Navigating Belief, Skepticism, and the Afterlife | Alex O'Connor @CosmicSkeptic | EP 451

Navigating Belief, Skepticism, and the Afterlife | Alex O'Connor @CosmicSkeptic | EP 451

Coming up (00:00:00)

  • Early church debate on the physicality of Jesus's resurrection.
  • Canonical tradition stipulates physical resurrection as a requirement for belief.
  • Catholic emphasis on the Divinity of the body.
  • Gnostic tradition emphasizes the kingdom of God within and resurrection through gnosis.
  • Gospel of Thomas focuses on Jesus's sayings, not his actions.

Intro (00:00:46)

  • Alex O'Connor (Cosmic Skeptic) is interviewed by the host.
  • O'Connor runs the podcast "Within Reason."
  • O'Connor has interviewed many people of interest to the host, including Richard Dawkins.
  • The discussion focuses on the nature of belief, religious belief, and commitment to belief.
  • They also discuss the distinction between fact and fiction and the idea that both can reflect reality.

Skepticism should be in the service of something (00:02:47)

  • Skepticism is a tool to interrogate beliefs and separate valid ideas from misleading ones.
  • Skepticism alone can lead to destructive nihilism if not used properly.
  • Skepticism should be used as a tool in the service of something constructive.
  • The name "CosmicSkeptic" combines the vastness of the universe with the critical thinking of skepticism.
  • The spelling "skeptic" with a "K" is due to a mistake but has become a distinguishing feature.
  • The name reflects the combination of open-mindedness and critical thinking that constitutes actual thinking.
  • Skepticism is a tool to separate valid ideas from misleading ones.
  • Skepticism should be used constructively, not just destructively.
  • Skepticism is a methodological tool, not an end in itself.

Intellectual victory versus fruitful conversation (00:05:35)

  • Alex O'Connor mentions his progression in thinking regarding intellectual conversations.
  • He used to strive for victory or making his point, but now he values fruitful conversations and learning from others.
  • Becoming a podcaster and having numerous conversations changed his perspective.
  • Debates focused on winning can be counterproductive and prevent learning.
  • Constructive skepticism involves pointing out where someone is unclear or lost in their argument, rather than winning the argument.
  • Winning an argument can lead to the illusion of being correct, which is never fully the case.
  • Debates are not optimal for learning and growth, unlike conversations that prioritize learning.
  • Joe Rogan's success is attributed to his ability to push his points while prioritizing learning, rather than seeking victory.

Clarifying the term “belief” in it’s religious and mundane context (00:09:31)

  • Alex O'Connor, known as CosmicSkeptic, discusses the concept of belief and its interpretations, criticizing the common definition of belief as accordance with facts.
  • He proposes an alternative definition of belief as a matter of commitment or what one is willing to live or die for, acknowledging that religious belief involves a grander entity.
  • O'Connor warns against potential traps and manipulative intent behind certain questions, particularly from Christian trolls, who may use the question "Do you believe in God?" to determine if someone belongs to their group.
  • He emphasizes the importance of critical thinking and questioning assumptions, especially when dealing with extraordinary claims, while also acknowledging the limitations of human knowledge and the potential for genuine mysteries.
  • O'Connor encourages respectful and open-minded discussions, even on controversial topics, and stresses the value of intellectual humility and admitting when we don't have all the answers.

God as an orientation toward the highest value and the regress issue (00:13:54)

  • God is seen as the highest value in a value hierarchy.
  • Every action is oriented towards a value.
  • Perception of objects is influenced by their functionality and value.
  • A value regress occurs when questioning the reasons behind actions, which must terminate somewhere to avoid an infinite loop.
  • The value of an action is borrowed from a higher value, and without a basis, the entire sequence lacks value.
  • The Divine place or Y is introduced as the highest value at the top of the value hierarchy.
  • The Divine place is the source of all value and goodness.
  • Evil exists as a privation of goodness, like darkness is a privation of light.
  • The existence of evil does not negate the existence of the Divine place.
  • The Divine place allows for free will, which can result in evil actions.
  • The Divine place is not responsible for evil actions, as they are a result of human choices.

