No, I Don’t Envy the Faithful

From time to time, I run across non-believers who pine after faith, or greatly admire it, or think it to be soft, fuzzy, and warm. Arthur Shapiro is a might fine example of that species: I came across a review of his in the Creation/Evolution Journal that begins thusly:

I suppose I should confess up front that some of my best friends are Christians. I can’t share their beliefs, but at times I find myself envying them for having a philosophy that seems to bring them so much comfort. Life is harder, as some wag put it, with no invisible means of support.

And then he descends into preemptive whining about the atheists (“true-believer atheists,” he calls ’em) who will write him “nasty letters” for being “soft on Christianity,” which then degenerates into burbling about Vaclav Havel, “the decline of traditional religion,” and the “hole in the social fabric” it has supposedly left “that science cannot hope to fill.” I had to stop reading* at the point where he decided “theistic science” is not a silly idea. No, seriously: Continue reading “No, I Don’t Envy the Faithful”

No, I Don’t Envy the Faithful

A Thought Experiment for the Philosophy Dudebros

Hey, let’s do some philosophy for any more philosophy dudebros who might show up wanting to talk abortion rights. I LOVE philosophy!

All right, dude. Ready for a thought experiment? You’re always totally down with one, I’m sure, cuz you’re a philosophy dude. You’ve signed up to be an organ donor, right? Right? If not, exit the conversation now and never ever even consider you have anything to say about what women should do with unwanted pregnancies. If you’re not willing to let your dead body save other lives, you don’t even get to hypothetically consider what I should do with my alive and aware one.

Okay, organ donor wanna-debate-abortion philosophy dudebro. You’ve been in an accident. You were riding your bike, you forgot your helmet, swerved to avoid hitting a dog and ended up going ass over ankles over the handlebars on to the pavement. Cracked your head wide open. Now, you got flown to the best trauma hospital in the world, and they’ve put you back together again. You’re never going to contribute much to society, though, because your brain is so damaged that your cognitive function is greatly reduced and you’re never going to be able to live without 24-7 care again.

Hey, what’s this on your license? Is that an Organ Donor YES that I see? Continue reading “A Thought Experiment for the Philosophy Dudebros”

A Thought Experiment for the Philosophy Dudebros

A Winter's Tale

Can’t… do… more… stupid … *thump*

I can’t do it. Not tonight. I found myself merely skimming my usual haunts, passing over the outrage for the silly stuff. And then I gave up and played on YouTube for a couple of hours. You’ll see the fruit of that labor tomorrow.

One day, just one single freaking day, I want to leave the Mayberry Machiavellis to their own devices. I want them out of my house, off of my mind, and I want to play.

This does not, alas, lead to fruitful blogging.

I offer you instead a fragment from the first book in my series, which I shall be plunging back in to after some thorny backstory issues have been worked out. I know excerpts can be maddeningly confusing, plucked from context as they are, but I like the point Baa’raaman makes and so hopefully it won’t get lost in the sea of the unknown.

Philosophy, Winter’s Gate

“Give over, Jorvaa. You Southlanders never do find warmth here.”

Silahnova gathered his cloak in tighter and tucked his hands under his armpits. He thought that he would not be so cold, and give Baa’raaman less chance to laugh, if he turned away from the windows, but he managed less than a quarter-pivot before the view arrested him.

Baa’raaman Kiinsheo stepped up beside him as he stared and stood without speech for a moment. The windows stretched ceiling-to-floor, with no ledge beyond, giving the uneasy sensation that the room had no fourth wall, and that one misstep would send them plunging into the chasm below. The depths of that chasm were lost in mist today. Opposite, sheets of ice cascaded down the sheer mountainside, so deep and cold against the gray rock that it looked now blue, now clear green, more than white. Ages of trickling water had created thick ropes and undulations in the sheet. It looked as if billions of candles had melted, spilling their drippings down from the peak.

Silahnova wished he had another cloak. And wings, just in case.

Baa’raaman tilted his head. In a moment, the stone walls creaked under a sudden influx of heat, and the floor made Silahnova’s feet sweat in their boots. He started shivering in earnest now. Baa’raaman threw back his head and laughed, the sound bounding off the thick glass windows that seemed to radiate winter into the room despite the soraan’s efforts. “I could dip you by your ankles in a magma chamber right now and you would still shiver. Why you insisted on coming up here, I will never know.”

He clapped Silahnova on the shoulder, hard enough to make his torso lurch forward and put the panic of a thousand-foot fall into his spine. Once, a thousand feet of sheer mountainside would not have concerned him, but he had no hooves now, and regardless, he had never tested those against such implacable ice. “I wanted to see Winter’s Gate,” he mumbled through jaws clenched tight against queasiness.

“From what I hear of you, you want to see everything.” Baa’raaman patted him more gently this time and swung away. His stride was flat, fast, the walk of a man with too much to do and not enough time to do it, or perhaps the stride of a man used to having to move swiftly so as not to freeze in place. Silahnova turned in increments and watched him swoop on the drinks tray on the one clear space on his bleakwood desk. “You should have become a professional Traveller instead of a military man.”

Traveller. He was that, at least. In many ways. “Xtalea needs defenders more than rhapsodizers,” he said.

Baa’raaman shook his head over the decanter and cups he was filling. Frosted glass, of course. Everything was frosty about the Winter’s Gate but her people. “Most people can be taught to kill. Fewer can be taught to really see the world they walk through, and show others what it is. I think you may be one of those last, but maybe not.” He turned, cups in hand, one sending off more steam than the other. “I see a part of you wanting to throw yourself over that edge and take all of it into yourself, and another part of you dragging that one back. That is what tragedy is, my thin-blooded friend.”

Silahnova took the extended cup. It was hot enough he had to wrap it in his cloak to keep from burning himself, but still too cold. “Is doing what you must do such a tragedy, then?”

“Oh, yes.” Baa’raaman chuckled, and shot a look at his chaotic desk. The shelves behind it were little better, with books jumbled and papers spilling over, barely held from a fall to the floor by chunks of odd rock and other idiosyncratic treasures. “Especially when you know you must clean and organize, but doing so would take so much precious time away from better things.”

