Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers

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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

TGD – expanding the field

Some primarily stochastic thought processes which occurred when I tried to apply Richard Dawkin’s hypotheses to the Æsir. If your default browsing font doesn’t contain a glyph for the ligature, well, tough ;-)

I suppose one of the first things to note is that whereas Xtianity is considered a religion, the Æsir and Vanir (the Norse pantheon) are thought more often as folklore or mythology.[1] In fact, upon reading the Eddas it’s easy to have the impression that the sagas of Odin, Thor, Loki and chums have the same qualities as those associated with, for instance, Siegfried (of Das Niebelungenlied fame), King Arthur or Finn MCoul. Essentially, the gods have the air of being erstwhile real blokes (and of course blokesses), who have accumulated stories, feats and powers as people seek to glorify them, in order that when they later claim to be descended from same they can hope to persuade people of the existence of said powers.[2]

What I find interesting is that the only difference between a quirky set of historically interesting tales and gospel truth is how many people believe in what’s said. For instance, it would be easy to apply the same distinction above between religion and folklore to the Roman pantheon, which equally was a major European religion relegated to providing saints and fables once Constantine got splashed in the font. Of course, to do so would be to ignore that there were multiple pre-Christian religions in the Roman Empire. Not merely in the same way that the Norse posh nobs worshipped Odin and the thains worshipped Thor, there were actually completely different mythological universes. I’m going to choose one, completely at random.

Between the second century BC and fourth (maybe fifth) century AD, a particular popular mythos in the Empire was Mithrainism.[3] If there are any modern Mithraists, I don’t know about it. Which is not surprising, considering how wacky their religion was. [Update: apparently some Zoroastrians still venerate Mithras.]

Mithras was supposed to have been born around 270BC to a virgin Mother of God (the date of the celebration of his birth was December 25th). He was worshipped as a member of a trinity, as the mediating force between the heaven and earth. In fact, heaven was not only the celestial abode of God but also the place where atoned souls would go when they died, the true believers being absolved of their earthly sins. Those less fortunate were condemned to an infernal hell. Initiates (ceremonies were closed affairs, available only to men who had performed the appropriate rites) were baptised, and Sundays were a sacred time when the Mithraists ate bread, representing the body of their God, and drank wine, representing his blood; these were symbolic of the final supper he shared with his followers before ascending to heaven in about the 64th year of his life. Along with Odin and Osiris, he is supposed to have died and been resurrected before his final ascension.

You’d never get away with that rubbish these days, which is why this is clearly a deluded heathen folk tale as opposed to, um. You can clearly see why Dawkins didn’t talk about this one in TGD

[1] Actually, there is a religion with such a pantheon, called the Ásatrú – the word is Icelandic for Æsir faith. Despite widespread confusion, none of the major organisations of this faith are actually neo-Nazis or supremacy groups.

[2] I suppose this makes Finn and Aragorn the same being.

[3] Just through etymology I am reminded that I haven’t yet covered Jainism. I need to.

posted by Graham Lee at 00:10  

Thursday, December 7, 2006

TGD – John on acid

I’m about halfway through my OmniOutliner document of notes made while reading TGD now….

There’s a paraphrase in TGD saying that if the epistles of Saint John the Apostle represent John on pot, then the book of Revelation is "John on acid". What makes this observation more interesting is that it may be literally true – or at least closer to the mark than the quip may at first appear.

There was a documentary by Tony Robinson on Revelation and the End of Days, called The Doomsday Code. The – frankly worrying – sentiments of some of the extreme christian right in America are the same as described in TGD; namely that the Middle East instability [inclusive] or global warming or the 2005 hurricane season herald the proximity of the rapture, and that rather than doing anything to help those caught up in these situations we should be actively encouraging the Apocalypse, and xtians should let their heathen friends know that, well, they told us so. In the course of describing modern End Timers, the documentary showed us where Revelation was penned.

