Saturday, September 29, 2012

The World's Creation as God’s Self-Destruction

What does it mean to declare that God created the world? There are two religious answers, the esoteric and the exoteric. Insiders who best understand theistic ideas take the notion of divine creation to be almost entirely empty. The suspicion is that the world consists of everything we can understand, but that since our powers of understanding are limited, the world likely emerged from something we can’t understand, something unnatural. Religious people call that unnatural something and that emergence, respectively, God and the highest creative act. But because the secret roots of these religious ideas are mysterianism, cosmicism, and mysticism, the religious ideas have negative rather than positive content. We can know indirectly that whatever god is, god is alien and thus terrifying to vain and social creatures such as us, who instinctively personalize everything we encounter to feel at home in the wilderness of nature. (I’ll speak of God with a capital “G” only when speaking of the exoteric projection of our personal qualities onto the unknowable.)

For reasons given by Leo Strauss, Plato, and others, philosophical truth tends to be socially subversive and thus needs to be hidden from society at large. Plato spoke of the need for noble lies told by the elite to the masses, to maintain social order. Thus, the nontheistic basis of major religions, which is to say the fear of an inexplicable X as the source of everything that’s rationally explainable, takes on a theistic, exoteric form for popular consumption. While the mystic says silence is best when thinking of whether to speak of what god’s like, the theist indulges in anthropomorphic metaphors. As Dennett argues in Breaking the Spell, theism is to this extent biologically determined. The theist overuses the mental faculty, or neural module, that facilitates cooperation between members of our species, by enabling us to predict our behaviour by way of positing and interpreting people’s mental states. In short, the theist speaks as though god were a member of our species, with capacities for reason, emotion, choice, and so forth. These anthropocentric metaphors are all obviously absurd when applied to the unnatural and taken literally, and when acknowledged as merely metaphorical they become irrelevant, as the mystic appreciates. 

With this distinction in mind, between the esoteric and the exoteric, let’s return to the meaning of the statement that God created the world. Esoterically, the answer is the negative, indirect one that something unnatural and thus beyond our comprehension is somehow both “prior” to everything in nature, including everything physicists and cosmologists theorize about, and also the “cause” of nature. Again, as soon as you try to speak positively of the relationship between god and the world, you resort to metaphors that make no sense under analysis. And exoterically, the most prevalent monotheistic answer, for example, is that a white male designer engineered the universe, by brooding over the face of the waters, speaking forms into existence, and so forth, for the main purpose of producing life with which he could interact. The implications of monotheistic creation myths, though, are that God wanted to create a place where his children, who are necessarily more limited beings, could exist, and that he did this not out of grace but out of loneliness. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

From Theism to Cosmicism: Toy Gods and the Horror of the Supernatural

Most debate about God is a tempest in a teapot. For example, currently there are riots in the Muslim world because some Christians insulted the prophet Muhammad in a crude video. Likely, the violent protestors don’t represent the majority of Muslims and the majority is cowed into silence by the threat of retaliation from the militant minority which goes unchecked by weak or complicit governments in that region. The ensuing debate in the mainstream media has been about the conflict between freedom of speech and religious fundamentalism, but that discussion blithely ignores the fact that an outright farce plays out whenever someone acts on the assumption that a perfect person has anything to do with the world’s origin.

Indeed, there’s a secret history in major religions that’s driven by another conflict, between religious outsiders and insiders. The outsiders take religious metaphors or literalistic creeds seriously and so engage in all manner of nakedly childish behavior. The spectacle of even a single Muslim rioting because someone denigrates something the Muslim holds sacred is most ridiculous when viewed from the esoteric religious perspective. A religious insider, you see, would realize that what the rioter thinks is sacred, namely the prophet, is effectively an idol. Ironically, the ban on depicting Muhammad is meant to prevent ignorant people from worshipping the image. The ban’s natural side effect, though, is to turn the prophet himself into a sort of forbidden fruit, giving the untouchable Muhammad a mystique that might as well be a mark of holiness. In any case, rampaging through the streets because of a slight against your favourite long-dead person is as ludicrous as an insane person’s tantrum thrown over some injury done to his favourite chair in his mental institution.

Why, though, is there an exoteric religious discourse in the first place, that is, a discourse which is necessarily the most popular and the least respectable compared to a different, more self-consistent way of talking about god? Why is the truth about monotheistic religions kept so secret by the religious insiders? Answers to these will emerge from what follows.

Why God Can’t Exist

The old debate of whether God exists is everlasting because it rests on a confusion that sends its participants on wild goose chases. By definition, you see, god doesn’t exist, so to say that god exists is to make a category mistake. The word “exist” is synonymous with such words as “be,” “real,” “factual,” and “actual.” You can learn how to use these words by inter-defining them in terms of each other, as the dictionary does, but you won’t understand any of their meanings without analogies and examples drawn from your daily experience, and that in turn requires that you effectively naturalize anything you think of as existing. For example, to exist is, in part, to take up space, to pass through time, and to have causal power, and this is to imply that everything that exists is part of the natural universe. But the idea of god is of the source of everything natural, which means that god can’t be bound by space or time or have causal power; neither can god have a mind if a mind requires a brain, nor need god follow the laws of logic if logic too applies merely to everything that could exist, where anything we could know of as potentially existing must be limited by our ways of understanding.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Does God Write Books?

