Thursday, August 18, 2011

Faith in God's Promises

Analysis of Christian Daily Devotionals--third in an occasional series.
I've temporarily misplaced the free booklet of Christian devotional passages (mini-sermons or whatever), but it occurred to me that such a thing must have an on-line component and, wonder of wonders, here it is. I'll just pick on today's for fun.

The title of today's message is, "Promises You Can Bank On". Here's the text:

After a global financial crisis, the US government enacted stricter laws to protect people from questionable banking practices. Banks had to change some of their policies to comply. To notify me of such changes, my bank sent me a letter. But when I got to the end I had more questions than answers. The use of phrases like “we may” and “at our discretion” certainly didn’t sound like anything I could depend on!

In contrast, the Old Testament quotes God as saying “I will” numerous times. God promises David: “I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam. 7:12-13). No uncertainty in those words. Recognizing God’s faithfulness to His promises, King Solomon says in his prayer of dedication for the temple: “You have kept what You promised Your servant David my father; You have both spoken with Your mouth and fulfilled it with Your hand” (2 Chron. 6:15). Centuries later, the apostle Paul said that all of God’s promises are “yes” in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).

In a world of uncertainty, our trust is in a faithful God who will always keep His promises.

And there follows the traditional doggerel:

Whatever trouble may assail,
Of this we can be sure:
God’s promises can never fail,
They always will endure. —Hess

This doggerel is worse than usual. The last line doesn't even scan. How about: "We know they will endure." While the "always" has two syllables, they don't scan well as distinct. The content leaves something to be desired as well. First, it makes quite a bit of difference what God's promises are. If God promises that I'll be burned to a crisp in eternal hellfire for thinking about maybe having sex with my spouse in an unapproved position, maybe I would look for someone who makes better promises. Second, it doesn't look to me as though God is particularly good at keeping promises.

As an aside: there's a final line on the page that is typically meaningless drivel, "Faith knows that God always performs what He promises." Faith doesn't know anything. That's basically the definition of faith.

The piece starts off well enough with complaints about legalistic language in banking contracts that leave all the power in the hands of the bankers to do what they want and little power with the consumers. You can always count on me to question the government's regulation of big financial institutions and to distrust the institutions themselves.

But the main religious part of the passage leaves me with less confidence in God than I have in credit default swaps, mortgage-backed securities and Standard & Poor's credit rating system.

Our main claim is that God is trustworthy because God says, "I will" more than banks do because they disavow any responsibility to do anything. I have more trust in deeds than words, so I'm not going to take God's promises on faith. But before getting to that question, I want to note a difference between God and the financial institutions.

God spends more time emphasizing our responsibility to him than he does making promises to us. For example, aside from the 10 Commandments that demand that we keep the Sabbath holy (and should be punished with death for working on it), that we make no graven images (which makes life really hard on the magazine industry and photography industries), the Old Testament contains injunctions against: eating pork (Lev. 11: 7-8, Deut. 14:8) or shellfish (Lev. 11: 10-12), planting two different plants in the same field or mixing fabrics in one's clothing (Lev. 19:19), touching a woman who is menstruating (Lev. 15:19-24), getting a tattoo (Lev. 19: 28), or being a drunken disobedient son (Deut. 21: 18-21). Worse, working on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2) and being a drunken, disobedient are punishable by death (by stoning in the case of disobedience).

If a bank sent me a letter with all these commands, I wouldn't waste much time in finding a new bank, especially since they are onerous and either irrelevant or antithetical to any rational rules of behavior. So far I'm a little happier with my bank's "we may"s and "at our discretion"s than I am with God's "thou shalt"s and "thou shalt not"s.

But what about God's promises? For starters, God promised that if Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, "for in the day that thou eatest [of the tree] thereof thou shalt surely die." (Gen. 2:17) But Adam does not die, so on day 6 (of after day 7 if the second creation story is separate from the first) God makes a promise that he later breaks. Not a good start. Maybe the promises work out a little better in future. Let's see what the author comes up with.

