Be Not Perturbed…

21 November 2009 at 12:09 pm (Uncategorized)

The authors are taking a four-week hiatus. AntiBlog activity will resume next year, an event that will be marked by the unleashing upon the world of commentary inadvertently caught in the spam filter.

A safe and enjoyable festive season to all our readers.


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The Dark Side of the Reformation

17 November 2009 at 12:38 pm (Uncategorized)

Let us be clear and upfront about it: All things considered, the occurrence of The Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries is a good thing. Had it not happened, the world would very likely be in a considerably different shape to how we presently find it. Each of us conceivably would be either an oppressed Muslim or an oppressed Catholic (with no real choice between the two), imprisoned or possibly dead at the hands of those who would “save” us.

The Reformation marks the historical divide where authoritarianism started receiving an escalating barrage of well-placed kicks in its proverbial nuts. Judged without overt reference to its religious background, the legacy of Luther and his precursors and collaborators is essentially the novel idea that the common person not only can, but indeed should think and act with a due degree of autonomy, latitude and sovereignty over his or her own life. It is this idea perhaps more than any other to which we owe our present-day liberties. Moreover, in the longer term it directly aided in the acquisition and growth of new knowledge (because contribution was less and less the exclusive province of an elite), culminating in a system where certain freedoms and the possibility of prosperity for anyone willing to make a sufficient effort are the hallmarks of a just, egalitarian and desirable social fabric.

To be sure, Luther’s thinking was confined principally to religious questions, but any good idea will inevitably show spillover into other areas. In particular, Luther rejected the notion that the Catholic Church, its cardinals and the Pope were the incontestable authority on all matters of religious doctrine, a position they had historically appropriated for themselves, mostly through tradition and arrogation. Luther challenged this status quo because he had observed numerous endemic abuses that were perpetrated on ordinary people but for which no good (read: “scriptural”) justification was evident. Not content to be told to “shut up, or else,” tensions between Luther and Rome escalated, and soon assorted flavours of Protestantism were born from the friction, all essentially based on the idea that Papal infallibility concerning scriptural interpretation, as well as the Catholic Church as ultimate arbiter of Truth and Justice, is a steaming, scheming pile of shit. (As an aside, that’s exactly what it is, so one might wonder why more than one-sixth of humanity revels in it.)

Thus, by insisting that doctrinal issues require rigorous scriptural justification, Luther pulled the self-accorded authoritarian rug out from under the Church. One might note tangentially that the selfsame insistence on scriptural validation still characterises many of the more fundamental flavours of reformed Christian sects, denominations and churches (of which, at ±38,000, there are far more than one might at first suppose), and that scriptural authority is hardly the alpha and omega when it comes to facts about the real world.

In a nutshell, the Catholic Church had taught that it is the one and only pipeline to god. The ordinary person is simply incapable of comprehending, let alone wrestling with, the intricacies and subtleties of theology and the dogma inspired by it. The Catholic Church opposed both bible translation and bible publication. Instead, it insisted that the ordinary person must base their faith in the full acceptance that the Catholic Church with its various officials, and it alone, is in the right position to mediate between god and the individual, a precept that led to the observed abuses mentioned above, and one the Church was quite reluctant to relinquish for obvious reasons. Through calling the Church’s authority into question in perhaps the only way that could conceivably count, i.e. god’s word, Luther made it not only at first possible, but later also respectable for ordinary people to examine doctrinal issues for themselves.

Luther’s underlying hope was to supplant the authority of men (the bishops, the cardinals, the popes of the church and their lackey princes and kings) on matters of religious doctrine with what he held to be the greatest of all sources of authority, namely god. To facilitate this, he put scripture within reach of ordinary Germans by preparing a translation of the New Testament into his mother tongue. He became a “man of the people” when he showed that a more-or-less ordinary person, i.e. one who stood outside of the “system” (even if only partially or to the extent of not being a member of the inner circle), could successfully challenge the established orthodoxy. Thus, he became an archetype, perhaps even the archetype, for the idea that ordinary people could sometimes heroically achieve an extraordinary social shift even in the face of formidable odds and adversity.

