Thursday, December 15, 2016

Trial by Combat

Occasionally an old trial-by-combat law is found to remain on the books - but no one takes them seriously. Why not? Wouldn't head-to-head, armed combat be an efficient means to determine guilt and innocence?

If you don't believe in the efficacy of trial-by-combat in rendering justice then you obviously don't think that there is a god making sure that the good guys always win. You might even be accustomed to such phrases as, "only the good die young," and, "nice guys always finish last."

Why is it, then, that we so readily accept a trial-by-combat philosophy of history? We obviously have a bias to do so given that modern society is, in the broadest sense, the result of a series of war victories. If you are American then the American Revolution serves as evidence that an empire has no right to subjugate a colony. The American Civil war is easy - slavery is wrong from every angle. World War II? Hitler.

Obviously empires, slavery, and genocide are terrible things. Those that fight against them are heroes. A more detailed study of such conflicts, however, reveals that war typically isn't entered into for such simple, noble reasons. The path to war is usually very complicated and entails many compromises and whispered promises.

If all men were created equal then why were so many of them still held as slaves while rich landowners were liberated from foreign taxes? Was the American Civil war truly over slavery or were there also deeper economic motivations? As bad as Hitler was, why did the U.S. stay out of World War II until Hitler declared war on them?

Overall, those wars have been the easiest to rationalize; to reduce to a single, noble cause. Even if motivations were much more complicated, that doesn't make the simple, noble simplifications false - but it does reveal a bias that is used to colour our view of other conflicts.

Few laymen can even begin to layout the basics of The Spanish-American War or World War I. Then there is Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq to consider. All sold on relatively simple White Hat/Black Hat stories. With bombs still falling in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more either dropped or still dropping on Pakistan, Libya, Syria and Somalia - Americans need to ask themselves if they believe in justice from trial-by-combat.

As Nazi SS officers looked at each other, hats decorated with a skull and cross-bones, some of them must have wondered, "Could we be the bad guys here?" A quick Google search of "CIA scandals" has to spawn the same question for many Americans.

American apologists typically point to the prosperity of their country as evidence that they really are the white-hats. Americans have won so many wars and been economically rewarded. Has America been economically rewarded for their efforts? By whom? A god that makes sure the good guys always win? If so, then you must believe in justice from trial-by-combat.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Cycle of Identity Politics

The term 'identity politics' has been thrown around a lot lately. It is a term that is often misunderstood and misused. Identity politics is a strategy of garnering the support of very specific, often marginalized, segments of the population: gays, blacks, creationists, or the disabled - for example. It seeks to coagulate support by seeking out strong affiliations.

One party might seek the support of racial minorities while another might seek the support of Christians. The voter must decide with which affiliation he or she most strongly identifies. For a fundamentalist-Christian African-American this can pose a paradox and the resolution typically lies in the degree to which the respective parties address the needs of the voter's respective identities.

Traditionally, political parties represent business (right) or labour (left). Labour is, and will always be, the largest demographic, so the right garners their vote by convincing them not to bite the hand that feeds them. Hard working labourers are told that reducing taxes on big business will result in more jobs - in better paying jobs. They are told that better work conditions will result in fewer work positions.

In recent decades, however, that sales-pitch became harder and harder to sell as big business flourished while labour stagnated. That is when the first big identity fissure was cracked open in the US with the courtship of fundamentalist Christians by the Republican Party. The electorate has since been fractured into a myriad of identity groups like a slab of peanut brittle.

Identity politics has given voice to ever more marginalized groups of people. This phenomenon can work for the greater good when it extends recognition and protections to such groups - thus reducing their disadvantage. It becomes problematic when it distracts from the plight of the base - the working class.

Both Republicans and Democrats have moved in leaps and bounds to the right - towards big business interests. While 51% of American workers now earn less than $28k per year, 30% of American workers earn less than half of that. The Republicans continue to warn them that if they demand more they will end up with less. The Democrats, on the other hand, tell them that everything is fine - rhetoric that rings hollow in the ears of a worker who is earning less than they did 20 years ago.

