Is this the best of times or the worst of times?

August 31, 2006    By: Jacob J @ 1:09 pm   Category: Life,Mormon Culture/Practices

Obviously there are both good things and bad things about this time in the history of the world. When you boil them all down and compare this time in the history of the world to every other time in the history of the world, how do we fare? On average–all things considered–are we above average, is it the worst it’s ever been, is it pretty much the same as it has always been, what do you think?

Be sure to share your reasoning. I have the answer key and can help out with the right answer at the end.

[Associated radio.blog song: INXS - This Time]

77 Comments »

  1. “They were the best of times. They were the worst of times.” ~ Charles Dickens, A Tale Of Two Cities

    “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” ~ William Shakespeare, Hamlet Act II, scene ii

    Comment by Clark — August 31, 2006 @ 12:44 pm

  2. I think the good things are getting better, and the bad things are getting worse. We are seeing much more polarity in our day than ever before.

    Comment by Connor Boyack — August 31, 2006 @ 1:20 pm

  3. Clark,

    Does the lack of a follow-up comment after the Hamlet imply that you don’t do any thinking (and hence have no opinion about whether things are good or bad)? :O)

    Connor,

    How are you able to determine that things are more polarized than ever? Also, how do we do on the all-things-considered scale–do the things getting better and worse balance each other out and make this time average?

    Comment by Jacob — August 31, 2006 @ 1:58 pm

  4. Connor, is world hunger getting better or worse? Relative to what time period? Of course that illustrates the problem. Do we call hunger a good that is getting better since what’s at question isn’t the bad of hunger but the good of feeding? But given that, isn’t your statement logically irrefutable?

    My problem with this question (and I’d considered it at M* a few months back) is that we tend to pick and choose both what we count as goods or evils but also the time period in question. Thus folks in suburban American say things are getting worse because a few evils within their small community are getting worse even though perhaps for most people things are getting better with respect to that same evil. And of course even the suburbanites have it better than say the typical middle class person in the 19th century.

    Comment by clark — August 31, 2006 @ 2:05 pm

  5. I don’t think we are anywhere close to the worst of times, but we are headed in that direction. The scriptures are very clear that when the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled, the Lord will withdraw his Spirit from them to the degree that they do not repent. Indeed many events since the Civil War can be understood in just such terms – the absence of the Spirit of the Lord makes people vulnerable to the spirit of the devil, which in its worst form is the desire for bloodshed and all its ancilliaries (selfishness, covetousness, pride, envy, malice, dishonesty, and so on).

    The Book of Mormon describes dozens of these pride cycles, and they got worse and worse before the Savior came, eventually causing a great division among the people, because the righteousness were no longer safe in the presence of the wicked. When that day arrives, the devil will have power in his own dominionm and the physical gathering of Israel will begin anew, and the Lord will preserve the righteous, in power and great glory, as in the days of Enoch and Moses. And then we shall be able to freely discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not, in a way far more visible than what we see now.

    Comment by Mark Butler — August 31, 2006 @ 2:06 pm

  6. “because the righteous were no longer safe”

    Comment by Mark Butler — August 31, 2006 @ 2:08 pm

  7. Jacob, I think that the two quotes tell the tale of whether we live in the worst of times or best of times. One must ask, best for what? For Hamlet life in Elsnor castle was a prison. For his mother and step-father/uncle it was anything but. (Well, at least up to the end of the play) Hamlet admits that it is his thinking that makes it a prison for him. It’s something to muse on. Would you rather live 4000 BC in a primitive tribe that perhaps had fewer of the evils we worry about or live now with medicine, toilet paper, plumbing, books, and a long life expectancy? I guess it depends upon what you want from life.

    I should add that I nearly added this quote to my Shakespeare and Dickenson quotes:

    If I were sunk in the lowest pits of Nova Scotia, with the Rocky Mountains piled on me, I would hang on, exercise faith, and keep up good courage, and I would come out on top.

    Comment by clark — August 31, 2006 @ 2:10 pm

  8. Clark,

    I agree that the questions is totally subjective and I have (intentionally) offered no guidance on what you should consider important in making your judgment. (Surely you have a judgment about what factors are most important, no?) I don’t think the question in meaningless by any stretch, which is where you comment seems to be logically heading. As to what time period we are to compare, I have asked you to consider all time periods and compare our time period to the average. Or any other insight is fine as well.

    The subjectiveness certainly does not prevent people from making statements about what terrible times we live in, or what glorious times we live in. It is easy to focus on some one factor and talk about it being good or bad, but I am interested in the fact that people quite commonly generalize about this time of the earth’s history, and I am curious to hear the reasoning behind such statements from anyone who will share.

    By the way, great quote in #7, for those unfamiliar with it, it was said by Joseph Smith.

    Comment by Jacob — August 31, 2006 @ 2:41 pm

  9. Oh, and re clark #4:

    I figured this would have come up on other sites at times past (such an obvious question), but I didn’t know where. One of the perils of being human, everything has been done before. I wasn’t around to argue about it then, so I thought I’d bring it up again for anyone who is not burnt out on the question.

    Comment by Jacob — August 31, 2006 @ 2:45 pm

  10. Jacob, I’d much rather live now than any other time in prior history. Further I think even with the War on Terror (which frankly hasn’t affected that many people) the era from around 1988 – 2006 has been a near paradise. I’m fully prepared for the rug to be pulled out from us and know how temporary peace can be. But really I think we have it pretty good.

    Comment by Clark — August 31, 2006 @ 3:23 pm

  11. BTW – I don’t mind the same topics coming up in the least. My post was more about whether the world was getting better or more wicked. It’s a sad commentary that we all have to make these caveats to avoid hurt feelings.

    Comment by Clark — August 31, 2006 @ 3:25 pm

  12. I don’t think that question can be answered in any kind of absolutist sense. Better or worse from whose perspective? From my perspective as a post-Enlightenment liberal, this is certainly as good as times have ever been, broadly speaking. People are more tolerant of each other and their beliefs. People aren’t getting killed for believing the wrong thing any more. Our technology and knowledge of the world as enabled us to reduce suffering by way of medicine as well as food. War is becoming the exception rather than the norm.

    From the perspective of those who encouraged the witch hunts, holy wars and the like in the name of what they “knew” to be true, this is probably their worst nightmare. Sin goes tolerated, unpunished and even encouraged. Whereas we see “free love” they see “cheap love.” Religion plays an intolerably miniscule role in government and legal affairs.

    Which one of these perspective is the “true” one? I don’t think this question makes any sense. The question cannot be considered without a proper context, complete with a set of values in place to judge which is best by. The problem is that values change with the times.

    I’m sure the question is supposed to be answered from God’s perspective. My answer is that we have no right to think that we are any more privy to God’s perspective than any other time has been.

    Comment by Jeff G — August 31, 2006 @ 3:44 pm

  13. There is some truth to Connor’s comment.

    I like on The Daily Show when Jon Stewart has a conservative guest who laments how schools aren’t as good now as they were in the good ‘ol days (due to the removal of religion). To which Stewart usually replies, “Oh, you mean back when the Blacks had their own school and the Whites had theirs.”

    Things are certainly better today than they were thirty years ago. Ask your parents (if you’re not old enough like I’m not) if they thought the world was going to end circa 1980. They’re lying if they say, no. And this just proves one of my theories, nothing good ever came out of the seventies. Well, except for me, of course. Need proof? Go watch “Soylent Green.”

    Comment by Tim J. — August 31, 2006 @ 3:49 pm

  14. Clark: “the era from around 1988 – 2006 has been a near paradise”

    I love the boldness of this assertion. Well done.

