Archive for September, 2010
The Pew Poll

There’s been some discussion lately about the recent Pew poll that shows atheists outscoring believers on the subject of the believers’ own religious beliefs. PZ Myers and Ed Brayton are among those who see this as scoring a not-insignificant point for the atheists’ side, while Chad Orzel and Josh Rosenau are among those cautioning us against reading too much into this interesting statistic. Orzel cites Razib and Nisbet as pointing out that atheists, being in the minority, are more motivated to explore and understand the religious beliefs of others, since they’re more likely to find themselves “in the crosshairs” of a dorm-room discussion or a knock at the door. Brayton, meanwhile, points out that many unbelievers (of which I happen to be one) started out as believers, and became unbelievers precisely because they learned what they were believing in, and thought about it.

Neither side should be lightly dismissed; each has something important to say, and a valid point to make. And of course, I have my own two cents to toss in.

My first penny is that I tend to agree with those who think this statistic is a telling point in favor of unbelief. Truth is consistent with itself, and the more you know about something that’s really true, the more you can see how well it fits with all the other facts. Conversely, of course, the more you know about something that isn’t true, the easier it is to find inconsistencies and contradictions. Since at most one of these religions can be The Truth, it makes sense that most religions would benefit from a higher degree of ignorance among their believers.

The second cent is this: faith is a belief, but you can’t just have a belief. You have to believe some thing. If most believers know little about what it is they’re believing, then what exactly does their faith consist of? They obviously don’t miss their beliefs if they don’t even know what they are, which implies that their faith is of little practical importance to them in their everyday lives. Oh, it’s important symbolically, as a kind of banner to rally around. But again, if it were really important enough to rally around, wouldn’t it be important enough for people to know what it is?

This is one of the things that greatly disturbed me when I was a believer, because I did believe that Christian beliefs were important, and I couldn’t understand why almost nobody, in any church, seemed to hold the faith in high enough regard to want to learn it. At least not in the pews. You could preach it, people expected you to preach it, but, well, tomorrow’s Monday, back to the real world, eh? That’s part of the reason I ultimately left my Christian faith behind. God doesn’t show up in real life, miracles are only rumors, exaggerations and superstitions, and the Holy Spirit doesn’t seem to be doing much in people’s hearts. If the faith is hollow too, if the beliefs have no practical, meaningful content, then what’s really left to hang around for?

XFiles Weekend: “Jesus was an atheist”

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 4, “What Lies Behind the Law”)

Professor C. S. Lewis is a highly intelligent man who started out not believing in God and ended up a believer. His book Mere Christianity would like to lead the rest of us down the same path. So far, though, the road has taken some bizarre twists and turns. He began, in Chapter One, by informing us that there is a Law of Right and Wrong, or a Law of (Human) Nature, which he claimed was a universal and objective law like the laws of Nature. Then he noted that, in fact, this Law of (Human) Nature was really not very much like a scientific law of Nature after all. Yet, rather than admit that his so-called Law was not real, he jumped to the conclusion that there must be more than one reality, in order to provide some way his “Law” could be real in some sense. And in last week’s post, we saw him begin to deny, or at least doubt, the idea that the scientific laws of nature are truly real.

It’s fascinating, in a watching-a-train-wreck sort of way. Step by step, the gifted thinker, writer, and Oxford don is leading himself to turn his back on such truth as can be learned by studying the real world, and to embrace instead a sort of “truth” that springs from superstition, subjectivism, and gullibility. Having borrowed the authority of real laws of nature in order to lend legitimacy to his own fanciful Law, he then turns around and rejects the reality of the laws he started from, and embraces his own creation as the sole Real Law. “I reject your reality, and substitute a Truth of my own invention.” And thus the road to faith is paved.

Lewis continues this myth-building process by presenting us with what he calls two views regarding what the universe is and how it got here.

First, there is what is called the materialist view. People who take that view think that matter and space just happen to exist, and always have existed, nobody knows why; and that the matter, behaving in certain fixed ways, has just happened, by a sort of fluke, to produce creatures like ourselves who are able to think. By one chance in a thousand something hit our sun and made it produce the planets; and by another thousandth chance the chemicals necessary for life, and the right temperature, occurred on one of these planets, and so some of the matter on this earth came alive; and then, by a very long series of chances, the living creatures developed into things like us.

