Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Temptation of Tim Tebow

After Tim Tebow's night at Gethsemane on the Lord's Holy Day, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth and the Patriots, no doubt, will be cast into the outer darkness. The Tebow did not fail (given his 92 yards rushing, many of them picked up in garbage time) but was only failed by his teammates who were weakened by sin, dropped passes, fumbles and missed blocks. Like God himself, Tebow is to be praised for all the good that he brings but is not to be cursed when he brings only evil.

Tebowmania, however briefly, has gripped our great nation in its sweaty paws. Anyone who watches sports or even Saturday Night Live (who watches that again?) is familiar with the vaguely disquieting man-love sports commentators have for beefy Denver Broncos quarterback/fullback Tim Tebow. The Tim Tebow Experience. The Beefy T-Bone. The Big Tebowski.

Tim Tebow has largely benefited from a good running attack, a good choice of inept opponents, the famed prevent defense (famous for preventing the team that practices it from winning), and, most importantly, the bizarre tendency for sports commentators to lay all praise or blame for a 54-player team's success or failure at the feet of that team's quarterback. Besides its vaguely homoerotic aspects, praise for Tebow has centered on his personal virtue which is attributed to or defined by his religious faith. I don't much care what sports figure generates this kind of feeling from day to day, but Tebow idol-worship perpetuates the notion that religious faith is an indicator and cause of good moral character. This view about Tebow and the relation between his faith and moral character has spread beyond the sports pages into Frank Bruni's column in the opinion pages of what is ostensibly the nation's most reputable newspaper. (After Bruni's coverage of G.W. Bush in the 2000 election, his opinion of Tebow is unsurprising.)

CAN God take credit for the victories of a thick-set N.F.L. quarterback who scrambles in a weirdly jittery fashion, throws one of the ugliest balls in the game, completes fewer than half of his passes and has somehow won six of his team’s last seven games?

That’s a question that actually hovers over the miraculous success of the Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, and at this blessed juncture it’s a silly one, because the answer is unequivocal: Yes. Tebow is powered by conviction and operating on faith, and so are the teammates he’s leading. And you needn’t be an evangelical Christian (as he is), a seriously religious person or even a football fan to be transfixed and enlightened by his example. I speak as a football fan only when I say the following, which I never expected to: The mile-high messiah has a gospel for us all.

One assumes Bruni is joking since, obviously, even if Tebow's faith in God is key to his success, this would indicate nothing about the entity God itself. We could wish that the buff Mr. Tebow had literally transfixed Mr. Bruni (if you know what I mean, and I think you do). Perhaps then we would not be subjected to these love-notes. Nonetheless, we have a thesis for the article: Tebow and his team benefit from his optimism and confidence. This view is a variant on William James's argument for the benefits of belief. Let's see how badly Bruni's argument goes awry.

Which brings us back to religion. With Tebow there’s no getting away from it. He uses the microphones thrust in front of him to mention his personal savior, Jesus Christ, and has said that heaven is reserved for devout Christians. He genuflects so publicly and frequently that to drop to one knee in the precise way he does has been given its own word, along with its own Web site, where you can see photographs of people Tebowing inside St. Peter’s, in front of the Taj Mahal, on sand, on ice and even underwater.

Bruni leaves out the irony of Tebow's genuflecting in the pose of Rodin's The Thinker. He also fails to mention Tebow's appearance in a pro-life commercial that aired during Superbowl XLIV (in 2010). Tebow is unusual in his public religiosity in a field (no pun intended) that already is dominated by displays of piety, and he is unusual in advancing a political agenda motivated by his religion. It is Tebow's apparent self-righteousness, his proselytizing for both his faith and his political views and, above all, the misplaced ardor of our media that fuels the popular derision for Tebow, a derision that Bruni feels is misguided.

But the intensity of the derision strikes me as unwarranted, in that it outdoes anything directed at, say, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, accused repeatedly of sexual assault, or other players actually convicted of burglary, gun possession and other crimes. In a league full of blithe felons, Tebow and his oppressive piety don’t seem like such horrendous affronts at all.

Oh, the humanity! How can people ridicule Tebow when there are real criminals in the NFL, terrorists and murderous dictators bent on destruction, ethnic cleansing in the Sudan, and, on the streets of America, adulterers, bigamists, philatelists! Bruni is simply misdirecting; the presence or absence of criminals in the NFL or anywhere else has no bearing on criticism of Tebow.

Besides which, to get lost in the nature of his Christianity is to miss the ecumenical, secular epiphanies in his — and the Broncos’ — extraordinary season. Their sudden turnaround isn’t just thrilling. It illustrates the limits of logic and the shortcomings of the most quickly made measurements and widely cited metrics.

In sports as in politics, business and so much else, we like to think that we’ve broken down the components of achievement and that, looking at those components, we can predict who (and what) will prevail. But if any football analyst at the start of this season had said that a quarterback averaging under 140 yards of passing a game — that’s Tebow’s sorry statistic — would have a 6-1 record as a starter and be considered the linchpin of his team, few people would have bought it.

This is idiotic. Denver's success is not solely attributable to Tim Tebow, and it does not defy logic. The Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer as quarterback. In the 2006 season the Chicago Bears made it to the Superbowl with Rex Grossman as their signal-caller. Trent Dilfer! Rex Grossman! Were they, perhaps, such fonts of personal virtue and confidence that their self-esteem spilled over and strengthened the will of Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher? Moreover, if Tebow is to be praised for his teammates good performances, mustn't he also be blamed for their poor performance (as in Sunday's game against the superior Patriots team)?

Denver is successful because of an easy schedule, poor performance of the opponents (could Denver have beaten the Bears if they had faced Jay Cutler rather than unknown backup Caleb Hanie and his 115 yards passing?), excellent defense, and a good field-goal kicker. Statistics cannot perfectly measure the possibility of success of a team, and no doubt mental factors play an enormous role in success. Look at the success of the 10-3 San Francisco 49ers with mostly the same players who went 6-10 last year. However, we cannot attribute the success of a team solely to the triumph of the will of their quarterback. Statistics matter, and we should not overlook them.

BUT Tebow tends to have his worst 45 minutes of play when it matters least and his best 15 when it matters most. And while he makes many mistakes, their cost is seldom exorbitant. These aren’t so much skills as tendencies — inclinations — that prove to be every bit as consequential as the stuff of rankings and record books. He reminds us that strength comes in many forms and some people have what can be described only as a gift for winning, which isn’t synonymous with any spreadsheet inventory of what it supposedly takes to win.

Stop it. Just stop it. This is pure cult of personality stuff. It's the sort of thing one says to justify a conclusion when there is no evidence. It's practically tautology: "Good teams find a way to win." Of course the Broncos (and the Florida Gators before them) have won a lot of games, and in that sense, by definition, they (and Tebow) have a 'gift for winning', but that does not justify anyone in attributing their success to some intangible force of personality or will on Tim Tebow's part. Matt Prater, the field goal kicker, did not become a greater kicker because of Tim Tebow's magic religious-confidence-juice.

This gift usually involves hope, confidence and a special composure, all of which keep a person in the game long enough, with enough energy and stability, so that a fickle entity known as luck might break his or her way. For Tebow that state of mind comes from his particular relationship with his chosen God and is a matter of religion. For someone else it might be understood and experienced as the power of positive thinking, and is a matter of psychology. Either way it boils down to stubborn optimism and bequeaths a spark. A swagger. An edge.

. . .

The Broncos are the talk of the league. More and more people are watching. And you could indeed say they’re tuning in to find out how far God can take a team. Because that’s just another way of saying how far grit can.

It is cold comfort for the religious to say that faith in God is nothing more than a form of positive thinking. Perhaps faith is only, or provides, an unfounded confidence in one's abilities, but this is not generally something to brag about. In Tebow's case, it might have made some difference in the team's performance, but there are many other factors that have nothing much to do with him. Confidence without the means to back it up can have catastrophic consequences. For example, just today I had to explain to a student who was sure, absent any evidence, that he deserved an A on his final examination. If, indeed, Tebow has this kind of reckless self-regard, then he might learn what pride goeth before.

