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Entries for July 2008

July 31, 2008

The ethics of food-4: Are humans privileged in some way?

(For other posts in this series, see here.)

Our current attitudes towards nonhuman animals seem to be based on two assumptions. The first is that all humans are believed to be equal in some sense and one person has no right to exploit another. The second is that nonhuman animals are somehow inferior to humans and thus have lesser rights and can be used for our benefit. But how do we justify this distinction?

Philosopher Peter Singer points out that people are manifestly not equal in all kinds of ways, some important and some trivial, and this realization has important consequences.

Equality is a moral idea, not an assertion of fact. There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a factual difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to their needs and interests. The principle of equality of human beings is not a description of an alleged actual equality among humans; it is a prescription of how we should treat human beings. (Italics in original. From his book Animal Liberation, excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 31)

Of course, meat eaters can always take ultimate refuge by invoking speciesism, by just arbitrarily deciding that other members of our own species deserve more consideration from us than other species.

But this is not a moral argument. It is just as arbitrary as earlier rules that we now despise as racist or sexist, that argued that other races or women were intrinsically inferior and thus did not deserve the same rights. As Singer argues, "To exclude the chimp from moral consideration simply because he's not human is no different than excluding the slave simply because he's not white." (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma, 2006, p. 308)

To avoid pleading guilty to the charge of naked speciesism, those who feel that humans have some property that entitles them to be privileged over nonhuman animals have looked for at least one quality that humans possess that animals don't (or at least possess to a significantly lesser degree) that would justify such differential treatment.

But finding such a marker proves to be remarkably elusive. Although human beings do possess certain features that are unique it is hard to argue that those features give us the right to kill those animals that do not possess that feature, any more than the fact that the elephant has a unique trunk gives it the right to kill and eat other animals. One has to make the case why that quality matters in a morally significant way.

Animal rights philosophers like Peter Singer have squarely targeted the various candidates proposed for this privileging property and come to the conclusion that no such marker exists.

What about intelligence or language, something that humans undoubtedly possess? The problem is that it is not the case that all humans possess more intelligence or language than all nonhumans. For example, an adult chimp or dog or horse could well have more intelligence, or communicate better, than a newborn infant, and yet we accord the infant full rights while denying them to the animals.

A chimpanzee, dog, or pig, for instance, will have a higher degree of self-awareness and a greater capacity for meaningful relations with others than a severely retarded infant or someone in a state of advanced senility. So if we base the right to life on these characteristics, we must grant these animals a right to life as good as, or better than, such retarded or senile humans. . . . What we must do is bring nonhuman animals within our sphere of moral concern and cease to treat their lives as expendable for whatever trivial purposes we may have. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 45)

So "If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans for the same purpose?" (Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma, 2006, p. 307)

The argument that the infant has the potential to develop into a fully intelligent human being does not work either because there are a few sad cases where an individual, due to birth defects or injury, is severely retarded and will never develop much. In fact, any quality that we can name that has the possibility of being used to give preferential treatment to humans runs into the problem that we can always find a few humans who, due to a host of reasons, have less of that quality than some nonhuman animals. And yet we always give preference to the 'inferior' humans over the 'superior' animal.

This kind of argument against giving privileged status to the right of humans is called the 'argument from marginal cases' and is a powerful one.

Next: The role of pain and suffering

POST SCRIPT: Pointless

Since I am known as someone who follows politics, I am sometimes asked to comment on who I think will be the likely vice-presidential picks of Obama and McCain. This is a topic about which I feel it is useless to speculate. What's the point? When the candidates are good and ready, they will pick someone on the basis of criteria that they deem important. Since those criteria are kept secret from us, any name is as likely as any other.

Of course, there are people that I would prefer and whom I think would help the candidate. But those are based on my criteria and there is no reason to think that the candidates are using the same criteria.

So why don't we just forget about this topic until the candidates are ready to tell us?

July 30, 2008

The ethics of food-3: Evolutionary implications

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The theory of evolution has, of course, implications for the question of whether we should eat meat. One popular view of evolution lends support to the perceived superiority of humans over other species. This view sees evolution as a ladder-like hierarchy, rising ever upwards to higher and higher forms: as a sequence: amoebas→ sponges→ jellyfish→ flatworms→ trout→ frogs→ lizards→ dinosaurs→ anteaters→ monkeys→ chimpanzees→ Homo sapiens. (Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct, 1994, p. 352)

In this model, since humans are the most evolved and higher than other forms, it gives us the right to kill and eat other species. In the Christian equivalent of this hierarchical model, that last step up in the ladder was the addition of the soul. But even if we do not take the idea of the soul seriously, the idea that humans are at the apex of evolution can be used to support the exploitation of 'lower' species.

But that linear, ladder-like model of evolution is simply wrong. Evolution is a branching theory, more like a spreading bush. Starting from some primitive form, it diverged into other forms, and these in turn branched out into yet more forms and so on, until we had a vast number of branches at the periphery. All the species listed above are like the tips of the twigs of the bush, except that some (like the dinosaurs) are now extinct.

According to this model, although all existing species have evolved from some earlier and more primitive forms, none of the existing species is more evolved than any other. All existing species have the same evolutionary status. They are merely different. We are not higher or lower than them. They are our cousins.

The actual theory of evolution says that while some species may be considered to be more 'primitive' than others, that word is used in the evolutionary context in a purely technical sense, and not as a measure of any intrinsic worth that might justify killing them. It is not meant to signify that they are inferior in some way but just that their present forms are similar to their ancestral forms. So present-day bacteria and sponges are 'primitive' because they are not very different from the forms that their ancestors had billions of years ago. On the other hand, the ancestors of humans start looking very different just a few tens of millions of years ago, so we are considered to be less primitive.

If humans are just the tip of one particular branch in the tree of life, is there any reason to think of us as special or superior? Religious people who accept this correct view of evolution could still argue that god gave only humans a soul and so the justification for dominating other species and eating meat still exists. This requires the soul (or mind or consciousness) to appear just after the human lineage separated from its nearest evolutionary cousins in the Great Ape family, and seems too much like an ad hoc self-serving rationalization for comfort. In the erroneous ladder model of evolution, the emergence of the soul at the final step was still an arbitrary assumption, but had a little better justification since a ladder-like hierarchy could be used to argue for qualitative differences between the rungs.

If we dispense with the idea that humans are uniquely possessed of a soul or some such entity, the basic question is whether humans possess a moral right to kill and eat nonhuman animals. Philosopher Peter Singer argues that the principle of equality that we apply to all humans should be extended to animals as well. In particular, the interests of animals should receive the same consideration as the interests of humans.

But how would this extension of equality work out in practice? Do we have an obligation to send animals to schools like we do with children? Singer explains:

The extension of the basic principle of equality from one group to another does not imply that we must treat both groups in exactly the same way or grant exactly the same rights to both groups. Whether we do so will depend on the nature of the members of the two groups. The basic principle of equality does not require equal or identical treatment; it requires equal consideration. Equal consideration for different beings may lead to different treatment and different rights. (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 29.)

Some philosophers have argued against Singer's view by saying that rights and obligations are inseparable. Humans have rights because they also have obligations. Animals cannot enter into social contracts and thus don't have obligations, so they do not have rights. Wikipedia has a good article that summarizes the various positions on this issue.

Those who disagree with Singer's point that animals deserve equal consideration tend to look for specific markers that distinguish humans from nonhuman animals and thus can be used to grant humans privileged status.

In the next post, I will look at whether we can find such markers.

POST SCRIPT: The right to choose your own name

There is perhaps nothing that is so close to one's sense of identity as one's name. Hence it is odd that our names are bequeathed to us by others.

One of the things that I am really thankful to my parents for is that they gave me a really ordinary name. 'Mano' is a very common name in Sri Lanka. I could never understand people who use this power to name their children something exotic and weird, as in this case where a child was given the name 'Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii'.

Maybe we should create a custom where everyone, upon reaching some specific age goes through a self-naming ceremony where they get the right to choose the name they use for the rest of their lives.

July 29, 2008

The ethics of food-2: Religious implications

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The role of religious beliefs on the question of meat eating can take people in different directions. As far as I know, Hinduism is the only major religion that unequivocally advocates vegetarianism. Surely it is no coincidence that the tastiest vegetarian meals can be obtained in the homes or restaurants of Hindus. Hindus really know vegetables.

Buddhism seems a little more equivocal because there are many variations of that religion. While it says that individuals should not kill anything, even insects and pests, some Buddhist philosophers assert that it is acceptable to eat meat from animals that were not specifically killed for you for that purpose (Writings on an Ethical Life, Peter Singer (2000), p. 68). In other words, buying and eating a hamburger from a store is acceptable because that animal was not killed specifically to meet your needs, is now dead anyway, and your not eating the hamburger is not going to bring it back to life.

One sees how such an argument might have had some force a long time long ago when people lived close to the land and one ate the animals that lived around you. Then choosing to eat meat for a meal meant that a chicken in your vicinity received a death sentence while choosing to forego meat probably meant a direct reprieve. But we now live in an era when most of us are far removed from the animals that provide us with meat, so this type of highly nuanced prohibition does not provide any benefit for animals.

Judaism and Islam have only minor restrictions on eating meat and Christianity has none at all. The Bible says that humans are special, that god has given them dominion over all the Earth and its beings, and they thus have the right to kill and eat them. After all, god does tell Adam and Eve, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." (Genesis 1:28) And in the New Testament, the Bible says that Jesus's disciple Peter was shown a vision of all kinds of animals and told "Rise, Peter, kill and eat." (Acts 10:13).

As a result, there is no religious prohibition in Christianity against eating meat. In his book The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), Michael Pollan describes farmer Joel Salatin, an evangelical Christian who practices a very humane form of agriculture in which the animals are treated decently while they are alive, unlike most of what goes on in the food production process in the US. (More on Pollan's book and Salatin later in this series.) Salatin takes great care to treat all his animals well and seems quite fond of them. And yet, when the time comes, he has no hesitation in personally killing and eating them or selling the meat. When Pollan questions him about how he can bring himself to do this, he responds: "That's an easy one. People have a soul, animals don't. It's a bedrock belief of mine. Animals are not created in God's image, so when they die, they just die." (Pollan, p. 331)

This view that animals are inferior because they do not have a soul is just a specific form of the more general philosophical view that animals are merely machines. This may seem bizarre to us now but it was based on the highly successful mechanical view of the universe that arose in the sixteenth century and reached its zenith with Newtonian mechanics in the seventeenth century. It seemed natural to the people of that time to think of everything in mechanical terms and the more that was learned about the workings of organisms, the more that mechanical metaphors were used to describe them – "the stomach as retort, veins and arteries as hydraulic tubes, the heart as pump, the viscera and sieves, lungs as bellows, muscles and bones as a system of cords, struts and pulleys." (God, the Devil, and Darwin, Niall Shanks (2004), p. 32). The idea of the watch (then seen as the apex of precise mechanical engineering design) as a metaphor for nature, and of god as the ultimate watchmaker/designer flowed naturally out of this way of thinking.

The philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was interested in the relationship of the mind/soul to the body and he felt that it was because humans had a soul that they were elevated from being mere machines. Because animals lack such a mind/soul they remain machines, although exceedingly complex ones that might superficially give the impression that they possess minds. But since they are nothing but sophisticated automatons, they cannot feel pain and we should have no more ethical qualms about killing them that we would have about taking apart a computer.

Nowadays the argument that nonhuman animals are merely unfeeling machines can be dismissed out of hand. Modern science has shown that their neural systems are wired similarly to ours, and that it is very likely that they experience very similar sensations to what we do. It is clear that animals can feel pain and can suffer.

But the underlying idea that humans possess some unique quality, the soul or some other thing, that obliges them to privilege their own kind but allows them to exploit other animals is still popularly held and is used to justify meat eating.

Next: What does the theory of evolution imply for meat eating?

POST SCRIPT: New South Wales?

Ever wondered how some parts of the world got their strange names? Mitchell and Webb have an idea.

July 28, 2008

The ethics of food-1: Confessions of a meat eater

I am an omnivore. I eat everything. Of course, 'everything' is not quite as inclusive as it sounds. Like all people, there are some foods that I dislike for their taste and there are others I avoid simply because I have not grown up with them and so they do not form a part of my usual diet. Since I am also not adventurous in terms of food, preferring to eat familiar foods over the unfamiliar, the range of things I eat is rather small. But there is nothing in the normal diet of people around the world that I could not and would not eat in principle.

In particular, I eat all kinds of meat. At the very outset, I might as well admit that I feel guilty about this aspect of my diet. The moral and ethical case for vegetarianism has for a long time seemed to me to be unassailable, and the fact that I have not adopted this diet can be put down, at least partly, to addiction to the taste of meat. Human beings have been carnivores for a long time in our evolutionary history, and our bodies seem to have evolved to both like the taste of meat and be able to absorb animal protein and make it a part of our diet.

