Hate Where Hate Deserves

It has been well said that loathing is like swallowing poison and expecting the object of your ire to sicken. Both religious and secular people have warned us against hatred as an inherently and exclusively destructive entity; a force capable only of tearing down and never building up. Well, like a modern day Gordon Gekko, I come before you today to extol  this traditionally negative trait: hatred is good. Hatred can be virtuous, it can be useful, and it can be necessary. Directed properly, it can be a powerful engine for positive change, provided that its target is something worth destroying.

Admittedly, the statement that “hatred is good” cannot be unqualified. Some elaboration is necessary. It seems to me that hatred in itself is a victimless crime, a personally held emotion that directly affects only the one who feels it. To suggest otherwise is to flirt with the idea of thoughtcrime. No-one has ever been killed or maimed by hatred, though countless have been stricken by the potential consequences of hatred. So the first point must be that while I am claiming that hatred can be good, I am certainly not endorsing every possible pathway down which such a feeling can lead. A useful analogy may be drawn from another “deadly sin”. Looking upon a person with lust, however biblically exaggerated, is not adultery by any stretch of the reasonable imagination. In fact, it affects no-one except the person experiencing the lust. Only by acting on that feeling can there be the possibility of any damage. In the same way, hatred is something which is felt internally; only acting upon this feeling can possibly have harmful consequences.

To return to the toxic comparison offered in the introduction, even if hatred is not, in and of itself, harmful to those around it, is it not true to say that it is deleterious to the individual who feels it? This is a very serious objection, and is the one that I feel comes closest to making a complete mockery of my entire thesis. Having experienced hatred on numerous occasions, I can agree that it is often accompanied by some unpleasant sensations of envy, disappointment and resentment. The very fact that hatred on its own can do no damage beyond the mind it inhabits makes that mind a prime target. I can only say that I have also felt hatred coupled with feelings of justice, righteousness and powerful motivation. As anecdotal evidence, this is very weak. The best I can argue is that those who claim that hatred must necessarily be a negative influence within person are as wrong as those who claim that hatred must necessarily be a positive influence. There is no room for absolutism here, and to reiterate, hatred only can be a good thing, if harnessed and utilised in the right way.

Certain aspects of the world are undeniably hateful. Human beings are regularly imprisoned, tortured and killed for nonexistent crimes like speaking the wrong words, thinking the wrong things or loving the wrong person. Despite all evidence to the contrary, people still make prejudicial judgements about others based upon the least relevant and blameworthy traits of their target; their race, their gender or their sexuality. Lying and manipulation of the facts bring power and renown rather than scorn and opprobrium. I can say, with no hint of apology, that I hate these facts about the world. Further than that, I hate that so many individuals exhibit these evil ideas, and I hate the ideas themselves. (As always, my definition of evil is very simple and, I believe, unassailable: evil is the suffering of conscious creatures, whether the cause be agency or happenstance. If something causes evil, then it is is evil in this sense.) When these characteristics seem endemic to a particular person, I confess that my hatred sometimes spills over into hatred of the individual, but this seems ultimately counterproductive: better to hate a person’s moral failings, and attempt to get them to discard them.

An important side issue results from this final statement. This seems dangerously close to the Christian idea of “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Largely, I don’t have any real issue with this idea. “Love” might be a bit strong, as a person who consistently lies to me is unlikely to gain my affection, but I can at least agree that we ought not to hate this individual, but to hate the harmful consequences of their dishonesty and hope for their rehabilitation. Sadly, the most common use of this adage is these days used in opposition to homosexuality, a case where there is simply no sin to hate. When we love the homosexual and hate their homosexuality, we are essentially trying to say, “I love you, but I hate a core aspect of your character that you are completely incapable of changing.” This use cannot be countenanced.

So having build up a repository of hatred towards the injustices of the world, what are we to do with it? Hatred is a powerful emotion that drives people to fervent and sometimes obsessive behaviour. Herein lies the creative principle of hatred. I can hate bigotry, and channel this feeling into action towards destroying this loathsome institution and at the same time building a world in which we treat our fellow primates with respect and judge them not on their biology, but on the content of their character, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr. If I refuse to accept that it is justified to prosecute a person for blasphemy – the ultimate victimless crime – and harness my intense opposition to this stupidity, I can stand up and say confidently that such practices have no place in our world, and ought to be abolished. Indeed, there are many things to which the only reasonable response is hatred. Faced with mass genocide or indiscriminate torture, our initial reaction ought not to be tolerance and understanding, though an attempt to understand may be attempted at a later point, but hatred and disgust, and an intense desire to avert these terrible events. Hatred can be enormously beneficial, provided that it is not the end, but the means to an end. I am not asking you to live a life filled with loathing; love, laughter and passion are too important and too enjoyable to be overrun by hatred. But when you do inevitably feel hatred, I am simply asking you to tame it, and trammel it towards that admirable goal: to leave the world a little better than you found it.

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Godzilla vs. Solipsism: Mind Over Monster?

Is there a solution to the problem of hard solipsism, the philosophical position that only the mind is certain and that all things observed are a product of my own psyche? It’s a cliché that any piece of writing which begins with a question will inevitably result in a resounding “no”, and who am I to resist this precedent? Despite this, the issue is still worth investigating, and while a solution to the problem of hard solipsism is not forthcoming, considerable doubt can still be cast upon the solipsist position. To do this I could use a wide variety of topics, but for entirely selfish reasons, I’m (unsurprisingly) going to use a favourite film of mine, the 1954 classic, Godzilla. Patience, all will become apparent.

One of the central tenets of solipsism is most famously articulated in Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy in the well-known cogito ergo sum or “I think, therefore I am.” All things may be doubted to a greater or lesser degree, but the existence of one’s own mind, or at least some thinking thing, is undeniable. Every piece of information we know about the world is filtered through the senses before reaching the mind, and could conceivably be produced by a false stimulus entirely unlike the effect on the mind. In the end, it is a fact that when we think we see a tree, we are in fact experiencing a model constructed by our own brains based upon sense data from the eyes. So if our whole experience is based in the mind, is it not possible that the whole of reality is merely self-generated, using the same simulation “software” that the brain apparently uses to translate the world into a comprehensible form? Perhaps the whole of reality fits neatly into a mindscape, no external world necessary. This is not an easy position to argue against, as any counter-argument would rely upon evidence from the same dubious reality. Indeed, the committed solipsist could merely dismiss their opponent as a particularly troublesome figment of their imagination. As far as I can tell, this is a philosophical standpoint with no definitive defeater; nothing can be said to make hard solipsism untenable.

My attempted response relies on the distinction between deductive and inductive argument. This is a key difference. A sound deductive argument leads to a conclusion that cannot be doubted. If you accept that the premises of such an argument are true, you cannot deny the conclusion without lapsing into logical contradiction. For instance:

     Premise 1: All carnivores eat meat.

