Monday, March 31, 2014

The Roots of Instrumentalism and Mysticism in Science

Some of the earliest personifications of nature were the projections of God as a king and a lawmaker. In prehistoric, low-tech societies, the most important inventions, after language and the ego themselves, were the hunting tribe and then the Neolithic village. Laws were needed to maintain the social order and ancient theists and animists understood the rest of the world to be similarly regulated by hidden personages. The supernatural world was just an invisible social order in which the absolute ruler and his aristocrats and entourage created and governed the natural world much as we construct our microcosmic societies, that is, our tribes, civilizations, empires, and so on, as oases from the wilderness.

That kind of personalizing cognition became obsolete with modern objectification. We still habitually personify ourselves and each other, because we’re too proud to consider ourselves animals, but the fictional characters of the gods died in importance for most of the modern intelligentsia. Instead of a remote social realm, there were just more and more objects, as scientists discovered; for example, the lights in the sky turned out to be stars, not gods. Coincidentally or not, the pace of Western technical innovations quickened with the Renaissance and then with Industrial Revolution, just as modern scientists from Copernicus to Newton, and Darwin to Einstein used their new methods of discovery and mathematical description to model nature as a machine. The philosophy of deism prevented the masses that still depended on the old gods for their sanity and morality, from revolting against science for having depersonalized the universe and banished the gods to nowhere. For a time, informed people could think of the universe as a self-regulating machine designed by a great architect. But given the modern biologist’s mechanical explanation of the design of organisms and the quantum physicist’s account of the creation of universes from chaos, the cosmicist implications of modern objectification are logically inescapable. People are outgrowths of impersonal systems; we’re not metaphysically fundamental and so we ought to feel alienated from automated nature. Luckily, most people can’t hope to follow the scientist’s logic nor are they interested in following it, in the first place, because even as science undermines our comforting fictions, applied science is a cornucopia of goodies which distracts us from the ghastliness of the hand that feeds us.   

As modern scientists came to see nature in its corporeal splendor, through their telescopes and microscopes, they depersonalized themselves, developing the scientific institutions and using experiments to circumvent their prejudices and the prevailing dogmas, to explain what they saw. Thus, the world’s undeadness came to match that of nature’s heralds. Of course, scientists were prone to the same animalistic tendencies as the rest of us: they bickered, harbored resentments, and competed for power in their dominance hierarchies; some even worked feverishly on theological problems, as in the case of Isaac Newton. But the scientific methods themselves coldly detach hypotheses from such messy social contexts, algorithmically sorting adequate from useless models. In short, science became a social machine to mirror the natural systems that were measured with ever greater exactness by the extended senses in the laboratories.

Engineering and the Undeadness of Natural Machines

Two kinds of scientific worldviews emerged from those revolutions, which I’ll call the engineer’s and the mathematician’s. These worldviews aren’t scientific theories, but tendencies in science to interpret theories according to different naturalistic assumptions. Moreover, the point isn’t that all professional engineers and mathematicians line up on one side or the other, but that these two flavors of naturalism arise especially out of those two disciplines. That is, I’m talking about two types of naturalism that derive from certain attitudes among scientists, born from different kinds of scientific work. There’s some overlap between engineering and mathematics, but these groups are also divided by different mindsets and cultures. So, then, the engineering-centered picture takes for granted the technologies that provide scientists with the data needed to formulate their hypotheses. In addition, the engineer appreciates the work that goes into scientific explanation, including the economic and political systems needed to separate Church from State in modern Europe, which allowed early modern scientists to work with less and less fear of persecution. Finally, the engineer’s sort of naturalism is pragmatic in that the engineer is inspired by the power of natural causes to determine their effects and thus he takes science to be the means by which we control nature, in turn. Incidentally, engineering-centered scientists are overwhelmingly male.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Social Justice and Existential Cosmicism

Hi Ben Cain,

First, your way of talking about existence has been one of the most immediately identifiable I've come across. It's consistent with various experiences I've had throughout life. It encompasses both the uncomfortable fact of the ultimate lack of recognizably human meaning in the cosmos and also our potentially absurd need for such meaning. I've had both spiritual highs brimming with hope and certitude, and nihilistic lows where I discovered the emptiness of the self. To discover drop-out academics blogging about these topics is validating. Most mainstreamers of whatever profession don't even try to approach substance.

