Thorny Moral Chestnuts, Pt. 1

chestnut

Catchy quotes and sayings — “chestnuts” — can undergo slight mutations over time.

Sometimes, those chestnuts are proverbs or rules. And sometimes, those gradual mutations can modify those proverbs or rules so much that their original wisdom is completely destroyed, converted into non-wisdom.

Today, we’ll talk about “The Ends Can’t Justify the Means.” In the next post, we’ll talk about “Ignorance is No Excuse.” Both of these are false chestnuts.


“The Ends Can’t Justify the Means”

I’m sure you’ve heard this one a billion times.

It’s usually uttered by the hero of a story, against some villain who’s decided to bring about some praiseworthy conclusion by means of a horrific plan.

“But I’ll create a better world!” cries the villain, Viktor.

“No,” responds the hero, Herbert. “The ends can’t justify the means.”

We cheer the Herbert at this point, right?

Okay. Now let’s take these characters and transplant them into a different situation.

Viktor and Herbert are shop owners in Nazi Germany. For months, they’ve been harboring a Jewish family in a secret attic above their shop. This morning, they’ve heard that Nazi investigators will be going shop to shop and asking for information about harbored Jews in the area.

“We should lie to the investigators,” says Viktor. “A little dishonesty will bring about a greater good by saving lives.”

“No,” responds the “hero,” Hubert. “The ends can’t justify the means.”

Notice how in both cases, Viktor wants to do something considered morally wrong in order to bring about a greater good. But in the latter situation, we can all clearly see that it is no longer Viktor who is the villain — rather, it is Hubert who we all rebuke as morally askew.

We’re quite practiced at cheering duty-bound heroes and chastising “good ends / ill means” supervillains. What we forget is that there are plenty of “good ends / ill means” heroes as well, from Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List, to Rahab, who we (alongside James) recognize as righteous for heroism that required deception.

The Better Chestnut

The answer to that “why” is the “The ends can justify ill means.”

The question is, when?

Well, ends are more likely to justify ill means when:

  • The ends are really, really good…
    -
  • … and you’re really, really sure that they’ll come about.
    -
  • The ill means aren’t that bad…
    -
  • … and you’re really, really sure that there won’t be horrible unintended consequences, neither for those in your local area, nor for the world in general, and neither for things right now, nor for things down the road.
    -
  • There aren’t safer, more praiseworthy ways to seek those good ends.

Similarly, ends are less likely to justify ill means when:

  • The ends are good, but not that great.
    -
  • You’re not sure they’ll come about.
    -
  • The ill means are pretty bad.
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  • You aren’t sure that there won’t be a bunch of horrible unintended consequences.
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  • There are safer, more praiseworthy ways to seek those good ends.

Decisionmaking is Complicated

Consider the following diagram, where the ill dark-red “bad” circle is committed, while intended to make the green “good” circle come about.

cons1

Wouldn’t it be nice if it were that simple? We could say, “You can’t use bad things to make good things happen.”

In reality, those “circles” need moral weight/gravity/intensity assigned to them according to what we value.

cons2

Suddenly, that seems okay. Once we account for the moral weights, a tiny moral ill can indeed be acceptable in service of a huge moral payoff.

But it still isn’t that simple! We need to account for the likelihood of that good consequence coming about!

cons3

If there’s only a 20%, or one-fifth, chance of that big payoff happening, it might still be a good investment, but it’s “worth less” as a prospect. In decision theory, we call that “net worth” our “expected value” or “EV.”

But it still isn’t that simple! We haven’t accounted for any of the consequences that are foreseeable but unintended!

cons4

Ew, gross! This decision is looking pretty ghastly now, isn’t it?

But…

… wait for it…

… it still isn’t that simple! That’s because there are all sorts of unforeseen consequences lurking in the shadows of human unknowability.

cons5

It turns out that we, as humans, are so bad at considering the unintended and unforeseen consequences — often when a bee-line prospect looks very tantalizing — that “blind rule-following” has a certain consequential strength or fitness. This is especially the case when, in the shadows of human unknowability, habitual ill behavior can translate into numerous personal erosions of character and will.

And that’s why “The ends can’t justify the means,” is a decent “rule” for folks who can’t handle the complications of decision theory, or who think themselves wiser and/or more knowledgeable than they really are — which is almost everybody.

But it’s not really true.

That’s what makes it thorny.

And so when we’re engaged in lofty discourse about how morality “works,” we need to be careful not to treat that thorny chestnut as fundamental or sacrosanct.