While the multi-fractured identity groups have been making gains, the biggest group (labour) has been coming up short. Donald Trump actually identified this - so it seems that even a blind squirrel can find a nut once in a while. While it seems to many that all he did was rage against marginalized groups, he would have never garnered such widespread support if that had been the entirety of his message. He correctly played the labour identity against marginalized identities. He spoke to the working class and told them that all their woes were to blame on the marginalized classes.

This left much of the electorate facing the same paradox as the fundamentalist-Christian African-American. With which group do you best identify? Which of your respective identities is being best addressed? If you were a Muslim earning a six-figure salary then Trump had nothing to offer you. If you were a Muslim earning less than $20k per year then you actually had to parse the situation carefully.

So, as much as one might support racial/gender/abilities equality, employment and wages remained a trump card. The two sides aren't mutually exclusive but by failing to address labour the Democrats made them exclusive. They told you that if you voted for the despot who promised you jobs then you were a racist, misogynist, xenophobic bigot. In not admitting to the working class that wages really have stagnated, they failed to connect with them.

Identity politics has cycled like a fractal projection. The smallest fissures are now visible as part of a macroscopic structure. It is now clear that all the marginalized groups are just outcroppings of labour. Regardless of how one identifies by race, sexuality, gender, or religion - at the end of the day we all need to put food on the table.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Disciples of Change

A narrative essay by – Heather Spoonheim

I often encounter people who find it offensive that I haven’t subscribed to the Climate Change bandwagon. To be frank, that is where the conversation typically ends, because such people rarely have anything more to bring to the discussion than the average theist. The problem that always arises in those situations is the climate change disciple’s inability to differentiate between Climate Change science and the Climate Change movement.

The science behind Climate Change is sound enough, and the predictions seem rather certain, even though admittedly grim, so who am I to question them? Well I don’t question them, actually, but few Climate Change disciples are capable of engaging in enough rational discussion to actually figure that out. The issue that seems to set them off is my failure to perceive virtue in running around screaming that the sky is going to fall.

The line I most often hear is, “We need to take action now!” That’s fair enough, but I feel that I’ve been taking action for 20 years. I’ve been a minimalist for most of my adult life and have, as such, maintained a very small carbon footprint. To that end, I’ve driven the same 4 cylinder jeep YJ for over 19 years, resulting in fewer cars being produced. In those 19 years, I’ve racked up 125,000 kilometers on my jeep, which is less than most North Americans drive in 3 years, resulting in less fossil fuel combustion. Even the electricity that I use is over 90% hydroelectric. Furthermore, having had no children, my contribution to carbon dioxide emissions ends when I expel my last breath.

Given all of these things, any rational person should understand why I am unmoved by Climate Change disciples who load their children into SUV’s to go on unnecessary shopping trips to stores that sell superfluous items like battery operated cork screws. The irony of these things never seems to sink into the mind of Climate Change disciples, however. On the few occasions that I have been able to finish explaining that I restricted my carbon footprint long before they ever knew what a carbon footprint was, their anxiety actually seemed to escalate. The next message of salvation that typically flies out of their mouths is, “Not just us, the big corporations need to be stopped!”

The rationality of the above proclamation has always eluded me. I have many reasons why I think ‘big corporations’ are ‘bad’, but none of them are based on the state of our environment. The Climate Change disciple’s concept of ‘big corporations’ seems to be that of an alien entity that has landed on our planet to set up big carbon dioxide generating stations. There are no carbon dioxide generating stations being operated by aliens though; those stations are, in point of fact, factories that are run by consumer dollars.

