Matthew T Grant

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Tall Guy. Glasses.

Tinariwen, Paradise, Boston, MA, 10.12.12

A Brief Holiday in Other People’s Misery

Before I went to see Tinariwen the other night, I read up on the political situation in Mali and it is pretty grim. A quarter million people have fled the country since January 2012 and the beginning of the “Tuareg Rebellion,” a conflict fueled in part by the return to Mali of Tuareg fighters who, up to that point, had been in the employ of Muammar Gadddafi.

The Malian government has now long since lost control of the northern part of the country, some of which is controlled by the Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, and some of which is controlled by Islamic fundamentalists—the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in Northern Africa and Ansar Dine (under the command of a former Tuareg rebel leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly). The result has been the forced conscription of children, systematic rape, imposition of Sharia law and the disturbing news that fundamentalists are compiling lists of unwed mothers.

Against this backdrop, as I headed out to lose myself in the trancey, guitar-driven desert groove for which Tinariwen has become world-renowned, I was reminded of the opening line from “Holiday in the Sun” by the Sex Pistols, “A brief holiday in other people’s misery.” While that line referred to visiting East Berlin during the Cold War, it seemed to apply just as well to this middle class American seeking entertainment and diversion from guys who every day are wondering and worrying about the fate of their families in a land plunged into unrelenting chaos.

The Absented Messiah

It’s not the case that Tinariwen just happens to be from an African nation that is well on its way to “failed state” status. They have expressed support for Tuareg autonomy in the recent troubles and in fact have been part of Tuareg resistance to the Malian government for decades now. Read the rest of this entry »

Religion is Psy-Tech

Angels and demons are states of mind, perspectives.

We conjure God through chanting, trance, meditation and prayer.

While these technologies take different forms, they all operate on the same material: a self-aware nervous system.

As Dr. Leary once said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is inside you, literally, inside your body.”

Or some words to that effect.

God, Theory of Mind, and the Search for Meaning

In the Boston Globe‘s “Ideas” section yesterday, they reprinted a post from Josh Rothman which had originally appeared on the Globes’s “Brainiac” blog entitled, “Is God a Social Illusion?

The jumping-off point for Rothman’s post was Jesse Bering’s assertion that belief in God was an almost inevitable result of our in-born tendency to create a theory of mind which allows us to divine the intentions of others and thus facilitates socialization on many levels. Because we are always looking for intention in others, Bering reasons, it makes sense that we also look for intentions in the otherwise apparently random events in our lives or the universe more broadly.

Bering’s argument reminded me of Nietzsche’s notion that our belief in God stemmed from our reliance on the grammatical convention that every sentence has a subject; we can’t look at the world without thinking, “Who did this?” Thus, at least as a kind of provocation, I appreciated Bering’s sentiment. Rothman, for his part, did not, quipping, “Color me unconvinced.”

Rothman contends that, if we are to find any instinctual basis for the belief in God, than we must look for the “meaning instinct.” As he puts it, “It’s the search for meaning, not the search for other minds, that makes religions part of the fabric of human life.”

Aside from the fact that herewith Rothman seems to miss the point of the theory of mind—we are not looking for other minds as humans, but rather for the meaning of human actions based on the intentions and perspective we assume to lurk behind these actions—I think he (and Bering with him) also misses the connection between religion and God, on the one hand, and religion and humans on the other.

First of all, not every religion has a single God at its center (indeed, the notion of monotheism came along kind of late in the game, human evolution-wise), and, in fact, there are venerable religions like Buddhism in which God plays no real role whatsoever. Second of all, specific religious creeds notwithstanding, religion, in the end, isn’t about belief in God; it’s about a shared set of practices and rituals—and in some cases an elaborate social hierarchy built around a priest-class—that binds a social group together.

Wrestling with belief in God is a fairly modern pursuit dependent as it is on things like literacy, leisure time, and an awareness of other cultures. In the early days of humanity, you were born into a world that was already defined for you first in terms of obligatory behaviors and then in terms of a shared perspective on the world grounded in a shared language. Your “religion” wasn’t a defined set of beliefs so much as “the way things are.”

If you want to understand religion from an evolutionary standpoint, you need to start with its social-organizing aspect and leave things like individual belief in a deity for a later date because, I believe, religion begins with religious practice, not religious conviction.

Image Source: Edenpictures.

How High Was My Fire (or Why High on Fire Matters)

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Easily the best band on earth. I sincerely hope other bands pay attention and decide to eschew all the pretension and all the trends and just focus on creating real, honest-to-God ART. That’s a rare thing these days. – urdisturbing

I went to the Metal/Hardcore festival at the Palladium in Worcester in 1999 mainly to see Morbid Angel, a band I’d been into since 1991.

