Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Friday, November 16, 2007

A Meditation on Freedom in the Age of Information

Knowledge, it is said, is the most valued commodity. Indeed, “knowledge is power” is not simply a metaphor; it is a pragmatic truism. In practical terms, we define something in terms of its effects. Knowledge is measured by what can be achieved with it, and so can be defined in terms of those achievements. Consider how teachers test their students' knowledge: they give them tests, thus equating the knowledge itself with the ability to pass a test. Knowledge is not some ethereal set of thoughts or ideas; it is the skill set that gets us from point A to point B. Power, in the most abstract sense, is the ability to achieve. And so knowledge is, by definition, power.

Knowledge is also information, and can be defined in terms of what information can do. Ours is the Age of Information. The ability to manipulate information is the ultimate quest of the day. But this is not an historical oddity. It’s not like people in the past cared less about information. Not at all. They cared about information, and indeed wanted to manipulate it, just as we do; but their relationship to information was quite different.

The progress of cultural evolution has been an evolution of processes for negotiating differences. (A culture is nothing more or less than a relatively stable set of processes for negotiating differences.) The word “information” refers to whatever facilitates such processes, from technological innovations to familial customs.

It was just a matter of time before cultural progress reached a breaking point, and the speed and efficiency with which information was generated and transmitted became uncontrollable, swirling and eddying beyond the confines of any one individual’s, community’s, or culture’s understanding. The Age of Information is thus marked, not by the importance of information in human life, but the emergence of information as a system of organization that has escaped the boundaries of any particular culture. And so, one trait of the Age of Information is the rapid deterioration of cultural boundaries and identities.

One can no longer reasonably believe that all of the culturally transmitted knowledge available to them can ever be fully mastered and overcome. Nor can we any longer believe that cultural progress, or even cultural identity, can be measured easily, with straight lines.

Growing up in the information age means, among other things, becoming acclimated to a world of ideas which will inevitably and persistently overwhelm us. A world in which our own identities perpetually transcend their cultural roots.

On the one hand, the efficiency and stability of our cultural progress is at stake. On the other hand, our psychological well-being is also at risk. We should not be surprised if the uncontrollable and overwhelming body of information at our fingertips creates a fair amount of psychological friction and even turmoil. After all, our ancestors survived and reproduced because they were able to master their culture. There were always new facts to learn about the way the world worked, but the rules that defined human relationships were more or less clearly stated and managable. This is not the case today, and it might never be the case again. Our brains and institutions are not equipped to handle the overly saturated world of information, a world in which the rules and procedures of negotiating differences are forever beyond our grasp.

We cannot comprehend the volume of information that is out there, or the speeds at which it is transmitted. It would take unimaginable technological developments to devise a computer system that could efficiently manage, evaluate and implement the available information circulating today. It may never be possible, and according to some people that’s a good thing. They doubt that such a management system would be worthwhile.

It is said that one of the great values of this information frenzy is the uninhibited way in which information can circulate. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a system or political body which could be trusted to control every aspect of information flow. He who controls the world’s information controls the world. While some people may want to put the world in one set of hands, many people believe we’re better off letting the information go.

But couldn’t there be some form of universal information management that would actually make the world a better place?

Is the best information society one without any regulations at all? Or is it one that is regulated in the best way possible?

Indeed, isn’t the idea of a completely free flow of information just an illusion, a story we tell ourselves because the idea of freedom makes us comfortable? The truth, after all, is that nothing is absolutely free. Information may not be controlled by a central government or single body, but it is controlled and manipulated nonetheless. Without centralized authority, the flow of information is controlled and manipulated by rogue, disjointed bodies. Those bodies are policed by national and international agencies, but the policing strategies and tactics are anything but well-developed.

Nobody wants to live in a society without rules, just as nobody wants to have to learn about the world without any received wisdom to guide them. The unfathomable mass of information circulating today needs rules. There must be methods for sifting, organizing and implementing our ideas, and such methods will inevitably (and thankfully) limit our freedom, and the freedom of our ideas.

