Friday, December 28, 2007

The blog where I am all political and stuff part 2

(This is part 2 in a 2-part response to my friend Kara, check out her blog titled "Libertarians" here)

Kara wrote:

Religion is a good thing and a bad thing. Humans need religion and mythology to help explain to themselves why things are the way they are and to make them comfortable with natural occurances such as death. However, this has been molded by people who like to take advantage of others, this religion has become a joke. Is there a god(s)? I don't know. No one does. Moving on.

I'd say yes and no.

Religion and mythology are there to help form both personal and group identity and to help make reality more participatory in general. Part of that means situating major life events like birth, marriage, death etc. into a storytelling framework, part of that means becoming the tribe's ideology writ large. Sometimes religion is a weapon of the oppressor, as it was with the Romans deifying dead emperors and adding them to the local religions' pantheons. Just as often, though, it is a tool of the oppressed, such as the Jews using Genesis to subvert the religion of the Babylonians who had enslaved them, or Jesus teaching that God is invoked with every ethical action, or Bhodisatva telling the Emperor of China to go fuck himself.

Now, people I know variously assume me to be Christian or atheist. They're both right in a way. I'm atheist towards the capital-T Theistic "God" of Pat Robertson and the Pope. That language game doesn't work, because it asserts absolute truth value on the authority of its own proposition, which is contradictory in and of itself, but the double-whammy is that omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence are words that do not refer to anything, but only serve to mask an agenda of dominance. An omnipotent, omniscient or omnipresent being can't possibly exist (see Russell, Godel, and Heisenberg). However, I am also Christian as the Gnostics were Christian, as Therese of Avila was Christian, as William Blake was Christian, adhering to Jesus's original message that through inner contemplation and outward kindness we come to the realization that reality is itself Divine (which, if you think about it, is also the message of Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Mohammed).

In short, there is no "God," but there is G-d, and we are Him.

Smaller gods, of course, do exist. The question is, what is their ontological status? Do they exist as objective beings, like foxes? My atheist response would be no. But do they exist as emergent beings? My Christian mystic response would be yes. Patterns of behavior self-organize and coordinate across populations, to the point where these transpersonal memetic bits of culture acquire something like semi-sentience in that they desire to persist in their own being; if the war god acquires a foothold in your culture, he demands blood. When the fertility goddess takes center stage, she wants you to visit the temple prostitutes or your crops won't grow. We are symbiotic with them, and in sense, we are them.

This is why chaos magick is so fun. See, it's inarguable in my mind that magic exists, whether it's the Tobriand Islanders performing a ritual to the Sea Goddess to protect their fishing ships or the baseball player wearing his lucky jockstrap, it's all magic, and it exists in every culture. To ask whether magic is "true" makes as much sense as asking if a wrench is "true;" the only important question is, "Does it work?" So when I perform rituals designed to invoke or converse with gods I don't have to believe they exist, but I have to treat Kali nicely, or else she won't empower me like I want her to.

Because Kali may not have objective existence, but you know what? Neither do I. This whole identity I've constructed called "Jason" is a fiction. We are all stories we make up as we go along, and we all invest in our stories an unproven amount of belief. So self-righteous Christians, atheists, and what-have-you that insist upon the absolute primacy of their own "truth" better take a good long, hard look in the mirror. What you see is only a body. Your likes, dislikes, experiences (memory is just past events reconstructed to serve current objectives), your whole personality is as unprovable as any god. It has no existence, until you give it existence.

To which the chaos magician responds "Why not make it interesting?"

(And to the fussbudgets that scoff "There's no such thing as a Christian atheist! That's like a married bachelor!", I introduce to you the world of Don Cupitt, Mark C. Taylor, and John Shelby Spong.

Radical Theology for teh win!)

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The blog where I am all political and stuff

(Part 1 in a 2-part response to my friend Kara, read her blog "Libertarians" here)

I am not a member of the LP. I am registered to vote in the state of Nevada as a Lib but I never joined the party and never will due to a long, boring list of reasons (I'll give you a taste: to change anything on the LP's platform requires a 7/8s vote).

I'm libertarian (and a voluntarist anarchist) because your rights don't mean anything unless other people lack the right to violate them; i.e., when you say you have a right to life it means others lack the right to murder you, etc. "Absolute freedom" is a meaningless term, since freedom only means something when given the context of limitation and cost-benefit analysis, but "maximum freedom" does mean something. And where a state exists, it does so as an institution that monopolizes the use of violence, i.e. it maintains itself by extracting payment through taxes and monopolizes a given territory so that no competing institution may offer better police, court systems, infrastructure etc. Hence, the more power a state has, the less free its captive populace, and vice versa.

My position is that ethics is about the social negotiation of satisfying desire. The more free the people, the more desire can be satisfied, and this is ethical, and thus a Good Thing. I want the freedom to seek out better services if this government is not providing them at a high enough quality or low enough price. I want the freedom to opt out.

This means that I don't care if other people want to live in a theocracy or a socialist paradise, as long as it is voluntary. Allow people to opt out if they want, and leave me the fuck alone.

