Sunday, 13 November 2011

Xeno's Religious Paradox

Xeno (pronounced Zeeno and often spelled Zeno) was a 5th Century BCE Greek philosopher who specialised in paradoxes.

One such, known as Xeno's Paradox, says that Achilles (a legendary Greek runner) should not be able to overtake a tortoise if the tortoise is given a head start in a race. By the same reasoning, it should be impossible for an arrow to hit a running rabbit.

This neatly illustrates how 'philosophy' can be used to confuse people and explains how it can be used with equal success to 'prove' whatever dishonest (or maybe, to be charitable, just not very bright) philosophers want you to believe, usually for money, and often to 'prove' diametrically opposite conjecture simultaneously, especially in different cultures. More of that later. Now back to Xeno...

Xeno's reasoning was this:

Let's assume the tortoise is given 100 meter start and Achilles can run ten times as fast as the tortoise. (The actual figures don't matter so long as the slower thing starts ahead of the faster one).

When Achilles has run to the point where the tortoise started from, the tortoise will have travelled 10 meters and will still be ahead of Achilles, now by ten meters. When Achilles has run the next ten meters, the tortoise will be one meter ahead. After the next meter, the tortoise will be one tenth of a meters ahead. And so on. In this way, Achilles can never overtake the tortoise because every time he gets to where it was, the tortoise will have moved on.

The gap continues to close but never reaches zero.

But, we can see that any runner can overtake a tortoise. We can also see that an arrow can hit a running rabbit. Why does the observation not match the theory? Is it the observation which is wrong, or is it the theory?

This problem taxed the brains of philosophers and mathematicians for centuries. There seems to be nothing wrong with the theory; the maths looks impeccable; the logic appeared to be sound. Yet runners can overtake tortoises and arrows can hit running rabbits.

Well, although no mathematician could prove it, because they lacked the mathematics, the theory is clearly wrong. A theory which produces a different outcome to reality is clearly wrong. But it wasn't until calculus was discovered (independently by Newton and Leibniz) that it could be shown mathematically.

The fundamental error in the theory is now obvious: Achilles and the tortoise are moving independently through space-time. Achilles' position is not dependent upon that of the tortoise. Achilles overtakes the tortoise when his trajectory crosses that of the tortoise. The only problem was in calculating the precise point in time when that happened. The wrong math was being used to calculate it so it could not give the correct answer. In fact, things were more complicated than Xeno was allowing for, and this shows the danger of relying on intuition to assess reality. The logic seemed sound because it was intuitive. The maths tells us intuition was wrong.

So what has this to do with philosophers 'proving' to people whatever they want to prove?

Let's take one of the philosophical arguments often used to justify belief in a god or gods: that of the origin of morality. The argument goes that there must be a god (or gods, according to the culture in which the argument is being used) otherwise there could be no origin for human morality. The argument goes that humans have no way to tell right from wrong unless a god (or gods) have told us what it is; that there is no objective right and wrong, only a set of rules handed down on the arbitrary whim of a capricious god. To behave 'morally' all we need do is learn the rules and obey the commands. The consequences of our actions are no concern of ours since they are the 'will of God'.

But, as with Xeno's Paradox, where does this lead us? Is the theory supported by what we can see for ourselves? Let's assume for the sake of argument that the one true god is the Christian god of the Bible, and that this god is perfect, omni-benevolent and inerrant, like Christians claim. If the theory is correct we should expect to see all non-Christians, and non-Christian cultures behaving in a chaotic and inhumane way towards one another, with no sign of any morality or ethics, whereas all Christians and especially Christian cultures should all be paragons of virtue with everyone behaving with impeccable morality and ethic and everyone would be doing unto others only and exactly what they would have others do unto them.

Is this what we see? Well, is it?

It would take an extreme form of parochial ignorance to believe that this is indeed the real situation. Anyone who has been to another country, or even seen television pictures of life in one, or met someone with another faith or no faith at all, could not fail to notice that, by and large, they behave at least as well, and often much better, towards others than do very many Christians.

