Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Q is for al-Qur'an

'I'm afraid there's no niche in the world for people that won't be either Pagan or Christian.' - Ransom, aka The Director, in That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis

The first time I read that line, the words that rose unbidden in my mind were these: 'There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet.' True, Belloc et al. have attempted to appropriate Islam as the greatest of the Christian heresies, but I think if we are going to play that game there is a much better case for considering Christianity as the greatest of the Jewish heresies. Muhammad never lived as a Christian or operated inside a Christian society the same way that Jesus lived as a Jew and operated within a Jewish society.

Over in Marco's blog we have been talking about not reading books, and the Qur'an is an example of a book in my life that I have never read. I never got past alif baa taa, you see, and the Qur'an is by definition in Arabic. I have read Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall's English paraphrase, The Meaning of the Glorious Qur'an and the 19th century Koran by Sale.* I had the first with me when I visited the future Nato many years ago, as our meteoric paths through idea space briefly passed- at a great distance, but probably closer than we had been before or since. The other thing I was reading was a very nice graphic novel life of Christ by a Peruvian Catholic of the Liberation Theology sort, while I think Nato was reading something evangelical that talked about how the wealth and power of the United States were signs of God's favour. I think. I may be misremembering/misrepresenting it dreadfully. I also took TMOTGQ with me one summer when I was labouring for a couple of geophysicists at a tiny camp at the back of beyond. Neither of them wanted to be geophysicists. One was an example of what I now recognise as the Sydney Anglo-Celtic yuppie archetype, who wanted to get into IT, and spent his evenings poring over computer techie stuff. I expect he eventually made a gazillion dollars. The other was a vegetarian interested in Eastern Philosophy who spent six months of each year backpacking around India, and he spent his evenings reading books of Eastern Philosophy. He was curious about my TMOTGQ and borrowed it for an evening. He found it quite traumatic. It was the most intolerant religious book he had ever read, he said. I think. I remember he was traumatised, at any rate. I also remember late one night, when there was an assignment I had to hand in the next morning that I hadn't started yet, and I was reading TMOTGQ. I asked myself the question: 'What would be a better use of my time if I were to die tommorrow? Staying up all night doing my assignment or staying up all night reading TMOTGQ?' That is the sort of foolish question first year university students ask themselves.

If you ever find yourself surrounded by Christians of that sort which considers the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God, and their constant company and constant repetition of their arguments are slowly wearing you away, drip drip drip, so that you begin to consider that maybe there is something to what they are saying, you must do what I did. You must stay up all night reading Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall's The Meaning of the Glorious Qur'an. Two things may happen, if you read with attention.

You may realise that the book you thought was an infallible book cannot possibly be an infallible book, but that the book you hold might be the shadow cast from eternity of an infallible book. Maybe it is what you are seeking. It is written like an infallible book, written by someone who teaches with authority, not like the scribes or the Pharisees. Here is the core of the message of the Old Testament, repeated without the barbarities and the improbabilities and the legalistic dross. Here is the same message, the call to the same God, but written with clarity, with confidence, with universality. That is one thing that might happen.

The other thing is that you may decide that infallible books are not for you.

Long have I been attracted by this confident voice out of the desert. It began, I think, with reading history. Islam seemed to me to have been since its inception the only proven competitor with Christianity in idea space. In my first histories of the future, the union of Christianity with Islam was a common theme. I fasted for Ramadan in 1990.

Do not worry: I am too Catholic in my marrow to revert. Should the great ideological conflict of the 21st century turn out to be the same as the great ideological conflict of the 12th, as the president of a Catholic student association suggested to me at Devil Bunny City University in August 2001, I know which side I will be on. But...

Until then, I am a teensy bit conflicted.

I'm with the robust defenders of Christendom. But if the struggle is between the robust defenders of Dar-al-Islam and the decadent and gormless post-Christian West, I'm not going to put myself out to help the infidels.

I have said most of all this before, probably better, in scattered places here and in comments on Nato's blog. This post in the 'Reformation' thread, f'rinstance.

*: If you don't have time to read these yourself, you could always read the Cardinal's book report.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Wiry and white-fiery and whirlwind-swivell├Ęd snow
Spins to the widow-making unchilding unfathering deeps.

Friday, November 23, 2007

The March of Folly: Dr Clam and Democracy

I missed the 1988 US Presidential election by a few days, either by being too young or too disorganised. I forget which. So the first time I participated in the democratic process was the 1990 US mid-term elections. I voted for the Democrat on the grounds that he was the only one who had enough initiative to send election propaganda to us on the other side of the world. Also, he seemed like a good bloke.

