The Woo, the How and the Why

13 January, 2009

I’ve long been interested in “Occam’s Razor” — the scientific maxim that maintains that all things being equal, the simplest solution tends to be the correct one. But who gets the honor of defining “simple”?
It’s a lot like Carl Sagan’s “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” What, exactly, is “extraordinary”? “Extraordinary” to who? Are the criteria subject to change?

Mac Tonnes, ‘Intelligence and the Cosmos’

There are few things more stimulating that reading an intelligent and well-written book whose author you disagree with.

The book in question for me right now is Christopher Brookmyre‘s novel, ‘Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks’. It’s a fine tale, which proceeds from the basic principle that paranormal phenomena are not real and the Rationalist paradigm is the only truth – the book is dedicated to James Randi and Richard Dawkins, which gives you an idea. (‘The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks’ is a Randi term for us poor souls who will never be convinced in the non-existance of the paranormal, no matter how hard our betters try to change our minds…) In the book, Brookmyre does a very good job of showing the arguments of both sides of the debate – though it’s clear that he shares the Rationalist view in the end, he is not too scornful of the Believers of Woo (i.e. not all of us are actual frauds just in it for the money, some are just deluded or too emotionally invested in belief).

The book made me think a lot more about that point of view, and especially why many of those who espouse Rationalism as the One True Truth (not Mr. Brookmyre, I hasten to add) are so very harsh to those in disagreement. And whichever way I look at it, the answer is the same.

They’re Fundamentalists.

Oh I can almost hear their cries right now… “We are not Fundamentalists because that word doesn’t apply to us, because we’re not religious and preaching from a single text and declaring it as perfect and unalterable!”
Well, tough shit.
As Andrew Vachss said so well, ‘behaviour is the truth’. If you act like Fundamentalists, expect to be treated like them.

Here’s what I mean – Do Fundamentalist Rationalists;

Believe in a single inviolable truth?Yes.

(That the modern scientific paradigm is correct in all essential detail and merely requires minor adjustment until it is a perfect description of Reality.)

Insist that those who disagree with their Truth are less important or relevant or capable than them?Oh yes.

(Take, for example, Randi’s finger-poking at the evil proponents of Woo and Dawkins’ declaration that those who agree with him are ‘Brights’ – meaning the rest of us are dim…)

Desire to completely rid the world of opposing beliefs?Yep.

(Rationalist writings of recent years – those penned by Dawkins and Hitchins and such – have explicitly stated that anyone who disagrees with their version of Rationalism is a threat to modern society and strongly express the wish that they cease to do so… admittedly their ‘or else’ is not as unpleasantly explicit as that of Fundamentalist Xtianity or Islam, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say they’d be happy bunnies if all us weirdoes vanished overnight.)

Have double standards around what constitutes ‘truth’?Fuck aye.

Consider for example these two looks at the ‘skeptical’ approach and that hallowed tool of scientific ‘objectivity’ the Peer Review. Also consider the amusing results of when the tools of field anthropology are pointed at the environment of a working laboratory, or when an actual skeptical mind looks at the paranormal and tries to share their results with the Rationalist set.

Refuse to acknowledge the possibility of being wrong or having any flaws in their own paradigm? Let’s see, shall we?

Drop in on Randi’s website forum, or the comments on the Bad Astronomy or Pharyngula blogs. There’s a lot of straw-man arguments, insults and ad hominem attacks (not the same thing), plus more than a little scorn, rejection of dissent and emotional manipulation of their followers – but neutral considerations of reported phenomena? Pointing their ‘skepticism’ at their own models? Not so much.

So… if that’s not a fundamentalist attitude, it’s real hard to distinguish it from one.

Here’s an illustration of Rationalist Fundamentalism in action…
A few years ago, neurologist and Rationalist spokesman Stephen Pinker wrote a book called ‘How The Mind Works”.
What colossal arrogance. And what a clever title – two false statements in a mere four words.
1. The book is a pop-science work on modern brain theory and research. It’s not about Mind at all… it merely assumes that Mind is a by-product, an epiphenomenon, of Brain. This is something other researchers would query, and even in some cases say is completely refuted (there is evidence for competing models about consciousness as a whole-body, or even a non-local, phenomenon.)
2. We’re an awful long way from knowing how the brain works – let alone the mind.
For instance, I can offer evidence that pretty much every single model of thought and consciousness which regards the brain as central and essential is incorrect – and I can do it with one word.
Anencephaly.

