Category: Religion

Euhemerus and the Bullshit Artist

trump-minotaurSailing down through the Middle East, past the monuments of Egypt and the wild African coast, and then on into the Indian Ocean, past Arabia Felix, Euhemerus came upon an island. Maybe he came upon it. Maybe he sailed. He was perhaps—yes, perhaps; who can say?—sailing for Cassander in deconstructing the memory of Alexander the Great. And that island, Panchaea, held a temple of Zeus with a written history of the deeds of men who became the Greek gods.

They were elevated, they became fixed in the freckled amber of ancient history, their deeds escalated into myths and legends. And, likewise, the ancient tribes of the Levant brought their El and Yah-Wah, and Asherah and Baal, and then the Zoroastrians influenced the diaspora in refuge in Babylon, until they returned and had found dualism, elemental good and evil, and then reimagined their origins pantheon down through monolatry and into monotheism. These great men and women were reimagined into something transcendent and, ultimately, barely understandable.

Even the rational Yankee in Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court realizes almost immediately why he would soon rule over the medieval world as he is declared a wild dragon when presented to the court. He waits for someone to point out that he doesn’t resemble a dragon, but the medieval mind does not seem to question the reasonableness of the mythic claims, even in the presence of evidence.

So it goes with the human mind.

And even today we have Fareed Zakaria justifying his use of the term “bullshit artist” for Donald Trump. Trump’s logorrhea is punctuated by so many incomprehensible and contradictory statements that it becomes a mythic whirlwind. He lets slip, now and again, that his method is deliberate:

DT: Therefore, he was the founder of ISIS.

HH: And that’s, I’d just use different language to communicate it, but let me close with this, because I know I’m keeping you long, and Hope’s going to kill me.

DT: But they wouldn’t talk about your language, and they do talk about my language, right?

Bullshit artist is the modern way of saying what Euhemerus was trying to say in his fictional “Sacred History.” Yet we keep getting entranced by these coordinated maelstroms of utter crap, from World Net Daily to Infowars to Fox News to Rush Limbaugh. Only the old Steven Colbert could contend with it through his own bullshit mythical inversion. Mockery seems the right approach, but it doesn’t seem to have a great deal of impact on the conspiratorial mind.

Against Superheroes: Section 18 (Chapter 15)

Against SuperheroesThe sessions with Sakara were illuminative and intimate. She asked me about what I remembered from before the transformation. I sat in the chair across from her, the susurration of the air conditioning that seemed to feed the field projectors as much as our comfort was a constant presence beneath our discussion. I remembered very little: hints of childhood, more about the dig at Mt. Hasan, bits of Ela’s sexual mystique, strange flashes of schools and lights. Interrogating this past revealed very little new or surprising to me. I was candid about my limitations concerning the changes to my memory. I was also candid about how with the loss of a personal history came, inevitably, a loss of the essentials of being human. We are continuitities of experience. I can’t describe who I am except as part of my memories and the feelings that surround and enervate them. The protracted calamity of religious ideas that Sakara raised, from ethical concerns about harming others to the status of the unborn all unravel with this consideration. A baby is alive but only tentatively human in the strongest sense. A god knows this—can even feel it as a ribbon into the future—but humans just arbitrarily assign categories that are driven by misunderstandings of these cognitive postures.

Why were the gods so capricious, she asked me. Why were they so inhuman? They were good human questions but the answer hardly raised above this faint echo of incapacity. If your mind is subsumed in this web of temporal flux, if you recognize the flammability of experience, and where there are other islands of experiences too, like for a human that there is only instead a moving arc of intransitive expectations and plans, then what is left is the broader permamence of an ineffable now. She tried to pin this to the Eastern experience, wrapping it like a crèche Jesus in the swaddling of Buddhist and Taoist language. They are partially there, I explained, but so are the ardent Penitentes or the Hindu self-mutilators. Sure, of course, that is what they think they see, what we as gods see and experience. It is confounded by the lustful futurism of the human condition. I don’t care if I live or die. I am not even sure I can. I only care about injustice through a willful effort to define and engage with my human past. I’m not sure any other gods ever did.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses, when asked why God might be so cruel as to not only drown the entire world but to also kill all but some hundred thousand elect who will join Him in heaven, respond that we are like ants to Him and cannot know His morality. It is true, I realize and scare Sakara with this revelation, that Yahweh, if he was as real as I am, necessarily had a moral code that was indifferent to humanity. That any creation act was just a likely contigent effect of some greater, unknowable temporary perspective, a new technology almost built out of these fields and rhythms. He didn’t care and his confused expressions were recorded by his followers like imbecile ants trying to see beyond the pheromonic trails that took them in their daily cycles. Losing those gods to just myths and history was critical to developing freedom, but we kept reappearing in theosophy, in mysticism, in alien encounters, in superheroes imbued with superpowers. The gods lived on in our aspirations until they were actually discovered again.

Yes, re-engaging with humanity, becoming a force for good regardless of the edge randomization, was something that I wanted to do after a while. It was maybe loneliness—sure Sakara—I wouldn’t deny that diagnosis, that analysis. Discovering how to be human again brought the ability to quell the Tiamat within me, and the capacity to grok that vast, limited double-cone of past and future that comes with that humanity.

