed down, then we are all to make up our own meanings in life. But that ignores the fact that we are inevitably and invariably born into culture, and culture determines meanings that individuals are not free to dismiss. This could easily extend to issues of "how should a person live his life?" because it means that within human culture, we are not free to choose our personal meanings -- or not entirely so.
Sartre, whose Being and Nothingness was mainly based on Heidegger’s Being and Time, used Nietzsche’s ‘God is Dead’ philosophy as the framework for a radical existential freedom of the will, with his claim that existence precedes essence. But in line with your point here, Heidegger saw existential freedom as enmeshed in factical commitments, while gaining spiritual authenticity in openness to the future.


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Post Re: Chapter 3 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Robert Tulip wrote:
Lewis is critiquing the concept of God as imaginary. But like Dawkins in The God Delusion his field is social psychology, exploring how people believe crazy things. Lewis is engaging less with a coherent concept of God than with emotional myths that appear in a range of mental illnesses including on a sub-clinical spectrum. As long as he is honest about that objective Lewis is okay, but that means his analysis is primarily sociological and psychiatrical, not philosophical.
It seems to me that he is taking an approach similar to Michael Shermer's, esp in Scientific American, where a series of cognitive distortions is confronted with a more rational analysis of the situation. Lewis offers a different perspective, since he has plentiful experience with a range of cases in which the distortions are part of disabling mental illness. That can provide interesting insights - I have enjoyed at least a few of them. But since, as you say, he is "too smart" to equate them definitely, he creates a little cognitive laziness of his own by grouping less-than-rational religious beliefs or patterns with their "matching" mental illness.

Robert Tulip wrote:
Harry Marks wrote:
Since the emotional connections behind the two "overperceptions" are completely different, I am not satisfied that he is really lumping together two phenomena which mainly illustrate the same mental laziness.
Comparing paranoia to the mythology of creation is interesting if confusing. Reading Chapter Two, where these issues are raised, I’m not sure he is lumping them together, although some might read it that way. He is too smart to support the atheist motivated reasoning that would conflate the psychological delusions involved in paranoia and creationism, even if some creationists are paranoid. While creationism involves delusion in its popular literal forms, the Genesis myths also have allegorical meaning and link to ethical visions that help to explain their enduring influence.
I am satisfied with the scientific critique of Plato's "uncaused cause" claims about God. Modern rationalists point out that "we don't know" is an adequate answer to "where did things first come from?" But emotionally, the sense that there must ultimately be some "greater force" behind origins is hardly the same psychological process as the sense that evildoers are setting out to dictate my life, or that signs on the road into town are signals that my secret guilt is actually known. The first is more akin to the mind's automatic completion of a circle which actually has gaps in it, while the second is more akin to an insecure person thinking everyone is secretly laughing at her. Both are motivated reasoning, but the difference in motivations is not minor, arbitrary and uninteresting.

Robert Tulip wrote:
This sort of conflation, which I don’t agree Lewis suggests, involves a political agenda of hostility to religion, failing to explore how beliefs that are on the surface literally false may conceal symbolic and moral truth. Lewis has a robust scientific attitude, meaning he gives fairly short shrift to anything mystical.
Well, Lewis also doesn't seem very interested in symbolic and moral truths which are conveyed (not, I think, "concealed") by mythological beliefs. I think he is coming from a certain hostility to religion, by his own account. When you are facing life-threatening cancer, you don't feel like indulging in the translation process from religious platitudes expressed to the emotional support intended. And that's fair enough: one of the many tasks taken on by progressive religion is to help people understand how to express emotional support without using language laden with toxic implications. So he got fed up with the problem and is arguing in this book for throwing out the whole process, at least so far.

Robert Tulip wrote:
Harry Marks wrote:
…impression that he only wants to critique this traditional, supernatural-based, conveniently helpful notion of God on the grounds of emotional distortions of cognitive processes. If so, that is far too reductionist for me, and should be confronted with the fact that much of the leadership in religion is actively engaged in trying to get people over these problematic ideas on theological grounds.
That illustrates the challenge of building a conversation between theology and psychiatry. Perhaps Lewis’s opinions are constrained by the views of religion he encounters among people suffering from mental illness, which would lead him to discount the potential rationality of theology.
What if the proper solution to a large share of mental illness turns out to be integration into an ongoing social setting which provides people with some support and some opportunity to contribute to the community? Yet that hardly figures in "therapeutic" options considered, analyzed and reported. The challenge of building a conversation goes both ways.

