Tuesday, December 28, 2010

life in all its intensity, illogicality and durability

orthodox for some

Recently I received the gift of a book of essays and occasional pieces, written in the sixties, by Charmian Clift, one of Australia's most talented and thought-provoking writers. The collection is entitled Trouble in lotus land. One of her pieces, 'The loftiest form of springtime', is a short but intense and vivid description, half poetical, half anthropological, of the ritual activities and festivities around Easter Passion week on a Greek island - that's to say, within a close-knit and profoundly tradition-bound Greek community. The Day of Lazarus, Palm Sunday, Holy or Passion week, Maundy Thursday, these are terms with no great significance for me, but on this Greek Island these days and weeks are imbued with a seasonal ritual which clearly isn't entirely Christian. As Clift puts it:
Christ and Dionysus merge in torn flesh and flowers, and life is resurrected from the dead earth. The pagan world is always there, lingering on, dark and impenitent.
Reading about these rituals, their colour and intensity, their apparent essentiality to the communities that engage in them, takes me far from the kind of remark I read this morning, a blog comment about faith as a form of intellectual dishonesty, and not really 'a way of knowing' at all. My response, right now, would be that faith, for these communities, isn't a way of knowing, but more like a way of being, and that to call it faith wouldn't be entirely accurate. For these villagers, as with tribal peoples throughout the world, all of this goes beyond the label of 'faith' or 'religion', and terms like 'truth' and 'falsehood' don't really apply. It's just what they do, and it constitutes their identity. I've written about this in an essay called 'big and small religions', in which I express my ambivalence about attacks on religious belief based purely on logic. I don't think religious belief is particularly logical in the accepted sense, but it can clearly provide people with a strong sense of identity, motivation and energy, as the work of Emily Kngwarreye has so powerfully shown. I've long been of the view that religion and science are not reconcilable, that at base they are in competition in seeking to explain how the world is and how it works, but it's clear that we can't all be scientists, and there are whole cultures with traditions that can't readily incorporate the findings of modern science. The sorts of vigorous and rigorous critiques aimed at fundamentalist Christians, or at the teachings of the RCC, seem to me inappropriate when dealing with smaller, tribal religions or belief systems, or their quirky versions of mainstream, larger religions. A sort of 'tread softly, for you tread on my whole way of being' approach is called for. We can even celebrate the colour and intensity and ingenuity of their rituals and belief systems, while always recognising how much damage they can do [I've seen a horrible video in which a young girl was being threatened with death by a 'witchdoctor' for being possessed, and we often hear of the horrific treatment of albinos in Africa, due to irrational belief systems, etc]. For the most part, though, they are effective in binding communities together and helping them to thrive collectively, if not individually - otherwise, such rituals and belief systems wouldn't have developed. 
Some have argued that the sympathetic attitudes of some western intellectuals towards these 'small religions' or local 'traditions' smacks of condescension, but in Australia, as elsewhere, we've learned the hard way of the dangers and the damage involved in underestimating the power, the energy and the resilience of supposedly primitive belief systems. I for one don't see them disappearing in the foreseeable future, until at least a scientific worldview is equally capable of binding communities together, providing equivalent rewards and satisfactions [as of course it does in many modern scientific fields and 'campus communities'].
Another thing about this little piece - it took me back to my own readings of anthropological writings in the eighties, especially Clifford Geertz's concept of 'thick description', the idea that the anthropologist should describe the ritual or practise in the richest possible detail, incorporating not only her own observations, but whatever commentary or  background can be provided by the participants, however contradictory or multifarious - the contradictions and 'illogicalities' being often more revealing and key to the understanding of the event as any 'official' version. To try to see things from a variety of other perspectives can't be a completely bad thing, can it?  

Sunday, December 26, 2010

an unsatisfying mix of astrology, astronomy and religion

not the most interesting subject

The other night, I think it was Christmas eve, I caught an odd late-night program on SBS, I think. It was called 'Star of Bethlehem. Behind the myth', and was completed in December 2009, so was probably first shown last Christmas. The blurb claims that astronomical evidence supports the Christmas story, by which they presumably mean the story of the 'star of Bethlehem'. The program didn't bear that out at all, in fact it was a sometimes interesting, often irritating mix of astronomical info and speculation, astrological history and religious pap. 
The theme of the program appeared to be: could the star of Bethlehem, the one mentioned in Matthew [and only in Matthew], refer to a real, verifiable event in the night sky at that time? Answer: quite possibly.
I mean - big fucking deal. Of course there could have been an event in the night sky sometime during the very vague defined period of time within which Jesus may have been born. Does this back up the Christian birth story? Of course not. Here's a quote from the doco:

Looking at the story of the magi and the stellar beacon from a scientific point of view, is it possible to determine what exactly the "star" was that heralded the arrival of a baby boy to the wise men? If you believe the account was more than just a story and the star was more than a story-telling device, then you need to analyze the sky around the time of Jesus's birth to find what may have played the role of the Star of Bethlehem.
This misses the bleeding obvious point [to me] that a very real comet or supernova may well have appeared in the night sky in 6BCE or 5BCE or 7BCE and been incorporated into the story by the author of Matthew, with as little regard for the truth as his genealogy of Jesus and his links to Old Testament 'prophecy'. The use of a 'star' as a portent would be just like Matthew - anything that might add to the significance of his 'messiah' would be roped in and manipulated to suit his story. It doesn't make the event [I mean Jesus's birth, not the comet or whatever] more real. As to the speculation about what the star of Bethlehem might actually have been, there just isn't enough information in Matthew to get a handle on it, so it's a bit pointless, but if evidence turned up that a comet or supernova was visible in the night sky at those latitudes in those years, that's fine and dandy, Matthew might have been referring to it. Or not. End of very feeble story. 

Saturday, December 25, 2010

christmas cheer

watch out for Santa!

We often have people complaining about the commerciality of xmas, with the 'real' message being forgotten, but while indulgence often sickens - and I've been feeling half-sick all day - the basic message for me has always been kindness to children, anticipation, surprise, imagination and fun. Santa and his jollity are an apt replacement for the solemn figures bowed around the manger. He has become the closest thing to a secular mythical figure we have, and although some insist that 'he knows if you've been bad or good', the emphasis is overwhelmingly on goodness, and even more on happiness. I've discovered some who really love Christmas for the simple delight and sense of expectation it brings. They don't say that the real message has been subverted by Christians, for many of them are probably Christians themselves, but they appear to give little thought to Jesus and being saved from sin at this time of the year, and so much the better.

So, happy Christmas, for what's in a name, and thank you, Santa.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

amongst other things, what julian assange should say in response to US claims that he's a terrorist

Ages ago I decided to head all of my posts with quotes from my desultory reading, but typically I didn't keep it up for long. however, as there have been rich pickings of late I've decided to try again.

Science is often misrepresented as 'the body of knowledge acquired by performing replicated controlled experiments in the laboratory'. Actually, science is something much broader: the acquisition of reliable knowledge about the world.
Jared Diamond, Collapse

In avoidance mode big-time re my studies, and of course it's that time of year when self-indulgence, even if only in the form of sluggishness, is permitted to come to the fore.

Tonight I watched Stephen Fry in the USA, travellin north up the Mississip, his arm all slung up, presumably due to the accident he suffered in Last Chance to See, which I also loved. I was jealous, because being famous and in demand allows you to do just this, meet all sorts of bods, quirky and weird and resilient and hospitable and optimistic and delightful. Anyway, experiencing all these folks in one-way-mirror TV land is way better than not experiencing them at all, so cheers to Fry and his open-heartedness and curiosity and self-deprecating humour and energy.

