Monthly Archives: May 2014

A likely story

In my morning English class I was teaching the correct use of the adjective likely. It had been raining on and off for a few weeks  but had not rained so far that day, so I decided to use that situation to elicit an example. “For example,” I said, “it isn’t raining now, but I think there’s a high probability of rain later today. How could I say that using the word likely?” One of my students said, “It is likely to rain later today” — and then immediately, I mean literally less than one second after that sentence was out of her mouth, it suddenly started pouring down rain, making a terrific noise.

“Now you’ve done it!” said one of the other students (in Chinese). “Why’d you have to choose that example?” Everyone laughed.

“Don’t worry,” I said, going along with the joke. “Everyone repeat after me: The rain is likely to stop in a few seconds.” They did so, and sure enough, about 20 seconds later the rain stopped completely and the sun came out.

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I know these are not particularly impressive coincidences — I was, after all, predicting events which were likely — but still, the timing seemed uncanny.

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Seen on a T-shirt in Taiwan

La bureaucratie, c’est comme les microbes : on ne parlemente pas avec les microbes. On les tue !

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My translation: “Bureaucracy is like germs: You don’t parley with germs. You kill them!” (It appears to be a quote from the Alphonse Allais character Captain Cap.)

Naturally, the person wearing it hadn’t the faintest idea what it said.

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Stereotypes according to Google

A few years ago I thought it would be interesting to type “why are ____ so” into Google (filling in the blank with various races, religions, nationalities, etc.) and see what suggestions the autocomplete function provided. I filed the results away and forgot about them, just finding them now as I was cleaning out some old folders.

You can’t replicate these results now. Google has apparently changed the autocomplete algorithm so it blocks such things, presumably because it makes Google look bad if they helpfully suggest that you might want to search for “why are Africans so ugly” or “why are Jews so cheap.” Since this information is no longer available to anyone who searches for it, I thought I’d share the results I got:

  • black people: loud, athletic, funny, angry, cool, mean, good at sports, muscular, good at basketball, religious
  • white people: fake, mean, rude, smart, attractive, rich, good looking, lame, skinny, annoying
  • Asians: smart, rude, thin, short, good at math, cheap, annoying, quiet, rich, perfect
  • Hispanics: rude, short, loud, religious, lazy, family oriented, fertile, proud, smart, annoying
  • men: lazy, mean, shallow, insecure, controlling, visual, immature, moody, annoying, complicated
  • women: emotional, crazy, difficult, mean, beautiful, confusing, needy, shallow, selfish, irrational
  • gays: gay, obnoxious, sensitive, in your face, powerful, feminine, hated, rich, angry
  • Christians: weird, arrogant, happy, nice, fake, annoying, narrow minded, angry, rude
  • atheists: hateful, mean, rude, arrogant, intolerant, smug, annoying, mean to christians, hated in america, aggressive
  • Muslims: angry, strict, sexist, sensitive, intolerant, radical, barbaric, cruel, nice, touchy
  • Mormons: pretty, successful, wealthy, awesome, fake, conservative, pushy, boring, annoying, arrogant
  • Buddhists: happy, selfish, peaceful, annoying, nice
  • Protestants: arrogant, stupid, anti catholic, annoying, ignorant, mean, conservative, bitter, dumb, judgemental
  • Catholics: mean, arrogant, strict, liberal, judgemental, annoying, rich, nice, interested in mary, conservative
  • Jews: cheap, smart, rich, powerful, intelligent, rude, funny, arrogant, persecuted, liberal
  • Republicans: stupid, evil, angry, mean, hateful, greedy, crazy, selfish, religious, paranoid
  • Democrats: stupid, angry, racist, dumb, ignorant, lazy, evil, awesome, ugly, blind
  • liberals: stupid, smug, arrogant, angry, mean, annoying, hateful, racist, naive, ugly
  • conservatives: stupid, hateful, angry, racist, crazy, afraid of obama, paranoid, ignorant, close minded, afraid
  • old people: mean, grumpy, racist, stubborn, cute, slow, angry, boring, dumb, cold
  • young people: stupid, lazy, rude, tall, selfish, depressed, mean, liberal, violent, shallow
  • Americans: stupid, rude, loud, ignorant, religious, tall, patriotic, lazy, paranoid, weird
  • Indians: smart, arrogant, annoying, skinny, short, creepy, good at math, corrupt, successful, loud
  • English people: arrogant, cold, mean, stuck up, funny, boring, skinny, tall, smart, reserved
  • French people: rude, mean, thin, attractive, gay, dark, short, annoying, hot, healthy
  • Africans: ugly, tall, strong, violent, fast, loud, stupid, dark, rude, good at running
  • British people: pale, smart, cool, cold, tan, skinny, polite, rude, lazy, sarcastic
  • Chinese people: rude, loud, smart, weird, short, heartless, cheap, rich, small, annoying
  • Russians: rude, strong, badass, good at chess, angry, rich, tall, weird, crazy, cold

