The Nature of Nature By Oskar.

January 11, 2010

A number of possibilities for a definition of ‘nature’ have been proposed.

The first I will examine is ‘Wilderness, a physical area unaffected by humanity’.
Personally I consider this to be an unrealistic view of any part of the world. All environments are inextricably linked and we humans have had some degree of impact on all of them. Even places where no human has ever been are in some way affected by us, through our pressure on migratory organisms that do come into contact with us and our impact on the global climate system. In addition, if we only consider things to be natural if no human has come into contact with them, then none of us have ever actually experienced nature.
While it is true that some environments can clearly be seen to have been further affected by humans than others, the impossibility to draw a line makes this definition of nature unrealistic.

Next we have ‘ The opposite to culture, that which is not culture’. This is an interesting one, that at first looks promising to me. Difficulties arise, however, when one has to define culture. Somehow I feel ‘The opposite to nature’ isn’t going to cut it. The definition of culture that I have generally used is ‘Any learned behavior, or product of this behavior, that can pass between individuals’. This definition seemed fine when dealing with human culture as opposed to nature, but I then considered the culture displayed by other animals. For example, styles of bird song are learned. Certain types of song go in and out of fashion for birds in different areas, even those of the same species. While this, by my earlier definition, is certainly a cultural phenomenon, it is something that I generally would have considered natural.
The difficulty with this definition of nature is drawing a line between whether a phenomenon constitutes culture or is driven by instinct (and if it is a combination of the two, is it natural or cultural?). Language in humans, for instance, is universal, indicating that we have some kind of in-built language instinct, but individual languages are culturally developed and transmitted.

The definition of nature that I am most comfortable with is ‘Every element of the world we inhabit’. The implication is that humans and our constructs are not separate from nature, but an integral part of it. Some claim that this would excuse us from our degradation of other natural things, as we cannot be doing anything wrong in exploiting that which we are a part of. I find this most unsatisfactory. It is perfectly reasonable to be worried about one part of a whole damaging another, particularly when one part is self aware.

I am reminded of Richard Dawkins’ metaphor of a selfish gene at this point. A self interested part of a whole, that will ‘try’ to ensure its own survival at the expense of other parts, but has found that cooperation and mutualism are more successful at ensuring its continued existence that all out exploitation. That is not to say that sometimes, it is in the best interests of a self interested propagator to exploit. The fact that humans, unlike Dawkins’ unaware selfish-genes, are able to plan and to think forward gives us two greater opportunities.
One is the ability to propagate ourselves at the expense of other elements of nature with much more efficiency and success.
The other, is to look ahead and steer ourselves away from mindless propagation (in terms of population and of material wealth and power) that will not benefit us in the long term.

I hope that we can see fit to choose the latter option.

This essay is far from perfect or complete, I am using this blog as a sort of sounding board. I am stressing that I really need people to criticize me. This is the way that I sort out what is going on in my head. I really do think I’m on to something with the layers withing layers of selfish propagators, though. Anyway, thoughts?


Finding, Making and Killing time

September 18, 2009

By Oskar

Time is a fascinating and often incomprehensible thing. Our everyday lives are defined by it, our language almost treats it as a physical entity. We find it, we waste it, we make it, we take it, have it, we even kill it. Despite its extreme relevance to our ordinary functioning as humans, we often don’t take the time (I couldn’t think of a better way of saying this) to consider exactly what it is, what it is doing and how we know it is doing it.

In the studies of geology, evolutionary biology and astronomy, time is often referred to a ‘deep’, (a wonderful example of of metaphor in science if I have ever heard one). This term is attempting to come to grips with the shear magnitude of the time we have found to exist. Our seemingly important lives are less than a single atom in the ‘ocean of time’. We give it numbers in this context. Billions of years. In reality I doubt very many people are able to appreciate the significance of this. A billion years is not something our brains were evolved to understand (I am constantly troubled by the fact that I contemplate such weighty topics with a brain that is essentially a really good food detector).

James Hutton (arguably the first modern geologist) said: “…there is not vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.” He was criticized, as he was thought to be implying that time was infinite, but my interpretation is that (like any good scientist) he simply didn’t know about such philosophical matters . He simply knew that time (and by extension Earth processes) was old beyond human reckoning.