Backing this up are the mountains of evidence that command economies simply do not function as well as market economies. No competition, no means of determining prices. No price structure, no means of determining efficiency, like when the USSR was filling warehouses full of copper wire with no place to use it rather than shut down the copper wire-producing factories, and the Soviet military having five main battletank designs at the time of its collapse for no reason at all. Determining something's true economic value without competition in the marketplace is impossible.

Of course, the environment is important, which is why I support Climate Care, which not only takes action to reduce carbon emissions but also buys up carbon credits on the Chicago Exchange and retires them to raise their value. Carbon and pollution credits are a fantastic way to protect the environment, much better than the odious idea of electing a government that could just as easily side with the money and protect polluters rather than punish them.

To read what I read to confirm my libertarianism, check out the following books:

The Ethics of Liberty by Murray Rothbard
Socialism: an Economic and Sociological Analysis by Ludwig von Mises

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Nominative vs. Evocative Language

A lot of confusion when discussing matters of religion and philosophy comes with the difference between perception of what language is and what it should do. Nominativists are convinced that language has an isomorphic relationship with material reality; namely, that all language in its relationship to material reality must conform to it. Steven Pinker is a big advocate of this position, and it encourages a very literalist mindset wherein philosophical and religious statements can be evaluated solely on how they conform to the material universe.

Evocative language, in contrast, seeks not to describe, but to enact. The goal of theologians (and magicians, natch) is not to accurately contain reality within its models, but to change it, by changing peoples' lives.

The problem with the nominativist position, as I see it, is that there is no good reason whatsoever to assume that language is ever nominative. Metaphor is at the root of all language, and it's universal to make sense of concepts in terms relative to each other (like George Lakoff points out in "Metaphors We Live By," we're running on the metaphor "arguments are war" in our culture, as in "he attacked her argument"). The idea that language even can or should conform perfectly to material reality is unsupported.

That's why I don't concern myself with dogma or the "literal" truth of mythology, or worry about the objective existence of deities. It's a million miles past the point.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Youtube vid!

Where I (somewhat incoherently) respond to some objections about libertarianism.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Great Yeats Excerpt

I heart W.B. Yeats.

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story's finished, what's the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day's vanity, the night's remorse.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Hooray for a Good Cause!

So, today I found the home page for Folding@Home on the Stanford page, and looking into it, it looks like a very good deal.

Basically, it takes whatever processing power you're not using on your CPU and directs it to making protein folding simulations, and creates data that then is contributed to research for treatments for cancer, Alzheimer's, Mad Cow and other such diseases.

If you want to contribute to a good cause that doesn't even cost you any money, check it out.

Monday, July 2, 2007

God The Noun

In my last blog post, I stated that I don't think highly of God-the-Noun, e.g. Theism, that nasty bit of obfuscation from Aquinas and the Scholastics, perpetuated by Descartes, Leibniz and Kant, slightly modified by Newton and still clung to by people around the world.

I stand by this, but feel I should elaborate. It's not that I don't believe in that God, it's that I know, for a fact, that God couched in those terms is logically impossible. But God-the-Noun does, in fact, exist in three senses:
  1. A placeholder word for the individual's interaction with the numinous/pleroma, genuine religious experiences.

  2. A collection of transpersonal cognitive and behavioral patterns across a given social system.

  3. A semi-sentient memetic organism, a cultural construct.

In these senses, God of course exists. I don't see how anyone could deny it, though reductionist materialists of course try their damndest to reduce everything to the God-the-Quark.

As the Universe's Final Ordering Principle? Disproven. Next.

Why I Am Not An Atheist

This is a response I wrote to a message someone sent me on Youtube. First, I'd commented on this video (I'm Jaylhomme) with the following:
It is nice to see authoritarian chapter and verse quoting getting thrown back in the fundies' faces, though in a way it is also lowering yourself to their level, because reading the book in that fashion is conceding half the argument up front.

Right above my comment, a user named rotbul12 had this to say (presumably not in response to me):
Dawkins is on a front along with some other greats to finally rid our world of the evil that is religion.

To which I responded:
Reading religious language being used in support of religion's eradication never fails to set off my ironymeter.

If you think it's about ridding the world of evil, then you really aren't changing anything.

I then got a fairly pleasant private message sent to me by rutbol12, wishing me good health and explaining more of his position. I don't want to post it until/unless he gives me permission, but if I may be so bold, I'd like to post my response to his original message here (which I hope still makes sense without knowing the original message being replied to):
(Warning: I'm off of work and filled with piss, vinegar and no small amount of beer, so prepare for a response both long and rambling)


Well, that depends on how you define religion, doesn't it?

The message of Team Dawkins (Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Matt Ridley, Terence Deacon, Matt Hauser, E.O. Wilson; I'll exclude Harris as his writing is worthless except when pointing to better authors, and Steven Pinker because he's a damn liar) has two basic flaws. Flaw #1 is that, as Anglophone materialists, they're still stuck on the 19th Century definition of religion bequeathed by Edward Tylor, which says that religion is a set of doctrines that invoke magical or supernatural entities as proto-scientific explanations for reality. Well, Tylor was a tool who didn't have the least clue how cultural anthropology worked, and his work was immediately seized upon by Social Darwinists who used it to justify subjugating the Irish, Indians, Africans, Australian aborigines and anyone else and their primitive Brown People religions under the benevolent, enlightened (and white) Englishman. The idea was propaganda for the Empire from the beginning.