Understanding God conceptually; is he “real” in the material sense as an agential being? (00:15:50)

  • Defining God as unavoidable existence makes him different from the Christian concept of an omnipotent, omniscient being who intentionally created humans and sacrificed himself for their sins.
  • Cultural Christianity, as admitted by Dawkins, is a more specific concept of God.
  • The traditional Judeo-Christian perspective conceptualizes God as a being outside the categorical structure, not bound by time or space.
  • This immaterial and transcendent nature of God differs from the materialistic framework often used to approach the question of belief.

The evolution of the physicality of God; Eliade on Nietzsche’s “death of God” (00:18:50)

  • The physicality of God evolves in the Old Testament tradition.
  • Earlier descriptions depict God as a more localized and physical being, such as walking in the Garden of Eden and having a council of angels.
  • Over time, God becomes less localized, with tensions between the ineffable and comprehensible aspects of his manifestation.
  • Mircea Eliade, a historian of religions, suggests that the idea of God's death and disappearance has occurred multiple times throughout history.
  • Eliade proposes that one explanation for this is that a God who becomes too familiar and comprehensible loses its sacredness and mystery.

“Profound religious account is bottomless;” the mythological and historical Jesus (00:20:20)

  • The historical and mythological aspects of the gospel accounts are intertwined, making it challenging to separate the two.
  • Denying the historical reality of Jesus is considered futile.
  • The biblical representations of religious accounts are profound and allow for multiple interpretations, including potentially competing ones.
  • According to some interpretations, such as Paul's in the New Testament, if Jesus did not literally rise from the dead, then Christianity is undermined and faith is futile.
  • The resurrection accounts are difficult to interpret and understand, and it is unclear what is meant by "believing" in them.
  • Christians may believe in miraculous events without having a clear understanding of how they occurred.
  • The question of whether miraculous events happened in a literal or metaphorical sense may not be as important as the belief in the overall message and teachings of Christianity.

Where Dawkins and Peterson might just agree (00:28:43)

  • Peterson's approach to interpreting biblical texts:
    • With respect and without unquestionable assumptions.
    • Tries to see what's right in front of him and what mystery reveals itself.
  • Dawkins' idea of memes:
    • Similar to the concept of archetypes.
    • Questions the basis of selection for memes and their hierarchy.
    • Conserved memes may be more viable organisms.
  • Evolutionary argument against naturalism:
    • If evolution by natural selection happens materially, it selects for survivability.
    • The rational faculty evolves not to be sensitive to truth but to survivability.
    • Undercuts the process by which we believe in the truth of evolution.
  • Darwinian definition of true:
    • True is that which is useful for survival.
  • Newtonian definition of true:
    • True is that which corresponds to reality.
  • The two definitions diverge when survival and reality conflict.
  • Peterson's position:
    • Truth is not necessarily useful for survival.
    • We should seek truth even if it is not useful.

Can falsehoods help you survive? (00:31:40)

  • Sam Harris and Alex O'Connor had an awkward conversation about truth.
  • Richard Dawkins believes that believing true things makes one more likely to survive.
  • Alex O'Connor argues that sometimes believing something false can also be beneficial for survival, such as believing that a rustling in the bushes is a lion.
  • Daniel Dennett agrees that there are some circumstances where believing something false could be beneficial to survival.
  • Alex O'Connor questions whether 2 + 2 = 4 is not one of those cases where believing something false is advantageous to survival.
  • Alex O'Connor suggests that Richard Dawkins and he might agree on the idea of truth being more Darwinian and related to survivability.
  • Alex O'Connor finds it difficult to have a conversation with Richard Dawkins because they don't know each other well and because there are things that Dawkins knows that he doesn't know and vice versa.
  • Alex O'Connor criticizes Richard Dawkins for not knowing anything about the Yián tradition of literary interpretation and for calling him "drunk on symbols."
  • Alex O'Connor compares Richard Dawkins' knowledge of theology to someone who has only read the Great British book of birds.
  • Alex O'Connor argues that religious stories are memes and that there is a hierarchy of memes, with some being very functional.
  • Alex O'Connor acknowledges that people may find his views on religion controversial and atheistic.

