Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Admittedly Irrational Vitriol Directed At Macintosh

(This post assumes computer literacy -- if your familiarity with computers extends to "the Yahoo" and "the Google," you probably won't get much out of it.)

I've always been a Microsoft guy. Sure, I was an early adopter of OS/2 back in the day, and over the years I've had some Unix experience, and nearly everyone I love is a Mac user, but it's always been DOS and then Windows for me. Ultimately, it comes down to thoroughness of documentation.

Macintosh has historically been a completely closed platform. Growing up, I never understood how it was possible for someone who wasn't an Apple employee to become a Mac developer; it seemed like there was 1 Mac programming book on the market for every 200 Windows programming books, and that 1 Mac book was always out of print. This was prior to mass adoption of the Internet, too, so newsgroups and wikis weren't available to help. From the perspective of a young coder looking for a place to hang out, MacOS was a boarded-up storefront guarded by smelly homeless dudes, and Windows was a rockin' nightclub full of hot chicks and no bouncers.

To add insult to injury, Mac users tended to have this bizarre chip on their shoulder about the technical inferiority of Windows. "Everything good about Windows was ripped off from the Mac," they would sneer. The fact that there was some truth to this claim made it sting even worse.

Now that the last two years have seen an unprecedented explosion in Macintosh popularity, it's time to hoist those bastards on their own petard.

Imagine what the reaction from the Mac community (and the Linux community -- if Windows were black, Slashdot's logo would be an animated GIF of a burning cross) would be if Microsoft released their next-generation operating system, and it was just their own GUI shell running over Linux. Sure, there would be a few proprietary libraries and API shims to ensure backward compatibility with existing Windows apps, but the "next generation" was just their own frosting applied to someone else's cake. It would be like the end of the Cold War. Open source had finally torn down the Berlin Wall, and the evil empire of Capitalist Coding had finally collapsed under the weight of its own technical inferiority. Goateed graphic designers would be dancing in the streets.

Make no mistake, this is exactly what Apple did with Mac OS X. They scrapped decades of intellectual property (in both hardware and software!) in favor of becoming a game company, which is essentially what they are now. They produce one game, called "Figure out how the fuck to make Linux usable, with maybe some neat translucence effects." They finally wrote that Flight Simulator interface for the Mach kernel that the prepubescent blond girl was navigating at the end of Jurassic Park.

And yet, all this has only increased the Mac cachet. "Everything just runs so smoothly on Mac OS X," people marvel. Yeah -- because somebody else besides Apple wrote the operating system! It's a lot easier to use an existing threading model to write a responsive GUI than it is to implement your own preemptive thread scheduler.

Apple's decision to take this route should provide some insight into what a clusterfuck of spaghetti code the real MacOS kernel must have been. When it costs more money to simply document and improve your existing product than it does to throw it away entirely and prettify someone else's, you know you have an absolute cesspool of technical inferiority on your hands -- a coding abortion clinic.

The one consequence of the increase in Mac popularity that I absolutely can't wait for is the corresponding proliferation of Mac-only malware. Another historical shoulder-chip with the Mac crowd has been, "At least with my Mac, I don't have to worry about all the viruses and Trojan horses and spyware that you Windows guys do." Yeah, that's because malware authors tend to target platforms with more than eight users. Nobody's ever written a virus for IBM mainframes, either, but it's not because OS/390 is such a great operating system -- it's because there are only a few thousand IBM mainframes in the entire world. As soon as Mac OS X hits the 10% mark of consumer OS market share (which I agree they probably will), we'll see an explosion in Mac-only viruses, and it'll be as devastating to that market as tuberculosis was to the Aztecs. Merry Christmas, Symantec!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Atheism Essay: "Revitalizing the Betamax of the Soul"

People have been wondering where I've been for the last month. I've been working on the following essay, now published in nine parts.

Revitalizing the Betamax of the Soul

Part 1: Introduction and the First Three Points
Part 2: Atheist Soup Kitchens
Part 3: The Faithful Atheist and the Rationalist Credo
Part 4: A Spiritual Selsun Blue
Part 5: Epissedemology
Part 6: Voices In Your Head Are Generally Less Reliable Than Voices Outside Your Head
Part 7: Worship, Communism, Stop Signs, Dinesh D'Souza, and Mike
Part 8: Consciousness and the Spirit Hypothesis
Part 9: What's Your Question, Caller?


RtBotS, Part 9 of 9: What’s Your Question, Caller?


In the course of this essay I have strayed a few times from my stated goal. I started out criticizing the Four Horsemen for thinking that debating is the same as marketing, but I ended up making a number of points that would be much more at home in a debate than in a sales flyer. Indeed, there are a lot more points I’d love to make, but they are so explicitly debate-style that I can’t justify including them in this ostensibly market-focused essay. But my own struggle with trying to avoid debate points has actually helped me clarify my thinking about the core lessons that atheists need to learn to improve their marketing.

Although it seems strange to say, atheists can’t help but feel a certain intellectual kinship with the most extreme religious fundamentalists. This is because the one quality they both share is an inability to look at the world in more than one way. For religious fundamentalists, their holy book of choice is the only perspective from which they willingly view the world; all others are automatically suspect. For atheists, the Rationalist Credo is the only perspective from which they willingly view the world; all others are automatically suspect. Does this make atheists guilty of dogmatic thinking? Maybe, but only in a very technical, unuseful way: any dogma explicitly mandating unyielding skepticism of dogma is less harmful than a dogma that doesn’t.

This is the basic problem that atheists run up against when trying to convert religious moderates. Religious moderates do not suffer from the same cognitive disease that atheists and their fundamentalist “brethren” do – moderates are capable of effortlessly switching from one worldview to another, depending on which part of the world is being viewed at the time. Religious moderates are not only capable of thinking dualistically, but capable of doing so without effort or conscious awareness.

It seems to me that atheists spend so much time debating because, according to their world view, that’s how people arrive at the truth. I think a moment’s thought should vindicate the notion that if a fervent religious believer also accepted rational argument as the only way to arrive at truth, they would eventually arrive at atheism under their own power, without any help from us. Debates are only marginally successful at converting religious believers to atheism because only a marginal proportion of religious believers are predisposed to treat the debating process with the same respect that atheists do.

Part of the reason for this is that, for most people, their concept of debating and rational argument is anchored in their understanding of law and the justice system. In legal circles, two parties debate as a way of arriving at a winner and a loser. In intellectual circles, two parties debate as a way of arriving at the truth. It is a truism that the legal system is flawed – that guilty people with sufficiently skilled lawyers can go free, and innocent people saddled with incompetent public defenders can find themselves on death row. Our legal system’s reliance upon and publicizing of the debate format has drilled into most people’s heads the idea that debates are anything but a foolproof avenue to truth. A dualistic religious believer who is presented with many otherwise convincing atheist arguments in a debate could easily invoke this truism to justify their gut-level rejection of those arguments.

Another example of how dualistic thinking poses a hurdle for atheism is the word “science.” To most atheists, and all scientists, “science” is just a process – it’s a reliable process for how to find things out. (Just as free-market advocates define capitalism as simply the best way thus far discovered to efficiently distribute wealth, science is defined as simply the best way thus far discovered to convert unknown things into known things.) To the general public, though, “science” isn’t a process, it’s a subject they had to study in school. People with the proper understanding of science know that its methods can be applied to find out about many subjects – meteorology, anatomy, economics, history, grammar, business, even drama – but the popular impression is that science is somehow different from all those other subjects. When a person with such a dualistic understanding is told that the choice is between “God and science,” they cannot be blamed for thinking, “Oh really? Why not God versus geometry? Why not God versus criminal justice? Where do these scientists get off?” Conversely, when dualists say things like “God and science are not mutually exclusive,” the implicit assumption is that “science” will stay confined to the same buckets as they learned in school – cells and magnets and igneous rocks – and will leave alone their understanding of more immediate, practical matters like comparison shopping, automotive maintenance, politics, or romantic love.

Richard Dawkins has stated that his preferred approach to spread atheism is to convince people of the truth of evolution, which does not require God, and then use their acceptance of evolution as a stepping stone to dismissing God. The problem with this is that dualist religious moderates are perfectly capable of compartmentalizing their acceptance of evolution in the “science” category, without bothering to apply any of its insights to what they’ve compartmentalized in their “spirituality” category. Dualistic thinkers do indeed seek consistency and coherence in their beliefs, but only within the various mental buckets they’ve designated – they don’t seem to reliably take the next step and require consistency and coherence across all those buckets.

What this tells me is that the most effective approach to dealing with religious moderates must take dualism into account. It is not enough for atheists to structure their arguments to point out inconsistencies and incoherences across mental buckets, since dualists are essentially immune to such an attack. They must structure their arguments to find inconsistencies and incoherences within individual mental buckets, since those are the kinds of flaws that even dualists are capable of detecting. I’d like to think that the better parts of this essay are better because they adhere more closely to this principle.

