Monday, May 31, 2010

Is religion dying?

A C Grayling dares to hope so. I suppose I dare to hope so too, though I don't dare to hope too much. The Catholic Church, in spite of its continuing strength in Latin America and its massive encroachment into Africa, is not the political power it once was near to its own home, and its grip on the African populace is not going uncontested as might have been the case a couple of centuries ago. Islam, in spite of the concerns of European and American xenophobes, is unlikely to make serious inroads in the west. And as Grayling points out, the numbers of the professedly religious are dropping in Britain, Europe, Australia and even the US. However, the picture is enormously complex. Pentecostalism is still trending upwards, and the still-religious seem to be digging ever deeper into their positions. Outside of the multinational religions, regional cults are perhaps thriving every bit as much as they did before Christianity came on the scene. These cults or belief systems may well be strengthening a sense of local, tribal or group identity, but they also can do great harm to the innocent with their promulgation of notions of witchcraft and good and evil spirits and the like. It's always a vexed question how much these belief systems should be tolerated. Some anthropologists and analysts become very defensive on behalf of these local and often threatened religions, but you can be sure they never go so far as adopting the belief systems for themselves.
On second thoughts, it's clear that these local religions aren't thriving. As with the Australian Aborigines, and the many tribal believers of one sort or another in Africa, Christian mission work has made serious inroads. Africa, by and large, seems to be a battleground between Islam and Christianity. It's not surprising that atheists are most concerned with these religions - they are two of the most politically powerful forces on the globe. The new atheist movement, if it can be so called, has emerged, I think, because we have become concerned over the spread of insidious falsehoods and practices that threaten people's freedom and even their lives. Homophobia, the oppression of women, the indoctrination of children, attacks on science and 'modernity', these are features of Islam in general, and of Roman Catholicism and of fundamentalist Pentecostalism, that rightly alarm non-believers. Much of the dogma emanating from these purveyors of 'revealed truth' is in direct contradiction to the human rights developments that have been such a feature of the late twentieth century.
We know more about human nature than ever before. We know, for example, that homosexuality will always be with us, that there are no such things as 'demons' that inhabit and corrupt people, that there is no 'fundamental role' for women or for men, and we know that human nature isn't static, that we are evolving physically and culturally, to a point where we understand that there have been many religions, most of them now extinct, having passed away with the cultures that gave them life. Yet people lived by those religions and those gods, they killed for them and they died for them, and they worshipped them as fervently as any modern Moslem or Christian worships her version of deity. With this understanding comes scepticism about the truth of any religion as well as wonder about the function of religion and the need for it. In any case, once we've eaten from the tree of knowledge, we can never return to the state of innocence.
So I do think that religion will continue to recede as an option for the more reflective and speculative members of society, though that set of society has always been a small one. I don't think religion is going to die in the near future of course [and neither does Grayling] but I do think it's going to find it increasingly difficult to justify itself intellectually. It will continue to try to do so though, and so the flaws in the arguments of religious apologists will have to be pointed out again and again - a painstaking and often boring task, but a necessary one.
This is important. We shouldn't be sentimental about religion. This doesn't mean we should be vicious and vitriolic - though sometimes moral outrage is justified. We should be lucid and logical and firm in our criticisms. There is, as we know, a lot of argument, in the blogosphere and elsewhere, about whether non-believers should 'play nice' with believers, especially those believers who are liberal and open-minded and acceptors of evolutionary theory. This is a real issue for me personally, as there are some people quite close to me who are believers, and I've had clashes with them. My attitude is that I will not go out of my way to challenge them, but if they make claims about the world which are religiously based and in my opinion false, I'll try not to let it pass. For religion is not just a personal, private matter. Religions are social constructions through and through, and they distort the world in ways that I find damaging and unfruitful. Religious people have children who they take to their churches and educate in their religious schools, and they congregate together in groups that support each others' beliefs and effectively shut out alternative understandings. As for liberal and open-minded believers, clearly their beliefs limit that open-mindedness. I agree with Jerry Coyne, for example, that where believers are also pro-science, they tend to water down their science to fit their beliefs. It is pretty essential, for example, for Christians to believe in humans as 'made in God's image', as his special creation, and so their attitude to evolution tends to be something like the Catholic Church's official attitude - that evolution is compatible with Catholic belief, but that, truth is, humans are special to God, his 'favoured creatures'. A belief that is really really hard to square with evolution as we know it. It raises questions for example about when humans, or their ancestors, became 'favoured'. Were Neanderthals favoured? Any of the Australopithecus species? Homo erectus? And what about other species, such as sperm whales, which have evolved in an entirely different way to be highly sophisticated?
We live in interesting times, and I look forward to the continuing struggle between believers and non-believers in understanding what our world really is like. And I hope I can contribute to it in some teensy way.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

