Friday, December 07, 2012

Invocation of the Supernatural

"Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful." - Seneca the Younger

I have come to the conclusion that most of religion has always consisted of the invocation of supernatural beings for material benefit. Sophisticated theology was never of interest to the rank and file of believers, but was to those who are, when you get right down to it, so far off the beaten path that they were heretics, or for all intents and purposes, atheists. I disagree with R. Joseph Hoffman when he claims that Spinoza and Einstein were not atheists. Spinoza was considered an atheist by the religious people of Amsterdam, who certainly knew a great deal more of what it means to believe in God than any of the atheist-buts in circulation today. As a former believer I can tell you that the dividing line is not whether you use the word God, but whether you believe you can pray to the thing and expect some sort of result. To be of the faithful, you must be open to the possibility of the miraculous. Close that door, and you have quit the church--all churches, forever. Both Spinoza and Einstein closed that door and locked it shut.

So much ink and invective is spent on the divide between those who believe religion to be true and those who consider it false that almost no attention is paid to Seneca's third party, the rulers. I'm talking about the likes of Karl Rove, Osama Bin Laden, and Vladimir Putin. Rove says in public that he is not fortunate enough to be a man of faith; in private, he calls his base "the crazies"--yet Rove can still play pied piper to that base, and deliver it reliably to you by playing a two note ditty of fags and fetuses. When W. met Putin, he said he knew he could trust him when he saw that he wore a crucifix. But a man who can easily exchange the hammer and sickle with a crucifix does not believe in God, he believes in nothing. And Bin Laden worshipped only himself, and called that Allah. The New Atheists never really concerned themselves with the dreams of the people, until it became clear that those dreams had became weapons in the hands of the rulers.

You might consider the invocation of supernatural beings pointless, given that they don't exist. But politicians invoke God to great material benefit, and it seems to work. They get elected, or gain power in other ways. It's a little bit of magical realism that intrudes upon the mundane. Now here's another bit of magical realism: you know that bit about not taking God's name in vain? I don't think that was about what you said when you hit your thumb with a hammer. I think that when those ancient Hebrews invented the whole damn business, they discovered that their leaders could not help justifiying themselves in the name of God, and this is what those surly, smelly old bastards wandering in from the desert were so upset about when they came up with that particular stricture. This has been going on a long time, long enough to get its own commandment.

Now, why this works has a great deal to do with one of the primary motivations for adherance to religion. Reason and evidence is great, but only if the person you're talking to has made an allegiance to the truth--that is, they are determined to know what's true regardless of whether they like it or not. Not many people have this conviction. This goes beyond science, beyond academic philosophy, and enters into the realm of philosophy as a way of life. Most human beings follow fashion; the loudest voice, the greatest number, the biggest celebrity, the most popular, the most successful, the biggest budget. If you speak for God, you are Oz the Great and Terrible, you speak with a Voice of Thunder, and you are always in fashion. And this applies whether you are a pundit, a politician, or just some idiot trying to shout down your neighbours.

All of which is terrible religion, and would have any self respecting prophet tearing their hair and gnashing their teeth. It's against the rules--their rules, as well as ours. But that's just sophisticated theology, and really, who cares? But it might be interesting to throw this in the face of the next believer who tries to shout at you with a Voice of Thunder.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

In Defense of Modernity

When discovering facts about the world, there is one method that is proven to work, and only one. It is usually called the scientific method, but it might more properly be called the modern method. It consists of discovering evidence, reasoning from that evidence to a conclusion or general principle, and then submitting both the evidence and the argument to the review of our peers, so that any flaws can be picked out and critiqued. This is the method we attempt in our science, our courts, our journalism, our history, our politics, and in any other area where we need to understand facts about the world.

This approach is now under attack from two directions: pre-modern understandings of the world, which include religion and old folk tales, and post-modern philosophies, by which all models of the world are equally valid. Post-modern arguments are now enlisted to defend pre-modern opinions--in the absence of absolute certainty, post-modernists have made the colossal mistake of assuming that nothing is true, and that all opinions are equal--leaving the field open to pre-modern opinions, not only of religions, but of other pre-modern cultures.

