Tuesday, January 30, 2007

the hobbit

she's a mystery girl

Wee Homo floresiensisif the name isn't premature - is an enigma, apparently, and there's a debate raging over whether the only skull so far found is that of a microcephalic variant of Homo sapiens, or that of a wholly new species, first postulated by J R R Tolkien many decades ago in his speculative scientific tract, The Hobbit. The debate has been unresolved for some time now, but it's getting newspaper space currently, and I'm trying to discover why.

Arguments for microcephaly are outlined here and here. The female skull, from a skeleton known as LB1, was found on the island of Flores in Indonesia in 2003, together with the partial remains from seven other skeletons, all of them indicating a remarkable smallness of stature. LB1 is dated as 18,000 years old, with the other skeletons ranging from 38,000 to 13,000 years old. To compare, and to provide more pabulum, the Neanderthals died out 29,000 years ago [apart from the one living at Sarah's place]. An arm bone, 74,000 years old, has also been found.

There's clearly a difficulty with there being only one cranium. There's also no DNA, which degrades very quickly in tropical climates. Apparently there are political difficulties inhibiting further exploration of the site.

The trouble with the microcephaly argument is that microcephaly comes in all shapes and sizes, so to speak, so that just about any skull could be rationalized to fit into that category. As one critic pointed out, many new hominid finds have been described as pathological on first discovery. More investigation is clearly needed.


the last of Eagleton and our currently dire condition

dire old terry

I find I haven't quite finished with Eagleton. This anti-progress guff really gets to me. I mentioned how in the 1640's, the time of the English civil war, England was a god-besotted nation. The same could no doubt be said for the rest of Europe. It should also be said that England, and Europe, was a far more violent, unruly, and unjust place than it is now. No serious historian would dispute this, though there might be some who romanticize the anarchic, might-is-right forces that were given more free play in those times. Compare ''our current dire condition'', whatever it is, with a state that so thoroughly and ignominiously disposes of one of its most forward-thinking [oops, progressivist superstition], courageous and humane citizens, John Cooke, because of its superstitions about hereditary dictatorship. Maybe the state thrived on such superstitions then, as North Korea does now, if you can call it thriving. Today though, in open societies, in our current dire condition, we thrive on other things. We can't step outside our own era and objectively scrutinize it, but still we're doomed to make comparisons, and maybe we're doomed to believe, in spite of some pretensions and posturings to the contrary, that things are getting better.

I could go on about Eagleton and his silly lectures on theology, and his anti-science flailings - On the horrors that science and technology have wreaked on humanity, he [Dawkins] is predictably silent. Yet the Apocalypse is far more likely to be the product of them than the work of religion – but I don't know if it's worth bothering about, there's so much interesting, positive, scientific stuff to get breathless about right now.

Okay, I'll be brief. Science and technology is developed by we nasty humans. We provide the pressure and incentive for our scientists to produce WMDs, as well as to produce TVs, computers and space shuttles. We do it to ourselves, we do, and that's what really hurts [and thrills]. As to the Apocalypse, I suspect our species will be long extinct before that happens. Or does he actually identify something so – apocalyptic – with the extinction of our puny ephemeral species? How unimaginative, and how very egotistically human [you wouldn't get me thinkin that mate - I ain't no human bean].


Monday, January 29, 2007

Eagleton on Dawkins - some comments

arrogant, superstitious and suburban

I've decided to abandon my The Faith Hope blog and to write my pieces on religion here, hopefully under the category of the faith hope. Easier to manage that way.

On Larvatus Prodeo the criticisms of Terry Eagleton are often mentioned. The reference is to a negative review of The God Delusion by Eagleton in the London Review of Books, and I want to turn to that now.

Eagleton's jeremiad against Dawkins is relentless [though he does let up toward the end] and rather astonishing, but it's so badly argued that I can only assume it passed muster in the LRB because it was guaranteed to stir up debate, which always sells copy.

