A bigger boat

Why are crows' feathers black?

As it happens, there's a story that tells why. It's a lovely story, told in a lovely children's book, and nicely retold at Sandy Schlosser's folklore site.*

Read the story, though, and you'll see that it's really not mainly concerned with the question it nominally addresses. The structure of the story is something like this:

Q: Why are the crow's feathers black?

A: Courage and helping others are good. Remember that every time you see a crow.

The answer doesn't seem to follow logically from the explicit question, but this is how origin stories tend to work. This is why they're worth telling and hearing even if you know that the color of a crow's feathers are a matter of adaptation and genetics.

One of my favorite origin stories is nominally the answer to the question "Where do rainbows come from?"

The answer the story gives has nothing to do with the refraction of light, because the story isn't really about where rainbows come from. The story, of course, is that of Noah's ark, as famously told in chapters 6-9 of the book of Genesis and side one of Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow Right!

The structure of that story is, in part, something like this:

Q: Where do rainbows come from?

A: Selfishness is destructive — to you and to every living creature. Remember that every time you see a rainbow.

Again, the answer isn't directly related to the apparent question because the apparent question isn't really what the story is about. This may seem complicated, but if you read these stories it's quite obvious. They're not subtle about it. Their message is not some hidden meaning that needs to be decoded. It would be very difficult, in fact, to read or hear such stories without taking away the meaning they are meant to convey.

Difficult but, alas, not impossible. See, for example, the sad case of Johan Huibers (via):

A half-sized replica of the biblical Noah's Ark has been built by a Dutch man, complete with model animals.

Dutch creationist Johan Huibers built the ark as testament to his literal belief in the Bible.

The ark, in the town of Schagen, is 150 cubits long — half the length of Noah's — and three stories high. A cubit was about 45cm (18in) long.

The ark opened its doors on Saturday, after almost two years' construction, most of it by Mr Huiber himself.

Well, OK. Huibers' ark is kind of cool as a sort of Field-of-Dreams-ish eccentric marvel. You have to admire the splendid goofiness of it. But it also seems like Huiber has been cutting down trees to get a better view of the forest.

Most people who insist that the story of Noah is "literally" true don't go to such great lengths to illustrate their belief, but it's still startling how many people have gotten drowned in the details of this story. They travel to Mt. Ararat in search of the ark, or they obsess over details of hydrology and storage space. Just as lost at sea are these poor folks' mirror opposites — those who obsess over the details to prove that the story is "literally" false. (I'm forced to place the word literally in quotation marks here because it is the word they insist on using, although what they mean by it is far from clear.)

Both sorts of literalists approach these stories with the same incomprehension as that of people who don't understand jokes. "What kind of bar?" they ask. You try to ignore them, to get on to the punch line, to the point, but they keep interrupting. "A duck? I don't think you'd be allowed in the bar if you were carrying a duck."

Such people are particularly infuriating when you're trying to tell a really good joke. They're even more infuriating when you're trying to tell a really important story.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

* Sandy was a classmate of mine in high school. I had no idea where she was or what she was up to until stumbling across her site while googling "Rainbow Crow." The Web is pretty neat.

  • bulbul

    Secondly, that quote you quoted does not occur in the OT.
    Ehm, I don’t know how that got there, I’m not that pedantic. Sorry.

  • Bugmaster

    I don’t believe in the kind of God that most Christians do. I do not believe that God is a being. Rather, I see God as Being itself. Specifically, I see God as that force of being and life that sustains existence and promotes the quality and diversity of life, the force that enables life to achieve its fullest potential…Well, in this case, you’re almost as much of an atheist as I am. The Being Itself (as I understand it) does not grant prayers, does not demand worship (well, other than the very act of living, which could be considered worship in this case), does not prohibit you from eating ham sandwiches, does not write holy books, does not issue commandments, and generally doesn’t do anything else that most other gods do. It is a god that is virtually indistinguishable from the mundane, natural (as opposed to supernatural) universe in which we live. It’s not really much of a god, from the standard religious perspective.

  • Bugmaster

    i don’t think 10 generations is meant to be literal. i think that, as with almost any number ever alluded to in either testament of the bible, it just means “a really long time” or “a lot of generations”.Well, then how do you know anything else in the Bible isn’t a metaphor, as well, just like the “begats” ?

  • X

    bulbul: I, for one, don’t give a damn. We beat the Czechs and that’s all I’m asking of our boys.
    That’s one of the great things about Hockey. Where else to Canada, Sweden, and Slovakia get to be super powers :)

  • X

    Ooooh, celebratory dinner of broiled hockey puck tonight!
    You laugh, but really there’s only so much moose and beaver you can eat before a steaming plate of broiled pucks starts to seem like a treat (butter optional).

