Monthly Archives: April 2014

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

There is a trope called the “Pyrrhic Victory”, which references a Greek king who achieved a desperate victory at the expense of destroying his own armies. The basic concept is that an empty success is snatched at the cost of your own side along with the enemy’s. This idea is also inherent in the “scorched earth” strategy, where one retreats in the face of an overwhelming attack, while burning and salting your own territory, rendering it as useless to your foe as it is to you. Why bring up these suicidal military tactics? Because both of these approaches seem to drip from a very peculiar response levelled by believers against atheists: Atheism is just one more religion among many.

Coming from the religious themselves, the accusation of religiosity as a criticism is an extraordinary attempt at a knock-down argument. What could be more self-refuting than an argument that states, “You are unjustified because you are the same as me”? This seems to be the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory. If atheism is just another religion, then it is just as superstitious, irrational and baseless as any other faith. Congratulations, you have successfully argued that those who disagree with you are just as absurd and bewildered as you are. The statement is certainly not intended as a compliment. When a Christian says to another Christian, “Your faith is admirable,” they intend a great compliment. When the same sentiment is offered to an atheist, the intent is a snide potshot. I understand that words can have different meanings, but with such a foundational concept, it is unwise to define it in diametrically opposed ways. It may begin to look like you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Let us grant the premise for the sake of argument. Atheism is not the end point of an examination of god claims and finding them wanting, nor a result of lacking any exposure to them. Rather, it is a position based upon faith, the groundless failure to accept that any deity exists. Theism and atheism are therefore left on equal footing, right? Well, no. A belief is relatively reasonable if, while it lacks real justification, it accurately reflects the way the world works. We would look more kindly on a heliocentrist than a geocentrist, even if their belief is based on nothing more than personal preference. There are better and worse reasons to believe, but a correct belief is better than a false one, even if it falls short of actual knowledge. So in the presence of a universe operating by physical laws, wherein all the suffering and chaos and wonder one might expect in an unsupervised space exists, atheism still seems eerily like one of these true beliefs. The claims of the religious of miraculous events and benevolent superintendence are as ridiculous as ever, regardless of the faithfulness of their opponents.

This is where my generosity ends. Atheism does not fit any description of religion that isn’t so hopelessly diffuse as to also bring sports fanaticism and knitting club membership into the fold of faith. We use definitions as limiters, to distinguish things by noting those characteristics that are shared by that group and not by everything else. Thus atheism can easily be excluded from the category of “religion” by its failure to participate in the necessary features thereof. Admittedly, religion is difficult to define, but most people have something specific in mind when they use the word, and it may be accepted that a layman’s definition is sufficient for the purpose.

A religion generally includes a belief in some kind of deity or deities, whether deistic, theistic or pantheistic. Daoism and Buddhism do not necessarily fall under this umbrella, and for this reason it may be argued that these are closer to philosophies than religions – though some sects of Buddhism do hold a belief in the deity of the Buddha. Atheism spectacularly fails to fulfil this requirement, by its very definition. This is an analytically true statement: Atheism is the lack of belief in a god, and therefore atheists lack a belief in a god. No further empirical investigation is necessary. The vast majority of religions include a belief in an additional cornucopia of supernatural propositions. If one lacks belief in god, prayer and miracles become untenable. And while the term “atheism” only applies to the belief in god, most atheists in my experience – in the West, as many Chinese atheists hold traditional beliefs like ancestor worship – are also sceptics and materialists, and this certainly excludes these atheists from being religious believers. Religions commonly have a text or set of texts that are seen as essential and inviolable, often claimed to contain tales of gods, inspiration from same, or even direct communication from the divine. While atheists may have personal favourites and admired authors and thinkers, we stop far short of deification and are all too aware of their human limitations. I have great affection for the works of David Hume, but I will freely state that his views on race were backwards and vile.

Remove god, the supernatural and holy texts from religion, and what are we left with? Groups of people with similar ideas who meet regularly and celebrate particular days, identifying under a particular label. There is nothing now to differentiate between a religion and a political party or supporter’s club. A definition that describes everything describes nothing and should be discarded as useless. So, no meaningful definition of religion can include atheism. This leaves the theists’ scorched earth policy as a failure on two fronts: it is factually incorrect, and even if used damages theism more than it does atheism.