Basically there are three pieces of evidence for God keeping his promises. The first is:

God promises David: “I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam. 7:12-13).

David's kingdom no longer exists, so promise 1 is not kept. (Is David's throne in heaven? I hope not since God is the only king in heaven. [Psalm 103:19])

The second piece of evidence is:
Recognizing God’s faithfulness to His promises, King Solomon says in his prayer of dedication for the temple: “You have kept what You promised Your servant David my father; You have both spoken with Your mouth and fulfilled it with Your hand” (2 Chron. 6:15).

Solomon is in no position to know whether God has fulfilled the promise to maintain David's kingdom forever. We cannot take this testimony as evidence for God's promise being kept.

(Interestingly, the long discussion that precedes this passage is the one in which Solomon has a round cup made that has impossible dimensions. It's 5 cubits in radius and 30 cubits in diameter. That is only possible if pi = 3. I guess Solomon was rounding off. With all the discussions of the huge amounts of gold and valuables Solomon uses to build this temple, I wonder who read this stuff. It must have been in "Lifestyles of the Rich and God.")

The third piece of evidence is:
Centuries later, the apostle Paul said that all of God’s promises are “yes” in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).

As far as I can tell the author is arguing that God keeps his promises because Paul says God keeps his promises (when they are made by Christ or when we believe in or through Christ or something like that). It's not much evidence to quote someone else who also says God will keep his promises in supporting your claim that God will keep his promises. Example: "Hey, Bob, tell 'im that Joe keeps his promises." It doesn't work unless Bob is an unbiased expert on Joe, and Paul is not exactly an unbiased expert witness on God's promises.

So, without going through an extensive investigation of God's promises in the Bible to see whether they are kept, we can conclude that we've got no good evidence that God keeps his promises. Since I don't want to follow God's crazy restrictions in exchange for these promises, I think I'll stick to my mildly-regulated financial institution, thanks. At least the government has some control over them.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Through Morgan Freeman's Wormhole, part 2

David Chalmers on Consciousness

The second segment of the "Is There a Sixth Sense?" episode of Through the Wormhole (TTW) discusses consciousness and whether it is explainable in physical terms. The episode of TTW can be viewed here. Part 1 of my series of critiques is here.

The main reason this discussion of consciousness appears to be on the show is that it is intended to show that people can perceive something without being conscious of that perception. Thus, we might have a sixth sense without being aware of the operation of that sixth sense and we may need subtle third-person experiments to discover this sixth sense. In a way, this is a very odd claim to make. How could one have a sensory modality and not realize that one has it? And why should a discussion of the ineffability of conscious experience support this contention?

In fact, there are cases in which people have a 'sense' of which they are not aware. People, for example, have an ability to echolocate. Try walking (slowly) with your eyes closed down a quiet corridor on a hard floor. You might put your hand in front of your nose just to be safe. You'll find that you'll stop only a little distance from the wall. We're able to detect from the echoes of our footfalls that the wall is very near in front of us. It's not easy to describe the experience to people who haven't tried the experiment, but it does work. This is not really a new sense since it is just hearing, but one is using one's hearing in a way that one is not ordinarily accustomed to doing. Here's a rather striking example of the use of echolocation in humans.

So, we could show people that they have a 'sense' of which they were previously unaware, but it's not likely that only subtle, third-person experiments could bring it out. Senses are generally the sorts of things produce experiences that are in some way "present" to our consciousness, so the best way to show that there is a new 'sense' is to put people in circumstances in which they become aware of it. It is unlikely that there is a sense that one could not in principle become aware of from a first-person perspective although blindsight (noted in the previous installment) does provide such a case. Still, let's suppose that a sense of which we are completely unaware is theoretically possible.

