Class Warfare Blog

July 9, 2020

How to Read the Bible

Filed under: Reason,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 12:07 pm
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As I have mentioned I am reading the book The Use and Abuse of the Bible (subtitle: A Brief History of Biblical Interpretation) by Henry Wansborough, OSB. Since OSB stands for Order of St. Benedict, that might be a tiny hint as to where the author stands, but I am a supporter of the Law of Unintended Consequences, so I push on.

One of the effects repeated when looking at various Church Fathers is that many of them provided new ways to read the Holy Book, e.g. “The way of reading the Bible in the Western Church was radically altered by Jerome, in several ways” and “He (Origen) evolved techniques (for instance, textual criticism and comparison of the four Gospels) which have continued to serve the understanding of Scripture to the present day.”

Add this to one of the philosophical drivers of the Protestant Revolution, namely that the Bible could be read and understood by ordinary people if provided in a suitable language and that we “didn’t need no stinking priests to tell us what it meant.” This has culminated in the Protestant fundamentalist literalists who insist that everything you read in the Bible is literally true.

Whew!

But my point is this. There is almost total agreement amongst Christians that the Holy Bible was written by men inspired to do so by their god, to the point that the words in their Bibles are the “words of God.” This is not the same “inspiration” that you might get at a party to take out your half-finished novel manuscript and begin working on it again. This is really in-spired, that is “breathed in.” The authors breathed in the Holy Ghost and the words that flowed out were from that source, not from the writer’s own thoughts.

If Christians believe that, I have a question for them: why did your god deliberately make the words so written hard to understand? Why are their “hidden meanings” in scripture: allegories, symbolic meanings, and the like. For example, in “Revelations” there is a reference to a “Seven-headed Beast” which actually stands for Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire, which was built upon seven hills. Was John, the author of the work he gave no title to, but we refer to as “Revelations” (and various other titles), such a pussy that he feared that Rome wouldn’t like his writings and would proscribe them and lock him up as well, but his god offered no protection? If so, how are these the words of a god. which is supposed to be all-powerful? Couldn’t John have been teleported to safety, taken up into the heavens and dumped out somewhere else? Couldn’t Yahweh/Jesus have made a few hundred copies of his writings and distributed them around? Where’s the effing magic here?

But I digress.

My point is scriptures were created in order for people to know god’s wishes, primarily that they be saved from Yahweh’s curse of mankind. (Yahweh was apparently incapable of just lifting the curse, with a muttered “My bad,” and be done with it.) But Yahweh/Jesus apparently wrote these things so that they would be hard to understand, thus preventing the people they were written for from understanding, doing the right things, and getting saved. Isn’t this a bit contradictory, more than a bit counterproductive, for the God of Love? (Apparently He loves Himself more than His Creations.)

One could argue that the literacy of the common people in that region, at that time, was somewhat limited. (Some argue that literacy was rather quite widespread, however.) Certainly reproduction technology was at a low ebb at the time (no printing presses, no Internet, no TV, telephones, etc.) so it was necessary for these things to be read out loud to “the people.” But this is not what the priestly classes did. Instead, they interpreted them for the people. Why? Because the priestly divines were convinced that if they were to just read the scriptures to the people, the people wouldn’t understand! Heresy, heresy . . . those priests claimed that the Holy Ghost was a bad writer! (I would rent my cloak except it is hot and I am not wearing much and what is being worn isn’t rentable.)

Basically Yahweh’s/Jesus’ narrative goes like this “Okay, okay I cursed all y’all, you know that. But there is a way out! A way to Heaven and an escape from Hell . . . and it is all here in these here scriptures. Unfortunately I wrote them so that they would be hard to understand. Think of it as a test, a really hard one. Good luck! Yahweh

Just when are people going to look at this storyline and say “This isn’t even good enough to make a B movie from! Script!”

 

Trump Wanted Closed Borders . . . And Now He has Them

By mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic President Trump has gotten an unintended benefit: closed borders. Of course, the borders are being closed by the other countries involved and not Mr. Trump’s administration, but a promise is a promise. Mexico has closed its border with the U.S. . . . to prevent the spread of the disease that is raging in the U.S. but not so much in Mexico. Canada has closed its border with the U.S. . . . to prevent the spread of the disease that is raging in the U.S. but not so much in Canada. The EU has closed its “borders” with the U.S. . . . to prevent the spread of the disease that is raging in the U.S. but not so much in the EU.