I might start my critique of Eagleton by quoting his own of Dawkins – 'a molehill of instances out of a mountain of them will have to suffice' – but before delving down into instances I'll make some overall comments about Eagleton's approach. He shows very little interest in science, and the word 'evolution', so clearly dear to Dawkins, doesn't even rate a mention. Not surprisingly, therefore, he takes the line that science and religion are compatible, though he's none too coherent about it. Eagleton's bag is political and social theory, and as such he's prone to take a social constructivist view of what he terms Dawkins's 'rationalism', which he seems to treat as some fleeting middle-class movement. He of course accuses Dawkins of scientific triumphalism, and finds his idea of progress toward a rational secularism naïve to a fault. Unsurprisingly also, given Eagleton's background in literary theory, he has little sympathy for Dawkins's attitude toward post-modern relativism and the obscurantism of its dress - but instead of arguing the pros and cons of particular issues, such as relativism, or cultural determinism, he confines himself to sneering and personal jibes, many of which strike me as nonsensical. Maybe Eagleton is one of those who believes that truth is essentially a meaningless concept, and that there are only competing, politico-social viewpoints – that's the only way I can explain his constant references to Dawkins' 'Whiggish manner', his suburbanism[!], his liberalism, his 'Herbert Spencerish way', his 'very English brand of common sense' and so on, none of which made too much of an impression on me while reading The God Delusion. I was more concerned about the validity of his arguments.

Now let's look more closely at Eagleton's attack. He starts with what he no doubt considers a killer punch: Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.

To me, this misses the point completely, unless by theology Eagleton means the question of whether a god or gods exist. The fact that Eagleton doesn't mean this is shown by these follow-up remarks: What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them?

In bringing up these names and issues, Eagleton is trying to argue that Dawkins is avoiding the ''toughest cases'' and seeking to score easy victories, but he neglects to mention that these theological debates or propositions exist within the context of absolute unquestioning belief in the supernatural entity Dawkins rejects. It is this kind of theological speculation, whether Christian, Judaic, Islamic or whatever, that Dawkins finds irrelevant, and having occasionally dipped into the Christian version of these interminable debates, I'm very much inclined to agree with him.

To further illustrate the irrelevance of most of these debates and disquisitions [and I don't believe all theology is irrelevant, only that theology which refuses to question the central thesis of the existence of supernatural creator entities – and that means most theology], I can point to the revolution, over the past fifty years or so, in the archeology of the geographical area that gave birth to the Judeao-Christian religion. With archaeological scholarship in these decades being wrested from the hands of those whose principal aim is to uphold the truth of the bible, a vastly different picture has emerged, in which Biblical writings have been found to be wholly unreliable as historical documents, serving as propaganda for the kingdom of David and his southern capital Jerusalem – barely even a village when David was supposed to have flourished. The implications of these findings should have been devastating to Jewish theologians, but they've scarcely caused a ripple because Jewish theology, like other theologies, rarely concerns itself with external evidence. It perpetuates itself via internal wrangling and dialectic.

Eagleton himself discusses theological issues as if the concept of evidence is completely irrelevant to them. He obviously finds certain aspects of Christianity appealing. He makes much of Jesus being an unlikely Messiah, and, not surprisingly given his politics, emphasizes the anti-clericalist, anti-ruling class aspects of the Jesus persona. He 'explains' the meaning of the crucifixion and resurrection:

The Christian faith holds that those who are able to look on the crucifixion and live, to accept that the traumatic truth of human history is a tortured body, might just have a chance of new life – but only by virtue of an unimaginable transformation in our currently dire condition. This is known as the resurrection. Those who don’t see this dreadful image of a mutilated innocent as the truth of history are likely to be devotees of that bright-eyed superstition known as infinite human progress, for which Dawkins is a full-blooded apologist. Or they might be well-intentioned reformers or social democrats, which from a Christian standpoint simply isn’t radical enough.