Note that Lewis is writing this in the 1940′s, roughly a decade before the emergence of the modern creationist movement, which probably explains why he uses relatively small numbers like “thousand” instead of making up a number with so many zeros that we don’t have a name for it. Each generation of denialists needs a bigger number, in order to impress the rubes, but this is a very primitive form of creationism that hasn’t yet learned to manipulate arbitrary statistics effectively.

Like the modern creationists, though, Lewis pushes the mistaken notion that materialists credit random chance with the emergence of life on earth. Granted, it might seem random to a superstitious observer, because a superstitious observer will be seeking some kind of plan and purpose behind the operation of natural forces, while scientific observation finds no such intentional direction in Nature.

The absence of intentional direction, however, does not mean that there is no direction at all. The things that happen in the real world are directed by the natural laws that constrain them. Just as gravity makes falling more likely than flying, other natural laws make some possibilities more likely than others; working in concert, they produce a “directed” property of nature without producing or requiring any “intentional” property. It is precisely because nature is directed, and not merely random, that science is able to study natural phenomena and discover the laws that are directing it. A truly random universe, where things happened only by chance, would be the kind of chaos that would leave science helpless and useless. Fortunately, despite Lewis’ biased and mistaken assessment, the material universe is not that sort of universe at all.

The other view is the religious view. According to it, what is behind the universe is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know. That is to say, it is conscious, and has purposes, and prefers one thing to another. And on this view it made the universe, partly for purposes we do not know, but partly, at any rate, in order to produce creatures like itself—I mean, like itself to the extent of having minds. Please do not think that one of these views was held a long time ago and that the other has gradually taken its place. Wherever there have been thinking men both views turn up.

You have to admire the careful precision with which he makes that last claim. It is indeed true: whenever you find a culture that produces a genuine thinker—a Socrates, for example—you find both a tendency to define “truth” in terms of what can be observed in the real world, and also the “religious” view. Whenever society fails to produce such thinking men, you typically have only the religious view. So it is technically quite true that whenever there have been thinking men, both views turn up.

I don’t want to be too hard on religion, though. What Lewis describes as “the religious view” is actually something a bit more specific than that. The word Lewis ought to have used is animistic. Humans are a social species, with some fairly well-developed social instincts to allow complex social interactions to work. Animism puts those highly-developed social instincts to work as tools for understanding the equally complex interactions between man and nature. Primitive man had no scientific understanding of meteorology, so he understood the weather in terms of the moods of some kind of invisible, magical mind behind the weather, and likewise for diseases, farming, and a gazillion and one other things that people have gods and spirits for.

It’s something that social instincts are surprisingly good at. After all, we learn to read people’s moods by noticing and learning subtle signs in their body language and facial expression; how much harder is it to apply the same technique to subtle signs in the clouds and the direction of the wind? Even if it does not predict the future as reliably as we’d like, at least it supplies a context in which we can relate our observations to something we’re familiar with, and that means a lot to most people.

So yes, it’s true that wherever there have been thinking men, a more materialistic view of the universe has turned up alongside the usual animism that arises among the ignorant and superstitious and gullible. (Notice I did not say stupid—animism does sorta kinda work in the absence of anything better. And besides, intelligence isn’t necessarily incompatible with animism, since you can always use your intellect to create sophisticated rationalizations for animistic beliefs.) But where Lewis really goes off the rails is in his next statement:

And note this too. You cannot find out which view is the right one by science in the ordinary sense. Science works by experiments. It watches how things behave. Every scientific statement in the long run, however complicated it looks, really means something like, ‘I pointed the telescope to such and such a part of the sky at 2:20 a.m. on January 15th and saw so-and-so,’ or, ‘I put some of this stuff in a pot and heated it to such-and-such a temperature and it did so-and-so.’ Do not think I am saying anything against science: I am only saying what its job is. And the more scientific a man is, the more (I believe) he would agree with me that this is the job of science—and a very useful and necessary job it is too. But why anything comes to be there at all, and whether there is anything behind the things science observes—something of a different kind—this is not a scientific question.

