23 November 2012

Gender Wars

Most radical feminists will define patriarchy as a set of  hierarchical social structures designed and controlled by men in order to subordinate, oppress, suppress, objectify, exploit, use and abuse women to male advantage.  In their analysis, the conception of power relations in society is very much a negative one.  It is as 'power over.' rather than as 'power to'.  This contrasts quite starkly with the analytic, liberal, or eco- feminists conception: that power is productive, creative, enabling; and it can be nurturing rather than controlling, unifying, rather than divisive.

In the radfem version, reality and data are subordinate to theory.

That in itself, renders patriarchy theory and its theoretical components all but useless as a tool for social analysis.

Patriarchy theory fails because of its limited explanatory value and its insistance that men and women are fundamentaly enemies, that women are 'victims' and men 'perps'.

If you want to insist on a victim and blame culture then call men and women 'the victims' and blame 'the genes', because natural selection is utterly indifferent to your gender politickking. 

Evolution selects for traits that maximise gene replication.  It is not interested in the idea that one gender is superior to the other.  Why on earth would it be?  It selects traits in both genders that maximise reproductive potential, and that is where one should look for foundational explanations of  gender differences and of the social structures that humanity has constructed over the millenia.

You can't just look at societies apex and consider that men universally hold all the power and control in some sort of deliberate conspiracy to subjugate women without also considering the bottom of society where men form the vast majority of the victims of violence, the prison population, the homeless, the 90+% of deaths in work related accidents and so forth.

It's easy enough to understand the passion and anger generated in these debates and, given our history, it would be somewhat remarkable if there were not now a percentage of both misogynists and misandrists in the population, but I don't see how any further such polarisations can be in any way helpful.

Would it not be utterly surprising if both men and women had not developed effective strategies over the last half million years aimed at having their different needs and drives met and maximising their reproductive potential? 

Any analysis of society that fails to include such considerations is bound to fail and it is in this sense in which I find patriarchy theory to be limited, blinkered and inadequate and to hold as much explanatory value as, say, biology without evolutionary theory or geology without plate tectonics.

Further discussion of the topic would, of course, be interesting....but dyed in the wool gender warriors from either side of this debate, need not apply.  I'm interested in unity and genuine equality, not division.

20 November 2012

Chocolate Fireguard Feminism

The real issue will be about how successful men are at adapting to social and demographic change. Not doing too well atm.

Failure will mean increasing gender hostility which will be approximately as useful as a chocolate fireguard. 


Hanna Rosin expands on this.......

19 November 2012

International Mens Day -Spreading Misandry



This is an edited extract from the conclusion of Spreading Misandry by Katherine K. Young & Paul Nathanson

There have probably always been feminists who have recognized misandry and been troubled by it. It flies in the face of everything feminists have learned from the experience of women and everything that some feminists claim about the innate decency of women. But it is worth pointing out that this extraordinary phenomenon, the dehumanization of half the population, has gone almost unnoticed not only by the reviewers and journalists who work for the mass media but also by the critics and theorists who write for academic journals. Despite the vaunted capacity of women for empathy, only a few feminist publications, albeit ones of profound moral significance, have so far expressed sympathy for men in general, except as a way of encouraging men to believe that feminism is in their own interest.

Until very recently, moreover, the few feminists who dared to speak out against misandry were usually declared to be enemies of feminism, or even enemies of women, and thus effectively silenced. Most feminists deny misandry. When challenged, which happens occasionally, they use three strategies: excusing it, justifying it, or trivializing it. 

Women who try to excuse misandry acknowledge it as a moral problem. They do not approve of it, but they are willing to tolerate it, at least for the time being. There are several characteristic excuses. One of them is based on psychology. It is a lamentable but inevitable fact, some observe, that most women see nothing wrong with attacks on men, masculinity, or even maleness itself. People always find it hard to feel sympathy for those they consider privileged (although that did not prevent many women from feeling sympathy for the unhappily married Princess of Wales, who had access to privilege and status beyond the wildest dreams of most women or men). It is even harder for people to feel sympathy for those they consider rivals or enemies.

Another excuse is based on expediency. It is a lamentable but inevitable fact, some say, that many women succumb to misandry. However, when feeling endangered, people tend to close ranks. In a more secure future, maybe women will address the problem of misandry. Maybe, or maybe not. 

Underlying all excuses for misandry is the tenacious belief that men have "all the power." Resistance to men's studies, for instance, is often based on the belief that only victims are worthy of study. The response among female academics is often as follows: "Oh, please. Something like 90 per cent of the world's resources are owned and operated by 3 per cent of the population, all of whom are white males." Never mind that this 3 per cent is a tiny fraction of the male population, even of the white male population. The underlying assumption, in any case, is that men cannot be damaged by misandry. Anyone who complains should "take it like a man." These women seldom take seriously forms of power other than physical, political, or economic power. The fact that many men do not have godlike power in any of these realms, something anyone can observe merely by walking down the street or watching the nightly news, makes no difference. Neither does the fact that not even physical, political, or economic power can generate emotional invincibility (assuming that this would be a good thing). They see men as a "class," in any case, not as individuals or even as a class with a "diversity" of "voices." Rendering women either unwilling or unable to see men as fully human beings, as people who can indeed be hurt both individually and collectively, might well be the single most serious flaw in feminism. If men are truly vulnerable in any way, after all, then they can surely be expected either to fight back or to withdraw sullenly when threatened at a fundamental level. And the level of identity is about as fundamental as you can get.

Women who trivialize misandry belong in a second category, probably the most popular one (although they could be included in the first category on the grounds that the easiest way to excuse misandry is to argue that it is a trivial phenomenon.) They sometimes acknowledge misandry as a moral problem but not a serious one. They are willing to tolerate it, therefore, though not necessarily to encourage it.

Both unsophisticated women and ideological feminists are likely to say, for different reasons, that pop cultural misandry is ephemeral and trivial; lapses in good taste, common sense, or even common decency may be excused. But they would never tolerate that argument in connection with pop cultural misogyny: feminists have argued very effectively that there can be no such thing as taking that too seriously. In fact, they have made popular culture one of the chief battlegrounds in their struggle for women. 

The world presented in movies or on television, they continue, is merely a fantasy world. Well, yes, but it is also a self-contained and often convincing simulation of the real world. Indeed, movies fail at the box office and shows fail in the ratings when they do not convince viewers of a likeness between the fantasy world and the real one, when they do not encourage the willing suspension of disbelief. With both this and their own intellectual or political interests in mind, those who create these productions carefully select features of everyday life that they consider significant and reject others that they consider insignificant. Virtually nothing of the real world that appears onscreen, in theatres or at home, is there by accident. Similarly, virtually nothing of the real world that "disappears" onscreen is absent by accident. In other words, movies and shows are never direct transcriptions of reality; they are always interpretations of reality. What would otherwise be dry theories of interest only to academics become powerfully evocative experiences of interest, if made with skill, to all viewers. They are secular myths. Their moral value, therefore, depends more on what kind of secular myth than on their correlation with empirical information that can be verified by historians or social scientists. It could argued that misandric movies such as those discussed in this book are either immoral or unhealthy, for instance, because they encourage people to stereotype men as evil, psychotic, or, at best, inadequate. The same argument would apply to movies that stereotype other groups of people, including women. But moral consistency is not always a high priority among critics or, for that matter, the population at large.

