Saturday, November 13, 2010

Follow the Profit

James Adams.  Waffle Street: The Confession and Rehabilitation of a Financier.  San Clemente: Sourced Media, 2010.  ISBN: 9780984106851.

F. A. Hayek.  The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism.  Edited by W. W. Bartley III.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.  ISBN: 0226320669.

James Buchan.  Frozen Desire: The Meaning of Money.  New York: Welcome Rain, 2001. ISBN: 1566491800.

Here are three books that have contributed a great deal to my small understanding of the complex system of trade that delivers food to my table.  While I hope to say more about each individually in the coming weeks (as I have time), here is what I took from each one in brief. 

Waffle Street. As Jean-Baptiste Say recognized many years ago, production drives consumption.  If you make nothing, you sell nothing, or whatever it is that you are selling is in fact nothing (and all attempts to found financial stability upon it are delusional, no matter how many PhDs may tell you otherwise).  Unfortunately, people have a strong tendency to try and make something out of nothing: if we exercise enough faith in our fearless leaders (especially the late not-so-great John Maynard Keynes), we can enjoy brief moments of euphoric "prosperity" during which we treat ourselves to massive shopping binges financed by debt that we (or our shareholders, taxpayers, children) promise to pay it back later, someday, with something (in the vain hope that it is actually consumption that drives production: "if enough people cry loudly for this cool toy, surely someone will give it to them in exchange for pretty green paper").

The Fatal Conceit.  You cannot have a stable human society that does not respect individual integrity (the individual's responsibility to answer for him or herself and his or her moral choices).  Yes, people are idiots (and want to buy the world on credit sometimes), but all attempts to corral them into obedience to one true standard of non-stupid behavior end up failing miserably when the "smart" people in charge are (inevitably) revealed as fools.  As Juvenal has it (Satire 6.347-348), Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? ("Who will regulate the regulators?")The answer to moral problems in human life (including problems with what we call "the economy" these days) is not more external regulation: individual people need to realize that they are the only people responsible for their decisions, which they had better take seriously.  All regulatory solutions are just stop-gaps for idiots: good in the short term (insofar as they prevent us all starving in the streets right away), and bad in the long term (as they accustom us to passing our moral agency on to government stooges who are no smarter or morally conscious than we are).  The fatal conceit is thinking that we can prosper without individual integrity, that our regulation is better, that our leaders are smarter, that our collective ventures are somehow qualitatively different from all the others that have crashed and burned before us doing the same stupid things we are doing (making regulators responsible for our individual moral choices).  

Frozen Desire. The essential message of this book is that money is intrinsically worthless.  It is just a symbol, a pretty bit of paper or metal with a logo on it that people in a very narrow time-frame use to attribute value to other things.  When it cannot be traded for real things (food, clothing, shelter), it is revealed to be nothing (nothing but desire, the longing for things that one does not have).  Buchan would agree with Adams (and Say) that the secret to success in life is producing real things rather than cultivating insatiable desire.  But he goes farther than either of them in radically devaluing the concrete form of desire that is the lifeblood of our current economy.  I confess that I am very sympathetic to him.  (I like to think of the present world economy as someone with a very bad case of diabetes: the Keynesian approach to the disease keeps pumping the patient full of insulin to stave off increasing and increasingly severe bouts of glycemic shock; a more responsible approach is to radically cut the sugar supply, causing an immediate crash that hurts like hell but ultimately puts the patient on a much firmer footing, presuming he survives.  I am not a doctor and have not made this metaphor perfect.  Patience!)  I look forward to the day (which I am still naive enough to envision as a reality) when money is just a toy for me, an idle curiosity that I play with, instead of the only thing standing between my family and starvation.  Meanwhile, I think it is best used very sparingly, preferably no more than absolutely necessary (kind of like sugar!).      

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Virtual Reality

Kate Distin.  The Selfish Meme: A Critical Reassessment.  Cambridge University Press, 2005.  ISBN: 0521606276.

Reading Distin after Lotman and Uexkull drove home the idea that we all live in in two worlds.  One of these is almost completely outside our ken: we cannot see it, hear it, touch it, smell it, taste it, or even think about it really (except to think that it exists).  The other is knowable: we can see it, hear it, touch it, smell it, taste it, and think it.  The first world is the "real" world.  The second world is a sensory projection (the human equivalent of the self-generated universe of Uexkull's tick).  The first world becomes intelligible to us only as our senses receive impressions that it projects into the second world, where we can feel them.

How does the mind fit into all of this?  It provides a holding place for sensory data, a kind of personal library where sensory impressions are recorded for consultation and comparison.  Over time, it accumulates enough information to help us "see" the second world coherently.  (Babies just experience stuff without knowing what they experience, while older children have an idea about what it is that they are experiencing, how it will respond to specific actions, etc.)  Distin describes this process as the acquisition of memes, which bind together in the mind to form a complete map of everything we experience (see, hear, touch, smell, taste, think).  These memes bind to one another into complexes (A goes with B goes with C, and so on) of information, creating a world-map we use to navigate through the virtual reality that our senses project.

All world-maps are "deficient" in some way, because none of them sees everything from every available point of view: this observable relativity is what makes it possible for us to realize that the first world, the world we cannot know, exists.  So no meme or meme-complex, no idea or ideology, is ever sufficient to tell anyone all he or she needs to know about reality, which is larger than the mind's ability to grasp (exceeding the capacity of the entire human sensory apparatus).  Confronted with infinite reality, our human world-maps are no more omniscient than that of Uexkull's tick.  The most we can ever do is conceive provisionally correct ideas: we cannot know all there is.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Memes on my Mind

Kate Distin.  The Selfish Meme: A Critical Reassessment.  Cambridge University Press, 2005.  ISBN: 0521606276.

As a follow-up to the last post, I offer three points which reading The Selfish Meme brought into focus for me. 

(1) People do not automatically take charge of their ideas (memes).  Ideas can and will run your life as they please if you let them, inducing you to do and be a number of things which you might never do or be if you examined yourself carefully and decided consciously what to dedicate yourself (your doing and being) to.  The fact that this happens is not really anyone's "fault" (unless you believe in a divine puppet-master pulling our and/or all strings): it results from the facts (1) that we need ideas to survive, and (2) that we begin life largely (indeed wholly) at the mercy of a relatively small bundles of ideas (starting with the meme-complexes articulated and defended by our parents).

(2) The human mind is amazingly plastic: it will bend over backwards to make "bad" memes "good" (i.e. to get useful and use-able information from even the crappiest sources).  The individual capacity to adapt and "mold" memes admitted from someone else (parents, the community, churches, schools, teachers, gurus, etc.) is an amazing human feature.  Sometimes the most worthless piece of information (a really dumb meme) can be redeemed by someone's ability to fit it into a new context (re-tooling an old meme-complex or creating a new one).  For a practical example, consider what Denise Minger has done for T. Colin Campbell's China Study.  Because of the nature of human "intelligence" (the way we pick up memes and run with them), no idea (meme), no matter how stupid, is a guaranteed stillbirth.  By the same token, even really dumb ideologies (meme-complexes) can build defenses against skepticism that will convince people not to challenge truth-claims (no matter what these are: they might be absolute truth or ridiculous nonsense; either way, some people will run with them while others won't, and both sides will have "reasons" that appear compelling from some perspective).  They can also accommodate some useful information (at least enough that people keep passing them on).

(3) I am not really comfortable living my life in accordance with ideas I have not examined and approved (however provisionally) for myself, for reasons that I find compelling.  I recognize that not all of my standards in choosing ideas (memes) and even ideologies (meme-complexes) are rationally defensible: making decisions with insufficient information is part and parcel of the human condition as I experience it.  That being said, there are one or two things I am pretty sure I know (at least empirically), and I cannot live seriously with ideas (memes) and ideologies (meme-complexes) that deny my knowledge (requiring me to have faith in something that I "know" to be untrue).  I have to own my own memes and use them in a way that appears ethical to me.  I cannot spend the rest of my life assuming that "one day" in the future everything will magically make sense and be perfect if I just keep doing what seems wrong to me in the here and now.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Imagining How Culture Works

Kate Distin.  The Selfish Meme: A Critical Reassessment.  Cambridge University Press, 2005.  ISBN: 0521606276.

