The Future of an Illusion and The Church of Apple

I haven’t been around for a while. It’s not that i’m over writing (or reading), just that I haven’t had a chance to read much lately. Between tests and papers being due, I have been spending most of my time knee deep in text books. I did learn some interesting things though. Did you know that the three smallest bones in our body are located in our inner ear, and that their job is it amplify the sound-waves coming from outside before they are translated into waves in the liquids of the inner ear? Anyway, there wasn’t too much literary reading being done lately, and what I did read was more of what I had already written about, mostly some more Dawkins.
One interesting thing I read that is both study-related and continues the line of my last post is The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud. It’s a lesser known (and significantly shorter) book than his other hits – The Interpretation of Dreams for example – but it really is an excellent text which reads like it was written yesterday. In Illusion Freud presents a psychoanalytical, sociological interpretation of religion. Freud was openly atheistic and this text is perhaps the clearest

Heaven? Hell? Sure. But I draw the line at disapproving bacon.

example of that. It’s not his only book on religion – see also Moses and Monotheism and other, more general references – but it’s probably the most straight-forward attack on the very concept of religion and god. Many points that he makes here are the same points that are made still today: that religious belief is a tool in the hands of the powerful few; that science can provide evidence where religion fails; that even if the scientific theories that are popular right now will prove to be inaccurate or even completely wrong that still doesn’t mean that god is an alternative in any way. But what I really like about Freud’s text is that he goes on to explain religion itself. Dawkins and co. would say god doesn’t exist because the theory of the world which science provides makes him redundant; Freud would say: god doesn’t exist because the psychoanalytical theory of organized religion makes him redundant.

In psychoanalysis as in psychoanalysis the answer lies with the father. Freud’s claim is that humanity as a whole has one big daddy-issue in the shape of an all-seeing, all-knowing god. Earlier polytheistic gods were “born from man’s need to make his helplessness tolerable and built up from the material of memories of the helplessness of his own childhood”. What about monotheism? “Now that god was a single person, man’s relations to him could recover the intimacy and intensity of the child’s relation to his father” (Chapter IV). The analogy is beyond this simple metaphor, of course. Freud compares human evolution to individual child development. In both cases we start out needing a strong, comforting parent to guide us through and provide us with meaning. In both cases we ought to eventually grow out of it. “Men cannot remain children for ever; they must in the end go out into ‘hostile life'” (Chapter IX). This is a brilliant insight which explains the transitional stage in which humanity now finds itself. We’ve been through a lot since the confusing times those couple of thousand years ago when nature was scary and unforeseeable. Science can now explain a great deal of nature to us, and we are finally ready to move past superstition and into rationality. The pessimistic claim that people could never fully let go of religion is one that I disagree with. True, the past couple of decades saw a strong regression into fundamentalism in each of the “big three” monotheistic religions. But I think it is but a short drawback on the overall right path. Progress is never a straight line. When you take ten steps forward you are bound to take a few back before you can keep progressing. In the bigger picture there is far more freedom to exercise atheism and rationality than there was a few hundred years ago – a hundred years ago – even as late as seventy years ago, in some respects.

The Future of an Illusion, published 1927

One interesting idea that comes up in Illusion is the place religion has in society as explaining the fact that it still exists. Some people claim that religion is necessary because it has moral importance. This, in my eyes, is a wild exaggeration. If we were to follow the rules that a bible or other dictates we would be murdering women who were being unfaithful to their husbands (etc). No, the real reason for needing god – beyond the general feeling that there’s something after death to look forward to – is the sense of community. The idea of being part of something bigger. If you look around today, the western world has of course grown more secular. But people are still people; don’t they need that lost sense of community? Well, if you look closely you will see the substitutes we have come up with. For starters there are sports teams, there are political parties etc. But it’s in part of the culture itself too. What about being a punk-rocker, or a chess player? Going to concerts, to conferences, writing in forums and so on.

