Saturday, February 24, 2007

Following God’s example?

I am not an expert on the Bible, but there are some things in that book that I find incredibly disconcerting, especially when it comes to God’s moral conduct. It is often said that a leader who is worthy of respect is a leader who sets an example. When I read through the pages of the Bible, I become more convinced that if the God of the Bible exists, he is the type of leader I will not follow, simply because he sets an example that at times I find morally objectionable. I’ve written this post in the realisation that I could be mistaken, that it is possible that I’ve missed something. If so, please let me know where I’ve gone wrong.

One of the arguments for the truth of Christianity, put forward by various apologists, including CS Lewis, is that all humans are endowed with a moral sense of right and wrong. Due to the fact that this objective, moral sense exists, there must be a Moral Law Giver (i.e., God).

For arguments sake, let’s accept that this divine moral sense exists. Now, the problem is this: as a human being I must have been endowed with a slightly different moral sense than that of the God of the Bible. Why? Well, there are instances of God’s conduct that differ substantially from what I, and many others, consider to be ‘moral’.

A few examples:

  • Many would consider it immoral to kill an innocent human being, especially if it is a child. The God of the Old Testament, however, ordered the Israelite nation to kill children (1 Samuel 15:3). As a Christian, would you kill a child if God ordered you to do it? If God orders it, is it moral?

  • Many would consider it immoral to implement the death penalty for mundane, victimless actions. Again, the God of the Bible seems to act otherwise: think of the death of Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:3-8) who was struck down dead for simply trying to stop the Ark of the Covenant from toppling over. Also think of the thousands who perished simply because King David held a census (2 Samuel 24:1-15). And what of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) who were killed for simply lying?

  • Many would consider it illogical to hold individuals accountable for the crimes of their parents or their ancestors. According to Exodus 20:5 and 2 Samuel 12:7-14, the God of the Bible seems to hold individuals guilty by association.

  • Many would consider it just for a person to be judged by their actions, but according to conservative Christian doctrine, we are not saved by who we are in terms of character, or by the deeds that we perform. Instead, we are judged on the small act of belief. Mass murderers who surrender to Jesus on their deathbeds will be welcomed into heaven, but those who do not believe in the Christian message, but who have devoted their lives to charity and social causes, will go to hell.

Am I interpreting the Bible correctly here? When I read the Bible, these are some of the questions that I ponder: why does God order humans to follow a moral system that he himself does not adhere to? Why are some of his actions in conflict with the moral sense that many people – including most Christians – follow today? Why the double standard?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Morality based on the here and now

This is my second blog post on a recent Time article written by Steven Pinker on the mystery of consciousness. As mentioned in my last post, neuroscience is pointing to the conclusion that consciousness is simply a product of the natural brain. In other words, there is a good chance that humans might not have immortal souls. Contemporary philosopher, Daniel Dennett, in his book Freedom Evolves, writes:

The more we learn about how we evolved, and how our brains work, the more certain we are becoming that there is no such extra ingredient [of the soul]. We are each made of mindless robots and nothing else, no non-physical, non-robotic ingredients at all.” Pg 3

For some, this idea can be incredibly disconcerting. Not only does it rule out an afterlife, but it also brings up the question of morality: how can someone be moral without having to account for their actions in an afterlife? Steven Pinker, in the Time article, argues that the materialistic view of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the supernatural view of an afterlife, as it forces us to recognise the interests of other beings. He writes:

“As every student in Philosophy 101 learns, nothing can force me to believe that anyone except me is conscious. This power to deny that other people have feelings is not just an academic exercise but an all-too-common vice, as we see in the long history of human cruelty. Yet once we realize that our own consciousness is a product of our brains and that other people have brains like ours, a denial of other people’s sentience becomes ludicrous. ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ asked Shylock. Today the question is more pointed: Hath not a Jew – or an Arab, or an African, or a baby, or a dog – a cerebral cortex and a thalamus? The undeniable fact that we are all made of the same neural flesh makes it impossible to deny our common capacity to suffer.

“And when you think about it, the doctrine of a life-to-come is not such an uplifting idea after all because it necessarily devalues life on earth. Just remember the most famous people in recent memory who acted in expectation of a reward in the hereafter: the conspirators who hijacked the airliners on 9/11.

“Think too, about why we sometimes remind ourselves that ‘life is too short’. It is an impetus to extend a gesture of affection to a loved one, to bury the hatchet in a pointless dispute, to use time productively rather than squander it. I would argue that nothing gives life more purpose than the realisation that every moment of consciousness is a precious and fragile gift.”

Saturday, February 10, 2007

I am my brain

Do humans have immaterial souls? According to most religions, humans consist of two parts: the body and the soul. Religions teach that when the body dies, the soul (our feelings, emotions, dreams, wishes, personality and memories) lives on somehow. However, current advances in science, especially in neuroscience, are pointing to the disconcerting realisation that the soul is simply a product of, and is totally dependent on, the brain. In a fascinating article on the mystery of consciousness, published in the latest edition of Time, Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard, writes:

“Scientists have exorcised the ghost from the machine not because they are mechanistic killjoys but because they have amassed evidence that every aspect of consciousness can be tied to the brain. Using functional MRI, cognitive neuroscientists can almost read people’s thoughts from the blood flow in their brains. They can tell, for instance, whether a person is thinking about a face or a place or whether a picture the person is looking at is of a bottle or a shoe.

“And consciousness can be pushed around by physical manipulations. Electrical stimulation of the brain during surgery can cause a person to have hallucinations that are indistinguishable from reality, such as a song playing in the room or a childhood birthday party. Chemicals that affect the brain, from caffeine and alcohol to Prozac and LSD, can profoundly alter how people think, feel and see. Surgery that severs the corpus callosum, separating the two hemispheres (a treatment of epilepsy), spawns two consciousnesses within the same skull, as if the soul could be cleaved in two with a knife.

“And when the physiological activity of the brain ceases, as far as anyone can tell the person’s consciousness goes out of existence. Attempts to contact the souls of the dead (a pursuit of serious scientists a century ago) turned up only cheap magic tricks, and near death experiences are not the eyewitness reports of a soul parting company from the body but symptoms of oxygen starvation in the eyes and brain. In September, a team of Swiss neuroscientists reported that they could turn out-of-body experiences on and off by stimulating the part of the brain in which vision and bodily sensations converge.”

This leaves me asking: where is my soul? It seems that all indications point to the conclusion that my soul is simply a wondrous by-product of incredibly complex networks formed by 100 billion neurons firing in my head. In other words, my soul is an affect that has an entirely natural cause: the brain.

It would be wonderful to believe that some part of me will live on after my death. But all present discoveries don’t support this wish or desire. I realise that when my brain eventually dies, my soul will die as well. After leaving Christianity I made peace with this conclusion, and so doing I found a renewed appreciation and wonder for this brief period of consciousness that I have been awarded.