However, you don’t need Chalmers to explain this possibility, and you don't need Chalmers to make sense of consciousness. Indeed, selecting Chalmers is more likely to make the concept of consciousness mysterious than it is to elucidate it. I'd be happy to hear about the problems Nagel, Jackson, Levine and even Chalmers have raised about consciousness, but you should at least (1) give the arguments for their Mysterian view of consciousness (that we cannot explain consciousness from a physical, reductionist or third-person perspective) instead of relying on mere descriptions of the position (and the apparent authority of Chalmers), and (2) present some alternatives or critiques.

Chalmers tells us that consciousness is a “fundamental building block” of the world on a par with the fundamental forces discovered by physics. Consciousness is like electromagnetism; electromagnetism was originally thought to be explainable in mechanistic terms, as a result of movements of particles with only mechanical properties, but was only later realized to require an entirely new force distinct from those already known to physics. One supposes such a view of consciousness is possible (epistemically--as far as we know, it is possibole) in the same way that there might be a god or an immaterial soul. We can conceive that the universe could be that way, but conceivability does not imply possibility. And arguing that the universe actually is that way requires a whole lot more argument.

Here's the argument in a nutshell against Chalmers's view. If consciousness is a fundamental force, then it can only be a coincidence that it occurs when but only when certain complex neural structures are in place. This coincidence appears to require some explanation, and on Chalmers's view, it is in principle impossible to give such an explanation in terms of other features of the universe (the other facts about complex neurological or functional features of entities). So, we either take on faith that there is this correlation, as Chalmers would have us do, or we suggest that there is some explanation for it.

Presumably Chalmers could say that simplicity is not a perfect guide to truth, and so his theory might be correct even if it introduces brute correlations. I don't see any way that Chalmers gains any explanatory insight by making his "fundamental building block" assumption, so it looks like simplicity provides a strong reason to reject his view.

A panpsychist could say that, in fact, there is no brute correlation between complex neural structures and consciousness but only that certain neural structures allow consciousness to be expressed or identified from the third-person perspective. Thus, anything might be conscious, but we are only capable of recognizing consciousness in those organisms with a particular sort of complex neural structure. This response would imply that consciousness plays no causal role in behavior (at least) since the complex neural structures appear to do all the causal/explanatory work. And if consciousness, on Chalmers's view, has no causal power, then we should reject his view. It's just wildly unlikely that consciousness doesn't do anything.

Don't get me started on the arguments for Chalmers's view.

So, Chalmers's view is only a bare epistemic possibility, not something that's reasonably supported by evidence. We cannot show that it is metaphysically impossible for consciousness not to be a fundamental building block of nature, but there is no reason to take this view seriously. Thus, talking only to Chalmers about consciousness is like asking Shaggy whether there's really a ghost pirate ship terrorizing the beach-goers. Maybe this time there really is a ghost, but you probably should talk to Fred, Daphne, and Velma first, and you definitely should put the burden on anyone who thinks there is no natural explanation (or explanation in known natural terms) for the phenomena in question. Relying on Chalmers's authority is far too flimsy.

Conclusion: Sixth sense fail.

This segment of the program could have been very interesting and informative, but it went for cheap titillation instead of education. Consciousness, whether mysterious or not, is not a sixth sense previously undiscovered by science. It's probably just a very complex physical phenomenon whose explanation we have yet to fathom. Also, Chalmers gets major demerits for his pretentious rock and roll posing.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Christianity's Son-Drenched Future

Second in a series on the evangelical pamphlet Our Daily Bread that I found in my door one day. The title of the second day’s meditation is “Sonrise”, and the text is as follows.

My state’s name, “Idaho,” according to one legend, comes from a Shoshone Indian word “ee-dah-how.” When translated into English, it means something like, “Behold! The sun rising over the mountain.” I often think of that when the sun breaks over the eastern peaks and spills light and life into our valley.

Also, I think of Malachi’s promise: “The Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings” (Mal. 4:2). This is God’s irrevocable
promise that our Lord Jesus will come again and all creation “will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21).

