Imagination & Hope vs. Intelligence & Experience

I imagine that most readers, on their own, already have enough to worry about. But in case you need more, this week I offer some worries that might be able to disturb you as much as they do me. They deal with manipulations of people’s imaginations and hopes by clerics and politicians.

Aristotle said “hope is a waking dream” – and it’s stunning to realize how many people live in daydreams. As just a few examples, think of the boy practicing ball, dreaming of becoming a professional player; the girl playing with dolls, dreaming of becoming a wife and mother; the low-wage worker buying still more lottery tickets, dreaming about how to spend the winnings; the parents dreaming about the accomplishments of their children; Christians and Muslims dreaming about eternal bliss in paradise; and so on. You can easily imagine many more examples.

Hopes, of course, are also products of our imagination. And although some of our resulting hopes can be wonderful motivators in our lives, other hopes are terrible detractors from living. In large measure, wisdom (a practical combination of intelligence plus experience) is the capability to discern hopes that are profitably pursued from those that should be discarded. Stated differently, it’s wise to learn how to constrain one’s imagination.

Which reminds me of another of Einstein’s statements that has been horribly misrepresented by the clerics of the world, similar to the way they misrepresent his line: “The old one… [God] does not throw dice.” Einstein, who did not believe in a personal god, said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” But he was referring to imagination constrained by reality. His complete statement was:
Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.
In particular, in formulating hypotheses to try to make progress in science, it’s critical to be able to imagine what new principle might be consistent with all available knowledge (e.g., in Einstein’s case, that it would be consistent with the new Michelson-Morley results and with known physics if time were not the absolute that Newton perceived it to be, flowing independently of all reference frames). In blatant contradiction to Einstein’s meaning, clerics promote their followers to dismiss knowledge, dismiss reality, and just imagine – and worse, just hope.

Anyway, that rant aside, my worries this week about imagination and hope started with my post last week dealing with Pope Benedict (in particular, my reading of his encyclical on hope) and this week’s Democratic primary (in which Pennsylvania voters deflated Senator Obama’s “Audacity of Hope”). My first thoughts turned to the common method by which most clerics and politicians pursue their common goal, which is to gain power. As the American lawyer and statesman Daniel Webster (1782–1852) said:
Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority… There are men [and women] in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters.
Then I thought about the usual method by which both clerics and politicians attempt to gain power over people, namely, first to stimulate their imaginations and then to try to persuade them to adopt irrational or foolish (even stupid) hopes.

Some definitions seem appropriate. According to the dictionary that comes with this computer’s Mac OS-X: The line that divides boldness [or audacity] from foolishness or stupidity is often a fine one. In the case of hope, however, the line can be defined quite accurately. In particular, distinctions can be drawn between bold (or audacious) vs. foolish (or stupid) hopes by evaluating what are rational hopes. To see how to draw that line, consider the concept of ‘hope’.

According to my copy of Webster’s dictionary (named after not Daniel but Noah Webster, 1758–1843) ‘hope’ is a feeling that what is wanted will happen; desire accompanied by expectation. This definition succinctly combines the three key features of ‘hope’: it’s a feeling, related to some want, tempered by an estimate of the probability (or expectation) that the want will be realized.

Thus in general and rather amazingly, ‘hope’ is a feeling that our minds – or at least the minds of rational people – seem to be able to calculate by multiplying a measure of some want by the probability that it will be satisfied. As I describe in detail elsewhere, statisticians call the result “the expected value”, i.e., the value of something multiplied by its probability of realization; economists call the same thing “utility”; in engineering risk assessments, essentially the same is called “risk”; when the cost of the game is subtracted, gamblers call it “payback”. In particular, competent gamblers always place their bets on the choice with the largest potential payback = [return on the bet] x [the probability of winning the bet].

In “the game of life”, similarly, it’s wise to “place your bets” not based solely on your wants but on rationally evaluated hopes = [the value you place on each want] x [the probability that each want will be realized]. Rational people put their goals in priority established by such evaluations of hopes; foolish people pursue goals dominated by wants rather than rationally evaluated hopes; bold people pursue goals that may seem to have a low probability of being achieved but whose expected values are rationally estimated to be relatively large. With those ideas in mind, consider some hopes described by Pope Benedict and Senator Obama.

In his encyclical on hope and similar to all Christian, Muslim and Mormon clerics, Benedict promotes the hope of eternal life in some imagined Heaven. As with all hopes, this hope (of eternal life) can be expressed mathematically as the product of a want (for eternal life) multiplied by the probability that the want can be achieved. As I’ll illustrate below, it’s a foolish hope (or more accurately, a stupid hope), because neither the want nor the probability of achieving it can be rationally evaluated.

I would, however, give Benedict not an F (for “Foolish”!) on his encyclical on hope but a DD (for “Definitely Dumb”), because at least he saw that the want associated with the hope of eternal life is poorly conceived:
But then the question arises: do we really want this – to live eternally? Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment. To continue living forever – endlessly – appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end – this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable.
As Susan Ertz said: “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do on a Sunday afternoon.”

I congratulate Benedict for admitting that the common concept of Heaven is a hoax – as is the similar Muslim stupidity about Paradise, especially if the correct translation is that each “martyr for the Jihad” will get not 72 virgins but 72 white raisins! Yet, Benedict's attempt to describe a more appealing Heaven (one of eternal joy) similarly fails. He posits the following.
We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy. This is how Jesus expresses it in Saint John’s Gospel: “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (16:22). We must think along these lines if we want to understand the object of Christian hope, to understand what it is that our faith… leads us to expect.
But seeing that what he’s promoting (namely, eternal “joy” or happiness) appears to be astoundingly egotistical, Benedict quickly back pedals to insist that the greatest joy is in helping others. Then, however, he neglects to mention the obvious: that a Christian’s goal should then be to go to Hell, since that’s where there’s alleged to be the most opportunity to help others, alleviating their suffering, e.g., by using all that alleged heat to power some air conditioners!

But I give Benedict a failing grade for his encyclical on hope not because of his failure to adequately define his want (although he tried) but because he totally ignores the other part (and usually the much more difficult part) of rationally defining any hope, namely, estimating the probability of achieving whatever want that he might eventually identify! Of course, the essence of his answer would be something similar to how all clerics answer that question: “Just be good little boys and girls, pay your tithes, obey us, and your ticket to Heaven is guaranteed.” As someone else summarized: Pray, Pay, and Obey!

Those of us who have at least a flicker of rationality still burning, however, glimpse the ingredients of a con game. What evidence supports the claim that any cleric knows “the way”? All their “holy books” appear to be little more than product brochures, promoting their own con games. Shucks, even I can hawk something similar:
The other day, I had a chat with God, and He let me in on the real skinny. He told me that running the universe is not all that it’s cracked up to be, especially since the universe’s inflation has begun to accelerate. So, He’s looking for some help. He said He needs people who show initiative, who can think for themselves, who understand basic science, and who are committed to the scientific method. (I gather that He’s conducting some experiments to try to determine ways to stop the universe’s expansion, without it rebounding from the Big Bang into a Big Crunch.)

