‘A Drug-Using Atheist’

Christian columnist and professor Mike Adams recently admitted past drug use and commented on Obama’s past drug use:

In addition to smoking marijuana — sometimes laced with substances like PCP — for a number of years, I also experimented with drugs like hashish, powdered cocaine, LSD, and methamphetamines (including ecstasy). I regret my decision to use illegal drugs in my youth and I’m really sorry. Now that my past drug use is out of the way, let’s move on to Barack Obama.

I may surprise a number of people by saying that I don’t think Obama’s past drug use — including the use of powdered cocaine — in any way disqualifies him from being President. I know I’ve had no trouble refraining from illegal drug use since I joined a Christian church many years ago.

I had not heard about Obama’s drug use, but an article from the Washington Post confirms it:

Long before the national media spotlight began to shine on every twist and turn of his life’s journey, Barack Obama had this to say about himself [in Dreams From My Father]: “Junkie. Pothead. That’s where I’d been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man. . . . I got high [to] push questions of who I was out of my mind.” … Through his book, Obama has become the first potential presidential contender to admit trying cocaine.

I agree with Adams that Obama’s past drug use does not disqualify him for the presidency (and Republicans can hardly argue the point, given the man they put into office). However, Adams suggests that the reason we can trust Obama not to return to drug use is that he converted to Christianity — which is ridiculous. Many Christians abuse drugs, including alcohol, while many atheists do not. What’s important is for somebody to build a better moral character. I personally know people who, in that process, became religious, but that’s because they saw religion as the only alternative to the moral subjectivism that had troubled them. I also personally know people who, as they overcame drug abuse, either remained atheists or moved away from religion and toward a secular morality. (I particularly recommend Craig Biddle’s Loving Life and Tara Smith’s Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics for their discussions of rational virtues.)

I started out as a Christian; then I became an atheist who abused drugs (particularly alcohol, but a few times other drugs). Finally I grew up, took a hard look at my past mistakes, and started to work hard to improve my character. (I’m still working out a few details.)

I know I’ve had no trouble refraining from drug abuse since I rejected first the Christian church and then a pragmatic subjectivism many years ago.

John Lewis on Greek Law

Last year I wrote about historian John Lewis’s trip to Colorado here and here. Now Lewis’s new book, Early Greek Lawgivers, is available. Following is part of a brief review:

This short book is in the publisher’s Classical World Series, which is designed for “students and teachers of Classical Civilisation at late school and early university level.” Lewis discusses the work of the often-shadowy figures that were the early lawgivers set against the background of the societies in which they lived and worked and the development of the legal code. It is an excellent introduction to the topic, which can be comfortably set as additional background reading in undergraduate courses on Greek civilization and law and society. …

There is a lot in this short book, which is succinctly written, stimulating, and introduces to students earlier lawgivers as well as the better known figures of Draco, Solon, and Lycurgus, who all too often are the only ones studied in courses.

What’s more, Lewis’s Solon the Thinker is now available in paperback: “This first paperback edition contains a new appendix of translations of the fragments of Solon by the author.”

The books are enormously helpful in understanding the development of law in Greek society and the origins of law as such.

Peikoff’s Ninth Podcast

Leonard Peikoff has released his ninth podcast. I’ve been going back and forth about where to blog about these podcasts; this time I’ll put my notes on AriArmstrong.com rather than FreeColorado.com because one question involves religion. The notes that follow are my own summaries that should not be taken as a substitute for Peikoff’s comments. In this podcast, Peikoff addresses four questions.

1. A 17-year-old atheist asks about how to relate to his religious parents. Should he pretend to pray and worship at church? Would discussing the matter with his parents somehow diminish the value of the teenager’s views? Peikoff describes a very sensible course: “be pleasant, do not be argumentative, but don’t lie.” He points out that it’s generally not possible for a child — even an older one — to convince parents about things of this sort, so it might be necessary for a teenager living at home to “follow what [parents] require, but within limits.” Peikoff also explains why expressing one’s views does not somehow taint them but rather gives them the force of an “objective presence.”