     Premise 2: All tigers are carnivores.

     Conclusion: All tigers eat meat.

Accepting premises 1 and 2 while denying the conclusion is exactly akin to stating that “Tigers do and do not eat meat.” Deductive arguments are clearly powerful, but they are rarely applicable except in cases like mathematical proofs, where certainty is a possibility.

Inductive arguments, by contrast, only argue to the best explanation or most likely conclusion, not a certain one. Importantly, it is not logically impossible that the conclusion of an inductive argument be false; it is merely improbable. Another example:

     Premise 1: Most swans are white.

     Premise 2: There is a particular swan somewhere in the world.

     Conclusion: That particular swan is white.

Because most swans are white, it is a fairly safe bet that any swan you happen to hear about it white too. But this is only a likelihood. The existence of black swans renders the conclusion uncertain. Inductive arguments are the most common kind of reasoning we employ, as we are rarely certain of an outcome, but we can usually make an educated guess and get by by predicting what will probably happen. My argument against solipsism is of the latter kind, and merely aims to cast it into doubt, not to show that it cannot possibly be true.

Godzilla is, to put it mildly, a very good film. Before the child-friendly goofiness of the later Showa era and the spectacular pyrotechnics of the more recent outings, there was a simple and terrifying black-and-white parable about the horror of nuclear fire. It’s still amazing how much they got right. Less than a decade after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the filmmakers were mature and level-headed enough to eschew blame and focus their allegory entirely upon the evils of the weapons themselves, not those who used them. At no point is there monstrous metaphor glorified; the closest anyone comes to adoration is desiring to keep Godzilla alive for scientific study. And instead of casting these people as strawman amoral scientists or animal rights activists, this option is immediately dropped in the face of the obvious fact that humanity cannot survive while sharing the planet with a colossal, radiation-spewing reptile. The allegory is perfect. Nuclear weapons are scientifically fascinating and superficially impressive, but this does not make them remotely safe or necessarily desirable. In the same vein, Dr. Serizawa is reluctant to use his Oxygen Destroyer on the principle that it too will be turned to terrible ends, but does not pig-headedly – and unrealistically – put his personal feelings before human life. The score is mesmerising, the cinematography is deeply atmospheric, and even sixty years on, it’s a fiercely intelligent and entertaining flick (utterly incorrect assertions about the Jurassic era notwithstanding).

This may seem to be a violent veer into tangent, but this is the backbone of my argument. I do not believe that I am capable of writing, scoring, and bringing to celluloid such a brilliant piece of art. This was the work of many hands, from humble workmen to the creative geniuses at the top, a work too great for a single, average person like myself. On the solipsist view, however, this is exactly what has happened. GodzillaNineteen Eighty-Four, Macbeth and Beethoven’s Ninth all ought to bear my name as their creator. If the entire world is a product of my mine, there is simply no-one else to do the work. I have to be personally responsible for every brilliant piece of art. A corollary is that I am also responsible for dreaming up every terrible creation as well. There are certain things for which I am unwilling to take the blame. Is there a more arrogant position it is possible to hold than the solipsist view that our entire reality and all the wonder and horror it contains are the product of one mind, my mind? Even making up a mediocre universe should overwhelm any finite mind, let alone one containing such incredible things. Clearly the solipsist has far greater confidence in his faculties than I do in my own – or his, for that matter. So, stated succinctly, this is my response to the problem of hard solipsism: I find it vanishingly improbable that I am solely responsible for the best movies ever made, Godzilla in particular. Not a knock-out blow, but at least we have leave to stop taking this point-of-view with anything but a pinch of salt.

[Also published at Podzilla! - The King of the Podcasts.]

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One-Man Rapid Response Unit

Hi, my name is John and I’m an answerholic. For as long as I can remember I’ve been an insufferable smartarse. If you were to ask me a question, I will reflexively give you an answer, regardless of my expertise or lack thereof. If I know the subject well, you will get a more comprehensive answer than you ever wanted. If I don’t, oftentimes you will be subjected to a stream-of-consciousness, motor-mouthed list of theories, guesses, and promises of future research. Admitting that I haven’t got a clue is becoming more common, but remains the exception. Incidentally, I cannot overstate that brevity is not my strong suit. A notable number of these encounters end with my interlocutor looking wildly for an exit and performing the shuffling retreat of the finished conversation. I suppose that the reason for this confession is curiosity. It’s certainly not absolution, I’m hellbound and proud of it. But I am curious about whether I am alone in this, and whether it is quite as irksome as it seems.

My disorder makes itself most known in my day job, in that most inconsequential of arenas. Given the large volume of tourists who frequent my workplace I am often asked for directions, whether to landmarks or restaurants, or information about local or national oddities. A recent encounter saw a very nice Australian girl enquiring about the ubiquitous pineapples adorning our Scottish souvenirs. After gently pointing out that these were actually thistles, and that thistles are the floral emblem of Scotland, the matter ought to have been settled. The question was answered and the conversation was over. But this poor girl was then subjected to the fascinating back-story of our national flower. Some sleeping Scots were alerted in time to the presence of some marauding Norsemen, by the shouts of pain after the attackers trod on some prickly thistles. Almost certainly apocryphal, but relate this I did. Halfway through this tale, the signature nods of the no-longer-listening were readily apparent. I wish to sincerely apologise to this young woman and her many fellow victims, as this is far from an isolated incident.

Outside of employment, my targets tend to be my long-suffering friends and family. The most casual of discussions becomes a lecture series peppered with one of my favourite dialectical tools: the historical anecdote. Every single time, for instance, that any ludicrous story of censorship or prudery comes up in conversation, I can launch a one-two punch of strong opinion and a funny anecdote, which I will now inflict upon you. After finishing his dictionary, Samuel Johnson was approached by some respectable ladies who wished to congratulate him for not including any profanity. Johnson’s response contains the perfect response to any pernickety puritan: it’s rather amusing that you were looking for the naughty words in the first place. Again, this may be apocryphal, but it’s a very useful illustration, and can handily be told in only five solid minutes of flavour text and pantomime acting.