When criticized for their silence in the face of misandry, at any rate, these women usually argue that only "radical" feminists on the "lunatic fringe" could ever be found guilty of hatred. Others argue that misandry might have been common in the past — in the 1980s, say — but is no longer. Maybe they actually believe that. We have been told for decades that women are innately "nurturing" beings and thus virtually immune to hating. Women who do hate must therefore be rare anomalies, either the crazed victims of a male-dominated society or the crazed victims of some psychological or physiological disorder. Theory not-withstanding, the evidence presented to everyone in everyday life indicates that women are no less capable of prejudice and hatred than men. 

Women who try to justify misandry are in an entirely different category. They do not acknowledge it as a moral problem, but on the contrary see it as a moral and practical duty. Thus, they are willing not merely to tolerate it but also to encourage it. 

Some women try to justify misandry as a legitimate "choice" for women, a "voice" for those who have been "silenced." Expressing anger is useful, they believe, as one feature of collective therapy for women. But they make the dubious assumption that misandry is about anger, not hatred. Even feminists who disapprove of Andrea Dworkin's misandric claim that any act of sexual intercourse with men amounts to rape, for example, often defend her as someone who "pushes the boundaries" and thus promotes the cause of women (albeit in a way that embarrasses some of them). 

In its most sophisticated form, this attempt at justification is couched in terms of postmodernism. Once that became de rigueur among feminists, they could argue that man-hating was merely one example of the "diversity" or "pluralism" within feminism. According to one variant of this strategy, misandry is not aimed at all men but only at those with "privileged" status: rich men, white men, or any other group of elite men. Yet the distinction is often more theoretical and politically correct than practical, because they go on to argue that all men benefit from the behaviour of those few. Implicit, therefore, is the belief that all men are intentionally or unintentionally the enemies of Women and therefore legitimate targets of attack in popular culture. 

Other women try to justify misandry on the purely practical grounds of political expediency. Even passive sympathy with men in connection with misandry would be tantamount to sympathy for the enemy or even, as one feminist put it in when her university was considering the establishment of a men's studies program, sympathy for Nazis. Whether in connection with movies and talk shows or greeting cards and comic strips, moreover, misandry is seen as a legitimate attack on those who foster misogyny. That is fighting fire with fire. They are not troubled by the moral non sequitur. The continued existence of misogyny has nothing whatever to do with the existence of misandry, after all — not unless two wrongs make a right. To those who point out that misogyny is being fought directly through legislation and indirectly through the manipulation of public opinion, some would reply that it persists in the form of a "glass ceiling" (even though the explanation of that problem does not necessarily involve misogyny) or that it persists in non-Western countries and in non-Western subcultures within the West. Once again, though, what has one thing got to do with the other? How does the existence of misogyny justify misandry, whether in our society or any other? 

Still other women try to justify misandry with something far more sinister in mind: revenge. They argue that negative stereotypes of men are long overdue, because negative stereotypes of women have been around for so long. If that argument is to be taken seriously on moral grounds, those who use it would have to demonstrate that revenge is synonymous, or at least compatible, with justice. But if negative stereotyping is wrong when applied to women, how can it be right when applied to men? Is there nothing inherently wrong with promoting contempt or hatred for an entire group of people? If not, then things are right or wrong only when it is politically expedient to say so. In addition, advocates of this approach would have to demonstrate on purely pragmatic grounds that it is likely to bring about the desired results. The practical problem with revenge, of course, is that it quickly becomes a vicious circle. Once it is accepted as a legitimate political device, there is no way to prevent or terminate vendettas. And the current state of relations between men and women could well be described in precisely that way. 

Underlying all of these attempts to justify misandry is a fundamental problem. Morality and practicality sometimes seem incompatible. Some women believe that feeling or expressing concern for men as the victims of misandry would mean indulging in a luxury that women cannot afford — this despite the vaunted capacity of women for compassion. But since when is compassion like money? Must it be carefully budgeted by reserving it for one's own people? Must we avoid squandering it on those judged "undeserving" for one reason or another? The fact is, nevertheless, that the more compassion is "spent," the more there is to go around. 

Other women believe that taking any problem of men seriously would mean taking a non-feminist point of view. In fact, it would mean taking men as seriously as they see themselves, as people. The worldview of ideological feminism, like that of every other religion or movement, is all inclusive; nothing is beyond its purview. From that perspective, it would seem that men can be understood best through its lens. The trouble is that this form of feminism has no philosophical or moral framework for the notion that women, like men, can succumb to sexism or that men, like women, can be seriously damaged by hatred. To the extent that feminists refuse to focus much attention on their own gains (mainly because doing so would undermine their call for continuing political action), and to the extent that they refuse to acknowledge the problems of men (including misandry as the intentional or unintentional fallout from ideological feminism), they are morally implicated in the problem. That perspective leaves women largely unaccountable for their own behaviour. 


What about the reactions of men to misandry? Ironically, many ordinary men have a vested interest in not seeing the pervasive misandry of everyday life. Misandry, no matter how trite it might seem on the surface, is an attack on men. Even worse, from a traditionally masculine point of view, it is an attack from the perspective of women (though not necessarily by women). To acknowledge being under attack is to acknowledge vulnerability. And to acknowledge vulnerability, for many men in our society, is to deny their own manhood, even if doing so would be in their own best interest. Being a man, they have been taught, means being in control, not necessarily of others but certainly of themselves and their own fate. These are often the men who find it easier to hide behind macho posturing than to admit being threatened by women (or by other men presumably acting on behalf of women). 

Many men, therefore, find that acknowledging the problem of rampant misandry is too painful. Some ignore it. That usually happens at a subconscious level. Other men, though, deny it. That happens on a conscious level among those who are sincerely motivated by the need to ensure justice for women, not merely by the pressure of political correctness. (Some of these men, unfortunately, actually believe that men are morally responsible for most or all of women's problems.) This could mean internalizing a negative identity, which would be both neurotic and self-destructive. But "male feminists" have discovered a way of getting around that problem: they maintain their self-respect not as members of a group (men) but as individuals at its expense (as what could be called "honorary women"). They expect nothing from other men, but they do expect to be rewarded by women for being politically correct. Not many men are impressed by the self-righteousness inherent in that position. They are alienated not only from feminists in general, therefore, but from "male feminists" in particular (even though many of them believe that men are morally obliged to help create a more egalitarian society).

Most men, however, are probably too confused to take a position specifically on misandry. They are aware at some level of consciousness that something is wrong, but they are not equipped to identify or analyse it. Even the few men who really are equipped to do so often find it difficult to say anything in public. The taboo on male vulnerability is not only experienced internally, remember, but also enforced externally. Men who admit to feeling vulnerable are attacked as cowards, and by no group more effectively than women. The ability to shame men has always been among the most useful of women's weapons. In this case, men are shamed into silence, a form of abuse that few women today would tolerate. 

