Friday, March 27, 2009

If you haven't picked a side, then you're part of the battlefield (Part 2)

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. - Ephesians, 6:12

Sounds good, doesn't it? Sounds like even way back when, "St" Paul had his own bone to pick with government corruption, perhaps a wealthy and powerful merchant, that is, capitalist pig, or two, eh? Just goes to show that back then, people were at least as stupid, simple-minded and naive as they are now.

I have some difficulty with the concepts of good and evil. One man's good has a way of being another man's evil. You know, like how one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist. When you're young and stupid, the world seems so black and white. Looking back, I can't help but laugh at how I enjoyed those silly old 80s action movies. The beautiful people were obviously the good guys, and no matter how many bad guys they faced, everyone knew that good always wins in the end. Being the bad guy meant you were either a hopelessly malcoordinated, cockeyed meat puppet waiting to be killed, or a diabolically powerful evil genius whose fatal flaw is, for some reason, gloating far more than any reasonable human being would. It was a Captain Kirk world of shoot-the-ugly-ones, shag-the-hot-ones.

Then, assuming, of course, that you keep your eyes and ears open, you see a bit more of the real world. We find that most of the black and white doesn't actually exist in the real world. And that what remains is, naturally, grey. Even if we were to take the broad view that evil is "knowing better and doing worse", we never see in real life evil done for the sake of evil, like some Saturday morning cartoon villain*. There's always something behind it - mental illness, the profit motive, escalation of an existing conflict, and perhaps most insidious of them all, delusion...

Dichotomizing the world to fit ideals of good and evil is childish and stupid. Deep in the heart of the very worst conflicts mankind has known are simple-minded fools who could only see the black and white, who divide the world into Us and Them and what we forget, all too often, is that these people whom we so quickly label as tyrants and psychopaths are backed, every step of the way by mobs of perfectly ordinary people, like you and me (minus the ability to think critically) who bought into the bullshit.

Bullshit is relentless. Anyone living in any modern society is mired in it, every day of his life. As any marketing executive, clergyman or politician would know, making up bullshit is much, much easier than disproving it. The good empiricist is, for the most part, shielded from it all by the unfailing power of empiricism and a skeptical mind.

Perhaps it seems cold or soulless, maybe even elitist. The empiricist looks upon many things that many people hold very dear indeed with disdain, most notably faith. In subjecting everything we perceive to the stringent standards of empirical truth, we cut through the tides of bullshit, and see far more of the real world than would more credulous minds. This is a double-edged sword.

On one hand, the observable universe has a great many wonders to offer. There are few intellectual exercises as beautiful and rewarding as tracing how the relatively simple mechanism of evolution by natural selection gives rise to the myriad forms of life on Earth. It is humbling to learn the lives of atoms, and of the terrific forces that came together to form this planet and its brethren, and their stately procession around our happy yellow sun. It is gratifying to see the scientific method put to use, to see new technologies emerge to push up our quality of life up by a couple of notches.

On the other hand, it is disheartening to see just how much our species has devoted to the creation and perpetuation of bullshit. It is sad to see young minds filled with myths and prejudice, to be taught to talk to imaginary entities and to learn to hate anyone they find talking to a different imaginary entity. It is appalling to see a scripture full of inconsistencies and outright lies held up as the gospel truth to the exclusion of empirically gained knowledge. It is utterly infuriating to watch people wreak large scale suffering upon each other, for no real reason other than mass wilful ignorance. And on a more down-to-earth note, it's painfully tedious to wade through the meaningless tripe that chokes our mass media.

I've heard any number of believers say it takes strength to be faithful, that it takes a certain kind of power to believe with all your might in something for which there is no evidence. To me, that is simply a child turning a word around to shoehorn the world into a narrow, narrow mind. Faith is craven cowardice. It is letting the animal in us triumph over the discipline and vigilance necessary to maintain a skeptical worldview. It is succumbing to a base desire to want to believe in comforting lies. It is opening the floodgates to unlimited delusion. This is not a silly game of semantics. This is putting denial in the spotlight, showing it for the wretched little beast that it is.

I for one have no illusions about the Culture War. However strident the voices of Reason, there are simply far too many easily absorbed delusions out there. There are too many sheeple, and for every one who finally succumbs to clear thinking, many, many more will leap in to take his place, fueling the bullshit engine that drags humanity ever closer to environmental meltdown.

More to come in the next post in this series....

* Or at least the Saturday morning cartoon villains that I'm used to, e.g. Cobra Commander, Mumm-Ra, Skeletor... Ooh, my age is showing now...

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