Tuesday, May 29, 2007

D is for 'don't know'...

I like Roald Dahl immensely, but I can’t say that he’s been any kind of influence on how I think or write. Reading his autobiographical books made me feel terribly inadequate when I was young, that’s about all. I am still in awe of the matchless self-confidence and chutzpah of the opening paragraph of ‘My Uncle Oswald.’ I know you need matchless self-confidence and chutzpah to put such an opening paragraph before your readers, because when I first read it, I said to myself: ‘Oh, for the love of God!’ and cast the book aside for another eighteen months before reading further.

Philip K. Dick? I don’t think he’s really been much of an influence either. I was surprised, rummaging through boxes on the weekend, just how many of his books I own, but I have always gotten kind of lost in his novels. Stanislaw Lem thought he was the best science fiction writer in English (unless I misremember), and I feel bad contradicting such a great authority, but I still get lost. I like his short stories better. From one of Dick's short stories- actually, from an aside to the reader in a collection of his short stories- I guess I got the habit of using Martin Luther’s phrase ‘Hier steh ich, Ich kann nicht anders.’

Dante? Someone who knows him only through the mediation of Dorothy L. Sayers, and derives most fun from the footnotes and appendices, surely ought not to be allowed to go there. Besides, ought he not to be filed under ‘A’ for Alighieri?

Arthur Conan Doyle? I guess he qualifies as ‘D’. Once more, I can’t think of any way he’s changed me significantly. My public persona isn’t entirely based on Professor Challenger…

I was reading some of his pirate short stories last night. They’re very much plot driven. The plots are ingenious, but on reflection are also generally silly. And the characters in them are ultimately more interesting. Just like the Sherlock Holmes stories. I have always been keen on them, but re-reading some of them recently I found they didn’t hold together as well as I remembered. I guess once you get in the habit of thinking quantitatively, the long chains of probabilities that Mr Holmes relies on become a little too improbable for suspension of disbelief.

So, I can’t settle on anyone for D.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

In which Dr Clam is extremely silly

They told us to stop making jokes about the Jews, and I wasn’t a Jew, so I stopped making jokes about the Jews.

They told us to stop making jokes about the disabled, and I wasn’t disabled, so I stopped making jokes about the disabled.

They told us to stop making jokes about homosexuals, and I wasn’t homosexual, so I stopped making jokes about homosexuals.

Then they told us to stop making jokes about people just like me, and... and... they had to pry ‘Every Sperm is Sacred’ out of my cold, dead hands.

I don’t know much about clouds at all

Warning: contains obscure NSW-centric references.

I used to believe I was immune from the common delusion that celebrities are our friends. However, I am now beginning to wonder if my lack of exposure to television makes me unusually prone to this delusion. For some time I have been listening to the ABC radio as I drive home, and all this week the presenter of the driving-home-time program that goes out to regional NSW has sounded a bit mournful and lost around about ten to six, because the regular weatherman Mike Bailey isn’t coming in anymore. As well as the weather in regional NSW, they used to chat about all sorts of things, so I knew that the weatherman hated mobile phones, and liked baking scones. And somehow- even though I knew he was based in Sydney, and also appeared on television- I had him mentally classified as a sensible country bloke.

Thus, at the beginning of the week I read at least two complete newspaper articles about ABC weatherman Mike Bailey being preselected by the Labor party to run for the federal seat of North Sydney before the penny dropped that they were the same person. I was only slightly less gobsmacked than I would have been if I had learned that Marco had been preselected by the Labor party.

Note to self: celebrities are not your friends. You don’t know what they’re really like.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

I don't have a very good idea what I like, but I do have these theories about art...