Of course, when you move away from such physical sciences and into the realm of physics (ironic really), time becomes a whole lot messier. Some would say that time itself does not exist, that what we experience as time is really just our experience of change. To others time is a dimension, a strange one, unlike the spatial dimensions we are able to sense. It goes in only one direction, it cannot be turned on and off, or shaped by human intervention.

I hope I have given you something to think about, this article is by no means and end to itself, but more of a stimulus for discussion. Please comment if you feel you have something to contribute, but even if you don’t,  think twice next time you look at your watch.

Time is an amazing phenomenon, it still strikes me as strange that people are so intent on creating new mystery, replacing their world with imagined ones in an attempt to ‘bring back wonder’ that they claim has been taken by our modern understanding of the world. In reality, their creations could never exceed the wonder and mystery that is our own, rationally revealed world.

That last paragraph was a bit of a personal cause, it can be ignored if you wish.


Atheism is semantically erroneous

September 3, 2009

By Reuben.

Now that this post’s title has gathered your attention, let me draw your attention to a rather excellent quote:

I’m a polyatheist – there are many gods I don’t believe in.

– Dan Fouts

There is a subtle logic here; most believers (of a theistic or deistic bent) believe in one God – usually one ‘true’ God who has much political clout when it comes to dicatating matter. But they therefore must exclude all other Gods mustn’t they? A Christian does not call their God ‘Allah’ while most Jews do not follow the Scientology God known as Theta (or something like that…it’s hard to comprehend most of what Scientology says anyway). Nobody actually believes in every single conceivable God. It’s logically and morally inconsistent to believe in the God of the old testament whilst supposing that – at the same time – Thetans exist inside us (to borrow the Scientology example again). Jews are not also Muslims, Catholics and those who follow the Bahai Faith. That would certainly render the entire purpose of religion in politics (that is, to divide people based on a set of irrational superstitions) completely and utterly useless for starters…never mind the theological side.

Monotheism thrives wholly on the principle of exclusivity even though you can blatently see that, for example, Jews and Muslims worship the same theistic tyrant (who has given false impetus for both people to engage in bloodshed). You’d be hard pressed to find a Muslim, Christian or Jew who’d freely admit their God is the same as another monotheistic religion. Intelligent believers do concede that the Koran, the Bible and the Torah have many traces and evolved from a common source…but they stop short of saying that, name notwithstanding, their God is the same as each others. For the atheist, this is plain to see. Since it’s obviously inconceivable that all three Gods exist as per their relative religious texts’ instructions side-by-side (thus forfeiting their own ‘all powerful’ identity), monotheism has more than enough to answer for…

Pantheism is more curious. Spinoza espoused his own version of this and touched on the idea that perhaps pantheism is a precursor for atheism. Dawkins takes this one step further and I quote:

“Deism is watered down theism. Pantheism is sexed up atheism”

– Richard Dawkins

It would appear that if we were to truly follow pantheism, the whole concept of a powerful being is void. You might as well, Dawkin argues, call the theory of gravity the ‘God of Gravity’ and Einstein’s relativity theory the ‘God of relativity’. We have effectively supplanted the word ‘God’ with various undisputed observations about the natural world. Scientists may have already found something that links every known bit of scientific truth together. We could call this ‘one rule for all’ as some sort of God – but this might be too ironic, since a scientific explanation does not postulate what we expect to see – rather it explains it. A belief in God explains nothing.


Read on…

August 2, 2009

I stumbled across this interesting opinion piece recently:

I didn’t mean cultural relativism was the cause of the problem in Islam. I meant it was the source of weakness for the West in dealing with the problems of Islam. There is this quaint view that’s coalesced over the last 30 years especially that you mustn’t challenge anybody’s cultural mores, and in tandem with that, if you live a model left-wing lifestyle, that other cultures will be amazed at how open minded and hip you are, and reward your “respect” with a reciprocal respect for your own lifestyle, culture and ideology and – as a result – we will all live in a multicultural paradise.

This is, of course, bullshit.

The rest of it is here.

