Tuesday, January 31, 2006

How many dummies does one kid need?

I’d heard of the terrible twos before but I hadn’t expected to experience them so early. Our tyke is not yet 16 months old and she’s already well into the stage during which she is constantly testing the limits of what we’ll let her get away with. The moment something is not going according to her requirements she will throw a hissy fit, which is funniest when she isn’t clear in her mind what she actually wants. If I didn’t know that this is something that all kids go through, I’d be worried about whether we’re doing something wrong. As it is already, a general worry about how to bring her up is something that does not leave me. In particular, I am worried about how to teach her what’s right and what’s wrong. I suspect that my problem here is due to a lack of a proper role model from my dad who had been too harsh on my brother but largely absent in my upbringing. Of course, the problem doesn’t appear when you have the time to think about how to react but when you have to react immediately. Right after, you are left wondering if you used the right tone of voice, if you should have explained things a bit more. One thing that I try to do is not to leave her alone right after I had to tell her off about something. I’m concerned that might make her feel insecure about my feelings for her and I want her to know what is obvious to me – her parents will love her whatever she does.

Part of what has been causing her recent moods is that she is teething again. Over the weekend she was running a high temperature and we thought she might have an infection but everything cleared up quickly. The dummy is a constant companion, of course. Several times, she was holding a spare dummy while sucking on another one, only to switch them about at intervals, as if she had suddenly decided that she liked the flavour of the other one more.

It is striking how something as personal and individual as the worries and joys of bringing up a child is as universal as it is. If all of the new fathers in the world had their blogs, many of them would, right now, be writing about the very same things as I am. I do not know if one can speak of a sense of community due to this, however, it does mean that there is a welcome level of understanding when looking at others such as when I see a man pushing a buggy with groceries in bags hanging off the handle bars, the offspring sitting bolt upright in the buggy, fascinated by a passing car or by a dog lifting its rear leg to a tree. Certainly, there is an awareness of things that were always mere background in the past, like looking at a Dali painting for years only one day to notice that the tree is actually a face.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Falsehood is bad, right?

Go to the Vatican site and search for ‘truth’. You will get 4194 hits. I quote from some below.

John Paul II to Australian academics in 1986:

By dedicating yourselves to human learning, you declare your willingness to stand face to face with truth – the truth about man as he relates to the whole world, to all creation. In so doing, you proclaim to the world the Author of creation. Indeed the whole of academe is of its nature an acknowledgement of the relationship existing between man – the only earthly being with intelligence – and the Author of truth.

Catechism of the Catholic Church – Living in Truth:

The Old Testament attests that God is the source of all truth. His Word is truth. His Law is truth. His “faithfulness endures to all generations.” Since God is “true,” the members of his people are called to live in the truth.

John Paul II on World Peace Day 1980

Truth, the power of peace! Let us join together to strengthen peace through the resources of peace itself. The foremost resource is truth, for it is preeminently truth that is the serene and powerful driving force of peace, radiating unimpededly by its own power.

John Paul II – Fides et Ratio

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.

I can’t speak for others but I find it extremely annoying how the Church has appropriated the word ‘truth’ as a synonym for ‘God’ (which is another word it has appropriated). Orwell well understood the power of language when he wrote 1984. The Catholic Church has been using exactly the sort of strategies Orwell talked about by attempting to create a new-speak in which it is impossible say certain things. Thus, if you take seriously what John Paul II said to the Australian academics, claiming that someone is an atheist academic turns into at best nonsense and at worst an attack on the person’s professional competence as an atheist academic my anger at this ought to be understandable.

Once you make a move like that it becomes impossible to carry out any real debate as you have built your assumptions right into your language. After all, what do you wish to reach by discussion? – the truth, obviously. You no longer have interlocutors, you have lost sheep.

Looking at the quote from World Peace Day, you can see that even the Pope sometimes got so entangled in the whole “God is truth, truth is God” line that his words came out sounding like the marihuana-fuelled ramblings of some spaced out hippy.