Silahnova’s lips resisted his efforts to keep them straight. Impossible not to smile, with that chuckle filling the room, and he wanted to grin. “How much of that precious time do you waste looking for things you need? You could gain more time with a little organization.”

“Yes, you military types like it all neat.” Baa’raaman snorted, nose buried in his cup for a moment. That cup was sweating, Silahnova noticed: the man’s steam had been from cold, not heat. But he would suffer a hot room for a guest. “I waste no time. If I had all of this just so, do you think I could lose myself for hours rediscovering things I had forgotten? Order is the enemy of discovery, my dear silly soldier: never forget that.” He pointed a stern finger alongside the cup. “Lose yourself just once, Jorvaa. Get away from everything, release all ties, and just be. Immerse yourself in the world instead of merely looking at it.” The finger rapped against the cup. “Obligation will be the death of you.”

Silahnova burst out laughing. Obligation had been the death of him, would be thousands of times over, and Baa’raaman would see that joke someday. “Obligations are too hard to set aside, but I appreciate the advice.”

“Stiff, stiff, stiff.” Baa’raaman shook his head. “All of you Southland soldiers, stiff as the blades you carry, but remember that soraani can bend those blades like meadow grass. If I had no kaataan, I would bend you myself.”

Silahnova nodded somberly as he could manage. “Then it is a very good thing you have a kaataan.”

“Such a loss for you.” Baa’raaman closed his eyes for a moment in mock sorrow. “You need bending, Jorvaa. I should find you the one who will do it.”

“Best not.” Silahnova shifted his grip on his cup.

“Oh, that upsets you.” Baa’raaman searched him. “Even soldiers get married. Even they are allowed such gifts, and I think for them it is more important than for anyone else. Fighting for someone you love gives back meaning. Even Ticaal believes that, for all he has no one. He fills himself with Xtalea herself. You, on the other hand, fill yourself with duty, and that is not so lasting.”

Silahnova shook his head, then had to shake the hair out of his eyes. “You are an insightful man, but you missed your strike.”

“What do you love, then, Jorvaa? Who?”

He shrugged, shifting one foot beneath him and dipping his chin down in a twisting motion. The Drusav gesture tensed his neck uncomfortably. “I am full,” he said. “Leave it at that.”

“If you a
re full, why are you walking the world searching?” Baa’raaman waited a moment. “Full men hardly drink as frantically as you do, Jorvaa.”

This ground was far more dangerous than that sheer, slick drop one breath outside the windows. Silahnova shifted back. “The curious do. You have your kaataan, but you still drink philosophy as deep as you can. We can have more than one thirst.”

“And so you bury your blade to the hilt.” Baa’raaman laugh bounded through the room again. “All right, then, we should drink. You drink from that cup, and then I will take you to have a draught from mine.”

A Winter's Tale

Wu Li: Five-fold Path to a Story

I. My Way

Stories change their writers. They shape us as surely as we shape them. They set us on paths we never thought we’d follow. When I left home for college, I thought I was writing a quest novel. But the story was already changing, and so was mine.

I’d figured on an English degree, but within the first semester, I realized I needed more. My Western Civilization class had made me realize I’d only tasted an atom of the ocean. To build a world, I’d need far more than my paltry bit of knowledge. I’d need world history, because other civilizations are an excellent inspiration for alien cultures. I’d need geography, geology, and astronomy. I’d need comparative religion, because other worlds wouldn’t believe the same way we did.

Comparative religion led me to Nina Pearlmutter, one of the most incredible philosophy professors I’ve ever come across in my life. Eastern philosophy hadn’t even been on my radar before she gave me a sip of Buddhism. A Buddhist Jew? How the hell does that happen? She made me
realize there was a dramatic amount of knowledge out there I hadn’t even tasted.

Jim Bennett, who taught my geology course, hooked me on harder science with humor and simplicity. I’d meant to focus on English, but our English professors were, ah, decidedly not the caliber of my philosophy, science and history professors. Out on its ear went the English degree. Into Western Civilization II, Eastern Philosophy, and Physical Geography I went. This is what the story demanded. I could smith the words. What I needed was the raw knowledge to craft into something greater than the next Forgotten Realms ripoff.

II. Patterns of Organic Energy

Physical Geography led me to an uncomfortable realization: if I wanted to create a universe for my characters to live and breathe in, if I wanted to do this thing right, I’d have to delve into the hard sciences. I’d rather chosen fantasy to avoid that, but then I read far too many books where the “world” was just a blob of a continent with a few islands thrown in, or a map of Europe turned topsy-turvy. Nothing for it but to go for the really big stuff. Understand how things really worked.

But I figured I could avoid quantum physics. Einstein didn’t like it, I’d heard – good enough for me. All I needed, after all, was enough hard stuff to figure out how planets got here, right? No need to torture myself. I’d glanced at quantum mechanics – it looked horrible. No way.

Working at a book store throws you in contact with books you wouldn’t otherwise do more than glance at. I kept having to shelves this little book called The Dancing Wu Li Masters. A lot of people bought it. I had no idea why. Utterly ridiculous title, even worse cover illustration, it was labeled New Age, and it had the word “quantum” on the back cover. Noooo thank you.

I think a customer browbeat me into trying it, but I honestly don’t remember. I just know I ended up at home with it, staring at it was a chary eye. Opened it up. Started reading.

It was like mainlining heroin. So hooked. Physics had never been my friend. Neither had philosophy, especially Eastern, to be honest, despite Nina’s genius. This book brought the two together and made me fall hard for both.

Schroedinger’s Cat. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Patterns of organic energy. Far from being a cold, clinical thing, it turned out that physics was a warm, wonderful, weird thing. Outstanding. From there, I had no choice but to snap up Steven Hawking, Richard Feynman, Michio Kaku, and a myriad other tremendous writers on physics. I was an addict. I’d take it in any variety I could get it.

Marrying quantum mechanics to Eastern philosophy had blunted its terror for me. It was just “patterns of organic energy,” which is what the Chinese word for physics means. It was bizarre enough for a fantasy writer to really get her teeth in to. If I’d had something like this early on in school, I would’ve gotten into calculus, and I would’ve taken as much hard science as I could lay my hands upon. The stuff was phenominal.

