Saturday, October 28, 2006
There was a balanced article in the Washington Post about Sam Harris which is worth a read. It talks a bit about his background, and points out the negative reactions of religious moderates.
I am perpetually saddened by the arguments of moderates which invariably fall under the following lines of unreason:
Moderate's Steps to Create Meaning out of Nonsense
1.) Claim that the holy book in question was inspired by the creator of the universe, but tainted by human flaws. This way we can throw out all those tiny little irrelevencies such as- how the religion started, why people believed in the God in the first place, what drove the people to ethinically cleanse their neighbors, the reason behind their customs and rituals, the origin of their sense of what is moral and right. Just minor stuff, of course. Throw it all away, and keep a few psalms and the sermon on the mount. The rest was tainted by culture.
2.) Claim something like this- "Religion doesn't make people bigots," says Reza Aslan, author of "No God but God," a history of Islam. "People are bigots and they use religion to justify their ideology." In other words, only bigots actually believe their holy books. Good people use their pre-established sense of morality to discern that the bulk of their holy books are grossly immoral.
3.) Realize that, because there are patches of enlightened insight in every holy book, they therefore must have been inspired by the creator of the universe, and should rightfully be classified as "holy" books and given respect accordingly. Especially if their jackets are made of leather, the page edges are painted gold, and the translation is antiquated and totally divorced from references to the modern world.
4.) The big bamboozle, the big fraud, the big trump card of unreason. Say this: "he has taken these "Old Books" at their literal word, instead of studying the way that the faithful actually engage the scriptures". What a crock of FUCKING insanity!!! I could just as easily say that we should parse Mein Kampf and decide that we should never belittle the tome again because of it's many prosaic lines emphasising loyalty, courage and honor. Taken as a whole, it's a nightmare. But parts of Mein Kampf were clearly inspired by God Almighty so it's a big holy book. Especially if we were to to bind it in leather, paint the edges gold and put Hitler's more innocuous phrases in red.
Sam Harris used this glorious retort to this pathetic line of babbling grasping stone age madness in a recent debate in New York (described in article):
"If the Koran were exactly the same," he said, toward the end of the night, "and there were just one line added to it, and the line said, 'If you see a red-haired woman on your lawn at sunset, kill her,' I can tell you what kind of world we'd live in. We'd live in a world where red-haired women would be killed often. We'd live in a world where people like yourself" -- and here Harris gestures to his opponent, Oliver McTernan -- "would say, 'That's not the true Islam.' Twenty women in Baghdad would have their heads cut off and someone would come forward and say, 'This has nothing to do with Islam. Some of them were strawberry blond. Some of them were strangled."
Monday, October 23, 2006
Flags of Our Fathers
See it in the theater.
My favorite director, Clint Eastwood does it again. Nobody directs more psychologically honest films.
This was better than Saving Private Ryan on all levels in my opinion- war realism, message, gravitas.
No wonder Republicans are railing about it. Once again, reality has a well-known liberal bias.
Sunday, October 22, 2006
Bad reasons to be good
By Sam Harris October 22, 2006
THE MIDTERM elections are fast approaching, and their outcome could well be determined by the “moral values” of conservative Christians. While this possibility is regularly bemoaned by liberals, the link between religion and morality in our public life is almost never questioned. One of the most common justifications one hears for religious faith, from all points on the political spectrum, is that it provides a necessary framework for moral behavior. Most Americans appear to believe that without faith in God, we would have no durable reasons to treat one another well. The political version of this morality claim is that our country was founded on “Judeo-Christian principles,” the implication being that without these principles we would have no way to write just laws.
It is, of course, taboo to criticize a person’s religious beliefs. The problem, however, is that much of what people believe in the name of religion is intrinsically divisive, unreasonable, and incompatible with genuine morality. The truth is that the only rational basis for morality is a concern for the happiness and suffering of other conscious beings. This emphasis on the happiness and suffering of others explains why we don’t have moral obligations toward rocks. It also explains why (generally speaking) people deserve greater moral concern than animals, and why certain animals concern us more than others. If we show more sensitivity to the experience of chimpanzees than to the experience of crickets, we do so because there is a relationship between the size and complexity of a creature’s brain and its experience of the world.
Unfortunately, religion tends to separate questions of morality from the living reality of human and animal suffering. Consequently, religious people often devote immense energy to so-called “moral” questions—such as gay marriage—where no real suffering is at issue, and they will inflict terrible suffering in the service of their religious beliefs.
