Open Enquiries from a Featured Theist

In my first ever blog post, almost a year and a half ago, I declared my sentiment that the debate on the existence of God is ultimately meaningless.  Since that fateful day, I have posted articles about philosophy, science, psychology, history, mythology, as well as random thoughts and just some utter bullshit.  Inevitably though, I am time and time again roped into the same religious debates that I denounced with that first post.  In these debates, I have argued from both sides of the fence, playing Devil’s and God’s advocate depending on the context, all while stealthily avoiding affiliating myself with any one denomination.  Throughout the course of these discussions, the rare times I’ve had to directly address the question, I’ve described myself as an omnist, a deist, an agnostic apologist, and an aimless wanderer between all beliefs (and no belief).  But, despite all my efforts to avoid it, I have recently been labelled by a wonderful alliance of atheist bloggers on their compendium, Enquiries on Atheism, as a ‘Featured Theist.’  Now don’t get me wrong, I am both honored and flattered to be featured on this collaboration, and I want to send my sincere thanks to whoever is responsible for making the decision (even if it’s just a random computer algorithm).  But it does draft me onto the losing team of a competition of which I’m growing more and more wearisome.  Through all my debates for and against the values and hypocrisies of religion, the one consistency has been inconsistency, specifically, the inconsistency of beliefs among those of the same nomenclature.  Even within a specific denomination of a specific religion, you’re not likely to find any two people who share all of the exact same beliefs, moral, philosophical, or otherwise.  For example, two Christians who attend the same church and both declare Christ as their Lord and savior may have completely different views about the importance of the factual validity of the bible.  Likewise, two atheists may be variably certain about the nature of objective reality.  It’s these and similar discrepancies that have led me to avoid declaring any affiliation myself.  Nonetheless, we humans need to categorize our world in order to understand it, and so people with vastly different beliefs may end up being labelled, by themselves and others, with the same assumption-laden label, which further sparks the debate based on nothing more than each person’s own presumptions about that label.

But while I’m being cast, I might as well play the role, for the show must go on.  And I’d like to take the opportunity to explore the varying beliefs within one of these sticky labels.  Atheists are notorious for avoiding declaring any of their own beliefs by exploiting the loophole that atheism is a lack of belief.  But as atheism is merely a lack of belief in gods, as opposed to nihilism, I’m not gonna let the writers over at EoA wriggle out of the witness stand so easily.  So I do have some enquiries, which I’ll list here and also shoot over to them, that should, if they choose to answer, help clarify what beliefs atheist do not lack. These questions are open to all who want to answer though, and if you don’t mind disclosing your preferred label, it may help to exemplify my point even further.

1. Do you believe in the finality of objective reality, despite that our only source of knowledge about that reality is subjective experience. In other words, do you believe that the physical universe is all that exists?

2. Do you believe that logic, and thereby science, is inherent to reality, or do we project it onto reality.  Is logic the language of nature, or is it simply our method of understanding it?

3. Do you believe that our logic, and thereby our science, can or will someday explain the entirety of reality. Can the true nature of reality be known?

4. Do you believe consciousness exists in this reality? Is it merely a by-product of brain function? Is it contained somewhere in the brain?

5. Do you believe in the possibility that consciousness can continue to exist after death?

I’ll stop there for now, as these are the questions I’m mainly interested in.  Hopefully from here we can foster a discussion that explores each others’ worldviews.  Until then, have at it!

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The Pink Elephant in the Room with Six Blind Men is Hiding in a Strawberry Patch

I awoke this morning with a joke in my head.  This is not a particularly uncommon occurrence for me.  I often wake up with a song or scene from a movie inexplicably tumbling around in my brain.  Maybe some left over dream absurdity, who knows?  This morning it was a joke, one I hadn’t heard for a long time, and one I can’t remember ever recalling before this morning.  The joke, as it was told to me, goes like this:

Ever seen an elephant hiding in a strawberry patch?
No.
See? They’re good at it!

Admittedly not the most laughable joke.  To be frank it sounds like one your grandpa tells and you laugh at out of sympathy.  Yet, for some reason this joke wouldn’t leave my mind.  It was nagging at my brain all morning.  As a fiction writer, I tried to log it away as a possible witty quip that some clever character would say in something I write someday, but I still wasn’t satisfied.  Somehow I was compelled to get to the source of this joke.  Little did I know the rabbit hole I had stumbled upon.

I started of course with a quick google search, and came across a cultural fad from the 1960s called elephant jokes.  Elephant jokes, much like the modern fad of anti-jokes, derive their humor from deconstructing the riddle-joke formula.  This works because we all know this formula, either consciously or subconsciously.  It works by setting up a ridiculous premise and providing a simple, reductive solution that usually involves a pun or a stab at the characteristics of the subject matter.  So a basic joke about an elephant might go like this:

Q: Where does an elephant keep his stuff?
A: In his trunk!

Hilarious, I know.  If this joke isn’t particularly funny to you, you probably have an intellect higher than that of a small child.  Hence the need to add some irony into the format.  Elephant jokes do this by replacing the simple, reductive solution with one more absurd and complicated than the premise, while also usually ignoring the obvious characteristics of an elephant, most commonly its size, for example:

Q: How can you tell that an elephant is in the bathtub with you?

A: By the smell of peanuts on its breath.

Obviously, if an elephant were in a bathtub with you, you would notice for any multitude of reasons besides the smell of peanuts on its breath.  This format has lent itself to some rather offensive jokes in modern time, like this one about Helen Keller:

Q: Why couldn’t Helen Keller drive?

A: Because she was a woman.

This joke is funny (if you have a sick sense of humor) because it casts Helen Keller’s affliction of being blind and deaf as less of an impediment to her ability to drive than her being a woman, a tasteless jab at a gender stereotype.  The fad has evolved in many other ways however, and the elephant has since become the centerpiece for any kind of nonsensical or absurdist humor, such as this website dedicated to all of the absurd methods you could use to catch an elephant in the Sahara desert, including one that extends the strawberry patch joke (though they use tomatoes, but we will translate it to a strawberry patch for our purposes):

Put a strawberry patch in a cage.  The elephant will naturally come to it for hiding.  Close the cage.  The only problem now is to find the elephant in the strawberry patch.