Psychiatry was born in the harsh triage of the insane asylum, where broken people were sent to be coped with by whatever means were needed, and the privacy of the doctor's office, where taboo issues could at long last be discussed. We are terribly impressed by pharmacological success against mental illness, but that is partly because that is the type of intervention we are most enamored of. The idea that our whole society and economy might be called on to make space for those who are facing tough mental challenges seems too "religious" for the most driven people to take on board. Perhaps we could begin to think about what kind of mental illness being driven is.
Robert Tulip wrote:
Harry Marks wrote:
It leaves me with the feeling that someone is trying to critique common practice of a social system on the basis of something that is already being rejected by the social system itself. If you did that to forestry you would be spending your time critiquing clearcutting with the implication that no cutting at all should be done, in flagrant ignorance of sustainable forestry principles.

You are too sanguine here about the extent of self-criticism in religion. The absence of critical debate within religion is ironic in view of all the hypocritical wailing among the faithful about confession, repentance and honesty. My impression is that suppression of dialogue within religion remains far more widespread than your forestry comparison would suggest.
Perhaps so. I have no reason to believe that religion would be any better at self-criticism than, say, academia, which is really bad at it.

As I look over a lot of the discussion on the Patheos boards, for example, I see very little willingness to believe that people can commit to the values of traditional religion without the supernatural language to back it up. Some of this is the fear that religious leaders feel to confront supernatural claims as the motivation for religion. They may believe rightly that they would no longer be supported without it. Or they may have their own motivated reasoning telling them that they chose correctly when they decided on religious leadership as a path in life.

However, I also observe a consistent current moving in the direction of making our embodiment of God direct while critiquing shaky conceptualization of God on a slant. Most people have no trouble understanding why it is better to learn to express our concern and support for, e.g. people with cancer, directly. They have no trouble understanding why we have to get past patting ourselves on the back for what good people we are in order to actually be transformed. Given a gradual dialogue, they can begin to understand why the claims of supernatural authority for the Bible, which they were raised with, were a mistake and a bit of a con.

Robert Tulip wrote:
Forest science seeks to be evidence based, whereas religion remains primarily emotion based.
Forestry is money-based, as we know. Forest science, like theology, strives to take a more rational approach to the matter. This should not be ignored in favor of dismissive analyses that refuse to accept any valid role for emotions, in the case of religion, or money, in the case of forestry.

I do not say Lewis refuses to accept valid roles for the emotional functions of religion, but so far he has not given them much play. That is not his message. I don't want to be dismissive of the insights his message has to offer, I am just trying to keep some perspective on what he overlooks.



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Post Re: Chapter 3 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Harry, thanks for those comments. I will come back to respond, but first, I really liked Chapter Three, in the main. His discussion of Unrealistic Optimism and Expecting the Universe to Care, showed me that some of my beliefs are wrong.

In the context of my father dying this year from mesothelioma, I have recently read several books that claim a person’s attitude can influence their health. Lewis cites a range of evidence such as this study from the British Medical Journal to show how exaggerated and dangerous such claims can be when taken to extremes, whereas a more balanced view still recognises the importance of a strong appetite for life within a modern evidence-based value system.

The risks of unfounded optimism and blind faith are that people can avoid medical treatment in favour of alleged spiritual cures. In this chapter Lewis explores this wishful thinking, puncturing unrealistic beliefs.

Cancer generates strong negative emotion about unfairness and the harshness of reality, since most cancers seem to be random. Optimism helps people to cope, but can convey the hurtful message that those who died lacked enough hope. Lewis says the scientific evidence indicates that a positive attitude makes no different to cancer survival, since mechanisms such as the effect of stress on the immune system are not strong enough to measure. I find that hard to believe, and would be interested to see more analysis of this research.

His point is that cancer patients should try to enjoy their lives and accept medical advice, rather than wasting their time and effort on alternative cures, unless these activities reduce their distress more than other things they could do.

These problems reflect a wider American meme of unrealistic optimism, seen in the happy ending requirement in movies, and in the tyranny of positive thinking as a factor in taking on excessive debt.

