…but is it the opiate of the masses?


The Choice of Heracles, Paolo di Matteis, 1712

What is it that makes a happy life? People have been ask­ing that for mil­len­nia and I have a few minutes while I wait to col­lect someone, so I might not have a com­pre­hens­ive answer. The reason I’m ask­ing is that Religion ‘linked to happy life’ is one of the most emailed stor­ies on the BBC News site today. I have to admit I’m sur­prised that there are so few responses to the story on Technorati, but maybe every­one like me is won­der­ing what a happy life is.

Or maybe I’m a bit early with the story and when this goes live that Technorati link will prove me wrong.
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Like the postmodernism generator, but funnier


Good news for pomo­phobes, Julian Baggini has a new game pok­ing fun at cer­tain crit­ical pos­tures in aca­demia: Žižuku. I much prefer this to the post­mod­ern­ism gen­er­ator as a satir­ical tool.

The post­mod­ern­ism gen­er­ator is some­thing that fol­lows lan­guage rules to pro­duce gib­ber­ish. This is funny, so long as you don’t read the sort of mater­ial that it pur­ports to send up. I’m not say­ing that a lot of post­mod­ern­ism isn’t twaddle, but it’s a recog­nis­ably dif­fer­ent sort of twaddle. The reason Sokal’s hoax was funny was that it was indis­tin­guish­able from some of the straight mater­ial in Social Text. Essays from the post­mod­ern­ism gen­er­ator aren’t going to pass muster with another journal, even if the ref­er­ences are altered. Comparing the out­put of the Postmodernism Generator with post­mod­ern schol­ar­ship is like com­par­ing a Lorem Ipsum gen­er­ator to a Latin text. Superficially sim­ilar, but not close enough.

What I do think is inter­est­ing is that if you loaded it with genu­ine ref­er­ences, and a bit more them­atic con­nectiv­ity then v2.0 might pro­duce genu­ine pomo text but that’s another matter.

Žižuku requires a bit more work, but I think it’s a lot fun­nier because I can fore­see this hav­ing ser­i­ous poten­tial. It’s from Baggini’s review of Slavoj Žižek’s Violence. In it Baggini notes a con­stant.

Žižek arranges his book like a piece of music with dif­fer­ent move­ments, with chapter sub­head­ings such as “allegro mod­er­ato”. This is fit­ting, because Žižek is some­thing of a vir­tu­oso, but as a player of para­doxes. His great riffs take one of a finite num­ber of forms. There is the simple psy­cho­ana­lytic trope of claim­ing that how­ever some­thing seems, its true nature is the pre­cise oppos­ite. Then you have the repeated claim that a cer­tain pos­i­tion entails its oppos­ite, but that both sides of the para­dox are equally real. Then again, there is the reversal of com­mon sense, in which, whatever the received wis­dom is, Zizek pos­tu­lates the opposite.

And that really is it: Žižek simply repeats these intel­lec­tual man­oeuvres again and again, albeit bril­liantly, sup­ple­ment­ing them with Lacanian embel­lish­ments such as the objet petit, the Other and the Real.

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Indiana Jones and the Post-Processual Archaeologists


Everyone else is link­ing to the trailer, so I’ll link to a paper from The Norwegian Archaeological Review, ‘Why Indiana Jones is Smarter Than the Post-Processualists’ by John Bintliff.

The most remark­able fea­ture of this latest con­fer­ence was the way in which speaker after speaker, British and Continental, dis­played a total dis­reg­ard for affil­i­ation to ‘Processualist’ or ‘Post-Processualist’ fac­tions, and deployed an eclectic atti­tude to the vari­ous object­iv­ist and sub­ject­iv­ist approaches debated over in the last 20 years. Yet equally con­sist­ently, this mer­ger of formerly oppos­i­tional tra­di­tions within a new prag­mat­ics of prac­tice, saw the speaker ground­ing his or her feet on evid­ence, an archae­olo­gical record, test­abil­ity.

It dates from 1993, but has stood up well. The per­sist­ence of pro­ces­sual and post-processual camps in archae­ology and earn­est dis­cus­sion of them says much more about the social rela­tion­ships between archae­olo­gists than it does about the past.

I need to read more Wittgenstein.

What do the Creationists want with you?


’Christians’ show­ing the love. Photo (cc) Jordan Thevenow-Harrison

Ed Darrell has set a tough prob­lem. How do you solve the Texan edu­ca­tion crisis? If you haven’t been fol­low­ing this, the Texas Education Authority has forced an employee to resign because she sent round details of a talk debunk­ing Intelligent Design. The TEA has stated it’s neut­ral on whether or not chil­dren should have good edu­ca­tion. It’s the latest round of what, in the­ory, is the argu­ment between Science and Intelligent Design. It isn’t really. Everyone knows that Intelligent Design is second-rate Creationism. However I don’t think the argu­ment is between Science and Creationism either. If it was then the debate would be as dead as phlogiston.