more argy-bargy

John Adams, early Unamerican President

One Karl Giberson, sometime physicist and now heavily involved in the Biologos website discussed earlier, has been trying to defend an accommodationist view of science and religion with some energy round the traps of late. Jerry Coyne has rebutted a recent Giberson offering here.
A Giberson statement that's getting a lot of stick is this:
There is something profoundly un-American about demanding that people give up cherished, or even uncherished beliefs just because they don't comport with science.
One commentator on the Coyne site countered with this bit from a letter to Thomas Jefferson, by US founding father John Adams:
They all believe that great Principle which has produced this boundless universe, Newton's universe and Herschell's universe, came down to this little ball, to be spit on by the Jews; And until this awful blasphemy is got rid of, there never will be any liberal science in the world.
With due consideration for the context [the science is a bit outmoded, there might be a hint of anti-Semitism, and the term 'blasphemy' presupposes religious belief] it's a great response.

Friday, May 28, 2010

recycling revealed

bounce conveyor

I've been at a CANH [Community and Neighbourhood Houses, and Centres - soon to get a name-change, much-needed, IMHO] conference over the past few days, trying ineffectively to network - I'm the world's worst networker. The best seminar, for me, though, apart maybe from a fun one on bush tucker, was delivered by Simone Cunningham, Waste Education Officer for Marion and other councils here in South Australia, and also attached to KESAB. It provided the latest lowdown on recycling in this state, and clarified many questions for the average confused but wannabe conscientious consumer, comme moi. So for my own edification, and that of others, here's my summary - and for more info, visit this site.

In SA we're apparently well ahead of most other states with recycling. Our deposit on cans, for example, means that we recycle more of our drink cans than any other state, and the ban on plastic bags has proved surprisingly effective. A while back, a state government organisation, Zero Waste SA, was created to provide an integrated waste management service. This involves the fortnightly collection of recyclable waste [yellow-lidded bins], the fortnightly collection of organic waste [green bins], and the weekly collection of other waste [blue-lidded bins].

Recyclable waste is taken to a Materials Recycling Facility [MRF], also known as a Materials Recovery Facility or a Materials Reclamation Facility, where a bounce conveyor separates paper from other waste. Paper makes up some 70% of residential recyclable waste. Further along the line trommels and sorters separate different materials according to weight, size and type.

What to recycle and how to recycle it.
Paper - put in flat, and don't tie it up. Flatten cardboard boxes, and don't worry about removing staples, paper clips etc. Coloured or glossy paper is fine. Remove plastic wrappers from paper. Cartons [milk, fruit juice etc] are all recyclable, but rinse and flatten. Paper plates that have been used for food should be thrown in the bin unless they're still quite clean. Otherwise they're too contaminated. And they can also stink out your bin.

Plastics - The logo on plastic items [the triangle with the arrows and the number in the middle] doesn't mean that the item is automatically recyclable. It's just an indication of the type of plastic. The rule of thumb for plastics is - if it's hard and rigid [all bottles, marge containers, yoghurt containers, etc] then it's recyclable. If it's soft and scrunchy [plastic bags, plastic wrap] put it in the bin. Always rinse containers - it doesn't have to be thorough, but foodstuffs can contaminate. Remember also that much of this is being sorted by hand, so think of the workers. Also remove lids. With current technology, lids get separated and treated like paper, causing no end of trouble. Best to just put them in the bin.  

Glass - It's 100% recyclable, clear or coloured. Don't chuck in broken glass though, as it's a hazard to workers. Again, remove lids. Metal lids are recyclable, but keep them separate. Ovenproof glass, though, should be binned.

Aluminium and steel - All cans of course, rinsed. Keep the lids with the cans where possible. No gas cylinders or hazardous stuff. Paint tins should be clean [as if]. Foil trays, pie trays, etc should be clean. Remember 'one contaminated bin ruins a whole truckload'.

