So, did he see his shadow? Is this wretched, brutal winter finally and truly over?
“I think, therefore I am.” Descartes famously tried to find some basis for knowledge that was beyond all doubt, and settled on that as his foundation. Yet, as Buddhist writers among others have pointed out, he still fucked it up by taking for granted the existence of the self, the greatest illusion of all, the one most in need of doubt. Wikipedia puts it slightly more generously, saying, “Initially, Descartes arrives at only a single principle: thought exists. Thought cannot be separated from me, therefore, I exist.” Of course, he should have taken that last step and realized that he himself did not, could not exist in a vacuum, therefore everything else exists too.
The properties of a thing are effects on other “things”:
if one removes other “things”, then a thing has no properties,
i.e., there is no thing without other things,
i.e., there is no “thing-in-itself”.
I’ve been thinking lately about the inadequacy and pointlessness of atheism.
Now that I have your attention, haha! — no, I’m mostly kidding. I haven’t suddenly become a devotee of Zeus, Ra or Jeebus. I just mean that I’ve come to think that arguing about the existence or lack thereof of God, as fun and stimulating as that can be, misses the real point: the ego, the sense of independent selfhood. It’s kind of common now to hear people quip about how God was created in man’s image rather than the other way around, but they don’t often seem to grasp the true import of that statement.
I’ve often explained my decision to identify as an atheist rather than, say, an agnostic on the grounds that when the majority of people, especially in a majority Christian nation, ask if you believe in God, they are not asking if you believe in a Deist Supreme Architect, a Gnostic Logos, or some other similarly abstract, bloodless rational construction. They are asking if you believe in the personal, loving, bipolar, father-figure god, the one who rewards you and smites your enemies, the one who holds out the promise of reunion in the afterlife with all your loved ones, and since it seems ridiculously obvious that such a being is a projection of human vanity upon the universe, I feel perfectly comfortable saying no, I’m certain nothing like that exists.
The thing is, rather than promptly getting sidetracked in hair-splitting discussions of how such a being could possibly exist and for what reasons and in what circumstances, I think it would be far more relevant to stick to the original point: it’s not about Him, it’s all about you.
Most of us know that repressing thoughts and urges only strengthens them. Likewise, arguing and wrestling with egoistic delusions only reinforces the ego. All of our babbling about God boils down to one question: What’s in it for me? Pretending to see evidence of such an anthropomorphic being reassures you that your own existence is meaningful. You might fear the thought of being judged for your actions and found wanting, yet it’s still more comforting to believe that your thoughts and actions are so tremendously important as to require consideration and judgment at all. And whether there is/could be/might be such a being, it really doesn’t matter, seeing as how there’s no abiding, permanent essence to your existence that will ever be around to find out:
To have become a person means to have emerged contingently from a matrix of genetic, psychological, social and cultural conditions. You are neither reducible to one or all of them, nor separate from them. While a person is more than a DNA code, a psychological profile and a social and cultural background, he or she cannot be understood apart from such factors. You are unique not because you possess an essential metaphysical quality that differs from the essential metaphysical quality of everyone else, but because you have emerged from a unique and unrepeatable set of conditions.
It seems to me it would be a lot easier to make this concept understood to people than to waste time debating the existence of God. Anything you could point to in an attempt to define some irreducible essence of “you”, any quality about yourself, whether physical, mental or emotional, is a compound phenomenon contingent upon others for its existence. “Soul” and “spirit” are nothing more than useful metaphors.
Your body is a product of your parents’ DNA (and that of all your earlier relatives), and its continued existence relies, at the very least, on a regular supply of air, food and water. You probably wouldn’t include “oxygen” in a definition of what it means to be you, but it’s impossible to talk about any human being existing in an environment without it.
The language you speak, which shapes and communicates the sorts of thoughts you have, is a cultural work-in-progress, stretching back over thousands of years at least, with contributions from countless people. The ideas you have, the beliefs you hold, the mental qualities that you consider to form such an important aspect of who you are, were pieced together over time and expressed by many different people, adapted to many different situations. You may find a clever way to apply certain ideas, beliefs or insights to your particular experience, but the basic themes were laid down long ago.
