Saturday, December 01, 2007
In keeping with Airborne policy to maintain a force of the best and the brightest, we have discovered a number of personel who do not meet that qualification. To put it bluntly, they are dumbfucks. To put it even more bluntly, they have been trained in elite killing techniques, which means that they are now probably sociopathic dumbfucks.
We are at a loss as to what to do with them, so we are giving them to you. You are to take these men and assemble them into the Tactically Abridged Response Detail, or T.A.R.D. Make us proud, Colonel.
General Jim Ehrman
Colonel Thomson's Command Log
What have I gotten myself into. I have 22 men who take best of three tries to get their pants on, and I've given up on getting them to put the fly in front. One of the men decided to keep his lunch for later, soup--in his helmet, on his head. They have taken to greeting me with the words "Who do we kill today, sir!", and it takes a few minutes to get the message across that we aren't killing anyone today, thank you. This is always a disappointment to the troops.
My troops are somewhat... idiosyncratic. Pvt. Robert Hadley believes his gun is a club, which he uses, I must admit, with some effect, being 7'2" and 350 pounds. Pvt. Harry Richards wants a bigger gun, always a bigger gun, that makes a bigger boom. Pvt. Jim Franklin keeps asking me who the enemy is, and points to random people and asks whether they're the enemy. What if one day he thinks I'm the enemy? Blanks all around. Pvt. John Crews was a dart champion back home, and prefers throwing knives--and grenades. And Pvt. Billy Anderson is a superb marksman who can strip down, clean, and reassemble his gun in less than a minute, but loud noises freak him out, and he cowers and screams after the first shot.
My cup runneth over.
As most of our troops are over there, you are the only fighting force in the vicinity. We have a hostage situation at a nearby convention center which requires an immediate response. Get you men over to the Crown Plaza Hotel, ASAP.
General Jim Ehrman
Colonel Thomson's Command Log
We arrived two blocks from the hotel, but there were logistical problems. Specifically, Pvts Haydn, Kowalchuk, and Turner spotted a Pizza Pizza, and decided they wanted lunch. It turned out to be easier just to let them have it. Twenty minutes and $85 dollars later, we headed for the hotel. I was able to prevent Franklin from shooting suspicious traffic by having Hadley carry him most of the way.
Our orders were to open with negotiations, but Hadley had an unusual interpretation on the concept, and bludgeoned the man who came out to meet us into a bloody pulp. Shots came at us from the hotel, although I think they were aiming for Hadley's head, which I suspect is made of granite. Phillips returned fire, Harrelson shot Phillips, and I shot Harrelson. Franklin correctly identified the enemy and took one out, which clued the rest of the squad into the general idea. And then it happened.
Who the hell gave Richards the goddamn ROCKET LAUNCHER?!? It took out the lobby, the elevators, and most of the facade. It also, as it turned out, took out the terrorists, except for one that I found Hadley playing with later. Not a pretty sight. Fortunately the hostages were all in the room in the basement. They lived. We lost only Phillips and Harrelson. Hadley had a few dents in his face, which faded quickly, but was otherwise unperturbed. Billy Anderson cowered and screamed through the whole thing.
My congratulations again on your last mission but we need more of your special services. Another terrorist squad has taken control of the city police station on Nelson Street. Be warned that the terrorists are also dressed as cops. It will take great skill to pull this off, and save the real cops. Good luck, Colonel.
General Jim Ehrman
Colonel Thomson's Command Log
I should have never told them that their first priority was to keep me safe. I figured this would mean that I would be safe to command them and prevent things from going south. I never considered that this would convince them to throw me in a dumpster, close the lid, and put an engine block on it. As it was, I spent the whole damn mission in the dark, up to my waist in garbage.
It tried to run things through the radio, but they were all shouting, and someone was reciting Dr. Seuss between auto-bursts. All I could hear was gunfire and screaming. When it all went quiet, and they took me out of the dumpster, they told me they couldn't find any cops.
As it turns out, there were no terrorists. How the hell was I supposed to know that General Ehrman was on psych leave? I didn't get the memo. So my T.A.R.D.s wiped out a real police station. Only took two casualties. It almost makes me proud.
And Richards is damn good with a rocket launcher.
In keeping with the indeterminate status of yourself and your T.A.R.D.s, we have decided that a more discreet assignment may be in order. It has come to our attention that an exchange will be happening in northern Pakistan between Al Quaeda and rogue members of the Pakistani military, which may involve nuclear materials. We want you to stop this.
As you will be in Pakistan, we will deny any involvement. Nor will any extraction be available. You are welcome to take whatever you can there, but understand that you are on your own, and must be considered expendable. We urge you to make your own arrangement afterwards, but you may not return here.
Colonel Daniel Stiller
Colonel Thomson's Command Log
Well, I'm screwed. At least we get the pick of whatever equipment we want. Hadley never fires his gun, so fuck it, I got him a battle axe. He loves it. I got Richards an even bigger rocket launcher, three of them, in fact. The rest got everything they wanted, and plenty of it.
We got dropped about ten miles from the site, and made our way quietly there. Hadley and Crews came in real handy here; knives and a battle axe don't make a lot of noise, so perimeter security was not a problem. We got to the site with about an hour to spare, and I kept watch over the ridge. Below was a cave with a lot of men milling about expectantly.
Not long after, a truck could be seen approaching, and below a man came out with a large suitcase, accompanied by another guy who was obviously in charge. I looked through the binoculars, and I'll be fucked if it wasn't Bin Laden.
I didn't give the order, but Richards picks up his first rocket launcher and nails the truck while its still a hundred yards out. Hadley roars and runs over the ridge, swinging his battle axe, and he's all they can see, so they start shooting at him. I figure he'll go down in a hail of bullets, but all they manage to do is annoy him, which is not a good thing to do to a sociopathic dumbfuck in a roid rage. Franklin has figured out who the enemy is by now, and he gets in on the action. Bin Laden was walking towards the approaching truck, which is now a flaming wreck, so he goes for another truck parked nearby, which Richards sends into a triple backflip half-twist with another rocket, knocking Bin Laden on his ass. Men start pouring out of the cave to help him, and all my team starts firing. Crews switches to grenades, which don't seem to bother Hadley, but causes considerable inconvenience to his opponents.
It is at this point that Billy stops screaming and works out the source of the problem.
He calms right the fuck down, gets a glint in his eye that would pierce six inches of steel plate, and starts picking them off, one shot every second, each one an instant kill. When Bin Laden starts to go for the cave mouth, Billy gets a bolt of inspiration and takes out his legs, so men keep pouring out of the cave to help him, and now all my men are in on the turkey shoot, while Hadley keeps swinging his axe.
When they stop coming out, Hadley goes into the cave. He's done in about five minutes.
Frank Thomson's Diary
Nice little hotel, nice town. We bought both. There was $30 million in the suitcase, and another $15 million in the cave. We collected $50 million for the bounty on Bin Laden, and another $10 million for what was left of the bomb in the truck. The bag man who collected the packages seemed to be waffling on the deal, but Billy gave him THE LOOK. We got paid in full.
Things are good. The T.A.R.D.s have taken a liking to the people here, and don't like anyone messing with them. The local standard of living has improved considerably. Some banditos tried to move in on us, because they heard we were loaded. We are; locked and loaded. Franklin spotted them a mile away. Billy has a very nice gun now. They didn't last long. Billy's very calm these days. He's got it all figured out.
And Hadley is our doorman. Security is not an issue.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Natural vs. Supernatural: This, I think, is the one closest to our hearts, with us as Naturalists in opposition to all forms of magical thinking, from the cheap tricks of Uri Geller and Sylvia Browne to miraculous interventions claimed by most religious believers. In fact, this distinction runs through both atheist and theistic camps; the Nazis and the Stalinists were notorious dabblers in the occult. Supernaturalists in full advance make naturalistic claims; that the supernatural has real effects in the physical world, which of course puts it fully within the scope, and in conflict with, science. When challenged, they fall back to a position of pure spiritualism, in which the magical world has no measurable effect on the real world. Both claims are often made within the same speech or article, apparently with no awareness on the part of the claimant that they are contradicting themselves.
This maneuver, in fact, is so common that it may be more than a simple rhetorical ploy; it may represent a genuine state of confusion common to the minds of supernaturalists. The root cause appears to be a fond, even sentimental, attachment to the promise of magic as an escape from all strictures of necessity. At its core this is simply positive thinking with magical overtones, hope pure and simple but with no practical basis, no specified way to achieve that end. The utopian visions of the great totalitarian ideologies of the past century are examples of this; a great future awaits us, but it never arrives, nor even draws closer. Nevertheless, they claimed, we must press on. Hope itself is not nonsense, but here it is entirely devoid of the due diligence which would justify it. When disciplined by challenge supernaturalism retreats to this core position of optimism, but will, of its own accord, spill out into flights of pure fantasy which are nevertheless claimed to be real. The problem with supernaturalism is that its rationality is as porous as a sieve, symptomatic of mind so open as to have almost no walls. In practice, supernaturalists are like a car with a powerful engine but no steering or brakes; their optimism may allow them to go very far very fast, or hit a wall with equally impressive speed.
