Thursday, April 30, 2015

If the Republicans win in 2016...

... all sorts of terrible things will happen. This is just a partial list. (You're welcome to add anything else that merits concern.)
  1. Racial strife will instantly return to the country. Obama was elected in 2008 partially based on the premise that he, as our first black president, would end racial strife in the U.S. Just the fact of having a black man as president would suffice to usher us into a new world of peace and understanding... and the few stubborn hold-outs would eventually be brought into the fold by The Anointed One's persuasive powers. And sure enough, Obama has eliminated racial strife in America by seeing to it that black citizens each get their share of the “pie”, and more besides, as compensation for past offenses. His inspired leadership has turned everyone – black and white, male and female, gay and straight, etc. -- into equally good citizens. A Republican victory in 2016 would, however, constitute a serious setback to all of these advances, and run the risk of returning to the Dark Ages of hate, prejudice, hostility, and violence.

  2. Likewise, sexual discrimination will instantly return to the country. As was the case with racial strife, Obama's promise to make women equal to men in all respects, both economic and legal, has been fulfilled, even without the help of an equal rights amendment to the Constitution. Obama has bravely exercised executive power wherever he sees discrimination in any form, or unequal outcomes, or even the appearance of unequal outcomes. The result is that we have a satisfied and enlightened citizenry who have thrown off all dogmatic and traditional shackles of the past. 

  3. Homelessness will instantly return to the country. Barack Obama is, like many previous Democratic presidents, a miracle worker, in that homelessness in this country disappeared the minute he took office. How do we know this? Why, because the subject hasn't been brought up in the media ever since that date. As far as one can tell, all of the homeless found homes on Inauguration Day 2009, and no one has become homeless since, because of the generous government benefits and overall prosperity that resulted from Obama taking office.

  4. Marijuana will become illegal again, in every place and for any purpose.

  5. We will renew our lifelong commitment to the total boycott of Cuba. (But besides that, our foreign policy will remain basically unchanged, i.e. dominated by neocons.)

  6. “Judeo-Christianity” will be declared the official state religion (by executive order, so as not to run into Constitutional difficulties, based on the example set by Barack Obama).

  7. “The rich”, AKA “the wealthy”, AKA “the 1%” will once again be in charge of domestic and economic policy, as opposed to the democratic, populist criteria championed by Obama. 

  8. Golf will, once again, be looked down on by the liberal and media elite as the game of greedy capitalists (rather than a harmless recreational game, as it has been known as long as Obama was playing it).

  9. Excessive presidential travel (including travel by any member of the “first family”) will once again be considered extravagant, wasteful, elitist, and anti-populist (not to mention the carbon footprint issue).

  10. There's a high probability that the “second White House” will, once again, be a ranch. Obama and his family, on the other hand, prefer to save the taxpayers money by staying with billionaire friends whenever on the road. 

  11. The first lady will be engaged in superficial, meaningless, laughable “projects”, unlike those of Michelle Obama, which are meticulously thought out and respond to basic core human needs.

  12. The president's children (if any) will, once again, be a bunch of drunks, drug addicts, airheads, and losers. (This also applies to assorted other relatives, who may or may not be lodged in the White House attic.)
That's the list as it stands at present – but who knows, there may be more. In any case, you can't say you weren't forewarned.

Saturday, April 25, 2015


Hillary Clinton is being touted, by both sides, as the “inevitable” Democratic nominee for president in 2016, and by the Democrats as the “inevitable” winner. She's already at the picking-out-drapes stage (maybe to replace the ones she and Bill took with them when they left the White House back in 2001). Well... she was no less inevitable in 2008, and we all know what happened: “Black” (even if not strictly African-American in the socio-economic/cultural sense) trumped “female”. But unless the Republicans figure out some way to nominate a one-eyed transgendered Hmong albino, it would seem that Hillary has the aggrieved minority vote sewn up.

And maybe she is inevitable. Maybe, on some inscrutable cosmic/karmic level, she is not only the most obvious candidate, but is the president we deserve at this late date – a kind of harbinger of the ultimate apocalypse of our nation, its economy, its foreign policy, and its system of government. It is worth noting that many of the worst leaders of empires were the ones who ascended to power late in the game, when the empire was already starting to crumble, as if to show people the result of their many and varied follies, and hint that things were only going to get worse. Or, the “values” that contributed to the founding, expansion, and prospering of the empire were no longer held, or even comprehended, by the people. That's also a good description of the way things are for us in these times. We have gotten to the point where a politician is just as likely to win an election if they stand for despair as if they stand for optimism – and yet, in this, they may at least be more accurate representatives of “the people”, who have become ever more pessimistic over the years (I trace it, like so much else, to the 60s).

