Necessary infections

Some kinds of herbivore mothers deliberately feed their children mom's feces. Their guts need the bacteria to digest food properly. Of course, sometimes parasites hitch rides, but that can't be helped. As long as the parasites don't kill the baby animal before it has an opportunity to infect the next host, the parasites can survive.

Human brains do not work without the necessary infections of memes -- primarily supplied by the parents, but also from teachers, peers, and so on. Of course, sometimes parasites hitch rides. Unlike the herbivores, we can deliberately weed out the unnecessary and harmful memes.
(Or can we?)

The tiger's toe is not random

Catch a tiger by the toe
If he hollers let him go
My mother told me to pick the very best one and you are not it.

This is a playground meme that children catch much like a virus. It is contagious because children falsely assume that it is a random generator. You use it to make decisions, to choose between two things. On the first three lines, you point your finger at each item alternating every second beat or word. On the last line, you alternate with every syllable. The last word eliminates one of the choices. Children use it to make decisions because they falsely assume that it randomizes the choice. They falsely believe that they have a magic formula that will make a decision for them. However, since the number of syllables is always the same -- children are very strict in following the formula precisely -- the decision is really made by the child with the very first choice of which item to point to. Because the phrase is so long and takes effort to remember, the child focuses on the recitation. By the end of the formula, the child has forgotten which item was pointed at first.

Memes can survive and spread for reasons contrary to what the hosts believe they do.

God did not make surfing

There are times in which you are well-fed, rested, sober, safe and warm -- times in which you feel good. It takes an enormous amount of time and energy to get to those good times. It takes an ability to find warmth, shelter, a safe place to sleep, and the enormous amount of time and energy used to obtain and secure food.

The religious mind assumes that the world is here for us. They assume that all of the things required to secure these good feelings were put there for us to use. Post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Instead, enjoying warmth, shelter, food, etc. is a luxury. It is not part of the world's design. It is us riding the wave of consciousness before the next crashing need of warmth, shelter, food, etc. must be met.

There is the surf and the surfer. The surf was not created for the surfer nor the surfer for the surf. The surfer is taking advantage of the surf and doing something to it. It takes many hours and lots of resources to get the surfer to the point where he can enjoy a few moments of surfing. Many people and things had a hand in getting the surfer to this point -- he did not do it himself although, obviously, he played a big part. Think of the hours devoted to creating and maintaining surfboards. These things were not predesigned by a intelligent deity. God did not make the surf for the surfer. Many people and things made surfing.

Infinite Jest part 1: letting go of control

One theme in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is letting go of control of the self. The characters in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) learn that control of the self is what got them into trouble with alcohol and drugs. Don Gately calls it his Spider. By squishing his Spider, by handing over his brain to be washed, by letting go, Don Gately learns to live without alcohol and drugs. He is set free of the cage of control. He doesn't even understand why it works and understanding why it works ruins the loss of control. He is told to Fake It Until He Makes It (DFW's all caps). The AA/NA nightly meetings are full of trite expressions like One Day At a Time. Rejecting these obvious truths is to regain control and end up back in the death spiral of alcohol and drugs.

In DFW's list of things you might learn at AA/NA is the claim that God does not care whether you believe in God or not. Don Gately prays every day for sobriety even though he doesn't believe in God. He doesn't know why his prayers for sobriety work, and he knows that knowing why they work will probably ruin it.

At the elite tennis academy bright Hal obsesses over over-analyzing his tennis game because self-awareness ruins the zone that top athletes strive to achieve. The zone is the Zen like lack of self-awareness that can be achieved when one has hit a tennis ball a few million times by age seventeen.

A prominent bar in Infinite Jest is The Unexamined Life. According to Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth living. Infinite Jest may suggest otherwise.

Hooray USA!

God bless the USA for electing Barrack Obama. Let's hope he can live up to half the hype. He will already have enough enemies in the world for a variety of reasons. He does not need more enemies. He needs our help in making this a better country.

mental mutts and contagious memes

Steven Jay Gould argues for punctuated equilibrium. This is against the common view of evolution as a steady upward climb to humans. Instead, Gould argues that mass extinctions open new niches that are quickly exploited by the survivors.

After a mass extinction, there are fewer predators and fewer competitors. Survivors can be isolated from each other for a long time. A greater variety in each species can survive resulting in a greater diversity of each individuals. More species, greater variety, experimentation, an explosion of activity -- this is the "punctuated" part.

But eventually the environment is crowded, there are more predators, and the variety is paired down to the most viable. This is the "equilibrium" part -- and it could last for millions of years, as it did several times for the dinosaurs. But there is always the next mass extinction event.

Where are we? I think that we are in the "equilibrium" part. No one knows how long this one will last. And we seem to be engineering our own mass extinction event. But there is plenty already written about that.

Instead, consider the "punctuated" part of our past. The earliest big brained humanoids found a hitherto unexploited niche -- the mental world. No other animal can come close to the mental world created by humans -- and the first big brained humanoids were the prehistoric pioneers in this world.

There is every reason to think that there was an explosion of experimentation in early big brained humanoids (just as Gould's theory would suggest). We know the Neanderthal were a different kind of big brained humanoid. Perhaps there were a dozen different kinds of big brained humanoids who first pioneered the mental world. Humans are probably mental mutts.

Early big brained humanoids bred memes and passed them like contagion. Some memes kept the humanoids alive better (creating fire, making a flint spear head, where to find good red berries, etc.). But no meme survives without being contagious. If I have an idea, and I never tell anyone about my idea, that idea dies with me. My idea will only survive if I can show others how to create fire, how to make a flint spear head, and where to find those good red berries.

But the contagiousness of a meme is not necessarily connected to its ability to keep the host brain alive. The contagiousness of a meme requires the host to be alive long enough to pass it on, and for that the more excited the host wishes to pass on the meme the more likely the meme will survive. Thus the evangelical meme.

Liberalism is not Relativism

Relativism is the belief that there is no One Truth. Instead, every group (or perhaps everyone!) has their own truth. My truth is different from your truth. Our truth is different from their truth.

