Why Science is Not Myth

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 29, 2015

My book club was discussing Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari when Linda said she liked how the author compared capitalism to religion. Tim replied that many things are like religion, including atheism. Cayce then added everything boils down to myths, including science. I knew what Tim and Cayce were getting at, that we all use our beliefs like a religion, and that we understand aspects of reality through stories, but I objected that science should be called another myth. Cayce then countered that I should show him a photograph of an electron. Tim then commented that science often gets corrupted and misused. Cayce then said that science can’t prove anything, and can only offer a probability that never approached certainty.

Flammarion_Woodcut

I wanted to argue more, but by then, it seemed like we were getting into a private discussion, boring the rest of the group. However, I think it’s extremely important to define why science is not myth. First I think we need to define the word myth. For our purposes I’d say myths are stories that explain reality. However, one definition of myth is a false story – “That’s just a myth.” I’m not sure if Cayce was arguing that science is a myth because it’s just another story explaining reality, or that no story can explain the absolute truth about reality, so they are all myths.

I believe it’s important to distinguish that science is not myth because it’s the only cognitive tool our species has developed to explain how reality works. Myths, religions and philosophy have failed at explaining reality, and what sets science apart is its success. Science is the only system of thought that has consistently worked even though it doesn’t offer absolute certainty, or answers to all questions.

One reason why myths sometimes appear to work is believers assume our reality is not the real reality, that we live in an illusion, and a higher reality contains the truth to our existence. Some believers in myths believe reality is mutable and thought can shape reality. However, I’m working on the assumption that there is an external reality, that it’s part of a single reality, and reality can be understood by observation.

To assume science is just another myth, is to suggest that reality is unknowable. It implies that the knowledge we’ve gained from science is just another illusion. I reject that for two reasons. First, science is a method, not a belief. Second, the results of science is too consistent.

Myths impose concepts on reality. Science reveals patterns in reality. Myths come from the inner world of our subjective minds. Science studies objective reality outside our brains. Science and myth are polar opposites.

Too many people today think the data collected by the process of scientific research as something you can accept or reject. There are two problems here. One, the current results of science can be uncertain, and two, people want to believe what they want to believe. It’s unfair to judge science because people don’t like the results, or the results are inconclusive. Science constantly refines what we know about reality because it never stops gatherings new information. Myths never do that.

Myths are popular memes. We keep myths going because people like them. For instance the idea of heaven. There has never been on shred of evidence that heaven exists, but most people believe in it.

Myths are ideas we want to be true. Scientific ideas are ones we prove to be true. Myths require no evidence. Science does.

The reason science is not myth is because science is a technique not an idea. The results of the scientific method are statistical data. Mythology produces infinite possibilities. Science shows us consistent patterns.

Science does not depend on belief. Gravity works whether you believe in it or not. So does evolution and climate change. Electrons exist without us seeing them. Seven billion plus people use electrons every day. Electrons are immensely dependable and predictable. Cayce was holding an iPhone when he asked for a photograph of an electron. I should have pointed out that an iPhone is better evidence of electrons than any picture.

Mythology produced countless human cultures before the advent of science. Since the advent of science culture is homogenizing around consistent scientific results. The Comanche of North America, the Australian aborigines, or even the Israelites of the Old Testament could imagine living in any kind of reality they wanted, but they could never have built a Boeing 777 or IMAX theater. Citizens around the Earth are seeing a consistent reality because science showed us how to build cars, computers, cell phones and CT scanners.

Humans around the globe rebel against science because they want their myths. This is why I’m making such a fuss about refusing to accept science as myth. We have a clear choice. We can live in the illusion of what we want to believe, or we can use science to study how reality actually works and adapt our minds and culture to what’s real.

JWH

The Challenges of Living in a Meaningless Reality

We live in a meaningless reality.  By that I mean we have no prescribed purpose.  There is no God telling us what to be, nor does the universe expect anything from us.  Our awareness of the universe is an accidental byproduct of evolution, and when we die that awareness will cease to exist.  I know religious people will strongly object to the assertion that our lives are without purpose and there is no God that’s personally involved with each of us.  But religion is a psychological response to not understanding reality by a developing consciousness.  Once a critical level knowledge of reality is attained it becomes obvious that God and religion is all in our heads and not part of the external reality.

Beliefs in gods are universal in the human condition because psychologically we do not like living without a sense of purpose, but with enough education it become abundantly clear that we’re living in a universe in which our species has no special purpose or protector.  Once we accept that it becomes obvious that we face a number of challenges.  People can live perfectly happy lives knowing there is no meaning in the universe but the very first challenge we deal with is wanting to define our own meaning.  We have a deeply seated need for meaning.

Challenge #1 – Existentialism

Existentialism is the philosophy of living in a meaningless universe.  It’s mostly an atheistic philosophy, but there is a theistic branch, which says God created the universe and then walked away, but in ether flavor, existentialism is about existing in a universe with no prescribed purpose.  Existentialism basically says everyone has to invent their own purpose.  This is both good and bad because people can choose very selfish pursuits, or even amoral pursuits.  Counter to what religious believers think, atheists tend to be more moral and ethical when we work at creating our own rules about living rather than accepting them from imaginary beings.

The universe does not demand that we don’t kill – if you look at nature, the rule would seem to be:  thou shalt kill or be eaten.  We have decided that we shouldn’t kill – and that’s deeper than religion. Even atheists believe murder is wrong.  Even without a God defining right and wrong we can instinctively develop morality.  The faithful fear a meaningless universe because they fear absolute chaos, but even without God we can find order.

