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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.