img.latex_eq { padding: 0; margin: 0; border: 0; }

Monday, 31 December 2007

20 Albums Meme

Happy New Year, everybody! I've been tagged by the chaplain of the Apostate's Chapel to reveal my twenty favourite albums. Oh deary me. Here are some things you should know:

1. I don't rip music off the internet.
2. I'm too much of a skinflint to buy music all the time.
3. I spent most of my childhood listening to classical music, and didn't start paying attention to more modern stuff until I was well into my teens. And yes, I can include classical music in this list, but the stuff I actually listen to these days with any regularity is still a short list.
4. Any attention given by me to (recorded) music -- or movies, for that matter -- has to fit in between the great chunks of time I spend reading fiction.

So, can I come up with as many as twenty albums that I'd like to call favourites? I'm not sure. Let's see . . .

1. Joni Mitchell - Blue
2. & 3. Queen - Greatest Hits I & II
4. k. d. lang - All You Can Eat
5. Crowded House - Recurring Dream (best of)
6. Bic Runga - Drive
7. Madeleine Peyroux - Careless Love
8. Tchaikovsky - Romeo and Juliet Overture (followed by his 5th Symphony, which I usually listen to as well)
9. Dvorak - The New World Symphony
10. Carole King - Tapestry
11. Beatles - Greatest Hits 1967-1970 (and I'd listen to their earlier hits if I had them, of course; see note above about being a skinflint)
12. Alison Moyet - Singles
13. Sting - Fields of Gold (best of)
14. Santana - Supernatural
15. Aretha Franklin - The Very Best Of

No, these aren't in any deliberate order, but I see I've put the four that are closest to my heart first. There are, of course, all manner of albums I'd listen to if I had them. Some of them would even be my favourites. The thing is, though, going out and buying them would entail deliberately setting out to spend money. And I have this rule which states that you mustn't buy anything you don't need unless you really feel like it. It works very well for me. Currently it doesn't allow buying music much. Sure, I'd like to have more stuff, but would I really be that much happier than I already am?

Given that Christmas has been and gone, there's really only one thing for it. I shall have to compile a list of music I'd like to have in time for my birthday. How's that for a flimsy New Year's resolution?

I tag nobody, because this meme has already been all over the place, since I'm late doing it myself. But if you haven't done it, and you want to, feel free.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

I take my leave . . .

. . . and shall return in about a week. I'm off down (further) South for Christmas, and I don't expect to be blogging during that time. So, Merry Christmas, everyone, and I'll see you when I return.


I think it was sometime last year that I had a Christian, in the course of a friendly but challenging conversation, pull the 'everything is subjective' argument on me. I gather the argument is basically "All of our experience is subjective to some extent, framed by our human minds, and none of our experience is absolutely certain, so I can believe whatever I want." It's an inventive defence; I shall not accuse it of being borrowed from postmodernists (atheist or otherwise), for postmodernists owe something to Soren Kierkegaard, and Kierkegaard was a devout Christian who did use this argument in a fashion at least vaguely similar, albeit with much more depth and the insertion of several other fascinating ideas that I don't quite agree with but which expand my mind nevertheless. At the time, I simply conceded that arguing against that idea might take a little more thought than being able to simply point to the evidence. But I've thought further on the subject, and by now I think I can offer a defence.

Let me start by conceding outright that of course we are trapped in our own minds; we do filter what we see through a subjective lens. Yet objectivity makes its way in, nevertheless. Suppose we're wandering along in our subjective experience, dum de dum, subjective subjective subjective, and we notice categories, yes? For example, some of the things we experience are experienced as being 'black' (whatever that means), some are 'white', some are 'coloured'. The edges of those categories might be blurred, but we can generally say that some things definitely fall more into one category than another. The boundaries between categories can also shift depending on time and place. Some things feel cold to the touch, some things feel hot, but which way such things are felt depends heavily on what we have been touching previously.

Now, as we're wandering along in our subjective experience, we might notice a category of perceptions which do not tend to shift depending on time and place and the experiencer and the method of experiencing. For example, temperature as measured by a column of mercury doesn't shift in the same way that subjective perception of heat does. To take a more interesting example, we can measure the structure of a crystal with X-ray diffraction, and we can measure it with an electron microscope, and when we do, we find a strong overlap between the two different methods of perception -- things which don't shift depending on the method of measurement. Or, yet another example, working from the hypothesis that all animals have a common ancestry, we might guess their relationships by looking at them, and we might guess their relationships from similar structures in their DNA. If the guesses tend to agree, well that's an indication that this 'distance of relationships' property really is measuring something that belongs somewhat to the category of perceptions which do not depend heavily on the method of perception.

So tell me, what name do we give to this category of things which remain constant depending on the method of perception? Why, 'objective', of course! The word 'objective', like most words, has some variations in meaning, but this is at least one definition which seems to me to be well thought out, and worth keeping. The observation that there is some subjectivity in all of our experience does not negate the usefulness of this category. Moreover, if we wish to know what things we can rely on to remain constant and predictable, it is in the category of objective perceptions that we should be looking.

Science is an attempt to identify members of this 'objective' category. Given this fact, I am inclined to consider the notion of consilience as being science's central point. Consilience refers precisely to the sort of situation I have described above -- to situations where several different types of measuring, of guessing, of perceiving all come to the same conclusion. If my characterisation of objectivity is allowed to stand, consilience is by definition objectivity's hallmark. As such, any idea which wishes to attain the status of 'objective' must pass a scientific test -- a test which varies the conditions and/or the method of perception, and still gets the result which our earlier generalisations would have predicted. The bigger the variation in circumstances of the test, the stronger an indication of objectivity it is.

Ideas that do not show this sort of consilience cannot be said to be 'objective' in this sense. People's ideas of God, for instance, depend heavily on the culture in which they were brought up. If there is any consilience to be found here, it will certainly not be found in the extraneous trappings and extra details which vary from place to place. Yet the variations are so large, encompassing even differing ideas about how many gods there are, that it is difficult to see how any objectivity in this matter may be found. Perhaps someday somebody will show an idea of God which does stand up to scientific tests, which does display consilience. Until then, though, I remain an atheist.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

A Liberty

Americans! Of rights and freedoms famed
(Famed often by yourselves, it's true, but still)
Why do I see your once-proud country named
In lists of those who torture when they will?

Why are Iraq's reporters held uncharged?
Why does your leader flout the rule of law?
Look to your homeland, see what is presaged
Consider what you should be fighting for.

Although I know that it might seem a liberty
To say the threat is to your life, and small
There is no power in terrorist activity
To force your strong democracy to fall.

When fears both real and fictional abound,
If you would keep your freedom, stand your ground.


There's a metric device known as a trochaic substitution. Essentially, instead of an iamb (weak-strong), you substitute a trochee (strong-weak). It's usually only done at the beginning of a line, or after a pause mid-line, at the beginning of a new sentence or new idea. There are lots of them in this poem. Please don't mangle them by saying, for example, "Why do . . . " instead of "Why do . . . " in a misguided attempt to stick to the metre. Oh, and you can put one at the beginning of the final line, if you like, even though it's maybe not quite so obviously needed there. I would.

Nonbelieving Literati: The Sparrow

It all started here, when the Exterminator began a little atheist book club over the web on grounds that

[S]cientists shouldn’t feel that they’ve cornered the market on nonbelief. There are plenty of us folks in the humanities who also have no faith in faith.

The list of great and near-great freethinking authors, for example, is a long one. It contains, among others, such non-scientists as: Ambrose Bierce, Pearl S. Buck, Joseph Conrad, George Eliot, Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, H.P. Lovecraft, H.L. Mencken, Vladimir Nabokov, George Orwell, Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, the above-mentioned Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, and H.G. Wells.

I think it’s time we atheists draw some inspiration from literature as well as science.

Well said! I held off joining initially, but really, this is right up my street in some ways. So here I am, and, before I read what anyone else has written on the subject, here's my post on Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow.

'So God just leaves?' John asked, angry where Emilio had been desolate. 'Abandons creation? You're on your own, apes. Good luck!'

'No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.'

'Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,' Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. ' "Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your father knowing it." '

'But the sparrow still falls,' Felipe said.

It's hard to tell where the author of this book stands on religious issues. She knows a lot about Catholics, but it's hard to say whether she writes from the inside or as an apostate. I know the Nonbelieving Literati have had more liberal, irreverent Christian authors before, so the choice of this book isn't necessarily a sign that the author doesn't believe in God. I suppose a web search or something might turn up more information, but if you ask me, that's cheating. I'll take the book as is and never mind the author, and I'll say this. The fact that you can't tell where the author stands is at least in part because this is a good book, a realistic book, a book that doesn't paint ideology into the storyline half so much as it allows the characters to be believeable. Many of the characters hold views I don't agree with. Many of them espouse reasoning that I consider to be highly questionable, and large parts of my viewpoint don't even make it into the conversation. But that's life. That's believeable. And I can't help but admire the author for being able to write with such sympathy for her characters, and yet such coldness when it comes to the pain she'll put them through and the problems she'll hand them that challenge the views they hold dear.

The book alternates between two timescales. One is an action-packed story of humanity's first contact with sentient alien life, a dare-devil trip to outer space to meet the inhabitants of a distant planet, propelled by faith and doomed to disaster. The other is the story of what the sole survivor has to deal with when he gets back to Earth, a tense emotional drama of misunderstanding interacting with deep trauma. Both on this re-reading and when I first read the book a few years ago, it was this latter story that was the page-turner for me. Action is all very well, but it's nothing compared to human interaction, and while there were many parts of both storylines that kept my attention, I found myself checking ahead to see when the next section of unpacking and unravelling the survivor's persective would be, waiting for the moment when they'd understand, and being fascinated by the developments in perception and misperception between the characters.

One of the major things that consoled me when the story went into flashback mode was the conversations. The relationship between the central characters is so obviously tightly knit, and their dialogue is witty and frank. It's also worth noting how psychologically interesting the alien culture is. The author is an anthropologist, so perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. While she has taken small liberties with the realism of the story line in having the aliens be so close (Alpha centauri? Could you be more obviously choosing stars for closeness?), and while it's hard to be sure how realistic her representation of possible alien biology might be, there's no doubt that when it comes to culture she has put some thought in. I can forgive her for small liberties in exchange for the tightly-imagined story she tells in that regard.

It gives to think that I am not more disturbed by this story. I know my mother found it pretty traumatic. Peculiarly, I think I read it like some detached, emotive God, feeling along with the characters in a limited sense but blaming no-one. Or perhaps I was a parasite, feeding off the emotion no matter how it hurt the characters who felt it. I cannot say I enjoyed the painful end, but I accepted it as a gift nevertheless, taking the emotional understanding that it gave. I don't know what that says about me.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Euthyphro: The Ins and Outs of Morality With God

The Euthyphro dilemma -- so called, because an early version is related in Plato's dialogue between Euthyphro and Socrates -- amounts to the observation that, if we believe that some universal notion of goodness or morality is imposed on the universe by God (or by the gods, in the case of the ancient Greeks), then we seem to be forced into one of two options. On the one hand, it is possible that God chose to set up a particular morality because He knew it was the morality. God, in this picture, is generally considered to be (non-tautologically) good, conforming to the true morality precisely, and showing us right from wrong in a way that is in line with this true morality. In this picture, morality is actually separate from God, and God, being good, follows it and also enforces it to some extent.

When theists defend God on grounds that He knows better than us, and always has a good purpose in mind, they seem to be working within this first framework: God is aiming for something (objectively) good, so trust Him on that.

The other possibility is that goodness is just whatever God says it is. In that case, if God says it's right to kill babies, then it's right to kill babies. In fact, if you believe God did, as in the Bible, say to kill babies, then killing babies was at that point the right thing to do. To say that 'God is good' is pretty meaningless in this picture -- all it says is that God does what God wants God to do.

There are also 'mixture' versions. For example, some Christians say that since God made this world, God has the right to do whatever He wants with this world, and we ought to follow along with that. If we take this as referring to an objective moral statement along the lines of "if you make something, you have total control over it and it ought to obey you", then essentially these Christians are saying that there is some outside -- even potentially outside of God -- objective morality, it's just that that morality means, firstly, that we should do what God wants, and secondly, that since no-one created God, God can do whatever He wants. Frankly, I think this idea gives you the worst of both worlds and I have no idea why it is so popular.

Then there are those who say that God can do whatever He wants -- but aren't we lucky that He wants what is good for us? Such people distinguish between one sort of 'good' which is defined as 'whatever God wants', and another sort of 'good', which is defined in an almost utilitarian fashion, in terms of what makes us human beings happy and fulfilled and all the rest of it, and which God happens to like, isn't that nice? If you believe that, I guess I can understand why you praise God's goodness despite defining 'good' in terms of God -- presumably you're praising the fact that God's notion of goodness happens to coincide with your own.

I think it says something, however, that it is this coincidence with what we believe to be good that so often provides the clincher with respect to how God's goodness is viewed. It's quite rare (and, in my case, almost always nauseating) to find someone who embraces the second option of the Euthyphro dilemma without pause, excusing any and every aspect of the 'Problem of Evil' with the idea that morality is just whatever God says it is. A tsunami killed millions of people, and orphaned a whole lot of innocent kids? That's not evil, it's good, because it's what God wanted, and good is whatever God wants. No, you don't hear that very often.

I'll keep my human notions of what is good, and never mind that there appears to be no God. And if I ever discover God, then yes, I'll dare to measure Him against that notion. Unlike my fellow human beings, an all-powerful God doesn't need my sympathy or my compassion, and if God causes evil in the lives of human beings, I'll dare resist and be not resigned to a universe ruled by an amoral or immoral God. I won't give up without a fight.

Of Grief in Dusty Corners, Take 2

The abstract halls of mathematics rise
in cool, high-ceilinged arches, every line
a segment of infinity, which lies
precariously, perfectly inclined.

Yet once it was a garden made for lovers,
a cornucopia of odds and ends
and evens, where unsteadiness recovers,
secure between co-operating friends.

And when I step through theorems again,
I fear that, in this subtle space, the scent
of grief in dusty corners will remain
to catch me where I thought to be content.

It's still not as good as Penelope, but who cares? I'm a lot happier with this version.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Challenging the Paramounce of Happiness

In my last post on morality, I mentioned that I am approximately utilitarian, and promised to explain how my viewpoint differs from utilitarianism at a later stage. So, while there are further responses to some of the points LL brings up that I could mention, and a whole host of related subjects that might keep me blogging for weeks if I wanted to stick to a single subject, for now I shall give you the post that I have actually promised.

I quite like to break utilitarianism down into two propositions:

(1) We should act in that manner that produces the greatest good.

(2) Happiness is (the only thing that is) intrinsically good.

Do you agree that happiness is intrinsically good? Do you agree that it is the only intrinsic good? I'm not going to give you my answer just yet. Still, I will tell you that just about any utilitarian will agree that 'happiness' is meant in a very broad sense here, encompassing anything from sensory pleasure to refined artistic taste and even spiritual fulfilment (although those of us who are atheists might have a slightly different definition of the word 'spiritual', of course, and some of us, mindful of the connotations, prefer to avoid it entirely). Some, notably John Stuart Mill, have argued that 'higher' notions of happiness should be given greater weight than mere pleasure. Personally, at least insofar as it only affects the person having the experience, I think it ought to be a matter of taste.

Proposition (1) has been challenged on the grounds that you can use it to justify nasty trade-offs. Ursula K. LeGuin's quite marvellous short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (PDF) illustrates this problem almost as an abstraction, describing a beautiful city where everyone lives good and happy and fulfilling lives -- but the reason they are happy is because of a single, frightened child kept in a cellar, spending its life in confusion and misery and self-hate. Is the happiness of others worth unbroken pain and despair for a single person? LeGuin doesn't seem to think so.

We might answer LeGuin's problem by requiring a rule in our utilitarian calculus which states that unhappiness is generally better shared around; a week's unhappiness for a hundred people is better then a hundred weeks' unhappiness for a single person. We might justify it with the idea that happiness can actually be appreciated better when you have been through a small amount of pain, and spreading the pain around in small bits thus maximises the trade-off in the resulting appreciation of the happiness that follows (but if you agree with that justification, then of course the rule is actually not inserted into utilitarianism but rather derived from it -- just a note). Other answers are also possible, of course; if you'd have preferred me to bring up some other answer, please do write it in the comments so we can all see it. For now, however, I am mostly interested in challenges to the idea that what is good is defined by what makes us happy.

I once attended a philosophy seminar (been to a few of those in my time) where the speaker was defending the Aristotelian notion that the purpose of human beings is to reason. Aristotle thought that everything had a purpose (telos, final cause). The purpose of a pen is to write. The purpose of rain is to water the fields so that plants can grow. And the purpose of human beings? Human beings exist so that they can reason, says Aristotle. That is what human beings are for.

Somewhere in the course of a very informal discussion after the seminar, the speaker challenged the notion that we should be aiming for happiness, with reason only as a method of getting there, using the following interesting illustration:

Look, orgasm is the highest form of happiness, right? Are we agreed on that? So suppose you had this machine -- call it the Orgasmatron -- and you could sit in it, and you'd have an IV drip or something, your life wouldn't be shortened at all, and you could just sit in it for the rest of your life and be continuously and orgasmically happy. Think seriously about this. Can you honestly tell me that you would just give up everything in your life to go sit in the Orgasmatron?

Well, would you?

I wouldn't. It would be like dying. Even with heaven included, I don't want to die.

So here is the answer I gave at the time, after I had thought for a bit. Part of what makes us happy in this life (outside the Orgasmatron) is being engaged with the world. We have to have things we care about in order to make life worth living. But then, because we have things we care about -- goals, hopes, caring for other people -- we don't want to give those things up. Not even to be continuously, orgasmically happy.

Now that's a good answer, but it's not necessarily a utilitarian one. Should we want to be continuously, orgasmically happy, over and above other purposes? If everyone already has the option of the Orgasmatron, I suspect the utilitarian answer is yes (but, please, feel free to argue). Still, I have to say, that's not my answer. Here and now, outside the Orgasmatron, I would fight to be excused the fate of being continuously, orgasmically happy for the rest of my life.

Still, I don't agree that the purpose of human beings is to reason. I think we make our own purposes. I think we should make our own purposes, weaving ourselves into the world with tireless urgency (sometimes I suspect this makes me diametrically opposed to the Buddhist notion of detachment from the world; on the other hand, trying to be detached is a purpose, so maybe not).

I think that purpose is an intrinsic good. That's not to say that there are not evil purposes, purposes which aim to destroy the happiness and purpose of others. But purpose is an essential part of what it takes to live a fulfilled, happy, successful life. And so, I think our view of morality ought to respect that, placing purpose and story right up there with happiness in the things we try to aim for -- indeed, aim with, in the case of purpose!

Thus is my utilitarianism diluted.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Of Grief in Dusty Corners

With slow and steady patterning we grew
into each other's thinking. When the blade
tore bluntly through us twain, we fell askew
in senseless silence, feeling but the shade,
the phantom limb of conversations played,
remembrances continuously rent
in echoes that interminably fade.
Although both hope and agony are spent
for always and for ever, still the scent
of grief in dusty corners can surprise
my desecrating entrance, innocent
on murmured thoughts where yet a memory lies.


1. It's not as good as Penelope. That's going to be true of pretty well every poem I write for a while now. Sigh.

2. It's almost a Spenserian sonnet (thank you, Exterminator, for the link to a whole lot of sonnet forms which sent me along that line). I left off the final couplet, though, because it would have been absurdly extraneous. Instead, we just have twelve lines, deeply interlaced. I like that, at least for this poem.

3. The backstory is my post here. If you want to know.

Friday, 30 November 2007

"But I care about it anyway"

L.L. Barkat wanted me to expand on the conclusion of my post The Raft, where I said "Good and evil only exist in our minds. But I care about them anyway." She says:

I wonder about good and evil only existing in the mind. I think it opens up sticky issues like, if evil is just a construct, then what's to stop me from choosing evil ways (because if it exists in the mind only, then I get to define it)... or what's to make me listen to someone who feels I've worked evil against her (because if evil only exists in her mind, then she is defining it and I can disagree with the definition and be done with it).

I'm about to start arguing like a theologian and I know it and I hate the fact! A while back I found a book in the library called Belief or Nonbelief: A Confrontation. It's an excellent book, in many ways: a respectful dialogue between the atheist novelist Umberto Eco and the Catholic Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini. Eco asks all sorts of questions of Martini; Martini gets only one in reply. Martini's question, though, is the question, the one that always comes up: How is it that nonbelievers can still believe in some sort of morality?

Eco answers well, but nevertheless he certainly relies to some extent on his own ability to write in order to give his answer the force and seeming reasonableness that it does have, and frankly, while reading, I couldn't help feeling the similarity in tone to the Cardinal's responses on earlier issues. Yes, I think it's true: while atheists can defend their view of the world with the shining strength of reason and logic on almost every count, when it comes to morality, there are times when we're just arguing so as to make the question go away. We argue emotively. We argue from consequences. We argue in circles. We do everything we get mad at theologians for doing.

When I was first facing this problem of the lack of absolute morality built into the universe, I did consider belief in God as a solution. But it just really seemed like overkill. Accepting an even bigger uncertain proposition so as to get rid of the uncertainty in a proposition I really wanted to believe? Not on your life. If I'm going to believe something out of thin air in order to justify some notion of morality, then I'm not going to believe in God. Simple belief in morality will suffice. Why go further?

So that's my excuse. I'm about to give you some explanations of how atheists can be content to simply believe in morality and not in God. In theological fashion, I'm not going to face the issue on blank, even terms. Instead, to begin with, I'm going to deliberately choose the starting point that works most easily for me. This is LL's comment that:

And here's the other thing... as a person who has experienced the deep evil wrought by others (during my childhood), it is hard for me to let them off the hook with a thought of... well, it was, after all, only in my mind.

Let me tell you some other things that are only in your mind, LL. Love is only in your mind. Happiness is only in your mind. Hope is only in your mind. And guess what? Those things are all real anyway. So maybe morality is like love, and hope, and happiness. It's only in our minds, but life would be nothing without it.

It helps that my notion of morality is very directly predicated on happiness and hope. I'm approximately utilitarian. Explanation of where I vary from utilitarianism is too complicated for this post and will have to wait for another one, because I have yet to fully articulate it and so cannot yet summarise it neatly. Maybe after I write that post I've just unwisely promised you, quick and easy summary will be possible in future. But for now, let's stick with utilitarianism. Utilitarianism states that we should act in that fashion that produces the greatest total happiness for all people concerned. So, you see, I sneak the idea of the importance of happiness in with the perfectly certain proposition that happiness is real (I find it particularly beautiful that we can be more certain of the existence of happiness than we can of the existence of the external world. We experience happiness directly; the world is only observed through our senses, which might deceive us). For that matter, what is importance? Something is important if we think it is; 'importance' is an expression of value, and value is another one of those things that only exist in the human mind, but which it would be utterly stupid to discard.

So, you see, happiness is important in an almost universal sense because we all think it is important, pretty well every one of us. And since we're likely to be more happy if we band together and support each others' happiness, why not do so? Because, hey, if we act to promote happiness in general, there will be more happiness to go around.

(See the circular reasoning? We should act for maximum happiness, because if we did, there would be maximum happiness.

It's quite convincing even with the circles visible, isn't it?)

More to come, but please, give me some feedback now. How am I doing? Be honest.

I'm not angry -- or am I?

Greta Christina, that sex-positive darling who writes such illuminating atheist reflections, had a startling smash hit a while back when she stepped oh-so-slightly out of character to write a post on atheists and anger (and yes, you can safely read that post without being in danger of encountering explicit sexual content, just so you know):

This has been a hard piece to write, and it may be a hard one to read. I'm not going to be as polite and good-tempered as I usually am in this blog; this piece is about anger, and for once I'm going to fucking well let myself be angry.

When I first read the post, it had eight comments. It was very much Greta Christina, anger and all: clearly written, honest, comprehensive in its examination of the surrounding issues. I got a bit bored by the end, though. It's a very long list of things to be angry about. Don't get me wrong. I thought then and I still think now that Greta Christina has a perfect right to be angry about all those things and the many more that she says she has only scratched the surface of. After all, she has been personally damaged by several of them, what with being bisexual and living in a horribly theistic place like America, where the safeguards of democracy are under threat in part due to faith-based voting. I, too, have been damaged by religion, but not to the same extent. I am angry for my own sake about one thing, and one thing only, and that thing is deep and painful. To hold on to the anger would be to hold on to the pain, and so I do not use that anger, do not weave it into my reasons for acting; I let it sit out there on the edge and exist for as long as it needs to.

So, you see, I'm not angry. I got to the end of Greta's post and wondered if I could explain my position, but I needed to think about things, so I decided to let it sit for a bit and maybe join the discussion later.

Well, everyone in the atheist blogosphere knows what happened not much later. By the time I saw the post again, it had three hundred comments. Today, it has 862 comments and counting. It was linked to by Pharyngula, by Friendly Atheist, and many others. And a huge proportion of those comments amounted to "Right on"! Greta Christina had struck a nerve. Many atheists were angry, and were heartened and energised by Greta Christina's eloquent, even defence.

This was clearly not my party, but now that things have died down a little, perhaps it is not so improper for me to speak.

I'm not angry at religion as a whole, but there are some things that do make me angry. Sometimes when I'm walking into town, I take the wrong route by accident. It's fine to go down Exeter Street if I'm heading to the mall or over to my parents' place, but if I'm turning left, I have to pass the Christian Science Reading Room. It's got this big sign on the window saying "Prayer Works". Works how, exactly? You know, just by context, that this isn't going to be one of those serene theological answers like "God answers every prayer, it's just that sometimes the answer is 'no'/'maybe'/'ask again later'". No, what it means is that they're peddling dodgy science. But of course they are. "Christian Science" is a contradiction in terms, for it refers to science that will only accept conclusions that seem to support religious dogma, and that is not science at all. It makes me furious. How dare they mock the sincere attempts of scientists to be even-handed by claiming that their own biased propaganda is of equal worth? Don't they understand the love, the sacrifice, the effort that scientists put into the search for truth? And yet they pollute the term 'science'! They dare to use it for efforts that are neither courageous nor intellectually sincere, feeble obfuscations by which they hide from reality. It makes me sick.

Other things make me angry, too. Christians in my own country don't play the "atheists are nihilists who can't be moral" game very much, at least not where I and other atheists can see them, but every so often, especially on the internet, I read something that reminds me that the view is alive and barely-challenged in some quarters (no, LL, I'm not looking at you -- your questions are fair and I will answer them in another post). Just yesterday I found this page linked to by a Wikipedia post.

The atheist who poses the problem [of evil] is left in the end with the conclusion that evil was really not worth worrying about in the first place. That is bad faith, and what seemed to be the moral force of his position is exposed as a mere self-serving indignation.

Now, look. It's one thing to claim that atheists are deluded, or irrational, when we apply moral notions to the world around us, or to a hypothetical God, claiming that the notion of morality is still important whether there are gods or not. It's quite another thing to accuse us of deliberate deception. I can assure you that we do not argue in bad faith, and yes, I am angered by the implication that we all do.

Oh, but that is nothing. After all, the author of that piece might be honestly deluded himself. Perhaps he really does believe that all atheists are nihilists who are out to get other people to join us by reason of our total lack of moral feeling. Others do not have this defence. A few months back, a friendly Christian who I met over the internet suggested that I listen to Ravi Zacharias' speech "Why I Am Not An Atheist". Regrettably I have been unable to find a transcript, but the MP3 is here. I myself didn't get past Part 1. After trotting out the "I am absolutely sure there is no God" definition of atheism, making the uncertainty of agnosticism sound weak and open to conversion, and completely ignoring the strong but sensible position taken by most self-described atheists on the existence of God, Zacharias really gets underway in the second half of that first MP3. First he explains -- no, he doesn't explain, he claims -- that atheism cannot support any idea of morality that is not "utilitarian, pragmatic, subjective or emotive". Don't you love the way he exploits the ambiguity in that term 'utilitarian'? It could refer to utilitarianism (which, whatever justification you give for it, is pretty darn absolute, actually, and popular among atheists, thereby raising difficulties with his point which he does not bother to address), or it could refer to the selfish pushing of morality in others for personal gain onesself. Then he decides to quote Nietzsche. At length. At loving, loving length, just to make atheism sound scary:

God is dead, and we have killed him. . . . Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not more night coming on us all the time? . . . That which was the holiest and mightiest of all the world has ever possessed has bled to death under our knives. . . . Is not this the greatest of deeds to great for us to handle? Must not we ourselves become God simply to seem worthy of it?

Got that, people? Don't kill God, it's too scary, and you'll turn us all into -- what was Dawkins' description? -- "jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully."

Let me break here to point out that I myself actually didn't kill God. Others have done that for me. Nietzsche's incredibly evocative description of what it might be like to lose God has nothing to do with what it is like never to have had God in the first place; his evocation of the empty nihilism that comes when a worldview collapses has nothing to do with the calm knowledge that atheistic worldviews can still find meaning and beauty in the world. However, Zacharias does not expand on the idea of frightening emptiness, so obvious in the passage he quotes (which was, I must add, much longer than the little excerpt I have given you above). I'm sure he likes having it there, but ostensibly he is only introducing Nietzsche so that he can segue into "Any time I hear a man lambasting or criticising a religion for having caused bloodshed..."

The same people often forget of the bloodshed that has been shed in the name of atheism. Stalin was an avowed atheist. . . . He read Nietzsche. Adolf Hitler personally presented a copy of Nietzsche's writings to Benito Mussolini. . . .

See that? See that?

Zacharias isn't mistaken. He knows there's no evidence that Hitler was an atheist. He probably knows that Hitler said, many times, that he believed in God. He probably knows that the Nazis promoted "Nazi Christianity". How do I know Zacharias knows this? Because he never once actually claims that Hitler was an atheist. But he is content to give his listeners that impression. Furthermore, he is content to smear atheists by allowing us to be represented by a thinker like Nietzsche, rather than, say, John Stuart Mill, whose work On Liberty expounds ideas considered by many to be the foundation of a free and open society -- the very sort of society that fascism and communism threaten. Minority though we have been for most of history, atheists have nevertheless been disproportionately responsible for new ideas, and it is irresponsible for Zacharias to point out the more damaging ones while failing to acknowledge the work of atheists in finding the good ideas.

Oh, one last thing about Nietzsche's influence on Hitler. Martin Luther's influence on Hitler, particularly as regards the hatred of Jews, has also been extensively documented. Need I say more?

Zacharias is far too smart and well read for me to let him off the hook. He's smearing us deliberately. And yes, in case you haven't noticed, that makes me angry. Really angry. Not necessarily angry at religion as a whole, just angry at apologists who blatantly smear a whole group of perfectly good people, obviously knowing they're doing it, but doing it anyway.

I was going to finish up by saying that I'm not angry at religion, and that most of the time the things that really annoy me are lies -- lies and deliberate obfuscations. I was going to say that when I hear about the bad consequences of religion: war, torture, death by exorcism, ostracism of those outside, credulity and vulnerability to charlatans, slavery and the oppression of women and homosexuals . . . well, most of the time, while I pity the religious who are caught in their false worldviews, and wholeheartedly support efforts to abolish the suffering caused by religious fundamentalism, really I find it very difficult to be angry at anything other than the lies people tell. I'll blame them. I know there are other factors that lead to the evils of religion, and the injustice of this disproportionate assignation of blame might bother me if I had any sympathy for lies, but I don't.

I was going to say all that, and most of the time it would probably be true, but I seem to have worked myself into a right fury here. I guess maybe I am an angry atheist after all.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

The Raft

When I was ten, I believed in Absolute Morality, derived from reason and incontrovertible. My mother, she of the part-time philosophy degree, subscribed not so surprisingly to the idea that morality should come from and be subject to reason and, childlike, I took the notion to extremes. I wasn't quite sure of the whole rationale, but I was jolly well going to learn more about philosophy and then I'd be able to understand exactly how to pinpoint morality perfectly. In the mean time, I was going to be consistent. There were to be no logical contradictions in my viewpoint!

Morality had been a concern of mine for a while if I remember correctly; a practical concern rather than a theoretical one. I applied myself to the problem of playground bullying. Standing by while somebody else was being bullied was unacceptable; so was even the mildest form of unkindness to those who seemed outcast. This latter principle had me patiently listening to the class geek quite regularly, although I confess I mostly tuned out his Star Wars trivia and then tried to pretend I'd been listening (he grew up to be quite hot, actually, but he was a year ahead of me so we never spoke much in high school and I doubt he remembered the girl who used to say 'Mm-hm' to him in primary school).

The fact that I considered myself required to intervene when anyone else was in trouble was actually less problematic than you might think. I know that in movies, the way it goes is that the cute little girl stands up for the little boy, who then defiantly rejects her in an attempt to regain his manly pride from the ignominy of having needed defence. However, I stood up for other people so regularly that, at least as far as I can remember, it seemed to be a generally accepted occurrence. I also never waited for thanks. I wasn't in it for thanks, I was in it for the joy of the argument -- which, regretfully, never lasted long. I used to plant my feet slightly wider than my shoulders (second position in ballet, if you must know), glare at my offending classmate and shout "How dare you? What reason did you have to do that? Go on, argue! What's your reason?" Usually by the time I got that far, they'd have given up. Satisfying though it was to hear 'Don't argue with [Lynet]' as a generally accepted maxim, I often used to wish they'd put up more of a fight.

When I was eleven, I read Sophie's World. Thus, over a year or so, as things sank in and I re-read the technical parts I had skipped the first time around, I became acquainted with a rough outline of the ideas of history's great philosophers. I knew what utilitarianism was and had a go at understanding Immanuel Kant. I knew of Hume's dictum that 'ought' cannot follow from 'is', and his notion that morality was purely emotional. At the same time, I was dealing with some major snags in my anti-bullying crusade, to wit:

(a) As kids get older, they're less likely to be intimidated by mere shouting.

(b) As kids get older, their bullying gets more subtle, and their relationships with each other start to change. My peers were entering the "groups" phase (I skipped that one at the time because it seemed ludicrous to me to blindly follow the crowd, and had to go back and learn the necessary lessons when I was older). All of a sudden, I had to deal with the fact that most of the people I might have defended were more interested in becoming accepted as part of the group than in avoiding being bullied -- in fact, they'd take all kinds of crap as long as they were still even slightly "in".

There was no way for me to properly defend people. I wasn't really needed any more.

I was also really, really lonely. Rejecting the idea of the group can do that to you.

Somewhere towards the end of the year I was twelve, I had two quiet crises. One involved me realising that I was going to have to compromise my ideals, my reason, my personality in order to get the basic human interaction I needed in order to stop me from going insane. Here, however, I'd like to talk about the other change.

My standpoint on morality had been shifting slowly, the more I learned, and it was with sincere regret that I came to the conclusion that reason alone was not enough. Indeed, at twelve years old, with too much time alone to reflect, I didn't really have a definite position on morality at all. It was at around this time that I realised that I might have to allow some of my principles to be inconsistent with each other, taking my worldview as a work in progress rather than something that had to have finished perfection at all times. That was an important step. I also decided I rather liked the idea of a sort of dialogue between logic and moral intuition, starting with intuitions, then attempting to generalise in a consistent fashion, then going back to moral intuition as a way of seeing how the generalisation might need to be modified (I forget which philosopher I got that from -- it was ten years ago, after all -- but I know I didn't come up with it myself). Still, on some inner level, I had to concede that I was sidestepping the point. Why trust moral intuition at all? Is there any 'real' morality?

I confess freely that the idea that morality wasn't built into the universe really frightened me. Indeed, when I finally allowed myself to reason and let my thoughts go as they would, I came up with this:

Well, okay, so maybe there's no morality. But if there's no morality, then it isn't morally wrong for me to pretend there is morality. So I'm just going to act like there is morality anyway. Can I stop thinking about this now?

I was aware at the time of the parallels between such thinking and religious faith as held by many people. As an illustration, consider this comment:

To me, it either is all true and He is God and totally in control [. . .] or He isn't - and if He isn't, none of this really would matter, would it?

Obviously there's a slight flaw in the assumption that nothing would matter without God, and yes, we could construct an argument that favours a secular humanist view over a theist one with exactly that flaw in mind, contending that it does matter, and that in view of the things that matter (truth, human happiness and so forth), atheism is the better position. Oh, but I have given the end of the story away! Now, where was I?

Oh, yes. If I was disturbed by the notion that there might be no absolute morality, I was almost equally disturbed to find myself engaging in such faith-type reasoning. Was I as bad as Christians after all? In the end, I found my starting point by answering no to the question 'Can I stop thinking about this now?' No, you cannot stop thinking. If your reasoning is shaky, you must face the fact. By the moral principles which you defiantly continue to use, the truth matters, so stick as close to it as possible.

If the swamp where there were no rules lay just beneath my feet, and the platform above it on which I had stood was breaking apart, then I determined to myself to build no more than a raft. Dangerous as it might be, I determined to build no edifices of dubious foundation, no vast opaque temples to block out the sight of the unsteady ground. No catechism, no false authority of tradition, no pretense that there might be epistemological safety in numbers. Only a raft.

In the Sophie's World digested version of Sartre, I found the notion that human beings, having faced the terror of meaninglessness, are free to give their own meaning to their existence. I liked it and absorbed it, but it was many a year before I learned that the ideas I was groping towards had a name and a history already in their own right, and came to realise that I was quite simply and precisely a humanist. Indeed, meaning isn't hard to find in this universe; there is meaning as long as somebody means it. Morality is harder. I wanted it to be fundamental to the universe as a whole; I had to accept that it was confined perhaps to a single species on this tiny Earth. Good and evil only exist in our minds. But I care about them anyway.

Humanist Symposium #11

As usual, allow me to plug my favourite blog carnival.

Monday, 19 November 2007


Since you have introduced me to the Onegin stanza, Alon:

While her husband's in the water
the coxcombs crowd like butterflies.
She weaves the way her mother taught her.
If they hope that with their lies
they can persuade, they're wrong! She'll never
make her choice, for she is clever.
Although she knows her husband strays,
she'll keep within her faithful ways.
With pride she views her work, while hating
the way that she has used her mind
with independence, just to find
herself obediently waiting,
unravelling so craftily
the shroud that could have set her free.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

A Breath of Air (Sonnet)

I throw my head back! Life is in me yet
My heart can still skip beats and laugh, oh, yeah!
So jump! Rejoice that deathly blank despair
Can never be interminably set.
He'd just become an adult when we met
No longer awkward, slackly debonair
He smiles at me with such a friendly flair
I too must smile, releasing my regret.
I cannot say I've felt a love's embrace
Nor shall I ever find it here, I know
Another woman smiles to see his face
And day by day I see their comfort grow.
To her he gives his lively warmth and care;
To me, he's just a precious breath of air.

1. In many ways this is an old poem. I didn't dare write it at the time, and I started writing it about a year ago if I remember correctly. But I only finished it recently, and yes, it is possible that new ideas have made their way in.
2. There are two main types of sonnet. A Petrarchan sonnet starts with an octet that has the rhyme scheme abbaabba, and then goes on to a sextet, usually rhymed cdecde or cdcdcd. A Shakespearean sonnet has three quatrains and a couplet: ababcdcdefefgg. Frankly, I find the Shakespearean sonnet unbelievably bitsy -- fragmentary, that is; my quatrains have a tendency to stand stolidly alone with no flow*. By contrast, a Pertrarchan sonnet has a well-defined shape, since you are supposed to have a volta -- a turn, a change of mood, a new idea -- between the octet and the sextet. But let's face it, quatrains aside, that final couplet at the end of the Shakespearean can be wonderful. So I have cheerfully attempted to get the best of both worlds; my rhyme scheme is abbaabbacdcdbb. This gives me an octet, a quatrain and a couplet, which is certainly a departure from the usual Petrarchan shape; the couplet is a conclusory thing that brings together both prior sections.
3. Yes, and I rhymed the couplet using the b rhyme of the octet. Again, this is an attempt to make my rhyme begin the 'cohesion' thing for me. It's also not very hard, because the word 'air' has an awful lot of rhymes. I could have fitted 'chair', 'hair' or 'compare' in quite easily. 'Bear', 'mare' and 'stare' would have been less useful, I think. I'm a little sorry I didn't include 'swear' or 'dare', because they're both lively words. On the other hand, I'm sure a line ending in 'there' would have been dreadfully bland. And at one point I did include 'repair'. But you get the point. Oh, and if being American means things don't rhyme as well for you as for me, then I apologise -- but I'm not particularly contrite ;-)

*Which is why I interlocked my ruba'iyat. So that they'd flow. I mean, if I'd wanted to imitate Khayyam or FitzGerald as accurately as possible, I really shouldn't have done that.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Religious and anti-religious themes in 'His Dark Materials'

I have to confess, when I heard they were making a movie out of The Golden Compass -- the first novel in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials sequence -- the anti-religious themes in the book were the first thing I thought of. The comments on this post on Friendly Atheist feature a few comments that suggest that the Christian response is an over-reaction. If so, it was an entirely predictable one, for Pullman is an atheist, and he did write these books with criticism of religion in mind. On the other hand, this post on Beliefnet by Donna Freitas, a defence of His Dark Materials from a Christian perspective, speaks of the way Pullman's story can be read as affirming the religious principles on which some people build their lives. That I did not predict -- but it does not surprise me so very much.

The atheism of His Dark Materials is actually somewhat equivocal. In the fictional multiverse of the books, the Authority known as 'God' is an imposter who did not create the universe, and who is destroyed almost incidentally in the third book by the main characters without their even knowing it. It's almost a throw-away scene, one which, if the third book made it to the screen, might be cut simply for reasons of time. Unlike the depiction of the Fall from Eden as a very good thing (which, certainly, some Christians might find hard to swallow) the death of 'God' is actually not that major. However, while the books reject this authoritarian imposter of a God, they do also have an overarching notion of destiny and purpose, embodied in a mysterious substance known as 'Dust'.

What is 'Dust'? The book gives several possible answers: original sin, the human spirit, a substance attracted to an adult's conscious mind and engagement in life. For an atheist, giving this somewhat humanist idea a supernatural tilt is hardly terrible because this is a
fantasy book. A Christian, however, might see a hint of some true God in this idea, a God who affirms human beings in contrast to the authoritarian religion which crushes them. His Dark Materials reads to me like a humanist freedom cry, a blazing beacon of joy in experience, a command to live life richly and fully, unstifled by repressive religious notions. There are more than a few Christians who value some of the same things as humanists, so we should not be surprised that they also find value in these books.

I'll say this outright: Pullman's His Dark Materials sequence definitely strengthened my atheism. It made me much more likely to see certain types of religious notions (such as giving all control over to God, or such as the repression of sexuality) as antithetical to a life well lived. But if you do believe in God, Pullman's books won't necessarily seem to be fighting that notion overmuch. It really depends what sort of God you have.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

My theory on Flew

Okay, now that I've got my own theory of events, I'm writing a proper post, adapted from my comment on Daylight Atheism here.

Some background, as best I can summarise: Antony Flew was a relatively well known atheist -- not "the world's most notorious", by any stretch, but well known as a philosopher due at least in part to a paper he published in the 1950s on the question of whether God is a scientifically verifiable claim. More recently, however, in his eighties, he has changed his mind on the existence of God.

In 2004, Biola University awarded Flew the "Philip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth". (I am tempted to request that you shoot me if I ever receive an award named for someone thus famed for the distortion of science. In so doing, I reveal my own bias, of course! Still, I really am trying to be fair here). Flew said in his acceptance speech:
In speaking to, or writing for, my fellow professional philosophers I write or speak only about Aristotle's God, who was not concerned with or about human beliefs or behavior. But in speaking to an audience in the United States I cannot do better than to say that I have become, like the young Mr. Jefferson who drafted the Declaration of Independence, a Deist.
There has been more than one insinuation that Flew would have to be senile to accept the arguments for God that he has done. This is too typical of the way some atheists feel about religion in general to be entirely credible. We cannot always understand why any sensible person would believe it, but many otherwise sensible people do. In Flew's case, shifting to Deism shows at least some sign of rigour. Many, indeed perhaps most, of the standard arguments for God will take you little further.

Recently, a book has come out, with authorship credited to Flew and to the evangelical Roy Varghese. A New York Times article questions the book's authorship:
As [Flew] himself conceded, he had not written his book.

“This is really Roy’s doing,” he said, before I had even figured out a polite way to ask. “He showed it to me, and I said O.K. I’m too old for this kind of work!”

When I asked Varghese, he freely admitted that the book was his idea and that he had done all the original writing for it. But he made the book sound like more of a joint effort — slightly more, anyway. “There was stuff he had written before, and some of that was adapted to this,” Varghese said. “There is stuff he’d written to me in correspondence, and I organized a lot of it. And I had interviews with him. So those three elements went into it. Oh, and I exposed him to certain authors and got his views on them. We pulled it together. And then to make it more reader-friendly, HarperCollins had a more popular author go through it.”

So even the ghostwriter had a ghostwriter: Bob Hostetler, an evangelical pastor and author from Ohio, rewrote many passages, especially in the section that narrates Flew’s childhood. With three authors, how much Flew was left in the book? “He went through everything, was happy with everything,” Varghese said.

Cynthia DiTiberio, the editor who acquired “There Is a God” for HarperOne, told me that Hostetler’s work was limited; she called him “an extensive copy editor.” “He did the kind of thing I would have done if I had the time,” DiTiberio said, “but editors don’t get any editing done in the office; we have to do that in our own time.”

I then asked DiTiberio if it was ethical to publish a book under Flew’s name that cites sources Flew doesn’t know well enough to discuss. “I see your struggle and confusion,” she said, but she maintained that the book is an accurate presentation of Flew’s views. “I don’t think Tony would have allowed us to put in anything he was not comfortable with or familiar with,” she said. “I mean, it is hard to tell at this point how much is him getting older. In my communications with him, there are times you have to say things a couple times. I’m not sure what that is. I wish I could tell you more. . . We were hindered by the fact that he is older, but it would do the world a disservice not to have the book out there, regardless of how it was made.”

Richard Carrier, an atheist who corresponded with Flew over his change of mind, has posted his own version of events, along with a theory of his own about the book's authorship:
In my opinion the book's arguments are so fallacious and cheaply composed I doubt Flew would have signed off on it in sound mind, and [the reporter] Oppenheimer comes to much the same conclusion. It seems Flew simply trusted Varghese and didn't even read the book being published in his name. And even if he had, he is clearly incapable now of even remembering what it said. The book's actual author turns out to be an evangelical preacher named Bob Hostetler (who has also written several books with Josh McDowell), with considerable assistance from this book's co-author, evangelical promoter and businessman Roy Abraham Varghese.

However, I don't completely believe the story they told Oppenheimer. The style of the chapters attributed to Flew differs so much from the portions explicitly written by Varghese (such as a lengthy preface), that I suspect Hostetler was responsible for much more than the publisher claims. Whether that's so or not, this is a hack Christian tract, not formal or competent philosophy, nor anything from the mind of Antony Flew.
Carrier's post is interesting but he's biased as heck -- possibly biased as to his own influence on Flew's change of mind (Flew seems to have flip-flopped a bit) and the extent to which Flew would remember it, and definitely biased towards atheism; we can't help that. He does, however, give some interesting details on Flew's book. And apart from the speculation, much of what Carrier says is so entirely consistent with Varghese's statement on the matter, as quoted above, that I'm inclined to believe both.

Here's is Varghese, repeated from above:
“There was stuff he had written before, and some of that was adapted to this,” Varghese said. “There is stuff he’d written to me in correspondence, and I organized a lot of it. And I had interviews with him. So those three elements went into it. Oh, and I exposed him to certain authors and got his views on them. We pulled it together. And then to make it more reader-friendly, HarperCollins had a more popular author go through it.”
Here is Carrier on the book:
Curiously absent from the entire book is any discussion of Deism...
...this book is filled with the typical concerns and methods of contemporary Christian apologetics...
Finally, chapters provided by Varghese (actually written in Varghese's name) vent a fireball of rage and calumny against the renowned, popular, and bestselling atheists Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris.
These are strong indications that the overall shape and content of the book aren't Flew's doing -- which they wouldn't be, if Varghese's statement is accurate! It's not at all far-fetched to suppose that Varghese et al are using Flew to promote a worldview that doesn't precisely align with his. It would be possible to do this without actually lying, per se -- just omitting inconvenient qualifiers that Flew might have placed on his position had he been putting the book together himself, and adding in some (credited) bits from other authors that push people towards Christianity particularly.

I can imagine them rationalising it this way, putting it together so carefully from things Flew actually did say, choosing the bits that made the story they wanted. They may well have even used statements from Flew that he later retracted, as Carrier claims. I can imagine Flew agreeing to let them write the book after a bit of pressure, thinking they had the right to the 'data' of his personal story, not paying attention to the way they were writing as if he agreed to the worldview they were promoting with that 'data', and feeling as if he had to go along with it once he'd said yes.

I can even imagine Varghese and possibly Hostetler rationalising that Flew probably would agree with such-and-such an argument, because it makes so much sense... but, though I can imagine them thinking that, I am inclined to withhold belief that they actually did include arguments that Flew didn't agree with. I really don't think they would have needed to. I could have done it without resorting to that.

In short, Flew may simply have decided that he doesn't have the energy to fight the war over subtext in the way his views are being presented by others. Varghese is being somewhat dishonest in presenting the view of the book as Flew's when it is really being pulled towards Varghese's own as a result of the fact that he did most of the work, but that's it.

And yes, Flew's old age may make him less inclined to expend the energy to argue over subtleties. He may also be in decline somewhat intellectually -- we know he's suffering from an inability to remember some things. That probably exacerbates the situation. It doesn't mean that Varghese and Hostetler made the whole thing up, though. With my imperfect knowledge, my current guess is that they merely took a real change of opinion and dressed it up to support their position as much as possible, but probably without lying outright.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Antony Flew

Okay, this is disturbing. Be sure to read the journalist's account on Page 5 of his conversation with Flew.

(Via Pharyngula and Daylight Atheism)

Monday, 5 November 2007

Bwahahahaha! LaTeX on Blogger.

I learned about two weeks after I started blogging that you can get LaTeX to work on WordPress. It was the first time (but certainly not the last) that I thought to myself why, oh why the heck did I not blog on WordPress?

Well, I'll probably still think that from time to time, but I've found a way to use LaTeX on Blogger. So let's see if I can get it to work:

Hey! Magic.

For those of you who are wondering what the heck is going on, LaTeX is a typesetting program that you can use to produce mathematical formulae. For example, that integral on the left of the above expression is produced by putting the following into LaTeX:

\int_a^b f(x) e^{\mathrm{i}\omega g(x)} \mathrm{d} x

I'm told it works better on a white background. So if, by the time you see this, I've changed my blog template, that will be why.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Humanist Symposium #10

The tenth Humanist Symposium is up! It's at Letters from a Broad this time, with a sweet little illustration, sort of like an illuminated border. My post on tragedy is included.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Conservative think tank recommends fathers give higher priority to their children.

Yes, you read that correctly. The Maxim Institute, a New Zealand based conservative think tank, has come out with a report which says that:

Fathers should
* Take their share of responsibility for their children's wellbeing and development.
* Spend time with them, be supportive and involved.

Families should
* Reconsider factors that drive fathers to work long hours, such as the desire for higher living standards.

Employers should
* Accept and support their employees' commitments outside work.
* Allow flexible working hours and working from home where possible.

Social services should
* Communicate with fathers as well as mothers because both affect the child's development.

Society should
* Encourage fathers' involvement with their children from infancy.
* Give higher priority to marriage and committed relationships.

There are many criticisms that could be made regarding the way this compares with other statements from the Maxim Institute. We could point out that longer working hours are in many respects a result of the free-market economics that the Maxim Institute unequivocally champions. We could point out that they're recommending that parents put off buying a house, when home ownership is a standard level of independence and security in New Zealand, and that social programs which could make it easier to have the house and spend time with the kids would probably be opposed by the Maxim Institute. We could point out that some people can't afford a house or time with the kids, and that the Maxim Institute isn't likely to support helping those people, either.

But I just want to point out that this is a conservative think tank, here, looking at the research and deciding, not that mothers should go back to the home, but that fathers should meet them there. I just want to savour how far we've come.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

The Proscenium Arch

I had a sweet singing voice as a kid -- the sort of accurate tunefulness that you don't necessarily expect to hear from a child, and a cute, wistful sense of feeling, you know the type. Oh, my pleased, proud parents! When Mum was a kid, she always wished she could sing. Her father (not a particularly nice man) told her not to be stupid, she couldn't possibly be any good at anything like that. As for my father, he loves to sing. Unfortunately he can't sing for too long without his voice getting hoarse, because he damaged his throat when I was still a baby with a few too many late nights of singing at his regular restaurant slot.

My father in particular was always very keen for me to sing with him. If he couldn't sing as much as he'd like, at least he could play the guitar for me. And thus it was that I ended up singing for grandmothers, aunts, uncles, godparents, family friends, the occasional work colleague or graduate student of my father's, and, really, all and sundry who passed through our house.

The first time my father suggested I sing for some family members, I balked. Squirming, I got up and tried to sing, only to duck away shyly. I didn't dare thus set myself up as worth listening to, and leave myself exposed to evaluation of the implicit claim. I didn't want to have to watch their real-time reaction, right there in front of me. I just ... didn't want to sing.

But I am not, and have never been, a shrinking violet. I hate that girly shyness modesty stuff. So the second time, I steeled myself, and sang. The response was positive, naturally. I do not think I really expected anything else. Responding without seeming proud was definitely one of the more uncomfortable parts of the stomach-churning experience. But it didn't put me off. Most of the time, when my father suggested I sing, I sang.

When it came to solos with the school choir, I quickly became blasé. But with small audiences, in the living room, there's always that core of fear in your gut. You can learn to set it aside to let the song through, but it never really leaves you. It was always there, from the sweet little performances as an eight year old until the day when I was sixteen and finally made enough of a fuss that my father had to stop telling me to "oh, come on, they're expecting it". On stage, it's different. On stage, you have the proscenium arch. It separates you and the audience. It frames what you are doing. It says "this isn't real", and under that cover you can be as real as you like.

Poetry is a proscenium arch. If it's a poem, you're allowed to speak floridly. If you want to exaggerate, it's merely hyperbole. If you want to spill your guts, well, nobody really has to respond to it as anything but a poem, do they? Verse is a particularly good proscenium arch: pay your dues to the gods of rhyme and metre, and you are officially excused the accusation of complete talentlessness and lack of effort.

The separation provided by my pseudonym 'Lynet' can act like a proscenium arch, too.

Nearly all forms of art have a proscenium arch of sorts. The effort to transcend that separation can sometimes mark a piece of art as particularly good, but at other times it's the cover provided by the form that allows the brilliance of honest expression. "I give to you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion," says Tennessee Williams. Well, that's what the proscenium arch is for.

I am not resigned: A meditation on tragedy.

The last Poetry Sunday at Daylight Atheism was Edna St. Vincent Millay's Dirge Without Music. The poem itself is a beautiful, sensitive, defiant meditation on death. Yet it is not of death that I wish to speak, or not death alone. Sublime though the poem is in its entirety, in the process of responding to Ebonmuse's particular emphasis on its quiet refusal to succumb to perfect acceptance of the inevitable I have been caught, caught entirely, by the final line alone.

I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned. It's a small, simple idea that might have meant very little to another person, or to myself at another time. Knowing this, I cannot be sure that I am able to explain what it meant to me. Nor can I be sure that it will mean anything to you, if I do succeed in such an explanation. I offer my attempt at explanation nevertheless.

Ebonmuse writes, almost coincidentally, in that same thread that "Paradoxically, there can be true beauty in tragedy, for all that I would end it in a second if I had the power." Let this be my starting point, for, friends, if I had in front of me the magic wand that would end tragedy forever, I could never pick it up. No, never! The sweetest moments of my life have been those when tragedy fell away. How many lines of flaccid free verse have I wasted on the taste of tears? On the way despair becomes a lens through which the simple details of the world seem unimaginably good in their detachment from your pain? The simple fact is that I am not sure my life would be worth living if it had no tragedy in it.

The beauty that is in despair was an observation on which I built my view of the world. It was how I dealt with the reality of despair. Let me put this in a broader context. Human beings in general have a need to find ways to deal with the reality of pain and suffering. I do not speak here of the 'Problem of Evil' which plagues so many versions of conventional theism but rather the more simple part of us that cannot help but cry out at the unfairness and pain in the world: our own pain; the pain of those we love; all pain. Compassion can only exacerbate such a feeling. How do we deal with the incredible weight of suffering in the world? How do we deal with times when we ourselves are not sure that our own suffering will ever cease?

Religions have several different types of answers that they can give to these questions*. For example, we have the idea that we suffer because we deserve it. The notion of karma in Hinduism is the most extreme and obvious version of this. Those who suffer deserve to suffer; if you would avoid suffering, behave yourself. Believing in the ultimate fairness of the universe in this way may perhaps allow people to be psychologically reconciled to the suffering that inevitably occurs. It explains what people must do to avoid it, and gives people an excuse for not worrying too much about the pain of others. As freethinkers, of course, we may well be concerned about the consequences of people choosing not to worry about the pain of others! More importantly, however, we simply have no reason to suppose that there is any such karmic justice in place. The notion cannot be of use to us, even if we wanted it to be.

Another very common religious answer is to pull in the notion of a heavenly afterlife. Never mind that you are suffering now. Some day, you will live happily ever after, and so will those you love -- at least, they will as long as they belong to the same religion you do. This answer seems to rely on a willingness to be cold towards outsiders, but that is hardly a quality that human beings generally lack. Believing in heaven, people can struggle through, even if they believe their lives will never get better, by hoping for paradise at the end. Among atheists, the question sometimes arises whether (and when) we have the right to try to take this hope from people. I shall not try to answer that question completely, but perhaps I can shed some light on the extent to which there are atheist alternatives.

I confess I once naively placed a lot of confidence in the beauty that tragedy can produce. It's almost... karmic. Certainly it is at least a shift towards balance. After the storm, after the rain, the air is still and the grass is clean, and the shaft of sunlight coming down from the clouds can be a blessing beyond belief, even beyond belief in any God. I still do think that happiness arises in part by contrasts. I do not think I have ever thought that contrast was the only contributor to happiness, but nevertheless, my experience led me to play up this aspect of things. I had known the pain that comes when your world falls apart because you built it on false premises -- a healing pain from which you emerge somewhat subdued, but wiser and stronger. I had known small failures and deep loneliness, and found the small sweetnesses in each (I still have a radiant smile left over from when getting a smile back from a stranger really meant something). And out of this I could reflect that surely the world cannot be so bad when it gives you the soft rush of small joys in compensation for hardship.

Ah, but even Pollyanna had her moment when the 'glad game' just wouldn't work any more. And in real life the world is not required to miraculously restore to you the dearly beloved things it so coldly destroys. It is these moments when the narrative fails that are the hardest. How many deus ex machinas have I screamed at in the last few years? How dare George Eliot end The Mill on the Floss with a dubiously engineered death? (I expected better, having read Middlemarch). She's not allowed to die, she has to live. Live and suffer, Maggie. Live and suffer and show me how.

The worst tragedies are off the map. Jane Austen never wrote about what it was like when the man she loved died before they could marry. Think of it! This, at a time when marriage was the dearest ambition of every woman of Austen's age and class, to have the promise of that dreamed-of home, adulthood, security, love replaced with what might be (and, indeed, turned out to be) a lifetime of spinsterhood.

Knowing you are not alone can almost seem to make this sort of thing worse. Pick yourself up. Hearts are broken every day, Lynet, even worse than your so-narratively-wrong case. Oh, don't remind me of the sheer weight of broken hearts!

Of course, we know how Jane Austen dealt with her situation. Mansfield Park has a somewhat insipid streak precisely because our poor Jane, having given up hope in this world, was resolutely focused on the next. And since her novels improved after that low point, we may assume that she did, too, somehow. That option for making it through the rough patch is not open to me. What is?

Ah, well, I have options Jane Austen did not have. My life need not revolve around a relationship (hey, hers didn't either and she still managed a lot!). I can have a career. While away the hours until I die. I know I ought not to go gentle, but the imperative to take a hold of life seems hard, sometimes. If I keep working, will life stop feeling so flat?

And so I read Dirge Without Music, and, being asked to fully comprehend "I am not resigned", realised that I had pushed away that part of it the first time I read through. It hurts, not being resigned. How many times have I told myself that I'll just have to lump it?

Oh, help me, for I am not resigned. I am not resigned, and if I were resigned, not all the calm precautions and shaky rebuilding would ever be enough to restore the shine to my broken world.

Take me back, world of narratives and dreams. I know that beautiful things can die worthlessly. I know that many dreams disappear from our lives abruptly without so much as a 'goodbye'. I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

When I finished crying and went outside, the sunshine seemed less incongruous. The grass was clean, the air was still, and my remembered loss still wasn't worth it, but I -- I wandered down the street with my radiant smile just a little bit easier than it was.

*I do not mean to imply that the non-religious ways of dealing with pain that I give later are not just as deeply felt by those with religion, too, of course -- L.L. Barkat's recent post would be proof against that assumption.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Blog Evolution Meme...

... with a digression into how I came to like strict poetic forms.

Tobe tagged me, so here we go. I'm supposed to pick five posts from my archives that display how my blog has evolved over time, and then tag five more people to do the same. Like Tobe, I'm going to take the opportunity to go over some history.

I started blogging in February, but I'd been reading blogs for months before that -- my usual starting point was the Carnival of Feminists. Then I found a link to Alon Levy's Abstract Nonsense somewhere in the archives of Alas, A Blog. Abstract Nonsense was the first blog I started reading regularly. Alon's a sharp guy, it's a pity he's not blogging any more. At any rate, reading even one blog regularly makes you somewhat anchored to the blogosphere, and I decided I wanted a place of my own.

Elliptica has always been a bit hodge-podge, usually with several different subjects evolving at the same time. It serves as my presence on the blogosphere, my home base from which to visit other blogs, my space to voice my opinions or explore different lines of thought. It was originally going to be called Parabolica, but there's already a blog of that name (it's in Portugese, though, so I can't tell you what on Earth it's talking about). As noted on my About Me page, I like conic sections. They're pretty.

So. Post number one: Matters of Identity. Definitely one of my better early posts. I think it's appropriate that I start by quoting a feminist post. The central useful idea here is the way statements about gender have a hard time not being normative. I like being a girl (though I really ought to start thinking of myself of as more like a woman than a girl, I suppose) but as a feminist I naturally worry about the ways in which that can confine me.

I started off blogging quite a lot about mathematics. However, mathematics posts are always more work than the other stuff I toss off. If I'm explaining something I understand well, I spend ages figuring out how to explain it interestingly to someone who knows less than I do. If I'm trying to explain something I don't understand so well, I have to keep looking things up. Nevertheless, I really ought to go to the effort of putting more maths up here -- heck, it's on my subtitle, isn't it? And I really do love the stuff. "But if you can't picture it..." was a bit of a gift, really -- a subject coming up in coversation that many non-mathematicians might want to know about, and about which I do have some breadth of understanding.

My blogging about feminism took something of a downturn after my post on Celebration of Female Desire Week. Why? Well, there's one central question that every young woman who cares about feminism has to answer. It kind of split feminism down the middle in the eighties, and it's still going strong. The point is this. On the one hand, increasing freedom of and openness about sexual expression means that women have the chance to ask for more equality (and more of what they would like) in their sexual relations. That's a good thing. But on the other hand, the sexual revolution hasn't precisely got rid of the idea that women who have sex outside of wedlock might be deserving of less respect. When it comes to the virgin/whore dichotomy, there are parts of our culture that seem to interpret the sexual revolution as simply placing all women in the latter category. And thus, within feminism, we have the Sex Wars. Should women avoid sex, or certain types of sex, for so long as many people view it as degrading to the woman involved? Are there other ways to deal with this? The early posts on my blog have several takes on this issue, some heartfelt, some tentative, but this was the final post that wrapped it all up for me. And after that, I just wasn't thinking about feminism quite so much any more, and the topic of feminism went quiet for a while.

I never expected to blog much about atheism. God doesn't exist, already. Big deal. But then I wandered onto Daylight Atheism on one of Ebonmuse's sure-fire eloquent days. My somewhat clumsy response, overflowing with enthusiasm, would end up requiring two follow-up posts as I thought, and re-thought, clarifying my exact position over time (go down to the very bottom of the comments each time to find the 'links to this post' if you want to follow the fallout, there).

On my birthday, in March last year, my sister got me a copy of The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry. Witty and informative throughout, the book had one section called What is Form and Why Bother with It? (subtitle: Stephen gets all cross), which completely overturned my view of strict poetic forms. I know I was told by more than one primary school teacher not to bother with rhyme -- understandable perhaps, given that bad rhyme really is terrible. But then, oh, how terrible, how self-indulgent is the bad free verse that you can end up producing by just 'writing what comes' and expecting it to be deep philosophy. It's a simple fact that in both cases, a little understanding can go a long way. And in my case, after reading Stephen Fry, I realised that I had really only ever written one poem that stood up to much scrutiny.

One poem. A modified haiku. Not just any modified haiku, but one written with some understanding of the traditions of the haiku form, because my mother, many years before, was briefly very interested in haikus. In fact, when I did my first ever Google name search, I found I'd written a haiku of my own back then that was very much a precursor to this one. Oh, the new haiku broke almost every rule in the book -- it had two verses, it involved the poet rather than confining itself to a description of nature, and, hey, forget 5-7-5! It was still a haiku, though. If you're interested, it went like this:

In warm grass
Fascinating water swirls

Thinking of you
Still made me feel like this

That, my friends, is a poem with form.

So, armed with a new knowledge of rhyme and metre, I struck out into the world of villanelles, sestinas, and sonnets. And you know what? Rhyme gives you ideas. Metre distracts your mind and leaves your subconscious free to work. And any form will very quickly force you to learn the all-important task of editing your thoughts to fit, which leads you naturally into the elusive skill of re-writing without losing the good stuff you already have.

So I had a blog, and I had some rapidly-rising poetic skills. Poems, blog, blog, poems... inevitably, I ended up posting some. The first one I posted was a villanelle, and I'm not at all sure that a single line of that poem would pass muster if I was writing it now. It was still a lot better than anything I'd written previously. However, for my fifth and (regrettably) final choice of archived post, I'm going to give my sestina. It is difficult to be ashamed of a sestina, because they are fairly hard to write in the first place. The only real restriction is on the final word of each line. You have six lines per stanza, and six words with which lines are allowed to end. The exact order of these words varies according to a strict pattern which ensures that each word will occupy each placing in the order exactly once (nice mathematical connection, there). For example, you will see that the final word of the first line of one stanza is always the final word of the last line of the previous stanza. The second line of the stanza ends with the same word as the first line of the previous stanza. Confused?

Let me put it this way. If the ordering of final words in the first stanza is ABCDEF, the next stanza will have the final word of each line in the order FAEBDC. The next stanza is CFDABE. Continue for six stanzas and, trust me, each word will have occupied each position exactly once. Then you end the poem with a three-line stanza in which you include two of your chosen words per line, and you're done.

The six words I chose are "words","fear","mother","lost","daughter", and "well". That last one has a nice variety of meanings to cycle through. So if you're really confused, here it is without further ado: Daughter's Sestina. Oh, and do me a favour? Read it out loud. I don't care if you feel silly. Whisper it, if you must. Because, though I say it myself, the poem has some rather cool metrical effects that found their way in by accident while I was trying very hard not to write in iambic pentameter. You don't have to be consciously aware of them, but if you're just skimming over it with your eyes, you probably won't be aware of them at all. So, please...

And that's all I have space for! A pity, but when your blog is evolving on several tracks at once, it's difficult to get the whole story across. Now, who to tag? L.L. Barkat has been blogging about blogging for a while already, so I'm not sure if this meme would feel too much like more of the same; JD2718 might be a decent bet, but Kelly says she's been tagged already, C.L. Hanson has already done it, um... oh, heck. I'll take the easy way out. Open tag. If you want it, take it.