Mission Accomplished, President Trump, Mission Accomplished . . . say it now. . . .

From today’s The Guardian:
“Canadians have spent the past three months in isolation, away from businesses, friends, families and schools,” said Lori Turnbull, a professor of political science at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. “They’ve done all this to make sure that they survive the public health crisis. They don’t want the border to open and have Americans bring it up here. The contrasting pandemic experiences of the two countries aren’t just a result of luck or geography: experts point to widespread access to healthcare in Canada, as well as high levels of trust in government and public health officials.”

 

July 4, 2020

The Good and the Perfect

Filed under: Philosophy,Reason,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 8:15 am
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I am reading a survey of the roots of western civilization and am at the ancient Greek stage.

Socrates focused on living a life of virtue and based it upon a search for the meaning of “good.” What is good? is the question he asked . . . and tried to answer. He felt that any man who didn’t have the exactly correct definition of virtue, would be mislead and make mistakes leading to a life that is not virtuous, at least in some aspects.

And, of course, thousands of years of philosophy have resulted in the following definition of “is good” . . . <cricket, cricket, . . .>.

Plato followed up the idea by extending it to all things, not just “the good.” He felt that it was obvious that there is a realm in which perfect examples, called Forms, of everything existed. Not just chairs and swords and Quiche Lorraines but abstracts like Beauty, Virtue, and Bravery.

This is somewhat understandable as one can imagine a craftsman building some device, a chair perhaps, and if they took their time and worked carefully and kept on improving that chair, either there would be an end to that process, a perfect chair, or there would not be. Plato was, like Socrates, enamored of perfect states, even though no such thing exists in nature. This was swept under the rug by declaring that all real things were but imperfect copies of the perfect Forms available in that other place.

Obviously, some people have too much imagination for their own good.

This ideas of perfect states feeds into the ideas of dichotomies, e.g. good and evil, dog lovers and cat lovers, Republicans and Democrats. The idea was that the other have of the pair is needed to define the first part and without that other part being in existence then we would not feel the first part. This is utter nonsense of course. (And dangerous. We think Repubs and Dems are opposites because they oppose one another when, in reality, you can’t tell which is which from their appearances or behaviors. They are not opposites, they are both defenders of the status quo.)

I have written on the dichotomy of good and evil and the claim that without evil, then good wouldn’t exist. This lame argument is, I suspect, a weaselly argument in defense of the argument from evil, basically “if God is all-good, why does evil exist?”

Good and evil, to start, aren’t opposites. The real opposites are good and bad. I have a rather extensive vocabulary and couldn’t come up with the opposite of evil. Here’s two lists I found:
Antonyms goodness, good, redeeming(a), beneficent, virtuous, redemptive, goody-goody, beatific, sainted, white, saving(a), saintlike, angelic, saintly, angelical. Synonyms malevolent, vicious, malefic, malign.
The antonyms are wishy-washy and the synonyms are vicious. There is no good antonym for “evil,” one that depicts the extreme nature of that word.

And, the silly argument that one part of the dichotomy is needed to define the other is easily disproved, even a baby can do it. Offer a baby (of suitable age) their first lick of an ice cream cone. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, said baby will express pleasure and want more. It will act out the thought, “Hey, that shit is goood . . . gimme, gimme, gimme.” Now does that baby know a definition of evil, does it know evil at all? Is it necessary that it have an innate understanding of “bad” or “evil” to appreciate the goodness of ice cream? Or is it the case that that baby has programmed into it a number of behaviors that lead to its success? Of course, religious apologists will say that the baby has an innate morality as a gift from their god, but that doesn’t explain anything, that is just another baseless claim to add to the stacks of the other baseless claims they have made.

The philosophical “problem of evil” is often explained away that man can do evil because we have free will, otherwise we would just be slaves to Yahweh’s will. And what do they say in other areas? They say, “Be a slave to Yahweh’s will, it will make you happy! And you will end up in Heaven and not Hell.” So, being a slave to Yahweh’s will is a bad thing if it is involuntary but a very good thing if it is voluntary. I think being a slave to Yahweh’s will is . . . being a slave to Yahweh’s will.

