an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

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spirituality issues, encore

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a mob of didges, right way up

a mob of didges, right way up

To me – and I’ve written about this before – the invocation of the supernatural, the ‘call’ of the supernatural, if you will, is something deeply psychological, and so not to be sniffed at, though sniff at it I often do.

I’m prompted to write about this because of a program I saw recently on Heath Ledger (Australia’s own), an understandably romantic, mildly hagiographic presentation, in which a few film directors and friends fondly remembered him as wise beyond his years, with hidden depths, a kind of inner force, a certain je ne sais quoi, that sort of thing. As both a romantic and a skeptic, I was torn as usual. The word ‘spiritual’ was given an airing, unsurprisingly, though mercifully it wasn’t dwelt on. I once came up with my own definition of spirituality: ‘To be spiritual is to believe there’s more to this world than this world, and to know that by believing this you’re a better person than those who don’t believe it’. This might sound a mite cynical but I didn’t mean it to be, or maybe I did.

Anyway one of Ledger’s associates, a film director I think, told this story of the young Heath. A number of friends were partying in his apartment when he, the director, picked up a didgeridoo, which obviously Ledger had brought with him from Australia, and attempted to play it, but not knowing much about the instrument, held it upside-down. Heath gently took it from him and corrected him, saying ‘no, no, if you hold it that way it will lose its power, the power of the instrument and its maker,’ or some such thing. And the seriousness and respectfulness with which this young actor spoke of his didge impressed the director, who considered this a favourite memory, something which caught an ‘essence’ of Ledger that he wanted to preserve.

I’ve been bothered by this tale, and by my ambivalent response to it, ever since. It would be superfluous, I suppose, to say that I don’t believe that briefly holding a didge upside-down has any permanent effect on its musical power.

It’s quite likely that Ledger didn’t believe this either, though you never know. What I’m fairly sure of, though, was that his respectfulness was genuine, and that there was something very likeable, to me at least, in this.

All of this takes me back to a piece I wrote some years ago, since lost, about big and small religions. I was contrasting the ‘big’ religions, like Catholicism and the two main strands of Islam, with their political power in the big world, often horrific in its impact, with the ‘small’ religions or spiritual belief systems, such as those found among Australian Aboriginal or some African societies, who have no political power in the big world but provide their adherents with identity and a kind of social energy that’s marvelous to contemplate. My piece focused on the art work of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, whose prolific and astonishing oeuvre, with its characteristic energy and vitality, clearly owed so much to the beliefs and practices of her ‘mob’, the so-called Utopian Community in Central Australia, between Alice Springs and Tenant Creek to the north.

Those beliefs and practices include dreaming stories and totemic identifications that many western skeptics, such as myself, might find difficult to swallow, in spite of a certain romantic appeal. The fact is, though, that the Utopian Community has been remarkably successful, in terms of the usual measures of well-being, and particularly in the area of health and mortality, compared to other Aboriginal groups, and its success has been put down to tighter community living, an outdoor outstation life, the use of traditional foods and medicines, and a greater resistance to the more destructive western products, such as alcohol.

This might put a red-blooded but reflective skeptic in something of a quandary, and the response might be something like – ‘well, the downside of their vitality and health, derived from spiritual beliefs which have served them well for thousands of years, is that, in order to preserve it, they must live in this bubble of tribal thinking, unpierced by modern evolutionary or cosmological knowledge, and this bubble must inevitably burst.’ Must it? Is there a pathway from tribalism to modern globalism that isn’t entirely destructive? Is the preservation of tribal spiritual beliefs a good thing in itself? Can we take the statement, that holding a didgery-doo upside-down affects its spirit, as a truth over and above, or alongside, the contrasting truths of physical laws?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, of course. Groping my way through these issues, I would say that we should respect and acknowledge those beliefs that give a people their dignity, and which have served them for so long, but perhaps that’s because we’re feeling the generosity of someone outside that system who’s unlikely to be affected or to feel diminished by it. These are, after all, small religions, from our perspective, not the big, profoundly ambitious religions intent on global domination, with their missionaries and their jihadists and their historical trampling of other belief systems, as in Mexico and South America and Africa and here in Australia.

Of course there’s the question – what if those small religions grew bigger and more ambitious? Highly unlikely – but what if?

Written by stewart henderson

February 16, 2014 at 10:22 am

Should we be lumpers or splitters over our hominid ancestors?

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D4500 on the right

D4500 on the right

As I’m overwhelmed and a bit stressed by work issues, I’ve not posted here for a while, or to be precise I’ve got three or four posts going which I’ve not been able to finish. So I’ve decided to throw something down and push it out today no matter what.

