Saturday, October 29, 2011

What "Everything Is Permitted" Permits

A contemplative Dostoevsky
It's well-known nowadays that Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov that if there is no god, everything is permitted--i.e., there are no absolute moral laws. Many people who have never read and perhaps never will read the Russian novelist (who himself struggled between strong belief and agnosticism, not unlike Herman Melville, though Dostoevsky most likely died a faithful Christian) quote this idea, and, indeed, the notion that "without god, everything is permitted" has become a standard argument against unbelief by theists. After all, if one has no dogma or set of divine laws to follow, how can anyone justifiably prevent anyone from doing anything--murder, rape, physical abuse? I will address this below, but my main point here is really to look at what use of the moral argument reveals about many theists.

You see, when theists resort to asking what moral values unbelief has to offer, it often means those theists have very nearly lost their faith, have virtually accepted that atheism is probably more "correct" than theism.

Extraordinarily, the latter part of that last sentence in fact came almost verbatim out of the mouth of infamous theist Dr. William Lane Craig in a 2011 debate with Sam Harris on morality, when Craig, in his opening statement, said "Maybe Dr. Harris is right. That atheism is true." Craig's point was that it does not matter whether or not a god exists; all that matters is whether or not objective moral values--absolute moral values--can come out of a world without a god, without holy texts telling us what to do.

Here's the thing, though. The moment someone leaves aside arguments for whether or not a deity exists and begins asking how someone can live morally as an atheist, you should begin to look at them with suspicion. The moral argument is important, to be sure, since a world without any morals would not be a pleasant world to live in. But it is an "extra" argument. If there is a god, we must live under its moral code; if there is not, we do not have to. The moral argument cannot say whether or not a deity exists. After all, we can--and do--easily follow the ethics of many thinkers from many cultures and time periods without subscribing to their other views. More broadly, we can accept some of the things people put out into the world without accepting everything they put out. Many people in the world today love Wagner's operas; it would be foolish to assume that all or many of them are unfaithful to their spouses and/or despise Jews. In the same way, we can accept certain ethical ideas from, say, the bible without accepting anything else from it.

Confucius say, Follow this blog.
Moreover, though, there isn't even any need to accept many ethical ideas from the bible, since many of its core tenets existed long before it did. And perhaps the most universal moral truth--The Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you--was uttered by Confucius long before Jesus supposedly walked the earth.

So, when a theist begins resorting to the question of how one can live a morally fulfilling life as an atheist, there is a good chance they either have no arguments for their supernatural claims or even that they are already more or less unbelievers or agnostics themselves. After all, if your foundation rests on whether or not the system is good, you are allowing for the possibility that the system in question--a religion--is replaceable by something else and thus allowing for the possibility that it can be discounted if something more ethically fulfilling comes along.

But the other side of the moral argument about whether or not everything is permitted is much more disturbing for theists than they often imagine. If you argue that there are no absolute moral laws in a godless world, you are conveniently ignoring an absolutely significant fact about the god of the bible (a fact that can also apply to any omnipotent deity). The god of the bible has absolute control over us, we are told, and anything he wants, he must get. If he wishes to revise his ten commandments, you better believe they will be revised. If he tells you to sacrifice your son to prove your faith--as he reportedly told Abraham to do to his own son, Isaac--you must do it. If he tells you to commit genocide--as he repeatedly not only tells people in the bible to do but actually assists in doing--you must do it. And if he decides to murder you through an almost unavoidable flood--the ultimate genocide, ecocide--you must give up yourself for dead.

If you haven't realized it by now, here's the disturbing thing: following this god leads to almost the same thing Dostoevsky feared--that there could be a world in which any and every action, including murder, can be morally justified. This world? The bible's.

The only thing is that Dostoevsky's dictum needs to be rephrased. In a biblical world, it's not that everything is permitted; it's that "with god, everything can be permitted' or "with god, everything can be commanded." Anything can become moral at any moment, if this absolute dictator of truth wills it to be as such. This is unquestionably the least moral of systems.

But atheists do evil things, are dictators themselves, a theist might reply. Look at Stalin. Look at North Korea. Look at the Cristero War in Mexico. State atheism is responsible for some of history's greatest moral crimes. We cannot live under such a system.

