Monday, 17 December 2007

The Myth of a Virgin Birth

Around this time of year I begin to see buttons, broaches or badges that declare, "Jesus is the reason for the season." It makes me laugh a little at the historical inaccuracy of it. For all we know, we could just be celebrating the dedication of the temple to Saturn. More importantly to me, I think we need to reconsider what is claimed by the Virgin Birth.

Let's begin by looking at our sources for the claim: the gospels. Of the fifty or so gospels that are out there, only four are currently considered canonical. The rest make for interesting academic reading, but Christians have never been encouraged to learn doctrinal or theological truths from them. Among the four in canon, only two of them make mention of Jesus' birth. Neither Mark or John talk about Jesus' parentage. Admittedly, John's prologue is all about drawing a line between the man Jesus and the logos of God, but it still doesn't create a biological conundrum.

The Virgin Birth is a myth that can be found in various cultures. It's nothing novel to Christianity, and is almost certainly an attempt by the writers of the day to give credence to the life of Jesus. Bishop Shelby Spong has identified that the introductions to the various gospels grow more and more elaborate as time passes. Mark makes no mention of it. Matthew and Luke refer to it, along with extensive genealogies to prove Jewishness and a link to a prophetic promise. John's version is the most lofty of them all. Clearly, the early theologians wanted to put some weight behind the claims of the divine man, and the claims made by his followers.

But let us suppose that some of the historical secular criticisms of this are taken seriously. Suppose that "virgin" in the Biblical Greek just meant a woman who was engaged to be married. That implies that Jesus was conceived by a human pair, outside of wedlock. This is a scandalous option for the time. Adultery would have required stoning. There's no reason to assume that Joseph was the father of such a coupling, perhaps giving Joseph some reason to "put her away quietly" as the gospels record. If he was more interested in keeping up the appearances of his Jewishness than he was for Mary's well-being, it leaves open the suspicion of whether he was in it for love. Either way (Joseph or another man), it's quite a scandal.

Now, I've painted an hypothetical picture that is more than a little unorthodox, but it is just for the sake of an argument. If Jesus was born into such cultural disgrace, does it make a difference to his message, or to the Pauline message that followed? Not in the slightest. Preachers have gotten a lot of value from the idea that Jesus became shame on behalf of the world. Who is to say that this shame couldn't have begun from before he was born? Should we take any value away from the gospel message, if the original preacher was the product of an adulterous human union? Not at all. The message is still the same. The actions are still the same. From out of the shame of our culture - even because the culture considers it shameful - comes the salvation of the world.

This is, I think, at the heart of the gospel message. This salvation came through willingly taking on shame in the name of unconditional love (the act, not the feeling). Jesus went to a shameful death, the death of a failed messiah, the death of a failed insurgent, the death of a trouble-maker. As far as the systems of the world were concerned, Jesus failed in every respect and was publicly shamed in his execution. A less shameful execution would have been beheading in a prison cell, for example. But crucifixion is something that puts the condemned on display as one who failed. Shame is at the heart of it.

Now come back to the key question: how does the claim of a virgin birth affect this? If Jesus was born as the result of an illegitimate union of Mary with a human man, does it take away from his words? No. If his origin is in shame (according to Jewish and Roman structures), does it devalue his message or his death? No. Ultimately, the question of the claim of a virgin birth has very little effect on what Jesus said or did. Therefore, it is entirely possible and entirely plausible that Jesus had parents who were fully human and that his conception was fully biological. This does not mean that it is now part of my personal creed or doctrine, only that it is a doctrine that makes no difference to the gospel. It makes no difference to the daily manifestation of the Church whether Jesus was conceived through biological or transcendent means.

So, this Christmas I won't be reflecting on the miracle of a virgin birth. Instead, I will be reflecting on the one who, through shame, brought salvation to the world.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

An Alternative Explanation

Courtesy of the Enlightenment and the progress of scientific discovery, humanity has developed the fine art of identifying an alternative explanation for phenomena. To sound like a cliche, we can compare the weather. Early in history we humans have attributed this to deities, whereas today we understand the scientific relations behind weather phenomena. Ergo, we don't need deities for weather.

Eventually someone will ask whether we need deities at all. If we can explain Phenomenon A without resorting to a deity, can we not do the same to Phenomena B, C and so on? This might sound like a trivial question, but I think it has some complexity to it.

For some people, the answer is a clear, "Yes. The gods are no longer required. All mysteries of the universe will eventually be solved by science. Anything you may have heard about God is false, because it is based on an assumption that has some alternative explanation."

For others, the answer is closer to, "No. Merely identifying that one effect has a different cause to the one first posited is insufficient to conclude that the cause doesn't even exist at all." In other words, although we can demonstrate an alternative explanation for the weather, that doesn't mean God is not real, only that God is not necessarily the one that causes the weather.

A variant on this is, "No. Even though natural phenomena can be correlated to scientific principles, we must still ask about the origins of these scientific principles and laws. Who decided that the four fundamental laws of the universe must operate in the way that they do? Clearly, God set the universe in motion and we now reap the benefits of that."

All of these responses, and others like them, fall into a common trap in thinking about God. They are all assuming that the role of God is something to do with the fundamental laws of the universe. Is that really what God is about? Can we simply reduce God to a divine watch-maker? I think that we cannot. It is far too reductive a claim.

So if we take the Creator property away from God, what we have left is even more contentious. Some would feel that it is only by divine might that God has divine right to hand out morality to creation. The fault in this comes from spending too much time considering the prohibitions of law. A prohibition has a strange effect on human psyche: it is unravelled as a command. "You shall not covet" is manifest in the human will as "You shall covet." Prohibiting a behaviour does little more than encourage that behaviour. Also, along with the prohibition is the punishment. "You shall not covet, otherwise I will punish you," connects the command to might. Failure to comply will result in some negative consequence, however, being exposed to the law itself will result only in breaking the law (see above).

So, if God has nothing to do with the forces of creation, and has nothing to do with the end of the universe, where is God's right? Why should I listen to a God who didn't even create the universe? As a child I understood that I had to listen to the morality from my parents. They created me. They were stronger than me. Their might made them right. But if God does not have might in that sense, where is God's right?

The alternative explanations for natural phenomena have thrown a spanner in the works. Humanity's previous reasons for accepting the commands of mystics, prophets and priests are collapsing with each new journal article. It is from this very alternative that doubt arises. If I can explain natural phenomena without God, is God even real? More importantly, if God has nothing to do with natural phenomena, why should I follow the morality of God? And if I do follow God's morality, how do I discern this morality? If God were in the business of rewarding righteousness and punishing wickedness then the task would be easy. However, we see that there appears to be no statistical correlation between the good and the prosperous.

The question is really one of authority. What authority should I attribute to a text (e.g., a letter, an historiography, a poem)? How about a person or an institution or a tradition? When we reduce it to these levels, authority is revealed as arbitrary. Whatever it is that I declare to have authority, has authority. Authority is a victim of relativism. In the absence of terrible power, authority is arbitrary (and in the presence of terrible power, authority is imposed).

