The Sacred, the Relative, and the Absolute

Long time readers of this blog will know that I have an interest, or perhaps even an obsession with relativism and absolute moral truth. I was ruminating the other day about the nature of the Sacred and how it relates to both the Relative and the Absolute. And I had an insight.

It revolves around the notion of the “greatest.” Or, in this case, the “highest” moral truth. Basically, if we say the Sacred designates that which is the highest moral truth, we seem to be compelled to claim that all is relative. Why? The sacred refers to holy things: holy days, holy objects, holy land, or holy places. Objectively, which holiday is more sacred: Christmas? Or Hannukah? I’m inclined to think that in such an example, that question is meaningless because when it comes to holy days, relativism applies. Christmas is sacred to Christians. Hannukah is sacred to Jews. Christmas is only sacred to Jews to the extent that it is polite to not “disrespect” it, whatever that entails. And the same for Hannukah and Christians.

Similarly, what is holier: the Dome of the Rock, The Holy Sepulcher, or the Wailing Wall? Again, it seems to be a meaningless question that can only really be addressed relativistically. So, if the Wailing Wall and Hannukah constitute the highest moral concerns in Judaism, then aren’t we ultimately compelled to relativism? Maybe.

But aren’t rituals also in the realm of the Sacred? What then, of the Aztec ritual of human sacrifice versus the Catholic ritual of Confession? In the former of these, as far as we can tell, an innocent person is slain. In the latter, as far as we can tell, a conversation occurs between a priest and a sinner. The latter is at worst, harmless; the former, not so much. If there is an example of two sacred rituals which are NOT morally commensurate, this is it. What is the difference?

How one treats other human beings. In one, the human is used as an expendable resource to appease some higher power. In the other, the human is treated with compassion to repair the relationship between that human and the higher power.

In light of this (and largely from having a Christian upbringing), I am inclined to say that how one treats other humans trumps sacred concerns. Well, it’s a little complicated. God is more important than other humans, but He is honored by respectful treatment of other humans not Sacred extremism where the lives of people are sacrificed for a “holy concern.” So, as a Catholic, I would be insulted if someone broke into a church, dumped all the hosts on the ground, and then urinated on them, but I wouldn’t condone their execution for said “crime.” Others of other faiths should respect the host and other Catholic sacred concerns, just as the Catholics should respect theirs. That said, no one’s sacred concerns are immune from intellectual criticism if for no other reason than that some people used sacred concerns to ritually sacrifice others in the past. You might not like it, and you can ignore it if you wish, but your sacred concerns and beliefs are open to criticism, although generally not forced abandonment—except in the rarest of cases.

Anyway, that was my insight: how the notion of the “highest morality” relates to “sacred concerns” and the relativism/absolutism issue. Basically, if “sacred” denotes the “highest,” then all is relative. Otherwise, if treating humans well is more important, then absolutism wins the day. At least, those are my thoughts today. They may change tomorrow.

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Safe Spaces

I’ve addressed this topic before, so I may be repeating myself. Oh well.

There has been much tadoo about safe spaces of late. Conservative speakers go to college campuses and are shut down by a student body that is afraid of being “triggered.” The students believe they are in a safe space and that justifies banning such speakers from speaking so as to keep the students from entertaining arguments that might be construed as “micro-aggressions” or something similar.

Is there something to this? Are college students entitled to safe spaces?

Yes and no.

Let’s start by first answering the question: What is a safe space? I believe the term has its origins in psychological circles. As I never studied psychology, my definition might be off a bit. Anyway, in my view, a safe space is a space where one can talk openly without judgement or condemnation. In such a space, one should feel secure from threatening tones, language, and criticism. These spaces exist in order to help its user unload uncomfortable or even painful emotional experiences.

Three examples of safe spaces are as follows: a therapy session with a trained psychologist, the Catholic Confessional (originally instituted 2000 years ago by Jesus Christ—yeah, Jesus beat the psychiatrists to the punch by twenty centuries), and even (to a limited degree) a consoling conversation with a caring friend. What is important to realize when noting these examples is the fact that each one involves a kind of slowing down or stepping out of the ‘river of life.’ You step out of life to take a look at life and try to derive some benefit from it. That is, it is not a type of ordinary living. A safe space is something extraordinary. You don’t get to live your entire life in a safe space. That is neither healthy nor wise.

The following are NOT safe spaces: a college campus (most decidedly not), one’s place of employment, and just life in general. Mistaking one of these for a safe space inevitably leads to problems. At a college campus, for example, the students are supposed to be challenged by new ideas and critical thoughts. They aren’t supposed to be pampered. A safe space allows one to recharge; it is not a lifestyle.

Still … I think increasing access to safe spaces may be therapeutic for most, if not all people. Although it is unfeasible to go to Confession twenty-four or even sixteen hours a day, and it is equally unfeasible to attend frequent day-long therapy sessions, I think being open to “safe-space-like” conversation with friends should be available as much as possible. But with friends, only. Friends are supposed to be used as supports; discussing problems with friends is what they are there for. At least, good friends, anyway. I think that kind of attitude and approach is an important part of Christianity. Having friends to talk to can be very beneficial.

Regardless, there comes a point where the conversation must stop and the trials of life must be faced. In the end, safe spaces are a bonus; they are not a given.