So, said He, what He did was set up a test, to winnow the wheat from the chaff. (He seems to like that phrase.) He said that all who fall for the balderdash written in all “holy books” and promoted by all clerics thereby fail the test; such people aren’t critical thinkers. Meanwhile, for candidates who reject such balderdash, who tell all clerics to “blow it out your ears”, who apply the only absolute moral code known (viz., to always use your brain as best you can) – and by the way, He specifically mentioned atheists and agnostics and specifically commended all scientific humanists – well, they’re given eternal life, to help Him make sure that the universe goes on and thereby, to help intelligent life to continue to evolve.
And what’s the probability that “my way” (as outlined above – as conveyed to me by no less than ruler of the universe!) is “the way”? Well, the obvious answer to that question is the same as the obvious answer to the same questions posed for all “the ways” promoted by all clerics, namely, not only totally unknown but completely unknowable. Thereby, the hope for “eternal bliss” in some fictitious heaven is a perfect example of a foolish (or stupid or irrational) hope, namely an indescribable want multiplied by an unknowable probability!

In contrast to the irrational hope of eternal life in some fictitious paradise, a bold (or even audacious) hope can be rational. For example, if the probability of wining a “long shot” is 1 chance in a 1000 but a $1 ticket pays $2,000, then the “payback” [or expected value = hope = (return) x (probability)] for each $1 bet would be ($2000 – $1) x (0.001) ≅ $2.00 . Meanwhile, if the probability that “the favorite” will win is 1 chance in 1.5 and a $1 ticket pays $2.50, then the payback would be only ($2.50 – $1.00) x (1/1.5) = $1.00 – so in this case, what appears to be a bold (or even “audacious”) bet (on the long shot) is actually twice as rational as betting on the favorite. Which then leads me to Barack Obama’s “audacious hope”.

Prior to the Pennsylvania Primary, Obama’s candidacy was proceeding well, by his promoting what he calls “audacious hope”, a phrase that he admitted he copped from his (former) pastor, Jeremiah Wright of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ. In his 1990 “Audacity to Hope” sermon, Wright promoted the irrational hope not necessarily for eternal life but as is common in America’s “feel-good Christianity”, for good things in this life (allegedly provided by God):
And that’s why I say to you, hope is what saves us. Keep on hoping; keep on praying. God does hear and answer prayer.
For some strange reason, clerics don’t need to provide evidence to support their audacious claims.

Subsequently, in his “Audacity of Hope” Keynote Address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama appropriately redirected “the audacity of hope” from religion to politics. With substantial oratory skill (and some “oratorical license”) he commented on the “audacity” that a mixed African-American kid could make it so far: “the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that American has a place for him, too.”

In reality, though, although Obama’s hope was bold (maybe even audacious), it obviously wasn’t foolish. His “want” or desire (to achieve success and maybe fame) was apparently large enough so that, with hard work, perseverance, and no doubt help from others, he managed to increase the probability that his “want” would be realized, sufficiently for his hope to materialize. And there’s no doubt that many of us listening to his speech took some pride in seeing such a “skinny kid with a funny name” achieve his dream, suggesting to us that “the dream” (or hope) of Martin Luther King, Jr. was materializing.

As for the other hopes that Obama has been promoting (such as universal health care, a quick end to the Iraq war, an end to “politics as usual”, and so on), I’ll leave it for political commentators to suggest which are audacious and which are foolish. Nonetheless, I feel compelled to remind readers of a quite famous quotation, which Loren Collins points out is of unknown authorship (although similar ideas were expressed by many people, including Plato and Madison):
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship…
Of course, the US wasn’t to be a democracy but a republic, governed by thoughtful and responsible representatives who would act in the best interest of the nation, rather than primarily pursue their own hopes to gain and maintain power. But if still another illustration were needed, the recent “Economic Stimulus Plan” (promoted by both Democrats and Republicans and signed into law by President Bush) illustrates that such “thoughtful and responsible representatives” are scarce. And worse: if we are going to collectively rob ourselves (or more accurately, rob those who pay the most taxes) of $150 billion (voting ourselves “largesse from the public treasury”), couldn’t we at least use the money to improve our infrastructure (bridges, roads, water systems, sewers…), develop our own energy resources (oil shale, nuclear, wind, solar…), improve education, and so on, rather than provide people with money to buy more consumer goods (made in China!)?

But returning to this week’s Pennsylvania Primary, I expect that one of the reasons Obama did poorly was because of his pastor’s teachings, from which Obama tried to distance himself in his “race speech”, entitled “A More Perfect Union.” I expect, however, that many voters are still concerned that for 20 years, Obama attended sermons by his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who preached “Black Liberation Theology”.

Wright refers to a foundational book on his theology by Professor James Cone at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, which includes the following:
Black theology refuses to accept a God who is not identified totally with the goals of the black community. If God is not for us and against white people, then he is a murderer and we had better kill him. The task of black theology is to kill all gods who do not belong to the black community. Black theology will accept only the love of God which participates in the destruction of the white enemy. [Italics added.] What we need is the divine love as expressed in black power which is the power of black people to destroy their oppressors here and now by any means at their disposal. Unless God is participating in this holy activity, we must reject his love.
Another name for “Black Theology” seems to be “Black Supremacism”, which unsurprisingly doesn’t play well among White voters.

I suspect that another reason that Obama did poorly in Pennsylvania is because, in an unguarded moment, he was caught talking about reality rather than his usual mantra of “hope and change”. As described by Allison Keyes of National Public Radio, two weeks ago when talking at a San Francisco fundraiser, Obama described
… the difficulty his campaign faces wooing working-class voters in Pennsylvania and Indiana. Obama explained that such voters fell through the economic cracks during the Bush and Clinton administrations and that they are angry because of job losses dating back 25 years.

“It’s not surprising then they get bitter,” he said. “They cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Belatedly, in Indiana and after the excrement hit the rotary device, Obama attempted to show that he wasn’t expressing Black Supremacist views and, of course, that he wasn't disparaging "Whitey's" ways:
“I said something everybody knows is true,” he said, “which is there are a whole bunch of folks in small towns in Pennsylvania – in towns right here in Indiana, in my hometown in Illinois – who are bitter. They are angry. They feel like they’ve been left behind.”
Actually, I agree with both of Obama's statements, but I imagine that he would have helped his candidacy if, in the first place, he had stated that the consequences of such “bitterness” (namely, rifles, revolvers, racism, and religion) are the same for both Blacks and Whites. Yet, isn't the first rule of politics something close to: Whatever you do, don't say "something that everyone knows is true"?

If that rule were routinely violated, just imagine the consequences! Imagine if politicians routinely said something similar to:
People: stop hoping for political saviors. Stop blaming others for your failures. Enough with the victim and entitlement mentalities. For a change, think. Think about what Shakespeare said:

“The common curse of mankind – folly and ignorance”, and

“The fault… is not in our stars, but in ourselves…”

If you want to get out of the rut you’re in, start digging, start thinking, start studying, start learning, start relying on your own best efforts – show the world what progress humans are able to achieve, stumbling forward, one step at a time.
And while you're at it, imagine if clerics routinely said something similar to:
People, stop hoping for supernatural saviors. Stop day dreaming your lives away. Remember what Shakespeare said:

“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose”, and

“The miserable have no other medicine but… hope.”

To end your misery, pursue rational hopes. Study. Learn. Study science. Learn the truly awesome features of our universe that scientists have discovered, and in the process, learn enough so that you can use that knowledge to earn a living while helping intelligence go on.
But since my imagination and hopes are obviously launching me into unreality, I’ll end this post by summarizing what might be able to worry you, too.

