Further Thoughts on Sin

August 5, 2013 | 32 comments
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Deep down, we all think we're Spaceman Spiff.

Deep down, we all think we’re Spaceman Spiff.

Last week I wrote about the conflict between a basic axiom of human behavior (we tend to see ourselves as heroes in our own stories and rationalize our behavior accordingly) and the requirement that sinful actions be in some sense deliberate in order to be sinful. I did this primarily by suggesting that, while the original commission of a sinful act often occurs under duress of some sort (thus mitigating against it’s nature as a deliberate choice), we frequently compound that sin by subsequently trying to rationalize it.

I’d like to conclude (for now, anyway) my posts on this subject by looking the other direction: backwards in time.

One response to my original argument may simply be to deny the premise that people don’t view their sinful actions as sinful at the time that they commit them. In one sense, this must be true. We aren’t held responsible for violations of moral laws we are really and truly ignorant of. But it’s a mistake to see this issue in terms of stark binary opposites, as though the only options available are “know” and “not know.” Let me suggest two realistic descriptions of the frame of mind of a person at the time that they commit a sin:

  1. They simply are not deliberating at all. This describes the mental states of, say, someone with an extremely quick fuse. Such a person can go from passive to enraged (in the right situation) without ever having time to stop and consider their actions.
  2. They are deliberating, but not about ethics. This describes what happens when the person is so focused on some other aspect of the decision that they fail to consider the moral implications of their actions at all. Someone who is so overcome with greed that they literally think of nothing but the acquisition of an object (and not the fact that simply taking it constitutes theft) would fit the bill here.

Keep in mind that what I have in mind is not total absence of moral deliberation, but only partial absence of moral deliberation. This is a deeply intuitive concept, and it’s reflected, among other places, in the way that premeditation is considered in criminal law. Reacting in rage to the immediate discovery that your spouse is cheating on you is rightly considered a different degree of criminality than coldly planning a murder that takes place weeks or months after the discovery with ample time for consideration and second-guessing along the way.

I think the reason that this line of reasoning is often rejected is that it appears to grant undue immunity to those who commit sin, but that’s a very narrow interpretation. I believe that what it really does is shift the location of the sin in question. Consider this simplified thought experiment:

Scenario A – Bob starts a new job in May that requires a longer commute. The first week, he frequently loses his temper during the commute (and throughout his day). Aware of the toll the stress is taking on his patience, he works to counteract it with prayer, meditation, and other coping strategies. One night in the first week in June, his young children are scared by stray cats fighting outside the house, and Bob is able to tap his reservoir of patience to calmly and lovingly assuage their fears and put them back to bed.

Scenario B - Bob starts a new job in May that requires a longer commute. The first week, he frequently loses his temper during the commute (and throughout his day). Although he is aware of the toll the stress is taking on his patience, he doesn’t work to counteract it. One night in the first week in June, his young children are scared by stray cats fighting outside the house, and Bob finds himself shouting and screaming at his terrified children for waking him up for such a silly reason before he even realizes what is happening.

2013-08-04 Lost My TemperAccording to my analysis, Bob (in Scenario B) has not really committed a sin when he screams at his children as much as we might initially believe because it’s not really the result of rational deliberation. However, he is at fault nonetheless for failing to proactively work on his temper in the month leading up to the event. His guilt is not actually ameliorated, from this view, but simply moved from a largely instinctual reaction one June evening backwards in time to a series of deliberate decisions that he made in May.

Why does any of this matter?

First of all, it explains Matthew 7:1 (“Judge not…”). The fact that Bob loses his temper one June night is objectively bad  (vs. the standpoint of perfect patience and love), but how bad is it? There’s no way to know. As my example shows, if you want to know to what degree Bob has sinned, you’d have to know all about his private struggles in the weeks and months before (or not) to try and deal with the genetic predisposition to bad temper he has (or doesn’t) and all kinds of other inaccessible counterfactuals. This conception of sin allows us (in principle) to more cleanly separate objective assessment of sinful action from subjective judgment of sinners. It’s not just that we shouldn’t judge. It’s that we can’t.

Secondly, I think it works against a pernicious idea that sins are discrete events–like black marks–that must be wiped away in order to return to some prior state of immaculate purity. This is compatible, of course, with descriptive language of sins “like scarlet“, but it’s a superficial interpretation. Sinful acts are not the problem per se, they are evidence of the problem. It’s not about what we do, but rather about what we are.  A sin is an indication that we’re imperfect but it is not–without a deep understanding of the person’s life before and after the sin–enough to really judge the degree of kind of sinner we’re talking about.

