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IS NOTHING SACRED? 
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Interbane wrote:
I think again, the idea this plays at is perhaps the way memes work. For example, viral emails that were popular a few years back were created by someone, but with the way there were constructed, they appealed to people in such a way that they were propagated and spread. I only use this comparison to question whether some of the constituents of these emergent phenomena are memetic. I'll have the book soon, so my questions will be better answered.


I do think that this is very similar to the idea of the meme. I like the idea that the gods are a "unit of cultural information that represents a basic idea that can be transferred from one individual to another, and subjected to mutation, crossover and adaptation.," or that it is a "cultural unit (an idea or value or pattern of behavior) that is passed from one generation to another by nongenetic means (as by imitation); "memes are the cultural counterpart of genes"." Or that memes, like genes, can replicate themselves and adapt.

The critical difference, I think, between what Gaiman is doing with his book, is that he makes his gods actual material entities that can influence the world without the agency of human hands. For example, magically creating gold coins out of "nothing." By definition: magic. Don't think Dawkins meant this kind of reality when he defined his memes as "real."


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Sat May 16, 2009 3:53 pm
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Interbane wrote:
RT: "His argument is that the Gods live in people's hearts and die after people forget them. However, this does not make Gods merely subjective, because only those Gods who resonate with perceived needs are remembered." This fits well within the perspective of viewing religion and belief in god(s) as memetically evolving beliefs. Whatever is most "believable", evolutionarily speaking, is what will be believed. This has no bearing on the truth, but rather the "stickiness" of the information in question. In the past, the naturalness and perhaps simplicity of how people define their personal gods was simply what was most believable at that time, since none of the magic of modern technology was present.


Looking at Gods as memes, Gaiman comments (Ch18, p551)
Quote:
None of this can actually be happening. If it makes you more comfortable, you could simply think of it as metaphor. Religions are, by definition, metaphors after all: God is a dream, a hope, a woman, an ironist, a father, a city, a house of many rooms, a watchmaker who left his prize chronometer in the desert, some one who loves you - even, perhaps, against all evidence, a celestial being whose only interest is to make sure your football team, army, business or marriage thrives, prospers and triumphs over all opposition.


The problem here is to separate 'truth' and 'stickiness' within the metaphor. For religions to be sustainable, their 'sticky' ideas need to have a connection to truth, otherwise they are pure fantasy without long term meaning and purpose. Gaiman tosses together some ideas that he finds sticky, in the hope that people will find some truth in them.



Sat May 16, 2009 5:04 pm
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All these metaphors about the gods showing messages about our society sounds interesting...but is there going to be a chapter-by-chapter discussion of this where we can discuss more minor details and aspects of the plot in the book?



Sat May 16, 2009 5:21 pm
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xtremeskiier114 wrote:
All these metaphors about the gods showing messages about our society sounds interesting...but is there going to be a chapter-by-chapter discussion of this where we can discuss more minor details and aspects of the plot in the book?
Hi, I propose to make threads for the Reading-group Discussion Questions in the Author's Preferred Text edition of American Gods.

http://www.amazon.com/American-Gods-Aut ... 0755322819



Sat May 16, 2009 7:06 pm
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Post Re: Please consider
Suzanne wrote:
Hello Mary and Robert: I have enjoyed reading your conversations. I now have another book on my night stand, "Being and Time", Heidegger.
Hi Suzanne, I meant to say, it is great to see you are reading Being and Time. I got a Master of Arts Honours degree for this thesis on The Place of Ethics in Heidegger's Ontology, and used Being and Time as the principal reference.

Being and Time is a fantastic rich source book for the ideas in American Gods, but in Heidegger's time the pantheon who Gaiman is discussing were smothered in Kantian logic. Heidegger's thought is mythically enframed by and contained within a Greek philosophical pantheon, especially from Parmenides and Heraclitus, but also extending in an ironic way to Zeus and Athena and the other Greek myths, eg Moira. He links these Greek sources to German identity in ways people have found disturbing. Wonderful and profound, but limited.

Gaiman provides a useful critique of the Eurocentric exclusive mythic framework which informs some of the hidden assumptions of western thought. Yet Heidegger has a redeeming point in his discussion of nothing, where he opens a bridge to Eastern and pagan thought in ways that are infuriatingly slippery for modern logic.



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Sat May 16, 2009 7:54 pm
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RT: "The problem here is to separate 'truth' and 'stickiness' within the metaphor. For religions to be sustainable, their 'sticky' ideas need to have a connection to truth,... ."