And all of this harks back to that age-old question, do men make history or does history make men? That is, are historical events primarily the result of great (in the most general sense, i.e. including both “good” and “bad”) leaders – unique individuals who make an indelible mark on the march of mankind? Or are even the most prominent of them merely actors, caught up in historical trends and forces which they had very little to do with? Are they, in other words, forced into power, and forced to do what they do? It's obviously easier to focus on individuals than on trends, cycles, eras, etc., about which one can argue endlessly. (Just try having a discussion on when “The Sixties” began and ended – I don't mean calendar-wise but cultural-revolution-wise.) It's much easier to blame it all on President X, King Y, Dictator Z. But then we have to reflect that even those people all came from somewhere – they didn't just appear one day, riding a white charger. They emerged from a complex matrix of social, economic, racial, religious, etc. factors. Familiar example: The world would have been a vastly different place if not for Adolf Hitler – right? And yet Hitler and his movement were products of their time; they came so perilously close to failing, and yet wound up wildly successful – at least for a season. So what unseen forces were at work that contributed to their success, and then to their failure? If Hitler had succumbed to mustard gas during World War I, would some other “Hitler” have appeared? One can point to any number of people, groups, organizations, etc. in the Twentieth Century that were on top of the world for a while, then suffered a mighty fall. Was it all of their own doing – that is, the successes and failures? Might not the same forces have resulted in similar people and groups rising to the top then crashing down again? If it had not been for Lenin and the Bolsheviks, would Russian royalty really have remained on the throne for decades to come? And closer to home, was the Civil War inevitable, i.e. would it have happened sooner or later, with or without Lincoln or even slavery? And the question for our time, of course – asked every day in the media – is, has the American Experiment come to an end, and is our decline as an empire under way, and our fall inevitable? And by “empire” I don't just mean our economic/political/military empire, which remains formidable (if only by default), but our ideational empire – that set of ideas, ideals, notions, words, and concepts – along with the iconographic trappings – that has defined us from the beginning, and is still alleged to by the delusional among us. It may be that our ideational empire has already ended, and that what is left is a very large, still powerful, but moribund (and dangerous) shell.

And when we're speaking of these things, we have to distinguish between direct and indirect causality, the latter being traceable, with a certain amount of effort, over the course of years, decades, and even centuries. We claim, for example – as part of our national mythology – that the attack on Pearl Harbor “caused” the war in the Pacific. But tensions had been building up for years, with both sides arming themselves (and each one aware of the efforts of the other); both we and Japan wanted to own the Pacific, so something had to give. So we may identify the “spark” (Pearl Harbor, Fort Sumter, Concord Bridge, etc.), but a spark is not a cause, except in the most superficial and simplistic way. (Does anyone think that the “War on Terror” began on 9/11? We need to talk.) But then how far back do you want to trace causality, of however slender a thread? I can draw a fairly bright line between the Reformation and the American Revolution, for example – but a lot had to happen in between, and what if it hadn't happened? Or was it “inevitable”? We like to think that “the purposes of men” are the primary driver of history, but what if history is cyclical in the same way as natural phenomena? It wouldn't be far-fetched, since we are a part of nature, both as individuals and as groups – and as a species. Perhaps our history is as cyclic and predictable, in a way, as the migration of birds or the ebb and flow of ice sheets, and that we just, in our egotistical way, fancy that we have something to do with it.

These are all imponderables, of course, but it makes one wonder about the whole inevitability concept. If we are all tossed about by waves like victims of a shipwreck, then, ultimately, the question becomes: Why fight it? Why worry? Why do anything? If both good and bad – both weal and woe -- are, in some way, inevitable, then why not adopt an existential attitude, tend to one's own garden, sit under one's own vine and fig tree, and figure that what will happen will happen? (This has, in fact, been the attitude of most people in most societies down through history, and for good reason. Does the fact that it's not the “American” attitude about things make us superior, or just delusional?)

The Middle Ages were a time of great faith and theological scholarship that has never been surpassed – and yet the concept of “fate” was uppermost in many people's minds. (Study the words in “Carmina Burana” for a sample.) Fate was an unseen force that disposed of men's struggles, exertions, and efforts... that canceled out much of what people were doing of their own free will... and that seemed to provide a last laugh to life – the life of virtue as well as the life of vice. It was the great equalizer, and its whimsies were as mysterious as what determines the roll of dice or the flip of a coin. Its favored image was a wheel, which turns inexorably, raising some up and crushing others to dust, for no good reason. And we have no choice about whether to be on the wheel or not – we're on it from birth to death. And it's not as if it favors some and arbitrarily persecutes others; it's an instrument not of cosmic justice but of cosmic indifference like “blind nature”, the only difference being that if nature is blind, its creatures are blind as well, therefore unknowing -- whereas we are painfully aware of the turns of fate, and cry out in indignation against them.

I've always been amazed that this mind-set managed to coexist so intimately with faith – with the notion of good works and the virtues being of merit and deserving of reward. Perhaps it's because so much back then really did seem to be random and arbitrary, despite our best efforts – things like plagues, natural disasters, and crop failures, but also things like war, which in its own way seemed as random and inevitable as the others. And yet, are things any more orderly and explainable now than they were then? Try Ebola, ISIS, stock market crashes, pollution... make your own list. Do we have any less reason to be fatalistic now than our ancestors had? And in fact, a great proportion of the world's populace, when you get right down to it, is fatalistic; they don't think that individual effort is of much use because the people in power, or “the system”, or just plain bad luck, or fate, or karma, or bad deeds in a prior life, or whatever, are more important in determining outcomes than are individual conscious choices.

Check out the lyrics in so many country-western songs; check out the “locus of control” factor, i.e. who, or what, the person believes is “in charge” of their life, of their fate. (Hint: It ain't them.) Check out identity politics and “victimology”, possibly the most powerful political forces of our time. It's as if individuals are helpless and lack free will, but the government is all-powerful and has free will, of a kind. (Well, don't we talk about the government as if it's a person – a conscious entity? I think that, on some level, we believe that – the way Mitt Romney believes that corporations are people.) (Someone should tell him that Soylent Green is people, but corporations aren't.)