You may have noticed by this point that I am recounting my crimes while committing further instances. Peppered throughout are the very features of blowhard and know-it-all that I’m supposed to be resisting. Maybe some have already switched off, maybe some were mildly interested. It does seem fairly certain that this sickness is far from cured. So, lacking a remedy, should I more fully embrace this quirk? Are the glazed looks of the many worth the relative attentiveness of the few? I have to hope that the answer is an emphatic “yes”. There is an underlying current to this, beyond being a show-off about what I know. I genuinely love learning new things, and thinking about the world. Carl Sagan once compared a love of science to romantic love; when you feel it, you want to tell everyone about it. Philosophy literally translates as “the love of knowledge” (φιλοσοφία), and it is no accident that this is my chosen field. I can’t stand not knowing something, and this drives me to find out everything that I can. This is a battle that is already lost. I only have one lifetime, and there is simply too much to be known. Indeed, Socrates defined a wise man as a man who knew the extent of his own ignorance. But the insurmountable nature of the problem simply can’t deter me – I’m going to give know-it-all status a damn good try. And this love of learning leaves me quite perplexed when faced with someone who doesn’t feel the same drive to know more. Hence my incessant questioning and answering. After all, half the fun of learning something fascinating is communicating it to your fellow humans, and sharing the philo sophia

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Shapeless Ramblings from an April Fool

Spoiler warnings are implied if you haven’t listened to the most recent episode of Podzilla, my kaiju-based side project. In our April Fools episode, we dealt with what I, to put in the gentlest terms possible, regard as the absolute nadir of the Star Trek franchise. Insurrection is the point for me where both the quality of the media and and the competence of the writing and the c0ncepts are at their lowest. So, if you will indulge me in a little ranting, I want to deal with these aspects of this abysmal film.

Given the wider circumstances of the Star Trek universe at the time, Insurrection feels very small. During a period of galactic war, the writers choose to tell the story of a petty squabble between a few hundred aliens whom we have never seen before and will never hear from again. As an early TNG episode this might have sufficed to waste 45 minutes, but as a feature length film the plot is lamentably thin. The new characters of the piece have zero depth. I could entirely summarise every one of them in a single sentence and have nothing more to say, so why should I feel any connection to these strangers? Even our familiar main cast have been Flanderised, barely showing any of the character development of the past decade. This is admittedly partially explained away by the “fountain of youth” McGuffin, regressing particularly Riker and Troi to horny teenagers who seem to end up together entirely due to age appropriateness and proximity. But the absolute worst character assassination, entirely without excuse, is inflicted upon Data, who goes from emotionless android struggling and somewhat succeeding to understand the human condition to a clueless comic relief ‘bot who can’t even grasp the concept of “fun”. Throw in a sprinkling of unfinished special effects and a soupçon of convenient sciencey magic. garnish with plot convenient time dilation, and you have a cinematic experience guaranteed to nauseate.

Conceptually, Insurrection falls at the first hurdle. At its core, we have a moral conundrum: We are faced with the choice between saving 300 lives and saving (even if we allow the only ~1% of the Dominion War casualties will be averted) billions. Simple consequentialist ethics demand that we take the latter option. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and all that. But simple consequentialism can lead to terrible consequences and cannot be consistently applied to moral questions. By this method we might murder a healthy person and harvest his organs to save five sick people. But a more complex ethical approach would take into consideration both the consequences of an action and the motive that led to the act. In this situation, 300 people will die, or 9 billion people will die. Given those choices, the only reasonable choice to to take the option with the better consequences and the purer motive – the drive to save countless lives from death and injury – and choose the billions. Either outcome is terrible, and so we are choosing an evil, but the much lesser of two evils. Really, after a little consideration, this is the only thing we could do. Is the moral high ground really worth the lives of numberless people? But I’m being a mite unfair. This is not actually an accurate description of Insurrection’s ethical dilemma. The option exists to relocate the Ba’ku, or even to use the vast tracts of empty space on their planet to heal the casualties of war. Yet even this is seen by our protagonists as more morally abhorrent than billions of preventable deaths.

This leads us to a deeply immoral and stupid part of the situation that is nowhere mentioned in the film; the treatment of the Ba’ku deprives them of all agency. Immanuel Kant implored us to treat people as ends in themselves, rather than merely means to an end, but the Ba’ku are nowhere asked their opinion or given a choice in the matter. They are simply pawns in a greater game between Picard and Dougherty. In fact, it is essential to the integrity of the film that they never be made aware of the whole situation and directly asked to voluntarily assist. Allowed agency, the Ba’ku either destroy the entire plot by resolving the central dilemma in a second, or become the film’s villains if they selfishly refuse to aid their fellow galactic citizens. It would be like a person refusing to donate their organs after death, writ large. So we can’t allow the simple alien folk to be morally autonomous or the film just collapses in on itself.

This is all so that this film can bill itself as a morality play on the evils of forced relocation and the merits of a simple, rustic approach to life. I don’t appreciate being preached to by a hypocrite. If your parable is riddled with inconsistencies and immoralities, I take that as permission to stop taking you seriously. In fact, I stop listening altogether. The Ba’ku are not moral exemplars. At best they are hapless, victimised straw-people. In reality, they are Luddites and hypocritical pacifists. I say “pacifists” as a pejorative because they claim to reject violence in all its forms and abstain from all armed defence, while being perfectly happy to allow the Enterprise crew to defend them with energy weapons and the high technology they claim to despise. “Luddite” is an easier claim to level. The Ba’ku despise advanced technology as tinkering with the natural order, but this is a prime example of the naturalistic fallacy. Essentially this states that is wrong to claim that something is good simply because it is natural, because being natural says precisely nothing about the morality of something. In a “natural” state, most of a person’s time will be taken up by finding food, avoiding predators and suffering under the assault of whatever microbes have taken up residence in their body. Technology frees us from this animal cycle, giving us free time to improve ourselves and our societies, curing disease and protecting us from the elements. But then most of us lack a magical healing planet to live on. To deny the utility and morality of technological progress entirely is not noble, it is the myopic view of those privileged by the protection from reality offered by being fictional constructs in an unreal dream world created by an idiot scriptwriter.

With much of the bile released, I feel I should stop now. I promise that my next posting will be less vitriolic. In conclusion, my co-called friend Ben did this to me, and I will have my vengeance in this life or the next. And please, if you’re interested, check out the sister blog, also titled Podzilla, and the accompanying podcast at Soundcloud.

[Reposted, with minor edits, from Podzilla! - The King of the Podcasts.]

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Why I Love Godzilla or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb Metaphor

What could lead a young man to become infatuated with an obscure, often poorly produced film genre from a faraway land? The short answer would be “childhood indoctrination, admiration for practical SFX and a lust for wanton destruction”. The longer answer may well be more interesting. Disaster movies have become increasingly common, going in and out of fashion for the past few decades. But there is something alluring about centring such a calamity on an identifiable aggressor. Humans don’t always excel at thinking in the abstract, but we’re rather good with empathy, so there is a clear advantage to making the damage personal. We are not just the victims of happenstance, but the targets of some malevolent force. But beyond the artistic merit of daikaiju movies, there is another pertinent fact: Monsters are cool, more monsters are cooler, and getting those monsters to throw down in major cities is the coolest. Grow all this to gigantic size and the cool is cubed.

