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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Might Makes Right: God

The construct of God in many religions is the single most blatant appeal to Might Makes Right.  After all, it's not "god, kinda wimpy who'd sorta prefer things be done a certain way, but hey, if not don't sweat it", but rather "God Almighty Who Commands Us and Judges Us with Tremendously Horrible Consequence Should We Disobey (that burning in hell for all of eternity sort of thing)!".  Things are good and right because God who's infinitely powerful says so and when we question Him we are told that He works in mysterious ways beyond our comprehension.

While I'm not personally religious, it's clear to me that various manifestations of gods exist in the minds of believers. There are, for example, more than one billion Roman Catholics in the world, the vast majority of which believe in their God and put some level of effort into following His Word.  So their God, even if He is completely fictitious and intangible, really is amazingly powerful and mighty in that He substantially affects the feelings, thoughts, behaviors and actions of a huge number of people, both individually and collectively.

Since humans seem to have evolved a proclivity to believe in god(s), my guess is that belief was directly helpful in the survival of the fittest competition.  The primary mechanism by which it made believers more fit is that it provided an organizing principle and social cohesion that not only transcended individuals, but whole tribes, the leaders of those tribes, and even whole generations (in other words, god, being immortal, transcends time).

Whether or not god exists in reality (natural or supernatural) in this context is immaterial.  The difference between a real god who once created the universe but is now taking a more hands off and judging approach versus one who exists solely in the minds of believers has the identical tangible effect here on earth.

God's might is used to enforce god's word (either interpreted or made up) which acts as an organizing principal and creator of social cohesion which then creates real power.

In other words, Might Makes Right Makes Might.

17 comments:

Peter said...

my guess is that belief was directly helpful in the survival of the fittest competition.

Well, maybe when that tyrant Yahweh was keeping everybody on their toes, but then that wimp Jesus came along blathering about the meek and peace and children etc., and we all died.

Bret, truly I fear you are close to descending into Skipper territory where Darwinism explains the design of the Corvette and the development of English poetry. Be forewarned, friend, therein lies madness.

You know, after all these years battling Darwinists, I've come to have a bit of a soft spot for the old guy. I sometimes imagine him rising from his grave and screaming "It's a &%#^@*! biological theory!"

Annoying Old Guy said...

Peter;

What's amusing to me is how many (a large majority IMHO) profess a belief in evolution but don't really believe it, or don't believe it applies to humans.

Bret;

Note that because religious beliefs have material effects on believers, those beliefs systems themselves are subject to evolutionary pressure. What are those like us to do if it turns out Christianity is evolutionally superior to atheism? That would be a bit of a self-referential fail.

Peter said...

AOG:

That would include Dawkins and Pinker. Pinker famously answered a challenge from a university audience on his childlessness by saying that he didn't want children and that if his genes didn't like that, his genes could take a hike. The kids loved it and were too awed to notice how he thereby let the cat out of the bag. And Dawkins is on record as saying that we have to ability to "overrule" our genes, which I've always thought was the starting point of the Bible.

Bret said...

Peter,

I think of good cop, bad cop when it comes to the Jesus and Yahweh (God) development. Still an almighty in there. Be peaceful - or else!!! Quite a good organizing principle, seem to me.

Natural selection is always overwhelmed by chance (or god's direction if you prefer). Thus, it has very limited predictive value. We can look at a characteristic and guess or imagine that it has some advantage from the standpoint of natural selection, but it could always be just luck.

So I look at the fact that the vast majority of people are believers and I "guess" that the trait has an advantage while fully agreeing that it could well be a random artefact or even designed in by a deity that I don't happen to believe in (I have no certainty that there aren't one or more deities - I just think the odds are against it).

I certainly don't claim that evolution designed a corvette. I wouldn't think Hey Skipper would make such a claim either, but I'll have to let him speak for himself.

Bret said...

AOG,

I agree with that. Western religions have changed quite a bit in the last 200 years.

