Monday, November 20, 2006

The Weekly Pizza Message

I work in a strange place. It's a game development company, filled with strange and wonderful people, and this allows me to do strange and wonderful things. Like order pizza every Thursday, and send out strange and wonderful emails to everyone in the company the day before to remind them to order.

So here is a sampling of those messages, and I will post more in the future, more or less in order...

Thursday is road-kill day...
...or for those with an aversion to that sort of thing, there's always pizza.

Thursday is Pizza day
Much better than deep fried dog turd. Order yours here.

Thursday is capitalist imperialist snack day!
Do your part for the revolution! Order your pizza here.

Thursday is frilly lingerie day!
Um, sorry, that's Tuesday. On thursdays we order pizza.

Thursday is extortion day!
Order pizza. Because you know I'm going to come around for the money anyway.

Thursday is naked lunch day.
With a variety of new and interesting toppings. Order here before your computer turns into a giant bug.

Something to do with Pizza.

(Silly person. People don't write AAAAAGGGHHHHH. I mean, no one would go to the trouble of writing it out, now, would they? If you were dying, you might say AAAAAGGGHHHHH, but you wouldn't have time to write it, you'd just see the writing and then it would just stop in the midd

The Thursday Ritual
Here at Artech we have a ritual, practiced every Thursday, in which we don black latex gimp suits and torment our co-workers by spanking them with dried salted halibut while loudly playing songs sung by William Shatner...

Or you can order pizza.

Real men eat Pizza on Thursdays!
And real women too!

Uh... that is, real women eat pizza too, not that real men eat real women too. Well, yeah, okay, they might, but not for lunch. I mean, they don't, that is... never mind...


Re: Thursday
Alright, I thought I would take the minimalist approach and go down to two words, but it seems some sort of razzle dazzle is required to annouce pizza.

For this reason, we have enlisted the delicious talents of one Dilly Salzbanger, late of the Megadrome Consumerama, and her life partner and prime doorstop, Screech Headcranker, former head of quality assurance for the recreational drug division of Leary and Hopper Pharmeceuticals. Dilly will perform her one-woman show, entitled Forty-Five Erotic Poses Not Normally Permitted By Human Physiology Or The Law.

Screech, officially pronounced brain-dead in 1993 and 'neurologically fascinating' at the Bio-Psychology Conference and Rave of 1997, is not guaranteed to do anything, but is prone to significant moments. They should be here around noon--or not, as Screech is flying the saucer.

Thursday is the day that dares not speak it's name...
In keeping with our tradition of pizza day extraveganzas, Baron Mungo Attrosso will lead a chorus of Tuvan throat-singers in a endless repetition of the chorus of Home on the Range, while his tiny mexican assistant Paolo performs the fire-ant dance in polyester boxer-shorts. Possibly the most annoying sound known to man, this performance is likely to produce psychotic breaks and homicidal tendencies in all spectators within half an hour. Your best bet is to surreptitiosly jam a bit of pizza crust in your ears--but you can't very well do that if you don't order pizza, can you? Well, don't say I didn't warn you...

The Pizza Pixie
On Thursdays the pizza pixie flutters in on her tiny gossamer wings to bestow upon all the good little girls and boys the pizza of their choice. Then she gathers all the boys and girls together and sings cheerful songs of life in pixie land, spreading warmth and pixie dust and good fortune to all who hear her.

At least, that's what used to happen before Mike Morris shot her and made a pixie sandwich out of her.

Now we have to pay for our pizza, which is delivered by a furry, sweaty, irritable little man in a Pinto. Pixies now being extinct, we have to order from Domino's. Oh, well, order pizza anyway...

Pizza traps
The exotic and furtive Artech people live in dark caves where they serve and are amused by their glowing electronic idols. Once a week, on every Thursday, we leave pizza by the door of their cave. Those that emerge, drawn by the scent of this tasty snack, we beat over the head with a large stick, so that we may later add them to our collection of rare and extinct species--rare and extinct, of course, because we have beat so many of them over the head with a large stick...

On Thursday we sacrifice a goat to the old ones...
In the hopes that our ancestors will be pleased with us and shower us with much pizza, we annoy our livestock by picking one at random and killing it in a showy manner. We used to do this with a person instead, until someone suggested that we kill the ugly old priest instead of another beautiful young virgin, and the villagers brightened and thought this a capital idea. However, since the priests get to eat the goats they kill, the people of the village still suspect that something is not quite on here, and we may be flipping the head priest on the barby any day now.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Carrion Eaters

It occurs to me that the death of religion might not mean the disappearance of it so much as a surfeit of garbage religion and superstition. The dead and dying cannot defend themselves from those who want to gnaw on them as they lie there, and the explosion of irrational nonsense that we now see is as much an affront to the old religions as it is to rationalists. Their churches are being ransacked by political empire builders, and yet, the only strength they seem to be able to muster is against atheists, because they think it's a safe fight.

Consider the loathsome crowd of vultures that now feed on the carcass of the major faiths, the likes of Falwell, Robertson, Bin Laden, and Haggard. There was a time when these faiths had the strength to fend these carrion eaters off. There was a reason why fundamentalist christians were relegated to the backwoods: someone was minding the store. Or consider the lunacy of the Rapture. The noisome little man who first loosed this brain fart was promptly packed off from the Anglican Church to obscurity. Now legions of believers spout this dime store fantasy, and the only voice that can be heard to object comes from secularists. Heresy is rampant, and the old faiths are now taken to mean so many different things to so many people that they effectively mean nothing at all.

It now seems that the old religions are so desperate to make their faiths a happenin' thang that they will hold their nose and embrace any mangy beast that appears to have a talent for attracting a crowd. They can't even rouse themselves to the effort of challenging other religions. And when the rallying cry of the Christian right is against gay marriage--the only thing that seems to be able to unite them is a thinly veiled hatred of homsexuals--you know the whole train has gone off the rails. I certainly don't miss the inquisition--the same stick they beat heretics with was also used on atheists--but when they can't even work up a lather against blithering heresies, you can stick a fork in their ass. They're done.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Against Metaphysics

When I first started taking philosophy in University, metaphysics appeared to be a very promising pursuit. It seemed to me to be the gateway to magic; it held the possibility of alternate universes ruled by different orders. If materialism denied the existence of magic, well then, just do away with it--it was just one metaphysical premise amongst others, and the best part of metaphysics was that you could spin conjectures to your heart's content, and never be called on to prove any of them, except by a clever twist of logic and a big maybe (and who could prove me wrong?) It was, after all, meta-physics, supposedly the basis of physics itself, except that, being non-empirical, you didn't have to bother with all of that annoying evidence. All the worlds of fantasy and science-fiction beckoned--and somehow, I could justify them. But as I learned more about it, metaphysics lost its lustre.

Metaphysics isn't about magic or the supernatural--at least, not necessarily. It is a discussion of the ultimate nature of reality. It is, however, beyond the bounds of the empirical or strictly logical. This means that mathematics is not a branch of metaphysics, unless you assert that a particular mathematical model describes ultimate reality independent of empirical verification. If the model corresponds to reality and is demonstrated empirically to do so, then you're doing physics. This is why some physicists have become dismissive of string theory. So much of it lies outside of the bounds of empirical testing that by claiming that it represents physical reality, theoreticians may in fact be practicing metaphysics. But it is not the mathematics itself that make this metaphysics, only the claim that they represent reality without empirical justification. You can construct an infinite variety of mathematical worlds by varying your basic axioms, but most of those worlds will have no bearing on reality as we know it. Exploring these worlds mathematically is just mathematics. Asserting that these worlds actually underpin physical reality, without any empirical evidence to back this claim, is metaphysics.

What distinguishes metaphysics from physics, or branches of logic or mathematics, is that it makes truth claims without any means of verification or disproof, either through induction or deduction. This is the key point that many people seem to miss--if you can actually prove the claim, you are not practicing metaphysics, but science. And conjectural musings about alterate universes without truth assertions are fiction, usually science-fiction or fantasy.

To say that everything is metaphysics isn't really saying much, because it amounts to saying that everything is based upon the ultimate nature of reality. But that does not mean that all theory is metaphysical, because metaphysics consists entirely of conjectural assertions. If all theories are metaphysical, then all theories, regardless of correspondence with observable fact, are equal. For any metaphysical claim, there are contrary claims which stand on equal footing. Since metaphysical claims cannot be proven or disproven, lumping science into metaphysics places it on equal footing with alternate metaphysical systems which have no empirical basis. Even the emphasis on empiricism becomes negotiable, and this is where magic can be reintroduced. If you don't have to prove it, you can believe anything you want. This is the launch point for systems of New Age magic, and the same position has now been adopted for the defense of religion. This is why religious believers want to argue metaphysics--as soon as you join in the discussion on this ground, you've lost. You have unwittingly agreed to the premise that empirical evidence has no bearing on truth, and once you've done that, they can claim anything they want, and there's nothing you can do about it.

