Quotables #3: Ockham’s Razor

With all things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the right one.”–William of Ockham

Hey, did you know aliens made the pyramids?

Yeah, they mastered interstellar travel (moving faster than the speed of light) to come stack rocks on earth.

If you find this line of reasoning convincing, try applying it to qualify your own belief system. You’d be surprised what doesn’t survive a simple test of Ockham’s Razor.

The Problem with Ideology

“By its very nature, hard-line ideology is self-serving and self-perpetuating; its primary goal is to survive—and that precludes everything.”–Queen Rania of Jordan

People are literally the soil where ideas (and memes[1]) are planted; ideas are planted by teachers, peers, parents, churches, advertisers, and governments; and for this reason thinking can be, paradoxically, a rather thoughtless process; it’s enough to make a person wonder whether or not anyone is capable of conceiving an original idea or if we’re doomed to always occupy intellectual spaces constructed by others.

Russia in the 19h century illustrates this notion of people being soil for the planted idea. Imperial Russia was a repressive regime where every attempt at revolution failed. Violent revolution is easy while peaceful reform is difficult. Counter-intuitive as it is but armed struggles fail more often to succeed than do peaceful reform movements.[2] However, armed struggles have one advantage peaceful ones do not: violence is easy while peace is complex.

russian-rev_1917Peaceful movements are more complicated because they require thought (why do we need to change?), discipline (we must avoid giving in to the temptation to use physical violence), patience (we must keep our eye on the goal) and planning (what strategy is the best one to use at this specific time?). You also need a public ready to act. But before this happens the people must first be prepared to listen. Thus, the Petrashevtsky, a reform-minded group of Russian intellectuals avoided open conflict with the Tsar. Instead of promoting open revolt, this group pursued a decades’ long strategy of exposing the Russian peasantry to the appropriate propaganda[3] in order to “[win] hearts and minds, so that when, in the distant future, the revolution finally came, it could be sure of mass support”.[4] The work of the Petrashevtsky turned out to be futile: future attempts at reform like the peaceful peasant march protesting rising bread prices in 1905 on the Tsar’s winter palace in St. Petersburg failed—failed in part because the movement turned violent while the “hearts and minds” of the Russian people were still not ready to conceive of a world where peace was stronger than armed struggle. The thinking of the people had to change.

Propaganda plays an important role in shaping our understanding of the world: we are literally what we think about; and the content of our thoughts reflects the information we are exposed to; therefore, it makes intuitive sense that all of us, to varying degrees, is influenced by propaganda to think narrowly (or ideologically[5]). There are many different types of ideology, e.g. there’s fascism (a worldview reflecting the tendency to look inward for meaning and enemies), liberalism (a belief in the necessity of a limited government and freedom of the individual), communism (a faith in the role of class conflict leading humankind inexorably[6] towards the dictatorship of the proletariat[7]), and so on and so forth.

For all their explanatory power, ideologies pigeon-hole our thinking; ideologies limit the options available to us by boiling complex issues down into simpler components like a party-line or a favored line of reasoning; and ideologies, as was the case with the Russian peasantry in 1905, blind us so we do not recognize peace as the better alternative to violence.

trickleSpeaking of blindness, let’s look at an example of ideology at work in the field of economics: the support an economic theory like “trickle-down economics” continues to receive despite the fact it objectively doesn’t work speaks volumes about how easily people are manipulated through propaganda.[8] In the 1980s, political parties were pushed by wealthy backers to cut taxes. The parties needed the support of the American electorate to do this. Thus, the idea of trickle-down economics—the notion cutting taxes encouraged broad economic growth for everyone—was sold to Americans as a certainty. Despite the support trickle-down continues to receive, money never trickled from the wealthy to the poor; rather, it continued gravitating towards the already wealthy and the powerful.[9] Trickle-down economics simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, free-market fundamentalists,[10] ideologues in every sense of the word, keep selling the notion that it does and the American population keeps buying into the myth.

The blind faith some continue to have in trickle-down economic theory demonstrates the single greatest weakness of any ideology: ideologies only make sense if its fundamental assumptions are never questioned and are accepted at face value. To gain an appreciation for the absurdity of not questioning an ideology, let’s look at two situations drawn from the history of science:

Josef Stalin (1878-1953) was the undisputed dictator of the Soviet Union. He was notoriously distrustful of intellectuals. Stalin’s power was so complete he had the history of the Russian Revolution re-written[11] so he appeared to play a more substantial role than warranted. He was uncompromising in seeing his particular vision of communism realized: only those pieces of art, music, history, literature and scientific theories reflecting the Marxist-Leninist ideology[12] were considered acceptable. No other alternatives could be entertained by citizens of the Soviet Union.

Marxism-Leninism (or Stalinism) not only made for the writing of some questionable history, it also had deleterious[13] effects on the path Russian science followed under Stalin. Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943) was an eminent geneticist working in the field of agriculture. Vavilov didn’t believe genuine science had to be made to fit an ideology; rather, science was based on a method of discovery where the world revealed its secrets through a combination of testing and observation. As a geneticist working in the 1930s and 40s, Vavilov accepted the idea that the building blocks of life (DNA) were made of tiny units called chromosomes and alleles; however, despite the physical evidence in support of this view, Vavilov was hounded out of Soviet science for accepting the existence of chromosomes, etc. by a pseudo-scientist, and Communist party hack, named Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976).

According to Lysenko, when Vavilov asserted the building blocks of life were divisible into chromosomes and alleles, the geneticist was committing ideological heresy. True science, Lysenko asserted, must reflect the basic tenets and beliefs of Marxism-Leninism, e.g. “true socialist science” stressed the “unity” of the “whole organism”. Socialist scientists, therefore, could not in good conscience entertain any notion of tiny, individual things shaping an entire organism; this was the scientific equivalent of saying society was made up of capitalist individuals who naturally lived in different classes. Lysenko forced Soviet science to conform to his political expectations by directing professors, researchers, etc. to only study those ideas and models that reflected socialist expectations. Any scientific ideas that didn’t agree with communist ideology (as interpreted by Stalin or one of his lieutenants) had to be abandoned.

