What is Guilt?

What is guilt? There is no shortage of things to feel guilty about these days and this has produced everything from victims to neurotics. There are solutions but do any of them work?

Guilt and the Human Condition

As someone who was raised in a culture that capitalized on guilt as a motivator for action, I’ve spent a good deal of my adult life dealing with guilt’s effects. I’ve had to be very intentional about breaking out of the entrenched guilt-ridden psychology that was drilled into me as a child. But at the same time I’m trying to understand what guilt is, how it functions and what, if any, role it should play in a healthy psychology.

While I don’t believe religion was the source of the paralytic guilt I was dealing with, I came to realize that was used as a type of catalyst for it. I nibbled around the edges of the problem for years and finally had a breakthrough when, on the advice of more than a few friends, I picked up Earnest Becker’s 1973 masterpiece The Denial of Death.

His thesis (which builds on the work of Freud and Otto Rank) is that as mortal but conscious mammals, we are aware of the horrific reality that we will someday cease to exist. All of our personal investments, memories, friendships, aspirations, and goals perish along with us. That truth is so immensely difficult, so all-consuming, that it dominates our psychology and is at the root of just about all of that we do. Most of our activities are designed to keep us from focusing on the fact that we will die someday.  Russell Shorto in Descartes’ Bones sums up the idea nicely:

“Death is the event in life. It is our chief organizing principle. It's why we rush and why we dawdle. Why we butter-up our bosses and fawn over our children. Why we like both fast cars and fading flowers. Why we write poetry. Why sex thrills us. It's why we wonder why we are here.”

And its why we feel guilty. But what is guilt? Where does it come from? According to Becker, guilt is partially fed by the knowledge of all the life we know we’re not going to be able to live and by the fear that death my visit us on a schedule that doesn’t coincide with ours. If I came to realize that today was my last day to live, I’d wonder: did I waste the day (or worse, my life)? Could I have done the day “better”? Did I give enough, love enough, be productive enough, invest in my legacy enough? Becker writes:

“To lie to oneself about one’s own potential development is another cause of guilt. It is one of the most insidious daily inner gnawings a person can experience. Guilt, remember, is the bind that man experiences when he is humbled and stopped in ways that he does not understand, when he is overshadowed in his energies by the world. But the misfortune of man is that he can experience this guilt in two ways: as bafflement from without and from within—by being stopped in relation to his own potential development. Guilt results from unused life, from ‘the unlived in us.’”

Of course existentialists like Kierkegaard saw this well before Freud (as Becker points out) and the ancients faced this problem much more poignantly than we here in the 21st century being so buffeted by technology as we are. Nevertheless, guilt still figures prominently in our psychology (in the psychology of many of us anyway). In a recent article for the Catholic periodical First Things, Wilfred McClay tackles the problem. While McClay’s article is moderately religious in orientation, I think there is enough substance in his analysis to appeal to the general reader. You may not agree with his conclusions but his analysis has some bright spots worth reflecting upon.

Modern Guilt

On McClay’s view, modern, non-religious treatments (he focuses mainly on Freud’s ideas here) neuter the notion of guilt by untethering it from any moral foundation. We feel an overwhelming sense of guilt for a variety of things but really don’t know why. In this sense, he says, guilt is unreal. It seems like a fabrication because without any moral connection, there is nothing to be guilty of. How can we be guilty for anything when we’re accountable for nothing? But there’s a problem here. Moderns have gotten very good at piling on responsibility for just about everything from what we put in our bodies to the well being of the planet. He writes,

There is another factor at work too, one that may be called the infinite extensibility of guilt. This proceeds from a very different set of assumptions, and it is a surprising by-product of modernity’s proudest product: its ever growing capacity to comprehend and control the physical world. In a world in which the web of relationships between causes and effects becomes ever better understood, in which the means of communication and transportation become ever more efficient and effective, and in which individuals become ever more powerful and effective agents, the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore of our potential guilt, expands to literally infinite proportions….Colonialism, slavery, structural poverty, water pollution, deforestation—there’s an endless list of items for which you and I can take the rap. The demands on an active conscience are literally as endless as an active imagination’s ability to conjure them.