Existentialism succeeds for the individual but not for the human race.  There is no universal system of belief that all people accept.  If we want law and order it must be created by consensus that’s not tainted by any belief system.  As a species we all want order, justice, security and civil rights in society, and they require a consensus to achieve.  We could collectively pursue a delusion.  If everyone was a pure Muslim or Mormon we could create a clean orderly society where most people were happy, but we’d be living a delusion.  Thus the first challenge is to create a society that allows all its citizens freedom to pursue their own created purpose, but still protects the rights of all other citizens.

Challenge #2 – Delusional Imperialism

We all have a psychological defense mechanism to impose meaning onto reality.  If we are poorly educated about reality, we will make up an explanation that makes sense to us and then share our delusion with others as a way to rationalize we’re right.  This is an extremely common neurotic behavior.  This is not a problem when populations of shared delusions stays small, but when they grow very big like the over billion Christians clashing with the over billion Muslim it becomes quite a danger.  Historically it has always been a danger when one delusional group tries to rule the entire population.  No mass delusion has ever achieved 100% penetration because the desire for personal freedom is always stronger, and the fact that no delusional system has ever explained reality correctly.  True details of external reality always brings inner and outer criticisms to a delusion.

Challenge #3 – A Delusion Free Government

Whether it’s Christian, Muslim, Confucius, Capitalism or Communism, most governments are tainted by a philosophical system that doesn’t actually explain reality.  They always fail.  The challenge is to create a government that is not tainted by ideology.  Some of the founding fathers of the United States may have attempted this but time and again their plans have been thwarted by delusional groups.  Any religious group that can’t understand the concept of the separation of church and state is a threat to a purely free government.  There are no exceptions to this.

Throughout the world all governments fail because they are under attack by special interest groups.  Our challenge as humans living in a meaningless universe is to create governments that are equally meaningless but offer the maximum freedom and protection to its citizens.

Challenge #4 – Achieving a Consensus about Reality

Because our lives have no prescribed purpose means we can prescribe any meaning we want to ourselves.  We become self-programming entities.  Ethically there is nothing wrong with believing that Jesus will bring about personal immortality, even if it’s 100% inconsistent with reality.  Ethics are the way we define right and wrong, or morality, if you will, in a meaningless universe.   The universe has no ethical intent, nor does it care what ethics we create, it’s 100% indifferent.  But because we are a social species we’ve invented ethics as a way to create fair play between individuals and groups.  However, there are no 100% consensus on any ethical idea.  Probably the one ethical ideal that is the most universally held is the golden rule.

In the entire history of the world there has only been one system that seeks to understand reality in a consistent way and that’s science.  Science is a system of exploring reality and not a philosophy or belief system.  Science is the study of reality by consensus.  People study an aspect of reality, create a hypothesis, create more experiments, collect data, and finally propose a theory that is shared around the world, where other scientists will test that theory.  If everyone creates experiments that validates the theory, the theory is considered true for everyone.  Religious people have trouble with the word theory – they think it means a hypothetical idea.  No, it means a proposed explanation about how reality works to be tested.  Theories become true after years of consistent testing.  The theory of gravity or the theory of evolution or the theory of relativity are now considered facts about reality because they’ve maintain decades or centuries of consistent experimental validation.  We keep the name “theory of whatever” as just a label and to give credit to the person who first proposed it.

Through science we know a gigantic amount of information about reality.  Yes, we don’t know everything, but we know a whole lot.  Most humans have never taken the time to study science so they are suspicious of it, or even consider science arrogant for thinking it has achieved so much knowledge.  But science is consistent, and it’s the only system that has explained reality in a consistent manner.

The reason why there is such a tremendous conflict between science and religion is because they explain reality differently.  Actually, science explains reality in one way, and religion explains reality in an infinite number of way, all inconsistent.  Of course religion is thwarted by other thought systems such as logic, philosophy and mathematics.  Any person with a good education in science and psychology will understand that gods and religion are a mental coping mechanism inside people’s heads.  The unpleasant reality is the scientific minded must live with the mass of delusional people.  The delusional people have inconsistent views about reality and try to impose them onto other delusional believers and non-believers.  This means it’s very hard to have a consistent view of reality by all humans living in it.

Challenge #5 – Living with Delusional People

To the faithful, they see reality composed of believers and nonbelievers.  To the scientific, we see reality inhabited by clear thinkers and people possessed by delusions.  I know that sounds arrogant.  However, a really good education just clears away the delusions so it doesn’t feel arrogant, it just feels like the freedom to see clearly.  Don’t get me wrong, no matter how smart you are, there are always delusional traps of various kinds.  Our minds are not computers.  Our thoughts are overwhelmed by biological impulses, and it’s very easy to forget what we’ve learned.  It’s like that movie Charly based on the book Flowers for Algernon, about a mentally retarded man who is given an experimental cure and he becomes a genius for a short while, but in the end, it wears off.  I can imagine losing my clarity of thinking as I get old and de-evolving into delusional thinking.  It’s not arrogance, just fleeting clarity.   It would be fantastic if society as a whole was delusional free so I wouldn’t be tempted by delusional thoughts as my mind ages.

The delusional in recent years have sensed that science is a powerful tool for understanding reality but without understanding how science works.  They have even created fake science in attempt to justify their delusions not understanding that their theories have to be tested scientifically and they always fail.  I have even heard of faithful people getting Ph.D.s so they can claim to be scientific in their attacks on science.  The sad fact is delusions are extremely hard to escape.  It is very hard to accept that reality has no meaning, that we are mortal, and our lives are subjected to the whims of chance.

Challenge #6 – The Meaningless of Life

If you’ve seen many Woody Allen films then you’ve seen many stories about characters trying to deal with the meaningless of life.  Living with the truth can be hard, but it can also be empowering.  It’s like giving up childhood and living on your own.  The universe becomes more magnificent when you get beyond religion.  Reality is incredibly far out, and there seems to be no end to discovering more about reality.  Once you get past the idea that there is a God telling you how to act and believe it’s very freeing to feel the responsibility of thinking for oneself.  Sure, it’s bummer that we’re going to die, but it’s a real miracle that we’re here at all and it’s awe inspiring to contemplate that.  Trust me on this, religion has very small ideas about reality, it’s very limiting and tiny compare to the real reality.  When a religious person is inspired by the miracle of life they are just  seeing the tiniest of the surface of things.  It’s a shame they hate evolution because evolution is only an explanation about how the miracle of life works.