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Easter Special – Almost 10 Reasons Jesus Came to Die

This Easter weekend, it’s prudent to remember the reason for the season: the appropriation by Christianity of another conveniently-timed pagan celebration. However charity is a virtue, and it would be terrible manners to ignore Jesus during his special vacation time. Happily, I was presented with a timely gospel tract explaining to this rudderless heathen precisely why it was necessary for an apocalyptic prophet from 1st Century Palestine to be executed in a truly hideous manner. This information comes courtesy of John Piper and Good News Publishers of Wheaton, Illinois. There are a nice round ten reasons for this human sacrifice, so let us delve in.

10. To destroy hostility between the races

“Jesus died to create a whole new way for races to be reconciled: he “has broken down… the dividing wall of hostility… making peace… through the cross.” (Ephesians 2:14-16).”

We begin with a double-whammy of violent departure from reality and a staggering case of missing the point. Is Piper seriously suggesting that the history of Christianity has been marked by a diminution of “suspicion, prejudice, and demeaning attitudes between Jews and non-Jews”? This might have been more convincing if the death of Jesus, as reported in the Gospel of Matthew, was not attributed to the Jews collectively – “All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us, and on our children.” (Matthew 27:25) – which led to Easter pogroms for centuries, and the odious historical artefact of the “blood curse” and the charge of generalised Jewish deicide. Though since repudiated by the Roman Catholic Church in The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and by the majority of Christians around the world, it is undeniable that during the intervening centuries, Jesus death was not a source of harmony between the Jews and their neighbours. Immediately afterwards, we are treated to a stellar example of doublethink. The death of Jesus is the “only means” of reconciliation between the races. This is to be achieved by stark division between religions, with only Christianity being acceptable. This reveals exactly the method by which this racial equality is to be achieved; I will accept you exactly as you are, provided that you change your beliefs and agree with me. Now we see where the Jews went wrong for all those years. If only they had stopped being the thing that Christians hated, Christians would have stopped hating them. It completely escapes me why racial reconciliation is not possible without this forced conversion to a uniform belief. The attempt to apportion credit for any progress we have made in destroying racism to Jesus’ death stands in opposition to historical fact and basic common sense.

9. To give marriage its deepest meaning

“God’s design for marriage is for a husband  to love his wife the way Christ loves his people, and for the wife to respond the way Christ’s people should.”

Evidently Jesus’ death allowed us to bolster the sexist idea that there is something different owed by men and women when it comes to relationships. It is telling that the biblical quotation offered begins at Ephesians 5:25, and that the previous verses are referred to only obliquely. These are the famous passages urging female subjugation:

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” (Ephesians 5:22-24).

It has been argued that men are equally asked to sacrifice for the benefit of their wives, but these passages still place men firmly in the driving seat, and demand submission only from women. To suggest that the deepest meaning of marriage is an asymmetrical power relationship between two people based entirely on the configuration of their genitalia, rather than an equal partnership between loving and consensual adult humans is approaching bigotry, and certainly pales in comparison to our evolving ideas about gender equality. This is not even to mention the love that, once upon a time, dare not speak its name; would two husbands be bereft of a willing submissive, and two wives be paralysed by their mutual lack of disturbingly paternal guidance? Of course, gay marriage cannot participate in the depth of heterosexual marriage, and ought not to be considered. If marriage demands inequality, whether between spouses or sexualities, it reveals not a deepness of meaning, but a whiff of the sinister and oppressive.

8. To absorb the wrath of God

“Not to punish [sin] would be unjust. So God sent his own Son, Jesus, to divert sin’s punishment from us to himself.”

