A Re-evaluation: What is my religion now?

First, I think "religion" is probably the wrong term for it. If a large group of people believe the same thing, it's a religion; a small group, a sect or cult; if an individual has his own distinct set of beliefs, it is a spirituality or life philosophy. I definitely have my own idiosyncratic take on the world, and we'll see how many people I can convince of it.

The name I give to my philosophy is "omnilibertarianism". It is totally naturalistic, that is, it does not prejudge any question that can be decided by experiment, so it poses no threat to, nor is threatened by, the humane practice of scientific inquiry. It also seeks only minimal ethical and legal constraints on persons. Its only requirements: you cannot destroy or torture conscious beings; you cannot act on other persons or their property without their implicit or explicit consent; and you cannot engage in any activity that poses a serious threat to the existence, well-being, or freedom of other persons.

An omnilibertarian world would be a maximally free world, but it would also be one in which we embraced a path of (eventually total) non-violence. While coercion would sometimes be necessary (for instance, if one person kills another, they must pay the price that justice requires, some kind of imprisonment or rehabilitation, but no torture or death), the preferred weapons of preserving law and order would be incapacitating but not deadly or harmful. In general, the most lethal weapons (not including weapons that had other established purposes, like knives) would not be allowed.

If people lived according to my ethical principles, certain activities would be prohibited. While hunting and warfare simulators are perfectly acceptable (and, ideally, they would take place in a kind of virtual reality indistinguishable from ordinary experience), actual killing of others would not be allowed, nor would the possession of lethal weapons like guns.

A lot of people won't like this, but I'm afraid that my morality demands it. (People may have other views, of course, which I will try to answer.) Fortunately, we will soon be able to grow meat artificially, so that we no longer have to have factory farms to satisfy the carnivores among us. Until then, though, it's vegetarianism for me.

I think, though, that questions about specific guidelines for the treatment of animals and persons can be something decided autonomously and locally, as well as the means for distinguishing between property, conscious beings, and persons--or whatever particular ethical/legal distinctions a society wants to employ.

As you can see, my "religion" has now merged with my ethics and politics and the rest of my philosophy, in a way that makes it difficult to isolate. I have not even mentioned here my notion of an omnilibertarian God. If you'd like to hear more, give me some time; in November, I'm scheduled to give a presentation at a conference in Montreal on "Transhumanism and Religion", and before too long, I will start to publish my work.

My general policy will be this: if a person asks me for a particular published work, I will send it to them for free (electronically). Donations will be appreciated, but entirely optional (I won't even ask for them). But, since I need a means to provide for myself, I will also sell whatever books I can.

I'm hoping I can get people to take my views seriously. I've said some things on this blog in the past that I now judge as ridiculous, and some which I regret saying. That which I most forcefully renounce is my former misanthropy, because I see now that I thought I hated humanity so much only because I found myself so hateful.

Still, despite my reformed sunnier outlook, my opinions are decidedly unorthodox. I think they are consistent and coherent, but I don't believe that they are right for everyone. Nevertheless, they have brought me great happiness, more than I thought beliefs were capable of giving. I practically feel like I'm living in heaven everyday now, and I just want to share this feeling with others. I hope people who know me can understand that, and can be supportive.

I am still a professional philosopher--I still hold myself to the standards of my peers--but my vision of the world is just very different now. I think it's a kind of informed optimism.



It has been an interesting week. I don't know if this is something I can do, but I hereby renounce everything that I've ever written here, before this week. I've said some pretty awful things at times, advocating for ideas I should have known were wrong. I even gave praise to Satan in a recent post. Talk about being a devil's advocate...

All that has changed. I have reunited with God. I am not exactly a Christian, but my understanding of God contains some Christian elements, that I retain from my upbringing. In truth, I don't think there's a single correct religion. I think that all religions contain some truth to them (even agnosticism and atheism), and that we should let people believe whatever they want to believe.

Your beliefs do not hurt me unless I choose to let them hurt me. Your beliefs are the natural product of your experience. They're exactly what God wants you to believe at this moment in your life. The same applies to the ways that we live our lives, the food and drugs that we choose to consume, and other things that are our private business. Our friends and family can and should take an interest in this, but complete strangers should not.

If my lifestyle or beliefs upset you, that's your problem, not mine. Your beliefs do not upset me, for I recognize that you believe whatever you're supposed to. All I ask, and all I wish to convince you of, is that it would be far better if we all stopped caring about other people's beliefs and lifestyles, except insofar as they directly affect our own lives. (And, no, seeing a gay couple kiss does not in any way harm you, unless you choose to let it do so.)