It would be hard to over-emphasize how wrong Lewis is in making this claim. In fact, if you wanted to be as wrong about Christianity as Lewis is about science, you would have to say something on the order of “Jesus was an atheist.” That’s how wide of the mark Lewis is with his statements about science.

Science is all about discovering what lies behind the things we observe in the real world. Observations are a part of science, just like being good to your neighbors is part of Christianity. But to claim that the whole necessarily boils down to just this one part is to do violence to what the whole is really all about. The whole point of science, the focus of all its tools and techniques, is the discovery of the truth about why the universe is the way it is and how it got that way, in the same sense that the whole point of Christianity is finding a way to get right with God and obtain salvation.

Could Lewis be unaware of the real focus of science? Could Richard Dawkins be unaware of Christianity’s belief in God? That’s the level of cluelessness we’d be talking about here. It is inconceivable that a middle school student could get a passing grade in middle school science without being at least aware of the fact that science probes for the causes behind the observations. Well, ok, maybe some students might be that dull, but an Oxford don like Professor Lewis?

I think what we’re seeing here is a great mind in denial. Lewis knows better than to deny that science is both willing and able to address exactly the questions he proposes. But he also knows that the scientific answers are not going to tell him what he wants to hear. Thus, he convinces himself that science cannot even ask the questions, leaving him carte blanche to simply ignore those answers when they do turn up. Intellectually, he ought to know better, but his intellect is overruled by his toxic faith, and hence he turns to blind denial instead.

I’ve got more to say on this topic, and Lewis develops it further in the next part of Chapter Four, but we’re out of space for this week, so stay tuned.

Remembering the International Day of Peace

September 21st marks not only the beginning of the autumn season, but also the globally-recognized annual International Day of Peace. It was created in part to ensure that humanity is mindful of the necessity for peace among each other, from the smallest individual level all the way to the top global level. Going far beyond its original intentions by the organization (United Nations) that created an “official” date for when everyone focuses their awareness on peace, we can also heighten the significance of an international day of peace by spreading that very peace within our daily lives. By spreading, what is meant is the expression of peace consciousness in our lives and among all our interactions that we have throughout the day. By doing so, we can see what a society with an elevated level of peace within its global consciousness would look like.

As a new season within Earth’s biosphere begins, so to does a symbolic new beginning for how we act and react within society. It can serve as a time of resolutions and promises to oneself. The International Day of Peace can act as a reminder of that opportunity. By being mindful of peace and by expressing the consciousness state of peace, we not only become that much closer to becoming self-actualized, but we also assist every other human being on this planet in their own self-growth. This is thanks to the wonderful reality of an interconnected consciousness matrix. Everything is connected to everything else and as a result everything affects everything else. With such a mechanism and fundamental aspect of Reality set in place, the expression of positive states of consciousness, such as peace, will elevate not only one’s own level of consciousness, but everyone else’s as well, even if ever-so-slightly. All would benefit from an increase in the amount of peace in society and it is not that difficult to do, if you truly think about it.

Yes, it may involve some conscious intention and focused awareness at first, but after a while, it becomes a natural reaction. There is absolutely nothing to lose but perhaps one’s pride by radiating such higher consciousness energies like peace out into the global consciousness. There is nothing to be afraid of. If you do not feel like taking part in an hour-long meditation on the consciousness of peace like some do, you can do something as simple as going to the forest and allow yourself to become surrounded by serenity. There are so many ways to instill peace within our beings. As long as the conscious intention is the same (true peace among humanity), the outcome will be the one desired. Please take some time today, tomorrow, and/or anytime soon to focus your position of awareness of peace and feel that peace spreading throughout the global consciousness as if it were truly happening. You, me, and everyone else can benefit, and we can all have a higher quality of life in the end. The future is yet to be determined…let us work towards having a future where peace is an underlying aspect of society.