There's no need for truth in the idea or god. All that is needed for sustainability is stickiness. If the topic overlaps items so superfluous and intangible that we can come to no concrete conclusion, any idea that fits within the framework of a person's worldview would suffice without fear of refutation. This doesn't mean the idea is true. What's considered a "connection to truth?" To say that there is no truth to there being a man on the moon doesn't mean there isn't a formation that vaguely resembles a man. To take our sense datum and infer is to construct, and in this process what is physically or temporally true can be connected via perception to a false idea. That there is something we're perceiving doesn't mean the result of our deliberation is true.

RT: "...otherwise they are pure fantasy without long term meaning and purpose"

I'm not sure that truth or a connection to the truth is a prerequisite for a story to have lasting meaning and purpose. I don't doubt a few of the things Saul of Tarsus wrote, but I still reject a majority of the bible as false. False or not, the authors have written some good wisdom into those false sections. So I could reference those parts and say that "they are pure fantasy, but still have long term meaning and purpose".



Sat May 16, 2009 8:45 pm
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Interbane wrote:
RT: "The problem here is to separate 'truth' and 'stickiness' within the metaphor. For religions to be sustainable, their 'sticky' ideas need to have a connection to truth,... ." There's no need for truth in the idea of god. All that is needed for sustainability is stickiness. If the topic overlaps items so superfluous and intangible that we can come to no concrete conclusion, any idea that fits within the framework of a person's worldview would suffice without fear of refutation. This doesn't mean the idea is true. What's considered a "connection to truth?" To say that there is no truth to there being a man on the moon doesn't mean there isn't a formation that vaguely resembles a man. To take our sense datum and infer is to construct, and in this process what is physically or temporally true can be connected via perception to a false idea. That there is something we're perceiving doesn't mean the result of our deliberation is true.

Interbane, I don't think your comment grasps the nature of truth in myth. The stickiness of myth is a function of its adaptation to human needs. Only the most adaptive myths, which speak most deeply to human sentiment, can flourish. There is a fairly tough evidence-based criterion - if a myth is out of tune with sentiment it will die. Different sentiments are in conflict, for example acquisition is in conflict with empathy. We can see such conflict played out in mythic narrative. The way the texts of the Bible, and of other religious traditions, were mixed and changed through generations of oral tradition, adapting to need and competing with other popular mythologies, shows the unconscious utility that determines the success or failure of myths.

A key theme in religion is that ideas of high insight are imbedded within stories which have multiple levels of meaning. It is this 'high insight' that I consider a 'connection to truth'. The persistence of religious ideas of high insight such as the golden rule of love is an indicator of their innate moral truth. The insight that cooperative and generous ethics produce a healthier society has been at the heart of the human religious impulse, but too often the ethical meaning is obscured by other agendas.

The problem with your suggestion that religion only needs stickiness is that it provides no basis to assess truth or merit, or to see the memetic evolution of religious ideas. Creationism seems to be sticky, but its falsity means that it lives in constant tension with efforts to disprove it. It can only adapt by responding to its critics, hence the rather forlorn and threadbare effort of intelligent design.

This problem of the need for even the stickiest idea to adapt to its circumstances probably will mean that Christianity, to avoid rank hypocrisy, will have to accept modern knowledge, not only about evolution but also about the fraudulent history of the church and the manufacture of dogma. A sticky idea is only sticky as long as it is accepted. In the face of mortal challenge, sticky ideas must adapt or die.


Quote:
RT: "...otherwise they are pure fantasy without long term meaning and purpose"

I'm not sure that truth or a connection to the truth is a prerequisite for a story to have lasting meaning and purpose. I don't doubt a few of the things Saul of Tarsus wrote, but I still reject a majority of the bible as false. False or not, the authors have written some good wisdom into those false sections. So I could reference those parts and say that "they are pure fantasy, but still have long term meaning and purpose".
The long term meaning and purpose is the same as the good wisdom. Hence it is necessary to assess the text to separate truth and falsity. The good wisdom is not fantasy, but is imbedded in a fantastic context.

One of the great things about American Gods is how Gaiman seeks to imbed good wisdom in a fantastic context, through deliberate fiction. The contrast with Christianity is that the fantastic story of Christ came to overwhelm the good wisdom behind it. Hence Gaiman presents the church in a very dark light, responsible for the destruction of indigenous wisdom, with priests a censorious self-serving elite.

