Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Brawl of Masculinities

The stirring of a men’s movement on the intellectual dark web, the vengeance of the #MeToo backlash, the lame posturing of the Gillette ad, and the American Psychological Association’s warning that toxic masculinity is bad for mental health—these have all raised the question of the nature of masculinity. Is there an ideal way to be a man? Is that question politically loaded or otherwise socially constructed? Or is there a more philosophical perspective that enables us to see through the political games and illuminate the larger problem?

Conservative and Liberal Masculinities

George Monbiot takes up the question of toxic masculinity in a Guardian article, arguing against the conventional wisdom on the right that ‘a “grown man” requires “oppressive” discipline, aggression and risk-taking.’ On the contrary, writes Monbiot, “growing up—whether as a man or a woman— means abandoning anger, aggression and the need to dominate. It means learning to talk about fear, loss, joy and love. It means learning both to listen and to share, to name your troubles and engage with other people’s.” Far from being tougher than the average liberal softy, the macho right-winger is especially vulnerable, says Monbiot, because he often hides some unresolved emotional trauma that threatens to undo his accomplishments. “What sort of a man are you if you have to go to such lengths to prove your masculinity? The confident construction of identity does not require crude cultural markers, but emotional literacy and honest self-appraisal. The more we proclaim our strength and dominance, the weaker we reveal ourselves to be.”

The problem with these discussions is that there’s no such thing as men, psychologically speaking. Most men have the same biological traits, but in large societies men organize themselves into hierarchies, and men at the top are mentally unlike men at the bottom. Our social position impacts our personality, so the differences aren’t subjective. Broadly speaking, men fall into three groups: leaders, followers, and outsiders. The first two groups are part of a larger group which is opposed to outsiders, so that there’s an even broader distinction between winners and losers. The former three categories correspond to the ethological terms, “alpha,” “beta,” and “omega,” although that terminology is tainted by its association with the alt right. In any case, just as there are classes of men with distinct ideals befitting their social station, there are masculinities rather than an overarching value system that ought self-evidently to be adopted by all men.

Male leaders idolize the psychopath, because what distinguishes these men is the social power that naturally corrupts their character, sapping them of their capacities for empathy, compassion and humour. The set of psychopathic traits that characterizes the action movie star, for example, is the traditional kind of masculinity favoured by “conservatives,” since the tradition they wish to conserve or reestablish is monarchism, slavery to the ultra-ruler or tyrant. Conservatism is thus a social movement that prizes bullying, at a minimum, if not a totalitarian dictatorship, and so conservatives seek to preserve the social systems that enable bullies to emerge and prosper. A bully is just a leader whose dominance is recognized by his followers, because the leader has demonstrated his greater share of social power by conspicuous acts of belittling others in the group. The bully’s psychopathic traits, in turn, evolved out of desperation when long ago hunters needed to psych themselves up to bring down big game. Psyching themselves up to stalk dangerous prey or to guard the tribe against fellow predators meant turning themselves at least temporarily into psychos, that is, into fearless, amoral killers. Once our kind succeeded in lording it over the animal kingdoms, our “leaders” trained their psychopathic traits onto the rest of us, and so they became hunters of men and women—not of their fellow humans, mind you, but of subordinate ranks of human creatures that only outwardly resemble them.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Bitter End of “Christian Thinking”

I’ve decided to post the rest of my debate—such as it was—with the “thinking Christian,” Tom Gilson, and with some of his more capable Christian readers, because of the intriguing way the debate appears to have ended. What follows, again, are mostly highlights just from my side of the exchange since my opponents said little that would pique a philosopher’s interest. But near the end I do post Gilson’s angry sign-off, followed by the aftermath and an Afterward where I present some lessons I drew from the discussion. Again I include a few explanatory comments in square brackets, and here’s the link to the entire thread on Gilson’s blog, which contains both sides of the commentary. Also, for convenience, here’s my presentation of the first half of this debate, and here’s the first run-in I had with Gilson a year ago.

***

Tom Gilson,
I said my “Christian” comments “demonstrated I have more than a working knowledge of Christianity,” meaning that I have more than general knowledge of the religion. I’m not saying I know everything there is to know about Christianity since no one does, least of all a non-Christian. There’s no one Christian answer to any question of Christian theology. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” comes from a Charles Wesley hymnal.

