Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

January 27, 2009

Ancestor Worship

Filed under: religion — Tags: — codesmithy @ 9:38 am

One of peculiarities of creationists I’ve been thinking about is their seeming dislike for the modern.  For example, in a debate between Dinesh D’Souza and Dan Barker, D’Souza states his aim to ignore the “new” atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, etc.) and instead address the arguments of  people like Russell, Nietzsche, Freud, and Heidegger.  Why Marx doesn’t make the list I don’t know.  He calls the modern atheists the “Lilliputian shadows of the great atheists of the 19th century and early 20th century” ( about 5 minutes in).

Ben Stein, in his movie “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” also complains about all the things Darwin didn’t know as if new facts undermined rather than strengthened Darwin’s central thesis of evolution by natural selection.

Admittedly, one shouldn’t draw a conclusion by only two data points, but the phenomenon is just so odd.  Even if we were to grant that Russell was a better philosopher than Dennett.  Dennett doesn’t stand in Russell’s shadow; Dennett stands on Russell’s shoulders.  It takes a lot less work to take a good idea that you’ve come across than to come up with it yourself.  Think about all the facts about the world we just know now, like the laws of thermodynamics, atomic theory, Maxwell’s equations, etc.  Let’s do a thought experiment.  Let’s say I found myself on a deserted island at a young age (5-ish) in a land of abundance so I didn’t have to spend my life struggling for existence but rather could easily care for myself.  But let’s also say, I was devoid of human contact and all social artifices.  As such, with nothing else to do, I devoted the rest of my long life (100 years?) to just contemplate the universe and the world around me.  I think it is safe to say, at the end of that life, I would be lucky to have the understanding I had at merely the age of 15 in my current life.

I am not alone in this assessment.  In the Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing edited by Dawkins there is excerpt from Lancelot Hogben’s Mathematics for the Million that maybe puts it better:

In the course of the adventure upon which we are going to embark we shall constantly find that we have no difficulty in answering questions which tortured the minds of very clever mathematicians in ancient times.  This is not because you and I are very clever people.  It is because we inherit a social culture which has suffered the impact of material forces foreign to the intellectual life of the ancient world.

The difference between 19th century and the 21st maybe isn’t as drastic as the ancient and modern, but the 20th century was a time of great scientific progress and technological development.  That is to say, no matter how sagacious we consider Russell, Nietzsche, or Freud to be, the arguments we should consider are their modern incarnations because no matter how brilliant or clever they were, they may have made some mistakes which modern thinkers can correct.  This goes along with the added benefit that the modern thinkers are still alive, so they can respond directly to criticisms instead of leaving us conjecturing about how the dead might respond to a particular argument were they still alive.

The part that is nagging me is that maybe there is actually something deeper going on here.  For example, it is a common canard of creationists to claim that mutations cannot add “information” to the genetic code (i.e. they ignore duplication and its subsequent modification).  But, what if they actually believe progress is impossible.  Let’s say, they really believe creations of every type can only devolve and decay from their original inception.  Russell or Nietzsche were the geniuses who introduced atheism in its purest and strongest form and the “new” atheists can only muster cheap imitations, and knock-offs of these great atheists’ thoughts.

This point of view is absurd for the reasons I outlined above, but it is completely in keeping with ancestor worship; father always knew best, and so did his father, and on and on up the chain.  I guess this isn’t so surprising if they also consider the bible the best book ever written.  However, it is always these types of underlying assumptions that baffle me because the arguments that people like D’Souza present are like waves on top of this deeper idealogical ocean.  I fully admit I might be jumping to conclusions, but there must be some explanation for this behavior.  Although, it might be just a simple as they don’t want to bother reading anything new.

January 26, 2009

Jerry Coyne and Secular Reasoning

Filed under: politics, religion, science — Tags: — codesmithy @ 8:34 am

Jerry Coyne has a new book out called “Why Evolution Is True.”  He also wrote a piece in The New Republic called “Seeing and Believing” where he examines the tensions between science and religion particularly around teaching evolution.  Mr. Coyne examines two books that try to reconcile the apparent incompatibility and thoroughly demolishes them.  In particular, he destroys the argument that science and religion are compatible because there are Christian scientists.  As he puts it:

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers. ) 

Coyne does a good job pointing out the incompatibility of liberal theologians and various religious apologizers.  He defends Dawkins attacking mainstream religious belief in “The God Delusion” because that is what people actually believe. As Coyne points out in the following video, 63% of Americans believe in angels, only 40% believe in evolution.