The sessions went on and on. I began marking the passing of days on the walls of my cell with a red crayon they granted me. A television arrived a week later and I asked Sakara if it was some kind of gift for being a good little god. She said she though it might help with boredom. I had little of that even now, maybe something like it at the edges, though. Holding the crayon in my hand late in the night, watching the unchanging shadows from the now-dimmed lights, I continued to work on the corners of those tubules, enlarging them against the pervasiveness of the suppression field. I felt like I understood its mechanism more in interfering with my penetration of the ensembles of microstates. It was like static that disrupted the realizations. By flexing a bit I could lift the edge of the gauzy veil without setting off alarms. I had begun in my cell but tried again during a session with Sakara to test my theory. No alarms, no stunguns.

By the third week Sakara asked me if there was anything I needed and I told her answers, just all the answers that I was waiting for. That was all I needed. She agreed at that point but said that I had to remain in the field for a bit longer. I was surprised that they were even considering lifting the field from me, and briefly suspended my own experimentation on it, fearing I would dissolve that trust that we had built together through these seemingly irrelevant chats. She smiled at me and told me I had been remarkably forthcoming and didn’t seem to be trying to manipulate her at all. I hadn’t, admittedly, though not telling her that I could probably throw off the effects of the field and break the building into pieces was not particularly forthcoming in the sense she was using the term. I thought briefly about telling her or showing her what I could now do. I wanted her trust, too. She was a wonderfully delicate woman doing some of the most fascinating and risky work in the human universe. And she was doing it competently in the face of incredible ambiguity and uncertainty.

I reached out, then, as I acknowledged her trust using the standard English symbology, a wrapping of idiosyncratic semaphors that conjoined our emotional transaction. Information was always secondary to the feeling, to the stance. And then as I felt through the field’s matrix of spongey sequenced variables, I touched the side of her face, disturbing the plumule like a gentle, cool breeze that can flow through any room, when an air conditioner comes on or a colleague passes near, but this was a controlled cell, a womb, and there was no motion outside our own flexing and re-arranging, and her right eyelid twitched and then pulsed reflexively, her searching about at the anomaly. But it was just that once, and I relented, satisfied with my cryptic stalking for that slice of time.

She continued then, though with a loss of certainty to her patter, a temporary hesitancy, until she excused herself to use the bathroom and I waited, watching the tile floor and the multiple shadows radiating from the complex of reflected lights bouncing through the room. When she returned she began to describe what they knew and what they were still trying to understand.

Against Superheroes, Section 7 (Chapter 5)

coverar-v3-2-10-2015Section 7

With Chapter 4 we see a combination of narrative forms. There is, first, the factual discussion of the details of the archaeological dig itself. There are the problems that arise from the details of the ground, the water, the shaft, the descent. These problems and the detailed resolution of them lend to a sense of consistent realism concerning the tasks at hand in the everyday lives of the protagonists. The level of detail is strikingly at odds with the other primary narrative form: Sinister’s soliloquy on the symbolism and history of other deities. The position of these paragraphs juxtaposed amongst the more detailed discussion has produced several potential explanations, the most important of which was the requirement for presaging the unknown technology and its role in past conflicts. While there is an element of that, as a memoir presenting a linear sequence of developments (remember that he was concerned about that presentation), it is equally plausible that his recollections were merely jumbled and possessed of a certain confused emotional state.

The content of the soliloquy is worth further analysis. The primary descriptions are of conquest of people and their gods against others. There is a spreading out of the various factions, Hellenists, Israelites, Romans, etc. They are constantly at war with one another and the more powerful gods subjugate the less powerful. The subtle indication that amongst at least some of them, the Hellenists, that the gods were somewhat distant to them is of particular interest because it begs the question of how, amongst all the spirits and entities that are referenced, they were applied during war? What means of attack and influence did they have that apparently led to them conquering Yahweh and others? This is where we see some light shining through our subthesis that not only was Sinister real and his narrative also real, but that he represented a line of descent in his use of the Baal technology. If the gods were not factually present on the battlefields, then they might have been merely metaphorical for the hopes and beliefs.

We are against this theory for several reasons. First, Sinister may be simply reporting his state of understanding at the time in the narrative flow. He had not yet developed his greater insights into the flow of history and believed that this was a conundrum among the ancient peoples as to whether they believed or did not believe in the actual existence of their gods. Second, the fact that some groups may have been victorious but the historical record merely had certain traceries of ideas that limited the role of their gods does not rule out a broader influence. Third, the referential period for the reporting on the belief system of the Hellenist may have been after the primary period of influence. Allah, for instance, is highly influential among the Muslims as we later see, yet Sinister does not encounter Allah in his terrorization of the lands during and after The Oasis. We presume, however, based on the descriptions of early Islam that Allah was strongly influential. Finally, and most critically, the widespread existence of worshipful sites like the Baalic one at Mt. Hasan combined with their elaborate design and construction efforts, seems unlikely to comport with mythos. The idea that a constructed fantasy shared among an extremely large number of believers would influence the expenditure of massive resources to the described levels seems wholly implausible.