The impossibility of reducing the Biblical corpus to a reassuring banality (00:35:20)

  • The Bible contains historical and symbolic narratives, and it's important to distinguish between the two when discussing Christianity.
  • The Exodus story is often interpreted symbolically as an ongoing process rather than a specific historical event, although archaeological evidence often supports the historical accuracy of biblical narratives.
  • Reducing biblical stories to simple historical accounts may overlook their symbolic and deeper meanings.
  • Christians may not need to believe in the literal historicity of events like The Exodus or the resurrection of Jesus to maintain their faith.
  • The speaker argues that fictional characters like Hamlet can seem to exist more than real people, even though they are not literally real.

God as the ultimate fictional character and how fiction and fact intertwine (00:45:25)

  • Alex O'Connor made a comment that God is the ultimate fictional character, which he now thinks he misunderstood.
  • People often see fiction and fact as opposites, but they are not.
  • Some forms of abstraction, like numbers, can be more real or at least as real as the things they are abstracted from.
  • Fiction is an abstraction and is hyper real or a meta truth.
  • The question of whether something is real depends on what is meant by "real".
  • If someone asks if something is real after understanding the concept of fiction as an abstraction, they may be asking if it happened in the physical world.
  • In the case of religious stories like the story of Cain and Abel, the question of whether they happened literally misses something more profound about their truth.
  • Alex O'Connor was asked by Douglas Murray if Jesus Christ existed and responded that the events of Jesus' life probably didn't happen literally, but there is more to the discussion.
  • O'Connor then asked if the story of Cain and Abel happened, which raises the question of whether it should be interpreted literally.
  • O'Connor finds it strange that he was able to easily say that the stories of Raskolnikov and Dmitri Karamazov didn't happen literally, but he feels there is another sense in which the truth of the story of Cain and Abel should be discussed.

Possession, perception, and the level-of-analysis problem (00:49:01)

  • The story of Cain and Abel and Dylan Klebold's mental state before the Columbine High School shooting can be interpreted as cosmic dramas that have been ongoing forever rather than specific historical events or alienated young men committing crimes.
  • The concept of reality can be perceived differently depending on the level of observation, from the macroscopic to the quantum level.
  • A baby's heartbeat can be detected as early as 3 weeks, and an ultrasound can be a crucial factor in a mother's decision to choose life.
  • Pre-born, an organization dedicated to saving babies from abortion, provides ultrasounds to mothers and has rescued 200 babies per day.
  • For a donation of $28, individuals can make a significant difference in saving a child's life, and monthly sponsors receive stories and ultrasound pictures of the lives they helped save.

Elvis Presley’s guitar; hierarchical context is separate from the apprehension of the object (00:55:34)

  • The perception of an object is influenced by its hierarchical context, which is not part of the object itself.
  • When people look at Elvis Presley's guitar in a museum, their perception is informed by the context of the guitar's history and significance.
  • The object itself partakes in a higher-order unity that extends beyond its physical properties.
  • A reductionist view of objects only considers their physical composition and fails to take into account their hierarchical context.
  • It is important to find the appropriate level of analysis for objects, avoiding both overly reductionist and overly holistic approaches.
  • Belief is a state of mind in which a person accepts something as true or real.
  • Skepticism is a state of mind in which a person doubts or questions the truth or reality of something.
  • Both belief and skepticism can be useful tools for understanding the world.
  • Belief can provide certainty and motivation, while skepticism can help to avoid errors and biases.
  • It is important to find a balance between belief and skepticism, being open to new ideas while also being critical of them.