I'm still not sure of the ethics of what Julian Assange and Wikileaks is doing, but I'm sure I'm one of many who get their back up when someone like him gets described as a terrorist. I wish he would come out with an eloquent statement of denunciation, or retaliation, something to really rouse the rabble, something like this:

Hello everyone, I'd just like to address some brief remarks to you about the recent claim, by no less a personage than Joe Biden, the USA's President of Vice, that I am a terrorist, who runs a terrorist organisation. Now, you might think that Mr Biden, considering his position, would know a lot about vice, and I have no doubt that terrorism is one of the nastiest vices around, but I would ask you to consider carefully this claim. What is terrorism, and what is a terrorist? Well, I think that my own understanding of terrorism is an uncontroversial, mainstream understanding. Terrorists are people whose intention is to spread terror. That's why they're called terrorists, right? It's not rocket science, it's terrorism. And they spread terror through acts of violence, usually extreme violence. Murder, bombing, kidnapping - we all know the story. But unfortunately, the term terrorism and the term terrorist are currently perhaps the most abused terms in the English language today. Since September 11, and really before that, in the last ten or fifteen years in which terrorism has gained a much higher profile in the west, the term has been hijacked by rogue states wishing to silence internal dissent, by nations wishing to goad enemy nations, by political parties keen to denounce their opposites, and so forth. It is a tool intended, I think, to silence debate, but as always with such tools, the more it is used [or rather, abused], the more ineffectual it becomes.
Biden isn't the first US establishment figure to use the terrorism word against me - I believe Joe Lieberman has made a similar accusation recently. This surely should move us to ask - why is it that the US establishment in particular is so keen to abuse and denigrate me? And I hope you can see the humour in Biden's accusation, for in the very same interview in which Biden described me as a terrorist - that's to say, the most horrific and inhuman of arch-criminals - he told the interviewer that he had set a legal team to comb the legislation to see if just possibly they could find some charge they could lay against me. And no doubt they've been looking for months, and so far have found nothing to charge me with. So here I am, a terrorist, the most criminal of criminals, who hasn't broken the law.
So, okay, let's be serious again and ask ourselves, why all this nasty rhetoric? Well, I don't think it's all that difficult to explain. I'm not a historian, but I do have an interest in history, and I can tell you that every state that has risen to great power and prominence, now or in the past, has been ruthless, utterly ruthless, in protecting, and if possible furthering, its own hegemony. I make this historical point lest anyone imagine that I am some kind of rabid anti-American. Each of these powerful states - the USA, the Soviet Union, Imperial Britain, Imperial Rome - have tended very strongly to identify their own interests with the interests of their subject peoples, their client states, and the world in general. It is a natural enough fallacy, but it undoubtedly is a fallacy. And it's a fallacy which, when acted upon, as it so often is, can have terrible consequences, as so many of the people of Iraq, for example, have discovered to their cost.
One way in which the hegemony of powerful states is protected and enhanced, as we know, is by the manipulation of information. This is often done cynically, to gain advantage, with an 'ends justifies the means' mindset. Often though, it is done quite 'unconsciously', as with any individual who's instinct is to survive and thrive, often at the expense of those around her, without giving a great deal of thought to the matter. Again, in the recent case of the invasion of Iraq, we see, in my view, a combination of cynicism and unconscious motivation, which, while understandable - I don't condemn the USA, for I think any other nation in its position would do much the same - was highly regrettable from the point of view of many non-US citizens [and for quite a few US citizens]. Organisations like Wikileaks are trying to open up, as much as possible, to the rest of the world, the kinds of deals and deliberations that go on in the world of diplomacy and official international relations, a world which, I think, is overly elitist and arrogant in its treatment of the ordinary people most often destined to suffer from their high-handed decisions. Of course the establishment see this as a major threat to their assumed authority, and they will pound out the rhetoric accordingly. We should take this rhetoric with a generous measure of salt, but we should also note that these people have the power to 'act dirty' as well as to 'talk dirty', as Bradley Manning, and others I'm sure, have discovered. Their suffering should not go unrecognised.
I note in passing that the activities of the Wikileaks organisation, and their ethical implications have come under much scrutiny from the blogosphere and various online sites. Many of the commentators are professional philosophers and experienced political pundits, and I welcome their scrutiny. Some have expressed reservations about our activities, others have offered more or less qualified support. All have been far more nuanced, thoughtful and measured than the establishment figures in the US government and their staunchest allies. However, in spite of their rhetoric, and in spite of what they try to do to me personally, they will not be able to control this debate, nor will they be able to control the spread of information and knowledge which, horror of horrors, will not always be in their best interests. Lash out as they might, control of information will continue to slip from their grasp. Time for a rethink, ladies and gentlemen.

I should also say that I very much enjoyed Jason Rosenhouse's clear-minded critique of Michael Ruse here. Rosenhouse has done much to sharpen my own thinking regarding science, religion, conflict and compatibility, and it's a pleasure to see him back on that task again, after something of an absence.

Friday, December 17, 2010

a few little thoughts on the Assange case

I haven't been following the Julian Assange case too closely, but of course I'm interested in it, with its issues of freedom of information, the exercise of power and the nature of diplomacy, as well as the other issues around sexual assault, the justice system and the likelihood of political interference. Since I've only heard bits and pieces about the assault issue, including claims that it was a borderline case, that it had already been dropped some months ago for lack of evidence, and that the Swedish judiciary have been behaving with a sudden unwonted heavy-handedness, I thought that I might try to get my head around what's been going on, for my own sake. For the fact is that it's, dare I say, fun like a thriller, but of course with a great deal more reality in terms of weight and repercussions.
However, I don't think I will write extensively on it, as so many others are doing so, people better qualified than myself. This brief piece at three quarks captures some of my concerns though.
Questions arise. Since the assault case was dropped for lack of evidence last August [the day after the charge was issued], is there new evidence in this new charge? Charge or charges? If there are are no new charges, how can the case be reopened? What exactly are the charges? Why is this case so obviously being treated differently from other sexual assault cases? I happen to have some familiarity with such charges and accusations. A person accused of sexual assault - and he hadn't even been charged, he was merely taken into custody at the request of Swedish authorities - would not normally be placed in solitary confinement while in custody. Whatever for? It's the sort of treatment you'd expect to be meted out to someone suspected of espionage or something.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

how real was their jesus? part 2

The announcement in Matthew is strikingly different. Not only is it more cursory than in Luke, but it is made after Mary's conception:
The birth of Jesus the Anointed took place as follows: While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they slept together, she was found to be pregnant by the holy spirit. Since Joseph her husband was a good man and did not wish to expose her publicly, he planned to break off their engagement quietly. While he was thinking about these things a messenger of the Lord surprised him in a dream with these words: 'Joseph, descendant of David, don't hesitate to take Mary as your wife, since the holy spirit is responsible for her pregnancy. She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus. This means 'he will save his people from their sins' [Matthew 1 18-22].
So, the messenger, not specified as Gabriel, visits Joseph rather than Mary, after she has found herself to be pregnant and after she has told him, which she may well have delayed doing, considering their unmarried state, until it couldn't be hidden. If Mary was young and naive, she may well not have known of her state until she was well on. So we're talking four weeks minimum after conception, and probably much later.
So how would our Tardis team deal with these grossly contradictory accounts? Clearly we would need sufficient facts, or leads, to place us in the right place at the right time. Luke's gospel gives us an 'announcement' place - 'a city in Galilee called Nazareth', though the archaeological evidence strongly suggests that Nazareth would've been no more than a small village in Jesus's time [blessed news for the Tardis team]. Matthew's gospel doesn't specify a place, but tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, some seventy miles south of Nazareth - a few days by donkey.
However, all of this 'where' information is useless without further information as to when. 