The real reason to object to the Tim Tebow media frenzy is that it plays into the equation of morality and religiosity. We should all realize by now that morality and religion are completely independent, yet our media still succumbs to this temptation to paint the religious as morally better than the non-religious and to attribute people's success to their religion. At bottom, it's primitive thinking. In order to be morally good or successful, we must worship a capricious stone age deity. That's not a reason to wish Tim Tebow personal ill, but it is reason to oppose him as a public figure, hope that our media would cease their love affairs with such sports figures, and root against him. Opposition to Tebow's religious agenda and the media's treatment of him is a better reason to root for a team than most reasons people have.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Pat Buchanan's Nostalgia for the Segregation Era

Pigmentally-challenged-American Pat Buchanan, according to this story, criticizes terms such as 'African-American' on the grounds that they divide America. Now, you or I might note that there is no sense in which people are expressing allegiance to Africa. You might even think that 'African-American' is patriotic since it emphasizes one's American-ness, the identification with America, rather than simply a color. But what do I know? I'm just a multiply-subdivided Scotch-Irish-Welsh-English-Dutch-German-American. African-Americans are identified by that term not because they consider themselves less American than others but because the white (European-American) culture decided to dehumanize, enslave and otherwise mistreat them because it was convenient, and justified their action on the basis of an arbitrary set of characteristics including, among them, skin pigmentation. Put simply, African-Americans did not 'invent' race, white people did, and they did so to exclude African-Americans from various roles in society and even, in some cases, consideration as part of the human race. So, criticizing the patriotism of people for being known by a hyphenated name for a categorization that has historically functioned as part of a system of oppression is idiotic and insensitive. Disliked-By-Pat-Buchanan-Americans (or does that include too many of us?) should be known by a more accurate and less biased (given the negative associations with 'black') name.

Still, I have concluded that Pat is correct even if the hyphenated language is perfectly patriotic. We need a more concise, better system to refer to racial and ethnic groups. 'Black' and 'white' were so short and easy but inaccurate. It's hard to believe we have to continue referring to people with cumbersome, hyphenated appellations. Won't somebody think of the Twitter? 'African-American' is just too polysyllabic for Hitler-Apologist-American Pat Buchanan.

The limit on group identification ought to be one syllable, or at most two, if you know what I mean. Anyway, we should go back to the color-coded system, but we should insist on absolute accuracy. No more 'black' and 'white' only. Instead we should have 'pink,' 'brown,' 'orange,' and, who knows, 'magenta.'

But I'm fairly sure Pat Buchanan's color is 'puce'. Or am I spelling that wrong?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Georgia Republicans Consider Change to Electoral System

Dissociated Press. 9/20/2011

One week after Republicans in Pennsylvania considered changing their state's distribution from a winner-take-all system to one in which those votes are distributed by county, and one day after Republicans in Nebraska began a push for a winner-take-all system rather than the proportional one that gave Barack Obama a single electoral college vote from Nebraska, Georgia Republicans have considered a bill to change their electoral voting system.

Currently, in Pennsylvania's winner-take-all system, the popular vote winner receives all 20 (as of the current census) electoral college votes. The Pennsylvania state legislature is considering changing this system to "each congressional district elect one presidential elector and award the other two electors on a statewide basis," according to this AP story.

Given the distribution of voters in the various districts, this new system could easily mean a Republican who lost the popular vote could receive approximately the same or more votes as the popular vote winner. This is possible because of the tendency for Democratic voters to be concentrated in a relatively small number of districts (that have large majorities of Democratic voters) and Republicans to be dispersed in many districts in which there are slight Republican majorities. This distribution of voters would, according to Rachel Maddow, have turned Barack Obama's 11 percentage point victory in Pennsylvania in 2008 from a 21 electoral vote advantage into (probably) a 1 electoral vote advantage.

Nebraska Republicans are also advocating changing their state's distribution of electoral college votes to a winner-take-all system, apparently in order to deny Barack Obama the chance at the one of five votes he received in the 2008 Presidential election.

The bill Georgia's legislature is considering is not a change to the winner-take-all system but an enshrinement in perpetuity of Georgia's penchant for electing Republican candidates. The proposal is that the state's 16 electoral votes are to go, in perpetuity, to the Republican candidate for President. Georgia's electoral votes have gone to Republicans in the last four presidential elections.

State Sen. Goober Hayseed (R-Anywhere) asserted, "This bill is in perfect conformity with the law and the wishes of the good citizens of our state. I see no possibility that the Republican party might stray from its foundational principles of small government, states' rights and the permanent enrichment of wealthy whites at the expense of the poor and minorities. This is a win for all of us who value democracy. And if the Democrats want to change the law, they would only have to gain control of both houses of Congress and the Governorship."

A reading of article II of the U.S. Constitution suggests that Hayseed is on firm constitutional ground. That article states that
Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

"Nothing in the Constitution says that we have to choose them at the time of the election," Hayseed said. "We just want to save the voters of Georgia the time of punching in the name of the Republican party candidate for President since they have made their views abundantly clear over the last several elections."

While not commenting on the constitutionality of the proposed law, others are not in favor of it. "If Senator Hayseed's law had been in place before the War of Northern Aggression, it would have given the precious electoral votes of this great state to that tyrant Abraham Lincoln," said random person on the street Percy McShaw, adjusting his white hood. "What if somehow that Mormon apostate wins the Republican nomination? The state of Georgia might want to take its votes and move to the Republic of Texas."

In response to critics who claim that the move to a permanent Republican vote for President is purely political, Hayseed lashed out. "These carpetbaggers don't know the state of Georgia like I do. We always have and always will vote for the Republican, so there's no reason not to respect the will of the voters by passing this law."

When this reporter noted that Georgia's electoral college votes went to Democrats in 1992, 1980 and 1976, Hayseed responded, "I know there's some fear-mongering out there from Government bureaucrats and so-called 'scientists', but there's a lot of room for disagreement about our history. And I don't cotton to those revisionist historians who say that the civil war was about slavery, or that Georgia once voted for Democrats. That's all just ivory-tower hogwash."

Georgia Democrats are reported to be troubled by the prospect of being permanently disenfranchised from presidential elections, but none could be found by press time.

Note: I apologize for the lack of posting. My computer died and was only revived after about three weeks, so posting may begin again.

Sophisticated Theism: The New New Atheism

Gather around, children, and hear the tale of sophisticated theism. A sophisticated theist does not believe statements made by religion; a sophisticated theist adopts a practice he or she finds congenial; he or she accepts myths that have a metaphorical version of the truth; but he or she would never be so gauche as to believe any set of statements associated with a religion.

The sophisticated theist tells us that those who think that belief in God, disbelief God, or suspension of judgment are relevant to religion are mere ignorant children and buffoons with no understanding of the subtlety of religion. You see, as the honorable Monseigneur* John Gray, S.J., tell us, religion is not about belief. Religion is a practice and a set of myths, not a system of beliefs. The sophisticated theist does not believe in religion at all but merely enjoys religious practices that are in no way related to or connected to any beliefs or claims about reality. The sophisticated theist recognizes the validity of myths not because they are true but because they reveal deeper truths about us. And while these deeper truths are "true", they are not actually true. These myths are metaphorically true; the metaphors that make up the myth are true. Religious belief hardly even exists--it exist only in the minds of the ignorant--but its myths enlighten, despite their evident lack of connection to any literal truth, because of their metaphorical truth. Religion is Shakespeare and Donne, Michaelangelo and Picasso, Bach and Beethoven, not Hawking or Dawkins. Religion is not so crude that it says things or, if it says things, that it means what it says. Only a moron, rube, ignoramus, literalist monkey-child or atheist could believe that it makes claims about the world, our nature, our place in the world, or the meaning and purpose of our lives.

Mahatma Gray enlightens us:

We tend to assume that religion is a question of what we believe or don't believe. It's an assumption with a long history in western philosophy, which has been reinforced in recent years by the dull debate on atheism.

We were all so tired of reason, debate, truth and fact, and we longed for charades to hold our ennui at bay at least until tea and crumpets. I, for one, hope that we decide to play mental representations.

In this view belonging to a religion involves accepting a set of beliefs, which are held before the mind and assessed in terms of the evidence that exists for and against them. Religion is then not fundamentally different from science, both seem like attempts to frame true beliefs about the world. That way of thinking tends to see science and religion as rivals, and it then becomes tempting to conclude that there's no longer any need for religion.

To say that any two ways of thinking or living are fundamentally the same because they all involve believing things one thinks to be true is like saying that Fascism and Democracy are fundamentally the same because they are both political movements. Or that cannibalism and vegetarianism are fundamentally the same since they both involve mastication. Science and religion may still be different in certain rather important respects even if both are similar in other respects. Science is based on evidence and observation whereas religion is not. That means there are differences and similarities between the two, and claiming that these similarities are fundamental but the differences are not is irrelevant. Atheists are, for example, quite comfortable with the idea that religious believers do not base their claims upon evidence, and in that respect (according to atheists at least) their beliefs differ from the rationalist's belief in atheism. Coincidentally, both sophisticated theists and atheists agree that it is not the case that religion is based on a careful evaluation of evidence. I would say, I suppose, that atheism and sophisticated theism might be fundamentally the same if only I knew what 'fundamentally' meant in this context (other than "in whatever ways I want for rhetorical purposes").

Atheism, however, concludes that this lack of rationality means we should disbelieve in religion rather than continue to practice as if one believed in it without any actual belief. At any rate, after the harrumphing and well-poisoning, we are now ready for Imperator Gray's substantive argument.

The idea that religions are essentially creeds, lists of propositions that you have to accept, doesn't come from religion. It's an inheritance from Greek philosophy, which shaped much of Western Christianity and led to practitioners trying to defend their way of life as an expression of what they believe.