I am pretty much saying that I think Christianity is superior to Atheism for the collective. My guess is that the emergence of the extended order would have taken thousands of years longer to get to this point without widespread belief in god and religions like Christianity. Just because I don't believe doesn't mean that I think non-belief is better.

Peter said...

Bret, when you have slipped the surly bonds of biology, how do you answer David's objection that it is all one big tautology. Nature selects for fitness (survival) and the evidence for this is that some things survive and some don't?

Annoying Old Guy said...

Peter;

I snicker because you've dropped half the theory, which is that children are similar to their parents. It's like asking a Christian why they worship a dead God, because Jesus died, eliding that whole resurrection thing.

Bret said...

Peter,

I heartily agree that there's not really any evidence to directly support biological evolution in a strict scientific sense and so it is in some sense tautological.

The reason I find the concept of evolution semi-compelling is the lack of evidence to disprove it. Given the current set of creatures and the fossil record, it's quite remarkable that they all are and were plausibly fit enough to have been selected. No winged dragons or magic unicorns or flying pigs or anything mystical or just plain fun and entertaining. There are just so many possibilities for a Creator to create and protect, at least for a while, at least for amusement, that the known species, past and present, prove to me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if the biosphere was designed by an intelligence, or created by a creator, said intelligence or creator were remarkably uncreative and have absolutely no sense of humor.

As a result, I find the dry and boring natural selection "tautology", commonly known as the theory of evolution, more likely. A theory doesn't have to have a whole lot of direct, provable evidence to be a plausible theory, it just can't have any evidence to contradict it. As such, the theory of evolution, while not flawless, isn't terrible.

So what good is this theory anyway? Not much good at all if it's abused and called "fact" or when it becomes a religion of its own (as it seems to be for someone like Dawkins). On the other hand, as a framework from which to analyse ones observations and perceptions while maintaining a reasonable skepticism (it's not fact, after all), it can be a pretty good tool.

So in summary, I don't object to David's objection, I just don't think that objection is terribly relevant to how I use the theory of evolution.

Hey Skipper said...

Since humans seem to have evolved a proclivity to believe in god(s), my guess is that belief was directly helpful in the survival of the fittest competition.

I think the first part of that sentence starts off one step too far.

Humans have indisputably evolved two abilities (among others): comprehending time, and forming explanations.

Combine with the until very recent limitations on human observation, the explanation for what appeared to be a limited and intentional universe had to invoke some sort of God.

Consequently, I don't think humans have a specific ability to believe in God; rather, it is a consequence that comes from preferring an explanation, any explanation, to dunno. (See warmenism: no God, but a powerful belief in an explanation that relies upon almost no evidence.)

What's amusing to me is how many (a large majority IMHO) profess a belief in evolution but don't really believe it, or don't believe it applies to humans.

That's before amusement heads straight into irony.

For example, feminism. There isn't a feminist who is a creationist; yet for feminism (2nd and 3rd wave, if one is going to get technical) to exist, evolution must have stopped at the neckline, despite the unavoidable fact that men and women have had very different life circumstances over evolutionary time.

What are those like us to do if it turns out Christianity is evolutionally superior to atheism? That would be a bit of a self-referential fail.

Is your sentence a self-referential fail?

Christianity itself has evolved, to the point where, from the viewpoint of a typical believer 150 years ago, it would be indistinguishable from atheism*.

(Using the term in its proper sense: an atheist is someone who is not a theist; the word has nothing to do with whether some god-like entity exists; it is only an assertion that all existing descriptions are wrong. It is worth noting that all theists are separated from atheists by precisely one theology.)

Hey Skipper said...

How do you answer David's objection that it is all one big tautology. Nature selects for fitness (survival) and the evidence for this is that some things survive and some don't?

Simple: David, inexplicably, mistakes recursion for tautology.

All life on earth takes as the input for the next generation the output of the previous generation, as modified by genetic variation and survival. So long as both are not statistically random -- and neither can be -- then over time life must change.

