Quote of the Day: What I Have Lived For

“Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy—ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness—that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what—at last—I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.”

–Bertrand Russell, 1956

Link of the Day: Legacy

This link goes to a very short (only a few paragraphs long) story written by kennric as part of a project he’s doing to write 52 original short stories in 52 weeks, one story per week for a year.

This story is number 17 in the project, and it’s called Legacy. It’s a meditation on transhumanism and uploading and what it means to be a copy, and it’s quite beautiful. aclaro, figmentj, datan0de, femetal…I think you guys in particular will enjoy it. Thanks to zaiah for the link.

Warning: Reading this story made me cry.

The cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths.

This has been making the rounds of the Internet, and if you haven’t seen it already, you should.

If you have seen it already, you should see it again.

It seems to me that scientists and others who explore the physical processes of the universe are without question the very same people most filled with awe and wonder at what it offers.

Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking: A Glorious Dawn

List o’ Linky-Links, Christian Fundamentalist Edition

My browser has 32 open windows, so you all know what that means: time for another list of Linky-Links, where we see who fed it and who ate it all across the Whacky Wide Web!

This episode seems to have a special theme: those whacky Christian fundamentalists, up to their silly hijinks in their classic laugh-a-minute way that we all know and love.

So without further ado, on to the links!

First up, we have this breaking news from Muckflash: Christian Group to Produce Clean Pornography.

The group, recently incorporated as the Southern Coalition for Progressive and Pure Change (an obscure sub-branch of the International Congress of Church and Ministries), will pay for the production of 5 films which they say will act as a “stepping stone away from iniquity” as viewers use the films as an intermediate step as they “switch paths from the sexually impure world of the devil to the white shining path of the Lord.”

“We’re envisioning a kind of ‘nicotine patch’ for the tortured souls that struggle in this world to find a Christian voice in the midst of a popular culture that has lost the Word of God in a heathen cacophony of selfish desire,” said Reverend Dr. Stanley Lovett, Founder and Executive Director of SCPPC.

Let’s not forget the subtext of racism and good old-fashioned slave-era stereotypes about blacks, which tend to follow conservative Christianity like flies following a charnel wagon:

Dr. Lovett was willing to give a general description of the the first film, however. According to Lovett, Jodie and the Great Black Whale will feature an 18 year old missionary in Jamaica who is swayed by native temptors into working as an exotic dancer.

And just in time, too, because over at the God and Science site, we learn that pornography leads to sex with robots, and sex with robots leads to the extinction of the human race.

The data underlying the “radical” predictions laid out in this page come from scientific studies that have examined the pervasiveness and effects of pornography upon men and women. In particular, recent data show widespread acceptance of pornography among today’s young adults as “an acceptable way to express one’s sexuality.”1 For males the acceptance rate is 67% compared to 37% for their fathers. Among young adult women the acceptance rate is 49% compared to 20% among their mothers. So, the rate of acceptance of pornography has doubled in just one generation. When those young adults raise their own children, the acceptance rate will probably be greater than 80% for both males and females. The step between watching pornography through technology and engaging in sex acts through an attractive technological object is not that far, especially when the object acts as if it were a real human being.

I don’t know what’s more silly about this article–the notion that human beings don’t actually sex out to have babies and certainly won’t go out of their way to have one if there’s a convenient, non-baby-making alternative, or the even more insulting notion that human relationships are a dismal, unhappy affair, filled with complication and weighed down by erratic, moody women, and that anyone who could skip the whole sordid mess by having sex with robots would never want human companionship.

The Religious Right truly is the village idiot of American culture. These guys never cease to blow my mind with their bizarre misunderstanding of basic human emotion. They really, truly do not get it, on a level that borders on autistic.

Oh, and anti-intellectualism. Mustn’t forget anti-intellectualism. Over on the NY Times Stanley Fish blog comes this astonishing condemnation of intellectual enquiry, Does Curiosity Kill More than the Cat?

Most conservative Christians seem content to keep anti-intellectualism as the subtext of their basic world view. Not so for Stanley, who puts it right out there:

In short, curiosity — sometimes called research, sometimes called unfettered inquiry, sometimes called progress, sometimes called academic freedom — is their God. The question, posed by thinkers from Aquinas to Augustine to Newman to Griffiths, is whether this is the God — the God, ultimately, of self — we want to worship.

