Friday, May 11, 2007

First Principles

This thread kinda jumps off from the one on abortion. I have also touched on this in my long-ago series on poverty. It's about the conflict between being a free-thinking, tolerant, etc. American academic, and at the same time being a fundamentalist Christian.

Let me begin by quoting CS Lewis: "Christianity, if true, is of the utmost importance in the world. If untrue, it is of no importance. But the one thing it cannot be is moderately important." I believe, with every fiber of my being, that Christianity IS TRUE. Therefore, it follows that this belief trumps everything else.

However, I recognize (and value) that ours is a nation without a state religion, that we have freedom of (or even from) religion, and that a large and growing portion of our population, all equal in the eyes of the law to me, either do not agree that Christianity is true, or at the very least pay lip service to Christian beliefs without really holding them as of the utmost importance. I value reasoned debate, the exchange of ideas, logic, pretty much the entire enlightenment heritage of our nation.

That said, it is impossible for me to divorce my most deeply-held principles on what constitutes right and wrong, what is the proper structure of a society, what is "best" in any number of senses for our society and culture, from those debates. Everyone's opinion is based on something. Yet, for some reason, when a serious, sold-out Christian reaches a conclusion, let's say, that abortion is morally wrong, the cry rings out: THEOCRAT! TALIBAN! HOW DARE YOU EVER TRY TO IMPOSE YOUR RELIGIOUS BELIEFS! WHAT KIND OF BENIGHTED, MEDIEVAL FOOL ARE YOU? The introduction of the reason for my belief is supposed to be an absolute debate-stopper, which I should shelve to show how sophisticated and tolerant I am.

Hokum, I say. Libertarianism, environmentalism, supply-side or Keynsian economics, liberalism, conservatism, socialism, and just about every school of thought is based in first principles. Mine happen to have been tested by 2000+ years of human experience, and are just as legitimate as any secular system of thought. The big question remains not what we think of the principles, but again, whether they are true.

Of course, as Americans we get to vote on things. In our system of government, this has consequences. And you win some, you lose some. Christians are obliged (by Romans 13) to accept the authority of the law, but fortunately our system also allows for a way to work within the system to remedy laws when we disagree. Sometimes, like in the recent partial-birth abortion case, I applaud the results because I think the system worked in getting the issue "right." Others, like in the Dred Scott decision or Roe v. Wade, I firmly believe that "we" (this nation of which my voice is a part) got it "wrong." I'll even accept, for the sake of argument, that my own opinion could, in the end, be wrong. But that doesn't change the fact that there IS such a thing as truth, and there will be an "end" where truth will out.

But what if there is NOT such a thing as truth? What if there is no God? What if my first principles are themselves untrue? In that case, the random electrons forming my thoughts are no "less" true than anybody else's. I'll at least feel good that my positions were consistent. If you believe in no truth, you can't even be "right" about that "fact," because there's no such thing. As Blaise Paschal wrote almost 500 years ago, I'll take that wager.


mbellison said...

Since my last post, I have finished freshman year, so maybe now I will be wiser. Salley, I wish you had been in my Moral Foundations of Politics class this semester. It was this stuff for a whole class.

As for your first principles and your point that you can vote in favor of them, you're right. But there are also a set of first principles put forth in the Constitution that take precedence over your first principles even if the majority agrees with your first principles. To use an example that turns the table a bit, say my first principles led me to the conclusion that owning a gun was immoral and was the equivalent of murder. Even if the majority of Americans agreed with me, we could not implement that policy unless the majority was large enough to pass a constitutional amendment. When your first principles interfere with someone else's rights as guaranteed by the Constitution, that is where the line is drawn. For example, if 51% of Americans suddenly converted to Judaism and outlawed the eating of pork and shellfish, it would be unconstitutional because it violates the freedom of religion of non-Jews. Similarly, I don't think people whose religious first principles make them consider gay marriage to be immoral should be able to be able to impose their first principles on others who don't share them, and I think the first and fourteenth amendments, supported by the scientific knowledge that homosexuality is present from birth and it is perfectly healthy, back me up on that. An intersting way to think about it is Ian Shapiro's (my professor's) doctrine of affected interest.

A point about your point that your religious first principles are just like any other economic or political philosophy. I don't know. The philosophies you list, libertarianism, environmentalism, supply-side or Keynsian economics, liberalism, conservatism, socialism, can all be seen as having the same first principles: they disagree on method, but they all want to, to use utilitarianism broadly, to maximize the well-being of society. Religious first principles, on the other hand, are much more metaphysical as opposed to political. Whereas the first principle behind all of the previous philosophies is "society should be better off," the first principle behind Christianity is, "there is a God, and he dictated the Bible, and Jesus is his son, etc." You say it is important whether religion is "true," and you have a point. But with the other, secular philosophies you call first principles, it's not about metaphysical truth or untruth. It's about whether, for example, a supply-side tax cut actually trickles down.