Other products - hazardous waste, e-waste, batteries
Almost everything that goes into a PC can be recycled. What's more, a lot of e-waste contains precious materials that we're running out of, not to mention plenty of noxious chemicals. The government has plans, apparently, to ban most e-waste from landfill.
The system of e-waste collection is currently rather ad hoc. There's a place called E-cycle Recovery at 365 Glen Osmond Road, which will presumably take stuff off your hands for free. Alternatively, ring [and badger] your local council for information.
Used motor oil should never be thrown in the bin. It's even worse if you pour it down the sink. Oil-polluted stormwater and sewage is the biggest contaminant of our waterways, much worse than the big news item oil spills. Oil should be, and can be, recycled. Every council has recycling locations where you can deposit your oil - old or new, clean or dirty.    
Other hazardous waste can be taken to the household hazardous waste depot in Dry Creek, open on the first Tuesday of every month. More details are here.
Car batteries, other batteries, paint, tyres, and miscellaneous items you're not sure about - check out this site. It will provide details of the closest recycler to your house.  

Of course the key to waste reduction is to consume less and to consume more wisely. Currently we throw out 30% of the food we buy. That's a staggering figure when you think of it.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

gymnastic thoughts

what it's all about

I always have half a dozen books on the go at once, and I must say that, unlike my younger self, my teen self, who devoured Hardy [and really inhabited Hardy's world for a time, which all things considered wasn't the most pleasant experience, though obviously it appealed more than my own world at the time], and Keats, and the Brontes, before going on to the continent to devour much French and Russian literature [all nineteenth century, strangely] - anyway, unlike that past self, my current self reads non-fiction almost entirely.
I've been trying to force myself to read some fiction, though, so it amused me yesterday to read a passage from the charmingly idiosyncratic O Henry. I recently joined a gym, a daunting place full of athletic, tattooed and largely youthful bods, and naturally I'm keen to turn my envy into scorn. Lines from a poem called 'Gym Junky', by a friend of mine, keep playing through my head, but it's never enough.
In his story 'The Coming-out of Maggie', Henry gently mocks the gym junkies of an earlier age. His members of the Clover Leaf Club, a social club attached to the gym, are local toughs constantly brushing against the law.
The young men of the Clover Leaf Club pinned not their faith to the graces of person as much as they did to its prowess, its achievements in hand-to-hand conflicts, and its preservation from the legal duress that constantly menaced it. The member of the association who would bind a ... maiden to his conquering chariot scorned to employ Beau Brummel airs. They were not considered honorable methods of warfare. The swelling biceps, the coat straining at its buttons over the chest, the air of conscious conviction of the super-eminence of the male in the cosmology of creation, even a calm display of bow legs as subduing and enchanting agents in the gentle tourneys of Cupid - these were the approved arms and ammunition of the Clover Leaf gallants.
Not really that much like my gym, where the female clientele possibly outnumber the male, and where I receive a modicum of low-key, scientifically based personal training in a thoroughly professional atmosphere,  but I can't help but be aware, given the sexual being I am, of the underlying sexual nature of all that whipping up of testosterone, the hope of gaining some slight advantage in the gentle tourneys of Cupid. My own hopes in such an arena, are of course, pathetic as well as quite possibly illegitimate. I was reminded of this, as if I needed it, when my personal trainer informed me that the stretching routines she taught me would come in handy in everyday life - 'for example, when you want to lift up your grandchildren'. So much for Clover Leaf gallantry. She's a kind and very likeable girl, but I'd never mentioned to her that I had grandchildren, which I don't, or even children, which I don't. I suppose one could do worse, though, than to be thought of as a kindly doting grandad. It doesn't help of course to have a body like hairy blancmange.

cetaceans, rorquals, belugas...

I'm having a lot of fun reading Leviathan, by Richard Hoare, all about whales and our relations with them over the years, with particular attention to Moby Dick. Fun perhaps isn't the word - it's a sad tale of cruelty and exploitation by and large, and a store-full of almost gossipy titbits. For example, the awful Aristotle Onassis [I do find business tycoons boring - dull, narrow exploitative types mostly] was very into the whaling industry for a while:
His vessels were purposely registered in Honduras and Panama, countries beyond the IWC's membership, and plundered protected waters, taking whatever whales they met, 'be they endangered species or newborns'. Only when Norway publicized his actions - and after the Peruvian navy and air force had opened fire on his ships for hunting whales within their territorial waters - was Onassis forced to stop his slaughter, finding it more financially viable to sell his fleet to the Japanese. 
A few other random titbits:

Rorquals are the largest group of baleen whales [as opposed to toothed whales or Odontoceti], with nine species in all, including the Blue, the Humpback, the Fin, the Sei, and the Common Minke. The term 'rorqual' comes from a Norwegian word that describes the longitudinal grooves from the mouth to the navel, which enable the mouth to open more widely.