You say, ‘I’m opposed to you speaking as if we should accept it as the same, with no argument, with only a story and with “given that…” ’

But I did argue for it when questioned about it—at great length, remember? If you’re looking for stories, with plainly fictional characters and fantastic deeds, read the Bible. You see how easy it is to argue by assertion, like you do? I demonstrated that the criticism of Yahweh’s personality isn’t an arbitrary whim of new atheists, but ironically goes back to Job, Gnosticism, and so on. Then I gave you a logically independent explanation of why we should expect Yahweh’s character to be rigidly tyrannical (it’s due to the nature of syncretism in that part of the ancient world, etc), and I based that explanation on the standard critical historical account of the rise of Jewish monotheism. And I distinguished between assuming awareness of a criticism and assuming general agreement with it.

It’s just baffling that you say I haven’t argued for my position, when I’ve done so at great length and you’ve argued here only by assertion. You’ve even conceded you “didnt specify where your account went wrong because that was never my purpose here,” and that “I suspect you must think me unreasonable for not answering more of your questions.” You say “Bare assertions, stories, and pronouncements are not arguments.” The thing is: you have to know what an argument is to be able to identify one. As I showed in comment #13, you mixed up those two, logically separate arguments and took at most only 24 minutes to digest that long post. Pearls before swine, I suppose.

By the way, I just noticed that in your censored posting of my comment #3, you posted it twice. 

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Second Debate with a “Thinking Christian”

It’s been a year since my exchange with the “Thinking Christian,” so over the holidays I dipped back into that blog and found an article called, The Death of God, the Descent of Man, the Death of Humanity, in which Tom Gilson argues that ironically, instead of killing God, naturalism kills humanity by explaining away our godlike traits of consciousness, freedom, and reason, and by obscuring our God-given purpose in life. I posted a response and we had an interesting discussion until Gilson derailed it by posting an article about the incuriosity and hubris of atheists like me who dare to attack God’s character as though even Christians had to accept that criticism.

Here, then, is a record of my side of the exchange. If you enjoy reading debates, do check out the threads on his blog for both sides and for the full context. Honestly, though, Gilson didn’t put much effort into his comments and this post will be long enough as it is. It’s best, then, to focus here on the more interesting part of the discussion, which happened to be supplied by me. Note that I add a few explanatory notes within square brackets. Note also that the exchange has continued, but these are the highlights.

***

We “know” Nietzsche’s atheism and reductive naturalism are false, because of “undeniable self-awareness and experience”? Is that the same intuitive basis that led us to believe Earth is geometrically central to the universe, because just look: even the sun revolves around us! Or are those intuitions of human freedom, purpose, and cosmic worth associated with the dozens of cognitive biases and fallacies we inherently perpetrate, as shown by cognitive science? We “know” we’re meant for something greater, because we feel that that should be so. And we should go with our gut, because truthiness matters more than truth.

This is an argument from unpleasant consequences. To be up-front and honest about your argument, you should identify as a pragmatist and say—along the lines of Pascal’s Wager—that we’d much prefer for there to be a God, an afterlife, and perfect justice, and that that preference is all that matters because utility outweighs considerations of objective truth. But that would be crass, wouldn’t it? You’d rather have it both ways: the pretense that Christians alone care about truth and reality, and the shameless appeal to intuition and to what feels right even when that feeling flies in the face of naturalistic science (of Darwin, cosmology, cognitive science, etc).

You’re also strawmanning Nietzsche. He understood perfectly well that atheism is horrific, that unpleasant reality is too much to bear for most people and that the truth could indeed destroy humanity. That was the whole point of Thus Spoke Zaruthustra. People aren’t ready for the atheistic prophet’s message. Most people aren’t strong enough to stomach the natural truth, which is why, for example, the “Last Men” will distract themselves with superficial pleasures to avoid facing the harsh facts (that there’s no god, afterlife, or cosmic purpose or justice, and that it’s up to us alone to create meaning). This is the problem of nihilism, which Nietzsche said atheism (i.e. natural reality) threatens us with.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Mental Health: A Rant by Rashad the Cackler

Art by Alex Cherry
[The homeless old man, Rashad the Cackler has returned with another diatribe. Enjoy as he spills his guts to passersby on a big city street corner.]