Breaking the Spell is a fantastic book as far as it goes, because Dennett describes in great detail how religions are memetic organisms that are semi-sentient in the way that they self-organize and persist in their own being, but he still separates them from all other social forms that do the same thing, and such a separation is only legitimate on a Tylorist basis, i.e. not at all. It's arbitrary. What's the real difference between the Church of England and the San Francisco Giants? Or straight edge culture? Or the Republican Party?

So, what makes a religion? Bronislaw Malinowkski's anthropological work gives us a better idea; he discovered that in his studies of South Pacific tribes, religious practices provided the grounds for social interaction within the tribe, and so-called "magic rituals" were actually closer to applied psychology in that they empowered the villagers to fish in deeper, more dangerous waters when the tribe needed more food (and if this sounds ridiculous to you, have you ever approached a difficult situation by fantasizing about a successful resolution in your head before you actually did it? No different, in subtsance. from a magic ritual). Conjuring a Storm God personalizes the storm and lets you have a relationship with it, whether Thor has objective, material existence or not, and this has a survival purpose.

Claude Levi-Strauss is the man that sews it up. Basically, in the shortest way I can possibly surmise it, I would define religion as thus (copying and pasting from here):

The social construction of a shared reality, giving context and meaning to large scale events, offering individual identity positions, personalizing both people and the universe itself, devising ritual means for expressing dangerous emotions, situating specific life changes (birth, becoming an adult, marriage, death, etc.) within a personal and social narrative, identifying dominant aspects of individual and social life and personifying them as explicit objects of worship, reifying social structure (and history) as comprehensible story, and situating the whole shebang within a participatory framework.

Every society, every person, every ideology, and every subculture performs every single one of these functions. In this way, yes, Team Dawkins is explicating a religious position. Not atheism, of course; atheism isn't a religion and only a very dishonest person would pretend otherwise. But naturalism and positivism also articulate the values of a community, the difference being that the religious features are implicit instead of explicit. That's what I meant when I said you were using religious language: the eradication of evil is, by definition, a religious project, and a tribalist project. The tribe defines itself by excluding the Other, and demonizing it.

I hate to name-drop Derrida, because mostly pretentious douchebags do that, but the man was right: there is nothing outside the text.

Religion is used for control when authoritarians like Emperor Constantine, Osama bin Laden etc. decide to channel the basis for social interaction (and individual religious experience) into benefits for themselves at the expense of others. "Hey! We're the Greencheesians! We worship the moon, which is made out of green cheese! Watch us do the Green Cheese Dance together! Look at the menu-no green cheese! And we're not above crucifying the occasional astronaut if it means proving a point! Now fearless leader has decided he needs our gold and our sons for his crusade against the heathen Bluecheesians, and we'd better do what he says, or our sense of tribal identity might suffer."

(The great thing here is that most of the world's great religions' founders were themselves atheistic, if you go by the root of the word, which in Ancient Greece originally just meant someone who denied the dominant religion of his society. Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam all started out as atheistic religions that subverted the dominant paradigm; Judaism gave its people a God so abstract the Babylonians who enslaved them couldn't absorb it into their pantheon, Jesus combined mysticism, ethics and community action in a way that denied Caesar his due, Buddha revolted against the Indian caste system, and Muhammed out-abstracted Judaism's God and swept the robber-tyrants of Mecca and Medina out of power. In each case, religion was a tool of liberation for the oppressed, a memetic weapon aimed at the very heart of social control, and in successive generations they calcified to become themselves tools of social control, until other movements arose to subvert them again. Buddha says "Don't worship me!" and in a few hundred years millions of people are praying to statues of some bald fat guy, but then Bodhisatva arrives and turns it all on its head, in the process telling the Emperor of China to go screw himself. So your summation of religion as only a way to control the weak is oversimplified.)

Team Dawkins is using a very, very outdated and wrong definition of "religion." That's Flaw #1.

Flaw #2 is that Dawkins doesn't follow his arguments all the way through. The God Delusion was proof enough of this; yes, his positions are technically correct, but who cares? If he stuck to his empiricist guns and treated religion as just another data point, the argument would be over. But no, instead we get "A Designer must be at least as complex and therefore improbable as what is Designed!" That's just more rationalism, which is the real metaphysics of the Pope, the ID crowd, and the White House. The world doesn't resolve into a series of binary equations and linear logic, and it isn't hierarchical, but Dawkins concedes that it is to make a point (and an evolutionary biologist knows better than anyone that this isn't true). He's already lost half the argument, because he's letting his opponents determine the rules of the debate.

The other leading members of the "Bright" community are doing the same thing, trying to combat authoritarian religion on its own turf. Which is why I don't think that any of the current attempts at eradicating authoritarian religion will get anywhere. They think that all they have to do is dethrone God from religious peoples' minds and replace it with something else, but God isn't the problem. The throne is the problem. As long as people are convinced that there is one and only one Truth hovering over all of existence everything else follows, and we only need to discover it (or have it Revealed to us), they will continue to support the same system they always have under a different name. So far the only substitutes offered from their camp (Rationalism, Positivism, Naturalism) may be atheist in content, but in structure, they remain, at bottom, Theistic (and what is Theism, but the co-opting of the teachings of Jesus by the Romans, twisted into the ideological tool of the Empire? "The universe is governed by the fiat of God, who ordains all power structures, and the state should be designed like the cosmos with an absolute ruler. So do as you're told or you're going against GOD, and we'll have to turn you into lion food").