Practical\Empirical vs. Dogmatic: This is mistakenly regarded as the main rift in the atheist-believer divide. In fact, this is also a distinction between secular ideologues (Communists, for example) and secular realists, and between two forms of religion, one which relies on practice and primarily emotional experience, and the other which insists upon rote interpretations of sacred texts and authorities. The naturalistic or scientific world view, and the practical or mystical form of religion, both require more work and ability than dogmatism. In consideration of this someone like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris may have much more in common with a mystical practitioner than a run of the mill dogmatist. Dogmatism is a form of philosophical outsourcing, in which the believer delegates his or her thinking on at least some questions to authorities recognized as such within the believer's immediate peer group. The actual competence of these authorities is a question they do not consider, and having no competence in the area themselves, the followers of these authorities will be slow to entertain the idea that their shepherd is actually fleecing his flock. In some primarily practical religious traditions, dogma is recognized as an obstacle to enlightenment, an "idol of the mind" to be discarded.
It must be stressed, however, that religion is not the only source of dogma, and that forms of secular dogma just as dangerous are possible, which can share the religious element of the promised land or future paradise. Communism and National Socialism are two commonly cited examples. One of the more costly dogmas to emerge recently is related to Hegelianism. This is the dogma of inevitable progress, which holds that overturning corrupt regimes will necessarily result in the organic rise of justice and freedom, these being the product of the march of history. This is the guiding principle of many Marxists, including Che Guevera, and of the orginal neo-cons, who believed that all that needed to be done in Iraq was to topple Saddam Hussein and democracy would be the inevitable result. Still, secular dogmas are subject to rational scrutiny and refutation in a way that religious dogmas are not; the Communists and Nazis are discredited in a way to which even the most notorious religion seems immune. Secular dogmas promise results in this world, and as such are falsifiable. Religious dogmas ultimately promise results in an imaginary hidden world, of which nothing can ever be known.
Passionate\Engaged vs. Passive: Most believers--and most atheists--do not devote much time to the questions of what they believe or why. They simply don't care that much about it, so even the most outrageous dogmas are not likely to result in acts of violent fanaticism. They are too busy with other things. By contrast, fanatics, theologians, and any who consider the truth in these matters to be very important (pro or con) are passionate and engaged in the discussion, and are far more likely to act upon their beliefs. Again, the distinction exists within theistic and atheistic camps.
This raises several interesting points. First, when critics accuse the New Atheists of being as fundamentalist as the type of believer they attack, they are confusing passion with dogma. Second, it is worth noting that figures like Jesus, the Bhudda, and many of the Old Testament prophets were calling upon their fellow believers to engage passionately with their faith, usually at the expense of material concerns. Jesus' admonition to "take no thought for tomorrow", and Socrates claim that "the unexamined life is not worth living", are the words of men so fascinated with the questions of philosophy that mere personal material undertakings are of little interest or value--even concerns of survival. To the life of the mind, the rat race is no more than a distracting irritant. Their contempt is not for materialism in the scientific sense, but for economic materialism. Theirs is an ethic which is entirely lost in the decadent and denatured religion which is by far the most common form today, in which God favours the rich and wants you to aspire to be amongst them. The divine right of kings has been replaced with the divine right of wealth.
An interesting aside: there is a demographic that has the same disregard for economic materialism; the boffins, or the nerds. As one nerd friend put it, "I want to make enough money so that I never have to think about it again." Not, "enough so that I can have anything I want," because he didn't want that much. He just wanted the irritant of money to go away. There was a joke on Slashdot about how most nerds just make enough money so that their parents will stop bugging them about it. The Open Source movement is an expression of this revolt against materialism and towards the life of the mind. Jesus would be proud. But this attitude, and the drive and ability to make headway in the pursuit of truth, probably aren't things that can be taught.
Dogmas are heuristics, quick rules of thumb accepted by those without the time, ability, or inclination to do the research and work things out for themselves. No one, of course, can be an expert in everything. We specialize, and outsource expertise in most areas to other people, and most people outsource their spiritual concerns and even their moral judgement to those they consider specialists. Unfortunately the peer review process in religion is rather inadequate, because dogma exists in a bubble of human opinion, unsupported by evidence or reason. This allows the unscrupulous to exploit religion to build their own personal empire. Why is it that the likes of L. Ron Hubbard, Sun Myung Moon, and Peter Popoff are challenged only by people like of James Randi and investigative journalists, rather than their religious peers? It can only be that other religious authorities do not want a similar light to intrude upon their own activities. What I find outrageous is how many people with grand religious, economic, and political ambitions, those who have given in to the temptations laid out by Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, can persist in calling themselves Christians. Why bother with the pretense, but to limn raw greed with the gloss of sanctity?
Finally, the fact that many passive believers may hold, but not act upon, outrageously dogmatic beliefs, makes them non-symptomatic carriers of a potentially deadly condition. We are all familiar with stories of apparently normal, secular individuals who suddenly snap and become the most rigidly fetishistic believers imaginable (Stephen Baldwin comes to mind here.) What happens in these cases is that a common and usually benign disease suddenly manifests itself in its most malignant form. This is where Dawkins and Harris are right when they say that moderate believers provide support for fanatics. It is not necessarily that their beliefs are moderate, only the commitment, and therefore the effect, of those beliefs. Your happy-go-lucky church going neighbour may harbour beliefs which, if ignited with passion, would turn him into a frightening raving fanatic. And the spark for this passion may appear at any time, in a personal, economic, or political crisis. Passion is, after all, what the founders of all the religions intended amongst their followers, though they might often be disappointed with the expressions of that passion.
The Dali Lama said that the problem with most religious believers was that they didn't take their religion seriously enough, but taking dogma seriously can lead to disaster. What the Dalai Lama intends is that people take their religion seriously enough to grapple with it and move beyond dogma. Though taking it seriously might take care of inclination, it won't have much on an impact on ability, and the requirements of making a living may still impose serious limits on time. Neither of these were a problem for the Dalai Lama, of course, who was chosen as a monarch at a very early age and given nothing to do but study bhuddism. It may be of great benefit to us that most believers never take their religion very seriously, as the dogmatic form of religion may predominate anyway, and the calibre of religious leadership is generally abyssmal.
Dogmatism, however, is not what most of the religious founders intended--although I believe it is precisely what Mohammed had in mind; the very word Islam means Surrender, the unthinking acceptance of dogma. But you can still hear many of the others pulling their hair out in exasperation as their followers try to reduce a method down to a set of dogmatic propositions, rather than pursuing the method themselves. The ideal enlightened master doesn't tell you what to think at all, but he may tell you what not to think, because certain conclusions lead people to stop thinking altogether. The Bhudda (as an archetypal example) is trying to teach you how to think; once you can do that, you can reach your own conclusions. The parallel to the scientific method is direct and in no way accidental; in either case, the goal is truth, and I would argue that anyone who cannot understand science has no business expounding upon religion--no business at all. This same thread runs through the Judeo-Christian tradition, but finding it is not easy, because the scriptures are also littered with dogma. As a religious text, the Bible actually isn't very good.
I don't think they had much of a stake in supernaturalism either. These were simply the dominant explanations of their time, probably embroidered long after their deaths, and what kind of a hero would the messiah be if he couldn't perform miracles; even the ancient heroes could do that, according to legend. St. Augustine explicitly said that where scripture contradicted science, it was scripture that must give way. So, the position of the founders of most traditions (again, Islam is the notable exception) is Natural, Practical\Empirical, and Passionate\Engaged. Notice that this is also the position of the New Atheists. I have a variation on Clarke's Law which is apropos to this: "Any sufficiently advanced theology is indistinguishable from atheism."
Sunday, November 11, 2007
This year, I celebrated Remembrance Day in Afghanistan. We gathered outside our headquarters, near a cenotaph erected to all of our comrades who fell in Afghanistan, and received the families of some of the guys who got killed recently.
There were also representatives of the RCMP, Government of Canada, and the government of Afghanistan. But most importantly, a platoon of Afghan National Army (ANA) guys, along with some senior commanders showed up.
The service was predominantly in English and French; only for certain points, did they offer a translation into Dari or Pashtu (I'm not sure which one it was, I assume Pashtu but I'm not certain). They had prayers for the fallen, given by one of our Padres, and translated into Pashtu.
Personally, I thought it was a nice gesture to invite the Afghans, but it was an opportunity missed. We spent the entire ceremony honouring the Canadians who fell in combat, but only mentioned in passing the Afghan soldiers who died. This was a mistake.