So while not all metaphysics leads to magical beliefs, all magical beliefs begin with metaphysical assertions. And since metaphysical assertions are, by their very nature, beyond proof or disproof, metaphysical arguments can never be resolved.
Metaphysics is thus the final refuge of philosophical scoundrels, whose intentions are to force you to acknowledge your ignorance in a domain where there is nothing but ignorance, and use this admission of ignorance to sneak their argument past you. The only way to win an argument on metaphysics is to refuse to engage in it, which is precisely what scientists do. This is not dodging the point, but recognizing that there is no point.

This idea, by the way, has its equivalent in analytic philosophy, in some forms of mysticism, and in apophatic theology. The thrust of these traditions is that you cannot talk about the unknowable because you are talking nonsense, and worse, you may convince yourself that the nonsense you are arguing about is true, leading you away from the real truth.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Evolutionary Basis of Morality

This weekend. on Sam Harris's site, I ran into yet another fundamentalist claiming that there is no basis for morality or human rights without religion. Here is my response:

The basis of human consciousness and self-awareness is that we evolved the ability to model and anticipate the actions of other intentional entities. This ability spans from the simple action of throwing a spear to where the deer will be, rather than where it is, to anticipating the actions and reactions of other human beings like ourselves, so that we can anticipate threats, form alliances, and even manipulate or resist manipulation by others. Out of this initial advance came the ability to create respresentations, express those representations in language, and create a representation of one's self just as one could create a model of the intentions of other people. This self representation became 'I', self awareness, and we became conscious beings.

What this means is that we are essentially social creatures, who have a strong empathy for others of our kind, and even for other animals. This empathy is the basis of human rights, expressed in what we now call the Golden Rule (which, though expressed in the Bible, predates it by millenia): Treat others as you would like to be treated. This is no more or less than the expression of an evolved capacity common to all human beings who are not stunted by development or upbringing. We understand each other as being like ourselves, and are affected (in the most literal sense of the word) by their pain, pleasure, sadness, or joy. In order for this bond to be broken, we must cease to see the other as human. This capacity for empathy is present even in many other mammals; we, as conscious beings, are able to codify it. As we continue to understand ourselves better, we improve upon the expression of it. Our current standard of human rights is a recent achievement, which is not reflected or prefigured in the bronze age values enshrined in the Bible.

But the root of it is and always has been in our genes, and survived there because it conferred a strong adaptive advantage. The ethics of the Bible is simply an earlier, more primitive, expression of this innate ability. I do not wish to harm others because I know they are like myself; I literally feel their pain, and share their joy. I support the codification of mutually supportive conduct because it works in my favour as well as everyone else's, ensuring our safety, well-being, aid in the event of need, and the delight of peaceful human coexistence. This is all that morality and human rights require. I neither ask nor need more.

If you do not feel this human bond, and require the ministrations of a cosmic tyrant to hold you to civil conduct, then you have my pity--but not my respect.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Law and the Prophets

A friend of mine mentioned an idea to me a while back, which seems to make more sense as I think about it. I brought it up on Slashdot with a Muslim, and by his reply I'm guessing he sort of smoked and vibrated and turned red and then exploded. Terrible, angry bits everywhere, no survivors. So I got no coherent opinion there. And yet, what he said, which prompted me to bring up this idea, convinced me that he was representative of the very tendency that I suspect runs through Islam.

This tendency is summed up and expressed in the word Inshallah: If God wills it. In Islam it seems that the will of God is mutable and unbound; even science is irrelevant, because God can break the laws of nature at will (this is precisely what the exploding Muslim said.) In contrast, there is a tradition that is common to Judaism, Christianity, Greek philosophy, and science which respects established laws, which God may establish but which even He is bound to. This runs through the Jewish idea of the Covenant, in Plato's Idealism and his argument that the gods do good because it is Good, rather than defining the Good by their words and actions, and in the basic premise of natural science. Both the Jewish and Greek versions of this idea heavily influenced Christianity.

It is this foundation of established laws and principles which allowed the societies dominated by this tradition to gain ground, ratcheting themselves forward by establishing sound principles, testing them for solidity, and then using them to advance to the next. They were able to move forward because because they had solid ground under their feet; ground which they found or discovered as they advanced. Legal jurisprudence, philosophical principles, and scientific theories are all established and built upon, step by tentative step, sometimes faltering or even falling back, and occasionally leaping forward.

This movement is also intrinsic to the tradition. If the world is governed uniformly in all aspects by certain principles, then we can always learn more by querying the world and each other. The world itself is imbued with wisdom, waiting to be discovered. The rules are fixed, but our understanding of them can change and grow, and the rule book is all around us. Nor is there any contradiction between this and religion. If God is both legislator of and governed by these laws, understanding them allows us to understand the mind of God. The scriptures themselves may be corrected in this way.

If, however, God is free to change his mind by whim, and can change the world as he chooses, then God is the only source of knowledge, and anything learned any other way is inherently unstable and therefore of little value. This was the point that the Muslim poster kept returning to; he'd built an impenetrable wall around himself, with this repeated on every brick. Since the agreed upon communication from God occurred only in a few ancient texts, progress becomes nearly impossible--Islam is caught in an endless cycle of return. Everything hinges on the interpretation of those texts. If the texts aren't extraordinarily precise--and most scriptures of any religion are as vague as a Rorshach ink blot--everything hinges on the interpretation, and the authority of the interpreter. The society is fixed in a medieval pattern of successive cults of personality. Just as the personality of the king informs the character of the feudal society which he governs, the position of the dominant clerics sets the tone for the people who follow them.

What appears to be absolute is in fact completely relative, because it is based entirely upon personal opinions which are supported in a self-referential matter. There is no objective methodology, no means of checking their facts, no legal library to consult for precedence. Even logic and evidence are overruled, so previous philosophical refutations carry no weight. Truth is established by force, not because all clerics build their reputations by authoritarian measures, but because those who don't have the option of force will be overwhelmed by those who do, and the winners will rewrite the history and sign God's name to it.

All of this goes a long way towards explaining the state of the many of the countries of the Middle East as political, social, economic, and cultural invalids sustained by a petroleum drip. It is even more disturbing to realize that many fundamentalist Christians aspire to the same world view, hoping to sweep aside the entire history of Western civilization to return to Biblical principles, ignorant of the reality that the world they are trying to undo is itself largely the result and proper inheritor of those very principles. These Christians are aliens in the modern Western world, but I suspect they would be very much at home in Iran. Religious triumphalism is sufficient to encourage return and stagnation, but fortunately the West, so far, has resisted this. But it seems that multiculturalism provides a fog of moral relativism while post-modernism encourages epistemological relativism; fundamentalists of all denominations are quickly learning to exploit this. It seems that the extremes of the left and the right are drawing closer together the more they attack one another, even as moderates on the left and right find common ground.

It's ironic that I would have no interest in converting those who would most likely be converted; moderate, rational Christians who are essentially deists, have little or no belief in miracles, no argument with science, and who go to church for solace and community. The people I would most like to convert are precisely those who exist in a near solpsistic bubble which includes only themselves, their God, and a handful of "True Believers", of which even 95% of Christians wouldn't qualify. They are impenetrable, and that is precisely what makes them dangerous. They would gladly roll back 2000 years of human progress to return to what they imagine to be the fundamentals of their religion. In fact, that religion has moved on, and the real Christian tradition leads through scholastic philosophy to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, science, and secularism.

If the laws of nature are the laws of God, then nature itself is scripture, and understanding the laws of nature is to come closer to knowing God. Where written scripture is in conflict with nature, it is scripture that is wrong, since these writings are the work of men while nature is the direct work of God. In essence, God is reality, and reality is God: "I am who am." If God vanishes into the laws of science, then that is the natural outcome of this tradition. By this point, if religious faith persists, it should persist as some form of deism that makes no truth claims about the physical world.

What Christian fundamentalism represents is not a fork in the Christian tradition, but a radical break from it, an alien parallel that deviates from Christianity even in pre-biblical times. Fundamentalism is marked by bibliolatry (worship of the Bible), false prophecy (radical misinterpretations of Biblical writings, particularly apocalyptic writings which refer to historical events of the writers' times), idolatry (radical alterations in the character and nature of the divine, combined with frequent literal representations of it), and blasphemy (using the name of God to endorse personal or political views.) The danger is that fundamentalists do not consider themselves ultimately bound by any law, even the laws of nature or the traditions of their own religion. The higher authority they appeal to is not God, but their own interpretation of the Bible, or the interpretation of their chosen leader. In Catholicism, you have one Pope who is infallible. In fundamentalist Christianity, you have thousands or even millions of Popes who are all infallible. But behind their absolutist claims is an abyss of ethical and epistemological relativism. There is no objective standard by which to judge their claims, no method of proof or disproof, no long incremental tradition of philosophy, legal precedents, scientific research, or even theological debate. What remains is essentially a feudal system of a series of cults of personality, which range in size from the entire membership of a mega-church to a cult of one who considers himself a law unto himself.

