Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Art of War and The War of Art

            I have intended to "review" all the books I read on here, though I'm not sure why. I imagine it has something to do with being an English major, and well, that is what English majors do. I am admittedly behind; I finished Angela's Ashes a few weeks back- a wonderful, hilarious, brilliantly written book that certainly warranted the Pulitzer it won. It took me a long time to come around to reading anything that might in any way garner Oprah's approval, but I had been required to read McCourt's third book, Teacher Man during my graduate program and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I figured Angela's Ashes couldn't be so bad. I'm glad I overcame my bias. However, an extended review here seems rather pointless. Most people who are interested in reading it already have, most people who aren't never will.

             I also recently finished Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennett, my favorite living philosopher, which is on the subject of free-will in a deterministic universe. As always, Dennett's ability to recast ancient philosophical battles (and few are more ancient than the fight over free-will), in modern terms by bringing the discoveries of science into the discussion, particularly evolution in this case, while simultaneously eliminating all of the arm-chair philosophical garbage that has accrued over millenia, and cut to the heart of the matter, is what, I believe, separates him from all of his contemporaries. However, while a review of Freedom Evolves will be forthcoming, it is to lengthy and dense a subject for me to attempt here, among other, more pressing, matters. (If you are impatient, besides the obvious recourse left to your free-will of purchasing and reading the book for yourself, you can watch him spell out some of the essential features of his argument here, in a lecture he gave at Edinburgh University. Even if you do read the book, it is worth hearing him, as he shares a countenance and demeanor with Santa Claus, but has a mind like a razor.)

            Today, however, I want to spend a little time sharing my thoughts on two books I read over the past few days; Sun Tzu's The Art of War and Steven Pressfield's The War of Art. The former I read mainly for historical curiosity, and because I have been playing a lot of Supreme Commander II lately, and will take any advantage I can get. The second I read upon the repeated recommendation of a good friend of mine, probably the only person whose recommendation could ever get me to walk into the Self Help section of the book store.

The Art of War

             Sun Tzu (if "he" was one person) wrote The Art of War around the 6th century BCE, in an attempt to prove to his emperor that he was worthy to lead his nation's, the Wu's, armies against their enemies, the Yueh. Much of the history of the text is disputed, even some of the details I gave above, but being not a scholar on these matters, I will not digress into those concerns here.

            The real question is, what can be gained by a 21st century citizen from a book of 2,600 year old military tactics? Much. Because, as Sun Tzu understood even those 26 centuries ago, most of warfare is about managing the people under your leadership, and this is an area that many of us could benefit from some tested advice. Further, Sun Tzu's advice has been adopted by many leaders, in the areas of business, sport and politics, which is a further testament to the universality of his thinking. While some people may bristle at the analogy to warfare, it is naive to think that all good things in this world can be brought about without conflict and sharp disagreement, as recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Wisconsin  and in the halls of Congress over women's rights demonstrate. I don't think I need to say that I am not advocating violence, but it is a fact of life that there are times where we are forced to pursue our objectives against the will of others, and tested strategy can be helpful here.

            However, I will not spend time here giving you a course in Sun Tzu; I will simply select one bit of advice and explain how I see this relevant to my own life. Do not expect anything profound, that is rarely the nature of wisdom. The business of good advice is not to reveal things you do not know, its business is instead to remind you of things you already know, but have let slip before more trivial concerns. Nothing in this book will change your understanding on its own, just hopefully serve as a reminder when life tries to get in the way of good sense.
            Opening the book, literally at random, I came across this, from Chapter 7, "Maneuvering:"

             28. Now a soldier's spirit is keenest in the morning; by noonday it has begun to flag; and               in the evening, his mind is bent only on returning to camp.

            Obviously. But how often do we organize our lives and our business in direct contradiction to this simple fact? I can relate this to my own career of education, thinking not of the days, but of the year as a whole. When we start the year in September, everyone, teachers, administration, even the majority of students are full of energy and excitement. Everyone, even the most sullen, have some secret hope, some plan, to make this year better than the last, whether it is to teach better, administer better, learn better or simply change our behavior and attitude. And what do we do with that energy, that excitement, in all of our wisdom? We crush it, smother it, destroy it, under a seemingly unending barrage of standardized tests, placement exams, standardized tests, language exams, and more standardized tests. By the time most of these conclude around early November, when instruction can proceed relatively free of interruption, all eyes are now only  on the Thanksgiving break, and then the Christmas break after that. When we return in January, to another round of standardized testing, and conclude this late in the month, all eyes once again turn towards break at the end of February. I am now in the last day of that break, and will be returning to school, six months into the school year, with three to go, and will surely be told by my superiors (through no fault of their own, for it is the truth we all work under), "Now we can start teaching."

             This is a travesty. The educational  system today is crushed by the value placed  on high-stakes testing by Washington bureaucrats, but this is only a part of the problem. The real problem lies in the fact that far more value is placed on administering the students than educating them. Assessing, assessing and reassessing their worth, measuring student against student, school against school, district against district, state against state and country against country. What is lost in all this is that there is nothing to assess because they haven't had time to learn anything since the last time we tested them! That vital morning energy, in both the morning of their lives and the morning that begins with each new year, is squeezed out so that it can be measured before the fruit has even begun to ripen. I wax poetic, (I've been watching a lot of Spartacus) but I hope my point is clear. Sadly, I am in that embarrassing position of being able to identify a problem without being able to proffer a solution, but when that is all one can do, that at least must be done.

            I love learning above all things, and I hope for nothing more as a teacher to be able to inspire the same thing in my students. I am not a great teacher, by any means. Most days, I doubt if I am even a good one. But I have had my successes here and there; a student of mine who last year was headed for expulsion, is now a model scholar and citizen at the high school. Sometimes that morning energy is simply not being channeled in the right direction. But, as Sun Tzu reminds us, it doesn't last forever- there are times when even the most resolute of us are ready to call it quits for a while. We should heed his advice, and organize our lives around reality, rather than trying to force the impossible reverse.

The War of Art

           I can only sincerely recommend Sun Tzu to those like-minded individuals who fret at the thought of leaving any influential book un-perused. If you are not one of those people, it is probably not worth your time, though it won't cost you much, $4 and 2 hours for me. The next book I am going to write about, whose title (and format and even purpose) are adapted from Sun Tzu, I can recommend unequivocally. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is one of those rare books that reminds you, as I said above, of all the things you know, but have let life get in the way of.
             While I will not do Pressfield the injustice of attempting to convey his point for him, I will try to convince you why you should read him. His premise is simple; if you are someone who has ever wanted to write a book, or a screenplay, or paint, or start a band, or a business, or a farm, or a non-profit, in short do anything that matters to you, but you find yourself, year after year, not doing it, he has some advice for you. 

            First, you need to know your enemy, and we all share the same one- Resistance. This is Pressfield's term for anything that gets in the way of you achieving what you want- and 98% of Resistance is internal. Resistance is excuses; "I'm not good enough," "No one will want to read this," "As soon as I get to this point in my life I start that." Resistance is vices; alcohol, television, junk-food, sex, etc.- things that aren't bad in themselves, but become Resistance when we use them to stifle that nagging unhappiness we feel when we know we are not doing what we want to be doing with our life. Resistance is drama and trouble; problems we create to manufacture excuses for again, not doing what we really want to be doing with our lives. The first step is recognizing that Resistance, something inside yourself, is the real problem, not your parents, not society, not your job or mortgage, nothing except your decision to not be doing what you want to be doing.

