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.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


The question Why? carries with it an intentional aspect, a presupposition of deliberate choice. We are asking, not for a cause, but for a reason--and a reason assumes motivation and an actor. Consider, for example, the question, "Why is this shirt on the porch?" It may be that the shirt is on the porch because someone dropped it there, in which case the question is well phrased. But what if the answer is "It blew there from the clothes line." In this case, the why is answered with a how, a naturalistic description of how the shirt was carried from the clothes line to the porch, with no conscious agent involved. This satisfies the original question; there is no why, it just happened to land there. There is, in fact, no answer to the question why, only to the question how. Pure blind causality supplants the assumption of intentional volition, and the answer changes the nature of the question itself.

In a debate between Daniel Dennett and Richard Swinburne, Swinburne's arguments for the existence of God fall under this Why? model. Within the question itself is an assumption of intentional volition, to which the answer is that the assumed agent is none other than God. By insisting upon an answer to why, Swinburne guarantees his own answer. But if the reality of the universe is of an n-dimensional solid composed of all possible states, then the state in which life exists, particularly human life, is simply one of the possibilities encompassed by the sum of possibilities--highly unlikely to the whole, but likely in part. We are the lucky benefactors of a local state of being, which is by no means the rule for the entirety. The why is answered with a simple how.

Taking Swinburne's tack, I feel obligated to ask, if it was God's intention to create intelligent human life, than what is all the rest of it for? Even assuming that the laws of our locale are adhered to by the entirety of reality, don't you think that God might have come up with a more efficient means of achieving sentient life? Our own solar system is comprised of nine (or apparently, ten) planets, only one of which supports life. If it were God's intention to create sentient life, why are the rest apparently dead? Why is the EM band not crowded by the boisterous chatter of a host of Martians, Venusians, Uranians, Jupiterians, etc? And why, with all the efforts of the Seti program, have we yet to discover a promising candidate for intelligent life? I'm not saying that it isn't out there, but shouldn't it be, well, more prominent? I would dearly love to have a conversation with the Vorlons, the Minbari, the Vulcans, the Wookies, and all the rest. Where are they?

Compound this with the fact that our planet has been around for billions of years, but hasn't produced intelligent life till the last million, of which all but the last century has offered a life which is nasty, short, and brutish for nearly every human being on the planet. And according to many of Swinburnes co-religionists, God is planning to call it all quits at any minute, rapture up the handful of the faithful, and throw the rest into a flaming pit. All those billions of years, all of those trillions of stars, all that space, just so that the Almighty could gather to himself a handful of syncophants. Hardly seems worth the trouble, if you ask me. And why does a Being so Great crave the adoration of some great apes from the unfashionable arm of a rather low-rent galaxy? Another mystery, I suppose.

And now we come to another of Swinburne's arguments: that assuming an intelligent creator is a simpler premise than the naturalistic alternatives. Given that it took all of this infrastructure just to get a few billion moderately intelligent and generally benign humans to appear on one planet, how is it simpler to assume the existence of an infinitely intelligent and good entity? Where did God come from? The answer is usually that God has always existed, but since Swinburne finds it highly suspicious that particles all follow the same rules across most of space and time, how likely is it that an entity as complex as God would never change? It's no good to say that God is above time, because apparently he intervenes occasionally, which situates Him as an actor in time. It is precisely this temporal existence of the divine that believers crave--a God above time is not interactive. Indeed, an entity above time and space would be so utterly alien as to be completely orthogonal to all human hopes and wishes, ruling the universe by an incomprehensible aesthetic more conducive to blind terror than comfort and hope. Modern theological versions of God are completely at odds with the chummier Man with the White Beard of ancient and medieval conception. The imposition of God as final cause raises the level of complexity of the explanation by exponential orders of magnitude.

Personally, I can imagine a universe in which teaming trillions of sentient beings of every description inhabit planets of all kinds, and ply the space in between with great ships, of cultures with pedigrees that stretch back millions or even billions of years, with means to pierce the mundane dimensions and create entirely new realities, and with the ability to transform themselves from matter to energy to pure information, enabling means of exploration and expression which not only beggar the imagination, but the limits of physical reality itself. I can think of this. Why didn't God?

If God is a being to which all superlatives are extended to an infinite degree, why did He build the zenith of his creation out of spare monkey parts? I have back pains, clogged sinuses, eyes with a blind spot, and all human females undergo tremendous duress during birth because we have a reproductive system built for quadrupeds with small heads. What was He thinking? Did he really build the world in seven days, or did he do a caffeinated all nighter, with our genetic code bearing encrypted comments like "This is a shameless hack... Not very happy about this... FIX ME!!!"

What I find most disappointed about religion is the insistence that I should worship a God who apparently isn't even as smart as I am. And I'm not saying that I'm the sharpest crayon in the box here--in fact, for the all-knowing and all-seeing, outwitting me should be a cake-walk. But apparently, God isn't much brighter than the average believer, or any other person who isn't reasonably well acquainted with the flaws in human physiology or aware of the scale of the universe and our relative insignificance in it. It's almost like they imagined a God just like them... hmmmm...

But never mind the scientific inconsistencies. The theistic explanation of the universe is hymn to human pride. Imagine, all this just for us. I'm reminded of Zaphod Beeblebrox, emerging from the Total Perspective Vortex unscathed, because after all, the universe he was in was created just for him. As the narrator at the end of that episode asked, "Is it really true that Zaphod Beeblebrox has an ego the size of the universe?" Well, apparently the faithful do.

There was something in religion about pride being a bad thing. What was that? Ah, well, couldn't have been very important. After all, the people who belong to all those religions have forgotten it.