This does much to explain the bizarre attitude of George Bush towards the law and his belief that his own powers supersede it, and why he prefers unilateral action to the force of international law. To him, the law is a mere inconvenient technicality which he obeys, not out of respect, but out of expediency. The same contempt for the constitution and even for democracy can be found in the opinions of other fundamentalists, who hint that it's high time that all this be set aside in favour of the rule of God--their God. This sentiment is behind criticisms of judges as "activist judges", when in fact these judges are only acting upon established laws and precedents. The campaign waged by Christian conservatives to reduce the power of the courts is not an attack against judges, but against the law itself, which like science is based upon evidence and reason. They wish the law to bow and give way before fascistic waves of emotional populism. And to call it fascism is not an overstatement; fascism is built upon relativism and cults of personality. If there is no truth, and even reason is not respected, the only valid argument is a steel toed boot.

Dostoyevsky wrote, "If God exists, everything is possible; if there is no God, everything is permitted." But the survival of our current population level on this planet is made possible only by the advance and benefits of science, and the order and freedom that we enjoy is the fruit of a long battle for legal precedents and wisdom over centuries. Without these, nothing of our way of life would be possible. And if mere opinion, disguised by appeals to Biblical infallibility, is the only standard, then the dialogue of civil society dissolves into a cacaphony of competing, shouting voices, and who can say what is right or wrong. So it would be more accurate to say that if truth exists, everything is possible; if there is no truth, everything is permitted.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

They Really Do Hate Our Freedoms

There seems to be a recurring error which crops up in the left about the roots of Islamic terrorism. Bush constantly repeats the claim that they attack us because they hate our freedoms, and won't consider that maybe American foreign policy, including his own, might play a part. His critics insist that this is all because of inept foreign policy, and only that. But both of these contribute to the problem, and the first one to admit it wins the kewpie doll.

There’s no question that 100 years of inept foreign policy has brought us to this, on both the part of England and America. England’s contribution includes the partitioning of India and the creation of Pakistan, and the support of Wahabbiist extremists, both a product of a divide and conquer strategy. America’s contribution was to support extremist theocratic elements, in the hopes that they would oppose “Godless” communism, and to undermine democratically elected governments in favour of puppet regimes. America’s installation of the Shah eventually led to the revolution and the current theocracy; had it not been for this, Iran might be the voice of moderation in the Middle East and not the central distributor of terrorism. And the invasion of Iraq is enough to put Bush up there with the worst of them–it was probably the worst policy possible under the circumstances.

However, to blame this all on support for Israel and discount the genuine antipathy of Muslim extremists for Western values and freedoms is simply naive. Israel is a vanishingly small portion of the Middle East. The body count on terrorist attacks shows a complete lack of concern for the safety of Palestinians on the part of the terrorists. Believing that Muslims go to heaven as martyrs when killed in Jihad, the terrorists actually think they are doing Palestinians a favour by killing them. Nesrallah isn’t after Zionists; he said that it would be better if all Jews came to Israel, so that he would be able to kill them all there. Israel is a political red herring, played up by dictators and populist demagogues in the Middle East to keep their people distracted from the real issues. And it works–the people of the Middle Easts fall for it, and a lot of people on the left keep falling for it.

Good fences make good neighbours, as the old saying goes, but the internet and the flow of culture from America has brought American values directly into the homes of millions of people in the Middle East. The fences have come down. This challenges the ideological monopoly of the clerics, and what they really want us to do is shut up; they want to stop the flow of information and influence at source, if possible. That means, yes, that they do actually oppose our freedoms. This may not be the view of the majority of the citizenry, but it is what is motivating the terrorist extremist groups, who are led by Imams and fight in the name of Islam. They’re afraid that if their own people get a taste of these freedoms, they might want them too, and the theocratic stranglehold that exists in their countries will end. So as much as I hate to agree with Bush on anything, Islamic terrorists really do hate our freedoms.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

"We Love Death as You Love Life"

So claim militant Muslims, and delude themselves into believing that this assures them of victory.

But as Patton said, a good soldier doesn't die for his country, he makes the other poor dumb bastard die for his country. In the first world war, the British wouldn't give their pilots parachutes, because they thought that this would cause them to waste a plane too easily. The result was that the Germans boasted most of the legendary aces, because they were the ones who fought and lived to learn from it. Today the man is considered the most important component of any weapons system. You can rebuild a tank, a plane, a chopper, but a trained veteran soldier or pilot is another matter.

A man who goes seeking death is going to die in his first battle. There are no veteran suicide bombers. The vast majority never get anywhere near their targets, because they're green amateurs. Suicidal terrorists do make logistics easier--there's no concern about getting the man out after the mission. But the chances of success are minimal. 9/11 worked because the people involved exploited the freedoms of an open society to attack non-combatants. As soon as the planes hit the World Trade Center, the tactic became obsolete, as the hijackers of flight 93 discovered. Because the flight was delayed, the passengers had enough time to find out what was really going on. Previously, it had always been sound policy to allow the hijackers to land the plane before taking it back. Once they knew the plane was never going to land, the passengers took matters into their own hands, as all passengers will from now on. The hijackers couldn't even handle a few unarmed civilians.

Too many people take the terrorists willingness to die as a sign of courage. But the courage to die means nothing in the absence of the courage to live. These people have so little going for them that they are willing to throw whatever they have away for a fantasy of an afterlife in paradise. Their sacrifice is an act of despair, the tantrum of a child who is ignored and irrelevant. Only the pure happenstance of middle eastern oil makes these people at all significant; without the oil money, they would have nothing to support these tantrums. We have a word for people like this: losers.

To make matters worse, the goal of these extremists is to maneuver moderates and innocent civilians into the line of fire, by hiding amongst them and thereby making them targets. The intention of extremists is to make these bystanders pick sides; indeed, to give them no choice, and to attack those who pick the other side. But no terrorist movement has ever won. The best they can hope for is a cease fire, leaving the possibility of negotiated co-existence when tempers have cooled. But that is not an option for the like of Hezbolla and Al Qaeda, whose very existence is predicated upon open hostility. It is precisely when peace becomes a possibility that they become the most militant--peace would make them irrelevant. And this will never stop. The destruction of Israel would be merely a step along the road. If Israel were gone, they would go after America, and Europe, and if all opponents were gone, they would turn on each other. Jihad is their entire purpose, and so the Jihad will never end. Victory is not their goal, it is their nemesis.

Given this choice--indeed, having this choice forced upon them--it should be clear how moderates must choose. The extremists are a cult of death. To side with them is to accept death, sooner or later. Furthermore, as I have already pointed out, these extremists are lousy soldiers. All of the middle east seems to stand against Israel, and yet tiny Israel always wins. In the war of attrition that fanatical opponents wage, Israel always wins by decimating the opposition with few losses of its own. To side with the fanatics is to resign oneself to becoming a statistic in a war that never seems to end but is never won.

Israel, of course, has its own fanatics, who keep leaping at the bait that Muslim extremists offer up. But given the sheer amount of bait, it would be hard not to, although the ill-considered ravings of hard-core zionists are gift wrapped recruitment material for the other side. Leftists who rant and storm about the evils of Israel without so much as mentioning the attrocities of the likes of Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad are oblivious to the real motivations of these groups. Islamic terrorists don't want justice, they want the annihilation, not just of Israel, but of the Jews--and ultimately of the entire west, including those deluded leftists. Those who carry signs with slogans like "We are all Hezbollah!" are drooling idiots. Somehow, people on the left have taken up the cause of fascists--which means, in fact, that they are no longer on the left at all. Somehow, they have sleepwalked into the company of the SS. But then, both the left and the right have been dumbed down so much that neither side remembers what it stands for.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Trouble with Blogs

This is a blog entry which criticizes blogs--something of a contradiction, perhaps, but I have noticed for some time that blogs tend to be very long on opinion and very short, if not completely devoid, of fact. There was a time that I read a lot of blogs, but I now stick mainly to professional journalists (who have at least some form of journalistic ethics,) scientists, researchers, philosophers, skeptics, and professional media. In short, people who are accustomed to being called out on the carpet when they get it wrong, and so make a habit of checking their facts and ideas before they write. These can go off the rails at times, but there is enough balance between a selection of sources to expose and correct glaring biases and innacuracies.

Not so with blogs. Bloggers often indulge in what I call a circle-jerk--a group of like minded people who quote and link to each other in a circular manner, thereby providing the illusion of concensus and evidentiary integrity without ever touching the ground at any point. A fairly reliable sign of this is when you find wing nuts of similar breed cited on the bloggers page. Granted, the blogger may be linking to a single argument that they find substantial, but there is something suspicious in the fact that they frequent the ravings of these nuts often enough to pick up on such a post within minutes or hours. This is why I no longer bother with Instapundit--having followed the links, looked around, and checked their facts (not easy, given that they often actually obfuscate their sources,) I found not only extremely biased opinions, but outright misrepresentation of truth. Checking their facts should be their job, not mine. I don't bother with Micheal Moore or Air America anymore (they may be very entertaining, but I certainly wouldn't quote them to support anything.) To find myself in a circle-jerk where it takes an hour of careful backtracking to discover Ann Coulter at the center is just insulting.