Anyway, it is from this fad that the precursor (that I was unaware of) to the joke I couldn’t shake comes:

Q: Why do elephants paint their toenails red?
A: So they can hide in strawberry patches.

As explained above, this joke defies your expectation of a simple, possibly punny answer with one more illogical and absurd than the premise, as well as playing on the illogic (and comical imagery) of an elephant trying to hide in a strawberry patch, given its size, coupled with the absurd suggestion that painting its toenails red would do anything to help hide it.  Often many of these jokes were strung together to create an outlandish surreality where the normal characteristics of an elephant are completely ignored, which gives us the complete version of the joke that I was unaware was incomplete:

Why do elephants paint their toenails red?
Why?
To hide in strawberry patches.

Have you ever seen an elephant hiding in a strawberry patch?
No.
See? It works!

The second part of the joke can stand alone though, as it plays on the logical fallacy known as the converse error. This logical fallacy breaks down as such:

If P, then Q.

Q.

Therefore, P.

This is fallacious logic because P is not the only condition that yields Q.  Plugging the joke into the equation (which necessitates a double premise) yields:

If elephants hide in strawberry patches, AND they are good at it, then you wouldn’t see an elephant hiding in a strawberry patch.

You’ve never seen an elephant hiding in a strawberry patch.

Therefore, elephants hide in strawberry patches AND they are good at it.

This, I believe, is why the joke somehow stuck with me for so long.  The joke blatantly points out this logical fallacy, one that you often encounter in arguments with deluded individuals.  It is the basis for confirmation bias, which is the basis for many delusional theories.  The intelligent design theory, for example, breaks down when we subject it to the logical equation:

If the universe were created specifically for us, then we would be extremely well-suited to survive in it.

We are extremely well-suited to survive in the universe.

Therefore, the universe was created specifically for us.

The Ancient Alien or Ancient Astronaut Theory is also broken down this way, though it involves some syllogism:

If aliens visited our ancient ancestors, then our ancient ancestors would have misinterpreted them as gods.

If our ancient ancestors misinterpreted them as gods, then they would have written stories about them.

Our ancient ancestors have written stories about gods.

Therefore, aliens visited our ancient ancestors.

We could go on with other theories like Creationism or the Illuminati, but I think you get the idea.  The point is that the joke blatantly and humorously exemplifies the illogic of this line of reasoning in an absurd and obvious way, and that’s what makes it such an interesting joke.

 

But the internet wasn’t done with me yet.  I kept digging and found that the common thread of the elephant jokes, the obviousness of an elephant being present in any situation, has long been fodder for comedy and ironic situations.  Wikipedia gives us this bit of trivia:

In 1935, comedian Jimmy Durante starred on Broadway in the Billy Rose stage musical Jumbo, in which a police officer stopped him while leading a live elephant and asked him, “What are you doing with that elephant?” Durante’s reply, “What elephant?”, was a regular show-stopper.

It may be from this joke or any derivations thereof that we get the phrase “the elephant in the room,” generally referring to something obvious to the situation that no one is addressing.  It conjures up an image of people sitting around a room in which there is a giant elephant without even addressing the presence of the elephant, almost reminiscent of an absurdist play.  The irony of the situation comes from the fact that to have an elephant in a room without addressing it takes a conscious effort on the part of everyone in the room not to address it.  This phrase has become so common as to be conflated with other phrases, for example “the pink elephant in the room.”  In this case the phrase was combined with the idiom of the pink elephant, which comes from a thought experiment in which a subject is asked not to think of a pink elephant.  Inevitably, and even despite the conscious effort of the subject, he is forced to think of a pink elephant, exemplifying ironic processing.  This psychological phenomenon is also the basis for the popular game you may have encountered in which whenever you think about the game, you lose.  If you’re unaware of this game, you may have noticed some people around you unprecedentedly and unexpectedly complaining, “Damn, I just lost the game.”  It should delight you to know that these people are not, in fact, schizophrenic.

The Elephant in the Room, Banksy exhibition, 2006 Barely Legal show, Los Angeles

Hold on now, this is where it comes full circle.  The ‘elephant in the room’ has also been used by several philosophers to debate our method of gathering information or knowledge known as epistemology.  The most famous of these arguments comes from… I’ll give you three guesses… got it yet… if not, go check the about page…….. You got it!  In an early philosophical discussion with his friend and mentor Bertrand Russel, patron of this very blog Ludwig Wittgenstein was asked if he could at least say with certainty that there wasn’t an elephant in the room.  Sometimes the story involves a rhinoceros instead of an elephant, but Russell’s own autobiography confirms that it was indeed an elephant (granted he wrote this much later in his life).  Unwilling to admit to certainty in any matter, Wittgenstein replied that he could not say that with certainty.  Russell then went to work searching all of the cupboards and under each piece of furniture for the elephant, a sight gag very similar to Durante’s much later use of it.  Ironically, the information superhighway had thrown me down a rabbit hole only to bring me back to a familiar starting point.  I’m not sure if there is meaning in this or not, but I know better than to try and find it.

There was one last stop along this journey, however, seemingly unrelated, but interesting nonetheless.  While exploring this cultural psychological philosophical phenomenon surrounding elephants, I came across a parable I hadn’t heard before, but which goes along with my own philosophy about epistemology and theology.  The parable seems to be shared among Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and others, but the moral is always the same.  I’ll go ahead and tell my own version for the purposes of this post.

Six blind men are called by the king to his court in which he has placed in elephant.  Each of the blind men is asked to touch a different part of the elephant and confer with each other on what the elephant is like.  The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.  Unable to agree upon the nature of the elephant, the blind men set to quarreling and throwing blows, all to the delight of the king.