III. I Clutch My Ideas

The story was starting to force me onto another path, but I still thought of it as fundamentally a quest story. And, while I was using all of the things I was learning to spice it up a bit, I wasn’t letting it expand out and become what it needed to become. I wasn’t letting either one of us really grow.

As a writer, you have to stop clutching your ideas eventually, or you’ll strangle them.

Gradually, the story and the learning I had to do for it began to loosen my grip. The Dancing Wu Li Masters had shattered my assumptions about physics and philosophy. All of those meanings of wu li came dancing through my mind. Something there, something important, but I still wasn’t seeing it. I’d been raised with certain Views, you see. It takes a while to let go of the parochial view of the world and let your mind wander free. It takes a long while before you can hear what your story really is.

IV. Nonsense

I finally let go of the quest motif. Wrote, rewrote, and one day looked on all I had written and found myself appalled.

Western ideas. Christian themes. I’d expanded my view of the world considerably, but obviously hadn’t internalized it. Everything sounded like every other novel written by people who never left the West – totally parochial.

This could not stand. That was not what the story wanted to be. I could sense its misery.

Off to the mythology shelves. Back into the weird world of quantum physics. And the themes of The Dancing Wu Li Masters started dancing before me. Shades of the Eastern Philosophy class I’d take arose. If I wanted a different way of seeing the world, brother, that was it.

I’d never been all that enamored of Eastern thought. I became so. Because when you really delve into it, when you study both quantum physics and Zen Buddhism, you’re struck at first by how bizarre it is. None of it makes sense to a parochial mind raised on Christianity and Newtonian mechanics. How can something be a wave and a particle at the same time? How can someone be enlightened merely by being told to go wash his bowl? Just what is it with all this nonsense?

Chinese thought may not have anticipated the wonderful weirdness of quantum physics in quite the same way as The Dancing Wu Li Masters implied, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are, on a fundamental level, similar. They both teach us to see the world in an entirely different way. If you try to apply your ordinary way of thinking to them, you’ll see nothing but nonsense. Once you begin
to understand
them, you see that they’re not nonsense at all. And you will never see the world in quite the same way again, which is a fantastic gift for a fantasy author.

V. Enlightenment

When it comes to the story I’m telling over a series of books and short stories, yes, I’ve been enlightened. And I’ve been awakened to far more than that.

Zen Buddhism teaches a way of seeing wonder in the most mundane activity. Eating your meal and washing your bowl afterward are activities just as marvelous as a marathon meditation session. This moment is perfect, just as it is. This is where you find enlightenment. No doctrine, no dogma, can do it for you. Those things only get in the way.

Quantum physics and the hard sciences take none of the wonder from the world. They’re far more magical than magic could ever be. The chair I am sitting in feels solid, but it’s made of motion. On a subatomic level, it’s mostly empty space. That knowledge makes the mundane marvelous, just as much as Zen does.

SF writing is all about eliciting a sense of wonder. That used to seem like a very difficult thing to do, but now, I see the wonder has been there all along.

Standing outside my pointed-roof hut
Who’d guess how spacious it is inside
A galaxy of worlds is there
With room to spare for a zazen cushion.


Illustrations: Wu Li, Boat Trip on the River Underneath a Buddhist Temple; Chinese calligraphy spelling wu li.

Wu Li: Five-fold Path to a Story

Ancient Poetry: Drink Deep the Wine Dark Sea

Studying poetry in school felt like slow, merciless death. Those few weeks spent perusing the most insipid pap imaginable every year, tearing down the lines into rhyme, meter and all of the other technical detail, destroyed its power. I came away with the understanding that people in the ancient world were stuffy, insufferable boors. Why the fuck did people make such a fuss about this stuff? What was so great about it?

We were given tap water in safe spoonfuls, when there was a whole briny ocean out there to drink. We were restricted to a European reservation, with no idea that a whole world existed beyond our placid borders. Poetry had no meaning. It whispered in those dull rooms, while outside it shouted. And I never knew.

Caught the occasional glimpse, here and there. ee cummings and his brilliant Buffalo Bill. Ben Jonson’s superb The Noble Nature. Shakespeare’s dramatic and powerful Sonnet XXXV. Emily Dickenson’s deceptively simple I Took My Power in My Hand. But there were just a smattering. A taste of salt on my lips.

Then I discovered the wine dark sea, and set sail through the ancient world. The Islamic Empire. Ancient Greece. The old empires of China and Japan. Here was power. Here was passion. Here were the simple things made profound, the celebrations and the lamentations, the immensity I’d been told existed but had never been shown. And the laughter!

Set sail with me. And I know what you’re saying – my friend Monique said the same thing, once, when we were discussing poetry. “You just don’t think of old poets as being funny.” Of course you don’t. We’re never shown the whimsy, the apostasy, the robust ribald humor that existed in the ancient world. We’re just shown marble ideals.

It’s not like that at all.

Start drinking:

Abu Nuwas, Father Locks, would scoff at the idea that poetry must be something rarified and starched with dignity. He made fun of those poets of his day who slavishly followed the old conventions. Poetry in his age was stuck in a rut of morose Bedouin themes, contemplating the ashes of abandoned campsites and wailing over the simple life lost, while the glory of civilization beckoned. Abu Nuwas was having none of it:

The wretch paused to question an abandoned campsite,
While I paused to inquire about the neighborhood tavern.
May God never dry the tears of those who cry over stones,
Nor ease the love-pangs of those who yearn for tent pegs.
They said, “You mentioned the neighborhood where the Asads hail from…”
Shame on you! Tell me, who are the Asad family, anyway?
And who are the Tamim and the Qays and all of their ilk?
In God’s eyes, the Bedouins are nothing!

Forget all of that! Get on with yourself, and drink a fine vintage instead:
Golden-hued, it mingles with water and froth
As it pours from the hand of a slim-waisted beauty,
Who resembles a willow branch, flaunting its graceful bearing.
When the barkeeper saw that I’d been smitten,
He greeted me, making sure that I am lavish in my giving,
Then he brought me a cup brimming with the choices of wines,
Letting none other grasp it, straight from his hand to mine.

