Sunday, October 28, 2018

Seeing through the Matrix of Christian Discourse

Yvonne Conte seems like an average Christian. She wrote an article for the Christian Examiner, called God and the Atheist in which she explains why she’s a Christian and why she’s baffled that “logical, sane, good people” can be atheists. Inadvertently, she demonstrates why almost all communication on any subject is pointless.

Her article is full of confusions, fallacies, contradictions, and errors, but none of them matters. No part of her article uncovers the real source of her religious beliefs. None of what she says will convert any skeptic or even much strengthen the belief of her fellow Christian readers. Her article is for show, but what’s the real message? What led her to write it? Alas, to glimpse the code of the matrix, we need to wade through the muck.

Stage-Setting with Fallacies and Cheap Shots

Yvonne Conte
She begins speciously by saying that the biggest reason for atheists’ “collective lack of faith, is a lack of evidence, which is hysterical to me since believing in God without any solid tangible proof would be the very definition of faith.” What she means to say is that lacking evidence in support of Christian claims is consistent with having religious faith in them. Later on she contradicts herself by presenting what she calls “overwhelming proof” for Christianity from the New Testament. But her fallacy here is to slide from referring to a necessary condition of one kind of religious faith (the blind kind) to speaking of “the very definition of faith.” Just believing there’s no compelling evidence backing up a creed doesn’t amount to faith in the creed. What you have to add, of course, is the affirmative belief that happens in spite of the lack of evidence. The reason for the withholding of religious belief isn’t just the realization that there’s no good evidence; rather, the skeptic or atheist is also convinced there’s no compelling reason to believe in the absence of such evidence. In other words, there’s no reason to have theistic faith.

Indeed, being consistent about such faith is impossible, since there’s insufficient evidence for a myriad of truth claims, and to believe in all manner of nonsense would be the very definition of madness. Why is the Christian partial to her religion while she gives short shrift to the other religions, not to mention to all the cults, pseudosciences, and random gibberish spouted by lazy thinkers at all hours of every day? The reason why we don’t automatically accept every weakly supported proposition that crosses our path is, as a Christian herself might put it, because her god gave us a brain to think with. If we didn’t think critically at least about important matters, we wouldn’t be long for this world. On most issues we don’t think critically but rely on our intuition and other biases, and we manage to survive because of the widening of our collective margin for error that’s created by historical progress. We can defer to the experts who do much of our thinking for us and we can try out a dubious hypothesis and fail on its basis without always suffering disaster, because we’ve built ourselves the welfare state of civilization that can pick us up and dust us off when we fall down. For example, there are bankruptcy protection laws. But if we automatically accepted every random notion we ever heard (as in the Jim Carrey movie “Yes Man”), we’d eventually fail beyond anyone’s capacity for recovery. For example, we’d be easy prey for con artists.

Conte then sets the stage, presenting herself as a skeptic who examined the arguments against religion and found them wanting. She “dove head first into the Bible and several hundred other books about the Bible along with articles that argued there was no God at all.” But when she later turns to her hackneyed version of Pascal’s wager, she writes, “If what I'm saying is wrong and you believe me, you will loose absolutely nothing, but, if what I say is right, and you don't believe me, you will loose everything. You've got nothing to loose and everything to gain…You've got nothing to loose, try it” (my emphasis). Sounds like a book lover to me! This trope of hers, though, is performance art. The average reader of the Christian Examiner is likely Christian, and this reader will be amused to hear that skepticism folds like a cheap suit. Never mind that the average Christian who claims to have been an informed atheist is highly motivated to be lying or exaggerating about that part of her personal background. And never mind that even if that biographical detail were accurate, it would be an anecdote that carries little weight and can be countered with tales of Christians who converted to atheism or to other religions. More importantly, such anecdotes run up against the fact that the religion of most so-called Western Christians counts for virtually nothing since these Christians don’t live in a Christ-like manner. That is, their claim to have passed through a skeptical, nonreligious phase and embraced Christianity is only superficial, since they behave as if their religion meant nothing to them. 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Consciousness as the Seed of Artificiality

Consciousness is the feeling of having a thought, and the form of consciousness that distinguishes our species from the other animal species, namely self-awareness, is the feeling of having abstract, higher-order thoughts, or thoughts about thoughts. However, what distinguishes thoughts or feelings from everything else is that the mental states are supposed to carry meaning in the sense of being about that to which they’re somehow directed. Philosophers have puzzled over what that semantic meaning could be, especially since a thought could be intended to refer to something that doesn’t exist such as a fictional character.

