Saturday, September 07, 2013

Creative Pessimism

I've been seeing a spate of articles about the power of optimism, or gratitude, or whatnot as of late. On the flip side, I've been seeing people slamming others for "complaining" or "negativity."

There is something to a sort of "power of positive thinking"; however, I think that it is dangerously misplaced when it becomes the statement that the universe/God is really working for us, or that things really will turn out for the best.

The first problem is that it requires delusion. The universe is working for me, but it doesn't give a damn about orphans being sold into sex slavery, evidently. The amount of horror and suffering in the world is nigh-infinite; I'm not a special case that will somehow avoid tribulation or that won't end up misshapen by it. To blind myself by telling myself that things will work out for me and mine is mere escapism, a selfish flight into comfort by shutting myself off from the world at large.

Which brings me to the second problem: by shutting ourselves off from the world, we cannot effectively change it. When you deride someone for being negative, are you doing so because they are wrong, or because they are uncomfortable to listen to? Who really gives a damn about your comfort, though, and why should anyone? When I complain about the fact that I have to give up actually valuable activities (both to myself and to society) to earn a paycheck doing nonsense work, such that I pay my fee to society not by contributing to it but merely by throwing my life's thread in tangles on the ground, I'm told to shut up; everyone has to deal with this. But if everyone has to deal with it, and everyone hates it, why can't we envision a better world? Why can't we think of better communities, better ways of surviving and existing? Why am I told to shut up, when we could talk together about possibilities?

When I'm negative, I never get people stopping and asking whether I am correct. I get people irritated about the negativity, people who don't stop and think about how the world could be different. If you are reading this, you are using technology that connects vast regions across the world by manipulating electromagnetic energy, and are working within a society that ensures some sort of access to information and opinions - the world can change, and would do so a lot more if everyone could come together and think about their real possibilities. When things don't work out, they don't work out; let's face that together, because if we were to work together, we could do so much.

The point of the negative is to create room for a new positive. And this is why I propose a principle of creativity rather than of positivity by itself. The world may indeed be a terrible, shitty place. It probably is. But what can we make out of it? Even if we are adversaries with the universe and the rest of the human race, we can still stop and think about how to rework our situation. We are alchemists transmuting the lead we are given - what greater skill can we gain in making the most of our situations? This is not based on any beliefs about the universe or God or anything else working for us, but merely about how we will take our own stances in whatever world we've been thrown into.

Concerning previous posts - I have material to continue my series on atheism. I really want to put something out there which is better than the other arguments for atheism which I've seen, but quite honestly, I can't remember the last time I've had a halfway decent discussion on religious topics with anyone who actually interacted with what I said. So I think that I'll refrain from putting anything more online, unless I get requests from people. Also, I would like to write about more philosophical topics, and while I know that people do read those posts from time to time, it's been years since anyone's commented on anything or started a conversation about them. I'm kind of starved for intellectual conversation right now, and really, really want to get into an in-depth discussion with people, which apparently isn't happening IRL - so please, if there's any topics out there that anyone wants to discuss, put it out there, and I'll write a post about it.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Why I Am an Atheist (Part 1 of 3)

Why did I leave the faith? And what would it take to bring me back?

I hear a lot of nonsense coming from within religious circles about why people become atheists. Some want to pin deconversion to mere misinformation about the faith; others, to explain away everything the atheist has to say as coming from psychological issues (or anything except actual rational arguments). I especially resent when someone writes off my lack of belief as merely a matter of “will” or “emotions,” as if one could possibly be rational/moral/etc. only if one is a theist, or as if we were all natural believers who must have been seduced away from the truth. So I want to put my own story out there as a counterpoint. I did not leave the faith because I wanted to have sex with anybody and everybody, nor do I think that Christianity holds that I must believe in a literal 7-day creation, young earth, yada yada.

Of course, the issues here are complicated, many of them deserving of books. So I'll present a readable version first, with extensive footnotes for clarification on individual points. And yes, I realize that more could be said – but considering how few real discussions I've had with believers on these points (as opposed to bumbling attempts to proselytize me with far more adroit attempts to ignore everything I actually have to say), I'll save further elaboration for those few who genuinely want real conversation. I can quite literally count on one hand how many times the latter has happened since I left the faith – do not reply to this post if you are unwilling to read it and try to understand what I have to say first, and then to respond with something other than the standard dogma or some ten-step apologetics course. And of course, I am only arguing against Christianity here, as I have the most experience with it; but similar problems arise with any revealed religion.

First, why did I leave conservativeDefinitions religion? This is only one subset of my journey out of faith, as I don't wish to say that Christianity is reducible to fundamentalism. But it was an important step for me.

Evangelicalism taught me to take the Bible literally. And the literal word of God has God commanding genocide.Canaanites and Moloch Genocide. In short, Hitler was not wrong because of what he did, but because God did not command it. This is to say nothing of God-mandated torture in Hell. Again, torture. These phrases “genocide” and “torture” are accurate, because those are what a) the eradication of an entire people, and b) excruciating torment willingly inflicted on a conscious being, are by definition.Hell

Answered prayerPurpose of Prayer leads to similar conundrums. You hold out hope that God will make things turn out well for you and yours. But this God lets thousands of people starve to death daily. So either God doesn't answer prayers, or only answers yours. I'd rather believe the former, because the God of the latter gets the award for Biggest Asshole of All Time. (So when you tell me that God personally helped you run into a friend you needed to see, what I hear is that either God thinks your chance meeting is more important than ending a famine, or that you think you're more important.)

And isn't there supposed to be that Holy Spirit in the church, making believers into better people? Well, where is it? You don't get to claim sin as the reason why the church is as corrupt as everything else; everyone is a sinner, so Christians should still be substantially better than the world. And this is the almighty God who is supposedly working in the church! The slight differences of slightly better Christians, as measured in your own experience, albeit absolutely unnoticed by the world around you, don't count; that sounds more like confirmation bias than omnipotence.Slightly Better But don't rail at the church for being corrupt. God's power is what is supposed to be working within it. And if you claim that reforming people is a process that takes time, what do you think is going to happen in Heaven? Somehow God makes us all perfect then, but can barely even get started on the process now?Purgatory

Those are still just the moral issues. Logically, I cannot make sense out of many doctrines. God is three persons in one being? Jesus is one person with two natures? (Double natures; what does it mean?) I can do one of two things: I can avail myself of one of the many theories concerning these doctrines, in which case they're coherent but senseless (what the heck is a “subsistent relation”? It makes marginally more sense than a square circle, but only because I can't even think of what it's talking about to understand it as contradictory), or I can use analogies where the pieces make sense but they don't fit together. I can understand Jesus being human. I'm not sure whether I can understand Jesus being divine (unless you hold God to be some super-human like Zeus), but I certainly don't see what could be meant by saying Jesus is both human and divine.Nestorianism And yes, mystery, divinity, blah blah blah; of course there could be mystery. There's plenty of mystery in the world. However, the dogmas I hold still need to make sense for me to hold them. What would it mean to believe a truth which I cannot even begin to understand? The idea is nonsense.Quantum Mechanics

And then there's the Atonement. Jesus died for our sins. Again, this makes no sense, and is even morally reprehensible. Somehow, God forgives us our sins (correction: God forgives the sins of those who play his peculiar game of hokey-pokey where you hear the name of Jesus, believe the name of Jesus, and turn yourself around), but only by punishing someone completely sinless. And somehow this is more just and moral (and honourable, or however you want to phrase it) than simply forgiving us outright. God had to beat his own child (/Godself, since they are somehow the same, except not; see previous point) rather than simply forgiving those God chooses to forgive; yet, despite doing this, God still can't forgive everyoneUniversalism, although the atonement's been done already and is supposedly something objective. Can you think of one single instance where we need to punish the innocent to be more just? An innocent person might of their own free will make reparations for the sake of others (for example, to pay a fee that another person owes), but what actual reparations are made here, and how could this be a necessity for justice?Theories of the Atonement God doesn't need anything, being God and all, and the reparations don't help anyone else. And real injustices still occur and are not righted; what good is an abstract atonement for abstract justice to those actually dying and being oppressed?