His mistake is either in wishing away half the loop, or insisting that survival is always, everywhere, totally random.

Which is a truly exceptional claim.

Bret, truly I fear you are close to descending into Skipper territory where Darwinism explains the design of the Corvette and the development of English poetry.

How you can say that, after all these years, is something of a mystery.

For a refresher, read Boobs on Parade.

Which isn't what I called it, but perhaps should have, the first time.

Peter said...

His mistake is either in wishing away half the loop, or insisting that survival is always, everywhere, totally random.

I don't recall David saying anything of the sort. Indeed, I recall a lengthy discussion with him on what possible alternative "drivers" there were. Unless I am misunderstanding, Skipper and AOG are engaging in the same legerdemain that Dawkins is fond of, which is to suggest anyone who questions or doubts natural selection (or, more properly, the modern synthesis) of doubting the historical account of our phylogeny and thus placing all them in the fundamentalist churches of rural Appalachia. It also enables them to avoid serious challenges from within the scientific community, such as this. (See paragraphs 4-6)

If Bret had simply said that he thinks religion helps make communities strong and resilient, I wouldn't have argued, but he succumbed to the lure of placing his assertions in the context of an unseen, unconscious force hijacked from biology called the survival imperative. Given that so many religions have come and gone, flourished and stagnated, I wouldn't know how to begin to put his assertion in any kind of systematic context. Part of the problem is that Darwinism has so permeated the modern zeitgeist that we now use the verb "to evolve" as an everyday synonym for "to change", like Skipper did about the history of Christianity over the last 150 years. And which, despite my being unable to find it it the DD archives (lotsa stuff on this subject)I fondly recall him doing with gusto about the "evolution" of automobile design.

Annoying Old Guy said...

"I don't recall David saying anything of the sort."

It follows from the quote. Unless that's not an accurate quote?

"which is to suggest anyone who questions or doubts natural selection"

No, anyone who uses that specific argument. My response in no way depends on the historical account. It is an anti-strawman argument, objecting to taking half a theory and claiming that since that half doesn't stand on its own the whole theory is wrong. It's not the argument disputes consensus phylogenic history but that it ignores phylogeny history as a concept.

Just to blather on, that argument disputes evolution as a concept, which I find laughable. That's very different from disputing that it applies to our specific universe. The latter contention can be well argued. There's no shortage of beautiful, elegant theories that sadly are just not relevant to our physical reality. As an obscure note, this is the problem with string theory - it generates these by the cactus load but no one can figure out if any of them describe our reality.

Because of Darwinism we use the term "evolve" to mean "change over time influenced by function dependent feedback". That is the change is not random but affected by how instances of the class of thing function in an environment. It is that feedback, that selection that distinguishes just "change" from "evolution". And that is precisely the part that David left off.

As Bret noted this is a very handy concept because it describes a common pattern. It is distinct from design in which a model or theory is used to direct the change.

Bret said...

Hey Skipper wrote: "... it [belief in god] is a consequence that comes from preferring an explanation, any explanation, to dunno."

I agree that explanation is a plausible alternative. But it doesn't matter much as far as my argument goes, it just makes it a little more indirect: humans have a proclivity to need to have an explanation for everything which happens to have manifested itself in a widespread belief in an all powerful god. Said beliefs made believers "strong and resilient" (Peter's words) and therefore in a better position in a survival of the fittest competition. Still ends up Might Makes Right Makes Might.

Hey Skipper said...

Apologies for the upcoming thread flood, but there is too much here to cover at one go.

Skipper and AOG are engaging in the same legerdemain that Dawkins is fond of, which is to suggest anyone who questions or doubts natural selection (or, more properly, the modern synthesis) of doubting the historical account of our phylogeny and thus placing all them in the fundamentalist churches of rural Appalachia.

Huh? For pete's sake, what did I write that led to that conclusion? Denying any significance for NS — which, IIRC, is precisely what David has said, requires making an extraordinary claim

Here are the concepts at play: 1. Genes vary. 2. Genetic variation causes varying physical traits. 3. Variation is heritable. 4. Parents give birth to their own children. 5. Children who do not survive do not become parents.

