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Defining Morality and Ethical Consideration
Posted: 29 July 2006 04:16 PM   [ Ignore ]  
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Rather than just going to the dictionaries and Wikipedia, I'm hoping to start a plain-speaking discussion about real-life concepts behind morality and ethical consideration. Opinions not only from atheistic sorts but also from religious people are welcome, and I would hope all such opinions would be intended to further thinking rather than simply to smear dogmatic negativity on concepts under discussion.

Morality seems to me not quickly accessible to thoughtful consideration. That lack, it would appear, is key to differentiating between morality and ethical thought. Morality tends toward black-white answers to ancient and crucially important questions, employing on-off, yes-no, good-evil reactions and instructions. Obviously, black-and-white answers are often but not always needed.

As far as I can tell, morality comes to us historically not only via holy books and/or traditions, myths and other stories. It also arrives in us by way of direct biologically-automated (instinctual) ways. Natural morality, which humanity has inherited from ancestor species, appears in conjunction with emotion centers of the brain. These brain centers are clearly present even in pre-mammalians such as reptiles, and they hold sway over morality in many animals.

Rats have been known not to take food from a machine if doing so will cause another rat to receive a shock. See Wild Justice and Fair Play:
http://www.aaas.org/spp/dser/02_Events/Lectures/2003/02_Lecture_2003_1016.pdf
The above article discusses ritualized behavior such as in play in animals and how it contributes to their moral systems. It occurs to me that human legal systems also tend to trigger highly ritualistic ways of enforcing morality.

B.M. de Waal is one of several authors who describe animal morality. I wasn't able to find excerpts from the following book, but have excerpted a few reviews to give an idea of what's in the book.
[www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/DEWGOO.html?show=reviews]

Good Natured—The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals

Frans B.M. de Waal

Evolutionary continuities have been sought in intelligence, language, tool making—anywhere but in morality. Now a respected ethologist, Frans de Waal, tackles the problem from a novel angle. . . . Good Natured is no touchy-feely celebration of animal innocence, but a hardheaded study by a specialist in primate behavior with a wealth of observational experience. Mr. de Waal, a research scientist at the Yerkes Regional Primate Center at Emory University, presents his rich data in an accessible prose lit with flashes of wry humor and beautifully illustrated with his own vivid photographs. . . . Far from being half ape, half angel, torn between a moral sense that strives upward and an eons-old bestial viciousness that drags us down, [we are portrayed by de Waal] as inheritors of a basically moral view of life that has evolved over countless millenniums. . . . —Derek Bickerton, New York Times Book Review

So lucid is de Waal's manner of setting things forth that each time he finishes drawing an aspect of animal morality, your first response is to wonder why you hadn't noticed it around the house, if not at a primate research center, a remote island, or the zoo. . . . [His] startling contributions to the way the general reader, or general citizen, has of thinking seriously about "humans and other animals" might be permanent. —Vicki Hearne, Village Voice Literary Supplement

. . . In Good Natured, [he] takes his humanizing project a step further, employing the rich lexicon of human moral concepts as figures of speech to depict and lend meaning to the behavior of nonhuman animals. . . . [A] provocative, endearing, and brilliantly written book.—Richard A. Shweder, Los Angeles Times

Modern Darwinian evolutionary theory is based on individual reproduction, on 'selfish' genes that have been selected at the expense of others that might act for the greater good. How then could survival of the fittest lead to empathy?. . .  This profound paradox has led some scholars in the past to assume that the emergence of morals must be a transcendent process beyond the bounds of scientific explanation. Frans de Waal, one of the world's best-known primatologists, has set out to prove that assumption wrong. . . .  —William C. McGrew, Scientific American

In [this] original and engaging new book. . . de Waal makes a strong case that the four ingredients of morality—empathy/sympathy, sharing or reciprocity, justice/rules and peacemaking/reconciliation—are very much evident in other mammals. . . . —Vicki Croke, Boston Globe