I can say without a doubt in my mind that the ANA pays a steeper price in blood than anybody else in theatre (other than the Taliban of course). Some of their senior officers and NCOs fought the Soviets, and those that were too young (which would have been under 14 at the time) still fought in the civil war before the Taliban came to power... Others still fought the Taliban throughout their regime.
The Operations and Mentoring Liaison Team (OMLT) are here teaching the ANA. They aren't here teaching these guys how to kill; honestly, they have more experience at it than we do. Nor are we here to teach them how to cope with losses; they've done more dying than we ever will here in theatre. We're here to teach them discipline, professionalism, restraint, administration, intelligence and logistics. And from what I saw, they're learning especially well.
But, the fact remains that they've been fighting here for longer than we have, have lost more men than we have (or will), and will be protecting the Afghan people long after we're gone. Thus, it was rather embarrassing to listen to our padres drone on about Canadian sacrifice, while in the corner of my eye I could see men who had lost far more friends and family in battle, who have breathed more of the bitter stink of war than us.
We laid 10 wreaths in our ceremony; the families of a number of dead Canadians laid some, as did some senior Canadian officers, the Kandahar Chief of Police, an ANA Brigade Commander, and the provincial Governor of Kandahar. What were these men thinking about when they were planting wreaths for dead Canadians, while behind them in the parade were the battle weary Afghan soldiers, clad in their dark green forest camouflage uniforms and their old, rattling AK-47s? What did they think of us, standing there with our desert camouflage and our high-tech rifles with optical scopes? What did they think, knowing that some of our force was on their "HLTA", a paid vacation to Canada, Thailand, Europe, or any other locale? What did they think, knowing that our risk and hardship bonuses alone could probably outfit an entire ANA battalion with decent uniforms and effective body-armour? What do their soldiers think when they arrived for the ceremony in the back of pickup trucks, driving past our LAV-IIIs and Nayala mine-proof armoured vehicles?
I don't mean to insinuate that they don't appreciate the contribution of Canadians; they certainly do. But we get so wrapped up in ourselves, that we forget their contribution, which I would argue is easily an order of magnitude greater than our own in terms of blood. Canadians at home are slowly becoming more cognizant of our own sacrifices, but remain woefully ignorant of the Afghans'.
Not only that, but I know that my family is safe while I am here in Afghanistan. The same cannot be said of an ANA soldier, or Afghan National Police officer. What do the Taliban do to families of "collaborators" when they can find them? Before Canadians deploy, we have to visit a social worker to ensure that our personal lives are stable, so that issues or problems at home won't distract us when in combat. The Afghan National Army has no such luxury.
I understand that November 11th is Remembrance Day for Canadians and the Commonwealth; it's our day, and perhaps the Afghans have their own day to remember their losses. But I think that having invited them to participate in our ceremonies, we should have given more credit to their sacrifices. In the end, I appreciate that they were truly gracious and professional in the face of our oversight, sharing our ceremony with us in quiet dignity. They visibly honoured our commitment and sacrifice, while silently reflecting on their own. These guys impress me more and more each day.
Sunday, October 14, 2007
But McGrath did have a big idea, though he didn't recognize it as such. It was less something he argued, and more something he stepped in, and which is still stuck to his shoe. This was the idea of transcendentalization, the elevation of a certain ideas, principles, or dogmas to a higher plane where they are immune from challenge or criticism. He was attempting to use this as ammunition against secular ideas, but this idea has the strongest relevance when applied to religion itself. He had given the game away, and did not seem to realize it.
Transcendentalization is something which demagogues and ideologues do with monotonous regularity; they cling to a fixed idea, even a buzz word, and use it as the standard by which all else must be judged, but which itself must never be questioned. A personal prejudice is exalted to supernatural heights, pinned upon the stars, beyond the reach of all naysayers. It becomes a sacred object. This is not unique to religion; political ideologies in the twentieth century used this to great effect, and you can still see the trick done on a daily basis by lowbrow political pundits. Do this in science, though, and you can expect to be mauled savagely. Sigmund Freud escaped evisceration for so long only because he existed in a vacuum. A viable scientific alternative, cognitive psychology, had to wait for the invention of computer science. But in religion, there is another word for transcendentalization: idolatry.
Idolatry is usually misconstrued as the worship of physical objects or images. But an image can be made of words, of ideas. An idol can be the book that carries those words, or the person who spoke them. The subject of those words is always the same: some transcendent Idea or Being which is beyond question and demands unconditional acceptance and obedience. To the extent that you attempt to describe such a being--even attempt to talk about it at all--you are engaging in idolatry. And yet, the essential aim of most theology, and of theism is general, is to describe the character and attributes of that Being, to create an image of it as an object of worship for believers.
Here again is the distinction between cataphatic and apophatic theology. Cataphatic theology attempts to describe what God is. Apophatic theology insists that you cannot describe God at all, only describe what God is not. One can only refer to subjective experience, which do not necessarily pertain to any ontological reality--and even the nature of these experiences cannot properly be described by any means of communication. Expressions of apophatic theology are often cryptic (Wittgenstein's "Whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent"), or simple statements of humility and ignorance (Socrates' "All I know is that I know nothing.") Expressions of the ineffable experience often seem trite and even obvious, conveying something of the character of the experience but none of its power, or are poetic and powerful but indecipherable to those who have not had such an experience.
This represents a line drawn between two types of religion. One talks about experiences and practices, but makes no ontological claims. Indeed, they would maintain further that ontological claims are serious obstacles on the path of transformation: "idols of the mind" that must be "killed".Adherents may pray and receive answers, but they make no claims regarding the source of those answers; they may come from another source, or simply from a deeper reserve of wisdom within oneself. But where those answers come from doesn't matter. All that matters is the benefit of the experience. These people can never be in conflict with any scientific fact or principle, because they do not make claims about the world at all, only about their experiences and attitudes towards the world. In fact, they are not 'believers' at all, but practitioners. Stephen Jay Gould's claim that science and religion are non-overlapping magisteria is based upon the mistaken notion that this is the only type of religion. There is still the question of how common this is amongst those who claim to be religious, but if all religious adherents were of this category, no dispute between science and religion would ever arise.
The other type of religion dispenses articles of dogma, hard and fast rules founded upon ontological claims concerning the nature of God and his actions within the world. The language employed is descriptive; these are claims of fact, rather than descriptions of experience. These claims bring them almost entirely within the reach of science, and so they find themselves bearing the burden of proof regarding their claims, which remain unsubstantiated and against which mountains of evidence continue to accumulate. Finding themselves at odds with what is known to be true about the world, these believers have taken it upon themselves to undermine science itself. Having found themselves to be wrong, they would prefer to abolish the truth rather and humble themselves and accept it. Built upon received wisdom rather than personal experience, it even seeks to commandeer spiritual experiences to its own ends, and stifles creativity, which would lead its followers to different opinions than those handed down.
It should be immediately obvious that this second type of religion is profoundly degenerate; steeped in idolatry, at war with the truth, inimical to creativity (the one trait in which we could be considered to be made in God's image), and even unfriendly towards genuine religious experiences. And yet, this is the very form of religion which is the primary target of secularists, atheists, and rationalists. Sam Harris has even gone to great lengths to distinguish between spiritual practices and dogmatic religion. It turns out that the very thing that atheists despise is also the ancient enemy of the prophets; the elevation of a belief to the status of unquestionable authority, to which even the truth must be sacrificed. For if theism is the belief that God exists and interacts with the universe, it inevitably leads to, and indeed requires, a description of that interaction and therefore of the God itself. Theism makes an ontological claim with real world consequences, which it must justify, and any attempt towards such a justification inevitably leads to some form of idolatry. The only escape from this practice is to be, in some sense, an atheist.
Deism, by contrast, holds that there is or was some form of deity, but that it does not interact with the world. This requires no attempt to describe God--and in fact, strongly discourages it, since any such being would lay beyond the categories of thought. But since it removes God from the world and denies the primary claim of theism, it is largely indistiguishable from atheism, and deists have always sided with atheists against dogmatists (and have always been regarded as atheists by believers.)
It might seem to be a stretch to claim that the Judeo-Christian tradition, if properly followed, will eventually lead you to a position of atheism (or one so close to it to be virtually identical.) Christianity has, after all, a major stumbling block--the idolatry of Jesus himself (most likely the primary reason that the Jews rejected Christianity.) Islam is another matter altogether--the entire faith is a cult of personality. And yet, consider the Ten Commandments, which some American judges now seem to be so fond of displaying on public property. They may display it, but I don't think they have any idea of where they really lead. The first three are different formulations of the ban on idolatry.
