How governments lie

I am sure all the readers of this blog would be aware of the shooting of an innocent Brazilian electrician by British police in the wake of the second attempt at bombing the British underground.

The question of how police should deal appropriately with fast moving events is a complex one and is beyond the scope of this posting. But this incident does provide a good example of how governments use the media to get their version of events into the public consciousness first, knowing that this is what most people remember.
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Agnostic or atheist?

I am sure that some of you have noticed that you get a more negative response to saying you are an atheist than to saying that you are an agnostic. For example, in a comment to a previous posting, Erin spoke about finding it “weird that atheism is so counter-culture. Looking back at my youth, announcing your non-belief in God was a surefire shock tactic.” But while I have noticed that people are shocked when someone says that he/she is an atheist, they are a lot more comfortable with you saying that you are an agnostic. As a result some people might call themselves agnostics just to avoid the raised eyebrows that come with being seen as an atheist, lending support to the snide comment that “an agnostic is a cowardly atheist.”

I have often wondered why agnosticism produces such a milder reaction. Partly the answer is public perceptions. Atheism, at least in the US, is associated with people who very visibly and publicly challenge the role of god in the public sphere. When Michael Newdow challenged the legality of the inclusion of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance that his daughter had to say in school, the media focused on his atheism as the driving force, though there are religious people who also do not like this kind of encroachment of religion into the public sphere.

In former times, atheism was identified with the flamboyant and abrasive Madalyn Murray O’Hair whose legal action led in 1963 to the US Supreme Court voting 8-1 to ban “‘coercive’ public prayer and Bible-reading at public schools.” (In 1964 Life magazine referred to her as the most hated woman in America.) I discussed earlier that the current so-called intelligent design (ID) movement in its “Wedge” document sees this action as the beginning of the moral decline of America and is trying to reverse that course by using ID as a wedge to infiltrate god back into the public schools. Since O’Hair also founded the organization American Atheists, some people speculate that the negative views that Americans have of atheism is because of the movement’s close identification with her.

I think that it may also be that religious people view atheism as a direct challenge to their beliefs, since they think atheism means that you believe that there definitely is no god and that hence they must be wrong. Whereas they think agnostics keep an open mind about the possible existence of god, so you are accepting that they might be right.

The distinction between atheism and agnosticism is a bit ambiguous. For example, if we go to the Oxford English Dictionary, the words are defined as follows:

Atheist: One who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God.

Agnostic: One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.

The definition of atheism seems to me to be too hard and creates some problems. Denying the existence of god seems to me to be unsustainable. I do not know how anyone can reasonably claim that there definitely is no god, simply because of the logical difficulty of proving a negative. It is like claiming that there is no such thing as an extra-terrestrial being. How can one know such a thing for sure?

The definition of agnosticism, on the other hand, seems to me to be too soft, as if it grants the existence of god in some form, but says we cannot know anything about she/he/it.

To me the statement that makes a good starting point is the phrase attributed to the scientist-mathematician Laplace in a possibly apocryphal story. When he presented his book called the System of the World, Napoleon is said to have noted that god did not appear in it, to which Laplace is supposed to have replied that “I have no need for that hypothesis.”

If you hold an expanded Laplacian view that you have no need for a god to provide meaning or explanations and that the existence of god is so implausible as to be not worth considering as a possibility, what label can be put on you, assuming that a label is necessary? It seems like this position puts people somewhere between the Oxford Dictionary definitions of atheist and agnostic. But until we have a new word, I think that the word atheist is closer than agnostic and we will have to live with the surprise and dismay that it provokes.

Simplifying difficult texts – 2

To illustrate the problems of simplifying original texts, we can look at examples from Shakespeare and the Bible. I came across a site that seeks to make Shakespeare’s plays easier to understand by re-writing them:

Here is the original text from HAMLET Act III, Scene i, lines 57-91

To be, or not to be? That is the question—
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Here is the simplified text:

The question is: is it better to be alive or dead? Is it nobler to put up with all the nasty things that luck throws your way, or to fight against all those troubles by simply putting an end to them once and for all?