But this is nonsense. You believe something because you think that it is true -- you believe that it accurately describes the world. It sounds trivial but you believe that your beliefs are true, otherwise you'd change your beliefs!

It is easy to prove that we live in the same world because we can interact with each other without traveling to another world.

We all believe different things and each of us may be wrong about our beliefs. In fact, it is logically impossible for all of us to be right since we believe different things about fundamental issues. It is logically impossible for all metaphysical systems to be true since they are contradictory. It is possible that all of them are false. It is possible that one of them is true.

But it is most likely that we will never truly know the answers to life's biggest questions.

I believe in atheism, materialism, environmentalism, liberalism, a mix of socialism and capitalism, some modified form of utilitarianism, and a laughing Stoicism. I believe these because I think they are true.

Liberalism is not Relativism. Relativists reject Truth and embrace multiple truths as the One Truth. Liberals acknowledge that everyone believes their beliefs to be true and they realize the lesson in humility there.

Everyone has stories

Everything exists in four dimensions, and we bring our stories with us wherever we go. I have chosen not to tell my stories in this blog. Interactions change once stories are told. You feel an obligation to agree. You have shared suffering -- literally, compassion -- and this leads to over identifying with their beliefs. You become easily persuaded.

Do not be easily persuaded here. Please disagree. My beliefs do not require your agreement.

Being a liberal means accepting that other people have the right to be wrong.

Happy Imperialism

The cowboy puts a happy face on imperialism. He works the land, breaks horses, drives cattle to slaughter, drinks to violence, kills homosexuals, and oppresses women. He helped con the Indian. He hates blacks. He votes Republican.

But he is only one story in America.

Conservatives in Short Skirts

The Sexy Puritans prove just how easy it is to manipulate men. Ann Coulter wears tight leather -- as does Cindy McCain. Sarah Palin jokes about lipstick and hair. All of them wear very high heels.

Don't think about a pink elephant.

You thought about a pink elephant even though the sentence said otherwise. Now consider that Ann Coulter has written a lot about Bill Clinton's blow jobs. Even though she is strongly condemning his blow jobs, everyone reading long blond hair and short red leather mini skirt Ann Coulter is now thinking about blow jobs. It sells a lot of books.

Infinite Zeros

The Existential Problem: if death takes us all in the end, then life is meaningless and worthless.

The Religious Solution: the hope of eternal life gives this life meaning and value.

But if life itself is worthless, then adding more of it does not make it valuable. An infinity of zeros is still zero.

Instead, consider that life is valuable. There is no need to long for a next life.

Ong on Steroids

Walter J. Ong and Marshal McLuhan argue that the invention of the printing press enabled the Protestant Revolution by encouraging Christians to sit by themselves and read the Bible without the help of Priests. Earlier reformers had tried to do this, but without plentiful cheap copies of Scripture this was impossible.

Today we have plentiful cheap copies of everything. While some utopian dreamers think that this might bring us all closer together, the opposite seems to be the case. What the internet enables us to do is to break into even smaller communities of like minded individuals. Instead of unifying us, it Balkanizes us.

I won't read your blog unless I already agree.

Christian Humulity

Christian humility means believing that the entire cosmos was created just for you.

Morality Doesn't Need Religion

We all know that religion can be used for both good and evil purposes. We all know that a religious person could be either good or evil. This proves that morality is not grounded in religion.

Atheism scares some people because they think that morality requires religion -- take away religion and anything goes. But if that were true then it would be impossible to be an immoral religious person or to be a moral non-religious person. Since both options are possible it follows that morality does not need religion.

If you honestly believe that being watched by God is the only thing keeping you from doing evil things, then please believe.

Feyerabend's Real and Imagined Motives

Paul Feyerabend wants to isolate science in order to save cultures and politics. In an autobiographical chapter of Against Method, he explains his discomfort at teaching Western Imperialistic Science to diverse and multi-ethnic students. He laments the destruction of so many ways of thinking in the search for The One Big Truth. He writes that science has its ways of thinking and that other believe systems have theirs. That's his imagined motive.

Unfortunately, what he really does is try to undermine science completely. The real motive is nothing more than the familiar one among humanists: "Science Bad, Art Good." Undermining science is not a way of showing that science has its own ways of thinking; rather it is the way of supporting superstitions and ignorance.

End of American Democracy

The United States is ripe for a military takeover. The approval rating for Congress has been in the toilet for decades while the military enjoys perhaps the highest approval rating of any public institution. Criticizing the military is now considered unpatriotic heresy while criticizing any level of government is considered healthy. The military is often seen as the only government agency capable of getting anything done but they are constrained by civilian leadership more concerned about reelection that winning. Most potential voters don't bother and haven't for generations.

The Roman Emperors were not kings -- they were military leaders who temporarily took power in a time of crisis. The Senate still met but was ignored. That temporary period lasted a thousand years.

A charismatic general who claims to talk to Jesus could "temporarily" seize power during a crisis and the world's oldest experiment in self-government would return to the world's oldest form of government -- violent theocracy.

The Axis of Literacy

The German historian Karl Jaspers grouped Socrates, Confucius, Lao-Tzu, Gottama Buddha and other contemporary ancient thinkers into "The Axial Age" because it seems as though history turns on an axis and moves in a different direction afterwards. How did this happen? Why are these great thinkers roughly contemporary?

Not all ancient societies experienced this Great Awakening -- only those with established literacy. The Ancient Greeks, Indians, and Chinese had a written language that was easier and more widely used than older systems such as the Egyptian. This cannot be a coincidence. Established literacy enabled philosophy.

The "Magic Book" approach is really a supernatural version of this insight.

Elvish Irony

J.R.R. Tolkien explicitly stated that he wanted to create a new mythology for the English because their native mythology was so incomplete. He failed to realize that his beloved Christianity was the primary cause of the destruction of native English mythology.

Early evangelists destroyed sacred trees to prove the impotence of the pagan gods. They deliberately built churches on top of ancient temples. They turned the sylvan elves into demons and devils.

Christians succeeded in demythologizing the world and we have the environmental scars to prove it.