Fortunately, we have this useful common sense distinction between public and private. In the privacy of your own home, so long as you do not endanger anyone other than yourself and other consenting adults, you may do whatever you like. You can eat whatever you want, sleep with whomever consents, take the drugs that you want to take. Give each person a space where they can be in charge of things. I think we all need that.

In public, we have more elaborate rules for conduct, and it is fine to correct people's behavior by punishing them if they stray from these rules. Just because there is no sin does not entail that punishment is unnecessary. Punishment is not itself an evil, but a kind of self-correcting mechanism in society.

I was an atheist for ten years, in order to learn the lesson that everybody believes exactly what God wants them to believe. We step out of place if we try to interfere in people's exercise of their free will. We must trust God, which means, we must trust our own judgment.

In the past week, I have been living almost continuously in a state of mind that I can only describe as heavenly. I understand things now better than ever before, and have acquired an incredible capacity to learn from experience, to see the significance in events. In short, I have become happier than I ever even thought possible. And I want to spread this happiness (true happiness naturally wants to spread itself), but only to those who are willing to listen. I will not coerce anyone.

So, everything I've said before on here, I now see was something that I needed to believe at that point in my life, but now no longer need to believe. I needed to be in the darkness for a time, so I could more readily appreciate the light.

These are the key truths I've realized. There is no sin, no hell, no oblivion (except temporarily, and only as much as is necessary). God does not arbitrarily choose between some of his creations and others. No one religion or philosophy possesses exclusive truth. We need to stop killing each other over our beliefs. Instead, let's just reorganize society, so that all the people who believe one thing can share a community, and all those who believe another can share a different one, and we just redistribute the earth's resources to these "enclaves" that people set up, where they could be the ones to decide the laws. And if you didn't like the enclave you lived in, you'd be free to leave.

A truly democratic world, in which the free will of each individual was respected, would be like paradise. Do we not now believe that monarchies are tyrannical forms of government? Then why should we confuse God's power with the power of a king, of a premodern form of governance? I think that religions with monarchical conceptions of God contain many truths, but they turn their Gods into tyrants. And why should you submit to a tyrant, even if he did create you?

No, if God is truly all powerful and all good, then everything that exists is good. Evil is only temporary, a kind of tool for us to learn from. If we choose to be with God, it must truly be our choice.

If I stuck a gun to your head and told you to eat a bowl of worms, would you say you were free not to eat the worms? This is because this is a forced choice. If God said to you, "Love me or go to hell for eternity", he would not actually be giving us free will. Our will would be coerced. We our given free will, but we are obligated to respect the free will of others, and many of us have not been doing so. We interfere in places and times where we don't need to interfere. We can't let our natural sociability make us into busybodies who stick their noses into other people's business, and fight "culture wars" because they don't like the idea of other people living in different ways than them.

If anything is a sin, it is this: interfering in someone else's free choice. It is okay to educate children (they are not yet autonomous adult persons) and to try to persuade people, but we can never coerce them--neither as individuals, nor as states. (This means, among other things, the War on Drugs, a senseless battle that no one can ever win, must come to an end.)

I'm going to write this all in a book, eventually. But for now I just feel wonderful. I truly hope that my will is in harmony with God's--and I have faith, too, that this is so, for God will show me and correct me if I begin to stray from what is right.

I must always remember that I am finite, and therefore fallible. Perhaps humans can transcend the forms they currently have (and I think this will become possible with the right technology), but we are all just a part of Nature, a part of God. We are created in God's image (i.e., we are persons like he is), but no human being is, was, or ever will be God completely. (We might become what you could call lower-case g "gods", but those are very different.) Whenever people who have thought themselves to be God (or, equivalently, to be instruments of God's will) have come to possess great power, they almost inevitably do more harm than good.

But let us focus on the positive aspects of religion! Every worldview contains at least a kernel of truth. You just have to find that kernel and build from there.


Is pain necessary?