But, as a whole, this attempt to copyright truth is about as pernicious a tendency as you get in intellectual spheres. Of course, someone might say, “Who cares what the Catholics say and how they use words?” We are lucky that we can afford to say that, thanks to the pluralist nature of modern, westernised societies.

What is the meaning of Christian charity?

More Vatican dissonance. Here is some of what Reuters writes about the Pope’s encyclical:

"Our times call for a new readiness to assist our neighbours in need," he wrote.

Catholic charity organisations cannot be used as a tool to win converts from other religions -- something which some in non-Christian countries fear.

"Love is free. It is practised as a way of achieving other ends. But this does not mean that charitable activity must somehow leave God and Christ aside. For it is always concerned with the whole man. Often the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God," he said.

Like many other people, I have often felt that Christian charities are used to a great degree as a publicity tool and as a means to proselytise. Ratzinger seems to recognise it – though it should be noticed that he only speaks of converts from other religions which suggests that atheists are fair game. Yet, once he talks about bringing people to God as a charitable activity, he has worked himself into a corner. Either you try to convert people using charity work or you don’t. Of course, a cynical person – myself, for example – is going to read that and think that the first point is purely for publicity while the second reveals the truth about Catholic charities such as Caritas. After all, how difficult would it be to set up a non-denominational charity or to tell priests and other Catholics to help others through an already existing one. As it has been observed elsewhere and under different circumstances, the only charity that approaches true giving is one that is totally anonymous. So long as the Church does not take that step the various more or less moral motivations will not be capable of being separated out.

N.B. I wonder how much I now owe the Vatican having quoted Reuters quoting Ratzinger?

What price the Pope's love?

Two bits of news from the Vatican. The first is that the new Pope’s first encyclical is out and in it he speaks of love and charity. The second is that the Vatican is going to enforce copyright on anything that the Popes (and the Roman Curia) have written or said in the last fifty years. Am I the only one who can feel the dissonance between these facts?

The Vatican is enforcing copyright for the two reasons that copyright is most often enforced – to obtain money and to control what is said. In so far as it is attempting to increase revenue someone seems to have forgotten that the Vatican isn’t (supposed to be) a company and that its aims aren’t necessarily the same as those of a company. Thus, its aim to proselytise would seem to require that it make the words of the Pope’s not just free but as easily available as possible. This brings us to the second aim – the wish to control what is said by others about the Vatican. Using the financial instrument it is possible to limit the freedom of others to criticise the Vatican. Thus, for example, newspapers can get a waiver from the payment but only if they ask for permission from the Vatican. It is hard to believe that the Vatican will look as favourably at requests from Humanist Times as it does from The Catholic Chronicle. Even here, however, the effect will not be what the Church might necessarily desire. The reason is that only certain varieties of criticism of the Church are based upon an evaluation of the Pope’s proclamations. Thus, someone who wishes to examine the intellectual claims in an encyclical may well be in trouble, while another person, who merely shouts that the Pope is the Antichrist and that the Vatican is the Whore of Babylon, is in no way inconvenienced by the decision. In other words, the Vatican’s position only affects reasoned debate rather than diatribes. And those who are more afraid of reasoned debate than of diatribes have already lost that debate.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Seduced by Rorty?

Finished reading The Seduction of Unreason. The weakest chapter seems to be the one where Wolin looks at Anti-Americanism. The problem isn’t that he is wrong that for many writers the attitude is an automatic pose. Rather, he fails to make his case that the attitude of today’s anti-Americans is the descendant of authoritarian anti-Americans of yore who feared America’s claims to democracy were earnest. The problem is that today’s anti-Americans fear America’s claims to democracy are hypocritical. I think that Wolin would agree with humanist, democratic, rational critiques of today’s America; yet, his analysis fails to bring that out sounding very much like a simple rejection of anti-Americanism. I wonder why he wrote the chapter in this way. Particularly given the context of the Bush administration currently being the biggest threat to the kind of humanist, democratic values he holds so dear – threatening them both within the States and around the world.