And finally, PZ Myers posted this little gem, which neatly sums it all up:

Marketing Claims FTW

Last night, zaiah and I went shopping at Target for curtains for our new house.

There are, as it turns out, a bewildering array of different kinds of curtains, in different patterns and textures, almost all of which are stunningly ugly.

One brand of curtain carried by Target is Eclipse brand curtains, which are entirely opaque and block out…well, let me show you. Apologies for the poor quality of the image; it came from my iPhone. The bit I’ve circled in red is the interesting bit.

How to create a religion

Have you ever thought about all the world’s religions, looked at how downright goofy they are, and thought “Hey! I can do better than that!” Have you ever wanted to start your own religion, and go down in history with men like Joseph Smith (minus the part about getting shot in a prison cell), Paul of Tarsus (minus the bit with the beheading), or L. Ron Hubbard?

Well, look no further! Here’s an easy, step-by-step guide to building a religion of your own.

Step 1: Start General

“There is a divinity and this divinity created the universe.” People are natural storytellers, and people are naturally curious about where they came from, where the stars came from, and where the ground they’re standing on came from. But, people are also lazy, and don’t want to spend years learning about the physical properties of the universe, or the mathematical models that describe the formation of the heavens and the earth. “God did it” is an easy explanation that appeals to folks, and you’ll find that people will accept it wholeheartedly without one single shred of evidence.

Step 2: Work from the general formation of the universe to human beings

People want to believe they are special. People adopt worldviews that are inherently self-centered; if you tell a bunch of folks that god made the universe, people are going to want to know if god made them. “God made the universe with a set of immutable natural laws and then those laws took over to form, over many millennia, us” just isn’t satisfying for most people. It’s not a good story.

You want to tell folks that your god made them specifically. This, too, you will find accepted without question or proof; people are already halfway to believing it before you even begin, because it’s a damn good yarn that appeals to their inherently self-centered worldviews.

Plus, you’ll find it useful for the next step.

Step 3: Since god created human beings, he must have had a reason for doing so, right?

Human beings are inherently prone to promiscuous teleology–the tendency to believe that things happen for a purpose. It’s not enough for us to look for the explanation about how things came to be; we also want to know why. This appears to be a side effect of a hyperactive sense of agency, which has a positive survival value; we see agency because it helps keep us alive. It’s easy to mistake a shadow for a burglar, but people rarely mistake a burglar for a shadow!

Anyway, appealing to this sense of purpose will help reinforce your religion in the minds of the people you talk to. It’s a great shot of self-esteem; “God has a plan for me!” It helps personalize your religion by appealing to people’s inherent self-centeredness. And it’s massively helpful in establishing the creeds you’ll be using a bit later.

The notion that your god has a purpose for humanity makes the next step logical and easy to swallow:

Step 4: Since god has a purpose in creating us, there must be a right and wrong way to live. The right way to live is in accordance with this purpose; the wrong way is in defiance of it.

This is a step that’s surprisingly subtle in its ramifications. Anyone who believes that your god had some reason for creating human beings is going to find this easy to believe also; you won’t have to sell this point. And it opens the door to all sorts of distractions you can easily use to deflect conversation away from anyone who wants to challenge the assertions you made in the first three steps. Just bring up the philosophical idea of “free will,” assert that your god wants us to live according to his plan of our own choice, and any inconvenient conversations that start to head too close to “Well, how do you KNOW god created the universe?” will quickly become bogged down in the semantic morass of free will and determinism. You can trap the conversation in this mire for decades.

But, now you have a problem. Now you have to figure out some kind of way to codify what the right way to live is, because people are going to want to know. So far, you’ve been able to skate along without offering even the tiniest scrap of evidence that ANYTHING you say is true; people will believe you because they want to believe you. But once you start telling folks what the right way to live is, people are going to want to know how you know.

This is a problem that’s never been completely solved; look at all the other religions and you’ll see that folks really like to bicker about this stuff. But there is a solution that works well enough to get you by, and that is:

Step 5: Tell people that your god writes books.

