Friday, December 28, 2007

on god, Einstein, religion and world peace: get it all here

My favourite Christmas present was the one I bought myself, a reasonable brick of a tome, recently released, called The Portable Atheist, edited by Hitchens, a reader presented chronologically.

Lucretius' De Rerum Natura starts it off. I first read this work, or a part of it, many years ago in my vie boheme. I was at a friend's party and ended up staying the night, in a sleeping bag. I was a little drunk, but energised, and I raided his bookshelves and settled on Lucretius. Of course I'd never read anything like it, an epic poem in rhyming stanzas [in translation], treating of the essential nature of the universe, arguing that all matter consisted of atoms, and spurning all superstition and religious dogma. I was blown away, and stayed up reading it till dawn. Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?

I'm already about a third of the way through, and there are contributions from many brave souls, some from the height of religious persecution in Europe, like Spinoza and Thomas Hobbes, whose 'free-thinking' endangered his life on a few occasions. Hume's essay on miracles is here, though it's not so impressive now as when I first read it, and some nineteenth century heavies like Shelley [expelled from Oxford for this particular essay - at least the consequences of speaking were becoming gradually less grim], J S Mill, and Leslie Stephen being very serious and comprehensive. Karl Marx waxes more or less incomprehensible [from his Hegel-shadowed years]. H L Mencken produces an impressive list of dead gods who once held Ozymandias-like sway.

Perhaps the most impressive contribution, and hopefully not just because it's the last one read, comes from Einstein. Not an essay, but a collection of his pronouncements and quotes from letters on the issue from his last years, presumably gathered by editor Hitchens. They're often repetitive but essentially consistent. They're a reminder that Einstein, in his last years, was revered as a kind of seer, much like Mandela today. I think he had a similar personality, a generally benign disposition but with an underlying fierce concern about the state of humanity, about truth and fairness, and a willingness to speak out on occasions, making him the target of many a well-meaning focus group. Much argument has been raised about the nature of Einstein's 'religiosity' but I think his own pronouncements settle the issue [leaving aside the possibility of selectivity and suppression from the editor]. Einstein had no use for a personal god, one who intervened in human affairs and answered prayer. He felt that such a construction was naive and self-serving. He described himself as a 'religious unbeliever', awed by the natural world and its laws, of which he felt we had a far from perfect understanding. He several times cited the pantheistic 'god' of Spinoza, a god identical with nature, with no transcendental - and certainly no anthropomorphic - features.

I'm of course not doing justice to too many of these thinkers with these perfunctory remarks but I've really enjoyed spending time with them over the last few days. Some lost their face slowly and with great reluctance, others were strictly educated into atheism, and others - and I put myself into this group - 'have been so made that they cannot believe' [Pascal's words]. All of them I see as fore-runners, pioneers, like the early feminists, chipping away at the power of religion over people's minds, helping to loosen its grip over educated people, finger by finger. May it never be allowed to rise again, especially not to cast its pall over everyday life.

I note that the Pope, [the Goddess bless him] has recently presented a Christmas day message, arguing inter alia that abortion and same-sex marriage [in other words any legitimisation of homosexuality] are as much a threat to world peace as the usual suspects, and that the nuclear family is our greatest bulwark against violence and instability. Obviously he hasn't heard of the bonobo. It's my contention that intolerance and bigotry are a much greater threat to world peace, and the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church, with its shocking history as well as its current pronouncements, is the greatest promoter of those tendencies in the west. I chafe at the continued existence of such a grotesque institution, and its my fervent hope that it won't survive this century. Interestingly, Einstein also had something to say about their shenanigans:
I am convinced that some political and social activities of the Catholic organisations are detrimental and even dangerous for the community as a whole, here and everywhere. I mention here only the fight against birth control at a time when overpopulation in various countries has become a serious threat to the health of people and a grave obstacle to any attempt to organise peace on this planet.

A retrospective hit, indeed.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, December 27, 2007

bring out that inner bonobo

les be friends, or how to avoid stress

Human sexuality, in the developed west, is tending towards bonoboism, me likes to think [actually it's far more a hope than a thought].