Plus, as I have pointed out often enough, the tradeoff is not “evil for free will” it is “evil for the free will to do evil.” Yahweh could have made us lacking in the free will to do evil things but with free will in everything else. Is that a tradeoff you would be in favor of? Hell, even Donald Trump would take that deal . . . well, maybe not.

Dichotomies, like perfect states are stages of thinking, I think, that we had to go through, just like the phases your parent’s talked about when you were young, e.g. “Oh, it is just a phase she is going through.” This was a universal excuse used by parents for inexplicable behavior of their children when I was young. (Is this still the case?)

Unfortunately way too many moderns are still stuck in these archaic, simplistic modes of thinking. Believing in imaginary things and perfections are rife in our culture.

How different things would be if we, as the new age gurus encourage, were to “focus on the journey and not the destination.” If a piece of software had to be perfect before it was sold, we wouldn’t have any software. If a car had to be perfect before it was sold, we would have to cars. If loaves of bread had to be perfect, the shelves of our supermarkets (the “bread aisle) would have empty shelves.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good enough.

July 2, 2020

The Misuse of COVID-19 Statistics

Filed under: Culture,Reason,The News — Steve Ruis @ 12:25 pm
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I know Americans are virtually statistically illiterate but one thing keeps bothering me.

I read today in a local Chicago newsletter that “Illinois saw 828 new confirmed cases of Coronavirus and 30 more deaths in the past day. Both numbers were increases from previous days this week, but are still part of an overall decline since the peak of the crisis in mid-May. The weekend’s deaths were the lowest numbers in three months.”

Hello?

The deaths recorded today were of people who contracted the virus days or weeks ago. The numbers of cases reported and deaths for any particular day/week etc. are not correlated. If, say, it takes 13 days on average to die from COVID-19, then the deaths of any day are linked to the number of diagnosed cases from 13 days ago.

The US as a whole has seen a recent surge in the number of cases of COVID-19 with the daily numbers reaching record levels. Then people are commenting that the brighter side is that the number of deaths hasn’t gone up. They need to wait a bit to even know what the effect of that rise in diagnosed cases results in.

June 22, 2020

Understanding Christian Thinking

Filed under: History,Reason,Religion — Steve Ruis @ 12:57 pm
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I am reading a book, The Use and Abuse of the Bible, a Brief History of Biblical Interpretation. Two of the first great Christian thinkers addressed in this book are Irenaeus (c. 130 – c. 202 CE) and Origen (c. 185–c. 253). Both of these gentlemen were praised for coming up with whole new modes of Christian thought, which should have been seen as a warning sign.

A Reasoned Approach to Understanding Christian Thinking
Thinking back to the second and third centuries CE, what kind of economic activity was available to intellectuals? I define an intellectual is someone who makes his/her way through life using his/her mind alone, whereas non-intellectuals use both their minds and bodies in various ratios. Of all of the occupations available at that time, in that place about the only place for intellectuals was as scribes. (They might also have become a physician but only the wealthy could afford the schooling.) Many people think of scribes as being stenographers for the illiterate (I did, too), but while that task might be something a scribe did (taking dictation), there was much, much more to do. Scribes might be employed by the wealthy to keep records and produce written correspondence, but the primary employer of scribes were the various temples.

My point is that intellectuals would be attracted mightily to being a religious scribe as being one of the few forms of occupation in which they got to work as they wished.

So, when scribes were presented with questions about unclear passages of scripture or flat out nonsense in scripture, they being the brilliant intellectual creatives they were, made up stuff. Irenaeus claimed that there should only be four canonical gospels (of the many more in existence) because there were four animals supporting God’s throne in Ezekiel 1. I guess the fact that most chairs had four legs wasn’t enough of a justification for God’s throne. And making a connection between the number of any part of God’s throne and the number of gospels to include in the canon seems not to be present. No surprise there.

So, question after question arises and soon they find the answers harder and harder to come up with. Origen commented on Genesis 18 where “Abraham stood by them under a tree . . .” during a divine visit to Abraham. Origen comments “What does it help me who have come to hear what the Holy Spirit teaches the human race if I hear that Abraham was standing under a tree? Let us rather see what this tree is, under which Abraham stood.” If Freud were alive I suspect he might say “Sometimes a tree is just a tree.”