Meat eaters who worry about this try to find ways to justify the practice. One argument for justifying meat eating is that we are who we are because we ate meat for so long in our history. Thus eating meat is an important part of our heritage as it were, and is thus 'natural'. To abstain from eating meat is to deny our essential nature as carnivorous animals. After all, other species of animals also kill and eat other animals, so that way of life is part of nature. If eating meat is an important part of how we came to be, why should we deny that heritage?

But that evolutionary history does not justify the practice. There are many things in human evolutionary history that we share with other animals and though many animals do kill other animals and eat them, that in itself is no justification for us doing so since there is no imperative that we must take our moral cues from other species.

This is especially true now, since we know so much more about food and have available so many nonmeat alternatives to our diet that can provide us with the same nutrients that meat does. Not eating meat does not pose an insurmountable hardship for people in the developed world where a variety of food is available in abundance.

Another reason that I eat meat is sheer laziness. Being a vegetarian takes more effort than being a carnivore. The buying, preparing, and storing of vegetables, fruits, and cereals for a balanced diet that gives the same range and amount of protein as a meat-based diet takes more thought and effort. But laziness is hardly a noble reason for continuing this practice.

So vegetarians win the moral case over meat eating quite easily. The argument for veganism (avoiding even dairy products like milk and eggs and other foods that can be coaxed from animals without killing them, and avoiding the use of animal hides such as leather) seems to be more debatable. If you are not harming the animal, is there anything morally wrong with eating what it produces?

The argument can be made that even with milk and eggs we are still exploiting animals, using them for our own ends irrespective of their own needs. That is true, but one wonders how far one can take that exploitation argument. Is the use of animals for labor also a form of exploitation to be condemned? Is the keeping of animals for pets for the pleasure that gives us also exploitation?

It is sometimes argued that to be a true advocate of animal rights and avoid any form of exploitation, then one should also avoid the use of all animal products, such as wool amd leather, not use any pesticides, and not use animals and animal products even for research.

This argument is sometimes used against vegetarians and vegans, to suggest that to be fully consistent as demanded by them is to be unrealistic, that in the normal course of our lives that we cannot avoid killing animals. It is pointed out that all agriculture, especially modern large scale agriculture, cannot take place without the killing of animals, either directly because they are considered pests that destroy crops or accidentally by ploughs and combines running over small animals that happen to get in the way, or indirectly by commandeering the habitats used by them causing them to eventually die from lack of food. And what about killing vermin that cause disease?

But this is a weak argument, pitting the perfect against the good. To accuse vegetarians and vegans of hypocrisy because even they cannot completely avoid some complicity in the killing of animals is an ad hominem argument that merely seeks to avoid conceding to them the moral high ground, and serves as a device to assuage the meat-eater's guilt and to avoid feeling morally inferior. The fact that vegetarians and vegans may not be able to live up to the extremely high standards that they themselves set does not lessen the force of their argument that eating meat seems like an avoidable wrong. It cannot be used to justify the deliberate killing of animals to satisfy our needs. Even if we cannot eliminate animal killing, at least reducing the scale of it is a good thing.

But while the case for veganism is debatable, there was no question in my mind we can all live without killing animals for meat and would probably be much healthier to boot. But while that conclusion still holds true in almost all cases, I have come across other arguments (to be discussed later in this series) that suggest that under certain very limited conditions eating meat might be morally justifiable.

POST SCRIPT: Health care in Europe

Last week, NPR ran a good series of stories comparing the health care systems in individual countries in Europe with what is offered here. It is incredible to me that Americans put up with such an awful system whose main beneficiaries are the health insurance and drug companies and select physicians.

July 25, 2008

The puzzle of one god but many religions

There is a puzzle that arises from the idea of there being just one god and many religions for which religious people might be able to give an answer: Why do the people of one monotheistic religion fight with or try to convert people of another monotheistic religion?

We know that there have always been conflicts between the followers of the different religions, each calling the other heathens or heretics or infidels or apostates and the like. A vast amount of blood has been shed by people in the service of their own particular god. Why is this?

If you think about it for a minute this just does not make sense. If you are a devout Christian, you presumably believe there is just one god and you pray to that god. If there is only one god, then there can be no possibility of worshipping a 'false' god. So logically, any other person who also believes in one god and prays to it (whatever they may call their own god) must be praying to the same god that you are praying to, since you are both sure that there is no other god. Since Christians and Muslims and Jews all believe that there is only one god, they must all be praying and worshiping the same, identical god. In other words, all religious people who believe in a single god must be effectively members of the same religion, though they give different names to their gods.

So why would religious people fight wars over religion? Why would they discriminate against people of other religions and proselytize and convert members of other faiths? Why care at all what the names of the other gods are? Why not treat people of other religions the same way that (say) Christians treat Christians in other countries who worship in other languages. They might have a different name for god in their own language but it is still considered to be the same god. Those people are not treated as if they belong to a different religion.

It is true that the forms and rituals are different for different religions. It is also true that people use different religious texts and thus, in addition to giving different names, also give their god different properties and believe that their god seeks different things. But if there is only one god, then all revelations of that one god must be equivalent at some deep level, and the differences merely superficial.

The Baha'i religion is one of the very few major ones that takes this truly inclusive attitude, and teaches that all major religions come from the one god and thus there cannot be a 'false' god or religion. They believe that Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and others are all messengers of the same god, and that their own founder Bahá'u'lláh (who was born in what is now Iran in 1817 and died in 1892) was the latest in that line.

I can understand religious people thinking that god must be annoyed at us atheists because we find the whole idea of god to be ridiculous. But religious people want to believe in god. Assuming that god wants to be worshipped (which is a really odd idea when you think about it), then all these people are worshipping that one and only god, since there is no other god. If he wanted them to worship him in a specific way using a specific name (which seems a little petty, if you ask me, like some people who get offended if you do not address them by their titles) based on a specific book, why would he allow people to be led astray by providing them with charismatic prophets and religious books that make them worship in a different way? It seems like a cruel trick to play on people, no? Surely god cannot care what name people use when they pray or worship him or what properties they ascribe to him or what books they use?

All the different trappings of the various religion are due to the so-called prophets of the various religions (Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, etc.), who claimed to speak on god's behalf and say they know how god wanted people to concretely show their devotion. If only one religion can be the true religion, then at least all but one of these people must have been delusional. Otherwise one would have to think that the one god deliberately told the different prophets different things to tell people. But surely god cannot want to blame ordinary people because of the prophets' divergent messages. If Muslims (or Christians or Jews or Hindus) worship the "wrong" way to the "wrong" god, then it must be the one god's fault for creating this confusion.

Salman Rushdie reads a terrific passage from his book The Satanic Verses that describes how 'holy books' get written and how it might be possible for the prophet's message to get distorted. For this blasphemy, Rushdie received a death sentence from the Ayatollah Khomeini that, fortunately, was not carried out.

The hostility between religions, or the widespread idea that one religion is right and the others wrong, makes sense only if you accept the idea that there are many gods in competition with each other to maximize the number of their believers.

Or perhaps people think that there is one god but that he deliberately creates rival religions and prophets as a kind of IQ test, to see which people are smart enough to select the 'right' god to see who gets admitted into heaven. This seems unbelievably cruel to people the world over who have a simple faith in the god they learned about as children from their families.

I must admit that this question never occurred to me while I was a believer. One of the disconcerting things that I discovered after shifting from belief to atheism is how so many questions that should have been obvious for me to ask never even occurred to me until I stopped believing. It is as if religious belief shuts down that part of your brain that thinks logically and would ask the kinds of questions that expose the contradictions.

In that sense, religion is antithetical to a scientific approach. This does not mean that religious people can't be good scientists. It is just that they have to keep separate that part of the brain they use for religion from that part they use for science, and use different standards of reason and evidence for the two spheres.

POST SCRIPT: Jesus the racist?

The BBC comedy series That Mitchell and Webb Look puts the Good Samaritan story in a different light.

July 24, 2008

Was Mother Theresa evil?

All of us get a little disconcerted when we discover that someone we like turns out to be an admirer of some public figure whom we think is awful.

For example, take those well-known authoritarian rulers who unleashed immense cruelty on their own and other peoples, subjecting them to arbitrary imprisonment, torture, and death. Hitler, Stalin, Suharto, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, and Duvalier are among the many names that come to mind. Most people do not admire these tyrants and do not hesitate to label them as evil.

But what would your attitude be towards someone who admires the very people whose actions you unhesitatingly condemn as beyond the pale? Even if that person was thoroughly admirable in other ways and would not personally even dream of doing the things that these despots did, would you still respect her? Or would you think her to be evil the way you think the people that she admires are evil?

We can even pose the question about a person even one step further removed. Would you think of as evil someone who admires someone who admires those evil despots?

The reason I pose these questions is because they form the basis of an interesting argument against religion that appeared in the December 2007 issue of Harper's magazine (p. 28). It is titled Another Argument Against God and is authored by David Lewis and Philip Kitcher, based on the chapter Divine Evil by Lewis that appeared in the book Philosophers Without Gods (2007).

Lewis and Kitcher say that while the "existence of evil is logically incompatible with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and completely benevolent deity" is a conclusive argument against god, there is also "a simpler argument, one that has been strangely neglected."

Lewis and Kitcher start with Hitler as someone whom very few would dispute did very evil things. Now he asks us to consider a hypothetical person named Fritz.

Fritz is a neo-Nazi. He admires Hitler. Fritz's admiration for an evil man suffices, we might think, to make Fritz evil . . . In this case, Fritz is evil, it seems, simply because it is evil to admire someone evil in full recognition of the characteristics and actions that express his evil. Evil is contagious, transmitted by clear-eyed admiration.

They authors then point out that accepting that premise put worshippers of god in an awkward position.

God has prescribed torment for insubordination. The punishment is to go on forever . . . In both dimensions, time and intensity, the torment is infinitely worse than all the suffering and sin that will have occurred during the history of life in the universe. What God does is thus infinitely worse than what the worst of tyrants have done.
. . .
Many Christians appear to be good people, worthy of the admiration of those of us who are non-Christians. From now on let us suppose, for simplicity's sake, that these Christians accept a God who inflicts infinite torment on those who do not accept Him . . . Yet they knowingly worship the perpetrator of divine evil. Perhaps they do not like to think about it, but they firmly believe that their God will consign people they know, some of whom they love, to an eternity of unimaginable agony.

Of course, our friends do not see this as divine evil. Instead, they talk of divine justice and the fitting damnation of sinners. If Fritz is clear about Hitler's actual deeds, he will tend to use similar locutions. Again, modest Fritz isn't disposed to persecute the Jews in his neighborhood. Yet Fritz would approve of the persecution being carried out by the proper authorities. So too with the Christians. Perhaps they would grieve that the punishment was prescribed for us; perhaps they would blame themselves for not having done more. But, in the end, they would worship the perpetrator.

Among those of us who do not worship the perpetrator, there are many who admire worshippers of the perpetrator. We admire some of our neighbors; we admire religious people famed for their selflessness, their courage, or their scholarship - Mother Teresa, Father Murphy, Jean Buridan. Yet we also know that the perpetrator's evil extends to them. They admire evil and are tainted by it. In admiring them, we too admire evil. Does the evil spread by contagion to us? What of those who admire those who admire those who worship the perpetrator? If admiration transmits evil, then eventually almost every living person will be infected. The more we are prepared to be tolerant in religious matters, the more the contagion will spread.

Where does this leave us? One option is that we treat as worthy people even those who admire ruthless dictators as long as they personally don't do anything bad. The other is that we treat evil as a contagious affliction, transmitted by the very act of admiration, so that any admirers of evil persons are themselves to be classed as evil.

Since the eternal torment (which is undoubtedly torture on the worst possible scale) that god supposedly prescribes for those who do not worship him is worse than any evil ever carried out by any human, Christians (and other believers in god) should reject the entire concept of eternal torment in the afterlife. Otherwise they forfeit any respect from others because they have become evil simply by virtue of admiring and worshipping a god who is committing a massive evil. In other words, if religious people do not reject the idea of an awful divine retribution, then they are declaring themselves to be evil too. In fact, the more devout and religious such people are, the more evil they should be considered.

As Lewis and Kitcher point out, it is no use trying to evade the issue by arguing that the hell to which sinners are sent is a form of divine justice and is not an evil act by god. That argument should be rejected in the same way that we reject the actions of tyrants even they too can claim they are acting lawfully, according to the laws and procedures they themselves created. In other words, there is no essential difference between a tyrant who tortures and kills people who cross his path and a god who sends people to eternal torment in hell because they have gone against his will.

Evangelicals often urge their fellows to step up their efforts to 'save' the people they know by telling them how sad they will be if their loved ones end up in hell. As a result of my atheist writings, I occasionally get dark warnings from some people that I can expect a rather unpleasant afterlife. I have always found such warnings to be amusing. It had not occurred to me, though, that the people making such statements are the equivalent of admirers of Hitler. Next time I get such a comment, I will refer them to this post.

POST SCRIPT: Crazy sports fans

That Mitchell and Webb Look takes on the weird sense of identification that some sports fans have with their teams.


July 23, 2008

Are people in the US too sensitive?