There is also the anthropomorphic nature of most belief. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the God of the philosophers, true, but I actually have some reason to believe in the latter. The former acts and thinks like a big human, even if ostensibly purified. Every emotional impulse of ours stems from brain chemicals. We have these mapped out. What possible sense does it make to talk of a non-physical being with emotions anything like ours? The structure of our thought has been shown to be shaped both by physical neural structure and culture; why would an immaterial God who antedates any culture think in categories anything like ours (assuming that talk of "thought" even makes sense without reference to neurons and communities)?Thought And why should I believe that your God is any more real than those human-seeming gods of the past, which have been covered up by history?

With all of the above, even if one particular point fails, I don't see any need to get into arguments and apologetics. Historical arguments are always prone to being overturned (how much has our understanding of the history of the US changed in the past few decades, and that of large and recent events!), and all the more when the argument is for a singular moment in history. No matter how sound your historical argument is (and it can't be too sound, given that we only have a few accounts, written by insiders, who may or may not have been eyewitnesses), I will always say that it is more likely that your argument is flawed, than that your historical analysis is stronger than all the points I raised above.N. T. Wright

Part II will deal with my objections to moderate belief (in sum: most of the arguments I hear from moderates tend to be pragmatic in nature, which I take to be insufficient for one who actually has the leisure to be making such arguments, even if they are what the average person needs to get through the day). Part III will involve details of my own thoughts, including what I take from religion (most of my arguments have actually not been from atheists, but instead from religious thinkers – and those from rationalist medievals who often were prominent figures in their own traditions), grounds for morality, and why I think these issues are too important to simply be left to “whatever a person wants to believe.”


A few clarifications are in order. There are different reasons why I rejected different branches of Christianity. I will reduce these to conservative, moderate, and liberal Christianity. Conservative Christians hold the Bible (and/or Tradition) to be inerrant and literally true, in some sense, and hold to standard church dogma (of some sort). Moderate Christians would deny inerrancy and probably question some standard doctrine, but overall would place themselves firmly within the Church as a temporal organization open to change, but still with strong connections to the past. Liberal Christians keep the label of Christian out of some sense of sentiment for its cultural forces or key figures without holding to any particular set of doctrines, viewing the human trajectory of the tradition as what binds it together rather than dogma.

In turn, when I say that I am an atheist, I mean that I reject answered prayer (or any sort of personalized response of God/the Universe/etc.), providence beyond the mere fact of order in the natural world, an afterlife (whether resurrection, reincarnation, or existence as a separate soul), supernatural causation, and any sort of mysticism which denies the world; I do in fact hold that some of the more sophisticated versions of arguments for God's existence do indeed work, but that this God is utterly and completely non-anthropomorphic, and a principle of existence more than anything else.

Canaanites and Moloch

One defence for the genocide of the Canaanites is that they sacrificed their children to the flames. Even assuming that this is true (rather than the sort of slander that we see attributed to outside groups again and again in history, often without foundation), how is killing them off an ethical act? They are evil because they kill some of their children... therefore the best action is to kill all of their children? Even assuming that their children would have grown up and continued the practice, some would have grown up, and some of their children would have grown up, etc., etc. Murdering the entire nation is at least as bad as the sin it was meant to address, for just about any sin.


Yes, the view of Hell here is restrictive, but it's what many people hold. Annihilationism, in which God annihilates the damned instead of tormenting them, doesn't bother me as much. Nor does the idea that the damned create their own torment for themselves; but in the latter case, there seems to be absolutely no connection between not believing in articles of faith and being the sort of person who would then be self-punishing for eternity. Nor can I see how an omnipotent, omniscientLimited OmniscienceGod would not have the wisdom to bring most of these sufferers around.

Limited Omniscience

I do find it funny how God's omniscience appears to be based on the believer's need at the moment. Need a perfect universe, where everything will eventually work out? Want to believe that God is working all things together for your good? God is omniscient and omnipotent! But somehow, never enough to get people to behave themselves, here or in hell, or to plan events so that his descent to earth would be documented for people thousands of years later with legitimate concerns over history.

Purpose of Prayer

Of course, one could hold that the reason for praying is not that one's prayers will be answered, but for the sake of holding a conversation with the deity, or molding one's will and desires to God's, or whatnot. That is a different issue, one with which I do not take offense.

Slightly Better

Even if Christianity happened to be a better way of life than the alternatives, this wouldn't mean that it isn't man-made. I should to see something pretty amazing from God's own people, but I expect arbitrary groups of people to occasionally get things a little less muddled than usual.


There is the possibility of Purgatory, which would provide a time between death and Heaven for people to gradually become perfect. This would at least remove one difficulty, though many of my other comments remain.


Unless you say that Jesus' will was merely perfect and representative of the divine, or something of that sort. Even if this works, and you don't mind being a heretic (you Nestorian, you), that would place you in the moderate to liberal camp, which I'll discuss later. I can make sense out of a “Holy Will” or whatnot, though whether it is well-applied to an individual whose recorded life comes down to us in fragments and sermons covering mostly 3 years is another story.

Quantum Mechanics

To give an example of something mysterious that I do hold: I believe quantum mechanics because repeated experiments show that particularly odd phenemona occur, and we do have rigorous mathematical language to describe them, where said language has been repeatedly verified as not only describing the phenomena but also predicting new, unexpected results. So we can encounter mysterious phenomena that overturn our previous views of the world, and we can describe such phenomena with language that we don't really understand (or at least, Feynman didn't really understand what was going on, which is pretty much equivalent).

The phenomena have repeatedly held up to critical observation, and are there whenever anyone wants to see them under the correct experiment. And the language used to describe the phenomena is both internally consistent and has enough contact with other areas of experience to be meaningful, even when not truly comprehended. Quantum mechanics is strange, but is accessible step-by-step from our experience. We have a bridge of language which leads into obscurity, but we can at least see the bridge.

By contrast, the Trinity and the Incarnation are completely beyond our experience, and this gulf is what renders language about them useless; we have the endpoints for a bridge, but no actual bridge. Either we are talking about square circles (which seem coherent when only thought about square-wise or circle-wise, but these two can't be put together), or quarfluggles (which are an I-know-not-what, but which at least are not expressly incoherent). This is not to say that God would not be mysterious, but rather that what is truly mysterious can't be spoken of or even imagined. That's why it's mysterious. (So likewise, apophatic theology makes sense; it's kataphatic mysticism which strikes me as playing shell games with words).


Unless you are a universalist. For which there might be some Biblical warrant, but I'll leave that for the exegetes. At any rate, a universalist could hold a moral influence view of the atonement; that is, that Christ died to provide an example to us and show God's love. This could make sense of the problem, but at the cost of contradicting some generally stable church doctrines – which would put one at least into the moderate camp, which I'm saving for the next post.