Even the pre­tence of a debate plays into the Creationists’ hands. This allows them to frame the argu­ment as Science against Christianity. Yet if you look at the argu­ments it’s clear that this isn’t about Science. It’s about power. It won’t be power over sci­ent­ists — they’re con­strained by real­ity. It’s power over Christians that’s the issue. Answers in Genesis is quite open about this. Creation mat­ters because it’s about evangelism.

That has to be a prob­lem, because it’s not evan­gel­ism to gen­eric Christianity. There are no gen­eric Christians. There are Orthodox Christians, Catholics and vari­ous minor sects. In the case of AiG it’s evan­gel­ism for a very spe­cific fun­da­ment­al­ist form of Christianity. They state:

The 66 books of the Bible are the writ­ten Word of God. The Bible is divinely inspired and inerr­ant through­out. Its asser­tions are fac­tu­ally true in all the ori­ginal auto­graphs. It is the supreme author­ity in everything it teaches.

Yes, accord­ing AiG, the Sun doesn’t cause day­light and could come out at night if God thought it would be use­ful. There’s a lot said about the inerr­ancy of the Bible. Sadly there’s noth­ing about the fal­lib­il­ity of those who read it. Now you may be infal­lible and know the mind of God. Congratulations if this is the case, but it makes you part of a minor­ity. A few minutes con­ver­sa­tion will reveal that most other people don’t have the clar­ity of under­stand­ing that you do.

Indeed, a lot of Christians accept they don’t have all the answers. Most of the com­mit­ted Christians I’ve met are as hon­est, decent and char­it­able as any­one else. Their reac­tion to the uni­verse is one of awe and humil­ity rather than cer­tainty. I think they make a mis­take nam­ing that awe ‘God’, but they seem to con­sider the mind of God unknow­able. When Creationists take the label ‘Christians’ for them­selves they pre­sume to speak on behalf of these people. That reveals amaz­ing arrog­ance, but they have it in good sup­ply.

So how do you debate these people? I strongly sus­pect you can’t debate them with sci­entific or his­tor­ical facts. You can’t debate them using basic logic. They’ve been immunised.

The way I would choose to debate this is to tackle what the cre­ation­ists plan to do if they win. See the place Sherri Shepherd makes for people who think dates in BC refer to the time before Christ? That is the same space she has for people who don’t share her spe­cific off­shoot of Christianity. Will tran­sub­stan­ti­ation be taught as fact in Chemistry? It has exactly the same amount of evid­ence as Creationism, so if not why not? It’s not a frivol­ous ques­tion. What Catholics call Christ’s blood, the sec­u­lar law of Ireland calls alco­hol, and it could lead to drink-driving. It’s not just a gen­eric God that’s being put into classes, exactly whose God is it? What role will this God have in the local gov­ern­ment and in the law?

The Creationists know exactly what role their God will have in Texas. They know how they plan to deal with any­one who doesn’t share their view of God. The real debate is about who will be allowed to ques­tion Authority in Texas. There’s noth­ing spe­cial about sci­ent­ists, it just hap­pens that they’re at the top of the list as their jobs are based on ques­tion­ing Authority. The best response for sci­ent­ists to cre­ation­ists is to make clear that sci­entific debate is impossible because cre­ation­ists have noth­ing to debate with.

Despite the claims of cre­ation­ists and the wishes of some athe­ists, Darwin didn’t prove that God didn’t exist, but what he did do was show that God was not neces­sary to explain the vari­ety of life. That opens up a lot of ques­tions. Darwin showed that everything could be ques­tioned, includ­ing the reas­ons for the exist­ence of everything liv­ing. He showed that the world was not static and there was no neces­sity to believe in a world where the places of rich and poor were divinely ordained. Despite the recent attempts of an actor front­ing a titanic ‘exposé’ of evol­u­tion to smear him, he opposed slavery. His work has polit­ical implic­a­tions. It requires a ques­tion­ing atti­tude, and that’s not accept­able to people who don’t want to be ques­tioned. That’s why they offer noth­ing to ques­tion and that’s why they want to encour­age chil­dren to know when to stop ask­ing awk­ward questions.

If you know what the Creationists want with you, you’ll know why Darwin matters.

The mother of all Dodos


WS: I think one of the things that inspired me to write Great Apes was the immin­ent extinc­tion of the chim­pan­zee in the wild, which I think will be one of the most philo­soph­ic­ally queasy moments. But I don’t think people have reckoned on it at all.

SW: Any extinc­tion, but par­tic­u­larly chimpanzees.

