Monthly Archives: December 2007

Book Review: Richard Dawkin’s “The God Delusion”

There are children living all over North America and Europe who wear, around their necks, and instrument of torture and execution as symbol of their devotion to a group called The Christians. When they were very young they were taught that there was an invisible being called God who, in his omnipotence, created our planet a few thousand years ago. In a spectacular “poof!” all living things on Earth were created at once. As the story goes, the 4000 or so years that followed were full of genocide, murder, rape, and incest at the hand of this “God.” At some point, around 2000 years ago, his son was born on Earth, and was tortured and killed. It is mankind’s fault that this happened, so today we must live in constant guilt, and we cannot partake in natural human activities lest we be damned to an eternal hellfire, where there will be no escape from the everlasting sulfurous stench of rotten flesh and the deafening wails of despair.

But it’s okay, because this God is your personal friend, and he loves you.

There are dozens of such groups throughout the world, and as far as anthropologists can tell, they’ve existed for most, if not all, of human society. How did this happen? And why does it continue? This is what Dawkins discusses in his book, “The God Delusion.”

For those who may have never heard of this book, it’s basically an argument for atheism. Dawkins’ pulls no punches; there is absolutely no pussyfooting around the topic of religion in this book. Dawkins’ argues quite rigidly against any and all of the world religions, old and new. Naturally, the book has opened a lot of public debate. Ironically, people of all different religions tend to agree that Dawkins’ is going to their own personal version of hell.

I, however, agree with Dawkins’ thesis. The book is written with such elegant logic that it’s difficult not to be persuaded into agreement. He identifies the psychological reasons for wanting belief in gods, thoroughly reviews the impossible contradictions inherent to religious faith, and addresses the dangers of such mass irrationality. I suppose, it’s the same old argument against religion, but Dawkins argues it so solidly, that I cannot imagine how religious minds could cope with it. It must be frustrating.

Consider this statement: “Religious people have better morals, because they get their morals from god and the bible.” I’m familiar with this kind of thinking, as I’m sure you are if you’ve ever dealt with a religious person. Dawkins utterly dismisses this as being totally preposterous, and for good reason: the bible (First Testament) is filled with stories of murder, rape, incest, and genocide, many of which are at the hand of the Judeo-Christian god (incidentally, this god’s name is Yaweh). The morality of the first testament is, by modern standards, downright evil. Dawkins quite rightly points out that most Christians either don’t know about this fact, or chose to ignore it, or in some cases, embrace it.

Dawkins anticipates the obvious reaction: “But Christians get their morals from Jesus and the Second Testament.” He argues that the Second Testament is no better. It’s difficult to think of a religion as being peaceful and morally founded when its symbol is an instrument of torture and execution. Just think about that for a second!

 The next religious argument: “The church is full of good people who do good things.” While true, it doesn’t support the plausibility of a supernatural creator being. And why do people need God to be good? Shouldn’t people be good anyway? Don’t we have a responsibility to each other as members of the same community? If there WAS no church and no God, would religious people all be immoral bastards? If so… that’s pretty damn scary. The obvious point is that religion is clearly NOT a source of moral highground. PEOPLE are.

Of course, Dawkins does not just pick on Christianity. He identifies common factors throughout all religions, and addresses them as such: oppression of women, violence and warfare, promises of the afterlife, corrupt internal hierarchies, imperialistic conversion campaigns, and the worst of all, the brainwashing of youth.

Dawkins argues that one of the worst atrocities of religion is it’s tendency to make kids believe in it long before they have the faculties to know how to choose for themselves. When a person is raised to be religious, it is next to impossible for them to see beyond it. This impedes their ability to learn and be critical, and also encourages them to accept the world rather than try and change it (what’s the point of saving the environment if the rapture is imminent?)

The final chapter is one of the most intriguing pieces of writing I’ve ever come across. It’s all about how the human mind constructs our experience of the world based on certain evolutionary necessities. Humans, for example, only see a very limited range of the electromagnetic spectrum, whereas birds are capable of detecting ultraviolet, and many fish are capable of detecting infrared. Thus, our coneptualization of the world around us is fundamentally limited to a very narrow range of perceptions. That is why we must explain the world in “human” terms, and even go so far as to suggest that the Earth (and the infinite universe beyond) was created by a supernatural man! The sheer arrogance is astonishing! But Dawkins rightly points out that it is, perhaps, in our nature to construct the world as such.

There is a wonderful quote in there that I think is worth reqouting:

Ludwig Wittenstein: “Tell me, why do people always say it was natural for man to assume that the sun went round the Earth rather than that the Earth was rotating?”

