25 August 2012

A thought on the evolution of religion, philosophy, and science

I'm keeping this one short in an attempt to stop certain philosophers changing this into an examination of the form of my argument rather than its point.  All the documentation supporting the statements I make about the histories of science, philosophy, and religion are easily available with a few Google searches.

There is evidence of religion going back hundreds of thousands of years, in the form of burial rituals.  Organized religion, of the general form we know today, emerged around 12,000 years ago.  It provided answers (albeit ridiculous ones by modern standards) to why things were as they are, which alleviated stress in the community by lessening what is unknown.  Unknown = danger = stress.  It also provided a power structure around which to organize the community.

Philosophy began within the last 3,000 years, depending on which culture you're considering.  However you define "philosophy," it started long after religion.  Philosophy sought answers to more or less the same questions as religion - it only phrased them more precisely.  ("What does it mean to be?" versus "What is my purpose?")  Still, philosophy was fundamentally about explaining and predicting reality.  The power structure of philosophy came from ability to reason - those who could reason had an advantage over those who could not.  Knowledge is power, as they say.

Science is a bit harder to nail down.  Some people argue that the formalization of mathematics represents the establishment of science.  I disagree, because mathematics is a broad tool that can be applied to things other than science; that is, it isn't a marker of science only.  It's also important to distinguish between natural philosophy and science as we understand it today.  The real distinguishing feature of science is the establishment of the scientific method, which is only about 300 years old.  Science serves exactly the same societal purpose as religion and philosophy: understanding provides safety and power.

So religion came first; then came philosophy; then came science.  If we think of it as an evolutionary tree, it starts with religion, then philosophy splits off from it, and then finally science splits off from philosophy, by way of the "transitional form" of natural philosophy.  Note that, unlike natural evolution, all three major disciplines still exist.

The evolution of these three fields was spurred by the ever-growing body of knowledge that they themselves generated.  It's a positive feedback loop: the more we learn, the better we understand, the more we can refine and improve our means of learning.  There is little doubt that science is the best we've got.  It improves in every possible way on its ancestors.

So the question is: why do the progenitor disciplines continue to exist un-evolved*, like coelacanths and sharks?  I will offer this suggestion of an explanation.

Biological species evolve in response to changes in their environment that alter the rate of survival of a genetically diverse population.  Coelacanths, sharks, and similar animals have remained essentially unchanged because the changes to their environment were insufficient to alter their rate of survival.

I think the reason why religion and philosophy survive and haven't been completely been replaced by science because there are environmental "pockets" where they remain viable.  These pockets aren't defined by geography or other physical characteristics, but rather by the personalities and socio-cultural norms of societies and communities.  As old people die and are replaced by young people, the young can be indoctrinated (brainwashed) in ways that ensure an unchanging environment.

Perhaps at some point in the future, some new way of learning will be developed that will make science look as ridiculous to some future human as religion does to a scientist of today.  The difference will be (I believe and hope) that science will recognize the superiority of that better way of learning about the universe and will willingly accept it.  More than philosophy and definitely more than religion, science ought to be expected to welcome that improvement.  Which is just another way that science beats its progenitors.

* Some may argue that philosophy has greatly evolved in the last few millennia, and they would be, in my opinion, partly right.  There continues to be a great deal that philosophy can contribute to humanity's advancement.  But there are also fields within philosophy that are stuck in modes of thinking that are, quite frankly, useless.  And because they are useless, they distract others from, and waste resources that would be better applied to, more important questions.

06 August 2012

Sometime, deriding the messenger is necessary

This is Alexander Lucie-Smith, and he is hateful, incompetent, and deceitful.

He recently offered us a whole wheelbarrow of tripe in The tragedy at the heart of New Atheism.  Jerry Coyne has already torn apart his goofball sophistry, as has Eric MacDonald.  I, instead, want to write about another aspect of the behaviour of nutjobs like Lucie-Smith: that not only their vile ideas but they themselves deserve our derision and ridicule for the lies they tell and the harm they promote.

There are many atheists and humanists who advocate ridiculing only certain ideas and not those who hold such ideas.  The premise is that anyone can be wrong.  The indoctrination of the young to religulous dogma, for example, is quite powerful and if it is just a quirk of circumstance that one has been brainwashed by [insert any religion here], then we cannot truly blame one for espousing stupid, hateful ideas.