If you read a hundred books on evolution and then compare it to the phrase in the Bible “and God created life” you will see there is no comparison.  If you want to believe in God, read one hundred books on evolution and think this is how God created life.  The theory of evolution is the Bible written with a billion more details, that’s all.  Rejecting evolution is the refusal to look at reality directly and in detail.  The ironic thing is probably the people who wrote Genesis were more aware of the workings of reality than the true believers in the Bible today who live so far away from nature.  Early religions are always nature worshipers.  Science is the ultimate form of nature worship.

Challenge #7 – The Evolution of Man

Humans can’t evolve as long as a majority of humans are mired in their religious delusions.  Those who are free of delusions are being held back by the people who are possessed by ancient superstitions.  Even though reality is without meaning doesn’t mean that humanity can’t decide its own purpose or purposes, but that can’t happen as long as most people cling to their religious delusions.  I’d like to think that given enough time we’ll spread stable governments throughout the world and develop ever improving educational systems that will one day lead to a delusional free population, but I have grave doubts.  Religions destabilizes governments.  However, that might be part of our evolutionary progress.  Without chaos in our lives we never would have evolved into such powerful thinkers.  Neanderthals lived for hundreds of thousands of years without changing.  It’s weird, but religious strife might be the generator of free thinking.

But still I worry that there’s a barrier to total freedom that humanity is incapable of passing.

Conclusion

For us people who want to live in a society where everyone sees reality with a scientific rationality our only choice is to support stable governments that strongly support the separation of church and state, and spends lots of money on education.  The Christian and Muslim fundamentalists instinctively know that liberal education is bad for their view of reality.  This is why I believe many Americans hate paying for public schools – they see them as attacking their beliefs.  It’s also why fundamentalists want to influence the content of school textbooks.  And I can’t help but wonder if the conservatives who want a smaller government isn’t because they see a big government spreading scientific knowledge.

Liberals tend to be less religious and assign a purpose to government to uplift all people, whereas conservatives tend to be religious and dislike government being in the purpose business or making what they consider moral decisions that belong to their churches.  Essentially, non-religious people see government as the highest form of social organization and purpose, where religious people see their particular religious group being the supreme authority.  This is quite a conflict, but it does define the battle lines between the two groups.  Atheists want big government and big education.  Theists want small government, controlled education and a big universal religion.

Right now most people have to evolve through many delusions stages in childhood before they get enough education to see clearly.  I wonder what society would be like if we taught our children right from the start to see reality clearly and never allow them to be confused by the many delusional systems that exist.

I sometimes wonder if fiction is a danger to our development.  I love fiction, and we pursue a lot of fiction through novels, movies, TV shows, video games, comics, etc.  If we read more non-fiction and watched more documentaries, would that help to free us sooner?  I also worry that fiction is the escapism that people pursue when they have given up on faith but do not want to work to understand science.  You can reject religion and still find many other sources of delusion.  If you want to know how reality works you have to study science, and that’s not very popular.

There are many ways of living in our meaningless universe.  Most people cope by believing in various delusions.  Others ignore reality by chasing after hedonistic pursuits.  Art has always been a major alternative for some.  A few can’t take the lack of meaning and kill themselves, which is very tragic.  The real challenge is to accept the realities of the reality and find your own purpose that reflects the best knowledge we gained through science.

JWH – 7/29/11

Why We Fail to Fix Our Large Problems

Today I read “Was the $5 Billion Worth It?” an interview with Bill Gates, Jr. at the Wall Street Journal, which asked him if he felt his money spent on fixing education in America was well spent.  Here is one significant reply:

Asked to critique these endeavors, Mr. Gates demurs: "I applaud people for coming into this space, but unfortunately it hasn’t led to significant improvements." He also warns against overestimating the potential power of philanthropy. "It’s worth remembering that $600 billion a year is spent by various government entities on education, and all the philanthropy that’s ever been spent on this space is not going to add up to $10 billion. So it’s truly a rounding error."

Every night when I watch the evening news I get depressed because we are facing so many huge problems that we can’t seem to fix, no matter how much money, effort and brain power we put into finding solutions.  We have education, the budget deficit, global warming, health care, unemployment, the economy, religious conflicts, over population, and the list goes on and on.  At first I was going to list the war in Afghanistan, but wars always seen to end someday, so they fix themselves – the problems I’m talking about are the ones that never get fixed and we argue over the solutions our entire lives.

If we spend $600 billion a year on education, how come education in America is seen as a huge honking failure?  Today I read that only 12% of the American public believes in evolution and that around 50% believe that Jesus is due to return to Earth sometime soon.  Is that a failure of the education system, or does it show a basic inability for the average person to learn.

But if you look at our big problems there is one consistent factor that few people want to address, and that is we’re polarized over how we view the fundamental working of reality.  Essentially there are two philosophical opposing groups which I’ll label Science versus the Faithful.

The largest group are the metaphysical believers – people that think the Earth is our temporary home while God decides our true destination.  They believe Earth is the center of God’s creation and humans are his chosen beings, and this life is a test of our souls.

The other group, sees the universe as being very old and very big, and the Earth and humans are insignificant compared to the rest of the cosmos.  They see reality working by very exact laws that can be discovered through science and mathematics.  These people believe our lives are only as important as we make them for ourselves. 

