I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Friday, May 07, 2010

One Good Moment

Yesterday was the 4th anniversary of Laura's death. I had fully intended to post something last night, but two things stopped me. The first and biggest obstacle was that I didn't feel like I had all that much to say. I've experienced several deaths of people close to me this year, namely my father, my best friend, and my grandmother. When my father died, I spent several days in the hospital by his side, and it was impossible not to go through that without thinking of Laura's final days. I've had my fill of intensive care units at this point, and would like to not visit one again for a few decades at least. Then, when Greg died, I felt frustration at my lack of ability to express myself, not just here, but to anyone, really. I know things about Greg that no one else will ever know and can never know. Our friendship wasn't just one of good times. Greg had stood by my side during some of my darkest moments, and there were bad times in his life where I had been the one person he could call and talk to. To fully explain what he meant to me, I would have to betray his trust, and I won't do that, even in death. But, it means that the stuff I can and will talk about with others feels hollow to me. I can tell the funny stories, and the safe ones, but the rest are effectively gone. I'm the only one that knows them, and I will never tell them. And if a story is untold, does it even exist?

The same is true of Laura. It's easy to elevate the dead, and talk about their wisdom, their humor, their kindness. But the Laura I knew was a very comlicated human being. I have no problem telling the world about her loves and joys, but, like all people, she was fully capable of anger and bitterness and even outright hatred. I feel free to tell the world she fought cancer bravely and loved life. But I was also there during the moments when bravery failed, and when she wasn't certain that going on another week or a month was worth the effort. I was there when she was tired and miserable and mean, and that, too, is now something I carry in silence, unable to share the specifics. It means that parts of Laura will never be known; when I am gone, those parts of her will be gone. It creates something of an empty feeling.

So, last night I had opened up my laptop and was staring at a blank Blogger essay field when my phone rang, giving me reason #2 not to post anything. It was an old friend of mine and she wondered if I had a minute to talk. I closed down the computer and went out to the deck and talked to her for a while. She had recently had a cat die and was feeling depressed. After Greg had passed away, I had told her that I was giving serious thought to starting an atheist ministry to give atheists somewhere to turn to during difficult moments, and she was in one of these difficult moments. She told me how the cat had been feral and she'd slowly tamed it, and during a vet visit had discovered a heart condition, and had been considering treatment options when the cat passed away. Now, in addition to being depressed over losing the cat, she was also wondering if she'd done enough. Maybe if she'd made different decisions with different priorities, she could have had the cat's heart condition treated earlier.

I told her that the opposite was also true. She could have done absolutely nothing with this feral cat. To feed it, tame it, and take it to a vet was much more than many people would be willing to do for a stray. In some alternate universe, maybe a diferent chain of events would have led to the cat living another ten years. But, in this world, you can never know how much time anyone or anything has. All you can hope to do is make the most of the moments that you do experience. The cat was happy, well fed, and cared for during the last few months of what was likely a very rough life. The fact that the cat didn't live longer didn't subtract from the good she did. Kindness need not be permanent to be important.

Today, I feel a little more at peace with my inability to fully explain or share all I knew of Laura, or Greg, or my father. Because, at the risk of stating the obvious, what I do now to memorialize them makes no difference to them at all. What made the difference isn't what I've done since they passed away. It was what I did when I was alive to show them kindness and make their time on earth a little better than it might have been. When I am gone, these moments I remember will be forever lost. But... so what? The kindness, the beauty, the sorry, and the truths I've shared aren't a product of the memories. They're a product of the moments. Moments are fleeting and ephemeral, and have a distressing tendency to slip past without announcing their presence. But, in the end, the moments are all that truly matter.

A lot of religion is eternity-centered. The dream seems to be to take the ups and downs and sideways of life and turn them into an unending sequence of only good times. The reality is all flipped around. It's not eternity that matters. It's the moments. One good moment can make all the difference in one good day, one good year, or one good life. You are probably surrounded by people who need this one good moment today. Go out and help them find it.


Anonymous said...


Izgad said...

“But the Laura I knew was a very comlicated human being.”


Izgad said...

Here is the challenge, as I see it, to your atheist position. If there is no life after death, even an impersonal one, then we have to acknowledge that everything you did for Laura no longer matters. At best it matters for the moment for you. Only if human beings have some sort of share in immortality can we say that they matter as individuals. The really scary prospect is that we have to consider that there are institutions that will outlive us individual humans, States, and ethnic groups. If humans only occupy a finite existence then the interests of States and ethnic groups must trump that of individuals. It was not for nothing that the crisis in faith brought about by the Enlightenment created Nationalism.

