Ignorance

It is amazing to recognize how great a part ignorance plays in admiration of the Bible and other scriptures, and in reliance upon scripture for moral guidance.

At the time that Jesus is reputed to have walked the earth, Aristotle had already written extensively on ethics, Stoicism had matured and diversified, and Lucretius had already expounded and expanded upon Epicureanism. These philosophies, and others, were comprehensive systems of analytical thought.

The Greeks and Romans had already recognized that ethics and morality were the subjects of philosophy, not of religion. They had recognized that the world could be explained as the result of natural processes; supernaturalism was sidelined to minor conjectures. Gods, if they existed at all, were erratic beings, not paragons of virtue, with little impact on humans.

In comparison, the books now known as the Old Testament were crude and confused. To the extent that they were in any way systematic, they were trivial, dogmatic, and rife with supernaturalism. They posited and portrayed a violent god who constantly meddled in human affairs, and who had constantly to be appeased. They made no real attempt to systematize ethics or to explain the natural world.

When the authors of the New Testament books wrote their works, they paid more attention to the primitive Old Testament than to the works of the Greeks and Romans. It is likely that they were largely ignorant of these more sophisticated sources. To the extent that they were aware, they adapted the more supernatural elements of the Greek and Roman philosophies.

We can only imagine what Jesus would have espoused if he had been educated in the Greek and Roman traditions. As for Paul and the other New Testament authors: would they then have been able to get away with creating the Jesus persona and attendant nonsense that has come down to us?

Mohammed, too revealed his ignorance of the Greek and Roman sources by the fact that he plagiarized large parts of the Bible, but not the classical writings.

It is in fact a great irony that after the Koran was written, Islamic scholars did encounter Greek and Roman writings, thereby inspiring a brief Islamic “golden age” which expired when those writings were suppressed by a return to Islamic orthodoxy.

Turning to modern-day adherents of the various scriptures, it is obvious that they have no excuse for being ignorant of the classical literature. Or, if aware of it, they have no excuse for not weighing it against their scriptures and noting its superiority.

It must be self-imposed ignorance that allows people to claim that the Bible or the Koran is a suitable and complete source of moral guidance.

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Posted in Religion | Tagged

Touching Note

While rereading an English translation of De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things*), written by Lucretius around 50 BC, I came across a passage that I would paraphrase this way:

If you cannot touch your god, your god cannot touch you.

In other words, if your god is undetectable through your physical senses, then it can have no physical effect upon you. To still believe in such a god is to leave reality behind, and to wallow in supernaturalism.

The Nature of Things is essentially a 2,000-year-old science book. It is Lucretius’ effort, following in the footsteps of Epicurus (about 300 BC), to explain natural phenomena without recourse to supernaturalism. It disappeared early in the Christian era, but was rediscovered in the 1400s. It had a strong influence on the progress of the Western Enlightenment. In the book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, Stephen Greenblatt tells that story.**

This history serves as a good example of how the Christian suppression (or disregard) of Western Culture impeded the progress of civilization.

* Penguin Classics, 2007. Translated by A. E. Stallings.

** W. W. Norton & Co., 2011.

Posted in Religion

Islam

Components Islam is defined by four main components: the Koran, the Sharia and Hadith writings, and the traditional behaviors and beliefs of Islamic societies.

The Koran is the main scriptural text of Islam; it is believed to be the revelations of the Muslim god, Allah, to the prophet Muhammad.

The Sharia writings deal with laws, politics, economics, and personal behaviors expected of Muslims.

The Hadith writings are believed to be the collected deeds and sayings of Muhammad. They serve as examples of the behaviors and beliefs defining what it is to be a Muslim.

The fourth component of Islam consists of any other beliefs and behaviors that have become traditional in Islamic societies, guided by the goals and attitudes inherent in the formal written components.

The four components, taken together, constitute the “culture” of Islam. It is a false dichotomy to separate the “culture” from the religion. These four components, taken together, can be considered “orthodox” or “fundamentalist” Islam. This is what I mean when I use the word “Islam”, although I often use the phrase “orthodox Islam” for emphasis.