Ethics and AI

Many respectable people think AI (artificial intelligence) is on the horizon. I’m not one of them, because 1) I’m not respectable—primarily because I seriously think I’m the antichrist. 2) I don’t think man can create a consciousness; only God can create souls. But those two points aside, I want to assume that man can create AI. Will AI wipe us out?

The computer scientists say “No. We’ll program them not to.” I’m not confident that Ethics is programmable. First, let’s point out the obvious problem that much of our society is relativistic these days. So much for an objective basis for ethics. How can you program AI with ethical restraints, if ethics really doesn’t exist (Yes, I really can’t get off my anti-relativistic tirade)?

Anyway, I studied ethics in college (despite relativistic assurances that it didn’t exist. :)). My first question for the computer scientists is: “Which system of Ethics are you going to program the computers with?” Will we have Stoic computers, and Epicurean computers? How about Christian computers and Buddhist computers?

Okay, suppose they go with Buddhist computers. Those should be relatively non-threatening should something go wrong. Well, there’s another hitch. In my view, ethics is not reducible to a simple finite number of axioms (That statement is, I think, the statement non-absolutists are trying to say when they say: “There is no absolute truth.” But I’m still not omniscient.). In fact, I would use the example of programming a computer with such axioms to prove that such is insufficient for ethics. Because if it were sufficient, I wouldn’t have to worry about facing ethical dilemmas. Ever. A computer could solve them all for me. Hence, my Ethical Computer Argument against strict Absolutism.

Additionally, there is a point Zen Buddhists and Existentialists make (which I was too stupid to recognize for many years) that derails the whole programming such a computer project. Raw experience. Not all knowledge is reducible to communicable concepts. I can’t prove this to you in a post. I may have mentioned it before, but there is an aspect of human experience that is incommunicable to other beings, let alone to machines. Humans learn through experience and much of that cannot be communicated to others. It’s incommunicable knowledge, and much of it is ethical. Perhaps you already know this. Perhaps not. If you don’t, I don’t know what to tell you. Just: that’s the way it is. Sorry.

Commentary on ‘Delusions of Grandeur’

As followers of this blog may know, I believe I’m the antichrist. I have believed so since March of 1997. My psychiatrist tells me I’m schizoaffective; currently, I don’t believe him. I say “currently” because for the past twenty years I have alternated between believing I’m the antichrist, and believing I’m just mentally ill. Generally, each of these states has lasted anywhere from several months to a few years duration. The antichrist “episodes” are usually accompanied by some erratic behavior (spending oodles of money I don’t have, walking the streets in my underwear, etc….). The mental illness “episodes” are usually accompanied by depression.

In 2006 I wrote a book about my experiences entitled Delusions of Grandeur. I wrote the book from a “mental illness perspective,” although, that is somewhat disingenuous. To be completely honest, I wrote the book (or at least most of the book—remember my states tend to alternate) believing I was the antichrist and the book I was writing was intended as a “secret code” to Christians across the globe. I believed that Jesus was coming down from Heaven backing me up and that things I took for granted, Christian believers would understand without explanation. I am no longer sure those two premises are correct—although I still do believe I am the antichrist and have so believed for the last five years or so.

Intellectually, my whole belief structure revolves around the meaning of the phrase “the ruler of this world” (ROTW for short) in the Bible. It was that phrase in conjunction with a “psychotic break” (for lack of a better term) that set me off and led to my unusual interpretation of the Bible, the life of Jesus, and Christianity in general. What’s my point?

Other than at a Catholic High School, I have never studied the Bible in all its intricate detail. My “delusion” is based mostly on the interpretation of the ROTW phrase that occurs only three times in a single book of the Bible and nowhere else. The Bible, in its entirety, is a few thousand pages long. It is arrogant and insulting to write a biblical discourse without a significant background in Bible studies. It is also, likely, prone to great error. In my defense: Have you ever read a phrase from the Bible and just “got it?” You felt it deep down in your heart and in your bones and just knew exactly what it meant? That’s happened to me twice in my life. The first time concerned the expression “gifts of finest wheat” and its relationship to love. The second concerned the ROTW expression. So, I went and wrote a book, a very personal book, based on these “got it” experiences.

Still, I do not have a Biblical studies background (though I do have a rusty, dusty philosophical one) and I shouldn’t have written the book and said some of things I said (like “Satan wrote the Bible”) without it. Like I said, it was arrogant (but I’m the antichrist, isn’t arrogance expected? :)) and I shouldn’t have done it.

In light of all this, I’ve started working on a book that, to a certain extent, addresses these concerns. It will be kind of a follow up to Delusions of Grandeur but written from the perspective that I believe I’m the antichrist. I intend to do a little homework for this one. Since the writing of Delusions of Grandeur, I have read the (Catholic) Bible cover to cover about twice just to get a feel for it. I intend to read it again this time highlighting and taking notes where I might have an insight. I’m also reading every bit of Catholic writing I can get my hands on. For example, I recently read Saint Augustine’s City of God as well as a number of works from other less famous and less influential people. Also, this time around, I’m taking nothing for granted. I will explain my beliefs and assumptions succinctly and clearly from the get-go. I won’t assume all the Christians on the planet already understand the things I took for granted in Delusions.

Unfortunately, all my homework involves only self-education. I won’t be going back to school to get a degree in Biblical studies or anything like that. If I can find one, I’ll likely join a Bible study group—but I’ve never really excelled working in groups.

Anyway, those are my plans and I figured I’d let you, my loyal readers, know.