The sperm whale is toothed, the largest toothed creature on earth [it also has the largest brain]. An adult male sperm whale weighs up to 20.5 metres and weighs up to 60 tonnes. The blue, the fin, and the southern right whales are all bigger on average. Sperm whales are the most sexually dimorphic of all the whales, with the males being 30% longer and considerably more massive [with baleen whales, incidentally the females are all larger than the males]. One of the foremost experts on the sperm whale, Hal Whitehead, has suggested they may practice religion. For their sakes I hope not, but they certainly have some of the most elaborate social structures of any mammal, and to talk of them in terms of 'culture' may not be amiss. They certainly exhibit altruism, like dolphins and other cetaceans. Of all the whales, the sperm whale probably most repays study - though all are magnificent and fascinating creatures.
Speaking of which, the beluga or white whale [no relation to Moby Dick, he was a sperm whale] is a real beauty of nature [look at any pics], a member of the Monodontidae family - the only other member of which is the narwhal. They go about in large pods, though they are slow swimmers. They're also called sea canaries because of the squeaking noises they make. They're small as whales go and have long been popular in commercial aquariums - unlike narwhals, which have always died quickly in captivity.

Whales grow so big because they can; they don't have the gravitational constraints of land-dwellers. We have fishy ancestors, and I suppose if you go back far enough, so do whales, but their more immediate predecessors were land-dwelling mammals. The hippo is the closest living land-dwelling relative of whales.

Whales can be identified by the shape of the spray that comes out of their blow-holes [amongst other ways of identifying them of course]. Ambergris comes from the sperm whale and is still used commercially. Not all sperm whales produce it - it seems to be produced as an aid to digestion of certain kinds of food, most notably squid. The preciousness of ambergris as a perfume has much to do with its lingering aroma. This is an element of all fishy smells of course, but it's particularly true of whale smells.

The lifespans of whales is still a subject of speculation. Not surprisingly, sailors' tales give a much longer lifespan than would seem credible but new evidence suggests that some species of whale, if only they were left alone by humans, would live for a lot longer than your average human, though no species has been known to breed beyond the age of forty.

I could go on and on with bits and pieces, it's never-ending, but the book's real strength is the sense it gives of these creatures as complex and still vastly mysterious to us, and the future possibilities of understanding and communication, after so many centuries of damage and suffering. Melville's great novel's livingness is a testament to their perennial fascination.

Friday, May 14, 2010

get it right: it's not the planet that needs saving

such big hands, such a wee planet - this kind of message is everywhere

I know that 'save the planet' is a simple-to-understand slogan, but it really gives me the irrits, as I've written before, because it massively distorts the issue, and over-emphasises, as usual, the influence of our own humble species. As if we could be capable of destroying the whole planet. Then again, give us time...
I've quoted before, somewhere, a New Scientist article which sums up my position, but I'm too disorganised to find it and quote it again, or to find the blog post I wrote about it. The point, briefly, is that our planet is not in danger from AGW. We are, of course, and many other species are, but certainly not the whole planet. Climate change is after all, the norm when we look at the long history of Earth, and climate change has been the main factor, most likely, in the extinction of most of the 99.9%  or so of species that are extinct, just as it has been a major factor in the mass speciations that have occurred following mass extinctions. Most species don't last too long, having sprung up and died out under particular, peculiar climatic conditions. This shouldn't be too difficult a concept to get our heads around, so why the 'save the planet' blather?
My current irritation is triggered by a couple of observations. Yesterday, a news item highlighted the fact that a certain brand of disposable bags advertised as biodegradable haven't been breaking down as they should. The bags have 'save the planet' written on them, as if to underline the absurdity of it all. It's common enough, as you can see. Also yesterday I bought a copy of The Monthly for the first time in - well, months - and Robert Manne had a little piece excoriating Tony Abbott. It's generally a worthwhile piece, but on Abbott's AGW denialism, Manne scratches his head and writes this:
... Abbott must know that if the climate scientists are right, there is a chance that the very future of the Earth is in peril.
Yes, I know, we must make allowances for hyperbole, and we should be kind and take 'the Earth' to mean 'the biosphere', but this sort of stuff has a kind of alarmist populism about it that really grates with me. Particularly because so many kids are parroting it. Sure it gets them in, but it also scares them needlessly. Let's get the message in proportion. The truth is alarming enough as it is, and of course a much more useful guide to action.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