Our story begins in the dying days of the 20th Century, when mobile phones were a seldom-seen luxury and YouTube and Facebook were the digital dream of a prophetic madman. My first exposure to Godzilla, beyond the ingrained cultural custom of labelling anything massive with the suffix “-zilla”, was Hanna Barbera’s The Godzilla Power Hour on Cartoon Network. CN held a special event called “Green Day” (Hey, I just got that!) featuring their most verdant characters, which for some reason I had recorded on VHS. For the younglings in the audience, a VHS was a boxy DVD that would occasionally unravel and destroy itself. This was to become one of my entertainment staples, and Godzilla featured prominently. Being that Godzilla is grey and not green, his involvement is questionable, but the episodic adventures of a gigantic and ill-tempered reptile thoroughly intrigued me. None of Toho’s other kaiju could be featured in the cartoon (bloody copyright laws) so Hanna Barbera were forced to create a myriad of odd creatures for the Big G to battle. My memory isn’t what it once was, but one beastie that sticks in my mind was an enormous, translucent caterpillar that attacked the US Mint to attempt to sate its hunger for coinage. Insert your own banker joke here. Despite some weirdness – Godzilla’s atomic breath was replaced with flame, and he gained the ability to shoot laser beams from his eyes – the show was a lot of fun, and introduced me to Godzilla as a heroic, if grumpy, figure.

Thus, in my naive little mind, Godzilla was a big, scaly superhero. If I had stuck to his 70s adventures, I’d have had my delusions bolstered, but instead I went back to the beginning, to the 1954 original. We’ve discussed that masterpiece on a previous podcast, but I never did state what a wake-up call that film was. My animated hero became an engine of destruction, indiscriminately leveling an entire city. And nobody was cheering. There is no happy ending with pointless devastation on this scale. In hindsight, it’s almost perverse that such a dark character would become so iconic and beloved by children. But having seen the two extremes of Godzilla, it becomes clear that the character is more complex than simple good or bad.

I have since seen most – shamefully not all – of Godzilla’s films, and the evolution of the character is clear. From terrifying symbol of nuclear fire to blockbuster movie star, by way of marketable merchandising machine and vehicle for image experimentation, Godzilla has many masks. But for me, he’s at his best when he’s a simple force of nature, neither actively malevolent nor mawkishly benevolent. Sometimes we humans commit the Ancient Greeks’ favourite sin, hubris, and then over the hill comes a bloody great reptile. Oftentimes this is interpreted by the human characters as a judgement on polluting or bellicose action, but this is to overanalyse. Godzilla simply shows us the simple fact that, powerful as we are, nature is factually more powerful than we are. Even the tenderest action by a 50,000 tonne creature would cause tremendous damage. And while humans are often the cause of great problems, we are also excellent at solutions, and nothing unites humanity like a formidable opponent. Searching for meaning in the mere existence of Godzilla is futile. Rather, we need to accept that if we’re going to share the world with such powerful and destructive elements, we need to band together and figure out some living arrangements. What such arrangements might entail, I cannot say, but there are many schools of thought, and all of them are interesting and worth looking into.

This is why I love Godzilla, both as a character and a concept. Not only are his movies very entertaining and delightfully cheesy in places, but they allow us to see the best and worst of humankind in the face of overwhelming adversity. For this reason, I hope that the upcoming Legendary Godzilla does not take the form of a simple morality play, but rather accepts human culpability while focussing more on what we need to do to survive and save lives. Every disaster, natural or man-made, shows us images of unimaginable sadness and suffering, and we should never attempt to mitigate or dismiss these because of some positive consequences. But we also see the most incredible human decency and strength, and that deserves to be acknowledged and honoured too. Ultimately, Godzilla brings us together in many ways, whether we’re fighting for our lives or enjoying a damn fine piece of film-making.

[Reposted from Podzilla! - The King of the Podcasts.]

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Suffering > Blustering

After a leave of absence and a bout of stomach virus that has left me completely useless for the better part of a weak, I have been shaken out of my stupor by one of the most inane pieces of journalism I have ever had the misfortune to witness. In an opinion piece for the Telegraph website, Cristina Odone opines that our humble livestock are now more important than our Jewish and Muslims citizens. My entire response could simply be strangled cries of “category error!” followed by a string of meaningless typed gibberish created by the unhappy meeting of forehead and keyboard, but I shall attempt to be slightly more eloquent.

 If John Blackwell, soon to be head of Britain’s vets, gets his wish, ritual slaughter will be banned. Blackwell, you see, is worried about the pain that animals might feel if they are not stunned before they are butchered. He is not worried though about the millions of Muslims and Jews whose religion dictates that they eat only animals that have been killed in a particular way.

It should surely be unsurprising that a vet is more concerned about the suffering of animals than religious dictates. Indeed, anyone would be well within their rights to question the wisdom and morality of any religion that demands an appropriate level of suffering be inflicted upon a creature before it can be ingested. How much respect can a belief system that prizes tradition over material realities like pain really be afforded?

Halal and Kosher butchers have for millennia practised a ritual slaughter as part of their religious tradition. It is a hygienic way of butchering animals which consists of slitting their throats and allowing them to bleed to death. Not for the faint-hearted, but religion seldom is.

For millennia humankind felt no compunction to keep their faeces out of their food. The age of a practise has no bearing on its legitimacy, and in fact the trend is often the opposite. Astrology, trepanning and the owning of slaves all have a long history, but few would argue that they ought to be respected one the basis of their age (astrology’s ubiquity notwithstanding). Hygiene is not the primary concern as far as the morality of animal slaughter is concerned. Leaving aside arguments against the eating of meat and accepting that we are going to slaughter animals for food, the suffering of the livestock in question is surely more important ethically than how hygienic a method is. This is really a red herring, as the cleanliness of kosher slaughter is irrelevant to the discussion at hand. Methods involving stunning are at least as clean and safe as kosher slaughter. As for the final line, I would remind you that Odone is discussing Judaism, not a rollercoaster. 

In a culture where animals matter more than people, and a lot more than religious people, halal and kosher are verboten.

Ours is not a culture in which animals matter more than people – but it is a culture in which animals matter. If what Odone writes were true, we would think nothing of abbatoirs full of people hanging from hooks, quietly and consciously exsanguinating. This is Odone’s category error. Her assertion is only correct if we equate a person with their “deeply held religious beliefs. In reality, it is perfectly simple to respect a person while giving no regard to their unfounded assertions. Rephrased, the true situation concerning the banning of religious animal slaughter is thus: In a culture where animals matter more than antiquated and baseless religious beliefs, halal and kosher are verboten.

Let the Danes stamp all over deeply held religious belief in the name of a calf. Who cares about the Koran or the Torah when it comes to soft furry creatures?