The king in this allegory may be God (or for my atheist friends, ‘that which knows the true nature of reality’), who instills within us a desire to know the true nature of reality, knowing full well that we cannot know it.  Each of us attempts to investigate it by our own means, and we quarrel and fight amongst ourselves when we cannot confer on its true nature.  This allegory has been used to describe many things, from philosophy to theology, and even the strange phenomena encountered in quantum physics, such as wave-particle duality.  Ironically, the story has become like the elephant itself, with each of us determining our own interpretation of it, unwilling to confer on one meaning.  This is at once the beauty and the curse of stories, jokes, and metaphors.  When we hear them, we know we’ve learned something, but when we try to put it into words, we create our own controversy.  To tie it all up, a clever elephant joke retells the story this way:

Six blind elephants were discussing what men were like. After arguing they decided to find one and determine what it was like by direct experience. The first blind elephant felt the man and declared, ‘Men are flat.’ After the other blind elephants felt the man, they agreed.

Rand Rants Part 3: Ayn Rand Defines A Screwdriver

 

Characters:

Me

Ayn Rand

A Screwdriver

 

Me: Hey Ayn, what’s that?

Ayn: Zat is a screwdriver.

Me: Define a screwdriver.

Ayn: It eez a tool vich drives in and pulls out screws.

Me: Well, that describes what it does.  What is it?

Ayn: It eez a tool.

Me: Again, Ayn, ‘tool’ describes the object’s functionality.  What is it?

Ayn: It eez a piece of metal vith a rubber grip.

Me: Ah ah ah, Ayn.  ‘Grip’ also defines its functionality.  If objects exist independent of the subject, you should be able to define this object independent of its usage.

Ayn: Ok ok, it is a piece of metal surrounded by a piece of rubber.

Me: Okay, now define metal and rubber.

Ayn: Zey are substances vith certain properties, such as hard, soft, rigid, maleable, etc.

Me:  Now aren’t you again describing these substances in relation to a subject?

Ayn:  No, zey retain zese properties independent of consciousness.

Me:  But the terms hard and soft are only applicable to my interaction with the substances.  They have varying degrees of resistance to force, but hard and soft implies this degree in relation to a subject, doesn’t it?

Ayn:  Zen how shall I put it?  Zey are substances made up of a specific set of atoms vich gives zem specific properties.

Me:  So objectively, this screwdriver is merely a collection of atoms.

Ayn:  Yes.

Me:  Now is this definition of the object useful to me?

Ayn:  Yes, it allows you to know its true nature.

Me:  But if I’m trying to build a dresser from Ikea, which definition is more useful to me?

Ayn:  Vhat eez Ikea?

Me:  Nevermind.  If I’m trying to build something, is it more useful for me to know that the screwdriver is a collection of specific atoms, or that it drives in and pulls out screws?

Ayn:  Of course the latter is more useful to you, but the object still retains its true nature.

Me:  That’s true, but you claim that objective reality exists independently, and that consciousness and reason are the means by which we understand that reality.

Ayn: Yes.

Me:  But without a high-powered microscope, as well as mountains of other research, no amount of awareness and reason could lead me to the conclusion that this screwdriver is merely a collection of specific atoms.

Screwdriver:  Hey, do I get any say in this?

Ayn:  Shut up screwdriver.  Zis is all irrelevant.  You are a modern man vith knowledge zat all zings around you are made up of atoms.  And even if you veren’t, ze zeory of atomism was arrived at by philosophers using pure reason razer zan experiments and technology.

Me:  This is true, but until this theory was proven, there were conflicting schools of thought about it, and each was logically valid until one was proven right by experimentation.

Ayn: So?

Me:  So consciousness and reason are not our only means to understand reality.  They must be validated by experimentation.

Ayn:  Yes, and experimentation is a product of our reasoning.

Me:  But this means it takes a conscious observer interacting with objects to validate their properties, and hence, their existence.

Ayn: It does, but only to validate it to our consciousness.  The objects retain zese properties vhezer ve validate zem or not.

Me:  Subatomic particles don’t.  They behave differently when they are being observed.

Ayn:  Zis is a fringe field of very complicated science zat is not yet fully understood.

Me:  I agree, and I don’t think that this is indicative of the nature of all reality, yet you must admit that if objects retain their properties independent of consciousness, then these phenomena should not occur.

Ayn:  Ve are just beginning to understand ze nature of zese particles, and laymen’s speculation about zem is hardly progressive.

Me:  But Ayn, these particles are supposed to be the foundation of the objective reality that you claim exists, and if their properties are subject to consciousness, how can you say that all of reality is not?

Ayn:  Ze same vay I make all of my claims:  By simply asserting zat zey are true while providing no reason to believe zem and no argument to the opposing viewpoint.

Me:  That’s what I thought.  Alright, until we meet again, Auf Wiedersehen.

Ayn:  Zat is German, I am Russian.

Me:  Whatever.  Peace.

Rand Rants Part 2: Ignoring the Obvious

Ayn Rand

You’d think it’d be obvious that, when creating a ‘new philosophy,’ that you’d have to provide some argument against the obvious and inherent alternative to your philosophy.  Especially when that alternative is 300 years old and a widely held as a philosophical standard.  But when touting their completely unprecedented philosophy they call Objectivism, Rand and Peikof don’t even address the obvious opposition to this philosophy, Subjectivism.  From the Wikipedia page:

“Subjectivism is the philosophical tenet that “our own mental activity is the only unquestionable fact of our experience”.[1] The success of this position is historically attributed to Descartes and his methodic doubt.”

Along with basically inventing graphs, Descartes laid the groundwork for modern philosophy, basing his technique on methodic doubt, something Rand and Peikof seem to have been born without.  He called into question every knowledge claim that he could think of, and ultimately determined that he could only know for certain that he exists, because he can doubt these claims.  Hence his famous line, “I think, therefore I am.”  Every other facet of his existence and perception was subject to some degree of doubt, and so cannot be said to be wholly true.  Yet Rand and Peikof claim, without providing any argument against his reasoning, that reality exists objectively, independent of consciousness.