The other central message I’d like atheists to extract from this piece is the importance of making a distinction between religious belief and the urge to worship. If the mindset we are up against can be defined entirely in epistemological terms, “faith,” “belief,” “knowledge,” “reason,” “rational,” “truth,” and so forth, then I think atheism has a fighting chance. But if the mindset we are up against is based on some kind of primal urge to worship, we’re in trouble. Don’t underestimate the power of such an urge; it’s the only thing that reconciles certain otherwise irreconcilable positions held by religious believers. (Which is a greater insult to the dignity of humanity: that our selves are nothing more than spiritless, worldly by-products of the large-scale computations performed by the hundreds of billions of neurons in our brains, or that we are intrinsically flawed spirits cursed at conception by an original sin we did not commit, doomed to seek redemption if we wish to achieve lasting happiness? I would say the latter is the greater insult, but since it is embedded in a belief system that offers religious believers someone to worship, they accept it without a problem.) I think more energy needs to be put into studying the relationship between worship and religion, and more time needs to be spent by atheists honing their approaches based on what that study yields.

If there is a God, isn’t His least appealing attribute His incessant hunger for worship? Isn’t that the one character flaw that essentially disqualifies Him from being worthy of worship? I would find an utterly indifferent God more compelling and awe-inspiring than one who cheerfully admits to being maniacally jealous on the first date. Jealousy makes His nature much closer to those of His intrinsically flawed, constantly sinning children than cosmic indifference would.

RtBotS, Part 8 of 9: Consciousness and the Spirit Hypothesis


(10) I want to revisit (1) because I fear I may have inadvertently violated one of my own rules, specifically (5e). By saying that the major reason religion is popular is that it purports to solve the problem of death (which I think everyone can agree is true), and by elsewhere implying that religion is a human invention (whose truth is debatable), I may have implied that a causal relationship exists there: that primitive man woke up 10,000 years ago and said, "Holy shit, the irrefutability of death is scary. Let's make up God!" I don't think that's how it went; to say that it was would be reaching the right conclusion for the wrong reason.

As evidenced by the tribal embrace of animism and shamanism, the idea of an afterlife, a spirit world, seems to have arisen first in human history, to be followed only later by the formalization of religious doctrines to help make sense of that spirit world (and its relationship to this one). This is an important clue to why religious believers have such a hard time entertaining the idea of a godless universe.

At first blush the idea of an afterlife seems natural and reasonable, because it lines up so cleanly with our own intuitive sense of existence. Even in day-to-day life, we feel a distinction between ourselves and our bodies. It seems self-evident that we must somehow be different from our bodies, since we feel, to a certain extent, encased inside them. We accept with barely a shrug that our bodies are made of cells and molecules and atoms, but we don't feel like we are made of anything. And it is this powerful feeling that leads to the idea of a soul, or a spirit, or a divine spark -- or, as scientists and philosophers prefer to call it, consciousness.

I am open to the possibility that consciousness really is a thing in its own right, a substance of some kind, for lack of a better word. There are plenty of unambiguously real things in nature that are unseen but whose effects can be observed -- gravity and X-rays, for instance. And if it turns out that consciousness could be found in pure form, it's not unreasonable to explore the possibility that it survives death. After all, the other substances that make up our bodies continue to exist even after we die.

For the sake of argument, let's assume that consciousness is its own thing -- that it, we, are our spirits, dwelling in our brains and driving our bodies around the way we drive our cars. This "spirit hypothesis" suggests that our motions and emotions, behaviors and thoughts, all originate from the spirit. Neuroscientists have used imaging technologies like fMRI to determine that different regions of the brain are actively involved in thinking, feeling, seeing, hearing, speaking, and moving. So this would suggest that the brain, while not the entity actually performing these tasks, is still intimately involved in them -- the brain is a conduit between the spirit and the rest of the body. It's the one physical organ that's capable of interacting directly with the spirit.

Under the spirit hypothesis, if neuroscientists say "the hippocampus is active during the formation of new long-term memories" or "the neocortex is involved in logical reasoning" or other similar claims about different regions of the brain, then this must mean that the hippocampus, neocortex, etc. are the knobs, dials, levers, and switches that the spirit manipulates in order to instruct the brain what to do. The spirit decides it wants to remember something, so it activates our hippocampus for us, and the memory is created. We can't directly observe the spirit, but we can infer its presence by watching the brain jump into action in response to its commands.

This hypothesis is not contradicted by neurological disorders like Parkinson's disease or cerebral palsy. The spirit knows what levers and switches in the brain to activate, but those levers and switches produce distorted or unintended outcomes due to the disease. The same goes for input limiters like blindness or deafness; the spirit would be capable of receiving visual or auditory stimulation, but the biological wiring required to pass that stimulation into the spirit is damaged.

However, a number of problems begin to arise with the spirit hypothesis as we delve deeper in. A major one is memory. We know memories accumulate in the brain (a process we can observe, but don't yet understand). The spirit hypothesis would suggest that memories also accumulate in the spirit; otherwise, we'd forget our entire lives the moment we die (which would make Judgment Day the celestial equivalent of Kafka's Trial). But if memories do accumulate in the spirit, why are they wiped out by Alzheimer's disease? We can see brain tissue dessicate and shrivel under the effects of Alzheimer's -- changes that would certainly explain why memories would be destroyed if they were stored only in the brain. But a fundamentally different type of substance, which is exactly what our hypothesis asserts "spirit" to be, should be totally untouched by such a merely biological problem, with its earthly viruses, cells, and molecules.

Mood disorders present another major challenge to the spirit hypothesis. If a clinically depressed man dies, is his spirit freed from the shackles of his depressed brain, or does his spirit continue to be depressed? I'm bipolar -- when I die, will my spirit continue being bipolar, or will it "revert to normal"? If depression and mania are intrinsic in the spirit, then why do so many pharmaceuticals effectively curb them? If depression and mania are external constraints imposed by an ailing brain on the spirit it contains, that indicates that much more of who we are resides in our brains than in our spirits; it violates the model proposed above in which the spirit is in control and the brain subservient to it. The machinery that supports the subjective experience of being conscious is split between the "master" and the "slave," making them peers, equal collaborators, in actual fact.

Does a mentally retarded person have a retarded spirit? Most people would say no -- their behavior is retarded because of deficiencies in the brain that limit the functions available for the spirit to manipulate. An analogy would be the difference between the same person switching from a vehicle with power steering and anti-lock brakes to one without those features. The capabilities of the driver/spirit are the same, but the quality of the driving differs due to the difference in vehicle/brain structure.

An interesting consequence of this argument is that it forces us to regard all animals as occupying the same moral plane as humans. Under the spirit hypothesis, how is a mentally retarded person different from a healthy rhinoceros? Both are alive, both are animals, but the structure of both their brains has deprived them both of the power of coherent speech. If popular spiritual morality leads us to think of a mentally retarded person as a fully healthy, intact, and capable spirit trapped inside an underpowered brain, on what basis can we not reach the same conclusion for a healthy rhinoceros? (Aside from arguing for pervasive animal rights, this also echoes the ethos of reincarnation.) If we decide to declare a priori that human brains host spirits but animal brains don't, then what are we to make of the fact that the differences between human and other brains are primarily of size, and not structure? Indeed, doesn't this violate one of the basic principles of the spirit hypothesis, that the brain's function is to enable interaction with the spirit? If the spirit hypothesis is valid, but we refuse to ascribe spirits to animals, then how do we explain the fact that animals also have brains? In that case, what are animals’ brains for?

Enough of this. I will stop pretending to advocate for the spirit hypothesis. There is plenty we don't know about how brains work, about what consciousness is, about the relationship between the two -- certainly enough that it would be churlish and closed-minded of me to flatly assert that the spirit hypothesis cannot be true. But as you can see, it has some major problems; it leads to conclusions that conflict strongly with both our scientific and intuitive understandings of the world. Fortunately, enough is known about the mind-body problem to suggest that there is a more likely explanation of consciousness than the spirit hypothesis: the computational theory of mind.

The computational theory of mind can be thought of as a sort of compromise between the spirit hypothesis and the biological realities mentioned in its preceding critique. It agrees with the spirit hypothesis that consciousness is in a fundamentally different category from other life processes. It disagrees with the spirit hypothesis that consciousness can exist without those other life processes.

