Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The 20th Century, 1914-1991, Good riddance

Even before I moved to this wonderful country, I used to read Philip Adams in the Australian; he was always the first bit of the paper that I turned to. As he got sourer and darker I pretty much stopped reading each column as soon as the word 'Howard' appeared, and I was pleased to notice a column of his not so long ago that reminded me of the old days.

How well I remember that feeling of growing up thinking you probably weren't going to grow up. I grew up in a city ringed by Titan II missile silos, at a school run by politically-aware leftist nuns.
That pervasive feeling that there is no future is why the 20th century embraced Cro-Magnon Metaphysics. If there is no future to worry about, why should anything but the present inform our moral judgments? Now we have learned to like living like this, and that is why, 'without skipping a beat', as Philip Adams puts it, we went from 'we'll all be nuked' to 'there's a hole in the sky', to 'the ice caps are melting' before getting to 'we need to establish a police state to safeguard our freedoms from the towel-heads'. Our society just needs something to panic about to maintain our culture of 'eat, drink, and be merry, for tommorrow we die.' Pathetic. That's what it is, pathetic.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Neolithic Metaphysics Revisited

Brent Howard, of Rydalmere, writes in El Pais de Murdoch:

David van Gend (Letters, 21/2) rails agaisnt the deliberate creation and killing of human embryos but offers no arguments. This process does not harm the embryos. Obviously, being created and then living, without consciousness, for a short period cannot be worse for an embryo than never existing at all. Even if we focus on embryos after their creation, they are not harmed by death. As eminent philosophers such as Michael Tooley and Derek Parfit have explained, unconscious embryos that have never had any desires or aspirations have no interest in ongoing life. The mere physical potential of the embryo does not impose any obligations upon others. We can uproot a sapling if we don’t want a tree, and John Howard’s potential to win another election doesn’t mean we must vote for him. We have no duties to embryos. Banning embryonic research that could help sick people is wrong.

If we have no duties to embryos- simply because all their capacity for suffering and joy, creation and destruction, lies in the future- than how can the potential existence of future generations impose any moral obligations on us?
It cannot. The particular comes before the general, and is the only reality. If the philosophers reject the moral obligation imposed by the embryo, which is actual in its potential, how much more must they reject the moral obligation imposed by those who are only potentially potential? It does not matter if we exhaust all fossil fuel resources: those future humans who might need them are only potential. It does not matter if we exterminate the last of the Surinamese swamp weasels. Their deaths are no more painful than their natural deaths would have been, and those future generations of swamp weasels were only potential: we have no duties to them.
These are only a few of the implications of the sophistry of those two philosophical gentleman. To reverence only the actual, and not the potential, is a religion for barbarians. It is appropriate for those who have no care for the past or the future, who are confident that each new day will bring a fresh hamlet to pillage to provide for all their needs. There is not only the moment. There is what a thing was, and what a thing will be, and these things should also inform our moral judgments.
One might argue: ‘Your fossil fuels, your Surinamese swamp weasels, those are things that are the common heritage of all humanity. I would not be so presumptuous as to judge that the rest of you should be deprived of their potential. But this embryo is mine, it belongs to me; its fate is mine to decide.’ This is a very old voice speaking. This is the voice of the Roman paterfamilias, with the acknowledged power of life and death over his children and his slaves.
But I say, no, that embryo is also part of the common heritage of all humanity. It does not belong to you, any more than the Surinamese swamp weasel belongs to the good burghers of Surinam. I will be diminished if I stand by while they clearfell the last stand of weasel swamp. I will be diminished if I stand by while that embryo is destroyed. I value it as a potential PhD student, as the potential drummer in the gurnge revival band responsible for the enigmatic concept album ‘Erklarungun der Kroten’, as the potential shopgirl who will smile- or scowl- at me at the checkout at Bi-Lo in 2025, even as the potential criminal whose wanton acts in a distant city will give me a momentary glow of Schadenfreude when I am a crusty old codger.
Destroying embryos that could grow up into any of those things, even if it could help sick people, is wrong.

[Editor’s note: The blogger had been re-reading Borges at the time this post was composed, which accounts for its almost unbearable pretentiousness. The previous post has no such excuses.]

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

La Muerte y la Brujula

So far, there have been no entries at all to the First Annual Accidental Blog Literary Competition, the goal of which was to rewrite any short story or poem by Jorge Luis Borges as if it had been composed by 'Chopper' Read... Surely 'Death and the Compass' ought to be easy.

The prize I had mentioned was a walk-on part as yourself in my upcoming Christmas Story about Giant Robots, 'A Christmas Story about Giant Robots', which I am going to finish in the next few weeks, so I am going to set a deadline for this feeble competition: the end of the year, or the end of human civilisation, whichever comes first.

Here is the beginning of 'A Christmas Story about Giant Robots':

If he had slept for just a few days longer, Dr Tamafearoa would have missed Christmas entirely. But the Dorado started waking its passengers on the day the colonists called December 18th, earlier than expected, and had finished by the 20th, and just after dawn on the 21st Dr Tamafearoa walked out onto the surface of a new world. All that he owned he carried in a little box in his right hand, except for his clothes, and the box itself- which was of ankylosaur shell inlaid with simestones- and two hundred thousand square kilometers of desert on the planet Lepidoptera which his aunt had left him. The sky was all peach and silver, like the new metal Dt Tamfearoa’s aunt had discovered, and the long shadow of Londonderry Tower stretched away in front of him, pointing to the Western Jungles. Long threads of cloud, the kind that had not been seen on Dr Tamafearoa’s world for a dozen generations, stretched across the bowl of the sky from one side to another.
‘That is where I will go,’ he said to himself, taking a deep breath of the humid air. He marveled at the smell of it, the honey and jasmine and ozone and faint drying bacon smell of this new world. He had always wanted to go to the Western Jungles. ‘I’ve always wanted to go to the Western Jungles,’ he said to himself, taking a little step forward like a child learning to walk. He had never said this to himself before, or even thought it, but he knew it was true. He took another step tentatively forward, unsure of how to deal with the traffic in the street. It was wide and clean, and lined with golden trees a hundred metres high, like any street anywhere, but the people! The people looked to Dr Tamafearoa like trees walking around. They wore clothes that looked like flowers, or clothes that were flowers, with a thousand things like leaves or petals that shimmered as they moved. They moved quickly, but did not go from place to place in the straightest way, and they spoke more loudly than Dr Tamafearoa was used to, and laughed more readily, and smelled the way people on Dr Tamfearoa’s world used to smell, before they were all deodourised.

A Parable from St. John, modified in the light of my rural experiences...

There was a man of the city who inherited an empty field from a distant relative, and resolved to be a good farmer. He bought the best seed he could from the seed-sellers, and had his servants sow it in his field, and manured and watered his field as he found it written that it should be done. But the wind scattered other seeds into his field, and others came on the feet of birds, or were lying sleeping in the soil for such watering and manuring as the man gave the field. So when the wheat sprouted and formed heads, many weeds also appeared.
The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Master, did you not sow the best seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
‘An enemy did this,’ he replied, thinking that some enemy of his had come in the night, and sowed bad seed among his good seed, for all his knowledge of farming had come out of books, and he did not know how the weeds had come into his field.
The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
‘No’, he answered, ‘ You are ignorant of farming, and while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up my good plants along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned, then gather the wheat and bring it into my storehouse.’
But when the time of the harvest came, the field was only a wilderness of thorns and poisonous weeds. There was not one good plant in a thousand in the field, for wherever the good plants had grown they had been choked by the weeds. And the owner said to himself, ‘A thousand times more difficult it is now, to find the one good plant among so many bad, then it would have been to dig out the bad plants from the good at the beginning of the season. Now I must harvest all that grows in my field, and have it burned. For fear of losing some of my crop I have lost it all, and thinking myself a wise farmer I have proved myself foolish. In the next season I will not be foolish, but I will send out my servants to weed my field. True it is what the prophets say: whoever wishes to save what he has will lose it, while he who is willing to lose what he has will be rewarded many times over.’

Monday, December 19, 2005

Ecrasez l'infame!

I have slightly misread Prof. Holliday- his goal is not the advancement of science, but the downfall of religion, which he sees as the fountainhead of countless evils. Thus I stand somewhat in the same relation to him as a representative of 'Catholics for Choice' would stand to me, and he is probably right that there is not much point in us talking.

I fear he will be greatly disappointed should religion ever be effaced from the Earth. My observations lead me to predict that such a void will not be occupied by humanist scientific rationalism, but by New Age hokum, aimless hedonism, and endless re-runs of 'Survivor: Dinosaur Planet'.

I will accede to Prof Holliday's wish to have the last word:

At least we can agree about what Max Planck said. There is only one method of obtaining new information and that is by the scientific method, which a large number of people certainly do not realise.
However, in terms of social evolution, we have to add technology to science.

You wrote:

Secondly, if I did believe in a fundamental incompatibility between science and religion, I would keep it to myself. Claiming such a thing cannot do science any good.
There are vastly more people in the world with a religious world view than a scientific world view. In various parts of the world they are voters, legislators, or unelected rulers with power to determine science policy. They will not just go away. A great many of them do not need encouragement to think that science is godless and evil. What good can it do science to confirm them in their prejudices? About 30% of our first year students come from schools affiliated with religious institutions. Do I want to send their parents and teachers the message that science is fundamentally incompatible with their values? How would that help the long-term viability of science in Australia

Here we part company, because I could not disagree with you more. It is religions that are evil, not science. You only have to look around the world to see how much suffering is caused by religion: the ongoing conflict in the middle east. The ingrained hostility betweeen India and Pakistan, which has lead to three wars, and the even greater violence following partition. Years of conflict between catholics and protestants in Northern Ireland. And now the religious right in America, with its associated militarism. Almost all religions sanction war, and the killing of human beings. I have not the slightest respect for politicians and other members
of the establishment who regularly attend church and believe in the efficacy
of prayer.