Mind-body connection is important, but can easily be misunderstood, with people imagining that psychological hangups have greater physical effects than they really do. One patient saw her ‘emotional dissonance’ as more important than medical treatment, and another felt like a suicidal failure because he was depressed and not strong enough compared to the ideals of spiritual healing programs.

The bitterness of feeling abandoned by God can lead people to fail to attend to practical matters in the face of a terminal diagnosis, or waste money on futile aggressive treatments. When people should be sharing memories they often waste their precious moments on pointless medical treatment or other activities.

Lewis says mildly depressed people are more realistic than the buoyantly optimistic. Often there are sound reasons for depression based in people’s life circumstances. But more seriously depressed people often have distorted views and are often vulnerable. Psychiatry aims to help people to function, not necessarily to be realistic. People who have been devastated by adverse life events need a lot more help.

The tendency to oversell spills over into psychiatry, with inflated claims about transforming people’s lives where the reality is only a prospect of minor adjustment. Mild anxiety and depression can be completely normal, or just part of someone’s personality, but there is a tendency to treat these conditions as illnesses, even though such people can also be more sensitive and attuned and cautious. Mild conditions can benefit from counselling, while severe conditions need medication or can be untreatable.


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Post Re: Chapter 3 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Harry wrote:
However, I'm not sure a "book of this sort" is going to avoid doing violence to the real issues by settling for "the [concept] most widely believed."


If the concept that is most widely believed has issues, those issues are real, aren't they? I would think they are important as well. Perhaps not as satisfying to yourself, being an intellectual shepherd of the flock.

Quote:
But I get my own jollies from arguing that the meanings that matter are the ones that are emotional.


I get my jollies from the opposite, but an unfortunate side effect is that my reasoning tells me I'm biased, which impacts my ability to reason. So I force myself to see the blend at every opportunity. I think you do as well. Too much emphasis in the emotional connections can lead to rabbit holes, where people trust their gut instinct over science. An example is in Robert's last post above, where he mentions the dangers of relying too much on positive thinking, without balancing that with "the importance of a strong appetite for life within a modern evidence-based value system."

Quote:
Modern rationalists point out that "we don't know" is an adequate answer to "where did things first come from?"


Technically speaking, it's currently the most correct answer as well. Knowing this yet having the urge to close the circle imparts a bit of cognitive dissonance. But I think that's a healthy version of agnosticism.


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Post Re: Chapter 3 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Robert Tulip wrote:
In the context of my father dying this year from mesothelioma, I have recently read several books that claim a person’s attitude can influence their health. Lewis cites a range of evidence such as the study from the British Medical Journal to show how exaggerated and dangerous such claims can be when taken to extremes, whereas a more balanced view still recognises the importance of a strong appetite for life within a modern evidence-based value system.


Thanks for sharing about this, Robert. I imagine it is still a somewhat painful topic, and not at all abstract for you. I sort of feel that these issues are only real when you are in a crisis. This is not a "no atheists in foxholes" claim, but simply that it's very easy to chat about existential choices when life is going well, but we may not have the right "phenomenology" in mind if we are not dealing with attitudes that really matter.

I agree that Lewis addresses the issues of unrealistic optimism, and expecting the universe to care, with a helpful directness and insightful stories. The issue of wanting to have more control in the situation is critical, and I am not sure he gives it enough thought. People who insist that it must be something they can determine with their own mind are probably doing more damage by creating stress than they are helping things by activating immune reactions, or whatever. Yet many more people try to have some control, unrealistically, than go to the lengths of the case he considers.

Robert Tulip wrote:
The risks of unfounded optimism and blind faith are that people can avoid medical treatment in favour of alleged spiritual cures. In this chapter Lewis explores this wishful thinking, puncturing unrealistic beliefs.

Cancer generates strong negative emotion about unfairness and the harshness of reality, since most cancers seem to be random. Optimism helps people to cope, but can convey the hurtful message that those who died lacked enough hope. Lewis says the scientific evidence indicates that a positive attitude makes no different to cancer survival, since mechanisms such as the effect of stress on the immune system are not strong enough to measure. I find that hard to believe, and would be interested to see more analysis of this research.
I was not reading the discussion of the evidence with the care you gave it. I was left with the impression that a positive attitude might help a little, but not enough to make it worthwhile to turn it into a campaign of determination. That makes sense to me: insisting on an illusory sense of control in the face of tough odds is setting oneself up for serious distress.