Quoth Chestertonian Rambler:

The way I look at it, stories are there to entertain us, to inspire us, to
stimulate our minds, and to do a large variety of similar tasks. It's why we
read them rather than sticking to nonfiction (which has more immediate practical
value.) When that unnamed person we will all throw metaphorical sticks at said
that Tolkien's poetry was "bad," therefore, I don't think he was being elitist.
I think he was saying something I've heard from a lot of people: "this book was
pretty good and I really enjoyed it, and then I came to some poems and they were
dull and tedious and didn't do anything to me that I wanted them to do."

Yes, best not to criticise anonymous essays in a vague and general way- the unnamed person is Burton Raffel and the essay is ‘The Lord of the Rings as Literature’, in ‘Tolkien and the Critics’. However, my googling skills are weak tonight and I can’t seem to find it for you anywhere...

I guess if I am a reader and I find a bit of a book dull and tedious, I will just skip it, and if there are too many bits like that, am likely to say ‘well, that’s not the book for me.’ For example, I am bored by action scenes and tend to just skip them to find out what happens to the plot or the characters once the dust has settled. I recognise that there are well-written action scenes and poorly-written action scenes, that many people like that sort of thing, and acknowledge that I am not a good person to judge them.

But, I guess if I am not just reading something from my own amusement but am attempting something that is meant to be literary criticism, ‘do I find this dull?’ is well down on the list of questions I should be considering. I figure the list starts sort of like this:

(1) What did the author set out to achieve?
(2) How well did they achieve it?
(3) Was it worth achieving?

And then goes on to things like:

(171) Are there any good parts for Winona Ryder to play in the film adaptation?
(172) What’s the longest continuous sequence where the letter ‘e’ does not appear?
(173) Did I personally find some bits of it dull?

Or something like that.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

C is for Chesterton

Since I first came across the essays of Gilbert Keith Chesterton I have thought of them as a good sanity test. If I read some of the essays and find that I pretty much agree with everything Chesterton is saying, I know I am pretty much sane. But if the same essays disagree with me, it is a pretty fair bet that anything I read will irritate me and I am less sane than not. This is true even if Chesterton is writing about the wrongheadedness of vegetarianism, or the folly of letting women vote: if I am sane, I will see that most of what he says makes perfect sense and he has just gone astray on one or two teensy points of emphasis which have led him to the wrong conclusion.

I came to Chesterton fairly late in life, long after I had read everything C. S. Lewis wrote, and was pleasantly surprised to find that everything I had liked in Lewis’s nonfiction was there in Chesterton’s nonfiction. But there was a lot more of Chesterton’s nonfiction, meaning it could keep me entertained for longer; and it was Catholic, meaning it was more congenial to me in a thousand small ways.

I find there are two surefire ways of cheering myself up, should I feel depressed about one thing or another. One is to listen to Monty Python’s Galaxy Song, of course. Should that fail, the thing that is sure to cure me is reading Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas. And THAT will settle the Manichees!

Like Asimov and Borges, Chesterton invetned a new genre, but I am not as fond of any of the ‘spiritual picaresque’ novels as I am of I, Robot or The Quixote of Pierre Menard. However: they do have poetry!

YOU will find me drinking rum,
Like a sailor in a slum,
You will find me drinking beer like a Bavarian.
You will find me drinking gin
In the lowest kind of inn,
Because I am a rigid Vegetarian.

So I cleared the inn of wine,
And I tried to climb the sign,
And I tried to hail the constable as “Marion.”
But he said I couldn’t speak,
And he bowled me to the Beak
Because I was a Happy Vegetarian.

Oh, I knew a Doctor Gluck,
And his nose it had a hook,
And his attitudes were anything but Aryan;
So I gave him all the pork
That I had, upon a fork;
Because I am myself a Vegetarian.

I am silent in the Club,
I am silent in the pub,
I am silent on a bally peak in Darien;
For I stuff away for life
Shoving peas in with a knife,
Because I am at heart a Vegetarian.

No more the milk of cows
Shall pollute my private house
Than the milk of the wild mares of the Barbarian;
I will stick to port and sherry,
For they are so very, very
So very, very, very Vegetarian.