Now, this is not to say that the whims and fears of the general populace have any automatic truth value; that would be democracy carried to an extreme. They may all be wrong, and the few remaining people who believe in rugged individualism, hard work, etc. -- the “Horatio Alger” mind-set – may be right. And yet the government in our time seems determined to reward apathy, sloth, helplessness, and despair because they are honorable virtues possessed by society's victims and rejects... and to punish ambition, achievement, and particularly wealth, because those are all signs of “unfairness” at the very least, not to mention selfishness and unwillingness to “share”. The notion that there is only one “pie”, and that it's of a fixed size, and that the only people who have the moral standing to divide it up fairly are political leaders – this is the modern-day equivalent of fate and despair. (So I guess it's OK to elect an “inevitable” candidate to run an economy based on fatalism... right?)

Another question is, if we are merely buffeted about by unseen forces, where and how do those forces originate? I have always found karma to be a very useful (if not strictly Christian) concept – and yet does it not, ultimately, refer back to prior actions of people, as individuals or groups? The people of the Middle Ages did not, as far as I know, assign responsibility for “fate” to God; free will was a strong teaching of the Church (although there was lively debate about predestination, which continues to this day in theological circles). But if fate was not from God, who or where was it from? Or was it from nowhere – i.e. simply a blind process intrinsic to the created order? But that order was created by God, after all, so why did He have to build fate into the structure? Or was fate, in some way, a punishment – a product of human sin and failure – kind of like karma but with no causal significance? We can ask these questions every day when we witness events that appear random – that appear to confirm the common idea that “when your number's up your number's up”. Random accidents, shootings, people catching fatal illnesses from trivial causes – all those things which make us doubt that there is intrinsic order in the Universe as opposed to chaos.

A theologian might say that “when bad things happen to good people” it's not their fault, but it's not blind fate, either – it's the symptom of a fallen world, i.e. the created order scarred by sin. Yes, the innocent do suffer, but that's because they live in a world of sin and of sinners, and the just and unjust are not walled off from each other (because, for one thing, there is always hope that the unjust will be converted through the witness of the just). And the innocent will see salvation, whether they are taken early or late. But to believe in this requires that we accept that God's ways are not our ways – that human concepts of “justice” are a paltry thing by comparison to divine justice. (This is opposed to the more common idea that God is one notch above the Supreme Court.)

But this is about faith, and I started out by talking about history, and about various possible attitudes toward history and toward human action in the present. I also mentioned free will, and this is an issue that is hotly debated in our time. Clearly, there is a connection between history and free will, since without free will we have to accept that we really are only victims of unseen forces – including our own drives and instincts. Which means, in turn, that while history may be a long and complex sequence of one “inevitable” thing after another, the human actors in the drama are, basically, helpless – slaves to animal drives and instincts, as well as whatever neurological mutations went into the making of the human species as opposed to all other life forms. Which means that no one is to blame – no individuals, no groups. And as I've pointed out before, it's ironic that the very people who are least likely to believe in free will are also the ones most likely to play the “blame game” when it comes to history or current events. Belief in free will tends to go along with religious belief, and religious believers tend to be on the other side of the political divide from the identity politics/victimology crowd. Which makes perfect sense, since if salvation is an individual thing, then so is faith and the other virtues, which means that individual action is a product of free will and group action is a composite of individual action, but not so as to disguise or cancel out individual responsibility.

Take the law. It's traditionally based on the notion that people have choices, and that they make those choices, for good or ill, and that they know what they are doing, and know right from wrong. Hence it is considered appropriate to punish bad behavior, and (in more recent times) to try to correct, or reform, individuals in order to insure that they won't offend again. But in a world without free will, punishment makes no sense, any more than it would make sense to “punish” a wolf for killing sheep. (You can kill the wolf, but that doesn't require a change in attitude on his part.) And as far as “correction” goes, or “reform”, if there is no free will, then what is being corrected, or reformed? The most one could do would be to perform some sort of surgical or neurological intervention – and this is, in fact, what is done in some cases (less often now than in former times). In other words, if you are going by a strictly mechanistic model, then you have to change the mechanism; there is no higher order (spiritual) thing available to be changed.

I should note at this point that the premise of free will when it comes to crime and punishment has been eroded quite a bit over the past few decades. We have had the “insanity defense” for quite a while, and that is premised on the idea that some people – the “insane” -- do not, in fact, have functioning free will and therefore cannot be held responsible for their actions. But this mode of thinking has expanded like The Blob, and we are now presented with arguments that mental retardation (oop, I mean “being mentally challenged”), or childhood trauma, or racial discrimination, or drug or alcohol abuse, etc. are also arguments against punishment, because they also rob people of their free will. The trend is clearly in the direction of, ultimately, holding no one accountable for their actions – which, I suppose, means that all of our prisons will eventually have to be turned into mental hospitals (they way they, in fact, were in the Soviet Union, which specialized in treating the politically incorrect as insane). Much of Europe has already gotten to that point, judging by news reports; they have no way of dealing with serious crime other than to declare the perpetrator mentally unstable – and even that diagnosis is subject to revision, meaning that the person could be set free at any time, regardless of the gravity of the offense.

In spite of all this, it seems to me that free will is the key – and I don't accept that the human race once had free will, but no longer does. Are there any human traits that have appeared or disappeared since ancient times? I see no evidence of that, and plenty of evidence (through ancient writings, legends, myths, etc.) to the contrary. Human nature is a “historical” phenomenon in that, as far as we know, it has never changed since humans became humans. (Of course, we only know about human nature since “history” started; anything prior to that is sheer guesswork, despite the claims of archaeologists and anthropologists.)

