Hitler’s religion

Was Adolf Hitler a Christian? Was he, as others charge, an atheist? [1]

These questions are poorly formed. A more apt question would be, ‘What did he ‘believe’ beyond his own destiny, if anything?’

A preliminary point that needs to be made concerns the touchy question about which scholars one trusts and which one does not; but I don’t really want to raise that issue. Nonetheless, a rule of thumb is, if the same historical trend has been noted independently by different scholars giving careful interpretation of the source materials, then likely their remarks can be trusted, and any disagreements resolved through consideration of their differing perspectives. The majority of scholars I’m familiar with agree that Nazi Germany, and the Nazis themselves, were not as religiously homogenous. Hitler’s own beliefs depend on a careful study of Mein Kampf – selected passages will mean nothing taken out of context.

Such a move leaves one utterly unable to account for the complexities of Hitler’s psychology; unable to account for his biography, what led him to the juncture that Mein Kampf marks as the arrival of the historical Hitler; unable to account for the complex relationship Hitler had with the German right and the German people as a whole. It will certainly not adequately account for the anti-Semitism; or for the obvious tensions between Hitler’s own cosmogony and that of Christianity, which are not identical and in many respects antagonistic.

Quite a number of scholars believe that the evidence strongly suggests that the Nazis not only intended to re-interpret Christianity, but do away with it entirely. (The ‘bible’ they placed on the alter of the one church they established themselves, in Berlin, was of course – Mein Kampf.) That doesn’t make them atheists, but I never said it did. The matter needs greater study, more complex and nuanced argument, greater accounting of the historical context. The problem at the time was not simply Nazism, nor religion, but the history of Germany to that date, and the malaise the Germans found themselves in during the 1920s. The issue simply cannot be reduced to a question of whether they had a religion or not. They had Hitler.

What Hitler himself seems to have believed about himself and his place in the world, is that Fate – some cosmic force, which he sometimes equates with ‘the Almighty,’ but also simply refers to as a less personalized ‘Fate’ or ‘Destiny’ – had placed him at the epicenter of an age old racially determined struggle between the Aryan and the Jew. ‘Good’ (Aryan) and ‘evil’ (Jew) are entirely defined by this struggle, there is no morality otherwise. [2] His dedication to this struggle effectively became his religion.

Thus, Hitler’s own profound sense of personal destiny and his rage against the Jews led to his religion – not the other way around.

Mein Kampf is an act of self-creation. It’s a passion, a narrative of apotheosis of a self-identified savant and savior.

After the disappointment of the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler wanted to trash the established right-wing, with its old militarism, and re-define Nazism as a holistic anti-Semitic revolution, and at the same time culminate the reconstruction of his personality that had been on-going after his nervous collapse at (and as response to) the end of WWI. This meant providing an entire cosmogony that could synthesize with both traditional beliefs and prejudices as well as then-contemporary popular understandings of scientific knowledge. It also meant providing a mythic figure that could function as both prophet and savior – Hitler himself, of course.

It is not at all clear what Hitler really thought about the trends of belief that came before him, whether that which could be found in traditional churches, or the developments of science. Paganism, eugenics, Weimar hedonism, evangelical tent-revivals, blind faith in technological innovation, paranoid denial of then current physics – all were simply melted into the alloy forged in the furnace of Hitler’s rage against the world (where he had only felt belonging as a soldier during during the First World War [3}). (A close reading of Mein Kampf reveals that he actually held Germans in contempt almost as much as Jews – “Are these still human beings, worthy of being part of a great nation?” he allows himself to wonder in evident disgust, concerning the German construction workers with whom he worked before the war. [4]) Hitler’s racism was conditioned by Social Darwinism as well as by ‘special creation’ theories, since both were prevalent in that day; but originated in his personal disgust with the human, and his experience of the world as little more than a battleground in a war of all against all.

Claiming to know “what Hitler believed” is simply facile, without struggling to grasp who this cypher was [5] or why his speeches resonated so well with the Germans of his day. It is also a misconception of modern revolutions to try to define their attempts to supplant previous religious beliefs with their preferred ideology, as reducible to the imperatives of their ideology. It is in the nature of modern revolution itself to supplant and dissolve traditional religion. This is as true of ISIS as it was true of the French Revolution’s “Church of Reason.” And it was certainly true of Hitler’s self-created messianism. Of course Hitler would find it useful to claim the authority of “the All-Mighty” for his project. But beyond some profound sense of personal destiny, it is wholly unclear that Hitler believed there was anything ‘out there’ but chaos and never-ending conflict. Although Hitler courted the Wagner family to lay claim on Nietzsche, in fact the only philosopher he read was Schopenhauer (although he inverted Schopenhauer’s understanding of Will as what needed to be constrained, choosing instead to unleash it).

So what did Hitler believe? I have tried to suggest here that, while the question is most certainly interesting, answers to it cannot be reduced to ‘ready-mades’ to fit our own ideological preferences. He was a product of history – but that history was not simple, not linear, and not uni-vocal. Like most of history, it was – and remains – a morass of conflicting urges and social pressures against the individual’s will to achieve some importance – some sense of ‘being there.’

That’s the problem – the will to become a self in opposition to all other selves.

Any ideology promising that will only bring about heart-break.

—–

[1] Really, the dangling of the ‘Hitler-monster’ in the theist/ atheist god debate has got to stop. It does no justice to the victims of Nazism, and distorts the history rather than clarifying it. ‘Well, they started it!’ each side claims – I don’t care. It’s got to stop. It is poorly informed, a-historical, and contributes to the general stock of discursive muddle that plagues the public mind, especially on the internet. Those who think they really have a case to make, should engage in the research necessary to make that case, and not mine for quotes. As raw source, Hitler can be made to say practically anything. Anyway, the whole “believers in X do nasty things, therefore X is wrong,” is a bad argument. Every ideology contains imperatives that can be used to justify even heinous acts. The real lesson of Hitler here is that, if one wants to perform those acts, one will find the justification for it – or make it up.

[2} See: Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The war against the Jews, 1933-1945. Weidenfeld And Nicolson (1975).

[3] See: Kenneth Burke, “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle” in The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. Vintage. pp. 191-220. Reprinted Berkeley, California: University of California Press(1974).

[4] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf. Translated and edited by Alvin Johnson et.al., Reynal & Hitchcock (1941); page 54.

[5] See: Joachim C Fest, Hitler. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston, Harcourt (1973).

