Hawking Up Hairballs

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Abandoned Books

Once I start a book, I generally read it all the way through to the end, even if I don’t like it. Of late though, I seem to have less patience with the books I choose, and in the last few weeks I’ve abandoned two of them.

The first was The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris. There was much that I agreed with early on in the book, namely his critique of religion. As he says, “...the doctrines of modern religions are no more tenable than those which, for lack of adherents, were cast upon the scrap heap of mythology millennia ago; for there is no more evidence to justify a belief in the literal existence of Yahweh and Satan than there was to keep Zeus perched upon his mountain throne or Poseidon churning up the seas.”

I’m also with Harris one-hundred percent when he maintains that religions are inherently intolerant. He argues that so-called religious moderates are merely those who have made peace with secularism by betraying certain tenets of their faith. As he puts it, “By failing to live by the letter of the texts, while tolerating the irrationality of those who do, religious moderates betray faith and reason equally.”

Like Harris, I believe that religious adherents should be treated like Holocaust deniers. Not that they should be jailed like the denier Harris in Austria. That is a violation of free speech, but people of reason should exercise their own right of free speech in attacking the irrational beliefs and pretensions of religionists. The Jews aren’t and never have been God’s chosen people. Jesus Christ was not the son of God and, if he really did die on a cross, it was because he ran afoul of the Jewish and Roman authorities. He died for no one’s sins, except perhaps his own. Likewise, Mohammed was not God’s prophet, nor was Joseph Smith, nor anyone else. All such beliefs are nonsense.

Harris tends to bracket religions as ideological systems, abstracting them from their sociological and historical contexts. As a result, he’s particularly hard on Islam which he sees as an inherently violent and warlike religion. For example, he says that “...the Muslims hate the West in the very terms of their faith and that the Koran mandates such hatred.” He goes on to quote a few more passages supporting his point and maintains that the West has no choice but to intervene in those countries where there is a significant Islamic fundamentalist presence. As he puts it, “Given that even failed states now possess potentially disruptive technology, we can no longer afford to live side by side with malign dictatorships or with the armies of ignorance massing across the oceans...the transition from tyranny to liberalism is unlikely to be accomplished by plebiscite. It seems all but certain that some form of benign dictatorship will generally be necessary to bridge the gap. But benignity is the key - and if it cannot emerge from within a state, it must be imposed from without...While this may seem an exceedingly arrogant doctrine to espouse, it appears we have no alternatives.” Hence, he supports the thrust of US efforts in places like Iraq.

I have to part ways with Harris there. We differ in assigning cause and effect. Harris contends that the Islamic countries of the Middle East are a threat to the rest of the world because of the prevalence of a fundamentalism that espouses jihad. I tend to believe that popularity of jihadism is an effect, not a cause, though it may be self-reinforcing once it reaches a certain level of prominence.

All religions have fundamentalist traditions that preach death to unbelievers. Harris himself quotes a passage from Deuteronomy that mandates the stoning of those who fall away from the belief in God and return to worshiping so-called false idols. The question that needs to be asked is why these fundamentalist sects rise to prominence in certain nations at certain times. The answer is because they suit the historical circumstance. Since the advent of the Crusades, the West has been trying to impose its will upon the Middle East. With the discovery of oil there and the growth of our dependence on it, the need to impose our will on the Middle East has become a real imperative. I can’t think of a country of the Middle East that has not had a government imposed on it by the West. In all too many cases, these governments have been brutal dictatorships that fiercely oppressed their own populations while protecting and advancing the interests of Western governments and big businesses. This has understandably led to outrage and anger among those populations. Islamic fundamentalism has risen to prominence because it gives an ideological framework to their frustrations.

It is not enough to argue against the irrational beliefs that lead young Islamic militants to blow themselves up in crowded, public places, nor can we expect to impose a supposedly benign dictatorship upon their countries until they accept liberal democracy. The disaster in Iraq should be an adequate demonstration of that. No, we also need to relieve the oppression of the people among whom these beliefs find their adherents. That applies to the US as well as to the Middle East. As the more and more good, stable jobs are destroyed in this country and the economic fortunes of American families continue to decline, it just may happen that Christian fundamentalism will grow even stronger here than it already is, though that’s something I hope that I never see.

The other book I abandoned was Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe’s Hidden Dimensions by Lisa Randall. It was a combination of boredom and irritation that led me to the decision. The boredom came from the very nature of the book. I like to read these popular accounts of physics and its most recent developments. However, this book, like so many others, spends over half of its pages recounting the rise of relativity, quantum theory, the so-called Standard Model, and so on. I don’t know how many times I’ve read about these topics and I don’t need to go through it again. The trouble is that she interspersed just enough new material in those early chapters that I couldn’t just skip them, so I gave up.

Randall is a theoretical physicist and she irritated me as so many physicists do when they write these kinds of books. The trouble with most of them is that they are naive realists. Since they tend to pooh-pooh philosophy and have never read Kant, they think that the human perceptual apparatus is like a movie camera, recording what’s “really” out there with some inevitable distortion here and there. They don’t seem to realize that our perceptual apparatus participates in creating reality. Hence, when quantum mechanics says that you can’t know the position or momentum of a particle until you measure it, and that you fix it when you do measure it, they find it mysterious. The fact is that it makes perfect sense if one realizes that we participate in creating reality, something which is not apparent to us except at the extremes of very small size or very large energies.

Like so many physicists, and mathematicians as well, Randall is also a Platonist. By that I mean that she believes that the mathematical constructs that are required to explain the world have a real existence. For example, physicists now believe that it is necessary to posit spatial dimensions beyond the normal three in order to explain certain subatomic phenomena. These dimensions are rolled up into small spheres so they are not apparent to us, or so say the theorists. I’m afraid that I must disagree. Just because a mathematical model which posits the existence of these dimensions is necessary to explain certain phenomena, doesn’t mean that all of the elements of the model represent things that actually exist. Those extra dimensions are mathematical constructs and nothing more. There is a long philosophical tradition that stands in opposition to Platonism called nominalism, and it’s a nominalist position that I’m holding here. Neither Platonism nor nominalism can be proved to be true, though many prominent philosophers have tried in both cases. However, in the case of modern physics, Platonism leads one to espouse some truly nonsensical ideas like the existence of multiple universes or the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.


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