Theories of the Atonement

More detail, for those of you saying "Yes, that's precisely what Christ's death did accomplish": you could say that Christ's death was to pay some abstract notion of justice or honour, or to uphold the governance of the universe. However, even from within Christianity, we are told to forgive as our Father in Heaven; following the logic of the Atonement here (that justice/honour/governance requires punishment), the results of this injunction to “forgive” could get rather messy. It is easier to say: Anselm's view of the Atonement being demanded to fulfill God's honour was tied to a feudal cultural system, penal substitution is tied to a legal cultural system (which probably wouldn't even accept it in its own courts for most cases), and governance theories are tied to monarchic cultural systems, to the extent that they simply do not make sense without reference to those cultures and the anthropomorphism they demand. They might be helpful analogies at best, but they can't be the true explanation as to why the Atonement was necessary. And again, we are to forgive as our Father in Heaven forgives; why shouldn't Jesus' statement here be taken to be more indicative of the nature of the Father than post hoc theories explaining the Atonement?

One could also say that Christ was giving a payment to the devil (Christus Victor), which actually might be the view that makes the most sense, beyond moral influence; it may reek of superstition, but at least it's coherent and not morally repugnant, if one doesn't think too much about a God who would barter souls to the archnemesis. In this case, there would be reparations that need to be paid, and so the analogy to legal reparations is coherent.

Or perhaps one could say that the Atonement was to defeat death and corruption, and that the salvific power is concentrated in the Resurrection (this would be closer to the Eastern Orthodox view, in my understanding). I'm not quite sure what any of that even means, besides kind of cool aesthetic effects without reference, but this would not explain why that salvific power would not be available for all. If Christ has defeated death, death is defeated, and why can't God join to Christ's body whomever God pleases?


Yes, this point requires a good deal more to be developed, and is weaker than the point about emotions. The weakest point would be that I only hold that God would not think in human categories, not that God could not express Godself (and God's own alien “thoughts”) in human categories. But one possible argument would be that the capacity of God to express thoughts in our terms requires some rapprochement between our thoughts and God's; however, there seems little reason to assume this is possible. Either our thoughts are due to our physical nature, in which case an immaterial being would be something completely different (for a small example, a baby human distinguishes objects based upon shape, while a baby dog distinguishes objects based up size. If we thought like dogs, our language and conceptual apparatuses would be markedly different); or they are transcendental, formed by the way we as finite beings synthesize the world, in which case an infinite being would be utterly different from us and not needing to synthesize the world in anything like the same way, while a simple being would not need to synthesize the world at all (for example, many of our concepts, if not all, come into play while finding order to what we encounter through our senses; what would a being that not only does not have senses, but is not caught between any heterogenous boundaries [such as different senses combined with intellection, or by finite chains of reasoning being applied to an infinite], have to synthesize and apply order to?). In either case, applying terms like "thinking" and "understanding" and "planning," etc. to God would be misleading.

If one instead says that concepts simply match the way reality is, then one might have an easier time explaining how God thinks the same way we do (at least, before getting down to arguments about the nature of God as infinite, simple, necessary, eternal, etc.), but then one is stuck with all of the problems of representationalism: how does a concept “in the world” get into our heads? How is an idea at all like a physical object? Are scientific models really in the world or not? And how do we then get so much wrong? This is aside from other metaphysical issues involved with God simply reading off ideas from reality (if God is omniscient, God would know every fact; then God knows facts about facts, since those are also facts, and similarly God knows facts about facts about facts, etc. But this would entail a set of all facts, which would be the same as the set of all facts about facts, which would be the same as the set of all facts about facts about facts, and so on; and this is impossible, due to both Russell's paradox and Cantor's diagonalization theorem).

N. T. Wright

N.T. Wright's Resurrection of the Son of God is a symbol of many of the problems of the historical approach. I won't deny that it's a scholarly tour de force – I never said that to be Christian was to be an idiot or a poor scholar, though I suspect that it does mean having a well-used Procrustean bed. The work is huge, around 600 pages at least, with far too many references to check out accurately – am I to assume that God only deigned to give adequate evidence of what pertains to my immortal soul if I get a Master's first, and that in an area which is next to worthless should this particular hypothesis be wrong? But with that said, there are two main concerns which crossed my mind in the reading.

First, Wright claims that, before the New Testament, no one ever thought about a literal resurrection. Of course, a few people did here and there, but “the exception proves the rule.” But the exception stops proving the rule once one has to claim this multiple times, even if people think of the resurrection as something that doesn't really happen; the thesis he needs to make is not that people have thought a physical resurrection to be silly, but rather than people hadn't been thinking it at all and so it was a completely new thought.

Second, his jump to how a real resurrection was the best explanation for the newfangled notion of a physical resurrection seems to not quite understand what “best explanation” is. Telling me that a miracle happened, one which was relatively little noted at the time and of a kind which has never been reliably recorded by critical witnesses, is simply not a better explanation than that someone had a new idea (something which we do have record of happening throughout history), and that either by outright deception (something recorded in history), or by a mangled game of telephone amongst a community (something also testified) this idea originated and spread. Are there puzzling details still? Yes... but a couple puzzling details hardly command me to accept a jump to the miraculous. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and a God who can command the whole of history can plant evidence as well as need be.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Irrelevance of Philosophy

Philosophy is irrelevant.

However, why is that a bad thing?

When we learn other subjects and other skills, we learn how to navigate the world. But it is not some reality-in-itself which we learn to work with; that would be far too much for a human to comprehend. We work within a construction, within a social model. We learn how to get a job; not just any job, but the jobs available in a given society, with given aims, run in given ways, for the purpose of making socially-established currency in order to achieve certain other aims, most of which are prescribed by the culture. We learn science and engineering, but not by merely observing the world. We have a framework which works and produces results, and we learn how to utilize that framework to make more experiments and technology.

Relevance has to do with making our way around these frameworks, with learning how to live in the world as it is. But the "world as it is" is a present phenomenon, without determining the "world as it could be". One could say that we should be content with the way things are and live with our feet planted on the earth in the real world. But we live in political systems and use technology that have resulted from people saying "Why can't things be different?"

Philosophy is irrelevant, because it calls into question our schemata of relevance. It is the process of questioning, "But why should we take it that way?" "What other ways could we do this?" "What fundamental principles can we re-examine?" It was common sense that a democracy could never work, and that people should adjust to the given power structures; then the American Revolution happened. Within time, the idea that government ultimately relies on the people became the new common sense. Or take Albert Einstein: he simply asked himself what time really was and what we actually meant when we say that two events were simultaneous. A simple questioning of principles which "everyone knew," an imagined train ride, and there was his theory of relativity.

This opening up of a place for questioning, of re-examining the gap between the "world as it is" and the "world as it could be", is the task of philosophy. And it isn't relevant to going along with the way "things really are." But for the sake of the future and everything we could accomplish, one cannot say that such thought is unimportant.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Against Faith

I have some serious problems with the notion of faith as it has informed much of Christian thought, and in fact consider it to be one of the worst intellectual inheritances which we have. In short, faith is downright irrational and prevents people from acting along with reality.

Of course, many will disagree with me. They will provide all sorts of analogies for how religious faith fits in with how we live the rest of our lives and how it is a valid means of finding truth. Rather than simply say that I don't like faith, I figured that I would lay out in detail my arguments. So this post is going to be a bit long, yet still probably too condensed; I can go on about specific points as necessary in comments.

To begin with, though, what is faith? I take faith here to be (a) a belief, (b) beyond observed evidence to some extent, (c) involving commitment. There are other elements (especially involving a sense of trust and actual action based on held beliefs), but any version of faith which I am criticizing involves these three points at least.