I had planned to do similar searches for several other nationalities, but I didn’t get around to it — and now, as I’ve said, it is everlastingly too late.

Most of the results are no surprise, but I thought some of them were pretty funny. I love how the first result for “why are gays so…” is “…gay.” Also, notice how the British are apparently pale, tan, polite, and rude. (But perhaps some of those suggestions are sarcastic?) Above all, it is most heartening to see how much the Right and the Left have in common.

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It really makes you wonder why politicians choose to focus so much on divisive issues instead of on the many important things that unite us.

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Filed under Language, Politics, Statistics

Two Clouds of Unknowing

Several months ago I picked up a Modern English translation of The Cloud of Unknowing (an anonymous Middle English work of Christian mysticism) at a used bookstore in Taichung. It sat on my shelf for some time unread, and then suddenly I felt moved to read it. I finished in on April 19.

On May 4 — just fifteen days later — I went to the same used bookstore, and near the checkout counter there was a stack of fliers advertising an upcoming exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum called — Cloud of Unknowing. (This latter Cloud is being promoted on the museum website as “a themed exhibition on the subject of urban spatiality and issues pertaining to space” in commemoration of the 130th anniversary of the founding of Taipei, so the choice of the that particular name would be a bit of a mystery if we didn’t know the synchronicity fairies were behind it.)

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Incidentally, much is lost in Clifton Wolters’s translation of The Cloud of Unknowing. I’ve never read the original, but I was tipped off to its poetic superiority by a page header in the translation.

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Where the original had “a beam of ghostly light” (or, rather, “a beme of goostly liʒt”), Wolters replaces the gentle moonlight of “beam” with the more martial connotations of “shaft” — and then nixes the eerie, numinous “ghostly” in favor of the namby-pamby New-Agey “spiritual.”

The perfection of that one phrase, “a beam of ghostly light,” led me to look up the original text online. It opens with:

Ghostly friend in God, thou shalt well understand that I find, in my boisterous beholding,…

versus Wolters’s

My friend in God, it seems to me, in my rough and ready way,…

Really? “In my rough and ready way”? (“Boisterous beholding,” on the other hand, is so perfect that I decided to appropriate it as a new name for this blog.) And what happened to “ghostly” and “thou shalt well understand”? This is a pretty Zeppo-Marx approach to translation! (“Now, eh, you said a lot of things here that I didn’t think were important, so I just omitted them.”)

While the first word of the book is “just omitted,” elsewhere Wolters generally replaces every instance of ghostly with spiritual. While this is probably a perfectly defensible choice, given the way the meaning of ghostly has changed over time, I find that it annoys me to no end and seriously detracts from the quality of the book.

The truth is that neither ghostly nor spiritual is really an adequate rendition of the Middle English goostly. The Modern English ghostly has acquired unwanted connotations, having become too exclusively associated with apparitions of the dead, as opposed to spirits more generally. But spiritual, too, has suffered; it most often means simply “figurative” these days, or else “half-assedly non-religious.” Spiritual light sounds pedestrian, not at all supernatural, and leaves the reader blasé. Ghostly light has more the ring of authentic revelation, the sort of thing that “often times maketh my bones to quake while it maketh manifest.” It carries the connotation that every angel is terrible (and yet, alas, I invoke you, almost-deadly birds of the soul).* Neither is perfect; each adds or detracts something from the original; but I think ghostly is much to be preferred and comes closer to the spirit in which the Cloud was written. The 21st century is awash in spirituality (I, alas, am no exception), and a strong injection of medieval ghostliness is much wanted.

