Defamation of Religion at the UN

Posted by Anti Citizen One on March 29th, 2009

The UN recently passed another non-binding resolution on “combating defamation” of religion. A quick check sees there have been several previous resolutions with a similar intent. Most of the supporting states are Islamic and most of the opposing states are Western. The mind boggles. Many states enshire the right to profess a religion but only a handful ban criticism of religion. This sounds awfully like Islam does not tolerate criticism – no other religions are mentioned in the resolution. I know criticism and defamation can be distinct but who decides the division? In many theocracies or media hysteria tend to lean on the broader interpretation of what is defamation.

Of course the resolution is worded in terms of “promoting harmony” and preventing incitement to hatred. Most of the articles are fairly standard UN-ism about protecting individuals from discrimination. But you might note the title of the resolution is defamation of religion; not defamation of its followers. Eventually, the resolution gets to the point:

8. Deplores the use of the print, audio-visual and electronic media, including the Internet, and any other means to incite acts of violence, xenophobia or related intolerance and discrimination towards any religion, as well as targeting of religious symbols and venerated persons

Yes, it says that relgious ideas cannot be “targeted” – which I take to mean “criticised in any way”. Of course, you might call me paranoid but considering the states that have the death penalty for blasphemy, I’d say their idea of “targeted” is what is intended.

Anti Citizen One

PS It’s hard to think of any juicy insults for an entity I deem (provisionally) as non-existent.

PPS That last link was so relevant, I embed it below:


Posted by Anti Citizen One on March 27th, 2009

I have been distracted from updating this site.. which is rapidly approaching its 2ND BIRTHDAY! Many news items suggest comment but were left unremarked. Many views were aired in public and private but simple “passed by”. Even some threads of thought of mine are incomplete.

I need to regain my copy of notes from underground, also. My audio book reading in librivox is progressing and passed half-way.

Just to get very pop culture, I only recently noticed the lyrics to Muzzle by The Smashing Pumpkins. After the first half of the song is plagued with existential doubt, the ending is filled with what might be called existential certainty “[…]the emergence of certainty, even a dreadful certainty, after long tension and torture by uncertainty.” I dig it.

and in my mind as i was floating
far above the clouds
some children laughed i’d fall for certain
for thinking that i’d last forever
but i knew exactly where i was
and i knew the meaning of it all
and i knew the distance to the sun
and i knew the echo that is love
and i knew the secrets in your spires
and i knew the emptiness of youth
and i knew the solitude of heart
and i knew the murmurs of the soul
and the world is drawn into your hands
and the world is etched upon your heart
and the world so hard to understand
is the world your can’t live without
and i knew the silence of the world [x5]


The Ennui of Travel

Posted by Anti Citizen One on March 24th, 2009

I just finished Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground and I’ve started Kafka’s Metamorphosis, so this made me laugh:

Prague’s Franz Kafka International Named World’s Most Alienating Airport

Pigeon Theology

Posted by on March 17th, 2009

Just read this fantastic section that is both informative, provacative and tongue-in-cheek from the excellent book “God’s Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion” by Vatican Astronomer and Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno. I will eventually write a review of sorts. Suffice very briefly to explain that the book is not a missionary work, Consolmagno seeks not to gain any converts, rather it may be described as a sociological work outlining how and why (to quote the blurb) “scientists and those with technological leanings can hold profound, “unprovable” religious beliefs while working in highly empirical fields.

Philosophical Preamble

A little boy prays to God for a red bicycle, when it doesn’t magically appear the following day he decides that God is a fake. However, more worryingly if the little brat does get a red bicycle the following morning (i.e. by generous parents) then he may conclude that it is his prayer that caused the red bike to appear. “A faith based on a lie is worse than no faith at all.”

This type of faith is a fallacy – mistaking chance for cause. Although it is a fundamentally basic concept in our thinking that the cause always comes before the effect – it is really misleading.

Because event A occurs before event B we are sometimes deluded into thinking that A causes B.

Logicians refer to this fallacy as post hoc, ergo propter hoc – “after that, therefore because of that.”

What event B following on from event A can tell us at a basic logical level is that B cannot be the cause of A. It is useful information but it does not equate with A therefore B.

Pigeon Superstition

B. F. Skinner, the famous behavioural psychologist, performed a classic experiment describing “superstition in pigeons” in the late 1940’s. He had developed a method of training pigones by making them hungry (starving them to 75 percent of their normal weight) and then putting them in a box that would provide food whenever they did whatever he wanted them to do – stepping in a certain pattern, say, or pecking at a certain image. But as he describes in a paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 1948, he also put some hungry pigeons in boxes that would feed them at regular intervals with no reference at all to what they were doing. He reported that the pigeons would train themselves to do whatever it was they were doing the first few times they were fed, as if their behaviour – walking in circles, pecking at the left side of the food dish, or whatever – was the cause of their feeding. This, Skinner said, was an example of how superstitions arise among people. More aggressive skeptics have used this result as an explanation for why people are so foolish as to believe in religion itself.” p.84-85

The Moral

Consolmagno states here that the skeptics have a good point, a religion that is adopted solely for the percieved benefits of what it might grant (afterlife, winning the lotto etc.) is one that descends easily into superstition, even if the percieved benefits are forthcoming (by chance).