But let's face it. Most of the distress comes with the situation. I knew someone who died youngish, about 50, with kids not yet in college, from skin cancer, and he was apparently at peace about the whole thing the whole time. Those of us who visited him were left wondering when he grieved, which he surely must have done.

What I see as the main risk is blaming oneself, or someone else, for inadequate determination or optimism. The outcome is mostly out of one's control, and hindsight tells us nothing about whether attitude mattered.

Robert Tulip wrote:
His point is that cancer patients should try to enjoy their lives and accept medical advice, rather than wasting their time and effort on alternative cures, unless these activities reduce their distress more than other things they could do.
That advice made a lot of sense to me. In some sense all of life is like that. People attach their sense of happiness and well-being to some particular outcome, and let their attachment cost them dearly, and in the end they face either the disappointment of not getting what you want or the disappointment of getting what you want. Toni Morrison says it doesn't matter, forget about happiness and go for accomplishment. But one can seek to accomplish things out of more peaceful motivations than drivenness.

Robert Tulip wrote:
These problems reflect a wider American meme of unrealistic optimism, seen in the happy ending requirement in movies, and in the tyranny of positive thinking as a factor in taking on excessive debt.

Mind-body connection is important, but can easily be misunderstood, with people imagining that psychological hangups have greater physical effects than they really do. One patient saw her ‘emotional dissonance’ as more important than medical treatment, and another felt like a suicidal failure because he was depressed and not strong enough compared to the ideals of spiritual healing programs.

Yes, I thought that Lewis did a good job addressing these issues. There is also some related material in Kahneman's book "Thinking, Fast and Slow" about how we package our view of risk-taking, with the perceived package actually making a difference in our regrets and in the rationality of our choices. Rationality isn't everything, but I think there is a real danger when facing such drastic threats, a danger of letting emotions overwhelm our ability to enjoy the life we have, as long or as short as it may extend. To the extent that rationality can free us from that, I am in favor of it.

Robert Tulip wrote:
The bitterness of feeling abandoned by God can lead people to fail to attend to practical matters in the face of a terminal diagnosis, or waste money on futile aggressive treatments. When people should be sharing memories they often waste their precious moments on pointless medical treatment or other activities.
This is a big issue in Christianity these days, and I suppose in all religion. It is where the rubber meets the road, as we say in America, on theodicy and just what we believe about God. If your life is to some extent organized around people and activities that presume a theology of God doing favors for the believers, then it is fairly likely one will pull away from these when life clobbers you over the head with dire outcomes. It is quite common for people who go through this to deepen their relationship to life, but unfortunately it is even more common for them to conclude that their life was a mistake and their supposed friends are actually just using people as props for their little drama. So the clergy, including in most evangelical denominations, are actively trying to move people away from notions of God as vending machine or Santa Claus, existing for the purpose of making our lives more secure and helping us out materially.

Instead, religion should provide some consolation and perspective. If that happens mainly by looking forward to an afterlife, for some people, I do not have any serious objection. (But these days it is callous to assume that others share such an expectation and to lay it on them as a kind of obligation, and so Christians are also being counseled to avoid denigrating the importance of other people's crises with other-worldly perspectives.) Done really well, I think, this consolation and perspective comes from being satisfied that one is actually living for that which one believes to be worthwhile, whether or not that is expressed in other-worldly terms.

Stepping a bit further back from the sociology, you have to wonder about the theological shallowness of anyone who seriously thought God was protecting them from cancer/crime/auto accidents, etc. Obviously it is mainly an emotional reaction, a feeling about life. But people turn it into an article of faith, too. My father did that, and occasionally it provided him with cover for poor decisions, like not buying medical insurance and refusing to go see a doctor when he should. I have to admire the determination that went with that: he managed his own diabetes for 10 years by dietary control. But still, it was not rational, and dreadfully bad theology.

So here's my big question, which I was going to save for further chapters. According to Kubler-Ross's theory of five stages of grief, (or, better, of coping with terminal illness) after denial and anger it is typical to go through bargaining. That is, one imagines that by promising to "be good" or do some performance, one will be rewarded with healing. Now, that's a transparent effort to get some control over something that is clearly outside one's control. It isn't rational.

But my question is, shouldn't it be entered into wholeheartedly rather than held at arm's length by rationality? Sin boldly, one might say, against the requirements of rationality. I am not claiming that there is something inevitable about the stages and a person has to plunge into this to reach the final stage of acceptance. Rather, I am saying the emotional reaction is entirely sensible and understandable, even if it has no rational basis or justification.

