Tag Archives: knowledge

There is only us

1 Feb

This might seem like a no-brainer for many people, but it was something I slowly came to understand when I was a kid growing up.

My parents don’t really get the internet. My grandmother doesn’t even know how to turn a computer on. My father rarely uses the computer. Whenever he does it is just to check bank statements or e-mail. My mother also doesn’t understand the computer, much less the internet. She mainly uses the computer for typing up letters in word, for checking e-mail and facebook, and to play bejeweled. For both of them the computer is simply a tool, like a telephone. I can understand where they’re coming from; they spent the majority of their lives in a computerless world, even more of that time without the internet. The one thing they haven’t grasped about the internet is perhaps its greatest power: the ability to answer questions.

Both of my parents don’t understand how to use google to find the answer to a question they have. “What are some good chicken recipes?” “What movies are playing at the theatre tonight?” “How do I do fix X,Y,Z?” They’re both used to finding these answers elsewhere.

Where am I going with this? Well when talking to my grandmother, or my parents, I wondered how I would explain the internet. What IS the internet?

The first analogy that came to mind was a university, which leads me to the point of this post.

What is a university? The campus? The buildings? The books? A university is none of that, it’s the faculty and students that make up the university. If all the people left, the cold empty buildings would not be a university. If you get a degree from a university, what that degree signifies is that the people who make up that university deem you as having achieved a certain level of knowledge and ability. The buildings just serve as a meeting place.

The internet is the same way, only more pronounced because it lacks a physical location. It exists in the digital realm that we access through our computers. Or at least we create the notion of this digital realm by linking up millions of computers and servers where the actual content physically exists, just as the “university” realm exists through the connection and interaction of ideas and concepts that physically reside as chemical an neurological interactions within the brains of those who collectively are “the university.”

But what I’m trying to get is more than just this notion of creating realms of information through the transmission of ideas. What I slowly started to understand while growing up was that we are all there is. The lines on a map are not physical boundaries between countries, they exist purely because we created them. The system of calendars and years are setup by us. Only we mark the passing of time. Sure the earth completes one full rotation in about 24 hours, and one full orbit in 365 of those rotations, but it is we who arbitrarily picked a beginning and end to each year. On midnight of December 31st, the other animals on the planet have no idea that one year is ending and another beginning. For all they know, it’s just another night, and tomorrow is just another day.

I first came across this concept when I started studying history more in-depth. While we talk of “historical periods” like the Roman empire, or the middle ages, or the renaissance, there is no clear delineation between the start and end of these periods. Bells did not ring, the sun did not stop, and a voice from the heavens did not announce “You are now in a new historical era!” The only thing that separates us now from the middle ages are a lot of revolutions of the earth.

What is society? What are laws? If you are at a stoplight, in the middle of nowhere, and there is not a single person around, there is nothing inherently wrong about driving through that red light. It is only wrong because we say it is wrong. (Because doing it in a populated area could get someone killed) But if you drive through that light out in the middle of nowhere, nobody is going to make a mark by your name.

There is a saying “All knowledge is human knowledge.” For a while this bugged me. “Well that’s stupid, a squirrel has the knowledge of how to gather nuts for the winter,” but that’s not what it is addressing. It’s more of an existential statement. This whole post is about an existential realization I had growing up.

We are all there is. We make the rules, we alone are solely responsible for our actions and for creating meaning in our lives. There is no safety net or wall we can lean against. We’re completely vulnerable to error.

Which brings me full circle back to computers. I feel that more and more we are trying to make life like a computer program. If a computer were self-aware, it would not have the existential problem that humans do. A computer must obey laws (the coding of a program) in order to function. That coding is created by external entities, us. Our own version of coding that we attempt to enforce are social mores.

For me, one of the most stand out examples of this was when I went to Disney world with my now ex-girlfriend. We were going out to a late night fireworks show and it was a bit chilly. I wanted to pack one of the hotel blankets in my backpack to keep us warm. She protested. This made her very uncomfortable and she tried to explain to me that I can’t take the hotel blanket from the room. Why not? You just can’t. (coding) I explained to her that nobody was going to know, that I was going to return the blanket when I was done, and that if anything happened to it, that I would personally pay for its replacement. She grudgingly dropped the issue, I took the blanket, and we were warm. The whole incident really stuck with me. Why is it such a big deal to break the computer codes? We are the masters that wrote them in the first place. They exist because we say they exist.