Give and be generous with all that your hand possesses,
Don’t hoard a thing today fearing poverty tomorrow.
What a difference between those who buy wine and enjoy it
Versus those who weep over the traces of old campsites!
Oh, you who rebuke me! Your signal has reached me
Though my pardon encompasses it, do not repeat it.
Were it meant as advice, then I’d accept your reproach
But your chiding is based upon envy instead.

Where was that poem when I was suffering in school? Where was glorious Father Locks and his brilliant paens to wine? If I’d stayed on the reservation created by our schools, I’d never have known about the Islamic Empire’s golden age, much less their robust tradition of khamriyyat – wine poems. Gives you a rather different impression of what the ancients got up to, doesn’t it?

Wine flows through those seas of poetry. Here’s Du Fu, a Tang Dynasty poet, who seems on the surface to have little to do with Abu Nuwas and his irreverance:

View From a Height (tr. David Lunde)

Sharp wind, towering sky, apes howling mournfully;
untouched island, white sand, birds flying in circles.
Infinite forest, bleakly shedding leaf after leaf;
inexhaustible river, rolling on wave after wave.
Through a thousand miles of melancholy autumn, I travel;
carrying a hundred years of sickness, I climb to this terrace.
Hardship and bitter regret have frosted my temples–
and what torments me most? Giving up wine!

See how he ends! Profundity followed by whimsy – it’s what I’ve come to love most about Chinese and Japanese poetry. No wallowing in morbid thoughts for them, not for long – even the most morbid subject ends up being light as air. How much easier life is when you can meet its worst blows with a shrug and a smile!

Day after day we can’t help growing older.
Year after year spring can’t help seeming younger.
Come let’s enjoy our winecup today,
Not pity the flowers fallen!

Wang Wei’s “On Parting With Spring” captures the essence of how we can live joyfully in a changing world, doesn’t it? He and Abu Nuwas would have had plenty to say to each other over those winecups.

Kobayashi Issa would have something to say to someone who got too morose over winter:

the dead tree
with butterflies

Bam! There you are. The haiku we studied in school was never like this – it was Westernized, paying too much attention to syllable count to translate
meaning. Just let it be! Let us see that dead tree blooming with a million butterflies. Set it free.

Forget the insipid love poetry that made us think falling in love would be about as exciting as a chaperoned stroll. This is how it really is:

He’s equal with the Gods, that man
Who sits across from you,
Face to face, close enough, to sip
Your voice’s sweetness,
And what excites my mind,
Your laughter, glittering. So,
When I see you, for a moment,
My voice goes,
My tongue freezes. Fire,
Delicate fire, in the flesh.
Blind, stunned, the sound
Of thunder, in my ears.
Shivering with sweat, cold
Tremors over the skin,
I turn the colour of dead grass,
And I’m an inch from dying.

That was Sappho. I don’t need to say anything more, do I?

Alcaeus returns us to our theme of wine. I can see him speaking this famous line to a young Abu Nuwas: “Wine, dear boy, and truth.” Only that fragment survives of what must have been an extraordinary poem. But we have this, almost whole:

Come tip a few with me,
Melanippus, and you’ll see
why you crossed over Acheron
once again searching for the sun.

Come drink. Don’t set your sights
too high. Even King Sisyphus-
among all men, the wisest-
thought he might outsmart Death,

only to cross Acheron twice:
the judgement of Fate.
And now he labors endlesly
in Hades.

Come drink, and celebrate
while we are young. Later,
we will…the north wind blows.

All of these poets could have sat in the same tavern, drinking, celebrating the moment. Life is short, and precious. They seized it with poetry. They gave us an ocean.

They saw the truth, and shared it.

Why are we here? What is our purpose?

To drink!

Drink the still water
of the song of the ages.
Light of the stream, and
calm of the fountain!

Garcia Lorca, “Ballad of the Small Plaza”

Ancient Poetry: Drink Deep the Wine Dark Sea

Jujitsu Politics

This fascinates me:

Every time I get mad, I do some phone banking or dig up another $25 and donate it. Every time someone gets pissed off about something on Daily Kos, they throw up a diary with donation links to Orange to Blue or Act Blue or directly to the website of the cause or the candidate, and there’s a wave of “I gave!” comments all over the post. These efforts have raised millions from small donors — more than a million so far at Orange to Blue alone.

Talk about jujitsu politics; every time they make a move against us, it translates into more money and volunteers for our side. They can’t win.

I hadn’t even thought about it before I read that Daily Kos diary, and yet it’s obvious. We’ve been murdering the right wing with money this year. Every time they attack, instead of limping away whimpering and bleeding, we’ve turned their attacks back on them. We’re not using the same vicious tactics or smears. We’re just turning the force of their attack into something productive and positive.

ChristieKeith compared it to jujitsu, which is apt, but I’m thinking aikido. The whole idea is to take your opponent’s force and turn it into something graceful and positive. Here’s an excellent description of it from someone who studied aikido in Kyoto, Japan:

The subtlety of the movements have always been – I thought – a wonderful metaphor for how to approach conflict or confluence. The core principle in Aikido is that in every interaction, one is responsible not just for themselves, but also for the other. As a result, meeting force with force is not an option, as someone will always come out ‘damaged’ from the experience. The art, then, is in harmonizing two opposing forces, dissipating conflict.

Omote and Ura – Every motion in Aikido can be divided into Omote (direct) and Ura (indirect). In all cases, the result is harmony (ie two opposing forces merging into one), but depending on the situation, that path can be merged quickly and abruptly by Omote, or through a longer period of converging before the conclusion.
In a conversation, where there is not a gulf between those interacting, omote can guide you to conclusion faster; but where the gulf is wider, a longer, less direct path is needed to reach harmony.

Tenkan – this is a movement, almost a pirouette or spin, but is central to making the Aikido philosophy physical. Essentially, any attack is not met head on, but is pulled into a spiral so that direction and energy between the two parties have the chance to merge, instead of collide. This, to me, seems a critical consideration in facilitation; how do you guide without hitting head on? This is how you acknowledge, follow, then redirect.