Unaccountably, this song from the Flying Inn is often anthologised without the third verse. In other places, equally unaccountably, people quote this verse to demonstrate that Chesterton was anti-semitic, ignoring the fact that it is in a song sung by a character in a novel. Equally, if I am allowed- which of course I am, being the Master of my Blog and the Captain of my, er, Blog- to go off on a sudden tangent, I have just read an essay taking Tolkien to task for the quality of his poetry in the Lord of the Rings. Some of it is embarassingly bad, says the essayist: someone ought to tell him. (This essay was written in the 50s, when Tolkien was still alive) Of course some of it is embarassingly bad! A lot of it is meant to be stuff people made up on the spot to amuse themselves, or popular songs, or, in at least one instance, poetry made up by someone who is not as good a poet as he thinks he is. Given this, it is not embarassingly bad, but embarassingly good. Pippin and Merry’s little song of leavetaking is meant to be the sort of doggerel two adolescents might come up with; Bilbo’s song about Earendil is meant to be over-elaborate and over-alliterative and not really terribly good; Tom Bombadil’s verses are meant to be- well, God only knows. I have no idea what the point of Tom Bombadil was. When I get to heaven, that is one of things I intend to make inquiries about.

If you are going to say that all poetry in a novel has to be ‘good’ poetry, than you are being the nastiest sort of elitist. (Well, technically not ‘the’ nastiest sort, since there are those ‘exterminate the underclass’ sort of elitists). These are the same sort of people who have made us all too embarassed to sing in public, with their cursed idea that singing is the sort of thing you ought not to do unless you can do it well: that it is a sort of peculiar stunt to be graded and found fault with, like platform diving, rather than an essential part of our human heritage that everyone can and ought to do.

All of this is wandering very far off topic, except that I am sure Chesterton would agree with me...

Finally, we also have Chesterton to thank for one of the finest ‘Who am I?’’s never used on ‘Sale of the Century’:
Tony Barber: This dystopian novel, written by a middle-class Englishman in the first half of the 20th century, takes place in London in the year 1984…

Dr Clam:
*buzzer sounds*

Tony Barber:
Dr Clam?

Dr Clam:
The Napoleon of Notting Hill?

Tony Barber: Correct.

Monday, May 14, 2007

B is for Borges

And Belloc, or Benchley.

There are just too many people whose names start with B. But, since it was Jorge Luis Borges I thought of writing about first, before I decided to make this a series, I will stick with him.
I thought of him twice when I was writing about ‘The God Delusion’.

The first time was when I was writing about the tendency of matter and energy to become more randomly distributed in our universe as it goes along, which means it was more organised at the beginning than it has been since. I was going to say this was hardly less peculiar than Borges’ library universe consisting of an infinite lattice of hexagonal rooms filled with books.
I decided not to make this analogy, because it would be (1) kind of pretentious and (2) kind of obscure and (3) kind of over the top, since the infinite lattice of hexagonal rooms full of books really is, I suppose, quite a lot more peculiar than our universe.

The second time was when I was writing about the sort of morality that Dawkins believes in, and the logical outcome of his ‘misfire’ theory of morality. People like me, I think I said, would be driven to rebel against a morality that was nothing more than a ‘blessed, precious accident’. I was pretty sure that this was what the narrator of Borges’ Deutsches Requiem was doing, and was going to quote it.

But, I was surprised when I reread it that it doesn’t mention Darwin or ‘survival of the fittest’ at all. The social darwinism reading of the story is something I brought with me from my more scientific background. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t a valid reading, of course.

I like Borges' baroque stuff best, the overwritten things he later repented of. I like all the unclassifiable stories of his: the essays about nonexistent historical events, or imaginary heresies, or things like 'Funes the Memorious' that are science fiction without any science in them.

It was dead easy for me to pick a favourite Asimov novel. But I cannot possibly pick a favourite Borges story, because they are all so different. It is the sum of all those very different parts that is splendid. I would need a whole bunch of them.

