Thursday, January 25, 2007


Last night I went to see the movie Obsession on campus, hosted by Students for Peace and Justice. Nonie Darwish, founder of Arabs for Israel and featured in the film, spoke to the audience afterwards. Overall it seemed the main point of the movie was to make strong parallels between radical Islam and Nazi Germany. By the end I distinctly felt that the implication was that war is the only logical solution, although it was never stated directly.

Watching many clips of how children are indoctrinated to despise the United States definitely had me thinking about my recent thoughts about belief. I certainly don't think that war is the answer to this kind of situation, but then the question becomes, what is? Education? Information? The invention of the internet has certainly been a revolution of sorts. Perhaps it can continue to enable global mind-change.

Something else happened that night which really left an impression on me, so much so I wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Bruin:

I attended the showing of "Obsession" on the night of the 24th. As people were filing in, there were people from other groups handing out informational flyers to those waiting in line. I took one and put it in my backpack, looking forward to reading it more closely later. What surprised me was that upon entering, our bags were searched and this flyer was removed — I was told that I could not bring it into the theater. The response to my look of astonishment was that it was policy and that I could retrieve it after the show.

While I imagine there could be valid motivations for UCLA to make this kind of policy, I found the situation ironic considering that presumably the goal of hosting such events is to educate by showing different sides of issues and letting people decide for themselves. Especially disconcerting was the fact that as I left, the confiscated flyers were nowhere to be found. When I posed the question of where they were to the security guard enforcing their confiscation, he had no idea.

I hope to find out the history of this policy. And I would appreciate it if the groups that endeavor to enforce it would do so with greater respect and integrity.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

This I ... Believe?

My most recent attempt at describing where I stand on faith these days has been a criticism of the Christian concept of salvation being dependent on belief in Jesus. By and large all who call themselves Christian have a wide spectrum of beliefs regarding salvation, but at the core of them all is this one. Some doctrines hold that there are additional requirements for salvation (baptism, confirmation, etc.), but all these of course depend on some kind of belief in Jesus in order for them to be meaningful, so I think this argument can safely address most of Christianity, mainstream or otherwise.

Now here is how my travels have brought me to a place where this no longer makes sense: I have come to find that believing (or disbelieving) something is not a matter of choice. While this conclusion has been formulating in my mind over the past few years, I came upon the same idea expressed much more eloquently by both Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, and their arguments helped me to frame what I was feeling into words.

All of us have had something that we believed to be true at one time, only to find out later that we were wrong. For those who always get things right the first time, think of the many concepts that were once widely held but then later refuted — for example, the idea that the earth was flat. For a long period of time people could not help but believe that the world was flat. And yet, when more and more evidence appeared indicating otherwise, eventually it overwhelmed people to where again they could not help but believe that the world was round. Could they, indeed could we, still "choose" to believe that the world is flat? I suppose we could, but at that point we call this delusion or denial which is understood to be an unhealthy way to approach things. Certainly this is not the sort of faith that Christians would want to advocate anyway. In a sense it is making a distinction between what we "choose" to believe (voluntary) and what we "really" believe (involuntary). So even in this there is concept of something that we cannot help but believe.

If belief truly is involuntary, then how does the concept of a salvation based on belief fit into things? If belief is not something that we can choose, then salvation is not something we can choose either, and the point of exhorting people to choose it would be nonsensical. This to me is a conflict within the framework of Christianity that is beyond recovery.

Newtonian physics was a model that worked for a long time, but when Einstein came along he helped us see that the model fell apart when describing things approaching the speed of light; a new model was needed. In my experience Christianity has this same feel to it — I accepted it because as a model it made the most sense with what I saw and knew at the time. Belief as a choice was one key point that I accepted whole-heartedly; indeed I felt that anyone who chose not to believe was simply evading responsibility. Now however, I feel the model breaking down, this point of belief being one of many examples. Psychology, sociology, and science in general are better, more powerful models of describing the world, and they have proved more fruitful for my life in general.

Now I brought the idea of belief being involuntary up with Ben and he raised the interesting point that if belief is involuntary, that is, simply a product of experiences, then all choice is simply a product of experiences as well, since choice is determined by beliefs. Thus, he argues, the original assertion necessarily implies a deterministic world.

And this really got me thinking in a lot of different ways. Initially my response is to say that choice is not directly determined by beliefs, but that within a certain set of beliefs there are still an enormous, perhaps infinite, number of choices available to a person. While I think this is a reasonable idea, I also note that a deterministic world is not outside the (or my) realm of possibility. As my education is in computer science, this kind of thinking is not unusual. The theory that the world is in fact some kind of computer simulation has already been put forth, in fact.