“Superstition is faith based on quicksand. And when it fails, as inevitably it will, it can at the very least destroy your capacity to believe in better things and at worst pull you down and destroy you, the way that trusting in a quack medicine can kill you if it prevents you from taking a real cure.” p.85

This type of faith is the fallacy of “after that, therefore because of that.”

The Paradox (and the fun)

Lets consider the Pigeons.

“Consider their theological system from their point of view. If a pigeon walks in a circle and then gets fed, causing it to think that there’s a connection between its walk and its food, what is it really believing in? It believes that there exists a Big Food Server (we’ll call him BFS for short) who lives outside of its cage – which is true. It believes that this BFS, who has the power to feed it, is actually watching it, to see what it is doing – which is also true. And it believes that the BFS is delighted every time that it does its meaningless little dance – which, I am sure, is true again, as I can imagineB. F. Skinner chortling and pointing out the behaviour of those silly pigeons to his friends and colleagues and planning how he would write up his paper expposing their superstitious behaviour. So in what way was this pigeon theology false?” p.85-86

Mini-Review: Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

Posted by Anti Citizen One on March 8th, 2009

I have recently finished an audio book of the Extraordinary Popular Delusions. I wanted to state a few thoughts but a more full analysis already exists elsewhere.

The chapters on bubbles has a certain immediate relevant with the current economic situation in stagnation. People would do well to remember this process has been going on for hundreds of years. In fact capitalism requires this growth and shrinkage as a self control machanism. (A separate point might be made on if capitalism is supportable environmentally.) To complain of recession is similar to complaining that it is raining. Rain is necessary (if weather/capitalism is necessary).

The work can broadly be divided into preambles of a delusion, the biographic history of the people in involved and the specifics of the belief. In some ways, exactly what was believed is less interesting than the other two since it sounds like the works of con artists on the credulous. The biography sections are interesting as the twists of fate can be gripping and spectacular. The preambles are enjoyable but suppose that the reader is more sceptical (and smug) than the victims in this history.

For example, of astrology, Mackay says:

How we should pity the arrogance of the worm that crawls at our feet, if we knew that it also desired to know the secrets of futurity, and imagined that meteors shot athwart the sky to warn it that a tom-tit was hovering near to gobble it up; that storms and earthquakes, the revolutions of empires, or the fall of mighty monarchs, only happened to predict its birth, its progress, and its decay! Not a whit less presuming has man shewn himself; not a whit less arrogant are the sciences, so called, of astrology, augury, necromancy, geomancy, palmistry, and divination of every kind.

The reproduction of endless lists makes the book is amusing as it is fairly pedantic. I will quote the list of divination methods as an example (quoted from Magastromancer by Gaule). Good padding to get the word count high too!

Stereomancy, or divining by the elements.
Aeromancy, or divining by the air.
Pyromancy, by fire,
Hydromancy, by water.
Geomancy, by earth.
Theomancy, pretending to divine by the revelation of the Spirit, and by the Scriptures, or word of God.
Demonomancy, by the aid of devils and evil spirits.
Idolomancy, by idols, images, and figures.
Psychomancy, by the soul, affections, or dispositions of men.
Anthropomancy, by the entrails of human beings.
Theriomancy, by beasts.
Ornithomancy, by birds.
Ichthyomancy, by fishes.
Botanomancy, by herbs.
Lithomancy, by stones.
Kleromancy, by lots.
Oneiromancy, by dreams.
Onomancy, by names.
Arithmancy, by numbers.
Logarithmancy, by logarithms.
Sternomancy, by the marks from the breast to the belly.
Gastromancy, by the sound of, or marks upon the belly.
Omphalomancy, by the navel.
Chiromancy, by the hands.
Podomancy, by the feet.
Onchyomancy, by the nails.
Cephaleonomancy, by asses’ heads.
Tephromancy, by ashes.
Kapnomancy, by smoke.
Knissomancy, by the burning of incense.
Ceromancy, by the melting of wax.
Lecanomancy, by basins of water.
Katoptromancy, by looking-glasses.
Chartomancy, by writing in papers, and by Valentines.
Macharomancy, by knives and swords.
Crystallomancy, by crystals.
Dactylomancy, by rings.
Koskinomancy, by sieves.
Axinomancy, by saws.
Chalmmancy, by vessels of brass, or other metal.
Spatilomancy, by skins, bones, &c.
Astromancy, by stars.
Sciomancy, by shadows.
Astragalomancy, by dice.
Oinomancy, by the lees of wine.
Sycomancy, by figs.
Tyromancy, by cheese.
Alphitomancy, by meal, flour, or bran.
Krithomancy, by corn or grain.
Alectromancy, by cocks.
Gyromancy, by circles.
Lampadomancy, by candles and lamps.