Samuel Johnson (who in 1755 published “one of the most influential dictionaries in the history of the English language”) famously and sarcastically said:
While first marriage is the triumph of imagination over intelligence, second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience.
I worry that I’m not being cynical but realistic when I think: as Samuel Johnson said about first marriages, organized religion is the triumph of imagination over intelligence, and as he said about second marriages, politics is the triumph of hope over experience.

Hey, by the way, notice that they finally freed Fouad!!

But it probably would be irrational to get your hopes up for freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia. To help you return to reality, have a look at the most recent craziness from the Saudi cleric Muhammad Al-Munajid, warning that "freedom of speech might lead to freedom of belief", which (of course) would be totally unacceptable. That would mean the end of the Muslim clerics' monopoly: he and his fellow clerics would lose their job security. Next, there'd probably be a push for a free market in oil; just think of the horrors of that! So come on, people, get real.


Hello to Pope Benedict

This week, the Catholic pope (Benedict the XVI) started a week-long visit to the US. It was billed as “a teaching trip”. Pity it wasn’t “a learning trip”.

On Wednesday, the pope conveyed:
I come as a friend, a preacher of the Gospel and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society… Democracy can only flourish, as your founding fathers realized, when political leaders and those whom they represent are guided by truth.
I wonder what “truth” he might mean. Something tells me that it’s not the closed-system truth: “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.” Is it, by any chance, the closed-system “Gospel truth” – which he knows in his heart is true because he has faith (instilled in him by his strict, religious father)? Wouldn’t it be great if he meant truth in the open system known as reality and which can be asymptotically approached using the scientific method?! Don’t get your hopes up.

To see his meaning more clearly, consider the following statement, which he made on Thursday to Catholic bishops [and to which I’ve added a few notes in square brackets]:
In a society that rightly values personal liberty, the Church needs to promote at every level of her teaching – in catechesis, preaching, seminary and university instruction – an apologetics [viz., “reasoned arguments or writings in justification of something”] aimed at affirming the truth [cough, cough] of Christian revelation, the harmony of faith and reason [Riiiiiight], and a sound understanding of freedom, seen in positive terms as a liberation both from the limitations of sin [since ‘sin’ is “an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law”, then it would seem that the best way to gain “liberation… from the limitation of sin” is not to recognize any divinity, i.e., any god!] and for an authentic and fulfilling life. In a word, the Gospel has to be preached and taught as an integral way of life, offering an attractive and true answer [cough, cough], intellectually and practically, to real human problems. The “dictatorship of relativism” [hello?], in the end, is nothing less than a threat to genuine human freedom, which only matures in generosity and fidelity to the truth.
I wonder how a seemingly intelligent person can make such a dumb statement. Focusing on just one particular in his speech, what does he mean by “the dictatorship of relativism”? I could understand “dictatorship of absolutism”: it’s been practiced by clerics ever since their “profession” first polluted our planet. But if by ‘relativism’ Benedict means anything in the context of morality, surely such ‘relativism’ depends on circumstances, and whereas circumstances almost always change, then how could anyone dictate relativism? – save, of course, for phony prophets (or better “profits”) who claim they know the future!

Which makes me wonder, further: is Benedict dumb or is he just ignorant, i.e., the product of poor education? Does he really “believe” the nonsense he preaches or is he just another con artist, saying whatever it takes to keep the cash flowing?

In that regard, two weeks ago I ended a post (entitled “Truth” and Consequences) with the statement:
…I expect that most clerics are too dumb or too poorly educated to realize that religious truth isn’t real and scientific truth can’t be realized, but I suspect that leading clerics in every religion know that they’re pedaling stupidity but are hooked on the profits that their con games provide.
So then, in the case of the “leading cleric” Benedict, is my suspicion validated?

Well, with an appropriate nod of acknowledgment to the scientific method, suppose we were to undertake what to Benedict would probably be a shocking suggestion, namely, to try to reach a conclusion based on evidence. Thus, as a start, consider the following assessment of Benedict, written by “Father” Richard John Neuhaus:
This Augustinian pope [Benedict] has a very high estimate of human reason, and in his United Nations address this week I expect he will address the rational grounds for commitment to human rights and the dignity of the human person [as he did, on Friday]. Reason was also the centerpiece of his “controversial” lecture at Regensburg University in September, 2006, where he challenged Muslims to recognize that the use of violence in advancing religion is “to act against reason and therefore to act against the nature of God.”
To those who might complain that Benedict provides no evidence that “reason… [is] the nature of God”, Benedict already provided a response in his Regensburg address. In essence, Benedict takes as “Gospel truth” the dumb statement in the Bible at John 1,1: “In the beginning was the word [or in the original Greek, “the logos”, one translation for which is ‘reason’]… and the word [or logos or logic or reason] was God.”

Neat, huh? For Benedict, “truth” is whatever’s written in his “holy book”: if John said “and the [reason] was God”, then that’s “the truth”. That is, for Benedict to accept something as true, apparently all that’s necessary is for some otherwise-unknown Greek cleric (John) to have claimed it to be true and then for other clerics (and politicians, such as “the butcher” Emperor “Saint” Constantine) to adopt it as part of the “Gospel truth”. That’s truth by dictatorial fiat or even as voted upon by “the elect” – and now, it’s truth by convention. It needs no data to support it; its predictions needn’t be tested experimentally; it’s just “the truth”. Any other questions?

To be sure, the otherwise-unknown Greek cleric (John) was almost certainly just trying to get more Greeks to convert to Christianity – promoting what he thought would sell. To try to sell it, he capitalized on the fact that for the Greek intelligentsia, reason (logic, the logos) had a long history. Thus, at least 600 years before the cleric John added his contribution to the fable about Jesus, the Greek mystic Pythagoras (c.580 – 500 BCE) said: “Reason is immortal; all else, mortal.” Also, a contemporary of Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c.540 – c.480 BCE, who had no use for Pythagoras, saying “Pythagoras is the chief captain of swindlers”) said: “It is wise to listen, not to me but to the logos, and to confess that all things are one.” And of course there was Plato, who said: “It may be that someday there will come forth from God a Word, a Logos, who will reveal all mysteries and make everything plain” – and if the mystic Plato said it, you bet that mystic Christians would take it to be “the truth”. Thus, what John was saying, in effect, was just: “Hey, fellow Greeks, the Logos that Pythagoras and Heraclitus were talking about, and that Plato suggested might come, actually came – and was crucified.”

But it’s all so silly! Pythagoras’ nonsense about reason being immortal should’ve been clobbered with something similar to: “Whaddya mean that reason is ‘immortal’; it isn’t even alive; it’s simply a set of basic scientific principles, primarily that some things exist (that is, A is identically A, i.e., A ≡ A) and are distinct (that is, A is not identically not A, i.e., A ≢ ¬A). Heraclitus’ logos seems to have been that it wasn’t Thales’ water or Anaximenes’ air that was the “primary stuff” of the universe, but it was fire: “This world… ever was, and is, and shall be, ever-living Fire, in measures being kindled and in measures going out.” And as for Plato’s speculation, “It may be that someday there will come forth from God a Word, a Logos, who will reveal all mysteries and make everything plain”, indeed it may happen – but I’d put the chances of it ever occurring to be about 1 part in 10^500 (i.e., roughly the same as the probability that “God” exists).

