Sunday, June 29, 2008

Other Blogs

I've decided to suspend my project here for the moment as I work on revising some posts I've made here.

In the mean time, I've created two other blogs, one for reading and one for writing, here: (reading)

and here: (writing)

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


So I haven't updated in a while. I plan to throw some stuff up over the coming weeks but in the meantime I'm still not even sure I want to continue using blogger. I'd kinda rather practice just making an original webpage. But that would require effort, and a small hint of technical skill, so I guess we'll see.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

An Open Letter To A Post-Contemporist

Dear A Post-Contemporist,

I first read the Post-Contemporary essay sometime in mid-January when I became aware of it via Parmandur. I wrote you an earlier version of this letter but you never got a chance to respond, so I've edited it as per the one item we discussed over lunch.

I don’t mean to come off as harsh, but I also feel like jumping right in to my impressions of the essay. I want very much to sympathize with your arguments, and can grasp their appeal, but when reading the essay I also am irked by several moments that I feel obscure the heart of your argument. To begin with, I find your caricaturization of the ideologue to be facile. “But look, I started with the same text you did!” You must be thinking of something to generate a caricaturization like this. What Beowulf critic uses Beowulf to create “a sordid mockery of the original text”? When you add in the “scientifically proven!” jab later on, I also wonder what critic appeals to science in their arguments. The only critic I’ve seen that does that is Marx, and Marx has become unread in this hemisphere in the past four decades.

Also, who has taken criticism as anything other than an interpretation? Who regards the criticism as the canon and not the text? The only critics you remark on through the essay are Aristotle and Barthes. I’m not even sure I should include Aristotle, since he’s neither an ideologue nor is he even a literary critic, he’s more of a proto-critic.

But in particular, I find question with sentiments like this, “We usually do not have the builder of the tower to speak to; we cannot know his or her intentions nor his or her desires.” What? Why not? After all, can I not ask you, as a living author, about the content of this essay—albeit this essay isn’t literature, but I have for other works. If the purpose of the tower is to look at the ocean, then we certainly do know the intention of the author.

Excuse me if I drift into shorthand here. Later you say, “Universal truth n'existe pas.” Is it universally true that universal truth does not exist? Also, why is this in french?

Later still, “Aristotle wrote -- but he attempted to create reason for it! Reason, founded as it is upon belief, cannot explain that which lies beneath reason. Anthropologists have found that facial expressions are pancultural -- can not pathos, sympathy, and in fact, elements of the text also be so?” Why do you appeal to scientificity in an anti-scientific essay? Why do you presume that pancultural traits cannot be rational?

Why do you presume that unconscious traits cannot be rational?I think that I can sympathize with many of your sentiments. The above direct questions in response to specific quotations are not meant to imply that I am unsympathetic to your arguments. The pathos, ahem, of your piece is exemplary. We do, after all, want to love texts. Yet.

Yet you seem to put the reader on a pedastal. In reading your arguments, I feel like the “text” is a body upon which to be inscribed. The “author” is inaccessible—why I do not know—and in his/her inaccessibility becomes irrelevant. You emphasize the “human” value but you then imply that the author is totally irrelevant. What is human about putting the text above the author? What you seem to mean is putting the human reader above the human author. But then, that will happen anyway, since most readers will accept their own reading as the correct one unless the author specifically states otherwise.

Your arguments speak out against the ideologue and ideological criticism as though both these too were inaccessible. Yet your argument itself drifts in the direction of imperialism. The reader becomes the colonizer. The author, “the other,” inaccessible and therefore irrelevant, and his/her text is the colonized, to be exploited regardless of any will either sought to expressed.

Your arguments take on fascist characteristics when they say: when you see propaganda, give in to it. I too am overwhelmed by the beautiful, the sublime; it is, after all, the sublime. Yet, I refuse to evacuate critical responses to preserve any and all traces of beauty. I refuse to be enter into the relationship of slave and master with a text.

You seem to be arguing for transideological criticism when this perhaps the most ideological thing I have ever read.

Perhaps as the reader I have misread your text? Do you as the author, transcendant of your writing, become irrelevant to any further discussion of any misreadings? Or can you—or rather, are you obligated—to defend your arguments? Anyway,

thanks for the essay, hope to see another soon,

Le Creature De Flames

Friday, April 4, 2008

Humpty Dumpty is Jesus

Whereas Jesus is birthed from Mary as a virgin, Humpty is sans-birth, thus taking on a hyper-virgin origin. He is a proto-being. Just as the tragedy of Jesus is in part the penetration of a virgin body (as he is stabbed on the cross by the roman soldier, Longinus), so too the tragedy ofHumpty Dumpty is the destruction of a virgin body.

Humpty Dumpty is hyper-aware of how his name shapes his form. When Humpty says, "my name means the shape I am--and a good handsome shape it is, too" this is a return to the pre-lapsarian role of man, where the word gives form to the shapes. As Humpty explains, "when I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less." So it is with Jesus.

Humpty, like Jesus, is also the epitomy of paradox--just as Jesus is, as both God and Man. Consider Stillman's, "What is an egg? It is that which has not yet been born. ... how can Humpty Dumpty be alive if he has not been born?

Jesus mirrors the fall of man by dying and embarking on the Harrowing of Hell. So too, Humpty Dumpty surmises the epitome of Man's journey by falling. And just as Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back together again, so to is it that Jesus cannot return to being Jesus after his death--instead, he transforms into the Holy Spirit.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Chomsky's Moral Integrity

A Minimal Level of Moral Integrity

Central to Chomsky’s arguments in Necessary Illusions, and to the significance Chomsky applies to the propaganda model, is an appeal to “a minimal level of moral integrity” (139). Chomsky offers no counterpoint to this vague moral integrity. By leaving the appeal to morality at the periphery of his arguments, instead of engaging in it directly, Chomsky fails to evoke the reconciliary mode that would be necessary to bring about the moral social change he demands, democratizing the media, with a case in point being Chomsky’s inefficient treatment of Herbert Anaya and Armando Valladares.

Chomsky does not argue for “democratizing the media” at the beginning of Necessary Illusions even though that may very well be his project. Instead, Chomsky explains why “the concept of ‘democratizing the media’ has no real meaning within the terms of political discourse in the United States” (2). The qualifier, “within the terms of political discourse in the United States” hides Chomsky’s argument. Chomsky later implies that he does not regard himself as writing “within the terms of political discourse”—rather, he engages in institutional analysis outside it. Chomsky does not proclaim that his project is indeed institutional analysis. Instead, he more often admits to engaging in such only through negatives, such as when Chomsky argues, “We [the respectable intellectual community] may speak in retrospect of blunders, misinterpretation, exaggeration of the Communist threat, faulty assessments of national security, personal failings, even corruption and deceit on the part of leaders gone astray; but the study of institutions and how they function must be scrupulously ignored, apart from fringe elements or a relatively obscure scholarly literature” (40) [italics mine]. Adverbs indicate Chomsky’s personal regard for the issues at stake and the moral assumptions underlying his characterization. Just as the ignorance of institutional analysis goes against the minimal level of moral integrity that Chomsky relies upon in how scrupulous it is, so is his work and the work of those with him valuable because of how scholarly it is. Although appearing scholarly may be important to Chomsky, the impenetrable distance he takes toward most of his subjects takes the teeth out of his arguments. Instead of arguing for a positive scholarly method for democratizing the media, Chomsky persists in putting up critical airs while nevertheless revealing himself and his morality through obtrusive adverbs. Chomsky’s argument that the US Media’s adherance to the Propaganda Model is indeed immoral should be central in his work. The pretense of writing scholarly and maintaining critical distance detracts, rather than adds to, Chomsky’s assessments.