  • the opoponax

    “The Being Itself (as I understand it) does not grant prayers, does not demand worship (well, other than the very act of living, which could be considered worship in this case), does not prohibit you from eating ham sandwiches, does not write holy books, does not issue commandments, and generally doesn’t do anything else that most other gods do. It is a god that is virtually indistinguishable from the mundane, natural (as opposed to supernatural) universe in which we live. It’s not really much of a god, from the standard religious perspective.”
    1. Bugmaster, if this is what you really and truly believe, and not just “a deity i could see perhaps possibly existing, if one had to say that a deity exists”, then i’m sorry, but you’re not an atheist. “atheist” does not mean “person who believes in a God which doesn’t grant prayers, demand worship, inspire scripture, or issue commandments”. it means “person who does not believe in God”. period. end of story.
    2. oh holy Christ, Bug, PLEASE for the love of all that is holy please please please go read things about religions that do not involve YHWH before you blindly assert that you must be an atheist, because the God you believe in is simply inconceivable by the standards of all extant religions (or whatever silly idea caused you to think that last sentence you wrote up there). there are plenty of religious groups who have conceptions of God similar to the one you cited above. you could start, first and foremost, with the Unitarian Universalist branch of Christianity. you could also learn a bit more about Buddhism, most other ‘eastern’ spirituality, and a good number of self-described neo-pagans and animists. also maybe Sikhism, though their relationship with scripture is complex and might not be for you. basically everything that isn’t Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism (and other than the “inspiring scripture” bit, possibly even Hinduism).

  • the opoponax

    “Well, then how do you know anything else in the Bible isn’t a metaphor, as well, just like the ‘begats’?”
    hm. how to explain?
    ok, let’s start with the biggie. Bugmaster, I’m not a Christian. I really don’t give half a damn about whether the abrahamic scriptures are literally true, truth distorted by the sands of time, mythic allegory, epic poetry, a cryptic code to tell us more about the end of the world, or a collaborative fabrication by L. Ron Hubbard and Joseph Smith.
    moving on, i’m personally pretty sure (as are most intelligent people who are not religious fundamentalists) that most scripture is, in fact, composed largely of metaphor. nobody has ever actually seen god. scripture is not journalism, ethnography, biography, or any other kind of literary work that is a direct document of observed literal fact. and anyone who tells you otherwise probably either isn’t terribly literate or doesn’t know anything about religion.
    also, anyone who’s ever taken an lit class at the university level can tell you that when you read something, it’s often pretty easy to tell what part is meant as metaphor (or some other “figure of speech” type literary device) and what part is meant to be taken at face value. if i say, “the sky is a soft woolen baby blanket swaddling the world”, do you think that’s my honest observation, or do you think that’s probably some kind of literary device? it’s pretty clear if you’ve ever read scripture that when they say something like “Enoch lived for 287 years” that what they probably mean is “Enoch was an exceptionally revered elder and ancestor of the tribe”. same goes for all the repetitions of 40 days/40 nights, the 7 years of famines and floods in the Joseph story, etc. etc. they just mean “a pretty long time”. it’s kind of analogous to Homer’s “wine-dark sea” — do you really think that in ancient greek times, the sea was actually purple? no, it’s a fricken metaphor.
    back to the begats — i’ve always thought they’re probably very very old remnants of ancient tribal or clan genealogies, probably dating back to before monotheistic times, when the people who would eventually become the Hebrews practiced some form of ancestor worship (as most polytheistic and animist peoples do). sort of the Jewish analogue of the High Kings of Ireland (who the Irish have connected back to various peoples they felt they ought to be descended from, and ultimately to Adam, just like the begats do), who scholars are still not sure whether they’re mythical characters, gods, actual historical people, or what. except much deeper buried and longer forgotten, of course. this is just a pet theory from a complete layperson who knows nothing about the current scholarship on the begats, of course.

  • Jeff

    also, anyone who’s ever taken an lit class at the university level can tell you that when you read something, it’s often pretty easy to tell what part is meant as metaphor (or some other “figure of speech” type literary device) and what part is meant to be taken at face value.
    Riiiiiiiiiiight. bullshit There are passages in literature that are meant literally (most detective stories for instance); some passage that are obviously metaphor (80% of Herman Melville); and some that could go either way. The fact that there are millions of people who believe that the “begats” are to be taken literally should be a strong suggestion that your statement is on shaky ground.
    Throughout the history of this blog (or at least as long as I’ve been reading), there have been vociferous discussions as to which parts of the Bible are literall true, and which are metaphors. A simple declarative “XYZ is obviously metaphore” is not likely to convince anyone.