But this does not, firstly, say anything about the supernatural claims of religion. The mere fact that the world is not happy and perfect, an endless cascade of milk and honey far beyond the dreams of Winnie the Pooh--what does this unpleasantness have to do with whether or not religion is correct? It doesn't. Life is not perfect. It never has been, and it probably never will be. We are too small, too insignificant on a cosmic, even an earthly, scale. 99% of life is extinct. We will go extinct one day, too, even if we figure out how to escape the planet we are slowly destroying.

Secondly, the above statement about state atheism is true in the sense that it has been responsible for great crimes, but this is primarily because those who enforced it were mad dictators who essentially formed religion-like cults of personality around themselves (Stalin, for instance, was more or less worshipped as a god), dictators who attempted to force communism upon their countries. It is their forced communism, more than their atheism, that is generally responsible for their death tolls. And, moreover, anti-theism, anti-religion--the things the worst of these dictators practiced--is not the same as atheism. One need not persecute the religious, even if the head of state is an unbeliever. This is why the most successful governments are secular, allowing no special privileges for believers or unbelievers. Forcing any belief upon a people, be it a religion, agnosticism, or atheism, is wrong.

So, when you find yourself in a debate about religion next time and you end up talking about morals instead of whether or not there is evidence for the religion's supernatural claims, there is a good chance you've come closer to winning the debate than you might have thought. It's true that we have to create our own systems of ethics, since we do not have a dictator from above telling us what to do; but this allows us to create systems based on centuries of great thought, and, really and truly, how different would many legal systems be, if you remove religious dictums from them?

Robot Devil from Futurama
If there is a god we must follow or risk eternal damnation, anything can be commanded by that god. That certainly doesn't sound too moral to me.

Especially if you have to listen to the Robot Devil from Futurama fiddling away for eternity. Then again, he's a demon on that instrument, a robot Paganini, so eternal damnation might not be so bad, after all....

Saturday, October 22, 2011


On October 21st, 2011--just yesterday, in fact--the world silently ended. Or, at least, so Harold Camping predicted prior to the great big nada that actually occurred. That his initial prediction of May 21st was a similar failure--a failure that attracted significant media attention--is perhaps why his latest prediction has been almost universally ignored. It may also be because this is not Camping's second prediction, but his twelth--since 1978.

Zounds, in the sempiternal word of Spaceman Spiff.

Predicting the end of the world is nothing new for Christians. Indeed, the earliest Christian writers seemed to be of the opinion that the world was going to end in their lifetimes--which would date such apocalyptic predictions as early as the first century A.D. That two thousand years have since passed without any signs of cosmic cataclysm has not significantly deterred would-be prophets from claiming that the end is near, however; the most famous of these is perhaps the unfortunate William Miller (1782 - 1849), who announced with grave confidence that the world would end in a period between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844--though this latter date was later revised to October 22nd by Samuel S. Snow. His followers became known as Millerites. Initially a little-known movement, Millerism quickly rose to public prominence in the 1840s, and thousands of people began preparing for the end--some of them by getting rid of all their earthly possessions.

It was more than a little disappointing for Miller and his followers, then, when nothing happened on October 22nd.

People waited until the sky became black and the gas-lamps flared on. The world seemed hushed, except for the indignant children who were pointing their fingers at the astonished Millerites. Indeed, kids and adults alike would ridicule them in the days to follow, laughing at their sickly expressions and the sudden poverty of those who had given away their possessions. Laughing was the best of public response. Less fortunate Millerites were tarred and feathered, physically assaulted, and threatened. Millerite churches were burnt to the ground. Some revised the date to the next year, 1845; others locked themselves into their studies to figure out what had gone wrong. William Miller himself fell into a deep depression, but he nonetheless clung, right up to his death in 1849, to his belief that Jesus would return in the years to come.

On the other hand, some believed the world had ended on October 22nd. It was just such a silent, surreptitious end that no one noticed.

