Sunday, February 27, 2005

Did we really win?

Yesterday I picked up at a secondhand bookstore a translation of a book written by two Soviet intellectuals in 1960, chronicling a trip they had made to the northeast United States. It had an introduction by the translator (c.1963) making it clear in no uncertain terms that it was SOVIET PROPAGANDA and lots of footnotes pointing out all the factual inaccuracies in the authors' claims. The weird thing was that except for occasional over-the-top rhetorical flourishes, the book read pretty much like any random article you might find in the Australian press today. And despite my prejudices, I found myself distrusting the footnotes more than the text...

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Mind Numbingly Dull Minutiae

After a couple of frustrating hours that could have been saved by going immediately to the textbook from 1961, when people actually knew stuff, I have discovered that the things that every modern physical chemistry textbook calls 'the associated Laguerre polynomials' are not what mathematicians call 'the associated Laguerre polynomials', but their derivatives. Apparently then multiplied by two, for no reason that I can figure out...

Some time earlier, in 1862, a man was hanged in New Orleans, by order of General Butler, for desecrating the Union flag. He was picked up in the street wearing a fragment of it in his buttonhole, after a small mob took down the flag the occupying forces had put up over the Mint.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Another Moral Conundrum Solved

Having given the matter long and prayerful thought, I have resolved to go to the fridge and get another beer.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Okay, maybe a little mysterious

I thought I would backpedal just a bit- I would hold it valid to say, "Yes, it looks like God is doing evil stuff, but I have it on good authority and/or personal experience that He is good. There must be some rational explanation for this, I will keep an eye out for one." Maybe this won't make much practical difference, but it will stop us from saying "God is mysterious' as if it was an explanation...

Quoth Marco: I also connect a belief in the God of Christians and Muslims with the belief in creation that goes with their texts.

I think the story of creation as recorded in the sacred texts of the West is spot on as far as the important bits are concerned.

*Who created the universe? God.
*Why? Because it was good.
*Why are things so ungood now? Because of the free choice of rational moral agents.

It even puts the events of creation in a roughly plausible evolutionary sequence. Only the minutiae which no second millenium BCE prophet could have made sense of anyway, if they had been miraculosly revealed to him/her, are wrong.

Quoth Marco: Here, the implications of evolutionary science are interfering with well established faiths. Possibly, faiths should adapt to the new information. Equally possibly, I'm suggesting faiths may find just as much success fighting evolution.

Any belief that is not consistent with our sense impressions of the universe is, in the long run, doomed. That is not a logical argument from me, just an ex cathedra pronouncement!

Quoth Marco:
I also thought that the main religions had a tradition of believing moral laws to not apply for non-humans. Here again, modern scientific thought has given the established faiths a dillemma of whether to adapt or to ignore animal rights as an issue.

I think this is the one serious deficiency of the religions of the West vis-a-vis the religions of the East. Hinduism and Buddhism have a strong and very old tradition that moral laws apply to humans and non-humans alike.

Quoth Marco: I don't think that any faiths in a pluralistic society influence morally any "non-members".

Hmm, hmm. I think they do. I think if you see a newspaper editorial by Reverend Raving-Looney, you will not pay any attention to it, but if you see a newspaper editorial by a religious figure that you respect, you will.

Quoth Marco:
A much greater percentage of US citizens believe in special creation than in Europe. How do you explain the obvious moral superiority of the US?

I don't think 40 million dead babies is good evidence of moral superiority. At the moment, admittedly, the United States is near the best of a bad lot but, er, I think we are ahead on free trade, admitting refugees (per capita), and having a workable health system. Though we are rotten to the core, so if we are the pinnacle of global morality it is time for fire from Heaven. Frankly, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But, setting aside my Reverend Raving-Looney hat, both the 'moral superiority' and the 'belief in special creation' obviously come from the same source, the strong influence of Christianity in the United States. I think a United States whose religion was less obviously irrational would be much less of a figure of fun to the rest of the West, better able to project moral authority, and better able to recruit coalition partners who are not completely clueless when it comes to the whole 'hearts and minds' thing.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Mysterious Ways, My Shiny Metal Arse

Marco has said: Believing in "evoloution" over "creation" will not make you a more moral person, and would therefore not particularly help society.

To which I replied: Yes, believing in 'evolution' over 'creation' will help make you a more moral person, because you will not have to believe in a God who is a malevolent scumbag! See my earlier post, 'Does God suck?'