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

So, that's why I don't have much enthusiasm for the capital-A Atheist/Bright project, because it doesn't change what's important, and besides, Rationalism, Naturalism and Positivism are stupid, bankrupt philosophies. This is also why while I will freely shout from the rooftops that there is no "God" in the traditional sense of the word (Ruler of the Universe, Big Sky Daddy, Perfect Logical Construct), and that this concept is in fact actively harmful as it exists to obscure the true hideousness of authoritarian power, I decline the label "atheist" for myself because of all the baggage it carries.

Also, I do know God. Not God-the-Noun, which doesn't exist, but God-the-Verb. That I've experienced firsthand, what Kabbalists call Ain Soph, what Thelemites call crossing the Chasm of Choronzon, Gnosis, the Tao, Nirvana, Atman, Salvation, the Will of Allah, what an atheist materialist may call a process of Oneness. The religious experience. That exists. That is what I'd like to see replace the current religions. That's real change, that is what will set us free.

Best regards,

Saturday, June 30, 2007

How Reality, Part 1

Human beings don't spend very much time on a reduced plane of material objects. We tend to live in a world of stories, which is what the individual self is: not an objective, external object but a collection of processes and internal conversations whose program is to cluster together and exclude enough information to function but include enough so as to appear to exist as an objective, external object. The result is something like a feedback loop, and identity is more or less a story that collection of different processes and programs tells itself.

So, the models of a material world are necessary, but they need to be used in tandem with poetics so the story can continue and the organism function. Religion is a way of organizing those poetics in a way that is coherent to our illusory selves so we can organize our internal universe enough to make it habitable. The content of said religions doesn't matter as much as the way said content is structured, and how it can be used to the best effect.

For example, in all the collected sayings of Buddha, not once does he say "You have to believe that karma is literally true or you're not a Buddhist." Never does Jesus endorse the Substitution Theory of Atonement over the Ransom one. These are things people use after the fact to make sense of it all, in the same way that religion is used after the fact to make sense of things. Someone doesn't have to believe in karma to derive value from Buddhist teachings. Buddha, Jesus, Lao-Tze and the founders of many other religions had very non-dogmatic teachings that were later on dogmatized, changed from systems of individual salvation and enlightenment (two terms I take to mean the same thing) into political tools.

In the same way, the game of soccer gets transformed from a means of making sense of things and organizing the internal universe (I play soccer, it gives me joy, joy makes the world habitable) into franchises that channel that into financial ends (watch our soccer, buy tickets to our games, buy stuff from our advertisers). Not that I'm condemning this morally or anything, since I think that business is another means of self-actualization and making the world habitable for our puny, self-important egos. The point is that the same evolutionary platform that governs the universe itself also governs biology, which in turn governs social interaction, and that means that not just individuals but all systems tend to self-organize to give themselves maximum survivability and strength. Survival of the fittest; as above, so below.

The primary problem of human existence is survival; food, water, shelter, sex. Once we have that taken care of, we move on to the secondary problem: that the material universe is uncompromisingly harsh, violent, and random, where things must kill each other to live and that when you get down to it, the invidividual experience, the sense of "I"ness, has no objective scientific validity at all. But it's necessary to believe in it, because it helps propogate life and vitality. An egoless species would probably get eaten, and to any extent, it certainly isn't very fun. But, and here's what Nietzsche was driving at (I <3 Neitzsche); is a necessary fiction even fictional at all?

So, reductionist materialism dies on the vine. Yes, everything has a material basis, but that on its own only takes you so far. From a purely materialist perspective, why shouldn't all of us kill ourselves? It would provide the most benefit to organic life at large, since our corpses would provide a hearty meal to scavengers, maggots and countless trillions of bacteria. Eventually, billions of years from now, a species may evolve from said scavengers, maggots or bacteria that doesn't massacre one another regularly or build enough atomic weapons to render Earth a quasi-lifeless rock for thousands of years. The self dies, but it doesn't really exist in the first place; it's the collective illusion of a cluster of emergent processes.

For life to continue, we must believe in something that is scientifically false. Which means that it isn't really false, it is something that is "true" under a different rule set.

This is where poetics come in; religion, art, business. They provide us the means of building rule sets from scratch that affirm and continue life in a way that pure materialism cannot, because it builds an environment where the "I" is allowed to exist, and not just exist, but incorporate itself comfortably into the material universe. But as it solves the secondary problem of human existence, it creates the third problem of power and social relations, since the tendency of systems to self-organize means exclusion, which is a means of organization. These systems that give so many people the means to live as themselves are also semi-sentient, organizing principles, competing with one another over which get to exist.

This leads to sports franchises making money off of something you could, if you wanted to, experience daily for free. It leads to ethnic conflict. It leads to eugenics. And yes, it leads to religious fanaticism, which is the result of some very big jerks appropriating the religious experience of incorporation and salvation of others for their own selfish ends. This means religious leaders capable of twisting the words religious texts that condemn violence to justify violence; this means those soccer guys who support Arsenal kicking the crap out of Manchester United supporters; this means blackshirts assaulting those who dare to insult Il Duce. They are all religions, they all provide things necessary for survival, and they all produce problems stemming from the same things.