While certainly not the last word on the subject of culture, this book really opened my mind.  Distin tries, with little empirical grounding (to the annoyance of Matteo Mameli), to get a notional grip on how people create, use, and transmit information (a process we sometimes call "culture" from the old Latin colere, meaning "to cultivate, tend, take care of a field").  While I agree provisionally with the problems Mameli finds with fanciful thought experiments such as Distin performs, I still learned a good deal from her approach, which (for my own enjoyment) I am going to outline here in a series of quotes (preceded by my summaries):

(1)  Culture evolves by "memes" (discrete packets of replicable cultural information) the way biology evolves by genes (discrete packets of replicable biological information).  The information in memes exists in the form of "representations" (mental images that shape human thought and behavior). 
"The most basic element in evolution, whether biological or cultural, is replication.  There are two steps involved in replication: the preservation of the information that is copied, and the means by which it is transmitted...In the evolution of any form, what evolves is essentially information.  Genes are a means of preserving biological information, and the format that they use is DNA.  We know where to look for the units of biological selection (within organisms) and we know what form that information takes (DNA).  In culture, however, things are not yet so obvious, and this is a real stumbling block for many who first encounter the meme hypothesis.  It is all very well to suggest that culture "evolves" via memes, just as biology does via genes, but where exactly are these memes to be found and--most fundamentally--what are they?" (18) ...
"Since memes are replicators it is reasonable to expect that their content, too, must be preserved in a particular way...What does this mean in practice? Much information will have a severely restricted impact on the meme pool, owing to its limited effects on the world.  The reasons for such limitations are varied.  For example, the Spanish that I learned many years ago, for exam purposes, has now all but disappeared from my memory, since its potential effects (enabling me to communicate with other Spanish speakers, or to read Spanish text) are not able to operate when I am surrounded by monolingual English speakers and choose not to buy any books written in Spanish.  That information, in the context of my particular mind and environment, has therefore very little effect on the world.  Other representational content may not have much potential in any context: a poorly written novel, which neither stirs the heart nor stimulates the mind of the reader, will struggle to survive in the competition for our attention.  There may be some mileage in being associated with a successful replicator (i.e., being selected as a side effect of a replicator with useful effects), but in general a meme demands content that has an executing role, in (potentially) producing a phenotypic effect.  [Translation: we want information to be practically useful in some way if we are going to go to the trouble of learning it, using it, and passing it on in usable form to others.]" (19) ...
"Surely the vast majority of our mental representations are created as the result of encounters with a particular sort of object--a book, an apple, a person or whatever...Suppose that a wasp flies into a room where there is a small child who has never encountered one.  Ben has, however, seen bees many times before, and the wasp triggers the representation that he has previously had whenever bees have flown into the room.  That representation was created as a result only of previous encounters with bees, since this is the first time that Ben has seen a wasp.  As a result of his belief about those sorts of insects, Ben will believe that this one might sting him, avoid antagonising it, and do his best to let it back into the garden.  My intuition about Ben is that, rather than a correct representation (of a bee-type insect, for instance), he has made a lucky mistake (thinking it is actually a bee)...No matter that both insects fulfilled the same purpose in his life (causing him to represent them in a certain way, and therefore to avoid them); what does seem relevant is that he assigned the wrong identity to the wasp.  Wasps are not bees" (25-26) ...
"[T]here are different sorts of mental representation, with some being more complex than others.  In particular, some representations play a role much like a switch, linking an organism's perception of a given stimulus to behaviour that is appropriate as a response.  Others are more complex, and have not only these external links to perceptions and behaviour but also internal links to other representations [Pavlov's dogs salivated when a bell rang, an event they learned to associate with being fed, even when no food was forthcoming]--and the content of any given representation will be determined by all of these links" (34).
(2)  Memes exist and reproduce following patterns evident elsewhere in information integration and dissemination.
"It is well known that complex replication will always be more successful if the complexity involved is hierarchical.  This fact has been neatly illustrated by Herbert Simon, in a parable which suggests 'a general functional reason why complex organization of any kind, biological or artificial, tends to be organized in nested hierarchies of repeated sub-units.'  It goes roughly as follows.  Each of two watchmakers have to assemble watches from a thousand component parts.  He has, in effect, to replicate an established complex form.  Tempus assembles his watches piece by piece, and they are so constructed that if he pauses or drops an unfinished watch then he has to start again from scratch.  Hora, on the other hand, makes subassemblies of ten parts each, then subassemblies of ten of these, and finally a whole watch from ten of those, so if he is interrupted then he loses only a small part of his work.  As a result, Hora can assemble his watches in a fraction of the time that it takes Tempus: according to Simon's analysis, if there is a chance of say one in a hundred that either watchmaker will be interrupted while adding a part to his assembly, then Tempus can be expected to take four thousand times as long as Hora to assemble a watch.  Although in fact the statistics of expectation show that the correct relationship is more like two thousand times as long, Simon's key point still holds: the Hora style of building gives a better time scale, greater stability and resistance to shock, and a greater amenability to repair and improvement--and it is clearly hierarchical" (41).
"Replication...will be most efficient if it builds on what already exists rather than starting afresh each time.  An important implication of this message is that the most successful sort of replication will be particulate: if the constituent parts of what is replicated were to blend, then the end product would be a conglomerate rather than an assembly.  The units of an assembly must be what Arthur Koestler has described as 'self-assertive': each maintains its own individuality within the assembly.  On the other hand each must also be compatible with the others in the assembly, otherwise the result will be unstable: as part of a larger system, towards whose future and stability they tend to 'work', the units in an assembly must (in Koestler's terms again) be 'integrative' as well as self-assertive.  The replication of complexity, in its reliance on assemblies, is therefore dependent on the existence of dual-natured units, which are able to retain their individual identities whilst operating as part of a complex" (42).
"It is of course important to acknowledge that there is a difference between the acquisition of information and the acceptance of that information into one's network of beliefs.  There is a sense in which the "flat earth" meme is still pretty successful today: plenty of people know that it is possible to believe that the earth is flat, even though they themselves do not subscribe to that belief.  In this way it is perhaps analogous to a recessive gene, whose DNA we possess and are able to pass on to our children but which exerts no effect on our bodies or behaviour.  Similarly, we are capable of passing on information that persists in our memories, even when we don't assent to it, but it will have little or no effect on our thoughts or behaviour.  Just because I understand what it means to believe that the earth is flat, I neither subscribe to a conspiracy theory about the origin of satellite pictures of the earth nor have any doubt that it is possible to circumnavigate the globe" (44).
 (3) Memes evolve by simultaneously conforming to and rebelling against the cultural status quo.  The information they encode at once agrees with the growing body of information already "out there" in society (in mega-packets of systematized information that Distin calls "protective meme complexes" -- one example of such a complex might be the LDS gospel) and disagrees with it (changing it in some way, large or small -- this looks like the Mormon principle of continuing revelation).  The survival of a meme depends more on the culture around it than on itself: a great idea goes unnoticed if there is no context in which it makes sense, no reason to pick it up, no evangelist committed to selling it.
"One of the most significant aspects of any meme's environment will be the other memes that are present in that culture, and this is the factor that will often dominate the fate of novel memes in particular.  In order to be accepted, an idea has (usually) to be compatible with those already in existence--which means that selection will favour memes that are capable of exploiting the current cultural environment.  The result will be coadapted meme complexes which bestow further benefits on their members in addition to the initial privilege of admission: as the complexes grow in size and strength, they will become more difficult to penetrate, providing protection against invading, contradictory ideas.  This is analogous to the complexes of coadapted genes to be found within particular species, and typically we should expect to find protective meme complexes within specific cultures.  It also reflects [the] fact...that the direction of evolution will be dependent upon what already happens to exist. For specific novel replicators--both genes and memes--this will mean that their success of failure will be partly determined by the prior existence of other replicators in their area. 'Much as the evolution of rabbits created ecological niches for species that eat them and parasitize them, the invention of cars created cultural niches for gas stations, seat belts, and garage door openers'" (57).
"A meme's own content may, then, be a fairly arbitrary factor in determining its success: its fortune in the struggle for survival will always be relative to context.  As memes struggle to gain and retain the attention of human minds, their success or failure is in this sense influenced more by the environment than by their own content.  Novel memes must be fit for the existing body of culture, for the physical environment and for the dictates of human biology and psychology, in order to stand a chance of being copied accurately or enduringly" (67).
(4) Memes exist in human minds and external repositories (like libraries, architectural blueprints, articulate cultural ideologies [e.g. correlated Mormonism], etc.) but require active presence in the mind in order to be reproduced.  The key point to take away is this: the individual human mind is not an absolute master of the meme pool; all individual mental activity occurs inside a greater cultural complex with ideas (memes) and ideologies (meme-complexes) that we only naively construe as being our own.  This does not mean that we are entirely powerless as individuals, however.  While we cannot tell what memes the world will confront us with, we can (and do) shape our personal reaction, selecting for the memes we engage with and against the ones we ignore.