Bonobos are a wonder. According to primatologist and psychologist Frans de Waal, who's made a study of them, they might better have been named Pan satyrus rather than P paniscus [the diminutive one], because of their considerable predilection for sexual activity [meaning they love to fuck, with whoever, whenever, however]. As you might expect, I can't wait to write about this, but I'll get the less stimulating part of their story out of the way first.
Bonobos, along with their larger cousins, the chimps, are our closest living relatives, but bonobos are very different from chimps. For starters there are far fewer of them, and their habitat is very confined, and becoming more so with human encroachment. They inhabit an area south of the Zaire River, and number only a few thousand, falling rapidly. They were only identified in the late twenties, and classified as a new species in the early thirties. The chimp and bonobo lines separated not so long ago, with the chimps moving on to a wider, drier savannah-like habitat.

Although originally described as pygmy chimpanzees, they’re no smaller than the smallest sub-species of chimp, about 45 kgs for males, and 33kgs for females. De Waal, perhaps with some bias, describes them as more ‘stylish’ or gracile in their movements than chimps [they do in fact have proportionally longer legs than other apes], and they have flatter faces, higher foreheads, and a distinctive hair-style, parted in the middle. Their diet is similar to that of chimps, but with less meat. They’re described as very sensitive, with very expressive eyes. They’re also less aggressive, and this relates, inter alia, to their social structure.

And their social structure brings me, not before time, to sex.

Okay, I exaggerated when I say they fuck all the time, but the truth is even more interesting. They use sex – and I don’t mean fucking as in full penetrative hetero-sex – as a way of bonding and curbing aggression. And because the closest bonding occurs between females, female-female sexual activity, especially in the form of ‘genito-genital rubbing’, is the most common type.

Here’s the social set-up. As with chimps, young bonobo females move away from ‘home’ to another mating group, whereas the males stay forever within the home group. But unlike their cousins, the adolescent females gradually develop close bonds, facilitated by sexual activity, with senior females of their new group. This allows them to band together to keep any larger, would-be aggressive males in check. In fact, it has essentially allowed them to become the dominant sex, spite of sexual dimorphism. Sisterhood is powerful. One reason for this sort of alliance, which male bonobos don’t seem to engage in, may be to prevent infanticide, a common practice among other species, including chimps.

It’s not just a matter of ganging up though. They also use sex to soothe the savage beast [male or female] – and for many other reasons. In fact, I’ve just found a fabulous blog, written by an Oz researcher in the Congo, who’s discovering almost more than she can handle about bonobo [and young chimp] sexual behaviour as we speak. It’s so full of useful and up to date info as to more or less render this post redundant. So I’m going to quit this post and start reading her blog – and so should you, dear reader.

I’ll just finish though by returning to my first line. It would be nice to think we’re becoming more like bonobos, make love not war and all, but my sense of the possibility comes from the increasing power of women in western society. Young women are more sexually confident, and even sexually exploitative than they’ve ever been before, and they’re also engaging in female-female sex play like never before. They’ve taken to hunting in packs, which have provided them with the security to go further than they would normally go. So-called ‘raunch culture’, female-driven, has provided women with a new sexual empowerment, and I’m not sure that I agree with feminist critics who claim that it’s just another form of enslavement [surely raunch culture is emphatically not about stripping for your man]. Sexual empowerment is only one form of empowerment certainly, but it’s far from an insignificant one, for sexuality is always going to be central, and if you can gain control of the sexual agenda, it’s likely everything else can fall to your hands as well. Could this be the real sexual revolution? All I can do is echo an earlier enthusiast. Vive le bonobo! I’d like to be one.

Labels: , ,

Friday, December 21, 2007

our ancestors

the earliest discovered human portait

Okay, it's time to get cracking on homo sapiens, our nearest and dearest, and our ancestors, as I recently promised myself.

First, we're primates. There are over 230 living primate species divided among 13 families. Most primates are arboreal, but a few species such as our own are described as terrestrial. I'm going to be using all sorts of nomenclature here to try to make connections between families, suborders and the like [for example, I’ve only just heard of cladistics], and much of this stuff is contested, so I should say at the outset that this is all provisional. Humans belong to the family Hominidae in the suborder Haplorrhini. At one time, humans were described as the only hominids, but more recent genetic and molecular research has placed chimps, gorillas and orang-utangs in the same family [though there's still some dispute re the latter. As to the rare and endangered bonobo [Pan paniscus], my favourite, it's our closest living relative along with the chimpanzee [Pan troglodytes], sharing some 98.4% of our DNA [though that figure, long quoted, belies the complexity of the differences between our genetic material and that of the Pan species, as revealed through the chimpanzee genome project]. The common chimpanzee and the bonobo, also known as the pygmy chimpanzee, are the only two species of the genus Pan, though there are a number of subspecies of chimps. I'm very much tempted to dwell on the bonobo, but I'll save it for another post. Anyway, in spite of differences, some authorities claim that bonobos, chimps and humans should all be classified within the genus Homo. Others suggest that humans should be reclassified as Pan sapiens, but none of this seems likely to happen in the foreseeable.