When the Romans first gained entry into the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem and found it empty, they assumed that the Jews were atheists. What does it mean to worship no other Gods, when you are not even allowed to depict or describe the one God that you do worship? It means that the throne of God is empty, and for all intents and purposes, it must remain so. The second commandment reinforces this in a ban against worshipping graven images--but as we've already seen, an image can be depicted in words as well as in stone or gold. The third, against using the name of God, revolves around an old principle of magic: to know the name of a thing is to understand it and even to be able to command it. Politicians and ministers--and the very judges who want to hang old tablets in their court houses--routinely violate this commandment by invoking God's name to justify their own pronouncements and policies. So: you can't describe God, you can't imagine or depict him in any way, and you can't even name him. What's left? You have to plead ignorance and let it go at that. As Socrates said, "All I know is that I know nothing." And Socrates was condemned to death on the charge of atheism.
The history of Christianity can be seen as a long series of emetic responses to this internal toxin. Unfortunately, idolatry is too well suited to the purposes of authoritarian hierarchies for Christian churches to resist it for long. Idolatry is the very essence of any cult, and cults are notorious cash and status cows for anyone ruthless enough to exploit them. Even those with the best intentions will find themselves pulled off course by slow and minor degrees as they accomodate themselves to this convenience. Reform can only come from outside; those who attempt to reform these institution from inside will soon find themselves thrown out anyway.
Our moderate religions in the West are the product of secular states, states which reigned in the worst excesses of religious power and insisted that the various sects and faiths live together in an orderly manner. In an attempt to throw off the yoke of secularism, some extreme Christian sects in America have transformed themselves into a broad based political movement. This has achieved some success, but at a devastating cost to the faith itself. The result is a religion of sound-bite dogmas but with no soul. America exports this style of religion as an imperial project ventured upon by some of its citizens, just as Saudi Arabia exports an equally soulless and dogmatic form of Islam for the same purpose. Both fall on the ground like salt, and little grows in their wake.
If either of these religions are to be saved, their salvation will have to come from outside; the sclerotic effect of these movements is too advanced for these religions to innovate from within, as even many moderate churches and mosques have been infiltrated and hollowed out (and many ex-Muslims claim that moderate Islam is a contradiction in terms in any case.) This outside help will come from rational practitioners and atheists, who will have to cut off these tumors. But it may be that the original tree is dead and must be abandoned. In that case, seedlings may survive, but they will look nothing like the diseased forms that these religions now take.
Saturday, October 06, 2007
But a simple declarative statement is not analogous to a virus, it is analogous to a single strand of DNA. Viruses are not just free floating strands of DNA. They are single celled organisms, barely viable without the medium of other cells which they hijack and use to reproduce themselves. But they are, themselves, very simple cells. A meme would have to be a package. That package could contain multiple ideas, but the meme itself would be the delivery system.
What would such a delivery system look like, when the target is a human mind?
In A Devil's Chaplain, Richard Dawkins mentions a girl who had, via her parents, assimilated the mannerisms of Ludwig Wittgenstein. We are all composites of the people we admire. Earlier generations emulate their heroes, and we emulate them, and so on. The dead live on through us--but the dead are not the only ones that we take into ourselves. Living friends, and imaginary friends, become part of us. Even the characters of fiction become advisors, personalities who take on a new life in our imaginations. Like Woody Allen's character in Zelig, we take on the mannerisms and opinions of those around us, particularly those we love.
A meme is not a simple disconnected idea. Like the person it infects, a meme has a mind, a set of attitudes, behaviours, and beliefs. Memes are not simple ideas; they must be formed as characters, thumbnail sketches of personalities. They are living things that nonetheless only fully come to life by being hosted by others. The mechanism itself is usually positive. We emulate what we admire. The trick, in perpetuating a meme, is to get the person to admire someone. Once that is done, the adopted hero enters the mind of the converted, carrying along whatever ideas are associated with that character.
This is the job of religious proselytizers--to sell you the character. Once they have done that, they can fill in the detail of the character, by telling you stories about what the character did and said. The character becomes a permanent fixture of you mental landscape. The question "What would Jesus do?" is a hallmark of this process. Christians keep the character of Jesus in their heads, where he becomes a living continual companion. But the personality of that character is determined by the sect you belong to.
There is still a problem of fidelity, but the name of the character is usually assumed by each devotee to represent the same conception, and so a broad based alliance can be formed if fellow believers do not inquire too deeply. Fidelity within each sect is enforced by orthodoxy, a constant reiteration of what that character approves and disdains. Acceptance of the central figure facilitates an open door to personal attitudes, as the central figure can be 'reprogrammed' at will. As such, the religious memetic virus is a trojan, a back door into the mind of the believer, breaching personal judgement to permit external access to personal beliefs without challenge.
All widely successful religions are essentially cults of personality; at the center is a single authoritative figure who expresses the fundamental tenants of the cult; Jesus in Christianity, Mohammend in Islam, Yawheh in Judaism, the Bhuddha in Bhuddaism, and so on. Religions without a central figure survive more by tradition or individual choice than conversion. Their memetic potential is quite limited.
Friday, August 31, 2007
Not understanding how the world works, they fail to grasp even the connections between their own actions and the consequences. Theodore Dalyrymple notes despairingly the use of the passive voice by common criminals. "I'm sorry for what happened," they say, as if they had nothing to do with it. The criminal act in question is often a spontaneous explosion of violence, or an impetuous act, which they felt they had no control over given the circumstances. As Phillip Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment proves, circumstances can make monsters of us all. But with a certain competence in life comes the ability to avoid such hair trigger circumstances--to forsee the ends of a certain course and turn aside before it goes too far.
I'm happy to admit that a well developed facility for empathy seems to be somewhat independent of raw cognitive ability, and that this alone is sufficient to prevent the worst excesses that may result from poor rational judgement. But even this can go only so far; you can still do the wrong thing for the right reason. Doing the right thing requires understanding the situation.
In a conversation with my friend Pat, he pointed out that for religious believers below a certain threshold of intelligence, God is just some big friend in the sky who does stuff for them. Interesting: below a certain level of intelligence, religion is just magic--but then, so is science and technology. But this may also explain much about the rise of postmodernism. Originally a critique of dominant ideas which might skew or limit certain fields of inquiry, postmodernism quickly devolved into a blanket claim that everything was hocus pocus, the imposition of the will of the powerful on the weaker, which somehow charms or curses them into doing the bidding of their masters. Note the terminology--the imposition of will is also a common thread in magic. "As I will it, so mote it be." I suspect that postmodernism is in fact due to the influx of mediocre minds into academia, for whom nothing is comprehensible and so everything is a trick. They don't understand how anything could be true because they cannot see how anyone could figure out a way to establish the truth.
This may have happened as early as the late 19th century, as science became arcane enough that it took dedicated study to understand how it worked. I'm talking about Nietzsche here, who was the first to declare that science was the imposition of the views of a particular social faction (the slave mentality) upon the rest. One of the reasons that Nietzschians cannot recover morality from the ash heap of nihilism is that they reject reason as well as empathy; they don't understand the world, or the people who live in it. I have always sensed in Nietzsche an overcompensation--he talks about the over-man, but he himself was anything but. It reminds me over a rather pathetic book that came out in the 80's, Power sits at another table and observations on the business of power, written, as the very title admits, by a man so marginal that no one of any significance would even sit next to him. The very title drips with a fawning admiration for influential people, but no acquaintance or understanding of them. This man wanted to write about them, but he didn't understand them at all. It was all charisma, all shadow and appearance, signs and portents--all magic.
Nietzsche's disdain for the ethic of compassion, reason, science, and any form of morality appears to be the first postmodern attempt to move the goalposts, to create a fictitious standard of merit that one already meets, or to abandon all standards and so abandon the effort. It is one thing to say that the dominant religions are outdated and need to be fixed or replaced. It is another thing to throw everything out and replace it with a wisp of a fantasy. The ubermensch is often translated as the Superman, and it's no accident that this is also the name of a comic book character. Nietsche neither experienced power nor understood it. The nobility of old, whom he took as the model of his ideal man, themselves aspired to a model of justice, one which they invented. It was never foisted upon them by their slaves--who, even by Nietzsche's logic, never had the power to do so. That ideal was weak by our standards--it did, after all, include slavery itself, and the practice of slavery probably contributed more to undermining the ancient nobility than any mere philosophy. England's abandonment of the practice forced them to invent new ways of creating wealth, and made them a great empire. America's abolishment of slavery had the same effect. The fact is that the strong attain their position through forming alliances with others, by being good managers, and by dealing at least fairly enough that others would deal with them. They did not do it by simple fiat of will. Subservience makes slaves of everyone, even the masters.
What is The Secret but a dime-store repackaging of Nietzsche's Will to Power? The very term, Will to Power, is a magical invocation, more at home in the Magick of Aleister Crowley than in a work of philosophy. It is fond hope that the simple invocation of firmly held belief will somehow lead to the ends dreamed of. Ayn Rand does the same thing. Somehow, her character Roark's buildings apparently rise fully constructed out of his mind--the people who pay for them, build them, live in them, and work in them, don't seem to exist. Frank Lloyd Wright was great because he considered all these people. Roark would have been an abysmal failure as an architect.