           Second (and I'm painting this in very broad strokes), after you have identified Resistance as the enemy (not overcome it, Resistance is never overcome, we just become aware of its tricks and better at counteracting them), your goal should be to become a "professional." Pressfield uses this term not to describe someone who gets paid for what they do, although this is nice, but someone who recognizes all creative endeavors for what they are- a lot of work. Again, without stealing his message, I think much of his point can be summarized in a quote he uses from Somerset Maugham. When asked one day if he wrote every day, or only when inspiration struck him, the famous writer said, "Only when inspiration strikes me. But fortunately, it strikes at precisely nine o'clock every morning." In short, do the work, the inspiration will take care of itself.

           Lastly, Pressfield discusses what it takes to keep going, even once you have recognized and are wary of Resistance, and have formed the habits of a professional. But I'll let you read that part for yourself.

           For me, like most things in life, the book came at the right time because I was ready to read it. This blog has been good for me in many ways. First, it has been a bit of a "coming out;" it has allowed me to unburden myself of some things that I have kept quiet about for too long. Second, it has gotten me into the habit of writing regularly. Third, it has given me a sense of what it means to write for an audience, and I owe a debt of gratitude to all of those whose feedback has kept me at it. Pressfield's book came at the right time in my life, because I was already in a place to see that some of his advice works, since I had already started putting it in place.

          But his book also helped me see that this blog, for all the good it has done me, has become a bit of my own Resistance. Before I started this blog, I was about 120 pages into a novel I was writing. I am still 120 pages into that novel. The posts I put up on this blog are very easy for me to write; any one of them is less work than writing a single, good sentence of fiction. But I have devoted, without regret, any writing time I have had to writing here, and none to writing the novel. And like anyone trying to "go pro," I need to spend more time on the things that frighten me, not the things I can do in my sleep. 

         So while I am certainly not signing off, I am trying to say that my posts may become less frequent than they have been. I still have dozens of post-ideas in my head, and more come to me every day, but I haven't done the work to keep up the same level of inspiration for the novel, or any novel, and that is where I need to turn my attention.

          I hope you will pick up Pressfield's book, and I hope you will continue checking-in here from time to time. The easiest way to see if there is anything new up is to friend me on Facebook, if you aren't already, since I share all of these posts there. Thanks for reading.

           

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Why We Believe Silly Things

            As you may have gathered by now, I try really hard to do two things; avoiding getting conned into believing silly or untrue things, and attempting to understand why I, or we, do the things we do from a rational, scientific perspective. Now, for most aspects of our behavior, that means looking at the evolutionary factors that may have brought about a certain behavior. There are many people unfamiliar with that perspective that recoil at that approach. There are several misunderstandings that underlie their apprehension, and I will address those in a later post, but for now I am just going to explain where I am coming from so we can move on, hopefully more or less in agreement that we are proceeding by the best means available.

            (Okay, on something completely unrelated- if you are unfamiliar with Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini by Sergei Rachmaninov, it's worth the time to look up. It's such an exquisite piece, and one of his few where the violin outshines the piano. I would argue it is his second greatest work, behind my all-time favorite piece of music (not by The Frogs) Second Concerto for Two Pianos. Sorry for the digression, it just came up on Pandora, and it is always such a pleasant surprise, even if a touch melodramatic. That's the Ruskis for you.)

            As I have stated before, evolution put us here. Every cell in our body is in place because at some point along the way, it made our ancestors better able to survive and reproduce. This is true for our brains as well. Given our lack of almost any other natural advantage over predator and prey, it is clear that our species thrives because of one organ alone, our brain. Thus, attempts to explain human behavior which do not at least take into account the system that designed our decision-making organ are missing a vital piece. Fortunately, "blank slate" theories are mostly dead, but some of those misperceptions linger. Notice, I do not argue that culture does not have an impact, sometimes a tremendous one, on the way people act and believe, but that the aspects of culture our brains are primed to take up are more readily absorbed when they fit into certain ready-made evolutionary holes. Language is a classic example. The human brain is a language-learning freak, at least at early ages, but genetics in no way determines what languages you will learn. A Caucasian baby born in Africa can pick up Swahili just as easily as a baby of African descent. Neither culture nor genetics are the entire story.

            So the question of this post is; Okay, Rob, if all of these faith-based beliefs are so erroneous, why do they thrive? Why have we evolved in such a way that untruth is easier to accept than truth? What evolutionary purpose does that serve? Today I'm going to look at some of these reasons, and hopefully illuminate some of the ways even the most vigilant skeptic can find them self being duped by illusions that are hard-wired into our brain.

Pattern Recognition

            One thing humans do exceedingly well, far better than any other animal, is recognize patterns. This is the reason that one of the major components of an IQ test is pattern-recognition, because it is a vital distinction between us and other animals. Not that they are incapable of pattern-recognition, some are actually quite adept, such as crows and ravens (who are some of the smartest animals on the planet, by the way), but we are simply at the far end of the spectrum, with quite a gap in between. Human brains are, among other things, finely-tuned pattern-recognition machines. But more importantly, we are, like every other animal over-tuned; in other words, it became so vital to our survival to recognize patterns that we very often "recognize" patterns that aren't really there. To show how innate this is, let's consider our furry friends. Whose cat sprints up the stairs when the vacuum cleaner is turned on? Ours does. Why? It is no threat at all to the animal. But countless generations of her ancestors survived by recognizing the pattern, sometimes false, that loud noise = danger. Their contemporaries who failed to recognize that pattern, yeah, they didn't live very long, probably not long enough to reproduce. Better to be safe than sorry. There is far less harm in falsely identifying a pattern that doesn't exist, than there is in missing a pattern that does.

            Pattern-recognition is such an intrinsic measure of intelligence that one can imagine a Monty Python-esque skit (I feel they did one, but I can't recall... if anyone can remind me I would be forever grateful) where one person comes along, takes a bite of say, a poisoned pie, dies right there, someone else comes along, looks at the body with blueberry stain on his lips, looks at the pie, takes a bite, dies, someone else comes along... you get the idea. The humor here is that we consider this to be the pinnacle of stupidity. "How can they not recognize the pattern?" would be a fair question to ask.

            As we can see, recognizing patterns, X = danger, Y = safety, food, etc., is a built-in feature of most animal brains, especially in mammals and birds. But why are we so much better at it? Like most things that impacted our brain development, this is a result of the genetic and cultural arms-race that is part of living in a group. Humans are social animals, and like other social animals, dogs, primates, elephants, competition for social standing or resources (both increase reproductive chances) within the herd, was often far more important than success outside of the herd. Recognizing that all really big orange and black striped cats are dangerous, in fact, anything bigger than you is probably worth watching out for, is something that is generally within the grasp of the most simple creature. However, recognizing that that male in your pack, with that certain, only slightly distinct pattern of color markings has a habit of taking some of your food, but only when the alpha-male or female isn't around, is much, much more challenging. Over eons, as our social structure became more and more complex, pattern recognition fed into this like a feedback loop; to thrive  in your pack, and increase your chances of surviving and reproducing, you had to be really good at recognizing who could be trusted, who couldn't and who could, but only under certain conditions. In fact, it was often better to be safe than sorry. How many women out there would start dating a guy who they thought, even without proof, had already cheated on a friend of theirs, whom he had previously been with? Not many. Better to hedge your bets. It might not even be true, or she might have strayed first, unbeknownst to you. Doesn't really matter.