While I agree with Peikoff’s advice for normal situations, I would add that, in the case of particularly irrational parents who might subject their “disloyal” children to spankings, indoctrination camps, or the like, teenagers should keep their views quiet until they get out of the house. But such situations are abnormal and rare (in the West).

2. How does Peikoff stay youthful? Peikoff says the key is “ambition, passion for work,” but that exercise, diet, and genetics also play a role.

3. Do (older) teenagers (and presumably those a bit older) have to have sex in order to discover their romantic values? Peikoff replies that, while one should select romantic partners who are virtuous, one cannot deduce before hand what one will find romantically attractive. But this does not imply that casual sex is the way to go.

4. What is the relationship between integrating new knowledge and disintegrating wrong ideas? Peikoff answers that the two steps generally go hand in hand; if one holds incorrect views, then one must break up the incorrect views as one discovers and integrates correct ones.

Aristotle on Intellectual Ambitiousness

Recently I acquired the two-volume Complete Works of Aristotle (order from Amazon), which promises many hours of illuminating reading. The first book I started to look through is Metaphysics, in which Aristotle argues that no knowledge is properly beyond man. He writes of the subject at hand (Book I (A) 2, or page 1555):

Hence the possession of it might be justly regarded as beyond human power; for in many ways human nature is in bondage, so that according to Simonides ‘God alone can have this privilege’, and it is unfitting that man should not be content to seek the knowledge that is suited to him. If, then, there is something in what the poets say, and jealousy is natural to the divine power, it would probably occur in this case above all, and all who excelled in this knowledge would be unfortunate. But the divine power cannot be jealous (indeed, according to the proverb, ‘bards tell many a lie’), nor should any science be thought more honourable than one of this sort.

So, while Aristotle comfortably refers to God, Aristotle is careful not to place any knowledge beyond the reach of man. This approach is the exact opposite of that of, say, Saint Augustine (and of many modern evangelicals).

Aristotle adds that metaphysics “would be most meet for God to have… for God is thought to be among the causes of all things and to be a first principle…” What Aristotle means by this “first principle,” and why he finds it necessary, is one of the main points that I hope to learn from the volumes.

Rand on God

Ayn Rand has many things to say about religion. However, I found one of her comments in a place I didn’t expect: the lengthy appendix to Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (order from Amazon.) Somebody asks her about the conceptual status of “God.” She replies:

[“God”] is not a concept. At best, one could say it is a concept in the sense in which a dramatist uses concepts to create a character. It is an isolation of actual characteristics of man combined with projection of impossible, irrational characteristics which do not arise from reality — such as omnipotence and omniscience.

Besides, God isn’t even supposed to be a concept: he is sui generis, so that nothing relevant to man or the rest of nature is supposed, by the proponents of that viewpoint, to apply to God. A concept has to involve two or more similar concretes, and there is nothing like God. He is supposed to be unique. Therefore, by their own terms of setting up the problem, they have taken God out of the conceptual realm. And quite properly, because he is out of reality. (page 148)

Incidentally, I also found the material between pages 150 and 157 to contain a number of interesting comments about volition and the distinction between mind and matter.

Peikoff’s Eighth Podcast

Leonard Peikoff has published his eighth podcast. Here I briefly summarize the questions and Peikoff’s basic answers (though my summaries should not be taken as substitutes for the podcast).

1. How does the role of consciousness in activating the body fit with the Objectivist view of the “primacy of existence?” Peikoff notes that the mind and body constitute “one total organism.” The mind has a unique relation to the body that it does not have with external existence. Thus, for example, we can decide to move our hand. However, even in the body “existence has primacy;” what we can will our body to do “depends on physical conditions.”

2. What is the source of the music played at the start of the podcast? I won’t spoil Peikoff’s story by summarizing it. He also tells the story in Leonard Peikoff: In His Own Words, which I was able to watch at a friend’s house. It’s a fun and informative documentary.