So let us expel authority from the search for truth. And what is left? Emptiness. A space devoid of imposing might and forceful power. It is the remainder after all ideologies are removed, after all institutions are dismantled. It is the remainder of all structures. There, in this space that defies the rest, is where it will be found. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world - of any world - and it seems we will find truth.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Diesel Shortages in China

This is a piece of mindless link propagation for you. The op-ed is entitled, Living the diesel shortages in China and is about what you would expect it to be about. Of particular interest to me is something that the author suggests:
This may be an economics-induced dress rehearsal of the reality that will face the rest of the world in the post-peak oil universe.
I hope that this story gets more press coverage, even if only for that suggestion.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Theology for Everyone

I was talking with a friend the other day about the quality of theological education in Brisbane. His opinion was very low, citing an example in which a lecturer had claimed something to the effect that theology is dangerous, and that ordinary Christians (or seminarians) shouldn't read it because it might lead them astray.

What shit.

To be more accurate, the reasons that this claim is ridiculous are many but I will focus only on one. An ill-educated believer is one who will make foolish choices. It is the kind of believer who will gladly read "an eye for an eye" and set about making it happen. It is the kind of believer who will insist that women cover their heads all the time, and that men shouldn't pray with their heads covered. It is the kind of believer who will insist that women should not teach. The many and varied sins of the ill-educated believer are potentially many. Denying education to believers who seek the truth will only breed more and more ignorant believers.

Education around thoughts and ideas is valuable. If we are to preach a doctrine, or a message, and expect people to believe it and live it, then the message needs to be tested. Test it through real living. Test it through argument. Test it through exposure to other ideas and other thinkers. Without the exposure to other ideas and concepts, the very thing that one is attempt to promote will probably be lame and flaccid, without any strength or fortitude. It will be blown about by the wind and have no solid foundation except in the blindness of faith.

Denying education will certainly result in the blind leading the blind. It should be opposed wherever it is found.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

No surprises

The election's over. No surprises for me. Kevin won and - most importantly of all - the Senate is set to return to a good mix-up of parties. Great. Brilliant. Bring back the diversity. Make the legislators work for it.

If we're going to have a democracy, this is the setup we need to have.

So from here, it's back to the theology. Catch you soon.

Friday, 23 November 2007

It's decision time

It feels as though Rudd is going to win this one, but then again I thought that with all the scandals of the last election that Howard would lose that one as well. From my perspective it seems as though this election, as well as the last one, has been once again fought on the perceptions of slogans.

Interest rates were central last time and they're back this time. But I have no idea how either side plans to keep them under control. What I know is that the Liberals want me to feel that they will be higher under Labor, and that Labor wants me to feel that the Liberals broke promises to keep rates low. But how?

On climate change, Labor wants me to feel that they will be responsible guardians of the environment (see the Kyoto protocol). The Liberals want me to feel that technology will save the day. But how will either strategy be implemented?

On poverty, I've only heard from Labor who said that they will increase aid spending.

And so on, and so on. Both of the major parties are trying to make me feel confident in them, and doubtful of the other side. But I still don't know how they'll reach their goals. Both sides claim to want a "better" Australia for us all. The key differences, that is the method taken to accomplish the goal, are still lost of a shroud of mystery and fog.

So I'll probably vote for the Greens and the Democrats. They've a track record of making bold use of the balance of power and I think after 3 years of a majority government in both houses, that's what Australia needs.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Two days to go

So now we have only two days remaining until the Australian federal election. Have I decided yet? Still no. I have only decided that I will put the major parties last in the upper house ballot. The upper house needs the chaos of a multitude of voices. The lower house, on the other hand, needs some people to break party lines from time to time. Unfortunately, I have no mavericks as candidates in my electorate.

I've still got two days to figure it out.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Kevin Rudd on Rove

I have to admit that I was looking forward to watching Kevin Rudd on Rove this week. I have some sympathies with Rudd based on his articulate distinction of the roles of church and state, and how the Christian vote should be considered. Also, his admiration for Dietrich Bonhoeffer is something that I share. However, I thought it very interesting that he - and not John Howard - would accept the invitation from Rove, the current king of light entertainment.

As it turns out I think it was a smart move by the Rudd camp. All he had to do was subject himself to a frivolous interview with some questions that weren't related to policy in any way, and he could get himself a platform to an audience that is largely disinterested in politics, and yet has a vote. I don't know if it would have helped or hindered him to actually answer the "Who would you turn gay for?" question with a man's name, but either way he subjected himself to it.

And the issues he slipped in? The one that matters most to a younger demographic: climate change. That was smart. He could come across as a family guy (mention the kids and the pets) and identify climate change as his top issue. This was well planned and moderately well executed.

Was it enough to earn my vote? Well, 10 minutes on a Sunday night comedy show is a far cry from a considered opinion on policies. I think it was a slick move and it will only help his campaign. For me, however, the whole thing will still be determined by other factors.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Comparing Political Parties

Wow. The Australian Christian Lobby tried something worthwhile. Take a look at sometime and you will see the results of a survey they conducted. A set of 25 questions were sent to various political parties and independents to get their opinions on various issues that the ACL consider to be important to Australian Christians.

Was it worthwhile? In some respects, yes. It gives a brief summary of the political parties on various issues, but I find that many of the questions are quite leading - a fault found in many media outlets. Some of the questions, however, expose the agenda of the ACL. Asking parties to support the exclusive use of the Lord's Prayer to open parliament is the one that especially comes to mind. Does that mean that the ACL wants a theocracy? Probably not. However, they still seem very keen to integrate religious practice into a secular body.

While I don't see any problem with a politician having religious convictions and using those convictions to guide policy, I think that the two practices should remain separate. Legislating religion is not only anathema to a secular democracy, but is theologically incompatible with Christianity. Instead, Christianity is naturally anarchic and alegal (yes, that's a little neology for you). The law is the wrong way to embody the gospel message, and will only result in a false version of the gospel.

So, go and read the comparison, but take it with a grain of salt.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Interest Rates or just Time For A Change?

During the last election it becamse apparent to me that the Liberal Party won the election on a small but very significant issue: interest rates. No other issue mattered at the time because the fear of rising interest rates lurked in the psyche of the voter. Today, in the current election campaign, the issue has returned.

The difference I note in this current round is that the polls are producing results that indicate the public does not entirely blame John Howard for the rising trend. In other words, many voters believe that interest rates would have risen whether Howard or Latham was in power. The effect of that is that (as some of today's papers are reporting) Rudd has neutralised the issue. Interest rates are not working in favour of the Liberals and are not working against the ALP. The only political mileage that anyone is getting from it is the ALP who are using it to attack Howard's promises from the previous election.

It seems apparent to me today (although it might change later) that the Liberals are fighting a general feeling that it's time for a change. Howard and Rudd are so similar in most policies that it won't make much difference to our economy. The flavour, on the other hand, is what will mark the difference. I suspect that the election will be won by the ALP. But there are three weeks to go before we know the result.

And yes, that's a horrible mental image to have: comparing the flavours of John Howard and Kevin Rudd.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Even Families can have Penises

There's not much to say about this that isn't just plain obvious. Still...

Family First has disendorsed a candidate after photos of him posing nude were found on the internet. From some accounts it also seems that the website on which they were found was a gay website.

The first surprise should be that Family First doesn't screen for this when considering candidates. But perhaps he is someone who has gone from one way of life to another way of life, a convert perhaps. The current US President insists that he has gone from a wild life to a responsible and "saved" life, so why can't Mr Quah?

But is this really a surprise? Consider the case of Reverend Gary M Aldridge. Here was a pastor who really liked to experiment sexually. Did someone know about it? Probably. After all, he was found all tied up so someone else had to do the tying.