Much more significantly in a quest to try to understand Benedict, however, is that from his acceptance of the idea that “reason… is the nature of God”, Benedict apparently doesn’t see that he’s severely restricting “the nature of [his] God”! That is, Benedict apparently never learned that reason has severe limitations. To be sure, reason is a great tool: with it, by applying the scientific principles that things exist (A ≡ A) and most are distinct (A ≢ ¬A), we can proceed (as Ayn Rand said) with “noncontradictory identification”. But reason, alone, can never produce new information: with reasoning, all we can do is rearrange, re-examine, restate… existing information. For example, even Einstein’s reasoned result that E = mc^2 is “just” a generalization of Galileo's conclusion that the principles of physics should be the same for observers in uniform relative motion, a restatement of the experimental results of Michelson and Morley that the speed of light is the same for such observers, and the scientific principles of logic contained in the algebra Einstein used. As another example, it’s therefore asinine to attempt to try to “prove” the existence of any god (or anything!) using reasoning. All so-called “proofs” of God’s existence MUST contain (hidden within their premisses) the assumption that God exists. The existence of anything is simply a hypothesis – whose predictions should then be tested. For example, if I exist, then I should be able to start a new paragraph, now.

And with respect to limitations of reasoning, most significant is that, again and again throughout history, reasoning has led to some horribly erroneous conclusions. For example, consider the following reasoning by Benedict’s apparent hero, “Saint” Augustine (354 – 430 CE):
God… did not intend that His rational creature… should have dominion over anything but the irrational creation – not man over man, but man over the beasts… And this is why we do not find the word ‘slave’ in any part of Scripture until righteous Noah branded the sin of his son with this name [this alleged ‘sin’ was to see his father, the drunken lout Noah, naked]. It is a name, therefore, introduced by sin and not by nature… The prime cause, then, of slavery is sin, which brings man under the dominion of his fellow – that which does not happen save by the judgment of God, with whom is no unrighteousness, and who knows how to award fit punishment to every variety of offence…
That’s how Augustine “justified” slavery. Notice that Augustine made no error in reasoning (no mistakes in the mechanics of deduction, such as shifting meanings of words, misinterpreting conjunctions or conditionals, mangling syntax, and so on, through the many potential logical fallacies). Nonetheless, Augustine made a horrible, fundamental error: he started from the unstated premiss that the Bible is “true” – which is the same stupid error that Benedict makes.

In fact, it’s easy to demonstrate that the Bible isn’t true (and similarly for the Quran and the Book of Mormon). As scientific treatises, it’s so obvious that such “holy books” are trash that it’s not worth dwelling on – although I admit that sometimes it’s fun to do so, just for the laughs! As policy documents, also, those “holy books” are loaded with garbage – as I demonstrate elsewhere. Consequently, if one’s reasoning starts from the premiss that the Bible is “true”, then the probability is high that the conclusion will be either trash or garbage (e.g., that this-that-and-the-other thing are “abominations before the Lord”). In computer lingo, it’s called GIGO: Garbage In; Garbage Out.

Admittedly, though, there are times when Garbage In can yield something useful out – especially if one ignores hidden premisses. For example, no doubt Benedict would argue that, whereas God rules the universe and has commanded that we be kind to one another, then we’d be well advised to be kind to one another. Most people probably agree with the conclusion, but some of us find the premisses to be silly. As we see it, the hidden premisses and the trivial (almost circular) reasoning is as follows: through experience, social animals (such as elephants, dolphins, and humans) found that it’s better to live in communities in which members are kind to one another; therefore, we’d be well advised to be kind to one another (because it’s generally found that “What goes around generally comes back around”). Looked at that way, Benedict-type “reasoning” breaks the sound (albeit trivial and almost circular) argument, discards the fact that morality is derived from experience, and replaces it with tangential nonsense about the existence of some God (with whom he just happens to be in contact, who just happens to need more money, and who just happens to have assigned him as collecting agent).

A specific example of an essentially circular argument broken with a silly tangential premiss is contained in Benedict’s UN speech, presented on Friday:
The principle of “responsibility to protect” was considered by the ancient ius gentium [viz., “law of peoples” or “common law”] as the foundation of every action taken by those in government with regard to the governed: at the time when the concept of national sovereign States was first developing, the Dominican Friar Francisco de Vitoria… described this responsibility as an aspect of natural reason shared by all nations, and the result of an international order whose task it was to regulate relations between peoples. Now, as then, this principle has to invoke the idea of the person as image of the Creator, the desire for the absolute and the essence of freedom.
Stripped of its tangential (and stupid) reference to “the Creator”, the essence of the argument is: whereas people have always desired freedom (no doubt because they found that freedom is beneficial to their survival), therefore, any responsible regulation of people by any government should promote the people’s freedom (subject, of course, to associated responsibilities). What’s God got to do with it?!

Although such cases of reasoning with Garbage In and something useful coming out can occur, Benedict would be well-advised to learn to be skeptical: it’s wise to assume that even error-free reasoning rarely leads to a conclusion more reliable than the premisses used. Thus, if the probability of the truth of the premiss “God exists” (a premiss used by Augustine in his above-quoted argument “justifying” slavery and a premiss on which all of Benedict’s religious arguments depend) is only about 1 part in 10^500 (as I suggested in an earlier post), then the probability of the truth of any conclusion that either Augustine or Benedict (or any cleric) reaches should be expected, similarly, to be no larger than 1 part in 10^500. For example, the probabilities of the truth of Benedict’s conclusions that “good” people (viz., those who obey the clerics) will live in bliss for eternity in Heaven, that “bad” people (viz., those who evaluate things for themselves) are headed for eternal torture in Hell, that various activities are “abominations before the Lord”, etc., are almost certainly no larger than 1 part in 10^500.

But Benedict’s displays of ignorance (or deception?) certainly aren’t limited to the above quotations. For example, in his encyclical (viz., “teaching letter”) on Love, he states:
Faith by its specific nature is an encounter with the living God – an encounter opening up new horizons extending beyond the sphere of reason. But it is also a purifying force for reason itself. From God’s standpoint, faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself. Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly.
I’m tempted to say that no sane person could make such a stupid statement, but I’ll try to say it a little more delicately: either Benedict is ignorant (possibly because he’s dumb or possibly because he’s had an absolutely atrocious education – both cases leading to his being essentially clueless about logical reasoning and critical thinking) or he knows that he’s pedaling pure, unadulterated balderdash (and is probably hooked on the profits that his con game provides).

I expect that you’ll come to a similar conclusion if you’ll look again at his claims. Thus, first look again at: “Faith… [opens] up new horizons extending beyond the sphere of reason.” Riiiiight. So does cocaine (so I’ve heard); that is, new horizons in imagination, unconstrained by reality. Next there’s his claim: “It [faith] is also a purifying force for reason itself.” Hello? Any chance for an explanation for the string of words: “purifying force for reason”?

For some eerie reason, Benedict reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s (i.e., the logician Charles Dodgson’s) Humpty Dumpty:
“There’s glory for you!”

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’,” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you’!”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’,” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Maybe why Benedict reminds me of Humpty Dumpty is that I have the sneaking suspicion that Benedict plans to be master.

And then in the above quotation from Benedict there’s his: “faith liberates reason from its blind spots and therefore helps it to be ever more fully itself”? Hello? What “blind spots”? What is meant by making reasoning “more fully itself”?! Is he referring to reasoning errors? Those come, for example, from starting from unreliable premisses (e.g., “God exists”), from errors in logic (e.g., shifting the meaning of words), and so on, including violating the rules of logic (e.g., if things don’t continue to be distinct). In fact, in Aristotelian logic, things aren’t allowed even to change – which makes me hope that Benedict isn’t an Aristotelian as well as an Augustinian.

