Sunday, March 28, 2010

God is: 1. Incapable, 2. Indifferent or 3. Fictional (choose all that apply)

“Without a god in this universe the world would be full of evil.”

“Without belief in god people would just live their lives according to themselves.”

These claims are not new. The fallacies of these and similar statements have been and are continually exposed and dismissed. Countless cultures managed to function socially (as opposed to individuals living “according to themselves”) before the Romans conquered Israel. Countless cultures managed to function socially without any awareness of the mythology of the Hebrews. Most cultures have managed roughly the same evil-to-good ratio without yawei or Jesus. There is no objective reason to think that without believing there is a god in the universe “the world would be full of evil.”

But maybe they are referring to god’s existence rather than belief therein? Evil does exist in the world. (I hope we can agree on this premise. If it is not obvious to someone that there is evil in the world there is little hope of reaching them with demonstrable facts, let alone logic.) The definition of “evil” is a slippery and a possible point of equivocation. But whether we define “evil” as “a metaphysical force that erodes morality,” “that which causes physical or emotional harm” or “malicious intent,” the same conclusion is inevitable. Let us assume (as has been suggested) that a god capable of influencing how “full of evil” the world is, actually exists. Evil does exist so this god is either incapable, unwilling or both to reduce evil to zero.

Metaphysical evil. If evil is a malevolent force, independent of humanity, then it falls entirely under the purview of such a god. Humans could not eliminate or create this kind of evil. The quantity (or absence), quality and placement of such a metaphysical evil would be the responsibility and fault of the god. Whether the god directly created the evil or merely created the possibility/potential for metaphysical evil, attempts to direct blame at mankind for metaphysical evil make as much sense as blaming mankind for any other supposed metaphysical manifestation. Ghosts? Souls? Dualistic consciousness? If the god is capable and willing to reduce metaphysical evil then why does metaphysical evil exist at all? There are four possibilities: 1. The god is incapable of reducing/eliminating metaphysical evil. 2. The god is unwilling to reduce/eliminate metaphysical evil. 3. The god is a fictional construct. 4. Metaphysical evil is a fictional construct. At LEAST one of these possibilities is true.

Harm. This is basically natural evil. Plenty of people point to volcanoes, earthquakes, tornados, tsunami, hurricanes, sickness, death, hunger… as evidence that there is no omniscient omnipotent sympathetic intervening god. Some will even include our fragile emotional reliance on moderately benevolent circumstances and order (as opposed to chaos.) But the claim is that without god the world would be full of evil. If we are talking about natural evil, once again the responsibility and fault go to the supposed creator. If humans were created then their creator is to blame for their nature and potential. If the universe, Earth and life were created then their creator is to blame for their nature and potential. Once again we must consider: 1. The god is incapable of reducing/eliminating natural evil. 2. The god is unwilling to reduce/eliminate natural evil. 3. The god is a fictional construct. 4. Natural evil shouldn’t even be called “evil” though the described phenomena do exist… because they can.

Malicious intent. Let’s broaden “malicious intent” to include selfish indifference along with cruelty for the sake of cruelty. This kind of evil is uniquely human. Certainly in nature we’ve seen predators sate their hunger via the suffering and death of another animal. We’ve seen cats toy with their prey. But we are reluctant to name this imposed ill “evil” in the absence of conscious self-awareness. When we have the capacity to sympathize with another being and still intentionally allow or cause them to suffer is this not evil? Certainly we prioritize, rationalize and justify our choices before and after the fact. But if this is not evil then what is? If we assume humans were created we can credit the creator with giving us the potential for intentional conscious evil. But given that we have consciousness, we have sympathy, we have choices, we must take the lion’s share of responsibility for our malice. I wouldn’t characterize the world as being FULL of malice or self-interest. Although both spite and egoism are very common. But we also have cooperation and altruism. Could there be altruism and cooperation without god? These are the traits by which we categorize creatures as being social. Behavior that benefits the group increases the likelihood that the group will have descendants, descendants that also have social tendencies. While we may credit/blame a god for our potential to do good and evil we must take responsibility for our decisions to cooperate or harm. Does the balance of good and evil rely on the existence of a god? There is no objective reason to believe it does. 1. Incapable? 2. Unwilling? 3. Fictional?

