Thursday, March 29, 2012

Spring Break

Spring has come early to the North, so I may be spending less time sitting inside at a computer. Not to worry. I have a lengthy piece coming up comparing Saint Thomas Aquinas to Doctor Deepak Chopra that I think you’ll like. I’m also reading Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan and might have a couple things to say about that. Additionally, I’m listening to 16 hours of testimony about teaching Intelligent Design in Kansas schools. That may put me over the edge and I will never blog again, or some good jokes might come out of it. Hard saying.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Foundations of the West

I’m listening to the audio version of Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy for the third time, and I think I’m starting to get it. Will Durant had a great ability to bring history to life. He starts, as many histories of the Western civilization do, with the great Greek Philosophers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. These philosophies managed to survive the fall of the Roman Empire, although sometimes in corrupted or partial forms. They led to the beginnings of the scientific method in Baghdad and the long discussion of science versus faith in Christian Europe. They were taught in every University when the Universities were still run by the Roman Catholic Church.

But I’m not going to defend their impact. That is well documented elsewhere. Instead I want to focus on a few pages from Plato’s Republic that don’t get much air time, but I think have had a huge impact on Western religious organization. In Book III of his Republic, he discusses how society could go about training its next generation. The training would start with the physical, then music and poetry, then arithmetic and geometry and eventually philosophy and logic. Those who excelled in all of these would become the guardians of the State.

Obviously, whoever gets to decide who advances in this system holds a lot of power. He doesn’t say how the first guardians would be picked, but he suggests that they be a class that does not directly own anything. They would lead a simple yet comfortable life, one that could not be corrupted. To get the students to accept the system, he suggests creating a founding myth. This is a rare case where we have a document of the creator of a myth who was planning on using it to justify a political system saying that he is creating a myth to justify a system. His system was never instituted, and his myth did not flourish, but when comparing it to those that did, and knowing that the leaders of those systems read Plato, you gotta wonder. Durant makes that comparison to the Roman Catholic Church in Medieval Europe.

The founding myth, that only the guardians would know was a myth, consists of “metals”. We now have the word “mettle”. A few hundred years ago “mettle” and “metal” were two spellings for the same thing and then “mettle” started being used to mean the strength and fiber of a person, their ability to handle problems. In Plato’s myth, he would tell the students they were born with a specific metal essence; iron, bronze, silver or gold. The metal that you were born with would determine if you would be a farmer, craftsman, warrior or part of the ruling class. The rigorous education, guided by the guardians would determine what metal you had.

Before getting to this brief discussion, Plato presents the system as a merit based system. He is claiming that it is quite logical to proceed through these stages and only bother to continue on to the advanced stages with students that are showing aptitude in the remedial ones. He makes a good point that politicians are skilled at selling themselves and garnering votes. Once elected, they may not be the best at actually administering a nation. If we could all agree on an educational system that could create the type of leaders we all want, that would be wonderful.

But, creating an educational system that we all want would require about the same amount of politics that creating leaders currently involves. Plato no doubt recognized that. He doesn’t say it, but he recognizes that his idea for a school to create philosopher kings won’t be easily accepted and he will need to make up a belief system to get people to accept it. I sometimes wonder if politicians today are thinking along these same lines. When I hear a politician today that I strongly disagree with, I assume they are stupid, crazy and/or lying. When I was younger, I assumed they were part of the Illuminati, Knights Templar or some other conspiratorial organization. With Plato, I can see his intentions were good, so I forgive him for considering the lie. For today’s politicians, I don’t know what to think.

That they are simply lying to benefit themselves does not quite live up to complete plausibility. That they have bought into the reification of the lies they were told is more likely, but still difficult to grasp. With only a little work, I have traced the lies of the threat of communism, that America is a Christian nation and the denial of global climate change. The evidence is not exactly common knowledge but isn’t exactly hidden either. My work was made easier because I began with wanting to agree with the people who I now understand, based on evidence, are right. I also agree with those people that the rich should pay more taxes, that children should be taught to think for themselves, that we are destroying our environment. So, what seemed easy for me might be very difficult for someone who distrusts people with those same values and does not want to end up agreeing with them. But I still find it difficult to grasp that the facts would add up differently for them.  