    Jeff,

    Your comments were just the kind of thing I was looking for. You said “we have no right to think that we are any more privy to God’s perspective than any other time has been.” I agree that we should not consider ourselves more privy to God’s perspective than other times as a matter of bias toward our own time. I think it could be reasonable if God has revealed himself to us more fully in this time in a way that is relevant to the question. Also, as you mentioned, “values change with the times,” but certainly you don’t think morality is so fluid, and that is what we are really after if we want to view it from God’s perspective. (By the way, I think our perspective is sometimes as interesting as God’s perspective.) So, shouldn’t we feel comfortable making a judgment about burning witches and starting holy wars?

    Tim J,

    Good points. I have to correct you on one thing though, a lot of good things came out of the 70s. The first one that comes to mind is Austin Powers.

    Comment by Jacob — August 31, 2006 @ 4:31 pm

  15. Mark (#5),

    So, it sounds like you think we are, on balance, a below average time. Did I understand you correctly to say that the spirit of the Lord has been in withdrawl since the Civil War? That is a shocker to me.

    Comment by Jacob — August 31, 2006 @ 4:39 pm

  16. Jacob,

    I certainly do not mean there has been some sort of linear monotonic withdrawal. I simply mean that the conditionality of spiritual (not temporal) blessings has been increasing. The essence of this earthly probation is that we are given more blessings than we deserve. In other words, in our state of sin, we are a net drain on the heavenly economy.

    That is just fine as long as we are gradually repenting of our sins and becoming a purer and holier society and civilization. If as a society we go in the opposite direction for an extended period of time (a generation or to, typically) the Lord withdraws his grace (the free gift of the Spirit beyond what we deserve, administered at enormous sacrifice) and the natural consequences of the arm of flesh play out – corruption, tumult, rebellion, war and so on until we (as a society) realize our own inadequacy before God and journey in his direction once again.

    Now if you read the autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, one of the things that he said was that the Americans of the 1850s were spiritually dull compared to the 1830s. They had been overcome by sin, and were unrepentant, the Spirit of the Lord had withdrawn, and ultimately they (predominantly) acquired the spirit of bloodshed, thinking that war was the answer to all their problems. North or South it doesn’t matter the desire for war is of the spirit of the devil. And so a great many Americans, more than perished in the wars of the twentieth century combined died, simply because too many desired evil, rather than good. Of course the South probably deserves the majority of the blame for the perversion of slavery, an institution as practiced that was against every principle of morality imaginable.

    Now it is commonplace for people to repent after a war or other calamity, and I believe Americans did, at least for a while. I can’t say that the end of Reconstruction was any sign of spirituality, to put it mildly, nor the corruption of the Railroads, nor many (not all) of the captains of industry in the Gilded Age.

    So I think we see cycles going up and down in every nation according to the heed and diligence they pay to what they know to be right and true. I think America has been more wicked in many respects in times past, but on the other hand we are getting much more sophisticated at sinning – more like the city of Ammonihah or Babylon, and less like the end of the Nephites.

    America is at the grass roots still a rather religious country, and we will continue to be blessed as long as we keep that up, not only in word but in deed as well. But if we return to immorality and the worst perversions of secularism, we shall lose those blessings and be left to our own resources and our own strength, having no support from the Spirit of the Lord.

    Now the division which many suspect is in progress is the division between the wicked and the righteous due to the withdrawal of unconditional blessings of the Spirit upon the Gentile nations. In other words the end game for the temporal telestial is the end of probation – no more free blessings for those who do not keep the commandments. You can tell that a people is truly wicked when rather than repenting on such an occasion, they harden in iniquity and fight against God. I don’t think that America is in that state now, but I can imagine that the forces of immorality are strong enough that could be a prospect in a generation or two.

    Comment by Mark Butler — August 31, 2006 @ 5:35 pm

  17. Jacob – Austin Powers actually was frozen in the 60s.

    As to your question, I have to agree with Clark. Despite our deeply engrained Chicken Little propensities I can’t think of many ways that these are anything but the best of times. For one thing, there are no new sins under the sun. The difference may be that we have access to a lot more information about the same ol’ meanness and sin that has always been going on to one degree or another. But there is no more or less free will now than there was for people living thousands of years ago so people who are choosing to sin now presumably would have chosen it then had the same opportunity presented itself. (Maybe that implies that people are the same but temptations and blessings are ratched up…)

    But there are things available to all that would have been great miracles even a hundred years ago. For instance, I suspect that half of the people reading this would have not reached adulthood had we all been born in the 19th century. I just don’t see how this could be a worse time to live in most places in the world now than most any time in the past (though I used to buy that line). Maybe there is more opposition now but what do we care? We are trying to be like God himself after all. If we can’t take a little more temptation than generations past then we have farther to go than we think.

    (Careful — I feel some MMP musings coming on…)

    Comment by Geoff J — August 31, 2006 @ 5:53 pm

  18. As an insulin-dependent diabetic, I say these are the best of times.

    Comment by Susan M — August 31, 2006 @ 6:03 pm

  19. Geoff,

    It is true Austin was frozen in the 60s, I’ll give you that. But what about fat-Elvis. He was from the 70s and he rocked.

    I think I can summarize you as saying:

    1. people are the same as always
    2. life expectancy is much higher (one example of modern miracles)
    3. there might be more temptation than in generations past

    This left me wanting more. Surely there is more that goes into your calculus.

    Also, I am surprised at how America-centric the comments have been. I expected more musings on the state of the world. Tonight when I have some time I will give some of my own thoughts on this.

    Comment by Jacob — August 31, 2006 @ 6:19 pm

  20. If we count material blessings alone, surely these are the best of times. If we count cultural blessings or spiritual blessings, probably about average, speaking of the United States as a whole. I wasn’t counting material blessings. I think the latter two usually go hand in hand.

    Comment by Mark Butler — August 31, 2006 @ 8:59 pm

  21. Best of times. I’m a material girl and I like All my Mod Cons.

    There have always been things to fear in one way or another. Sure there may have been pockets of peace and idyllic neighborhoods in the fifties where kids could walk to school safely and spend hours down at the creek, but there were pervs and psychos back then too.

    The worst thing about today is that the mass media is desensitizing us to become meaner and meaner and colder and less compassionate. For comedies to be funny they have to be more shocking and hurtful. Even “nice TV” has it wratcheted up a notch. My 18 mo. old called me a bitch when I wouldn’t let her do something. She overheard that word when I was watching a “Friends” episode. (When she used it correctly, though, I admit I was impressed at her verbal precocity.) However, we still have agency to turn away from those “worst of times” influences and make our own lives reflect the “best of times” the world has to offer.

    Yes, best of times. I vote best.

    Comment by meems — August 31, 2006 @ 10:00 pm

  22. I tend to break things down into three categories when comparing societies/states-of-the-world across time: (1) human suffering, (2) cultural norms, (3) gospel success.

    (1) In terms of human suffering, the state of the world today is amazingly great by comparison to any other time. Creature comforts are at an all time high (think indoor plumbing, climate control, cotton clothing, tempurpedic mattresses, etc.) Further, I believe there is less hunger than ever before. Here in America we have virtually wiped out poverty, if “poverty” is judged by historical standards. As has been mentioned, medical advances help people live longer and more comfortably. Think of how great it is to have dentistry and novocaine, or even optometry. There is less war and fewer people who fight in wars than ever. Jeff G hit on all these points and I think he is dead on. So this category seems like an easy one, this is the best time in history in terms of human suffering.