            We ultimately became quite adept, which is the reason my three-year old daughter could say to me the other day in the car, "Daddy, I see a hippopotamus!" "Where?" I asked. "In the clouds! He's eating a fishy!" Everyone of us has done this, recognized something that obviously wasn't there, though in examples like these, it is pleasant and fun to make those "mistakes." But this is how evolution's over-tuning of our brain towards pattern recognition makes us very susceptible to believing things that aren't true. This is why people will take a piece of toast that looks like the Virgin to be a sign from God (from Earth-ending floods to making toast... he's getting quite lazy with his miracles these days).

            And this is why people believe that their prayers have been answered when something that has a perfectly natural explanation happens to coincide with what they have been praying for. For example, when I was a child, going into first grade, we moved to the house my parents still live in. The first few weeks were pretty rough, since everyone else in my class had gone to kindergarten together. One day, I was playing in the backyard with my brother and a kid strolled around the side of the house on his way home from school. He said, "Hey, my name is Seth and you're in my class. I saw you playing football. Can I play?" From that point on, we were inseparable until Seth moved away in 5th grade. Awhile after that first encounter, my father pulled me aside and said that he had been praying for me to find a friend since we moved in, and then Seth came along. Even at that age, the questions arose in my head, "Well, why didn't god just send him on the first day, if that's when you started praying? Why did he wait three miserable weeks?" At that age though, you take your parents at their word, and if my father said god sent Seth to me, that is what must have happened. I mentioned it to Seth, and his response was, "Well, no, I walk home that way everyday because my house is past yours, and I love football." From the mouths of babes. The fact is, dozens of kids walked past our house everyday and I simply wasn't going to spend all of elementary school friendless, despite being kind of a dweeb. I am not presuming to say that god definitely did not send Seth into our backyard that day, but when your prayer is for something that is very likely to happen, and then it does, it is easy for our brains to recognize a pattern where one really need not exist.

            This is the same reason why when someone has a statistically anomalous recovery from a severe illness, and they have been prayed for, people jump up and say, "I prayed for my wife to recover and she did! It's a miracle!" Well, no, not necessarily. Your wife just happened to be one of the 2% that sometimes recover. Since about 75% of (American) people profess to some kind of religious belief, let's assume, in desperate times like the severe illness of a loved one, everyone who is only marginally religious is praying. Minus the 25% of us who wouldn't, and the 2% who recover (1.5% who are being prayed for and .5% who are not, statistically) there are still 73.5% of the people affected are being prayed for and still die. The success rate of prayer in this case is about 55 to 1, against. For every 1 prayer-recipient who recovers, 55 die. (Your odds are slightly better if you are not being prayed for, about 49 to 1). But what invariably happens in this case? The family of the 1 person in 55 says, "It was god who brought her back to us," and the other 55 families say, "It must have been her time to be with god." One group sees a pattern that clearly does not exist, a correlation between their mumbling words and silent thoughts, and the fortunate, but statistically possible recovery of their loved one. Their testimonials will influence friends and family, maybe be on the local news, or if they really push it, Oprah. But no one will really stop and think about the other 55 people being put in wooden boxes, for whom god just couldn't be bothered. Why is that? The behavior of the other group is a little more complicated, and we will need to look at other patterns of human behavior to understand it.

            (I made the above numbers up, but they are all within reason. The largest study ever conducted on intercessory prayer though, showed that there was no statistical benefit to being prayed for, exactly as I articulated above. In fact, it turns out that being prayed for results in more complications during recovery, probably because someone who knows they are being prayed for but not recovering at a miraculous rate feel like they are letting the people praying for them down, which can lead towards an anxious, depressed mental state which has been shown time and time again to slow recovery.)

Being Really Bad at Statistics 

             Who hated statistics in college? Most people. In fact, as a mathematical discipline, statistics is relatively young, only a few hundred years old along with calculus, versus arithmetic, algebra and geometry, which are all aged in the thousands of years. This is partially because much of statistics is counter-intuitive, and our brains really just aren't very good at it. The only two words I need to prove this point: The Lottery. However, a great example, with small numbers, is the classic Monty Hall problem, proposed in a letter by Steve Selvin to the journal American Statistician in 1975. 

            The short version is this: You are on the Monty Hall show. There are three doors. Behind the doors, with equal probability, are two goats and a new car. Everyone (besides my friend Brian) would want the car. You pick a door, say door A. After the pick, Monty will show you a goat behind one of the other two doors. He will then ask you if you would like to switch doors to the other remaining door. Most people, an overwhelming majority, say they would stay with their original pick, assuming that with two doors left, they now have a 50/50 chance of winning. Incorrect. Switching actually gives you a 2/3 chance of winning, and staying put gives you a 1/3 chance of winning. I know, weird, huh? It took me a while to really understand this, so if you are still confused, check out the explanation here, after you have given up.

           This is relevant to us because it shows that while human brains are very finely tuned pattern-recognition machines, they are very poorly tuned statistic-recognition machines, which would be the natural counter balance to our over-tuning in the area of pattern-recognition. In fact, it is because we are so good at recognizing patterns that we are so poor at statistics. For example, consider the classic statistical example, being struck by lightning. This is used in our common parlance on a regular basis precisely because everyone recognizes how slim the chances of it actually happening are. However, at the Y I am about to go to for a swim as soon as I hit "publish," there is a sign that says, "If there is lightning storm, the pool must be emptied." This is an indoor pool. Statistically, the odds of anything happening are almost nil. However, the consequences would be so devastating that people play the extremely long odds, just to be safe. 

            Let's go back to the previous examples. In the example of the guy who cheated on his girlfriend, if the guy had been with a dozen women before, and never cheated, but had cheated on this last one, would that fact make it any easier for him to get future potential girlfriends to trust him? Not really. Even though the statistical anomaly of his transgression makes it even more likely he had a reason for it, it doesn't prevent him from being labeled a cad. The same with the prayer example. Although the odds are overwhelmingly against the suggestion that prayer does anything at all, the event that sticks in our mind is the one where the person recovers, not the 55 who don't. Our brains leap at the opportunity to identify patterns, at the expense of ignoring the actual reality that the careful statistical analysis no one has the time or ability for would reveal.

Confirmation Bias

             The last piece of this puzzle (for today) is also a factor in the above examples, confirmation bias. This is the habit that all of our brains have of seeing things in the world in a way that confirms what we already believe. This obviously has an impact in the prayer example given above. For the faithful, when someone who has prayed for the recovery of a loved one sees that person get well, it confirms what they already believed. When their prayers fail, they have a ready-made answer for that too, "God works in mysterious ways" or "It was time for him to take her." Either way, their beliefs are not threatened. In the Monty Hall Problem, it is part of the reason people will generally stick with their original pick, because they have already attached them self to it in a small way, and what would be more frustrating than switching and then finding out your original guess was right?

