The cynic’s guide to life

Ignorance about a topic and confidence in discussing it are often strongly correlated. It seems the more important the topic, the stronger the correlation.

This is just a tad sad.





Here’s part of a poem (and hymn) which I quite like, ‘Christmas Bells’. The full text is here (link). It reminds me of the importance and reality of justice in our messed up world, and the profundity of grounding this in an immanent, relational, and revelatory God:

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on the earth, good-will to men.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Philosophy of Biology – various notes

Thinking about how to define and measure fitness is a challenge in evolutionary biology – most definitions tend to cause “survival of the fittest” to collapse back into a truism; if the fittest are those that survive, then survival of the fittest is true merely by definition rather than being a result of empirical science.

That’s an interesting issue I’d like to explore more, but not one I have anything to say about now. Instead, let’s look at a sentence found in discussion of the roles of constraint and selection in evolution: “Selection takes the … offerings available by natural variation, and leaves the few variants that are more fit, perhaps zebras that are larger and therefore better able to fend off lions, despite being less maneuverable.”  (Philosophy of Biology, Edited by Rosenberg & McShea, pp. 74-75)

Zebras - from Wikipedia (and Botswana)
It occurs to me as I read this that this manner of talking about selection is probably not justified by our best understanding of the process. What selection actually offers in the zebra case is the existence (survival) of the progeny of a particular zebra that managed to survive in the past through fending off a lion (and achieving numerous other evasions of death and the failure to reproduce). Selection doesn’t ‘care’ about (feature these things causally) future propensity or ability to fend off lions, or past propensity or predicted ability per se, but only what actually happened contingently in the past. If a particularly weedy zebra managed to escape a pack of lions and go on to reproduce while objectively stronger members of his herd were either taken down or failed to reproduce for some other reason, then the weedy genes will be continued, and that surely is “selection” (whether there is an objective distinction between this and “drift” is an interesting question; presumably there must be…). Of course, selection will tend overall to favour the strong over the weak in situations involving zebras vs lions, but the strength of the strong is arguably an arbitrary classification on our part which is not directly relevant when accounting for survival; it may intuitively strike us as the most relevant feature of the situation, but that is no guarantee of truth.

To rephrase my concern here, it seems that it is tempting to see the survival of a strong zebra as an archetypal instance of “selection” and hence to see “strength” as a trait selected for, whereas as I understand it, whichever zebra (or nematode worm) ends up surviving in whatever circumstance is equally an instance of selection. Part of the worry is that it is difficult to single out factors which were causally relevant in any organism’s (and hence set of genetic information’s) survival. The fact that the zebra had legs, for instance, was presumably quite useful for it. The other zebras had legs too, so that might make legs unlikely to be the favoured candidate for a selected trait in this instance; but perhaps the zebra in question was just in the right place at the right time and also happened to be strong enough to fight off a particular lion at a particular instant; whether we could go on to make the inference that “the ability to fight off lions” has been selected for is rather unclear. In the absence of controlled and replicated trials, we only have our best guess.

Selection is a short-hand for historical environmental processes which have led to the non-continuance of some lineages but not others.

I’m still working through all of this, so my views are likely to change.

Fantasy, Racism, and Redemption

When I go for a decent walk by myself I tend to come up with a blogpost, so here is today’s ramble following on from today’s ramble.

Something that has troubled me a little (not overly much, but a bit) is the speciesism found in some of my favourite fantasy books. I haven’t read any of these for a few years, but have previously been a big fan of the Redwall series from Brian Jacques, the Welkin Weasels from Garry Kilworth, and the Lord of the Rings and Narnia series from Tolkien and Lewis. In each of these, to varying extents, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are associated with membership of a particular species and/or country of origin.

For example:
Redwall: Good – mice, badgers, hares, otters. Bad – rats, stoats, ferrets.
Welkin: Good – weasels. Bad – stoats. (I can’t remember how sharp this dichotomy is)
Middle Earth: Good – men of Rohan & Gondor, elves, dwarves. Bad – men of the South, orcs, goblins, trolls.
Narnia: Good – unicorns, fauns, centaurs; in general, Narnians. Bad – hags, dragons, wolves, Calormen,

Tolkien and Lewis in particular are more complicated than a simple list allows. Philip Pullman has accused Lewis of racism in his characters, but it isn’t that clear. For instance, the ‘white witch’ strikes me as a rather ‘Aryan’ character, the character  and talking animals of various kinds are able to make their choice for good or evil (for instance in ‘The Last Battle’, the book in the chronicles of Narnia that I’ve read the most times), and the Calormene Emeth ultimately made the choice for good rather than evil.