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*Joseph Smith and Rilke, respectively

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Filed under Anecdotes, Coincidence / Synchronicity, Language, Translation

Bruce Charlton’s case that atheism is incoherent

In a recent blog post, Bruce Charlton makes the case that Atheism is always incoherent, incompetent or unserious; coherent thinkers *must be* theists. Now I am no longer the atheist I once was — I am willing to entertain theism as a working hypothesis (which is of course still a long way from actually believing it). However, I do think that atheism is a reasonably coherent point of view — or, at any rate, that its inherent problems as a philosophy are no worse than the problems inherent in theism. I therefore want to go through Dr. Charlton’s points one by one and analyze them.

In what follows, italicized paragraphs represent summaries or paraphrases of points made by Dr. Charlton. Paragraphs in roman type present my own ideas.

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1. The terms of the debate

Theism and atheism are metaphysical assumptions, not empirical conclusions. They should be judged not by comparing the evidence for and against each view, but by comparing the positive and negative consequences of believing them.

I think it is probably true that there can be no empirical evidence for or against theism simply as such, because it is such a vague proposition. However, the more specific theological claims of individual religions often do have implications which are subject to empirical testing and/or logical disproof.

Where empirical evidence is unavailable or inadequate, it is indeed appropriate to evaluate competing beliefs by their probable consequences — i.e., by criteria of expediency as opposed to truth. This is what lies behind the principle of presumption of innocence without proof of guilt; lacking conclusive evidence, we judge it more expedient to risk one kind of error than the other. My assumption that I have free will (see You should believe in free will) is also based on expediency rather than evidence (since there can be no empirical evidence regarding the ontological status of things that don’t happen). Pascal’s wager is yet another example of this kind of reasoning.

Bare theism, though, is a very vague proposition indeed, and just as there can probably be no real evidence for or against theism-as-such, it’s not clear that theism-as-such has any particular consequences, either. Specific religions have specific consequences and can thus be judged as expedient or inexpedient belief systems, but I confess to being at a loss to think of any specific practical consequences of “mere theism.” Rather than passing judgment on theism first and only afterwards (should the judgment be positive) considering which brand of theism is the best, perhaps it makes more sense to consider specific religions right from the start.

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2. The pathology of sub-replacement fertility

One of the negative consequences of atheism is “sub-replacement fertility under modern conditions (where there is access to a range of fertility regulating technologies).” This is objectively pathological, and seriously so. Dr. Charlton admits that most religions also lead to sub-replacement fertility; however, there are a few religious exceptions to this rule (e.g., Mormons, Orthodox Jews) but no known non-religious exceptions. (Some individual atheists may be exceptions, of course, but no predominantly secular society is.)

Well, the fact that atheists and the vast majority of theists suffer from this pathology is a strong indication that belief in God is not the determining factor. That every member of this tiny group of élite cultures — those which reproduce themselves under modern conditions — should be theistic is hardly a surprise, since virtually all cultures are theistic. To understand the secret of their immunity to the otherwise universal plague of Malignant Modernity, we should be looking at what they have in common which makes them different from other cultures — not at the near cultural universal of theism.

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When I look at the modern pathology of voluntary infertility — and, as Dr. Charlton says, it is very definitely a pathology and a serious one — I see a pathology of motives, not beliefs. It’s not that our fundamental motives have changed, but that our technology has changed the world in such a way that the old, one-serviceable motives are no longer productive of fitness. (See my discussion of this in The Genie scenario.)

Consider the situation with food: We still have the same old food-motives as before — a desire for sugar and fat and salt and so on — but those motives, which once kept us alive, are now fitness-reducing in a world where technology has made these things too readily available, and in refined form.