Credit to Luke Hecht, president of the University of Edinburgh’s Humanist Society for the perfect response to this – restate the last line without sarcasm and you have my position. 

Once this precedent is established, circumcision — another religious ritual practised by both Muslims and Jews — will be banned. 

Not only is this a textbook slippery slope fallacy, I don’t see the problem. While adult circumcision ought to remain legal, infant circumcision is the amputation of a body part without the consent of the patient for a non-medical reason. Protestations of its AIDS-defying efficacy are pointless, as this is not the specified reason for the surgery – it is about following God’s rules. Any “anger and upset” felt by Jews and Muslims barred from having bits cut off their children must be weighed against the child’s right to bodily autonomy and integrity. Removing nebulous, faith-based ideas from the equation, the balance swings violently in the direction of the rights of the child. Thus, Odone attempts to scare-monger by threatening an outcome that seems all too reasonable.

Banning a religious ritual because an animal may (who knows) feel some pain before its killing, is a nonsense value. It prioritises the animal over the human, and the four-legged over the pious.

Rene Descartes, in one of his more deranged religious investigations, held that humans were uniquely ensouled and therefore unique among animals in possessing self-determination. Conversely, non-human animals were mere automata, incapable of sensation and simply obeying physical laws. This led to a resurgence in vivisection, with misguided scientists dismissing animal suffering as an impossibility. The illusion of pain was exactly that. Thankfully, we have learned better. We know now that cows, pigs, and other animals involved in the meat industry, while they may lack the range or intensity of feeling that humans possess, certainly can suffer and suffer horribly. Odone’s snide “(who knows)” is a weasling attempt to cast doubt on the verifiable fact that stabbing a live animal in the throat and inflicting upon them a slow death by blood loss will cause them pain. The label “nonsense value is misapplied, as the truly nonsensical consideration in this argument is value of a ritual from centuries ago that is bestowed with significance because “God said so!”. Countless religious rituals have come into collision with brute reality and lost – staying within Judaism, the cleansing of women after childbirth or menstruation is generally no longer demanded except in the most Orthodox sects – and I see no good reason why kosher slaughter shouldn’t join these on the scrapheap. Odone has certainly failed to make even the most superficially convincing argument for her case, and I still can’t decide whether to be disgusted or amazed at the depth of her failure. 

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Answers for Christians, Geeky or Otherwise

Boredom does funny things to the mind. It can cause obsessive introspection, generally resulting in stark existential dread. Or, more commonly, it can lead down dark paths in your shady internet neighbourhood. Inspired somewhat by an episode of the Dogma Debate podcast – recently listened to but broadcast months ago – I’ve decided to go back to basics and look at a few questions fundamental to my lack of a god-belief. This might serve as a belated introduction, and perhaps a handy primer for laypeople when confronting common apologetic arguments. These questions come from Dr. Norman Geisler’s book Conversational Evangelism, as reposted on the Geeky Christian blog

1. Are you absolutely sure there is no God? If not, then is it not possible that there is a God? And if it is possible that God exists, then can you think of any reason that would keep you from wanting to look at the evidence?

We begin with an easy one. No, I am not absolutely sure that there is no God. It is possible that there is a God, though I would certainly say that there are certain conceptions of God which have been offered that can be positively said not to exist. This category would include logically incoherent Gods. A perfectly just and perfectly merciful God, for instance. Since mercy is pardoning someone from their deserved punishment, these two “perfections” are mutually exclusive. Either God punishes everyone according to their desserts, or he pardons certain people because of his mercy. So, entirely dependent upon the definition of God being put forth, God’s existence is a possibility. The final part of this question is slightly problematic, as no evidence is forthcoming for these special gods which are not already discounted by their incoherence. These gods seem to be entirely unfalsifiable, possibly existent but following a strict policy of non-intervention. Unfalsifiable propositions can have no evidence for or against, and thus there is no good reason to believe that they are true. I suspect that I am being tempted to admit my inherent biases against theism, particularly my desire to go on sinning, but no amount of unbiblical merriment can make an unfalsifiable proposition more acceptable. So gods are either testable, and have failed to materialise when tested, or unfalsifiable and unbelievable by nature.

2. Would you agree that intelligently designed things call for an intelligent designer of them? If so, then would you agree that evidence for intelligent design in the universe would be evidence for a designer of the universe?

By definition, an intelligently designed thing demands at least one intelligent designer. This is tautological. However, evidence for intelligent design in the universe would not be evidence for an intelligent designer of the universe. It would merely count as evidence for the existence of one or more designers of that particular feature of the universe. Evidence for an intelligent designer of the universe demands evidence of intelligent design of the universe as a whole. Anything less could only support a sub-universal intelligent designer(s).

3. Would you agree that nothing cannot produce something? If so, then if the universe did not exist but then came to exist, wouldn’t this be evidence of a cause beyond the universe?

Nothing is an incoherent concept when used in this way. What would nothing actually look like? What would the features of nothing be? Could nothing even exist? This is not the definition of nothing used by physicists like Lawrence M. Krauss, but a colloquial definition that seems not to have been thoroughly thought out.. Taking the second part of the question, according to the First Law of Thermodynamics, matter and energy can be neither created nor destroyed. This would seem to imply that the a material universe such as ours could not come to exist, having not existed, as this would violate this scientific principle. If the universe had simply popped out of this questionable nothing, this would indeed be evidence of an extra-universal cause, but it is unclear whether such an event could or did ever happen. Indeed, the current Big Bang model states that in the beginning (of our current universe at least) there was an infinitesimally small and dense point into which all of matter, energy, space and time were concentrated. This is referred to as a “singularity”. A singularity, being something, is emphatically not nothing.

4. Would you agree with me that just because we cannot see something with our eyes—such as our mind, gravity, magnetism, the wind—that does not mean it doesn’t exist?

Inability to see something is not, on its own, a reason to disbelieve in the existence of a thing. Just to add to the question’s examples, we cannot see atoms, germs or Wi-Fi signals either. However, this is an incomplete stipulation as to what it is reasonable to believe. Things which cannot be seen can still assert their existence by their observable effects. We cannot see our mind or Wi-Fi signals, but without these, how exactly am I communicating this to you? Certain of these entities can actually be observed directly with powerful enough magnification, but anyone who has experienced flu would be foolish to doubt the existence of microbes. And as for atoms… Well… Pretty conclusive. The point at which we are justified in disbelieving the existence of something is when we cannot see it with our eyes, and nor can we observe its effects where effects would be expected. This is often summarised as “absence of evidence is evidence of absence”, provided that such evidence ought to be present.