To quote from Wikipedia [which I’m pretty confident is reliable in this instance]:

Recent DNA evidence suggests the Bonobo and Common Chimpanzee species effectively separated from each other less than one million years ago. The chimpanzee line split from the last common ancestor with the Human approximately four to six million years ago. Because no species other than Homo sapiens has survived from the human line of that branching, both Pan species are the closest living relatives of humans, and cladistically exactly equally close to humans.

Now to the Homo genus. This is complicated. The Homo genus belongs to the sub-tribe Hominina, and is the only extant genus in that subtribe, one of two subtribes under the tribe Hominini. The other subtribe is Panina, which includes the chimps, but this classification is recent and not entirely accepted. In any case, other members of the Homo genus, such as Homo habilis, Homo ergaster [and/or Homo erectus] and Homo neanderthalensis, are all extinct. Interestingly, no remains have yet been identified of any extinct species of the closely related Pan genus.

It’s obviously difficult to tease out the relations between species and subgroups here, and to date them and determine patterns of movement and development. The fossil record, as everyone knows, is scant and heavily contested, as the ongoing debate about ‘Homo floresiensis’ has shown. The current orthodoxy, in any case, seems to be that Homo habilis is the earliest known member of our genus, and that the species flourished in Africa some two million years ago. Homo habilis seems to have been contemporaneous with the Australopithicines [such as A robusta and A boisei], an extinct genus, possibly the first bi-pedal genus, but not directly related to ourselves, though part of the Hominid family.

Homo erectus seems to have first emerged about 2 million years ago [thus making it contemporaneous with H habilis], and survived till about 400,000 years ago. Its brain size was some 55% larger than H Habilis, and it's believed to have been the first human species to have migrated out of Africa into colder regions. Sexual dimorphism [the size difference between the sexes within a species] became less pronounced over time, and some pundits have argued that these changes represent significant social and behavioural changes. All conjectural, however. The date of the migration out of Africa is also a subject of much dispute. Homo erectus was also contemporaneous with the later 'robust' Australopithicines.

The transition from H erectus to Homo sapiens is as highly contested as all the other transitions. Individual fossils have proved difficult to classify between late H erectus, H sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis. Neanderthals cloud the picture even further, and some classify them as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis [which explains why we are sometimes classified as Homo sapiens sapiens].

The so-called Cro-Magnon man, discovered in France and dating to 28,000 years ago, was an early representative of Homo sapiens sapiens outside of Africa. The earliest known example of H sapiens sapiens is 130,000 years old, and was found in East Africa.

The sites of discovery of H s sapiens show an increasingly accelerated development in tool-making and cultural artefacts. The Lascaux caves date from 15000 to 17000 years ago, and provide evidence of complex ritual and hunting practices, as well as artistic skills. The image accompanying this post is 26,000 years old, and is the oldest 'naturalistic' human portrait yet discovered. More stylised depictions date back to at least 32,000 years ago.

It's an almost impossibly complex story. and one worth updating continually in the light of new research, new dating techniques and new hypotheses. At least I have slightly more of a handle on it than I did before starting this post, which is all I could've hoped for.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Taylor's critique of secularism

Charles Taylor, winner of this year's Templeton Prize

I read here yesterday that Charles Taylor is a Roman Catholic.
I read some of Taylor's essays at uni. He wrote critiques of social theory, and I was particularly taken with his analysis of Foucault. His style had all the best of Anglo-American clarity, infused with a sort of gentleness and patience which was very becalming. I wasn't myself inclined to be so generous with Foucault. I read other essays of his, and was generally impressed. I know that he's something of a Hegel scholar, which in itself would require almost supernatural patience, as well as a certain kind of mind, one far removed from my own.
So, on hearing that he's RC, I'm frankly gobsmacked. I've always been tempted to claim that the term Roman Catholic thinker is oxymoronic, pace the Jesuits and their ilk. I would amend that, though, to RC thinkers about religion. Taylor didn't mention religion in the essays I read, but now he has written a lengthy book called A Secular Age, in which he apparently writes approvingly of the religious mindset while stringently avoiding the issue of God as broached by Dawkins and others. This is hardly surprising, given that as a catholic he must not only believe in a god but in that God, the mass murderer and moral monstrosity later reshaped by Aquinas et al as the sum of all perfections, etc. Presumably he also believes in the trinity, the virgin birth, the resurrection and transubstantiation. He may also believe in the infallibility of the pope. Then again, he might be an unorthodox catholic with dissenting views on any or all of these doctrines. I suspect that A Secular Age, in spite of its 874 pages, will answer none of these questions.