I think the author has a valid point. However, it’s not a very pragmatic point. If you enter a meeting to strategise about immigration, assimilation and population change with the quoted premise above, it’s unlikely you’ll get far. It might not be fair or equal to either culture to be more tolerant than them…but it’s certainly causes less friction.


Offensiveness

June 1, 2009

Offensiveness, as defined by dictionary.com (the best source of information bar Wikipedia), is: causing resentful displeasure; highly irritating, angering, or annoying.
I’ve always supposed that, being a political atheist (or ‘secular humanist’…as a more accurate term in the context of politics), I would end up raising the ire of certain groups – particularly ones  such as the Catholic Church, Family First party and SaltShakers all of which I have absolutely no patience or sympathy for. Politically, these groups and I are diametrically opposed on most issues. All three, in my view, are bigoted, anti-science, sexist, homophobic and dogmatic. I’ll discuss the finer details of that later, but for now, I’m talking about offensiveness.

What constitutes offensiveness in this context? If I say “I hate religion”, most people won’t take offense to it because I’m not attacking a particular religion. But because religions vary in their dogmaticness, vitriol and rationality, it would simply be too simplistic to say that all religions are bad, or all are good or all are mediocre. They are all relative; I for one would argue that, compared to the three main Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity), Sikhism is fairly mild. I also find Mormonism to be particularly bad a religion if not for their door-to-door marketing techniques and the clear absurdity of believing Utah to be some kind of holy site (whereas no other monotheistic religion says so). Utah isn’t Jerusalem. But is this targeting of certain religions fair?

I very much doubt that this poster would be socially acceptable in Australia, given our huge Christian population...

I very much doubt that this poster would be socially acceptable in Australia, given our huge Christian population...

Freedom to insult religion is a fundamental human right, I believe. If the insult isn’t justified, then the argument can be taken down in true argumentative style (complete with jibes at the opposition’s facial hair). If I declare that Judaism is evil because of events in Israel/Palestine and that the conflict there is because Judaism is an evil religion, it can be safely concluded that what I’m saying is abjectly specious. But people should have that right to think that. It might be terribly and deliberately offensive, but it’s no more irrational than Creationism. I’m opposed to any attempt to remove free speech. In that example, I’m fairly sure most Jews would be offended if I called their religion evil. I’m maliciously targeting them. But how is this different to liberals calling conservatives ‘evil’? If someone holds that value (be it religion or politics) close to heart, then it can be very offensive. But what if that value of theirs offends you?

As an atheist, should I have the socially-permissable right to insult the hell out of Christianity – seeing as Christianity as a concept and a religion, offends me? Actually it doesn’t really…but I’m reacting to Christians who are offended by atheists. In an ideal world, nobody would be offended by diverse views on the world – but let’s assume they do. Well..the thing here is that saying Jews are evil (to re use that same example) is deliberate and calculated. Me saying that Christianity is throughly annoying is not deliberately offensive. I don’t go out of my way to insult Christians. I might vote against them or rally against attempts by Family First to destroy secular education…but that’s about it.

Should I make myself feel offended by these people? In reality, I condescendingly cast a weary eye over them and wish they'd just sod off...

Should I make myself feel offended by these people? In reality, I condescendingly cast a weary eye over them and wish they'd just sod off...

People can choose to be offended by someone’s actions, assuming their actions were deliberately offensive. I could choose to be offended by anti-abortion protesters (whose inability to recognise the difference between a bunch of totipotent stem cells is second only to their inability to understand women’s rights), but I’m not. I would understand, however, if a woman who’d recently had an abortion would be offended – particularly if the anti-abortionists were religious ones (the ones who say you’re going to hell if you do X, Y and Z). The midway point between being insulting to someone and unintentionally being rude about their belief system is insensitivity. Most people suffer from this. It’s not deliberate. The problem that lies herein is determining whether something said or done was deliberate or not. It’s no easy feat.


It takes a religious mind to…

May 28, 2009

…let your daughter die, whilst you pray for her. Of course, we could do what most apologists do and dismiss this case as one of extremism. But surely it takes a tenuous (if not nonexistent reason) justification like that of religion to have such things take place? Would this happen if the individuals concerned were atheists? Surely not.

