the Authoritarian Model of Information Value
Tuesday, June 19 2007
I had another thought about why it is that Darwinism so viscerally offends many devout Christians (as well as Fundamentalist Muslims and extremely Orthodox Jews). Darwinism, and I mean this in the most general way possible, reflects the opposite information regime from that of all religions. I will now describe what I mean in detail.
While religions disagree violently with each other, they all agree on one thing: at some point (or points) in history there was a perfect revelation, and nothing that has happened since the final revelation has any cosmic significance whatsoever. When you're a member of a religion (or, I should qualify, most religions) you're trapped in an unpleasant present between a past where the revelations were made and a future where the prophesies will be carried out. So many religions follow this model that it hardly pays to list them: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all constructed according to this plan, and even in cyclical religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism there are ancient foundation texts, the present is imperfect, and the future is foretold. Why are so many religions in agreement here? The answer lies in how they developed.
In pre-literate societies religion had a more holistic purpose than the relatively narrow one that it has in our modern societies. It was not simply a moral guide or a program to follow to get a good spot in the afterlife. To pre-literate societies, a religion was a system of wisdom preservation. It's intriguing to imagine what it must have been like to live in a society without writing, where the old people are the repository of all wisdom, much of which is encapsulated in religious formulations: fables, parables, poetry, songs, taboos, the recognition of holy sites, ancestor worship, and superstitions. Our pre-literate ancestors recognized no sharp distinction between sacred and profane wisdom, and there was a constant struggle to keep all of it from being damaged or tainted as it was passed from one generation to the next. So much of it wasn't passed on that humans evolved the ability to live well beyond their normal reproductive years. Groups of humans with a few elderly people in them were at a distinct advantage whenever rare events happened.
Because oral traditions had difficulty staying on message across generations, "religions" (if we can use that term with pre-literate people) might have been similar throughout a region, but the details of belief were as varied as the languages. An individual "faith" might have been restricted to a single tribe and been unrecognizable several generations later.
The invention of writing made it possible for a society to faithfully pass its wisdom from one generation to the next. While the written materials themselves might eventually be destroyed, they could be completely copied before this happened, and all manner of error correction techniques were developed to ensure that the copies were indeed perfect. This was especially important when preserving the holy texts, the foundation documents of what, for the first time, could be considered modern religions.
The people who first transcribed their holy traditions to text must have immediately recognized the power of writing; finally their wisdom stood a chance of surviving and serving as a strict guide for a long and prosperous future. Those who lived in that future regarded their holy books as inerrant and, in many cases, all other books irrelevant. It's an Authoritarian Model of Information Value, basically, "We're proud of who we are, and we are what we are because we believe everything in this book." Conditions change, people learn new things, but always the holy book stays the same, frozen forever in some religion-defining edition. Much of it will always have relevance because humans always have an essential sameness no matter what conditions they live in. But the book will provide no guidance when truly unanticipated things happen. The Bible, for example, provides no guidance on what to do with accumulating levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or the depletion of oil reserves. It says nothing about the wisdom of using nuclear power or deploying nuclear weapons. People can generalize from the primitive agricultural conditions of Bible-era stories, but objectively it makes more sense to look to the writing of modern people who have investigated these modern problems in detail.
The Authoritarian Model of Information Value doesn't only apply to religion; it can apply to any revered text. Currently four of the nine justices on the Supreme Court of the United States are "strict constructionists" who believe that the constitution is not a "living document" and should be interpreted exactly as written. With a few exceptions made for politically-expedient reasons, they resist the urge to interpret it through a modern prism. The founders of the United States were wise men and foresaw that this could be a problem, so they did provide a procedure allowing the constitution to be amended. Because of this, it's safe to say that the founders of the country did not subscribe to the Authoritarian Model of Information Value, at least when it comes to the document they constructed.
What other models exist for information value? As I stated at the outset, Darwinism represents the opposite model. In the biological sense of the word Darwinism, genes propagate or die off, depending on their value to the creatures who have them. They are like the doctrines of a religion, but unlike in a religion, they are lost when they no longer serve a purpose (or when they cause harm). In this way, generations of creatures under the influence of Darwinian selection are, in effect, scientists of the most practical sort. They keep their theories (their genes) until a better gene comes along and then they keep that gene until it too is supplanted. Darwinism is the scientific method as applied by nature! How beautiful is that?
Why do so many people hate Darwinism? Most people who do don't really understand what it is or fixate on their repulsion to the idea of being related to other animals. On a deeper level, though, perhaps many religious people sense the essential Darwinian message that there is no perfect prototype, that everything is subject to constant revision, a deeply-corrosive idea to anyone who is an adherent of a religion. I refer occasionally to "generalized" Darwinism, and by that I mean any test-and-revise system for knowledge, not necessarily the knowledge stored in genes. Generalized Darwinism as applied to the our understanding of nature is the scientific method, and the scientific method is what led to Darwinism. On the other hand, the Authoritarian Model of Information Value (the information model of all religions) as applied to biology is Creationism.
Of course, depending on time scale, an Authoritarian Model of Information Value becomes Darwinian or the Darwinian model becomes Authoritarian. In the case of religion, for example, a society that faithfully follows the doctrine of its holy book even after doing so becomes counterproductive puts itself at a disadvantage and eventually succumbs to Darwinian pressure. This was the eventual fate of the Norse who settled Greenland (as described in Jared Diamond's Collapse). And conversely, on the time scale of a single lifetime, a creature is stuck with whatever DNA it happens to have, which its cells follow even more faithfully than a devout Muslim follows the Koran.
It's hard for me to break my addiction to storage solutions and the imposition of order on my laboratory. Since it has become increasingly difficult to find places to impose further order, now I'm at the point where I'm locating and exploiting small unused volumes of space and filling them with storage possibilities. All the low-hanging fruit is taken when it comes to such places, so I've moved into more obscure locations, such as inside the step assemblies that lead down to the laboratory from the teevee room or up to the laboratory deck. Today I made a drawer that I hoped to fit into the space beneath the third step of the step assemblage leading to the laboratory deck. I'd mitered all the 4.5 inch planks making the drawer's sides, but for some reason the resulting drawer ended up being a subtle quadrilateral instead of a rectangle, and there was no way it would ever slide on drawer tracks. But it was a good strong container, so I found an alternative use for it. I made four wheels by cutting pierced one-inch-diameter disks with a hole saw and attaching them to the drawer's four corners with two inch drywall screws, using small metal washers as spacers so the sides of the disks couldn't rub against anything. The drawer ended up being a little wheeled cart, which I filled with all my unused wall warts and slid beneath the steps up to the teevee room.
I also went on something of a concrete mixing jihad, mixing up all of the garage's settable calcium-carbonate-based materials into a thick paste and then using it to set several loose stones in the steps that go around the northeast corner of the house down to the mostly-unused backyard. These steps have acquired renewed importance since now I have to use them weekly to gather the five gallons of urine and sawdust that accumulates at the bottom of my new urinal system. My decision to use up absolutely all of the calcium-carbonate-based materials (concrete, Portland cement, mortar, and even tile grout) was the result of my experience with these materials' shelf life. I know, for example, that unused dry mortar mix usually becomes useless over winter. Portland cement seems to last much longer, though it likes to become lumpy. As for concrete, I've had bad experiences mixing up a bag only to find it will never fully harden. Lucky for me, though, I'd bought the eighty pounds of concrete that contributed to today's mix only a couple weeks ago in anticipation of this very day.
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