Friday, September 02, 2011

The Heroic Ideological Myth

A plucky band of adventurers pit themselves against an evil empire, led by (what else) an evil Emperor or an evil Cabal. But with assistance from a mysterious power, the adventurers, by defeating the malevolent power behind the empire, will establish a better world, a world guided by the mysterious power.

This is the plot of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and dozens of other works of science fiction, fantasy, and mythology. It is also the plot espoused by dozens of religions and political ideologies. It was the plot that Stalin used to justify the Gulag, and Hitler used to justify the Holocaust. It is the most popular plot in the world.

For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, obvious, and wrong. If your solution follows this plot, it is almost certainly one of those.

So let's pick out the basic elements of the myth. There is a plucky band of adventurers struggling against an Evil Empire, led by an Evil Emperor or Organization. There is a Mysterious Power of Good which will both aid the adventurers and guide the outcome. There is a Malevolent Power to be overcome, and a Utopia that will result.

So, Star Wars:
The Rebels pit themselves against the empire, led by the Sith Lords. But with the power of the Light Side of the Force, the Rebels, by defeating the Dark Side, will restore the Republic, which will by guided by the Light Side of the Force.

The Lord of the Rings:
The Fellowship of the Ring pit themselves against Morder, led by Sauron. But with assistance of the Valar, the Fellowship, by destroying the Ring, will restore Gondor, a kingdom ruled by a just king guided by the Valar.

Harry Potter:
Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the Order of the Pheonix pit themselves against the Death Eaters, led by Voldemort. But with the power of love, Harry and his allies, by destroying the Horcruxes, will restore the wizarding world, a world guided by love.

Those are the myths of fantasy. These are the myths that operate in our own world:

Fundamentalist Islam
Faithful Muslims pit themselves against the Satanic forces of the West, led by the President of the United States. But with the power of Allah, True Muslims, by defeating the Great Satan, will establish the Caliphate, a world guided by Allah.

Fundamentalist Christianity
Faithful Christian pit themselves against the Satanic forces in the world, led by Satan himself. But with the power of God, Christians, by defeating the forces of immorality, will establish the Kingdom of God, a world guided by Jesus.

The Proletariat will pit themselves against Capitalism, led by the Capitalists. But with knowledge of Dialectical Materialism, the Proletariat, by defeating Capitalism, will establish the workers paradise, a world guided by egalitarianism, the final product of Dialectical Materialism.

Conspiracy Theorist
Those in the know will pit themselves against the World Order, led by the Illuminati. But with the power of the Truth, the Informed, by defeating the Global Conspiracy, will lead the sheeple to enlightenment, a world guided by the Truth.

The postmodern critics shall pit themselves against the dominant narrative, led by cultural hegemons. But with the knowledge of Critical Theory, the postmodernists, by defeating the narrative of dead white European males, will establish a truly multicultural world, a world guided by Theory. (Theory here is a catch-all which may be replaced by dialectical materialism--many postmodernists are practicing Marxists.)

Libertarians pit themselves against government, led by the liberal elite. But with the power of the market, libertarians, by defeating socialism, will establish a libertarian utopia, a world guided by the free market.

You will notice that liberals and conservatives are not on this list. Both positions are complex enough that they do not fit a mythological narrative, although there are members of both camps that do fall into this template (not surprisingly, the most strident of the lot.) But the luminaries of both positions do not fall into this trap: Keynes, for example, despised state-run economies, while Hayek supported the welfare state. Radical culture warriors on both sides, however, may fall into this trap, identifying each other as the Malevolent Power or Evil Empire. The curious thing is that both may look to the same Mysterious Power of Good (the people, the founding fathers, Democracy, etc) for victory amd guidance.

The particulars are irrelevant and can be easily replaced, so changes in any of the basic elements--the adventurers, the Evil Empire, the Evil Leaders, the Mysterious Power of Good, the Malevolent Power, or the Utopia--are not important. The essential thing here is the form, which is the same in all cases.

The adherents of the myth are the adventurers here, and this is a rather flattering position. Everything depends upon them. They alone have the secret, the aid of the mysterious power, and the knowledge of the enemy. Because the enemy is the personification of evil, they are good by definition. Theirs is a holy mission, and anyone who opposes it is in the wrong. Whatever is done in the cause is justified. They alone can lead the way to the promised land.