I think that's why Nietzsche went catatonic--not because of the syphilis, or even from cosmic despair, but because he crashed when he realized that all he ever wanted to be was the over-man, and he never would be (his last book, Ecce Homo, was a raving proclamation of his own genius--something by then that I suspect he had lost all confidence in.) His despair was personal. And to anyone like him, who wants the claim that all of this stuff--science, truth, compassion, and evidence--don't matter, it would be a crushing defeat to admit that they do matter, and that they have no idea how any of it works, or how to go about it.
Friday, August 10, 2007
J. K. Rowling is a master of character and story, using magic to magnify and illuminate her characters--which is precisely what magic should do in a story. The metaphor of magic is the logic of the heart writ large, in language that all can understand. Well, almost all. But anyone who cannot understand and appreciate the Potter books has no business reading the Bible--no business at all. So we will dismiss the objections of religious pedants as the braying of spiritual incompetents, and move on.
Her prose is economical and tight, ideal in a storyteller, with flawless dialogue and description which illuminates in brilliant and relevant flashes. This, to most of us, is all that matters. The opposite of this is Joyce, who chose to bury his stories in prose so opaque that the story was lost. Neil Gaiman, a writer I also greatly admire, is a member of group called the post-Joycian society, whose main argument was that story matters, and that language should be put to the service of that end. Robert Fulford celebrated the triumph of narrative, the return to the primacy of storytelling. Rowling's Potter series is all this, with a vengeance, a stake in the heart of those who would indulge themselves at the price of simple human connection.
The best, I think, is her final chapters, to which she had been building for seventeen years. Nothing was left to chance here, each word chosen with utmost care, particularly the last chapter before the epilogue, where the battle comes to a climax. Every dot is connected, the outcome built out of pieces assembled in all of the books. As a programmer, I can easily debug a broken chain of logic, missing links that make the outcome less than certain, gaps which demand too much suspension of disbelief to be tolerated. Even in some hard science fiction books, I find a certain abitrary nature to the conclusion, a free-falling speculation that renders the ending, not surprising, but simply radically contingent and unconvincing. Rowling makes none of these mistakes, and yet, she is dealing with the dream logic of magic. The closest I can think of is Ursula K. LeGuin. There are reasons for what happens, reasons based in character, in circumstance, and in the rules of her magic system.
I remember a writer who, giving advice to other writers, said that you have to like people to make your readers care about your characters. This is that certain something that is often missing from fiction; the nagging doubt as to why you should bother reading about the people in the book. I've read books of far superior writers who are nevertheless a trial of endurance to finish. Slogging through three hundred pages to encounter, once again, the conclusions known to anyone acquainted with the black dog that comes in the waking hours of a troubled night, seems a waste of my time and self-indulgent of the writer. We are all familiar with the problems of this world. Have you any suggestions about how to meet them? But I have also met, even amongst the most flawed and troubled of anti-heroes, characters I identify with. Empathy illuminates even the darkest of souls.
Rowling's characters are all near and dear to us, even the most flawed. Voldemort himself is a study in sociopathy, a serial killer in the terminal stages of madness, a supreme narcissist impervious to all indications of his own limitations. The best of her characters are close friends, the worst so accurate to type that those who have met them in our own lives wonder where Rowling met the real thing. But the theme of redemption runs throughout the stories; redemption by love, by courage, by loyalty. Harry's greatest strength is not his magical skills, though they are formidable. Harry forms bonds of loyalty, by forgiving, encouraging, and supporting others. He's not perfect--sometimes you want to slap him to wake him up. But if he were too good, you would doze off. Harry--and Dumbledore--are already close to the limits of human perfection. Their flaws are what make them real. Without them, these characters would be made of cardboard.
In this book, Dumbledore is brought into focus, taken from the pedestal and made human. The mistakes hinted at on the lake in the sixth book are revealed, but Rowling does an excellent job on this--first by trashing Dumbledore through the muck journalism of Rita Skeeter, and then telling Dumbledore's real story, through those actually involved. Harry makes his mistakes too, but when he hits his stride, the story takes off. There is a repeat of book five, where the obsessions of Voldemort spill over into Harry's mind, brought on by Harry's own willingness to understand his enemy (is this really a failing?) but tragedy snaps him out of this, and he learns how to avoid this mistake from then on. After this, the action never really stops, although side excursions occur to fill out the story and connect the dots. This allows the reader to rest in what would otherwise be an action rollercoaster.
I cannot think of any books more suitable for the moral development of children, growing, as Harry does, from child to adult. Rereading book one, I found it disappointingly simple, having grown used to the complexity of character and language of book seven. These books are meant to be read one per year, from the age of 11 to the age of 17. Yet through all, Harry, Dumbledore, Hermione, Ron, and Harry's friends display a nobility and courage that makes one reconsider the hard, judgemental stances that we take towards people we consider to be unworthy of our time. Harry's sufferage and mercy towards the most unappetizing of characters is reminiscent of Frodo's tolerance of Gollum--who, in the end, salvages Frodo's quest from ruin, when Frodo himself seems beyond help. As with Tolkien, faith in others is the right choice, while distrust and contempt lead to a bad end. Even the best of Rowling's characters makes this mistake from time to time, and learns from their mistakes the hard way. Rowling, like Tolkien, understands what real faith consists of, and never confuses it with mere superstition.
The finish is spectacular, though I would have preferred more of an epilogue. There is another book to be written, in my opinion; the mopping up of the death eaters, the banishment of the dementors, Harry's answer to his detractors and his rise to the rank of renowned auror, and the grief for the fallen. There are many new beginnings and final endings still to be rounded out. Perhaps, after a few years, Rowling will feel the tug again, and write this final chapter. But for now, at least, this is enough.
Farewell, Harry. We will miss you.
Thursday, July 19, 2007
The issue of group selection is critical to his argument. Here I have to side with Dawkins; the unit of transmission is the gene, and the vehicle in which the resulting trait is tested and selected for is the individual. This, I think, is something that Dawkins got exactly right. You cannot pass along a trait you don't have, and those who don't reproduce do not pass on their traits. Group dynamics, however, may enhance the surviveability of members of that group. This does not make the group the unit of selection, but it does mean that the traits of members of the group are more likely to survive. It may well be that homo sapiens outcompeted neanderthals through their ability to form extended social networks and long range trade--if so, this is an example where practices between members of a group enhance the fitness of the individuals. Dawkins himself talks about this dynamic in the chapter of the Selfish Gene entitled Nice Guys Finish First. Individuals who work cooperatively will tend to appear in clusters linked by family ties. The mutual support afforded by this trait would give the members of this extended clan a considerable advantage over those who did not share it, and were not part of the clan.
Yet, to preserve this trait amongst the clan, the members of the clan would also likely evolve a desire to screen entrants to the clan through marriage and reproduction, so that the members of the clan would 'breed true', and offspring would also have the altruistic trait. Those who did not have this trait would be refused entry into the clan through marriage or sexual access. The tribe would come to identify itself with a code which stressed reciprocity and interdependence over individual gain. As a signal that one shares this code, certain expensive behaviours would be required which indicated that the individual holds certain values to take precedence over individual gain. These behaviours are not like the peacock's tail--an extravegance which advertises fitness sufficient to survive a significant handicap. Instead, they are behaviours which benefit others, but which work in tandem with matching traits in the tribe, allowing the potential suitor, should he join the tribe, to reap the benefits of tribal altruism. The handicap becomes an advantage.
Amongst the members of the tribe, those who wish to specialize in setting the code of the tribe must exhibit altruistic behaviour towards the tribe to an extraordinary degree. Their generosity and self-sacrifice must be exceptional. This is the root of our regard for heroes, those whose physical and economic generosity go beyond the call of duty. Amongst the Norsemen, kings were often called "ring givers", cementing loyalty and a reputation for generosity with extravagant gifts. The heroes of ancient legend were men who fought, and died, for the protection of the tribe. In many cultures, even families who are not wealthy may push their resources to the limit in lavish dinners and parties, and in public acts of philanthropy. This display of personal sacrifice for the common good establishes their reputation as a member in good standing, worthy to draw upon the generosity of others in time of need.
Ascetics make the most extravagant display of personal sacrifice, giving away all that they have, owning no property, and having no means of self-sustenance beyond the generosity of others. All of their energies are turned towards the tribal code. This ostentatious display of selflessness is no less than an attempt to raise altruism to a perfect art. In return for this severe handicap, the ascetic is granted an unparalleled reputation. His advice is sought by all, even by the wealthy and powerful. His sacrifice is a shiboleth, a stamp of authenticity and authority, for by its very nature no purely self-interested person would choose this path.
Amongst Catholics with large families, it was a tradition that the first son would take over the family fortune, and the second would enter the priesthood. The priest, of course, took a vow of poverty, and renounced all reproductive rights--apparently a losing strategy, from a reproductive point of view. But the contribution of one child to regulative class gained the family access to the common wealth, tied them closer to community, and buffered them from transitory misfortune. The other siblings stood to gain much from this association. It was the equivalent of attaining membership in a welfare state, from which one could draw in time of need. That, at least, was the unspoken intent. As I have already pointed out in my essay on Sanctity, this is not how it usually works out.