The problem with free will for the strict materialist is this: Where does it reside? Because if it's strictly organic – i.e. confined to biochemical and neurological processes – then it should also be strictly causal, i.e. every action should be completely caused by a prior action or event. (Even randomness does not constitute a different type of causality, but just introduces a certain “noise” level, or entropy, into the causal process.) But free will has to, it seems to me, operate outside of strictly organic, causal chains of events, or it's not truly free, but an illusion. (One might argue – as I did at one point in graduate school – that it's the illusion of free will that enables us to make conscious choices. But it could also be argued that the illusion of free will is no more than an epiphenomenon, and if so why did it evolve, i.e. what value does it have to the organism if it doesn't really “do” anything?)

So I opt for free will – because, for one thing, it makes theology make sense. Otherwise, we're all just so many ants in a cosmic ant farm, and “what's the use?” (which is, of course, precisely the existentialist point of view – and should be the liberal point of view, if they were intellectually honest). But does opting for free will solve the “inevitability” problem? I.e., does it necessitate a definitive answer to the “men make history” vs. “history makes men” question? If we say that men make history, then free will is obviously front and center, and is operating at all times, even among people who are no more than followers (which is, after all, the majority at all times and in all places, even the “rugged American frontier”). If we say that history makes men, are we then relegating free will to other areas of human endeavor – ones that may be important in the short run (within the life span of an individual) but have no historical significance? To put it another way, which is more likely to be an illusion – that “great men” drive history or that history yields up the occasional “great man”, the way earthquakes yield up mountains? For one thing, the “great man” model is more superficial than the cyclic/unseen forces model. It is more satisfying to the people, and makes for better reading. But I consider those causes for suspicion. Add to which, most if not all “great men” turn out, on closer study, to be not all that great – perhaps not outright frauds or charlatans, but more complex and fallible than their iconographers would like to admit. They are, in many ways, just as much products of their time... just as passive, reactive, and conditional... as any of their lowly followers. And of course, when they fall, which they frequently do, it's not always because they were overcome by another great man; they may have simply been overcome by diminished resources, abandonment by their followers, or some historic trend that rendered them obsolete. As much as we like to see two giants fighting it out on the movie or TV screen, it seldom happens that way in real life. Many of the greats end their lives with a whimper, or in the most bland and ordinary way. (And as to the ones who go out with a bang, our estimation of them seems to soar based on that fact alone rather than any real achievements.)

But again, if it's less about great men than about trends, and unseen forces, and cycles, where do those originate? I'm going to propose that they originate in the collective – in a certain mass of people having the same idea at the same time, for whatever reason, and maybe not even consciously. That, and fluctuating energy levels (again, as a sum of individual motives and actions). Nature is full of examples of species that, for all intents and purposes, operate exclusively as a collective, rather than as individuals; an individual, if separated from the group (ant hill, flock, hive, herd, etc.) is disoriented and helpless, and his chances of survival nil. One can say that, for these species, the collective is the organism, and the “individuals” more like cells. Now, when it comes to the human race, we do in fact operate that way some of the time, and strictly as individuals some of the time, and anywhere in between some of the time. So we are, in that sense, hybrid beings – not only with regard to body and soul, but with regard to basis for action. The thing is, when we act as individuals we usually “know” what we're doing – we're conscious of our motives and our choices, and hopefully of the likely consequences thereof. But as we form ourselves into groups, something else starts to take over – and the larger the group, the more it takes over, and the more our conscious choice-making is subordinated to the “will” of the group, or the collective. So does this mean there is such a thing as “group consciousness”? I would rather call it “group unconsciousness” -- acting without really knowing why and without conscious goals. In degenerate form this can be equated to “mob psychology”, lynch mobs, mass hysteria, panic – all very familiar phenomena, that we take for granted without seriously asking how they can possibly happen to “homo sapiens”. On the plus side, if you will, would be things like fads and enthusiasms, cultural trends, political movements, religious movements, mass gatherings of various sorts, migrations, “rushes”, and so on – again, all very familiar and all taken for granted without anyone asking how it lines up with individual choice and free will.

Now, someone might say, for any of these things I just mentioned – whether good or bad – there is always a leader... a mastermind... someone manipulating things behind the scenes. Someone has to organize, or at least start, mass movements; someone has to touch a match to the fuse. Well, maybe, in some cases – or at least most. But it's amazing how soon the mob, or group, acquires “a mind of its own”, and then one wonders, again, whether what happened was, in some way, inevitable. We always assume that “human nature” resides in the individual, because that way we can stick with our comfy materialistic model – it's all in the brain, all neurological, and that, in turn, is determined by our DNA, which evolved over the eons in a purely random fashion, etc. etc. If we start to think that human nature may at least partly reside in the group – the collective – then this strictly mechanistic model has to be expanded to include some sort of collective consciousness, or some lightning-fast sending and receiving mechanism by which each individual communicates with each other individual in a way that seems to defy simple causality – the way a huge flock of birds will all change direction at the same time (and the ones who were in the lead before are suddenly bringing up the rear). If you look at people in large groups, and how they behave, is it always obvious that someone is in charge, even if we can't discern who it is? More often it seems that the group itself is in charge... or that no one is. And again, this is not to say that the right sort of leader (Lenin, for example) can't jump up on the nearest soap box and start directing things; this does happen. But are they not also just riding the wave? If all of that swirling energy were to dissipate, where would their fervent arguments go? And how often a once-monolithic group starts to fragment, even when the “great man” is still ostensibly in charge.