But here's my question for you. I agree that science can't give us normative statements. And I agree that science has shown human beings to be self-conscious nothings and not the center of anything. However, knowing that the masses are deluded, what is wrong with certain pragmatic ends? Don't mistake me here for a liberal progressive. I mean global systemic changes, such as instituting a resource-based economy, setting up automated systems that allow people to work far less and everyone to have enough of the basic necessities of life.

I realize that this assumes that being alive is alright. I know that it doesn't alleviate the problem of the oligarchy. But I think there is something to be said for reducing suffering. Suffering seems to be the thing almost everyone has a problem with. It's a huge piece of why you say happiness is unbecoming. Knowledge shows the futility of much of what we think about ourselves. It shows happiness to be the product of mechanically pushing certain buttons and going along with our genetic overlords. It shows that we're at the whim of nature. But I suppose I don't see how it follows that we shouldn't alleviate suffering if we can. That's the part that trips me up. I get taking apart pragmatic and liberal progressive positions. But there's still the very real fact of people starving and thirsting. Now, we could argue that it's just chance that you are not in that situation as starkly as some others and that in ultimate reality we don't have a duty to them. But in line with your aesthetics, I find that ugly. I find suffering ugly.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Christians buy “What would an Iron Age yokel do?” bracelet

Dateline: CHARLOTTE, NC—Along with its more famous line of wristbands, emblazoned with the words, “What would Jesus do?” Dollars for Jesus, a Christian merchandise company began selling a mysterious alternative, a wristband asking its wearer, “What would an Iron Age yokel do?”

Christians who are evidently hard-pressed to know how to stay true to their religion in modern societies flocked to purchase multiple copies of the new bracelet, figuring that this must be an even more incisive way of testing a Christian’s authenticity.

“It’s hard to know what Jesus would do in today’s world,” says Christie Do-gooder, proud owner of both kinds of Christian wristbands. “It’s hard to get inside his head, because he was God. But if I do just a little historical research on the Iron Age, I can come up with real-world likelihoods of how your average Iron Age ignoramus would solve today’s problems. And that’s just what I did.”

Christie surmised that if an Iron Age yokel from Jesus’s time were transported to present-day America, the very first thing she’d do is defecate involuntarily, due to the terror of not knowing what on Earth would be happening all around her. Facing a tough decision in her office about whether to ask for a raise, she stayed true to her word: glancing at her WWAIAYD bracelet, she nodded her head knowingly, lifted her skirt up and dropped a deuce on the floor.

“Now there’s a fine Christian woman,” said her Christian officemate, Todd Flabbergaster who stood over her. Todd also struggles to make sense of the world from an ancient Christian perspective.

Horace Fraggleton, another Christian man, caught his wife cheating on him. He thought that Jesus would likely have forgiven her, but although he owned a WWJD bracelet, he happened to be wearing the one about the Iron Age yokel and so he threw stones at her head. Sitting in jail, Horace beamed with pride and said, “The authorities don’t understand, just like the Roman soldiers of Jesus’s day. So now I’m more Christ-like than ever before, thanks to the bracelet.”

A minority of Christians, however, became skeptical about the new wristband. Pressuring the media to investigate, undercover reporters at Dollars for Jesus revealed that the bracelet began as a hoax.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Cosmos Show embroiled in Legal Controversy with Churches

Dozens of churches in the United States are collectively suing the producers of Cosmos, the reboot of the television show previously hosted by Carl Sagan, for “stealing the Christian shtick.”

The filed complaint was obtained by the press and it alleges that the first episode of the show portrays Giordano Bruno as a Christ-like figure, while the second episode sanctifies the DNA molecule.

According to the complaint, “Bruno, who contended that the universe is infinite and that it includes a plurality of worlds, is shown as being ostracized by church officials in Italy and elsewhere, just as Jesus was hounded by the Pharisees. Bruno’s poem in which he speaks of spreading wings into space is used as a pretext to pose an animated representation of Bruno like Christ on the cross. Bruno is burned at the stake instead of crucified, but the effect is to make him a martyr for science.