British actor and writer Stephen Fry recently had an interesting take on the difference between arguments in social settings in England and the US.

I was warned many, many years ago by the great Jonathan Lynn, co-creator of Yes Minister and director of the comic masterpiece My Cousin Vinnie, that Americans are not raised in a tradition of debate and that the adversarial ferocity common around a dinner table in Britain is more or less unheard of in America. When Jonathan first went to live in LA he couldn't understand the terrible silences that would fall when he trashed a statement he disagreed with and said something like "yes, but that's just arrant nonsense, isn't it? It doesn't make sense. It's self-contradictory." To a Briton pointing out that something is nonsense, rubbish, tosh or logically impossible in its own terms is not an attack on the person saying it – it's often no more than a salvo in what one hopes might become an enjoyable intellectual tussle. Jonathan soon found that most Americans responded with offence, hurt or anger to this order of cut and thrust. Yes, one hesitates ever to make generalizations, but let's be honest the cultures are different, if they weren't how much poorer the world would be and Americans really don't seem to be very good at or very used to the idea of a good no-holds barred verbal scrap. I'm not talking about inter-family 'discussions' here, I don't doubt that within American families and amongst close friends, all kinds of liveliness and hoo-hah is possible, I'm talking about what for good or ill one might as well call dinner-party conversation. Disagreement and energetic debate appears to leave a loud smell in the air.

I think Fry is on to something. There does seem to be a hypersensitivity in social settings in the US to not say anything that might be seen as contradictory to what someone else has said or might feel on highly charged topics, or if one does feel compelled to say something, to say it so carefully and genteelly that the listener sometimes does not even realize that she is being disagreed with, or if she does, takes it as a cue to drop the topic entirely and move onto something that is uncontroversial. I am guilty of this too. I have been in social situations where people have said things that I strongly disagreed with but have hesitated to express my opinions for fear of causing offense or creating tension. Have any readers of this blog had a similar experience, where they have held their tongue at the time and regretted it afterwards?

I am trying to overcome this tendency and more directly challenge people because being silent is not a good thing since this means that the ideas that people care about most passionately, and which may have important consequences, are never exposed to critical scrutiny. Readers may recall an earlier posting when at a dinner party I created a minor flap when I said to a group of very religious people that I was an atheist. At the end of the evening, I felt obliged to apologize to the hostess if I had caused any discomfort to those guests.

But looking back, why should I have felt bad about saying what I honestly felt and which was not a personal attack on any one? I had not called anyone an idiot or punched them in the face. All I had said to a group of religious people was that I did not believe that god existed.

If someone says something that I think is silly or wrong or bigoted, am I not doing the right thing in challenging that view? Surely social niceties should not trump honest expression of views? It is perhaps time to reject the conventional wisdom that one should not discuss politics and religion in social settings. Instead we should learn how to discuss those things calmly and reasonably.

I have quoted this passage titled Defend the right to be offended by Salman Rushdie before, and it is perhaps appropriate to do so again:

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people's opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it's a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

I am more and more inclined to think that we should follow the advice of Rushdie and Fry. One should not be rude or speak in anger or make ad hominem attacks on people. But I think one should express one's opinions on issues forthrightly, and people should learn to treat direct challenges to their views as the normal give-and-take of conversation.

POST SCRIPT: Synchronized motorcycling

The Italian police sometime in the 1950s.

(Thanks to Progressive Review.)

July 22, 2008

Scientific consistency and Conservapedia loopiness

One of the drivers of scientific research is the desire to seeking a greater and greater synthesis, to seek to unify the knowledge and theories of many different areas. One of the most severe constraints that scientists face when developing a new theory is the need for consistency with other theories. It is very easy to construct a theory that explains any single phenomenon. It is much, much harder to construct a theory that does not also lead to problems with other well-established results. If a new theory conflicts with existing theories, something has to give in order to eliminate the contradiction.

For example, Darwin's theory of evolution is a slow process, incompatible with the young Earth creationist theory of a 6,000-year old Earth. The acceptance of Darwin's theory was only made possible with the almost concurrent emergence of geological theories that argued that the Earth was far older than that. Creationists, on the other hand, want to go in the opposite direction and seek to discredit evolution so that they can hold on to a young Earth.

But while the scientific search for overall consistency results in more logical and satisfying theories and new breakthroughs, the parallel religious attempt to build consistency around a 6,000 year Earth leads to greater and greater loopiness, to the construction of an alternative reality that one can only marvel at.

Take for example, the fascinating response of some religious people to reports of Richard Lenski's interesting evolution experiment I wrote about yesterday. Andrew Schlafly (son of Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative icon) is the founder of Conservapedia, a religious alternative started to counter what they perceive as the anti-Christian, liberal agenda of Wikipedia. Conservapedia views everything through a Christian, right-wing, America-centered lens. It gives a lot prominence to arguments in favor of a 6,000-year old Earth.

The anti-evolution crowd contains many people who combine ignorance of science with arrogance and Schlafly exemplifies this. Even though he is not a microbiologist, he challenged Lenski's work with extraordinarily rude letters implying that there was shady work afoot and demanding to see the raw data, leading to a back-and-forth correspondence. You can read all the gory details here. Lenski's second reply to Schlafly is a masterpiece, combining a lesson in how to get slapped around politely with a good scientific explanation of his experiment.

One benefit of Schlafly's crusade is that Lenski's experimental results became elevated from something that just his biology subcommunity knew about to an internet phenomenon, widely discussed in the wider science and religion world. I myself heard about Lenski's work only because of the fuss that Andrew Schlafly created, so thanks Andy!

If you have not yet experienced the goofiness of Conservapedia, you are missing a treat. Take this gem from its article on the theory of relativity.

A prevailing theory among creation scientists such as physicist Dr. John Hartnett believe that the Earth was once contained in a time dilation field, which explains why the earth is only 6,000 years old even though cosmological data (background radiation, supernovae, etc.) set a much older age for the universe. It is believed that this field has since been removed by God, which explains why no such time dilation has been experienced in modern times. (my italics)

That is a typical religious explanation for phenomena – god did it and then hid the evidence that he did it. It always amazes me that these people claim to know exactly what god does and what god wants but plead ignorance as to why.

Take, as another example, Conservapedia's article on kangaroos. These marsupials are found only in Australia and the scientific understanding of how this happened involves theories of changes in ocean levels, the splitting apart of continents, and the speciation that results when animal populations get separated geographically and evolve independently from their ancestral forms, and thus diverge from their cousins on other continents.

After devoting just one line to the evolutionary explanation for the origin of kangaroos in Australia, Conservapedia expansively discusses the creationist explanation:

According to the origins theory model used by young earth creation scientists, modern kangaroos are the descendants of the two founding members of the modern kangaroo baramin that were taken aboard Noah's Ark prior to the Great Flood. It has not yet been determined by baraminologists whether kangaroos form a holobaramin with the wallaby, tree-kangaroo, wallaroo, pademelon and quokka, or if all these species are in fact apobaraminic or polybaraminic.

After the Flood, these kangaroos bred from the Ark passengers migrated to Australia. There is debate whether this migration happened over land with lower sea levels during the post-flood ice age, or before the super-continent of Pangea broke apart.

The idea that God simply generated kangaroos into existence there is considered by most creation researchers to be contra-Biblical.

Notice that this article disparages the notion that god created kangaroos out of nothing in Australia, but finds perfectly plausible the idea that god created the kangaroos out of nothing earlier, saved just a pair of them in Noah's Ark, and then after the flood had them hopping over to Australia to raise a family start a new life, like homesteaders in old Western films.

One would think that once one allowed that kangaroos could be created out of nothing, Ockham's razor would prefer the former theory. The only reason not to do so is to conform to Biblical myths. The Noah's Ark bottleneck has to be preserved at all costs.

It is a long journey from Mount Ararat in Turkey (where the Ark supposedly finally ended up) to Australia and this theory requires that the pair of kangaroos from the Ark either live long enough to get to Australia before they started breeding or that all their offspring produced along the way stuck with the family for the entire journey (can you imagine how maddening their cries of "Are we there yet?" would become) or that the successor lines of all the ones that were left behind along the way became extinct, leaving no fossil record anywhere else in the world. Or maybe they were raptured early.

Another possibility (which I just thought up or maybe it was god revealing the truth to me, undeserving heathen though I am) is that Noah's Ark was less like an emergency lifeboat and more like a round-the-world cruise ship, and that different animals left the liner at different ports of call: kangaroos at Sydney, koalas at Auckland, penguins in the Antarctic etc. This theory actually explains a lot about the geographic diversity of species and I offer it free to the creators of Conservapedia to add to their site.

Since Conservapedia, like Wikipedia, is a fairly open system that allows almost anyone to edit its entries, some suspect that much of the site's content consists of subtle parodies by people pulling the legs of Schlafly and his co-religionists, and that they have not cottoned on to it yet. For example, I found the above passage about relativity just last week but today noticed that the passage has been changed, to be replaced by the briefer "Prevailing theories among creation scientists such as physicists Dr. Russell Humphreys and Dr. John Hartnett are time dilation explains why the earth is only 6,000 years old even though cosmological data (background radiation, supernovae, etc.) set a much older age for the universe." Was the original a parody that the site editors discovered and scrubbed? Is the kangaroo explanation a parody? It is hard to tell.

It is a sad reflection on your credibility when readers cannot tell when the material has been created in good faith and when it is a hoax.

POST SCRIPT: Platypus

Steve Benen points out that new research mapping the genome of the platypus causes yet more headaches for creationists.

July 21, 2008

Seeing evolution in real time

Evolution opponents tend to try and dismiss the evidence in its favor, as a last resort often resorting to the argument that no one has actually seen evolution occurring and a new species emerging, with all the intermediate stages clearly identified. One reason for this is, of course, that evolutionary change occurs very slowly, not visible in the transition from one generation to another. The emergence of a new species is almost always a retrospective judgment, made long after the fact, of a process that often takes thousands, or tens of thousands, of generations. By that time, most of the intermediate forms have become extinct and left no trace, since fossilization is such a rare event.

This is why researchers are finding that bacteria and other microbes, organisms that can go through multiple generations in a single day, to be valuable targets for study, allowing them to see evolutionary change and speciation within the span of a human lifetime.

In a truly remarkable piece of work, Richard Lenski of Michigan State University, starting from a single E. coli bacterium in 1989, kept breeding them in environments with a limited supply of food to see how they would adapt to their situation.

The experiment ran as follows:

He created 12 identical lines of E. coli and then fed them a meager diet of glucose. The bacteria would run out of sugar by the afternoon, and the following morning Dr. Lenski would transfer a few of the survivors to a freshly supplied flask.

From time to time Dr. Lenski also froze some of the bacteria from each of the 12 lines. It became what he likes to call a “frozen fossil record.” By thawing them out later, Dr. Lenski could directly compare them with younger bacteria.

Within a few hundred generations, Dr. Lenski was seeing changes, and the bacteria have been changing ever since. The microbes have adapted to their environment, reproducing faster and faster over the years. One striking lesson of the experiment is that evolution often follows the same path. “We’ve found a lot of parallel changes,” Dr. Lenski said.

The clever part of this experiment was that by freezing samples every 500 generations or so along the way, Lenski could go back in time if necessary and identify when specific changes occurred. He now has over 40,000 generations of bacteria and has thus been able to track closely the way that random mutations and natural selection, the fundamental basis of evolution, works. What these and other similar experiments do is show evolution occurring in real time.

One result of his experiments is that the bacteria are now twice as big as their common ancestor and reproduce 75 percent faster.

But the more dramatic result that Lenski observed was that after 33,127 generations, suddenly one of the colonies of the E. coli bacteria evolved the ability to absorb citrate, a nutrient found in abundance in the broth in which the bacteria are cultured. One of the signature marks of standard or 'wild' E. coli is their inability, unlike many other microbes, to absorb citrate.

Science reporter Carl Zimmer, who has been following these experiments, reports on the analysis they did of what happened.

[Lenski's graduate student Zachary] Blount took on the job of figuring out what happened. He first tried to figure out when it happened. He went back through the ancestral stocks to see if they included any citrate-eaters. For the first 31,000 generations, he could find none. Then, in generation 31,500, they made up 0.5% of the population. Their population rose to 19% in the next 1000 generations, but then they nearly vanished at generation 33,000. But in the next 120 generations or so, the citrate-eaters went berserk, coming to dominate the population.

This rise and fall and rise suggests that the evolution of citrate-eating was not a one-mutation affair. The first mutation (or mutations) allowed the bacteria to eat citrate, but they were outcompeted by some glucose-eating mutants that still had the upper hand. Only after they mutated further did their citrate-eating become a recipe for success.

So we see the clear emergence of a new form of E. coli, able to live on citrate in a way that 'wild' E. coli are not found to be able to do. The fact that these bacteria developed the ability to switch their diet from the meager glucose to the abundantly available citrate is a significant evolutionary step, showing how an organism can adapt to its environment in ways that make it better able to survive.

This really is a beautiful experiment, illustrating once again how much of science depends on painstaking, long-term, careful study.