    (2) This is the only category that needs a little explanation. Geoff is obviously correct that human nature is as it has always been. Thus, it doesn’t make sense to compare people exactly, but culture is a sort of societal average. If things break down to nature/nurture I view culture as a way to strip away nature and see what we are nurturing in people, what values we share as a society. It seems to me that as a culture we have some very good things going for us. We have a culture of tolerance and equal rights that has led to less slavery and more rights for women than at any time in history.

    We also have a culture of generosity. We have built into our civil society a fairly sizeable tax burden, which, rather than going to some king on his throne, goes largely to helping the poor, the elderly, and the downtrodden. It will be pointed out that we also spend a lot on our military, but about half the times we send them out around the world, it is to stop brutal tyrants from from hurting helpless people (think Somalia). Even after we are taxed heavily, there is an enormous amount of charitable giving, which reaches all over the world. If a group of people have their city flooded, the American people send millions of dollars to help them all rebuild their homes. If there is an earthquake in far away Pakistan, we send millions upon millions of dollars to help the victims. Where else? When else? Has there ever been anything like this in the history of the world.

    (3) As far as the gospel is concerned, there is really no question about it. The gospel is spreading as it has never before. There are more members, more priesthood holders, more temples, more people who understand the plan of salvation than there have ever been.

    So, why are people always saying this is the worst time in history with more wickedness than ever? I don’t even buy the idea that things are more polarized than ever. The wicked people on earth don’t seem any more evil that the wicked people I read about in history books or the bible. The righteous people today don’t seem especially more righteous than righteous people in the past. It is worth asking about percentages of righteous people and wicked people, but I just don’t buy the like that everything is polarizing.

    Comment by Jacob — August 31, 2006 @ 11:14 pm

  23. meems,

    I have a son a couple of months older than your 18 month old and I am impressed when he says “kee” and points to top of the refrigerator. As his parent, I know that kee means candy. If he called me a b-tch, I would have no idea.

    Comment by Jacob — August 31, 2006 @ 11:20 pm

  24. The main problem about government welfare is the coercive aspect. The second problem is the inefficiency of its administration, and the way morality has to be shoved out the door.

    We would be blessed more if we gave freely to the poor, using wisdom to avoid perpetuating their own condition, getting personally involved in their lives. It is worth noting that most of the welfare funds go to pay the salaries and overhead of an army of social workers plus transaction costs, and does not end up in the hands of the beneficiaries. It would be better if we did it ourselves – that is what we used to do. See The Tragedy of American Compassion by Marvin Olasky for details.

    Comment by Mark Butler — September 1, 2006 @ 7:59 am

  25. Mark,

    While an arguement can be made against govenment for being inefficient, I think it is quite important to recognize what it means about our society that we exempt the poorest class from paying taxes (of course everyone is hit with consumption tax so that is not perfectly true) and we use a large percentage of our tax revenue to pay for public education, medicaid, welfare, food stamps, etc. Even if these are not administered in the most efficient way, it says something meaningful about our society and its intentions that we are trying. Don’t you agree?

    On top of all of that, there is still quite a healthy amount of charitable giving at all levels of income. I think these serve as strong evidence of a culture of compassion, despite the recent hand-wringing on the ‘nacle about how rich and evil we have become.

    Comment by Jacob — September 1, 2006 @ 11:27 am

  26. Jacob,

    Couldn’t it be argued, however, that God, being an embodied being situated in a particular context in both space and time, is simply judging our context from the value which are native to His context? This would seem to raise a lot of pretty complicated questions.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 1, 2006 @ 12:34 pm

  27. This would seem to raise a lot of pretty complicated questions.

    You ain’t kidding about complicated questions Jeff. Here’s a question that is so complicated I had to read it several times just to figure it out:

    Couldn’t it be argued, however, that God, being an embodied being situated in a particular context in both space and time, is simply judging our context from the value which are native to His context?

    ;-)

    Comment by Geoff J — September 1, 2006 @ 12:49 pm

  28. Jeff G,

    The problems introduced by perspectivism are interesting. I don’t see the problem you describe as arising primarily from God’s existence in a certain place and time, per se, but still, you raise an interesting question with regards to the nature of morality. I assume the “complicated questions” you refer to have to do with absolutism vs. relativism in questions of morality, right? Is what we consider “good” the same as what God considers “good.” If not, on what grounds can we argue that God’s perspective is superior to our own? Is that the kind of thing you have in mind?

    As a consequentialist, I have become somewhat comfortable with the idea that the ultimate morality of specific actions may remain uncertain, even from God’s perspective. However, I think the nature of morality ends up being grounded in the nature of reality rather than in God, so that is how I try to avoid this problem. It may or may not work according to your perspective :O)

    Comment by Jacob — September 1, 2006 @ 2:05 pm

  29. Those are exactly the problems I had in mind. I suppose, however that consequentialism is a decent response to these problems, however I worry about the value judgments which will be made upon similar consequences across distinct contexts. I, for one, am not sold on consequentialism, for I think that it begs the question to a large degree. Especially in an immortal context where survival and health have little significance, if any, who decides which consequences are better than others, and why?

    Comment by Jeff G — September 1, 2006 @ 2:24 pm

  30. Jacob, I agree that having a governmental safety net type welfare system says good things about our society. However, state democracy is based on the tyranny of the majority, which typically means forcing other people to do what you want, which is another inversion of the doctrine of grace. Graciousness means you give freely, because you love another person, and your relationship with them is strengthened thereby. State welfare leads to an alienation of grace, and in many cases the destruction thereof.

    The beneficiaries start to want unconditional grace, where they do not have to do anything – no work requirements, no moral requirements, nothing. They want grace to be a natural right, where the whole point of gratitude is being grateful for something that the giver had no obligation to supply. Hobbes talked about that. Think of tips or gratuities for example – they are now practically mandatory, so they are no longer gracious or gratuitous, but rather simply part of the fixed price of a meal. Only a tip over 15% or 20% is considered a tip anymore.

    Similarly, only what we contribute beyond our taxes is charitable. Welfare statists want to destroy the world of grace and replace it with a world of coercion. That is Satan’s plan, more or less. No one is blessed for what they are forced to do. One can only be truly blessed if they give willingly, out of love, not fear.

    Comment by Mark Butler — September 1, 2006 @ 3:50 pm

  31. Mark,

    I agree that with all of your concerns–in theory. However, I don’t think they apply to the USA at the current time, so they don’t really factor into my answer to the question of the post. I think there are all kinds of problems with the way we administer welfare in this country, but I still think the citizens (despite their taxes being taken at gunpoint) overwhelmingly agree with the existence of a safety net. So, I don’t think it is really functioning as a tyranny of the majority in this case. I agree that taxes do not really count as charity, which is why I mentioned charitable giving existing “on top of all that.”

    Comment by Jacob — September 1, 2006 @ 7:44 pm

  32. Jeff G,

    I didn’t mean to say that consequentialism gets one out of the problem of subjectivism. As you say, we still have to judge consequences as “good” or “bad” so it doesn’t really help there at all. I try to deal with that problem by grouding morality in the nature of reality rather than the nature of God. Thus, morality is not a ultimately grounded in any certain perspective. It is simply a fact about the universe and the nature of people that happiness is found in certain kinds of relationships with other people. and so on.

    Until today, I didn’t know you had a blog working on understanding value in a naturalistic worldview. (I’ll have to do some catching up.) It is interesting to me to ask why people uniformly feel it is harder to establish values and morality if there is no God. For the people who ground morality in the nature of God or in divine commands it is pretty obvious. However, because grounding morality in God quickly leads to moral relativism and moral arbitrariness, many people choose to view God as conforming to the moral law rather than defining it. For such people why would removing God pose a problem to the idea of morality? I think it is the removal of consequences that causes the problem. In the naturalistic worldview, nothing is of eternal consequence. Soon I’ll be dead and gone, so what does it matter what I do? All people will soon be gone when the sun burns out, so who cares about anything?

