The good, the bad, and the emergent neutral

[Content note: I have had an especially hard time expressing myself clearly in this post; I feel as though I’m currently lacking in the appropriate vocabulary for explaining what I’m groping towards, and I have the nagging feeling that this exact same concept is already treated properly in many sources.  If anyone can point me towards the correct way to talk about this, I may well choose to rewrite parts of this post in clearer language; I might even be tempted to change the title.]

During parts of college and early graduate school, I got mildly involved with some atheist/agnostic/some-general-category-of-nonbeliever clubs at my universities, primarily out of an appetite for hanging out with other students who wanted to ponder the kind of controversies that most interested me at the time.  At around the tail end of this period, when I was preparing to extricate myself from my second university’s atheist society for good, I was befriended by a young evangelical Christian who was about to leave the university and start a full-time career in missionary work.  His recent approach had been to reach across the aisle and engaging with his ideological opponents: the campus atheists.  He had attended several round-table discussions of the atheist club (which took some guts, I think; it’s not the easiest thing in the world to be the lone voice of Christianity surrounded by a bunch of college students who are very enthusiastic about criticizing it), and he had offered to take several members out to lunch for further one-on-one discussion.  I was one of the people chosen, despite (or perhaps partly because of) the fact that I identified as somewhat of an outsider and not a regular member.  Several separate arrangements were made; the atheist club registered mild curiosity about what conversion tactics our evangelical friend might employ on these lunches; and the campus Christian organization prayed for a good outcome to these meetings.

I probably wouldn’t have agreed to sit at a table one-on-one with a man with such a sincere passion for trying to save nonbelievers if it weren’t for the fact that I knew this particular guy to treat everyone with a very relaxed and laid-back demeanor.  And I wasn’t disappointed: we spent most of the lunch casually chatting about life in general and the atheist club in particular, with me registering a lot of complaints about how I didn’t feel I really fit in anymore with the general ethos and social dynamic of that space and him assuring me that he often felt similarly about the Christian community on campus.  When we were getting near the end of our food, however, he leaned forward and asked me a question, much more basic and straightforward than I’d really been expecting:

“As you know, Bertrand Russell wrote an essay called `Why I Am Not a Christian‘.  Leaving aside Russell’s views, I’m curious as to how you would answer that question.  Why are you not a Christian?”

I was slightly taken aback and quickly ran through several tacks I could take in responding.  Just a few years earlier in college, arguing over religious views was a regular hobby of mine, but nowadays I was feeling a bit like I had passed my peak in that department; I was burned out from trying to cut to the root of the drastically different premises that tend to guide skeptics and believers, and I had become overwhelmed with the limits of my own philosophical knowledge and debating abilities.  So while at one time I might have embarked on a defense of my methodological naturalism and how it made the hypothetical existence of a deity inaccessible and resurrection miracles improbable and so on, I decided instead to plead incompatible gut feelings.  I stated that from every Christian apologetic, including him, I would inevitably hear some specific belief professed whose reasoning went so completely against my intuition that I couldn’t help but conclude that Christianity was just not for me.

He asked me, well, what specific belief had he professed to make me feel this way?  For this I had an immediate reply.  He had recently been answering a series of challenges at an atheist round-table discussion on Original Sin and the Garden of Eden, mainly in the vein of how exactly did the world change from being completely free of evil to containing suffering and death?  Our local evangelist had informed us that the fundamental rules of physics must have been different somehow before the Fall of Man, so that the old rules didn’t allow anything whatsoever unpleasant, but the new rules (in particular, the Second Law of Themodynamics) are the ones we know today which make things like pain and death sadly inevitable.

As I told my unlikely lunch partner now, I didn’t exactly have a logical rebuttal to this claim, but when somebody says something that feels absurd on such an intuitive level for me, I feel like I have no choice but to get off the train.  Interpreting physical laws in this way, in terms of “positive” and “negative” not with a precise mathematical meaning like for electric charge but in the sense of humankind’s feelings, somehow goes directly against my core intuitions about how to model the universe.  And maybe there are other arguments out there for the concept of Original Sin that would be slightly more convincing to me.  But if this is generally the best that Christian apologetics can come up with, then most efforts to help me come around to that flavor of religious belief system are probably futile.