To illustrate, think of walking. Don't think about any particular person walking; just think about the act of walking itself. In your mind, try to divorce the concept of "walking" from the concept of the "body" doing the walking. Is such "walking" real? Does such "walking" take place in the mundane world of cells and molecules and atoms? Of course it does. Yet no actual manifestation of "walking" can be found in the real world that does not depend on a body to do it. The same thing goes for the planet Earth, busily rotating around its axis. Rotation in general is real; the rotation of the Earth in particular is real. Yet it would occur to no one to wonder "Will the Earth's rotation continue to exist after the Earth no longer does?" Internal combustion is the same way; internal combustion exists, but specific instances of it will never be found outside of the engines that perform it. Motion and behavior are just as real as the people, planets, and engines that engage in them -- yet motion and behavior are not the same as the physical entities that engage in them, nor are their lifetimes independent of their engaging entities' lifetimes.

This almost gets at the essence of what I'm reaching for, but it still falls a tad short. A better example might be "the economy." No one has ever seen the economy, but no one doubts it exists. The economy is an epiphenomenon, a form of large-scale motion/behavior that arises spontaneously from the interaction of massive numbers of individual actors. Even though the state of the economy depends entirely on the billions of interactions among those millions of actors, we are still able to measure, monitor, and (occasionally, crudely) predict the economy's behavior based on its own characteristics, without having to examine the bank statements and credit card records of all the millions of people and businesses that constitute it. Consciousness has exactly the same relationship to the neurons in the brain. Would anyone suggest that the economy is actually a spirit that will live on after its constituents disappear?

The computational theory of mind makes two claims: first, that the purpose of the brain is to allow its host organism to make predictions about the future, and second, that the most reliable way nature has found to do that is through computation. (Humans stumbled across this principle of nature when they invented electronic digital computers.) The first claim does not necessarily mean "predicting the future" in the sense of prophecy or meteorology -- it means it in the sense of weighing behaviors against their possible outcomes. If I hear roaring on the savannah, I predict that a hunting expedition could get me eaten, so I'll spend the morning in my cave. If I tell my boss what I really think of him, I predict that my honesty could get me fired, so I'll keep my mouth shut. If I hear the sound of hundreds of small medium-density objects clanking rapidly against metal, I predict that my owner has just filled my bowl with puppy chow, so I'll get off my dog bed and go into the kitchen. Prediction is what brains are for, and computation is how the individual components of the brain have evolved to do it.

What we call "reasoning" is essentially recursive prediction: making predictions about how successful various methods of prediction will be. This self-reference is something that neuroscientistific evidence points to being a largely unintended consequence of increased brain size. This is why humans speak, write novels, produce films and television shows, exchange currency for goods and services, compose poetry, perform music, dance, and do calculus, while animals don't.

I was going to include "wage war" in that list, but strangely enough, it turns out that hive-based insects are our only cousins in the animal kingdom who do this as well. (That should show you where war falls on the ranked list of human achievements, no matter what Patton might have said.)


RtBotS, Part 7 of 9: Worship, Communism, Stop Signs, Dinesh D'Souza, and Mike


(9) The other major benefit of (5) above is that it provides an answer to the question posed (often sneeringly) by religious believers: "Don't you believe in anything?" Yes, we do: the Rationalist Credo. This effectively nullifies one of the more easily scored (although, paradoxically, less logically substantive) points against atheism, i.e. that atheism is a negative proposition rather than a positive one. "You aren't proposing an alternative belief; you're just proposing lack of belief." Wrong, for the reasons articulated above.

However, this does open up a new potential objection to atheism. I described the spiritual libido as a limitless wellspring of mental energy that can be expended solely through faith. This "urge to believe" is not quite the same thing as an "urge to worship." Belief and worship are different; the former can exist without the latter, but the reverse is not true. The object of belief does not have to be personified in any way, even in the abstract, but the object of worship does. While the Rationalist Credo can serve as a satisfactory object of belief, it would be silly to worship it. But if one of the reasons people purchase religion over atheism is to satisfy some innate drive to actually worship, and not merely believe, then (5) doesn't really advance our position at all.

The only thing that gives me hope in the face of this possibility is that there are already well-established religions that are based on belief without worship; one could argue this is the defining distinction between Eastern and Western religions. The Abrahamic faiths all revolve around a single anthropomorphic, personified, intentional God; Eastern religions revolve around disembodied philosophies. (Animism is an interesting hybrid, in which worship does indeed take place, but the objects of worship are the essences of natural objects and phenomena, like trees, rocks, weather, celestial objects, earthquakes, animals, and the like, many of which are not even animate, never mind anthropomorphic.)

I take this as evidence that the drive to worship someone arose more recently, and is therefore less potent, than the spiritual libido proposed in (5) above. I even have a conjecture about how it came about.

Imagine that there were a real flesh-and-blood person -- let's call him Mike -- who is good friends with every single human being on earth. Whatever your native tongue, he speaks it fluently. You and he go way back; sort of a childhood friend, college roommate, and next-door neighbor all rolled into one. If you were awakened at 2:30 on a Tuesday morning by frantic banging on your front door, and you opened it to find Mike standing there wondering if he could crash on your couch for a few days, you'd welcome him with open arms and spend the next six hours catching up with him (screw going back to bed, you can call in sick). And Mike has that exact same kind of relationship with Thai middle managers, Vietnamese rice farmers, Mexican truck drivers, Russian billionaires, Australian construction foremen, Yanomamo tribesmen, French Catholic priests, Alaskan fishermen, Dutch day-traders, Scottish university professors, Moroccan cab drivers, Samoan soccer players, Venezuelan factory workers, Italian barbers, Czech rock musicians, Iranian soldiers, Indonesian bellhops, and even Andy Dick.

Mike, if he existed, would have a very powerful effect on the social dynamics of the world. Strangers always warm up to each other more quickly if it turns out that they both have an acquaintance in common (assuming the common acquaintance is not an enemy to either). Mike would guarantee that any two people picked at random on the planet would have at least one person in common; not just a casual acquaintance, either, but a good friend. Enmity would have a much harder time developing in such a social dynamic (although I'm sure it would still manage occasionally). Mike's existence would essentially be a very useful mechanism for helping the world cohere.

The sociologist Robin Dunbar has proposed that there is an upper limit on the human mind's ability to keep track of stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is, and how each person relates to every other person. Dunbar's number, as it's known, has several proposed values, but the most widely accepted is 150. More colloquially, Dunbar's number is thought of as the size of one's "monkeysphere."

The monkeysphere is the set of people in whose lives you have some emotional investment. If someone beyond your monkeysphere dies, you might still end up at their funeral, but only at a monkeyspheric funeral are you guaranteed to cry. This is different from normal human compassion. Reading about a tornado that decimated the homes of a dozen people in Arkansas might elicit strong sympathy, but you won't hop on the next flight to Little Rock to help them rebuild unless they're in your monkeysphere.

A monkeysphere of 150 was probably fine for early humans, because structures of tribe and kin, coupled with high infant mortality and low life expectancy, meant that they could conceivably live out their entire lives without ever meeting more than 150 other people. But when people started settling in villages and then cities (thanks to agriculture and animal husbandry), the monkeysphere was potentially very small compared to the size of the groups in which people found themselves living.

Enter Mike. Or, since Mike can't ever really exist, God. It's my conjecture that worship of an anthropomorphic, personified, intentional God must have been a very useful mechanism for helping larger groups cohere -- just like Mike -- because God could serve as a unifying placeholder in the monkeyspheres of everyone in the group. Mike and God alike would occupy a single slot in everyone's monkeysphere, creating an automatic icebreaker between two strangers. This function is especially noticeable when listening to fundamentalist Christians talk about Jesus as if they're all on a first-name basis with him. "Yeah, Jesus and I go way back." "Oh, you know Jesus too?" Another potential enmity avoided, another group's unity reinforced.

This is not so hard to accept. Consider all those overweight, depressed, lower-income folks in Middle America who obsessively read gossip rags like People magazine, Us Weekly, etc. Those people, due to a paucity of satisfying relationships with people they actually know, have allocated monkeysphere slots to celebrities. (The monkeysphere-placeholder idea figures into politics, too: when pollsters ask "Which candidate would you rather have a beer with?" they're really asking "Which candidate would you willingly allocate a monkeysphere slot to?") The monkeysphere developed because of the need to track personal relationships, but with today's technology and social structures, it can be inhabited by people who, in a sense not literal but still very significant, are not real. (Oprah!)

So what, if anything, does this tell us about how we should improve atheism's marketing? Does it mean that we should try to elect some Atheist Mike to trot the globe, befriend everyone, live a good life, and happen to be an atheist? I think this would be a very bad idea, for the following reason.

One of the attacks that religious believers like to mount against atheism is that "atheistic regimes have done just as much, if not more, evil than have religious ones." One of Dinesh D'Souza's favorite rhetorical flourishes is to point out that the Salem witch trials and the Spanish Inquisition, so often held up as paragons of evil done in religion's name, had a total body count of 2,018, hundreds of years ago, whereas the Holocaust, Stalinist Russia, Pol Pot's Cambodia, and Kim Jong-Il's North Korea have, in our own lifetimes, killed tens of millions. If atheists insist on the genuinely pious among religious believers to be held responsible for the deaths committed in the name of religion, D'Souza says, then surely they cannot absolve themselves of the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Jong-Il.