Factories don’t produce goods for shipment to alien worlds; they produce goods to be purchased by human consumers. If you are a consumer of goods, then you are paying to have factories output carbon dioxide in exchange for the goods they produce. In this way, big corporations, in and of themselves, have no carbon footprint at all. This, however, is exactly where the religious aspect of the Climate Change movement is revealed. Rather than atoning for their own sins, Climate Change disciples seek absolution by nailing ‘big corporations’ to an imaginary cross. No climate change disciple that I have encountered to date has ever let me complete the vocalization of this blasphemy, however.

Some environmentalists have listened quite attentively to my thoughts on this matter, and for the most part they are very receptive. Typically our discussions develop into debates over the potential of reducing our carbon footprints by way of emerging technologies. I quite enjoy such discussions because they at least recognize the causes of Climate Change rather than declaring dogmatically that unquestioning belief is the solution. Only those who are willing to engage in such discussions can ever come to understand just how heavily the odds are stacked against us.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

An Argument Against Allah (1)

An epistemological review by – Heather Spoonheim

In the case against the existence of gods I would like to submit the Gettier Problem. Essentially the Gettier Problem postulates that even if claimed knowledge turns out to be true, it may not actually constitute knowledge. As an example, consider a variation of Case 1 of the Gettier Problem:

Tamara works in an office where her friend, Bob Romanchuck, has applied for a job. While walking past the Human Resources office, she hears two administrators talking about how they intend to hire Bob Romanchuck for the new position. Now Tamara leaves, believing that Bob Romanchuck is going to get the job, and tells her friend that he is about to be hired. As it turns out, however, there were two Bob Romanchucks who applied for the job and it was the other Bob Romanchuck who got hired.

This example varies a great deal from Gettier's 10 coins but only in that rather than possessing an equal number of coins the applicants possess equal names. In this case, although (a) Tamara believed that a man named Bob Romanchuck would get the job, (b) a man named Bob Romanchuck did in fact get the job, and (c) Tamara had good reason for her belief – she did not in fact have knowledge and, in point of fact, she actually had false knowledge.

Consider then that a god exists: for instance, Anu. Anu is a sky-god, the god of heaven, lord of constellations, king of gods, spirits and demons, and dwells in the highest heavenly regions. He also has the power to judge those who have committed crimes. Should irrefutable proof be uncovered of Anu’s existence, Christians and Muslims might instantly claim that this is their beloved Yahweh or Allah but they would in fact be irrefutably wrong. Although Anu possesses similar traits to Yahweh or Allah, he is neither Yahweh nor Allah and sent neither Jesus nor Mohammed to earth to guide mankind to salvation.

In this instance, both Christianity and Islam would be wrong, even though they believed in a god and a god did in fact turn out to exist. Most importantly, however, their epistemology was flawed because the stories of Yahweh and Allah are known to be fabricated in the minds of men and there is no good reason to believe in their existence.

It is not enough, therefore, to simply abstract the concept of a god and say that perhaps there is some conscious prime mover and that conscious prime mover constitutes a god. Without the third criterion of knowledge being met – (c) the believer must have good reason for their belief – the purported knowledge is not knowledge at all, such as illustrated in Case 2 of the Gettier Problem. Without falsifiable evidence for a conscious prime mover, there is no good reason for such a belief and it is therefore not knowledge.

Furthermore, even though a conscious prime mover may in fact exist, there is no way of tying that conscious prime mover to the belief of such held by any deist. Without a specific claim of justified knowledge there is no justification in asserting that the sheer coincidence of the true case of unjustified knowledge constitutes any specific thing, least of all a ‘god’ – whatever that word even means at this point in time. Like the Tamara of the aforementioned example, the deist has nothing more than knowledge of a label/name that, even in the most charitable of circumstances, may be shared with a circumstance that turns out to be true.

To this end, one cannot rule out the possibility that a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away there was a young humanoid named Luke Skywalker who looked exactly like Mark Hamill. The existence of such a being, however, does not affirm that the fiction of George Lucas was, in fact, non-fiction. The creation of the mind of George Lucas remains a fiction regardless of the literal existence of a being that fits the description of one of his fabricated characters – the actual Luke Skywalker, regardless of how similar his life might have been to George Lucas’ Luke Skywalker, was not and is not George Lucas’ Luke Skywalker.