  • Analogy from Personal Trust: Religious faith is unlike faith in another person. When I trust another person, I already have two things at my disposal. First, I know that other person exists. Second, I usually already have evidence to support my trust. If I let someone drive my car, I have some reason to believe that they are decent drivers and will not abscond with my vehicle. I do not hand my car keys to strangers. To claim that religious faith (for example, that God exists and acts in a particular way, according to the dictates of some religious group) is like faith in a person fails the first criterion and is sketchy about the second - for every example of God's "goodness," there are people starving to death, tortured, and held under oppressive regimes which they will never escape. I would never let out my car to a person who crashes every tenth time they drive, let alone every other time! But at any rate, whatever one makes of the latter point, it makes absolutely no sense to have faith in a person when I don't already know that said person exists. (I also take it that believing "God exists" is different from believing "God as represented something like how this particular group says exists", at least for the purposes of this kind of faith.)
  • Analogy from Marriage Commitment: Another analogy stems from marriage. The idea goes that committing oneself to a spouse is like committing to a religion. And if one holds that different religious paths are somewhat on par, this might be a valid analogy. In this case, I am merely a religious bachelor, and we have no disagreements over religious truth. However, many people from whom I hear this believe that there is one true religion. I do not have "one true spouse." I would choose to marry a person simply because things work with that person; there is no truth or falsehood behind the choice, merely various degrees of practicality. But in the case of religion, there are incompatible truth claims. I would be committing myself to a belief, holding it to be true come what may, and this is utterly unlike marriage. Whether or not a marriage works involves an act of my will. The truth of a religious belief is beyond my control, as I cannot will God into being or choose to consciously continue on after death.
  • Analogy from Love and Evidence: Another example that people sometimes give for faith is also found in romantic relationships. One cannot prove that another person loves them; one must take it on faith. However, despite the lack of proof, there must be clear evidence. If I am dating so-and-so, I should be able to give concrete, unambiguous examples of why I think they love me rather quickly. If I struggle, then there is trouble in the relationship. If I must do what most religious people do and claim that "I know he/she loves me, though I don't understand why he/she does this or that seeming terrible thing," this is a sign that I need to bolt from the relationship ASAP. So religious faith is unlike faith in love because it (a) does not give clear, unambiguous evidence (again, a whole lot of bad stuff happens in the world, at least as much as good), and (b) involves one having to explain away some atrocious stuff, which makes religious believers akin to battered men and women. (I realize this is probably offensive, but how offensive is it to hold that a "loving" God sends creations, which could be reshaped and forgiven, to Hell? Or that said God commands genocide? And if you have to hold to some utterly poppycock notion of love to hold this, how am I wrong? Love doesn't have to be all touchy-feely, but it must be concerned with the actual good of the beloved in some fashion.)
  • Faith in Tradition: Of course, one might refocus what the object of faith is. Perhaps it is faith in a line of transmission, with a tradition. But when we examine traditions across the world, we do not see them to be terribly accurate. Within a generation, stories can be added and revised. For one example, off the top of my head: Nelson Mandela in his autobiography talks about how his father stood up to the authorities and lost his chiefly status because of it. However, this event, which happened early in the life of a man still alive, has been shown to be inaccurate, according to court records. And if nothing else, there are competing traditions. Islam has had highly sophisticated ways of tracking traditions from Mohammad's life; why not take their transmission to be more accurate than, say, Christianity's? Or why not accept the traditions handed down by those hunting down the reincarnations of the Dalai Lama? One has faith in ones own tradition; why not in tradition in general then? If one holds to ones own tradition because of historical arguments, these arguments cannot themselves be believed and committed to via faith and require regular analysis and fact-checking, trying to disprove ones hypothesis at least as much as confirm it, at least assuming that one genuinely does care for truth.
  • Faith as a Lens: Perhaps one could say along with Augustine, Pascal, C.S. Lewis, and others, that one believes in a religious faith not from evidence seen beforehand, but because such faith allows them to see the world more clearly. The problem here is that many different groups say the same thing. Zen Buddhists will make the same claim. Muslims will hold that their revelation makes the most sense of the world. Ritual magic users say that you have to believe in the rituals, and then you will see that all their beliefs about magic make sense. I personally think that my practical atheism makes much, much more sense of the world than Christianity ever did. So the fact that a given belief makes the most sense out of your own world does not in and of itself mean a whole lot. Study to show yourself approved, and make sure that study includes critical analysis of your own beliefs.
  • Faith as Last Resort: This could be because we have to choose between atheism/nihilism/something else supposedly awful, on the one hand, or as a variant of Pascal's Wager: that if we have to choose between possible infinite happiness and possible infinite suffering, we choose the option that might possibly lead to happiness, whether or not it's probable. My issue with these sorts of approaches is that they cut down the possibilities on both sides of the equation. There is no particular reason to think that we must be left with some meaningless nihilism (or that nihilism is therefore such an awful fate); and I for one fail to see why atheism would be so terrible. Nor is there reason to suppose that there is only one option which could lead to happiness. What if we have to choose between two different faiths, each of which will throw us in hell for believing the other? What if we have to choose between our own potential infinite happiness, at the cost of sacrificing what good we could realistically do here in the world by facing up to its shortcomings? The notion of faith as a last resort hinges on there being two categories, one possibly very good and the other being very bad. But there are multiple categories, and the values of each aren't so clear.
  • Faith as Psychological Necessity: Finally, maybe someone would hold that there is no rational reason to hold to religious faith, but it is necessary nonetheless. One reason might be that most people have no way of getting at truth through reason and study, and so faith gives them something to hold on to. But that doesn't make faith right or true. This is an argument for better education, not for widespread religion. If the beliefs exist merely as a necessity to appease the masses, why shouldn't we keep revising the widespread beliefs, to better match the present world? A similar reason, one which I hear a lot, is that we need to hold to things of faith in order to find this life worth living, especially when it is difficult, or in order to get out of philosophical skepticism. But again, that does not mean that there is any reason at all to believe that ones articles of faith are true, and I would rather hold courageously to the truth than sedate myself with a security-blanket falsehood. Also, many people get along just fine without believing in God or an afterlife, so there seems to be no reason to believe that faith is even psychologically necessary; one should not confuse their own insecurities with deep-seated needs of the human race. A third closely related reason for faith would be that we crave mystery, which the modern world strips away. Well, perhaps, but that doesn't mean that a set of mysterious beliefs and rituals has an ounce more reality than a good fantasy book, or that our desires tell us anything more than that we desire things.

Note that all of the above holds even if one says that there is some evidence for their beliefs, but we must still make a leap of faith. Any leap at all, any commitment to a belief in how the world exists without constant reference to said world, is problematic. It's this commitment that is the crux of the issue; we make judgments based on imperfect information all the time, but seldom do we commit our lives and souls to the results, and even less often to we claim that this is a beautiful thing rather than an awful, gut-wrenching choice to be avoided if possible. Claims that faith and reason are like two wings of a bird, or otherwise partners, fall into the same category: either that faith has a rational basis (and, as stated above, the fact that it helps you see the world better is insufficient in itself), in which case you are simply trusting reason, or said faith at times asks one to overstep reason, in which case all of my earlier points apply.

At this point, I'm undoubtedly going to get some people claiming that science, or atheism, or an evidence-based approach to life, is itself a "faith" and a "religion." This is utter BS. I think that evolution is correct based on evidence, evidence which continually comes in; the detractors don't have a clue what evolution really states; and I base some things in my life accordingly. If scientists start coming up with contrary evidence, or creationists ever start to understand the material they're working with and put forward cogent arguments, I'll revise my view and my life accordingly. I don't do this, say, in cosmology, where results change frequently. I don't have a commitment to the evidence such that I will hold to it come what may. I don't have some holy book or teachings that I stick to; every piece of information gets decided on its own merit (and when I inevitably fail at this, I consider that a shortcoming and appreciate it being pointed out to me). I don't romanticize my ignorance and make it into a virtue. How is any of this like a faith which valorizes going beyond the evidence, committing oneself to a view and choosing to see something as true independently of the world, and which centers on some received knowledge which often beggars reason without offering explanation?