We are only on the third reason, and already the incoherent concepts begin to snowball into an incomprehensible avalanche of incomprehensibility. The central issue is scapegoating as a form of justice. The term originates in a primitive belief that one could throw one’s sins onto a beast of burden, then sacrifice the creature as a form of absolution. This is explicitly the case with Jesus; he is the perfect sacrifice, absolving us of all of our sins. But this is simply not justice, it is morally absurd. Justice would be to reward or punish people based upon their actions. But in this case, justice is defined as allowing another to die, not only taking the punishment of humankind, but also their responsibility. This cannot be done. Even if I were to pay your fine or serve your time in prison, the responsibility for your crime remains inextricably yours. So Jesus’ death is not justice, as presented.

Additionally, this involves us in the logical Gordian knot of the Trinity, forcing us to accept that God sacrificed himself in order to subvert his own demand for bloody justice. (Incidentally this Gordian knot can be untied in much the same way as the original; slicing to the point and rejecting that the Godhead can be fully three and fully one as ridiculous.) What pressure could a god be under to act in such a convoluted way, when he is the one making the rules?

Finally, I have spoken before on the severity of an offence scaling negatively with the power of the victim. Punching a child is a greater evil than punching a 300lb bodybuilder. And so the snivelling claim that sin against “the Ruler of the Universe is somehow worthy of greater punishment has been addressed and defeated.

7. So that we would escape the curse of the law

“The laws demands have been fulfilled by Christ’s perfect law-keeping, its penalty fully paid by his death… Our only hope is having the blood and righteousness of Christ credited to our account.”

The Gospel of Ryan Gosling Movies tells us that Only God Forgives, but this seems to be something of which God is incapable. Again, God is running the entire production, and so would be perfectly capable of simply forgiving humankind. Why is he subject to such strange restrictions? Setting aside for the moment that substitutionary atonement – scapegoating – is unjust, the pantomime of God demanding an impossible recompense for an unachievable crime and then intervening in human form to solve the conundrum is entirely unbelievable. God places us under the curse of the law, setting us up to fail, and we are expected to fall to our knees in gratitude when he fixes his own mistake. As far as is apparent, God is as responsible for the curse of the law as he is for our lucky escape.

6. To reconcile us to God

“”He took the steps we could not take to remove his own judgment by sending Jesus to suffer in our place: “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10).”

Remember that the steps that God took to remove his own judgement did not involve simply deciding not to judge, but rather took the form of some improbable gestation, a decades-long interim and a sanguine execution. The Almighty clearly has a penchant for the dramatic. All we are asked to do is accept that our agency has been removed and agree that this grisly and theatrical event was for our benefit. Acquiesce to human sacrifice and eternal life can be yours. At this juncture, I want to state that these ten reasons are beginning to thin. The absorption of God’s wrath is our escape from the curse of the law and therefore our reconciliation with God. The concept of the Trinity seems infectious, as it is unclear whether these are three things or one thing.

5. To show God’s love for sinners

“The measure of God’s love us shown by the degree of his sacrifice in saving us from the penalty of our sins… the sacrifice the Father and the Son made to save us was indescribably great! The measure of his love increases still when we consider the degree of our unworthiness.”

Christopher Hitchens was very fond of a passage from Fulke Greville’s Mustapha which perfectly illustrates this view of wretched humanity:

“Oh, wearisome condition of Humanity!

Born under one law, to another bound.

Vainly begot and yet forbidden vanity.

Created sick, commanded to be sound.”

Humankind has a lot to answer for: the corruption of God’s perfect creation, myriad sins of violence and selfishness, not being careful in their culinary choices. So worthless are we that we are born evil, stained with the sins of our fathers. And despite our repellent nature, God still finds it in himself to love us. That God who created humans with no knowledge of good and evil, then expected them to make moral choices. That God who programmed us with sexual instincts and the capacity for anger, then condemns us for our lust and hatred. The God who punishes not only the original transgressor, but all people for all time. Could a more perfectly abusive relationship be described? God creates imperfect humans – for perfect humans would never have erred in the first place – and then demands perfection, and is surprised when we fail again and again. Human unworthiness, such as it is, is eclipsed by the divine incompetence of our fumbling architect.