The need to enforce law against the conservative religious

Do Christians and Muslims and Jews, all members of the same supposed ‘Abrahamic’ lineage of belief, worship the same God? (The Mormons form a special case, since they insist they belong to this lineage, but are in fact polytheists.) At any rate, as most of us may already know by now, apparently Christians at Wheaton College don’t think so. ( http://www.npr.org/2015/12/20/460480698/do-christians-and-muslims-worship-the-same-god ) (The ‘liberally’ minded professor of the article, suspended for suggesting to students that all the Abrahamic religious believe in one god, was finally fired for not recanting.)
Interestingly, the NPR article makes a spectacular theological mis-statement: “Christians, however, believe in a triune God: God the father, God the son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit.” No; that should read “SOME Christians, however, believe in a triune God: God the father, God the son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit.” (I would settle for ‘most;’ Unitarians are known as such because they don’t believe this.) Indeed, hundreds of ‘heretics’ have been slaughtered over the centuries for not accepting this ‘triune’ nature of the divine, while still claiming to be Christian. And of course differing interpretations of this triune nature have kept the Catholics and Orthodox at schism for almost as many centuries. (Is god three persons blended into one? or three manifestations of the same? Remember, people have died over this seeming splitting of hairs.)

Conservative believers of any religion generally have a very narrow understanding of the kind of god that they allow; and unfortunately these believers belong to competing sects (even if supposedly within a single religion), leading to interminable debate always threatening to break out into open violence.

Of course we should all know by now that Al-Bhagdadi of Daesh doesn’t even think all Muslims worship the same god (and would execute those not worshiping his. But that’s the fundamentalist way – utter paranoia that someone somewhere believes differently than they. What narrow minds these faithful have! And, how little faith – because of course, one can’t have faith in god, and fear that others might not not believe. If god is so powerful, what challenge could non-believers ever threaten him with? Obviously they are fearful for themselves – and on some level doubt the power of the god they keep threatening others with.

Probable psychological diagnosis: religious conservatism is born of guilt – the fear that one’s self does not truly believe in the manner expected by the mysterious ur-father (who, after all, reads all our deepest thoughts – so any doubt, he will know). Religious conservatives thus must constrain – punish – or destroy any who openly doubt without evident divine retribution (suggesting that doubt is beyond the power of the divine), in order to re-affirm their own faith (and thus deny doubts that subconsciously haunt them). Religious conservatism is thus an extreme form of projectively indirect (and vicariously masochistic) self control.

‘I’ll have to constrain – punish – or destroy you; otherwise I must punish or destroy myself (since leaving you be shows lack of self-constraint.)’

Does this make sense? No, of course not. But pathology never needs to make sense; it must only follow a lock-step of ‘reasoning’ – if B follows A, then C must be done – whether B actually does follow A or not. Basically, the conclusion is reached, then premises are decided to support it. Conservative religionists are paranoiacs who find sanction for their fears – and (often violent) reactions – in texts written in ancient tribes the historicity of which they cannot grasp and will not allow.

Liberal religionists have learned to prioritize their trust in god’s mercy and justice above their private fears and guilt. They are not threatened by differences nor by the thought or practices of non-believers, nor by those of believers in competing sects. But, though they frequently try, they can find no reconciliation with conservatives of the same religion, let alone those of other religions. Because conservative religionists will brook no reconciliation of differences. It is the very existence of difference that threatens them – and against which they act, through stridency of doctrine, segregation – or open violence.

I’m afraid the stridency of the conservatively religious makes rapprochement between them and others only enforceable by legislation. Once the law is established, for the safety and security of society as a whole, we can then tell the strident, ‘keep your god in your own damn house of worship, and leave the rest of us alone!’ (I know that also sounds somewhat strident; but really, one gets tired of getting preached at by every fanatic with a god.)

At any rate, the notion that religions, left to their own devices, can come to some equitable understanding, is frankly a little naive. It has happened, on occasion, in certain cosmopolitan centers in different cultures; but such peace is fragile unless enforced by law. Conservative believers have a difficult time accepting that others might not only believe differently than they, but might also live decent, meaningful, even happy lives believing differently. (That’s what really pisses them off.)

The fundamental injustice of religious reasoning

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. … Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.”
– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, London: Collins, 1952, pp. 54–56

So goes the “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” trilemma, that is supposed to convince us that, the gospels of the New Testament being allowed as trustworthy reports of a historical savant of the late history of ancient Israel, we must decide that the savant is all he claimed, and all the gospels claim him to be.

The one response Lewis could not assume, given his belief, is, simply, ‘I don’t care.’ * The choice he presents is a false dilemma (not a true trilemma, because, as I point out later, one choice is strictly irrelevant); and indeed many of the questions raised in discussions concerning Lewis’ challenge, while having historical-scholarly interest, resolve (or dissolve) in practical application, into questions as to whether we care about god’s existence or not; and I don’t.

Lewis was basically writing for people who wanted to believe, but had their doubts (in an era when belief was getting challenged and shaken by many events of the 20th century); he was trying rhetorically to put them in a position where they needed to make a choice (presupposing they would choose faith, since alternatives would not be fully formed in their minds). As a ploy it is somewhat of a kin to Pascal’s Gambit.**

Nonetheless, in its clearest form, as I previously noted, the challenge presents us with a false dilemma. I remarked that one response might be, ‘I don’t care,’ because I can certainly hold that Jesus was able to remark some ethical truths and that he was something of a loony. These beliefs are not mutually exclusive, ‘loonies’ can be capable of moral insight.

(‘Lunatic’ is a derogatory term, that does no justice to those suffering mental illness. Certainly it’s possible for someone who believes he’s a poached egg – which no one suffering mental illness has ever claimed, as far as I’m aware – to both recite and adhere to the famous Golden Rule of treating others as one’s self. Lewis not only violates empirical knowledge concerning mental illness, he not only violates the right of the mentally ill to be treated with dignity, he thus also violates the morality he claims to presume.)

As far as to whether Jesus is lying, that’s really quite irrelevant, since we only have the asserted quotations of the NT, we have not other means of determining his veracity. But in any case, there is no reason to assume that he is ‘Lord,’ on the basis of this logical challenge, since whether Jesus was a loony or not, or a liar or not, have nothing to do with any claimed divinity for him. He could well be an angel, or some avatar for some other religion’s god; or he could be a brilliant storyteller and moralist, giving his audience just what they needed to hear to reconsider their lives ethically. Or he could have been some sort of brilliant politician; or maybe he was just just someone, like Monty Python’s Brian, who happened to be in the right place at the right time – whether he wanted to be or not. Or maybe, what he had to say is so generalized as to be practically empty, anyway.