Each new sunrise is a reminder of that eternal morning when “bright heaven’s Sun” will arise with healing in His wings. Then everything that has been made will be made over and made irrevocably right. There will be no throbbing backs or knees, no financial struggles, no losses, no aging. One Bible version says that when Jesus returns we will, “go out and leap like calves released from the stall (Mal. 4:2 NIV). This is my highest imagination and my hope.

Jesus said, “Surely I am coming quickly” (Rev. 22:20). Even so, come, Lord Jesus! –David Roper.

I can never think of Jesus “coming quickly” without thinking of this giant billboard in West Virginia that said, “Jesus the Bridegroom: ‘Behold, I come quickly.’” I always thought, “Maybe so, but I wouldn’t brag about it.”

Resisting my childish impulse for now, I will point out that this whole Lord Jesus-thing is fiction. The book of Malachi talks about the LORD, the Lord, God, and fathers (or Fathers), but there’s absolutely no textual evidence to interpret this as anything like Jesus of the New Testament. That’s just reading Jesus back into a text that has nothing to do with him. I’m sure the author feels justified in interpreting it this way in the same way you might reread the first chapter of a mystery novel and substitute “the butler” for “the murderer” after you’ve found that the butler was the murderer. But there’s really nothing to connect them in the text here. There’s absolutely no reason to interpret “The LORD” as Jesus rather than God or a more primitively conceived warlord deity.

More important, does the suggested reading, the book of Malachi, especially chapter 4, support the author’s friendly picture of the Lord (Jesus or not) coming soon to make us all happy and take away all our suffering? It seems a little unlikely that he’s going to show up to take away your knee and back pain when somehow he couldn’t manage to get here in time to stop (as a brief sample) the execution of his early followers, their internecine struggles in interpreting the new religion, the corruption of the Roman Empire, the destruction of that empire and the loss of life resulting from the destruction of European civilization in the dark ages, the Crusades, the Black Death, and the Holocaust, to say nothing of countless other wars, natural disasters, famines, pestilences and more mundane pains and deaths. If Jesus were coming quickly, you would think he could make it in time to stop the Holocaust at least. Maybe he got stuck in traffic.

In any case, if the Lord were going to release us all from our stalls, maybe we should consider who put us in those stalls in the first place. Apparently consistency is not the hobgoblin of good Christian minds.

Anyway, wanting to get the full benefit of biblical wisdom, I started at the beginning of the book of Malachi. Holy crap! Does anyone read this stuff?

Chapter 1 says that the LORD (who is not in any way a provincial and anthropomorphic warlord deity) is quite upset at the people of Israel because they defiled him but not giving him the proper sacrifices. It condemns the Israelites:

“When you offer blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice lame or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” says the LORD Almighty. (1: 8)

It continues:

“Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the LORD Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands. My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the LORD Almighty.
. . .
“When you bring injured, lame or diseased animals and offer them as sacrifices, should I accept them from your hands?” says the LORD. “Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord. For I am a great king,” says the LORD Almighty, “and my name is to be feared among the nations. (1: 9-14)
So, the LORD is angry because he’s not getting the best food, and he’s going to be famous and successful someday, so you (Israel) will totally regret not giving him a decent meal or make the house smell nice with a little incense when he comes home smelling of booze. This is not of a perfect, loving being but a drunken, abusive husband with delusions of grandeur. (Hey, not every place lights incense for him, so even now the scenario he paints is delusional. Maybe that’s still in the future.)

Chapter 2 doesn’t get much better:

“And now, you priests, this warning is for you. If you do not listen, and if you do not resolve to honor my name,” says the LORD Almighty, “I will send a curse on you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have already cursed them, because you have not resolved to honor me.
“Because of you I will rebuke your descendants[a]; I will smear on your faces the dung from your festival sacrifices, and you will be carried off with it. And you will know that I have sent you this warning so that my covenant with Levi may continue,” says the LORD Almighty. “My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe
of my name. True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.
“For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is
the messenger of the LORD Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth. But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi,” says the LORD Almighty. “So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law.” (2: 1-9)

The footnote [a] says, “Or will blight your grain”. So, either the LORD will rebuke the descendants or will blight his grain. One or the other; they’re basically the same.