For more about how deontology (“morality is about rules”) and consequentialism (“morality is about consequences”) “converge” on the practicalities of human weakness, take a gander at the Angelic Ladder.

 

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We Know Endless Hell Doesn’t Really Make Sense

gregory2

Evidence proves that by the late 4th century, there were at least two popular views of hell in the Church:

  • “Hell is purgatorial. It is agonizing, humiliating, and may last a long time, but ultimately purges away sin and reconciles. Salvation from hell means salvation from the imminent, terrifying outpouring of the wrath of remedial justice due our sins.”
    -
  • “Hell is endless. It is an interminable torment due those who did not accept salvation in life. Beyond death’s threshold, hope is gone. Salvation from hell means salvation from this endless horror.”

The primary proof of this state of affairs comes “straight from the horse’s mouth”: The individual most pivotally responsible for the ubiquity of endless hell belief over the last 1500 years, St. Augustine, admitted the great popularity of purgatorialism in his day (Enchiridion 29).

(Note that St. Augustine agreed with the purgatorialists that there would be a purgatorial fire for at least some, but thought the wholly unsaved would be in torment forever.)

Purgatorialism wasn’t yet considered heretical; St. Augustine regarded it an “amicable controversy” (City of God 17) and purgatorialists “not… contrary to Scripture.”

But the 5th century saw a major shift in attitude, much in thanks to St. Augustine’s campaigning. A few decades later, it was conflated with wacky, violent Late Origenism, reckless bishops unofficially declared it anathema at the 5th Ecumenical Council, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The Scriptural Issues

We’ve already covered many of the Scriptural issues at play here and elsewhere.

But there are simple “sniff test” problems with endless hell as well.

In other words, even though the case for purgatorialism is stronger than that of endless hell using Scripture alone, we can also apply common sense against the idea of a just, benevolent God prescribing an endless hell.

And I think all of us Christians have done this, at one time or another. You’ve done it, I’m sure!

I’ll bet that, like me, you’ve asked a minister about one of these problems. And, if you’re like me, you got an unsatisfying response in return, perhaps something like, “I know it doesn’t make much sense, but the Bible says it, so we believe it.” Or, perhaps, you were given something more creative and elaborate.

The Odd Smell

At the end of the day, even if someone is convinced that “the Bible says it” or has bought in to some elaborate system, we can all agree in our heart of hearts that endless hell just doesn’t make much sense for many reasons:

  • It is an interminable punishment for a finite infraction. How could that be considered just?
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  • Humans aren’t that complicated. An omniscient God could figure anyone out and fix them somehow, correct?
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  • Even with libertarian freedom, God is ultimately responsible for a person’s constraints. Our steps are not exclusively our own. Isn’t it cruel to ordain to a hopeless destiny?
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  • Surely infants and toddlers wouldn’t be thrown into endless torment, right?
    -
  • And if they’re not thrown into torment, wouldn’t right decisionmaking dictate euthanasia (!?) to hedge bets against an infinite agony? God forbid! (But is “God forbid!” the only reason?)
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  • Surely a person never given the opportunity to hear the Gospel wouldn’t be guaranteed endless torment, right?
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  • And if that’s the case, aren’t we doing such folks a disservice through missions? Wouldn’t we rather they remain invincibly ignorant?
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  • Doesn’t the Bible say that God would rather redeem someone if it’s an option?
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  • What about the threshold of death “ties God’s hands”? What mechanism or tether would make this the case?
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  • Won’t the saved agonize over their loved ones in torment?

I don’t think we should feel guilty about asking these questions. If you’ve asked or pondered these questions, it means that you have:

  • An understanding of how goal-oriented decisionmaking works.
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  • An understanding of what satisfies justice vs. what makes a mockery thereof.
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  • A visceral, intuitive, and reliable sense of what a truly benevolent God would and wouldn’t do, even while being wholly just.

I’m not trying to tickle your ears or make you feel validated or something. Those questions are simply the products of having some measure of those properties — however obviously imperfect they are — before being twisted by elaborately systemized doctrinal error.

Now, questions and uncertainties should never trump prudent Scripturally-acquired revelation. After all, it’s called revelation, which means we couldn’t access it ourselves without being handed it.

Furthermore, human understanding is notoriously limited: We’re bad at perception, recognition, foresight, higher-order interest-seeking, and all manner of other things.

But if a Scriptural interpretation smells like garbage, our first inclination shouldn’t be to doubt our noses. Our first inclination should be to investigate what Scripture really says and doesn’t say.