Other: “Well, obviously because it just looks as though the sun is going around the Earth.”

Ludwig Wittentstein: “Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?”

 What a delightfully appropriate example of the fallacy of human assumption, and our inability to perceive the world as it is! Of course, our minds choose to construct the world to suit us, and that is why those who do not understand science and won’t listen to reason will insist that the Earth was created by a man.

I only have one problem with the book. Actually, it’s not a problem with the book, so much as it is a problem with the entire debate about religion: it’s utterly futile. The fact is that religious people will reject this book, just as they have fiercely rejected every reasonable assertion of science, every rational explanation of nature, and every attempt to logically explain what is around us. In their minds, the sun still revolves around the Earth, and that will never change, because their faith necessarily demands an irrational mind. How else could one deny evolution? How else could one believe that the Earth is 8000 years old? Their construction of the world is a huge web of interdependent impossibilities, each more ridiculous than the last, wherein there are so many internal inconsistencies and contradictions that, as a whole, their construction of the world is fundamentally impossible. And even they will tell you that it is “faith” (by definition, unjustifiable belief) that makes it possible.

I believe the difference between a religious mind and a non-religious mind is simple: religious minds are capable of accepting the idea that 1 + 1 = 3, if they are told enough times that it is true. Non-religious minds are incapable of doing so; they say “ONE PLUS ONE IS TWO YOU IDIOT! LOOK AT THE FACTS!!!”

So thank you for an excellent read Mr Dawkins, but all the evidence and reason in the world doesn’t count for shit to someone with faith, and that will probably never change.

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Darwin and Human Sexuality: A Few Unspoken Truths

Darwinism is, as we know, an elegant and comprehensive model for the development of life. Lately I’ve started thinking about how this model can be applied to other things.

Technology, for example, seems to evolve much like species do. There are clear stages of development, and a particular device (species of technology) tends to ‘improve’ in its adaptation to our lifestyle. The analogy is clear; the consumer market is the environment in which any given technology must survive. As this environment changes, a given technology that has no purpose, such as the mini-disc player, does not survive, and thus obsolesces (goes extinct). A technology that successfully adapts to changes in the consumer market, such as the iPod, continues along its evolutionary path, and speciates further (branching off into iPhones and Nanos, for example). Survival of the fittest evidently applies to consumer products as well!

Logically then, the principles of Darwinism reach far beyond the world of biology; indeed, Darwinism is a universal process. After all, astronomers will describe the life-cycles of planets and solar systems as ‘evolutionary;’ everything from video games to architecture is understood through the analogy of evolution. It seems odd, then, that some people disagree that something as pervasive on Earth as LIFE would not be subject to the same pattern of contingency and change.

Darwinism is not only clear in the natural world around us, it is in our behaviour. The more I think of the behaviours and interactions of the people around me in a Darwinist light, the more it all makes sense to me. Allow me to explain through example:

Human sexuality can be difficult to make sense of. Think about the experience you had in high school, and the stories you’ve heard from your friends, and clear patterns will emerge. There are popular groups, and these groups are categorically the most sexually attractive individuals. A clear sexual hierarchy usually emerges in the mid-teenage years; this is because puberty tends to sort people into their respective sexual classes (often resulting in a variety of conflicts among friends). This great social reorganization will have lasting affects on individuals.

Out of high school and freshly adorned with badges of perceived sexual worth, we go out into the world and try to find mating partners among the chaos of post-secondary adolescence. Various rituals of courtship exist. Many people are incapable of engaging the opposite sex without being themselves intoxicated, or without intoxicating the other (can I buy you a drink?). Others follow more traditional courting rituals by establishing extended negotiations of power involving interactions between sex and other things (I’ll pay for dinner).

Whatever ritual you chose is irrelevant; they are all ultimately the same. At the end of the day, Darwinism explains every little action, for at the end of the night, we tend to be reminded that we are animals.

Once again, with no apologies to religiosity: humans are clearly primates. The similarities between humans and apes go far beyond the physical; our behaviours have clear correlations. Indeed, I think there are many examples in nature of courtship rituals that bear striking similarities to our own. It’s only natural that there should be overarching patterns of courtship among all living things on Earth. Of course, you won’t find chimpanzees going clubbing or going out on dates (maybe in Cancun); I’m talking about the impulses and instincts that underlie our behaviour, not the specific rituals themselves.