“But martyrdom is our shtick,” the complaint continues. “We may not have that whole dying-for-the-greater-good thing trademarked, but everyone knows that Jesus is our brand.”

The second episode of Cosmos speaks of the nucleus in each cell as life’s “sanctuary” and describes the genetic code as “ancient scripture.” According to the lawsuit, “That’s a half-assed comparison of DNA to the Bible. If you want the whole ass, you read the King James version, not a bunch of squiggly nucleotides.”

In what many are calling a brazen move, the producers of Cosmos are countersuing the churches for failing to live up to their part of the social contract.

“These Christians are thinking too much,” reads the countersuit. “They should leave the thinking to scientists. The job of American Christians is to breed, not to think. Otherwise, we’ll end up like France or Germany with a declining fertility rate due to the elite secular lifestyle.

“Religious folks in developed societies, who are otherwise woefully out of place, can even teach their children whatever supernatural nonsense they like. To get a good job, those children will have to attend college and that’s when their opinions will be corrected by secular experts. That’s the modern deal.

“The only reason Christians are tolerated in the manifestly secular US is because they breed like rabbits, just as Muslims do. But the time they spend speculating about the meaning of a television show like Cosmos is time they should be using to keep our economy growing, by raising families.”

Feudalism Reinstituted in Suckersland where One Man owns Everything

Dateline: Richardsville, Suckersland—Economic inequality in Suckersland has reached its ultimate end point: a single man in that nation owns absolutely everything and all of the other inhabitants are broke or in debt.

Lord Richard, the man who literally has everything, surveys Suckersland from one of his palaces, sending in his robotic henchmen to remind the masses of their lowly station. A family strolls along, a large robot shows up, displays Lord Richard’s insignia, and the parents strip the clothes from their back. The robot snatches the clothes and also the lollipop from the child’s hands.

Having collected those tributes, Lord Richard will make his daily rounds, parading through the streets with his robot guardians and wearing a thousand shirts at once, over top of each other and stitched together. In each of his hands: a dozen lollipops.

“He certainly has a lot of clothes,” says an indebted resident. “But at least we Suckers have only one plutocrat.”

Before he knighted himself, Lord Richard was a salesman and a predatory investor who looked at business like a game of Monopoly. “The goal in business is to destroy your competition,” he said, “so that you wind up with all the money and the property and the power.”

His prowess as a salesman was renowned. “I could sell anyone anything. I’d just spin the truth of what I was selling, tell people what they wanted to hear, and they’d throw their money at me. They kept buying my mass-produced schlock and then they went into debt. But I also owned the banks to which they were indebted. So I took their homes and all their possessions too.

“I kept everyone working for a while out of charity, but then of course no one could afford what I was selling. I could have exported, but I preferred to be the big fish in the little pond.”

Effectively, then, the Suckers were reduced to serfs who work at the pleasure of Lord Richard, whom many worship as a god. “I had my politicians rewrite the constitution and reinstitute feudalism,” explains the ruler of Suckersland. “I find it just streamlines the workings of plutocracy. Now we don’t have to bother pretending we’re capitalistic or democratic. You know, all of that self-deception can wear on you. The Suckers don’t even have to suffer from doubts about an invisible God, since they can go ahead and worship me. I’ve got everything, after all.”

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Man-made Gods of Monotheism

The relation between monotheism and polytheism is a curious one. Polytheism has often been an animistic sort of pantheism in which, due to ignorance and overconfidence in the utility of the religious imagination, the folk identify natural forces with spirits or other magical beings. Average folks tended to be superstitious polytheists, whereas monotheists sought a premodern Theory of Everything which required a reduction of the culture’s folkloric pantheon. The more absolute and solitary the deity, the more removed God became from the natural world and so the more polytheists had a right to think of monotheists as virtual atheists. For their part, monotheists called polytheists idolaters, worshippers of false gods, but at least those gods were tangible. Meanwhile, the monotheistic God’s transcendence, supremacy, and indeed its inherent impersonality entailed an egalitarian vision of human interrelations, since we’re all made equally insignificant by comparison with that unknowable God. Tribal superstition and warfare ought to end, concludes the monotheist.