People tend to criticize or resist anything that might compromise their beloved freedoms. Yet, while the slogan “Absolute Freedom” is likely to win over many a crowd, it doesn’t stand up to reason. Freedom is always relative and limited. I may have the freedom to dye my hair purple, but I don’t have the freedom to walk through walls. I don’t have the freedom to be 18 again. I don’t have the freedom to believe that 2 + 2 = 83, or that clams are mammals. My thoughts and actions are not absolutely free.

In fact, the more restrictions on our freedom, the more efficient we are. Of course, there must be balance. If our bodies were too limited, we couldn't do the things we want and need to do. If our thoughts were too restricted, we could never learn new skills or ideas. More often than not, however, people do not celebrate the restrictions (with the notable exception of marriage, high divorce rates notwithstanding). Instead, they tend to celebrate freedom for its own sake. This is a mistake, one often and unfortunately capitalized on by politicians.

Could you imagine doing anything productive with your mind if you were free to believe anything at all about the world? If nothing inhibited your tendency to believe one thing over another? Or do you see the value in having your thoughts regulated by certain principles, principles which make it impossible for you to accept certain statements as being true?

Beliefs are regulative principles. They determine how we think and act, and they thus limit our freedom. If it weren’t for such limits, our "freedom" would be useless. What makes our freedom valuable is not the lack of limits, but the fact that our limits can be regulated and improved. We are free to discover new ways of doings things, new facts and ideas which can be transmitted, and which can limit our freedom in better and better ways.

The unprecedented speed and efficiency with which information is created and transmitted today is not wonderful because it lacks regulation or control; rather, it is wonderful because it opens up the horizons for new forms of regulation and control.

It would be too easy to conclude that culture as we know it is going extinct. What is more accurate, perhaps, is that culture is evolving in unpredictable and complex ways, and our roles are no longer clearly defined. This is liberating, but also dangerous. We must work to establish a future for ourselves and our children--not in the name of freedom, but in the name of humanity.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Politics of Atheism, Part 2: Towards a Secular Public Policy

It's easy to get lost in the "new atheist" debates without having a clear idea about what is at stake. What is the whole point, after all? Are atheists simply out to prove that they're right, and that God really doesn't exist? Is their goal to wipe religion, in all its guises, off the face of the earth? Or are they simply trying to educate and raise awareness?

I don't think there's one answer that covers the motives of all atheists today. However, I think we can close the net a little bit. For two of the biggest and most important names in the "new atheist" movement (and by "most important," I mean that they have, unlike Sam Harris, established themselves as major contemporary intellects outside of this movement), Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, the primary goal is to raise awareness and understanding of religion. Dawkin's explicit goal, as stated in The God Delusion, is to raise consciousness about what he sees as an unjust and dangerous social institution, much the way the civil rights movement in the 60's raised consciousness about unjust social inequalities. Dennett's goal, in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, is to open the doors to an uninhibited scientific investigation into the roots and nature of religion. Dennett is more weary about drawing premature conclusions about the values or dangers to be found in religion. Yet, both authors are ultimately trying to support and contribute to our scientific understanding of what religion is.

Sam Harris, on the other hand, doesn't seem so interested in contributing to our scientific understanding. (At least, not yet; he is pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience, with which he will apparently attempt to further our understanding of the neurological underpinnings of morality and spirituality). Instead, he offers critical social and philosophical analysis which seems geared towards the complete annihilation of religion from the free world. To Harris' credit, he makes good arguments for the importance of embracing science and rationality, and he consistently and eloquently points out how religions tend to resist a fair and rational approach to life. Unfortunately, Harris' critique of religion is wide open to criticism for being overly scathing and simplistic.

Like Dennett, I think we have no choice but to investigate religion as a natural phenomenon, as something just as open to scientific discovery as any other aspect of life. And, like Dawkins and Harris, I think there is enough evidence to draw some conclusions about the worrisome nature of religious institutions and authority. (That should be clear from several of my other posts in this blog.)

Of course, there is nothing to be gained from a blanket condemnation of religion. Religion cannot simply be banned or regarded as a criminal enterprise. For one thing, religion is too complex a phenomenon for such a simple judgment. For another, the freedom of speech is too valuable, and too fragile, to allow for such an oppressive verdict.