5. Would you also agree that just because we cannot see God with our eyes does not necessarily mean He doesn’t exist?

This really ought to have been a part of the previous question. As stated above, it is not only our inability to see God that makes disbelief a reasonable conclusion; it is the added inability to see any of the observable effects of God that makes atheism tenable.

6. In the light of the big bang evidence for the origin of the universe, is it more reasonable to believe that no one created something out of nothing or someone created something out of nothing?

See my above point about the nature of the singularity, and their peculiar not-nothingness.

7. Would you agree that something presently exists? If something presently exists, and something cannot come from nothing, then would you also agree that something must have always existed?

It would be rather self-denying to deny that something presently exists – even doubting Descartes thought that our own thought was an undeniably existent thing. So I can happily assent to the first question. The second part is fairly unobjectionable as well, as creation ex nihilo is an unlikely proposition. So something must have always existed. As far back as we can trace, at no point is there nothing, whether the something in its place is the universe or the singularity, and so these may be accepted as those eternally existent things – not least because they are the same stuff in different forms. Add in the point that time, as well as space and matter, is theorised to have come into existence in its current form during the Big Bang expansion, it may be incorrect to demand that something must have existed for all time. “Always” can only be measured as “at every point in time”, so without time, there is no always.

8. If it takes an intelligent being to produce an encyclopedia, then would it not also take an intelligent being to produce the equivalent of 1000 sets of an encyclopedia full of information in the first one-celled animal? (Even atheists such as Richard Dawkins acknowledges that “amoebas have as much information in their DNA as 1000 Encyclopaedia Britannicas.” Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (New York: WW. Norton and Co., 1996), 116.)

A small point to begin – the first one-celled animal was not an amoeba. Modern amoebae have been evolving for as long as humans have, and have therefore accumulated the same billions of years of genetic baggage to achieve their enormous amount of genetic “information”. The scare-quotes are entirely intentional – information is not something inherent in DNA, but rather is the way in which our minds understand DNA. DNA is entirely chemical, and those chemicals interact according to physical laws, producing certain chemical effects. Information only emerges when a mind comes along, puts names to the different chemicals involved and describes the physical interactions thereof. The use of “CGAT” in the description of DNA, and descriptions of DNA strings being “millions of letters long” give no credence to the notion that DNA is information.

9. If an effect cannot be greater than its cause (since you can’t give what you do not have to give), then does it not make more sense that mind produced matter than that matter produced mind, as atheists say?

The word “greater” is not clearly defined in this question, threatening it with outright incomprehensibility. If “greater” in this context refers to physical size, it makes far more sense to say that matter produced mind, as matter actually has mass, while mind is, as stated in question 4, is not visible. If “greater” simply means “better”, this seems a value judgement coming from a biased mind, convinced of its own importance. Mind is an incredible phenomenon, and can lead to incredible reasoning, beautiful acts of creativity, and powerful emotions. But all of these wonderful effects can be immediately halted by damage to the matter causing this mind-phenomenon – the brain. This gives us a clear indication of which is greater, so it would seem to make more sense to say that matter produced mind, as atheists say.

10. Is there anything wrong anywhere? If so, how can we know unless there is a moral law?

This is a serious contender for “Vaguest Question Ever Posed”. It may narrowly lose to, “Is there stuff somewhere?”. You need to define the term “wrong” to even ask this question. Luckily, the second part of the question offers a clue – this wrong is a moral wrong. So, I can now offer an answer; yes, there is something wrong somewhere. Maybe several somethings and myriad somewheres. Alas, the assumption that wrong can only exist as a contravention of a moral law is a tenuous, vaguely authoritarian assertion. Instead, why not define wrong as an instance of the suffering of conscious creatures, and point to one of the billions of examples available on Earth. Voila wrong appears, as a factual occurrence and not a value judgement, without the necessity for a moral law. This is clearly open to the criticism that this simply creates a moral law with the rule that “Whatsoever is an instance of the suffering of conscious creatures is wrong.” While I am personally happy to accept the notion that suffering is bad by definition, this criticism is largely unproblematic – let me adopt this as my moral law.

11. If every law needs a lawgiver, does it not make sense to say a moral law needs a Moral Lawgiver?

While I’m flattered to be awarded with capitalisation, it’s unnecessary. I’m content to simply be a moral lawgiver. It is tautological to say that a moral law needs a moral lawgiver, and these questions give no good reason to think that such a lawgiver need be capitalised – many humans create moral laws, and make judgements of right and wrong.

12. Would you agree that if it took intelligence to make a model universe in a science lab, then it took super-intelligence to make the real universe?

The problem with any analogy is that it breaks down when you examine it too closely. This argument is put forth in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, instead using a comparison between a house and the universe. My reply is the same as Philo’s – a model universe and the actual universe are too dissimilar to draw any conclusions from such an analogy. The initial conditions of the model and the universe are entirely different. The universe is 13.7 billion years old in its current form, and potentially eternal/timeless before the Big Bang expansion. The model is much younger. A model built by hand may be analogously compared to the universe, but so could the reproductive development of a sheep – from a single zygote, a complex animal composed of billions of cells results. Why not propose that the universe was birthed by the Cosmic Ewe? Either analogy seems equally plausible, at least partially because neither approximates the universe very well.

13. Would you agree that it takes a cause to make a small glass ball found in the woods? And would you agree that making the ball larger does not eliminate the need for a cause? If so, then doesn’t the biggest ball of all (the whole universe) need a cause?

Since a small glass ball is an effect, it requires a cause. This is uncontroversial. A yet bigger ball would likewise require a cause. The universal ball is also in the business of requiring a cause, and we have a suitable cause all ready – the Big Bang expansion. From the singularity, our universe has expanded to its current state, and is still expanding, as this event billions of years ago continues to exert its influence.

14. If there is a cause beyond the whole finite (limited) universe, would not this cause have to be beyond the finite, namely, non-finite or infinite?

If the singularity is eternal, by virtue of existing without the time that is a feature of our universe, then it serves nicely as the infinite cause of our admittedly finite universe. But even if we do not accept the eternal singularity, we might point to the Big Bang-Big Crunch model, which states that this universe is one of a series, which began with an expansion, and which will end with a retraction back into the singularity before bouncing back into expansion. If this is the case, no infinite cause is necessary for our finite universe, as we may simply appeal backwards to the chain of finite causes back to the beginning of our universe and beyond.

15. In the light of the anthropic principle (that the universe was fine-tuned for the emergence of life from its very inception), wouldn’t it make sense to say there was an intelligent being who preplanned human life?