To find out more, we turn to the birth itself, and again we find two seriously incompatible stories, leading us to be sceptical of both. We'll look at Matthew first this time: 
Jesus was born at Bethlehem, in Judea, when Herod was king [Matthew 2:1]. 
A very useful lead, but unfortunately for our team, Herod's reign was a long one, from around 37BCE to 5 or 4BCE.We know of course that the official year of his birth marks year zero in our calendar, but if Matthew's gospel is to be relied on here [and I see no reason why it should be], his birthdate is out by four to thirty-seven years. And there's no obvious reason to assume it's closer to four than thirty-seven. That's a long period to stake out. Let's see if we can reduce it.
In chapter two of Matthew, one event is mentioned which is so strikingly horrific that it just might provide a lead for us, before we even embark on our expedition:
When Herod realized he had been duped by the astrologers, he was outraged. He then issued a death warrant for all the male children in Bethlehem and surrounding regions two years old and younger [Matthew 2: 16]
Surely such a regally sanctioned massacre, in the reign of such a well-known monarch, would be in the historical records, giving us a date to go on? The answer is no. The infamous massacre of the innocents mentioned in Matthew isn't corroborated anywhere else, in spite of a great deal being known of Herod's reign. Josephus, the most important Jewish historian of the period, doesn't mention it. However, it was a very bloody reign, especially in the last years, and it's just possible that this local massacre got lost amongst the general carnage. After all, if we exclude Jerusalem, the number of slaughtered children in and around Bethlehem may not have been great. At least we can point to the last years of Herod as being slightly more likely as the birth period.
However, there's an argument which tells against this massacre having occurred, and of the consequences for Jesus, who was described as having escaped with his family to Egypt. Matthew's gospel is obsessed, it seems, with the fulfilment of prophecy, and this leads me to wonder if certain events are fashioned to fulfil those prophecies. For example, on the massacre, Matthew writes:
With this event the prediction made by the prophet Jeremiah came true: In Ramah the sound of mourning and bitter grieving was heard: Rachel weeping for her children. She refused to be consoled: they were no more [Matthew 2: 18]  
The reference is to Jeremiah 31:15. I don't for a moment believe this passage was an accurate prophecy of Herod's behaviour centuries later - Ramah was more or less in the vicinity of Bethlehem, but these prophecies were generally written after the events prophesied had occurred, so it probably referred to the invasion of the Assyrians, or the later invasion of the Babylonians - but it does indicate that Matthew was prepared to shape the tale to fit his propagandist intent. And of course it's quite possible, even likely, that the whole story was filched from the old testament tale of events surrounding the child Moses:
Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.” [Exodus 1:22, NIV]
So where does this leave us? Nowhere clear, and with a heightened scepticism of the Matthew gospel. The period of exile in Egypt was also claimed as a fulfilment of prophecy:
So Joseph got ready and took the child and his mother under cover of night and set out for Egypt. There they remained until Herod's death. This happened so the Lord's prediction would come true: 'Out of Egypt I have called my son'.
The Old Testament reference here is Hosea 11: 1, but note the whole verse:
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son'.
To me, at least, the manipulation here is palpable. Hosea is speaking with the voice of 'the Lord', speaking of his 'child', the chosen people of Israel. The reference is clear - it's about the soi-disant exile from Egypt of a whole people, and their wandering in the wilderness. So the Matthew gospeller is being pretty audacious in substituting Jesus and family for the whole Jewish nation. Amongst other things, this tale is meant to emphasise Jesus's role as a particularly Jewish saviour, rather than the son of God. It comes to seem all the more unreliable as the birth story of any real person. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

how real was their jesus? part 1

some useful resources 

I recently read an atheist blogger commenting that 'so-and-so is much more extreme than me - he doesn't believe Jesus ever existed'. Though I have an open mind on the matter, I don't consider such a position to be particularly extreme, and - as with Mohammed - there are many bits of the Jesus story, as told in the canonical gospels, that are incontrovertibly, though of course not uncontroversially, fictional.
We'll never know for sure, and for sure we'll never stop speculating. I've long had a fantasy about time travel - imagine if we developed a 'space-time' capsule along the line of Doctor Who's Tardis, which could take us back to any time and place to find out what really happened. I have to say that, until a few years ago, the resolution of the Jesus question wouldn't have been a priority for me as Tardis skipper. Uncovering the real life and achievements of Archimedes, say, or the quasi-mythical Socrates, or taking a tour through the great library of Alexandria, these would've been more to my perverse and desperately elitist taste. But the resurgence of popular debate on all matters theistic has got me hooked. So it's back to Palestine we go.
Of course, being a thorough-going amateur and dilettante, I'd have to fill my Tardis with a bunch of smarties - archaeologists, language specialists, New Testament scholars, pet theorists [within reason], cinematographers, journalists, and a really good comedian or two. However my Tardisy adventure would be unlike those of the good doctor in at least one vital respect - strict non-interference. My painstakingly selected team would, via the mechanism of compressional warp 15 hyper-reality fluxion drive, be able to observe the goings-on in and around Galilee for the period spanning the research target's presumed immaculate conception, birth, peregrinations, trial, death and resurrection, without our presence being detected by said target or any of his fellow-travellers. The same mechanism would of course allow us to complete this exploratory journey and fifty-year mapping exercise [from about 10BCE to 40CE] in one solitary day. We should be back in time to report our findings for the seven o'clock news.
So what would we find, and what would we look for? Well, we're going to let the gospels be our guide, and, though of course I would consult the afore-mentioned NT scholars, it's likely that the canonical gospels will be our main focus. There are or were fifty or so others at least, all in general agreement about the time of Jesus's life, but wildly diverging on his character and acts. Most of these gospels were written in the second century or later, and for various reasons have been discounted as accurate descriptions of the Life and Times. We have to limit our enquiry somehow, though we'll be looking out for any lead, no matter how unusual, as befits our professionalism. So let's begin at the beginning...

1. Annunciation and Conception [immaculate or otherwise]
Only two of the canonical gospels, Matthew and Luke, describe the conception and birth of Jesus, and their descriptions are hard to reconcile with each other. First, let's look at the announcement of the birth, traditionally associated with the archangel Gabriel [an archangel is a kind of top-class angel, a feature of all three Abrahamic religions]. Christians call this the Annunciation and celebrate it, unsurprisingly, on March 25. However, Gabriel is only mentioned in Luke [I use the Jesus Seminar's Five Gospels version]:
In the sixth month the heavenly messenger Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. He entered and said to her, 'Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you!' But she was deeply disturbed by the words, and wondered what this greeting could mean. The heavenly messenger said to her, 'Don't be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Listen to me: you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give him the throne of David, his father. He will rule over the house of Jacob forever; and his dominion will have no end.'
And Mary said to the messenger, 'How can this be, since I am not involved with a man?'
The messenger replied, 'The holy spirit will come over you, and the power of the Most High will cast its shadow on you. This is why the child to be born will be holy, and be called son of God. Further, your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age. She who was said to be infertile is already six months along, since nothing is impossible with God.'
And Mary said, 'Here I am, the Lord's slave. May everything you have said come true.' Then the heavenly messenger left her [Luke 1: 26-38]. 
Apologies for the length of this quote, but it's quite important for the initial identification of our subject. And clearly there are problems from the outset. Firstly, it's announced that this special person, Jesus, will be born to a woman engaged to Joseph, of the house of David. Jesus's future greatness is foretold, but essentially as heir to the throne of David, a probably mythical early ruler of the probably mythical Kingdom of Judah. The Old Testament is a text largely devoted to the promotion of this Kingdom, but unfortunately there isn't a scrap of evidence outside the OT to verify David's existence. One piece of archaeological evidence, the Tel Dan stele, discovered only in the 1990s, created great excitement as apparently featuring the words 'House of David', in early Aramaic or Hebrew, in an account of the victories of a king of Damascus, a rival of the more southerly Judean peoples. While this was an important find, it hardly proves the existence of David - rather it tends to say something about the self-identification of the Judeans - just as the Romans identified themselves as the descendants of Romulus and Remus.
In any case there is a problem with Jesus being identified so clearly with a former Judean king. Luke also provides a genealogy [Luke 3 23-38] tracing Jesus back to Adam, through David. Notoriously, Matthew also provides a genealogy, which only goes back to Abraham, and which counts only 27 generations back to David, compared to Luke's 41. Only a few of the names are the same. The most likely explanation for all this is that both genealogies are entirely bogus. Proper lineages were very important for claimants to kingdoms, as you would expect, and supporters of particular claimants were not above inventing them. What the genealogies do indicate, though, is that, first and foremost, Jesus is being claimed as a Jewish messiah. If the emphasis was on Jesus as the son of God, immaculately conceived via a virgin, his male descent would clearly be irrelevant.