            Let's take a look at a similar event occurring in different times in different places; ancient China, ancient Greece and the contemporary American south. Let's say there is a flood. During the flood, a family is trapped on their roof surrounded by ever-rising waters. Just before they are swept away, a loose boat passes within reach and they are all saved. What might they say? In China, it might be, "The ancestors saved us." In Greece, "Zeus saved us." In Alabama, "God saved us." There is nothing inherent in a boat passing by that gives any indication that it was sent by any of these entities, but for these people, it confirms what they already believed, given their historical and cultural context.

           What This Means

            When considered together, along with something I mentioned in the previous post, i.e. the tendency of people to believe what people around them believe, even if it doesn't make sense, these factors are some of the reasons that people will cling so tenaciously to beliefs and practices that have been demonstrably shown to be false. It is the reason people will spend good money on bogus "alternative medicines" because their "friend tried it and she got better in a few days," from something she was bound to recover from anyway, even when a study involving thousands of people showed it had absolutely no discernible effect. Because we are so bad at statistics, because it is safer to agree with people around us, because we already have an emotional attachment to the idea of "holistic healing," and because our brain leaps at patterns that aren't there, we throw good money away on prettily packaged garbage. But since it is relatively harmless, we have no good incentive not to believe. And of course, the placebo effect is in full-force here, even if there is no real medical effect.

             I read a sad testimonial from a couple who were both scientists and who had a son born with autism. Despite all of their scientific training, despite their intellectual understanding that there is no easy cure for autism, as study after study has shown, they essentially bankrupted themselves by throwing away tens of thousands of dollars on bogus cures, because they had "seemed" to help one kid out of 1,500. They even knew they were being foolish, but their overwhelming desire to believe that their son could get better caused them to throw away time and money that could better have been put towards the excruciatingly slow process of actually helping him get better.

            Evolution did not make us finely-tuned truth-discovering machines. It made us very finely-tuned surviving and reproducing machines, because that is what it does. That is all it does. Discovering truth is hard, hard work. It is a life's work. And I can't promise you what religions have promised for millenia; here is Truth in a neat little package, read it, I'll see you on Sunday (Friday, Saturday, whatever). Because it isn't that easy. We aren't designed for it to be easy. Seeking out truth, the little bits we are actually capable of putting our fingers on, actually goes against most of what we were designed to do.

            But that doesn't mean it is impossible. We just have to make up our minds to actually do it, and never falter in our vigilance of recognizing when we are being deceived by our very own brains.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Freedom Worth Wanting

         The Importance of Freedom
     
        In my earlier posts on ethics, I identified freedom and understanding as the cores of that belief. I argued that ethics is essentially the act of making choices, and with greater understanding, better choices could be made. I further argued, that with regards to other people, one crucial fact that is necessary to understand is that we exert no natural authority over others, and this is self-evidently true simply by an absence of evidence for the existence of any such authority. This led me to state that an ethical maxim worth living by might be:

          Allow the greatest freedom for the greatest number.

           To remove the hints of utilitarianism, just to remove any complicating associations, we could simplify it further, without losing any of the meaning, by simply saying:

          Allow the most freedom.

          In the subtext of those posts was the remainder of the original precept, that understanding is essential to making informed choices. In less self-conscious times, this was referred to as wisdom. I attempted to elaborate on that idea in those posts, but I fear I may have gotten off track a bit, and ultimately, the first precept was left out of the final equation. So, I am attempting to fix that now, by adding to our above maxim. (I admitted an error! That right there is more maturity than any religion has shown in 4,000 years.) Thus, what I would like to propose for an ethical basis, the foundation of everything I am discussing:

          Gain understanding. Allow the most freedom.

          Here we are, back in the same predicament all ethical/ religious/ philosophical systems have faced in this same pursuit. While simplicity is less likely to be contradictory, it is more susceptible to interpretation. I have already explained how the injunction, "Allow the most freedom," does not justify, say homicide, because although the murder could claim to be acting on their own freedom, they are clearly denying a far greater degree of freedom to their victim. However, we are still required to take a little more time to look at what exactly I mean by freedom. This will also give us an opportunity to explore a little more of what I mean by "Gain understanding," but a full treatment of that will require another post.

Freedom Defined

           There are many ways to understand "freedom." Which constitute "actual" freedom, if there is such a thing, and which of these kinds are worth wanting? This could easily be the subject of an entire book, and this post is by no means meant to be an exhaustive discussion of the topic, simply a beginning (for me- it would be awfully conceited for me to think I was the first person to think about this.) Defining "freedom" like any term, is more difficult than it seems at first, since semantics is such a tricky business. We live our language, and thus, find it very difficult to organize the world without it, though it is perfectly obvious the world exists entirely independent of it. However, I will do the best I can here.

             Freedom is the ability to make choices, and act on those choices.

            If we accept this definition, we can see the inseparability of freedom and ethics, the act of making choices. Ethical behavior is choosing to allow choice-making and choice-acting in ourselves and others. This is freedom as I see it, and it is the only kind that I see as worth wanting. However, there are others who see freedom differently, overtly or not, and by examining those understandings, I hope to illuminate my point.

Freedoms Not Worth Wanting
 Freedom from Thought

            This is the big one, so we'll get it out of the way. This subject deserves its own post, which I hope to give it in the future, but I'll try to be succinct here. This sounds counter-intuitive, "Who would want freedom from thought?" but this is, along with it wicked twin, Faith, the single greatest plague ever to befall humankind. And it is everywhere. It is the reason that every -ic, -ism, -ist, and -ian, and all of the immeasurable damage these have done, exist in the world. It is the reason for the continued existence of every "holy" book and religion, every political party, every philosophy and ideology. 

            It seems to be an innate desire in our species to be handed, like stone tablets, exactly what we are supposed to think and believe. This makes perfect evolutionary sense, as one can imagine the likelihood of survival or sexual success of Rodin's thinker in the Neolithic Era. In an environment where survival was a constant struggle, and ostracism from the tribe was almost certain death, agreeing with those around you was a much more efficient survival strategy than being right all the time. 

            This is the reason you can, if you wish, turn on Fox News or NPR and hear someone tell you exactly what you were already thinking, or if it is a new story, exactly what you should be thinking, if you want to stay part of the tribe. It is the reason that people in some parts of the world can bind, blindfold, half-bury and bludgeon to death with stones a woman for the unforgivable sin of being raped, without once (or not for very long) stopping to think, "Wait, this is pretty f&%$ed up." (The Onion says it better than I could ever hope to, but I'll warn you, the link might make you nauseous. It just did for me, and I'd read it before.) 

            This is also the means by which the keepers of these ideologies, work their hidden, or not so hidden, agendas. This is how conservative politicians draw hordes of under-educated voters to the polls to elect officials who will stop the fabricated armageddon of abortion or gay-rights, while simultaneously destroying these same peoples' mortgages, insurance, pensions, right to organize, the air they breathe and the very land on which they love to hunt, fish and hike. This is how libertarians empower an otherwise despicable party that would allow economic freedom to a tiny minority, deny it to nearly everyone else, and deny nearly every other conceivable kind of freedom, of religion, of marriage, of speech, over your own body and from invasions of privacy. One hot-button issue is used to garner support, while this support is taken to mean a mandate to enact every other self-serving, short-sighted idea the elect are really concerned with.