The NYT review of the book says this:

[Taylor] argues for “the ‘deconstruction’ of the death of God view” proclaimed by Nietzsche. To see secularization as simply the separation of church and state, the alienation of truth from power, and the rise of skepticism and worldliness, he writes, is to miss the deeper and more enduring residues of religion and the spiritual life, the true “bulwarks of belief” that in his view have hardly eroded. Taylor argues against the “subtraction stories” of modernity, in which religious belief and other “confining horizons” are “sloughed off,” leaving the mind without faith or piety. Instead, he argues, “Western modernity, including its secularity, is the fruit of new inventions, newly constructed self-understandings and related practices, and can’t be explained in terms of perennial features of human life.” Even the old distinction between the sacred and the profane has taken on new meaning. Instead of disappearing, God is now “sanctifying us everywhere,” including “in ordinary life, our work, in marriage, and so on.”

Now, what does all this actually mean? It's not quite as murky as theology, but it's getting there.
Firstly, the Nietzschean proclamation of the death of God is problematic. He presumably meant the death of God as concept, but his rhetoric lays itself open to a type of concrete thinking - and of course Nietzsche played on this. Not only does it paradoxically invoke the death of an immortal, but it plays into the concepts of death and immortality that are part and parcel of all religions - ancestor spirits, transfiguration, reincarnation etc. The 'deconstruction' of the idea makes me shudder, so I think I'll just ignore it.

The key sentence in the above para is, to me, the second one. To see secularization as simply the separation of church and state, the alienation of truth from power, and the rise of skepticism and worldliness, he writes, is to miss the deeper and more enduring residues of religion and the spiritual life, the true “bulwarks of belief” that in his view have hardly eroded.

It's possibly true that 'the bulwarks of belief' haven't faded that much, though those places where they have been most eclipsed have been those most affected by Enlightenment thought. The separation of church and state in those countries, and its spread around the globe, is a very positive phenomenon, as is the 'alienation of truth from power', most particularly the waning power of the Catholic church. Skepticism, too, is a healthy thing [I would say that, but note: nothing in excess], and worldliness has always been a pretty useful survival strategy. Just what the deeper residues of religion are, exactly, is unknown to me, as I'm one of the growing number of people in the West who has no need for religion or spirituality as commonly defined [or, more often, not defined]. That a great many people do profess some kind of 'faith' or adherence to a spiritual life is an interesting and important phenomenon, and one which requires investigation. A number of people are investigating the phenomenon, though these investigations are still in their infancy and a great deal more work needs to be done.

From the point of view of science, religious belief is indeed a confining horizon. Early scientists had to do battle with the confining belief that the Earth must be the centre of the universe, then there was the confining belief that humans were 'special', made in God's image, with 'dominion over the Earth'. Even liberal believers are still contending that the universe must be purposeful, and that the ultimate purpose must be the complexity of consciousness [as exhibited, of course, in homo sapiens]. It seems that this is what faith and piety is reduced to among some liberal theologians, a self-serving view about humanity's centrality in the scheme of things, for which we must thank our supernatural 'father'.

Taylor seems to have been rather more evasive about these terms, which is hardly more satisfactory. In any case, I would challenge his assertion that Western modernity [a too-vague term] is about new constructions of self-understanding, unrelated to 'perennial features of human life'. What are these perennial features? Presumably he's again referring to religious belief and its related rituals. We cannot as yet know how perennial these are [or indeed how perennial are any features in the constant flow of evolving human life and behaviour], but by constructions of self-understanding I suspect he means modern science, an impressive construction indeed. Science has been so phenomenally successful in such a short time-span, that to see it as atypical of or somehow contrary to the abiding concerns of humanity is perhaps forgivable, especially as it has so revolutionised our understanding of ourselves as a species in a mere 150 years. The question is, are these understandings mere ephemeral constructions? I doubt it, and I think the methods by which we arrived at those understandings will bring us many more surprises and revolutions in the years to come.