  • cjmr’s husband

    I seem to recall that the Begats are a copy of a list of Sumerian kings, but I can’t be bothered to find the reference right now :-(

  • bulbul

    Where else to Canada, Sweden, and Slovakia get to be super powers :)
    Um…
    Ehm…
    OK, I maybe have the category “Most beautiful girls per square mile”, but then Croatia is the odd man out :o)

  • bulbul

    cjmr’s husband,
    did you try to search the slacktivist archives? I’m pretty sure we’ve discussed that one before…

  • cjmr’s husband

    No, but I checked Wikipedia and the Index to Creationist Claims without finding anything obvious.
    [I'm working under a deadline right now, and really only have time for smartass remarks]

  • nieciedo

    I’m afraid I must have trespassed onto bulbul’s established territory on this blog. I’m sorry. I’ll shut up now.

  • bulbul

    Nieciedo,
    I’m afraid I must have trespassed onto bulbul’s established territory on this blog. I’m sorry. I’ll shut up now.
    Now you didn’t and please don’t. Your comments are most welcome.

  • bulbul

    cjmr’s husband,
    I’m working under a deadline right now
    3:31 AM here, fifth cup of cofee, fourth sheesha (orange-flavored).
    My deadline can kick your deadline’s butt.

  • bulbul

    Jeff,
    The fact that there are millions of people who believe that the “begats” are to be taken literally should be a strong suggestion that your statement is on shaky ground.
    That too. But the most obvious statement this makes is the one about general literacy and (indirectly) about what bullshit sola scriptura is.
    Yes, I hate sola scriptura. [Jersey_accent] Got a problem? [/Jersey_accent]

  • X

    bb: OK, I maybe have the category “Most beautiful girls per square mile”
    I’m going to have to ammend that to “per capita.” Canada doesn’t have the most anything per square mile that is made of people. (seriously, 30 boys ‘n girls in the world’s 2nd largest country).

  • nieciedo

    OK, I’ll shut up after I say this:
    Plus, there’s always the documentary hypothesis: this is not a coherent text, but rather an amalgam of three different sources. The different ways of expressing the same concept may be indicative of different Vorlagen. In one, the Pharaoh does it to himself, in the other, the Lord does directly, in the third, the Lord works indirectly.
    I have no person investment in this theory, so I hope the desire is not to discredit me personally. I’m only repeating various interpretations I’ve gleaned from rabbinic sources (who were not aware of DH).
    Now that you mention the DH, here’s how the passage actually breaks down.
    7:1-13 – P
    7:14-18 – E
    7:19-20a – P
    7:20b-21 – E
    7:22 – P
    7:23-29 – E
    8:1-2a – P
    8:2b-11 – E
    8:12-15 – P
    8:16-9:7 – E
    9:8-12 – P
    9:13-11:8 – E
    8:11b, 9:35, 10:20, 10:27, and 11:9-10 are all R
    P has God say that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and that Pharaoh’s heart was strong after the staff-into-snake trick (7:13)
    E says that Pharaoh’s heart is “heavy,” continuing a series of puns on the root kbd that starts with the burning bush and ends at Sinai.
    After the Nile turns to blood, P says that Pharaoh’s heart was strong, just as God said (7:22)
    After the plague of the frogs, E says that “he made his heart heavy,” implying Pharaoh as the subject (8:11a). R added the coda about this being just as God said.
    After the lice, P tells us that Pharaoh’s heart was strong, just like God said (8:15).
    E tells us that Pharaoh made his heart heavy after the swarm/beasts (8:28) and again after the cattle plague (9:7)
    After the boils, P tells us that God finally strengthens Pharaoh’s heart (9:12)
    The rest is E, with R adding that God did the “strengthening” (using P’s verb).

  • X

    30 MILLION boys ‘n girls that is. In 10 million square km’s.
    (and them all pooled in a few small clumps to boot). Hm. Canada might have the most people-free square kilometers per square kilometer :)

  • bulbul

    nieciedo,
    wow, thanks! Might I ask where you got this breakdown from? None of my usual sources turned up anything like it.
    I hope the desire is not to discredit me personally.
    I assure you it’s not.
    I’m only repeating various interpretations I’ve gleaned from rabbinic sources (who were not aware of DH).
    I understand that. Alas, I am not that familiar with rabbinic interpretation.
    E tells us that Pharaoh made his heart heavy after the swarm/beasts (8:28) and again after the cattle plague (9:7)
    Hm, 8:28 is one of those with Pharaoh as the subject,the accusative marker + the possessive pronoun and the verb in hifil (the other is 8:11). 9:7, on the other hand, has the verb in qal. I would have guessed they were from a different source.