The Enemy is likewise special, in that they wield the malevolent power, but they are both wise and foolish--wise in that they can wield this power, foolish in that they have not chosen the true power. They are almost gods themselves, in that they have conquered the world and seem to be able to control it through near omniscience and omnipotence. But the adventurers have the true power, which evil cannot touch or understand, and this will lead to their inevitable victory.

The Utopia that will result will not be a result of hard work or understanding, but will be the automatic product of the ascendance of the mysterious power. All will be well. There will be no messy details to deal with, because everything will fall into place. The right people will rule, justice and wisdom shall rain from the skies, and a perfect world will spring back into being, just as it was meant to be.

But it should also be noted that the adventurers, or adherants, are to become the new rulers. For mythologies that supposedly take place in the real world, the gods, theories, principles, or knowledge that constitute the force for good are accessible only to the adventurers. In other words, they themselves are to be the mysterious power and the guiding force. What they propose is not anything resembling a democracy, but a dictatorship of the ideologues. This is obvious when considering the communists (and even the post-modernists), and the fundamentalists (conspiracists will never gain power unless allied to another ideology.) But this is also why I consider libertarians to be the new bolsheviks, who also promised the end of the state.

The comparison between bolsheviks and libertarians may seem a stretch, but consider this: capitalism requires the protection of the state. The state must enforce contract law, permits and facilitates incorporation, and enforces criminal law. Let us consider what seems to be the least problematic: criminal law. Your life is worth a price. You may be outraged to consider how low that price may be--in a place like Somalia, it might be as low as ten or twenty dollars. This is the free market in action. What the state attempts to do through criminal law is to make goods like your life prohibitively expensive. It is the business of the state to interfere with the market. And the libertarians, once in power, will quickly realize this, as the bolsheviks quickly discovered the limitations of their own ideology. What other restrictions might they put on the market--particularly when self-interest, their universal justification, comes into play? Might the powerful rob the weaker? Might they skew contract law in their favour? And if you find their regime onerous, might they prevent people from voting with their feet to leave their "utopia"? The bolsheviks did. Why not the libertarians?

The real world is far more complex than the heroic myth can deal with. Progress is made on a halting basis, two steps forward, one step back. We must constantly submit to evidence and peer review, argue with people who disagree with us, check our facts, and find ourselves surprised by unexpected information. Reality is messy, difficult, and counter-intuitive. Human beings usually rely on heuristics that mislead them. The heroic mythology, like the god in the sky, is an amateur's first guess. Humility alone should convince us that it is wrong.

Monday, July 25, 2011

How I Became an Atheist

I came to be an atheist by an unusual path: I had a period of intense religious satori when I was 25, lasting several months, during which I realized that the experience of prophetic or messianic consciousness was mundane--that is, anyone could experience it, and that the essence of the experience was emotive rather than propositional. The ineffable was truly ineffable; the emptiness of the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem equated to Socrates claim that "All I know is that I know nothing." This meant that the worship of historical messiahs, prophets, and their utterances was bald idolatry. Those who did claim that their experience of the ineffable was unique were taking expedient advantage of their followers. This experience also led me to a position of radical apophatic theology, via the Tao te Ching; "The way that can be spoken is not the true Way." All of the scriptures were merely subjective reports of personal ruminations. These had contemplative and psychological value, but held no epistemological weight regarding objective reality.

It took another 15 years for the other shoe to drop. You see, I desperately WANTED to believe. Peter Hitchens' claim that atheists are atheists because they don't want to believe in God is patently false--like me, most of the atheists in my neck of the woods fought tooth and nail, at great personal expense, to remain believers. Hitchens the younger would, of course, like to imply, as all believers do, that it is our wickedness that leads us astray; we don't want to believe in God because God would impose morality upon us. But he ignores the laments of many atheists, like Sartre who said "God doesn't exist... the bastard!" What is pathetic, and indeed tragic about this, is that not only does he not understand atheists, but he does not even, nor can be bothered to, understand his own brother. Lifetime atheists like Christopher Hitchens take their conception of God by survey from the majority of believers, who really do, as the elder Hitchens has pointed out, worship a celestial version of Kim Jong Il. Believers, and former believers like myself, cherry picked from their religion a version of God that was far less totlitarian and much more kind. Only when we give up the need to believe in it do we take a serious look at what our religion really had in mind. It's really no surprise that we don't want to believe in a cosmological petty dictator. The wonder is that anyone would think we would want to.