(This has inspired an exchange in several debates that I'd like to comment on, but first I want to circle back to the whole Atheist Mike/monkeysphere thing and make my main point.)

Every corporate CEO will tell you that there is a big difference between firing someone and merely laying him off. In one case, the position still exists, to be given to someone else; in the other, it is eliminated altogether. With atheism, either way God is out of a job. The key distinction is that it's ethically harmless when this is done by eliminating the position entirely, but I concede that it does have the potential to be quite ethically harmful when it is done by merely firing God and replacing him with some earthbound figure. Stalin, Pol Pot, and Kim Jong-Il militated not for the layoff, but for the firing, to pave the way for their own ascension to God's old job. That's what allowed those evils to take place. (In Jong-Il's case that is literally true; as Christopher Hitchens enjoys pointing out, North Korea is a "necrocracy," in which the head of state is Kim Jong-Il's long-dead father; the son is merely the head of the country's only political party and the leader of its military.)

So, for this reason, suggesting that atheists exploit the monkeysphere-placeholder trick that lies at the core of worship-oriented religion, by coming up with some actual human to fill the atheists' monkeysphere slot, is a terrible idea.

(I can think of one exception to this conclusion, and it ties back to point (2). If atheism were to someday suffer a martyr, that deceased personage might be a suitable monkeysphere placeholder for atheism -- but only if he or she dies childless. Leaving behind a bloodline makes the prospect of another repressive regime, one whose evils are indisputably and explicitly done in atheism's name, much too likely to risk.)

Let's revisit Dinesh D'Souza's claim. The Four Horsemen have rebutted it by saying that it evidences a confusion of correlation with causality; there is a difference between people who happen to be atheists doing vile things versus people doing vile things in the name of atheism. Rabbi David Wolpe has thoughtfully responded that, although this may be true of the Holocaust (Hitler professed Christianity, although there is dissonance between his public and private writings on the subject), the other instances of mass murder under discussion were undertaken in the name of Communism, an ideology that explicitly embraces atheism as part of its underlying principles. So, by transitivity, says Wolpe, they were, in fact, undertaken in atheism's name.

This is an excellent point that deserves a serious response. It raises two questions that must be explored. The first is, is the kind of atheism that comes as a free side dish with one's purchase of Communism the same kind of atheism being proposed here? The second is, has Wolpe effectively deprived atheists of the ability to condemn the doctrines of religion for the evils of certain of its adherents?

Sam Harris thinks he has effectively dispatched the first question by asking, "Is too much skeptical inquiry really what's wrong with North Korea?" But the glibness-to-insight ratio of this rejoinder is just a little too high for it not to feel like an artful dodge. I think a clearer approach is to seize upon the distinction made in (5): "Note that atheism appears nowhere in [the Rationalist Credo]. My atheism is not a part of my belief system; it is a consequence of it."This matters because there is more than one way that one can arrive at being an atheist. To illustrate this, consider the "no-values voters" imagined by The Onion. (Follow the link; it's funny.) These are voters who cheerfully reject morality and whose top issues are death, suffering, engulfing things in flames, poisoning wells, molesting infants, etc. (Their political action committee is named "Citizens For A Bleaker America.") This no-values voting bloc could easily arrive at atheism through the following reasoning:

(i) God is the source of humanity's moral compass.
(ii) We reject humanity's moral compass.
(iii) Therefore we reject God.

This is an utterly different type of atheism from that which flows from the Rationalist Credo; in fact, the Rationalist Credo has a prohibition against just this kind of reasoning in item (5e). Atheism may be the correct conclusion, but it is possible to arrive at it for the wrong reasons. Although a believer in the Rationlist Credo might find (ii) personally objectionable, it is item (i) that suffers from faulty reasoning.

Because the Rationalist Credo includes the Golden Rule, I hope it is apparent that the kind of atheism arrived at through its reasoning would never tolerate actions that would be tolerated by the "no-values voter" type of atheism. The no-values voter arrives at atheism through flawed reasoning, but Communism arrives at it through no reasoning at all; it simply assumes the lack of God as a postulate, with no further exploration. (5e) forces us to treat lack of reasoning the same as faulty reasoning; hence, Communistic atheism is just as different from, and reprehensible to, the kind of atheism based on the Rationalist Credo as is the "no-values voter" kind.

So that answers Wolpe's first question with a resounding "no." The second question, i.e. have atheists been deprived of the ability to condemn religious doctrine for the evils of certain of its adherents, is a variation of the old "ideology versus practitioner problem." This problem asks, can we blame an abstract ideology for the concrete evils of its individual practitioners? The question presupposes that the concrete evils in question were explicitly done in the name of the ideology in question, which I think Wolpe has reasonably established in this case. The thought experiment that I use to think about this problem is something I call "the parable of the stop sign."

Imagine a four-way intersection with a stop sign facing each incoming road. Visualize one of the stop signs in your mind. Now imagine that, instead of being red with the word “stop” on it, it is purple and has a big exclamation point, and that’s it. Obviously the sign-maker’s intent would be the same: cars should stop when they encounter the sign. A cursory inspection of the surroundings makes it clear that anything other than stopping could have bad results. But, it’s open to interpretation. Some people could interpret the purple to mean slowing down, not stopping. Some people could interpret the exclamation point to mean speeding up, not stopping. The goal of the sign is to modify our behavior a certain way, but its openness to interpretation prevents that from happening reliably.

It seems to me that the key factor in whether a belief system can be abused, can be put to uses its originators did not intend, is its openness to interpretation. Now, as any postmodern literature professor will tell you, everything is open to interpretation (although, unfortunately, that's really the only thing a postmodern literature professor can tell you). Be that as it may, I think it's possible that some belief systems are more open to interpretation than others.

The unfortunate thing about "openness to interpretation" is that it is, itself, open to interpretation. How does one define or quantify it? I propose a fairly unambiguous measurement: length. The longer a text, the greater its openness to interpretation. This proposal flows out of the following observation. Suppose that any two sentences are chosen at random out of a given text. Without even knowing what they are, we can say that there is a chance -- low, but nonzero -- that those sentences will contradict each other to some extent. As the number of statements in a document increases, the chance that it will evidence some degree of self-contradiction increases.

Of course there exist counterexamples on both sides. Haiku poems and Zen koans are extremely short, yet inspire a multitude of different interpretations. Russell's and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica is 460 pages long, yet is entirely internally consistent. But these documents are counterexamples precisely because they aren't representative samples of most writing. In their cases, self-contradiction was the authors' paramount concern; Principia's authors went to extraordinary lengths to avoid it, and the Eastern philosophers went to extraordinary lengths to embrace it (as part of their effort to, as Douglas Hofstadter puts it, "break the back of logic"). Most documents are somewhere in the middle. And it is in this vast middle that the correlation between length and likelihood of self-contradiction applies.

If we graph the correlation between (a) number of statements in a document and (b) the chances of that document contradicting itself, we'll find that it (like the brain size-to-cognitive power graph discussed in Part 5 above) follows an exponential curve. The tipping point of this curve represents the interpretability threshold: ideological documents that sit below it are like a normal stop sign, and those that sit above it are like the purple-exclamation-point stop sign.

The reason atheists are able to score easy debate points by pointing out the Crusades, the Inquisition, etc. is that the Abrahamic holy books are thousands of pages long, well above the interpretability threshold. Wolpe was able to score his equivalent debate points because the "holy book" of Marx and Engels, the Communist Manifesto, is 58 pages long -- much closer to, but still, apparently, above, the interpretability threshold.

The Rationalist Credo, by contrast, clocks in at one page -- well below the interpretability threshold. It is hard to envision a tyrant ruling his dictatorship with an iron fist in the name of the scientific method and the Golden Rule. (Indeed, for an example of a society governed by beliefs essentially identical to the Rationalist Credo, see Sweden.)

I have characteristically resorted to nerdy, quasi-mathematical arguments to refute Rabbi Wolpe's point, but there are several other angles from which to view these issues. The remainder of this section deals with them.

To explore the first of these alternative angles, I must first introduce the central reason why I harbor such antipathy for religion: it artificially and inappropriately conjoins two questions that are best considered independently. The first question is, "What is the nature of existence?" The second question is, "How should we act?" It is my conviction that the first question can be answered by science and science alone; answering that question is why science exists at all. As for the second question, I readily agree with critics of atheism that science has little to offer in grappling with it (although Sam Harris has intriguingly wondered if those magisteria are completely nonoverlapping). Religion conflates the two by answering the first -- "An omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God created us and all that surrounds us" -- and then answers the second by continuing -- "and He has laid down the following rules, which we should all follow." Religious believers insist that morality flows from God primarily because that is how religion has structured its co-answers to these two otherwise unrelated questions.