Consider the suffering of the millions of unfortunate people who happen to live in sub-Saharan Africa. The wars in this part of the world are interminable. AIDS is epidemic there, killing around 3 million people each year. It is almost impossible to exaggerate how bad your luck is if you are born today in a country like Sudan. The question is, how does religion affect this problem?
Many pious Christians go to countries like Sudan to help alleviate human suffering, and such behavior is regularly put forward as a defense of Christianity. But in this case, religion gives people bad reasons for acting morally, where good reasons are actually available. We don’t have to believe that a deity wrote one of our books, or that Jesus was born of a virgin, to be moved to help people in need. In those same desperate places, one finds secular volunteers working with organizations like Doctors Without Borders and helping people for secular reasons. Helping people purely out of concern for their happiness and suffering seems rather more noble than helping them because you think the Creator of the universe wants you to do it, will reward you for doing it, or will punish you for not doing it.
But the worst problem with religious morality is that it often causes good people to act immorally, even while they attempt to alleviate the suffering of others. In Africa, for instance, certain Christians preach against condom use in villages where AIDS is epidemic, and where the only information about condoms comes from the ministry. They also preach the necessity of believing in the divinity of Jesus Christ in places where religious conflict between Christians and Muslims has led to the deaths of millions. Secular volunteers don’t spread ignorance and death in this way. A person need not be evil to preach against condom use in a village decimated by AIDS; he or she need only believe a specific faith-based moral dogma. In such cases we can see that religion can cause good people to be much less good than they might otherwise be.
We have to realize that we decide what is good in our religious doctrines. We read the Golden Rule, for instance, and judge it to be a brilliant distillation of many of our ethical impulses. And then we come across another of God’s teachings on morality: If a man discovers that his bride is not a virgin on their wedding night, he must stone her to death on her father’s doorstep (Deuteronomy 22: 13-21). If we are civilized, we will reject this as utter lunacy. Doing so requires that we exercise our own moral intuitions, keeping the real issue of human happiness in view. The belief that the Bible is the word of God is of no help to us whatsoever.
As we consider how to run our own society and how to help people in need, the choice before us is simple: Either we can have a 21st-century conversation about morality and human happiness—availing ourselves of all the scientific insights and philosophical arguments that have accumulated in the last 2,000 years of human discourse—or we can confine ourselves to an Iron Age conversation as it is preserved in our holy books.
Wherever the issue of “moral values” surfaces in our national conversation in the coming weeks, ask yourself which approach to morality is operating. Are we talking about how to best alleviate human suffering? Or are we talking about the whims of an invisible God?
Sam Harris is the author of Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith. He can be reached through his website, samharris.org.
Saturday, October 21, 2006
This coincidental group of images from "Yahoo's Most Popular" is too good to pass up. For the married men viewing these images, please note the wrecked home at the top left.
Aaron, how can you explain this through sheer chance?
Impossible. Give up your atheistic ways.
Steve jovanovich: Are you planning on sleeping?
Aaron James: no
Aaron James: r u?
Steve jovanovich: That picture of you as a child is quite awful.
Steve jovanovich: You looked fat then, and you're certainly fat now.
Steve jovanovich: (And getting fatter.)
Steve jovanovich: Aaron, are you ever planning on doing anything productive with your life, or are you simply going to attack random people for no defensible reason except out of spite for life?
Steve jovanovich: Why, exactly, are you so mean?
Friday, October 20, 2006
<--Richard Dawkins sitting in a pew at Pastor Ted Haggard's church listening to a sermon he later called similar to a Nuremburg rally (actual rally pictured below).
Anyways, the other day I was in the shower or something and I was wondering what Dawkins would do if he were on the Colbert report. I thought maybe he would be dry and the humor would fly right past him.
Surprise surprise. He did appear on Colbert, and he had a nice suit, done up hair, and bleached white teeth. He even looked sort of hip in a crusty scholarly way. Looks like he's not beyond appearances to promote his excellent book "The God Delusion", which I am almost done with and will write a review on soon.
Thursday, October 19, 2006
EMI's efforts are impressive. The pieces are essentially built on the scaffolding of the composers' original compositions. While they lack the "soul" (the drama and creativity of human compositions) they are nonetheless interesting.
However, one thing Republicans are good at (as with all good lawyers) is framing an argument, no matter how absurd, in their favor.