What is happening to men as a result of this massive assault on their identity? How do men feel about being portrayed over and over again as psychotic or sinister thugs? What does it mean for a group of people to be identified as a class of victimizers? We will not know the full effect of all this misandry for many years. Given the predictable results of unleashing institutionalized anger against identifiable target groups (which is hatred) and the unpredictable results of manipulating collective guilt (which would be either destruction or self-destruction), this is a questionable method for pursuing social change, to say the least. In the meantime, one thing is certain: attacking the identity of any group of human beings per se is an extremely dangerous experiment. People are not like rats in a laboratory. They cannot be manipulated conveniently and safely with fairly predictable results. Misandry could convince some men to seek new sources of identity. To be effective, however, these would have to be chosen by men, not dictated by women. At issue here is identity, in short, not sociology. It should be obvious that most men consciously or unconsciously resent misandry. That is because all people resent having their identity undermined or attacked. Less obvious, perhaps, is the fact that misandry can backfire on women. What if men feel the need to reassert their identity as men? Ironically, misandry could encourage other men to reassert their identity as macho aggressors. Since our society tolerates a high level of hostility towards men as such, why be surprised when they resort to misogyny? That, after all, is a major feature of machismo. And it is surely no accident that the resurgence of machismo in the 1980s — consider movies such as Rambo and Top Gun, which suddenly ended two decades of glorifying the mentality of those men who had rejected both Vietnam and Wall Street — coincided with the flowering of ideological feminism. This particular response to misandry is clear. If men are told over and over again that they are not only brutal sub humans in general but also hostile to women in particular, they are likely to say, "So be it." Whatever their own inclinations, they realize that even a negative identity is better than no identity at all. Thus, when women think about misandry in popular culture, they should consider the danger of self-fulfilling prophecies. What goes around, according to the old saying, comes around. Or, for those who prefer biblical allusions, whoever sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind. 

That possibility is often denied by those who view misandry as a political weapon to fight misogyny. They argue that the immediate result might be polarization but the eventual result will be reconciliation. In other words, the end justifies the means. But if polarization can bring about changes for the better, it can also bring about changes for the worse. How do we know that polarization will give rise to reconciliation? We do not. At the moment, things are moving in the opposite direction. 

At any rate, the possibilities for mutual understanding between women and men did not increase in the 1990s. On the contrary, they diminished. Women such as Andrea Dworkin openly advocated that women become vigilantes and murder the men who afflict them. If any of this indicates the shape of things to come — and much of the material we have analysed might have been produced by Dworkin herself — those who hope for healing and reconciliation have every reason to look ahead with foreboding. The popular culture of misandry had a life of its own in 2000. Ideological feminists had to make only occasional appearances to ensure that it stayed that way.

Fostered by political correctness, misandry was the characteristic pattern of the 1990s. At first, it was actively promoted in academic and political circles as justifiable "anger" or a way of "pushing the boundaries." And this tendency, directly promoted on talk shows and either directly or indirectly in other genres of popular culture, quickly went mainstream. Popular culture both mediated and fostered the teaching of contempt for men. This was now the establishment. Androcentrism, often accompanied by misogyny, did not cease to exist but generally went underground (although it probably declined too, because many men really did take seriously the message that an androcentric world was unjust to women). It surfaced only in the music of very alienated subcultures, among individual men who "forgot" the new rules, and in some traditional or isolated communities. To the extent that gynocentrism and androcentrism can be described as worldviews, then the dominant worldview of this period, at least in public, was clearly gynocentrism. The fact that it has a dark underside has been ignored, excused, and trivialized. The revolution has been successful, as Marxists would say, because the new values are now so firmly embedded in everyday life that we can hardly see them, let alone challenge them. That is why we have written this book.

11 October 2012

Plato's Cave

The poor prisoners in Plato's Cave thought that reality was the flickering shadows of the dancing marionettes on the wall they were shackled in front of all their lives.  Until one of the prisoners escaped and went outside the cave to experience the world for the first time.

Both literature and religion have mined the rich seams of metaphor and allegory they found in Plato's Cave.  The problem I have is: both tend to skip over the little matter of the removing of the shackles to move straight on to their depictions of their idealised worlds - whether that be Narnia, Heaven, Middle Earth or wherever else.  

That's cheating in my book.  When was the last time you stood on the bank of a river and then suddenly, without explanation, found yourself on the opposite bank?  

If the shackles turn out to be death then that is not a terribly useful solution.  If they turn out to be illusion, then you have to provide a mechanism by which that is removed.  No wardrobes allowed.

Time


Someone stopped me in the street.."D'you know what time is mate?" 

The structure of matter affects space-time so, in theory, as you approach the singularity of the big bang the curvature of space- time becomes infinite - so how can either exist before that point? But if the big bang turns out to be a recurring phenomenon and there were other big bangs prior to ours, what happens to the time that measures the time between one big bang and the next? Why should time not exist then?

Then, if the 'many worlds' theory of quantum mechanics is correct, (the Everett interpretation), then there may be multiple space times; so there may be no such thing as time itself, but merely spatial relationships between energy states occurring in quantum fields in multiple universes.

But space might not exist either!! What we ordinarily mean by space could turn out to be just changes in the relative position between things to which we've ascribed a separate identity for reasons such as that's just how we experience things. So, could time exist without events occuring on which to hang measuring instruments with which to measure its passing?

Wait...it's lunchtime!!

Dammit! Lunchtime is an illusion too..srsly.

Shumacher's thought experiment might be relevant.

Suppose you have a universe divided into regions A B and C. In region A time proceeds normally for ten years but it freezes during the eleventh. In region B time is normal for thirteen years then freezes for a year. In region C the same thing but on a seventeen year cycle. Region B and C will observe region A freeze and region C will observe regions A and B freeze in turn and then unfreeze. Every 2210yrs, or whatever it is, time will freeze in all three regions. But time still exists during this frozen time, right? Because after a year they all unfreeze again. Curious, no?

22 September 2012

Fr Dwight Longenecker


Dear Fr Dwight Longenecker

Mrs Root adored your blog post yesterday likening atheists to spiritual zombies and reckoning them to be a sort of sub-species of humanity.  I quite agree: we get them all the time round our neck of the woods.  I'd go even further and say that atheists probably aren't human at all.

At our wet fish counter we get all manner of rubberneckers trying to sell us fish that aren't really fish at all.  Mrs Root usually gives them 'what for' round the face with a mouldy kipper!  They've tried it on with JellyFish, CuttleFish, StarFish, CrayFish, Mexican Walking Fish and even Phish - which is a band for goodness sakes!

No, Fr Longneck, plodding along, eating, sleeping, shopping, working and breeding - that won't do at all....sure signs of spiritual zombiness and of sub-humanity. Leave that sort of thing to Radio 4 listeners and other godless n'er do wells.

Oh....now you've upset Mrs Root by deleting the post and all the comments!  That's not how we do things at all Father Littleneck: we stick to our guns, we don't run away trembling at the first sight of a spiritual zombie with a pertinent question to ask. No we don't!  Let them have it point blank with both barrels! Man Up, like Mrs Root does from time to time. Grow a backbone Fr Longnecking, hold fast to what you believe.

Let's find a building full of spiritual zombies and fly a plane into it! Let's at least set up The Society For The Extermination of Spiritual Zombies and apply for a Vatican grant.