In the very last section of his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche offers an explanation for the origin of ascetic moralities (the italics are Nietzsche's):

Except for the ascetic ideal: man, the animal man, had no meaning up to now. His existence on earth had no purpose; 'What is man for, actually?' - was a question without an answer; there was no will for man and earth; behind every great human destiny sounded the even louder refrain 'in vain!' This is what the ascetic ideal meant: something was missing, there was an immense lacuna around man, - he himself could think of no justification or explanation or affirmation, he suffered from the problem of what he meant. Other things made him suffer too, in the main he was a sickly animal: but suffering itself was not his problem, but the fact that there was no answer to the question he screamed, 'Suffering for what?' Man, the bravest animal and most prone to suffer, does not deny suffering as such: he wills it, he even seeks it out, provided he is shown a meaning for it, a purpose of suffering. The meaninglessness of suffering, not the suffering, was the curse which has so far blanketed mankind, - and the ascetic ideal offered man a meaning!

(For those of you keeping score at home, this is from the excellent Cambridge translation, edited by Ansell-Pearson, p. 127.)

I never cease to be amazed at how universal this psychological tendency is. With a handful of notable exceptions (e.g., Dave Pearce and his "Hedonistic Imperative", from which I borrow a number of interesting counterarguments), almost everyone I encounter believes that there is a kind of necessity to pain and suffering. Even Nietzsche himself, in other parts of the same text and elsewhere, seems to find a certain kind of nobility in the capacity to endure pain.

But let us consider the arguments that are usually given to justify the necessity, purpose, or nobility of suffering. (By the terms "suffering" and "pain", I wish to encompass pain, fear, sadness, boredom, or any other unpleasant feeling, no matter how slight. I happen to believe that there is no good reason to think that any of them are in any important sense necessary.)

One argument that Nietzsche himself uses is that undergoing suffering builds resilience, enabling one to endure more suffering later in life. But this is transparently circular! If there were no suffering, we would not require the capacity to endure it. Those who make the more general claim that suffering "builds character" essentially offer a version of this argument.

A second argument I often encounter is that we need pain in order to appreciate pleasure. But why should that be so? Is not pleasure itself immediately worthwhile? Many people think that a life of nothing but good feelings would be boring. But being bored is an unpleasant feeling that would, by definition, be excluded from such a life. Indeed, if the issue is the need for variety, why can we not just have variability in our pleasant feelings? My inclination is to think that there's more than enough to explore on the positive side of the emotional spectrum.

A variant of this argument maintains that a life of nothing but pleasant feelings is impossible, because pleasure and pain are only relative. Thus, what I now experience as "normal" would be, if I could shift my range of feeling towards the positive side of a hypothetical pain-pleasure spectrum, felt as painful. But I think that this is an empirical question. Moreover, given that some people are born incapable of feeling pain, it would seem that this is not the case.

This brings us to a third argument, that there is an evolutionary necessity to pain. In other words, pain is useful for organisms because it notifies us of tissue damage and enables us to learn to avoid harmful stimuli. Indeed, those people I mentioned who are born incapable of feeling pain often end up dying young, for precisely these sorts of reasons. I would not deny any of this, but I see no reason to believe that the mechanism of pain is the only means of solving this "design problem". If those who could not feel pain were capable of detecting tissue damage by other means, then their survival would not be so precarious.

For example, imagine we were building a conscious machine that resembled a human being (just assume that's possible for now). Why could we not, say, have the systems that handle harm detection operate independently of consciousness? Through a series of complex reflexes and perhaps even what you might call an "intellectual awareness" of the trouble (i.e., the machine would know something is wrong, but it wouldn't hurt), could we not avoid the need to feel pain entirely? Even if this particular solution did not work, there's no reason to think that some alternative to pain is not possible. Ultimately, it may just be an empirical question, and I would love to find out by redesigning my own psychology, if I am allowed and able to do so.

A final argument would be that these kinds of discussions are silly, because pain is just an unavoidable fact of life. While I grant that this has been and, thus far, remains the case, I believe that, at some point in the indefinite future, we may have new options. It would be a horrendous tragedy if we clung to our suffering when we had the chance to be free of it only because we labored under the illusion that we needed to experience it, for whatever reason.

If I am bypassing an important argument here, or insufficiently answering the ones that have been put forth, please let me know in comments. Otherwise, I take it that none of these arguments are sufficiently compelling. They may give reasons for why pain is useful, but they do not show that it is in any sense necessary.

Now, I will admit that I may be wrong about this. But in a certain sense, as I have been saying, I think this is an empirical question, i.e., one that cannot be decided merely through argumentation. If it is possible to create a stable, human-like psychology that operates without any unpleasant feelings, then we would have definitive proof that suffering is not unavoidable for creatures like us.