Or maybe he didn’t even exist, and the gospels are just so much fiction.

As far as to whether the gospels are themselves lies, records of hallucination, or straight-forward reportage:

There are, I think, two basic approaches to biblical scholarship – one asking, ‘what are the origins of these texts?’ (which may rightfully asked of any literature), and the other asking ‘how do these texts hang together, how do they compose the whole that believers read them as?’ The problem is that in scholarly practice the two questions often overlap, but unfortunately the answer to the second question (which is only meaningful to believers) may simply be that they do not hang together, that we are looking at a quilt, not a tapestry.

Look: concerning any ancient literature, any answer we could possibly give to the questions concerning their veracity, or intent, or the mental stability of their authors, or the rhetorical relation they might have had with their presumed audience – such answers would require compiling as many versions of the narrative as possible, from variant, preferably conflicting sources (since the conflicts will actually weed out certain biases), comparison with non-textual historical records and artifacts, etc., etc. Eventually we say, ‘In their own contemporary context, this is likely what they meant to say to their given audience.’ (By the way, all of this is derived from Schleirmacher – a devout Christian and a brilliant scholar.) But taken beyond the religious view in which such hermeneutics originated, this basically means we are reading such texts the way literary historians read great fiction of past eras, to discover their contemporary context and determine what can be salvaged to apply to literary reading today (or what readers of these texts, literature or not, can use today).

The NT has some problems in this regard; a strong social institution grew up around it and effectively cloistered the texts from critical reading, while at the same time abetting a radical and profound change in the social context in which these texts were first composed. I am not familiar with biblical scholarship per se, but I do know some of the history that tracked through the decomposition of Rome (and its great libraries), led to the canonization of the texts. This history has left us with great lacunae in our efforts to compose a single narrative such that all the loose ends could be tied together. Frankly, I doubt they can be.

This makes asking, ‘how do these texts hang together?’ ultimately resolving into speculations – some well-informed, some mere guesswork, none with enough evidence to be convincing.

—–
* Actually, other than the remarks of this essay, possible responses Lewis would not really have expected, given his context and expected readership, include:

“Jesus was a complete loony, you’re absolutely right, all of his moral dictates are worthless, we should read Hume and Schopenhauer instead.”

“Jesus was indeed the spawn of the devil, and all his moral postulates are intended to confuse us. Read Aristotle or Confucius instead.”

“Jesus was a complete fool, and live your life according to the dictates of capitalism.” (A favored response among many Americans, although they won’t admit to it.)

“Jesus was indeed a prophet, but he was surpassed by the blessed Mohammed.”

“Jesus was mere avatar for the divine Krishna.”

“‘Jesus’ who?”

“Yeah, yeah, Hillel said much the same things a generation before. What a mensch!”

“I don’t think there is evidence this guy even existed.”

“My father, pastor at the Everything Is Lovely If You Submit Church, beat the crap out of me when I was young – so take your ‘Lord’ and shove it!”

Each to his own god (and some of us to none at all).

——
* Pascal’s Gambit:
If you don’t believe in god, and there is a god, you will go to hell.
If you believe in god and there is no god, you’ll have lived a better life anyway.

Complete response: On the other hand, if you don’t believe in god, live a good life, and there is no god, then you will have lived a good life; but if you’ve lived a good life without believing in god, but there is a god, and he is all merciful, as claimed of him, then you will not go to hell.

Note that the “all merciful” component is left out of Pascal’s Gambit. Yet, it is crucial. I remember a priest remarking, “it is my duty to believe in hell; but only a fool would believe there is any soul in it.” Either god is all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving, or he is really a waste of time. BUT if he is all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving, then do what you can, do as you feel you must, and make your peace with him after death.

And if it is not the case that he is all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving – then he is not a god worth believing in.

He will forgive my non-belief – or he isn’t worth believing in.

Either he exists, and nothing happens; or he doesn’t exist, and nothing happens.

Or he exists and sends me to hell because he is not all loving and all merciful, and thus all forgiving, in which case he is not worthy of worship, and I would prefer hell to any heaven he offers.

In this life, it doesn’t matter whether he exists or not. If there is any after-life, we’ll deal with that as it comes along.

But this is really what we non-theists have claimed all along.

Forgiving Santa, in three notes (1)

1. I think the emotions and psychology that form our perspectives on cultural issues ought to be acknowledged; otherwise we will be misled into thinking those perspectives are coming from somewhere above, as if intellect were divorced from personality. This has certainly been an ideal in Western philosophy, but is easily falsifiable once biographical information is taken into account. We are humans first; and then, if lucky and industrious, thinkers after.

Currently, I’m considering the problem, that Santa Claus * is a construction of collective fiction-making or story-telling (rather than a myth), and considering some of the social uses of this, in order to come to terms with a season that, frankly, annoys and depresses me (when I let it remind me of where I came from).

But first, a comment from a perspective fortunately under-represented in the ‘War on Christmas’ debates so far:

“You ever noticed how easy it is to transform ‘Satan’ from ‘Santa’? Just move the ‘n’ to the end. And presto! ‘Satan’ appears.”
(…)
“Is ‘Claus’ another anagram for ‘Lucas’? It’s no secret Lucas and Lucis are new-age “code words” for Lucifer.”
(…)
“Maybe Santa Claus means ‘Satan’s Claws’? Like a lion’s ‘claws’? ‘Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour’: 1 Peter 5:8
(…)
“I am sure many reading this are thinking, ‘Aw, c’mon, Santa Claus is just fantasy. What is the big deal. Nobody takes it serious.’
And that is where you are WRONG – DEAD WRONG! Those little children take their Santa very serious! They literally worship him! They believe and love Santa with all their heart!
Most parents would never teach their beautiful little children such a lie as Santa Claus. Most parents would never openly lie to their children. Especially something that is a blasphemous imposter of the Lord Jesus.
And Satan knows this.
So he disguises the lie in a nice little package of make-believe and fantasy. He creates a harmless ol’ jolly fellow that just loves little children. And most parents think, “Now what could be wrong with that?”
Fantasy. . . Satan’s ‘magic weapon.’ “

– Dr. Terry Watkins, of Dial-the Truth Ministries, “Santa Claus, the Great Imposter,” http://www.av1611.org/othpubls/santa.html

The (lengthy) article is a remarkable document – it is filled with esoteric research, interpretive strategies bordering on the schizophrenic, and a strangely holistic paranoia presenting itself as calm reasoning. It’s a reminder of the need not to let our concerns over fantasy become themselves fantastical. ‘Satan’s magic weapon’ may really prove nature’s greatest gift – properly co-ordinated with the real, of course.