Although Marx made critiques of capitalism that cannot be ignored (or that we ignore at our peril) he also set the stage for post-modernism, with the idea that claims about social relations are not objective, but are always made in the context of the existing political economy, and are therefore relative to the current status quo. But his attack was only upon dominant opinions concerning social relations, which are aggregates of subjective opinion. It has no bearing upon facts. My pen in on my desk, and this fact falsifies all opinions which hold that my pen is elsewhere. Post-modernism jumps from the subjective to the objective, and from the denial of Truth with a capital T, to all truth. Their claim upon Marx as the father of this folly is almost entirely without basis, except that he seems to imply that there is nothing about human social relations that are matters of fact and not subject to revision (a public denial which will, I believe, bury Stephen Jay Gould's reputation in ignominy.) This is the basis of the nature vs. nurture debate, in which Marxists resolutely deny all influence of nature, genetics, evolution, or inborn talent or proclivity. Indeed, this is an attitude which persists across the entire left, which makes them blind to a number of social challenges. Try to talk to someone on the left about the uneven distribution of intelligence, and you will meet a brick wall. In an information age, in which everyone is expected to adapt to rapidly changing job requirements, how can you possibly address the problem of the permanently disenfranchised if you do not come to grips with this? What happens to the ditch diggers, the farm hands, the street sweepers, when all of these jobs are replaced by a man who must be smart enough to run an expensive machine that replaces them all? And so the most burning question of our age will be ignored by the right, who have no interest in solving it, and by the left, who have no interest in addressing it.

This blurring of subjective opinion and objective fact is encouraged by both religions and political ideologies, who find themselves in an empirical deficit, and seek to undermine the very standards of truth to get a free ride. The problem is particularly acute for theologians, whose discipline evinces all the trademark symptoms of an art, rather than a domain of knowledge: endless branching, proliferation, varying styles, forms, schools, a cacophony of opinions without recourse to any means of resolution, with many theologies beginning with outright contradictions, upon which anything can be proven. Certainly there are clever reasonings; Russell's proof that he was the pope, from the premise that 1 = 2, was a flash of brilliance, but utterly fallacious for all its genius, as Russell made clear. The faithful aren't stupid, but their intelligence yields only elaborate rationalizations, not truth. The problem, for theology, is made worse by the absence of any method of resolution. But as Orwell made so clear, without truth or a method to establish it, there is only the boot forever stamping on the human face. This is the Triumph of the Will; without reason and evidence, without truth, there is only force. Religion has no recourse but the boot. And it will always seek the power to stamp out its opposition.

Our modern habit of reasoned discussion and resolution is not shared by advocates of pre-modernism and post-modernism. They believe that there is no method leading to truth, and all opinion is established by force, and must be changed by force. The political correctness they advocate is enforced by the power of the police. The likes of Stanley Fish are court jesters who have long since ceased to amuse, perpetual adolescents under the protection of a king they no longer serve. Not Lear's fool, who spoke truth to power, but a populist fool who does not believe in truth.

If the protection of modernity were ever removed from these fools, they would be consumed by the chaos they invoke. Unfortunately for us, and fortunately for them, they are protected from that by the defenders of modernity, who know very well that there is nothing but the boot for those who abandon it.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

We Only Visit Objectivity, But We Do Not Live There

Skepticism is a recurring theme in philosophy, but Descartes introduced the theme of radical skepticism, doubts concerning all knowledge. Modern philosophy was a war with partisans on all sides: idealism, materialism, spiritualism, rationalism, empiricism, and so on. This war reached the twentieth century with two camps still obsessed with certainty, Truth with a capital T. The Anglo analytics sought Truth in empiricism and rationality; the postmodernists observed the failure of the analytics to attain it and decided that there was no truth. But notice the loss of the capital T. The failure to find Eternal Truth does not mean that there is no truth. There is still truth in the particular sense: the cat really did sit on the mat. This does not mean that all cats sit on mats, but the particular event is still a fact. There is also truth in the provisional sense: this model of reality is, to the best of our knowledge, true, until contrary evidence disproves it and a better model is found.