In this final point, we must draw out some nuances. We certainly can imagine that a powerful entity possessed of transhuman powers could be briefly present but then wane in influence. These gods were somewhat destructible, especially by others like them, and their emotional influence over humanity via the various mechanisms Sinister describes could conceivably last a generation or two, but the lack of repeated re-seeding of the imaginations of the believers by a contemporaneous presence lends more to the theory that in the interregnums between their strong influence the people wandered off to other gods, until perhaps their original gods returned and tried to reclaim their attentions. But if some of these beings died, some left, some hibernated, some were broken in pieces and then resurrected (as per Baal and Mot), there we see the possibility of this variegated and perplexing history. There was no one deity who was ultimately victorious, just roving, regional spontaneous events that led to the eruption of worship and legends, with the lack of consistency in the reporting associated with this complex landscape of cultures and customs.

In this respect Sinister can himself be seen as achieving what these others could not or did not want to do, finalizing Ragnarok, Frashokereti, the cycles of Shiva, and some of the other end-of-days predictions that apparently accompanied worship of these entities. His realization of this continuous current of eschatological ideation among recorders of religious ideals in many ways fulfills those other prophesies. The predecessor deities were not, in other words, incorrect in their transmission of a strong likelihood of utter destruction of humanity. They were as disturbed by their capacities for pettiness, power, anger, and selfishness as Sinister himself, but for purely contingent reasons they simply didn’t achieve that end state.

We continue with the new translation.


We spent more than two weeks working on the shaft and the room, documenting, translating, photographing. We had to report our find to the Head of Curation at the museum, and I became concerned that he would want to take over the site and insert himself into the new find. Nildag expressed concern over the same but found out that Dr. Terzi’s daughter was getting married within the month and that he was suitably distracted that he merely congratulated us and requested that we keep him informed. The Chief of Police came around, as well, and spent some time looking over our trucks and tent areas, as if looking for contraband. We covered over the main shaft when we saw his jeep rolling up the path and he seemed completely uninterested in the few physical finds that we showed him, including potsherds and flakes from Neolithic tool production.

The translations required a fair amount of speculation. Ugaritic dialects are typically gendered and the grammar is VSO[1] or SVO. This was similar and appeared mostly SVO but there was also an occasional SOV construct that was highly indicative of Indo-European influences from the proto-Iranian language group and others. The content, as best we could tell on initial reading, was not radical for Ugaritic texts, focused on Baal riding the clouds, the worship of the people, their strong feelings for him, and their forsaking of other gods in his honor. There were oddities, however. A singular section declared that the clouds had fallen from the heavens, that El and Ashera were merely companions of Baal, and that the power of the world emerged from the spirits or tendencies of the gods. There was even an introductory collection of verses that paralleled Genesis in declaring that El and his Host had come to the world and created mankind in their own images, and that they had wrested the giant creatures like lizards in the earth to establish a garden for creating man and woman, who were infused with the wills of the gods but not given their powers. Touching the snake or coiled bracelet or belt that adorned Baal was the only thing forbidden to the new creatures, for it would poison them and set their minds on fire.

The woman tried to seduce Baal, however, because in her creation the Host had infused all the best attributes of beauty among the gods themselves, and then she reached for the snake bracelet and was shocked by it, and her purity was lost and corrupted for she knew the desires and powers of the gods in small measure. She longed to be the consort of Baal but was trapped as a worshipper, consumed by the want of that which she could not have. And her husband was jealous of her love and still innocent in the world, and so he wandered the earth and longed for her, in turn. The world was formless and empty outside the garden they had created but there were rogue gods who summoned seas and urged life out of the chaos. The interplay with Mykenaen civilization should not have been a significant surprise to us, nor the mention very clearly of Dian-e, or of Chronos and Prometheus, rendered into transliterations that preserved the consonants but were obvious in their juxtaposition. There was a continuous war among the gods, powers incalculable that rended the lands and irrupted islands of life, designed as competitions of creative stakes and claims. There were the Jotuns and the Aesir, and other attributional epithets for Shiva and Rudra; the gods were all at war for the land, the air—especially the air—and the want of the people.

The spirals of cuneiforms began at the panels, at the doors, and swirled down into the ground and up along the ceiling, then tightened into the shaft, until finally announcing the rebirth of Baal from the stomach of Mot and of the return to power in the world in the final blocks near the capped hole. The image paint layers were gently sampled and Faruk drove down to the town to post the tiny plastic bags back to the lab at the museum for analysis and testing. Dark ochres, blues, grays, oranges, and saffrons were piled up in dense formations on the surfaces, remarkably well-preserved and with little damage from the ambient moisture in the room.

I finally met Nildag in front of the final image showing the twin rooms and suggested it was time that we proceed where the evidence was taking us. He agreed and two students lowered digging tools down to us. Blowing out the cracks around the panels with an air compressor, I inserted a thin crowbar into the dividing chink and began pushing and pulling, but with little effect. We continued this process for more than an hour, then moved to larger crowbars with lever extensions. Faruk descended and provided additional muscle, but with no clear impact other than some unfortunate scraping along several of the edges. We decided to set up an electric winch in the space, using extendible aluminum beams to anchor the winch between the floor and ceiling in an area where there was no writing. Thin wire hooks were fashioned for us by a machine shop in town and arrived the next day. We slid one into the seam vertically and tested rotation until we discovered a void six inches in, allowing us an additional four inches before the opposing hook for securing to a block harness. With eight hooks secured to the interior edge we fired up the generator up above and slowly eased the edge of the block back. Our greatest fear was that it would fall over, smashing the cuneiforms of the floor, so several of the grad students worked with Faruk to fashion a frame out of heavy lumber that had a seventy degree angle at the top and would support the block if it fell towards us as the block rotated outward. Rough calculations supported this theory, but the timber wasn’t uniform in quality and we were all fairly concerned that the block might just pancake the arrangement.