This is one of the more significant observations McClay makes and I couldn’t agree more. As someone who lives in one of the more progressive areas of the United States, the sheer number of guilt-inducing social responsibilities alone are overwhelming. Recycle more, drive less (and only a hybrid), help the poor, make sure your kids read, exercise, don’t buy a big house, do buy a small car, buy organic, buy local, buy fair trade, help the needy, walk for the cure, work more, work less, neuter and spay, vote democrat, and on and on it goes. As McClay points out, much of these are good ideas in general. But they’re presented as true moral options and choosing wrongly carries deep moral weight and because of that, guilt. Yet without a clear moral foundation on which to place the moral burden, the cognitive dissonance one must conjure up can be maddening—literally. He cites the work of Frenchman Pascal Bruckner who calls the condition “Western masochism.”

The bigger problem, says McClay, is that there is no clear path to alleviating all this growing guilt. We moderns have had to come up with all sorts of creative ways to salve the thousands of psychological cuts that threaten mental breakdown including becoming victims--either by invention or transferrence--in order to establish a basis for excusing our intangible moral failings. The oppressor becomes the responsible one and the victim, as innocent, is released from the burden of guilt.

Forgive Me Father, For I Have Sinned

McClay argues that “secular victimhood” is a product of a perversion of the Christian ethic. Not surprisingly, he finds the orthodox Judeo-Christian moral system to be the only one that’s really satisfactory. What is more surprising is that Becker, who was by no means a theist, tended to agree. The reason theism works is because God’s forgiveness can allow us to bypass all the labor and burden of having to overcome the basis for our guilt (which, theists argue, we could never do anyway) and “relieve the debt” in one fell swoop, for now and for eternity.

What McClay doesn’t really address but Becker, in inexplicit terms does, is that the psychological benefit of theism accrues to the theistic moral system and is not necessarily dependent on its being true. In other words, one’s guilt is relieved by believing that God has forgiven sins and this “works” as a psychological heuristic even if there actually is no God. (I’m reminded here of Peter DeVries observation that, “It is the final proof of God's omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us.”) I don’t see any particular difference, at least in this life, between believing that God has forgiven sins and His actually forgiving sins. Of course for the belief to have any potency, if one truly believes that God forgives sins, then one believes God forgives sins. But the reverse is not true. It doesn’t seem to be necessary that there is a sin-forgiving God in order for the belief that there is to be efficacious.

But this demonstrates that ideas are powerful things and if theism as an idea is powerful enough to help us manage guilt, maybe there are other ideas that are just as powerful and even more effective. McClay (and to an extent Becker) doesn’t see any real contenders in the near future.  It might seem incredibly narrow to think there is one cure for guilt because the causes of guilty feelings are as diverse as the people that have them. But McClay and Becker find that theism is as close to a consistent cure as one can find. (For my own part, I found that a healthy application of theism coupled with other psychological devices were more than sufficient not only to heap on the guilt but to heap it on to the point of psychological paralysis. Sure God forgives but he holds the faithful to a high standard and success or failure in this life anyway is dependent on how good you can manage to be. But this is for another time.)

McClay concludes that guilt is an important part of our psychology. It is “surely one of the essentials of our human makeup, the very core of moral responsibility, and a spur to many of the noblest acts in human history. We should not want to hector it or narcotize it into oblivion, for we would not be human at all anymore without it.” But, he says, it does need to be managed and we should do so in ways that cultivate more authentic selves. On that, I couldn’t agree more.

Crowed Sourced Peer-Reviewed Journal

Sympoze is attempting to use crowd sourcing to referee academic publications

Sympoze is attempting to use crowd sourcing to referee academic publications. The accepted papers will be published under an open access model for wider availability. From their website:

Sympoze will also offer…

  • High-quality peer-reviewed scholarship by experts in the field
  • Immediate open-access publication (for pieces that pass the review process)
  • Yearly print volumes for each discipline in traditional book and e-book formats

See their website here for information on how to submit articles and become a referee.

The Gettier Problem: A Study—Part 8

John Schellenberg argues that when one believes something, she is not directing her mind towards a proposition. That is the object of belief is not a proposition.