After reading about Morbid Angel in Spin, I picked up an Earache compilation called Grindcrusher at Disc Diggers (long since defunct) in Somerville (I also picked up Morbid Angel’s masterful Altars of Madness there shortly thereafter) and was introduced to their sound via “Chapel of Ghouls,” a Slayer-esque monolith of strangely psychedelic, thrashy death metal.

Of course, the rest of the cassette kicked as  well because Earache’s roster in the early 90s was a who’s who of genre-defining death and grind bands (Carcass, Entombed, Bolt Thrower, Napalm Death, Terrorizer, etc.). Given my association, then, of the label with a certain level of aesthetic quality, I was happy to come across a basket of discounted Earache cassettes sitting on a table in the hustle and bustle of the “labels” area set up at the Palladium that night.

After a bit of rummaging around I ended up buying some Napalm DeathFrom Enslavement to Obliteration and Harmony Corruption, if memory serves— and a tape that, like anything that matters, altered the course of my life: Sleep’s Holy Mountain.

I’ll be honest. I bought the thing because is was like two bucks and the cover boasted an intricately ornate graffiti tableau consisting mainly of variations on “pot leaf.” Listening to it while driving through the dark and wooded hills outside of 495, my mind just blew and blew. These Sabbath worshipers, thanks to their ability to craft a riff and wail trippily, took unabashed adulation to the point of mad originality. The first galloping notes of “Dragonaut” —the sinewy ooze of the bass line, the oddly chanted vocal (“Ride the dragon under Mars’ red sky”)— hooked me immediately. I couldn’t believe how great it sounded. Read the rest of this entry »

Be Your Self

14517722_6bbc8e79c8_mHad He willed they would not have been idolators. –  Sura 6, “The Cattle”

The existence of evil, or, more banally, base disobedience of God’s word by the vast multitude of human beings, must in some ways be explained by monotheism. If God is all-powerful, in fact, singular in His omnipotence, how do you explain the existence of evil without admitting that it too, like all else above and below, was created by God?

Similarly, since God has sent down his Word and therewith his Law via sundry emissaries, how is it that so many, indeed the majority of humanity, either fail to heed it or denounce it as false (adhering instead to their own regional or familial creeds)?

The idea that God created evil (the Devil, drives, temptation) and then bestowed Free Will upon Man in order to test his fidelity seems far-fetched. Why would an all-powerful Being operate in such a neurotic (or, really, passive aggressive) fashion?

The alternative (if you are not going to jettison monotheism altogether and retreat into a polytheism that does not suffer this conundrum) is to state forthrightly that God created Evil and, moreover, that God determines who will obey and who will not.

Hence the Calvinist doctrine of pre-destination, for example, or, a thousand years before it, the words of the Holy Quran where we find in Sura 7, “The Wall Between Heaven and Hell,” Aya 178: He alone is guided whom God shows the way; and whom He leads astray is surely lost. (This is echoed later, in Aya 186, “Whosoever God allows to go astray has none to show him the way, for He leaves them to wander perplexed in their wickedness.” and indeed repeated throughout the Quran.)

“Whom He leads astray….” How many can get to that and appreciate and worship a God who willfully leads some astray? Of course, Islam aside, how else are we to understand the monotheism espoused my Judaism or Christianity (or Zoroastrianism, if you want to get technical)?

And have many considered that, when we look out over the vast sweep of history, broadly speaking, or burrow into the unique experiences of every individual who has ever lived, we would not be able, following the model of monotheism offered in the verses cited above, to distinguish a reality created by God from a reality which has unfolded in His absence?

In other words, truly consistent monotheism and atheism, from the standpoint of observable reality, are indistinguishable.

Which brings us to the preeminent secular commandment: “Be Yourself” – a notion emanating from Emerson and Nietzsche, sacralized in the Sixties (not to mention countless movies, sitcoms, and television dramas), and now central to the concept of authenticity that the social media gurus of today wield like an iron hammer.

You are as God wills you to be. Thus, when you are “yourself,” you are submitting to the will of God, as is proper. However, when you are not yourself, then you are also obeying the will of God, since you could only not be yourself if He willed it to be so.

We can no more escape ourselves than we can act against the will of God. You are always already yourself, even when you are not. If God wills you to not be yourself, than “not being yourself” is how you are.

And therefore, I believe, the insistence on “being yourself” is really driven by the frustration and disappointment associated with the fact that this is, in fact, impossible.

Image source: mrmystery.

Atheism

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God is dead. – Nietzsche
Nietzsche is dead. – God

In America, and apparently some parts of the developing world, it can be very shocking when you tell people that you do not believe in God. Indeed, even among America’s educated classes, you’ll rarely hear an expression of outright atheism (though you will encounter a fair amount of agnosticism).