As the wire hooks pulled back, dust fell from the sides and top of the panel, but it rotated slowly and without snagging until we had a two feet of clearance into the space beyond. Everyone cheered and there were high-fives[2] all around, the Turkish kids enjoying being able to show off their hip Americanism. I was fast in moving in with a flashlight to peer into the space, giving a cursory overview of the block to make sure it was not wobbling. The space beyond mimicked the wall painting with a twenty foot hall opening into a larger room beyond. The passage was devoid of the cuneiforms of the larger room, however, lined with simple basalt and thin joins between them. Nildag cautioned me that the block needed to be shored up before further action, but I shined the flashlight at him, briefly causing him to recoil at the bright flare. I slipped inside and was ten feet down the hall when I heard him curse and yell my name.

The air inside was warmer than in the outer hall, I recall, and seemed to grow slightly warmer as I moved towards the inner room. As I closed in, my expectations were hopeful for a continuation of the incredible find that we already had; there had to be some significance to this place other than merely a shrine to Baal dressed in odd pre-Ugaritic linguistic constructs. I would be mildly disappointed, though, as I emerged into the inner room. There was a small dais and some skeletal remains. It was a tomb, after all. It was well preserved, appearing to have been untouched by graverobbers, which was significant, but the bones were mostly alone except for a small bronze bracelet near the right wrist, and a small statuette in the center of the torso where the ribcage had collapsed to dust in parts. The statuette was very similar to regular finds of hearth Astartes or Asheras in the region and throughout the Middle East.

Nildag arrived moments later, unable to restrain himself after I slipped through, and scanned the area with his headlamp. His reaction was a bit of a letdown, too, but he quickly recovered and said that it was still significant, even if it was just a tomb. The elaborateness of the antechamber meant that this was a person of significance, and the linguistic evidence supplied a new opportunity for scholarship. The bones would need to be dated. There might be DNA analysis opportunities. The lack of preserved cloth or other jewelry or offerings required a new reading of how wealth and power were interpreted by the minds of these people.

I agreed but had hoped for much more, and sat down on the floor, casually flicking my light around at the space, looking for anything more of interest. There was little to be seen, however. The space was smooth, the dais was smooth, the blocks were solid with minimal seams. There were the bones, about average height, maybe a bit bigger. I was not a specialist in that area. It was a good and interesting find, Nildag kept assuring me, realizing I was in a minor doldrums. I was. Academic pursuits were in many ways distractions from what I would subsequently label an elaborately empty core. Forced to value myself based on the opinions of those around me, to grovel for grants to study an imperfectable lens onto the fog of historical chance, to feel the fleeting exuberance of my enhanced life with Ela, and then to realize that each of these things were just the next arduous rung on an infinite ladder that terminated in death and only a temporary solidity in the memories of family, friends, and the scholarly community, was an unobservable dark variable in the watershed of momentary experiences that together flowed as my experience of being, my qualia. That unobservability would emerge later in the passions of emotional maelstroms that accompanied the transformation, would become a central and unquenchable fire that sustained me straight through the uncontrolled phase of gathering and oppression, but that also became the central spark by which I became reconfigured, if you will, and aligned with positive goals.

But there I was in my little imperfect world, unfulfilled by random possibility, but I quickly recovered and began the diligent cataloging efforts that I was trained to do, already discussing a few of the publishing options that we might pursue with Nildag. There was the linguistic evidence that suggested a proto-Ugaritic Northern Semitic influence in potential creole or patois arrangements with some Indo-European Slavic dialects derived from interactions with Black Sea tribes. There was the linkage to Çatalhöyük manifest in the twin volcanoes imagery and the Ugaritic poetry. There was the artistry and unusual representational stylizations of the wall murals. There was the design of the crypt itself. There was the simplicity of the tomb room, the lack of adornment, the two remaining artifacts, and the nature of the bones. It was a lot, but I had built it up into potentially more.

It took two weeks of diligent work before we were ready to move the bones. We fashioned a large cardboard box to accommodate the find and carefully drew locations and silhouettes onto the surface before transferring each piece, raising them with tweezers, photographing them, placing them on a 3D scanner, then carefully attaching a small label and wiring them to the cardboard surface. The figurine and the bracelet were examined and catalogued. Like many of the figures from the first milennia BC and before, she was mostly shapeless but with a widening of the hips that suggested female, She also resembled common Astarte figurines, Astarte who was syncretized with Ashera, who became Ishtar, and who probably carried down the female goddess tradition from earlier still. The bracelet was unremarkable, a bronze circle broken by a one inch opening with a flaring and roundness to the ends. There were some faint scores in an undulating pattern along the edge of the bracelet. We scanned it, measured it, and bagged it with the rest of the site.