Origen is probably the major source of the idea of there being “secret” knowledge that has to be winkled out through exegesis. The Jews had already succumbed to this position and Origen was leading Christians into the same position. But, I think the intellectual powers of these people, which allow them to “spin” any nonsense into sense, betrays them wholly at the end.

These worthies both insisted that the scriptures were divinely inspired and without error. So, if there is an error, it must be due to a misunderstanding on our part. Since the words must be right, our interpretation must be wrong, so what is needed is a new interpretation and what do creative intellectuals do? They create.

But by claiming that it is our flawed human understanding which is at fault, they are playing Russian Roulette with the lives of ordinary people. Ordinary people have crops and flocks to attend, business to do, families to provide for, any myriad other mundane tasks. They do not have the energy to study and learn to interpret scripture in their nonexistent spare time. So, failing to hear from a gifted intellectual who knows what scripture actually means, they mis-learn it and end up in Hell.

What the claim of “hidden knowledge” in scripture implies is that the inspired writers who composed scriptures are inadequate to their task. Should not the scriptures be easy to read and easy to understand by one and all? Shouldn’t they be clear and precise? Shouldn’t they all make sense, now and forever? Shouldn’t a lack of sense be evidence that a particular scripture was not divinely inspired?

That there is “hidden knowledge” being taught or is somehow embedded in scripture is a sop to the interpreters of meaning. Their arrogance is Trumpian “Only I can solve this problem! You see sometimes a tree is not just a tree.” (Origen felt that the tree was “insight” symbolically.) Symbolic writing is not accessible to one and all and should never appear in scripture. Every time in the NT you see a reference to the disciples not understanding what is right in front of their faces, an appeal to the concept of hidden wisdom or hidden knowledge is being made. If this knowledge were the difference between Heaven and Hell, why would any sane scripture-sponsoring entity hide that knowledge?

“He (Jesus) told them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” Mark 4:11-12

What kind of great teacher deliberately obfuscates what is to be learned? Wouldn’t God Incarnate be able to speak so clearly as to create understanding and belief? And why would such a god allow prideful intellectuals to spin those scriptures into things they are not? (Note They are still doing it. Look up William Lane Craig and Lee Strobel, as examples.)

June 7, 2020

Blame It On the Greeks?

Filed under: Philosophy,Reason — Steve Ruis @ 8:41 am
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The Greeks came up with some rather odd ideas. One was eventually codified into Platonism. This is a view that Ideal Forms and Ideal Ideas existed. This is not such a radical idea but they insisted that these Forms and Ideas existed in reality . . . in another realm (maybe beyond space and time?).

Socrates wanted to know all of the attributes of virtue so as to be able to guide the careers and lives of virtuous men (women didn’t count yet, #free_women). So, the Greeks also invented formal categories.

I don’t think that such concepts would exist at all, or exist in much detail, if it were not for philosophers, philosophers who were . . . what? They seemed to be people who wanted to sit around bullshitting and getting paid for it, kind of like the people on sports talk radio and TV are now.

So, think about a man at a bazaar looking to buy a knife. He picks one up, feels its balance and overall size, observes the workmanship, and then talks to the vendor, possibly haggling over the price. Does the category of “knives” even enter his thinking anywhere? I should think not. Now, later, sitting around a campfire the buyer of that knife might show off his new knife to his companions and they might comment as to whether it is a good knife, or a good deal, or whether it is preferable to another style of knife. (Think of Conan and Otli arguing over whose god was better around a campfire in the first Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan movie.) Do you think the “category” of knives would come up in that discussion? I don’t think so.

So, what were these philosophers up to (other than no good—ask your mother if it would be okay to hang out with a bunch of old men who do not have jobs)?