Quite apart from all that, I think it is simply feeble to just follow a majority view. Would you believe that one should not have opposed the killing of supposed witches, because in the past the majority of people believed in their activities? Many people believe in astrology, would you therefore go along with that belief as well? Fortunately, human history is full of examples of a minority view triumphing over a mistaken majority. The abolition of slavery in the west is a very good example, or the abolition of child labour. With regard to the students you mention, it is not your job to send their parents any message about religion, but if students
enquire about religion and science, then I think they should be invited to participate in informed discussion.

I suggest we end our dialogue as it leads nowhere.

Regards, Robin Holliday

Friday, December 16, 2005

I told you that story so I could tell you this one...

Hey, did anyone hear about that wave of terrorist attacks disrupting the elections in Iraq? Me neither. It is a good day for us unreconstructed Neoconservative nation-building fanatics...

Anyway, I only put up that post about Prof Holliday’s article so I could put this one up:

Greetings Alex,

As you might possibly have expected, I wanted to make a few comments on Robin Holliday's article:

There is absolutely no place for a "vital force" or any non-material entity either in the egg, the sperm, the fertilised egg, the embryo, the child or the adult. Thus, there is no non-material soul, nor an afterlife.

Prof. Holliday is contrasting his professional understanding of biological processes with a very crude understanding of what a non-material soul might be. The Prophets did not have the same range of metaphors available that we do, and living today they probably would use different words. 'Consciousness' is not material in the sense that you can distill it out of something, yet it exists- it is apparently an emergent property, something arising from the interaction between material objects. Breath and Fire and the other historical analogies for consciousness validly refer to processes, not to static objects. An omniscient God existing outside of space-time would necessarily know all the details of the dynamic process of consciousness and be able to recreate it (upload it, in the language of Damien Broderick) to whatever 'hardware' it wanted to outside of space-time.
Thus the conclusion, there is no non-material soul, nor an afterlife, does not logically follow from Prof. Hollidays premises.

The next fundamental difference between science and religion is the issue of free will. In fact, most individuals believe in free will because it is a matter of common experience that they feel free to make their own decisions. For the religious, free will is God's gift to man. However, once it is accepted that we are complex organisms composed only of molecules, the completely new light is thrown on the supposed existence of free will. In making a simple choice, for example, between moving one's right or left arm, we feel completely free, but the fact remains that a signal is transmitted to the muscles that comes from the brain. The brain is not capable of spontaneously creating energy, because if it did it would contravene the law of conservation of energy, so the signal must come from somewhere else. Because we are conscious of feeling free, the signal must come from another part of the brain which is part of our unconscious brain function. Thus, there are forces at work of which we are not aware. These forces are determinants of our behaviour, and free will is no more than an illusion. Of course, some decision making is complex and may depend on knowledge, experience and external factors of which we are well aware, but this does not affect the basic conclusion that we do not have free will.

This argument betrays an ignorance of history. It is wrong to say that 'religion' supports free will and 'science' supports determinism: there are many atheistic scientists who believe in free will, often basing their arguments on woolly interpretations of quantum mechanics, and the argument between free will and determinism has been a constant feature *within* the main currents of religious thought for thousands of years. e.g.,: In their emphasis on the supremacy of God over all things, they [The Ahl al-Hadith] insisted that it was He alone who created human acts, even a persons evil acts. ... The Mutazilis, in their attempt to rationalise their faith, asserted the freedom of the human will which would be rewarded necessarily by Gods justice. The Hadith folk felt that this was to insult Gods power ... by ascribing to human beings alone their evil deeds, as if human creatures could create, like God, deeds or anything else.
(A 9th century controversy in the Islamic world, recounted by Marshall G. S. Hodgson in The Venture of Islam. In a more recent example, the Reformation in the Christian world was basically just a big argument about free will and determinism.)

The argument can be turned on its head, and I have argued elsewhere that a creator could easily include wheels or propellers in animal design. Yet no wheels or propellers exist in the animal kingdom. The Darwinian explanation for this is perfect: it is impossible to evolve a wheel by stages, because only a whole wheel has function.

I am sure that if a wheel was discovered in a living organism tomorrow Prof. Holliday would not accept it as a disproof of evolution- it certainly wouldnt be! So he shouldnt argue that the absence of wheels is proof. Wheels and propellors are forbidden by the physical difficulty of providing rotating structures with nutrients in organisms with the kind of biology that has evolved on Earth, not because they are non-functional in intermediate stages: otherwise, something like a wheel could equally well evolve with a non-locomotory function, being swapped over to a locomotory function later (viz., some of the models for the evolution of wings).

Experimental science has established itself as rational and reproducible, and there is no place for the contravention of natural laws, such as miracles, superstition and the occult. Finally, it is often pointed out that religious scientists exist. It seems that these are individuals who can in some way compartmentalise contradictory viewpoints, but this is an ability that I for one find extremely hard to understand.

Science is for examining the reproducible elements of the universe. It has been so good at explaining the observable features of the universe by considering only those elements that it is easy to assume that only those elements exist. That may well be true. But the existence of irreproducible, miraculous elements is not *disproved* by science. This phenomenon is not a miracle is an assumption you have to make *before* you can study a phenomenon by scientific methods. Saying that everything can be explained by science is not a scientific statement: it is a statement of faith. I think that everything within what we call the universe will end up being explicable by science, but I am fully aware that is just a leap of faith on my part.

Finally, I find *Prof. Hollidays* ability to compartmentalise contradictory viewpoints impressive. Surely he must act, in his day-to-day life, as though he has free will and is making real choices to pursue one line of research or buy one brand of soap powder over another? I couldnt do this. If I am to act as though I have free will, I need to hold to some philosophy that allows me to have free will!


[Dr Clam]

Thanks, [Dr Clam], and yap I was expecting comments from you.

First I'm sorry for being tardy in my reply, I've had to be away from
communications for a few days and just got back and logged in.

I shall pass your comments on to Robin together with your email address so
that he can replay to you directly.
And thanks for taking the time to state your viewpoint.


#3: To [Dr Clam]:

Alex Reisner has sent me your letter about my article. I think there
are some severe problems in communication language and logic.

I have read the following several times, without any comprehension:

Prof. Holliday is contrasting his professional understanding of biological
processes with a very crude understanding of what a 'non-material soul'
might be.

This seems to be the same as my saying "There are no fairies at the bottom of
my garden," and getting your response "You have a a very crude understanding of

The Roman Catholic catechism includes the following:

Question: What is the soul?
Answer: The soul is a living being without a body, having reason
and free will.

That is very clear isn't it? It is a statement or dogma.

You should understand that I am merely presenting the views of
scientific rationalists, including Francis Crick (commonly regarded
as the greatest scientist of the 2nd half of the 20th century), Richard Dawkins,
and many, many others.

I find it extraordinary that a scientist could write the following:

I am sure that if a wheel was discovered in a living organism tomorrow
Prof. Holliday would not accept it as a disproof of evolution-

Thousands and thousands of animal species have been studied by
biologists over several centuries. As a scientist, what would
you make of someone saying "You might find a stone tomorrow that
does not fall to the ground"?
I do not think you are well versed in scientific methodology

There is a lot I could add about free will, but will not. You seem to adopt the
position of some philosophers who say that if you feel free, you are
free, therefore the issue is not of importance.
I did not mention determinism, which certainly is not a consequence
of a disbelief in free will. Stochastic events and chaos theory explain
that. The attempt by a few to use the uncertaincy principle of quantum
mechanics as a basis for free will does not stand up to any serious
scrutiny. We certainly know enough about neurones to be sure of

Regards, Robin Holliday

Greetings Prof Holliday,

Thanks for writing back to me!

I have read the following several times, without any comprehension: "Prof. Holliday is contrasting his professional understanding of biological
processes with a very crude understanding of what a 'non-material soul'
might be."

It is the lines after that one that probably should be read several times, where I try to explain what I understand by 'non-material soul'.
If you say, 'I dissected Alex and did not find a sense of humour', then I would be right in saying, 'You have a very crude understanding of humour'.

This seems to be the same as my saying "There are no fairies at the bottom of
my garden," and getting your response "You have a a very crude understanding of

My point is just this, which I will reiterate. In your statement "There is absolutely no place for a "vital force" or any non-material entity either in the egg, the sperm, the fertilised egg, the embryo, the child or the adult. Thus, there is no non-material soul, nor an afterlife," the conclusion does not follow from your premises. I am not seeking to defend the doctrine of the soul outlined in the Roman Catholic Catechism.

You should understand that I am merely presenting the views of
scientific rationalists, including Francis Crick (commonly regarded
as the greatest scientist of the 2nd half of the 20th century), Richard Dawkins,
and many, many others.