Indeed, a moments thought, let alone seeing with your own eyes, should tell you that no society could succeed without the morals and ethics which ensure a more-or-less cooperative society which operates according to accepted rules of inter-personal behaviour and the necessary mechanisms for dealing with those who transgress them.

Any objective observation will tell you that Christian societies are not more moral than non-Christian ones and are frequently actually worse. Any reading of history will show you that Christian countries did not behave any more morally than non-Christian ones, and often behaved far worse. It will also show you that acceptable standards of behaviour have changed over time; that Christian societies changed their minds about right and wrong - slavery, female emancipation, burning heretics, etc. Generally we can see that the more fundamentally religious people and societies are, the LESS morally they tend to behave towards others.

The other possibility, which you've probably thought of already, is that a god has handed down morals to all societies, just in different ways. If THAT were true, we would all share exactly the same moral codes wouldn't we? And yet we can barely find two countries, or even two areas in the same country, which have exactly the same customs and traditions of behaviour towards one another, to women, adolescents and minorities; to ideas of appropriate punishment for crime, of political freedom and emancipation; of the age of consent, of contract and hospitality, or of the boundary between individual and collective interest and freedom.

Manifestly, we do NOT share a common set of detailed ethics and yet manifestly we have many morals in common. Our moral codes are like a wide-spread biological species - subject to regional variation and varieties - just like the human species.

And is it really the height of human morality to just obey orders? Does being moral really mean we have no concern for the effects of our actions on others, as long as we behave like a Nazi Auschwitz guard and obey the rules?

Just as with Xeno's Paradox, religious philosophers through the ages have debated this conundrum ad infinitum and never reached a consensus. And none of their different conclusions has managed to come close to describing observable reality - not that that has been seen as much of a problem.

So what's happening here, and what has this to do with Xeno's Paradox?

Quite simply, the god-given theory is wrong. We know it's wrong because the outcome it predicts is different to what we can see to be the reality. The reality is, of course, more complex than religious apologists would have us believe.

The theory is wrong because, like Xeno's Paradox, the basic assumption behind it is wrong: we do NOT get our morals from a god or gods. We get our morals from our cultures where they have evolved and developed over time.

If we apply THIS theory we can easily see why morals and ethics in different places and different cultures have many things in common yet differ in detail, and why they have changed over time.

Because the theory is correct it now equates to observable reality. And this is how we know the theory is correct.

Morality is not an argument for gods; it is an argument against them.





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6 comments :

  1. "The argument goes that there must be a god (or gods, according to the culture in which the argument is being used) otherwise there could be no origin for human morality. The argument goes that humans have no way to tell right from wrong unless a god (or gods) have told us what it is; that there is no objective right and wrong, only a set of rules handed down on the arbitrary whim of a capricious god. To behave 'morally' all we need do is learn the rules and obey the commands. The consequences of our actions are no concern of ours since they are the 'will of God'. "

    This is a misstatement of the argument, in my opinion. Embedded into the very fabric of Christianity is the notion that we are created by God in His image and likeness and baked into that is the general idea of natural law. St. Paul alludes to this in Romans 2:15: "They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)"

    It is because of this that we get this observation from your post:

    "Manifestly, we do NOT share a common set of detailed ethics and yet manifestly we have many morals in common. Our moral codes are like a wide-spread biological species - subject to regional variation and varieties - just like the human species."

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  2. >"The argument goes that humans have no way to tell right from wrong unless a god (or gods) have told us what it is; that there is no objective right and wrong, only a set of rules handed down on the arbitrary whim of a capricious god. To behave 'morally' all we need do is learn the rules and obey the commands."

    First, you make the assumption that god(s) only make up rules just because - either they're bored or just enjoy tormenting people (? You weren’t clear as to their reasons). It is equally possible god(s) could be the embodiment of pure Good, that the "rules" they give are simply extensions of their essence, and if you followed such rules, you would be happier, healthier, and enjoy life even more. Or the god(s) could be equally Evil, in which case anyone trying to do good is ultimately screwed and no one has anything to look forward to. I highly doubt this, considering even “evil” characters embody good traits such as intelligence, patience and cleverness, just to name a few. Once you take away everything that could be considered good, there’s not much left.