Radical religion’s war on education

18 Nov

Today I was listening to the Reasonable Doubts podcast and they had a really interesting segment on the religious right’s attack on education. Here is my summary of what they had to say:

It is a well known fact that on average the more educated a person is the less likely they are to be conservative or religious. (Yes there are highly educated conservative and religious people, but the data shows that these people are anomalies)

Education and exposure to different cultures/people/worldviews has a corrosive effect on religious faith and conservatism. The radical religious right’s response to this fact is to isolate their children from the world with home schooling, while simultaneously working to undermine public education. My non-American readers might be shocked to find out that here in America parents can homeschool their children with little to no qualifications or curriculum standards; in essence they can teach, or not teach, anything they want regardless of their own education level.

Often in the United States you will hear defenders of homeschooling put forth statistics that suggest homeschooled children excel in all areas, especially scholastic aptitude tests. The fact is, all of these statics are bogus and poorly collected. There is an excellent article in the Peabody Journal of Education by Dr. Eric Isenberg titled “What have we learned about homeschooling?” In the article Isenberg examines the quantitative data on homeschooling, how extensive it is, and how it is collected and then goes point by point showing that essentially it is a black hole.

We do not have good data on homeschooling or its effectiveness. Why? Because the religious right fought hard to make sure the government wasn’t allowed to collect such data. They deliberately want to keep it as unclear as possible. If data was accurately collected it would show the appalling low level of education these homeschoolers are receiving.

The conservative religious right has set up a system where homeschooled children can go from their sheltered home “education” straight to private religious fundamentalist “universities” without ever encountering an idea or person who might challenge their faith. These students then graduate from these “schools” and are often hired as government aids to work for conservative officials. This was recently very prominent when Bush was in power. A lot of his aids were from these private religious institutions. He legal defense team was made up of “Liberty” “University” graduates, a “school” 10 minutes from where I went to college. This system and it’s goals of raising up fundamentalist children sheltered from opposing view points has a name and a website, “Generation Joshua.” (There is an interesting NY Times Best Seller book by Michelle Goldberg on this subject titled “Kingdom Coming.”)

Another way these religious fundamentalist schools affect the public is through tax vouchers for private schools. Through tax vouchers, the public has to subsidize families who choose to send their children to private schools instead of public ones. The political spin is that this is about “school choice,” but if you see past the bullshit it’s really about back-door public funding for religious schools. Almost all private schools in the United States are religious. The guys on Reasonable Doubts even pointed out that the even some of the few officially “secular” charter schools are actually very religious in their curriculum while remaining outwardly worldly.

Public education is a blight for the radical religious right. Pat Robertson, infamous televangelist and founder of Regent “University”, had this to say about tax vouchers: “They say vouchers would spell the end of public schools in America. To which we say, so what?” Jerry Falwell (the same as Robertson and also founded his own “school,” “Liberty” “University”) had this to say on the matter: “I hope to live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, there won’t be any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be!” Luckily the fat bastard died before that could happen, but his minions are hard at work trying to advance his “vision.”

These institutions are bastions of conservatism and religion. Here students are taught what to think as opposed to how to think, and their curricula are carefully crafted to be as bias and twisted as possible. “Liberty” “University” even went so far as to ban liberals. The fact is that the radical religious right’s worldview cannot survive in the free market of ideas. When exposed to the sunlight of different cultures, people, points of view, and education in general, it shrivels up and dies. To protect their fragile children from reality, the religious right sets up system whereby students are exposed only to “approved” ideas. I find it hilariously ironic that conservatives like to claim liberals are like Maoists and Stalinists while they’re the ones with thought police institutions with portraits of Jesus on the walls.

Atheist or agnostic?

14 Oct

One of the more superfluous debates going on within the atheist community has to do with the use of the term “agnostic.” When I hear someone say “I’m not an atheist, I’m an agnostic,” they usually do so because they’ve mis-defined both terms. Before I tell you how they’ve mis-defined these terms, let me ask two questions that are at the heart of this issue. With these two questions we can find out what you are.

Do you know whether or not god(s) exists? Yes or no. Do you believe god(s) exists? Yes or no.

If you answered yes to the first question then you’re a gnostic. If you answered no, then you’re agnostic. If you answered yes to the second question, then you’re a theist. If you answered no, then you’re an atheist.

This leaves us with four possibilities.

  • Gnostic theist
  • Gnostic atheist
  • Agnostic theist
  • Agnostic atheist

The first two, the gnostics, are intellectually dishonest. You may feel a strong gut emotion one way or the other, but there is no objectionable way you can know. Gnostic atheists are the irrational people who claim to know there is no god(s). The hypothetical person I mentioned earlier, who rejects the term “atheist” in favor of “agnostic”, is making the mistake of defining “atheist” as “gnostic atheist.” They recognize that they can’t know for certain whether or not god(s) exist, so they say “agnostic”, entirely forgetting  the second question.