Scapegoat Logic

Christians believe that Jesus died for our sins. They believe that when the Romans publicly tortured and executed him, his innocent blood washed away the stain of sin. Paul states that sin came into the world by one man (Adam) and left through another one man (Jesus).

This is the logic of a scapegoat. A group of evil people will atone for their evilness by putting all of their evilness into an innocent creature and then publicly torturing and killing it. In scapegoat logic, performing an evil act is not evil.

Heraclitus wrote 2,500 years ago: "They vainly purify themselves with blood when defiled with it, as if a man who had stepped into mud were to wash it off with mud. He would be thought mad if anyone noticed him acting thus." (Richard D. McKirahan, translator)

Consider an analogy. Suppose that a violent street gang wanted to clean up. Instead of, say, giving themselves up to the police and accepting their punishment, let us suppose that they followed scapegoat logic. This street gang would publicly torture and kill an innocent person and claim to be cleaned of their wicked ways.

I will never understand scapegoat logic. I will never understand why otherwise intelligent people proudly carry the symbol of the public torture and death of an innocent man.

Rorty and his critics

Rorty recognizes particular contingencies and enjoys writing that our traditions did not have to be this particular way. He loves individual idiosyncrasies.

His critics generally argue that Rorty is missing the role of general necessities. Rorty often implies that since things could have been otherwise, then everything goes. He fails to see that we can't have just anything go since not everything will go. There are general constraints on what memes we use.

General Necessities and Particular Contingencies

The Joy of Cooking is now over 75 years old. It was originally written by a widow in her 50's who was reacting to the lack of a pragmatic cookbook on the market. It grew into a large enterprise with historical eccentricities that helped make it unique. This history inspires loyalty.

But if it had never been, there would have been something else that filled its place with different idiosyncrasies. As long as this other possible cookbook was useful, the uniqueness of it would have inspired loyalty.

There are general necessities that could have been filled by any cookbook. The Joy of Cooking happened to be the one to fill that general meme niche with its particular contingencies; but it easily could have been another cookbook to satisfy this general necessity with different particular contingencies.

Holy Books are the same way. There is a general necessity, a meme niche, that is filled by magic books. The particular contingencies, the unique idiosyncrasies, of these books could have been otherwise.

Another example: there is a general need for measuring time, but the particularly weird method we use didn't have to be this way -- we could easily be using a base 10 numbering system for time rather than base 60. We need to measure time (general necessity or meme niche) but we don't have to measure time in this way (particular contingencies).

It is wrong to think that our method of measuring time must be this way. It is wrong to think that a cookbook must have been written this way. It is wrong to think that the Bible must have been written this way. Something else with different particular contingencies could have filled that general necessity just as easily.

Progress and Old Truth

Conservatives believe that they have the truth -- why else would they be conservatives? They want to hold onto their correct way of thinking and they oppose changing their way of thinking.

George Washington was a great soldier, statesman, and president. But he didn't know that washing your hands killed deadly germs. Doctors at the time killed Washington using leeches to suck out disease. Washington didn't even have aspirin. There are many many important things that George Washington didn't know.

It is just foolish to believe that any past figure had the truth and that the best thing we should do is hold onto it. It is incredible to consider that some people will reject the latest scientific research simply because a story was written down thousands of years ago by desert nomads who claimed to hear God's voice

Immoderate Moderates

Claiming to be a "moderate" is a sly way to call your opponent a radical.
"I am a moderate" means "I speak the truth and you are a raving lunatic."

A Foma gives confidence

Vonnegut says that a "foma" is a harmless untruth that sooths simple souls.

Dennett uses the image of Dumbo believing that the magic crow feather makes him fly.

Believing that the Creator of the Universe is really on your side in your struggles to make it in the world gives you a lot of confidence. Confidence is a necessary ingredient to success in practically anything worthwhile. The belief gives confidence which breeds success which reinforces the belief.

I would leave them to their beliefs if only they would change their ways about sex, pleasure, and the planet.

The Evangelizing Meme

Imagine two groups of people. One group's way of life is directed by a set of beliefs that are very relaxed... very live and let live. The other group is directed by a set of jealous beliefs so that these people insist that other people believe and behave in the same way. Obviously the more aggressive evangelizing meme will thrive. There is no connection to truth here anymore than dandelions are more true than grass. The meme for aggressively converting as many other minds as possible must have been selected early in the development of cultural evolution.

Magic Books

Recently a Mormon tried to convince me of the pedigree of their magic book. I was supposed to believe that a 17 year old man found in the wilderness of upstate New York a set of golden tablets written in "reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics" and translated by means of magic translating stones. The solid proof was that others living in that hotbed of religious revivalism and experimentation (historians call it "the burnt over district") claim to have witnessed the event.

Lots of people have magic books and claim excellent pedigrees. Muslims tell great stories about the veracity of theirs. Jews can attest to the veracity of Torah. Protestants and Catholics each tell stories of their versions of the Bible -- often blaming the other for hiding the true version. Hindus have many books they discuss. Buddhists have magic books. Even Confucians. Ba'hai do too.

While we're at it, Scientologists have the magic books of L. Ron Hubbard. Christian Scientists have their own. As did Shakers.

A thousand other groups have magic books and they all tell stories of veracity. Each one believes that the other thousand groups have it wrong, or at least not quite right. Besides, it is logically impossible for them all to be right since they disagree on fundamental issues. Odds are that they are all wrong and the tendency to tell stories about magic books tell us something about being human.

Somewhere Nietzsche writes that perhaps God has a speech impediment, for He is certainly having difficulty getting His Word across.

Science of Ben Stein's Nazis

Ben Stein points out correctly that the Nazis used evolutionary theory in part of their justification for their final solution. Stein infers that such a connection is further evidence that evolution is false and dangerous.

But the Nazis only used evolutionary theory in rhetoric. They didn't build a better bomb using evolutionary theory.

By contrast, they did build better weaponry using Newtonian mechanics. If we are to follow Stein's inference, then Newtonian mechanics should be considered false and dangerous due to this Nazi connection. Reductio ad absurdum.

