Monday, December 31, 2012

The Vileness of Guns and "Just Wars"

The Newtown school massacre has already begun to fade from North American news, as the NRA had anticipated. There’s probably a satanic magic number of child shootings in a single massacre that would galvanize Americans to ride the NRA out of town, but apparently twenty doesn’t rise to that level. As it stands, though, American gun enthusiasts are more passionate than American gun control advocates, and so there likely won’t be meaningful restriction of gun ownership in that country. One reason for the asymmetry is that guns work so well whereas laws alone don’t. If you pick up a gun, you have the power of God to take a life in the blink of an eye. Only if the gun jams or is very old and it no longer works may you miss that frisson from holding godlike power in the palm of your hand. By contrast, outlawing some practice on paper may or may not succeed, depending on the strength of the demand for that practice. Thus, prohibition of alcohol failed in the US and gun control would surely fare no better, because alcohol and guns are so potent; if outlawed, they flourish underground. Like guns, alcohol works immediately and universally: anyone can get drunk from just a few shots or several beers, and anyone can kill or maim with nearly any gun. The demand for those products can’t be curtailed just with legislation.

The deep question, then, is why Americans love guns more than do, say, Canadians, Europeans, or the Japanese. Gun control works in those other countries because the demand there isn’t off the chart; nevertheless, guns obviously work just as well there as they do in the US. One well-known reason for the differences in demand is historical, and it’s just the one I give elsewhere, that the US has a bloody anarchical history, which bred Americans to value individualism and self-reliance. Americans love guns for the same reason they love cars, because these technologies empower the individual.

But that reason is insufficient, because lots of other countries have violent pasts, and individualism also has a genetic and thus a universal basis. I think a more complete reason emerges when we consider the dubious but oft heard platitude that guns are morally neutral instruments, that guns by themselves don’t kill people and can be used for good or for ill depending on the user’s intention. On the contrary, Marshal McLuhan was right: technologies have unexpected background effects rather than just the obvious foreground ones. Of course guns don’t pick themselves up, walk around, and shoot people; guns aren’t artificially intelligent (yet). But to contrast this wild scenario with the moral neutrality of guns is to set up a false dichotomy.

Why Guns are for Sissies

To see the background effect of guns on users and nonusers alike, compare projectile weapons with nonprojectile ones like the sword, club, or axe. These latter weapons are armaments in the strict sense that they’re extensions of the arm; they’re limited by the human arm’s strength and length. As a consequence, to kill with a sword, for example, you have to put yourself in danger since you have to get close to your enemy. Of course, if that enemy is unarmed, the person with the sword has the advantage, but even such a fight is more equal than that between a shooter and an unarmed person. A bow can kill from a greater distance than the sword, ensuring the killer’s safety even when the bow threatens the targeted person. The point is that you can’t kill with a sword without putting yourself at some risk, whereas there’s at least a possibility of killing with a projectile weapon from a position of complete safety.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Now You Can Download this Blog as an E-Book!

I've put together an e-book version of Rants Within the Undead God, which you can now download. The e-book is located here, hosted at Scribd. (Blogger doesn't let you directly upload a pdf file.) You can also download the e-book at the upper right of this blog (or on the bottom, if you're using a mobile device). I'll add supplementary pdf files as I add more rants.

I've also added a PayPal Donate button in case you'd like to pay me a little something for the e-book.

Happy Holidays (but don't be too happy)! 

P.S. Stay tuned for a novel I'm writing that's set in the philosophical universe of this blog. I'm aiming to write the mother of all zombie apocalypses! The novel should be finished in a few months (and it's intended as the first in a series).

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Helpful Strangeness of Religious Fundamentalism

How should the atheist respond to the religious fundamentalist? The atheist’s inclination is to flood the theist with arguments proving the manifest irrationality of that worldview. I’ve attempted to do this many times over the years, entering into long debates and dialogues especially with committed Christians. Moreover, I believe that all forms of exoteric (literalistic, inerrantist) theism are in fact irrational. The problem is that this irrationality is all too obvious; atheists miss the point when we prepare an exhaustive treatment of the theist’s fallacies and indeed when we pretend that philosophical naturalism or secular humanism is a matter purely of observation and logic. We forget that a rationalist too has certain epistemic values that mark even the secular worldview as partly a matter of choice and artistry. I’ll show what I mean by considering the rational and the existential responses to a particular Evangelical Christian’s sermon.

The True Believer Speaks!

