Class Warfare Blog

October 23, 2018

Mommy, What’s an Atheist?

Filed under: Religion — Steve Ruis @ 11:29 am
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I was reading a book review in The New Yorker magazine, which included the following:

“(John) Gray, author of a new book on atheism, Seven Types of Atheism (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), taught at Oxford, Harvard, Yale, and the London School of Economics before turning full time to writing, starts his book by offering a highly provisional and idiosyncratic definition of atheist: “anyone with no use for a divine mind that has fashioned the world.’

I am always fascinated by systems of categorization, especially those involving numbers of “types.” The numbers rarely come out as “non-mystical,” they are almost always a seven, or three, or twelve. How come there aren’t 22 categories, or 17?

In any case, I found the definition of atheism a bit lacking: the definition in widespread use is rather simple: an atheist is anyone who does not believe in your god. In other words, the definition is personal.

Most Christians are fairly ignorant of the early history (or really any history) of the Christian churches. Prior to Christianity being adopted as a Roman religion (which preceded it being adopted as the Roman religion), Christians were often accused of atheism because of their refusal to worship any of the Roman gods. As, I said, they lacked belief in “their god(s).”

A common trope of atheists is that we are all atheists, which according to my definition, we are. Ask any Jew or Christian or Muslim whether they believe in Krishna or Ahura Mazda* or Odin and they will say “no.” To any worshippers of those gods, they are therefore atheists. There are literally thousands of gods that have been created over our existence. (I have a list! Shut up, Senator McCarthy. But, yes, I do have a list, presumably incomplete, but with thousands of named gods on it.)

In the Bible, there is a clear history of the Israelites making the transition from polytheism to monotheism. No matter what the Bible says, it also says that Jews worshipped more than one god until about the sixth century BCE.

One of the questions addressed by the reviewer in The New Yorker piece was “Why are Americans still uncomfortable with atheism?” Quite a few points were thrown on the table to establish why this is still a question, but they left off one of the most important: the unrelenting campaign by fundamentalist Christians vilifying atheists.

I often ask folks who make disparaging statements about atheists: Do you know any? And, “How well do you know them?” Most of these folks do not have any atheist friends or acquaintances, at least that they are aware of. So, they have no basis for their opinion, other than what they have been taught. What they have been taught is that there is no morality without their god and their god’s punishments for infractions of its rules.

Currently it is well known that a Muslim apostate (someone who was formerly a believer but is no longer) is marked for death. The penalty for apostasy in Islam is death. So, it was in Christianity also. Many of the penalties for rules infractions in the Old Testament are death. Of course, many Christians say that their god is nor love and those old rules no longer apply. That may be so, But I notice all of their Bibles still have the OT in them and, well, there are six states in the U.S. that still have blasphemy laws on their books (Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wyoming).

Theists are taught that atheists are not to be trusted, that we are amoral and a danger to their way of life. Surely this is part of the reason that atheists are trusted less in the U.S. than any other identity group.

So, how do you define atheist? And, really, does it matter? If you are going to smear someone you barely or entirely do not know, do you care whether the epithet is accurate? Do you care if you actually understand that person at all? Or should you just blaze away rhetorically and legally until the danger is vanquished? (And is the danger to you personally, or to your god technician’s job?)

* Zoroastrians believe in one God, called Ahura Mazda (meaning ‘Wise Lord’). He is compassionate, just, and is the creator of the universe. Ahura Mazda is:
Omniscient (knows everything)
Omnipotent (all powerful)
Omnipresent (is everywhere)
Impossible for humans to conceive
Unchanging
The Creator of life
The Source of all goodness and happiness.

Sound familiar?

August 6, 2017

Why Is Donald Trump Still So Horribly Witless About the World?

Filed under: Politics — Steve Ruis @ 12:01 pm
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The New Yorker magazine currently is running an article with the above title.

Here are a few representative quotes within that article that show the tenor of the article:

“Trump has an appalling ignorance of the current world, of history, of previous American engagement, of what former Presidents thought and did,” Geoffrey Kemp, who worked at the Pentagon during the Ford Administration and at the National Security Council during the Reagan Administration, reflected. “He has an almost studious rejection of the type of in-depth knowledge that virtually all of his predecessors eventually gained or had views on.”

“He’s impatient, decision-oriented, and prone to action. It’s all about the present tense. When he asks, ‘What the hell’s going on in Iraq?’ people around him have learned not to say, ‘Well, in 632 . . . ’ ” (That was the year when the Prophet Muhammad died, prompting the beginning of the Sunni-Shiite split.*)

“’The sheer scale of his lack of knowledge is what has astounded me—and I had low expectations to begin with,’” David Gordon, the director of the State Department’s policy-planning staff under Condoleezza Rice, during the Bush Administration….

The authors seem puzzled by the fact that Mr. Trump hasn’t gotten, well, better. (If one were to ask Mr. Trump that I wonder whether he would say he had gotten better as that would imply he had been worse at some point.)

This is not puzzling to me. If you or I were faced with an important foreign policy issue in such a position (gulp!) we would want to learn as much about the problem as we could because any solution we might create, or choose from those proffered, is bound to fail and possibly make things work if it doesn’t address the real problem, rather than the fictious one we have made up in its stead.

This is why most presidents got better and better at digesting the information they were given as their tenure proceeded.

