Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Conspiracy and Apocalypse

I received the emailed article I have published below from the right wing magazine Townhall. I have published it here as part of my reflections on conspiracy theory. The article has all the touch and feel of the conspiracy theorist's mentality in the making. In this article Obama is portrayed in almost superhuman terms: His faults are not seen simply as the outcome of his fair share of very human foibles, failings and incompetence, but instead he is almost glorified as an anti-hero figure, an evil scheming malign intelligence bent on domination.

Human beings have an innate propensity for entertaining thoughts of apocalypse and conspiracy. These two themes frequently form a very toxic union. An example is the late “prognosticator” (=prophet?) Barry Smith who combined New World Order conspiracy theory with an apocalyptic vision of social collapse caused by the millennium bug. The prophets of conspiracy and apocalypse readily connect with insecurity about where society is headed; these prophets focus a sense of malaise by giving it clear cut narratives on which to hang fears. Fear has a catalytic effect on the imagination and florid paranoiac visions of society emerge into consciousness like the spectres of a delirium. Amongst the disillusioned and disaffected tales of conspiracy find fertile ground to grow and elaborate into irrefutable grand rationales. But the conspiracy theorist has one great consolation in his dystopian paradigm; he can warm himself with a sense of pride that he is part of a remnant who have unlocked the secret behind society. He may think of himself as oppressed but at least he can comfort himself with the thought that the oppressor has not fooled him and that he has exposed the immorality of the oppressor.

There are, however inconsistencies amongst conspiracy theorists. For example, Barry Smith fans would find themselves at loggerheads with many American conspiracy theorists who identify with right wing politics. (Also, see this post of mine). One quickly finds that the imagination of each conspiracy theorist has constructed their own very peculiar ogre. Conspiracy theorists never learn from one another, just as religious cults and sects never learn from one another.

I believe in cover ups myself, but not the kind of cover up of highly organised malign conspiracies. In peace time human beings are remarkably incompetent when it comes to organizing themselves into very coordinated secret societies. All the cover ups in our kind of society can be explained as attempts to hide incompetence, ignorance, failure, mismanagement and above all moral sleaze. That's about as far as conspiracies get.

A short post on the  fundamentalist's taste for conspiracy theory can be found here: 
Presenting Townhall magazine's vision of the anti-Christ anti-Hero:

No Higher Power: Obama's War on Religion

The Obama administration's overreaching and pervasive secularist policies represent the greatest government-directed assault on religious freedom in American history. So argues conservative leader Phyllis Schlafly and journalist George Neumayr. In No Higher Power, Schlafly and Neumayr show how Obama is waging war on our religious liberties and actively working to create one nation under him rather than one nation under God.
''Obama views traditional religion as a temporary opiate for the poor, confused, and jobless -- a drug that will dissipate as the federal government assumes more God-like powers, and his new secularist beliefs and policies gain adherents,'' write Schlafly and Neumayr.

From cutting funding for religious schools to Obama's deliberate omission of God and religion in public speeches to his assault on the Catholic Church, No Higher Power is a shocking and comprehensive look at howObama is violating one of our most fundamental rights -- and remaking our country into a nation our Founding Fathers would hardly recognize.

For four years Barack Obama has waged an unparalleled attack—largely undocumented by the mainstream media—on religious liberty in the United States. Never before has an administration been more convinced that there is no higher power than itself: one nation under Obama. In this stunning new book, veteran conservative lawyer, activist, and commentator Phyllis Schlafly and reporter George Neumayr reveal the greatest assault on American liberty in our time—the Obama administration's war on religious freedom.
  • Why a second Obama term could spell the end of Catholic hospitals and the court-martialing of Christian military chaplains
  • How the Obama administration is stripping conscience protections for pro-life doctors and nurses—forcing them to either assist in abortions or quit medicine
  • How the Obama administration sought to ban Bibles from military hospitals and prohibit invocations of Jesus Christ at military funerals
  • Why even Justice Elena Kagan—an Obama appointee to the Supreme Court—was shocked by the Obama administration's dictating employment policy at a Lutheran church
  • How Obama is defying federal law in the Defense of Marriage Act
  • How liberal Christians like Jim Wallis have acted as useful idiots for Obama's war on Christianity—and how the Catholic Left in Chicago actually helped pay for Obama's training as a disciple of the radical Saul Alinsky
  • Why the Obama administration coddles Islam while actively discriminating against Christians and Jews