A fascinating post on the John Hawks blog, alerted to me by Butterflies and Wheels. He goes into much detail on an issue that has fascinated me, in my dilettantish way. My general reading on human ancestry, which turned up names such as Homo erectus, Homo habilis, Homo ergaster, Homo rudolfensis, Homo heidelbergensis et al, together with the information that the remains of these hominids or hominins were scanty and their precise identities disputed, made me wonder from my distant armchair whether they all represented different species or just variants of the one. Of course I have no expertise at all, and I don’t know the difference between a species and a subspecies, but my reading did make me aware that this was a genuine issue amongst paleoanthropologists.

The Hawks post, which takes its departure from a paper published on a recently revealed specimen of Homo erectus, goes into some detail on all this. The cranial specimen, D4500, from Dmanisi in Georgia, is the best-preserved of any so far discovered. The writers of the paper take the opportunity to put forward the view that the early Homo finds, such as D4500 and remains from the Malapa fossil site in South Africa, and by inference a number of others, represent a single lineage, a view with which Hawks largely concurs. So there, I told you so.

Of course Hawks goes into a lot of detail, and expresses his views with the diffidence we generally find in true scientists, but I’m delighted to find my vague sense of things so thoroughly supported. i must be a lumper, but of course I’m prepared to change my mind at the slightest change in the winds of research. Now I just need to work out where all those Australopithecines fit into the general picture, without moving too far from my armchair, of course.

Written by stewart henderson

November 4, 2013 at 4:26 pm

on transcendental constructions: a critique of Scott Atran

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Some years ago, when watching some of the talks and debates in the first ‘Beyond Belief’ conference at the Salk Institute, I noted some tension between Sam Harris and his critique of religion generally and Islam in particular, and Scott Atran, an anthropologist, who appeared to be quite contemptuous of Harris’s views. Beyond noting the tension, I didn’t pay too much attention to it at the time, but I’ve decided now to look at this issue more closely because I’ve just read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s powerful book Infidel, which gives an insider’s informed and critical view of Islam, particularly from a woman’s perspective, and I’ve also listened to Chris Mooney’s Point of Inquiry interview with Atran back in April, shortly after the Boston marathon bombing.

The interview, called ‘What makes a terrorist?’ was mainly about the psychology of the more recent batch of terrorists, but in the latter half, Atran responded to a question about the role of Islam specifically in recent terrorist behaviour. It’s this response I want to examine, not so much in the light of Sam Harris’s contrasting views, but in comparison to those of Hirsi Ali.

In bringing up the role of Islam in terrorism, Chris Mooney cites Sam Harris as pointing out that ‘there’s something about Islam today that is more violent’. Atran’s immediate response is that ‘this is such a complex and confused issue’, then he says that ‘religions are fairly neutral vessels’. This idea that religions, especially those that survive over time, have a degree of neutrality to them, has some truth, and in fact it served as the basis for my critique of Melvyn Bragg’s absurd claims that Christianity and the KJV Bible were largely responsible for feminism, democracy and the anti-slavery movement. But there is a limit to this ‘neutrality’. Religions are clearly not so ‘neutral’, morally or culturally, that they’re interchangeable with each other. Fundamentalist, or ultra-orthodox, or ultra-conservative Judaism is not the same as its Islamic or Christian counterparts. In fact, far from it. And yet these three religions ostensibly share the same deity.

The interaction between religion and culture is almost impenetrably complex. I wrote about this years ago in an essay about traditional Australian Aboriginal religion/culture, in which it’s reasonable to say that religion is culture and culture is religion. In such a setting, apostasy would be meaningless or impossible – essentially a denial of one’s own identity. Having said that, if your religion, via one of its principal texts, tells you that apostasy is punishable by death, you’ve already got a yawning separation between religion and cultural identity – the very reason for the excessive threat of punishment is to desperately try to plug that gap. It’s like the desperate cry of a father – ‘you’ll never amount to anything without me!’ – as the son walks out the door for the last time.

These major religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – are embedded in texts that are embedded in culture. Different, varied texts interacting complexly – reinforcing, challenging, altering the culture from whence they sprung. Differently. Judaism’s major text, always arguably, is the Torah. Christianity’s is the New Testament, or is it the gospels? Islamic scholars – but also those believers who rarely ever read the sacred texts – will argue about which texts are most important and why. Nevertheless, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have a different feel to them from each other, even given the enormous variation within each religion. Judaism is profoundly insular, with its chosen people uniquely flayed by their demanding, unforgiving god. Christianity is profoundly other-worldly with its obsession with the saviour, the saved, the end of days, the kingdom to come, the soul struggling for release, not to mention sin sin sin. Islam, a harsh, desert religion, somehow even more than the other two, is about denial, control, submission, and jihad in all its complex and contradictory manifestations and interpretations. The status of women in each religion, in a general sense, is different. Christianity gives women the most ‘wriggle-room’ from the start, but its interaction with the different cultures captured by the religion can sometimes open up that space, or close it down. The New Testament presents a patriarchal culture of course, but in the gospels women aren’t given too bad a rap. Paul of Tarsus notoriously displays some misogyny elsewhere in the NT, but it isn’t particularly specific and no detailed restrictions on women’s freedom are presented. More importantly, the dynamism of western culture has blown away many attempts to maintain the restrictions on women’s freedom dictated by Christian dogma – pace the Catholic Church. In any case, Christianity has no equivalent to Sharia Law, with its deity-given restrictions and overall fearfulness of the freedom and power of women. And neither Christianity nor Islam has the obsession with ritual and with interpretation of the deity’s very peculiar requirements that orthodox Judaism has.