Reports of God’s sacrifice have been much exaggerated. “[T]he degree of his sacrifice” extends to approximately 30-35 years of living as a human, culminating in a horrendous death by one of the most sadistic methods conceived by humankind. For an infinite and eternal being, this is less time than the merest blink of an eye. Even considering the gruesome execution, Jesus endured one day of torture and dying, before returning to his own kingdom for three days, before returning from the grave. After a brief interlude, he returned to heaven to sit at God’s right hand. I leave it to your reason to judge the sense of God being both omnipresent and confined to a human body, before taking up residence on his own right hand. A true sacrifice involves losing something. A true gift involves giving something away. God did neither of these things. If God has a son, he still has his son; nothing was lost. Conversely, if I were to sacrifice my hypothetical son in a fit of utter madness, leading to his death, he would be truly lost to me. I wouldn’t then get to enjoy his company for eternity. God’s love for sinners proves to be nothing more than an empty façade, a show to impress his own victims. 

4. To show Jesus’ own love for us

“Jesus paid the highest price possible to give me – personally – the greatest gift possible.”

I confess myself confused again. What is the difference between God’s love and Jesus’ love if they are the same being? And why is this “sacrifice” any less vacuous than the Father’s? Again, Jesus paid a pittance to offer an illusory carrot, with the ever-present threat of a luckily equally illusory stick.

3. To take away our condemnation

“Christ becomes our punishment (which we don’t have to bear) and our worth before God (which we cannot earn)… It is as sure that they cannot be condemned as it is sure that Christ died!”

The final sentence presents me with an opportunity to be sardonic, and I can rarely resist this temptation. The surety of Jesus’ death is far from solid, though I will admit that it eclipses my conviction that any such death could possibly form a magical shield around a person, armouring them against condemnation by an omnipotent being. All I ask is a modicum of consistency. In this system, humans are entirely devoid of agency, except when they are sinning. It is exceedingly odd that our actions are powerful enough to doom us, but never capable of saving us. It is strange to simultaneously be so mighty and so impotent. There has been frequent talk throughout this tract of a “gift” of freedom from the punishment we so sorely deserve, but here we discover the hidden charge for this gift: belief. Despite our inability to earn our absolution, we can do something in order to make our absolution possible. Evidently this is a definition of “earn” with which I am unfamiliar.

2. To bring us to God

“The gospel is the good news that at the cost of his Son’s life, God has done everything necessary to captivate us with what will make us eternally and ever-increasingly happy – namely, himself.”

The allure of God is not enhanced but rather marred by his participation in blood sacrifice in a curious attempt to subvert his own regulations. Ought we trust the being who cannot understand that, being omnipotent, he can just fix things in an instant, with justice meted out in a fair way rather than using an ethically simplistic one-size-fits-all penal system? Particularly, should we trust his nebulous promises of happiness everlasting? Eternal life as a positive is the result of human greed and human failure of imagination. An eternity of anything would become torture, simply given the nature of eternity. I find the notion of “ever-increasingly happy” rather telling that Piper recognises this problem, and thinks that scaling happiness will resolve the issue. Humans, being finite, possess a maximum happiness in which they can participate, and once this logic is reached the torture of eternity will soon set in. This could perhaps be avoided by humankind advancing to become a singularity of consciousness, an enormous and limitless cloud focussed entirely upon happiness, but this drifts into science fiction in an attempt to justify the childish idea of heaven.

1. To give eternal life to all who believe on him

I’m fairly certain that this was a typo, as I’ve never considered belief to be something to be placed atop another thing. I’ve explained already why eternal reward is a gift not worth having from an entity not worth respecting.

Easter seems to me to be the commemoration of an execution as if it were necessary, a resurrection as if it were factual, and a farce as if it were providential. Once again we are asked to dwell on the inborn depravity of every human, bestowed upon us by our loving creator, who then offers a complex and violent get-out clause based on subjugation. Instead of the seemingly more attainable forgiveness. Thankfully, Easter is more or less entirely secularised, with eggs and rabbits taking presence over death and shame. Good thing too, as chocolate seems to gain something wonderful from being shaped into an egg. Long may the heartless exploitation of every culturally significant holiday continue.

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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


Filed under Personal, Philosophy

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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