By the time 1992 rolled around I was capable of rational thought, so I carefully weighed up all the pros and cons and determined which presidential candidate I should vote for. Then I realised that the critical factor in my decision had been whether the candidate was good for Australia. It seemed to me that voting on this basis was not really fair on my fellow Americans, and decided not to vote in American elections anymore.

In 1997 I voted for a Labor candidate. This was for the incumbent mayor of our city. The notable thing about this election was that at the time he was having a bitter argument with the local paper on the grounds that they were out to get him, but it was solely due to the local paper that I voted for him. I was temperamentally and ideologically inclined towards the ‘other side’; but whenever the paper quoted the challenger (s)he came across as a complete dill whose only coherent policies were stupid and unattractive.

In 1998 I played a minor role in the brief ascendancy of ‘One Nation’ in Queensland by exhausting my preferences (which you can do in Queensland state elections) rather than directing preferences to Peter Beattie- little dreaming he would one day become a Sennacherib-like destroyer of the weak, but disliking him already. The guy I had voted for came third, and our electorate ended up being represented by a man whose previous claim to fame was as a shopping-centre Santa Claus.

I made a bumper sticker: ‘Don’t blame me, I voted for the Easter Bunny.’

At the time, this was not technically true.

Later that year, I gave us the GST by voting for the Liberal candidate in our marginally marginal seat and for the Democrats in the Senate. ‘My’ senator was Andrew Bartlett, and I still feel a twinge of pride whenever he writes something sensible in the papers or gets drunk in Parliament.

In 2000 I didn’t vote for anyone in the US Presidential elections, but I still feel responsible because I had made up my mind in advance to see how long I could go before finding out who won. Thus the morning after, after not turning on the TV, I very carefully made it all the way from home to work on the train without once looking at anyone’s newspaper. I had been in my office for about five minutes when someone burst in to tell me that nobody had found out who won...

In 2001 I did vote for the Easter Bunny. I was cross at all the parties in the House of Representatives for voting themselves such a big pay rise for no reason, and was in an incredibly safe seat anyway. So I pencilled in The Easter Bunny and Osama bin Laden on my ballot paper and preferenced them relative to the major parties.

The silly thing I did that election was in the vote for the Senate, where my directed preferences ended up going to the Greens and electing Kerry Nettle. I have written her several letters as ‘My’ senator, but she has never acknowledged receipt of any of them, and she has always voted the exact opposite to how I asked her to.

Oh, I almost forgot the constitutional referendum. I voted informal straight down the line- keen though I was to support Aden Ridgeway’s preamble- for the same reason I stopped voting in American elections. I realised I had a visceral, un-Australian respect for the constitution which was entirely due to my American background. Because of my cultural background, I considered constitutions to be quasi-sacred documents. Writing the Queen out of the constitution would be too much like writing Britney Spears into Second Corinthians. I did not think it would be fair on my fellow Australians to cast my vote on such a basis.

In 2004 we moved to a locality with sitting Independents on the state and federal level, who I have voted for whenever possible. They answer my letters, and on at least one notable occasion our Federal member has explicitly said in Parliament he was voting the way his constituents told him to, and then voted the way I told him!

Also in 2004, after reading Dante’s De Monarchia I decided that the President of the United States was not just the representative of the American people, but was the rightful successor to the Holy Roman Emperor as holder of the temporal power in Christendom. So it was okay to vote in American presidential elections again.

I went to check out this site after reading Emma Tom’s spiel on it in El Pais de Murdoch and answered all the questions in a perfectly Clamly way.

It told me to vote for Labor. And, despite the fact that one of my top three nominated issues was ‘climate change’ and my expressed opinion thereon was ‘don’t sign anything, don’t do anything, its all bollocks’ it told me to put the Greens next. I find myself a teensy bit suspicious of its objectivity.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Spero: Question Six

Q.6. Can this universe be reconciled with the hypothesis of a benevolent God?

The expression ‘law of nature’ is as old as Pindar in Greek, as Lucretius in Latin. But until modern times, it was used, as ‘law’ ought to be, of something that can be broken but ought not to be. – C. S. Peirce

Because of the disjointed way I have approached this Spero document, this is a question I have already answered.

The universe, animate and inanimate, certainly seems to contain evil.

My position is that this seeming evil is not just something to do with our perception of the universe, but something that is really there.

I reject the pantheist position that, seen from the appropriate angle, all seeming evil will turn out to really be good.

And I reject the Holmes Rolston III position that good and evil are only concepts applicable to our human world.

Thus, as the universe contains evil, it would seem that the universe could not have been created by an omnibenevolent God.