Considering all of these things and given that there is no evidence for the existence of gods, any and all claims of the existence of gods do not constitute knowledge and no such gods exist. Even if some evidence is one day discovered to prove the existence of a mighty being, creator of all things, that being must then and there be evaluated to determine whether or not it is in fact a god. Until such a time, no gods can possibly be said to exist or even postulated to exist in the form of anything one can rationally define as knowledge. There are no gods.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Islamic Threat

A narrative essay by – Heather Spoonheim

It has, of late, become impossible to compare or contrast the Abrahamic religions without encountering the theatrics of fear-mongering Islamophobes. Coherent dialogue rapidly becomes a phantom as emotional pleas propel themselves up slippery slopes, launching into nationalistic tirades. The greatest trick of the labyrinth lay in the abstractly, yet inextricably bound concepts of religion, culture, and government.

The enemies are as elusive as the various deities, who are, ironically, one. Each of the Abrahamic religions can be blamed for, as well as declared a victim of, some historic atrocity. Devotees of each chapter of the Abrahamic trilogy have killed, or been killed by, devotees of both other chapters. Many nations have state religions, or at least religions alleged to be at their foundation, but none of them rely on their god for protection; they turn, in his stead, to the weapons of man.

For most of the life of this writer, the balance of religious violence has been confined to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Having been cognizant of this conflict and observing, at times, daily reports on the violence, political contexts, ideologies, and grievances for over 30 years while also having read over a dozen books on the subject, one thing is clear: religion no longer has anything to do with it. Jesus Christ could appear in the Hubble Telescope tomorrow, zooming in faster than light to take his throne in Jerusalem and the Israelis and Palestinians would both start shooting at him, each declaring him to be a fraud perpetrated by the other.

Even if the entire Jewish population of Israel converted to Islam tomorrow, Palestinians would still hate them and want to kill them; so too would it be vice versa. The erasure of religion altogether would not erase the hatred of groups identified as murderers, racially defined boundaries, or the lust of politicians for garnering station and status. Failing all else, cultures would be redefined by ideologies as arbitrary as opening boiled eggs from the big or small end.

For the rest of us, this Jewish/Muslim conflict spilled out onto the world stage on the 11th of September, in the year of the Christian lord, two thousand and one. The images of the horror were burned into the Western mind in a televised holocaust. The broadcasts repeatedly informed viewers that 50,000 people worked at the World Trade Center. As the towers collapsed, many viewers, including this writer, fell to their knees and were reminded yet again that 50,000 people worked in those towers.

Before the estimates of fatalities had dropped below ten thousand, the face and name of Osama Bin Laden were branded into the Western psyche. He was an Arab, and a known Islamic terrorist who was at the top of the FBI’s most wanted list: a prime suspect. As the estimates of fatalities continued to drop, the hatred of al-Qaeda, Islam, and Arabs in general, escalated – and the proverbial finger of blame began to swing wildly.

A Democratic President had rocketed al-Qaeda training camps but had failed to capture the Islamic terrorist who had openly declared war on the U.S. over 3 years earlier. The Republican Commander in Chief at the time of the attacks had failed to act on intelligence reports that might have saved so many lives. The American intelligence community had dropped the ball repeatedly by not sharing information efficiently. Noam Chomsky was quick to blame Western civilization itself but that finger of blame was leveled too quickly, too harshly, and was bitten off; many still chew on it.

By the end of the month some backward clerics from a podunk country were given an international audience. Osama Bin Laden was there, it was claimed, and that shoddy lineup of holy men wouldn’t hand him over. There was no way to declare war on the country, however, because those holy men were not recognized as the official government and, in any event, had no connection with the attacks. The solution was to declare a military action and label it a ‘War on Terror’; Ted Turner must have peed a little.