That'll do for now. I might look further into this review later. I think Taylor will have many interesting things to say in his book, but evading the particularities of religious belief looks like a bit of a problem for him.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Courtier's Reply, and some old ground

Dawkins and Myers

A while ago, Terry Eagleton was on Late Night Live. I missed it, and am reluctant to listen via audio on demand, as his thinking simply annoys me and I doubt he has much to add to his LRB attack on Dawkins, which I responded to here, especially regarding his claims about the need for a critic to have theological knowledge, and here, regarding his claims against science. I think I dealt with the theological issue quite effectively, but rather long-windedly, and I've since discovered, via P Z Myers, a more summary and clever response, which captures perfectly my dismay over theological speculation.

Myers has called it the Courtier's Reply, and it has caught on wonderfully. It comes from the famous fable, The Emperor's New Clothes, and consists of cutting through all the learned disquisitions on the Emperor's embroidered pantaloons and silken hat and the fashions they relate to, to point out that there actually are no clothes to speak of. Theology, learned and ingenious though it often is, has this massive assumption at its heart, an assumption that something clearly exists that those outside of it just don't see. No amount of theological study will ever convince me, or Dawkins or Dennett or Myers or Rosenhouse, etc, that these supernatural entities at the heart of theology actually exist. Theology takes these entities for granted, so it's hard to see, from our perspective, that theology has anything interesting to say to us.

As to Eagleton’s attack on science and the concept of progress, which he blends with a very personal attack on Dawkins as a ‘bourgeois’, I wish I’d read Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday before responding. In it he quotes the Nobel Prize winning immunologist Peter Medawar ‘To deride the hope of progress is the ultimate fatuity, the last word in poverty of spirit and meanness of mind.’ Eagleton constantly confuses scientific discovery and technological development with the uses to which it has been put. Thus he argues that science might well annihilate us all. I think if the human species is self-annihilated it will likely be out of arrogance, carelessness, bigotry or ideological blindness, all of them human traits since the emergence of homo sapiens. Science and technology loom much larger than they ever did before, and they will continue to loom ever larger in the future, their creative and destructive capacities always barely within our grasp and control. Exciting isn’t it?

I’m a bit behind the times, but The God Delusion has of course generated more substantial criticisms than those of Eagleton, including this one by H Allen Orr, well critiqued by Rosenhouse here. Many of the comments are worth noting too. There’s a rather frustrating exchange between Dennett and Orr here.

Friday, December 14, 2007

wandering in the wilderness

the mighty, multifaceted Torrens

I'm onto the religion thing again, and it's not so much that I'm obsessed but that I'm almost wanting to find something to obsess over, or at least to find a subject to dedicate myself to, to anchor my flighty craft.

So, perversely, I'll avoid referring to it awhile. The other day I took Courtney out, down to the river, to give Sarah a break. Courtney was in love with the idea. Pic-a-nic basket, blanket, cut lunch, fruit and cordial. It was sharply hot. 'Remember when we went to the river and me and Isabelle climbed the rocks in the water and it was really dangerous, let's go there again...'
I remembered it, mainly as she'd often reminded me and I'd wondered at how such a seemingly paltry occasion - we'd stopped for only a few moments where the river was the shallowest, narrowest thing and Courtney [who's five] had been trying to match her twelve-year-old cousin's boldness, wobbling on a few lapped rocks and maybe getting her feet wet - could have so happily stuck in her mind as the consumate Wild Experience.

I would never be able to find that fortuitous spot again, but maybe I might find something equally memory-inducing. I drove into Bonython Park, just down from our house, and instantly found a perfect pic-a-nic spot, with soft greenery sloping down to the riverbank, and reeds and willows and magpies and bobbing moorhens.