How I relish the looks of derision on your faces, you calm and collected pedestrians! “Look at the homeless wreck of a man,” you’re thinking. “See how repulsive he is, with his long, matted hair and beard, his blotchy, wrinkled skin, his hunched back and bony arms! Hear as he spews his venom, how he’s nothing left to lose, not even his sanity!” The bitter madman, haranguing harmless middle class normies at the crossroads. What a cliché you’d make of me. But before you silence me with sedatives and a straightjacket, shall I disclose the secret of how you reward me with your sneers and scowls?

You sane ones, do you know what “sanity” means? Mental health is fitting in. The psychiatrists’ textbooks call this “social functionality.” You’re considered mentally unwell if you’re suffering from an inability to perform your social obligations. You have to want to fit into society and yet be mentally prevented from doing so to be the victim of a mental illness.

So congratulations, you joiners and normies, you who’ve adapted so well to social conventions! You’re esteemed as healthy because of your normality. But have you stopped to wonder what you’re fitting into? What are these functions you perform so efficiently? What’s the total effect of normal human effort? What do human functions as a whole accomplish?

Would it surprise you to learn that your health is supremely ironic? You belong to that which is most alien in the universe, not just to life but to a godlike species that rises above nature and the animal kingdom, surveys the vastness of space and time, and creates a contrary world of culture and technology. As you play your assigned roles as worker or family member, as friend or foe, bully or clown, you submerge yourself in that which most stands out. You’re part of a titanic monstrosity.

Let’s not pretend your happiness is innocent, you spinning cogs. You relax or rejoice in your success at fitting in, but you only outsource the horror and agony that any monster can be expected to inflict. You raise your living standard at the cost of perpetrating a holocaust against all other animal species, which you don’t think twice about enslaving, torturing, or exterminating. And the wealth of you middleclass busybodies depended on the drudgery of human slaves or of impoverished drudges languishing in Western-backed dictatorships—until the advent of the machine, whereupon you’ll be made obsolete and will inherit the pain.

So you bright and shining sane ones, my compliments! You’re one with the savage Anthropocene. You’ve thrown in your lot with the tyrannical overlord of savage evolution, threatening all life with extinction because of your hubris. You’ve sidled up to a starry-eyed little boy who carries an oversized shotgun in either hand and plays at being God; you submit to the whims of this child as he pretends he knows what he’s doing. And if you perform your functions so smoothly that you disappear as an individual, you fit right in with that vicious abomination, as those billions of duties and conventions add up to mammoth barbarity, to ironies so absurd they mustn’t even be whispered. To tell this secret is to be in danger of being locked up as a madman.

A curious title I wear: “madman.” For what have I to be mad about? Only my standing apart from the behemoth of humanity, from the bumbling pack of mini despots, as I’m condemned to witness the grotesque drama and to be ignored even as I hurl rotten tomatoes onto the stage. And what kind of man am I, abnormal and dysfunctional in my inability to hold down a job, own any property, or start a family? No, no madman am I—only one alienated subhuman beholding the antics of alien humanity from my perch on Mount Nowhere.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Pragmatism and Pantheism: a Match made in Nature

I begin with the zeitgeist, with where our species is at in the early twenty-first century. Philosophical questions can be more or less responsible, depending on the extent to which they grapple with the background assumptions of the prevailing culture. Thousands of years ago, theocracy of one form or another amounted to the conventional wisdom. An empire governed the land and dictated the official myths, although underground folklore flourished in villages due to the lack of mass education. Today, though, we still live in the Age of Reason that began several centuries ago in Europe, in that science and technology are now the chief sources of human power. The respectable thinker today must therefore grapple with ideas that arise out of this “modern” milieu, and so we should begin with the naturalistic dismissal of miracle claims and of traditional religious myths. We start our philosophical questioning by deferring, to some extent, to scientists and engineers who have largely created the postindustrial world we take for granted.

From Naturalism to Pragmatism

Naturalism entails pragmatism in that one of the core assumptions of the myths that should be dismissed is anthropocentrism. Humility should be the most celebrated virtue, although technological progress and capitalistic self-centeredness are more likely to infantilize us. As we learn in High School science or philosophy classes, Copernicus, Galileo and Darwin removed us from our presumed central position in the universe, by showing literally that Earth isn’t geometrically central, that our planet revolves around one of trillions of stars and that we evolved along with all the other species that crawl, swim or fly. Once we absorb that humiliating lesson, we can no longer in good conscience take at face value foundational knowledge claims. In short, we enter the postmodern phase of hyperskepticism. In particular, we should doubt not just obsolete religious traditions, but the hang-over dogma of the correspondence theory of truth.