I find that I do have a favourite Borges poem, and this is it:

Juan, I, 14

No será menos un enigma esta hoja
que las de Mis libros sagrados
ni aquellas otras que repiten
las bocas ignorantes,
creyéndolas de un hombre, no espejos
oscuros del Espíritu.
Yo que soy el Es, el Fue y el Será
vuelvo a condescender al lenguaje,
que es tiempo sucesivo y emblema.

Quien juega con un niño juega con
algo cercano y misterioso;
yo quise jugar con Mis hijos.
Estuve entre ellos con asombro y ternura.
Por obra de una magia
nací curiosamente de un vientre.
Viví hechizado, encarcelado en un cuerpo
y en la humildad de un alma.
Conocí la memoria,
esa moneda que no es nunca las misma.
Conocí la esperanza y el temor,
esos dos rostros del incierto futuro.
Conocí la vigilia, el sueño, los sueños,
la ignorancia, la carne,
los torpes laberintos de la razón,
la amistad de los hombres,
la misteriosa devoción de los perros.
Fui amado, comprendido, alabado y
pendí de una cruz.
Bebí la copa hasta las heces.
Vi por Mis ojos lo que
nunca habia visto:
la noche y sus estrellas.
Conocí lo pulido, lo
arenoso, lo desparejo, lo áspero,
el sabor de la miel y de las manzana,
el agua en la garganta de la sed,
el peso de un metal en la palma,
la voz humana, el rumor de unos pasos sobre la hierba,
el olor de la lluvia en Galilea,
el alto grito de los pájaros.
Conocí tambien la amargura.
He encomendado esta escritura a un hombre cualquiera;
no será nunca lo que quiero decir,
no dejará de ser su reflejo.
Desde Mi eternidad caen estos signos.
Que otro, no el que es ahora su amanuense,
escriba el poema.
Mañana seré un tigre entre los tigres
y predicaré Mi ley a su selva,
o un gran árbol en Asia.
A veces pienso con nostalgia
en el olor de esa carpintería.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A is for Asimov

This is a true story.

When I was much younger, I decide to look into the only Asimov book I possessed, ‘Foundation and Empire’, for ideas on how to improve my own writing. What I came up with was that I needed to be more descriptive. I must have hit on the only descriptive passage in the Foundation Trilogy.

Asimov is the only author that I can remember first tackling when he seemed forbiddingly cold and grown-up, liking immensely when I was rather older, and then going off of when I was older again because he seemed a teensy bit silly and shallow. This is not the case with ‘The Martian Chronicles’- which I read before I attempted ‘Foundation and Empire’. I got blueberry stains on the book, to my eternal shame, but I found it quite easy to get into then, and think it holds up well now when I am old and creaky. Ditto for Mark Twain’s ‘Roughing It’. Except for the blueberry stains.

Perhaps this is an illustration of C. S. Lewis’s quote about the silliest grown-ups being the most grown up and the silliest children being the most childish. Or perhaps I just ought never to have read Asimov’s autobiography, which did a lot to convince me that he was, in fact, a silly man. There is a saying of Kipling’s that I like which goes something like: ‘He who has not been faithful to the end has never been faithful at all’, and I think that sums up a kind of flippant irresponsibility that runs through Asimov’s character and a lot of his characters.

But it is not seemly for me to go on saying bad things about Asimov, when he created so many splendid things for me to enjoy. I like the new genre of robot logic mysteries he invented. I like the fact that his characters are generally rational. I like the way there are no tedious descriptions of combat in his writing. I like the idea of violence being the last refuge of the incompetent. I like the bland midwestern vastness of his Galactic Empire. I like Trantor. I like the quotations from Rabbi ben-Ezra in ‘Pebble in the Sky’. I like young Arkady, and wanted to give a daughter the same name once.