The absurd thing is that even though the full structure of the DNA molecule wasn’t fully understood until the later work of Watson, Crick and Franklin by the mid-1950s, we could still see this molecule with its chromosomes, alleles, small bits, and such. Facts or reality do not really matter much to the ideologue though. Ideological purity is more important than possessing, and adhering to, the correct information. Thus, science in the Soviet Union—at least when it came to genetics—made the Communist Party and Stalin’s personal authority, and not physical-objective reality, the measure of what is true and what is not. In a scene resembling something out of one of Orwell’s novels, one Soviet scientist was apparently commanded to recant his “faith” in chromosomes by an important Soviet diplomat named Vyacheslav Molotov. The scientist had the courage to reply, “But does Comrade Molotov know more about genetics than I do?” The scientist, and anyone else who did not follow the party line, was dismissed. In the case of Vavilov, he was actually imprisoned for “believing in” chromosomes. Lysenko’s interference set Russian science back decades.[14]

A similar situation played itself out in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. A German scientist attended a lecture on the theory of relativity given by the famed theoretical physicist Albert Einstein in the United States. The scientist returned to Germany excited by the paradigm[15] changing implications of Einstein’s ideas. Excitement turned to disappointment, I am sure, when he was told to forget relativity because Einstein was teaching “Jewish physics”.

According to Philipp Lenard (1862-1947), an anti-Semitic and Nazi supporter of the so-called Deutsche Physik (or “German physics”) movement, Einstein couldn’t properly see the physical world because of his Jewishness. Lenard argued Jews “conspicuously [lack] understanding for the truth…being in this respect in contrast to the Aryan research scientist with his careful and serious will to truth…Jewish physics is thus a phantom and a phenomenon of degeneration of fundamental German Physics.”[16]

Lenard’s view was, and remains, demonstrably false (stupid even): between the years 1905 to 1931 no fewer than ten German Jews were awarded Nobel Prizes for their contributions to science; moreover, as of 2016 the final of 20 predictions made by Einstein based on his theory of relativity was confirmed observationally, e.g. as the earth spins the surrounding space-time warps into a swirl like whip cream spun on top of a latte.

For the record there’s no such thing as either German or socialist or Jewish physics or biology (there’s just physics and biology). However, the communist and Nazi examples illustrate facts don’t matter to ideologues; it’s more important, it would seem, to force the world to fit our expectations.

Few of us actually appreciate how completely arbitrary[17] or fabricated and accidental our worldviews are: if we were born to different parents at a different time on a different continent it’s clear we would look at the world differently than we currently do. If this is the case, and we end up where we are by a sort of cosmic accident, are any of us ever justified believing that the way we just so happen to look at the world right now is either the right or only way of perceiving that world? Is truth determined by our origins?[18] Or does truth exist as something independent of us that we are obliged to follow if, and when, we come to an awareness of it?

Although certain ways of looking at the world are definitely better than others, there really is no single, right way, no approach, which best describes the world we inhabit.[19] So far as I can tell there are only preferences and prejudices. The ideas we entertain as true are so near and dear to us we rarely see them for what they are—a snapshot of us fixed in time. Ideas aren’t outside of us (they wouldn’t even exist if humankind didn’t). Ideas reflect the values, assumptions, and emotions of the individual and do not describe how the universe actually works.

For instance, I am a 21st Century Canadian. Although growing up in a democracy, my understanding of what constitutes a genuine democratic society is completely different from one held by an ancient Greek from the city-state of Athens in the 4th century BCE.

An Athenian would have no problem accepting that the gods divided people into masters and slaves whereas my modern sensibility makes slavery completely incompatible with anything resembling democracy. I was also raised Catholic and taught by well-meaning parents, teachers and priests the value of honesty and humility. For all intents and purposes I believed what I was taught was right (true) and living any other way somehow intrinsically wrong. Yet, by contrast, young boys in ancient Sparta were taught the value of being cunning, shrewd, calculating, and to steal; it was only ever wrong to steal if you were caught.[20] The way I was raised was fundamentally different than how Spartan youth were. Thinking then is a sort of incidental thing reflecting less the truth and more or less a truth as it happens to be understood in space and time.

Despite the fact different groups or governments value different ideas or possess differing worldviews over time, this doesn’t stop most of us from thinking we ourselves somehow are fortunate enough to possess the right understanding or right ideas. Yet, again, our particular understanding is just a snapshot in time of a person (you) who just so happens to live where they (you) do, had the parents they (you) did, lived under the political/economic system they (you) do, and so on.

So, whether you believe baseball is better than cricket, that women should remain subordinate to men or not, that the economy cannot be tampered with for the sake of the environment or not, or if you prescribe to a religion or not, etc. at some level you likely feel your particular way of looking at the world is closer to the truth than not.[21] If our worldviews are just incidental collections of ideas which we just so happen to believe because of when and where we’re born, then what constitutes truth? What is knowledge? Is there such a thing as one correct way of looking at the world?

I fancy there isn’t…

 

 

[1] Meme: an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means, especially imitation; a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc. copied and spread rapidly by Internet users.

[2] Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation, p.16-20.

[3] Propaganda: information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.

[4] Mike Rapport, 1848: Year of Revolution, p.103.

[5] Ideology: a collection of beliefs held by an individual and shared across broad swaths of either a group or society in general; a set of conscious and unconscious ideas making up one’s beliefs, goals, expectations, motivations and worldview.

[6] Inexorable: impossible to stop or prevent.

[7] Proletariat: Karl Marx, the father of communist ideology, argued history was a class struggle between the wealthy or those that “have” (the bourgeoisie) and the lower classes or those that “have not” (the proletariat).

[8] Trickle-down economics is a theory that says benefits for the wealthy “trickle-down” to everyone else. These benefits are usually tax cuts on businesses, high-income earners, etc. The wealthy use any extra cash from tax cuts to start up new businesses (which leads to increased employment for the lower and middle classes). Based on research completed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) trick-down economics doesn’t work, i.e. researchers found that when top earners in society make more money, it actually slows down economic growth. On the other hand, when poorer people earn more, society and the economy as a whole demonstrably benefits. Researchers calculated that when the richest 20% of society increase their income by one percentage point, the annual rate of overall growth shrinks by nearly 0.1% within five years. By contrast, when the lowest 20% of earners see their income grow by one percentage point, the rate of growth increases by nearly 0.4% over the same period. See: http://money.cnn.com/2015/06/15/news/economy/trickle-down-theory-wrong-imf/.