This is a birth defect where much of the cerebellum or other major brain structures are missing or severely deformed. Normally it’s fatal. But…
There are some people who grow to adulthood with this condition. Sometimes, it’s not even diagnosed until adulthood, due to a MRI for an unrelated condition. In short, there are men and women walking around the planet today who have effectively no brain – just a small bunch or strand of neural tissue and an awful lot of cerebro-spinal fluid in their heads.
(I’ve talked about this before, but the paper I linked to has changed location. Here’s another paper on the subject.)

These people, though rare, are conscious by any reasonable test of same – not imbeciles, they’re capable of thought and speech and movement (and are not, to quote Steve Martin’s classic movie ‘The Man With Two Brains’, “sitting in the corner and going tttthhhppp…”). Yet despite the existence of these people, the standard model of neurology has not, as would be the correct action in a true spirit of scientific enquiry, been binned.

The refusal of scientists as a rule to acknowledge such ‘black swans’ easily (if at all) is understandable to a degree. Their models work pretty well, most of the time. Modern neurology is a damn fine thing, has saved many lives and brought about remarkable understanding. But it’s also incomplete and in many parts contradictory. And its attempts to deal with the so-called Hard Problem of Consciousness, with some noble exceptions, mostly consist of sticking their fingers in their ears and going “la-la-la-la”. (Best example is Susan Blackmore – who merrily insists that consciousness is basically a delusion, but never quite manages to answer the question, “what’s doing the deluding, then?”, or wonder if her own Buddhist beliefs could possibly colour her views.)

Probably a good time (yet again) to state my views on Science…
I think modern science has made the world, on the whole, a better place. I certainly much prefer to live in this time and place rather than under any fundamentalist religious regime.

But… I don’t think science is complete or wholly accurate. I’m fairly sure it can’t be, by definition.

All science can do is make and test models, theories of how reality functions. (To nick from McLuhan – “The map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal.” And no amount of insisting will make a menu edible.)  Useful, but not necessarily completely true.
Plus, that which does the modelling is far from infallible.
I know (from working in labs myself, and knowing various professional scientists in fields ranging from neurology to astrophysics to psychology to particle physics) the actual process of scientific research is fraught with nepotism, political manoeuvring, hide-bound attitudes, bad intellectual habits and on occasion outright bribery and fraud… and if you think you’re going to get a Pure Truth that way, you’re more deluded than Randi’s minions would think I am!

There is a method within the scientific world for dealing with contradictions and oddities – it’s called the multi-model approach, was pioneered by Niels Bohr and has a lot going for it.
Trouble is, it pretty much denies the One True Truth idea… and thus is avoided by Fundamentalist Rationalists like the plague. It’s not a favourite of Fundamentalist Religious types either.
And if that’s not a recommendation…

The point I’m trying to make isn’t that science is completely wrong and mystical belief is always right. Or that all models of the world have equal validity. Far from it.

I’m just pointing out that absolute belief in any kind of One True Truth is a trap. As the old Discordian saying goes, ‘convictions cause convicts’. The same habit of thought which leads the likes of Dawkins to insist that modern science proves God doesn’t exist is pretty much the same one that has ‘Intelligent Design’ proponents both ignore all the evidence that contradicts their model and simultaneously miss the point that even if there is evidence for the universe having some kind of Designer, that doesn’t prove that said Designer was their God.

It all comes down, I suspect, to a very human decision. Choosing who to believe, whose word to trust. Who you choose as an authority shapes everything you think.

And we do not always choose wisely.

“Religion is not an exact science. Sometimes, of course, neither is science.”
Sir Terry Pratchett, Nation

(Special thanks to ‘Dr. Jon‘ for several of the links, and of course to the late Robert Anton Wilson for inspiration.)

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Past rants – People of the Book, People of Books

26 May, 2008

This second rant, from 6 April 2006, is a good example of how I write, in that it’s got swearing and a certain degree of exasperation. But it comes from a good place, I hope…

People of the Book, People of Books

Or, Cat makes yet another attempt to explain the multi-model approach to belief.
Moslems call themselves The People of the Book, and also offer the title to the Christians and Jews. It’s a term of respect, a statement that these folk have a commonality to Islam. That their versions of The Book have (almost as much) relevance as Al-Koran. This is not altogether surprising since, the book in question is basically The Old Testament in slightly variant forms and some addenda.

There’s some truth in that, certainly. All three major faith texts from the group emphasise charitable acts, compassion and and other acts usually consider ‘moral’. They all disapprove of stealing, lies and taking any true authority above their God, however they try to pronounce his name (or in the case of Judaism, avoid doing so). But the Book In Question is one they all have as a deep part of their history.