"[T]here is no significant distinction to be drawn between the human mind and external information stores such as libraries and the Internet, but in order for a meme to be available to selection, active copies of it must exist.  If the human mind is not universal, but is developed via interaction with existing culture, then external representations play an essential role in memetic replication.  The internal brain structures are, though, the ultimate source of the external representations.  Thus a combination of both sorts of meme store has led to a massive capacity for information dissemination and copying stability, which would have been impossible via only one of the storage methods...This picture ties in with the view of the capacity to gain and retain attention as the best measure of memetic fitness.  If a meme is to be replicated, then it must be able to grab our attention: at times when only passive copies of it persist, it is not able to do this and is therefore not at all fecund.  On the other hand, if a meme is to persist then it must be able to able to retain our attention, and passive copies of it are the most efficient way of ensuring its prolonged existence.  This extension of memes' phenotype is also reminiscent of Clark's view that 'much of what we commonly identify as our mental capacities may...turn out to be properties of the wider extended systems of which human brains are just one (important) part'" (90).
"[T]he human mind develops as a result of acquiring memes, and many of its activities are then dictated by its memes--but...the memes themselves cannot function independently of minds, and are always initially created by a mind.  Modern humans, on this story, are born with a degree of mindedness, and this is exploited by existing memes to the extent that the fully fledged mind may, itself, create new memes" (115).
(5) Memes as we know them depend on "meta-representation" (inducing general principles from specific instances; e.g. the leap the baby makes when he learns that the individual word "cat" means something like "small, furry animal with whiskers" no matter the context in which it occurs).
"Modern memetic evolution could not begin, however, until our own ancestors were capable of manipulating--and of course copying--the right sort of mental representations.  However memetic information is transmitted between individuals, the important thing is that it should be represented in such a form that those who acquire it can manipulate it freely, without being tied to a particular context.  Many organisms can represent the world around them, but memes are representations with a particular nature: as complex, context-independent concepts, they depended on their emergence on the development of unique mental capacities.  The participants in memetic evolution needed to be able to compare incoming information with their existing knowledge, to fit it in with their existing skills, and if necessary to rerepresent it in a different format--and the mere fact of its being transmitted via imitation cannot guarantee this.  Meta-representation is key [and the age-old debate pitting nature against nurture resolves with each being necessary]" (141).
(6) Memes exist in "systems of representation" (RS) that are in theory infinite (as opposed to genes, whose RS is finite (DNA).  Memes are like letters that can be re-arranged infinitely to form an infinite number of languages (with an infinite number of rules for "making sense").
"[T]he memetic equivalent of DNA is not one, but many cultural systems of representation.  Unlike organisms and their DNA, we are not endowed at birth with one fixed RS [representation system], but have the capacity to learn and develop many fixed systems.  Language has primacy amongst them in that it alone is the result of a biological endowment which also facilitates its communication through speech.  Crucially, however, it is also the result of the human capacity for meta-representation, and it is this which facilitates the development of alternative RSs.  These nonlinguistic systems, whose rules and structures are incredibly diverse, must be realized in a medium which is not subject to the constraints of universal grammar" (167).
(7) The human mind exists prior to memes and requires memes to develop.  The mind takes memes from its environment, compares them, and uses them to create new solutions to the problems it encounters.  During this process, the mind necessarily relies on a body of memes much larger than those it "owns" for itself, having recourse to external depositories of cultural information (meme-complexes).
"Infants have the basis of and potential for strong muscles, but in a form that is by no means fully developed.  Once a muscle begins to be used, however, it soon strengthens and develops its potential.  In this sense, exercise 'creates' the strong muscle; but conversely the exercise could not have occurred in the first place without the existing basis of a weaker muscle.  Similarly, in the mental activity of a newborn child there is the basis of and potential for a fully fledged mind.  As soon as this is put to use and begins to acquire concepts (both from its contemporaries and as a result of its own discoveries about its surroundings), it begins to develop that potential.  Thus the concepts that it acquires 'create' the mind only in the sense that exercise 'creates' muscles: the mind itself does not merely consist of a complex of concepts, but rather develops as a result of its interaction with them.  Furthermore, the concepts themselves would not have existed in the first place if there were no prior existence of some mental activity" (170-171).
"[C]onsciousness cannot be explained as a meme machine, but rather the memes-mind relationship was more accurately portrayed two thousand years ago, in the parable of the sower...The message [of the biblical parable] is clear: different people (and even the same person at different times and stages of her life) will respond to the same information in very different ways.  Incoming information--the seeds of the parable--will be understood, remembered, acted upon and then passed on to others with varying degrees of accuracy and enthusiasm, depending on its recipient's mind--the soil" (173).
"[T]he design process [by which engineers create products]--which seems prima facie to be the harnessing of imagination to practicality--is underpinned by a methodology that is iterative and in many senses even mindless.  It moves from a perceived demand, through clarification of the problem in a solution-neutral statement, and the generation and initial selection of concepts with the potential to meet the requirements, to a structured development and detail design of the end product.  At each stage of the process selections will be made between possible solutions, according to the demands and wishes laid down in the target specifications.  An option may be rejected when it is still an idea ('How about a pick-up truck?'), whilst it is being developed as part of the embodiment design ('Perhaps a 1.3 litre engine will give us the power we need'), or even when it has reached the final stage of the detail design ('Let's try the engine from our existing pick-up as a prototype').  It may be rejected on the basis of economic as well as engineering considerations.  If at any point it seems that the end result will not be viable, then losses will be cut and the project abandoned" (176).
"Thus the preceding account [reproduced above] of the design of human artefacts provides a working, observable example of the compatibility of evolution with design--not just in principle, but in practice...In intentional, psychological terms, the new front end for the model 'xyz' car was designed by Chris because he wanted to make the 'xyz' more crashworthy in frontal impact, he wanted to keep his job, and so on.  This provides an answer to the 'why?' question...The 'how' questions, though, are answered rather differently.  The new front end was designed using the four-stage process described, through which novel designs for that part of the car were tested against the 'pass' criteria laid down in the problem statement.  One of them was selected from the variety of proposed solutions, and the end result is a front end that is intellectually descended from, though a significant evolutionary improvement upon, the existing design" (181).
(8)  Memes underlie culture (in all forms: Distin talks about [a] science, [b] religion, and [c] society), which we inherit (rather than creating from scratch for ourselves).  We cannot decide what memes we will inherit, but we can decide how to use them.  So the situation in which we find ourselves as individuals is one that we control provisionally, not absolutely.
[a] "The structure of the scientific community will also affect the selection pressures on theories: the professional standing of an individual scientist will have a bearing on the reception of his work, and politics will affect funding and thereby the progress that can be made in any given discipline.  The lifespan of novel scientific theories may well be affected by such factors...Thus the memetic perspective on science reveals little that is really surprising, but it does help to demystify some of the processes at work.  Somewhere between the traditional view of scientists as invincible warriors in the battle against ignorance and confusion, and the more recent cynicism about their relationship with government and other vested interests, comes the claim that their work is but one branch of cultural evolution" (187-188).
[b] "On the one hand there is some objective truth about the nature of the universe, our place in it, and whether God exists...On the other hand there are questions about how (or indeed if) we can discover the facts of the matter, and how we feel about what we learn...On the one hand religious ideas, like scientific hypotheses, evolve towards what we hope will be the most accurate possible representations of the world and our place in it...On the other hand these ideas are accepted or rejected by human beings, and it may well be true that some people set aside their usual capacity for rationality and restraint when it comes to religious matters, just as others do when dealing with politics or family feuds" (193-194).
[c] "A significant piece of evidence in favour of gene theory was its ability to explain various apparent empirical contradictions, such as altruism.  Is meme theory able to explain apparent contradictions that arise from gene theory, such as suicide or contraception?  In fact, this seems to be one of the theory's strongest candidates for success.  Clearly, a gene for suicide, self-sacrifice, or contraception could not replicate successfully without various complex strategies to compensate for its lack of fecundity; similarly, at the level of the individual such behavior is inexplicable.  Viewed in meme terms, however, such examples are easily explained [as memes coming through meme-complexes embraced by individual minds]" (195).
"[C]ulture's development will ultimately be determined by a complex interplay between memes and their environment.  The content of those memes, however, is our responsibility" (207).
Distin's discussion raises a number of ideas that help me make sense of my personal experience with culture.  I grew up inside several competing meme-complexes, integrating memes from both "secular" and religious ideologies into my evolving persona (the filter my mind uses to recognize and utilize memes).  Eventually, the persona I was manufacturing became so incoherent that I could not live with the dissonance: the meme-complexes I was integrating into my life contradicted one another in important ways.  I had to make a decision about what filters to use when accepting, using, creating, and handing down my own personal memes.  Being who I am, I did not want to renounce either religion or "secularism" utterly to follow the other: I saw problems with both.  I was (and am) particularly bothered by the fact that all ideologies in practice manifest a tendency to deny, denigrate, and/or otherwise distort anything valuable that lies outside their purview.  My own experience investigating human health shows me that science is no more free from this tendency than religion: no human culture is safe.