[9] Wealth always gravitates to power in the absence of governments passing laws distributing wealth more generally.

[10] Free-market fundamentalist is a term used by political scientists to identify individuals who have unwavering faith in capitalism.

[11] If you recall, George Orwell’s character Winston Smith rewrote newspapers, history, etc. to present a picture of reality that the government wanted to project.

[12] Marxism-Leninism was the adaptation of the political philosophy known as Marxism by the Soviet Union’s first dictator, Vladimir Lenin. Karl Marx believed communism naturally emerged out of industrialized countries where capitalism was fully-developed. Lenin, however, had to adapt Marxism to Russia’s specific situation, i.e. Russia’s was not an industrial society but an agricultural one. Lenin believed communism was attainable only through the work of a small revolutionary party that directed the revolution until the proletariat (workers) established a dictatorship.

[13] Deleterious: causing ongoing harm or damage.

[14] Alec Nove, Stalinism and After, p.104-105.

[15] Paradigm: a typical example or patter of something; a model, e.g. the heliocentric model replaced the geocentric view thereby changing our paradigm or understanding of the solar system.

[16] William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, p.251.

[17] Arbitrary: based on random choice or personal whim, rather than any reason or system.

[18] Dick Cheney was the vice-president of the United States during the presidency of George W. Bush from 2001 to 2009. Cheney opposed giving gay people equality in America until he found out that his own daughter was a lesbian. He suddenly became supportive of gay rights; it would appear Cheney’s idea of truth is not based on the consistent application of his principles but on how he is personally affected at any given time. He is not unique (we are all frequently arbitrary in our standards). The ancient Greeks identified the quality of empathy as essential to possessing a true knowledge of the world. If we do not appreciate how our beliefs and actions affect others, then we end up walking around like miniature-gods imposing our world and our will on to others. If truth exists, it is something consistent and it does not contradict reality; it isn’t something we choose to think but it is something that chooses us, e.g. if we value our own personal freedom, therefore, we should value and extend that self-same freedom to others (regardless of whether or not we happen to like or dislike what those others do want to do with that freedom). Truth is discerned through empathy and a consistent (not self-interested or selective) application of ethics and principles.

[19] With that said, thinking scientifically (or using the scientific method) is demonstrably better when it comes to producing trustworthy knowledge and understanding compared to what passes for knowledge coming from the various ideologies, pseudo-scientific ways of looking at the world, or supernatural knowledge systems.

[20] L. S. Vygotsky, Educational Psychology, p.220.

[21] You might even feel a combination of anger and compassion at the ignorance of others who don’t accept the validity or truth of your view.

Social Media Propaganda


These memes (see attached) that people share on social media always over-simplify and misrepresent complex issues. Are we collectively satisfied with such lazy ‘explanations’?

A meme like this is missing some serious context that requires a degree of literacy that not all people possess: let’s build some context shall we?

This is written in English and assumedly is directed at the English Speaking world, eg. Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

In the history of the English World, there have been a series of race based policies and events that make it problematic to use a phrase “proud to be white” and not be considered at worst racist and at best insensitive or ill informed, e.g. England’s so-called White Man’s Burden where this country had an official policy of spreading its power and influence at the point of a sword in part because of a sense of racial superiority; the institution of slavery largely introduced by England to North America in the 16th century and lasting until the 19th century; the Jim Crow laws and Black Codes and segregation in the United States existing until the 1960s; the attacks on Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia by whites pushing blacks out of that area to Sierra-Leone during the American Revolution; the residential school system designed to breed the Indian out of Indians in Canada; the malnutrition experiments on these same First Nations peoples in the 1950s; the genocide of indigenous peoples by whites in every English speaking country; the Ku Klux Klan and its various powerful political supporters that continue in the present day to push for laws that keep minorities out of participating in elections, cutting funding for public schools, and a judicial system and for-profit’ prison system in the United States that treats whites one way and people of color quite another.These would be a few reasons why it’s hard to say one is proud to be white without being associated with the rich and regrettable history of white treatment of non white people. 

Also, it is kind of silly to take pride–regardless of your color–in something you have no control over, ie. how much or how little melatonin is in one’s skin. I have super white skin: is that cause for extra pride? If anything, I have been bugged and disparaged by other white people who aren’t quite as pale as myself for being my particular shade.

For context Japanese, Chinese and African societies, eg. In America the Nation of Islam, Black Panthers, etc. can be, and have had, issues with racism. These racist movements have power and influence in Japan and China but Japanese and Chinese people do not possess this kind of institutional power in either Canada or the United States. They do have this power in their original countries though which would make a white person residing in Japan, for instance, who hears Japanese people say “I am proud to be Asian” justifiably afraid.

This meme is propaganda.

Quotables #2: Natural Born Storytellers

“The constant assertion of belief is an indication of fear.”—Jiddu Krishnamurti

Human beings are wonderful story tellers and story creators. We used to tell/create by the light of the fire but now we do it by the light of our computer screens.

It’s interesting that the brain is actually hardwired to create a narrative wherever a person happens to find themselves. For this reason we have this tremendous capacity to both convince ourselves that things are there or forces are at work that aren’t actually (and never were) there.