To return, though, to Atran. He argues that the reason the big religions survive and thrive is precisely due to their lack of fixed propositions – which is why, he says, that we need sermons to continually update and modernise the interpretations of texts, parables, suras and the like. I’m not sure if the Khutbas of Moslem Imams serve the same purpose as priests’ sermons, but I generally agree with Atran here. The point, of course, is that though there is much leeway for interpretation, there are still boundaries, and the boundaries are different for Islam compared to Christianity, etc.

What follows is my analysis of what Atran has to say about what are, in fact, very complex and contentious matters relating to religion and social existence. Whole books could be, and of course are, devoted to this, so I’ll try not to get too bogged down. I’m using my own transcript of Atran’s interview with Mooney, slightly edited. Occasionally I can’t quite make out what Atran is saying, as he sometimes talks softly and rapidly, but I’ll do my best.

So, after his slightly over-simplified claim that these big religions are ‘neutral vessels’, Atran goes on with his definition. These religions are:

… moral frameworks that provide a transcendental moral foundation for large groups coalescing – for how else do you get genetic relatives to form large co-operative groups? They don’t have to be necessarily religious today, but it involves transcendental ideas. Take human rights, for example, that’s a crazy idea. Two hundred and fifty years ago a bunch of intellectuals in Europe decided that providence or nature made all human beings equal, endowed by their creator with rights to liberty and happiness, when the history of 200,000 years of human life had been mostly cannibalism, infanticide, murder, the suppression of minorities and women, and so [through the wars?] and social engineering, they took this crackpot idea and made it real.

I have a few not so minor quibbles to make here. Presumably Atran is using the term ‘transcendental’ in the way that I would use the term “over-arching’ – a much more neutral, and if you like, secular term. The trouble is – and he uses this term often throughout the interview – Atran uses ‘transcendental’ with deliberate rhetorical intent, taking advantage of its massive semantic load to undercut various secular concepts, in this case the ‘crackpot’ concept of human rights.

This isn’t to say that Atran objects to human rights. My guess is that he regards it as a somewhat arbitrary and unlikely concept, invented by a bunch of European intellectuals in the Enlightenment era, that just happened to catch on, and a good thing too. That’s not how I see it. It’s just much much more complex than that. So much so that I hesitate to even begin to explore it here. The germ of the concept goes back at least as far as Aristotle, and it involves the increasingly systematic study of human history, and human psychology. It involves the science of evolution, and it involves pragmatic global developments in commerce and diplomacy. Eighteenth century Enlightenment ideas had a catalytic effect, as did many developments of the scientific enlightenment of the previous century, as did the growth of democratic ideas and the concept of systematic universal education and health-care in the nineteenth century, in the west.

My point is that, though I have no problems with calling human rights a convenient fiction – nobody ‘really’ has rights as such – it’s based on a this-worldly (i.e. non-transcendental) understanding of how both individuals and societies flourish and thrive, in terms of the contract or compromise between them.

Atran goes on:

But, in general, societies that have unfalsifiable and unverifiable transcendental constructions win out over those that don’t –  I mean, Darwin talked about it as moral virtue, and said that this is responsible for the kind of patriotism, sympathy and loyalty that makes certain tribes win out over other tribes in […] competition for dominance and survival, and again, without these transcendental ideas people can’t really be blinded to [exit strategies], I mean, societies that are based on social contracts, no matter how good they are, the idea that there’s always a better deal down the line makes them liable to collapse, while these societies are much less prone to that. And there are all sorts of other things associated with these sorts of unverifiable propositions.

Presumably these ‘unfalsifiable and unverifiable transcendental constructions’ are religions, and I’ve no great objection to that characterisation, but I’m not so convinced about the positive value for ‘dominance and survival’ of these constructions. One could argue that my kind of scepticism can only flourish in a secure environment such as we have in the west, where such ‘undermining’ values as anti-nationalism and atheism can’t threaten the social cohesion of our collective prosperity and sense of superiority to non-western notions. There are just no ‘better deals down the line’, except maybe more health, wealth and happiness, commitment to which requires the very opposite of an ‘exit strategy’. In other words, western ‘social contract’ societies, in which religious belief is rapidly diminishing (outside the US), are showing no sign of collapsing, because there is no meaningful exit strategy, unless a delusional one. There is no desire or motivation to exit. We’re largely facing our demons and rejecting overly ‘idealistic’ solutions.