    Second, let's assume you're right - there is no god(s), and right and wrong are subjective. Where does this leave us? Something would be either right or wrong based purely on the situation, or individual choice, or due to what culture you hail from. How then could a person point to a certain act, or person, or object, and say "this is right" or "this is wrong". It would be nonsense.

    Or take truth. If truth is subjective, it doesn't matter what someone says, everything will be true because everything is only based on personal perception. In the end nothing really matters because it can simply be boiled down to "this is bad because it makes me mad/uncomfortable/scared, etc) and this is good because it gives me pleasure. Strangely enough, being lied to does matter. I’ve yet to meet someone who was outright lied to and not be offended or annoyed by it, unless maybe they were expecting to be lied to.



    However, apart from belief in God, Christians are not different from other people. They fail. They make mistakes. They snap and say horrible things, are selfish, proud, brutal. Like everyone else, Christians usually know what they should do in a given situation, and they should do it – but often as not, they don’t. They do the wrong thing. Christians know (as much as anyone can) what is right, but they DO the wrong thing.

    This goes back to the idea of original sin and the need for justice that we all feel (that you seem to feel, raging against those Christian societies who’ve done awful things). Clearly, justice needs to be done and someone needs to pay for the wrong done – and it has been paid, not by the person who did but by someone else. I think you know who I’m talking about, but I don't think you want to believe it, so I’ll stop here.

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    Replies
    1. >First, you make the assumption that god(s) only make up rules just because - either they're bored or just enjoy tormenting people (? You weren’t clear as to their reasons).<

      What did you not understand about the words, 'arbitrary and capricious'?

      >It is equally possible god(s) could be the embodiment of pure Good,<

      Or pure evil. But, if you subscribe to the idea that you get your knowledge of right and wrong from this god, you have no way of knowing.

      >Where does this leave us? <

      On our own and responsible for our own morality.

      >It would be nonsense. <

      I'm sorry that you have such a low opinion of others. Presumably, you feel justified in imposing your own culture on others because they can't work things out for themselves. And of course, the evidence of predominantly Atheist countries like Sweden being the most peaceful and crime free and predominantly Christian countries like the USA being amongst the most criminal and violent can be ignored? How about the divorce rate for American Christians being highest for the fundamentalists and all of them being higher than that of Atheists? Unfortunately, you see, the actual evidence runs counter to your argument and shows that people don't need primitive superstitions to be good. In any case, what sort of morality is it where the only motives are rewards and threats? Why don't all those people in America and elsewhere suddenly go on a violent binge of rape and theft when they lose faith and become Atheists?

      >However, apart from belief in God, Christians are not different from other people. They fail. They make mistakes. They snap and say horrible things, are selfish, proud, brutal. Like everyone else, Christians usually know what they should do in a given situation, and they should do it – but often as not, they don’t. They do the wrong thing. Christians know (as much as anyone can) what is right, but they DO the wrong thing. <

      So it doesn't work, then.

      >This goes back to the idea of original sin and the need for justice that we all feel (that you seem to feel, raging against those Christian societies who’ve done awful things). Clearly, justice needs to be done and someone needs to pay for the wrong done <

      What wrong was that, exactly and why am I responsible for the act of some mythical founder couple who could never actually have existed, please?


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  3. Third, in arguing against objective moral law, you seem to be contradicting yourself a few paragraphs later when you talk about Christian societies vs. non-Christian ones. You state:
     “Any objective observation will tell you that Christian societies are not more moral than non-Christian ones and are frequently actually worse. Any reading of history will show you that Christian countries did not behave any more morally than non-Christian ones, and often behaved far worse.”

    Where is your evidence that these Christian societies were in fact, “actually worse” than non-Christian ones? What is your standard for what makes a society worse than another society?

    What morals are you comparing and why do you think anyone from another society different than yours would agree with you? (Since you seem to think morals much be subjective and change over time, as you mention in the following sentence,
     “It will also show you that acceptable standards of behaviour have changed over time; that Christian societies changed their minds about right and wrong - slavery, female emancipation, burning heretics, etc. Generally we can see that the more fundamentally religious people and societies are, the LESS morally they tend to behave towards others.”