And then there’s the pinnacle of stupidity (duplicity?) in Benedict’s statement: “Faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly.” Hello? The “proper object” of reason is noncontradictory identification, to determine conclusions that are logically consistent with the premisses, so that the probability that any conclusion is true is at least as great as the probability that the weakest premiss is true. ‘Faith’ (in the usual religious sense of holding some belief more strongly that is warranted by evidence) has no place in sound reasoning: if a premiss is introduced on faith, that is, if a premiss is introduced that’s unsupported by evidence (i.e., whose probability of validity is unknown), then any reasoning based on a premiss of unknown validity should be expected to lead to a conclusion of similarly unknown validity. Again: Garbage In, Garbage Out.

If you are thinking that Benedict couldn’t possibly be so ignorant as the above quotations suggest, then I’ll just ignore your premature conclusion and provide additional evidence. For example, in his second encyclical (on hope) he states:
Yes indeed, reason is God’s great gift to man [which is nonsense: reason is based on the scientific principles (discovered by fish, monkeys, and babies) that things exist and are distinct] and the victory of reason over unreason is also a goal of the Christian life. But when does reason truly triumph? When it is detached from God? When it has become blind to God? Is the reason behind action and capacity for action the whole of reason? If progress, in order to be progress, needs moral growth on the part of humanity, then the reason behind action and capacity for action is likewise urgently in need of integration through reason’s openness to the saving forces of faith, to the differentiation between good and evil… Let us [the Royal “us”, I presume] put it very simply: man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope… Reason therefore needs faith if it is to be completely itself: reason and faith need one another in order to fulfill their true nature and their mission…
Hello? “Man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope”? Darn: there goes my hope for quickly getting to the end of Benedict’s garbage! “Reason and faith need one another in order to fulfill their true nature and mission”? I already commented on that garbage; it’s the same nonsense as in his first encyclical: reason needs an injection of faith like a jet engine needs an ingestion of a flock of geese!

What reason always does need, however, is to be tested against reality. Deductive reasoning starts from premisses, and the probability of the truth of every premiss needs to be evaluated by testing its predictions experimentally. Both deductive and inductive inferences end with conclusions, and again, the scientific method must be applied to test for the probability that each conclusion is true. In fact, one definition of the scientific method is simply: from the best available data, reason as best you can, and then, get some new data – to demonstrate to yourself how dumb your reasoning was!

Meanwhile, to further test how dumb Benedict might be, consider his description: “reason’s openness to the saving forces of faith, to the differentiation between good and evil.” What, pray tell, is he trying to say? Does he mean that one needs faith (no doubt he means faith in his god) to be able to differentiate between good and evil? According to Socrates’ test, that’s dumb. Socrates said: "There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance." Yet, I admit that I think Socrates was a little too harsh with that assessment – or maybe his comment has been poorly translated. I would prefer:
There is only one good, willingness to learn, and one evil, refusal.
But either way, the clear indictment is that Benedict – and similarly, all clerics of all religions – are promoting evil, be if from their ignorance, their refusal to learn, or their purposeful deception. And worse, as Goethe said: “Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action.” Thus, I’m sorry to conclude that, regardless of Benedict’s intelligence or motives, the essence of his current “teaching trip” (similar to the acts of all Muslim terrorists) is “ignorance in action.”

And so, as I lamented at the outset of this post, it’s a pity that Benedict wasn’t here on “a learning trip” rather than “a teaching trip”. My expectation is that, from experiences with his strict, religious father and with his training in the Hitler Youth movement and in his seminary, he learned how to obey. Is he, I wonder, now too old to learn how to evaluate? Is he able to change?

But questions aside and returning to the goal of this inquiry, I conclude that the evidence is equivocal. Maybe Benedict isn’t so ignorant as he seems. Maybe he already knows that he’s pedaling nonsense – but he’s hooked on the power, prestige, and other profits that his con game provides. To be sure, paying for the habits of pedophiliac priests has cut into profits, but he still manages to be involved in the sexual activities of ~1.2 billion people (that's quite an impressive feat for an 81 year old!), he has the prestige of being met by the US President at the airport and to speak at the UN, he still has his bright red, expensive shoes and a fancy dunce cap to wear, and of course, he still gets to ride around in his pope-mobile. Yet, I admit that my first impression is that Benedict is neither too dumb nor overly hooked on the profits of his con game. Instead, his ignorance appears to be derived from his poor education, which has apparently led him to his faulty reliance on reasoning rather than on the scientific method. As a result, I would suggest (and I expect that even most Christians would agree) that it would be more fitting if he rode around not in a pope-mobile but on another stolen jackass.

In any case and as with so many scientific inquiries, this one into the character of Benedict doesn’t seem to provide a definitive answer, forcing the need to test predictions of relevant hypotheses with appropriate experiments. And solely to try to generate a little more enthusiasm in the needed experiments, I’ll offer the following services.

To enlist, those who subscribe to the hypothesis that Benedict is just ignorant should now send me $1, those who subscribe to the hypothesis that Benedict is just another con artist should now send me $10, those who subscribe to the hypothesis that Benedict is dumb should now send me $100, and those who subscribe to the hypothesis that Benedict is intelligent, well educated, and in fact knows “the truth” should now send me $1,000. In the future, as relevant evidence accumulates (e.g., if during his papacy Benedict should make a proclamation something similar to, “To all Catholics: We sincerely apologize for all the mistakes, lies, and deceptions of which your Church has been guilty during its long history, and to try to make amends, we hereby return the trillions of dollars that we fraudulently collected from you”), then I'll distribute the collected money appropriately -- with God as my witness.

[Wow! Maybe I missed my calling. Where does one sign up to become a cleric? Does one just put up a shingle and start collecting money? Oh, yeah, sure: ya gotta have a “holy book”. Well, okay, I’ve got one over at www.zenofzero.net, and as you can readily verify by yourself: just like all other “holy books”, mine’s full of holes.]


Calvinball Fatwas

For a decade, from 18 November 1985 to 31 December 1995, the creator of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes – Bill Watterson – demonstrated how to beat the clerics at their con games, which are various versions of Calvinball.

In Calvin and Hobbes, Watterson depicted all clerics by the little boy Calvin, named after the French theologian John Calvin (1509–64), who (according to the dictionary that comes with this Mac OS–X) “attempted to reorder society on reformed [religious] principles” – of course, as with all theocrats, with him in control:

[Click to enlarge. All comics in this post © Bill Watterson.]

[Note: because Google's Translator doesn't translate the captions, I'll add them below each strip. Thus, for the above: 1) Calvin (C): "I'm at peace with the world. I'm completely serene." Hobbes (H): "Why is that?" 2) C: "I've discovered my purpose in life. I know why I was put here and why everything exists. 3) H: "Oh really?" C: "Yes, I am here so everybody can do what I want." 4) H: "It's nice to have that cleared up." C: "Once everyone accept it, they'll be serene too."]

The other principal character in Calvin and Hobbes was, of course, the tiger Hobbes, whom Watterson named after the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), who (from the same source) not only “believed that human action was motivated entirely by selfish concerns, notably fear of death” but also and importantly saw that a firm basis for any society is self-interested cooperation.

[1) C: "Some people are pragmatists, taking things as they come and making the best of the choices available." 2) C: "Some people are idealists, standing for principle and refusing to compromise." 3) C: "And some people just act on any whim that enters their heads." 4) H: "I wonder which you are." C: "I pragmatically turn my whims into principles."]

