Hope

I used to attend creative writing classes, if anything to attempt to undo the damage wrought by years of technical writing. Technical writing robs you of certain freedoms: to make mistakes as you write, to use active verbs, present tense, embellishing adjectives and superlatives. Technical writing is precise, well crafted, but passive and impersonal. It is utilitarian and functional “nuts and bolts”, to the “heart and minds” of popular prose.

Exercise (warming up the mind and fingers): write anything within 5 minutes (from an old class):

Small vortices caught dust on the desert floor, swirling them into the face of the oncoming Touareg, peppering his face, mapping his sweat with a glittering foundation.

A haze of flies danced in the grains of sand, a mesmerising display of light and dark. The nomad, oblivious to this battle between light and dark, trudged his way along the fading track of his leader, hating every step, but enjoying the thought of sweet water at journey’s end.

Upon his mind, stripped bare by days of relentless heat, was the Bedouin girl he’d seen at the bazaar. Her face a mystery, only her crystal green eyes telling of heretical beauty.

Such thoughts open holes for hope to fill, but if not filled allow despair to flow in hope’s stead. Such thoughts are wasted, when the day is hot and you are robbed of your life energy.

Rocket leaves prevent alien abduction!

Wouldn’t it be great if we could just make stuff up and have it be true?

All those years spent in diligent study, working hard to understand difficult concepts, essay after essay, exam after exam for year after year. You might then decide that you’ve done enough and leave it there, commit to yet more study and yet more work. All that time, we fools, we could have just invented a subject, a discipline, a theory, a fact and use the following reasoning to support it:

1. If you disagree with it, then it is doubly true (and if you tell me that I can’t say that, then it’s triply true! Nah, nah, na, nah, nah).

2. I believe in it, I have faith in it, and if you say anything against it then that’s intolerance.

3. Give me 32% of your salary and I’ll give you all the secrets.

It’d be great! You see, I’ve found this weed that grows between the paving slabs next to the road of my house. People call it Rocket (other people call it Arugela), and it’s become very fashionable in cook books recently. Now, if you eat a single one of these leaves, every day, for the rest of your life, you will never be abducted by aliens.

It’s true, I shit you not! It just came to me, I’ve been reading all around these hollistic food websites, and I realised they were all talking crazyspeak; obviously it’s called Rocket for a reason, noone seems to know why, but I knew that I had the answer, call it a revelation. It seems so clear to me that it was seeded on the Earth by a benevolant alien race to prevent others in their government being able to take us!

So go forth and eat Rocket, and just watch how you’re not abducted by aliens!

Violence

[ratings]

SO, in a complete parody of the light-heartedness of yesterday’s musings, today I have also been coming to grips with Slavoj Žižek’s “Violence“, which I finally finished reading (I have six books on the go, it’s a work in progress). I spend a lot of time reading academic literature, mainly in the sciences, thus pure philosophy is always a little antagonising.

Having practise at academic reading is useful, and the usual formula applies: skim read the whole thing first, get an idea of what the premise is and basic structure, so you know what to look for on your next scan. Read the introduction and conclusion too, this will help you identify the lines of evidence/reasoning you require to agree/disagree with the premise. Then you have to read it in some detail, if you’ve not already disregarded it, all the while juggling the lines of reasoning, often over several pages, until they drop into place. So it’s never really bed-time reading, and some writers are better than others.

The main subject of the book can be paraphrased reasonably well from the author’s own introduction, and the blurb on the dust-jacket:

The premise of Žižek’s theory is that the subjective violence we see – violence with a clear identifiable agent – is only the tip of an iceberg made up of systemic violence, which is essentially the catastrophic consequence of the smooth functioning of our economic & political systems.

He uses some rather contentious rhetoric when describing the different forms of violence in society: “subjective”, “symbolic” and “systemic”, but this is largely a means to clear the way so that he can get to the guts of his argument, that of “systemic violence”.
Continue reading “Violence”

Spirituality

AMAZEMENT still strikes at our primitive emotions. When we are left in bewildered awe at a spectacle or new insight, it tugs at us in a manner that a reasoned scientific account can do no justice. It is, in many respects, a “religious” experience, but the word “religious” is bandied around in place of a slew of terms that could be used.