I asked a friend once why this was and he replied, in effect, that people claim to be agnostic mainly because they are cowards. At first I thought he meant that they, like Pascal, were basically hedging their bets. I mean, what if they’re wrong? Better not to commit either way.

Now I believe that he was pointing instead to their fear of communal opprobrium. Agnostics don’t fear God, after all (if they did, they wouldn’t be agnostics). The only thing they have to fear is Believers.

For my part, I’ve tended to be fairly forthright about my atheism. I do not believe that God exists. At the same time, being of a rather philosophical bent, I’m not entirely comfortable with that manner of expressing things. Why? Well, it all depends on what your definition of “is” is.

You see, we humans tend to have a pretty strong physical bias when it comes to “existence.” When we say that something exists in the course of daily conversation, one can safely assume that we mean “physically” exists. And to the extent that we are particular in questions of fact, we have some fairly rigorous and straightforward standards regarding proof of physical existence.

For example, one should be able to supply fairly precise coordinates of an existing entity’s location in space if one wants to definitively claim that it does indeed exist. One should also be able to specify it’s mass, its physical dimensions, and so on. (In the case of those “objects”—electrons, black holes, photons, etc.—for which precise location or exact mass, among other things, may be difficult to establish, we have mathematical models and experimental procedures that provide a great deal of circumstantial evidence from which existence can be reasonably inferred, if not postively demonstrated.)

Unfortunately, the existence of God doesn’t lend itself to such procedures and demonstrations. If it is argued that the reason for this is that God does not exist “physically,” then I must respond, “Well, then, in what sense of the word ‘exist’ does God exist if not in the physical sense?”

Read the rest of this entry »

Rev. X Brings the Spirit of Truth

Can anyone tell me what ever happened to this guy? (WARNING: NSFW – but totally safe for eternal salvation)

Can anyone answer the question, “Am I high and lofty?”

The Great Divider

2507578321_730f501ed0_mRemember when I said that science was Satanic not because it advocates evil but because it sees moral distinctions as epiphenomenal and, in the end, insists that all reality consists of a meandering, entropic unfurling of energy through myriad states of transient, quantum differentiation until an ultimate universal state of uniform heat death is achieved?

Well, it turns out that I was right. You see, the Hebrew word “bara,” which has traditionally been translated as “created” in the the first sentence of the book of Genesis – “in the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth” – also means “to separate” and, according to Professor Ellen van Wolde, a “respected Old Testament scholar and author,” that first sentence should reflect that God “separated” rather than “created” the Heaven and the Earth.

Anthropologically speaking (at least from the structuralist perspective), the function of religious belief and practice is to make distinctions between the sacred and the profane, human and animal, good and evil, etc. Thus, it is only fitting that the deity’s original creative act consists in drawing a line.

God may have created the Heaven and the Earth but only in the sense that you create two things by dividing one thing. Of course, such a division implies that you have “one thing” to begin with and, indeed, van Wolde’s re-translation of Genesis suggests that there was something there, both temporally and spatially, before God. This single, undifferentiated thing, the opposite of God, is essentially nothing, since anything that is not separated into things is quite literally “no thing.”

God is the Great Divider and the real Devil, the “other” of God, is not another being but this pre-separated stuff: the “no thing.” The irony is that God, too, is not a thing, and it is this “no thing-ness” of God which makes monotheism practically indistinguishable from atheism.

But if all this is too high-falutin’ for y’all, here’s the marketing lesson that I draw from these meta-theological divigations: Differences (between products or services or whatever) don’t exist, they are made.

Dwell upon it.

Image Courtesy of KM&G-Morris.

Coltrane and the Face of God

103148874_3d354e74e3_mListening to Coltrane’s Settin’ the Pace. It’s not one of his greatest hits and even the various jazz cd review books give it second tier status, but I really enjoy it. “I See Your Face Before Me” is the lead track, an exquisite ballad that I humbly believe outshines the more famous “I Want to Talk About You” from Soultrane.

Still, saying this or that by Coltrane is better than this or that by Coltrane seems trivial and, frankly, beside the point (much like I found Ben Ratliff’s book on Coltrane’s sound). These are just opinions, after all, and vanity, moreover. Who cares what you/I think about any particular work by this man? It’s a mixture of hero-worship and elevation-by-association that frankly demeans the opiner by revealing a lamentable failure to listen.

I read an interview with Matisyahu once in which he pointed to the number of love songs out there as an indication of how much people are yearning for the love of God.  “People feel abandoned by God, they feel alone. You see by the number of love songs there are, it’s a proof of that,” he said.

Coltrane’s devotion to God causes me to hear in his ballads blessed celebration and the joy of reunion. The face he sees before him, is the face of God. The “you” he wants to talk about is You, My Lord.

Image Courtesy of Flykr.