Class Warfare Blog

September 7, 2019

Beware of Throw Away Lines

I am working my way through Daniel Dennett’s book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking and I encountered this:

Live is amazing. When you think of the billions of solar systems that are most certainly lifeless, it is amazing that there is any way of being alive at all. (Chapter 38)

Now, Daniel Dennett is my favorite philosopher, possibly because he eschews the normal jargon rich representations of philosophers for ordinary language, thereby becoming a public intellectual, with all of the negatives that are associated with that position. So, I am not sure why he was saying such a stupid thing.

He seems better educated and more knowledgeable than I, and I am sure he is aware of the basic facts. There are now estimated to be about two trillion galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars. This means that there are at least  200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 “solar systems” or thereabouts. Of these, we have explored exactly one and that one only partially. So far,

Solar Systems Explored = 1 (kinda sorta)
Solar Systems Which Contain Life =1

I call that a 100% hit rate. This means “not rare,’ “not uncommon,” “not unusual,” etc. so far anyway.

Will life prove to be rare elsewhere or not, that is whether life can be found in other solar systems, is entirely unknown. Not only that but we don’t have a way of expanding our knowledge much at all. Even were we to develop the technology to explore other solar systems in our neighborhood of our galaxy, we would still have a very parochial sampling. Other galaxies are, well, far, far away.

Q: So, is life rare? A: We do not know.

Q: Will we encounter life on other planets? A: We do not know.

Q: Will billions of solar systems found to be lifeless? A: We do not know.

We suspect that with 200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 solar systems a few billion (0.00000000000000001% or so) might be lifeless, certainly, but that does not warrant “When you think of the billions of solar systems that are most certainly lifeless it is amazing that there is any way of being alive at all.” because one could also, based upon probabilities, say “When you think of the billions of solar systems that are most certainly full of life. . . .”

This was a throwaway line, a poor one at that, used to make life sound as if it were unusual (and, as always, us special).

Q: So, is life unusual? A: We do not know, but certainly not on this planet.

 

April 8, 2019

Belief in Belief

I am working my way through Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett, one of my favorite philosophers. In that book he discusses “belief in belief” meaning that people exhibit the belief that believing in a god is very important but the details (which god, which way, etc.), not as much. (I always answer the question “Do you believe in god?” with “Which one?” The question “Do you believe in God?” is more often Do you believe in my god? or Do you believe in a god?) And Dennett claims that as time has gone on, more religions are requiring less belief and more professing, that is as a member of a church, you are to profess A, B, C, etc. whether you believe them or not (although they prefer you would believe them). They are requiring belief less and behavior more.

I have been thinking about this damned topic for at least 60 years and I am reaching some interesting positions, namely:

  • Since belief in belief is so important and possibly innate, we have therefore created gods by the bushel, to have foci for our beliefs.
    Joseph Campbell, another of my intellectual heroes, states “The gods are personifications of the energies that inform life—the very energies that are building the trees and moving the animals and whipping up the waves in the ocean. The very energies that are in your body are personified as gods. They are alive and well in everybody’s life. Most traditions realize this—that deities are personifications, not facts. They are metaphors. They are not references to anything you can put your finger on, or your eye on.”
  • People profess a belief in god as a social marker to proclaim “I am a good person, you can trust me.”
    This is why if you do not profess to believe in a god, you are proclaiming that you are not trustworthy (and are therefore scary, and eat babies, etc.).
  • Since people are basically confined in religious geographical regions (your religion is determined by where you were born) most people do not encounter “others” in any quantity, we are “normal” and they are not.
  • Religions have no incentive to help people understand other religions, as it might lose them dues paying members.
    In fact, they have an incentive to demonize, vilify, obfuscate, etc. those other religions. There is, therefore, very little understanding of those “other” religions or even denominations of the same religion (Protestant fundamentalists argue that Catholics are not “true Christians.”)
  • A consequence of science contradicting religious claims from antiquity, is that deities are becoming more and more vague/amorphous.
    Some of the religious-minded claim human minds cannot know their god. (How they can know their god and “all people” so well is not discussed.) Some call their god the “ground of all being” . . . WTF? This is not a drawback for the religions as the “mystery” sells well.
  • Arguing over proofs of the existence of a god or gods (one of my past preoccupations) is futile because almost everyone has their own definition and very, very few of them are well defined.
    There are more people who believe in belief than who believe in a god and the number of gods, historically, is immense. The idea of their god is so amorphous it is hard for any believer to accept that any argument you might make would apply to their god.
  • In the U.S. surveys show that American women are more religious than American men, substantially so.
    Since a simple characterization of a god as someone/something who watches over you and protects you (makes rules protecting you, etc.), this seems a logical consequence. Women are subject to more threats than are men.
  • As the science fiction/fantasy tales portray, we give gods power by believing in them.
    When people stop believing, those gods fade from memory and become “myths.” They sure as hell were not myths when people believed in them, serious actions were made at their “direction.”

As Voltaire is claimed to have said “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” “He” does not, so “we” did . . . over and over and over.

I conclude with another quote from Joseph Campbell “(T)here are only two ways to misunderstand a myth and our civilization has managed to do both. One is to think that the myth refers to a geographical or historical fact—Jesus rose from the dead, Moses got the law at the top of a mountain, that sort of thing. The other is to think that the myth refers to a supernatural fact, or an actual event, that’s going to happen in the future—the resurrection of Jesus, or the second coming. Our whole religious tradition is based upon these two misunderstandings. (. . .) It’s a terrible tragedy. These misunderstandings of our myth have caused us to lose the vocabulary of the spirit.”

I can only add that there is a benefit to this situation to those who wish to enrich themselves alone, to those who think an economic system is a competitive playground, rather than a way to enrich everyone’s lives. People who see trees as something to cut down and sell only or coal as something to dig and burn with no consequences. “It is a terrible tragedy.”

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