Joel C. Rosenberg is an Evangelical Christian and author of several novels about how modern terrorism is prophesied in the Bible. In one of his recent blog posts, he offers his readers insight into why there’s so much gun violence in the US:

‘How is it possible,’ he asks, “that violent crime in the United States has surged by more than 460 percent since 1960?

‘The answer is as painful as it is simple: the further we turn away from God in our nation--the further we drive Him out of our society, out of our schools and courts, and out of our media, and out of our homes; or the more we give mere lip service to religion; the more men are ”holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power” (2 Timothy 3:5)--the worse things are getting….

‘The Lord God Almighty is a gentleman. He won’t force us to accept His great love and many blessings. If a nation tells Him to leave, He will leave. But what are we reaping as a result of a society that increasingly ignores God and hates or dismisses Jesus Christ? We are witnessing a horrifying explosion of murder. We are witnessing a gruesome crime wave unprecedented in American history….

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Psychedelic Basis of Theism

Why is there now, just as there has always been, anything as outlandish as a theistic religion? Why have most people always believed there are immaterial spirits and a perfect mind at the root of reality? Why the angels and demons and the all-importance of morality as the condition of an afterlife in heaven or in hell? How did our species become sidetracked with such apparently crazy beliefs? The lazy answer is that most people are not so smart and are prone to fallacies and superstitions and are themselves lazy, which is to say gullible; thus, the bigger the lie, such as the one told by corrupt rulers throughout the ages, the more likely the masses will believe it. But there’s a more interesting answer, one that addresses the fact of religious experience which indirectly challenges the alternative, nontheistic worldview.

From the Brain to the Immortal Spirit

Let’s begin with some elementary facts of the human brain and its thought processes. The higher-level thinking that distinguishes us as a species takes place in the cerebral cortex which is our brain’s thin outer layer and most recent evolutionary addition. This part of our brain is responsible for our special, top-down control over our internal processes, which we take for free-will and which is in some ways illusory but which is nevertheless more pronounced in our species than in others. Instead of always acting automatically on instinct, we can search our memories and evaluate our abilities, concocting elaborate plans to succeed in our environment. Because the brain evolved largely by natural selection, though, there were severe constraints on how the brain developed, so that the central nervous system we inherit is inevitably flawed, from a design viewpoint. For example, our top-down access to our mental states and thus to the brain activity that generates them is limited by our finite memory; thus, we can’t access all our brain activities at once. Moreover, since the brain was an adaptation that enabled us to survive in the wild, we evolved skills at making snap judgments, based on intuitions as opposed to exhaustive considerations of evidence. Thus again, instead of having total access to our thought processes, we think in highly simplified ways, relative to the amount of brain activity associated with each thought. These simplifications take the form of biases, heuristics (mental shortcuts based on rules of thumb rather than logic or all available evidence), stereotypes, or models of our environment. There’s a sort of competition between neurons as they transmit information across their synapses in response to some internal or external stimuli, and we become aware only of the winners so that our conscious self can be compared to the top of an iceberg that pokes out of the water of our unconsciousness.

Additionally, our thinking is distinguished by our sophisticated form of communication, by language, which is processed in the cerebral cortex (in Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas). We think largely in words which we use as labels for concepts, allowing us to organize and search for our ideas as though we were thumbing through a labeled file system. Just as we have a simplified way of thinking about everything, thanks to our abstract concepts and top-down self-control, we have a commonsense, simplistic feel for how language works. We think of language as consisting of systematic relationships (syntax) between meaningful units (symbols). Words bear intentional relations to what they’re about, and so we map the world in our head. This linguistic nature of our thinking further sets the stage for human misery, as will become clear in a moment.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Rant Within the Undead God

I’m very happy to report that I’ll be doing some guest blogging at R. Scott Bakker’s blog, Three Pound Brain (TPB), and that my first article there has been posted. This article is called “The Rant within the Undead God,” because it summarizes much of what I’ve written so far in my own blog (RWTUG). Scott is the author of the fantasy series known as The Second Apocalypse, but his blog, TPB, explores one of his other interests, which is philosophy, specifically the philosophical implications of cognitive science for laypeople’s intuitions about how our mind works. Scott’s blog can get a little technical in his discussions of cognitive science, but because he’s also a fiction writer I find that he does an exceptional job of clarifying his jargon with creative and lucid explanations of some complicated subject matters. For example, he’s written an entertaining dialogue between a super-intelligent alien and a materialist about where progress in cognitive science truly leads. 