Canada: A 21st Century Nation

“Canadians often point out that while the American constitution promises “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the constitution of Canada–written in the 1860s in England–sets a more modest goal: “Peace, order, and good government.” This difference reaches into every corner of the two nations. My favorite example is a book of medical advice. It was written by a Canadian, Judylaine Fine, and published in Toronto under an extremely modest title, Your Guide to Coping with Back Pain. Later, American rights were acquired by New York publishers; they brought out precisely the same book under a new title, Conquering Back Pain. And there, in a grain of sand, to borrow from William Blake, we can see a world of differing attitudes. Our language reveals how we think, and what we are capable of thinking. Canadians cope. Americans conquer. Canadian readers of that book will assume that back pain will always be with them. Americans will assume that it can be destroyed, annihilated, abolished, conquered. Americans expect life, liberty, happiness, and total freedom from back pain. Canadians can only imagine peace, order, good government, and moderate back pain.”– Robert Fulford

Canada shouldn’t even exist because we’ve broken virtually every rule where it applies to nation building. Countries are normally fairly simple and straight-forward things—one language, one history, one people. By contrast Canada isn’t one people but many; it is arguably the only genuinely multicultural nation state in history. Yet, appearances are deceiving: according to a 2016 Angus Reid poll Canadians are becoming less and less tolerant of Muslims compared to Americans.[1] The United States breaks a number of rules when it comes to nation building, too; they are a nation of immigrants and just as culturally diverse as Canada. However, Canada is officially multicultural whereas America typically encourages new immigrants to assimilate. This is why the Angus Reid poll is so intriguing: Americans are comparatively more supportive of new immigrants keeping their customs, language, etc. than Canadians are.

Pinpointing when modern nations first appear is difficult. Some scholars assert England was the first nation state by drawing our attention to the year 1689. In this year, England adopted the Bill of Rights which effectively limited the power of the king while centralizing authority around the English people themselves through a constitution. Some scholars suggest the French Revolution (1789) brought into existence the first truly national identity: people residing in Republican France no longer identified first and foremost with their province but with their nation as a whole. This view is not without its challenges; that is, only 50% of France’s people actually spoke French in 1789.[2] If one of the hallmarks of a nation is linguistic unity then France fails this test. No country is without contradictions like France’s: Canadians don’t have one official language, they have two…and counting. Canada’s history is not a single narrative; it’s a shared collection of stories.

Despite Canadian’s living as a patchwork of cultures, Canada has a rich history of intolerance. In shades of Plato’s “one and the many”[3] dichotomy, there are numerous examples in Canada’s history where the English majority (the “one”) attempted to push out or assimilate minorities (the “many”). In 1837 and 1838, rebellions broke out in both French and English Canada. Once the English authorities quelled the revolts, Queen Victoria sent Lord Durham to investigate the causes of the discontent in British North America. Durham, an Englishman, argued English Canadians rebelled because they were tired of being dominated by an unresponsive, selfish governor and ruling oligarchy. So Durham recommended England grant English Canadians more decision-making power and responsible government. However, when it came to the French they didn’t rebel for the same reasons as the English; rather, the French were, according to Durham, simply incapable of loyalty because of their race. Durham recommended the French be assimilated as soon as possible. The rebellions led to a lot of property damage in both English and French Canada. To help English Canadians pay for the damage a bill was passed by the United Assembly of Canada approving the appropriate funds. The French were denied similar compensation (because they were French). In 1848 the Canadian Government experienced some reform under the leadership of an Englishman named Robert Baldwin (1804-1858) and a Frenchman, Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine (1807-1864). The two men worked to end the French-English tension by passing the Rebellion Losses Bill into law. The bill granted French Canadians compensation for damage caused by England’s army during the 1838 uprising. English Canada didn’t respond well to the bill—a hoard of them responded to the bill’s passing by burning the colony’s assembly to the ground.

French Canada has at times acted a little on the tribal side, as well. The Quebec nationalist cleric and writer Lionel Groulx (1878-1967) romanticized France and emphasized the racial purity of the people of Quebec; he asserted the French were victims of English Canada. Although there was some truth to Groulx’s claim, e.g. during the Manitoba Schools crisis in the 1890s English Canadians successfully limited French language and education rights outside of Quebec, etc. the cleric was somewhat paranoid. Later French historians from the so-called “Montreal School”, and even the Parti Quebecois,[4] used Groulx’s thinking to justify Quebec’s separation from Canada. John Raulston Saul, author of Reflections of a Siamese Twin, described Groulx’s influence in the following way:

All [the Montreal School] took from Groulx was the negative. The result was a victim psychosis in the extreme. It is now somehow assumed that the Montreal School is just the past. No longer relevant. But in fact their selecting reworking of Groulx became the intellectual foundation of the current separatist/sovereigntist school…This movement—indeed, the Parti Quebecois itself—has within it two very different, often contradictory, parts. One is social democratic and reform oriented. The other comes from the Montreal School, which was conservative, in many ways reactionary, and was tied to the old clerical nationalism…[sic] anchored their catastrophic view firmly in a highly selective editing and interpretation of the past.[5]

Lionel Groulx argued the racial differences between French and English Canadians was insurmountable.[6] These differences continued to play a role through two world wars, the Quiet Revolution[7] of the 1960s, and during two referendums on separation from Canada (held in 1980 and 1995 respectively). Yet, Baldwin and Lafontaine’s example of cooperation at least suggested Groulx’s pessimism wasn’t entirely justified: when there’s a willingness to compromise and work together people—even ones belonging to different ethnic or religious groups—can live and flourish together.

Following the 1995 referendum a separatist politician named Lucien Bouchard (1938 to present) was elected premier of Quebec. He ruffled a lot of Canadian feathers when he observed “Canada wasn’t a real country”.[8]  In a sense, Bouchard was right: Canada was too complicated a creature to constitute a nation as defined.[9] He was of course appealing to 19th century standards about nationhood. Bouchard didn’t view diversity as a strength so much as a watering down of the French Canadian culture and identity. In the 2001, Prime Minister Paul Martin (1938 to present) argued the opposite observing in an interview “Canada is the world’s only truly post-modernist nation”. Ultimately, he was saying there wasn’t one right way to go about building a country:

I think it is that individuals can actually control their own destiny. That you just don’t simply have to [lie] back and be rolled over by the huge forces of globalization that you can’t control. That it is possible for nation states acting collectively to, in fact, deal with the problems they face. I also have to say something else that really didn’t come out of this meeting, but that this meeting certainly confirmed, and that is that Canada is really, I think, the world’s first 21st century country. We have a very post-modern view. Not only is our economy open, but in fact the waves of immigrants have changed the way Canadians look at the world. I think that we are by far a more modern country than almost any other, and that there is a huge opportunity for Canada to play a leadership role. We are not a dominant power such as the United States. We are not narcissistic as are so many Europeans in the process of building Europe…And we have this much more progressive view of the way in which the world ought to evolve.[10]