         It is the same on the other side of the aisle. Liberals come out in droves to defend freedom of choice, or marriage equality, but would be cast out if they were to suggest that more government isn't always the solution, and that sometimes, even if you really want a program, if there isn't money, you just can't have it. And very few, on either side, would suggest, given our current gallop towards national bankruptcy, that maybe we actually don't need to outspend the rest of the world combined on a military that can't win a decisive victory against irregulars on the other side of the planet. Because this would be unpatriotic, and Why do you hate people in uniform so much? (If we really cared, they would be home.)

        Freedom from Thought is not worth wanting. I'll admit, thinking is hard. Weighing every issue of the day, considering all the factors, the potential outcomes, the winners and losers, the history, the moral issues, your own interest, your children's and grandchildren's interest, isn't just difficult, it is impossible. However, stapling an -ic, -ism, -ist, or -ian to your brain, and then settling into your recliner is not ethically justifiable.  If freedom is choice-making and choice-acting, it requires understanding. Freedom requires thought. Freedom from Thought is not a Freedom worth wanting.

          (And yes, I included, skeptic, atheist and agnostic in there. The only saving grace of these terms is that part of identifying with them is a requirement that you constantly reassess what you believe, these ideas included. You have the freedom to think about them, challenge them constantly. In fact, you are obliged to.)

Freedom from Choice

        Brilliance. Sheer f&%$ing brilliance. Conventional executions might have reinforced discipline, might have restored order from the top down, but by making us all accomplices, they held us together not just by fear, but by guilt as well. We could have said no, could have refused and been shot ourselves, but we didn't. We went right along with it. We all made a conscious choice and because that choice carried such a high price, I don't think anyone ever wanted to make another one again. We relinquished our freedom that day, and we were more than happy to see it go. From that moment on, we lived in true freedom, the freedom to point to someone else and say "They told me to do it! It's their fault, not mine." The freedom, God help us, to say "I was only following orders."
                                                                                                             Max Brooks, World War Z

          Freedom from Choice is very similar to Freedom from Thought, and so much of what was said above applies here. The difference lies in that while the false freedom of freedom from thought means relinquishing your understanding, freedom from choice allows you to relinquish your freedom of choice-making and choice acting in exchange for freedom from guilt. The stoning example above applies here, as does this season's (season two) episode two, Missio, of Spartacus: Gods of the Arena. What both The Onion article and Spartacus demonstrate, is how empty this freedom really is, because no one can truly offer you freedom from your own guilt.

          I am not arguing that there are not instances when following orders is not necessary or useful, but when one is ordered to perform an act that will likely cause you guilt, the illusion of Freedom from Choice is no help. Freedom from Choice is not a Freedom Worth Wanting simply because it doesn't exist. The choice to obey is a choice. We are never excused from the choices we make.

Freedom from Suffering, Freedom from Desire

          Things get stickier here. It is pretty safe to say that no one wants to suffer (even submissives in BDSM enjoy their pain). However, is an existence completely free of suffering even desirable, let alone possible? Many of the world's faiths and ideologies have affirmed that it is desirable, it is possible, and moreover, they can show you the way, whether it is in this world or the next. Christianity, Islam,  Hinduism, Buddhism, stoicism and many others promise that with their doctrine, one can lessen, or even eliminate one's suffering altogether. Each of these makes different promises, but some are similar to others, so we will lump them together at the risk of over-simplifying for the sake of time.

          Christianity and Islam promise a perfect paradise of bliss for believers, and an equally perfect hell of torment for unbelievers. Despite the loving assertion by Saint Thomas Aquinas, one of the most respected persons in Catholic history that "in order that nothing may be wanting to the happiness of the blessed in Heaven, a perfect view is granted them of the tortures of the damned," most believers I know would not delight in the eternal torment of those they love, or anyone, who failed to make the grade. In fact, I can only imagine that the knowledge of the ultimate torment of their loved ones would be a source of unending torment for the blessed themselves. In this way, even assuming the validity of the heaven of the monotheists, I fail to see how it could be free of suffering, as long as its necessary antithesis exists.

          At the same time, it seems unlikely that even believers seeped in eternal bliss would not suffer from the tedium of the same. I can only speculate, and "with god, all things are possible," but I have yet to encounter a pleasure, in this life anyway, (and I've sampled my share) that did not grow dull with repetition. And in eternity, repetition becomes certainty.

          The parallels here are less direct, but there are similarities between Buddhism, Hinduism and stoicism.  I am far less an authority on any of these than I am when discussing the monotheisms (though I am somewhat familiar with stoicism), so I will try to stick to what I know. The relationship between Buddhism and Hinduism is mostly historical; the Buddha offered a different, and far more logical, path to achieving nirvana and escaping  Hinduism's cycle of rebirth. Buddhism and stoicism also share historical, and even more, ideological roots (a knowledge which I am indebted to Mr. Smith for). While Hinduism promises an end to suffering in the ultimate obliteration of the self, Buddhism and stoicism and are chiefly concerned with enabling the individual to lessen their suffering in this world, chiefly through freeing the individuals of their desires.

           I am not able to offer as tidy a philosophical refutation of these ideas as I generally try to, and this is in part because I see a great deal of wisdom in what they teach. However, I can explain why I, personally, don't believe I would want the "freedom" they offer, even if it was as easy as taking a pill in The Matrix. There are several reasons I feel this way, and as I said, these are far more personal than I usually rely on, but they are, for me, compelling reasons nonetheless.

            The definition of freedom given in Buddhism and stoicism is the freedom  obtained by a certain state of mind. It postulates that if you are able to reform your desires, you will have the ability to always obtain what you want and always avoid what you want to avoid. "To be unhindered in their execution of thought and action." I disagree. I would argue, to rephrase Daniel Dennet, "If you make your desires really small, you can have anything you want." Well, yeah. In other words, we can limit our desires to the point that what's left really isn't all that desirable anymore, even if we know we can have it. This is roughly equivalent to never wanting to be wrong, so never speaking up at all. Desiring things, even things beyond our reach, is an exercise of our freedom. Disallowing certain desires is, by definition, a diminishing of freedom, not an increase, whatever state of mind it bestows.

           For more trivial reasons- One can make a strong case that without suffering and desire, we would have no art, or at least less, and less interesting art. We can make the mistake of over-romanticizing desire here, but it is difficult to imagine, just in the past century, The Wasteland without T.S. Eliot's sexual frustrations, Fire without Jimi Hendrix's intense desire for sex and drugs, or Heart Shaped Box without Kurt Cobain's many demons. All of these things, and countless others, exist because an individual "suffered from desire." If the existence of unquenchable desires in the world, my own included, are the price to be paid, so be it.

          It is often argued that without its opposite, many things could not exist. The monotheisms understand this in the necessity of the existence of hell, not mere obliteration, for the damned. I would argue that the same is true of joy and happiness. While for some, happiness may come from not wanting anything one can't have, this is, to me, a meaningless kind of happiness. As a minor example, in Maine, where I live, one of the few reliefs from the interminable winters used to come in the form of Hampshire Special Ale, one of the greatest beers ever brewed. The onset of the bitter snow and ever-deepening snow was mildly lessened by the seasonal release of this incredible brew. As the moment approached, many of could hardly wait to see it on the shelves, and when we finally did, would drink sixer after sixer, until it was pulled again in the spring. Then, several years ago, the brewery began releasing it twelve months a year. I hardly buy it anymore. Without the temporarily unsatiated desire, the joy was gone. The same could be said of the seasons mentioned above. I have lived in climates with long, perfect summers. They are never as sweet as the ephemeral summers of Maine, because the relief from the interminable winter, and muddy spring, amplifies their beauty.