    If there is an eternal part of man that goes on after death, then everything is imbued with meaning because every choice helps to shape an eternal personality.

    Now, more to the point of this post, it should be noted that there is pretty good agreement among all people at all times on some of the basic principles of morality. As far as I can tell from what God has revealed, He seems to agree with our basic intuitions about morality. Of my three categories in #22, only the third is really problematic (it’s not problematic in the context of a Mormon blog of course). But do we really have to worry that God values human suffering as a primary good?

    Comment by Jacob — September 1, 2006 @ 8:39 pm

  33. Jacob, I have a very similar meta-ethics to what you describe. I believe that all morality is grounded in nature. And by nature here, I mena the inevitable and unavoidable properties of eternal intelligences – those which can be expanded upon, but not suppressed. Pride, egoism, arbitrariness, eccentricity can be suppressed through self-discipline, yielding to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, which is a manifestation of the will of the divine concert.

    However, certain meta-relationships cannot be suppressed. e.g. action requires effort, effort entails suffering, peace is a state of maximal harmony / minimal suffering, an excess of suffering is an absolute evil (i.e. a bad thing), co-operation leads two agents to minimize discord, minimizing discord leads to peace, love is a fullness of co-operation, and so on. These meta-relationships, or meta-ethics are so fundamental that they are unavoidable, i.e. they are the axioms or near-axioms of the natural law of morality, the one described very well by Hobbes.

    These are all strictly eternal, not temporally ordained verities, consequences of the unavoidable (not just probable) properties of immanent intelligences. They naturally lead to a consequentialist grounding of all ordained laws and ethical systems, of which the law and ordinances of God are the greatest – authored, ordained, and sustained according to the decree of the divine concert. Not a complete determination of those laws and ordinances, but a metric or meta-ethic by which we can measure their efficacy and absolute value. The concert of heaven (speaking broadly) progresses by willingly agreeing to abide by higher and higher creative implementations of the natural law of morality, ultimately a morality so sophisticated it cannot be written down comprehensively, the Spirit of the law, not the letter.

    The Spirit of the law being of course the the real time legislation of the hosts of heaven. Agency (self-stewardship), being anxiously engaged in a good cause, for example is real time self-legislation of a sort. And then you move to the common consent of a couple (marriage / friendship), a family, a clan, a tribe, a nation, a culture, a church, and ultimately the body of Christ.

    Some suggest that a shared celestial culture and civilization means no personal, familial, or (sub-)cultural agency. I believe this is wrong. Neither the natural law of morality, nor the divine law is fully determinate. That is what makes personality, family, and culture so wonderful – our own little spark of divine creativity, in grand harmony with the burning fire of the whole.

    Comment by Mark Butler — September 2, 2006 @ 2:14 am

  34. Jacob,

    I don’t see how my existing eternally make my actions more significant, unless of course I’m only acting with myself in mind. But isn’t morality supposed to be the antithesis of egocentrism? My actions have consequences which are just as temporal/eternal regardless of whether I suffer/enjoy those consequences myself.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 2, 2006 @ 2:31 am

  35. Jeff: because life is eternal, my actions influence my relationships not only for now and what I can get away with, but for an eternity of interaction and living in community. Thus, my actions have infinitely more meaning because their consequences have infinitely longer impact. Moreover, as an agape theorist, it seems that there is moral obligation primarily in relation to others — but my increase of knowledge and ability to love have long lasting effects. How is there any “morality” beyond what may lead to the ill-fated ultimate non-survival of the species if there is no life after death? We may have some sort of social contract (like ants and bees) that effects optimum survival, but I don’t see how that is a morality rather than just a social policy. I know we’ve discussed it before — I just don’t see that there is utlimately any right or wrong, good or evil if the measure is merely self-interested ideal agreements for now.

    Comment by Blake — September 2, 2006 @ 8:41 am

  36. Jeff G,

    I agree that actions can go on having consequences long after you are gone and that morality is not egocentric (although I wouldn’t go as far as saying it is the antithesis of egocentrism). What I had in mind was that there is no morality without consciousness. If there were no sentient beings in the universe there would be no such thing as morality. As long as there are conscious beings, you can work out some system of morality (although, the lack of an eternal context (of persons) makes things more difficult because inequities and seeming unfairness coming upon a person for acting morally cannot be ironed out so easily). The problem is that if people and consciousness are about to disappear (as they are), then you get a fleeting morality. It may be wrong to murder someone today, but if that person, and all people, are about to be extinguished anyway, then “right” and “wrong” come to nothing just like everything else. Sort of like the tree in the forest, it is interesting to ask if something that did matter, but ceases to matter, ever mattered at all.

    I have been intentionally avoiding bringing up the lack of LFW and the fact that people are essentially things in a naturalistic universe, but those issues raise worse problem for morality than those I am pointing out above.

    Comment by Jacob — September 2, 2006 @ 9:04 am

  37. Blake: Glad you jumped in. I was hoping this veer into meta-ethics would suck you in.

    Mark: I agree with your #33, well said. My only disagreement is with your statement that “effort entails suffering.” I know this plays an important part in your theology (especially atonement theory), but I am not convinced that effort entails suffering, in the technical sense of that word.

    Comment by Jacob — September 2, 2006 @ 9:13 am

  38. Blake,

    While I can see how your ethical system cannot exclude the “I” while at the same time resisting an egocentric account. Nevertheless, aside from the fact that I don’t find your metaethics at all persuasive, I don’t think your system is as favorable in the present context as you think. The fact is that I DON’T want my actions to have eternal consequences with regards to my relationships with others. I want the meaning of my actions to fade with time, just as they seem to in this life. I don’t see how making the consequences eternal is at all a good thing.

    Just for the record, I don’t think the social contract or social norms in general are based in survival. Nor do I see the social contract as being based in any kind of self-interest at all. In fact, I would argue with you that any decent account of morality must be more than this. Additionally, I do not see why moral norms cannot be a particular kind of social policy.

    For the record, I have come to adopt a more non-cognitivist account of morality in the form of norm-expressivism. I see this as being somewhat social-contract like, but not in anything like what Hobbes, Locke or Rousseau advocated. I think that Rawls’ account is far closer to what I have in mind in that moral norms are social constructs of sorts, but I think his account is far too cognitive in nature.

    Jacob,

    I see no reason whatsoever that something which doesn’t matter forever can’t matter at all. I think you are going to have to defend that position rather than simply assert it. Even the religionist argues that certain things do matter in this life and just for this life.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 2, 2006 @ 10:12 am

  39. Jeff: “The fact is that I DON’T want my actions to have eternal consequences with regards to my relationships with others. I want the meaning of my actions to fade with time, just as they seem to in this life. I don’t see how making the consequences eternal is at all a good thing.”

    Blake: If your actions were loving and conducive to mutual flourishing, wouldn’t you want them to last in consequence forever? What you really mean is that you want to escape accountability for your actions and hope that they will just slip into oblivion and have no meaning ultimately — and on your view, they indeed have no ultimate meaning.

    I am unclear on what you mean by a non-cognitivitist account. Are we responsible for what we have never been conscious have and cannot appreciate as either right or wrong? I suspect that it boils down to the evolutionary epistemology of whatever leads to the survival of the species — is that close? If so — how could we know that beyond sheer, unmitigaged speculation?