Along with completely ignoring, while at the same time opposing, Descartes’ subjectivism, Rand and Peikof completely ignore subjective experience as part of their logical equations.  Their attempt to prove the axiom of existence, through the character of John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, goes something like this:

“If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness: a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms. A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something. If that which you claim to perceive does not exist, what you possess is not consciousness.”

Sound logic yes?  But the something of which you must be conscious is not objective reality.  Descartes is quite clear that the only thing of which he is conscious is his own thoughts.  What we are aware of is the experience of our senses, i.e. subjective experience.  Whether or not the data gathered from our senses corresponds to objects that exist independently, is something that Descartes showed as clearly dubious.  We know that we cannot always trust our senses, and we also know that what we actually experience is our brains’ interpretation of that data, not the data itself.  But Rand and Peikof need not doubt these things, because they simply know them.  They are axioms, and hence unquestionable.  Even though the father of modern philosophy saw fit to question them, according to Rand, we don’t need to at all.

Rand Rants Part 1: Objecting to Objectivism

There’s a debate going on on Dan O’Brian’s blog The Search for Truth about Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.  I had never read much by or about Ayn Rand, but this debate sparked my interest, mainly because I had no idea that she dabbled in pure philosophy.  And by dabble, I mean she dips her toes in just enough to get wet and then says she went swimming.  The more I read of her ‘philosophy,’ the more I want to bring her back from the dead just to slap her across the face.  Yet for some reason, I can’t stop reading it; it’s like picking at a scab.  It’s frustrated me so much that I’ve come back from a short hiatus just to write a series of posts strictly dedicated to deconstructing every facet of her flawed ‘logic.’  I’m not sure how many I’ll write, depending on how soon this rage wares off, but hopefully it will be more than just this one.  If these posts seem a bit unorganized and ranting, I apologize, but that’s just the kind of thing someone like her does to my ADD-addled brain.  It’s hard to even pick a place to begin with her, but I suppose it’s best to start at the foundation of her self-proclaimed ‘new philosophy.’

When introducing her philosophy, Rand audaciously claims that it is unprecedented and entirely of her own conjuring, which should be a huge red flag to anyone interested in philosophy.  She also claims that it is a philosophy based entirely on reason, and that reasoning is the only way a person makes sense of the world, so it seems odd that she doesn’t even consider that another person could reasonably come to the same conclusions she has, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  Rand calls her entirely new and revolutionary philosophy ‘Objectivism,’ opting against ‘Randism’ as Mike Wallace suggests in his 1959 interview with her (though it wouldn’t be out of character for her).  Objectivism is based on three propositions that Rand claims are ‘axioms.’  This an extremely convenient way to start a philosophical discussion, because an axiom, by definition, cannot be called into question.  By claiming these propositions are axioms, besides kicking logic squarely in the scrotum, Rand evades the very line of questioning that would unravel her entire philosophy.  Let’s take a look at each of these ‘axioms’ in depth, and see if they are in fact unquestionable.

The first axiom is the axiom of existence.  The simplest explanation of this axiom that Rand provides is “Existence exists.”  This is a bafflingly muddled and ultimately meaningless statement for several reasons.  If Rand means existence as ‘the state of existing,’ then the statement is definitively untrue.  ‘Existence’ by definition does not have the attributes of itself, i.e. can’t exist or not exist.  If we start to argue for or against the existence of existence, then we end up in a grammatical conundrum of endless meaninglessness, so let’s hop off that train right now.  Rand clarifies this axiom in The Objectivist Newsletter (1962) by stating, “Reality exists as an objective absolute – facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes, or fears.”  This seems to be Rand’s attempt to completely disregard the entire branch of philosophy known as metaphysics.  The objective existence of reality may be one of the oldest questions of philosophy, and one that has yet to be definitively answered, except by Rand’s own volition.  To claim this proposition to be true beyond question is to completely undermine the works of Aristotle, DesCartes, Kant, Russell, and of course, our boy Wittgenstein, just to name a few.  The second part of the statement just shows more of Rand’s ignorance, as well as her tendency to generalize all opposition to her theory as superstition.  If she were a real philosopher, that statement might have gone something like ‘facts are the case independent of consciousness,’ which is just untrue.  Facts do not exist in objective reality.  A fact is something understood by a mind.  The fact that a cup is blue is not a physical object.  The cup is a physical object, blue is a certain wavelength of light, but the blueness of the cup is something understood by a conscious observer.  Leonard Peikoff, a Rand acolyte who is much more well-versed in philosophy than herself, clarifies even further, stating, “If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness: a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms.”  This is logically true, but it does not prove the objective existence of reality.  If I hallucinate an object, then I am conscious of something that doesn’t exist.  You could argue that the object exists as a construct of my consciousness, and so exists in reality, but this is not the ‘objectively absolute’ reality that Rand claims exists.

The second axiom is that of consciousness.  It’s at this point that anyone who’s read even a little bit of philosophy would throw their hands up in frustration.  These first two axioms combined completely contradict Cartesian Dualism, arguably the most widely-held philosophy of mind, without directly addressing it or providing any kind of argument against it.  Once again, Rand states these as axioms to avoid any such discussion, and fails to see that in an objectively absolute reality, consciousness cannot exist.  Rand also claims that existence has primacy over consciousness, that consciousness conforms to existence.  Again, providing no evidence or reasoning, she and her lackey Peikoff claim this as axiomatic, and that any philosophy that claims the primacy of consciousness is mystical, superstitious mumbo jumbo, despite the overwhelming evidence that consciousness does in fact directly affect reality.