Harold Camping
This was the view put forth by Camping himself shortly after May 21st. He claimed that the world had in fact "spiritually" ended on May 21st and that the true ending would occur by October 21st. The "true believers will quietly receive the new heaven and the new earth," he said. "I really am beginning to think as I restudied these matters that there’s going to be no big display of any kind." The world would "probably" be done for in the months to come.

The word "probably" is significant, since it gives him the chance to weasel out of his latest failure. But it does not give his supporters--a group that may have been as much as 200 million strong--that same chance. After all, there were people who, as with Miller's followers, gave away their earthly possessions. Camping himself received considerable donation money, and he said he would not return it after May 21st's fiasco. 'We’re not at the end," he, in fact, said with some indignation. "Why would we return it?" The same, of course, applies to what his poor--quite literally--followers gave away.

It may not be Camping's responsibility, of course, since those who gave away their possessions usually did not give them to Camping himself. The fanatics who acted so rashly must be held accountable. But it is unquestionable that Camping himself should face legal warfare for his pernicious influence on these fanatics. Ignorant though they may have been, they would not have acted so ignorant had it not been for Camping--or whatever other fanatic would have come around in his place. As absurd and baseless as it may seem, I think Camping should be held partly accountable for his followers' foolishness--just as the Vatican must be held accountable for the results of their inane stance on condom use in Africa.

Nonetheless, what disappoints me the most in these situations is that I do not see people reexamining what "world" means. It's one thing to say "the world is going to end"; but what does that even mean? The Earth will "end?" End how? What about the solar system? The Milky Way? Our local cluster? The rest of the universe, of which we are a near-negligible part? If you're going to predict the end of it all, at least have a specific referent in mind. What does "world" mean in this context? Only a fraction of our planet is even inhabitable by humans, anyway; will all the creatures of the oceans and deserts and tundras have to suffer, too? Why would an infinitesimal planet like ours be worthy of any kind of "ending," anyway? And what the devil does "end" mean?

But I am perhaps ascribing too much critical thought to such doomsday prophets. After all, if you think ancient texts hold the key to all of our astonishingly complex universe--a universe almost entirely unknown at the time such texts were composed--then I shouldn't be surprised if you don't look too deeply into the definitions of words.

Rapturous October 22nd!

Monday, October 17, 2011

On Steve Jobs and the Undersea Demon Factory that Deceives the World, with Further Reference to an Uncharted Island on which Demoniac Technocrats Invent Irreverent Devices; or, It Must Be Said