In business, this means that some companies channel that wonderful experience of independence and self-actualization that comes with owning your own business, or being a part of something you truly believe in, and use it to abuse eminent domain laws and use the government to crush their competition.

In art, this leads to, well, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer: crap, that provides incorporation and salvation in the same way that pork rinds technically provide nutrition.

This is where we are right now, I believe. Religion, art, business and many other things I'm sure I'm forgetting to mention provide the tools necessary to survive in this harsh environment of stories we live in, but by the same token, produce the most daunting challenges to that survivability. The question is how to negotiate ourselves to that realm where we can solve the problems while keeping the benefits.

(Incidentally, this is the reason for my anarchism: the state, like art, business and religion, provides the means for self-actualization and incorporation of one's self into the environment, but the state is unique in that it provides those things only by letting some dominate others through violence, and thus it is an innately harmful means of doing so)

Am I making sense?


Thursday, June 21, 2007

Emergent Properties

The way emergent properties work is through a process of what in biology is called natural selection, or what Schopenhauer (I <3 Schopenhauer) called Will. Every action, whether human or not, arises from a list of pre-existing possible actions. Actions which have advantages over others are those that happen, in the same way that organisms with advantages brought by mutations tend to be more successful at reproduction. Existence, on a larger scale, is the result of a model much like evolutionary biology.

A totally objective universe without subjective beings in it is incapable of apprehending its own being, and therefore less fit for information transfer (which would be necessary unless you wanted a lifeless, motionless universe) than a universe with subjective beings in it. So out of all possible universes jockeying to be the existant universe, universal states capable of making the universe aware of itself (since we are a part of a larger whole) will tend to arise over those that don't. This is what Jung thought was the relationship between humans and God: a collaborative project.

This particular universe exists out of all other possible universes because observers give it an advantage over other potential universal states.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Dinesh D'Souza is an Idiot

Normally, I wouldn't give the time of day to anything posted on, as any site with Ann Coulter on it is automatically suspect (Coulter isn't really a commentator, but she plays one on TV!). However, this piece from Dinesh D'Souza contains something much more dangerous than Coulterian obvious dumbassery: it has dumbassery that sounds smart.

Aquinas begins with two principles that are today at the heart of scientific reasoning. He argues that every effect requires a cause, and that nothing in the world is the cause of its own existence.

You know, I hate Sam Harris. A good friend recommended I read The End of Faith, I did, and somehow it seemed as if I read and understood every individual word in the book, I saw that time had elapsed, yet no change whatsoever had taken place. Reading Sam Harris is like chewing ice for dinner. Dawkins I do like, and consider him one of the most important minds of modern times, but the little bits and pieces of The God Delusion I've read have left me unimpressed, because his arguments therein are all completely beside the point. I'll probably do blog posts on both of them assuming that I find the time to read the entirety of TGD (as for Harris's book, we'll see if I have any tables that need propping up).

Still, as much as I dislike Harris and Dawkins's argument, they deserve a better rebuttal than D'Souza's brain vomit. And I say that as a (very heterodox) Christian. In 1748, David Hume published An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which you can read here online for free.

A relevant excerpt from part four:

25. But to convince us that all the laws of nature, and all the
operations of bodies without exception, are known only by
experience, the following reflections may, perhaps, suffice. Were
any object presented to us, and were we required to pronounce
concerning the effect, which will result from it, without consulting
past observation; after what manner, I beseech you, must the mind
proceed in this operation? It must invent or imagine some event, which
it ascribes to the object as its effect; and it is plain that this
invention must be entirely arbitrary. The mind can never possibly find
the effect in the supposed cause, by the most accurate scrutiny and
examination. For the effect is totally different from the cause, and
consequently can never be discovered in it. Motion in the second
billiard-ball is a quite distinct event from motion in the first;
nor is there anything in the one to suggest the smallest hint of the
other. A stone or piece of metal raised into the air, and left without
any support, immediately falls: but to consider the matter a priori,
is there anything we discover in this situation which can beget the
idea of a downward, rather than an upward, or any other motion, in the
stone or metal?

And as the first imagination or invention of a particular effect, in
all natural operations, is arbitrary, where we consult not experience;
so must we also esteem the supposed tie or connexion between the cause
and effect, which binds them together, and renders it impossible
that any other effect could result from the operation of that cause.
When I see, for instance, a billiard-ball moving in a straight line
towards another; even suppose motion in the second ball should by
accident be suggested to me, as the result of their contact or
impulse; may I not conceive, that a hundred different events might
as well follow from that cause? May not both these balls remain at
absolute rest? May not the first ball return in a straight line, or
leap off from the second in any line or direction? All these
suppositions are consistent and conceivable. Why then should we give
the preference to one, which is no more consistent or conceivable than
the rest? All our reasonings a priori will never be able to show us
any foundation for this preference.