    Comment by Blake — September 2, 2006 @ 12:08 pm

  40. No Blake. That’s not what I mean, and that why I didn’t say that. I do want my actions to mean something, for them to have consequences for both my life, the lives of those around me and the relationships which I have with them. However, I do not want these consequence to last too long. Eternity is WAY too long. A lifetime is plenty.

    I believe this because “I” am a changing entity and as long as I am changing in some way, I don’t want to be held too strictly to what I have done in the past. I want to move forward, being influenced by, but not shackled by the past. No, I don’t want the consequences of my action to last forever, be those actions and consequences good or bad.

    As to my metaethics, which are admittedly quite rough at the moment, by non-cognitivism I mean that moral do exist, but moral claims have no truth value intrinsic to them. If they do have truth values, it is because we assign them truth values ourselves.

    The norms which we have, while being tethered to our evolutionary past and other matters of survival, or not at all determined by them. I see moral norms as being very analogous to language. Yes, there are significant biological determinants, but there is also a lot, a whole lot, of wiggle room. Furthermore, while I do not fully endorse meme-talk, I do think that the meme’s eye view of the evolution of both language and social norms could play a significant role here. In other words, social norms are not just about our own replication, but also involves the replication of the norms themselves.

    Thus you can see that my account isn’t completely constructivist, but isn’t entirely non-cognitivist either. What is certain,however, is that realism is out the door in my opinion, as is error theory. There is right and wrong, just not true and false.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 2, 2006 @ 12:28 pm

  41. Jeff: “There is right and wrong, just not true and false.” So it is neither true or false that there is right or wrong? That is rather clearly self-defeating. If so, then there isn’t a right or wrong. On the other hand, if what you mean is that there are actions that are right or wrong, but it isn’t true that this action is right or wrong, then I just can’t make sense of what you say.

    I grant that you are changing — that doesn’t entail that you are not an appropriate subject of moral attitudes (even if morality is nothing more than attitutdes, as I suggest it probably reduces to in the end). Nor does it follow from the fact that you are changing that your acts don’t have consequences long beyond this life. All it means is that at the end of this life, you get a free pass into oblivion and the reality that it was all meaningless in the first place, n’est pas?

    How did the meaningless a-moral reality boot-strap itself into some moral meaning — even though no real moral meaning? How can there be right and wrong, but not truth value as to whether there is right or wrong?

    Comment by Blake — September 2, 2006 @ 1:35 pm

  42. We express right and wrong is a way which is not true or false, simply because I deny that moral facts exist in the world independent of how we view it. Moral meaning is something which we add to it by way of our social and emotional experience of it. I do grant, however, that perhaps there are truth values and moral facts as long as metaphysical realism in this case, as well as the correspondance view of truth is completely abandoned.

    I must confess that I find the completely cynical view which you have of man in his social relations to be utterly depressing. (I’m sure you think that same of mine, but for different reasons.) There is only a free pass at the end of your life, if your life is all you care about. But why should that be the case? Other people will live on past my death. Why can I not care about them? The relationships which I have with other people will, in some sense, live on for a while past my death. Why should I not care about them? In fact, being the social creatures we are, it is virtually impossible to NOT care about these other things.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 2, 2006 @ 3:17 pm

  43. Jeff: Just what is my “completely cynical view” of man in his social condition that you find depressing? I’d like to know. And you are right — I find the prospect of all personal meaning being wiped out by death to be rather depressing and the notion that there is no ultimate meaning but only sheer random chance to be even more depressing. I suggest that attempting to make the view that everything ends at death and dies in the wimper of the heat death of the universe to be more meaningful than eternal life is rather off his or her nut — with all due respect.

    Comment by Blake — September 2, 2006 @ 6:14 pm

  44. Jeff G,

    I am an amateur philospher and a poorly-read one at that. I posed it as a question because I struggle with the answer. If you knew the Sun was going to explode tomorrow, all life would be extinguished, and no consciousness would continue after death, how much meaning could you find in whatever you do today. I think most people find that it is hard to find much meaning in actions taken under those circumstances. Your worldview seems to be a grand version of that scenario. So, I ask myself if I could find much meaning if I thought you were right. I don’t find it easy.

    By the way, your point about the consequences of actions fading with time is interesting. I think this does happen and consequences from more recent choices often overtake and overwhelm consequences from the distant past. If all of these choices and their consequences weren’t being rolled up into the character of a sentient being, it wouldn’t really strike me as meaningful. I don’t find any meaning in atoms bumping into each other and interacting according to the laws of physics, no matter how long they do it. Do you agree that on your view, things will only have meaning so long as there is consciousness and when all consciousness is extinguished meaning will disappear from the universe?

    Comment by Jacob — September 2, 2006 @ 10:49 pm

  45. Blake,

    The part which I was calling cynical was the view that if there is no afterlife or some kind of theistic grounding to morality then we are all entirely and uncompromisingly self-interested. I see no reason for assuming that, let alone refusing to be persuaded otherwise. I should also mention that I am not for a second trying to say that the atheistic worldview makes our actions for significant in any way at all. The closest I came to arguing that was when I said that maybe its best that our actions aren’t all THAT significant.

    Jacob,
    I agree that that situation would be pretty bleak. But luckily nobody is in that situation. I know that even when I die, my family members will continue to live and the things which I have done in the world will continue to have their effect in it. Indeed, I believe the meaning of life, or rather meaning in life can be found in finding something which is more important than I am and dedicating myself to it. This doesn’t presuppose any kind of afterlife of any kind, but still seems quite meaningful to me.

    With regards to your last question, I do agree completely. Meaning and value is something which we conscious beings project onto the world. No conscious beings = no projection = no meaning or value.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 2, 2006 @ 11:41 pm

  46. Jeff: I don’t claim that we are all solely self-interested if their is no God or after-life (I’m agnostic about what would occur if what is actually the case weren’t actually the case); but there is no moral reason we ought not be totally self-interested if there isn’t. A person could rationally conclude that they are best served by simply seeking whatever they see as their own self-interest and there is no reason moral or otherwise not to do so if there is no God. Even such a person as this could be other-interested if it were in one’s own interst to do so.

    However, I agree with you that we are meaning creating beings and that in the absence of consciousness there is no meaning — and surely reality began and will end with no meaning on your view. I suppose sheer consciousness has some inherent value and importance, even if it is consciousness of the hell of no meaning and being at the whim of a purposeless and meaningless reality governed by sheer chance and luck. Isn’t that what your view entails? It may be hard headed and “courageous” in the sense that it doesn’t flinch in the face of the stark reality of the meaninglessless of life beyond the inherent value of conscious creatures struggling against the merciless and just-less universe; but let’s not pretend that life on such a view has anywhere near the meaning of eternal life in eternal sociality with loved ones.

    Comment by Blake — September 3, 2006 @ 10:37 am

  47. Blake,

    With regards to self-interested behavior, I don’t see how your worldview prevents such behavior any more than mine does. People don’t want to be alone and don’t want to be astrocized from society at large. Isn’t this the exact reason why you think such self-interestedness doesn’t hold sway in an eternal worldview?

    As far as I can tell, the only way that there is more meaning and purpose in the Mormon worldview is in making whatever meaning and purpose which can be found in this life longer in duration. Other than that, I see absolutely no source for any kind of meaning which is qualitatively different from mine. I do admit, however that there is certainly a quantitative difference.

    Now your last paragraph seems to be firmly grounded in a pragmatic justification for religion, rather than some kind of rational argument. This, I would agree, is certainly the strongest defense for religion which can be given. However, such arguments simply do not seem to go far enough. While they might possibly justify a faith in God, they seem to fall far short of justifying the doctrines and practices which are usually entailed by a religious lifestyle. The pragmatic argument may justify a vague hope of sorts (and this shouldn’t be trivialized too much), I don’t think that it justifies any kind of specific religious beliefs or practices at all.