Cheney's attorneys say: “This case is about protecting the effective functioning of the vice presidency under the Constitution...”
Now watch this. Rearrange the words just slightly and (as with all lies) viola, out pops the truth:
This case is about protecting the effective functioning of the Constitution under the vice-presidency.
A democracy needs to know what its leaders are doing.
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
I can't see where the argument is. Maybe I've become like Dawkins and am so far beyond the pale that I can't even understand what the debate is anymore.
Friday, October 13, 2006
I wrote this in an exchange in Amazon on Sam Harris.
For a discussion of why there is no "god", read Richard Dawkins' book "The God Delusion". Letter to a Christian Nation is not really a book providing evidence that there is no God, it was a book challenging those who believe they know what God is, or that they kow what God wants or has written etcetera. As Michael Shermer has said, it's fine if people believe in god, as long as your god doesn't *do* anything. As soon as a person claims that their god does something in the world, it enters the realm of testable observation, and that almost invariably bodes poorly for the belief in question.There really are two entirely seperate arguments, and Christians try to conflate the two. The one is whether there is some sort of creative force that began everything, the other is, if there is a creative force what do we know about it? Christians often forget that a mysterious universe doesn't provide any evidence for the existence of *their* favorite genocidal Middle Eastern deity.Some people can talk about the origins of the universe, but the other more pertinent question is the origin of our earth and species, which to any intelligent non-brain-washed observer certainly evolved through an amoral process of natural selection. The evidence for this is almost as strong as the evidence that the earth is round. The great religious concepts of morality and altruism have clearly been demonstrated to be present for survival purposes in many animal species, and it is not the remotest leap of faith to deduce that morality was invented by natural selection in humans as well for the same survival purposes, by the same process of selection, thus rendering even the concept of a "moral" God absurd to those who understand natural selection. Morality was designed by nature via a violent selection process for the express purpose of increasing survivability on earth, not for an immortal soul. The problem is that most Christians don't understand natural selection enough to even make their ears available for the non-theist's most powerful arguments.
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Today on NPR, on the heel of Fresh Air, I heard the tail end of a report on David Cope's EMI, "Experiments in Musical Intelligence", a computer program which can emulate various musical styles, including Bach, Chopin, Mahler and Navajo (yes, native American music).
Apparently, Cope, a composer himself, has advanced the programming sufficiently enough that EMI can now produce full concertos. During a symposium, three concertos were presented to an audience: a concerto by JS Bach, a concerto by Larson in the style of J.S. Bach, and a concerto by EMI in the style of JS Bach. The audience largely identified Bach's concerto, but interestingly concluded that EMI's concerto had been written by a Larson and Larson's by the computer.
First, my sympathies go out to Larson. I'm not a very good pianist and I'll never forget the day a young woman said that I played the piano like a typewriter. Such efficient and devastating put-downs are rare and to be savored by the victim. As for Larson, poor man, where does one go after an audience picks the computer as being the more soulful composer? A hundred years ago, we would find Larson hanging by the neck from his own rope (in the viscinity of his piano), I'm sure.
Anyway, the organizer of the event was mathematician Douglas Hofstadter, author of "Godel, Escher, Bach". Hofstadter won the Pulitzer prize in 1980. Here is a part of what Hofstadter wrote as a result of EMI.
What worries me about computer simulations is not the idea that we ourselves might be machines; I have long been convinced of the truth of that. What troubles me is the notion that things that touch me at my deepest core -- pieces of music most of all, which I have always taken as direct soul-to-soul messages -- might be effectively produced by mechanisms thousands if not millions of times simpler than the intricate biological machinery that gives rise to a human soul. This prospect, rendered most vivid and perhaps even near-seeming by the development of EMI, worries me enormously, and in my more gloomy moods, I have articulated three causes for pessimism:
(1) Chopin (for example) is a lot shallower than I had ever thought.
(2) Music is a lot shallower than I had ever thought.
(3) The human soul/mind is a lot shallower than I had ever thought.
Let me briefly comment on these. Pertaining to (1), since I have been moved to the core for my entire life by pieces by Chopin, if it turns out that EMI can churn out piece after piece that "speaks like Chopin" to me, then I would be thereby forced to retrospectively reassess all the meaning that I have been convinced of having detected in Chopin's music, because I could no longer have faith that it could only have come from a deep human source. I would have to accept the fact that Frédéric Chopin might have been merely a tremendously fluent artisan rather than the deeply feeling artist whose heart and soul I'd been sure I knew ever since I was a child.
incurred by (2), since Chopin has always symbolized the power of music as a whole, to me. Nonetheless, I suppose that having to toss all great composers out the window is somehow a bit more troubling than having to toss just one of them out.