There is a nasty quote in ‘Ghastly Beyond Belief’ by a fellow science-fiction writer to the effect that Asimov has some fine ideas, but his writing is so bad he wouldn’t employ him to write junk mail. I disagree. I think Asimov’s writing is clear and colourless and doesn’t get in the way of the ideas, which is what we expect and deserve in science fiction.

I suppose that the books of Asimov’s that I like best of all are ‘The Caves of Steel’ and ‘The Naked Sun’. I am fond of R. Daneel Olivaw: being a robot, he has no choice but to be faithful and honest and true, unlike most of Asimov's human characters. Then there are those two marvellously pathological cultures, sketched lightly enough that your mind is are forced to fill in all the interesting details yourself. Very nice.

Can't think of anything more cerebral in the way of literary criticsm, so will just stop.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Well, that just about wraps it up for Dawkins

Given the historical preoccupations of this blog, I can’t very well leave Richard’s book without discussing what he has to say about abortion. This means that much of what I have to say will doubtless be tediously familiar to my readers. So you might want to come back next time, when I will have moved on from ‘The God Delusion’ to something else.
This also means that I have to start with an inordinately long quote. The quote begins after a brief discussion of the case of Paul Hill, who murdered Pensacola abortionist Dr John Britton and his bodyguard in 1994 and was subsequently murdered himself by the State of Florida.

Quoth Richard:

There are people who, because of their religious convictions, think abortion is murder and are prepared to kill in defense of embryos, which they chose to call ‘babies’. On the other side are equally sincere supporters of abortion, who either have different religious convictions, or no religion, coupled with well-thought-out consequentionalist morals. They too see themselves as idealists, providing a medical service for patients in need., who would otherwise go to dangerously incompetent back-street quacks. Both sides see the other side as murderers or advocates of murder. Both sides, by their own lights, are equally sincere.
A spokeswoman for another abortion clinic described Paul Hill as a dangerous psychopath. But people like him don’t think of themselves as dangerous psychopaths; they think of themselves as good, moral people, guided by God. Indeed, I don’t think Paul Hill was a psychopath. Just very religious. Dangerous, yes, but not a psychopath. Dangerously religious. By the lights of his religious faith, Hill was entirely right and moral to shoot Dr Britton. What was wrong with Hill was his religious faith itself. Michael Bray, too, when I met him, didn’t strike me as a psychopath. I actually quite liked him. I thought he was an honest and sincere man, quietly spoken and thoughtful, but his mind had unfortunately been captured by poisonous religious nonsense.
Strong opponents of abortion are almost all deeply religious. The sincere supporters of abortion, whether personally religious or not, are likely to follow a non-religious, consequentionalist moral philosophy, perhaps invoking Jeremy Bentham’s question, ‘Can they suffer?’ Paul Hill and Michael Bray saw no moral difference between killing an embryo and killing a doctor except that the embryo was, to them, a blamelessly innocent ‘baby’. The consequentionalist sees all the difference in the world. An early embryo has the sentience, as well as the semblance, of a tadpole. A doctor is a grown-up conscious being with hopes, loves, aspirations, fears, a massive store of humane knowledge, the capacity for deep emotion, very probably a devastated widow and orphaned children, perhaps elderly parents who dote on him.
Paul Hill cause real, deep, lasting suffering, to beings with nervous systems capable of suffering. His doctor victim did no such thing. Early embryos that have no nervous system most certainly do not suffer, And if late-aborted embryos with nervous systems suffer- though all suffering is deplorable- it is not because they are human that they suffer. There is no general reason to suppose that human embryos at any stage suffer more than cow or sheep embryos at the same developmental stage. And there is every reason to suppose that all embryos, whether human or not, suffer far less than adult cows or sheep in a slaughterhouse, especially a religious slaughterhouse where, for religious reasons, they must be fully conscious when their throats are ceremonially cut.