Each group has had a ‘mixed’ history of encounters with other faiths. It’s notable that when all three of the Abrahamic belifes were in the same place and time and were not actually busy with Crusades and such, they tended to get on quite well. Take ‘Saracenized’ Spain (700-1100ce) – here was almost a collegiate spirit between the three Peoples of the Book. Each faith was debated in lively but non-violent fashion in the cafes of the towns. Rabbis, Priests and imams – even pagans and doubters – debating, discussing, comparing on an equal footing – in a part of Europe invaded by Islamic Moors. Just before the Inquisitions.

Od course it couldn’t last. But even after Christian forces eventually retook the area many would look back on it as a Golden Age – especially Jews, who suffered no unfair taxes and little persecution. Much great literature flowed from these times, as well as scholarly works on medicine, engineering, mysticism (from the Sufi and Kabbalist both, as well as more orthodox branches).

Cut a thousand years into their future. Those three Peoples of the Book are at war again – this time the Jews heavily (if, so Left Behind-types hope, temporarily) allied with the Christians. All three are reading their Book more literally, less metaphorically. The pages on compassion flash by as they look for the ones featuring the word ‘smite’.

And for the longest time I’ve been wanting to grab the whole lot of them and just shout;
“Try Reading A Different Fucking Book Once In A While!!”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve read a lot of books. Some influence me more than others. Some moved me to tears or laughter. Some moved me to sling them across the room and startle the cat. Still others made a connection to me – a profound discourse seemed to occur, the feeling of genuinely being exposed to the universe in new and startling ways by the author and their words. From such books I rose a literally changed man, my mind forever altered by those ink marks on paper.

Many of the books that gave me that all-changing input were by the likes of Robert Anton, Peter Lambourn and Colin, Wilson. Aleister Crowley, John Lilly, Fulcanelli, Patrick Harpur, Phil Hine, PB Randolph, so many others. Just a taster (and I’m not even starting on the fiction, comics, TV shows and films that had equally profound effects on my mind and even soul).

And Every God There Has Ever Been bless the librarians who allowed me access to these writers long before an alleged child was supposed to read them.

With wealth like that, why would anyone even considering sticking with just one book on which to base their entire relationship with God?

I suspect some books get under the skin of some folk and stay there. Others actually discourage looking at other books, like a stubborn virus retraining the host to attack rival virii. Little meme-bombs like “all other books/beliefs/ideas not listed here in The Big Book are evil, blasphemous and will leave you tainted.

The best way to fight that meme effect is to read as much as you bloody can. Especially stuff you disagree with – politically, spiritually or whatever. (If nothing it gives you useful intelligence on how one’s opponents think.)

Read fiction too… sometimes good ideas get coded better by such metaphors. Plus, reading fiction (especially science fiction or fantasy) will train you ‘living mentally’, for a time, in another universe and learn new cultures of thought and possibility. Once you’re in the habit of jumping from one possible universe into another, over and over again, the idea of trying religious mindsets as temporary universes to inhabit, explore and test out becomes that much easier – though always remember not to stay in one book too damn long!

Then go back to that Book of the Peoples and see how it reads.
Is it really the only book you need in your life, now?

If it is, then you’re a Christian, or Jew, or Moslem – and I hope you are a good one. At least you’ll have a few more conversation topics!

But consider occasionally the rest of us, the Peoples of Books. Since you found clues to your idea of God in your texts, is it impossible we found some in ours? And is it impossible to have those same kind of conversations with you as were had in the sunlit cafes and darkened dope-filled back rooms in Toledo and Alhambra and Compostella, all those years ago?

I hope not. Because if all those who truly seek answers about faith, belief, magic and spirituality have more in common than in opposition, perhaps we can widen the conversation to include those other People of the Book. The ones who only use the short, bitter words and callous sentences, ignore the beauty and compassion and just want all those who read other books to them to shut up and die.

As for The People of Books, my tribe and peer group… let’s not waste time with picking and choosing which of the Peoples of the Book have The Answer.

Let’s go find answers of our own, share them with those who want to hear, speak them to all who listen and keep checking, keep comparing our ideas of Truth. Someday we might hit on the One That Works For Everyone… or more likely, we all get our own version that works for us and maybe a couple of mates – and then go compare notes with another mob and see what we can each of us teach and learn.

And every time you think you’ve found The Book, the one that explains *everything*… go read a few more first. It’ll still be there later. And it may read quite differently after the gap.

Last tip, from Mark Thomas;
If you’re in a ‘discussion’ with a Person of the Book and they throw a quote at you from their text, just reply from one of your Books, said with as much validity and pride.