By the end of the year it was clear that roughly 3,000 Americans had died at the hands of terrorists in the September 11 attacks; little to no attention was given to the fact that during the course of that same year Americans themselves had killed roughly 16,000 Americans; it was time for the enemy to start spilling some blood. Who was this enemy though? We were told that we weren’t at war with Arabs, Islam, or even any single nation. In a post hoc twist, we were told that we weren’t even at war with al-Qaeda or Osama Bin Laden.

We were at war with those who despised freedom, and we had to sacrifice freedoms to protect freedoms. We were killing people overseas so that we could spread freedom. In America, habeas corpus was suspended, the intelligence community began illegal wire taps, secret warrants, courts, and arrests were authorized, and the American President himself gave the green-light to torture – all in the name of freedom. The notion of protecting freedom became as convoluted as the notion of a god who fathered himself so he could kill himself to appease himself at the anger he harboured for that which he had himself created in his own image. The scripture for protecting freedom became bound in The Patriot Act; a scripture that was re-consecrated today, a decade after the infamous attacks.

Somewhere along the way Iraq was invaded as well; it is still occupied. The determination of civilians and enemy combatants in an occupied country is a philosophical paradox but, nonetheless, the Iraqi death toll from the ‘War on Terror’ is irrefutably into the six figures and terrorism is more rampant there than ever before. The death toll in the Afghani theatre of the ‘War on Terror’ is impossible to establish, but it isn’t any better than in Iraq. This is the death toll inflicted by the West in the ‘War on Terror’: a war that has never been declared on Islam but which, nonetheless seems to claim primarily Islamic victims.

Today there are those who feel the need to declare Islam a threat, to ring the alarms, sound the bells, and run madly down the street screaming; others are much more eloquent in their declarations of the Islamic threat. Although terrorist have never, in a single calendar year, around the world, killed more people than Americans kill Americans in the same calendar year – they are a scourge on humanity and must be stopped. They have no nation other than Islam common to them, so it must be that religion of theirs that drives them to such madness. Their madness could not possibly derive from the occupation of their lands by foreign powers, for they have always been terrorists, all the way back to Sayyid Qutb, who was born as the world was shifting into a petroleum economy. This sarcasm only grows a little dry when it is pointed out that suicide bombers are far more frightening, even if less deadly, than American criminals with handguns.

The ‘War on Terror’ is an oxymoron, an hypocrisy, and an abject failure. The death tolls prove that the West has been the greatest terrorist in the world for the past decade. Freedom cannot be delivered to a nation; it must be won by that nation. Will the West recognize an elected Iraqi or Afghani government that does not espouse Western values? Are they free to adopt sharia as their system of law if they freely choose to do so?

Perhaps the greatest failure of the ‘War on Terror’ is the toll it has taken on the capacity and moral stance of the West to respond to the nuclear proliferation of Iran. The one country in the Middle East that was actually on course to pose a serious threat to the world has been left to develop its nuclear capabilities. Rather than chasing phantom enemies or developing a hatred for Islam, we would have been far better reasoned to focus on Mouhmoud Ahmadinejad. Let us not, however, make the mistake of calling this man an Islamic threat.

Unlike Osama Bin Laden, Mouhmoud Ahmadinejad is a head of state who openly declares his hatred of the West and all Judaism. He is actively pursuing nuclear technology and, although we have him surrounded, any move against him is going to seal our fate with all of Islam. We are at a precipice overlooking the eternal hatred that exists between Palestine and Israel. If we allow Islamophobia to control our adrenal gland, all the terrorists need do is say boo and we’ll be diving into an ocean of hatred that will outlast our species.

How can the West justify an attack on Iran while North Korea has been dealt with through economic sanctions? Islam is no justification at all considering the cult of personality that surrounds Kim Jong-Il; that guy makes Mouhmoud Ahmadinejad look like Sigmund Freud. Islam, however, will be seen as the culprit whether declared as such or not.