Books are awesome. You can claim that your god gave the book to you by divine revelation without also leaving the door open to other folks saying they’ve had revelations that contradict yours, because where’s the book? You don’t have to remember all the various tenets of your religion, because hey, they’re in the book. You can fend off challenges to your authority by referring back to the very book that you wrote to begin with. It’s brilliant!

It doesn’t even have to be a very good book. It can be filled with contradictions (your god created the world, then created man, then did some stuff, then man got lonely, then your god created woman; no, wait, your god created man and woman at the same time). It can make assertions that are provably false (the Native Americans are a lost tribe of Israel). Doesn’t matter. All you really need is a story that sells the book–some kind of tale that’ll help people accept that the book is actually written by your god.

A story involving magical plates made out of gold hand-delivered to you by an angel is good. If your imagination fails you, though, you can always just say that you sat down and thought about it really hard and it came to you.

Step 6: Sell the books by preying on natural human drives

We’ll use two emotions here that are often called ‘negative,’ but as we’ll see, thinking of these as negative emotions is nonsense! They’re positively wonderful for helping you to get people to believe what you want them to believe.

The first is fear. In your book somewhere, you have to say that people who don’t believe this book will have bad things happen to them. This is a must. It doesn’t matter what the bad thing is, provided it’s bad enough.

If you’re a traditionalist, burning forever in a lake of fire is good. So is being ground beneath a wheel or being torn apart by demonic dogs. If you’re more modern, you can talk about how mysterious spiritual entities will be drawn to unbelievers and clog their thetan energy or something.

People tend to fear death, so playing on that fear is brilliantly successful; you can do it directly, by telling folks that anyone who doesn’t believe your book will die; or indirectly, by telling them that they don’t really die, but if they don’t believe your book they’ll come back to life in an undesirable form.

I recommend the latter, because it gives you a natural hook into the other emotion you’ll want to use, which is greed. Tell people that they can have things they want and they will be happier if they believe your book. Again, you can do this directly, by saying that people who believe your book will never die but will instead go on to a wondrous place where the streets are made of gold, they will have stables full of hot women who want to fuck them, and they’ll be able to create worlds of their own if they like; or do it indirectly, by describing how people who believe your book will become successful and wealthy. (They might not, but that doesn’t matter–if you’re doing this properly, you will! Should someone tell you “I believed your book and I haven’t become rich,” you need only say “God is testing you.”)

By this time, people will believe your book because they’ll be too damn scared not to.

You might think that people would say “Wait a minute–you mean your god prepares pits full of fire and razor-clawed wolves to tear us apart because he has a plan for us and wants us to be happy? How on earth does that make sense?” But you’d be surprised.

Step 7: Lay down the rules

This is trickier than it sounds.

A natural beginner’s mistake to make is to set down a bunch of rules for people’s lives that will cause them to act the way you want them to. Remember, though, you’re dealing with human beings, and human beings are notoriously resistant to changing the way they behave, even when they think that behaving the wrong way will cast them straight into a burning pit full of lava and body thetans.

And also, people are excellent rationalizers, who are very crafty at making up reasons why rules they don’t like don’t apply to them.

So you have to be careful. You can’t just write a bunch of rules without thinking about what the folks yu’re talking to are already doing.

Successful religions succeed because they do not try to set morality; they instead cater to the various prejudices, bigotries, and moral beliefs that people already have.

If you live in a slave society, you will not gain any traction if your book says that god thinks slavery is wrong. More likely, you’ll get arrested as a public nuisance.

Similarly, if you live in a racist society, you won’t gain any followers by telling people that god says blacks and whites are equal. if you live in a society where women are second-class citizens, you’re not going to get too far by saying that god wants men to treat women well. You can’t just go making new rules willy-nilly; even if you’ve sold people on all these ideas so far, they’re going to balk at actually changing their moral code.

So, the professional instead makes a list of all the various prejudices that the people around him already have, then writes the book to justify those existing prejudices. That way, your book becomes an easier sell.