Currently, Scott and I are debating an issue that’s of great interest to each of us, namely that of how subversive cognitive scientific discoveries are for the nonscientific, “folk” conception of ourselves. In other words, the question is to what extent the traditional view of the mind as having freedom, consciousness, meaningful beliefs, and desires that are right or wrong is exposed as so much pablum by recent biology, psychology, and by the other relevant sciences that collectively make up what’s called cognitive science. As radical as I think I’ve been in saying repeatedly that science shows we’re not as rational, conscious, or as free as we usually think we are, I find myself resisting, to some extent, Scott’s more radical--or perhaps just more informed!--understanding of the philosophical implications. At any rate, we agree that modern societies would do well to prepare now for the upheavals of a catastrophic shift in self-understanding, due to what I’ve been calling the curse of reason. I hope eventually to post our email discussion on this blog.

Here, though, are the first few paragraphs of my introductory, greatly-hyperlinked post at TBP:

Some centuries before the Common Era, in a sweltering outskirt of the ancient Roman Empire, a nameless wanderer, unkempt and covered in rags, climbed atop a boulder in the midst of a bustling market, cleared his throat and began shouting for no apparent reason:

“Mark my harangue, monstrous abode of the damned and you denizens of this godforsaken place! I have only my stern words to give you, though most of you don’t recognize the existential struggle you’re in; so I’ll cry foul, slink off into the approaching night, and we’ll see if my rant festers in your mind, clearing the way for alien flowers to bloom. How many poor outcasts, deranged victims of heredity, and forlorn drifters have shouted doom from the rooftops? In how many lands and ages have fools kept the faith from the sidelines of decadent courts, the aristocrats mocking us as we point our finger at a thousand vices and leave no stone unturned? And centuries from now, many more artists, outsiders, and mystics will make their chorus heard in barely imaginable ways, sending their subversive message, I foresee, from one land to the next in an instant, through a vast ethereal web called the internet. Those philosophers will look like me, unwashed and ill-fed, but they’ll rant from the privacy of their lairs or from public terminals linked by the invisible information highway. Instead of glaring at the accused in person, they’ll mock in secret, parasitically turning the technological power of a global empire against itself.

“But how else shall we resist in this world in which we’re thrown? No one was there to hurl us here where as a species we’re born, where we pass our days and lay down to die--not we, who might have been asked and might have refused the offer of incarnation, and not a personal God who might be blamed. Nevertheless, we’re thrown here, because the world isn’t idle; natural forces stir, they complexify and evolve; this mindless cosmos is neither living nor dead, but undead, a monstrous abomination that mocks the comforting myths we take for granted, about our supernatural inner essence. No spirit is needed to make a trillion worlds and creatures; the undead forces of the cosmos do so daily, creating and destroying with no rational plan, but still manifesting a natural pattern. What is this pattern, sewn into the fabric of reality? What is the simulated agenda of this headless horseman that drags us behind the mud-soaked hooves of its prancing beast? Just this: to create everything and then to destroy everything! Let that sink in, gentle folk. The universe opens up the book of all possibilities, has a glance at every page with its undead, glazed-over eyes, and assembles miniscule machines--atoms and molecules--to make each possibility an actuality somewhere in space and time, in this universe or the next, until each configuration is exhausted and then all will fly apart until not one iota of reality remains to carry out such blasphemous work. How many ways can a nonexistent God be shown up, I ask you? Everything a loving God might have made, the undead leviathan creates instead, demonstrating spirit’s superfluity, and then that monster, the magically animated carcass we inhabit will finally reveal its headlessness, the void at the center of all things, and nothing shall be left after the Big Rip.  

“I ask again, how else to resist the abominable inhumanity of our world, but to make a show of detaching from some natural processes of cosmic putrefaction, to register our denunciation in all existential authenticity, and yet to cling to the bowels of this beast like the parasites we nonetheless are? And how else to rebel against our false humanity, against our comforting delusions, other than by replacing old, worn-out myths with new ones? For ours is a war on two fronts: we’re faced with a horrifying natural reality, which causes us to flee like children into a world of make-believe, whereupon we outgrow some bedtime stories and need others to help us sleep.”