You have correctly identified undue respect for authority as my one great weakness, but appealing to authority rather than answering my objections is cheating! :)

I find it extraordinary that a scientist could write the following: "I am sure that if a wheel was discovered in a living organism tomorrow
Prof. Holliday would not accept it as a disproof of evolution"
Thousands and thousands of animal species have been studied by
biologists over several centuries. As a scientist, what would
you make of someone saying
I do not think you are well versed in scientific methodology

Firstly, I didn't say something like, "You might find a stone tomorrow that does not fall to the ground", I said something like: "I am sure that if a stone was found tomorrow that did not fall to the ground you would not accept it as disproof of gravity." Neither would I. It would be some anti-rationalist's trick with magnets, I am sure.

But the two counter-factuals are completely different:

1) The gravitational interaction between pieces of matter is well described by laws that appear to apply always and everywhere in space-time, from extensive observations.

2) We have studied thousands and thousands of animal species, but all of them share a common ancestor and are restricted to a very small part of the universe. The properties of living organisms on Earth are *contingent on historical events* and quite different forms of life could have evolved elsewhere. It is physical limitations, based on the historical development of life on Earth, that prohibit wheels: it is possible to envision different biologies that do not have these physical limitations. It is not the absence of intermediate forms that prohibit wheels, because the intermediate forms could have had some other function and only swapped over to be wheels later.

There is a lot I could add about free will, but will not. You seem to adopt the
position of some philosophers who say that if you feel free, you are
free, therefore the issue is not of importance.
I did not mention determinism, which certainly is not a consequence
of a disbelief in free will. Stochastic events and chaos theory explain
that. The attempt by a few to use the uncertainty principle of quantum
mechanics as a basis for free will does not stand up to any serious
scrutiny. We certainly know enough about neurones to be sure of

I certainly don't want to get into an argument about free will either- I had enough of that as an undergraduate to last me a lifetime! I regret putting in that line at the end about your ability to compartmentalise your ideas, it was a foolish non sequitur. Please accept my apologies.

My point was just that the equation religion=free will is fallacious, as historically most of the opponents of free will have been truly, madly, deeply, religious.

Best regards,

[Dr Clam]

#5: To [Dr Clam],

I do not think our correspondence is leading anywhere. I have
read your two Emails several times but I am unable to extract anything
about your real opinions on the topic of science and religion that I wrote

One thing you seem to invoke is a non-material "consciousness." Now I
am aware that many have referred to and discussed the "problem"
of consciousness. To me the problem is that we simply do not yet understand
brain function, and I would add that many animals appear to have an
awareness of the world around them and therefore consciousness. I cannot
envisage any conceivable reason why consciousness is not part of sensory
perception and brain function. Brains consist largely of neurones, and
neurones are made up of molecules. What else can there be?

I will just add two further comments. You write:

Thus the conclusion, 'there is no non-material soul, nor an afterlife',
does not logically follow from Prof. Holliday's premises.

There are NO premises, but a mass of information from modern

On free will, you write:

This argument betrays an ignorance of history.

I take exception to this. I have been a student of the philosophy
and history of science and I think what I wrote about free will
has absolutely nothing to do with history. It is about conservation
of energy and neurone function.
I can also add that I am completely unconcerned about the choice
of soap powders. It could be arbitrary, or it could be that my wife or
someone else recommended one. The absence of free will is very
important when it come to judging anti-social behaviour. Most people
believe in retribution, ie punishment, for criminal acts. I do not, because
such acts are not the result of "free will." Deterrence, however, is very
important, in a variety of contexts. This is a hugely important social issue,
and I think most people are very confused about it
If you want to continue this, I suggest you summarise in succinct form
your own views about science, religion, vitalism, consciousness, or
whatever. Then at least I will know where you stand. At present your
real opinions are something of a mystery to me.
I will send you next week a few reprints on matters directly or indirectly
related to all these topics.

Regards, Robin Holliday

#6: Dear Prof Holliday,

You are probably right that this is useless, but I will have one more go and try to answer your questions. I hope I am right in believing that you published your piece on The Funneled Web because you want people to argue with you, and will not be offended by me. I certainly do not wish to cause any offence and am only interested in making my ideas clear. Evidently I have a long way to go!

You wrote an article claiming that there is a fundamental incompatibility between Science and Religion. I do not believe this is true. My first published letter to the editor was to the Catholic Leader when I was 19, telling people that they should not fear evolution, because it was fundamentally compatible with religion. I have continued to argue this with many people in many places over the last few decades, all of them people who fear and distrust science because of the sort of rationalist triumphalism embodied by people like Prof Dawkins.

My understanding of the scientific method is grounded in its practice and in the writings of the 19th century American Pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce: once we know the consequences of a thing, we know all there is that can be known about it. I have a quote on my website by Max Planck that embodies the same principle: Experiments are the only means of knowledge at our disposal. Everything else is poetry, imagination. Those are statements I believe. I think they demand a greater degree of humility and agnosticism from practitioners of the historical sciences than we have seen from Prof Dawkins. Experiments cannot tell us whether miracles are possible, whether there is or is not a God or an afterlife, or what if anything exists outside space-time. We are free to chose our own poetry for whatever is not amenable to experiment, and we do not have any scientific grounds for preferring Housman over Manley Hopkins.
I should add that I am not currently a practising Catholic, and I do not believe in any kind of vital spirit. I believe what I attempted to explain in my first message, that the soul as some kind of spirit existing independently from the body is an unnecessary hypothesis. I am a theist in the Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition and strive to make my beliefs consistent with our observations of the universe.
I completely agree with you about animals. I do not believe there is anything uniquely important about human beings and have been a vegetarian since 1990 because of my respect for animal consciousness.
I wrote to you because I disagree strongly with the claim of your article. I do not believe there is a fundamental incompatibility between science and religion.

Secondly, if I did believe in a fundamental incompatibility between science and religion, I would keep it to myself. Claiming such a thing cannot do science any good.
There are vastly more people in the world with a religious world view than a scientific world view. In various parts of the world they are voters, legislators, or unelected rulers with power to determine science policy. They will not just go away. A great many of them do not need encouragement to think that science is godless and evil. What good can it do science to confirm them in their prejudices? About 30% of our first year students come from schools affiliated with religious institutions. Do I want to send their parents and teachers the message that science is fundamentally incompatible with their values? How would that help the long-term viability of science in Australia?

Thirdly, if I did believe both in a fundamental incompatibility between science and religion and that it was a good thing to point this out, the three main points I made in my first letter would hold true, and if I was an atheist I would probably still want to make them. There are flaws in your arguments that make them ineffective in demonstrating what you wish to demonstrate.

(1) The findings of modern biology have no bearing on whether there is something that, in its consequences, is indistinguishable from the soul of tradition. A premise is defined as a proposition which an argument is based on or from which a conclusion is drawn. You cannot have any logical argument without premises, and I am as convinced as you are that the facts of biology you cite are sound. But your conclusion does not follow from them. I tried to explain this but have failed completely to make myself understood. It would probably take a whole essay on its own, which I do not want to write, and I am sure you do not want to read!

(2) Your wheel argument is flawed. The lack of wheels is a contingent fact of terrestrial evolution, not a necesary characteristic of life everywhere, and a wheeled organism would not constitute disproof of evolution.

(3) It is wrong to state that belief in free will is a characteristic feature of religion. That is the only point I wanted to make. I have absolutely no interest in arguing about free will as such because I am convinced it is a futile exercise. I am sure you have an excellent understanding of the history and philosophy of science. But you would not say that belief in free will was a characteristic feature of religion if you had made any serious study of the history of religion. I am sure this is a topic that you have little sympathy or patience for, so this is understandable, but the history of religion is inextricably bound up with human history as a whole. The claim that belief in free will is a characteristic of religion in general is an untenable one.

I hope I have cleared up the mystery a little. I do not think my opinions are really of any relevance. I know I have no chance of convincing you that your thesis is wrong, or likely to cause harm to science, but hoped there was some worth in pointing out the flaws in some of your arguments. I would count it a victory if you became a more accomplished polemicist for your cause, because this can only be achieved by understanding your opposition, and the more there is understanding, the more there is hope.

All the best,

[Dr Clam]

I shall consider Prof Holliday's reprints at a later date...

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

On a scale of one to ten, it's not good

I think the recent events in the tsunami-prone fringes of Devil Bunny City are the most depressing things to have happened in this country while I have been here. If I, an educated middle-class Anglo-Slavic Catholic living hundreds of kilometers away, feel a sudden urge to tattoo 'Islam Power' on my knuckles, invest in a much larger car stereo, and beat the living daylights out of that idiot from Penrith who was stupid enough to give his name to reporters, I can only guess what my former neighbours are thinking.

As for Alan 'Inyenzi' Jones, surely those new sedition laws provide something he could be charged with? The role of talkback radio in the whole affair is frighteningly reminiscent of its role in the Rwandan genocide.

Friday, December 09, 2005


I will depart again from my habit of not saying anything about my real life, because of the interesting thing that happened today. I have been censored, for the first time since primary school.

(1) My university offers a Bachelor of Health Sciences (Homeopathic Medicine) degree.

(2) The students actually get taught real knowledge stuff by my university. It doesn’t teach the actual homeopathic medicine bit, but leaves that in the hands of a bunch of fruit loops.

(3) Homeopathic medicine is a load of toss. It is an order of magnitude less scientific than Creation Science, because Creation Science depends on some supernatural force kicking off the natural laws we know and love, and homeopathic medicine just tells said natural laws to bugger off.