Perhaps two days after his death, I came across an extraordinary man who claimed to have esoteric knowledge concerning Steve Jobs. A popular web site on the island, Dominica News Online, had posted a story announcing the death of Apple’s cofounder, and a decent number of people had left posts expressing sorrow or their admiration for his work.
Hours after the article appeared, I came across a comment by tiny, a man I had seen post on the site before. The comment, soon followed by another, claimed that a video on YouTube by a wizard-turned-Christian held the truth about those who create technology in the world, and it was not a good truth. I should have been prepared for at least some insanity, as the website, through no fault of its own, has a significant share of lunatics. But this was madder than anything I had seen on it before.
            There is a vast factory under the sea, tiny informed his readers, in which demonic beings toil endlessly to produce machines; there is a city under there, as well. Somewhat redundantly, there exists furthermore a nefarious island somewhere in the world where the inventors of all the most popular devices assemble to create them; their sole purpose is to create addictive technologies that will turn the masses away from the Christian god. Not all scientists and technicians, mind you, but many—car designers, computer designers, etc. A high-tech plot against Yahweh of Brobdignagian proportions, all operating under the darkness of the ocean and on a strange island unknown to GPSes—unless, of course, as is probable, the inventors of those were in on it.
Had tiny discovered the abode of Lord Cthulu,
i.e., all the world's technocrats in one?
This story was so wondrous that it had to be true; and, indeed, it is, or, at least, so the YouTube video tiny got it from claims. The video does not mention Mr. Jobs, and tiny, once pressed, was quick to assert that the deceased might not have been one of the blasphemous villains. It is worth noting the “might,” as well as the fact that this extraordinary theory appeared for the first time on the site, as far as I know, under the article about Jobs. I requested of tiny proof of his claims, such as where this island is, miraculous claims requiring miraculous evidence; he told me that he does not deal with the occult and will not look for the island and that it is in fact I who should find it, since I had implied it was so easy to locate things with GPS technology.
            Greetings, and we come in peace.
            It is easy to dismiss such ideas as more lunatic than Neruda’s city where crowds of people blanche on their porches; it is easy to assume tiny or the creator of the multi-part Youtube video had simply had too much fun playing BioShock or reading Bacon’s New Atlantis; it’s easier still to ignore these claims altogether. When such ideas become the foundational beliefs of presidential candidates, it may be somewhat more difficult to ignore; but I assure you this is no—hardly a—political essay.
            Tiny, you see, cannot be ignored. It is partly because of the disturbing fact, in my view, that he can believe such a thing at all. But it is primarily because that thing I claim is so mad, so much the product of Jobs’ drug of choice, LSD, or perhaps something closer to home—yes, precisely because I claim it is so, I am forced, suddenly, to reexamine why I can claim this. It can be shocking, indeed, when you come across an argument you can’t counter because you don’t know why you actually believe what you do; but it is a good shocking, unlike most forms of electrocution, a non-sparking shocking that many a person needs many a time.
            We must allow this person to speak, just as the Holocaust-denier and the gay-bashing Jamaican dancehall artist and the Young Earth Creationist must speak—not because they are to be tolerated as equal to those with sense, but because such outlandish claims force us to reexamine the sensibility of our own claims. To do otherwise is a kind of dictatorship. I do not want to hear the words of people like Kent Hovind, the mad barbarian behind a theme park that attempts to prove not only that Adam and Eve existed but that they existed contemporaneously with dinosaurs; but the real reason I do not want to hear them is because they might deceive others who hear them, not because they can personally harm me—except for my intelligence, and that will pass. But why should he be prevented from speaking? It is unwise to compare him to, say, Copernicus or Galileo, both of whom were terrified to put forth their theories, but the comparison is instructive in one way: the authorities, a true dictatorship at that point in time, believed the non-geocentrists to be lunatics and would have silenced them—and did. And yet it moves—but we need movers to prove its motion.
            Free speech, in this context, is not the same as an abolition of rationality. Creationists can claim whatever they like under free speech, as can I, but this obviously does not extend to what categories items fall into, and creationism, therefore, cannot be taught in a science class of any kind, unless it be a course on the history of science. The history of science, after all, is riddled with the marvelous and the maniacal, the ingenious and the comical (from our vista now, of course): Newton’s obsession with injecting himself with mercury, along with his other alchemical pursuits; Lyell’s belief that dinosaurs would return one day because the Earth changes in cycles; Linnaeus’ addition of dragons, hydras, phoenixes, and manticores into his classification of life. Categories, then, will not change unless their internals do. But what we can say, far apart from what we should, will not. In a rational society, after all, few, if any, of these concerns over what should be said should—word that shines like an alchemist’s dream—exist.
            Go draw a terrible porno of Muhammad, right this moment, and do what thou will with it, and do thy will with it in public.
Or, at least, I’d like to say we should be able to do this. But we aren’t free. An oppressive regime of the easily offended, a regime distinct from political correctness, towers over us here. I’m talking, of course, about those followers of Islam who believe those who depict Mohammed should be put to death, as was the case with the infamous fatwa on Salman Rushdie’s head (that, extraordinarily, is still in effect), the murder of Theo van Gogh, and the death threats to the makers of South Park for depicting Mohammed on their show in a bear costume. This cannot be the case. No one group should be able to have a monopoly on freedom of expression like this in any society in this century. And the only way to fight it may be to take risks.
Just don’t become a martyr en route to the undersea factory, now.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Beyond the Horizon

It's easy to forget that we're quite forgettable--on a cosmic scale, that is. The Earth, after all, is a less-than-microscopic fleck from about 4.5 billions years ago, going around a sun that is one of perhaps trillions upon trillions, in a solar system that is perhaps one of trillions upon trillions, in a galaxy that is perhaps one of billions upon billions, a galaxy so large that we can scarcely even foresee traveling in a spacecraft to Pluto, much less anywhere near the edge of the Milky Way, much less to the super-massive black hole at the center of our galaxy, much less to our nearest galactic neighbor, Andromeda, much less to--but you get the picture.