Yes, we need our crimson sins to become white as wool through the blood of the Lamb, but this doesn’t imply a fastidious fascination with outward sins as discrete marks to be repented for on a case-by-case basis. Christ’s atonement is not merely bleach for metaphysical moral blackmarks; it’s about changing our very nature. (Has anyone else wondered what it would be like to get to the Final Judgment only to be reminded that, although you had repented for 123,456 of your sins, there was that 123,457th that you’d forgotten about and never specifically cleaned away…)

 

32 Responses to Further Thoughts on Sin

  1. Howard on August 5, 2013 at 8:41 am

    Criminality? Temper? This article seems to assume a preschool level of binomial sin definition and acceptance of childish temper outbursts as unavoidable. Where are the beatitudes and the temperament to support them?

  2. fbisti on August 5, 2013 at 11:48 am

    Stated simply, there is no such “thing” (for lack of a better word, for there certainly is the concept of sin) as sin.

    Because of our inherent Agency, we are fully responsible and accountable (in the terms used in the Gospel) for all our conscious actions. More specifically, all our thoughts, actions, and intents change our level of righteousness for the better or for the worse. We choose to become more or less honest, kind, charitable. There is no observation by God, or writing in a “book of life.” We are constantly “becoming” more or less “Christ-like.” We control our state of righteousness at any instant. The reason why little children and many who are mentally disabled are not “accountable” is because their actions are not controlled by intent. Their character is not changing due to their instinctual or otherwise thoughtless actions.

    So, the concept and teaching of “sin” as behavior upon which God will sit in judgment (and can take into account our motivation, due to his supposed omniscience) is actually not true. That teaching is simply another example of making things simple for the sheep.

  3. Old Man on August 5, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    I remember a story used by C.S. Lewis in “Mere Christianity.” It is the rats in the cellar story. Simply stated, Lewis compares our ability to overlook our own weaknesses to someone who refuses to recognize that there are rats in their cellar, and any time that this person checks for rats in the cellar, he shouts and stomps his way down the stairs. Of course the rats scatter and are never seen.

    My point in recalling this is that sometimes we equate sin with actions for which we are culpable. But the atonement and message of the Gospel is that we can be made perfect by embracing the atoning power and the principles outlined by Christ. We can be better and stronger. We can become something that can stand in the presence of deity. Our enemy isn’t just sin and the effects of sin which poisons our lives, it is character flaws, things that trouble us, emotional and spiritual injuries we have endured. And through Christ we can be made into something better… healed, whole and strong.

  4. Nathaniel Givens on August 5, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    Howard-

    I confess to not understanding where you’re coming from.

    This article seems to assume a preschool level of binomial sin definition and acceptance of childish temper outbursts as unavoidable.

    A major point I was making is that sin isn’t binary and that, in addition, circumstances mitigate against our culpability only partially. To the extent that a loss of temper is a result (for example) of a genetic predisposition towards impatience it isn’t a person’s fault (relative to someone who won the genetic lottery in the patience department). But that’s only a relative mitigation, not a complete absolution.

    Where are the beatitudes and the temperament to support them?

    They come in our constant efforts, small but consistent, to improve our characters. That was the central point of the thought experiment I outlined.

  5. Nathaniel Givens on August 5, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    fbisti-

    So, the concept and teaching of “sin” as behavior upon which God will sit in judgment (and can take into account our motivation, due to his supposed omniscience) is actually not true. That teaching is simply another example of making things simple for the sheep.

    I think that dismissal is too simplistic. The idea of sin as behavior is not a wholecloth fabrication. I would characterize the relationship between sin (behavior), character, and desire as akin to that between position, velocity, and acceleration. Example. Starting with sin-as-behavior is a legitimate first point, I believe, and a necessary one.

  6. Howard on August 5, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    Nathaniel,
    While you may be arguing sin isn’t binary your frame of reference seems to be coming largely from the binary perspective and attempting to reach for and add the nuance that converts it to analog rather than viewing the binary law from the more Godlike perspective of principle.

  7. Howard on August 5, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    When viewed from God given principle to man derived binary law it becomes obvious that the principle becomes truncated and polarized in the process. Two gray values near the center of black and white become either black or white in the process despite being nearly identically gray! So attempting to extrapolate nuance working backward from the binary law is fraught with error.

