Saturday, September 29, 2007

More irony from the Pharisees of reason

If I only had a nickel for every time one of the Atheist Triumvarate (Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins) said something ironic. The latest comes from Sam Harris:

"Reason is a compulsion, not a choice. Just as one cannot intentionally startle oneself, one cannot knowingly believe a proposition on bad evidence."

Well, Sam, if that were really true, then why do so many people believe in God? There are logically only three possibilities:

1. All those people who claim to believe in God don't really believe it (which immediately begs the question of what motivates people to blow themselves up in God's name if not belief).

2. There is in fact good evidence for believing in God.

3. Your claim is wrong.

It seems like a no-brainer to me. Just because reason is a compulsion for Sam Harris doesn't mean it's a compulsion for everyone. It's pretty clear to me that many -- possibly most -- people are quite capable of self-delusion about a wide variety of matters. Moreover, self-delusion can actually be beneficial as the placebo effect demonstrates. Not only that, but there are evolutionary arguments that self-delusion actually has survival value, which means that evolutionary theory itself refutes Harris's claim. (More on that in an upcoming post.)

I despair when I read Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins. The world needs reason now more than ever. It is a tragedy that logic's greatest advocates are blind to their own irrationality.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

How material wealth leads to spiritual poverty

I regularly rail against the rhetorical tactics of strident atheists like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins because they fail to realize that religion serves a legitimate human need, and that until atheism offers up a competitive substitute for that need it will fail to win hearts and minds. Yes, HH&D's books are bestsellers, but I think they're just preaching to the already unconverted. There is little evidence that they are actually winning over many people who were not already predisposed to rationality. Moreover, their conflation of relgion and fundamentalism is a dangerous fallacy. These are two distinct phenomena, and only one of them (fundamentalism) needs to be combatted.

The need that religion serves is the need to feel that life has a purpose, the need to feel that one is part of something greater than onesself, the need to quell existential angst. Let me concede up front that this need is wholly irrational, but just because something is irrational doesn't mean it isn't real.

When I was in college I had a serious relationship with a girl who lived 2000 miles away (I was in Virginia, she was in California). The rational part of me recognized that it was silly to expect monogamy in such a situation (to say nothing of the fact that I wanted to keep my options open) and I told her so. One day she told me that she had had oral sex with another man. The rational part of me said that this was no big deal. But deep in the dark evolutionary recesses of my brain there arose a powerful and completely unexpected emotion: jealousy. It took me completely by surprise and almost completely paralyzed me for days. At one point I tried to call her, but she was out, which of course made things worse. This was back in the 80's, before cell phones, before AIDS, before voice mail. I sat on the floor literally for several hours listening to the phone ring and ring and ring and ring and ring and ring and...

All the while, part of my brain knew that I was severely overreacting. But simply knowing that didn't make the feeling, or its physical impact on my life, any less real.

Of course, jealousy is irrational only from the point of view of a college student trying to carry on a long-distance relationship. From the point of view of my genes trying to compel me to help them reproduce it makes perfect sense. So too with existential angst. For most of their evolutionary history, humans existed at subsistence levels, always on the hairy edge of starvation. In such an environment, labor is a precious and valuable resource. Any extra hands available to hunt or gather or till or harvest contribute directly to survival. Such an environment selects heavily for instincts that in this modern age we would call a Puritan work ethic, and a belief that human life (which is to say, labor) is precious.

The advent of economic plenty brought about by the indusrial revolution changed everything. Suddenly everything became cheap including labor. It was suddenly possibly for members of the clan to engage in activities not directly related to the production of food without putting the other members in peril of starvation. People could become scholars or poets or even outright parasites (c.f. Paris Hilton) without being strongly selected against, at least not by evolution.

Moreover, labor, once a precious resource, became a commodity. Which is to say that people became a commodity. With division of labor, standardization and specialization, humans were essentially turned into machines, at least in the workplace. All this was enormously beneficial in societal and evolutionary terms (as evidenced by the fact that humans are now overrunning the entire planet) but from the point of view of the human instincts and emotions evolved during leaner times it was a disaster. Our genes evolved a wide variety of dirty tricks to make us want to work hard, to be useful, to be part of something greater than ourselves, to feel like our life had a purpose, to believe that God Himself wanted us to be fruitful and multiply. Barely an eyeblink ago in evolutionary terms these instincts had real survival value. Today they don't, but the gears of evolution turn slowly and those instincts and emotions are still with us, and no less real and impactful on our lives than jealousy.

The reality of these instincts is manifest -- there is no other way to explain the rise of fundamentalism in the modern world. Many authors have written about this, including Karen Armstrong and Michael Lerner. The modern resurgence of fundamentalism is an instrinctive response to the dehumanizing effects of modern industrial society. We evolved to believe that human life is precious because we evolved in a world where that belief had survival value.

Of course, DD&H understand all this. (This is actually the central thesis of "The God Delusion.") What they do not understand is that they are outliers. Random variation naturally produces some people in whom these instincts are less strong or even absent altogether, and with the old evolutionary pressures removed these outliers begint to survive and become more common. But DD&H apparently fail to realize that the vast majority of people cannot simply switch off their instinctive desire for meaning, community, and purpose, even if that desire has to be fulfilled by beliefs that are objectively fictional.