The loss described in (3), of course, would be the ultimate affront to human dignity. It would be the realization that all of the "computing power" that resides in a human brain's 100 billion neurons and its roughly ten quadrillion synaptic connections can be bypassed with a handful of state-of-the-art chips, and that all that is needed to produce the most powerful artistic outbursts of all time (and many more of equal power, if not greater) is a nanoscopic fraction thereof -- and that it can all be accomplished, thank you very much, by an entity that knows nothing of knowing, seeing, hearing, tasting, living, dying, struggling, suffering, aging, yearning, singing, dancing, fighting, kissing, hoping, fearing, winning, losing, crying, laughing, loving, longing, or caring.
OK. This is all a bit too melodramatic for me. Far be it for me to judge Hofstadter, but there is a very clear fourth possibility and the fact that Hofstadter fails to consider it, or that it possibly doesn't even occur to him, bespeaks a man with an obviously too-elevated opinion of himself. Here it is:
4.) Hofstadter's soul/mind is a lot shallower than Hofstadter ever thought.
I listened to the extract of EMI's Bach concerto on the program, and while it was clearly in the Bach style, I didn't for a minute think it was by Bach. Yes, I was impressed, but it was clearly a modern redux. It had all the soulful trappings but lacked the soul. To be fair, there aren't many things I am an expert on, but Bach is one of them. And this brings me to my next thought:
Fact is, the majority of classical music listeners can't tell the difference between J.C. Bach (Bach's youngest son) and early to middling Mozart. There are few listeners who could tell the difference between Dittersdorf (a second tier classical composer) and Haydn.
Music is a language. Just as the vast majority will never master an instrument (like me & my piano) the vast majority will also be limited in their ability to appreciate music. Only about 2% of America's population listens to classical music with any regularity. That means that 98% of America could NOT tell the difference between EMI and Bach. Does that mean EMI has equaled Bach? No, it means that the American public is not conversant with the language of classical music, and Bach in particular. It would be like asking an American to differentiate the different dialects of Chinese.
Getting back to Hofstadter. Instead of concluding that Chopin, Music, or all of humanity is a lot shallower than Hofstadter ever imagined, maybe it's just that Hofstadter is a lot shallower than Hofstadter ever imagined.
This possiblity doesn't even seem to occur to him . That is, Hofstadter drags down all of humanity with him!
The ego is breathtaking.
I vote for option (4). Hofstadter's appreciation of Chopin is a lot shallower than he ever dreamt. The human soul lives on.
Anybody who thinks they can fool me with a pastiche of Bach, bring it on.
Sunday, October 08, 2006
So, I finished the first half of "The God Delusion", which is about the major arguments from a philosophical and probabilistic point of view. I'm all fine and dandy accepting atheism within the earthly aquarium. Dawkins had my full support until he began the cosmic anthropic principle, which is where I always get stuck. I get stuck there because that's where one needs to have faith no matter what one believes. Arguments against theism and most ideas of deism are pretty easy for me to deal with. My major disapproval of theisms and moral deisms are:
1.) Nature obviously used an arbitrary process of natural selection as it's design apparatus. Much of the selection process and the design process is foolish, senseless, amoral, brutal, and absurd.
2.) Human beings are unique, but they are still entirely bound into this "evil process". Our brains and nervous systems are designed for self-deception, interpersonal manipulation, tribalism, the achievement of sex over nearly all other goals at all times (within the years of our biological youthfulness). We engage in a perpetually disingenuous tribal politicization of everything imaginable from food to sex to division of labor, class distinction etc..., and we intermix all ideas of morality and spirituality as tools or weapons into this hodge-podge of one-up-man-ship and grasping for social leverage. Morality seems clearly to be used as a social tool and seems no more significant than a peacock's feathers in the scheme of the natural world and it's evolving drama. The illusion is almost air-tight. Secondly, "Truth" and the seeking of it has always been merely a hobby for particular very strange people who are often physically impaired, past sexual prime (a condition nature didn't select for), sexually deprived, homosexual or otherwise outcast, or in that rare distinction of being bright enough or persuasive enough to actually make a living by thinking. In short, truth is not important to the great majority of people, because the human body/mind is designed to falsely equate happiness with truth. The equation of happiness with truth reaches it's apex in the Hindu idea of SatChitAnanda. God is bliss and peace. They forgot to add ignorance to the triad. There is perhaps no greater reason why spirituality must be darwinianly constructed and body based than the yogic concept of SatChitAnanda.