The internet was supposed to be a means of fact checking, and it still can be. The academic backbone is still there, as is the Guttenberg Project, archives of abstracts and historical archives, and vast repositories of computer knowledge. But there are also stagnant cesspools of inbred lunacy out there: rabid partisans, religious extremists, Neo-Nazis, the tin-foil hat crowd, who are emboldened by their cloistered incestuous digital communities to believe that they have no need to be bashful about their stupidity--indeed, that their delusions are shared by the majority of the populace simply because anyone who disagrees with them is promptly banned from their discussion groups. This is also why I prefer discussion groups which don't have dictatorial ideologues as moderators--what is the point of talking to people who always agree with you? That doesn't even afford you the chance to sharpen your arguments, let alone learn something new.

Worse yet, these backwaters serve as recruiting tools for their members, particularly if they can find someone who has no prior knowledge of the area. It only takes about fifty people to build a circle-jerk convincing to someone naive about a subject. You can find fifty people who will believe anything. Add a few books from fringe presses and you're there--these provide the much cited 'evidence'. Never mind that the evidence in these books is heresay, speculation, misinterpretation, or outright fabrication.

In an ordinary community, it's usually hard to find more than a few lunatics (though not always, or we never would have suffered the industrial strength bullshit of Hitler or the KKK.) But on the internet, you can always search for somebody else who shares that special brain fart that seems uniquely yours. Now these brain farts are stinking up even the mainstream media; thoughts that should have been met with consternation and therapy now meet with the approval of the like-blinded, who will urge you to take it to the sheeple. Today's partisan rant becomes tomorrow's editorial. I'm not sure of the way out of this, but others have already noted this, and suggested that the responsibility of journalism has a place in the world of blogs too.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Ineffable

Ineffable means beyond expression, beyond words. Mystical and religious experiences are ineffable. You cannot talk about them; at best, you can talk around them. They are not perceptions, but transformations of perception. They have no content, but throw an altered light upon whatever ideas you have. The experience is formless, yet informs everything; empty, and yet fills everything with meaning.

Yet, if these experiences really are ineffable, why do people try to talk about them at all? The content of an ineffable experience is purely emotive, an experience of certainty which is then attached to whatever happens to drift through your mind. It's a lot like cocaine, which makes your believe that everything you think and do is the right thing. I tried it once and found myself wondering why anyone would ever do that to themselves deliberately. Rational judgement becomes impossible. I suspect that certain religion experiences operate in a similar way. Everything seems right, true, and perfect. You are willing to entertain wild ideas. This is not a bad thing unless you do not go back and cull out the nonsense that creeps in. And a lot of nonsense will creep in.

Years ago I had a prolonged period of mystical satori (not drug induced) and I can tell you that if you're not careful you can amass a lifetime's worth of bullshit in a very short time while in this state. It is a condition of apparent enlightenment--and if you are enlightened, you couldn't be wrong, could you? I knew I had gone too far when I started entertaining the significance of signs, wondering whether a title of a book I happened to unpack that day had some special meaning. I laughed when I found myself thinking this. My sense of humour probably saved my sanity. One of the common traits of cult-leaders and fanatics is that they lose their sense of humour. The conviction of enlightenment can make you very dumb. As the Bhuddists say, if you meet the Bhudda on the road, kill him. This is not to say that I learned nothing; I came to value optimism, imagination, and empathy more strongly, mainly because I struggled to preserve the essence, rather than the outcome, of the experience. But I also experienced what it must be like to be born-again, and understood why so many of them seem to be mad.

My main conclusion from that experience was that idolatry was a sin because any representation of God was false, and this included written, spoken, or imagined representations as well as those made with physical materials. The experience was truly ineffable, it was pre-cognitive. There are two traditions in theology, apophatic and kataphatic. Apophatic theology is negative theology; you can only say what God isn't. Kataphatic theology makes claims about God. Mystics hold to apophatic theology. Some theologians have argued that the Neo-Platonists corrupted Christian theology through their temptation to make positive claims about the unknowable. This is why debates about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin came to be held in such contempt--they had missed the point entirely. Modern evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity is kataphatic, which means it completely ignores the Christian mystical tradition. It consists solely of claims about existents, claims about the material world, or about an alternate material world. Their God is basically human, with human intentions, desires, needs, and goals, which apply to and affect the world of matter. The language of metaphor is read in the descriptive mode; poetry is read as a simple manual of instructions. It is essentially a mundane theology, which harps upon arbitrary and rather extraneous ideas which believers fixate upon during their period of false certainty. As such, it is spiritually tone deaf.

My friend Pat told me yesterday that he believes that the atheism of Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith, is in fact apophatic theology. An apophatic theologian might claim that he believes in God, but he does not believe that God exists, or like Harris, that he does not believe in religion, but he does believe in spirituality. When the Romans first entered the Hebrew temple and Holy of Holies, they found an empty room, and concluded that the Jews were atheists. It is this apophatic tradition which lead to the ban against idols, the ban against speaking God's name, and Jesus' use of parables and indirect modes of speech. You cannot talk about God, you can only talk around an ineffable experience. As Lao Tzu said, "The Way that can be spoken is not the true Way." The ban against worshipping other Gods becomes a ban against worshipping any God when you consider that the Hebrew God eventually became a God without a name, a face, a place in the world, or any known characteristic. Another perfect expression of apophatic theology is Socrates claim that "All I know is that I know nothing." Socrates, too, was condemned as an atheist. Apophatic theology is indistiguishable from atheism because it has no object. The only way to know God is through love and the study of nature. Even the word God is of little use, because it means nothing. There is no dogma, only a method. The Bhudda holds aloft a lotus flower and smiles; the masters smile, bow, and leave, and the rest wait patiently for the explanation. To those who know, no words are necessary; to those who don't, no words will suffice.

The essence of the ineffable experience, and of apophatic theology, is that it makes no truth claims, and therefore can never contradict science. It is, after all, just a feeling, albeit a well-adapted one. I suspect that the true heirs of Jesus and other mystics are not the believers, but scientists, driven by their love of truth and their fellow man, and their wonder of the universe. During my own mystical experience years ago, I felt for the first time like I was reading the Bible from the inside. Some of it is truly profound, and much of it is just plain awful. But the experience didn't lead me to the church. It led me here.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Towards a New Conception of Faith

Consulting the the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and the Concise Oxford Dictionary, I looked up the word faith and teased out eleven different meanings, or shades of meaning:

1. Complete trust
2. Reliance or trust in
3. Belief founded on authority
4. Allegiance to duty or a person--loyalty
5. Fidelity to one's promises
6. Sincerity or honesty of intentions
7. Firm belief in something for which there is no proof
8. Something that is believed especially with strong conviction
9. Belief and trust in and loyalty to God
10. Belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion
11. A strong conviction in a system of religious beliefs

Of these, only the last three specifically deal with religion, although three of the the others may be construed as having significance to religious faith.

1. Complete trust
2. Reliance or trust in
The first and second meaning represent a faith in someone of something, an unquestioning belief in the good intentions and competence of a person, or in the reliability of an object, process, or idea. This belief is nearly always based upon previous experience, where that person or thing was proven to be trustworthy in the past, so it is not initially assumed without question. This attitude is accepted only when the relevant questions have been resolved to our satisfaction. It does, however, include a risk; even the most reliable person may prove to be wrong at one point or another. Anything or anyone can fail. In the event of failure, our trust may be shaken. Nevertheless, to avoid the need to do everything ourselves (something which is simply not possible), and to avoid the paralysis or despair of radical doubt, we must at times assume this attitude in the delegation of tasks to others or in reliance on objects or methods.

Furthermore, a more general attitude of faith is required, one which is even less subject to prior verification of character--in short, a true leap. This is our faith in democratic process, which is itself based upon a trust in the people to behave and vote responsibly. The loss of such faith encourages fascism, an attempt to impose upon an unruly and ignorant mob moral codes which the authorities do not trust them to follow without enforcement. Contempt is the dominant attitude of the dictator towards his people. Support for fascism begins with cries of widespread moral turpitude amongst the population. Democracy is based upon a faith in the people, which would-be dictators seek to undermine in their bid for power.

3. Belief founded on authority
The third meaning is a special case of these. Although skeptics loathe blind faith in authority, there is such a thing as informed faith in authority. This is made a necessity by specialization. The last Rennaisance men died off four hundred years ago; since then it has been impossible for anyone to know everything of consequence in all fields of knowledge, and so we are forced to rely on second hand knowledge. We then make a survey of the field (superficial, unless we are ourselves specialists,) and select those whose authority we accept on the subject. If we fail to identify these authorities properly, we are left rudderless and prone to exploitation by pseudo-experts, or may even fall into the inverted authoritarianism of the conspiracy theorist, who will dispute the opinions of a recognized authority precisely because she is an authority.

4. Allegiance to duty or a person--loyalty
5. Fidelity to one's promises
6. Sincerity or honesty of intentions
The next three are the reciprocal of the first three meanings: to be faithful to and to act in good faith. Here is the moral dimension of honesty and integrity. These are the assumptions upon which the faith in a person are based: we assume that they are being honest and will carry through on their intentions. Since these support our faith in others, and that faith is necessary, misconduct in this area will disrupt the economic and social fabric. The complete breakdown of these practices will lead to a condition of total competition, the war of all against all. These attitudes must be predominant to make civilization possible.