It is hard to debate religion with believers because they are keen to attack science where it is weakest (like first cause, the various physical constants of the universe, or uncertainty in quantum mechanics).  That isn’t to say these are particularly convincing arguments for a deity, but they do represent biggest gaps in current scientific understanding and therefore finding a role for a god there seems most plausible. Such gaps rely on ignorance and usually become more implausible over time.  For example, a virgin birth resulting in a production a male offspring seems more plausible when one knows nothing about chromosomes and the role of sperm in contributing the Y chromosomes, however, with modern genetic understanding such a scenario becomes less believable.  

Likewise, the apologist is hard pressed to defend the weakest aspect of their position, which is the internal consistency of their scripture.  They will twist language, deny plain meaning and arbitrarily pick and choose those parts which they find convenient to defend.  It is this process of picking and choosing, and attacking the language that makes apologetics so detestable; at least the fundamentalist is consistent in principle.

Coyne also points out in the video that simply trying to teach evolution better won’t work.  It is not the strength of the case for the evolution that is the problem, it is that people reject it because it conflicts with their religious beliefs (I find it is dishonest to say that it doesn’t).  Therefore, in order to get people to accept evolution, religious influence has to be rolled back.  

Evolution is a litmus test for a secular society.  If people are rejecting evolution because it conflicts with their previously held superstition, then there is no reasoning with them and any hope for consensus is lost.  In addition, there is no telling what other issues they will dogmatically and stubbornly cling to in the face of contradictory evidence.  A person who is unwilling to change his/her beliefs, especially in the face of overwhelming physical evidence, is a person who does not truly believe in the freedom of belief.  If one is looking for the seed of totalitarianism, there it is and woe for those of us who want to use reason to build a better world.

January 21, 2009

A Perfect Metaphor

Filed under: politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 9:00 am

Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States yesterday.  Still, there were reminders of the Bush legacy as Chief Justice Roberts managed to bungle the oath of office

Several news commentators expressed their disgust for people in the crowd who had the audacity to boo and taunt the 43rd.  I think Bush deserves no more respect than he has shown.  There are those who would say we should act like bigger people and be gracious in victory.  However, it is that very graciousness that would allow Bush to whitewash the past.  If the public does not repudiate Bush then who will?  The lapdog press?  No, it has been and will continue to be the people.  If Chris Matthews doesn’t like it then it is because his nose is too brown and must have come to the conclusion that everything now smells like roses. 

It is beyond a reasonable doubt that Bush has committed war crimes.  The United States has water-boarded prisoners, Bush has admitted to authorizing it.  

Call me cynical, but it is not clear whether Obama will prosecute.  Failure to prosecute Bush for his crimes would demonstrate a supreme lack of principle and moral courage on the part of the Obama administration.  He may deem it impractical or too alienating, but the simple truth of the matter is that Barack Obama would find himself face to face with injustice, with the power to stand for what is right, and would turn his back like so many others.  Denying justice would be an action of a small man.  Yes, it might grease the wheels with some Republicans to help pass a stimulus package, but such victories are fleeting, and such compromises seldom last.  It is impossible honor an agreement between two parties without mutual respect, and likewise, it is impossible to respect a man who compromises his principles.

But regardless of what Obama does, I will continue to call for justice.  Unlike Obama, I cannot drag George W. Bush into a court of law.  All I can do is voice my disapproval, and emphatically point out that George W. Bush never represented me or what I believe in.

January 14, 2009

Looking for Help from the Beyond

Filed under: religion, science — codesmithy @ 9:37 am

There have been a few comments that have echoed the sentiment that was relayed by “Blogster”

remember though.. look not to man for salvation, but only to God, the only way to true life

This is in response to a post where I expressed my desperation at trying to have a more rational discussion about energy.  “Blogster” makes it clear that by god he means Jehovah with all of his holy trinity mystery.  There are a few points that I would like to make about this sentiment.  First, in order to look to Jesus for salvation, you are invariably looking to man.  Jesus didn’t write the gospels, men did, and decades after his supposed death and resurrection.  The old testament holds up no better, for example, there is documentary evidence that the first five book of the bible are not, in fact, written by Moses, as the bible itself claims.  This is combined with the fact that the bible has been altered many times through its history as Bart D. Ehrman explores in his book Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. Even if we accept the fact that the book was divinely inspired, which I personally don’t, we must accept the fact that the message itself has been filtered through numerous men who didn’t necessarily believe that altering scripture was wrong.  Origen, an early Christian, lodges this complaint

The differences among the manuscripts have become great, either through the negligence of some copyists or through the perverse audacity of others; they either neglect to check over what they have transcribed, or, in the process of checking, they make additions or deletions as they please. -Misquoting Jesus pg. 52