Like, “The Dark Man fled across the desert and the Gunslinger followed.”
Or, “I see this weird occult stuff every time I watch a movie”.
Or, “And whatever happens, never forget to wipe your sword.”
Or… take your pick. The odder the reply, the funnier the contrast, the better the response is. And if the poor thing who just tried to take on your library with a single tome wants to continue… have fun.

But be gentle. At least they’ve *read* a book…


Past rants – ‘Stories’

26 May, 2008

Best way to give an idea of what sort of thing you’re likely to find here is to put up a few of my older LJ posts.

This is first in a loose series where I am trying to get a handle on the role myth, stories and metaphor has on us – and what happens when people mistake story for The Truth

The first is from 10 February 2006

Stories – a rant

Over the years, I have tried to describe, to myself and occasionally to others (who have my sympathy!), just what it is that I believe. I’ve spent most of my life looking for answers to this, like we all do. My path has gone on some twisty routes along the way – and the more I see, the less I ‘believe’.

But today one of those beliefs has started to come into focus more clearly than ever.

It’s all stories. Nothing more. Nothing less.
The things we believe. The memories of our past. The news. Religion. Politics. All stories.

What do stories do? Ever since we’ve had them, told them to ourselves and others, they have taught and guided us, given us joy or fear or pride or wonder when we needed it – and sometimes when we didn’t. They give us most of what we call our ‘culture’, our entire spoken and symbol-enriched world. Which, since we’re such a symbol-minded bunch, is pretty much everything we say and do.

But the thing is…
Stories aren’t perfect. Stories aren’t The Truth.
And stories differ.
And stories can change in the retelling. They have to.

I know that even saying something like ‘Religion is a story’ will immediately offend some people. I think I know why… when they hear an idea like that, I suspect they interpret it to mean,’Your religion is just a story – and my religion is The Truth.’

But that’s not what I mean at all. What I mean is that all religion is a story, or group of stories. Metaphors for the world. None of it is any kind of Single Perfect Truth.
Even mine. Especially mine.

That’s why seeing angry religious protests about ‘offensive’ cartoons, or musicals, or books or whatever just confuses me. The people screaming for Danish newspaper editors, or those who dare to allow performances of ‘Jerry Springer The Opera’, to be murdered are saying their belief, their Story, is more important than the life of another human being. And I guess it has always been this way – but I just don’t understand why.

I am not saying that their stories (or mine) don’t matter, or aren’t important or meaningful.
I’m trying to say that those stories simply aren’t the Whole Truth, aren’t the only story – and the quickest way for people, cultures or even our whole mad species to grow up is to be able to better deal with this idea, to listen to the stories of others without just running away from them (or towards, angry and armed).

All stories are equal – or at least, they’re equally stories. But not all stories are as useful as others – at certain times, in certain places. And right now there’s a lot of news about various Stories battling for supremacy – and many of those are the Big Stories we call ‘religion’.

For instance:
We have two versions of a most basic kind of Story competing right now – Origin Stories.
The Story of Evolution versus The Story of God’s Creation.
Both sides equally vehement that their story is the only real one and that the opposition story is wrong. Both sides feeling that if the other gains ground, their story is lessened somehow. And since this is that fundamental story, ‘where we all come from’, the stakes are pretty high.
(The way we can tell that this is such a divisive issue is how those involved on either side react to the idea that both stories could possibly coexist…)
But which one is True?
I dunno. And, if they’re honest, nobody knows.
(And I’m tempted to add – if they say they Know, they’re not honest.)

Perhaps we can better ask, which story is more useful in this time and place.

To Scientists, Evolution is the more useful story – it explains a lot of stuff, it can be clearly seen to happen in a laboratory, without it a lot of biological science just doesn’t make sense.

To Christians (at least those involved in the debate), it seems to me that God Made Us is the beginning of their entire story, the whole saga – and if they give up that part (or it seems, any part), the Truth of the rest is called into question… so to those entwined with that story, it’s very important. Vital, more than merely useful.
(Yes, I’m sidelining the knock-on political ramifications, the use of ‘Intelligent’ Design as a wedge driven into the secular world and all that. That’s a whole other story.)

In the above example, I have problems with both versions of the Story…
I think though evolution as a process is pretty much proven, the models describing that process are not yet complete (the born heretic in me thinks elements of Lamarckianism may turn out to be valid).
The xtian creation myth only works for me as metaphor, as a story. And not very well.
To me, evolution as a metaphor is so much more powerful and useful than ‘God did it’…

So which one is more useful depends on who asks the question… and what questions they ask next.