  • hf

    My understanding of Rilstone’s argument is with xaaronx’s – that the God Dawkins sets out to disprove isn’t actually the one that anyone actually believes in
    Then you’re laughably wrong. Did you see that poll result of 60%? How much evidence of popular influence do you need before you accept that a given belief is not a strawman, and that we need to address it?

  • nieciedo

    Bulbul:
    Friedman, Richard Elliott. The Bible With Sources Revealed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2003). It has been invaluable to me! :-)
    WRT to “being heavy” as opposed to “making heavy,” Biblical authors seemed to have been more concerned with the root as their primary element of style as opposed to the conjugation. So although 8:28 is hiphil and 9:7 is qal, they’re both KBD, and that root appears in key places through the E texts.

  • nieciedo

    @Bulbul:
    Now you didn’t and please don’t. Your comments are most welcome.
    Thanks! That’s a relief! :-)

  • Bugmaster

    @opoponax, nieciedo:
    You are absolutely right in your assessment of my atheism. I disbelieve in Jesus, just as I disbelieve in karma, alien visitations, animal spirits, magic spells, Zeus, the Earth Mother, and the Tao (though I do like the Tao a lot).
    My point was that if your god (or spiritual force, etc.) doesn’t do anything, then it’s not much of a god. nieciedo’s god seems to be a kind of entity who, if it were to vanish suddenly tomorrow, would give absolutely no indication of its passing. A world without such a god is identical to a world with it, so what’s the point in believeing in it ?
    By contrast, most other gods do have an appreciable effect on the world (assuming they exist, of course). They all act upon the world in supernatural ways that have real results. Kitsune trick people. Jesus smites people. Karma, as far I understand it, sustains the cycle of reincarnation. Magic allows the mage to cast fireballs, or at least to make plants grow… etc., etc. The world in which these gods and powers exist is radically different from a world in which they do not.
    Regarding metaphor, I agree with Jeff. Who died and made you metaphor-pope ? For example, consider Joshua 16-17. Did the people of the plains really have iron chariots, or are the chariots a metaphor for, say, their obstinate ways of spirit ? Is Genesis a metaphor ? How about the Resurrection ? Is there anything in your own religion that is not a metaphor ? Would you care to quote it ?
    The problem with declaring major parts of the Bible metaphorical willy-nilly is that most of it is written as though it was meant to be an accurate account of events. This isn’t a “wine-dark sea” (*), not by a long shot.
    (*) Inicidentally, yes, the sea was purple in the days of Ancient Greece, just as it is today. Haven’t you ever seen a sunset on the beach ?

  • hf

    opo, Buddhism does not rule out atheism. Look, you may have a perfectly good reason for calling yourself a theist if you believe in a non-personal “God” despite the long association of that term with personal deities. Maybe you think true theism means using a personal God as a metaphor, and not taking it literally. Fine. But how can you object to someone else saying that while they consider Harry Potter an excellent metaphor for X, they don’t believe in Him? What are you actually trying to argue? That people who deny the existence of all personal gods shouldn’t call their beliefs atheism, even though it clearly has that meaning for many English speakers? That using the word this way has negative effects (or an effect you dislike), in a way you have yet to explain? That people shouldn’t publicly defend the non-existence of personal gods? What?

  • X

    Bugs: Jesus smites people.
    No actually quite the opposite. He was the one who put the kibosh on the whole smiting policy. He was all peace, love, turning the other cheek, and casting unbelievers into the flaming jaws of eternal torment (note: one of these things is not like the others).

  • Clinton

    J–
    You “literally” have an axe to grind. The tone of your comments makes it quite clear that you’re still bitter about being forced to attend Sunday school or to go to summer church retreats. Now you’re unable to weigh issues objectively….until you let go of the mental trauma you’re carrying around you’ll be unreasonable, and quite uninterested in the truth. Chill out, tone down the incendiary rhetoric, take a breath, and try again. You’re little hissy fits aren’t going to increase your ability to reason.

  • bulbul

    nieciedo,
    thanks, I added it to my Amazon shopping cart.
    Incidently – and this is as much re this debate as Fred’s later post on illiteralism – I sincerely recommend any and all books by James L. Kugel, starting with “The Bible As It Was”. I suspect atheists will like it as much as theists.