But however laudable the social role of monotheistic religions may be, we modernists have nothing to distract us from perceiving that their Gods are fictitious, which is to say that they’re symbols that united certain groups by laying out a mission that’s authentic to the people’s cultural identity. By looking at the cultural context of the rise of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, including the syncretic relations between those religions and others, we can appreciate how those religions worked in their day and why today they’re obsolete.

The Negative Tribalism of the Israelites

Judaism is ethically monotheistic, meaning that Jews think ethical deeds are more important than theology and they think this because they believe God transcends the created world. We can’t understand God and so we should follow the moral guidelines that are nevertheless revealed, without trying to outsmart God by identifying him with something we can control. Judaism is thus strongly opposed to idolatry, since the idolater takes God to be something limited and natural, such as an animal or a force of nature, which makes God subject to our manipulation through magic. Jews are most interested in the personal relationship between God and his created people. God is a subject rather than an object and so he isn’t found within any statue or other image. God is supernatural and thus his greatness isn’t affected by the shifting tides of our politics.

This ethical monotheism has a sociological origin in the fact that during the formative Babylonian exile, after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 587 BCE, the Israelites were desert nomads and thus social outsiders. In the Second Temple period, influenced by Hellenistic religion and Zoroastrianism, Jews came to worship a God who was likewise an outsider, a solitary, immaterial and absolute deity who could interact with his created world but who also stood apart from it. Just as the Jews wandered between empires, as dramatized in the Exodus myth, Yahweh slipped between nature and his heavenly realm; as Jews longed for a God that could understand the plight of lonely wanderers or of oppressed but righteous people, Yahweh seemed to have created a world so he could have someone to talk to. Jews felt they could cast righteous judgment on the idolatrous cultures that put theology before ethics and thus that got caught up in religious bigotry and tribal warfare. If God stands apart from everything in the world and thus from anything we can manipulate, no nation is especially empowered by God; we’re all equal since God transcends us all. God is above our earthly concerns and so we can’t enlist him to fight our battles for us—just as the Jews were alienated from or conquered by the great civilizations of the ancient world (Babylon, Macedonia, Rome). Such, at any rate, is the logic of ethical monotheism.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Homophobic Man struggles with his Fear

Dateline: New York—Morris Jenkins suffers from a debilitating fear of homosexuals, commonly called homophobia. When in the presence of gay people, he ceases to function.

“I remember the first time the terror struck me,” he said. “I was at work on my computer, sitting in my cubicle, and a co-worker told me he’s gay. My lower lip quivered, I screamed like I was looking into the face of Death, and I fell back away from him, landing on the floor and kicking my chair into the computer, shattering the screen.

“I turned over on my stomach and began clawing my way out of the cubicle, cutting my hands on the pieces of glass, gasping for breath and crying for help. My heart was hammering in my chest. The terrifying coworker tried to help me up and I shrieked and twisted my arm as I violently spun to avoid contact. I crab-walked out of the cubicle and ran to the opposite end of the office, clutching the wall behind me, sweating buckets and trying to catch my breath.

“By then, everyone in the office was standing and wondering what was going on. ‘Is it a terrorist attack?’ I heard someone ask.

“Despite my panic attack, I managed to get out, between deep breaths, ‘I think I’m homophobic.’

“‘No kidding!’ I heard the ghastly, gay coworker mutter.

“I’ve been that way ever since. No matter what I’m doing, if a Dreaded One shows up I’m gripped by fear and I just need to get as far away as possible. Once, I was driving and I saw two women with short hair walking by and holding hands. I slammed on the brakes, got rear ended, and then I reversed direction, floored it, nearly ran over an old man, and plowed into a McDonald’s. I kicked open the car door, wildly pulling hair out of my head with my bare hands and warning everyone that lesbians were probably nearby.

