Friday, March 30, 2007

On science and rabbitness

I am rereading The myth of Sisyphus, Camus’ meditation on suicide (this time in English: I fear my French is not up to it these days), and I will be writing a few posts on things that occur to me while reading it. This won’t constitute a review or a response even to Camus. I do not know enough philosophy to pretend to be able to do either. It will simply be a few wanderings of my own. I am beginning here, with the following quote, which struck me as getting to the heart of the aridness of science. Whether science’s being arid is something to concern us is a question that arises if we take the view that it is the only way to look at the world. The recent birthday of Richard Dawkins gave me cause to reflect on that: he certainly does take that view, and I wonder whether he is satisfied to be in that way limited, or whether he truly feels that the understanding of the world that science brings and the world itself are close to the same (I feel sure that he would not say they were the same, because, like me and every other person who was ever taught physics, he would have been told in lesson one that physics – and by extension science – is a model, an approximation, as Wittgenstein so brilliantly noted, a mesh that we view the world through). I have read some Dawkins but not enough to be sure that he concludes that science maps the world completely and that there is nothing it cannot describe. He is the hardest-core rationalist I know though, so I assume that he does. Yet you cannot help wonder whether he has a little tweaking of the soul (yes, I know, he does not have one but he is not so darkhearted as to deny us a metaphor, so long as we are not naughty enough to mistake it for a real entity).

To Camus:

I realise that if through science I can seize phenomena and enumerate them, I cannot, for all that, apprehend the world.

Camus is an interesting thinker, in particular because he will wander, stroll almost through a field of thoughts (one would not say “follow a train of thought” because although he is following a clear enough line from A to B, he likes to cover every fraction between them; after all, he is a Frenchman, and thinks in that continental way, the honest method that they have that does not boil the world down into fighting over words, like the analytical Anglo-Americans, but crams everything into their thesis: messy, seething with contradiction and difficulty, but comprehensive), and then bang! He drops a piercing insight, an atom bomb of thought, which pries open your mind and allows you to glimpse an idea that is startlingly clear. Here is one, expressed beautifully: science can describe but does not explain.

This insight strikes a chord in anyone who has been tempted to ask why or what does it mean about something science says. Science can answer that these are meaningless questions – and its terms they are. But they are not meaningless to us. I can understand that an atom is a nucleus composed of neutrons and protons, in turn composed of quarks, surrounded by electrons, the nucleus bound by the strong force, the electrons by the electroweak force, but I do not understand atoms. I do not comprehend them at all. I don’t know what they are, how or why, and neither does anyone. All we have achieved, in investigating the world, is to reduce it ever further, so that we understand how it is made in greater detail. But who, on learning the pyramid of parts that build the world: compounds of elements of atoms of particles of quarks of strings of whatever strings are has felt that that explained it all. As humans, we do not feel that describing is explaining. We take situations and happenings from our lives, and we can describe them to the smallest detail, but we still ask: why? Even if there is no why, we feel that there is something ineffable lingering in the spaces between the things we describe.

Camus is clearer than I think I can be in explaining why there is something ineffable in those spaces. But I’ll try. Things are. They are what they are, but we cannot come to terms with what they are. I think of it like this: think about a rabbit. Think what you know about rabbits. They are rodents of this species in this genus in this family. They eat this and this; they live like this and this. By doing this, I describe a rabbit. But describing it does not allow me to know what it is. It is impossible (I urge the reader to look at Camus’ reasoning on why we cannot know; but my understanding of him – and I share his view, if I have him right – is that we cannot know because we cannot represent to ourselves what a rabbit is). We feel sure that there is more to a rabbit than that: some sort of rabbitness. Science cannot talk about rabbitness. It cannot speak to what it is to be a rabbit. I think this is the key to existentialism. You cannot know rabbitness. You can only know – or experience, I should say – how a rabbit intersects with the world.

If you know Camus, you know where that is going. In the same way, you cannot know yourself. You can only know how you intersect with the world. As an aside, I feel that Camus is suggesting that the Absurd is the realisation that we cannot make rabbitness have a place in the world: that the world utterly refutes there being rabbitness. We can then only exist by moving on from there to thinking about how a rabbit’s intersecting with the world can transcend the Absurd. (Not a sentence I think you write twice in a lifetime! But the point is clearer, I think, than I’ve made it: it boils down to saying that you cannot make what you are make sense – it doesn’t have any meaning – but you can make how you are make sense. This is what the book is about, so far as I remember: the notion that you are Sisyphus at the bottom of the hill does not have meaning – you just are – but that is not the end of the story but the beginning; now you must decide whether how you push your stone has meaning.

But Camus is also clear that rabbitness is not a thing that is; it is not something in the spaces between what we describe; it is something in the spaces between how we describe it. How we describe things is entirely interior to us. The stone that you have to push is not a thing that is, merely something that exists.

Here is the central dichotomy of existentialism: on the one hand, what is, that we cannot comprehend; on the other, what exists, which we control entirely, but cannot impose on what is. The translator’s choice of “apprehend” is inspired. Understood as “taking hold of and taking into oneself”, it is exactly right that one cannot apprehend the world.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Unca D

Let me tell you about my sister S. She is a wonderful person (both my sisters are wonderful women but I will write about J another time). She is kind, honest and straightforward. She is personable without being gushing and nice without being ingratiating. She is an upstanding person, proud of herself but not arrogant. I am proud of her too. She has made a fine career as a teacher, a vocation she has had since she was 13 or 14. She has worked for years in a deprived area of London, in a school at the bottom of its league table, and has dragged the girls at her school a grade higher than they were really capable of. She inspires success in her classes.