In a word, then, every effect is a distinct event from its cause. It
could not, therefore, be discovered in the cause, and the first
invention or conception of it, a priori, must be entirely arbitrary.
And even after it is suggested, the conjunction of it with the cause
must appear equally arbitrary; since there are always many other
effects, which, to reason, must seem fully as consistent and
natural. In vain, therefore, should we pretend to determine any single
event, or infer any cause or effect, without the assistance of
observation and experience.

This was written more than two hundred and fifty years ago, and it's air tight. There is no justification for the Thomist claim that all events need a cause and no effect is self-causing, other than the human brain is hard wired to perceive things that way. There are no holes.

Jump ahead to the 20th Century and what Hume wounded, Mr. Heisenberg finishes off.

Quantum indeterminacy is the assertion that the state of a system does not determine a unique collection of values for all its measurable properties. Indeed in the quantum mechanical formalism, for a given quantum state, each one of these measurable values will be obtained non-deterministically in accordance with a probability distribution which is uniquely determined by the system state. Note that the state is destroyed by measurement, so when we refer to a collection of values, each measured value in this collection must be obtained using a freshly prepared state.

Cause and effect simply is not an absolute law that the whole universe operates under. If you told any self-respecting physicist every effect requires a cause, and that nothing in the world is its own cause, he'd laugh in your face.

Boom, there we go. Harris and Dawkins's arguments are stupid, because while technically correct they proceed from false premises. D'Souza doesn't even have the "technically correct" part.

Quid es Veritas?

On CBR, a person I dearly respect but disagree with often had this to say yesterday:

What I'm saying mostly is that there is an objective reality, completely independent of our beliefs.

A god (or gods) either exists or it doesn't. Magic and the supernatural are either real or they aren't.

There's no objective evidence that any method other than the scientific one produces results. Science works whether you believe in it or not.

What scientists and theologians are trying to do is basically the same thing: explain the nature and reality of the universe and the things in it.

To which I must reply with this:

Binary logic is not isomorphic. The Ancient Greeks certainly thought so, which is part of the reason why they hated irrational numbers, to the point of (if I recall correctly) drowning guys who suggested that the square root of two was an actual number. In the system of binary logic, everything neatly divides into "true" and "false" and "All truth values are decidable" is considered axiomatic.

We ran into a few problems with that in the twentieth century, namely with two chaps named Wittgenstein and Gödel. Wittgenstein convincingly argued that there are no absolute rules governing any one bit of language, and thus there is no way to determine if something is true in all circumstances. For example, the word "Fire" doesn't obey absolute rules.

As a noun, "There's a fire over there."
As a command or warning, "Fire!"
As a question, "Fire?"
As the answer to a question, "Fire."

So, Wittgenstein concluded, there is no way within the bounds of human language to determine absolute truth, only ways of determining truth within specific language games that had rules of construction and truth-bearing. Symbolic logic is a language game, as is science, as is theology. Not only communication but means of thinking are human language, including math. This is where Gödel comes in.

Kurt Gödel was only 24 when he received his doctorate from the University of Vienna and only 25 when his Incompleteness Theorems were published in 1931 (yeah, I know, I feel inadequate too). The implications of the proofs are astounding.

  1. Someone introduces Gödel to a UTM, a machine that is
    supposed to be a Universal Truth Machine, capable of correctly
    answering any question at all.

  2. Gödel asks for the program and the circuit design of the
    UTM. The program may be complicated, but it can only be finitely
    long. Call the program P(UTM) for Program of the Universal Truth

  3. Smiling a little, Gödel writes out the following sentence:
    "The machine constructed on the basis of the program P(UTM) will never
    say that this sentence is true." Call this sentence G for Gödel.
    Note that G is equivalent to: "UTM will never say G is true."

  4. Now Gödel laughs his high laugh and asks UTM whether G is
    true or not.

  5. If UTM says G is true, then "UTM will never say G is true" is
    false. If "UTM will never say G is true" is false, then G is false
    (since G = "UTM will never say G is true"). So if UTM says G is true,
    then G is in fact false, and UTM has made a false statement. So UTM
    will never say that G is true, since UTM makes only true statements.

  6. We have established that UTM will never say G is true. So "UTM
    will never say G is true" is in fact a true statement. So G is true
    (since G = "UTM will never say G is true").

  7. "I know a truth that UTM can never utter," Gödel says. "I
    know that G is true. UTM is not truly universal."

What Gödel succeeded in proving was that in any given mathematical or logical system, by using the axioms of said system you would inevitably run into questions that cannot be decided one way or the other. You can always, of course, jump to other systems to decide them, but all this does is create an even larger system with the same problem. Any given logical or mathematical system is necessarily incomplete.

So, the assumption "All truth values are decidable" inevitably leads to the conclusion "Not all truth values are decidable." Crazy, isn't it? And if you bring in other truths from other systems to help, you just delay the problem into something else. It's turtles all the way up.

This means that we live in an environment of "truths" that are constantly overlapping and interacting with one another, and indeed competing, but that there is no absolute truth that transcends the whole of the universe anywhere, only very carefully defined rule sets that if operated correctly lead to truths that exist absolutely only within the confines of their specific rule sets. Binary logic is a language game/rule set that leads to specific results in specific circumstances but by necessity it can never truly encapsulate the whole of the universe. Hence, not everything operates precisely on a true/false paradigm, as the idealist/rationalist/positivist tradition argues.