Were any dinosaurs Mormon?

If the purpose of the planet is to create as many Mormons as possible, then why did God take so long to make any Mormons? He wasted millions of years on the dinosaurs and not one of them became a Mormon. So, if it is so important that there are as many Mormons as possible, why are there millions of years without any Mormons?

Your guess and our fate

There must be a distinction between knowledge and a guess. The traditional answer, dating back to at least Plato, is that knowledge requires some justification whereas a guess does not. Without a good justification for your religious beliefs, your faith is really just a guess.

Under normal circumstances, I would applaud that someone made a guess that I would not. There is no harm to me. I might learn from their mistakes or successes.

But many religious guesses come with other consequences -- most notably the commandment to go forth and multiply while you subdue the land. This will lead to environmental destruction and over population.

Unlike other creatures, we can choose to curb our own growth. Or Nature will check it with famine, disease, etc.

Who Created God?

Religious people think that it is a smart question to ask what came before the Big Bang. They cannot imagine a causal chain coming to an end with just another event without a prior cause. This, they think reveals that there must be a God who created the Big Bang.

They fail to realize that this same line of thinking can be applied to God. If God is your explanation for how the world is, then what created God?

Sophists and the law

The ancient Sophists argued that human law is all made up and often in conflict with natural law. They argued that the only real reason for following these made up human laws is the fear of getting caught and punished. So, they reasoned, if no one is watching, then go ahead and break those arbitrary laws.

This is similar to contemporary debates about the law. Liberals claim that our laws about marriage are just made up, and so we can make them up differently to allow same sex marriages. Conservatives claim that these are natural laws and to change them would radically alter the fabric of reality. Which is it?

As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Human laws are arbitrary, but it is not arbitrary that we have laws. Consider driving. It is completely arbitrary that we drive on the right side of the road. But it is necessary that we all drive on the same side.

Why "Intelligent Design" is not Science

"Intelligent Design" (ID) writers try to use Thomas Kuhn's theories to justify their approach, but they focus exclusively on the most rare of scientific happenings: the paradigm shift that occurs during revolutionary science. During a revolutionary period of science, two scientists operating from differing paradigms can literally look at the same evidence and see it differently -- both finding the evidence that supports their own paradigm. Ken Ham in his "Answers in Genesis" website uses the analogy of taking off the evolutionary sunglasses and putting on the ID sunglasses. You can literally look at the same evidence in two ways.

However, ID writers fail to include the other 99% of science. During normal science, there are research projects to pursue. Kuhn calls normal science "puzzle solving." The only reason why one paradigm can overtake another is that it offers better solutions to puzzles -- it offers research projects -- it gives scientists something to do.

ID does not give scientists anything to do. The basic idea in "Intelligent Design" is that things are so complicated that we just cannot understand how they work -- it must be the product of a superior intelligence! What does an ID scientist do? I guess he goes outside, notices how terribly complicated everything is, and says, "Gee, God must have done it! Well, now I'm done." There are no research projects. There are no puzzles to solve. There is nothing to do. That is the opposite of science.

Jane Austen and Male Self-Control

Jane Austen describes a world that is strangely parallel to modern conservative Islamic societies: if a young woman has sex prior to marriage or even marries the wrong man, she brings shame upon not just herself but the entire family -- and that will ruin their chances to make it in society.

There are obvious differences, of course, including the costumes. Austen's women wear beautiful dresses that flaunt their cleavage. Conservative Muslim women hide their entire bodies, sometimes leaving only a slit to peer through from their burqas. Austen's Christians put their faith in male self-control, even if those men have been drinking. Muslims assume that men have no self-control, and so they ban alcohol and hide the women.

We in the west have inherited this tradition. Thousands of generations of men in the west have been told that they can mold their own character, and that doing so is important to yourself and to others. By contrast, Muslim men have been taught that they cannot control themselves. Furthermore, that someone else is to blame for their errors.

Sacred Java

I drink my coffee biblically -- with milk and honey.

Between Epigrams and Essays

I think of an aphorism as between an epigram and an essay. In this, I am influenced by Nietzsche. As an angry young man, I devoured his books.

While I enjoy his attacks upon Christianity, I rejected Nietzsche when I realized that in his utopia, I would not be educated in philosophy. In the 19th century, Americans democritized public education through high school. In the 20th century, Americans democritized college education, even through the Ph.D. In Nietzsche's utopia, only the elite would be educated -- he rejects anything that elevates common people (Christianity, socialism, labor unions, democracy, etc.). My family would have had to remain farmers.

So, I rejected Nietzsche from self-defense. You may dismiss this rejection as "mere" self-defense, but isn't self-defense a rational thing to do?

The Circle of Life

We have a nice symbiotic relationship with plants -- a cycle of energy that keeps us both alive. People who believe that they are not of this world basically deny this relationship. This denial allows for widescale destruction of plant habitat.

I don't know how this relationship got started, I only acknowledge that its continuation is the continuation of human life. Why are we collectively expanding our own numbers and destroying what makes those numbers possible?

Make Love Not War

Biologists are beginning to demonstrate that certain parts of the human body are just poorly designed -- such as a knee joint that doesn't support our weight very well. (Compare how long a horse can stand.) We are this way as a result of our evolutionary history -- what Dawkins calls "The Blind Watchmaker."

Our memes can be poorly designed, too. They can be relics of a time when they were more useful. For example, a hatred of homosexuality is often manifested as a hatred of sex for pleasure. They believe that sex is for procreation, not recreation. (No abortions, no birth control, no homosexuality, no masturbation, etc.) This meme may have been useful when the human population was very low. But with over 6 billion people on the planet, things are different.

Let us jettison the sexual meme "sex is for procreation, not recreation." Today we need more happiness and fewer babies. Unlike our knee joints, we can chose to change our beliefs.

Metaphyics and Confidence

At some point you should realize that you disagree with most people in the world on the major metaphysical issues -- such as the existence and nature of God. Even if you belong to the largest church in the world -- the Roman Catholic -- still the majority of the people in the world are not Roman Catholic.