We have always been friends. We've had our moments (I am a moment-having kind of person) but we have a deep well of love to see us through rough patches. An abiding, enduring love, which will be a source of comfort to me throughout my life, not a shallow love that needs to be paid for over and over, and is lost when you do not have coin to pay.

I have met few better people than my sisters. I say that honestly, not just because they are related to me. I say it because they are people you would want in your corner. S is not always selfless or reliable, but she is loyal and decent. She would not sell you out, lie to you, steal from you or hurt you if she knew how to avoid it.

She will be a fantastic mother. That is why I am writing about her. My beautiful sister is going to have a child. My heart is overflowing and I don't know what else to say about it. I can think about there being a little reflection of me (the first niece or nephew who shares my blood), about how much I want to be able to share the child with S (and how it hurts that I will have to live here and only know him or her through photos and telephone calls), about the million dramas, tragedies and stories that a new life contains, but another time. Right now I am just all tears of joy.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Give up

When I was a kid, I loved Madness. I bought all their singles as soon as they came out. I’ve always been like that, a loyal consumer of the bands I love. I will buy the new record by my favourites regardless (until they finally make a record so egregious I can’t bear any more). I have all of New Order’s albums, for instance. They are my greatest love in music. Other bands move me more, but I’ve loved New Order for a very long time now, more than 25 years. (How that ages me! Ah well. Today I received a Blancmange collection in the post and I’ve been reminding myself what a great, inventive, even deep band they were.)

On the train to school, I’d play cards with a group of older boys. Not poker in those days; it was mostly euchre. They put up with me because I knew M, one of the players, from the scouts, because I was good enough to keep up with them and they were keen enough to want competition, not easy wins, and because I could be funny and charming. One of the boys, A, was in my tutor group. Some bright geezer had come up with the idea of having kids from different school years form together first thing in the morning. I have no idea why. At secondary school, this meant that kids from first to fifth grades (years six to ten in today’s money) would pointlessly gather for a form period. At sixth form, it meant that both years would mix. Which was okay. I suppose it helped us grow up to have older boys and girls around.

One day, A and I were walking up the hill to school (the train station in Penzance is by the seafront, and my school was at the top of the slope that Penzance straggles down). I should say a word about Penzance because it is one of the places closest to my heart. It feels like home. I have never known anyone visit it and not feel that it is a bit special. It’s not as picturesque as St Ives but it has more character. It feels a million miles from the England of London and Manchester. Shopkeepers – people in general – are warm to you, friendly, despite the inherent distrust of furreners. (I am laughing as I write that because I recall the conflict at school between the natural-born Corns and the outsiders. I had a Cornish accent and passed as a Corn – I had lived there since I was two after all, bar six months. It’s hard to describe: there was never fighting exactly, nor bullying – the boys would pick on the weak or odd just like they do anywhere. But there was the feeling of superiority, belonging. It is powerful. I lack it and feel the lack. Sometimes I just want to go home to Cornwall so that I can slip into the accent (bung it on, I mean; I lost it when I went to uni) and have people feel I am one of them.)

And A is saying to me that I don’t really like music, because I like that pop crap, and he’s into the Sabbath and Deep Purple (and to tell the truth, so was I, somewhat; I’ve always been quite catholic in my tastes, and then I was into heavy rock too). It’s musicianly, he is saying.

I am feeling downcast because I am not smart enough, not musically literate enough to answer him back. It seems true that the bands he likes are more complex than Madness. (Soon my eyes were opened fully! I was already into some indie, exposed to it by friends, particularly H, who were into John Peel and everything he played.)

I did not know then what I know now. Anyone can do rock. It’s the easiest of genres. The songs pretty much write themselves. Yes, you have to come up with a riff, but when you have, you simply bung it against a standard chord progression and Bob’s your ma’s bro. Those who like it will like it. You think I’m exaggerating? Think how many awful records U2 have made, or horrible duffers like Metallica. Formulaic, boring shit, prettied up by expert production.

Making great pop is much harder because you have to be loveable. You cannot be grungy, dirty or ugly. And being explicitly about fucking is more or less against the rules.

So I love great pop more than even the greatest rock. Someone who makes three minutes of something that moves me, makes me want to dance and – most of all – sing along without self-consciousness (which I’m sorry but none of your heavy rock bands are ever going to do), well, they are my idols.

The story of the Postal Service is well known among those who are into indie or whatever we call leftfield music these days. The guy out of Dntel, who aren’t very good, made some tunes and posted them to the guy out of Death Cab for Cutie, who aren’t very good either.

But the result is great pop. I don’t know how the fuck. I don’t know what makes it wonderful: perhaps the tenderness, the cleverly worked lyrics, the tunes, the fey fragility of it. I don’t know. I just know that music like this beats your turgid rock every day of the week.

And let me tell you, it is something like this that gives me hope for us. Because this is one of our smallest things, the least of our art, yet it is lovely. And if we can make lovely, we are maybe worth a little. It’s a silly, half-formed thought, but it would have warmed the heart of that Cornish boy walking up the hill to school, wondering how he could defend Madness, how he could explain that they made the world disappear for a moment and replaced it with something just that ounce more shiny.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

You are there

Whenever a band brings out an album in the post-rock genre, Godspeed! You Black Emperor are wheeled out to serve as the benchmark. Generally, a review will also say that the band in this song or that does what Mogwai should be doing if only they weren’t doing what they’re doing.