The three main monotheistic religions each appeal to the divine authority of their exclusive religious texts. Jews, Christians, and Muslims assume that God used human authors to reveal certain moral and metaphysical teachings, which these authors wrote down to form the scriptures. Jews believe that God dictated the Torah to Moses, Christians that the Holy Spirit inspired either the overarching themes or every word of the New Testament, and Muslims that an angel dictated the Quran to Muhammad. With these farfetched presumptions in place, officials use those scriptures to command the consent of the religion’s members.

The Necessary Ambiguity of Revelation

There are numerous problems with the notion of a text’s divine inspiration. First, there’s a slippery slope here, since there would be no point of transmitting the divine message were that text to be buried in competition with mere human works and lost forever to posterity. God’s intervention, then, must extend from inspiring or dictating the text itself to manipulating social and political forces so that the text becomes popular and accepted, and even to ensuring that the divine message is properly interpreted by its millions of readers or listeners. The prospect of that degree of miraculous intervention becomes especially dubious when we appreciate that there’s a multiplicity of religions, each with its own holy book that conflicts with the others. Assuming God is behind only one or perhaps some of those works, God must ensure that the true divine wisdom out-competes the pretenders. Since God is omnipotent, we might expect the most successful religion to possess the most authentic revelation.

But two factors count against this assumption, both having to do with God’s interest in preserving our freewill. First, according to the theistic worldview, God doesn’t want to force anyone to accept his message, and thus even though he might intervene in the world to give his message a fighting chance of being heard, God wouldn’t prevent false, seductive messages from surfacing. Second, because we’re free we can sin and be led astray by those false teachings and even by demonic counterfeits of divine revelation. Thus, the most popular religion in any time or place needn’t be one initiated by God.

This raises another problem, however, which is that given this context within which God would be operating, God would had to have foreseen the near futility of his endeavour of sending us his message. The root of the problem is that there’s a conflict between God’s supposed interests in preserving our freedom and in successfully informing us about how he wants us to live. On the one hand, God can’t force us to listen or to understand his message; on the other, God believes that our listening and our understanding are crucial to our afterlife status. Thus, divine revelation is supposed to be a compromise: instead of speaking directly to everyone, laying out the facts about heaven and hell, angels and demons, and so on, God only imperfectly transmits his wisdom, perhaps manipulating history so that his message doesn’t disappear entirely, but allowing geographical, cultural, and biological factors to take their toll on the scripture’s fate.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Atheism Plus and the Liberal Conceit of Hyper-Rationality

Jen McCreight is a blogger at Freethought Blogs and recently she stirred the pot of the New Atheistic movement, by arguing that a third wave of atheism is needed to replace the Boy’s Club that currently rules and makes those like McCreight who say they apply skepticism to everything feel uncomfortable. Atheists like McCreight who are politically liberal and thus, as she says, who “care about social justice,” “support women’s rights,” “protest racism,” “fight homophobia and transphobia,” and “use critical thinking and skepticism,” don’t want to be called atheists when atheism is consistent with the opposite of those liberal views. She calls for Atheism Plus, a liberal form of atheism, and Greta Christina, another blogger at Freethought Blogs, distinguishes that form from secular humanism--mostly for strategic reasons: “Atheism Plus” is clearer than “secular humanism,” since “atheism” is currently more familiar to the public, and so forth.
I empathize with liberal atheists who want to belong to a social movement but who feel marginalized or patronized in the New Atheistic one. Personally, being part of a social movement doesn’t interest me, but I can understand why feminist atheists, for example, would want to start a new wave of atheism, assuming they feel that many New Atheists are conservatives or sexists.

However, I suspect that were Atheism Plus to become popular and even to replace New Atheism as the main expression of the atheistic social movement in the US, UK, and elsewhere, this would be due almost entirely to politically correct affirmation of liberal talking points. The problem is the one I’ve taken up repeatedly in this blog: reason is a curse. That is to say that when you apply skepticism to everything, including social issues, you end up not with liberalism but with something like what I’m calling existential cosmicism (until I think of a better label--talk about a social position that needs rebranding!).

I’ve argued this at some length elsewhere in this blog, but I’ll summarize the main points here. Skepticism is epitomized by the scientific methods of inquiry. So what is the scientific picture of human nature? Is it equivalent to or even consistent with the liberal picture? No, liberalism is as Nietzsche and John Gray say, a vestige of theistic morality, an Enlightenment inheritance of Christian attitudes minus the theistic metaphysics that gives those attitudes the appearance of being rationally justified. Granted, Christians borrow their morality, in turn, from our innate, naturally selected inclinations towards social, altruistic behavior. But biology explains only the causes of those inclinations, not their philosophical justifications. That we’re instinctively driven to live together in societies may be a matter of biological fact, but that doesn’t mean that that’s how we ought to live. The normative question of whether Christian or otherwise altruistic morality is best isn’t settled by science, but by philosophy.