Clearly, looking around it is easy enough to see that nothing observable was perfect. Everything has flaws of some kind. The most beautiful young man you might fall in love with turns out to be as dull as a sack of hammers, your mirror has small specks in its polished surface, the vase you arrange flowers in has a base that isn’t quite flat, and so on. So, I can see playing a game of “What if he were perfect, what would he be like? Or what would a perfect knife be like? Or a perfect vase, or . . . or. . . . but to pontificate that the perfect versions of these things exist somewhere and the things we have are only bad copies is beyond bizarre. A sane man would speculate that the process of perfecting a creation could never be ended, and so perfect objects do not, and cannot exist. Ta da! Done! Consider that new knife designs are still being created. Is there a limit to the number of possible designs? What the heck could be the perfect avatar of “knives” when so many knives are different? Is there an “Absolute” for each design? And if you find that daunting, tackle “beauty” . . . they did!

What has the idea of perfect exemplars of every form and idea given us? The answer is . . . misery. This is where thoughts like “Jesus is perfect, man is flawed” come from. And where does Jesus reside? In another realm, along with all of the other perfect things, including a mansion with many rooms and you may get to live in it. Wow, I wonder if they have servants in that mansion?

Now that would be an interesting version of eternal torment. Those who fail to get into Heaven end up being servants in the Heavenly Mansion, living in meager servant’s quarters, eating leftovers, wearing hand-me-down garments, and no days off. All the time they are exposed to the wealthy mansion that all of the right acting and right thinking god-fearers get to enjoy. Now that would be everlasting torment, being forever exposed to all you lost out on. But no, those assholes had to dream up a Lake of Fire and demons! Why did God create demons? Only a dick would deliberately create demons or beings that could transform into demons.

I see imagination as a mental ability that we developed that helped us greatly to stay alive. Through imagination we could detect agency, that it we could imagine that rustling in the tall grass was a predator sneaking up on us and take actions to elude the stalking animal. But, of course, we have to take everything to extremes, especially when given leisure time (aka time not having to work to gather food, make shelters, make clothing, etc.) so we invent effing philosophers to do what? Imagine up all kinds of stuff, none of which has the possibility of benefiting the ordinary people, but much of which can be used by the elites to control the masses so they can siphon off our “surplus labor.”

* * *

Now I can see the value of categories. My academic subject field, chemistry, would be much more difficult without them. By assigning a chemical substance to a category, you can then characterize that substance with the general attributes of the category (e.g. metals are good conductors of electricity, and are malleable and ductile, etc.).

But one has to look carefully at what one is doing. In Plato’s case he said things like “A wind is pleasantly cool for one person but uncomfortably cold for another. A wine is sweet to a person who is well but sour to the same person when ill.” but then goes on by implying that human knowledge needs absolutes. Take that wine, for instance, is it sweet or is it sour, it can’t be both, no? Yes, it can. When I moved to the Midwest of the US from California I ended up with people who claimed a dish we were eating was “very spicy” but I thought was bland. (The offending spice was black pepper.) What I conclude is that perceptions depend upon context and aren’t absolutes. So, the wine is sweet when the person was well and sour when he was ill (but not at the same time), that is his sense of taste was affected by his illness. There does not need to be an idealized absolute “Sweet Wine” in the Realm of Absolutes so we can tell the sick person that they are wrong, the wine isn’t sour, so they can’t be tasting that. (My cartoon mind has the voice of Crocodile Dundee playing in the background saying “That’s not a sweet wine . . . this is a sweet wine.”)

These are the ideas of people who are too smart for their own good . .  our own good.

June 4, 2020

It is Time for Intelligent Design Advocates to Pony Up

Filed under: Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 12:58 pm
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Let’s stop fooling around and take the ID advocates seriously. I have a series of questions I want the IDers to answer, so I can fully appreciate their theory.

  1. First, I would love to hear anyone supply a clear outline of ID theory, the complete theory. All I hear is arguments about design and complexity, but there are few other processes needed to make ID Theory complete.
  2. So, let’s say an Intelligent Designer exists and comes up with an intelligent design. That design is still “on the drawing board” as it were. How does this design get implemented?
  3. What are the processes by which the design is put “into production?”
  4. And who the heck is this intelligent designer, inquiring minds want to know? Are vastly superior aliens messing with us?
  5. How often are designs implemented?
  6. When did these design implementations first happen in the past and are they likely to continue into the future?
  7. If the Intelligent Designer just implemented his designs during a tiny window in time in the past, why did he limit himself so? How could he possibly know that other designs might not be needed (maybe advanced human fighters would be needed to fight aliens invading from outer space, for instance)? I mean how could this incredible designer know what will be needed millennia into the future?
  8. Provide a few dozen examples of designs and why they were needed to be the way they are to make the world work as it does. Please include a couple of virulent disease organisms, like the COVID-19 virus, on your list as that would be quite relevant at this time. Surely these are available if you have been studying this for decades as you insist.