By witholding his point so frequently, Chomsky risks coming off as resorting to tu quoque. For instance, an effective argument could be created based on the information that Chomsky presents regarding the difference between the prison memoirs of Armando Valladares compared to that of Herbert Anaya. Chomsky quotes news sources reporting on the books portrayal of, “’bestial prisons,’ ‘inhuman torture,’ and ‘record of state violence’” (138). Instead of positing an argument around these quotations, though, Chomsky begins the paragraph by saying, “To take another case” and ends with, “Subsequent coverage was pitched at the same level” (138). The result of this void of argumentation is that it appears the use of quotation itself is Chomsky’s argument, that by leaving all of the quoted material as quotation instead of as plain text it is somehow untrue. Chomsky then juxtaposes this material to the following paragraph depicting the US media’s treatment of Herbert Anaya, or the lack thereof. Chomsky’s only quote in that paragraph is “lightheaded and cold-blooded Western intellectuals” the source of which is not obvious. Chomsky begins to fall into his own propaganda model. Whereas all his coverage of Valladares’ case remains compartmentalized behind quotations, Chomsky is only too willing to offer speculation about the actual conditions of Herbert Anaya, even going so far to presume that his assassination came “probably by the U.S.-backed security forces” (138) with no evidence whatsoever. Following this juxtaposition Chomsky presents what appears to be the only argumentat on the preceding two paragraphs, that US media employs a “double standard” (139). If Chomsky employed the rhetoric of the moral integrity he values, then he would have built his ethos first by condemning the treatment of Valladares by Castro. Chomsky’s moral integrity, minimal though it may be, should be enough to recognize that the mistreatment of Anaya, and the representation of Valladares by the US media, does not diminish the wrongs done by Valladares or the atrocities of Castro’s prisons. Without this condemnation, it seems Chomsky suggests that Valladares and his criticisms, by being represented in the US media, is less valid a subject of injustice than that of Anaya. Chomsky would do better to argue that the treatment of both prisoners was immoral, even if it meant echoing some if not all of the claims by the US media. Instead, leaving his paragraphs devoid of argumentation, he risks portraying the treatment of Valladares as justified because of the treatment of Anaya.

By not positing how a democratized media would be more effective at representing both subjects of Valladares and Anaya, Chomsky further risks positing a false dilemma between either opting for the existing media of the US or Europe. Chomsky discusses the methodologies of using the propaganda model in regard to US coverage of elections in Nicaragua against El Salvador and Guatemala. As Chomsky argues, “One approach has been to compare the U.S. coverage of the two cases; another, to compare U.S. and European coverage of the same case. The results provide a dramatic indication of the subordination of the U.S. media to the goals established by the state authorities” (139). While this assertion may be true, it nevertheless does not present a form of media that lacks subordination. Chomsky’s argument would benefit from an identical comparison for a similar case for European coverage to see if it too follows the propaganda model. If so, then perhaps Chomsky need not be worried about democratizing the media at all—if one read European coverage of American interests, and American coverage of European interests, it seems possible to avoid the propaganda model altogether. This solution contradicts Chomsky’s concluding paragraph to Necessary Illusions, however, which argues, “The answer will lie in the prospects for popular movements, with firm roots among all sectors of the population, dedicated to values that are suppressed or driven to the margins within the existing social and political order…” (136). This would seem to be what Chomsky means by democratizing the media, yet this is not the mode that Chomsky engages in throughout the rest of the work. Instead, just as he referred to the vacuous appeal to a minimal level of moral integrity, in regard to the elections of Nicaragua, Chomsky argues that, “By any reasonable standard, the elections in Nicaragua were superior in circumstances” (139) [italics mine]. This comes off as a snipe instead of a substantive argument. Instead of engaging with potential reasons why the US media would feel justified in its coverage of the Nicaragua elections, Chomsky assumes a priori the position of knowing a universal “reasonable standard.” Again, doing so frames Chomsky’s arguments so that he seems to regard the Nicaraguan elections as the apotheosis of democracy and elections in El Salvador as an unequivocable sham. As two democratic elections of differing methodologies, both are equal candidates for praise and scrutiny. Arguing that the US media fails to characterize both subjects does not promote the democratic grassroots agenda that Chomsky views as the salvation of America. It offers a dilemma with no solution; the choice becomes buying the propaganda model or opting out of news coverage in its entirity.

Chomsky offers no central thesis that unifies his arguments in Necessary Illusions. Instead, Chomsky refrains from making overt political arguments by retaining the façade of scholarship. Chomsky does not posit for a democratized media capable of maintaing moral integrity and reasonable standards, and even these positive traits are based on uncritical presuppositions. Instead, Chomsky reproduces his own propaganda model, apologizing for non-US actions while exercizing all the capacities of his imagination to portray the US in the least positive light possible. Much of Chomsky’s evidence could be used to create compelling evidence for a raison d’etre of a grassroots democratic media structure, however, Chomsky does not use it to that effect.

Monday, March 3, 2008

What if the answer is "yes"?

“Are Black Women Really Apes?”

We all know that black women are not really apes. The absurd racism of previous centuries can stun us, and this question seems more of a rhetorical device than it is a real question—after all, who would argue that any human being is non-human today? Yet, if it is a rhetorical device, what is the end of the rhetoric? What point is it supposed to reinforce?

It is tempting for a reader to say: “No.” No further explanation is necessary. Humans and apes are not the same species; sexuality has no impact on specization, and so the question essentially answers itself: by defining something as “woman” we presume that that woman is not ape. “Woman” implies humanity.

So what is the end of this essay, “Are Black Women Really Apes?” Is it to ask that question—or another?

A better question to ask might be, “How, and why, would anyone ever even ask such an absurd question?” That question is far more difficult to answer.

The paragraph that immediately follows the title appears at first to be a red herring, some sort of pretentious overture set out to present the tone as one that is all-knowing, the speech of an elite speaking from the armchair of Enlightenment.

Yet it is also disconcerting. The first sentence, “Through the 19th century, carnivals put on the freak show.” Why is it “the” freak show? Why not “freak shows?” It almost seems as though this sentence, and this entire paragraph, should be struck from the essay. It would be better to get to the point quicker, faster. If it is to be an elegy for Sarah Bartman and Joseph Merick, as it appears to be at times throughout, then why not write a poem instead even? Why does this essay exist?

Another sentence that is infuriating: “We only recently have evidence as to what real disease Joseph Merrick, or “The Elephant Man,” had.”

By what right does this author deem him or herself worthy to use the term “we”? What is this author presupposing in such a claim? Surely he or she had no part in the historical study that discovered this nearly irrelevant factoid.

Also, as far as overtures go, this is a poor one indeed. Here we are having recent evidence when we still do not really know who Sarah Bartman or Joseph Merrick are. Why are we reading about them? Again: Why does this essay exist?

And why all these fancy schmancy medical terms in the next few paragraphs?

Skipping until the next mark of irritation, without really bothering to understand what exactly all those fancy schmancy words mean, we come to this bizzarro sentence: “But what name do we give the disease of the spectators who paid to gaze at each of them?” Oh. Zing! Heyoo! Wow, what an overuse of the rhetorical question. Don’t you love the presupposition here—yet it’s not even really a presupposition, it’s more of a flat out accusation. The people who paid to poke this black woman’s ass were “diseased.” Cute. Clever. But not compelling.

Yet another moment of extreme frustration: “If you are having difficulty making the link between sexual organs and being an ape, perhaps other great scientists can help clarify.”

“You” the author says. You don’t even know me. Who are you to use “you” against me? Why are you presupposing that I can’t follow your argument (not that I can). And of course another little jab, “great scientists.” I’ve never heard of these douchebag scientists, and of course I don’t regard them as great. I’m bourgeoise enough to recognize a snarky comment like that as simple flippancy.

It’s at this point that I begin to lose patience. Why should I bother reading this essay and not another? Why must be there so much rubbish thrown into this argument? I can’t discern a thesis, I can’t follow half the claims, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.

I can’t decide.

A further point. Joseph Merrick too was dissected. Joseph Merrick too was put on display after his death. The difference between them is less extreme, after death, than any dissimilarity in life. So they were not so different.

For each, scientists tried to understand them. The desire to understand may have come from the desire to substantiate a racist claim—but they still sought to understand.

If that is this case—and the essay might even emphasize that it is—then is it to mock the scientists of the past from afar? Or is it asking a different sort of question altogether.

The question asked at the beginning, that obviously rhetorical one, “Are black women really apes?” Did they not need to test that claim? And so they tried to. They were willing to put their racist beliefs to the test and see what happened. Their mode of interpretation, however, despite any pretenses at the “scientific method” was not enough to dissuade them—instead, their preconceived notions shaped what they saw as “evidence” and helped them mount a growing discourse on the female body as reflective of the tendencies of the female mind.