Nevertheless, when skeptical philosophers turn to the scientific picture to inform our reasoning, we find unsettling truths. First, we discover that we’re not as free or as rational as we think we are. Second, we find that we’re animals that live under delusions of grandeur, of transcending nature as angels or transhumans. We’re driven to sexually reproduce because our genetic code dictates much of our behavior. We learn also that just as the design of organisms is illusory, what with natural selection doing the work of an intelligent designer, so too much of our normative self-conception is removed from reality. Moral commandments don’t fall from the sky nor are they carved into stone, because we’re not artifacts of a god. In particular, it’s not obvious that we have nearly as many rights as we feel politically entitled to claim. And this is the key point, since liberalism depends on the notion of human rights. Women deserve just as much respect as men, says the liberal, because women and men both have the same human rights. Likewise, gays, lesbians, and heterosexuals are thought to have equal rights, as are the poor and the rich, and the blacks and the whites, and so on. Without the notion of human rights, there’s no reason to be socially liberal.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Obama or Romney?

I’d like to set down some of my thoughts here on the coming American presidential election. I’m not an American, so American readers may wonder why I don’t restrict my attention to the politics of my country, which happens to be Canada. There are a couple of reasons why I don’t do so. First, American politics are approximately ten thousand times more interesting than the Canadian variety. For example, when a so-called religious social conservative gets into office in the US, his or her religion is (superficially) front and center, as in the case of George W. Bush. Mitt Romney is the exception that proves the rule, since he hides his religion in his campaign only because he’s a member of an odd religious minority. American Christians prefer that their Republicans be Christian, even though Jesus would cast almost every single modern Christian into hell for selling him out to one secular empire or another. By contrast, Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, is allegedly a religious social conservative, but you’d never tell this from his speeches or policies. This is because Canadian politicians are boringly amoral pragmatists, lacking any principled vision of what Canadian society should be like in the near future. The second reason is that I’ll be commenting only on the public aspect of American politics, on the absurdist infotainment which, like all great forms of entertainment, has universal appeal.
What, then, do I make of the coming US election? Who will win and whose victory would be best for the country? I don’t know who will win, because by some apparent miracle the American electorate is so evenly divided. Although half of eligible Americans don’t vote at all, and haven’t voted for much of the twentieth century (see here), the Gore-Bush election was still decided by just several hundred votes in Florida. Since the 1950s, the margin separating the popular votes for each presidential candidate has usually been less than 10%. The difference between Kennedy’s win over Nixon, for example, was 0.17%; 0.70% for Nixon’s win over Humphrey; - 0.51% for Bush’s win over Gore; 2.46% for Bush’s win over Kerry; and still only 7.27% for Obama’s messianic win over McCain, after the fiasco of the Bush decade (see here). Now again, polls have Obama and Romney in a dead heat. And according to this chart, the percentage of voting age Americans who vote for representatives in the House and Senate, when the presidency isn’t at stake, has consistently been in the mere 30s since the 1970s.

Has anyone studied the odds of such a close and persistent divide arising naturally in such a large country? What’s the likelihood that the liberal and conservative states would so nearly cancel each other out in terms of their state’s electors, leaving just ten or so battleground states populated by swing voters? What are the odds that just enough millions of Americans would be so apathetic or disenfranchised that they would tend not to vote, leaving--of all mathematically possible splits--a 50-50 split among the rest? And what are the odds that such dead heats would be perfect for the corporate media that have mastered the art of selling infotainment by drumming up conflicts?

This highly artificial political gridlock seems not so much designed or engineered, but favoured and accelerated by multiple social elements, including the media, plutocrats, demagogic culture warriors, and consumers. There’s a proverbial military tactic of conquering by dividing your foes against each other. American politics are now so hyper-partisan and dysfunctional (relative to the democratic ideal), because the US has both external and internal sources of division and thus of decline. Their wealth is being extracted by oligarchs who, as Simon Johnson says in "The Quiet Coup," were only practicing their free market techniques of exploitation on poorer countries, some decades ago, before hunting for richer prey like middle-class Americans. But these Americans have also learned to destroy each other with their inane culture wars.  

If I had to bet, I’d guess that Obama will win a relatively narrow victory over Romney. But I hope Obama will lose. This isn’t to say that I think Romney would be better for the US or for the world, for that matter. The main difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is that the former ambivalently apply old and failing brakes to the stealth oligarchs' race to centralize power, whereas the latter hit the gas pedal. There are plenty of cultural differences between American liberals and conservatives, too, but these are mostly farcical and trumped up.