           These are but a few examples, but they constitute, for me, some of the reasons why I do not believe Freedom from Suffering or Freedom from Desire are a Freedom Worth Wanting. While much of the idiocy and unnecessary suffering in the world is the result of people desiring more than they need or could really have, this does not mean that suffering and desire are universally undesirable. As with almost anything, a viable practice in moderation loses its validity in its extremes. While the heaven  of the monotheisms is the ultimate wish of many, it is something that I do not see the appeal of. Similarly, for many, relief from the "suffering" their own desires impose on them is in itself desirable (hmm...), but to it seems to me like the creation of a problem to impose a salable solution on.

Freedom Worth Wanting

           So what kind of Freedom is Worth Wanting? I would argue that it is the antithesis of all of the above false freedoms. It is the freedom to exercise my freedom. It is the freedom to pursue the line of thinking that makes the most sense, in any particular circumstance, without being beholden to a doctrine or ideology of any kind. It is the freedom to choose and the freedom to act on that choice. It is the freedom to want what I want, even if the desire goes unfulfilled and causes me suffering. It is the freedom to choose suffering, if I so desire.

           This could easily be mistaken for relativism, but it is certainly not that. What we do with this freedom still matters. If we are to follow the above maxim: Gain understanding, Allow the most freedom, we will, I believe, be led down one of very few paths. Understanding comes from honest questioning of our beliefs and inquiry in the world. Allowing freedom means not taking it from others. But an absolute adherence to any doctrine, no matter how sensible it may be, is, by definition, a relinquishing of some of our freedom. Freedom is the right to change your mind. Freedom is the ability to always choose.


Monday, February 14, 2011

Testing, Testing, One, Two... Three?


Or, Even god Requires Proof to Believe     
        
            In this post I'm going to take some time to make a point that I don't think I have seen articulated before. Certainly, some of my readers will have grown weary of what has become on this blog a rather endless attack on the ideology of faith, both religious and political, but unfortunately, until the world moves on from this lunacy, some of us need to keep hammering the point. (And although arguing against religion and faith in general is rather like taking batting practice with an aluminum bat and golf balls, it does confer a certain satisfaction.)

            I have been reading a fair amount of skeptical writing lately; Greta Christina's excellent blog, which is linked at the top of this page, and Christopher Hitchen's god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. I have enjoyed them both, because their personal perspectives are different enough from my own, but essentially, their arguments against faith and religion are the same as mine have been for well over a decade. So if you are someone who has been down the same intellectual road as myself, much of this blog is familiar territory for you as well. I hope, at the very least, that I can inject enough quality writing and humor into subject to make it worth your reading. But I hope, today, to be able to offer an insight, that, like I said, I at least have never seen before, and may be new for you as well.

            As has been said time and again, the central, and I believe irrefutable, argument against the existence of the Abrahamic god, the god of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, is lack of proof of his existence. Various attempts have been made throughout the ages to do this, and all have failed. Going over them is a subject for another post, but the simple fact remains, if there were incontrovertible, irrefutable proof, the faithful would shove it in our faces every minute of every day. If any one religion could actually prove that they were the one true faith, most of the religious squabbling, and the accompanying violence and oppression, would fade. But no one can produce such a proof, and so they continue trying to shout or bomb everyone else into the Dark Ages.

            Now that the world has turned to experimentation, evidence and proof to answer most of its questions, and it has become more and more recognized, even among the religious faithful, that religion can produce none of these. And so they have retreated behind the nigh impenetrable walls of faith. “We don't need proof,” they say, “we have faith.” When impertinent doubters, such as myself, ask for proof, we are scolded with some version of, “You can't put god to the test. He doesn't need to prove himself to us. We just need to have faith in him.” There is a massive hole in this argument, besides the one I am going to talk about, which is this; If you do not have, nor require, any proof at all, how did you choose your particular religion over any other, or indeed, over believing that god is giant pink teddy bear in the sky? To which of course, the answer is, “Well, that just wouldn't make sense,” or “Because the Torah/ Bible/ Koran says god is...” In other words, proof and sense are required, just not when discussing it with someone who doesn't believe that any particular book has magical powers.

            But this is a digression from my main point, which follows. Over and over in the holy books of the Abrahamic religions, we see, in some of the favorite passages of the faithful, that god himself requires proof. Yes, the omniscient, omnipotent creator of all existence, repeatedly puts his creations to the test, just to be sure that they are faithful to him. This is a celebrated fact in all of these religions, and in the contemporary lives of believers. In fact, it is the one and only defense they can often come up with when presented with the Problem of Evil (why a supposedly omnipotent, loving god allows evil and suffering in the world), that it is a test, or with realities such as the fossil record, which some claim was put there, either by god or satan, to test their faith.

            But the question remains; why on earth would the creator of all existence, who purportedly knows everything about everything, from the beginning of creation to the end of time, who knows all of our most secret thoughts and desires, need to test his followers to prove their faithfulness and loyalty to him? Wouldn't he simply peer into their souls (which are just an extension of him, according to some) and discern their loyalty and fidelity? Why would he need them to prove themselves to him?

            There are two possible answers, the second much more likely than the first, though the first is the only one the faithful can lay claim to without giving up the golden egg. The first possible explanation is; Even god needs proof. Even he needs to see our resolve in actions and deeds, and without these, even our best intentions and greatest loyalty are not enough. (This hearkens back to the great divide in Christianity, between faith and good works.) The other explanation, which I believe makes a lot more sense, is that this is simply further evidence that the god of the Abrahamic religions, like the thousands of other deities which have been imagined throughout the ages, is a creation of human beings. The writers of the holy books found it impossible that anyone, anywhere, even god, would believe anything without proof. (Oh, the irony!) They could not, in their pathetic human attempts to imagine the divine, imagine a being who would not require proof, because it is so bloody obviously a precondition for any non-omniscient being to believe anything!! And so, in the construction of their myths, they used proof and evidence as the yardsticks by which the greatest heroes of the myths were measured. These men and women were set apart from those who just professed faith because they were the ones who proved to god that they were loyal. And god, in his infinite wisdom, accepted nothing less.

            The use of proof as the essential yardstick appears in nearly every noteworthy story in the Bible,  sometimes to prove loyalty, sometimes to show the absence of it. Adam and Eve proved they were not worthy of the Garden when they ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Abraham proved his loyalty to god when he was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. Joseph proved his holiness by rejecting the Pharaoh's wife and enduring his sufferings without complaint. Job, also, proved his loyalty by enduring his sufferings without complaint. Even Jesus had to prove his loyalty to his father (himself? weird) when he was tested by satan in the desert. We could find many more, but since these are some of the most celebrated stories in the myth, this list will suffice.

            There is another way of phrasing this, which is more accurate, given the construction of the myth. That is to view all of these events as “tests” (experiments, if you will), of God's. He tested Adam and Eve by putting the forbidden fruit within easy reach. He tested Abraham by asking for the sacrifice of his son. He tested Joseph and Job through their sufferings. He tested his own son (himself? weird) by  allowing the Great Tempter, the Prince of Lies, to tempt him, test him, in the desert. 