Friday, November 26, 2010

IVEC and me

I'm supposed to be doing a course called TAA, which I wrote about back in September, asking myself and answering textbook questions. Really though it's time for me to start innovating, or to start comprehending what I'm to do, to start thinking my way into this, because people are relying on me to come up with some goods.

I'd previously chosen a competency package, or whatever it's called, in ESOL, which tended to fit in more with high school teaching so I shall abandon that and focus on basic computing through the course.

why do I never have such students in my class?

Today at a meeting with the co-ordinator of the community centre I've been attached to over the past few years, I learned about IVEC, which is not in vitro expression cloning. It seems to mean introductory vocational education. We were talked to by a woman called Michelle from TAFE, who informed us that if we won funding for providing the goods for clients to obtain cert 1 in IVEC, we'd have to look at units of competency and develop training around it, which would be a simple matter. She talked of multiliteracy units and foundational units and pathways, it's all about pathways. Our co-ordinator tells me though that the money is all in the foundational stuff not the multiliteracy stuff, where there's lots of work to be done for little reward.

Anyway, client numeracy and literacy skills can be assessed at National Reporting System [NRS] levels 1, 2 and 3, though some clients are at an even more basic level [Not Yet Achieved, NYA 1]. I've obtained the whole TAFE document describing everything to do with this cert 1 IVEC course - it's over 1500 pages long! But here's an interesting quote from page 8:

Providers working in the Adult and Community Education (ACE) area are encouraged to offer accredited education and training programs to their clients, especially for Community and Neighbourhood Houses. Although there are no formal or funding-based requirements to do so, providing such accredited training in turn establishes a means for transitions from ACE to TAFE. Many such community clients are preparing themselves for work or vocational training and use ACE programs as a pathway to VET and TAFE.
The trouble with this observation is that while many of my students [computing, ESOL and literacy] are preparing themselves for work, very many, probably the majority, are not. Would I lose the other students if I switched to a vocational focus in my English class?

I note that this particular certificate has three supposed levels - preliminary, foundational and certificate. Also known as competency standards, with preliminary being NYA 1, certificate being at level 2 minimum and preferably higher. The problem is of course that I have no clear evidence from my teaching experience that progress is being made by my students, though there's more positive evidence I think from my one on one computer students than my ESOL students.

Hopefully I'll be able to garner evidence of improvement in my students from this framework. Here are some reassuring words about NRS:
 The NRS is a framework for describing adult language, literacy and numeracy competence in two dimensions reflecting real life performance. It provides Indicators of Competence in Reading, Writing, Oral and Signed communication1, Learning Strategies and Numeracy at five different levels and in six different aspects of social and vocational activity.
The NRS is used as a reporting mechanism for DEST-funded literacy and numeracy programs and is currently undergoing further review and development. Further information about the NRS can be obtained at http://www.nrs.dest.gov.au/

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Is the Catholic Church a cult?

A recent news item on ABC 24 about religious resurgence in Russia caught my attention, because the more orthodox Russian church has expressed concern about the growth of unorthodox 'cult' versions of Christianity. The news report took the line that many of these 'cults' would not be so regarded in Australia and the US, and that this was really about orthodox forces trying to impose their will.
It all raises interesting questions about what a cult actually is, and whether a so-called mainstream or traditional religion can still be regarded as a cult.
Without even reaching for wiki definitions, I think it's safe to say that the term cult is usually associated with new religions or new variations on established religions, as well as being associated with extreme behaviour, ritual and attitudes. So that, if we take the Catholic Church, its belief that, through ritual, you can partake of the actual blood and body of the central, foundational figure of the religion can't be considered cultic because, though extreme enough, surely, it's sanctioned by tradition, as well as by the agreement of church leaders throughout its history [most notably at the Council of Trent in 1551].
Basically this way of looking at things says that any 'orthodox' belief system can't be a cult, and that's the end of the story. The problem with this is that one person's orthodoxy is another person's weirdness. The opening line of the wikipedia definition of a cult, for what it's worth, says this:
The word cult pejoratively refers to a group whose beliefs or practices are considered strange.
That puts the Catholic Church well and truly in the cult category in my book, and many skeptics and scientists would surely agree, but of course there's more to it than that, otherwise flat-earthers and young earth creationists would be considered cult members, and that's going too far. Interestingly, the above quote has a note attached, saying it comes from the OED, and that note adds this, from the American Journal of Sociology, to the definition:
"Cults[...], like other deviant social movements, tend to recruit people with a grievance, people who suffer from some variety of deprivation."
Clearly this doesn't apply to Catholics, the majority of whom just find themselves in the religion for family and societal reasons. The common run of Catholics don't really look to the hierarchy for guidance in their everyday lives, especially not in developed countries. The Catholic commentator Paul Collins said exactly this in an interview this morning. In this respect you could say that the Catholic Church is a failed cult. One of the characteristics of cults, after all, is a slavish obedience to the dictates of the cult leadership. And didn't the Catholic cardinals 'make' the Pope infallible back in the nineteenth century precisely to encourage this slavish obedience? Infallibility is a supernatural category. Cults always endow their leaders with some supernatural quality or other.
When a Papal Bull or encyclical is issued from the Vatican, it's usually about directing the followers, like a shepherd directing his sheep. I've read one or two of these documents, and one of the features I've noticed in them is a tendency to declare Truths. Capitals are always used. It's a simple device to impart a supernatural flavour - truths are for commoners, Truths are declared by the Infallible. It's here that the cultish state of this very hierarchical church is most evident, but luckily for the followers [and the leaders too perhaps], it's undermined on every lower rung of the ladder by the pragmatic, the sensible, the perverse and the indifferent.
We shouldn't get too complacent about this wannabe cult though - yes, in the west it is seen as having more show than substance, but in Africa, in the Pacific Islands, in nearby Papua, where supernatural beliefs often saturate the atmosphere, just begging to be exploited, the Catholic Church is a very real and very dangerous force. We must continue to monitor it and combat it.