I bring this up now to point out that, while the answer Communism provides to the first question is the same one that atheism does, its answer to the second question is a virtual mirror image of the content of Jesus Christ's ethical teachings. Jesus preached the ethical nobility of severing one's emotional ties to worldly goods, exhorting the haves to give everything they own to the have-nots. What is Communism if not the translation of Christ's message into the secular language of post-Adam Smith economics? Communism may not think Jesus was the son of God, but it certainly seems to think his answers to "How should we act?" were on the right track. At minimum, this is good evidence that one can reach moral conclusions through reasoning that makes no appeal to a higher power. Communism echoes Christ because he said it first, not because he was divine.

There is another angle from which to view this. Let us side with D'Souza and Wolpe that Stalin et al. inflicted their evil upon the world explicitly because of their atheism. Then suppose that, later in life, they had crises of conscience, saw the error of their ways, and accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. (We will pause to let Rabbi Wolpe descend from this train of thought, since he obviously does not share D'Souza's Roman Catholicism.) Wouldn't the massive burden of their sins be transferred, at that point, from their own shoulders to those of the Lord? Wouldn't all their transgressions be forgiven, washed away in the blood of Christ? Is that really the kind of moral dynamic that Christians willingly embrace? No harm no foul?

Yet another angle from which to view this: D'Souza says that orders of magnitude separate the death tolls of older religious episodes of mass murder versus modern atheistic ones. Subtracting motive from the equation, leaving only means, it's worth pointing out that man's technical capacity to inflict death is much greater in modernity than antiquity. Imagine how many more would have perished in the Spanish Inquisition, or for that matter the Crusades, if the Vatican had had gas chambers, tanks, rifles, machine guns, artillery, bombers, and so on at its disposal. Does anyone really doubt that popes Urban II or Innocent III would have nuked Mecca if they'd had the means?


Monday, December 8, 2008

RtBotS, Part 6 of 9: Voices In Your Head Are Generally Less Reliable Than Voices Outside Your Head


(8) The last section dealt with point (5a) in the Rationalist Credo; I described it as "the most theologically radical notion of the whole Credo," but the majority of religious moderates don't have a particularly strong interest in theology (at least not in the context of American Christians). Of those Americans who attend weekly church services, only a small percentage have actually read their holy book of choice from cover to cover. In practical terms, this is the main job of clergy: to become "doctrinal lawyers" capable of filtering out the boring, irrelevant bits so the good stuff can be passed on to the flock.

Among the flock, the most radical notion of the Rationalist Credo is probably point (5b); not so much the scientific method itself, which is a tad too boring to generate much controversy, but the idea that the scientific method is the only reliable method for acquiring knowledge. As I said toward the end of (5), "I cannot irreproachably prove anyone wrong when they say that there are paths to knowledge other than the scientific method. I simply believe that there aren't."

Many people find this troubling, even offensive, because they interpret it as a denial of transcendent experience. I do not deny that people have transcendent experiences; I merely deny that those experiences are valid sources of information about the world. People can and do have experiences in which they are spontaneously filled with extraordinarily powerful feelings of joy, love, peace, connectedness, wonder, and the like. I don't think this is bad or wrong or incorrect or undesirable in any way. I think such experiences are wonderful when they occur and can give us new insights into who we are as individuals. Indeed, I have had such experiences myself. The only downside is that, when I was having them, I was clinically insane.

The stories of unbelievers coming to God through a religious experience are legion, but the ultimate consequence of my religious experience was to push me the other way. In early 2007 I was committed to a mental hospital and spent nine days there. The prior three months had seen a slow ascent of my psyche into clinical mania, during which my family and coworkers became increasingly concerned; and in the last week of 2006 the mania became "acute," meaning I had a full-on psychotic break from reality. During the acute phase, I was completely convinced (among other things) of the reality of God. I spontaneously renounced atheism and laughed at it for the same purely intuitive reasons that religious believers do -- how could such a sensorily rich and vibrantly beautiful world, seemingly alive in every respect, be anything other than God's creation?

It is mildly unpleasant for me to remember that time, primarily because, after I came back to reality, I heard stories of the bizarre and ridiculous (and occasionally harrowing) things I had said and done, and was acutely embarrassed. But if I make an effort to ignore those post-associations and instead summon to mind the experience itself, a very different picture emerges. Being acutely manic is a wonderful feeling. It brings a profound sense of brotherhood -- you love everyone you meet, and think that everyone you meet loves you. You feel as though you completely understand everything that you see and encounter. Most important of all, you lose the ability to think in the subjunctive; if you imagine something, you don't think of it as a projection of what could be. You think of it as a projection of what will be. Fantasy becomes prediction.

In (5) I mentioned that everyone thinks they're rational. I would even go so far as to say that, in fact, everyone is rational, at least in the sense that they act rationally based on what they believe to be true. The word "irrational" enters the discussion when there are disagreements about what is true. Having been insane, I'm convinced that insane people act just as rationally as sane people; the only reason their behavior is so bewildering and inscrutable is that it's impossible to know what they believe is true, since their beliefs are being continuously manipulated by spontaneous powerful feelings being tossed about by their own mental machinery.

I remember, during the height of my psychotic break, driving north on I-81, somewhere in Pennsylvania, and deciding that I didn't need my radar detector anymore, so I pulled it off its windshield-mounted suction cups and threw it out the window. The reason I decided I didn't need it was that I thought that I could see, with my eyes, the radar and laser pulses that the police might be using to gauge my speed. The reasoning was fine; the information being fed into the reasoning was the problem.

Can anyone prove to me that I was not witness to a bona fide miracle? Could anyone prove me wrong if I were to assert that the Holy Spirit had descended upon me and given me sight beyond sight at that moment? It felt utterly real to me; I was absolutely convinced of the reality of my radar-and-laser vision. If I had had a traveling partner with me in the truck, and found myself in a conversation with him about what was happening to me, I would have scoffed at his skepticism and written him off as someone whose sense of wonder, whose openness to nonscientific avenues of knowledge, was woefully blunted. I could have accused him, with utter conviction, of wilfully diminishing himself, closing himself off from what it means to be human.

I remember another incident during the psychotic break in which I was driving aimlessly through Nevada. That night I stayed in a cheap motel, but did not sleep at all. I worked on a screenplay. I wrote it out longhand on a legal pad. I wrote the whole thing in one sitting. (I ended up scrapping its characters and plot, but the ending was salvaged into another screenplay that I did ultimately finish, Zero State.) That night I felt gripped in an absolute white heat of creation. I felt not like the words were pouring out of me, but like they were being poured through me, like I had hooked up my brain and eyes and hands to some sort of linguistic fire hydrant whose source was far below any place I could probe or even imagine. It was exhilirating and unprecedented. It felt like a visitation from God.

Yet, looking back, I can see now that I was fucking nuts.

This explains why my "religious experience" drove me to atheism. It taught me that those sensations, intuitions, and transcendent experiences, while wonderful, are not reliable sources of information. The scientific method is epistemologically limited, but it is reliable. I would rather know what science lets me know and then admit ignorance of what remains than claim to know things that come only from inner, unreliable sources.

Even if there were an interventionist God – one capable of filling us with the Holy Spirit – He did not provide us with any reliable way to tell the difference between transcendent experience caused by divinity versus transcendent experience caused by insanity. I refuse to ever again run the risk of mistaking insanity for divinity, so, I must choose to distrust information that flows into my mind through transcendent channels. That leaves only the scientific method.

I think there is even a way to base this decision on purely moral grounds. Although I admit up front that it is a bit of a stretch, it nevertheless seems worth presenting.

Jonathan Haidt has done extensive research into the psychological underpinnings of human morality. His founding assumption is, forget about where morality "comes from" -- given that it exists, what does it look like? Does morality have a structure? He and his colleagues set about investigating that question by putting up a survey on the web, which so far 50,000 people from the majority of world's countries have taken. He presents these conclusions in an excellent TED lecture that I strongly urge you to watch.

His main conclusion is that there are five pillars of moral thinking, five considerations that can be taken into account in the determination of whether a given action is or is not moral:

(a) Harm/care. The idea that harming others is bad, and caring for others who need it is good.
(b) Justice/fairness. The idea that people should experience the consequences of their actions.
(c) Ingroup/loyalty. The idea that people should seek to act not just in their own interests but in the interests of the groups to which they belong.
(d) Authority/deference. The idea that people should respect authority, seek its counsel, and obey its pronouncements.
(e) Purity/sanctity. The idea that people can achieve virtue by tightly controlling what they do with (or put into) their bodies.

Haidt likens these five pillars to five channels in a stereo equalizer. An individual's moral sensibility is shaped by how loud or quiet each of those five channels is set. (Politically, he notes that while self-described conservatives rank all five channels in the middle, self-described liberals turn the first two channels all the way up, and the last three channels all the way down, which explains a lot about "the culture wars.")