Post-rock is broader than GYBE and the ’Gwai, stretching from the still lifes of Labradford through the modern prog of Sigur Ros to the soaring rock of Explosions in the Sky, sometimes more arty, sometimes more rocky. Arguably, the genre includes electronica of the experimental kind, particularly that by M83, Boards of Canada and Mum.

Whatever it is, it is music that is not like the music you like. It aims high, into other worlds, other possibilities, stretching beyond rock into, well, whatever it is. It is musically highly literate (although almost always wordless – or in the case of Sigur Ros, wordy but without words). Rock never had much to say once it had said it wants to fuck you; pop can talk loudly, but only for the short space of a hook and a couple of clever rhymes; dance music is not trying to say anything at all mostly, and you need drugs if you want to be much moved by it. Post-rock – the good stuff anyway – can be deeply moving, dramatic, astonishing even.

Even by post-rock standards, Mono aim high. Their songs state boldly that they will be sweeping, enormous, and they often pull it off. They master the quiet–loud dynamic, with passages of aching, lyrical beauty that transition into some of the heaviest rockouts you’re going to hear. The transition is never contrived: Mono’s genius is to make the kickarse sections seem to grow organically from the slow movements. They do not just kick arse though. They keep a firm grip on the melodies, transforming the sweet tunes of their slow sections into the motifs of a soaring, hard rock. What astonishes with this album is that Yearning feels like it will be a high point and you are braced for anticlimax, yet there is better to come. Are you there? is destined to be a benchmark in itself, a beautiful clutch of sliding melody lines, skilfully evolving one into the other. And better still, Moonlight, the closer, showcases the wailing guitars that Mono are famous for in a crescendo that builds and builds and builds, the theme powering on to the end of the record.

If you like this type of music, and I do, you will recognise this for what it is: Mono’s Skinny fists… . It is work that others will have to try to match but few are going even to come close. Just as Skinny fists… defines GYBE, this will define Mono. The ideas, the power, the musicality of their earlier records reach a creative peak in this record. So we reach for our benchmark and we can say confidently that here is a band that can match GYBE, in scope, in depth, in conception even. And as for Mogwai, well, I love them but they are chewing gum against the red meat of this album. (The ’Gwai specialise in clever, interesting melodies and have not really gone for the wrenching rockout in some years. Like many of their fans, I tend to feel that they should call a halt to their voyage into math and kick some booty once more: I’m betting they have another Mogwai fear Satan lurking in there somewhere.) If you like your music ambitious, cinematic, just plain beautiful, this might just be for you. It’s definitely for me.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The limits of science

If Richard Dawkins has a fault (and who among us hasn't after all), it is not that he is often wrong, but that he is intolerably right. It strikes anyone who is capable of thinking and is not religious very quickly that believers are willing to take on faith a lot of stuff that is not even slightly credible, but we are mostly too polite to say so. Dawkins is a bit like the boy who couldn't stop himself yelling that the emperor was nude though, and yell he does. It enrages the believers, who proceed to say things that are so silly they make Dawkins look all the more rational and sane. The review of a recent book by Alister McGrath in the New Scientist (at this URL but thanks to the old-school model of the NS, you cannot actually read the review for free online; I have not read and will not be reading the book, or for that matter, the Dawkins book that was the stimulus for it) was in equal measure pompous and misguided. I'll be looking at just one paragraph, because this is representative of the Christian challenged to Dawkins.

The argument [in brief, that progress in science poses the question why the universe is explicable] also puts pressure on Dawkins, if not to believe in God, then at least to consider the possibility of the faith-based nature of his own convictions. As Dawkins acknowledges and physicists have shown, the existence of conscious, rational beings is a wildly improbable outcome. To insist that we are simply the products of the workings of, ultimately, physical laws is to avoid the question of the nature and origin of those laws. To say that there is no evidence for God is merely, therefore, an interpretation justified in one context but quite meaningless in another. Everywhere we look, there is evidence of something, but it is by no means clear that that something is, in fact, nothing. Rather, it seems something of a startling intelligibility.

On the face of it, this is a decent argument, but it is a sneaky version of Paley's watchmaker.

Let's look at what our doughty reviewer actually says:

The argument [in brief, that progress in science poses the question why the universe is explicable] also puts pressure on Dawkins, if not to believe in God, then at least to consider the possibility of the faith-based nature of his own convictions.

