Saturday, May 31, 2008

God vs. Mammon = Mammon Wins

{ Podcast this essay } This picture (click it for a larger view) tells quite a story, especially given the U.S. as an exception to a discernible curve on religion as compared to wealth. The picture is taken from an excellent article which came out in March 2008 in The Atlantic. As Alan Wolfe, the author, puts it:
[I]intellectual fashions are fickle, and the idea of inevitable secularization has fallen out of favor with many scholars and journalists. Still, its most basic tenet—that material progress will slowly erode religious fervor—appears unassailable. Last October, the Pew Global Attitudes Project plotted 44 countries according to per capita gross domestic product and intensity of religious belief, gauged by the responses to several questions about faith (a rendition of the Pew data appears on the opposite page). The pattern, as seen in the Pew study and a number of other sources, is hard to miss: when God and Mammon collide, Mammon usually wins.[1]
Wolf explicitly notes that the U.S. is an out-lier, and stands alone as a country which is both wealthy and religious. Also it turns out that Kuwait has a similar disposition, but is not such an acute case. Perhaps the U.S. had more in common with Kuwait than its people (and, of course, Saddam Hussein) ever knew. In another comparison, it's pretty well known that the U.S. is more religious than Europe (a cause of consternation for their diplomats who try to figure out what our politicians are thinking), but it's somewhat surprising that we even out-pious some of the Latin American countries. What can be said of all this?

For some time now, I have felt that religion is actually a market-based, evolutionary phenomena. Religion grows more powerful as a cultural force when it polymorphs in order to survive within the ecosystem of ideas. Religious ideas compete for citizens' allegiance in terms of practicality and believability. An open society is productively thought of, metaphorically of course, as a host with many religious ideas. Now a flexible system of ideas tells the people what their itching ears want to hear, and if a religious system offers a pragmatic course of action and organization for living -- well, that system is more fit than the other contenders. Given time and different rates of gathering adherents (or losing apostates), soon a few religious systems will come to dominate. Christianity has shown itself remarkably flexible in many different western contexts. Moreover, South Korea seems to show that it works well in western-like contexts too; where S. Korea, I hear, has many affinities to U.S. market and cultural systems.

Again, to reiterate the point, U.S. and similar capital/cultural systems would seem to allow Christianity to survive in its current formulation so long as it addresses the day-to-day pragmatic concerns that the general populous has. Notice I am avoiding any reference to best explanation or even 'truth' here. As an illustration of why I avoid such, take as an example Mormonism. Mormonism maintains a very silly pantheon of mythological claims,[2] yet has a superb social system for family organization and for middle-class (or higher) existence. Kudos are rightly accorded them for offering a viable code of living. But as for such beliefs being evidentially warranted or true, that's an entirely different matter. But picking on a heretical sect of Christianity is easy. As a second illustration, orthodox Christianity, too, can take some lumps here as being (seemingly) silly. Sam Harris (the "baby bear" of atheism, as Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga dubbs him) gives a similar thumbnail snub of traditional doctrines:
We have names for people who have many beliefs for which there is no rational justification. When their beliefs are extremely common, we call them ‘religious’; otherwise, they are likely to be called ‘mad,’ ‘psychotic’ or ‘delusional.’ ‘’ To cite but one example: ‘’Jesus Christ—who, as it turns out, was born of a virgin, cheated death and rose bodily into the heavens—can now be eaten in the form of a cracker. A few Latin words spoken over your favorite Burgundy, and you can drink his blood as well. Is there any doubt that a lone subscriber to these beliefs would be considered mad?’’ The danger of religious faith, he continues, ‘’is that it allows otherwise normal human beings to reap the fruits of madness and consider them holy.[3]
Alas, whether mythful wishing or faithful believing, religion will be around for some time to come, contrary to the predictions of some dominant intellectuals of the 19th century. Again, a quote from Wolfe:
If proof is needed that religion will remain a dominant force in history for a long time to come, the fact that the world’s most affluent society is also well up among the faithful would seem to provide it. When the president says that his decision to invade another country was influenced by a call from God, or when school boards decide to include creationism in their curriculum, it appears safe to conclude that Americans are not living in the world envisioned by Marx or Freud.[1]
Karl Marx thought he had figured out the laws of history, but at best he probably only discerned some trends, the money-religion one showing itself in the graph above. And Sigmund Freud got one thing right: there's more going on in the mind than what we are conscious of, but the rest he got wrong, particularly about religion: God is not the Sky-Daddy we all desperately long for, but we do have longings for a transcendental something, and these longings seem to come from parts deeper than what humans are explicitly conscious of.