  • nieciedo

    @Bugmaster:
    My point was that if your god (or spiritual force, etc.) doesn’t do anything, then it’s not much of a god. nieciedo’s god seems to be a kind of entity who, if it were to vanish suddenly tomorrow, would give absolutely no indication of its passing. A world without such a god is identical to a world with it, so what’s the point in believeing in it ?
    Not quite. If the God I believe in were to vanish suddenly tomorrow, then I, you, the entire universe and all other universes actual and potential would cease to exist. Why does anything exist at all? Why is there something instead of nothing? God is Being itself: God is That which allows existence to happen. It is also That which allows life to happen and drives life to flourish. It is also That which urges us to strive for the ever-greater improvement in the quality of life for ourselves and for all other beings. It is That which urges life to every continue to stive against death instead of just giving up, laying down, and dying. It is That which drives natural selection, which urges the ever-greater unfolding of the complexity of life. It is that which drives each person to seek self-fulfillment and self-actualization and to strive for the removal of obstacles that stand in the way of the fulfillment and actualization of others. God is not only the Ground of Being and the Source of all existence and life, God is the force that makes for salvation, for self-actualization, for social regeneration.
    So, conceived in this way, God’s non-existence would be pretty noticeably missed!

  • hf

    nieciedo, if you follow probably the best historical precedent for this view of “God”, then it seems grossly misleading to say that God exists.

  • nieciedo

    nieciedo, if you follow probably the best historical precedent for this view of “God”, then it seems grossly misleading to say that God exists.
    I don’t follow. Could you please elaborate? Plotinus’s philosophy has a great deal in common with the neo-Chasidic theology of Arthur Green in which I find a great deal of personal value. If God is the Ground and Source of Being — or, in Kaplan’s most immediate formulation, the force inherent in human life that makes human life worth living — then how is it misleading to say that God exists?
    Is it my problem that some people define the word “God” to mean “magic man in the sky who gives us what we ask for like Santa Claus?”

  • hf

    I thought the article seemed pretty clear. The One is beyond being and non-being. “Once you have uttered ‘The Good,’ add no further thought: by any addition, and in proportion to that addition, you introduce a deficiency.”

  • nieciedo

    What confused me is how this is related to what I was saying above, and why it is misleading to say that God exists. If you like, I could say that God is Life itself (I believe that is true but not the whole truth). Thus, “the Good” is that which tends toward the enhancement, actualization, and triumph of life and therefore “The Good” needs to be continuously defined and articulated so as to arrive at the greatest possible number of avenues for that triumph.

  • hf

    …Um, when I say “being and non-being” I mean existence and non-existence.

  • nieciedo

    Okay. Maybe I’m just having an “off” day, but I honestly don’t understand. :-(

  • X

    Nieciedo,
    I think what everyone’s getting at is that by your description of God, almost all of us here are theist believers. We mostly all believe in the wonder of the universe, the beauty of life, the drive to and benefit of improving oneself and the world, the miracle* of life. It just wouldn’t occur to most of us to attach a three letter name to it all.
    We all, and maybe we’re totally out to lunch here, think of religion as involving God(s) as beings that if aren’t necessarily personal, are at teh least somewhat supernatural and have some degree of entativity and some degree of consciousness. Maybe he/she/it talks to us, and maybe he/she/it doesn’t, but it’s some identifiable person or thing or force with some degree of coherence. Zeus, the ancestor tree, the ancestorS, the fire spirits, the pixies, Yaweh, the ocean, some cosmic consciousness. It seems there has to be something with some sort of awareness to whom you can pray t0 or sacrifice to or plead with, however much this may be understood to happen in vain.
    There are a select few religions like buddhism that seem to deal with no recognizable entity (although even there many schools of buddhism do populate the world with manifold demons and such), but those seem like rather unusual exemplars of religion. And you started off by identifying with the Jewish tradition, which, I am lead to believe very much have the notion of a conscious aware God to whom one can pray and who has emotions like anger (the OT being full of angry God passages).
    Maybe it’s rank ignorance, but this is why you’re confusing us. Any clarification would be appreciated.
    * Interesting how even as an atheist, it’s sometimes hard to describe the wonder of life without having to borrow religious terms.

  • X

    [reading own last post shakes head at shocking grammar]. Writing, thinking, and editing aren’t things that should happen all at once without a read through afterwards :(

