Mystical Atheism

I’ve probably described my position regarding calling me an atheist in previous posts. Many of my atheist friends call me an atheist … after sometimes hours of arguing about the categories and what they mean. I think they are wrong. I am not an atheist. I had yet another opportunity to explain this the other evening when a Satanist (atheistic satanism) asked me how long I’ve been (or when did I first realize) I was an atheist. I had to be clear that I’m not an atheist. I am an agnostic, which I regard as fundamentally different.

Luckily, she did not proceed to lecture me on the 4 types (agnostic atheists – those who believe but admit they cannot know, gnostic atheists – those who don’t believe and think they know, agnostic theists, etc.). So, score one for Satanists not being as self-righteous as regular atheists in man-splaining my own beliefs to me.

Anyway, as a result of that whole conversation, which ranged over the various types of Satanists, including theistic ones, I pursued my long predilection toward the mystical. I know I’ve mentioned that somewhere. But it could have been on my old log. I’ve been suffering with the self-ascribed label of methodological atheist for awhile, now, because it does an adequate job of describing most of my approach to religious belief. But it’s inadequate because of how I treat the unknown (and perhaps the unknowable).

Being reared Catholic and having been exposed to Wittgenstein, no-go theorems, paraconsistent logic, and the like, I have a healthy respect for mystery — things that are either unknowable or simply problematically knowable (e.g. paradox). The end result is that I an an atheist with respect to any defined god(s) — or you might say any definite concept of god(s).

I don’t entertain definite conceptions of god(s). But I do entertain indefinite conceptions, vague, ill-defined conceptions. Gods that are (somehow) indescribable, unspeakable (Hail Lovecraft!), indefinable, are OK by me. As such, it’s perfectly reasonable to call me a “mystical atheist” as at least a partial synonym for (or perhaps a specialization of) “agnostic”. I’m agnostic, but in a particular way. I am atheist, but in a particular way. And you might even say I’m theistic, but in a very specific and particular way. Anything mysterious can reasonably called a “god”. But as soon as we remove the mystery, it is demoted from “god” to “mechanism”.

Final comment: What I find disconcerting is that the definition of “mysticism” seems antithetic to the definitions of “mystic” and “mystical”. Mysticism is commonly defined as the belief in the ability to know (or learn/experience) reality through a mystical experience, whereas mystical is commonly defined such that it relies on the unknown or unknowable … i.e. mystery. Stupid English.

The Secret (aka the “law of attraction”)

I was cajoled into watching The Secret. Here’s a little back story so you understand why I watched it. Identities have been changed to protect the innocent. 8^)

I mentioned, rather casually, that I’m likely to be dead in 4 years because that’s the statistical median amount of time between diagnosis of my type of cancer and death. Don’t take that the wrong way, though. I have a very benign type of cancer: indolent follicular lymphoma. It kills people. But since it’s indolent, there’s plenty of “survivors” among us. I only use the statistics when the conversation might be more useful with a little reminder to be mindful and live in the present.

But my friend immediately responded by mentioning “the power of the mind”, in particular the importance of a good attitude to survival. I agreed, somewhat, and tried to be clearer, talking about how important it is to be present in whatever situation you happen to find yourself rather than pining for counterfactuals. He then clarified his point and insisted that the mind has more power to heal the body than we think and explicitly cited The Law of Attraction, which I’ll abbreviate to LoA. I was a bit shocked because he had just finished expressing his disdain for organized religion and all their made up beliefs. To me, a metaphysical claim like the LoA is not merely religious but one of the more insidious forms of it.

In any case, I tried to compromise and admitted that people who tend to think positively will tend to dwell on the good things that happen to them and spend less time worrying about the bad things, which can facilitate the achievement of one’s objectives. By contrast, those who dwell on the bad things that happen to them risk a downward spiral (as well as being unpleasant to be around).