Whatever the case may be in each of these series, it is easy to develop negative stereotypes of people based on certain characteristics and to reinforce societal perceptions or stereotypes in how we talk about people; discrimination on the basis of race is less socially acceptable than it once was in majority-caucasian countries, but there are plenty of other options available. In my usual circles, I think that intelligence or level of education are often unconsciously considered to be correlated in some way with a person’s worth. Being reasonably well-educated and considered intelligent by some, I don’t ever feel a sting from this criterion of excellence, but its fundamental injustice remains.
I guess what I’m really challenging here (amongst other related things) is the ‘capacities approach’ to valuing human persons. I suspect it is part of the ‘modern consensus’, and it may be included in the book of that title being slowly prepared … In any case in my view this approach is deeply mistaken and dangerous, and dressing it up in terms of societal respectability of whatever form does not decrease the danger that this view poses.

In contrast to the common tendency towards societal exclusion based on characteristics which certain people are born with, the Christian gospel is expressly radically inclusive. People from all nations and languages will be found in heaven worshipping God, on an equal level. In fact, because it is humility and faith rather than social standing or attainment that are the hallmarks of the people God gathers, it is society’s outcasts who will often find themselves honoured, in spite of their ignoble backgrounds, while the rich and ‘successful’ will frequently find themselves humbled.

On a related note, the myth of the “royal lineage” and of people special by inheritance remains appealing today even in egalitarian NZ, but I think the gospel subverts this, while also subverting the alternative ideal of the proud ‘self-made (wo)man’. A close look into Jesus’s human lineage will show it is not spot-free, but it is what God chose to use; and a look at his friends shows that it was neither personal achievement nor inherited prestige that brought them to where they ended up. As someone without a grand heritage to call my own and being unlikely to achieve really significant worldly success, I find all of this interesting and encouraging.

On the theological implications of Hobbits

Apparently this is a quote from Tolkien:

“We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien



[I posted this as this blog was gently mocked by a friend for being about the “theological implications” of everything. If that’s the image it has attained, I may as well keep it up; it’d be a pity to disappoint the many (approximately 3) fans of this site…]

Does the manger matter?

Why humanists, humanitarians, and the rest of us need to care about Christmas: 

The Christmas story is a harmless myth, and probably a pointless one too – what message could we possibly draw from a magical baby supposedly born in a Palestinian barn two millennia ago? Being associated with organised religion and all the ickyness and awkward questions that go with that monolith surely does this humble story no favours either. Better by far to quietly sideline that child and seek a personalised instantiation of the Christmas message in Santa Claus instead; a figure known for being unambiguously jolly, unambiguously fictional, and unlikely to cause unease, division, or controversy. So runs, I think, the dominant line of kiwi thought at this time of year.

Of course, St Nick would spin like a Christmas top in his grave if he found out that his brand had been reformed and adopted by, amongst others, a multinational purveyor of coloured sugar water and used thenceforth to promote consumerist materialism to the naïve and secularised masses of the modern West (and beyond); but that is another story. We in Godzone are not in the habit of letting historical facts get in the way of pervasive and liberating cultural narratives, so we shall move on.

[Thanks to a few Facebook friends for posting this image!]

St Nick

What really needs saying is that hovering in the background of our collective consciousness, floating on the strains of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, is a story with consequences. This may make some of you uncomfortable, but I offer it to you as something that is worth your attention nonetheless. The nativity tale is in its essence either true or false, and I believe that this has ramifications for our view of human dignity, purpose, and what really matters in life. Around our family dinner tables, in parliament, lecture theatres, at board meetings, in factories and at lab benches we need to be asking questions about these issues of ultimate importance – and Christmas, a celebration founded on a story of transcendent love and wisdom becoming a human being, is as good a time as any for this. We have in this country a culture of superficiality, where the things that are the most important are deemed too private and personal to discuss, leaving the public square open primarily to shallow, ungrounded, and short-term concepts of individual and societal flourishing, but we can and must do better.