XFiles Weekend: Toxic faith

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 4, “What Lies Behind the Law”)

We come now to Chapter 4 of Mere Christianity, and I’m going to steal a little of Lewis’ thunder by giving away the plot. As we’ve seen in the first three chapters, Lewis wants to claim that there exists some sort of “real” Moral Law which he can then attribute to an invisible, magical Being, or Lawgiver. Trouble is, if we take any sort of rational and objective look at the actual evidence, we find that it’s fundamentally inconsistent with his claims. Instead of admitting that the facts don’t fit, however, Lewis argues that this glaring discrepancy is proof that multiple realities exist, and that his so-called Moral Law must come from the other one.

In making this argument, Lewis has implicitly thrown reason and science out the window, but in Chapter 4 he goes on to make this more explicit. Appealing to the age-old expedient of declaring that this new “truth” lies beyond the reach of science, he declares that we must reject and ignore any sort of reasonable, scientific evaluation of the “evidence” he tries to use to back up his claims. The problem with abandoning science and reason, though, is that it becomes very difficult to make a coherent argument without them, as Lewis is about to demonstrate.

He begins by taking a very peculiar position with regards to what is and is not real.

When you say that nature is governed by certain laws, this may only mean that nature does, in fact, behave in a certain way. The so-called laws may not be anything real—anything above and beyond the actual facts which we observe.

Here Lewis is either hopelessly confused about the nature of reality, or else he is flatly wrong. The “so-called laws” of Nature are simply those properties of the real world which constrain the way it works. As properties of the real world, they are, by definition, real. It would be rather difficult to imagine a reality whose attributes were not real, after all! But being properties of the natural world, they are also “above and beyond” the specific, individual instances we observe as facts.

That’s a bit abstract, so let’s take a more familiar example. As we all learned in geometry class, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter is π, or approximately 3.14. This fact is almost too trivial to call a law, but we’re going for simplicity here, so let’s use it anyway. The thing about π is that it’s not a number we made up ourselves. We couldn’t, in fact, because it’s not humanly possible to know exactly what π is. We can get better and better approximations of π, but we’ll never know the exact value to the last decimal place because it doesn’t have a last decimal place.

The thing is, π is more than just what Lewis calls the “actual facts which we observe.” You can observe that this circle happens to have a diameter of 1 and a circumference of about 3.14, and that circle has a diameter of 2 and a circumference of 6.28 (approximately), but these individual observations are not, themselves, the “Law of Pi.” Even if you observed a million circles of different diameters, these observations would not prove that the next circle you observe might not have a diameter of 10 and a circumference of 50. That would be the way to bet, granted, but that wouldn’t be the natural law.

The “Law of Pi” is simply a manifestation of an inherent property of the mathematical nature of reality itself. We do not arbitrarily define π, nor is it merely a summary of the circles we’ve observed thus far. That’s why we can calculate π without constructing and measuring actual circles. π is a natural constant, an inherent property in the real world itself, and therefore we can use the appropriate branch of science (mathematics) to study it.

The real world has certain self-consistent properties, and these properties govern the ways in which natural phenomena can manifest themselves. These are real properties, or real laws, above and beyond the specific natural manifestations that they govern. And because truth is consistent with itself, we can use science and reason to dig backwards from the outward manifestations to the underlying real properties that give them their distinctive form.

This isn’t all that hard a concept to grasp, especially for an Oxford don, so I suspect that Lewis is either deliberately trying to fool us, or else has sadly deceived himself. The real world isn’t telling him what he wants to hear, and consequently he is tempted to abandon science and reality-based reason in favor of a more self-pleasing alternative. Denying the reality of natural laws is merely a way of opening the gates to superstition and subjectivism.

Needless to say, you can’t discover genuine truth by running away from the principle that truth is consistent with itself. Whatever warped and ambiguous definition of “real” Lewis is using for the laws of nature, it’s clear he cannot apply the same standard to his own so-called Moral Law. And he doesn’t.

The Law of Human Nature, or of Right and Wrong, must be something above and beyond the actual facts of human behaviour. In this case, besides the actual facts, you have something else—a real law which we did not invent and which we know we ought to obey.