What I want to do with this post, therefore, is help direct the atheism debate towards more managable ends. The question is, what are atheists really proposing, in terms of public policy?

Education is primary. We must increase spending on education, so that better teachers and resources are available to students.

We shouldn't fire teachers for criticizing religious beliefs. Instead, school boards should encourage teachers and students alike to take a critical attitude towards everything.

Thus, philosophy (its history and practice as the cultivation of critical and methodical thinking, particularly thinking about thinking) should be a mandatory part of the public curriculum.

Religion (as a social phenomenon to be analyzed, and not as a set of doctrines to be followed) should be a part of public education, as well, as a topic to be critically analyzed from a variety of angles, all of which must adhere as strictly as possible to rational philosophy and scientific methodology.

We must reverse all legal decisions which respect religion, and that includes whatever rule keeps public schools from teaching students about the logical absurdities of theology, the scientific inaccuracies of biblical teachings, the psychological implications of myth and worship, the philosophical and psychological issues surrounding faith and notions of the supernatural, the critical sociological attitudes towards religion, and the political, often violent details of religious history. Let students make up their own minds about religion, but give them the tools required to make an informed decision.

We can't stop people from teaching their children to be religious, but we have no obligation to respect, let alone support, their efforts.

We must treat religious organizations like any other, and not give them special financial or legal privileges. Religious groups, individuals and institutions must follow the same laws as the rest, and should, if anything, be treated with a fair amount of suspicion, not reverence, by the law.

Ultimately, we should reject and remove all legal measures which recognize religious authority as a valid form of authority.

Should religion be outlawed? Of course not. However, we might want to consider laws which would prosecute more aggressive forms of religious leadership as fraudulent and an abuse of trust. But that certainly wouldn't make going to church or attending prayer groups illegal.

Hopefully discussions about religion and atheism can focus on these and similar areas of social and political concern. For this is where our true interest lies, and not in metaphysical disputes about how the universe came into being (as though such a topic could be meaningfully discussed), or in purely scientific concerns about how best to account for evolution and morality.

Of course, until the meaning and value of science is understood, many people will continue to argue that such things as morality and the meaning of life are not within the reach of scientific analysis. It's for this reason that more education about the nature of philosophy, thinking and science is required.

I will end this post by addressing a major concern about atheism. Many criticize atheists for being too certain about their own views. One reason people give certainty a bad name is because, in the absence of certainty, so much harm has been done in its name. But that shouldn't lead us to conclude that anything done in the name of certainty is a bad thing, or that certainty is equivalent to blind faith. Certainty is a fact of life. For, we cannot claim to be uncertain of everything, as that would mean we were certain of our absolute uncertainty.

What we rightly fear is the emotional certainty that motivates people of faith; what we rightly should embrace is that philosophical certainty which people demonstrate through rational argument.

This is the foundation of intellectual integrity, and it is what sustains the philosophical inevitability of atheism and radical secularism.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Responding to a BuJu: Michaelson vs. Harris

A friend just pointed me in the direction of Jay Michaelson's recent essay, "A BuJu Responds to Sam Harris." Here's my response.

Michaelson begins,

'When people used to say "I believe in God," they meant it in the way one might mean "I believe in you." It was a statement of trust, not ontology -- it's not that I believe you exist (or don't), but rather that I believe you'll come through for me. Emotion, not reason. Things are going badly, one might say, but I believe in God. It was a disposition of the heart toward faith.'

Michaelson is painting a pretty picture here, but it isn't wholly accurate, neither as an historical picture of what religion has been, nor as a psychological interpretation of what religious statements of faith have tended to be.

What did people mean during the Spanish Inquisition, when they said, "I believe in God?" Was it a usually a statement of trust? Probably not, though it wasn't purely a statement of ontology, either. It was often most likely a statement of submission and conformity.

Was it a disposition of the heart towards faith? Probably not. It was most likely a disposition of the mind towards authority.

Michaelson ignores the political, and often bloody side of religion's history, and instead evokes a utopian view of the past, in order to draw a sharp line between emotion and reason, between what stirs the heart and what moves the mind. I tend to be suspicious of such strong distinctions. Sure, emotions and reason are unique, involving different brain systems, and each has its own tell-tale signs; but human behavior can rarely, if ever, be understood in terms of only one, and not the other. By regarding religion as the sole province of emotion, and not reason, Michaelson oversimplifies the nature and history of religion just as much as, if not more than, Sam Harris does.