Wednesday's tie pin, a silver ash tree, is a symbol of how Odin connects both to the roots of the tree deep within the earth and through the branches and leaves of the tree to the starry heavens above. Here we have a connection to the natural truth of earth and sky as the source of meaning and purpose. The death of Odin, and his vulnerable frailty in forgetful America, is a symbol of the tenuous weakness of this natural religious connection to truth.



Mon May 18, 2009 6:39 am
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Robert Tulip wrote:
The persistence of religious ideas of high insight such as the golden rule of love is an indicator of their innate moral truth.


Robert,

What do you mean when you say "innate moral truth?" I'm looking for how you define "innate" in this context.

Mary


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Mon May 18, 2009 8:27 am
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RT: “Interbane, I don't think your comment grasps the nature of truth in myth.”

Actually, I think we’re talking about truth in different contexts. Without referencing some epistemology books, I’d say the distinction is along the lines of “objective and empirical”, versus subjective and meaningful.” A story may very well have meaning, but that doesn’t mean the story is true. As the cliché goes, it might “ring true” in the heart of the reader, though the story may be complete fiction. The validity of this is evident when you think of fictional stories in recent times that have shaped American culture. A story does not have to be true to have meaning, although as you say, it needs meaning in a sense for stickiness.

RT: “The persistence of religious ideas of high insight such as the golden rule of love is an indicator of their innate moral truth.”

The golden rule of love? Which is that? In my experience, the bible is little more than plagiarism from earlier times and writings. In any case, the golden rule of love, if there is one, should be analyzed by it’s merit through the lens of evolution. If love is a mechanism for survival advantage, then it’s existence is a result of it’s manipulation of our behavior. We are ‘manipulated’ into caring for our young, so to speak. So if you’re calling this rule ‘innate’, it is innate in the context of evolutionary survivability, not universal truthfulness.

This higher insight you mention interests me. What I’m picturing is wisdom that may be “applicable”, but can’t necessarily be called “true”, since verisimilitude doesn’t apply. This would be a good topic for a different thread. Wisdom which is so profound that we picture it almost as a universal, or divine.

RT: “The problem with your suggestion that religion only needs stickiness is that it provides no basis to assess truth or merit, or to see the memetic evolution of religious ideas.”

That is not a problem at all. What you’re saying is similar to saying it’s a problem that a turtle doesn’t have gills, since they would be so useful while it’s underwater. Stickiness is all a concept needs to survive. When I say “stickiness”, what I mean to say is analogous to “survivability”, since the attribute of being sticky is it’s tendency to be assimilated by minds, and believed. The difference is that “survivability” applies to genes, and “stickiness” applies to memes. This type of reasoning is embedded within the definition of the concepts, and it’s far more than a mere ‘suggestion’ on my part I’m afraid.

The basis by which to assess truth or merit may well correlate with “stickiness” in various ways, but there is no dependence. An idea can be sticky without being true, and it can be true without being sticky.

RT: “Creationism seems to be sticky, but its falsity means that it lives in constant tension with efforts to disprove it.”

You’re thinking of this wrong. The glaring inconsistencies within Creationism regarding it’s validity are sub-components of it’s stickiness. Since there are glaring inconsistencies, it isn’t as sticky as it could be. It would serve to note that there can be false concepts with no glaring inconsistincies, thus having increased stickiness.

RT: “The good wisdom is not fantasy, but is imbedded in a fantastic context.”

In other words, the wisdom has excellent “meaning”, although it’s context, the stories used to convey that meaning, may be false.



Mon May 18, 2009 4:29 pm
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MaryLupin wrote:
Robert Tulip wrote:
The persistence of religious ideas of high insight such as the golden rule of love is an indicator of their innate moral truth.


Robert, What do you mean when you say "innate moral truth?" I'm looking for how you define "innate" in this context. Mary


The term 'innate' has been controversial in philosophy since John Locke's assertion that we have no innate ideas because our mind is a blank slate at birth. This is summarised at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Innatism I particularly dislike Locke, because his empiricist reaction against the monkish stagnation of medieval thought primarily served to clear the decks for empire, rather than providing a fair-minded approach to philosophy.

By 'the golden rule of love' I am conflating the Biblical teachings to love God and neighbour and treat others as you would like to be treated. Interbane correctly points out that "if you’re calling this rule ‘innate’, it is innate in the context of evolutionary survivability, not universal truthfulness." From my perspective, analysing ethics with the benefit of the work of primatologists such as de Waal, I truly cannot see a meaningful difference between evolutionary survivability and universal truthfulness. In considering moral purpose, we have no access to anything 'universal' with a higher goal than long term human flourishing, a goal which is purely evolutionary. Hence ethics can only become coherent when it is folded within evolutionary understanding.