In the end, my friend (and his SO) insisted that I watch “The Secret”, which they claim was very convincing to them. I don’t put a premium on my time. So, I agreed. I watched it the other evening. Here are my notes:

  • Thoughts have a (unique) frequency
    • Here they show an EEG
  • When you think that thought you emit that freq
  • law of attraction doesn’t hear that you don’t want some thing… it only hears the thing
  • Focusing on what you dislike yields more of what you dislike and the opposite as well… but they specify no mechanism
  • John Hagelin – quantum physicist
  • Fred Alan Wolf – quantum physicist
  • “No one knows what electricity is.” – Bob Proctor philosopher
  • Its been proven scientifically that a positive thought is 100 times more powerful than a negative thought. – Michael Beckwith – visionary
  • Your thoughts cause your feelings. – bob proctor
  • Every tradition has told us that theres something bigger than us. – James Arthur Ray philosopher
  • The universe will start to rearrange itself to give you what you want.
  • they seem to imply that you don’t have to plan for stepping stones along the way… only envision the possibly distant end goal.
  • Telling quote “what can you do rightnoe to turn your life around?”-Joe Vitale – metaphysician
    • Indicates that they’re targeting the vulnerable.
  • “Turn it over to the universe…”
  • Cathy Goodman claims to have healed her cancer in 3 months without radiation or chemo !!!
  • Disease cannot live in a body thats in a healthy emotional state. Bob Proctor
  • The anti war movement has created more war. The anti drug movement creates more drugs.
  • Often elections are tipped in the direction of the person people arebreally against because hes getting all the attention and all the focus. – Hale Dwoskin author
  • The “limited resources” lie.
    • Indicates they’re relying on some form of the abundance argument.

As usual, I quit taking notes after awhile. So, what you see above is mostly from the first half or so of the show. Now, there are lots of things I could say about this thing. But I want to sum up the positive take away first. Basically,

  • you are responsible for your current state
  • focusing on a situation will make it more achievable and more recognizable
  • you, if anyone, are the only one who can control how you react to some situation

I personally believe that if we could get everyone to act according to those 3 tenets, the world would be a better place. So, to that extent, this … video … is a good thing. But the problem comes in two forms: 1) the mechanism they sorta kinda propose — thoughts emanating from you into the universe and the universe being your slave-like djinn and 2) the risk for catastrophic error about how the universe actually works. (1) is only relevant for people who care about reality and how it actually works. I’d say roughly half the people I know care about that. The other half just want it to work according to some fictional mythos they understand. That includes many scientists, by the way, who think they understand how science works and think talking about how it works is a philosophical waste of time. They just don’t care. For that half that doesn’t care about ontological truth, a recipe for how to think and behave like the LoA may be just fine. In many ways, it’s much better than the horrifying 10 Commandments, for example.

However, (2) is much more important. And the most important error involved, I think, is the risk of victim blaming. It’s a matter of fact that some people, regardless of their attitude or ability to project their will onto the universe, are unlucky. They die in an earthquake or are horribly damaged (brain, spine, etc.) by acts of the gods or nefarious actors like Islamic State militants. The Secret tells us that these victims brought their fate upon themselves because they just didn’t think hard enough, long enough, or in the right way about the outcomes they wanted. Or, a more personal example, when I die of lymphoma, it’ll be because I didn’t take this … video … seriously enough. 8^)

The more immediate problem in category (2), however, is the trap my friend (and his SO) have been caught in. No matter what happens to them, they will never have the ability to falsify the LoA. When good things happen to them, they will claim it’s their doing. When bad things happen to them, they will blame themselves. The only way out of this trap (for them) is to disbelieve the LoA. And, to be honest, that scares me a little bit and makes me want to punish the predators who advocate it.

As a side note, watching the video was important. You don’t get the “pyramid scheme” feeling when you simply read about the LoA on wikipedia or somesuch. But when you see the video, it looks and feels EXACTLY like all the self-help, get rich quick, pitches that parade by on infomercials, at “seminars”, at big box bookstores, etc. These people are selling a product. And the product they’re selling is more evil than any pharmaceutical, any multi-level marketing scheme, or any religion. They’re selling justificationism – the idea that the truth of something depends on how you rationalize believing in that truth.

The universe is not your enslaved djinn. I wish you all the best of luck. But if you turn around and claim your luck is an effect caused by your “right actions” or positive attitude, then I really have nothing of substance to say to you. I just have to stop with “Good luck with that!”

Generalization and Communication – Affleck and Harris

This kerfuffle between Ben Affleck and Sam Harris irritated me to no end, mostly because although I don’t like either Affleck’s or Harris’ primary professional output (of late, anyway), I think they’re both fantastic parts of modern culture. The world will be worse off when/if either of them retreats to a more private life.