Why must we grant the anthropic principle? This seems like a remarkably myopic view of the universe. For a universe fine-tuned for the emergence of life, there is a staggering amount of waste. Taking only our own star system, 12.5% of the planetary bodies are capable of supporting life. This is a pretty poor result for supposed fine-tuning. Douglas Adams had a brilliant illustration for demonstrating the foolishness of the anthropic principle. Imagine an irregularly-shaped pothole in the road. One day a rain comes and fills the pothole to the brim. The resultant puddle then marvels at the perfection of his situation – this divot in the ground is exactly the right size and shape to accommodate him. What are the odds? Pretty good, actually. Life has adapted to the universe, and not vice versa. We find animals thriving in their environment because those who didn’t have died off in favour of their better-suited brethren. And on a broader scale, if the universe had been unsuitable for the existence of life, none of us would be here to complain about the fact. These facts mean that the assumption that the universe proceeds according to the plan of an intelligent being, while technically possible, is entirely unsupported and thus not worth believing.

Over and over again while answering these questions, certain fallacies kept flashing across my mind. “Argument from Ignorance!” “Strawman!” “Equivocation!” As well as “Poor Wording!” In the end, some of my answers may be foolish or factually inaccurate – and if they are, please correct me. Theoretical physics is not a strong suit of mine, and I do not claim to be much more than scientifically illiterate. However, that doesn’t particularly matter, as these questions are an exercise in shifting the burden of proof onto the atheist, and claiming that if they cannot offer comprehensive answers to these queries, theism is the necessary conclusion. No positive evidence for God is offered above, and the worst position that my inability to answer would push me into is “I don’t know. But you don’t know either. I still see no reason to believe in God.” More proof is required than misrepresentation and special pleading can offer.

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I Agree with Pastor Rich Henderson… Sort Of…

Much has already been made in the atheist press, such as it is, about a recent Huffington Post article by Pastor Rich Henderson proclaiming that, “there is no such thing as a good atheist.” Most of the criticisms are spot-on – that his piece is an abuse of logic, that his terminology is sloppy, and that he himself is so patronising that he thinks “worldview” is a complex term. However, there are aspects of his critique that I agree with. So, in a departure from my usual bilious torrent of cynical criticism, I want to take each of his points as it comes and rebut or agree wherever is appropriate. This is all while acknowledging his clever “Vegas hustler” prestidigitation, which seems to regard a no-lose argument as a strength rather than a weakness.

In addition to the familiar definition of atheist – which for my purposes is simply a non-theist, someone who does not hold a theistic belief – Henderson adds three additional necessary beliefs that must be held to qualify for this label.

1. The universe is purely material. It is strictly natural, and there is no such thing as the supernatural (e.g., gods or spiritual forces).

2. The universe is scientific. It is observable, knowable and governed strictly by the laws of physics.

3. The universe is impersonal. It does not a have consciousness or a will, nor is it guided by a consciousness or a will.

Henderson seems to have in mind a more specific kind of nonbeliever, namely a rational, skeptical atheist. I personally have no problem in acquiescing to this definition, as it fits me to a T. I suppose that atheistic Buddhists, Raelians, and Jedi can indeed be good people, though evidently they cannot be atheists. And god forbid that you believe in ghosts, homeopathy, and your own imprisonment within the Matrix. But Henderson needs a scientific atheistic materialist in order to form his argument, so we’ll just disregard our less skeptical atheist brethren.

Anything and everything that happens in such a universe is meaningless. A tree falls. A young girl is rescued from sexual slavery. A dog barks. A man is killed for not espousing the national religion. These are all actions that can be known and explained but never given any meaning or value.

I wish that Henderson had elaborated on this point, because it really does merit a better defence than bald assertion. Indeed, if his argument had been phrased thus:

These are all actions that can be known and explained but do not possess any inherent meaning or value.

I would have no problem with this statement. From the perspective of the universe, a barking dog and the liberation of a sex slave have precisely the same lack of meaning. This is, of course, due to the very salient point that the universe is a gigantic physical phenomenon lacking its own consciousness, and therefore the very tools to make a value judgement. Where Henderson’s assertion falls apart, and likely the reason that he neglected to phrase it that way, is his failure to notice that there is something within the universe that does possess a consciousness, and therefore the tools for the job – humans. We make dozens, if not hundreds, of value or meaning judgements every day, whether about war crimes or the quality of our morning coffee. Such value judgements, imposed as they are from the exterior of an object or event, are instrumental, rather than inherent. Henderson’s article fails to make this crucial distinction, and so he only argues as to the impossibility of the ascription of inherent meaning by atheists. Instrumental meaning is still our plaything.

A good atheist — that is, a consistent atheist — recognizes this dilemma. His only reasonable conclusion is to reject objective meaning and morality. Thus, calling him “good” in the moral sense is nonsensical. There is no morally good atheist, because there really is no objective morality.

Again, I agree with Henderson in his conclusion, with the qualification that I agree only is his use of “objective meaning and morality” means “meaning and morality independent of the status of conscious creatures”. I doubt Henderson would object to my reading of his words. Objective meaning, in Henderson’s view, demands some medium through which such meaning can exist, which does indeed seem to demand at least a universe-wide force with the ability to make value judgements. (It ought to be noted that I don’t see exactly how the morality imposed by a god is any less subjective than that imposed by a human – it remains subject to one particular entity. He’s just bigger than you.) But yet again, Henderson neglects to mention a version of objective morality and meaning that seems quite at home in this materialistic, scientific, and impersonal universe. This objective morality is objective insofar as it is applicable to all conscious creatures in an objective way – see Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape. In a universe of unconscious rocks, this morality, unlike Henderson’s morality, would no longer exist, but as long as there are conscious creatures capable of flourishing and suffering, objective morality is possible. Objective meaning, in this sense, is more problematic, and I confess that I have thought far less about this side of the issue. However, meaning is of less pragmatic value than morality, and therefore it seems less imperative to argue for objective meaning than for objective morality.

While Henderson cannot does not mention these nuances concerning meaning and its application, one of the three atheists he quote blatantly state the point, evidently avoiding his notice:

“Modern science directly implies that there … is no ultimate meaning for humans.” (Emphasis mine)
–William Provine

Provine is quite correct in his assertion that there is no ultimate meaning for humans, and thus there is no problem with this statement. One can easily deny the existence of ultimate meaning while allowing for the existence of more fleeting senses of meaning, or simply a meaning that doesn’t outlive the person providing the meaning.

“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. … DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”
–Richard Dawkins

As stated above the universe, by its very nature, is entirely incapable of offering us anything but “blind, pitiless indifference”, but Dawkins is a poor choice for quote-mining. This is a man who dedicated an entire book to finding meaning and wonder in the universe, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder. One quote should suffice to show that Dawkins is entirely capable of finding meaning in this cold, faceless cosmos:

“The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.”

The final quote offered by Henderson is slightly more supportive of the argument he is trying to make, but can still be broken down to a point where it too argues for personal, subjective meaning over any ultimate value.