But consider that word “director” for a moment. Think of a good orchestra – they could keep playing for quite a while if the director were to walk off stage, but he would be helpless and look foolish with no orchestra in front of him. So there is an interdependency there, and so it is with leaders of any sort. Their followers put them in place, and they maintain their position only with the consent of their followers. One might say, this is only because no one individual dares speak up; they are responding to “group pressure”. But again, this is to assume that the individual is the only genuine, valid actor, and I'm not sure we can just accept that assumption without question; there is too much evidence to the contrary.

To sum up (if not to “resolve” this very complex issue), we may have to admit that free will functions more clearly, and reliably, in some situations than in others. The situations where it seems most likely to be compromised are when the group (of whatever size) is the active entity. That, in turn, starts to resemble other natural, collective phenomena – mainly based on life forms, but there are cyclic phenomena that are not organically-based as well, as we know from geology, astronomy, etc. As phenomena go higher up the “collective” scale, the effective involvement of individual consciousness diminishes until it disappears, for all intents and purposes. This is the point at which we start to feel passive and helpless – victims of unseen forces, even though those forces reside in, and operate through, our own species. And because of their cyclic quality, we see the “same” things happening again and again, yet keenly feel our helplessness at doing anything about them. Finally, we develop an attitude of “inevitably”, which is a variety of despair. Our response then is to become “existential” and retreat to our very limited span of control, leaving the rest of the world to its own devices. This, of course, is what those who are in charge – or who think they are – want. Even if they are subject to the same conditions as the rest of us, they see a profit thereby because, on the wheel of fate, they have a firm grip on the part that is rising, and they prefer to not contemplate the point at which the fall will commence.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Conversation about Atheism, Faith, Science, and Radicalism

A while back I posted an essay entitled “Those Wacky Atheists” and hot-linked it on Facebook. I've gotten some very good responses which I'd like to respond to in turn. (I'll code the three respondents R1, R2, and R3; my answers are coded as A. Some responses are broken up by my comments; I did some minimal editing as well.)

R1:  Yes, militant atheists are, to me, more annoying than their counterparts, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, who come knocking every now and then. The latter are usually gentle and sincere, while the former tend toward stridency and insistence. Who needed Madalyn Murray O'Hair (RIP) going around being a pain in the ass about mentioning God in public? Although better presented, Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Sam Harris (The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation) seem to be her heirs in recent times, as thought leaders for aggressive atheism. Even the more nuanced Richard Carrier (Sense & Goodness Without God) and Daniel C. Dennett (Breaking The Spell) ultimately can't avoid urgency and advocacy in their tomes.

A: “Urgency and advocacy” -- correct, as though we're all approaching a critical juncture at which the choice between belief and non-belief becomes not only critical, but a matter of life and death (in the strictly material sense for those on the atheist side of the argument). It reflects the idea that, to the militant/aggressive atheists, religion, and religious people, must be stopped before it is too late (although what the criteria for “too late” might be is seldom discussed). But yes, the battle is not only joined but the “mother of all battles” (Armageddon if you're a Christian) is at hand. In this sense, they may actually be right. It does seem as if there is less “wiggle room” than ever, and not just because of increasing world population. And yet, many eras in the past have also felt (to the people at the time) like “the last days”. Various Protestant groups have been talking this way at least since the nation was founded. Likewise, every few years some world figure comes along who is identified as the Antichrist – and yet, in retrospect, they turn out to have been a “figure” of the Antichrist at best, but far from the real thing. Does this mean that atheists are as “apocalyptic” in their thinking as religious people – if not more so? This is certainly true if we're talking about the global warming/climate change/pollution activists. Many of them believe that we are already past the “tipping point” -- but then again, the population control advocates believed that decades ago, and we have yet to see the mass starvation that they expected to start at any time. (By now, according to some of the “population bomb” prophets of a few decades back, there should already have been a mass die-off of humanity and the survivors should be making a modest comeback.) Yes, there is way too much anxiety and longing for the end – for that final reckoning, that cleansing... and it's not confined to Christian fundamentalists. Everyone wants to see “justice”, however they define it, done in their lifetime – a verdict, a judgment.  If you're a Christian, it is God who will judge; if you're a materialist, the Earth itself will render judgment.  This is a longing that Christians and materialists share in about equal parts, it seems to me. But each side needs a dose of patience – and that's one of the things I was trying to bring out in my post.

R1: If there is any place for tolerance in human discourse (and there had better be as we approach the ability to decimate whole populations with the push of a button), religious belief should stand high, if not first, on the list. Sadly, and dangerously, it doesn't. Also sadly, the path to it really can't be found by aggressively outlawing negative criticism of religiosity, nor by the opposite approach of trying to stamp out religiosity. We need to learn to accept that some find their meaning in it just as others find their meaning in other pursuits. Fat chance, if you read any history and see the power of that confounded urge, which seizes religionists and contra-religionists, to proselytize their point of view.

A: If for no other reason, suppression of any belief (or non-belief) system tends to give it a kind of added strength and endurance. Better to “let a hundred flowers bloom” and let public discourse happen in broad daylight. (A fascinating historical note is that the Scholastics, in the late Middle Ages, used to hold theological debates among Christian, Jewish, and Moslem scholars. I don't think we've fully gotten back to that stage of intellectual fearlessness as yet.)