With the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, the tolerance of torture and secret prisons, and a death toll that is still ticking, the West has lost the advantage of any moral stance to which it ever laid claim. Our open ended ‘War on Terror’ is one step away from being a war on Islam and most in the East perceive the West to have crossed that line 8 years ago in full sprint. Adding cultural hatred of Islam to our repertoire will only serve as the cement that binds us to our extinction.

If the West engages the East in a war of ideologies it will only be a matter of time until, like Israel and Palestine, religion will no longer be needed to perpetuate the violence. Honestly, this writer feels that the only option we have left is to allow Iran to develop its nuclear capability as we get our asses the hell out of there. We can always take solace in the fact that the only planet destroying nuclear arsenal in the world resides in the United States of America; let’s just make sure fundamentalist Christianity doesn’t gain control of it.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

What is Reality?

A narrative essay by – Heather Spoonheim

Recently I have run into a string of theists who suggest that I am unable to perceive reality, or that my notion of reality is as much a fairy tale as I suggest theirs to be. These assertions are most aggressively made when I tell them that creationism and/or intelligent design are not scientific models and therefore do not belong in science classrooms. When I explain that science is based on observations of physical reality, observations that either of us can make for ourselves should either of us choose to pursue that avenue, they inevitably regress to the suggestion that I cannot even define physical reality. To this end, I’ve decided to take up that challenge.

Although reality would seem to be an objective, unequivocal truth, any attempt to conclusively define it quickly deteriorates into solipsism. One begins by trying to establish the certainty of one’s own existence by identifying with the thoughts that one perceives as arising in one’s own mind. From this definition of self (I think therefore I am) it becomes clear that there are perceptions that arise exclusively within the mind (thoughts) and perceptions that arise exclusively from without (senses). Continuing further, reality can be defined as an objective interpretation of that which can be perceived outside of the mind (sensed).

There seems to be no way of conclusively defining reality without acknowledging the role that one’s own senses, and therefore one’s own mind, play in determining that reality. In point of fact, one’s very notion of reality is nothing more than an internal model (thought) of that which has been externally perceived (sensed). To make matters even more complicated, there exists the possibility that the very notion of reality is nothing more than a dream, that it has all been generated internally (thought).

If, in fact, the physical reality of which I have a notion is nothing more than a dream generated by my own mind, then I am the god of that reality: I have created it; I can manipulate it to my own will, without limit; nothing occurs within it that isn’t the product of my own will; and I am the only facet of it that will continue to exist when I have ceased to dream of it.

If, in fact, the physical reality of which I have a notion is nothing more than a dream generated not by my own mind, then I am deceived. If my thoughts are even my own, which is questionable, then the senses that I have do not reveal anything other than that which the deceiver wishes me to perceive. Such a deceiver, therefore, is determining my notion of reality and therefore corralling my notions thereof. Under such circumstance I am unable to conceive of such a deceiver by any definition other than that of a malevolent trickster, a demon.

Finally, if in fact the physical reality of which I have a notion is not a dream, that is to say that it exists independent of my notions of it, then it is something which I can only come to know through my own senses. To this end, other people whom I encounter have their own minds, independent of my own, and they too have the ability to sense the same physical world of which I am a part. Furthermore, it is possible for us to compare what we have sensed to determine whether or not our models of reality match; that is to say that we can actually exchange thoughts about the nature of the reality which we have independently sensed.

Physical senses can often be deceiving though. I might perceive that there is a bat hanging in a tree only to later realize that it was a shadow. For this reason, determination of reality requires extensive investigation. The most powerful tool we have in determining physical reality is the model of collaborative investigation put forward by science. One need not be a scientist to benefit from the model it puts forth though.

For instance, to determine the amount of money taken in at a restaurant, several people act independently to count that money at different stages. Each server counts the money they have taken in and makes a note of that amount. The head server collects all their money and counts it, as well as calculating the sum of the values entered in their notes. The accountant makes another count of that money and the money is counted yet again at the bank. If, at any given point, the amounts counted and noted by different people do not add up, the discrepancy is not adequately explained away by simply declaring that one person or the other has a different perception of reality.