I had a bit on an out of the way corner of my web site at work mentioning these three facts, in very slightly more polite language than I’ve given here, with links to our degree programme, the fruit loops, and a representative web site demonstrating that homeopathy is a load of toss.

Got a message from the Dean this afternoon, saying: ‘Please remove the references to homeopathy on your web site.’

Being at heart a forelock-tugging slave to authority, I said ‘okay’.
Having a tiny bit of pride, I replaced the blurb with ‘The links that used to be here have been removed by request of the Dean.’

About ten minutes later, I got another message from the Dean, saying: ‘Please remove the reference to me on your web site.’

So I wrote back, ‘Please rephrase your request as a directive and I will happily comply.’
And the Dean replied: ‘That was a directive, I was just being polite.’

So I did that. Then I went to ask someone who knew about Information Technology Legal stuff if the Dean was actually allowed to do that. And they said (I think) ‘Yes.’

So I spat the dummy and took my whole website down. Childish, I know...

Thursday, December 08, 2005


Here is a link to an opinion piece by Prof Robin Holliday, who has discovered all sorts of neat molecular biology stuff, entitled ‘The Fundamental Incompatibility Between Science and Religion’.

I am not entirely sure why he wrote it.

If science and religion were fundamentally incompatible, would it really do science any good to convince people of the fact?

There are vastly more people in the world committed to a religious world view than a scientific world view. Why split humanity into two camps, with yourself in the small embattled one, if you don’t have to?

I suppose it just reflects the spirit of the age: here are these people with feet in both camp ‘us’ and camp ‘them’ (f’rinstance, religious scientists, or moderate Muslims). Do we think of them as:

(i) Useful bridges to the other side, expressing a point of view that we need to understand if we are going to reach any long term solution, or

(ii) Dangerous and deluded fifth columnists who must be forced to conform to the ideals of camp ‘us’?

So that is what *really* bugs me about Prof Holliday’s article, when I think about it.

Walk Against Warming?

There are signs up around my workplace inviting people to walk/cycle to work on some particular day- not sure which one it is- as a token gesture to reduce CO2 emissions. I was thinking about whether this was sensible or not.

I live too far away to propel myself to work without spending 4 hours a day commuting, but I will assume for the purposes of argument that I live only 5 km away. I get around about 500 km for a 50 litre tank of petrol, so driving 10 km I would use a litre of petrol- about 750 g of stuff that gets converted into CO2 (2.3 kg) and water (1.1 kg).

Now, if I am going to walk or cycle to work indefinitely, and not just as a token gesture, I will need to increase my food intake, or I will waste away and die. My gee-whiz exercise bike says it takes about 250 kcal to bicycle 10 km. When I convert this into rice, it comes out at only 69 g that I convert into about 100 g of CO2 and 20g of water. So it looks pretty good!

But... My rice has been grown somewhere with diesel-powered tractors and fertilizers produced using fossil fuels, and irrigation water probably pumped with fossil-fuel derived energy. It is packaged in plastic bags made from fossil fuels by machines run on fossil fuels. Then, the somewhere it has been grown is a long way away. The closest somewhere is around Griffith, from which it has probably been carried in a diesel-fuel powered vehicle to a central depot in Sydney, and then carried here the same way. But the packet actually says it is from Thailand: so it has been trucked from somewhere in Thailand to somewhere else in Thailand, loaded onto a fossil-fuel-powered ship, and taken to Sydney first. How much does that all add up to? I have no idea. The internet factoids that purport to answer this sort of question are all from end-of-cheap-oil doom and gloom people who want to make things sound as bad as possible, but I did find some reasonable looking data from a Centre for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan estimating that in the United States 7.3 units of energy are consumed for every unit of food energy produced, on average. In another part of the same article they have some specific calculations for a tin of sweet corn (8.1:1) and grain-fed beef (36:1) and estimate ratios of about 5:1 for a vegetarian diet and 10:1 for an omnivorous one. They also calculate that on average, 1.8 units of food energy are produced for every unit consumed. Things here are probably not too different from the United States- if anything, we probably have a larger proportion of food transported by road instead of rail or internal waterways.

So in getting to work on my bicycle, I am probably (indirectly, statistically) burning enough fossil fuel to make 3375 kcal of energy. How much is this?

Looking in the back of my 1st year chemistry textbook, I calculate that burning 1 mole (114 g) of octane should produce 1066 kcal of energy. Thus I am using about 360 g of fossil fuel in cycling to work: this is only about half the amount I would burn in the car, so voila, cycling to work is a good idea! Especially if we were to repeat the exercise and take the whole supply chain for producing and distributing the petrol into account.

Except... my 1066 kcal was the theoretical maximum, and I have no idea whether the University of Michigan study uses the actual energy produced by burning the fossil fuel, or the theoretical energy content. If it is the first, then cycling and driving are becoming pretty much of a muchness. And if my diet consists of meat from non-native animals and fresh fruit and vegetables airfreighted from exotic locations, than I am doing the environment a grave disservice if I don’t drive to work...

Thursday, December 01, 2005

#81, The Overthrowing

In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.
When the sun is overthrown, and when the stars fall, and when the hills are moved, and when the camels big with young are abandoned, and when the wild beasts are herded together, and when the seas rise, and when souls are reunited, and when the girl-child that was buried alive is asked for what sin she was slain, and when the pages are laid open, and when the sky is torn away, and when hell is lighted, and when the garden is brought nigh, then every soul will know what it hath made ready.
Oh, but I call to witness the planets, the stars which rise and set, and the close of night, and the breath of morning, that this is in truth the word of an honoured messenger, mighty, established in the presence of the Lord of the Throne, one to be obeyed, and trustworthy; And your comrade is not mad. Surely he beheld Him on the clear horizon. And he is not avid of the Unseen. Nor is this the utterance of a devil worthy to be stoned.
Whither then go ye? This is naught else than a reminder unto creation, unto whomsoever of you willeth to walk straight. And ye will not, unless (it be) that Allah willeth, the Lord of Creation.

Our honourable treasurer says there is no place in our democracy for people who want to introduce Shari’a- what a tosser! You can’t just suddenly arbitrarily decide that our present system is the acme of excellence and try to preserve it exactly how it is forever. It wasn’t so many years ago I remember his telling us that our constitution was no good and we had to throw it our and get a new one. There is no difference in principle between replacing the Queen with some party political hack and replacing her with a Caliph or a democratically elected council of mullahs. Show some consistency, Pete! If someone thinks the country should be run in a completely different way, they have the right to form a political party with a clearly stated platform of introducing cargo-cult socialism, or Islamic Law, or whatever, and if they manage to get voted in, they should be able go ahead and do it.* That is what democracy is supposed to be about. A party tells you what its policy is, and then you vote for it or not. You don’t say, for instance, that you’re ‘never ever’ going to do something, and then do it...

*: If Barnaby Joyce lets them.

Saturday, November 12, 2005


Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
che la diritta via era smarrita.

Actually things are fine! But it really is halftime...

Friday, November 11, 2005

I have not vanished off the face of the earth, not entirely. I have been writing a NaNoWriMo novel.

I did see ‘The Village’, so I popped into to Film Forensics and made some irresponsible suggestions.

And I wrote a review on Amazon for John Marsden’s ‘The Rabbits’, which doesn’t seem to have passed the censor, so I’ll have a go trying to recreate it here. I saw this book at the public library in Lakemba, where I used to walk sometimes with my kids back in 2001 from my house in Punchbowl.

'The Rabbits' is this not-veiled-at-all allegory where this happy land inhabited by sugar glider things is invaded by rabbits who are obviously Anglo-Celtic Australians and do all kinds of nasty stuff. I considered checking it out and not returning it, because it was evil.

Is there any hope of coexistence with the rabbits held out in the book? Nope.

Are the rabbits shown to have any redeeming features? Nope.

What are rabbits, in Australia? They are vermin, to be exterminated without mercy.

I couldn’t help wondering if a public library would have stocked a cute illustrated kids book about skullcap-wearing rats who come and bulldoze the olive groves of happy little gerbils, shoot them, and blow up their villages. Just possibly, I guess, given the way things are nowadays. How about drug-addled, molotov-cocktail throwing gerbils who terrorise a peaceful town of baguette-carrying rabbits? I don’t think so.

I bet at least one of those guys who have been buying acetone and hydrogen peroxide to blow us up used to came to that library, with his kids. Bad book. Not happy, John.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Being a post which is mostly just me agreeing with Jenny

Quoth Jenny:

Some of the quotes by scientists recently saying that they won't believe in a created universe - even if all the evidence says this must be so - simply because that would be faith not science, seems to me to be unscientific - or at least unstatistical.
Now if they had said, all evidence so far shows no natural cause for the universe and either left it at that or said that they were waiting on advances in science to examine the cause further - then I'd think they were thinking a little more scientifically (though a null hypothesis of "the universe was not created naturally" with an alternate of " the universe was created naturally" seems more thorough).

I'm also always a little skeptical of those who need to use science to underwrite their faith that God exists and created the universe. I'm not saying you can't, but if you read a bit of history of science, you can see that scientists have gotten things wrong over and over again.
In science, dropping what you believe in favour of something else when new data shows you have something wrong is good practice.
However, if you use science to prove your faith and then your pet scientific theory falls over...where does it leave you?
As a scientist, I take all science with a grain of salt...sometimes a ruddy great rock of salt...I know our understanding changes, sometimes very fast, so I'm not that concerned when people say, "God doesn't exist and I can prove it with science".