The spectator has nothing more than idle curiosity—and in pursuing that curiosity, to pay to have the experience of poking the black woman’s ass, that “curiosity” leads very directly and obviously to exploitation. Yet, in this case too, the “Scientific” impulse too led to exploitation. And in this case, the scientific impulse was based on seeking out observable phenomena.

This was Science. This is Science. Perhaps this essay’s final question is: Who are the martyrs to Science? And in the end, was it all worth it?

What if the answer to that last question is “yes”?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Wilhelm Reich and Severe Sexual Conflicts

Wilhelm Reich and Severe Sexual Conflicts

The intention of Wilhelm Reich in The Mass Psychology of Fascism appears both clear and admirable. He wants to understand the roots of Fascism, and in doing so, to prevent further atrocities like the Holocaust from occuring. The crux of many of his arguments rely on his medical experience. Yet, as a scientist, Reich’s credibility is less than ideal. His research into orgonomic functionalism has been largely abandoned and ignored by psychologists and physicists, his books even burned by the US Government. However, this does not make his arguments false. But, crucial in Reich’s argument is “the fact that severe sexual conflicts (in the broadest sense of the word), whether conscious or unconscious, inhibit rational thinking and the development of social responsibility” (202). The inhibited thinking from these sexual conflicts, Reich contends, is one of the most important causes of Fascism. This paper can make no claims as to whether that fact is objectively true or false. However, whether Reich’s text will succeed in its task of inhibiting the next rise of fascism is a matter of how well his own arguments are supported by his text. Reich’s appeals to scientificity, however, are nonetheless dwarfed by the volume of unsupported assertions perforating the text. Looking at the crucial argument on the linkage between sexual conflict and inhibited thinking, this paper will explore how Reich’s arguments fail in their appeal to scientificity due to their lack of falsifiable, reproduceable claims that are the basis of post-Popper scientific discourse. Reich’s arguments may still have value, but as moral or philosophical, not scientific claims.

First and foremost in understanding the cleavage between scientific discourse and Reich’s claims can be demonstrated by a close reading of Reich’s crucial argument, beginning with the context of his uncritical acceptance of Freud. Although the quotation comes in a section entitled “The NonPolitical Man” it actually is the most lucid explanation for a phenomenon Reich discusses through the entire work and is the ultimate metamorphosis of a question posed toward the beginning. “For what sociological reason,” Reich asks, “is sexuality suppressed by the society and repressed by the individual?” (28). Reich first must demonstrate that sexuality is indeed suppressed; however, this task he leaves to Freud. Instead of building upon the conclusions of Freud examples from his own research, however, Reich instead takes Freud’s claims, and his interpretation of Freud’s claims, as “fact” a priori.1

Reich comes close to making scientific claims again when discussing the propensity for religion to negate sexuality, but instead again opts to leave his assertions supported by other works that are accepted without question. As Reich claims, “Sexual debility results in a lowering of self-confidence. In one case it is compensated by the brutalization of sexuality, in the other by rigid character traits. The compulsion to control one’s sexuality, to maintain sexual repression, leads to the development of pathologic, emotionally tinged notions of honor and duty, bravery and self-control” (55). This lengthy and incredible assertion, however, is not clearly supported by any example from his research that he shares with the audience. Instead, Reich footnotes a work by Ernst Mann as “an especially informative book for the recognition of these relationships” (55). His inability or unwillingness to characterize this assertion, like the assertion at the crux of his argument, again leaves doubt over what Reich means by “severe sexual conflicts (in the broadest sense of the word), whether conscious or unconscious” (202). Reich does offer one example when discussing the unconscious struggle against one’s own sexual needs, the one that gives rise to mystical thinking. This example, not based from his clinical experience, but instead a reading of National Socialist ideology, is his observation that sentiments of, “personal honor, family honor, racial honor, national honor” (56) pervade National Socialist propaganda. This he righfully remarks has a corrolation with his proposed structure of the individual psyche. However, this corrolation does not provide evidence in support of the original structure he proposed. Once again, the shape of what Reich means by sexual conflict is left very much in doubt.

The shape of what Reich means by sexual conflict becomes even more obfuscated when he uses the term tautologically, while further moving away from the scope of scientific discourse. As Reich argues, “One does not have to be a psychologist to understand why the erotically provocative form of fascism offers a kind of gratification, however distorted, to a sexually frustrated lower middle-class woman who has never thought about social responsibility, or to a young salesgirl who could not arrive at sexual consciousness owing to an intellectual deficiency caused by sexual conflicts” (202). This sentence, instead of clarifying Reich’s terms or emphasizing his arguments, instead drifts into absurdity. First is Reich’s mention that one need not be a psychologist to understand the example; he is quite right, since one need not have even read the preceding 201 pages to understand why the sentence is a tautology and uninformative. If we remove the unnecessary inclusion of political terms, Reich’s sentence could be rephrased to, “One not need be a psychologist to understand why the sexually provocative appeals to the sexually frustrated.” Indeed, the comment could be even further revised to, “One not need be a psychologist to understand why the provocative appeals to the frustrated.” One need not be a psychologist because the provocative, by the definition being provocative, will appeal to the frustrated. In a final rephrasement, Reich could have instead written, “the provocative appeals” or “the provocative is provocative.”

The political ramifications of Reich’s major claim has direct entailments for the role of religion and his position as anti-religious. As Reich argues, “natural sexuality is the arch enemy of mystical religion” (178) and that “sexual consciousness is the end of mysticism” (179). Yet, Reich also claims that all human beings and creatures are “subject to sexual tensions” (147). Following this admission, Reich differentiates religious man from normal man. Due to “sex-negating religious conceptions” the religious man “suffers from a chronic state of physical excitation… He is not only shut off from earthly happiness-it does not even appear desirable” (147). Bearing in mind that Reich is talking about, as he deems them, “the masses”—not religious extremists—for once Reich has at least made a scientific claim with a testable hypothesis. Under this system, to contradict Reich’s claim, a single example of a religious man showing an inclination for worldly happiness would discredit his hypothesis. Considering the plurality of such examples, Reich’s claims can at times be scientific—but when they are posited in a scientific manner, they tend to be demonstrably false. Since the sexual conflicts that allow fascism to occur are, according to Reich, the same conflicts that brood mystical thought, it thus seems that the “severe sexual conflicts” he describes at the crux of his argument do not, in the broadest sense of the word, Reich can not be shown to exist.

If Reich refocused his claim, away from the vacuous “broadest sense” and at least contextualizing the significance of the difference between conscious or unconscious sexual conflict, then perhaps the crux of his argument would be more compelling. After all, Hitler sexual repression was evident in Hitler’s Germany. Yet, Hitler also rose to power through the politics of anti-semitism, through militarism, and through romanticism.2 In any case, Reich’s arguments seem incomplete as scientific claims. Those claims that are testable or reproduceable nonetheless seem demonstrably false when applied blanketly to the “mass” of religious people, and those claims that aren’t seem to be so vague as to be non-science. This does not make the claims false, yet it does raise a question of Reich’s audience. If Reich’s audience was scientists, he failed. Reich was rejected from other scientific discourse—his arguments did not become psychiatric policy. If Reich’s audience was the victims whose rationality was supposedly inhibited, then Reich failed. By appealing to scientific discourse, he appears at best elitist and at worst insolent, and by failing to provide concrete examples demonstrating his claims he fails to appeal to even pseudoscientific discourse. No religious or “mystical” person would find his claims and arguments compelling, many will reject claims of sexual repression, and many more will reject any linkage between religious belief and fascism. If Reich had instead posed his arguments in a reconciliary mode, focusing on his readings of fascist propaganda—as just that, readings, not scientific diagnosis—then his arguments may have been more compelling. If fascist states do not rise again, it is unlikely they will have been inhibited by this work.


1. Reich seems outraged whenever he mentions anyone mounting any criticism whatsoever against Freud. In footnote 8 on page 58, he says, “He who would want to dismiss these facts as “Freudian” would only give proof of his scientific cretenism. One should argue and not chatter, without possessing special knowledge. Freud discovered the Oedipus complex. Revolutionary family politics would be impossible without this discovery.” Ignoring for a moment the incoherence of the second sentence which I will throw up to a translation issue, the fallacy of poisoning the well could not be more obvious in the first sentence. In Reich’s understanding, the very act of disagreeing makes one a cretin. His unconditional acceptance of Freud’s discovery and emphasis on “special knowledge” borderlines on becoming the very mysticism that Reich derides through most of his work.