If the owner of the restaurant finds that the revenues are not to his liking he may have the thought that a thief exists. Simply thinking that the thief exists does not give rise to the existence of the thief, however. The determination of whether or not a thief exists requires an investigation, an audit of the paper trail and perhaps surveillance of the staff. If the investigation fails to prove the existence of the thief then a rational owner would have to at least entertain the notion that no such thief exists. He may cling to the notion that a thief exists simply because he does not find the revenues appealing, but that notion is not well grounded in reality.

Having such notions does not make a person less of a human being; on the contrary, I suggest that such notions are very much a part of what it means to be human. To be a rational human, however, one must accept that notions of reality do not always reflect reality and that there is in fact an objective reality to be investigated. It is this objective reality that I define as reality. It is the investigation of this reality that I call science, and it must, for the sake of rationality, remain unpolluted by notions that are not founded upon physical evidence. The notion that there is a god of some sort manipulating or propagating our reality is one that is not, and by most definitions of god cannot be, supported by the evidence and therefore it must remain outside the science classrooms of our children.

I realize that creationists and proponents of intelligent design feel that their notions of god are being discredited by objective investigations of reality, but like the aforementioned restaurant owner they should at least entertain the notion that no such god exists. It is important that young scientists learn what it means to investigate physical reality and follow the evidence as it becomes uncovered. If there truly is a god then physical evidence for that god will eventually be discovered or else god is a deceiver, a malevolent trickster – a demon, and therefore no god at all.

Objective investigation of physical reality shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that prayer does not have the efficacy of medicine, surgery, engineering, or even sound investment strategy. Objective investigation of physical reality has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt the fallacy of the cosmological model, deluge mythology, historicity, and even some animal husbandry practices of several passages of religious scripture. Objective investigation of physical reality has revealed no evidence whatsoever that supports the notion of a god.

I acknowledge that reality is not easily defined and my own attempt at it may fall short in the opinion of many. I have, however, at least made a sincere attempt to define it and to question my own perception of it. The only answers I can arrive at are that I am god, I am deceived by a demon, or that there are no gods or demons. The last of those three answers surely seems the most reasonable and rational. If my definition and/or conclusions fall short, then I leave the ball in your court and ask: What is reality?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Non-Cognitive Survival

A narrative essay by – Heather Spoonheim

War stories often relate extraordinary tales of soldiers who have survived the grimmest of odds. As we zoom in on a soldier hanging on for dear life in the belly of a landing craft headed for Omaha Beach we can hear the screams of those being blown to bits in the landing crafts around his. As the front wall of the craft drops to reveal hell on a beach, our soldier rushes out through a hail storm of high caliber machine gun fire that shreds the bodies of his comrades. Amazingly, he presses forth with the survivors of the other landings only to watch unknown soldiers around him being blasted into oblivion by landmines.

Death lays in wait for our heroic soldier at every turn. With every move he makes he narrowly evades the horrific obliteration of yet another comrade. And so the story continues, with morbid destruction looming over every step, all the way to Berlin. How can our soldier have possibly survived such a journey of death and destruction? The explanation is purely mathematical: fatalities did not amount to one hundred percent on any of the battlefields that he crossed.

Our soldier could not possibly have known which turn was fatal and which was not. Many of his fallen comrades may have actually met literal dead ends without a survivable option being left available to them. Like many soldiers, however, our soldier was presented with non-fatal options at every step. Like a select few soldiers, as it turned out, our soldier selected the non-fatal path in every instance.

It boggles the mind to consider the odds of our soldier having not only had non-fatal options at every turn but also having made non-fatal selections all the way through. The fact of the matter is, however, that if he hadn’t had non-fatal options and made non-fatal selections all the way through then he wouldn’t have been the soldier we zoomed in on at the beginning of this story. Stories of anonymous soldiers who died three minutes into the battle are simply not very interesting. The interesting stories are those of the soldiers who survived, or at least those who survived long enough for the narrative to develop.