    I don’t see my worldview as being all that hardheaded and courageous so much as humble and reasponsible. In a democratic society where what each of us believes effects the lives of all those around us, I don’t think it’s fair for us to believe too strongly in that which cannot be justifed by rational rather than simple pragmatic arguments. I think cofessions of ignorance are far more virtuous than confessions of faith.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 3, 2006 @ 12:33 pm

  48. Jeff: Your view on the meaning of Mormonism and God is skewed at best in my persepctive. In the LDS worldview, there is utlimate justice; on your worldview there is neither proximate nor ultimate justice but sheer chance. On the LDS worldview, small children and those who die young don’t get cheated out of their life’s potential; on your world-view all individual potential is snuffed out by the death of infants. On the LDS worldview what we do is part of an eternal program of growth in the light; on your world-view what we do is survive until we die. On the LDS worldview there is ultimate meaning; on your view there is ultimately no meaning whatsoever. On the LDS worldview God’s intelligence is manifest in all things and all things are within the scope of God’s plan; on your world-view everything is mere chance.

    Further, I wasn’t arguing at all that such facts (to the extent they are facts) weigh in either favor or against of God’s existence. I don’t see that whether we are better off with God than without him to be an argument for God’s existence one way or the other (that is only relevant in evolutinary speculation about why things happen –and rank speculation it is). Nor do I see atheism or agnosticism as more responsible nor more based on evidence — and certainly not more rational. I simply claim that experience of God is a more complete human experience than one who insists on a rational or empirical demonstation before belief — which I believe I can demonstrate is pragmatically impossible with most of what we invest our lives in anyway. If you wait for rational or empirical support before taking the risk of love or confiding trust, neither love nor trust are possible. Human relationships are severely impoverished without such love and trust if one waits on some prior rational or empirical basis to justify them. Life is a risk my friend and the safe way you propose seems more like a fear of being wrong than daring to be enlightened. Indeed, it seems more like having already chosen death before biological death to me than the risk inherent in affirming life.

    Comment by Blake — September 3, 2006 @ 4:44 pm

  49. Blake,

    That whole religious/non-religious world view side-track was my fault. Without wanting to go further down that road (again), I’ll simply just say that I disagree with a lot of that.

    More to the point, however, you assert that there are all these things in the Mormon worldview. But other than assert them, you haven’t really said all that much. How did ultimate justice get there? Where did it come from? Who decided what would be just and based on what did they decide as they did? Simply saying that Mormonism has meaning isn’t really an argument.

    (I should also mention how shocked I am to see the death of innocent infants being used as an argument against atheism.)

    Comment by Jeff G — September 3, 2006 @ 9:56 pm

  50. Jeff: You need to read more carefully. I didn’t use the fact of the death of infants for or against God’s existence as I very explicity stated. What I did say is that the atheistic world-view is incommensurate with a theistic world-view in terms of the meaning we find in life. Utlimately there is no meaning for atheists because ultimately everything ends in unconsciousness and death. In theism, everything expresses God’s plan and has ultimate meaning in a loving and caring plan for our well-being. Every event has meaningfulness and purpose on one view and no events have any meaning ultimately on the other beyond mere chance and death. So the easy answer to you question about where justice came from — from a loving God.

    Comment by Blake — September 3, 2006 @ 11:11 pm

  51. Blake,

    I knew that you weren’t using it as an argument for or against God’s existence, but rather as an argument against the atheistic worldview. I really do think that this is largely beside the point though. I just wanted to make sure you knew that while I do read a little too quickly at times, I’m not THAT bad. ;-)

    There are two points which I want to make:

    1) Does meaning that we never get to know about really count as meaning? Sure we can say that all these horrible things happen for some purpose, but if we never know that purpose, does this argument really amount to anything?

    2) It seems to me that in the case of horrible events such as infant deaths and tsunamis I would rather believe that there is no purpose to it than to think that such horrible things happen intentionally in any way at all. Indeed, it is the attempted justification of evil, both human as well as natural, which I see as being the worst parts of a religious worldview.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 4, 2006 @ 11:43 am

  52. Even more off the topic than this entire thread has already become, I was curious what theory of mind you adopt? I was thinking you to be a property dualist, but I wasn’t sure.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 4, 2006 @ 11:44 am

  53. Jeff: I’m a same-property-type emergentist (no one but me and you will know what I mean). It seems to me that both physical reductionism and physical non-reductionism don’t work. While I am open to property dualism I don’t see how non-like properties can interact any more than disparate substances. The brain is a functional organ which, when properly functioning at a cetain level of complexity gives rise to properties of mind. So the mind is dependent for its emergence on the physical brain but is not reducible to neural states. In the act of organizing the data of meural operation, there is a shift from chaotic neural sequences to ordered sequences, and this ordering is what cannot be explained by the mere physical data. The mind organizes the data in an act of creation in the shift from chaos to order of neural population firing and information transmission. The emergence of the mind is not determined by the lower levels of neural activity (thoughts are not just neural activity since neurons don’t have properties of mind and thought individually). In this non-deterministic act, there are still charactistic dependencies on neural activity that are learned and repeated unless consciously redirected. This redirecting is a conscious act of downward causation. So the mind emerges in upward causation from the neural level and then the mind as a like-type-property of information/data organization agent causes or exercises downward causal activity in the minds re-ordering the brain — such as when I consciously choose to move my arm (I can also do so unconsciously). The fact that the mind can alter the nural/brain states is uncontroversial it seems to me based on bio-feedback. I believe that free will is exercised both in the act of ordering the data of experience and also in the conscious choices of downward causation that cause the brain to enervate various neural populations or pathways.

    If I’m not mistaken, my view is somewhat like yours except you cling tenanciously and without reason to physical determinism. Is it possible on your view that the emergent mind is not fully explained by the neural level, or that the mind is more than the mere neural activity that is ultimately reducible to sub-atomic causation? If so, then how can you maintain determinism?

    I suggest that meaning we never are conscious of is not really maning — since I agree that meaning is what we contribute to the world and find in it by an act of finding.

    Come now, you don’t really claim that events such as infant deaths and tsunamis are really evidence against God’s existence? It is just possible that it fits into a plan that we don’t and cannot fully grasp. Yet it means that death is not meaningless or ultimately tragic but always in the best interests of those involved. That is different than the tragedy of random chance that takes lives, don’t you think?

    Comment by Blake — September 4, 2006 @ 12:11 pm

  54. No, I’m not arguing about God’s existence at all with my appeal to natural and human evils. I’m simply saying that I would rather believe that such things happen without any kind of purpose or meaning attached to them. I see this as being consistent with some belief in God.

    A belief in life after death does change things, but I worry that it might change things for the worse in some instances. It seems to trivialize death too much. It doesn’t seem to square very well with the strong aversion which we sense toward death. Furthermore, when this aversion is overcome in some individuals it tends toward less than favorable consequences.

    Of course this is not to say that life after death doesn’t sound great. I just worry about those significant qualifiers which I just mentioned.

    To be honest, I don’t like the idea of all the natural and human evils in the world being part of an overarching plan. Its makes the plan sound pretty terrible in its purpose if not in its execution.

    BTW, I knew all that stuff about your view of the mind, I was just wondering if I could put a common label on it. It seems that you resist such labeling however.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 4, 2006 @ 12:23 pm

  55. Jeff G, I’ll give you a one-time waiver on this doosy of a threadjack since I am enjoying it so much.

    Blake, I didn’t know all that stuff about your view of the mind and I read it with interest, so don’t let Jeff’s attempt to make #53 seem like a waste of time slow you down.