           What does this god resemble? A scientist. He has a hypothesis: I think this person is loyal unto me, and that he will serve my purpose. He devises an experiment: I will test his loyalty by X (asking him/ her not to eat this fruit, asking for his son, asking him to suffer, asking for his life). He collected data: He went through with the experiments. He drew a conclusion: Adam and Eve were not loyal, Abraham, Joseph, Job and Jesus (I? weird) were loyal.

            What does this tell us? In all of the most crucial junctions of the Judeo/ Christian myth even the omniscient, omnipotent creator of the universe had to test the individuals on whom his creation and revelation was going to pivot; Adam and Eve, Abraham, Joseph, Jesus. It should be apparent now what kind of bind this puts today's faithful in. If even god requires proof before believing in someone, why don't they? If even god dares not act in the world simply on faith, even though he has every right to, how dare they?

            A little historical (well, quasi-historical) perspective will help see how they got themselves into this bind. In all of the monotheistic myths, it is precisely because god keeps proving his existence and power, over and over again, vis a vis all of the other gods available for worship in the Fertile Crescent, that people are supposed to worship him. He proves it through the flood, he proves it to Pharaoh through the plagues, he proves it through the manna and pillars of fire and smoke, he proves it when the walls of Jericho come tumbling down, he  proves it to the priests of Baal through Isaiah and the sacrifice of the bull, he  proves it through the virgin birth, through Jesus' miracles and through the resurrection. The perceived ability to perform miracles, things which humans couldn't do, was the proof, the reason, people accepted and worshiped one god over any others. The creators of the myths never envisioned a time when all of the things that were being attributed to god would be able to be laid open before human knowledge. They never imagined a time where the existence of the universe, the existence of life and intelligent creatures, of the seasons and all natural phenomena would be able to be explained without recourse to a divine power. So for the creators of these myths, of course people needed proof to believe something. This fact is so elementary that of course even god needs proof before he acts or believes.

            Now, let's be careful; I am not saying that any of the “proofs” that were included in the myths actually happened, the historical and scientific record have shown this over and over again. At best, some of these events may be exaggerations of some anecdotal evidence, or, as usually happened, they were simply borrowed from still older myths. What I am trying to show is how inexplicable it is to consider it a “virtue” to believe in anything without some kind of proof, some kind of evidence. Even god, who supposedly knows all, can't bring himself to do it. How can you?

            Of course, god's requirement of proof in the myths only demonstrates that what we are really talking about is the latter of the two options given above; that the Abrahamic god is, like thousands of other gods, a human invention. It takes only slightly more reason and imagination to see beyond the limited vision of divinity that was the norm at that time. No truly omnipotent, omniscient god would need to “test” anything. In all of his perfect knowledge, he would already know the outcome. It is precisely that he is imagined as requiring this, that is proof of his mortal origins.


            * (There is a third possibility, which involves slightly altering the usual telling of these myths. I don't think most of the faithful would come to it very quickly on their own- they still haven't come up with any good answers to refute Tom Paine more than 200 years later. Reason isn't really their thing. However, because I'm a nice guy, and because it is part of my job as a school teacher that I find hard to leave at work, I'm going to show you the one argument that could be made against what I have said above... then I'm going to knock that one down, too.

             It could be said that god doesn't need proof for himself, but only tested the characters in the myths to prove to them how strong their faith actually was. "Yes! That's it!" you say. Well, besides the fact that all the textual evidence points in the other direction, that it actually was god who wanted the proof (I don't feel like opening that silly book right now, but go look for yourself), this argument also suffers from the same fault, just removed a step. If that is the case, then god still  recognizes the necessity of proof for human beings to believe in anything, even their own faith. He might not require it, but this would be simply further proof (man, I love that word) of god's recognition that he created people who need proof to truly accept something.

            So when the faithful put their fingers in their ears and say, "My Bible says to have faith, and that's good enough for me," they are faced with yet another contradiction in their holy book. Do as I say? Or do as I do?)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Sorry, You Get These Guys Too

Or, The Irrational Faiths of Hitler, Stalin and Mao

      If you have been reading this blog at all, it is pretty clear that much of it is a polemic against religious faith. This is because I have come to believe over the last few years that religious faith is one of, if not the single, greatest dilemma facing humanity today, both for its own horrifically long and growing list of crimes, as well as for the way it manages to make genuine problems facing our species, AIDS, population growth, climate change, territorial rights, marital and pregnancy rights, educational rights and nuclear war, all far more intractable and insoluble than they need to be, by injecting irrelevant Bronze Age nonsense into the debates.

      But this was not always so. For much of the preceding century, the bloodiest in history, probably bloodier than all other centuries combined, these same problems, or others were exasperated not by religious faiths, but by political ones. Fascism and communism were enormous threats to the peace and prosperity of people all over the globe, and went beyond threats into actual oppression, brutality, starvation, torture and murder for millions upon millions of people unfortunate enough to live under their yoke.

      The faithful often like to try to pin the crimes of these monsters on their atheism. Besides the great irony of their own bristling at the equivalent suggestion that religion is responsible for thousands of years of murder, torture, inquisitions, witch-burnings, crusades, and the like, this attempt fails for a very simple reason. It wasn't their atheism that allowed them to justify such horrors, it was, exactly as it is with religion, their faith.

      For the religious faithful, the ultimate difference between themselves and someone like myself, or any of the others whose blogs are linked at the top of this page, is that they believe in god and we don't. However, as I tried to point out in my post Terminology, for us skeptics, that is not the greatest difference. ("Skeptic" is the term I will be using from here on out to differentiate myself and those who think like me from those who simply also deny the supremacy of the Abrahamic god.) The true difference lies in the skeptic's understanding that nothing should have to be taken on faith, whether it is god, or ghosts, or any new-age woowoo or the supremacy of a certain race or economic class. So with this understanding, we will be taking a look at how, if you are someone who believes faith is a legitimate way to understand the world, Hitler, Stalin and Mao are actually coming to your party. They're not invited to mine.

       To illustrate why this is so, we could use a quick review of what we mean by "faith." It has been described, variously, as "belief in things unseen," or as "belief in the absence of evidence" or more accurately now, in the 21st century, "belief in spite of the evidence." So how can we categorize the tenets of fascism and communism, and their tragically charismatic leaders as tenets of faith? It is quite simple actually, particularly in hindsight. In the interest of time, some of this may be a simplification, but I trust that the reader knows enough of the historical details to fill in the subtleties and nuances of those ideologies.

      Hitler's fascist Nazi party believed in the supremacy of the "Aryan race" (whatever the hell that is, since the Aryans lived primarily in the Caucasus Mts. and migrated to India), Germany's destiny to reign for 1,000 years (The Reich) and the sub-human status of Jews, Poles, Catholics, queers, the disabled, blacks, communists... pretty much everyone else. Again, in the interests of time, let's just agree to agree that this is all patently stupid, false, ridiculous and would be laughable if it weren't for the innumerable evils which were carried out under the auspices of this faith. Because a faith is precisely what it is. 

      Let's check this system against our definitions of faith from above, just to be sure. "Belief in things unseen." Yup, the destiny of a thousand-year Reich fits that one nicely. Accepting that someone else has access to perfect knowledge of the future can, always, only be done on faith. "Belief in the absence of evidence." Sure, the Nazi's manufactured "science" (often horrifically)  to prove that "Aryans" were in fact superior, but this "evidence" obviously holds no water, since it was manufactured to prove a point, which is the antithesis of science. (We'll take a closer look at the "science" of these ideologies in a bit.) "Belief in spite of the evidence." Jesse Owen's humiliation of his Aryan opponents at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin was an obvious, and unheeded, disproof of the Nazi myth of Aryan superiority over other "sub-human races', such as Africans.