This is where [James] Frazer [author of the Golden Bough] and the new atheists today come in. When they attack religion they are assuming that religion is what this Western tradition says it is - a body of beliefs that needs to be given a rational justification.

You see, as Herr Professor Doktor Gray explains, Christianity, which has specific doctrines or creeds as statements of belief, is not a religion since religions are neither sets of beliefs nor include sets of beliefs. I'm sure that here in the US we would be happy to know that Christianity is not a religion since it would let us take away its tax-exempt status and help with our national debt. Following Poet Laureate Gray's logic, the creeds of Christianity comprise a philosophy, not a religion. Obviously, if it were a set of claims, those claims would have already been falsified, but real religion involves no claims to be verified or falsified.

One wonders whether Shogun Gray would consider Christianity to be a system of beliefs if they turned out to be supported by evidence. Generally speaking, it's only the repeated falsification of the beliefs that leads the religious to pretend they never believed them in the first place. I don't know if this is more like a Cubs fan claiming he never really believed they could win the World Series, a four-year old stealing cookies while pretending not even to have his/her hand in the cookie jar, or someone caught sexually harassing an employee only to claim later that he was only joking.

At any rate, Grand High Inquisitor Gray means that religions are not essentially sets of beliefs, and that Christianity has adopted a creed as an unnecessary adjunct to its essential nature. It should never have given in to those philosophers' demands. What, then, is religion if belief is not essential to it? It is clearly nothing to do with rationality or reasons.

Obviously, there are areas of life where having good reasons for what we believe is very important. Courts of law and medicine are evidence-based practices, which need rigorous procedures to establish the facts. The decisions of governments rest on claims about how their policies will work, and it would be useful if these claims were regularly scrutinised - though you'd be well advised not to hold your breath.

But many areas of life aren't like this. Art and poetry aren't about establishing facts. Even science isn't the attempt to frame true beliefs that it's commonly supposed to be. Scientific inquiry is the best method we have for finding out how the world works, and we know a lot more today than we did in the past. That doesn't mean we have to believe the latest scientific consensus. If we know anything, it's that our current theories will turn out to be riddled with errors. Yet we go on using them until we can come up with something better.

Taken together these two paragraphs are wildly incoherent. The first paragraph tells us that in certain arenas we need reasons and evidence to establish facts. These are very useful, and we would not want to do without them. Law, for example, is about establishing facts about guilt or innocence, and we need to consider evidence in order to establish these facts. Medicine, similarly, is about establishing correct diagnoses of diseases and prescribing the best treatment for them.

However, according to the second paragraph, science is not part of the business of establishing these facts. So, if your lawyer starts talking about DNA evidence or scientific studies of cause and effect, get a new lawyer because all that stuff is probably false, riddled with error and only tentative anyway. You are better off volunteering to be thrown in a pond to see if you float. Similarly, if your doctor starts giving you a bunch of mumbo-jumbo about studies and molecules and X-rays, get out immediately because that's all just tentative theorizing, prone to error, and it's not going to cure your gout. You're better off finding a witch-doctor.

Weirdly, according to Earl Gray, our law and medicine are about using reason and evidence to establish facts that we can use to cure disease and determine guilt or innocence. But this reason and evidence is not based on science because science is all tentative airy-fairy stuff that's probably just not true. Science is just too tentative and riddled with errors and imperfections to establish facts in law or medicine. So, science does not actually establish facts, yet any rational person knows that science is necessary for establishing the facts to be used in these practical endeavors.

Xiàozhăng Gray is committing a false dilemma. To say that science is tentative is not opposed to saying that it is our best source of belief, our best insight into the facts. Science is just as much in the business of establishing facts as are our courts of law (assuming we're not talking about Texas where facts are rather secondary to the goal of executing people), and noting that science is tentative and prone to error is no more relevant to undermining that claim than it would be to note that courts of law also can never provide certainty and often commit errors.

In fact, it is more plausible to consider the evidence vs. utility situation reversed and that science is the area devoted to the facts. Medicine, for example, is concerned with what works, not strictly with the facts and truth or falsity. Doctors want to cure their patients as reliably as possible, and if false beliefs are effective, doctors would, presumably, be happy about that. The reason, from the perspective of medicine, to want true beliefs is that they are more robustly useful than false beliefs in treating illness. You might even argue that lawyers and judges are more concerned with what can be proven in court than with facts. If the facts are on your side, you will most likely be more successful in your trial, but the courts have no perfect access to these facts, and so needs must make do with provability in court. The point is that there is no good reason for treating science as not interested in facts. Science, medicine and law are all interested in facts, and mostly for the same reasons. We want to know the truth as well as we are able, in part because we want to function well in predicting and manipulating our environment.

But, wait, Maharishi Gray tells us more about the nature of science:

Science isn't actually about belief - any more than religion is about belief. If science produces theories that we can use without believing them, religion is a repository of myth.

Sensei Gray-san is suggesting an instrumentalist view of science whereby we have good reason to think certain predictions will be true (e.g. taking this drug will result in remission of your symptoms or this setup will result in a particular set of lines in a cloud chamber) but theorizing about unobservables (e.g. molecules, electrons) is but a useful instrument in giving these predictions. I think this view is fundamentally wrong-headed. The reason science gives these predictions is that its explanatory posits are largely real (or something approximating them is real). It beggars the imagination that a complex set of laws and constructs would be predictively accurate without being at least connected to facts and underlying reality. Still, contra Aga Gray, even the instrumentalist thinks that science makes factual claims, and thus supports beliefs, about what will or will not happen even if it is not committed to the reality of unobservables.

The point of his argument that science is not about belief is to undermine the idea that there is anything wrong with or irrational about religion because of its lack of literal meaning or factual claims. However, I have argued, science really does make factual claims.

Putting the question of science aside for now, what does Most Reverend Gray think religion is if it does not involve belief? Religion, on his view, is a different instrument with a different purpose, to tell a story about ourselves in a way that makes life worth living.

Myths aren't relics of childish thinking that humanity leaves behind as it marches towards a more grown-up view of things. They're stories that tell us something about ourselves that can't be captured in scientific theories.

Just as you don't have to believe that a scientific theory is true in order to use it, you don't have to believe a story for it to give meaning to your life.

Myths can't be verified or falsified in the way theories can be. But they can be more or less truthful to human experience, and I've no doubt that some of the ancient myths we inherit from religion are far more truthful than the stories the modern world tells about itself.

I do not know what the difference is between truth and truthfulness. I would suppose that myths are truthful to human experience when they express metaphors that are themselves true. In fact, they can be both literally false but truthful (or metaphorically true) at the same time. So, the question is what the metaphors of a given religion mean and whether they are true. And if metaphors have meaning, they must still have truth conditions, so it ought to be possible to verify or falsify them.

Let's take a standard part of the Christian mythology, the kind of thing you might see on a football fan's signs. John 3:16:
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."

Clearly it is absurd to claim that God physically sired a son. God has no penis or semen to beget a son; God is not Zeus to turn into a swan and impregnate young Mary. That's absurd anthropomorphism.

Supposing God loved the world is also anthropomorphism. God has no ventral tegmental area, no dopamine, no norepinephrine, no oxytocin to give Him/Her/It human feelings such as love.

God would never give everlasting life in heaven only to the select few with the good fortune to be born into the correct time and culture to believe in Him/Her/It. That's absurdly and impossibly unjust. Moreover, the possibility of an afterlife conflicts with the well-supported dependence of the conscious mind on the physical brain. The claim is both unjust and falsified, at least indirectly.

Moreover, how could there possibly be an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good being that would allow the savagery, suffering and death that we find everywhere in the universe hospitable enough to allow life? And if God is not these things, then what sort of being is God? On what concept of God is there a God worthy of worship? None. The evil in the world disconfirms belief in the existence of a humane or wise God; such belief is rationally indefensible.

Instead, according to sophisticated theism, what John 3:16 really means is, literally, nothing. These are just words people mouth in Church or hold on signs at football games as cultural signifiers and social practices intended to engender group solidarity. They have no sentence or word meaning. Many sentences have a use but no meaning. For example, when someone asks, "How are you?", they mean nothing by it; they do not expect an actual answer. I often answer the wrong question. I'll say, "Good morning," "Hi," or "No, they were dead when I got there." No one ever notices. "How are you" is almost always just a ritual greeting, a phrase without sentence meaning but only a use.

Christian practices, and the statements that accompany them, could be either completely arbitrary practices with no meaning but only a use, or they could be based on myths with a metaphorical meaning. If the practices are arbitrary, then the only justification for following those practices can be based on the benefits of those practices, and I think that it's been fairly well established over the years that the practice of ceding control over our thoughts to others is not beneficial overall. One might say that there is nothing irrational in the practice if no beliefs or actions follow from this religion. I suppose this might not be irrational, but it would be remarkably insincere for sophisticated theists to adopt the forms and empty symbolism of religion without any significant commitment to it.