Perhaps my meaning will be clearer when we look at more of Atran’s remarks:

So now, the propositions, these things themselves can be interpreted, however, depending on the political and social climate of the age. Islam has been interpreted in ways that were extremely progressive at one time, and at least parts of it are extremely retrogressive, especially as concerns science for example, the position of women in the world, especially parts of it in many countries it’s extremely retrograde. But, Islam itself, I mean does it have some essence that encourages this kind of crazy violence? No, not at all – that truly is absurd, and just false.

Atran’s becoming a bit incoherent here, and maybe he expresses himself better elsewhere, but his base argument is that there’s no ‘essence’ to Islam which renders it more violent than other religions, or transcendental constructions (eg communism or fascism) for that matter. He overplays his hand, I think, when he claims that this is ‘absurd’ and obviously false. We could call this ‘the argument from petulance’. Islam does have some essential differences, I think, which makes it more able to act against women and against scientific ideas, though I agree that this is a matter of degree, and that it’s very complex. For example, the growth of Catholicism in Africa has combined with certain aspects of tribal culture and patriarchy to make African Catholic spokesmen very outspoken against homosexuality – and a recent local television program had a Moslem leader speaking up in favour of gay marriage. So, yes, there is nothing fixed in stone about Islam or Christianity with respect to human values.

The thing is that, for writers like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and I suspect Sam Harris too, the question of ‘essentialism’ is largely academic, for right here and right now people are being targeted by Moslems (under the pressure of cultural connections or disconnections), because they are apostates, or critics, or women trying to get an education, or women dressing too ‘immodestly’, and this is causing great tension, even to the point of death and destruction here and there. In fact, Hirsi Ali, in calling for an enlightenment in the Moslem world, is backing a non-essentialist view. It’s the culture that has to change, but of course religion, with its transcendentalist, eternalist underpinnings, acts as a strong brake against cultural transformation. To engage in the battle for moderation is to battle for this-wordly, evidence-based thinking on human flourishing, against transcendentalist ideas of all kinds.

Atran, I think, relies too heavily on his notion of ‘transcendental constructions’, which he uses too widely and sweepingly, even with a degree of smugness. Let me provide one more quote from his interview, with some final comments.

But again, I don’t see anything about Islam itself… you need some kind of transcendental ideal to get people to sacrifice for genetic strangers, for these large groups. Religion is the best thing that human history has come up with, but there are other competing transcendental notions of which democratic liberalism, human rights, communism, fascism, are others, and right now the democratic-liberal-human rights thing is predominant in a large part of the world and it’s a salvation [……..] and people don’t want that or feel left in the driftwood of globalisation, they are looking for something else to give them equal power and significance.

Methinks Atran might’ve been spending too much time in the study of religious/transcendental ideas – he’s seeing everything though that perspective. I myself have written about democracy, in its various manifestations, from a sceptical perspective many times, and I’ve been critical of the over-use of the concept of rights, and so forth. It’s true enough that people can take these concepts, along with fascism or communism, to a transcendental level, making of them an unquestionable given for ‘right living’ or ‘a decent society’, but they can also be taken pragmatically and realistically, reasonably, as the most serviceable approaches to a well-functioning social order. Social evolution is moving quickly, and we can make sacrifices for genetic strangers, based on our growing understanding, as humans, of our common genetic inheritance. We’re not so much genetic strangers, perhaps, as we once thought ourselves to be. Indeed, it’s this growing understanding, a product of science, that is expanding our circle of connection beyond even the human. We need to promote this understanding as much as we can, in the teeth of transcendentalist, eternalist, other-worldly ideas about submission to deities, heavenly rewards and spiritual superiority.

discipline and punish

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There’s a tendency in certain countries to treat a juvenile as an adult when she or he commits a crime considered ‘heinous’, as if the nature of the act somehow constitutes evidence of maturity, though we know that this is not necessarily so. A child can easily kill another child, or an adult, or adults, if the requisite weaponry is to hand. We know that a sixteen-year-old isn’t sufficiently mentally developed to be treated as an adult – otherwise she’d be permitted to vote, to drive a car (without P plates), to drink alcohol, to watch R rated films, to travel overseas without parental permission and so on. Yet when such a person commits a crime that seems to us particularly unpalatable, with significant victim impact, we appear to let that impact affect our judgment as to the responsibility of the perpetrator. This, I think, is a serious problem.

It’s particularly a problem in overly punitive states, such as the USA, with its frightening prison statistics, and its vast swathes of the population living in a kind of anarchic, dysfunctional, hopeless poverty. Some of these people experience almost their first taste of discipline in a courtroom, where they find themselves the playthings of a system impossible to comprehend, speaking an opaque language, operating with such an indifferent forcefulness as to render its subjects inert and fatalistic.

I don’t have a solution to the problem, I simply observe and feel the unfairness deep under the skin, but as I’ve said before in other contexts, don’t get angry, get educated, and that means informing yourself, where possible, of the causes of this perversion of what most reasonable people would see as the proper treatment of juveniles as individuals with diminished responsibility.