In the second part of this long quote, Richard tries to explain why in his ‘well-thought-out consequentionalist morals’, killing embryos (and foetuses) is okay, but killing Dr John Britton was not okay. In his case, how do these ‘well-thought-out consequentionalist morals’ distinguish between the two cases?

(1) Suffering of the Victim.
An embryo without a developed nervous system does not suffer, while a more grown human does. Richard does not take this argument very seriously, or else he would take much more care to distinguish between an early-aborted embryo and a late-aborted foetus with a developed nervous system. Instead of citing some experimental data on foetal suffering in animals and drawing a line at say, three months of gestation, where he can say, with Jeremy Bentham “No pasaron!”1, he throws in an irrelevant statement that foetal suffering is, at any rate, less than that of sheep in halal or kosher slaughterhouses. This is a complete non sequitur as far as logic goes. Emotionally, it is a different story, and I have long felt that the anti-choice movement will never be taken seriously unless we also take a stand against the ghoulish ‘choice’ of so many to gorge themselves on the corpses of slain animals. But it has no logical connection with the ‘they can’t suffer, so it’s okay to kill them’ argument. It is just there to provoke people’s self-interest: ‘Gee, Professor Dawkins is implying that if I oppose abortion, I ought to give up eating meat. But I don’t want to do that…”
Conversely, let us now consider the suffering of Dr John Britton. Is it really the fact that he can suffer that is important? Say if, instead of laying in wait for him with a shotgun, Paul Hill had waited until he was deeply asleep and then painlessly administered a lethal injection? Would the State of Florida have said, ‘Oh, that’s allright then, you can go on your merry way’? As far as I know, Paul Hill was a pretty good shot and John Britton’s death was actually pretty instantaneous and painless. If I went to Pensacola and tried to shoot an abortionist, on the other hand, I’m sure I would only wing them and they would come good in the end, after a whole lot of immediate pain and months or years of agonising physio. Yet, Jeb Bush would not connive at my judicial murder for the attempted killing of a doctor. Why not? They will have suffered a damn sight more.
I submit that ‘Can they suffer?’ is the wrong question. It is irrelevant to proper consequentionalist morals, since you can murder someone without them suffering and we still- quite properly- think this is bad.

(2) Suffering of the Victim’s Friends.
Richard points out that John Britton had ‘…a devastated widow and orphaned children, perhaps elderly parents who dote on him.’ All of these people will obviously feel real suffering at his loss. But if this is the consequentionalist reason not to kill him, then what about people who have no friends? Is it more permissible to knock them off? I have seen this argument seriously advanced with respect to animals (e.g., C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain) but so far as I know, only facetiously with respect to humans (e. g., S. Abernethy, A Call for the Vivisection of Orphans). Does the argument that it was wrong to kill John Britton because people were sad about his death imply that if I were to distribute lurid details of his crimes beforehand to millions of members of my militant anti-abortion group2, so that his continued existence caused them suffering and they were really happy about his death, then it would be okay? I think, probably, no.

(3) Loss of Potential.
Richard points out that John Britton had ‘…hopes, loves, aspirations, etc.’ What does this mean? It means that if he had not been killed, chances are he would be enjoying his retirement now. He might be writing really splendid novels, like Sheri S. Tepper. He might be out playing golf in the wonderful Pensacola sunshine. He could be travelling around the country in a campervan, or sitting in front of the TV doing Sudoku. These are all things he could have been doing that have been brutally and unfairly taken away from him . Chances are, he would have been doing something that pleased him and enriched the universe in some way. He is not; his life has been cut short with his potential unfulfilled, and that was why it was wrong to kill him.
That is also why it was wrong for him to kill those embryos and foetuses.