James Maxey said...

Izgad, thanks for stepping in with an opposing view. For what it's worth, I am perfectly comfortable accepting that what I have done in my life may not matter in a hundred years, almost certainly won't matter in a thousand years, nad quite definitely won't matter in a million years. But, I don't see why endurance is an important measure of the value of a life. My actions when I was with Laura mattered to her, they mattered to her children, they mattered to her family and friends and my family and friends, and they mattered to me. Having them matter to an invisible man in the sky with a long memory isn't important to me.

As for the importance of states over individuals, every year in South America they find some city swallowed by the jungle that was once part of a nation that no one remembers. Lost nations lay beneath the sands of deserts, beneath lava, and under oceans. The oldest nations on earth have existed for no more than a blip in geological time, and the greatest nations of earth today will eventually vanish from all memory.

Yesterday, I went hiking at Hanging Rock. The rock formations in that area are stunning, a product of millions of years of erosion whittling away soil and stone. Fifty million years from now, even these stones will be gone, reduced to so much gravel by wind and rain and vegetation.

Will the absence of this mountain matter to the men of fifty million years from tomorrow? Probably not. By then, there will be new mountains to climb.

If even mountains can't lay claim to immortality, why should it matter to me?

Izgad said...

It would matter very little to me either what some man in the sky with a long memory thought about my actions. The possibility that my actions might gain the approval of the creator and moral authority of the universe on the other hand might be worth something, again even if I do not in any way survive my death.

Yes nations will come and go and probably in a few thousand years there will no longer be a United States. That being said I do assume the United States will survive this mortal body of mine. Therefore, assuming that this is all there is to me, the good of the State should come before my good. What matter more, that the ancient Egyptians pursued social justice or that they built the Pyramids?

While we are on the topic of moral authority, from your perspective is there a difference between your personal beliefs about fashion and your personal beliefs about the morality of slavery?

James Maxey said...

"While we are on the topic of moral authority, from your perspective is there a difference between your personal beliefs about fashion and your personal beliefs about the morality of slavery?"

Most certainly. People should be free to do what they wish as long as it doesn't do harm to others. It's difficult to imagine anything that I could wear or not wear could cause any true damage to another person. Slavery, however, would be a very direct harm to another human being, depriving them of thier freedom by force and taking from the unfairly something I have no right to take (their labor) without compensation.

Note that this is quite a different position than that taken by some prominent world religions who do feel there is is moral authority who has left written instructions as to what is acceptable behavior. Slavery isn't condemned as a sin in the Bible; in fact, there are laws in Leviticus dealing with the proper treatment of slaves. Slavery didn't become almost universally immoral until the world passed from the age of religion to the age of reason, and morals stopped being based on ancient texts and began to be shaped by logic and pro-human philosophies.

Behaving morally in an attempt to earn the approval of an overseeing authority carries some Freudian overtones to me. It's like basing your moral choices on trying to please your mother and father. Only, in the case of the dominant American religion, the parents are psychotic with a turn-the-other-cheek hippy mom (Jesus) and a war-mongering, eye-for-an-eye, first-borne slaughtering dad (God). Trying to please parents like this is only going to lead to grief.

Izgad said...

Yes both of us accept the moral premise of not causing harm to other people. The question is what is the authority of this belief and hence our ability to use it as a coherent statement. My objections to plaid are simply products of my head so I have no grounds to expect other people to act in accordance to these plaid beliefs. When I say that slavery is wrong, I am not just saying that I personally do not care for slavery. I am saying that they are in violation of universal moral law. I may be wrong and I may not be able to prove the truth of this belief, but at least I am making a coherent statement.
The Euthyphro dilemma does not apply here, because we are not dealing with the question of the ultimate authority of morals, but with our ability to make coherent statements about morality. In general the Euthyphro dilemma can be dealt with by assuming an ultimate moral force in the universe. There is no higher moral authority, but this moral force by definition is a supporter of a specific code and could never go against it.

James Maxey said...

When you say we must "assume" a universal moral law, I take it to mean we must act as if there is such a thing, whether there is evidence of it or not. For the life of me, I can't see why. First, I don't believe there is such a thing as moral law, at least if we are talking about "law" meaning a universal property of existence. For instance, gravity is a universal law. Morality isn't; it changes from era to era, from culture to culture, and even from person to person. For instance, I have no problem with people who claim that it's immoral to eat animals or wear leather. They are free to craft their own moral choices, and do their best to persuade me of the righteousness of their cause. The same is true of people who oppose homosexuality. I feel they should be free not to have sex with members of the same gender.