I enclose a pound to get it up and running.

yours sincerely

Henry Root
(suppliers of wet fish to fully certified human beings)

NB: “Fish” includes three classes of vertebrates: the Osteoichthyes, or bony fish; the Chondrichthyes, or cartilaginous fish (sharks and rays, as well as some odder groups such as chimeras), and the Agnatha, or jawless fish (lampreys, hagfish, plus many early fossil forms).

"Homo Sapiens" includes all humans who believe in God - doesn't matter which one.

"Homo Zombiens" refers to everyone else.

PS - Here's the blog post you deleted quoted in full....we'd hate for the world to be deprived of such valuable insights.

"Is there really such a thing as an utterly authentic atheist? I think so. I have a dreadful feeling that there exists a sort of human sub-species who have lost their spiritual capacity completely. These authentic atheists do not profess belief in God, nor even disbelief. Instead they seem entirely deaf to such ideas. They do not hate the Church or say the Bible is a fairy tale. They do not spit out bigoted remarks that blame the Pope for the holocaust or missionaries for murder. They do not attack the arguments for the existence of God, say the universe is random, or call Rick Warren a simpleton. They do not rage against God, any more than someone born blind has dreams in color. These are the authentic atheists. They plod through life eating, working, shopping, breeding and sleeping, and God never seems to flit across their consciousness. Members of this sub-species may be sparkling sophisticates or ill-bred boors. They may be the decent and moral folks next door, or they could be despicable murderers. In a frightful way, it doesn’t matter. If they exist, perhaps they have bred and spread like the alien bodysnatchers, and exist in our midst like spiritual zombies—indistinguishable in the teeming mass of humanity except to those few who see them and tremble."     (Fr Dwight Longenecker)                                                                                                                                     

04 September 2012

A Difficult Lady To Fool

"It is time to leave the question of the role of women in society up to Mother Nature - a difficult lady to fool. You have only to give women the same opportunities as men, and you will soon find out what is or is not in their nature. What is in women’s nature to do they will do, and you won’t be able to stop them. But you will also find, and so will they, that what is not in their nature, even if they are given every opportunity they will not do, and you won’t be able to make them do it." (Clare Boothe Luce)

Well maybe…Clare penned these words sometime in the 40’s and things have changed: in no small measure due to the successes of the feminist movement.  But I don’t think there’s an overarching direction to that anymore. I don’t think there’s an overarching theory that encompasses all the freedoms (and what to do with them), that have accrued due to social and technological changes in the intervening years.  Once a lot of the barriers are removed, and many workplaces have become, to a greater or lesser degree, ‘feminised’, then there’s decisions to be made. 

Maybe some people think that Marxism contains within its theories a framework to understand all this.  I don’t know: I’m no expert on that.  Maybe some people think that the ideas in ‘intersectionality’ provide the framework.  That’s the idea that when considering injustices or opressions of whatever sort, you have to take into account all the interconnecting aspects of the persons position in that society or culture;  so, as well as gender, you have to consider race, class, economic status, religion, cultural norms etc etc and on and on.  I have some sympathy with that idea….at least it’s not as simplistic as the notion that everything is a patriarchal conspiracy. Some people, the religious mainly, seem to think that all of that is covered in their holy books – well, we know how marvelously equalopportunisty they are!

We’re lucky enough in the UK to have a wonderful program called Womans Hour on the radio every day, and all of these things get chewed over perenially:  work/life balance, juggling the kids and work, employment opportunity and equality, domestic violence, education, consumer issues, literature, how to be green, men, bloody men….the lot really. It’s brilliant.  But often listening to it, I pick up this sense of confusion about where we’re all at now.  I suppose we can’t get a freeze dried answer to it all because we’re what we are: messy, irrational, imature, violent, yet somehow strangely developing hominids. We keep trying.  I guess with open doors, insofar as they are open, men and women will choose what they want to choose, or what their circumstances allow them to choose. So maybe Clare has a point there:  women could choose to work on building sites or oil rigs or as mechanics or plumbers or dockers. They mostly don’t, why on earth would they choose such hard physically demanding jobs if they don’t have to?  Men could choose to work in childcare, or nursing, or in any of the work roles that are still  dominated by women.  Again, they mostly don’t, but here the whynots are clearer.

I do know that the liberation and empowerment of women has been one of the most civilising of influences on society, (and one that is still desperately overdue in many parts of the world).  What I don’t know is what is the feminist equivalent of a Grand Unified Theory or a Theory of Evolution is to physics and biology respectively. Something that brings all the strands together and makes them make sense.

I’m waffling now.  I’ll shut up...

27 August 2012

Gay Marriage

Cardinal O'Brian is bringing in the big guns. He's setting the Holy Ghost on the Scottish Gov't for daring to contemplate the 'grotesque subversion' that is gay marriage....."pray for our elected leaders, invoking the Holy Spirit on them, that they may be moved to safeguard marriage as it has always been understood, for the good of Scotland and of our society".

What's the matter with them?  Do they think the love between same sex couples is going to make the sky fall?  Do they think that such love is worth less (worthless?) - than that between a man and a women.  Are they just frightened? A lot of people are frightened by it, or just feel put off by the 'yuck' factor. Get over it. Maybe it's because they are just determined to defend the institution as something that was created by or belongs to them.  It's way way older than that. Still, that would explain their constant bleeting on about the traditional definition of marriage and their insistance that that definition limits the institution to relations between a man and a woman.
  That betrays a woeful ignorance, (or a deliberate denial), of historical fact. That you can no longer sell your daughter for three goats and a cow means that marriage has already been re-defined, not to mention all the other alterations and re-definitions the religious have made in order to mold, shape and regulate human relationships over the centuries.

What gives them license to do this?  Why they do.  They give it to themselves.  They feel themselves completely entitled to dictate policy formation to ministers.  They seem to see nothing wrong in lying to the public with their tales of social doom and gloom should marriage be redefined in this way.  They are despicable and hateful and history will judge them such.

I'll quote my friend Vincent to finish.....

"No, no we shall not debate whether to introduce marriage equality. Debate is for unresolved issues where there are two or more legitimate positions to take - my equality as a human being is not such an issue. It is high time we stopped being civil towards the bigots, stopped crediting them with any shred of intellectual or moral standing and just got on with things. They have no case. They have n
o arguments. They have no leg to stand on. And their position is based entirely on ignorance, hatred, traditionalism and religion. Debating with them is not merely a waste of time, it is highly offensive. The mere suggestion that their views deserve admission to our social and political dialogue is a slap in the face for all the LGBT people in our society - it is nothing less than saying that our equality is conditional and must be wrangled over, where that of straight people is inviolable and taken as a given.

No, we shall not play that game."

24 August 2012

Elevatorspacegate

A number of my women friends online have been called gender traitors over the last year or so.  One was sent a tweet yesterday inviting her to kill herself. What does it mean? The word traitor means to betray a trust or a cause or a principle or, apparently, a gender. 

Allegiance to, whatever it is - a country, a cause, a friend, is taken as a given, unquestionable, invioble; any deviation from the expected loyalty is seen as  unthinkable, as incomprehensible, as traitorous, and deserving of punishment.

So, what does the term 'gender traitor' mean?
Obviously, it means that you have somehow betrayed women, as women. How have you done that? 