It has been suggested that sincere prayer will lead us to revelation, epiphany and the holy spirit. I’ve already done that. Thankfully, the delusion wore off. The world works fine and doesn’t need a supernatural entity to explain how or why. And even if it did need supernatural explanations the available mythologies (religions) are inadequate at best. The more popular mythologies are generally self-contradicting, especially christianity. And why is it not suspicious to everyone that the same feeling of transcendence is available no matter which religion a person chooses? How can a Tibetan monk, a muslim, a baptist, a catholic, a lutheran, a voodoo priest, a jew, a rastafarian, a hindu (and the list goes on) all receive what christians call the gift of the holy spirit? Alternate religions may call it something different. And they too know it to be Truth. How is it different? That’s funny; they said the same thing about yours. It is a subjective knowing. It is a conclusion based on (and reliant on) what is felt internally. How is it that all religions can provide the same feeling of transcendence? Is it that none but one religion is correct and the others are tapping into something internal and natural rather than external and supernatural? Is it that all religions tap into the same supernatural source and that our natural understanding is too simple to see all religions are true? Or is it that they are all false, all rely on the same internal human foibles and provide nothing that isn’t already in us?

I cannot tell you what you won’t hear; show you what you won’t see. You will make excuses, rationalize and generally find a way to believe what you want to believe. But if there is a god, it did an excellent job of making itself deniable and irrelevant.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The fox (Mark Signorelli) and the sour grapes (meme theory)
The subject is memes. The author criticizes the meme concept and its proponents.

From (3/10/2010):A meme (pronounced /ˈmiːm/, rhyming with "cream"[1]) is a postulated unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. (The etymology of the term relates to the Greek word μιμητισμός ([mɪmetɪsmos]) for "something imitated".)[2] Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate and respond to selective pressures.[3]

(It should also be pointed out that memes originated simply as a metaphor for the way genes transfer genetic information. But the meme concept caught on with intellectuals and the perspective the concept grants has proven itself valuable.)

Is Mr. Signorelli deliberately misrepresenting the meme concept or does he actually lack the acumen to grasp it?

Why is it so hard to understand that extragenic information and behaviors may be replicated from one organism to another, one brain to another? “Monkey see, monkey do” was hardly a new idea when I was a child.

Why is it so hard to understand that in the process of replication the copier may inadvertently or otherwise make minute but distinguishable alterations to the information or behavior? Does Signorelli have no grasp of information theory? He doesn’t address it in the sections to which I subjected myself, but I feel comfortable speculating he does not.

There may yet be no objective way to quantify discrete units of extragenic information or behavior. But they are subject to being copied, to being repeated. Is there a name for these analog bits (pardon the equivocation) of information and behavior? Thanks to Dawkins, there is: memes. And the process by which these memes and their subsequent versions (or perhaps subversions?) are spread (or not) by various means of communication is highly analogous to asexual reproduction or viral pathology and also somewhat analogous to sexual reproduction. (Preexisting memes may interact with new memes to produce something like a hybrid.)

They are also subject to not being copied, of going extinct. For example, in thirty years Dawkins’ books and other writings will likely be available in libraries and online. Signorelli’s? Probably not. The main driving force for replication is interest… how interesting the meme is. That which is interesting is more likely to be repeated/replicated. Factuality and utility may factor into how interesting a meme is. But Cinderella, moon walking (the dance) and (insert your least favorite deity here) are all fictional and (arguably) lack utility. An interesting lie spreads farther and faster than its rebuttal.

But memes, like ideas are not tangible. We can observe an example of an idea but not “ideas” themselves. And while information may be digitized, ideas are a little more slippery. And to use the gene/meme analogy, it is generally a lot easier to identify physical peptide chains that correlate to phenotypes than it is to quantify and display discrete units of replicable analog cultural information.

Neither Dawkins nor the English language are perfect. Dawkins' approach may throw in a dash of dramatic or poetic license to which a willful dissenter might cry foul. And his metaphors, like most metaphors, also leave room for misinterpretation, more so when the interpreter is predisposed to do so. Here too Signorelli is more confounded than confounding.

But to get back to the original question: Is Mr. Signorelli deliberately misrepresenting the meme concept or does he actually lack the acumen to grasp it? While I would like to give Signorelli the benefit of a doubt the vituperation he applies to Dawkins and Dennett strongly suggest a prejudice. It is possible Signorelli only scanned the source material for opportunities to disagree. It is possible that his only exposure to the source material was through a disingenuous third party, perhaps the Discovery Institute? If he were genuinely attempting to refute the theory he has failed. Even the “straw man” he attacks is largely unscathed. The only real damage is to those who are first exposed to the idea of memes through his writing. Upon reflection, his own credibility is damaged as well. So while I can not assert Signorelli is technically lying, I suspect if he were actually capable of understanding the simple idea of “monkey see, monkey do” or the game of “telephone” that he would still do his best (don’t laugh) at trying to refute it.