If the standard materialistic account of our origins and existence is correct; if all world religions are false and spiritual things are at most a matter for personal dabbling for those-so-inclined rather than a question of reality, then life has no purpose other than what each bipedal ape chooses to invent for itself. Talk of “human dignity”, worth, rights, and compassion are perhaps just quaint hangovers from a Judaeo-Christian past; they may well be taken for granted and even clung to passionately, but how could such things place moral demands on us? A drastic reconsideration of the ‘good life’ and what we ought to do is immediately called for, and whether anything important will remain is exceedingly unclear.

But if one baby was miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit and then born in a manger in about 5 B.C. as part of a much larger cosmic plan with redemption and reconciliation at its centre, then every thing changes. Every thing can now no longer be conceived of as either a brute fact or a product of accident combined with (mysterious, but taken for granted!) natural law but must instead be seen as a creation, and the object of ongoing sustaining action from the Creator. Every person is now a creature of high worth, of inestimable value. This baby provides a basis for thinking that there is more to life, makes sense of our condition as human beings, justifies a new and radical way of being human, and provides the way for relationship with the transcendent and personal God who loves to the point of death. This is an epic story.

Merry Christmas.

Further reading (books available for loan if you want):

”Justice – Rights and Wrongs”. Nicholas Wolterstorff. (2007). Cambridge University Press.
“The Case for Christmas”. Lee Strobel. (2005). Zondervan.
”Where the Conflict Really Lies – Science, Religion, and Naturalism”. Alvin Plantinga. (2011). Oxford University Press.

Is life without God absurd? William Lane Craig, response to question
“The weight of glory.” CS Lewis,
a talk delivered in war time

RSS talk review

On Tues 2nd October, Bill Cooke (former head of the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists) gave a talk on the historicity of Christ for RSS. I’m inclined to suspect it was the most face-palm-worthy talk I’ve heard at uni. Here is my draft response, to be updated as I find the time and patience required.

Bill Cooke gave a talk for RSS just over 2 months ago. Finally I have got my act together and typed a response – or started to do so. The simplistic account he gives of “education” versus the Evangelical faith is demonstrably false on numerous points; I would be glad to debate it, and can point to a number of New Zealand scholars who could do so more competently than I. It is disturbing that Dr Cooke is regarded as something of an expert on this issue.

Here’s the talk:
The talk was to a large extent a rant against conservative Christians and evangelical Christianity. As such, there is plenty to respond to, but I will just pick up some points that seem most closely related to the core truth claims. One of the most frustrating aspects of this talk, other than the exceedingly arrogant tone, is the absence of distinction between quotes or references to historical texts and Cooke’s own views; in general it seems that the message from the quotes is being advocated.

Equates “modern” with “non-religious”.

The quote concerning the resurrection of Christ is from 1 Cor 15, not Colossians.

15 mins: “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” – as I understand, it is a myth that this was the topic of theological debate in the middle ages.

An astonishing section, worth a listen.
21: 30: It is claimed that “Jesus” becomes “the Christ” in the progression from Mark to John. This is nonsense.
In response to my question on this, Cooke says that in Mark, rather than Christ, he was “much more ‘Jesus’, a person with brothers and sisters …” But I don’t see any basis for this – on a quick flick through Mark’s gospel, I see only one reference to Jesus’ family, (3:31-34) – a reference that is paralleled in Matthew and Luke. His family are mentioned more in the other gospels.
Cooke then (22:00) says that in Mark, Jesus has an ordinary birth, while in the other gospels it is miraculous. This is also incorrect, as I pointed out (yes, that annoying person who keeps asking questions is me).
The idea that Mithras parallels Jesus (23:30) is wrong. This part of the talk is remarkably ill-informed. I challenge Dr Cooke to debate this (or any of the many criticisms listed here) e.g. can he provide any evidence that Mithras was believed to have been crucified?

[up to approx 40 mins out of 1hr 20.]

Other notes:
Incorrect about Josephus’ mentions of Jesus.

… more to come, if I can bear continuing the process of dissecting the talk.