  • nieciedo

    X:
    I think what everyone’s getting at is that by your description of God, almost all of us here are theist believers. We mostly all believe in the wonder of the universe, the beauty of life, the drive to and benefit of improving oneself and the world, the miracle* of life. It just wouldn’t occur to most of us to attach a three letter name to it all.
    Actually, I apply a Four-Letter Name to it (YHWH). I apply a three-letter title/designation to it (God). :-)
    But I get where you’re coming from. I’ve been influenced primarily by post-modern re-interpretations of classical Kabbalistic mysticism (the real kind, not Madonna’s brand) and modern theologians, particularly the naturalistic theology of Mordecai Kaplan. Then mix that up in a blender with a liberal dosing of Marxist dialectical philosophy.
    There is a surprising diversity of theological belief within Judaism: in Judaism, what you do has always been much more important than what you believe. The belief that God is really an impersonal Force or Essence and that the personal characteristics ascribed to him in the Bible are metaphors and attempts to explain the unexplainable is long-standing. Maimonides was probably the greatest contributor to this on the rationalistic side; Isaac Luria on the mystical side.
    I do not believe that “God” is an Other and that we stand in relation to God as subjects or creatures or children or any other kind of “I-Thou” relationship. Our relationship to God, to the universe, is that of parts to the whole. We are like waves, for example, and God is the ocean. God is the reality that unites all things, and by seeking union and harmony with all things we draw strength and life — IOW, “holiness” from it’s Source. We call that Source, that Unity, “God.” And in ancient times we tried to explain this in terms of anthropomorphic kings or fathers or mothers in the sky and those metaphors worked for a while — and still we cherish them. But I understand that these are just metaphors and myths that we have created to give a face and a name to the cosmos in all it’s infinite splendor and power.
    To paraphare Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel: The Eternal is our God, the Eternal is the One, the Torality of All. You shall love the Eternal your God in all things, in your heart, in your being, and in all things in your world.

  • X

    Fascinating.
    By your belief, does this oneness that binds us all together have any, er, ‘force’ (I know, I know, you can get in so much trouble mixing religions) that influences the world in an agentic way? Or is it more of a descriptive *feel* to the world/universal/totality-of-human-kind?

  • nieciedo

    By your belief, does this oneness that binds us all together have any, er, ‘force’ (I know, I know, you can get in so much trouble mixing religions) that influences the world in an agentic way? Or is it more of a descriptive *feel* to the world/universal/totality-of-human-kind?
    Kaplan did not believe in a supernatural transcendent God. I’m not so sure: I keep my options open. However, I believe that the “force” of God is identical with the natural forces that make life possible and worthwhile. God’s force is also in the human moral sense that the good of the individual depends on the good of the group and of the natural world. God’s force is also felt in the fact that if you consistently do nasty things, you’ll destroy the fabric of life and ultimately destroy yourself.

  • hf

    I will now clarify my last remark by spouting nonsense.
    Plotinus seems to accept Aristotle’s view of being (as do I, with some reservations). Aristotle distinguished between activity (some call it actuality or “being-at-work”, originally the Greek word energeia) and power or potential. But ultimately he defines being as activity. Power — the power to do something in the future — implies some other activity in the present, implies an entity (or process) doing something else. Power can’t exist without activity. Pure being would therefore mean pure activity with no unrealized potential. It would have no division or duality (or so people sometimes say). Aristotle describes this pure activity as eternal, unchanging self-contemplation. According to him, all motion and change ultimately originates from imitation of this Unmoved Mover. Either that, he says, or we flat out cannot understand why anything exists (my own view, if it matters). This strongly influenced Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic author of Summa Theologica or (I think) ‘all theology’. (I don’t recall if Aquinas actually said the world had a beginning in time, or if he might have defined ‘creation from nothing’ to mean that while matter may have always existed it couldn’t exist without the Unmoved Mover. The second view seems a lot more like Aristotle.)
    Now, Plotinus argues that even unchanging self-contemplation would contain duality or complexity. Something simpler must exist in order for Aristotle’s god(s) to exist. (This reminds me a lot of Dawkins’ much-maligned 747 argument, although Dawkins starts with an even more complex God that knows His Creation exists.) Naturally enough, Plotinus calls his simpler form of God ‘the One’. But the One cannot perform any action at all, or it would lose its simplicity. Therefore, it must transcend existence as we understand it. If you want to say more than “the Good”, you could call it Something Weird, or part of the Outside. (Warning: author is crazy and probably wrong on some points.) Neither term carries the misleading baggage of the word “God”, or even “supernatural”.
    If you think atheists like Dawkins should address this view (and this seems like a common criticism of the 747 argument), what exactly do you want them to say? When we try to read Plotinus literally — and his work does seem like more than just a guide to Weird experience, though it surely meets that description among others — we find logical self-contradictions like ‘beyond being and not-being’. According to logic, ‘the set of everything that meets the description of the One’ means the empty set, period. Aleister Crowley and (I think) orthodox Kabbalists decided to bite the bullet and call the source of existence Ain, or Nothing. (puts finger to lips ceremonially.)

  • X

    God’s force is also felt in the fact that if you consistently do nasty things, you’ll destroy the fabric of life and ultimately destroy yourself.
    This is the one thing you’ve said that departs what an atheist would happily agree to. I think we (atheists) as a group LIKE to think there’s some kind of karmic ‘you get what’s coming to you’, but we’d point out all sorts of nasty people who’ve done lots of nasty stuff and done very nicely out of it ThankYouVeryMuch. This is clearly more of a supernatural element that fits what I’d traditionally understand as religion.
    But just to be totally clear, in your mind the ‘force’ such as it is, isn’t something that any being ‘uses’, as it were… It’s more a set of broadly writ rules that describe some hidden deeper way in which the universe is set up to make things turn out in a just way.
    BTW, how do you see this karma as playing out? Do we have to get our comeuppance in our lifetimes, or is there some sort of afterlife in which the ledger can be balanced?