The over-generalization of the Harris camp was the primary problem, here. And I land squarely in Affleck’s camp because of the fallacy Harris (consistently) commits. BTW, just because Harris commits a fallacy does not imply Affleck’s reasoning is flawless… but that’s not my point. Had Harris (and, Yog forbid, the entertainer named Maher) been explicit and specific in their language, the controversy would not have arisen. But Harris is consistently sloppy on this topic, even when citing statistics. Sheesh, we can’t even accurately poll our 1st world population as they exit election polling stations. What makes the Harris camp trust polls of war-wracked and poverty-striken populations?

I believe I can answer that: because the Harris camp believes it has the world figured out. They trust the statistics they (imprecisely) quote, without also presenting the accuracy and variance of those statistics because doing so confirms their bias. We could drill down into this issue by comparing, say, the number of Americans who can’t read a map with the number of Muslims who believe suicide bombing is justified, including all the sampling problems, and methodological considerations of taking such data. But I won’t do that.

Instead, I’d like to point out the inherent conflict (contradiction?) between Harris’ (and [cough] Maher’s) assertion that they are, in this dialog, defending liberal principles. It’s always seemed to me that liberals tend to be more open to situational complexity and less likely to base their ethics on static or absolutist rules. The openness to new experiences we see in liberal sensibilities is based, I think, on their tendency toward consequentialist or pragmatic ethics.

What the Harris camp is really doing, beyond a naive sense of over-generalization, is closing off certain thoughts. They are holding some values or principles as sacred, unquestionable rules. This is not liberalism. And the more often they claim it is, the more they reveal their familiarity with Newspeak. If I thought Harris was naive or gullible in any deep sense, or if I thought he had never been a good scientist, I’d chalk it up to confusion over what liberalism means, rather than a (perhaps unconscious) use of Newspeak. But I think he has demonstrated situational and pragmatic awareness recently (in his assertions about sprituality, profiling, gun control, hand washing, etc.). And I do think he knows what scientific falsification means. So, his adoption of deontological reasoning for this particular argument can only be manipulative.

That’s OK, of course. Lots of good has been done by means of such manipulation. I am not a liberal, despite the huge overlap between my conclusions and many liberals’ conclusions. My ethics are a moderate mixture of rule-, value-, conseqence-, and situation-based reasoning. Perhaps that’s what allows me to reject Harris’ claim that his claims about Islam are liberal claims.

p.s. This sentence betrays Harris’ rule-based approach rather nicely: “I await an entry in the DSM-VI that describes this troubling condition.” I hope that was a joke. But all good jokes are good precisely because they contain a kernel of truth.

Runaway individualism and cancer

In response to this post and this post as well as a rather long email thread, I’ve come to the conclusion that an analogy between totalitarianism (or fascism) and cancer is a bad analogy.  My main criticism is that the treatments for cancer and the treatments for totalitarianism are unrelated.  The standard of care treatment for cancer is to kill as many cancer cells as possible, even at the risk of killing lots of healthy tissue in the process.  We have some specific interventions (antibodies).  But for the most part, the cure is to poison/damage the body and then let it recover, under the assumption that healthy tissue recovery is more robust than that of cancerous tissue.  And although some of us might claim that the state of the art intervention for totalitarianism is to swoop in and indiscriminately kill lots of people, under the assumption a healthy system of government will grow back, most of us would consider that an immoral intervention.  Hence, we cannot treat totalitarianism in the same way we treat cancer.  And if the analogy doesn’t help us with intervention, then what good is it?  I also have lots of lesser nits I could pick about it.  But the efficacy of intervention methods is the big one.

Anyway, I have an alternative analogy: (runaway) individualism and cancer.

I started top-down, wondering what -ism might survive a thought experiment: the scattering intervention.  It seems reasonable that merely scattering the asymmetrically powerful cliques in a totalitarian regime may well reduce or break the totalitarian grip on the society.  The scattering may come in the form of banning their symbols, breaking up their congregations, separating malignant family members from the others, wealth redistribution, etc.  That’s not so with cancer.  Merely scattering the cells in a neoplasm across the otherwise relatively healthy tissue of the rest of the body is likely to cause harm rather than health.