This also means that theology and science are different language games/rule sets, and thus such contradictory statements as "There is no God/are no gods" and "There is a God/are gods" can both be simultaneously true.

There's a fellow in the Bible I believe who asked a very interesting question: Quid es veritas? What is truth?

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Mad Genius

So, my friend Paul McEnery wrote this post and I feel the need to share it here so as to avoid putting up original content, 'cuz that's like, work.

Heh. Which hat do you want me to wear for this issue? The querulous swot who can give you chapter and verse? Or the incomprehensible mystic who'll fluff Shiva's underbelly for a laugh?

Oh hell, let's do both at the same time. Just think of me as Severus Snape.

The first thing to understand is that the Creator God is just as much of a human creation/projection as spaghetti carbonara. All cultures come up with creation myths. Hell, not just myths of the beginning of the world, but myths for the beginning of every little detail. For the last ten years, we've seen one after another creation myth trotted out on DVD about how punk rock got started. It's just one of the things people do, like swapping lists of the best ever graphic novels. And on every occasion, the face of the God looks just like the countenance of the culture. (Fun fact: Monty Python's "God" is the great cricketer W.G. Grace, which is exactly what you'd expect them to pick.)

The thing is, for me, that it's idolatrous to pick an avatar for a universal paradigm and choose to elevate it above all others -- especially when the counter-examples against that paradigm are conclusive. The question for me is always: does your idea of "God" truly match your experience? Does the physics for which He stands actually hold water? If the answer to both of those questions is no, then what are you doing hanging on to such childish things? Sure, when I was a child, I spoke as a child. Now that I'm older, I'm obliged to upgrade my interface. Even so, now I'm looking through a dim screen that's only 15 inches across. In the future, I'm going for the full immersion, altered state, elf-hugging virtual reality.

For my money, the poetics of the "Creator God" are really, really dull, and do nothing to elevate the "soul" to the place of ecstatic participation. For that, I prefer to think of the universe as Shiva's dance. Those buildings towering above me? Nothing less than a slick move on the celestial dance floor. That sunset? It's Kali's flying into the air and over the shoulders of her divine consort -- check out her pleated skirt! It's all one big organismic illusion, and we get to make pieces of it ourselves as we go. What a trip!

But illusion or no, it drags us off the straight and narrow to trudge along in the mildewed boots of false perception. We're part of the constant recreation of the universe! We gave it a spring cleaning and tarted up the old place with a swank four-poster quantum foamy mattress and some lovely string theory curtains in the bay windows. So out with the misery shades of dead man's drapery; that dinge won't wash any more!

Creation is a single instant that takes a bloody age to unfold, scattering its fractal providence all over the Elysian fields. Toss out last week's tulips; they stink of wilt. Blossom your own self like a nursery sunflower, all radiant and frolicky, sucking up the mulch of yesterday's thought and transforming it into a big round yellow smiley face. Beam on!

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Nothing is True, Everything is Permitted

Permit me to explain a bit of the motto of this blog. Occult enthusiasts will immediately recognize it as the words of Aleister Crowley, who himself took them from Nietzsche's Thus Sprach Zarathustra, who in turn took it from the 11th-century Ismaili Hassan-i Sabah. But what does it mean?

It's simplistic to say that what Sabah meant was that there was no such thing as right or wrong. Not so. What he, Nietzsche and Crowley meant was that absolute, capital-T Truth exists only within our perceptions, and when removed from said perceptions it falls completely apart. If that's the case, then why do people still insist on there being absolute truth?

Because that's what gets you what you want. In our society, assertion is necessary, or you go unfulfilled. I'm sure there's some interesting evolutionary biology in there somewhere.

What applications does this have in the real world? Welcome to the wonderful world of topos theory.

A traditional axiomatic foundation of mathematics is set theory, in which all mathematical objects are ultimately represented by sets (even functions which map between sets.) More recent work in category theory allows this foundation to be generalized using topoi; each topos completely defines its own mathematical framework. The category of sets forms a familiar topos, and working within this topos is equivalent to using traditional set theoretic mathematics. But one could instead choose to work with many alternate topoi. A standard formulation of the axiom of choice makes sense in any topos, and there are topoi in which it is invalid. Constructivists will be interested to work in a topos without the law of excluded middle. If symmetry under a particular group G is of importance, one can use the topos consisting of all G-sets.

Ooh, let's read more!

Unfortunately, if you don't know some category theory, the above definition will be mysterious and will require a further sequence of definitions to bring it back to the basic concepts of category theory - object, morphism, composition, identity. Instead of doing all that, let me say a bit about what these items A)-C) amount to in the category of sets:
A) says that there are:

an initial object (an object like the empty set)
a terminal object (an an object like a set with one element)
binary coproducts (something like the disjoint union of two sets)
binary products (something like the Cartesian product of two sets)
equalizers (something like the subset of X consisting of all elements x such that f(x) = g(x), where f,g: X → Y)
coequalizers (something like the quotient set of X where two elements f(y) and g(y) are identified, where f,g: Y → X)
In fact A) is equivalent to all this stuff. However, I should emphasize that A) says all this in an elegant unified way; it's a theorem that this elegant way is the same as all the crud I just listed.