The selection of the soldier for this story began not in the landing craft but in Berlin. Had no soldiers survived to reach Berlin then the selection would have begun not in Berlin but in London, and the soldier would have been German. Soldiers did survive to reach Berlin, however, and it is from this pool that the selection was made. In point of fact, it is not entirely extraordinary that there were soldiers who survived to the end of the war. In point of fact, it is extraordinarily extraordinary just how many did not.

Consider if you will just how many stories had to exist in order to generate the pool of soldiers in Berlin from whom we made our selection. How many stories ended in the landing crafts, on the beaches, in the trenches, or in catatonic states of terror? How many stories never got past the first page? How many never got past the first chapter? How many stories ended in obscurity? War does not generate heroic stories, it cuts stories short and heroic stories are simply those that remain where war has failed.

This is a useful analogy for evolution. Abiogenesis is the landing craft that delivers little self-replicating soldiers to hostile environments that make Omaha Beach seem like a children’s carnival. Natural selection takes the form of fortified machine gun turrets that fire automatically in the ever-changing, mindless patterns of environmental factors. In the absence of generals to call the shots, our little self-replicating soldiers can do no more than run back and forth across the beach; there is no map to Berlin; Berlin does not even exist. This process, therefore, is entirely non-cognitive.

In 99.9% of the cosmos, abiogenesis hasn’t even come close to the beach. On earth, abiogenesis hit the beach about 4 billion years ago. The earliest soldiers didn’t even have legs; the only option for mobility was self-replication. Soldiers that didn’t self-replicate died before exiting the landing craft. Soldiers that self-replicated perfectly only moved in straight lines and, as such, were cut to shreds. Soldiers that self-replicated terribly lost all course information and, as such, just circled about until they hit land mines. Only those soldiers that replicated with slight imperfections could retain course information while also changing course from time to time, and although they were mowed down without mercy, the odd one managed to survive for a few pages worth of narrative. It was an entirely non-cognitive process.

Environmental factors that are not harsh enough to destroy a particular organism today will change sufficiently to destroy it tomorrow. The errors that occur in self-replication may very well terminate the self-replicating process altogether - or might, against significant odds, result in attributes that facilitate survival through tomorrow’s genocidal environment. It is important to realize that every genetic change is the result of a mistake in the self-replication process: an error, not an adaptation. In this regard, every detail of every living organism represents an error in the self-replication process. It is an entirely non-cognitive process.

Every aspect of the environment represents an obstacle to survival: life continues in spite of the environment, not because of it – hospitality does not exist. Almost every line of self-replication has hit a dead end, run out of non-fatal options, and gone extinct. Because of all of this, it is inaccurate to say that evolution ‘solves problems’, ‘favours an adaptation’, or ‘reuses’ anything. Evolution is the filter through which imperfect self-replications pass or fail. The filter changes properties as the environmental factors change, but it is an entirely non-cognitive process.

The proof of the carnage lies in the fossil record and other, as yet undiscovered, genetic dead ends. Further proof lies in the vestigial genes that signify self-replication errors long past. The map back to our evolutionary Omaha Beach lies in our DNA, and binds every living thing together by virtue of having survived an horrific war that shredded almost all of our comrades.

It boggles the mind to consider the odds of us having not only had non-fatal options at every turn but also having made non-fatal replication errors all the way through – over a span of 4 billion years. The explanation, however, is purely mathematical: fatalities simply did not amount to one hundred percent on any of the battlefields that we happened to cross. The fact of the matter is that if we hadn’t had non-fatal options and made non-fatal replications errors all the way through then this story wouldn’t be the one being written. Consider if you will just how many stories had to exist in order to generate this one. Evolution does not generate survival stories, it cuts stories short at every turn and survival stories are simply those that remain where natural selection has failed. It is an entirely non-cognitive process.