I am an atheist, which means that I believe that the vast majority of people who have ever lived on this planet are wrong on this fundamental question. What does that mean?

William James did not want to be arrogant, and so his metaphysical pluralism is a way of claiming finally to get the truth but really the truth is that everyone really has the truth. It is the metaphysical version of that old cliche -- having your cake and eating it too.

Why not rather have the confidence to embrace your own metaphysics? Yes, I believe that most people are wrong. But, my beliefs do not require having other people agree. And many people seem do derive good things from their wrong beliefs. So, who am I to complain? Perhaps it is an example of Vonnegut's "foma."

A Diet of Irony

Many Americans strive to live long miserable lives. They diet so that they can live as long as possible, and yet they are miserable as they diet. It is as if they wanted the root canal to last just a little longer.

Solving Stoicism's Central Problem

The basic insight of Stoicism is the following: unhappiness comes from the world not matching your desires, and happiness comes from matching your desires to the world.

The problem is that Stoicism can lead to stagnation -- I want those dishes to be dirty, so I am happy!

The solution is to live in harmony with the world. If you leave the dishes dirty, you will have serious problems...

A Laughing Stoicism

The ancient Stoics believed in living in harmony with the cosmos. They believed that the world is ordered and rational (a cosmos) and so the wise man lived an ordered and rational life. The pop culture version of this is Mr. Spock.

But the world is not entirely ordered and rational. The world is also crazy, absurd, random, and unpredictable. To live in harmony in the world does not require being cool and detached. Living in harmony with the world requires crying, loving, hugging and laughing.

Sometimes laughter is what the world requires, and not to laugh is to be dead.

Hatred and Frank’s Snowmobile Paradox

Thomas Frank’s Snowmobile Paradox explains why people who otherwise hate each other will vote the same way. If you live in the city and love to snowmobile, you vote Republican because you hate the regulations that liberals want to impose. If you live in the snowmobile country, you vote Republican because you hate those rich city tourists (with their liberal bumper stickers and loose sexual morals) who come to snowmobile.

On both sides, hatred is the motivation.

Rorty's Tools

Richard Rorty believes that he can avoid discussing truth and reality by instead talking about tools and usefulness. He believes that describing a theory, idea, word, world-view as a useful tool allows him to avoid discussing their truth.

This does not reveal anything interesting about theories, ideas, words, or world-views. Instead, it reveals that Rorty never had to work a day in his life. Anyone who has ever actually used a tool knows that there is a direct link between its usefulness and the reality of the situation.

Growth is Our God

I am happy when I make more money this year than last, when I have plans to build onto my house, when I buy a new car, when I travel more than before, when I consume more resources than ever.

Towns, cities, counties, and countries watch their annual growth rate (population, GDP, etc.) and read happiness or gloom into the signs much as the ancients would tear open a bird and read the contents of its stomach.

Colleges seek to increase enrollments and endowments. Businesses seek to increase profits and their share of the market. Workers always want a raise. Investors want growth in their portfolios.

Happiness is consuming more this year than we did last year -- more farmland paved over for housing developments, more water diverted from rivers, more coal burned, more fiber optic connections, more cell phone users, more computer memory, more horsepower, and so on, and so on.

All plants and animals strive for more in the competition for resources. But in nature, growth is checked by disease, predators, parasites, and famine. Humans have temporarily removed these obstacles through modern medicine, modern industrialized agriculture, and systematically killing all large predators. The only consistent check on human population growth today is the occasionally successful disease and warfare. But for two hundred years, despite world wars and pandemics, human growth has been unnaturally successful -- and despite our mistaking this for a permanent condition, nature will eventually check our hubris.

Now I am happy -- another posting!

Removing the Threats and Absurdities

Why is it that threatening people with eternal torment is an effective means of getting people to believe outlandish things and (possibly) to create nice people with strong families and communities? The question partially answers itself -- eternal torment is persuasive, but why must people believe outrageous things in order to be good?

For example, Mormons build strong families and communities; but to be a Mormon involves believing that a man in upstate New York translated golden tablets written in "reformed hieroglyphics" with magic translating stones. Mormons are taught to believe that these magic golden tablets record a complicated and elaborate history of North America (including a visit by Jesus!) that bears no resemblence at all to the actual historical record. In addition, Mormons have created an elaborate and complicated metaphysics of the next world that must be believed on the basis of Mr. Smith's magic golden Egyptian translation. Can a person have the strong families and communities without the absurd historical and metaphysical beliefs?

Philosophy used to be a means to replace the threat of torment and the absurd historical and metaphysical beliefs with an appeal to reason and evidence. Can good families and communities be built on reason and evidence rather than threats and absurdities? Or must the intellect be broken with faith in impossibilities before it is pliant enough to be a good member of a family and society?

What is needed today is a laughing Stoicism.

Jesus says not to bother washing

Jared Diamond writes in Guns, Germs, and Steel about why Europeans infected Native Americans with deadly diseases rather than the other way around. Diamond writes about their close contact with domesticated animals, which Native Americans did not have. After thousands of generations, the remaining Europeans were tolerant of the germs and diseases that the domesticated animals carried while Native peoples were not.

Gregory Clark writes in A Farewell to Arms about the same issue and focuses his attention on the peculiar European habit of living above your fecal waste. This had the same evolutionary effect: only those who could survive this germ-fest lived to reproduce, thereby making Europeans in general more resistant to diseases that wiped out Native populations.

Both authors are afraid to look at how ideas influence behavior, and so they fail to understand why premodern Europeans had such negligent bathing habits. The answer is easy. Jesus says not to bother washing your hands before you eat since what goes into the mouth cannot defile you, only what comes out can do that. Jesus is following Plato and developing a metaphysics in which spiritual truths are divorced from physical reality.

Both Homer and Hesiod emphasize for ancient Pagans the importance of washing, especially your hands. Jews ritually wash their hands during Sabbath. Muslims ritually wash their whole bodies five times a day. Only Christians are allowed to be filthy; and, despite their howling rejection of evolutionary theory, being filthy gave Europeans the evolutionary advantage of being resistant to many dread diseases for the simple reason that those who were not naturally resistant simply died leaving only the powerfully filthy ones to conquere the world.