2. If it is indeed the case that sexual repression was the result, and not the cause of the patriarchal authoritarian order, as Reich seems to assert on page 88, then how Reich seeks to cure fascist behavior based on his proposal for sexual consciousness is left even more vague than it already was. A complete discussion of this topic, however, is outside the scope of this paper.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Natural Selection vs. Survival of the Fittest

Distinguishing “Survival of the Fittest” from “Natural Selection.”

It’s possible that the only thing greater than the current debate of “evolution” vs. “creation” is the sheer volume of misinformation currently being presented in regard to evolution itself. Although anyone can access certain resources to understand evolution, comprehending it entirely can be a complex matter.

Consider an article from July 18, 2007, on MSNBC called “Why does the survival of the fittest allow runts?” Even from the title, you might notice something. “Survival of the fittest” is given agency, not only does “survival of the fittest” control the traits of our children, this title seems to imply, but it—as though on a whim—also allows our children to become runts. “Man, I hate that ‘survival of the fittest,’” I think from this title, “Always messing with my children.”

When we continue to examine the article, it doesn’t get much better. “Like a secret ingredient to a signature recipe, ‘survival of the fittest’ is a crucial part of the theory of evolution. The fittest individuals survive to mate and pass on their genetic lineage, and the weaker creatures fail to pass on their wimpy genes.” Without “survival of the fittest,” this article seems to imply, our souffle is going to turn into a stew—the stakes of this argument seem to be the theory of evolution as a whole. We also get a personification of genes. We have wimpy genese and we have “fit” genes. In third grade the wimpy genes get beat up by the fit genes. In high school the fit genes date the prom queen—the wimpy gene stays at home playing The Sims. You know the story.

Dave Mosher, our author here, can perhaps be forgiven his rather painful characterizations. After all, he’s not writing for a scientific audience—he’s writing for “the masses” “the proletariat” “the mob” AKA, you and me (presuming, you, like me, do not have a Ph.D in Biology). Dave is just trying to convey the results of a rather nuanced study and make it interesting, entertaining, and whatnot.

But then again, when you consider how little changes give way to bigger problems, you may be less patient with Dave’s creative zest.

Why is it, after all, that most biologists generally don’t use the term “survival of the fittest”? Dave has no qualms with using it—and giving it the agency of a god. After all, what does his first question even mean, “But if that's how it works, where do all the runts in nature come from?” Is that really what this study was asking? Or is that Dave’s take on it?

Now, what phrase do biologists tend to use when they want to accurately describe the systems they’re discussing? “Natural selection.” What is the significance of the distinction?

“Survival of the fittest” is a problematic term. It risks becoming a tautology when applied to biology, since what is termed “fitness” tends to be deemed by what reproduces. As wikipedia glosses the subject, “The reasoning is that if one takes the term "fit" to mean ‘endowed with phenotypic characteristics which improve chances of survival and reproduction’ (which is roughly how Spencer understood it), then ‘survival of the fittest’ can simply be rewritten as ‘survival of those who are better equipped for surviving’.” It’s not, or at least less of a tautology if you bear in mind that most good biologists tend to refer to heritable traits, not individuals.

In short, Dave was wrong. His stated assumption that “Like a secret ingredient to a signature recipe, ‘survival of the fittest’ is a crucial part of the theory of evolution.” To continue the awkward cooking analogy, “survival of the fittest” is not the “secret ingredients”—it’s more like peanut toppings that half your audience might be allergic to. The “secret ingredient” if there is one is not “survival of the fittest” it is “natural selection.” The difference might seem trivial, but it is not if you have any interest in accurately conveying information. As George Will said, “The difference between extra-marital sex and extra marital sex is not to be scoffed at.”

Natural selection, unlike survival of the fittest, is a testable hypothesis—and one that has been complicated by such notions as “neutral theory” which includes a large role of genetic drift in genetic variation, and has been revised to work with Mendel’s work in genetics. Darwin’s work on evolution was impressive, but it alone was not the entire picture of how evolution works. Darwin himself even favored the term “natural selection,” which describes how phenotypes that will help a given species succeed in a given environment tend to become more common among groups of reproducing organisms. Over time, these variations in the frequency of phenotypes will, according to the hypothesis, result in adaptation, and depending on time and context, speciation.

This does not carry the apparent moral connotations that occur when one makes the claim that “survival of the fittest” is important, or has agency, in the theory of evolution. It is a descriptive tool, not a prescriptive one. After all, isn’t it still more efficacious to make use of “artificial selection” in breeding pigs and cows and chickens? We don’t want the chicken to worry so much about surviving the storms—we’ll build them henhouses for that. We want them to lay eggs, and lay a lot of them. Or, we want them to be fat and meaty for when we cook them. We may even want them so fat and meaty that they would almost certainly die were we not taking care of them.

Just the same, just because over time we have grown in certain ways, this does not mean that those ways are inherently good or just or efficacious. Even Darwin argued that a population with strong moral codes might be more able to work together, and thus more able to pass on those phenotypes, than a group of individuals all working for themselves. Dawkin’s (DaWKin, not DaRWin) work on “The Selfesh Gene” might include scientific claims but it can also appear quite misleading, and for an attempt at sociobiological argumentation does not present a particularly compelling picture of human relationships.

Human interaction is far more simple than always only being out for yourself. “Survival of the fittest,” that is, does not really have agency. It is not something that compels you. Although an individual may want to reproduce and to reproduce successfully, that does not mean that every single action works with that end in mind. If you hit their knee and the leg kicks as a reflex, that is not something there to further progress toward the end of reproduction. Although a simplistic and mechanistic example, the leg’s reflex action underscores my point. Countless human actions do not have reproduction as their end. Altruistic impulses, whether they be good or bad, effective or not, exist in their own right and to insist that they are always only working for the self is not the most effective explanation.

Although the work of Dawkins and those with him might be important in its own right for political reasons and certain biological claims, it nevertheless seems to have done more to cloud mass understanding of evolution than to illuminate it. But they may even be a far more sympathetic example than the volumes of far worse arguments and conceptualizations of evolution and natural selection.

Let’s consider an argument from Alan Keyes, entitled, “Survival of the fittest?” The question mark is very important. Alan Keyes ran for president, therefore he must be smart, right?

What does Alan have to add to the discussion? Let’s see:

“Is the debate over evolution a political question? Surely it is, first of all, a scientific question.”

We do already know that “survival of the fittest” must be a question, since, after all, the title includes a question mark. Just following the first two sentences of his post makes me wonder: what? What exactly is the “scientific question” that it is “surely” “first of all”? Is it evolution? The debate over evolution? The question whether the debate over evolution is a political question? Perhaps the “scientific question” Keyes refers to is “Survival of the fittest?” Question indeed, Alan. Question indeed.

“And yet, it is a sign of how far we have strayed from our common sense as citizens that the implications of evolutionary theory for our project of self-government are almost never seriously considered. The American nation and our way of life were founded on an articulated and explicit moral premise – one which the doctrine of evolution directly contradicts. We better start thinking about this.”

What? No, I mean, seriously: What? First of all, evolution is not a “doctrine.” I do not believe that the theory of evolution “contradicts” the “articulated and explicit moral premise” that “The American nation and our way of life” was founded on. Perhaps the “We” that Alan refers to that needs to “start thinking” is actually a “I.” “I better start thinking about this” might be right Alan. Perhaps before you post an essay on the subject.

Alan does take the time to explore that “articulated and explicit moral premise” in his post, explaining:

“‘We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’ Those stated principles remain the moral premises of our way of life, and it is on them that we base our commitment to due process, and voting, and representative government and the truth that every human being has rights and an indefeasible dignity that government has to respect.

“And what, according to the Declaration, is the absolutely first principle of justice that our political order respects? It is our common duty to acknowledge the will of the One who made us. The reason that it is necessary to establish government on a basis that limits power in accordance with respect for human dignity and human rights is that those rights and that dignity come from the Creator – God. That's clear. It's straightforward. It's simple.”