Your thoughts and feelings emerge from the interplay between your brain and sensory organs. They are not going to float around in the atmosphere or out in space after your death, waiting for a new host organism to attach themselves to. Any God that mattered would have to make himself known in the here and now, because your death will be the end of your opportunity to know anything about him, as your component atoms dissolve back into the endless flow of life itself from which they arose.
One who denies the permanent essence of self — what should be the word for that?
I read Digby regularly because she’s widely considered to be one of the intellectual heavyweights of the proggie blogosphere. Usually, when I take issue with something she’s said, it’s because of what appears to be naïveté, or — more likely — willful blindness in service to political ideology. But this kind of deliberate partisan hackery really pisses me the fuck off.
It appears this little girl was mentally tortured to death.
I’m sure this behavior isn’t unprecedented. Lord of the Flies was an allegory, but it was also a fairly realistic depiction of human behavior. But I can’t help but feel that the violent, apocalyptic rhetoric of the right over the past few years has torn off much of the civilizing bonds we’d built up over the years. Certainly our recent cavalier attitude toward torture (“when they deserve it”) hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Keep in mind that most of the people who are screaming in red faced rage in news stories every day aren’t young people. It’s older people — the faces of authority — who are doing it. These parental (and grandparental) role models acting out of control with anger gives tacit permission to some kids to act like animals too.
Yes, she’s really trying to say-without-actually-saying that the recent phenomenon of livid, illiterate Republicans with homemade, misspelled cardboard signs hollering on camera about socialism and taxes and Kenyan birth certificates is somehow responsible for teenagers in Massachusetts bullying another girl for months until she committed suicide. If she were simply making that direct claim, it would be merely stupid. But she knows better, and she admits as much right there — humans have always had the capacity for violence and gratuitous cruelty, and anyone who doesn’t have some idiotic, romantic conception of the innocence of childhood knows full well that children can display an astonishing ability to let a pack mentality take over and start senselessly tormenting outcasts for the sheer mindless fun of it.
She knows that. And yet she still tries to use such a horrible incident to score a tiny political point that no one will even remember in two weeks. Fucking disgusting.
I remember staring in slack-jawed amazement back in 2000, after the infamous wilding attacks at the Puerto Rican Day parade in NYC, as someone read an editorial (I think it was in one of the NYC tabloids, but I’m not positive) to me where the author was seriously trying to blame the attacks on Bill Clinton’s behavior with Monica Lewinsky. The “logic” seemingly went something like: Clinton got a blowjob from a willing intern and didn’t lose his job over it, so therefore a bunch of morons, who probably couldn’t even have named the president if asked, figured they could sexually assault random women in public in broad daylight and get away with it. Because again, rape and assault were absolutely unheard of in human history before then.
And remember this classic from Newt Gingrich in 1994, regarding the Susan Smith case?
Here’s what Gingrich said three days before last November’s election — in response to an Associated Press reporter who asked him how the campaign was going: “Slightly more moving our way. I think that the mother killing the two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we need to change things.” Gingrich concluded, “The only way you get change is to vote Republican. That’s the message for the last three days.”
Nice company you’re keeping these days, Digs. Be proud.
‘He forgets nothing but he forgives everything’ – in that case, he will be doubly hated, for he makes doubly ashamed – with his memory and his magnanimity.
From Age of Propaganda, by Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson:
Forgiveness of guilt and compliance were recently investigated in an experiment conducted by Brad Kelln and John Ellard. In their research, college students were led to believe that they had mishandled some scientific equipment and thereby ruined the experimenter’s study…But here is the interesting twist. One group of students was forgiven their supposed misdeed. They were told by the experimenter: “Don’t worry about it. That’s OK.”
What would you do in such a situation? Often the act of forgiveness is seen as “wiping the slate clean” – the transgressor is absolved of guilt and the person offering forgiveness is perceived as a friend. However, that is not what Kelln and Ellard found. In fact, they found that just the opposite occurred. The offer of forgiveness served as a double whammy; first they felt guilty about damaging the equipment and then they were offered no means of making it up to the researcher. The only way to make restitution and to show that they were “good” people was to comply with the experimenter’s request to do more work. And that they did, offering to do almost twice the work as the other students in the research. But all of these guilty feelings had a cost. When the students were forgiven their transgressions, they came to dislike the experimenter – the person who had absolved them of their crime. Apparently, people do not like people to whom they feel beholden.
