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,