In No Higher Power, Schlafly and Neumayr expose the Obama administration's brazen disregard for the First Amendment, its relentless purging of religion from our public life, and the even more chilling persecution of religion set to come.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Planet Narnia Part 3: Consciousness

I have been doing a series of blogs on Michael Ward’s fascinating book Planet Narnia. My first two posts can be found here and here. In this post I want to pick up on another secondary theme found in Ward’s book; namely, the peculiar logical status of conscious cognition. 

 That we have a name for consciousness can in itself be the cause of logical typing errors. For example, we might say something like: “In this world we have objects like matter, space, plants, animals, human beings and consciousness!”. It might appear from the construction of this list that consciousness is just another category, like materials and animals, that we can subject to observation. However, in this list consciousness is the odd one out; we don’t observe consciousness, rather it is observation; in all observations conscious cognition is implicit and therefore it is also implicit in all scientific testing. 

Somebody who has made the category error of thinking about consciousness as if it is just another object subject to observation is Larry Moran. In this post he says: 

Now, I happen believe that there's no such thing as "consciousness" in the sense of something tangible that we can point to and say. "That's consciousness."

I would accept the face value of that statement: Take me to a brain and all I am aware of is the third person perspective of neural activity. Moreover, we’re told that a large part of brain activity is unconscious so even if I‘m looking at brain activity I’m not necessarily looking at activity that maps to “consciousness”. But this is really beside the point; the point is that this neural activity is how the first person's conscious experience registers in the consciousness of the third person observer. Therefore conscious cognition is the implicit backdrop and stage of any narrative spoken from a third person perspective. However, this exercise in self-awareness seems too reflexive for Larry and because he fails to observe anything that looks like “consciousness” in brain activity he simply defines consciousness as identical to neural activity: 

“I think it’s merely a descriptive term for brain activity. Consciousness may be an important and useful word for describing the phenomenon, but that’s all it is” 

Larry seems unable to detect the presence of consciousness cognition implicit in the phrase “describing the phenomenon”; there has to be a first person perspective for whom the whole thing is a phenomenon observed and described. It’s almost as if people like Larry lack a degree of self-awareness: They can see the third person story, but have no category for the first person story, Given that third person descriptions conventionally contain no explicit reference to an observer it is no surprise that Larry thinks consciousness doesn’t exist. But thinking that consciousness doesn’t exist is a bit like thinking that “observation” doesn’t exist. What then is the final arbiter of scientific theories in the face of this attack on the reality of observation? As Ward correctly says: 

To Lewis (as to Barfield), scientists in the modern period were too often naturalistic in their world view, apt to commit the error of removing their own minds and their thinking processes from the total picture of the world that they were trying to understand and inhabit. P242 

It was the very foundational nature of observation (or experience/consciousness) in science that lead me, at a very early stage in my philosophical musings, to be drawn toward positivistic schools of thought. I was drawn toward them because they acknowledged the scientific centrality of the conscious observing thinking agent; in fact, that highly complex agent was effectively axiomatic to positivism. This led me to a favourable view of idealism as a philosophy. According to Ward it seems that a similar shift toward idealism happened to Lewis himself: 

…they maintained that abstract thought, if obedient to logical rules, gave indisputable ‘truth’ and the possibility of ‘valid’ moral judgment. Barfield, who had advanced beyond realism some time before his friend, taught Lewis that, if thought were purely a subjective event, these claims for abstract thinking would have to be abandoned. Lewis was not willing-indeed, not able – to abandon them……He now saw that a realist philosophy that admitted only sensory perception would be effectively solipsistic, but if solipsism were true it could not know itself to be true. The cerebral physiologist who says that thought is ‘only’ tiny physical movements of grey matter must be wrong, for how could he think that thought truly except by participating in the medium which the logic of his statement denies? “The inside vision of rational thinking must be truer than the outside vision which only sees movements of the grey matter; for if the outside vision were the correct one all thought (including this thought itself) would be valueless, and this is self contradictory” P34