. . . As de Waal fans will already know, chimpanzees and other primates come alive as individuals under his expert gaze. . . . Sympathy, attachment, social norms, punishment, a sense of justice, reciprocation, peacemaking and community concern—all are writ large in chimpanzee society.  —Stephen Young, BBC Wildlife

As a book of ideas. . . this is excellent and on the whole I am inclined to believe de Waal's case for the antecedents of our own morality in other species. Perhaps most interestingly, however, is that the domain hitherto of philosophers is now being contested by evolutionary biologists. Not only does this tighten up the terms of the debate (as did ape language research for linguistics), but ironically it injects a special kind of humanism that recognises the origins of our moral failings as well as our successes.  —Thomas Sambrook, Times Higher Education Supplement

_____


I'll take (and give you) a break here, and attempt some meaningful analysis later. Any and all comments on the above will be warmly received, I promise.

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
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Posted: 30 July 2006 04:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]  
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Why bother with any of this?

For potential comfort and enjoyment, of course.

Longevity too, I suppose?

Potentially.

Why are you suddenly speaking in dialogue?

Sometimes I can think more effectively this way, if you must know.

You’ve lost it, H.

Thanks at least for supposing I once had “it.”  Champion thinks I’m smart, and that’s good enough for me.

Don’t you know that when a guy like Champ labels you “intellectual,” you’ve been insulted?

Whatever. At times we tend to be ruled by our inherent, instinctual moral sensibilities. Since that moral sense comes to us as we’ve inherited it from other beasts as well as by way of pack- and tribe-mentalities, it seems proper somehow that it be closely examined. That’s all I’m trying to say here.

Why?

Because we, or most of us, no longer live in packs and tribes. We now reside with our families in towns, cities, villages, counties, and nations. We work within corporate structures and on the floors of factories and various other commercial venues and institutions rather than hunting and searching out berries. And we attend school for a very long time.

You’re speaking as though we were still beasts ourselves, ruled by instinct. How ridiculous.

I think it’s a mistake to assume that humans are not at least partly instinctual beings. Whether or not we ever evolve completely away from instinct is for me a pointless question. And I don’t see any reason not to embrace instinctual kinds of knowledge.

Such as?

We’ll return to that later, if anyone finds it worth pursuing. At any rate, I hope you’ll agree that at least looking at our moral instincts can be valuable, potentially enhancing our comfort.

Again with the comfort. Make a hint of a point, please. Say something specific, for god’s sake.

Got it. I’ll start by quoting veracitatus, who explained the folly of over-reliance on the notion of free will a few months ago. I’ll excerpt parts of his post, which was long. Read it in its entirety if you want:

http://www.samharris.org/forum/viewtopic.php?p=20205&highlight;=#20205

veracitatus:

Not knowing your interest in or knowledge of neuroscience I will assume (and correct me if I am wrong) that you have not studied or read much in the field, especially from the last 10 years or so. That in mind, I’ll point you to the recommended book I introduced in the Science forum, Consciousness: An Introduction, by Susan Blackmore, especially Chapter 9, “Agency and Free Will”. It provides an accessible summary of the evidence against the notion that our conscious selves are the “deciders” in taking action. The evidence suggests that the conscious self—the “I”—is an observer, of sorts, after the fact of decisions to act.

. . .  I am not talking about this evidence MEANING that we are not responsible in the sense that for actions that we premeditate (think about!) prior to action we (meaning our conscious selves) are just helpless watchers and therefore should not be held accountable. . . .

. . .

The frontal lobes are the last area of the brain to mature and the full potential development depends critically on the social environment. Meaning that to a large degree society is indeed responsible for failing to provide a nurturing environment for the full development of moral and ethical capacities in the brain. Note that this is more than just learning the rules for right and wrong in the cognitive sense. We are talking about those rules operating on many different levels in the life of youngsters such that it allows their brains to grow the right connections and instill moral/ethical judgment at a structural level, not just an intellectual level. In the heat of the moment, it is not the intellect that rules. [Some of you will now recognize the connection between this and my interest in sapience!] This fact is also responsible for the lack of good judgment we see in teenagers (where I believe the highest rates of gang homicide are to be found).
. . .

