Thursday, June 30, 2011

Trying to get motivated to finish some stuff...

Here are the first two chapters of the novel provisionally entitled 'Bride of Tash'.

Here are the first three chapters of my 2004 NaNoWriMo novel.

And here's the first 13 pages of another thing.

Let me know if you think any of them are worth finishing!

That's all.


*weeps for the end of the dream*

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Fiat Voluntas Tua

' ...they forgot the tofu - that we just love to eat'
(*Not* a line from Starship's 'We Built This City', despite me remembering it that way for about 25 years)

When we look at the natural world, we see suffering. We see suffering that is intrinsic to life: wasp larvae burrowing their way into living caterpillars, cute furry animals being tortured to death by other cute furry animals, schistosomes boring into the walls of human bladders, etc. Historically, this observation has been a frequently used argument against the hypothesis of a benevolent God. Today I am not going to discuss this argument. Instead, I will discuss what the proper human response to this suffering should be and put forward some provisional operational guidelines for discussion.

A respectable philosophical tradition in Greco/Roman/Judaeo/Christo/Islamic civilisation is the comforting one that the suffering of animals is illusory. They appear to suffer, but they do not really suffer, since they do not have souls, so we do not have to give them any moral standing. If this is the case, we can sleep easily and carry on with our bull-baiting, cock-fighting, whaling, and KFC. This is Option 1. I would love to see someone stand up and offer a robust defence of this argument - which is of venerable pedigree, is self-consistent, and has a lot of day-to-day advantages - but am not going to do so myself.

Once we admit that the suffering of animals is real, we are in trouble. Since the whole natural world is permeated completely with suffering, is woven of suffering, cannot function in any meaningful way without ceaseless suffering. We cannot touch it individually. We cannot yet touch it collectively, except by the morally-objectionable ‘Judge Death’ strategy of exterminating all animals on the planet. Our human contribution to this mass of suffering is small. In aggregate, it is hard to tell whether it is positive or negative.

Confronted with this horrible spectacle, we can erect a flimsy barrier between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’. On that side is nature, where moral laws do not apply; on this side is culture, and anything that we bring (arbitrarily) onto this side of the line has to be treated by moral laws. This is Option 2. So we treat our dogs as honorary humans, and the whales in our oceans as honorary humans, and enforce laws on the ‘humane’ culling of some pest species while happily letting others die in agonies. The arbitrariness of the flimsy barrier is what bothers me about this option. No one can stand up and offer a robust rational defence of this option. There isn’t one.

We are part of this web of suffering, but we do not have to embrace it. Individually, we might decide to do what we can to avoid adding stones to this continent-sized landslide of dehumanising pain . Why should we do this, since our contribution is negligible? The best reason I can think of is that we are the first fruits of consciousness, we are the beginning of the manifestation of morality in the material realm, and in so acting we are beginning a redemptive work that will in some millions of years result in a more just and merciful biosphere. It is easy to avoid adding stones to the landslide of pain by commission, and I think it is incumbent upon us to do so. I think we ‘ought’ to avoid putting kittens in the drier, not swerve out of our way to run over cane toads, not snuff out the life of a being capable of suffering on the flimsy excuse that it tastes good. I don’t think it is incumbent on us to reduce the landslide of pain by avoiding sins of omission, since that opens a bottomless box. We *can* take in stray cats, or perform endoscopies on stray penguins, and these are intrinsically good acts, but I don’t think we are obliged to do them in the same way as we are obliged *not* to commit atrocities to animals. This Option 3 is rather bleak in its sisyphean stoicism, brightened only by a gleam from the far future, and I think it can only be made bearable if leavened with the realisation that suffering is not the greatest evil.

We can say, despite everything: life is good. Life is suffering, but it is also good. Minimisation of suffering is a good, but not the good. And here we come to a quote from ‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’ that I was referring to the last time I had a discussion touching on these matters with Lexifab. I went to some trouble to look it up but it has turned out to be too disjointed and vast to quote.

If each creature in this world of suffering can pursue its own goals to the best of its ability and derive some enjoyment from its life, then does it matter so much that it must suffer along the way (as must we all) and eventually die in greater or lesser agony (as must we all)? The greater tragedy it seems to me is:

Not that they starve, but starve so dreamlessly;
Not that they sow, but that they seldom reap;
Not that they serve, but have no gods to serve;
Not that they die, but that they die like sheep.

(Vachel Lindsay)

Living things should be valued in as much as they blaze forth a glorious light of being in the darkness of non-being. Things that impede them from doing this are bad; things that empower them to do this are good...

And unfortunately, it seems that as I try to clarify what I mean and articulate something I can define as Option 4, the closer I come to talking myself out of my ideological commitment to vegetarianism. And to a philosophical position closer to my actual behaviour of eating fish and kangaroos. Bugger.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy FTW!

It seems to me that most utopias I have read or heard about, including the very first one by St. Thomas More, require two conditions:

(1)    An incorruptible ruling class who will not selfishly exploit the system, and

(2)    A class of ruled who will meekly go along doing what they are told.

Clearly neither of these things exist in reality, except in the most fitful and localised way;  and clearly if they did exist , any cockamamie socio-political system you can make up would work just fine. The only one I have ever come across that comes up with a plausible way of achieving these two things is ‘Brave New World’, which is not conventionally described as a utopia, I guess, but looking back on after all these years would certainly be much more pleasant to live in as a regular sort of person than any of those bona fide utopias would.  I remember how much it crushed me the first time I read the scene where John the savage is arguing with the Controller and the Controller comprehensively demolishes all of his arguments in favour of a world like ours. I expect we will get there in the end, if the finances allow. This world seems to be more like the Brave New one with each passing year. 

Slowly, very slowly, like two unhurried compass needles, the feet turned towards the right; north, north-east, east, south-east, south, south-south-west; then paused, and, after a few seconds, turned as unhurriedly back towards the left. South-south-west, south, south-east, east. …

(I read a biography of Aldous Huxley earlier this year- did you know he taught briefly at Eton, and that the authors of ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘The Fall of Constantinople’ were both boys in his class? It still staggers me how few degrees of separation there are between all the famous Englishmen of the early 20th century).

I wanted to write about the shoddy tricks played by Kim Stanley Robinson and Julian May to make their utopias work, and mostly to complain about how deeply dissatisfactory I found the ‘Galactic Milieu’ series. But I shall save those for another time.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

I oughta be in pictures

Aspidistra has a non-speaking role in Spouse-of-Clam's exciting new LOTRO fanfilm, 'Waiting for Flashman' 'Orcs'!

Friday, June 03, 2011

Maintain the Rage

22 years tonight. Like room-temperature superconductors and going back to the Moon, it has taken much longer than I thought it would.