A Dilemma-Free Eschatology

Aside from the intimidating Scriptural case for purgatorialism, there’s also the fact that purgatorialism yields none of the dilemmas and questions listed above, all without sacrificing any justice.

  • Those dilemmas simply evaporate, cleanly and elegantly.
    -
  • God’s justice suddenly makes sense.
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  • We don’t have to erase or ignore the Bible’s statements about how and why God punishes.
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  • We don’t have to erase or ignore the Bible’s statements about his ultimate, lofty, final goals.
    -
  • When an infant dies, we don’t have to invent Limbos or special baby exceptions, but instead answer confidently, like St. Gregory of Nyssa, “Will it receive the just recompense by being purged, according to the Gospel utterances, in fire…? But I do not see how we can imagine that, in the case of such a soul. The word ‘retribution’ implies that something must have been previously given…” (On Infants’ Early Deaths)

Decades before St. Augustine’s campaign, that same St. Gregory, who was our most eloquent early purgatorialist, wrote the following beautiful exposition of purgatorialism:

“… It will be useless to talk of [the contingency upon earthly failures] then, and to imagine that objections based upon such things can prove God’s power to be impeded in arriving at His end.

His end is one, and one only; it is this: when the complete whole of our race shall have been perfected from the first man to the last—some having at once in this life been cleansed from evil, others having afterwards in the necessary periods been healed by the Fire… to offer to every one of us participation in the blessings which are in Him, which, the Scripture tells us, ‘eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor thought ever reached.’

… But the difference between the virtuous and the vicious life led at the present time will be illustrated in this way: In the quicker or more tardy participation of each in that promised blessedness. According to the amount of the ingrained wickedness of each will be computed the duration of his cure. This cure consists in the cleansing of his soul, and that cannot be achieved without an excruciating condition, as has been expounded in our previous discussion.”

Puragtorialism is not “no-punishment universalism.” There is punishment. There is wrath. There is agony.

There is also mercy and salvation. We can avoid this hellish purgation! We can be forgiven! Our sins will be remembered no more! What Good News!

Let us chase after and cling to the view of punishment that has the best Scriptural case. And if it also “smells nice,” let us smile all the wider, and rejoice all the louder, for having a God even more completely benevolent than we thought before.

 

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A Theological Payoff of Meaning’s Funny Foundation

napkin

As we’ve talked about before on this blog, the determination or judgment of a right decision — a “should” — is made up of what is valued (preferences, interests, goals, etc.) and what thing(s) would happen as a result of various decisions.consequentialismBoth of the above pieces are required.

  • If you’re not looking at prospective results, you’ll have nothing to gauge.
  • If you’re not looking at what is valued — at least implicitly — then you’ll have no metric (like weighing a bowl of cereal without any reference to “grams” or “ounces”).

The following illustrates how goofy it is to weigh things while lacking one or the other:

scales

This isn’t some stretched analogy, as if this double contingency is a requirement for cereal-weighing but not for decision-gauging. Try to build a decisionmaking A.I. without both of these. It can’t be done without building a pure deontological A.I. (what’s called an “expert system,” which blindly follows a pile of “If this do that” rules).

Most of us understand that prospects are important. Unfortunately, we forget that the value definition is equally as important. It’s just that we normally define that value implicitly and ambiguously — it’s usually some vague amalgamation of things like happiness, satisfaction, contentment, fulfilled aspiration, liberty, delight, and nonsuffering.

That we think these things are “good” does not require some ultimately rational appeal. In fact, if we go groping for a rational “justification” for “liking satisfaction,” we’ll end up making appeals endlessly. That’s because each value justification must, in turn, have a justifying value, giving us a disaster like this:

infinite

 

The Funny Solution

The strange, unsatisfying solution is to admit that our decision judgments, while containing rational and objective components (“What thing(s) would result?”), also necessarily contain non-rational parts that represent values we “just have.”

You could say that they’re “part of us” or “part of our nature,” but because we’re causal and contingent and mutable beings, we have to remember that “who we are” is dynamic and can change.

So, at the end of the day, we’re stuck with this: There’s stuff we just like, and some of it can be changed, and some of it can’t, and it cannot be ultimately rationally justified.

It’s — ultimately — non-rational.

Is That Biblical?

Ecclesiastes tells us that there is no ultimately objective meaning, and that this is an “upright and true” teaching.

We dealt with this before:

But the fact of the Bible teaching us about a certain philosophy does not mean that this philosophy is useful to us as we develop and criticize theology. It might just be a ball-and-chain we must “endure.”

In my experience, this is one of the most common reactions to the Bible’s existential view of meaning.