Characteristics The writings of Islam are considered perfect in their present form. They are thus subject only to the narrowest interpretation, and this only by a very few privileged experts. Islam is thus opposed to theology and philosophy, in particular, and to intellectualism in general.

Islam is also not subject to revision, even in light of contrary evidence and experience. It is thus opposed to science, in particular, and to modernism in general.

Muslims are expected to follow the prescriptions and proscriptions of Islam in detail, unquestioningly, throughout their lives. In this respect, Islam is totalitarian. It is in no way democratic, and, even though it is meant to apply equally to everyone, there is a hierarchy of privilege.

Islam is intolerant of all other religions and of Atheism. It prescribes the subjugation of people who practice other religions, or none. In particular, Islam is pointedly anti-Jewish and anti-Christian. It is especially harsh with apostates.

Islam treats females as inferior to males, with restricted rights, restricted physical and social mobility, and restricted status and privileges. It is anti-feminist.

Islam gives reasons, authorizations, and excuses for various physically and emotionally violent behaviors. Many of these behaviors, though acceptable to Muslims, are considered extreme by outsiders. This tempts outsiders to characterize persons who indulge in such behaviors as “Islamic extremists”, whereas in fact they are simply orthodox.

In spite of the belief that Islam is believed to be complete, perfect, and unchangeable, there are several sects (Sunni, Shi’a, and others), and these sects are at odds, often violently, with one another.

Consequences Because Islam is anti-democratic, anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-modernism, antagonistic toward all other religions, and anti-feminist, and because it accommodates behaviors unacceptable to Western culture, it is distinctly anti-Western, a fact emphasized by many orthodox Muslims themselves.

As long as orthodox Islam defines itself as perfect, unchanging, and unchangeable, it is not amenable to Western-style enlightenment. There was, in its history, a brief “golden age” or enlightenment brought on, ironically, by contact with ancient Greek and Roman (that is, Western) teachings, but this ended a thousand years ago, when orthodoxy regained its grip.

From the viewpoint of orthodox Islam, there is no such thing as “moderate” Islam; either a person accepts the entire package or that person is a heretic, and can be punished for heresy.

There are, of course, many Muslims who have moderate views and behaviors, acquired through contact with other moderates or other cultures, but depending on the place and the time, they can have difficulty expressing this moderation. To urge moderation is heretical.

Enlightenment, or simply reform, will happen–if at all–from the inside. Until then we can expect the continual clash of Islam with Western culture.

Posted in Religion

Poverty is Policy

Poverty in the United States is the direct result of policies. It is not “just the way things are”, it is not voluntary, it is not demanded or favored by the American people, and it is not necessary. It is the result of conscious policy decisions by our leaders and their powerful constituents.

Policies allow a handful of citizens to garner the lion’s share of the nation’s wealth, the wealth created by all working people.

Tax policies reduce taxes on the wealthy, shifting taxes onto the middle class and lower.

Tax policies prevent the fair taxation and redistribution of wealth into projects and programs for the common good.

Labor policies break up unions and disallow new ones, suppressing the ability of employees to defend their incomes and benefits.

Policies set the minimum wage well below a living wage, so that many full-time employees are still poor.

Policies reduce or eliminate social programs that help support needy people and families.

Policies disallow fiscal stimulus that would create jobs.

Policies prevent the implementation of true universal health insurance that would prevent impoverishment of seriously ill people.

Policies allow powerful persons and groups to gamble with others’ retirement savings, or to merely take those savings.

All of these policies work together to put and to keep half the population of America below the poverty line. The poverty-stricken population will never be reduced until conscious policies are developed to do it. For now, poverty is policy.

 

Posted in Politics

Conservatism Then and Now

Years ago, someone defined reactionaries as those who would take away what the people have, conservatives as those who would not give the people more than what they already have, liberals as those who would give the people enough to keep them quiet, and progressives as those who would give people what they deserve.