In entering into theology in this way, Eagleton isn't, presumably, claiming that Jesus is a god or the son of one, he rather seems to be saying that Christianity's emphasis on one tortured body and its unimaginable transformation through resurrection offers a better, ultimately more hopeful narrative of the human condition than the 'bright-eyed superstition known as human progress' he claims is offered by Dawkins. Leaving aside his clearly questionable characterization of both the Christian message and the Dawkins message, there is an implication that we should make our choices on the basis of what sounds right to us from the lessons of history. In doing so he sidesteps the supernatural aspects of Christian belief, presumably because he only has use for its socio-political aspects.

This is more than a problem. As he rightly says, the well-intentioned reformers and social democrats aren't radical enough for the Christians, because they believe in transformation through belief in Jesus Christ as their saviour, whose essential message is 'believe in me and you'll have eternal life.' Eagleton wants to emphasise another message – 'give away all your goods to the poor, and expect to be persecuted for your beliefs in this life of strife', without mentioning the promise, embarrassing to many a modern sensibility, of unearthly rewards.

So Eagleton shies away from the supernaturalism at the heart of this and every religion, a supernaturalism that Dawkins constantly targets. The political message of Jesus is irrelevant to Dawkins' discussion.

Is Dawkins an apostle of human progress? I don't know. I do find him an optimist, and I share that optimism. Eagleton, on the other hand, speaks of our 'currently dire condition'. It's probably useless to speculate here on Eagleton's meaning – whether our current condition, though dire, is better, worse or the same as it was a hundred or fifty thousand years ago. It reads like throwaway rhetoric to me.

I don't feel comfortable myself in talking of human progress. I don't know about such large claims. However, since Eagleton brings up history, I should say my own optimism comes from the reading of history. I'm presently reading Geoffrey Robertson's The Tyrannicide Brief, the story of the trial of Charles Stuart, king of England, and the subsequent trial of those who brought him to account. It's grotesquely fascinating, but it reveals a god-besotted nation. Charles and his followers were fighting for the divine right of kings, while the roundheads were convinced of the godliness of their cause. It was a world full of catholic and protestant enmity, puritan excess, joyless presbyterianism. Atheism seems to have been virtually inconceivable. The past is indeed another country. That world is dead forever. Have we progressed, or merely changed? I don't have the wherewithal to make such a judgement, and I'd distrust anyone who claimed they did. I do feel that I'd hate to have to live in that old dead country, knowing what I know now. And I'm very very glad that so many of the best minds of my own time have no truck with religion, Christian or otherwise.

Not sure if I have the heart to go on with Eagleton. Far too many issues. There's a point by point rebuttal here.


Thursday, January 11, 2007

the prosecution makes a prompt response

Morrie Davis provides the low down lowdown

My quote of the day, a little off topic, comes from philosopher Jamie Whyte: Most theologians are humble to the point of ostentation...[I was thinking of that John Carroll bloke].

Obviously the prosecutors in the David Hicks case are reading my blog and are keen to prove me wrong, especially the last sentence of my last post. They've come out suddenly with some specific claims about Hicks – for example that he complained directly to old Osama about the lack of English-written terrorist training manuals, and that he was then tasked with doing the translation himself, presumably because of his great command of both languages. Now there's one in the eye for all those Hicks bashers who think he's just a dumb racist Hick.

In spite of all this, no trial date has been set, and I remain convinced that there'll be no trial, and for the same reason I gave before. There's no evidence whatsoever against Hicks. If there was anything substantial they would have tried him years ago, with glee. The way things are now they can treat him like the piece of shit they obviously believe him to be, without having to answer to anyone. They must be particularly pleased with the Australian government's connivance in this ongoing situation.

Meanwhile we can but marvel at the tale told by the prosecutor interviewed by The Age recently, a fantastic tale which suggests that Hicks is guilty as hell. I suppose he thinks that if we believe that Hicks would have been or could have been tasked with translating complex training manuals from Arabic into English, we'll believe just about anything. But can he really believe that?

And what's with the attack on Mori? It really has a bad odour to it. For me, the only real question is what will become of Hicks, or what's left of him, after this administration is booted out in 2008.