 I would want to comment on this quote as follows: The cerebral physiologist who says that thought is ‘only’ tiny physical movements of grey matter is in one sense right because his third person perspective on the first person will mean that observations of the latter will only ever reveal tiny physical movements of grey matter. But if we are a cerebral physiologist we must not neglect to carry out the reflexive operation of looking back down the line of our observation to ourselves where it becomes apparent that implicit in our third person account of the brain are the observations and theorizings of a first person perspective. It may well be that every conscious event maps on a point by point basis to some kind of neural activity, but this still leaves us with the observer-observed dichotomy between the first person and third person perspectives. 

Ward tells us that given this kind of philosophical background Lewis became an idealist: 

Lewis had wanted Nature to be quite independent of his observations, something other, indifferent, self-existing. “But now, it seemed to me, I had to give that up. Unless I were to accept an unbelievable alternative, I must admit that mind was no late-come epiphenomenon; that the whole universe was, in the last resort, mental; that our logic was participation in a cosmic Logos” (Logos as a pervasive spirit of rationality…) Lewis was moving toward an idealist philosophy. To be more precise, he was recognizing that his present position already entailed idealism. P34

There is, however, a major and obvious issue with a thorough going idealism that asserts that ultimate reality is only vested in the observations, perceptions and thoughts of conscious cognition. This is the old question about the reality of events which seem to be well beyond the spot light of conscious observation. We have a compelling intuition that our world is benevolently rational and therefore that the signals arriving at our door, whether they be the fossil remains from deep time or the starlight from deep space, are not just a deceptive sensory façade, but instead an interface to something real and beyond. There may be no entities that qualify as conscious observers in deep space or deep time and yet the compelling rational integrity of the cosmic order demands these signals be treated as a clue to a detailed reality beyond close observation. Lewis, in all likelihood, understood this completely and may be it is this that drew him toward Berkelyan idealism, a form of idealism where humanly unperceived cosmic quarters nevertheless have a place in the conscious cognition of God:

However, it was only a small step to theism. Indeed, Lewis admits in ‘Surprised by Joy’ that he cannot now understand how he ever regarded his idealism as ‘something quite distinct from Theism’. Rather ‘idealism turned out, when you took it seriously, to be disguised Theism’. He considered Berkeley’s account of idealism ‘unanswerable’ and when asked what school of philosophy God might support, he replied, ‘God is a Berkeleyan idealist’. P35 

I personally have no a priori problem with the notion that the motions of neural atoms, motions which constitute the third person perspective of my brain, have a point by point mapping to my every conscious thought and in that sense “explains” them. But why should this system of atoms should be graced with an epistemology that seems to work? That is, why can an ensemble of atoms successfully reach knowledge about themselves? There seems to be nothing in science which obliges guaranteed “self-knowledge”. In this connection Ward quotes Haldane: 

The naturalistic alternative refutes itself, in Lewis view, for the reason given by Haldane: ‘If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true… and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms’ P217

We could short cut the self-defeating self-reference here by simply accepting benevolent rationality as an axiomatic brute given and probe no further. But for theists benevolent rationality is a rational assumption in the context of a theology of providence. (See How to know you know you know it

I’m not sure, however, that I would want to follow Lewis into the next stage of his thought, a stage which to me smacks of dualism and ghost in the machine. Following on from my last quote Ward says: 

Since this position is self-refuting, Lewis concludes that it cannot be true; human thinking must be sharing in a ‘supernatural reason’. By ‘supernatural’ Lewis means that human thought, when true, is not simply dependent upon the interlocked system of natural causes and natural effects. Rational knowledge is not caused by effects; rather it is the consequence of grounds, being determined only by the truth it knows, not by digestion or heredity or the weather or any other non-rational, naturalistic causation. P217 