7. Firm belief in something for which there is no proof
The seventh, a firm belief in something for which there is no proof, is usually despised even by those who hold religion in high regard; most believers claim to have some sort of proof for their beliefs, however precarious it becomes under inspection. Skeptics, of course, decry this as the root of all folly. There are, however, circumstances in which such faith is indispensible, and that is in the anticipation of future outcomes. This especially relates to the first three meanings, because our faith in others concerns, not what we know they have done, but what we expect them to do or expect them to have done but don't yet know. I cannot be certain that whatever I buy will work, that friends will not disclose secrets, that my bank will give me back my money, or that my employer will pay me. It may well be quite likely, but I cannot claim that it is certain before the fact. That I rely upon these outcomes is a show of faith, and more generally, it reflects an attitude of optimism. The absence of such faith, again, leads to paralysis and despair.

8. Something that is believed especially with strong conviction
Nearly everyone believes something with a strong conviction. Most would simply say that they know it to be true, but in nearly all cases, there remains a margin of error, however small. Yet at some point, we simply have to accept a proposition given sufficient evidence. There are some people who fall prey to the absolutist-relativist fallacy, that even the slightest possibility of doubt lowers the chance of truth to being no more than half, rendering the proposition a matter of mere opinion. Ultimately this comes down to a lack of faith in evidence and sound reasoning itself; there are people who simply withhold emotional or judgemental assent from the weight of evidence. Studies of patients with damage to certain areas of their frontal lobes have revealed that even sound reasoning and knowledge of the facts may carry no impetus to sound judgement if no emotional weight is given to these factors. These patients suffer from a debilitating incapacity to manage their lives.

9. Belief and trust in and loyalty to God
10. Belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion
11. A strong conviction in a system of religious beliefs
The last three deal with the religious meaning of the word, and have come to be regarded as the core definition of faith. This is the meaning of the word employed with believers who defend faith and atheists who have no use for it. But this meaning is markedly different from the others. First, it is the only type of faith which is entirely divorced from evidence. Indeed, while we would regard as imprudent any other kind of faith in the absence of some supporting evidence, believers consider faith in God all the more virtuous when there is no evidence. Secondly, this is the only form of faith which we can do without. All others serve as a bridge between certainty and some measure of uncertainty, without which we would be unable to get on with our lives. Most atheists seem to get on very well without any religious beliefs. Atheism itself is not a religion, but the simple absence of religion.

In the struggle over this narrow meaning of the word, the other meanings have fallen by the wayside. This is a problem of framing: defining the terms of an argument to force important concessions from the other side before the discussion even begins. Extremist believers have insisted upon this narrow definition, exploiting the positive connotations of the word while disregarding its positive meanings. By accepting this narrow definition, secularists have conceded most of the playing field. This is quite unfortunate, because most secularists are democratic and left-leaning. The values supported by the first eight definitions are the very values they hold most dear. Religionists have made taboo a word that secularists need to be able to use without embarrasment.

This is not mere semantics. The non-religious form of faith includes trust, loyalty, optimism, hope, charity, honesty, an antidote to fear, and even forgiveness. There is no other word for this attitude that fits so well, and renouncing the word leaves a hole in the discussion. Faith in this general sense is not mere belief in a specific proposition, but an attitude. A belief in an all-powerful benevolent God will tend to support this attitude, provided that one also believes that this benevolence permeates all of reality, and that people are, for the most part, good. Indeed, you do find religious people who hold this belief. The consequence of this belief, however, is not ardent proselityzation or harsh judgementalism--these people will hardly mention their faith unless you ask them about it. For them, there is no need to fight because the war has already been won. Atheists don't mind these people; they're not broken, so they don't need fixing, and they don't try to impose their beliefs on others. Extremist believers, however, have no use for them: you cannot control someone who is not afraid. You cannot save someone who isn't fallen. You cannot teach someone to fear a God who intends no harm. Religion, and belief in God, are not the problem. The problem is the political exploitation of these beliefs.

For the fanatic, faith in God or the Messianic figure must preclude faith in everything else. Years ago I came across a curious heading in a Catholic Magazine: "On Golden Pond is a Pornographic Film." The author was outraged that the film found any meaning, solace, or happiness in human life without constant reference to God. He was convinced that since the characters in the film did not live an overtly religious life, every single moment of their lives should have been portrayed as incessant misery and meaninglessness. Like a savvy advertising executive, he realized that to sell his product, he had to create a need, and the surest way to create that need is to encourage a profound sense of inadequacy. Faith in humanity is not to be tolerated. But if humanity is polluted, fallen, worthless, then there is little point in hope or charity. They cannot be trusted, so freedoms need to be restricted for the people's own good. They always do the wrong thing, so suffering is just their lot, richly deserved. And if you do happen to be prospering, it could only be due to divine favour. Christianity, the religion of charity and forgiveness, has been subverted to become the religion of greed and judgement. In God we trust; all others pay cash. It is no accident that the nation that claims to be the most Christian, the United States, has the highest rate of incarceration, violence, child poverty, and the highest disparity between poor and rich in the first world. Christianity has been stripped of faith and reduced to rote belief in a supernatural agency. This is what comes of a lack of faith in humanity.

Furthermore, the desperation and harshness of the fanatic is not based even upon the most narrow religious definition of faith. If God really is in control, why does he need your help? The fanatic acts, not out of a conviction in the power of his religion, but because he believes the faith is weak and threatened. He is determined to impose his views because he lacks faith in the judgement of others; his totalitarian ambition is symptomatic, not of a deep faith, but of a nagging doubt in the power of his deity. That the fanatic refuses to acknowledge this doubt is no refutation of its existence. The fanatic is obsessed with the Enemy, which may be a supernatural power like Satan, or a competing world view like secular humanism. It is their profound belief in the power of the Enemy, not in the power of God, which drives them to take up arms. They have the trappings of faith, but no understanding of it.

The best thing that we can do would be to take the word faith away from these people. They don't have it, don't practice it, don't even really believe in it. They fear doubt because they are riddled with it but will not admit it. We need to take faith away from them, and leave them to content themselves with mere superstition. Because, really, this is all they have.

A Very Rough Beast

Last week I read a book by Dan Wakefield entitled The Hijacking of Jesus, about the fight of liberal Christians and Evangelists to take back Christianity from the Christian right. I am not certain that it can be saved, but I doubt even more that religion can be abolished. There are simply too many in-born cognitive and emotional habits which support it. Furthermore, I suspect that any broadly accepted source of authority and respectablity will be hijacked by the politically ambitious, be it religion, science, philosophy, or any honoured tradition. True, science has peer reviews, but with enough money and public relations, more responsible voices can be drowned out, as we know all too well. Anything sufficiently mysterious to the broad public can be faked--we are all at the mercy of specialization, experts in the field, and no one can judged who is an expert and who is not but another expert. For the rest of us, the mere posture of certainty is often enough to convince. A wily confidence man convinces even himself.

Wakefield goes into some depth to describe how Christianity was corrupted by political ambition, and bent to serve a narrow political agenda. But his story starts in the mid sixties, even as liberal Christianity was in its hey day. One element that he iluminates are the scattered forces of literalists shattered and ridiculed in the Scopes trial. This explains much of the Intelligent Design faction: an attempt by the scientifically illiterate to impose their views by political force, rather than sound argument. The right catered to these to tap into an ignored faction--yet they are still only a small fraction of the population. There is another thread with Wakefield does not follow, and this is the fallout of the war on communism, which was eventually turned to a war on liberalism. The Conservative hacks have done such a good job of demonizing anything remotely connected with liberalism that even the old school conservatives, like William F. Buckley Jr., are disgusted by the beast they've helped create. Public discussion has become so warped that they can no longer sustain the level of intellectual discourse that they hoped conservative ideology would foster.

They are, of course, largely responsible for this. In their fight against communism, conservatives forgot, or never bothered to discover, that the ethics which communists claimed to champion were themselves lifted from Christianity, by Marx via Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity. Marx's slogan, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!" is almost a direct paraphrase of the way early Christians lived in Acts 2:44: "The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed." The enemy was never communism, which has never existed and may never exist except as a pipe dream, but the totalitarian regimes founded on the empty promise to bring it about. The conservatives of the National Review began by denouncing the loss of religion in academia, and in their zeal against communism, did something far worse: they cut the ethical soul from Christianity. But for a few holdouts, mostly amongst those old veterans who marched with Martin Luther King, Christianity is gutted, dead, and dessicated, fly-blown and rotten. Christ is just another brand-name, like Tommy Hilfiger, an assortment of ideological accoutrements to be bought at your local mega-church, to be worn by the up-and-coming demagogue. It has no bearing upon character: Bush is still a spoiled rich frat-boy, partying at other people's expense--a dry drunk, prone to self-mythologization--and there's even a rumour that he's drinking again. I believe W. B. Yeats described the situation best in The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all convictions, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all around it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

That rough beast is the walking corpse of dead religions, thoughtless, merciless, souless. Its champions spout scripture selectively, often without comprehension of the very words that come out of their mouths. Filled with passionate intensity, speaking and even thinking in sound bites, nattering incessantly, even in their own heads, lest some unscripted thought appear that challenges the myth they live in, in which they are the Hero. This is faith as pure memetic reproduction, the very animal which Richard Dawkins so precisely describes and abhors. This aberrant form of religion survives, not through any criteria of ethical fitness or by enhancing the fitness of its host, but as a parasite well adapted for contagion and resistance to competing ideas. In short, it is a reason resistant meme, which impairs the cognitive function of its host, sometimes to the extent of threatening its very survival. I would like to think that Jesus would be horrified, but if political Christians are any measure, perhaps I'm giving him too much credit for honesty and integrity.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Emotional Discipline

At brunch today, we were discussing, in connection with the rise of sentimentality, the decline of passion and true romanticism. It seems to me that people are no longer willing to assume the emotional risk of deep romantic passion, that intoxicating distraction that comes with giving your heart completely to another. The danger undertaken here is the shattering loss suffered when that love is not returned, or when love returned is suddenly withdrawn.