Fear of death makes us all cowards, and our natural boldness becomes weak with too much thinking. Actions that should be carried out at once get misdirected, and stop being actions at all.

Do the two passages have the same meaning? They convey different senses to me.
Or take the famous passage from Ecclesiastes 9:11 of the Bible. Here is the familiar King James Version:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

And here is the simplified modern language of the New Living Translation:

I have observed something else in this world of ours. The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise are often poor, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being at the right place at the right time.

Again, does the simplified passage capture the meaning of the original?

I am not criticizing the quality of the simplifications, although there may be better ones around. If you asked me what Shakespeare’s passages mean, I probably would have come out with a more confused meaning than what was given above. But the point is that it is in the process of struggling to understand the author’s original meaning that we make individual sense of the passage. I think that the best we can hope for is a shared consensus of the meaning, and we can never hope to exactly enter into the author’s mind.

This problem is always present when the US Supreme Court tries to rule on the constitutionality of present day issues using a document written over two hundred years ago. People who call themselves “strict constructionists” say that the constitution should be interpreted according to the text and the intent of the frames. But how can you glean intent? The text of the document, by itself, is not sufficient, because words can never capture exact meanings. Literary theorist and legal scholar Stanley Fish has an interesting article that is worth reading. In it he says:

It follows that any conclusion you reach about the intention behind a text can always be challenged by someone else who marshals different evidence for an alternative intention. Thus interpretations of the Constitution, no matter how well established or long settled, are inherently susceptible to correction and can always (but not inevitably) be upset by new arguments persuasively made in the right venues by skilled advocates.

This does not mean, however, that interpreting the Constitution is a free-form activity in which anything goes. The activism that cannot be eliminated from interpretation is not an activism without constraint. It is constrained by the knowledge of what its object is – the specifying of authorial intention. An activism that abandons that constraint and just works the text over until it yields a meaning chosen in advance is not a form of interpretation at all, but a form of rewriting.

This is why I am so much a fan of collaborative learning and discussions to tease out meaning. I think you get more out of having a group of people reading the original, (difficult) text, and then arguing about what it means, than by reading a simplified text alone, however ‘clear’ the latter might be.

Here is a Zen koan:

Hyakujo wished to send a monk to open a new monastery. He told his pupils that whoever answered a question most ably would be appointed. Placing a water vase on the ground, he asked: “Who can say what this is without calling its name?”
The chief monk said: “No one can call it a wooden shoe.”
Isan, the cooking monk, tipped over the vase with his foot and went out.
Hyakujo smiled and said: “The chief monk loses.” And Isan became the master of the new monastery.

What is the message this koan is trying to convey? The words are simple but the ideas are deep and captured succinctly. I think that it illustrates the point I am making here and I can try and tell you what it means to me, using a lot more words than in the original. But what does it mean to you?

Simplifying difficult texts

Some time ago, Aaron Shaffer in his blog expressed his disappointment with the texts he was reading in his philosophy class, particularly the fact that the writers seemed to not take the trouble to be concise, with individual sentences running as long as paragraphs. He felt that this poor writing diminished them in his eyes, since the ability to express one’s ideas briefly and concisely demonstrates intellect.

I have been thinking about his comment for some time. I too, on occasion, try to read some philosophy and tend to find it heavy going. The somewhat dense and obscure style of some branches of the arts and humanities (especially the post-modernist philosophers and the area known as cultural studies) led to a notable hoax being pulled by physicist Alan Sokal, who deliberately wrote a paper whose conscious meaninglessness was disguised using dense language and the jargon common to the field of cultural studies. His article Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity was published in the journal Social Text on the same day he wrote a newspaper article exposing his hoax. (I will write about the Sokal hoax in a later posting. As is usually the case, the issue was more complicated than it might first appear, and raises serious ethical issues.)