The only way that a consequentionalist defense of abortion can be maintained is to suddenly introduce an absolutist distinction: to make into an unbridgeable chasm the difference between an expressed hope and desire and a potential hope and desire. For, if those embryos John Britton killed had not been killed, they too might now be playing golf or sitting in front of the TV3. There is very nearly as good a probability that they would have gone on to do these things as there was that John Britton would go on to do them. The only difference is the difference between the seen and the unseen: we saw a great deal of John Britton’s potential unfold; we did not see the potential of those embryos and foetuses unfold, because their lives were brutally and unfairly taken away from them. The consequence of the killing of those human individuals is that they were denied the whole of the life that we other human individuals take for granted, and if ‘consequentionalist morals’ do not consider that as a valid consequence, I think they need another name.

Note that this discussion has not mentioned God. It has not mentioned religion. It has not even assumed the existence of an absolute morality. It is based purely on what we all, intuitively, understand to be so bad about premature death. To my mind, it is a well-thought-out consequentionalist morality eminently suitable for theist and atheist alike.

And I am now done with Richard’s book.

1: Assuming for the moment that Jeremy Bentham was Spanish, which he wasn’t.

2: I am not really the mastermind of a militant anti-abortion group with millions of members. This is a hypothetical.

3: Or robbing convenience stores, to pre-empt Marco pointing this out.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

In which Dr Clam shoots fish in a barrel

Richard's chapter six is about the roots of morality. It is not very satisfying. He seems to be aware of the problem, but he never addresses it. Here is his statement of the problem, placed in the mouth of an imaginary ‘religious apologist’ on page 231:

“If you don’t believe in God, you don’t believe there are any absolute standards
of morality. With the best will in the world you may intend to be a good person,
but how do you decide what is good and what is bad? … If morality is simply a
matter of choice, Hitler could claim to be moral by his own eugenically inspired
standards and all the atheist can do is make a personal choice to live by
different lights. The Christian, the Jew, or the Muslim, by contrast, can claim
that evil has an absolute meaning, true for all times and in all places,
according to which Hitler was … evil.”

The second ellipsis in the quote indicates the removal of a word no sane religious apologist would use, ‘absolutely’. This is the key question. Is there such a thing as good and evil, really? Are there somehow laws of ethics, as objectively true as the laws of mathematics? This is what is called ‘absolute morality’. Absolute morality means that under any particular set of circumstances, every possible course of action can theoretically be assigned a value: some actions will be objectively better than others, while others will be worse, and none need be absolutely good or absolutely evil.

The other possibility is that there is just a social contract defining certain things as ‘good’ and certain things as ‘evil’. This is what is called ‘relative morality’. And here lies the problem. If ethics are just something arbitrarily defined by society, what can possibly justify us in imposing our society’s ethics on societies or individuals who don’t share it? The claim the imaginary religious apologist suggests Hitler might make is perfectly valid. The challenge facing an atheistic worldview is to escape from the logical unenforceability of relative morality and find some justification for an absolute morality in a godless universe.

This challenge is ducked by Richard, who after stating the problem immediately moves on to an irrelevant argument between ‘absolutist’ and ‘consequentialist’ morality. ‘Absolutist’ morality he defines on page 231:

“Good is good and bad is bad, and we don’t mess around deciding particular cases
by whether, for example, somebody suffers.”

This is like putting up the strawman arugment: “East is east and west is west, and we don’t mess around trying to decide whether Baulkham Hills is west of Toongabbie by, for instance, consulting a map.” It clearly has no bearing whatsoever if we are arguing whether there really are such directions as east or west.

An instant’s thought will suffice to see that Richard’s ‘absolutist’ mindset can be applied equally well to absolute or relative morality. In fact, I would venture that it is much more common in situations where the social contract applies. “You were jaywalking to rescue an injured bird? Yeah, whatever, here’s your fine.”

Richard spends all his time talking about this dichotomy between ‘consequentialist’ morality- which considers the consequences of actions and which I would argue is characteristic of all real religious systems of morality as applied by real religious people- and absolutist morality- which consists of following arbitrary rules. Clearly he has not thought very much about ethics, or else he is intentionally muddying the waters.