Watterson ascribed to his Calvin (similar to all clerics) an unconstrained imagination. For example, to Calvin his plush-toy tiger – his best friend, Hobbes – was not only alive but also had distilled the wisdom of the ages. Thus, consider Hobbes’ following distillation of the famous statement by the Greek philosopher Xenophanes (c.570 – c.475 BCE): “If cattle and horses, or lions, had hands, or were able to draw with their feet and produce the words which men do, then horses would draw the forms of gods like horses, and cattle like cattle, and they would make the gods’ bodies the same shape as their own.”

[C: "Made in God's own image, yes sir!" H: "God must have a goofy sense of humor."]

With such characters, Watterson had set the stage for Calvinball. Thus, just as all theologians invent games that people are to play according to arbitrary clerical rules, the rules in Calvinball are “anything we make up.” Like all clerics, Calvin would manipulate people’s greed and fear so that he could win the game – so that he could rule – just as did John Calvin, who notoriously and successfully urged the execution of Michael Servetus for the “crime” of blasphemy (i.e., challenging the arbitrary claims of the ruling clerics). No doubt Calvinists would be quick to point out that John Calvin urged (to no avail) that Servetus not be burned alive but “only” have his head chopped off – but I’m unimpressed. When someone writes, as did Calvin to Servetus, “I neither hate you nor despise you; nor do I wish to persecute you; but I would be as hard as iron when I behold you insulting sound doctrine with so great audacity”, my interpretation is that Calvin had personal reasons to kill with an axe rather than with fire (to promote his version of “The TRUTH”), rather than reasons derived from any empathy or sympathy.

[1) C: "I like people. I'm interested in people." 2) H: "You??"
3) C: "As an audience I mean." H: "Oh."]

In contrast, who wouldn’t be impressed by Watterson?! His genius was to show how Hobbes could beat Calvin at his own game (Calvinball), because Hobbes not only understood human nature but also understood that Calvin (i.e., all clerics) wanted to win – wanted to rule – no matter the cost. An example of Watterson’s genius is given in the “Sunday special”, shown below, which I hope readers will open in a separate window (or even in a second browser from the source website) and then refer to it while considering the text that follows.

[1) C: "I got a goal!" 2) H: "OK, the score is oogy to bogy." C: "I already had oogy!" 3) H: "You just ran into the Invisible Sector! You have to cover your eyes now, because everything is invisible to you!" C: "Invisible Sector?? I didn't know we had an Invisible Sector! Where is it?" 4) H: "You can't see it; it's invisible." C: "How do I know I went in it then?" 5) H: "You can't see anything, right?" C: "OK, so how do I get out?" 6) H: "Somebody bongs you with the Calvinball! I get another point!" C: "Hey! Ow! Why you…!" 7) C: "That was a rotten rule! I decree no more Invisible Sectors! …In fact, I'll show you! You just ran into a Vortex Spot! You have to spin around until you fall down!" 8) H: "Sorry. This Vortex Spot is in the Boomerang Zone, so the vortex returns to whoever calls it! You spin!" C: "That's not fair!" 9) H: "You know the Calvinball rules." C: "Yeah, yeah: anything we make up. Well, you'll pay for this." 10) C (spinning): "This game lends itself to certain abuses." H: "Guess how you get out of the Boomerang Zone!"]

Similarly, we need to keep “bonking” the clerics on their heads until they learn, as did Calvin: “This game lends itself to certain abuses.” A case in point occurred this week. As reported by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), another brave Muslim challenged the ruling clerics. The challenger [Hobbes] was Dr. Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari, “former dean of Islamic Law at Qatar University.” He challenged a fatwa (ruling) “issued earlier this month by prominent Saudi cleric Abdul Rahman Al-Barak” [Calvin] “denouncing and calling for the killing of two Saudi writers for articles they had published in the Saudi newspaper Al-Riyadh.” Obviously the rules in the Saudi clerics’ version of Calvinball are not for the timid.

It’s a fairly complicated story, but if you’ll make the time to investigate the details, I expect that you’ll be amazed to find how backward the crazy Saudi clerics (the Wahhabis) are: they’d fit in perfectly in John Calvin’s time, ~500 years ago. They know “The TRUTH”.

In brief, the story has the following main elements. 1) According to Muslim clerics, if you disagree with them (about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin – or whatever), then you’re an apostate and deserve to die. 2) An apostate deserves to die because an apostate in Islam is the same as what we in the West call a traitor; in their rule, they ignore the difference that a Western traitor is one who takes up arms against those who think differently, whereas in Islam, it’s “traitorous” to think differently; thus, by Western standards, Muslim clerics who issue fatwas calling for the death of apostates are traitors – to humanity. 3) The brave response by Al-Ansari was, in essence and in my words: “Who in hell do you clerics think you are, claiming power to call for someone’s death for being an apostate, without the accused having his day in court?” The rest of the story has yet to unfold, but we can hope that Hobbesian Muslims will be successful in bonking enough sense into the Calvinistic Islamic clerics, so they’ll see (as Watterson saw) that their game “leads to certain abuses” – that they won’t like!

Actually, though, Watterson saw more. He saw that the clerics could be indisputably beaten at their game of Calvinball by liberated women, such as Calvin’s babysitter, Rosalyn. Watterson’s daily strips speak for themselves:

[1) C: "So what's the game I get to play if I'm good?" R: "You can decide. Pick your favorite game." 2) C: "Is this a trick? Can we really play my favorite game??" R: "Sure, why not? What is it?" 3) C: "Calvinball!!" R: "Calvinball??" 4) C: "Get out the time-fracture wickets, Hobbes! We're gonna play Calvinball!" R: "What the heck is Calvinball?"]

[1) C: "Other kid's games are all such a bore! They've gotta have rules and they gotta keep score! Calvinball is better by far! It's never the same! It's always bizarre! You don't need a team or a referee! You know that it's great, 'cause it's named after me! If you wanna…" 2) C: "Uh, feel fee to harmonize with Hobbes on the Rumma Tum Tums." R: "This was a mistake."]

[1) C: "I've got the Calvinball! Everybody else has go in slow motion now!" 2) R: "Wait a minute, Calvin, I don't…" C: "You have to talk in slow motion too. Liiike thisss." 3) R: "Thisss gaaame maaakes noooo sennnse! It'ssss aasss iffff you'rrrre maaakinnngg iiiiit uuuup aaas youu gooo." 4) C: "Hobbes! She stumbled into the Perimeter of Wisdom Run!!" R: "Oh…"]

[1) R: "If I'm in the Perimeter of Wisdom Run, then I get to make a decree." C: "A decree? Um… OK." 2) R: "I decree you have to catch a water balloon that I throw high in the air." C: "Oh, no!" 3) C: "Man she picked up the nuances of this game fast!" R: "Ha! This is fun!"]

[1) R: "OK Calvin, you have to catch the water balloon!" C: "Aaa!" 2) C: "Ha! I'm in the Corollary Zone! If I catch the balloon, the thrower has to bend over and hold still!" R: "What?!" 3) C: "I caught it!! Ha ha ha ha!" 4) C: "Oh this going to be sweet!" R: "I'm taking Hobbes prisoner!"]