God’s faithful, whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, or the many spiritual followers of Eastern religions believe in ancient holy books, written before science or history.  These spiritual texts can’t coexist with science.  The worshipers of these books firmly believe the key to metaphysical reality is within their scriptures.  Most of the faithful accept the tenets of their beliefs after only a brief exposure to their basic concepts.  Believing is very easy.  Giving up these beliefs are very hard.

The followers of science believe knowledge is vast and to understand reality requires reading hundreds of books.  They are the believers in good liberal educations, which means it takes twenty years of solid study to get a decent grasp on reality.  Learning is very hard, and it’s so easy to forget.

The faithful believe much of education is a waste, and that a good deal of it are lies.  They refuse to believe in evolution because they can’t comprehend it and because they intuitively understand it invalidates their most cherish belief, that we have souls that can exist in an afterlife.  They refuse to believe in global warming because they can’t comprehend the science and because they believe this life is not important, but the next one, an eternal life in paradise should be our ultimate concern.

It’s probably more than obvious that I’m on the side of science.  The really good question is:  If we were all on the side of science, could we solve the really big problems we face?  I think so.  But I know the faithful also believe if everyone believed the tenets of their holy books the world would be a beautiful place too.

I wish there was some kind of compromise so we could make everyone happen, but there isn’t.  The strange thing is the faithful think Earth is of no value, so why can’t they let us have this world since we loved it so much more.  The faithful should live like the Amish, pursuing simple lives, following their spiritual disciplines until they die.  I can’t understand why the faithful want to run this world when it matters so little to them in their philosophy.  Why do they want political power when they should be seeking piety.

Here a logic puzzle. 

We have four possible paths – two real actions betting on two choices.

  1. Global warming is a fact, we fix things
  2. Global warming is a fact, we don’t fix things
  3. Global warming is a scam, we fix things anyway
  4. Global warming is a scam, we don’t do anything

There are four results.

  1. We save the world
  2. We kill off civilization
  3. We get an energy efficient society
  4. We save some money

If the scientists are wrong the worse thing that could happen is we end up with a very energy efficient society.  If the client deniers are wrong, we end up living in hell.  No logical person would place their bets that lead to result 2.

Yet, for many in our society action 2 is where they want to place all their chips.  And is it any wonder that most of these same people are also desiring the end of the world by wishing for the return of Jesus.  Do they think the Rapture is brought on by overheating?

We will never solve our big problems as long as we’re polarized between science and faith, and neither side seems willing to change.

Someone needs to create a religion where the path to heaven lies in mastering science.  Has none of the faithful ever wondered if their purpose on Earth is to figure out the mysteries of reality?  I guarantee there are plenty of clues if you’re willing to study science.

JWH – 7/25/11

The Tree of Life (2011)–Grace versus Nature

Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life is quite polarizing for its audiences.  NPR is even reporting that a small percentage of viewers walk out on the film and some of those ask for their money back.  Now I’ve walked out on a number of films over the decades and I can understand many reasons for not wanting to finish a movie.  There is no way to know why people leave before The Tree of Life is over, but I wonder if any do for philosophical reasons.  This is a philosophical movie, but I also found it immensely entertaining, beautiful to watch, and never boring.  This is one of the most ambitious films I’ve ever seen.  It makes me think of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed.  Another film about naturalism.

The Tree of Life attempts to answer one of the most difficult spiritual questions in philosophy:  Why do bad things happen to good people.  The film begins by telling us that life is a battle between grace and nature.  Throughout the film we hear the character pray to God asking for guidance, forgiveness,  understanding and meaning, and when a son and brother dies, his parents and siblings suffer greatly, partly at the loss, but mostly for not understanding why.

The film quotes The Book of Job, and has a scene where a pastor gives a excellent sermon on Job.  Job is one of the most complex stories in the Bible.  Many of the faithful have given up belief in God trying to understand “Why do the righteous suffer?”

I do not live by faith, but I like the word grace.  Terrence Malick shows the history of the universe in this film, making a good case for evolution is part of reality.  The faithful believe we are here by the grace of God, but I believe we are here by the grace of evolution.  Our universe is immense in size and ancient in age, and our lives are a miracle of unintentional consequences.  I think the word grace applies to that too.  I also believe the most sophisticated of spiritual philosophers accept evolution and incorporate it into their philosophy.

The difference between the faithful and those who accept evolution is life after death.  The faithful want to believe that no matter how much suffering we experience in this life, it will be soothed by the life we get after this one.  And Malick shows that in The Tree of Life.  I’ve wondered if some of the people who have walked out on this picture was because they thought Malick was selling evolution.  If they did, they should have stayed.  Malick sticks with faith all the way through, although it’s subtle, leaving room for some atheists to interpret the film differently.  All great fiction is ambiguous, so it’s unfair to suggest my views as the only views of this story.

Here’s the thing, for most of the faithful, suffering can only be made sensible if there is life after death, either through rewards or punishment.  To those who side with nature, suffering is just part of life.  There is no philosophical problem for atheists, because we don’t believe God is making us suffer.  The hardest thing for the faithful to endure is to believe that God is making them suffer.  Thus the story of Job.

The evolution of liberal thought is one that fights suffering directly by trying to make living in this life better for all.  Malick doesn’t go there at all.  This is a deeply spiritual movie in the sense that it is totally metaphysical.  Striving to do better is shown to cause suffering as illustrated by the role of the father played by Brad Pitt.

This movie is not for people who want escapism.  I’m not sure this movie is even for young people.  Terrence Malick was born in 1943, he’s not a baby boomer, but like Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, he’s of the generation that speaks to the baby boomers.  I’d say anyone who grew up in the 1950s America should watch this film if they have a philosophical bent, it’s a film about and for us.

This trailer will give a hint at what The Tree of Life is like, but only the slightest of one.

This rather enigmatic web site gives more scenes from the movie, but you need a lot of patience to try out all the rather short clips.  Go see the film for the full cinematic rollercoaster ride.

