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:

8 comments:

Dave said...

Moral relativist as I may be (I don't *think* that's what I am, but I guess I could be persuaded otherwise) I liked this fragment very much.

Sure, I didn't get most of the religious references, but it's still as eloquent as your prose has ever been. It's lovely.

You should, you know, do something with it. Not that I am in any position to say that.

Dr. Clam said...

Aw, shucks, Dave... :)

Thanks! I'll see if I can finish the thing.

By the way, seeing as you seem to be in a kind and gentle literary crtical mood, did you ever get around to looking at my 2003 Nanowrimo novel?

Dave said...

Do you know, I have no recollection one way or the other. Though I feel certain that I've read at least some of it.

Is it on Otherleg somewhere?

Dr. Clam said...

Click on the 'Less Strange than Truth' button in the sidebar, and it should take you there!

Marco said...

I kind of like that as an Australian flag. Is there a meaning behind the crescent moon?

Marco said...

Hmmm a test for moral relativism... Do you think that there is value in arguing general moral principles? or do you think that it is only of value with the starting point of a particular ideology or religion? And would changing the starting point change the standing of the moral principle in your mind. I suspect that moral relativists are fairly rare, and that Dave is not one at all.

Dr. Clam said...

The green and the crescent are both symbolic of the importance of Islam to Al-Jamila, of course!

I have made an attempt in my 'Preamble' (April 2005), to define a general starting point that is not dependent on a single ideology/religion. I think when arguing about morality it is best to start by abstracting the principles that are held in common by all or almost all moral thinkers- e.g., Buddha, Socrates, John Wesley - and see what sort of self-consistent logical structure can be built from them.

I fear that moral relativists may be fairly common, but if Dave doesn't think he is one, I don't think he is either. We need to develop an 'are you a moral relativist?' quiz and post it on the web somewhere to collect self-selected data on this...

Marco said...

I think too many peoples philosophies are not logically self-consistent. I think Dave's lack of logical rigour masks the possibilty that his basic day-to-day philosophy is not self-consistent..... Gee that sounded overly harsh :-,