So I remain an incurable skeptic: I doubt everything, but especially anything that comes to me lavishly praised by important men in imposing suits.  No organization is above suspicion.  No meme is unquestionably good.  All are potentially useful tools.  All are potentially worthless trash.  The only way to know the difference is to examine them for myself and see what works from my own perspective (which like every perspective is in constant transition, changing all the time: no matter what the men in suits say, no human perspective is permanent; there is no unmoving vantage point from which everything makes the same kind of sense all the time).  This does not mean that I have no values, only that I acknowledge a fact that many people like to deny--the fact that values are re-negotiated every time we make a decision (which is why we have courts of law: they make sure that particularly sensitive decisions get the kind of thorough re-thinking we have learned that they need).  There are no easy answers to any really important questions: the best culture can do is provide you some basic generalities and show you how others have put them to specific practice in the past (whether fictional or historical: from a practical standpoint, these often amount to the same thing).

The great thing about culture as we know it is that it can take all kinds of disparate minutiae (information about things in the external and internal environments of the human being) and turn them into something larger and more powerful than anything any one of us could come up with on her own (like Mormonism or modern, industrialized agriculture).  The terrible thing about culture is that it sometimes produces atrocities (which it is very good at rewriting into acts of heroism).  From my perspective, it will be a long time before I accept anything from any group uncritically again.  In fact, I may never do so.  I can accept that I am human and desire to live safely, happily, securely in a community that "values" me and the stuff I find important.  I can accept that, but I cannot accept achieving it at the price of ignoring the fact that my happiness is built on someone else's misery.  Maybe I do decide to make others miserable (as indeed we all do in order to live); even so, I want to see what I am doing (and at least preserve the capacity to think about ways of alleviating the pain I cause others by existing: think of this as me being selfish if you like--I don't like stepping on your toes on the way to my own happiness, so I look for paths outside of the normal to have my cake and eat it too).  Enough for now.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

God vs. gods

Daniel Quinn.  The Story of B: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit.  New York: Bantam, 1996.  ISBN 0553379011.

In my last post, I included this quote but did not really say much about it (Quinn, The Story of B, 300-301):
Let me begin with the great secret of the animist life, Louis.  When other people look for God, you'll see them automatically look up into the sky.  They really imagine that, if there's a God, he's far, far away--remote and untouchable.  I don't know how they can bear living with such a God, Louis.  I really don't.  But they're not our problem.  I've told you that, among the animists of the world, not a single one can tell you the number of the gods.  They don't know the number and neither do I...What's important to us is not how many they are but where they are.  If you go among the Alawa of Australia or the Bushmen of Africa or the Navajo of North America or the Onabasulu of New Guinea--or any other of hundreds of Leaver peoples [as opposed to Takers, the agriculturalists] I could name--you'll soon find out where the gods are.  The gods are here...I mean here.  Among the Alawa: here.  Among the Bushmen: here.  Among the Navajo: here.  Among the Kreen-Akrore: here.  Among the Onabasulu: here...
This isn't a theological statement they're making.  The Alawa are not saying to the Bushmen, 'Your gods are frauds, the true gods are our gods.' The Kreen-Akrore are not saying to the Onabasulu, 'You have no gods, only we have gods.  Nothing of the kind.  They're saying, 'Our place is a sacred place, like no other in the world.'  They would never think of looking elsewhere to find the gods.  The gods are to be found among them--living where they live.  The god is what animates their place.  That's what a god is.  A god is that strange force that makes every place a place--a place like no other in the world.  A god is the fire that burns in this place and no other--and no place in which the fire burns is devoid of god.  All of this should explain to you why I don't reject the name that was given to us by an outsider.  Even though it was bestowed with a false understanding of our vision, the name animism captures a glimmer of it.
Unlike the God whose name beings with a capital letter, our gods are not all-powerful, Louis.  Can you imagine that?  Any one of them can be vanquished by a flamethrower or a bulldozer or a bomb--silenced, driven away, enfeebled.  Sit in the middle of a shopping mall at midnight, surrounded by half a mile of concrete in all directions, and there the god that was once as strong as a buffalo or a rhinoceros is as feeble as a moth sprayed with pyrethrin.  Feeble, but not dead, not wholly extinguished.  Tear down the mall and rip up the concrete, and within days the place will be pulsing with life again.  Nothing needs to be done, beyond carting away the poisons.  The god knows how to take care of that place.  It will never be what it was before--but nothing is ever what it was before.  It doesn't need to be what it was before.  You'll hear people talk about turning the plains of North America back into what they were before the Takers arrived.  This is nonsense.  What the plains were five hundred years ago was not their final form, was not the final, sacrosanct form ordained for them from the beginning of time.  There is no such form and never will be any such form.  Everything here is on the way.  Everything here is in process.
The picture of deity given here is one that appeals to me a lot in the wake of my faith crisis.  Contrary to what many people seem to expect (and to what this blog may sometimes appear to indicate), my conversion to disbelief did not make me an immediate "expert" on life, the universe, and everything.  When people ask me "why?" now, I give them guesses (like the one I posted in my last entry) not once-and-for-all answers (like the truth I was certain of as a believer).  My lack of knowledge regarding the ultimate causes of things means that I am necessarily still comfortable with the idea of "unknowns" -- in theory, I have nothing against referring to these unknowns with names (like "God").  But in the wake of considering the world as I see it (and reading Quinn), I think "gods" is a better name for life's unknowns as I experience them than "God".  Let me try to explain what I mean by this.

In the world I live in, life consists of multiple mysterious systems in balance (from galactic star clusters down to atoms, with everything in between, including the planet's biosphere with its different ecosystems, and the bodies of individual plant and animal organisms, each of which is an ecosystem unto itself).  I cannot know what keeps these systems running (hence the mystery), but I can see that they are all running at different rates, in different ways, with different points of interface linking them to one another.  I see that when something disturbs the equilibrium of one system and not another (when someone runs my buddy over with a car but does not hit me, for example), the disturbed system suffers (and may die), while the undisturbed one continues on (to an inevitable dissolution: all systems are eventually recycled).  So each system has its own unknown, its own mysterious center of balance that holds it together until it falls apart: its own "god" (if you will).  My "god" (the unknown center of the complex of systems that is me) presides over the interface of several other "gods" within me (multi-organ systems, individual organs, cells, and independent organisms who live inside me), and is presided over in turn by other "gods" (which define the ecosystem that is my habitat, the planet that houses that ecosystem, etc.).  These "gods" are real.  I interact with them in a material and vital way every day.  They are also vulnerable.  As Quinn says, a flamethrower (or shopping mall) has the power to destroy or weaken them.  Unlike the almighty God I imagined as a Mormon, they represent something I might actually destroy in a careless fit of whatever it is that causes people to detonate bombs, deplete soils, and generally waste resources wantonly.

I am not adamantly opposed to the idea of some almighty uber-controller managing all systems: I do not deny the possibility that a big "God" exists out there somewhere.  But when I examine life as I experience it, it makes more sense to posit lots of smaller, more local, weaker "gods" who manage the mystery of life between them.  When I look into the world, I do not see a grand, unitary purpose rolling forward to inexorable fulfillment: I see multiple purposes, some realized and some not, some great and some small.  I do not know the causes for all things, but I do get the feeling that there are causes (in the plural) rather than a single cause (Aristotle's Prime Mover).  More urgently, I see that my previous focus on the possibility (which I regarded as a certainty) of a single ruling cause led me to neglect paying too much heed to smaller causes.  Since I assumed God was capable of restoring whatever havoc I might wreak in his world, I was not particularly worried about overtaxing the environment: I was philosophically down with killing many small (real) gods wantonly in the name of my big (imaginary) God.