Obama seems to have mastered this. You’ll seldom see him returning an attack without redirecting. Instead of hitting back with the same acrimony and viciousness, he draws on the force of his opponent’s attacks to get his own message through. This could be why so many Republicans and conservatives have come to his side: he doesn’t even seem to be fighting, and yet he wins. Every time.

We’re not quite there yet – I don’t see the left merging with the right just yet – but we’re on the path to it. We don’t hit head-on. Instead of smearing those who smear us, we are, by and large, diverting the energy of their attacks into something more positive. We donate to a better candidate. We canvass, make calls, speak to undecided people and allay their uncertainty. We use the lies to teach the truth, and it’s reaching all but the unreachable.

This strikes me as the way liberals need to “fight” in order to win. This is the only way we’re going to get past this insane divide between right and left, the fear, loathing and hatred the neocons have used to poison our political and cultural landscape. This is how we create something positive and lasting out of something so negative it will destroy us if it isn’t diverted.

Of course, I still practice the Way of the Smack-o-Matic. Sometimes, the most economical means of stopping the stupid in its tracks, before it can really get a good headlong rush going, is to whack it right between the eyes.

Still. Don’t be terribly surprised if you see fewer smacks and more spirals here in the future, once we’ve got opponents we can actually harmonize with.

Jujitsu Politics

Sapere Aude!

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!”–that is the motto of enlightenment.

– Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”

The Enlightenment. Those two words send a cascade of awe and delight down my spine. They set synapses to firing like chains of fireworks. Names and ideas erupt from the sparks: Newton, Spinoza and Leibniz released science and mathematics from their classical and medieval cages and advanced them by light years in a virtual instant. Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau struck through chains and risked their lives to set human minds free. Locke, Smith and Montesquieu set forth major components of political and economic philosophy that led to democracy and capitalism. Franklin, Jefferson, and Hamilton created a whole new kind of nation from scratch. Beethoven, Mozart, and Goethe elevated music and literature to heights they had never known before.

Men, and not a few women, dared to know, and changed the world.

There had been hints of an awakening for centuries. A few flames burned dimly in the Middle Ages. A few flames flared up brilliantly during the Renaissance. But the Enlightenment was a conflagration, a wildfire beside a candelabra. In less than two centuries, the scientific method arose and began advancing knowledge at an incredible pace; the foundations of democracy and liberalism were laid and thriving nations built on them; education was no longer a prerogative of the fortunate few, but a practical gift offered to a broad swath of the population. The entire Western way of thinking changed virtually beyond recognition. All of those ideas we take for granted – freedom of religion, equality, political and civil rights, and countless more – emerged because of men and women who refused to remain ignorant.

Look at the lives and work of any group of Enlightenment thinkers, and you’ll see similarities. They were desperate to know and understand. They were determined to use rational thought to overcome superstition. They believed in man’s ability to understand the world. They didn’t believe religion had all the answers, or even most. They weren’t afraid to challenge established authority; indeed, they often risked their lives to do so. They found ways to make end-runs around the censors, evaded every attempt to silence them, and believed beyond doubt that what they were doing was right, necessary, and valuable.

They argued with absolutely everyone, each other included. They accepted no limits to their curiosity. There was nowhere to them that Man was forbidden to go.

All is not lost when one puts the people in a condition to see it has intelligence. On the contrary, all is lost when you treat it like a herd of cattle, for sooner or later it will gore you with its horns.


In the salons of Paris, the coffee houses and Gresham College in London, in the dining rooms and halls of power all throughout Europe, intellect raged. Pamphlets, books, magazines, scientific papers all poured into the streets and captured the imaginations of men and women who then used those ideas to create new governments, societies, and values. Knowledge was passed into the hands of ordinary people, and those ordinary people did extraordinary things with it.

The two revolutions of the 18th century, the American and the French, get all of the attention, but neither would have been possible without the revolution in ideas that preceded them. Never before in the history of Western civilization had common people been entrusted to govern. Even Greece, that thriving original democracy, was more of an aristocracy than anything else. But the Enlightenment thinkers believed that all regular people lacked was education and the freedom to use their native intelligence. Given those things, a peasant could rise to rule. Peasants eventually did.

It wasn’t just the aristocracy and absolute monarchy that the Enlightenment thinkers overthrew. They broke the stranglehold religion had over the populace. Religion didn’t escape their scrutiny. The sacred got subjected to the same empirical analysis as the natural world, and where it was found wanting, it suffered the same scathing criticism unleashed on politics, pseudoscience, and ignorance. Some of them treated Christianity with respect and reverence, but they were in a minority. Most Enlightenment thinkers had no use for a Church that sought to keep people in ignorance and servitude, a faith that led to intolerance and claimed miracles it couldn’t prove, and religions rotten with hypocrisy.

“Let’s eat some Jesuit,” Voltaire wrote in Candide. Baron d’Holbach proselytized for atheism, churning out a flood of books and pamphlets proclaiming that there is no God, only nature, and that only a society of atheists has any hope of being truly moral. He often had to publish his books under innocuous titles to evade the censors. But other philosophes left nothing to doubt with theirs: among the books on offer was Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious. Pretty revolutionary for a world in which religion still ruled.

Other books might have seemed innocent enough until they were opened. Woolston’s Six Discourses on the Miracles of Our Savior proclaimed the Resurrection of Christ “the most notorious and monstrous Imposture, that was ever put upon mankind.” Voltaire, when completing the Philosophical Dictionary, wrote, “Theology amuses me. There we find man’s insanity in all its plenitude.” Jefferson removed all of the miracles from the Bible, a decision which Hume would have applauded.

The only sacred thing was the pursuit of knowledge. Rational thinking, empiricism, science, and intellect reigned supreme. The next world meant very little to them, if anything at all. People had to make a difference in this one. And that was exactly what they set out to do, and succeeded. They brought us the modern age.

A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to Farce, or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

-James Madison

The Enlightenment never truly ended: its results permeate every aspect of our lives. But there hasn’t been another time quite like it since. The passion for knowledge has been eclipsed. We’ve entered an age in which ignorance rather than intelligence is celebrated. As Kant said, it’s easier to be immature, to let others do the thinking. We become habituated to the yoke: we become afraid of freedom. “The guardians who have so benevolently taken over the supervision of men have carefully seen to it that the far greatest part of them (including the entire fair sex) regard taking the step to maturity as very dangerous, not to mention difficult,” Kant wrote. “Having first made their domestic livestock dumb, and having carefully made sure that these docile creatures will not take a single step without the go-cart to which they are harnessed, these guardians then show them the danger that threatens them, should they attempt to walk alone.”