“Sure, the Bible says it,” one might admit. “But all that means is that we’re now burdened to deal with this sad, useless, but true philosophy.”

But what if the non-rational basis of value was theologically useful? What if the Bible told about the ultimate non-rationality of meaning not just to burden us, but to help solve some of our most vexing problems when thinking about God, his will, and his plan?

It’s Theologically Useful

The essential non-rationality of meaning serves as a reduction-stopper, which aids us significantly toward solve questions of God’s interests, theodicean problems, and maintaining the difference between God’s direct and indirect orchestration.

Let’s talk about two examples of reduction-stopping that we employ for the every-day concepts of:

  • Appreciating pets
  • Recognizing altruism

Appreciating Pets

I know that my dog is material. He is a complicated machine, a collection or colony of cells.

In turn, those cells are colonies of organic molecules, which are in turn bundles of atoms. My dog is, thus, a bundle of atoms when we fully reduce.

I also know that a dirty napkin is also, at its fundamental level, a bundle of atoms when we fully reduce.

Given these facts, are these my only two options?:

  • Treat my dog and a dirty napkin equivalently
  • Deny that they are both, ultimately, collections of atoms

No, of course not.

The third option is reduction-stopping.

I love my dog. I interact with him, and like doing that. He does all sorts of things that resonate with me, in good ways and bad. He keeps me occupied and energized and satisfied.

A dirty napkin, by contrast, cannot do those things I like.

As such, I can stop that radical reduction as it suits my interests, and proclaim, “My dog is quite meaningfully different from this dirty napkin.”

Where did that meaning come from? My interests. Do I need to justify those interests? No; such a justification is ultimately impossible (as we discussed), and it’s moot. The fact is that I have those interests and, as such, a meaningful distinction is appreciated.

Recognizing Altruism

There are selfish motivations and altruistic motivations.

But I know that even altruistic motivations are driven by my own interests. In a very real sense, even sacrificing my life is an egoistic act, since it is a product of self-satisfaction, where the part of myself interested in preserving others is taking control over that of which is interested in preserving myself — but it’s still my interest!

Some folks say, then, that we can practice “eliminative egoism” and call all willed actions “selfish.”

But do we have to do this?

No, because we are also interested in a meaningful difference between actions that are grossly in self-service, often at the expense of others, versus those that overflowingly serve others!

It’s true that both are merely “actions in the world” and that both “proceed from self’s interests in the self’s brain,” but we appreciate the difference such that we stop that reduction, and proclaim, “Some actions are selfish, others altruistic.”

Direct and Indirect Orchestration

Those of us who “bite the bullet” on God’s complete sovereignty realize the difficulty in admitting that God is superordinately responsible for the “bad stuff” — Heb. raah.

We take some comfort in the fact that, when we parse out the different senses of “wanting” and “willing,” God creates evil only in one very limited and special sense, and does not create it in the 5 other, more common senses.

We talked about this a few weeks ago in the following article:

But even if we accept this approach (and I think we should), there’s still a problem of the reduction of orchestration. After all, the above argument only “works” if God finds value in being “hands off” — that he loves his creation, but prefers that it develop mostly naturally, in a “chaotic garden bloom” of emergence.

This yields the “bloom vestiges” of trivialities and non-instrumental evils (or, instrumental, but only insofar as it satisfies that “mostly hands-off” interest). It also explains God’s preference to remain invisible but be sought, explains his indirection through prophets and the like, and syncs-up very well with Scripture’s holistic picture of God’s activity (which, as it so happens, doesn’t involve a high frequency of public miracles).

But what’s the difference, if God ultimately orchestrates it all?

After all, under this theory, God set up the initial “rules,” as well as the initial conditions, of the “garden.” His sovereign “paint” covers the Earth and, as such, even indirect products of his plan can be reduced to “it was up to him.”

In other words, direct action and indirect actions (often through what’s termed “permissive will”) can both be reduced to “orchestration,” like how a napkin and my dog can both be reduced to “a bundle of atoms.”

This is where God “just preferring” to be mostly hands-off becomes useful. When we don’t require some ultimately rational justification for that interest — which, again, is impossible — this frees us to say, “God just prefers it.”

And this serves as our reduction-stopper.

God’s omniscience and omnipotence know no boundaries, and as such, his sovereign plan encompasses everything.

But just as God can appreciate the difference between a napkin vs. a dog according to his interests, and altruistic motivation vs. selfish motivation according to his interests, he can also appreciate direct intervention vs. indirect teleology according to his interests.

What a payoff! The “non-rational” foundation of meaning empowers reduction-stopping in all three cases.

By biting the bullet on the impossibility of “ultimately rational meaning,” a truth the Bible teaches anyway, we’re no longer (as theologians trying to understand and share the reality of God) burdened to justify — in an “ultimately rational” way — the point at which a reduction is halted.

And this allows us to say, “God is mostly hands-off because that’s what he prefers. And this preference, alongside his other interests (like to intervene when absolutely vital), yields everything that comes to pass.”

 

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Incoherence Revealed by Nonsensical Tethers

doubledown

It’s notoriously difficult to show that an incoherent concept is incoherent, particularly because such a concept nonetheless sparks images and real meaning in our minds.

Incoherent concepts also have rhetorical utility, so those who wield them are afraid to give them up. This loss-aversion creates an extra barrier to understanding that incoherence.

In an earlier post, I called these things “logical wildcards” and showed, in the abstract, how irritatingly useful they can be. Like a KFC Double Down, they’re delicious in the lower-order/short-term but deleterious in the higher-order/long-term.

In that previous article, I talked about how logical wildcards can serve as “bridge-makers” and “bridge-breakers.”

  • Bridge-makers: Concepts that link premises to a conclusion when that conclusion should be a non sequitur. Especially useful when we desperately want something that we believe true to be provably true.
  • Bridge-breakers: Concepts that serve only to deny the link from premises to a conclusion. Especially useful when benign premises lead to difficult conclusions. Difficulty makes us sad.

Bridge-making and bridge-breaking, however, may have side-effects.

  • When you bridge-make, you may — as a side-effect — yield conclusions that obviously shouldn’t be connected to those premises.
  • When you bridge-break, you may — as a side-effect — posit a statement of “X makes Y impossible” that doesn’t actually make any sense.

When these two things happen, it’s an excellent red flag that the original concept that allowed that bridge-breaking or bridge-making was incoherent to begin with.

I believe, once these patterns are recognized in the abstract, this can serve as our most effective weapon against incoherent concepts.

Purgatorialism vs. Libertarian Free Will

One of the best examples of this comes up when we discuss purgatorial universal reconciliation, purgatorialism, or “PUR theology.”

Purgatorialism says that hell is purgatorial rather than endless, and eventually all will be reconciled.

Wrote St. Gregory of Nyssa, the most eloquent purgatorialist in the early Church:

“It will be useless to talk of [the contingency upon earthly failures] then, and to imagine that objections based upon such things can prove God’s power to be impeded in arriving at His end. His end is one, and one only; it is this: when the complete whole of our race shall have been perfected from the first man to the last — some having at once in this life been cleansed from evil, others having afterwards in the necessary periods been healed by the Fire.”

Libertarian free will is the vague notion that our decisions somehow lack external origination.

To protect this “self-origination” — usually out of a mistaken view that it is required for ascription of responsibility — “Open” fans of libertarian free will posit that no decision of man can be completely predicted, even by God himself. The “non-Open” folk will say that God can foreknow, but not predetermine.

Now, under purgatorialism, if GIVEN that God’s willed end is a full reconciliation, and GIVEN an omnipotence shall meet his willed ends eventually, there logically follows a 100% certain prediction that everyone will eventually choose God, even if after a purgatorial hell.

Uh oh! That’s a problem. “Open” fans of libertarian free will cannot tolerate a 100% certain prediction with regard to the choices of man. And “non-Open” fans of libertarian free will cannot tolerate a blanket eventual destiny — something about that reconciliatory hope is bleakly oppressive to them.

So, the argument goes, “Purgatorialism must be false because it would destroy libertarian free will.”

Here’s the rhetorical question:

  • Why on Earth would the manner in which we make decisions make an eventual universal reconciliation impossible? Through what mechanism or tether would this be the case?

The answer to this rhetorical question is:

  • There is no such mechanism or tether.

And this is a huge red flag for the incoherence of libertarian free will.

(Any deterministic paradigm, by contrast, has such a tether: The “domino chain” serves that role.)

Is the Prediction the Problem?

The stalwart, “Open” libertarian free will fan might say, “All this means is that God can’t make the prediction with certainty. Purgatorialism may be true, but not even God knows whether it’s true.”

They forget that this collapses into, “God cannot predict with certainty that anyone will be saved, nor can he say that anyone will be punished.” For “a mix will come to pass” is also a prediction made with certainty, and is ostensibly defiable by libertarian free will.

Any predictive prophecy, if given as “certain to happen eventually,” precludes libertarian free will if the fulfillment thereof could be delayed or affected by decisions of people, even if that prophecy is, “Some will be saved, others will be punished.”

This is the “mix problem” of prophecy + libertarian free will. We’d like to think that only sweeping proclamations would invalidate libertarian free will. But “Some will X, some will Y” has the same invalidating strength.

Weird, huh?

The Response

The response ought not be to rack one’s brain for a creative salvage of libertarian free will.

The simple response is, “This incoherent concept is spawning, as a side-effect, declarations that make no sense.”

The problem: Such a response is boring, and discussion ending, and difficult. Those qualities, especially in tandem, are memetically selected-against.

And that means we have to get ultra-excited about it and ultra-courageous about grappling with its challenges.


 

 

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Video Introduction to “The Angelic Ladder”

prolevideo

I recommend reading every post on this blog!

But one of the posts I’d especially recommend is the one entitled “The Angelic Ladder.” It articulates the intersection between deontology — “morality is all about the rules” — and consequentialism — “morality is all about what works.”

For us Christians, this affects:

  • Theodicy.
  • Theories of justice and responsibility.
  • Applied morality under the New Covenant.
  • And many, many more topics of theological vitality.

To help make it as easy as possible, I’d like to offer the following video introduction.

After watching the video, definitely follow-up by reading the article, “The Angelic Ladder.” It contains diagrams, extra details, and some more examples to really impart the importance of building our meta-ethics on the “ladder.”

 

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Correlation & Causation Pt. 2: Undead Philosophy

mummy

This is the second in a two-part series on correlation and causation, and how conflating the two can dramatically distort our perceptions and thinking.

The first part was about the exploitation by media, and the second part (below) is about the related philosophical and theological “bugs” that we must work to root-out.


Commission & Omission

undead1

Jimmy Fallon’s “Your Company’s Computer Guy,” about to recommend omitting action.

 

You’ve noticed that when confronted with a situation in which you must either commit action or omit action, you often take the omissive route due to a lack of information.

Acting recklessly beyond what is known can create all sorts of problems, which you know.

As a result, omissive action becomes generally correlated with “more correct” action.

But does this make omission less morally intense than commission? Is it always slightly more grevious, for example, to kill by commission than by omission?

No.

But it can feel that way due to those correlative “lessons.”

 

Retribution & Remediation

undead2

Corporal punishment from the movie, “Catching Fire.”

 

You’ve noticed that when faced with the bad decision of someone over whom you have authority, you want to react in a way that teaches that person a lesson and corrects the problem, now and for the future.

This is the remedial prospect of assigning judgment.

But you’ve also noticed that, often, the response is something punitive — frequently, Pavlovian behavior modification that requires only that the person be repaid in proportion to how much you were wronged.

As a result, justice becomes generally correlated with “retributory” action.

But does this mean that this is the “point” of justice? Is the prospective “goal” merely to repay?

No.

But it can feel that way due to those correlative “lessons.”

 

Assigning Responsibility

undead3

Gaius Baltar from “Battlestar Galactica”: Very blameworthy.

 

You’ve noticed that bad results can often be attributed to a single person making a single bad decision.

Usually, we’re all working as hard as we can for productive results, and when that goal is undermined, it’s usually because someone screwed up. If the cofactor was something mindless — like a broken pipe for which nobody has responsibility — then we often say, “Nobody is responsible.”

Thus, finding responsibility becomes generally correlated with finding a single, blameworthy decisionmaker.

But does this mean that this is how responsibility “works”? Is there always a single person solely responsible? And is it useful to limit responsible cofactors exclusively to decisionmakers? And is responsibility always about blameworthiness, never about creditworthiness?

The answer to all three is, “No.”

But it can feel like “Yes” due to those correlative “lessons.”

 

“Finding” Value

undead4

An invaluable gold statue of Michael Jackson.

 

You’ve noticed that when you look at an object of value, you think of the value “living inside” that object.

You also value things without consciously valuing them; you value food not because your rational mind is convinced of its utility, but because without food you feel hunger. That feeling is out of your control, and so it further feels like the food “contains” value.

You’ve also noticed that an object “becomes” more valuable the more work it would take to acquire or reacquire, which is not something over which you have arbitrary control.

Finally, you’ve been taught that certain things are valuable — even those things, which, if you hadn’t been taught as such, you wouldn’t value.

Thus, this constant bombardment of correlative lessons can make you feel like an object can have “intrinsic value.”

But can it, really? Would gold be valuable if there were no valuing things — that is, minds with interests — to respect it? Is value purely objective?

No.

But it can feel that way due to those correlative “lessons.”

 

Objective Taste

undead5

A veggie pizza from Maurizio’s.

 

We all agree that taste is a matter of taste. Some people are going to prefer Armanno’s Pizza on 12th and some people are going to prefer Maurizio’s Pizza on Washington.

You’ve just been hired, however, to head up local marketing for Maurizio’s. What do you do, given that taste is a matter of taste?

You could run a blind taste-test in service of finding the “aggregate taste,” such that you could boast, “Most people prefer Maurizio’s!”

Unfortunately, the results indicate that most people, in fact, prefer Armanno’s.

Uh oh.

How about this.

You put together a campaign that proclaims Maurizio’s is just better. It just “tastes better.”

It’ll be true for some people, right?

And by wrapping it in objective language, you’ve divorced it from fickle personal preferences and given it the mystique of objectivity. Its superiority has been enshrined on a pedestal that no filthy human hands have touched.

If you weren’t the marketer, someone else would be. And they’d eventually start playing around with objective language. That’s because there’s selective memetic momentum toward enshrining things preference-based as objective, preference-less facts.

Pretty sleazy, right?

But, what if the success of Maurizio’s had some huge, higher-order payoff for everyone? What if that connection was hard to show, or hard to articulate, but nonetheless 100% true? What if, in the here and now, it’s absolutely vital for society that folks be convinced to go against their personal impulsive pizza tastes and gravitate toward Maurizio’s?

Suddenly, wrapping the marketing of Maurizio’s pizza within incomplete, “objective” language, however sloppy and technically erroneous, starts to have utilitarian merit.

The language “bug” becomes useful.

But does this mean that it isn’t a bug? Does this selective momentum suggest that these things really are a matter of purely objective worth and purely objective “rightness”?

No.

But it can feel that way due to those correlative “lessons.”

 

Correlative Bugs

Each of these examples have been of myths, driving persistent philosophical questions, from ancient debates to contemporary contemplation.

Is commission more morally intense than omission? No. Omission is just more often correct, because it usually is less reckless (but is sometimes more negligent).

An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.

Is justice about pure retribution? No. Justice is about fixing a person or that which he represents in the abstract, but retribution is a very common, intuitive, and historically effective way of employing such fix attempts (even if the “fix” is “repair that which a murderer represents by locking him away forever”).

An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.

Is assigning responsibility about finding a single blameworthy decisionmaker? No. Assigning responsibility is about finding all causal cofactors in service of what needs to be fixed or encouraged. This just, very often, points to a single person’s behavior in need of repair.

An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.

Is there “intrinsic value”? No. Value is imputed by evaluators with interests. But there are all sorts of complications that make value seem, conceptually, “within object.”

An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.

Are there “objective interests”? No. “Subjective-as-objective” language errors are just very often useful for behavior modification, and behavior modification has been historically effective — perhaps even necessary — for social stability.

An exciting philosophical debate is resolved with boring nuance.

 

But the Undead are Entertaining

There’s a natural selective bias toward things that are exciting. It’s more fun to chatter than to sit in silence. Controversy is more entertaining than complacency. Story arcs sell better than story flatlines.

Remember that popular philosophy, just like anything else with the “popular” qualifier, is much more a product of memetics than of coherence or truth.


More reading:

 

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Let Him Who Hath Understanding Reckon 616

nero

There are lots of different ways to convert names to numbers, in order to get “the number of a man.”

It’s a bit tough, but occasionally, you’ll find that a person you don’t like has a name that “adds up” to 666 using one method or alphabet or another.

For example, if you’re a nutcase living in 1990, you might think that the Catholic Church is the “Whore of Babylon” and that Pope John Paul II is the “Beast of Revelation.”

Of course, Pope John Paul II is dead now. But, pretend it’s 1990.

Well, as it turns out, you can take the Latin name “IOANES PAVLVS SECVNDO,” add up the Roman numerals within, and the result is 666.

Coincidence? “Impossible! Pope John Paul II certainly will accompany the end of the world… perhaps a few years from now, in 1999!”

I guess the fact that he’s now dead, though, puts a damper on that theory.

But wait! Look at the Pope’s title, “VICARIUS FILII DEI”! That also adds up to 666! Hah! Pope Francis I must actually be “the Beast!”

But hold the phone!

It turns out that the founder of Seventh Day Adventism, “ELLEN GOULD WHITE,” also has a 666 name!

Man alive!

Back to Reality

Okay, maybe we need to demand more evidence than just name coincidences. After all, some guy named Dick X. Vale in Akron, Ohio would be “the Beast,” too.

For fun, let’s approach the situation with the premise that John actually intended for his readers — particularly “him who hath understanding” — to know who he was talking about. It would need to be a historical, villainous figure.

Second, let’s also employ the premise that John would have a reason to hide the person’s name using a number, like to avoid scandal or other socio-political problems.

Finally, let’s look at our source texts. There we actually find two numbers of the Beast. Some manuscripts have 666, others have 616. Let’s also have the premise that whoever the Beast is, his name must match both numbers depending on that name’s rendering. And, of course, that name would need to have multiple plausible and contemporaneous renderings in order to qualify.

That third premise is actually rather tough. It’s one thing to fit one number, but to fit both, that is, one or the other depending on the rendering? That’s a challenge.

These are some pretty big shoes to fill.

If we found a name that managed it, we’d have practical certainty that this name would be “the Beast.”

We Found a Name that Managed It

That name is Nero Caesar.

Is he a historical, villainous figure? Oh, you betcha.

Eusebius, a 4th century Christian historian in Rome, wrote:

“Publicly announcing himself as the first among God’s chief enemies, [Nero] was led on to the slaughter of the apostles. It is, therefore, recorded that Paul was beheaded in Rome itself, and that Peter likewise was crucified under Nero.”

He further wrote, quoting Tertullian a century earlier:

“Examine your records. There you will find that Nero was the first that persecuted this doctrine, particularly then when after subduing all the east, he exercised his cruelty against all at Rome. We glory in having such a man the leader in our punishment. For whoever knows him can understand that nothing was condemned by Nero unless it was something of great excellence.”

Not only were the Neronic persecutions of Christians a major atrocity, but Nero was the emperor who declared war against Jerusalem, a war which led to the prophetic destruction of the Temple.

2nd century St. Clement of Alexandria wrote of the abomination of the desolation as “the abomination of Nero.” Though he was dead by the time the Temple was destroyed, Clement wrote that, “[Nero] placed the abomination… in the holy city Jerusalem.”

Would John have had a reason to hide the person’s name using a number? Of course. Depending on the early historian we read, John wrote his Revelation either under Domitian with a retrospective in an apocalyptic literary mode, or under Nero himself.

Both emperors were notorious persecutors of Christians, and John was not about to provide new excuses for further abuse, like by overtly defaming present or past Roman emperors in his written material.

And finally, does Nero’s name, depending on the rendering, convert either to 666 or to 616 through the Hebrew Gematria? The answer is, astoundingly, “Yes.”

  • By the Hebrew rendering, NRWN QSR, his “number of a man” is 666.
  • By the Latin rendering, NRW QSR, his “number of a man” is 616.

In Revelation, the Beast, with the name of Nero Caesar, may have broadly represented the ancient power of imperial Rome, especially when set against God’s people, as Nero himself exemplified; “Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?”

Partial Preterism

Partial preterism is the Christian eschatological view where a big chunk of Revelation has already occurred, describing first-century historical events through apocalyptic literature.

It has historically been the dominant eschatology among Christian theologians, although the 19th and 20th centuries saw revivals among “full futurist” groups.

One of the main reasons, and very good reasons, for its historical dominance is the fact that John addressed his Revelation to specific ancient, contemporaneous churches in and around what is modern-day Turkey. If John wrote a note beginning, “Dear Mother,” it would be silly and anachronistic to say that he meant it primarily for far-future audiences that were not his mom.

Where’s the “Split”?

If part of Revelation is about first century events and part is about events yet to occur, where’s the “split” between the two chunks?

The “split” that makes most sense for many partial preterists is the “millennium” of Revelation 20. Good early evidence for this “split” comes from St. Augustine’s City of God, where he found fault with those who thought the first resurrection of 20:5 was “yet to come.”

Since “thousand years” is taken figuratively, this form of partial preterism is “amillennial.”

The Nero Nail

The recent discoveries of the “616 manuscripts” confirm Nero’s “Beastship” and have supplied a nail in the coffin for much of the out-of-control conjecture and theory about Revelation that have cropped up over the last century or so, perpetuated by apocalyptic excitement and those who would profit by it.

As a Christian, I believe the Judgment has yet to occur. But the evidence to which we have access indicates that much of Revelation has already happened, way back in the tumultuous first century — where Christians were slain, the Temple was destroyed, and millions in the Holy Land perished — and was conveyed to John’s readers through apocalyptic literature.

 

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