As the British say, we fancy that when we know something we’re in possession of an absolutely adequate re-presentation of the fact. If I know that the daytime sky is blue, my belief is supposed to agree with the fact. But that’s a dogma that’s every bit as silly as theism. Whether it’s implemented in a brain state or in a written or spoken statement, my “representation” of the blue sky is nothing of the sort. “The sky is blue” presents again the factual properties of the daytime sky just as much as a xylophone embodies a weed whacker. Granted, anything can carry information about something else in that if you read the tea leaves with enough of a detective’s ingenuity, you can learn useful tidbits about a cause from its effect. So if a brand of weed whackers happens to be manufactured by a company that also sells xylophones, the one might indirectly tell us something about the other. Likewise, having seen daytime skies many times and having retained memories of those experiences, the sky has a causal impact on my thoughts. Playing the role of detective, I can infer that the sky has such and such properties, based on the traces the sky leaves in my brain. But that doesn’t mean those traces are objectively adequate to the entirety of the facts, that my thoughts or statements about the sky capture the essence of what the sky is so that the latter is present once again in the representation. On the contrary, my folk conceptions are parochial and even a scientific explanation of the sky’s colour is all-too human for having the ulterior motive of instrumentalism. Scientific theories are formulated to empower our species at nature’s expense, the goal being to learn enough about natural causality for us to pacify the universe’s inhumanity. Our concepts carve up the world into digestible morsels, but just because we can’t fathom the sky in its noumenal aspect or understand what the sky is in relation to everything else in the universe doesn’t mean there’s no such inhuman fact that mocks the claim that our knowledge is empirically adequate.

So we should be pragmatic about human knowledge, because the Scientific Revolution should have taught us all to be humble and skeptical. This pragmatism means we should recognize that as far as we can tell, knowledge is part of an animalistic process: knowledge comes in the form of a map or model that’s used to achieve some goal. This is why scientism should be dismissed along with exoteric religions, because the possibility of nonscientific (noninstrumentalist or non-power-driven) goals makes for the possibility of nonscientific knowledge, given a pragmatic interpretation of knowledge. To say that knowledge is just a tool in the fulfillment of some goal needn’t then be taken as a betrayal of pragmatism, since the pragmatic picture of knowledge would likewise be just a tool. We needn’t presuppose a realist view of what it means to say so and so is real. As long as we remain humble, we can be tentative even in our philosophical generalizations, and so although language may push us to affirm what we propose to be true, we should remind ourselves that all our beliefs and statements are likely wildly biased descriptions.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Are all Americans Guilty of Hate Crimes against President Trump?

Dateline: D.C.— Under federal hate crime laws, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has targeted both critics and supporters of President Trump, for “abusing a mentally incompetent old man,” according to a spokesperson for Mr. Mueller’s office.

“If you saw a physically disabled person and instead of helping her out, you berated her ruthlessly or else lured into making a fool of herself, you could easily foul afoul of hate speech laws,” said the spokesperson.

These laws are designed to prevent crimes committed on the basis of a person’s protected characteristics such as her race, religion or gender—but also her disability.

Taking for granted that President Trump is mentally incompetent, that the president suffers from a host of personality disorders including malignant narcissism, as well as from senility and other cognitive dysfunctions associated with old age and gluttony, Mr. Mueller’s office “is appalled by the reckless abandon with which both critics and supporters of the president” have “taken advantage of Trump's disabilities.”

Democrats and other harsh critics of the president have demonized Donald Trump, whereas they should have given him “special consideration for his inability to think or to behave at an adult level,” according to Mr. Mueller’s office.

Said the spokesperson, “You don’t expect a blind man to excel at seeing, nor a deaf woman to excel at hearing. Yet a world-class bullshitter, con artist, egotist, and sadist with as maniacal a mind as Donald Trump’s is expected to lead a nation in anything like a responsible fashion? No sir, that’s discrimination: that’s the insane lack of a double standard when the need for an exception is obvious.”

On the other side, Mr. Trump’s fervent supporters are just as culpable, according to Mr. Mueller’s office. Instead of demonizing the president for failing to be normal, despite his mental disabilities, the supporters have egged on the president to ever more self-destructive provocations.

“The president’s rallies are typically interpreted as revealing the extent to which the president craves validation,” said the spokesperson. “But what’s not widely noted is that the supporters are resentful trolls who likewise crave something, namely vengeance against the establishment. They’re using Mr. Trump as a bull in the China shop, exploiting his mental inadequacies. So they too are arguably guilty of hate crimes—not just against Jews or Mexicans, but against their so-called cult leader.”