In keeping with my argument that meaning is about emotional connections to events and causal relations, it seems to me that suppressing such emotional grasping at straws is likely to short-circuit some important connections. When we bargain, seeking control, we are searching for things we might be able to do that would have some effect. We are also searching for a narrative structure, with something to blame (loss of ozone, for mesothelioma in Australia, might be a candidate).

And finally, we are engaging in a new level of seriousness with life and the business of being alive. What are the values we have been treating casually, that we have a sense we really should have been engaging meaningfully? Like the fact that we will now have to settle debts (see Socrates' last words) we finally face up to the trifling we have been doing with life. No more procrastinating. No more time. It is not surprising to me (indeed, I have faced it myself over less serious issues) that this would initially feel like the child promising to be good in order to get some reward from the parent. The question is, how else do we come to the point of recognizing what we think "being good" really is?

Done wrong, this bargaining with life is a way of further denial. A game of let's pretend, to pretend we can control the outcome. Done right, it is the beginning of a solemn promise to use my life for what I really think it should be used for. To let my family know how much they mean to me, and to spend time with them rather than avoiding the emotional stress, for example. Done right, it is the beginning of a reckoning about life.

With that in mind, I think "Expecting the Universe to Care" can be seen as just sloppy thinking that still reflects, to some extent, an encounter one needs to have. Not with the Universe, but with life and what makes it meaningful. Referring once again to Kahneman, I suspect that "Bargaining" is a lazy jumping to emotionally-constructed answers, but like much of that perception-based thinking, is also a pointer to the fact that there is an issue needing to be addressed more seriously.

Robert Tulip wrote:
Lewis says mildly depressed people are more realistic than the buoyantly optimistic. Often there are sound reasons for depression based in people’s life circumstances. But more seriously depressed people often have distorted views and are often vulnerable. Psychiatry aims to help people to function, not necessarily to be realistic. People who have been devastated by adverse life events need a lot more help.
I thought Lewis was also very good on this subject, at least at providing balance and perspective. I was quite impressed that he was willing to agree that realism is not a prime goal in itself, but could be subordinated to functioning well.



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Post Re: Chapter 3 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
Interbane wrote:
Harry wrote:
However, I'm not sure a "book of this sort" is going to avoid doing violence to the real issues by settling for "the [concept] most widely believed."

If the concept that is most widely believed has issues, those issues are real, aren't they? I would think they are important as well. Perhaps not as satisfying to yourself, being an intellectual shepherd of the flock.
Blush. I feel flattered or honored. Maybe both. Well, I am trying to withhold judgment til I have seen what Lewis has to say, but let me just say I think "finding meaning in a world without (a supernatural) God" is a very important topic. It is, one might say, meaningful. But the issues that are adequately addressed by good theology don't really need to be examined carefully for cognitive biases and their sources. It's fine for him to do so - I learn from it, so I expect others would as well. But if that's as deep as he gets, I will be left, as you suggest, unsatisfied.

The reason goes to the heart of my philosophy of life. I think autonomy is a worthy goal. That is, I think each of us should strive for an account of ethical decisions that makes enough sense to us that we are actually willing to live by it. This includes an account of the reasons for being willing to live by it.

The term "neoconservative" was coined, as I understand it, by William Kristol in the 70s, defining such a person as "a liberal who has been mugged by reality." The French often argue that the bourgeoisie have their "heart on the left but their pocketbook on the right." These both strike me as inadequate positions. I feel I would be left with only worthless principles if these were likely to give way when the potential bad stuff happened to me, or when I had to make real decisions based on them rather than just making talk.

If Lewis takes on such a weighty topic and in the end says only "people draw grand but mistaken conclusions based on emotional influences, in the following ways," then it is basically a self-help book, not a book that helps us think about God or about meaning or about the relationship between the two. Not a total waste of time, but hardly living up to the title.