This also calls to mind Jonathan Sacks’ comment about how “nobody will ever forgive the Jews for the Holocaust.”
If it is a deeply ingrained part of human nature to resent people to whom you owe something, I think it’s interesting to contemplate what this means with regards to Christianity and its overweening emphasis on the need to be forgiven for your transgressions by someone who’s perfect. In fact, I wonder if Jesus is who Nietzsche had in mind with that aphorism.
This is one of the stupidest fucking things I have ever read. Take it from the top:
Atheists like to think of themselves as free thinkers whose take on the world is more intelligent than that of those who are religious. Often they hold up sketchy studies as proof that their skepticism of a higher power has somehow made them smarter than the paranoid idiots who believe there might be something beyond themselves.
“Often” we hold up sketchy studies. As soon as I saw this, I knew what she was referring to, so let’s scroll down a bit and…yep. That is indeed what she’s talking about:
Yet just a few weeks ago when Professor Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics announced research showing those identified as atheists had higher IQs, atheists smugly held up the data as proof positive that people not confined by the dogmatic structure of a religion are best able to soar intellectually. Never mind that the differences in IQ were too small to draw sweeping conclusions.
Given that she started off this essay making broad, unsupported claims about what atheists supposedly think, I must say that I’m even a little more suspicious now that she doesn’t name or link to any of these atheists crowing about this study, because one of the most famous ones I know of had this to say about it:
Show me the error bars on those measurements. Show me the reliability of IQ as a measure of actual, you know, intelligence. Show me that a 6 point IQ difference matters at all in your interactions with other people, even if it were real. And then to claim that these differences are not only heritable, but evolutionarily significant…jebus, people, you can just glance at it and see that it is complete crap.
And then look at the source: Satoshi Kanazawa, the Fenimore Cooper of Sociobiology, the professional fantasist of Psychology Today. He’s like the poster boy for the stupidity and groundlessness of freakishly fact-free evolutionary psychology. Just ignore anything with Kanazawa’s name on it.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement. So unless Ms. Emling can cite someone more influential than a commenter on a blog somewhere or the voices at the bottom of a bottle, I’m going to have to conclude that even if these arrogant atheists in love with their I.Q. tests didn’t exist, she would invent them.
And back to her earlier non-sequitur: like every atheist I’ve ever known, I have no problem accepting that there is “something beyond” myself. There’s a helluva lotta “something” beyond myself, in fact! It’s just that none of it is a personal, loving, anthropomorphic deity who cares about you and your petty wants and needs and your favorite sports teams, which is really the only kind of “God” anyone cares to believe in, or else Deism would have never died out. Methinks she’s confusing – and probably not by accident – atheism and solipsism. In fact, I’m really beginning to doubt that she is operating in intellectual good faith here! But let’s move on:
I’m no religious zealot, but I do like the idea of atheists being introduced to another perspective. After all, there are plenty of smart people who also are religious. And there also are plenty of highly acclaimed scientists – Francis Collins, to name just one – who have found faith after achieving great academic success and who are outspoken defenders of the compatibility of science and religion.
While you’re at PZ’s blog checking out the post I linked to, you can do a search for Francis Collins and see what he’s already had to say about his “high acclaim”. I’ll just concentrate on what she apparently thinks is some counterintuitive insight, that atheists should spend time getting acquainted with what the other side thinks.
The belief that the world as it ought to be is, really exists, is a belief of the unproductive who do not desire to create a world as it ought to be. They posit it as already available; they seek ways and means of reaching it. “Will to truth” as the impotence of the will to create.
I thought of that aphorism while reading this essay:
It’s a trend today to disdain religion as repressive and affirm spirituality as transformational or liberating, but really, one can be a member of a religious institution and be spiritual, or be religious or spiritual without belonging to a church — or both. There’s a new trend of “do your own spiritual thing,” forming one’s own religion based on a kind of à la carte sampling of traditions and religions, from Buddhist sangha meditation to Christian prayer chanting to Hindu or Hebrew dietary codes. It’s très hip to be a Jew-Bu (Jewish/Buddhist) or a yogi for Christ. One practicing Hindu I know often reminds me that “Jesus Christ and Buddha are both incarnations of Vishnu.”