The final axiom is the law of identity.  This is a law of logic set down by Aristotle, and may be the only actual axiom of the three.  The law of identity is that “A is A,” that a thing is itself.  This is foundational for defining logic and is hardly new to philosophy, though Rand and her devil’s advocate Peikoff claim that “You have never grasped the meaning of his statement. I am here to complete it: Existence is Identity, Consciousness is Identification.”  And the audacity continues.  With not even a morsel of respect for any thinker since Aristotle, Peikoff claims, based on Rand’s teachings, that no one has fully understood this basic and not-at-all-hard-to-understand principle of logic.  They use this axiom to neatly tie together all three into an absurd and unfounded statement that defines their entire philosophy, and which, according to them, is not subject to debate.

Stay tuned for more ranting about this non-philosophic philosophy and its self-obsessed and deluded founder. 🙂

I am that I am (and that’s all that I am)

popeye is god

 

In my recent post about the Lost God of Peace, I discussed the linguistic origins and evidence of the Canaanite god, and briefly mentioned some of the others in the pantheon and their linguistic remnants in the Semitic languages.  But there was one small deity in that pantheon that I may have overlooked (or intentionally passed over) whom you may recognize.  Did you find him?  He’s way down there almost at the bottom.  Yup that’s him!

That’s right, Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God worshipped by nearly 55% of the world’s population, once sat alongside Shalim as one of the minor gods of the Canaanites.  While this is hardly news to any diligent theologian, it may come as a bit of a shock to casual believers.  So how did this marginal, seemingly insignificant deity come to overtake his brother’s temple, marry his father’s wife, and completely redefine religion as the world knew it by becoming the one true god of monotheism?  Once again, a linguistic analysis may be able to help us explain this.

Take another look at the gods of the Canaanite pantheon.  Notice that almost all of them have a dominion that they ruled or oversaw, whether it be Yaw, the god of the seas and rivers; Ishat, the god of fire; or our guy Shalim, the god of the dawn.  In determining the origins of the names of gods in polytheism, you often run into the chicken vs. egg problem. For example, it may never be known whether Shalim took his name from the Canaanite word for ‘dawn’ or vice versa.  It can pretty safely be assumed that at one point the language was so primitive that the two probably shared a name, and possibly an identity.  Keep in mind that in the same way that monotheism arose from monolatrism which in turn arose from polytheism, polytheism probably arose from an amalgam of animism and ancestor worship.  Euhmerus theorized that all of the gods of Greece were named after distant ancestors who became deified over the generations, but he may have overlooked the fact that animism was an equally influential early religion, and many names of gods are derived from the common terms for natural objects.  But what about Yahweh?  It seems he was unique in this sense, as he does not have a natural phenomenon or an aspect of society that he supervises.  A little digging gives us evidence that he may have derived his name from a location or cultural name of his followers.  Probably the earliest mention of his name is in the Egyptian accounts of the ‘Shasu of Yhw,’ a nomadic tribe of people living around Egypt during the time of Amenhotep III (coincidentally the father of Akhenaten, the pharaoh who attempted to convert Egypt to monotheism… hmmmm….).  Since the other shasu mentioned in the accounts are followed by location names, it’s safe to assume that this instance of ‘yhw’ referred to a location as well.  Since these people were nomadic, we can hypothesize that they may have traveled south to Canaan and assimilated into the culture there, thus lending the god of their homeland to the Canaanite pantheon.  From there, this fringe group of pseudo-Canaanites, who seemed rigorously intent on maintaining their cultural identity through their god, were either pushed north by outside forces, or were led there on the promise of finding a land of their own, as the Bible states.

Enter Moses, the founder of Yahwehism.  Now I know what you’re thinking, ‘But Logan, didn’t Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all come before Moses?”  Or maybe you weren’t thinking that at all, but anyway.  Yes, these patriarchs of Genesis were the leaders of the Israelites before Moses.  But notice the name for Israel.  It has that pesky little -el suffix we discussed in the last post.  Also the Hebrew name used for God throughout Genesis is Elohim, another derivation of El, the Canaanite’s father god.  Clearly the author of Genesis meant for us to infer that during this time, the Israelites were still a sect of Canaanites.  But when Moses fled Egypt, according to Exodus, he lived with the Midianites, which the Bible tells us were also a sect of Canaanites or ‘Kenites.’  It is also possible that the Midianites were the ‘Shasu of Yhw’ mentioned in the Egyptian hieroglyphs.  Either way, it would appear that the author of Exodus wanted his readers to make that connection, because it is while Moses is among them that he receives his most important message from YHWH.

When Moses encounters God at the burning bush, he asks God his name, and God replies, “I am that I am.”  In Hebrew this is three words: ‘Eyeh Asher Eyeh‘- eyeh being the singular present (and future) tense of the verb ‘to be,’ and asher being a general pronoun which can mean that, which, who, where, or even because.  This simple phrase holds a vast amount of meaning, and is still regarded as one of the most important phrases in the Bible.  Medieval Jews listed it as one of the names of God that held special significance.  The author of Exodus, in an almost Shakespearean play on words, not only makes reference to the ‘yhw’ of the Midianites and the YHWH that his readers currently worshiped, but also states with power and clarity the meaning of Yahweh’s name.  The phrase is most commonly translated into English as “I am that I am,” but it could also mean “I will be what I will be” or “I will be because I will be,” which implies his promise to prove to the Israelites that he is their god.  But the most interesting possibility to me, is the translation “I am because I am” or “I am that which is,” implying that the author is intentionally separating the name YHWH from its cultural and geographic roots, and giving it new meaning which could be equated simply to ‘being’ or ‘existence.’  This perception of the name of God could have influenced Yahwism’s development from a monolatristic religion into a monotheistic one, since monotheism implies that God is all things and the cause of all things.  God is found in every aspect of the universe and ourselves, and thus could easily be defined as existence itself. 

While we may never know which of these meanings was actually implied by the author, since the language itself yields all of the meanings, it seems possible, even probable, that the author meant to imply all of them.  This simple phrase would lay the foundation for one of the most important religious movements in history, and is still seen today as declaration of the nature of God and existence itself.  It nullifies the debate of the existence of God by stating the God and existence are one in the same.  No matter your religion, any person can see the divine nature of existence itself and the value of worshiping your existence and the existence of all things.  That’s my bit.  Shalim, and have a good day!