How exactly does one divide up physical or biological phenomena into “good” and “evil”?  Is pain inherently “bad” even though without it we would have a much harder time noticing physical harm to our bodies?  Or is the physical harm itself a product of the Fall of Man?  Maybe before the Fall, God had constructed all bodies to be impervious to sharp objects and severe force?  Maybe things like infections are a part of “evil” as well, even though they can be described by modern science as the flourishing of bacteria?  Evidently, a universe “free of evil” would have been free of bad things only for humans and cuter-looking non-predatory animals and certainly not bacteria or the vermin that feed on the deceased.  And of course, if death is inherently “bad”, so that there was no such thing as death or the Second Law of Thermodynamics before the Fall, then it’s incredibly difficult to fathom the specific mechanisms that govern that universe without simply describing it as “magical”.  One can cry “Lack of imagination!”, but doesn’t it kind of seem like the onus is on the one who claims that our current physical laws are a direct result of Mankind’s collective choice of going against God to offer a description of the original laws?

None of the above can really be judged as a watertight argument.  Some sort of model can be constructed that answers all those questions, together with a justification for assuming initially that the universe was created by an omnibenevolent deity and then setting out to explain the way the world works today.  The above plea is essentially an appeal to a different set of axioms from which I feel really unable to divorce myself.

Again, it may seem unfair to hone in on the claim of this particular Christian as a reason to reject Christianity altogether.  But I saw it as a low-hanging example of a much more general premise behind a lot of religious thinking (not just in Christianity) which is profoundly incompatible with my intuition.  I’m a methodological reductionist: for me the only kind of approach that makes sense is one which explains the things we see by breaking them down in terms of the simplest, most basic possible elements.  For me, the simplest elementary component parts that underlie natural or social phenomena don’t come in flavors corresponding to human motives, or human emotions, or “good” or “bad” as humans perceive those qualities, or anything directly from the point of humans.  But for many of the defenders of theism, elementary component parts appear in exactly those forms — or at least, they are described directly in terms of motives, emotions, and “good” versus “bad” from the viewpoint of some conscious Being.

This whole thing is of course a particular case of a much more general kind of fallacy: the tendency to interpret things on what we may call a “human level”, in terms of emotions and conscious intentions, rather than as emergent phenomena arising from the simplest possible mechanics like interactions between elementary particles according to mindless laws.  (Note that the latter mindset doesn’t require our modern knowledge of particle physics, just a conception of some kind of indivisible particle or “atom” which can be used for current models.)  The clearest description of this I’ve encountered is in this essay on mentalism versus mechanism; it might be characterized as some form of mind projection fallacy as well.  As far as I’m concerned, it is responsible for many elements not only of modern conventional religion but of mythology, general superstition, and common fictional tropes (e.g. anthropomorphic animals and objects).  But anyway, that’s a digression from the more specific thing I want to talk about today.

By the time of my meeting with the Christian evangelical described above, I had come to realize that what bothered me about most organized religion was not the purely metaphysical disagreement over the existence of gods or an afterlife.  It was the common religious mindset of interpreting worldly events as happening “for a purpose” and “according to plan” and somehow ultimately for the greater good, where “good” is interpreted in a very human-centric sense.  I believe in objective Right and Wrong as abstract properties of conscious actions, but not as inherent qualities of material or as substances weaved into the fabric of the cosmos, as they seem to be perceived under the theistic mindset.  So while my answer to my lunch partner was clumsy (rather clumsier than the way I’ve written it here), I guess I was earnestly grasping at the crux of my issues with religion in general and conservative Christianity in particular.


But my object today isn’t to criticize religion, even though I’m over 1,500 words in and that seems to be mostly all I’ve done so far.  As usual, my primary interest here is not in analyzing all-encompassing worldviews but in picking apart the judgments and arguments commonly used in everyday situations.  I brought up this whole “wanting to interpret neutral emergent phenomena in terms of ‘good’ or ‘evil'” thing because it’s a mentality I find myself complaining about in the midst of a lot of the discourse I see.  Mostly I see it appearing in the form of “X is clearly ‘good’ so it can’t be one of the biproducts of that thing we’re fighting against” or “Y is clearly ‘bad’ so we can’t possibly judge it as a side-effect of the idea we’re championing”.