But back to the election. If Quah's photos were more recent and were still part of his life, what this demonstrates is Family First's approach to Family. It doesn't include pornography and it doesn't include gay.

Pornography is something that has a number of research efforts on both sides. I've heard everything from "it forms a vital part of our healthy relationship" through to "it ruined our marriage" and subsequently think it should be rated like other kinds of media. There are some people who shouldn't see it, just as there are some people who shouldn't consume alcohol, and some who shouldn't own firearms. For anyone who says that legislation isn't a moral issue, think through those ones for me and try your argument again.

Gay as a family option? Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is possible. Other anecedotal evidence suggests the contrary. I don't, however, think that we should exclude gay people from being able to formalise their relationships as part of civil society. We currently have de facto relationships for heterosexual couples to do this outside the definition of marriage, so I don't see a reason that this can't extend to homosexual couples.

Thanks, Mr Quah, for giving some space to this issue. I wish you all the best for your future, whatever that might be.

Monday, 29 October 2007

The Environmental Election

The ALP is campaigning pretty hard on environmental issues at the moment, and will probably continue to do so throughout the campaign. This is not surprising because the Coalition government has publicly rejected what was widely regarded as the most significant treaty in international environmental management: the Kyoto Protocol. Everyone knows that the Protocol exists, but few people are aware of the content.

Of course, the government's reasons are that the protocol doesn't include controls for developing nations such as China and India. As someone who's been to the industrial cities of China I can tell you that if there was a nation that required some regulation, it is China. So I agree with the Coalition hesitancy in that regard. The other major reason for not signing is that it will cost Australian jobs if we are to comply with the protocol. This is something I don't agree with.

The Coalition campaigns on its perceived strengths of economic management so the ALP will campaign on the Coalition's perceived weaknesses of environmental management. It's all about perception. In comparison to the Coalition, the ALP looks like caring and green citizens - even though they aren't nearly as green as the Greens.

(Note also that the ALP is pushing the undercurrent that the Coalition is only riding on low unemployment and a booming economy because of the booming global economy - but they won't push it too hard until they need it as a safety net for when the global economy slows.)

After all is said and done, the ALP is currently ahead on the environmental issues in the minds of the voters, but whether that will turn into governmental action remains to be seen. Unlike the previous election that was won on the fear of rising interest rates, this one will be won by the voters perceiving a strength in one side when there is really only a greater weakness in the other side.

Hooray for relativity in perception.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Business Troops

Again from the world of DeviantArt comes this marvel.

Business Troops by ~artistic-engine on deviantART

The feeling conveyed by this picture is amazing. See how they fight on, even when wounded. See how they fight for a cause they do not understand. See how they must help each other and the commanders are nowhere to be seen. Corporate life takes its toll in service to the capitalist machine.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Vote for Minor Parties

At last the election has been announced for November 24. I've already mentioned the issues that I will be considering for my vote, but I don't live in a marginal seat so I wonder how much effect it will have. At every election there are always surprises for seats that win and lose, but I can only hope that my seat is one that becomes marginal. In fact, it would be brilliant if every seat was a marginal seat, too close to call.

And it would be brilliant if the Senate was controlled by about a dozen minor parties. I don't mind the government holding seats there as well, as long as it's not a majority. Sure it will slow down the process of getting things done, but each and every piece of legislation will be reviewed by the minority groups that have representation. The best option would be a strange collection of minor parties from the Freemarijuana brothers, to Family First, to the Socialist Alternative.

Yes, I would like to see Family First get at least one seat in the upper house. Why? Well, I don't agree with a lot of their policies, but I think they bring representation to the process. I'm just as happy for the Fishing Party to get at least one seat as well. No, I don't particularly care for fishing either, but there are a lot of fishing people in Australia and they deserve political representation. To be consistent, even Pauline Hanson (or her cohorts) should get in. No, I don't like her views on almost everything, but she brings something necessary to the Senate - diversity.

Vote however you like in the lower house, but for the sake of diversity and review of potentially tyrannical legislation, give your upper house votes to minor parties and put the major parties at the bottom of the list.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

We Will Kill Them All

I watched The Kingdom the other night. It was a harrowing experience, not principally because of the violence, but because of the last two lines of the movie. Like the punchline of a good joke, those lines hit me hard between the eyes and the message got through loud and clear.

I know it's something of a cliche to talk about the cycle of violence, so forgive me if I stray down that path.

A few years ago I wrote a piece called Turn The Other Cheek, George in which I put forward that the better response to the World Trade Centre attacks from a Christian ruler would have been one of non-violence. At the time there was a great call for vengeance from the Americans and it saddened me. All that money spent on equipment to flatten Afghanistan and then Iraq, just to flush out two enemies of the state. Looking back on it now, it seems as though Bush made an angry decision and has been unable to back down from it ever since. Is he embarrassed?

Whatever the reasons, we are now left in a situation in which two countries are destroyed and the destroyers are now trying to convince people that they are rebuilders. Will the destruction convince any of the enemies to lay down their arms? Probably not. When vengeance is high in the cultural awareness of those with the triggers, the weapons will be taken up again and used to inflict more violence.

The answer is not vengeance. The answer is peace and peace-making. We can spend our time and money on making war, or we can spend it on making peace. I, for one, would rather see peace.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Division of Labour

I've decided to split out my gaming interests to a new blog, Tabletop Manifesto. TM will deal with various kinds of games, but mostly the indie games. It's an interesting phenomenon in gaming, bringing the means of production back to the hands of the worker. People are able to create something and manage the production of it for themselves.

This revolution won't be televised. It will be played out in the homes and among friends. It's hard to wish for anything better.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Conscientious Objection

If I were to bring a hungry, sick and dirty child into your house and into your care, what would you do? The most likely answer is some combination of "feed them, wash them and take them to the doctor." There is little or no doubt that when the plight of another human being is brought close to us, most of us who have the power to intervene will do so.

So, if we will intervene to help in the life of a person who is in our immediate vicinity, would we help if the person was one step removed? Say, for example, that you knew the person who was responsible for that child being hungry, sick and dirty. Would you support that person?

Now suppose that this harsh person was the owner of a business that sold your favourite brand of chocolate, and the reason that the child was hungry, sick and dirty is that the child had been kidnapped from its family, brought to the plantation which grew the cocoa and forced to work there for no money. Would you buy chocolate from the man who contrived this arrangement? It is, after all, your favourite chocolate.

The moral choices associated with this cannot be ignored. If we knowingly support activities that put people into these kinds of situations we are no better than the one who kidnapped the child in the first place. Being a conscientious objector to these kinds of exploitations is right and good. Our only defenses are ignorance and apathy. We either don't know, or we don't care. Please, for the sake of the oppressed, find out whatever you can about modern slavery and stand against it.

You can read more about fair trade at these sites.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

The Failure of Existentialism

Existentialism, it has been said, was always going to fail because it requires people to take total responsibility for their actions. This is largely true. Many people are of the opinion that they have an essence that defines them, a non-physical substance that is them. It is the way that they have always been. It is who they are now. It is who they will be tomorrow.

You'll be able to figure out these people when they use expressions like, "But I'm not like that." or "I've always been this way, and I'm never going to change." or "I've learnt so much about myself." It's almost as though they have separated themselves into two parts. One part is the "I" that is making the comment. The other part is the "me" that is waiting to be discovered. But let me ask you, which is the "I" that has free will and makes choices? Is it the "I" or the "me"? Does the "I" take orders from the "me"? Where is the autonomy of that person?