C’mon now, fill out your “theory,” otherwise you are just whining about whether this or that was deliberately designed or not and not promoting an actual theory.

Why Science Hasn’t Stamped Out Religion

Filed under: Culture,Reason,Religion,Science — Steve Ruis @ 8:42 am
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I was reading a piece on the Vridar blog site and Neil Godfrey wrote this (in 2013): “Religion has not gone away since the end of the Europe’s religious wars and the ensuing Age of Enlightenment. Indeed, scientific advances and the rise of secularism may even be largely responsible for religious revivals.”

One part of the reasoning behind this statement jumped out at me. As opposed to science, religion puts no intellectual demands on its proponents. Scientists are asked to explain themselves, and argue, and think . . . really, really hard. Religionists, to the contrary, are given warm “There, theres” and are not asked to think. They are not expected to answer or ask questions. They do not have a final arbiter of what is right and wrong as natural scientists have in nature.

As a college professor, I saw a great many students over the years, almost all of whom had selected a major course of study. Since the science courses I taught were not something that other students took to meet a breadth requirement or “for fun,” I tended to see the same types of students. And didn’t encounter students who were majoring in far flung intellectual pursuits. But I did meet and work with colleagues from all over the college. And one could see clear divides in those folk according to their chosen fields of study.

For one, there is a simple dichotomy between scientists and non-scientists that breaks along the lines of, what should I call it . . . social skills (?). Science types, often referred to as “geeks,” often lacked social skills one could observe elsewhere and it is my opinion that science attracts people with poorer social skills because the topic addresses and studies things and not people. (Things can be pinned down, people are inconsistent, variable, and often cantankerous.) Study science and you have fewer people to deal with and more things/facts/etc. (Yes, I know these are broad characterizations. There are many, many exceptions. I myself am a scientist who is suave as hell and comfortable in the company of a wide strata of society. And I need a tongue-in-cheek emoji here.)

Another fault line between scientists and non-scientists is math. To learn math, you must master, to some extent, abstract thinking. This makes a clear line between those who faired well in math (I wasn’t that good, just persistent.) and those who did not.

So, to make an argument or address a problem scientifically, you have to pull non-science types into a realm in which complex arguments, math, and foundational knowledge all are involved in complicated fashions. (Look at how complex environmental issues are often described with simplistic and, at root, misleading explanations. Global atmospheric warming was attributed to the Greenhouse Effect and greenhouses work primarily by not allowing warm gases to escape the house. This is not the mechanism of climate change as we are experiencing it now.)

On the other side of this divide, the religionists are told “There, there . . . all will be well” and other nonsense like “The blood of Christ will protect you in the pandemic.” (The latter led me to wonder where I can get me some of that shit.) It may be nonsense, but it is simple nonsense, making no intellectual demands and offering many reassurances, albeit vacuous ones.

I do not claim that all of this plays out consciously through free will. In general I think most of us drift in the currents of our lives (me, especially). But those unable to accept the complexity of real problems set in a real nature are subject to those more than willing to provide fantasy solutions set in a fantastic nature which are less demanding. All you need is faith and there are no real tests of that any more.

May 27, 2020

Evidence and Interpretation

Filed under: Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 11:42 am
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In the ongoing dialogue between young theists and atheists on sites like Quora, hordes of young theists seem to being educated by atheists about atheism. (Trust me, you don’t want them to be ask church officials such questions, as there is no upside, nor any good information to be had.)

Regarding the existence of god(s) questions, atheists are often asking for “evidence” for their existence and then having to explain what evidence is. I guess I only hope that the questioners are young, otherwise our education system has done a lousy job of establishing what objective evidence is.

In any case, I am reading a book by a respected archeologist of early Palestine and he is trying to make an argument for wider spread literacy than is usually assumed, for early in the first millennium BCE.