There are tens of apocalyptic visions penned by post-Christ Jewish theologians, but only one has been included in what is now termed the canon of the New Testament. That book of the revelation of Jesus Christ to his disciple, John (which isn’t accepted by the Eastern Orthodox as part of the divine liturgy) was written on the Greek island of Patmos sometime in the second half of the first Common Era century, and details two visions experienced by the John of the title (whether or not he be apostolic) while on the island. The other key fact to remember about Patmos is the abundance of fly agaric mushrooms, especially around the mouth of the cave of revelation.

posted by Graham Lee at 22:18  

Thursday, December 7, 2006

TGD – begging the question

Many of the arguments pro-religious belief presented in TGD would form a nice corpus in a dictionary of critical analysis for the entry on "begging the question". However, Prof. Dawkins studiously avoids the phrase despite its rampant, repeated and some would say wanton applicability, and if I were ever asked to predict why (I haven’t been, I just like the sound of my keyboard) I’d say that it’s because the phrase is so frequently misused on both sides of the Atlantic ocean.

Indeed, when I was taught the phrase, the example I was given is that of proof of the existence of god: we can see the results of god’s creation all around, therefore god created them, therefore god exists. That’s about as short – and absurd – an example of the technique as can be demonstrated. In ordinary speech, people use the phrase "begging the question" to mean: the argument I have just heard is incomplete or fallacious, because it appears not to answer (or to directly raise) the following problem. Where the problem was not explicitly part of the argument. However, the meaning of the word "beg" should not be overlooked, and is key when calling an argument out as one that begs the question. In fact, it isn’t the argument that begs the question: it’s the conclusion which does so, and the conclusion is begged from the question. In other words, the meaning of the phrase is that an argument draws to a conclusion which already existed in its assumptions or axioms. My Latin isn’t very good, but I might describe this kind of argument as QEQ – Said that which was said.

Let’s look at, for example, the argument for the existence of purgatory (it’s quite near the end of TGD which makes it easy for me to remember). The conclusion is that purgatory exists, and the justification is that people everywhere are praying for the souls of the dead because they believe that the souls are in purgatory, and surely prayer isn’t pointless. I hope that going all slanty made the point in the argument where the conclusion was codified apparent – the reason we can be sure that purgatory exists because we are sure that purgatory exists. QEQ.

I realise that this had little to do with the thesis of TGD, but to beg the question is a cool phrase which should be used less, but with higher accuracy.

posted by Graham Lee at 21:12  

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

TGD – I’m not dead yet!

The title of this article is a quote from Monty Python and the Holy Grail – the body cart comes around the town to collect up the (presumably leprous) corpses, and along comes John Cleese with his ninepence and his cadaver. The only problem is that actually the corpse feels rather like he might pull through.

This is a situation which relates to the ever-decreasing sphere in which divine intervention can be invoked, such reduction being due to scientific advances. There are known cases where people have been thought dead and have "got better", or have been ruled out a long time before the actual event of their dying. As an example, a death through epilepsy can often cause the unfortunate to become unresponsive long before becoming dead, so that ‘miraculous’ events such as the body remaining warm for days after the death are recorded. While the meaning of the term "dead ringer" has nothing to do with the 19th Century safety coffin, such devices did exist. The whole purpose behind holding a wake was the hope that life might return to the deceased – because sometimes it did. Various poisons can lead to the body attaining a death-like state, while in fact the subject remains living; perhaps the most famous of these is TTX (the toxin carried by pufferfish); supposedly used by Vodou practitioners to create zombies. A good explanation of that is Ghosts, Vampires and Zombies: Cinema Fiction vs Physics Reality. The case of Wilfred Doricent, described in the arXiv paper, is recent: he died in March 1988 and was no longer displaying many of the symptoms of death by September 1989.

The point here is that there are modern cases where death is misdiagnosed. Given the modern equipment, techniques and advances in both theoretical and practical knowledge, one would assume that the rate of misdiagnosis of death has decreased over time (and in a related vein, the number of conditions which terminate terminally has decreased, too). How can we know, without even contemporary doctors’ notes, whether a particular resurrection event was miraculous or just a case of mistaken interment? Pufferfish aren’t particularly common around the middle East so perhaps Lazarus wasn’t eating fugu but he may have had epilepsy, tetanus or a number of other conditions which were confused with fatality.