JWH – 7/4/11

Philip K. Dick–The Penultimate Truth

At the online book club Classic Science Fiction, we had a series of posts discussing whether or not a book should stand alone or if it helped readers to know about the writer and why they wrote their fiction to fully appreciate the story.  Most of the members wanted books to be completely self-contained and did not want to know about the author.  If fact, many readers worried if tales about the writer were slanderous or gossip it might unfairly color their appreciation of the story.  They were responding to my comments about Radio Free Albemuth and how I judge Philip K. Dick to be crazy.  My response was that certain writers like PKD, Proust, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Wolfe and other autobiographical novelists almost demand knowledge of the writers to fully appreciate their work.

Let me say upfront that if you are reading just for entertainment, books have to be standalone and self-contained.  No knowledge of the author or literary history should be required.  And I do read for entertainment, but for me it’s the foundation to the house, and the real architectural design to be admired is what fiction says about reality.  I’m just not interested in one dimensional fiction.  The novelists I love the most are natural philosophers and reporters.  Now that doesn’t mean I want pontification in fiction – no, fiction is about catharsis, not messages.  To me the best philosophical stories are those where the author is invisible behind the scenes, and their characters, setting and conflicts presents the reader with a deeply emotional experience, whether tragic or comic.

I used to think that only Dick’s last novels were about his personal experiences, but after watching Philip K. Dick-The Penultimate Truth  I now think different, and realize he was always autobiographical to some degree.  Philip K. Dick is very close to Jack Kerouac in that their novels are spiritual journeys that try to make sense of their troubled souls.  Although this documentary about PKD is framed with a cheesy X-Files setup of two FBI like agents brainstorming from boxes of evidence about who Philip K. Dick was, it’s actually a perfect metaphor for Dick’s life.  FBI agents were watching PKD, and he was obsessed with being watched.  You can view this documentary online at YouTube, or get it from Netflix, or follow the link to Amazon above and buy it.  I highly recommend this film.

Here’s the first of nine parts on YouTube:

The documentary gathers three of Dick’s five wives (Kleo Mini, Anne Dick, Tessa Dick), many of his girlfriends, and several of his closest friends (Ray Nelson, Tim Powers and K. W. Jeter) to talk about him while the agents pin photos on a wall as if they were trying to solve a crime.  Some people like to think that PKD actually experienced mystical events and they are unexplained revelations of truth, but I don’t.

All through the documentary they show clips from a speech Dick gave in Metz, France in 1977, that to me is conclusive evidence that Dick was crazy.  He essentially confesses his madness in front of the audience.  His girlfriend that was with him at the conference, Joan Simpson, said the speech was quite horrible and she wished she could have been anywhere else.  She said the French audience was kind to him, but she felt they had been greatly disappointed too, because they expected his wild stories to be creative rather personal visions that Dick confessed to believe.

Now I’m not saying we should write off PKD as a man lost in madness.  As K. W. Jeter says about The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, that Phil provides a critical self-portrait and realizes before he dies that he had been crazy, and as Jeter would like to think, he didn’t die insane, and had finally accepted this reality.

This is an excellent documentary that expertly summarizes the life and work of Philip K. Dick in 89 minutes.  Philip K. Dick was a major explorer of reality and he ventured to some very dangerous places, but ultimately he comes back to report that we shouldn’t go where he’s been.  PKD is a teacher about what it means to explore madly divine concepts.  He is a professor of paranoia and Gnosticism.  We like to think that penultimate realities don’t exist, but Philip K. Dick traveled into them and wrote mission reports back to us.

Here’s the thing.  If you are sane and have a firm grasp of reality, those penultimate gnostic worlds don’t exist, but if you have a weak understanding of this reality they do exist, and they are very real.  It’s not that Dick’s mad ideas explain the ultimate reality because they don’t, but they do explain penultimate realities that we really don’t want to visit.  What’s sad, tragic and troublesome is the people who ask if what PKD experienced was real in our ultimate reality – those people are too close to a penultimate reality, and to them Dick’s visions explains a reality they see but we don’t.  Anyone familiar with mentally ill people will recognize many of the belief systems Dick explored.

Reading Philip K. Dick’s books are a study in madness, and not philosophy, religion or even science fiction.  They are meta-fiction, autobiographical, epistemological,  and a form of exegesis.  PKD even kept a journal he called The Exegesis.  I believe that at times Dick fully believed his visions, but at other times he questioned his sanity.  Many people read his books as science fiction and find them entertaining.  Dick was good a writing fiction.  At the entertainment level many of his books are self-contained stories that work without knowing anything about his life, but the more you know about PKD, the more you see something different about his work, and you see that he was an explorer of penultimate realities.

And when I say “penultimate reality” I’m not riffing on PKD’s titles.  I’m talking about people with gnostic mindsets.  To them, they seek the ultimate truth, or hidden knowledge.  They think they are living in a penultimate reality and are being told lies, and this reality is a sham, and the real reality is a secret being kept from them.  Such thinking has always been a part of various religious sects in world history.  PKD is a modern Gnostic.  Conservative religions don’t like to discuss this, but madmen are often the driving force of the early stages of their religions.  People with mystical instincts are attracted to seers like Philip K. Dick as a form of validation, and Dick knew this.  He was seduced by his own visions too.

Christianity rejected Gnosticism in the early centuries of the common era, but the modern faithful also believe this reality is a penultimate reality.  And this is why we should read Philip K. Dick, he’s a modern day example of a prophet, mystic, seer, writer of revelations, like those in the Bible and other holy books.  If you believe in science, this is the ultimate reality, and mystic people are crazy, now and then.  If you believe this is a penultimate reality, then Dick was a visionary, and from my perspective, you are a tortured soul like he was.  Because any believer in hidden knowledge finds this reality confusing and upsetting.