The alternative to empty ritual is truth of a metaphorical meaning. Could John 3:16 be metaphorically true? What metaphorical meaning could it have that could be truthful? That the world was made for our use? No, that would imply the actual existence of a deity with plans for us and the universe, that the universe operates in some rational, ordered way. That the world is well-suited for our habitation and use? That's not likely; not much of the universe is habitable, and the parts that we inhabit are not particularly friendly to us. Perhaps that humanity has a spark of the divine, a soul, or they differ from all the other living things in a morally significant way. This is unlikely too, and is just the sort of harmful dogma that religion has perpetuated for far too long.

My point is that if one wants to treat religion as metaphor and myths that are truthful without being true, then you have to specify what the metaphors mean and subject them to the same kind of criticism as any literally meaningful claim. Clearly Maharaja Gray does not want to do this since any understanding of the key metaphors of Christianity would be false. Metaphors have meaning (even if not literal sentence-meaning), and they can be evaluated and, in the case of Christianity, be discovered to be false. Whatever truthfulness there is in Christianity, it could hardly be literal or metaphorical truth.

So, what about the idea that are myths without even a metaphorical meaning? Let's skip to the end and see if we can make sense of this idea. He returns to the example of Graham Greene who, allegedly, could not remember the reasons for converting to Catholicism.

No doubt there will be some who are deeply shocked by Graham Greene's nonchalance about the arguments that led him to convert to Catholicism. How could he go on practising a religion when he couldn't even remember his reasons for joining it?

The answer is that he did remember - but his reasons had nothing to do with arguments.

Human beings don't live by argumentation, and it's only religious fundamentalists and ignorant rationalists who think the myths we live by are literal truths.

Evangelical atheists who want to convert the world to unbelief are copying religion at its dogmatic worst. They think human life would be vastly improved if only everyone believed as they do, when a little history shows that trying to get everyone to believe the same thing is a recipe for unending conflict.

We'd all be better off if we stopped believing in belief. Not everyone needs a religion. But if you do, you shouldn't be bothered about finding arguments for joining or practising one. Just go into the church, synagogue, mosque or temple and take it from there.

What we believe doesn't in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live.

Whew! There we go. Because people do not make judgments based on reason and argument, there is no reason (oops!) to object to their failure to have reasons for their non-belief-based practices. It doesn't matter that people adopt a meaningless ritual, set of apparent claims, and social structure. They don't have reasons for the things they do, so meaning isn't necessary for their choices.

First, this is a simple is-ought fallacy. Just because people don't use reasons, it does not follow that they shouldn't. People also beat their spouses, drive too fast on the highway, and create inscrutable financial instruments to defraud borrowers and investors. The descriptive fact about what people do is completely irrelevant to the normative fact about what they ought to do. Now, it may be that people will resist the best of reasons, but we should give them the opportunity to consider those reasons by presenting them as clearly and forcefully as we can. If people are not capable of listening to reason, then we, who apparently are capable of it, should give them the option to hear it.

I think, however, it's obvious that Meistersinger Gray is wrong that people do not base their practices (especially their religious practices) on reasons. If people didn't do things for reasons, then the fact that it's raining outside would not cause people to take their umbrellas with them. But, for many people, reason and evidence does influence this behavior. Perhaps they are not capable of considering reasons for and against religious practices, but why religious practice would be particularly immune to reason is mysterious unless it's because those practices have been immunized from the need for reason by people such as Monsieur Gray.

Is atheism just as dogmatic as religion at its worst? It's somewhat contradictory, to put it mildly, to claim it's dogmatism to encourage people to use their reason to come to the conclusion that God does not exist. No doubt atheism has its share of dogmatic believers, but Gray does not even attempt to show that atheism is not founded on reasons and rationality. And trying to get people to hold the same belief is not so bad if it's done from respect for their rationality and not through force. It's the burden of my argument to show that believing that we should have beliefs about religion.

Yogi Gray does try to support his claims. He does it, first, by claiming that no one really is capable of forming the kind of rational beliefs that atheists desire, so we must and should base our practices on something other than reason. Second, everyone, even the most scientifically-minded, must base practices on myths (or something other than reason and evidence). So, since we all have to have faith in something, there's nothing wrong with faith in religion. Here's the skeptical part.

The idea that science can enable us to live without myths is one of these silly modern stories. There's nothing in science that says the world can be finally understood by the human mind.

If Darwin's theory of evolution is even roughly right, humans aren't built to understand how the universe works. The human brain evolved under the pressures of the struggle for life.

Through science humans can lift themselves beyond the view of things that's forced on them by day-to-day existence. They can't overcome the fact that they remain animals, with minds that aren't equipped to see into the nature of things.

Darwin's theory is unlikely to be the final truth. It may be just a rough account of how life has developed in our part of the cosmos. Even so, the clear implication of the theory of evolution is that human knowledge is by its nature limited.

It's been said that the universe is a queerer place than we can possibly imagine, and I'm sure that's right. However rapidly our knowledge increases, we'll always be surrounded by the unknowable.

Ayatollah Gray's argument here is one of my favorites. Here's how it goes.

According to this theory that I have just claimed is probably false and does not accurately describe reality, we are not capable of understanding that reality. Thus, if this theory (that I have just said is false) is true, then we are not good at understanding arguments and the evidence for our theory of the nature of reality. So, if the theory of evolution is true, then we cannot reason cogently enough to be justified in our belief in evolution. (Mama Gray, chief supreme of the Voudon, expands this to the strawmannish claim that atheists think we can completely understand reality. Maybe we can, maybe not. Who knows? The understanding of all of reality is rather irrelevant to the truth of evolution or the falsity of religion.) Thus, belief in evolution undermines itself; one cannot rationally believe in evolution since the truth of evolution would make our belief in it irrational.

On the other hand, I respond, if you accept Hizzoner Gray's evolutionary reason-undermining argument, then you also should not accept his argument that shows that humanity is not good at understanding reality. Hence, if Captain Gray's (Plantingean) reasoning is correct, then we should not believe his abstract argument that we cannot understand reality. Evolution would not support Chief Undersecretary Gray's position since, if true, it would undermine the very form of abstract reasoning he uses (admittedly, rather painfully) to support it.

But if we didn't evolve, and were designed, by a good God, in such a way that we are good at understanding the world (using abstract reasoning and the scientific method), then the scientists who claim that evolution occurs, are likely to be correct. Since a vast majority of the scientists who study evolution believe in it, then if we were designed, then it is rational for us to believe in evolution. In short, if we were designed, then we would be good at abstract reasoning and science, and so would have good reason to believe in evolution and that we were not designed.

It looks superficially like a paradox. However, it is one only the religious believer, but not the evolutionist, cannot escape. We did not in fact evolve to be good at abstract reasoning. That's why it's so damn hard and why people like The Distinguished Mr. Gray are so damn bad at it. Instead, we have to make sure of lots of careful controls of our observations so that we do not fall into the natural practices that lead so readily to error. What are those careful controls? Why, they're the tools we use as part of the scientific method! So, the evolutionary argument shows that we have to use the kind of care in reasoning that science teaches us to use.

Still, if we are so bad at abstract reasoning, how did we even come to realize that we are often mistaken? If we evolved to be bad at abstract reasoning, shouldn't we not even realize that we are bad at it? The response is that we are bad at it, but not hopeless at it. If we were hopeless at reasoning, we would never have survived at all. We would exhibit, as Willard Quine said, "A pathetic but praiseworthy tendency to die before we reproduce" (if I remember the quote accurately). So, evolution suggests that we are quite limited in our abstract reasoning capacity, but we must be capable of some reasoning otherwise we would not have survived. It was only through centuries of empirical testing of theories that we came to recognize the shortcomings of many of our natural tendencies; returning to faith-based reasoning would work to undo the standard the scientific, philosophical, mathematical and fact-based community has worked long and hard to construct.

On to the second part of Graf von Gray's story, the necessity of myth:

Science hasn't enabled us to dispense with myths. Instead it has become a vehicle for myths - chief among them, the myth of salvation through science. Many of the people who scoff at religion are sublimely confident that, by using science, humanity can march onwards to a better world.

I'm glad that "many" believe this. I wonder who they are? Seriously, if Matron Gray does not think that science has made the world a better place, I will immediately begin work on a time machine and help him travel back to the Dark Ages. Perhaps a little trepanning would alter his thinking on the issue.

But "humanity" isn't marching anywhere. Humanity doesn't exist, there are only human beings, each of them ruled by passions and illusions that conflict with one another and within themselves.