Friday, November 12, 2010

letter to Charles Taylor

Prof Taylor meets fans

Hello Mr Taylor, I hope this finds you well. I've been meaning to have a look at your big book, A Secular Age, for some time now, but being impoverished, and in any case a slow reader, it would be a costly venture for me all round.
Like yourself I suspect, I've been animated of late by the lively debates going on around religion, Christianity, secularism and science, but my take would certainly not be the same as yours. I must say I enjoyed reading some of your lucid essays in the eighties, on thinkers as diverse as Foucault and Hegel, and I always meant to read more of your work, but life took over, and then much more recently I heard of your winning the Templeton Prize, and that you were 'religious'. You could've knocked me down with a feather.
You cropped up again, for me, in the pages of Philosophy Now [July-August 2009 edition], a magazine I buy from time to time, where you were interviewed about, amongst many other things, the atheist bus campaign in Britain. That's what I want to focus on in this letter. Here is the part of the interview I want to focus upon:
Interviewer: I was thinking about your recent book, A Secular Age this morning when a bus passed by with an atheist, or more correctly, agnostic slogan 'There's probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.'
Taylor: I heard about that. It's hilariously funny. It's very odd, isn't it? I'm trying to figure out why this is happening in our time. This new phenomena is puzzling. Atheists that want to spread the 'gospel' and are sometimes very angry. I think it may be rather like the response of certain bishops to Darwin in the nineteenth century. The bishops had a sense that the world was going on in a certain direction, more and more conversion and so on. And then they found that they're suddenly upset in their expectation, and they get very rattled and very angry. Similarly, we're seeing this now among the secularizing intelligentsia. Liberals who felt that the world was going in a certain direction, that it was all going according to plan, and then when it seems not to be, they get rattled. So you get these rather pathetic phenomena. Putting things on buses as though that's going to make people somehow change their view about God, the universe, the meaning of life and so on. A bus slogan! It's not likely to trigger something very fundamental in anybody.
Well Professor Taylor, I don't know if you'd call this an unguarded moment, but I would almost want to call it a 'hissy fit'. First you describe the phenomenon of an atheist slogan as 'hilarious', and then you describe it as 'puzzling', both, it seems to me with an air of condescension. Personally, I think it's because you're rattled.
For example, why do you describe an atheist slogan as pathetic, without any mention of Christian slogans, which outnumber the atheist ones by thousands and thousands to one, especially in your part of the world? Do you think these Christian slogans - Jesus is the Answer, Jesus Loves You, Jesus Saves, Honk if You Love Jesus, What would Jesus think? Not Perfect, Just Forgiven, and so on ad nauseum - are going to change anybody's view, are going to trigger anything fundamental in anybody? Or maybe you think these slogans are shoved before our faces constantly for other reasons? If so, maybe you should think again about the many and varied reasons atheists might use slogans too.
How interesting, though, that you respond to a perfectly reasonable [and notably agnostic] bus slogan with references to atheist 'gospel' and atheist anger. Could this, again, be projection? Gospels, after all, don't generally have the word 'probably' in them, and Christian slogans never do.
Let me look more closely, though, at your analysis of this phenomenon. You compare the atheist response to things not going their way to the response of some bishops when Darwin produced his Origin of Species. The idea being that the bishops thought in the nineteenth century that things were going their way too, with more and more conversions, etc. But there is something fundamentally wrong with this comparison. The bishops were reacting to the theory of evolution by natural selection, which is the most powerful and successful biological theory ever developed. It has transformed our understanding of life on this planet, and is one of the most significant scientific developments in human history. The arguments of the bishops in opposing this theory are seen as shallow, ideological and absurd. Modern atheists are still fighting these shallow, ideological arguments, in the form of creationism/intelligent design, and the rise of the soi-disant new atheists has had much to do with the rise of anti-intellectual fundamentalist religion in recent times, as well as the anti-intellectual, 'submissive' strand inherent in all religious belief systems. It seems to me to be a 'we've had enough of this' reaction to this wave. So, in making this comparison, you appear to be equating the theory of evolution with the wilful ignorance of fundamentalist religion. If you can't see the absurdity of this, then I can't see much hope in your approach to the issue.
I can only hope that A Secular Age cuts a little deeper than your 'understanding' of the atheist bus campaign. I don't want to be wasting my time and money. But I do hear that you are in fact a Catholic, a sect for which I feel a particular antipathy, I must say, being not by nature traditionalist, authoritarian, patriarchal or homophobic. Still I'm open to what you have to say. Maybe you'll actually be able to make sense of 'spirituality'? Nobody else has.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

another stirpot letter

This letter writing malarky is beginning to appeal to me, after posting my first. But I'm thinking that the Pope isn't necessarily the best recipient - there are so many others, Christians and non-Christians, that I should write to, using snail mail, which can't be so easily ignored, I'm hoping, as email. I have nothing to lose, if nobody responds or even reads these letters, since nobody reads the blog anyway. So I could turn the criticisms I've made in the past [of Paul Collins, John Dickson, William Lane Craig, Charles Taylor and others] into letters actually sent to them. Pourquoi pas?

So let me begin with Paul Collins - who has apparently come out with a new book, Judgement Day, treating of environmental theology, may the gods help us. Of course it was a previous book of his, Believers, that I dealt with here. So, based on my critique, here's my next letter.

Dear Paul Collins

I hope this letter is able to find you, as obviously I have no proper address for you. I wanted to address to you some queries regarding a book you wrote a few years ago, Believers. I bought the book in order to get a sense of what is happening with Catholics and Christian believers in Australia, and as such it was quite informative. I imagine that some Catholics reading the book would find it quite grim and depressing reading. However, I'm neither a Catholic nor a Christian so I have a different perspective.
Of course, your book doesn't deal with theological issues or questions of beliefs and their justification, but you do make one reference in the text to non-belief or lack of belief, which, not surprisingly, alludes to the so-called 'new atheism'. Here is the passage:
...one of the focal sources of modern angst is the attempt to live without any sense of God or the transcendent, without faith in anything. This has become particularly virulent with the recent publication of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens' tomes attacking all forms of religious belief and equating mainstream faith with fundamentalism. These authors actively oppose God and set out to to explain reality as the product of evolution, without any sense of transcendence or spirituality. In the process they cut off any possibility of hope and creativity for a better world. Modern anxiety constitutes one of the basic ministerial challenges for Catholicism: to offer a sense of trust in God to the wider world.  

I find this a very strange passage, and I would like to examine it in more detail, to see if I can make sense of it.
To take the first sentence first, I myself, along with many others I know, have lived without any sense of 'God', by whom you presumably mean that male god called 'God', first described by Semitic writers a few millenia ago. This god is, of course, one of thousands of gods, some living, some dead, worshipped, loved, feared and so forth by different cultures and civilizations over the space and time of our planet. I wouldn't say that I've 'attempted' to live without this god, for I've not had to put much effort into it, and I've certainly not suffered angst over a life without him. However, in more recent times I've developed an interest in your god and in Christianity generally, out of historical curiosity. In reading the Bible, as well as some analyses of the text, I must say that I'm very happy that this 'God' fellow hasn't deeply affected my life, for it would be difficult to find a more unpleasant character in the world of fiction. I should also add, as a lifelong reader of fine literature, that I find the character quite implausible.
To return to your first sentence, in it you have linked three things, 'God', 'transcendence' and 'anything' [or everything]. You have linked the three items with the term 'faith'. There are, it seems, a couple of implications here. It seems that 'God' implies 'transcendence' [and/or vice versa], and that a lack of belief [or faith] in either [or both] implies a lack of faith in anything. I have to ask you - do you really seriously mean this? Are you not playing fast and loose with the term 'faith' here? I have faith in my nearest and dearest, I have faith in the postal service, and I have [a somewhat wavering] faith in my local football team, and that is just the tip of the iceberg, and all without any considerations about supernatural entities or transcendent beings. 'Faith' in terms of these transcendental [but yet strangely personal] beings seems to mean something entirely different - something like a belief in the real, objective existence of something non-material [a very specific something!] for which there is no evidence. Only in this highly circumscribed sense do I lack 'faith'.
So your first sentence presents a puzzlement. But I haven't finished with it yet! You claim that the attempt to live without 'faith' is a major source of angst. I wonder how you can know this? I myself have felt angst - and moral angst too - about many many things in my life, but certainly not about the lack of supernatural beings! I'm sure you're aware that, amongst the scientific community, the level of religious unbelief is far higher than it is amongst the general public. Now, scientists are generally high-achieving, intelligent, confident types, not overly given to angst. Nor are they particularly given to moral irresponsibility. To take the most famous example, Albert Einstein, who considered the belief in a personal god to be a form of childishness, you could hardly find a man more concerned about moral responsibility. So I can only assume that your statement about moral angst is a form of projection. You would feel a great deal of moral angst if someone tried to force you to live without your favourite supernatural being [what some nasty unbelievers unkindly describe as 'your imaginary friend'], so you project that angst onto others. I can assure you, we have no interest in sharing your angst, and we have no interest, either, in taking your god away from you. You can keep him.
Looking now at your second sentence, where you claim that the books of Dawkins and Hitchens, which I've read, 'equate mainstream religious faith with fundamentalism'. I think this is something of an over-simplification, and the issue is too philosophically complex to cover in a hopefully short letter. The central point is that all belief systems which cannot point to a mechanism [how the material world can be influenced by, let alone created by, a non-material force], whether god-beliefs, astrology or faith healing, are regarded as equally suspect by people like myself. Some religious believers are liberal and progressive, some are conservative, some are fundamentalist, and so forth, but to the non-believer or sceptic these are relatively unimportant distinctions. The problem is the lack of evidence, and indeed, the lack of plausibility. The implausibility of religious beliefs is underlined, in my view, by their self-serving nature, with humans being made in the image of the creator god, who is so concerned with his pet creatures that he knows every hair on each and every one of their heads. These are comforting childish fantasies, rendered 'plausible' by centuries of obsessive theological rationalisation.
But I digress. Let me finish by looking at the next two sentences, which presumably summarize your attitude to those who don't believe in supernatural beings:
These authors actively oppose God and set out to to explain reality as the product of evolution, without any sense of transcendence or spirituality. In the process they cut off any possibility of hope and creativity for a better world.
These extraordinary lines are well worth commenting on, though it's hard to know where to begin! Firstly I should point out Hitchens, Dawkins and others don't actively oppose the god called God any more than they actively oppose Ahura Mazda, Baal, Ganesh, the Rainbow Serpent or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. They don't believe that any of these entities have any real existence, so opposing them would make no sense. What they oppose is belief in these entities. That is a major, major distinction.
Second, nobody sets out to explain 'reality' as the product of evolution. Evolution by natural selection is a [phenomenally successful] theory that explains the proliferation of life on this tiny, insignificant speck of a planet. That's a very far cry from explaining 'reality'. It is science in general, not just the individual authors mentioned, that sets out to explain reality without resort to transcendence or spirituality, high-falutin terms always given a positive spin by believers, but less than useless as mechanisms for explaining anything. It should be further pointed out that Catholic 'spirituality' essentially means a belief, without any evidence whatever to support it, that humans, unlike any other mammal or primate, have an 'eternal soul', a preposterous notion that is an insult to the intelligence of any educated person.
But it is the following sentence that's the real doozy. 'In the process they [i.e. Dawkins and Hitchens, or do you mean all scientists, or all 'this-worlders'?] cut off any possibility of hope and creativity for a better world.'
Now, I'm hoping that even you will recognize that this sentence doesn't constitute one of your greatest literary efforts. Perhaps, though, you're thinking of the better world which awaits us when we pass over, where the lion lies down with the lamb, and nothing ever happens? Something to hope for, maybe, but nothing whatever to do with creativity. Otherwise, this sentence is just meaningless gibberish.
I myself live for the creative energy, the enthusiasm and the optimism around me. I'm a lifelong lover of the arts, especially literature and music, but in recent years I've been particularly enthused by the creative exploration of our world that goes under the general banner of science. I've just read an article on recent exciting initiatives to finally cure AIDS. Yesterday I read another exciting article about the possibility of life existing under the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon. And today I've just received the extraordinary news that the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva has succeeded in creating a miniature 'big bang', at a temperature of around ten trillion degrees. The future looks pretty exciting to me!
I don't know what it is you believers are hoping for, and I don't think your hopes are particularly coherent. In any case, we won't build a better world by worshipping and endlessly praising dodgy superhuman father figures. That seems to me an insult to our creativity and our energy. We're not the puppets [or the free-willed creations] of a god, we're a bunch of apes - and we have mountains of evidence to prove it. But, as such, we've done pretty well for ourselves, especially when we've tried looking at our world as it really is. I respectfully suggest you try doing the same.
Good luck with your future literary endeavours.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