  8. Nathaniel Givens on August 5, 2013 at 2:11 pm

    Howard-

    So attempting to extrapolate nuance working backward from the binary law is fraught with error.

    I’m not sure if I follow what you’re saying completely, but as for this last part: it’s reflected in the original post. It’s actually a pretty important point:

    This conception of sin allows us (in principle) to more cleanly separate objective assessment of sinful action from subjective judgment of sinners. It’s not just that we shouldn’t judge. It’s that we can’t.

    This also relates to the sin / character / desire vs. position / velocity / acceleration metaphor. You can move back and forth between velocity and acceleration (for example) by differentiating or integrating, but whenever you integrate there’s a remaining constant of integration that is equivalent to the idea of being unable to infer correctly a person’s character based only on their actions. However, a metaphor based on calculus seems like one that is of narrow appeal to a general audience, and so I haven’t advanced it very often.

  9. Mtnmarty on August 5, 2013 at 2:16 pm

    Nathaniel,

    I think that you can only get to the heart of what you believe about religion when you take cases that do not overlap strongly with morality.
    In other words, sin is not a synonym with acting against conventional morality. Sin has a religious meaning that goes beyond immoral. Many people believe certain acts are immoral, say name-calling, that don’t believe its a sin. Some believe nothing is a in, but still label acts immoral.

    By choosing cases with considerable overlap, you seem to be naturalizing sin and God and the atonement in a way that I think blurs what you believe, because it is not clear what you believe morally from what you believe naturally from what you believe religiously. It only makes sense to speak of sin and atonement if one is religious.

    Why not some case studies about denying the existence of God or of having other Gods before God or of not keeping the Sabbath day Holy?

    What do you make of 2 people who have exactly the same beliefs and behaviors morally and have the same character other than as it relates to God. One believes in God and one believes that right and wrong exist but God does not.

    I’m not sure whether you believe the one who doesn’t believe in God can’t sin (because he is not deliberately sinning, he’s just committing a wrong) or whether you believe they sin when they act immoral but not when they deny a belief in God.

    Your thought seems to have this amalgam of natural, moral and religious underpinning that shifts from one rationale to the next in a way that leaves you subject to a “consciousness” model that seems to rely on biology in a way that may contradict what you are saying but may not in that you can at any time reference God or grace or whatever in a non-naturalistic fashion.

    Just one example, is that there are several experiments that show that consciousness comes after the act. In other words, consciousness is often rationalizing what we already biologically decided to do by other means.

    Another way of saying it, is that you seem to have a dualistic view of what it means to be an agent, one that is subject to tiredness or disease or intoxication or circumstance which create varying levels of responsibility but given that these biological circumstances affect us, why would we think that a “normal state” is any less subject to physical causation?

    You want to posit a transcending self or agency or idea that goes beyond natural tendencies but what is your model of how it can be both transcendent and also subject to biological circumstance.

  10. Nathaniel Givens on August 5, 2013 at 8:47 pm

    Mtnmarty-

    The reason that I keep blurring the lines between what I believe morally, naturally, or religiously is simply that I don’t believe such a compartmentalization has even the tiniest shred of validity. In general I find categorizations (e.g. religious vs. scientific) can of course have validity, but that there’s a common thread that underlies both: rules of logic, for example, apply in either case. Specifically, I don’t believe there is any such thing as sin independent and separate from morality.

    Sin is ultimately about conflict between our actions, character and desires and what is moral. (And of course, that means conflict with God because God is perfectly in tune with morality and because God gives commands that are designed to bring us into greater unity with Himself and with morality.)

    Just one example, is that there are several experiments that show that consciousness comes after the act. In other words, consciousness is often rationalizing what we already biologically decided to do by other means.

    This is pretty much exactly what I’ve described in this post. Let’s assume these findings are as straightforward as they appear (not necessarily the case) and that Bob’s loss of temper (or not) is an action that precedes any conscious deliberation. If that is the case, then my argument follows exactly as outlined in the post. This visceral reaction is itself the result of character that is a consequence of actions he took (or did not take) to practice patience prior to the inciting event. Thus, even if it is the case that action sometimes precedes conscious deliberation, that doesn’t actually mean that we’re off the hook in terms of sin or morality. Those kinds of studies are actually part of what motivated my thoughts on this topic.

