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#TruthFinder Episode Two: What are the consequences of ideas?

Updated on September 3, 2016
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Dr. Sadaphal a father, husband, scientist, and Mensan. He seeks reasonable answers to life's most perplexing and critical questions.

Introduction

All ideas have consequences. In fact, ideas always precede a product, an end point that is either designed, desired or unintended. This end point can be good or bad—the reality is that brilliant ideas yield beneficial products and thoughtless ideas portend disastrous consequences. Furthermore, in many cases, an idea will not yield a concrete product because the idea was not worth anything to begin with.

As it pertains to our search for ultimate truth, we are concerned with those foundational or basic ideas that shape our reality and have tangible, everlasting, and positive consequences.

Humans are born into a world that they did not create ex nihilo (out of nothing). Instead we step into a world, a society, and a culture that already exist, and we therefore learn to interact with the consequences of ideas that already define the contours of our reality. By turning our attention to the consequences of some foundational ideas and laying bare our assumptions, we will do two things: (1) illuminate those timeless ideas that benefit us and (2) discover those underlying ideas that are in fact bogus, along with their associated poisonous consequences. Foundational thinking is concerned about the dissimilarity between truth and non-truth because it has a sincere interest in knowing what is good and what is evil. As Socrates once said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” To any mature adult who takes life seriously, an unexamined life simply is not an opportunity to be grasped. When it comes to the truth, embracing it means not only holding the complete truth close to your chest, but also considering and then accepting all the consequences of that truth.

At time I am writing this, we in America are in the midst of a presidential campaign. At one point, one candidate suggested that all high school graduates should be entitled to a free college education. This is a great idea, but an idea that nonetheless has consequences. On one hand, this would allow all those who are disenfranchised and who otherwise would not have access to a college education to receive one for free. One the other hand, although college would be “free” for the student, it would not be free for society. One consequence of free college is the need for a reasonable means of financing an education for many. Where would such funds come from in a government that is already in debt?

On the one hand, a free college education means more young people would be better equipped to enter a competitive job market, and therefore be able to generate more income, stimulating the economy. On the other hand, who defines what “college” is? Is it two years or four? Would the universal availability of a college education drive down the quality of the educational standards that exist now? Notice that I did not take a stance on the idea. I am simply trying to relay a principle: that if a person divorces the consequences of an idea from the idea itself, then what he or she is really doing is divorcing him- or herself from reality.

The consequences of ideas in one lesson

Henry Hazlitt was a thought leader in the realm of Austrian economics. He wrote about the central reality that while every group will share common economic interests, each individual group seeks interests that are antagonistic to the interests of others. Hence, as Hazlitt posited, there is a persistent tendency of individuals to perceive only the immediate effects of a given idea, particularly as it pertains to their own self-interest. They often fail to consider what the long-term effects will be, not only for their group but for society as a whole. Hazlitt writes about the apex of this thesis in Economics in One Lesson:

"The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."[1]

What does this have to do with TruthFinder? Well, I will lean on Hazlitt to make the following assertion: ultimate truth consists in looking not merely at the immediate, but at the longer effects of any idea; it consists in tracing the consequences of that idea not merely for one group but for all groups. Ideas do not exist in a vacuum. They are animated by reality and are given life by living, breathing people. If you accept the idea, then you accept the consequences of that idea for the people who share reality with you.

[1] Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2008), 5.