For purposes of this discussion I want to focus on the fifth channel, purity/sanctity. Haidt notes that while the political right tends to express their valuation of this channel in the context of sex, the political left has a vocal minority that expresses their valuation of it in the context of food; this is why there are more vegan hippies than vegan hedge fund managers. The emphasis placed by Eastern religions on meditation is another manifestation of this; what could be purer than a mind emptied of thoughts and desires?

Making the decision to accept only information obtained through the scientific method could be viewed as an appeal to intellectual purity. It is the striving for virtue by tightly controlling what one puts into one's mind. It is the avoidance of potential psychological toxins and contaminants.

One last point remains to be made, and that is that the numinous and the intuitive can still play a role in the scientific world view. One of the steps of the scientific method is "construct a hypothesis to explain the observed phenomenon." Constructing a hypothesis is an activity that relies largely on gut feel. People are being amateur scientists when they begin sentences like "I think the reason McCain lost the election is..." or "It seems clear that the Phillies won this year's Series because...." Such statements draw on one's experience and intuition. Intuition is extraordinarily valuable in science. The only difference between the scientific use of intuition and the everyday use of intuition is that the scientific use prohibits the hypothesis from being openly advocated until after it has been subjected to testing in the real world. Science treats intuition as a raw material; the everyday treats it as a finished product.


RtBotS, Part 5 of 9: Epissedemology


(7) Some religious believers accuse atheists of being not just interpersonally arrogant, but intellectually arrogant, and it's usually because of the very first point in the Rationalist Credo: the idea that everything can eventually be known and understood. At the end of the day, this is the most theologically radical notion of the whole Credo, which is why it appears first in the list. Religion not only takes it for granted that there are some truths that are forever beyond the grasp of man, it exalts it as an explicit doctrine. "The Lord works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform" is a baroquely constructed admission that humanity should, in principle, find ignorance satisfying.

The reason I gave (5a) first place in the Rationalist Credo is that it requires the nakedest of leaps of faith; the only way to arrive at a position about it is to appeal to one's own intuition and personality. The final sentence of the previous paragraph either leaves one filled with revulsion and distaste, or it doesn't molest one's mood at all. I personally find the idea abhorrent, but I must concede that there is some evidence for it, however uncompelling I may find it. The fact is that brains are like penises: size matters. A concept simple enough for an 8-year-old human to grasp could well be beyond the cognitive reach of a dog, or a bear, or a walrus, simply because an 8-year-old human has a bigger brain than those other mammals. Chimpanzees and dolphins are comparatively much closer to our level because the size difference between their brains and ours is smaller. So, presumably, an animal with a brain twice the size of ours could be vastly more sophisticated, and find it trivial to understand things that would forever remain as beyond us as calculus will forever remain beyond a platypus.

Having said that, I must point out that there is a significant difference between saying that there are things we'll never understand because we fail to cross a certain threshold in neocortex size versus saying that we'll never understand them because they are divine. The religious assertion that some things are eternally unknowable can be interpreted in one of two ways: it could simply be an allusion to the aforementioned cognitive limits imposed on us by our brain size, or it could be a claim that there are really two kinds of knowledge, divine and mundane. At the core of point (5a) is the assertion that there is only one kind of knowledge; knowledge is knowledge. On that basis, I reluctantly accept the possibility of the first interpretation, but flatly reject the second.

Allow me to make a technical detour to explain why I find the brain-size problem uncompelling evidence for a human cognitive barrier.

While it is true that cognitive capacity is proportional to brain size, that proportionality is exponential, not linear. Doubling brain size doesn't double cognitive capacity, it squares it, at minimum; we don't have a precise way to measure "cognitive capacity," so we can't work out what the exponent in that equation would actually be, but we know it would indeed be an exponent. (Think of the Richter scale: a 7.0 earthquake isn't twice as bad as a 6.0 earthquake, it's 10 times as bad. The decibel scale of auditory volume works the same way.) If you look at graphs of exponential curves, you'll find that they start out with a very gradual slope upward, and then hit a point of explosive growth; that "elbow" is the inflection point, or "tipping point" to put it in Malcolm Gladwellese.

The reason this matters is that, ultimately, one's position on whether there are things we can never understand depends on what we mean by "understanding." At root, understanding is synonymous with functional decomposition: we understand something when we know what components make up that thing, and how those components interrelate with each other (which usually involves enumerating the components of the components, and so on). The "and so on" is the hint to what is really going on here; it is code for recursion. Understanding relies on functional decomposition, and functional decomposition relies on recursion. One way to evaluate where brains sit on the exponential size/capacity curve -- whether they are on the low side or the high side of the tipping point -- is to see whether they are capable of recursion.

According to Steven Pinker, language is what you get when you harness ears and vocal cords and put them in the service of recursion. Language is the simplest possible form of behavior that can prove recursive cognition. The capacity to think recursively is at the heart of what he calls "the language instinct" -- recursion is the cognitive technology through which Noam Chomsky's Language Acquisition Device does its job, and converts pidgins into languages through the injection of recursive grammars.

There is lots of auditory communication in the animal world -- the barking of dogs, the eerie singing of whales, the clicking and squealing of dolphins, the chirping of birds -- but there is no evidence that any of it is structured according to a recursive grammar. That seems to be the province of humans alone.

This gives me hope in the face of the brain-size problem. We can't say for sure whether there is a human cognitive barrier, but we can say for sure that there is a universal cognitive barrier, i.e. the tipping point on the exponential size/capacity curve. Recursion is what a brain has to be capable of to pass through that barrier. Since language requires recursion, and since humans have language, our brains can support recursion, so we must be on the far side of that barrier already. The prospect of yet another barrier beyond that, one we have yet to encounter, is unlikely, since exponential curves have only one tipping point.

Since we're on the subject of science and human understanding, in the larger context of atheism, we might as well pay a brief visit to quantum theory, which is something that shows up often in YouTube debates between atheists and religious believers. Many famous scholars of quantum theory have gone on the record to lament how little they've learned about it. "Quantum mechanics is magic," said Daniel Greenberger. "Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real," said Niels Bohr, who also said, "Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it." John Wheeler echoed this with, "If you are not completely confused by quantum mechanics, you do not understand it." Richard Feynman -- one of the few physicists, along with Hawking and Einstein, to be not only universally respected but universally liked -- summed it up: "It is safe to say that nobody understands quantum mechanics."

Some religious believers gleefully present these admissions of bewilderment as proof that there is indeed a human cognitive barrier, and that quantum theory rests on the far side of it. But this conclusion belies a corrupt understanding of what it means to understand. I fear now that I may have furthered that corruption with my recursion discussion above.

I stand by the idea that recursion is the universal cognitive barrier, but by using the universality of human language to prove that we're beyond it, I may have implied that this makes recursive thinking easy. Children are born wanting to learn languages and invent them when there aren't any nearby, but just because that application of recursion is subconscious and effortless doesn't mean that recursion can be subconsciously and effortlessly applied to other cognitive domains. Nothing proves that more than everybody's favorite subject, math.

We seem to be born with a "number instinct," too, but it is far less powerful than our language instinct. It allows us to conceive of the idea of "number" and to apply that concept to the problem of counting, but anything else, even basic arithmetic, has to be taught and practiced. This is far from subconscious and effortless; indeed, most people find it painful, humiliating even, especially when they get beyond arithmetic into algebra and calculus.

Mathematics is often poetically described as "the universal language," but if that's true, it's the only language in human history not to have a concept of time built into its structure. (Notice that even music, the other candidate for a universal language, has an innate dependence upon time built into its structure.) Mathematics does share with other human languages a reliance on symbols and recursion, but it differs from them in its timelessness. In language, useful statements are always narrative; they start at one point in time and end in another, and something happens in between. In mathematics, useful statements are equations, which don't start or end, but simply are. Mathematical statements have no relationship to time unless time is explicitly referenced as one of the variables. Linguistic statements are inextricably embedded in time, whether they explicitly reference it or not.

Fluent speakers of multiple languages occasionally run into trouble when they encounter a word in one tongue that has no direct equivalent in the other; they have to rely on some kind of "linguistic intuition" to convert the word into a roughly equivalent phrase in the other tongue. Douglas Hofstadter has written quite a bit about how thorny such problems of language translation can be, but they are merely potholes in the road compared to the difficulty of translating from mathematical statements into narrative statements or vice versa. Such a translation requires a "mathematical intuition" that can not only compensate for mismatches in vocabulary, but mismatches in structural assumptions. It's a cognitive problem that requires an effort just shy of, as the saying goes, "dancing about architecture."