Another response which I am likely to get is that faith isn't really doing anyone any harm, so why don't I leave it alone? As long as I have to deal with people shoving God down my throat, offering prayers and snide comments about my eventual salvation, it's at least a problem which *I* have to put up with. But more than that, how can we run a society well with an eye to human flourishing if we hold on to a view that refuses to keep asking: how can we do this better? How do things really work? How could things really work? To give an example: when I was in South Africa, I saw car accident rates 7-8 times higher than here in the US. But when someone got into an accident in my village, people did not take this to be a result of poor driving skills, poor roads, or blatant disregard of the rules of the road. They thought that the ancestors or God were displeased and must be appeased. By focusing on boogeymen, they avoid dealing with the real problems. And that makes everyone worse off; if one person decides to be a more careful driver, they cannot get far, because everyone else is still a maniac. Beliefs are social. If you cannot be bothered to look over your beliefs, then that doesn't mean that you get a pass. You influence society by being in it, sharing your thoughts, by your actions, by voting, by raising children under your beliefs. Faith is a social problem, not a private one to be overlooked out of some vague nostalgia or sense of "piety."

Friday, March 15, 2013

Reason and Creativity

We often split up the intellect and creation, as if these were two different sets of skills. We talk of "left-brained" and "right-brained" people. Which is utter nonsense - reason and creativity are two sides of the same coin, and either without the other is nothing.

Let's take mathematics. Now, most people think of having to memorize theorems and solve mysterious equations, and equate that with math. That is generally poor math education, and at best math calisthenics which don't capture the real heart of the subject. Euclid had his five postulates because he was trying to figure out what he could do with something that makes straight lines and something that makes circles. Math is about looking at these starting points, and then either enjoying the intellectual exploration of what unforeseen results might come out of such a humble beginning, or questioning why we should start with at that particular spot. What if we change this one postulate? Turns out there are other geometries available to us once we change the rules. What if we love origami and want to see what we can do with paper folds? Then we can start working on a new set of rules to fit that pattern. Or maybe we just fall for the beauty of some set of infinitely interlocking patterns and forms. In any case, even in this most rigid and logical of subjects, creativity and a sense of exploration are essential.

On the other hand, art needs structure. The point of crafting an artwork is that it be worked out in all its detail - whether that's making sure that characters and plots are consistent and true to the story, placing every note and chord so that they make a song sing, letting every move in a dance flow with the music and the energy between the partners, or chipping away every point on a sculpture that doesn't fit the image. There is a lot of room to decide what exactly makes a given artwork harmonious and unified; in some cases, this might be by discordance and chaos, but this for the sake of the greater work and not because of laziness. And that is not to say that there is no room for improvisation; improv is like adding in another mathematical postulate or scientific hypothesis and seeing what develops. Just as the scientist or philosopher is working out the details of an idea or a worldview and aligning pieces so that they are unified and consistent, the artist is putting that idea into matter in such a way that it holds together.

An artist that ignores reason is a sloppy artist, unable to embody anything in a quality work. But an intellectual that is a mere machine entirely misses the spirit behind the discovery of relativity, of DNA's double helix, or Goedel's incompleteness theorems. Both the discipline of reason, seeking to bring unity and boundaries to an idea, and the exploration of creativity, striving to discover both new depths within and new breadths without the idea, are necessary.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Does Teleology Make Sense?

In order to not drive away too many people from my Peace Corps blog, I'll write a couple more technical posts here. I was just reading this article: In sum: The author is reviewing the book Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel, in which Nagel argues that it makes sense to talk about a "teleological cause" in the universe. Put another way, the universe acts towards a goal, in a way that might be said to be purposeful. Such a view has been popular in the history of thought, starting with Aristotle and continuing largely through religious thinkers who have held that the "goal" of the universe is something in the mind of God or even is God.

In discussions of whether there are really teleological causes in the world, it seems to me that we end up talking about different sorts of teleology. So let's get a couple of these sorts straight, and see where that leads us. I will describe teleological causes as those that explain behaviour as leading to some telos (pl. teloi), or end. I use the Greek because I would rather not be hindered by anthropomorphic talk of "intents" or "purposes" or "desires."

Picture a ball rolling down a hill (for those looking for an example and not merely an analogy, replace this with talk of lipid molecules heading toward cis- or trans- states, or in a more complicated fashion the gravitational pull of matter on matter). One could talk about the efficient cause that set it rolling in the first place: Someone pushed it, a breeze started the motion, it was dropped from an airplane onto the slope, whatever your imagination wants. The ball will head down to the bottom of the hill. This would be its telos. It is the end goal, the low-energy state, the point to which it will arrive, barring other external forces.

Saying that there is such a telos seems rather uncontroversial. So one view of teleological causality is that it might be trivially true, but unhelpful.

Another view might be that it explains the natural world in a useful way. We can talk of the ball on the hill with all of its movers, of the material of the ball, of the shape of the ball and the hill, etc. In doing so, we might be able to say with certainty that the ball will end up in one telos. But let's say that we add someone halfway down the hill, who is going to kick the ball. This will change the ball's course of action, but it still makes sense to say that it would have ended at the bottom of the hill on its original path. Even without an outside agent, we could look at the ball's path and ignore what set it in motion, only looking at where it is heading. In other words, we could look at the teleological cause independently of the efficient causes.

Such a view of teleology doesn't necessarily add any new information to the world. There is no fact that it adds that could not have been said using efficient causes, the material of the ball and the hill, and the shapes of everything involved. But it lets us talk about such facts in a different way. It is like using rectangular and polar coordinates. Either system lets you talk about everything the other system describes, in theory, but I would not want to plan out the polar equations for a straight line.

So teleology could be a different and useful way of explaining the world which nonetheless posits no new facts or forces. On a final reading, teloi could actually act as a sort of "backwards-causation," adding a necessary explanatory element to the world which cannot be captured in any other way.

We'll have to drop the ball example for this one, since to imagine inanimate objects having such teleology would be to create a straw man. Let's think about living beings. On the present view, even if one has all the information about a human being, her precise physical and mental make-up, all of the influences in her life, etc., one cannot fully explain her actions. She acts for goals, and these absolutely cannot be reduced to other explanations. Furthermore, there is some telos (or collection of teloi) which is the goal of a human life, the good life, for which human beings strive.

Now, in order for such teloi to be irreducible to other causes, we cannot find this goal anywhere. There is absolutely no empirical investigation which would be sufficient. Looking through neurons and brain chemicals, of psychological studies of the conditions under which human beings report flourishing, and so on, would be insufficient.

I'm not sure why I should hold that. I seek to live a good life precisely by looking at how people live, the conditions under which they flourish, and so on. I find as much empirical data as possible to aid my quest. The good life would then seem to be a alternate way of talking about human make-up and structure.