Such experiences are spiritual, being of matter (the brain still being a material object), yet insubstantial and deeply emotive. Whether it is some perception of a deity, or a new dimension of worldly understanding provided by science, these experiences are linked in their spiritual nature. In fact, I am with Carl Sagan in my belief that science is a profound source of spirituality.

In talking about spirituality, there is no implication of talking about religion. Spirituality is a sense of meaning (or purpose) and unity, but it does not have to be divinely inspired; it should not be confused with mysticism, which is concerned with magic, the occult and supernatural. The scientific journal Nature defines spirituality it as “An inner sense of something greater than oneself. Recognition of a meaning to existence that transcends one’s immediate circumstances”. It’s a good word, and one that we ought to take back, releasing it from its pre-scientific context.

Nature and the universe certainly put us in our place with the realisation that the atoms that make up your body are billions of years old, they’ve made many other things in their existence, and will continue to do so long after we’re gone; we are simply borrowing them for a while. Scientists, and readers of science, have a lot to be spiritual about. We have a particular impulse to understand the world around us. It is a great injustice to ignore the natural world in favour of an inferior and artificial facsimile in the form of the supernatural. Why ignore what is in front of your eyes, from the sub-atomic to the cosmos, and instead make it up?

Science doesn’t have all the answers, but it has more than any faith can offer me. Science has so many more questions that it will answer, whereas most faiths have said everything they have to say. Fortunately, as a rational human being, and a scientist, I don’t need anyone to agree with me to be comfortable in my reasoning. If a million scientists decided to recant on DNA being the basis of genetic inheritance, unlikely as that is, it would mean nothing. DNA would still continue to be the basis of genetic inheritance unless they had hard evidence to the contrary. It is this facility than enables freethinking, rational people to be truly uninhibited and unprejudiced.

So why is spirituality important? Science can, in a practical sense, only really deal with the material; though this “material” may extend well below the size of an atom, or may be as intangible as love or trust. We still inhabit physiologically stone-age bodies with minds hard-wired for day-to-day problem-solving, strategic planning and interacting with the physical world that our ancestors could see, hear, touch, smell and taste. Yet we managed to arrive at this state in the absence of both writing and mathematics. Most of what we’ve achieved since then has been achieved by co-opting these more primitive thought processes (the original “transferable skill” set) and applying them in a new direction: complex reasoning and abstract theoretical modelling, applied to science and mathematics.

It is no surprise, therefore, that much of what we have learned in science is difficult to process, especially when they are beyond the resolutive power our innate senses; we need things to have defined boundaries and exist at the right scale. We know there is a sense of change; that processes are shaping life, the planet and the universe around us. We are part of something shared, much greater than ourselves, and every time science offers a new awesome insight into this, we find a connection with our spirituality.

Supernatural dilemma

[ratings]

SCIENCE is about falsifiability, an attempt to understand the world around us, and our place in it, to the point where the best sense prevails.

Usually, it is a case of the often-quoted Occam’s Razor, where, all things being equal, it is often the simplest explanation that is true. The point is to arrive at a reasoned explanation of the phenomenon, such as a ghost sighting, without resorting to fiction. It seems ludicrous to me that some people would rather accept an immeasurable “force” or “entity”, for which there is no shred of physical evidence, or requirement, when we are possessed of a human brain, the most sophisticated biochemical computer on the planet, which is more than capable of rendering highly vivid imagery, smells and sounds, none of which need actually exist in he external environment.

As much as possible, science aims to be rational, consistent, and predictive. The supernatural can be none of these things. Knowledge of them does not enable prediction of their occurrence, i.e. beyond coincidence; the observations are inconsistent, being highly biased upon the subjection of the observer; and they are by definition irrational. I also hasten to add that they are, by and large, immensely uninventive, almost uniquely anthropomorphic and require a degree of self-stupefaction that would never be entertained in other areas of people’s lives.

Believer’s belief supersedes any form of evidential support or logical rationalisation; such evidence is simply irrelevant. What I find objectionable is when believers hold they have rational grounds for their belief; the best thing we can do is to inform them that they are wrong in this. This does not mean to say that they are wrong, per se, faith is faith after all, but to attempt to legitimise their belief by logic and methodology is to pit their belief directly against rational and secular thinking, with which it cannot compete.
Continue reading “Supernatural dilemma”