Of course, physicists are not in a good position to throw stones at philosophers because it has long been the case that physics papers have stopped being intelligible to anyone other than those in the same sub-sub-field. But the reason for this is that scientists long ago made the transition from writing for the general public in the form of books, to writing for fellow scientists, using the form of the short paper. Once the link to the public was broken, there was no necessity to try to make oneself intelligible since other scientists know your jargon. Some argue that scientists have carried this too far, which is why the public generally has such a poor idea of what scientists actually do.

But philosophers are still, by and large, writing for a general audience, so why is their writing so hard to understand? Part of the answer is that philosophers are dealing with a difficult subject, very abstract, and this requires very skilful writing to make clear to the non-specialist. Bertrand Russell was pretty good at this but he was an exception.

Some people have tried to tackle this problem by rewriting philosophical works to make them easier to understand. Some time ago, I received an email from a professor of philosophy about his project to simplify the works of philosophers by rewriting them, to remove redundancies, simplify language, etc. But this raises the issue: Can you rewrite someone else’s work without introducing distortions?

If we look at the path that ideas take, we can start with an idea in an author’s brain. The author’s meaning is translated into words, then the words are read by the reader and their meaning recreated in the reader’s brain. Ideally we would like the process:

author’s meaning —> written words —> reader’s meaning

to occur with no loss of precision. I think that this ideal cannot be attained because it is intrinsically impossible for words to exactly capture ideas. At best they come close and make a good approximation. The reason that an author may think he/she has expressed an idea exactly is because of the implicit meanings we individually assign to words, in addition to the explicit and agreed upon meanings that we all share.

The reader also uses implicit meanings of words in reconstructing the ideas but there is no guarantee that the reader’s implicit meanings are the same as that of the writer’s. Hence we end up with distortions. The author, if conscientious, tries to find the words and phrases that minimizes the amount of implicit meaning and best captures the idea, but this cannot be done with 100% accuracy. The more you try to replace implicit meanings with words, the wordier the writing gets.

So when someone tries to “clarify” the ideas of another author, that introduces a third filter of implicit meanings, and possibly greater distortions. This does not mean that it is not a worthwhile exercise. A good translator might be able to infer the original meaning of the author better than the novice reader can, and render those ideas in a form that makes it easier for the novice reader to understand. But there will always be some element of ambiguity that is intrinsic to the original work. And there is always the danger that the “simplified” work introduces new ideas that the original author did not intend.

In some areas, revisionist writings completely replace the original. For example, in teaching science, we almost never use the original papers of (say) Newton and Einstein. We use textbooks instead that explain the ideas originated by them. The difference for this may be that in modern science, the community works with consensus meanings. The original idea is usually elaborated on and expanded by many others before it becomes the paradigm which the community accepts. This paradigm then represents a kind of consensus scientific view of the field and people can set about trying to present the ideas in a simplified form, suitable for novices, which is how textbooks originate. We just give a nod to the originator of the idea but the idea has ceased to be his or hers alone. When we talk of “Newton’s theory” or “Einstein’s theory”, what we are referring to is not usually exactly what those people may have intended.

But in other areas (such as philosophy) there is no consensus paradigm to the field so there is no consensus belief structure. Hence we keep going back to the original sources, trying to tease out what the author intended. So while in physics, we never refer to someone using quantum mechanics as an “Einsteinian” or “Bohrian” (two people who had competing interpretations of quantum mechanics) but simply refer to the current consensus view, in other fields such as philosophy it is quite common to refer to someone as a “Kantian” or a “Lockian”, and this implies adherence to that person’s original views.

I’ll write more about this tomorrow.

Will the real Americans please stand up?

Once in a while, the media decides to find out what the “real” America thinks about some major issue that is consuming the national media.

