Monday, May 27, 2013

Lies and Unmaskings in an Elevator

In a downtown Toronto office building, between the 18th and 19th floors, an elevator was stuck. Inside the elevator were a balding, middle-aged businessman in a gray suit and a young man with a nose ring, spiky black dyed hair and wearing jeans and a torn black shirt bearing the words “Fuck your God!” across the chest.
            The businessman put his iPhone back in his inside jacket pocket. “Looks we’re going to be here for a while,” he said. “The repairman’s delayed because of the street protests.”
            “Great,” said the young man.
            “Glad I got to the voting booth this morning. Did you vote yet?”
            “Vote in what?”
            “The federal election. For the Prime Minister. You know, the leader of our country?”
            “Oh yeah. I guess that’s what the protests are about.”
            “So are you going to vote later today? If this elevator gets fixed soon, you may still have time.”
            “No, I’m not voting.”
            “Hmph! Maybe just as well.”
            “What’s that supposed to mean?”
            “Well, it’s just that you probably don’t know the first thing about your own government. You don’t care to find out, so it’s just as well if you don’t make an unwise voting decision. Sit this one out and let the responsible adults run things.”
            “Yeah, you’re very responsible. Very good at running things into the ground.”
            “Cynical too, I see. Let me tell you something: you think you’re a rebel but you’re just a cliché. Every generation of youth is the same. ‘Woe is me, the sky is falling! Drop out of the system!’ Only the end never comes. Civilization keeps chugging along and you either join it or get left behind.”
            “You don’t know shit. You forgot what it was like being young, ’cause you’ve sold out. You think everything’s fine ’cause your bank account’s bursting. You’ve got blinders on, old man.”
            “What do you think you know that I don’t, then? Enlighten me.”
            “When you’re young, but not too young so you can think for yourself, you’re not part of society. Not yet. You’re on the outside, but there’s all these forces trying to push you in. Your teachers, your parents. ‘Get your skills,’ they say. ‘Get a job, get a wife, settle down, have kids, work like a dog, go on vacations.’ When you can’t work anymore, you loaf around and then you die. That’s how society works. People are recycled in it. You’ve got to be productive or it’s like you said, you get left behind. Maybe you find yourself in jail or homeless. But when you’re young, you’re not in the rat race yet. You’re on the verge with all these hands at your back, but you’re still outside and you can see the whole thing clearly, maybe just for a short while. You can see society for what it is. And then you’ve got to choose to stay on the outside or sign your life away. Most teens sign up and then they lose their objectivity, like you. Not me, though. I’ll always be an outsider.”

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

RWUG 3rd Installment of E-Book on Google Drive

The third PDF installment of this blog is now available here and also lower down on the right, just above the Links I Like.


Monday, May 20, 2013

Prayer, Truth, and the Re-enchantment of Nature

From an atheistic perspective, prayer is preposterous. When children talk to their invisible friends or to their dolls or other toys, adults look on knowingly, with a condescending smile. But when most adults talk to invisible spirits, requesting divine aid, confessing their sins, casting spells, or groveling and worshipping, atheists are actually put in a bind. Children’s ignorance can be humoured because they have little responsibility, and adults have formal roles as guardians. Although atheists appear to deserve the same rights over their laughably childish theistic neighbours, there’s no such formal arrangement. An adult has the legal right to make decisions for the child’s welfare, to raise the child by rewarding and punishing as necessary. But were an atheist to send, say, a priest to bed without supper, for his undignified prolongation of childhood follies, the Church might call the police and the atheist might be locked up! Imagine that: a parent who is naturally forced into the role of guardian by her apparent cognitive superiority to her charges, prevented from fulfilling her obligations by politically correct nostalgia for a kind of gross naivety.

