Thursday, September 30, 2010

On the Limits of Knowledge and the Knowledge of Limits

Via Hot Air (where a quite lively discussion did ensue!), comes this perfectly lovely article from The New Scientist. It is an eloquent essay on the approach of an honest, open-minded scientist to the needlessly limiting categories of "theism" and "atheism" with respect to the mind's on-going dialog with nature.
 So while there are plenty of good books by scientist-atheists, they sometimes under-emphasise the main lesson from science: that our knowledge is vastly outstripped by our ignorance. For me, a life in science prompts awe and exploration over dogmatism.
 Given these considerations, I do not call myself an atheist. I don't feel that I have enough data to firmly rule out other interesting possibilities. On the other hand, I do not subscribe to any religion. Traditional religious stories can be beautiful and often crystallise hard-won wisdom - but it is hardly a challenge to poke holes in them. Religious structures are built by humans and brim with all manner of strange human claims - they often reflect cults of personality, xenophobia or mental illness. The holy books of these religions were written millennia ago by people who never had the opportunity to know about DNA, other galaxies, information theory, electricity, the big bang, the big crunch, or even other cultures, literatures or landscapes. 
So it seems we know too little to commit to strict atheism, and too much to commit to any religion. Given this, I am often surprised by the number of people who seem to possess total certainty about their position. I know a lot of atheists who seethe at the idea of religion, and religious followers who seethe at the idea of atheism - but neither group is bothering with more interesting ideas. They make their impassioned arguments as though the God versus no-God dichotomy were enough for a modern discussion.
Indeed! Over the years, I have developed a feeling for militant atheism which is akin to that which I feel about dogmatic theism. They both make me a bit sad.

I consider myself a functional atheist, but a technical agnostic. I simply cannot rule out that there is an Intelligence orchestrating the unfolding of the Great Cosmic Simulation (scale = 1:1). But nor can I reconcile my observations and studies with the premise that there must be such an Intelligence. I have absorbed enough from Chaos/Complexity theory to find highly satisfying comprehensiveness in the explanatory power of the concepts of self-organization in complex systems under far-from-equilibrium conditions. I simply do not see the need for a Cosmic Controller, any more than I need to posit a "Brain Bird," guiding and controlling the dynamics of a flock in flight.

But, when you come right down to it, what the hell do I know?

To make the leap from "What" questions to "Why" questions is to commit the fundamental(ist) error of both believers and non-believers. "What" questions are the proper domain of science: they deal with that which can be tested and observed (what are the proportions of ordinary matter to dark matter in the observable universe?). "Why" questions deal with ultimate issues (Why is there something instead of nothing?). Any effort to transplant one from the other is bound to bump against a hard metaphysical stop, and require what, for all intents and purposes must be considered a leap of faith. One of the most lovely treatments of this matter was the brilliant 1996 film, "Contact," in which a woman of science and a man of faith must find a way to reconcile their ostensibly antithetical world-views to questions of cosmic import. It is one of my very favorite films for the sheer poetry with which it addresses this matter which has so dominated the landscape of my thinking since childhood. The limits of knowledge need not represent the foreclosure of possibilities, but that we conjure they do.

This is why I call myself a "possibilian". Possibilianism emphasises the active exploration of new, unconsidered notions. A possibilian is comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind and is not driven by the idea of fighting for a single, particular story. The key emphasis of possibilianism is to shine a flashlight around the possibility space. It is a plea not simply for open-mindedness, but for an active exploration of new ideas.
Is possibilianism compatible with a scientific career? Indeed, it represents the heart of science. Real science operates by holding limitless possibilities in mind and working to see which one is most supported by the data. Sometimes it is difficult or impossible to gather data that weighs in - and in those cases we simply retain the possibilities. We don't commit to a particular version of the story when there is no reason to.
Again, big bang-on. Now, he term “Possibilian” seems too precious by…well, a frack of a lot more than half. But the term “agnostic” has always rankled me something fierce. To live by the dictum that the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence seems a mite…reduced by simply calling it “No-Knowledge.”

Sure, sure, saying you don’t know is supposed to be the beginning of wisdom and all that. But it feels a little like calling an American boy “Leslie.” It’s a fine name, but don’t expect him to thank you for it in middle school.