      Like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and fascism, communism is, at its core, a millenarian prophecy. Like all the rest, the coming of the Messiah, Armageddon, the Rapture, the Reich, and the Caliphate, communism promised, after a period of strife and struggle, that the world would finally become peaceful, equitable, and blissful, until the end of time, at least for the adherents of the faith. Like all the rest, the conversion or elimination of all non-believers necessarily precedes this. This prophetic element fits the "belief in things unseen" aspect of a faith. However, since Marx had actually done quite a bit of serious thinking, even if his scheme ultimately proved to be deeply flawed, we have to dig a little deeper into the history of communism to see where its adherents continued to "believe in the absence, or in spite of, the evidence." Along the way, we'll throw in some examples from fascism as well, just to make my point abundantly clear.


      To demonstrate just how different these ideologies are from skepticism, we need to look at their commonalities. Skepticism recognizes that, to date, science is far and away the most effective means humanity has ever discovered for understanding, predicting and manipulating our world. These totalitarian ideologies also tried to employ the power of science to their benefit, and their colossal failure at this reveals exactly why these ideologies weren't scientific at all (and thus not skeptical) but were just faiths of a different stripe. Again, this, not the belief or non-belief in a cranky, judgmental old man in the sky, is what reveals totalitarian political ideologies to be much closer cousins to religion than they ever were to skeptical atheism.



      If you are of my parent's or grandparent's generation, you are old enough to recall a time when there was a legitimate fear that "Nazi science" or "communist science" was threatening to pass the actual science being done in the West. (Hint: any time you put another word in front of "science," it probably ain't science at all, unless its telling you what branch of science it is, like "life science" or "physical science.") History has shown that not only did this threat not play out, it was completely conflated and false to begin with. At no point did either communism or fascism have any long-term chance of surpassing the actual science being done in the free world. There were certain minor victories, such as Sputnik, but the inherently closed nature of these societies, the forbidding of freedom of thought, travel and expression, which is vital to science, doomed them from the outset. But more damaging than this was the attempt by these ideologies to force the world to confirm to their faith-derived notion of how it should be. Examples will illustrate this better. Let's start with Nazi "science."

      In the centuries preceding Nazism, Germany was an intellectual and scientific powerhouse, arguably the most advanced in the world, though the United States and Britain maintained dominion in certain areas. In  just the decades immediately preceding the rise of the Nazi party, in practical and theoretical sciences, Germany can be credited with the discovery or explanation of: X-rays, quantum mechanics, relativity, aspirin and heroin (when it was a used as a medicine), early automobiles, gliders, dirigibles, the electric typewriter, the electric locomotive, the Geiger counter, and many more. In about a decade, the Nazi party gutted Germany's intellectual and scientific establishment. Of course, Hitler wanted to harness the power of science, but he thought he could do this by "demanding" that it produce one lunatic, hellish thing after another, often mixed in with some occult beliefs (faith again), which of course never worked out. Scientists who were not of the proper "race" or ideology were removed from their posts or fled the country. As a general outlook, Hitler thought that teaching "will-power" should be primary and declared, "Instruction in the sciences should be considered of the last importance." Fortunately for civilization, for the immense damage done by the faith of this idiot and his toadies, their faith was at least total enough to help them in making some colossal errors which the rest of us can all be grateful for, such as Hitler's dismissal of the combat potential of rockets and jet aircraft, and the idea of nuclear weapons as a fantasy of "Jewish physics." (Again, with the word before "science", which only people who don't have the faintest clue how science works think makes sense.)


      The communists also, Stalin and Mao (there were others of course, Pol Pot, etc., but we're trying to be succinct), had an astonishing capacity to place their faith in Marxism ahead of any amount of evidence that was put before their eyes. In Russia, one of countless examples can be seen in the tale of Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, Director of the Soviet Academy of Sciences' Institute of Genetics from 1940-1965. Lysenko was a Lamarckian, which, even at the time, was a long discredited theory of genetics and evolution. He felt this fit better with communist beliefs, because the Darwinian theory of evolution had far too much emphasis on competition, which sounded suspiciously like capitalist market economics. This led Lysenko, the director of Soviet agricultural policies for a quarter century, to many incredibly stupid beliefs such as the notion that if one planted crops more closely together than any home gardener knows is wise, that rather than choking each other out, the weaker ones would "willingly die" to help aid the greater good of the crop as a whole. Stalin, of course, approved of this line of thinking, since he was asking the same thing of tens of millions of his own subjects. This idiocy, along with many other policies which were retained "in the absence, or in spite of, the evidence" resulted in the death by starvation of 6-8 million people under Stalin's rule.

      "But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/ You ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow." Or... you're going to starve to death, too. Like their enemies to the north, the Chinese communists wanted to demonstrate the superiority of Marxist science over actual science. (Another good sign that a belief is just a faith, without any actual truth value, is that greatest enemies of the believers is another group of believers with whom they agree on 98% of the issues, but are willing to antagonize or kill one another over the remaining 2%, such as Protestants and Catholics, Sunnis and Shiites, etc.) As is well known, Mao's "Great Leap Forward," implemented agricultural reforms based on "Marxist science" which resulted in the starvation of  possibly 45 million Chinese. This was, essentially, faith-inspired state-sanctioned murder, just like the Soviet example. But not to worry, Mao said, when he forbade the mourning of the dead, since the bodies "fertilize the ground." While his subjects' bodies consumed themselves from the inside out, Mao's party continued to export food, to prove the productivity of socialist agriculture to the rest of the world.


      In all of the above examples we can see the devastating effects of having faith in an ideology at the expense of ignoring the available evidence. We could find countless more, but they are all part of the historical record, and I don't need to do all the work. But the theme remains the same. When one tries to force the world to conform to one's preconceived notions of how the world "should" be, the world, not surprisingly, refuses to bend. Exactly as happens with religions, faith-based political ideologies that refuse to bend their understanding to what is actually happening, and continue to distort and twist both their perception and reporting of facts, eventually take their toll on real human lives. The history of faith-based political ideologies is virtually identical to that of faith-based religions; it is the history of cruelty, violence, torture, unjust imprisonment, forced poverty and starvation, murder and genocide, all in the name of "the faith." All of the crimes committed by political faiths have been committed at one time or another by religious faiths, and the presence or absence of belief in a deity does not seem to make a lick of difference. Whether the "dear leader" is a prophet from ages past or an icon behind barbed wire, whether the promise is for eternal life in the next world or a more "perfect" realization of this one, the sacrifice the people (never the elite) must make to achieve this is always the same. Give up your freedom, give up your reason, give up your right to think for yourself, give up your right to question, give up your life.


      Faith is the cause of all of the greatest evils ever to befall humankind. Use whatever verbiage you want. Faith is a crime. Faith is a sin. Faith is immoral. 

      Faith is evil.


(Many of the details of the historical record I present here are taken from Timothy Ferris' outstanding  The Science of Liberty, which I discussed in more detail here. Again, there are few books I can recommend more highly.)