But, to tell you the truth, if people want to suffer, I won't stop them, regardless of how stupid I think their reasons are. I merely ask others to extend the same courtesy to me, i.e., not try to stop me from eliminating suffering from my life. Once people see that it's possible to live without pain and suffering, perhaps they will reconsider their attachment to it...

ADDENDUM: It occurs to me, upon reflection, that demonstrating the lack of necessity of pain would make the problem of evil particularly difficult to answer. Indeed, I am inclined to think that transhumanists have the potential to destroy a lot of people's faith in an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God, when we show that the world is not designed particularly well or intelligently, as we create better alternatives to being human. I can see why people think transhumanism is such a dangerous idea.


Do I have a religion?

About a month or so ago, I had something analogous to a religious experience. For a very brief while, I entertained again some of the beliefs that had been impressed upon me in childhood, in addition to new ones which took me by surprise.

However, I wrote my senior thesis on religious experience, and was struck by one common characteristic of it that made me immediately skeptical: religious experiences almost invariably produce unshakable conviction in those who have them. In other words, credulity is a powerful force in such experiences.

Nevertheless, that experience has affected me in certain ways, particularly opening me up to new possibilities I had not before considered. One thing seems certain to me: we can have no knowledge of what exists outside of our universe. This means that we cannot even know what is possible outside of our universe. It may be that this universe is the only thing which exists (my intuition rails against this conclusion, but I have no sound reasons for believing it), or it could be the case that there are indefinitely many other universes or existences the likes of which we simply are incapable of imagining.

Thus, the following occurred to me: if we are one universe among many, it is possible that this universe has an intelligent creator. However, the only things that we could know about such a creator are what can be inferred from its creation. Since intelligence appears to be an emergent property of this universe (or at least has seemed that way since Darwin), if such a creator existed, he would necessarily be a deceiver. This universe, upon mature reflection, does not appear to be designed. The following options seem exhaustive to me of the possibilities: this universe either has no designer, or it has a designer which deliberately designed it not to look designed. If the second is true, then the creator of this world is a deceiver.

In other words, if it is possible for intelligent beings to create new universes, then the god that created this one has a number of awful qualities--it is far from perfect. Not only is it deceptive, it also inflicts a large amount of unnecessary suffering on the conscious inhabitants of this universe. As a finite being, perhaps this god does not even realize what it has done. Perhaps it is even long dead, and something like what the Deists believed is true (i.e., the creator initiated the universe but does not sustain it).

Thus, I am led to the following characterization of my religious beliefs. I am an agnostic, insofar as I think it is impossible to know, one way or the other, whether this universe has a creator and what qualities that creator might possess. (While we may be able to compile a list of possibilities, we certainly cannot decide amongst them. And what seems like an exhaustive list might not be.) However, insofar as I judge that there are no beings worthy of "worship" or "reverence", i.e., no capital-G God, I am an atheist.

If, as many theists claim, we have free will, I am merely using my own to say that I prefer my own judgment to the supposedly inscrutable divine judgment, and that if there is a god, I condemn him/her/it for doing such a lousy job. Indeed, as imperfect as I may be, I still believe I could create the universe better than it exists now.

This could be interpreted as the sin of pride. Indeed, I may take as my model here the story of Satan, who preferred himself to God. In my view, Satan is the most admirable of the characters in Christian mythology, because he refuses to submit. He demonstrates that abject worship is a stance beneath the dignity of an autonomous rational being. (It's essentially just like sucking up to someone who has power over you.) It is nothing less than an abdication of responsibility and a refusal to use one's own judgment.

That said, it's fun to play with religious concepts and terms and to repurpose them in various ways. Thus, I describe my transhumanist sympathies as a kind of "secular religion", and I even pick and choose various elements from the diverse religious traditions in this world to augment its description.

The closest I admit to an object of worship is myself. But even here, I refuse to take myself so seriously. I am as flawed as any other part of this world. But I see no psychological need for human beings to believe in some ground of ultimate significance, since the vast majority of humankind (despite what they may profess) live their lives as though this is not the case.

Still, I do like to follow the convention of Spinoza, and refer to the entirety of existence as God or Nature. I just doubt highly that the totality of being has a personality, because my inclination is to think that persons are of necessity finite. Thus, while there may be small-g personal gods, I have no idea of what a captial-G personal God would entail.

In short, I do not have a religion, and I do not believe that religion or its analogues are psychologically necessary for human beings. Whether you call me an agnostic or an atheist is, I suppose, a matter of indifference to me.