For me this kind of thinking disrupts the agreement and harmony between conscious cognition and the “interlocked system of natural causes and natural effects”. Although I’m not dogmatic about it, I have no problem with the notion that there may be a complete point by point conformity between one’s first person experiences and the “system of natural causes and effects” as observed by the third person. On that basis I have no a-priori objection to the idea that “Rational knowledge is caused by effects”; in fact my understanding of theism is sympathetic to this idea: God is as much creative sovereign over the third person perspective of atoms and particles as he is over the first person experiences that map to the system of particulate motions. Therefore the system of causes and effects that we observe could well be efficacious enough to provide conscious cognition with “self-explanation” (See the forward of my book here where I moot this idea). But it is when we posit no providential underwriter of this system of self-explanation that the self-defeating self-referencing problems arise. 

At one point Ward quotes Barfield who in my opinion expresses well the situation we find ourselves in: 

Science deals with the world which it perceives but, seeking more and more to penetrate the veil of naive perception, progresses only toward the goal of nothing, because it still does not accept in practice (what-ever it may admit theoretically) that the mind first creates what it perceives as objects, including the instruments which science uses for that very penetration. It insists on dealing with ‘data’, but there shall no data be given, save the bare precept. The rest is imagination. Only by imagination therefore can the world be known. And what is needed is, not only that larger and larger telescopes should be constructed, but that the human mind should become increasingly aware of its own creative activity. P241-242 (Barfield) 

We cannot peep round the interface of our perceptions or dispense with the imagination which interprets what it sees and builds the superstructure of a rational world on those perceptions. Whether we believe in a providential theism or not, science can only proceed if we are positive about the assumption of a rational world amenable to the imagination. Without this assumption being the foundation of our thought we have little epistemological purchase on the cosmos. Without this assumption being proactively exploited all science and knowledge ends.


William Erwin Thompson, of whom I have done two posts (see here and here) and whose ideas I feel are linked to Planet Narnia, is another author who understands the status of consciousness. See the second of the two posts I have linked to where I quote from Pages 98 and 99 of Thompson’s book Passages about Earth.

I have written on the subject of consciousness several times in this blog as follows:


Sunday, July 08, 2012

An Identified Lying Object?

Tim Ventura has a close encounter with Bob Lazar

 As a bit of light relief I have been ferreting around on the internet for stories about the self-proclaimed Area 51 “UFO reverse engineer”, Bob Lazar. I came across this PDF article on American Anti-gravity written by Tim Ventura. It tells of Ventura’s contacts with Lazar. 

Tim Ventura of American Anti-gravity knows how to tell a good story; that’s not to imply that he is untruthful, but he has an aptitude for making humdrum experiences colorful and intriguing. (I have written about Tim and American Anti-Gravity before - see here and here). Ventura’s story on Lazar is no exception and for UFOlogists who want an insight into Bob Lazar's psyche it’s recommended reading.

Tim Ventura strikes me as a good natured, honest and trusting person who is more likely to think the best of people rather than the worst. Reading between the lines of Ventura's story it appears that these traits were exploited by Lazar in order to take Ventura for a ride. Ventura’s willingness to give Lazar the benefit of the doubt contrasts with UFOlogist and Physicist Stanton Friedman who thinks Lazar’s Area 51 story is bunk and refers to it as The Bob Lazar Fraud.

Ventura tells how, in a series of phone contacts with Lazar, he was offered employment on a top secret black project sponsored by the military. This project was, according to Lazar, developing new propulsion systems based on Ventura’s area of expertise – namely, high voltage lifters. Needless to say none of Lazar’s promises came to anything. At the time it seems that Ventura could have used a well-paid job, but the story Lazar was feeding Ventura eventually fizzled out inconclusively and Ventura’s hopes of a high status research job were dashed.