The consequences of the “wager”

When it comes to ultimate truth, I propose that the most important question that any human being will decide in his or her entire life pertains to if there is a God or not. Notice I did not qualify who that God is, simply if God exists. Notice that I also did not place a value on the decision that a person makes. My point is that how you answer this vital question will have pervasive, relevant, and meaningful consequences regardless of how you choose. This existential “wager” was famously written about by the French mathematician and physicist, Blaise Pascal, hundreds of years ago. This wager involved “betting” on the reality of God. As Pascal wrote:

"Let us then examine this point, and let us say: ‘Either God is or he is not.’ But to which view shall we be inclined? Reason cannot decide this question. Infinite chaos separates us. At the far end of this infinite distance a coin is being spun which will come down heads or tails. How will you wager?"[1]

What is so interesting is that in his formulation, Pascal, a man of science and logic, did not reduce his reasoning to a series of empirical proofs or rational arguments. He managed to boil down a potent existential question to a matter of free will and responsibility. Certainly, the wager is not in any way an argument for the existence of God. It simply attempts to resolve an existential dilemma in the form of a question: in short, “In the game of reality, how will you bet your life?” Pascal goes on to argue that everyone must wager and decide where to invest their energies and hope. Each choice entails significant consequences, and the question has its greatest relevance to people who are undecided—everyone else has already chosen. Ultimately, a choice has to be made, and not placing a bet or walking away from the table is, in essence, the same as betting that God does not exist. The central point that Pascal was trying to make is that you must choose—indeed, he was not so naïve as to think that God exists simply because it is the desire of a person’s heart.

Pascal continues to write that if you wager that God does exist, you have much to gain and nothing to lose. He says that if you wager that God does not exist, you will have lost everything and gained nothing. This is where I must humbly disagree with Pascal. If you bet that God does not exist, you are actually free to do what is right in your own eyes and pursue a life that secures what suits your own interests. Here, you gain the present and the world that you desire and “lose” eternity, but if there is nothing in eternity, then this ends up being of no consequence. Here, the moment-to-moment opportunities for self-gratification can always be taken. On the other hand, if you bet that God does exist, you will, in fact, lose many things in the present with the hope of gaining eternity. In the Christian faith, for example, this would mean denying oneself when it comes to day-to-day opportunities for self-gratification. So, although it is not explicit, a subliminal premise that supports Pascal’s wager is that eternity matters more than the present.

[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensées (London: Penguin, 1955), 122.

Frederick Nietzsche
Frederick Nietzsche

The consequences of Nietzsche[1]

It is imperative to examine the work of the 19th century philosopher Frederick Nietzsche, because he is the father of atheistic existentialism.[2] Nietzsche embraced the proposition that “God is dead,” and from that core idea resulted many consequences. We shall explore some of them here.

"God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?" (Nietzsche, 1882)[3]

Nietzsche lived in the 1800s, a time that he described as being in radical decay. He identified the cause of that decay as one claim to ultimate truth: the Christian faith. He posited that certain Christian virtues—such as grace and mercy—actually instilled weakness in people and undermined authentic human existence. Nietzsche thought that religion declared as sinful those things that were natural to humankind. So, in order to unshackle ourselves from the burdens of Christianity, we had to “wake up” from the false reality of Christian dogma. It is then, Nietzsche posited, that we are liberated to an authentic life that is free from external characterizations of meaning or any forms of absolute truth. The synopsis of this idea—that we should reject established laws and traditions and that there is no objective truth—was called nihilism. Hence, because God is dead, life has no meaning and what you are left with is the nothingness of human existence that lacks transcendent meaning or purpose.

According to Frederick Nietzche, the most fundamental force in life is not self-preservation but the will to power. In fact, Nietzsche considered Darwin’s theory of evolution to be too “soft” and passive. So while Darwin would assert that natural selection slowly and gently persuades biological evolution, Nietzsche would assert that life is very active and means much more than survival—it means the purposeful intent to overpower and conquer. This “biological heroism” was a new kind of “authentic existence” characterized by the “superman” (übermensch in German). This superman is evolved. The übermensch is unafraid to exercise his will to power to the ultimate level.