Even the prohibition against force I referenced in my previous argument isn't universal. It's merely a premise I place out there and make arguments for and hope that others will agree that it makes a good foundation to build upon. It doesn't need to be woven into the fabric of the universe. We are thinking beings. Morality is just another survival tool we are free to craft to ensure the best life possible for ourselves and our offspring.

Finally, if the moral force you reference does support a specific code, could you be so kind as to tell me where I can find this code? Or is it an unwritten code revealed only to a chosen few? If it is written, was it written my men, for men? Doesn't this leave open the possibility it's just a useful fiction rather than some universal truth?

Izgad said...

When you say that slavery is wrong and unjust what do you mean? Do you simply mean that according to your personal values it is wrong so that just as people should not wear bell bottoms they should not enslave people? (So fine you think that slavery is in really bad taste as opposed to bell bottoms which are just a little bit in bad taste.) If this is the case then we cannot have a meaningful conversation about morality and you really should not be using terms such as wrong or unjust.
Despite the major differences in culture throughout the world and throughout history, there are remarkable similarities in their morality. This may very well be due to evolution. Evolution still does not explain why this morality holds any authority. We can travel from ancient Greece to modern day Tahiti and the people meet would agree on a number of things in terms of values. Honesty is a good thing; one should not repay good with evil and do unto others as you would have them do to you. People may not always live up to these standards and recognize certain exceptions, but this does not change the fact everyone accepts the validity of these values. This is what allows us to even talk about morality.
You do not need any scriptures for this morality. They are knowable through reason once one accepts the notion that there is something called right and wrong as opposed to what I want or do not want. The two most basic statements of ethics are Kant’s two universal imperatives. For ethics to be meaningful it must be universal hence you must always act according to principles that you would have as a universal rule. Also ethics assumes the existence of ethical responsibility hence the need to treat all humans as ends not as means.
I am not bothered by the fact that I accept these things on “faith” since there are many things I have to similarly accept in order to be a rational person and not simply go insane. I accept as a starting assumption that the universe is designed according to rational knowable laws. I assume the validity of Occam’s razor. I assume the existence of right and wrong. If I need to assume the existence of a universal law giver to make sure this all functions in some coherent fashion so be it.

James Maxey said...

Izgad, let me again express appreciation that you are taking the time to make your arguments. I worry that this might be devolving into a "is not," "is so," type exchange, so I'm going to make my best honest attempt to state your position as I understand it. If you feel like I'm not getting it, let me know.

I think you are saying, in returning to your slavery/bellbottoms analogy, that without some universal moral authority or force, that human morality is just as trite and subject to whims as human fashion. There must exist some universal principal that says that slavery is wrong, or else ever changing human opinions could swing once more and we could return to a culture where slavery is perfectly acceptable. Things that are right and wrong are right and wrong always and every where, or else nothing is ever truly right or wrong, and that way leads to madness.

Am I misstating your position here?

If you desire to believe in a universal set of morals and a moral authority of the universe who can judge your actions, I'm happy to say to you: Do whatever works. If you need to make these assumptions to avoid going out on a canabalistic murder spree, then I encourage you to assume away.

On the other hand, I don't believe in universal moral principals or a universal moral authority, and haven't for thirty years, and have somehow avoided the temptations cannibalism, bank-robbery, human trafficking, and heroin addiction. While some of my life choices may be difficult to explain, I don't think any medical professional would classify me as insane, so apparently living without faith in a higher power isn't all that dangerous. Of course, I'm just one data point.

Finally, assuming I understand your argument, I'd still like to see any evidence you have that supports it. I can't think of any human action that is always regarded as moral or immoral in all circumstances. Today, many cultures regard killing and theft as bad stuff, but if you were a viking or a hun or a vandal, it was your day job. Rape is an especially heinous crime today, but the Roman Empire had a foundational myth that boasted of stealing women from neighboring lands and raping them. Slavery is way up at the top of the no-no list, but we revere men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who bought and sold slaves. We hold in such moral esteem that we put their faces on our money. Today, ethnic cleansing is regarded as a war crime, but see how far the Cherokee get if they start arguing we should give back Georgia and North Carolina, taken from them by force in well-documented history, by men who have statues erected to them in our nation's capital. If morality is composed of universal principles, did we just get lucky in stumbling onto them in the last fifty years or so? Had all men who existed before now been abject failures in the eyes of the universal moral authority? Or do morals change as people change?

Personally, I welcome the idea that human morals are constantly being changed by humans, for humans. For the most part, it looks like our ability to change our moral attitudes has resulted in a kinder, fairer world for blacks, women, children, not to mention you and me, than the world we would live in if some moral authority had fixed what was right and what was wrong at some point in the distant past.