So the atheist is left to wonder at the strangeness of the world, at the creation of so many adults whose every act is suspect because of their glaring, albeit partial mental retardation. Just imagine if instead of talking seriously to people who aren’t there and who don’t talk back, theists wore diapers and sucked on pacifiers at work. Oh, they’d pretend to be full-fledged adults: they’d don their power suits, earn piles of cash, drive cars, go on vacation, and talk about adult matters, but all the while they wouldn’t be able to conceal those signs of their bewilderment. And the few adults who wouldn’t need diapers or pacifiers anymore, because they’d have outgrown the most blatant form of self-centeredness, would be legally prevented from saying that the emperor has no clothes; the atheists would be barred from taking command of the human family and treating the theistic majority of people as the children they evidently still are. Who should be pitied more, the theists for being unable to appreciate why they deserve to be ridiculed every day and night until the end of time or the atheists who must suffer such absurdity with no effective recourse? A question for the ages…

Prayer as Personification

Let’s take a step back and talk about prayer. Why do most people pray? The evolutionary reason is given in Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. We have an instinct, or mental module, for reading psychological patterns into processes, an instinct we need to interpret each other’s behaviour and make our way through social networks. Natural selection errs on the side of caution. For example, an animal would much rather make a hasty retreat after a false alarm than be stingy in its defenses and eaten by a predator. Thus, instead of holding back on our skill for positing minds, we err on the side of caution and personify everything under and over the sun, including the sun itself. We interpret everything as having a mind, because we’re most comfortable dealing with other minds. We like to keep track of each other’s social status, our character types and personal histories, and who owes what to whom. We like making up stories about fictional heroes and their exploits, to amuse ourselves as though remembering the mental attributes of our real friends and colleagues weren’t sufficiently taxing on our mental resources. We pity autistic people who lack that instinct and so can’t understand human minds. And so everyone is naturally inclined to project mental capacities onto things that are manifestly impersonal. Even atheists may yell at a rock that lands on their toe. Nevertheless, just as children need to be trained to become adults, atheists, skeptics, rationalists, and scientists train themselves not to overuse that instinct. An atheist may not pray even when her situation is dire and she could use a deus ex machina. She’d feel ridiculous getting down on her knees and speaking to no one just as she would were she to go to work wearing a diaper, sucking on a pacifier, and holding a security blanket. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Polygyny, Porn Stashes, and the Clash of Hyperobjects

I begin with a familiar news story and use it as fodder for philosophical and religious speculation, borrowing Timothy Morton’s idea of the hyperobject to explain the connection between Ariel Castro’s alleged imprisoning and raping of a trio of women for ten years, and the norm for men of calling upon porn as a technological substitute for a flesh-and-blood harem.

Real vs Virtual Polygyny

American news stations are saturated with coverage of the Cleveland man, Ariel Castro, who’s suspected of having abducted three women, holding them captive in his home for ten years, and using them as sex slaves. The women recently escaped and are safe. Castro’s alleged deeds are horrible, as is the ghoulish attention they’re getting in the media; we rubberneck even when we’re not in a car. But I think part of the context of this news story is missing from the headlines. Castro will be held up as a psychopathic freak, but here’s an ironclad statistic that should give us pause, before we congratulate ourselves for being normal and quite unlike the repulsive archfiend Ariel Castro: 90% of mammals practice high degrees of polygyny. Monogamy is rare in mammals. Polyandry, meaning a minority of females having sexual rights to the majority of males is even rarer. The norm is for the elite, alpha males to have privileged sexual access to the majority of females in the group. Sometimes this takes the form of a harem, in which a single dominant male mates with a group of females and guards them and their offspring. When there’s competition between males in these unequal societies, the rival males will often kill the infants or systematically harass the females to force them to miscarriage.

Now, you’re thinking this zoological information is irrelevant since most human males don’t normally do any of this--at least, they haven’t for thousands of years and certainly not in modern societies. Indeed, modern men don’t normally abduct women, hold them captive, and rape them. However, that’s at least partly because these men have a substitute, which is called in technical terms the stash of porn. For decades, men have been by far the main consumers of pornography, because men are more turned on by visual cues. But the practice doesn’t end with looking at a dirty picture or movie to facilitate masturbation. No, the images are typically collected and stashed away somewhere, in a secret trunk, drawer, or other hiding place. Before the internet, the stash would consist of a stack of pornographic magazines or videotapes. Now that most porn is online, the stash is made up of computer files, stored on DVDs, hard drives, or just on the internet itself, and the files are often password-protected so that they’re symbolically locked up.