He could have been describing our age.

Fundamentalist religion is attempting to rein us in. Governments want to control, not serve, the governed. This has always been the case. The powerful never relinquish power easily, and they always desire more power. It’s easier for them to take it from people made willfully powerless.

War, poverty, ignorance and despair are rising all around us.

We should be thrilled

After all, the Enlightenment grew out of a desperate age. Europe was torn by war, crushed by despotic governments, ripped apart by religious strife, and it was from this harrowing that the philosophes grew. When I look at the conditions surrounding the Enlightenment, I see clear parallels. Strife can destroy people: it can also galvanize them.

I think we’re standing on the cusp of a new Age of Enlightenment.

Bloggers are the new pamphleteers. What bloggers are saying today about politics and religion, life and learning, show the same spirit as those tracts poured from the pens of subversive thinkers who went on to redefine the foundations of the world.

Comments threads and message boards have become the new salons, where ideas are exchanged and intelligence elevated. Those discussions wouldn’t have been out of place in the most illustrious gatherings of learned people.

All we need is the passion, the commitment, and the courage those revolutionaries displayed. Nothing is beyond us. But we have to step outside of the little boxes we’ve put ourselves in. Scientists need to brush shoulders with artists. Writers need to converse with mathematicians. Political philosophers and musicians should mingle. That cross-fertilization of knowledge is what leads to world-shaking ideas, quantum leaps in human understanding.

Politeness and deference are sweet social ideas, but we can’t defer to those who would impose ignorance and superstition. Contention was the order of the day during the Enlightenment. We should never shy away from it. Conventional thinking will get us nowhere. The world is on the cusp of a crisis: we’re never going to get anything solved if we don’t break away from tradition and habit. We won’t solve a damned thing if we don’t risk capsizing the boat.

The philosophes changed the world not by force of arms, but force of mind. Their ideas, their writings, their experiments, are what changed the world irrevocably.

It can happen again. Ignorance has no power to stand against those who dare to know. And those who dare have the power to change everything.

Here and today begins a new age in the history of the world. Some day you will be able to say – I was present at its birth.”

-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Sapere Aude!

Don't Know If I Wanna Be a Philosopher Now…

I made the mistake of picking up Batman and Philosophy after a night’s enjoyable Fourth of July drinking. I thought I’d be able to wallow in happy geekdom. I wasn’t prepared for extreme annoyance.

If this is what modern philosophy has come to, I don’t wanna be a philosopher.

I’ll be deconstructing many of the chapters over the coming weeks: the endless wanks over whether Bruce Wayne should have become Batman, is there a moral justification for what he does, all that rot. There’s even a particularly rancid chapter written by a decided Christian that I shall have enormous fun stomping into a pulp – it’s about the weakest theology I’ve read in months, and I’m including Worldnutdaily’s nuttaculars. But tonight, I want to focus on Chapter Six, “The Joker’s Wild: Can We Hold the Clown Prince Morally Responsible?”

And this might have been a fine chapter if the doofus who wrote it hadn’t segued from that moral question into legal ones. A forensic psychologist he’s not.

Christopher Robichaud, who may or may not be held morally responsible for a steaming pile of dumbfuckery, attempts to prove the Joker insane with a statement that you might want to swallow your drink before reading:

One example is his attitude toward people: simply put, he often treats them as objects rather than persons. The Joker didn’t blink at shooting Barbara Gorden through her spine and stripping her bare. He wasn’t “out to get her.” He simply had made up his mind that he wanted to prove a point, and she was a useful object to help him make that point, no more or less meaningful to him than the amusement ride he later used for the same purpose. That’s a classic psychotic attitude. [emphasis added]

You non-psychologists in the audience may not have done a spit-take just there, but I surely did. If you are going to build an entire fucking argument on the fact that someone’s insane, it might behoove you to know the difference between psychotic and psychopathic.

Let’s examine some real life for a moment, shall we? Allow me to draw from my extensive reading in forensic psychology and present you with two cases that any idiot philosopher should’ve gotten acquainted with before he started spouting about the Joker’s mental state.

Richard Trenton Chase, the “Vampire Killer,” was a classic psychotic. He ran around killing folks because he fully believed he needed their blood to survive. He claimed he suffered from soap-dish poisoning: drinking blood was the only way to keep his own blood from turning to powder due to said poison. His crimes were extremely disorganized, with no planning involved: his victims were all victims of opportunity. He heard voices on top of all this. And when asked why he only killed people who’d left their doors unlocked, he calmly explained, “Because if the door was locked, I knew I wasn’t welcome.”

Ted Bundy, on the other hand, was a classic psychopath. He was motivated not by voices or paranoia, but by sex and violence. He enjoyed the power he wielded over his victims. He carefully chose said victims, and his crimes were extremely well-organized. Think of his little ruse with the fake cast, where he’d ask pretty young women of his victim type to help him carry something and then bash them unconscious with said cast when he had them vulnerable. People were objects of his pleasure, but he understood the difference between right and wrong, and he wouldn’t take unnecessary risks. He had control over his impulses to a great degree.

You could possibly argue that Bundy is suffering from a mental illness just as much as Chase, but I wouldn’t buy your argument if it takes you into the “he’s not responsible” spiel. A person who has as much control over his urges as Bundy did is morally as well as legally responsible for his actions. A psychopath may be suffering from a mental defect, but it’s one that allows them to make decisions about their behavior, and leaves them the capacity to know the difference between right and wrong. We’ll return to this in a moment.

To get back to the Joker, I think we have something of a mixed offender: someone who has a few of the traits of a psychotic, but who has a strong psychopathic streak and can control his impulses. He shows the ability to plan ahead. He’s not operating under the control of voices that urge him on to his terrible acts. He knows and understands the difference between right and wrong, he just doesn’t give a shit. So, while a few of his more outre crimes could get him labeled a psychotic, the preponderance of the evidence leads us to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that he’s actually a psychopath, with all of the responsibility that brings.