Alas -- physical beings that we are -- perhaps there's a genetic component influencing the vast majority of people to be religious. (Yes, I count myself among them.) Apparently, Dawkins and some of his friends didn't inherit this gene. Too bad -- I think he (and others like him) would be more fit for the contemporary environment, and thus happier, if he had.


[1] "And the Winner is" The Atlantic March 2008 (Accessed May 30, 2008)

[2] As regards odd mythological claims by Mormons, these are all de-emphasized in their official web site, with the exception of claims about "the importance of eternal families" and that a utopian Zion "will be built upon this [the American] continent." (See "The Articles of Faith" Mormon Beliefs (Accessed May 30, 2008) There's lots and lots more weirdness for anyone who wants to skim the internet for summary accounts of their strange beliefs. However, few care about what their church doctrines are, only how their church addresses the practical needs of their lives. But, of course, even otherwise nominal protestant theological doctrines are pretty much ignored by parishioners.

[3] "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. By Sam Harris." New York Times Book Review Sept. 5, 2004 (Accessed May 30, 2008) It's a rare and valuable thing when an atheistic, intelligent person trash talks orthodox (as opposed to fundamentalist) Christianity. Richard Dawkins too often trashes only Christian fundamentalism, and too rarely gives explicit arguments. In contrast, "Baby bear" Harris does not make these mistakes, and thus forces theologians to defend the Christian creeds instead of the Christian cretins. Protestant theologians have been given an easy time of it for far too long, in my opinion.


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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

blogs, messages, bottles

What is a blog post, really, but a message in a bottle, seen by who-the-hell-knows? People from randomly launched searches click through to a blog with a spattering of search terms, paw about the post for a few moments, and then leave -- never to return. Google analytics tells me that this happens over and over again. There are at least six billion people in this world. And about three thousand of those are unique visitors here. Each one has his or her own intricately storied life, one which for a moment crossed here.

I have been surprised at how much blogs are like bait. Once I wrote an entry on oil prices. And guess what? Somebody from Saudi Arabia showed up. Somebody out there trolls even insignificant blogs for oil prices -- even Philosophy blogs. That's hard core. Maybe I shouldn't have used that phrase, since it might attract people more from Bangkok (12 visitors), Tokyo (3), or even worse places -- like San Fernando Valley, CA (luckily, 0).

I've had precisely one visitor from Almaty, Kazakhstan. What was that about? I had to search the internet just to figure out where such a place even was. (After that search, I came to appreciate that there are a whole lot of "-stan" named locales around too.) And, too, there are lots of little (and not so little) countries in Africa that I still need to collect. Perhaps a series of African tribal philosophy would start pulling them in.

And some singular (albeit frozen) soul from Iceland made a visit here also.

But at least no wandering vikings on a tour through Greenland have ever visited my site. That would be the last straw. Or, the last Mattak,[1] I suppose; or maybe Kiviak[2] -- that stuff has to be nasty.


[image] "Message in Bottle" Dutchcorner Oct. 16, 2007 (Accessed May 28m 2008)

[1] 'Mattak' is a whale skin with a strip of blubber inside, regularly given as a gift on Christmas in Greenland. Apparently, it tastes like coconut, but is tougher to chew and so it's swallowed whole sometimes.

[2] 'Kiviak' is another traditional Christmas food of Greenland. If your Viking-Eskimo cross mother-in-law really appreciates you, then she will give you this treat of raw flesh of an auk, buried whole in sealskin for several months.