I can immediately predict what they will do. They will send a reporter out to somewhere in the mid-west, say Ohio or Iowa or Nebraska, and that reporter will go to a small town or rural area, and interview some people there. And typically, the person interviewed will be white, middle-aged, middle-class, religious and church-going, and having a conventional occupation (teacher, home-maker, small businessperson).

These are supposed to be the “real” Americans, who represent the true values of the country.
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False memories

The person being interviewed on the quirky NPR radio program This American Life told a story that happened to him many years back. He had been walking with his wife in New York City when he saw Jackie Kennedy across the street waving at him. Since he did not know her, he looked around to see if she was waving at someone behind him but there was no one there. Not wanting to snub a former first lady, he waved back genially just before a taxi halted before her and he realized that she had merely been hailing a cab.
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Shafars and brights arise!

Sam Smith runs an interesting website called the Progressive Review. It is an idiosyncratic mix of political news and commentary with oddball, amusing, and quirky items culled from various sources thrown in. Mixed with these are his own thoughtful essays on various topics and one essay that is relevant to this series of posts on religion and politics is his call for “shafars” (an acronym he has coined that stands for people who identify with secularism, humanism, atheism, free thought, agnosticism, or rationalism) to play a more visible and assertive role in public life and to not let the overtly religious dominate the public sphere.
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Religious beliefs and public policy – 2

In the previous post I discussed the problems that can arise when religious beliefs start influencing public policy. But because issues of the environment and global warming are so long term, it is possible, in the short term, to ignore the inherent contradictions that can arise. But this luxury is not available when it comes to issues of war and peace.

For example, take the turmoil in the Middle East. Whatever one’s political views, one would hope that in general all would tend to agree that long-term peace is a good thing and that policies that increase the risk of violence and instability are bad things. So one would think that if one was convinced that a certain policy might lead to greater risk of war in the Middle East, then that policy should be avoided.

But in the topsy-turvy world of rapture-based politics such assumptions do not hold. Take for example, the so-called “Road Map” for Middle East peace, a strategic plan that has been proposed by the United States, European Union, United Nations, and Russia and is seen as providing hope for long-term peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The Dominionists (or dispensationalists) are not thrilled by it. As Barbara Rossing says in her book The Rapture Exposed (p. 46):

The influence of dispensationalism can be seen also in fundamentalist Christians’ opposition to the U.S.-backed “Road Map” for peace in Israel and Palestine. “The Bible is my Road Map,” declares an Internet petition circulated by [Pat] Robertson, [Jerry] Falwell, and LaHaye in opposition to a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Peace and peace plans in the Middle East are a bad thing, in the view of fundamentalist Christians, because they delay the countdown to Christ’s return. Israel must not compromise by giving back any occupied territory to the Palestinians. New Israel settlements and a rebuilt third temple are God’s will for Israel, no matter how violent the consequences.

The dispensationalist version of the biblical story requires tribulation and war in the Middle East, not peace plans. That is the most terrifying aspect of the distorted theology. Such blessing of violence is the very reason why we cannot afford to give in to the dispensationalist version of the biblical storyline – because real people’s lives are at stake.

You cannot persuade Dominionists that hard-line Israeli policies should be rejected because they will lead to instability and chaos and bloodshed, because they see this as an argument in their favor. It is as a good thing because it is a sign of the second coming. Similarly, policies that might lead to increased upheaval in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and so on are welcomed as fulfillments of their version of Biblical prophecy of the end-times.

It is somewhat bizarre that people who hold such views on what public policies should be adopted seem to have access to the media and influential policy makers in the government. Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and a whole host of Dominionist people like to emphasize the fact that they have strong influence and access to the levers of government.

What should be the response to this? The next posting will examine the options.


Well, it had to come, the inevitable link between capitalism and end-times theology. Mark Wilson’s blog reports on a new series of video games based on the rapture to be released soon.