Returning to the parenthesis on terminal conditions, above, one can argue by progression that if there are fewer "terminal" conditions now in (kindof) 2000 than there were in 1800, then assuming no catastrophic dark age reversion there will be even fewer in 2200, fewer still in 2400 and so forth. So the ability to "miraculously" recover from a terminal condition should decrease over time too; not because the rate of miracles is decreasing but because the ability to explain the circumstances is increasing.

posted by Graham Lee at 23:41  

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

TGD – religion leaving the gene pool

If there was some kind of selection pressure which favoured, even in a roundabout way, predisposition toward religion, and if sexual selection naturally favours successful people (or those who exude success, anyway), then we have a (not too serious) quandary. Because the most high-profile adherents, the most apparently successful at religion, are often the clerics. Who are frequently celibate (or at least, are required to be: please do read the dictionary definition for nepotism though).

posted by Graham Lee at 20:56  

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

TGD Responses – selection for religion?

I’m going to do a few articles based on The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. As this is a bit of a departure from the usual content of yon blog, I’ll be sure to prefix the titles of each with TGD so that those so inclined can filter for/against them in their syndication readers. The articles will be a mixture of prose agreeing with parts of the book, arguing against parts, questions which the book made me ponder and for which I have no answer, and quips (I haven’t yet decided whether to group these together or allow a post for each) answering specific ideas or even sentences. My only hope is that all of the articles – and the processes leading to their inception – are critical, in what I hope is the obvious intention of that word. Needless to say, I’ll leave the punchline – my opinion of the binding theme of TGD and any changes it has had or not had on my views – until the final article.

I’ll start this series by looking at his idea of religion having its roots in a "misfiring" of some advantageous trait which has been selected for. I would ask this question: why should that be so? In his description of evolution he explains the idea of a neutral mutation — one which overall has no positive nor negative effect on the fitness of the genome, but which can nevertheless become dominant (or at least prevalent). For instance, human earlobes either join at the bottom of the lobe to the face or they do not. I don’t understand there to be any fitness advantage in either, yet at some time the allele(s) associated with earlobe stuck-to-facedness have, I presume, diverged from a common variant. Why couldn’t theism be just one type of earlobe? What if the mean fitness of religious nonreligious "phenotypes" (I expect that’s the wrong word…perhaps theotype is better) are not significantly different, and religious behaviour just happens to arise and have become common? I suppose there may be an answer to this, although if there is it wasn’t presented in TGD.

There is a related argument in the book which I don’t buy. In dismissing the idea of a straightforward selection pressure for evolution, Prof. Dawkins presents the Gedankenexperiment of a tribe who worship a war god, and whose religion dictates that they should go and fight the neighbouring tribes, in the course of which they acquire of course the resources of those other tribes, and propagate their seed further. The argument presented against this is that for any one individual it is more efficient to hang back while their companions do all the fighting, then to share a part in the spoils. Therefore the society would collapse, as no-one would want to do any fighting. This rather squarely misses the point of, for example Freya’s D.Phil. thesis and the concept that a population based on cooperation (in this case the war-tribe, in Freya’s case a biofilm) can in fact tolerate some fraction of "cheats" and that there is a stable state where proportion of cheats is non-zero but the population still thrives. Consider the British benefit system — some non-zero amount of money is spent on targeting benefit fraud, which keeps the fraud not at zero but at some level which both can be afforded and which leaves the spending justified. In fact, a canny war-tribe member would try to weasel their way out of the line of combat by arguing (rightly or otherwise) that they alone have some property that the average combatant does not possess, and would refer to the weaseling as "promotion" or officership.

Another potential explanation is an interpretation from Terry Pratchett, Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart’s Science of Discworld series. In it, they describe the idea of "lies-to-children" in which various layers of falsehood are peeled back as a child becomes ready to accept the more complex, yet more accurate, explanations. What if this idea is extended to become lies-to-protoscientists? What if, as well as a moral Zeitgeist, there is a consensus of acceptable sophistication? So a society initially agrees that each tree, waterfall, star, planet etc. must have its own god, then finds that it can accept the god-of-concept ideas of the more recent polytheistic disciplines, then agrees that a single god, while more complex a solution, is palatable, all the while science is also working to provide the ultimate in sophisticated solutions: that which is born out of simple concepts, but which can be applied to give predictable and verifiable results.

posted by Graham Lee at 19:38  

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