The inverse correlation between the specificity of an answer and the importance of the question (00:58:18)

  • The specificity of an answer is inversely correlated to the importance of the question.
  • Questions about humanity and human life require less specific answers.
  • The choice of the level of analysis for a phenomenon depends on the level of resolution that gives maximal functional grip in relation to one's pursuit.
  • The choice of level of analysis for a phenomenon is related to the value of that phenomenon.
  • The level of analysis that gives maximal functional grip in relation to one's pursuit is the appropriate level of analysis.
  • Every act of perception unites Earth and Heaven, and the perception itself is invisibly dependent on whatever it is one is worshipping.

The physicality of the resurrection; the canonical versus the Gnostic tradition (01:02:14)

  • Early church debate on the physicality of Jesus' resurrection.
  • Canonical tradition: Jesus physically resurrects, belief is mandatory.
  • Gnostic tradition: Resurrection is metaphorical, kingdom of God is within, attained through knowledge (gnosis).
  • Gospel of Thomas, written around the same time as the Gospel of John, doesn't mention resurrection or crucifixion, focuses on sayings.
  • Gnostics believed the important thing was what Jesus said, not what he did.
  • In the early church, questioning the physical resurrection could be seen as heresy.
  • Modern Catholics may be interested in Jordan Peterson's views because they challenge traditional understandings of resurrection and Christianity.
  • The bodily tradition of the Resurrection doesn't desacralize the body, unlike Gnosticism which can be contemptuous of the body and the material world.
  • Insistence on the bodily Resurrection is a medication against the Gnostic belief that the material world is created by an evil Demiurge.

The Testimony of Truth; was Christ the serpent in the Garden? (01:05:55)

  • The Gnostic text, "The Testimony of Truth," discovered in the Nag Hammadi library around 300 AD, identifies the serpent in the Garden of Eden with Christ, making him a higher God than the original God.
  • In traditional Christianity, the fall of Adam and Eve is seen as a faithful but Heaven-sent error that made the Incarnation of Christ possible and right.
  • The Gospel of John compares Christ to the serpent in the desert, highlighting a profound identification with the source of poison that redeemed the Israelites.
  • The author of the Gospel of John is considered a theological genius, unlike the authors of the synoptic gospels.
  • The Genesis account of the Garden of Eden raises questions about why God forbids eating from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil and the presence of the serpent as a cunning being not explicitly created by God.
  • The serpent in the Garden of Eden could be interpreted as the most sensible of the animals, as it challenges God's command and encourages Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
  • Some people view the serpent as a revolutionary figure, similar to Milton's Satan, and regard its actions as a form of enlightenment.
  • Gnostic texts present an alternative perspective, depicting the creator of the universe as an evil demiurge who deceives humans about the consequences of eating the fruit.

Computational epistemology: a new field of religious study? (01:14:20)

  • The story of Adam and Eve can be interpreted as a consequence of their overreach, leading to their banishment from the Garden of Eden.
  • Adam represents the ordering principle, while Eve represents the voice of the vulnerable and marginalized.
  • Computational epistemology can help track patterns and relationships within texts, aiding in interpretation.
  • Multi-method and multi-trait construct validation increases the probability of an interpretation being accurate.
  • Deep expertise is required for textual interpretation, as mere consensus is not sufficient.

Can ideology be good? Proper interpretation and the cosmic order (01:22:43)

  • AI systems trained on classic texts are more useful and not ideologically controlled in the traditional sense.
  • Postmodernist interpretations of religious texts lead to incoherence and power plays, and they are anti-science in their insistence on the arbitrariness of interpretations.
  • Religious texts contain canonical interpretations that guide moral behavior and personal growth, as exemplified by the story of Abraham.
  • Human reproduction involves long-term investment and care, and acting out a sacrificial ethos is essential for the long-term survival of offspring, in contrast to Richard Dawkins's view of reproduction.
  • There are interpretations that are not arbitrary but are in harmony with a genuine Cosmic order, making them deep, sacred, and fundamental.