—–

“Did atheists invent Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny to brain wash children into doubting and questioning other imaginary beings like the christian God?”  Daldianus, http://community.beliefnet.com/go/thread/view/34789/13191119/Santa_Claus:_atheist_conspiracy

—–

Oh, Santa! Thou marvelous Satan’s tool!
How could I have ever doubted you,
to ‘mis’lead the youth away from childish things
and introduce them to wild imaginings
of charity and hope,
away from the bigots who cry “nope, nope, nope!”

_____

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Claus

Things one can do with “Jesus-on-a-stick” (TM)

Christmas season approaches – that means it’s time once again to buy Jesus-on-a-stick (TM)!

This is available in the Deluxe model (actual wood), the All Purpose model (pressed board), and of course the Economy model (plastic) – although remember, if you choose the Economy model, do not burn it! Poisonous gas may be released.

Jesus-on-a-stick – Impress your friends and co-workers! A great gift for anyone at Christmas.

Christmas – the time of giving utterly useless baubles meant to indicate how much excess wealth you have to throw away – that’s right, rub the noses of your peers in how much you can waste, making them feel insignificant because they can’t give useless gifts as expensive as your own! (Only don’t try this with your boss, buy him something useful like a pen….)

This being Christmas, we also have – Baby-Jesus-in-a-bale-of-hay! Wow! Now, the Deluxe version will burn brightly all night! and into the flames you can toss a couple Hail Maries – both Mom and the whore who, you know, Jesus never slept with (ha ha!), Magdalene –

Jesus-on-a-stick will prove you are one with 42% of the population that believes the earth is only 6000 years old, and will immediately get you entry into the next Republican convention! A signed copy of a photograph of Ben Carson comes with the first 1000 copies sold (although admittedly these are signed by Jeb Bush…).

Be a real American! Not the Black, or Hispanic, or Asian, or Female, or Arab Americans (and gays are straight out!) who form the majority of a population that you, as a white man, still demand dominance over. After all – do any of them own a Jesus-on-a-stick – doubtful!

So, ok, what can you do with your Jesus-on-a-stick?

You unwrap it,; you stare at it in admiration, in awe, in something like disgust. Then you – set it on fire! because what good is having a martyr you can’t consign to the flames? If he burns – he’s a witch! A fair cop, I say! (What are miracles but black magic given the Almighty’s approval?)

But then also, let’s get creative –

Anal itch? – scratch it with the Jesus-on-a-stick! Goes up all the way!

Go ahead and have a taste – its the “Body and Blood,” remember – nutriciousdelicious; it satisfies!

Haven’t beaten your kid lately? Jesus-on-a-stick provides disciplinary satisfaction every time!

Attach it to your penis (you’re a white MAN, right?) and jerk it – masturbatory orgasms shoot ever further with Jesus-on-a-stick!

Attach it to the back of your car – better than any bumper-sticker announcing you are just as intelligent as anyone hoping to be ‘beamed up by the Lord!’

Or just let it sing in the wind and attract the winged insects – swat them as they lick the blood of christ! No better fly paper anywhere!

Threaten your neighbor with Jesus-on-a-stick! See how fast he returns your borrowed lawn-mower, or that cup of sugar he tagged in order to cheat Lent last Easter. (Oh, yeah, those dam’ diabetics will do anything to get their sugar hit -!)

Jesus-on-a-stick keeps all Christians as dishonest as their nonsense religion wants them to be! So go ahead – use Jesus-on-a-stick in every way imaginable! Even stab your faithless wife through the heart with it! The Old Testament demands she should die, remember – and who are you to question the righteousness of the Lord?

Dead people make great christians! Always remember to plant a Jesus-on-a-stick in the dirt above a loved one! It may actually convince someone that your late beloved believed in something once. Just don’t forget to pay the burial costs (with tax), or we will have to report you.

—–

Jesus-on-a-stick – Registered TradeMark and copyright Church o’ Rome productions, Trenton, New Jersey.

The problem of ‘the Problem of Evil’

“The problem of evil, in the sense in which I am using this phrase, is essentially a logical problem: it sets the theist the task of clarifying and if possible reconciling the several beliefs which he holds. It is not a scientific problem that might be solved by further discoveries…” -J. L. Mackie, Evil and Omnipotence.”

J. L. Mackie was a professional philosopher and committed atheist who spent some of his career working arguments out of what is known as the Problem of Evil *. Theologians oft wring their hands over it, and that some atheists (especially so-called New Atheists) use it to confront theists with a challenge not easily or comfortably resolvable in the Christian tradition, from whence it originates. The Problem arises out of a conflict of two Christian beliefs: that god is all-powerful and all-good, and that the material universe (supposedly of god’s creation) is filled with evil – filled with sufferings and temptations, hardships, pain. This is an ancient Christian understanding of evil in the material universe following the Fall from Eden. It is unfortunately completely devoid of identifiable significance; or rather, as floating signifier **, it can be made to have any significance rhetorically useful in a given context. For instance, religious teleology: “You are here to confront the evils of your nature;” “you are here to confront the evils of the threatening natural world;” “the internet could be invented to challenge you with the evils of temptation” – etc., etc.

The trouble is, this is a universe that I don’t see myself living in. There is nothing evil about anybody’s getting cancer, or a sudden down-pour washing away this season’s crops, or a meteor falling on some city. These events are results of natural processes, and we deal with them as best we may, because survival – not ‘salvation’ – requires we must. Asserting there is evil in such events, certainly may rhetorically ramp up religious paranoia among some more superstitious Christians, requiring rhetorical re-assurance of divine mercy from wiser, more liberally minded theologians, priests, etc. The work of logical analysis would be to reveal the incoherence and paradoxes involved such an understanding of evil – and this seems to have been Mackie’s intent.

There’s nothing wrong in that – if one doesn’t mind spending a great deal of effort on a non-existent Problem in order to challenge those who won’t learn from the effort anyway. But is there another way to deal with the issue?  But why deal with it at all.  Why not just say, ‘this makes no sense,’ and be done with it?