At the same time, I wonder what Wolin makes of Richard Rorty who accepts the kind of antirationalist views Wolin discussed and, then, instead of going on to praise power, claims to want to defend democratic, humanist, liberal values on the basis that these values happen to be ‘our’ values. I think Wolin would probably first critique the political effectiveness of such a position – according to it, liberal views are essentially in no way better than fascist view or any other kinds of views. At the same time, it seems questionable that they are ‘our’ values, at least if by ‘us’ we’d like to mean all of the people of the developed world – there seem all too many examples of ‘us’ having ‘their’ values. I’ll write to him and see what he says.

Who needs Narnia?

... when you have snow drifts deep enough to hide a lion’s body till spring and temperatures so low that even the Fahrenheit goes into negative scores. This winter is getting seriously dangerous. And, if that wasn’t enough, while Europe is suffering through one of the coldest winters on record, parts of the Antipodes are boiling away in temperatures that refuse to fall below 40 degrees Celsius. Welcome to the Brave New Global Weather Pattern. Day After Tomorrow is another movie I have no intention of seeing right now. Maybe some time around July.

Thankfully, I can stay indoors pretty much full time till the temperatures creep back up to “Very Unpleasant”. Having got my hands on a digital camera I am now spending my time testing it out on my little one. As a friend of mine with a tyke of her own said, “Digital cameras are great. You take 30 photos of your kid and 2 come out not blurry.” Mind you, I think that percentage drops when the best available natural light is damned close to an aurora.

In truth and to carry on the fantasy theme, I am starting to feel like I am leading a troglodyte existence, spending as I am most of my time trying to desperately catch up with work while the world outside is dark and cold. At the very least, the image of a monk scribe seems apt.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

But would you still respect yourself in the morning?

One day while I was in high school my class went to the school library where the librarian told us how important and how much fun it is to read. Later, while the kids walked about the library, mostly mucking about, rather than looking at books, the librarian took each one of us aside one-by-one to sign something that was meant to be a reading contract where we would pledge to read some number of books. When she got to me she noted down my name and asked how many books I would read. I must have not been sure as she suggested a number - five books. I looked at her somewhat surprised and asked, "You mean, per week?" She was completely nonplussed. We had been talking at cross-purposes. She had just been dealing with a string of kids who hardly ever looked in a book - I read voraciously.

This characteristic has pretty much stayed with me so, quite naturally, I became an academic (You mean people will pay me to do this?!?) Even so, I seem to be going through a stage right now of reading more than I had for many, many years. There is a great pile of books in my study through which I am making my way. Some are work-related, some are not and some are close enough to being work-related that I can feel like I am working while I am reading them. Not that, given how much I enjoy my job, I know what 'work' means to the great majority of people.

Right now, I am reading Richard Wolin's The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Facism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism. Now, given that postmodernism has always seemed to me to be about as attractive and interesting as the fluff that gathers in the navel, I can not claim to be either impartial or informed. Still, I find what Wolin writes to be highly instructive. First of all, there is his careful tracing of the shared anti-democratic, anti-humanist, anti-rationalist currents that flow through the fascism of the 1920's and the postmodernism of the 1980's. Secondly, there is his very pragmatic analysis of postmodernism's claim to be a liberating political viewpoint - the problem with such views being that, rather than freeing anyone, they leave us undefended against the exercise of raw power. On that last point there can be no better reference than Chomsky who has opposed raw power with reason, humanity and a commitment to democracy for many years and more claim to success than any postmodernist that I can think of. Chomsky's article from the Z Papers discussion on Rationality/Science is a good start.

The fascination of a large element of the academic left with postmodernism seems to me to be an example of sublimation in the Freudian sense, rather than the physical I used in the previous post. Although I am not very fond of Freud either, his concept seem quite apposite in this case - by becoming postmodernists the academics can focus their political, moral energy at a point which does not threaten their careers; they can spend their time haranguing 'science' for being totalitarian and oppressive, or claim to undermine the dominant paradigm instead of opposing the oppressive governments with all of the danger that would entail. Of course, the coin has two sides - what is not dangerous to them is also not dangerous to the actual status quo - so they become irrelevant, producing trite volumes instead of either doing good academic work or helping society by building up real democratic structures.