Or do you?

It all sounds like a lot, but maybe it sounds more like a great amount of words than a great amount of distance. After all, the sun is just there, we've been to the moon, and surely everything isn't really so far and we aren't really so small and cosmically forgettable.

But we are. And more so than you or I can begin to imagine.

And yet it is easy to forget this, even if we've studied it. It is easy to drive down a long road and be impressed by the sheer distance we have to go to get to from Point A to Point B; it is easy to look at other largenesses, like skyscrapers and mountains, and to forget just how smaller-than-small even they are, pitted against the rest of the universe. It is easier still to be caught up in our conversations, our day-to-day interactions, with others, and to think, at least subconsciously, that it is those that take up all the space in the world. Love and fear are the great space-fillers; and there's nothing wrong with that. I love love. And in so much of life, simple interaction between two persons can seem to require an infinite bridge, as though, even if we are face to face, we are still universes apart; Schopenhauer, and later Freud, referred to something like this as the hedgehog's dilemma, whereby we cannot get too close to one another without hurting each other (i.e., the hedghogs' spines will cause some problems), so we must find the right distance at which we can coexist in comfort. So it goes. I am willing to bear pain for someone I love, and I have no problem, after all, with my cosmic insignificance. But I accept it.

The problem, of course, is that many do not even know how tiny we are to begin with, much less to forget or subconsciously replace it with something else. And if you do not know anything about the universe, it is easy to think your world--your island, city, town, village, neighborhood, home, room, the grand ampitheater inside your skull--is truly all there is. And we all do this, at some point. We forget. We forget the rest of the world exists when we get dive, descend into something specific. And when we reemerge, when we untangle ourselves from our webs like the Lady of Shallot in her sad castle, the world briefly becomes new again: yes, there is an entire island beneath my feet, and there are continents there, and they are large, and there are entire wars, rallies, movements, life-changing experiments, beauties, horrors, births, and deaths occurring in them all at once. Often, we do not really understand this, though; at best, it's usually just a vague truth, perhaps reinforced by images on the news of distant conflicts in distant lands that may well seem unimaginable to us until we are similarly caught up.

At such times, it is easy to think the horizon is all there is to see.

Religion, on the surface, makes so much more sense in small areas. After all, when your village is all there is to know, it is not hard to feel as though you must be special. This is partly why religion seems to have taken root so easily in the Caribbean, all history aside; the clear borders of our islands become, at least subconsciously, our mental borders, and the events in our island seem somehow to be those of the world. But this is by no means restricted to islands, nor is it a necessary result of insularity. It can--and does--happen anywhere, as long as we believe ourselves to be beings who are large enough to matter on some cosmic scale--a scale that most do not really begin to envision when they think like that. How, after all, can we imagine that we are the center of all that is, and all that is around us is just there for kicks and has been there for as long as 13.7 billion years, the supposed age of the universe?

Mind you, our place in a large universe isn't a new question by any means. The idea that Earth was not unique and that the other planets around us were inhabited was huge up into the early twentieth century. Many believed that at least some of the planets around us were earthlike and contained life; Emanuel Swedenborg went so far as to claim that every planet around was inhabited. Comforting as this view might have been, it presented theological problems. If we weren't the center of the universe, as Aristarchus, Copernicus, and Galileo had pointed out, now we weren't even the only planet with life; what did that mean for religious teachings that pointed so firmly towards the Earth? Swedenborg "solved this" by claiming that every planet was not simply inhabited but inhabited by beings who embraced the Christian faith. I myself was once told by someone that if other planets have life, it doesn't disprove Christianity, since that religion only applies to Earth. Possible as that argument is, it's an absurd reach and implies cosmic deception--a term itself wonderfully absurd. Nonetheless, some situations where people claimed to have found life elsewhere in the universe involved false claims of creatures that had no religion, and, of course, the missionaries were in position. There is a great story about John Herschel, son of the great astronomer William Herschel (who himself believed the interior of the sun was inhabited), being misquoted in a newspaper in 1835 about the moon being inhabited. The public believed the misinformation, and before Herschel clarified the matter, a mid-West preacher had already begun collecting subscriptions for bibles to send up to the lunar inhabitants.