Fair enough.  But that does not describe every religulous fundiot.  Some of them clearly have the brains, the education, and the resources to learn from their mistakes.  Instead, these people exhibit either incredible sloth, or incompetence, or malevolence, or some combination of the three.  And they do so repeatedly.  When one keeps repeating the same mistakes, using the same wretched arguments, despite having been shown (sometimes in dozens of different ways) the specific errors one committed and even how those errors might be corrected - well, we must then revisit our strategies.

What do one do when, no matter how often one leads a horse to water, the horse patently refuses to drink - to even acknowledge the water is there?  This is exactly what these religulous fundiots do. Even worse, not only do the religulous deny the water of scientific truth that we offer to them; they even seek to deny these truths to others, and to confound the undecided with lies and vacuous arguments.

What do we do?  This is more than just some brainwashed Mormon peddling their paper mache god on a street-corner.  This is intentional, wilful, repeated subversion of truth and well-being for the sake of their stupid, hateful fairy tales.  What to do with people who wilfully seek to spread lies, over and over again, fully knowing - or at least having the capacity to know - that their lies promote hate and harm?

Is it enough to simply argue against their ideas?

Why do repeat criminals end up in prison for longer and longer periods of time?  Because it becomes apparent that society cannot fix them, so exile becomes the only feasible way to maintain the safety and peace of the society.

When will we finally realize that there is no difference between criminal recidivism and the religulous who repeatedly lie and spread harm through their religion?

It cannot possibly be enough to just ridicule religulous ideas.  This is because there will always be more wilfully ignorant, hate-mongering assholes to argue against you.  You can't destroy a bad idea if there is a steady supply of morons ready to take it up.  Indeed, the idea is pointless without the dumb-fuck, witless, hateful agent to promulgate it.  They are religious recidivists.

Clearly, such people are mentally ill.  Anyone who prefers lies to truth and harm to well-being is nuts, by definition.  But society - even so-called "developed" Western society - is quaintly parochial in naming this delusion where religion is concerned.

Did you know that the DSM has a special exemption for religious beliefs under the diagnosis of delusion?  This is because without it virtually everyone who holds religious beliefs above scientific knowledge would be labelled mentally ill.  (Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, quotes page 765 of the DSM-IV to this effect.)

So we can't just round up the religulous fundiots and lock them up - exile them - even though that is certainly the most rational course of action given what we know.

What else can we do but deride and ridicule the messenger?  Medical science, as it is currently practised, takes delusion as a mental illness - unless the delusion is religious.  God disguises himself as a lunatic.  Or maybe he's just a lunatic disguised as a god.  (Which is more likely?)  Still, the current social norm is that the religulous are sane.  If they are sane, and we have established they are both educated and intelligent, then they must be malevolent.  There is no other option.

The malevolent must be dealt with.  They must be stopped.  They must be shown to be the useless bags of skin they really are.  Since we cannot provide them with the psychiatric help they so obviously and desperately need, we can only convince them to shut up.  They must be prevented from influencing others by any legal and ethical means possible, because every time they open their mouths, they harm others.  So we really should not hesitate to yell and drown them out; to make fun of them, belittle them, ridicule them.  Their ideas are nothing without vessels, and we cannot stop people from thinking stupid things.  But by damn we can stop them from acting on those ideas.

So, to Alexander Lucie-Smith, beady-eyed whack-job that he is, I say this: your puerile ideas have been utterly demolished by others.  But that's not enough.

With reference to the putrefaction in your article, Lucie-Smith:

  • You are so stupid that you are unable to use an internet search engine to find that quote of Richard Dawkins.
  • You are so unethical, that you didn't even try - you could have asked someone else to do it for you, in the spirit of journalistic integrity.  But why should you care about that, when Christianity is just one big fucking lie?
  • You are incompetent as a writer and communicator, constructing the kinds of arguments I would have been ashamed to present when I was a freshman, let alone a doctor of moral theology.
  • Your flaccid arguments are an insult to academe, and show a complete disregard for the conduct of research and argumentation.  Whatever institution bestowed your doctorate clearly caters to idiots and assholes.
  • Your arguments appeal entirely to the visceral, irrational, animalistic ignorance of theists.  In so doing, you foment hatred of rationality.
  • This in turn belies utter contempt for your readers and humanity in general.