Some aliens arrive at earth in an elevator. They stop short of the ground floor....just in case. They observe that the planet is dominated by a single species who reproduce sexually. This is interesting to them, because they don't.  They observe that natural and sexual selection has produced marked physical and psychological differences in the make up of each sex. They observe that having, (so far), successfully negotiated the survival imperative, the species has advanced to form complex cultures with a notable degree of variance.  They also note that a feature of this rapid cultural development includes a considerable increase in tension between the two sexes of the species, different factions of which seem to concentrate on hating one another.

'They must have radically different interests,' thinks the alien anthropologist.

'Beyond survival,' says the capt 'most species take what they can get...we're no different, we just don't have the complication of sex, whereas their biology produces obvious conflicts of interest.'

'Do you mean that each sex somehow sees itself as a victim of the other in this conflict?'

'Exactly so....so, what they need, (instead of beating the shit out of each other), is something sufficiently threatening to their survival to unite them.'

'Let's invade then.'

'Righteeoh. Fancy a coffee?'

04 August 2012

Ducklympics

video
The ducks narrowly missed out on the Gold Medal as they got confused and started playing hide n seek.

a pile of pictures

















chooklympics

Consternation in the British team as they watch the Russians pull of a flawless triple beak spin with double comb rotation and perfect wattle synchronisation on the high perch to win gold.

02 June 2012

doubt #6 mysteries not problems?

William James asked two relevant questions when it comes to examining mystery and mysticism.  They are: Is a person warranted in thinking that his or her experiences are veridical or have evidential value?  Secondly, Are “we,” who do not enjoy mystical experiences, upon examining the evidence of such experiences, warranted in thinking them veridical or endowed with evidential value?


In the fifth program in his series, Richard Holloway examines the nature of mystery and looks at the experience of three medieval mystics Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), Hildegard  of Bingen (1098-1179), and Al Ghazali (1058-1111).


Mystery is simple and doesn’t need to be problematic unless it creates a tension or conflict in the demand for it to be resolved.  It is essentially anything that is not explained or understood, or anything that is hidden or not revealed, deliberately or otherwise.


So the question, to the above three mystics, two Christian, one Muslim, discussed in the program, and to every other mystical person is: Does your experience reveal any objective universal truth that can be inependantly verified?


Just as all religions claim revelatory content, they all have their cadres of mystics who have mystical experiences that purport to reveal theological ‘truths’ of their own religion. 


However if what is experienced by these people, in different times and places and from different religious traditions, contains little in the way of agreement about the nature or content and quality of the reported experience, then what they experience cannot tell us anything about the veracity of what the experience purports to show.  It is indistinguishable from an altered brain state brought about by inherent, or induced psychosis, deliberate conditioning of the brain i.e. by long, intensive exposure to religious discipline and practice, fasting, isolation, sleep deprivation, drugs, intense fear, hyper-suggestibility, meditation, mental illness and so forth.


Neuroscientists are examing the brain activity that occurs during mystical experience.


“Through cutting off of neural input to the pre-frontal area of the brain, (d'Aquili and Newberg 1993 and 1999), claim an event of pure consciousness occurs. The patterns set up in the brain create an overwhelming experience of “absolute unitary being.” If reinforcement of a certain hypothalamic discharge then occurs, this will prolong the feeling of elation, and will be interpreted as an experience of God. Otherwise, there will arise a deep peacefulness due to the dominance of specified hypothalamic structures. This gets interpreted as an experience of an impersonal, absolute ground of being. The theory associates numinous experiences with variations in deafferentiation in various structures of the nervous system, and lesser religious experiences with mild to moderate stimulation of circuits in the lateral hypothalamus. The latter generate religious awe: a complex of fear and exaltation. The brain functions in related ways in aesthetic experience as well.


We don’t need to make a mystery out of mystery or out of mystics. There's usually some sort of spiritual, temporal, sexual, (mystics seem to get laid a lot), or religio-political agenda at the bottom of it.  


Just ask Mystic Meg.



31 May 2012

doubt #5 revelation

The thing about revelation is that it presupposes something to be revealed and someone to do the revealing.  

You would have thought that in a series all about doubt that Richard Holloway would have examined this in great detail.

He doesn’t. Maybe he will return to it later, but what we were presented with in this episode was a rather shallow examination of revelation in the context of Judeo-Christian history and tradition rather than from a perspective of doubt.

Revelation is a powerful tool in the hands of narcissists and attention seekers and, to a great extent, religions are built on it.  The more dramatic and portentious the revelation, the better to pull in the frightened and the gullible.


Clod’s theory of General Revelation:

1. The purpose of revelation is to make somebody else believe something.  Something that’s been revealed to YOU but not to them.

2. It relies on, and exploits, the existence of ignorance and the natural desire of humans to seek explanation.

Most of the biblical revelation reported by the profits comes in the form of auditory or visual hallucination, interpreted dreams or some form of ‘spiritual experience’ or a combination of the above.

Clod’s theory of Special Revelation:

 1.      It makes you speshul.

So, now you are speshul, you can go full steam ahead and claim anything you want because the speshul stuff cannot be subjected to independent verification.

That this is so is born out by the fact all religions have their ‘revealed’ content and that all of it is contradictory and all of it can be conveniently ‘interpreted’ to fit an agenda.  Because all religions are essentially involved in the same line of business, you find them cooperating at a superficial level to bolster each other up.  But once doctrines lock horns, blood will be spilled.  You don’t need revelation to know this.  Revelation is just as explosive as e=mc2.

30 May 2012

doubt #4 - casting out idols

Today it was wall to wall idolatry. 

Idols idols idols.  We’ve got too many of the damn things: pop idols, screen idols, sports idols, rock idols, idle idols, island idols, big brotherly idols, jungle idols, dance idols.  Not really what Richard was talking about, although they did come into it a bit. 

Is anyone thinking we’re missing the real thing to be needful of all these idols?

The changing of the idolotrous guard started way before the sixties…but they are what I remember, in a pre-pubescent sort of a way. 

I remember it being exciting, even if I didn’t have a clue what the pill was for.  The girls looked nice.  The Beatles were F A B.  All you needed was Lurrrrve and it was a Hard Days Night and it had been a bloody awful war.... so I’m told.

The church I went to had idols, statues, icons, symbols, simulacra, images, graven or otherwise,  a solemn atmosphere, men in black who made you feel guilty and somewhat uneasy to be around. Non of it made any sense then, and it still doesn’t now.  'All you needed was love.'  The church could have responded.... ‘No, you need God too,’  which might have been better than saying... ‘Who needs love when you have power and control,’ which is not what they did say, but then, they didn’t really need to. 

But I’m digressing.  Richard said today, that there is, somewhere buried deep inside us, both the need to build up our idols and to cast them down once they’ve passed their sell by date.  The shelf life of todays idols is exceedingly short.

The same process goes on in religion: we set up Gods in our image, but then don’t like what we see in the mirror, and cast them down to be replaced by another image that reflects us in a better light.

He tells us the story of the Golden Calf, whereby Aaron, having got fed up of waiting for Moses to come back from his chin-wag with God on Mt. Sinai gathers up all the bling he can from wives and girlfriends and casts it into an image of God, a golden calf, that they can all grok.
                   