The ideal of this book is perhaps Spinoza’s comment:

I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them.

but the underlying message seems to be slightly judgemental and in agreement with Einstein:

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.


PS What are the present day popular delusions?

Spheres of Existential Existence

Posted by Anti Citizen One on March 8th, 2009

Just thinking about different existential stages of existence, as one does… Kierkegaard’s spheres of existence were the aesthetic, moral and religious. In the aesthetic sphere, a person seeks new experiences while avoiding commitment or choice. The pathos of this stage is that all worldly and finite experience is fleeting and results in despair. In the moral stage, a person recognises universal law exists but again despairs of following this law. Perhaps this is similar to SK’s knight of infinite resignation, who as a tragic hero, hopeless follows laws to self destruction. The pathos of the moral stage is the unavoidably of sin. In SK’s third stage, the religious, a person acts in accordance to God’s infinite will while existing in the finite world. Because knowledge of the infinite is, rationally speaking impossible, a leap is made into the absurd to achieve this synthesis of finite and infinite. This is perhaps an echo of the Hegelian dialectic.

This stuck me as similar to Nietzsche’s early writings of Dionysus, Apollo and tragedy. Dionysus mirrors SK’s aesthetic stage in the appreciation of transient reality. On the other hand, FN compares this to the tragic hero as the hero’s downfall is a reflection of the finite world and can be celebrated as such. The Apolloian ideal of knowledge, reason, wisdom and visual beauty represents ideals that exist beyond time and are finite, in a similar way to SK’s moral sphere of striving for an unattainable ideal. The only way this can desire can be satisfied in the finite world is the intervention of the divine. Nietzsche comments that deus ex machina is used to replace aesthetic and tragic theatre. SK argues that the religious stage can be achieved by a personal relationship with God. The third stage for Nietzsche is also a synthesis of the other two stages. Since finite humans have competing desires and impulses, the ideal of Dionysus and Apollo are unattainable and people must exist between the two states. To be only one or the other is harmful to a person since their goals are unattainable.

If FN had read SK’s spheres of existence, he might have appied this discription to the moral sphere:

The true [infinite] world — unattainable, indemonstrable, unpromisable; but the very thought of it — a consolation, an obligation, an imperative. (At bottom, the old sun, but seen through mist and skepticism. The idea has become elusive, pale, Nordic, Königsbergian [Kantian].) Twilight, FN

Both thinkers where influenced by Hegel at the start of their writings but eventually distanced themselves from him. Another three stages of life advanced by FN are the three metamorphoses, as stated in the first chapter of Zarathustra but I will only outline them briefly. The metaphorical names of the stages are the camel, the lion and the child. The camel is perhaps similar to SK’s moral sphere. The lion is a process of complete rejection of the infinite and a most likely a backward step according to SK. The third stage is in a word the superman, but in this context could be expressed as asking “why does the aesthetic sphere necessarily lead to despair?” and redefining the purpose from pursuit of happiness to some self chosen goal. But even in the child there is a hint of the infinite which is more fully expressed in the eternal return (of the finite), evoked here by the metaphor of perpetual motion:

Art thou a new strength and a new authority? A first motion? A self–rolling wheel? Zarathustra, FN

This is again a synthesis of the finite and infinite which ties into his Dionysian/Apollonian model as well as a parallel to SK’s religious sphere. I might even call SK an objective existentialist and it would be necessary to transcend the normal bounds of those labels for his position to make any sense… FN is more of an existential monist as he applies the meanings of finite and infinite to everything.

Anti Citizen One

PS My question now is can we suppose we can know these spheres exist from an existential starting point, the aesthetic?
PPS This dilemma is again referenced in the title of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”
PPPS I have slightly revised the conclusion of this post.

PoMo Musings: “Via Negativa”

Posted by on March 3rd, 2009

The Via Negativa (the way of negation) is a theological/philosophical position that emphasises a non-descriptive and negative series of terminology and concepts concerning God. It is the opposite of the Via Positiva (the positive way) which is generally the standard in scholastic works on the matter.