  11. Brian in Scenario B on August 5, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    Nathaniel, I agree with your analysis. It parallels some of my own thinking, so of course I’m going to agree with it. (This action is naturally consistent with my frequent failure to work on my pride.)

  12. SteveF on August 5, 2013 at 10:17 pm

    Good stuff, I agreed with just about everything in you said this time. Although, while moral culpability may be traced to much earlier events, I do think the wrong action itself does damage the spirit at the moment of action.

    Also, I liked what Old Man said about our enemy not being just sin and the effects of sin… etc.

    Thanks.

  13. Brian in Scenario B on August 5, 2013 at 10:59 pm

    Nathaniel, this post got me rethinking what sinlessness might look like. i.e., did Christ always work on His attributes *and* always avoid partial absence of moral deliberation, or was only the former necessary? And was He granted the mother of all genetic lottery jackpots when it comes to predispositions in order to help with His mission?
    I’m trying to imagine a teenage Jesus mouthing off to Mary due entirely to hormones, but it’s not working.

  14. Edje Jeter on August 5, 2013 at 11:24 pm

    I have found useful your ruminations so far. Thanks.

  15. Mtnmarty on August 6, 2013 at 12:17 am

    Nathaniel,

    Ok, then if you don’t separate the natural from the moral and religious then what happens to character as a person ages and becomes demented? You seem to want to exempt them from morality but what explains where character resides if not in the body?

    What process do you use to tell when a person is responsible for their actions?

    The are loads of historical studies that show that childhood, madness and responsibility are extremely culturally dependent. The same holds true for morality.

    When you say sin is tied to morality, do you believe it is a sin to violate the morals of any given culture or do you not think that the term moral applies to what various cultures believe to be moral? If it is the latter I will just revise my thinking to say that your thinking will take you further if you focus on examples where LDS morality is the most different from the norms of most cultures. The least naturalistic in the sense of morals that are the most universal.

    Thanks for the response.

  16. Mtnmarty on August 6, 2013 at 8:25 am

    Here is a simpler path to what I’m questioning.

    Let’s say you have a friend that comes to believe eating animal products is immoral.

    Now consider a few questions and what kind of reasoning you would use to answer them.

    The first is to explain which people believe eating animals is immoral.

    The second is to decide whether it is immoral to eat animals.

    The third is whether it is a sin to eat animals.

    I am not sure at all how you will answer these questions. Particularly I am not sure how much moral reasoning you would use in answering the first question and secondly how your belief that the second and third question are nearly identical will affect your answers.

  17. Nathaniel Givens on August 6, 2013 at 10:18 am

    Mtnmarty-

    I think maybe the reason I’m having a hard time understanding the problems you’re attempting to raise is from definitions. As a useful analogy:

    When we talk about the laws of physics, we are referring either to the laws of physics as we understand them (e.g. Newtonian, special and general relativity, and quantum mechanics) or to the idea that there is some objective system of laws independent of human knowledge which our current conception of physics closely mirrors.

    Similarly, when I talk about morality I am presuming that there is such a thing as objective morality that exists independent of human conceptions of morality. Ultimately, we judged exclusively by this objective, perfect standard.

    Human conceptions of morality only enter into the discussion insofar as they impact our culpability. This is because we’re only responsible for actions that we voluntarily choose. So, to use a really simplistic example, we could postulate that theft is always and everywhere objectively wrong. But that law only applies to people who are aware of it. Someone raised in a society where theft is praised and honored who genuinely accepts that conditioning would still be breaking a moral law by stealing, but would not be responsible because they wouldn’t be voluntarily choosing to break the law. (You can’t voluntarily do something you are unaware of.) Similarly, a kleptomaniac who is physiologically incapable of refraining from theft (if we accept that such strong manifestation of the condition exists) would be knowingly breaking a law, but their action would be involuntary and so they are not morally culpable.

    Now, I think that it’s actually silly to describe objective morality in terms of simplistic and absolute proscriptions, but that should at least illustrate the distinction between human conceptions of morality (which seems to be the only kind you reference) and objective morality (which is the only kind that ultimately matters).

    Speaking of simplistic and absolute proscriptions, the final thing I’ll note is how odd this example seems to me:

    Let’s say you have a friend that comes to believe eating animal products is immoral.

    Now consider a few questions and what kind of reasoning you would use to answer them.

    If all they have presented is the conclusion (a simplistic and absolute proscription) than I have almost literally no basis to agree or disagree with them. Until they provide their rationale, there’s nothing to answer.