“They looked at me like I was insane. Absolutely insane. Of course! I thought. What do they know of my condition? They’re not homophobic.”

Morris spent several months in jail for reckless driving, because homophobia isn’t recognized as a clinical disorder.

“The very worst time,” he continued, “was when I once took a wrong turn downtown. I saw a commotion down the street and when I arrived I realized too late my tragic mistake. I’d stepped right into a Gay Pride parade. I collapsed and writhed on the ground, balling up into a fetal position and crying for my mother. Someone called for an ambulance and when the first responders arrived, with tears running down my cheeks and my voice hoarse from screaming, I whispered that I’m homophobic.

“I remember the medics looked puzzled, like they had no knowledge of such a paralyzing fear of homosexuals. That was when I began to notice something that’s confused me to this day. I went to an anti-homosexuality rally to talk to fellow homophobes, but the people there seemed much more angry than petrified.

Man Sues Porn Industry for making Sex Boring

Dateline: LOS ANGELES—Eduard Garbanzo, a plumber and avid consumer of internet pornography, is suing several top producers of porn for having made sex commonplace and boring.

“There’s too much nudity on the internet,” he protests. “They’ve saturated the market, those pornographers. I mean, how many times can you look at a naked person and still get aroused? How many giggling breasts and buttocks can you watch before you get tired of it all? Sooner or later, the whole thing just bores you to tears.”

Mr. Garbanzo is 27 and he grew up in an age when business on the internet began to boom, when pornography became no longer rare or hidden, but has been made available even to early teens at the touch of a few buttons. As Mr. Garbanzo says, “It used to be you’d have to sneak into the basement and root around for your father’s hidden stash of nudie magazines. And then you’d have to make do with the model that happened to be featured in those pages and with however she chose to pose herself.

“But now you’ve got a smorgasbord: whatever you want to see, the internet has it in store, 24 hours a day, every day of the week. There’s no holiday, no time out, no escape from the fulfillment of your wildest fantasies. I’m sick of it already!

“How much of a good thing is enough? I’ll tell you how much: when the porn is coming out your ears, when you’ve got naked ladies not just on your laptop but on your mobile devices so you can’t get away from the constant stream of sex and perversions, when sex is no longer exciting because it’s been overdone! That’s when you’ve been satiated. And that’s when it’s time to sue the pants off of those greedy pornographers who’ve killed the goose that lays the golden egg.”

Mr. Garbanzo’s lawyer insists that his client’s case isn’t frivolous. “We believe we have a case against pornographers, not because they’re peddlers of smut. That was the old charge and that was just a matter of taste. No, our complaint is that, you know, it’s enough already. They’ve ruined sex for the next generation. These filmmakers knowingly flooded the market with sexual images that no one has the strength to resist. As a direct consequence, sex has become stale.”

An evolutionary psychologist agrees that however bizarre the lawsuit may seem, there are reasons to worry that pornographers have possibly condemned our species, by making a substitute for sex too readily available. “Heterosexual men are instinctively driven to chase women for sex. Men like the thrill of the hunt, the pleasure of anticipation, the mystery that’s solved only in the end when the woman finally reveals what’s underneath her skirt. Women, too, crave for some romance, for the social foreplay when she can sit back and judge the man’s attempts to impress her.

“Pornography may well be undermining all of this, because the thrill of the hunt is gone. There’s no more mystery. Want to see what a New Jersey Pile Driver looks like? You can look it up in the billions of porn sites on the web; very acrobatic, that NJ Pile Driver. How about a Floridian Loop de Loop or a Japanese Walrus Dance or the Russian Bear Hug or the Chinese Manufacturing Facility? Ever wondered what the Canadian Leisurely Walk looks like? It’s not what you think, let me tell you. It’s one of the most perverted sex acts you can imagine.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Polls show increased Respect for Republican Shamelessness

Dateline: WASHINGTON—Polls indicate that Republicans are more respected by Americans, as a result of their complicated response to Russian President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Since George W. Bush’s second term, polls revealed that Americans’ respect for Republicans had plummeted. Analysts say this was because Americans perceived that Republicans have one of the easiest jobs in the world.