random thoughts on science

Trying not to get too distracted after reading this [I'm such an emotional cuss], I'll focus instead on scientism, so-called, and the problematics of a dialogue between science and faith.
The difficulties and pitfalls of such a dialogue are certainly highlighted by the discussions at the Biologos site. In fact the Benner article isn't representative of Biologos, which has a specific and quite narrow agenda, clearly stated in its mission statement:
The BioLogos Foundation explores, promotes and celebrates the integration of science and Christian faith.
So, it has no interest in any other faith, and it has no interest in a dialogue with those who can't clearly see any positive value in Christian faith. So it's not about promoting dialogue between religion and science generally [that was my mistake], and it would naturally tend to take the view, not only that science can't explain everything, but that science can't explain anything really important, because Christianity covers all the really important stuff.
So it's hardly surprising that the concept of scientism is highlighted at such a site, for the purpose of condemnation. Scientism, a term I've only recently encountered, is, as its name suggests, the belief that science rules, ok? Of course it is defined negatively as hubristic, shallow, positivist, rationalist, ideological and so forth. These claims are countered, I think rather effectively, by pointing out that the methods of science are multiform and open-ended, with an emphasis on skepticism, on evidence, on testability and reproducibility, and that the scientific approach has changed our world for the better. Another development that has changed the western world for the better is the secularisation of our political system. This is not directly attributable to science, but both science and secularisation have been helped along by the values of the Enlightenment, and as such I think they are quite close relatives.
I could say a lot more about this, but I think it's an old argument. Those non-believers who have taken the 'new atheists' to task for rudeness, aggressiveness and so forth have tended to defend the smaller, more 'harmless' religions rather than the ones politically powerful enough to purvey their own brand of 'truth'. I'm sympathetic to the point that many people, or peoples, seem to need religion, at least in the short term. And that they derive a strong sense of identity and integrity and purpose from those beliefs. We've all come across people with whom it would be useless to argue on religious matters, so ingrained and irreplaceable is their faith to them, people who are yet very humane and worthy individuals. The question of whether their worthiness is a result of their faith, or something that shines through in spite of it, is an almost impossible-to-answer question, but nevertheless one always worth asking.
Science helps us to better understand humans as social animals, and so it helps us in our ethics and our politics. In fact there is no area of life, I feel, to which a scientific approach can't contribute. Science is by no means narrow, it's as broad as can be - it's often a matter of basic astuteness or acuteness, formalized. At our best, we all practice it, to some degree.

Friday, May 7, 2010

on the endless struggle to make decision-makers accountable

On bringing heads of state to justice, on amnesties and immunities and the like, I must repeat that I'm on the side of getting stuck into political leaders, making them suffer for how they've made their people suffer. It's a slow process, but it should always be remembered that a century ago, the idea of bringing heads of state to account was virtually inconceivable.
So commendation is due to Charlotte Dennett and her ilk, for having the guts to at least try to stick it to George Bush and his henchmen, for flouting the law and common decency in bringing war to a people who did nothing to deserve it, as well as imposing it upon the military of their own country, with devastating consequences for so many ordinary front-liners. While I'm interested in the current pressure on the Pope and the Vatican, there's no doubt in my mind that particular members of the Bush administration are the greater criminals.
Via three quarks daily