The hardest task, however, is not just this level of emotional commitment, but the even deeper effort required to refuse to pass blame to the beloved when the relationship fails. To hate what you once loved is to hate a part of yourself, to cut a piece of yourself out and throw it away. In the United States, acrimonious divorces seem to be the rule; it seems much more common in England for couples to part on good terms. Much of this may be due to the litiginous tendencies in America. The urge to turn a profit on a failed relationship is too strong. But the lawyers who urge this course (or curse) upon their clients are doing them a profound disservice. Love makes two people one; to hate the one you love is to sin not only against them, but against yourself. Resisting this easy solution of passing the blame requires emotional discipline. That which does not kill me makes me stronger. But to turn your heart against your lover is to become less than you were. Pain is part of love. Take it like a man.

I have often been in the company of men who denigrate women--fortunately, not too seriously--as the architect of all their woes and heartbreaks. I like to point out to them that they chose to fall in love, knew the risks, and the risks were worth it. Women are not from Venus, they are not alien creatures, only the extraordinary power of men's emotions elevates them to the status of the arcane temptresses. Yet this skewed perception of women, usually mild and even comical in our own society, is held with rabid ferocity in the third world. The belief in the almost diabolical power of women to control men's emotions is countered by an attempt to strip them of all other power. In Guatemala, machismo reigns supreme, with rape squads chanting "death to bitches", and innocent teenage victims being butchered while the police paint these victims as whores. In the Middle East and India, daughters are saddled with the honour of their families, and are subjected to honour killings when they diverge in any way from their families expectations. Meanwhile, Muslim women are required to wear elaborately concealing garments, attacked if they refuse to wear them, and are instructed to kill themselves if they are raped. In all these cases, the atrocious behaviour of men is projected onto their victims. The men are maintained in a vicious, undisciplined, and perpetually infantile state.

A similar situation once existed amongst the Irish, where girls who became pregnant out of wedlock, or who were raped, were condemned to the Magdalene Convents. In North America, the Irish were once considered the lowest of the low; even during the period of slavery, when the Irish moved into a neighbourhood, the blacks moved out. The strongly misogynistic views of the Catholic Church played a large part in this, but in North America, the Catholic Church was a lesser power. This did not change until Irish women got fed up, became bread winners themselves, and laid down the law to the men. The men were forced to grow up. The empowerment of women civilized the men and pulled the Irish out of the slums. This did not happen in Ireland until the decline of the Catholic Church, making Ireland the new economic power house of Europe.

Lest this be viewed solely as a patriarchal plot to dominate women, it must be noted that while men fight physically, women fight socially. The Madonna/Whore vision of women is useful to women who are on top of the ladder, allowing them to establish a pecking order by denigrating other women. What they do not seem to realize in this situation is how quickly the tables can be turned on them. Being caught alone once with a single overenthusiastic suiter, even if he were not a brute, is enough to destroy a woman's reputation and cast her down into the gutter, a fall that other members of the society, both male and female, are only too eager to participate in. Victorian morality worked very well for Victoria, but not for many other women. This, by the way, was an aspect of what intellectuals despised and called bourgeois morality, now largely extinct, a far more vicious version of the mild social one-upmanship we now have in middle class society. In the late nineteenth century, when social mobility was possible but the social scale extended from the aristocracy down to disease infested slums, social standing could mean the difference between life and death, and mere association with those of poor reputation could have a profound affect on your prospects. The European bourgeoisie climbed over each other like rats fleeing a fire.

It is not that women in these societies have no power, but that they give it up too easily for short term, localized gains. The first step in getting someone to hand over their power is to convince them that they don't have it. Men may have the advantage of strength, but brute force will soon fail in civilized society. What has failed in all these cases is civilization itself, particularly the civilization of men. Religion plays a part in this, particularly when the religion is governed entirely by a male clergy with little experience of women. It is curious to hear clerics warn that a man cannot be expected to control himself when subjected to the sight of a beautiful woman. Such raw biological determinism, which reduces expectations of men to no more than slavering brutes, is quite incongruous coming from the very authorities who insist that humans are entirely separate from animals and akin to the angels. No neo-darwinian would ever stoop to so crude a claim.

Yet an equal part is played by the conditions of upbringing. If a boy has no experience of a male role model, he will take his role models from immature adolescent males. Male commitment to marriage helps, but this is only half the battle, and may not count for much in some circumstances. For that matter, the man need not even be the father. The man must be present and engaged in the day to day task of rearing the children. In cultures in which rearing the children is considered women's work, and a distant father merely trots out his children on holidays to boast, the father might as well be absent. The father as distant master of the house is another mere caricature to his children. I suspect that this is the situation which exists in many Muslim households headed by a wealthy man with a harem of wives. Osama bin Laden, for example, had no significant relationship with his father, and was largely raised by a brother not much older than himself.

Irshad Manji is exactly right--providing women in the third world with economic empowerment is the first step in transforming those societies. Men won't learn to take no for an answer unless they hear it often enough, and women won't be able to say no unless they have some mad money. If diamonds are a girls best friend, it is because women, who traditionally had little power of their own, could exchange diamonds (which they wore, and so could depart with at a moments notice) for safe passage, food, and shelter. Or, if women do decide to stay with their slacker men, let them wear the pants for while. In some Muslim African countries, the wife may be left alone at home while the husband heads off to the city to party and maybe pick up a dose of aids to share with her. The woman is not allowed to leave home without the escort of a male family member, which may mean she is not allowed to leave the house at all. There may be a room full of food which is locked, so that the women and children cannot eat what the husband intends to sell. So the wife and children are left to starve, without recourse. Give her the key to that room, rather than the husband. She is usually the one that grows and harvests it anyway.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

An Exercise in Futility

Something that I have noticed when talking to evangelicals and fundamentalists is the hermetic seal that exists around their beliefs. There is a strong divide between believers and non-believers, patrolled by emotional fealty on the believers side more than sound causes. I was once a believer myself, and there was a time when my walls were pretty thick too. What eventually broke them down was that I could not believe in their God, a God whose moral character was so repugnant that I wouldn't give him bus fare if I met him on the street, let alone bow down and worship him.

So, in part, I was led away from theism by my scientific background, but the clincher was a belief in a objective standard of ethics and truth which retained their character and content regardless of the will of a cosmic bully. In other words, what was good and true did not depend upon God, but were independent facts by which God himself could be judged. This belief was the lifeline that led me out of the cave of superstition.

When I talk about objective standards of ethics and truth, I am not claiming the finality of any particular expression of what is true or good. I am claiming that there are things that are true regardless of one's historical or cultural circumstances, that science really does permit us to expand our domain of knowledge and attain a good measure of certainty in regard to how the universe works. I also believe that we have made genuine moral progress over the centuries, and now understand to be wrong many of the things that we once blithely accepted as right. The calamities of the twentieth century do not convince me otherwise; it is always possible for any generation in any place to forget what has been learned and to regress to a more primitive standard (and if there is a lesson to be learned from the Holocaust, it is this.) I believe in the possibility of progress, not in its inevitability. The scale of the disasters of the last century is only due to the size of the populations involved, and the efficiency of the tools at their disposal. The malice involved was quite ancient, as passages in the Bible demonstrate.

I'd say I wasted twenty years digging myself out of this religious hole, but it wasn't entirely wasted. I got a good look at the other side--a look that most atheists who escaped at an early age haven't had. What strikes me about the our current breed of religious demagogues is something both new and old. Like Constantine, they are political opportunists. When Constantine had his fateful dream, "In this sign conquer," he recognized that Christianity had already conquered Rome, and he had but to mark his shield and those of his army with the Christian symbol to take Rome without a fight. The same tactic, I am afraid, is now being pursued by the Religious Right.

There is, however, something distinctly modern, indeed post-modern, about their position. Their claim that there is no morality without religion is essentially relativistic, and even nihilistic. In the late nineteenth century the same position was held by Nietzsche and Dosteyevsky. Nietzsche declared that God was dead, and looked to the Overman to impose a standard of ethics and truth by sheer will, the Will-to-Power. Dosteyevsky said that "Without God, everything is permitted," and called for a return to faith. Essentially, Dostoyevsky's God became the ultimate Overman, the tyrant who maintained order by brute authority. But either position leads to fascism (despite Nietzsche's own loathing for it--he would have held the Nazis in utter contempt.) If there is no hope of establishing an objective standard of truth or justice, then rational argument is pointless. The only valid argument is a steel-toed boot. Belief in God does not change this, because God doesn't take interviews, and scripture is as vague as a Rorshach ink blot.