My rejection of God and religion rests, not on my wish to disbelieve, but on my desire to believe--it's too damn convenient. In the absence of evidence, the only thing left to be explained is the persistance of the belief, and in a battle between faith and the truth, I have chosen the truth. Faith, after all, is the deliberate maintenance of a confirmation bias. Knowing that, one must abandon it to see things as they really are, and let the evidence speak for itself. But the evidence is silent, because there is none. Believers claim that we atheists know nothing about theology, but what they really mean is that we do not take speculative ramblings of theology as proof. They believe that the evidence is somewhere in their theology, but none of them can point out exactly where. A dozen weak arguments constitute a strong argument only to those whose reasoning is motivated--that is, to those who already agree with the conclusion. But in reality, a case is only as strong as its strongest argument.

Most of the current weak arguments rest on ambiguous definitions of God, by which God is "so powerful that he doesn't exist", and similarly nonsensical deepities. If God can mean anything, then the word means nothing. But whenever you define God, you claim to know what you cannot, and you commit idolatry. On the one hand everything you say is nonsense, and on the other, everything you say is blasphemy. There is no room, in philosophy or religion, for belief. As for "the God beyond God", the defense of this vaporous idea falls to people who begin their argument with the words "I'm an atheist, but..." These are the atheist butts, or the Newfangled Atheists. Believers and atheists alike have contempt for the lot, and the contempt is well deserved. This is often touted as the best argument for theology--but if it doesn't even convince the people who advance it, how can it be considered the best argument?

Friday, February 25, 2011

Determination and Conscience

In the eulogy that I wrote for my father, I said that while determination may make bullies of us all, conscience makes cowards of us all. The second half is from Macbeth, and while the character was hardly a reliable witness, I think Shakespeare was right. W. B. Yeats echoes this in The Second Coming: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst \ Are full of passionate intensity." He is almost certainly talking about conscientious people as the best, and ideologues as the worst. Ideologues are but the latest incarnation of men of certainty--the type that founded our religions and most of the major political movements.

Of course, there have been lot of bad religions and political changes. "I beseech you in the bowels of Christ to consider that you may be wrong", said Oliver Cromwell, yet he seemed to be immune to second thoughts himself, and scarcely ever considered himself wrong. Cromwell was one of the lowest points in English political history--he beheaded Charles I, became king in all but name, and employed his New Model Army to impose draconian policies both in England and in Ireland, even abolishing Christmas. If you are determined to change the world, the last thing you can afford is cowardice. If your intention is to be the overman, you cannot afford doubt, unless it is about the opinions of others. The conscientious, on the other hand, sometimes harbour doubts only about their own opinions.

And yet, if it is disastrous never to question yourself, it is equally disastrous, if not outright immoral, to be paralysed in the face of opposition. There is evil in the world, and opposing it requires that we take a stand, even if we cannot be certain of all the details. But certainty is an unrealistically high standard; human beings never really get to be certain about anything. Many try to finesse this certainty by invoking God, but this is no more than projecting their own beliefs onto the stars. For while they may convince themselves that they are acting upon the standards of their faith, it is they that choose the religion, the pastor, minister, imam, or guru, the interpretation, and they who choose which parts they like, and which doctrines they discard. All religion is a la carte. In the end, it's just us.

And yet, we are social creatures. We have evolved moral instincts which are shy on particulars at the outset, but are quite emotionally demanding, because they are instincts which encourage us to live harmoniously with other human beings--a minimum requirement for human survival. We despise injustice, cruelty, dishonesty, and selfishness, particularly when we suffer it, and we value truth, beauty, justice, and mercy. These are what we need to live, and we appreciate those who act in accordance with them, and will punish, even at our own expense, those who violate them. We are not rational self-interested actors, however much some economists might suggest we are. We will often go out of our way to punish those who transgress against these values. Through the medium of culture we have reflected en masse through the centuries upon these core sentiments and have arrived at principles which we believe best express and support them.