You, Alexander Lucie-Smith, are a repugnant slug who hates humanity.  Perhaps if you'd not been skull-fucked by your church quite so severely, you might understand that.  But you have willingly let your brains be liquified by the horror of the Catholic church because you are deficient, you are malevolent, you are sadistically narcissistic.  You are not fit to wipe the shit from my ass and I will never, ever, think of you as anything but the fucktard you really are.

(Sidebar: if the Catholic Church really gave a shit at all about anyone, they would have arranged for the brainless Lucie-Smith to be severely and publicly castigated for his contemptible and dismissive article.  Instead, Ratzy the Nazi remains silent.  Silence gives consent.  So the entire Catholic church is just as guilty, just as hateful, and just as fucked up, as the nutless wonder Lucie-Smith.)

03 August 2012

Hope is nothing special

Here's the most recent tripe at our local Baptist church.  I unfortunately drive by the place quite often, and this one just kept getting under my skin....  I had to write about it.

First off, it's a bit of a non-sequitur, because the antecedent ("endless hope") says nothing about the condition of the consequent (an "end").  That is, having endless hope does nothing to necessarily prevent an end, hopeless or otherwise.  So this gets a solid F for composition.

Next, there is the insulting nature of the message: non-Christians are doomed to terminal despair simply because of their choice to worship a non-Christian god or no gods at all.  They may as well have just announced that non-Christians will burn in hell.  The sanctimonious arrogance of these people, who think that they have a fast track to a delusional ever-lasting life, shows such contempt for human life that it turns my stomach.  So in the category of empathy and respect for others, this gets another F.

Next: the use of the word "Christian."  Baptists aren't Protestants because they disagree with Protestant doctrine.  By definition, Baptists think that their way is the only right way, or they wouldn't have felt the need to form a new religion.  This necessarily means a good and proper Baptist must believe that non-Baptists are heathen, regardless of whether they're Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Pastafarian, or Jedi.  (Of course, the exact same argument can be levelled at every other sect of Christianity and, indeed, all religions.)  So why are they clumping all Christians together in their signage?  Personally, I think it's because they would rather put up with a Catholic than a Muslim or - horror of horrors - an atheist.  I think that many believers of the more insignificant religions, like Baptists, figure that there's strength in numbers, and so are willing to band together with other Christians to combat their perceived common enemies.  Religiously, they're Baptists; but politically, they're Christians.

Whatever the reason, the point remains: to comment on Christians as a whole runs entirely counter to their very existence.  (Not to mention it speaks on the behalf of those from whom consent was not granted.)  So, the scope of their argument is entirely wrong, and deserves an F.

Here's another problem with this statement: it's factually wrong.  Of course, facts have never been known to influence the religulous, so I am not surprised that these Baptists are simply cherry-picking the evidence to support their trite delusions.  There are, in fact, all kinds of people who live wonderful, fulfilling, happy, meaningful lives without religion and without god.  They die in peace and without regret.  That such people exist entirely undermines the claim the Baptists make.  So, for fact-checking: F.

Now let's consider hope itself.  Hope is "the emotional state which promotes the belief in a positive outcome related to events and circumstances in one's life." (source)  If you don't like Wikipedia, then use this more academic definition: "Hope is...the perceived capability to derive pathways to desired goals, and motivate oneself via agency thinking to use those pathways." (source)

Furthermore, in religious parlance, hope is almost always about entering heaven.  Let's run with that for a moment.

Once you die, in typical Christian belief systems, there's nothing more you can do to affect the odds of your getting into heaven or hell.  Depending on the sect to which you belong, you may or may not have to wait till Armageddon/Judgement-Day/Rapture/whatever to actually get anywhere, but as of your mortal death, you're ticket is stamped, your fate sealed, your gig utterly and completely up.  Given either of the definitions of hope that I provided, you simply don't need any hope when you die.  Hope is about events and goals in one's life.  Death is the final event, and once you're dead, you're also completely out of agency to achieve goals.  Your god's decision regarding your ultimate fate doesn't depend on anything after your death.  The decision is in essence made when you die.

Hope, in the religious sense, is pointless at one's death, and irrelevant thereafter.  Therefore, it makes sense that everyone, even the religulous, should meet a hopeless end!  Clearly, these Baptists were more concerned with creating a good sound bite - something, dare I say, tweetable - than with offering an accurate statement.  So, in the category of depth of analysis, they get a resounding F.