3. Is there such a thing as “Objectivist music?” Peikoff answers no. Objectivism is a philosophy, and particular concrete applications cannot be derived from philosophy. Peikoff argues that even Atlas Shrugged is not “Objectivist art,” though of course it has an Objectivist theme and it reflects the Romantic view of free will.

4. Should the definition of “plot” contain “conflict?” Peikoff replies that, while conflict is implicit in the definition, it is not an essential part of it.

5. Should one put off artistic creation (such as writing a novel) in the midst of great emotional upheaval? Peikoff answers, “Within limits, yes, put it off.” He discusses some examples and offers some qualifications.

Peikoff’s Seventh Podcast

Leonard Peikoff released his seventh podcast today. Following is my brief review of the discussion (which again should not be taken as a substitute for the podcast).

1. Mother Teresa would not have been happy at a Fortune 500 company; does this show that productive work is not necessarily one’s proper, primary purpose?

Peikoff first discusses the value of productive work as a means to sustain one’s self and contribute to one’s happiness; it is not itself the “primary purpose” of ethics. Nor does productive work guarantee happiness; it should be a part of a whole set of consistent values. Moreover, one cannot judge the happiness of a person from superficial appearances or statements.

A point that I was thinking of, but that Peikoff does not make, is that working for a Fortune 500 company is not necessary for productive work. For example, The Fountainhead offers examples of artists who do the work that they love, even if it means a reduced income.

2. Is it a “moral crime” to purchase the works of an artist who at some level opposes one’s core values? Peikoff answers, “it depends.”

3. What is the difference between the terms “hate” and “despise?” Hatred involves an element of fear.

4. Are various rules, such as mandatory auto insurance, legitimate for government-owned roads? Peikoff replies that roads should be privately owned, but, so long as they are run by the government, the government must set (and we should follow) various rules.

5. What’s a good dictionary? Peikoff likes the Random House College dictionary for regular use, and the Oxford dictionary for more philosophical work.

Does Religion Have Adaptive Value?

Yesterday, I discussed some Christians who claim that evolutionary biology (at least in terms of species evolving into new species) is false. Today, I’ll briefly review an article by Dinesh D’Souza that attempts to show that evolutionary theory supports religion (“Desecrating Darwin’s Cathedral,” January 21, 2008).

D’Souza, who is so confident in his intellectual superiority that that he calls his opponents fools (as well as belligerent militants), quotes an article by David Sloan Wilson to criticize Richard Dawkins:

Wilson examines Dawkins’ central claim that religion is an obvious “delusion.” On the contrary, Wilson writes, religion is in general more adaptive for human communities than atheism. “On average, religious believers are more prosocial than non-believers, feel better about themselves, use their time more constructively, and engage in long-term planning, rather than gratifying their impulsive desires…They report being more happy, active, sociable, involved and excited.”

Wilson gives a telling example: The Jains of India seem to have bizarre religious habits. They won’t kill any creature, even cockroaches. They sometimes fast virtually unto death. They have been known to refuse contact with non-Jains. The Jains would easily satisfy Dawkins’ view of religion as a senseless delusion. And yet Wilson points out that the Jains are basically the Jews of India: they are one of the most successful economic communities in the world. The reason, he suggests, is that religious practices that seem weird and impractical to outsiders actually cultivate deep bonds of trust between Jains. This economic solidarity is crucial for a diaspora trading community that has built economic networks throughout Asia and around the world. What seems like a pointless delusion turns out to be eminently practical. From the evolutionist’s perspective–and in terms of the only currency that counts for a biologist–Jain practices have demonstrated “survival value.”