I'm fresh out of argument, and I'm running only on ridicule at this point. Sharif Gray's objection to the myth of salvation by science (which "many" believe or "believe" since it's, apparently, a myth) is that the abstraction "humanity" is not real. This is a silly objection. Does Christianity say that God sent his son Jesus to save humanity from sin? No, of course not, don't be silly. Humanity doesn't exist; only humans exist. At best, this is a trivial semantic argument. I don't know what stance to take on abstract objects, but it doesn't matter here. Has science, the social construct comprising a set of assumptions, methods, institutions, and individuals with their inconsistent, selfish, and otherwise irrational tendencies, made things better for individual humans? If you think not, I have a genuine, 4th century Russian trepanning device for sale that will surely cure what ails you.

Science has given us many vital benefits, so many that they would be hard to sum up. But it can't save the human species from itself.

Because it's a human invention, science - just like religion - will always be used for all kinds of purposes, good and bad. Unbelievers in religion who think science can save the world are possessed by a fantasy that's far more childish than any myth. The idea that humans will rise from the dead may be incredible, but no more so than the notion that "humanity" can use science to remake the world.

I'm confused at this point whether the belief that science can save the world is a myth ("the myth of salvation through science") or not ("a fantasy that's for more childish than any myth"), but the semantics of this do not matter. Science has been and can be used for both good and bad purposes. The science that gave us the atomic bomb has given us nuclear power (still, maybe not so good, yet). The problem is that religion, and its reliance on myth, faith, and blind obedience to authority, is not a neutral tool. Religion can be used for good, to mobilize opposition to segregation, for example, but it is far easier to use it for bad than it is to use science and rationality for harmful purposes. Convincing a religious person to become a suicide bomber is far easier if he or she thinks, irrationally, that heaven awaits martyrs, than it is to convince a rationalist to become one.

I would hope, at this point, to have made an argument "as concise, and elegant, and strong as any argument can possibly be supposed against a doctrine, so little worthy of a serious refutation," (Hume, Of Miracles). Although I have certainly fallen short of concision, I will not continue for much longer. Archon Gray's argument is a disreputable blend of evasion and superciliousness. The atheists are not the arrogant and ignorant ones in this scenario. Claiming that religion is practice and metaphor and myth has no bearing on the rationality of these practices, the meaning of those metaphors or the utility of those myths.

Claiming that religion is not a belief system does not solve problems but merely evades them. For a metaphor to be true, it must have a meaning, and that meaning must be tested against the evidence just as any other claim is. For a practice to be rational, there must be some reason or justification for it. Aga Gray claims that religious practice is exactly as justified as any other practice for which there is no larger justification (e.g. its conduciveness to discovering the truth) but which is not itself harmful or improper. Sophisticated theism is, essentially, atheism with rituals and practices of religion. (If there are no atheists in the foxholes, it's because they are all in the pews.) If Gray really believes this, then he is, no doubt, deceiving most of the congregants at his church. To say "I don't believe any of this nonsense--literal nonsense--but I enjoy the community and fellowship," is not likely to win him friends among his co-religionists, either in his congregation or in the wider world. Sophisticated theism's lack of belief in God combined with empty rituals trivializes the sincere, but almost certainly false, beliefs of the religious. If this is what sophisticated theism is, then it's no less opposed to ordinary religion than is atheism, but at least atheism provides forthright critique rather than deceptive pseudo-agreement. Nothing is more arrogant and dishonest than practicing something with others while at the same time believing that everything they practice is based on nothing, and that the words they mouth have no meaning. Atheists at least do the religious the service of treating them as meaning what they say.

Margrave Gray defends the practice of religion on the grounds that even the atheists are engaged in the same practices, and science is as prone to failure as religion. But these claims are not true. Religion is potentially harmful, and religious thinking offers little in the way of benefit. Science offers benefits but also a productive way of thinking that leads, more effectively than any other, towards truth. Religious myth is not useful, overall, since it promotes and enables ignorance and irrationality. Religious practice is not some innocent pastime such as bowling or tatting. Religion should be opposed in the strongest terms. Even the most innocuous of religions bears some culpability in the excesses of its radical brethren. And even the sophisticated non-believing religious person enables the harms of religion by quietly acquiescing to and supporting religion.

But what of the poetry and beauty of religion? It's not surprising that Europe's most powerful cultural institution for over a thousand years should be responsible for great art, music and poetry, but the religion itself is not particularly beautiful. The myth that a human must be sacrificed to appease an angry God, even if Jesus volunteered to be that human, is rather ugly and inhumane. Nothing about religion enables more beauty in art, music or ritual than any humanistic attitude, and religion limits the subjects and approaches to art in a way that humanism rarely does. Religion can be beautiful, but if it is nothing more than beautiful ritual, one can find beauty as great elsewhere. Genuine commitment to religion is potentially harmful, and religious practice without commitment is dishonest.

*All titles inaccurately applied.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Faith in God's Promises

Analysis of Christian Daily Devotionals--third in an occasional series.
I've temporarily misplaced the free booklet of Christian devotional passages (mini-sermons or whatever), but it occurred to me that such a thing must have an on-line component and, wonder of wonders, here it is. I'll just pick on today's for fun.

The title of today's message is, "Promises You Can Bank On". Here's the text:

After a global financial crisis, the US government enacted stricter laws to protect people from questionable banking practices. Banks had to change some of their policies to comply. To notify me of such changes, my bank sent me a letter. But when I got to the end I had more questions than answers. The use of phrases like “we may” and “at our discretion” certainly didn’t sound like anything I could depend on!

In contrast, the Old Testament quotes God as saying “I will” numerous times. God promises David: “I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam. 7:12-13). No uncertainty in those words. Recognizing God’s faithfulness to His promises, King Solomon says in his prayer of dedication for the temple: “You have kept what You promised Your servant David my father; You have both spoken with Your mouth and fulfilled it with Your hand” (2 Chron. 6:15). Centuries later, the apostle Paul said that all of God’s promises are “yes” in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).

In a world of uncertainty, our trust is in a faithful God who will always keep His promises.

And there follows the traditional doggerel:

Whatever trouble may assail,
Of this we can be sure:
God’s promises can never fail,
They always will endure. —Hess

This doggerel is worse than usual. The last line doesn't even scan. How about: "We know they will endure." While the "always" has two syllables, they don't scan well as distinct. The content leaves something to be desired as well. First, it makes quite a bit of difference what God's promises are. If God promises that I'll be burned to a crisp in eternal hellfire for thinking about maybe having sex with my spouse in an unapproved position, maybe I would look for someone who makes better promises. Second, it doesn't look to me as though God is particularly good at keeping promises.

As an aside: there's a final line on the page that is typically meaningless drivel, "Faith knows that God always performs what He promises." Faith doesn't know anything. That's basically the definition of faith.

The piece starts off well enough with complaints about legalistic language in banking contracts that leave all the power in the hands of the bankers to do what they want and little power with the consumers. You can always count on me to question the government's regulation of big financial institutions and to distrust the institutions themselves.

But the main religious part of the passage leaves me with less confidence in God than I have in credit default swaps, mortgage-backed securities and Standard & Poor's credit rating system.

Our main claim is that God is trustworthy because God says, "I will" more than banks do because they disavow any responsibility to do anything. I have more trust in deeds than words, so I'm not going to take God's promises on faith. But before getting to that question, I want to note a difference between God and the financial institutions.

God spends more time emphasizing our responsibility to him than he does making promises to us. For example, aside from the 10 Commandments that demand that we keep the Sabbath holy (and should be punished with death for working on it), that we make no graven images (which makes life really hard on the magazine industry and photography industries), the Old Testament contains injunctions against: eating pork (Lev. 11: 7-8, Deut. 14:8) or shellfish (Lev. 11: 10-12), planting two different plants in the same field or mixing fabrics in one's clothing (Lev. 19:19), touching a woman who is menstruating (Lev. 15:19-24), getting a tattoo (Lev. 19: 28), or being a drunken disobedient son (Deut. 21: 18-21). Worse, working on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2) and being a drunken, disobedient are punishable by death (by stoning in the case of disobedience).

If a bank sent me a letter with all these commands, I wouldn't waste much time in finding a new bank, especially since they are onerous and either irrelevant or antithetical to any rational rules of behavior. So far I'm a little happier with my bank's "we may"s and "at our discretion"s than I am with God's "thou shalt"s and "thou shalt not"s.

But what about God's promises? For starters, God promised that if Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, "for in the day that thou eatest [of the tree] thereof thou shalt surely die." (Gen. 2:17) But Adam does not die, so on day 6 (of after day 7 if the second creation story is separate from the first) God makes a promise that he later breaks. Not a good start. Maybe the promises work out a little better in future. Let's see what the author comes up with.

Basically there are three pieces of evidence for God keeping his promises. The first is:

God promises David: “I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam. 7:12-13).

David's kingdom no longer exists, so promise 1 is not kept. (Is David's throne in heaven? I hope not since God is the only king in heaven. [Psalm 103:19])

The second piece of evidence is:
Recognizing God’s faithfulness to His promises, King Solomon says in his prayer of dedication for the temple: “You have kept what You promised Your servant David my father; You have both spoken with Your mouth and fulfilled it with Your hand” (2 Chron. 6:15).