Monday, January 08, 2007

supersoft target: Salusinszky refuted

with imre around, the critical life's a breeze

I've heard various acquaintances slag off at Imre Salusinszky, a media pundit I'd never really encountered in his political manifestation until the other day. All I'd heard was his not particularly interesting but innocuous views on Bob Dylan, the Stones and such.

The other day, though, he was on the radio semi-debating the David Hicks issue with Major Michael Mori, the military lawyer who's attained heroic status here in Australia. Salusinszky's arguments were so demonstrably bad that they've provided me with an easy day's writing in rebutting them, so I'll take the line of least resistance and put off the much more onerous [but someone's gotta do it] task of exploring the politics of water resource management to another day.

Salusinszky's line was that Hicks is a racist, a member of al-quaeda and a traitor [these are his own words] and that, considering all the more serious injustices that need to be righted in the world, the plight of Hicks is not something worth losing too much sleep over. He also claimed that the defenders of Hicks were largely driven by anti-Americanism.

Mori in response focused on the legal issues, including the fact that the US administration doesn't allow its own citizens to face these tribunals but considers them good enough to try foreign citizens [what was I saying about British foreign policy arrogance in the time of Palmerston?]. He didn't deign to answer Salusinszky's claims, but the clear implication was that those supporting Hicks were doing so on the basis of rights and justice rather than on the basis of personal sympathies.

I want to answer Salusinszky's claims more directly – again because it's a soft job. First, the question of Hicks' alleged beliefs about Jews and or other ethnic groups is of course irrelevant to the issue of whether or not he should be held in solitary confinement for a number of years without trial. Neither are these alleged beliefs relevant to the charges brought against him, which include attempted murder as I recall.

Much more seriously, Salusinszky alleged that Hicks is a member of al-quaida. Now, as far as I know, al-quaida members aren't issued with a gold membership card and they don't pay subscriptions or membership fees. Membership of al-quaida is presumably determined by examining contacts, movements, conversations. I would imagine such membership isn't easily established. Hicks of course has been in close imprisonment for five years, so it's his activities before this that are in question, and surely the best way to determine whether those activities constitute or might conceivably constitute membership of al-quaida is through thorough examination in a court of law.

All sorts of allegations have been made against Hicks, though the specific charges are conspiracy to commit war crimes, attempted murder and aiding the enemy. It should be noted that these are vague charges – the enemy isn't specified, and could conceivably be anyone who isn't 'with' the current US administration in its vague, multi-dimensional war on terror. Conspiracy is also a vague, catch-all term, and could be applied to anyone careless or stupid or drunk enough to shoot their mouth off in front of the wrong people or to be caught in the wrong company. Yet even considering the vagueness of these charges, the fact that Hicks has been held captive for five years without ever having been brought to trial – in a case which, if won, would be a huge feather in the cap of this US administration, has always indicated to me that the evidence is very weak, if not non-existent. After all this time, this evidence is unlikely to grow.

I can only assume that, in claiming that Hicks is a member of al-quaida, Salusinszky is engaging in media speculation, even though he's stating it as fact. If it's speculation, it strikes me as irresponsible, as he's assuming something that has yet to be proven. If it's fact, he needs to contact the appropriate authorities, tout de suite, and present himself as a key witness in the case, or at the very least, to provide the contact details of his informants.

Finally Salusinszky accused Hicks of being a traitor. Not many people are charged with treason these days, not in western democracies at least, and the reasons are pretty obvious – it's a highly subjective and easily politicized term. The Vietnam war saw divisions, here and in the US, in which the same people were being described as traitors or heroes, depending on the political persuasions of the describers.

Hicks is generally described as a traitor because, as this indignant writer to The Australian argues, he was "a footloose adventurer, willing to betray his antecedents by embracing Islam and hot-footing it to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban.'' Needless to say, being a footloose adventure is neither treasonous nor illegal, it's almost in the nature of children to betray their antecedents, and embracing Islam, while deplorable in my own view, is a personal decision anyone can legally and rightfully make. As to his willingness to fight with the Taliban, the extent of such willingness, and the legality or otherwise of his decisions in this matter [given that the Taliban government was in fact recognized by the US and Australian governments at the time of the September 11 attacks, and so could not be described as 'the enemy'] needs to be determined by a court of law. It continues to be unlikely that it will ever be so determined.


