Archive for September 2009

Sad. I wanted to see the Grand Canyon again before I die….

September 30, 2009

…but I’m not willing to die to see it, either.

Arizona legalizes the carrying of concealed weapons into bars.

Oh joy.  Nothing like a little bourbon or beer to promote good decision making around tools of deadly force.

New Mexico — hell just about anywhere else — looks better and better.

Image:  David Lüders (c. 1710–1759): Bildnis eines vornehmen Knaben mit Spielgewehr und Hund.

Ridiculously delightful fact of no consequence: Tango, Wales, London, Argentina edition

September 30, 2009

Wikipedia is swamp of delights.

A swamp, for one may enter therein to dally, and get sucked into its twists and byways with no hope of escape.

Delights?  Well consider this.

From the Wikimedia main page an incautious trackpad click allowed me to satisfy my curiousity to see what Wiki life might look like in Welsh, or Cymraeg as the language knows itself.

Pretty cool, even making allowances for sad failure of the vowel harvest in the Brecon Beacons yet again.

But then I noticed the slight nod in the direction of those of us not conversant Celtically, in the form of a paragraph in English which told me that Cymraeg is spoken in the west part of Britain known as Wales, and in the Chubut Vallet in Patagonia, the site of a Welsh colonial emigration in the 1860s.

Which led me to the (English language) Wikipedia entry on the Welsh Argentine, wherein I learned a bit of history, and the fact that between 1500 and 5000 descendents of 19th century Welsh immigrants still speak their ancestral tongue.

I also uncovered this last, truly wonderful fact:  it is as a result of this history that those Londoners who hunger to move their bodies to the beat of the Argentine Tango, find one of the best venues available to them at the Welsh Centre there.

What a glorious weave of history to be traced through, and all first glimpsed in four or five clicks through cyberspace.

Image:  Paul Sandby, “A Welsh Sunset River Landscape,” c. 1775-1800.

Andrew Sullivan Fouls One Off — and Then Grotesquely Strikes Out: God, Evil, and Auschwitz edition, part one

September 30, 2009

Once again, my long promised magnum opus — a shotgun fired at a flea, actually, yet another salvo in the eternal war against stupid at The Atlantic — is delayed to deal with more pressing matters.

This time it’s Andrew Sullivan, and he’s not being stupid — for unlike some of his stable mates he’s not at all slow.  Rather his intellectual wounds are self-inflicted.  I’ve blogged before (and I can’t quite remember where) and no doubt I will again about his tic of dubbing any political act or judgment with which he agrees “conservative,” no matter what its provenance or effect.

But this time, the cuts are deeper, and are much more damaging.  To try to keep my tendency to prolixity under control, I’m going to break up my critique into three bits.  Herewith part one.

Sullivan gets himself into trouble in the midst of a perhaps overly familiar issue,  hardy perennial source of bad reasoning, the theodicy problem:  why would a God worth worshipping (or believing in) permit the evils of the world to exist; why so much human suffering if we are the creation of a loving deity?

Sullivan started this latest effusion of heat-not-light with this post, in which he responded to a reassertion of the problem of evil by saying, in essence, my faith teaches me that suffering is useful, as it opens the believer up to the possibility of surrendering one’s self to God.  Which is fine, as a statement of personal belief.  It is not, however an argument; rather, to those unblessed or cursed by Sullivan’s brand of faith, it reads like a kind of theologically infused experience of the Stockholm Syndrome.

But my goal here isn’t snark. Bottom line for Sullivan himself on the first part of the sequence of posts on this matter: I do believe that each individual, subject to the don’t mess with me/do no harm constraint, is absolutely free to find spiritual comfort or exaltation by just about any act of faith.

But Sullivan gets no pass when he then tries to reason his way through the argument with Jerry Coyne in which he said, in effect, that the allegedly distinctively human capacity to “rise above” suffering (Sullivan’s term), as distinct from mere animal endurance of pain or woe, “is evidence of God’s love for us.”