We played for a while at simply imbibing the Great Outdoors whilst speedily polishing off the cheeses, fruits, sannies and juices - at Courtney's insistence, everything was eaten within five minutes of our arrival, apart from some bread for the ducks. We wandered down to the bank, Courtney hunting for fishing sticks. I saw a solitary duck heading our way, and Courtney threw a few morsels at it. In fact she’d ripped up and tossed in all the bread within seconds of its arrival. Within a few minutes there were more than a dozen of the creatures, but no bread for them. They clacked and squabbled and flapped each other off the premises, and I was reminded of something I’d read, or heard, recently, that the Rwandan genocide was more about a pecking-order battle over scarce resources than anything else. I didn’t know about that, but I did know that if I left my two cats without food for more than a day they’d be growling and hissing and trying to scratch each others’ eyes out…

There was a bridge nearby, and by it a kind of weir with rocks piled behind it and a pool. I felt that something more memorable was required than feeding or not feeding a few ducks, so I enticed Courtney over there, with some difficulty at first – she was more interested in trying to make a fishing rod out of a willow branch. Once there, though, she was captivated. In vain did I try to interest her in a beautiful ibis at the far end of the pool, fishing itself with statued intentness and brief bold plunges. Even the mother duck with its tiny babies in arrow formation on the weir’s edge only elicited an unconvincing ‘aw, cute’.

No, she was absorbed in something else as she stepped onto those more or less flat, safe rocks largely submerged in the shallow water, zig-zagging to the bank opposite. 'Look at me, I'm fast, I'm brave, bet you can't get across this fast [of course I pretended to struggle], I'm a good jumper, aren't I?' Backwards and forwards she went, finding different routes, trying more slippery and submerged rocks, but nothing so dangerous as to really perturb me. I recalled mark twain, the mark of two fathoms, marking the border between safe and dangerous water, the boundary we all like to ride, so much more exhilarating than feeding a few ducks.

She quickly exhausted the limited repertoire, though, and would've been contented in endless repetition, but I finally lured her up some steps on the further bank, to the great unknown where I was hoping to find a toilet block. 'Are you busting, or are you screaming? Screaming's when it's running down your leg and you can't stop it,' she explained. 'I'm busting too, but I'm not screaming.'

Over the embankment was a running track with exercise stops and a green toilet block, all chained up. Further along the track there were signs pointing to toilets, but I couldn't make sense of them. We went back down along the river, and I spotted another bridge further along. Before reaching it though we came across a wooded island which cast a giant shadow, chilling us a little. 'Look there', I said. In a pool of light, halfway to the island, a large fish, a dark but distinct shape, lazily wagged its tail just below the surface. ‘Let’s get closer’, she whispered, and stepped onto the muddy little beach easing into the water. ‘Whoah,’ she shouted as her feet sank into the ooze. ‘Look out, it’s quicksand, you’ll be nothing but bubbles in a few seconds. Hey, but look at this, just what you’re looking for.’ It was a fishing rod, yellow in colour, faded and muddied yet still with its reel and line. Courtney didn’t want it though – too yucky, she said, too strange and scarily abandoned, I thought. But she did want to do some exploring, coaxing me over to a marshy region closer to the island. ‘Your shoes are getting very muddy, and there are crocodiles, and we have to find a toilet soon, remember?’

So we moved on, crossing the bridge back to the other bank, where she decided that she was very tired suddenly and needed to hitch a ride on my shoulders. ‘See if you can see the car from up there.’ ‘Oh no, we’re so lost, we’ll never find it.’ I helped her to a spot of gingery tree-climbing along the way, and she at last sighted our vehicle. Only a few minutes’ drive home.

Labels: ,

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Mark Twain v God

worn out by mr perfect

I find myself coming back all too often to religion and my annoyance with it. Having just watched Ken Burns' documentary on Mark Twain, a writer whose earthiness and wry humour I've long admired, I was put in mind again of Twain's anti-religious writings, which I've always been meaning to peruse.

This article provides a useful, if rather disquieting, introduction to Twain's battle with the Judaeo-Christian bigwig. It appears that Twain learned a lesson from the fate of Thomas Paine, whose last major work, the anti-Christian The Age of Reason essentially destroyed his career - in much the same way as the philosopher Descartes learned his lesson from the fate of Galileo. Twain chose not to publish his own anti-Christian writings, which occupied so much of the last phase of his life. They include Letters from the Earth and The Mysterious Stranger [unfinished, and the link is to one of three distinct versions].

To judge from some of the rhetoric of Letters from the Earth, which dwells often on the diseases and disasters the bigwig has inflicted on humanity down the ages, Twain's quarrel with the creator seems to have been largely a result of the illnesses and failures of his declining years. His wife slipped gradually into invalidism and died six years before Twain's own death [in 1910]. His beloved daughter Susie died of meningitis in 1896, and another daughter, Jean, died a year before he did. He'd sunk [without trace] a lot of money into various ill-considered schemes, and was consequently forced into a punishing world-wide lecture tour, including Australia, to recoup his losses.