Let us first take these claims at face value. D’Souza argues himself into a tight corner. For if religion survives because of its “survival value” for humans, the way that, say, the eyeball survives because of its survival value, then there’s no reason to believe that religion is true. The truth of religion is simply beside the point. According to D’Souza’s argument, it simply doesn’t matter whether God exists, whether Jesus rose from the dead, whether people live beyond the death of the body, etc. Those are not the reasons that cultures actually accept religion, according to this line of thought. Instead, cultures accept religion, regardless of the truth of the claims of religion, because it helps its members to advance their lives and pass on their genes.

But D’Souza argues that, in particular, Christianity is true. I suppose he would counter that all sorts of other reasons (such as the design of the universe) independently prove the truth of religion in general and Christianity in particular. And yet his argument about the evolutionary “survival value” of religion clashes with any such additional claims. As the example of Jainism demonstrates, the alleged “survival value” of religion has nothing to do with the truth of particular claims of any specific religion. Instead, the “survival value” of religion has everything to do with the particular culture in which it arises. D’Souza’s argument cannot ultimately endorse Christianity; at most, it can endorse adopting the most successful religion in one’s culture. D’Souza’s argument is thus essentially one of cultural relativism.

By accepting the claim that beliefs, as well as biological traits, are subject to the evolutionary process, D’Souza cuts religion off from truth in another way. Human volition implies that people can accept ideas, true or false, helpful or harmful, based on whether and how they apply reason to the facts of reality. But the claim that beliefs, including religion beliefs, are merely a product of evolution comparable to the evolution of biological traits, implies that beliefs as such are a matter of convenience, not a matter of truth, and that one has no inherent connection with the other. D’Souza’s article thus reveals a deep strain of pragmatism, in which “truth” is not a matter of objective assessment but of workability, again subject to the variances of time and place. While some Christians argue against biological evolution on the grounds that blind chance cannot produce order, D’Souza implies that religious beliefs too are the product of blind chance. The reason that we have an eyeball is that it works. Likewise, the reason that we have religion is that it works, and nothing more needs to be said about it. It arises in an essentially deterministic universe.

D’Souza contradicts himself in another way. He constantly berates and mocks atheists for criticizing Christianity. He says that, if atheists really didn’t believe in God, then they wouldn’t write books condemning religion, just as we don’t write books condemning unicorns. But if D’Souza really believes that religion has “survival value,” then why does he write books and articles condemning atheists and proclaiming them fools? Biologists don’t condemn maladaptive mutations; they just explain how they work. Why does D’Souza rush to point out the inferiority of atheists, if their beliefs are analogous to a maladaptive mutation? Why does he care about the particular beliefs of any given individual, when evolution will win out? Perhaps the answer is that the One True Religion (i.e., Christianity) is destined to win out, and D’Souza is an instrument in God’s evolutionary plan.

However, the entire enterprise of interpreting beliefs from the framework of evolutionary biology is basically on the wrong track. Some of the analogies are interesting, such as the idea of a “meme,” if limited in scope. And of course there is an important sense in which ideas “evolve,” in that people teach ideas to others, who then often adapt the ideas. So too is there a feedback mechanism: ideas matter, and acting on different ideas will lead to different consequences. Beyond that the analogy breaks down. The point of evolutionary biology is that chance mutations either help or hurt the organism; the process is not guided by any intelligence. But ideas are the product of intelligence.

The practice of starving yourself to death is the product not of an “adaptive” belief but of a stupid one. Moreover, the practice is immoral, and it impedes, rather than advances, the interests of the Jains. If we’re going to talk about the Jains, why don’t we talk about the caste system in India, or the religious monarchies of ancient Egypt, or the primitive tribal religions, or the Islamic totalitarians? Adaptive, all?

Statistical surveys about the quality of lives of religious believers in the modern West say nothing about the truth or benefits of the religious beliefs (even ignoring possible methodological flaws of such surveys). American Christians are substantially secular, and their traditions generally include the principles of the Declaration of Independence, which glorify life on earth and the pursuit of earthly happiness. Moreover, many self-proclaimed atheists are taken with other false beliefs, such as those by Kant, Marx, Freud, and Derrida — beliefs that promote subjectivism and ultimately nihilism. I do not doubt that many Christians are happier than many Marxists, Freudians, and moral subjectivists. And that says exactly nothing about whether Christianity is true.