Next: Religious anti-evolutionists attack Lenski's work.

POST SCRIPT: Comedian Dave Allen on the story of Genesis

July 18, 2008

The propaganda machine and climate change

Some time ago, in one of my posts in my series on climate change, I pondered on why there seemed to be such a vehement opposition to the idea that human actions might be causing an irreversible and disastrous change to our planet. After all, this seems like largely a scientific question that, unlike (say) evolution, has no religious or partisan political implications.

But somewhere along the way, the word seems to have spread amongst right-wing political and religious types that the warnings about possible irreversible global warming represent some kind of deep plot being advanced by leftists and scientists and atheists working together, and this has resulted in a union of right-wing think tanks and politicians and Christians to oppose the idea. How did that happen?

Evidence for the organized nature of the opposition to the ideas of global warming coming from a particular ideological perspective is not hard to find. A new study looks at how the so-called ''Conservative Think Tanks', (CTTs) play an important element in the propaganda machine by underwriting those who are skeptical of the dangers of climate change.

Our analyses of the sceptical literature and CTTs indicate an unambiguous linkage between the two. Over 92 per cent of environmentally sceptical books are linked to conservative think tanks, and 90 per cent of conservative think tanks interested in environmental issues espouse scepticism. Environmental scepticism began in the US, is strongest in the US, and exploded after the end of the Cold War and the emergence of global environmental concern stimulated by the 1992 Earth Summit. Environmental scepticism is an elite-driven reaction to global environmentalism, organised by core actors within the conservative movement. Promoting scepticism is a key tactic of the anti-environmental counter-movement coordinated by CTTs, designed specifically to undermine the environmental movement's efforts to legitimise its claims via science. Thus, the notion that environmental sceptics are unbiased analysts exposing the myths and scare tactics employed by those they label as practitioners of 'junk science' lacks credibility. Similarly, the self-portrayal of sceptics as marginalised 'Davids' battling the powerful 'Goliath' of environmentalists and environmental scientists is a charade, as sceptics are supported by politically powerful CTTs funded by wealthy foundations and corporations.

The movement to undermine the environmental movement is largely underwritten by corporations and their supporters who want to prevent having to comply with environmental regulations that might limit their profits. Some of the CTTs are funded by companies (like ExxonMobil) that have a stake in preventing any regulations that limit their profits, and even have their CEOs on the boards.

But even that still does not answer the question of how this opposition became so widespread and vehement. This is why I found this blog entry very interesting. It is by someone who has pondered this same question and, tracing this phenomenon back in time, finds that there is a family of conspiracy theories that have caused this situation. He has created an entire genealogical tree of the theories.

He said it started during the Cold War in 1962 with the labeling of Rachel Carson as a Communist sympathizer. She is often considered the founder of the modern American environmental movement with her book Silent Spring, warning of the dangers of DDT. That allegation became expanded to suggest that some environmentalists may even be Soviet agents seeking to undermine capitalism, and that they were suppressing the work of enviroskeptics.

Meanwhile, on a different front, those who were unhappy with the scientific opposition to Reagan's Star Wars missile defense shield plan started accusing scientists of being Soviet stooges.

With the end of the Soviet Union, the story has shifted and the target of opposition has changed. Instead of the environmental movement being merely a tool to advance communism by advocating measures that will increase the costs of business and raise taxes, the environmental movement has now replaced communism as the main foe of capitalism.

Of course, since the religious right has always viewed 'godless communism' with alarm, they tend to sign on to anything that seems to oppose or restrict the workings of capitalism in any way, even if means allowing unregulated industries unbridled freedom to pollute and destroy the environment.

Thus emerged the coalition of big industry, conservative think tanks, the religious right, and their political allies, all working to discredit any science that seems to suggest that we are doing irreparable harm to our environment.

Although the article is not a scholarly one and not an authoritative source, it is interesting and thought-provoking.

POST SCRIPTS: Amazing back flips

July 17, 2008

Cloning god

Thanks to this blog, I keep learning interesting new stuff. You may recall that I expressed bewilderment at the possibility that any adult could possibly believe in the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which asserts that when the priest during the communion service consecrates the bread and wine, the bread becomes the actual body of Jesus and the wine becomes his actual blood.

In response to my posting on the fuss over a college student taking home a consecrated wafer, a commenter Timothy said that the desecration of the wafer was indeed much worse than murder, genocide, etc, if you believed that the wafer was the body of Jesus-god. As evidence that it was, he provided a link to an event that supposedly occurred in the Italian city of Lanciano around 700 CE.

This was news to me. According to that article, a monk who doubted the doctrine of transubstantiation was astounded when the 'host' (i.e. the wafer/bread) physically changed into human flesh, and the wine changed into globules of actual blood, causing a sensation amongst the people in the church.

The article says that, "Various ecclesiastical investigation ("Recognitions") were conducted since 1574" and that the flesh and blood remained remarkably well preserved over the centuries, despite being exposed to the environment.

We are also told that "In 1970-'71 and taken up again partly in 1981 there took place a scientific investigation by the most illustrious scientist Prof. Odoardo Linoli, eminent Professor in Anatomy and Pathological Histology and in Chemistry and Clinical Microscopy. He was assisted by Prof. Ruggero Bertelli of the University of Siena." What these people found was that the flesh was real flesh from a human heart and the blood was human blood, with the blood in both being of the AB type, supposedly the same as found in the Shroud of Turin.

(For more detailed accounts, see here and here. One report even says that "in 1973, the chief Advisory Board of the World Health Organization appointed a scientific commission to corroborate Linoli’s findings. Their work lasted 15 months and included 500 tests. It was verified that the fragments taken from Lanciano could in no way be likened to embalmed tissue.")

That is pretty impressive, spectacularly so, if taken at face value. In fact, it is amazing that the Catholic Church does not make it a centerpiece of its message to its followers, or use it for its public relations, and that the items themselves are not a magnet for the faithful to go and see. It definitely puts other pilgrimage sites like Lourdes to shame.

But as another commenter Greg pointed out in response, all reports on this phenomenon seem to be from Catholic sources and that information is scarce about Professors Linoli and Bertelli. I too found (admittedly after just a Google search, nothing deeper) that references to this event seem to have very similar wording, suggesting a common source document, and all references to Linoli are with reference to this one event.

As Greg points out in his comment, the most likely explanation is that the original claim of a miraculous transformation of bread and wine was a hoax based on a simple sleight-of-hand substitution, to convince doubters in the church at that time that the doctrine was not nonsense. After all, all that we have now is this flesh and blood. There is no evidence that any transformation took place at all to convert bread and wine into them, except for the claims of the monk who says he observed it happening, and he is hardly an impartial source.

But suppose we set aside skepticism and take the story at face value and follow its implications. The first problem is that much of the religious apologetics concerning transubstantiation is designed to explain why the wafer and wine look just like ordinary wafers and wine, and even have the same physical properties of ordinary wafers and wine, even though it has been transformed into the flesh and blood of Jesus. So why in this particular case did it physically change into actual flesh and blood? What could be the point of such a one-off event? To convince a single skeptical monk 1,300 years ago?

The really interesting thing about taking this story at face value is that since we now have the actual flesh and blood of Jesus, we can now obtain the actual DNA of god. Knowledge of the DNA may enable us to answer the very puzzling question of whether Jesus really was blonde and blue-eyed, even though he was a Middle Easterner.

The whole virgin birth thing has also been a bit of a problem genetically and the availability of Jesus's DNA would enable us to solve the following puzzle: Since each human gets half his or her genes from each parent, a male like Jesus would get his X-chromosome from his mother and the Y-chromosome from his father. The baffling question is if, how, and from where Jesus would get his Y-chromosome, if he had a virgin birth. There seem to me to be four options, and DNA studies could resolve which one is correct.

If Jesus only got one set genes from his mother, then he would have only half the genetic make up of a normal human and he would not really be human, which upsets the doctrine that Jesus lived among us as a human. It also means that the normal means by which the DNA and cells divide and multiply could not work. A whole new mechanism would be needed for Jesus to physically grow, both in the womb and after birth.

If he got both sets chromosomes from his mother, that would make him an XX and thus female. The idea that Jesus was a woman in drag would boggle the mind of a believer. Also, if the two sets of chromosomes were identical, he would be susceptible to any of the ailments present in all the harmful recessive genes in Mary since there would be no dominant healthy genes from the father to shield him. All of us have many deleterious genes that we inherit from each parent but fortunately most of them are recessive and their effects are not manifested because of the dominant 'good' genes from the other parent.

A third possibility is that god somehow inserted his own set of genes (and the Y-chromosome) into Mary's egg so that Jesus did have the full set of genes that a normal man would have and this would also justify the claim that Jesus was god's son. This would be pretty conclusive evidence that god is also of the male gender and we can dispense with all the efforts to use cumbersome gender-neutral language when talking about god.

But all these three options have the problem that at least half of Jesus's DNA comes from Mary, a human, so Jesus cannot be fully god as well. The fourth possibility is that god inserted his own entire DNA into Mary's egg and that fertilized egg eventually became the flesh-and-blood Jesus, with Mary as simply the conduit, a surrogate mother to use the current terminology. Thus Jesus is both god (since his DNA is entirely god's) and human (since he has a full set of human chromosomes), Mary is his mother (since he gestated in and emerged from her womb), it was a virgin birth, and god is his father, thus solving almost of the theological problems of Christianity rather neatly.

We can also now map Jesus's DNA completely and thus know what god's DNA is. Presumably that would be the perfect DNA, having none of the disorders associated with ordinary human DNA. Right now, the Human Genome Project maps out a kind of 'average' DNA. We would now have a perfect standard to compare it to.

There would still be some interpretive problems. Since a person's DNA can be used to trace their matriarchal and patriarchal lines of ancestors, we could trace the DNA back through the ancestral lines and see the geographical distribution of its origins. But what would that mean for god, since he has no ancestors?

But those are mere technicalities. The really exciting possibility is this: As I have written about before, the latest techniques of genetic engineering enable us to take the nucleus of a cell from any piece of tissue from any part of a body and use it to clone a new being, someone with the same DNA as was contained in that nucleus.

So if the Lanciano story is true and we have the actual tissues of Jesus, we are now able to clone god!

Looking back over this post, I see that not only has it has provided answers to all the major difficult issues of Christian theology, it has also proposed the most important scientific experiment in human history.

I think I need to go and lie down and rest.

POST SCRIPT: Missed opportunity

In a new book, While America Aged: How Pension Debts Ruined General Motors, Stopped the NYC Subways, Bankrupted San Diego, and Loom as the Next Financial Crisis , Roger Lowenstein looks at how pension and health care obligations to workers became the responsibility of employers and not the government, and what is happening now as the bills come due.

In the 1950s, the United Auto Workers won generous pension and health care benefits from General Motors, even to the extent of securing medical coverage for retirees. The union leader Walter Reuther, while getting these benefits for his members, felt that such benefits should be extended to all workers everywhere and to all Americans in general. He also had the foresight to realize that the benefits he was obtaining were unsustainable for the company over the long run. He suggested to GM management that together they lobby the government to put pensions and health care under federal administration, basically creating a single-payer universal health care and pension system, as exists now in many countries, and which I have long advocated.

But GM, powerful and profitable then, wanted to have nothing to do with what seemed to smack of socialism. Now, GM and other US automakers are in deep financial trouble and teetering on bankruptcy because they still pay for pensions and health care while Japanese automakers do not, thus giving the latter a huge advantage in pricing. It is claimed that health care costs alone add about $1,500 to the cost of each car produced by a US automaker.

You can listen to an NPR interview with Loewenstein here.

July 16, 2008

Natural and unnatural lifestyles

I recently had a discussion with someone whom I had known well growing up in Sri Lanka and who was visiting the US. She asked me my opinion about the recent highly publicized raid by the Texas Child Protective Services on the compound where polygamous Mormon families lived. All the children were separated from their parents by the Texas CPS on the basis of a single anonymous phone call alleging that sexual abuse of a minor had occurred. The decision by the CPS was first upheld in the lower court but an appeals court overthrew the verdict saying that you could not separate children from their parents without finding specific cause in each individual case. The CPS then appealed to the Texas Supreme Court but they lost and were ordered to reunite the children with their parents.

I responded that I agreed with the appeals courts. In my view the child welfare authorities had gone completely overboard and had resorted to such drastic action because the targeted community was a polygamous one and thus was disapproved of by the authorities. They would not have dreamed of entering a village of monogamous, heterosexual couples and separated all the children from their parents on the basis of a single anonymous and unsubstantiated allegation of child abuse. I personally have no problem with the practice of polygamy and think it absurd that we are still trying to regulate by law those things that should be strictly the private concern of individuals.

My visitor from Sri Lanka also asked me my views about gay marriage and the adoption of children by gay people. I said that I had no problems with this practice either and that the kind of prejudice that exists against polygamists was also at play when people argued against the adoption of children by gay couples.