What I also find interesting is that as I read about these views a thought sometimes crosses my mind like a shadow - what if I accepted such views? The same fleeting feeling comes when I read about religion - what if I were to come to believe in God? It isn't that the thought holds any attraction to me. It is more like the feeling one gets while looking down, a vertiginous thought that one could just jump. It is irrational and frightening but I think it is a good thing that I feel it as it helps me to some degree to understand the people who have embraced such viewpoints. As, indeed, does Wolin's book.

Lovely, dark and deep?

About a year ago I was visited by friend who'd never seen snow. For him, seeing snow falling for the first time was a thing of wonder. He walked out of the house and stood watching the flakes descending ; their motion strangely hypnotic and seemingly too slow to believe. I also remember one particular snow-fall when great flakes began to fall in the middle of the city and it was as if someone had suddenly turned down the volume - the sound being muffled by them. The friend - once enough snow had fallen to cover the ground - went walking, his ears pricked to the sound, his feet alive to the sensation. "It's nothing like what I had imagined," was what he said, I recall.

The reason why I think of that day today is that this winter the snow has been on the ground since before Christmas and, having once almost thawed, has turned into a very light ice, with great big blocks that in weight and other characteristics remind me of nothing so much as Styrofoam. When it had originally fallen, it covered everything, even the individual links in the fence, with what can only be called a thick blanket - with all of the softness and smoothness of shape that suggests. Every step felt like an act of aesthetic barbarism that destroyed another bit of perfection. In the weeks since it felt, the snow has settled and also sublimated so that there is now much less of a cover on the ground but what there is is strong enough to support my weight, despite its own continued insubstantiality. On the other hand, the snow on the footpath outside the house, where I had sprinkled a liberal amount of salt, has turned into a gravely brown substance - but has not actually dissolved. The trees are now again covered in white but not a perfect blanketing of snow, instead the white being due to tiny flakes of snow that cover ever tiniest branch in a thin layer of white batter so that the shape of the tress is not concealed, instead being brought out even more sharply.

As it may be guessed, I am finding snow to be a thing of wonder and a source of quite a fair amount of pleasure. Both of these feelings are due in part to the sheer aesthetic beauty of what I am seeing and to the desire to understand how such beauty came to be. I think anyone who appreciates science will understand how coming to know what caused the various forms in which snow appears only serve to increase the appreciation of the experience itself. Which all serves to remind me of a Robert Frost poem.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Someplace between Ryoanji and the Alhambra?

It was still dark when I woke up the other day. I had a couple of hours before I had to rise and I did not feel like sleeping. I had had a dream and, though I no longer recall it, this was enough to put me in the mood to consider where I was in my life. As the sky slowly grew brighter I thought back to when I was a teenager in high school and then at university. I thought about how seriously I treated any relationship I had back then – seeing them now as joyful lessons in life, learning about other people and myself. It was somewhat vertiginous to realise that half my life now lay between me and those days. Still, there was a definite pleasure to lie with eyes shut and think back to the time when I seemed to spend most of my time sitting in some cafe with my friends. I had been involved in a number of different things going on at the university so that it was impossible for me to walk across the campus without meeting a dozen different people I knew. One time, a few years later, I walked across that same campus passing strangers and feeling as if I was in some foreign town. For that reason I do not have much desire to go back to see that university again – the university I went to no longer exists, in a sense.

A while ago I had heard an interesting question – Which do you regret more: the fact that there are places you have never seen and that you will never see or the fact that there are places you used to go that you will never go back to? It seems to me that I am still young enough that it does not feel real to me that there are any places I will not go to. On the other hand, I am old enough to know there are places I will never go back to.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Does this sound at all familiar?