Humans are tribal creatures, and this is reflected in our social nature; we’re bewildered by the modern city, and yearn for the small tightly-knit community. We still rely on the family unit, and we maintain strategic friendships with individuals outside the family. The result of this new kind of social organization (namely, post-industrial social organization) is ‘network society.’ I, Andrew Muir, have a tribe of friends and family, but individuals in that tribe have THEIR OWN tribe of friends and family. It may overlap somewhat with mine, depending on our level of social intimacy and our situation within that network. I believe this is why community seems lost on us these days, and why we struggle to make sense of sexual impulses that don’t mesh with our social situations! I mean, cmon; haven’t you ever felt like society doesn’t quite accomodate all of your sexual desires?

For example, it is altogether normal for young men and women to be ‘friends.’ Of course, the defining law of friendship is that neither member is actively engaged in the courtship process with the other; in other words, there is no sexual intent between the two. However, from personal experience (drawing on my own, AND on the experience of everyone else I’ve ever known), there clearly IS implied sexual intent inter-gender friendship (but it must be kept under the radar). The same emotions and behaviours of sexual courtship exist, we simply conceptualize them differently, and try our best to exercise unnatural levels of restraint. The reason for this is simple, and it corroborates my above point: humans struggle to make sense of an artificial system of rules for social engagement that, for better or worse, have no real bearing on your ACTUAL instincts and impulses.

The more I think about the sexual nature of my relationships (friendships and otherwise), the more I begin to see the true intentions behind people’s actions. These intentions, to their defence, is likely subconscious. But it is there, and I sometimes find it profoundly disturbing.

Darwinism, and human social behaviour will teach you the following about our sexual nature: there are a few males within a given group who dominate the others. The females within the group – ALL the females within the group – are drawn to the dominant males. Those who are not dominant must compete and struggle to achieve dominance if they want to court a female. However, the dominant male, with his superior genes, mates with all the females in the group. In turn, all the other females tend to compete for his favour, often maliciously.

This concept of ‘dominance’ can be coded in a number of ways, the most obvious being physical strength and the various codes of physical health (the everyday attractions that we’re so familiar with: skin clarity, hair texture, muscularity, etc). Further social coding occurs in complex society, which is why money and intelligence (as a calculated investment in FUTURE money) tend to be considered as well.

So if I’m correct, in theory we would observe a society where:

– All the men try to be muscular, and rich, and have sex with as many women as possible.

Check

– All the women present themselves, through their best and most calculated sexual offerings, to the males who exhibit the most manageable combination of physical attraction and financial assets.

Check

– Males who are lower in the hierarchy of sexual dominance encounter deluded and unfulfilling relationships with the opposite gender, as the female persistently betrays him, uses him, and clambers over him in her struggle to present to the more dominant male, occasionally falling back on him should she encounter failure.

Check

– Females who are less able to present appealing sexual offerings are regarded by society as having less worth than those with more sexual capital.

Check

HOLY SHIT! WHADDYA KNOW?!?! MAYBE I’M ONTO SOMETHING HERE!!!

I guess I’ve painted quite a grim picture of the human animal. I think there’s only one lesson that can be taken away from this view of things:

Work out, and get rich.

It’s funny to think… how differently some people might think of me, even though I WOULD be the same person….

It’s tragic in a way. But them’s the facts; deny your animal nature all you like…. but the same carnal heart beats within you, and you know it.

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Rationalization: The Bane of Humanity

I’ve officially finished my first semester of Graduate School. You may have noticed I haven’t updated this blog as regularly as I used to. This is because I’m a lot busier now than I was during the summer. I certainly haven’t lost interest in writing, and I would still be thrilled if people commented and left their thoughts. Having said that, I think I’ll take the opportunity to write about something that I’ve been thinking about throughout the semester.

Rationalization Vs. Humanity:

This semester I was only in one course called “The Social Construction of Technology.” Aside from that, I was the Teaching Assistant for “Introduction to Information Technology and New Media.” I’ve had a lot of time to reflect, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot about the special relationship between technology and society.

What I study is probably not what you think. I don’t study iPods and cell-phones, and I don’t write about the “effects of video game violence.” To be honest, it’s very difficult to appropriately explain what I study. But here it goes…

One of the most fascinating concepts I learned this semester is called “rationalization.” As the name implies, it’s the notion that society has tended to become more rational. I’m not talking about secularism or the move away from religion; that is a different kind of humanistic rationaliaty. Rationalization is all about the process of production.

In order to increase production and keep cost down, the factory owner must maintain efficiency in his workplace. Enter the harbingers of the mechanization of labour: the Jacquard Loom, the Steam Engine, the Assembly Line, etc. Technology has always been central to the scaling of the economy of labour. In a way, rationalization is the process whereby progress “speeds up,” and becomes more efficient; this is sometimes called Taylorism (particularly in the context of industrialism and work).