Perhaps, though, teleology adds in this piece of information: "Beings should act in such a way that fulfills their potential/nature/whatever." Or something else that adds values to a merely-fact laden universe. If this were true, then we would have some reason to hold to a teleology that is irreducible to other causes. But one could also hold that values are merely part of living in the midst of things, of existing in a particular spot already shaped by the world and having causes already acting on one. A big picture of the world such as philosophers and scientists often hold might have a fact-value dichotomy, but we do not live in the big picture. As already being acted upon ("thrown", to use Heidegger's terminology), we already have our projects and our values, just as much as the ball is already rolling down the hill. In that case, then, an explanation of whatever causes make us up would be sufficient, combined with the additional fact that we are living out those causes and not dissecting them in a philosophical lab. A discussion of human flourishing would start by looking at what projects human beings actually want.

But what about the universe at large? Some have claimed that there is a telos to the whole universe, and this would be God. But such a proposition is far from clear, and one could even ask if it makes sense. The telos of a lion is to be as much of a lion as possible. What that means will be filled out by the empirics of lion-ness, but it generally seems to entail eating antelope. Antelope, by contrast, have a telos that generally involve not being eaten by lions. (And of course, this could be re-written as "lions are the sort of creatures that chase and eat prey animals, while antelope are the sort of creatures that run away from predators, in much the same way that molecules seek low-energy states, yada yada, qualifications, etc.") So in the predator-prey relationship, there does not seem to be a single telos which fits both aspects of the situation. Why should we suppose that there is a unified telos for all beings? (Other then, perhaps, the heat-death of the universe.)

Perhaps we could think of the Universe as a single organism. I'm not terribly opposed to the notion, but I'm also not sure how much further it gets us. If the Universe has a telos as an organism, then we still have to explain in what fashion this would be something separate from other facts about the Universe. If the telos is something external, from outside the Universe, then we need an example of what this might be and why we should believe it. Or perhaps someone will say that the universe is actually a bunch of discombobulated parts, and the fact that it functions together harmoniously is precisely the evidence of such an external telos. To this response, I need significantly more clarification on what "harmonious" means. Does it simply mean that the parts all exist together? Why is that so miraculous? Does it entail that the parts exist for the good of each other? But on what level? The antelope eaten by the lion begs to differ. Does it entail that the parts exist for the greatest maximal good? But what does that mean, as if good could be simply summed up (pace Bentham), or as if we actually had any evidence that this were the case? And why is the introduction of an external telos a better explanation than that the multifaceted aspects of the universe have existed with each other the entire time, evolving together with each other, with every part affected by every other? For example, in a given ecosystem, the different species evolve together, with each ones environment and fitness functions formed by all the others, so it is no wonder that they evolve in ways that form a unified ecosystem. (One might ask where the universe came from, but that is a completely different question and does not appear to have any direct relevance to the question of teleology.)

So, in sum, teleology appears to be a legitimate way of talking about the world, even on a naturalist view. However, this does not mean that there are additional teleological causes running around the world or the necessity of any Mind making this whole shebang hang together.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Human Nature

Is human nature good, evil, or whatnot? I don't pretend to answer that in this post. My point is just to try to come to an understanding of what the question means.

First, though, we need a sense of what "good" means. A solid definition is not necessary, so long as there is some content to the word. It is not good for a person to starve to death. It is good for a person to have enough to eat. Let's start from such examples before getting into controversial moral topics.1

Next, what is nature? Nature is what happens always or for the most part. What people tend to do on a systematic level is what human nature is for the species. It does not seem necessary to say that nature is fixed given this definition. A snapshot of human beings from 10,000 BCE to 0 BCE would probably give a different view of human nature than than between 600 BCE and 10,000 CE.2

So, the first thing that the question could mean is: would human nature be good for the individual? That is, if one goes around doing typical human things, does this tend to lead to what is good for specific people? Another way of putting it perhaps: does living an average human life tend to be satisfying? Of course, one can find stories to fit both sides, so the question is asking what holds for the most part (or even if there is a "most part"). If human nature is good in this sense, then one does not have to adjust one's basic instincts in order to live a good life.

Another possible meaning would be whether human nature is good for society. If people live just according to how human beings tend to act, how does this affect others? Do people left to their own devices tend to make society work (such as free-market economic models posit) or do they actually land people in a position which may be worse for everyone involved (like in the prisoner's dilemma)? Of course, the answer doesn't have to be reducible to just these two positions.

Finally, the question could be asking whether pursuing one's own good leads to the good of the society or is contrary to it. If the two are contrary, then anything one does for oneself is selfish, and anything done for others is altruistic (think Ayn Rand, who would argue that one should therefore take the selfish option). However, if the two are aligned, then doing what is good for oneself automatically leads to doing what is good for society (much Confucian philosophy, in particular Mencius/Mengzi, would agree with this).

These questions are all to an extent independent. Human nature might procure what is good for the individual but what is bad for society; if people live according to their basic desires without cultivating them beyond the norm, they might gain a satsifying life for themselves while hurting others.3 And there is a difference between saying that human nature leads to what is good for society, and that the individual good leads to what is good for society; it may be that human nature is destructive to the individual, but that what is truly fulfilling and satisfying to the individual would actually be good for everyone.

1 Of course, what "good" is depends on what a human being is. If one takes a human being as something which we treat for practical purposes as having free will, and anything constrained by the natural world is determined, then the good of a human being does not have to do with the natural world; this would be Kant's view, in which what is morally right is determined by reason alone as the only law which makes the will autonomous. So we can still come to conflicting views of what "good" is if our views on the essence of human beings conflict. But this does not mean that the term "good" is rendered meaningless; you still understood what it meant in this discussion.Top

2 What is the relation between "nature" and "nurture" on this view? That is a complicated question. One the one hand, there are ways in which society teaches individuals to put aside many of their basic instincts to take part in the larger group. So it might seem that society always leads people to live contrary to human nature. However, society regularly teaches people to maintain a certain level of decency towards each other, and people are regularly receptive of this. Even in dysfunctional societies, most people are not serial killers. This would mean that a good amount of "nurture" is part of nature, both in the giving and the receiving.Top

3 Though, given that we are talking about nature, what happens always or for the most part, one might see that these questions are interrelated. It cannot be the case that most people live a good life for themselves, while simultaneously preventing society at large (that is, most people) from living a good life. But the two questions are separate. One might also speak of potentials: human nature gives one the potential to become a selfish warlord who lives a good life at the expense of others.Top

Monday, June 04, 2012

Propaganda and Recall

The recall election is this Tuesday - which means that if you are in Wisconsin, you should get out and vote. But while I think that Scott Walker is an unmitigated douchebag, I have been sorely disappointed in Barrett's ad campaign. It reflects a deeper problem: the Tea Party has done a masterful job at bending rhetoric in their favor, and the Democrats have been horribly inept at doing anything about it. I'm not going to give reasons why Scott Walker's plans are failing/succeeding/whatever (honestly, 2 years is not a good test of how his policies will affect the economy, one way or the other; I claim that whenever a Democrat is in office, so fairness dictates that I do it now as well), nor am I going to say why Tom Barrett would be an improvement (largely because I do not have enough knowledge one way or another). I'm not even going to get into my moral opposition to Walker. I just want to get rid of some asinine assumptions in our current political climate so that we can start actually talking about important issues intelligently.

In particular, the Tea Party has made terms like "deficit", "government spending," and "taxes" out to be dirty words. Did someone fix the deficit? They must be good. Did they increase the deficit? They must be bad. And so on. So let's look at these three concepts at least:

  1. "Deficit": A deficit is not always a bad thing. Did you take out student loans or a mortgage? You then implicitly agree with me. Sometimes, one spends money to invest in the future. In fact, the absolute worst time to get rid of a deficit may be when the economy is stagnant. Let's take an illustration: you are a minimum-wage employee in a bad economy. If you keep working at your job, there's not a whole lot of room for you to go. You have no college degree. If you stay risk-averse, your life won't improve much. If you take out student loans, then are smart in picking an affordable but decent college, you can in the long-term do much to increase your earning potential. The deficit in the form of a student loan is part of a long-term gain.