    Again, here you are trying to argue that ideas about right and wrong change over time, while also arguing that Christian societies (or other religious ones) in the past were morally less superior than today (again, where is the evidence?). In short, you are judging them by a present moral standard and finding them lacking. This makes the assumption that your moral standard (or a present one in use today) is not only different but right, and the previous moral behavior wrong. If it weren’t, you wouldn’t condemn it for being morally lesser. Again, what standard of moral behavior are you using, and why it is the right one to use?

    Also in speaking of Christian societies, you make two other assumptions:
    First, you assume all the people in Christian societies are Christians and there are no heritics, doubters, or people who simply don’t care or who follow different religions while pretending to be Christians. You assume people in Christian societies follow Christian laws perfectly and never doubt, or make mistakes, or do awful things, either out of their own self-interest, misplaced idea of what is right, or simply overlooking the consequences of their actions.

    In short, you put Christians to a higher standard than you do other people (and what about those who believe other religions?) This makes sense, considering Christians are called to do their best to do good and follow God’s laws.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Are you going to find the courage to put your name to this stuff at all?

      Delete
    2. >Any objective observation will tell you that Christian societies are not more moral than non-Christian ones and are frequently actually worse. Any reading of history will show you that Christian countries did not behave any more morally than non-Christian ones, and often behaved far worse.”

      Where is your evidence that these Christian societies were in fact, “actually worse” than non-Christian ones? What is your standard for what makes a society worse than another society?<

      See my examples of Atheist Sweden and Christian USA in my answer to you previous comment. You could also look at Japan, the Czech republic or China and compare them the any Catholic Latin American country, if you wish.

      >Again, here you are trying to argue that ideas about right and wrong change over time,<

      Indeed, and I gave examples - slavery, female emancipation, etc. Are you arguing that Christian societies have always been consistent in these things and the changes we saw in the last couple of hundred years never happened?

      >Again, what standard of moral behavior are you using, and why it is the right one to use?<

      Humanist ones. If you wish to tell me that Christians see nothing wrong with slavery and female subjugation, then I thank you for making my point for me. Ethics and moral codes which are inclusive and maximise human freedom and happiness are preferable to those which don't. If you are arguing that you can't understand that, then you are demonstrating the inadequacy of your primitive superstition. But then we know that already, which is why we did away with slavery and emancipated women, usually against the vigorous resistance of mainstream Christian churches.

      >First, you assume all the people in Christian societies are Christians <

      Ah! The 'no true Scotsmen' fallacy! You need to be Christian to be good but when it doesn't work, you're not a proper Christian. But then nor did it work when they were, did it?

      >In short, you put Christians to a higher standard<

      I don't know how you got there but nothing I've said suggests that. I've simply argued that actually being Christian makes people no better and often much worse than non-Christians and more generally that being religious does not make you more moral than being Atheist.

      So, why have you needed to ignore the evidence and misrepresent what I've said? And is that the act of an honest, moral person? Well, interestingly, psychologists recently explained why religious people consistently ignore the evidence and accuse Atheist of being immoral and untrustworthy. The principle is that of Terror Management Theory. Theists who desperately want an afterlife t be real because they are literally terrified of death find Atheists apparently leading perfectly normal lives without that superstition are forced to confront the fact that there may not actually BE an afterlife. They then attack the 'messenger' because accepting their message undoes the careful self-deception they used to manage their terror. I wrote about it only a day or two ago.

      Of course, it's not lost on us Atheists that falsely accusing us and judging us runs counter to the moral code you claim your religion gives you. Judge not lest ye be so judged and do not bear false witness against they neighbour. Have you never heard of those?

      Curious how you need to suspend your own 'morality' to try to prove it's superior to mine, eh? I believe hypocrisy is also considered wrong by decent Christians.

      Thank you for illustrating my point, by the way.

      Will you be maintaining you anonymity if you post here again or will you do the honest thing and let people know who is expressing these condescending and obnoxious views?

      Delete

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