One example I especially like is what is sometimes referred to as The Church of Apple – those owners of iPads, iPhones, Macbooks (usually all three) who are emotionally involved in the products beyond the normal amount. I should clarify: there is nothing wrong with Apple products nor is there anything wrong with owning them (I myself have an older-generation iPod; it plays movies and music but has no touch screen). It is the exaggeration of the whole experience which I am uncomfortable with. And I call it a church for a reason: it has all the characteristics of religion. Being a Machead is being a part of a specific community. It means being devoted to one brand and being outspoken against others (how often do you see a heated argument about iPhone 4 VS Galaxy S II? The Android people usually give up earlier but they may be just as fanatic sometimes). It is about following the news closely and keeping up with the technology as it comes out, even though no one really needs a new smartphone every year. It’s about sticking to the values which the product holds religiously and blindly. Have you ever tried pointing out flaws to a Machead? Point made. Apple themselves do a lot to make this church possible. For example the lack of compatibility with products of any other company. Why is that necessary, if not in order to keep control in Apple’s hands? The financial reasons may be different but the social effect is one and the same: it means keeping things in the family and secluding your users, even if only technologically, and preventing cooperation. (Not to mention complete rejection of open source policy). Here’s another example: making it hard for iPhone users to be creative with their ringtone. Since iPhones come with iTunes you would expect it to be easy as pie to upload a song you like and make it your ringtone. Apparently it required apps and patches and a lot of effort. Your ringtone should be from a selected, short list of possibilities. Why? So that when someone calls you, everyone around you will know which phone you are using, without even looking at you to see what comes out of your pocket. Again: obviously the real reason behind this is to do with money, technology etc; but the sociological outlook is the one I’m using here. Lastly and perhaps most obviously is the unprecedented cult of personality around Steve Jobs. This is not to be disrespectful in any way – the man was indeed innovative and brilliant at marketing and technology. But the amount of heartbreak and celebration of his work after he died was disproportional, to put it mildly. Not even leaders and artist get this kind of respect. It reminded me of the cult of personality around John Lennon’s assassination, or around Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Not that it’s any better in those cases – lets all just try and steer clear out of idealization all the time – but at least musicians (or leaders, or philosophers, or writers etc) are adored for some profound message, not for technological advancement. To wrap up: my original point, in case I lost it along the way, was that in an absence of actual religion to help us feel united we easily find replacements. Today it’s Apple; tomorrow… who knows?

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Popular Science and the Blimey Effect

Every so often, after a period of sinking into literary fiction, I suddenly feel a strange urge for some refreshing science reading. Indeed the cornerstones of my private library – the first books I’ve ever bought for myself, sometime around middle-school – are of the popular mathematics genre. The Prisoner’s Dilemma (William Poundstone) and The Code Book (Simon Singh) really are two of the most fascinating non-fiction books I’ve ever read, respectively concerning Game Theory and the history of code cracking. Later came some mathematician biographies, and soon I turned my interest towards fiction. Some years later, upon considering what it is I wish to study for my B.A., I went back to the non-fiction shelves, this time reading about language, neurology and society (I highly recommend Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language) and later popular psychology, evolutionary psychology and psychiatry (if you want to be astounded by just how weird our brains are, read anything by Oliver Sacks. Then put the book down and go: “wow.” Then read the rest of his books). Soon after that I started my studies at the university, not surprisingly in the faculty of humanities, and have been knee deep in fictional characters and plots ever since. And then, suddenly – not two weeks ago – I suddenly felt like reading something radically different.

It started, perhaps logically, with biology – a topic which I encounter every once in a while in my studies. More accurately, it started with evolution. Since Charles Darwin has been dead for quite some time now, he can hardly defend his work himself. The scientist who is currently doing most of the work in the field of popularizing Darwinism is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins is somewhat of a hero of mine; not only for what he says but also because of the way he says it (oh how girlish of me). Dawkins goes well beyond explaining evolution and far into promoting it – and scientific teaching – and rational atheism – all issues which I find important. Sadly, in his work against organized religion he sometimes looks like a modern Don