Now, suddenly, it’s so easy for a “law” to be real that it no longer even needs to be an accurate description of anything! How cool is that? So natural laws, which reliably describe real conditions, are not real themselves, because being right all the time means there’s nothing there except all the facts that you’re so tediously right about. But “Moral Law” is real, because it is obviously unreliable when it comes to describing actual conditions, and therefore there must exist some Higher Reality in which dwells a God Who Disapproves of our “disobedience.” QED. Or something.

This is what I mean by “toxic faith.” Lewis is a modern, educated, intelligent man, but his faith is telling him to embrace a rather crude, self-centered and primitive superstition. It’s a toxic faith, not in the sense that it immediately destroys his mind, but “toxic” as in “intoxicated”—a more subtle poison that distorts the mental processes while at the same time convincing its victim that he’s being remarkably clever and insightful. And thus he ends up convincing himself, in all sincerity, that natural laws—the properties of reality itself—are not real, and that some cocked-up, subjective, and self-righteous “Moral Law” is.

It’s all the worse for Lewis being both a gifted thinker and a gifted writer. He has a great mind, but intelligence is no defense against a desire to surrender to superstition. In this case, the believer turns his own intelligence against itself, and finds subtle and devious arguments to use as rationalizations. Lewis was good at a lot of things, and here, sad to say, he is at his best.

His next argument tries to set up an artificially-constrained version of materialism to use as a gulag for scientific thinking, but that’s going to take more room than I have left in this post, so we’ll end it here this week. Stay tuned!

Definition of the day

Anticolonial, adj:
See Uppity.

XFiles Weekend: How to get lost inside your own head

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 3, “The Reality of the Law”)

Christian apologetics is a quest, a search for something in the real world that leads reasonably and logically to the conclusion that the Christian God exists. So far, no such Grail has turned up, which is why more modern apologists, like Lewis, keep trying different approaches. Lewis’ attempt is as doomed as the rest, though, because his preconceived conclusion keeps interfering with his ability to think reasonably and logically about the evidence he’s trying to use.

Today’s section is a good example. Lewis began his argument by trying to tell us that “just as all bodies are governed by the law of gravitation, and organisms by biological laws, so the creature called man also had his law — with this great difference, that a body could not choose whether it obeyed the law of gravitation or not, but a man could choose either to obey the Law of Human Nature or to disobey it.” Right away his thesis is in trouble, because he wants to suggest that there is some kind of Moral Law, on the same level as the law of gravity and other natural laws, and yet the very first and most obvious observation one makes about morality is precisely that it is not like the laws of nature at all.

In today’s reading, Lewis returns to this sore point, and tries to make sense of it in some way that does not involve admitting the fundamental error in his basic premise. It’s rather a jaw-dropping exercise in rationalization and self-befuddlement, despite Lewis’ clearly superior intellect.

Lewis begins by reviewing what we already know: that the true laws of nature are categorically different from what he wants to call the Law of Human Nature, the Moral Law, the Law of Right and Wrong, etc.

When you say that falling stones always obey the law of gravitation, is not this much the same as saying that the law only means ‘what stones always do’? You do not really think that when a stone is let go, it suddenly remembers that it is under orders to fall to the ground. You only mean that, in fact, it does fall… The laws of nature, as applied to stones or trees, may only mean ‘what Nature, in fact, does’. But if you turn to the Law of Human Nature, the Law of Decent Behaviour, it is a different matter.

Which is what we have been observing all along. He wants there to be a Law of Human Nature, i.e. some fundamental principle akin to the laws of physics and biology and all the other natural laws. Scientific laws, however, describe a universally consistent pattern in the way things behave in the real world. Our subjective and unreliable perceptions of “right” and “wrong” do not. At this point, it ought to be clear to Lewis that he’s barking up the wrong tree. There is no Law of Human Nature such as he imagines.

Sadly, though, he does not acknowledge this, and proceeds instead to try and find some rationalization that will reconcile the discrepancy between what he wants the truth to be, and what the truth actually is. He starts by looking at some of the difficulties we face in trying to use some simple principle to explain our perception of right and wrong.

For instance, we might try to make out that when you say a man ought not to act as he does, you only mean … that what he is doing happens to be inconvenient to you. But that is simply untrue. A man occupying the corner seat in the train because he got there first, and a man who slipped into it while my back was turned and removed my bag, are both equally inconvenient. But I blame the second man and do not blame the first.