Saturday, January 06, 2007

radiohead and a ramble

trust these guys?

Today's quote comes from the Buddhist Nanrei Koboro, via that shining old secularist Carl Sagan: God is an invention of Man. So the nature of God is only a shallow mystery. The deep mystery is the nature of man.

Sarah is approaching sixty [she's actually just turned fifty-nine but she seems perversely drawn to the idea of being sixty, so who am I to stop her] and has recently discovered Radiohead. Like me, can't always understand what's being sung, but the intensity, the moodiness, the raw power of the singing gets to her. She feels jealous too. She's a technically proficient singer but feels she'd never be able to abandon herself to the energy of a song like Thom Yorke does.

Her interest has gotten to me, and I've been listening a bit more carefully to what Radiohead I've got – that's to say, The Bends and My Iron Lung. I've heard OK Computer a lot too, but I don't have a copy. Influences go right back to the Beatles, but laced with a punk sensibility and with elements of electronica, all distorted and punctuated by a confusion of angst and cynicism. It's a grand but consciously self-undermining sound, and Yorke's voice gives it much of its depth and edginess, as with the very different baritone of Ian Curtis of Joy Division. I find I can identify with this stuff – it has deep roots in British pop – much more than with most modern offerings, either on the mainstream or alternative circuit [not that I expose myself much to new music these days].

Altogether I've been finding it hard to settle down, to direct the energy, and the heat of course hasn't helped. Weight has ballooned, and I'm behind with this reporting. I'm a little dazed, to tell the truth, at the impending improvement in my finances. Like I'm about to get out of jail and I've no idea what I'll do with myself when I'm set free.

I drove into town the other day and spent some time at Super Elliots where they had a range of Giant bikes, and various other makes, but no Innova as far as I could see. I didn't actually ask, as I'm still a way from having the requisite ready, and because I'm hapless.

I finished the bio of Lord Palmerston. The past really is another country. Welcome to a world where the term democrat and radical are virtually synonymous, and where it's casually assumed that republics [that's to say where democracy rules ok?] have a greater tendency to warmongering than monarchies or despotisms [nowadays the opposite is just as casually assumed].

Still, there are plenty of reassuring similarities. British foreign policy arrogance – called gunboat diplomacy in those days – has been superseded by Yank foreign policy arrogance, which is bigger and brassier as befits our more legendary and trivial age. Let's play star wars. I note that Radiohead's Yorke has been around the traps, protesting at US bases, agonizing over whether Blair's worth talking to on global warming [Yorke's a FOE ambassador], and just generally failing to accept that governments are doing their best to protect, improve and nurture their citizens. Typical cynic. Archetypal rock star in fact.


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

saddam plays it cool

what a card

My most seasonal quote of today comes from the Persian poet Hafiz, version by Paul Smith: Give; give me, ruined of reputation I wish to be; Wine and the winecup my ruination I wish to be. Winebringer, come. That liquid that all care burns; That if a lion drinks , into a burner of forests turns, Give, so to the sky that captures the lion I go; So the cage, this tired old world, I can overthrow.

Saw a few of Saddam's last seconds of life on ABC news last night, and have since watched the amateur video which includes footage of him after the drop, whether dead or alive at that point I couldn't say. I rarely go in for this sort of thing, but on reflecting, with the help of expert commentary, on the symbolic importance of this sort of stuff for such a macho culture, I wanted to check up on a few things. Of course I didn't understand what they were saying, but it was clear enough that Saddam, moral monstrosity though he was, faced his death unflinchingly. The seeming reversal of roles, with Saddam unhooded and the executioners all masked, naturally sets this footage alongside those of the kidnappers and killers taunting and executing mostly western hostages throughout this disastrous campaign. It looked like a sectarian ritual slaying, and many are saying that's just what it was.