“These are your Gods, Oh Israel, who bought you up out of the land of Egypt.’

The people needed an image of God that they could relate to, rather than the intangible, abstract, far away God that Moses was always harping on about.  They wanted something they could look at, touch, experience. 

The whole point is that God is not tangible.  Images don’t do any good…what image could you make?  Concepts don’t do any good.  God as concept is no good. People spill blood and fight over concepts all the time

“In place of a God who is literally or physically ‘UP THERE’, we have accepted as part of our mental furniture, a God who is spiritually or metaphysically ‘OUT THERE’.  But suppose such a super being ‘OUT THERE’ is really just a sophisticated version of ‘The Old Man In The Sky’?  Have we seriously faced the possibility that, to abandon such an idol, may in the future be the only way of making Christianity meaningful?  Perhaps after all, the Freudians are right, that such a God, the God of Christian popular theology…is a projection.
(John Robinson – Bishop of Woolich – 1963)

“But, what If,” asks Richard, “what if, at the end of this process of overthrowing idols and shattering illusions, nothing is left?  What if we finally make it to the temple of intellectual and spiritual purity, purged of all illusions, and we find it empty?”

Well, obviously, you go and have a nice cup of tea, silly!

I think I know where he’s going with this….. some sort of post-christian compromise that preserves a place in the temple for ‘something’, even if we’re not to give it a name anymore.


29 May 2012

doubt #3

In part two we do a bit of time travelling to speculate about where the beginning of belief and of doubt may come in the human story. 

Today, some people claim that you won't find many atheists in foxholes; Richard suggests that you wouldn't have found any AT ALL in the caves where our ancestors sheltered from the terrors of the wilderness. 

It does seem plausible that, as soon as evolution gave us the ability to reflect, to be self-aware, that our primordial fears would have intensified greatly. We have the beginnings of reason, but it's hard to reason away a nightmare, the terrors of nature, the dangers of the night, the mystery of illness and the sheer fickleness of fate. 

All that stuff is still with us isn't it?  Anyone who has children knows this, even if they've forgotten, (or blocked out), the primordial fears of childhood.  It's all there still, lurking away in the depths of our lizard brains, waiting to be triggered by some modern, (or some old), calamity of life.

But this is now and that was then.  Then, there was no cognitive tool box with the drill of reason or the ratchet of science with which to construct some sort of understanding of an incomprehensible world, and the goto short cut for that sort of situation is to make stuff up. Any explanation is better than no explanation, neh?

As Richard speculates "What was it like for my forbears 50,000 years ago, as reflective self-consciousness began to fire into existence in their brains?  Was it frightening to be subject to these flashes of awareness?  Or was it more like a slow climb to wakefullness out of sleep?  Does that hyper active agent detection device or defense mechanism explain the emergence of primitive religion, a clan-like response to the dangers of existence?"

I don't know.  Maybe.  It seems likely that primitve animistic superstition could morph fairly easily into more rigid forms of belief, especially when settled agrarian communities grew up to replace nomadic tribalism.  It can't have taken wannabe leaders long to realise what an extremely powerful tool for social control they had in a system of belief which placed authoritative control in an unseen power over and above themselves, which that leader, as it happens, has a hotline to.  The divine right of kings. All that.

"Over the years we saturated the earth with blood to keep our Gods quiet."

"So far," Richard continues, "this is what we might call reactive religion - an instinctive response to perceived danger with little thought behind it. But now we come to one of the earliest religious theories: Superstition, which was the way we explained natural processes to ourselves before we fully understood how the world worked."

and to quote Baron d'Holbach.......

"If we go back to the beginnings of things, we shall always find that ignorance and fear created the gods; that imagination, rapture and deception embellished them; that weakness worships them; that custom spares them; and that tyranny favors them in order to profit from the blindness of men.

"Superstion... was a way of making sense of suffering, chaos and misfortune.  Traces of it remain in modern consciousness."

I think things are slightly back to front here.  But only a bit.  I take issue with the line "Traces of it [superstion] remain in modern consciousness."  I would take that much much further and say that the modern world is still RIDDLED with superstition and that we are a long long way from letting that go.  It is evident in all the animistic religions like Shinto and Paganism, evident in all the attraction towards paranormal phenomena, towards ESP, tarot, rhunes, fortune telling, conspiracy, spiritualism, UFO's, new-agey woo woo and all the rest of it.

As an explanation for fortune and fate, for good or ill, nature spirits and sprites and kami and ghouls and gods and demons will do very well.  You may be able to influence them, have some measure of control, invoke their protection and blessings. "The Lord shall not forsake his faithful ones, the righteous shall be kept safe forever. But the children of the wicked shall be cut off."

It isn't that clear to me why Richard now makes a longish incursion into the book of Job, but he does make a rather exceptional claim about it. Essentially, we are dealing with the problem of evil, which is a huge topic, and Richard recognises that Job does not leave us with any new explanation for suffering or misfortune, nor does it stop people from being superstitious, but.... "What it does do, is to rule out the theory that suffering is a  punishment for sin."  And, "Job's challenge to god makes him one of the earliest doubters on record."

No, and no.  While a reading of Job is required here, it must still be obvious to everybody that pays attention to modern religious commentary, (never mind the old),  that the theory that suffering is a punishment for sin is very much alive and kicking.  There is a shed load of religious commentary from all faiths that attest to this, and I am surprised he makes this claim here.  Also, it's my impression that Job never doubted God, more, that he just chose to keep faith with him, despite the temptation to say STFU. 

The problem of evil is going to rear its ugly ahead again soon so lets not get too deep into that yet.

So, Richard suggests that the two factors that have diluted the power of superstition in our time are the change from nomadic to settled community and our increasing ability to understand cause and effect i.e. a more scientific understanding of the way the world wags.

"....For most of our life, we human beings were nomads, we accepted that we were transients.  When we settled down in one place and built stone houses, our religion, and our sense of ourselves, began to look for constancy and stability and we forgot the old sense of transcience."

Maybe we did.  But I say again, we might have achieved some of that, but we did NOT, and have not, let go of superstition.  I think he is either quite wrong about that or I am misunderstanding him.

Richard ends todays piece "...and one of the ways we satisfy our craving, [for certainty], is by manufacturing comforting images we could get our heads round and our hands on.  The great Hebrew liberator Moses hated them....he called them idols."

Ooooo. Scary! I don't know where that's going tomorrow....but the omens look good ;-)

28 May 2012

doubt #2

Doubt is contingent on knowledge and there is never, as far as humans go, complete knowledge, omniscience. We might desire complete knowledge (for the avoidance of doubt), but we cannot have it, which is maybe why gods have that attribute thrust upon them.

But it's not only contingent on knowledge is it?  Because we are empathic creatures, because we are both rational AND emotional, because we are ethical and because we don't live alone. 

If I am a surgeon and know that, if I operate, there is a chance you will live, but the possibility, perhaps probability, that you won't, it seems natural and right to have doubt, to be uncertain, to question, to be hesistant.  Doubt is often uncomfortable but it is essential to doubt... and doubt as hard and as fully as possible until it's crunch time.  Then you need courage.