These advances are neither individually nor culturally relative. Human nature and human circumstances are real and non-negotiable. Years ago I read Satre and thought him great and wise; I recently re-read excerpts of Being and Nothingness and realized that, like much of late 20th century continental philosophy, it all hung upon the assumption of the blank slate, the conviction that there is nothing fixed in human nature. This is false, and so the whole edifice collapsed before my eyes. We are done with Sartre and the relativists. But that does not mean that anyone has the final answer, the perfect solution--nor should anyone be required to. Certainty breeds monstrosities, but neurotic perfectionism is a self-indulgence we cannot afford.

The West now seems transfixed in a state of moral cowardice. Embarrassed by our less than perfect past, we forget that other people in other cultures may be planning a less than perfect future. Many in the West are transfixed by the accusation of Islamophobia, forgetting that the egotism of Mohammud has held an entire culture locked in place for a thousand years that could have been better spent learning about themselves and the world. China and the Middle East have not given up on the idea of a colonial empire--they are buying up arable land in substandard Africa. What will the Africans eat? Nothing. We are on the brink of the worst genocide of human history, because millions of conscientious hand wringers cannot be bothered to look beyond their own navel.

The most assertive figures remain the ideologues; people who start out with a fixed idea and stick to it no matter what. When the facts come in, they are suspect, the work of a conspiracy; the more compelling the evidence, the bigger the conspiracy. Ideologues are at war with reality. In Canada, we now have a government that wants to shut down Statistics Canada, and is at war with our Public Service because they don't like their recommendations. They are convinced that these people have a liberal bias, but as Stephen Colbert quipped, the facts have a liberal bias. No one can win a war with reality, and not only is the cost of waging such a war prohibitive, but everything spent in it is lost.

In service to this war on reality we have a war on science, often justified by appealing to Thomas Khun's theories on scientific revolutions. But Khun was wrong. Science does not change by radical paradigm shifts, throwing everything away. Even Copernicus himself did not fit this pattern; he maintained the Ptolemaic idea of orbits, simply swapping the Sun and the Earth in the scheme. Galileo built on Copernicus, Newton on Galileo, Laplace on Newton, and Einstein on Laplace and Newton. The relativistic and quantum terms vanish on scales of the middle world--nearly all engineering applications still rely entirely on Newtonian physics. Only in extremely large or small scales do we need the mathematics of relativity or quantum mechanics. If we see far, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Khun implies that nothing needs to be known of the achievements of the past, because all can be swept away in a heart beat.

Epistemological relativism is attractive because it allows the ignorant to claim equal footing with the educated. It's another form of the blank slate; everyone starts from scratch, so anyone can spin theories to their heart's content and demand equal time. But reality is no myth. "I am who am" says the God of the Old Testament--in other words, I am reality. Note that this is not the same as saying God is real--that is an invitation to invent reality, rather than taking it as it is and understanding it. To say that something is real is simply to assert the reality of something regardless of its essence, but to say that something is reality is to define that essence. Religion was an attempt to put a human face on reality, but the mask won't stay put. What has not changed is that reality is still as cantankerous and destructive as ever when ignored, as vengeful as Old Jehovah. Any attempt to create your own reality, however determined, will fail if you ignore the truth.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Eulogy to My Father

It's hard to believe that Dad is actually gone. I just didn't think old age was up to the job. A meteor strike, an earthquake, a bolt of lightning maybe. The man was more durable than Keith Richards. And now that he is gone, I find myself surprised that there are were no headlines to mention it: "H. A. Dead at 92" on the cover of the New York Times, or at least the Citizen.

Dad was large and in charge. Even in old age, when most people shrink and become frail, Dad just got bigger. And he wasn't exactly diminutive to begin with. A worker in his father's warehouses since the age of 14, Dad would spend 18 hour days tossing 120 lb bags of sugar, flour, salt, or whatever up to the top of 12 foot stacks. One of my favourite stories of his took place when he and Bud were in their late 20's or early 30's. God Almighty Fournier had left for a mover's convention in Detroit, and Dad and Bud discovered that there was not enough money in the bank to meet the payroll at Fournier Van and Storage. The old man had told Dad that a good businessman was a good collector--and then apparently forgot his own advice. The books showed numerous accounts owing. So Dad and Bud set out to collect debts, with the clock ticking urgently.