Another poll of Americans by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life late last year found that many people attend multiple religious services and hold spiritual, religious, and “New Age” beliefs all at the same time.
I wouldn’t call it a new trend to treat the world’s religious traditions as a Whitman’s Sampler, given that I’ve read people exulting or lamenting about it for as long as I can remember. But leaving that aside, I’m always amused at how such a, well, consumerist mentality is held up as an expression of individuality. The religious buffet. The metaphysical shopping mall. Accessorize your inner lifestyle. Differentiate yourself with this year’s new fashions.
And I understand the comfort to be had from hewing to some community standards or tradition, really I do, but still, when someone starts telling me about their “spirituality”, why do they never surprise me with something resembling an original thought? Why do we get the same hoary old quotations from the same predictable authority figures? Why is there an unthinking assumption that any answer to the “big questions” has to be steeped in antiquity and passed down through the centuries to have any value? God is dead and you really are free to find your own way, people. There’s no reason you can’t come up with a thought or insight derived from your own experience just as profound and useful as anything Jesus or Buddha or Gandhi said. And just to keep you on your toes, let me immediately contradict myself by letting a literary authority figure like Emerson back me up on this point:
A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.
On previous episodes of “spiritual-not-religious”, I talked about how I despise the word “spiritual” and all the metaphysical connotations it smuggles in with it, preferring terms like “reflective”, “contemplative” or “philosophical”. It occurs to me lately that those seem to suggest I trust my thinking rather than my feeling to get me right with the world (and meditation, for me, has nothing to do with “spirit”; it’s a way of clarifying and streamlining my thinking.) Of course, both religion and spirituality are full of exhortations to not be led astray by the devious machinations of the intellect, to go with what feels right in your heart instead. But when you notice how often your heart is just telling you what you want to hear, how can anyone take this idea seriously?
If passage of this bill helps a single person anywhere, then it was worth passing in whatever form possible.
I’ve heard intelligent people I respect make arguments both for and against this bill, and while I don’t exactly find it encouraging that even many supporters are reduced to pinning their hopes on some future fixes that may never actually materialize while grumbling about how much the bill reeks at present, I’m at least willing to entertain the possibility that I might be missing some important perspective here.
For now, I’d just like to suggest that Tom may want to raise the bar a little higher than that, seeing as how almost any political action you could name, no matter how atrocious, has helped someone, somewhere, at some time. I think I can pretty well imagine what he would have made of some Bush administration flunky using this standard to justify the invasion of Iraq.
Looking for something else in Andrew Solomon’s atlas of depression, The Noonday Demon, I saw this passage:
(Claudius) Galen also shared Rufus’ (of Ephesus) belief in the disastrous consequences of deficient sexual release. He treated one of his female patients, whose brain, he believed, was troubled by the noxious fumes of her rotting unreleased sexual fluids, “with a manual stimulation of the vagina and of the clitoris and the patient took much pleasure from this, much liquid came out, and she was cured.”
I don’t know what everyone else’s problem is, but I, for one, have never had the urge to conflate my sexual desires with my culinary preferences. Please, people, keep your bizarre projections to yourselves.
And in any event, he has certainly discovered the dangers of publicly practicing theology without a license.
Isn’t that awesome? Just take a moment and marvel at that statement. That’s everyone’s favorite religious concern troll, Amy Sullivan, lambasting Glenn Beck for not having been officially trained in the proper interpretation of metaphysical inanities (but I repeat myself) written about mythological or imaginary beings by con artists and lunatics for propaganda purposes.
A paranoid, rambling cult leader offering a grab bag of fear, platitudes, non-sequiturs and arguments from authority to his illiterate audience, preaching the value of mindless belief while denigrating intellectual effort, muttering darkly about apocalyptic doomsday scenarios and retribution for all his enemies…I’d say Glenn understands this Jesus fellow pretty well, actually.