R2: A lot of militant atheists are of course arrogant fools, insisting on limiting the universe to what they can explain. There’s an awful lot we don’t understand, especially with regard to phenomena of life and consciousness, and that’s partly because our science has been so bad. There’s no reason not to be open to clues about whatever may be out there that we can’t yet begin to explain. But an attitude of openness doesn’t commit one to theism, either. The forced choice of either (a) there is a God, or (b) the world as understood by modern science is all there is, seems to me to reflect a serious lack of imagination.

A: I can agree on (b), but it seems to me that (a) is a black-and-white question. That is, either God exists or not. God cannot halfway, or kind of, exist, or exist for some people but not for others, etc. And yes, this is an “absolutist” point of view, but I think it's necessary if one accepts that any meaningful concept of God has to be an absolute one – that God has to exist outside of the created order, i.e. outside of time and space, because otherwise how could He have created it? (And if God is somehow part of the created order, that just pushes back the question or origins.) Such a Creator must be all-powerful and omniscient, because how could any part of that which He created stand outside His power or knowledge? And so on (it's all in Aquinas, of course). So regarding the above choices, one can opt for (a), which automatically implies non-(b). Or, opting for (b) automatically implies non-(a). However, opting for (a) therefore non-(b) certainly doesn't mean that we reject that which legitimate science has come up with to date, or anything it might come up with at a later time – only that one's attitude toward science is “agnostic” in a way – we can never be ultimately certain of our epistemology or our metaphysics in the scientific arena.

R2: I’ve always thought it hard to see much hope for progress in a debate where one side remained so resolutely undefined. Are atheists supposed to believe in an omniscient, omnipotent creator of the universe? The sadistic monster of the Old Testament, slaughtering whole populations of infidels, and demanding that one of the faithful prove his devotion by killing his son (“Wait, just kidding.”)? All of the above?

A: Well, there is certainly more than one creed among the monotheistic religions, and a good variety of epistemological and metaphysical teaching among the others, so yes, there is a choice. I would say generically that there is a choice between strict here-and-now empiricism and spirituality, however defined. All religious people have at least one thing in common, which is the feeling that there is “something more”. Now, a non-religious person may feel that there is something more, but it will still have to be on a continuum with what is already known (in the here-and-now empirical sense) – unless an entirely new “way of knowledge” that is neither scientific nor spiritual manifests itself. This would be a paradigm shift comparable in magnitude to proof that intelligent life exists on other planets (another very strong longing in our time – and actually relevant to the discussion, but I'll leave it for now).

R2: I’ve been inclined to think of atheists as defined by negation, by their rejection of that ill-defined package. That makes them a motley crew, with little more in common than people who don’t like Brazil nuts. But your post suggests the interesting possibility that _both_ sides are defined by negation, so then neither theists nor atheists are asserting anything positive, and it’s no wonder there isn’t much to say.

A: Theists are asserting something very positive – again, referring to the creeds. There is far more discussion in the Bible of who, or what, God is than of who, or what He is not. Ultimately – according to Christian theology as I understand it – God is not only good, but He is goodness itself, i.e. entirely positive, and the created order is both good and positive as created, but corrupted by sin, i.e. negativity (first manifested in rebellion against God Himself, not just against the idea of God). So in some ultimate sense evil is all negative – a lack, a vacuum. (I'm not sure where in my post I implied that religion is defined by negation; please point it out.)

R2: There are some schools of jujitsu which are purely defensive; within the system, it is impossible to have a tournament, since nobody can make the first move. You make the very interesting charge—it seems to me an apt one—that atheists are not “metaphysically dissatisfied”. I assume your intended meaning is that, no matter what the future state of scientific understanding, we should always be metaphysically dissatisfied. (“Is this all there is? I want my money back.”) Like perpetual ingrates, we should insist that there always has to be something else.

A: Not that there “has” to be something else, but what are the chances that we already know all there is to know? (We do get occasional clues to the contrary, after all.) And far from being ingrates, we should be in a perpetual state of awe as to the Creation and our part in it (yes, including the part where we are perpetually looking for answers and ways to improve the human lot as well as increase our knowledge).

R2: But that something is defined only negatively, based purely on a rejection of the world as sufficient in itself.

A: Again, not rejection, but being pretty sure that there is more – and that there will always be more. I think it's much more “negative” to just close the book and go home. Intellectual history is full of examples of people who felt that a given field of inquiry had been completely explored, only to be proven wrong within a short period of time. Now, I suppose one could have an “existential” attitude about the state of knowledge as it is, as being sufficient for the time – but then be willing to accept each new finding as adding to that, at which point that becomes sufficient, etc. So each state of knowledge is, by definition, sufficient for a given moment in time. But does that make it insufficient for all later moments in time? And if so, were we deluded in thinking it was ever sufficient? My tendency is to, basically, not even worry about the sufficiency issue, but I don't think this puts me in the same boat as the “metaphysically non-dissatisfied” atheists.

R2: So the concept of God as ineradicable residual, what’s left after we subtract out the known universe, makes it an inherently negative concept, defined by what it is not: anything that we can observe or understand. Since it can neither be defended nor refuted, it is not a very cognitively compelling concept.

A: God must be “ineradicable” if He is truly God. But knowledge of God, AKA theology, is far from negative. And, as the Scholastics held, sound theology and sound philosophy (which, for them, included what we call science) are complementary and mutually supportive. (Once again, I'm looking for the negativity here and not finding it.) There are countless “defenses” of the existence of God, and yes, they can be held to standards of logic. But as to refutation, once we enter the realm of belief, or faith, then it becomes an individual choice and there's really no question of refutation (despite what the militant atheists would like to think). But belief or faith does not have to be “illogical”, nor does it have to be “anti-scientific” as long as we have a correct notion of the nature of science – what it can and cannot do.