The dark side of altruism is the screening process--the desire of the tribe to deny access to freeloaders. Freeloaders have two means of gaining entry: direct admission, and genetic admission through offspring. Because of the much greater investment in offspring by females, the sexual conduct of women comes under much greater scrutiny. It is far easier to disown the offspring of an undesirable female of another tribe than it is to disown the offspring of the females of one's own tribe. The philanderings of a wayward son may be accepted, even joked about, but the illegitimate offspring of a female, by a male who demonstrates his lack of commitment to the tribe by refusing responsibility, is another matter. The double standard should be readily apparent. Birth control also makes these practices obsolete.
Entrance into the tribe is strictly guarded, by elaborate courtship rituals, parental and familial approval, and a long process of familiarization. Strangers must prove themselves. This is the root of resistance to immigration, in which foreigners are admitted to the common wealth of the nation, and resistance to the welfare state, where simple need is granted access without consideration of past contribution. The welfare state, and immigration, rely on a more optimistic view of human nature--that most people will contribute when they are in a position to. Given the thousands of years of tribal selection, this is a reasonable assumption. The welfare state also recognizes that in a fluidly mobile society with large population concentrations, people can be fall through the cracks. Individuals may be separated from their families and friends, and in large cities, you may know hardly any of the people you see.
Expulsion from the tribe can occur in cases where freeloading is observed amongst existing members of the tribe. Those who have previously demonstrated their commitment to the tribe are far more likely to be given aid in hard times than those who are chronically in need. The temporarily unfortunate are a better risk. And there are different types of poverty; the ascetic demands little and contributes much, while the genuinely incompetent or selfish are a net drain. In Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt bitterly recalls how the Catholic Church cast his family aside as lost causes. This was a direct contradiction to Christian ethics, but not to old instincts. It also proved to be a miscalculation; none of McCourt's family, other than his father, proved to be chronically incompetent, and they never returned to the church.
In all of this, we can see some of the rudiments of religion. One thing notably absent in this picture is God himself. God, or the gods, were invoked as a catch-all explanation to natural events; we not only have a predilection to seeing intentionality where none exists, we also regard intentional conscious beings as atomically simple. Our ability to deal with other conscious beings is so specialized and deeply ingrained that we mistake a human mind, the most complex natural phenomena that we know of, as a fundamental building block. But God as cause or intentional being does not require the moral aspect of religion, and the moral aspect of religion does not seem to require God. Cognitive errors inspire belief in the God of Creation, but not the God of Judgement.
But the character of God is an ideal shorthand for the code of the tribe. We are ideally suited for telling stories about people, and telling a story about a divine persona which embodies our ethical principles is the simplest, most efficient, and highest fidelity means of transmitting shared values. The God of Judgement becomes fused with the God of Creation. Loyalty to the god of the tribe is an indicator of loyalty to the tribe. The god favours the tribe, the tribe is united under the god, and the values of the tribe are expressed in the character of the divine personality. The God of Judgement is the God of the Tribe.
Uniting the two gave a ring of objective reality to the morals of the tribe. Their laws were written in stone. Absolute power, reality, and goodness were united in one subject. The contemplation of the deity bound the tribe together, in a way that abstract principles could not, particularly to an illiterate population.
This answers a question that has plagued me for a long time: why the religious obsession with sex? But if sex is the principle access point to membership to the tribe, permitting undesirable traits to enter the population, then this may be one of the oldest parts of religion, possibly predating religion itself. It also explains why domination of women is so common, and why female genital mutilation and even honour killing have appeared in multiple cultures--Islam is used to justify these practices, but they are not part of the religion itself, and even conservative Imams have no problem denouncing them. All of these practices guard entry points into the tribe by curbing female sexuality. But beyond their sheer barbarity, the exasperating thing about these practices is that they don't even serve their original purpose. Birth control would do that, yet sheer force of tradition maintains these primitive practices. Once again, our genes make fools of us.
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
During their conversation, it became obvious that they were struggling with the meaning of many of the words, as they were using the King James version; words, like asunder, which I understand and use rather commonly. They talked about prophecies in Revelations, and I overheard one saying to the other "Gee, I hope that doesn't happen here." The other answered, "No, that probably won't happen here in Ottawa." I should perhaps also point out that they seemed to be rather heavily medicated, slow in speech and movement.
It is perhaps one of the greatest disappointments to those, particularly on the left, who would like to believe in human perfectability and the blank slate, that there are many people who simply cannot grasp the complexity of modern life, and who may reach desperately for a simpler model of reality. Raw intelligence, unfortunately, is a fixed quantity that resists all efforts towards radical enhancement. Many other things can be learned, but even these are capped by innate intellectual ability. Diligence will overcome much, and without it even intelligence will come to nothing, but certain limits are set at birth. I resisted this idea for a long time--it seems so elitist, and so undemocratic.
Those who are saddled with such restrictions must take as a great blessing the idea that there is only one book that need be mastered to understand life in all its complexity. Many of us who have read thousands of books still feel that we've only seen the tip of the iceberg, and still encounter daily ideas which leave us wondering, "Why haven't I ever heard of this before?" The more you know, the more you realize you don't know. But what must it be like to not even understand the words, let alone the ideas? It must seem to them that if they can just understand this one book, they can get a handle on all of it.
That book, however, is flawed, compromised, often dealing with subject matter that is reached for but never grasped, written in a code that has been lost, by disparate voices that can never be truly reconciled. It is archaic, sometimes brutally primitive in its ethical advice, poetic rather than descriptive, rife with factual inaccuracies, and in all liklihood is largely opaque to anyone who has not also read thousands of other books which deal with its influences, historical setting and references, issues of translation, and corrections to its long litany of mistakes. It is first and foremost an invitation, indeed an imperative, to learn, rather than an excuse to remain ignorant; the first step on the journey, not the destination. Nor is there any reason to assume that the journey leads anywhere remotely like the starting point.
But the Bible is also, first and foremost, a book of mythology. To understand the trick, you need to see it done. You must also read Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, Blake, and more recently, Frank Herbert, Neil Gaiman, Phillip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, J.R.R Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Ursula K. Le Guin, and other writers of fantasy and science fiction. You must understand that words may have power without being literally true, that to the ancients, the metaphorical mode of language was of greater importance than the merely descriptive. You must understand that a story can be just a story and still be true, but not in the way that a manual or a research report is true. And you must understand that there are other stories that are just as true, if not more so, and that inspiration did not end two thousand years ago.
And yet, this book sits alone, without warning, in hotel rooms all over the world, as if it were sufficient unto itself. Its very presence alone in a bedside table makes the most grandiose and misleading of claims: this is all you need.
Monday, July 16, 2007
Understanding what some of these differences would be can help us to understand some of the unspoken premises that believers and the superstitious hold. If the gods are real, then they interfere in the affairs of men. That's what it means do be omnipotent--or even, for your old school pagan gods, very powerful--you notice events in the world and affect them. Even those that are not omnipotent will have their attention drawn to acts of worship. This means that those who lead this worship will be under the direct scrutiny of their god, and must be scrupulously faithful to the moral tenents of their faith. This is why Divine Right was such a useful ploy; the king can't be all bad, or God wouldn't let him rule, would he?
Now consider a large group of people operating upon this premise. Their leaders cannot be wrong, because God would not permit it. The assurance and peace of mind that this would provide cannot lightly be written off. If they are lucky enough to have a genuinely ethical clergy and competent, moral leaders, then they will enjoy the best of all possible situations; their world is in good hands, and they don't have to worry about it. If, on the other hand, they have a leader like Jim Baker, or a pedophile priest, or God help them (if you'll excuse the expression), Jim Jones, then they are sheep being led to the slaughter.
But still, what are the odds that the worst will happen?
Pretty good, actually. There is nothing so attractive to the truly villainous as a station in society which is above question. As Frank Herbert put it, it is not so much that power corrupts, but that power attracts the corruptable. And there is no power so attractive to the sociopathic as the veil of sanctity, an armor which deflects all accusations. The worst of humanity claim the highest of motivations. Bin Laden claims the sanction of Islam; Stalin began his career in a seminary and later invoked the secular faith of communism; Hitler and Goebbels invoked Christianity and public morality while embarking on a course that was nothing short of Satanic. Charlie Manson's followers thought he was Christ. L. Ron Hubbard, Sun Myung Moon, and a long list of cult leaders attest to the attraction of sanctity for those without conscience. Idolatry, again, arises and proves itself the corrupter of the religious impulse.