Bluntly, how can Dawkins look at a universe that is ordered and not believe that something ordered it? He must be relying on faith to be convinced that it isn't. This is a very common argumentative move from creationists, who suggest that Darwinian evolution is believed by scientists as an article of faith. However, scientists believe in Darwinian evolution for much the same reason they generally believe in anything they believe in: it fits the facts well. It's quite simple. We believe random, undirected processes can create order because we can observe them doing so. The processes we consider can create our universe without the need of an ordering intelligence. That's not to say there isn't one; rather, it says we do not need one. One is reminded of Laplace, on presenting his masterwork to Napoleon, and having Napoleon ask him, sir, I see no mention of God in your work, and Laplace's replying, sir, I have no need of that hypothesis. Dawkins is resolute in his scepticism. He will believe what there is evidence for, and there is none for God. God is an extra, an additional layer. Science does not care much for additional layers. Is Dawkins' conviction that there is no God faith based? Yes, I think you can say it is. Dawkins has faith in science and its methods. He believes that they can in time describe the world and everything in it entirely. If you were to say to Dawkins that there is more to the world than science can explain, he would ask you, well, what then? After you are done handwaving and talking about spirituality and that blather, he will point out that none of the stuff you believe is there can be measured or replicated. Now does that mean it doesn't exist or does it mean that it is just personal to you? Arguably, these are both the same thing. For a thing to exist, it must exist separately from you. If it does not, how can it be said to exist and not simply be something you have imagined? (I can imagine a god, no problem, but that does not make it exist, does it? In any case, if it does, this is too broad a meaning of "exist" for Dawkins' argument. He is not saying that God does not exist for you. He is saying that it does not exist in the sense that observables exist: being something that you can share, point to, replicate the experience of: in other words, existence in a scientific sense, a factual sense if you will.) In any case, these two faiths are quite different: on the one hand, a Christian has faith that this thing that exists for them has the other kind of existence -- that it really is a thing that can be shared, pointed to, measured; on the other, Dawkins' faith is that science will work, which is more like having faith that your car will start because you have known it to start in many conditions (whereas the Christian believes his car is a flying machine, or can travel through time in the right circumstances -- in other words, that it is capable of something that it has not been observed to do or has not suggested it can do).

In this connection, here's something to think about when considering "spirituality", or other intangibles that one believes are beyond science. When I go to the coast back home in Cornwall, and I'm blown away by the cliffside scenery, is that not "spiritual" in a broad sense?

But what created the scenery? Not God! The sea. The sea ate away at the coastline for millennia, grain by grain, to make the beauty I feast on. (I do not say that God cannot be responsible for the sea, directing it, but I will claim that I can apply Occam's Razor and put it down to sea alone.) The sea is effectively working at random. It does not choose its path, where to apply its power. The crenellations in the coastline might each have their origin in just one weak rock, crashing down and creating a weak point in the line, at which the relentless sea could pick. And which rock will break at which time is effectively random (determinable if you knew exactly where everything started from).

As Dawkins acknowledges and physicists have shown, the existence of conscious, rational beings is a wildly improbable outcome.

Clearly, the reviewer is not keen on "Chinese odds". These are a fun way of looking at things. What was the chance that I would be born? A hundred per cent. Because if I wasn't, I wouldn't be here asking about it! More usually, Chinese odds say that there's a 50 per cent chance of everything: it either happens or doesn't.

The point is, however improbable the outcome, we're here talking about it. Probability is only really a useful tool to understand what might happen, not what has happened.

This is not to fall foul of the anthropic principle. I'm prepared to accept that the universe is not just so just so I exist, but of course it's true that if it were not just so I would not be here to discuss it. (The anthropic principle is slightly more powerful than this because there were many ways the universe could be, but it is rather finely tuned to produce us.) But it is like an antifallacy to think that it's meaningful that a long shot has come in. (The corresponding fallacy is that outcomes were inevitable. In hindsight bias, it seems obvious that a process should have had the outcome it did. We just knew that horse would win; we knew that we would lose the hand if we called that all-in.) The antifallacy says, not that it was obvious now we look back that it should have been that way (in other words, that it is not meaningful that it was a long shot) but that it is not obvious (in other words, that it is meaningful that it was a long shot).

It should be fairly clear that both the fallacy and the antifallacy are equally possible. One can argue that it's obvious that the universe should be fine tuned because here we are and that it's astonishing that it's fine tuned because here we are. Neither is convincing! It is not obvious that we should have evolved just so; many other outcomes were possible. But it is not particularly striking. The universe is enormous and permits many possibilities; there may even be many universes, not all suitable for our kind of life (some may not have had an inflationary period in their early life and might only be inches across; others might have certain constants at a slightly different level and have collapsed, or never have seen the creation of heavier elements, so that without carbon, there could be no carbon-based life).

Besides, the reviewer's argument has the unspoken premise that we are special, that thinking beings are special. But we don't know that. We seem special to ourselves (particularly because our foremost mythology has it that we are special creations of our god) but from the outside, we could seem to be meaningless whirlings of atoms, throwing up emergent patterns that we overinterpret.

To insist that we are simply the products of the workings of, ultimately, physical laws is to avoid the question of the nature and origin of those laws.

As someone who does insist that we are the products of physical laws, I feel up to answering this charge. The problem the reviewer has here is strictly conceptual, an outcome of the limitations of language. If I make laws for my children, I set rules that I wish them to obey. In the same way, societies set laws for their members to abide by. Laws are stronger than "rules" in the sense that they are considered to be motivated by an underlying sense of order, or one could say that they are thought to emerge from a deeper basis in principle or concept and are not arbitrary (that's not to say that laws cannot be arbitrary, only that they are conceptualised as not being). In any case, both the laws I make for my children and the laws a society makes for its members are made by humans for humans. They are codified behaviours (or antibehaviours).

Physical laws are different. They are not created by humans; they are merely discerned by them. They too are not arbitrary -- they cannot be because they are not invented or created at all. But the difference is deeper than that: bodies do not obey the law of gravity because someone has made a law and they must follow it; they obey the law of gravity because it is simply a description of what bodies do. Both types of law describe what should happen, but the senses of "should" are different. In the one case -- the human law -- it denotes an obligation, a demand; in the other -- the physical law -- it denotes an expectation. (Compare these two sentences "Trains should be clean and tidy" and "The train should arrive in the next few minutes".)