“No species, ours included, possesses a purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history.” (Emphasis mine)
–Edward O. Wilson

Firstly, this does offer a purpose or meaning for humankind, albeit a rather limited and uninspiring one – not that continuing the species is an entirely unpleasant process. But Wilson plainly states that this purpose only applies at the species level. Unfamiliar as I am with Wilson, I cannot say whether or not he would agree that individuals can have whatever purpose they choose, but his comments do not disallow this, and I’m happy to take that position myself.

Henderson next states two possible stances that atheists can take regarding a moral foundation, a socio-biological evolutionary approach and a logical approach. The short version is that is it not his readers who are guilty of strawmanning. Read his article and draw your own conclusions about the necessity of atheists taking up these positions in their attempt at “continuing the delusion of objective morality.” Once again, our definitions of “objective morality” are causing a divergent conversation. A particularly telling point about his comment is the scoffing way in which he notes that, “All logical arguments for morality assume that human thriving, happiness and dignity are superior to contrary views.” Why not assume this, at least provisionally, and wait for the results of taking this line of reasoning? To quote Sam Harris, to ask why human thriving is superior to human suffering is to, “hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question.” Henderson may wish to argue that there is no objective difference, as far as the human perspective is concerned, between a world of maximal human flourishing and maximal human suffering, but he might not appreciate just how this would make him look.

As the title states, I do agree with Henderson on particular points. I agree that inherent meaning does not exist, and I agree that objective meaning and morality, in the sense he is using, do not exist. The problem lies in his utter disregard for human agency in matters of meaning and morality, and in his assumption that objective has some abstract, higher meaning – meaning apparently unaffected by being the subjective judgement of the personal being in which, given he is a pastor, I assume Henderson believes. Again accepting his inaccurate definition of “atheist”, a materialistic and scientific nonbeliever is perfectly capable of ascribing any meaning to anything they wish, and can also make a good faith attempt to reach an objective morality that benefits their fellow primates, rather than merely enforcing the diktats of the god du jour (mixing non-English loan-words FTW). Because the dirty little secret of Henderson’s argument is that not only does he fail to discredit the ability of atheists to find meaning and morality, but he fails to notice that his own worldview fails to make this possible. Morality does not become objective because the one passing along the message is all-powerful, and meaning becomes merely impersonal and imposed if it must conform to the divine will. And to quote Henderson for a final time, “How do we explain objective meaning and morality that we know are true? If a worldview can’t answer this question, it doesn’t deserve you.”

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Sagan and Hope

December is a heavy month for the Deathdays of atheistic celebrities – Christopher Hitchens and Kim Jong-Il being the most obvious examples. However, there is one that slipped my mind before being reminded by Jerry Coyne. (Not personally, obviously. Despite deigning to pose for a picture with me, Dr. Coyne and I are not on a first name basis…) 17 years ago today, Carl Sagan died. At the time, I was a fresh-faced five-year-old with no concept of… well… anything, but many years later, I discovered Sagan’s work through the incredible documentary series Cosmos, and John D. Boswell’s fantastic Symphony of Science videos. Apart from his enviable eyebrows and aurally orgasmic voice, what most struck me about Sagan was how obviously he was enamoured with science, and its ability to explain the world around us. Particularly stirring is his image of the pale blue dot, that tiny orb upon which every great figure, every incredible idea and every single human event ever occurred. Sagan phrases it much more elegantly, of course:

Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

I still look up often, and on a cloudless night am struck by a terrifying feeling of insignificance, staring as I am into effective infinity. But Sagan has these comforting words:

For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.

This profound statement says almost all that is necessary about humanism. When challenged to explain how love evolved, or how it can have meaning in a world of “mere” chemical reactions, or why those of us without a god don’t commit suicide en masse, this is my response.

As I said about Hitchens just a few days ago, I admire the stoicism and courage with which Sagan faced his death. Both men had the questionable advantage of seeing their end coming to meet them, and this makes their adherence to principle and their refusal to give in to delusion all the more admirable. Sagan’s thoughts on death are as comforting and reasonable as his thoughts on our cosmic finitude:

I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.

Not much else needs to be said by me about Sagan. He was more than capable of speaking for himself, and his Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark is still a superb primer for any budding sceptic. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space will quickly knock any anthropocentric chauvinism on the head. And Cosmos (both the book and the television series) will provide a riveting introduction to life, the universe, and everything.

On a final note, Sagan also counts as my favourite celebrity chef, purely for his apple pie recipe:

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

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Hitchens and Mortality

Well, it’s after midnight, which means I’ve been terribly remiss. Two years ago yesterday, 15 December 2011, Christopher Hitchens died. (Incidentally, two years ago today, Kim Jong-Il died, broken-hearted at having lost the one person on Earth who understood what a truly twisted, cockatiel-haired little psychopath he was.) Hitchens’ death affected me more profoundly than the death of any other public figure, and recently reading his autobiography and re-reading his short volume “Letters to a Young Contrarian” both saddened me and emboldened me to renew my efforts to make some impact, however small, towards making this planet a better place for my fellow primates to live. The man himself would likely have regarded me as slightly obsequious, but sometimes it is hard to repress feelings of admiration. I didn’t agree with him about everything, but he could never be accused of having made a statement lightly, or of being unable to defend his positions with admirable reasoning, delivered in an infuriatingly clever way. As for thoughts on death, I’ve yet to hear someone better Hitchens:

“Well, to the people who pray for me to not only have an agonising death, but then be reborn to have an agonising and horrible eternal life of torture, I say, ‘Well, good on you. See you there.”

And:

“They call it gallows humor for a reason. You may laugh at death all you like, but only on the condition that you allow death the concluding cackle.”

To follow Hitchens’ own advice, it is important to remember to regard every expert as a mammal. Hitchens was every bit the fallible human, capable of error, boorishness and arrogance. However, I would claim that it could never be said of him that he was a friend to tyranny, earthly or celestial, and nor was he willing to surrender an inch of hard-won ground to those offering threats of eternal or temporal harm. Unlike prophets and preachers, whose words must be regarded as sanctified and inviolable, instead we ought to take Hitchens’ work as exactly what it is – the thoughts of a fellow human, sometimes correct, sometimes incorrect, but always worth considering and challenging. Even violent disagreement, if it stimulates thought and results in a more well-reasoned conclusion, can be of tremendous value.

From Hitchens, I learned that the written word can stir more than simple emotion or excite the imagination. Purpose and intent can be communicated through the pages of a book, and can stimulate a strangely irresistible impulse to action in the right mind. For now, I can honestly say that I don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I do know how I want to do it – boldly, intelligently, and always remembering that as this is the only life of which we can be assured, squandering too much of it on useless or malicious endeavours is an irretrievable waste.

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