The objective fact of the matter is that human life is no longer precious, which is just another way of saying that labor is cheap. Most people are confronted with this harsh reality every day when they go to work. Modern industrialism has transformed humans from precious individuals to interchangeable components. Evolutionarily it has been a great success. We can now, for example, afford to slaughter each other wholesale with nary a blip on the exponential population curve. But evolution works slowly, and those not-so-old instincts are still with us, and it is very, very hard to shake off the burden of instinct. These feelings are wired deep into the dark recesses of our brain, and logic is a poor weapon against the power of evolution.

Until DD&H realize that for many people religion is just as much a compulsion as reason is for them they will continue to fail to win hearts and minds. And that is a damn shame.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The acid test

The Bush administration's rhetoric on Iraq is about to be put to a very stark experimental test. The administration says that its goal in Iraq is to establish a stable, sovereign democratic government, which implies that it wants to establish the rule of law. Well, the Iraqi government is about to file criminal charges against employees of Blackwater in connection with the recent shootings of 20 innocent civilians. The employees in question are still in Iraq.

Of course the idea that the Iraqi government is anything even resembling sovereign is a transparent sham. The U.S. has already strongarmed the Iraqis into rescinding their earlier decision to expel Blackwater from the country altogether. Now this latest attempt by the Iraqis to secure justice for their dead will determine just how transparent the sham is. If there is even the tiniest shread of truth to the administration's rhetoric, the merest vestige of honor left in the United States of America, then we will allow the prosecutions to proceed whether or not we believe that the employees in question are guilty. If we are truly fighting for democracy and the rule of law then those Blackwater employees must face trial. That is what it means to follow the rule of law. If, on the other hand, we are fighting for something else (did someone say oil?) and the principle that the United States is the world's last superpower and we can do whatever the fuck we want then those employees will be spirited out of Iraq back to their comfy home in the good ole U.S. of A.

Care to guess which outcome my money is on?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Where's my tin foil hat?

I don't normally subscribe to conspiracy theories, but this is looking pretty frickin' weird.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Heil Kerry

Fascism is alive and well in the United States. A University of Florida student asked John Kerry a longwinded question. In response he was arrested and tasered while the spineless pussy in chief looked on and did nothing. John Kerry, you disgust me and make me ashamed to call myself an American.

UPDATE: Daily Kos has an eyewitness account with a different read on the situation. Personally, I'm skeptical. Yes, the guy was being obnoxious. But there were four cops. Surely they were capable of removing one student from the room without a taser? (No one should believe anything they read on Daily Kos anyway :-)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Questioning my own sanity

Every now and then I stumble across something that makes me question my own sanity, and realize just how tenuous a grasp we actually have on the past.

I started college in 1982. I stayed for two quarters before going to California for the first of two six-month-long co-op jobs at IBM's Cottle Road facility in San Jose. On the second of those jobs, in 1984, I rented a room from my then-girlfriend's grandmother in Los Gatos and commuted to work in a 1969 Dodge Dart which I bought for $1700 and named Emily after a Simon and Garfunkel song that I had recently learned to play on the guitar. ($1700 might seem like a lot to pay for a Dart, but Emily had a brand new metallic-blue paint job and a like-new interior. She was a real beauty, almost showroom condition. They don't make 'em like her any more.)

My rent included room and board, and Grandma Betty would make me dinner every evening. At the beginning of the summer she asked me if I liked avocados, which I said I did. So every night for six months she served me half an avocado with a little puddle of Girard's champagne salad dressing in the hollow where the pit had been. It was actually quite tasty, but after six months of non-stop avocados it was about a decade before I could bear to face one again.

I mention all these trivial details to show that I have, at least apparently, a pretty clear recall of the time and the events, even if many of them seem a bit surreal to me now. And one of the things that I can recall very clearly is spending a lot of time watching MTV, which was the hot new thing at the time. And one of my favorite videos was Roxette's "Joyride". Marie Fredriksson was so hot, and the song just made me want to dance. I must have watched that video three dozen times in the summer of 1984.

Except that Joyride wasn't released until 1990. And the video wasn't made until 1991. In fact, Roxette didn't even release their first album until 1986. So although I can remember all of these events with absolute clarity and I would swear on my mother's grave that all of these things actually happened, it can't possibly be true (unless someone has rewritten the history of Roxette, which seems exceedingly unlikely).

It gets even weirder: in 1991 I was living in Southern California, and as far as I can recall I didn't have cable TV, so there's no way I could have seen the video at the time it was ostensibly released. And yet I definitely did see the video. I just pulled it up on YouTube after not having seen it for God only knows how many years and it's pretty much exactly as I remember it.

I wonder how many other things I remember that couldn't possibly have happened.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The wrong headline

The Guardian has a story headlined George Bush insists that Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. So why, six years ago, did the CIA give the Iranians blueprints to build a bomb? I think the headline writer got it wrong. The right headline would be, "Why is George Bush so confident that Iran is going to build a bomb? Because the Iranians got the information they need to do it on his watch."

Sunday, September 02, 2007

IAEA confirms the "peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear activities"

It's official, Iran is not developing a nuclear weapon. Of course, I predict that this won't stop the Bush administration from starting a war with Iran, they'll just ignore the report or find some other excuse.

I have never in my life wanted so much to be wrong.

UPDATE: The blogosphere is abuzz with speculation that an attack on Iran is imminent. So is the international press. But the mainstream U.S. press is completely silent about this as far as I can tell. So is the U.S. Congress. Some of the signs are looking quite ominous.

UPDATE2: Here's a good discussion of the monster SPY options trade and its implications.