Thats the thing about faith, I don't have to know how, I just have to have faith that God created the universe. (please note; not talking about blind faith in its entirity, just in an area I really don't think is that central to my beliefs).

Science is for examining the reproducible elements of the universe. It has been so good at explaining the observable features of the universe by considering only those elements that it is easy to assume that only those elements exist. Maybe that’s true. But the existence of irreproducible, miraculous elements can't be disproved by science: ‘it’s not a miracle’ is an assumption you have to make before you can study a phenomenon by scientific methods.
Saying that everything can be explained by science is not a scientific statement: it is a statement of faith. I think that everything within what we call ‘the universe’ will end up being explicable by science, but that is just a leap of faith on my part.

With every step we have taken over the last few centuries, we have found the universe bigger than we thought, and our position in it more unremarkable. I think that it is highly unlikely that something as improbable as life just happened to start here, and I think it equally unlikely that what we call ‘the universe’ should be all that there is. Everything in a well-designed film can be explained without going outside the film for an explanation, but in the end everything in the film is dependent on something outside the film for its existence. I think that on another level of explanation, our ‘universe’ can be explained as an artifact, created by an omnibenevolent entity with complete knowledge of ‘the universe’ that is much more like a person than it is like any inanimate thing. This is another leap of faith on my part.

I must plead guilty of using science to support my faith that God exists. The most obvious explanation for the universe being here is that it just is: it is all there is, and it has always been here, always changing, but never going anywhere, just cycling. This is the most logical position to take in the absence of other evidence. It was the position of the great ancient philosophers, of the ancient religions of the East, of Lyell, who did more than anyone else to create the modern science of geology, and of almost all atheists up until the middle of last century. Unfortunately, it has been almost impossible to claim that ‘the universe’ is all that there is since we found out that it running down: that it started in a less disordered state and is tending inexorably towards a more and more disordered state. Before the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it was a real leap of faith to believe that God created the universe: since then it has been easier. We tend to forget how difficult science has already made things for atheists, because we have all grown up with the idea of the universe suddenly springing into existence something like fifteen billion years ago as a scientific theory. Not so very long ago the idea that the universe had a beginning was (rightly, on the basis of the available evidence) condemned as unscientific.

Some things never change

Burge: I want to save my country from the Tories. They don'r represent the people. The man they have made Prime Minister has never represented the people; and you know it. [X] is the bitterest old Tory left alive. What has he to offer to the people?

Franklyn (cutting in before Burge can proceed- as he evidently intends- to answer his own question): I will tell you. He has ascertainable beliefs and principles to offer. The people know where they are with [X]. They know what he thinks right and what he thinks wrong. With your followers they never know where they are. With you they never know where they are.

George Bernard Shaw, 'Back to Methusaleh', 1921

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Not in My Name

A few days back a collection of important scientific type people issued a statement condemning the so-called theory of 'Intelligent Design'. As their letter appeared in El Pais de Murdoch, it was followed by a postscript saying that they headed societies representing 70,000 scientific type people, including, er, me. Was issuing this statement really a scientific thing for them to do?

Let's say that we keep probing the origins of life, and every possible mechanism for kicking the process off requires some fantastically entropically unfavourable combination of highly complicated molecules that we can easily produce in a test tube, but can't envision surviving long enough to reach the required concentrations in any plausible environment on the primitive earth. Do we:

(a) Keep on asserting that this highly thermodynamically-disfavoured process must have happened, nevertheless, in some highly implausible and forever unobservable environment?

(b) Apply Ockham's Razor and say that if we can make life in a test tube, then, maybe, life as we know it was made in a test tube?

Maybe it was Trurl and Klapaucius after all.
This is not what the Intelligent Design people really mean by Intelligent Design, but it is perfectly consistent with what they say they mean, so we shouldn't just jump up and down and say that Inteligent Design is pseudo-scientific rubbish. It is many orders of magnitude more scientific than homeopathy, which my blinkered, insane-with-greed univeristy prostitutes its good name to support.

Everything we have discovered over the last 500 years has taken us further and further from the idea that the Earth is the centre of the Universe. We are nowhere special; why should life have happened to start here? There might be all sorts of chemistries that are not at all like the life we know that started out in environments not at all like the ones we know: you just need to get life started somewhere, sometime, and sooner or later it will come up with iPods and weird new organisms based on different chemistry than itself.
This version of Intelligent Design is a perfectly valid scientific theory. We can think of things we could do to test it. For instance, we could search for the aliens' fossilised iPods.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Springtime in Al-Jamila

A little while ago I read ‘From Beirut to Jerusalem’, by Thomas Friedman, a record of his ten years as a correspondent in Lebanon and Israel written c. 1988. It is much longer than that list of logical fallacies, so I can’t very well expect you to go out and read it, but it would be worthwhile. In the last chapter he outlines two possible ‘peace plans’, the first of which is almost identical to the Peres-Rabin-Barak ‘peace process’ of 1993-2001, and the second of which is almost identical to Sharon’s ‘unilateral disengagement’ of 2004-? So he is quite a prescient chap.

He recounts a scene where this Shi’ite militiaman walks into a bar and methodically smashes all the bottles, and he says that he and his fellow barfolk all sat there, completely unable to comprehend this fellow, finding it hard to believe that he still existed in their civilised 20th century. But I don’t find it hard to understand him at all. I find it harder to understand people who can’t understand him. Yet this lack of understanding seems to be very common. The real ‘clash of civilisations’ is between moral relativists, for whom religion is merely something personal that ought to be kept out of politics, and moral absolutists, for whom politics is merely one more arena in which to attempt to implement their religion. By religion I mean the same thing as I mean by ideology- what someone believes about the universe and their place in it; Communism was/is a religion.

One thing that bugs me about many otherwise fine books of science fiction set in the near future- e.g., ‘Titan’ by Stephen Baxter, ‘Teranesia’ by Greg Egan, ‘Earth’ by David Brin- is their appallingly goofy treatment of religion. In the worlds of these novels, the secular protagonists are opposed only by a sort of structureless ‘irrationalist gumbo’, in which postmodern guff and New Age kookiness is mixed in with conventional religion. The authors do not have much understanding or sympathy for that side of human nature and cannot bring it into their worlds convincingly. Better just to ignore it completely, like Asimov. Palmer Joss, the tattooed evangelist of Carl Sagan’s ‘Contact’, is streets ahead...

Which brings me in a saltatory fashion to this fragment, begun some years ago- you can probably locate my old residence in Devil Bunny City, aka Al-Jamila, from it with some degree of precision. It is just a feeble effort to do ‘Greg Egan with Religion’ and I don’t supppose I shall ever finish it, so I cast it out upon the cyber-waters: do with it what you will. Here is the flag of Al-Jamila, by the way:

Never Again

What can we do to prevent another SIEV-X tragedy? The most obvious thing is not to accept anyone for residency, no matter how good their claim is, if they arrive by boat... and to increase the humanitarian migrant intake to such a level that the term 'queuejumper' is not as meaningless as 'unicorn rustler'.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Half a Truth is Better than None

Androo has posted a link to a fine collection of
logical fallacies, which everyone ought to look at.

Mike Carlton, apparently in the Devil Bunny City Morning Herald, quoted in the El Pais de Murdoch:

John Howard was right to say they hate us for what we are, and correct also to call this an attack on Indonesian democracy. But if we are to get anywhere in this war on terrorism it is useful to ask why they hate us so, The Iraq disaster would have something to do with it, you might think. Indonesia opposed the invasion on the grounds that it would inflame smouldering Islamic extremism, a subject about which it knows it great deal. Clearly, the Indonesians were right.

Dubya’s Iraqi folly, though, is but the latest eruption in centuries of foreign oppression in Islamic lands, dating back to 1099 when the crusaders sacked Jerusalem and slaughtered Muslims sheltering in the al-Aqsa mosque with such ferocity that, as one contemporary account had it, “men rode in blood up to their knees and bridle reins”. Toss in Napoleon Bonaparte’s plundering of Egypt and Syria, 100 years of French and British colonial suzerainty in the Middle East including the RAF’s bombing of Iraqi tribesmen in 1920, plus the Israeli descent upon Palestine, and you beign to fill in the picture.

None of which is to condone the barbarism of [the terrorists], but it does go a way to explaining this. When we understand this, we might be able to do something about it.

Now, I will have a go:

Mike Carlton was right to say that if we are to get anywhere in this war in terrorism it would be useful to ask why they hate us so. The moral vacuum at the heart of the post-Christian West would have something to do with it, you might think. The friends and neighbours of the first lot of Bali bombers back in East Java said that Western tourists had no business bringing their decadent lifestyle to a Muslim country. Clearly, they were right.

This latest bombing, however, is but the latest eruption in centuries of Muslim attacks on infidels and their lands, dating back to 1453 when the janissaries sacked Constantinople and slaughtered Christians sheltering in the Haga Sophia cathedral with such ferocity that that, as one contemporary account had it, they “slew everyone that they met in the streets, men, women, and children without discrimination. The blood ran in rivers down the steep streets from the heights of Petra toward the Golden Horn.” Toss in the depradations of the Barbary Pirates against European shipping, 500 years of Turkish colonial suzerainty in the Balkans and Anatolia including Enver Pasha’s genocide of Armenians and the sack of Smyrna in 1920, plus the expulsion of the Middle East’s millenia-old Jewish communities from their homes in the 1950’s, and you begin to fill in the picture.