Those who support the death penalty are certain that THEY are in control of their actions. Why? Because it feels that way. To our subjective conscious awareness that is how it seems. But the huge and growing neuroscience lit on the issue of free will, or volition, just doesn’t support the folk-psychology view. Your actions are planned and in the initiation stage several hundred milliseconds before you are even aware of it. Next time you have a heated argument with someone, note how after the fact you really regret some things you said or did in the heat of the moment. Also notice how you wonder how you could have ever lost control like that. The reason you even wonder that is because you want to believe your conscious self is always in control. But in the instant it isn’t. The point of control is when your rational, conscious self, which is your frontal lobes working, can modulate or censor your impulses. For that you need a well developed frontal lobe. Then you can claim to be in control. . . .

Where is the comfort in this kind of reasoning?

Simply that an individual at any given moment is fully capable of turning off certain emotions that tend to be summoned as a result of moral indignation. Or turning on morality-based emotion as well.

When armed with veracitatus-style analysis?

Of course. We’re free to turn on and off emotional signals as we see fit to either inspire ourselves to prevail in some matter, or to embrace objectivity when such an approach is called for.

We’ve always been so free.

But we now have the means of building skill and dexterity in order to accomplish it.

You sound as though you’re attempting to arrive at a Mr. Spock kind of objectivity and discard those nasty emotions as being useless baggage from an ignorant long-ago era.

Actually, I embrace emotion. It alone provides me with life meaning. Please pay a little closer attention to what I’m saying.

Shithead. What’s next on your perverse and godless agenda with this thread?

Education. Unless I manage to lure in some discussion with this thread as it is so far.

Don’t count on it.

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Posted: 30 July 2006 05:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]  
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Hi Homunculus,

we share 93% of our DNA with chimps.  They can be very empathetic, nice little monkeys.  They can, however, be sociopathic little bastards.

Now, I wonder, is the Sociopath a creation of his environment, or is he (or she) a product of genetics.  The lack of affect, the egocentrism all seem to be very Animal in theory, but these conditions could have been created by environment.
Could environment create these conditions in Chimps?  I dunno.  I’m not a primatologist.  Just throwing my 2 cents in.

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Posted: 30 July 2006 07:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]  
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It should now be clear that the only information which we can legitimately derive from the study of our aesthetic and moral experiences is information about our own mental and physical make-up. We take note of these experiences as providing data for our psychological and sociological generalisations. And this is the only way in which they serve to increase our knowledge. It follows that any attempt to make our use of ethical and aesthetic concepts the basis of a metaphysical theory concerning the existence of a world of values, as distinct from the world of facts, involves a false analysis of these concepts. Our own analysis has shown that the phenomena of moral experience cannot fairly be used to support any rationalist or metaphysical doctrine whatsoever. In particular, they cannot, as Kant hoped, be used to establish the existence of a transcendent god.

I see it Ayer’s way. This is beside your point, I guess, but I haven’t anything to contribute on that subject.

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Posted: 30 July 2006 11:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]  
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I’m not convinced that behavioral science, however detailed or dispassionate, is going to furnish us with a philosophical basis for morality.  Empirical insights, yes. Guidelines and rules of thumb, perhaps. 

Maybe it’s a great thing that a rat will arrange a shock for another rat. Does such behavior hurt rat-dom in general? Hardly! The species will be here, probably, long after we’ve succumbed.

Assuming the contrary for a moment, and substituting “human” for rat, would the authority necessary to enforce an empirically-based morality on our species claim the same absolutist basis for obedience as the religicos of the past? It seems inevitable. And would the empirical grounding of such a system guarantee the acceptance of it, however grudging, among the masses? 

The ghost of Nietzsche raises its ugly (beautiful?) head.  How can a systemic morality accommodate competing demands for freedom, pleasure, expression?  I can hear it now: “We are increasing investment in research on ‘the social utitily of The Grunge’ and hope to issue guidelines soon.”  (!)

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Posted: 31 July 2006 10:54 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]  
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Thanks guys. I enjoyed seeing your entries.