[1) C: "Hobbes! Don't guard Rosalyn! I'm going to get her with this balloon!" R: "The tiger is my prisoner!" 2) C: "I guess I'll just have to soak you both then! Ha ha ha!" R: "Sorry, Calvin, I touched you with the Baby Sitter Flag." 3) C: "The Baby Sitter Flag?? What's that?" R: "It means you must obey the baby sitter…" 4) R: "…who says it's a half-hour past your bedtime now. Let's go in." C: "Awwwwww! Darn Baby Sitter Flag."]

[1) C's Dad: "Our house is still standing. That's a good sign." 2) C's Mom: "We're home! Is everything OK?" R: "Fine." 3) R: "Calvin did his homework, then we played a game, and Calvin went to bed." C's Dad: "It's awfully late for jokes, Rosalyn." 4) C: "I've noticed that when we play games with girls, you get captured a lot." H: "Some of us are just irresistible."]

Shucks, Watterson saw that even a little girl, Calvin’s next-door neighbor Susie, was able to knock him off his tyrannical pedestal:

[1) C (to fallen snowman): "As I have created you, so can I destroy you!" 2) C: "Therefore, in recognition of my supreme power, you must worship me!" 3) C: "Yes, bow before mighty Calvin and tremble, for I am the eternal, all knowing…" 4) "PAFF" (as Susie hits Calvin with a snowball).]

While wishing all Hobbesian Muslims success in their struggle against their clerical Calvins and wishing especially all Muslim women well in their struggle for liberation from patriarchal and clerical tyranny, I’ll close this post with comments Watterson made in his 1990 Commencement Address at his Alma Mater, Kenyon College:
Your preparation for the real world is not in the answers you’ve learned, but in the questions you’ve learned how to ask yourself… Reading those turgid philosophers here in these remote stone buildings may not get you a job, but if those books have forced you to ask yourself questions about what makes life truthful, purposeful, meaningful, and redeeming, you have the Swiss Army Knife of mental tools, and it’s going to come in handy all the time… Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules, and rewards… To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble…


"Truth" and Consequences

In an earlier post, I tried to honor some of the brave Muslims, secular Muslims, and ex-Muslims who, at great risk to themselves, are trying to help humanity break free from clerical dogma. I admitted to my limited knowledge of all those who should be so honored. Here, to start, I’d like to add three more names to the honor role: the “Iranian dissident” Abd Al-Karim Sorush, the “Kuwaiti columnist” Ibtihal Al-Khatib, and the “Libyan liberal” Muhammad Al-Houni.

From the Middle East Research Institute’s “Arab Culture Blog”, in turn from “Rooz, Iran, 16 March 2008”, the following information about Sorush is available:
Iranian dissident intellectual Abd Al-Karim Sorush has said that Muhammad’s inspiration for composing the Koran was earthly, like a poet’s inspiration when writing his poetry. In response, senior Iranian ayatollah Nouri Hamadani called Sorush’s statements worse than Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses… In a demonstration in Qom, some 100 clerics and their students demanded [Sorush’s] execution…
That brings to mind the warning from the Roman poet Caius Valerius Catullus (87–54 BCE): “I can imagine no greater misfortune for a cultured people than to see in the hands of the rulers not only the civil but also the religious power.”

History has shown that Catullus’ premonition was well founded: such “misfortune” occurred during the darkest days of Europe’s Dark Ages, when Christian clerics ruled and the punishment was torture and death for expressing opinions different form those of the clerics’, and similar is now occurring in most of the Muslim world. But it’s being confronted by such brave Muslims as the “Kuwaiti columnist” Dr. Ibtihal Al-Khatib. For example, on Al-Arabiya TV (on 14 March 2008) and in the face of “numerous death threats for her criticism of Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah…”, she stated:
I want a state that is not based on religion – a civil state… one of the conditions is to protect people who want to practice their religion… establish a civil regime that protects everybody, and tells you that, just as you are free to follow your Sunni path, I am free to follow my Shiite path, and Christians and Jews have their rights too… This way we are all equal and protected by the secular regime, which treats us all without discrimination.
Recently, Michael Shermer summarized the dynamic well:
…as soon as a group sets itself up as the final moral arbiter of other people’s actions, especially when its members believe they have discovered absolute standards of right and wrong, it marks the beginning of the end of tolerance, and thus reason and rationality. It is this characteristic more than any other that makes a cult, a religion, a nation, or any other group dangerous to individual freedom.
The danger to individual freedom from those who claim some “absolutes” (some “absolute standards of right and wrong” or some “absolute truth”) was recently addressed by the “Libyan liberal” Muhammad ‘Abd Al-Muttalid Al-Houni.

Before showing you what I mean, however, I should first acknowledge that Al-Houni’s criticisms of the suggestion to implement some aspects of Shari’a law in Britain (suggested by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams) are much more perceptive than were mine (given in an earlier post). Thus on the one hand, Al-Houni explains that even if Shari’a criminal law were excluded (i.e., if implementation were restricted to Shari’a law regarding personal status), Williams’ suggestion is tantamount to abandoning human rights (especially the rights of women and children). And on the other hand, Al-Houni points out that Williams’ suggestion emboldens Muslim fundamentalists:
At present, these [fundamentalists] are picking fights with the secularists in Islamic countries, and their attitude is: “How can you oppose shari'a law in your own countries when we see that the Anglican Church is seeking its implementation in Europe?”

This message is wrong, and it is detrimental to all pleas for modernism and secularism in the Islamic world. Such [pleas] are weak enough as it is, overpowered as they are by the tsunami of Islamist extremists who accuse [those who voice] them of subordination [to the West], treason, and heresy. Such statements by some Anglican clerics are nothing less than support for the ideas of Islamist extremists, and are also an attempt to make fundamentalist religious thought triumph over secular thought in the Islamic countries.

I believe that monotheistic religious fundamentalists, whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, can, despite the deep-seated historical hostility among them, ally with each other and join efforts to wage war on Enlightenment thought… The[ir ideologies all] contain the same germ – the claim to absolute truth that applies to all times and all places.
I note that the “Libyan liberal” Al-Houni’s remarks are made more poignant by the above-mentioned experiences of the “Iranian dissident” Abd Al-Karim Sorush and the “Kuwaiti columnist” Al-Khatib.

I also acknowledge the wisdom in Al-Houni’s assessment, and in this post, I’d like to comment further on his point that all religious fundamentalists make the grievous error of “the claim to absolute truth that applies to all times and all places.” My summary (which isn’t certain, but whose probability of validity seems to be very close to unity) is:
Religious truth isn’t real, and scientific truth can’t be realized.
To see what I mean by that summary and, thereby, to understand the error made by all religious fundamentalists, it’s critical to appreciate that “truth” is an ambiguous concept, which is the reason for the quotation marks. Specifically, “truth” has different meanings in open vs. closed systems.

By system I mean as given by the first entry in my dictionary: “a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole…” By closed system is meant that the system is “complete unto itself, distinguishable from and not interacting with its external environment”. Examples of closed systems include games (from games of chance to all sports), pure mathematics (in contrast to applied mathematics), stories, and all organized religions. An open system, in contrast, interacts with its environment. Examples of open systems include human cells, immune systems, and bodies, educational, legal, and governmental systems, transportation systems, and so on. To see the different meanings for “truth” in open vs. closed systems, consider some examples.