Michaelson wants religion to be, and to always have been, about something that reason cannot touch, and which has been lost in the modern world. Sure, he says, religions may have been ignorant with respect to science and ethics, but they've exhibited no insufficiency when it comes to addressing "the human condition."

I beg to differ. As I see it, a system of rules which is ignorant of science and ethics is going to be severely limited in its ability to speak to the human condition. Are we really supposed to believe that religions have been perfectly capable of addressing all of their follower's emotional needs? As if people in the past (before ugly modernity came and ruined everything) merely had to breathe God's name, no matter what, and all suffering and anxiety was lifted. We still have a way to go, but I'd say we've learned a thing or two in the secular world about dealing with emotional problems.

No, I simply don't buy Michaelson's view of religion. We cannot understand religion by thinking of it only as an emotional celebration detached from rational thought. Religion is a complex beast, a family of political and social phenomena with important roots in, and consequences for, ways of thinking and understanding the world. Despite what Michaelson might wish to be true, religions throughout history have not existed orthogonally to reason.

Be that as it may, some of his criticisms of Sam Harris are well-stated. Harris does tend to oversimplify what religion is or can be, and what it means for people, and that is no doubt frustrating to the many individuals (like Michaelson) who consider themselves "religious," but who don't quite fall on Harris' map.

In Harris' defense, from what I gather, he is neither trying to offer a comprehensive understanding of what religion has been throughout history, nor is he trying to explain or understand all of the ways people interpret and celebrate religion today.

He is not talking about people who regard religion as a private way of experiencing bliss, beauty and transcendence. Rather, he is talking about, on the one hand, the people who regard religion as an institution and set of rules for pleasing God and attaining a good seat in heaven; and, on the other hand, the people who want to protect the rights of said rules and institutions, even if they don't fully submit to them.

The former are the ones flying planes into buildings, protesting outside of abortion clinics, blocking stem cell research, trying to teach intelligent design in schools, and so on. The latter are the ones trying to undermine any political or philosophical criticism of the former.

Harris' criticism of religion is rooted in the politics of today. It is not a statement about spirituality in general, but a statement about the political concessions to irrationality made in the name of religion. Religious moderates are criticized for attempting to justify these concessions.

I know I can find lots to disagree with in Harris' writings, and, again, I think Michaelson has made some fair criticisms here. But I don't think he adequately addresses the thrust of Harris' argument.

Michaelson's objections notwithstanding, I am still going to use the term "religion" to refer to political and social institutions and set of rules centered around belief in the supernatural and an afterlife, and not merely to meditation, dance, storytelling or random ways of appreciating existence and approaching nonbeing.

A semantic dispute about what should or shouldn't be called "religion" might be worthwhile, but I don't think Michaelson has made a strong case for any particular definition at all.

But whatever we decide to call "religion," the political and social issues still need to be met.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Politics of Atheism

What I want to get into here are the political underpinnings and consequences of atheism. The challenge I will attempt to overcome is that of the "philosophically sophisticated" moral relativism expounded by many, perhaps even most, liberals.

But first, a little background.

It all began when I went to college and took some courses in cultural studies. I entered my university as something between a liberal and a libertarian pursuing a dual-degree in mathematics and philosophy. Surprisingly, I found the cultural theory professors far more stimulating and intriguing. They helped me understand that everything is political.

There is a politics of meat, a politics of sex, a politics of gender, a queer politics, a politics of . . . well, anything you could possible want. It might be fair to say that the point of a cultural studies education is to think about how everything we do is subject to the principles of influence and power.

"Culture", one of my professors wrote on the board, "is the process of negotiating differences."

That made an impression.

Meaning, truth, justice, beauty . . . all of the most abstract and important categories which rule our intellectual lives--all of the ideas philosophers try so hard to understand--these are all understandable in political terms, as aspects of (or modes of) negotiation.

Thus I earned my B.A. in Literary and Cultural Studies. (I did end up going to graduate school for philosophy, though that was a horror story, and going into it will only weigh down the present discussion.) I also came away from my university with a strong sense of moral relativism.