Canadian nationalism, with its focus on openness, was the opposite of the nationalism that pushed the great powers of Europe to destroy one another in two world wars during the 20th century.[11] Diversity, tolerance, pluralism, openness, etc. should all be considered strengths; and despite the Angus Reid poll Canada is a multicultural society. We have our challenges (as do all nations, even ones with homogeneous populations). But I’m confident, invoking Abraham Lincoln, that the better angels of our nature will eventually win out and the irrational fear some Canadians have of Muslims will abate. Yet, optimism notwithstanding, tolerance is almost always tied to how well the economy is doing. People aren’t rational but emotional by nature: so when we are personally doing well financially we project a sense of wellness on to others; however, when we aren’t doing well we are more likely to blame others for our own misfortune.

Ultimately, nations are not created simply by passing legislation limiting the power of the King (England) or by lopping off his head (France). Nations are multi-headed and complex creatures. In the Canadian context, Canada breaks the rules and is successful primarily because, to quote John Raulston Saul, “[Canadians] accept their non-conformity with some ease. They live it and so it makes sense”.[12] So, while not every Canadian is necessarily on-board with multiculturalism, at some level most Canadians appreciate why it’s so important that it succeeds: with the rise of racism and nationalist movements in the 21st century in both Europe and North America, Canada is one of the few countries capable of acting as an example of what peace can accomplish when there’s such a huge temptation to go to war with our neighbors.

 

[1] http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/poll-canadians-multiculturalism-immigrants-1.3784194

[2] William T. Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy, p.4.

[3] In philosophy, the question of the “one” and the “many” concerns whether or not reality can be accurately described as a “single, united whole” or as a something that is “multiple, divisible”. For example, the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (1942 to present), just like Albert Einstein (1879-1955) before him, attempted to establish a single so-called “theory of everything” to describe reality; however, all attempts so far to describe physical reality through a single formula (or theory) has proven impossible. Instead, scientists are forced to describe reality through many different models.

[4] The Parti Quebecois was a French separatist political party founded by the journalist Rene Levesque (1922-1987) in 1968.

[5] John Raulston Saul, Reflections of a Siamese Twin, p. 19.

[6] The French and English do not belong to separate races as defined. Instead, they belong to different ethnic groups within the same race.

[7] The Quiet Revolution was a period of intense socio-political and socio-cultural change in Quebec characterized by the effective secularization of society, the creation of a welfare state, and realignment of politics into federalist and sovereigntist factions.

[8] Steven Jay Schneider and Tony Williams, Horror International, p.239.

[9] Nations are supposed to be simple things. Canada is far from simple. According to 19th century standards, nations consist of one ethnic group speaking the same language, worshiping the same God (in the same way), and sharing a common history. For example, Germans and Japanese nationalists insisted their respective countries were the greatest in the world in the 1930s. Around the same time Italians under Mussolini reminded the world his country was once the seat of Roman power. In some respects deserved and in others not so much, France has persisted insisting it possesses a certain je ne sais quoi which sets itself apart from other nations. Turning our attention to China, the Chinese historically have referred to their country as the “Middle Kingdom” (a place existing mystically between Heaven and earth) while Americans are notorious for thinking themselves exceptional in absolutely every way. Canadians are different (or at least they think they are); they love their country while not holding themselves up as the standard by which all other countries are measured. Canadians admit they do some things well while acknowledging other countries do, too.

[10] Interview of Paul Martin by Candida Tamar Paltiel (G8 Research Group), November 18, 2001, Ottawa. http://www.g8.utoronto.ca/g20/interviews/Martin011118.pdf

[11] Wars make nationalists and nationalists make nations. In the case of the United States, it took two major wars—the American Revolution (1776-1783) and the Civil War (1861-1865)—for it to become a modern nation state. In the case of the Dominion of Canada, it became a country in form with the passage of the British North America Act in 1867; however, Canada did not become a nation in fact until its success at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in France (1917) during World War I. The shared sacrifice of Canada’s soldiers (French, English, German, Jewish, First Nation, Chinese, Japanese, etc.) gave Canadians a shared sense of pride resulting in a shared sense of identity. Although war is not the only way to build a nation, it seems to play a huge part in the development of national identity.

[12] John Raulston Saul, p.9.

Quotables #1: Time’s Orphans

“Post-modernism has cut off the present from all futures. The daily media adds to this by cutting us off from the past. Which means that critical opinion is often orphaned in the present.”

-John Berger

Never a good situation when we cannot use past experience to understand the danger of present inaction or inform present action to lead us to a better, brighter future. We are stuck in a perpetual cycle of what works now while failing to conceive of or embrace viable alternatives to how we structure our societies today, how we consume energy, what we do with our leisure time, the importance we give not only to our own but also to our neighbors’ well being, and of course, what we eat.

Mmmm, bergers.

Ideas: Part 5: Let’s Be Skeptical

Ideas come from somewhere, they have a context; yet the older the idea the harder it is to pin down its exact point of origin or to make the conscious decision to abandon or retain it. The average Christian isn’t aware that:

The ancient Hebrews were not always monotheists but began as polytheists and then became polylatrists and finally monotheists: in the 8th century BCE Israel was broken into two kingdoms, i.e. the Northern Kingdom of Israel had as its patron god El and the Southern Kingdom of Judah’s patron was Yahweh. Assyria captured Israel in the 8th century; it was commonly understood in the ancient world that when one’s kingdom was defeated so too was your patron god. This is when Yahweh became ascendant in Jewish thinking and El was regarded as defeated. The ancient Jews believed not only their gods existed but so too did the gods of other civilizations (this made them polytheists), e.g. The ancient Israelites fell into worshiping gods other than their own on multiple occasions; they themselves had a pantheon of gods, e.g. “…let us [plural pronoun] make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26); there was a council of gods of which El was supreme or the “high councilor, e.g. “You are gods, you are all sons of the Most High” (Psalm 82: 1-8). Present day Christians wonder why there’s such a dramatic difference between the God of the New (all the love) and Old Testaments (all the smiting and killing). In the Jewish pantheon, Yahweh was a warrior god destined to kill a sea serpent (“the Leviathan” Job 41:1-34 and Isaiah 27:1 in some future battle). There are other references to the warrior-like nature of Yahweh when he puts his weapon down (a rain bow) promising never to destroy humankind again as per Noah’s Flood (Genesis 9:13). The Israelites eventually became polylatrists when they finally abandoned the worship of gods other than Yahweh (over the course of centuries following the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BCE). Polylatrists believe other gods exist, only that their patron god is the one truly worthy of worship. Polylatrisn was a stepping stone towards monotheism. There are hints of this patchwork of theisms in the Torah:

Some other things for your consideration:

  • The Old Testament was not written all at once and is instead an anthology of books written for various purposes, in varying contexts, over centuries assembled into its final form by the 2nd Century AD.
  • That Genesis, far from being history, also contains explanations for the origins of giants and the sexual union of angels and humans (almost all ancient writings, even the rationalistic works of the materialistic Greeks, attempted t to explain what happens in the world and why by making reference to supernatural beings).
  • That the average Christian in the 21st Century generally does not understand the significance of Jesus not being a Greek thinker but a Jewish one; and that he almost certainly did not look like a northern European.
  • That Jesus had brothers named James, Joseph, Simon and Judas and at least one sister (his mother Mary incidentally was, at the very least, not a virgin for her entire life);[1]
  • It is dubious that the gospels were actually written by the apostles whose name they bear; it was common practice in the ancient world for a writer to append the name of someone of authority to a piece of writing to endow it with authority.
  • That the early Christian community was a Jewish one who worshiped not in churches or on the basis of doctrines like trinity or original sin; instead, prior to the destruction of the Temple in 65 CE Jews were not a people of the book or doctrines but a community constructed around Temple observance and rituals/ceremonies reflecting the people’s dependence on agriculture in a 13 month calendar. See Michael Goulder’s Five Slings and a Stone for more.
  • That the various New Testament authors purposely used allegory (not history) to draw parallels between the significance of Jesus and stories predicting the coming of the messiah in the Old Testament to demonstrate scripture had been fulfilled the crucifixion

The Jewish idea specifically of a messiah has been interpreted differently throughout the history of Judaism. How this messianic figure is understood depends entirely upon the contemporary historical circumstances of the people doing the interpreting. The messiah is first mentioned in the Book of Isaiah (a book written over a span of two-hundred plus years around the 8th and 7th centuries BCE). While Isaiah was being written Jews lived in exile in Babylonia as an underclass of laborers. At the time, the messiah was understood as something akin to a spiritual figure (one well-versed in Jewish law and observant of its commandments (Isaiah 11:2-5)). The understanding that this messiah was a spiritual leader represented the desire of Jews to return to their ancestral homeland. After several centuries of exile the Jews returned home. According to Jewish (not Christian) tradition anyone was potentially a candidate to be a messiah or masiach, i.e. It has been said that in every generation, a person is born with the potential to be the mashiach. The mashiach was, in a word, a teacher or a guide. However, by the time the Book of Daniel (2nd Century BCE) was written the fortunes of the Jews had changed once again. The Macedonians (and later the Romans) took over Israel. The Jews lost control of their homeland; and in this context the Book of Daniel was written (2nd Century BCE)—and the messiah transformed from a spiritual teacher into a warrior prince who would destroy Israel’s enemies and free them. So in the first instance (Book of Isaiah) the messiah was someone who would help the Jews return and in the second instance (Book of Daniel) the messiah would free Israel. John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious, p. 172-174.

  • That no Jews at any time—in the 1st century CE to the 21st—accepted the doctrine of Original Sin (invented by Augustine in the 4th Century).
  • That it is unlikely a devout Jew, lawyer and pharisee like the Apostle Paul believed the various letters he wrote, to the early Christian communities scattered around the Roman world, would or should be regarded as co-equal in authority with the Torah; nonetheless, there are Christian teachers today who regard Paul as either the equivalent or, even, exceeding the authority of Jesus himself.
  • That Paul used the Greek word pistus for faith which does not mean “belief” but “trust” (which has implications for biblical literalism and atheism).
  • That the doctrines of Trinity and the Divine Maternity were not adopted by the Church until the 4th and 5th Centuries respectively (four centuries after the fact of either Jesus or Mary’s existence); and that the Comma Johanneum, or the biblical basis for the doctrine of the Trinity, was literally added word for word, e.g. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, etc. to the Book of John sometime after 335 AD;[2] In all three cases, doctrines were developed through so-called “revealed truth” which is just a fancy way of saying Church fathers decided everything through debate.
  • That the New Testament did not descend from Heaven intact “as is” but is an anthology of works written over two and half centuries assembled into its current form in around 390 AD.
  • That God didn’t sort out which books were eventually incorporated into the Canon but men did through a process of debate and deliberation
  • That early Christians prayed while standing with hands outstretched and the Catholic Church adopted the practice of kneeling during prayer to imitate the fealty ceremony as practiced by liege lords during the time of feudalism in the Middle Ages (a tradition practiced to this very day); that the doctrine of papal infallibility emerged in the 19th century less as a reflection of God’s will and more out of the Church’s practical political considerations to deal with the challenges posed by modern science, e.g. evolution.
  • And that saying 12 attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas clearly states James and not Peter was to be the head of the Church,[3] etc.

Time heals all wounds as they say; likewise time’s passage blinds us—robbing religion, history, even language, of its original meaning or context encouraging us to forget how things were, or too assume the way things are, is how things have always been or worse still were destined to be.

The purpose behind all these assertions is less to disprove God’s existence or place into question the wisdom of practicing religion. I present them more with the intent of challenging some long-held assumptions so that these might be re-evaluated by the individual adherent. Some theists remain completely unaffected by any such challenges—they wonder why I should have the temerity to question comforting things people choose to believe. Being something of an optimist, I assume reasonable people if given the opportunity and knowledge, would like to know more about those things they have come to believe; and in the process come to appreciate things aren’t always what they seem; belief does not a thing make; that ideas come from somewhere;[4] and that in the end it is better to live with a healthy understanding for how the world really works instead of persisting in delusion—no matter how comforting doing so might be. When we re-evaluate our beliefs we risk changing our minds. We risk leaving behind certainty (which is really just an illusion); yet, as I see it doubt is real while belief the bringer of false promises.