This is why I say books by Philip K. Dick aren’t just for entertainment and escapism.  You need to know as much about PKD as possible to decipher them.  Sure you can read them as far out science fiction and just consider them weird ass stories to be amusing.  But my fear is some PKD fans live in a penultimate reality, and see Dick as a mystic and that’s really scary.

For me, the real reason to read Philip K. Dick is to study the madness of metaphysical worlds and to avoid them.

JWH – 6/4/11

Freedom of Religion versus Freedom of Women

I want to be totally upfront and declare that I absolutely support the American ideal of freedom of religion.  I agree that mosques should be built wherever they want.  On the other hand, I wonder why I’m in the minority on this issue when so much of the country is consesvative and should be supporting this American ideal too.  Why aren’t they? 

In New York City people are fighting over building a mosque.  In Afghanistan Islamic people are stoning young people for being in love.  Is there a connection?  By the ideals of America,  citizens of the U.S. are free to pursue whatever religion they desire, so why not let mosques be built anywhere?  Or are the majority of Americans who are against mosque building really just anti-Islamic?  Who really wants to support a religion that treats its people as barbaric as the Taliban?  The Taliban is Old Testament thinking, and that’s troublesome at so many levels.

On the other hand, we’re trying to liberate Afghanistan from Taliban rule.  Now if we lived in the Star Trek universe, and Afghanistan was another planet, we’d be forbidden by Federation laws of interfering with a primitive society.  Is it even possible to modernize an Old Testament society like Afghanistan?  And if anyone wonders what Biblical times were like they only need to watch news reports about life under the Taliban.  We have had pretty good success in Iraq, but that society had already been modernized to a great degree.  Is it even possible to bring 7th century Afghanistan into the 21st century?

The Taliban recently killed humanitarian aid workers with the claim they were spreading Christianity.  We of course said, no, no, no, they were just giving medical treatment to the people.  But I don’t think Americans understand, our modern laws and government are shaped by two thousands years of Christianity, so just liberating Afghans politically is Christianizing them.  Now I know Christians will hate this, but to the Old Testament mind of the primitive culture of the Taliban, liberal philosophy and Christianity are one and the same.

I’m an atheist, so I don’t have a dog in this religious fight.  However, I’m a strong believer in American ideals, so I completely support freedom of religion.  I believe freedom of religion also means freedom from religion.  The ethical question here is:  Do we Americans have the right to force our freedoms on Afghanistan?  That’s too complicated an ethical question for me to grasp.

The Taliban is one aspect of the Islamic world, although it’s larger than it appears to be.  The leaders of Iran, and many other Muslim countries have the same mindset.  From my perspective, radical Islamic terrorists should be policed by Muslims who claim to know the true meaning of Islam, but that’s not happening at all.   The trouble is the Islamic world is openly or secretly supporting the radical Muslims.  Thus, I must assume the anti-mosque people of America are really responding to this kind of thinking and not necessarily a religion.  We don’t like Taliban Islam because it’s also an oppressive political system, and the Islamic people of the world has done a terrible job of selling the virtues of true Islam.

By the ideals of the American way of life, President Obama is right, any religion should be able to build houses of worship essentially anywhere.  We shouldn’t paint all Islamic people by comparing them to the Taliban.  What’s ironic is atheists and liberals are defending the rights of Islamic people in America, and it certainly would help mainstream Americans to be more liberal and American idealistic if mainstream Muslims were aggressively weeding our their radical elements.

The Islamic world needs to convince us the Taliban doesn’t equal Islam.  They need to do it damn fast.  And they need to prune their radicals, otherwise we will always think Taliban equals Islam, because that’s all we see of Islam.  And if the Taliban really equals Islam, even liberals like me will want to put a dog into the fight because they are making us choose between freedom of religion over freedom of individuals, especially women, and I’ll always choose freedom of individuals first.

What do we do?  What are the options?

  • Continue on the current path and hope to bring a western style government to Afghanistan
  • Leave Afghanistan and let the Muslim world do as it wants as long as it doesn’t attack the western world.  (Divided but equal cultures.)
  • Declare a modern crusade of liberalism and convince Muslims to modernize their religion

I was thinking we could succeed in Afghanistan like we did in Iraq.  Set up a police force and army – get a semblance of stability going and then leave.  But after reading “In Bold Display, Taliban Order Stoning Deaths” in the New York Times this morning, I’m changing my mind.  It’s either pull out and let those people alone, or declare a new crusade.  This is a hard issue to deal with, just read “Afghan Women and the Return of the Taliban” in Time.  Do we keep fighting to liberate the women?  Its freedom of religion versus freedom of individuals.

We are horrified by the primitive justice of the Taliban, even though they live exactly like people lived in the Old Testament, which is deemed holy by most Christians.  But remember Jesus and how he stopped the stoning of the woman?  We can’t ask the Taliban which of them is without sin.  That’s a pivotal moment in the origins of liberal thinking.  Conservatives might hate liberals, but we’re all flaming liberals compared to the Taliban.

Which is more important, personal freedom, or freedom of religion?  What would this woman say?

time_cover_0809

If we could poll all the women in Afghanistan and ask them if we should crush out the Taliban how would they vote?  And are we ready to spend the money on such a war?  I tend to believe Americans don’t care enough to spend the money, and if there wasn’t a terrorism threat, they’d be happy to ignore the Muslim world.  If there was no terrorism threat, they’d probably wouldn’t care how many mosques were built in our country.  But as long as Islam the religion looks exactly like the Islam of terrorism most Americans won’t be mosque friendly, and may even be willing to spend their tax dollars on a long term war.

