Wednesday, September 21, 2005

What I Believe

My sister Ruth has been reading this blog and she remarked that some of the posts here mostly dwelt on the negative--the problems of religion, utopias, political and ethical opinions, and so on. That's about what I don't believe in. This is about what I do believe in.

1. The mystical experience of communion with all living things is real. It is our sense of separateness that is the illusion. This illusion is fostered by the ego, a mental construct, a form of personal idolatry, the I that makes everything else Other. Hatred is a byproduct of this illusion. This includes self-hatred, which is actually based upon negative aspects of the ego that we have mistaken for ourselves.

2. Love is a simple recognition of the social nature of human beings, that we live by mutual support and cooperation, and that we live better the stronger that mutual support becomes. Competition only works within narrow prescribed limits within a framework of cooperation, and only when it serves to increase cooperation overall.

3. We do not persist in any self-aware form after we die. Any form of eternal existence as ourselves would become hell. The idea of the afterlife is only tolerable because we believe that we will meet those we love there, because it is other people who draw us out of ourselves. But eventually, even this would not be enough. If we persist in any form, it is as a droplet of water returned to the ocean that loses itself in the reunion. Whatever else may happen, 'I' will end. This is all the time you get. Use it well.

4. We continue in the world after death by becoming a part of those who love us. Mannerisms, ideas, memories, quirks, beliefs, all scatter into the world, to continue on, but without a name attached. We emulate what we admire, and try not to emulate what we despise. In this way what is good lives on.

5. The truth survives, and is recognized as such by most people when they hear it. A lie that is not rejected will cripple or even kill the person or society that believes it. Thus, the truth will win out, either in an individual mind exposed to the free market of ideas, or in a Darwinian test of fitness. Learn or die--it has ever been thus. This is the only real progress.

6. Most of the prophets, saints, and spiritual founders cited by religions knew what they were talking about. Their domain of expertise was the human heart and the relationships between people. On matters concerning history or the physical world they knew little, and staked no claims in these areas. Most of the clergy that followed them have no idea what they are talking about. In their hands the words of the prophets become a grey goo of hackneyed phrases, vacant sentiments, and tired superstitions, boiled and hashed to the point where it offers no flavour and little nutrition.

7. The life of the mind is a kingdom not of this world, treasure that thieves cannot steal. It is also a means of acquisition without consumption, accumulation without burden, and enjoyment without expense. Prophets and scholars have little money because they can't be bothered with it; they are already rich. Material wealth is little more than a distraction from true wealth.

8. The spiritual emerges from the physical but cannot be reduced to it. Reductionism of this type loses too much essential information--descriptions of neurological events do not capture the personal subjective experience of those events. The leap in complexity from basic physical structure to the phenomena of mind marks a qualitative difference, not just a quantitative difference. There will always be room for poetry, art, and music.

9. Real faith is not rote belief in articles of doctrine. These are mere superstitions. Real faith amounts to optimism, which, though keenly aware of the risks and disappointments of life, refuses to stop trying. This is faith in ourselves, in others, and in our ability to face the world together. Faith, hope, and charity are simply different aspects of the same thing.

10. There is no personal God or supernatual entity who watches over us. We will stand or fall on our own merits, and the merits of our communities, for which we share responsibility. This is justice. To ask any more is ungrateful and presumptuous.

11. Mercy is breathing. Earth is speck of living dust in a vast lethal void, the only life sustaining planet that we know of. Know how improbable you are, and be satisfied with life itself--even this is an extremely rare gift.

12. We do not own this world, nor anything on it. We did not make it, and we cannot replace it. We are, at most, tenants, who have the use of it for a short time. It belongs to everything that lives on it, past, present, and future. By harming it, we betray the trust of our ancestors, and the hopes of our children. And our children will despise us for it, and we will be remembered as selfish fools--if there is anyone left to remember us.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Conspiracy Theorist

Conspiracy theorists look for evidence of concerted, deliberate, and often grandiose schemes of malevolent intent. The primary conviction of the conspiracy theorist is that those in power have done what they've done with the specific intent of causing harm to others for their own benefit. There are no coincidences or misfortunes, only cabals who operate in the shadows, successfully and secretly plotting the ruin of others, while remaining in power themselves, apparently for generations. Their plots are shrewdly calculated and wildly successful. They are the very model of competence.

Robert Heinlein's Jubal Hershaw said "Never ascribe to malice what can be explained by incompetence." I like this one so much I call in Heinlein's Razor. While there is no shortage of evil, destructive people in the world who do harm by intent, the vast majority of them are marginalized--small time brutes who harm the few within their reach. Psychopaths who do rise to positions of power tend to lay waste to everything and everyone around them; they bankrupt companies, destroy their own families, and in positions of political influence, lead their peoples to ruin. In short, they are not well adapted. Nearly all psychopaths end up murdered, executed, or imprisoned. They soil their own nests. They do not successfully work for their own benefit. Eventually even their followers turn on them. Stalin was poisoned, and Hitler's fall was inevitable before he ever took power; his best men tried to blow him up. The question is how many people the psychopath can take down with him.