The ancients invented gods to explain their fears and otherwise inexplicable cosmic processes.  Eventually, gods morphed into a single god (as was the case with the Jews). I wonder: if humankind developed the scientific method prior to their penchant for religious abstraction, would gods have even been invented? We have science now yet people persist in believing god necessary. Why is this so?  Is it habit?  Conditioning?  Need?  A lack of scientific literacy in the present day? I suspect it’s all the above to some degree.

The ancient Greeks called the Cosmos the “Milky Way” believing the white background aura to be the breast milk of Zeus’ wife Hera. The name continues in use despite the fact no one believes in Hera any longer. Is the idea of god like our galaxy’s namesake?  Have we forgotten its original reason for being?  Are we unaware, blissfully passing god on from one generation to the next? Similarly, the archaic phrase “one True God” reflects a world-view now lost to us, i.e. a time when people believed in the existence of many gods (and by people I mean the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, and the Hebrews). The peoples of these civilizations understood one another’s respective gods to be equally real. In the context of the ancients, the phrase “false god” did not mean this or that god “did not exist”; it meant foreign gods could not be trusted; you did not place your trust in them; you practiced fidelity to your tribe’s specific god. The ancient Hebrews would have understood this perfectly (the modern Christian not so much because they have only ever known monotheism). The constant backsliding of the Israelites into the worship of “false” gods is proof not only of their opportunism or infidelity but also their polylatrism.[5]  You don’t learn this stuff in Sunday School that’s for sure. Instead, well-meaning teachers dutifully feed the young the self-same stories they themselves were fed; and so, from one generation to the next, the same beliefs are propagated out of context—where we mistake our current understanding for the same held by the ancients.[6]

Theology relies purely on the exercise of reason.[7]

Certainly a reliable historical basis exists for certain aspects of theology like Jesus and his mother Mary existed. However, the stories surrounding these figures—in particular Jesus—are far from certain. As a kid I was taught Jesus raised people from the dead and something called the Holy Spirit descended on to the apostles in the form of a dove. How did I know this to be true? I didn’t. I just believed it mainly because I didn’t know any better (a sort of habit of believing things people in authority told me because I myself lacked the proper faculties of discernment or expertise); also, I belonged to a family whose members took its religion somewhat serious. (We didn’t handle snakes or believe in the Rapture; nonetheless, we went to Church regularly, observed holidays and made a point of praying before meals (when my paternal grandparents visited). I remember missing Mass one Sunday due to sickness. At the time I was staying with my paternal grandparents—uber Catholics—and when I told my grandma I couldn’t go to Mass because I felt ill she thought I was faking. The fact I was pallid, feverish, my vision clouded with black spots, and my back felt like it was on fire every time I sneezed, meant little. She was convinced I was just trying to dodge my obligations. True: sitting in a Church pew for a half an hour listening to people belt out the Rosary followed by an hour of alternative standing and kneeling wasn’t exactly the way I wanted to spend my Sunday morning. Nevertheless, there are probably some bigger reasons why religious observance in the present day needs to be re-evaluated.

How can a person sincerely accept or reject religion if they aren’t first given the freedom to assess the trustworthiness of its propositions? I was pressed to believe; I believed because I didn’t want to disappoint my parents; I believed because I was young, credulous and I didn’t want to go to Hell—a fate I was led to believe awaited non-believers and which I now regard as one of the more perfidious of religious notions. In terms of biblical stories I was required to accept them prima facie. I suspect I am more the rule than the exception when it comes to being raised a theist. Theists are made, not born. No reasonable person can read “Jesus walked on water” and assume they are reading history. Yet, that’s precisely what I was expected to believe; it’s definitely what the theist asks the non-theist or agnostic to accept. These are stories not history—and quite unlike what is assumed by religionists opinions can exist on things that do not.[8] The main problem affecting theology is that there are no objective tests one can conduct to prove this doctrine is true as opposed to that.  Well, that’s not entirely the true. You can conduct comparisons: you can test whether or not new thinking contradicts or agrees with old thinking. If a new idea conforms to old patterns it is likely to be received well and incorporated into official doctrine; when a new idea contradicts orthodoxy it is discouraged. Yet, despite the fact ideas are being systematically tested through comparison, we are still assuming inherited ideas, e.g. Adam eating a piece of fruit leading to humankind’s apparent fall from grace making Jesus necessary, etc. are trustworthy in the first place—not because elder ideas are empirically verified facts so much as the basis of existing custom and observance. What were the very first theological opinions tested against?  I would hazard a guess they were, as they are now, simply assumed true.[9]

 

 

[1] I recall my Grade Nine Christian ethics teacher dutifully transmitting the Catholic Church’s official teaching on “James, Jesus’ brother” (Galatians 1:19). She insisted Paul did not mean to imply James was a blood relative of Jesus. They were just really close friends. Like most kids I didn’t know Scripture well enough to challenge her; but if I could go back now (I’d tell my former self to attend public school and) I’d ask the teacher: if James was not a blood relative of Jesus then why was James specifically referred to as his brother not once but twice?  The connection between James and Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (13:55) is even more obvious, e.g. “Is this not the carpenter’s son [Jesus]? Is not his mother called Mary?  And are not his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judah?”  James wasn’t just a friend. The author of Matthew was clearly connecting Jesus with this family.  This passage absolutely contradicts the official teaching of the Catholic Church; moreover, it seems reasonable James was Jesus’ brother because James succeeded Jesus as head of the Church in the first decade following Jesus’ crucifixion. Saint Paul for his part has zero problems implying Jesus and James are blood brothers.