Innate ideas are moral instincts that are hardwired into human genetics, and more broadly into primate and mammalian genetics. Innate ideas dispose us to behaviour which over time has proven beneficial to human flourishing. De Waal, especially in Our Inner Ape, observes that the bonobo, living in an environment of perpetual abundance, are naturally friendly, cooperative and generous, whereas chimpanzees, having evolved in harsher environments, are more competitive, violent and selfish.

My view is that our planet, utilising human brains, has the capacity to provide abundance for all, so that the bonobo side of our innate genetic inheritance can serve as the basis for human ethics, much as Jesus suggested with the golden rule of love.

How does this discussion relate to the "Is Nothing Sacred" theme in American Gods? Gaiman is critiquing the claim that we can gain access to universal truths as church dogma. Paradoxically, in holding 'something' sacred, dogma distorts our understanding of sanctity by putting the object of devotion beyond scrutiny, and promotes a cynical disregard for all spirituality. Only by holding nothing as sacred can we see that all of nature is the same, that there is no 'special revelation', and paradoxically that everything is equally sacred. This gives us the framework to assess ethics on the basis of evidence, to see the innate moral truths that have evolved through natural adaptation to our environment.

Robert



Wed May 20, 2009 9:43 pm
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From my perspective, analysing ethics with the benefit of the work of primatologists such as de Waal, I truly cannot see a meaningful difference between evolutionary survivability and universal truthfulness.

This only applies universally to replicators who must care for their genes and gain benefits by reciprocal altruism. Of course, replicators of this type are the inevitable result of evolution on Earth so far. An alien species with a different ultimate concern would be scary indeed.

One of the problems I've always had with religion is that the gods they champion are the foci of love far more powerful than people give their neighbor. Once that happens, 'love priority' is set askew and humanity takes second place to pleasing your god, even if one of the tenets is to love your neighbor as you love your self.

Does Gaiman propose what things should be held sacred? If so, are they along the lines of humanity and prosperity, rather than higher powers and angels?



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Interbane wrote:
"From my perspective, analysing ethics with the benefit of the work of primatologists such as de Waal, I truly cannot see a meaningful difference between evolutionary survivability and universal truthfulness." This only applies universally to replicators who must care for their genes and gain benefits by reciprocal altruism. Of course, replicators of this type are the inevitable result of evolution on Earth so far. An alien species with a different ultimate concern would be scary indeed.

One of the problems I've always had with religion is that the gods they champion are the foci of love far more powerful than people give their neighbor. Once that happens, 'love priority' is set askew and humanity takes second place to pleasing your god, even if one of the tenets is to love your neighbor as you love your self. Does Gaiman propose what things should be held sacred? If so, are they along the lines of humanity and prosperity, rather than higher powers and angels?


Gaiman starts, as I read him, from the outlook that we should only believe claims for which we have sufficient evidence. This is a completely different starting point from traditional religious faith, which puts the authority of tradition before evidence. It is a paradigm shift begun by the scientific revolution, but as yet incompletely applied to matters of symbolic meaning. Hence the notion of the sacred is completely contestable. Gaiman does esteem pagan mythology, and so regards the old stories as containing an intrinsic sanctity, containing hints at a higher wisdom concealed in a popular wrapping. Hence the iridescent ambiguity of the question of this thread, 'Is Nothing Sacred?' Gaiman's concern seems to be that the dominant models of sanctity are idolatrous, putting finite things before the openness to the ultimate which his fundamental question indicates. Nothing is an ambiguous term (as in my joke), given that as soon as it is discussed or considered it is paradoxically turned into something. Shadow has nothing, and this starting point enables him to take everything on its merits, rather than distorting his outlook by assessing the remarkable events of the book against ordinary criteria.

The theme of foreboding I mentioned in the Question One thread provides a path to answer if Gaiman considers humanity and prosperity to be sacred. It is just because Gaiman has such high regard for humanity, with our rich mythological heritage, that he is so concerned to puncture the modern Gods, and is aiming to rebase thought on a natural outlook. I suspect this rebasing, alluded to in the theme of the gathering storm, he sees as necessary for any future prosperity. The implication is that the path to prosperity provided by the shallow gods of modernity is not sustainable.

Angels don't get a mention in American Gods. I think this is because they emerge from the Hebraic mind against which Gaiman is positing a pagan outlook in which religious symbols are just metaphors for natural reality. The idea of angels as real beings is a big part of the dominant Judeo-Christian mindset. In presenting Odin, Anansi and the Norns as real people, he is arguing for a very different metaphorical engagement with religious language from that propounded by mainstream religions.