What I’m trying to do is simply to talk about morality using everyday descriptive kinds of words. I look at Wikipedia’s definitions and the words in any number of books I’ve seen that purport to discuss morality, and I cannot wrap my mind around them. It’s not that I can’t understand the concepts, but that those concepts just don’t seem very real to me.

I’m trying to get at the cognitive mechanisms of what is referred to as morality. If it is indeed strictly bio-derived, what exactly is its biological purpose? To exclude? To include? To teach? Where did it come from and where is it going in humanity? How are human moralities different from those of other animals, if they are?

As I see things, we have natural morality (unadulterated, residing in our nerve and other cells) and historical morality, which gets handed down via written and spoken words. What do you guys think?

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Posted: 31 July 2006 11:40 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]  
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H,

I have been really tied up of late and don’t get here often.  But when I do, and see a thread you started I make sure to read it.

Interesting question to me, as you expected.

I wish I had more time to explore this more, but I’m fighting a publishing schedule for several items that just can’t be put off. So let me recommend a book by someone I have uttmost respect for. It is The Ethical Brain by Michael Gazzaniga.  He is a neurobiologist/psychologist, very well known in cognitive science and one of the pioneers in studies of patients with severed corpus callosa (the famous left/right brain studies).  He has recently been on George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics (where I suspect he has been very patient dealing with the ideologues and dogmatists!) and is president-elect of the American Psychology Assoc.

I think you will find it very readable and he points to some of the very questions this topic raise.

If I get a break before I have to head off to Europe for the conferences I’ll try to stop back and see if there is anything I can learn from the comments or add if I can.

Regards
V

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Posted: 31 July 2006 03:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]  
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Thanks, V. I just ordered a copy of the Gazzaniga book, and I’m looking forward to hearing back from you when-if you get a chance.

Meanwhile, to continue with morality and education, let’s consider frankr’s classroom. He (high school teachers, that is) no longer has access to certain morality-derived techniques that were once essential to maintaining order. Frank, you’ve got my sympathy, empathy, and deference, friend. The world was very recently dominated by religious culture, and violent tactics as well as strong threats of violence ruled every classroom in the land. Parents rarely objected to such tactics but now they certainly do.

We find ourselves between cultures in a sense. The old ways worked. For the most part, nobody questioned them back when God was universally considered the ultimate parent . . . back when Biblical instructions held great sway, and not only allowed but encouraged teachers and parents to do what they needed to do to keep their kids in line. Today, teachers risk lawsuits and even prison time if they dare to act so boldly. The old morality is out, but is a new one available to take its place?

Perhaps. It would seem to involve newly coined terms such as “functional analysis,” “behavioral shaping,”  “successive approximation,” as well as lots of other recently-objectified concepts. Interestingly, working with such educational-behavioral tools requires an active ignoring—even obliteration—of traditionally moralistic stances. Of course teachers are only human and moral indignation still creeps in on occasion, and a teacher can of course still have a highly positive effect on a student by raising her voice and showing strong emotion.

Unfortunately, the above new approaches toward class discipline (and I’ve only listed a few) are used only in very special environments. They have yet to be fully mainstreamed into the typical public or parochial classroom. I suspect they’re on the way, and will rescue you eventually, Frank. I certainly hope so.

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
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Posted: 31 July 2006 04:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]  
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This link is why I consider myself an agnostic instead of an atheist. My sense that there is potentially something divine, all powerful, all knowing is derived from a concept that is best described as dharma. I was first introduced to this concept over 35 years ago when I was in college and it has never stopped making sense to me. Volumes have been written about it in Buddist and Hindu texts. To me, dharma simply represents the laws that order the universe.
When an apple is ripe and falls out of an apple tree gravity always pulls it down. Gravity is part of dharma as are all the laws of science both the ones we know and the ones we do not know. There are many scientific discoveries that can and will be made that humankind can conceive of. However, there are infinitely more that will not be made, not in the near future, because we cannot conceive of them.
Morality most likely is part of dharma, meaning that we cannot create morality any more than we can create gravity. Morality exists. It’s how we define morality that is muddled. For example, if homosexuality is considered as a moral issue it can never be resolved because it is not a moral issue.
Also, if morality is part of dharma then it’s proof will be in the laws associated with it. This is where the rat test and the dog test gets interesting. In my own life I have experienced consistent consequences as a result of my moral decisions. “You reap what you sow; Money is the root of all evil; It is more blessed to give than to receive;” there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that there are universal, moral laws. Perhaps science can tell us one day if morality is as much a part of nature as are the seasons. My guess is that it is.

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Posted: 31 July 2006 05:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]  
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[quote author=“lightning_fast_draw”]This link is why I consider myself an agnostic instead of an atheist. My sense that there is potentially something divine, all powerful, all knowing is derived from a concept that is best described as dharma. I was first introduced to this concept over 35 years ago when I was in college and it has never stopped making sense to me. Volumes have been written about it in Buddist and Hindu texts. To me, dharma simply represents the laws that order the universe. . . .

Thanks, lightning_fast_draw. I hope you’ll continue to converse here about what the hell is going on in the world, and it obviously goes far beyond the microscopic high school classroom. Surely you don’t propose going back to times of corporal punishment in the classroom.?

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Philosophy may in no way interfere with the actual use of language; it can in the end only describe it. For it cannot give it any foundations either. It leaves everything as it is.
Ludwig Wittgenstein

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Posted: 31 July 2006 05:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]  
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I’m trying to get at the cognitive mechanisms of what is referred to as morality. If it is indeed strictly bio-derived, what exactly is its biological purpose? To exclude? To include? To teach? Where did it come from and where is it going in humanity? How are human moralities different from those of other animals, if they are?

I didn’t mention it before, guessing that you have already read and assimilated Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene for whatever it’s worth to you. Speaking figuratively, a gene’s purpose is to survive and to perpetuate itself in bodies other than the one they inhabit right now. (I wouldn’t say that genes have a purpose since purpose in the literal sense requires consciousness.) More literally, the gene’s influence on the body includes, most importantly, the ability to increase the odds at least a bit that that gene will be present in future generations.

Dawkins dealt with a paradox of simplistic Darwinism. There are numerous examples of natural behavior that seem generous, self-sacrificing, altruistic. Dawkins gives the example of a flock of birds, feeding on the ground. One of the birds on the fringe of the group flies up, giving the alarm on detecting an approaching predator but at considerable risk to his own life. Simplistic Darwinism (reinterpreted in the light of modern genetics) predicts that in a population guided by “altruistic” genes, “cheating” genes would emerge by random mutation , genes that would influence their holders to shirk altruistic duty, and that these genes would take over the population. (The cheater says “Hell, no, I won’t shriek when I see the fox. I’ll just quietly fly away, save myself, and Devil Fox take the hindmost. Of course, if some foolish bird means to risk his life by warning me, I won’t ignore him. No shine off my beak that the fox gobbled him up.”) The paradox is that altruism persists although (naive) theory predicts that evolution will eliminate it.

I think Dawkins resolves the paradox in a highly satisfactory way, but this post is getting too long. For all I know, you could summarize the book better than I’m doing anyway.

(I corrected a typo.)

[ Edited: 06 August 2006 08:40 PM by ]
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Posted: 31 July 2006 06:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]  
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lfd:

This link is why I consider myself an agnostic instead of an atheist. My sense that there is potentially something divine, all powerful, all knowing is derived from a concept that is best described as dharma.

We can perhaps agree to be atheist with respect to any god whose definition is self-contradictory. We can be certain that such a god does not exist in the same sense that we are certain that there are no four-sided triangles. “All knowing, all powerful” strikes me as just such a contradiction. The “all knowing and all powerful” cannot know from experience what it is to be powerless. I don’t mean that to be a mere verbal trick, but a serious comment on the contradiction in that notion of God.

The idea of some spirit that knows everything and can do everything is just a perpetuation of the mistake a child makes in his estimation of his parents. The parents’ limits are beyond the child’s understanding but the parents appear limitless only until the child grows up. The pain of facing that reality leads to denial and, from there by stages, to building cathedrals. The believers over-estimate the magnitude of that pain, I think, but I acknowledge its reality.


(corrected a typo)

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Posted: 31 July 2006 06:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]  
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I really liked Gazzaniga.

Also, Hello Mr. Sheperd,  I have read Dawkins and enjoyed him immensly.  I was curious if you are familliar with an essay by philosophor Daniel C. Dennett called “The Selfish Meme”?  It is very similar to Dawkins’ argument but moves towards a more Memetic viewpoint.
Sadly, I do not have a copy Chez moi, but look it up.  By that time, Amazon will have delivered a new one for me.

tchao.

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Posted: 01 August 2006 04:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]  
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[quote author=“Ted Shepard”]The idea of some spirit that knows everything and can do everything is just a perpetuation of the mistake a child makes in his estimation of his parents. The parents’ limits are beyond the child’s understanding but the parents appear limitless only until the child grows up.

TS you are onto something here which are the limits of human understanding. It is probable that we are able to comprehend very little of the true nature of what is around us. Perhaps as we learn and evolve move of the secrets of the universe will open to us.
In my previous post what I was trying describe was not a god-like entity. If one considers Dharma as representing all of the laws of the universe my question would be where did Dharma come from?

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Posted: 04 August 2006 05:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]  
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[quote author=“Ted Shepherd”]We can perhaps agree to be atheist with respect to any god whose definition is self-contradictory. We can be certain that such a god does not exist in the same sense that we are certain that there are no four-sided triangles. “All knowing, all powerful” strikes me as just such a contradiction. The “all knowing and all powerful” cannot know from experience what it is to be powerless. I don’t mean that to be a mere verbal trick, but a serious comment on the contradiction in that notion of God.

[quote author=“Ted Shepherd”]An Omniscient and Omnipotent one cannot know first hand the fear of death, the joy of learning, the agony of despair, or the courage of facing risk. Hence Christianity’s God is logically impossible. Belief in such a God is irrational.

Ted these quotes and similar ones are posted by you throughout the forum. I have been tempted to comment on them before but thus far I have withstood. Today I will give in to temptation.

Your complaints about the Christian God are answered in the mystery of the Incarnation. An all powerful God may have a difficult time understanding what it is like to be a powerless man unless he uses his power to become man; not just any man but a poor man in an insignificant tribe. A man who surrounds himself with followers who are of no special merit and eats drinks and walks with the lowliest of men.  A man who is in the end tortured and crucified. A man who goes through such would understand powerlessness, would understand rejection, would understand despair, would understand temptation and would understand these things first hand. I think your complaint about the christian God can only be answered by Christ.

Secondly how can you decry a religion that has this prayer in their official prayerbook (The Rituale Romanum)

Beer Blessing
From the Rituale Romanum (no 58)


Bene+dic, Domine, creaturam istam cerevisae, quam ex adipe frumenti producere dignatus es: ut sit remedium salutare humano generi: et praesta per invocationem nominis tui sancti, ut, quicumque ex ea biberint, sanitatem corporis, et animae tutelam percipiant. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen


Bless, O Lord, this creature beer, that Thou hast been pleased to bring forth from the sweetness of the grain: that it might be a salutary remedy for the human race: and grant by the invocation of Thy holy name, that, whosoever drinks of it may obtain health of body and a sure safeguard for the soul. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

(Translation by Fr. Ephraem Chifley, O.P.)

Reason number 327,236 that the Catholic Church is the one true Church. We celebrate and bless the goodness of beer. Here’s to the salutary remedy.

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Posted: 04 August 2006 06:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]  
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[quote author=“frankr”]Reason number 327,236 that the Catholic Church is the one true Church. We celebrate and bless the goodness of beer. Here’s to the salutary remedy.

Excellent frank,

You’re finally starting to make sense.  However as we all know, beer lubricates not only conversation, but genitalia as well.  Maybe you could spearhead the effort to have condoms passed out with every pint.

I’m just sayin’

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