We do not need to question the nature and origin of physical laws because we are aware that they do not have any origin outside us, and their nature is simply to be the things we have noticed that things have in common. They are "laws" because the commonality is so broad. But the broadness is simply an outcome of the obviousness of the commonality: for instance, a body falls towards another because of gravity, and all bodies will do so because bodies do not differ from one another in kind in this sense: they are bodies, made ultimately of the same stuff. That is all that laws in physics say: things are made ultimately of the same stuff so will ultimately be bound to do the same things.

If the reviewer was able to grasp that laws in a broader sense do not need to be imposed or policed, he would see that his question is meaningless. Physical laws do not need an origin: they are descriptions, not prescriptions.

To say that there is no evidence for God is merely, therefore, an interpretation justified in one context but quite meaningless in another.

"Therefore" is often a leap. Sometimes it's a step so short that it is barely needed; but sometimes it is a huge spring into the dark. Here it is impossible. How the reviewer went from Dawkins' not considering the origin of physical laws to saying that there being no evidence for God is purely contextual is beyond me. (Although of course I do understand what he means: he is appealing to Gould's notion of nonoverlapping magisteria -- he wishes to suggest that science can only catalogue nature's laws but cannot inquire into their origin. As I've noted, one has to believe that they have an origin outside ourselves to think that more than one "context" even exists here.) I know that what the reviewer wishes me to understand is that Dawkins believes there is no evidence for God because he will not consider where all these laws came from. But Dawkins would be nonplussed by this line of argument. The laws of physics just are. If you throw a ball into the air, it falls to earth because things fall to earth. There is no deeper foundation for it. It is just what things do. They do it because bodies attract one another. They just do. (One can discuss the mechanism but there is no purpose for it, it just is what things do.)

There is, in this reviewer's muddle, an interesting point, and a problem with Dawkins' position that even I, broadly sympathetic, find in need of an answer. Start from Gould's magisteria. We have the realm of science, all the things it can talk about, all the areas it can be meaningful in. And then we have the realm of religion, those things beyond science. In Gould's schema, each could not speak about the other's realm (they had nothing to say about it). (So for instance, science might describe how a foetus comes into being, but only religion can say whether or when it is alive.) Now one can argue that science's realm is broad enough that it includes all of life and there is no need for the magisterium of religion.

But the problem is, one cannot say that the other realm is empty. One can believe that science includes everything but you cannot know it. Science cannot measure the magisterium of religion, and as a consequence cannot declare it empty. So the reviewer is saying, even if you are right that science seems to cover all there is, you cannot say that there is nothing at all in religion's realm. So your universe might not need God but that is not sufficient to say he does not exist. He might be there in the realm that you cannot measure.

Which is another way of saying, you cannot prove the negative.

Everywhere we look, there is evidence of something, but it is by no means clear that that something is, in fact, nothing. Rather, it seems something of a startling intelligibility.

Tis the clarion call of intelligent design. Ooooh, there's what looks like a watch. Must be a watchmaker.

But I think we see the watch because we are products of the same mad, random universe, and the way we are made makes us pick out patterns, samenesses, structure from even the entirely incoherent.

There are laws because we notice what we notice. Things do just what things do. They are not directed or aware: a law is not something they obey but something that they have just done.

Still, if we have created the watch out of what there is, in a sense we will create the watchmaker out of the same. Our god matches what there is -- and just as what there is cannot live outside the laws of science, neither can our god. He must be something we can imagine. For me, there is the remaining possibility that the realm of religion is not entirely empty, simply because science has no way to know whether its own bounds are broad enough to exclude any other explanations, any additional (in the strict sense of adding something) analyses, religion. Although science has squeezed God into what seems to us to be a vanishingly small margin, science cannot know how broad the margin truly is.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Vagina talk

Some naughty schoolgirls found themselves suspended for uttering the filthy word "vagina" in public. The girls were quoting the Vagina Monologues at a show. The principal who suspended them approved the piece but had demanded that they not say the devil word. Presumably, as Feministe notes, because of his fear that if they say the word, they'll realise they have vaginas. And use them!

Both my daughters know they have vaginas. The eldest also knows that she has a clitoris and exactly where it is. (I've never really understood the bullshit about men's not being able to find a clitoris. You only need to be shown once. The myth of their unfindability for men expresses the notion that they are just not important enough for men to remember where they are.)

They are 6 and 2. I am fairly sanguine about the prospect that they might one day use them. Mrs Zen caught them talking about their vaginas the other evening. She said, you mustn't do that at school. Why? asked Zenella. Because other people don't like people talking about vaginas, she said. Well, that's their problem, I said. I don't see why Zenella should be ashamed of having a vagina or think that it's anything to hide.

And I was thinking. The hiding your knickers thing. You know, when you sit down and cross your legs, some of you ladies try to not let your panties show? That dates back to the days before bikinis, IYKWIM. You can let it all hang out now.

Unless you're not wearing knickers. That might be a tad too liberated even for the noughties.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Grave concerns

James Cameron's "discovery" of Jeebus's resting place has sparked a bit of talking-head controversy. Naturally, anyone with an ounce of brain dismissed the whole thing as bollocks at first glance. It's not even new news. This rubbish has been out there in the conspiracy world for a long time. Still, that didn't prevent Teh Graun from making it front-page material, and hiring a fundie believer to whine about it.