my first letter to the pope

So, okay, I've been asked to start writing letters to the Vatican about their positions on various issues, and if I don't get responses, at least I can try collecting them in book form. I don't entirely like the idea of getting bogged down in such a project, but at least letters might provoke more of a response than my blog does.

Before I get started though, just another, entirely different subject to get off my chest. In the most recent issue of Cosmos there was an exciting piece on the exploration of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, by the space probe Huygens, named after the 17th century Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, who discovered Titan [a lovely romantic touch]. Turns out it's one of the most promising bits of rock in our solar system for exploring the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. It's believed, but not yet substantiated, that there's H20, in liquid form, beneath the crust, some 45kms deep. Evidence of radioactive decay suggests that this possibly watery area is a lot hotter than the surface [which averages -179 degrees celsius]. The combination of this subterranean ocean and a surface rich in hydrocarbons makes for very interesting possibilities. And even if the search for life turns out to be unsuccessful, it raises hope that certain chemical combinations friendly to life as we know it will surely exist elsewhere in the outer vastness. It's a cinch, surely. I truly believe that extra-terrestrial life will be discovered in the coming decades, hopefully in my life-time. These are among the thoughts that can keep a fellow bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Anyway, back to my letter.

Dear pope,
I don't mind if one of your employees responds to this enquiry as I realize you're a very busy man. Please send it on to whoever oversees this sort of thing. It's just that, in my part of the world, Australia, one of your archbishops recently advised his constituents - I don't know how many there were, but I don't think Australia is a very Catholic country - not to vote for the Greens, a political party, here as elsewhere, with an environmentalist and generally liberal agenda. It seems that the Greens are advocating reform in the fields of abortion and euthanasia, which the archbishop found offensive, presumably in line with the doctrine of the Catholic Church. He urged all Catholics to avoid voting for the Greens in an upcoming election. Or it may be that he urged all potential voters so to do. Which raises another niggling question, which I'm sure you are best placed to answer. Does Catholic doctrine on moral matters cover just Catholics or is it intended to cover all of humanity? I realize this is a big issue, but just to save time and effort, a yes or no answer would be fine. Thank you.
Anyway, because the Catholic Church comes out very strongly with its views on such topics, I thought I should do some research on Catholic doctrine. You know, on how, when and why it was formulated. I have been reading the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care services, fourth edition, which, to quote, was developed by the Committee on Doctrine of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops [in the USA] and approved as the national code by the full body of bishops at its June 2001 General Meeting. I'm not sure if the document was submitted for your approval, or that of your Vatican advisers, but I'm sure it's very much in line with Catholic doctrine, which is universal and unified, is it not?

Obviously the document doesn't go deeply into the history of the formulation of Catholic doctrine, but it does provide some hints, and I'm hoping you and your office can provide clarification. I won't go into all the questions I have, because I know you and your people are very busy, so I'll confine myself two one or two hopefully clearly formulated questions. First, in relation to this quote from the Introduction to Part One of the above-mentioned document:
 ... within a pluralistic society, Catholic health care services will encounter requests for medical procedures contrary to the moral teachings of the Church. Catholic health care does not offend the rights of individual conscience by refusing to provide or permit medical procedures that are judged morally wrong by the teaching authority of the Church.
Does the Catholic Church consider 'the rights of individual conscience' to be the rights of all human individuals with a conscience? If so, how can it claim to know that it is not offending anyone by its refusals?Or does 'individual conscience' here mean some kind of abstraction created or defined by the Catholic Church? In the first case, offence is a very personal, sometimes idiosyncratic thing, but in the second case something entirely created by the Catholic Church could be treated in whatever manner the church wants to treat it, for example as never being offended by any of that Church's decisions. So I would assume that by 'individual conscience' you mean something else, something more objectively defined as a morally active force or sounding board? If so how do you know that such a conscience is not offended by the Church's refusals? Clarification on this matter would be much appreciated. Thank you.

I will quote from another part of the document, ask a few questions, and then I will be finished, I promise. In the Introduction to Part Four, there is this passage: 
For legitimate reasons of responsible parenthood, married couples may limit the number of their children by natural means. The Church cannot approve contraceptive interventions that "either in anticipation of the marital act, or in its accomplishment or in the development of its natural consequences, have the purpose, whether as an end or a means, to render procreation impossible." Such interventions violate "the inseparable connection, willed by God . . . between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive and procreative meaning."
Now, I know that when Catholics use the term 'God' they're referring to their god, and I know, because I've researched the matter, that this god is one of hundreds, indeed thousands of gods, major and minor, universal and local, that people have believed in and do believe in throughout the space and time of this planet. So I'm wondering whether all the marital acts, of all kinds [and think of all the many different cultures and religions that have celebrated these acts] have been willed by your god, according to your church, and how you come to this conclusion. Does your beloved book, The Bible, state this explicitly anywhere? I will say nothing for now about the unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act, for now, because I think I may have already asked too many questions in this preliminary letter. I suppose I'm wondering whether your god, God, only connects Catholics in marriage by his will, or does he even connect those who reject or are ignorant of your god?  And how do you know the answer to this - whichever answer is correct?