So, if religious extremists make common cause with cultural relativists who claim that truth and morality are in the eye of the beholder, it is because they share this belief. This I call the post-modernist dodge--all truths are equal, until it's our turn to speak, and then, our truth is equaller (to paraphrase Orwell.) This seems to be a new low for absolutists, but their absolutism is a mailed fist in a velvet glove, to be unveiled when power permits. Thus, the religious agenda is essentially a political agenda, a Will-to-Power. Political power allows one to set the law, the law controls the courts, and ultimately, the police and the army. The public-relations campaigns of today make way for tomorrow's boot.

Part of the attraction of this position for evangelicals is brinksmanship. They cannot resist the temptation to claim that social and moral perdition will follow closely on the heals of unbelief. But the consequences of this position can be disastrous. If truth and justice adhere to standards independent of an intentional agent, then there is no one who can be bribed or flattered, no appeal. The consequences of your actions are inescapable--they will ripple through the social fabric, and you are likely to get only as much mercy as you give. But if you are saved by faith, or confession, or whatever ritual your religion prescribes, then party hearty--just get to the church on time. No one really expects to die tonight. Between action and consequence stands a supernatural arbiter, who can weight the dice for you. Maybe you'll get lucky. In fact, the preacher man says I will get lucky, if I drop an extra twenty in the pot. Who needs condoms?

Because they do not believe in any form of objective truth, arguing with evangelicals is pointless. Their references to the Bible are not appeals to reason or evidence, but appeals to authority--a logical fallacy, yet it is the only standard of truth that they recognize, and they are utterly incapable of understanding why this is not convincing to us. I suspect that there is some facility for critical thinking which they genuinely lack. I can understand them, but they cannot understand me. This essentially nihlistic position is dangerous because of its fascistic potential, but it is particularly dangerous in Christians because without an independent standard of truth and justice, all parts of the Bible are on an equal footing. The calls to genocide, torture, slavery, infanticide, the glorification of God's cruelty, the insistence of blind obedience in committing attrocities, all stand on an equal footing with the Sermon on the Mount, and everything since the publication of this bronze age text is swept away. We find ourselves face to face with the barbarity of the ancient world, a barbarity which is already gripping many Muslim nations.

This is not the triumph of Christianity or Islam, but the death of them. This latest breed of zealots no more understands their religion than they do science. Fundamentalism is fossilizing religion. In place of spirituality and ethical consideration, we are confronted by mere memetic replication; people who parrot religious quotations but do not engage them. Israel means "He who struggles with God and wins." These people don't struggle with God at all; having no standard by which to tell between truth and falsehood, they have no way of telling between a real and a false Prophet, or between the truth and an Idol of their own making. To wrestle with God, you have to have something to stand on, and they have nothing beneath their feet.

They have chosen superstition over faith. By faith I do not mean a specific belief, but a general attitude of optimism and trust. To have faith in you is to trust that you are both honest and competent, but it remains faith because the outcome lies in the future. I cannot have proof before the fact. The same goes for faith in myself, and in a more general faith in future outcomes, that difficulties will not be insurmountable. This same definition of faith comprises hope (for positive outcomes), charity (the willingness to give others the benefit of the doubt), and courage (born of optimism.) This is real faith, the very thing that Christianity talks about, since all of the so-called Christian virtues are clustered around it. But I have not mentioned God once in talking about it. Faith is not superstition. Yet superstition is the cause for which Fundamentalist Christians are fighting, and in doing so, they are killing their religion. Not that this will do anyone any good--a dead religion is more dangerous than a living one.

If there is any hope for Christianity, it must abandon its hankering for the occult and swear an allegiance to the truth. It must embrace the project of the Enlightenment, continue to question and refine the ethics which grew out of the Christian tradition but have evolved since, and return to the standards of establishing the truth that science has proven so successful. Other religions have successfully made the transition from superstition to spiritual practice; Bhuddism has come to the West largely free of its metaphysical baggage, and Judaism is making the transition from orthodoxy to orthopraxy. Jesus doesn't need all the smoke and mirrors to be taken seriously as a moral philosopher. I do not expect born-agains to understand a word of this. They would, no doubt, respond to this with their usual list of Biblical quotes, threats of damnation, and a litany of logical fallacies. I don't care, but they won't understand that either.

Nevertheless, they are still a minority, despite surveys that say otherwise. Between atheists and born-agains lie a huge segment of the population, perhaps the majority, whom I call secular believers. These people go to church occasionally, but don't really think much about God (most atheists have probably given more thought to the subject than they have.) They don't know much about science either, but they know they like what it provides, and if they come to see that there is any danger of losing that, they will rise up in protest. And they do believe for the most part, however much or little they think about it, in some objective standard of truth and justice. Work on that. That is really all we need.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Mother of All Conspiracy Theories

There is at the center of all conspiracy theories a black hole waiting to devour all adherents to the satellites that revolve around it. Whether the conspiracy theory concerns UFO's, The Kennedy Assasination, 9/11 conspiracies, or various economic and social theories, sooner or later the True Believer ends up being pulled towards the Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory of Everything. Eventually, it all comes down to the Jews. Start with any part of the lunatic fringe, and stick with it long enough, and you will one day wake up in bed with Hitler.

This may be the result of conspiracism, the conviction that the social and political sphere has been infected by a foreign agency which, if expelled, will correct the imbalance and solve all of our problems. The inevitable question then, is, who is this enemy who has caused all the trouble? The answer is that there is no enemy.

Part of the disfunction of any society is due to pure self-interest without proper mechanisms of correction, a state of affairs which exists to some extent in all societies, but is far less prevalent in democracies than in corrupt totalitarian regimes. This results in a deficit of faith--not faith in a particular creed or creeds, but a loss of confidence that honest effort will be rewarded, forcing upon all the conclusion that the only way to beat the thieves is to join them.

But even in the best of societies, political, social, and economic arrangements will typically lag behind the demands of the current situation. This is unavoidable, due to the fact that overly progressive modifications to these arrangements can cause as much or more harm as benefit, leading to a reactionary backlash feared by responsible citizens of both conservative and progressive leanings. Indeed, traditional and neo-conservatives distrust progressives, not because they despise progress, but precisely because bold leaps forward can lead to reactionary leaps backward, erasing not only the gains of the current program but solid gains previously achieved. Both progressives and conservatives value progress, but conservatives emphasize caution, while progressive emphasize adaptation.

But this answer requires subtlety, and conspiracists don't have much use for subtlety. They are the very reactionary camp that conservatives fear. Conspiracists are nearly always disenfranchised, and for good reason. The very lack of intelligence, discipline, education, reasoning skills, or personal responsibility which throws them on hard times also makes them prone to believing in conspiracy theories. Their failures cannot be their fault, so someone must be holding them back. And so, they go looking for someone to blame. Still, even for the dedicated conspiracist, economic, political, and social arrangements are so mercurial that it is hard to point to one consistently coherent faction which could draw all of the various conspiracies together into a tidy bundle.

Enter the Jews. The Jews have been around for millenia, and there is a wide variety of anti-semitic material pumped out through the centuries to draw upon, authored by or at the behest of governments, demogogues, rival religions, and fellow conspiracists. Yet, what makes the Jews so attractive as a target is not just the mere fact of their survival, but their success against all odds. The Ashkenazy Jews of Europe are the product of the most intensive cultural selection regime in human history. As dissenters from the dominant religions in every place they have lived for the past two-thousand years, they have never enjoyed a safe haven where they could be certain to avoid persecution. Denied, for the most part, the right to own property, to join guilds, to hold titles or engage in politics, and even suffering exemption from the moral code which protected others of the dominant religion, the Ashkenazy Jews have lived under the threat of attack, loss of property, and sudden expulsion for most of European history.

If you are faced with the possibility of having to pick up and move quickly, security lies in portable wealth, which not only allows you to carry most of your fortune on your person, but to exchange this wealth in return for safe passage. Thus, the Jews came to value gold and jewelry, for the same reason that "diamonds are a girl's best friend." Women, too, were a powerless faction in society--if your husband owned all land, goods, and titles, the best you could hope for, in the event that everything went bad and a quick escape was required, was to take what you could carry. Jewelry is the ultimate mad money. But even jewelry wasn't a sure thing--you could be stopped and stripped by a gang of thieves, who could take everything you had. And after all, they were just Jews. The local constable might even be in on the deal.

Sheer selective pressure led the Jews to discover the one kind of wealth that could not be stolen by thieves: knowledge. You could lose your books, but not what you had learned from them. Knowledge, and the ability to use that knowledge, was the magic formula, and not just for the Jews, but for anyone in human society. And the Ashkenazy Jews had to be a little smarter and a little more adaptive than anyone else, just to land on their feet. As the centuries went by, the advantage that knowledge conferred grew. Jews survived in the worst of times, but flourished in the best of times.