None of which is to condone the barbarism of [Slobodan Milosevic], but it does go a way to explaining why Serbia wanted to kick the shit out of the Kosovars. When Muslim excuses for terrorism are given as short shrift as his excuses were, we might be able to do something about it.

Friday, October 07, 2005

You don't, do you, Baldric?

It has not been an easy week to be a dissenter from the prevailing orthodoxy that George W. Bush is a blithering idiot. One would presume that from the moment he first threw his hat into the ring that he would begin thinking about who he would nominate to the Supreme Court. In six or so years, one could reasonably expect that he could come up with a list of experienced jurists of demonstrated experience, right-leaning enough to make his constituency happy, yet of proven even-handedness and integrity great enough to make to his opponents look petty for cavilling at them. So given all this time to think, he nominates his own lawyer? Is this a cunning plan? One would suspect, no...

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Answer: Their lips are moving.

Quoth Dave: “I think my main complaint about Iraq has always been the weakness of the justifications...”

Remember the sort of people we are talking about:

Marco Parigi: “Standards of truth? Legal probity? We're talking about politicians here. Truth and lies are indistinguishable in politic talk.”

Fred Hoyle: “When the Home Secretary talked, it was his aim to make those to whom he was talking react according to some pre-arranged plan. It was irrelevant to him how he succeeded in this, so long as he succeeded. ... For the most part, like other administrators, he found that arguments containing some deep-rooted emotional appeal, but couched in seemingly logical terms, were usually successful. For strict logic he had no use whatsoever.”

We need pay not attention to what they say: they will pick whichever reasons they think will play best with the electorate and the unrepresentative swill at the United Nations. We should only worry about what they do. What will be the likely consequences of what they propose? Do we think it is worth it? The stated motive is irrelevant, and the real motive is irrelevant: only the consequences are important.

To recap:

Afghanistan: Harboured a nutter who had killed ~4000 people outside Afghanistan, in the United States, Kenya, and Tanzania.
Iraq: Was run by a nutter who had killed ~400,000 people outside Iraq, almost all of them in Iran, including a 9/11’s worth of civilians in a single day’s bombing raid on Teheran.

Afghanistan: Had noble goals to bring about an Islamic paradise on earth, attracting many young idealists such as David Hicks.
Iraq: Had no noble goals to speak of, attracting a few old unreconstructed Stalinists such as George Galloway.

Afghanistan: A diplomatic approach was attempted for about, maybe, 48 hours.
Iraq: A diplomatic approach was attempted for about twelve years.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Abandoning my usual habits...

...of not saying anything about what I do from day to day, I spent some time today reviewing grant applications for the Serbia & Montenegro Ministry of Science. Most of today i spent feeling neuron-deprived and weary, much like Dave, probably pre-flu. All of Androo's concerns about the US not having a plan are very valid, and I guess it is a judgment call as to whether the best response is to try and help them come up with a plan or just to wait and hope they will go away. Actually, both modes of action seem naively optimistic in my current mood. I guess I would be much less likely to support the current US administration if everyone hadn't been abusing them from before they took over. They are not that different from the last lot, unfortunately. They do not have any agenda that any real religious radical or republican imperialist would consider remotely satsifactory. They are time-serving, venial, rotten politicians, all in all, just like their counterparts here on both so-called 'sides' of politics.

In 1998 Clinton bombed Iraq in a pretty serious way, killing a lot of civilians. This really pissed me off at the time and made me briefly consider renouncing my US citizenship. It didn't seem to be achieving anything or to be a well-thought out course of action at all. We now know that it pretty much destroyed Saddam's weapons program, so it was probably justified. But I can't remember anyone protesting agaisnt it- certainly not anything like 2003. I can't help wondering if all those people would have protested in 2003 if the US president, putting forward exactly the same policy, was someone from their 'side' of politics.

In 1999 the US intervened again, putting together a coalition of the willing to bomb a country that had pretty much given away violent meddling in the affairs of its neighbours, that wasn't in breach of anywhere near as many UN resolutions as Iraq was, and that really wasn't all that oppressive and genocidal compared to places like, say, Iraq. I remember there were protests in Sydney, but it seemed from the media reports that just about everyone at them was from Serbia & Montenegro... I don't know if Bush would have gotten off so easily.

Perhaps the exception is Afghanistan: that was the current administration. Afghanistan wasn't in breach of any UN resolutions, it wasn't any threat to its neighbours, it may have offended Western sensibilities but it wasn't genocidal, and the atrocities the Northern Alliance inflicted on captured prisoners make Abu Ghraib look like a CWA picnic. Bush got away with that, so what pressed buttons with Iraq? It couldn't be that the US was run by someone on the so-called 'right' and Iraq was run by someone on the so-called 'left'? I dunno.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Find a pin and pick it up, and all day long you'll have a pin

What sort of lawyer waits three and a half years to think of claiming British citizenship for David Hicks? Oh, that's right, a military lawyer, trained to mindless obedience rather than lateral thinking. Sheesh.

I reckon the whole Guantanamo Bay escapade is a bad thing, because- in my opinion- it is a direct affront to the principles embodied in the Declaration of the Rights of Man which constitute the 'good bits' of Western secular culture.

I also reckon the Anglospherican intervention in Iraq is a good thing, because- in my opinion- it is in essence a logical application of those same principles.

What do you reckon, Androo?

Friday, September 23, 2005

Why the War Was Wrong, Part Four: Or,

I'm afraid this isn't a new post at all. I've just dragged all the relevant comments in the 'what are the common core axioms of the "anti-war" party?' thread up here...

Jenny said: So it … made me wonder what the basic tenets of those who disagree with the war are, and how universally would they apply them?

And then I said:
I hassled Androo for years to try to get him to explain what the basic tenets leading him to disagree with the war were, without success... that was also why I read the book! I suspect the common denominator is pessimism about human nature, particularly the nature of the United State government: if you have the habit of thinking that the United States is incompetent and/or wicked, you will tend to oppose anything they propose.

And then Marco said:
There is also the gut feel, and the partisan rules of thumb, which most people I know put more faith into than calculated logic. Basically, the gut feel of people opposed to the war was quite clearly that things would turn out better for the world with the general ideas that the europeans had in mind, i.e., continuing sanctions, empty threats etc. Also the belief that peaceful activism against war brings us closer to an ideal of "World peace" which is a widely held wish, however unlikely to result.

And then Andrew quoted me saying:
"I hassled Androo for years to try to get him to explain what the basic tenets leading him to disagree with the war were, without success..."

And said: You did not.

At which Marco said:
Ok, "We" hassled you, and we still haven't given up.

Then I said:
As I recall there was a metaphor about letting a friend walk into traffic for his own good, which I never understood, and then a retreat into sullen silence. Perhaps we have not 'hassled you for years' except in the laconic Australian way, see below, but we have on numerous occasions- both whenever you have appeared in our corners of the web, or when we wander over to yours to make nuisances of ourselves- prodded you to tell us what you think and why. This is because we want to know, not because we want to score political points.

Anecdote illustrating laconic Australian style of argument: Two drifters wander for years together along the dusty roads of outback Queensland (Editor's note: In a completely non-homo-erotic way.). One day they pass a dead animal on the side of the road. An hour after they pass by, one says to the other: 'Dead horse.' After another hour, the second one says: 'Weren't a horse, was an ox.' No more is said, but the next morning the second drifter awakes to find that the first has taken off before dawn, leaving a note: 'Gone. Sick of all the arguing.'

This bit of Marcosblog is all about us hassling Androo to tell us his assumptions.

How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

I can't find the article I was looking for- I remember reading it somewhere. I thought it was by Amir Taheri, but I can't find it now. The idea was that the tired old revolutionary government in Iran was supporting terrorism in order to distract the people from their problems by demonised externnal enemies, while the fresh-faced revolutionary guard Ahmadijenad has an ambitious domestic reform agenda and doesn't need to scare up bogeymen and engage in military adventures in places like Lebanon. But the article I found just now doesn't seem to say that at all, so it was probably somebody else.

Maybe Iran with nuclear weapons wouldn't go around with such a chip on its shoulder making rash rhetorical statements. Maybe it wouldn't bother giving Hizbullah teensy little rockets to lob into the Galilee if it knew that if it really, really felt like it it could go the whole hog and blow all of Israel up. Maybe a India-sized nuclear arsenal would settle it down a bit. Just a Pollyannaish thought...

And, another thing that might make Iran settle down and become a more responsible state would be the strain of fighting a proxy war against the Sunni insurgency in its Iraqi client state... I expect it would forget all about exporting Islamic Democracy to the world then! So it's all good, whatever happens...

Friday, September 16, 2005


I am bothered by this Scott Parkin deportation thing. What is this guy supposed to have done that merits an $11,000 fine without any legal proceedings? Why won't anyone tell us? Surely it is a breach of our bilateral free trade agreement to protect our local peace activist industry by deporting American ones.
You all know that I am naively trusting of our government, and I would be satisfied with a transparent excuse; even if Alexander Downer said 'Sorry, they're a law of their own in that department, we haven't got a clue what they're doing... I don't want to make any comments on the record, in case they deport me.' I'd be happy with that. But we haven't been told anything.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Why the War was Wrong, Part the Third

Raimond Gaita knows what absolute morality is, and appeals to the long tradition- quoting Socrates and St. Paul- that weighing the consequences of what we do yields only a partial moral understanding of it. He could use this to rigorously define, on the basis of this tradition, a coherent philosophy that it is better to suffer evil than inflict it, and condemn all war. However, he is wise enough to realise that one may inflict evil by inaction, as well as action. “Almost everyone now agrees that our failure to intervene militarily in Rwanda shamed us all.”