Other manifestations of this belief are found in the idea that every life was created to complete some task; a telos. If this is the case, how do we determine what that task is? Typically the answer to this is something banal like "follow your heart." Unfortunately, there are a great many people who cause harm to others by following their hearts. Robert Mugabe sincerely believes that he is helping the Zimbabwean people. George W. Bush sincerely believes that he is helping the cause of freedom (whatever that means). Following your heart to find your cosmically appointed task is an act of self-indulgence, coloured with claims of divine right.

The alternative to this is the primacy of choice. That is to say, each person has the capacity for free thought, for spontaneous thought. Human consciousness is capable of creating ideas from nothing; ex nihilo. We are capable, in each and every situation, of choosing to do something that we have never done before, or something that is vastly unlike anything we have done before. A pacifist can choose to shoot another person in the head. A heterosexual man can choose to engage in homosexual activity. A man who gets into drunken fights can choose to lower his fists. Each and every example like this is possible through the primacy of choice.

And beyond that, the consequence of such choices perform two functions. They define the person who performs the act (not the other way around), and they become an irrevocable part of that person's history. The agent of a free will action cannot hide from that action. To do so is to deny that they have free will, the power of choice. Of course existentialism fell out of favour. It leaves us with no one else to blame for our mistakes. The only room it gives for us is the infinite potential of our next free will choice.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

You Must, Because You Can

I couldn't post a blog last week. I was far too enraged to clearly compose a single thing. Steve Jackson put out a message on his Daily Illuminator that was out of this world. Read this.

September 15, 2007: The Global Perspective

And today on the headlines at, we see that while they're eating their pets in Zimbabwe, the U.S. Department of Justice is holding conferences at which it pays $5 per meatball and $4.55 per can of soft drink to feed the attendees.
-- Steve Jackson

This is the very thing that drives me mad. The ridiculousness of the capitalist system is that it allows this kind of injustice to happen. It allows one person to exploit another to the point that people have to eat their pets. And yet, in another part of the world there is so much wealth available that the government can afford to pay too much for food. So, in the face of these horrible statistics we see two failings of our system.

Failure to meet the needs of the needy
The reason that we have a system at all (be it capitalist, socialist, monarchist, or whatever) is open for debate. However, if the system does not look after the needs of the needy, then it is an immoral system and must be changed. We must do more with our lives than simply accumulate money. Money should only be accumulated if it is going to be used to benefit those who contributed to the accumulation in the first place. Zimbabwe has a large amount of labour that could be easily harnessed to help feed Zimbabweans. Does it happen? No. Why not? Because the capitalist system is unfettered by obligation and responsibility to anything except the accumulation of capital. As long as one person does it, the system works.

Failure to create genuine exchange of money for goods
The capitalist system allows anyone to charge anything for anything. This is less of a failure because it is a double edged sword. High prices ought to result in fewer customers and the bankruptcy of the business itself. However, if this were truly the case there would be no outrageously priced anything. Fashion items that retail for many times the cost of the materials and labour are the easiest example. The retailer has convinced the public to become consumers, that they must have this item. The desire to own it is overwhelming, no matter the price.

It could be argued that it is not the system that has caused these things, and that is true. But to quote Murray Gell-Mann, "Everything that is not forbidden is compulsory." It is not forbidden to exploit another human being in order to increase your own profits - therefore it is compulsory. To put it another way, "You must, because you can."

And yet, it is impossible to forbid it. The moment that anyone puts out the command, "You shall not accumulate money at the expense of others" you will immediately be filled with the desire to disobey. You are caught. Trapped. Unable to get out of it except by denying everything around you. Deny your right to withhold money from the needy. Deny your right to live in a suburban McMansion. Deny your right to ignore the people around you. You must do this ...because you can.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Baby Osama

The artist who put this together also included a comment that read, " If you get offended, then the terrorists have won."

I declare this to be the new catch-all excuse for all offensive behaviour. Use it at will.

Osama by *kris-wilson on deviantART

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Existential Youth Violence

I was listening to a podcast about youth violence at parties. One of the guests, a researcher at Griffith University, said that as a survey response to the question "Is violence an acceptable method of solving problems?" the respondents overwhelmingly say that it is not. However, research showed that when the context changes through the addition of alcohol and unfamiliar social situations (e.g., a party with gatecrashers, a party including people who don't normally socialise, etc.) then violence is more likely to erupt.

There appear to be two factors at work here. One of them is chemical and the other is social. The chemical one is easy: the presence of alcohol as contributing to violence. It is no secret that alcohol lowers inhibitions and self-control. A sober feeling of sexual attraction can become a drunken feeling of sexual arousal. A sober feeling of embarassament from a tease can become a drunken feeling of anger. The potential list of examples is as endless as the range of human emotion. I don't think that the solution is prohibition or abstinence. Admittedly, this reduction in self-control is probably part of the reason that in Australia there is an age limit for the consumption of alcohol. There is an assumption that people develop greater emotional maturity (including self-control) with aging. I think it is fair to say that this is not a universal law. There are some very mature teenagers and some very emotionally stunted adults. If anything, this is a call for moderation and some kind of sober presence. People need a designated driver, not just to get them home, but to act as an inhibitor for losing control. Alcohol, when consumed in moderation, has been counted as a blessing and a joy for centuries. When consumed in excess, it is an evil that causes more social harm than heroin or methamphetamines.

The second factor is social, or existential. That is to say, the behaviour of the individual changes as the social and environmental context changes. Wittgenstein would suggest that this is because the language game has changed, and therefore the rules by which the participants play has changed. Context (the language game) dictates how the participants play. Alternatively, this can be viewed as a matter of how people behave in the moment, in the instant of the action. In that moment, the violent act has created a violent person. The perception of that person as held by onlookers is immediately changed. We see this in statements like, "I never knew he was a violent person" or the even more delusional statement from the perpetrator, "I'm not a violent person. I don't know why I did that."

It is an existential truth that the act defines the being, that existence precedes essence. Perhaps Forrest Gump said it well, "Stupid is as stupid does." Violent is as violent does.

And yet, once the person is removed from the context (the presence of antagonistic strangers, the excessive consumption of alcohol, etc.), they cease to be a violent being. The violence is a product of that person in that context. Strategies to stop this kind of violence must take that into consideration. Any less and the solution will be false.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Call for Roleplayers

This is a call for Brisbane roleplayers to join a Spirit of the Century campaign set in London of the 1860s rather than America in the 1920s.


See the full call for players at Tabletop Manifesto, a blog about indie tabletop gaming in Brisbane.

Do it now! The world needs heroes.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Who Gets My Vote

I like to think of myself as a swinging voter. Each time an election is called, I will take the time to do my research on the various parties and determine which of them will most closely represent my views on the issues important to me. It takes a bit of time to do, but is part of the responsibility of a citizen of a democracy.

There are plenty of people who vote according to family tradition and I used to be one of those. Mind you, I also took this approach when deciding which football team to support. With regard to football teams, this seems to work well. The team will rise and fall through the seasons - occasionally winning the championship. But football is just a game. Politics is something more serious than football.

Although I'm sure that there aren't any newspaper editors or federal policy makers reading this, I'm going to list the top priorities for me as we approach the next Australian federal election.