To conspiracists, who seem to cherish ignorance as much as the Ashkenazy Jews valued knowledge, this ability to thrive in adversity must seem almost occult. The conspiracist cannot see how the Jews could do this without cheating, precisely because it is an ability the conspiracist lacks. There must be some cabal, some secret brotherhood, some dark, nefarious means by which the Jews are able to recover and rise to prominence. The myth of the Jewish banking conspiracy had its roots in the fact that the Jews did horde gold, and were not restricted by religion from loaning money with interest. Still, once European Christians figured out there was serious money to be made, they went into banking on a scale the Jews could scarcely dream of. The Rothschildes were successful bankers, but did not control the major banks. And it did not help that constant privation drove many Jews into the underworld--Fagin was not a typical Jew, but his type did exist. But these were exceptions rather than the rule.

Something which may play into the myth of Jewish malevolence is a trait that Jews share with scientists, and with any culture which is in its ascendancy: the bold and almost rapacious collection of knowledge. Americans and the Japanese tend to have the same trait, as the British and Romans did at the height of their Empires. In the terms of the politically correct, they lack "sensitivity". They ask blunt questions, tread casually on sacred ground, and will tear into the heart of another culture, taking what they can use and discarding the rest. To the ears of those who hold that culture sacred, these questions sound profane and offensive. Yet this very tendency is the mark of a vibrant civilization, which is not afraid to assimilate ideas from the outside. When a culture closes in on itself and fends off outside influences, its days of glory are past. It is no longer strong enough to fend for itself in the free market of ideas. To take offence at hard questions is a sure sign that one has stopped asking such questions oneself, the beginning of stagnation and death.

In fact, direct questions are a form of engagement and respect. Postmodern sensitivity is the product of a patronizing conviction that one's own culture is so overwhelming that it would crush all others. This is the attitude of an adult asking a child about Santa Claus, and underlying it is the certainty that the other person really has nothing to teach you--or at least, nothing that they can put into words. But most of all, it is the identification of opinion with ego, the idea that there are no beliefs that have a basis in fact. Postmodernists don't dig for the truth because they don't believe that there is any truth to find. The Ashkenazy Jews could not afford the luxury of relativism; success, and survival, are dependent on a clear picture of reality. An argument is about establishing the truth. It's not about you.

This is something which conspiracists, who are willing to entertain almost any scientific theory except the one supported by evidence, cannot seem to grasp. This is probably why conspiracists will immediately resort of ad hominem attacks when challenged. There is no truth, only authority; if you challenge my opinion, you are challenging me. To someone whose confidence in a theory is inversely proportional to the evidence supporting it, and who sees all contrary evidence as propaganda that proves the conspiracy, there is simply no other way to argue a point. And so, the more evidence that accumulates against the existence of the Vast Jewish Conspiracy, the stronger their belief in it becomes.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Demonic Meme

I just watched The Possession of Emily Rose. Although there was an attempt to portray both the natural and supernatural explanations for the events that led to the death of the title character, the presentation of those events may appear to favour the supernatural explanation. I liked the way it was done, as the supernatural was always presented through the eyes of one of the characters, but I suspect that this point would have been lost on people who are inclined to believe in the supernatural to begin with.

The interesting thing that came across to me is how the belief in the supernatural itself played into Emily Rose's possession. It is clear from the ubiquitous presence of Catholic iconography around the house that Emily Rose was primed from childhood for a strong conviction concerning the existence of spiritual agencies, demonic as well as divine. When she is struck by what appeared to me to resemble a night terror or sleep paralysis, she interprets this as a demonic attack. It seems likely in the course of the movie that she was afflicted with a form of epilepsy, but it is interesting to note that the terror of this original episode, even if it were a simple case of sleep paralysis, might have been sufficient to lead to the rest of the story.

As the movie progresses, many of the people who make contact with Emily Rose's story become convinced that they are being stalked by the powers of darkness. The priest on trial is the first, but soon the defending attorney is hearing things go bump in the night and interpreting chance occurences as signs. When a doctor who was present at the exorcism comes forward, it becomes clear that he too is convinced that the devil is after him. They have all apparently entered into a war with the devil, and the devil is working against them. Their only defense is in totems, signs, and portents.

Towards the end of her life, after an unsuccessful attempt at exorcism, Emily Rose writes to the priest to tell him that the Virgin Mary offered her an end to her suffering with a quick death, or the choice to continue in agony to prove to the world that God exists. Emily Rose chooses the heroic path, and dies a few weeks later, having refused all further attempts at exorcism. Her ordeal becomes an act of witnessing, to stand as proof to the world that the unseen world is real. Likewise, the priest and defending attorney also feel compelled to tell her story, to also give witness to the existence of the spirit world.

The movie tracks the transmission and fortification of a meme, and a particularly deadly one at that, possibly the most destructive parasitic meme known to humanity. In its more benign form, this meme is the belief in the spirit world, in disembodied intelligent agents who can affect the physical world and those in it. Those who hold this belief are carriers of a virus but manifest few or no symptoms. But there are a rare few, like Emily Rose, who come down with the full syndrome. They become possessed. The simple belief in evil spirits takes root and gives rise to an alternate personality.

The first stage of an exorcism is called the Pretense. During this phase, the exorcist and his assistants seek to tease out the demonic personality from the real personality, treating each differently as separate entities. In the exorcism proper, the exorcist then attempts to extract the name of the demon. The name, according to the lore of exorcism, is essential in controlling the demon. By the old laws of magic, having the name of a thing allows you to understand and control it (this is why the name Jehovah was never to be spoken.) But these two features of exorcism reveal another intent--not merely to draw the demon out, but to actually create the alternate personality. This is a dance of belief, an negotiation leading to the definition of the main character in a shared story. The name is appropriate to the character of the demon; it may be an historical demonic name, or a name indicative of its personality. But once fixed, everyone 'knows' who they're dealing with. The meme acquires a face and a name.

To be present at one of these affairs must be an overwhelming experience. Here a belief already firmly held is extended to its most extreme and absurd form. In the possessed, all the stops are pulled. Pain is silenced or ignored; as with people high on PCP, the absence of pain permits extraordinary feats of strength, because the possessed is unaware of damage done to bone and sinew which would ordinarily check exertion. We already know that hypnosis can be used for pain management. The absence of discomfort can help with some truly amazing facial and bodily contortions as well. It's easy to be an instant yoga master when you just don't care that your limbs are popping out of their sockets. The demonic construct, which shares the belief of all the participants that it will be able to jump clear of the body when it dies, doesn't really mind if the body is damaged. Knowledge rarely employed is drawn upon to create the illusion of supernatural cunning. This isn't all that hard--you just have to be cleverly obtuse. Read Foucault and you'll get the idea. And after a few days of screaming, everyone sounds like the cookie monster, just like the lead singer of most heavy metal bands.

What really gives the game away is that the demon is very naughty, but not really all that evil. It may scratch, bite, kick, swear, and make a mess, but if it were really intent on racking up a body count, it would sit quietly, play nice, and then slit everyone's throat while they were sleeping. This conforms to the account of hypnotised people resisting suggestions which call upon them to violate their ethical code. The naughtiness is another matter; they are, after all, possessed, and no one is going to believe in God if the demon looks fake. This is simply expected of them, and in the Pretense, it is made clear that they'd better perform.

The most convincing aspect, however, is the spectacle of self-destruction involved. But then, part and parcel of the faith is self-sacrifice and the mortification of the flesh. If the reward in the next life is directly proportional to the suffering in this one, then those who are demonically possessed are destined for great things. Christians have been beating themselves up for centuries, and most don't even have demons to blame for this. Auto-sado-masochism is, in my opinion, the very zenith of kink, but when you've been told all your life that everything that feels good is bad, your wiring will tend to get rather crossed. It's funny to say all this, but actually seeing it taken to the extremes present in exorcism would be a truly horrific and profound experience. We can see similar measures of self-annhilation at work in anorexia nervosa, the 'good girl's' disease, but even that pales by comparison. Murder, apparently, is a sin, unless the victim is yourself and you've chosen a spectacularly painful way to do it.

It is, however, still murder. Exorcism contributes to the belief structure that facilitates it, and is as blunt a therapy as performing brain surgery with a pickaxe while blindfolded. But so too does the belief in the afterlife, and contempt for the body. The main purpose of the phenomena of possession is to propogate the meme of supernatural agency. The devil's greatest trick was not, as the old saying goes, to convince the world that he didn't exist, but to convince the world that he did. It is hoped that by convincing people that the devil exists, they will believe in God. But a strong belief in the devil is faith in the power of evil. Jihadists murder civilians because they are convinced all of the West belongs to Shaitan. Nazi propoganda made devils of the Jews, greasing the slope to the Holocaust. The witch craze led to the torture and execution of thousands of innocent men and women. Religious wars have always been driven by the certainty that the enemy is in league with the devil. Giving up the belief in God may not be necessary, if we can just get people to give up their faith in the devil.

Still, the meme marches on. I'm not certain whether it was one of the fictionalized aspects of the story, but Emily Rose was convinced her ordeal would spread her beliefs to others. It worked, and for some people, through this movie, it may still be working.