Anyway, the LORD’s upset so he’s going to put s#*t on their faces and they’ll be carried off, whatever that means. It seems as though this dude wants the people to follow him, but they aren’t so it’s too late and he’s going to punish them (and maybe their descendants) anyway. This LORD-dude seems particularly distraught about the Levi guy dying and his kids not keeping up with his traditions. I wonder if maybe someone could have figured out that this was going to happen and put a stop to it.

In the rest of the chapter he explains how much he dislikes divorce and Judah cheating on his wife by getting a divorce and marrying a younger woman. Sounds like the LORD must be a big fan of Newt Gingrich.

Anyway, let’s see if chapter 3 paints a more enlightened picture of the LORD. The LORD says maybe they can put things right again (despite his already saying it was too late). He’s cheesed off but he’ll give them a chance by sending someone to test them and purify them as a laundry soap does. (I’m really not making the laundry-soap thing up. Great metaphor, God.)

“So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty.
“I the LORD do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD Almighty. (3: 5-7)
So, the LORD will give some of them a second chance as long as they don’t oppress widows and orphans, rip off their workers, or commit perjury, adultery or sorcery. If there actually were sorcerers, then I’m sure they’d be in real trouble. Anyway, what about those who aren’t bad?

Then those who feared the LORD talked with each other, and the LORD listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the LORD and honored his name.

“On the day when I act,” says the LORD Almighty, “they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him. And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not. (3: 16-18)
The LORD will spare those who continue to worship him the same way that a father doesn’t kill his own children if they serve him. I guess at this point in history if you didn’t serve your father, he could kill you with impunity. It must have been fun for kids who didn’t want to do their chores. The LORD needs someone to write down all these names; otherwise he’ll forget and punish the wrong ones (for failing to honor and fear him, primarily). Maybe the LORD turns out to be a little smarter in chapter 4. Chapter 4 is short; it goes like this:

“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the LORD Almighty.
“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.
“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and
dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” (4: 1-6)
So, the LORD wants us to worship him and if we do we will frolic happily and crush the non-worshipers (aka the wicked and arrogant) under our feet. This is more of that good Christian desire to crush those who do not believe as they do (and other bad people, of course). The LORD then promises to strike the land with total destruction unless the hearts of parents and children are turned to each other, and I guess that’s happened because the land has not been totally destroyed yet.

In all seriousness, why is a perfect being so worried about who and how many people fear and worship him? It’s not a flattering picture of a perfect being. This whole book describes a petty tyrant who wants everyone to fear, honor and respect him by giving up all their best things for him and who looks forward to the day when everyone will give him the respect he deserves. I wonder if Rick Santorum’s household is like this.

If I didn’t know better, I would think that the authors of this Our Daily Bread pamphlet (and Christian apologists more generally) are picking out only the parts of the Bible that say the things they want it to say and leaving out all the objectionable other material. It’s almost as though they are cherry-picking the evidence to support their preferred picture of the divine being. Or maybe they just don’t read the whole book. After all, a booklet so full of commonsense wisdom and goodness would never include deliberately suppressed evidence, would it?

Passages such as the book of Malachi illustrate why atheists and agnostics are more likely to have read the Bible than are typical Christians. Reading the book, rather than the carefully sanitized version of it presented in standard Christian propaganda, leads ineluctably to the conclusion that it’s an imperfect, human book describing the construction of their provincial deity, trying to enforce conformity, and reflecting their petty concerns and primitive morality.

By the way, Wikipedia has this to say about the name “Idaho.”

The exact origin of the name remains a mystery. In the early 1860s, when the United States Congress was considering organizing a new territory in the Rocky Mountains, eccentric lobbyist George M. Willing suggested the name "Idaho," which he claimed was derived from a Shoshone language term meaning "the sun comes from the mountains" or "gem of the mountains". Willing later claimed that
he had made up the name himself.