I'm forced to wonder why Signorelli even wrote this. It reeks of assigned work. The conclusion seems to have been reached before the subject was broached. Did Dawkins and Dennett steal his girl, or otherwise wrong him? Sig (can I call ya Sig?) surely can't have stumbled upon the concept of memes, investigated further and gone into a rage over the audacity of such a flagrantly bogus concept and the detriment that it will or has caused? Even his corrupted perception of memes doesn't warrant his misguided rage.

There's something else at work here, another layer. This isn't just Sig expressing his internal musings. Maybe the piece was commissioned. Maybe he's seeking favor or employment from a think tank or special interest. It could be that he is just a bitter but florid idiot. But it doesn't seem that simple. It doesn't sit right. Something is askew.

Two of the best meme examples I rely on are toilet paper folding and grain floating.

Toilet paper folding. Susan Blackmore gave a TED talk ( on this phenomenon. It is not quite universal, but extremely common for professional housekeepers to fold the end square of toilet paper. Typically it is folded under creating a triangle. It is actually counter-productive but it signals deliberate and detailed preparation of the facility. Thirty years ago I had never seen an example of this display. I was introduced to this form of "salute" during basic military training in the late eighties. A few years later I would sometimes encounter this display when taking lodging. Many years later it was quite common. And in the last few years I am not likely to notice unless the salute is missing.

Grain floating. I think I may have learned of this from Carl Sagan's 'Dragons of Eden.' The details are fuzzy to my recollection. A group of humans, for a reason I have forgotten, would often have left over grain, possibly rice. They would scatter it outside to be rid of it. Local primates became aware of the routinely available free food and made a practice of collecting and consuming it. (Sort of a meme in itself there) The humans were unhappy with the primates so took to discarding the grain on a convenient beach. It was so difficult for the primates to separate the sand from the grain that most would give up. But one primate took some of the sand/grain and put it in the water where the sand fell away and the grain floated. It continued to do so and the younger members of its social group copied the behavior. The point of the story was the older primates were less receptive to new behavior. But if ever there was an example of a meme, this is it.

Memes exist in the same capacity as consciousness or nature. They may be difficult to pinpoint, define or prove but they give identity to very real phenomena.

Friday, March 5, 2010

When fatwa should be welcomed

In response to:
Islamic scholar Tahir ul-Qadri issues terrorism fatwa

Some contend that just because someone is a theologian or religious scholar that anything they have to offer is without value. There are all kinds of scholars. Just because they specialize in fiction doesn't mean they are less studied than scholars of non-fiction. There is an argument to be made along the lines of, "That which isn't worth doing, isn't worth doing well." But I'm reluctant to rob experts of the title "scholar" just because their field of expertise might be the works of Jane Austin, Homer or even Gary Gygax. Furthermore, I wouldn't necessarily want Alan Dershowitz defending me if I were on trial in China. When considering things within a particular framework, of which we are not subject, an expert in that field (regardless of the merit of the field itself) should be given due consideration.

But the bigger question is, "Why is this news." Several islamic scholars/leaders have pronounced similar rulings. Why hasn't EVERY islamic scholar/leader pronounced similar rulings? These fatwa may not dissuade many (perhaps ANY) indoctrinated jihadist, but it may make recruiting more difficult. For people who can't think beyond "If you're not with us you're against us," clearly defined and universal exclusion of and opposition to violent extremism would make the path of al qaeda anathema.

Suicide bombers are touted as heroes within their social-religious-political circles. If that does not change then they are almost certain to continue. Religions may be short on fact and merit but still hold influence. I would prefer every cleric and believer to simultaneously realize and confess that their religion is irredeemable fiction. But that's not going to happen. Proponents of supernatural ideologies are essentially intractable. As long as there are believers there will be paragons. If fellow believers regard violent extremists as role models and we can't yet dissipate general belief perhaps we can welcome the reproval of the misguided and misnamed martyrs.

As homo sapiens we may be embarrassed (to whom?) that the majority of our species still clings to superstitious beliefs. As an atheist it is not the fairy tale beliefs of the religious that gall me (well, OK. Maybe a little). It is the social-political impact of their ideology that riles me. As a non-muslim, it is not the minarets or kowtowing that I find offensive. It is the inhumane practices such as violent jihadism and misogyny that cause me to recognize my own ferocity.

So if islamic scholars can (within the framework of their common fictitious superstition) refute and rebuke the unfounded rationale of self-righteous criminals, we should encourage them (the scholars). So the questions remain: Why is this news? Why hasn't EVERY islamic leader/scholar pronounced similar fatwa? Why has it taken this long for this lone fatwa? Why is official islamic condemnation of violent jihadism STILL so sparse and even then spoken softly?