Rather than being a Svengali who dictates what his base of supporters should do or say, president Trump is “the helpless victim of these trolls,” according to Mr. Mueller’s office. “The president has lost all contact with reality and can’t control himself, so how could he be expected to mastermind the antics of millions of Republicans?”

Rumours have circulated in Washington that after Mr. Mueller has indicted the president, his family, his businesses, and his enablers in Russia, the Middle East, and the Republican Party for committing an astonishing assortment of crimes, he’ll proceed with the next phase of his investigation and indict “all remaining Americans for hate crimes against the subhuman president,” as one legal analyst put it.

“Bob Mueller is the straightest arrow in the nation’s quiver,” said the analyst. “As he sees it, if the whole country is guilty of crimes, then lock up the nation! We’re a nation of laws. The citizens are secondary.”

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Does Cognitive Science Undermine Democracy?

Did you know there’s a straightforward cognitive scientific argument against democracy? Here it is:

(1) People are inherently irrational (as shown by cognitive science).
(2) Unless somehow corrected, this irrationality is bound to manifest in a population on average or in the aggregate. 
(3) Irrational government is ill-equipped to recognize or address, let alone to solve, large-scale, complex problems such as those that arise in a globalized world. 
(4) Therefore, giving political power even indirectly to the majority of citizens in a society (rather than to individuals who may be exceptions to the rule of irrationality and who thus comprise some minority) is unwise.
Cognitive science has confirmed that logic and science are counterintuitive, that we’re biased against reason. See, for example, this summary of twenty-four of our cognitive biases. To name just a few, there’s the Sunk-Cost Fallacy, according to which we irrationally cling to things that have already cost us. This is how gambling addictions work. Or there’s the Barnum Effect of our seeing personal specifics in vague statements, by our filling in the gaps, which is how astrology and Tarot readings work. There’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect: the more you know, the less confident you’re likely to be, and conversely (and disastrously) the less you know, the more confident you’re likely to be. So the most ignorant and least qualified are likely the loudest voices in the room. This, of course, explains Trumpism. Or there’s Declinism, according to which we remember the past as better than it was, and expect the future to be worse than it will likely be. This explains the popularity both of the Garden of Eden myth and of future-oriented, apocalyptic narratives, as well as the conservative appeal to traditions. And so on and so forth.

Then there’s this list of ten politically incorrect psychological findings about the immorality of human nature. For example, “We view minorities and the vulnerable as less than human.” Moreover, “We believe in karma—assuming that the downtrodden of the world deserve their fate.” We’re “blinkered and dogmatic,” since “we see opposing facts as undermining our sense of identity.” Moreover, we’re “vain and overconfident” in that “most of us walk about with inflated views of our abilities and qualities, such as our driving skills, intelligence and attractiveness.” Also, “We favour ineffective leaders with psychopathic traits,” since these traits “are more common than average among leaders.” And “men and women are sexually attracted, at least in the short term, to people displaying the so-called ‘dark triad’ of traits—narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism—thus risking further propagating these traits.”

Democracy and Subjugation

All of which will have some evolutionary advantage or other that’s no longer relevant to an awakened species that can recognize nature’s absurdity. But the point is that the broader something’s appeal to us, the more we turn to our average behaviour and choices which express the flaws of our nature, the more irrational the eventual outcome. Democracy empowers the majority and is thus liable to be an engine of irrationality in the political sphere. When we vote in an election, the idiosyncratic reasons for our choice in a politician are discounted. All that matters is the total of votes received, and in a sufficiently large population the idiosyncrasies average out, leaving the deficiencies of our nature as the culprits in accounting for the winners and losers. Thus, any notion of popular wisdom is oxymoronic. That is, there’s no such thing as wisdom that emerges generally across a large population. If such a population happens to act wisely or for the best, that will be accidental because the average reasons for the popular embrace of the policy will be irrational. The synoptic view of human affairs is therefore harrowing because at that sociological level of explanation, there’s no rhyme or reason for what's observed; instead, mob behaviour is farcical and disappointing in its animalism.  