But it turns out that, in the real world, math-to-language translation is much more useful than architecture-to-dancing translation, so there is an incentive to forge ahead and develop one's mathematical intuition. This is the rationale behind word problems (and also the reason why so many people hate them) -- you have to take a narrative representation of a problem, translate it into a mathematical representation, solve it, and translate it back. The point of word problems is not so much to get the right answers as to provide a workout for your mathematical intuition. This is also why so many math teachers suck; they get the math fine, but don't have a sufficiently well developed mathematical intuition to translate that understanding into a narrative form that their students can easily digest.

The relevance of all this to the mysteriousness of quantum theory is that, when Feynman said "nobody understands quantum mechanics," what he meant is, "there are many people who have a thorough mathematical understanding of quantum mechanics, but we have yet to find someone with a sufficiently well developed mathematical intuition to translate that understanding into a narrative form that others can easily digest." The ultimate goal of science is to make accurate predictions about real-world phenomena, and by that standard, physicists in fact have quite a formidable understanding of quantum theory. But the mathematical statements that express it are so strange that they defy translation into sensible narratives.

That's why I don't view the mysteriousness of quantum theory as proof, or even evidence, of a human cognitive barrier. There is a big difference between saying "we have yet to find someone with a sufficiently well developed mathematical intuition" and saying "we know in principle that there cannot be a sufficiently well developed mathematical intuition." Mathematical intuition is a skill, like playing a musical instrument or piloting an airplane. It can be improved through effort and dedication. To concede that there are things that cannot, in principle, be known or understood would eliminate our motivation to keep practicing.

Ultimately, it comes down to optimism versus pessimism. Only the pessimist claims there is no point in even trying. Only the pessimist would be satisfied with eternal unknowability.


RtBotS, Part 4 of 9: A Spiritual Selsun Blue


(6) One of the benefits of the previous point is that it introduces the vocabulary needed to clearly express one of atheism's oft-forgotten selling points over religion. If atheism and religion are products available for sale in the marketplace of belief systems, and if faith is the currency human beings use to make purchases from this market, it's worth pointing out that the frequency of "buyer's remorse" is orders of magnitude lower for atheism than for religion. I draw this conclusion not from anecdotes, but from the fact that religion seems to have developed (to mix metaphors) an "immune system," one that atheism completely lacks.

There is an entire body of theological literature that has accrued over the centuries dedicated to the sanctification of the crisis of faith. Religious believers -- clergy and laity alike -- approach their religious superiors and say, "I've really been troubled lately. I feel like my faith is slipping away. I have to struggle to keep in touch with the Lord, and even then I feel so distant from Him." Only a belief system that has been down this road many, many times before would respond the way religion does: "That's wonderful. I know it's hard to believe, but this is actually proof that your faith is strong. You may feel like despairing now, but you will get through this dark time, and you will be renewed, your faith more robust than ever." According to religion, doubt in one's faith is like one's scalp tingling while using Selsun Blue: that means it's working!

(Interesting that the converse is never the subject of exhortation on the part of religious authorities. When was the last time you heard a rabbi or an imam or a priest or reverend delivering sermons castigating those whose faith is utter and complete, with all trace of doubt safely dispatched beyond the horizon? Where are the Baptist preachers warning their flock not to rest on their laurels with the complacency of certainty, to hurry up and start doubting, to plunge headfirst into that dark night of the soul, to embrace the benefits that such spiritual suffering brings?)

Contrast this with science. There are comparatively very few cases of a biologist approaching his physicist friend and saying, "Bob, I gotta tell you, lately, I've been wrestling with my belief in the scientific method. It just doesn't speak to me the way it used to. Sometimes I doubt it can live up to the promises it's made." Science has never needed to develop such a vast body of apologia, such an immune system, because it's never experienced such a widespread infection.

I readily concede that religions are not the only products in the marketplace of belief systems to have been "returned for a refund"; certainly there have been high-profile atheists who have converted to Christianity or other religions. But they are few and far between compared to the number of religious believers who experience buyer's remorse every day.


RtBotS, Part 3 of 9: The Faithful Atheist and the Rationalist Credo


(5) There are four words that have become entangled in the battle between atheism and its religious competitors, invested with so much emotional energy by both sides that their original meanings are all but lost. They are rational, irrational, belief, and faith, and each side has claimed two: the atheists seem to think they own the exclusive rights to "rational" and "irrational," and the religious believers seem to feel similar exclusive entitlement to "belief" and "faith." This strikes me as profoundly wrong. Both sides of the debate have an equal right to all four words.

The most common complaint leveled against the Four Horsemen by religious believers is that they're arrogant and condescending. And indeed they are. They get up in front of audiences of religious believers and tell them, in essence, "We're atheists because we're rational; you're religious because you're irrational." Such a statement may adequately preach to the choir, but it's a monumentally shitty sales pitch. Everyone thinks they're rational; even schizophrenics consigned to live out their lives in mental hospitals feel rational. Given that, "irrational" is simply a dirty word, an insult that no one wants to hear, one that is guaranteed to kill off any courteous receptiveness the listener might otherwise have been willing to extend.

But there is an even deeper problem. Suppose that everyone's skin were much thicker, and being called irrational weren't automatically a turnoff. The atheist claim to complete and total rationality is simply false, for reasons into which I will soon delve.

"Faith," meanwhile, has been co-opted by religious believers to mean "belief in some type of God"; talk to them long enough and it will become clear which type of God they mean. "People of faith" has become synonymous with "religious believers," and both sides of the debate seem content with that usage. But, if they are honest, even atheists must confess to being people of faith. This is because the definition of faith hinges not upon what people believe, but upon their reasons for believing it.

It is evident that human beings -- whether you think they were created by God or shaped by evolution -- are born with a libido, a limitless wellspring of mental energy that is expended solely through sex. What people really find pleasurable about sex is not so much the onslaught of physical sensations as the psychological release afforded by that discharge of libidinal energy. (If you find that hard to swallow, consider the old saying "When sex is good, it's great, and even when it's bad, it's still pretty good"; or, in a more extreme manifestation, think of Joe Pantoliano's character from The Sopranos, who found sex fulfilling only if it involved his partner taking a cheese grater to his dick.)

It is my thesis that human beings are born with another limitless wellspring of mental energy, one that is expended solely through faith. This "spiritual libido" exists because the world is, and has always been, so complex, confusing, threatening, and inscrutable that human beings find it profoundly pleasurable to simply accept some notions just because they feel right. Despite the obvious benefits of acting rationally, ya gotta admit that it takes some work. It feels good to deliberately take a break from that work by accepting some things through intuition rather than evidence, through the heart rather than the mind. Just as sex is the act through which people derive the pleasure of discharging their sexual libido, so is taking something on faith the act through which people derive the pleasure of discharging their spiritual libido.

When Sam Harris writes a book with a title like The End of Faith I cringe, because he might as well have titled the book The End of Humanity. Right or wrong, the spiritual libido is an innate part of what it means to be human, and the Four Horsemen ignore that fact at their peril. To denigrate and marginalize faith is to denigrate and (more importantly, from a marketing standpoint) marginalize oneself.

This does not mean that all belief systems are on an equal footing; we still have a right to debate and discuss which vessels are more or less suited to receiving the faith that our spiritual libido drives us to pour out. It simply means that, in the marketplace of belief systems, faith is the currency with which we make our purchases.

I, an atheist, am just as much a "person of faith" as any pious Christian or Muslim or Jew you care to name. We all have a core set of beliefs that we are unwilling to doubt, reconsider, or abandon. Our decision to adopt our core set of beliefs was made with the heart and not the mind; was made through intuition and not reason; was made simply because it felt right on some numinous level, and not because it was shown to be right through evidence or argument. Indeed, none of us can provide an irreproachable proof of why our core set of beliefs is "right"/"true," or this debate would not rage in the first place.

The big thing that separates my faith from that of the Christian or Muslim or Jew is that the object of my faith -- the core set of beliefs I used my faith to purchase -- is very simple. The major religions of the world have core sets of beliefs that are so vast, complex, and intricate that they can be expressed only in thousand-page-long books like the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, the Book of Mormon, the Veda, and their ilk. My core set of beliefs takes up about three paragraphs; certainly no more than one typed single-spaced 8.5" x 11" page. (This compactness carries an important benefit that we'll revisit later.) That page bears the following five things:

(a) A statement that, in principle, human beings can eventually know and understand all things, even if they are not known or understood at present.
(b) A description of the scientific method.
(c) Occam's Razor.
(d) The Golden Rule.
(e) A statement that it is a greater evil to arrive at a sound conclusion through faulty reasoning than to arrive at a faulty conclusion through sound reasoning.