Sanctity lays at the very root of problems which occur when politics are mixed with religion. David Sloan Wilson, objecting to Dawkins characterization of religion, talks about the Jains. The impoverished ascetics go from household to household begging--but in households which do not adhere to the customs and ethics of Jainism, the ascetic will refuse the food--a strong rebuke and embarassment to the members of the household. This, Wilson argues, serves as a strong policing mechanism for the members of the community. But take note--the ascetics are dirt poor! This simple fact, this lack of political and economic power, makes the role of the ascetic completely unappealing to the sociopath, who is, after all, out for personal gain. The police are themselves policed by the extreme sacrifices demanded of them.
Contrast this with Christian and Islamic religious leaders. Bishops live in a palace, sit on a throne, wear a ring and robe of office, and are, in all respects, nobility--the last nobility left in many Western countries. Televangelists and the leaders of Mega-Churches control pools of wealth in the millions, are afforded expenses and large homes, and wield great political power. Imams pass laws and often control the government, and draw upon the wealth of the Mosque. All of these people are in a position which would make the unscrupulous drool.
Like the Jain ascetics, Jesus and his followers lived hand to mouth. So too did the Cathar ascetics. Indeed, Jesus' career was so disastrous to his own personal fortune that Christians felt compelled to put a happy ending on it. Yet we instinctively understand that where the lure of wealth and power is, we are likely to find people of questionable motives--or we would know this if we are not blinded by faith. Even if the ascetics get it wrong (and there is no guarantee that they don't), we understand that the mistake is an honest one. Wilson takes issue with Dawkins for dismissing all religion--and yet, the overwhelmingly predominant form of religion which is now rising in the West holds the impoverished in contempt and believes that God will shower you with wealth if you pay proper obeisance. In the Muslim world, religion is politics. Like so many of religion's defenders, Wilson has mistaken a small proportion of believers as a representative sample. But they aren't, and I suspect that they never were.
Friday, April 27, 2007
This is part of what I do during my day job--tell people to order pizza on thursdays (so I get mine cheap.) It has since become expected that I will be inventive in this venture. So here are some of the brain farts that have resulted.
Thursday Pizza Spam
Viagra! Make quick money at home! This adorable five year old child is dying a horrible death because you don't pray hard enough! And of course, order Pizza! All of this can be yours for the low low price of $5.25 for half a slice, if you order now and forward this message to at least 20 of your friends.
If you don't forward this message, terrible things will happen to you. One guy I knew refused to forward this message, and he was sodomized by a grizzly bear for six hours. Granted, he's a twisted freak who spent three years training the bear to do this, but still, YOU DON'T WANT THIS TO HAPPEN TO YOU! Another guy I know drank rat pee from the top of a soda can and died. Well, I didn't know him that well. Never met, him at all, in fact. Alright, I MADE HIM UP! But this is the kind of nasty stuff that will happen to you if you don't immediately proceed to clog the inbox of everyone you know with this digital turd.
And remember, when writing spam or scare mail, THE CAPS LOCK KEY IS YOUR FRIEND!!!
Timmy the Censor Squirrel says "Careful, Kids, bad words ahead!"
It has come to my attention that this is yet another fucking wednesday, which requires that this poor benighted gin-sodden cocksucker, namely myself, extend welcome and induces his fellow bit-bulls to order some fucking pizza. Now I am usually required to come up with something fucking clever for the occasion, which Jennifer suggested should take the tone of dialogue from Deadwood, being a cross between velvet Victorian verbiage and skankiest words that ever seeped out of a whorehouse door. This I have and am doing, so if you're feeling fucking offended by all this, lighten up, it's all in the spirit of the thing (160 fucking proof, mind you.)
And if you're feeling so anyway, go fuck yourself. And I shot that squirrel and cut his fucking nuts off.
In Russia, Pizza orders you!
Comrade, you don't know how lucky you are to have pizza order on network and get pizza so fast and easy. In Russia, only pizza place available was Ivanovich Podpull Yackoff's place, Gulag Pie, where pizza was delivered within thirty days or sucked to be you. And even when pizza came, the delivery man took some for family, and the Kommissariat took piece, and sometimes pizza was censored, as when pepperoni was confiscated for being decadent and imperialist. And only one drink was available, vodka, and sometimes I think crust was baked sawdust, but still, was only way to get book by Solzhenitsyn, if you could read words through sauce...
According to the Journal of Irreproducible Results, two American scientists known only as Bubba and Jed have discovered what they claim to be the fossil an early proto-pizza, located on a dig beneath a Brooklyn land-fill site. "Yep," said Bubba, "you can still kinda make out the primitive pepperoni on it." Asked whether this constituted additional evidence for evolution, Jed said he hadn't really thought of it, or anything else. Fundamentalist Christians caught wind of this and staged a protest against Godless pizza, just in case. "Somebody told me that this is an insult to everything I believe in, so I'm holding this sign they gave me," said an aggressively buxom woman named Tawny. Reporters called on Richard Dawkins, author of the Selfish Gene and staunch defender of evolution, at his home in Oxford. "They're all barking mad" said Dawkins, "And so are you. It's three o'clock in the bloody morning!" Dawkins then ran the drunken reporters out of his house with a cricket bat.
Fully evolved pizza is available for order here.
"I'm approaching the monolith now."
"Be careful, Dr. Bowman."
"Roger. Slowing and holding at... three feet from alien artifact."
"Can you describe the object?"
"It appears to be about two and a half feet long and orange."
"Uh, roger that. Are there any distinctive markings on it?"
"There seem to be some sort of strange alien markings on it... Pizza Pizza, I think. Moving the camera around... Can you see it."
"Yes, we have a visual."
"I'm moving in. It looks like some sort of container."
"Roger. Approach with caution, Dave."
"Okay, I think I see an opening. I'm going to try to pry the container open. It's...
"Bowman, we have lost visuals! Dave, are you there?.... Please respond..."
"...My God, it's full of stars..."
Star Wars Pizza
Episode 7: Thursday Pizza
It has been thirty years since the fall of the Empire.
The Republic has been restored, and they fed all those
annoying Ewoks to the Wookies. Everyone is just peachy.
Well, almost everyone. Fluke Streetwalker has cut his own
head off trying to shave with his lightsaber, Princess Layer
Organic is considering Empress as a possible career path,
and compulsive porn pirate Hand Solo has been busted hauling
fifty thousand copies of Jawa Lust.
But a new threat is emerging even as you read this. George
Lucas is threatening to devote this entire movie to Jar Jar
Binks, and we all know what that means; five more years of
people from LucasArts wining about how piracy is ruining their
business, instead of admitting that George can't write character
or dialogue to save his life and his best movies were rescued
by script doctors...
Ahem... sorry. A new threat is emerging. The evil Dr. Camm has
kidnapped the plucky but stylish droid Arty Deco and his
suspiciously effete cohort, Pee Seepio, and has plans to install
Windows on both of them and turn them into mail servers, which may
soon be delivering things like Thursday Pizza messages. We join
our heroes as the Princess attempts to fix the awful lines that
have been written for her...
Welcome to the Theocracy of Iran. During your stay, please observe the following fatwas.
Pizza is no longer pizza, but shall be known as elastic loaves. Pizza is made by infidels. Danishes are no longer danishes, but Roses of the Prophet Mohammed. Danishes are made by infidels. You cannot get a bottle of Shiraz in Shiraz, that is made only by infidels in Australia now. Death to infidels. In fact, all alcohol is prohibited, unless you find a private rave in Tehran, where you can get anything and party like it's 1999. If you cannot find a private rave, or if we find you at a private rave, you can party like it's 999. A guard will assist you in getting suitably medieval.
The weather today is a sunny 41 degrees, 48 degrees for women in a jilbab, or 55 and dark inside a bhurka. Yes, we live in the desert and dress our women like polar bears. We would invite you to have a pleasant time during your stay, but all fun is prohibited. A member of the Revolutionary Guard will be around to confiscate your smiles shortly.
Thank you, and have a day.
There is more... much more. All work and no play makes Mark a crazy boy. Repeat 50,000 times. You get the idea. What more could you ask for?
Dead things. More teeth.
Sunday, April 08, 2007
If someone lacks faith in humanity, in the ability of most ordinary people to do the right thing most of the time, then values must be based elsewhere than in human judgment or an innate moral sense which may or may not be well developed. To establish a moral code, these people must see it as being based upon an extra-human absolute authority. The slow, gradual accumulation and preservation of human wisdom is not enough for them; humanity is ultimately flawed, and there can be no moral system that relies upon merely human judgment.
Meanwhile, even as they reject religious dogma, there is a single article of dogma that is not questioned: Kierkegaard's Either/Or, between religious devotion and nihilism. Religious leaders argue for a false dichotomy between absolute Divine certainty and nihilism—the establishment of values must be seen to originate from Divine authority. Inherent in this argument is the premise that human beings cannot establish truth by any means, cannot discover values on their own, cannot even improve their circumstances. This last fragment of religious dogma is never questioned, never even examined--it lingers as a background premise, unstated. To reject the church is to reject objective moral standard and drift in a current of mere opinion. But if they follow a religion, the individual decision of what values they assent to must be hidden from view; the source must be external, rather than the product of their own judgment. It is they who choose the religion, the church, the minister, the interpretation, yet they must deny their own role in this choice, or lose confidence in that choice. The perfect is the enemy of the good. They demand perfect morality, or none at all.