At one point he uses as evidence of widespread literacy, the labeling of storage jars with the name of the owner, and possibly use of the contents. So, labels like “Property of XYZ” in the form of “Belonging to Zadoc” were found. One such showing name and use comes from the 8th century and is “Belonging to Matanyāhū; wine for libation; one fourth.” Since archeological finds are more trustworthy than written stories, one is inclined to follow the clay shards, rather than follow the texts, but all archeological finds have to be interpreted.

Consider some far off future archeologist who is excavating places in Texas and finds a buried but well preserved mansion. In it he finds a room that looks much like a library with piles and piles of decayed books in it. From this the archeologist interprets the find as representing a mansion of a “learned, well-read man.” Apparently the archeologist hadn’t heard of rich assholes who build mansions with libraries, full of expensive and rare books as a sign of their wealth, yet hadn’t read a book in their life.

So, if a man had his name inscribed upon his wine jars (a process which turned out to be by using a chisel after the jar was fired, so a very delicate process), what can we hypothesize?
• the owner was worried about local theft
• the owner was vain and wanted everyone to know how much wine he owned
• it was a thing he heard other wealthy people did and he was a wannabe.
I am sure you can come up with more. But can we assume that the owner of said jug was literate? How about the carver of the jugs? I don’t think you can assume either was literate. The wealthy jug owner may have been shown what his name looked like when written, maybe he could even write his name. The carver may have been given the text on an ostracon for him to duplicate, much as he might carve a hand into a relief carving.

Can we assume all of the traders and merchants who might receive or buy these containers are literate? I can imagine many scenarios in which a merchant receiving a shipment of such wines, making a chalk mark on them identifying them in his mind without being able to read any labels.

The libation wine container . . . , well libations are performed by religious officials or people empowered to make them. Technically one could pour some wine on a home altar all by oneself, but this is a rather larger jug. So, would rural religious officials be readers and writers? Their training may have included this, so it is more likely. It is likely that a village prelate could be called upon to read and write for the people in his village. But that doesn’t equate to widespread literacy.

In this country, you were considered literate at one point of you could “make your mark.” So, if you were asked to sign a contract or sign a voters roll and you scrawl an “X” on the dotted line, you were considered literate. (And this is one of the reasons why we then and now have witnesses of such signings.) So, people who could not even write their own name were considered literate at one point. The definition of who was literate changed as the populace became better and better educated. The definition in the context of the book was roughly “could people read and/or write a simple letter.” There are enough of these letters that have been found to indicate a rather wider spread literacy than is often assumed, but still all of the evidence needs to be interpreted. A letter written by a soldier, is that evidence of widespread literacy, or was the writer the “company clerk” for his military unit? What about the elites? Were they literate or did they hire scribes to read and write for them.

We have enough stories from the business computer revolution in the 1980’s and 1990’s of company executives who were functionally illiterate. They couldn’t type. They couldn’t spell. They certainly couldn’t use computers. And some couldn’t read.. One exec who could barely read but who showed well-developed coping skills always asked a subordinate at meetings to “summarize” the issue for all of the people at the table. That memos and summaries had been circulated prior to the meeting were irrelevant and the boss was lauded for having a human touch. (Nice summary, Bill. Does everyone agree? Okay, what do we do now . . .”)

This doesn’t mean that there weren’t people who could read and write in many, many places but it also doesn’t establish that there was widespread literacy.

One such clue as to there being widespread literacy would be the discovery of schools that children or adults attended to learn how to read and write. Ostracons and tablets with what appear to be lessons performed upon them have been discovered but in most cases they were thought to represent the work of students in scribal schools, not widespread evidence of homework being done by the bulk of the population. (Would scribes be needed in places with widespread literacy? Probably as scribes did more than just “take dictation.”)

This is not the only evidence of wider spread literacy at that time and in that place, so I am not talking about his conclusion, but the mere fact that evidence has to be interpreted and that is a dicey thing. I think of some future archeologist excavating our “landfills,” aka dumps, to learn more about the people who lived in Chicago. He is puzzled to find millions upon millions of plastic bags with dog poop in them and speculated as to what sort of bizarre religion those Chicagoans must have had. Were they dog worshipers, preserving even the feces of their gods? Hmmm . . . is great puzzlement!