This was generally true at one time, but it is quite apparent that there has been a rightward shift in ideologies, so that today’s conservatives are like the former reactionaries, and so on down the line. Today’s reactionaries are now obstructionists or anarchists, not wanting the government to function as it was designed to do. (The term paleo-conservatism can usefully be applied to the earlier conservatives.)

Conservatism has always been, to a large degree, aligned with wealth and privilege, and liberalism somewhat less so, but today’s conservatives are firmly aligned with wealth and privilege, with liberalism trailing not far behind.

Thus, in discussions concerning contemporary conservatism and liberalism, it makes no sense to define these ideologies in any but the modern senses.

In parallel with the rightward shift of ideologies, there has been a rightward shift in propaganda, which now characterizes liberalism as left-wing, even socialistic. The irony in a rightward shift in liberal ideology being called a leftward shift should be obvious.

This situation is similar to that which obtained in the former Soviet Union, where editors of Tass and Pravda, both tightly controlled government news outlets, often accused one another of infidelity to the government line.

In the present case, any deviation from the current conservative (formerly reactionary) ideology is deemed to be extremely left-wing, even traitorous. This extreme characterization is another impediment to rational discussion. It implies that there is no rational alternative to conservative ideas and policies.

In practice, today’s conservatism is a combination of old and new–that is, of not extending new benefits to the people, and of taking away benefits that the people already have, while working to further enrich the already-wealthy.

In concrete terms, today’s conservatives balk at strengthening, and are trying to reduce, the social safety net (Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, food stamps, and much else),  while moving to cut taxes and increase subsidies and other benefits for wealthy corporations and individuals.

The result of all this is that today’s conservative ideology, propaganda, and behavior make it nearly impossible to even discuss, let alone prevent, our slide into plutocracy and corporatism (corporate fascism). The meanness of spirit inherent in today’s conservatism can only portend severe oppression of the majority in the future.

Posted in Politics

Flawed Text

Recently, I bought and read a Pearson college biology text and accompanying iPad application. Although the content in each of the two media is thorough, both formats are gravely flawed. The printed edition is too elaborate, while the e-book format and software are too clumsy. The pedagogy is also flawed.

Printed Format

The text weighs in at over five pounds. This makes it uncomfortable for lap reading and general portability. This problem could easily be overcome by publishing the text in several volumes–a volume per section or two. Why carry around the entire course when studying only a section or two for days or weeks at a time? Using uncoated paper would also reduce the weight.

In addition to the unnecessary use of coated paper, the text is too elaborately produced. Most pages do not need colored text in addition to different fonts and sizes. Many of the illustrations could be in gray scale, since their colors are not authentic anyway. The text could be in a paperback format.

In other words, the text could be published as multiple inexpensive volumes. This could be economical enough in K-12 textbooks that schools could simply let students keep their texts; the schools would buy new copies each year. This would also allow updates and corrections to be distributed more readily. And, of course, some schools would not need all of the sections.

E-Book Format

Pearson’s e-book for the biology text matches the printed book page for page. This might have been a time-saver for publication, but it is a nuisance in practice: because each page is taller and wider than the screen, to see an entire page, it must be scrolled to four different positions.

In any case, there is little reason to insist that an e-book be page oriented. The entire book should be one scrollable page that scales to both the portrait view and the landscape view. A swipe upward or downward should scroll one screenful, while allowing direct adjustment as well.

The text font and size should be selectable.

Graphic elements should be inline, located right where they are discussed–even duplicated at different locations, if needed there. Gratuitous graphics and other inserts should be eliminated.

The software can be written to implement scrolling, scaling, and font selection, as well as to jump from a table of contents to the starting point of any section, or to the last read location.

Pedagogy

The subject matter is presented in backward order, from cell biology to biomes. Instead of this synthetic approach, an analytical (top-down) approach would be superior. A top-down approach begins with what we can plainly see, then reveals greater and greater detail as we progress through the subject. In addition, the top-down approach parallels the history of the subject, allowing the presentation of that history, biographies of researchers, and the motivations for their research. This makes the study of biology a human endeavor–one of the humanities.