States of affairs as distinct from propositions

John Schellenberg argues that when one believes something, she is not directing her mind towards a proposition. That is the object of belief is not a proposition. Rather, belief is a disposition[1] to respond to the world as if some state of affairs is true. The mind is “directed to… a possible arrangement of things, not a proposition indicating or representing or reporting that arrangement.”[2] He refers to this as a “phenomenological” approach to belief analysis because the description of the object of belief is done not in terms of propositions but in terms of what the subject experiences. A belief, he claims, is “simply thinking of the world.”[3]

For Schellenberg, belief simpliciter is not propositional. Thoughts, he says, are mental states consisting of a possible state of affairs being represented to an individual. Propositions enter the picture when a person has a thought that some state of affairs is possible. This act is the coming to mind, in one way or another, and however briefly, of a state of affairs. It is the same act as what is generally referred to as "entertaining a proposition." One can entertain a proposition as possibly true without believing that the state of affairs actually obtains. This he calls a "propositional thought."[4] The important distinction here is that one can entertain a proposition without believing the proposition is true. Thinking that your cat is chasing a mouse is to entertain this proposition with no commitment that about its truth conditions. Believing that your cat is chasing a mouse is to have a disposition to act as if it’s true though the object of the belief is the state of affairs: the cat is chasing a mouse.

More...

Some Interesting Stuff From Around the Web

Articles and news that might be of interest to the philosophically minded.

In this article for the times, the eminently quotable Stanley Fish discusses the merits of philosophy (as an academic discipline not as the intellectual exercise that most of us engage in each day). I rather like his view of relativism as he focuses on the epistemology of moral claims rather than the ontology. I also tend to agree with his view of academic philosophy though, like all esoteric and specialized disciplines, its value goes far beyond its practicality.

Mario Livio for The Scientific American explains why math works. For non-subscribers, there’s a short, two paragraph introduction here.

Thanks to Don Sudduth for the pointers.

The blog with the funny name (Camels with Hammers) considers whether evolutionary metaphysics is a type of faith. Thanks to Andrew Smith for the pointer.

An example of some of the interesting approaches one must take to solving the apparent conflict between divine providence and human freedom.

Can you “tweet” prayers to God?

You Think You’re Free? Think Again

The concept of free will is under attack. Many scientists and philosophers are realizing that if the rest of the world is governed by natural laws and chance and humans are a part of the world, then humans must be governed by natural laws and chance too.

UPDATE: I wrote a shorter version of this article for The Huffington Post. That was recently published here.

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I'd wonder whether science is out to systematically destroy religion one idea at a time. Over the last few centuries, when the church has gone head to head with science, the church hasn't done so well. Now we're here at the beginning of the 21st century and of the mysteries that remain, religion continues to be a safe house for only a couple of them. One is the whether humans are free to make choices between good and evil and whether we're responsible for those choices. It's not looking good for religion.

2594-Jenn-250pxAs far as science is concerned, free will is tricky. Most of us seem to think that we, at least some of the time, face genuine choices and are responsible for the decisions we make. I can choose to drive or take the bus. I can help the needy or help myself. I can choose to be with this person or that one. In the West, our entire legal system hinges on whether doing one thing over another is up to us. If it is, we're responsible for our actions and should pay the penalty for making bad choices.

But this is not squaring well with a modern view of the world. Many scientists and philosophers are realizing that if the rest of the world is governed by natural laws and chance and humans are a part of the world, then humans must be governed by natural laws and chance too. Consider this argument by philosopher Galen Strawson. He says that in order to ultimately be responsible for our actions, we would have to be responsible for the way we now are since the things that define us--our beliefs, desires, goals, environment--provide the basis for the decisions we make. But much of the factors that contributed to the way we now are were out of our control. We aren't responsible for our DNA. We didn't choose our parents or where we were born and grew up. We had little influence over the schools we attended or why we may like red wines over white. So, since we're not responsible for much of the way we now are, we can't ultimately be responsible for our actions free (a succinct summary of this argument appeared in an article for the New York Times recently).

William Provine, Professor of Biology at Cornell University, has argued strongly against free will mainly based on Darwinian science. But the idea is motivated by what he sees as negative social outcomes by those who believe in it. He stated in a debate with theist Philip Johnson, “There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind …. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either. What a horrible idea.”

Philosophers like Daniel Dennett, Patricia Churchland, and Derek Pereboom agree that given what we currently know about man’s place as a wholly physical being in a physical world, free will is not tenable. Pereboom concludes that belief in beings with free will “is not credible given our best physical theories. Consequently, no position which affirms the sort of free will required for strong accountability is left standing."