[2] There have been 21 councils throughout the history of the Church. In particular, the Council of Nicea in 335 AD was the first and, arguably, last such council where dissenting or competing opinions had a real chance at adoption. The Council of Nicea addressed a long standing conflict between two competing beliefs—Dualism (Father-Son) and Trinity (Father-Son-Holy Spirit). There was a genuine debate between Bishop Arius (defender of dualism) and Athanasius (advocate for the trinity). The Church, which cannot really be said at this time to be centrally organized in the strictest sense of the word, neither had an official teaching on the topic nor the authority to decide the question by appealing to fiat; thus, the council was called to decide the matter. Arguments could be made in support of either view, I.e. Both sides of the debate used scripture to support their respective position as well as Greek philosophy. Athanasius’ argument carried the day, however, and formed the basis of the Church’s official doctrine extant to this day. His work On the Incarnation is indeed a solid argument for accepting the god-three-in-one position. I remember reading it in my early 20s and found it utterly convincing at the time.  Unfortunately, no method was available to Athanasius to falsify dualism other than deduction and logic. Ultimately, the debate may very well have been decided in Athanasius’ favour simply because he was the stronger of the two debaters or had more powerful friends than Arius or the zeitgeist favoured the adoption of Trinity.  Given, then, debate decided the issue isn’t it possible the Dualist position might still be correct despite Arius’ failure to convince a majority to support it? Or, by implication, might there exist a third option, e.g. God doesn’t exist, etc.

[3] The Church of course would assert the Gnosticism present in Thomas (~150 AD) is what disqualified it from being accepted as part of the official Canon. Of course the fact saying 12 places James and not Peter (who the Church traditionally traces its authority from based on Matthew 16:18) as head of the Church had nothing to do with this controversial gospel being dumped into the Apocrypha.

[4] In North America (2011 AD), an 85 year old and a 20 year old both enjoy democratic freedoms but for different reasons. The senior of the two literally fought for freedom at Omaha Beach while the young person inherited that freedom. The older person lived through the turbulent 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement, War in Vietnam, Women’s Liberation, etc. while the young person has grown up in a world where women are equals and a person of colour is the president of the United States. The 20 year old inherited freedoms and rights he did not earn. He takes it for granted these freedoms have always existed as they are. He has no direct knowledge (perhaps even no awareness) of the existence of the guns of Normandy, the killing of anti-war protestors in Chicago by the government or that fire hoses and dogs were used by police to intimidate demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama. Beliefs, ideas, rights, etc. evolve and change over time—to understand them we don’t look at them as they are but rather as they were; and though freedom is just as real to the young as it is to the old it can be said with great certainty the old appreciate it differently. So it is with religious doctrines, i.e. they are inherited, passed on from generation to generation, their original reasons for being lost to us with the obscuring effects of time making them appear timeless.

[5] The ancient Hebrews themselves believed in multiple gods, e.g. Yahweh was the god of Judah (a warrior god) and his competitor was the god El (the great creator), the god of the Kingdom of Israel.  Two distinctive cults existed in two Hebrew kingdoms—Elohists and Yahwists—at the same time. They were not the same god. How did we end up with only Yahweh?  Yahweh triumphed when the people of Israel were taken into captivity (and the god El presumed defeated). The following three sources touch on the topic of Hebrew polytheism and polylatrism: Robert Wright, The Evolution of God (pg.115-133); Karen Armstrong, The Bible a Biography (pg. 17-18); and of course the Old Testament.

[6] Why is it men have more authority than women in every monotheistic culture? In the West, men dominated their societies and it is hardly a coincidence they fashioned father-gods in their own image; it stands to reason therefore that the world-view of a people shapes the nature of their god.  Men are in control; therefore, their god is a male who is also in control. Gods, far from being transcendent, specifically reflect their creators’ needs, wants and world-view. In his memoir Five Stones and a Sling, philologist and scholar Michael Goulder observed biblical scholars do not practice objectivity but go into their studies with certain fundamental assumptions already in mind.  On page 28 of Five Stones Goulder remarked: “My disappointment was due in large part to my inexperience.  I had supposed that scholars were dedicated to the pursuit of truth, wherever that might lead, and that new ideas would always be welcome.  This however is only partly true.  Before new ideas come, scholars have [already] reached a consensus, and their position as authorities depends upon their agreeing with that consensus.  Their teachers, whom they normally honoured, had taught them the consensus; they had written their books assuming it, and therefore, to think that they and their fellow experts had been wrong and that a new scholar, of whom they had not heard, was in a position to put them right.  But there is another problem: most scholars of the New Testament have religious loyalties [going into any study]: they want the text to be orthodox, or historical, or preachable, or relevant.  So any new interpretation which does not fulfil these conditions is not likely to be approved.”

[7] The 18th Century Scottish rationalist David Hume observed, “When men are most sure and arrogant they are commonly most mistaken, giving views to passion without that proper deliberation which alone can secure them from the grossest absurdities.”  Hume was cautioning us not to assume we know something so well, so certainly or so truly no further work or understanding was required.  Hume’s biographer, Roderick Graham, asserted that though Hume championed the cause of reason he nonetheless felt relying on it alone led to intellectual complacency and blindness. Something was needed to prevent people from using reason simply to invent reality; something was needed to dissuade people from falling back on old certainties, e.g. expressly the use of induction (also known as the scientific method).

[8] Anselm of Canterbury echoed the Apostle Paul’s assertion “faith is evidence for things unseen” when he asserted belief in a thing was evidence for that thing’s evidence.  William of Ockham disagreed saying one could believe in unicorns but the belief in and of itself was completely impotent when it came to creating things.  Another example of this can be demonstrated in the subtleties of language, e.g. Angels have wings like birds whereas birds have wings. Invisible things are always like something with which we are familiar because we have no other frame of reference. By the way, Anselm was made a saint and Ockham was charged with heresy.

[9] The theologian Origen (184-253 AD) read scripture through a filter of love. Scripture to him treated un-allegorically meant nothing. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) likewise understood Scripture was not intended to be taken literally (he paid particular attention to Genesis). Andrew of St. Victor (1110-1175) tried a fully literal interpretation of Scripture.  None of these theologians, though differing in their emphasis, ever factored in the non-existence of God in to any of their conjectures.  Instead, they thought along the lines of the following contradictory dichotomy, e.g. God was a mystery but he was also a fact.