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Inhuman Surprises: Karl Friston’s Theory of (Normal) Life

Neuroscientist Karl Friston
Wired Magazine calls Karl Friston “the genius neuroscientist who might hold the key to true AI.” Friston, a psychiatrist and authority on neuroimaging, has written dozens of papers on his theory of everything related to life. The heart of the theory is the free energy principle, otherwise known as the principle of active inference, the idea being a generalization of Bayes’ Theorem. All organisms, says Friston, strive to maintain the health of their internal order by modeling the unobservable causes of their sensory states, so as to minimize “free energy” or surprise. This is done not just by making predictions and testing representational models, but by active inference, a type of embodied cognition whereby the organism selectively samples the environment and works to make the world less surprising by modifying it, thus providing evidence that the world isn’t so scary after all. The more energy is allowed to roam free, beyond the creature’s control, the more entropy wins out against the creature’s internal order. With this theory, Friston means to explain all aspects of life.

In a co-written paper, called The Markov blankets of life:autonomy, active inference and the free energy principle, Friston incorporates the machine learning concept of a Markov blanket. This “blanket” is that which “defines the boundaries of a system in a statistical sense,” the authors write. The states that make up the blanket can be “partitioned into active and sensory states,” meaning the states that occur spontaneously inside the organism, such as its interpretations or its voluntary bodily movements, and those states impressed upon the organism from the outer world, such as its sensations. Thus, the trick in life is to infer or control the unknown causes of the sensory states, by employing the active states. When this is done poorly, the organism is bound to be surprised by the world which makes for wear and tear, including ill-health and eventually death. We can control circumstances only for so long, of course, before the universe of unknowns nullifies our feeble schemes for holding them back or transforming them.

Here, though, is how Friston and his cowriters lay out some of the ideas:
Active inference, in its simplest formulation, describes the tendency of random dynamical systems to minimize (on average) their free energy, where free energy is an upper bound on (negative) marginal likelihood or evidence (i.e. the probability of finding the system in a particular state, given the system in question). This implies that the kind of self-organization of Markov blankets we consider results in processes that work entirely to optimize evidence, namely self-evidencing dynamics underlying the autonomous organization of life, as we know it. In Bayesian statistics, the evidence is known as ‘model’ evidence, where we can associate the internal states with a model of the external states.
The writers clarify that
any system that minimizes entropy by acting to minimize uncertainty about the hidden causes of its sensations must have a model of the kind of regularities it expects to encounter in its environment. This means that, over (phylogenetic and ontogenetic) time, an organism will become a model of its environment…In other words, it suggests that regularities in the environment of an organism become embodied in the organism—if the organism or species persists. Under the free energy principle, this implies that organisms are close to optimal models of their local surroundings, i.e. their niche. Organisms become close to optimal models by minimizing variational free energy, which bounds the evidence for each phenotype or individual model [25]. This does not imply that an agent must (somehow) construct an internal model (i.e. representation) of its outer environment. It simply means that an agent becomes a statistical model of its niche in the sense of coming to embody statistical regularities of its world in its physical and functional composition.
Applying these biological concepts to the evolution of culture and of people would amount to a Theory of Everything—for Normies. The goal in human life, too, would be to map and to control the unknown, and the complete elimination of surprise would be dystopian. Friston’s theory arises from the pretense of hyperrationality and so evinces the lunacy that’s commonly mistaken for neutral sanity.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Unique "Strengths" of Christianity

One trope you’ll find in Christian writings is that their religion is unique because of the life and teachings of Jesus. Invariably, these apologists take their scriptures at face value and rattle off a list of Jesus’ miracles, from his virgin birth to his curing of diseases to his resurrection and ascension. Amusingly, one such article compares Christianity to other religions, summarizing the teachings of Hinduism and adding by way of refutation, “Hinduism as it is actually practiced consists largely of superstition, legendary stories about the gods, occult practices, and demon worship.” There is, of course, no way to take that response seriously without casting an equally skeptical eye on Christianity. The palpable double standard shows that the trope of laying out a case for Christianity’s unique reliability is mere pretense and sales technique.