Also of pedagogical importance, many K-12 texts, and some college texts, are too littered with marginalia that are distractions from the main line of thought or from the subject matter. They often are mere gratuitous entertainments. Getting rid of these would also reduce the size and cost of a text.

Posted in Uncategorized

Tech Mania

Technology is widespread, as is recognition of its importance, but the understanding of various technologies and their appropriate applications lags far behind. Therefore, it is relatively easy for a technology interest group to convince others (without resort to evidence) that the group’s favorite technology can solve a problem of general social concern. This can cause more problems than it solves.

Recently, a man who is fascinated by the purported potential of laptop computers decided that giving a laptop to each and every child–especially third-world children–would revolutionize education, lift kids out of poverty, and generally improve their lives.

Somehow, he convinced schools, school systems, state governments, and even entire national governments to purchase hundreds of thousands of cheap, low-capacity, and clumsy laptops. When these were distributed, it was found that, although the children were indeed fascinated with them–when they worked–the magical effects did not occur. That is, the reasons the children were in poverty or were poorly educated were not addressed by ownership of a laptop. Political and economic corruption, wars, lack or poor distribution of material resources, illiteracy of parents, widespread hunger and illness, and so on, are not solved by children with computers.

Even in the USA, the richest nation, where nearly everyone has access to a computer, if not at home then at a friend’s or at a library, children were not (and are not) lifted out of poverty, nor even better educated. The dream, it seems, was not based upon any evidence, but merely on personal preferences: “I like it, it helped me, so others will like it and be helped.”

Experience now shows that placing computers in the hands of American public school students generally does not improve academic performance, and even worsens the performance of students in low-income families. Many of the schools and governments that had been convinced of the purported benefits have now retreated, belatedly recognizing that they wasted money, effort and time.

Another example is the drive to focus on STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The specific claim of STEM education proponents is that our school systems are not producing enough graduates in these areas. The broader claim is that becoming competent in STEM subjects will increase one’s chances for a better standard of living.

Once again, this enthusiasm is not based upon evidence. In the first place, there is no shortage of persons trained in STEM subjects; thousands of graduates are unemployed or employed elsewhere. STEM positions have either migrated to other countries, or they are filled here by immigrants from other countries.

The fact is, the only shortage in the USA is a shortage of highly-talented STEM graduates willing to work for the relatively low wages that tech companies are willing to pay. The companies’ positions are populated with immigrants for whom such wages are a boon. This fact was the subject of articles published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and by some business journals.

And, in spite of widespread belief, there is no correlation between levels of education and income levels except at the lowest end of the income scale.

The latest misguided mania to grab public attention is the idea that “everybody” should learn to program (or “code”) a computer. This follows on the heels of the belief that everyone should know how to use a computer, but is based on even less evidence.

The national effort to promote coding by the masses, targets everyone from kindergarteners to retirees, using slogans like “anyone can learn computer science”.

Put aside the fact that computer science is far broader than programming, and put aside the fact that “anyone” could not include illiterate or unintelligent people, or people whose temperaments are not suited to the task. The question is: Why should “anyone” need to learn it, or even want to?

Overall, there is far less need for programmers than for computer users. Knowing how to program does not make one better able to use the most popular or important applications. Again, there is no shortage of programmers looking for jobs; there is a shortage of programming jobs.

Is it because computers are vitally important in our society that everyone should know how they work internally? How about surgery, television, or four-cycle internal combustion engines? You could make a case that the history of computing could be of more general interest and importance, but I see no mention of that.

In all three cases–laptops for kids, STEM education, universal coding –it seems that a person or group is inflating the importance of personal or group interests beyond any degree indicated by evidence. This can only waste time, effort, and money; misdirect attention away from actual problems and their solutions; and raise false hopes among the people drawn into these schemes.

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