I started blogging in an effort to find a place for my own secular Buddhism in the New Atheism movement, but eventually lost interest in New Atheism, although I remain sympathetic to the more thoughtful participants. The benefit of my year as a secular Buddhist New Atheist was that I was able to clarify my own beliefs, with which I am now quite comfortable – but being comfortable, I find the ‘god debate’ somewhat tiresome now.

Philosophically, as to the logic of the god debate, the point of origin for me was George H. Smith’s Atheism: the Case against God, presenting the strictly logical arguments against belief; the end point was Kai Nielsen’s Atheism and Philosophy, which presents the case that the very idea of god is simply incoherent, and cannot survive sustained argumentation. Notably, neither of these texts invoke science or scientific methodology (although Smith does make the demand for some evidence to support beliefs that are historically – and quite obviously – only assertions). The rational basis of theistic belief is fundamentally flawed, much of it spurious, regardless of empirical research or evidence.

But the problem is, none of this matters to ‘true believers’ (so we should hardly be surprised when they discard any empirical evidence to their beliefs). As I discovered reading theist responses to atheist arguments, religious belief is not really a matter of reasoning. Its foundations are first, foremost, and overwhelmingly emotional. It may be a simple, vague, intuition of ‘something out there;’ an undeniable pathology of needing paternal guidance; a profound sense that some spiritual ‘other’ lovingly follows one around, invested in one’s success in life, forgiving any perceived transgression. But whatever it else is, it is emotional yearning, emotional fulfillment, emotional satisfaction, that rational argument can never reach. It is love; and one can no more argue against it than persuade a teen-ager that her idealized first relationship is a tissue of rhetoric and fantasized future happiness (conditioned on her willing loss of virginity, of course).

I confess I tried feeling such love for a long time – but I never did. The year before I adopted what I would call the truth of the non-theistic tradition of Buddhism, I went to a priest for confession (having a history as a Catholic). I spoke admiringly of Thomas Aquinas – upon which the priest shook his head sadly, saying “you love wisdom more than god.” He gave me absolution, but warned that I perilously close to unbelief. He was right, on both counts: I love wisdom; I never really believed in god.

To return to our starting point: My problem here is that I no longer recognize the Christian universe Mackie is attempting to confront; I don’t live there. The ‘radical evil’ that Kant and other philosophers write about is comprehensible once one recognizes that it arises out of unbridled desire – this is completely in keeping with the Buddhist understanding of suffering arising from the ‘self.’ But the Christian notion that ‘evil’ is signifier for horrendous experiences of every kind – human, natural, real, imagined – requires some basis in an amorphic metaphysics is entirely alien to me. While I sympathize Mackie’s project, it really seems to miss the point. The Christians’ worry over the Problem of Evil arises from fear, and their commitment to god arises from loneliness, longing, and hope. This makes the question a matter for psychology, not logic. Fearing the ‘evil’ all around us, or trusting in a loving god’s mercy to save us from this, are clearly drawn from deeper feelings than logic can reach.

For me, the universe is simply what is, just as it is. There is no inherent good or evil to it; there is no ‘wrongness’ or misfortune. The only meaningful sense of ‘evil’ for me lies in the harm we do to ourselves or others. Such is properly addressed by either ethics, psychology, or collectively in politics.

It’s not a matter of choice, but of epistemic conditioning. I try not to let my emotions govern my beliefs – and I don’t believe that they should. We should always try to look at the universe just as it presents itself, and learn to live with that.

——

*See the Stanford Encyclopedia discussion, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/evil/

** I should remark, for readers unfamiliar with the term, that ‘floating signifier’ is a term of art in semiotics for “a signifier with a vague, highly variable, unspecifiable or non-existent signified” (David Chandler, Semiotics: the Basics, Routledge, 2002 ).

Mackie, J. L. “Evil and Omnipotence,” in Mind, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 254. (Apr., 1955). http://www.ditext.com/mackie/evil.html

Smith, George H. Atheism: The Case Against God. Nash, 1974.

Nielsen, Kai. Atheism & Philosophy. Prometheus Books, 2005.

 

Abortion: about justice – not biology, not god

Abortion: I know the topic raises emotional responses – including, obviously, my own. So I want to use the emotional appeal of my rhetoric to cut short appeal to personal emotion, by indicating that appeal to some theory of universal self-interest or universal sympathy concerning the fetus, is doomed to cancellation by confrontation with personal experience and differently directed sympathies.

The weight of justice seems to me to favor the interests of the living women who make this choice, not ‘possible persons’ the present ontological status of which remains in doubt.

It may indeed be the case that the legalization of abortion contributed to a coarsening of our culture, a loss of a certain sensitivity – but there are important legal reasons why this cannot be undone, and my position is that justice weighs in favor of accepting this, and considering the whole issue in a manner that allows us to live with it.

To begin with, I don’t believe human life begins at conception. “Homo Sapien” is a biological category, “human” is an ontological category. I deny the two are identical. There is no (and for theoretical reasons, cannot be) evidence to the contrary.

Thomas Aquinas argued that no human life came into being until an infant demonstrated personality, demonstrating that the soul had been implanted in the body, which he reckoned to be about four months. The Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion doesn’t hinge on the existence of ‘human’ life in the fetus, but on the life in pontentia, pre-determined by god. But I don’t believe in god. So let us recognize the strength of the one claim, concerning the development of personality, while recognizing that the second claim, reliance on god, is unpersuasive to unbelievers. The point being that the matter turns on the definition of ‘human being,’ and this point cannot be decided scientifically, because it is an ontological category, that can only be decided ideologically or philosophically. But in this culture, it cannot be decided religiously. Thus, the point is so open and filled with possibility that only small groups and individuals can realize which definition of ‘human being’ they wish to pursue.

This problem can be somewhat mitigated by law, but the Supreme Court has decided that the Constitution has limited jurisdiction over the matter, and that individuals must wrestle with their choices by themselves.  That’s as it should be.  If we were talking about real, existent persons the matter would be otherwise.  But we are talking about an infinite number of ‘possible persons,’ which would individually fall out into a hard reality that is frequently poorly prepared, impoverished, punishing.  Abortion may be the greatest act of mercy in certain circumstances.

Anti-choice proselytizers squall about the ending of life in the womb. Then they should develop a system of incubation, whereby the excised fetus can be brought to maturation outside the womb. They should also find funding for the raising of these children afterward, rather than condemning them to the ‘care’ of women who do not want them, cannot afford them.