Many recent, popular movies are touching on the subject bringing the issue front and center to a wider audience. “You don’t have free will David. You have the appearance of free will.” Fixer Terrence “The Hammer” discloses this uncomfortable fact to David Norris in George Nolfi’s recent cinematic adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story, The Adjustment Team (films such as Inception, The Book of Eli are other examples that come to mind). The movie nibbles on the question, “Are we able to do otherwise?” In the mouth of an actor, free will’s elegy may carry little weight in the real world. But it is being echoed by many in the philosophical and scientific communities and the implication, if true, for religion, ethics, sociology and psychology are enormous.

Some are recommending we just face facts and give up the notion. In a recent review of David Eagleman's book Incognito Jeffrey Foss just comes out with it: "Free will is an illusion." His recommendation? "Get over it." According to Foss, Eagleman attempts to show that humans essentially are biological robots fitted with hardwired machinery that explains our behavior much better than some squishy idea like "the soul." While science may provide some wiggle room for those who "wish to live the life of freedom and responsibility . . . the writing is on the wall" he warns. (As an example of a theist who believes modern science provides the wiggle room Foss alludes to, Loyola philosopher Paul Moser argues that quantum physics provides plenty of theoretical room for freedom of the will. He also makes the positive claim that acting unselfishly towards others--something he believes some people clearly do--is only possible if God exists and that, in turn, can provide evidence that he in fact does exist. In my interview with Dr. Moser, he stated, “… in human conscience God bears witness to the divine moral character as represented in the law of God, thereby holding people accountable.”)

This does not bode well for many core religious teachings. After all, if the freedom to choose is dissolved in the acid of natural law (or divine sovereignty--another can of worms 5602-WWU_smaltogether), a lot of what religion teaches has to be dissolved with it. We'd no longer be responsible for evil or good, or be able to choose to live the way God wants us to. We'd also have to give up things like sin and eternal punishment. Really, without free will, religion isn't all that ethically distinctive from agnosticism or atheism. Worse, it may even mean that God is responsible for evil and suffering. If God is in control of everything but we're not free to choose, God must be responsible for child abusers and torturers. Only by creative theological gymnastics (that I suspect most of us don't really buy into anyway) can one escape the logic.

Well, there is another way. We can try to affirm the science but just deny the conclusion--a kind of "power through it" approach. Theist, geneticist, and former director of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, states in his book The Language of God that "... the existence of free will and of order in the physical universe are inexorable facts." He believes that even in a world where science would nearly exhaustively explain everything, free will still will be a viable notion. "Scientists will discover an increasing level of molecular detail about the inherited factors that undergird our personalities, but that should not lead us to overestimate their quantitative contribution. Yes, we have all been dealt a particular set of cards, and the cards will eventually be revealed. But how we play the hand is up to us."

This approach focuses more on what experience seems to present us with (or what a sacred text teaches) rather than what we come to learn by analyzing facts about the world. It comes down to how much we trust our intuitions. If science were to demonstrate that we really don't love our kids should we stop caring for them? If scientists somehow proved that we really don't enjoy red wine or fried dough (we just think we do), will we drink water only and eat plain rice at every meal? Many claim that we know we're free and that's enough to keep acting as if we are regardless of what the science and philosophy says.

In an article for The Art of Theory, Yale Law professor Paul Kahn frames a discussion of free will in the context of a theological view of politics. Political discourse, if it is to occur at all, has to be done in the context of alternate possibilities. He is somewhat critical of what he sees as the Kantian view that truth is defined solely in terms of what reason dictates. We may use reason to draw various conclusions about matters legal and moral. But, says Kahn, most of the time reason doesn’t and, a fortiori, shouldn’t dictate our actions.

We may have no answer to a moral argument, but still we may be convinced that the right way to act lies in another direction. We may, for example, decide that, under the circumstances, the particularity of love is more important than the universality of a moral rule. We may even acknowledge that what we are doing is morally wrong, but still believe that it is what we should do….

No principle will tell me whether I should act on care or justice when they point in different directions. That hardly means that I am the passive observer of the diverse causes of my own behavior. I must decide what to do. The possibility of decision in a causal world may be mysterious, but that does not mean that the experience of decision is mysterious. Just the opposite: we are entirely familiar with our own freedom and thus with the process of deciding.

This intuition is strong and arguments like these suggest that they should carry just as much if not more weight than what reason may dictate.