Why is it morally reprehensible and bad for society to believe in special creation? I will explain. If you believe in special creation, you have to believe that God created all of these poor animals ex nihilo perfectly adapted for carnivory, parasitism, and other icky things involving lots of pain and fear. There are two ways of explaining this away:

(1) Moral Laws do not apply to non-humans. This is not exactly cutting-edge morality, since prophets were railing against it 3000 years ago, and it won’t wash very well when the Grog Voidships materialise over Canberra, but it could still be rationally argued. This is why the letters page of the Devil Bunny City Morning Herald has recently been full of letters from angry clergymen defending the right of bored teenagers to torture kittens. But, it hasn’t actually, because creationists have taken the cop-put position:

(2) God is, like, mysterious. He seems to do evil stuff, but he isn’t really evil, no, he’s good. This is the intellectual equivalent of castrating yourself with a spoon. Nobody who doesn’t share your wacky assumptions is going to take your morality seriously. Any morality with such a big and unnecessary ‘mystery’ at the centre of it can never form a logical system, just a hodge-podge of propositions laid down by authority. Those who follow such a morality will behave as automata, not as rational moral agents. Such a morality can elicit heroism, and even holiness, in its devotees- I do not dispute that- but it will not be taken seriously in a pluralistic society, and it will be totally inept at coping with any situation not covered by its hodge-podge of propositions, which is sure to be thrown up by the advance of science. For instance, no one who believes that a human being is mystically ‘ensouled’ at a particular age, making them worthy of moral consideration where they were unworthy before, has any right to be taken seriously in the stem cell argument. Thus believing in spoecial creation damages the ability of religions to influence the moral direction of society in a whole.

Marco has said: I certainly believe the Universe is mysterious and I can call God the universe just as surely as anybody else. I think it nonsensical to "believe" in something so mysterious.

To which I reply in the words of Charles Sanders Peirce, the greatest intellect of the 19th century: “One singular deception of this sort, which often occurs, is to mistake the sensation produced by our own unclearness of thought for a characteristic of the object we are thinking about. Instead of perceiving that the obscurity is purely subjective, we fancy that we contemplate a quality of the object which is essentially mysterious ... so long as this deception lasts, it obviously puts an impassable barrier in the way of perspicuous thinking; so that it equally interests the opponents of rational thought to perpetuate it, and its adherents to guard against it.”

Saturday, February 05, 2005

No Snappy Title Comes Immediately to Mind

A reading from the First Comment of Marco: I think I'm just being a tad mischievous because I hate being pigeon-holed.

I empathise entirely, in my chaotic way, with your desire not to be pigeon-holed. I have been worried about the NeoCon label that I have gotten stuck to myself in the course of our discussions, and have skated dangerously close to labelling myself ‘right wing’. I will quickly enunciate some of my more ‘left-wing’ beliefs in a vain attempt to avod being pigeonholed:

* The government should nationalise all the banks and insurance companies
*There should be no private health care system whatsoever; all medical doctors should be government employees;
* The minimum acceptable level of immigration should be approximately 250,000 per annum
* Petrol taxes should be higher, in line with the OECD average, in order to better reflect the true enivronmental costs of driving around- though I admit this will devastate my own happy exurban lifestyle...
* Competence in an Aboriginal language should be a compulsory pre-condition for government employment
* We should build lots of nuclear power plants

Oops, that last one wasn’t particularly ‘left wing’ and was included by mistake. Sorry. I will go on to discuss all the other nifty things you have said in your other comments now!

A reading from the Second Comment of Marco: It's the universe, taunting me like a bored housecat” [is] an equivalent statement to “It's God , taunting me like a [bored?] housecat”.

A reading from the Third Comment of Marco: I sometimes find myself correcting non-christians (in my head) when they mention fate or the Universe – ‘You should have used the word ‘God’ there’

It is valid to have a pantheistic point of view that associates God with Fate and the Universe, but I don’t think such a God would be worthy of human worship. I think it is essential that God be ‘outside’ or ‘bigger than’ the universe. I expect this argument is going to end up sounding terribly pretentious, but this is what I believe:

*the most important thing about God is that He be omnibenevolent

*in order to be omnibenevolent within the Universe, He needs to be omniscient, so he can know the consequences of the actions of all entities within the Universe to nth degree

*But, we know from Gödel that within a logical system you cannot prove all the true propositions that can be enunciated within a system

*Thus- and here all real philosophers can stand ready to belt me about the head and shoulders- if we make the unjustified leap that the Universe is a collection of entities that interact with each other in ways that make it constitute a logical system...

* order for God to know everything that is ‘true’ about our Universe, i.e., to be omniscient, He must not be contained within the Universe, but must be something ‘bigger’ that contains the Universe.

A reading from the Fourth Comment of Marco: I view world religions [as things that] are basically undergoing evolution, where each denomination is a "species", some undergoing gradual genetic change. I guess there is some survival of the fittest going on where some will prosper in certain environments. Some may well become extinct, some will compete vigorously, others will ignore one another, but overall you will see which ones are successful. ... This world view of mine does not lend itself to believing that one or another of these religions is the ‘true’ one. I perhaps would like to associate myself with ‘successful’ denominations and countries and even open myself to their vision of the truth.