Peikoff’s Sixth Podcast

Yesterday Leonard Peikoff released his sixth podcast, in which he answers questions about Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand. This time, he took on four main questions. (Again, my summaries are no substitute for the content of Peikoff’s comments.)

1. Should one hesitate to become a writer of fiction, if one believes that one could never match the quality of Rand’s novels? Peikoff answers that relying on such a “comparative standard” is a “complete error.” Instead, if you love the work of some particular field, and if you can produce work of value in that field, you should go for it.

2. Would an isolationist foreign policy with respect to the Middle East make us safer? Peikoff notes that political isolation can work only between regions that are both non-aggressive. Once one side initiates aggression, isolationism is unworkable. Peikoff adds that, in the case of Islamic terrorists, the notion that a United States military presence in the Middle East somehow provoked the attacks is a only a rationalization; the real motive of Islamic terrorists is “hatred of the West.”

3. Can one act without an emotional impetus? Peikoff believes not. Every act must be motivated by some “value commitment.”

4. Are internet discussions about Objectivism fruitful? Peikoff answers that, while they can be, often they lack philosophical context and rigor. Speaking from my own experience, I look back with embarrassment on much that I wrote “about” Objectivism years ago when I knew very little about it; much of what I wrote was complete nonsense. Readers unfamiliar with Objectivism, then, should bear in mind that many internet forums may radically misrepresent Ayn Rand’s ideas, and this can be true of comments coming from detractors as well as (nominal) supporters of those ideas.

I’m really enjoying these podcasts, and I hope that my brief summaries help to point others to them.

Peikoff’s Fifth Podcast

Leonard Peikoff’s podcasts are interesting enough that I want to alert my readers to new installments. Peikoff published his fifth podcast on December 23. Most of his comments relate to politics.

The first question may seem obscure to people unfamiliar with debates within Objectivism (the philosophy of Ayn Rand). Peikoff is working on a new book about “DIM,” or Disintegration, Integration, and Misintegration. Peikoff argues that Objectivism promotes the proper integration of the facts of reality. An example of disintegration is skepticism; the most common form of “misintegration” — or system building apart from reality — is religion. As an application of his work, Peikoff has argued that, today, religion is the larger threat. The question asks whether one must accept Peikoff’s theory of DIM in order to be an Objectivist; Peikoff answers no.

The second question concerns the significance of political parties. Peikoff argues that, in today’s mixed economy in which parties are affiliated with pressure groups, parties are “very influential.” The problem that Peikoff finds with today’s Republican party is that it has been promoting “medieval Christian fundamentalism.” Peikoff further argues that, today, the main conflict is not the individual versus the collective, but rather reason versus religion.

For the third question, regarding Ron Paul (a Republican presidential candidate), Peikoff asked Yaron Brook for his view. Brook replied that Paul’s foreign policy is essentially libertarian in that it blames America for Islamic attacks. Paul also wants to return abortion to the states rather than ensure its legality. For these reasons, Paul strikes out with Peikoff. (I agree with the analysis of Brook and Peikoff.)

Should the United States government rescue slaves who aren’t American citizens? Peikoff replies that, while the U.S. government must rescue its citizens from slavery, it shouldn’t try to save non-citizens. After all, the government is funded by its citizens in order to protect the rights of its citizens. However, a voluntary charity to help other slaves is fine. Peikoff argues that the best way for the U.S. government to help spread freedom around the world is to establish genuine freedom here at home.

Finally, Peikoff discusses the moral status of accepting the unearned.

My review should be considered a summary only; my purpose is merely to alert readers to some of the issues covered by Peikoff in his podcasts (which are not searchable). Please don’t take my word for it — listen to Peikoff’s podcast yourself.