We observe that the evil in human society is easily explained by the freedom of humans to accept or reject the good. The easiest way to explain the evil in the rest of the universe is that it also arises from the freedom of free-willed entities to accept or reject the good. My hope is that the rules of the universe we live in were not created, by fiat, by God, but are at least in part the product of the choices of beings much more fundamental than us. The universe is a game, a game in which making up the rules is part of the game.

‘Original sin’ is the fact that we can do nothing that is perfectly good, because of how the game has panned up until now. The cumulative errors of All Decisions Antecedent to Mankind have limited our freedom of action so that we can do nothing that is not flawed. That does not mean that there is not always a best action, just that the best action is frequently very bad.

Holmes Rolston III

I find that the bit in my original Spero document where I mention this fellow, he is only tenuously connected with the question I claim to be answering, so I will talk about him here instead.

He did me the valuable service, in 1996 or 1997, of stating clearly an untenable philosophy for me to react against. This was valuable because, in reacting against this untenable philosophy, I had for the first time to state clearly what I believed in opposition to it. This means that I need to apologise for inevitably misrepresenting his true position. I am not claiming the opinions I am going to attribute to him are a correct picture of what he really believed 1996/1997, or what he believes now. They are only what I perceived his opinions to be when he came to talk to us.

HR3 seemed to be saying that the universe may be split into two domains: the domain of culture, and the domain of nature. Morality, as we understand it, is restricted to the domain of culture. It is here that we should apply ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’, or whatever. Where the domain of nature is concerned, we have one duty and one duty only: to leave it alone. Our ‘moral’ responsibility is to ensure that the parasitic wasps keep gnawing away at the entrails of their hosts, that a bison calf who falls through thin ice is left to drown, that beached whales stay beached, that wildfires started by natural means are allowed to burn unchecked, no matter what animal suffering results.

I asked HR3 a question about what determines whether a being is under culture, or under nature, and his answer was- I think- in terms of technology. We have the power to alter our environment, and this places us in the realm of culture: animals do not, and live under nature.

This seemed to me most unsatisfactory. What about most of the people who have ever lived, whose abilities to alter their environment were crude compared to ours? What about the representatives of those people today, leading ‘primitive’ lives in the wilds of South America or Africa? Do they belong to nature, or to culture? It seemed to me that, in the absence of anything like a ‘soul’ to identify who belonged to nature and who to culture, these unfortunate brothers and sisters of ours were condemned to nature.

I decided a while afterwards that the ‘technology’ answer would not be sufficient for the disciples of HR3, centuries from now, and that they would seek out and find some empirical touchstone for belonging to culture, some quantifiable ‘soul’ that they would all turn out to have. I decide it would be more interesting if not everyone we now consider human had this experimentally detectable soul, and ran a game where the player characters were un-souled low-technology dwellers on an Earth which had been lovingly restored as a nature preserve. The followers of HR3, who I called the ‘Zephron’, lived in high-tech orbital colonies and left the surface strictly alone according to their interpretation of HR3’s principles.

Against the Zephron, and in reaction against my (mis)understanding of HR3’s position, I therefore state:
The moral laws that are to be obeyed by humans are a manifestation of the same moral laws that are to be obeyed by bison, by electrons, and by sentient galaxies. We might not recognize them as such, but they are all rules that emerge from the same moral equation, the same ethical Theory of Everything.

Another thing HR3 seemed to be saying was that we had did not just have duties toward individuals; we had duties toward species; we had duties towards ecosystems; we had duties towards the Earth. These sound like trivial, innocuous statements. Yet, because- perhaps- I was in the mood to be contrary after the first bit of HR3’s talk, I reacted against these statements too. What happens, in practice, when ‘duties to an ecosystem’ conflict with ‘duties to the individual’? It is usually the individual that suffers. It is the individual who is poisoned, who is shot, who is uprooted, who is intentionally infected with disease. We all accept this as perfectly normal and praiseworthy. Yet it is wrong.

Only an individual can suffer. Only an individual can know joy. Only an individual can, in whatever small way, make choices that bring it nearer to or farther from perfection. It is wrong to make individuals suffer in order to protect an ecosystem. Our primary responsibility towards an ecosystem, and towards the Earth, is towards them as collections of individuals. We have real secondary responsibilities to preserve diversity, and to preserve beauty, but it is the duties towards individuals that are paramount. If we have an opportunity to replace an ecosystem where individual lives are nasty, brutish, and short with an ecosystem that is more pleasant for the individuals comprising it, we have a moral duty to do so. If we can only save the last five Neeble beasts by exterminating a thousand Meeble beasts, we have a moral duty not to do so.

Against the Zephron, and in agreement with Margaret Thatcher, I therefore state: ‘There is no such thing as a species.’