And they should explain why they so willingly send these children off to die in war, or send them to the gallows when the pressure of their unfortunate births may lead them to transgress. *

—–

But: ‘What if your mother had chosen abortion?’ I wish she had, putting an end to years of manipulation and abuse.

My mother had a different idea: she believed that if she had enough children, perhaps her drunkard husband would stay married to her. Reproduction was then her only strategy for control over an abusive man she should never have married in the first place – except that, at the time unmarried women approaching 30 were considered disreputable failures. (When that strategy failed, then she seemed to have decided that she could manipulate her children to die before her, thus assuring herself a kind of ersatz immortality. It worked with my two sisters, who both died at age 50 – thoroughly scrambled psychologically by the many mixed messages from their mother, especially concerning sexuality and procreation.)

There are some women who should not have children; and all women should have the right to an informed choice with real options for living their lives well. Denial of this corrupts them, corrupts the men involved with them, corrupts the very fabric of society.

The whole anti-choice argument stands on the assumption that the ‘nuclear family’ is natural and inevitable, shored up with instinctual caring, which the surrounding community re-enforces. That’s untrue. The ‘nuclear family’ is an ideal, and ‘instinctual caring’ is a religious belief. Humans are too variant in their motivations and behaviors to provide the kind of generic surety the anti-choice arguments seem to take for granted.

Nothing of this yet addresses the problem of the right of a woman to her own body. Until a fetus reaches a maturation towards birth – sustainable life outside the womb – it is little more than a parasite. It is homo sapien; it is not yet human. It doesn’t enter that process of becoming until it is born. No excuse for causing it suffering – but no reason to keep it alive.

The woman involved is a living human, she is an already ontologically becoming human being. She should not be denied the opportunity to choose the path of her own becoming.

My mother didn’t know any better. Now women know that some parasite in their body is no reason to devote their entire lives to the result of rape, brutality, oppression and enslavement.

Shall we deny them this? enforce religious belief through state strictures punishable by imprisonment? That won’t stop women seeking the relief they need from impossibly difficult situations. So, should we return to coat-hanger abortions in unsanitary backrooms? Hundreds of thousands of women suffered injury or death in those days – already existent persons suffering because of religious hypocrisy pretending to be law. No thanks.

I wish the whole world vegetarian. But that’s not so. Wishing a world where abortion is not a reasonable choice is unrealistic. I must accept women’s claim to controlling their reproductive destiny. The choice must be theirs. Denying this is profoundly unjust.

I care for the living, not the dead and the unborn. The former no longer suffer, the latter need not ever suffer. The suffering that exits now is what we must help to lessen.

—–

* I here must laud the Catholic Church’s opposition to capital punishment and unjust wars; at least in their opposition to abortion, they can claim consistency, which is much more than can be said of the American Religious Right that terrorizes us with fake videos and inflammatory rhetoric.

Really stupid television, episode 2

Previously, on Really Stupid Television: With the Beverly Hillbillies, we saw how the very premise of a television show could be, simply put, stupid, leading to stupidity in every other aspect of the program, and raising questions concerning audience motivation. We’ll try to make this matter more precise discussing another example, a science fiction action thriller that was broadcast on the ABC television network during the 2009-2010 season, Flash Forward.

This discussion will concern what I will refer to as the problem of meta-stupidity in our popular entertainments (although it can show up in more sophisticated arts as well, and can be frequently found in politics and economics). But let me explain.

There are four layers of stupid to be uncovered in the popular arts. Popular reviews or more refined forms of criticism generally deal with three:

Local stupidity: usually revealed in dialogue, pertaining to the experience or inadequacy of a single character, small group of characters, or situation. In one scene from Flash Forward, Agent Noh admits to his fiance Zoey Andata that he has slept with his lesbian colleague Janis Hawks in order to impregnate her because in her flash forward she was pregnant. This is probably among the stupidest excuses for a one night stand one can give to one’s supposed beloved – and it’s not clear why anybody would be stupid enough to have such a one night stand (beyond desperation, which is not Noh’s problem); nor why anyone would be stupid enough to admit such an affair to one’s fiance if an admission was not needed. I suppose this is what passes for ‘responsible sex’ in Hollywood.

Regional stupidity: pertaining to technical misjudgments raising questions concerning the competency of the production crew or the actors, or of the characters in the narrative itself. Inane plot devices are the most glaring example of this: There’s the more local sequence when someone in an apparently empty house, forewarned that danger is lurking, responds to the creaking of a door in the floor above, chooses to climb the stairs, calling out, “is anyone there?” and the inevitable terrorizing that follows. My favorite moment of this in Flash Forward is when the hero, Benford, is interrogating a villain, and the bad guy tells him that, having lived through this encounter in numerous Flash Forwards, he knows that after continued interrogation, Benford will simply lose control and start beating him up, afterwards losing his job and everything he loves. Presumably, Benford is interested in changing the future, so we can easily suppose what he might do to prevent the realization of this prophecy – but this being a stupid television show, we know what really happens next. We could have written it ourselves – in our sleep.

And then there’s the big gaping hole in reasonable expectations: in Flash Forward, we’re supposed to accept that a super-secret organization, with apparently unlimited funds (from sources unknown) could build bizarre relay towers (6 stories high) – to amplify energy generated in a super-collider (huh?) – across the globe, with absolutely no governmental or journalistic suspicions being raised. We used to say, “inquiring minds want to know;” apparently no such existed in the world of Flash Forward until catastrophe happened.

Global stupidity: manifesting in basic problems of plotting in the stories themselves, either in the per-episode narrative, or in the story-arcs linking through the episodes. Critical complaints against Flash Forward have largely surfaced two prime instances of global stupidity: too many characters, and too many side-stories. In one episode, a preacher chats up his flash-forward in religious terms. Nothing much comes of his appearance, and I don’t believe he appears in any later episode. So, why? Because somebody in the production team probably remarked, ‘well, we probably need to address the religious angle at some point; let’s get it done and over with.’ Except that, in a science fiction story, no! you don’t have to address any religious angle! So all you’ve done is fill up time with insufferable twaddle.

Or, again, one story arc looping throughout the show involves a surgeon (Bryce) who (flashforward) sees himself meeting a beautiful Japanese female (Keiko). He becomes obsessed with her, so of course we have to have her back-story as well, and in the last episode, they do finally meet, and, as all too predictably, romance blooms.

Except that Bryce is a vacuous character with no charm; Keiko is charming, but her back-story is implausible and occasionally silly; and the whole story-line reeks of psychopathology. And what does any of it have to do with the search for the cause of the Flash Forward?