    Comment by Jacob — September 4, 2006 @ 6:24 pm

  56. Blake,

    I am also basically aware of your thoughts on the emergent mind (and Clark’s oft-repeated skepticism of radical emergence). So while we’re threadjacking here I was a little confused about some of the things you said and wanted to ask more about them:

    While I am open to property dualism I don’t see how non-like properties can interact any more than disparate substances.

    At first reading I thought you were talking about spirits/intelligences interacting with physical bodies here, but now I am not convinced that is correct. It seems to me that you describe our minds as emerging from the activity of our physical brains and then downwardly re-ordering the physical components as acts of free will. If so, where does the eternal and enduring spirit/intelligence fit into that picture? Wouldn’t our minds be entirely dependent on and emergent from the physical brain we received at birth based on what you just described?

    Comment by Geoff J — September 4, 2006 @ 11:28 pm

  57. Geoff: I see the basic reality not as little things but as data/information organized in specific ways or material states defined by process rather than stuff. It is all physical/material in one sense; but there is no matter without data/information processing and in this sense “intelligence” in process. Thus the intelligence is not different or disparate “stuff” distinct in kind from matter. These realities have different kinds of properties (like hydrogen has different properties than water) but that doesn’t mean that there cannot be interaction.

    The brain is simply a more complex network of information processing mapped onto a neural network. The properties of mind emerge from the information processing and it supervenes non-deterministically on the material information processing properties of the purer or finer matterial-states-in-process. My view is really straightforward for process thought.

    Thus, intelligence and spirit and matter are not disparate reality. We do not gain a body that is capable of giving rise to the properties of mind for the first time at birth; rather, it is an eternal feature of what we are eternally. Does that make sense to you?

    Comment by Blake — September 5, 2006 @ 8:58 am

  58. Does that make sense to you?

    Hehe. Not really.

    At some point I’m going to have to read up on process thought though. Around here we all tend to give you a free pass when you bring it up in our Mormon theology discussions because none of us are well versed in process theology. My education in it mostly consists of reading your books and comments online so I am not prepared to agree or disagree with any claims based on process theology right now.

    But can you better explain the process by which our minds remain intact from pre-mortality, to mortality, to post-mortality? It is difficult to understand (notwithstanding your bringing up process thought) based on how you describe mind emerging from our brains. It seems to me that your view requires a great deal of direct intervention by God to allow our minds or personal identities to endure between veils. What I mean is that if my current brain gives rise to “me” — the same me I’ve always been as I understand your position — then God must have directly intervened to make sure that the genetics of my physical brain were exactly right so “I” could emerge from it here on earth just as I was prior to this mortality. If so, that is a level of direct intervention regarding our physical bodies that I am not convinced really happens…

    Comment by Geoff J — September 5, 2006 @ 9:35 am

  59. BTW – Regarding the original subject of this post, I just saw this article/book excerpt from Robert Millet called “The Best and Worst of Times“. I’m not persuaded by his worst of times examples though. They seem to be mostly related to more information and greater world population — not more evil per living person.

    Comment by Geoff J — September 5, 2006 @ 9:39 am

  60. Geoff,

    I think that is a serious problem which I see in a lot of “worst of times” thinkers, such an in comment 3. They fail to not only distinguish evil per person, but they mistake the ability to act on a grander scale, for good or evil, due to our technology for a greater tendency toward evil. I think once one factors in evil per person as well as technology, is should become clear, in my opinion, that this is a great time to live.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 5, 2006 @ 10:44 am

  61. Geoff: Think of the spirit body as having a brain also — then don’t bifurcate the eternal spirit and intelligence and voila the mind can be eternal and still emerge from material/process states from all eternity.

    Comment by Blake — September 5, 2006 @ 11:55 am

  62. So, if we’re getting back to the topic of the thread, is anyone buying my suggestion (#22) that although people are basically made of the same stuff in all ages, cultures are not the same in different times and can be meaningfully compared to see if one time is preferable to anther?

    Comment by Jacob — September 5, 2006 @ 12:00 pm

  63. Blake – That is just what I was thinking but that model requires God’s direct intervention into each of our genetics to a degree that I am skeptical of. It seems to me that the model you are suggesting requires that our physical brains are nearly exact matches to our “spirit brains” which we used prior to coming here.

    I agree that we probably should not bifurcate the eternal spirit and intelligence but do you think we ought to bifurcate the “spirit brain” and the physical brain? If so then much of evolution seems to be just wrong because none of it could reasonably considered random. But if you preach a God who intervenes that much in our genetics then we open all sorts of cans of worms (theodicy, explnantions of mental disabilities and illnesses, etc.) Am I misunderstanding something with your position?

    Jacob – I think your (2) in comment #22 is the key issue. There is more knowledge available now than any time before — that is for sure. But I think this fact is directly correlated with the Garden of Eden narrative too. More knowledge open the possibility for greater infividual and societal joy and peace or for greater pain and suffering and it always has been so. I discussed this general angle in an earlier post about Eden.

    Comment by Geoff J — September 5, 2006 @ 12:22 pm

  64. Geoff,

    I am not sure if you are understanding my point in the (2) of #22. Yes, there is more technology today, but I am not pointing to increased availability of knowledge as a good.

    Instead, I am saying that the culture developed in a society is like the tide on which individual boats float. History provides examples of cultures which have sunk to amazing lows, where really atrocious things became culturally acceptable. This is what causes God to send fire from heaven. On the flip side, a good culture can develope which trains its citizens to act in good ways as a cultural default. This avoids the problem you raise about comparing different time periods, which is that human nature does not really change over time. I agree with that. However, culture, as the rising or sinking tide, can make a huge impact on the average behavior of individuals. I was arguing in (2) that we have developed a culture of tolerance, human rights (women’s rights, racial rights, minority rights), and generosity (especially toward the poor). I believe this is a big plus for our time over previous times. Your previous comment seemed to miss my main thrust and mistake me for making the standard (and bogus) technology is good/bad arguement.

    Comment by Jacob — September 5, 2006 @ 1:29 pm

  65. Jacob,

    I actually disagree with your last point. I don’t think that rising cultural tides make for more (or less) righteous individual people. If one is peer pressured into choosing the right how is she morally commendable for doing so? I posted on that subject last Spring. I think personal righteousness is entirely an issue of how much we actively repent or change ourselves for the better (or perhaps it could be seen as how much we insist on and fight for a personal relationship with God) despite what the cultural tides around us are doing. The point of that post was that going with the flow is not the same as actively repenting even if the the flow is toward higher standards.

    Comment by Geoff J — September 5, 2006 @ 2:12 pm

  66. But I should add that I don’t think real personal righteousness (divorced from cultural tides) is the thing people are talking about when they mention the best of times and worst of times. I think they are talking about general trends that tend toward more peace, comfort, and freedom for societies in general (see Jacob’s #22). So the best of times for earthly societies may or may not be the best times for real personal righteousness…

    Comment by Geoff J — September 5, 2006 @ 2:25 pm

  67. I haven’t had time to read the thread (busy, busy, busy). With regards to Jeff and Blake’s discussion around post #50 though might I say that Heidegger and company offer a fairly compelling way to provide meaning in an atheistic system? Indeed death is key for Heidegger’s treatment of meaning. (It’s not the only way, of course, but it is his famous key argument in Being and Time)

    I’d further add that I don’t think merely being alive provides meaningfulness. So I don’t think that life after death necessarily of itself makes life meaningful. It certainly changes how it is meaningful. But I tend to find the theistic/atheistic divide here problematic. Especially since Mormons reject creation ex nihilo and the absolute place of God in creation. Once you have a pre-existence as most Mormon theologies do then I think the Mormon thought on this bears more in common with the atheistic approach than the traditional theist (who simply can say meaningfulness is created by God in an absolute sense). The Mormon solution makes God and others create meaning out of chaos. But once you allow that you’ve pretty well adopted the atheistic solution to these same problems. (IMO)

    Comment by clark — September 5, 2006 @ 3:55 pm

  68. OK, skimming the messages I missed and I came upon this one.

    Blake: (#35) Jeff: because life is eternal, my actions influence my relationships not only for now and what I can get away with, but for an eternity of interaction and living in community

    I’d just say that I think there is a radical presentism in terms of meaning in the above claim.