What struck me hardest about Dr Thacker's whinging about Cameron's "twaddle", apart from his complaint that it wasn't "theologically sound" (Cameron was a bit silly to claim that his discovery didn't negate the NT, when of course that's precisely what it would do if confirmed -- not that it is or ever could be confirmable), was this:

These truths are self-involving narratives. In contrast to most archaeological or historical discoveries, whether Jesus actually rose from the dead or not is an event that one cannot take a dispassionate view on. If he did not rise bodily then, to paraphrase St Paul, the Christian faith is utterly pointless. If he did rise bodily, then this vindicates all that he said, and demands that we acknowledge his Lordship over us.

A neutral stance over the bodily resurrection of Christ is not a fair-minded, rational approach; it is a mark of intellectual and personal cowardice.

He is wrong in every part of it.


These truths are self-involving narratives.

By truths, he means "theological truth claims". I have no idea what this sentence is supposed to mean. I had to look up "self-involving narrative" to see whether it was a fundie concept. The few hits you get on Google didn't make it much clearer, but it seems he means to say that they are not true or false on the facts but on whether you believe in them. Or something like that.

Hmmm. Well, I suppose that that is right, in that the truth of a narrative is a question of belief in it rather than its factuality. But narratives are overlays, not things in themselves. There are, one presumes, facts about Jeebus. He did or did not have a life, a mission, a death and a resurrection. Finding his grave would not disprove the narrative of the resurrection, but it would certainly make that narrative more clearly a fairy story.

In contrast to most archaeological or historical discoveries, whether Jesus actually rose from the dead or not is an event that one cannot take a dispassionate view on.

Isn't it? Can I not take a dispassionate view of the facts and then decide which narrative to believe in that fits them?

Clearly, this is not what Christians do (and it's the thing they are criticised for). The scientific method puts ideas to the test with observations, and abandons the ideas if they fail the test (at least, in theory it does; I take a slightly more Feyerabendish view of how science actually works). Believers puts ideas to the test and abandons the observations if the idea fails. (Which is one reason Christianity, chockers with ideas, is so contradictory and fragmented.)

The mistake Dr Thacker makes is common -- it's the same one Dawkins, whom he cites, makes, and is an item of faith in the creationist sector -- that the struggle between Christianity and science is a war of beliefs, that one must necessarily take one position or other out of faith and then make one's defence of one's position using the available facts. This is a gross misunderstanding of what science is and how it works. An "evolutionist" does not believe in evolution and then try to shoehorn the facts into that belief: they believe in evolution because it fits the facts. The difference is difficult to grasp for fundies because they believe reality fits their beliefs (mostly because they reject or ignore a lot of reality).

f he did not rise bodily then, to paraphrase St Paul, the Christian faith is utterly pointless. If he did rise bodily, then this vindicates all that he said, and demands that we acknowledge his Lordship over us.

While the first sentence is quite true, the second is not. It does not follow that if Jeebus was resurrected, everything Dr Thacker believes is true. This is a fallacy of belief, in that he believes that he must believe all that he believes and surrender none of it, so others must too. The fallacy lies in not understanding that while it's true that the failure of one item opf your credo means you must surrender the credo, it is not true that proving one item will prove it all.

I say it is true that the failure of an item of belief entails the surrender of your entire credo, but this is only true for those who believe that everything they believe depends on everything else they believe. Evolution is not destroyed by a counterexample (although it will have to be adapted). (Actually, this depends on the counterexample. I subscribe to the "rabbits in the Cambrian" view of what it would take. And a further fallacy is involved in believing that fundie belief and science are contesting beliefs, because it is not true that if evolution had to be abandoned, one would have to accept creationism: blackandwhiteism is an outcome of Christian belief (good vs evil; Jeebus vs Satan; saved vs damned) not a universal law!)

Curiously, most fundies do not subscribe to this "believe one part and all the rest must follow" notion for the obvious reasons.

A neutral stance over the bodily resurrection of Christ is not a fair-minded, rational approach; it is a mark of intellectual and personal cowardice.

I simply cannot understand how a person can say this. It seems that a neutral stance is precisely what he says it is not. Why can I not say "I do not know whether Jeebus rose from the dead -- although given what I do know I think it very unlikely -- but if he is proved to have done so, that will open up further questions"? I guess the reason is that he already has the answers to those questions. (I am wondering whether "self-involving narratives" are not "self-fulfilling narratives" in his conception.

I'm not keen on the whole "Jeebus did miracles, so he must be magic". I've seen Derren Brown do some pretty cool shit, but no one that I know of has him down as their personal redeemer. Maybe they should. (Check out Derren's site by the way; it's brilliant.)

On justifying politics, part one

This is part one because I haven't had the time or energy to finish it. I could just not post it but it's already very long. It's my approach to political theory (or an approach of mine, not the only one I could have taken or do take). I am trying to think about something incredibly difficult: why one should have one or another politics. This is not a consideration of why one does or what might lead one to have some politics or other, but a deeper question: how one justifies political beliefs.

The reason I find this a difficult question is that my political beliefs are grounded in axioms that I take to be fundamental (and true) but difficult to substantiate. I find it a lot easier to defend an extreme right position. This is because I take the position that a "principle" is not simply an axiom handed down by Jeebus or Gahd, but is something that must be grounded and justifiable. And it's a lot easier to argue "life is short so grab all you can" than "life is short for everybody so share so that everyone has a decent go at it".

Anyway, this is how I began writing about it. The rest might follow, but you know how it is.