Mr. Trump, on the other hand, does not think that way. His world is really quite small (as is his intellect, moral core, etc.). My guess is that he has very capable people on retainer and they are ordered to solve problems in the manner depicted above and if they do not, they are fired and another is given the chance. I have never heard Mr. Trump’s creativity lauded or his problem solving skills, etc. I suggest they are nonexistant.

When Mr. Trump is presented with a problem, the focus is on himself. How can this be turned to my advantage? How can this make me look good? His thoughts do not run toward solutions and information that may provide them, that is for minions to do. Mr. Trump is always taking the “big picture” and the largest element in that picture is “Mr. Trump.” To expect otherwise is inverted magical thinking.

April 25, 2017

Wrestling the Unconscious (and Losing)

Filed under: Science — Steve Ruis @ 10:44 am
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In a review of an author’s first nonfiction piece (Cormac McCarthy Explains the Unconscious by Nick Romeo, April 22, 2017) in The New Yorker magazine, we are treated to a review of a serious attempt to address the unconscious mind by someone immersed in language, Cormac McCarthy.

I have yet to read the original article (I will) but a number of comments by the reviewer struck me and I will comment on them. here are three paragraphs snatched from that review:

“His title references a famous eureka moment in the history of science: after years of thought and research, the nineteenth-century German chemist August Kekulé claimed that he hit upon the ring-like structure of the benzene molecule after he dreamed of a snake eating its own tail. McCarthy calls this ‘the Kekulé Problem’ because it’s unclear why the unconscious supplied a non-linguistic solution to the puzzle of the molecule’s configuration. Since the unconscious would have to understand language to grasp the problem in the first place, why wouldn’t it furnish a solution in the same medium? McCarthy generalizes the quandary, asking, ‘Why is the unconscious so loathe to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter.’

“His answer—which, he says, appeared in a sort of Kekulé moment of its own, as a sudden epiphany while he was emptying the trash one morning—is that the unconscious is ‘just not used to giving verbal instructions and is not happy doing so. Habits of two million years duration are hard to break.’ The description of the unconscious as ‘not happy’ with language—as, in fact, ‘loathe to speak to us’—is not an isolated lapse into intentional language: throughout the essay, McCarthy personifies the unconscious as an ancient and inscrutable agent with its own desires and talents.

“McCarthy knows that some of this might sound eccentric. After declaring that the unconscious labors ‘under a moral compulsion to educate us,’ he inserts a parenthetical anticipating a dubious reader. ‘(Moral compulsion? Is he serious?).’ McCarthy doesn’t think the unconscious is interested in micromanaging our affairs, but he does seem to seriously believe that it has a broad interest in our wellbeing. The unconscious, he writes, ‘wants to give guidance to your life in general, but it doesn’t care what toothpaste you use.’”

I tend to agree that the subconscious abilities of our brains eschew the use of words and numbers. But studies do show that there is some understanding of things expressed in words and numbers by our unconscious.

McCarthy’s fixation on “Since the unconscious would have to understand language to grasp the problem in the first place, why wouldn’t it furnish a solution in the same medium?” is misplaced, however. For one Kekulé was investigating the behavior of the chemical compound benzene specifically with regard to the shape of its molecules. So, his problem was geometric and not verbal. (We can forgive McCarthy this misunderstanding as its logic is probably of interest only to chemists.) So, basically the subconscious offered up a spatial option for a spatial problem.

Next, the image of a snake biting its tail is an archetype one can find embedded in cultures all over the world. Actually believing that snakes bite their tales and then roll around as a form of locomotion was taking things a bit too far, but this image is common enough that we have a term for it: ouroboros (see image).

May the circle be unbroken, by and …

And what McCarthy and more scientific researchers seem to ignore, possibly because it may be an insoluble problem, is how many times this image comes up in our dreams (day or night) and which then is rapidly forgotten. In my callow youth I kept a dream log. I learned a few things from it, namely that dreams are mostly rubbish, outtakes from a cornucopia of images we have stored, but also that they take almost no time to deliver. One time I remember falling asleep looking at a bedside clock and then having this very long, convoluted dream that switched locales so fast as to be breath taking. I then woke up with a start to see than only about five minutes of real time had elapsed. These dream episodes happen several times a night and the only ones we seem to remember are the last ones, which fade rapidly unless some effort is made to reinforce them. I no longer reinforce them, so I remember dreams 1-2 times per year at most.

So, consider the thousands of dreams I have had over the last year that have been forgotten. Since they seem to be snippets of images already stored in memory, I suppose they haven’t been forgotten, but there was nothing “new” about them as they were mishmashes of old images. Kekulé was struggling mightily with a problem involving the shape of a molecule and in the ongoing slideshow that was his dreams, an ouroboros pops up and this is latched onto by his conscious mind. He takes that and runs with it.

Did his subconscious really “solve” his problem for him? Is our conscious mind “under a moral compulsion to educate us?” Or is it just throwing up a slide show of images because your conscious mind has been engrossed in that topic? Or does the conscious mind filter out all of the rubbish and sift out the images because we are interested in something like at the moment?

The answers are: we do not know, we do not know (but highly doubt our subconscious has a morality), we do not know, and we do not know. The speculations of philosophers, authors, neuroscientists and the like are all grist for the mill but we still do not know the answers to those questions and their like. We are just beginning to find out. We now know that the subconscious processes of our brains use the same circuitry for the same purposes as do our conscious minds (the visual cortex for processing and storing images, the auditory cortex for processing and storing sounds, etc.). That seemed logical to assume, but now we know.

Since so much of our lives is governed by subconscious mental processing (a majority I believe) it is high time we learned more about it.

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