    That is meaningfulness is only meaningfulness in terms of my relationship with present entities. Yet I think I am in relationships with dead entities (irrespective of claims of life after death). Take George Washington who is meaningfully related to me in a way that Blake’s view of temporality can’t really address except by bringing a still living Washington into the discussion. I just think this wrong. (Which may mean reading his book will be more interesting than I’d expected – I’d expected to be agreeing with him all through it)

    If one adopts a Heideggarian sense of transcendence, that is that meaning is inherently tied up with temporality and finitude yet also in terms of a living past and a living future then I think some of Blake’s objections change.

    This doesn’t mean that having a real afterlife doesn’t change how things are meaningful. Clearly it does. But it does mean that one can’t simply say that without such an afterlife things are somehow less meaningful. Unless one demands meaningfulness to be explicitly tied to what is present to the subject. But that, to my mind, is just a philosophical error. (Logo-centrism is the term, or perhaps onto-theology)

    Comment by clark — September 5, 2006 @ 4:02 pm

  69. Jacob (#62),

    I believe that cultures can be meaningfully compared, however I do not believe that something as sophisticated as a culture can properly be fully ordered (precisely ranked), but rather only partially ordered. In other words we may very well indeed say that from a divine perspective culture A is absolutely superior to culture B, but there may also be a culture C that cannot fairly be said to be either inferior or superior to culture B.

    This conclusion follows directly from the considerations of agency and creativity in divine persons and hence in inspired sub-cultures as well. There are other technical reasons why a complete ordering is implausible that I won’t get into. Practically speaking, try coming up with a complete ordering of symphonies, even from the perspective of a single listener, even an expert.

    Now I agree that many of the things that you say are net benefits for modern society. However there are many things in which modern society pales in comparison to the virtue of sparse agrigarian societies of times of old. In short technology, communication, centralization makes all sorts of sin possible, and idleness is generally speaking a bad thing. This is not a necessity of course, but it is unfortunately a likelihood in the absence of religious discipline.

    Comment by Mark Butler — September 5, 2006 @ 8:10 pm

  70. Geoff: We still have our spirit brains, so we are merely added upon by having a body that presents both new challenges and new opportunities.

    Clark: I simply disagree. It may be fine to say that life is meaningful for an atheist, and in some sense it is, but it isn’t the hope of fulfillment, justice and ongoing realization of projects only barely started in this life. Life is truly tragic if there is no God — it is blessed if there is a God. Your choice.

    Comment by Blake — September 5, 2006 @ 8:23 pm

  71. Blake,

    So which of our brains do we use here — our spirit brain or our physical brain? I assume you believe our minds emerge from our physical brains here and that our minds emerged from our spirit brains in pre-mortality so how do we have the same identity/mind here as we did there in your view? Do you think that God guided our genetics to cause our physical brain to match the spirit brain? That seems like a highly problematic position to me…

    Comment by Geoff J — September 5, 2006 @ 10:51 pm

  72. Geoff,

    That very problem is one of the main reasons that I concluded that in mortality we must arrive primarily with a spirit-intelligence and then re-develop a new spirit brain and body that perfectly overlays our mortal brain and body. Otherwise either the mortal body or the spirit body would have little significance indeed, which is most clearly not the case.

    And then of course when we die, that is how our spirit takes our appearance, memories, knowledge, habits, instinct, etc with us into the spirit world. Some healing no doubt occurs (missing limbs etc), but save we write our character into the body, the body seems pretty pointless. It seems to me the whole point of a tabernacle is to enlarge the capacity of our native spirit-intelligence, which I imagine is rather limited indeed. Of course the ultimate fulfilment of this is in the resurrection, when the spirit body that we develop will be clothed with eternal glory of the sort that neither we nor ordinary spirits now enjoy.

    Comment by Mark Butler — September 6, 2006 @ 5:27 am

  73. Geoff,
    Something that is very evident to me the more I learn is that the brain is malleable. We have some basic processes preprogrammed for our survival yes. But so much of development is experience, nurture as it were. We make new connections, we learn. This is what separates mankind from the beasts. Not only do we learn, but we have spiritual experiences that bring things “to our remembrance.”

    This could be visualized as our spirit mind remembering something and writing it upon our physical brain for later use. They have to impact eachother, because as we age, the mind atrophies. Those with dementia are not going to be demented in the spirit world. So I would also imagine, what we become in this life is written upon our spirit minds as well. It seems reasonable to me anyway.

    Then what has been written upon the spirit mind with its connections, will be preserved in a Glorified resurrected mind as well. We won’t start with a veil at that time, Our brains won’t be the largely blank slate we come into this world with.

    Comment by Doc — September 6, 2006 @ 5:52 am

  74. Geoff: Some of what I would have said has been suggested by Mark and Doc (welcome Doc). To make sense of the scriptures, it seems to me that there must be a part of us that is not subject to the passions and needs of this mortal body but that has some ability to influence and know independent of the mortal body. The “spiritual mind” is distinct from the mortal mind. Thus, we are conselled to make the spirit stronger than the flesh, or to subject the carnal mind to the spiritual. We are at least dual beings — but that does not entail substance dualism because both are types of matter (or at least in some sense dependent on material/process states). When we die, we don’t just cease to exist, but we have a spirit body that is intelligent and still has awareness and consciousness — but the tie of consciousness to this mortal dimension seems to be impaired. What the brain does, it seems to me, is primarily translate data from our senses — or data acting upon our bodily senses that we then experience sometimes in a unified whole that is not present in the mere sense data. Consciousness is this unifying and -reafferent action of being aware that we are aware of our sense data and can respond or simply react.

    Comment by Blake — September 6, 2006 @ 1:14 pm

  75. Blake, #70, I think we’re perhaps conflating kinds of meaning with meaning. I’d certainly agree that there is more positive personal meaning (i.e. good for me) for the theist. But that is a different topic from asking if there is meaning. After all tragedy is just as meaningful as being blessed.

    Comment by Clark — September 6, 2006 @ 5:56 pm

  76. Geoff,

    The problem with your #65 is that by saying personal righteousness is not tied to cultural tides, you are effectively divorcing righteousness from behavior and attitudes. Both behavior and attitudes are dramatically affected by culture and upbringing. Just as the wicked one taketh away light and truth through the wicked traditions of their fathers, God giveth light and truth through righteous traditions established by righteous parents. How can you say rising cultural tides don’t make for more righteous people when a rising cultural tide can train people to think and act in more Christ-like ways?

    Comment by Jacob — September 6, 2006 @ 7:18 pm

  77. Jacob,

    I’ll need to post on the two versions of righteousness I see described in scriptures. One is a relative form as exemplified by the parable of the talents and the other is an absolute form as exemplified by our being commanded to become as God is at some point in the eternities to come. I agree with you that one can compare cultures on the absolute righteousness scale.

    Comment by Geoff J — September 6, 2006 @ 8:08 pm

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