Before you decide to ignore me as some kind of crazy, New Age hippie, you should know that I have no illusions about "saving the world" as it is.  Like Quinn says above, there are no eternal, Platonic forms for life as we experience it: it is a journey, not a destination.  Today's gods must die to make way for those of tomorrow.  I know this fact, and embrace it: life is death (as Heraclitus would say).  But I also know what follows from this: to waste death is to waste life.  If we kill all the bison for sport today, there will be none left when our grandchildren are hungry tomorrow.  If we strip all the soils down to bedrock today to feed our modern civilization, our grandchildren (billions of them) will have to discover some new life to take if the race is to continue.  Based on our past experience (the lessons of history as I read them), we cannot subsist happily writing blank checks for unlimited resources and hoping God (the big one) will honor them with manna from on high.  Rather than consume the small gods today and hope the big one sends us a fat paycheck tomorrow, picking up the tab for our indulgence, we need to cultivate the small gods: we need to refocus our efforts toward intelligent production.  Make every life lost count for something valuable, something that preserves (as much as possible) the integrity of the whole system as it moves into eternity.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

In Search of Human Ethics

Marvin Harris.  Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures.  1977.  New York: Vintage, 1991.  ISBN 067972849X.

Daniel Quinn.  The Story of B: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit.  New York: Bantam, 1996.  ISBN 0553379011.

Losing the perspective brought by Mormonism meant losing the ostensible purpose of my life ("I am here to serve God and his church in whatever way I may decide and/or church leaders may require").  When I no longer had this as my ultimate "reason" for everything (the final "because" to the toddler's "why?"), I had to take a step back and ask myself why I did things.  What was I trying to do?  What were communities (like the church) trying to do?  Part of my faith crisis involved looking intensely at human communities and discovering that they exist to perpetuate themselves (not fixed moral codes); this became problematic when I realized that the church was no different: its leaders said what they said, did what they did, so that we would all keep on "keeping on" as members, regardless of what Joseph Smith really said or did (maybe he was a bit crazy, but that's not worth looking at too carefully), or what the reality of man's destiny was (your purpose is to build our society with work and offspring: don't get distracted by other stuff).  Unfortunately for me, I really cared about these things (especially the latter), and found I had little interest in the LDS church without them.  So I was left wondering why people do what people do (i.e. create societies that must go on and--ideally--get bigger to the point that they fill the earth)?

Enter Marvin Harris.  My interest in human fitness led me eventually to the "paleo diet," the premise of which was that the agricultural revolution that occurred some 10,000 years ago paved the way for the introduction of many anti-nutrients into the human diet, leading ultimately to the set of "civilized" diseases currently plaguing much of the world (metabolic syndrome, diabetes, auto-immune disorders).  Knocking around the Internet in search of "paleo" information to flesh out this thesis, I found the immense website of Ricardo Carvalho, which is named after Harris' book title (translated into Portuguese).  (Carvalho also recommends the book on his extensive Amazon reading list, which I have consulted several times when searching for good reads.)  I was intrigued and checked the book out from my local university library.  Its thesis is relatively simple: human societies shape their behavior to match the quality of the resources available to them, changing behavior as the surrounding environment succeeds (or fails) to supply what they need to survive (adequate food, shelter, and reproductive possibilities).  Most interesting is his explanation of Aztec cannibalism, which he traces back to a chronic lack of animal protein (a precious resource): in the absence of domesticated herds or wild game, the Aztecs were reduced to eating other people.  They did not eat people because they were any more "wicked" than others; what they needed was not "repentance" but food.  Contrary to everything I would have thought in my life as a Mormon, their problem was not one to be remedied by civilization (the "gift of the gods").  Instead, civilization (and the exploding population that has always accompanied it since the agricultural revolution) was the problem (Harris, Cannibals and Kings, 165):
Mesoamerica was left at the end of the ice age in a more depleted condition, as far as animal resources are concerned, than any other region.  The steady growth of the population and the intensification of production [two things that always come with civilization in the wake of the agricultural revolution] under the coercive managerial influence of the classic highland empires virtually eliminated animal flesh from the diet of ordinary people.  The ruling class and their retainers naturally continued to enjoy such delicacies as dogs, turkeys, ducks, deer, rabbits, and fish.  But, as Harner notes, the commoners--despite the expansion of the chinampas [floating gardens]--were often reduced to eating the algae skimmed off the surface of Lake Texcoco.  While corn and beans in sufficient quantity could provide all of the essential amino acids, recurrent production crises throughout the fifteenth century meant that protein ratios were frequently depressed to levels which would have biologically justified a strong craving for meat.  In addition, fats of all sorts were perennially in short supply. 
Mesoamerican cannibalism was just one extreme example of the kind of crisis of availability that has defined human civilization from the agricultural revolution.  (As an aside, the astute reader will notice that this protein-starved Mesoamerica looks very different from anything in the Book of Mormon, whose theories of cannibalism and "Lamanite" life in general are clearly folklore from nineteenth-century New England.)  The crisis works as follows: (1) a society produces crops (usually some kind of grain, i.e. grass seed); (2) grain production allows for a higher birth rate; (3) more numbers provide the resources necessary to take over more land, dispossessing people and animals living in a less "civilized" (and more ecologically sustainable) way; (4) the cost of having more people is that many are under-nourished, especially as the rest begin putting major dents in the best non-agricultural food sources available; (5) in the end, society is either saved by technological revolution (a farming break-though that allows us to sustain the burgeoning population) or falls prey to warfare (which agriculture fosters by creating hordes of people) or famine (which agriculture fosters by creating hordes of people).  Basically, Thomas Malthus was right (though he did not know that grain is poisonous to humans individually as well as collectively).

Harris' thesis was a compelling analysis of human community, for me, but I was left rather stranded by it: after several thousand years in living in constant debt (to the earth, other species, and ourselves), how are we supposed to transform ourselves back into productive mode (a way of living that does not inevitably kill everything around us)?  Harris was the doctor who informed me that I had an incurable disease, dissecting the disorder minutely when all I could really hear was "incurable."  In addition, I now had way too much "technical" information to share whenever people asked me about my increasingly odd opinions regarding diet, religion, and politics.  A simple question deserves a simple answer, not a litany of jargon.  I had a worldview that made sense to me logically.  What I needed now was a simple narrative for relating to it more personally (and pro-actively) and sharing it with others: in short, I needed a myth.  Enter Daniel Quinn.

Quinn tells an engaging story, a fictional account of a modern Catholic priest sent to Europe to spy on someone who may be the Antichrist.  Upon making contact, the priest discovers that the Antichrist (a mysterious character called "B") is preaching against civilization (the agricultural revolution and everything that has followed from it), which he regards as a disease inasmuch as it reduces complex, beautiful reality (life) to simple, ugly reality (death).  The book is extremely interesting (with an ending which I will not give away), and I will not attempt to summarize it here.  Instead, let me offer one of my favorite passages (Quinn, The Story of B, 159-161):
Let me begin with the great secret of the animist life, Louis.  When other people look for God, you'll see them automatically look up into the sky.  They really imagine that, if there's a God, he's far, far away--remote and untouchable.  I don't know how they can bear living with such a God, Louis.  I really don't.  But they're not our problem.  I've told you that, among the animists of the world, not a single one can tell you the number of the gods.  They don't know the number and neither do I...What's important to us is not how many they are but where they are.  If you go among the Alawa of Australia or the Bushmen of Africa or the Navajo of North America or the Onabasulu of New Guinea--or any other of hundreds of Leaver peoples [as opposed to Takers, the agriculturalists] I could name--you'll soon find out where the gods are.  The gods are here...I mean here.  Among the Alawa: here.  Among the Bushmen: here.  Among the Navajo: here.  Among the Kreen-Akrore: here.  Among the Onabasulu: here...
This isn't a theological statement they're making.  The Alawa are not saying to the Bushmen, 'Your gods are frauds, the true gods are our gods.' The Kreen-Akrore are not saying to the Onabasulu, 'You have no gods, only we have gods.  Nothing of the kind.  They're saying, 'Our place is a sacred place, like no other in the world.'  They would never think of looking elsewhere to find the gods.  The gods are to be found among them--living where they live.  The god is what animates their place.  That's what a god is.  A god is that strange force that makes every place a place--a place like no other in the world.  A god is the fire that burns in this place and no other--and no place in which the fire burns is devoid of god.  All of this should explain to you why I don't reject the name that was given to us by an outsider.  Even though it was bestowed with a false understanding of our vision, the name animism captures a glimmer of it.
Unlike the God whose name beings with a capital letter, our gods are not all-powerful, Louis.  Can you imagine that?  Any one of them can be vanquished by a flamethrower or a bulldozer or a bomb--silenced, driven away, enfeebled.  Sit in the middle of a shopping mall at midnight, surrounded by half a mile of concrete in all directions, and there the god that was once as strong as a buffalo or a rhinoceros is as feeble as a moth sprayed with pyrethrin.  Feeble, but not dead, not wholly extinguished.  Tear down the mall and rip up the concrete, and within days the place will be pulsing with life again.  Nothing needs to be done, beyond carting away the poisons.  The god knows how to take care of that place.  It will never be what it was before--but nothing is ever what it was before.  It doesn't need to be what it was before.  You'll hear people talk about turning the plains of North America back into what they were before the Takers arrived.  This is nonsense.  What the plains were five hundred years ago was not their final form, was not the final, sacrosanct form ordained for them from the beginning of time.  There is no such form and never will be any such form.  Everything here is on the way.  Everything here is in process.