First, there are claims of a rise in juvenile offences in the USA from the nineties, but this is not substantiated, and even if it was true, incarceration would seem more an evasion of the problem than a solution. Second, there is a general rise, again in the USA, in punitive approaches to criminal behaviour, moving away from long-term, more humane trends which first emerged back in the seventeenth century and which were bolstered by the eighteenth century Enlightenment. We can see this in the restoration of capital punishment but also in increased length of sentences. The USA is the only country on the planet that permits life sentences without parole for juvenile offenders.

But this, of course, is exactly the question I’m asking. Why has the US criminal justice system turned its back on humane approaches to crime and punishment? Is it merely reacting to public pressure, and if so, why is there this public pressure? Is it a response to real increases in crime, or to a mere perception of such an increase? My limited research tells me that there is no great surge in the US crime stats, but those in favour of tough sentencing and treating juveniles as adults might well argue that it’s because of the tough sentencing that crime stats are being kept low. So rather than wading into the statistical morass engendered by such arguments, I’d prefer to look at a more obvious and clear-cut connection – that dysfunction and deprivation are profoundly associated with criminal activity as well as drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and the like.

I’m now going to make a seemingly bizarre leap from crime and drug-taking in dysfunctional and deprived areas of the USA to the choices made by laboratory rats. In The lab rat chronicles, Kelly Lambert describes experiments done with lab rats some decades ago, experiments that should have garnered far more attention than they did. Individually caged rats will increase their consumption of a drug when they can self-administer it by pressing a lever, and they’ll show clear signs of withdrawal when the drug is taken off the menu. In other experiments, rats were given the choice of water, sugar water and water laced with morphine or cocaine. They drank more of the drug-laced water than of the other choices. When injected with a drug in a particular environment, and with a saline solution in another environment, they consistently chose to be in the ‘drug’ environment, when subsequently asked to choose.

These are fascinating experiments suggesting that rats, like us, are drawn very much to drug-induced states. Right? Well, actually it’s more complicated than that, and these are not the experiments Lambert wants to draw our attention to.

The experiments I’m referring to were carried out by Bruce Alexander and colleagues in the early eighties. Alexander was interested in exploring the difference between the responses of lab rats, who generally lived in deprived, unstimulating and most likely stressful conditions, much like the inmates of a prison, and their wild and free relatives. So he created a rich, colourful and varied rat environment with lots of opportunities for the rats to entertain themselves, and each other, because they inhabited the much expanded space (some 200 times that of a standard rat cage) in groups of sixteen or more. When the drug experiments were repeated with these more socially active and choice-enriched rats, the results were very different. These rats were considerably less interested in the drugs on offer. As Lambert points out, it’s noticeable that rates of  addiction to drugs in prison are far higher than outside, in spite of all the obvious difficulties in obtaining them.

The fact that these important experimental results have been largely ignored in favour of exploring, in rats and in humans, the neural processes implicated in drug addiction, perhaps provides a clue to the imprisonment problem in the USA. Finding the neural pathways for drug addiction, and finding ways to block those pathways, assuming that it would ever turn out to be a simple process, would make the problem ‘go away’. No drug addiction, or no drug effect which would encourage the user to keep returning to the drug, means no problem, right?  You just ‘innoculate’ the drug user with the ‘drug blocker’ and she’s no longer an addict, and you go and collect your Nobel. It’s a bit like incarcerating everyone who commits a major crime – you make them ‘go away’. Far easier than trying to transform them by creating a whole new environment for them, full of stimulating activities, community supports, and roles and functions to tap into.

So when you look at the incarceration rates in different parts of the USA, and among different sub-groups, note how they correspond to regions and populations of deprivation and dislocation and systemic poverty. It’s not rocket science, but the real solutions are costly, and they require the kind of collective action that the USA, of all nations, is least capable of. Meanwhile, the USA is the only nation on the planet where, having committed a major crime as a juvenile, you can be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. That’ll learn em.

Written by stewart henderson

June 8, 2013 at 10:56 pm

fountains of good stuff 1: introduction

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Here is my first podcast in the new series, which I hope to continue with into the future, having worked out a simple format.

fountains of good stuff 1: introduction

Hi, my name is Stewart Henderson, and this is my introduction to fountains of good stuff, a series which will explore all sorts of things we’re learning about the brain, the galaxy, the past, the laws of nature, the strange behaviour of humans, and anything else that happens to take my fancy and which I think may be of interest to, well, somebody out there. In my fantasy world, I’d love to be constantly immersed in all this good stuff, learning about it, reading about it, talking to clever people about it, picking people’s brains about it, arguing about it, and just generally wallowing about in the stuff. Okay, with a dollop of sex thrown in occasionally. It’s a kind of lifelong learning thing, because you know, you’re never too old to learn, and learning is the best way to keep you young and enthusiastic, and to maintain the plasticity of your brain, apparently.