It’s simple, clear, and straightforward. Perhaps even, -gasp-, self-evident? There may very well be some reasons that “The Declaration” is not part of the Constitution of The United States of America, you know, the one that is actually held as law. But putting aside that (rather large) problem for now, since The Declaration is still important, let’s consider some of these “simple” claims. What exactly does Alan mean that “the absolutely first principle of justice” that America respects is “our common duty to acknowledge the will of the One who made us.” I’m sorry, haven’t we already pointed out the self-evident truths? Why do we need to rephrase the self-evident truths? Aren’t they, after all, self-evident? And where exactly does the Declaration say we need to acknowledge the “will of the One who made us?” Perhaps we do—in holding the self-evident truths as self-evident. But if we’re already holding the self-evident truths as self-evident, why does Alan feel compelled to make the argument, rephrasing the self-evident truths, that includes acknowledging the will of “the One who made us”? (evidently, Alan is too good to just say “Creator” as the Declaration does)

But, although Alan’s arguments are ripe for contention, all the way through his article, I nevertheless feel compelled to skip to the parts that actually get back on topic. But unfortunately, Alan doesn’t ever really answer that question, “Survival of the Fittest.” His arguments are too large to stay on topic—and so he abandons it altogether.

He ends with a final tip of the hat:

“The empirical evidence, which is just "the way things turn out," does not generally support the claim of the weak, the conquered, or of anybody except those favored by circumstance, and confirmed and affirmed in the result. If our sense of justice relies on "the empirical evidence," there is no compelling case to be made that justice requires respect for the dignity and the rights of any except those who have the power to defend themselves, or to assert their claims and make that assertion stick.”

Is this what Alan thinks the implications of evolution are? Alan, multiple presidential candidate and all in all famous person? Alan might have been better served by simply pointing out the fallacy that such an argument would rely on: “Is” does not equal “ought.” If I am hungry, that doesn’t mean I should be hungry. Just the same, if those who have favorable evolutionary predipositions to a certain environment survive well, that doesn’t mean that they “should” in some sort of transcendtal, supernatural, or objective sense. Just as “natural selection” differentiates from “artificial selection” so does the theory of evolution—a descriptive theory—not entail a prescriptive theory.

For about a zillion more unsorted and unedited comments on the 2001 piece by Keyes, feel free to google it.

When “survival of the fittest” is given agency, instead of being treated for what it is—an ad hoc saying for a far more specific descriptive theory—it provides fodder for those seeking a strawman position to use to “knock down” evolution as a whole—those who, on either side of the debate, concur with Dave’s comments that survival of the fittest is “critical” to evolution.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Deeper Into "Free Will"

What are the stakes of Free Will? If Free Will exists, or doesn’t exist, who cares? What is even meant by Free Will? A few examples to warm our minds to the subject.

Ryan’s choice:

“Jack has a physiological condition that whenever a certain keyphrase is given, he is unable to disobey any order given after the statement of the keyphrase. Jack is unaware of the condition. Ryan knows about this, yet he refuses to use the keyword, instead believing that Jack’s Free Will is so important that it should not be tampered with. Not only this, Ryan refuses to tell Jack about his condition, even though his enemies actively use it.”

The problem I see with Ryan’s decision is that it presupposes that Jack has Free Will in some sort of objective sense. By the terms of this exercise, Jack cannot resist any order given to him using the keyphrase. Whether such a condition as the one described here could actually exist is a legitimate concern, but for right now arguing that Jack has Free Will is impossible. Jack does not have Free Will. He can do what he is ordered to do in any way that he might see fit, perhaps, but he cannot resist obeying the commands.

Ryan sacrifices his own agency for no reason. As a man, and as a leader, Ryan’s refusal to at least inform Jack of his condition compromises his own life. Encouraging individuals to have their own agency is a legitimate argument and moral standpoint, but with it comes the responsibility to defend one’s own agency, and own life.


Plato has made an extensive list of arguments in terms of will and justice and whatnot, and instead of attempting to gloss all of them here instead I will present an argument that is not Plato’s but instead is my own argument with some, but not all, of Plato’s arguments in mind.

A Platonic-ish argument: “We are incapable of doing what we believe is wrong.”

I distance Plato so much from this argument because I want to explain my problems with it in its own terms, instead of treading through all of what Plato has said. First, it is important to point out that this argument is poorly designed, poorly defined, and poorly conceived. It is, in essence, an argument that is either true or false depending on your fancy. If it is true, it relies on a self-correcting system.

How could it be true? I actually have argued a very similar claim, however in such a way that includes my penchant for nuance. I phrase it as such:

“All individuals act in regard to their own perceived best interest.”

This is a self-correcting system, and I believe that because of this it can be regarded as a true but nearly useless statement. I only use it as a reaction against other claims that I think are even worse.

Why is this a self-correcting system? Because it can emphasize different parts of the clauses at different times. What if someone does something that they believe will hurt themselves? Well, if they have decided to hurt themselves, then they believe that that is the best course of action. What if someone tries to help someone but hurts them instead? Well, they acted in what they perceived to be the best course of action—but they were wrong.

The problem with this sentiment, and this statement, is that if you understand the way in which it’s true, if it is true it can’t be shown to be wrong. If it can’t be wrong, that technically makes it a belief—and that is due largely to its phrasing, and simply being too general. (Perhaps you could try to argue against it on empirical grounds—suppose you include reflexes in your definition of human behavior. If you do, then you can hardly say when someone’s leg kicks after you hit the knee with a rubber mallet is a result of their “perceived best interest.” Suppose you hit someone’s knee and they precede to kick a child in the face. That would not exactly support Plato’s claim either.) In any case, you cannot gloss human nature so quickly and do justice to the complexity of human relationships and human choices.

Now, does this argument support or deny Free Will? As always, that largely depends on how you define Free Will. My version might at first seem to support Free Will, whereas Plato’s might seem to go against it—even though both essentially argue the same thing.

Desmond’s choice:

Desmond’s friend Al has a magical rock that will make anyone obey his will. Desmond believes that Al using the rock to control others is a morally wrong choice, because it interferes with their Free Will. Yet, Al argues that his choice is incredibly just, since he seeks to end all war.

The problem with this example, borderlining on some problems with “Ryan’s Choice” is that it oversimplifies human action. The “magical rock” in this example is very poorly conceived. I would say that if Al really was a “good” person and only used to the rock to end certain forms of conflict, then how “wrong” really would that be? Desmond’s choice here comes very close to Regina’s choice that I will discuss later on, both positions of which I disagree with for the same reason that I disagree with Ryan’s choice. Free Will may very well be the case, but if it is, then you too have it—and you too should express it. And if you believe that certain forms of violence are wrong (the third Crusade, for instance) then to NOT use the tools available to you to end that conflict, then you sacrifice your own free will for absolutely nothing.

Going back to the “magic” of Al’s “magical rock”—does the rock tell people when their hearts beat? When to breathe? At least the command word in Ryan’s choice was contingent on a command word, and even then we have to presume there was a fair amount of interpretation. Here, the magic of Al’s rock presume absolute control of the human mind and human body. Quite frankly, too much occurs in the human body to presume that absolute control can be expressed verbally. How many muscles must move, how much blood must move, how many times must the heart beat to simply open and close a hand? And if not all of those processes are taken over by the magical rock, if there is room left for interpretation, then how absolute is this supposed control? Is there not still the very “will” that was supposed to be taken? And is there not even, then, still the propensity and capacity for violence?

Now, let’s consider Regina’s choice, as she recounts:

“The Holy Spirit took me into an experience, which I call a "gratitude experience." In this experience, Holy Spirit took me to see war. As I looked on the war with the Holy Spirit, I saw all of the horrors of modern war. There were horrible injuries, death, loneliness, fear, suffering, destruction, lack of life sustaining necessities like food, water, electricity... I heard wailing, and I smelled fear.

But then, Holy Spirit seemed to take me beyond the war to a place or dimension that was behind it. This place was formless, so there was nothing to see with eyes, but yet it could be seen (or known) with the mind. And what I saw there is what I call Us. It was one formless thing of movement...and it was Us as one.