Solomon is in no position to know whether God has fulfilled the promise to maintain David's kingdom forever. We cannot take this testimony as evidence for God's promise being kept.

(Interestingly, the long discussion that precedes this passage is the one in which Solomon has a round cup made that has impossible dimensions. It's 5 cubits in radius and 30 cubits in diameter. That is only possible if pi = 3. I guess Solomon was rounding off. With all the discussions of the huge amounts of gold and valuables Solomon uses to build this temple, I wonder who read this stuff. It must have been in "Lifestyles of the Rich and God.")

The third piece of evidence is:
Centuries later, the apostle Paul said that all of God’s promises are “yes” in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).

As far as I can tell the author is arguing that God keeps his promises because Paul says God keeps his promises (when they are made by Christ or when we believe in or through Christ or something like that). It's not much evidence to quote someone else who also says God will keep his promises in supporting your claim that God will keep his promises. Example: "Hey, Bob, tell 'im that Joe keeps his promises." It doesn't work unless Bob is an unbiased expert on Joe, and Paul is not exactly an unbiased expert witness on God's promises.

So, without going through an extensive investigation of God's promises in the Bible to see whether they are kept, we can conclude that we've got no good evidence that God keeps his promises. Since I don't want to follow God's crazy restrictions in exchange for these promises, I think I'll stick to my mildly-regulated financial institution, thanks. At least the government has some control over them.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Through Morgan Freeman's Wormhole, part 2

David Chalmers on Consciousness

The second segment of the "Is There a Sixth Sense?" episode of Through the Wormhole (TTW) discusses consciousness and whether it is explainable in physical terms. The episode of TTW can be viewed here. Part 1 of my series of critiques is here.

The main reason this discussion of consciousness appears to be on the show is that it is intended to show that people can perceive something without being conscious of that perception. Thus, we might have a sixth sense without being aware of the operation of that sixth sense and we may need subtle third-person experiments to discover this sixth sense. In a way, this is a very odd claim to make. How could one have a sensory modality and not realize that one has it? And why should a discussion of the ineffability of conscious experience support this contention?

In fact, there are cases in which people have a 'sense' of which they are not aware. People, for example, have an ability to echolocate. Try walking (slowly) with your eyes closed down a quiet corridor on a hard floor. You might put your hand in front of your nose just to be safe. You'll find that you'll stop only a little distance from the wall. We're able to detect from the echoes of our footfalls that the wall is very near in front of us. It's not easy to describe the experience to people who haven't tried the experiment, but it does work. This is not really a new sense since it is just hearing, but one is using one's hearing in a way that one is not ordinarily accustomed to doing. Here's a rather striking example of the use of echolocation in humans.

So, we could show people that they have a 'sense' of which they were previously unaware, but it's not likely that only subtle, third-person experiments could bring it out. Senses are generally the sorts of things produce experiences that are in some way "present" to our consciousness, so the best way to show that there is a new 'sense' is to put people in circumstances in which they become aware of it. It is unlikely that there is a sense that one could not in principle become aware of from a first-person perspective although blindsight (noted in the previous installment) does provide such a case. Still, let's suppose that a sense of which we are completely unaware is theoretically possible.

However, you don’t need Chalmers to explain this possibility, and you don't need Chalmers to make sense of consciousness. Indeed, selecting Chalmers is more likely to make the concept of consciousness mysterious than it is to elucidate it. I'd be happy to hear about the problems Nagel, Jackson, Levine and even Chalmers have raised about consciousness, but you should at least (1) give the arguments for their Mysterian view of consciousness (that we cannot explain consciousness from a physical, reductionist or third-person perspective) instead of relying on mere descriptions of the position (and the apparent authority of Chalmers), and (2) present some alternatives or critiques.

Chalmers tells us that consciousness is a “fundamental building block” of the world on a par with the fundamental forces discovered by physics. Consciousness is like electromagnetism; electromagnetism was originally thought to be explainable in mechanistic terms, as a result of movements of particles with only mechanical properties, but was only later realized to require an entirely new force distinct from those already known to physics. One supposes such a view of consciousness is possible (epistemically--as far as we know, it is possibole) in the same way that there might be a god or an immaterial soul. We can conceive that the universe could be that way, but conceivability does not imply possibility. And arguing that the universe actually is that way requires a whole lot more argument.

Here's the argument in a nutshell against Chalmers's view. If consciousness is a fundamental force, then it can only be a coincidence that it occurs when but only when certain complex neural structures are in place. This coincidence appears to require some explanation, and on Chalmers's view, it is in principle impossible to give such an explanation in terms of other features of the universe (the other facts about complex neurological or functional features of entities). So, we either take on faith that there is this correlation, as Chalmers would have us do, or we suggest that there is some explanation for it.

Presumably Chalmers could say that simplicity is not a perfect guide to truth, and so his theory might be correct even if it introduces brute correlations. I don't see any way that Chalmers gains any explanatory insight by making his "fundamental building block" assumption, so it looks like simplicity provides a strong reason to reject his view.

A panpsychist could say that, in fact, there is no brute correlation between complex neural structures and consciousness but only that certain neural structures allow consciousness to be expressed or identified from the third-person perspective. Thus, anything might be conscious, but we are only capable of recognizing consciousness in those organisms with a particular sort of complex neural structure. This response would imply that consciousness plays no causal role in behavior (at least) since the complex neural structures appear to do all the causal/explanatory work. And if consciousness, on Chalmers's view, has no causal power, then we should reject his view. It's just wildly unlikely that consciousness doesn't do anything.

Don't get me started on the arguments for Chalmers's view.

So, Chalmers's view is only a bare epistemic possibility, not something that's reasonably supported by evidence. We cannot show that it is metaphysically impossible for consciousness not to be a fundamental building block of nature, but there is no reason to take this view seriously. Thus, talking only to Chalmers about consciousness is like asking Shaggy whether there's really a ghost pirate ship terrorizing the beach-goers. Maybe this time there really is a ghost, but you probably should talk to Fred, Daphne, and Velma first, and you definitely should put the burden on anyone who thinks there is no natural explanation (or explanation in known natural terms) for the phenomena in question. Relying on Chalmers's authority is far too flimsy.

Conclusion: Sixth sense fail.

This segment of the program could have been very interesting and informative, but it went for cheap titillation instead of education. Consciousness, whether mysterious or not, is not a sixth sense previously undiscovered by science. It's probably just a very complex physical phenomenon whose explanation we have yet to fathom. Also, Chalmers gets major demerits for his pretentious rock and roll posing.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Christianity's Son-Drenched Future

Second in a series on the evangelical pamphlet Our Daily Bread that I found in my door one day. The title of the second day’s meditation is “Sonrise”, and the text is as follows.

My state’s name, “Idaho,” according to one legend, comes from a Shoshone Indian word “ee-dah-how.” When translated into English, it means something like, “Behold! The sun rising over the mountain.” I often think of that when the sun breaks over the eastern peaks and spills light and life into our valley.

Also, I think of Malachi’s promise: “The Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings” (Mal. 4:2). This is God’s irrevocable
promise that our Lord Jesus will come again and all creation “will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).

Each new sunrise is a reminder of that eternal morning when “bright heaven’s Sun” will arise with healing in His wings. Then everything that has been made will be made over and made irrevocably right. There will be no throbbing backs or knees, no financial struggles, no losses, no aging. One Bible version says that when Jesus returns we will, “go out and leap like calves released from the stall (Mal. 4:2 NIV). This is my highest imagination and my hope.

Jesus said, “Surely I am coming quickly” (Rev. 22:20). Even so, come, Lord Jesus! –David Roper.

I can never think of Jesus “coming quickly” without thinking of this giant billboard in West Virginia that said, “Jesus the Bridegroom: ‘Behold, I come quickly.’” I always thought, “Maybe so, but I wouldn’t brag about it.”

Resisting my childish impulse for now, I will point out that this whole Lord Jesus-thing is fiction. The book of Malachi talks about the LORD, the Lord, God, and fathers (or Fathers), but there’s absolutely no textual evidence to interpret this as anything like Jesus of the New Testament. That’s just reading Jesus back into a text that has nothing to do with him. I’m sure the author feels justified in interpreting it this way in the same way you might reread the first chapter of a mystery novel and substitute “the butler” for “the murderer” after you’ve found that the butler was the murderer. But there’s really nothing to connect them in the text here. There’s absolutely no reason to interpret “The LORD” as Jesus rather than God or a more primitively conceived warlord deity.