In the last Queensland election, I had a choice of three parties in my electorate. Only one of them even had a policy about poverty. I was enraged about this for a day or so. And then I voted for the only party that had taken the trouble to even think about the issue and put it into writing. We are a prosperous society and if we don't use our prosperity to help those in need then we ought to be ashamed. Any party that wants to control community funds (hooray for taxes) should be using that money to benefit those in the community who need help.

Although I'm pursuing postgraduate studies, I don't think that this is appropriate for everyone. A society could not function if all members of it were doctors, lawyers or experts in English literature. There is a place for that kind of education, but I hardly think that we would have enough people to do the mundane work that goes into an industrialised society. Someone needs to operate the garbage truck. Someone is required to be a waiter in a restaurant. Someone needs to do data entry in an accounts firm. That said, we should tailor education for vocation. A carpenter has no need for a university place, but they do need a place in a technical college along with a business that is prepared to take them on during an apprenticeship. This requires good policy in education and in business relations.

It is not enough that a nation should have a plan for forceful defence as a response to violence by others. I am looking for a party that will work for peace. I want my government to be a maker of peace. "Blessed are the peace makers," said Jesus. "Power to the peaceful," said Michael Franti. Any political party that is not committed to establishing peace through peaceful means in the world is not going to get my vote.

We are a nation of wealth and intelligence. We should be using this position to eliminate poverty, improve our community through relevant education and actively creating peace by peaceful means.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

God is Dead

God is dead. This is the popularly misunderstood proclamation made by Nietzsche. Does Nietzsche really mean that a transcendent entity that created the universe and continues to take an interest in the daily lives of human beings is now pushing up the daisies in some cosmic graveyard? No. What Nietzsche does mean is that the idea of a God who does these things is dead. He means that the traditional concept of God as a disembodied mind in the sky is no longer valid. The progress of science and civilisation will no longer permit such an entity, he insists.

And for this, I thank him. However, it leaves us with an interesting conundrum. Suppose that not only is this God dead, but that it was never really alive in the first place. If the disembodied mind in the sky never really existed in the first place, then we must wonder what God actually is.

The short and simple Christian answer is that God is love. This doesn't mean that God is a being that does only loving things. Rather, this kind of statement is similar to the one that says, “Rover is a dog.” That is, the first thing is defined by the second thing. The second thing is the essence of the first thing. To get a grasp of what God is, you must first get a grasp of what love is.

I will intentionally repeat myself here. Love is not the meaningless word that we use for various other things we are too lazy to mention. Love is not in the sense that I love (enjoy) ice cream. It is not love in the sense that I love (am infatuated by) a new romance. It is not love in the sense that I love (feel good about) doing good things. Rather, it is love in the sense that it is a verb for which the lover is only the agent, and in no way the recipient. It is love in the sense that the one doing the loving forgets about the self and takes action for the sake of the other. It is somewhat synonymous with self-sacrifice, charity and altruism.

Understand that this is love, and now re-read the short answer: God is love. The act of love itself is the essence of God. The act of self-sacrifice for the sake of the other is the essence of God. This is a mode of being that transcends the physical while firmly planted in a physical universe. God is transcendent in that love cannot be grasped, but God is physical in that love is only real when it is enacted in time and space.

This idea is not at the edges of Christian philosophy, awaiting a compatibility test with Biblical texts. Rather, it is near and dear to the heart of the Christian writings. God, a transcendent entity, was manifest in the life of a person called Jesus and is now manifest in the group of people who follow Jesus. The difference between this and Judeo-Christianity is the rejection of the implicit metaphysics of Judaism and classical theism. The metaphysics of the universe that must be consistent with the physics of contemporary research insists that a transcendent God cannot interact (exist) unless the transcendent essence of God is an action.

So what is God? God is love, enacted in our midst through selflessness, altruism and charity.

Monday, 20 August 2007

The Void Inside

Everyone uses “I” every day. This self-reference is an odd construct. It derives from an awareness of experiences, both past and present. It is the word that points to an object deep inside the mind, some kind of central reference point from which all decisions flow and towards which all experiences are directed. And yet, despite the overwhelming sense of truth that accompanies the use of the word, it appears to be little more than an illusory concept.

The experience of having a self at all seems so fundamental to human existence that the more typical question is not whether the “I” is an actual entity, but is a question that asks for details about the “I” that is “obviously” there. We go on voyages of self-discovery. We give up something in order to find ourselves. We spend small fortunes talking with psychologists so that we can understand this “I” to which we have become attached.

But really, this idea that there is a substance or an object somewhere inside the mind is something of a trick that we play on ourselves. As experience after experience saturates our minds, the brain is forced to deal with multiple experiences placed next to each other. The memory of one next to the memory of another – a stream of experiences – creates a history in the brain. It is the capacity of the human brain to store memories that gives us a sense of time, of continued existence. The same brain has recorded various experiences and recalls them, not as specific instances, but as a general recollection until one gets the focus.

Even in our knowledge of each other we deceive ourselves just the same. A man may know a great many things about his wife, through experiences with her, through stories told by her friends, through photographs in the family album, and yet the moment he walks out of the room there is something about her that he does not know because he has not experienced it through any medium. He can never have a complete mental picture of her. However, based on his experience of her he will create in his mind a mental representation of her. Each new experience will add to the mental representation that he has. It will never be complete, but it will always be current.

The same is true of self-knowledge. Although the depth and breadth of self-experience is greater than other-experience, there will always be gaps. Various states of semi-consciousness or unconsciousness will cloud it. Forgetfulness or amnesia will distort it. The mental representation of ourselves is gained only through the experiences that we have had with ourselves. Detailed they might be, but they are not a discovery of an object hidden deep inside the mind. They are merely a series of experiences, one after the other, each adding to the mental representation of the self by being stored in (and always-already accessed from) the memory.

In the middle of it all is not an object, but a void. By looking at the experiences that surround it we imply that there is something there that ties it all together, and yet there is ultimately nothing there but a void around which all the experiences are located. It is not an empty space waiting to be filled – just an illusion created by a series of experiences.

Friday, 17 August 2007

The Unnecessary God

One of the claims made consistently by theologians and philosophers over the centuries is that God is a necessary being. That is, for any kind of universe that you can imagine, God must exist (or have being... your choice). There is no possible universe that you or I can imagine that does not have God somewhere - whether inside the universe or outside the universe. At least, that's the fairly consistent claim.

Now, these claims often conjure images in our minds of the activities of God that might make God necessary. The big one is creation. Lots of people believe that God created the cosmos and that without God there would be no cosmos at all. Ultimately, it sounds as though one cannot believe that God is real if one ascribes to theories about evolution, or theories about the creation of the universe as the consequence of our theories about quantum mechanics.

But is that the extent of the necessary aspect of God? I think that if this is the only reason that God is necessary, then we have done a poor job of representing God. The debates over the mechanisms of creation will go on for a little longer yet without much effect on our ordinary lives. What we have at the moment are people who posit that God is a necessary part of the process because we don't have any other way to explain it. This is a weak argument. For a long time we didn't have any other way to explain how people got sick, and then we discovered viruses and bacteria. For a long time we didn't have any other way to explain how the weather worked and now we have meteorology. God is not merely the mortar that fills in between the bricks of discovery.

I put it to you that God is not necessary at all. The universe could probably have come into existence without help from beyond. The weather certainly doesn't need God behind the curtain, exhaling in order to get a good gale going. No, I think that we need to think about God as unnecessary.