But all of this so far has to do with whether the telling of the story is effective – or not. There’s still the question of whether the story should be told at all.

I want to go beyond standard criticisms of stupid dialogue or plot points. What concerns us here is meta-stupidity. This is reference to problems in the very concept of a narrative or dramatic entertainment, or in the assumptions underlying that concept. (The concept is how one briefly describes the plot to reveal its themes, without direct reference to the characters of the story. So: “son avenges father on murderous uncle married to widowed mother,” is a reasonable facsimile of the concept that Shakespeare works through in Hamlet, which also suggests that the thematic of the play concern vengeance, family relationships, and a young man’s struggle to accept his responsibilities.)

We can now turn to the fundamental premise of Flash Forward to consider just how stupid a concept for a fictional story can be.

The purported premise of Flash Forward opens with a catastrophe, presented in a title (read voice-over) that began 20 of its 22 episodes: “On October 6, the planet blacked out for two minutes and seventeen seconds. The whole world saw the future.” That is, 7 billion people went unconscious, wherever they were (which led to 20 million deaths in the US, according to the show), and when the survivors woke up, they had a memory of events they would experience six months from then. This is not the complete premise, since there is no reference yet to any characters engaged in action, so we’ll flesh the premise out as it unravels in the first two episodes and thus sets the real story (or, rather, stories) into motion: “On October 6, the planet blacked out for two minutes and seventeen seconds. The whole world saw the future. Now only a handful of FBI agents can determine the cause and prevent it from happening again (while their friends and families try to come to terms with how to live with the future they saw).” But to really get the full flavor of this premise, we must remember that this catastrophe was global, so the premise should remark the global response to it; and here it is: “On October 6 (etc.). Now only a handful of FBI agents (etc.). Meanwhile, 7 billion people talk about it sometimes, and go about their daily business, while governments hold committee meetings to decide who’s responsible for it.”

Here’s the mind-numbing stupidity of it: A planetary catastrophe happens (and yet the only deaths mentioned are those in the US, BTW), and there is no emergency response from any government or charitable agency; the international community of scientists engage in no research into possible causes or solutions; there are no riots or mass immigrations; no new political or religious movements are engendered; psychotic breaks are limited to those who can be pursued by the heroic FBI team. I mean, yeah, there are occasional news casts and a speech by the President, and the head of the CIA suspects the Chinese are involved with it (because “they slept through it” – a stupid claim to make about 1 billion Chinese, that they could both terrorize the world and sleep through it all, but there we go)…. But really, it all comes down to that team of FBI agents.

Well, almost. Because as the series goes on, the premise begins accumulating clutter: Although the scientific community makes little appearance in the series, there are two scientists who are revealed to have invented the gadgets that may have caused the event, and one of them just happens to be in for a possible romantic relationship with the wife of the FBI agent who concerns us most, and the other just happens to be involved with the secret organization that did cause the event; which organization happens to have two FBI agents on its payroll (albeit one’s a double agent), and happens to have connections with a gang of terrorists, not to mention another gang of terrorists in Afghanistan that may be covertly funded by the US…. And anyway, a lot of people get shot, and things explode, and there are sex scenes, and endangered children, and –

(Oh, let me stop there, because I just have to remark, as side-bar, that the two starring children in the series are the most annoying child characters, played by the most annoying child actors, that I have ever had to suffer with in order to follow a story.)

Now, it sounds as if I’ve wandered into the terrain of the regional or global stupidity of this series, but that’s the problem I’m trying to surface: The basic premise is not only stupid, it is thin, very thin. For instance, it doesn’t suggest any thematic of the plot; it could never sustain a weekly television program for more than, say, three episodes. (A similarly thin premise – even with similar added on subplots – could not even sustain the 3 hour TV movie Supernova from 2005 – truly a disaster of a movie.) So what the writers have done is to layer concept over concept in order to generate supposed ‘dramatic moments’ even when these do not add up to any real drama. This is one reason why so many characters, irrelevant to the main narrative, can drift in for an episode or two and then disappear. Example: One added-in concept is: “FBI agent lives with lesbian lover but desperately wants a child.” This gives us a few scenes with the lover, who disappears after a couple episodes. Meanwhile the agent herself is used to flesh out another add-in: “fatalistic FBI agent has affair with lesbian colleague, because he believes he will die soon, and his fiancé is not around” (his fiancé being a lawyer who just happens to represent the suspected terrorists).

Do we see what’s happening here? The show-runners, confronted with the evident weakness of the original concept, rather than finding ways to flesh it out in a manner at least suggestive of reality, have layered it over with concept after concept, all equally unbelievable (because dependent on Hollywood stereotypes), all paper thin (because never fully realized), and all equally stupid.

Finally, one must really comment on the science here, since this becomes another layer of concept by the series’ mid-point. A super-collider supposedly generates enough energy to send 7 billion consciousnesses into the future and bring them back. This assumes, not only that super-colliders do anything  like this (they don’t), but that we have ‘a consciousness’ (which is still debated) – an entity detachable from our bodies, that can be moved temporally by some form of energy, and returned to our bodies whole. This also assumes that the future happens completely deterministically, so that variance is dubious. However, this would moot any possible action by the characters. So by episode seven, it is at last revealed that the future can be changed, when an FBI agent, who knows that he will be responsible for somebody’s death in the future, commits suicide. This is where the theme of the program finally reveals itself. No, it’s not simply an argument for free-will. Rather, by the last two or three episodes, it becomes clear that even if you know the future and can change it, you shouldn’t do that, because of the “balance of energies in the universe” – which balance will realize itself whether we want to or not, anyway. (The person the FBI agent thought would survive once he’s killed himself does herself get killed in a completely unrelated accident.) So the series that didn’t need to address religion (but did so anyway), sneaks ‘spirituality’ in through the back-door: pantheism.  But a particularly muddled, banal, ‘feel-good’ variety of it.

Although there’s much more stupidity to exhume from the corpse of Flash Forward, I’m going to stop here before my mind explodes. In my next post I’ll go into how I was able to survive exposure to this series, and lessons one can learn from such an experience.

—–

More on Flash Forward:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FlashForward
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1441135/

Still no need for god

A believer (in you-know-who-or-whatever) asks:

“Did you step back to ask why do we regard torturing children to be morally bad? Simple, it’s because God created us (through evolution) to think that way.”

Yes – too simple.