So it goes.

Unless we see beyond our horizons--literally and otherwise--I'm not terribly hopeful for change in the region. But I'm definitely glad to see that there is a growing, if currently small, movement of skeptics and information-seekers in the region. Still, there are still too many who do not look beyond the horizon, and, when you try to show them what is out there, they tell you to stop, as though you are either committing some kind of crime or are hurting their worldview. The latter, to be sure, is probably true, but the truth is the truth, and there is no need for it to hurt (unlike, say, in The Matrix or BioShock). In the novel Two on a Tower, Thomas Hardy's young astronomer, Swithin, tells his future lover that no one who wants to be happy should take up astronomy seriously, since the distances one will uncover are ghastly and monstrous; Edwin Hubble, who discovered (or, technically, took credit for the idea) that the universe is expanding , claimed he felt like he was in a Buddhist trance after a night of observing the night sky. But after the horrors and before the trance, there is astonishing, if spare, beauty to be found.

If more people knew a few basic facts about astronomy, I think we'd have more skeptics, or, at least, fewer people who literally treat their island like the universe itself (galaxies, somewhat ironically, were once referred to as island universes). So, the next time you find yourself faced with a fundamentalist in an argument, consider, if you haven't already, just talking a bit about the universe. At the very least, it was what got me wondering and wandering; and, if nothing else, what better than bringing out the distances in the night to narrow other distances here on our lonely planet?

Look up.

The Skin-Shedding Fire-flying Vampires Will Not Come Tonight

            The skin-shedding fire-flying vampires will not come tonight, so Ma Perry believes, anyway, for she has fortified her front verandah with a line of salt and the windowsill with a line of salt and the spaces beneath doors with salt and even blocked up the tunnels used by mice with salt, you might think she was trying to keep out slugs and not bloodsucking horrors but it is in fact a well-known fact that vampires simply must count whatever they come across, and when they come across salt, well, to hell with dinner, mind you, you might think they could not move from where they start off from at all because of all the things around them to count, Look, three prostitutes wearing two pieces of clothing, look, fifteen yellow moths, look, the prime minister’s secret mansion has five, ten, fifteen, twenty, twenty-five, forty-six thousand windows on the left side, look, count the craters in the moon, but anyway we are looking at Ma Perry, a small old woman in a baseball cap and a worn pink dress down to her skinny knees in the Caribbean island of Dominica and we are looking at this woman not because she is on film or in this case on the page for you to imagine in your minds but because this simple act, the laying of the salt along the cracks where things could enter, is the link in a chain that never seems to end or rust, for that matter, a chain that stretches from the time we are told what to do by those who are smarter and older than we are and when we end up telling our children to do the same, even if we do not realize we have simply imported the superstitions of the colonists into the Caribbean and turned it into our own mythology, of course in the morning the salt will still be there, uncounted as ever, and yet I see myself, years in some silly future, telling my children to do the same, if they like, like little things in a foolish zoo.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Prayers on a Runway

Prayers on a Runway
            As I touch down on the gray runway at San Juan, I hear people clapping. It is mainly the older persons; some of the children, grinning and straining against their seatbelts, clap high above their heads, as well. They pray out loud, a chuckling chorus of Thank you, God, thank you Jesus, praised be your name, down the seats. None of the Americans have done this, though one has clapped. It is the people from the island. They do not glare, those descendants of transatlantic trade, if the others do not pray; and yet, if I, who live between worlds, were to say, There is no need to send up prayers because an airplane has landed where it has landed every day for years, there is a chance I would find something of mine besieged when I return home: a poisoned dog, a defaced gate, an emptied house, a father with crushed ribs.
            When we were still on the plantations, in chains or like monkeys in suits in the Big House, the bible gave us hope that those same slave masters, blind fools, would burn in the same hell they warned us about. We would be saved, not them. Or, if they were saved too, they would be our equals.
            But now, when we need a hope that is not holding a saw, when we can fly on the same plane to the same place high above the clouds we were told held angels with six wings—now, I sit on the plane, listening to the happy claps, and wonder why nothing is any different.