So that’s a huge black eye for Philosopher Robichaud. It puts his entire argument into doubt. If he doesn’t even know what an insane person actually is, how the hell are we supposed to trust the rest of his argument? His house has no foundation. No good can come of this.

It does not. He segues into a truly silly section hair-splitting over free will, which is apparently something philosophers feel the need to do (I can destroy that argument by saying that if the Joker has no free will, but commits his crimes due to some sort of predestination, then we’re predestined to hold the fucker responsible, so what’s the problem?). We’ll skip that.

We won’t quote the crap about first and second-order desires, but merely summarize. What our intrepid philosopher decides is that an addict is morally responsible for the actions they engage in due to the addiction, because they were aware of the dangers when they took their first hit. He then strikes out for virgin territory, saying that when the Joker made the decision to go into the crime business as the Red Hood, he couldn’t possibly have forseen the accident that would turn him into the Joker and thus led to his homicidal mania. He is, ergo, not morally responsible for his actions due to this remarkable piece of reasoning.

I call bullshit on that one. The author in no way proves that the Joker is actually insane to begin with, that he has no ability to contemplate his desires and resist impulses. I seem to recall many instances in the various Batman books I’ve read wherein the Joker does contemplate his desires, and does appreciate the difference between right and wrong, and moreover sometimes decides not to indulge his first impulse. I suppose I should go through my lexicon and pull out examples, but I’ll leave that for the geeks in the audience.

The Joker may do things we’d consider insane, and he may have impulse control problems, but without being genuinely psychotic, there’s no fucking way he can evade moral responsibility for his crimes.

Robichaud comes to the opposite conclusion, and this is where I become very grateful that philosophers such as him aren’t in charge of determining criminal law and punishment:

For given the Joker’s insanity, there remain important questions surrounding what obligations Batman and the city of Gotham have toward the Joker. And there are no easy moral answers to the question of how to deal with a genuinely insane person who performs the most vile
of deeds. Pity him? Hate him? Ins
itutionalize him? Let him die, if the opportunity arises?

Oh, come on. Nothing about this is difficult. The moral answer is astoundingly simple: get the bugger off the streets, and lock him away for the duration of his natural life. If you’re feeling all bleeding-heart, stuff him into an institution that, unlike Arkham, is not equipped with a revolving door. Feed him three squares a day. Give him a TV. Treat him with a modicum of kindness and decency, but above all, keep him from killing hundreds if not thousands of innocent people.

You can hate or pity him all you like once he’s locked up, all right?

This is why, in legal terms, the definition of insanity is so strict. And before we leave the whole subject, I want to go into that a bit, because it’s the most glaring omission in the whole essay.

We turn now to FindLaw for the most important piece of modern legal considerations of criminal insanity: the substantial capacity test:

a test used in many jurisdictions when considering an insanity defense which relieves a defendant of criminal responsibility if at the time of the crime as a result of mental disease or defect the defendant lacked the capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of his or her conduct or to conform the conduct to the requirements of the law

In practice, this generally means you’re fucked. The Joker certainly would be. You see, he does have the capacity to appeciate the wrongfulness of his acts, and he is able to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law. It doesn’t matter that his impulses are nearly irresistable: the fact that he can sometimes resist them pretty much destroys his insanity defense.

We used to have much less strict rules. For a while, America was in bed with the M’Naughten Rules and the irresistable impulse test. Kinky, eh?

The M’Naghten Rules (1843) 10 C & F 200, state, inter alia, that a person may be “insane” if “…at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was laboring under such a defect of reason, arising from a disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing, or, if he did know it, that he did not know what he was doing was wrong.”


There is also an idea of irresistible impulse, which argues that a person may have known an act was illegal but due to mental impairment lost control of their actions. This is a more liberal test than that set by the M’Naghten Rules because it applies to defendants who are fully aware of their actions. The defense was first approved in the U.S. in Ohio in 1834[10] and emphasized the inability to control one’s actions. Since then it has been adopted by other States, but is open to criticism since there is no way to identify impulses which could be resisted or controlled, and each case must therefore turn upon its own facts.

This proved to be a clusterfuck for the courts, and bad policy for society. After all, if a person is fully aware of their actions but claims to be unable to resist their impulses, it’s easy to claim insanity. A lot of evil buggers were able to game the system. It wouldn’t have been much of a problem if there weren’t so many psychologists shouting “Cured!” at the drop of a hat. I refer you to the cases of Edmund Kemper and Monte Rissell to see how well that goes. These are, after all, gents who were murdering women while their shrinks were saying they were doing just fine.

A society that can’t cure the mental defects that lead some people to murder can’t morally allow the insane to walk the streets just because insanity means they had no control over themselves. And if the psychiatric institutions aren’t equipped to deal with the criminally insane, society has to buck up and bung the dangerous sorts into a prison cell.

So what are we left with, here? Two things: whether or not the impulse is honestly irresistible, you’re morally responsible for your actions if you have the capacity to understand that what you’re doing is wrong, which the Joker clearly has. There’s an enormous gulf between not knowing that what you’re doing is wrong because you’re too psychotic to contemplate it, and being so psychopathic that you enjoy causing others to suffer and don’t give a shit that what you’re doing is wrong. Only a philosopher can conclude that those in the second category can’t be held morally responsible for the suffering they cause.

The second thing is, society has a moral obligation to contain what it cannot cure when it comes to homicidal violence. Only a complete and utter fuckwit could possibly conclude otherwise.

Of course, I’m just a cantina philosopher, so what the fuck do I know?

Don't Know If I Wanna Be a Philosopher Now…

The Mind of Mencius

I’m going to turn away from pollyticks, fundies, and general inanity for a bit. I’m in a mellow mood this morning, what with the first-ever Carnival of the Elitist Bastards going off with no worse hitch than Sitemeter going down on the same day we launched. Heh. We killed Sitemeter. We rule.

I’d like to take this opportunity to wax philosophical for a bit. Specifically, Chinese philosophy.