  • Angelika

    It took me a while to come back here, and realize that somebody answered to something I wrote. Please excuse my lateness…
    jackd: Niecedo and Angelika, neither of you seem to be dealing with the God that most Christians claim to worship. That God is unquestionably a Person, an active agent who communicates with humans and interacts with the world. They also claim that this God is “good” and is opposed to “evil”, and that these concepts are comprehensible to humans.
    I for my part am a Christian, and actually do believe and have experienced that God communicates with humans and interacts with the world. I hold, that God is good, and that the idea of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ is comprehensible to humans. – However, I do not turn that argument around and claim, just because a human is capable to comprehend the concept of good and evil, that human therefore is always correct in the application of these terms, or comes to judge God.
    I also don’t see, how the mere fact, that I’m – thanks to him – a person should oblige God to treat me in a certain way. (Actually, my faith tells me, that God does treat me in a way, that takes my personality in account, however, not because he has to, but because he wants to, which is personally, what I prefer.)
    hf Angelika is just wrong: arguing from the source of all existence to morality still involves arguing from “is” to “ought” and has no philosophical advantage over my ‘do what seems right’ morality.
    I don’t quite understand what you what say here. For everyday life I follow that ‘do what seems right’ morality myself and I certainly didn’t say anything against that. (What seems right to me has often to do with what I think I understand about God, but that is a different issue.)
    On the moral debate about the character of God, the question what ‘is’ has a lot to do with the question what ‘ought’: If you want to make a statement on how person a ought to treat person b, than the first step is to ask ‘what is a’s relationship to b and what is the situation the two of them are in?’. The same way, that moral questions on how God ought to treat humans, depends on the way God and humans relate to each other.

  • hf

    But A) you can’t logically derive the answer to those questions from assumptions about causality alone, and B) we don’t accept the moral premise you seem to make here. That distraction you mentioned about parentage conflates mere causality with months of backbreaking work, among other problems.

  • nieciedo

    According to logic, ‘the set of everything that meets the description of the One’ means the empty set, period. Aleister Crowley and (I think) orthodox Kabbalists decided to bite the bullet and call the source of existence Ain, or Nothing. (puts finger to lips ceremonially.)
    Oh what the hell: I’ve been trying to stay away from mysticism on this board, but — if the set is empty, it can be filled. The Kabbalists call the true nature of God — which is the true foundation of all existence Ein Sof, That Which Has No Limit. It is not “Nothing” (the absence of being) but rather “No-Thing” — undifferentiated, absolute being, absolute potential. The great question is what caused the initial movement or “contraction” (tzimtzum)within Ein Sof to create duality — or rather, create the space for the possibility of duality (the first sefirah, Keter, is not any form of actual being per se but is the potential duality to arise dialectically through contradiction.
    This is somewhat reminiscent of the P Creation story in Genesis 1. There is no creation ex nihilo. The earth was formless and void, undifferentiated. Only through acts of separation, creating duality where none previouly existed, actualizing potential and allowing for contradiction does the universe take shape.

  • nieciedo

    X
    This is the one thing you’ve said that departs what an atheist would happily agree to. I think we (atheists) as a group LIKE to think there’s some kind of karmic ‘you get what’s coming to you’, but we’d point out all sorts of nasty people who’ve done lots of nasty stuff and done very nicely out of it ThankYouVeryMuch. This is clearly more of a supernatural element that fits what I’d traditionally understand as religion.
    Yeah, that is a problem. Still, I believe that everything is interconnected and that every action we take, however mundane, impacts the entirety of the universe in some way. I also stubbornly continue to believe in the inherent goodness of humanity and I believe that evil choices do untimately disfigure the essence or being of those who make them, even if they seem to get away with it. Why the evil seem to prosper while the good suffer is asked — without answer — even in the Bible, so there’s no nice answer to it. The only answer is that the problem of evil is a problem for us to solve. That which destroys life must be fought as much as possible. It is also a silly notion of faith to believe that life — that is “God” will ultimately triumph. But it’s better than the alternative.
    But just to be totally clear, in your mind the ‘force’ such as it is, isn’t something that any being ‘uses’, as it were… It’s more a set of broadly writ rules that describe some hidden deeper way in which the universe is set up to make things turn out in a just way.
    Yes. Language other than that would be too limiting.
    BTW, how do you see this karma as playing out? Do we have to get our comeuppance in our lifetimes, or is there some sort of afterlife in which the ledger can be balanced?
    I would like to believe in an afterlife of sorts and on a good day I do, but not one of reward or punishment. It is God (as I use that term) that gives us the courage and the inspiration and the hope to seek to redress evil in the here and now and in this world.