My view is that if we take the evidence coming out of science and philosophy seriously, freedom of the will is hard to maintain. Yet I make plenty of decisions every day and have a strong sense that I'm entirely responsible for them. I can at least say this: if I'm being asked to pick between the science and my intuitions, I choose not to.

2011 International Conference on History and Society Development

2011 International Conference on History and Society Development(ICHSD 2011)
25 to 27 November 2011
Maldives

The ICHSD 2011 papers will be published as proceedings and all the papers will be indexed by Thomson ISI Proceedings. About 10 papers selected from registered ones will be published in IJSSH, ISSN: 2010-3646 free of charge.

The deadline for abstracts/proposals is 5 September 2011.

Enquiries: ichsd@iedrc.org
Web address: http://www.ichsd.org/index.htm
Sponsored by: IEDRC

Political Theologizing sans Theology

Yale professor Paul Kahn examines politics and law using the lenses of theology and theological psychology. But it's theology without the influence of the divine.

In this interesting piece of political philosophy, Yale professor Paul Kahn examines politics and law using the lenses of theology and theological psychology. This isn’t an article on theology per se. Rather, Kahn attempts to examine politics using theology writ large.  I think he does a good job of showing the role postmodern epistemology plays in political and legal discourse. He focuses on the idea that politics (and even law) is essentially social. Political "truth" comes down to an agreement among a particular social group as defined by the political or legal system in question.

In order to be effective in these systems, one must have the power of persuasion: the ability to dialogue and simmer down disparate ideas until there is a general (though not, of course, universal) agreement. If one resorts to preaching or dictating political or legal truth, one has abandoned social discourse and so is not doing politics any longer. He plays heavily on the intuition that most of us have that ideologues and dictators both have abandoned the political process and replaced it with something much less democratic (despite the fact that they can be effective politically).

This theological background continues not just in moral theory, but also in contemporary political theory. When, for example, John Rawls argues that the basic order of a political community must be founded on an imagined contract formed behind a veil of ignorance, he is imagining the overlap of reason and will. Behind the veil, we can rely only on reason, which is the same for everyone.

Thanks to Bill Pardi for the pointer.

Full article here.

Philosophy of Religion Conference at Georgetown University

BGND Phil of Religion Conference, hosted by Georgetown University

Conference begins Thursday evening, 10/6, and runs through Saturday evening, 10/8

*Speakers (with commentators):*
Mark Henninger, SJ (Patrick Toner)
Oliver Crisp (Tom Senor)
Meghan Sullivan (Lorraine Keller)
Terence Cuneo (Karen Stohr)
Christina van Dyke (Thomas Williams)
Trenton Merricks (Todd Buras)
Hud Hudson (Blake Roeber)
Alex Pruss and Trent Dougherty (Stephen Grimm)
Lara Buchak (Mark Lance)

Please let Mark Murphy know if you'll be attending so that he can make sure the room size is appropriate. Email him at murphym@georgetown.edu

Reposted from The Prosblogion.

So Long Old Time Religion

Religion in the west is changing according to George Barna. Church attendance, belief in the accuracy of the Bible, and volunteerism are down. The number of unchurched is up. What's next?

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote an article in which I discussed the changing face of religion in the West. I claimed, among other things, that evangelicalism is a dying breed, church attendance is dropping and traditional views of God and the Bible are shifting, and that Christianity will look very different in ten years. In an article published July 26, 2011, the Florida Sun Sentinel summarized recent research done by the Barna Group on shifting trends in religion. The data support the conclusions I made in my article. Here are some of the trends (since 1991).

  • Church attendance fell by 9 percent
  • Belief in the accuracy of the Bible fell by 8 percent
  • Volunteer work at the church fell by 19 percent
  • Those who call themselves “born again” are still growing (up 5 percent)
  • The number of unchurched has grown significantly, up 13 percent

As I stated in my 2010 article (and in this series), the reasons for the shift are varied but I think it comes down to the growing impact science and technology has had on the daily lives of Americans and, at the same time, the shrinking role the church and God have played. I think it is an open question whether these shifts are a good or bad thing. I do believe that something will replace religion—something similar in psychological power. Environmentalism and even Darwinism seem to be viable alternates for many but a new kind of religious sentiment may emerge as well.

Time will certainly tell.

Thanks to Greg Taft for the pointer.

Full article here.

Barna blog post here.