Secondly, there is an issue of what constitutes a true life.  True life is assumed to be eternal.  Unfortunately, eternal life would be hell for any intelligent being with a working memory.  Think about it, you could do everything you ever wanted to do a million times, and still have an eternity to look forward to.  Eternal life ensures an eternity of boredom.  Now, it could be the case that you could have an eternal life and never even know it.  For example, if you had a form of amnesia and you always forgot the events of the previous day, and thus every day of your eternal life was a blank slate.  It would make eternity tolerable, but utterly meaningless as you repeated the same actions over and over and over again without realizing it.  But, even these scenarios aren’t the ones the Christians promise us.  They promise us a totalitarian existence where every moment of eternity is spent praising the father, son, or holy spirit.  Where you live in constant fear of being convicted of thought crimes, yet you sing about the leader’s love for you.  As you endure your existence, there are dungeons where people are being maliciously and eternally tortured for exercising the free will this god gave them and could have predicted their choices.  This is the system of justice the Christian’s “loving” god supposedly set up.  Luckily, there isn’t any credible evidence for it.  Instead of focusing on the Christian “true life,” which seems to me to be tedious or pointless all the while being self-contradictory, I’ll focus on the real one I’m currently experiencing.

As such, I’m not interested in eternal salvation.  I’m worried about salvation in this life.  Salvation in this context means “a means of preserving from harm or unpleasantness.”  I think the best way of doing this is to look to science.  I would fully expect “Blogster” to call this looking to man for salvation, but I don’t see it that way.  Atomic theory, the theory of evolution, the theory of gravity aren’t true because we want them to be true, they are true because they are based on countless observations of the world and universe around us.  Any scientific hypothesis is subjected to a high level of scrutiny, skepticism and self-criticism.  Even when accepted, it is only done so conditionally.  Science is a human endeavor, but the observations are accessible to anyone or anything in principle and therefore are the epitome of not looking to man.  If you care to doubt the results of a particular experiment, then you are encouraged to try to repeat it.  If you find differences, then submit your findings to a scientific peer-reviewed journal.   

Science does not intrinsically tell us right from wrong, but it establishes a basis of knowledge and experience that a bronze-age text just can’t match.  When facing the challenges of our modern era, I would rather do the things that science tells us will help alleviate the problems as opposed to praying for answers or looking to ancient texts.  One can do both, so long as the latter does not compromise the former, otherwise it is a dereliction of duty to your fellow man and might have repercussions for generations to come.

January 13, 2009

The Enron Economy

Filed under: capitalism, economy, politics — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 8:49 am

Paul Krugman called our economy the Madoff economy back in December.  With all due respect to Mr. Krugman, I would tweak his description and call what we are experiencing the Enron economy.

60 Minutes ran an investigation into the price of oil.  It is not a coincidence that banks going south the same time the price of oil dropped.  

Oil has been the prime factor in the economy taking a turn for the worse.  Living in the suburbs, or exburbs became unaffordable because of transportation costs, rising food prices, and the rising prices of other basic necessities.  The root of all of these problems were oil prices.  Prices that were artificially inflated to feed speculative traders, and it was the productive economy that took the hit.  The direct parallel to this is what Enron was able to do to the California electricity market, not the Ponzi scheme Madoff set up.

The potential political ramifications were nearly as concerning.  Enron, whose former CEO and figurehead of the company had intimate ties with the Bush family, played a key part in getting Democratic governor Gray Davis recalled.  This resulted in the election of Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.  The parallel between this and “drill, baby, drill” is left for the reader.

Enron was not just the story of one company, it was the canary in the coal-mine.  The first one to go.  Enron did not just implode on its own, it took the law firms, accounting firms, government regulators and investment banks to look the other way.  However, in reality, the facts are so much more damning than that.  It isn’t that these institutions merely looked the other way, they were actively complicit in the fraud.  No, they didn’t know everything, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t know anything.

When history looks back on the first decade of this new century, I think they will label it the age of fraud and negligence.    The defining characteristic will be incompetence, a contempt for the rule of law, and the failure of institutions to properly check and balance other centers of power.  It is all born out of a ideology that abhors rules, and the very notion of democratic governance.  Now, we are all experiencing its benefits.

January 6, 2009

Coulter Gets Bumped

Filed under: media, politics — Tags: — codesmithy @ 8:58 am

Ann Coulter apperently got bumped from the Today Show.  Matt Drudge uses anonymous sources to then construct a liberal conspiracy at the network.  

NBC has been a popular target for the wingnut right.  They like to link NBC to MSNBC and claim the peacock has gone off the deep end.  