I remember what I felt when I saw this formless movement. It was a feeling that defies description, because it was gratitude beyond any gratitude I have ever felt in the world. I feel certain it was Holy Spirit's gratitude that I felt. And Holy Spirit was grateful for the perfect freedom that this thing was. To Holy Spirit, war was not the suffering I seemed to see before we passed through the veil. War was a symbol of Our perfect and unlimited freedom. Holy Spirit was grateful...joyously and celebratingly grateful...that We are perfectly unlimited in Our freedom. And war was a perfect symbol of that unlimitedness.

I'll never forget this experience, because the war at this point became meaningless. All I cared about was that freedom. Freedom without limits was the most magnificent gift imaginable, and to witness it with such love was incredible. I wouldn't have changed a single thing about the war that I had seen, because I would never have wanted to interfere with the gift of perfect unlimited freedom.”

Before I respond or comment to Regina’s choice here, the argument that she “wouldn't have changed a single thing about the war that I had seen, because [she] would never have wanted to interfere with the gift of perfect unlimited freedom” which is the major claim I question, I will further contextualize Regina’s choice by positing further arguments by her:

Regina argues:

““We have free will and our actions in every moment are pre-determined.” "Determinism," or pre-destiny, comes from our absolute and perfectly unlimited free will.

We are not separate beings, but one creative mind experiencing itself as separate beings. Free will is not expressed at the level of experience (separation), but at the level of creation (oneness).

Our oneness is like a child playing with several dolls. The child makes all of the decisions. If the child decides to play war, the dolls have no choice about being played with in that way. If the child decides to act out a romance, the dolls are played with in that way. If a car accident and heroic doctor are imagined, that is the game that is played. If the doll had awareness, the doll would experience determinism or destiny. Yet the doll's experience is not separate from the child's Imagination or decisions.

At the level of child (or oneness), there is complete free will. At the level of doll (conscious awareness or point of experience), there is only experiencing what has been determined. But since we are really the child, it IS free will. Determinism is only the experience.”

The “dolls and children” argument is an interesting one, yet it relies on an appeal to some sort of collective consciousness that I have difficulty accepting, especially when it results in the sentiments expressed that “I wouldn’t change that war” in the gratitude experience. That aside, I can see how Regina’s arguments could work, if you take it from a vaguely solipsist point of view.

It is true that our minds mediate our experience, that what we perceive as “reality” is in fact our mind recreating our events and creating the façade of narrative based on available stimulus. From this, one might make the argument that what we experience is a mixture of determinism and free will. Our brain, if it is true that it shapes how we perceive the world, would indeed dictate through its free will a world that we would perceive as determinism.

Yet, I dislike the sense of agency withdrawal that Regina seems to accept as an entailment of this conceptualization. Because our minds shape our experience, or any other form of oneness, does not imply to me that we should “not interfere” with the “unlimited free will” of our minds. Even if this scenario is true, there is no reason not to express our desires and actions as based on the conscious part of our mind and brains.

To accept that there may very well be a relationship between what we perceive and our sense of “free will” and “determinism” is not to leave us feeling as though someone has just uttered the secret keyphrase, that we are now helpless and without agency. In truth, the arguments only really become relevant when pitted with agency, and our capacity to interact with the world.

I am more compelled to agree with the sentiment of a different conception of Free Will: one that advocates agency instead of an “objectivity” unmediated by criticism of the mind.

As Andy argues:

“For instance, some say you can't fly by flapping your wings, so they don't have their version of "Free Will". My idea is that, although of course we have a course we follow which is more or less set by our chain of life choices made previously...we can, if we desire to strongly enough, change that course...WITHIN the LIMITS of ENVIRONMENT, HISTORY, ABILITY, and PHYSICS. Most of us have shaped our course into a comfortable cruise lane, and see no need to make drastic changes...but that does not preclude our doing so.

In my case, for instance, I had a very accomplished and successful and enjoyable career in Aircraft Electronics for 26 years...then in '96 I became disenchanted with the Ethical environs of the Industry...and stopped working in it. It was a huge life-altering decision, and not demanded or determined by anything in my previous history, other than my Ethical decision to do it. It was, in fact, economically and realistically VERY difficult to make –and carry out- that decision.

I call that "Free Will".”

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

On Free Will

On Free Will

The thought that man might not have free will can at first be terrifying. It makes it seem as though they are strapped to a table, unable to move, to speak, to do anything.

Yet, this is not what people always mean when they say man does not have free will. Instead, they might take issue with the idea of what could be regarded as “determinism.” Under a deterministic model, you can do or say anything you would otherwise do. In this sense, the world operating under a deterministic model and the world operating with “Free Will” are synonymous, and the distinction between them is meaningless. Neither can be defended or supported without relying on some sort of post-hoc or ad-hoc change, in a way similar to the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. “I chose to do that” or “You were going to do that anyway.” How much of a difference does it really make if either is true?

Some who fear a deterministic model of the universe characterize their worries in terms of a lack of what I will call “specialness” in human action. An argument might go like this):

“There are no brilliant thoughts or ideas; all thoughts and ideas are determined. Without independence, all you are left with the necessary effects of antecedent causes… In fact a thought and a non-thought are exactly the same thing: the necessary effects of antecedent causes.”

Does a deterministic model mean that there are "no brilliant thoughts or ideas"? No. After all, not every creature on the earth can think the same thoughts. That the capacity think is determined by antecedent causes does not mean that all thoughts are the same. Quite the contrary, thoughts are just that: thoughts. That is not a “good” or a “bad” thing, it is merely a state of affairs. It is only a problem if you need to have your existance, or your thoughts, or your actions, "validated" or “made special” by some hypothetical otherworldly or supernatural being, something outside the control of human agency.

What an opponent of determinism doesn't want to believe is that *they* are the result of antecedent causes. Their concerns of “Man” having or having not a “determined” life is peripheral. They assert “independence” and their unique “specialness”. The specialness, that, it seems, is only possible when it is given by something outside their direct control. Other kinds of specialness, the love of friends or family or pets, a sense of purpose in their real lives, or other forms of value are irrelevent, somehow outside the imaginative prospects of someone if they don’t have “free will.”

Certainly a sense of worry might arise that “love” for instance is anything other than transcendant, or near-supernatural. To assert that love is anything other than the result of some transcendant “choice” appears to be blasphemy. “No matter what, X will love you.”

However, how important really is that sense of love? “I love you. God has told me that I have to hide you, starve you, and eventually kill you. So that is what I will do. No matter what, I’m sure you’ll love me, and I’ll love you, though.” What is more important to you—the fact that this person loves you, or the fact that they’re going to starve you to death for no reason other than because “God told me to.” If they really loved you, they might let you exercise some of that “free will” so often argued about and get the hell out of there.

What are the limits of “Free Will”? If you were shot right now, could a moment later could you "choose" to have not been shot? No. If you were in a car crash, could you "will" your car back into rightful being? No. If you can't do those things, what really does "free will" mean? After all, doesn't "free" mean "without restrictions?" And if I have no restrictions, shouldn't I be able to do *anything I want?*

People don't have absolute free will. There are antecedent factors in all “choices” and antecedent causes to all events on the level of daily events (that is, ignoring for now certain questions of cause in theoretical physics).

My capacities for language are governed by the gramatical patterns established in my brain, and my knowledge of what qualifies as a meaningful sentence and meaningful words. As such, language has “antecedent causes.” If my brain was damaged, I would lack the gramattical capacities to write meaningful sentence. I would not be able to choose to write a meaningful sentence. If I am unable to have absolute control over how I express my thoughts, how relevant is the question of whether I even have free thoughts or free will at all?

Does this mean I don't have free will? Well, there is such an immensity of stimuli, and so many factors that go into any given decision I make, that due to the incapacity of my own or anyone's mind to understand the complexity of my decisions, you may as well call that free will. Free will need not be absolute or transcendent to still be meaningful. Calling what I choose to do “my choice” is still more efficacious than always going into the milieu of antecedent causes. Although this may be misleading, my choice to regard writing this sentence, for instance, as an example of choice does not therefore imply a belief in transcendant, or rather, supernatural choice as the result of “Free Will.”