How can politics be justified? It seems a simple question. We must have politics, because politics is just the means of distributing power among communities (and also the means of distributing resources -- although economics can be considered the science of distributing resources, choices about how to distribute them are political choices -- and because power is in most cases power over resources (particularly so if one considers that a person's productive capacity is a resource like any other), it is easy to see that politics boils down to power (Marxists point out that politics is about class struggle, but what is a class struggle if it is not a struggle over power -- in particular the power to distribute resources? Marx described history as primarily economic, but taking a deeper view of what politics is would have led him to describe it as primarily political)). And surely it is easy to argue for one or another political choice?

But I am asking a deeper, much more difficult question. How can you choose which politics to have? (I am leaving aside at this point that most people do not choose; they take up the politics of their father, their peers, someone they admire. We are concerned here only with people who think. For reasons that should quickly become apparent, those who base their politics on religious principles are also excluded: not because I question the validity of their politics, but because they have a ready answer to the question I'm asking.)

Most philosophers, when describing the world, tend to make narrow, universal statements. The world is like this or that. But the world is not like that, as is clear if we simply look at it. It's more often like these, rather chaotic and difficult to understand, complex. Philosophers -- and political sciences -- boil the world down into simple choices, yet the factors that feed into those choices are not few or simple.

I do not think the world can be understood by simple axioms (except for one that seems clear, which I'll talk about), and creating a politics of principle is very difficult because a set of principles that would properly fit a complex world would be very large and inconsistent, if not impossible. (A difficulty for any ideologue is that the "beliefs" that they hold will clash with one another, simply because what they feel is right in one situation will not be right in another; or disastrously, a solution for one problem will be applied to another because they seem similar enough, but the outcome will be horribly distorted. Some communist solutions to market problems in Eastern Europe spring to mind. While the underlying principle may have been sound, the problems that were solved were defined too narrowly (so that the solutions could actually fit). Not that the right does any better -- far from it! Its relentless definition of all problems in purely monetary terms leads to solutions that are simply inhuman.)

To illustrate why I think there is a problem, I'll take a "principle" and see how it works out. I doubt many people who read this would disagree that this is a sound principle but I do think it is easy to argue that it is entirely baseless. "It is bad to kill human beings."

Now ask why. First of all, we must work out who it is bad for. Clearly, in most cases, we'd consider it bad for the person killed. But this cannot always be true. My granddad had lung cancer. It was terrible and he wanted to die. He expressed the wish. If I had killed him -- and if I could have, I would have -- it would not have been bad for him. Or would it? You could take an absolute line that being alive is always and in every case better than being dead. I think that this line falls down very quickly with any consideration of quality of life but it's a conceivable position. Similarly, if you believe that death is not final, it's possible that being dead might be superior to being alive anyway. A friend of mine at college used to say that he could not wait to die because he would be going to heaven. (As a Catholic, he could not countenance suicide, nor arranging to be killed, which would be the same sin.) If you believe that someone you kill will be rewarded with eternal bliss, how is there a moral wrong in killing them? To make it morally wrong, killing people must be absolutely wrong. I do not know how it can be.

Perhaps it is bad for the killer. Absent religious bads -- that it is sinful or that God will punish you for it -- what bad does it bring the killer? Had I killed my granddad, I would no doubt have felt guilty, even though I considered it the right thing to do. (Curiously, I did not feel the doctor who finally upped the morphine to do the deed had done anything wrong, and did not feel he or she should bear any guilt.) But a feeling of guilt is not a principle. (The point of thinking about this is to ask whether one can distinguish our basing of things in feelings from a possible basis in principle. If the answer is no, morality -- and politics -- becomes something entirely relative, negotiable and nonuniversal.) It is of course bad for the killer if they are caught and punished, but I am sure that the principle does not mean it is bad to kill people if you get caught for it. Principles are not usually so realist!

Generally, we will base the principle that it is wrong to kill someone on the principle that it is wrong to harm others. This resolves our problem with mercy killings and would, I think, even allow us to martyr those who gain more from being dead. But that principle is no sounder than the one we are basing on it.

Why should we not harm each other? One might appeal to the Kantian golden rule: we should do to others as we wish to be done by. The problem Kant had, and anyone else who claims this is a bedrock for a moral code has, is that the why is too hard to provide. I don't want others to steal from me, but why should that make me not steal? Yes, it would be bad if everyone stole. But must I consider myself as a unit in "everyone"? True, it is a poor outcome if everyone refuses to make that consideration, but that is their problem, isn't it? If the principle were "you should not harm others if you think everyone will follow suit", then it seems more sensible. It makes it a lot less wishy-washy and more pragmatic. So far as I understand it, that is the argument for it. (Not Kant's argument, which was a bit more difficult.) We have a responsibility to hold our side of the moral bargain.

Do we though? Why should I look out for you and what you do or don't do? You can argue that I have moral responsibility for myself, and for my own choices, but why should I take responsibility for yours? If I steal, that is my choice. If you steal, that is yours.

I understand the reasoning. If we all did the bad thing, it would be horrible for all (including me). So we should individually not do the bad thing, and it will not be horrible for all (including me). Fine. But so long as you all do the right thing, it won't be horrible for me. (I'm aware that the freeloader objection to universal morality has been discussed a great deal in philosophical and quasi-philosophical literature, but I'm not aware of anyone who has made a convincing argument, without depending on some innate sense of decency, against the freeloader.) Presumably, there is some tipping point, at which the number of people doing the bad thing makes it horrible for all, but am I the person at the tipping point? Must I consider myself to be that person? I think this is the only even partly strong argument for this kind of golden rule.