    I think even most human conceptions of morality are more sophisticated than a list of do’s and do-not’s, and I don’t understand the premise of your thought experiment: why would I argue with a list of do’s and do-not’s without understanding the rationale for them?

    For example: I don’t drink alcohol as a Mormon, but that’s because (as a Mormon) I have covenanted to follow certain rules. I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with alcohol whatsoever, but it would be wrong for me to drink because of objective principles of morality like “honesty” and “integrity” that have everything to do with my obedience to covenants and solidarity with fellow Mormons and nothing to do with beverages.

    I fully expect to drink alcohol one day, when Christ has returned and the prohibition is no longer in effect, and then it won’t be sinful to do so.

    So: what can your thought experiment with a vegetarian / vegan friend possibly have to tell us in the absence of a discussion of that friends rationale?

    When we sit down to talk with our Savior on Judgment Day, I just can’t fathom that he’s going to be more interested in what we did then in why we did it. Can you?

  18. fbisti on August 6, 2013 at 10:54 am

    #5, Nathaniel…”The idea of sin as behavior is not a wholecloth fabrication.”

    I beg to differ. In my view of cosmology/the true nature of existence, God (or whomever we think is the author of scripture) developed many wholecloth fabrications including all, or nearly all, the book of Genesis–Creation, Eden, the flood, etc. The lake of fire and brimstone, outer darkness for the servant that buried the one “talent” given him, and so on. Most of what is in or derived from the scriptures is a fabrication to some extent. And/or it is so vague and ambiguous so as to be used as a fabrication.

    The only defensible rationale for such falsehoods (assuming God’s existence and desire to help us) is that these fabrications help us understand and learn to behave “well” and become better. “Well,” here means in a manner that increases our “righteousness.”

    My cosmological hypothesis is that we can become like God (Christ being the accessible example) only through changing our inherent (natural man) tendencies to take the easy way. Agency is the concept that labels this ability to change our nature for the better or the worse. All the teachings, scriptures, organized religion, programs, doctrine, metaphors, parables, and etc. are justified (some more than others) indoctrination, propaganda, and manipulations ONLY so far as they aid we sheep in internalizing (our inherent Agency) good intent and good behavior.

    So, while debating the binary nature of sin, or first integers and derivatives can be intellectually stimulating (for those that grasp such things), it is, in my cosmology, incorrect and irrelevant.

    “Sin” is a convenient and expedient concept (and can be seen as very useful from a manipulation and simplification perspective). But, ultimately, the nature of our character is all that will matter.

  19. Kaphor on August 6, 2013 at 10:57 am

    To what degree to you suggest a person is not accountable because they are genetically or environmentallyl(traits learned from family experience in childhood) predisposed toward an action. Some of this sounds like laying the foundation toward a slippery slope that removes not only accountability but wrong doing in general.

    Regarding the Savior at judgement day I do not think the overriding concern is motive. For a latter day Saint the what is just as important as the why. “these ye ought to have done and not leave the other undone.”

  20. Nathaniel Givens on August 6, 2013 at 11:04 am

    fbisti-

    But, ultimately, the nature of our character is all that will matter.

    Unless you think that character is completely independent from behavior, then I don’t think your position actually supports your statement that sin as behavior is “wholecloth fabrication”. If character has any causal or even corollary relationship to behavior, then there is an important connection after all.

    I agree with a lot of your sentiment, but I think you’re dramatically overstating your position and throwing babies out with bathwater.

  21. Nathaniel Givens on August 6, 2013 at 11:18 am

    Kaphor-

    To what degree to you suggest a person is not accountable because they are genetically or environmentallyl(traits learned from family experience in childhood) predisposed toward an action

    On an individual basis: I have no idea and I don’t think anyone ever can. There’s no way to quantify the incredibly complex and subtle interactions of genetics, environment, and free will. It’s a black box, and this is important, because it’s a reason for us to realize that relative ability to keep specific, outward commandments is not enough to judge who is really righteous.

    In principle, however, I don’t think that it really matters that much as long as there’s always room for free will in the mix with nature and nurture. And there always is. And it’s that–free will–that will be the basis for our judgment.

    Some of this sounds like laying the foundation toward a slippery slope that removes not only accountability but wrong doing in general.

    As long as there’s room for free will there’s the capacity for wrong-doing. And I’m a very, very staunch believer in free-will.