She made the point that the adopted children of gay couples or the children of polygamous families might suffer harm from the stigma associated with their families' nontraditional lifestyles, and thus such arrangements might not be in the best interests of the children. In addition, she suggested that the lifestyles of these people were not 'natural' and that was why it may be appropriate to discourage them by treating them differently.

One hears these arguments all the time, that the norm is that marriage is between one man and one woman and that anything else is deviant behavior, worthy of disapproval, if not outright banning.

To counter this, some people try to argue that such nontraditional lifestyles are 'natural' because parallels can be found to occur in nature, that nonhuman animals often practice homosexuality or have multiple partners. In addition, there is currently some evidence that homosexuality is at least partly genetic and thus influenced by biology and is thus not a free choice. Such studies are used by gay rights advocates to support the view that homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality.

I frankly do not see the point of this argument. Whether some behavior is acceptable or not should not depend on whether it occurs 'naturally' (i.e., spontaneously) in nature or whether it is encoded in our genes. After all we, as humans, do any number of things that are not found in nature or are in defiance of our genetic drives. Practically our whole lives involve activities that do not have analogs in the animal kingdom. That is because we have developed language and culture and technology that enable us to be social animals capable of functioning at a highly abstract level and make collective decisions. Furthermore, there are lots of things going on in the animal kingdom (killing, cannibalism, forcible sex, infanticide, among others) that we consider unacceptable behavior. The idea that we should take our moral cues from the nonhuman animal world seems bizarre. We would not accept a defense of murder, for example, that argues that it is ok because animals do it to each other.

It seems to me that the evolved ability to converse and create culture enables us to transcend out biological drives, to be more than our instincts. Because of our ability to converse and arrive at agreed-upon norms of behavior, we can develop general principles as to what is acceptable and what is not that are independent of whether other animals do similar things. The principle of 'justice as fairness' advocated by John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice seems like the kind of thing we should be seeking to order our lives and society, not borrowing from animal behavior.

So if it turns out that future research shows that there is no genetic basis whatsoever for homosexuality and that it is purely a matter of choice, so what? As long as they are not harming others, why is it of any concern to me if other people choose partners of the same sex or opposite sex? As for the argument that adopted children of gays or the children of polygamous families might suffer from the stigma, the only reason there is a stigma at all is because the rest of us have an intolerant view of such lifestyles. It is we who have a problem and who should change, not them.

Similarly, if a woman decides that she wants to marry three husbands and they all freely consent, why should I care? If for whatever reason, two men and three women decide that they would like to all be married to each other and live together as a single family unit, they won't get any objection from me.

I think my relative was a little startled by my views. Since I have lived in the US for about three decades, many of the people I grew up with in Sri Lanka have little idea of my thinking on many issues and these often come as a surprise to them. She did ask if my views have changed as I have got older and I had to agree. As I age, I have become more and more accepting of the lifestyle choices made by others. Perhaps it is because I have an increasing sense that life is a precious gift that we each possess for just a short time and thus people should not be denied the harmless pleasures that life affords.

As long as decisions are being freely made by consenting adults and do not harm others, people should be free to choose whatever lifestyles that suits their needs.

What surprises me is that such a viewpoint is not more universally held.

POST SCRIPT: Solar powered car

See the video of a completely solar-powered car that is on a round-the-world trip without using a single drop of gas. It has already been to 27 countries and the US is the 28th. Quite amazing.

(Thanks for the link to my daughter Dashi who was lucky enough to actually see the car in Berkeley, California and listen to a presentation by its inventor Lewis Palmer, a Swiss schoolteacher.)

July 15, 2008

Much ado about transubstantiation

In the previous post, I suggested that the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which asserts that when the priest during the communion service consecrates the bread and wine, the bread becomes the actual body of Jesus and the wine becomes his actual blood, was a fairly bizarre thing to believe in this day and age and raised the possibility that perhaps even Catholics did not really believe in it but were just humoring the church by going along with a doctrine that came into being a long time ago.

I wrote that post some time ago but late last week brought to my attention a news item that suggested that there are many Catholics who not only believe it literally but for whom it is a very big deal indeed.

Webster Cook, a student at the University of Central Florida, went to mass on his campus but instead of immediately, as is the custom, eating the wafer (which is the modern day substitute for bread), he tried to take it back to his pew. And that was when the trouble started.

Cook claims he planned to consume it, but first wanted to show it to a fellow student senator he brought to Mass who was curious about the Catholic faith.

"When I received the Eucharist, my intention was to bring it back to my seat to show him," Cook said. "I took about three steps from the woman distributing the Eucharist and someone grabbed the inside of my elbow and blocked the path in front of me. At that point I put it in my mouth so they'd leave me alone and I went back to my seat and I removed it from my mouth."

A church leader was watching, confronted Cook and tried to recover the sacred bread. Cook said she crossed the line and that's why he brought it home with him.

"She came up behind me, grabbed my wrist with her right hand, with her left hand grabbed my fingers and was trying to pry them open to get the Eucharist out of my hand," Cook said, adding she wouldn't immediately take her hands off him despite several requests.

He did manage to take it back to his dorm. But when word of his action got around, a major-league hoo-hah ensued. A spokesperson for the local diocese said that this act should be considered a 'hate crime' and called upon the university authorities to punish the student severely enough to discourage future such acts. The church also demanded that Cook return the wafer.

Of course, William Donohue (head of the Catholic League and founder member of The Church of Perpetual Outrage in Order to Get Publicity) seized another golden opportunity to get himself in the media and issued a statement saying that the act went 'beyond hate speech' and called for the student's expulsion. He said that the wafer was being held 'hostage'. Carol Brinati, with the Diocese of Orlando, is reported to have said that the Catholic community was "concerned about the possible desecration of the Eucharist," and pleaded for its 'safe return'. The parallel to a hostage taking popped up everywhere. Father Miguel Gonzalez of the Diocese was quoted as saying, "Imagine if they kidnapped somebody and you make a plea for that individual to please return that loved one to the family."

In fact, Gonzalez says that treating the blessed bread with anything less than the highest respect is considered a 'mortal sin'. This is the worst class of sin, pretty much guaranteeing a lifetime in hell.

After Cook started receiving death threats and learned of attempts to break into his dorm room to 'rescue' the wafer, he eventually returned it to the church in a Ziploc bag.

The fuss over this matter was taken so seriously that the university even sent armed uniformed guards to watch over the next mass to make sure another such 'hostage taking' did not occur. The diocese also dispatched a nun to stand guard. There was no mention of whether she was also armed.

As a coda to this story, University of Minnesota evolutionary biologist and staunch foe of religion P. Z. Myers had some fun with this episode over at his blog Pharyngula, which is where I got most of the links. Since Cook had returned the wafer seemingly undesecrated, Myers requested his readers to obtain a consecrated wafer and send it to him, so that he could personally desecrate it.

This naturally moved the outrage meter of Donohue even further into the deep red zone and he has started a letter writing campaign against Myers to the university president, trustees, and Minnesota state legislators.

There is a curious thing about the overheated rhetoric on this matter. True, Myers may have gone overboard in causing offense in order to emphasize his sense that the whole incident was ridiculous, but I would have thought that the most one could say is that he acted in bad taste, like those Danish newspaper that published cartoons lampooning the prophet Mohammed or the US soldier accused of shooting the Koran.

These kinds of insults are like those silly "Your mama is . . ." taunts that one can hear on children's playgrounds or among immature athletes in competition, trying to goad the other person into doing something stupid. The mature thing to do is to ignore such taunts. But it is usually the case that the more fragile a belief is, the more vehement and angry the defense, in order to discourage other people from questioning it.

Donohue takes the bait put out by Myers and stretches credulity by saying in response that, "It is hard to think of anything more vile than to intentionally desecrate the Body of Christ". Really? He can't think of anything viler than fooling around with a wafer that has had some words said over it? What about murder? Rape? Genocide? Slavery? Child abuse? Those things are lesser evils than violating some ancient and esoteric church doctrine?

And what exactly constitutes desecration? If you eat the wafer, as required by the Church, the 'Body of Christ' gets digested in the stomach and intestines and eventually emerges as excrement to be flushed down the toilet. That's pretty serious desecration, you would think, unless the wafer somehow ceases to be the 'Body of Christ' as soon as it passes from the mouth into the throat and reverts to becoming an ordinary food item. I have no idea if that also is part of the doctrine of transubstantiation. No doubt the Vatican has a crack team of senior theologians on its Transubstantiation Task Force studying this very question.

But it is an example of the kind of never-ending increasing complications and contradictions that arise when you elevate ritual and symbolism into something more or try to make sense out of religious dogma.

POST SCRIPT: Childhood religious indoctrination

Irish comedian Dave Allen described his own experience with learning Christian doctrine as a child at the hands of nuns.

(Thanks to OneGoodMove.)

July 14, 2008

Why religions expect you to believe preposterous things

On a recent trip to Sri Lanka, I visited the mother of an old friend of mine, and the conversation turned to religion. She was a Protestant who had married a Catholic. She had thought about converting to Catholicism but in the end found it impossible to do so. She said that she found she could not accept three things that the Catholic Church required you to believe: transubstantiation, the infallibility of the Pope, and the assumption of Jesus' mother Mary (i.e., the belief that Mary did not die but was 'assumed' directly into heaven).

These things are pretty tough to believe. Transubstantiation alone is enough to give anyone pause. This doctrine asserts that when the priest during the communion service consecrates the bread and wine, the bread becomes the actual body of Jesus and the wine becomes his actual blood.

I have often wondered if, in their heart of hearts, Catholics actually believe this. It seems to me that if they did, it would be hard to avoid having the gag reflex that accompanies the thought of engaging in what are essentially cannibalistic practices. Yet millions of Catholics go through this ritual every week with seeming equanimity. Perhaps they don't really believe but convince themselves that they kinda, sorta do in order to not seem like heretics. Or maybe they just don't think about it.

But although this is a particularly striking example of the kinds of extraordinary things that religious people are expected to believe, it is not by itself more preposterous than believing that Jesus rose from the dead or that god ordered the sun to stand still during the battle of Jericho or that the angel Gabriel dictated the Koran to Mohammed.

In fact, organized god-based religions sometimes seem to go out of their way to create difficult things to believe in. It seems like if you are a member of any organized god-based religion, you are expected to believe preposterous things. Abandoning reason and logic and evidence and science and accepting preposterous things purely on faith is deemed to be a virtuous act.

In Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass, the White Queen tells Alice that it is easy to believe impossible things. "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." She says her trick to believing in something that is wildly improbable is to simply draw a long breath and shut her eyes. Sounds a lot like praying.

Of course, many people find it hard to abandon reason and believe impossible things, and thus leave religion and become atheists or at least agnostics. Some modernist theologians have tried to counter this problem by stripping as much of the extreme forms of the supernatural as possible from religions to make it more acceptable intellectually. They argue that god is some mysterious essence, some life force that gives 'meaning' to our lives, a 'ground of our being', and so on, but is not a physical human-like entity that we communicate with or can expect to intervene in our lives. In this approach, it is attempted to free religion from all those difficult beliefs that are hard to accept.

Would such a trend make religion more acceptable to more people, largely freeing them from having to choose between religion and common sense? Superficially, one would think so but some research suggests otherwise. The success of religions seems to depend on having people believe difficult or impossible things. Paradoxically, the more difficult the belief is to accept intellectually and the more rigid rules with which it binds believers, the more successful the religion is in holding onto its adherents. "[T]he most successful religions, in terms of growth and maintenance of membership, are those with absolute, unwavering, strict, and enforced normative standards of behavior." (Study cited by Peggy Catron, Encountering Faith in the Classroom, Miriam Diamond (Ed.), 2008, p. 70.)

This may be why those religious doctrines that are really hard for a rational person to accept (fundamentalist Christianity and Islam, Roman Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism) don't seem to be in any danger of going extinct in the face of modern science that undermines their doctrines. They may even be experiencing growth, while it is the more open-minded liberal religious traditions that are in decline. It is as if people want their thinking to be bound and confined and that they fear intellectual freedom. It seems like a form of intellectual masochism.

Why is this? I don't really know. Perhaps it is because once you have convinced someone to believe an impossible idea as an entry point to membership in an organization, they have crossed a threshold that makes them accepting of all the other impossible ideas that come as part of that religious package. Since people pride themselves on being rational, getting them to accept something bizarre at an early age, like a virgin birth, means that they will then try to construct reasons why such a belief makes sense or suppress any questions and doubts. I find it interesting that believers in a god, instead of frankly saying, "Yes, it is irrational but I believe anyway", will go to great lengths to try and use reason and logic to convince others that their beliefs are rational when they are manifestly not.

Once you have got people to suspend their rational thinking in at least one part of their life, all the other seemingly small, but equally preposterous, beliefs that are required don't seem so hard to swallow. This may be why religious organizations carry out induction ceremonies for new members mostly when they are children, before their skepticism is fully developed and when the desire of children to join the organization of their parents is still strong.

It is also perhaps similar to how brutal hazing is sometimes used to bond people to a fraternities or secret societies. Once you have overcome that kind of hurdle, it is emotionally harder to back out, to admit that one must have been crazy to ever do or believe such a thing.