Quinn's solution to the problem of civilization posed by Harris (and Malthus) is conceptually very simple.  Stop increasing human food supply every year.  We already produce more than enough for everyone; our problem is not lack, but something else (the inevitable inequality in distribution created by civilization).  Quinn illustrates his solution with a story about mice.  A population of mice fed more than it needs to survive always increases in number (even as some mice starve to death because others don't let them at the food), while a population fed no more than it requires to survive inevitably (without any form of birth control whatsoever) remains stable, replacing itself without growing any larger.  To top things off, you can slowly cut down the overall population of the mice by gradually decreasing food supply, without starving any of them (Quinn, The Story of B, 300-301):
Someone says, here's what to do.  Yesterday five hundred kilos of food went into the cage.  Today we'll reduce that by a kilo.  Oh no, another objects.  A kilo is too much.  Let's reduce it by a quarter of a kilo.  So that's what they do.  Four hundred ninety-nine and three quarters kilos of food go into the cage.  Tension in the lab as everyone waits for food riots and famine--but of course there are no food riots and no famine.  Among sixty-four thousand mice, a quarter of a kilo of food is like a flake of dandruff apiece.  Tomorrow four hundred ninety-nine and a half kilos of food go into the cage.  Still no food riots and no famine.  This procedure is followed for a thousand days--and not once is there a food riot or a famine.  After a thousand days only two hundred fifty kilos of food are going into the cage--and guess what?  There are no longer sixty-four thousand mice in the cage.  There are only thirty-two thousand.  Not a miracle--just a demonstration of the laws of ecology.  A decline in food availability has been answered by a decline in population.  As always.  Semper et ubique.  Nothing to do with riots.  Nothing to do with famine.  Just the normal response of a feeder population to the availability of food.
To me, this looks like the most painless way to accomplish what we are already doing anyway.  If we do not find some way to keep our civilized growth in check, we will run out of food eventually.  We can wait for nature to fix that problem with diseases, real famine (sudden withdrawal of all sustenance), or something worse, or we can put ourselves on a diet (and get back to something like health: I have a feeling Quinn is right to say that involves a radical transformation in the way we live, the things we value, and ultimately what it means to be human).  This does not mean that we should all begin living in caves, hunting wild animals for food, or going naked all the time (though some of us might choose to do this: good luck to them--they'll need it in spades).  What we need is a way forward, a road that leads beyond agricultural civilization rather than back to whatever existed before it.  Quinn provides a very easily accessible account of the best route I have found to date, proving that all other alternatives are really just so many ways of ignoring the same problem: civilization, or modern life as we know it since the agricultural revolution, is killing us, de-stabilizing our moral values, destroying our homes, and inexorably taking away with one hand what it pretends to offer with the other.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Living with Relative Truth

Renzo Gracie.  Legacy.  Satchel Films, 2008.

This essay is a bit off-beat, with a documentary film heading it up instead of a book, but it contains a lot of good stuff that has been rattling my mental cage of late.

My faith crisis left me with a large intellectual and "spiritual" void.  For many years, I lived with a definite purpose as the player in a fixed divine plan: this plan provided a stable reference point from which to evaluate every decision I made and give it meaning.  When I realized that this plan was founded on empty speculation, free floating mythology as likely to be false as true, I felt rather like the pre-modern explorers who ventured to the edge of the world with inaccurate maps.  Like them, I quickly found myself in uncharted territory, with nothing solid to rely on in grappling with reality but my own intuition and reasoning ability.  How was I to shape my daily behavior, my "morality" (from the Latin mores, i.e. "habits, character"), without the fixed reference point of the Mormon gospel?  My first reaction was to look to other religious traditions, chiefly alternative brands of Christianity and the completely unrelated Tibetan Buddhism.  I have already written about some of the insights these new paradigms provided me.  But like Mormonism, my new would-be worldviews proved frustrating in some ways: Christianity in general seemed to suffer from a lot of the same biases and weaknesses that led me out of Mormonism, and Buddhism, while initially less off-putting to someone who has overdosed on Christianity, has its own set of weaknesses, its own special blindness to reality.  (I am not ready to take vows committing me irrevocably to a single community; nor do I find the call to become a vegetarian--or admire excessively those who do--particularly compelling).

When absolute truth becomes impossible, what is one to do with what is left?  How do we judge among the relative truths that remain?  I have a historical analogy that helps me make sense of my efforts to reconstruct a world of meaning from the shattered pieces of my Mormon faith.  Before the arrival of the Gracie family and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in the early 1990's, the student of martial arts in the United States had a variety of distinct, largely insular options available to him: he could practice taekwondo, karate, judo, boxing, or wrestling; combining karate/taekwondo and boxing to make kickboxing was about as integrative as elite clubs got.  Many masters preached the superlative value of their respective arts, each touting his own as the most pure, most complete answer to the problem posed by human self-defense and physical development.  "Dialogues" between the arts were inconclusive, since they never met on neutral ground: challenge matches took place in private or in arenas that favored one art over the other (by disallowing certain techniques).  The Gracies and the UFC changed all of this by creating a well-known public venue where martial artists of any style could compete openly against one another with no holds barred (originally, the only techniques disallowed were biting and eye-gouging).  Overnight, the invincibility of "pure" fighting arts proved a myth, as fighter after fighter went down before the Gracies' jiu-jitsu, a unique form of submission wrestling developed by the family from the Japanese jiu-jitsu of Mitsuyo Maeda.

The Gracies proved that many arts had neglected to develop the kind of ground-fighting skill required to do well in a weaponless no-holds-barred match.  For a while, they beat anyone and everyone they encountered, making Gracie jiu-jitsu look an awful lot like the "one true martial art" that so many then claimed to be.  Then, something funny happened.  People started integrating jiu-jitsu (and other well-rounded ground-fighting systems) into their martial arts, practicing it alongside their native discipline and inoculating themselves against its tricks.  The result?  The Gracies were mortal again: a good fighter with ground defense could defeat them.  Today, the modern UFC features contests between individual athletes who train multiple arts to come up with their own, individual styles.  There is no "one true martial art," no absolute truth in the ring, and yet the martial arts have not died or ceased to be relevant.  Instead, each really well-developed art offers something that the fighter will find useful.  Striking arts (boxing, Thai boxing, karate, taekwondo) complement grappling arts (jiu-jitsu, wrestling, judo).  My own martial arts instructor recognized this fact early on, before it became really obvious to everyone, and was among the first non-grappling Americans to train with the Gracies and have his senior students learn from them.

Bottom line: complex activity (like fighting no-holds-barred or living a rewarding life) requires a large and evolving toolkit.  I needed some kind of arena to test my ideas (which like everything, were infantile and unformed to start with) against one another and prove which were the most effective at turning me into the kind of moral being that I want to be.  Like everyone, I have an instinct for moral behavior: some things just seem right to me.  But this instinct does not cover everything, nor does it always tell me precisely what I must do in every situation.  So far, the strongest evaluative pressure I have been able to bring to bear on moral problems, apart from my instinct, is rational understanding.  If an idea makes sense, and I apply it to acquire something useful (as well as instinctively pleasing), then it works (for me) and is accepted into the ethical and ideological toolkit I am building (my own personal "religion" --  the martial art of "living well").  The entries that follow this one will detail which ideas have faired best so far in the ring of my rational thought (with my instinct as matchmaker, and my reason as referee/judge).  It is certain now that my legacy, like the Gracies', will be something other than the ultimate superiority of my way over all others (that illusion died forever for me with the collapse of Mormonism and the soul-searching that followed); but maybe, like the Gracies, I can inspire others and give them (and myself) some useful ideas to work with in creating a wonderful life.  In the end, my legacy, like that of the Gracies, is an individual one -- an expression of my character, not an articulation of the one true model for any and every character.  Some very good people will not look much like me.  That does not make my character (or the tools I use to shaped it) less valuable.  Take them (or leave them) as they are useful (or not) to you, personally, as an individual building your own, unique brand of moral excellence.  (P. S. If you like martial arts at all, you will like Renzo's film about the unique way of life developed by his family; I highly recommend it.)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Apostle Meets Skeptic

C. S. Lewis.  The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics.  New York: HarperCollins, 2007.  ISBN 0061208493.