This is a demand for absolute certainty which we as human beings can never claim. The root of this is a lack of faith in human beings, so that the human element must be removed from the mix in order for it to be considered sound. Without religion, there can be no morality. If they accept religion, they must conceal, even from themselve, their own responsibility for their choices. And yet, they continue to make these decisions, but take them to come from above. The idea that we might have evolved a fairly trustworthy sense of ethical conduct never occurs to them.
So, the problem seems to be solved. Their lack of faith in humanity is countered by their faith in God. But not so fast—if the judgment of human beings cannot be trusted, then they must be told what to do by their religious elders. This may include telling them how to vote, but really, democracy itself is flawed, because it leaves too much in the hands of poor foolish mortals. Best to do away with it entirely. The same can be said for any law established by human beings, any knowledge discovered by human beings, and even for personal private choice. All these must be brought under the aegis of God. Freedom leads to ruin. Liberty can only be surrender to God. The community is a single body with a single brain--God, as interpreted by his clerics. The body, or any part of it, when it is not subject to God, becomes a mere beast. Man is fallen, he has lost his original innocence and become tainted, and nothing he can do on his own is worth anything.
And yet, every part of religion is covered with greasy human fingerprints. God, apparently, is such a crippled, powerless, feebleminded invalid that he cannot defend himself, cannot even raise his voice enough to for us to hear him, but must be protected by his apparently fatally flawed human followers. Not only can he not punch his way out of paper bag, he can't even make a decent man. It's almost as if his followers were fighting to defend their own frail egos. Do you see a pattern here? The nihilism which underlies fanatacism eventually eats the religion itself. Ultimately, the evil that they see in humanity comes to triumph over all. God cannot save even himself, let alone his followers. The Devil is lord of this world. The cool-aid, the suicide bomb, is waiting. The nihilism presented as the alternative to faith, and which lies at the root of fanaticism, devours all.
This is the last dogma, the one that lingers long after the rest is gone, and it springs from a profound distrust of human beings, probably learned at an early age. Underlying the most fanatical form of faith is a deep and abiding lack of faith, a hard core of nihilism, and that is where this article of dogma originates. But the either/or itself is false.
Sunday, March 11, 2007
David Hume argued that ethical principles rest upon personal preferences and cultural traditions; that you cannot get an ought from an is. Yet these preferences and traditions rest upon innate cognitive building blocks similar to those which support reason and aesthetics. As Steven Pinker and other evolutionary psychologists point out, we are not born a blank slate, but come into the world with a set of tools which act like simple proteins, capable of constructing complex rational and moral systems but which, themselves, are so basic as to be indescribable. And yet, we employ these faculties constantly.
One cannot argue against the validity of reason without employing reason itself. The contradiction in the argument lies in the very act of posing the argument itself. What is generally not realized is that moral arguments--even those against the very reality of ethics itself--rely upon the moral faculty as well. The very act of engaging in discussion is dependent upon an exercise of concern, a moral ordering of values--indeed, the very act of talking to another relies upon a continuous exercise of reciprocity, itself based upon the valuation of ideas and the act of empathy. Profoundly autistic children, who lack the ability to mirror the thoughts and emotions of others, become incapable of even this level of engagement--they lack the empathy required to connect. And even the most repugnant of criminals, serial killers, for example, operate in a cooperative mode most of the time, and it is this vestigial level of moral judgement which allows them to escape detection for as long as they do. The very attempt to argue against some innate capacity for moral judgement, and against the objective nature of that capacity, stands as proof of the very thing it attempts to deny. And the fact that this innate ability was selected through evolutionary pressures establishes it as a product of objective reality. It reflects a condition of material existence which selected it as the best survival strategy.
Of course, human beings can become morally stunted, just as they can become irrational. The development of this capacity into a fully principled ethical system takes time and effort, just as learning the principles of critical thinking takes work. Indeed, critical thinking itself is required for the effort of developing a system of ethics. The problem arises when a system of ethics established by tradition overrides the moral faculty itself. In this case, the followers of this ethical ideology become passive subscribers rather than active participants in developing their moral code. The very ethical faculty which creates such systems becomes atrophied. The tradition becomes an obstacle to genuine moral consideration, and those who accept it come into possession of an ethical code which is rigid, incomplete, and usually inconsistent. Having delegated these judgements to an external authority, adherents to this ideology have no capacity to judge that authority itself, nor to fill in the gaps introduced by novel situations and new information.
In the scientific method, this type of dogmatism is considered abhorrent. Examples of it include Lysenkoism, Creationism, various forms of 'alternative' medicine, and other forms of pseudo-science. Each of these refuses to respect the weight of evidence and instead begins with a dogmatic belief which adherents then attempt to shore up by ignoring huge volumes of contradictory evidence. Reality is subjugated to opinion. While it is true that the scientific community sometimes lags behind the curve of new evidence, this is the result of a general conservativism which resists wild speculation, rather than a genuine resistance to evidence. What proponents of these ideologies do not understand is that science is not a set of dogmas, but a method for refining our understanding of reality. It is not based upon accepted authority, but upon a continous effort to check each other's work, in which the rewards go to those who successfully challenge accepted ideas, as well as to those who make new discoveries or establish better theories. The better established a theory, the more attractive a target it becomes--but the challenge must be based upon solid research. Pseudo-science eschews the hard work of science in favour of flimsy unsubstantiated claims, usually with the intent of fleecing the gullible. This preference for dogma over truth is just called bad science. Religion has a better term for it: idolatry.
Idolatry can be summarized as a preference for a particular representation of a thing over the reality of the thing itself. It is not the simple act of representation, but the uncritical acceptance, and even worship, of that representation. And contrary to the beliefs of many religious adherants, a representation need not be graphical or concrete in nature. It can be a book, an opinion, an idea, or a current or historical figure of authority. The critical factor is that this representation is imposed upon the real in such a way that reality itself becomes obscured. Truth is sacrificed on the altar of prejudice and opinion. Worshippers are caught in the Veil of Maya, trapped in a world they have constructed which they have pulled over their eyes to hide the truth.
According to virtually all religions, this is the greatest sin you can commit. And yet these same religions have become encrusted with the products of moral intuitions, products which believers take to be the final word. The religions have become a set of dogmas rather than a method, and the dogmas have become brute obstacles to the development of this central moral faculty. The religions have stalled, ground to a halt under the weight of their own traditions and the idolatrous regard for those traditions. Rather than approaching the originators of these traditions, to attempt to understand them and extend and adapt that understanding to novel circumstances, the faithful continue to worship them from afar, eternal children to a long dead parent.
While the pronouncements of these historical figures may be an improvement upon the primitive moral state of the most ignorant members of our society, they also impede the progress of people who can and should know better. Entire civlizations remain in orbit to bronze age and iron age ethical positions, which constantly threaten to pull us back into a state of near barbarism. In the case of Islam, the idolatry of a single figure, Mohammed, and a single book, the Koran, has created a cultural black hole from which few can escape. As Homer Simpson said about alcohol, Islam has become the cause of and the solution to all of life's problems. It is Marx's opiate of the masses, which dulls the pain that might cause them to seek more realistic solutions. It is also the perfect meme, in that it behaves as a cognitive virus which is almost incurable. The level of idolatry at work here is made glaringly obvious by the Danish cartoon controversy, in which millions of Muslims were apparently scandalized by mere drawings of a man. The proper reaction should have been to point out that they were themselves engaging in an orgy of idolatry, and that they themselves had beecome the infidels.
This lesson is not lost on Fundamentalist Christians, who are seeking to construct a black hole of their own centered of the idolatry of Christ and the Bible. This is, of course, an absolute betrayal of the most fundamental of all religious principles. If they succeed, Western Civilization may implode at the cost of billions of lives and unspeakable misery. The cultural sterility of fundamentalism of all kinds should sound a strong warning. If those who pride themselves on being made in the image of the Creator show no creativity themselves, what does that say about them? The flesh is weak, and the spirit is dead.
The difference between these dead husks and the vital struggles which long ago inspired them is astounding. Rather than pick up the cross, Christians have become content to bow and worship while Christ carries it. Rather than worshipping him as a God, they should stand up, look him in the eye, and try to understand, not just what he thought, but how he thought, and then bring those thoughts up to date. It isn't impossible; we were all born with the capacity to make moral judgements. Only a superstitious awe keeps us from doing so. Yet the farther we drift into idolatry, into the worship of scriptures and the people behind them, the farther we drift from the spirit which created them.
As it is, Christianity and Islam are FUBAR.