Where Is My Mind?

 

As scientific research exponentially expands and progresses its reach and grasp, the role of the philosopher has become somewhat marginalized.  In ancient times, it seemed almost a prerequisite for scientists to also take part in philosophy, hence the greats like Aristotle and Pythagoras.  But now, as science becomes much more complicated and all-enveloping, the scientists of today hardly have time to sit back and process the information they are discovering.  As the scientists spend long nights crunching numbers, it has become the role of the philosopher to put the information that science discovers into context for the laymans, those of us unwilling or unable to do the number-crunching.

One long-standing problem of philosophy is that of consciousness.  Since the dawn of philosophy, thinkers have tried to find the right place to put consciousness in our logical picture of the world, and have had nothing but trouble doing so.  The majority of our logical reasoning is about the material world, which appears to behave more or less by logical principles.  But when it comes to placing consciousness, philosophers have more often than not steered away from materialism and placed consciousness in the realm of the metaphysical.  But as logical people have continuously done away with the metaphysical, we have tried harder and harder to pull our consciousnesses out of that realm and into our logical picture of the world, but still to no avail.  The philosopher most often cited when it comes to these matters is DesCartes, who championed the concept of dualism.  Cartesian dualism asserts that the only thing we can know exists is our own consciousness, yet that consciousness cannot be said to exist in the physical world.  So we are left with both the empirical view that nothing but our consciousness exists, and the materialist view that our consciousness doesn’t exist.  But dualism is a hard pill to swallow for many.  It flies in the face of our need for everything to fit into a logical picture.  This has caused many people to dismiss consciousness as a by-product of brain function, the end result of data analysis.

Enter neuroscience: a complex and quickly-growing branch of biochemistry that attempts to map the events that occur in our brain under certain circumstances.  The more we map out the processes of the brain, the more advocates of a metaphysical mind have had to strip down the definition of consciousness.  Things like memories, emotions, and even some abstract thinking have now fallen under the category of what can be explained through materialistic neuroscience, causing advocates of the physical consciousness to theorize that one day all of consciousness will be defined by physical processes of the brain.  This becomes the fulcrum of the debate, the materialists claiming that just because we haven’t found a physical explanation for consciousness yet, doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist, and the metaphysicalists(?) stating that the true definition of consciousness evades physical science.

One contemporary philosopher who has championed this debate is David Chalmers.  Chalmers has done a fantastic job of defining where we can draw the line between the physical and metaphysical consciousness.  He has dubbed these two categories as the ‘easy problem’ and the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness.  According to Chalmers, the easy problem of consciousness describes the entire process of data analysis, while the hard problem has to do with subjective experience.  While materialists claim that subjective experience is the end result of data analysis, Chalmers believes there is a fundamental difference.  This difference is something he calls ‘qualia.’  Qualia is the subjective experience of sense-data.  For example, as your eyes take in a certain wavelength of light, your brain processes that wavelength (perhaps incorrectly as discussed in the Limits of Language post) as the color red.  But the physical data of the wavelength has no correlation to your definition of ‘red’ in your mind.  One simple thought experiment to better grasp this concept is to imagine a person whose color spectrum is somehow switched.  This person would see red as violet, and vice versa, and, similar to the negative of a photograph, all the other colors would follow suit.  Now this person would grow up learning to call what we define as red ‘violet’ and so on.  There would be no way to tell that this person’s color spectrum is switched, because there is no way to observe his subjective experience.

While Chalmers has given us a terrific vocabulary to discuss this debate, I think there is an easier method to understanding the difference between our brains and our minds, and that is the struggle between the two.  We humans have always and eternally waged a battle with our brains.  We know full well that our brain can play tricks on us.  Our data analysis processes can lead us to false information, yet we can be fully aware of it.  For example, when we watch a magician or look at an optical illusion, we are willingly participating in a presentation of the fallacy of our minds.  We are fully conscious of the fact that our data analysis is feeding us false information.  We’ve entered into a reciprocal process of data analysis where we let our sense-data deceive us, yet use the knowledge of the deception of our sense-data to put the illusion into its proper context, so that we don’t think the magician is some kind of demon.  This knowledge of the fallacies of our brain functions permeates the rest of our lives as well.  As psychological theories have entered the common vocabulary, the contemporary person may be well aware of his or her own psychological idiosyncrasies, and behave accordingly.  The common phrase, ‘the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem,’ is a perfect example.  The knowledge of a fallacy of the mind, and the definition of it as such, allows our consciousness to take that knowledge into account when making a decision, and choose whether or not to act on that fallacy, or rise above it.  For example, if we recognize the times we let our emotions govern our decisions, then the next time it happens we can choose to ignore our emotions and govern ourselves according to our reasoning.

Now none of this unequivocally proves the metaphysical mind, but it is a rather interesting notion that we can be ‘conscious’ of the fallacies of our data-analysis processes.  The question begged here is whether or not this is simply another level of data analysis, or if the knowledge of these fallacies is evidence of a transcendent consciousness.

The God of Solipsism

I’m bad at intros, so I’m just going to jump right into it.  This is an explanation of a theory I have that, in order for a solipsist to accept that the external world exists, he must believe in God.  Now this doesn’t have to be Yahweh, or any god in particular, it merely needs to serve the function that I am presenting.

If reality cannot be proven to be more than a construct of consciousness, then in order for the external world to exist independently of my consciousness, it must exist, in full, in some consciousness that is at a higher level than mine.  In this case, I am a figment of this higher consciousness’s imagination, as are all the people and beings that I encounter.