What Ben's question really raises for me is the need for a closer examination of the concept of "choice." I haven't thought about it extensively but perhaps a materialist world — where the brain behaves according to rules of chemical reactions — denies the idea of choice altogether. What if historically "choice" was simply the label we used to describe the mysterious machinations that people undergo, producing behavior? Maybe it was simply our tool to describe what we could not yet explain accurately, on the level of "soul." Perhaps now we have a better model and so we should reexamine what choice means. After all, as I have brought up before, we did not choose to be born into this world. Is it that difficult to accept that choice as we know it is some kind of mysterious illusion?

The idea of a deterministic world is somewhat unnerving, I think because our traditional understanding of choice is so pervasive. It's interesting how I (and probably most people) immediately equate the obliteration of choice as a concept with a loss of rights, or some kind of authoritarianism, or as somehow turning us into robots. I suppose I may eventually quell my initial unease with relinquishing my definition of choice and wholeheartedly embrace the idea of a deterministic world. For now though I will consider it undetermined, *ba dum bump*.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Absolute Morality

This post continues my discussion with Kip by elaborating my perspective on the existence of an absolute morality.

There was a time when I believed in a sense of absolute right and wrong, but since then I have come to change my position on this. The following are some of the logical steps I went through while contemplating this concept. I will begin with the initial premise of C.S. Lewis, which I subscribed to first.

The Premise

Lewis reasoned that since most people accept that some religions are "better" than others, then there must exist some sort of ultimate "best" religion that these comparisons are in a sense "pointing" to. This made sense to me, as did his subsequent claim that Christianity was the religion that best fit the bill, based on other reasoning which I won't get into. In fact Lewis used this universal sense of morality as evidence of God.

Perspective on Good and Evil

Later I came upon a new approach to the concept of evil. Instead of a looking at good and evil as two equivalently manifest ends of the morality spectrum, doesn't it make more sense to define "evil" with respect to good, that is, as the absence of good? This is comparable to how darkness is not a true physical entity, but merely an abstract concept describing the absence of light. I contemplated whether the devil exists, a debate common in Catholic and even Jewish theological circles.

Judgment, and its By-Product, Guilt

The psychological perspective brought me to the point that really made the difference. In reading How People Grow I started to see how judgment and guilt do not benefit a person in that they do not elicit a sustained change in behavior. They may work in the short-term, but in the bigger picture they inevitably do more harm than good. This truth struck with a real resonance because evidence of it was all around me, and even included me, as I had been deeply involved in a group that used both judgment and guilt (unconsciously, in my opinion) as instrumental parts of its practice.

Instead, the more powerful concept that elicits lasting behavior modification is the realization of consequences. When a person realizes how his behavior causes pain to those around him, he wants to change. This presents a more meaningful and effective motivation for change than "because it's the right thing to do."

In their book Cloud and Townsend still believe in the concept of judgment but assert that it is reserved for God alone — it is not meant to be wielded among mortals. I started to wonder though, what might happen if I did not assume God existed in the first place.

The Thought Experiment

The following thought experiment further convinced me — consider the scenario of a man alone on a desert island. In this context, is this man subject to judgment of right and wrong? What kind of universal law could you try to enforce upon him? This implies that law is a purely relational artifact; it only has meaning in the context of two (or more) entities.

Thus the existence of absolute morality and the existence of God are equivalent assumptions. Therefore, one cannot use one to prove the other without creating a circular argument. Of course if they are equivalent, then proving that absolute morality does not exist is as impossible as proving God does not exist.

Although disproving the existence of absolute morality is impossible theoretically, I believe that there is another reason to abandon the idea of it entirely.

Absolute Morality Unattainable

In practical terms, one could never profess having a grasp of absolute morality anyway. Even if there were a source of revelation such as the bible which contained some definition of it, it would still require interpretation by humans in order to understand it, which is by definition fallible. We need only look at the history of Christianity, or any other religion for that matter, to see several tragic early approximations of a purported absolute truth. The real danger is in assuming that we are more "sincere" in our faith than the early believers and therefore beyond making the same errors of interpretation.

Belief in Absolute Morality Dangerous?

Another interesting thing to think about is whether a belief in an absolute morality is actually detrimental, aside from the actual veracity of the claim. I assert that even if such a thing exists, believing that it exists will inevitably entice someone at some point into thinking that he has attained it. If (or perhaps, when) a better perspective comes along, convincing this person that an improvement exists could prove difficult, perhaps even impossible.

Even from the theological point of view, it seems like the "pride before the fall" scenario all over again. In other words, humility would dictate that we leave ourselves open to the possibility that we could be wrong in any particular area.

But perhaps in practical terms there is no difference in saying "there is an absolute truth, but I will never attain it," versus "there is no absolute truth, but I will strive endlessly to find what is better." Either way the point of real consequence is that we should never feel as if we have reached the absolute best policy on how to behave in any situation.

Apologies that this post ran so long; hopefully it's not too incoherent. I did not even delve into moral relativism, which, without having studied it extensively, I imagine I subscribe to. My guess is that The God Delusion, which I have just started reading, will express some of these same ideas more cogently.