R2: But all of us are familiar with feelings for which we can’t identify an object. The most common such experience may be anxiety, but I’ve also sometimes felt unaccountably cheerful when the world was objectively crashing down around my ears. Feelings of reverence, of a need to worship, or to serve, or to be a part of, naturally prompt a search for an object, if one isn’t already apparent. And the attendant attitudes and practices can have real-world effects which reinforce the appearance of reality in the object.

A: Well, who knows, that “appearance of reality” may reflect an actual reality!  And as for "the world objectively crashing down around my ears", yes, I know the feeling, and I identify it with, at least, (1) a sense of adventure, as in, "now what", and whatever it is won't be anything like what came before; and (2) liberation, as if the "old life" is over with, for better or worse, and since we can't go back we have to move forward with a "clean" (or cleansed) slate.  Once can even think of death in this way, which is consoling.    

R2: When I commented to ____ at her wedding on the apparent absence of the usual conflicts between the bride and the bride’s mother over wedding preparations, she said, “We’re both very prayerful, and that helps.” I immediately realized that the act itself of turning away from each other and toward a shared object, together with the shift in attitude from assertive/combative to receptive, would likely be very helpful to both parties, and that helpfulness would strengthen the impression that it came from the external object of focus rather than from the shift in attitude. The need for self-transcendence is a powerful one, partly because it feels good, and right; it prompts extraordinary sacrifices, not only in religion, but in nationalism and in the S-M relationships I’ve observed.

A: “Nationalism and S-M relationships” -- there's a juxtaposition for you! I'm sure there's some common ground...

R3: Militant atheists are just radicals who believe in not-god, just like the radicals who believe in god. radicals are radicals and should be ignored.

A: Many of the saints were considered radicals in their time. When one is dealing with the absolute, one tends to think in absolute terms. “Absolute” behavior, on the other hand – as exhibited by ISIS, for example – is another matter. That's where mercy and tolerance have to be added to the mix, and good Christians (and Moslems, and Jews) have always tried to do that.

R2: Evidently nonradicals are nonbelievers?

R3: Nonradicals are just not radical. They can believe whatever the hell they want and are easier to live with.

R2: But they can't believe in God, and they can't believe in not-God, because then they would be radical. So on that issue, at least, they can't believe whatever the hell they want.

R3: Christians believe in god as do Muslims, Jews and a couple of other religions, but most of them are not radical. Secular Humanists, agnostics, atheists, and even a few other religions don't believe in god and most of them are not radical. Again, it is the radicals of any ilk who make all the noise we all could do without.

R2: Ok, understood. I would have been inclined to label the troublemakers as militants rather than radicals, since I think nonmilitant radicalism is just the way to be. But I've made enough noise for this conversation.

R3: Yeah, they shoot with their guns rather than just with their mouths.

A: I think what this amounts to is that “radical” belief, or faith, is one thing, and is in fact appropriate if we want to call ourselves real believers. I'm not even sure what non-radical belief, or faith, would look like; if it's all that conditional and tentative then it's more like agnosticism or (good) science than belief. Yes, there is a place for tentativeness and conditionality, and that is precisely in the realm of science – which in the most general sense would include psychology, sociology, economics, and even politics. The problem is that our language has been corrupted. Nowadays people are subjected to litmus tests like whether they “believe” in Evolution, or in global warming. These are scientific questions, and belief should not enter in – and if it does, it ceases to be science. On the other hand, an expression of belief or faith in an ultimate (non-scientific) truth is not a rejection of science and empiricism, but an acknowledgment that there are other questions, other modes of inquiry, and other answers – and that those answers, being articles of faith, must by their very nature be absolute (and “radical”) since they deal with eternal verities.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Give Reality a Chance

The language of political correctness is a suffocating foetor which blots out rational thought and reasonable discussion, and reduces men to exclusively political creatures, helpless as individuals and only feeling a false sense of power when united with others who are equally helpless and ignorant. Politics is an area where there is not only strength in numbers, but reality in numbers – the only reality that exists for those who are committed to the collective as the basic unit of human existence.

But there is something worse than PC language -- or, at least, something more tiresome and inane -- and that's “cop language” -- that robotic, multisyllabic (by people who may have, at best, sixth-grade verbal skills), mealy-mouthing hodgepodge bereft of all meaning and designed (by politicians, government lawyers, and “agents of social change”) to protect the Regime's foot soldiers against any and all accusations of prejudice, bias, stereotyping, etc. In other words, to make sure that whatever the police say doesn't serve to ruin the chances of a successful prosecution and conviction. So these hapless cops are reduced to using words they were not brought up using, and are only vaguely aware of their meaning, in order to convey “information” which has absolutely no information value to the media, the public, etc. and which basically requires a translator to figure out what they're talking about. (Is it any wonder more and more of them have decided the hell with it, just shoot first and avoid all the humiliating convoluted verbiage? Take desk duty for a week or two; it's worth it.) (And you think they talk that way to each other down at the station house, when there are no news cameras around? Forget about it.)