Ironically, given his subscription to nihilism, Nietzsche was pressed to contemplate whether the courage of the übermensch is meaningless. He asserted that indeed, it is meaningless, but encouraged others to be courageous anyway. “Herd morality” means people are stupid and slavish sheep who follow what everyone else does. Herd morality is a subliminal search for security and finds the most acceptance amongst the weak in any society. The strong, or those who embrace the “master morality,” reject a morality of utility and seek to conquer: here, one creates his own morality and virtues and is the master of his own fate. God is merely an obstacle to be scaled in the pursuit of self-interest. Yet, even though all of this is admittedly nonsensical, the chief virtue is courage. Nietzsche proudly proclaimed that all should act with courage, even though the courage itself and the results of said courage are totally meaningless. The übermensch is unafraid to say “never mind” to eternity and feels empowered to face a cold and dark universe with the bravado of an undefeated champion. The übermensch says to his less-than-adequate neighbors, “I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself greater than all.”

Indeed, all ideas have consequences. The last eleven years of Nietzsche’s life were spent in an asylum—yes, Nietzsche went insane, which, in the context of nihilism, is meaningless. In fact, during this time, Nietzsche spoke of horses as his siblings and his sister sold tickets to observers who wanted to bear witness to her famous brother’s madness. This was a fitting example of the übermensch exercising a will to power. Near the end of his life Nietzsche signed his letters, “the crucified one,” an allusion to the fact that in his madness, Nietzsche thought himself to be Jesus.[4]

The central paradox of Nietzsche’s philosophy remains its absurdity. After all, even he admitted the meaninglessness of his postulations, which makes everything that he said meaningless. By extension, the meaninglessness of life when “God is dead” also persuaded Darwin to contemplate the presupposed absurdity in his theory of evolution. In the 19th century Darwin wrote:

"With me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy."[5]

In other words, Darwin’s “horrid doubt” arose from the realization that if man and animals both evolved from the same “stuff” without transcendent meaning, then he was obligated to question the validity of mankind’s own thoughts, which included his theory of evolution.

[1] For a succinct synopsis of Nietzsche’s key ideas, see R. C. Sproul, The Consequences of Ideas (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2000) 159-171.

[2] Existentialism means the philosophy of existence that stresses a person’s role as an agent responsible for their choices. Existentialism is not inherently associated with atheism as other existentialists (for example the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard) actually sought to synthesize this method of thought with faith.

[3] Frederick Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882), Section 125. For full text, see: http://www.holybooks.com/wp-content/uploads/The-Gay-Science-by-Friedrich-Nietzsche.pdf

[4] Freddie Rokem, Philosophers and Thespians (Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 102.

[5] Charles Darwin, cited in Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed., Francis Darwin, Vol. 1 (New York: D. Appleton, 1898), 285.

The consequences of imprudent ideas

We live in a world full of opinions. Especially with the advent of the Internet, anyone can put forth any idea he or she would like into the public forum. However, when contemplating the trustworthiness or the value of ideas, one also has to consider the source¾that is, the competence of the individual proclaiming the idea. Truly, competence is king, yet what often tends to happen in today’s modern world is that many mistake opportunity and access for capability. A competent person who is proven to be reliable, and who stands on a strong foundation of truth, is a valued sage in whom you can trust and from whom you can obtain meaningful answers. This is a very beneficial consequence. A less-than-competent person can certainly be a source of ideas, but you would immediately have to question the trustworthiness and the subsequent consequences of said ideas. Those consequences are problematic at best.

Take, for example, the world of medicine. As a physician, every time I am in the office, I am guaranteed to interact with a patient who looked up his or her symptoms on the Internet and then presents with his or her own diagnosis. Imagine you are this hypothetical patient. Here, your idea of what your diagnosis is comes from an unqualified source that lacks credentials, experience, or the benefit of a personal encounter in which a real-life doctor can hear, see, feel, and touch. And what are the consequences for you when you rely on such a disreputable source? The fallacious impression that you are suffering from something much, much worse than what you really have, or even a total misdiagnosis. In some extreme cases, if you are full of angst you can even be manipulated into taking drastic measures in order to alleviate your presupposed “sickness.” Ultimately, after the correct diagnosis is made (think a basic throat infection), your anxiety is assuaged by the reassurance that you will be fine, and the promise of an appropriate plan of treatment—something that is often very simple and painless.