He uses a similar example of a man who accidentally trips you versus one who intentionally tries to trip you and fails. You blame the second, even though he failed to hurt you, but not the first, even though he did hurt you, thus proving that we do not define right and wrong in terms of simply hurting someone. And that’s true, as far as it goes, but let’s add one more example just to follow this through a little further than Lewis did.

In the early part of the movie Gandhi, there’s a scene where Gandhi is thrown off a train in South Africa, because he was “guilty” of being in a first-class car despite not being white. How do we define “right” and “wrong” in this case? To the white conductor, Gandhi was wrong, because he was a “colored” man sitting in what was legally a whites-only carriage. To Gandhi, he was right to be there because the railroad had sold him the more expensive ticket without a qualm, and besides, he was a British citizen, not a native South African.

Is it wrong to break the law? Is it wrong to break an unjust law? Or to us another of Lewis’ examples, during a war, is the traitor a good guy or a bad guy? Can you even answer the question without knowing which side he betrayed?

These are complex issues, and not the least because there is no underlying Law of Nature that spells out for us what is right and wrong in every combination of circumstances. As I mentioned before, it’s not even possible for such a law to exist, because not every combination of circumstances has a “right” outcome. And even if it did, no law could enumerate all the Right choices, because there would either be innumerable exceptions to the law, or the law itself would consist of so many special cases that it would get lost in its own details, and thus be effectively useless.

But I digress. The point is, we can’t reduce “right and wrong” to some clear, universal principle precisely because there is no clear, universal Law behind it. Once again, Lewis is correctly observing the problem, and then totally failing to grasp the significance of what he has observed. He ought to have noticed by now that the data just does not fit the framework he’s trying to force it into. But he can’t, because he’s an apologist, and thus everything must somehow relate to his goal of making the Christian God sound like part of the real world.

Let’s move on. Lewis drives home his point by raising the ultimate ethical question.

If we ask: ‘Why ought I to be unselfish?’ and you reply ‘Because it is good for society,’ we may then ask, ‘Why should I care what’s good for society except when it happens to pay me personally?’ and then you will have to say, ‘Because you ought to be unselfish’ — which simply brings us back to where we started.

Sounds like a nice rebuttal, and the way he says it does expose a fallacious logical circle. But here again, Lewis misleads himself by making wrong assumptions. He assumes that (a) you ought indeed to be unselfish and (b) you ought to care what’s good for society even when it does not benefit you personally. I’m going to disagree on both points.

It is “selfish” to eat healthy foods, get some exercise, and practice good personal hygiene. That is, these are things we do to benefit ourselves. It doesn’t particularly help you when I avoid superfluous calories, it just makes life better for me, myself, personally. “Selfish” by itself is neither bad nor good, we simply call it wrong when we perceive that someone is profiting at someone else’s expense. (And even then we don’t always call it wrong—sometimes we call it “a free market,” for example.)

Likewise, we care what’s good for society because it benefits us personally. Indirectly, sometimes, but it still concerns us. The caveat is that there needs to be a balance between what society demands of the individual and what the individual demands of society. It’s too easy to enslave a nation by appealing to the idea that everyone must sacrifice their own individual benefit “for the good of society.” Without a certain rebellion against the idea of blind “unselfishness,” individual liberty will whither and perish.

And now we get to the part where Lewis really jumps the track. I promised you jaw-dropping, and here it is: Lewis has confronted again and again the fact that our perception of right and wrong doesn’t really fit the pattern of Things Governed By Universal Principles, and yet he still insists that Right and Wrong are governed by a Universal Principle. And how does he rationalize the conflict between his claims and the actual evidence?

[T]his Rule of Right and Wrong, or Law of Human Nature, or whatever you call it, must somehow or other be a real thing — a thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves… It begins to look as if we shall have to admit that there is more than one kind of reality; that, in this particular case, there is something above and beyond the ordinary facts of men’s behaviour, and yet quite definitely real — a real law, which none of us made, but which we find pressing on us.