Jesus and the Quran; the pathology of mythologization (01:29:00)

  • The speaker discusses training a large language model on religious texts and the challenges of incorporating different religious perspectives.
  • Christianity and Islam have distinct epistemologies, with Islam emphasizing the Quran's infallibility and Christianity focusing on Jesus as the embodiment of the word.
  • Even if the only information available about a person is a collection of apocryphal quotes, it can still provide insights into their personality.
  • The speaker recommends the Hallow app for guided meditations and prayers to deepen spirituality and strengthen one's connection with God.
  • The speaker argues that truth can be extracted from a large number of statements, even if they are all incorrect.
  • Pointing out historical contradictions in religious texts may not be as significant as some believe, as the focus should be on the overall message and teachings.
  • The search for truth should not be limited to specific, concrete questions, as different types of truth exist, and the meaning and significance of religious stories can be valuable even if their historical accuracy is uncertain.
  • The speaker acknowledges the importance of historical events like the resurrection of Jesus and the Exodus but argues that their meaning and teachings can still be accessed and appreciated even if one does not believe in their literal occurrence.

“If your aim is upward then God is with you;” vicarious redemption and bearing your cross (01:35:24)

  • The story of Jesus is one of vicarious redemption, where Jesus takes responsibility for the sins of humanity.
  • However, this does not mean that individuals have no responsibility to live a proper and meaningful life.
  • Jesus emphasizes that only those who do the will of God will enter the kingdom of heaven.
  • The idea of vicarious redemption reflects the mercy of God, but it does not negate the need for personal responsibility.
  • When individuals aim upward and establish a relationship with the spirit of what is good, they have the ultimate why that enables them to bear the ultimate how.
  • The passion story exemplifies this duality, where Jesus experiences real suffering and death while also having God's presence.
  • Vicarious redemption properly understood means individuals do not have to bear the burden alone, but it does not absolve them of all responsibility.

Dr. Peterson on Hell and the afterlife (01:38:17)

  • Alex O'Connor argues that it is easier to believe in hell than heaven and criticizes the appropriation of religious language to apply a sense of the sacred to profane things.
  • He draws a parallel between the concept of eternal punishment in the afterlife and the hell that unites all totalitarian states.
  • O'Connor emphasizes that lying is one of the reasons why people end up in hell and that the invitation to hell is offered by the eternal usurper of the moral order.
  • He discusses the difficulty in defining religious concepts and defending one's interpretation of religious texts, using the example of the Christian belief in Christ defeating death and hell.
  • O'Connor mentions a conversation between Anan her Ali, a Christian who found relief from depression through prayer, and Richard Dawkins, an atheist, highlighting Anan her Ali's choice to believe in the virgin birth of Jesus despite not fully understanding its meaning.
  • He suggests that seemingly illogical or contradictory details within religious texts may be due to our limited understanding rather than inherent flaws in the texts themselves.
  • Alex O'Connor reflects on his personal journey of exploring belief, skepticism, and the concept of the afterlife, finding a deeper sense of presence and awareness through his investigations and seeking.
  • While he finds the gospel stories fascinating and resonant, he does not identify as a Christian, raising the question of how someone can hold certain beliefs without fully embracing the associated religious identity.

What really forms the basis of Christian thinking and the responsibility it demands (01:48:15)

  • The essence of Christianity lies in the commitment to truth, the belief in an intelligible order, and the exploration of that order through careful and precise use of language.
  • The goal of conversations should be productive harmonization of visions, leading to a mutually redemptive process of seeking truth and exploring ideas together.
  • Christians should strive for self-improvement, carrying the maximum load they can bear, and imitating Christ's actions rather than focusing on earthly achievements.
  • The Christian pathway involves maximal self-sacrificial responsibility, embracing challenges, and carrying one's cross.
  • Alex O'Connor, also known as CosmicSkeptic, expresses gratitude to the film crew and audience for their support and invites viewers to join him on the Daily Wire side for future podcast episodes.

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