Remember here, first, that one culture’s “torture” is another’s “discipline.” * If god designs us all in this fashion, then ethical imperatives should be universally within a range of possible behaviors. But while there seem to be some ethical behaviors that appear in all cultures, not all do, and the continuum of variance is greater than if we assume a unitary source.

But I’ll try to give a more complicated answer to the question:

First, there are simply community standards, and it doesn’t really matter where these standards originate from. This is how ‘we’ live, what we agree to, in order to communicate and live with others like ourselves. We can change that, through political maneuvering, argument, rhetoric; but we can’t simply dismiss it all together, without risks and repercussions. Some of it remains, no matter what we argue. We never really leave home.

I was raised in America where we were taught that torture was barbaric, a practice of the past and of other cultures. (Which is one reason I’ve grown so pessimistic, given political leanings of the past 13 years.) But we still teach our children to value themselves, and to value their own young when they grow up. That may change; it is a value not shared with every culture in history (or at least qualified in some). But for now we Americans prize our young and thus find attempts to diminish their value disturbing and unacceptable.

As a philosopher, I can see the child as needing to be regarded as an end-in-itself, since having the same value as I do, and thus requiring the same respect I would demand. I can also argue that our children are our future, and thus we owe it to ourselves to nurture that future, so as to pass on our values properly following our demise. I can also argue this from a utilitarian perspective, that the security of our future is a good worthy of protecting in our children.

Finally, as a Buddhist, I reason that all sentient beings struggle to survive; that this struggle inevitably brings forth suffering. Suffering being unsatisfactory, the reduction of suffering is thus a good in and of itself. So in opposite to this, whatever we designate ‘bad,’ or ‘evil,’ or otherwise unacceptable is behavior that increases suffering unnecessarily. (I can also admit that working towards the end of suffering for others decreases my own suffering, which is obviously a benefit worth working towards.)

My point is, any ethical judgment is not a simple directive or dependency, but a complex interweaving of determinations within various frameworks – social, personal, rational, emotional. Historically god has been a signifier for the source and, recursively, the closure, of extrapolations of such frameworks within certain theistically-dominated cultures. But it has also been used to close off any discussion of such frameworks, especially when directed toward those lacking in sophisticated education.

(The most basic theist morality – one can demonstrate that most if not all religious morality reduces to it – Divine Command Theory ultimately reduces to ‘shut up, god told you this!’ which is frankly insulting to anyone wishing to think for themselves.)

I’m not sure how much I buy the story that evolution has generated within us any necessary ethical imperatives at all. So I’m not going to buy some divine origin for it.

—–

* Children, alas, do get tortured – all too often. Why would a supposedly ‘loving’ god allow a world where children might be tortured to begin with? A test of will? Isn’t that rather cruel? Or maybe the whim just struck him as amusing.

I think we need arguments against child abuse (of any kind) that are not reliant on the rather uncertain will of the Almighty.

Fiction, knowledge, reality

Anyone who asks that humans forsake stories for mere scientific statements of ‘fact’ * demonstrates little understanding of what it means to be human, even on the most basic biological level. Why not ask that we forsake sex, or eating, or breathing? None of these are necessary to scientistic ‘knowledge,’ are they? We’re just brains in a vat, after all?

But if not, we will be telling stories as long as we exist as human. And that is a quandary to anyone who thinks knowledge is reducible to sentences, and reality to neurological impulses.

Fiction is a great puzzlement to philosophy, and always has been. Socrates never did understand why it simply doesn’t matter that Homer cannot teach one to be a great general or a great sailor; that isn’t what either fiction or poetry are for.

Epistemic domains – or schemas, or frameworks – form the ground of any knowledge of any reality, and are inextricable from such. Fictions – intentionally constructed domains with no empirical claim beyond the media of construction – are not exceptions, but the rule.

It was Charles Peirce who noticed that sentences concerning unicorns could not be ‘nonsense’ simply because unicorns don’t physically exist, because then we should be unable to say what it is not physically existing. Thus unicorns could have a mental reality, and sentences describing one – ‘it’s equine, it’s horned’ – would have truth value concerning its mental reality. The implications of this for speculative or experimental science – the science of discovery – were clear to Peirce. Two hundred years ago, the sentence ‘there is a material entity smaller than an atom’ would have been held to be nonsense, so that speculative hypothetical sentences, like ‘there may be a material entity smaller than an atom,’ would have been dismissed. Yet physics did progress as scientists allowed themselves to speculate on such questions as, ‘these readings make no sense unless we suppose that there are material entities smaller than atoms; what might their properties be?’

One thing fiction can help us do is imaginatively consider the realm of possibilities; it cannot do this on the presumption that what we know of our fictions is not really knowledge. In a convention of Star Wars fans, there’s considerable amount of knowledge of that fictional universe one must have, in order to converse with other members of that community. We want those fans to admit that the characters in that universe do not exist in our shared physical universe; but it’s churlish to demand of them to abjure the data as ‘not knowledge,’ and their conversations ‘nonsense.’

What this may mean for religions or other systematic ideologies – which may be rife with entities not physically existing – should be clear, but I’ve no space to elucidate.

However, note that I’ve made little reference to sensations, empirical experience, neurological events, or similar concerns; strictly speaking, such are tangential to how ‘knowledge’ of a ‘reality’ is constituted.

Reality as a whole – if there is a whole – is composed of the ground under our feet and the people we communicate with. Communication is the harder part of it, but perhaps the more necessary part. Hermits don’t have any reality beyond the ground under their feet – and the memories they have of others – parents, other children, and such. If they have some religious dedication, then they may also have a text or texts to inform or broaden that reality. If their texts are fiction – how would they know?

The human animal craves others like itself. Communication with such – even second hand, by way of a text – is a psychological necessity – it reassures us of our own existence; it tells us we are in a universe that is ‘real,’ and not mere pathology.

Reality is always a ‘we,’ not an ‘I.’

—–

* I’m thinking here of the near-pathological distrust of stories and histories expressed by Alex Rosenberg: http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/on-the-human/2009/11/the-disenchanted-naturalists-guide-to-reality/ ; there are unfortunately many such pathologies inhabiting the Academy these days.  Of course, such ‘thought’ has a long history among Positivists, reaching at least back to Comte.

I think Modernity’s worst sin, is that it seems to have replaced the self-loathing of those professing to be ‘spirits in a material body,’ with that of those professing to be ‘computation in an organic machine.’ Both stories have had their uses; but both end in a denial of what is most intrinsically human – more fantastic, and less credible, than any story told that is explicitly fictional.