Don’t worry that the prevailing cultural prejudices will change over time. Nobody’s actually going to read your entire book anyway; only the parts of it they like. If you write in your book that your god thinks that slavery is a pretty neat idea, and then centuries from now slavery is abolished and people start believing that it’s morally wrong or something, they won’t say “But wait, this book says that god is OK with slavery! That must mean that god is immoral!” Instead, they’ll simply stop reading those parts of your book. It’ll be like a little secret, you know?

If you find yourself in a place where you’ve run out of ideas about what sorts of rules to write about, write about sex. There’s always someone doing some sex stuff that his neighbors don’t like. You can milk that for thousands of pages, if you want to.

Step 8: Sell the book

If you’ve written the book correctly, this step is already halfway done. Make sure you feature prominently in the book or (better yet) in the story about the book in some way. Making up stories about your lineage helps.

You don’t really have carte blanche to write whatever rues you like into the book, but there’s nothing stopping you from putting a few things in there to benefit you. If you sell yourself and sell the rules that benefit you at the same time, you’re golden.

It’s important to sell yourself in the book because remember, folks will believe that the book was written by your god. If the book makes you out to be special, that will give you legitimacy, and your legitimacy will help you get folks to accept that the book was written by your god. It’s win-win!

At this point, you’re basically done. It’s important not to get too ambitious, though. A good messenger of god knows his limits; if you make a practice of boinking all the townspeople’s wives like Joseph Smith did, there’s bound to be talk. Similarly, if you try bringing your book and its rules into places that have different prevailing prejudices like Paul did, you may come to a sticky end, which is what usually happens to moral leaders who try to lead rather than follow the morality of their flock.

Instead, I advise stepping away from the day-to-day management of your religion once it becomes established. Let the faithful manage the enterprise; they’ll really believe it, so they might even work for free. You can distance yourself from any messes they manage to get into while still collecting generous stipends from your religion. Play your cards right, and by the time you die, you, too, may have a $600,000,000 ranch in California!

The wonder of the physical universe: Naica, Mexico

Naica, Mexico is home to a number of lead and silver mines. It is also home to a geological formation that appears to be unique in all the world: the Crystal Cave of Giants, discovered accidentally by mine workers in 2000.

The Crystal Cave is a gigantic underground formation containing the largest natural crystal formations ever recorded. The cave is superheated by a pocket of subsurface magma, and until recently was entirely flooded with water that was supersaturated with gypsum and other minerals. The combination of high temperature, superheated and supersaturated water, and time (lots of it–about 500,000 years, to be exact) produced one of the most mind-bogglingly beautiful things on earth:

The cave has been pumped dry by mine workers, who accidentally broke into it while mining for lead. It’s still superheated by magma; the temperature within the cave is a steady 122 degrees F with a humidity of over 90%. Explorers in the cave use special chilled suits and breathing masks, and even with this equipment can only remain within it for 15-45 minutes at a time.

The cave is doomed; when the mines are played out over the next few years, the mining companies will stop pumping the water out, and the influx of new, non-supersaturated water will destroy the crystal formations. There’s more about the cave, and more pictures, here.

I love the physical world. There is not a single day of my life that goes by when I am not boggled and awestruck by how magnificent this universe is. Should I live to be ten thousand years old, I will never, ever stop being awestruck by how awesome all of this is. Take a handful of basic particles, make them obey certain fairly simple rules, and the things you end up with are beautiful and magnificent beyond comprehension.

We, as self-aware entities, are the part of the universe that understands itself, and that one simple fact gives us incalculable value. I will never understand the tendency of some people to turn away from the wonders of the physical world into a tiny, feeble make-believe universe that’s a paltry six thousand years old and soon to be rendered obsolete by some invisible man with magic powers who lives up in the sky and spends a great deal of time worrying about what kind of clothes we wear and how we have sex.

The universe is incomprehensibly large and incomprehensibly fine-grained, ancient and mysterious and filled with so much beauty that it’s hard to imagine any person seeing it without being filled with reverence and awe. The more we learn about the physical universe, the more beautiful and magnificent it is. The desire to turn away from understanding the world around us and retreat into an imaginary bestiary of little gods and demons is the desire to turn away from the greatest beauty we can ever hope to bear witness to.