James Maxey said...

Oh, and I really feel like we've drifted away from the main point of my original essay, which was that you should be focus on making a difference to others now, rather than worrying about eternity, since now is all you can be certain of.

Izgad said...

This argument is a variation of something from C. S. Lewis. I find him useful in that, better than anyone else, he could make the case in simple English why it is reasonable to assume that there is some type of supernatural authority over the world.

I am not claiming that we need a higher authority to be moral. One can be an atheist and perfectly moral. The issue that I was raising is slightly different. Can one make coherent moral statements like “x is unjust” without assuming some form of moral law outside of our own collective minds? Without some sort of outside authority, statements of morality devolve into statements of taste. This does not mean that people will not hold of them. It simply is issues of our ability to make moral statements that actually mean something and which we can expect others to take seriously.

You brought up the issue of slavery in the United States. Your narrative of how slavery ended is that values simply evolved. What this ignores is the debate that went on in American culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries where abolitionists challenged the rest of society as to how they could tolerate slavery when slavery contradicted principle of “all men are created equal,” a principle that even ardent slave owners claimed to believe in. This debate relied upon the assumption that there are core moral truths, without which there could have been no debate.

Izgad said...

Let me add that nothing I am saying here assumes the existence of an afterlife, hellfire, or a deity who is actively aware of what I do, actually cares or is likely to smite me if I do not engage in any rituals.

James Maxey said...

"Can one make coherent moral statements like “x is unjust” without assuming some form of moral law outside of our own collective minds?"

Well, sure. I do it all the time. Words like just, moral, and fair have meaning for the same reasons that words like fashion, passion, and stupidity have meanings: They are the products of human minds. There is nothing universal about them, and nothing fixed and definite. I regard it as moral for women to wear pants, eat pigs, and look men in they eye. Elsewhere, these things are horrors. The meanings change because humans are quite changable. Subtract humanity from the equation, and these concepts that seem so important would not exist. They are shared ideas of humanity, existing nowhere but in human minds. You may argue that this is not the case, that morality is universal and existed before men and will exist after men, but an argument isn't evidence.

And, while you say you aren't presupposing the a diety, you did state early on in this conversation that you found value in the idea that your actions might be judged by the creator and moral authority of the universe. If you don't have God in mind here, who, pray tell, are you trying to please?

I feel it's a bit like people who argue for intelligent design while swearing up and down they aren't making an argument for a diety, when, of course, that's pretty much their whole point. If you believe in God, and want other people to believe, just be up front about it. If God is real, you need neither logic, reason, or evidence to win your argument. God is your trump card, who will play himself when he plays himself. What further argument do you need?

Anonymous said...

Better say nothing than nothing to the purpose. ........................................

Izgad said...


I am not making any claims of having “proven” anything. I am arguing merely on what grounds certain statements can be meaningful. It may very well be that these statements do not mean anything. I think we can agree that there are certain things are beyond any ultimate proof, but are necessary to believe in. All principles of mathematics is based on claims unprovable by arguments outside the very system itself, hence circular reasoning. I am sure you are familiar with David Hume’s riddle of induction; all scientific claims are philosophically speaking invalid.
You seem to be conceding the point that moral claims have equal validity with claims of taste. The only difference being that you really do not care about fashion, but do care about morality. The religious fundamentalist who believes that women should dress a certain way because his holy books say so is going to be in trouble when he comes against people like us who reject either his interpretation of his books or reject their authority completely. We can only grin when this person tries to get his daughter to dress in a certain way by beating her over the head with his book as she in turn rejects that book. This scenario ceases to be funny, when your daughter, in addition to deciding that women and bell bottoms are hot, reads Mein Kampf, decides these Aryan values speak to her and wants to become a lesbian Nazi. What are you going to tell your daughter; that you personally are a liberal, but you recognize that values change and that you respect her lifestyle choices no matter what, even if it means becoming a bell bottom wearing lesbian Nazi?
I will be able to tell my daughter that for her to come to me and lecture me about my moral duty to accept her no matter her lifestyle choices, she has to accept the concept of universal morality and explain how her Aryan supremacy beliefs are consistent with this universal morality. I’ll accept the bell-bottoms lesbian part.
I do not question whether an individual atheist can be moral. I do have my doubts as to the plausibility of creating a society of moral atheists and of atheists to pass on their morality to their children.

I said that this would not require an active God, just a deist one. Separate from this issue, I recognize that having a deity who values what I do my life would grant a greater level of meaning to my life even if there is no life after death.