In this real-life example, an innocent patient placed a wager on an imprudent idea from a questionable source. Here, the stakes were quite low, but imagine how high the stakes become when a person makes a wager and gambles with eternity based on an irreparable idea from an incompetent source.

The consequences of understanding content (ideas) vs. criticism (anti-ideas)

Great ideas have really good content. I mentioned this maxim before: “An unexamined life is not worth living.” This example contains actionable advice that persuades everyone to pursue an earnest path of introspection and self-evaluation. It is very important to note that great ideas lack criticism. Why? Because criticism is a tool used to refine ideas, but is not an end in and of itself. In this way, criticism is investigatory and directs a person toward enduring content. This in no way suggests that one should refrain from criticism, because using it as a tool can mold an amorphous blob of loose thoughts into a well-refined and breathtaking idea able to entertain, endure, and be appreciated.

My point is that the sculptor who uses the hammer and chisel of criticism works best when his goal is a refined idea. A sculptor who uses his tools for the sake of using his tools simply destroys. Criticism is not content. Only content is content. Criticism by itself has no value because it is dependent and derivative. Criticism only has value as it points to alternative content, which is never exempt from the same degree of scrutiny that got a person there in the first place.

The anatomy of atheism

How a person defines the construct of atheism has potent consequences for how he or she executes rational thinking and engage with others who do not share similar ideas. Without first dissecting the idea of unbelief, it is impossible to recognize the unique consequences this ideology has on thought patterns.

Dictionary.com defines atheism as “the doctrine or belief that there is no God.”

A somewhat dissimilar definition can be found in The New Oxford American Dictionary, which defines atheism as “disbelief or the lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.”

In Atheism: The Case Against God, George H. Smith defines atheism as “the absence of theistic belief.” He goes on to write that:

"Atheism, in its basic form, is not a belief: it is the absence of belief. An atheist is not primarily a person who believes that a god does not exist; rather, he does not believe in the existence of a god."[1]

The first definition is honest. The second and third definitions are intellectually dishonest. Allow me to explain. The latter definitions yield a construct that is totally devoid of content and is essentially meaningless. That is, by simply defining what a person lacks belief in, you actually remain totally silent about what they do believe in. (Using this logic, then, I am an a-Muslim and an a-racist, meaning that I have an absence of belief in Islam and the ideology of racial superiority). In practice, a person could believe that we are living in The Matrix or that the origin of life can be explained by green aliens and still fall within the contours of thinking outlined by these definitions. Why? Because of the absence of belief in the existence of God. In fact, without intending to be too cheeky, the following entities all lack belief in God and therefore qualify as atheists using Smith’s definition: newborn babies, monkeys, staplers, and rocks.

Furthermore, this classification would, in fact, enable a person to execute blind faith and believe in fantasy as long as there is still no belief in God’s existence. This is a way of thinking and an outcome that atheism, ironically, strives against. But guess what? Human beings are not robots and everyone believes in something. By necessity, if a person does not believe something, they will believe something else.

So, if God does not exist and God did not create advanced life, then, by implication, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection does indeed explain life (or another theory that I am not yet aware of does). The point is that a lack of belief in God does not nullify belief in general and, if nothing else, atheism will direct a person’s beliefs toward other truth claims—whether those be secularism, humanism, reason, science, logic, or others not mentioned here. In this paradigm, we can again see the power of criticism not as an end in and of itself, but as a tool to direct a person toward other meaningful content. Consequently, for the purpose of this series, under the banner of belief, I will regard atheism as the belief that God does not exist.