3.) Spiritual experiences are virtually the only reason we have to suspect deism as being true, assuming that our rational observations are clear and unbiased enough to have already rejected theism. In my estimation, neuroscience has put a devastating dent in the postulation of a soul. After being a member of a meditation cult and studying spiritual experiences of meditators I am as close to perfectly convinced that it is mere brain masturbation as I can be. Not that it is worth disposing of. Only that it does not indicate the existence of a soul or God any more than being conscious of anything does. Me being conscious while typing this message is equally and identically as persuasive that there is a soul as having a near death experience and being embraced by the light.
There are two other arguments to consider, one I will name facetiously "The Patrick fallacy", and the other "the argument from consciousness". The Patrick fallacy says that spiritual experiences and psi events are real things which shatter the creed of materialism, but the reason these phenomena are not provable is because the deistic forces of the universe intentionally created this earthly environ as a place for learning via limitation. Thus, proving psi in a laboratory is actively opposed and thwarted by the powers that be and we will never be able to prove psi even if it is real. I'm not sure if even Patrick still believes his own argument. But many people do. To me it seems like grasping and is no more worthy of discussion than Pascal's wager.
4.) People are scared and they make shit up. It took me about three decades to realize this. I was quite slow and sheltered.
Those 4 reasons cover the easy part- dismissing theism and the great majority of deistic ideas.
Then Dawkins tackles the anthropic principle. I can handle the first part of it- where we must assume that if there are a billion billion planets in the universe and only one in a billion of them can support life, then that still leaves a billion that support life. Fair enough. It's rare but not all that scarce overall.
Then we get to the bugaboo. The cosmic anthropic principle. Dawkins provided no compelling argument here. It takes faith to think that somehow science will discover another exlpanatory device as powerful as evolution to explain the design of the universe. Talk of multiverses and black holes creating universes with differing physical properties strike me as no different than genesis creation stories. We've no earthly idea, let alone an idea fit for the universe. The sheer odds against life are staggering. Bewildering. And I don't think our science is even aware of all the odds against that are yet to be discovered. But assuming the anthropic principle is right and the fact we are here means that whatever laws were necessary to create life had to have happened, there is still a profound quandary. One which Dawkins spent a half of one sentence mentioning. Lets go ahead and assume we are just extremely lucky, and we happen to live in one of a billion billion universes where the properties are such that stars can make atoms which can make replicating molecules. Even despite that, we have hit the lottery yet again. We are conscious. We aren't just Terry Schiavos, we have conscious awareness. We aren't just alive, we are aware. Assuming that consciousness requires a specific electrical property to exist, with specific electrical constants which, if tweaked a tiny bit one way or another, would render consciousness impossible in our universe, we must admit we have hit yet another jackpot. A jackpot upon a jackpot upon a jackpot, with inevitably more jackpots yet to be discovered. It's too much for me. Maybe god is not worth knowing, but we cannot rule out pantheism.
Consciousness is equally as mysterious as the origin of the universe. The argument from consciousness is powerful and enough to make me agnostic at least in regards to pantheism. Then there is the zombie element which adds spice to the argument. Why wasn't it good enough to have merely evolved as automatons. We could conceivably be able to function normally without consciousness. We could have sex, cook, clean, work and everything but just be robots instead of conscious participants. The leap to consciousness is just as weird as the leap from the primordial ooze to a replicating cell. Why did nature need it? Did complexity invent consciousness? Or did complexity merely pull something out of nature which was already always there?
I strongly think we are extinguished at death. But I remain unconvinced either way.
Saturday, October 07, 2006
I am reading Richard Dawkins' new book "The God Delusion" and am finding it thoroughly enjoyable. His wit and humor are highly entertaining. I found a passage in there just now that cleverly refutes the entire "logic" of intelligent design in one sentence:
"Predators seem beautifully "designed" to catch prey animals, while prey animals seem equally beautifully "designed" to escape them. Whose side is God on?"