If thoughts are supposed to have meanings that add up to a proposition that’s aimed towards getting at a truth, by forming a relation of agreement with a factual arrangement of things, that account runs up against the cosmicist upshot of scientific knowledge, which is that knowledge reveals the extent to which we clever apes are out of alignment with the rest of nature. Far from uniting us with facts, knowledge promotes Faustian arrogance which belies the existential despair that’s the more authentic reaction to scientific understanding. Science itself doesn’t establish a correspondence between thoughts and facts; on the contrary, science is about our instrumental power over nature. Joined with psychopathic pseudo-capitalism (otherwise known as “unfettered” capitalism which, by way of boom and bust cycles, degenerates into kleptocracy (rule by thieves) or kakocracy (rule by the worst of the population) until the aristocrats are overthrown by a wave of populist savagery), science is unsustainable since it opens up paths to our self-destruction, thus again pushing us profoundly out of alignment with the given facts. Talk of the so-called truth of theories that are supposed to be in agreement with facts becomes meaningless. When the facts wipe out the critters that presumed to be lords of the planet, some other, more awesome and horrific process must have been occurring about which even the enlightened haven’t a clue. In that case, our best models must be superficial, at best, but on top of that, our epistemology must be flawed: our distinction between truth and falsehood, between agreeing and disagreeing with objective facts must be wrongheaded.

But if thoughts aren’t meaningful in the way we usually think they are, and the conscious self is defined by the complexity of its thought processes, we must be mysterious; our conventional self-understanding is an illusion. There is, however, a better handle on what’s going on. The notion that a thought reaches out with an invisible hand to touch its referent, as though it were playing a game of tag is only a crude metaphor for the way thoughts actually relate to the world. A thought is a program for causing some behaviour, a conception or a model that leads the creature to align part of the world with the thought. Plato got to the mythic essence of this process with his distinction between the ideal world of Forms, that is, the world of general terms such as the stereotypical or otherwise simplified conceptions of things, and the less perfect material world, which he considered to be a mere copy of the pre-existing ideals. Plato got the order wrong: ideal conceptions or visions of more perfect archetypes emerge from the pre-existent, mindless but living-dead flow of matter. Moreover, our thoughts or ideal forms aren’t mere pictures of things; rather, the way we think of things consists of information and instructions that program us to raise part of the world to the level of our thinking.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Politics Made Simple

Are you confused by politics and the incessant squabbles between the left and the right? Mystified why politicians bother to speak at all in public when everyone expects them to be constantly lying? And why all the political deception in the first place? Now you can end your confusion with this handy primer.

Liberals and Conservatives, Victims and Bullies

Virtually every political disagreement boils down to a difference in how people answer the following question: Whom do you side with in a conflict, the underdog or the bully? Do you care about the happiness of strangers? Feel bad when they’re mistreated and wish there was some way to help them? In that case, congratulations: you’re a sentimental leftist!

Or do you think those who suffer deserve it because they’re too weak or lazy or stupid to avoid the abuse? Do you find yourself cheering for the aggressor and wondering why the bully got all soft and stopped pummeling the nerd just because the nerd started crying? Well, then, welcome to the club and hail Satan: you’re a right-winger!

The political continuum is divided along these main lines, between those on the left and those on the right or roughly between liberals and conservatives. However, politically-active people have a vested interest in obfuscating what politics is all about, as I’ll soon explain, so the conventional labels are fraught with misleading connotations. Thus, to clarify the situation, we should understand that “liberal” refers to a sissy, a groveling or resentful loser, while “conservative” means someone who surrenders the burdens of humanity to revert to a state of animal selfishness.

If you’re relatively weak, either physically or mentally, you feel bad when other weak people suffer, because you can easily imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes. And weak people suffer because the world is impersonal and unfair, and so weaklings are ground up and spit out of nature’s maw. If you were strong rather than weak, you’d be tempted to abuse your advantage and become the bully, in which case you’d stop identifying with victims.