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Wheat from the Chaff

It is easy to play the Bible Game. That’s what I call it. The Bible Game, as I call it, is the game that strong/mean atheists and “fundamentalists” / evangelical Christians play amongst each other. Google and wikipedia can make anyone a Bible expert in a relatively short amount of time. Like all easy games, The Bible Game bores me for this reason.

Yet, the Bible does not bore me. It is not easy to find passages that are moving, entertaining, or whatnot. The Bible is not a novel, it is a library. You do not go to a library and start at “A” and start reading there, nor do you go to whatever is at the far left because that’s “the beginning.” You could, of course, and certainly you’d have an amazing reading list! You’d certainly read all the classics that the library has to offer! But what happens when you reach the romance section [if romance novels are your thing, then insert a different genre, fantasy, or Joyce]? Do you read all the pulp that’s ever been printed? You could, but most people don’t read what doesn’t seem interesting. Why do so with the Bible?

Like those who play the Bible Game, I can go through and find all the parts of the Bible that conveniently fit my arguments [be they pro or con] and skip the rest, or I could use the Bible as a library: something to be used when you need it. I for one don’t need The Bible every day. Weeks or months go by without ever feeling compelled to glance inside. As far as libraries go, it is dramatically incomplete. I can tell you, it didn’t help me at all as a Senior in high school trying to learn Java. It can’t teach me to play the drums. It can’t teach me to operate machines. But then, a library can’t *really* do a lot of these things either. The only way I can learn is by practice, by experimentation, by making mistakes, and learning from people who already know how to do these things. Some books can help in understanding the basic structure, the names of certain apparatus—and it is these books that the Bible, as a library, lacks.

What does the Bible really even say? There are plenty of boring passages. But there are also poems, and stories, and metaphors. But in terms of a message, what does the Bible really talk about? Information systems and social structures.

Take the parable of the sower. “There went out a sower to sow, and it came to pass, as he sowed, some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up. And some fell on stony ground, where it had not much earth; and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth: But when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit. And other fell on good ground, and did yield fruit that sprang up and increased; and brought forth, some thirty, and some sixty, and some an hundred.” That’s the introduction to the heart and soul of the parable, and although discussion of it occupies almost the entirity of chapter 4 of Mark, most of the discussion only goes to clarify the meaning of the metaphor. More time is spent explaining the metaphor as is spent stating the metaphor. Yet, in the end, the metaphor becomes much clearer than it would have been otherwise. Yet, the explanation is only given to those who are already devote followers. As Jesus eventually explains, “The sower soweth the word.”

The sower, then, is the disseminator of information. The field is the audience. If there’s a “stony ground” then the seed has less to work with and may die. On the road, the seed has hardly fallen before “Satan” takes it away. When there are thorns, the seed is choked out. Christians are quick to give this parable Christianity-specific explanations, as though Mark and Jesus needed to rationalize or explain their religion instead of just stating it. Some might claim, “This parable highlights the reason it took three decades to write the gospel, it needed time to grow.” Although cute, to anyone interested in understanding the gospels, the three decades really just aren’t all that important. Ironically, anyone trying to quickly rationalize the meaning of it becomes indicative of the “stony ground” that Jesus speaks of. Unless you give the parable some room to work in, the meaning is quickly squandered.

Many can sympathize with the message of the parable. If you have some valuable product, and you want to spread it, even if it is a good product it’s not necessarrily going to do well. Imagine you actually are a sower. If you are a good sower, you will want to maximize the benefits from your seed, and will want to focus on good ground. Why spread it where it won’t grow? And if your land is rocky, then you may very well need to clear the rocks before you can sow your seed. That is, even with a good product, you might need to work beforehand to prepare for your product. There are no real maxims that completely describe the meaning conveyed by this parable. It’s a simple yet effective metaphor, and quite frankly, one that many Biblical “scholar” game players seem to ignore.

There is nothing so astounding as the constant importance of the Bible being the immaculate word of God, yet the parables it sows being so completely ignored by so much of the modern “fundamentalist” movement. How can fundamentalism be so fundamental if they ignore so much of the Bible? Why do people argue so much about Genesis and evolution? Because that’s the part that’s at the very beginning. You know, the part that people read before they hit one of the boring parts. (Deuteronomy? Screw that, I’m gonna turn on the game!)

I am of the sincere opinion that if people who profess belief (or for that matter disbelief) in the Bible actually read the Bible more often on its own terms and not on theirs, they would have a much better job defending it or refuting it. (Of course, if it was so easy, why bother?)

Why are parables effective? Because they characterize. They demand information not be stripped out of reality, even if they are a metaphor. A single parable can complicate so many “straightforward” answers. After all, “omnipotence” comes up quite frequently in non-theistic discussions. And among theistic discussions, I understand that “the correct translation” of the Bible is frequently discussed as well. After all, if God can do anything, why can he not communicate in a more universal manner?

Instead of referring back to Genesis for explanations (I think that using Genesis to explain just about anything that isn’t about Genesis is dumb. Give to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s.) maybe one should try understanding God from what he does, rather than what someone somewhere said about God. Jesus spreads the faith by communicating. No telepathy here. Jesus doesn’t even use telekinesis—he commands the storms to abate, and they listen. After all, this is Jesus we’re talking about. He’s just like that.

Is God omnipotent? If Christianity is so great, why do people reject it? A great amount can be explained by the parable of the sower. Just as seed will not take root in rocky ground, so will Christianity not take place with someone with no interest in sociality. See: a simple explanation as to why so many Scientists deny Christianity. And not even in a way that diminishes the value of either science or Christianity. They live in rocky ground. Or, suppose you’re selling an original operating system. Thorns (Microsoft) may very well choke you.

I think atheists, too, could do well to give Christianity credit for what it accomplishes when it’s due. In “The Demon-Haunted World” Carl Sagan gives faith-based prayer the benefit of the doubt when it comes to psychological-pain conditions, for increasing the life-span of people with certain types of cancer, etc. Why? Because prayer can relieve stress and pain, and when one doesn’t have stress or pain different chemicals operate in the brain and in different parts of the body. A sad, hopeless person lives longer than a happy person with hope as a scientific fact, and a better life too.

When Christianity is effective at providing hope and relieving stress, it is worth it. But, when it misleads, when people bring drastically sick people to a fake faith healer, real damage is done and real pain is felt. Twain argued that the benefits of Christianity, in providing hope and relieving stress probably ends up keeping people healthier than all the deaths suffered by the extermists who bring the dramatically sick to faith-based healers. Yet, I don’t see why it is so for good and just people to do both—to recognize that, if speech, if talking was good enough for Jesus, why is medicine not good enough for man or woman?

Jesus spoke. He did not telepathically communicate. What is meant by omnipotence? Evidently, omnipotence includes the necessity for language. If that’s the case, then any definition of omnipotence that isn’t capable of including it simply does not describe the God and Jesus of the gospel of Mark.

I can appreciate a good metaphor when it’s a good metaphor, and I can hardly be said to be an unusually Christian person. In addition to having to talk to the storm to calm it (as also happens in chapter 4 of Mark), it took four gospels to convey the story of Jesus. Four differing accounts. Not every parable works for every man, and you cannot summarize everything in the world with a single parable. Metaphor is woven into our very language. To expect otherwise is to stand in a stony field and expect fruit to spring from the ground. What is this, Exodus?

Friday, January 11, 2008

Phenomenology and Existentialism

A person exists and can express being; can manifest the phenomenon of being through language. Being, as Alan (online) argues in a gloss of existentialism and phenomenology, what distinguishes man from a rock. A rock exists. A man exists, but has a sense of self, and interiority. To Alan, the phenomenon of being and life is, at its forefront, a miracle. A miracle, that is, being something that lacks explanation.

Although all phenomenon appear miraculous at first, I choose to investigate and examine phenomenon to see if they can be replicated. Although some have argued the mind naturally forms order out of pattern, I do not believe there is anything inherent in this process, but rather a derivation from the choice to live and interact in the world, and the phenomenon of living.

What is there must be accepted so far as I can distinguish what is real for what is real, and what is real from what is unreal. From this acceptance, a belief, I choose to understand the phenomenon and understand its cause.