In closed systems, truth is unambiguous. In the game of poker, for example, it’s true that a flush always beats a straight; in the game of bridge, the ace of trump beats all other cards; in baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out; in pure mathematics, 1 plus 1 always equals 2; and so on. Similarly, in one of H.C. Anderson’s fairy tales, for example, it’s true that a little boy was the first to remark that the Emperor had no clothes; also, as all connoisseurs of Superman comic books know, Superman is invulnerable to everything except kryptonite; in the Torah, it’s true that Moses received commandments from God; in the Gospels, it’s true that Jesus is the Son of God; and in the Koran, it’s true that Muhammad received messages from the angel Gabriel. Each of those statements is true within its respective closed system; stated differently, each statement is certain.

In open systems, in contrast – that is, in reality – truth can’t be determined with certainty; at most, it can be approached only asymptotically; at best, we can ascertain only the probability that some claim is true. Newton’s “laws” (or better, Newton’s “principles”) of motion, for example, seem to be true (with Einstein’s correction to Newton’s second “law”), as do Maxwell’s equations of electrodynamics and the “laws” of thermodynamics (with Einstein’s correction to the first “law”). But we can’t be certain of the truth of any such scientific principles: someone may yet demonstrate their limitations (and no doubt win a Nobel Prize in Physics for doing so). That is, because we can never know with certainty what might be “around the next bend” (in space, or time, or space-time), then we can never be certain about any open-system truth.

As a result, in reality, we’re forced to deal with probabilities. We must hedge even on the claim that, in reality, 1 + 1 = 2 . For example, if you react one molecule (or one mole) of carbon dioxide with one of water, the result is not two molecules (or moles) of carbonic acid but only one. Similarly, if you get one hole in your jeans adjacent to another hole, then again, 1 + 1 = 1 (albeit a bigger hole). With regard to such examples, pure mathematicians would quickly point out that the mathematical concepts of addition and of uniqueness have been violated, but as Einstein said:
Insofar as far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.
Further and importantly, for a claim to be scientific (that is, for a claim to realistically describe some aspect of nature), then as Karl Popper maintained, it must be falsifiable (that is, it must be possible to test for the probability that the claim is true, which simultaneously is a test for the probability that it’s false, since the sum of the two probabilities is unity). His extension to Einstein’s statement (which was quoted in the previous paragraph) is commonly known as Popper’s principle:
Insofar as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable; and insofar as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality.
As examples, whereas it’s impossible to falsify the claims that God appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush, that the crucified Jesus appeared to the apostles, that the angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad, etc., including the impossibility of falsifying the claim that God exists, then it follows from Popper’s principle that such claims have nothing to do with reality.

In reality, it’s impossible to show that any scientific claim is true (i.e., that it’s probability of being true is exactly unity) – or that it’s false (i.e., that it’s probability of being true is exactly zero) – including the claim made in this sentence! Such a counter intuitive result seems to be justified, however, because in spite of Descartes’ claim to the contrary, we can’t be certain even that we exist: all of us may be just simulations in some humongous computer game! Consequently, if we can’t be certain of even our own existences, it follows that we also can’t be certain of any claim made to some scientific truth.

Nonetheless, hope continues that we can asymptotically approach scientific truth fairly closely, since (for example), I estimate the probability that I exist (and by extension, also that you exist) to be unity to within about 1 part in 10^25 (i.e., 0.999999999999999999999999 ). For example, for isolated physical systems (isolated in attempts to make them closed) it does appears to be true that electrical charge, momentum, and mass-energy are conserved, but again, we can’t be certain – although I expect that most physicists would put the probability that such results are true to be at least 0.999999999999999; that is, to at least to within 1 part in 10^15 (if I counted all those nines correctly).

Such results for reality are in stark contrast to truths in closed systems: in pure math, it’s certain that 1 + 1 = 2 (it’s a definition, as Russell and Whitehead demonstrated); in baseball, it’s certain (i.e., the probability is exactly unity) that “three strikes and you’re out”; in poker, it’s certain that a flush will beat a straight; in Judaism, it’s certain that “the Jews are God’s chosen people”; in Christianity, it’s certain that “Jesus was born of the virgin Mary”; in Islam, it’s certain that “there’s no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger”; and so on. Within each of those games, such truths are contained in the rules of the game, but as soon as one steps out of those games into reality, none of such claims is perforce true – and many if not most are just plain silly. For example, the last time I was at bat, I must have swung and missed at least 50 fastballs (pitched by my daughter!), before being “out” – because I was worn out! [In honor of the creator of the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson, we call it “Calvinball”.]

When the distinction between open- vs. closed-system truth is clear, then the significance of the quoted remarks by the Iranian dissident Abd Al-Karim Sorush, the Kuwaiti columnist Ibtihal Al-Khatib, and the Libyan liberal Muhammad Al-Houni can become clearer. For example, Al-Houni’s comment, “The[ir ideologies all] contain the same germ – the claim to absolute truth that applies to all times and all places”, can be restated in a form such as: “The foolish religious fundamentalists of the world (whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or whatever) don’t seem to realize that their claims to absolute truth are simultaneously admissions that they’re dealing only with closed systems: similar to ideas in games, comic books, sports activities, pure math, and fairy tales, all religions are just closed-system games.”

Similarly, Al-Khatib’s plea for separation of religion from politics, so that “we are all equal and protected by the secular regime, which treats us all without discrimination” can be seen to be a plea that all people have the freedom to believe what they want (be it the beliefs in some religious fairy tale or as evaluated from the best available evidence), since forced belief in some state-supported “truth” has always been and always will be detrimental to the people – except, of course, for the political and clerical parasites promoting such nonsense and leaching off the producers of the world.

And from the response by the clerics to Al-Karim Sorush’s suggestion that “Muhammad’s inspiration for composing the Koran was earthly, like a poet’s inspiration when writing his poetry” (which is totally reasonable assessment in the open-system known as ‘reality’ but which conflicts with the closed-system truth of the clerics) becomes clearer. Again, the response was: “In a demonstration in Qom, some 100 clerics and their students demanded [his] execution…” Thereby, one gains a glimpse of the hideous lengths to which the damnable clerics of the world have gone and continue to go to protect their closed-system truths, their fairy tales, their word games, and their parasitic existences.

The French writer Émile Zola (1840–1902) summarized it well:
Civilization will not attain to its perfection until the last stone from the last church [and the last mosque] falls on the last [cleric].
Zola risked his career and his life when he wrote, in a front-page article in the Paris daily L’Aurore in an open letter entitled “J’accuse” to the President of France:
The action I am taking is no more than a radical measure to hasten the explosion of truth and justice. I have but one passion: to enlighten those who have been kept in the dark, in the name of humanity, which has suffered so much and is entitled to happiness. My fiery protest is simply the cry of my very soul.
Similar could be written by the brave Muslims, secular Muslims, and ex-Muslims now confronting fundamentalist Islamic clerics, who foolishly, intolerantly, and hideously claim that their closed-system truths are true in the open-system known as reality.

And of course it’s not just Islamic clerics who perpetuate such stupidity. As E. Haldeman-Julius said of all of them:
[The clerics] have tricked, terrified, and exploited mankind. They have lied for “the glory of God.” They have collected immense financial tribute for “the glory of God.” Whatever may be said about the character of individuals among the clergy, the character of the profession as a whole has been distinctly and drastically anti-human. And of course the most sincere among the clergy have been the most dangerous, for they have been willing to go to the most extreme lengths of intolerance for “the glory of God.”
Yet, maybe I should add that I expect that most clerics are too dumb or too poorly educated to realize that religious truth isn’t real and scientific truth can’t be realized, but I suspect that leading clerics in every religion know that they’re pedaling stupidity but are hooked on the profits that their con games provide.