Nomenclature aside, though, it's a big 'Verse, with room for Grand Unifying Narratives aplenty. It seems to me that digging in our heels and shouting names at each other is a less than optimal use of the finite quanta of energy available to us before we flame out. This is one of the (many) reasons I find Bill Maher no less a nauseating homunculus of a man than Pat Robertson. Both pull for a zero-sum, annihilationist exclusivity which offers absolutely no quarter for the "other side."

To quote from another one of my favorite movies, "You have to see with better eyes than that."

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Tea's a-Brewin'

Nice article in the WSJ, which articulates much of what I have been thinking about the influence of the Tea Parties on the American political landscape. Important graf:
Much will depend, of course, on which tea-party favorites actually win in the November general election, but a likely outcome of all this will be a Republican party more to the right, and a Democratic Party more to the left. "It's going to be a bipolar Congress," predicts Kenneth Duberstein, White House chief of staff for President Reagan.
At first glance, the notion of such bipolarity conjures images of gridlock and chaos. But thus does evolution work. It is a messy business, fraught with pain and turbulence and extinctions and dislocations.But it is a spectacularly effective engine for cobbling fitness from the staggering dance of environment/organism co-adaptation, the wrenching improvisational composition of blind variation and selective retention. The mess is the message.

As the Tea Parties impose selective pressures on the entrenched GOP establishment from the very soil below the grass roots, the elephant is forced, ponderously and reluctantly, to evolve or die, and with it, the whole of the political ecosystem through which it moves.

Much is made by the Democratic commentariat about the "Civil War" taking pace within the GOP. Fair enough, and we've certainly heard that language before, when Liberals want to sound a triumphalist note (and I'm not just talking about Iraq here). But just as important here is the internecine strife taking place within the Democratic party, as it faces what looks to be a sound drubbing, come November. As the factions of Dems who view the emerging Tea Party insurgency as a call to shift all the more shrilly to the Left have it out with those who see the need to let the Blue Dogs have their day, so is the donkey compelled to adapt, lest it become a mule.

All this excites me greatly. There are those who decry the retrenchments, Left and Right, and bemoan the "loss of the Center," lamenting that it is out of this center that "true" governance takes place. But they are missing a very crucial point: The "Center" cannot hold. When the poles of political thought become cross-contaminated by the efforts of our would-be leaders to be all things to all people, the result is an unhealthy loss of clarity. This brings about a blurring of the focus which animates the Centralizing/Federalizing dialectic which has held in its uneasy balance the very dynamism which has kept the Founders' grand experiment on the bleeding edge of civilizational evolution since its inception. The "center" is what emerges from the push-pull of competing visions for our Republic, the "big government, small citizen/small government, big citizen" tension out of which arises an ever-changing synthesis which is able to keep pace with shifting circumstances.

Before us today is the emergence of a purifying blast of clarity on both sides of this dialog. And, as they thrash it out, the promise of a properly divided government is, at long last arising. The "center" will wrench itself into being as the moribund, accommodationist oligarchies of both parties are forced to weather the withering blasts from the sharp, hungry purists on both sides of the political divide. They will be forced to ply the same waters, held to account by the voters should they fail to find a way to man the oars and get the ship of State back underway.

EDITED: 9/21/10 for typos.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Nine Years Down the Line

This text field has been empty for quite some time now.

I'd been watching footage of that Terrible Tuesday, trying to move myself to generate some meaningful associations, to stir the psychic pot and see if some words would float to the top, and spill out onto this screen. But, like Kurtz, all I could come up with was "the horror."

The fact is, that I am tired. I feel as though I will never again have as clear an access to my feelings on the horror which reached from the darkness of those benighted hearts to strike at our civilization as I did on a late night, two years ago. I know I did not say all there is to be said. Far from it! But I just can't seem to find the words to yoke themselves to the thoughts and emotions which still swirl in me as I think back to that surreal morning, almost a decade ago (!!).