The Perversity of the Sexual Norm

Two curious facts surrounding sex are that those who are virgins even after their teens and twenties are deemed pathetic by virtually everyone else, while those who make a living in the sex industry, whether as prostitutes or as porn stars are likewise despised by most people. But not all is what it seems…

Virgins and Sex Workers

There are a number of pretty obvious reasons for each of those attitudes. Most people assume that older involuntary virgins can’t find a sex partner because there’s something wrong with them: they’re physically unattractive, impoverished, and/or mentally ill. Thus, virginity would only be a symptom of the underlying cause of people’s disdain for these dregs of society. Those who want sex but are unsuccessful in their efforts to attract a mate seem to have lost out in life so badly that their loss becomes offensive. This is because sex seems such an obvious good while also being relatively easy to have. After all, animals--including humans--are compelled to want sex, so all people have to do is go with the genetic flow. If someone finds a perverse way to paddle upstream, against this force of nature, that failure seems almost miraculous and so certainly worthy of ridicule. Moreover, for the same reason, those who claim they prefer not to have sex, whether for religious reasons or because they’re opposed to sex in general, are suspected of hiding some personal defect that’s the true cause of their virginity. The genetic floodwaters flow so freely, as it were, that virginity in an older person, say one in his or her twenties or thirties, is more likely caused by a monumental personal failure or character defect, as opposed to being a choice.

Thus, screwball comedy movies, featuring young people possessed by their sex hormones, typically ridicule the pathetic loser who emerges from puberty with no sexual accomplishments. The movie The 40 Year Old Virgin is exceptional in being more sympathetic to the older virgin, criticizing the characters who mock the virgin, Andy, for the deficiency of their sexual relationships. The movie explains Andy’s plight as being the result partly of his decision to wait for the right partner to come along, meaning one to whom he feels an emotional connection. But Andy develops into someone who’s unlikely to find a partner without help; he’s depicted as being frozen in his teenage years, collecting comic books and action figures, and of course he’s unskilled in the art of wooing women.

These movies typify Western society’s attitude towards those who should but don't have sex. Whether on a street corner, in a restaurant, an office, or anywhere else, were an older virgin to admit his or her sexual status, the virgin would be either immediately ridiculed, shunned, or pitied, depending on the situation. Even those who have some sympathy for the weaknesses that cause the virgin’s failure will condescend to the virgin, treating that person as inferior and perhaps even as literally beneath contempt. The feeling is that someone who’s lost out so tremendously can no longer be taken seriously as a competitor in any walk of life.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Life of Pi’s Argument for Theism

The story in the novel The Life of Pi (LP) is framed as an argument for God’s existence. The argument is made explicit near the novel’s end and it can be paraphrased as follows. In our postmodern time, we’re properly skeptical of appeals to absolute truth; instead of grand theories or systematic treatises, we’re left with stories. With regard to philosophical as opposed to scientific matters, at least, reason is not the final arbiter. The question of whether God exists is such a philosophical matter, and atheism and theism tell us different stories. Theism is the better story and so we postmodernists should be theists.

This argument is a postmodernist mix of William James’ pragmatic argument about the will to believe, Kierkegaard’s argument about the need for an irrational leap of faith, and Pascal’s Wager. I’ll outline these prior arguments here. James assumes a pragmatic theory of truth, according to which truth is what’s useful to believe, given a conceptual scheme. James then argues that some beliefs are more useful than others; in particular, theistic belief would be useful in that, according to the belief, sufficient evidence in its favour is granted only to those who first accept the belief without that evidence. On pragmatic grounds, then, theism would be epistemically justified. One problem with this argument is that it doesn’t discount the possibility of self-reinforcing delusion. Once you entertain certain dangerous beliefs, you change your conceptual scheme until you acquire the ability to interpret all conceivable countervailing evidence in a way that favours your new way of thinking. Thus, instead of finding evidence that really points to God’s existence, after you choose to believe, you might gain instead an invincible hermeneutic facility, a sort of infinite creativity in interpreting evidence, so that you read theism into everything with which you’re confronted.

Kierkegaard emphasized the need for passion in theistic faith. Contrary to the philosopher Hegel, who thought we could reason our way to theism by means of an elaborate metaphysical system, Kierkegaard took a more mystical position, according to which God, as far as atheists and theists alike are concerned, is the possibility of a transcendent mystery at the heart of reality. The Christian God, at least, is the absurdity and the paradox of God made into a human or of the deity that commanded Abraham to kill his son. The theistic argument that’s implicit in Kierkegaard’s writings is that we ought to be existentially authentic, and that an authentic Christian who has blind theistic faith exhibits virtues of an inner struggle, indicated by bouts of angst and dread. Likewise, Pascal assumed the mystical premise that God is rationally unknowable, or infinite. Thus, reason won’t settle the issue since the evidence and the arguments will be ambiguous. Nevertheless, because the question of theism is so philosophically important, we must choose what to believe, and since we can gain more by choosing theism than we can by choosing atheism, and we can lose more by choosing atheism than we can by choosing theism, we should choose theism.