In fairness to Sullivan, taking the view that one must argue against the best construction of someone’s argument, he spends most of this post recounting the source of his personal credo:  his own suffering brought him to the point of Jesus on the cross:  “…why have you forsaken me,” and then to a more emphatic restatement of that murdered Jew’s final, ambivalent resolution.  For Jesus, it was “it is accomplished.”  For Sullivan, his faith tested by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the personal losses he suffered, it the path he found in the midst of sorrow/anger unto death, on which “God lifted me into a new life…”

All of which is, again, fine.  His response to his pain is his; it’s real, and if it is not universalizable — that is, if it has no more standing as a response to the problem of God amidst evil than another person’s experience of the humanist’s revelation, that there is in this world only that good we are capable of creating ourselves — still, Sullivan gets to experience comfort and more as he can.

But where he goes astray, of course, is exactly in the attempt to universalize a particular, subjective, and wholly interior process.  He writes,

For me, the unique human capacity to somehow rise above such suffering, while experiencing it as vividly as any animal, is evidence of God’s love for us (and the divine spark within us), while it cannot, of course, resolve the ultimate mystery of why we are here at all in a fallen, mortal world.

I do note, as Sullivan rather waspishly enjoins his critics to do, that he qualifies his universal claim with the phrase, “For me…”  But his intent is clear when he speaks of “human capacity,” or “why we are here”  or “God’s love for us” (italics added)…for us, and not simply for Andrew. This is a claim made for humanity, and not simply for the one man recounting his story of despair and redemption amidst the plague.

The issue, beyond the fact that this is an example of the argument by analogy, with all of its pitfalls — I, Andrew, am human.  I, Andrew, experienced the love of God through suffering; therefore, by analogy, all humans encounter God through suffering — is that he makes a specific empirical claim, one that can be interrogated not by logic chopping, but by observation and experiment.

That is, Sullivan asserts that the evidence for God’s love despite the existence of evil, of undeserved suffering, lies in the fact that human beings experience the horrors of existence and mortality in ways that animals do not.

With that, Sullivan has fallen into a very old trap for apologists.  This is mutton dressed as the lamb of God (sorry — couldn’t resist).  What you have here is the old God of the gaps argument all decked out in an invocation of the allegedly bright line between human beings and animals.

Except, of course, that the line isn’t bright, and there is a library full of work in evolutionary biology, molecular genetics, and much more, especially ethology, that has exposed the close kinship not just at the level of base pairs, but in what has validly been called culture in both animals and human.  (See, e.g., this landmark of a book, The Evolution of Culture in Animals, published all the way back in 1983.)

Animals have ethics — as the study of altruism in animals demonstrates.  Animals possess technology. They experience the teacher-student relationship that no less than Jesus recognized as primary among human bonds.

And so on:  the notion that there is an unequivocal divider between animal experience and human has become increasingly blurred over the last several decades.*  It is certainly true that the emotional life, and certainly any inner spiritual experience of a chimpanzee, say, is closed to us, opaque.  But so, at some level, is that of even those closest to us, the beloved next to whose body we conform our own each night.  To bet your God on the claim that an animal does not merely endure (Sullivan’s word in a later post) but retains some transcendent goal — perhaps the care of one’s young — is a sucker’s wager.

Centuries ago, another devout Catholic, Galileo Galilei, wrote a letter to the Medici Grand Duchess Christina in which he counseled her on the proper relation of faith to science.  In 1615, defending the notion that he had uttered no heresy in his observations of the moons of Jupiter, and in support he thus derived forf the Copernican heliocentric universe, he wrote:

It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. But Nature, on the other hand, is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men. For that reason it appears that nothing physical which sense ­experience sets before our eyes, or which necessary demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called in question (much less condemned) upon the testimony of biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words.

That is, to modernize the argument: no claim of God is secure when it rests on some claim about the behavior of the natural world; whatever someone may experience as sacred resides — and Galileo certainly, profoundly believed in the existence of divinity — in its own realm.   But inexorable and immutable nature does not permit the claim that  within what we do not know about, say, the inner life of animals, therein lies God.