In the last paragraph of your post, you imply that without belief in God, there is no "truth." In a task much too tall for a blog comment, I will now attempt to articulate my "true" first principles that do not require (but can have) belief in a higher power.

1) As Jeremy Bentham said, people are capable of feeling pain and pleasure. Put more generally, happiness and unhappiness. Happiness, by definition, is good, and people want to feel it, while unhappiness is bad, and people want to avoid it.

2) Unlike Bentham, I think that the definition of happiness is extremely broad. I gain happiness from debating an issue like this, or by coaching 6th grade basketball, or by running, etc. You gain happiness from religion. I do not deny that and would not try to take that away from you. People know what makes them happy, and while others can persuade them that this or that will make them happy, the only person who knows what makes a person happy is that person.

3) What is the ideal society? Based on the first two statements, one where happiness is maximized throughout society. (Some might claim that this view allows for something like torture if it makes a lot of people happy, but I would argue that there exists an extreme diminishing marginal utility of happiness-generating goods.)

4) Government has a limited role to play in maximizing societal happiness. It can't give me friends. Where government can help is in providing for a fair and efficient allocation of resources as much as possible (as the vast majority of people gain happiness from resources, albeit in a way that exhibits diminishing marginal utility.) Government can also act to assure that no one harms the resources (financial or physical) or another. When an issue doesn't involve resources, the government should stay out. For example, if you think that having a gay marriage will make you happy, it is not the government's business to prohibit you from having one.

There you have them, my first principles, my conception of "truth." Hope they make sense. Tear them apart. I'll likely be by school Monday.

bekster said...

Yes, it's me butting in again...

(My thoughts on all of this are still pretty jumbled--and I'm tired--but I'll attempt to make some kind of sense.)

First, on the issue of "happiness," I disagree that happiness is "good" by definition. I don't think that happiness is necessarily either "good" or "bad" (but this depends on your definition of "good" and "bad"). It is just an extremely subjective emotion and/or physical feeling. It is there one moment and gone the next, sometimes for no evident reason. In the end, happiness really doesn't mean anything. Therefore, decisions must be based on something more solid than what makes one happy, or even what makes the majority of people happy. I don't think anyone can argue (though someone will probably try) that people--especially people in large groups--are stupid. Even if every single person in a given large group is made happy (of course, I don't really believe this to be possible, but even if it were) by a certain decision, that decision could still be wrong. People do not always know what truly is best for them. Sometimes, seeking after happiness actually gets in the way of whatever is best. (However, I'm having a hard time coming up with an example because we would have to agree first on what "best" is.)

Another thing about "happiness" is that it puts the focus on YOU instead of on others. Yes, I know that not everyone subscribes to the belief that people should put others above themselves, but I can't help but think that a life intent on keeping yourself "happy" would be totally pointless. Everyone will eventually die (or something), so if all you have done with your life until you die is make yourself happy, what good is that? Once you are dead, the "happiness" is no longer there. (Of course, under the Christian system, if you accept God's salvation through Jesus, you get eternal "happiness," which actually does something for you in the long run. Why risk the opposite happening to you? Even if you end up being wrong about Christ, you would just blip out of existence or something and it wouldn't matter, but you would have had at least the chance of Heaven. What would you have to lose? Happiness on earth? Like I said, once you die the earthly happiness is gone anyway, so what does it matter how you "feel" on earth?) But, going back to putting your focus on others, if you do everything you can to "love" others (i.e. sacrifice your own happiness for their needs), once you are dead your positive influence will still be around (assuming that we are working towards to positive... someone else may have a different goal, but I don't know why anyone would want to work towards the negative) AND you will have the added benefit of having had true JOY (which is MUCH different from happiness) and love while on earth, AND, depending on other circumstances, you will probably gain a reward in Heaven as well. This is definitely a win-win deal. You are temporarily inconvenienced, BUT #1 the other person gains something (whatever it is you do for them) that doesn't "go away" when you die, #2 you experience true joy and love, and #3 you might even get eternal rewards (depending on your other beliefs, but you still would get #1 and #2).

Now, Larry, let me ask you... when you say "first principles," to what exactly are you referring? It seems like there are so many levels to "principles," even within Christianity, so which of those would you consider to be "first?" You talked about the existence of truth vs. no truth, and, I agree, if there is no truth, nothing at all matters. In fact, I would think that nothing AT ALL would exist because there would have been no laws of science in place for the elements to order themselves (or for them to be ordered) in the beginning. (I don't see how scientists can question truth because everything they study falls under a reliable--reliability is based on truth--pattern that is never violated.)