Descartes chose to doubt everything, absolutely everything, until he arrived at the one conclusion he was sure of  - 'I think, therefore I am.'  I doubt he was that sure of that either:  isn't he still left with the question What Is I?

Nevertheless, it is the sort of doubt that science embraces and that religion is scared of.  Doubt is the lifeblood of science, because we now know very well that both our thoughts and our perceptions deceive us all the time.  Faith is the lifeblood of religion, because?

doubt

Richard Holloway began his twenty part series examining the history of doubt today (weekdays at 13:45 on the home service).   I have my doubts about this, but I’m sure it will be interesting.

He begins with a look at Paul Gauguin’s painting ‘D'où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous (Where do we come from, what are we doing and where are we going?’), painted in Tahiti in 1897.  Gauguin felt it was his best work.  I doubt that: not that he felt it was, but that it was.  But doubt appreciation is a bit like art appreciation, very subjective.

Anyway I like Richard Holloway, I think he is an honest thinker: he has the courage to doubt, and to act on his doubt, which is arguably better than acting on faith.

I like the painting as well.  I like Gauguin’s painting generally: it has so much life and energy, colour and vitality to it.  But Gauguin was a man plagued with doubt: the big questions of life troubled him.  He suffered from depression and suicidal tendencies and maybe those contributed to him seeking out a more basic, a more primitive, simpler existence in Tahiti away from the complexities the uncertainties and tensions of turn of the century Europe.

I expect a lot of people feel the same right now too. It’s too late: we took alcohol, syphilis, trousers and the bible there a long time ago, and they must have Big Macs, Tesco Express, Liptons Iced Tea and WiFi by now.

18 May 2012

Boo!


The one thing I seem certain of is that, for me, there is something that it's like to be alive; to feel wind on skin, smell coffee, hear the ducks quack or, see the red rose.  But what is it?  If you want to reduce consciousness (shall we call it experiencing instead?) to what seems to be the logical conclusion of the physicalists argument then experiencing must itself be something literally physical, like a state of electric charge or something like that.

The panpsychists argue, (if it is an argument), that at some fundamental, deep level of the material world, there is something that is conscious (or proto conscious).  What can that mean?  Given that we don't really know what matter consists of at its most fundamental level, we don't know and can't say that there is not something that it is like to be at that level; in other words, is there some experiential component already there?

That seems to be an assumption you can only make on intuitive rather than on any evidential grounds - unless one day the large hadron collider encounters something that sticks its tounge out and goes 'Boo!'

But then I would ask, if there is some experiential component built into stuff, then why, in such a vast universe of 'stuff', does there seem to be so little consciousness?  Or maybe there is a vast amount of consciousness that we just don't know about.

Then there is the possibility that if consciousness IS physical and you could one to one map the neural network of a brain and provide it with sufficient feedback loops and environmental sensors in a box containing zillions of silicon chips, then at what stage would you have to come to the conclusion that the thing WAS conscious?  That it would be able to have 'feeling', to know that there is something that it is like to be what it was.  That's spooky!

That would have profound moral implications - but, in a way, it already does because of the casually cruel and gung ho way in which we entitle ourselves to treat creatures who we deem to have a bit less consciousness than we seem to have.

The Mind is Physics - Guest Post by Steve Zara


“I speak the truth”.  It’s a brief statement.  Imagine yourself saying it.  Hear the words.  This seems like hardly anything, and yet what you have just done is deep in meaning and has rich and strange implications.  I’ll be dealing with just one of those, which is to do with the nature of mind, and the strange business of qualia - qualities of experience - and what they can and can’t be.

How can such a simple act, speaking a phrase and recognising its meaning, have anything significant to reveal about the mind?  To see why, we need to think like aliens for a bit.

We are aliens, visiting Earth.  We have picked up radio signals broadcast just a little way across the galaxy, just a few tens of light years, and we have traced their origin to this blue planet.  We haven’t managed to decode the signals completely, but they seem to contain information about a species of intelligent ape.  Some of the earliest signals suggest that the apes are starting to enter the Jazz age, and so we are keen to see how things develop.  We arrived at Earth, engaged the appropriate stealth devices, and are now examining these humans.  They communicate mainly by vocalisations.  Our (undetectable and painless) probes reveal how this happens. We can see how the muscles in the face and neck react to electrochemical signals sent along nerves from a brain.  We have started to trace these signals through the millions of neural networks in the human brain so we can reverse-engineer how brain activity results in sounds.

Nothing about this (probably) fictional scenario is beyond science.  It’s a kind of thought experiment.  We can see where we get with it.  This is where I want to try and get: is the project to trace all the signals through the brain feasible?  Is it possible to say why we humans move our mouths and make sounds only taking into account what happens in and between brain cells and nerves?  It has to be possible, at least in principle.  This doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.  This might be like that it’s possible, in principle, to count all the grains of sand on all the beaches on Earth. It doesn’t matter, though, if it’s like that.  It just has to be possible in principle.  Assume it is, for now.  This is a thought experiment after all.

If we assume that we can trace through the brain all the signals that result in our words, then this means that the words we speak have at least two meanings.  The first is the meaning of the words, the meaning we put into the words through the act of speaking our minds.  The second is that the words are there because of muscle twitches due to patterns of nerve activity resulting from things going on in our brains.  The words indicate that brain activity.  And so, those aliens wanting to find out why we humans make the noises we call speech can get an answer in terms of nothing more than signals in our brain.  It may be a very, very complicated answer because it involves perhaps millions of brain cells doing what brain cells do. As brain cells can have many thousands of connections to other brain cells, it does seem likely that such an answer would be very complicated indeed.  Let’s give this assumption a name.  Let’s call it the Alien Answer Hypothesis: the suggestion that our speech can have an explanation in terms of only what brain cells do.

Now we have got that out of the way, let’s look at what it means for us to hear our own words (or see them written down) and to believe that they express a truth.  When we are used to hearing or reading a language, we don’t have to put much work into getting the meaning.  Even though it seems effortless, a lot is going on in our brains, as physical signals are interpreted.  That’s the key thing here - physical signals.  Something rather amazing happens when we speak, write or express ourselves in other ways, such as through song, or gesture.  We are translating what is going on in our minds into the physical world.  An entirely physical part of reality contains our meaning.  When we recognise that meaning, we are implicitly acknowledging the power of the physical to contain our meaning. (at least those of us who don’t believe that we live entirely in our minds).

Now, on to one of the most discussed aspects of consciousness: qualia.  A ‘quale’ is a part of conscious experience: a quality of experience.  It is the sweet smell of vanilla, the redness of a red rose, the sound of a musical note, the tingle of a touch.  It’s what gives us the experience of being conscious.  Well, almost.  We can experience qualities of experience (see how language gets rather tied up when dealing with the subject of mind?  This is a common.. experience!) in dreams, so we should really use a word other than ‘conscious’.  Perhaps ‘awareness’?  But anyway, I hope you get the idea.  It’s a unit of experience.  Qualia seem mysterious once you start to think about them.  Why are they there?  Why does red look like that, and not like something else?  Such questions have been asked by philosophers and scientists for a very long time.  Some who have asked them believe that qualia, the qualities of experience, are so different from anything else we know about that they cannot be explained by physics.  After all, why should what atomic particles do result in us experiencing the redness of red?  It seems quite beyond all possible explanation.   What I’m going to try and show is that this opinion of qualia is mistaken.  I’m going to try and how something that many may think is mind-blowing (at least it explodes many ideas of what our minds are).  What I’m going to try and show is that qualia must be explainable by physics, and that to think that there is some extra aspect of reality involved is wrong.  I may not get there, but I’m going to try. (This is an extremely presumptuous thing to do, as qualia remain the subject of intense ongoing debate.  But I’m going to try anyway).