According to one of the polled voters, “I just got the sense that Bush and Boehner and Cruz and all of those guys weren’t really trying to govern the country or anything, so they didn’t care if they failed. Those are the small government guys, right? They want to—I don’t know—destroy the government? And there they are, the foxes guarding the hen house. I mean, that’s a job with very little responsibility.

“It’s like the banks that are too big to fail. They can literally do no wrong as far as they’re concerned. Imagine having the job of gambling as much as you like with other people’s money and not having to pay up when you lose some of your bets. In fact, the more bets you lose, the bigger your bonus! Pretty sweet, right?

“Well, how about those Republicans? They’re the proverbial bulls rampaging through the china shop: their job is to run government so badly that people lose faith in democracy. I’d love to have a job that easy!”

But then came Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and Republicans were torn. On the one hand, they were jealous of Russia’s autocracy. Here was the manly Putin who was fulfilling the Republican’s theocratic dream of exercising unrestrained power on the world stage.

As Governor of South Carolina, Joe Brainless, was caught saying, unaware that his microphone was turned on, “That guy Putin’s a gosh-darned hero. We need more maniacs like that to usher in the Apocalypse. He doesn’t even have to pretend to listen to his people or anything. The man outlawed gay pride parades and happy-talk about homosexuality to minors. No wonder Bush looked into his eyes and fell in love! Why couldn’t I have been born a woman so I could have had his babies?”

Sarah Palin said Vladimir Putin’s known for wrestling bears and drilling for oil, while Obama “wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.” She added that the other atheistic tyrants, like Hitler and Stalin, were pretty cool too. “That’s what the American democracy needs, a leader like the current Russian imperialist backed by a gaggle of kleptocrats, to stomp on everyone else’s freedom.”

On the other hand, American conservatives and moderates began to wonder why, if the Republicans love Putin so much, they don’t go ahead and marry him. And then it dawned on the Republicans that their fascist leanings should be kept something of a secret. Like Dr. Strangelove, who had to physically restrain his repeated attempts to give the Nazi salute, Republicans should begin to actually work, even if it’s only to maintain a false front.  

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Anthropocentrism and Misanthropy

Here's my new YouTube video, called Anthropocentrism and Misanthropy. Yes, it's kind of a mouth full.

Below the video you'll find some notes I used to prepare for the video.


Anthropocentrism: core embarrassment of theism, the most basic, untenable aspect; i.e. injecting human nature into the answers to our ultimate questions, typically by personifying the First Cause, that which completes all explanation; this is no longer tenable after the modern period and especially after the Scientific Revolution; there were ancient checks on animism and anthropocentrism such as Greek or Indian skepticism as well as the mystical traditions in the great religions and an appreciation of natural cycles (in Egyptian and Chinese cultures, etc) which decentralizes us, but that decentralization/humiliation (bringing us down to Earth) is made intellectually necessary after modern technoscience, which shows us the alien/inhuman scope of the natural universe; vestige of anthropocentrism in psychologism and metaphysical idealism, as in mentalist interpretations of quantum mechanics, but QM already has an alien logic, so any consciousness/observation which is fundamental isn’t given a commonsense meaning

Q: Does atheism avoid the trap of anthropocentrism? A: Not necessarily, since secular humanists make human nature central, replacing God with people as the measure of all things; values become subjective, we become the center of our artificial worlds which technoscience produces, and humanists regard this as progressive; so while we’re no longer crucial to all of nature or to the First Cause, we’re still ultimately important for the humanist in so far as we merit human rights and establish all normative values; we become metaphysically dependent on impersonal forces and systems, given the humanist’s naturalism, but we nevertheless become central to our worldviews, if not to the world itself, given the humanist’s optimism; human interests and values predominate in liberal humanistic atheism, by definition of “humanism”; e.g. in the humanities we study ourselves (history, anthropology, psychology, etc) to fulfill the ancient obligation to know ourselves and thus to be wise

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Sixth PDF Installment of RWUG

Here's the sixth PDF installment of this blog's main articles. You can find the previous installments here and in the eBook section at the top of this blog, although that section won't show up if you're reading this on a mobile device.