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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Contemplating the Mind of God (Pt. 2 of 2)

0. { Podcast this essay } I had earlier been talking about the mind of God, and how it was dis-analogous to our mind, if for no other reason than God's mind is not constrained by the processing structures of an evolutionarily formed brain. But there are other kinds of questions which are interesting about God's mind. How does the mind of God parse the objects in our world? Can God observe the way things are with (at least) the empirical objectivity that humans do? Does even God suffer from biases? I would like to take a moment to address such questions.

1. Consider the case of the duck-rabbit diagram made popular by the philosopher Wittgenstein. We look at the duck rabbit diagram, and think perhaps it represents a duck or perhaps it represents a rabbit, but our observation allows our minds to consider both options.

Now if one were raised on a rabbit farm in Nevada, worked a lifetime at that farm, and had little to no exposure to ducks, then it seems highly likely one would report seeing a drawing of a rabbit. (And vice-versa for one raised on a duck farm in Oregon.) The reason people can be expected to make such different assessments of the duck-rabbit drawing is because what they see in conjunction with what they know conditions how they interpret their observations. Or, in a phrase, their theory with which they conceive the world informs how they perceive the world.

2. Does God have a theory of the world which informs how God perceives the world? Traditionally, it is said of God that of the facts there are, God knows these facts. Humans are laden with theories of the world because they are ignorant of some (actually most) facts of the world; thus, humans form systems of interconnected hypotheses of the world (i.e., theories) which are successful to guide action and thought. Yet God's stance on assessing the world is unlike ours, God being not ignorant of any facts. Therefore, the argument might go, God is cognitively impenetrable[1] as regards any interpretive biases operating on God's beliefs; i.e., God's experience does not bias God towards (or away) from either affirming or denying facts about the world. There is no need, for God does not have mere beliefs about the alleged state of the world, God has knowledge of any and all facts about the world. Of things that are true, God knows them as such; and of things that are false, God knows them as such. Beliefs are something finite creatures have, not God. Or so it might appear. But I think that line of thinking is wrong. Let me explain why I think this.

Just as, on a traditional view, God's holiness supports the claim that God is love; so too that God's mind is cognitively impenetrable by bias supports the traditional claim that God is Truth. However, a caveat is in order, for there are other attributes associated with God besides love and truth, since God might consider states of affairs which are not factual, but which would be or might be logically, or even physically possible. This caveat, I think, is where a certain amount of bias must appear in the mind of God. I now move to show why.

3. If humans have something akin to what's called libertarian free will,[2] and God considers future states of affairs which hypothetically might obtain upon the exercise of that human freewill, then God's views would obtain a theory-ladenness. If human volition allows for extremely complex hypothetical states of affairs, and if such states of affairs are not facts about the world, then God's consideration of human freewill introduces a likewise complex theory-ladenness to how God perceives at least one part of the world - namely those parts which have bodies controlled by free agents (in this case, humans.) At this time, humans appear to be creatures with libertarian free will. Furthermore, even ranting molinists,[3] much less open theist and process theology thinkers, hold that God considers hypothetical states of affairs as regarding human choice. (That is, God thinks about what we might do.) Therefore, God must have a theory-ladenness to his perception after all.

4. From such theory-ladenness, God loses some of God's objectivity about future state of affairs. After all, God regularly is not an arbiter between competing hypothetical, future states of affairs. (We are the arbiter when we think, and then decide how to exercise our will.) So God does not know and cannot be objective in saying what THE future would be, even if God could assess the odds of our various choices as coming to be our acts. Thus, one can draw an overall conclusion about bias in God: As the duck-rabbit diagram can be assessed in more than one way; so too, the world, as it is, can be assessed in more than one -- indeed, in a multitude of ways, all of them compatible with the plethora of freewill options we face, each option itself assessed but never known even within the very mind of God.


[1] Something is 'cognitively impenetrable' just when it functions without revealing its own information to the outside world, and when its internal structure is not affected by what's external to it. A cognitively impenetrable system is like a black box where you know the inputs and outputs, but that's it.) The term originates from Jerry Fodor in The Modularity of Mind, Cambridge, (MA: MIT Press/A Bradford Book, 1983), but the definition here is my ugly paraphrase.