He says something that I think is very true: “Memory of the forsaken Tutsis has haunted argument about whether the the world should have intervened on behalf of Saddam’s victims” – I think this has been an important psychological factor certainly in US foreign policy, and I think the interventions in Yugoslavia and East Timor, for instance, would have been less likely to happen without the example of Rwanda. Gaita works hard to draw a clear distinction between the cases of Iraq and Rwanda:

“Sometimes an obligation falls upon any decent nation to attack another sovereign nation for the sake of those against whom the latter commits crimes against humanity. But no one can sanely believe that we are morally bound to attack every nation guilty of that crime, nor even every nation guilty of genocide as defined in the United Nations Convention of 1948. ... In the context of anything that looks like the present state of international relations, a (moral) obligation to go to war exists when our refusal to do so for the sake of the persecuted is rightly seen by them as abandonment- when, in other words, they can justifiably claim that our refusal has wronged them. Rwanda satisfies that criterion. Zimbabwe does not. Neither, I believe, did Iraq.”
“If we go to war not because we are obliged to but in order to bring about a humanitarian benefit- to save more lives, for example, than we estimate would be lost at our hands because we have intervened- then we must answer the question: “Who do we think we are- what do we think we are- to have taken this upon ourselves?” We must answer this question even if, as is hardly ever the case, we can have reasonable confidence in the consequences of our intervention. What kind of reply can we make to our victims, or to those who mourn them? That it is all for the best? That, all things considered, it is worth it?

Obligations can take the form of necessity. When we are lucidly obliged to go to war we can justifiably say that we will go because it is necessary, a necessity whose moral character is best (if clumsily) expressed with a double negative we could not not go. Then, I believe, the question,’ With what right have we taken this upon ourselves?’ falls away and with it the language of justification that is characteristic of replies to it. If we are necessitated, we do not have to look at the corpses on one side and the joyfully liberated on the other, or find that the words ‘it was worth it’ stick to our tongues.”

The problem with this attempt to draw a distinction is that it is too subjective to be useful. What is the touchstone for deciding whether the victims can ‘justifiably claim that our refusal has wronged them’? According to the absolute morality which Osama bin Laden lives by, Palestinian muslims can justifiably claim that the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia have wronged them by not driving the Jews into the sea: he gets quite irate about it. Lots of people agree with him. To my way of thinking, the aborted millions of the United States have a justifiable claim that the refusal of decent folk to rise up in arms against the culture of death has wronged them. What does Gaita suggest as an objective principle for differentiating a justifiable from an unjustifiable claim? I could find nothing.

I would argue that whenever it was possible for us to do something, and we didn’t, the victims of our inaction have a justifiable claim against us. Whenever it was possible for us to do something, and we did, the victims of our action likewise have a justifiable claim against us. Countless people will have justifiable claims against us at all times: there is no way we can ever be blameless. We have to balance these competing justifiable claims as best we can.

Gaita asks, ‘what do we think we are, to have taken this upon ourselves?’.

‘Eritis sicut deus, scientes bonum et malum.’

That is what we are. We are humans, with the knowledge of good and evil, and the question ‘by what right can we take this upon ourselves?’ will never magically fade away. There is no objective process of ‘necessitation’ that removes from us the evil we do. If we had invaded Rwanda, there would have been ‘collateral damage’; there would have been atrocities perpetrated in turn by the Tutsis on the Hutus that would not have happened if we had not invaded. We would have had to look at these things and accept the blame for them. Were we right to fight the Nazis? We were not obligated to, in the way the Poles were. We could not predict the consequences of our intervention in 1939 with any certainty whatsoever. Maybe things would have turned out better if we had let Hitler and Stalin keep Poland. We don’t know. I think we were right to fight the Nazis, but that certainly doesn’t mean that we ‘don’t have to look at the corpses on one side and the joyfully liberated on the other’. We have to look at Dresden and accept the blame for it. It is our duty as human beings.

Peter Coghlan (Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Australian Catholic University), takes up Gaita’s argument, and also has a go at drawing the distinction, in a way that I think is more fruitful:

‘Can we stand by and watch as the citizens of an entire nation are treated as raw material in an insane and fanatical drive to create a new form of society- indeed, in the perverted minds of the Khmer Rouge, a new form of human being? Can we stand by and watch evil on such a terrifying scale? ... In a case like this, the victims of such horrors cannot rightly say that we betrayed them by not intervening on their behalf. But they can justifiably say that we failed them- that we could have protected them when they had been driven by their persecutors to the very margins of human existence but did not. It is that just claim which may generate an obligation to go to war on their behalf. That obligation falls in the first instance on the community of nations in the UN. But if the UN fails in its duty, then the obligation falls on any group of nations, or any single nation, which has the capacity to gelp through armed intervention.
Yet there are surely limits to such claims and the obligations they generate. What of the people of the Ukraine in the period from 1932 to 1933 when Stalin deliberately engineered a famine to break their spirit- a famine which cost seven million lives? Assume that we had accurate information about the extent of the horror. Would the Ukrainians have had a just claim on us to wage war on their behalf?

I think the answern has to be no. The reason is clear. The west could not have intervened on behalf of the Ukrainians without precipitating a conflict with the Red Army; and the outcome of the conflict could not have been predicted. A defeat at the hands of the Red Army would have been a real possibility. Then we would have lost on both counts: our forces would have suffered terrible casualties and we would have failed the Ukrainians anyway.

So, here, the radical uncertainty that often attends on humanitarian military intervention does make a difference to our moral judgment. We might have had a reasonable hope of success in protecting the Cambodians had we chosen to invade that country during Pol Pot’s rule. But wehen we are faced with a major military power, our chances of success are obviously weakened. In the nuclear age, they may be weakened to the point where we cannot act without precipitating a conflagration involving the deaths of many millions. That is why, to return to two earlier cases, we would be justifed in refusing any cries for military intervention- cries made in the name of our common humanity- of the Chechens and Tibetans.’

I think there is a lot of truth in this argument. The interesting thing about it is that in clarifying what is meant by ‘necessitation’ it turns the idea of ‘necessitation’ on its head. We might be forced into war by an invasion by a massively superior force- in such a case, where we have no hope of success, it would be wrong to fight. But if we possess overwhelming force and can reduce the uncertainty attendant on humanitarian military intervention to near zero, then we ought to intervene...the more a war becomes a ‘war of choice’, by Coghlan’s argument, the more it is morally justifiable! Coghlan does not of course say this, and after conceding that Iraq’s military was obviously no threat to the US, he says there was no compelling obligation to go to war.

‘The stark truth is that there are many countries like Iraq, and many peoples who are living under oppression and persecution, terrorised and brutaslised by the apparatus of the police state- and subject every now and then to mass murder. Zimbabwe ... North Korea ... Burma ... Turkmenistan. The peoples of all these nations- and more- could aly claim in the name of our common humanity to our military intervention to come and liberate them. And, in every case except perhaps that of North Korea, we would have reasonable grounds for thinking that our intervention would be successful. ... And the international community simply does not have the resources to tackel all these cases. So deciding which cases demand an armed response is a matter of judgment. Typically that judgment is determined by other factors besides humanitarian concerns.’

Where there is a nasty regime that is down on its luck and has no power and no friends- and Iraq satisfies that criterion much more than the icky regimes of Zimbabwe (regional superpower South Africa = friend), or Burma (ASEAN = friend), or Turkmenistan (Russia = friend)- then it becomes a moral imperative to sink the boot in. Are you guys comfortable with this distinction? I’m not entirely sure that I am. But it is the only clear objective distinction between Rwanda 1994 and the Soviet Union 1932-1933. Coghlan recognises that Iraq was weak, but Coghlan has consciously or unconsciously shied away from the implications of his argument by his choice of dates: the more relevant example from Stalin’s era is really 1945-1946, when he continued to engage in practices just as hideous as 1932-1933, but was at the mercy of the world’s sole nuclear power.

An interesting corollary of Coghlan’s attempt to make a black/white distinction is the effect of public opinion- if your nation has the resources and political will to wage a humanitarian war, then claiming it is immoral and protesting against it may weaken the probability that the war will fulfill its humanitarian aims, and hence make it into an immoral war!

I concede the field to Socrates and St. Paul, and accept that the invasion of Iraq was wrong. Likewise, an invasion of Rwanda would have been wrong, the invasion of Cambodia was wrong, and the invasion of Germany was wrong. But then I think everything is wrong, in my lucid moments.

‘Why the War was More Wrong than the Other Possible Courses of Action in 2002-2003’ does not make a catchy title for a book, but that is really what the contributors to the volume are trying to say. Clearly the suffering and loss of human potential attendant on the invasion of Iraq was bad. Clearly we can imagine ‘less wrong’ courses of action practicable in 2002-2003. Thousands of miles away and years afterwards, we can all sit back and think of them.

However: the real question for citizens of countries like ours- not the country driving the policy, but the ones invited to contribute- is: ‘Of the choices available to our nation at this moment, which is the least wrong?’ There were only two reasonably coherent plans proposed at the time:

(1) Removing Saddam Hussein by force, or
(2) Maintaining the existing regime of sanctions and inspections.