One of the great Christian claims is that God is love (and by love I mean the kind of love that is unconditional and self-sacrificing, not the kind that we use to describe how amazing is ice-cream, or even the kind of love we experience we we are in love with a romantic partner) . And what is love? Love is not required to keep the species in existence. In fact, we could continue to exist if we were united by fear. Look at Hussein's Iraq, for example. People could start the day with the reasonable assumption that they could buy food for their bellies, and fuel for their cars. They could reasonably expect to go to work and then come home. They could walk the streets at night to visit a neighbour. Of course, they weren't allowed to express anti-Hussein sentiments or any pro-western ideas, but the society continue nonetheless. There was no need for love there, just fear.

Some have claimed that fear is what unites the people of America together also, but this is not my argument. You'll have to watch Bowling for Columbine for that one.

My point is that a successful propagation of humanity does not require love. The successful continued existence of the universe does not require love either. The love that is the Christian distinctive is not necessary for the universe and if the Christian claim is also that God is love, then neither is God necessary for the universe.

However, that does not mean that God is not possible. Nor does it mean that God is not real. We are faced with the brute scientific fact that our existence does not necessarily depend on God to kick off the process, nor to keep it going. However, we are most certainly faced with the ongoing challenge that God calls us, not to avoid some kind of fiery damnation, but to positively affect the lives of people around us. We do not need love in the world for it to continue, but we are called to do it.

You don't have to love anyone. But you can, and if you do, you'll be doing something that is not only unnecessary, but utterly, utterly sacred at the same time.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Explaining Subjective Experience

DISCLAIMER: You may have deduced by now that I'm doing some post-grad theological studies in the field of philosophy. From time to time I will turn some of my idle thoughts into a stream of words and post it here. That means that these thoughts are by no means complete. It is a stepping stone on the way across the pond.

Part of any good theory of consciousness, says David Chalmers, is a satisfactory explanation of experience. It is insufficient to let the theory stop with an explanation of how we convert sensory information into memories, or how we maintain ongoing storage of those memories, or how we retrieve those memories. Chalmers insists that we can imagine systems that do all these functions and yet do not have subjective experience. In fact, I dare say that the average desktop computer with a permanently recording video camera would be capable of these functions and yet not claim to have subjective experience. It's no surprise that Chalmers thinks this; before he started his work in philosophy, he was a computer scientist and will (like any of us) bring his past experiences with him wherever he goes. If anything, this is a good reason why people should change careers at least once.

The claim is an interesting one, however. Anyone who has watched Ghost in the Shell would find this argument familiar. After all, the massive collection and interaction of data on the (future version of the) internet is what gives rise to the Puppet Master AI. Nonetheless, there is still a step that can be made to close the gap between an explanation of how the brain manages memories and the phenomenon of experience.

We know that the brain's activities largely revolve around memories. A new sensory stimulus is received (a word, perhaps) and is translated into a meaning that is held in one part of the memory. The activity of the brain that stirs in response to the stimulus also stirs an associated memory. This simultaneous stirring of memories allows the brain to recall two memories at the same time. It is a kind of global access to all memories. Each memory, however, provides an interpretive locus for other memories. One “fact” helps define the next “fact” so to speak.

At this point, we need to depart from analytic philosophy and go to psychoanalytic philosophy. Psychoanalysis tells us that the self is formed through interpellation into a symbolic order, when a single sensory experience is connected with a meaning. It is often modelled by the entry of the child into language. From the first word onwards, every other word gains meaning until eventually an entire symbolic order is created and the person (the subject) is formed.

Let me bridge the gap here – the gap between analytic philosophy and continental philosophy. If a signifier (a word, an action, whatever) creates a memory, and it is the collection of all these signifiers and their meanings/signifieds that forms the subject, then do we not have a mechanism by which neurobiology can account for the creation of a self?

Furthermore, it is the self that permits subjective experience. The self is necessary for there to be an “I” that can have an experience. “I” cannot have an experience if there is no “I” to begin with. Therefore, the self must be formed so that experience can happen. The self is formed through the creation of a symbolic order (sounds, sights, smells... all stored as memories in the brain... all attached to meanings).

I would wager that Chalmers' objection to this will be that I have done nothing other than explain how the self is formed. On the contrary, I think that this is a reasonable space in which to think about how the brain allows experience, rather than just sensory processing “in the dark.”

Monday, 6 August 2007

There's a Schism in the Ism

There's a schism in the ism
And a hate in the fate.
Get a tissue for lord Vishnu
Kick 'em out. All hail the State!

So shoot blasters at the Rastas
And set dogs on idealogues.
Don't get squeamish for the Amish
Our world leaders would be gods.

Rating zero, these wannabe heroes
Playing "Carry On Pantheon"
"Crush the people; make them sheeple!
As we fight for Babylon."

Friday, 3 August 2007

The Real

For a marvelous photo that all you Lacanians will immediately understand, look at this work on DeviantArt. It's called The Agony of Eden.

The Agony of Eden by ~absence-is-steel on deviantART

The Supremacy of Physics

Very early in the classic work of David Armstrong (A Materialist Theory of Mind) comes the expression, "the supremacy of physics." That is to say, Armstrong believes that all mental processes can be reduced to chemical processes which in turn can be reduced to processes described by physics. As my first-year physics tutors claimed: everything is physics, even chemistry is just dirty physics.

For Armstrong, descriptions by physics are the irreducible descriptions. We cannot split the universe into blocks smaller than those described by physics. Neither can we split human consciousness into anything more fundamental that that which can be described by physics. He does not say that this is the only valid way to describe it. After all, human consciousness can be discussed in terms of awareness, knowledge or thought. Human existence clearly includes emotions, social relations and physiology. However, all of these things, according to Armstrong, are merely layers built on top of fundamental descriptions from physics.

My undergraduate degree was in engineering, so this settles well with me. The irony is that at the time of studying for engineering, I was a fundamentalist pentecostal. Now that I'm studying theology, I'm a card-carrying Marxist. Figure that out for yourself.

But I digress. Armstrong's train of thought is a reasonable one in this age of knowledge and scientism. Unless something can be proven with some sort of scientific method, the contemporary Western mind will not accept it as anything truthful. It would be an opinion piece, or a religious text, and so on. Is truth only verified by physics? Not if you think that truth and fact are different things. Physics can verify a lot and as any serious physicist will tell you, there are still a great many questions yet to be answered by physics.

The gap between current knowledge of physics and a Grand Unified Theory of Everything is not, however, the limits of space for religion and God. It might be that the language we use for philosophy/theology is capable of describing things that occupy that gap better than physics can, but they should not form a dichotomy. There is no boundary between physics and philosophy/theology. The two should be treated as different layers of language used to describe the same cosmos. Philosophy/theology has nothing to fear from physics, and physics has nothing in philosophy/theology to attack. Ultimately, the two schools pursue the same thing: knowledge of the cosmos and a language with which to describe it.

Monday, 30 July 2007

Up! Fest

The Up! Festival. It's a strange name for a festival. For an anything, I would suggest. But I know that I'll be going to it. Franti has said before that when he started out in hip hop he would decry the media. His classic track Television - Drug of the Nation is this very point. He followed that comment by saying that rather than destroy the media, we should become the media. In Rock the Nation he writes:
Bom bom
Rock the nation
Take over television and radio stations
Bom bom
The truth shall come
Give the corporations some complications
And he's right. Media is a powerful force. I have my suspicions that part of the power of television is not that it tells stories that we can all relate to, but it tells stories that we wish we could relate to. Some women don't relate to Teri Hatcher in Desperate Housewives, but they probably wish that they looked as good as her, with a house as large as hers and so forth. Most men won't relate to the detectives on NCIS but they probably wish that they could kick down the door and "bust come caps in the ass" of some criminals.