Obviously, if Hindus engaged in occult practices, why not say the same about Jesus’s magic healings? Or if Hindu stories of gods are legendary, Christianity’s could be the same. As demonstrated in just the last few centuries when critical scholars finally studied the Bible in an objective manner, the case for Christianity’s historicity was never as strong as the official presentation of the scriptures misled the world to believe. The four gospel narratives, for example, aren’t independent of each other, no one knows who wrote them, and they appear to have been written several decades or more after the events in question. Moreover, these narratives find fault with each other as the authors edit unwanted parts of the rival gospel. The earliest New Testament writings, Paul’s letters, hardly ever refer to Jesus as an historical person. Meanwhile, early non-Christian references to Jesus are now infamous for being forgeries (the Josephus passage), confused and irrelevant (Suetonius’ reference to the Roman expulsion of Jews who had been agitated by “Chrestus”), or of otherwise dubious evidentiary value (the second-hand references which show only that there were early Christian practices, not that the Christians’ beliefs about Jesus are accurate). 

If we should take partisan ravings for granted and mistake fiction or myth for history, why not accept that every cult leader was the greatest person to have ever lived or that Hercules was the strongest man because of his epic labours?

Jesus’s Moral Revolution

Leaving aside, then, the preposterous appeals to evidence for Jesus’s supernatural uniqueness, there’s still the question whether the religion’s natural aspects, such as its teachings and historical impact are unique. In particular, says the theologian David Bentley Hart, Christianity improved on the pagan world in that Jesus introduced the concept of the universality of personhood, bestowing on all humans the right to dignity. Originally, writes Hart,
at least in many very crucial contexts, “persons” were something of a rarity in nature. At least, as far as ancient Roman legal usage, one’s person was the status one held before the law, and this was anything but an invariable property among all individuals…To “have a person”—habere personam—was to have a face before the eyes of the law, to possess the rights of a free and propertied citizen, to be entrusted to offer testimony on the strength of one’s own word, to be capable before a magistrate of appeal to higher authority. At the far opposite end of the social scale, however, was that far greater number of individuals who could be classed as “non habentes personas,” “not having persons”—not, as it were, having faces before the law or, for that matter, before society. The principal occupants of this category were, of course, slaves.
To slaves we might add women, since they too were second-class citizens in patriarchal societies.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Absurdity of Faith and Reason

Art by Stephen Gibb
If you confine yourself to the internet’s secular byways, you’d likely be reassured to read that theistic religions are preposterous. For example, suppose I say that having faith in wild ideas about an afterlife, books written by gods, and anthropocentric miracles is degrading, since as the universe’s only known highly-rational creatures, we’re obligated to live well with the harsh apparent truths of nature. Regardless of religion’s social benefits, faith in silly ideas is for children or for childlike adults who are exploited by the sociopaths that tend to operate at the apex of those very societies in which religion is deemed so useful. To function in civilized society, you need to strive to be happy, and religious faith makes you happy by disposing of existential fears of death and life’s underlying pointlessness and unfairness.

Again, if you’re already convinced of atheism, you’ll likely nod your head in agreement with the thrust of those remarks. Of course religion is a childish hangover from ignorant times long past! Progress in scientific understanding and in technological control over our environment has shown that while religion persists despite the rash hopes of certain prominent atheists, mass religious faith is awkward in this milieu. Like the man-child suffering a midlife crisis who attempts to regain his youth by divorcing his wife, buying a sports car and attempting to date young women, whose antics his friends and coworkers can only tolerate but not respect, theistic beliefs and practices are flat-out embarrassing. If you live in what is euphemistically called a technologically-undeveloped part of the world, including a rural area of an advanced, wealthy country like the United States, your “clinging to your guns and religion,” as President Obama put it, may be required for you to fit in, but your way of life is nonetheless a disgrace according to higher standards for humanity.

All of which, again, can be taken more or less for granted, assuming you’ve travelled the intellectual dark web to arrive at this article. Religion’s a folly for the most embarrassing kind of clown: the kind that’s unaware he or she is covered in nutty attire. Would it surprise you, however, to learn that rationality, logic and science, philosophy and skepticism are just as preposterous and clownish? That there are very few non-clowns inhabiting the circus tents of our societies? Reason, too, is foolish because rational people suffer from delusions that are just as gratuitous, albeit not as anachronistic as those that discredit the religious masses. When we reason, we think we’re in control of circumstances because we’re in agreement with reality. We think the world itself is rational, that there’s a natural order which we can approximate with our models and theories and worldviews. We think we’re progressing, maturing beyond the childhood phase of our species, by leaving behind myths and fairytales and dealing with the facts we discover through the hard work of rational investigation. In short, we subscribe to the ideology of humanism. Reason isn’t merely a tool we pick up and apply instinctively like an animal with no delusions of grandeur. No, we idolize reason and replace theistic religion with a civic one that derives from early-modern fanfare.