One of the things I love the most about writing is the fact that it forces me to step outside of my comfort zones. It doesn’t have to. I know many an author who has achieved fame and fortune by staying firmly within Western culture for their ideas. While there’s nothing wrong with that, I realized early on that my world couldn’t be just another bunch of civilizations modeled on Western ideas. My universe demanded more, my wishes be damned. Something was missing. Something wasn’t right. It’s hard to explain that sense to a non-writer, but a writer can feel what a story wants. To many of us, they’re entities with a will of their own. And this entity was telling me, “Fuck you and your wretched Western civilization. This is different. Get cracking on the research.”

I can’t even begin to tell you how those demands have changed my life. Just about everything I never cared to know about, I care about and love now. Chinese philosophy is a case in point.

Way back when, I knew just enough about Confucius to think I knew I hated him. I was a Romantic. Those were the ideas I was drawn to – emotion, a mystical sense of the world, nature, culture not inherited but created, blah blah blah. I couldn’t stand all of the stupid, empty rituals of society, laughed at social norms, and so when somebody told me Confucius was all about order, social norms, law, ritual, and all that rot, I decided without reading him that I hated him. When I took Eastern Philosophy in college, I still hated him. He seemed so stifling. He seemed so stuffy. And then there was Mencius – somebody told me he had actually expanded on those ideas, which meant he was even worse. Oh, fuck, no. Fuck them both. I took to the Taoists like a fundie to creationism, and I never looked back.


Much later.

I was researching Eastern political systems to try to get some idea of what Xtalean government looked like, and I kept running into this Confucius guy. Confucius this, Confucius that, every damned thing was based on Confucius. Nothing for it, then. I’d have to read him. And, gag, Mencius as well, since he was also an important bugger.

I have a confession to make: I fucking adore Confucius now. I read the Analects. I loved the Analects. Confucius had been portrayed to me as some sort of empty-ritual adherent, but he’s not that at all. He’d actually thought about these matters very deeply. He talked about things like human-heartedness and ideal man. His ritual propriety stuff – that wasn’t religious, and it wasn’t blind dogma, it actually made sense in the context. Old Master Kung and I are on very good terms indeed. He and Taoism actually do go together like oil and vinegar: they compliment each other beautifully.


We’re not here to talk about Kung Fu Tzu – or Confucius, if you prefer the Westernized version. No. We’re actually here to talk about Mencius, who blows Old Master Kung right out of the water.

Meng Tzu, you see, was an effing genius.

I’m reading his book right now, and I’m telling you, it puts the Analects to shame. Now, you have to have the Analects, because otherwise nothing Meng Tzu says makes sense: Old Master Kung built the edifice, and Master Meng came along later to decorate the place.

I’m just over a hundred pages in, and so far, I’ve discovered some very interesting things. For one thing, many major ideas of the American Revolution could have been taken right out of the pages of Mencius.

I shit you not.

We’re talking revolutionary ideas from the third century B.C.

Americans think they were the first to really perfect the notion of throwing out useless rulers, but it’s old hat to Meng Tzu:

Mencius said to Emperor Hsuan of Ch’i: “Suppose one of your ministers entrusts his family to the care of a friend and then leaves on a journey to Ch’u. When he returns, he finds that the friend abandoned his family to hunger and cold. What should be done?”

“End the friendship,” replied the emperor.

“And if a chief judge can’t govern his court – what should be done?”

“Turn him out,” pronounced the emperor.

“And if someone can’t govern this land stretching out to the four borderlands – what then?”

The emperor suddenly turned to his attendants and spoke of other things.

You bet he did. He knew that what Meng Tzu was saying was, “If you’re a total fuck-up, the people have every right to show you the door.”

Meng Tzu talks often and at length of a ruler’s duty to the people. “To guide the sovereign is to love the sovereign,” he says in one exchange. It isn’t rule by the people, for the people just yet, but it’s certainly the usual fare in an authoritarian society. There’s a lot of talk about sharing your pleasures with the people and sharing in their pleasures; of the ruler’s duty to make sure his people are fed, happy and safe; of setting a good example they’re willing to follow. And under it all, there’s that implied warning: if a ruler fails his people, they’ll be doing the right thing if they throw his sorry ass off the throne.

Let us to now to some of those “exclusive” claims on morality. You know, the ones you can only find in the Bible. Let me tell you something: if the Bible was written by God, God was a shameless plagarist. And He stole a lot of His material from the Chinese.

Take, for instance, Galatians 6:7, which reads in part, “whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” What you do comes back on you, right? Idea unique to the Bible, ne c’est pas? You know what I’m about to say here, of course: not so much.

Let’s see what Meng Tzu says, quoting Master Tseng, an old disciple of Kung Fu Tzu: “Beware! Beware! Whatever you give out is given back.”

Has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it? And let’s not forget God (through His son) lifted The Golden Rule nearly verbatum from Old Master Kung, who said, “Do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you.”

It’s interesting, the context in which Meng Tzu’s “reap what you sow” quote came up: a duke of Chou was complaining about how his soldiers had let a passel of his officers be killed in battle. Not only that, not even one of the lazy buggers bothered to die. “There are too many to punish,” the duke says. “But if I don’t punish them, I’ll be condoning what they did: watching their leaders die without lifting a finger to help. What can I do?”

Meng Tzu, instead of advising him how to punish those filthy traitors, proceeds to rip the duke a new one over his poor handling of government, reminding him that h
e let his people
starve in times of famine rather than share out food from his overstuffed grainaries. He then quotes Master Tseng, and then says, “It was only now that the people had a chance to give back what you’d given them. You musn’t blame them. If you governed with Humanity, the people would love your officers and die willingly to protect them.”

Shorter Meng Tzu: “It’s your own damned fault, you greedy bastard.”

So you can see why Master Meng and I are getting on quite well. He’s clever, can make a phrase turn on a dime, and is always ready with the inconvenient question. Much of Chinese and Japanese philosophy is like this: anecdotes, succinct sayings that contain a universe of meaning, and some damned fine ideas on how the world should be.

If you’d like to make Master Meng’s acquaintence, I’d suggest reading the Analects first, and then pick up David Hinton’s translation of Mencius. Then you can tell me if you get the same impression I do: that Meng Tzu wouldn’t have been ruffled by Liu Ling’s lack of pants.

The Mind of Mencius