C. S. Lewis.  God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics.  Ed. W. Hooper.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970.  ISBN 0802808689

Thanks to my mother, I grew up with C. S. Lewis.  Ever since I was old enough to think about religion in any remotely systematic way, I have lived in the intellectual shadow of the keen but simple genius behind Narnia, Screwtape, and Mere Christianity.  Receiving my own collection of Lewis' greatest hits from Mom was an unexpected bright spot in my disaffection from LDS Mormonism and the kind of fundamentalist Christianity that it embraces.   It gave me pause to think about aspects of Christianity that are still very much part of my evolving worldview.

I think I still have a lot in common with Lewis.  For one thing, my break with literalist Mormonism left me very much convinced in the reality of that which he calls "the Tao" in The Abolition of Man.  Although my walk with Mormonism ultimately took away my belief in gospel as history, it did not leave me convinced that life was meaningless or moral standards unnecessary.  I still had a strong sense of right and wrong: it was more malleable on some points (like what combination of partners can constitute a healthy marriage), but still grounded in some basic absolutes (adultery is always wrong).  So, even as the myths of Mormonism and Christianity ceased to be literally true (true as history) for me, the ethical standards behind them remained a fundamental part of my moral and philosophical outlook on the world.  I discovered Lewis' natural law ("the Tao") as something objectively true, in my own experience: whether I think of myself as Mormon, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, or agnostic (and in the last few months I have been all of these, sometimes simultaneously), I experience it as a constant reality, a standard I can trust even as the faces of the gods that guard it blur and fade, sometimes to nothing.  The Christian version is the Sermon on the Mount, a re-composition of the Jewish Ten Commandments.  Muslims have the Five Pillars of the Faith, and Buddhists the principle of compassion that is an integral part of the life of the bodhisattva.  Atheists and agnostics have similar standards rooted in the symbiotic relationships between individuals that can be observed among humans and in nature.  The term "Tao" comes to Lewis from Lao-tzu, who may just be the master of all when it comes to teaching religious truth: I am excited to read his Tao Te Ching, which I have heard of and seen quoted but have never seriously digested.

The one quarrel I have with Lewis, the only one serious enough to mention in this little essay, is the sentiment behind this statement (from page 132 of God in the Dock):
My conversion, very largely, depended on recognizing Christianity as the completion, the actualization, the entelechy, of something that had never been wholly absent from the mind of man.  And I still think that the agnostic argument from similarities between Christianity and paganism works only if you know the answer.  If you start by knowing on other grounds that Christianity is false, then the pagan stories may be another nail in its coffin: just as if you started by knowing that there were no such things as crocodiles then the various stories about dragons might help to confirm your disbelief.
This statement rests on what I regard now as a false binary: either (1) Christianity is entirely true, or (2) it is entirely false.  If (1) it is true, then it is the completion (the actualization, the entelechy) of every human religious impulse.  If (2) it is false, then it is a bunch of silly stories with no meaning that anyone should take seriously.  From where I now stand, philosophically, there is no merit in either of these positions.  This is because Christianity is not any more pure than human life in general: as I experience it, it is an amalgam of true and false, useful and silly, myth and history.  Why should I deny the truth that is in Christianity because of the many falsehoods that are also in it?  Why pretend that it represents the last word on human ethics and spirituality, when (in my experience) it clearly doesn't?  For me to do so would be dishonest and emotionally (not to mention religiously) impoverishing.  Thinking analogically shows why Lewis' dichotomy between absolute truth and absolute falsehood is ridiculous: the fact that the sledgehammer is not a good tool for brain surgery does not mean that it has no valid uses!  A tool can be useful without being the one and only tool we ever use, and the same is true of ideas.  Christianity can contain truth without containing all truth.

One more example of Lewis' tendency to over-simplify in dividing religious truth from error. Just as I reject Gordon B. Hinckley's assertion that Joseph Smith was either a complete charlatan or God's best buddy ("If [the First Vision] did not [occur], then this work is a fraud": quoted from "The Marvelous Foundation of Our Faith," Ensign [November 2002]), so I reject Lewis' attempt to say what amounts to the same thing about Christ (from pages 50-51 of Mere Christianity in The Complete Signature Classics):
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept his claim to be God.'  That is the one thing we must not say.  A man who was a man and said the sort of things Jesus said [think of Joseph Smith here] would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic--on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg--or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon [think of Joseph Smith again]; or you can fall down at his feet and call Him Lord and God.  But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great moral teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to [somehow, people who over-simplify always end up speaking for deity instead of letting it speak through them].
So in theory the Sadducees and Pharisees had the right idea when they went about trying to destroy Christ as a devil?  Or maybe they should have just ignored him?  What could they possibly learn from him, as long as they were not willing to fall down and kiss his feet?  If I read Lewis right, he is saying that we should meet extravagant theological claims either with active disinterest (for the lunatic), outright rejection (for the devil), or unqualified acceptance (for God).  This is plainly a false trilemma, especially when you do the research (some of it impossible in Lewis' day, to be fair) necessary to approach the historical Jesus, who may not have made all the assertions put into his mouth by gospel writers (just as he may not even have existed).  Like Mormons who assert that their mythical Joseph Smith must be historically true or the vibrant religious life they have built around him is completely false, Lewis falls into the trap of confusing myth and history, making reality an illustration of myth instead of the reverse.  If he took himself seriously he would have to ignore, abominate, or worship a lot more than I am willing to.  Take Joseph Smith, for example.  Despite my status as a doctrinal apostate, I am not willing to define the first Mormon prophet categorically as either a "lunatic" (more so than the rest of us) or "the Devil of Hell" or the sainted martyr that the modern LDS proclaim.  I live in a world where both Jesus and Joseph Smith have useful contributions to make to human ethics and religion, even if we do not believe in the literal, historical truth of everything they are reported to have said or been (or any of it, really).  The ethical reality in my life that Christian and Mormon myths touch does not depend on those myths being historically true:  I can practice charity without believing that a man who was also God rose from the dead.  I can receive personal revelation from the universe without worrying about the exact nature of what Joseph saw or did not see in the Sacred Grove.  Why impoverish my life by assuming that all myths are either worthless (to be ignored), disgusting (to be abominated), or perfect (to be adored without criticism, accepted without qualification)?  Where do such myths exist?  As of now, I find them only in overly simplified apologetics (like Lewis' trilemma here).  The real myths, like real life, are equal parts truth and falsehood, serious thought and wild speculation.  To ignore them is stupid (because they are the lab notes in an ongoing human experiment in which I must participate: like just about every other person I have ever met, I create stories that give meaning to my life; my stories are better when I can compare them to others).  To abominate them is pointless (since hating the stories of others does not make mine any better).  To worship any of them as literal truth is dangerous (because each ignores as much truth as it creates: you cannot get too many perspectives on a problem as difficult as living well--picking a single story as your "one and only" is about as smart as deciding to use no tool but the hammer for the rest of your life).   

There are many more things I could say about Lewis.  The outlook expressed in his works is by and large a valuable one that I am glad to carry with me, even when I find it too simple to handle complex reality: in particular, I regret not being able to say more here about the really interesting portrayal of divinity in his space trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength), a portrayal that I find aesthetically and philosophically compelling on many levels.  For now, I conclude by saying that I love learning from C. S. Lewis as I love learning from Christianity: both are sources for good ideas, but neither offers the last word on the the astonishingly rich and complex thing that is the universe.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Religion without Integrity

Will Bagley.  Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.  ISBN 0806134267.

My first memorable encounter with cowboy historian Will Bagley took place while watching the 2006 PBS documentary on the Mormons.  True to character there, he posed a question that defines the problem faced by anyone who tries to understand the Mountain Meadows Massacre, one of the bloodiest incidents to take place in the history of America's overland trails.  Bagley's question: "How did these decent, religious men who had sacrificed so much for what they believed in—how did they become mass murderers?"  Before Bagley, I was vaguely familiar with the incident (Mormons and Indians killed some non-Mormon pioneers on the way through southern Utah sometime in the nineteenth century), and the question (why?), and I even had a grasp on something like the usual LDS apologetic response (local vigilantes took justice into their own hands and got really carried away).  As my testimony of the church's unadulterated moral goodness began to crumble, however, I became more curious.  In the end, answering Bagley's question to my own satisfaction became one of the most difficult and painful processes of my life (so far): it turned my mental world upside down and made it impossible for me to be religious in the way I once was.