Life has no Meaning

There is a terrible fear that if life is meaningless, then we might as well jump off the nearest cliff. Actually, it is good that life is meaningless.

"Meaning" comes from pointing to something beyond itelf. A sign is meaningful not in itself, but in reference to something else. A red octogon shaped STOP sign is not meaningful as a big piece of oddly shaped metal -- it is meaningful because it is a symbol that points to something else, namely that you should stop your car when you see this sign.

If life is meaningful, then life itself has no meaning but only gets meaning by pointing to something else -- something beyond life. Religious people think that life is meaningful only because it points to God or Heaven or whatever. Take away the God or Heaven or whatever and they think you might as well jump off the nearest cliff.

But life is not a symbol. Life is not a sign. Life does not acquire value by pointing to something else. There is nothing else. Life has value in itself. Life is meaningless because life is not a symbol that aquires meaning by referencing something else.

Life itself is the source of all other value and meaning. Life does not require something else to make it valuable. Embrace that life has no meaning.

All or Nothing Metaphysics

Some skeptical philosophers, trying to play the Socratic "What is x?" game, assume an all or nothing metaphysics that is completely false. An all or nothing metaphysics assumes that there must be necessary and sufficient conditions for membership into a class or else nothing will qualify for membership into that class.

Skeptical feminist philosophers use this kind of argument. Since, they argue, there exists individuals who fall between the "male/female" categories, then the categories themselves must be suspect. Thus, some skeptical feminist philosophers believe that there is no difference between men and women since some people are neither strictly male or female.

With this kind of argument, a skeptical philosopher could argue that there is no difference between trees and bushes since there are individual plants that fall between these two categories. Also, since there is no sharp distinction between bushes and grasses, one could conclude that by implication there is no difference between trees and grasses. With some work, a skeptical philosopher could make a mess of all of the nouns in the English language thereby undermining meaningful communication.

But the existence of hermaphrodites does not disprove the difference of men and women. Instead, they prove that nature is more complicated than the simplistic all or nothing metaphysics. Nature does provide clear categories, but in each case the categories are fuzzy at the borders. The problem isn't with nature, the problem is with our overly simplistic metaphysics.

There is a real difference between men and women even though there are individuals who are not clearly male or female. There is a real difference between trees and bushes even though there are individuals who are not clearly one or the other. (As Wittgenstein would point out, the only people who say such obvious things are either crazy people or philosophers.)

Visit the beach to witness a good example. There is a clear difference between the land and the water, and anyone who thinks otherwise is free to try and walk on the water. However, there is not a sharp distinction at the border between the land and the water -- it is a constantly changing and mixed area of both land and water. Sometimes the tide is in, sometimes the tide is out, and the waves are constantly mixing up the border between the two -- but the land and the water are still distinct.

Nature provides clear examples of difference even though the borders are often not clear between the two. Philosophers need to give up the all or nothing metaphysics.

Rising to the Challenge of the SuperFriends

One reason people take their children to church is to provide moral guidance. But dwelling on the torture and death of a Jewish Rabbi is not a good way to encourage children to play fair, or eat their vegetables, or to listen to their parents.

There are many secular alternatives to a relgious education, but the SuperFriends are certainly one of the best. The stories are melodramas where good always triumphs over evil. Children can easily understand them, identify with the heroes, and boo the villians. Children learn through role play -- and the superheroes lend themselves easily to that. The question "What would Superman do?" gives a clearer response than its Christian equivalent.

Christianity is not Democratic

Christians sometimes argue that since Christian values form the basis for democracy, a person cannot be a patriotic atheist. They argue that since God loves everyone equally, this equal value for everyone is the metaphysical basis of the claim that we are all equal before the law in a democracy.

This argument is based upon what Christians would like to believe about their religion rather than what is actually found in the Bible.

The Bible is full of words such as "master," "servant," "lord," "slave," "Caeser," and so on. The entire world-view of the Bible is of royalty and kingship, not of elected representatives and presidents. Jesus tells parables that instruct us to be good servants and obey our master. Churches regularly sing praises of Jesus as the "king of kings" and "lord of lords." There is not a single reference in the Bible to voting for laws, of universal suffrage, or of doing away with royalty. Instead, there is an overwhelming message of obedience to one's superiors.

There is a deeper reason why Christianity is essentially anti-democratic: Christians believe that they have the one true way to live and are eager to ensure that we all believe and live as they do. They divide the world into those who are right and those who are not. This is clear evidence that they really do not believe in the equal value of everyone. A democracy can only flourish when people agree to disagree and then try to develop a system of living together with their disagreements. Christians refuse to agree to disagree since they believe that they and only they have the one true answer.

The Meme Copernican Revolution

Instead of asking what an idea does for a person, ask what that person does for the idea.

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins introduces the meme as a mental equivalent to the physical gene. Some ideas survive and reproduce while others die out in a struggle for existence.

Gnostics and Shakers believed that birth is trapping a pure soul in a corrupt body, so they avoided sex. They also believed that their shining pure example would inspire others, so they did not evangelize. As a result no one is a Gnostic or a Shaker anymore. The memes are dead -- they failed to survive and reproduce.

Mormons and Catholics believe in marrying early and having as many children as possible. Both groups also have a strong emphasis on evangelizing. As a result, there are lots of Mormons and Catholics in the world. The memes are thriving -- they succeeded in surving and reproducing in the minds of new believers.

Imagine two groups of people. One group doesn't really care what people believe. The other group has a strong commitment to make other people believe the same thing. Certainly within a few generations the stronger meme will outnumber the weaker meme.

This doesn't mean that Mormons and Catholics are right and that Gnostics and Shakers are wrong anymore than dandilions are right and grass is wrong. Instead, it means that one set of memes spreads more aggressively than the other.

Avoiding the Tolerance Paradox

Tolerance is a virtue. But the common view of tolerance requires allowing everyone to do whatever they want. That raises the problem of being tolerant to obviously intolerable actions such as rape and genocide. To generalize, the common view of tolerance entails the paradox of being tolerant to those who are intolerant.