Richard Dawkins preaching to the choir, it would seem

Quixote*, full of good intentions but fighting against an indestructible force. (I should point out that only some people see him that way: a frighteningly large amount of people see him as the devil). As I was saying, it’s not only about the content but also about the presentation. Dawkins is a very gifted writer with a rich and poetic language, and more importantly, with seemingly endless patience. I’m ever amazed by the way he argues his point of view in various televised interviews. Sitting in front of him is usually a creationist or another, whose words are soaked with hatred and contempt. But Dawkins never loses his cool: he waits patiently for his turn, and then presents his side ever so politely. It’s inspiring just how NICE he is. The books I’ve been reading of his lately are The God Delusion and The Blind Watchmaker, and I’m awaiting the arrival of The Greatest Show on Earth (how I love online shopping!). I can’t say I was converted by his work – simply because I was on the same side to begin with, long before I knew these books existed. Still, I couldn’t recommend it enough. Well written, concise, humorous and all in all a great read.  Be warned that reading and watching Dawkins begins to repeat itself after a while; but until that happens, there’s a lot to enjoy.

The next step, having realized that the beauty of evolution lies in its simplicity, was to search for the opposite: something so terribly complex that would provide a challenge in the very attempt to understand what the hell is being said. The most complex thing I could think of was modern physics. Unfortunately, it was even more complicated then I had thought, and I am forced to admit that I just couldn’t get through Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, despite it being a classic and considered very easy and light. Therefore I had to result to… documentaries. Blasphemy, I know. This is a blog about the written word! Well, you know what? Someone wrote down the scripts for those documentaries, and did it very well. (Also, some of them are based on books, if that helps at all). I watched the very informative The Fabric of the Cosmos, a four-part series based on the similarly named book by physicist Dr. Brian Greene, who also presents the program. This fun (I’m not being sarcastic) show goes from Einstein’s time-space continuum and black holes through quantum mechanics and string theory, and even discusses the notion of multiverse, which is how I discovered the the “Family Guy” episode on that subject wasn’t kidding. It sounds heavy but it is explained very well, with plenty of demonstrations, jokes and special effects. Sometimes even too many, I admit (upon demonstrating time-travel: “I’ll see you later Mr. Greene…” -“Yes… A lot later!” Oh, come on). But still, a great intro to a subject which should be looked into by anyone with the slightest interest in the deepest reality of our world. Personally, I find modern physics extremely hard to grasp. It’s not the numbers and calculations that bother me – well, those too, but they can easily be avoided by just not dwelling on them – but how radically different the ideas are from our daily perceived reality. The most disturbing

The Multidimensional String Theory

part of quantum mechanics is that the information is all pointing to the randomness and instability of life at its most basic part(icle)s. I have a sort of gut feeling that things are not really random, and in fact they have a very strict order – it’s just one the we haven’t yet been able to wrap our heads around. Then again, you are listening to a student of literature, so what the hell do I know. It is also worthwhile asking whether my inclination to expect a final straightforward solution is the most human reaction there is, and whether the reason that quantum mechanics is so hard to grasp is that it defies exactly that human kind of thinking. The humanities-oriented thinker in me cannot help but think about it in these terms. What does this uncertain and uncomfortable view of nature do to us as people? Learning that we exist only as a (luckily conscious) byproduct of evolution is bad enough for our sense of meaning. Now this too? The cold reality of science is difficult to take in. Personally I find that rather than being depressing, this view of the world is wonderfully freeing. If no greater purpose exists, and my actions do not have a “grander-scheme-of-things” meaning, then I am free to produce meaning myself. I have no higher power to impress and I am completely free to do whatever I want (within reasonable humanistic values, such as never hurt anyone if you can avoid it). But that’s just me; I can definitely see how heartbreaking such realizations can be at first. As for this chaos that quantum mechanics seems to be providing: I have not yet been convinced that behind the atom – behind the electrons – behind the strings – there is no logical set of rules that puts it all together. It’s hard for me to imagine that kind of world, when I see how well the real world stays within its known set of rules (Newtonian laws etc). But I’m still waiting to be proven wrong. Either way it’s all fascinating and mind-blowing like nothing else I’ve ever read (OK, OK, like nothing else I’ve ever watched a documentary about). Here’s another great documentary – only one part long – precisely about how modern math and physics defy our human need for order, and how it is all linked to the great social and emotional turmoil of the 20th century: High Anxieties: The Mathematics of Chaos. Enjoy!

 

* He is like Don Quixote in the sense of fighting a battle you have very little chance of winning, not of hallucinating enemies and being overall a bit pityfull. Just making my stand clear, if it wasn’t so already when I used the word hero.