But there is something even worse, and that's the language the media are, apparently, required to use whenever discussing a criminal case. Regardless of the strength of the evidence – often overwhelming – the “perp” is always “the accused” and their actions are always “alleged” right up to the point of conviction, if not beyond. Now... this may be technically correct if you're a law school graduate, but hey, we're talking about the media here, OK? I remember when the radio guys in Buffalo used to describe burglars as “yeggs” (when's the last time you heard that word?), and that was way before anything like a trial. But hey, all of the listeners knew what “yeggs” were – it has a lot more cachet than “the accused”, to which the average citizen would have responded, “Whattaya mean 'accused'? He did it, ya dopes!”

Add to which, the right to “a prompt and speedy trial” has been totally overtaken by politics, legalistic red tape, and “sensitivity” -- so that, in the aftermath of a crime, victims suffer or recover, evidence is endlessly discovered, debated, and quashed, people die, babies are born, and yet the “accused” remains “the accused”, for months or even years, like a character out of Kafka. There may be some legal systems in the world – past or present – where this is considered normal, but ought it to be considered normal for us? Hard to imagine. I'll bet that a great sigh of relief comes from the law enforcement and judicial community every time a “perp” either takes their own life or has it taken by the police – “At least that's one long, drawn-out ordeal we don't have to go through.” (And did you ever notice that when the accused-to-be winds up dead, they are no longer the accused? Then they are referred to as the one who committed the crime. That is, they are tried and found guilty by the mere fact of no longer being available for trial. Interesting, huh?)

Case in point. One year ago a strange little rat-like creature walked into his senior high school in a Pittsburgh suburb with a handful of kitchen knives and proceeded to stab everyone within reach until he was finally subdued. The victims, 21 in number, all survived, and they are, of course, in various stages of recovery, physical and psychological. (And by the way, where were all the football jocks while this was going on? Where were all the guys who spend every Saturday morning at Master Kim's Tae Kwon Do? It's hard to believe someone can stab 21 people in a row, over quite a few minutes, without someone stepping up and taking him out before the number gets that high.)

But at any rate, we have 21 eyewitnesses, namely the victims, and probably scores more. And yet the media still have to bend over backwards and tie themselves in knots, describing this guy as a “suspect” and his act as “alleged (by the authorities)”. All of the events are preceded by the words “authorities say”. (I imagine the victims “say” the same thing – or would if asked.) Either that or they make it sound as if the knives, acting alone, caused the wounds. The knives are assumed guilty, even if the person who used them is not.  (Kind of reminds me of "gun control", now that you mention it.)

OK – so a guy is “suspected” of doing something dozens of people saw him do (and they all agree – there are no dissenters), and his acts, from which 21 people are still recovering, are “alleged”. Which means – what? They might not have happened? In which case, was everyone stabbed by someone else (or by each other, or themselves), and they just imagined that it was this one guy who did it all? Or maybe they only imagined they'd been stabbed; better check with the local hospitals to see whether there were any actual, visible wounds or just a bunch of babbling hysterics claiming they had them.

I don't want to seem cynical or crabby about all this, and I certainly don't take the event lightly (any more than I take so many other events that have become typical of government, i.e. “public” schools). It's just that we've drifted so far from any objective concept of reality that we have difficulty describing real, traumatic events when they actually happen – as if everything has now been relegated to a fantasy world, a parallel universe of elaborate animation and skilled voice-overs, from which it has to be reclaimed if we're ever to get our thinking straight. It actually reminds me of the film “Inception”, where there are so many layers of “reality” that one loses track of which is the real, or basic, or original one. As one layer of programmed fantasy is piled on another, each layer becomes the “reality” for the next layer, and so on. It gets to the point where even the characters lose track.

But does this really reflect the everyday experience of most people? I mean, don't we basically all get up, have breakfast, go to work, drive, shop, etc.? Isn't that our baseline? Well... I would be willing to claim that there are people out there whose real baseline (as far as they are subjectively concerned) is television – or computers – or the Internet – or video games. They may have physical existence in the same world as the rest of us, but their consciousness dwells elsewhere (or nowhere, as the case may be). The perceptual/psychological world where you live is your reality, in other words; what other people think is of very little relevance unless they somehow attempt to penetrate your world (or you mistakenly stumble into theirs). (And you'll notice how the friendships and bonds formed within these fantasy worlds often turn out to be stronger and more enduring than the relatively dull, ho-hum relationships people have in the “real” world.) (There was a meme some years back in which a guy would come home from work and his wife would spend an hour telling him what happened on all the “soaps” that day. Nothing about her actual here-and-now existence – maybe because there was nothing to tell, which is sad.)

So I suppose in some worlds – in some parallel universes – those 21 people didn't get stabbed, after all. And the “alleged” perpetrator simply showed up for school and attended classes as usual. Maybe that's what the media are trying to do – reduce the pain by, somehow, reducing the reality value of events. If something only “sort of” happened, or if there's an equal chance that it didn't happen... well, maybe that doesn't make it OK, but it makes it less bad. How are we supposed to judge events that almost didn't happen, and the people who almost didn't make them happen? Judgment is based on reality, on facts – or so we've always been led to believe. But if even core reality is just a point of view – just subjective, and prone to all sorts of bias and prejudices... if the best we can hope for in the way of reality is some sort of agreed-upon, politically-based momentary “position” which can be altered with no effort... something with no more lasting significance than a “sound bite” or a “screen capture”... why, then, we have the perfect makings of a slave-state populated by mindless serfs. Who, of course, attend public school and read, or view, the mainstream media.

Maybe that's what it's ultimately all about. Wean us away from this “reality thing” so that we become purely social, political creatures like bees or ants. If that's the agenda, then I'd say it's already well under way.