Interbane wrote:
Quote:
But I get my own jollies from arguing that the meanings that matter are the ones that are emotional.
I get my jollies from the opposite, but an unfortunate side effect is that my reasoning tells me I'm biased, which impacts my ability to reason. So I force myself to see the blend at every opportunity. I think you do as well.
Well, sort of. I tend to naturally gravitate to the factual account, which is what I think you are saying, and so I start asking myself about the emotional aspects and whether they have been artificially suppressed. Trying to write fiction, this comes up all the time. On the other hand, some of the ways that I don't naturally fit in with many of my colleagues result from my emotional connections, e.g. due to my father having been poorly educated and working class, and I am quite happy to stick with the meanings I was "thrown into" unless I have a reason, based in autonomous understanding of values, for changing them.

Interbane wrote:
Too much emphasis in the emotional connections can lead to rabbit holes, where people trust their gut instinct over science.
Sure. I agree. I also think sometimes people's gut instincts are not really in conflict with the facts, as determined by science, but only perceived to be. It should be the job of "intellectual shepherds" to help people understand how they can maintain the solid values, like striving for some sense of control when cancer strikes, without giving up a basically realistic understanding of how things work. Those can be very difficult "technologies" to manage, and a willingness to keep faith with emotional motivations until the matter has been thought through can be indispensable to working out the methods.

Interbane wrote:
Quote:
Modern rationalists point out that "we don't know" is an adequate answer to "where did things first come from?"

Technically speaking, it's currently the most correct answer as well. Knowing this yet having the urge to close the circle imparts a bit of cognitive dissonance. But I think that's a healthy version of agnosticism.
Yes, and settling for no definite answer is fine for questions like ultimate origins about which we do not need an answer. I get more worried with people I know who feel that they must reach a certain conclusion about it as a matter of maintaining their system of values. That kind of cognitive dissonance is a serious problem, perhaps precisely because people work so hard to avoid experiencing it. That is a big part of why I am reading the book, and, so far, appreciating it.



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Post Re: Chapter 3 - Finding Purpose in a Godless World - by Ralph Lewis
With lots of different comments on this book, I will dip in to a few that I find particularly interesting. This is a response to post166419.html#p166419
Harry Marks wrote:
What if the proper solution to a large share of mental illness turns out to be integration into an ongoing social setting which provides people with some support and some opportunity to contribute to the community? Yet that hardly figures in "therapeutic" options considered, analyzed and reported. The challenge of building a conversation goes both ways.
Integration into a social setting is exactly the purpose of a church congregation at the local parish level. There is an evolutionary adaptive quality of local religious practice that faces major selective pressures in adapting to modern culture.

The emergence of anonymous mass culture, alongside the conservative tendency of churches to be slow to update their doctrine, and the tendency of rational people to give too much weight to the surface irrationality of church practice and belief, all mean the ability of church to build community is in decline.

It is quite natural that rational people refuse to countenance that false claims and seemingly meaningless rituals can contain hidden value, when this alleged spiritual value is hard to see as explicit conscious content, and its allegorical meaning is never explained in ways that make scientific sense. The churches give priority to the comfort of believers over the needs of non-believers, but that points to areas of dialogue and reform that are essential to rebuild church credibility.
Harry Marks wrote:
Psychiatry was born in the harsh triage of the insane asylum, where broken people were sent to be coped with by whatever means were needed, and the privacy of the doctor's office, where taboo issues could at long last be discussed. We are terribly impressed by pharmacological success against mental illness, but that is partly because that is the type of intervention we are most enamored of. The idea that our whole society and economy might be called on to make space for those who are facing tough mental challenges seems too "religious" for the most driven people to take on board. Perhaps we could begin to think about what kind of mental illness being driven is.
Lewis may be terribly impressed by psychiatric drugs, but I am not. Drugs for depression and anxiety are a Band-Aid over the gaping wound of social dysfunction. The collapse of local community identity, vision and care is a primary cause of the epidemic of mental illness, in my view. Until people find ways to restore local connections, through new forms of religious identity, the problems will only get worse.

Welfare payments are another palliative, a fiscal transfer from the driven to the incompetent. Your description of being driven as a mental illness is interesting. The productivity of competitive economic growth has downsides with the exclusion of those who can’t keep up, leaving aside the ignored ecological risks.

‘Making space for those who face tough mental challenges’ has a religious dimension. It can be solved by the great quid pro quo of Matthew 25, the negotiated settlement between capitalist and socialist values that agrees if we produce abundance through accepting the morality of ‘to those who have will be given’, we will obtain the resources for works of mercy that treat the least as if they are Jesus Christ, distributing the wealth created by the driven.


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