I thank you and your team for their patience, and I look forward to your response. 

I've printed out a very slightly edited version of this letter ready for sending to the pontiff.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

on Catholic morality, mainly

Reading round the blogosphere, flitting about silently, and I visited Panda's Thumb, Richard Hoppe's article on ID and the imminent demise of 'Darwinism', which took me to this intriguing site, apparently well known to proponents of the debate but new to me, and it was at turns hilarious, chilling and informative. I recall, apropos of this, one of my step-daughters [a converted Christian] relating to her brother, a geophysicist and presumably an atheist, that she'd heard that evolution was on the skids. This was about eight years ago, and my stepson had no ready reply, and neither had I. How different would be the situation now, but the opportunity has passed. The wonderful Yiddish word for this is trepverter, which I learned from a Saul Bellow novel, Herzog maybe.

On other vaguely religious matters [ID being vaguely religious], the Catholic Church in Victoria has come out against the Greens, because of their approach to abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage, issues I have strong views on myself, especially that last issue - and also here. The Archbishop of Melbourne, Dennis Hart, has come out so strongly against those nasty progressive Greens that pundits have to hark back to the fifties for an equally strident Catholic campaign. Hart reckons that candidates should reflect community values and community expectations [as he imagines the HRCC does]. Fortunately he represents urban Melbournians, with a Catholic population that is minuscule and falling, so I suspect his clarion call to the faithful will, when the election is done and dusted, provide a useful measure of the power of that ultra-conservative organisation in modern politics. Watch the Green vote in the Victorian election in a few weeks time. I wouldn't be surprised if the Catholic protest actually wins it a few votes.

Which of course brings us to the actual issues under scrutiny, namely euthanasia and abortion [since I've largely dealt with the gay marriage issue]. The Catholic Church 's attitude towards these issues are fairly basic and IMHO, dogmatic and dumb. It's the predictable line - human life [and no other life] is 'sacred', and that includes all fertilized cells, no matter how embryonic, and spermatozoa. For those remotely interested, here are the Catholic 'Ethical and Religious Directives' for their Health Care workers. Much of it is reasonable enough when it doesn't touch on theology. Unsurprisingly, it horribly mixes the reality of health care with the myths of Jesus's health 'ministry', and 'science' is naturally commandeered for this quasi-supernatural without being asked:
Through science the human race comes to understand God's wonderful work; and through technology it must conserve, protect, and perfect nature in harmony with God's purposes. Health care professionals pursue a special vocation to share in carrying forth God's life-giving and healing work.
No comment on the undeniable fact that an increasing number of scientists reject the existence of gods. And of course it gets worse, when apparently god-given Catholic dogma is at issue:
 ... within a pluralistic society, Catholic health care services will encounter requests for medical procedures contrary to the moral teachings of the Church. Catholic health care does not offend the rights of individual conscience by refusing to provide or permit medical procedures that are judged morally wrong by the teaching authority of the Church.
It doesn't offend individual conscience by refusing to, say, perform abortions? Says who? Says the Catholic Church, that's who. Apparently the Catholic Church decides who it has offended and who it hasn't. Not that I mind that Catholic health services refuse to perform procedures contrary to their dogma. I don't necessarily want them to change, I just want them to get out of the way. And I would dearly love for the general public to turn its collective back on the dogmatic approach of this institution. And, of course, it largely has.

As I say, most of these health care directives are unexceptionable, but there are of course some that are reflective of Catholic dogma. Take directive 36, which treats of female rape victims:
A female who has been raped should be able to defend herself against a potential conception from the sexual assault. If, after appropriate testing, there is no evidence that conception has occurred already, she may be treated with medications that would prevent ovulation, sperm capacitation, or fertilization. It is not permissible, however, to initiate or to recommend treatments that have as their purpose or direct effect the removal, destruction, or interference with the implantation of a fertilized ovum.
This may be all very well for people who choose to be Catholic, or who can't conceive of any alternative to being Catholic. My concern would be where the Catholic church provides the only health-care facilities in a particular region, permitting them to impose their moral dogma on unsuspecting rape victims.

The introduction to part four of the directives goes on a great deal about the sanctity of marriage [hardly a health-care issue]. Considering that the title of part four is 'Issues in Care for the Beginning of Life', one might wonder why marriage is such a focus [and I wonder, just as an aside, whether the HRCC still considers children born out of wedlock as illegitimate?], but of course, according to this institution marriage is the only way to procreate. And nothing should be allowed to interfere with [legitimate] procreation. Here's what the HRCC has to say about contraception:
For legitimate reasons of responsible parenthood, married couples may limit the number of their children by natural means. The Church cannot approve contraceptive interventions that "either in anticipation of the marital act, or in its accomplishment or in the development of its natural consequences, have the purpose, whether as an end or a means, to render procreation impossible." Such interventions violate "the inseparable connection, willed by God . . . between the two meanings of the conjugal act: the unitive and procreative meaning."
The usual supernaturally sanctioned claptrap, always emphasizing that human life is different from mere animal life, and subject to holy, or holier, laws. And with this they get into some deep waters, using scientific terminology usually inimical to theological manipulation, as in directives 40 and 41:
Heterologous fertilization (that is, any technique used to achieve conception by the use of gametes coming from at least one donor other than the spouses) is prohibited because it is contrary to the covenant of marriage, the unity of the spouses, and the dignity proper to parents and the child.
Homologous artificial fertilization (that is, any technique used to achieve conception using the gametes of the two spouses joined in marriage) is prohibited when it separates procreation from the marital act in its unitive significance (e.g., any technique used to achieve extra-corporeal conception).
Presumably these directives carry their rationale within them, that is, that heterologous fertilization is contrary to the covenant of marriage as the HRCC conceives of it, though presumably the HRCC believes their conception to be 'objectively true' and supernaturally given, and that homologous artificial fertilization somehow interferes with the true nature of the marital act [again as the HRCC conceives of or defines it]. All of this makes me inclined to write to the Vatican [let's start at the top] to ask them to clarify, not so much when they arrived at this conception, but when their supernatural being informed them that this was the true definition of marriage, since I don't believe it is explicitly stated in the big book that is supposed to have been written by this being.   

Anyway, that is enough for now. I'll finish off on this issue in my next post

Monday, November 1, 2010

speed reading, with thanks to skeptoid

Not posting a lot lately, for various reasons. Have been moving house, a horrible and endless task, especially the downsizing and trying to get rid of accumulated stuff. Also, getting a little depressed about the blog, which I can't even get my nearest and dearest to read. Am I that boring? Apparently so. Have had two comments since I changed url about eight months ago, neither of them of any interest. Not sure how to attract traffic - obviously the thing to do is comment more often on other people's sites, but I don't do much of that, as I generally find myself too inexpert in specific fields. I like reading other people's blogs though.

Visited and listened to Skeptoid for the first time today. An 11 minute podcast - presumably that's his usual span - on speed reading, something I've often chortled over in the past. Dunning [Brian Dunning is the Skeptoid man] deals with it seriously though, and along the way provides useful knowledge on the reading process.

I remember as a teenager being intrigued by some speed reading claims on the telly, and also, somehow a paperback found its way into our house, promising great strides in reading proficiency - improved speed and comprehension. I was both skeptical and hopeful, for, though an avid reader, I always felt myself to be frustratingly slow, just as I dawdled behind everyone else in my walks to school.

Anyway, I particularly remember the book recommending you increase your visual intake with each saccade [I made some effort to do so], and I'm sure it would've had much to say about subvocalisation too. These are two 'gimmicks' focussed on by Dunning in his debunking. His general conclusion is that there's almost always a trade-off between speed and retention [and poor retention is, presumably, a result of not taking it all in in the first place]. It's not that you can't increase your reading speed, but the methods usually touted are more of less useless. Those who can read [and retain stuff] at high speeds are usually 'freaks', such as Ken Peake, who was supposedly able to read some 10,000 words per minute [the average is around 300 wpm], presumably with reasonable retention. He could apparently read two pages at a time, according to Dunning, though one would assume that he read them in the right sequence. Maybe his saccade stretched across the two pages. Peake was born without a corpus collosum connecting the two brain hemispheres, possibly allowing some kind of parallel processing.