Those who have read Kant will recognise that I do not allow his assertion that hypothetical imperatives cannot be the bases of morals. I do not believe he or anyone else has made a strong argument why not -- and to the contrary philosophers such as Camus have made it clear that rather than personal imperatives' needing to be constructed from categorical imperatives, one must work the other way round -- generalising from what seems right to me to what seems right. Indeed, I'm suggesting that Kant is precisely wrong. I can say that a thing is wrong for you and not wrong for me. There is no basis for saying I cannot. Yes, this makes absolute moral prescription impossible, but without God, the basis for believing morality is universal is not strong. How can we say "this is the way everyone should be"? This is to reduce moral strictures to the same level as breathing, or having two arms, or being possessed of veins and arteries. These are things a human consists in. Arguing that morality is universal just because we are humans is to say that it is something we necessarily consist in.

I do think there is potential in this line of thought though. But it cannot be established by handwaving. One would need to show that human beings simply could not live together (and by extension could not survive to reproduce) if they did not have at least this or that moral understanding. But showing that would be difficult, if not impossible, because human beings have got along in all sorts of conditions, and survived in all sorts of surroundings. What confuses thinking in these areas is that one can say, but this thing has been considered wrong in every structure we have built. However, the structures we have built have generally been understood as serving us, protecting us (which is why they have had our support). So they are not founded on principles like "you should not kill anybody" but on principles like "no one should be permitted to kill me". The law against murder might be seen as a moral prescription against doing a wrong; but it can equally be seen as a protection of the individual. This obviously creates a confusion over what laws do, what they are for, so that we have legal codes that are motivated by both ends, although more clearly the latter prevails. (Most law concerns property, after all, and is framed in terms of protecting your right to enjoyment of it, rather than prescribing that I should not infringe on it.)

I will not discuss in this context whether one should not kill humans out of fellow feeling. This is the beginning point for some critiques of meat-eating. We do not kill humans because they are humans, but this creates an artificial distinction between humans and animals. Which is true, but the philosophers who make this argument do not explain why one cannot equally ask why, rather than shifting the distinction so that it now stands between animal and vegetable, one cannot simply narrow it so it does not include all humans. After all, they are allowing that there is a distinction between entities whose life we can end and those whose life we cannot. I think this whole argument is fraught with difficulty. The distinction is made because animals have "feelings" (like humans -- which is why they need to be included with us in the not-killable group) and plants do not. However, that killing things with feelings is a bad thing is taken as axiomatic rather than given any deeper explanation.

Making this argument opens up a dangerous avenue, of course. If the distinction between human and animal is taken to be arbitrary, but that "having feelings" is not an absolute basis for making a new distinction, one allows that different types of human may be killable for us. Later in this post (or in part two, if I don't make it that far in this post), I will discuss this idea, because it is central to extreme right philosophy. (And central to this post, because I am not arguing that politics has to be amoral -- far from it -- but that it must be based on moral choices even if they are not well founded.)

Enhancement guaranteed

One of the battles I fight with pisspoor writers of English is over the word "enhance". If you read a lot of finance or management -- my current specialities, I'm sad to say -- you come across it a lot. It is much loved by academics of all types but particularly those in these fields.

"Enhance" is a fine word. It has a place in the good writer's toolbox: a rather narrow niche, but one that only it fills. It primarily means "improve or increase in quality", with the implication that where it increases it improves and where it improves it increases. So if one enhances the flavour of a dish, one makes the flavour better, usually by refining its quality (where "refining" implies "improving"). Sadly, it's only a short hop from there to its meaning "improve" or "increase" without any notion of a change in quality; it is used as an undifferentiated synonym of both words. But enhancing the flavour of a dish does not just mean increasing the amount of flavour. It means making the flavour better (or worse: you could enhance the horribleness of the dish too).

The analysts I edit will often talk about "enhanced returns". To me, this says that the returns are of a higher quality; but what they mean is that they are bigger. They are simply "increased returns". (Worse still, there is a sector in investment called "enhanced index", which means that one takes an index and makes investments aimed to be a bit like the index, but better: so an index fund would hold shares that matched an index -- in the same proportion as the index weights them, so that its returns would exactly match the index's; whereas an enhanced index fund would take a view on some of the components of the index, and ditch them from the fund. This is uneditable for me, because it is what this type of investment is universally called.)

Yes, your dictionary will tell you that "enhance" means "augment", and the distinction in usage has just about disappeared. But it's worth doing the Canute over this stuff, because the impoverishment of language leads to the impoverishment of thought. No, really, it does. If you do not have the fine grain to paint your thoughts for others with, they see only your broad strokes. The lesser language, far from being clearer, becomes more interpretable. That's a bad thing for the transmitter of meaning, particularly the academic (or the financial technician who is trying to convey a concept to their reader), because control over meaning is already very hard to attain, given that one must negotiate it with the reader.

What is furthermore rather worrying about this word though is that when I googled it, the ad that Google served me was headlined "Killer Penis in Minutes". Now I can understand other men's worries over the size of their rod (even if I don't share them) but do you really want to slay others with your "weapon"? So I checked out the ad:

"Try This Experiment At Home

Take two Libidus capsules with a glass of warm water. Then sit down, relax and don't think about sex. (To help you keep your mind off sex, which may not be easy, read a newspaper or watch the cartoon channel on TV.)

What will happen next is that... within 10 - 30 minutes, you will have the hardest, biggest erection ever in your entire life!

And... you are powerless to stop it!"

Just don't mistake them for headache tablets before that pay review, hey?