I saw it when a friend of mine opined that maybe there are certain kinds of racial generalizations that shouldn’t count as “racism” because they’re positive.  Racism is clearly something we’ve agreed we should fight against, so if a racial stereotype seems too “nice” to drop in the “bad” category, it doesn’t make sense to brand it as racism.  My response is that stereotypes (racial or otherwise) actually aren’t inherently positive or negative as soon as we dig below the surface qualities of “nice” and “mean”.  For instance, consider the classic stereotype of Asians being good at math.  That may seem harmless for Asian people at first glance. But what happens when people start taking it seriously enough that non-Asians automatically expect the Asian person they just met to excel at math and feel inclined to tease them for being a “bad Asian” on finding out they don’t, or if an Asian person feels bad for not being especially good at math, or if non-Asians start routinely expecting Asians to help them with math problems, or if negative stereotypes that are already attached to “math people” become associated with Asians?  The fact is that all flavors of stereotyping are ultimately harmful in that they involve over-generalizations among certain categories of people and lead to invalid assumptions that are guaranteed to create pain in the long run.

I also see it in a lot of rhetoric against some abstract entity such as Capitalism, The State, or (most often in my circles) The Patriarchy, where everything that initially reads as positive (or positive for a particular group perceived as oppressed, or negative for the oppressor class) is inherently “good” and so can’t possibly be connected to one of those evil institutions.  Not that anyone is literally making “can’t possibly” claims. I’m just saying that when I notice people being reluctant to view some event or situation as a byproduct of one of these societal forces, seemingly because it doesn’t superficially fit the general pattern of oppression as they understand it, I connect their reluctance to this fallacy.


But this can also be an issue when people consider and analyze their own choices, and when suggestions are given to people about themselves.

Everyone wants to do the right things and believe positive assertions about their policies and choices.  When we choose values to live by, we think of those chosen values as “good”; it’s natural to assume that when we perform actions in the name of those values, those actions are also purely “good”.  If something “bad” about them is brought to our attention — some possible downside to our approach, or something detrimental that may indirectly fall out of it — it’s instinctual to either jump to denying it, or to accept it but conclude that we weren’t acting in accordance with that good value after all.  It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that being skilled at achieving many of the personal characteristics that seem positive (e.g. honesty, open-mindedness, generosity, self-reliance, etc.) actually involves a lot of give and take.  Actions done entirely in the name of value X a priori can be characterized only as “in accordance with value X”, not as “inherently good”.

For instance, suppose a teacher makes a point of being super, super clear about everything they explain, outlining the smallest steps of the problems their students are trying to solve.  After all, isn’t clarity a quality to strive for as a teacher?  Well of course, this is probably a net beneficial practice up to a certain point, but one can imagine that it might become net harmful if taken too far.  Someone may comment on that teacher’s style by remarking, “You really make every step of the students’ work very clear for them!”  The teacher would almost certainly react warmly: “Yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to do because I think clarity is important.”  But suppose someone instead commented, “You really spoonfeed your students.”  Now that comment sounds negative, and the teacher’s kneejerk reaction may well be to angrily deny it (“How can you say that? I’m just trying to make sure they understand every step!”).  Or instead, the teacher may react by accepting the criticism as a sign that their approach is entirely wrong (“I thought I was being helpful by trying to be clearer, but I guess that strategy only hurts the students, so I should abandon it”).  Obviously both reactions are misguided: the ideal response would be something more like “I still think it’s important to strive for clarity, but I guess it’s possible to take that too far and I should consider whether that’s what I’m doing right now.”  Still, I think a lot of us have some difficulty arriving at that response.