We’re in a vicious cycle right now.  For every terrorist we kill, and especially for every innocent bystanders we kill, terrorist armies grow.  The larger their armies grow, the more we fill the skies of the Islamic world with drones and cruise missiles.  One side needs to break the cycle.  If we call off our crusade, will they call of their jihad?  I don’t know.  I don’t think we can convince them to pull back, but I wonder if mainstream Islam can?  Maybe the people wanting to build the mosque in New York City should consider building mosques in Afghanistan, northern Pakistan, Yemen or Iran and preach a better Islam.  If we allowed a mosque in New York City, would they try?  Or should we hold up the lease until we see change in the Islamic world?

I understand why the majority of Americans don’t want the mosques in New York City and elsewhere, they equate Islam to our enemy, and the mainstream Islamic world has done nothing to disprove that.  Why?  And are the Muslims coming to the western world fleeing Islamic oppression, like the Puritans on the Mayflower, seeking a new way of life, or are they bringing Old Testament thinking to the New World?

Like I said, I’m an atheist and firmly believe in America’s ideal of freedom of religion.  In America anyone can believe what they want, and it’s unethical and un-American to attack that ideal.  Christian theocracy is evil, but so is Islamic theocracy.  Unfortunately, the Islamic world has no sense of freedom of religion, and theocracy seems to be the only politics Islamic people want.

Building mosques in America is a very complicated philosophical issue.  I see both sides of the issue, but I’m no longer sure which one I’m on.  Obama is right, but I sympathize with the people who protest against him.  I think the liberals of all religions need to weed out their intolerant and xenophobic beliefs.    

JWH 8/17/10

Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman

I believe The Bible can be a very dangerous book.  For most people The Bible is a book they read occasionally, and use it for inspiration to be a good person.  There are better books to teach ethics but we can overlook that like we can overlook casual drinking, a minor indulgence.  I use the drug metaphor very intentionally, because I believe The Bible alters people’s mind and how they see reality.  Because some people take The Bible too far, into cocaine, heroin and LSD levels of use, and they become addicted, deluded and cut themselves off from reality.

The Bible can be like a computer virus that infects the minds of those who read it.  This is true of any religious literature.  The Bible does not describe reality. The Bible can not predict the future.  And most important, The Bible does not describe God (if there is a creator), at best The Bible presents very ancient theories about God.  In terms of philosophical theology, it is very important to separate the concept of God from any description about God.  Holy books captures how people thought thousands of years ago and that’s a huge danger because people minds become paralyzed by seeking closure on mysteries that will never be solved.  It’s mental quicksand.

The reason why I call myself an atheist is because I’ve never heard a definition of God that I could accept.  If there is a God he is unknowable in the same way that a bacteria in our blood can never know who we are.  People want a personal God, and that’s understandable, because life is scary and we’d love to have a spiritual parent to protect us.  But that’s a dangerous desire because it causes people to avoid real sources of strength, other people and ourselves.

There are many reasons why people seek religion and embrace holy books:

  • They want answers about reality (knowledge)
  • They want to know how life began (ontology)
  • They want a history and genealogy
  • They want instructions on how to be a good person (ethics)
  • They want to worship and be thankful (appreciation of life)
  • They want rules for equal justice for all people (law and order)
  • They want to know the future (prophecy)
  • They want a promise of protection (security)
  • They want an afterlife 

The reason why holy books like The Bible are so dangerous and powerful is our minds are extremely powerful.  Holy books transmit powerful memes.  All books do, but holy books come with extra-strength memes.  The concept of God is a meme.  Once an idea is let lose in culture it’s very hard, if not impossible to erase.  What happens instead is people alter memes.  Think of a virus mutating.  If you study just The Bible you’ll actually come up with dozens, if not hundreds of meme variations for the original meme for God, which was created thousands of years before the Jews existed.  There is no one God in The Bible.  There is no one Jesus, which brings us to the book Jesus, Interrupted by Bart D. Ehrman.

Jesus-Interrupted

Many people divide the world into the secular and the divine.  Believers in divine knowledge think its more important than down to Earth knowledge.  That’s an illusion.  The divine is a meme too.  Beliefs are more powerful than reality.  In fact, all we have is beliefs.  What we want is to keep beliefs that validate reality and jettison fantasies, but religious beliefs can’t be validated, but how you got them can.  That’s what Bart D. Ehrman is doing in his writing.

For example, do you believe that Jesus is a divine being?  Who gave you that idea?  How old were you?  Why did you believe them?  Where did they get the idea?  What Ehrman is doing in Jesus, Interrupted is working on a cold case that goes back 1900 years.  Where did the origin of the meme that Jesus was divine come from?  He calls this research a historical approach to Bible study. 

Jesus, Interrupted is a significant book on many levels, but proving that will be difficult because what he says challenges people’s beliefs.  Bart D. Ehrman is most famous for his book Misquoting Jesus, but this newer book is even more exciting to read, that is, if you find history and academic research exciting.  Ehrman claims he is not trying to be sensational with his books on The Bible, and claims he is only relating what any mainstream seminary teaches.  Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He started out as an evangelical Christian but after many years of studying The Bible became an agnostic.  Since I’m an atheist, reviewing a book about The New Testament written by an agnostic will be hard to convince Christians the value of reading Jesus, Interrupted.

I don’t ever expect Christians to give up their faith.  I figure most will ignore this book, but I expect others will combine the knowledge that Ehrman provides with their faith and create a new synthesis.  Whether this leads to a new reformation is another issue, but in cruising around the net trying to find reactions to Ehrman I was surprise by some reactions of the faithful.  Some reviewers say Ehrman goes too far, others just dismiss him, but others have jumped in and started their own analysis using his historical approach to test and validate Ehrman’s ideas.

Ehrman says many times in his book that he has no wish to destroy anyone’s faith, but anyone with a deep faith in The Bible being the absolute word of God will be tested by Ehrman’s books.  Ehrman started out as a person believing God inspired The Bible and it had no errors, but his desire to study it deeply and thoroughly led him to believe that it is the work of men, chock full of errors, forgeries, and contradictions.  I think anyone examining the historical evidence will also conclude that men wrote The Bible without guidence from God.