At a guess, my reading speed is about 200 wpm, and that's when I'm really flying, reading a page every two minutes. Fact is, I dawdle and dream a lot, I've always been very permissive with my mind, allowing it to wander hither and yon, and I often have to reread when I find I haven't properly taken things in. Even when I have, I sometimes like to reread, to squeeze as much from the text as I can, or to really 'nail it down'. Which brings to mind something Dunning also mentions, that speed and retention depend significantly on what you're reading. I mean, try flying through Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, or Heidegger's Being and Time, just to name-drop for a moment.

But even the fastest readers [with normal brain wiring] never manage to go beyond 600 wpm, with reasonable [say 75%] retention, according to a study conducted by Ronald Carver, quoted by Dunning. For most people, 400wpm is really pushing at the limits. As I've said, the elimination of sub-vocalisation is one of the approaches to speedier reading promised by the merchants, but this can't actually be done, you apparently can't read without it, and even the fastest readers, and skimmers, do it, even when they think they don't, as nerve-impulse measuring has shown. Apparently NASA even uses these barely detectable sub-vocalization effects to build systems for web browsing and other tasks. It's all about the fact that reading is inextricably linked to speaking. So any claim to eliminate sub-vocalisation is a crock.

So how about saccades - training your eyes to take in more words at a leap? Well, here's what Maryanne Wolf, author of Proust and the squid: the story and science of the reading brain, has to say:
Research reveals that our eyes continually make small movements called saccades, followed by very brief moments when the eyes are almost stopped, called fixations, while we gather information from our central [foveal] vision. At least 10 per cent of the time, our eyes dart back ever so slightly in regressions to pick up past information. When adults read, the typical saccade covers about eight letters; for children it is less. One brilliant design feature of our eyes allows us to see 'ahead' into a parafoveal region and still farther along the line of text into the peripheral region. We now know that when we read in English, we actually see about fourteen or fifteen letters to the right of our fixed focus, and we see the same number of letters to the left if we read in Hebrew. 
As I recall from the 'reading dynamics' book I read avidly as a teen, the typical saccade was described as covering about eight words rather than eight letters, and I can't recall anything being mentioned about a parafoveal region, but the above explanation helps us understand how we don't feel our reading to be particularly jumpy - there's a combination going on between actual focus, anticipation and checking. And we also need time to absorb what we're reading, to retain it. So pauses are inevitable and necessary.

So is there any way we can train ourselves to read more quickly, and also effectively? Dunning suggests we focus on improving our recognition vocabulary, that's to say our reading-already-comprehension. However, he doesn't really go into any detail about that, except to say that we spend more time sub-vocalising words we don't recognize. Yet it seems to me that as my vocabulary [and therefore my recognition vocabulary] has grown, my reading has gotten slower. I must say, though, that when I come across a word I don't know, I not only sub-vocalize at a snail's pace, I often put the damn book down and go and look it up, usually online these days, and that slows my reading down considerably, especially when I get distracted by, or absorbed by, the internet, and don't return to the book till an hour later, and then I have to reread to get back into context.

It's also a fact of life that much improvement in recognition vocabulary over the years is more than counterbalanced by a deterioration in eyesight, probably caused by lots of reading.

So, I suppose I'll just go on reading, more and more slowly, until, one day, I stop.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Francis Bacon's dream

So much concerning the several classes of idols, and their equipage; all of which must be renounced and put away with a fixed and solemn determination, and the understanding thoroughly freed and cleansed; the entrance into the kingdom of man, founded on the sciences, being not much other than the entrance into the kingdom of heaven, whereinto none may enter except as a little child.
These remarks are from Francis Bacon's Novum Organum, in which he criticises what he calls 'idols', what we might call preconceptions or idees fixes, which inhibit our understanding and our approach to the phenomena around us. Interestingly, Bacon was particularly concerned about the muddying effects of everyday language, anticipating such later seventeenth century thinkers as Spinoza and Descartes, who were won over by the achievements of mathematics, and sought to model philosophical thinking upon mathematical axioms.

In the version I have, an extract published in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, Bacon describes the Idols of the Tribe [the tendency to generalize or abstract from too little evidence, and to create general forms from specific instances], the Idols of the Cave [the tendency to generalize too much from your own specialization], the Idols of the Marketplace [the above-mentioned tendency to mystify what should be clear, through the use of everyday language], and the Idols of the Theater [a preoccupation with philosophical systems, discredited or not, as a guide to truth]. Another problem that I encounter is the fear of divesting yourself of the trappings of supposed adulthood and sophistication, so to become child-like, as if wonder is a failing and knowingness is all. Our identity is wrapped up in a bank of knowledge, opinions and attitudes, and these are the greatest barriers to scientific exploration we have - which is all somehow rather ironic.

touching on the coherence of perfection

As I've often said, I'm one of those who has yet to hear a convincing argument for the compatibility of religious belief and scientific endeavour [which, after all, is an endeavour to uncover the truth about how our world works, and a pretty damn successful endeavour at that]. Attempts to mesh the two have invariably watered down both, often to homeopathic proportions. Ophelia Benson here reports on an attempt to describe the 'conflict model' as impoverished - that's to say, we should - what? Play down the obvious incompatibilities? Refrain from criticizing the often silly attempts to either unite the two or show that they operate in mutually exclusive spheres?
I do agree though that we should maybe spend less time pointing out the absurdities of religious pseudo-scientific claims, and more time being scientific about religious belief. That's a way of avoiding direct conflict while strengthening the scientific position.
Here's a view I have about religious belief, though it may not be all that scientific. I was reading an exchange of comments on a philosophy blog, and one person made the fairly commonplace assertion that the usual attributes of a monotheistic deity - omniscience, omnipotence, perfect goodness - must be ruled out because they are logically incoherent. This may or may not be true, but what is definitely true is that these attributes are very easily imaginable, especially to a child - and therein lies the power of all religion. In fact, not only are these attributes easily imaginable but we can't help but imagine them. Logical coherence is no obstacle to the child's imagination.
Religion is all about power, punishment and perfection [okay, maybe I'm putting wordplay above truth here, but bear with me]. For children the struggle for power, and against power, is very real and very everyday. The same goes for the struggle to avoid punishment and, as a corollary, to gain rewards and kudos. And the best way to avoid punishment and gain rewards is to be perfect - in the eyes of the powers that be [the parents]. Even as adults, when we make mistakes, we wish we hadn't and we try to learn from those mistakes, so as to be more perfect [we might say, so as to be better at such and such, but it amounts to the same thing - the ultimate end of self-improvement is perfection]. But our adult, wiseacre selves know that such perfection can never be achieved. We know it largely through experience. Not so the child, and this is why super-heroes, witches and wizards - and gods, it must be added - are so appealing to the child in us. The child might not think through what perfection means, or any of the other attributes of gods, but she knows that if she had done otherwise she might not have gotten into trouble, that if she had done something else, or refrained from doing something, she would have been dubbed a good child instead of a bad one, and if she'd kept on making the right decisions, she might have been dubbed even more than good, even perfect. Though it wouldn't have taken long to realize that, no matter how 'good' she was, she wouldn't have gotten the same glowing response from her parents. She would notice an inconsistency, an occasional unfairness in parental judgement. If only she could make her parents as perfect in their judgement as she was in her behaviour.

It's pretty clear where all this is going. Ideas about perfection, though perhaps logically incoherent to a trained philosopher or logician, are perfectly coherent to a child, and quite probably they are among the first Big Ideas we have to grapple with. There's something about this, it seems to me, that connects intimately with the basic appeal of religion. Ultimate, perfect judgement, ultimate, perfect example, total control and more than a whiff of magic. They're all a kid's delight, and if we bring all our adult ritualism and sophistication to bear on these fantasies, we can flesh them out almost to our satisfaction, and live in a child's dream for many lifetimes.