I was mostly done with the site at this point and I invited Ela to come down for the weekend. She took off early on Friday and wanted to see the site. I was cataloging images on my laptop that morning, I recall. The sun was the relentless yellow of late summer days as I worked in my tent. I got a text from Ela around 10AM. She was halfway, gassing up her Volkswagen along the highway. But by noon I was concerned. She wasn’t responding to texts at all and I called and left voicemails that were unreturned. And then I finally got a call. It was her image on the phone but when I answered it was a man’s voice that opened in Turkish. I caught part of it, something about the woman and the ancient people or relics. I asked him to slow down and he paused at my accent, then asked me if I spoke English. His English was good enough and he explained in a high-pitched, nasally cadence that Ela had been taken and that they wanted the relics found at the site. I asked him first if she was alright, to which he said she was unharmed and nearby. He repeated that he wanted the gold and artifacts from the site, which told me he had no idea what had been found there. I didn’t let on and agreed to bring him what we had. Where were they? He said he would call back in a few minutes and sent me a picture SMS[3] with Ela, looking terrified, in the back seat of a car, a gag over her mouth and her hands bound in front of her. It was her Scirocco and I could see a bruise along her cheek.

I hurriedly called Nildag and Faruk up from the shaft and they sensed immediately something was very wrong. Nildag paused as I described the scene and blurted out that it had to be the police captain. He seemed too interested and now he wanted to profit from the find. I agreed that it had to be someone with detailed knowledge, but unless they had just staked out the access road, it had to be someone at the museum or a grad student. Nildag thought that unlikely. The kids couldn’t have set it up. None of them were from this area of the country, and they knew what had been recovered. It wasn’t gold. We processed the details with intense fury, Nildag translating details to Faruk between frantic interchanges. We could go to the regional or national police. We could call the head of the museum and get the government and military involved. There were so many options and I felt helpless.

The phone rang. Ela’s young grin behind big, fashionable shades popped up. The picture was from a day trip to the Black Sea at the beginning of summer. She had worn a bikini under her top and shorts, jumping into the water at the first opportunity, unafraid of the mud flats or uncertainties of rocks, squawking when she lost those glasses in the shallow, muddy waters and couldn’t find them again. I waded in slowly, cautiously, feeling the bottom with uncertain toes, repelled by the cold of the water in bands downward, until finally dropping my head under at her urging. The rush of the icy edge around my torso was intense and I erupted back out of the water with a whooshing sound from my lips. Ela had laughed but then pulled me against her to warm me and herself.

I answered the phone, Nildag huddled close by. The kidnapper spoke in English and demanded that we drive to a crossroads in Obruk and they would meet us there. He repeated that we needed to bring the gold and I started to tell him there was no gold but Nildag waved his hands rapidly in front of him. I said OK and hung up. Nildag said it was better that they think there is value. That way Ela was valued too. It made sense but I wondered briefly why I should trust Nildag in these matters. He was an academic like me, and while Turkey had its share of corruption issues, reading out a uniquely local perspective was unlikely for a man who had grown up in Istanbul in a family of automobile importers.

We huddled and decided that the bones, the figure, and the bracelet weren’t worth Ela’s life. Her car was probably more valuable than the finds on the open market, though the structure and cuneiforms of strange proto-Ugaritic were in a sense priceless, though not in a way that mattered to kidnapping bandits from the Anatolian countryside. Faruk pounded his fist into his hand and grunted something I had never heard before to Nildag, who rolled his eyes and told me that Faruk didn’t have any weapons and so his bravado was probably misplaced. We put the cardboard box with the bones and the figurine and bracelet in the back of a transport van and headed down to the meeting place, checking our phones against the description given by the kidnapper until we had resolved that we were in the right place. The nearest structure was a quarter mile away and traffic was almost nonexistent. No one was around and we sat in nervous silence, playing with our phones while we waited. Finally a text came in from Ela’s phone and instructed us to move to another location. We were being watched it added in strangely capitalized English, ending with an angry emoticon.

Arriving at the second location, even more remote than the first, we waited until we saw headlights moving towards us. They were more modern looking, in the bluer part of the spectrum, and I was hopeful that it was Ela’s car. It stopped fifty feet from us and the door opened. I was pretty sure it was Ela’s car from this distance and started to walk towards the shadowy figure. He told me to stop in Turkish, which was simple and clear enough. I asked him for Ela in English and he responded by rearranging his clothes, or so I initially thought in the dim light. I soon realized that he had a fat revolver in his hand and he asked where the treasure was. I told him we had everything we had collected from the site, but that it was mainly interesting to archaeologists. He waived the gun at me and walked to the back of the truck, surveying the contents with the flick of a flashlight before demanding it be moved to the car. Faruk and I picked up the box of bones and walked it over to the car. As we approached, I  could see Ela’s struggling form in the back seat. We lowered the box into the trunk and the kidnapper opened the rear car door and dumped Ela onto the dirt, closed the door and walked back to the passenger’s side. Dropping into the seat he gunned the VW in reverse and was quickly gone.

I ran to Ela and ungagged her. I could barely see in the dark, but Nildag brought a flashlight from the truck and we had her untied and free after a short period. Ela was enraged, yelling in English, Turkish, cursing in French. She had been so stupid, seeing the car paralleling her and not turned around, not driven evasively. She had been stupid and she yelled that she knew better. She apologized to me about the bother and loss of the artifacts, but I was just clutching her and telling her it was alright. Nildag yelled over to us that we had forgotten the statuette and bracelet. They had fallen off the cardboard in the dark. All he got was the bones. And the car, I mentioned. We went to the local police station and spent several hours waiting and reporting the events. They told us we should have come to them immediately, but I was still concerned the chief or his extended family were somehow involved. We were finally released and I took Ela to a hotel and we got the night clerk to get us some food from the kitchen. Ela hadn’t been harmed but had been groped a bit while being bound. At one point she kicked her kidnapper and he slugged her in the mouth. I laughed a bit at her bravado and she laughed too, especially after learning that he had gotten nothing more than some bones. Her VW was worth more but would probably show up again according to the police detective we had talked to. Cars are too trackable in the EU to be good targets.