[2] For a discussion of what is the libertarian view of freewill, see "Compatibilism" and also "Incompatibilism" Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Accessed 5/24/2008)

[3] A 'Molinist' thinks one can have both a completely sovereign, controlling everything God, and a libertarian freewill agent in the same reality. I consider this a sad case of wishful thinking. An accessible discussion of this malfunction can be found here: "Molinism" Theopedia (Accessed, 5/24/2008)


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Friday, May 23, 2008

Where you sit in class and what it means

This is surprisingly accurate. Having taught for 13 years or so, and most of those in one room, I can predict with surprising accuracy where the distractive talkers will sit, based on hemisphere dominance, saccadic eye movement, and self-selected seating arrangement. I sometimes even make a joke at the start of the semester, walking over and saying, "I've never met you people in my life, but I know you will be cut-up, whisper-chitter slackers. Why do I know this? Because given how you look at things, and given where you're sitting, it's all been determined by the biology of your brain." Sometimes those students (or their acquaintances, not necessarily "friends") will ask did I hear something about them from somebody, because I was sure right about so-n-so. "No," I answer, "It's just that God was kind enough to build in an early warning system about them for the rest of us."



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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Whoopin' up on Theism

In reviewing a new, popular-level book by John Allen Paulos, the reviewer gives a pithy summary of the burden of theism:

"The hypothesis that a deity created the universe and somehow still intervenes in it is, on the face of it, an extravagant, inelegant, and superfluous supposition. It lacks any support from our direct experience of the world, nor even from the subtle and indirect inferences of modern science. Therefore, in order to make it plausible, let alone convincing, requires arguments that are clear, direct, and compelling. An enormous burden of proof lies heavy on the proponents of theism."[1]

It is just these kinds of clear challenges that I wish theologians would address. Alas, they usually just degenerate into a collection of metaphors and Euro-mush, meta-narrative talk. Of course one can just still hear the 17th-19th century deists saying, "So?"



[image] "Make Abstract Illustrations" eyesOnTutorials (Accessed 5/21/2008)

[1] "Gimme that Old Time Religion" eSkeptic May 14, 2008 (Accessed May 21, 2008)

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Statistics: Finding Love

Percent of people who meet their future spouse in Church: 17%
Percent of people who meet their future spouse via online matchmaking: 17% [1]

Odds of more and more people turning to the internet for matchmaking: high
Odds of more and more people attending Church for matchmaking: really low


[1] "3 Smart Things About Online Dating" Wired Magazine May 2008, p. 30.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Contemplating the Mind of God (Pt. 1 of 2)

{Podcast this essay} God's mind is not like our mind, and the metaphysical status of God's mind is now much more mysterious than even what the ancients or medievals would claim. They had the advantage of positing a spiritual substance, roughly a "soul", that could bear the identity of minds, whether for God or for humans. But this is no longer a necessary posit, for the brain is now established as the underlying substance which bears the identity for the kinds of minds we know -- namely, human minds.

Granted human minds do not straightforwardly reduce to brains, as there is growing agreement that the structures which underlie human minds yield emergent processes. Thus, even if one were sure that the brain is the underlying preservation of identity in humans, decoding the physical substrate of each consciousness event might be extraordinarily difficult, though hopefully not impossible. Any decoding procedure would depend on how successful scientists are at deriving the physical structures from their emergent properties, and at this point how to complete such an endeavor is anything but clear.

God does not have a brain, yet God is claimed to have a mind. Yet this mind must be extraordinarily different from human minds, and not just in degree, which has been well recognized in the past. God's mind is qualitatively different, since it does not have a material substrate. And even if God's mind did have some logical or metaphysical part which was material, as is seemingly claimed by process thinkers, it has no likeness whatsoever to the material substrate otherwise known as a brain. Lymbic system, thalamic relay strobing, facial recognition module, and a host of other brain-specific attributes -- none of these even remotely apply to God. Just how, then, does one contemplate the mind of God?