But what sort of -ism would behave more like cancer under the scattering intervention?  The important element of cancer that would make scattering harmful is metastasis, the ability for cancers to spread from their primary location to another.  Metastasis requires a degree of autonomy for the metastatic cells that do the traveling and seed neoplasms wherever they land.  The e-mail thread had covered more organic structures like low overhead organized crime or terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda.  But these aren’t really systems of government.  For example, even though the Taliban might be associated with Al-Qaeda, it’s really a very different thing.  The Taliban is a proper example of an -ism.  (I’ll let you fill in the blank for what type of -ism.)

It seems to me that the individualist movements fit the bill, like the doomsday preppers, local militias, Duck Dynasty types ;-), apocalyptic types (with their beliefs they will be spirited away by their deities), Austrian School types, Mormons, etc. These cliques seem to carry a heavy emphasis on some sort of plan to survive a scattering event.  I’m not claiming that all their survival methods are effective, only that they have some idea that survival methods are needed in case of a scattering event … unlike the -isms that hold collectives/groups as a fundamental, necessary, premise.

In such an analogy, the “cancer” would be runaway individualism, rather than runaway collectivism.  Things like a declining middle class, crumbling infrastructure, increasing “lone wolf” style crimes (in which I include suicide bombers, school shootings, etc.), are the symptoms.  Like cancer, simply scattering the “cells” (be they humans, kinship groups, or memetically bound groups) shouldn’t work because many of those “cells” will have pathways for reestablishing themselves in other contexts.  Like cancer, an effective treatment for them is a) recruit the social systems in which they sit to neutralize them (antibodies) or b) neutralize them directly (chemo).

To some extent, this is what has happened in the case of Craig Cobb, his attempt to “metastasize” to Leith, including his recruitment of Kynan Dutton to move there, and the subsequent re-recruitment of Dutton to help neutralize Cobb.  Of course, we might associate Cobb with fascism because of his white supremacist views or association with Neo-Nazis.  But I posit that these people aren’t really fascists in the sense we mean when talking about government regimes.  They’re delusional morons who will use any handy label to preserve their “individuality”, their separateness from the things they fear or don’t understand. We can also apply the analogy to other populations that don’t consist of such morons, like the decidedly non-morons in the Chicago School and the metastatic neoplasm formed in Chile.  The point being that individualist tendencies, when run amok, can grow and spread like cancer.

So, what do you think?  Can you level some cogent criticism at my analogy?  I sure hope so, since I have a heavy bias toward libertarianism. 8^)

2 Basic Types of Atheist (arguments)

OK. I have a new way of classifying atheists, triggered by the arrival of my solstice present from my sister: Foundations Without Foundationalism. As a result of skimming through that book (on second-order logic), I was forced to re-acquaint myself with Paraconsistent Logic. And, since I’m always arguing with self-described atheists (perhaps usually antitheists), I couldn’t help but notice this potential conjecture.

When an atheist asks a normal person to provide evidence for the existence of (a) god, they are effectively asking for evidence of the supernatural. The word “supernatural”, is of course non-evidential. Asking for evidence for the supernatural is contradictory. The question reduces to: Can you give me evidence for something for which you cannot give me evidence for? I.e. P^¬P?

When someone asks that question, it seems they must be implying one of two things:

  1. They are claiming that the logic implemented by the real world is explosive, that P^¬P is absurd and they’re trying to get you to realize that, or
  2. They tolerate paraconsistency, perhaps the real world does allow some contradictions to be true, at least in some sense.

Most of the atheists I argue with fall into type 1, I think, likely because they’re the ones who are most outspoken and willing to get into an argument with a jerk like me. But I do find some type 2’s out there once in awhile, usually after finding a so-called “non-theist” and scratching them in the right way to reveal an atheist underneath. (I’m delighted when I find an actual agnostic underneath a non-theist. But that is quite rare. I usually find crypto-atheists and crypto-theists.)

In any case, I’m going to start presenting paraconsistency to my atheist friends to see how they react. Most of them have no math training. But I really don’t expect that to be a problem. The idea is relatively simple once you grok it. I do need an example candidate for a true contradiction, though. If anyone actually reads this and has a suggestion, please send it my way.