If instead you are a bully, you feel sickened by weakness, because you’re secretly afraid to admit that even if you’re strong and callous enough to dominate other people, you’re an ant in the larger scheme of things. So you refuse to identify with losers. But you can’t afford to bond with fellow bullies, because they could turn on you at any moment. You’re in competition with your fellow aggressors, so you find yourself all alone with your capacity for empathy atrophied.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Theistic Proofs in an Echo Chamber

The atheist philosopher Simon Blackburn reviewed two books on atheism and theism, John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism and Edward Feser’s Five Proofs. The essence of Blackburn’s reply lies in this passage:
These principles [of the five proofs] are scholastic, both as a matter of history, and in the sense that they work in highly abstract terms that have little or no place in physical science. So in spite of Feser’s admirable industry the whole enterprise does little more than suggest Kant’s description of a dazzling and deceptive illusion. If reason did get us this far, it could only be because it had trespassed against its proper limits, suggesting, for instance, that we understand phrases like “subsistent existence itself”, or “purely actual actualizer”, giving them more content than a vacant “something-we-know-not-what”.
Feser replies to Blackburn that the Humean stance of skepticism is an impossible balancing act, since the skeptic has to doubt there’s any such thing as an ultimate explanation while not doubting our rational capacity to such an extent that philosophy and science become as dubious as scholastic theology. After all, writes Feser, the existence and nature of a divine first cause follows, according to the Scholastics, “precisely from an analysis of what it would be to be an ultimate explanation.” The scholastic “principle of sufficient reason,” for example, guarantees that the whole world is intelligible to humans. If you grant our rational powers such scope, you’re led to credit the most satisfying and comprehensive explanation we’re driven to propose as being grounded in reality rather than, say, in politically-motivated speculation or evolved intuitions. To give philosophical, a priori Reason its druthers is to anticipate an exhaustive, airtight explanation of all reality that presupposes nothing and rests only on axioms and logically proven conclusions. God is what you posit when you want a metaphysically complete, intellectually and morally satisfying explanation of everything. (The explanation turns out not to be complete or satisfying, since the concept of God is incoherent and a tool for our enslavement, but that’s another story.)

Otherwise, if you’re content with naturalistic cosmology, for example, you’ll say with the physicist Lawrence Krauss that the universe came from “nothing,” where “nothing” is really the highly-energetic something that follows from the laws of quantum mechanics, and you’ll leave those laws themselves unexplained. In short, you’ll be pragmatic about reason, accepting not the grandiose ambitions of conservative Christian theology but just methodological naturalism; you’ll say we should deploy reason where we can, without assuming the success of our investigations is preordained. So we may be able to explain the Big Bang with quantum mechanics without being able to explain quantum mechanics; we may have to presuppose some ideas in our theories much as an engineer needs tools to build machines. Science may be incomplete even in the end because it explains something by naturalizing it, and a natural creature needn’t be equipped to mentally encompass everything that exists; on the contrary, that uncompromising optimism would be bizarre since natural phenomena are largely accidental, limited, and—in the case of living things—biased towards their goals of surviving and being happy.

There’s a problem with Feser’s scholastic proofs, however. They’re not proofs at all in the sense of being demonstrations of the truth of some proposition based only on its logical connections to some other propositions. Blackburn hints at this point when he reminds the reader that scholastic discourse is so abstract that it’s inapplicable to the apparent world, and if that’s so the theistic “proofs” are misnomers since they could be neither true nor false. If Scholastics aren’t talking directly about the real world, what are they doing with what they call their “proofs”? The answer is that the proofs are myths for smug or disenchanted intellectuals who aren’t content with the soap operas of animistic folk religion. These pseudo-argumentative proofs are comforting analyses that are stripped of all drama and that describe how the world looks from a Christian perspective. To say that a Harry Potter novel is false is to miss the point of the story. The novel isn’t meant to prove that the real world has such and such properties; rather, the fiction provides a conceptual space for us to test our beliefs and our attitudes which do pertain to the actual world. We read stories to learn about foreign experiences and perspectives and thus to improve our character, avoiding the pitfalls of living in an echo chamber. Likewise, at their best, theological “arguments” lay bare certain religious assumptions so the theist can look in the mirror and ask whether she really believes that. Not sharing the background assumptions, the atheist dismisses the "proof" as preposterous.