Now let's look at hope more broadly.  Clearly, hope is just belief and not knowledge.  Whether it's about "positive outcomes" or about reaching "desired goals," hope is really about desire.  Hope is about wanting things to turn out.  We don't hope that things go badly.  We don't hope that terrible things happen to others (unless of course such terrible things result in "good" feelings in us, like vengeance, in which case we're really just hoping to feel good).

Unless one is mentally ill, the things one wants, the things one hopes for, are "good" things.  We hope for health, wealth, happiness, security, safety, etc.  And this is, as I see it, the key to understanding hope.  We have evolved to seek situations with the least stress.  A stressed organism will not produce as many offspring, and what offspring are produced will tend to be weaker and sicklier than those of organisms that are not stressed.  Stresses come from sources that organisms cannot control - their environments.  Stress serves the purpose of warning the organism of impending danger, so it is useful, but only to a point.  Organisms that learned how to adapt to stress produced more, healthier offspring, and so eventually overwhelmed organisms unable to adapt to stress.  Since the environment is always changing, there are always new kinds of stress, so those organisms that can adapt the best, the most often, and the most quickly, will eventually out-reproduce other organisms. And so, eventually, all organisms will have an innate drive to seek out low-stress situations (or, alternatively, to avoid situations of high stress).

For a very long time, organisms were insufficiently complex to reflect, to have self-image, to reason about time, and to build mental models of their world with themselves in the models.  Humans are one of the few organisms that can do these things.  Once you can reason about your own mental models, you can start to imagine possible future worlds.  You will naturally prefer those possible worlds in which you believe you will have less stress than you do in the actual, current world.  Those are precisely the worlds that we hope for.

We call it hope, rather than just rational preference, because it isn't rational; it isn't the result of careful and conscious thought processes.  It is the hardwired instinct to avoid stress that hands us our preferred worlds.  It is cognition, but not conscious cognition.  It's stuff the brain does without bothering to tell us.  Instead, the results of that cognition alone are shown to our conscious minds.  The result is that we perceive these preferences appearing as if from nowhere, popping fully formed into consciousness.  It's not rational thought, but it is something that presses on us, exerts its influence on us directly and powerfully.

Hope is something humans have been doing for a very long time - far longer than we have been thinking rationally.  It stands to reason that this feeling would have been captured and packaged into a concept ingrained in every human culture.  It also stands to reason that its universal applicability to direct us toward outcomes that make us literally "feel better" will have made it a magic incantation of any organization seeking to give relief or to control others.

And what hope could possibly be more powerful than that of a kind of existence that is utterly stress-free?  That's what heaven is: the ultimate stress-free environment.

But that doesn't make hope anything special.  It's an tool in our evolutionary tool-belt, a neat trick that our brains have learned to do over the eons.  It helped us make choices more likely to result in our survival and the propagation of our genetic material when we were too primitive to make decisions rationally.  We know better know.

Don't get me wrong: hope is still useful, exactly because it lowers stress and therefore improves our overall health.  And it feels good.  But it has no superior force, it is no guiding light, it represents no true way to fulfilment.

And hope does carry costs.

Since hope works at the instinctual, visceral level, there's no way to know if hope's object is reasonable.  What if the positive outcome or desired goal of a hope is ludicrous or impossible?

There is such a thing as "false hope" - hope in the impossible or even just highly unlikely.  Such hope is false because hope itself is not enough to make the positive outcome occur or reach the desired goal.  This is important: hope is not enough.  When our hopes are not realized, because they were false, we often suffer emotionally and mentally if not physically.  The greater the false hope, the potentially greater the catastrophe that follows its destruction.  For instance, I cannot imagine the psychological pain suffered by parents who deny their child medical treatment on religious grounds, only to have the child die; it must be excruciating.

Not only that, but false hope leads one to action, like laws permitting parents to make choices regarding their children's medical care that substantively increases the odds of suffering and death.  False hope can permeate a society like a drug addiction, giving one temporary solace or even joy, but doing irreparable harm in the long term.

And all this derives because some people refuse to acknowledge that their hope is just instinctive and not necessarily correct.

So, here's what I say: hope may be fine as a default, when no other, better, rational information is available; but aside from that, hope is useless.

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