I had the figurine and bracelet in a small plastic bag and Ela felt their textures through the bag. That was it, I told her. It was all a great find, an interesting find, but not as great as I had initially expected when we uncovered the shaft. She was sorry for me and the waves of contingency that surrounded my field. Ridiculous, I said, and I held her late into the night, glad she was still alive.

[1] We believe the V (Verb), S (Subject), O (Object) language hypothesis remains correct here, but add that the lack of definition accompanying first mention plys well into the supposition that the manuscript is a factual account. Sinister simply didn’t bother to explain something technical because he was deeply in the milieu of the explanatory framework.

[2] Literal juxtaposition from other individual occurrances. We assume a celebratory action or gesture, possibly symbolically drawing the character for the number five in the air.

[3] Unknown reference, assumed to be image communications over the portable communications “phone.”

The Rise and Triumph of the Bayesian Toolshed

Bayes LawIn Asimov’s Foundation, psychohistory is the mathematical treatment of history, sociology, and psychology to predict the future of human populations. Asimov was inspired by Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that postulated that Roman society was weakened by Christianity’s focus on the afterlife and lacked the pagan attachment to Rome as an ideal that needed defending. Psychohistory detects seeds of ideas and social movements that are predictive of the end of the galactic empire, creating foundations to preserve human knowledge against a coming Dark Age.

Applying statistics and mathematical analysis to human choices is a core feature of economics, but Richard Carrier’s massive tome, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt, may be one of the first comprehensive applications to historical analysis (following his other related work). Amusingly, Carrier’s thesis dovetails with Gibbon’s own suggestion, though there is a certain irony to a civilization dying because of a fictional being.

Carrier’s methods use Bayesian analysis to approach a complex historical problem that has a remarkably impoverished collection of source material. First century A.D. (C.E. if you like; I agree with Carrier that any baggage about the convention is irrelevant) sources are simply non-existent or sufficiently contradictory that the background knowledge of paradoxography (tall tales), rampant messianism, and general political happenings at the time lead to a likelihood that Jesus was made up. Carrier constructs the argument around equivalence classes of prior events that then reduce or strengthen the evidential materials (a posteriori). And he does this without ablating the richness of the background information. Indeed, his presentation and analysis of works like Inanna’s Descent into the Underworld and its relationship to the Ascension of Isaiah are both didactic and beautiful in capturing the way ancient minds seem to have worked.

We’ve come a long way from Gibbon’s era where we now have mathematical tools directly influencing historical arguments. The notion of inference and probability has always played a role in history, but perhaps never so directly. All around us we have the sharpening of our argumentation, whether in policymaking, in history, or in law.  Even the arts and humanities are increasingly impacted by scientific and technological change and the metaphors that emerge from it. Perhaps not a Cathedral of Computation, but modestly at least a new toolshed.

On Killing Kids


Mark S. Smith’s The Early History of God is a remarkable piece of scholarship. I was recently asked what I read for fun and had to admit that I have been on a trajectory towards reading books that have, on average, more footnotes than text. J.P. Mallory’s In Search of the Indo-Europeans kindly moves the notes to the end of the volume. Smith’s Chapter 5, Yahwistic Cult Practices, and particularly Section 3, The mlk sacrifice, are illuminating on the widespread belief that killing children could propitiate the gods. This practice was likely widespread among the Western Semitic peoples, including the Israelites and Canaanites (Smith’s preference for Western Semitic is to lump the two together ca. 1200 BC because they appear to have been culturally the same, possibly made distinct after the compilation of OT following the Exile).

I recently argued with some young street preachers about violence and horror in Yahweh’s name and by His command while waiting outside a rock shop in Old Sacramento. Human sacrifice came up, too, with the apologetics being that, despite the fact that everyone was bad back then, the Chosen People did not perform human sacrifice and therefore they were marginally better than the other people around them. They passed quickly on the topic of slavery, which was wise for rhetorical purposes, because slavery was widespread and acceptable. I didn’t remember the particulars of the examples of human sacrifice in OT, but recalled them broadly to which they responded that there were translation and interpretation errors with “burnt offering” and “fire offerings of first borns” that, of course, immediately contradicted their assertion of acceptance and perfection of the scriptures.

More interesting, though, is the question of why might human sacrifice be so pervasive, whether among Yahwists and Carthiginians or Aztecs? On Patheos, Chris Hallquist comments on the brilliant Is God a Moral Compromiser? by Thom Stark (free PDF!) that runs through the attitudes concerning the efficacy of human sacrifice for achieving military goals. And maybe you can control the weather or make your crops grow better. Killing one’s own kids sets up a dilemma for evolutionary psychology in that it immediately reduces your genetic representation. So the commitment to the gods must override the commitment to family and its role as a proxy for biology. Sacrificing other people’s children is less incomprehensible, though it does affect the tribe and larger political constructs as well.