Media's power is often through the visualisation of fantasy. It turns a fantasy into an on-screen reality. For as long as the audience's eyes are on the screen, that screen is their experiential reality. I support Franti in his efforts and want him to succeed. My trepidation comes through wondering whether his version of the media will have the same power because the fantasy/reality that he would probably put on those same screens may appeal to fewer people.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Much Munchkin

NOTE: Gaming topics have been moved to Tabletop Manifesto.

Recently I acquired some expansion packs for Munchkin. Expansions 2, 3 and 4 are now in my possession, and today I played my first game of it with the expansions. I have to say that they're completely worthwhile.

Maybe I'll get to play a larger game (up to 6 players, according to the box) soon. 3 players is good, but 6 would be a completely different dynamic.

Friday, 20 July 2007

The Offensive War

When the cruise missiles were launched into Iraq all those years ago, I did a calculation on the back of a napkin, comparing the cost of the missiles and what that money could have done if it were used for education and clean water, rather than missiles.

It seems I am not alone. Allow me to quote from the Sojourners blog.

The financial cost is staggering—a new Congressional Research Service study reported that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan now cost $12 billion per month. When that monthly price tag is compared to the $10 billion per year it would cost to educate the world's 800 million children under six years old, the contrast opens up a real debate on what truly makes for national and global security.
So, yearly costs are these.
144 billion USD - Iraq and Afghan war
10 billion USD - Educate 800 million children under 6

Education will do more good in this world than fighting those two wars. And it's cheaper. This is one reason that I find this "war on terror" to be the Offensive War.

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Capital Gain, Capital Loss

Consider this hypothetical - and very common - situation.

Your house is for sale. You bought it five years ago for $200,000 and because of current high property values you now have it listed for $400,000. You haven't renovated the house in that time but have maintained it well. It is in much the same condition as when you first moved in. How do you feel about this?

For some people, this is good news. The asset has increased in value and they have an extra $200k in their bank account if they wish. If you are one of these people, you may not have asked yourself where the extra money will come from. So where has it come from?
It will come from the person who buys your house, not just at the time of sale but for the next 25 to 30 years. Your gain of $200,000 is being funded by the next person. Your gain is their loss.

You might suggest that in return they get an asset that is worth $400,000. But is it really worth that much? Did you add $200,000 worth of renovations to it? Not likely. You might suggest that they can sell the asset to pay off the debt. But where will they live?

The buyer is in a difficult position. The amount of money they must save to even enter the property market has more than doubled. Furthermore, the amount of money that they must earn in order to pay off the interest has more than doubled. If we total the interest payments for the larger loan, will it be worth less than the increase in price? Probably not.
So, your gain is their loss - and it will be their loss for many years to come. Will they require two incomes to pay for it? Probably. What effect will this have on the children that they raise?

In short, the net effect on private home-owners of each transaction like this is negative. Extra labour must be produced in order to hang on to the same physical assets. The social cost of this extra labour is enormous.

We like to call this event a "capital gain" because the amount of capital has increased. This feels like a good thing, but remember that capital is nothing other than the general equivalent of labour. An increase in $200,000 plus interest now demands the additional labour that will total $200,000 plus interest.

I cannot call this an elephant in the capitalist's living room, simply because most capitalists do not even know that it is there. They cannot ignore something that they cannot see. Now, the conundrum for you the home-seller is that you might feel that you have over-priced your house. At least until you think of the price of the next house that you want to buy. How will you afford it? You can only afford it if you use the increased value of your current house to get it. And you can only use that if you are willing to pass on the additional burden of funding your new house to the one who buys your current house.

Eventually, it will all be paid for by people who do not now own houses. Either they will pay it when they buy the first one, or they will pay it in the rent to the one who owns it. People who do not own property are funding the increase in property assets. The property owner can set whatever price they like, but the people who will foot the bill are ultimately those who do not currently own property.

The terror of this situation is that the people who can least afford it are the ones who are forced to pay it.

Monday, 16 July 2007

Amnesia Played

NOTE: Gaming topics have been moved to Tabletop Manifesto.

So, on the weekend we played Amnesia. I've written a brief overview of it on The Voice of the Revolution forums and have copied it to here in case you don't want to click on the link. I know, clicking is such a chore.

The game worked out well. None of us had used Fate before, so that was a fun learning experience. The system and the dice were very supportive of the plot, allowing us to concentrate on the struggle that these characters had in trying to figure out what had happened to them, and then how they would react.

In order to explain the amnesia (an aspect from the beginning), I chose to set this in the world of The Matrix, because I know the setting well, and if I was going to be shakey on either the rules or the setting, I didn't want to be shakey on both.

The characters were rogue programs, unleashed into the Matrix at the start of the episode. They had no recollection of anything prior to that moment because they didn't exist. They started in the unique position of being able to interact with the world but without preconceptions of it, or skills for how to work within it. That made it a challenge to avoid meta-gaming, but we worked our way through that.

Each time they died, they were returned to a "wise man" figure in the form of a character called the Tutor, who asked them to tell him what they learned and asked them what they would like to learn from him. I treated each of these events as a phase in the character creation process. So as the session went on they filled out the skill pyramid, chose most of their aspects indirectly - always as a result of the conversation with the Tutor.

The whole story reached its climax when they learned from the NPCs about their true natures. They realised that they had a choice to make (in classic Matrix style, its all about choice and destiny). They had become dangerous to the program who had created them and believed that he wanted them to be deleted. To save themselves, they either had to sieze the power of deletion from him, or try to upload their consciousnesses into the minds of humans who were "plugged in" and escape from the Matrix.

So the game became one of moral and ethical questions.
- Is it right to pursue self-preservation at the expense of an innocent?
- What should I do with my life, if I have no purpose and seem unable to die?
- Is it right to accept service to another, simply because they have the power to take your life away?
- Is it right to kill someone because they have the power to take your life away, even though they explicitly state that they won't use it?

The last one was especially interesting. The Big Bad said to them, "When a pedestrian crosses the road, their life is in the hands of the motorist driving towards them. But just because the driver has power of life and death over the pedestrian, the pedestrian doesn't take a gun to the head of the driver to kill him first. And yet, you come in here with guns drawn, threatening me because you think I will delete you?"

It was a great climactic moment! The villain eventually escaped, wounded but alive. The protagonists were free, for the moment. As one of the players said, "It's just like a movie, they've left it open for a sequel!"

Everyone was pretty satisfied with the scenario. It told a story of discovery, of moral choices and of adventure. It resolved the big moral choices presented to the protagonists without it being necessary to resolve all parts of the plot.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Belief Without Proof

Edge (the magazine, not the guitarist) likes to postulate a question each year to a group of prominent thinkers (scientists, philosophers, etc.). One year, the question was, "What do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it?"

This is a great question because it allows space for something that we intuitively "know" even without any evidence one way or the other. Perhaps the most obvious answers were those that involved God. Although many great minds have attempted to argue for or against the existence of God, none have yet been able to actually prove their case.