WS: Particularly the chimp, surely.

SW: It’s the final­ity of it and the notion that, “These are our cous­ins, and we’re the ones who caused their demise.”

I think I should pay more atten­tion to the SEED salon. There’s a few con­ver­sa­tions in there I’ve missed, and from the high­lights, it looks like the full ver­sion of the Will Self / Spencer Wells con­ver­sa­tion could be fun if it’s put online. They were talk­ing about what it means to be human.

Will Self was being Will Self, which he does very well. He was talk­ing of the interest in see­ing a Chimpanzee-Human hybrid. Spencer Wells in con­trast would like to talk to a chim­pan­zee, but not cre­ate a hybrid. It’s inter­est­ing because Self sees human­ity as a con­struc­ted idea. It’s inter­est­ing, because it raises the ques­tion “Is what makes you human a hard­ware or soft­ware issue?” Self also raises the ques­tion of self-cloning. If he could, would it be accept­able to have a brain­less clone to act as a source of body parts. Is a brain­less clone human?

The extinc­tion of the chim­pan­zees is a prob­lem which isn’t in the high­lights video, but it’s a power­ful point. Humans have exterm­in­ated other human cul­tures. The people who built Easter Island are effect­ively extinct, killed by the effects of west­ern con­tact. Homo Sapiens have prob­ably killed their closest rel­at­ives Homo Neanderthalensis. Was that gen­o­cide or spe­cicide? We’re also close to push­ing the other great apes off the planet. Yet it may in the future be pos­sible to mate with Chimpanzees. Success would require genetic engin­eer­ing to cope with the dif­fer­ent num­ber of chro­mo­somes, and invent­ing a banana-shaped Valentine’s card, but it may be pos­sible. We’re so close that a few bio­lo­gists have sug­ges­ted we are a form of Chimpanzee ourselves.

When we elim­in­ate them will we dis­cover that we are still as thought­lessly human as we were at the end of the Middle Palaeolithic when the last Neanderthal died? And that’s where we came in.

There’s a con­ver­sa­tion tran­script and video high­lights.

If David Irving is an authority on freedom of speech then I’m an authority on childbirth


I thought Julian Baggini had made a rare slip recently. He’s asked whether or not he should debate David Irving on the sub­ject of free speech. The notori­ously liti­gi­ous Irving, who was described by a judge at a libel trial as “an act­ive Holocaust den­ier” who “for his own ideo­lo­gical reas­ons per­sist­ently and delib­er­ately mis­rep­res­en­ted and manip­u­lated his­tor­ical evid­ence” has become a bizarre poster child for free speech fol­low­ing his arrest for holo­caust denial in Austria. I can’t see how logic­ally you get from one state to the other.

As an example I was born. Because I’ve gone through this pro­cess, does that con­fer some spe­cial under­stand­ing which now makes me an expert on child­birth? What about a 14 year-old kid caught by the rozzers after spray­ing graf­fiti in a rail­way sid­ing? Is he an expert on the social con­di­tions of the inner cit­ies? If not, then why does being jailed auto­mat­ic­ally con­fer expert­ise on free speech to David Irving? Especially when his actions after this have been to try and intim­id­ate those who dis­agree with polit­ics into silence. In October Irving was threat­en­ing the Jewish Chronicle with libel action. In December he was rum­bling on about start­ing pro­ceed­ings against Deborah Lipstadt again. David Irving is to free speech what McDonald’s is to Cordon Bleu cuisine.

Irving isn’t really demand­ing free speech. He’s demand­ing to be taken ser­i­ously. That’s very dif­fer­ent. He can have his own opin­ions but he has no right to dic­tate to oth­ers what their opin­ion of him should be. My opin­ion is that David Irving is no more cred­ible than David Icke on the sub­ject of free­dom of speech. If you’re not famil­iar with his work, Icke believes human­ity is being manip­u­lated by a race of rep­tilian ali­ens from the lower fourth dimen­sion, like George Bush Sr. He gets into legal trouble for what he says, yet strangely David Icke is never invited to places like the Oxford Union to debate free­dom of speech.

As for Baggini, rather than tak­ing a glib pos­i­tion he was think­ing his response through. The com­ments on his archived post are help­ful in examin­ing the dif­fer­ence between free­dom of speech and giv­ing cre­dence to someone’s ideas.

See also: On reas­ons for not debat­ing at Normblog.

Barbara Brown Taylor explains why she’d be a bad choice for jury service


It is not that the facts don’t mat­ter. It is just that they don’t mat­ter as much as the stor­ies do, and stor­ies can be true whether they hap­pen or not.

From “Home By Another Way,” in Home By Another Way by Barbara Brown Taylor (Cowley, 1999).

(thanks to Episcopal Café)