Looking at the story of Abraham and the emergence out of the Yahwistic cultic mlk, we might see even more evidence of the effect of multi-level selection overriding the individual’s biological urges. Order, obedience, tribal practices, and one’s identity as part of the group overrule preservation and familial bonds, and society gradually emerges as the lawmaker and orchestrator of human interractions.

Language Games

Word GamesOn The Thinking Atheist, C.J. Werleman promotes the idea that atheists can’t be Republicans based on his new book. Why? Well, for C.J. it’s because the current Republican platform is not grounded in any kind of factual reality. Supply-side economics, Libertarianism, economic stimuli vs. inflation, Iraqi WMDs, Laffer curves, climate change denial—all are grease for the wheels of a fantastical alternative reality where macho small businessmen lift all boats with their steely gaze, the earth is forever resilient to our plunder, and simple truths trump obscurantist science. Watch out for the reality-based community!

Is politics essentially religion in that it depends on ideology not grounded in reality, spearheaded by ideologues who serve as priests for building policy frameworks?

Likely. But we don’t really seem to base our daily interactions on rationality either. 538 Science tells us that it has taken decades to arrive at the conclusion that vitamin supplements are probably of little use to those of us lucky enough to live in the developed world. Before that we latched onto indirect signaling about vitamin C, E, D, B12, and others to decide how to proceed. The thinking typically took on familiar patterns: someone heard or read that vitamin X is good for us/I’m skeptical/why not?/maybe there are negative side-effects/it’s expensive anyway/forget it. The language games are at all levels in promoting, doubting, processing, and reinforcing the microclaims for each option. We embrace signals about differences and nuances but it often takes many months and collections of those signals in order to make up our minds. And then we change them again.

Among the well educated, I’ve variously heard the wildest claims about the effectiveness of chiropractors, pseudoscientific remedies, the role of immunizations in autism (not due to preservatives in this instance; due to immune responses themselves), and how karma works in software development practice.

And what about C.J.’s central claims? Well I haven’t read the book and don’t plan to, so I can only build on what he said during the interview. If we require evidence for our political beliefs as much as we require it for our religious perspective we probably need to have a scheme for how to rank the likelihood of different beliefs and policy commitments. For instance, C.J. follows the continued I-told-you-so approach of Paul Krugman in his comments on fiscal stimulus; not enough was done and there is no evidence of inflationary pressure. Well and good that fiscal stimulus as a macro-economic stabilizer has been established in the most recent economic past. The non-appearance of inflation was somewhat surprising, actually, but is now the retrospective majority opinion of economists concerned with such matters. It was a cause for concern, however, as were the problematic bailouts that softened the consequences (if not rewarded them) of risky behavior in pursuit of broader stability.

The language game theory of politics and religion accounts for most of the uncertainty and chaos that drives thinking about politics and economics. We learn the rules (social and pragmatic impact as well as grammatical rules) and the game pieces (words, phrases, and concepts) early on. They don’t have firm referential extension, of course. In fact, they never really do. But they cohere more and more over time unless radically disrupted, and even then they try to recohere against the tangle of implications as the dust settles. This is Wittgensteinian and anti-Positivist, but it is also somewhat value-free in that there is no sense for why one language game should be preferential to another.

For C.J., there is a clear demarcation that facts trump fantasy, and our lives and society would be better served by factually-derived policies and factually enervated perspectives on the claims of most religions. But it is far less clear to me as to how to apply some rationalist overlay to the problem of politics that would have consistent and meaningful improvements in our lives and society save the obvious one of improving general education and thinking.

I recently irritated and frustrated my teen son in questioning him about some claims he was making about bad teachers in the local school system. The irritation came as I probed into various rumors about a teacher who had been fired because she was, according to him, sexist and graded boys poorly. It turns out he only had a handful of rumors about everything from the teacher’s firing to the sexism. It looked more likely that one of his friends made it up in conjunction with other boys who were doing poorly in the teacher’s class. They created a meme in a language game and it propagated. My son was defensive about the possibility of the whole story and I admitted it was possible but that it was sufficiently unlikely as to not warrant concern. The attachment of levels of likely veracity and valuations were ultimately the only difference in the end.

I apologized for making him mad but didn’t apologize for my skepticism and, later, there were signals that his network of beliefs had been moved a bit, the vile evil sexist teacher drifting out of focus among the other shades of consideration.

And that is how the language game is played.

The Vapors of Hell

Concept map created with
Concept map created with

Since Plutonium has now been unearthed in Turkey–no, not the element, but the gates of the underworld where the Priests of Cybele got drunk on gases erupting from below the water table–it seems only appropriate to trace the historic, mythic, and semantic roots of the notion of Hell out from its roots in antiquity straight through to our modern representations.

We can draw a direct line from Tartarus to the concept of punishment and the afterlife that arose during the Hellenistic period and filtered into the Near East, and what better representation of the dangerous threats from deep beneath the earth than a cave that kills animals and makes people drunk on the fumes? Such a place must have captivated the minds of the ancients by providing a corporeal connection to the mythic dancing of the deities.

The great irony is that the Hierapolis and the Plutonium was bulldozed by Christians in the 4th to 6th century CE, thus destroying a touchstone of their own cosmology.