I'll likely have another YouTube video up by this Monday, about anthropocentrism, theism, and misanthropy.


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Canadians urge Ukrainians to seek Peace through Dullness

Dateline: OTTAWA—Backed by a majority of Canadians, the Canadian government has passed a resolution urging Ukrainians to stop fighting and to handle their internal conflict by being more boring like, Canadians.

Ukraine is split between ethnic Russians in the eastern part of the country and pro-European, ethnic Ukrainians in the west. Likewise, Canada is split between Catholic, French-speaking Quebecers, left-wingers in Ontario and British Columbia, and conservatives in the prairies. But Canadians have learned to settle their disagreements peacefully, by not caring much about them or about anything at all.

“The key to world peace is to be boring,” said Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “I mean, dreadfully dull. You want to have a reputation for being so boring that you literally put people to sleep wherever you go.

“Take one of our Parliamentary debates, for example. Right in the middle of it, the ministers stopped talking and we all just fell asleep in our chairs. For the life of me I can’t remember the issues we were debating because they were so tedious and minor league. That’s a sign that Canadians are on the right track, you see. If the microtargeting of our constituents bores even the politicians to tears, if there are no big, interesting issues on our horizon, you can be sure there will be no significant conflict between Canadians.

“Or take my Lego hairstyle, for example. Have you ever seen something blander? I’m signaling to the world how dull and inoffensive I am. My hair looks like it was made in a mold for mass-produced, oversized plastic toys. I’m not going to rock the boat or say anything interesting to get people’s attention. See? Not one hair out of place, not one wayward tuft hanging over my forehead.

“My hair is symbolic of how boring Canadians are. But that’s how we get the job done, by golly! There’s hardly any violence in our country. Do you know how that happens? It’s because in the last several decades, we haven’t cared enough about anything to fight for it.

“And that’s what we’re telling the people of Ukraine: stop caring so much about Europe or Russia. Be more boring and you’ll get along just fine.” 

Asked whether they plan to take Canada’s advice, a representative sample of both pro-European and pro-Russian Ukrainians said they have no idea what that advice is, because they never pay any attention to Canada—what with Canada being so uninteresting.

Whipping set to replace Screeching in Olympic Curling

Dateline: Lausanne, Switzerland—After an Olympic curler died of a heart attack from haranguing her teammates as they swept the ice, the International Olympic Committee has ruled that instead of yelling so much for no good reason, curlers in the next Winter Olympics will whip each other.

Laura Mahoney, the Olympian who died on the ice, would slide the rock towards the target, across the ice curling sheet, and then she would screech until her face turned red, flailing her arms and berating her teammates so they would steer the granite stones with their brooms as if their life depended on it.

“She wouldn’t just scream like an insane person,” said a sports journalist who covers curling. “She used to threaten to burn the sweepers’ houses down and cook their pets for breakfast. She called on all the demonic powers in the universe to guide the frenzied curlers. You could hear her howling even if you were standing outside in the parking lot. She was like a banshee from some mythical age—only she was guiding polished rocks down a curling rink instead of tearing people’s heads off.

“I don’t want to speak ill of the dead, but I have a pet theory: curling was just Laura Mahoney’s excuse to deafen the audience. She had something against people being able to hear—that’s what I think.”

In the last Winter Olympics, Laura died of a heart attack after pounding the ice with her fists in fury when her fellow curlers steered the rock to the left, whereas Laura had insisted that they should have steered it to the right, having threatened at the top of her lungs—and with a full stadium in attendance—to boil their children in a cauldron of acid if they failed to comply with her caterwauling that sounded like the cries of a condemned soul in the pit of Hades.

“Laura Mahoney just dropped dead on the spot,” said the sports journalist. “Some in the audience seemed relieved: they could finally remove their hands from their ears, shake the ringing out of them, and maybe think about attending a somewhat less cacophonous sport event, like a shotgun shooting tournament.”

The IOC reviewed the evidence and determined that Laura’s death could have been prevented, had her teammates simply removed the ear plugs from their ears as they steered the rocks. For their part, the teammates declared that their hearing mattered more to them than comprehending what their overzealous colleague was screeching.