Image:  Henri Rousseau, “The Sleeping Gypsy,” 1897

Getting Ready To Atone — So Here’s a Completely Snark/Aggro Free Amazing Vid. to Enjoy

September 27, 2009

Got to the film maker via Sully’s paean to a Burning Man video. But this one is better: Also Sprach…, Brazil, and coral. What more could you desire?

Truly, time lapse artist/film maker Ben Wiggins has done an amazing job — enjoy:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Getting Ready To Atone — So Here’s a…“, posted with vodpod

Friday Mental Health: Must watch sandpainting video

September 25, 2009

So — what work of art have you created today?

Watch World War II unfold in eight minutes, in sand, hands, light and music:

(h/t NPR, via my beloved’s attention this evening)

Self Aggrandizement Alert: More cool Newton and the Counterfeiter talk: Chris Lydon/RadioOpenSource edition

September 24, 2009

Old friend and former WGBH-mate Chris Lydon, now the creative intelligence behind one of the web’s really exciting attempts to create global conversation,  Open Source, came by a couple of weeks ago to record an interview with me about that book I might have mentioned around here once or twice — Newton and the Counterfeiter(Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble,Indiebound and  across the pond at, Waterstones, Blackwells, Borders,John Smith & Son)

Chris is a wonderful interviewer, creative, always looking for the angle to evoke a response the interviewee hadn’t thought of ahead of time, really an intellectual partner in each of his recordings.

His conceit for our conversation was to see what would happen if I tried to follow his imagination and lead Isaac Newton around my MIT.  Along the way we talked about God, alchemy, Newton’s qualities of mind, the terrifying (to some) success of materialist interpretations of mind and much more besides. Hilarity ensued, in other words.

Listen for yourself, if you’ve a mind to do so….it was fun, at least for your not always humble interlocutor.

Image: Ralf Lotys, photographer.  Street art in Frankfurt, 2006.

UPDATE: [Simulated] Cruelty to Animals as a Wingnut Theme: Truly unbelievable, and hideously funny (except for the frog) Glenn Beck monent

September 24, 2009

Update 3  (At the top, because that’s where corrections should go): This was, as I should have known, not frogicide, but performance art.  I’ve deleted the misleadingly edited clip below.  The full clip shows what the abbreviated one below does not:  that Beck tells you that the frog in the pot was a fake.  (See about 4:40 et seq.)

I should have known better; I am supposed to recognize that stories too good to check should be checked.  I apologize both to Mr Beck (not that he cares, I imagine, or can possibly be assumed to be aware of either the initial insult or this correction) and to the readers for the error.

None of this, of course, alters my opinion of the content of Mr. Beck’s commentaries — vapid, uninformed, dangerous, wrong and all the rest.  But he didn’t kill a frog to make a point


I swear I’m working on some blog magna opera, but (a) I’ve got this day job, and (b) I keep getting distracted by stuff like this:

Surely this must be a grotesque fake, a parody?

Or, FSM help us and save us, is this real?

In any event, if anyone over at Balloon Juice is listening, I say “Forget the Frog” needs to hit the dictionary.  Definition:  epithet to describe another massive wingnut fail in confrontation with the liberal bias of reality.

Update: I see this has already hit pretty much everywhere that snark lives on the intertubes.  Well, one more won’t matter.  After all, I did find watching the video coke-through-the-nose funny, even if I hated myself after.

Update 2: The more I  look at this the more horrifying it gets.  Funny as hell the first time, just watching Beck’s attempt to recover from his failed schtick/amphibicide.  But then you realize.  This ass*ole just executed a perfectly innocuous animal on screen for no damn reason at all:   “Hey guys, I’ve got this gimmick — let me kill something to show you how bad it is to be led by that deeply tanned dude in the White House.”

Useless tool. Scum.  (Fixed) Performance Artist. (Fixed by update 3.)