It would be fitting if the introduction to the Daily Bread story was based on a fabrication. Anyway, I always thought “Udaman” was a more positive name than “Idaho.”

Monday, August 8, 2011

Through Morgan Freeman's Wormhole, Part 1

"The secret ingredient is hate," -- Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz

I had originally planned a short post on the Through the Wormhole episode on the sixth sense, but researching the various claims made has taken up so much time and so many pages that I am breaking into a multi-part (probably 5 part) series of posts. I'm not sure why I've kept working on this since there's no real point to debunking it, and I'm not a professional debunker. But I was annoyed by the episode, and so I think I must have been driven by hate. Here is part 1.

Previously, I had considered Through the Wormhole (TTW) with Morgan Freeman to be Harmless. Today, however, I must downgrade my evaluation to Mostly Harmless.

The episode, "Is there a the Sixth Sense?" crossed over from innocuously speculative and silly science-related program to endorsing highly suspect research with the apparent aim of titillating rather than educating the audience. It appears that TTW is based on real science in the same way that The Amityville Horror was based on true events. In other words, it's not actually true (or science). There might be something true somewhere in there, but there's no way to tell what's true, and the true part doesn't relate to the interesting parts emphasized in the story.

It's a bit silly talking about a sixth sense when the variety of sensory inputs we know about exceeds the traditional five senses already. People have distinct sensors for heat, pain, and pressure; they sense the location and movements of their bodies; they sense various internal facts about their guts. But TTW uses the "Sixth Sense" terminology to appeal to our idea of a sensory apparatus beyond those previously known to science.

Freeman posited several different varieties of sixth sense. 1. TTW reports on visual perception among blind-sighted individuals using a distinct visual system in the brain. 2. It reports on David Chalmers's unusual views on consciousness and the supposed impossibility of reductively explaining it in terms of objective science. 3. It reports on the Global Consciousness Project that claims that humans in large groups have a capacity to affect random number generators so that they cease for brief periods of time to be random and that this shift to non-randomness results from large scale emotional arousal. 4. It reports on psychologist Michael Persinger's claim that people can communicate perceptual information from one mind to another following lines of electromagnetic force. 5. It reports on Rupert Sheldrake's claim that people have an ability to know when they are being watched by others even when they have no ordinary perceptual means of discerning this fact.

Part 1 of my report is limited to the blindsight case.

This fascinating phenomenon occurs when people have damage to visual cortex so that certain parts of their visual fields are "blind", and they appear to lack any conscious awareness of those parts of their visual field. Their eyes are perfectly functional and continue to send information to the brain. Psychologists (led by Lawrence Weiskrantz who discovered this phenomenon) have shown that blind-sighted patients have some surprising abilities. If these subjects are forced to guess about the supposed blind part of their visual fields, they are able to say at a rate better than chance whether there is a light in that field. When they reach for something in the "blind" part of their field, they will shape (apparently automatically) their hands to the object in the field. For example, they will shape their fingers to pick up a coffee cup or a paper clip. They will not volunteer the information that something is in their visual field, and they do not even believe they can see anything. However, they have visual perception even if this is not conscious.

Blindsight is a great hook for a science show since it is wildly counterintuitive that people could see without realizing that they can see. It also provides a great chance to teach about the brain, its complexity and modularity (or distinct paths of processing) and its evolution. Apparently, at some point in its evolution, the brain added new pathways in visual cortex without adapting evolutionarily older pathways. TTW could even have taught about the complexity of visual processing, and that's fascinating in and of itself.

TTW reviews the research of Beatrice De Gelder in the Netherlands who finds that people blind in one side of the visual field will automatically mimic the facial expression of a picture shown only to their blind field and they will show a galvanic skin response for emotionally-charged pictures but none for no pictures or for neutral pictures. This shows that despite damage to certain areas of the visual cortex, people will still be able to take in a certain amount of visual information, specially directed towards the emotional system in the brain, the amgydala and other areas, yet those people will lack any conscious any awareness of or ability to verbalize that information.