I can't help but feel that I am not alone in this. The fact that this Nation elected a president who, in his words and deeds, seems to live in the world of 9/10/01, the fact that somewhere around 1/3 the US population harbors some variant of the unutterably nauseating belief that it was actually our own government which had a hand in the atrocities of New York, Washington, DC, and Shanksville, PA, the fact that Iran inches, all-but unmolested, toward the capability to field nuclear weapons (!!!), or that, somewhere in this world, Osama bin Laden still draws breath, or that the very idea of constructing a mosque, mere steps from Ground Zero itself (!!!!) is felt to warrant serious consideration, or that the site itself is still a big fracking hole in the ground...It all just leaves me numb.

For all of the heartfelt and sincere statements of remembrance, the Facebook profile images replaced with pillars of light on the scarred NYC skyline, the earnest statements that we should "never forget..." too much has  been forgotten. The terrible duties imposed by the horror which was visited on us are now routinely trivialized by fools who fail to grasp the enormity of what was done, and of what it demands.

I am tired. And I feel as though we are all just falling, falling.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Day of the Dove: A Modest Suggestion for Pastor Jones

First, the obvious: The planned burning of some 200 Korans by Pastor Terry Jones, of the Gainesville FL Dove World Outreach Center is a stupid idea. I'm no fan of the absurd prostrations of multiculturalists before the barbarous and bigoted threats of retaliation for any perceived slights against Islam, but this is simply unnecessary, unwise, and threatens mayhem far out of proportion to any "message" the congregants of this church may believe they are sending. It is, to any reasoning being,  an insensitive provocation.

It is also a Constitutionally protected form of political expression which, some niggling fire codes notwithstanding, there is no legal grounds to suppress.

But just because Pastor Jones has a right to do this, does not make it the right thing to do. And, if that phrase sounds familiar, it should. It is the phrase which is so frequently uttered with respect to the planned mosque and Islamic cultural center within steps of Ground Zero. There is broad agreement that Imam Rauf has every right to go forth with the construction of that center. Religious freedom and private property rights are crystal clear on the matter. But this inarguable fact does not in any way diminish the staggering insensitivity of constructing an Islamic center --however many nods to interconfessional amity may be incorporated into its plan-- well within the debris field of an horrific attack on the West by those who were motivated by the most virulent strains of Islamist ideology. No, it was not "Islam" which attacked us, and therefore it is unwarranted to generalize that Jihadist atrocity to the whole of Islam. Duh.

But if Rauf is really interested in promoting peaceable coexistence between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds, then the very best thing he could do would be to recognize the overwhelming opposition to the Cordoba House, and exercise his rights to find an alternate location for the structure. I suppose it would  be well within bounds for him to publicly lament that the rift between his stated ideals and the reality of the current zeitgeist is such that such a step would be necessary. I'm not even altogether sure that I would disagree.

Now, I have no idea if Pastor Jones would be interested in the following suggestion, but he has a real opportunity to perform a mitzvah here. Long about September 10th, say, he could grab one of the many microphones which are doubtless being shoved in his face on a daily basis, and say something along the lines of: "It is no secret that I consider Islam to be opposed to the most cherished tenets of my faith, and I had planned to make a statement about the dangers of this heathen religion to the very soul of Christendom. But, upon reflection and prayer, and mindful of the far-reaching consequences should I exercise my Constitutional right of free expression, I have chosen --and am directing my flock to follow me in this-- to forgo that right, and to cancel the planned burning of the Moslem Book. I am dismayed that my ability to express my faith and my protest has raised such opposition, but the ideals of charity and tolerance which are the very soul of Christianity must win out over my concern at the corrosive effects of the Moslem heresy."

OK, so I suspect we're not talking about someone with such an evolved capacity for verbal expression, but you get the general idea.

Now, were he to leave it to the punditry or make the statement himself,  explicitly, the connection between Jones' possible actions and what one might hope Imam Rauf would choose could not be lost on those who struggle with their own feelings and ideals with respect to the Cordoba House. Justly or unjustly, book burnings evoke ugly images of orgiastic fascist exercises in thought control. Similarly, images of Victory Mosques simply cannot help but intrude on even the most sober discussion of what to do with the site of the former Burlington Coat Factory, which was struck by the landing gear of one of the hijacked planes.

Both of these men have a unique opportunity to teach a lesson on rights and Rights. I do hope they both choose to do the right thing.