RT



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American Gods is a very philosophical book. The message it is presenting is highly critical of the western analytical method of philosophy, and has more in common with the Eastern tradition of Taoism. On the theme here of discussion of nothing, the Tao Te Ching has an intriguing description of the tao at Chapter 14 -
Quote:
Look, and it can't be seen. Listen, and it can't be heard. Reach, and it can't be grasped.

Above, it isn't bright. Below, it isn't dark. Seamless, unnamable, it returns to the realm of nothing. Form that includes all forms, image without an image, subtle, beyond all conception.

Approach it and there is no beginning; follow it and there is no end. You can't know it, but you can be it, at ease in your own life. Just realize where you come from: this is the essence of wisdom.


Gaiman has a similar attitude to Gods as symbols of divinity and the essence of wisdom, seeing them not as entities but as ideas which, like the tao, return to the realm of nothing. A further discussion of nothing in the Tao is also relevant to Gaiman's implication that Odin is an American king. The ironic despair with which Gaiman looks at current American culture is encapsulated in this gem from the tao:

Quote:
17: When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists. Next best is a leader who is loved. Next, one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised.

If you don't trust the people, you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn't talk, he acts. When his work is done, the people say, "Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!"

18: When the great Tao is forgotten, goodness and piety appear.
When the body's intelligence declines, cleverness and knowledge step forth.
When there is no peace in the family, filial piety begins.
When the country falls into chaos, patriotism is born.



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Post Re: IS NOTHING SACRED?
An interesting discussion.

The void as an existential abyss has been discussed by Heidegger and, of course - albeit differently - by Sartre. Freud's point was different only in his approach, which could be summed up as "the aim of all life is death".

I look differently at the anxiety about death. I do not see it as an anxiety about death, but about dying. Dying can be contemplated, and so can the death of others. What is impossible is the ability to contemplate the state of being dead. This state of being dead is Nothing (the absence of everything). Compare this to what I term "nothingness" (the absence of something).



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Post Re: IS NOTHING SACRED?
Quote:
What is impossible is the ability to contemplate the state of being dead. This state of being dead is Nothing (the absence of everything). Compare this to what I term "nothingness" (the absence of something).


This is interesting. In the state of being dead I assume that you mean the absence of consciousness when saying "the absence of everything." That is certainly tough to contemplate. Sort of like trying to contemplate the state of first being alive in the womb and just what sort of consciousness, if any, you were experiencing very early on in your life. That's equally difficult.

I was reading through the Something/Nothing thread and saw that you guys jumped over here. As far as that goes I'm of the understanding that "nothing" and "nothingness" are both just a figure of speech. I'd say that of course there has always been "something", and "somethingness" of some type, or else there couldn't possibly be anything at all in existence right now.

The mythic sense of "nothing", "nothingness", or void is not very literal when you really analyze it. It more or less pertains to an absence of what is known and fully understood at the present moment, not necessarily a literal void where true "nothingness" spontaneously gives rise to something. In the case of Judeo-Christianity there is of course the concept of creation ex-niliho, but then again God is viewed as eternal with no beginning or end and it's this self existent and ever present God which creates the universe by way of commanding it into existence. So where did the universe come from, true nothing? Not really, it came from the mouth, mind, and will of this mythic creator God of the universe in the storyline. There was this God and this Gods dwelling place and then the universe and world that we inhabit. The true void is nowhere to be found. So at the end of the day where is true "nothing" to be found and located in any mythology?

The void that is no void.

I believe that's a more enlightened Buddhistic way of approaching the issue of void and nothingness. It isn't actually void, just transcendent of all human thought and speech as they style it. But in any case, I've often considered that this somethingness that has always been and will always be - though constantly changing in shape, form, appearence, and conscious perspectives - is simply the fabric and structure of the realm of existence as philosopher Alan Watts put it. I suppose that it's quite possible to contemplate how we as individuals are really a part of 'something' with no beginning or end in sight (mere existence itself) and regardless of at what exact point we became conscious ourselves in the womb, or at what point in the future when our consciousness will eventually subside, it's possible to understand and contemplate that neither of these two points in linear time are really our true beginning or end in the grand scheme of things - not as long as we remain focused on the true depth of what the implications of existing right here and now really entails...


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D) YEC theory put to rest!


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Mon Nov 07, 2011 2:11 pm
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