Finished reading Sagan’s book (The Demon-Haunted World). I was very glad to see that he was very much aware of and valued the political significance of scepticism. Pity he isn’t around any more. Among other things, he looks at Thomas Jefferson, showing how Jefferson’s scientific frame of mind was related to his political actions. In the course, Sagan writes about what Jefferson was up against:

The ink was barely dry on the Bill of Rights before politicians found a way to subvert it – by cashing in on fear and patriotic hysteria. In 1798, the ruling Federalist Party knew that the button to push was ethnic and cultural prejudice. Exploiting tensions between France and the U.S., and a widespread fear that the French and Irish immigrants were somehow intrinsically unfit to be Americans, the Federalists passed a set of laws that have come to be known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. [...]

From across two centuries, it’s hard to recapture the frenzied mood that made the French and the “wild Irish” seem so grave a threat that we were willing to surrender our most precious freedoms. Giving credit for French and Irish cultural triumphs, advocating equal rights for them, was in effect decried in conservative circles as sentimental – unrealistic political correctness. But that’s how it always works. It always seems an aberration later. But by then we’re in the grip of the next hysteria.


Monday, January 02, 2006

Brighter than the Sun?

I’m reading Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World. Quite good. It is clear that he is trying to be as fair to everyone as it is possible and is very open about his own limitations. Still, I think he goes a little bit too easy on religion. He claims that there is the possibility of religion which does not make empirical claims but is still useful in the role it plays in terms of shaping ethics and so on. Apart from the historical evidence for this claim not being all that great, I think that the problem is that by the time you take out of religion everything that is problematic you are just left with being nice to each other, i.e. not enough to justify calling what’s left a religion as opposed to, for example, a cultural tradition. Like I’ve said before, when I see kind, intelligent, open-minded, liberal religious people I can not help but conclude that they are all these things despite being religious rather than because of it and, then, when I talk with them, I find that their religious beliefs are so constrained as to be almost vestigial. All that’s left is a feeling of wonder at the universe – a feeling I share but which does not add up to any religion, even though it may be the motivating force for the faith that some of the best religious people feel.

What I think Sagan makes clear is that science is not so much a world-view as an approach to the world – in so far as science is not hung up about any beliefs but, in fact, is an institutionalised, concerted effort not to be satisfied with the current answers, instead gathering information about the world (in ever new ways) with the aim of developing and identifying better answers. What I also like is that I haven’t caught Sagan anywhere taking about The Scientific Method – that mythical, perfected machine for getting knowledge. Although he has not made it explicit in the sections I’ve read thus far, it does seem that Sagan is aware of the way that scientific methods develop along with each individual science’s understanding of the area it is looking into.

Where's a winter sports store when you need one?

Anybody got a pair of skis I could borrow? Over the New Year’s Weekend we were pretty much snowed in here. In the end a snowplough did manage to make it down our street – just in time to wreck much of the work I had done in clearing the snow off the footpath outside our house. Well, more like shovelling it into a big long pile down one side of the footpath. Now the snow has started to melt a little and every now and again I hear a deep rumbling noise as more of it comes tumbling off the roof and forms great big piles around the house. Around the front it is now possible to walk off the front porch without having to walk down the stairs – it’s at the same level as the door – more than half a metre in height compared to street level.

More than a pair of skis, I wish I had got a sleigh for my daughter as she could have had a wild sleigh ride in the garden over the weekend. She is learning more and more words and sounds. Car is, of course, Broom-broom. The word for heart she manages to pronounce in a way that is so funny that we keep asking her to repeat it. I bet it will get old with her pretty soon. She seems to be dreaming, too. My evidence is that she woke up just earlier, crying her head off, like some bad dream had woken her up. That, and the previous night she talked in her sleep – saying ‘Paupau’, which is her word for the window sill – the place she most likes to sit while I read her a book. Mind you, I’m not surprised by how much she likes sitting on the window sill. It’s one of my favourites, too; and, with all of the perfect snow outside in the garden, the view is quite something on a nice day. Tomorrow I’ll have to make her a snow man. The snow is perfect right now, just a bit wet so it is nice and sticky. Hope it doesn’t get too warm tomorrow. I can’t believe I just wrote that!