we can't help but advocate, let's be honest

Jasen Rosenhouse has a piece here about advocacy in science, and, more or less as usual, I'm in agreement. Of course, I'm not a scientist, and I get overwhelmed sometimes by the detail in some fields - in climate change for example - but you don't have to be absolutely certain about your own position to know that at least some other positions are crap, or baseless. So you advocate for not having a baseless position. You advocate for evidence, and fruitful methodology.
Of course, in the science versus religion debate, there's just so much going on it's hard to know where to start, re advocacy, but clearly if a person claims that evolution by natural selection is false because it contradicts the Bible account of creation, then those with knowledge about natural selection have every reason to advocate for its soundness, and the real question is whether or not it should be seen as a duty. The same, of course, goes for geologists and cosmologists when faced with the arguments or dismissals of young earth creationists.
Rosenhouse takes issue with Steven Benner who has warned of the dangers of advocacy in science on a site called Biologos, which seeks to promote a dialogue between science and faith, it seems. I might have more to say on that, generally, later, but for now let's look at what Benner says:
... it is important... for scientists to emphasize that uncertainty is central to science, and advocacy is disruptive of it. When a scientist becomes an advocate, he loses for himself the power to use scientific discipline to discern reality.
Reading this makes me think of the process of philosophical discourse, as it has occurred through the ages. Some of this discourse has been about the nature of reality, and this is largely the province of science today. There has also been much discourse about how we should live - the fields of moral and political philosophy. Philosophers, or thinkers generally, have proposed different ethical approaches, consequentialist or deontological or whatever, and defended their position against critiques. Often they strengthen their argument though critical conversation. Are they not advocates? Many people - Robert Hughes being one I remember -have said that arguing is the best way to learn, to develop your ideas. Scientists argue vehemently and healthily, for the most part, about their interpretations of reality - string theory, the multiverse, the nature of time even. Some are fierce advocates for particular positions, but are guided by the results nonetheless. Science can and does help us with developing ethical systems by contributing to the ongoing understanding of what we are, and how we best thrive as highly socialized but individual creatures. The idea that you can't derive an ought from an is has always struck me as false - we do it all the time.
Besides, I'm not sure that uncertainty is central to science. Skepticism, yes, but uncertainty? Would science ever get off the ground if uncertainty ruled always? Science owes much of its success to transformational positive findings or theories that have stood up against all testing and have opened up fruitful avenues. The developers of those theories weren't driven by uncertainty - which doesn't really drive anything. They were driven rather by skepticism or dissatisfaction with existing accounts.
 This is an important issue - scientists are the last people who should shy away from advocating in the fields in which they are experts. As Nick Matzke says in his comments on Benner, there are levels of uncertainty, and these are often exploited, for example when politicians such as Tony Abbott claim that AGW is not 'settled science'. When this sort of distortion is promoted, it's time for scientists not only to advocate, but to unite in advocating.
Having read all the comments on this Benner piece, many of them by people apparently sympathetic to ID, I feel confirmed in my view that scientists should advocate for evidence-based thinking, reproducible results and so on at every opportunity. Which I suppose brings me to the issue of 'scientism', which I might write about soon.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

questions and issues

maybe we should read this book

Canto: For your thoughts?
Jacinta: Rehashing old arguments against Gray, hardly worth it but it does get the critical juices flowing.
Canto: There's something to be said for reading writers you don't like, I find myself resisting them, once I feel I've cottoned on to their view, and yet when I do read them, as for example regular columnists in the newspapers, or regular bloggers, whatever, I keep finding new arguments to refute them, which is fun, until I find they're just variations of the old arguments.
Jacinta: Which isn't so bad - you have a consistent position, with lots of arguments to back it up, even ones you have yet to to discover.
Canto: Then you always wonder if you're being really rational, or endlessly rationalizing.
Jacinta: Are you happy with your way of seeing the world?
Canto: Yes, happy enough.
Jacinta: So why worry?
Canto: I'm not so much worried - I'm happy because I think I've thought through the issues, but there's always this nagging doubt, have I really thought through them? Do I even understand them?
Jacinta: What issues are you talking about?
Canto: That's the thing, there are so many of them. For example, is our world really the world? That's a really big one. Another one is, can every individual redefine, in his or her small way, what it is to be human? And then there are the innumerable smaller issues, like how to run a government, how to bring up your children [even if you don't have any], with what mixture of discipline and liberality...
Jacinta: For yourself and for your kids. There are of course those who say the questions that most exercise us are those that don't have an answer, such as - why are we here?
Canto, Yes, the being question, the question that so exercised Heidegger I believe, with his idea of 'thrownness into the world', or some such thing. On the one hand a man can put his life's intellectual energy into such a question, while on the other hand you get commentators on blogs [and probably also full-time philosophers] who feel that such questions are meaningless and a waste of time. They even get quite pissed off at the 'dumbness' of the question. There's no ultimate meaning, and don't let it spoil your lunch.
Jacinta: The this-worlders, some of them, seem to want to discourage the question because it leads to other-worldly speculations which get nowhere, being unverifiable, untestable, undecidable.
Canto: Seems reasonable to me.
Jacinta: And yet, while it lets all this in, most people aren't happy with 'this is just the way it is' - I mean, how can it just be that we're the only beings apparently 'privileged' enough to know, to have discovered, that our universe is 13.8 billion years old, and that our planet may well be the only one in this extraordinary universe to sustain what we call 'life', a self-sustaining, self-replicating, entropy-busting local system of so far just about unfathomable complexity? How can it be that we, and no others, are on the verge of recreating the conditions that pertained at the time of the big bang that gave birth to ourselves and everything else knowable to us? Does the so-called anthropic principle really explain this or does it explain it away?
Canto: Well, I'll leave all that with you.