    Regarding the Savior at judgement day I do not think the overriding concern is motive. For a latter day Saint the what is just as important as the why. “these ye ought to have done and not leave the other undone.”

    We may just have to disagree on the what vs. why question, but it’s worth pointing out that your scripture doesn’t really apply to my argument because I believe that action will proceed from authentic motivation. So, when I say “motive is what really matters” there’s no risk that I might “leave the other undone” because the what (“the other”) must follow if the motive is sincere.

  22. SteveF on August 6, 2013 at 11:21 am

    @Kaphor. I agree with you that the what is important, but from a progression/digression standpoint only inasmuch as it effects our spiritual being for good or for evil. And I think the why is often times the explanation for how or how not the what effects our core spiritual being. I think the what is also relevant because whether we are morally culpable or not does not take away all bad effects of transgressing objective moral law, and inasmuch as we are not culpable there will still need to be temporal changes and healing through the atonement to counteract those negative consequences.

  23. Carey Foushee on August 6, 2013 at 11:35 am

    This really helps give me some clarity on some ideas I’ve had regarding this subject — thanks Nathaniel.

  24. fbisti on August 6, 2013 at 11:54 am

    #20, Nathaniel…

    I think we are both right. I oversimplified my position in order to be succinct.

    To clarify: Our behavior is not wholly irrelevant and is usually directly caused by our intent (the character-developing component). (My primary point is that the philosophy of religiously-derived “morality” is, technically false.) However, to be clear, we can have good intent for “bad” behavior or bad intent for “good” behavior. To use an extreme example: Killing someone is “bad,” or “immoral,” or unrighteous only if the “intent of our heart” was bad, immoral, or unrighteous. In this example, even if the one we killed was “innocent,” so long as we sincerely/righteously believed (yes, a conundrum to define sincere and righteous universally) it was for the “best” it would accrete to the betterment of our character (or at least not to the detriment).

    Perhaps the majority of our behavior (think of the mundane, thoughtless) has no effect on our character (the definition of Agency). But any thought or intent (and its associated behavior) that does affect character is the natural (and non-gifted) principle of Agency in operation.

  25. Mtnmarty on August 6, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    NG: If all they have presented is the conclusion (a simplistic and absolute proscription) than I have almost literally no basis to agree or disagree with them. Until they provide their rationale, there’s nothing to answer.

    But what I’m trying to get at is what you count as a “reason” in a person’s rationales that explain what is morally wrong.

    It seems that all of these arguments lead to a small number of “grounding principles” that all have serious problems. For example, it either ends in “that’s just wrong”, “that’s what I assume to be true”, “that’s what I was taught”, “that’s what’s fair”, “that’s what leads to human flourishing”, or “that’s what the light of Christ reveals to me.

    I don’t see why you value rationality highly when it needs something to work with in the terms of basic beliefs.

    The trend of our science is, for the most part, anti-free will, anti-introspective rationality and anti-humans as significant in the universe.

    In your case, what I would ask is “Why do you believe in free will and why do you believe in objective universal morality?”

    I believe I’m as genuinely skeptical of free will and universal morality as you are a believer in them (but I may be very wrong). Does that mean I’m rationalizing sin or instead that I’m not culpable for my actions because I don’t really believe my behavior has much to do with “me”?

  26. Nathaniel Givens on August 6, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    Mtmarty-

    Most of the questions in your post are things that I’ve thought about a lot, but answers would be too long and involved for the comments section. I’m sure I’ll get to these things soon, especially my own vision of the existential basis for objective morality, but not today.

    For today you’ll just have to accept that I take as axiomatic that objective morality exists and that free will does as well. I’m familiar (as a layperson, of course) with some of the research that is anti-free will and so forth, but I’m also skeptical of it and tend to associate it with a brand of overzealous scientism. If you’re interested, consider: Raymond Tallis’s perspective on YouTube or check out his book on Amazon: Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.

  27. Mtnmarty on August 6, 2013 at 9:27 pm

    NG: For today you’ll just have to accept that I take as axiomatic that objective morality exists and that free will does as well.

    Will do. I am skeptical of much of this research also. However, I find it very striking how experience and behavior change based on what we ingest. The fact that our experience of the world can be so changed by chemistry ( be it nitrous oxide or alcohol or LSD) makes me believe that our “normal” brain chemistry creates our reality and distorts it just as much. That is why I believe we are much more “thing” than we imagine or like to admit.