Another way to think of it: If I accept that the external world exists, then I must accept the existence of other minds, other minds that, like mine, cannot prove the existence of anything but their own minds.  So unless we are all actively constructing the universe collectively, than there is a mind outside the universe imagining the entirety of it.  Now there may be evidence of the former if we look at quantum mechanics in this light.  If we are all actively constructing the universe as we go, then the more we probe into the inner workings of the universe, the more we have to actively construct.  So you could see the anomalies and contradictions of quantum mechanics as our minds not being able to accurately construct all levels of the universe.  Since subatomic particles behave differently when they are being observed, this theory is entirely possible.  But if the latter is true, then we are simply pushing the bounds of what we can understand being figments of the imagined universe, and only God can fully understand it, if that.

This is not an original concept.  The illustration above represents one version of Hindu cosmology in which Brahma, sitting on a lotus flower that grows out of the navel of Vishnu, who rides on the back of a serpent in a primordial endless ocean (just ignore that part for now), dreams the universe.  Vedantic Hinduism claims that Brahma is all things, and that the universe we live in is Brahma’s dream, and the Atman (the individual self) is a manifestation of Brahma in his own dream.  Hinduism may be one of the oldest religions known to man, not to mention the oldest one still practiced today, yet even here we find the concept of solipsism giving rise to God (or Brahma).

Believe Everything (Believe Nothing)

I’ve started to notice in my online debates (I know, I’m so cool, right?) that I tend to send mixed messages as far as my actual viewpoint on the topic.  I somehow manage to defend and oppose both sides of the argument at the same time, which causes some confusion.  If I defend religion, or a religious person, in a debate, people assume that I am a religious person, at which point I have to clarify that I’m not really, but I’m interested in religion and religious debates.  In philosophical debates, I am often labelled as a solipsist because I pull the solipsism card alot.  People then go on to try to disprove solipsism to me, at which point I have to clarify that I’m not a solipsist really, but I think that solipsism is very possible, and so has to be taken into account when debating the nature of existence.  This has caused me to attempt to sit down and actually define my beliefs, which has been harder than it sounds.  It seems that most people (at least most bloggers) have a very well-defined set of beliefs that they defend in all of their posts and comments, so when they read something, they say something along the lines of ‘You are wrong or right for these reasons.’  But I find that most of my comments usually start with ‘I think…’ or ‘Maybe, but…’  or something along those lines.  I try to steer clear of asserting my opinions as facts, despite what my schoolteachers taught me about how to write an essay.  This may be my natural aversion to confrontation, as I find most blog debates quickly get heated, and then people just start animalistically defending their own point without actually debating the topic.  But the more I think about it, the more I’m starting to think that I just don’t truly believe that any one viewpoint is correct.  I have theories about the world and how it works, but I could be completely wrong, and I accept that fact.  I don’t think that just because something could be wrong, I should ignore that viewpoint entirely, as I could learn alot from considering it.  I don’t ‘believe’ in any one religion or religion in general, but I want to learn as much as I can about each one, because who knows where I’ll come across an answer to a question I have or a thought I may never have had before?  I’m not a solipsist, because I don’t deny the existence of objective reality, but I don’t think it can be entirely proven either, so I have to frame all of my assertions about objective reality through the lens that I may actually be talking about nothing.  I think that in order to consider all viewpoints, we can’t simply find the reason that one is wrong and then cast it out.  In order to gain anything from the viewpoint, we have to consider the implications that it makes about the world around us, and who knows, maybe we’ll learn something by doing so.  Just a thought, I’d love to hear yours below!!

The Limits of Language

“The limits of my language are the limits of my world” – Ludwig Wittgenstein

Remember when you were learning the colors as a child? Of course you don’t, you were much too young. But imagine trying to teach a child colors. What would you do? You would probably make a little flashcard or something of each of the seven primary and secondary colors and show them to the infant over and over again. And that would probably work. But take a look at the color spectrum below.

Can you tell me where the red ends and the orange begins? Drawing a definite line on that spectrum becomes pretty difficult. And there are literally an infinite amount of wavelengths along that spectrum that we whittle down into seven categories. So why do we do this?

A recent study into developmental psychology shows that infants are more perceptible to subtle changes in hue than full-grown adults. This is because they have not yet been taught to categorize colors into the seven categories that we have words for. More accurately, infants process colors using the right hemisphere of their brain, the one responsible for creativity and imagination, but adults process them using the left, the hemisphere more concerned with analyzing language and data. This means that learning the names of colors actually re-routes our perception of them to the other side of the brain, and actually causes us to become effectively “color-blind” to subtle differences in hue that infants can perceive much more easily.

This phenomenon is called linguistic relativity, and to fully understand it, let’s try another thought experiment. Imagine that instead of a human baby, you were dealing with a computer baby. Now this baby thinks like a computer; it retains information instantly and processes data quantitatively as opposed to qualitatively. How would you teach it the colors? You would have to draw a line on that spectrum and define each color as being every wavelength between two of those lines. But that’s not how we want our computers to process colors. We want them to be able access every wavelength along the spectrum separately, so we give them a system of numbers that correspond to certain amounts of each primary color. But if this is a more accurate way to process color data, why do we humans use names like ‘fuchsia’ or ‘magenta’ to signify slight changes in hue along the spectrum? Why do we use qualitative language to define a quantitative world?

The answer is that we do not think quantitatively. To even understand a numerical system, we have to assign characters to each quantity, the same way we assign characters to represent sounds that our mouths make that in turn represent objects around us or even abstract concepts. We need a language in order to understand anything. So how did this come about? The obvious assumption is that language develops naturally out of a necessity to communicate with each other. Many animals make different sounds that mean different things in order to communicate to each other, but can we really consider this ‘language’ the same way we use ours? These animals cannot use their language to discuss abstract thoughts or work out solutions to problems, and I think it’s safe to assume that they’re simple language does not affect their perception in the same way ours does. So if language came out of a necessity to describe the world around us, at what point did it start informing our perception of that world? The change from how we process colors as infants to how we process them as adults may be a good indication. Our brain has a fantastic way of sending signals so that they cross as much of our brain as possible. The visual data you take in through your eyes gets processed in the very back of your brain, and the signals actually criss-cross, with your left visual field being processed by the right hemisphere of your brain and vice versa. This, along with the shift of the color processing from one side of your brain to the other as you develop, is a good example of how the brain works. It likes to send information to all corners of the brain, so that those separate parts can all collaborate on processing the information and informing your perception of it. Thus we think using associations. When we see something, we associate it with other things we’ve seen, heard, felt, learned, or experienced. This is why symbols and language are the basis of our understanding of the world.