That the facts are adding up in the same way would mean that they are lying. But that would mean that they are able to speak consistently and vehemently from a point of view that they are always aware is a fabrication. That also seems unlikely. Plato saw the difficulty of holding the myth as a secret that only he and a few others could know. When he is done describing it, he says to his companion in the dialog, “and let us never speak of this again.” 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Olive Branch

Well, I haven’t been giving too much love to the Christians lately, so this week I’ll take a break from history and berating dead people and send you around the web to some of the big players in atheism who have some things to say that might surprise you. Agnosticism is a scientifically valid stance. The Bible is a worthwhile and even important piece of literature. Name calling is not a good strategy.

Let’s start with Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologists and famous atheist. There is a project to get every verse of the Bible on YouTube. Richard Dawkins was invited to participate. They were surprised at his response.

Bart Erhmann was an early entry into people who write about non-belief in God. In 2011 he received an award for his work. This one is lengthy, you might want to fast forward to the 29 minute mark. He sees himself as a historian who helps to uncover the oppressive uses of the Bible. He says humanism needs to express itself in positive terms.

Back to Dawkins. This is a two part discussion on agnosticism, but you can get the idea in part 1. There have been some recent articles expressing surprise to hear him call himself an agnostic, although he clearly laid out this same argument in The God Delusion, years ago. He says we should apply a temporary form of agnosticism to the god question, until more data is available to make a conclusion. He does not leave the question wide open, most of the evidence is that god does not exist, but to be intellectually honest, you can’t say that with certainty.

Matt Dillahunty can be a lot to handle. He comes across as arrogant to some, strongly convicted to others. He was raised Christian and went to seminary, so he knows what he is talking about. He has done this call in show in Austin, TX for many years. Usually, he gets into arguments that don’t get resolved. In this case, a young caller who has called a few times before is convinced that thinking for himself might be a good idea.

In this 5 minute piece by Matt, he is calling in to other people in the Atheist Community of Austin and relating an email discussion. He responds to a woman who said she didn’t want to live in a world without God. It is a nice little speech on justice and being good, without God.

Michael Dowd is different. He sounds more like a preacher and is speaking at a church in this video. He loves to evangelize about the wonders of the universe. He uses some substitute language for explaining how he sees what religion is. It is rather lengthy, about an hour, so I’ll tell the part that he says he will get to later. For him, God is a conceptualization of reality, that is God is everything. We can’t really grasp the vastness of the universe, so we use God to help conceive it.

I haven’t read this whole article, but it contains one of the most clever analogies to explain fundamentalism that I have ever heard. Nadia Bolz-Weber is a pastor in what is sometimes labeled the “emerging church”. As you can see from her picture, she’s not a typical pastor. In this article, she talks about how some Christians look through the Bible for a checklist of items that they should do or follow, and then try to conform to that list. No matter what they choose, they are not so much following Jesus or accepting him as they are leaving him idling in a van on the corner, waiting until he is needed at the end times, and saying, “Thanks Jesus, we’ll take it from here.”

This one is not for everybody. I would recommend it for any group leaders or anyone wanting to publicly debate difficult issues like religion. Dawkins makes some excellent points about how people’s minds are changed. He discusses using tools like sarcasm appropriately.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Mere Christianity

I thought I would give C. S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” a try. I found a copy for free, and it is short, so, what the heck. I was unimpressed. His argument depends on regressing your thinking back to near prehistoric notions of “Laws of Nature”. Not the Newtonian kind, where math can explain and predict objects in motion, but the mystical kind, where notions of right and wrong are somehow placed into our minds. He does a better job of this than many modern theologians, even though he was not theologically trained. If you don’t stop to question his assumptions, or add some knowledge where he makes an argument from ignorance, you could be convinced.

His introduction however showed some insight. Written in the 1950’s, he predicted the degradation of the word “Christian”. At the time he was speaking, Christians were much more interested in their identity as Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic or Episcopalian. They could tell you why they stuck with their denomination and what they didn’t like about the others. What Lewis saw beginning to happen, and what is quite common now, is people saying they don’t care about the denomination of the church, they just like the community they find there. They prefer their children’s program to the church around the corner, or they like the music.

What Lewis predicted is that the word “Christian” would change from meaning someone who believes in specific things, including some rules about what is right or wrong, good or bad, to mean someone who is right and good. The problem he said, is that the word is then no longer descriptive. It no longer describes a person’s beliefs, it is a judgment made by the speaker, the one who applies the label. If we don’t know what the speaker means by right and good, we don’t know what they mean when they say someone is Christian.