 

May 16, 2020

Oh, Boy, I Never Thought of This Before

Filed under: History,Philosophy,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:31 am
Tags: , ,

Like many of you I have been binge watching things available on cable TV services. I ran across a British series, Quark Science, on Amazon Prime that I have been enjoying, and even learned a thing or two. The episode I watched last night was on entropy and chaos theory and as they went into explaining chaos theory, I had quite a string of revelations.

For those of you who haven’t considered chaos theory it basically describes systems with multiple parts that contain feedback, which is basically all natural systems, and that such systems are inherently chaotic in that they cannot be predicted. The reason being is that they are very sensitive to the “initial conditions” and minor variations in those initial conditions affect substantially the final outcome. This is where the “Butterfly Effect” inherent in the question “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” comes from (and all of its other variants over the years).

In any case, I had a number of revelations from this excursion through science for the people.

#1 Chaos theory explains why determinism isn’t a possibility. In the centuries long free will debates there is often a road block in the form of the question as to whether we live in a deterministic universe, or not. If we actually live in a “clockwork universe” are all of our choices determine by stimuli and responses that are perfectly predictable? If we do live in a deterministic universe, then free will is an illusion. We are just robots responding to the stimuli we receive. Well, chaos theory shows us that we cannot live in a deterministic universe, because minor variations in any system can produced vastly different outcomes.

#2 Predicting the future is not possible. Since determinism isn’t possible, there is no basis, no cause-effect chain, that allows predicting of the future. As ancient people, we were obsessed with predicting the future. The reason was if you could predict what was going to happen, you could protect yourself from adverse changes and take advantage of the others. The Romans, for example, were very interested in Judaism because of their written records of prophecies (and their claims of accuracy). Chaos theory explains why weather prediction is about as good as it will get right now.

#3 Emergent properties make a lot more sense now. Emergent properties are properties that break any and all causal relationships established before then emerged. Chaos theory makes these more understandable.

#4 Chaos theory explains why the universe is the way it is. The laws of physics describe a transition during the Big Expansion of the universe, aka “The Big Bang,” from its initial almost all energy state to the formation of particles and then atoms. Those laws indicate that there should have been equal amounts of matter and anti-matter created. But our universe is almost all matter . . . where is all the antimatter? Why the asymmetry between the creation of matter and antimatter? The scenario goes like this: as the particles formed, there would be equal amounts of matter and anti-matter which would self-annihilate and produce light and so the universe would become an expanding sphere of light, The End. But the data show that a part per billion excess of matter over anti-matter would yield the universe we know now. In that scenario, the particles would form and the matter and anti-matter particles would annihilate, producing an immense flask of light (later to become the Cosmic Background Radiation) but a part per billion concentration of matter would be left over, enough to create all of the stars, planets and galaxies in the universe.

But where could a 1 ppb difference between the two forms of matter come from? Well, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and chaos theory almost guarantee these two forms would not be created in exactly equal amounts, and voila! (Note To grasp the size of a part per billion, take quite a large swimming pool and fill it with pinto beans. Then throw in one black bean. Stir. The concentration of black beans in the mixture is roughly 1 ppb.)

Interestingly, we don’t really know which form of matter survived. We call the one that survived matter and the one that did not anti-matter, but since their properties are opposites of one another, we just really know they are opposites, not which one we have.

There is much, much more that the chaos theory helps clarify, such as the self-organization of matter and so on. All of these things fly, splat!, into the face of our limited thinking. Most of us, me included, are still immersed in the “clockwork universe” thinking we inherited from Victorians. We still think of the world around us as being mechanisms, complex mechanism for sure, but much like the gears and levers in a mechanical device. Scientists have passed beyond that previous view and moved on but many of the rest of us, me included, haven’t followed because thinking about such things is hard! Really hard.

But programs, or rather programmes, like Quark Science make them much, much easier to understand. I recommend the series to you.

And, since I am in speculation mode, I suspect that my clinging to the clockwork universe paradigm is an artifact of my education. As scientists we are taught classical sciences before we are taught “modern sciences.” Our early thinking patterns are determined by the paradigms of classical science. This is why we find the transition to modern science difficult. And, if one goes on to study ancient science, it is hard to learn also because they were thinking quite differently from how we think now.

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