Today, the computer network brings the process of rationalization to the speed of light; bureaucracy is made frictionless by the flow of digital information. This bureaucratic apparatus has existed since the dawn of capitalist industrialism, and it has become the backbone of all that we do.

Today, you can get paid by your employer directly through the internet. Those funds can then be withdrawn directly from your account into the accounts of your creditors. You can even set it up so that the transaction occurs automatically. The process is all very seamless; your labour is commodified and digitized. We are all anchored to this enormous interconnected bureaucracy, and we are all cogs in its innerworkings. Progress is our product, rationalization is the process whereby this happens.

At what point does society become too rational? The human mind, after all, is not rational. It is profoundly animal. I believe that so much social dimentia is attributable to the kind of increased “organization” of society that is so counter-intuitive to the human beast. It ignores our organic nature, and tries to allot us into cubicles and apartment blocks. As individuals living in a post-industrial society, our struggle is retaining our humanity in the face of rationalization. That’s what I think anyway.

The answer is not always clear, but more and more I’m beginning to see it. We must all break the rules of “normal” social engagement. The rules of society say that you don’t go to the bar with your parents or your teachers, you don’t necessarily tell members of the opposite sex that you are interested, you don’t put faith in strangers, and you don’t talk to your neighbor. Sure, they’re not laws, but they’re pervasive social codes that seem to get worse and worse with each passing year. I think we must all fight this; we must defy social norms and reclaim the tribalism that is inborn in all of us.

There is a clear philosophy that emerges from this. Don’t be a social climber; man is not meant to keep making new friends, he is meant to be part of a consistent community, for example. And maintain the UTMOST respect for your friends and family, because they are the only REAL anchor you have. Don’t get hypnotized by the lustre of fame and riches; they are not real, and you will never have them. Never is a big word, but you have to face it; the myth of Hollywood is still just a myth, a cultural opiate meant to inspire false dreams and misplaced hope. The only dream worth attaining, is the only thing worth hoping for; a tribe to call your own – a little shred of the human spirit that has been lost in this misguided project of rationalization and progress.

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The Pastime of Songwriting

I had the night off tonight. I didn’t have to work, I took a break from school, I didn’t cook dinner, my roommate was at work, and I had about 8 hours to kill by myself in my apartment.

I hooked a microphone up to my laptop, put the microphone in front of my guitar amp, hit record, and started playing whatever came to mind. After about 2 hours I had written and recorded a beautiful song. It doesn’t have words, or a name, but music does not require those things. You might think me arrogant for saying this, but it’s the truth: I think the music I write is the best music I’ve ever heard.

In a way, it sounds terrible. But allow me to explain: by “best” music, I don’t mean it’s the universal best, I mean it’s MY favourite. Still, the fact that my songs are my favourite still seems extremely narcissistic. But look at it my way: when I sit down and write a song, I’m making a series of decisions. Songwriting is a contingent process of decision making; you want to chose the right melody, chords, and notes in the right order. Logically, I choose whatever chords and notes I think sound the best. Thus, when the song is finished, I consider it to be perfect.

I imagine that this is an essential attitude for any artist. But that’s saying it wrong. I think artists just naturally think their shit is the best, and if they don’t, they’re not true artists. They have to. I mean, if DaVinci thought that part of the Mona Lisa wasn’t right, then he would damn well change it, right? It’s not enough to make an approximation, you have to make everything exactly as you want it. If I feel a particular chord change isn’t the best, I’ll change it to what I think is best. It’s simple, really. In fact, how is it possible NOT to think a song, that you created from scratch, is not perfect, when it’s finally done?

Where you go from there is up to you. I don’t feel the need to show many people my music; obviously people don’t think my music is perfect or “the best” in any regard. Although, I’ve gotten surprising reactions from people over the years. It’s bizarre, I think I write and record music just because I want new music to listen to; I’d rather listen to my own than somebody else’s. I also think it’s an incredible honour when somebody asks to hear my music; it’s a good way of knowing who’s truly interested in you, and who’s just interested in your surface.

That’s why I say I’ve never “improved” as a songwriter. Even when I was 12 years old bashing away on the piano, I still thought my shit was better than what I was learning, even if I was learning Beethoven. Maybe I just get a sick thrill out of the creative process in general. At the end of the two hours I listen to that song and I wonder “Where did this come from? Did I plan it subconsciously? Is it serendipity? Do I only think it’s good because it’s mine?” These are bizarre questions to face, and I have no answers, but I learn a lot about myself in the process of making a song. It’s fun, and it’s a hell of a lot better than swilling fucking alcohol and watching TV.

Now the ultimate goal is to collaborate with someone who has the same outlook. So much of life requires collaboration.

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