We had to chose one of these, and in our small way, try to move it in a ‘less wrong’ direction. The Australian and British rules of engagement saved civilian lives. The war would have been more successful and less deadly to civilians with a larger Australian involvement. The war would have happened anyway, even if our Prime Minister had been a xenophobic bogan. What would we have achieved by opposing it?

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Why the War was Wrong, Part the Second

winstoninabox saith:
"What are these procedures?
As a UN member had the US agreed to follow them, or like the pirate's code, are they more like guidelines?"

According to Robert Manne, the UN Charter ‘prohibits the use of force except in two circumstances: when authorised by the UN Security Council under Chapter VII of the Charter; and in self-defence when an armed attack occurs or is imminent.’ As a founding member, the US would have to have endorsed the charter, so winstoninabox has hit the nail on the head: it is, by definition, wrong to break your promises and be a sneaky lying weasel. Thus the legal prohibition acquires moral force as well, and I must accept that the war was wrong in a slightly less narrow sense. The honourable thing to do would have been to quit the UN before invading, after the failure of all the feverish and probably counterproductive diplomatic activity trying to get UN Security Council authorisation.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Why the War was Wrong, Part the First

What does Robert Manne say? (I am only starting with him because his is the first essay in the book. It says in the introduction that he is Professor of Politics at *ahem* Latrobe, and –as you doubtless know- a columnist for the Age and the Devil Bunny City Morning Herald.)

“The danger of this conflation of the pre-emptive strike and preventive war was aggravated precisely by the fact that ... the US reserved for itself the right to strike unilaterally without mandate from the established procedures of the United Nations. ...the US not only reserved for itself the right to go to war on the basis of an imagined threat. It also arrogated to itself the exclusive right to decide when and where such a threat existed.
... If all states possessed this right, the Bush doctrine opened the way for a return to the law of the jungle, where the powerful have the capacity to impose their will on the weak. If, on the other hand, the right did not exist for other states, the Bush doctrine amounted to an almost formal claim to US world hegemony.”

This is as close as Robert Manne comes in his essay to explaining why the 2003 War was wrong. What is his assumption, that we must share in order to accept his argument? I believe it is this: The United Nations has moral authority over the nations that comprise it.

What is the United Nations? The United Nations itself is simply another manifestation of the law of the jungle Manne talks about. The United Nations is an institution imposed by the victors in the last World War in order to impose their collective will upon the vanquished. The law of the jungle has never gone away, so it cannot return: all states have, in practice, always behaved in the way Manne paints as a new and disturbing innovation of President Bush. Their leaders, for good or- generally- evil, decide for themselves where a threat to their state exists and what they should do about it. The powerful do indeed, and will as long as the words ‘powerful’ and ‘weak’ have any meaning, have the capacity to impose their will upon the weak. The United Nations has no standing army, and so it cannot stop them, whatever legal authority it may have.

What is the United Nations? It is the sum of the states that compose it, all of which are institutions imposed by force upon unwilling or compliant individual human beings. Some of these states are halfway decent, most of them are not, some of them are awful. Without exception these abstractions called states have magnified their importance to a fantastic and obscene degree over the importance of real, non-abstract entities called individual human beings. ‘Legality’ is what each state says it is, and ‘internationl law’ is what they have collectively decided it is. Some laws are in reasonable accord with reason and morality, some are less so, and some are awful. According to the rules of the United Nations, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia was illegal, and Pol Pot’s regime continued to occupy Cambodia’s seat in the United Nations for a decade. I accept that the Anglospherican invasion of Iraq was illegal, in exactly the same way that Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia was illegal. This is not relevant to the question of whether it was right or wrong.

Hilary Charlesworth (Profesosr of International Law at the Australian National University) demonstrates entirely convincingly- as you would expect a Professor at a real university to do- that the invasion was, according to the accepted principles of international law, illegal.

Eva Sallis (an Australian-born writer) communicated her emotional state in a most satisfactory way, as one expects a novelist to do, but presented no rational argument that I could find.

The next essay, by Raimond Gaita (Professor of Moral Philosophy, University of London and the Australian Catholic University) seems rather more coherent from the first few pages- although it reads disturbingly as though it might have been written by myself, Dr Clam. Knowing my own formidable powers, I therefore expect it will convince me, so I bid you farewell from what may well be my last ‘pro-war’ post!

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

From Fred Hoyle's 'The Black Cloud'

'The two men were mentally too dissimilar for more than a half hour of conversation between them to be possible. When the Home Secretary talked, it was his aim to make those to whom he was talking react according to some pre-arranged plan. It was irrelevant to him how he succeeded in this, so long as he succeeded. ... For the most part, like other administrators, he found that arguments containing some deep-rooted emotional appeal, but couched in seemingly logical terms, were usually successful. For strict logic he had no use whatsoever. To Kingsley on the other hand strict logic was everything, or nearly everything.'

I am slowly working my way through a book called 'Why the War was Wrong', trying to figure out the rational arguments are, and hope to respond soon...

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Pax Americana

I'm not quite sure what Marco means when he says Pax Americana, but I mean what the phrase was coined for, something exactly analogous to the Pax Romana under the Four Good Emperors, but exhibiting the distinctive characteristics of American rather than Roman civilisation. "One world under God, with Liberty and Justice for All". In such a world I, selfishly, would not have to worry about my children being drafted to fight the barbarians, which is why it holds great appeal to me.
This Pax Americana is obviously something that is potential, not actual. Sadly, it does not seem to be approaching with any rapidity. All of the evidence is that the only potential World unifier and pacifier is sliding back more and more into short-sighted pragmatism. It is pathetic to see the most powerful nation on earth making feeble appeasy noises towards totally unimportant and vile organisations like Hamas. It is more pathetic to see it turning a blind eye to the actions of the 'friendly' regime of Uzbekistan. A good first step towards the establishment of the Pax Americana would have been the conquest and long-term occupation under Douglas Macarthur-style American rule of the five Middle Eastern places where some permutation of nihilist Anti-American islamofascism was an entrenched way of life: Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. They should have started in the west and slowly rolled across to the east, like Alexander the Great. It is almost a pity that Al-Qaeda did not take out the White House as well: then there might have been sufficient political will to get and keep the required two million troops on the ground between the Mediterranean and the Indus. If this had happened, there would be a pretty good chance that the world would be a nice place ten years from now. But it hasn't.
In the last few months it has sunk in that things are moving much too slowly, and that I will just have to live with the fear that my children will be drafted to fight the barbarians. My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all had to go off and fight the barbarians. I have been fortunate enough not to have. Maybe we will luck out and get two generations in a row. We shall see.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Picture = 1000 Words

Having found where all the Jack Chick tracts are online, I couldn't stop at just one. I'm not sure if this is the exact panel, since this motif seems to recur in several of his tracts. But when I was a young fellow, I used to worry sometimes, 'What if what the evangelicals say is true'? Then I saw this panel, and I realised, 'It doesn't matter if it is true or not, it's wrong.' God isn't sending the rain down in the picture; God is standing in the water. And I'm with him, even if he doesn't exist, and our universe is at the mercy of some psycho looney God-wannabe.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Proportionate Response

I've decided to respond to the recent moves to introduce a national identity card by over-reacting wildly and inappropriately, to a degree exactly proportionate to the extent that this proposal is a wild and inappropriate overreaction to the problems it is supposed to solve.

Wisdom from Dave

Quoth Dave: Extremes of opinion (informed, researched or otherwise) to my mind are frequently associated with extremes of emotional attachment to those opinions. As someone given to unreasonable behavioural modes in situations of extreme emotion, my inclination is towards the reserved end of the spectrum wherever possible. If you don't get involved in an issue, you can't get angry about it.

This is a very sensible comment- the motivation for Moderation may well be something far nobler than the desire to appear Solomonically wise and even-handed without putting any intellectual effort in, namely, the socially responsible desire not to kick somebody's head in. The principle of Moderation is obviously an easy way to achieve emotional distance from stressful issues, especially ones you don't have a particularly desire to think about anyway. I suppose I am happy with Moderation as long as it is a politically-correct cloak over one's real extremist opinions, and does not conceal a mere absence of thought. My habitual method for maintaining emotional distance from arguments that might unsettle me is the somewhat more entertaining Taking the Piss method, e.g.: If I fell into the middle of an online argument between fanatical Zionists and hard-core Palestinian rejectionists, I would do my best to argue- drawing on my meager knowledge of the Book of Mormon- that God had actually promised their land to the Arapaho Indian Nation. I was tempted to do something just like this when I found the Nagorno-Karabakh flame wars on Wikipedia.

Furthermore, quoth Dave, speaking of the Buffster: The oddly upbeat finale does raise an interesting question: for the first time in 7 years (not counting her brief flirtation with lucidity in the episode where the Truth is Revealed) Buffy is happy - or at least satisfied - her issues are resolved and her angsty "only I can save the world" mission is no longer hers alone. Does this utterly out-of-context end to the foundations of her fantasy existence point to a full recovery from her coma? I'd like to think so.

So would I- there is a beautiful symmetry in how Buffy first creates Sunnydale as a 'safe' place to escape from her stressful experience in Los Angeles. It very rapidly became a place that was not safe at all (well before the end of the first episode), but she was unable pull herself away from it; in the end, it is only when it is destroyed that she can be sane again.