His idea was at first slow to catch on not least owing to a collective cultural inertia and the active resistance of entrenched authority. It resulted in violence, coercion and bloodshed. Catholics persecuted Protestants, and later vice versa. In modern times, they mostly resort to calling one another heretics upon clashing instead of, say, visiting death and destruction on each other, although this too still happens sometimes. Soon enough people began realising that finding out for themselves need not be restricted only to questions of faith. Science and progress flourished geometrically as the idea gained ground and respectability, setting up a positive feedback loop that snowballed us into the present amidst which we now find ourselves.

And that, in broad strokes, is Luther’s valuable and enduring contribution to humanity. As said at the beginning, all in all a good thing. This can hardly be overstressed.

So what, then, is the “dark side” of which the title of this piece speaks?

In short, it is that Luther’s example has nourished and encouraged the increasingly widespread notion that anyone and everyone can be a meaningful contributor through minor acts of rebellion. This situation is, of course, fuelled in no small measure by technology (itself arguably contingent on Luther’s actions) that both makes information ever more readily accessible and facilitates its dissemination – foremost the Internet. Digesting five minutes’ worth of soundbites and sampling the odd phrase here and there, and before you know it Joe and Jane Soap think themselves expert on this or that thing, suitably qualified and ready to challenge the orthodoxy. What they forget is that serious challenges to prevailing canons usually come from within and are marshalled by those with more than a superficial acquaintance of the subject matter. To wit, Luther had a doctorate in Catholic theology and taught its doctrines as well. He was learned in the topics of Catholicism and he had ministered to ordinary Germans (read: “peasants”). He knew his oats.

In contrast, today’s self-styled “experts” too often dispute issues not because their knowledge thereof is sufficient, but because it is woefully deficient. The supreme and risible arrogance is odiously manifest of those who would presume to argue against Darwinism (and the overwhelming throng of bona fide experts who know it to be true) not because they can rally any adequately countermanding evidence but because it offends their sensibilities and preconceptions. Ditto for those who seek to challenge any given established order for no good reason other than that it may induce in them a vague sense of unease.

More insidiously, we find ourselves increasingly burdened with the expectation that such half-baked disputations are to be met with an incommensurate and undeserved leniency, temperance and forbearance for what is more often than not, plainly put, no less than utterly ridiculous drivel. Declaring, “Oh, what ignorant rot!” in reply is all too often viewed as a social gaffe roughly on a par with vomiting drunkenly on the Queen’s birthday cake in her plain sight. That social attitude too is part of Luther’s legacy, and while it might make for continued social cosiness, the clear danger it presents is that factuality must bow to the vagaries of social etiquette. The suggestion is hardly that such blunt denunciation should displace reasoned argument in toto. That would be fruitless.

But it does strongly appear as if the old adage that goes “Better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt” seems frequently to be misread as “If I’m thought a fool, I’ll just open my mouth wider and drown ’em out that way.”

And that goes as much for all that you have just read here.

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Matter Matters

10 November 2009 at 9:17 pm (Uncategorized)

Going in, I expect that this will be short.

To postulate non-material accounts of certain phenomena such as “mind” and “life” and so on is to be ignorant of the history of science. More accurately, it is to be impatiently, desperately, pervasively ignorant, full stop. While there are many deep scientific questions that have yet to find an answer, there are no examples of a real effect that has usefully, fruitfully and/or informatively yielded to or been illuminated by a non-material account.

None. Not any. Not a single, solitary one.