They have to qualify the term that no longer has meaning. They have to say “good Christian” or “bad Christian”. “Good” and “bad” can be applied to anything. I could say someone was a “good mass murderer” and people would know I meant they were successful at murdering many people. We don’t have one universal notion of what “Christian” is, a standard by which we can judge someone to be Christian or not. The word “Christian” could just be dropped. If someone is asked to explain what they meant by “good Christian”, they would spend most of the effort explaining what they meant by “good”.

What I have described so far may seem to just be semantics, but we know that dropping the word “Christian” is not a popular idea. In the above scenario of someone explaining what is meant by “good Christian”, they may appeal to universal notions of “good”, but they are likely more attached to defending their version of Christianity as the right one. If they are Christian, they are likely working from the premise that first one should follow Christ, learn his ways then you will be good. The idea that one could first figure out what is good, then shop around for a church that expresses those notions is probably foreign to them. Even parents who are unsure of their Christianity send their children to Sunday School. Their argument may not be theological either. They may focus on “good” Christianity by explaining what the people at their church do that sets them apart as good and what other people at some other church do that is less good or even bad.

Do we consider Christianity when thinking about a moral dilemma, either a simple one like “is it right for a starving person with no available money to steal a banana?” or a complicated one “if you could go back in time to kill Hitler, would you do it?” We would need to consider basic human needs, consequences of actions and how an individual affects society. Interpretations of scripture would be of little help. Common elements of Christianity like fellowship and ritual won’t even come into consideration. Now that we have conflated “good” with “Christian”, it seems what is “Christian” gets in the way of what is good.

We need to be having these moral discussions without the interference of non-descriptive terms like “Christian”. We need to be discussing non-hypothetically about how much welfare is too much and which starving population deserves our attention. If we attempt to use scripture, it just turns into what Brian McLaren calls “theological football”. Two sides dig in their heals, and one says “go, sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21), the other says, but “The poor you will always have with you.” (Matthew 26:11). The referee calls foul because the original context says “give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart” (Deuteronomy 15). The challenge flag comes out, the referee goes under the hood. Time to change the channel.

It appears to me that C.S. Lewis was right. Christians tried to define themselves as one big group, they tried to unite against abortion, against government making rules about morality, against war. Oh, wait a minute, or was that for war. C.S. Lewis was right that there was a trend toward unity, but that unity has not worked out so well. As soon as you start to define what Christianity is in terms of actual events going on in the world and real policies that affect real people, you find divisions, not unity. You find people saying, “That person is not a real Christian, a real Christian would fight for freedom.” Lewis did not define what Christianity “merely” is then and no one has improved on it since. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

I Blame Women

Not really, just kidding. I am responsible for my own actions. I know. Oh the dangers of sarcasm on the Internet. There is a fine line between using a title that grabs attention and digging a big hole for yourself.

What I really want to talk about is how I got here and then how we all got here. My new mantra is “how do you know?” This makes me great fun at parties. Obama is proposing death panels. Really? How do you know? Thiomercuosomething or ‘nother in vaccines causes autism. Really? How do you know? Building number 7 of the World Trade Center was purposely demolished? Really? How do you know? The resurrection of Jesus actually happened. Really? How do you know? The government spaces the mile markers on the highway at less than one mile to make you feel like you are getting more miles out of your drive. Really?

These are all from real conversations with real people. People who are nice and do good things for their neighbors. People who vote for the same people I do. People who drive. People who have children. When I started this blog, I had questions. Not simple questions or unusual questions, the kind of questions that people ponder all the time. What I quickly discovered is that I did not have a system for determining the answers. Through finding some of the answers, I discovered the system.

For example, how do you get something from nothing? That one could only be answered by one of the greatest minds in physics, with the latest knowledge on the subject of the origin of the universe, Lawrence Krauss. Fortunately he was able to boil it down into a short lecture, otherwise I would have had to go to school for four more years.