More important, does the suggested reading, the book of Malachi, especially chapter 4, support the author’s friendly picture of the Lord (Jesus or not) coming soon to make us all happy and take away all our suffering? It seems a little unlikely that he’s going to show up to take away your knee and back pain when somehow he couldn’t manage to get here in time to stop (as a brief sample) the execution of his early followers, their internecine struggles in interpreting the new religion, the corruption of the Roman Empire, the destruction of that empire and the loss of life resulting from the destruction of European civilization in the dark ages, the Crusades, the Black Death, and the Holocaust, to say nothing of countless other wars, natural disasters, famines, pestilences and more mundane pains and deaths. If Jesus were coming quickly, you would think he could make it in time to stop the Holocaust at least. Maybe he got stuck in traffic.

In any case, if the Lord were going to release us all from our stalls, maybe we should consider who put us in those stalls in the first place. Apparently consistency is not the hobgoblin of good Christian minds.

Anyway, wanting to get the full benefit of biblical wisdom, I started at the beginning of the book of Malachi. Holy crap! Does anyone read this stuff?

Chapter 1 says that the LORD (who is not in any way a provincial and anthropomorphic warlord deity) is quite upset at the people of Israel because they defiled him but not giving him the proper sacrifices. It condemns the Israelites:

“When you offer blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice lame or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” says the LORD Almighty. (1: 8)

It continues:

“Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the LORD Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands. My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the LORD Almighty.
. . .
“When you bring injured, lame or diseased animals and offer them as sacrifices, should I accept them from your hands?” says the LORD. “Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord. For I am a great king,” says the LORD Almighty, “and my name is to be feared among the nations. (1: 9-14)
So, the LORD is angry because he’s not getting the best food, and he’s going to be famous and successful someday, so you (Israel) will totally regret not giving him a decent meal or make the house smell nice with a little incense when he comes home smelling of booze. This is not of a perfect, loving being but a drunken, abusive husband with delusions of grandeur. (Hey, not every place lights incense for him, so even now the scenario he paints is delusional. Maybe that’s still in the future.)

Chapter 2 doesn’t get much better:

“And now, you priests, this warning is for you. If you do not listen, and if you do not resolve to honor my name,” says the LORD Almighty, “I will send a curse on you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not resolved to honor me.
“Because of you I will rebuke your descendants[a]; I will smear on your faces the dung from your festival sacrifices, and you will be carried off with it. And you will know that I have sent you this warning so that my covenant with Levi may continue,” says the LORD Almighty. “My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe
of my name. True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.
“For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is
the messenger of the LORD Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth. But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi,” says the LORD Almighty. “So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law.” (2: 1-9)

The footnote [a] says, “Or will blight your grain”. So, either the LORD will rebuke the descendants or will blight his grain. One or the other; they’re basically the same.

Anyway, the LORD’s upset so he’s going to put s#*t on their faces and they’ll be carried off, whatever that means. It seems as though this dude wants the people to follow him, but they aren’t so it’s too late and he’s going to punish them (and maybe their descendants) anyway. This LORD-dude seems particularly distraught about the Levi guy dying and his kids not keeping up with his traditions. I wonder if maybe someone could have figured out that this was going to happen and put a stop to it.

In the rest of the chapter he explains how much he dislikes divorce and Judah cheating on his wife by getting a divorce and marrying a younger woman. Sounds like the LORD must be a big fan of Newt Gingrich.

Anyway, let’s see if chapter 3 paints a more enlightened picture of the LORD. The LORD says maybe they can put things right again (despite his already saying it was too late). He’s cheesed off but he’ll give them a chance by sending someone to test them and purify them as a laundry soap does. (I’m really not making the laundry-soap thing up. Great metaphor, God.)

“So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty.
“I the LORD do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD Almighty. (3: 5-7)
So, the LORD will give some of them a second chance as long as they don’t oppress widows and orphans, rip off their workers, or commit perjury, adultery or sorcery. If there actually were sorcerers, then I’m sure they’d be in real trouble. Anyway, what about those who aren’t bad?

Then those who feared the LORD talked with each other, and the LORD listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the LORD and honored his name.

“On the day when I act,” says the LORD Almighty, “they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him. And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not. (3: 16-18)
The LORD will spare those who continue to worship him the same way that a father doesn’t kill his own children if they serve him. I guess at this point in history if you didn’t serve your father, he could kill you with impunity. It must have been fun for kids who didn’t want to do their chores. The LORD needs someone to write down all these names; otherwise he’ll forget and punish the wrong ones (for failing to honor and fear him, primarily). Maybe the LORD turns out to be a little smarter in chapter 4. Chapter 4 is short; it goes like this:

“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the LORD Almighty.
“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.
“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and
dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” (4: 1-6)
So, the LORD wants us to worship him and if we do we will frolic happily and crush the non-worshipers (aka the wicked and arrogant) under our feet. This is more of that good Christian desire to crush those who do not believe as they do (and other bad people, of course). The LORD then promises to strike the land with total destruction unless the hearts of parents and children are turned to each other, and I guess that’s happened because the land has not been totally destroyed yet.

In all seriousness, why is a perfect being so worried about who and how many people fear and worship him? It’s not a flattering picture of a perfect being. This whole book describes a petty tyrant who wants everyone to fear, honor and respect him by giving up all their best things for him and who looks forward to the day when everyone will give him the respect he deserves. I wonder if Rick Santorum’s household is like this.

If I didn’t know better, I would think that the authors of this Our Daily Bread pamphlet (and Christian apologists more generally) are picking out only the parts of the Bible that say the things they want it to say and leaving out all the objectionable other material. It’s almost as though they are cherry-picking the evidence to support their preferred picture of the divine being. Or maybe they just don’t read the whole book. After all, a booklet so full of commonsense wisdom and goodness would never include deliberately suppressed evidence, would it?

Passages such as the book of Malachi illustrate why atheists and agnostics are more likely to have read the Bible than are typical Christians. Reading the book, rather than the carefully sanitized version of it presented in standard Christian propaganda, leads ineluctably to the conclusion that it’s an imperfect, human book describing the construction of their provincial deity, trying to enforce conformity, and reflecting their petty concerns and primitive morality.

By the way, Wikipedia has this to say about the name “Idaho.”

The exact origin of the name remains a mystery. In the early 1860s, when the United States Congress was considering organizing a new territory in the Rocky Mountains, eccentric lobbyist George M. Willing suggested the name "Idaho," which he claimed was derived from a Shoshone language term meaning "the sun comes from the mountains" or "gem of the mountains". Willing later claimed that
he had made up the name himself.

It would be fitting if the introduction to the Daily Bread story was based on a fabrication. Anyway, I always thought “Udaman” was a more positive name than “Idaho.”

Monday, August 8, 2011

Through Morgan Freeman's Wormhole, Part 1

"The secret ingredient is hate," -- Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz

I had originally planned a short post on the Through the Wormhole episode on the sixth sense, but researching the various claims made has taken up so much time and so many pages that I am breaking into a multi-part (probably 5 part) series of posts. I'm not sure why I've kept working on this since there's no real point to debunking it, and I'm not a professional debunker. But I was annoyed by the episode, and so I think I must have been driven by hate. Here is part 1.

Previously, I had considered Through the Wormhole (TTW) with Morgan Freeman to be Harmless. Today, however, I must downgrade my evaluation to Mostly Harmless.

The episode, "Is there a the Sixth Sense?" crossed over from innocuously speculative and silly science-related program to endorsing highly suspect research with the apparent aim of titillating rather than educating the audience. It appears that TTW is based on real science in the same way that The Amityville Horror was based on true events. In other words, it's not actually true (or science). There might be something true somewhere in there, but there's no way to tell what's true, and the true part doesn't relate to the interesting parts emphasized in the story.

It's a bit silly talking about a sixth sense when the variety of sensory inputs we know about exceeds the traditional five senses already. People have distinct sensors for heat, pain, and pressure; they sense the location and movements of their bodies; they sense various internal facts about their guts. But TTW uses the "Sixth Sense" terminology to appeal to our idea of a sensory apparatus beyond those previously known to science.

Freeman posited several different varieties of sixth sense. 1. TTW reports on visual perception among blind-sighted individuals using a distinct visual system in the brain. 2. It reports on David Chalmers's unusual views on consciousness and the supposed impossibility of reductively explaining it in terms of objective science. 3. It reports on the Global Consciousness Project that claims that humans in large groups have a capacity to affect random number generators so that they cease for brief periods of time to be random and that this shift to non-randomness results from large scale emotional arousal. 4. It reports on psychologist Michael Persinger's claim that people can communicate perceptual information from one mind to another following lines of electromagnetic force. 5. It reports on Rupert Sheldrake's claim that people have an ability to know when they are being watched by others even when they have no ordinary perceptual means of discerning this fact.

Part 1 of my report is limited to the blindsight case.