Conclusion: Sixth sense fail.

Blind-sight is fascinating. Unfortunately, the episode chose to treat this as more mysterious than it is. TTW repeatedly referred to the field, from one eye, as "blind" as though people could not see at all in that part of the field and then pretended that their ability to acquire this visual information in some mysterious way. Vision, even blindsighted vision, is not a sixth sense; it’s just plain old seeing. However, what this phenomenon shows is that vision is a more complex phenomenon than people might have thought, one that involves conscious and unconscious elements. And it provides an interesting case in which perceptual information is processed without consciousness; we can see (in a certain limited sense) without being aware that we see.

Next up: Part 2 on Consciousness.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Santa Claus God

Stuck in my front door a few days ago was a booklet, Our Daily Bread, full of heartwarming and inspirational stories to help one live a fulfilled, happy and not-at-all meaningless Christian life. It’s not just fire-and-brimstone televangelists who indoctrinate people into harmful and delusional belief systems. These apparently innocuous, friendly messages can be harmful as well and more insidious for their apparent banality. The first day, entitled “Hidden Sin”, is indicative of some of the worst of Christianity.

The text is:

Chuck had slowed to a stop when his car was hit from behind and was pushed into the vehicle ahead of him. A sickening, crunching sound indicated that additional vehicles had collided behind them.
As Chuck sat quietly for a moment, he observed that the vehicle directly behind him was pulling out into traffic. Obviously hoping to avoid an encounter with the police, the escaping driver neglected to notice he had left something behind. [At this point, I was hoping the story would take a World According to Garp/John Wayne Bobbitt turn, but alas, I was disappointed.] When the police arrived, an officer picked up the hit and run driver’s license plate from the ground and
said to Chuck, “Someone will be waiting for him when he arrives home. He won’t get away with this.”

Scripture tells us: “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Num 32:23), as this man who fled the accident discovered. We may sometimes be able to hide our sin from the people around us, but nothing is ever “hidden from [God’s] sight” (Heb. 4:13). He sees each of our failures, thoughts, and motivations (I Sam. 16:7; Luke 12:2-3). [Just a note: I Samuel
16:7 says, “[T]he LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart.” This is consistent with God seeing all our thoughts, but it does not imply that. I just wanted to note that there’s a good deal of interpretation implicit in this booklet.]

Believers are given a wonderful promise: “If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). So don’t let unconfessed so-called "hidden" sins come between us and God (vv. 6-7).—Cindy Hess Kasper

Finally, there is a closing piece of doggerel:

We cannot hide from God
No matter how we try.
For He knows all we think
and do— We can’t escape his eye.” -- Hess
First of all: is this a true story? It seems awfully fishy to me. Why doesn’t Chuck have a last name? Where did this car accident take place? Where’s the arrest record? I suspect that this story was just made up to prove some sort of point. Sure, Jesus made up parables all the time, but this might also be called lying (and bearing false witness against Chuck’s neighbor?).

Let’s think a little about Chuck and his unhealthy interest in the punishment of his fellow citizen. Why does he care whether this person is caught? And why is the police officer confiding this information to Chuck? Is this any of Chuck’s business? I suspect what’s going on is that Chuck wants vengeance on this other driver for hitting his car, but instead of confronting the driver in a constructive and courageous way, he secretly wants someone else to punish the driver for him. Secondarily, Chuck’s unhealthy interest in the hit-and-run driver’s punishment indicates that Chuck would himself consider fleeing the scene if he had been the one to cause the accident. Chuck needs to know that criminals will be caught and punished, otherwise he would commit these crimes himself.