Since it doesn't have a name, let's christen this one-page document the Rationalist Credo. Note that atheism appears nowhere in it. My atheism is not a part of my belief system; it is a consequence of it. (This is a distinction that will play an important role in the discussion of Communism below.) My faith in the scientific method doesn't mean that I'll insist that I'm right and you're wrong about any particular aspect of the world; it means that what I will insist on is that there is a single correct way for us to find out about any particular aspect of the world. It is an object of faith precisely because I cannot irreproachably prove anyone wrong when they say that there are paths to knowledge other than the scientific method. I simply believe that there aren't. (This will be revisited in Part 6.)

This is why the Four Horsemen are not being honest when they claim to be completely rational. It is true that they are mostly rational -- but their decision to embrace rationality was made through irrational means. They aspire to rationality because doing so simply feels right to them. The atheist chooses to focus his doubt on everything he encounters, except his own decision to focus doubt on everything he encounters. His atheism is like a pearl; the milky white part, the part revered for its beauty, the part that makes up 99% of its bulk, is composed of rationality; but it would never have formed had it not been for the tiny, ugly grain of irrational faith at its core.

Compared to the alternatives currently being used to market atheism, I think this is a much better sales pitch. The main reason is that it depersonalizes the attack -- it acknowledges that we're all in the same boat, trying to figure out how best to spend our faith in the marketplace of belief systems, rather than trying to artificially divide humanity into "rationals" and "nonrationals." It shifts the emphasis to where it should be, i.e. the relative merits of the belief-products themselves. In religious terms, it allows us to love the sinner while hating the sin.


RtBotS, Part 2 of 9: Atheist Soup Kitchens


(4) One of the things atheists like to say is "Imagine a world without religion." Their goal is to conjure images of a world in which the Twin Towers still stand, in which the Spanish Inquisition never occurred, in which the Crusades never occurred, in which World War II came and went without a Holocaust. To a religious moderate, though, an entirely different set of images gets conjured. The religious moderate thinks, "Last summer I sent my daughter on a mission trip to New York City where she spent a week working in a soup kitchen. Every year our church does a nonperishables drive to contribute to the local food bank. And the church is a major donor to that homeless shelter downtown. Why would I want all that to end?" The religious moderate is justifiably filled with revulsion at the thought of these good works vanishing.

Now, it's easy for an atheist to counter that by saying, "Yes, but in a world without religion, secular charities would fill the gap." But that kind of statement is arguably just as faith-based (i.e. speculative and unreliant on evidence) as the statements we routinely get worked up about religious believers making.

I'm an aspiring screenwriter, and one of the themes that comes up again and again in that industry -- from seminars, books, interviews with successful professionals -- is "show, don't tell." The way to create a convincing narrative is not merely to tell the viewer about the hero, but to actually show them something about him through his actions. When atheists claim that charitable good works don't have to be done in the name of God -- or indeed, more generally, that one can live a good and moral life without having to believe in God -- we're telling, not showing.

To start showing, we need to organize ourselves to do charitable good works. It is true that there are already many secular charities (Oxfam International, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders, etc.), but there is a difference between doing good works in the name of nothing in particular versus doing good works in the name of atheism. There are already lots of atheist organizations, but they persist in thinking that merely telling the public about atheism will be good enough. They need to branch out and become the atheist Knights of Columbus, the atheist Shriners, the atheist Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.


Revitalizing the Betamax of the Soul: Part 1 of 9

I think of atheism as simply one product available for purchase in a vast marketplace of belief systems. Its competition is every religion in the world. Some of these religions are manufactured and marketed by formal organizations; for instance, Roman Catholicism is a product sold by the Vatican. There is also a cottage industry of smaller-scale belief systems, pushed by single entrepreneurs; these are called cults. And there are also many would-be consumers who simply use their own homemade belief systems. These are the people who hasten to point out their lack of affiliation with any organized religion, but still harbor a vague, nebulous, unspecific belief in some kind of creator or higher power.

The position that atheism occupies in this marketplace seems to me to be identical to the position occupied by the Betamax VCR in the late '70s home video market. The market was just beginning to take off and was projected to be huge, but the movie studios weren't willing to jump in until the VCR manufacturers agreed on a standard format. Sony backed Betamax, and JVC backed VHS. Independent observers generally agreed that Betamax was technically superior; yet, VHS emerged as the victorious standard.

The most prominent public advocates of atheism today -- Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, collectively known as "the Four Horsemen" (your view of them is evidenced by whether your tongue is planted in cheek when you utter the phrase) -- could be viewed, in purposes of the marketplace analogy, as the "vendor" pushing atheism. Yet they are making exactly the same mistake Sony did in pushing Betamax. At that time, Sony was a company run entirely by engineers, from the CEO down. Their view of how to dominate the market was to pour all their resources into engineering the best possible product, under the assumption that, in a rational marketplace, such a product would essentially market itself. The VHS guys weren't so charmingly naive. They knew the importance of marketing.

The Four Horsemen, by writing their books and publicly debating their more intellectual opponents, are not actually marketing atheism -- they're just continuing to improve the engineering of the product. While that is certainly necessary and valuable, it's not sufficient. Someone needs to take the lead on actually marketing it.

The rest of this essay attempts to explore the big marketing problems that atheism faces. Most, but not all, of these hurdles can be overcome; but until those that can be are, atheism will never attract a customer base rivaling those of the world's major religions.

(1) Let's start with the forever insurmountable: the irrefutability of death. While no one enjoys the prospect of death, many people are absolutely terrified of it. The single biggest selling point enjoyed by all of atheism's competitors is that they offer a solution to the problem of death. By claiming that death isn't really the end of existence, they ease their purchasers' fears and impart comfort and solace. There is simply no way that atheism can ever purport to solve that problem.

What's slightly less obvious than this is that people tend to fear their own death less than the death of their immediate loved ones. Every out-of-the-closet atheist knows that, of all the possible interactions they can have with religious believers, the most dreadful is to encounter a recently bereaved religious believer. "How dare you tell me there's no God? What right do you have to tell me that my son/daughter/husband/wife/brother/sister isn't with Him in heaven?" It's impossible to be perceived as a good salesman when forced to reply, "What right do you have to tell yourself that he/she is?"

(2) All of atheism's competitors with large market share have suffered martyrs, which helps legitimize them in the eyes of certain prospective buyers. In terms of surmountability, this falls somewhere between the irrefutability of death and most of the other hurdles described below. It's certainly possible for atheism to someday suffer martyrs, but I doubt it will ever be the consequence of a deliberate campaign mounted by atheists. We can't do anything here except wait and see.

(3) Targeting religious extremists and fundamentalists is an unhelpful distraction. They're great targets for the Four Horsemen, since (a) they're easy; even religious moderates think they're crazy, and (b) they're inexhaustible; you'll never convert them, thereby guaranteeing that debating them will provide decent job security. But more to the point, even if you could convert them, the net increase to atheism's customer base would still be dwarfed by the number of untapped moderates. The religious moderates are where atheists need to concentrate their efforts. If you're Apple, trying to market the iPhone, you don't waste your time trying to sell to the "landline fundamentalists" -- you target the folks who already own cellphones. It may be more fun to pick on the snake-handlers, but the real action is in trying to convince those people who pray over dinner every night, but would never consider driving their sick child past a hospital on the way to a faith healer.


A Theological Argument In Favor of Gay Marriage

So in the evangelical Christian worldview, there are no such thing as gay people: there are straight people who succumb to the temptation to engage in gay sex, and there are straight people who either are never tempted in such a way or (bear with me) those who are but managed to withstand it. Let's ignore the fact that this is obvious bullshit and accept it on its own terms, for sake of argument.

My understanding of evangelical theology is that we, the children of God, are put on this earth to live in mortal bodies. We will be subject to many temptations from many sources, but should strive to reject the wicked ways of the world in favor of the righteous ways of the Lord. We will be judged in the afterlife for how well we achieve this goal.

It's worth considering what perspective the Lord will do the judging from. Presumably the relevant metric will be the number of temptations we didn't successfully withstand. As in golf, the lower our score, the better. But there are two ways this number could be minimized:

(1) The number of temptations could be high, but the number of times one succumbed could be low (indicating strong performance in a challenging environment)

(2) The number of temptations could be low, and the number of times one succumbed could be only slightly lower (indicating weak performance in an unchallenging environment)

It would seem to me that (1) would be more impressive to the Celestial Magistrate than (2). The earthly equivalent of (2) are the kids who graduate high school at the third-grade reading level because their school system would rather keep them in their peer group than actually educate them. (1) seems like the kind of thing that would appeal to a real conservative.

Given this, wouldn't it be in the evangelicals' long-term spiritual best interest to ensure that the ways of the world remain wicked, so that their own spiritual mettle can be proven as in case (1)? By fighting against the homosexuals (and the pornographers, and the prostitutes, and the liberal Hollywood elites -- this line of reasoning works for a whole bunch of evangelical targets), aren't the evangelicals essentially childproofing the house of God, and removing all moral challenge? Doesn't this subvert God's very purpose in having put us here, to prove that we are worthy of being saved?