An example of the difference between the two ways is easily demonstrated:

Via Positiva “God is good”

Via Negativa “God is not not good”

The difference between the two is fairly obvious. The positive statement sounds very much like a proposition – this could therefore render it a testable hypothesis. For this to be so we must formulate a sense in which we can understand the terminology – what is God? and what is goodness? Many will argue that neither of these concepts are definable or testable therefore rendering the proposition nonsensical. If the proposition is meaningless then we must ask ourselves whether we ought to invest our time in it. In other words shouldn’t we simply abandon it and its constituent parts?

The Via Negativa very very simply can be defined as the approach to the Divine that considers the Divine by definition non-definable!

I.e. once we start to make definitive or positive statements about what the Divine is then we attempt to formularize the wholly abstract – and this inevitable leads to mistakes and errors and false propositions.

This has an interesting effect on discussions concerning Science and Religion. In a recent Channel 4 series of documentaries called “Christianity: A History” in the episode entitled “God and the Scientists” Neurobiologist Colin Blakemore discussed God-concepts (my terminology) and their relation to Scientific-Datum with Vatican Astronomer Guy Consolmagno.

Blakemore was fascinated to discover that here with Consolmagno was a Scientist and Jesuit brother who saw no contradiction in believing in God (as espoused by the Bible) and the scientific worldview. (His speciality is Planetary Astronomy and Meteorites). He found a belief in God and a belief that the world/universe is several billions of years old was reconcileable. That evolution was not as Dawkins later argued a primary reason to not believe in God. “The Bible is not a scientific book” he argued and it should not be treated as such!

But, Blakemore asked, if this is the new modern face of the Catholic Church (and therefore not representative of all of Christendom – i.e. intelligent design advocates, creationists, biblical literalists etc.) why does the Church have such a bad record in its historical relationship with science?

Consolmagno’s answer was refreshingly simple. The scientific method looks, describes and attempts to explain and predict the workings of the universe. And the scientific paradigm of hypothesis and experimentation provides a series of checks and balances that allow scientists (indeed anyone) to place greater “factual” authority upon certain of its propositions than other initiatives (i.e. theology) can do. Whereas Theology and Philosophy by virtue of its methods is interpretive, speculative and narrative – in essence it is a form of literature and therefore is subject to the same problems. Consolmagno stated quite happily: The Church as an institution (like any other) was comprised of intellectual men who didn’t like to be told they were wrong.

Consolmagno’s proposition then was that science provides the objectivity around which theology and philosophy can shape itself and its doctrines and not vice versa. He once famously declared: “Religion needs science to keep it away from superstition and keep it close to reality, to protect it from creationism, which at the end of the day is a kind of paganism – it’s turning God into a nature god.”

Blakemore though not convinced enough to suddenly want to adopt this rational religous approach, was somewhat pleasantly satisfied. But he had one nagging doubt: Isn’t your God then something of a plasticine God?

(In other words arent you just moving the goalposts in order to maintain your survival against insurmountable scientific evidence?)

Consolmagno responded that the Plasticine is not the divinity but the human mind. And this question and answer prompted this post and my speculations on it.

Blakemore assumed that the authority of scripture, the teaching tradition of the Church and centuries of theology rendered the God-concept solid. And that this solid concept – or objective ideal – was eventually challenged by scientific evidence. He wasnt altogether comfortable with the ineffability of God – which renders the God-concept outside of the scientific remit and which meant that rationalism could be reconciled with Faith to the extent that (as Steven Jay Gould argued) there could be partially overlapping magisteria (POMA’s) and there was no obstacle or contradiction to scientists having a religious belief, or that a religious belief must necessarily set one against the scientific worldview.

It seemed to me – and it would be an interesting (though ultimately futile) exercise to undertake – that some of the anti-religious sentiment expressed in certain quarters of the scientific world are based upon a God-concept that belongs to the Via Positiva and as such is a mistaken or error strewn objection. (If positive theology is meaningless then so too is a positive atheology). But the exercise would be futile on two grounds: 1) anti-religious fundamentalism as with all fundamentalisms is emotionally loaded, remove one reason for the sentiment and another will be discovered (i.e. my imgainary Dawkins may agree upon the abandonment of the Via Positiva but would still object to religion on other grounds, perhaps its tendency to group-think say). 2) As Gould acknowledged with his model of non and partially overlapping magisteria the scientific and religious laguage games are independent of each other, and as such a Via Negativa may (to use Wittgensteins phrase) Dissolve the question. But is this ever wholly satisfactory to the scientific worldview? If the God-concept is fluid then it is a question that can never be formulated, and ineffability doesnt sit easily with scientific rationalism.

The Via Negativa would seem to dissolve the debate and the controversy and allow a degree of freedom from this tedious culture war. It may or even ought to allow a synthesis of worldviews to flourish such as Gould hoped. But can the Via Negativa ever be reconciled with organised religion?