But notice that the two comments essentially point out the exact same thing, namely the fact that the teacher takes unusual pains to make things super clear; the only real difference between them is connotation!  This is possible because whether the teacher’s policy is good or bad depends on how one looks at it, and there’s more than one way to look at it.  The only really inherent property of the teacher’s behavior that we can judge immediately is that it’s pro-clarity, for the obvious reason that it’s performed by a conscious agent whose aim is to maximize clarity.  But even though we usually think of clarity as a positive thing, we can’t conclude directly from being pro-clarity that the policy is entirely right.  Or to put it another way, the more pro-clarity you are, the more likely it is that your students will be understand what they’re supposed to be doing in your class (a positive thing), but also your students are more likely to get spoonfed to the point of not knowing how to figure things out for themselves (a negative thing)… and that’s just something you’re going to have to accept about pushing yourself in the direction of greater clarity as a teacher.

I have a hard time with finding the vocabulary necessary to express my point clearly, and I realize that the connections I’m trying to make here might seem poorly justified.  Moreover, the type of thinking I’m finding fault with in this post falls under such a basic fallacy that I imagine it’s listed as a red flag somewhere in most rulebooks for rational rhetoric, if only I knew where to find it.  Even so, I thought it would be worthwhile to explain my point of view on the “assuming inherent ‘good’-ness and ‘bad’-ness” issue here, in one place that I can refer to when it comes up later.  I don’t know whether my tendency to insist on writing things down in my own terms (even when they’re likely to be explained in much better terms somewhere else) can be classified straight-up as a positive or negative quality, but for the moment I’m not going to bother trying to suppress it.

4 thoughts on “The good, the bad, and the emergent neutral

  1. What you’re saying is crystal clear to me, but that’s because I think exactly the same way. People will often have “good or bad” as an early branch in their mental classification trees and that leads to some seriously screwed up ontologies. Religion is only the tip of the iceberg.

    Having never thought this (as far as I can remember), and getting continually surprised about how difficult it seems to be for people to separate fact-value/is-ought/denotation-connotation, I don’t have a good idea of how to get anyone to snap out of it. I don’t know how to explain it because I can’t put myself in such a person’s position. It’s such a fundamental aspect of thought that it feels at once impossible to get at and absolutely revolutionary if it could be fixed. So many ‘erisological’ problems would just unravel. Have you tried showing this essay to someone who doesn’t seem to get it?

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    1. Well, I only just got the essay written, so I haven’t had much chance to show it to anyone. 🙂 But one of my main purposes in writing things for this blog is that some of my long-felt ideas might become more clearly thought out, and that I can start pointing people to them whenever I want to express these ideas in the middle of discussion. (Also, I haven’t actually told anyone I know IRL about this blog, and I’m fairly socially isolated at the moment and in many social contexts shy about speaking my full mind anyway, but all that may change eventually.)

      Honestly, at least in my more frustrated moments (though I don’t actually like to say this to anyone, especially mid-argument), I can’t help feeling that this is a common variation on an innate tendency towards egocentrism, a general trait that all humans carry in some form or other. Just as we have an instinct to believe that our species is the center of the universe, we have an instinct to believe that every aspect of the universe is somehow human-flavored below the surface, in particular “good” or “bad” from the human point of view. We are naturally equipped with software for performing induction and deduction, but one shortcut through these processes is to start from more egocentric premises — we already have very direct access to our own human experiences, after all. It doesn’t surprise me too much that some people have stronger defenses against snapping out of this energy-saving behavior than others.

      The frustration and powerlessness you express is exactly the way I would describe my feeling about what I view as a profound inability to “separate different levels of meta” (the topic of my “arguments are like onions” essays) on the part of many people. I’m starting to wonder if these two issues aren’t entirely unrelated…

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      1. I’d go with “anthropocentric” rather than egocentric to describe what you’re talking about, but yeah. We’re generally bad at separating our own ways of parsing the world from how it actually is – it comes back to the map-territory problem once again.

        It sounds like you’re complaining that people aren’t analytically minded and I can only agree. It’s a whole mindset and I don’t know how to induce it if it isn’t already there.

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      2. Yeah, I don’t like using “egocentric” too much because it sounds like a personal attack, even as I emphasize that for me “egocentric” means something very different from being egotistical or self-serving. But “anthropocentric” encapsulates my intended meaning better anyway. Over these last two years, I’m learning that before using any terminology in my writing that I don’t feel entirely comfortable with, I should run it past you to see if you have an alternative suggestion. 😛

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