Imagine you say ‘I see a red rose’, and you are actually seeing a red rose.  Those words are true.  Not just that, but you recognise your own words as true.  You have accepted that your words are a correct representation of your thoughts and beliefs.  Hold onto that fact.  It’s important.  Now, why are you saying ‘I see a red rose’?  It’s because you have the experience of the red colour of what you recognise as a rose, and you have decided to announce that fact.  You have announced in the form of sound patterns that you have experienced a quale - the redness of the rose.  The explanation for you saying ‘red’ is the experience of red.  This sounds quite obvious, but this matters.  It matters because we are saying that a quale - the experience of red - causes your speech.  All perfectly clear.  You have a think about the strangeness of qualia, and as a result you say ‘Qualia can’t be explained by physics’.  You would be far from alone in this.  You recognise your own words as expressing what you believe to be true.  But, things are starting to look pretty weird.  In your previous statement, what you said was a result of the experience of redness.  That is straightforward.  But what is the cause of your second statement, the one about qualia not being explained by physics?  This is getting a bit murky.  What is it exactly about qualia that leads to this belief?  What is the ‘not explainable’ quality of a quale?  This is very hard to pin down, and many have tried.  It’s confusing because we are trying to describe the quality of a quality, and we don’t have anything to compare it with.  If you don’t believe that qualia can be explained by the physical, have a think about this question - what would qualia be like if they could be explained by the physical?  

But now, let’s go back to the Alien Answer Hypothesis.  If we accept it, then the words ‘I see a red rose’ have an explanation only in terms of physical brain cell activity, and nothing else.  It’s going to be a vast and complex explanation, but it exists, if we accept the hypothesis.  But if such a purely physical explanation for the words exists, then qualia must be physical.  That seems a huge leap, but it really isn’t.  If there exists a purely physical explanation for the words, then there seems to be no room for any non-physical extras.  That purely physical explanation seems to contains everything about why the words were spoken.  Of course, the Alien Answer need not be the only answer as to why we spoke.  This may seem contradictory, but it isn’t.  We don’t consider thoughts and speech in terms of individual brain cell activity and individual sounds, just as we don’t consider waves on the sea in terms of individual water molecules.  More than one reason for something physical happening can be true, but once you have found one of those reasons and what is going on in terms of the substance, you have pretty much excluded any other ingredients.  Once we discovered water molecules, there was no more room in the world for water sprites, no matter how strangely the waves may dance.  The sound waves of our speech are composed of the movement of air molecules, moved around by the actions of our muscles, triggered into movement by electrochemical signals from our nerves.  The nerves trigger because of signals from the vast networks of cells in our brains.   Is this a proof that there is nothing but physics going on?  No, it isn’t.  There could be more than physics, but it would have to be a strange extra factor, because it would have to have no overall effect as compared to the answer consisting of only physics.  There could be something extra, but the presence of your spoken words cannot be taken as evidence for such extra thing, because that extra thing doesn’t change the words from what they would be if there was only physics.

So, if you accept the possibility of the Alien Answer, then you have problems if you continue to think that there must be more to mind than physics, if you insist that there really must be more. The first of these problems is how you would convince the aliens of this.  You can say that there is some extra quality of the experience of colour that is beyond physics, but the aliens could respond that they have looked hard at their analysis of what is happening in your brain, and see nothing but physics there.  Nothing but physics.  Now, here is where it gets really interesting.  The Alien Answer Hypothesis asserts that all speech can be traced back through the brain purely in terms of physics.  That means ALL speech.  You, still a believer that something extra is involved in mind, respond to the aliens by saying “You don’t understand, there is some special quality of experience that your analysis doesn’t capture”.  But the speech of this very statement can itself be explained by physics alone.  No matter how much you protest, no matter how much you might argue, every single statement you make has a physical cause.  The more you talk, the more evidence you get back from the aliens that there is nothing but brain cell physics going on.

Now let’s move things on.  I chose to use aliens as the beings who would analyse our brains because they would (in my scenario) initially not understand our language, so they could analyse what causes speech without any assumptions that it was anything but raw noise.  They might even find it surprising when they discover that the noises are sonic codes for thoughts.  I wanted to highlight the dual meaning of the sounds.  But now, let’s get rid of the aliens (in a polite way, of course).  They have left their technology behind, and we can use it.  You can use it.  Every time you speak, you can get a full report of why those noises were produced from their machines.  How would you react if you said “I see a red rose” and you could see that there was a purely physical explanation?  How would you react if you said “there is something strange about qualia” and you could also see that there was a purely physical explanation?  You might still have a feeling that something is missing somewhere, but it’s hard to see where this could be.  You have the intention to say the words based on what is in your mind, you say the words, which, on hearing them, you can be sure are the words you spoke, and these words contain the meaning you wanted to put into them, and at the same time you can see that there is a purely physical explanation for why you made those sounds. No matter what you say about what you know, what you feel, what you experience, all those words have at least one explanation which involves only brain cells interacting.   And so, if you believe in physics, nothing you ever say can be considered as evidence for there being anything more than physics in the mind.  No matter what arguments you put forward for how things must be more than material, or what it feels like to be conscious and have subjective experience, none of those arguments work if you accept that you can express the truth of your arguments as words.

If you really wanted your mind to be more than physics, you could always reject the Alien Answer Hypothesis.  However, that hypothesis isn’t making any unreasonable assumptions.  The hypothesis is based on the findings of centuries of science, including the discovery that we are biochemical beings: our bodies are made up of the same particles that exist elsewhere in the universe.  Indeed, as Lawrence Krauss has pointed out, our bodies are made up of atoms in close to the same proportions as those atoms exist in the universe.  There is no life force, just biochemistry and physics working it’s own purely natural kind of magic.  The hypothesis is also based on the discovery that we are evolved beings, having been shaped by our environment and our fellow organisms for billions of years.  We are built from ordinary stuff.  Our bodies don’t involve interactions with exotic particles, or strange quantum mechanical behaviour on anything but molecular scales.  We are biological systems working using the physics of the every-day, there is no room for strange phenomena to infiltrate our bodies and provide a ghost in the machine.

And so, if you accept science and what it has found out about the world for the past few centuries, then you can’t be consistent and insist that our minds are more than matter, that the queerness of qualia points to something non-physical.  It just doesn’t work!

The position of those who want minds to be more than the material world reminds me of one of my favourite M. C. Escher works:

The dragon is struggling to pull itself out of flatness, to become three-dimensional.  But no matter how much the paper on which it is drawn is cut and folded, the dragon remains trapped on it.


There is probably little about our minds that is as we think it is.  That should be no surprise.  We aren’t born experts about what goes on in our bodies.  So why should we gain much insight about what it is like to be mind in brain from being that mind?