Did you catch that? The real world clearly fails to fit the picture he’s trying to paint, and yet he’s not admitting that his idea of a Moral Law is actually incorrect. No, he’s insisting that it is a Law, and that the glaring discrepancies between the laws of nature and the Law of Human Nature are conclusive evidence that there is more than one kind of reality!

Wow. Lewis makes a claim. The facts are inconsistent with the claim he is making. Therefore there must be another reality above and beyond this one, so that this “Law” can be consistent with the other reality instead.

I’m just going to leave that where it is for now. Any comment I could make here seems pretty superfluous. I have to say, though, that I can’t wait to see where he takes this carefully-planted seed in Chapter Four.

The New Terrorists

Terrorism: promoting a sustained condition of fear in an entire population in order to get what you want. There are two types of terrorist. The violent type spreads fear by saying “I am going to hurt you.”

Osama bin Ladin

The milder type spreads fear by saying “Someone else is going to hurt you.”

Glenn Beck

You know, like “liberals.” Or better yet, “socialists.” Or gays. Or whoever it’s convenient to demonize at the moment.

Our biggest problem isn’t that we’re being terrorized by the violent guys. It’s all the “milder” types jumping on the terrorist bandwagon, working to maintain a continuous state of fear and paranoia in the general public. If we really want to help America by fighting terrorism, we ought to start by recognizing where it’s really coming from. It’s not being smuggled in from some Middle Eastern territory. It’s 100% home grown.

Just two cents worth, in observance of 9/11.

XFiles Weekend: Blameless Morality

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 3, “The Reality of the Law”)

Last time, we wrapped up Lewis’ attempts to address a few objections to his theory of Moral Law, and now he’s going to go back to developing his main thesis, which is that human morality stems from some kind of supernatural list of everything that’s Right and everything that’s Wrong. It’s a thesis dictated by the conclusion he wants to reach, so not surprisingly he has to work to make it all fit, even when he’s only using a carefully selected subset of the facts. Today he brings up another fact that would like very much to inform him about what’s wrong with his theory, but sadly he’s still not listening.

We’ll get to that point momentarily, but first here’s an interesting question: who controls the price of stocks on the stock exchange? On the one hand, it’s obvious that the answer is “people”—nobody else is there making offers or asking for bids. And yet, if people control the prices of stocks in the stock market, why would the market ever crash? A market crash does tremendous harm to the very people who are setting the stock prices, so if they control the prices, why would they ever create their own disaster?

Obviously, though stock brokers technically set the stock prices, they have only limited control over which prices they set. Other factors influence the price at which any given stock will actually sell, and these factors are complex enough to make market prices “volatile” and sometimes wildly unpredictable. Though stock brokers give the market its very existence, they cannot control it, and often must follow it and react to it as though obeying the dictates of some kind of Higher Being.

And yet, ultimately, the stock market is a purely human phenomenon. It responds to outside circumstances, it responds to primal human instincts (like greed and competition), but it there’s nothing magical or supernatural about it. In particular, it is not controlled by some outside, supernatural force. It’s just the complex behavior of a large number of humans trying to anticipate which of their choices will lead to the best results—human actions generating a force that humans themselves cannot control.

Morality is the same way. It’s the emergent property of a large number of humans trying to anticipate which of their choices is most likely to lead to the most desirable outcomes. We generate morality by our own activities and decisions, but, like the stock market, we can’t really control it.

This is a basic fact that Lewis has failed (or declined) to grasp, and that’s why he’s going off on these tangents, trying to rationalize the facts about human morality with his naive and superstitious desire for a magical list of Real Rights and Real Wrongs, written down by a divine Law giver to guarantee that in any circumstance there’s always a Right thing to do (i.e. a thing that will lead to the most desirable outcome).

I now go back to what I said at the end of the first chapter, that there were two odd things about the human race. First, that they were haunted by the idea of a sort of behaviour they ought to practise, what you might call fair play, or decency, or morality, or the Law of Nature. Second, that they did not in fact do so. Now some of you may wonder why I called this odd… In particular, you may have thought I was rather hard on the human race. After all, you may say, what I call breaking the Law of Right and Wrong… only means that people are not perfect. And why on earth should I expect them to be? That would be a good answer if what I was trying to do was to fix the exact amount of blame which is due to us for not behaving as we expect others to behave. But that is not my job at all. I am not concerned at present with blame; I am trying to find out the truth.