If there were even just one, we’d have at least some cause to take other proposals in such a vein more seriously. Anti-materialists will argue that science, by its pigheaded insistence on objectively repeatable evidence, excludes from the outset anti-materialist accounts because the essence of “evidence” is a materialist notion: that which is in some way perceptible. And therein, as the Bard put it, lies the rub. If it isn’t perceptible, whether directly or indirectly, you’re arguing with hot air anyway, aren’t you? If it is perceptible you’re refuting your own anti-materialist premise. So it’s quite a mystery why some people still feel compelled to bang a goofy-shaped peg into a fractal hole.

Demolish the brain, and life disappears. Injure the brain, and mind diminishes. Enter a sleep state and brain activity changes qualitatively, erasing consciousness. Those are oddly incongruent things to happen to ectoplasmic quintessences that ostensibly can exist without any material carrier. The limits of philosophical materialism have hardly been exhausted. Inductively (with all the, er, grave, er, spectres that induction raises), attempting to construct non-material accounts is a premature act of wishful thinking. Or desperation maybe: Any answer will do as long as it’s not “I don’t presently know.”

Going out, my expectation of brevity is largely met: Anti-materialists want security at the cost of what is properly defensible. Their baser instinct, in particular the one that says “I am not my body alone,” trumps their intellect. Clear thinking takes effort, discipline and humility, and that’s why superstition and stupidity will always win.

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George of the Fumble?

3 November 2009 at 2:12 pm (Uncategorized)

Well, the South African sceptical/agnostic/atheist/anti-religion blogosphere is abuzz with speculation. Question marks and suspicions are flying about, randomly colliding with particles of rumour and fragments of guesswork, leaving smeary trails in a murky cloud chamber of conjecture.

The Big Question is: Whatever happened in the curious case of George Claassen’s dual blogicides?

For the past few years, George maintained a blog called “Prometheus Unbound”. This sceptical blog dealt with various issues like psychics, pseudoscience and charlatanry, but it focussed particularly on the folly that is religion. The blog disappeared unannounced a few weeks ago with the hosting site reporting that the blog had been deleted by the authors. The final blog entry was a contentious one that examined how certain public schools were violating their purely secular mandate by promoting religious practices among pupils. The possibility of legal action against those schools was raised.

At first, the possibility was mooted that the blog had been deleted by a vengeful religious fanatic who had managed somehow to obtain administrative login credentials. This now seems very unlikely, as will be clear from subsequent developments. George soon after established a new blog called “Prometheus Liberated” and posted three entries in rapid succession. He gave no public explanation on the new blog as to what had occurred with the old one, but shortly before the latter’s deletion, he withdrew from the campaign against the schools, citing as motivations personal reasons as well as attacks on his person. At first, he had mentioned “technical problems” that allegedly were being attended to. The blog is still deleted.

The new blog suffered the same fate a few days ago, again without any prior announcement or explanation. While it will probably do little good to hypothesize about what prompted a virtual repeat, one is left to wonder. Is George fed up with contributions of some or all of the regular commenters? Is he being threatened somehow to leave off writing against religion? Blackmailed, maybe? Or is it something like indecision about whether to continue this work or to wipe the slate clean in some privately cathartic eruption of on-and-off misanthropy?

None of the above possibilities seems to fit properly.

We think George has something of a moral obligation to clarify these odd happenings, even if only to that small group of regular commenters that has travelled alongside him over the past few years. Depending on the circumstances, some kind of assistance with, or resolution of, the problem could be reached.

George, scepticism and atheism do not necessarily mean that you have to fight every battle alone.

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Naïveté 101 for the Naïve

2 November 2009 at 2:08 pm (Uncategorized)

There is a story, very likely an apocryphal one, about an atheistic philosophy professor who confronts his Christian students on various questions of faith and theology centring on the origin and nature of good vs. evil. After some incredibly superficial “debate,” one student offers the thesis that evil doesn’t exist in its own right but that it is the result of a god not being there. Exactly which god that might be isn’t specified, but given the context, the Christian one is a sound inference. The story makes it seem like the professor capitulates at the end for not being able to meet his student’s “brilliant” exposition. (You can read the full story here.) I recently received an e-mail with this story from a concerned acquaintance. It was meant to convince me that I had made a grave mistake in my youth when I jettisoned the Greatest Superstition in the World, a.k.a. “religion.” Instead, the twee vapidity of the story annoyed me just sufficiently to frame a reply.