A first approximation might be that we look at the behaviors of God. In the Christian tradition, reliable accounts of God are stipulated as being recorded in Scripture. What may be claimed about the mind of God is derived from the recorded acts of God. However, there are difficulties here with contemplating the mind of God on behavioristic grounds. An immediate difficulty is understanding the intentions behind behaviors. People often do things which could be interpreted in several ways. Sometimes one wonders about motivations, or miscommunications. All of these are tied to the imprecise understanding of behaviors. Even if, somehow, one were assured that a certain event were a behavior of God, understanding God's motivation or presicely how to understand God's behavior would be at least as ambiguous as understanding another human being's behavior; actually, it would be even far more difficult, since the analogy between God and humans is very limited.

A second issue concerning the mind of God is consideration of modularism. Human minds have modules that are specialized for evolutionarily relevant survival/reproductive strategies. For example, the human mind has specific modules for face recognition, and for recognition of object classes like tools, plants, animals, topography, and probably for mindedness too. Yet how would God's mind classify objects? God's mind was not formed by biological processes related to survival strategies and reproductive success. So what would be God's preference for kinds of things, much less "natural" kinds of things? It is not clear.

One possible solution would be that though the structure of God's mind is not decided by biological processes, it might be decided by evolutionary processes nevertheless. Perhaps the subset of logical possibilities for universes, what we think of as physically possible universes, is partitioned in ways that allows God to direct God's attention to so some, though not others, even though God is well aware, by virtue of being omnipotent, of all possible universes. Universes which have moral value apparently demand moral creatures, and all moral creatures are creatures with self-consciousness. Thus, universes with self-conscious creatures would be particularly attention worthy to God.

Physicists tell us that there is good reason to think that universes inflate in partitionary spaces, where some are more dynamic and complex than others. There is no sure analytic measure of complexity, much to the chagrin of intelligent design advocates, but we might posit that, if there are kinds of complexity, sentient creatures, and moreover creatures with self-consciousness -- these would be of the kind of complexity attractive to a God interested in morality. (Morality certainly sets us apart from other animals. The goat, for example, does not ponder whether eating the last tree on a small island is wrong, since it wipes out the whole plant species.) Perhaps, then, God's mind is restructured after all, albeit by his long and care-giving interaction with the various and special subsets of universes that inflate with just the right attributes to allow for the possibilities or even actuality of beings with self-consciousness. The modules of God's mind are formed by God's ontologies of preference, which means that God's values guides the structure of God's mind, and not vice versa, as is probably the case with human brains and human virtues. God may very well actively consider the various ways the logical possibilities would allow for physical incarnation of universes of interest, but only those with a non-zero probability of sentience would demand God's attention.

In sum, then, and as a caution to theologians: you can take God out of the biologically physical universes, but you can't take the evolving logical universes out of God.




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Friday, May 02, 2008

The Crow

The crow is a most fascinating creature, in many ways a reflection of actions and interests of humans:
"Crows exhibit their intelligence by imitating a large number of sounds, including whistles, cats, machines and the human voice. Crows have a good vocabulary -- a wide range of caws, crowing noises, coos, and other soft, melodious sounds they use to communicate with each other."[1]

In addition, crows are collectors. Adam Smith, the great economist, once observed that outlays on 'trinkets of frivolous utility" are what "keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind."[2] Perhaps we think this is merely a quirk of humans, but no: "Crows are curious. Shiny objects fascinate them, and they have been known to fly off with bits of glass, rings, keys, etc."[1] It might be that they collect such things for use as reference points: "They are great problem solvers especially when it comes to getting food). They hide food on the beach and use landmarks to find it again."[3] But if those reference markers are moved, the crow cannot find the food again.

Again, the crow is a most fascinating creature, in many ways a reflection of actions and interests of humans


[image] WKTV-Utica (Accessed 5/2/2008)

[1] Pennsylvania Game Commission - State Wildlife Management "Ravens and Crows" (Accessed 5/2/2008)

[2] "The Rise of the Gulf" The Economist April 26, 2008, p. 15.

[3] Island Discovery & Training "The Crow" (Accessed 5/2/2008) {}

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