Note: I wrote this post some time ago but never got around to posting it since there seemed to be no urgency. To my amazement, transubstantiation, of all things, suddenly burst into the news late last week down in Florida. I will write about that tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT: The propaganda machine at work

In my series on the propaganda machine, I spoke about how publishing houses like Regnery seem to exist largely for the purpose of subsidizing and promoting authors who promote their specific agenda, irrespective of the quality of the work or even that of the author. Here is another example.

July 11, 2008

Knowing when to say uncle

One of the advantages of living in more than one country is that one notices interesting differences. One of the differences with Sri Lanka that struck me is that in the US there is no standard system to deal with the question of how one should address elders in the category that can be described as 'friends once removed'. By this I mean the people who are the friends of one's parents or the parents of one's friends.

Take for example, the question of how young Billy should address John Smith, the good friend of his parents. In some households, Billy's parents encourage him to call him 'John' while in other families he is referred to as 'Mr. Smith'. Some adults find the familiarity of being called by their first name by a child to be acceptable or even welcome, while others find it uncomfortable and may even resent it. But given that there is no system in place to address this point of social etiquette, one simply has to deal with the idiosyncratic choices people make..

In Sri Lanka, there is a system to deal with this. Any male who is of the same generation as one's parents is called generically 'uncle' while females are called 'aunty'. The use of this honorary title is meant to signify respect for one's elders, while at the same time acknowledging that the person is not a stranger. This generic term also overcomes the awkwardness of meeting one's parents' friends that one has met before but whose name one has forgotten (which happens to me all the time in highly sociable societies like Sri Lanka). One simply refers to them as uncle or aunty and everything's fine.

If John and Jane are really close friends of the family, then they may be referred to more specifically as 'uncle John' or 'aunty Jane'. Such titles remain the same throughout one's life, never becoming more familiar, however old you and your 'uncle' gets. Even now, I refer to my friends' parents or my parents' friends as uncle and aunty although I have known some of them for nearly a half-century, am really close to them, and converse with them as equals. It would never occur to me to call them by their first name alone. Retaining the title is more than mere habit, it is a sign of the respect that I have for them as elders.

In such a system, how does one distinguish between one's biological uncles and aunts and the honorary ones? Usually the English terms uncle and aunty are reserved for the honorary relatives while the real ones are called by their vernacular equivalents. In Tamil, the term for uncle is 'mama' (rhymes with 'drama') while for aunt is 'mamy' (the same first syllable but the second pronounced as 'me'.) So 'Reggie mama' was how I referred to my father's brother while 'Uncle Amaradasa' was my friend's father.

It is also the case that within families in the Sinhala and Tamil communities of Sri Lanka, relatives are often referred to not by their names but by a title that specifies their relationship to the speaker. For example, a father's younger brother would usually not be called merely uncle but the equivalent of 'small father' while the father's older brother would be called 'big father.' If your father had two older brothers, the eldest would be called 'big big father' while the other would be called 'small big father.' If he had two younger brothers, they would be 'big small father' and 'small small father', and so on. For grandparents, there were different titles for your father's father that distinguished him from your mother's father.

Similarly one's siblings would also be referred to by their titles 'older brother,' 'younger sister' and so on. If there are a lot of siblings, they would have their names prefaced by these titles. This would extend to cousins as well. Even now, I am called the equivalent of 'older brother Mano' by some cousins who are just a few years younger than me. A parallel system exists for female relatives.

Although all this may sound strange and complicated to someone not used to it, it is a very logical system that children easily learn. I am not sure how or why this system arose. It may be the benign byproduct of more class and caste conscious societies where it was important that everyone know their relative position in society.

In more westernized families in Sri Lanka, the awarding of titles to siblings and cousins has disappeared, especially for those younger than you. But the terms uncle and aunty for older adults remain. It is a sign of respect for age and I think it serves a useful role.

POST SCRIPT: Matching product to taste

Ira Glass, host of NPR's excellent program This American Life, offers some excellent advice to those who do any kind of creative work.


July 10, 2008

"Dying is easy. Comedy is hard"

Those words were supposedly spoken by the actor Sir Donald Wolfit on his deathbed.

When it comes to acting, comedy is far harder to pull off well than tragedy. With tragedy, earnestness will take you a long way. Not so with humor. The elements of comedy are so ephemeral that it is hard to script. We all have had the experience of having laughed uproariously at something and then tried to tell the story to someone else and been confronted with bafflement or a polite smile and been reduced to weakly explaining "You had to be there." We all know people who can tell a marginally funny story in such a way that it evokes great laughs while others manage to make unfunny even the best comedic material.

This is true with writers too. Anyone who has tried to write anything humorous will immediately sympathize with Wolfit's sentiment. I suspect that most people who see themselves as writers eventually succumb to the temptation to try their hand at humor, usually with disastrous results. The worst culprits are those newspaper columnists who write on serious topics and once in a while try to write inject some humor. What they usually resort to is satire or parody because, being derivative, such forms require the least originality.

A favorite device of political columnists is to describe some fictional conversation between well-known figures on the topic of the day. The result, unfortunately, is usually cringe-inducing because it is usually so heavy-handed. Even satire and parody require a deft and light touch to pull off but most writers tend towards hamhandedness and overkill. The central humorous conceit that triggered the idea of writing a funny piece usually can be told in just a few lines but it takes a lot of skill to stretch it out over a whole essay, let along a book, and very few writers can do that. Because I love reading humorous writing, I too have succumbed to the temptation to try my hand at it and the results have appeared occasionally on this blog (though some readers might have not have realized the humorous intent!)

It is tempting to want to write humor because the experts make it look so deceptively easy. But the words that seem to have been just tossed off casually hide a lot of hard work. In the case of Wodehouse, he would rewrite repeatedly, trying to get just the right word or phrase, carefully setting up and rearranging scenes, and worrying about the pacing of the plot. If he was dissatisfied with the way a novel was developing, he would sometimes ruthlessly throw everything out and start over. That requires real toughness because it is easy to get attached to one's words and be loath to throw away weeks or months of hard work.

Good writing of any kind requires repeated rewriting and this is what makes humor so hard. When you are writing a serious piece, it is easy to go back and polish and re-polish, trying to make the point clearer and more effectively, trying to find the correct words and images to convey the central idea.

The reason it is so hard to do this with humor is that an important element of humor is surprise, the sudden appearance of the unexpected. Once the basic joke has been written, it is hard for the writer to go back to revise it and still think of it as funny. And the more one rewrites, the unfunnier it seems to get. This leads to the temptation to overwrite, to adorn the writing with flourishes that makes the humor seem forced.

Just as it takes hard work by a chef with great skill to get the lightness and airiness of a soufflé, the difficulty with comedy is keep it light. I suspect that good humorists have the ability to keep their focus on the central joke and to still see it as funny even after they have rewritten it many times. They are able to keep it light while sharpening it and making it more pointed, while those less skilled tend to weigh it down.

I cannot think of any contemporary novelists who I find to be in the same league of funniness as a Wodehouse. One of the funniest non-novelist writers currently is Dave Barry. His weekly columns in the Miami Herald are consistently good and his many books are a laugh riot. His humor is broader (and coarser) than that of a Wodehouse, funny is a very different way. His quick romp through American history in Dave Barry Slept Here and his travel book on Japan Dave Barry Does Japan are well worth reading. (For a brief excerpt of the latter, see here.)

POST SCRIPT: McCain=Bush in more ways than one

George Bush was notorious for being so insecure that his team would keep out of the audience anyone who looked like they might be even mildly critical of him, even if it was simply on a t-shirt. It looks like McCain is very much like Bush in this regard. At a recent public event, a librarian was threatened with arrest for having a sign that said simply 'McCain=Bush'.

It is interesting that being identified with the sitting president of your own party is seen as such a threat by the candidate.


July 09, 2008

The humor of P. G. Wodehouse

There is something very alluring about comedy and humor. Laughter is wonderful. It puts everyone in a good mood, at ease and lowers their defenses. To be able to make other people laugh and be happy is a wonderful talent and people like people who can make them laugh. It is no accident that public speakers often begin with a joke.

I have always enjoyed humor. My earliest childhood influences were the books by Richmal Crompton (author of the William series) and Frank W. Richards (creator of Billy Bunter). As I got older I started reading P. G. Wodehouse, S. J. Perelman, and Stephen Leacock and any other writer I could find in the library who was described as a comic or humorous writer. The comedy writers who appeal to me are those who edge on the absurd and who use the nature of the English language itself as a source for much of their humor.

Of them all, Wodehouse was, and remains, my favorite writer to this day. I have read the classic Jeeves/Wooster and Blandings Castle series many times over. He is the perfect choice for those days when one is feeling blah and nothing appeals to you to do.

Wodehouse's craftsmanship was so meticulous and his use of language so sublime that his readers did not care that the stock plots were contrived and the characters stereotypical, and that you knew that there would be a happy endings all around in which even the villains were let off lightly. With Wodehouse, the pleasure lay on two levels, the surface one in which one is just carried along by the smoothness of the writing and the frantic pace of events, and below the surface by the appreciation of observing a language master at work.

Take for example, the classic The Code of the Woosters. Bertie Wooster, the rich, idle, none-too-bright narrator once again, through a series of misunderstandings, finds himself in the situation in which Madeline Bassett, a woman whose personality he finds revolting, is convinced that Bertie is madly in love with her. Wodehouse, via Wooster, paints a portrait of this 'ghastly girl'.

I call her a ghastly girl because she was a ghastly girl. The Woosters are chivalrous, but they can speak their mind. A droopy, soupy, sentimental exhibit, with melting eyes and a cooing voice and the most extraordinary views on such things as stars and daisy chains. I remember her telling me once that rabbits were gnomes in attendance on the Fairy Queen and that the stars were God's daisy chain. Perfect rot, of course. They're nothing of the sort.

With those few deft lines, the reader is immediately made aware of what kind of person Madeline is and what the problem is. She is someone who oozes 'soul' from every pore, while Bertie has none.

The sappy Madeline, however, loves the equally sappy newt-fancier (and Bertie's friend) Gussie Fink-Nottle, and they become engaged, leaving Bertie relieved that he is off the hook. But she has told Bertie that if it should ever turn out that her marriage to Gussie should not take place and she can't have the happiness she desires with Gussie, she will sacrifice herself and at least make Bertie happy by marrying him. This is a prospect he finds alarming to the utmost but he is too chivalrous to tell her that the thought of marrying her gives him the heebie-jeebies. He has his code of behavior and it does not allow him to dump a girl. Many of the Jeeves/Wooster stories center around Jeeves' strategies to get the girl to dump Bertie.

When Gussie sends Bertie a telegram from Madeline's country estate saying that the two of them have had a tiff and their engagement is off, an alarmed Bertie quickly rushes to his friend's aid to try and patch things up. This has happened before in previous books and Bertie's earlier desperate attempts to reconcile Madeline with Gussie have been seen by her as noble self-sacrificial efforts on Bertie's part, to put his friend Gussie's interests above his own, and have only increased Bertie's esteem in her eyes.

On arrival, Bertie immediately runs into Madeline, who is surprised by his appearance at her home, leading to this priceless bit of dialogue.

"Why did you come? Oh, I know what you are going to say. You felt that, cost what it might, you had to see me again, just once. You could not resist the urge to take away with you one last memory, which you could cherish down the lonely years. Oh, Bertie, you remind me of Rudel."

The name was new to me.

"Rudel?"

"The Seigneur Geoffrey Rudel, Prince of Blaye-en-Saintonge."

I shook my head.

"Never met him, I'm afraid. Pal of yours?"

"He lived in the Middle Ages. He was a great poet. And he fell in love with the wife of the Lord of Tripoli."

I stirred uneasily. I hoped she was going to keep it clean.

"For years he loved her, and at last he could resist no longer. He took ship to Tripoli, and his servants carried him ashore."

"Not feeling so good?" I said groping. "Rough crossing?"

"He was dying. Of love."

"Oh, ah."

"They bore him into the Lady Melisande's presence on a litter and he had just strength enough to reach out and touch her hand. Then he died."

She paused, and heaved a sigh that seemed to come straight up from the cami-knickers. A silence ensured.

"Terrific," I said, feeling I had to say something, though personally I didn't think the story a patch on the one about the traveling salesman and the farmer's daughter. Different, of course, if one had known the chap.

I must have read this book at least half-a-dozen times and this passage never fails to make me laugh.

Of course, humor is highly idiosyncratic and what brings one person to tears of laughter can leave another mystified. But if you like humor and have never read any Wodehouse, you owe it to yourself to try him. I suggest starting with The Code of the Woosters and Leave it to Psmith, two of my all-time favorites.

POST SCRIPT: Right wing outrage, part MMCMLXVI

What is it about popular culture that has the right wing in a state of perpetual outrage? The latest target? The Pixar animated film Wall*E.

July 08, 2008

Collective good versus private profit

One of the clichés of academia which even non-academics know is "publish or perish." In its most common understanding, it implies that those who publish more are perceived as productive scholars, worthy of recruitment and promotion.