Discuss.


Language

May 24, 2009

By Nathaniel.

The idea that we are shackled by our language is by no means a modern one. I think it is safe to assume that all of us here speak a language, and all of us at this blog can read English. We use powerful symbols – letters which in turn form words, which in turn form sentences, which in turn form paragraphs, et cetera – which represent almost everything we can conceive.

The mantra of Ingsoc, the oppressive government in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The mantra of Ingsoc, the oppressive government in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Arguably George Orwell’s most famous work – and a remarkable impact on modern Western civilization, from futurology to linguistics to politics – Nineteen Eighty-Four carries many powerful themes that still resonate with us sixty years from its original writing. Some of the most celebrated themes are the effects of totalitarianism, nationalism and repressed sexuality. But there is one subject that carries the entire work, perhaps more than the idea of a complete totalitarian state.

Do we control language, or does language control us? Is it a natural, if invisible, force that lives within and through humanity? Some would posit that language is what separates humans from beasts. Some would argue that there is sufficient evidence to claim that the animals themselves have their own language.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four there is a new type of devolved English being created by the oppressive government. It is called Newspeak, and is designed to replace our own Oldspeak. The idea is that our thoughts are controlled by language; remove the shades of meaning that fill English and you have a perfect language for controlling the masses. Everyone truly understand what everyone else means, every single time someone speaks.

Is this a good thing? Imagine how much unnecessary conflict would be removed if everyone knew absolutely what was meant by a national leader or an angry lover. There’d still be a difference in thought, yes – while we may think in our language the argument could be placed that neurologically we simply perceive a translation of powerful ideas and thoughts – but it must surely cut out whatever conflicts we may have.

The late and great Robert Anton Wilson, author of The New Inquisition and Prometheus Rising, states that we shouldn’t remove the dichotomies that make English so versatile, but we should clean up the way we perceive language. For one, we should also speak as if something is assumed, and not an instant given: I believe the world is flat, or I believe that religion is the cause of all conflict in the world. All words are, as he agrees, metaphors; what is ‘the’, except as a tool of separation? The blacks, the socialists, the universe…

The universe is an interesting one. We are all, we know, part of the universe (or Multiverse or your alternative cosmic form)… that is the definition of ‘universe’. So why ‘the’? ‘The’ only serves to separate. That is its function as a word. Another good point is raised by Nietzche: could Descarte have said, “I think, therefore I am,” if he didn’t speak an Indo-European language? It is a convention of that language category that a verb needs a substantive noun before it. Why can’t we translate some Chinese words into English? If it’s just a matter of translating ideas, it should be easy. But it isn’t, really… it’s about translating thought-processes.

There is then the idea that all bastions of power and authority, especially those religious sources, create their own words – their own linguistic symbols – to control and to command. Name a religion that has not invented its own term, especially in a case where one is already available… or for that matter, any fascist or controlling cause. Look at Hitler’s regime, or at the socialist manner of naming words after people – anti-revisionism, for example, as Kim II Jungism. Why would they do that if ‘anti-revisionism’ would suffice? And it does suffice. Most people would be able to grasp the meaning of the word. It’s not a particularly difficult one.

Language, then, to the Nazis and the socialists and to, perhaps, us all, can be a vehicle for casting the blame. Language is a thing that forms naturally, organically, and often at a powerful speed… why, then, shouldn’t it be warped by the intentions of the very people it warps? Those who are controlled by language control language… it is an ancient, familiar cycle of power and deception.

Let’s look at the Bible, an ancient book of wisdom – and here I am only saying that it contains wisdom, not that it is infallible or that it doesn’t also contain a lack of knowledge and insight – that contains the story that concerns the well-known Tower of Babel story. In this story, all of humanity spoke one language before God cursed them with a thousand tongues… cursed them with language. Why would those primitive nomads and foragers consider language as a detriment to humanity, especially as in it’s time it would have been vital for the survival of the tribe?

The question I throw at you, then, is this: can we eliminate racism and sexism and all of those other –isms by modifying language? If we can, should we? How far is too far? Is language purely the thing that sets us apart from the ‘lesser’ species, or is it a disease that we have all caught?