Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The End of Faith

I recently completed a book of some note by Sam Harris, titled "The End of Faith." It is an interesting work because it doesn't take a stance against the standard, pin-headed fundamentalist versions of religion, but against moderates within religion also. Essentially, Harris feels that the moderates in religion perpetuate and increase the (now unacceptable) risk of fundamentalists arising in society. Here's a typically ascerbic quote:
  • “By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally. . . . "
He's probably right that it's easier to make simplistic, moronic followers than to make nuanced, broad-minded believers. Still, there are some worries here. To give an analogy, although it's easier to hit a person than hit a baseball, that doesn't mean ballbats are thus the problem. To apply the analogy, although it's easier to make fundamentalists than moderates, that doesn't mean religion is thus the problem.

Or, of you don't like analogies --And I certainly don't-- I am aware of no empirical studies (much less a majority of said studies) which show that moderates in religion must create fundamentalists; thus, unlike Harris, I don't see any a priori reason to hold moderates as problematic (i.e. more risky) for greater society.

He also makes a move which I often see in people who wish science were the full and final authority in running human society:
  • “To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world--to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish--is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it. But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness.”
Again, there are some worries here. First, as anyone who takes the humanities seriously can attest, we learn from past cultures by picking out their insights, not by picking on their mistakes. As an example, just because Pythagoras or Aristotle thought the heavenly spheres made beautiful sounds as they whirled around the Earth, doesn't mean their literature has nothing to offer. Indeed, in reading literature, one must pick and choose insights that are still applicable today, and do so by integrating those insights into our greater systems of contemporary understanding. Second, as a general method, drawing selectively is indeed how one reads historical pieces in poetry and literature responsibly. It is also tantamount to what "moderates" are doing with the various holy books in the world religions. Naturally, those who are less informed (or clueless) about the sciences will make mistakes, but there are people [example 1; example 2] who are far more informed about the sciences than even Harris himself and who still think religious texts have much to offer.

Usually the more devastating arguments take standards of justification that both parties hold, such as Richard Carrier does in his hard-hitting expose of anti-faith. Of course, in this case most people are not in a position to evaluate evidentiary claims for or against any kind of scientific position. How much the less, therefore, can they evaluate a postion that finds wanting a whole philosophy (or religion) of life. When it comes right down to it, in a well-fed, stable, entertainment-oriented society, people are rarely forced to reason in order to find (what they take to be) a meaningful life. Technically, they confuse an "adequate" life with a "meaningful" one.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Gifts, Friends, and "The Rockstar Fallacy."

Recently a friend of mine from a long time ago, in a universe far, far away reviewed a little social interaction he had with giving a free gift to a casual aquaintance. My transdimensionally communicating friend is one of those people who seems to have a knack for identifying and describing subtle social issues of intererest.

I think the heart of his free gift giving issue is here: "But the next time we bumped into each other there was a slight familiarity but mostly it was all awkwardness. Cuz we'd had a mental one night stand." The analogy to the one night stand is productive, for it makes one ask, "Why might such a thing be considered a bad action?"

Apparently sexuality is one of the few valuable things that we supposedly reserve as a special marker for unique relationships. But if the marker is used w/o the affirmation of the relationship, something is amiss. (Exactly *what* is amiss would vary from person to person, I'd think.)

I'm guessing that gift giving is the same way: physical gifts (as in objects) indicate something of a special type of relationship.

Social friendliness of too high a quality might work this way. As a thought experiment, imagine standing in line for the bus and treating a complete stranger as if they were your best friend that you were only too happy to spend hours with. (I think a movie once called this "lonely guy syndrome.") It's an inappropriate valuation of different kinds of relationships we have.
Ultimately, this is what goes wrong with zealous religious people too: they assume that since they love god, and god loves everybody, then that love flows back-n-forth both directions. Not true, of course, as an analogous counterexample shows:. I might love Jane, and Jane might love Jack, but that dont' mean I love Jack, and that don't mean Jack loves me. In fact, I'd like the kill that bast@&^!

Sometimes people of weak psychological disposition take even socially trivial gestures too deeply. Again, a thought experiment: You're at the bus stop. Somebody makes eye contact. You say, "Hi. How's it going." They say, "Well, my mom called and she said that the car was wrecked, and she hates driving the pick-up because it makes her look like a dyke, and so she wants me to go over there and drive her to work, so I'm here waiting for the bus, yet I should be blah blah blah blah..." We've all been there.

Physical gifts can go sideways also. Here's an example: Mr Richdude makes 250K a year. Mr. Averagedude makes 25K a year. Mr. Richdude buys a gift for Mr. Averagedude that cost $200 bucks. Mr. Richdude, however, spends $200 bucks with the same abandon as Mr. Averagedude spends $20 bucks. Mr. Averagedude recognizes the gift as a high quality item, and thus affirms the friendship on this evidence. That would be a mistake on Mr. Averagedude's part. Call this fallacy in social logic, "The Rockstar Fallacy." I actually know a rockstar. This person can send extraordinary gifts with the same abandon that I buy my friend a Banana Creme Frappacino at Starbucks; however, to think rockstar actually cares about you in ways consistent with the quality of the gift would be quite erronious -- i.e. "The Rockstar Fallacy."

Finally, people are used to receiving more or less friendship behaviors per unit of time. Much depends on how one has been raised and/or what one is used to. Yet, suppose Mr. Sweet N. Nice comes along and gives a whole lot of said behaviors. Mr. Norm N. Polite thinks, "Hey, Mr. Nice really values me." Nope. It's just the Rockstar Fallacy again, but with friendship behaviors instead of money. If we were scientists, we'd see the problem as having no control variable as a standard for comparing and ranking relationships.