But there are other reasons for publishing. One is to establish priority for one's ideas. In academia, ideas are the currency that matter and those who have good ideas are seen as creative people. So people publish to ensure that they receive the appropriate credit.

Another reason for publishing is to put the ideas into public circulation so that others can use them and build on them to create even more knowledge. Knowledge thrives on the open exchange of information and the general principle in academia is that all knowledge should be open and freely available so that everyone can benefit from it.

This is not, of course, the case, in the profit-driven private sector where information is jealously guarded so that the maximum profit can be obtained. This is not unreasonable in many cases. After all, without being profitable, companies would go out of business and many of the innovations we take for granted would not occur. So the knowledge is either guarded jealously (say like the formula for Coca Cola) or is patented so that other users have to pay for the privilege of using it.

But the open-information world of academia can collide with the closed, profit-making corporate world. Nowhere is this most apparent than in the drug industry. Much of the funding for medical and drug research comes from the government via agencies like the National Institutes of Health, and channeled through university and hospital researchers. These people then publish their results. But that knowledge is then often built on by private drug companies that manufacture drugs that are patented and sold for huge profits. These companies often use their immense legal resources to extend the effective lifetime of their patents so that they can profit even more.

Another example of a collision between the public good and private profit was the project to completely map the human genome. This government-funded project was designed to be open, with the results published and put into the public domain. Both heads of the Human Genome Project, first James Watson and then Francis Collins, strongly favored the open release of whatever was discovered, because of the immense potential benefits to the public. They created a giant public database into which researchers could insert their results, enabling others to use them. (To see what is involved in patenting genomic information, see here.)

But then Craig Venter, head of the private biotechnology company Celera Genomics, decided that his company would try to map the genome and make it proprietary information, and create a fee-based database,. This was fiercely resisted by the scientific community who accelerated their efforts to map the genome first and make the information open to all. The race was on and the scientific community succeeded in its goal of making the information public. Information on how to access the public database can be found here.

Many non-academics, like the journalist writing about faculty cars, simply do not understand this powerful desire amongst academics for open-access to information. I recall the discussion I had with my students regarding the film Jurassic Park. I hated the film for many reasons and said how bizarre it was that the discoverer of the process by which dinosaurs had been recreated from their DNA, a spectacular scientific achievement, had kept his knowledge secret in order to create a dinosaur theme park and make money. I said that this was highly implausible. A real scientist would have published his results to establish his claim as the original discoverer and made the information public so that others could build on it. But some of my students disagreed. They thought that it was perfectly appropriate that the first thought of the scientist was how to make a lot of money off his discovery rather than spread knowledge.

It is true that nowadays scientists and universities are increasingly seeking to file patents and create spin-off companies to financially benefit from their discoveries. Michael Moore talks about how things have changed and how the drive to make money is harming the collective good;

Thinking about that era, back in the first half of the 20th century, where you had for instance the man who invented the kidney-dialysis machine. He didn't want the patent for it, he felt it belonged to everybody. Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine, again, he wouldn't patent it. The famous quote for him is, "Would you patent the sun? It belongs to everyone." He wasn't doing this to become a millionaire. He was doing it because it was the right thing to do. During that era, that's the way people thought.

It may be that I am living in the past and that those students who thought I was crazy about not making money as the prime motivator for scientists and other academics have a better finger on the pulse than I. Perhaps new knowledge is now not seen so clearly as a public good, belonging to the world, to be used for the benefit of all. If so, it is a pity.

POST SCRIPT: Nelson Mandela, terrorist

Did you know that all this time, the US government considered Nelson Mandela to be a terrorist?

July 07, 2008

What motivates academics

Some time ago the Cleveland Plain Dealer had an article in the business pages that began by noting that when you visit the faculty parking lot of any college campus, you will find very few expensive cars such as Mercedes Benzes, Cadillacs, Porsches, Hummers, and BMWs. The writer made the inference that college professors, while perhaps very smart people in their fields of expertise, were not very smart when it came to managing their money.

The reporter was correct that college campus parking lots are not the places to find fancy cars. But her inference that this is because they are not good with money is wrong. Academics may or may not be smart about money but the cars they drive are not a good clue as to this ability. I have worked my whole life in such settings and I don't know a single academic who drives such expensive cars, even though many can afford them. When they do splurge on a car, college faculty tend to go for the low-end models of upscale car lines like Lexus or Volvo or Acura or Saab. I myself am now on my third successive Honda Accord, now four years old, which followed a Fiat, a Toyota Corolla, and a Subaru, all low-end cars. Our other family car is a 13-year old Civic.

Once my daughter asked me what car I would drive if I could have any car at all, and I told her that it was the car that I already had, the Accord. I had reached the peak of my automobile ambitions with a car that was reliable, reasonably priced, economical to run, comfortable, nice-looking, and easy to drive. Why would I want more? I don't think I am unusual in the kind of car I own or my attitude towards them. I think most academics are more likely to brag about how long they have owned their car or about how fuel-efficient it is, rather than its luxuriousness.

The Plain Dealer reporter had completely misunderstood the motivations of academics. Most academics do not go into the field to make a lot of money. They go into it because they love the subject they study and want to spend their lives doing it. This does not mean that they are ascetics. They have no objections to making money but that desire is not usually strong enough for them to forego other important things. They know that academia provides a comfortable life with good working conditions and that they can provide adequately for their families.

For example, writing a scholarly book takes years of time and effort and at the end you are lucky if you sell a few thousand copies, mostly to university libraries. You are never going to become rich writing scholarly books. So why do academics do it? They do it to advance knowledge in their field and to secure their reputation among the few dozens or at most a hundred or so people working in closely related areas, and to leave something of value behind for posterity.

For a physicist, to have a discovery associated with him or her or an equation or a principle named for them would bring little material benefit but be more precious to them than a fancy car ever would. If an academic were offered a deal whereby they would live in near poverty all their lives in exchange for making the kind of ground-breaking discovery that (say) a Charles Darwin or an Albert Einstein made, I suspect that must of them would unhesitatingly accept it. I know I would. In the world that academics inhabit, good ideas are a rare and precious commodity and the person who discovers one has found something far more valuable than discovering oil on her property.

This does not mean that academics are not ambitious or competitive. Many of them are fiercely so but the reward they seek is the respect they get from their colleagues when they make a major contribution to their field, and the fame that sometimes comes with it. This fame is not like that of a film star or politician. Except for a few like Stephen Hawking or Albert Einstein, even famous academics are not immediately recognizable to the general public and their fame is limited to a small circle of peers but that does not matter to most of them. To be the keynote speaker at important conferences, to have one's work be cited approvingly by one's peers, and even to have it form the framework for further work, these are the heady heights which academics seek. Driving an expensive car is nothing compared to the pleasures that such things bring.

It may be that in the corporate world, the only way that people can advertise to others that they have become a 'success' is via tangible symbols like cars, fancy houses, Rolex watches, designer clothes, and so on. But the currency by which success is measured in academia is your reputation for being an excellent scholar. If you have that, then you don't need the other things. In fact, if you flaunt those other things, your colleagues may suspect that you are trying to compensate for your lack of meaningful intellectual achievement. Either way, the academic culture works against ostentatious displays of wealth.

POST SCRIPT: Only in America

For those who did not get a large enough dose of patriotic fervor over the weekend, here's Bruce McCulloch of the sketch comedy troupe Kids in the Hall.


July 04, 2008

Independence day thoughts

(For this holiday, I am reposting an amalgam of two posts from two years ago.)

Today, being independence day in the US, will see a huge outpouring of patriotic fervor, with parades and bands and flag waving. I thought it might be appropriate to read one of Mark Twain's lesser known works. I came across it during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I was surprised by the fact that I had never even heard of it before, even though I have read quite a lot of Twain's work and about Twain himself.

Sometimes great writers reveal truths that are hidden. At other times they reveal truths that are squarely in front of our eyes but which we do not see because we have not asked the right question. Mark Twain's story The War Prayer fits into the latter category, where he explores the dark underside of the seemingly innocuous act of praying for something.

The idea of the intercessory prayer, where one asks for a favor or blessing for oneself or for a designated group of people, is such a familiar staple of religious life that its wholesomeness is unquestioned. But Twain points out what should have been obvious if we had only thought it through.

The War Prayer
Mark Twain

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and sputtering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spreads of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country and invoked the God of Battles, beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpouring of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.

It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety's sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came – next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their faces alight with material dreams – visions of a stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender! – then home from the war, bronzed heros, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation – "God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest, Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!"

Then came the "long" prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory.

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher's side and stood there, waiting.

With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal," Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!"

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside – which the startled minister did – and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said

"I come from the Throne – bearing a message from Almighty God!" The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. "He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd and grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import – that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of – except he pause and think.

"God's servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two – one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of His Who hearth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this – keep it in mind. If you beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor's crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

"You have heard your servant's prayer – the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it – that part which the pastor, and also you in your hearts, fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: 'Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!' That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory – must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause)

"Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits."

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

Twain accurately points out that intercessory prayers that ask for seemingly unimpeachable favors always carry with them a dark underside. Prayers that ask for victory in war always carry with them the wish that god will destroy the other side. The losing side in a war must necessarily suffer massive death and destruction but prayers never explicitly ask god to do this. That would be seen as too crass. But Twain says that whether we put those sentiments into words or not, that appeal is always present.

Twain carries this argument even further and says that even appeals for seemingly benign help for one person (such as rain for his crops) may prove to be a curse for someone else.

Any prayer that seeks special benefits for any one group is also a request to deny that same benefit to those who do not belong to that group. When people pray asking god's help to help find a cure for cancer, aren't they implicitly also asking him/her to not assist in finding a cure for AIDS or Alzheimers or any other of the countless diseases that afflict living things?

And what about the phrase "God bless America" that is now such a staple of political life that politicians routinely end their speeches with it? Fourth of July speeches are full of such appeals. What exactly is being asked for here? That god look out for the interests of Americans and withhold similar blessings from the people of other countries? What would justify such a request? Do people really believe that God prefers Americans to other people? Is God like an immigration officer who checks out the nationality of people before responding to prayers?

All intercessory prayers are premised on an authoritarian/subservient model, with god as a kind of despot who has limited rewards at his/her disposal, and whose favors have to be curried by making special appeals, the more groveling the better, in the manner of kindergarteners with their teacher. Since most religious people also believe in a god who omnipotent and has the capacity to answer any intercessory prayer, and even knows the prayers before they are prayed, it does not even make sense to ask for limited rewards benefiting a restricted subset of people. But this obvious contradiction is not perceived because of the blindness that religion cultivates in its followers. It requires an astute observer like Twain to point it out.

Perhaps the only intercessory prayer that can be justified is the one I saw on a bumper sticker that said "God bless the whole world. No exceptions."

It is noteworthy that Mark Twain knew that he was asking for trouble with this story, writing it as he did during a major war, when strong and unthinking appeals to patriotism are used to brush aside any opposition, just as was done in during the preparations for the attack on Iraq.

Twain wrote The War Prayer during the Spanish-American War. It was submitted for publication, but on March 22, 1905, Harper's Bazaar rejected it as "not quite suited to a woman's magazine." Eight days later, Twain wrote to his friend Dan Beard, to whom he had read the story, "I don't think the prayer will be published in my time. None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth." Because he had an exclusive contract with Harper & Brothers, Mark Twain could not publish "The War Prayer" elsewhere and it remained unpublished until 1923.

Mark Twain seems to have had a healthy skepticism towards religion that was not shared by his family and those who were charged with executing his estate.

In later years, Twain's family suppressed some of his work which was especially irreverent toward conventional religion, notably Letters from the Earth, which was not published until 1962. The anti-religious The Mysterious Stranger was published in 1916, although there is some scholarly debate as to whether Twain actually wrote the most familiar version of this story.

Given that Mark Twain had achieved iconic status in his own lifetime and was so well-known and liked, his own apprehensions about whether this story could be published is indicative of how powerful a hold this combination of religion and patriotism has on people. Challenge those twin pillars of dogma and you become an outcast fast.

July 03, 2008

It's smiting time!

The last time we encountered Christian evangelist Ray Comfort he was, along with his trusty sidekick the Boy Wonder Kirk Cameron, arguing that the exquisite design of the banana was absolute proof of the existence of god. The banana, Comfort pointed out, was "the atheist's nightmare."

You said it, Ray! You convinced me. Now whenever I eat a banana, I cannot help but think of god carefully tinkering with its design so that it could be easily eaten by me.

But Comfort is not content to simply demolish evolution with such brilliant arguments. He also runs a Q/A on his website providing deep insights into other metaphysical questions, the kinds that have baffled philosophers and theologians for centuries.

He recently responded to a theodicy question posed by a reader identifying herself as Weemaryanne.

There've been several hundred gay marriages enacted in California in the past few days. Maybe a couple of thousand by now, I haven't checked the numbers. And in the non-gay-marrying Midwest, they're fighting floods, while in California it's fair and dry. How is The Golden State managing to escape the wrath of your imaginary friend, I wonder?