    Similarly, when the economy is bad, there needs to be some investment. Paying off the deficit looks great on paper, but it's worse than worthless if it also hurts the economy. You invest wisely in order to create jobs and opportunities, which then increase revenue - but that requires spending more money at the beginning and creating more projects. Now, not all spending is good, of course. Our minimum-wage worker above could end up blowing their loan money on booze or could choose a degree that is not in their best interests. And again, I am not making factual claims about how the money is or isn't being spent, or how it should be. I just want to be able to have a conversation about government spending without it automatically being considered a bad thing.

  2. Which brings be to blacklisted phrase #2: "Government spending." When we talk about government spending, that sounds bad - like the government is wasting our money. But what is the government spending money on? Let's see - things like education, libraries, police, firefighters - you know, things I generally like having around in my community. Saying that the government "has decreased funding to education" sounds a lot worse than saying it "has decreased spending," doesn't it? But what do you think is getting decreased? Of course, there are government inefficiencies that should be rooted out and removed, and we can have informed debate between differing parties on what to spend money on. But any assertion that "increased government spending" must be bad (as Walker's campaign ads suggest) is vapid and worthless.

  3. "Taxes": The government needs money for these things from somewhere. And that's where taxes come in. Look, no one actually likes to pay takes. But we not only want education for ourselves and our children, we also want to live in a society with educated people who make informed decisions, not least in voting. I want firefighters; not just for my house, but so that a fire in the house next to mine won't spread to me. And when I drive, I want a road that isn't going to total my car. Sometimes, pooling our money together is a more efficient way of attaining a goal than making individual purchasing decisions. Sometimes it's not, but every case needs to be looked at individually. When things are public goods and affect society at large, they need to be funded somehow.(And side note: if these people actually cared about fixing the economy, they would take some of these millions of dollars poured into campaigning and put it to use employing people, funding facilities, investing in Wisconsin projects, etc., so that you could pay less in taxes to enjoy the benefits.)

So let's all agree to not turn off our brains as soon as we hear these phrases. There can be discussions. Economics is tricky business, and there are parties with competing goals. But we can't even have these discussions when people can't get past smooth PR soundbites.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Theory and Practice

I feel like I probably have at least one other blog post with the same title. Perhaps several. It's a pressing concern of mine: what's the relation between thinking about the world, and actually doing something in it?

I've been reading about diplomacy as of late, the history and reality of international cooperation. I'm thinking about possibly going into the foreign services at some point. But I've realized that in order to do that, I need to develop some very different mental habits from what I did in philosophy.

One key difference seems to come down to this: in practice, one needs to listen to all sides. In thinking about the world, though, sometimes there are sides that are just spouting bullshit. There always in fact exist multiple sides to a topic, but not all sides are equal. Just because conspiracy theorists exist does not mean that we should take their views seriously.

If everyone formed opinions purely rationally, then of course we should listen to everyone's opinion in formulating our own. But human beings do not always (or perhaps often) operate rationally (actually, I will revise that in a later post, but we'll work with that hypothesis for now). We (and I do mean "we") form opinions based on what makes us feel emotionally comfortable, on fear, on the basis that we have enough knowledge to form judgments for ourselves.

An opinion based on fear is not in itself a valid side in a rational discussion. One might have valid reasons for the position, but as soon as emotions get high, I have reason to suspect that the emotions were determinative in reaching the view. And I could be wrong; there always could be some truth to a person's position, just as it could be the case that we never landed on the moon, but there also comes a point where we admit that some people just spout nonsense.

I have no patience for climate change or evolution deniers. They fundamentally misunderstand basic terms and theories (like, for example, the word "theory"). Environmental scientists and biologists (you know, the people who actually know what they are talking about) are pretty settled on the basics. We can have a little (very little) debate over whether climate change is anthropogenic, and a lot of debate over what possibly could come of it (climate change doesn't mean that everything would change tremendously; it just means that it is a significant enough possibility to take seriously). But the fact that 1 out of 10,000 environmental scientists dissents, or that some physicist with no understanding of the specific subject matter (or, worse yet, your local doctor) doesn't form the same conclusions, is pretty much irrelevant. And the second an evolution-denier trots out the 2nd law of thermodynamics, the discussion is finished. I don't care how much education they have; they fail basic physics. (Not to mention the inanity of "missing link" objections, or the idea that the fossil record is even the primary evidence for evolution.) If a climate-change denier insists that climate-change is some new myth on top of global warming, or if they point to a cold day as evidence for their view or to a pleasant warm spells and 14th century English vineyards as evidence that global warming would in fact be good, they have removed themselves from having a valid opinion to contribute. They are misguided on so basic a level that they are not engaging the topic. They can be taught (a practical effort), but their opinion matters as little as a math student who claims that a theorem is wrong because it is “too abstract.” (To appease some members of my audience: claiming that a single warm day or season proves global warming, or being an atheist who claims that denying the Christian God is the same as denying Thor, is to be similarly clueless.)

So, as a philosopher or a scientist, the job is to judge. Not all opinions are rational or informed, and those that aren't can be culled. In trying to figure out the truth about politics, even, this can be the case (Scott Walker is a douchebag. The fact that there is "another side to the issue" doesn't mean that that side has a clue. And trickle-down economics just does not work.) But practically, standing around and telling people that they are clueless is in itself pretty clueless, if one's goal is to make things different. It's not enough to think true thoughts about the world. Things need to be done, and that requires compromise. Climate change is real; great, but you still have to work with the deniers who say that there is some vast left-wing conspiracy. You need to actually get things passed in legislature. You need to provide education that is approachable to them, not that pushes them away (this blog post, for example, is not a good example of such – but that wasn't my intent). Do you think racial profiling exists? Great, so do I – but for God's sake, don't present an oversimplified case which cuts out the actual details of why a shooting was considered to be self-defense. Doing so will only convince the deniers that you as a bleeding-heart liberal can only support your view by distorting evidence.

So that is the challenge: I have been trained to judge matters, to look into only the sides that have significant reasons. Doing this often puts me at odds with culture, which doles out such asinities as “everyone has an opinion,” as if the freshman knows as much as the seasoned economist. Democracy means that everyone has worth as a human being and that the government should be for the people. Understanding still has to be earned. But because I think that certain things are true about the world, I want to change the world for the better. Part of the problem as to why there are so many climate change deniers is that the scientists don't actually take the time to work better with media sources, to give the public an understanding of the issues involved. They abdicate the position of go-between because it's frustrating. There need to be more people bridging the gap between theory and practice, as difficult and as taxing to patience and to principles as that might appear to be.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Thoughts on Machiavelli

I had read The Prince a while ago and have been trying to digest it a bit. It raises some interesting questions for politics. Now, Machiavelli has a name for advocating ruthlessness and backstabbing in order to keep power. But his project is actually much more than that.

First, he sets out to write about how politics actually work. Too many people have been writing about the politics of some ideal, morally perfect world, he complains. He wants to tell it like it is. He is not saying that one should be a jerk, he's just pointing out that, actually, many good Roman emperors who kept the peace were assassinated by their own soldiers for the very fact. Do what you want with that information, but at least face the world we live in.