Now it just so happens that I myself am very very old, so I think it’s most appropriate that I should be presenting this ‘fountain of youth’-type series which I’m hoping will flow on and on and on unto oblivion, you know, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. And I’m hoping you can follow me along the downward spiral. Should be fun, n’est-ce pas?

So what’s the purpose of all this? Well, in my dotage, I’ve become very interested in knowledge, in finding things out, and also thinking about how we know things. Not in a philosophical way, but in a naïve, childlike way – a sense of wonder, often confusion, sometimes excitement, and sometimes skepticism. And maybe, this is philosophy, I don’t know. It seems to me that, as I get older, I become almost panic-stricken about how little I know about anything, as if I’ve wasted my life, or as if haven’t sufficiently explored and exercised this amazing thing I have inside my head.

There’s a funny story told about Pliny the Elder, a great Roman intellectual who had a servant follow him around all day, reading to him from works of natural history, the science of the time, so that when he was in his bath, sitting on the dunny, or at the dinner table, none of his time would be wasted, he’d be absorbing information during every waking hour. How he’d have loved the modern world of podcasting.

Of course, this is based on the notion of the brain as a great big bucket which you can pour contents into until it’s full up and you know everything, but the brain doesn’t work like that, and Pliny would’ve been well aware of that, he would’ve known that memory is unreliable, that we forget more than we retain and so on, but I can certainly sympathise with his hunger for more knowledge, perhaps in the hope that it would all somehow combine together in his mind, and even that his mind would transform it into more than the sum of its parts, like an oven does to the ingredients of a soufflé. Incidently Pliny, Jupiter bless him, was exactly my age when he died, overcome, so it’s said, by the fumes of Vesuvius, on the same day that it buried Pompei under its lava and ash.

Now where was I? Knowledge. I’m no scientist, in fact through most of my life I’ve been an arty-farty bludger type, but I’ve always been impressed, in fact in awe, of the achievements of science, and I’ve certainly always been interested in the questions science seeks to answer. What does it mean to be alive? Why do we sleep for so much of our lives? How did the world we live in come to be? What do we mean by ‘the world’? Is that an obsolete term or does it still have its uses? How is it that my pet cat has the same shape face as a lion, or a tiger? Exactly how is it different, and how the same? Why does my shit smell so bad, though not as bad as that of other people? Why am I so struck by the beauty of women, while noting that beauty’s infinite variety? How long will our species last? Is there life elsewhere in our solar system?

The number of questions is infinite, of course, or potentially so, and some of these questions we already have answers for, though there may turn out to be better answers, and there are some questions we’re close to finding answers for, and some questions that are unanswerable, or badly framed, or not worth worrying about, or too much of a worry. There are questions we can answer in a jiff via Wikipedia, and questions we wonder if anyone has ever asked before.

Whatever the questions, they all have something to do with knowledge, and it seems to me that science can always be let in to lend a hand. I don’t think science is anything mysterious or scary, it’s simply the way to knowledge. At least, the knowledge I’m interested in. Science is whatever generates reliable knowledge about the world. I’ve heard people say that ‘science doesn’t know everything’, as if science was a person, probably male, obsessive and slightly mad. They say this as if they think this science bloke is getting too big for his boots and needs to have a wadge of humble pie stuffed down his throat. But if you just treat science as an attempt to arrive at reliable knowledge, you’ll see how absurd this statement is. People try to arrive at reliable knowledge because they don’t know everything. And I would say that the vast majority of scientists are happy to admit that they don’t know much about anything. That’s what makes it such a challenge and so much fun, that there’s so much to learn and so much to think about. And if you can think of any other approach to knowledge that is of any use at all, please let me know, I’d be fascinated.

I know some philosophers say there’s no such thing as the scientific method, and I agree. There’s nothing you can point to, or write down, or put into a formula, and say, there’s the scientific method. I think of science as using an open-ended set of methodologies, each one more beautiful than the other, for arriving at reliable knowledge. They generally involve a lot of prior knowledge, a fair degree of creativity, and a balance of open-mindedness and skepticism. Now, I think I understand the Darwin-Wallace theory of natural selection. I can’t say that I fully understand Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, but I know enough about it to be pretty sure that the methods Einstein used to arrive at his theory have pretty well nothing in common with the methods of Darwin and Wallace. In fact I’d say that even Darwin and Wallace arrived at much the same theory using different methods, according to their different natures and experience. That’s the beauty and creativity of science, and there’s plenty of that around.

Science is essentially a way of life, and it’s the best diversion from the perils of self-absorption ever devised.