And my political leanings? I don't think they ever really changed. I was always more sympathetic to liberalism, partly because of the influence of my parents (both loyal democrats), but mainly because of my atheism (which was not inherited--at least, not from my parents). I was an atheist before I even began thinking about going to college, and I don't recall ever being receptive to the religiously motivated right.

But, thanks to my indoctrination into the moral abyss of cultural theory, I began to think that all political (and philosophical) views, even my own, were utterly without foundation. It was all politics, even my own understanding of politics. So how could I justify being a libertarian, or a liberal, or anything at all?

I thus had to learn the utility of not worrying so much about trying to justify my own beliefs. "Live and let live" was my motto, and anyone who disagreed with it was simply wrong. Certainly I didn't have to justify that.

Looking back, I don't think it's that I was brainwashed by liberalism. Rather, it's that I was only taught part of the picture. My cultural theory professors were partly right, and herein lies their philosophical sophistication: everything we do and think is political.

What they failed to emphasize is that not all political perspectives or methods are equally valid.

Cultural theorists want to understand morality, culture, philosophy, religion--the whole deal--in historical terms, as products of convention and negotiation. And that's all good. But we cannot leave behind the basic rules and requirements of intellectual integrity.

To be consistent with their historicism and cultural relativism, liberals must properly regard the tentative nature of our claims to truth, power, right, and so on. It's not enough to say that they're tentative or arbitrary. It's not enough to say that it's all politics. We must follow through with the consequences of that understanding.

Ultimately, what it means is that a philosophically sophisticated political view cannot endorse fascism, which is the negation of all principles of negotiation. Fascism is authority that does not admit of questioning or criticism. Because it claims to be beyond the need for justification, unquestionable authority is unjustifiable.

The opposite of fascism is egalitarianism, where every truth, right or power exercised between individuals, institutions or ideas is subject to justification. Justifiability means rational scrutability.

Intellectual integrity requires that all of our rules, claims and positions be subject to rational criticism.

Rationality is opposed to fascism, and implies only the consistent and coherent pursuit of a shared understanding. It is directly opposed to a dictatorial mode of politics.

Scientific discourse, despite what some radical liberals suggest, is not an authoritarian regime. It is the embodiment of egalitarian politics, where anybody can get involved by simply documenting what they see and explaining it in terms of testable hypotheses. What makes something scientific is simply this requirement, that other people will be able to subject the ideas to clearly defined and repeatable testing. Scientific theories are those which are adopted, not by virtue of unjustified or unjustifiable authority, but because they work, and because their ability to work is clearly documented (or capable of being documented) in a public and open way.

A consistent liberal politics cannot disparage science in any way. It cannot regard science simply as one "belief system" among many. To do that would be to contradict the very principles which ground our philosophical sophistication.

Religious belief, like everything else, is a political affair, and must be understood in terms of influence and power. Religious belief is thus understandable in terms of religious authority, just as scientific belief is defined in terms of scientific authority, which involves the entire peer-review process and egalitarian principle of repeatable testing. Religious authority, unlike scientific authority, is defined in terms of the undefinable, in terms of a "supernatural God" which is somehow in charge, and yet which is beyond human comprehension.

In the politics of religion, the word "God" functions as an alibi for accountability. Religious authority requires that people pledge allegiance to the incomprehensible and inexplicable, and so cannot be endorsed or tolerated as a principle of power and influence. There is simply no possible hope of justifying authority in the name of religion.

Curiously, religious liberals tend to agree that the word "God" is no justification for power or right, and that religion and politics should thus be kept separate. Yet, they still want to adhere to a pluralistic principle which respects religious authority. This is not just dangerous; it is hypocritical.

The failure of moral relativism here is profound. The only consistent and robust liberalism is absolutely and radically secular. Religious beliefs and institutions are unjustifiable, because they would seek to establish a mode of truth, right, or power that is beyond accountability.

What sustains atheism and its critique of religion is not morally relative. It is not simply one among many equally valid perspectives. It is the very possibility of intellectual integrity. Nothing can be more philosophically sophisticated than that.