There are already a host of sites trying to work out what was said in Saddam's exchange with his killers, but it certainly seems clear that sectarianism was to the fore, with the murderous Shiíte cleric Muqtada-al-sadr's name being chanted loudly at the end. The final effect was miles away from what Bush and his GOP cronies hoped it would be, though they'll pretend as usual.

Finally, Saddam's death, after an apparently fatally flawed judicial process, seems just another drop in an ocean of chaos. It'll be used to whip up further sectarianism, as everything else is used, but the strange choice of executing him on a day usually reserved for pardons (it's supposed to be the day Abraham offered up his son to the nasty god Yahweh) seems to have been calculated to maximize Sunni outrage. Meanwhile, the White House imbecile has spoken of this execution as a step toward Iraq becoming an ally in the war against terror. Of course, since this war is really against religious zealotry, and since religious zealotry has been brought to the boil in Iraq by the US invasion and the toppling of Saddam, the Bush remarks just underline his unfitness for office.

It might seem commendable for the Americans to stay and try to undo some of the damage they've done, the question obviously is whether their presence will merely continue to exacerbate the situation. There are probably less publicized reasons for the Americans wanting to stay, such as the need to protect the economic exploitation of the region by American business interests – imagine if American forces withdrew and the various Iraqi tribes started picking off the Yank capitalists who remained.

Maybe the Yank capitalists should hand power over to the Iraqis too. Just joking ho ho ho.


Monday, January 01, 2007

my life cycle

my giant innova - a possible dream

Quote of the day - hopefully I'll remember to put these in from now on - comes supposedly from Voltaire: Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

I've started the new year on a low high – my weight has topped 77k. For someone of my small frame that's way too much. BMI measures should have me down around the 70k mark, so that's what I'm targeting, and the key lies more in exercise than diet.

There are a range of exercising possibilities for me, including bushwalking, cycling and the gym.

I'm not the most disciplined sort. It would be better for me, probably, to exercise with someone. John S invited me on a cycling ride a few weeks ago. I didn't get to meet up with him, due to a series of unfortunate events, but I rode from my house to the beach on a clunky, very heavy steel-framed bike John had given me. I rode along linear park, more slowly than any other of the many cyclists using the route, some of whom would've been no older than ten. I really was trying to go fast, but it was impossible. I'm hugely out of condition, but I prefer to blame the bike, so I'm in the market for a better model. At least a bike that's a pleasure to ride will help with motivation.

Cosmos magazine reviewed a few bikes in its October/November issue, ranging from the bike that Lance Armstrong used to win his last Tour de France, the Trek SSLx [priced at around $15000], to one more within my comfort area and price range, the Giant Innova, at a little under $1000. Though I suspect a Pygmy Innova would suit better.

The Innova's frame is of aluminium and so light-weight, a great improvement on steel if not as exciting, or expensive, as carbon fibre. It's described as a hybrid bike, though more suited to road than off-road use, with 'SR magnesium travel forks' which are apparently excellent for shock absorption. They say it has a very comfortable seat, too.

Having checked out this website and discovered that Giant's a trade name, and that the Innova comes in what is probably my size [S: 17], and that the specifications are all impressively incomprehensible [the magnesium forks are an exciting upgrade], I'm starting to feel excited. It's quite possible that I'll have the money to buy such a bike by the end of this month, and I'll be able to accompany John and cronies on their Sunday journeys to well-being.

My big worry, especially after recent issues, is security, so I'll have to research bike locks too. Anyway with a decent bike I might be able to combine cycling with bushwalking, a sort of biathlonic Sunday series. Next I'll be in the market for a parrot outfit – but luckily I'll never have the body for that sort of getup.

Reading of Lord Palmerston's late-in-life energy [at 79, and still PM, he rode to hounds regularly] has the usual inspirational effect – I've probably been more affected by the energetic longevity of Thomas Hobbes, Bertrand Russell, Knut Hamsun and Bernard Shaw than I have by any of their works, I'm ashamed to say.


pavlov's cat