So I want to celebrate science and its achievements from my lay perspective, very much in the spirit of Bill Bryson in his wonderful book ‘A short history of nearly everything,’ and I immediately identify with Bryson when, in the beginning of his book, he recalls a text-book diagram from his school-days, which cut through the Earth’s inner layers, and the text told him that the inner core was made of molten nickel and iron, at a temperature something like the surface of the sun, and he asked himself – how did they know that? And still asks himself, as I do. How do they know that light travels at about 300,000 kms per second? How do they know that Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to us apart from the sun, is 4.24 light years away? How do they know? Well, it’s not really a mystery, and I’m hoping, as maybe old Pliny did, that it’ll all come together in my mind one day. With a bit of work.

I won’t always be talking about scientific knowledge, though, and how we come to know things. I have an interest in history, in biography, and in religion, its psychology, its history, and its claims to knowledge and influence. I’ll be talking about important and fascinating figures in intellectual history, from Hypatia to Antoni van Leeuwenhoek to Harry Hess. I’m doing it for self-education and for communication, so if you hear any of these talks, and think you’ve learned something from them or been stimulated by them to learn more, I hope you’ll recommend them to your friend. And some people, I hear, have more than one.

So that’s my introduction to these fountains of good stuff. I hope it wasn’t too discombobulating, and I’m hoping that one day, if I get rich, or meet someone who’s a techno wizard with a bit of time on their hands, that I’ll be able to add a few bells and maybe even a whistle or two, to make it all sound really cool.

Meanwhile, I hope you tune into my first fully gushing podcast, which will be about dolphins and their brains. See you then.

Written by stewart henderson

November 11, 2012 at 1:15 am

religion in australia: what the census tells us

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The 2011 Australian census stats, recently released, are good news for secularists, and it’s well worth dwelling on this and the overall picture of religion in Australia. I’ve been gathering bits of info from all over the net, but the graphic above, from a Wikipedia article on religion in Oz, and updated to include the latest figures, is probably the most useful thing I’ve found for quickly comprehending what’s been happening.

The census question on religion has always been the only voluntary question. So there’s always a percentage [8.6% in 2011] who don’t answer it. And of course there’s endless speculation as to how many of these are non-religious, a question that can never be answered. At least the format of this question has been consistent over a long period of time. If the question format was changed to try to capture more accurately the percentage of non-religious, then comparisons between one census and another with a different question format would be difficult. My feeling is that the question format could definitely be improved, but that the cost, in inconsistency over different censuses, would be too great. It’s clear in any case that the question as it stands is measuring a movement away from religious belief in Australia.

An indication of how a different description on the census can alter percentages is shown in the graph. Note the ‘not stated/inadequately described’ section [purple] increased markedly in 1933, to 12.8%, from 1.7% in the 1921 census. This is largely explained by the fact that in 1933, for the first time, it was explicitly stated that people were not legally obliged to answer the question. Before that, ‘the voluntary nature of the question was not
referred to on the census form but there were instructions indicating that people could write ‘object to state” [Ian Castles, statistician, 1991]. The difference between positively stating an objection and just ignoring the question makes a big difference.

And another difference that made a big difference occurred in 1971. That was the year that the ‘no religion’ option [green stripes in the graph] was introduced for the first time. 6.7% of the population chose to claim ‘no religion’ that year. In the previous 1966 census, 0.8% had claimed no religion, though there was no clearly marked space for people to do so, and that was up from 0.4% in the 1961 census. Interestingly, the number of people who chose not to answer the question in 1971 dropped to 6.1% from 10% in 1966, suggesting that many previous refuseniks now availed themselves of the ‘no religion’ option, but this assumption has been confounded by later censuses in which the number of refuseniks has risen, and then oscillated incomprehensibly from census to census, while the number of the not religious has grown steadily.

I wouldn’t be willing to infer too much from the refusenik figures. Why has the 8.6% figure of last year dropped so much from the 11.1% of 2006? Who can say? Possibly it’s a result of the atheist campaign before the census to encourage people to ‘come out’ and positively state their non-religiosity, but there are so many possible factors, and there have been so many oscillations, it’s hard to be sure.

What is sure, though, is the steady growth of the positively non-religious. I can well understand why so many of my fellow unbelievers want to claim a majority of the refuseniks as belonging to our camp, as that would make us the single biggest category in the census. Currently, the professedly non-religious are at 22.3%, second behind the Catholics at 25.3%. In the 2006 census we were at 18.7%, level pegging with the Anglicans, who’ve been on the decline for decades, and who in 2011 were down to 17.1%. Further, in 2006, the category that included all other Christian denominations [except Catholics and Anglicans] was the second largest at 19.4%. They’ve declined to 18.7% in 2011. In fact that category has declined every single year since the first census. The Catholic category has also been in decline in the last 20 years, though much more slowly than the others.

So 2016 will be the big year to celebrate. Between 2001 and 2006, non-believers increased their percentage by 3.2%, and then by another 3.6% between 2006 and 2011. These are huge increases. We’re now only 3% behind the Catholics, whose percentage dropped by 0.5% in the last five years, and by 0.8% in the five years before that. If the current trend continues, we’ll easily be the top category in the next census.