At the risk of taking too much for granted, 1-4 qualify as true, if the word is to have any meaning at all. Therefore, in order for NS to not work, then the children who become parents must always be a completely random subset of children.

That is the extraordinary claim, and requires that no element of the environment can ever change in any systematic way.

And terming NS as tautological requires considering childless death and propagation as the same.

Neither claim requires one to be the least bit religious, never mind glossolalia.

But, considering how demanding the claim of randomness must be, it does require a little further elaboration.

Hey Skipper said...

It also enables them to avoid serious challenges from within the scientific community, such as this. (See paragraphs 4-6)

A few general comments first.

Argument by analogy is helpful on two conditions: the analogy clarifies the problem at hand, and the analogy excludes nothing substantial. Probably the most single salient feature of NS is that life is always recursive. Presenting an analogy — cathedrals and spandrels — that completely lacks the very thing under discussion raises the very real specter that he has absolutely no idea what he is talking about. All the other options are far less charitable.

On top of that, and for a philosopher of the mind (it isn't at all clear to which part of the scientific community Fodor belongs) particularly inexplicably, he accepts as fact that since our minds evolved in a world far different from the one in which they now exist, that our minds no longer work very well (para 3): "the mental equipment we have inherited from them isn't appropriate for what we are trying to do with it."

That makes sense only upon granting an extremely questionable and hidden precondition: "Our kind of mind was selected to solve the sorts of problems that confronted our hunter-gatherer forebears thirty thousand years or so ago; problems that arise for small populations trying to make a living and to reproduce in an ecology of scarce resources." What's camouflaged is the implicit presumption that the best brain for the job of 30,000 years ago was one that solved specific, limited, problems. The unmentioned alternative is a brain that evolved to solve problems in general, not merely those that happened to exist at any particular time.

We can argue how such a singular organ came to exist, but if he has his entering argument wrong — which it is — then everything that follows collapses. If our brains were ecology specific, as he asserts in para 5, then humans would ecologically specific. But if there is anything humans of 30,000 years were not, it was being ecologically specific. The irrefutable fact of nearly complete terrestrial generality practically demands a general purpose problem solving organ.

So, he argues from a spectacularly inapt analogy, then draws a perplexing conclusion that flies in the face of a central fact of human existence.

No surprise that the whole thing is incoherent.

As it happens, the article garnered comment from academics who were not particularly impressed. Perhaps that isn't surprising. However, what was, to me anyway, is how thin-skinned the guy is.

I'll end this with a simple case: it appears that blue eyes came about by one gene mutation in one person living around the northwestern part of the Black Sea around 7500 years ago. How did it happen that in Northern Europe, 20-99% (depending upon the region) of the population has blue eyes? (Worldwide, only slightly more than 2% have blue eyes.)

Who knows. But one thing is certain, that whatever the specific reason, blue eyed people had to be statistically more likely to reproduce.

That's called natural selection: non-random reproductive success.

Hey Skipper said...

Now, as for why I think this is important.

Naturalistic Evolution is purely historical: it describes the "algorithm" underlying natural history.

But there is more to it than that. It describes self-organized complexity. The same principles underlying NS also characterize an economy, and language, and culture. Collectivism is doomed to failure because self-organized complexity works better than externally imposed simplicity.

Hey Skipper said...

Bret:

Said beliefs made believers "strong and resilient" (Peter's words) and therefore in a better position in a survival of the fittest competition. Still ends up Might Makes Right Makes Might.

I grant at the outset that there is no saying for sure.

It is certainly possible that all instances of Cosmic Muffin Gods got wiped out by those who ascribed to the Hairy Thunderer variant, which is why so few of the former aren't around to not convert by the sword.

However, it is worth noting that Christianity took a far gentler tack, and that it became ascendant, because the might that made right was material.