Monday, April 07, 2008

Linus and religion

No, not the philosophical kid with the blanket. Incidentally, the complete Peanuts is coming out in permanent book form now. Here's one. It will take over a decade to release them all to the buying public. A full set will cost in the neighborhood of $400.

I grew up with Peanuts. When I have frivolous spending money, I might get a set for my kids. And if anyone out there in publishing land is listening, a DVD ROM set would go straight onto my wish list.

I finished Just For Fun, the autobiography of Linus Torvalds, this week. Linus is the originator and still dictator for life of Linux, the Unix-clone operating system kernel that is free to inspect, copy, and obtain. Linus is an interesting character with an obvious gift for low-level software and the interface between it and hardware that he has planted himself in. That part of the book is quite interesting. In fact, I recommend it overall, although the story is bookended by a philosophy I am about to disagree with.

His exposition of the meaning of life is not so cogent. Essentially, he believes that human behavior comes down to essentially, a hierarchy of needs. The most basic need is survival. The next is social. The last is entertainment. They are not just like needs, they are also something like the stages of human endeavor and motivation.

Aside from leaving off the tops of Maslow's pyramid, which is itself an incomplete story at best, Linus' theory of behavior omits some other important motivators/stages.

There's no good and evil in Linus' world. I leave it to you whether the Carthaginian human sacrifice of children was an example of survival, social, or entertainment. On the good side of religion, there's the Kierkegaardian knight of faith, who follows the moral that is in some way beyond the mores of society. It would take reductionism in the extreme to call, say, Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac to God a product of the survival instinct or the social order, when a major point of the story is to turn exactly those things upside down. Here's the incomparable beginning:

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!"

"Here I am," he replied.

Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."

Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey.

More stages: the ultimate end of entertainment is corruption and decay. See the Romans, Fox News, any decadent society (pre-bloodbath France). And religious/civil awakening seems to be a spontaneously generating toothbrush for that decay. You can often see the pendulum swing again to a state sponsorship of religion. I'm not sure where power fits into survival, social, or entertainment either.

I suppose it's possible that Linus is carefully couching these stages in terms of progress, so a lot of what I am talking about are the forces opposed to survival, social, and entertainment, but I think he's really aiming at a broader target than that.


vince said...

Sounds like Linus embraces materialism and individualism in the extreme. Does he see himself as a John Galt of "Atlas Shrugged" with rational egoism guiding the gifted human?

Dan Lewis said...

I think he confines himself to recognizing the downside of religion without the upside.

I would say that he's in a unique position to appreciate that great work springs from communities rather than just the individual. He runs, by tradition and trust rather than by fiat, the largest collaborative engineering project in world history (the Linux kernel) with literally hundreds of thousands of developers contributing work.

I would call him more of a technological and scientific positivist. I haven't really done him credit if I don't point out that even though he's opinionated, he has devoted his life to something that benefits many people. I would also call him a humanist.

Maybe I should do a post on Ayn Rand, because I read her books at that time in high school. I liked The Fountainhead better than Atlas Shrugged, in some ways. I came to believe that she had neglected and mischaracterized some great human experiences, and gave reason too much credit, so I disliked them eventually.

And as Stephen King said about Ayn Rand, you can forgive a lot of crappy writing if there's a story.

vince said...

Ayn Rand is to laissez-faire capitalism what Karl Marx is to communism. A figurehead for a rational utopian extreme that engenders an irrational patriotic following.

I would say Ayn's ideas are more damaging to humanity than Karl's, because her economic philosophy is used to empower the wealthy while his is used to empower the underclass. Both tend to do violence to their opposing class.

vince said...

Linus does seem to be altruistic by nature, which Ayn Rand considers immoral. The unfortunate 'seeing' of Linus only sees the downside of theism is the flaw of humanism. Where oh where is the Golden Mean of reasonable reason. It seems only extreme voices are heard. Secular humanism vs cultic religious faith. Capitalism vs Communism.

Where are the Christian humanists who support a reasonable social-capitalist economy?