I can’t think of a good segue to the second point I wanted to make about chapter six, so I will just throw in a long quote (p.221):

‘The ‘mistake’ or ‘by-product’ idea, which I am espousing, works like this. Natural selection, in ancestral times when we lived in small and stable bands like baboons, programmed into our brains altruistic urges, alongside sexual urges, hunger urges, xenophobic urges and so on. An intelligent couple can read their Darwin and know that the ultimate reason for their sexual urges I procreation. They know that the woman cannot conceive because she is on the pill. Yet they find that their sexual desire is in no way diminished by the knowledge. Sexual desire is sexual desire and its force, in an individual’s psychology, is independent of the ultimate Darwinian pressure that drove it. It is a strong urge which exists independently of its ultimate rationale.

I am suggesting that the same is true of the urge to kindness- to altruism, to generosity, to empathy, to pity. In ancestral times, we had the opportunity to be altruistic only towards close kin and potential reciprocators. Nowadays that restriction is no longer there, but the rule of thumb persists. Why would it not? It is just like sexual desire. We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated and unable to reciprocate) than we can help ourselves feeling lust for a member of the opposite sex (who may be infertile or otherwise unable to reproduce). Both are misfirings, Darwinian mistakes: blessed, precious mistakes.’

Why blessed? Why precious? Why should the occasionally valuable urge to altruism be any more blessed than the occasionally valuable urge to xenophobia? Emotively throwing in the words ‘blessed’ and ‘precious’ does not make a very solid basis for a system of morality.
I am afraid Richard’s analogy does nothing for the persuasiveness of his argument. If we are sane, we will channel our sexual desires and will not go around lusting after random members of the opposite sex. Why should we do anything different with our altruistic urges? Perhaps I am a freak, but I have always resented being pushed around by these programmed urges such as sex, hunger, and fear. I feel they are things that exist largely outside of the essential thing that is me, things that cloud my judgment and impair my will. If I thought altruism was one such urge, I would feel it was something that I should struggle against. I submit that basing your justification for morality on such a flimsy analogy is doomed to failure.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Selfish Meme

We are all indebted to Richard for coming up with the idea of the meme. In the remainder of chapter five of ‘The God Delusion’, having disposed of the adaptive significance of religion to his own satisfaction, Richard considers religions as clusters of self-replicating memes. One obvious consequence of the ‘meme’ model is the concept that in any successful cluster of ideas, or memeplex, there will be ideas that have no logical connection with the others but are only there to ensure the survival of the memeplex. The most important of these ‘selfish memes’ is surely the meme: ‘Only this memeplex is true’ (e.g., this meme is clearly part of Richard’s aggressive scientism). Closely allied to this meme is ‘You will be punished for not adopting this memeplex’ (e.g., in Richard’s worldview, those who cling to the God delusion are punished with various psychological problems and their societies remain barbaric and dysfunctional).
By recognising these omnipresent ideas as examples of the selfish meme, we can discount them. They are just things that any successful memeplex will tend to accumulate as it goes along.

Here is an exercise you should try:

(1) Get one of those little New Testament and Psalms that the Gideons hand out on university campuses around the country.

(2) Read through the Gospels in the order scholars are agreed they were written. That is, Mark first, then Matthew/Luke, then John.

(3) As you read through, take note of any statements along the lines of ‘No one shall come to the Father but through the Son’, or similar assertions either that Jesus is the only way or that those who reject him will be punished. Colour these passages in with a coloured pencil you have procured for the purpose.

You will find that there really aren’t any statements like that in Mark, that they are present but not frequent in Matthew and Luke, and that John ends up mostly coloured in. What do you reckon? Is it plausible that some evangelists just happened to write down all these robust assertions of Christian supremacy and uniqueness, while others didn’t? Or, is it more likely that these are selfish memes that have crept in along the way, and that Mark corresponds most closely to what Jesus really said and did?

This is the main reason I am most fond of the Gospel of Mark and least fond of the Gospel of John.