So, there is truth vs. no truth. Then there is the existence of God vs. no God. (Obviously, God must exist for Christianity to be true.) Sometimes when my faith starts to waver, I think about how unlikely it is that I even exist. My nit-picky-analyzing-everything self doesn't like for things to be random. (Caution: This gets a little weird...) If the world were the way my brain tries to make it, based on my odd logic, we (people, plants, animals, things, etc.) would all be uniform little cubes stacked neatly into a great big larger cube, but even that wouldn't satisfy my brain because I wouldn't know how big to make the cubes, or what color, or what the cubes would be sitting on, and I certainly wouldn't know at what point to make the smaller cubes stop stacking into the big cube BECAUSE I am not able (specifically me with my personality) to assign things like that without a REASON why they would be given that color/size/etc. BUT, thankfully, we are NOT all cubes and Someone HAS assigned us different random (well, random to us) traits. You and I and everyone else actually DO exist (as far as we know, but that's a different discussion altogether), so there MUST be someone who made us the way we are, and there MUST be a reason WHY we are the way we are and we are not cubes. Basically, to me, the fact that I exist tells me that there had to be someone who designed me. Otherwise, where would my design have come from? My brain (specifically Becky's weird brain) won't let me think that anything like that could be random. I know that's a strange way to explain it, but does that make sense?

I had more I was thinking about saying, but I think I need to stop here for the moment and go to bed, lest I say anything any crazier...

Before I go, though, I want to recommend this article:

It talks about Christians and atheists having some kind of dialog. Let me know what you think (you too, mbellison)...

Coach Sal said...

Hi, guys. I wrote a longish comment between your two this weekend, and then google ate it. Too bad, because it was well-written and logically flawless. (HA!) To summarize and shorten those comments, let me just knock out a couple of points:

First, Matthew, we agree that the Constitution sets the ground rules for our society, and that it establishes a pecking order of rights. We disagree that it trumps all other principles. As I said, Christians, who are obligated by their faith to obey the law except in those cases when there is a direct conflict with the higher law of God, can and should work through the system whenever possible. That's one reason why I favor a constitutional amendment defining marriage. Although I hope that the various state DOMA laws and state constitutions expressing the will of wide majorities on this issue would hold up in court, I recognize that judges can, under our system, overturn the will of majorities. And, like it or not, that's fair-and-square under the rules of the game. So it's equally fair to work within those rules on either side of any issue. Of course, if "my side" were to muster the votes to pass that amendment, you'd almost certainly drop the talk about how the constitution trumps other principles and remind me again that legal and right are not always synonomous, and how the majority (even a supermajority) can be wrong. There are numerous examples, even at the level of constitutional amendments, in which I still feel that the majority got it wrong--including, but not limited to, the 16th, 17th, and 26th amendments (not every college freshman has your brain). And I know you would agree with me that disobedience to an immoral law, even outside the system, is the proper thing to do. Let's not forget that among the first principles of many underground railroad conductors and civil rights marchers was their Christian faith.

On the other issue, that of "truth," you write that I imply that without God there is no truth. I didn't mean it that way, but I won't back away from it. Of course, as a Christian, I believe firmly that God is the source of truth. But even more than that, unless you can answer the question of where truth comes from, whether it exists independently of us, whether it is transcendent, then you still have not answered to my satisfaction whether we should accept any premise as "true."

Finally, although I think you have done admirable work in articulating some fine principles that, if accepted, make many of your positions perfectly coherent, I have to disagree with you about the notion that happiness, even for the greatest number, is the summum bonum. To quote (poorly) the first item in the chatechism I memorized for confirmation class some 25 years ago: "Q: What is the chief end of man? A: The chief end of man is to worship God and to glorify Him." That's not direct from scripture, but it's an accurate summary of one of the central points of Christianity, and one that is sadly missing from discussion even among many nominal Christians. The notion that we are "supposed to be happy," or worse, that "God wants me to be happy" is absent from orthodoxy. God never promises us earthly happiness, but rather, the greater gift of eternal joy (and, as Becky writes, the difference is profound). I will take the step of saying that, on the whole, a life lived in accordance with the correct, true principles of how the universe is created will return more happiness than the alternative, but that is only a pleasant side-effect. To use a more secular example, even ignoring for a moment the question of eternity, think of the movie "The Matrix." Neo and the other rebels are "happier" with their physically horrible existence unplugged from the matrix than they would be experiencing a more pleasant falsehood. Genuine Christianity is like that--and it's no religion for cowards or sissies.

Buckingham7 said...

Hi, this is Bekster's husband. I have been resisting the impulse to jump in on this one but just can't. I would like MBEllsion to provide sources for the idea that science proves that homosexuality is present from birth and is "healthy". Two gay men practicing their physical expression of "love" are quite likely to catch AIDs and die a slow horrible death. That doesn't sound healthy to me. A man and a woman who practice the Biblical teaching of waiting till marriage to have sex and remain faithful in marriage their whole lives are protected from such diseases (except for perhaps a blood transfusion, I'll give you that one). A man and a woman can produce a child. A man and a man cannot, and a woman and a woman cannot without artificially fertilizing an egg with the sperm of some man. To say that homosexuality is natural, let alone "healthy" just seems absurd to me. Thank you.