At this point, you may be thinking: What’s wrong with Chuck? What kind of person only does the right thing from fear of punishment? The answer is, of course, a Good Christian. That’s the first lesson of this booklet: Christians should only do good things because they will be punished if they don’t. It’s a little odd that the claim that sometimes people’s crimes are only discovered by God is illustrated by a story of someone being caught by the police. I suppose one has to go to a Jack Chick tract in order to read about God himself punishing people who have otherwise escaped punishment. However, the main point is that we need God to see everyone’s actions and thoughts and to punish and reward everyone correctly based on them. Worldly authority is not enough to guarantee punishment for every sin. Normal, rational people are not like this. In fact, Chuck’s doing “good” only because of his fear of punishment means that he is not doing a good thing at all. If you do something only for your own personal benefit, then you’re just being selfish. Instead, Chuck should do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Getting the right outcome from selfish reasons does not necessarily indicate moral goodness. If I dig a pit outside my neighbor’s house so he’ll fall in and land on poisoned spikes but in digging it accidentally strike oil and make him rich, I have not done a moral or virtuous thing. Any good that came of my action was just a matter of luck. Christians, according to Our Daily Bread, should be selfish and care only for themselves rather than doing the right things because they are right.

A creepier part of this story is the view of God as Santa Claus. God “sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.” God is a voyeur interested in every aspect of our lives and guaranteeing that we act, think and feel exactly the way God wants. Apparently, God watches us in our bedrooms, and every time a man fails to get an erection, that is of great interest to God. People’s belief in this kind of God might explain the popularity of Viagra.

The sophist Critias noted that the cleverest thing a lawmaker ever did was invent the idea of the gods who watched and enforced laws when no one else was watching. In other words, God is a fiction created by society in order to enforce social norms on people at all times. The most insidious part of this creation is the way its victims, Nietzsche’s sheep, enforce this belief on everyone else. Because people are afraid of what they and others might do without this constant fear, they make themselves and others believe that they will be punished by Santa Claus-God if they don’t conform. The last Christian motive is the vindictive desire to punish those who refuse to follow the social norms, those free from fear, who do what Good Christians want to do but are too craven to do.

Finally, the creepiest part of the story is that we should beg God’s forgiveness for our sins. There is no mention of learning to be better people or God rewarding us for our good behavior. God only rewards us by forgiving our sins. One thinks that there isn’t much of a point in trying to be good, but instead should just remember to beg for forgiveness. And this entails not just quietly begging God’s forgiveness in the silence of our minds. Normally, what begging forgiveness means is complete self-abasement, preferably in front of others, before God. That makes sense if your goal is to humiliate someone, break down his/her personality and make him/her susceptible to indoctrination into a cult, but it makes no sense as part of the moral life of a human being. We don’t become better people by thinking of ourselves as wretched and worthless; we have to learn to respect ourselves and our judgment in order to make rational, informed and wise decisions.

It’s obvious that this is not a good way to live. People should be free to live as they choose subject to moral laws, not coercion from imaginary beings. The first story in Our Daily Bread, supposedly benign and educational, in fact reveals an insidious problem with Christianity. It appeals to fear to enforce conformity, undermines the kind of self-respect that’s necessary for true moral worth, and even undermines the very possibility of morality for Christian believers.
I’m not arguing that Christianity is false because of these problems. As David Hume writes, that would be fallacious.

THERE is no method of reasoning more common, and yet none more blameable, than, in philosophical disputes, to endeavour the refutation of any hypothesis, by a pretence of its dangerous consequences to religion and morality. When any opinion leads to absurdities, it is certainly false; but it is not certain that an opinion is false, because it is of dangerous consequence. Such topics, therefore, ought entirely to be forborne; as serving nothing to the discovery of truth, but only to make the person of an antagonist odious. (Enquiry, Section
VIII, Part II)
I’m not arguing, as I said, for the falsity of this view based on its moral consequences. I'm only arguing, whether it is true or not (although it’s almost certainly not), this insipid Christianity undermines human freedom, self-determination, courage and morality. It’s simply inimical to rational, enlightened moral agency to believe this way. And presenting this indoctrination in simple homilies cannot hide that sin.