Second, Machiavelli brings up ethical problems in ruling a state. You might think that the gentle ruler is better than the brutal ruler - but what happens when your region is in chaos? He gives some examples from Italy of his day of a ruler who was nice and all, but whose city then was conquered, which of course destroyed the social fabric. By contrast, he points out another ruler who was horribly brutal. But after a few well-placed executions, his city ran smoothly. The latter actually brought peace to his city, which means that the citizens actually lived better lives. The former actually lost that peace. And the goal of ruling is to procure actual peace, stability, and comfort for one's own citizens.

This bothers me about politics, by which I mean any attempt to bring order to a community of people. When is force justified? Not just force in war, but also in pushing through opinions that will actually improve the lives of people, even if they don't realize it (and may even be antagonistic to it). What do we do when ideals of justice don't actually lead to good consequences? The world works the way it does, and complaining about corruption and social inertia doesn't change their existence. Procuring peace at the price of justice won't secure that peace, but pursuing through only just ends might not get anything at all. And this is ultimately Machiavelli's point: not that one should do whatever it takes to get power for oneself (he actually doesn't care much for such people), but that one needs to do what it takes to improve ones community (in this case, the incessantly warring states of Italy).

Sunday, January 08, 2012

A Note on Islam

To balance out my persnickety-ness in the previous couple posts, I figured I would write on something a bit more positive. There seems to be a widespread gap of information on Islam in our society. Therefore, I am writing a short blurb on its incredible diversity and inability to be captured in any particular stereotype,as well as to give some clue as to why I might hope to join Peace Corps and spend some time in this portion of the world. I'll provide details and sources if anyone wants, but my point here is just to show how many cultures are part of the Islamic world, and how they are Islamic precisely in keeping that culture.

First off, Islam is much more than just the Arabic-speaking world, but I will start there. Even within North Africa and the Middle East, there are a range of cultures. Some North Africans would identify with nomadic Berber tribes (of which Augustine may have been descended). Other North African countries still contain traces of French occupation and participate in the Francophone world. Egypt is, well, Egypt, with a history of ancient pharaohs, Greeks, Persians, Fatimids, and Turks. The Arabian Pennisula itself is the main location of the Arab tribes themselves, whereas the Levant is home to Syrians (remember the Assyrians?) and Philistines (aka Palestinians – Gingrich is dead wrong in saying that they are an artificial grouping). As far as Arabic speakers go, Christians and Jews form and have formed significant communities, so Arabic and Islam are not by any means co-extensive.

Beyond the Arabic-speaking world, there is of course Persia and its territories, centered in present-day Iran but including all of the -stans as well (a suffix meaning roughly the same as the English “-land”). Islam did not merely take over Persia; the crumbling Persian empire was revitalized through Islam and both Zoroastrian and imperial motifs were reworked.

This empire extended into India – but Indian Muslims considered themselves Indians. They added their own legends about how Adam and Eve first stepped foot into India, giving a pride of place to their own homeland on par with that of their religion's own holy land. Some emperors worked on a “Divine Religion” in which Hindus and Muslims could come together and Hindu texts were translated into Persian to show the similarities between the religions. Unfortunately, on the political level, such a rapprochement did not last. However, some segments have continued to share their ideas and lives in pursuit of a common goal.

Up north a little are Chinese Muslims. Among other things, they formed their own school of Confucianism, showing the similarities with Sufi writings. An Islamic school of martial arts also arose as Islam adapted to the culture. And I could point out the spread of Islam into Indonesia or the rest of Africa, though I am unfortunately unaware of much of the specifics at this point.

Turkey is an example of diversity in Islamic opinions. The modern secular state was founded, not against Islam, but because of arguments from an Islamic position. The Caliphate, which had been seated in Turkey, was defunct – it was supposed to be the institution that succeeded Muhammad and carried out his work. There had been nothing of that sort for a thousand years, even if certain individuals were still using the name Caliph. Since a successorship can't just be restarted, the best thing to do with be to transition into a non-caliphal, non-religious government.

Then there is Europe. The Muslims in Spain have left their mark which can still be seen in the country today. The court of Abdul Rahman III of Cordoba was considered one of the high points of religious tolerance and freedom in the world. The Islamic jurist and philosopher Averroes might very well be an integral part in our own Enlightenment. Once the Western Roman Empire fell and knowledge of Greek was lost, it was through Arabic thinkers that Latin Europe reclaimed Greek science and philosophy.

And what of the present day? I remember sitting in a mosque a couple summers ago, watching the sermon. Much of it was indistinguishable from a Protestant church, except with more Arabic and more bowing. The main sermon points were the same. They had summer religious programs (Vacation Qur'an School?). And despite what many want to say, they didn't want to impose Shari'a law in the United States. They rather lauded the freedom that they had here as opposed to many of their home countries.

I could go on, talking about the Silk Road or the way in which Turkish, Persian, Indian, and Chinese painting styles intermixed. Or contemporary events in the Arab Spring with the numerous democratic movements coming from within these countries instead of imposed externally by warhawks. Or any number of other details.

I am not a Muslim. In case anyone could not tell from my other blog posts, I am actually rather antagonistic toward theism and scripture-based religions. And I can certainly recognize horrible flaws in many Islamic governments. But there's a lot of cool stuff in this culture too, and it deserves to be looked at without any mention whatsoever of jihad and terrorists. There is no one single picture of Islam, nor is there any particular restriction on what we could see even within our lifetimes.

Against Optimism

Around Thanksgiving, I heard many people talking about how they were grateful to have a job, despite the fact that they would have to abandon family gatherings in order to work Black Friday. I found myself thinking that "gratitude" is a horribly misplaced emotion for such a situation.

Now, granted, it is better to have a source of income than not. But gratitude implies that one owes some sort of debt to another, and a company is owed no debt for exploiting workers. One can accept the fact that one must go in and earn some money, and that this is reality. But one should not approve of corporate bullies.

I hear from a lot of people that we should be grateful for what we have, because many people have it worse. And I am admittedly privileged beyond most. Life also sucks sometimes, and this is true completely independently of people are starving halfway across the world. (And to whom would I be grateful? If it is to a god, then this god is responsible for the miserable conditions the world over just as much for my good fortune. Gratitude is not appropriate in such a situation, but rather a trembling fear that I might someday be put on the cosmic asshole's shit list. A god that gets people into Wheaton but then starves entire nations is not worthy of worship, only terror.)

But at this point someone might say, "But it makes me feel better to have hope in something, so what is wrong with that?" Because an unfounded optimism, a fantastic belief that the world is good, is selfish. One has chosen to make placate oneself with an opiate creating false beliefs, which render one unable to respond accurately to real problems. How can one meet others in their need, when one chooses comfort over truth? How can one address problems when the problems are ultimately good?

And if individual optimism is reprehensible, what shall we say of communal optimism? Of views which justify faith, because it is the only way of finding meaning for human existence (ignoring for the moment the direct counter-examples of people who have no problem finding fulfillment in such an existence – such an appeal to faith is an acknowledgement of one's own lack of imagination and inflexibility, not of the human condition)? Of beliefs which encourage a leap beyond the evidence, which by its very nature also is a leap beyond critical examination and which places ones wish fulfillment outside the realms of analysis?

Now, one might think that I would advocate a pessimism, by contrast. But that would not follow. Pessimism is its own set of fantasies which obscure the world. However, pessimism might at least encourage one to go out and change the world when necessary, so I have less of a problem with it. An acceptance of the actualities of the world as it is makes the most sense. Whether one wants to keep the world in stasis or to start a revolution, one must start with where things are presently. If I work a job I hate, I should go in and do it as calmly as possible, then search for new jobs afterwards in like spirit. But let us drop any view that valorizes fantasies.


(Of course, some of this is overblown. But no one responds to carefully drafted and qualified posts, so let's see what this can incite.)