The next logical step in theology is to ask how God might inspire men to write about the metaphysical.  I don’t believe in the divine, but most people do.  I expect them to keep looking for the doorway between the physical world and the spiritual world.  And that’s okay.  Religion is deeper than memes, and I expect humans to always invent new and better religions.  Some atheists want to throw off religion and God, but that’s like being a vegetarian wanting the rest of the world to give up eating meat.  Evolution is a nasty word to the righteous, but everything evolves.

So why should agnostics and atheists even concern themselves with this book?  Ehrman still believes The Bible is the greatest book ever written and still provides inspiration.  For me, I want to understand Christians and how they evolved in history.  Jesus, Interrupted is a quick survey of the first four hundred years of Christianity and how The New Testament was written.  I think it explains why we have hundreds of different Christian faiths, and it also explains part of the psychology of conservatives and liberals, something Ehrman wasn’t intending.

Ehrman says most people study The Bible devotionally, but for the last two hundred years scholars have applied a historical approach to understanding it.  Ehrman also says most people only read The Bible randomly, just studying a few lines here and there.  Even if you read it vertically, from top to bottom, Ehrman believes you will miss much of what’s in The Bible.  He recommends studying it horizontally, comparing one gospel against another, or how one incident is depicted by multiple writers.  Jesus, Interrupted focuses almost exclusively on The New Testament except where gospel writers claim events were foretold in The Old Testament.

When you study the gospels this way you quickly see they conflict.  And not in minor narrative details, but in great theological differences.  In fact, much of what Christians believe today does not come from The New Testament at all, but from later theologians.  What many Christians might be shocked at is the gospels were not written by the disciples that knew Jesus, but educated people writing decades later, living in another country, speaking a different language than what Jesus and his apostles spoke.

The reason why there are so many conflicting stories in The Bible is because it was written by many different people, each with their own agenda.  I cannot do justice to the vast research the Ehrman puts into his book, so don’t trust me, and read Jesus, Interrupted for yourself.  Then read reviews by people who oppose Ehrman, and there are plenty.  Interpreting The Bible is a academic black hole that I want to avoid, but I do think it’s possible to study The Bible without falling into its gravity well.

I think there will be many different audience reactions for this book.

  • Atheists will get a good overview of Christianity, but also find intellectual support that The Bible is not a divine communication to the human race.  If they have any residual guilt about religion from early Sunday School programming, this book will help deprogram those feelings.  I found the book a fascinating history, explaining much of Western culture in a surprising way.  It was a real page turner for me.
  • Liberal Christians will expand their theological foundation and maybe invent a new synthesis.  Ehrman explains how new theological concepts developed in the first few centuries of the common era shaped The New Testament, but Christian evolution did not stop there.  Christianity is always evolving and diverging, and modern Christianity has little resemblance to Jesus and his times.  I think Ehrman’s book should have been called The Evolution of Christ.  I think books like this, using historical studies to examine spiritual doctrine, will inspire some folks to invent new theological memes.
  • Conservative Christians can choose to ignore the book, or counter it.  I think Christians constantly redefine and reinvent God.  God is a mutating meme.  Creationism and Intelligent Design are fundamentalist adaptations to their philosophy from reacting to science.  I expect similar ideas generated from reacting to historical studies of The Bible.  Theological evolution does not have to be logical, for example, look at the doctrine of the Trinity.  Essentially, a monotheistic religion accidently reinventing polytheism while trying to rationalize how a human could be the one and only God.  And don’t get me wrong, I’m not making fun of this theology – it’s a deadly serious pursuit by some folk to grapple with reality, but my point is religion doesn’t stand still, it’s constantly being reinvented to jive with current knowledge.
  • Believers from other religions will find a concise overview of The New Testament that might quickly explain the diversity of Christian faiths and sects.

Everyone feels like they are an expert on The Bible, even if they’ve only read a few passages.  I think the historical studies of The Bible will up the ante for anyone getting into the game.  Ehrman claims that most mainline ministers know what’s in this book already, but they seldom preach this knowledge to their parishioners.  I don’t know if that matters. 

Most people only want simple answers.  They are happy with a very few concepts to embrace.  There is a God.  There is a heaven.  Believing in Jesus is the way to heaven.  Period.  No more study.  This covers all the bases for this life and the next.  As long as these believers stay out of politics I don’t want to challenge their beliefs.  Don’t read this book. 

No use confusing the simple faithful by trying to explain that heaven is a theological invention that came well after Jesus.  Nor should we cloud the water by proving the God of Moses is not the God of Paul, even though some modern apocalyptical Christians want to bring back an Old Testament genocidal God.

Ehrman proves The Bible can be a black hole of academic study, but it’s also an endless engine that justifies hatred and intolerance.  Ehrman illustrates this with a quick lesson in how Christianity created anti-Semitism.  And I certainly wanted to read more about the development of the Orthodox Church at the expense of heretical sects.

Jesus, Interrupted is an important book beyond Bible studies because it explains so much modern psychology.  Rush Limbaugh is not just a conservative Republican, but an apostle of orthodoxy attacking the heretical liberals.  What Ehrman shows is Swift Boating a technique well illustrated in The New TestamentJesus, Interrupted unintentionally shows a relationship between the Bible belt and conservative thinking and behavior.  If someone like Lee Atwater had lived in the first century he might have written a gospel to get his point across.

Liberals who want to understand why conservatives are the way they are should study Jesus, Interrupted carefully.  I always assumed Republicans got their rhetorical skills from the Greeks, but that is only half-right, and they might have studied classical Greeks, but they also learned rhetoric from the Greek speaking writers of  the New Testament.            

JWH – 6/8/10