Narcissists have a similar personality, but they at least usually have a vision, which may inspire others in the same direction. The destructiveness is harnessed to a purpose, rather than being cruelty for its own sake. Narcissists can rise to prominent positions, they are often charming in their own way, but their abuse of others usually catches up with them and costs them. They become targets. Nobody roots for them, and at the first sign of weakness the knives come out. The more prominent they become, the more enemies they make. If a narcissist is brilliant, others may put up with him, but few will ever like him. A narcissist must be competent in his position to survive. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Bill Clinton are examples of narcissists.

The vast majority of misfortune in the world is caused by people lower down the scale, those who have fixated ideas, some narcissitic tendencies, but enough of a human touch that their continued company is tolerable to others. They may not have the vision thing, but they usually have strong beliefs and a high opinion of their own abilities. The worst thing about incompetents is that they rarely know they are incompetent. As wrong as their decisions may be, they are genuinely convinced that if they stick to them, it will all work out for the best.

Incompetents can rise to power by being competent in another area whose expertise does not apply to their new position. Sometimes there is no real competence at all; the person is just good at looking the part (Ronald Reagan and George Bush come to mind here.) Most do have an area of competence, but one that has little relevance to the position. They have risen to their level of incompetence. Successful businessmen may assume powerful positions in government, unaware that the business of government is not like private enterprise--the point is not to maximize profit but to maximize benefit. Businesses exist to serve themselves, serving the customer only as a means to this end. Government exists to serve the citizens, and its own welfare is secondary to this. The newly appointed or elected businessman may attempt the same strategies in their new position that worked so well before, forgetting that what they did before was primarily aimed at enriching themselves. Old habits die hard. And of course, the people they trust are those like themselves, whom they have had dealings with before, but who are also out for their own interests. But worst of all, they carry with them whatever rationalizations they used to excuse their own self-seeking natures in their previous occupation. They earnestly believe that what they are doing is right, and are genuinely surprised and indignant when they are caught with their hand in the till. In part, it is this very ingenuousness which protects them. They do not behave like guilty men. And others who have made the same rationalizations will rally to their aid, rather than accept a challenge to the beliefs that allow them to live comfortably with themselves.

None of this, of course, is an excuse. We are every bit as guilty for the lies we tell ourselves as for the lies we tell others; more so, in fact, because these lies, once accepted, allow us to be glib when we repeat them to others. Morally, there seems to be little distinction, but there is an important distinction between the motivations of the incompetent and those of a true villain. The villain knows what he's doing. The incompetent doesn't. This means that they are two very different animals, and the approach that works best on one will have disastrous consequences when applied to the other.

A villain must be opposed by force. Force is his native tongue and the only language that he understands. For the villain, mercy is weakness, so to show him mercy is to invite disdain and cruel reprisals. You must literally take up arms against him. Terrorists do what they do because they believe that the world is ruled by villains; the terrorists who threaten us now believe that the world is run by the ultimate villain, Satan himself, and that everyone outside of their narrow belief system serve Satan and are therefore villains themselves.

The incompetent, and those who share his beliefs, will be surprised by uses of force against him and will consider them completely unjustified. Far from weakening him, the attacks will grant him a position of undue moral authority. That which does not kill him will make him stronger, but this is of no benefit to anyone; he is still incompetent, and his actions may still bring about disaster. The use of force against him will tarnish his opponents and strengthen his support. Attacks on a villain may serve as a call to action to others; attacks on an incompetent will rally people to his cause instead. Even due process of law and a just sentence may be perceived as too harsh, though this will be much harder for his supporters to argue. The only effective means of dealing with an incompetent is to prove his incompetence. Then his support will dry up.

Conspiracy theorists mistake incompetence for villainy. Although their criticisms of certain policies and practices may have merit, the shrillness of those criticisms renders the conspiracy theorist politically irrelevant. He is consigned to the fringe, a lunatic, because his attacks are ad hominem and his evidence post hoc. Conspiracy theorists leap from action to events which follow decades or even centuries later with the assumption that this was precisely what was planned, and that no other factors came into play. Anachronisms are common; the conspirators, even those of centuries long past, are believed to have known everything about the world that we do. Perfect knowledge and foreknowledge are then used to establish clear intent--all of our problems were deliberately caused. The conspiracy theorist attributes to his opponents a measure of diabolical intent, prescience, and power that rings patently false when ascribed to any human being or party of human beings, no matter how clever.

The motivation behind conspiracy theories is essentially religious. It seems that it is more comfortable to believe in an evil power running the world than that there is no one in control. The existence of the Devil would at least promise the possibility of God. If someone evil can cause all this harm, then maybe someone good can fix it all--conspiracy theorists also have a hankering for extreme views on human potential and a lot of woo-woo science. And if the man at the wheel is evil, the bus may be hell, but at least he won't crash it--that would kill him too.

But what if the man at the wheel doesn't know how to drive? What if he's roaring drunk, thinks he's in top form, and he's going to take you with him over the next cliff. If the Illuminati are running the world and raking in the cash, then at least there's the opportunity to escape the deluge by becoming rich or powerful, or by overthrowing them and taking control. Surely they have at least kept a place where they will be safe. But what if the people in charge really don't know know what's going on, what if they really don't even know how to serve their own best interests, and--even worse--you don't know any better than they do? If there are no illuminati, then all we really have are a lot of imperfect, fallible people to run the show, and our problems are the result of that.

There is no devil. The messiah is not coming. It's all up to you.

Scary thought, isn't it?