Another example:
I’ve always found it hard to understand why people raised in a heavily religious manner who discover they are gay or have some other kind of sexual preference their religion/culture/Big Story doesn’t like, manage to alter their belief system to allow for their sexuality, but not to actually question any other aspect of their faith.
(The recent heart-breaking duet of documentaries about gay Muslems and Christian priests on Channel 4 brought this home to me deeply.)
Surely if you’ve managed to change your mind enough to question the Big Story in regards to your sexuality, you can start to question the rest of it? But most folk don’t.
Certainly it takes a lot of energy and courage to get that far, and the comfort of keeping at least some of their religion-Story must be a great aid to them…
…but I don’t understand why the new Story, the one where they’ve make their own mind up about the nature of God instead of just retelling the Stories of others, ends there. They’ve already done the hardest bit – they’ve rewritten a key part of the Big Story that their culture has reinforced as The Only Truth, changed their entire understanding of their place in the universe and in relation to their beliefs. Why stop there? Why not ask the next question – if the religion doesn’t fit in comparison to this part of my life… what else about it doesn’t?

And if it doesn’t fit, then how useful is it, really?

It often seems to me that one of the most powerful and useful ideas of the late Twentieth Century is what is usually (and often disparagingly) called ‘Post-Modernism’.
(And when I use the term, I am emphatically not saying that there’s ‘no such thing as reality’. No matter how much you believe otherwise, all cars and other hard objects continue to be real. But your Internal Story shapes how you experience that ‘hard reality’… like someone seeing what to me looks like a random pattern on a foodstuff or stain and declaring it’s a miraculously appeared image of Their Deity. And of course our Stories directly affect the shape of the solid objects we build or buy or use.)

The idea that Truth can be a relative thing is a thought many, perhaps most, people just can’t handle – especially as more and more stories are available for us to compare, stories from people all over the world becoming easily accessible, the sheer choice overwhelming.
But of course the people those stories come from, like all the others, are scared that their Story-As-The-Truth is going to be chewed up and swallowed (or at best recycled as mere fashion) by that other big scary concept – Globalisation. All those cultures want to survive, those Stories (in a sense) want to be told, those memes want to breed. But do they have to fight it out? Is it all about survival-of-the-fittest-story? Or is it possible for the stories to mix and meld, to share and change each other? To grow in the retelling, like all good tales should?

Admittedly I’ve had a lot of practice in rewriting my own internal Story – my whole life I’ve been nicking bits from other Stories (both allegedly true and avowedly fictional), mixing them with my experiences (which as soon as they move to memory become another, very malleable, Story) and comparing that Story to what happens next. And I’ve always loved stories that mix up and blend ideas and tropes from different cultures and genres. I guess this makes it much easier for me to see these things as stories, as metaphor, rather than declaring one story or set of stories as The Truth and stopping there.
(Of course this doesn’t stop me occasionally getting pissed off when someone or something contradicts My Story. Despite trying really hard, I’m still human and fall into those easy patterns of habit. The need we all have for some kind of solid basis for our perceived reality, for some Final Truth Out There, is strong indeed. But that doesn’t make it true.)

The optimist in me hopes, even prays sometimes (though I couldn’t tell you exactly to what…) that folk could just get over the idea of, “My Story is The Truth and your Story is Lies and if you disagree I’ll kill you.” But it takes an odd sort of mind to be able to question the Story one is raised with at all, it takes a lot of work – and often the sheer luck to be exposed to a Story or idea that moves one enough to actually bother. If you’re deep enough in a Story, even the idea that someone out there truly believes a totally different Story from yours is scary.
Humans do not as a rule deal well with scary.

But in this huge, complicated stew of different Stories our world is, we have to find a way for them to coexist – or we’ll all be crushed between them. Acknowledging the Stories for what they are, no more and no less, seems a good way to start. Then maybe we can make better ones, Stories that have room for the new, the strange, the scary, without having to kill or torture in the name of Truth.

So – that’s my Story.
But I’m not sticking to it.

– – – – – – – – – –

Truth! Truth! Truth! Crieth the Lord of the Abyss of Hallucination.
Aleister Crowley.

They’re just beliefs, they’re not real…
Bill Hicks

Here. Share with us. These are our stories and these are our customs. We think they are very beautiful and we hope you will like them too, but they are merely our stories and customs. We would be honoured if you would share yours with us, and then let us go, together, to see what is true, to do what we can, and to see what all our poets can make of us after we are gone.
From ‘Earth Made of Glass’ by John Barnes