A similar pathology of outdated motives seems to be in play vis-à-vis reproduction. Most people do have a natural desire to have children — but compared to our other natural desires, it’s not a very strong one. Other desires — for sex, status, comfort, security, pleasure — are much stronger and more immediate, and when they are pitted against the desire for children, the latter tends to lose out. In pre-modern times, those stronger desires tended naturally to lead people to have children — either as side-effect of pursuing sex, or as means of acquiring wealth, status, and security. Under modern conditions, these indirect inducements to reproduction no longer work properly. It is quite easy to have plenty of sex without ever having children, and children tend to be a net negative in economic terms. As for security, the modern welfare state makes it unnecessary to have children to provide for one in one’s old age; and easy divorce means that women cannot feel secure without a “career” — which generally entails a ridiculously protracted period of education, with predictable consequences for fertility. Without the assistance of these ancillary motives, modern people are inadequately motivated to reproduce.

In all of this there is no indication that people’s incorrect beliefs (about the existence of God or about anything else) are at the root of the pathology — just as the obesity epidemic probably cannot be attributed to incorrect beliefs about nutrition. In both cases, once-effective motives are wreaking havoc in an environment which no longer resembles the one in which they evolved.

Certain beliefs may turn out to be effective antidotes to these motivational pathologies — but these need not (indeed, probably will not be) factually correct beliefs. Wrong beliefs can be tailored to fit wrong motives so as to produce the desired result — throwing Br’er Rabbit into the briar patch, as it were. To use a hypothetical example, a firm belief that eating refined grains results in eternal damnation would probably lead to better health consequences than true beliefs (coupled with woefully inadequate motives) would. Those few religions which succeed in motivating their adherents to choose above-replacement fertility may be not-so-hypothetical examples of the same thing.

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3. Justifying norms

Another consequence of atheism is that laws and other norms have nothing to back them up. They are either confessedly arbitrary — enforced by bare, unjustified power — or else they are justified by utilitarian criteria (maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain “overall”). However, there is no intelligible calculus for summing up individual pains and pleasures and deriving the overall hedonic value of any particular state of affairs, so in practice utilitarianism is used as a post hoc justification for whatever those in power find expedient.

Yes, but the “will of God” is no more provable than the “greatest good for the greatest number,” and both of these principles have been used to justify all sorts of different norms — including ones which strike most people as grotesquely evil.

In theory, theists humble submit to the will of God. In practice, they simply assume that God agrees with their own conscience, or their own culture’s norms, or whatever happens to be expedient at the moment — which is pretty much the same thing that utilitarians do. (See my old post Arrogance and humility, which was also written in response to Dr. Charlton.)

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4. Objective meaning and purpose

Under atheism, there is no objective purpose or meaning of life. Atheists respond that they can create their own meaning and purpose. However, if this is true, it means no particular meaning or purpose can be objectively right or wrong. This implies either solipsism or nihilism — but nihilism is self-contradictory “because it is a non-arbitrary metaphysical belief which claims that beliefs are arbitrary.”

Actually, this form of nihilism is not technically self-contradictory. It states merely that all “meanings” and “purposes” — not all beliefs — are arbitrary. But that’s of little importance; I think most people will agree that solipsism and (any form of) nihilism are things to be avoided, and that atheism has serious problems if it entails either of the two.

However, it’s not clear to me how theism saves us from this species of nihilism. Various intelligent beings have various goals and purposes, and if God exists then he has goals and purposes as well — but why should God’s purposes be considered the purposes, inherently valid in a way that others are not? Is it because he is so powerful? (Might makes right?) Or because he is good and wise? (See the Euthyphro dilemma.) Or because he created us? (But if we had been created by a mad scientist instead, would his mad purposes therefore be automatically and uniquely valid?)

In fact, non-theistic Darwinism also proposes that there is an objective “purpose of life” — namely, to maximize our inclusive fitness, i.e., to keep copies of our genes in existence for as long as possible — but that is obviously an inadequate reason for any human to accept that as his own purpose in life. Theists accept the purposes attributed to God, not because they are the purposes for which life was created and as such necessarily valid, but because they are purposes which humans already find attractive for other reasons. Whatever “objectivity” those purposes may have is derived from their status as human psychological universals, a status which is unaffected by the existence or nonexistence of God.

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