Pragmatism took the approach that there is no truth, but we adopt what works. The problem with this approach is that the model that works best is also the most accurate, precisely because accuracy lends itself to unintended uses. A model of reality which simply proved useful would be useful only in those areas which had already been explored or exploited. But truth, by this model, should make technological innovation impossible, simply because there is no reason to assume that such pragmatic solutions, found workable in one application, would be applicable in novel situations. Take our model of the shape of the world. Because the curvature of the earth is so slight (about 0.000126 degrees per mile,) a flat earth was a workable model for farmers, or for navigators on the Mediterranean. To travel to the Americas, navigators needed the model of the world as a sphere. Newton predicted that the world would be an oblate spheroid; there is, in fact, a difference of about 44 kilometers difference between the radius at the poles and the equator. Useful for telemetry of orbits, perhaps, but not for navigation on the ocean. It later turned out that the earth is ever so slightly pear shaped, with a slight bulge in the north. Interesting, but not of much use unless you needed precise positioning down to centimeters.

But as Isaac Asimov remarked in The Relativity of Wrong, "...if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together." The accuracy of our model of the world lends itself to novel and unintended results and uses. A purely pragmatic idea of knowledge does not provide for that.

We actually do know things. These may not satisfy the expectations of Truth, but they are true. These truths constitute knowledge, and knowledge narrows the possible. You can believe whatever you like, but you cannot know whatever you like; to actually know something, it must be true. The fact that my pen is on this desk means that it is not in the billions of other places that it could be. Indeed, it is the nature of knowledge to do so, to settle conjecture upon a single point. And this distinguishes knowledge from expression, which is the business of art, and which is as varied as individual experience and opinion. But no truth may contradict another truth. There are not many truths in the postmodern sense; you cannot affirm A & ~A without accepting nonsense and the death of knowledge. There are only many truths in the scientific sense, truths which link together to form a coherent model of the world. And while a model of reality is not reality itself, there is an isomorphic relation between the two. The model maps onto reality in a consistent way.

True, knowledge may consist of knowing someone's opinion of something, or of knowing the contents of mythologies. It is true that Tolkien's elves were immortal, which is of great interest to aficiandos of Tokien's mythology (of which I am one.) But this does not mean that elves exist, and one cannot spin this into knowledge of basic reality. Theology is knowledge of opinion and mythology, and a form of expression, but it must never be confused with knowledge of reality. Mythology tells us nothing about the world. But it does tell us a lot about ourselves.

Human beings are not very good at discovering truth, and are utterly incapable of discovering Truth. We are, however, very good at motivated reasoning; starting with a conclusion, we're very good at coming up with reasons to believe it. This comes in handy in convincing ourselves and others, but to actually figure something out, we need to submit ourselves to the discipline of evidence and peer review. That is, we need to be willing to admit it when we are wrong, and this is not something that comes easily to us. The material world, the world that exists independently of us, is not the world we live in. It is a world we visit with great effort and expense, and rarely at that.

We live in a world of ghosts. Memes are not ideas, nor clusters of ideas, for ideas have no emotive value. Memes have personality; we take them on because they fit into who we are. They are ideas or mannerisms that we like, usually fragments of people that we identify with, and we build ourselves out of these fragments. We live in an ocean of social currents, dreams, metaphors, longings, fantasies, and biases. Stories are a remarkably efficient means of compressing general ideas regarding the social sphere, about what it is to be human and to live with other people. But the creatures of myth are hyperbolic representations of ourselves and others. not real beings or events in the world. By confusing mythology with fact, the faithful lose these deeper meanings. The myths are about us. Science is about the material world, and world we visit only rarely and see only dimly.

We have no talent for cosmology. Our minds are adapted for the middle world, and the scales of the very large and very small are intuitively incomprehensible to us, as anything beyond space and time would be. Mathematics gives us some grasp on scales outside of our core competence, but mathematics without evidence is simply conjecture, and we will never have any evidence of something beyond our own universe--not any evidence that we can understand. Any question that includes "why" talks about intentionality, but intentionality is rooted in time, in the linear and temporal form or intent, followed by action, followed by consequence. To ask why there is something rather than nothing is an attempt to impose social explanations upon the material, and worse, to project intentionality beyond space and time itself, where intentionality as we understand it cannot possibly operate. This is both a category error and a colossal failure of imagination.

If we are actually going to know anything, we have to accept our limitations, and be willing to admit that we don't know when we don't know. This is not an open invitation to fill the void of ignorance with assumptions. To say that we don't know only means that we don't know; it doesn't mean that therefore, X could be true. X could be anything, and to say that anything could be true is the same as saying that nothing is true. We have to be content with our ignorance, and not fill that void with conjecture.