Such experiences helped produce the embittered tone of his later works, yet I also like to believe his genuine outrage is as much a product of close reading and reflection on the bigwig's shenanigans as presented in the holy book. For example, having rehearsed in my head from time to time my own diatribe on the Perfect One's unconscionable behaviour re the Flood, and the mounting despair and slow, spluttering extinguishment of countless little children at his loving command, I was intrigued to read the following passage - after Twain's comments on the bigwig's murderous antics re the Midianites:
They had offended the Deity in some way. We know what the offense was, without looking; that is to say, we know it was a trifle; some small thing that no one but a god would attach any importance to. It is more than likely that a Midianite had been duplicating the conduct of one Onan, who was commanded to "go into his brother's wife" -- which he did; but instead of finishing, "he spilled it on the ground." The Lord slew Onan for that, for the lord could never abide indelicacy. The Lord slew Onan, and to this day the Christian world cannot understand why he stopped with Onan, instead of slaying all the inhabitants for three hundred miles around -- they being innocent of offense, and therefore the very ones he would usually slay. For that had always been his idea of fair dealing. If he had had a motto, it would have read, "Let no innocent person escape." You remember what he did in the time of the flood. There were multitudes and multitudes of tiny little children, and he knew they had never done him any harm; but their relations had, and that was enough for him: he saw the waters rise toward their screaming lips, he saw the wild terror in their eyes, he saw that agony of appeal in the mothers' faces which would have touched any heart but his, but he was after the guiltless particularly, than he drowned those poor little chaps.
Nowadays we're almost bored with the argument [though I use it all the time] that the jealous vindictive god of the OT is the last figure we should set up as a moral exemplar or an object of veneration, and Twain's observations along these lines wouldn't have been original even then, but they're more courageous in the context of his time than they might seem now. They also fit with his outrage and outspokenness at cruelty and brutality in the real world. His lecture tour through Australia New Zealand and South Africa, as well as his Southern upbringing, alerted him to the plight of indigenous peoples under colonisation, and he later wrote fiercely against US imperialism in the Philippines and elsewhere, earning the lasting enmity of Theodore Roosevelt.

Still, much of his railing against God was personal. In Letters from the Earth he dwells much on God's fondness for diseases, as well as the disease-carrying housefly [God's personal favourite]. Typhoid fever was a major killer in his time. His daughter Susie died of spinal meningitis, his wife succombed to illness, and his daughter Jean drowned in the bath during an epileptic seizure. He had a habit of blaming himself for these catastrophes, but what a relief it must have been to rail against the almighty for his toying with humans thus - for being crueller and more callous than we could ever accuse ourselves of being.

Labels: ,

Friday, December 07, 2007

some sadness, some hope

the secret cave

One of the saddest things, to me, about the recent election was the decimation of the Democrats. It doesn't look, at this stage, as if they're going to recover from this. Much of my feeling is personal - I've been a reasonably regular reader of Andrew Bartlett's blog, and particularly relied on and admired his take on immigration and refugee issues, as well as welfare-to-work and other meannesses of the former regime, and I went to uni with Natasha and always liked her, even though I felt a little sceptical later about her self-transformation into a media-savvy, possibly style-over-substance operator. Hoping she's happily out of it now.

A day or two after the election, I was out in the park adjoining our community housing block with Courtney. She’d met another five-year-old there, so I was released from playing pirates with her. They’d run off together behind the bushes along the fence-line separating our block from the park, but Courtney soon came rushing back to get me to check out their discovery. Courtney called it a secret cave. A lot of clothes had been laid out over a bed-sized piece of ground surrounded by shrubbery.

As it happened, when I came inside I turned on the TV, and Kevin Rudd was talking about having instructed his members to go out and visit a homeless shelter in their area, paying particular attention to turn-away rates, said to be as high as 90% in some areas.

Also as it happened, I'd had lunch the day before with a social worker friend whose principal job is to try to secure housing for the marginalised. He launched into a scathing attack on the neglect of public housing by the Howard government over the last decade. According to this pre-election media release from Tanya Plibersek, the Howard government has ripped $3 billion out of the last three Commonwealth-State Housing Agreements, while state governments have made substantial efforts to maintain or increase housing stock. The media release is important too, for spelling out, however vaguely, what an incoming Labor government would do about the situation:

With housing affordability at record lows it is more important than ever to maintain a strong housing safety net for the most disadvantaged Australians.