Such a result does not necessarily mean that the existence of God is only in the realm of intuition. If that were true, neurobiologists would still be looking for the so-called "God spot" in the brain. Such a search was abandoned because the spot doesn't exist. The question of the existence of God should be considered as a matter of objective fact about the universe. Either God exists, or God does not exist. The manner and mode of God's existence is something that can be argued about by those philosophers and theologians who are willing to believe without proof that God exists. Those who believe without proof that God does not exist are quite unlikely to get involved in the debate.

So, to believe without proof is something that we all do, perhaps without realising it. Some call this activity "faith" but faith is such an emotionally and socially charged word that I will avoid using it where possible. The breadth of meaning for the word is too wide for it to be useful. Instead, to believe is merely shorthand for "believe without proof for or against."

Belief without proof is also different to belief without reason. Most people who believe something is true will have a good reason for it. A person who has dreamt about their child saying a specific thing prior to the child even being conceived, and then hearing the child say that very thing when old enough to talk... such a person will have reason to believe that there is something more to the universe than merely the 4 dimensions of space-time. This is belief with reason.

In a way, most reasons are experiences. Someone with a better grasp of poetic English than me once said that the person with an experience is never at the mercy of the person with an argument. A rational argument can batter against an experience until the end of time and have no effect on the belief that comes from that experience. Ultimately, experience - and the conclusions that we make from those experiences - will shape our beliefs more than any logical or consistent argument.

The only hope for someone who is trapped in a false belief is to investigate how they went from the experience to the belief. This is the niche of the structuralists and it is at this point that I tip my hat to Žižek and his crowd for their relentless project to find holes in the ordinary experiences of humanity in order to force those who are trapped in them to question the world in which they exist. In other words, question everything around you, especially the things you think don't need to be questioned.

Belief is not the enemy. Without belief, there would be no organised enquiry to find the truth. At present there are a number of people who believe that the Higgs boson will be observed. There is no proof that it exists, but there is a lot of belief and a great deal of reason. Belief is quite useful. It will direct you towards the truth.

So what do I believe that I cannot prove? I believe that there is a God and that this God probably did not create the universe. The rest of that argument will have to wait for another time.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Sustainable Pluralism

I was listening to Insoo Hyun on the Philosopher's Zone and heard him make a remark that I will only paraphrase because I won't guarantee that it's a word perfect account.
We live in a pluralistic society. That means that no ideology dominates the others ... at least, that's the ideal.

First of all, it's interesting to see how the word "ideology" is no longer connected with an ideal. An ideal is acceptable and worth pursuing. An ideal is something that we should all strive towards. An ideal is encouraged. However, an ideology is not. That is, a structured set of propositions that are centred around an ideal is far from encouraged, and a way of life to accompany those propositions is even more discouraged. Therefore, under pluralism, it is acceptable to have an ideal, as long as you don't do anything to make that ideal a reality.
Secondly, the very idea of avoiding domination by a single ideology is in itself an ideology. If a person steps out of line by suggesting that any particular ideology should be either promoted or opposed, that person is either an ideologue (dangerous in the extreme) or just plain intolerant (to be re-educated).

Within pluralism is the inherent contradiction that pluralism itself is something that seeks to dominate everything else. I suspect that there are only two ways for it to function. It must either be a pluralism that encouraged ideals that are never acted upon, or it must be have a mechanism to prevent any particular ideology from actually gaining power. Perhaps the tendency for contemporary democracies to elect centrist governments is the actualisation of this second condition. Extremist governments aren't elected for long. They either get voted out or pervert the electoral process to ensure that they return.

The sustainability of a pluralist society relies on people rejecting the actions of their own ideals.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Everything Happens

“Everything happens for a reason.” I've heard this said more times than I care to remember. It seems to be the last refuge of the abandoned and powerless. I suspect that really what they are saying is this, “Every bad thing that happens does so according to some larger orchestration by a higher power so that a greater good can come to pass.” As is my wont, I choose this to pick apart.

The statement implies that all events in the universe are controlled in order to bring about the greater good. Even within this are three tells: that there is a higher power; that there is something called the greater good; and that the creatures within the universe do not have free will. The first (the existence of a higher power, be it God or Fate) is nothing out of the ordinary. Many people are inclined to believe that such a thing exists. In fact, the vast majority of humans believe such a thing. It's not unusual and by itself is not necessarily a bad thing. The second (the existence of a greater good) is the converse to the existence of evil. However, I question the existence of objective evil. If a powerful natural event like a tsunami happens near a population centre, we say that there is evil. If, however, a star explodes and destroys a solar system of lifeless planets, we marvel at the majesty of the universe. No mention of evil there. Evil is only present where there are humans, it seems. This leads into an entirely other topic on whether human life is any more or less special than insect life – for another time, perhaps.

It is the third of these claims that causes the biggest problem. If the higher power has contrived events to happen so that the greater good is served, what happened to the free will of the people who were caught up in those events? To keep the initial statement true, we must say that the higher power has taken control over the wills of all the people in order that that would act in such a way that no other outcome is possible. That is, those people have no free will in those events. And we must extend this to all events, because everything happens for a reason, not just some things.

What, then, is the alternative? That nothing happens for a reason? Shall we believe that all we have is causality? “We are all victims of causality. I drank too much wine, and now I must take a piss. Cause and effect,” said The Merovingian. This, too, is a mechanistic view of the universe. He did, after all, choose to drink the wine. Already we have come back to the matter at hand: free will choices. In a world of free will choices, nothing happens for some cosmically determined reason but most things have a cause. While I have free will, I will use it. I choose to use it.

And yet my undoing is in neurobiology. Behind my eyes, behind the thin layer of skin, muscle and bone that is my face, is just a lump of grey protein. It is nothing but a complex series of chemical reactions. It is far too complex for me to unravel. In fact to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, any sufficiently complex neurobiological system is indistinguishable from free will. The terror (or perhaps absurdity) is not that we have no free will because some higher power insists on controlling us to bring about the greater good, but that we have no free will because we are nothing other than complex neurobiological systems, mere chemical reactions.

Monday, 25 June 2007

If Only Judas Had Waited

I've written about Judas before. He's a fascinating character for several reasons that will become evident over time and many more blog entries. For now, think about his suicide. Within 24 hours of handing Jesus over to the authorities, Judas has killed himself. Despite Jesus saying that the crucifixion will result in resurrection, Judas does not remember this and does not see any light at the end of the tunnel.

What if Judas had waited a few days and wallowed in his misery? Suppose he had lived long enough to see the risen Christ in the garden? Would Jesus, much as he did with Peter, offer Judas a chance to be reconciled? Perhaps he would have commanded Judas to, "Feed my lambs" as he did with Peter.

Suppose that all this had happened, and that Jesus had the opportunity to welcome Judas back into the fold. What status would we have afforded Judas today? What status would the early church have given him? Perhaps even a letter from Judas would have graced the pages of the New Testament! None can say. However, what we can pose is the challenge of weakness in the face of power - or genuine power itself. That is, it is reasonable that Jesus would have made such an offer to Judas. Even if Judas had acted treacherously, being brought back into communion with the other disciples would have been one of the greatest demonstrations of grace the world had ever seen. Such grace (what the world sees as weakness) is the greatest power of all. Such a "weakness" on the part of Jesus would have been enough power to destroy centuries of exile and condemnation by others.

In weakness is true power.