Notice, then, the differences but also the similarities between Castro’s alleged deeds and modern male sexual behaviour. The main difference, of course, is that most men don’t harm women by using pornography and so they don’t thereby commit a crime. (You can say porn stars are indirectly harmed by the demand for porn, since the actors are abused or exploited, but this is controversial and anyway it’s not as bad as rape.) But while Castro is said to have chained actual women in cages, holding them as his secret prisoners to molest them at will, so-called normal men do something similar with images that substitute for real women, collecting the images, keeping them secret, stashing them away, and calling upon them at will.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Downside of Impartial Journalism

Journalists who work in democracies pride themselves on being neutral when they report on the news. Their goal is to present the most important sides of an issue so that the reader can interpret that information and take appropriate action. Instead of advocating one side or the other or letting her personal bias slant her report, the objective journalist lets the story tell itself, by letting the key players who disagree on how to interpret some facts tell their sides of that story. Of course, there’s plenty of conflict in the world, so just reporting on that conflict doesn’t require neutrality. What makes this kind of journalism neutral is that the neutral gives equal weight to the different interpretations, as opposed to judging them and trying to settle the matter for the reader. This “he said, she said” style of journalism is supposed to inform the public so that they can decide for themselves how to respond.

As Wikipedia’s Objectivity (Journalism) article points out, it’s important to distinguish scientific objectivity from neutrality. Scientists try to falsify a hypothesis so that the facts will emerge, whereas a neutral journalist is interested in presenting a complete rather than a purely factual account. For example, by presenting the opinions of two sides that disagree on what the facts are or on how they should be interpreted, a neutral journalist sullies her report, from a scientific perspective, by intentionally including falsehoods, assuming the two opinions contradict each other. When you have contradictory statements, one of them is false, so the greater the variety of sources in a news story, the more likely the story won’t be entirely factual. Again, though, the journalist’s goal isn’t to be objective in the sense showcasing “just the facts”; rather, she wants to be like the news aggregator websites that present high quality opinions from a variety of sources that are likely to disagree with each other. Instead of bringing together conflicting editorials, though, a journalist tries to bring together all the credible sources of information pertaining to a newsworthy event, including eye witnesses, experts, analysts, and even partisan functionaries. The reader is left with the task of judging which source is best, given the journalist’s representative summary of the total quantity of relevant information.

Conflict Sells the News

That’s my charitable portrayal of the journalist’s understanding of her ideal of neutrality. There are two related points, however, that should lead us to suspect that this high-minded ideal isn’t what it seems. First, conflict is good for the business of selling news stories. In fact, news reports become stories the more they reflect conflict between sources of information, and stories that have a narrative structure are what attract readers and bring in money from advertisers which supports the journalism business, such as it is. If you have a choice of reading (1) a dry list of bulletin points that lacks any narrative structure and pretends there’s no disagreement about what happened or how to interpret the facts or (2) a report that speaks to the human interest in the action promised by a conflict, by letting opponents play our their conflict in the report, chances are you’ll prefer to read (2). Mind you, as I’ll show in a moment, in aesthetic terms these news stories are anticlimactic since the journalist’s neutrality prevents her from resolving the conflict and thus supplying the reader a Third Act.

Granted, a defender of neutral journalism might say that this confluence of interests is coincidental. Even if news reports that feature conflict are good for the business of journalism, and the ideal of neutrality ensures that the reports will feature conflict, by motivating the journalist to prefer completeness to factuality, this doesn’t show that the journalist’s ideal is based only on crass economic self-interest. Neutrality may serve the loftier goal of informing the rationally sovereign population of a democratic society, and people also just happen to enjoy being told stories that reflect the tensions of everyday life.