For example, conservative Christians sometimes argue that tolerance requires allowing them to oppress homosexuals. To argue that Christians should accept homosexuals, they argue, is to stifle Christian freedom. Tolerance, they argue, requires allowing Christians to oppress homosexuals.

The common view of tolerance is flawed. Tolerance is allowing individuals to have their own private life of their own choosing while we also behave according to fair rules in public / social / legal spheres. The sanctitiy of a private life of one's own choosing is paramount. While it is difficult to draw a clear line between the private and the public, it is evident that there is a difference.

Tolerance requires tolerance only to those who respect the sanctity of the private life -- by implication tolerance is consistent with stopping those who are trying to interfere with other individuals' private lives. Rape and genocide are clear violations of this sanctity.

The conservative Christian believes that they have a God given right to interfere with the private lives of others. This cannot be tolerated.

The Meaning of Pavement

Pavement means that we want nothing green to grow here ever again. If something manages to sneak through a crack and grow, we will pour hot tar on it. We want nothing green here.

Consider how much more pavement there is in the world now than just one hundred years ago. Consider how much more pavement there will be in just one hundred years. More pavement means less green.

The War between the Conservatives

Here in the U.S., there are conservatives who are eager for more warfare in the Middle East and there are liberals who want to pull our troops out of there. In Middle Eastern countries, there are conservatives who are eager for more warfare with “The Great Satan,” and there are liberals who embrace Western culture and want an end to the violence.

“The War on Terror” is the wrong name for this conflict. It should be called “The War between the Conservatives.”

Obviously Arbitrary Authorities

Heard this morning on a Christian radio station: “The Koran states that God is not a father, has no children, and that you’ll burn in Hell for believing that He is a father who has a son. But John 3:16 says that God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son so that those who believe will have eternal life.”

Two religious texts, both claiming to be the only true word of the only true god, contain completely opposite statements about this basic theological question. How can this be? Here are some possible explanations:

Perhaps God changed His story later and denied ever impregnating a married woman. (Or was she a young virgin? I’m so confused…)

Perhaps both texts are correct – perhaps God transcends our mortal notions of binary Logic (true / false, father / son) and religious texts are like kaleidoscopes that illuminate fragments of the stained glass window that is THE TRUTH.

Or perhaps these are just books written by men with agendas, charisma, issues, problems, and undiagnosed psychological traumas that make them hear voices. Perhaps it is time to realize that none of these books are really what they claim to be.

God and Mammon

Christians used to worry that Christmas was too comercial. That's the moral found in old popular culture stories such as "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

But today's self-annointed "culture warriors" have inverted the issue. Bill O'Reilly is upset that Wal-Mart employees say "Happy Holidays!" Commerce is not Christian enough!

The Prius Paradox

By conserving, hybrid owners are reducing the demand for gasoline. Economics dictates that a decrease in demand will create a decrease in price. The resulting cheap fuel encourages more people to buy large vehicles.

Perhaps the most environmentally active thing to do is to buy a large gas hog, which will increase the demand, cause an increase in price, and force more people to buy hybrid vehicles.

Not Stark Enough

Rodney Stark, sociologist from the University of Washington, uses an economic model to analyze religious choices. He is against the idea that religion is irrational, and works to show the reasons why people choose to be religious. One thesis is that the more expensive the religious organization, the more valuable is it perceived to be. So, a church that demands a lot from its members (two years of missionary work, no sex before marriage, no drugs or alcohol, 10% of your income, etc.) will be perceived to be more valuable than a laid back church that demands little from its members.

But Stark fails to follow through on this thesis. Churches can also demand that you sacrifice your rational thinking and your ability to think for yourself. People willingly give up their own rational autonomy and give their lives over to someone else. This greatest sacrifice reveals the purposeful irrationality of religions.

In Zeus We Trust

U.S. currency states "In God We Trust," but it does not specify which god. It does not say "Jesus," or "Yahveh," or any other particular god. However, most U.S. currency display classical pagan temples. Most major government buildings and monuments are built in this classical style. So, to what god do we owe our trust? Zeus!

Zeus is an aristocratic tribal warrior god. Zeus is not the creator god -- he is actually in the third generation of divine powers (following Hesiod's Theogony). Creation involves manual labor and getting your hands dirty. Zeus rules the heavens by force -- taking what others have created and threatening violence if opposed. Book 8 of Homer's Illiad opens with Zeus threatening violence and torture to any god who dares oppose him.

Certainly Zeus describes the character of U.S. foreign policy better than the Gospels.

Dualism and Artificial Intelligence

Dualism is the view that humans are two types of things: physical bodies and non-physical minds. Developers trying to create Artificial Intelligence deny dualism because a non-physical mind (like a soul) would be impossible to create in a physical computer system. Many books in philosophy of mind begin with a chapter rejecting Descartes' version of dualism.

However, the very fact that they are trying to create a mind within a computer actually reveals that they are dualists. By trying to create a mind within a computer, they are claiming that mind is independent of the human body. That is dualism. I have read authors who dismiss the necessity of the "wetware" of brains without realizing that this rejection commits them to dualism.

The only way consistently to avoid dualism is to accept that what we know as a mind has only been possible within the physical body of a human being.

Perhaps computers can or will create some kind of mind, but it will be very different from a human mind. A computer lives in a world free of hunger and the need to reproduce -- independent of the evolutionary forces that created the human mind. It will be interesting to watch the development of robot insects if the developers figure out how to harness evolutionary pressures.

Eat Chocolate Everyday

A friend once told me that he had thought about suicide. I told him not to kill himself because then you can’t eat any more chocolate.

He immediately replied that in the next life you may get to experience the best tasting chocolate you’ve ever had for all eternity. I told him that, yes, that might be what the next life is like. But I have no evidence for it. I know that there is chocolate right here in this world, however. And I know that when I die I can no longer enjoy this chocolate in this world.