B) says that for any objects x and y, there is an object yx, called an "exponential", which acts like "the set of functions from x to y".

C) says that there is an object called the "subobject classifier" Ω, which acts like {0,1}, in that functions from any set x into {0,1} are secretly the same as subsets of x. You can think of Ω as the replacement for the usual boolean "truth values" that we work with when doing logic in the category of sets.

Learning more about all these concepts is probably the best use of your time if you wants to learn a little bit of topos theory. Even if you can't remember what a topos is, these concepts can help you become a stronger mathematician or mathematical physicist!

This one is from the New Scientist (sorry, to read the rest you need a subscription):

CHRIS ISHAM has a problem with truth. And he suspects his fellow physicists do too. It is not their honesty he doubts, but their approach to understanding the nature of the universe, the laws that govern it and reality itself. Together with a small band of allies, Isham is wrestling with questions that lie at the very core of physics. Indeed they run even deeper, to such basic concepts as logic, existence and truth. What do they mean? Are they immutable? What lies beyond them?

After years of effort, Isham and his colleagues at Imperial College London and elsewhere believe they can glimpse the answers to these profound questions. They didn't set out to rethink such weighty issues. When they started nearly a decade ago, the researchers hoped to arrive at a quantum theory of the universe, an ambitious enough task in itself. Yet in the process they might have bagged something bigger.

For if their results stand up, Isham and his colleagues appear to have found a new way of making sense of reality using concepts even more fundamental than mathematics and logic. Not only could their insights be good news for quantum theory, they could lead to a whole new way of constructing theories of reality.

Since its emergence around a century ago, quantum theory has become one of the cornerstones of modern science. It underpins everything from the behaviour of quarks and semiconductors to the power of medical scanners. And it has passed virtually every test thrown at it, its predictions agreeing with experiment to many decimal places.

With a track record like that, quantum theory might seem ideal for casting light on the ultimate questions about the universe, such as why it exists at all. Not so. In fact, it runs into very big trouble very quickly, because quantum theory has a problem with truth.

With hindsight, perhaps this shouldn't be so surprising. Right from the start, quantum theory has had a reputation for giving odd answers to even seemingly simple questions.

It goes on to describe some very interesting things. Since I'm something of a simpleton when it comes to math, this is what I understand from it:

You can build different mathematical systems from different points of view. Imagine what math is like as Schroedinger's Cat or on the inside of a black hole, and you can build an entire new system from scratch. This means that there may be different parallel mathematical realities occupying the same space as this one, we just can't see them from the Euclidean POV.

Think of the questions this raises. Is there life in these parallel math realities? Can we communicate with them? Do we already participate with them at the unconscious level? What does this mean for our current definitions of "possible" and "impossible?"

Topos theory gives us but a glimpse of the reality we've been missing out on. So, take a moment to remind yourself that this universe you're in may not be the only one, and maybe decide to start or end your day today by reciting the motto above.

Nothing is true, everything is permitted.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

As things fell apart, no one was paying attention...

So, I've decided that message board forums and myspace were insufficient to contain my ever-expanding, ever-evolving understanding of this universe and the human interaction with and within it. Here you'll get to imbibe my views on politics, spirituality, science, art, and culture, with a healthy pool of underlying optimism obscured by my thin veneer of bitter, cranky cynicism.

Just so anyone interested (zero people and growing exponentially) can track my other internet wanderings, I post often on Comic Book Resources under the handle Tages, a place I originally went to for nerdery that I was pleasantly surprised to find had a vibrant community of incredibly intelligent, articulate people that discuss far more than simply pop culture. It's supposed to be a truism that no one ever changes his or her mind because of an internet argument, but I've changed my mind many times due to interacting with the people there.

My little-used Myspace can be found here.

(yes, I fear hyperlinking)

As a introduction, my name is Jason Williams, I'm 23 years old and live in Reno, Nevada. I currently work for the Wells Fargo phone bank because it pays well and I do almost no actual work. However, my true loves are literature and film, and I'm currently writing something that may turn into a novel, fingers crossed, and have produced two independent features, the latter of which I co-wrote: "Less Like Me" and "Prayers of a Stalker."

I'm a natural order anarchist of the Murray Rothbard variety. I believe that the state is a fundamentally harmful and unnecessary institution, and that all of our problems could potentially be solved without it. While I shorten this in conversation to "I'm a libertarian," most of the time that means people assume I'm a member of the Libertarian Party, which I'm not, or that I agree with Libertarian Icon X, which I don't (this means that I find Ayn Rand putrid), or that I believe that markets are all of the time 100% infallible, which just ain't so.

Philosophically, I would say I'm closest to the existentialists, especially Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.

Spiritually, aye, that's where the most change has been occurring of late. A single label of "Christian," "Atheist," "Taoist," "Chaos Magician" or any of thousands of other labels just won't do anymore. It's grown more complicated. But I can't remember ever being happier, ever having broken free from the chains of melancholy moreso than I have in these past two months, and that through my spiritual exploration I have attained, if only for a few fleeting moments, the boundless wonder of ecstacy.

Let's just say that I found God, and God isn't a noun.

That's enough for now. I'll get to commenting on other crap later.