This is a fair question, something that I too had been wondering about. While the obvious sinfulness of the people of New Orleans was clearly the cause of the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, why was god mad at the people of Iowa who, by all outward signs anyway, seem like people whose worst vice is growing obscene amounts of corn?

By snarkily referring to god as 'your imaginary friend' Weemaryanne (which I suspect is not her real name) was revealed as a godless hussy. This infidel clearly thought that she had caught Comfort in an embarrassing contradiction. She did not realize that his ministry is not called The Way of the Master for nothing. The Master shot back at her with that incisive logical reasoning that has put atheists on the run everywhere.

Maryanne. At present there are 840 wild-fires that are burning at once in California, destroying many homes. The fires were started by lightning strikes. Guess who’s in charge of the electrical department? These are from thunder storms that have no rain. Guess who gives the rain? You said "while in California it's fair and dry." We are having the worst drought in our recorded history. Last year 1,155 homes were destroyed. You live in an imaginary world. I suggest you get out more.

Ha, ha! That's telling her, Ray! Of course god hates gay-marriage-loving California, as well he should, and is busily smiting people there at this very moment. Weemaryanne has probably crawled back to her terrorist-loving, Islamofascist, feminazi witches coven after that elegantly delivered smackdown by The Master.

But while that explained that the sinful Californians were very much in god's crosshairs, Comfort unfortunately did not address the issue of why Iowans were being smitten (smote?) at all. That was, however, explained by another Christian by the name of Jason Werner, a god-loving man who apparently resides in my very own city of Cleveland. He investigated what was going on in that seemingly bucolic state and was shocked by the incontrovertible evidence of Iowa's appalling sinfulness.

I learned that Cedar Rapids was an absolute city of corruption. There are about 124,000 residents in the actual city. And in Iowa, gambling is legal, whereby there are 17 casinos. Embryonic stem-cell research is funded. Liberal governors have run the state into the ground for the past 20 years including a former conservative Republican many years ago. Human cloning is legal. Referendums by the citizens are often shot down. Spending for education is the most consistent increase of any issue. The University of Iowa is among the ten best colleges to party in the country. The University of Iowa is very homosexual-oriented. Grinnell is extremely homosexual-oriented. I found five blood alleys in Cedar Rapids. Homosexual organizations are very popular in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines. Prostitution and adult entertainment is actually worse than Cleveland, which has a population of nearly 400,000. There were nearly 100 bars in a radius of one mile although the nearby college is dry.

Wow! Am I glad that I don't live in that cesspool!

But I am getting a little nervous. While god is omnipotent and omniscient and omnipresent, he does not seem to be omniaccurate. His punishments for sinfulness, like hurricanes, floods, tsunamis, wildfires, etc., seem a little indiscriminate, risking the lives of the innocent along with the guilty. He seems to get a little carried away when he gets angry and in a smitin' mood and lets fly in all directions, like the Incredible Hulk or the people one reads about in the papers who snap under pressure and let loose with automatic weapons in crowded places. I am worried that I might become collateral damage when god gets round to dealing with all the sinners on my street.

What sinning is going on down my street, you ask? Thanks to having my eyes opened by good Christians such as Comfort and Werner, I have realized that I am surrounded by depravity. First, a gay couple moved into my street about a dozen years ago. Presumably because we did not keep the neighborhood pure by driving them away with pitchforks, our street may have been perceived as gay-friendly and about two years ago a lesbian couple also moved in a few doors away.

They all pretend to be like normal people, cutting grass, weeding flowerbeds, sometimes sitting on their front step in warm weather, and waving and smiling to neighbors. But as the kind of sinners that god hates the most, even worse than murderers and child molesters and corporate executives who embezzle people of their life savings, they are putting the rest of us at risk just by living close to us. The gay couple are even brazen enough to fly a rainbow flag on their house, practically taunting god to deliver a thunderbolt!

I just hope that they haven't taken the ultimate evil step of going to California and getting married because if they did that, we know that all the godly heterosexual marriages on our street are going to be undermined and fall apart.

And who knows what acts of depravity are going on in the homes of even my supposedly heterosexual neighbors? Oh sure, they put on a normal face by walking their dogs, playing catch with their kids on the lawn, organizing block parties, and the like. But one can only imagine the depraved orgies that are being held inside their homes once the curtains are drawn in the evening.

I am thinking that in order to be safe from the inevitable coming wrath of god, I may need to buy about 500 acres in some remote area of Montana or someplace and live right in the middle of the property, far away from any potential sinning neighbors. I figure that that should provide enough of a distance cushion so that whatever blunt instrument god chooses to use next for smiting sinners, like an earthquake or an asteroid collision with the Earth, I will be able to escape the side effects.

What god really needs to do is develop some precision-guided smiting weapons with built-in lasers, GPS trackers, and stuff. That would be cool. Then I could stay in my present home, sit on the front step, and watch the homes of my sinning neighbors be neatly and precisely destroyed.

Tim the Enchanter shows what such a carefully targeted smiting might look like.

Maybe god could make this into an annual event, replacing Fourth of July fireworks.

July 02, 2008

The difficulty of predicting the future

Science fiction writers have it tough. Although it is fun to predict what the world will look like in the future, the track record of success of past works is not great. (A caveat on what follows: I cannot really call myself a science-fiction fan, having read only a scattered sample of this vast genre, so I am expressing views based on a very limited awareness. Those who have read most of this genre may well disagree with my conclusions.)

Whether the future that is envisaged is dark (as in the films Blade Runner or Colossus: The Forbin Project) or somewhat optimistic (as in 2001: A Space Odyssey or the book Rendezvous with Rama), much of the predictions seemed to be focused on architecture, modes of transport, and video communication.

There seemed to be a consensus that the most dramatic changes would lie in our cities, featuring either exotic skyscrapers and clean, open spaces between, or dark visions of crowded, decaying dystopias. Transport is also a big focus. Flying high-speed cars or people movers or other forms of personalized transport seem to be a given. Space travel was assumed to be commonplace. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, travel in space was seen as almost routine as plane travel is now, with comfortable and spacious reclining seats for passengers and flight attendants serving meals, which is kind of ironic now that air travel is becoming cramped and food is a thing of the past, except on international flights.

As for advances in communication, the focus was on ubiquitous two-way video with a few exotic features like holograms thrown in.

Those predictions have not held up well. What we see is that the cities of today are not that dramatically different from those of fifty years ago and transport has not changed much either. There have been improvements no doubt, but no real breakthroughs.

What most writers failed to predict was the advent of the microchip and the resulting miniaturization of computers and other devices that allowed for new technologies, and the arrival of the internet, which has resulted in the highly diversified communication mechanisms that we now have.

But I think it is a mistake in evaluating science fiction literature to focus on the gee-whiz details of possible technological advances. The better and more lasting science fiction is that which focuses more on how human beings meet the new challenges that confront them.

In the science fiction that interests me, the author tries to deal with how people's views and behaviors might change as a consequence of increased sophistication in science and technology. In particular, how human society might reorganize itself in the future. Arthur C. Clarke seems to envisage a future in which racist and sexist attitudes largely disappear, marriage is a limited-term contract, and people have abandoned religion and belief in god.

One interesting question is how people might react to the sudden realization that we are not the only intelligent life in the universe, that more advanced civilizations exist, and that we have got in contact with them. Most of us simply do not consider this possibility or give it much thought. Try to imagine how we might react to the sudden announcement of contact with aliens. Would it be greeted with fear? Despair? For me, personally, the prime reaction would be excitement and hope. What new knowledge would this alien civilization bring and how would that change our views of everything?

While the fearful might worry about the harmful intentions of the aliens, it seems unlikely to me that an alien power would want to destroy us since we are so weak and no threat to them.

In Childhood's End, the initial shock and fear at the sudden appearance of a fleet of alien spaceships hovering over all major cities is replaced with resignation and submission when humans realize that they are being overseen by a vastly more powerful and sophisticated alien civilization whose intentions, fortunately, seem benign. The overlords quickly put an end to war and with the elimination of all the waste that it entails, humans find that they can produce enough food for themselves, that crime and violence disappears, and work requirements become so minimal that people only do the jobs they like. While all this seems like a good thing, Clarke suggests that without the challenges that adversity brings, the human drive to produce new science or works of art can become atrophied and people could become bored and lose their drive.

Clarke sees a future in which the arrival of aliens who are obviously highly advanced in science and scientific thinking and technology results in an end to beliefs in god and religion, which then become seen as quaint superstitions on a par with the way we view astrology and witchcraft now. I think that this is plausible. Most people's concept of god is very parochial, highly dependent on the uniqueness of Earth and humans. Finding that other advanced and powerful civilizations exist that have never heard of Yahweh, Jesus, or Muhammad, would likely make traditional religions obsolete. Of course, those who yearn for a father figure to look after them (which is what god is, when you think about it) might transfer their worshipful attitude to the aliens.

POST SCRIPT: John Yoo, torture accommodator

If you were a constitutional scholar and had been deeply involved in analyses about what the limits of interrogation were, you would think it would not be difficult to answer the question "Could the president order a suspect buried alive?"

And yet John Yoo, now professor of law at Berkeley after serving as legal advisor in the Bush administration's Office of Legal Counsel, and author of the infamous torture memo, seems to find it very hard to do so.

People like Yoo are despicable, serving as enablers of the worst abuses of human rights and basic civilized behavior committed by this administration.

July 01, 2008

A mini-Clarke festival

In addition to watching 2001: A Space Odyssey recently, I also indulged in a personal mini-Arthur C. Clarke festival, re-reading his novels Childhood's End and Rendezvous with Rama, and reading for the first time his short story The Sentinel that contains as its central idea a key plot element that reappeared in 2001.

One of the interesting things about Clarke's books is how for him, it is the science that is the most interesting element. That, and his vision of what future society will be like, are what moves his stories along. He tends to eschew traditional storytelling devices such as love, intrigue, violence, and all the other strong emotional factors. His stories focus less on fleshing out the characters and more on how normal human beings might react when they encounter an astounding new piece of information, such as making contact with intelligent life from elsewhere in space.

To the extent that one can discern an author's views from his books, Clarke sees a future in which racial prejudice has disappeared. His books contain a diversity of characters and it is taken for granted that these people take leadership roles in politics and science. In the case of gender, though, although women do play important roles, they do not seem to have reached full equality with men.

This was one feature in the film 2001 that did not ring true, where all the main characters were exclusively white men. That did not seem like Clarke's vision of the future and may have been more reflective of Kubrick's or the studio's attitudes of that time.

Marriage in the future is also seen by Clarke as a series of time-limited contracts and people can sign these contracts with more than one partner at a time.

In Childhood's End Clarke clearly sees war and conflict as infantile disorders, a human frailty that we are not be able to overcome on our own. It ends only with the arrival of superior aliens who, acting as overlords of the planet Earth, put a stop to it.

The aliens, although they allow the killing of animals for food, also put an end to wanton cruelty to animals. How that is done is interesting. Rather than the way we would do things, by issuing an edict or law against animal cruelty and punishing offenders, the aliens, for example, monitor a bullfight and whenever the bull is wounded, the alien spaceship hovering overhead uses its advanced technology to immediately inflict identical pain on all the spectators so that they experience the same sensation as the wounded animal. A few such demonstrations quickly put an end to the inhumane treatment of all animals.

In re-reading Childhood's End I realized (once again) how unreliable our memories are. Initially, the aliens do not reveal their appearance to humans, creating some speculation as to what they might look like. There is a very moving scene in which the aliens finally show themselves and that is the one vivid scene that stood out in my mind from the original reading over thirty years ago. I had remembered it as the climactic scene at the end of the novel. I was surprised to discover that it actually occurs about a third into the book. That scene was so vivid that it had erased everything that came after, even though the events that follow raise some interesting questions that I will discuss in the next post.

Just as I finished the book, I mentioned that I was reading it to a friend who had also read the book a long time ago and he too, without any prompting from me, immediately mentioned the same scene was as convinced as I that it came at the end. This may be a pure coincidence but also shows how unreliable our memories are and how our brains rearrange events to create new stories that conform to our own personal narrative preferences, using the most vivid memories as anchors.

Daniel Dennett in Consciousness Explained argues that our memories, and even the sense of who we are as individuals, are like drafts of screenplays that are constantly being rewritten, with the drafts are appearing and disappearing in our minds. Which one takes hold at any given time can change.

I was also interested on re-reading Childhood's End to see that Clarke describes in some detail a tsunami, where the first wave is followed by a deep retreat of the sea that draws curious onlookers onto to the newly revealed beaches, intrigued by this strange behavior, only to get destroyed by the massive second wave that suddenly hits. Given that Clarke lived in Sri Lanka for most of his life where exactly that scenario played out in 2004, it is a sad that more people had not read his book and thus been aware of the danger signs of a tsunami and fled away from the beaches as soon as they saw the sea withdraw.

POST SCRIPT: The danger of using the auto-correct utility

This is hilarious.