There can be little doubt that this little “bad stuff equals god’s absence” puff piece will fill Christian hearts that share a taste for pedagoguery with smug contentment. There are a few obvious problems, though. Firstly, the bible describes Satan, the alleged supreme malefactor, together with his cohorts as a band of fallen angels, not as the absence of god, so the “absence of” analogy doesn’t even accord with the fundamentals of religious doctrine. Dogma and the bible itself say that evil properly exists as a separate entity, and so this “absence of” thesis is a big swindle. Plus, it’s a double swindle when one considers the theological precept that this god is supposedly omnipresent. In case it’s not clear, “omnipresence” means that this god supposedly is everywhere all the time, so how is one to reconcile this with the proposed absence?

Secondly, the whole elaborate storyline is contrived to obfuscate the obvious. The professor begins by asking germane “what if” questions that can reasonably be asked, assuming the existence of a god with the presupposed attributes. Reductio ad absurdum is a very useful weapon in the arsenal of the logician, be s/he professional or merely aspiring. Instead, the storyline surreptitiously changes so that no one, including the professor, ever confronts this a priori assumption. The reader hardly notices said narrational subterfuge (it’s a story, remember?), and uncritical heads will surely nod their eager agreement as if some great truth has found dazzling vindication – i.e. where the student’s arguments actually persuade the professor rather than, say, incurring a bray of derisive laughter.

Thirdly, is a natural disaster like a tsunami that wipes out a large number of people in one fell swoop also the absence of god? Are the thirty to forty million human foetuses who are miscarried annually also the absence of god? Are the Aids orphans and droughts and crop failures affecting millions also the absence of god? Is the genocide and large-scale slaughter of people also the absence of god even when the victims are devout and committed believers? Assuming this god to exist purely for the sake of argument, one must conclude that if these things are as they are owing to an absence of this god then this god is clearly a shirker and possibly a malingerer, too. If it’s not shirking, this god is either powerless or purposely evil, possibly both.

Fourthly, the analogy relies on a deeply naïve conception of physics. For example, there is no difficulty in reversing the heat/coldness situation to claim that heat is merely the absence of coolth without substantively affecting the physics – in fact, the air-conditioning industry often does just that for reasons of convenience. This means that one could just as well reason that the presence of good is merely the absence of Satan, not the presence of god. Moreover, the mechanisms of many physical phenomena are well understood. Such understanding allows us to establish reliable protocols and procedures for detecting the presence or absence of various things. We have no reliable criteria of such a kind to apply to god (or Satan), which means that “good” or “bad” can be whatever suits someone’s momentary perceptions and circumstances because god’s presence or absence cannot dependably be ascertained.

Finally, direct sensory perception of a phenomenon is hardly necessary when a reliable facsimile is available whose origin is causally bound to that phenomenon. To illustrate: the presence of the professor’s brain can reliably and repeatably be confirmed through an MRI scan or similar. An EEG will also do the trick, and several other techniques, e.g. the Turing Test, can be applied that will produce results in direct conflict with the “no-brained-professor” hypothesis. The operative concept here is that of scientifically compelling evidence. There is none such in support of any kind of omni-everything personal god, and much evidence that speaks against it. Therefore, to draw parallels between physical phenomena that are well understood like heat, light and electromagnetism, and some amorphous, indefinable, ineffable hypothetical deity is seriously to overstep the line of plausibility.

The only lessons to be drawn from the above concern the logical consistency of apologetics: (1) Apologists will say literally anything to preserve the illusion of respectability for their mythical absurdities, and (2) they will insist that their argumentation is perfectly rational when in fact it cannot be simply because it is predicated on fundamentally incomprehensible tenets to begin with.

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