With vacancy rates plummeting and rents projected to increase on average by 28 per cent across the country by the end of the decade, more Australians are at risk of becoming homeless.

Only Labor has put forward serious solutions to address the housing affordability crisis.

Labor has committed to investing $600 million in a National Rental Affordability Scheme to stimulate the construction of up to 50,000 new affordable rental properties across Australia, for rent to low-income households at 20 per cent below market rates.

A Rudd Labor government will also protect existing public housing funding levels when it replaces the CSHA with a National Affordable Housing Agreement in July 2008 and work with the states and territories to boost the supply of public, community and crisis housing.

Tanya Plibersek is presented here as the new minister for housing in the outer cabinet, while Jenny Macklin is presented as the minister for housing in the inner cabinet, so I don't know how that works. Anyway, the above promises give us something to work with, and something to keep the pollies to over the next year or two, though I doubt it will be enough, especially at the crisis end of things. A real positive thing, though, is the sense of commitment after so many years of indifference and neglect.


Thursday, December 06, 2007

weighty fantasies

Beijing Man, I believe

The dreaded lurgie has struck me again - something absorbed from the environment has set off my compromised immune system and again I'm sniffling and coughing and going through two or three hankies a day and it won't go away until I visit the doc and get antibiotics to clear things before it turns to pleurisy or pneumonia. Apart from that I feel generally hale, but the constant sniffling and throat-clearing affects my stamina a bit, as well as my sociability.

Just wondering about the word lurgie. Its etymology seems pretty uncertain but the phrase the dreaded lurgie was popularised by an episode of the Goon Show. Well done lads.

I'm still not free of commitments, but I'm catching sight of the light, and I have a few challenges ahead, re making a living. I'm also trying to get fitter - I bought some quite snappy trousers today, not uncomfortably tight, just enough to draw attention to the wrong kind of bulge above the waistline. Could've gone for wider, but I needed to bring my target into better focus. I'd say I'm about 7 or 8 kilos above perfect trim. My diet's fine, it's mostly the exercise that's the problem [bad word - I've been told not to think of it as exercise, just activity]. Trouble is, guys always put their weight on around the tum, and find it well-nigh impossible to remove it from same.

Avoiding the internet a little lately too, getting my stimulation from more traditional sources. Everything stimulates, and an article in Cosmos about important and puzzling archaeological finds in Dmanisi, Georgia, as well as more reading about the ongoing Homo floresiensis controversy have made me want to summarise, for my own benefit, the current thinking, insofar as it can be summarised, on hominid ancestry. This has led to further fantasies, of giving talks on various mainly philosophical issues, before a select audience...

1. Human self-knowledge and self-deception: a scientific approach.
We've known for millenia that we can't be trusted to be judge in our own case, and experimental evidence suggests that even people who have known us for no more than five minutes are better predictors of our behaviour than we are. At the same time, immediate, internal access tells us that in some essential way we know our minds better than anyone else possibly can. How can these two findings be reconciled?

2. Human origins: the current state of knowledge
Does anyone remember Java Man? Peking Man? How about Cro-Magnon Man? Why were they all men? What place do those old guys have in the current picture of human and pre-human ancestry? What exactly is a hominid? How does Australopithecus relate to Homo erectus? Is John Howard really the last Neanderthal?

3. Morality: a triumph of reason over impulse, or a rationalisation of survival instincts?
David Hume notoriously wrote that reason is the slave of the emotions, but until recently this view has found few champions among philosophers. Professional prejudice? What role does reason really play in our sense of right and wrong? And what exactly is reason anyway? Important new work in cognitive anthropology and evolutionary psychology throws some fascinating light on these questions.

4. Philosophy and science: friends, enemies or strangers?
What's the difference between a philosophical question and a scientific question? Does the philosophy of science have any relevance to scientific practice? What exactly is a scientific theory, and what makes the term so controversial? Is it true that science can only answer how questions and not why questions? How so - or why so?

Evolution and religion: what's at stake?
Various thinkers, religious and non-religious, have been at pains to argue that the theory of evolution and religious belief are entirely compatible. Others have been at pains to point out precisely the opposite. Certainly the vehemence of religious, and particularly Christian, attacks on evolution suggests a certain discontent amongst those lucky enough to be made in God's image. Surely the Primate can't really be a primate?

And so forth. Don't hold your breath.

Labels: , , ,

pavlov's cat