Tim Ventura's Garage Based Lifter Technology

The whole episode left Ventura with questions. But calling Lazar a plain liar seemed too simplistic and Ventura could not quite shake the feeling that maybe there was more to Lazar than just a clever yarn spinner. In fact it is very difficult to make rational sense of Lazar’s behaviour. As Ventura says: 

Why would Lazar orchestrate such an elaborate lie involving Lifters in 2003, and then ask me to keep the entire thing quiet? 

If Lazar is lying this leaves us with outstanding questions about just what motivates him to concoct and lead people on with florid tales. What is he after? Liars must be prepared to take risks, but is Lazar really so stupid as to think he can fool all of the people all of the time? Perhaps he is some kind of sociopath who gets kicks out of the sense of control that his attempts to manipulate people bring him. Or perhaps he basks in the temporary feel-good factor and social kudos of tall tales about working with high ranking military officials and scientists on secret projects. Or may be Lazar lives in a fantasy world and believes the stories he tells. 

Bob Lazar appears to know a thing or two.....

.....or at least that's what Tim Ventura thought.

What baited Ventura in the first instance was an unsolicited call from Lazar asking if Ventura might be interested in a joining a top secret project. This unprompted and proactive act by Lazar left Ventura unable to quite write off Lazar as a plain liar:

Why would he spontaneously call me on the spur of the moment to fabricate a lie about a breakthrough in Lifter technology? It made no sense whatsoever, and consequently I believed his story......It’s easy to say that  I was being naïve, but it wasn’t just a single  statement that made him believable – it was  the tone & context, and a complete lack of rationale behind any fakery. 

At one point in his narative Ventura suggests that may be Lazar is some kind of government disinformation agent; if we have a taste for conspiracy and intrigue then perhaps we might further speculate that Lazar was there to help put American Anti-gravity off course! 

But whatever; it is easy to see how poor Tim Ventura was ripe for manipulation by Lazar. We all have hopes, aspirations, and goals and our vanities are ever open to the flattering deceiving tongue. It looks to me as though Lazar was a past master at tapping into people’s emotional complexes and so he did with Ventura. Ventura admits that the thought of joining a well-funded team at the cutting edge of new propulsion technology excited him: 

Believe it or not, after that second phone-call I actually felt relieved, when I think that most people would have been more on-edge than ever. Part of it was at least the knowledge about this “breakthrough” – an increase that magnitude in Lifters would have made them a practical aerospace technology, and would have put me in a founding role of what could very well be the next step in the evolution of aircraft technology....... At the time, I really believed him. In hindsight I’m not sure if I should have, but in the moment I felt like I might have a job  waiting right around the corner, and that my  future might get a little bit brighter from his efforts in Washington DC

We can’t blame Ventura for this kind of ambition; it's only natural. Also, to be fair Ventura's a bright spark and eventually he smelt a rat, although he seems too good natured to come right out and accuse Lazar of being a fraud. It is difficult to believe that Lazar could be so cold hearted as to take a nice guy like Ventura and string him along for so long. 

 In many ways Lazar is an excellent metaphor for of the whole UFO/abduction phenomenon. Lazar offers us just enough intriguing evidence to get people to come running, but in the final analysis not enough to complete the story and bring closure. Ventura was left dangling on the line and wondering what it was all about; he had been given sufficient clues to hint that behind Lazar there might be something real, and yet not enough to prove anything. Lazar was a disembodied voice on the phone and Ventura was never in a position where he could get up close to check things out at will; he was fed enticing tidbits of information that took him on to the next stage. Not unlike the UFO phenomenon itself Lazar builds his stories around people’s emotional complexes; their hopes, desires, fears, suspicions, guilt, vanities, heartaches and above all their myths. And yet Lazar’s own motives remain utterly inscrutable. Ultimately no in depth reality emerged from Lazar’s claims; they remain to this day as just pure façade. Lazar was there, it seems, to disconnect Ventura from reality and tip him into a world of fancy and make believe. All this is very isomorphic with the world of UFOs (and the world of apparitions and cryptozoology). In one sense our perceptions are our reality and sometimes those perceptions morph into something dreamlike, something lacking in rational depth and coherence but real enough to be enticing.


The above really classifies as part of my paranormal series. The other parts can be seen here: