Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Good Omens: Reflecting on death, heaven, and hell

So there's a new Amazon series called "Good Omens" which seems to be a BBC-like show about an angel and a demon who have been tasked by their respective sides to stay on Earth and win souls for their masters. It's a bit lighthearted on how it tackles the supernatural battle between heaven and hell, though it has serious moments trying to break through.

I've not finished what is released so far so please don't be posting spoilers, but having watched the first 3 episodes last night I did get struck by one key moment that has relevance for the atheist/philosophy of religion game.

The premise of the show is about how the demon and angel have become unlikely friends over their centuries on earth and are taken aback by their sides starting the events which will kick off Armageddon, the war to end the world. They are now working diligently to try and avert the Antichrist from coming into his power as an 11 year old boy to kick off said end of the world.

One episode takes us through their friendship through the centuries. Eventually they get close enough that the demon Crowley asks the angel for a "suicide pill" in case things ever go pear shaped.  Aziraphale, the angel, immediately refuses; saying he can't risk helping a demon in such a capacity.

A few hundred years later we see the demon planning a robbery on a church with some followers, afterwards we see the angel show up unexpectedly, not wanting Crowley to risk getting harmed at the robbery he has delivered to him what he wants to steal - the suicide pill - holy water.

It is then revealed that Crowley is to be very careful with the container, because the holy water will not just destroy his body, but everything about him.  A real "suicide pill" for a demonic spiritual being, something that will truly end his existence.

Now I've no idea if it gets used or will be destroyed before Crowley uses it, but given that there supposedly will be a Season 2, I'm guessing not yet.

Still, this sort of 'loophole' to the generic concept of being stuck in either a heaven or a hell that is central to the Christian mythos is pretty interesting. The show is allowing for a "third way" to simply cease to exist.

Honestly, I think if I found out that there were such things as heaven and hell I would so desperately wish for a suicide pill option, something to avoid either heaven or hell. There's just something about the idea that my ultimate destiny is beyond my control that I find repulsive; I'm ultimately a pawn that will be cast into one of two piles and frankly if those are the options, I wish to be able to avoid playing the game entirely by being able to cease to exist.

EDIT: I've realize that ceasing to exist when I die is as much beyond my control as being forced to go to heaven or a hell when I die; so the above point is not quite right.  I believe what I'm really feeling here is that I take solace in the fact that when I die, I cease to exist. I find comfort in the idea that if everything goes pear shaped, if I want off this ride, I can get off.

I think if I made it to heaven I'd probably ask that of whatever god ran the place; if going into heaven didn't so fundamentally change me that I no longer wanted to cease to exist.

Preserving Autonomy

The latter point is what Christians think solves any of the apprehensions some have to the idea of an eternity in heaven, especially if it turns out to be some kind of perpetual church service where we just praise god for eternity. The idea is "well you'll want to do that once you get there!".

The thing is, I'm not sure the idea of an infinite church service is all that appealing, even when I was a believer. I mean I accepted the latter explanation, that if it was, that when I'm in heaven I'll just want to be doing that, but there is something to be said of preserving my autonomy.

What does preserving my autonomy mean? It means being able to maintain my desires and preferences.

Consider a scenario where you don't like a particular activity, lets say golf for example.

If you hear that heaven entails a never ending golf game, where you just continually tee off for all eternity and not get sick of the game.  That's not particularly appealing if you currently don't like golf  in the first place.  Heck it's not appealing if you love golf but the idea of only playing the same thing for eternity is going to wear thin after a while.

Saying that "Well don't worry, when you get there you're going to be in a state where you want to do nothing but play golf!"isn't going to help if I don't want to "want to" play golf. I'm perfectly happy in my non-golf enjoying state; I happen to like other games far more, what about playing those?

At this point you're effectively talking me into a pleasure machine thought experiment. Once I step into the pleasure machine it won't matter what happens, I'll just axiomatically be happy, even if things happen which I would currently believe would make me incredibly sad, or things that ought to make me sad.

The thing about pleasure machine thought experiments is that ultimately we are horrified by the idea of just axiomatically being in one state, even if it's pleasure, regardless of what's going on. The thought experiment reveals to us that our autonomy is important to us.

Wanting to Change?

That all said, I'm not completely sure I'm convinced that autonomy is the end of the story, or the highest priority.  After all it is not hard to think of situations where I want to be able to change things about myself.  A common refrain you hear from some LBGT people who find themselves in a society/family that oppresses them is that they wish they could just 'take a pill' and be straight/cis/whatever so the problems society pushes on them would go away.  I can think of areas in my own life I wish I could change about my disposition - that I enjoyed exercise more or that I'd be able to control my appetite better.  So my attachment to preserving my autonomy it's not purely about preserving my current states as they are right now.

Still, part of my preferences now are that I wish to improve my willpower and dedication to doing things good for myself, including want to improve my diet and exercise regimen. Perhaps I will be able to accomplish that goal, or I must make peace with what I am and accept it.  Still, I can also say that while I can think of areas I may want to change, I can think of areas where I wouldn't want my preferences to change. I am prone to sarcasm and humor, joking often even in serious situations or while working in stressful situations where I'm part of a team under pressure. That's part of what makes me, me. We are in some part, maybe fully, defined by our desires and dispositions.  I don't want to not be that guy in the group, or to change that facet of my personality.

The Theistic Counterargument

I think this plays into the theistic response to the line of argument I'm developing here. I believe the Christian or theistic counter argument to all this is to say that "but praising god is praising goodness itself, and so you should want to be such that you always do the good thing, which would entail wanting to exalt the good!"

In order to steelman this idea a bit, I think we should explore what it means.

The reply effectively boils the entire debate about preferences for heaven vs. non-existence away and makes it about the nature of the good.  I'm ignoring hell here since hell is defined in such a way that you axiomatically don't want to be there.

On reflection the areas I wish I could change myself are in areas that are normative: health being one, but moral. All of us could stand to be better people, to always be kind even when we're having a bad day or circumstances make us predisposed to be a pain (my lack of sleep caused by my toddler is an acute example).

By making goodness center on the nature of a god, we axiomatically would want to change such that we better reflected goodness.  Any desire we'd have to preserve our autonomy in ways that go against that good would be rooted in a sinful/rebellious nature.

Does it work?

Here's where I'm supposed to be The Counter Apologist and explain why such a theistic response obviously fails. Thing is, I don't think I can say it fails. I don't think it necessarily works either.

I think it punts.

Much like in Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology, Christianity has warrant "if it is true". I've heard this called "the punt to metaphysics" in his epistemology and I think we come to the same kind of point here.

If goodness is really rooted in the nature of a god, then the counter argument works. If it does not, then our instincts to preserve our autonomy in our preferences is not misguided and the idea of heaven actually is as revolting as I now imagine it to be.

Reflecting on it leaves me still on my side of preferring non-existence to heaven. Much like the LGBT example, the story ends up with the truth that those people realizing that they can't (nor should they want to!) change themselves in their dispositions, and so the stories with a happy ending is them changing the society they find themselves in (by leaving their situation) and living in a place that accepts them for who and what they are.

But it's incredibly important to know WHY I come to this conclusion: Because I'm not convinced theism, let alone Christianity is true.

I Could Be Convinced

Lately I've had a lot of debates about the resurrection of Jesus and miracles in general. A repeated theme is the fact that verifiable miracles do not occur, at least in our present day.  I hold that if those were to start occurring and I could get a scenario where I can empirically verify a miracle was happening, I'd convert. I've already written about how verifiable miracles could be used to prove the truth of Christianity specifically, let alone theism more generally.

If that were to happen, I'd have a lot to change. I'd have to completely rework my conception of what "goodness" is in general, moving from a view that goodness doesn't exist in it's own kind of platonic form but rather is relative for "goodness for" something to embracing goodness being it's own entity based on nature of god.

As it is, given my lack of miraculous demonstration, and my evaluation of what goodness is, I don't see the theory of goodness being rooted in god's nature as very plausible.

The Lynch Pin

Ultimately this kind of thing is what under girds so much of the theist-atheist disagreement.

The problem of evil, or gratuitous evil follows from what one thinks about good and evil in general.

The Christian can say that goodness is rooted in god's nature and so therefore there are no gratuitous evils because god could only create a world where the evils that exist are the ones that have moral justification for allowing, even if we don't know what that justification is.

An atheist accepting another account of good and evil (say non-natural moral realism of Derek Parfit) would be able to point to some examples of evil that would consequently have no justification for their existence under that moral theory, and so would instead say that yes, gratuitous evils exist, therefore there is no god.

"One person’s modus ponens in another persons modus tollens." comes into play here, and our pre-commitments to seemingly unrelated views are going to inform our conclusions on this kind of side issue.

One thing I'm stuck with after all this reflection is just how seemingly impossible it is to be able to prove one side or the other; regardless of how strongly I feel about my convictions.

What I'm left thinking is that if I'm going to continue the atheist advocacy hobby of mine, it's going to necessitate a change in approach.

No comments:

Post a Comment