Of course we shouldn’t get too excited. Australia can still call itself a Christian country, with 61.1% of Australians identifying themselves as such, a quite marked decline from 63.9% in 2006, but… Oh well, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, it’s not light yet, but it’s gettin there.

Written by stewart henderson

July 11, 2012 at 10:56 pm

a perhaps not so minor quibble on a great read

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Mary Kingsley, intrepid naturalist, brilliant writer and niece of the Reverend Charles – moving away from religion

I’m very much enjoying Richard Conniff’s book The Species Seekers: Heroes, fools and the mad pursuit of life on Earth, not only for its well-told anecdotes of an intrepid era but also for its genuine insights into the competitive, gentlemanly and class-riven pursuit of specimens in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly in Britain. It includes the hate-hate relationship between the two giants of eighteenth century biology, the great taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus and the more sceptical and polymathic Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon; the snobbish anti-continental attitude to the ideas of Lamarck; the too-good-to-be-true modesty of the Reverend Thomas S Savage, the ‘first identifier’ of the gorilla, and the delicate issue of priority in the matter of Darwin and Wallace’s ideas, obviously the most important ideas, in respect of species, in the history of biology. I’ve already read quite a few versions of this famous matter, having read Peter Raby’s biography of Wallace, and biographical works on Darwin by Rebecca Stott, David Quammen and others. Conniff’s brief treatment does well to capture the intricate play of class, hierarchy and deference involved. After discussing the occasionally offhand treatment of Wallace, and his sometime partner in specimen-collecting, Henry Walter Bates, by the aristocratic geologist Charles Lyell, he goes on to make this nice point:

From a modern perspective, though, Wallace had class issues of his own, like almost all field naturalists. In their book The Bird Collectors, Barbara and Richard Mearns celebrate the unsung contributions to science by native collectors, and they single out the ornithologist Frederick Jackson for the appropriateness of his response when a species was named Jackson’s Weaver [Ploceus jacksoni] in his honour: ‘Little credit is due to me for having brought this new species to light, as the specimen was brought to me by a little Taveita boy, tied by the legs along with several other of the common yellow species’.

Wallace, despite being far more egalitarian than most intellectuals of his time, didn’t always make such acknowledgements.

But I want here to focus on a little quibble I have with Conniff on the not-so-little matter of the science-religion relationship. That’s to say, compatibilism. It’s long-standing issue and I’ve written on it many times before, but it keeps on bobbing up as an eyesore. Here’s Conniff’s take on it, which is essentially the same as that of the USA’s NCSE [National Centre for Science Education] and AAAS [American Association for the Advancement of Science]. That’s to say, religion is compatible with science, because, hey, some people are comfortable with and attached to both enterprises. Here’s how Conniff treats the matter:

Even before publication, the clergyman, naturalist Charles Kingsley saw that evolutionary thinking and religious faith were separate and capable of coexisting: ‘If you be right, I must give up much that I have believed and written,’ Kingsley wrote, in a letter thanking Darwin for an advance copy of the book. ‘In that I care little… Let us know what is… I have gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that he created primal forms capable of self-development into all forms needful… as to believe that he required a fresh act of intervention’ to fill every gap caused by the natural processes ‘he himself had made. I question whether the former be not the loftier thought.’ It might be better, that is, to believe in a God who promulgated laws and let them take their natural course, than to believe in a God obliged, as Buffon had put it, to busy himself about ‘the way a beetle’s wing should fold.’

But evolutionary thinking inevitably struck those of weaker faith as an assault on religion, much as it does today. They read into it the loss of the special relationship with God.

Kingsley’s obviously genuine interest in what is, is admirable, but I hardly think it is a sign of the strength of his religion. Rather, I would consider this interest to be the first, essential step in divesting oneself of religion, which is certainly not about this world. The idea of the ‘separateness’ of science and faith smacks of Gould’s NOMA, a thoroughly debunked notion, but politically convenient. The fact is, as Kingsley himself notes, accepting evolutionary thinking necessitates a thorough rethinking of the creator-god. Kingsley reflects that a non-interventionist god might be a ‘loftier’ conception, but surely a non-interventionist god by definition will not answer prayer, will not heal the sick or go out of his way to protect us from harm. Further, evolutionary thinking really does cause damage to humanity’s ‘special relationship with God’. To become aware of this isn’t a matter of weak faith, it’s more a matter of profound understanding of the real implications of evolution, that we are one of an enormous multiplicity of evolved beings.

Conniff says no more about the issue than this. He doesn’t enter into the compatibility debate. Yet he shows his hand. It’s disappointing. Basically he should’ve put up – presented an argument for how a Christianity so essentially based on human specialness and closeness-to-god, can co-exist, not only with evolution, but with science more generally, when science keeps on eroding human specialness with every passing day of new research – or he should’ve shut up.

Maybe I’m being a bit tough, but I couldn’t let it pass. Otherwise, it’s a great read.

Written by stewart henderson

June 9, 2012 at 11:08 am