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.