This fascinating phenomenon occurs when people have damage to visual cortex so that certain parts of their visual fields are "blind", and they appear to lack any conscious awareness of those parts of their visual field. Their eyes are perfectly functional and continue to send information to the brain. Psychologists (led by Lawrence Weiskrantz who discovered this phenomenon) have shown that blind-sighted patients have some surprising abilities. If these subjects are forced to guess about the supposed blind part of their visual fields, they are able to say at a rate better than chance whether there is a light in that field. When they reach for something in the "blind" part of their field, they will shape (apparently automatically) their hands to the object in the field. For example, they will shape their fingers to pick up a coffee cup or a paper clip. They will not volunteer the information that something is in their visual field, and they do not even believe they can see anything. However, they have visual perception even if this is not conscious.

Blindsight is a great hook for a science show since it is wildly counterintuitive that people could see without realizing that they can see. It also provides a great chance to teach about the brain, its complexity and modularity (or distinct paths of processing) and its evolution. Apparently, at some point in its evolution, the brain added new pathways in visual cortex without adapting evolutionarily older pathways. TTW could even have taught about the complexity of visual processing, and that's fascinating in and of itself.

TTW reviews the research of Beatrice De Gelder in the Netherlands who finds that people blind in one side of the visual field will automatically mimic the facial expression of a picture shown only to their blind field and they will show a galvanic skin response for emotionally-charged pictures but none for no pictures or for neutral pictures. This shows that despite damage to certain areas of the visual cortex, people will still be able to take in a certain amount of visual information, specially directed towards the emotional system in the brain, the amgydala and other areas, yet those people will lack any conscious any awareness of or ability to verbalize that information.

Conclusion: Sixth sense fail.

Blind-sight is fascinating. Unfortunately, the episode chose to treat this as more mysterious than it is. TTW repeatedly referred to the field, from one eye, as "blind" as though people could not see at all in that part of the field and then pretended that their ability to acquire this visual information in some mysterious way. Vision, even blindsighted vision, is not a sixth sense; it’s just plain old seeing. However, what this phenomenon shows is that vision is a more complex phenomenon than people might have thought, one that involves conscious and unconscious elements. And it provides an interesting case in which perceptual information is processed without consciousness; we can see (in a certain limited sense) without being aware that we see.

Next up: Part 2 on Consciousness.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Santa Claus God

Stuck in my front door a few days ago was a booklet, Our Daily Bread, full of heartwarming and inspirational stories to help one live a fulfilled, happy and not-at-all meaningless Christian life. It’s not just fire-and-brimstone televangelists who indoctrinate people into harmful and delusional belief systems. These apparently innocuous, friendly messages can be harmful as well and more insidious for their apparent banality. The first day, entitled “Hidden Sin”, is indicative of some of the worst of Christianity.

The text is:

Chuck had slowed to a stop when his car was hit from behind and was pushed into the vehicle ahead of him. A sickening, crunching sound indicated that additional vehicles had collided behind them.
As Chuck sat quietly for a moment, he observed that the vehicle directly behind him was pulling out into traffic. Obviously hoping to avoid an encounter with the police, the escaping driver neglected to notice he had left something behind. [At this point, I was hoping the story would take a World According to Garp/John Wayne Bobbitt turn, but alas, I was disappointed.] When the police arrived, an officer picked up the hit and run driver’s license plate from the ground and
said to Chuck, “Someone will be waiting for him when he arrives home. He won’t get away with this.”

Scripture tells us: “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Num 32:23), as this man who fled the accident discovered. We may sometimes be able to hide our sin from the people around us, but nothing is ever “hidden from [God’s] sight” (Heb. 4:13). He sees each of our failures, thoughts, and motivations (I Sam. 16:7; Luke 12:2-3). [Just a note: I Samuel
16:7 says, “[T]he LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.” This is consistent with God seeing all our thoughts, but it does not imply that. I just wanted to note that there’s a good deal of interpretation implicit in this booklet.]

Believers are given a wonderful promise: “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). So don’t let unconfessed so-called "hidden" sins come between us and God (vv. 6-7).—Cindy Hess Kasper

Finally, there is a closing piece of doggerel:

We cannot hide from God
No matter how we try.
For He knows all we think
and do— We can’t escape his eye.” -- Hess
First of all: is this a true story? It seems awfully fishy to me. Why doesn’t Chuck have a last name? Where did this car accident take place? Where’s the arrest record? I suspect that this story was just made up to prove some sort of point. Sure, Jesus made up parables all the time, but this might also be called lying (and bearing false witness against Chuck’s neighbor?).

Let’s think a little about Chuck and his unhealthy interest in the punishment of his fellow citizen. Why does he care whether this person is caught? And why is the police officer confiding this information to Chuck? Is this any of Chuck’s business? I suspect what’s going on is that Chuck wants vengeance on this other driver for hitting his car, but instead of confronting the driver in a constructive and courageous way, he secretly wants someone else to punish the driver for him. Secondarily, Chuck’s unhealthy interest in the hit-and-run driver’s punishment indicates that Chuck would himself consider fleeing the scene if he had been the one to cause the accident. Chuck needs to know that criminals will be caught and punished, otherwise he would commit these crimes himself.

At this point, you may be thinking: What’s wrong with Chuck? What kind of person only does the right thing from fear of punishment? The answer is, of course, a Good Christian. That’s the first lesson of this booklet: Christians should only do good things because they will be punished if they don’t. It’s a little odd that the claim that sometimes people’s crimes are only discovered by God is illustrated by a story of someone being caught by the police. I suppose one has to go to a Jack Chick tract in order to read about God himself punishing people who have otherwise escaped punishment. However, the main point is that we need God to see everyone’s actions and thoughts and to punish and reward everyone correctly based on them. Worldly authority is not enough to guarantee punishment for every sin. Normal, rational people are not like this. In fact, Chuck’s doing “good” only because of his fear of punishment means that he is not doing a good thing at all. If you do something only for your own personal benefit, then you’re just being selfish. Instead, Chuck should do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Getting the right outcome from selfish reasons does not necessarily indicate moral goodness. If I dig a pit outside my neighbor’s house so he’ll fall in and land on poisoned spikes but in digging it accidentally strike oil and make him rich, I have not done a moral or virtuous thing. Any good that came of my action was just a matter of luck. Christians, according to Our Daily Bread, should be selfish and care only for themselves rather than doing the right things because they are right.

A creepier part of this story is the view of God as Santa Claus. God “sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.” God is a voyeur interested in every aspect of our lives and guaranteeing that we act, think and feel exactly the way God wants. Apparently, God watches us in our bedrooms, and every time a man fails to get an erection, that is of great interest to God. People’s belief in this kind of God might explain the popularity of Viagra.

The sophist Critias noted that the cleverest thing a lawmaker ever did was invent the idea of the gods who watched and enforced laws when no one else was watching. In other words, God is a fiction created by society in order to enforce social norms on people at all times. The most insidious part of this creation is the way its victims, Nietzsche’s sheep, enforce this belief on everyone else. Because people are afraid of what they and others might do without this constant fear, they make themselves and others believe that they will be punished by Santa Claus-God if they don’t conform. The last Christian motive is the vindictive desire to punish those who refuse to follow the social norms, those free from fear, who do what Good Christians want to do but are too craven to do.

Finally, the creepiest part of the story is that we should beg God’s forgiveness for our sins. There is no mention of learning to be better people or God rewarding us for our good behavior. God only rewards us by forgiving our sins. One thinks that there isn’t much of a point in trying to be good, but instead should just remember to beg for forgiveness. And this entails not just quietly begging God’s forgiveness in the silence of our minds. Normally, what begging forgiveness means is complete self-abasement, preferably in front of others, before God. That makes sense if your goal is to humiliate someone, break down his/her personality and make him/her susceptible to indoctrination into a cult, but it makes no sense as part of the moral life of a human being. We don’t become better people by thinking of ourselves as wretched and worthless; we have to learn to respect ourselves and our judgment in order to make rational, informed and wise decisions.

It’s obvious that this is not a good way to live. People should be free to live as they choose subject to moral laws, not coercion from imaginary beings. The first story in Our Daily Bread, supposedly benign and educational, in fact reveals an insidious problem with Christianity. It appeals to fear to enforce conformity, undermines the kind of self-respect that’s necessary for true moral worth, and even undermines the very possibility of morality for Christian believers.
I’m not arguing that Christianity is false because of these problems. As David Hume writes, that would be fallacious.

THERE is no method of reasoning more common, and yet none more blameable, than, in philosophical disputes, to endeavour the refutation of any hypothesis, by a pretence of its dangerous consequences to religion and morality. When any opinion leads to absurdities, it is certainly false; but it is not certain that an opinion is false, because it is of dangerous consequence. Such topics, therefore, ought entirely to be forborne; as serving nothing to the discovery of truth, but only to make the person of an antagonist odious. (Enquiry, Section
VIII, Part II)
I’m not arguing, as I said, for the falsity of this view based on its moral consequences. I'm only arguing, whether it is true or not (although it’s almost certainly not), this insipid Christianity undermines human freedom, self-determination, courage and morality. It’s simply inimical to rational, enlightened moral agency to believe this way. And presenting this indoctrination in simple homilies cannot hide that sin.