  • X

    Hm. Thanks for being so patient with your explanations! I think were I religious, this would be the sort of thing that would be compelling to me, although I may not do well with the high flying mystical philosophy. I’m just too much of a skeptic at heart. The notion of goodness, karma, optimism, and having to struggle to make sure good happens I think I would swallow mostly because I WANT to believe them, and this is a good way to instantiate the desired end such that it takes a more palpable, tractable form. Dividing nothingness into dualities etc is all well and good, but to my taste is too much like clever wordplay, and not enough something I could seriously get down to believing. But that’s just me, I can see how the ideas are big enough that it would be possible to get quite absorbed in them.

  • the opoponax

    “Jesus smites people. Karma, as far I understand it, sustains the cycle of reincarnation. Magic allows the mage to cast fireballs, or at least to make plants grow…”
    ok, seriously. i said it upthread and i’ll say it again. there should be a law that nobody gets to deem themselves an atheist until they’ve actually undertaken a basic study of non-abrahamic religion. or heck, start with abrahamic religion, since you seem to need a refresher in that, too.
    as above, Jesus was pretty anti-smiting.
    Karma is not a god at all, but a force or a law. this is pretty interesting coming as part of an argument that those who think of deity as just a “force of nature” type thing aren’t really theists. Karma would be a perfect example of something that can be accepted without necessarily being a theist, as it has nothing whatsoever to do with a concept of deity.
    and magic as you describe it, unless you’ve drunk a little too much of that D&D Kool-Aid, is, ahem, pretend. as in “not real”. as in “the only people who actually believe in shooting fireballs from your finger and the like are 12 year olds who’ve read too much Harry potter”.
    all so-called atheists who repeatedly put their feet in their mouths when it comes to actually knowing anything about religion (especially on a global scale, outside of Christianity and perhaps Judaism) are hereby BANNED from trying to prove God doesn’t exist. you’re all officially known (to me, at least) as agnostic, or ‘don’t know enough to develop an honest opinion’, take your pick.

  • Angelika

    hf But A) you can’t logically derive the answer to those questions from assumptions about causality alone,
    I was not talking about ‘causality’ at all. I was talking about relationships.
    Of course, the statement, ‘This Deity made this world’ is an assumption in so far as nobody is able to prove or disprove it – as well as nobody can prove or disprove the existance of that deity. However, if you discuss the character of said deity, based on assumptions how it treats this world, then the assumption of it having made this world (and this assumption is standard, if the Christian God is object of the discussion) is integral part of the discussion, because having made something results in some sort of relationship (commonly ownership).
    You can of course reject the notion of God as a Creator, and talk about, how a deity that did not create the world ought to treat humans, but then you are not discussing any longer the God that the Bible is talking about, which had been topic of the discussion.
    and B) we don’t accept the moral premise you seem to make here. That distraction you mentioned about parentage conflates mere causality with months of backbreaking work, among other problems.
    My ‘distraction’ towards the parents addressed a previous comment, referring to an old-testament law, that parents could have disobedient children executed. I mentioned, that many people on the board argue, that it is the mother’s right to abort an unborn child, if she should chose so. (If you disagree with that premise, go and get yourself beaten up by Jesurgislac.) Since the topic was already out there, I used the analogy, that the same way, the fetus didn’t do anything to exist, but its parents did, this world didn’t do anything to exist, but God did. Eventually, after birth, and childhood and growing up phases, the child is independent from the mother – and commonly we assume that reduces her rights to make decisions for the child, including the one, whether it should live or die. This is one point, where my analogy hinks (I never claimed it was perfect). I don’t believe, the world ever becomes as independent of God, as a child eventually becomes independent from its mother. I see God as much as the Sustainer of the world as its Creator, without whom it would cease to exist. Mine is a pretty traditional Christian view, so I didn’t think of the need to express it more explicitely.
    Now, you mention ‘mere causality’ as opposed to ‘months of backbreaking work’. I don’t see, what that matters in the context. Would the fetus be less dependent of its mother, if pregnancy were less physically demanding, or have more of a choice, whether or not to exist? Does a mother who goes through a troublesome pregnancy have more rights on her child, than one that does not suffer any complications?

  • 85% Duane

    FYI, you people are totally boring me to death. I’m trying to be patient but it looks like a lot of the entertaining commenters have moved on. What happened to Wintermute? Good to see Ray back; make me smile please.


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