Hirsi Ali’s Social Evolution

Ayaan Hirsi Ali reminds us of the depressingly anti-freedom recent history of Islam in her recent Newsweek article, Muslim Rage & The Last Gasp of Islamic Hate. For Hirsi Ali, despite fatwas on Rushdie, 9/11, and the murder of  her friend and collaborator, Theo von Gogh, a kernel of hope is nascent in the democracy movements that emerged from the Arab Spring: when people have to govern themselves they will, ultimately, turn towards freedom of expression, thought, and worship.

But is that hope warranted?

Is there any sense of inevitability to the liberal programme that emerged from industrialization, affluence, and education? Or is the “progress” of the West more contingent than that, built from happenstance due to the geographic separation of America from Germany and Japan in World War II combined with the widespread availability of raw materials on the American continent, leading to success in that war and the growth of American post-War power in an unbombed industrial landscape that, ironically, led in turn to the defeat of Soviet Communism, itself claiming an inevitability to the flow of history?

Azar Gat raised a parallel question in The Return of Authoritarian Great Powers (Foreign Affairs, 86 (4), pp. 59-69) when he asked whether the rise of “Authoritarian Capitalism” in the form of China and recent Russia constitutes a viable challenge to the claims of liberal democracy. If so, then the notion that there is any sense of inevitability evaporates like the suppositions of dialectical materialism.

The underlying assumptions are taken for granted among most Americans: (1) all people are the same; (2) all people want freedom; (3) authoritarianism is anti-freedom; (4) people will oppose authoritarianism. It’s a nice thought that has some resonance in, say, the history of the Eastern Block, where economic limitations combined with cronyism and foreign political control led to (4). And the domino effect went in reverse. Yet China remained steadfastly authoritarian through all the churn, even while opening its economy in emulation of its neighbors, while managing corruption and building economic prosperity to just an extent that people have been unable to summon the urge to fight the parts that should appall them.

Can the same happen in Islamic states?

I’m not convinced. If the secular authoritarianism of China can thrive alongside economic prosperity, so can Sharia-driven intolerance thrive alongside democratic institutions. There doesn’t seem to be any inevitability to social change, but it is good to hope. And that brings us to a less contestable part of Hirsi Ali’s argument:

If we take the long view, America and other Western countries can help make this happen in the same way we helped bring about the demise of the former Soviet Union. We must be patient. America needs to empower those individuals and groups who are already disenchanted with political Islam by helping find and develop an alternative.

And that sense of empowerment costs little, yet can potentially achieve peace and prosperity until there are no more fatwas hanging over cartoonists’ heads. It may not be inevitable, but it is better than hopeless.

The Evolution of American Gods

Taking a break from my countdown, Simon Critchley is back in the New York Times with his fascinating analysis of Mormonism and the varied doctrines concerning reincarnation and the eventual divinity of, well, at least men. Interestingly, reading The Book of Mormon doesn’t illuminate these topics–they exist largely as exegesis through specific lectures by Joseph Smith. As Critchley notes about Smith’s lecture, the character and nature of God is finite, is a member of the Host of Heaven (or a council per the lecture), and creation in Genesis is not creation per se, but is instead some kind of reorganization of an infinite and timeless universe.

Fascinatingly strange, and compounded in its strangeness by the assertion that:

The mind or the intelligence which man possesses is co-equal [co-eternal] with God himself.

It is an evolutionary assertion that suggests our ultimate being is a divine form, and that we have the capacity to achieve this divinity through action, through works, and through effort at being good. As Critchley concludes:

…I see Joseph Smith’s apostasy as strong poetry, a gloriously presumptive and delusional creation from the same climate as Whitman, if not enjoying quite the same air quality. Perhaps Mormonism is not so far from romanticism after all. To claim that it is simply Christian is to fail to grasp its theological, poetic and political audacity. It is much more than mere Christianity.

While I doubt that this analysis will help assuage the concerns of conservative Christians about Mitt Romney’s faith, it undoubtedly serves as a touchstone for that uniquely American principle of religious freedom, and the underlying assumption (on Constitution Day), that the choice of a leader should not be tied to their choice of romantic delusions.

Cosmological Interregnum

Zach, the main character in Signals and Noise, finds himself fascinated by cosmology because it is the only thing that takes him outside of everyday reality into a realm that is alien and mysterious. Biology is reconcilable to our personal lives, law is a linguistic game, computer science is second-hand to Zach, the complex mathematics of the titular “Signal” is discoverable in intent if not details, but cosmology asks questions that cross into a metaphysical realm. Unlike religious feeling, however, there is no requirement of faith and no direct application to human interactions. There is no ethics of cosmology and little human history.

Should we have expected this? Should we have expected a universe that has black holes or neutrinos? We currently believe that the universe is expanding and may expand forever into a cold, diffuse conclusion. Dark matter and dark energy have to be invoked to explain this and the clumping we observe in the universe. But, interestingly, tiny little particles called neutrinos may be a large portion of this dark matter. Neutrinos have tiny mass and behave somewhat like photons passing through translucent materials when they pass through matter, but they change forms during transit according to an interesting interaction with matter known as “flavor oscillations.”

While the Catholic Church uses cosmology to justify ex nihilo creation, there is almost nothing in modern cosmology that justifies or supports religious sentiments, whether Western or Eastern. Indeed, this is just plain weird shit that devolves out of mathematical results and then is confirmed or denied by experimental methods (with a bias towards the confirmed results).

Zach is more than justified. He is right in his fascination and his skepticism about merely human ideologies.