Certainly one reason why the definition of “the absence of belief” has been adopted is quite simple: because that definition tries to absolve its subscribers from the burden of proof. The burden falls on the shoulders of anyone who makes a claim and therein mandates evidence, mature arguments and reasonable thinking. Hence, the declaration “God does not exist” is in fact a truth claim that requires proof. Markedly, it is quite understandable why many run away from the confident assertion that God does not exist¾because it is a claim that turns out to be unprovable.[2]

The declaration “I lack belief in the existence of God” is a personal feeling of scarcity and moves out of the realm of reason into subjective emotions. Theists are often derided for inventing unfalsifiable truth claims and then daring people to disprove something that cannot be disproven. This is intellectually dishonest. In the case of the absence of belief, it is equally dishonest to demand an intellectual response to a subjective feeling, or to divorce oneself from the acute reality that whether a person assigns positive or negative value to a truth claim, this never exempts you from the objective need to qualify why you have adopted a position. Of course, you could simply reject this assertion as long as one acknowledges that a mature, adult argument will be abandoned for something very unsophisticated.

The notion that disbelief is not an intellectual conviction requires some more elaboration. It merely describes a psychological state. If my sixty-something mother told me that she was pregnant again, I would be in a state of disbelief. If my wife (who does not have an appendix) told me that she has acute appendicitis, I would be in a state of disbelief. These temporary states are transitionary and serve as vehicles to either positive or negative beliefs based on evidence.

Disbelief also makes experience quite unpleasant when the model is applied to the rest of life. I could, for example, have a lack of belief that climate change exists, or that the Holocaust really happened. It would be irrational to sit back and simply say, “Prove it to me!” while I took no initiative of my own to take the reins of life and be responsible for my own thinking. Ultimately, this flawed strategy equates to intellectual welfare. However, disbelief that acts as a catalyst for further investigation is always beneficial and allows for vetted beliefs to triumph.

Atheism can only exist secondary to theism. It is derivative, and feeds off the content of another ideology. Even the word atheism—from the Greek a-theos meaning “without-theism” or “without-God”—can’t escape its dependency on God. I will quote George Smith one final time: “Atheism is important because theism is important.”[3] In a similar way, viruses are important because being healthy is important. Cancer is important because life is important.

[1] George H. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God (New York: Prometheus Books, 1989), 7.

[2] And you don’t have to take my word for it on this point. Consider what skeptic thought leaders such as Richard Dawkins have said: namely, that one cannot be sure that God does not exist. Source: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9102740/Richard-Dawkins-I-cant-be-sure-God-does-not-exist.html

[3] Smith, Atheism, 25.

The anatomy of theism

How a person approaches theism has potent consequences for how he or she executes rational thinking and engages with others who do not share similar ideas. It is impossible to recognize the unique consequences this ideology has on patterns of thought without first dissecting the idea of belief.

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines theism as “belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in one god as creator of the universe, intervening in it and sustaining a personal relation to his creatures.”

So herein lies the problem: which god are we talking about? Is it Jesus? What about the god of Islam? What about the gods of Greek mythology? It is beyond the scope of TruthFinder to make an attempt to sift through all theistic truth claims. What I will say, though, is that as I mentioned in the last episode, the truth must be exclusive, or else it cannot be truth. So, logically speaking, as they pertain to theism, all truth claims cannot all be true. Either one can be true or all can be false, but all cannot be true. There is a romantic notion in the 21st century that all religions essentially say the same thing so that it “will all work out in the end.”[1] The brutal reality is that everyone cannot hold hands as we all walk into the sunset because religious truth claims are logically incompatible. Yes, some practices and customs may be very similar, but core ideology is mutually exclusive. Judaism says good ethical behavior earns you salvation. Christianity says people are saved by God’s grace. Buddhism and Mormonism are models where humans strive to reach up to nirvana and heaven, respectively. Christianity says that God strives and reaches down to humans.[2] When it comes to different religious truth claims, God, evil, humanity, ethics, history, morality, and salvation are all viewed differently.[3]

So, as it pertains to investigating the claims of religions, we use logic to make sense of how facts interrelate and our senses (the empirical method) to determine what is in fact true. Yet just because a claim is logical does not make it true. For example, something can have logical internal consistency (1 unicorn + 1 unicorn = 2 unicorns) but still be a logically consistent fairy tale. In fact, this formula still remains valid whether or not unicorns exist. Thus, when investigating theistic claims, the facts unearthed by empiricism—through scientific and historical means, for example—are the final determinants of truth regardless of competing interpretations.

So how does one begin evaluate which religious claims are true? Well, the first question to ask is if there is a factual claim to begin with. This claim is something that has to be verifiable or falsifiable. Furthermore, excluding the realms of math, deductive logic, or death, it is clear that absolute certainty is never obtainable. The fact of the matter is that life is never 100% certain, yet people continue to go about their lives without this full assurance. When I prescribe patients antibiotics, for example, I am never 100% certain that they will work, yet I prescribe anyway with reasonable certainty. People get married without being 100% certain that it will work out. People buy insurance because they are not certain they will not be the victims of theft. People can’t even be 100% certain that the sun will rise in the morning,[4] but they go to bed without feeling anxiety over a dark tomorrow.

When we process these guidelines, what we’re left with is a startling reality: that yes, almost all religious truth claims are total and complete nonsensical hocus pocus that do indeed rely on blind faith, irrational thinking, and faulty logic. Accordingly, as Craig A. Parton writes:

"99.9% of all religious claims are not factual in nature and cannot be verified or falsified, even in principle."[5]

These odds are not daunting, because even if 0.1% of religious claims are true, then that truth will stand regardless of how big an ocean of non-truth surrounds it.

So, using Parton’s framework, it becomes clear that the claims “I believe that god is everywhere and is everything” and “I lack belief in the existence of God” are both meaningless statements, in that both cannot be either verified or falsified. The danger, of course, of upholding an idea that cannot be verified—and thus dwells in the realm of fantasy—as ultimately true is that when taken to a fanatical extreme, this idea yields consequences which can have disastrous effects on humanity. And those deleterious effects are in turn justified by fantasy, which makes tempering one’s actions with reason and sensibility difficult. Accordingly, it is the radicalness of an idea that poses a threat to humanity, not the idea itself. Taken in that light, if you violate non-aggression and assault those who do not share you view with either violence[6][7] or with non-violent coercion,[8] all of these strategies share the same underlying fanatical principle: that the world would be better off without people who don’t believe what I believe. Ideologically speaking, there is no difference between a zealot who wants to convert the world through terror and an intellectual who wants to rid the world of superstitious ideas.

[1] John Warwick Montgomery, Tractatus Logico-Theologicus (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Pub, 2013), 1.121.

[2] For a more elaborate description of the paradigm in the context of two Greek words for love (eros and agape), see C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1960).

[3] For further elaboration and clarification, see Craig A. Parton, Religion on Trial (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008) 3-11.

[4] Indeed, there may be a psychological need for certainty, but there is no a logical necessity.

[5] Craig A. Parton, Religion on Trial (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 25.

[6] For example, Karen Yourish, et al., "How many people have been killed in ISIS attacks around the World," New York Times, July 16, 2016, accessed August 20, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/03/25/world/map-isis-attacks-around-the-world.html

[7] For example, Ed Pelkington, “I Shot US Abortion doctor to protect children,” The Guardian, January 28, 2010, accessed August 20, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/jan/28/scott-roeder-abortion-doctor-killer

[8] For example, Sam Harris, “Science must Destroy Religion,” Huffington Post, January 2, 2006, accessed August 20, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/science-must-destroy-reli_b_13153.html

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So where do we go from here?

We will use what we have learned so far and engage our senses and reason in pursuit of meaningful answers. What I hope I have provided thus far is a critical, yet reasonable framework to begin the approach to asking critical questions about life and to challenge those systems of belief that many have accepted as “true.” In future episodes, I will ask critical questions such as, “What’s the point of evil?” “What secret is DNA hiding?” and “Where does morality come from?” But, I hope you will join me for TruthFinder episode three, in which we search for a crucial answer to the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?

Until next time.

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