Religious beliefs and public policy

Barbara Rossing is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church and is a faculty member at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. She is an evangelical who feels that the rapturists have, in trying to take the Bible literally, totally distorted its message. Her book The Rapture Exposed is her attempt to reclaim the message of the Bible. In the process, she argues that although this is a religious dispute between segments of Christianity, we should all, whatever our beliefs, take it seriously because it has public policy implications for all of us.

In a comment to a previous posting about the rapture, Professor Madigan spoke about her former sister-in-law who back in the 1980s was convinced that the rapture was imminent and that the day had been specified and that she would be one of the chosen. She then proceeded to run up her credit card bills, thinking that she would not have to pay it back. Of course, she had to deal with all the bills when the rapture did not happen. Dave’s comment in the previous entry seems to indicate that this kind of credit-card behavior is quite widespread. (Here is an interesting conundrum: Is it unethical to run up bills that you have no intention of paying if you think that the end of the world is about to occur?)

I would imagine that this kind of extreme behavior is somewhat rare and that most believers in the rapture hedge their bets and continue to make their mortgage, credit card, and insurance payments.

But even if some people are tempted to act recklessly, such actions by private individuals do not do too much damage to the community at large. But not all rapture-influenced actions are that innocuous. Rossing’s book reveals some startling information about rapture-influenced political appointees that I was not aware of (since I was not in the US at that time) but whose actions can affect all of us. One such person is James Watt who was appointed to the post of Secretary of the Interior after Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Rossing says:

Reagan-era Secretary of the Interior James Watt told U.S. senators that we are living at the brink of the end-times and implied that this justifies clearcutting the nation’s forests and other unsustainable environmental policies. When he was asked about preserving the environment for future generations, Watt told his Senate confirmation hearing, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” (p. 7)

One might wonder how such a person as James Watt could ever have been confirmed to the post that is entrusted to protect the environment. One would think that the job description for the position of Secretary of the Interior requires someone who takes a very long-term view, and that anyone who cannot envisage the need to take care of the environment beyond the next few generations would be eliminated. And perhaps there was a time when such people would not be nominated to high positions but that seems to be no longer the case. Nowadays, politicians seem to feel obliged to wear their religion on their sleeves and proudly proclaim how it influences everything they do.

Of course, most people are religious in some way and there is no doubt that their religious beliefs will have an effect on what they do and what policies they support. We should protect people’s right to believe whatever they want. But should that protection also extend to public policies that they wish to implement that are based on their religious beliefs? Can we draw a line between policies based on religion that are acceptable and those that are not? Or is it better to simply say that any public policy that has religion as its only basis is not acceptable.

These questions become more apparent with issues such as global warming. If global temperatures are rising at about one degree per century as experts suggest, then in a few centuries the melting of the polar ice gaps, the loss of glaciers, and the consequent rise in sea levels would have catastrophic consequences, causing massive flooding of coastal areas and huge climatic changes. Suppose the Secretary of the Interior says that since the end of the world is going to occur long before then, we should not worry about it, should that person be removed from office? Is it religious discrimination to say that we should not be basing public policy on religious beliefs?

If James Watt had been rejected as a nominee because of the feeling that his religion-based short-term views were dangerous for the environment, could it have been alleged that he was the subject of religious discrimination?

This is a very tricky question because while we do not want to impinge on people’s right to religious beliefs, we do have a responsibility to base policies on empirical evidence. The public policy implications of religion becomes even more alarming when applied to issues of war and peace as we will see in the next posting.

The allure of rapture violence

I must say that since I recently started reading about the rapture (see here and here for previous posts on it), it has fascinated me. (Some readers of this blog who had never heard of the rapture before I started posting on it have told me they were startled to find people they know accepting the idea of it very matter-of-factly, as if it were nothing special.) Not that I take the basic idea of huge numbers of people being transported suddenly up into heaven seriously, of course. That strikes me as a wild flight of fancy that belongs in the same genre as Star Wars or Harry Potter films, i.e., enjoyable largely because it is so outrageously improbable.
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