As I have honed my “how do you know” question and learned to ask it more tactfully so people will actually consider it, I am surprised at how often the answer is something like, “I just know” or “I don’t know and you can’t know.” Often this will be followed up by a single source. That source will sound authoritative, like Robert F. Kennedy or the Huffington Post. Those sources will usually have very few sources or very bad sources. But hardly anyone ever checks those sources. And that is what they are counting on. (That would be the infamous “they” of all conspiracy theories).

So, getting back to the women. One of the earliest was an elementary teacher. In history, she taught us that in the time Columbus, everyone thought the world was flat. In literature, she told us a story of a boy watching the ships disappear over the horizon in that same era. So I asked why, if people saw ships sailing over something that appeared curved, why would they think the world is flat? She didn’t know. I should have checked her sources.

Many years later, in college, I met the type of women that I thought knew the world was not flat. They ate the right foods. They dressed in natural fibers. They listened to the right music. They didn’t like war. They were pro-choice. They didn’t want to be tied down. All the good stuff. Then one of them showed me a picture of a guy in a white cotton shirt, not a dress shirt, not a pirate shirt, but sorta in between those two. He’s out in the woods somewhere with his arms out wide and a big smile, just breathing in the fresh air and sunshine. She says, “ooo this guy is so great, he is dedicating his life to spiritual inquiry.” At the time I thought I knew what that meant and since this woman thought it was great, I thought it was great. After trying to figure it out for a while, mostly what I wonder now is how do you get paid to do that?

Another woman, while discussing what we were going to do with our lives once we got out of school, replied with a sort of incredulity, “Do? Why do you have to ‘do’ anything?” I tried to summarize my personal synthesis of Marxism and Capitalism in 20 words or less, but I didn’t get to finish the thought. I realized it was not really a question. She continued, “What about the idea of just being? We can just share ourselves with our neighbors and change the world right from our homes.” Several figures regarding rent and groceries were flashing through my mind but I could see the conversation was not going in that direction.

The idea of transforming the world by simply being a good person and sharing our ideas with people we come in contact with actually does have some merit. But this theory she was working on had some serious flaws. At the time our incomes came from some mysterious place where other people worked and for the moment work was more of a hobby for us, so I put that little debate in the back of mind. I have checked many sources for what she was talking about. Most of them lead back to Plato and Aristotle.

Plato had the idea that for everything that could be described, somewhere there was a perfect form of it. He didn’t know where, but that was what he thought. Aristotle improved on that and said that we can imagine and describe perfect forms and everything might be moving in that direction and you can trace backwards, seeing cause and effect until you get back to some original force, an unmoved mover. Aristotle mentored Alexander the Great who rode off on an insane military mission and got syphilis or something and died in India. Things went downhill from there.

It took centuries to build new empires that could incubate the type of thinking that lead to the insights of the Greek philosophers. Most cultures had some sense of a golden rule, a division of labor, and prepared for changes in the weather, but few looked at the global picture and asked what system to use to figure things out. Few embraced knowledge that came from other cultures.

One of the rare exceptions was the Translation Movement centered in Baghad starting around in the 9th century. Although the impetus behind it was to discover techniques for alchemy and to know the size of the earth so they could conquer it, the results of their research led to science as we know it. The Muslims were conquering much of the surrounding territory and exploring beyond that. They brought back manuscripts in a variety of languages and sought the knowledge contained within them, disregarding the cultural barriers.

One of the most important insights was to take Aristotle’s conception of math, something he considered perfect and only useful for conceptualization of the static and apply it to physics, the science of change. One of those early scientists, Al-Battani, worked out the length of the year within two minutes and measured the tilt of the earth. References to him and Al-Tusi appear in the works of Copernicus in 1493. Of course he did not take high school English and did not learn to create a proper bibliographical index, so very people at the time would have known whose works Copernicus were built upon. It took modern scholars to recognize those references. Their job was made more difficult because the Christian European conquerors destroyed many of the Arabic manuscripts when they invaded Spain in 1492.

As a sign of progress, I always ask 5th graders that I come in contact with what they are teaching about Columbus these days. One recently said, “In 1400 and 92, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, in 1400 and 93, Columbus stole everything he could see.” Not bad. Now if we recognized the plagiarism that was going on back in Europe too, that would be real progress. Calling it plagiarism is not really fair to Copernicus, citing sources is a relatively new idea. There is however plenty of documented history showing how political leaders downplayed the Muslim science and claimed their own was superior.

But enough history for one week.