Agnostic and atheist are not two different viewpoints; they are separate answers to separate questions.

I’m not really sure a pure agnostic could exist. The first question is pretty cut and dry; I have a hard time imagining someone saying “I don’t know” in response. As for the second question, I guess the only time one could say “I don’t know” in response would be while they are in transition between yes or no. If you’re losing your faith, or gaining a new one, then I could see someone temporarily being in a state of either gnostic agnosticism or agnostic agnosticism. Most of the time, however, this is not what the person claiming to be an agnostic really means.

Religious search engines, protecting you from ideas

14 Sep

An interesting article on NPR. If you didn’t feel like reading it, the basic synopsis is that there are now search engines for religious people to use that will filter out any results that don’t already agree with their world view. Not only that, but the search engines are proactive in what content they provide. The article gives two examples: Search for “democrats” and you get articles on Marxism, search for “sex” and you get abstinence only articles.

This whole thing just blows me away. So you’re telling me that your belief system is so weak it’s threatened by just being exposed to other world views, thus if you must use the internet (and be connected to the the wealth of accumulated knowledge the world has to offer) you choose to do so by essentially locking yourself in a closet.

Actually, it’s not surprising. If you’re a religious fundamentalist, like the people who use these sites, you’ve already arbitrarily decided on how the world works. You’ve deluded yourself so deeply into believing that you’re correct, so why bother even exposing yourself to other ideas? It’s sad really. What they’re essentially doing is intellectually castrating themselves.  Perhaps it’s out of fear. Maybe they’re afraid their might be a chance they could be wrong, and that being exposed to different opinions might open them up to doubt.

I think the internet has had a really interesting effect on religion. While on one hand it makes it easier for religious groups to coordinate and get out their message, it also exposes people to a lot more information that they previously wouldn’t have been able to get. I think this is key, it is this fact that makes the internet a negative thing for religion. In order to keep your believers following you, it’s important to control their access to information. Information is power after all. With the internet offering all this information, and for free, you’ve lost that power. You can no longer control what your followers are exposed to. In the real world religion can rely on social pressures to keep people in line. People are more likely to shut up and go along with the crowd and avoid asking questions that might cause them trouble. With the anonymity of the internet, religions can no longer coerce people like that. Here is a really interesting video on the subject:

The rape of reason

19 Jun

I just finished watching Agora, the story of the famous female philosopher (and possibly Atheist) Hypatia of Alexandria.

In case you don’t know about Hypatia of Alexandria, here’s a quick bio: Born sometime between 350 and 370 CE, was a Greek woman living in Roman Egypt, was one of the first notable women in mathematics, also taught philosophy and astronomy. She was also a neoplatonist.

In March of 415 CE, a mob of angry christians attacked Hypatia and dragged her to their new Caesareum church. There  they took tiles and broken clay pots and proceeded to cut the skin off her body. When she was  completely flayed they burned her alive.

This was all condoned and encouraged by “Saint” Cyril of Alexandria. Under his reign all non-christians were persecuted, murdered, and imprisoned. The great bastion on knowledge, the Library of Alexandria, was pillaged and burned. The murder of Hypatia is considered by some to mark the end of classical antiquity.

Why is it that so often throughout history mobs of religious fanatics feel they have to burn books and destroy art?

I know why, but it just makes me sick. When I see art being destroyed, any kind of art, I just want to vomit. When people do it for religious reasons it makes me want to kill them. For instance, in the movie Agora, when the christian mobs go running through the library burning and destroying the greatest collection of knowledge in the world, all in the name of religious ignorance, nothing would give me more pleasure than to walk around them with a chain saw and calmly disembowel them all. Same is true for anyone who destroys art or books.

What is with this urge to make life as shitty as possible? Just watching those mobs sack the library, they’re like mindless insects infected with a virus. They scurry around killing and burning, compelled by this bullshit they’re infected with. They must destroy all that is good a beautiful in the world because it does not fit with the truth they have decided upon. How I wish I could kill them all.

It’s a power thing really. There is a reason why whenever a dictator takes over the first thing he does is persecute the intellectuals. Uneducated people are easily controlled. They don’t question, they don’t think, the dogma of religion suits them perfectly. Books and art are a threat to those in power. They compel people to think. When you are certain beyond all doubt that you, and only you, have knowledge of absolute truth, destroying art that disagrees with you is no shame. It just shows your insecurities and lack of faith by destroying art. What do you have to fear from a book or painting if you have the truth? Shouldn’t your truth be strong enough to stand on it’s own without the help of book burnings? It’s true that religion hardens hearts and enslaves minds.