    Likewise, I think we tend to believe that what we believe morally was created by that morality, when it seems very clear historically that each generations morality shifts significantly. Morality does not “breed true”. The cause of our beliefs is very rarely our beliefs.

  28. Mtnmarty on August 7, 2013 at 9:00 am

    I know that I am not connecting with your thought that well but your posts do stimulate my thinking.
    just a couple more thoughts. One problem I have is that I don’t think that the concept perfect can be objectively defined so I don’t know what is ment when people say god is perfect.

    The other thing that keeps bothering me is that your description of life sounds like trying to acquire OCD as it relates to morality. Trying to explain to someone who has OCD Or is perfectionistic why you think they are misguided is very difficult. They believe what they are trying to perfect is important and they don’t need to justify it because it is obviously right to them.

  29. Mtnmarty on August 8, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    Nathaniel,

    Thanks for the link, I took a look at some of Tallis’s writing. I agree with him about all the over-promising of our current understanding. However, he admits that the brain is necessary for having a mind, just not sufficient. I think we will make much progress on exactly how necessary brains are.

    Here is yet another attempt to figure out what you your theories rely on/assume/take as evidence for etc.

    Let’s say we both agree in free will, but we are trying to decide what we have free will to do.

    It seems like there are a few common approaches to this. 1. Personal experience ( I can move my arm but I can’t move my wife’s arm). 2. Appeal to scientific opinion ( there are no studies showing we can control the weather through rain dancing) 3. Appeal to other beliefs (I’m not free to create good and evil because that is incompatible with my religious beliefs so I don’t even need to try.)

    For the most part you seem to be saying, well, it doesn’t matter that much because they all have to be compatible and for what we need to be concerned with in our everyday life we have all the free will we need, etc.) On the other hand, you do uniquely blend the conventional (morality is universal, there are such things as sin and culpability) with fairly unconventional things like a disembodied agent of will made a decision to become willful (very roughly paraphrased).

    But I think it makes a big difference which of these three you rely on most or or least willing to doubt against the others, etc.

    For example, there are so many things in nature that are not “conventional” and are very hard to make sense of with our conventional thinking. I want to use this as evidence that our conventional thinking is very largely inadequate and unreliable but I’m not sure which you will be most willing to engage.

    Here is an example. You think morality is universal. So what does that mean relative to other life forms and how do you reason about it.

    If we take various forms of historical hominids ( Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus etc.) do we believe the same moral law applied to them, a moral that is specific to each species based on moral capacity,) that a different moral law applies, or that no moral law applies?

    When you make that decision how much weight are you putting on the 3 sources I was describing?

    The same goes for free will. Do chimpanzees have free will? Why and are you reasoning with personal experience, biological evidence, religious beliefs?

    A more unconventional example. Let’s say an otherwise reasonable friend with a PhD. in ethology tells you he has been able to understand Dolphin behavior and that 2 dolphins explained to him that
    dolphins were created in God’s image and that if you put on flippers and went in the pool and prayed about it that God would testify the truth of this to you, how would you react and why?

    What weight would go on your knowledge of dolphins, your personal experience of consciousness and how much on your existing religious belief?

    For me, these type of thought experiments show me that its next to impossible to practice epistemic humility. The number of choices one would need to consider is impossibly large to consider. On the other hand, the diversity of beliefs (moral, scientific and personal) of reasonable homo sapiens is so large that it seems like a vanishingly small probability that my own beliefs are correct.

    Like Raymond Tallis I can shoot holes in other people’s theories but the mystery of consciousness (and hence of sin) remains.

  30. Steve Martin on August 8, 2013 at 11:32 pm

    If we have to rely on our own active repentance for all our sins, we are doomed.

    We probably don’t even realize half of our sins. But He has put sin to death in us in our Baptisms (Romans 6)

    And “we are to consider ourselves “dead to sin”. Even though we will continue to sin all throughout our lives (Romans 7).

    That’s why it’s (the gospel) is such great news! it doesn’t depend on us!

    Thanks.

  31. Jeremy Timothy on August 9, 2013 at 10:12 pm

    This really resonates with me. It’s as good an explanation as I have ever seen of how it’s not what we do but what we are. It’s about becoming, training this unruly body of ours. Thank you.

  32. Steve Martin on August 13, 2013 at 8:13 pm

    We are declared holy and righteous for Jesus’ sake. Not even our own sakes.

    That, my friends, is good news. Good news indeed.