I do find it relatively ironic that the main figure catalyzing right wing ire is Keith Olbermann.  I mean, for all their clamoring about a liberal media, it is amazing what a tizzy they get into when one unapologetic, left-wing partisan is on the air waves.  The right wing motto seems to be: your liberal media, no liberals allowed.

However, if the news networks had a modicum of respectability, they wouldn’t give Coulter a platform.  Media Matters obtained an advance copy of her new book and found numerous misleading claims.  At some point, the people who are consistently and unapologetically wrong need to removed from public discourse.   Corporate news networks are perfectly capable of ignoring people or stories.  I mean, look at how they handled the Pentagon’s military analyst program.  Never even mentioned it.  I look forward to the day Coulter drifts into irrelevance.  The bump may indicate that day is closer at hand than I would have first surmised.

January 4, 2009

How would I feel about a half-human half-chimp hybrid?

Filed under: science — codesmithy @ 11:08 am

Richard Dawkins asks the question: “how would you feel about a half-human half-chimp hybrid?”

As a fan of H.P. Lovecraft, I would feel it would resemeble “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jerymn and His Family.”  Unlike Dawkins, I don’t think producing a hybrid would change everything, except for a extracting a feeling of general repulsion and a sense that science had gone too far.  

Evolution is already fact.  Those who deny it are under a delusion.  A hybrid wouldn’t change their views, it would merely convince them of the “evil” science has caused by producing an abomination.  It is because of this reactionary ferment that the life of the hybrid is destined to be cruel.  It would probably have the intellect of a child, who knows if it would have language, and it almost certainly would be sterile.  

Instead of working our way down the evolutionary web, I would rather work our ways up.  It might be too reminiscent of the movie “Gattaca” but I think we are reaching the age of designer genes.  Soon, the wealthy will be able to produce off-spring according to our own aethistics.  I don’t see how natural evolution could keep up as each generation of this enhanced race becomes more gifted in improving their own make-up.  We would hit an epoch and head into a future, that is to me, unimaginable.  I wonder how many of the current mysteries that plague us will seem obvious to them.  I wonder if they will find answers I would not even be able to comprehend.

In sum, I don’t think proving something about our past will change everything.  I think it will be changing the shape of the future.

January 1, 2009

Maher:Hitchens::Vietnam:Iraq

Filed under: history, politics — Tags: , , , — codesmithy @ 9:52 am

I happened across the above video recently where Maher was defending the Vietnam war and Hitchens was criticizing it.  It is a bizarro moment because in more recent discussions I have seen between Hitchens and Maher about the Iraq war, they are in the opposite position.  Hitchens is for the war; Maher is against.  It floors me particularly because the arguments are essentially the same for the war, the actors are different.

Maher, when supporting the war in Vietnam, feels the need to stop the advance of communism.  Hitchens, when supporting the war in Iraq, feels the need to stop the advance of Islamic extremism.  In both pro-arguments, the particular war is seen in the context of a larger war of civilizations.  

In truth, both wars were started for essentially imperial reasons.  Vietnam was, to a first approximation, an ideological war.  Iraq was, to a first approximation, a resource war.

The fear of Vietnam was a type of domino theory, although not as it is usually described.  The fear was that a colonial or client state would obtain some degree of prosperity through nationalistic or socialistic reform and would become a model for popular uprisings in other colonial or client states.  I’m somewhat surprised when people say the United States lost the Vietnam war.  Lost?  Lost what?  It isn’t like the Vietnamese invaded Washington D.C.  Not a single U.S. city was even attacked by the National Liberation Front.  Vietnam was bombed and devastated to such an extent that it did not become a model for countries elsewhere.  The United States failed towards one goal, the country did not relent and submit to a puppet regime, thus proving armed resistance could succeed if one was willing to endure massive casualties and mass devastation for the principle of self-determination.  What a Pyrrhic victory for the Vietnamese!  Why the United States continued the war, even after its government knew that the installation of a puppet regime was not going to work, was to increase the cost of this victory.

The Iraq war was a war of opportunity.  After September 11th, 2001, the Bush administration saw a historic opportunity to establish American power in the heart of the world’s energy reserves, and they took it.    

As Bertrand Russell put it in The History of Western Philosophy: “The stages in the evolution of ideas have had almost the quality of the Hegelian dialectic: doctrines have developed, by steps that each seem natural, into their opposites (pg. 643).”

For both Maher and Hitchens, both of their respective pro-war arguments are equal in merit in principle, and equally divorced from the particular circumstances of the actual conflict.  The role-reversal is so stark, it seems unlikely they are even aware.  Although, it is said that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

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