But why do our brains work like this? Wouldn’t we be more efficient and productive if we processed information the same way a computer does? Why would we evolve in a way that is counter-productive to our survival? It may be that there is something more important and essential to our survival in drawing associations between vastly different things, than simply processing the data in front of us logically. If we start to look at how we perceive the world, the limits of our perception become clearer and clearer. Take the visual spectrum as an example again. Humans see the spectrum as starting with red and ending with purple. These are the lower and upper limits of what we interpret as visual light. However, the spectrum continues far past those limits. We know that infrared and ultraviolet light can be seen by animals such as insects and snakes (and Graboids), but we cannot see those wavelengths ourselves without special instruments.

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Our bodies interpret infrared light as heat and ultraviolet light actually damages our eyes. But the spectrum goes on from there. We use microwaves to heat our food and radio waves to send signals across vast distances. In the other direction, we use X-rays to see through our own skin and Gamma rays can mutate our bodies in disgusting ways. So we interact with different wavelengths of the same energy in vastly different ways. Thus, the data we receive from the outside world is always perceived qualitatively, i.e. as different effects on our bodies, though in a logical world, they are simply numbers on a scale. So it would be counter-intuitive for us to simply perceive the world as quantitative data.

And so we have invented a new language called science by which we attempt to understand the quantitative nature of the world.  Science allows us to broaden our perspective, because it breaks the barrier of what can be put into words and what can’t.  Those aspects of our universe that can’t be described with words are put into numbers and formulas that allow us to interpret data in a way that we can understand it.  There is a misunderstanding that science is the ‘language of the universe,’ but this is not so.  The universe does not have an inherent way for us to understand it, science is merely our attempt to do so.  If science were the language of the universe, we wouldn’t have the discrepancies that we encounter when we try to merge our scientific laws together.  Einstein was convinced, as are many others still, that one day we will find a Unified Field Theory, basically one scientific theory that successfully describes all of the fundamental forces and elementary particles.  However, the more we search for this theory, the more we find that scientific fields do not merge easily.  Physics work differently at an astronomical level than they do at our level, and even more differently at the subatomic level.  As we delved deeper into quantum mechanics, it became more and more obvious that scientific laws don’t apply at every level of the universe.  Subatomic particles are known to pop in and out of existence, exist in two different places at one time, and behave as waves when they are in fact particles.  This has led some theorists to believe that there is no unified field theory, that each field of science only applies within that field.  This theory makes sense if we think of science as a language.  Just like you couldn’t expect to speak English and have someone who only speaks Spanish understand you, you can’t expect to apply quantum-level science to everyday life.  The two languages are not only different, they are mutually exclusive.  So the more we develop our scientific language, the more we will understand of the universe, but we will never be able to fully comprehend its vast intricacies.

So if our understanding of the world is based on our language, how can we begin to understand the inexplicable, that which cannot be put into words? Wittgenstein (this blog’s honoree) had a simple answer for this. He said, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.” Meaning quite simply that if you can’t logically talk about it, don’t. Any attempt to do so is an exercise in futility. This may seem like an easy way to brush off the question, but if we put it into context with the rest of Wittgenstein’s life, it may give us some more insight into what he meant. Wittgenstein devoted his life to logic and analytical philosophy. He was convinced that logic by its nature could solve all problems of philosophy. Wittgenstein’s biggest achievement was his Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus, which he wrote in the trenches of the First World War. The Tractatus is a short, enigmatic puzzle box of a book that reads more like an instruction manual than a book on philosophy. His philosophical statements are put simply, with no explanation or examples of what they mean, because frankly Wittgenstein didn’t give a shit whether anyone understood it, even his best friend and mentor Bertrand Russell. He starts off by saying that, “The world is the totality of facts, not of things.” With no examples, allegories, or any other helpful tools to decipher the meaning of this, we must simply read on and hope that it will all make sense soon. He goes on to break the world down into what is and what is not “the case,” meaning facts that make up the world are either true or not true. With these two ideas put together, we can start to see how Wittgenstein saw the world. Instead of seeing a red ball on a table and saying, “There is a red ball on a table,” Wittgenstein would have us say, “The fact that a ball exists is true, the fact that a table exists is true, the fact that the ball is red is true, and the fact that the red ball is on the table is true.” This view of the world as being made up of facts instead of objects, once extrapolated, is a beautiful way of merging the world of abstractions and the material world into one world of logical thoughts that is entirely dependent on our thinking them and putting them into words. And yet when we come to the end of the Tractatus, Wittgenstein starts to contradict himself. He says, “The correct method in philosophy would really be the following: to say nothing except what can be said, i.e. propositions of natural science—i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy.” This almost seems like a self-abasing joke at the end of his masterpiece. After a long discussion about philosophy, he comes to the conclusion that the only things that can be talked about logically are things that have nothing to do with philosophy at all. He confirms this with his statement, “My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless.”  This new view of philosophy as being ultimately futile came to characterize his later work.  He described all of philosophy as mere “language games” which, when played, may help us understand the world, but in and of themselves are meaningless.

And so it is the task of a person seeking the truth not to let language limit his perception, but rather to enhance it.  This means fully understanding the scope and purpose of language, but also realizing its limits and its effect on our comprehension of the world around us.  Let us never forget that things are not limited by their definition, but rather that our perception of that thing is; and that we may never fully understand the universe, but we may better connect to it by dismissing our definitions of it.