Bagley's book does more than clarify the fuzzy picture I had of the Massacre (which took place Friday, September 11th, 1857): it sets the Massacre in historical context, showing (as much as possible) how it happened that a group of staunch Mormon pioneers took it upon themselves to murder 120 men, women, and children in cold blood.  To be brief, I will say that reading Bagley has convinced me (1) that Brigham Young and other men high up in the Mormon hierarchy (notably apostle George A. Smith) knowingly stirred up the Saints of southern Utah against non-Mormons; (2) that Brigham Young tried his best to rouse the Utah Indian bands against non-Mormons; (3) and finally, that Brigham Young and the church hierarchy later did everything they could to obscure their involvement and blame everything on Indians and local Saints, notably John D. Lee (Brigham's adopted son who definitely played a crucial role in the killing, however you read the sources).  Each of these points raises troubling issues that I can only treat briefly here.

(1) Decent men such as the killers at Mountain Meadows do not rise up unprovoked.  What provoked them?  Several things.  The immediate provocation was the coming Utah War (an armed confrontation with the US government), which the Saints and their leaders alike regarded with understandable fear and anger.  Beyond the war were the Missouri killings (like the massacre of Mormons at Haun's Mill), the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and the recent murder of apostle Parley P. Pratt (whom non-Mormon Hector McClean killed after Pratt converted McClean's wife Eleanor against his will and then married her).  These grievances were kept alive in the oath of vengeance administered in early LDS temple ceremonies, an oath to avenge the blood of the prophets upon those responsible for shedding it.  The war and the oath of vengeance were not the only factors pressing for violence in southern Utah.  Coming hard on the heels of the Mormon Reformation (which involved a lot of public humiliation inflicted by church leaders determined to make the Saints less worldly and more obedient to church authority) came a rash of directives and sermons by church authorities (notably Brigham Young and George A. Smith) making bellicose statements against non-Mormons--statements like the following:
Brigham Young to stake president Isaac Haight of Cedar City, one of the Saints responsible for the massacre (from a letter dispatched with apostle George A. Smith in August of 1857): "Save your ammunition, keep your Guns and Pistols in order, and prepare yourselves in all things--particularly by living your religion--for that which may hereafter come to pass...Save all grain, nor let a kernel go to waste or be sold to our enemies.  And those who persist in selling grain to the gentiles, or suffer their stock to trample it into the earth I wish you to note as such" (quoted in Bagley, p. 84).
George A. Smith to the people of Parowan (August 1857, as remembered later): "As for the cursed mobocrats, I can think of nothing better they could do than to feed a tree in Zion [with their corpses]" (quoted in Bagley, p. 84).
George A. Smith to the Cedar City militia (August 15, 1857, speaking of the US army): "I say damn the man who feeds them; I say damn the man who sympathizes with them; I say curse the man who pours oil and water on their heads" (quoted in Bagley, p. 85).
So the Mormons who pulled the trigger at Mountain Meadows experienced powerful social pressure from the church (in the form of codified oaths and incendiary statements), pressure which characterized vengeance against the wicked, gentile non-Mormon as something desirable, something righteous, something God and his chosen representatives on earth expected from the faithful.

(2) The newly discovered testimony of Dimick Huntington (see pages 113-114 of Bagley's book) indicates that Brigham Young's rhetoric about the Indians becoming "the battle-axe of the Lord" in the Saints' war against the people of the United States was more than just hot air.  When Brigham convened the tribal chieftains and gave them license to raid wagon-trains in Huntington's presence on September 1st, 1857, right before the Massacre, he recognized that innocent people would die as a result, and he condoned it.  This attests the literal understanding Young and other Saints had of scriptures like 3 Nephi 21:12 ("a remnant of Jacob shall be among the Gentiles, yea, in the midst of them as a lion among the beasts of the forest, as a young lion among flocks of sheep, who, if he goeth through both treadeth down and teareth in pieces, and none can deliver").  The nineteenth-century LDS fervently believed that the second coming of Christ was around the corner, to be brought on by a bloodbath in which the United States would perish and the rediscovered "remnant of Jacob" (the Indian tribes) would unite with the LDS to establish God's kingdom on earth.  In the end, this vision failed to materialize: the western Indians never accepted their role in the Mormon world and remain still aloof (even as the modern LDS church looks for new candidates to take their place as God's remnant).

The actual role played by the Indians at Mountain Meadows is something of a mystery.  My reading of the evidence has some tribesmen joining the expedition primarily for plunder, then bailing out after the non-Mormons proved too tough to kill easily (the train was heavily armed and fought back hard against the initial attack, forming a wagon-circle fortified with trenches and exchanging fire with the raiders for 5 days).  Fearing recognition if they allowed survivors to escape, the Mormons then secured the surrender of the surviving non-Mormons by promising protection from the (increasingly absent) Indians, only to turn traitor and shoot every one dead but a few very small children.  Some Indians may have participated in this final butchery, but it is clear that the bulk of the killing was done by white men.

(3) All of the foregoing is problematic: it involves church authorities willfully inciting their followers (and the hapless Indians, caught between the US army and the Mormons) to violence.  Was this incitement without any justification?  No!  Unfortunately, the fury it ultimately released was very poorly directed, coming to rest upon an innocent wagon-train that happened to pass through Utah territory at just the wrong moment.  From Brigham Young's public and private statements before the Massacre, especially his conversation with the Indians referenced above, it seems clear to me that he doomed this train, perhaps without realizing the full extent of what he was doing at the time.  Like many other Saints, he was caught in a sea of boiling adrenaline, scared by the prospect of the US invasion and all fired up to avenge the blood of Joseph and Hyrum upon the infidels.  To his credit, he desired to call the thing off once he got wind of it actually going forth, but it was too late.  You can only wave a red flag in front of a angry bull so long before it charges.  He and George A. Smith sowed the wind in southern Utah, and their dutiful followers (as many as valued obedience to the prophets above personal conscience) reaped the whirlwind in Mountain Meadows.  The fallout was (and still is) terrible: some good Saints refused to participate and came under suspicion of apostasy (which in those days could still result in bodily harm or death); others followed orders (from local authorities channeling the rage of the prophets and apostles) and lived the rest of their lives suffering the consequences.

What bothers me the most about all of this, however, is not even the awful fact that it took place.  Bad things happen in the world.  Leaders say the wrong things, and their followers let zeal for the group overcome personal integrity, translating bad words into worse actions.  But how does denying the leaders' role in the process make the resultant mess any better?  Why did Brigham and his fellow apostle George A. Smith not see fit to take responsibility (even a little) for their role in the tragedy at Mountain Meadows?  Why did they try to shift blame off onto the Indians?  Why, when that did not work, did they foster lies about the character of the emigrants who died wrongly there?  And why, above all, did they countenance the scapegoating of John D. Lee for something that, in a very real way, was the fault of the whole LDS community?  Lee's rehabilitation in recent years is a tiny step in the right direction, as are efforts of goodwill that the church has directed toward the offspring of the survivors of the Massacre.  But these efforts are undercut by our leaders' persistence in refusing to acknowledge the guilt that belongs to church headquarters.  (This persistence gives our "anti-Mormon" enemies a big fat target, which they pummel pretty hard, with pretty good reason.) 

This for me is the crux of the problem posed by Mountain Meadows, a problem which the LDS church has been ignoring ever since that awful day in 1857.  Then, as now, we LDS are seemingly incapable of seeing flaws in our church leadership and (duly correlated) church programs.  We are like little children with a hammer: everything we see is a nail, and we just love putting all the nails in place with our perfect hammer.  But in fact not everything is a nail, and hammers can sometimes be put to very bad use, especially when you make the mistake of supposing that they are good for any operation requiring tools (e.g. brain surgery).  Until we recognize that the church has a dark side (like every human institution), and that there are ways in which leaders and followers alike can turn religious faith to seriously evil ends, we run the risk of hurting ourselves and other people.  Until we recognize that the gospel raises more questions than answers, that the righteous zeal of our pioneer ancestors was not always a positive asset, and that our own unexamined obedience to community rules may be causing as much harm as it does good, our religion lacks integrity.  Responsible religion does not pretend like it never makes mistakes: it acknowledges mistakes, learns from them (repenting where necessary), and moves forward.  I really wish church leadership could be honest with members (and the world) about our chequered past and what we have learned from it, rather than publishing whitewashed legends that deny its existence and perpetuate a mental environment in which the faithful follow their ancestors lemming-like over the proverbial cliff.