Here, I am going to say that I agree completely. I do not think any religion is the ‘true’ one, but I think that the worldly success of a particular religion is an important consideration in determining how true they are. I think the more a belief is consistent with reality, the more ‘successful’ those who believe it will be (witness the relative lack of breathairians about nowadays). I have believed this for a long time, though in my case the roots are actually biblical- there is a statement in Acts that has always stuck in my head, something like this: “If this a human movement, it will die out of its own accord, so we shouldn’t bother persecuting them; if God is with these wacky Christian people, they will prosper anyway, and it would be blasphemous to perscute them.” Though you can tell from the context that the speaker wasn’t particularly holy, the fact that the opinion was preserved suggests that the early Christians felt there was some value in it, and I always felt it contained a strong element of truth.
So, I felt all religions that had managed to survive for thouands of years in the face of competition must be in some way ‘of God’ and that Christians had to take them seriously. What beliefs do successful religions have in common? These were the things that I determined to believe too. For example, I think Christianity, Islam, and the most vibrant forms of Buddhism all have a strong emphasis on what Christians would call ‘grace’. I couldn’t figure out why Hinduism was still around, because its theology seemed so out of kilter with the other three, but when I became a vegetarian I realised it was the world’s one great witness to ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’. I didn’t understand why Judaism had managed to survive, always hanging on, never prospering, for thousands of years, until I realised that Jewish fundamentalists- unlike all other sorts of fundamentalists- don’t believe that only beleivers in their religion will be saved.

It is almost possible to argue that Christianity is sweeping other religions before it, all over the world, so we can ignore the others- e.g., a factoid I came across the other day playing Trivial Pursuit that there are more Presbyterians in South Korea than in the U.S.- but this falls down badly once you learn any history at all. What is the most common religion nowadays where Jesus was born? How about where he grew up? Where St. Paul was born? Where the disciples were first called ‘Christians’? In the cities to which the Book of Revelation was addressed? Where St. Augustine lived? Where the Nicene Creed was devised? Where the first Christian Emperor set his throne? All of those places are, er, Muslim. Islam is the only religion that has consistently and effectively fought back against Christianity, so it is the one that you cannot possibly ignore.

I don’t pay very much attention to the quickly mutating sects on the left-wing of Christianity that have sprung up in the last 500 years or so; I heard a Coptic priest speak when I was in Devil Bunny City and was struck by how much more ‘mainstream’ he was, after 1600 years of separation, than Luther had been after ten. The author of the ‘Evolution of Religions’ site says that worldly success is used as an argument by Evangelical Christians, but statistically both Catholicism and Islam are growing faster. I believe that if something is believed by both Catholics and Muslims, it has a good chance of reflecting the will of God. The only Islamo-Catholic belief that I can’t bring myself to share is the one about infinite persecution of unbelievers, and this is what has led me to become something I always despised- a lapsed Carholic- for the last six years.

A reading from the Sixth Comment of Marco: I will often make arguments against atheists/agnostics of the benefits of religion and why I think it better for my kids to be christian than atheist even if it is dubious that I believe what I want them to believe.

Yes, I wish there was just one religion that contained no beliefs I found totally repugnant that I could raise my children in. I feel it was of immense value to me being raised in an organised religion and feel like a bad parent that I am not doing so.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Had we but world enough, and time...

Androo and I were watching Solaris a few months ago and got to talking afterwards about the nature of identity. Is a person based on someone else's memories of you, you? Nah, we agreed. But they are still a perfectly valid person. Is a person based on your memories of you, you? I didn't think so. I used to be comforted by the thought that my memories were all inerrantly 'backed up', so to speak, in the mind of God, and that whatever happened to the print (me) the negatives were still safe. But I don't know anymore. It just suddenly struck me one day that without continuity looking forward, I didn't care about continuity looking backward. If you run off a thousand prints, are they me? Nah. From the moment they open their eyes, they are newbies who happen to share my memories, since I- existing now- cannot trace a path forward to any one of them in particular. Does that make sense? Probably not.

Something like 99.99% of my memories are lost forever in the fog, which means one could conservatively slice out another ten thousand or so individuals from my experiences. By selecting those memories correctly, I am sure you could put together people with completely different opinions. Would they be me? Nah. I think those memories must be less important for what they are- the raw sensory data for life, embarassing dross, trivial offal- than for what they create: the unique time dependent worldview that I am clinging to now, like a rope across the abyss. Someone who shares my worldview is more important to me than someone who shares my memory. After I am gone there will be plenty of people who share the same sort of rather uninteresting memories that I have, and rather than having someone who shared the particularly mind-numbingly dull minutiae of my life I would much much prefer someone who thought the same way about the universe as I had. Androo pointed out that there was a Greg Egan story with exactly that theme, which of course there is. Greg Egan is way cool, except for his occasional pandering to wanky New Age interpretations of quantum mechanics.

There is a Chesterton quote that I don't have on me at the moment, and since Chesterton himself was notoriously famous for refusing to look things up, I will wing it. The gist of it is: 'what a person thinks about the universe is the most interesting thing about them.'

Which brings me to Marco's response to my inquiry (viz., "Who is this God person anyway?"): "I am extremely coy about my own spiritual beliefs, and I guess that is an important part of what I believe."

If not revealing your beliefs is an important part of what you believe, the implication is that what you believe about the universe is not important to any other person, hence, there is no objective reality. Don't you believe in an objective reality, Marco my old pal? Please say you are not a solipsistic prat!