Some choose, at least in theory, to reject this choice and instead to argue that instead of believing that what seems to be real is indeed real, that nothing is real at all. Yet, such people tend to nevertheless live their lives, and to interact in the world, so that as such I do not think that they really believe what they claim to believe.

There is much in this world that I do not at first understand. Many people do not understand many things; some of them choose to regard all that they do not understand as miraculous. To an extent, there is nothing wrong with this. They choose to interact with only that which they believe they understand. Yet, I believe that much of that which others may find miraculous lack answers that have been found yet, not answers altogether.

Andy adds, “I just don't understand the argument that nothing 'really' exists...if we're able to read about someone else being able to formulate that argument, there has to be SOMEONE there to formulate it, no?”

Yet that presupposes our worlds operate in a way that "makes sense." Consider your dreams. Have you ever had a dream, and after waking you didn't feel like you understood where it or parts of it came from? You can choose to believe that the dream really is a sign of the divine (many Biblical prophets were first and foremost dream interpreters). Or, you can consider that nothing is real--that what experience is itself just a dream, and we will wake up to something else, and perhaps even that will be something to be waken up from.

Or you can consider where, in this world and this experience, it makes the most sense for the dream to have come from: the brain, the human mind, and personal experience.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Atheist FAQ

The following is an “Atheist FAQ” I’m modifying from a form on: . I have removed most of the entries I find either less compelling or redundant and revised or shortened the ones that I kept, and added some of my own.

“I have proven God exists! Now that means that [X/Y/Z] that it says in the Bible/Qur’an is also true!”

No. Even if you prove God exists, that does not mean that you have also proven that the Bible/Qur’an is the expression of that God’s will.

“God is true because the Bible says so!”

This is a circular argument; it usually relies on the argument, “The Bible is true because God says so.” X is true because Y is true; Y is true because X is true.

“[X/Y/Z] argument is true because it says so in the Bible/Qur’an!”

Bottom line: No. This might be an effective argument in your local church group, but if you want your argument to be compelling at all to someone who is not in your denomination, this isn’t good enough. If you don’t want your argument to be compelling, why are you making it? Who are you talking to?

To make an argument like this to someone who does not believe in your denomination, you must first demonstrate that *every* claim in the Bible/Qur’an is true. Otherwise, you’re just wasting your own time.

"God must by definition exist."

Things do not exist merely because they have been defined to do so.

"I managed to prove that God exists from [X/Y/Z]."

Before you begin your proof, you must come up with a clear and precise definition of exactly what you mean by "God." A logical proof requires a clear definition of that which you are trying to prove.

Different religions have very different ideas of what 'God' is like; they even disagree about basic issues such as how many gods there are, whether they're male or female, and so on. An atheist's idea of what people mean by the word 'God' may be very different from your own views.

Reality is not decided by logic, logic is decided from reality. Even if you could rigorously prove that God exists, it could be that your logical rules do not always preserve truth--that your system of logic is flawed. It could be that your premises are wrong. It could even be that reality is not logically consistent. In the end, the only way to find out what is really going on is to observe it. Logic can merely give you an idea where or how to look.

Logic is a useful tool for analyzing data and inferring what is going on; but if logic and reality disagree, reality wins.

A clear definition of 'God,' plus some objective and compelling supporting evidence, would be enough to convince many atheists.
The evidence must be objective, though; of other people's religious experiences isn't good enough. And strong, compelling evidence is required, because the existence of God is an extraordinary claim--and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

"Atheism (or science) is still just an act of faith, like religion is."

First, it's not entirely clear that skeptical/weak/nice atheism is something one actually believes in.

Second, it is necessary to adopt a number of core beliefs or assumptions to make some sort of sense out of the sensory data we experience. Most atheists try to adopt as few core beliefs as possible; and even those are subject to questioning if experience throws them into doubt.

Science has a number of core assumptions. For example, it is generally assumed that the laws of physics are the same for all observers (or at least, all observers in inertial frames). These are the sort of core assumptions atheists make. If such basic ideas are called "acts of faith," then almost everything we know must be said to be based on acts of faith, and the term loses its meaning.

Faith is more often used to refer to complete, certain belief in something. According to such a definition, atheism and science are certainly not acts of faith. Of course, individual atheists or scientists can be as dogmatic as religious followers when claiming that something is "certain." This is not a general tendency, however; there are many atheists who would be reluctant to state with certainty that the universe exists.

Faith is also used to refer to belief without supporting evidence or proof. Skeptical atheism certainly doesn't fit that definition, as skeptical/weak/nice atheism has no beliefs. Strong/mean atheism is closer, but still doesn't really match, as even the most dogmatic atheist will tend to refer to experimental data (or the lack of it) when asserting that God does not exist.

"If atheism is not religious, surely it's anti-religious?"

No. Atheist attitudes towards theists and religions cover a broad spectrum.

It is an unfortunate human tendency to label everyone as either "for" or "against," "friend" or "enemy." The truth is not so clear-cut.
Atheism is the position that runs logically counter to theism; in that sense, it can be said to be "anti-religion." However, when religious believers speak of atheists being "anti-religious" they usually mean that the atheists have some sort of antipathy or hatred towards theists.

"How do atheists differ from religious people?"

Presuming you meant, "How do people differ from theists?" They don't believe in God. That's all there is to it. If you really meant the question as is, then technically there's no inherent difference whatsoever.

"Aren't atheists less moral than religious people?"

No. Only if you define morality as “acknowledging and obeying God” can this inherently be the case. An atheist might be less moral than others, but atheists and atheism is not less moral. In first world countries, atheists tend to be more moral than others.

Usually when one talks of morality, one talks of what is acceptable ("right") and unacceptable ("wrong") behavior. To understand these terms, and to act according to these terms, does not require a belief in any God(s).

One moral system, similar to that expressed by John Stuart Mill, runs as follows:

“Humans are social animals, and to be maximally successful they must cooperate with each other. This is a good enough reason to discourage most atheists from "anti-social" or "immoral" behavior, purely for the purposes of self-preservation.”

There are countless moral systems that do not rely on a belief in God.

"Is there such a thing as atheist morality?"

If you mean "Is there such a thing as morality for atheists?," then the answer is yes, as explained above.

If you mean "Does atheism have a characteristic moral code?," then the answer is no. Atheism by itself does not imply anything much about how a person will behave. Many atheists follow many of the same "moral rules" as theists, but for different reasons. Atheists view morality as something created by humans, according to the way humans feel the world 'ought' to work, rather than seeing it as a set of rules decreed by a supernatural being.

"But surely discussing God in this way is a tacit admission that he exists?"

No. I can talk about Frodo Baggins too, that doesn’t mean he exists.

"Isn't the whole of life completely pointless to an atheist?"

No. Even if it did, that wouldn’t mean that any God(s) exist. Things do not exist because it is convenient for them to exist.

"[X/Y/Z] aren't real believers!"

This is rather like the No True Scotsman fallacy.

“No True Scotsman..."

Suppose I assert that no Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge. You counter this by pointing out that your friend Angus likes sugar with his porridge. I then say "Ah, yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.

This is an example of an ad hoc change being used to shore up an assertion, combined with an attempt to shift the meaning of the words used original assertion; you might call it a combination of fallacies.”

What makes a real believer? There are so many One True Religions it's hard to tell. Look at Christianity: there are many competing groups, all convinced that they are the only true Christians. Sometimes they even fight and kill each other. How is an atheist supposed to decide who's a real Christian and who isn't, when even the major Christian churches like the Catholic Church and the Church of England can't decide amongst themselves?

In the end, most atheists take a pragmatic view, and decide that anyone who calls himself a Christian, and uses Christian belief or dogma to justify his actions, should be considered a Christian.

Maybe some of those Christians are just perverting Christian teaching for their own ends. But, if the Bible can be so readily used to support un-Christian acts, how effective is it as a moral code? If the Bible is the word of God, why couldn't he have made it less easy to misinterpret? And how do you know that your beliefs aren't a perversion of what your God intended?

If there is no single unambiguous interpretation of the Bible, then why should an atheist take one interpretation over another just on your say-so? If someone claims that he believes in Jesus and that he murdered others because Jesus and the Bible told him to do so, we must call him a Christian.

Thanks for reading this FAQ, I hope it has clarified the answers if you had any of these questions.