Now, can you imagine the reaction of their clients to the sight of these two irish gorillas, shoehorned into suits, knocking on their doors and very firmly asking for the money owed to them? They must have looked like the Kray Brothers."Hello. We have been reviewing our accounts, and we have discovered that you owe us this amount of money. We would like to collect it. Now. In cash.... Nice place you have here. Here's a picture of our Mum." By the end of the week, they had money to spare. It would only be years later that Dad found out just how much he had terrified these people. Dad didn't do subtle.

As for being in charge, Dad liked to plan projects. Under Dad's guidance, we would move a mountain two feet to the left on Saturday, and two feet to the right on Sunday. I would eventually discover that it had less to do with moving the mountain than with playing foreman. During the building of Chris's cottage, Don Blakesly took a picture of Dad, scowling at the camera, and framed it, with a caption that was a refrain we'd heard often during that summer: "Well, if you'd done what I told you..." Chris's cottage was fine, except for the roof. Dad was impatient, and decided that we didn't need to do extra measurements to square it. Chris gave in, and the roof has waves and troughs in it. I have to say that Dad always got the job done though. Not always the right way, and sometimes the job didn't really need to be done, but he made sure it got done.

Still, the results could be spectacular; an acre lot, clawed out of rumpled mud and rocks by my father and my brothers, that became a magazine perfect lawn, fringed with lilacs and apple blossoms whose scent was ecstasy on a spring morning; a bay of dead fish, debris, and scrub trees that became the site of the most magnificent chalet on Lake Pemichangan; hundreds of flawless roses, arraigned along the back of Des Pommiers or on the slope of the hill of the cottage. Those who bought the cottage in the interim could improve the building and buy bigger boats, but they could not sustain or equal Dad's daily efforts.

Dad had a good life. Varicose veins in his legs spared him from going to war and left him to raise his family in peace, but never much inconvenienced him otherwise. He worked for his father at Fournier Van and Storage until he partnered with his brother Bud at Moloughney's Van and Storage. As his family grew, he worried that he would not be able to provide for so many children--in most pictures taken of him during the 50's and 60's, he has a worried expression--though maybe he was just worrying about his camera in the hands of someone else. But by the time I was a child, steak was a fixture on the table on Saturday nights, he built the house on Des Pommiers and the cottage on Pemichangan, and even the steaks got bigger and better, with sirloin eventually giving way to filet mignon. He sold his business when he was 57, just before deregulation made the moving business go sour, spent every summer of the next 25 years at the cottage, and often travelled to warmer climes in the winter. And still he managed to party like it was 1949. If you'd told me a man with his lifestyle would make it in good health to age 92, I would never have believed you. And this is the same man who has been telling us for the past 40 years that he would be gone soon. We all hope to inherit his constitution, if not his habits.

I have heard it said that old age is not for the timid. Old age for dad came suddenly at crucial milestones: when he could not pull the motor off the boat, when he could no longer hear his beloved music (and we will always be grateful that he passed this love on to us), but most of all, when Mom died. In the days that followed he became a babe in arms, handing all control over to his children. From this point on he was often rudderless. In a retirement home, widows sought him out; he was a catch, but he would never give up the torch he carried for Gladys. His solution was to help Ann buy a house with a granny suite, a new place he could call home. And so it was for seven years, until late December, when he went into sudden decline, stopped reading his daily newspapers, and then collapsed. All he wanted at the hospital was to go home. The final milestone was reached when Ann had to tell him that it was no longer possible for him to come home. The care he required could only be given in a nursing home. "Oh, no." was all he said, and then he set out to die. And that he did, and quickly.

So I'm glad he's gone, because that's what he wanted. I can only hope to live and die as stubbornly as he did. Fortunately we are a stubborn family, on both sides. If your intent is to be a force of nature, like my father and grandfather, you spend little time in self-reflection and a lot of time in bulldozer mode. But while determination may make bullies of us all, conscience makes cowards of us all. There is a balance to be struck, and Dad was never entirely one or the other.

Goodbye, Dad. I shall always miss you and keep you.