For many people, the thought of a wonderful afterlife gives their life meaning. Whether it is the promise of seventy virgins, or playing the harp for eternity, or Robin Williams learning that Cuba Gooding, Jr. is his son, the pleasantness of the next world gives this world meaning. Take away that promise of a wonderful afterlife and people find this world to be scary and meaningless.

I work the opposite way. The thought of a wonderful afterlife does not move me at all. The primary reason is that I have no evidence for it. I’ve never seen it, and everyone who has died has been unable to tell us anything about it. And I don’t believe everything I read. Certainly part of being an educated person is to be critical about what you read. And I’m not impressed by the fact that so many other people believe it. Many people think that Adam Sandler is funny, so I don’t trust what many people think.

Instead of focusing on some dreamland perfection, I would rather focus on this world. The primary reason is that I have loads of evidence that this world is here. You have loads of evidence too! It just seems rational to me to focus on the world that exists.

So, what’s in this world? It is true that there are a lot of awful things in this world. It is the awful things that so often turn people to focus on the next world. It is, as Nietzsche tells us, a form of escapism. The reason why there are no atheists in foxholes is because no one wants to be in a foxhole. This doesn’t tell us anything about the next world, it just tells us to avoid foxholes.

There are also lots of things in this world that should be good but ending up being bad. Spouses run off with people they meet on the internet, children die, cars wreck, diseases cripple, teeth rot, bowels clog, toes stub, eyes go blind, ears go deaf, and you need a root canal. Your favorite stereo equipment is stolen. Your favorite car blows a head gasket. Your computer crashed. Your health insurance doesn’t cover that. Lots of things will go wrong in your life and they will continue to do so until you die. This world has a lot of awful things in it.

But it also has chocolate. It is true that there are many other pleasurable things in this world. But most of those things are unreliable. Sex is very pleasurable, but unreliable. Alcohol is very pleasurable, but it has way too many awful characteristics. I picked chocolate because it is very reliable and very primal. For me, eating chocolate really releases some basic essential pleasure. It is reliably wonderful.

And so I eat chocolate everyday. By eating chocolate everyday I am affirming that there is something in this world which I know is wonderful. By knowing that there is this one thing that is wonderful, I can then go on and see all of the other things that are wonderful, for there are many wonderful things in this world.

A Bushie Irony

One of the stated reasons for invading Iraq was to create a secular, liberal democracy that would be a model for the Middle East. The Bushies wanted Iraqis to respect each other's religious differences (liberalism) and create a non-theocractic government (secularism).

The irony is that the same Bushies don't want a secular, liberal democracy in the U.S. They insist upon the phrase "under God" in the pledge of allegiance, they want copies of The Ten Commandments displayed in public places, they want to ban homosexuality, and so on, and so on.

Pursuing a strategy that they clearly don't want makes them look like a giant dog chasing its own tail.

Creative Misreading

A common theological trick is to quote one line of scripture and then expound upon its “true meaning” for an hour until the audience no longer can remember the original words. In this way the text can be co-opted to suit any purpose. No one seems to question this embarrassing method of finding scriptural truth. On the contrary, this method of creative misreading is frequently used by fundamentalists who claim (without any apparent irony) that there is only one correct, literal reading of scripture.

The Real Reason for the Season

Christmas was born of Northern Europeans trying to survive the long cold winter with parties, alcohol, and lots of lights. The lights keep you from going crazy when the sun shines only for about a quarter of the day. The parties and alcohol lead to babies who will be born at the end of summer when the harvest is ripe. Survival and Reproduction are the evolutionary reason for the season.

Germs and Birth Control

Most religious traditions date back prior to the germ theory of infection, which is just over a hundred years old. Our religiously derived ethical beliefs predate the standards of cleanliness and sanitation we take for granted. The belief that families must generate as many babies as possible makes sense given the high mortality rate of just a few centuries ago; but now we are creating more people than this planet can sustain. Nature’s birth control is starvation.

Our Little Sliver of Atmosphere

I am very concerned about global warming. Each day I become more aware of the fact that we live in a small sliver of atmosphere in a universe that is otherwise completely inhospitable to humans. Each day I see us burn as much fossil fuels into that small sliver of atmosphere as we can possible burn. People invent new and better ways to burn even more fossil fuels, and each day people buy more and more stuff that will burn these fossil fuels. Economies grow by burning more fossil fuels than were burned last year.

Scientists do not know what exactly will happen. Critics pounce on this fact as if it proves that nothing terrible will happen. It doesn’t. It only proves that scientists are rational, and rationality requires some modesty concerning predicting the future, especially with a phenomenon as complex as the global atmospheric conditions.

Humans are burning as many fossil fuels as possible and releasing the waste into this little sliver of atmosphere. We are polluting what makes human life possible.

Rationalism, Materialism, Environmentalism

Studying philosophy is an attempt to be rational about life. Many people use magical thinking to solve the question of how to live. Magical thinking halts inquiry, whereas rational thinking requires it. Peirce wrote that the first principle of logic is “Do not block the way of inquiry.” That is the motto of the rational.

I believe that rationality leads to materialism – the belief that the physical world is everything there is to the world. The alternative is the belief in the supernatural – the belief that there is something beyond this mere physical world. Most believers in the supernatural (from Plato on) have also believed that this heavenly beyond world is also better and more valuable than this polluted and fallen mess. This allows them to pollute and pillage this world and feel confident that a better world exists in the skies. By contrast, the rational person must realize that this planet Earth is our only possible home in a hostile universe. Rationality leads to materialism, which leads to environmentalism.

Why I study philosophy

At a recent job interview I gave a terrible response to the question “What is Philosophy?” There are multiple correct answers to that question, and I gave only one. In retrospect a better response would be more volumous, which reflects the various types, ways and methods of doing philosophy.

But what they all have in common is someone doing philosophy. All the different categories and movements are at bottom really individual people doing this stuff – writing the books, giving the lectures, thinking the thoughts. The reason why there are so many multiple right answers to the question “What is philosophy?” is that there are so many multiple people pursuing philosophy in their own idiosyncratic ways.

I study philosophy because I followed Aristotle’s advice that thinking about thinking is the highest form of life. To study philosophy, The Philosopher writes, is the best life.