Nevertheless, the IOC is implementing new rules for the curling tournaments in the next Winter Olympics. “Each curler will be issued a whip,” said a committee member, “and instead of verbally communicating with her teammates, the thrower will remove the whip from her belt, run down the ice, and whip her teammates’ posteriors to encourage them to steer the curling stones at the most opportune time and in the most advantageous direction.”

Courtney Jurgenson, a Canadian curler, expressed misgivings about the new rule. “I worry that the whip will end up tearing our pants off, so we’ll just be running around freezing and half naked, cleaning ice with a broom in front of thousands of people. You know, our rear ends are sort of just thrust up in the air there as we’re sweeping the ice. So I’m thinking of wearing leather for protection, assuming that will be allowed.”

Monday, March 3, 2014

Artificiality: The Miracle Hiding in Plain Sight

What is the relationship between the natural and the supernatural, and how does that relationship compare to the one between the natural and the artificial? I argue that philosophical naturalism is consistent with the distinction between nature-as-wilderness and the artificial microcosms we create, and that that distinction has religious, albeit atheistic implications.

Naturalism and Dualism

Philosophical naturalism is the generalization that everything is natural rather than supernatural. Science determines what’s natural, so this philosophy amounts to saying that natural laws are universal, that there are no real miracles in the sense of events that scientists couldn’t possibly explain. The metaphysical generalization that all events themselves are intrinsically natural quickly runs into pragmatic and epistemological issues. Scientists assume that the universe is a united whole ordered by natural laws, but they do so for pragmatic reasons. They think there’s no point in being defeatist, in presuming that some event is miraculous and beyond our comprehension—especially since most previous doubts about the all-encompassing scope of scientific methods of inquiry have proved wrong, which is to say that scientists have explained more and more of the universe by assuming that the same natural laws apply everywhere. Scientists are practical about this, because they’re not so interested in the philosophical issue of naturalism in the first place. To them, naturalism is their business, not a matter for idle speculation.

The question of the distinction between the natural and the supernatural also has an epistemic component, having to do with the limits of our cognitive capacities. Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum that sufficiently advanced technology will seem magical nicely illustrates this epistemic point. We can assume that the universe is an ordered whole, a cosmos in the strict sense, but we may not be clever enough to explain how all of the parts hang together, in which case the metaphysical generalization is faith-based or speculative. Indeed, there are obvious naturalistic reasons to doubt that the exapted rational powers of primates like us could comprehend everything the universe can become or can do. Just because science has progressed for a few centuries doesn’t mean science has no limits. In fact, even if science comes to explain everything we encounter, science may still be limited, because science can have unknown unknowns. Indeed, the multiverse interpretation of quantum mechanics implies that this isn’t just idle defeatism, since physicists themselves may have to posit an infinite number of universes determined by different sets of laws. Those other universes will be unknown in that we can have no direct contact with them. Moreover, this means that natural laws aren’t universal after all, which leaves ontological room for unnatural realms (for universes different from ours), although not for miracles in the sense of supernatural interventions in our natural universe.

Descartes applied the theistic solution to the problem of whether anything is supernatural, by positing mental substances alongside physical ones. Thus, we might say that fundamentally there are two kinds of things so that scientific methods might work only for one of them. This is metaphysical dualism, which philosophical naturalists reject. The naturalist says that minds are natural, not supernatural, and that cognitive scientists (including neurobiologists and psychologists) can explain mental phenomena. Dualists, meanwhile, redefine the supernatural substance to push it further and further outside of the increasing subject matter of science, by burying it in consciousness, for example. This is the god-of-the-gaps gambit of holding on to less and less reasonable beliefs, by moving the goalposts. According to dualists, scientists can explain the brain but not the conscious states that run on the brain in something like the way that computer programs run on the computer’s hardware. Mysterians are epistemic dualists and they say that consciousness itself is unnatural in that scientists will never satisfactorily explain the first-personal, subjective essence of consciousness, since scientific methods work only when scientists observe things objectively, from a third-personal standpoint.