The key word here is “blame.” Lewis claims that he is trying to find out the truth (or at least making it look like a “discovery” when we reach his desired conclusion), but if that were his actual goal, then he might learn a lot by taking a closer look at what “blame” really means.

I compared morality to the stock market, and it’s a remarkably parallel comparison. And yet, there is a flavor of good and evil attached to the concept of morality that goes beyond the purely financial values of profit and loss, as we see them in the market. (We can make moral judgments about the stock market, of course, but I’m talking about comparing moral values to values of “good for the market” versus “bad for the market,” which is not the same thing.)

The difference between morality and the stock market is that we blame people for their immoral behavior, in a way that we do not blame the stock market for its ups and downs. And blame (aka guilt) is an interesting concept. It’s a stigma that we attach to people, and that affects the way we treat them. Blameless people are entrusted with greater responsibilities and greater authority (leading to greater reward). If you’re looking for a suitable spouse, you’d rather have a blameless mate than some scumball loser. People would rather do business with a blameless merchant, rent an apartment to a blameless tenant, and recruit blameless new members into their social clubs. And the list goes on and on.

Blame, thus, is rather a large factor in how we decide to invest in the moral stock market. We want to avoid acquiring any shares of blame, and we want to unload any shares we already have. The problem is, the moral stock market isn’t quite the same as the financial stock market. We can’t buy just any individual stock we want, we have to choose from the options we find within our reach, and some of those options come an unavoidable amount of blame attached. And if that weren’t bad enough, sometimes the blameless alternatives involve compromising ourselves in some way, e.g. by surrendering our independence or self-respect.

Of course, it’s also true that we sometimes just give in and grab what we want, heedless of the blame, because we’re weak-willed and greedy. It’s not as though morality is always wrong or unfair—far from it! But neither is it true that there’s always a Real Right thing to do. Sometimes, the choice is between two or more evils, because there is no one alternative that achieves a profitable goal with no blame.

Hence our persistent feeling of having failed to always find the Right thing to do. We haven’t always found it because it isn’t always there. If Lewis is indeed trying to find out the truth, then he needs to stop right here for a moment and realize that failing to do the morally right thing is as inevitable as failing to always make a profit in the stock market, and for much the same reasons. This is a perfectly normal and natural (i.e. non-supernatural) circumstance.

Lewis, sadly, does not seem to have any interest in making this sort of observation, so the rest of this chapter is going to be a somewhat embarrassing attempt to rationalize his way from the actual facts to the superstitious conclusion he’d like them to point to. Stay tuned.

Music Review: Carbon Based Lifeforms

Ambient drops of harmonically spectacular sounds have the power to take oneself on a journey beyond space and time. The ambient and downtempo musical expressions calm the body and awaken imagination. The artists using the name Carbon Based Lifeforms are able to take the listener on an emotional journey into the most surreal states of consciousness like few other artists can. Their three full albums each exist in such a way that each one must be listened to in their entirety. There is a story being told, and one cannot glance at a part in the beginning, middle, and end and expect to understand the whole of the story. From Hydroponic Garden to World of Sleepers to Interloper, Carbon Based Lifeforms delivers incredible musical stories that enliven passionate thoughts of an interstellar nature, or transport consciousness down streams of realizations, serenity, and expanded awareness.

Each one of this artist’s albums is a wonderfully unique and special creation in itself. Carbon Based Lifeforms seems to have a progressively more intricate sound, as time goes on. The music is evolving into resonance with higher and higher dimensions of reality. They are not afraid to make full use of reverb in order to capture that etheric sound of wonder. The occasional female vocal is also present, and definitely adds to the richness of the sound and the story as well. I highly recommend Carbon Based Lifeforms if you love ambient and downtempo harmonics but even if you have never listened to such music or are unsure if you will like it. I’ve gotten several people into the sounds of Carbon Based Lifeforms and am very hopeful you will enjoy these musical journeys as well.

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