It's tough to be a human. Glad I've replaced my brain with an Intel inside.

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Graduate Student and The Endnote

Sometimes students ask me what graduate school is like, or -- and I consider
this the more interesting question -- what graduate students are like.

No doubt there are some minor differences of degree, such as graduate
students being older, or such as graduate students being more motivated (e.g. by
money or by natural talent).

But the real difference, if one is looking for some criterion for detection
of them by their study habits is this: Graduate students will read the
endnotes of a book.

Everyone knows it's a pain to flip back and forth to read some long,
clarifying endnote. But this is often where the most interesting
information concerning an author's thining occurs. Also, the endnotes are
the real raw materials of further research on a very specific topic or on a
countermove against something an author has claimed. Graduate students know
this, of course, since by the time they're in graduate school, it's an
any-shelter-in-the-storm approach to research.

Suppose, then, that an undergraduate student, wanting to think s/he is the
"real deal" begins to seriously exercise the endnote shuffle. Does this
mean they are ready for graduate school?

In many cases, correlation is not causation. This is a tricky issue. For example, skirt lengths and stock prices are highly correlated (as stock prices go up, skirt lengths get shorter), but it's plain silliness to think that skirt lengths magically control the fluxuation of the stockmarket! But if somebody really does ponder a writer's endnotes, and if somebody really does look for research connections to a literature topic by means of the author's grouping of endnotes, then the very act of doing these activities would bring about the graduate school study advantage. Granted, at first, it would be merely correlation. But when the pattern of thought establishes itself, the technique causes the very mindset desired.

The US Dept. of Labor has much to offer concerning the life of becoming a college professor, and I'd recommend it to anyone considering a career trajectory in postsecondary education. Furthermore, I should also note the National Science Foundation has an excellent collection of statistics and overviews of what graduates can expect in terms of salary, employability, etc. in the science fields.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Zoroastrianism, Jesus, and History is All Lies

Dear Mr. Supposed Philosopher:

I hope you're having a good break so far. Mine's been a bit worrisome. You see, I'm home for Mother's day, and my brother has come in from Florida. That's were the worrying begins.

My brother says he's taking some religion class, though he didn't tell me exactly what it was, but he's really challenged me on some things. For example, he asked me "Do you know where Christianity came from?" He then proceded to tell me all about Zoroasternism, or something to that effect. Our conversations also continued down the line of "Well, Jesus died and was buried, and his body was never found." Not unrelated to this, he also said something to the effect that he didn't believe in history. I told him that the death of Jesus and others was recorded in documents which are dated back to Roman times. He seemed to pass this off, saying that history itself was a big lie. He's really scaring me with how strange he's acting. Could you give me any insight to this?

- anonymous

Dear irritated-with-your-sibling:

Your brother is correct that Zoroastrianism is perceived as an important basis for Christianity (and the other Abrahamic religions). Some argue that it may have been the first monotheistic religion. The religion was founded by Zarathustra (Zoroaster in Greek). Historians and religious scholars generally date his life sometime between 1800 and 1000 BCE on the basis of his style of writing, and given what we know was going on around Iran at that time. Sometimes the Z. faith is claimed to be the earliest monotheistic religion, since Zoroaster requires devotion to the single God, Ahura Mazda; but, that's not quite right, since Zoroastrianism also has a dualistic nature. It turns out there is an additional claim about angel-like entities called the Amesha Spentas, which in modern Zoroastrianism, are interpreted as manifest components of The Supreme Being who, in one form, is good and constructive. On the other hand, there are another group of seven beings who are evil and destructive. It is this eternally recurring conflict between good and evil that makes Zoroastrianism different from the standard monotheistic frameworks of today which acknowledge only one power as supreme. Because it demands its adherents to have faith and belief in equally opposing powers, Zoroastrianism characterizes itself as dualistic; thus, it is essentially different from the Abrahamic religions, and hence NOT rightly accorded as basis for Islamic, Judaic, or Christian beliefs. So your brother is confused somewhat there. (There is an accessible overview of Zoroasterianism on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoroastrianism)

As for Jesus being dead and buried, this is not contested. That his body was never found is likewise not contested. What this means, however, is anybody's guess. Clearly, the Church says he was resurrected. Others offer various theories of a crazier or saner nature, depending on one's intuitions about what is metaphysically possible. As far as scientific evidence goes, there is nothing conclusive. Welcome to "faith land." Your brother has his faith about what happened; you have yours. Neither is conclusive.

If he thinks history is a big lie, quietly observe what he eats for lunch, and then about a half-hour later ask him what he had for lunch. When he answers, quickly announced to your cantakerous sibling that he's a liar, since history is a lie, and since he just gave a historical account of activities which occurred earlier in time. Moreover, if you can find a diary or a letter he wrote about stuff he did even earlier in life, all the better to pester him with, since these documents must also be lies, according to his logic. In fact, you should say that anything not explicitly believed about what's going on this very second should be a lie, since it's all "history" in one sense or another. Tell him Mom's a liar too, since she probably wrote down things that happened in his own history. I bet those baby photos are carefully constructed fakes too!

The first part of being educated is learning to doubt beliefs which seem to be established and common sensical. The second part of being educated is learning to identify evidence and assign probabilities to various options which are subtly different. Your brother is currently in stage one. Be patient and kind with him. In general, I'm that way with undergraduates, since it protects my middle-class lifestyle! But this attitude also has the side advantage of keeping the doors of discussion open for further learning from one another.