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A veteran journalist's take on such diverse subjects as religion and religious violence, democracy, freedom of expression, sociology, journalism, criticism, travel, philosophy, Southeast Asia, politics,economics, and even parenthood, the supernatural, film criticism, and cooking. Please don't hesitate to participate by starting a comment thread if you have an interest in any of these subjects...or anything else, for that matter... p.write@gmail.com

More musings

Utterly pointless thoughts
Pagun

VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – The previous post’s brief mention, at the end of the piece, of the notion of infinity, led me to think about the concept and the notion of time itself. Therefore, what follows is some pretty amateur speculation on the subject and if you’re an expert, or it doesn’t interest you, or you have your own firm grasp on the subject, please stop here. Go to the previous post, perhaps. It’s interesting, plus if you look for it, you’ll find a picture of my dick. In context, of course, and not just for gratuitous exhibitionism.infinity

Infinity, or if you are of a religious bent; eternity. If you’ve ever been subjected to a Catholic education you have probably been exposed to most of the metaphors. The metaphors are intended, of course, for children and do nothing at all to convey the idea of actual infinity to our finite minds; they just instil a sense of a very, very long time. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about; if a tiny bird flies by a mountain every hundred years and brushes a wing against it, by the time the mountain has been worn completely away, infinity is just getting started. Of course these metaphors are generally employed to convey a sense of how long you will undergo the tortures of hell if you succumb to the urge to touch your own genitals; I don’t think I’ve ever heard them used to describe the eternal bliss of heaven.

But maybe we’re not talking about an infinite time, an eternity. The universe had a beginning…the Big Bang…and is still expanding from that. Moreover the general scientific consensus is that as the universe reaches a point of maximum expansion, it will reverse itself and start to shrink again, resulting in what they like to call the Big Crunch. Presumably that will be the end of time. Who knows? (If so, those poor bastards who traded their lives and others’ for an eternity of lounging about with a flagon of wine and an indefinite number of nubile virgins will either be pretty pissed off at being short-changed, or, more likely, mightily relieved at having come to an end of the monotony).

Of course the obvious answer to the Big Crunch signifying the end of time would be that since conditions are now the same as those that prevailed at the Big Bang, the cycle would repeat itself. There you go. Infinity. At least infinite time or eternity.

Now the physical universe is in constant flux; there is always movement, with atoms and molecules bouncing around and chemical reactions occurring constantly. Infinity, therefore, as I mentioned in the last essay, can then be defined as that period of time in which anything that can happen does happen. In fact, it will happen an infinite number of times. And since infinity, by definition, has no beginning or end, everything possible has happened an infinite number of times, and will again.

MangoesThat means that there has been a previous existence that was exactly like this one, except that in a market in Shanghai, there was a mango with a slightly larger brown spot on the tail end. There has occurred another universe in which you were reading this post on a computer screen but the walls of the room you were in were slightly paler. One universe was identical in every particular except for a single grain of sand on a beach in Madagascar having a slightly different orientation to all the other grains of sand. You get the idea.

But just as those infinitesimally small differences actually form an entirely different universe, other manifestations throughout infinity of the universe would necessarily involve much larger differences. In some versions, our galaxy would never have coalesced, the earth wouldn’t have formed and life would never have evolved. In yet another, Earth would have formed, but the meteor or meteors that spelled the extinction of the dinosaurs would have missed, and they continued to thrive, perhaps evolving intelligence and populating the planet with a race of intelligent reptiles, a sort of Rupert Murdoch Planet. Any configuration rupertor possibility that is within the laws of physical possibility would have occurred and will occur again, an infinite number of times.

Einstein-But one thing we have learned about time is that it is not linear in the sense that we experience it. That was demonstrated by Einstein when he proposed the relativity of time. This suggests that there is every possibility that the different universes are not sequential, but rather, parallel. This is a little more satisfying because, with an infinite number of sequential universes, it would seem to make sense that in at least one of them there would exist a me who remembers all of his other existences. I don’t. If they run parallel, it’s easier to accept that I don’t remember something contemporaneous in another, presumably inaccessible universe.

Once one starts to put any kind of thought into this kind of cosmology and then expand one’s thinking to include the infinite or bounded nature of space, and then, further, recognises that making that kind of distinction is fatuous and inaccurate to begin with, since space and time are different aspects of the same thing: spacetime, it becomes increasingly clear why human beings have created gods and mythologies to explain the inexplicable.

How much easier it is to postulate a super-being at the pleasure of whom the entire system runs and which can be shut off in a moment of caprice. How much easier it is to justify morality, if one also postulates that the super-being also created and imposed a code of explicit morals – inconsistent, self-contradictory, unethical, silly, irrelevant, misogynist, racist, pointless, xenophobic – but nevertheless inflexible.

angrybirdThere is obviously a great deal more to speculate upon once this can of worms has been opened, and I will if the feedback I receive suggests that my readers are interested. For now, however, JJ (my four-year-old) wants me to play Angry Birds with him. And, as I like smashing stuff by hurling birds as much as the next guy, I’m going. Besides…it’s become clear to me that I have a very limited time with my son and I do NOT intend to waste any of it!

Meditating

The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully. (Samuel Johnson).

PAGUN

Content Warning

VANCOUVER ISLAND CANADA – All the indications are that my cancer surgery wasn’t successful. In the first place, there was more of it: the tumour wasn’t confined to the prostate itself; the seminal vesicles which (used to) be behind it were cancerous as well, as was some of the surrounding tissue. My doctor, who is young –almost Doogie Howser young – except VERY highly thought of and extremely good, and far better looking, did what he could. He took everything out that might be compromised or even at threat.

In a perfect world that would have resulted in my next PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) blood test showing a value of zero as there ought to be nothing the produce that particular antigen.thinker

Three months after the surgery (and 2 months after the sacred day of my catheter removal) such, unfortunately was not to be to the case. My blood test showed a PSA level of .15 Two days later it was at .16. Worrisome, but .2 is considered a definitive diagnosis of recurrence.

One month later my PSA tested out at .31

Cancer. Or as the sanitary language of medical euphemisms would have it….BCR. Biochemical Recurrence.

So if I’m going to have any chance of living long enough to see my wife graduate from culinary school (where she is at the top of her class) or my four year-old graduate from elementary school, I’ve got to figure out some way that I can undergo a minimum of six weeks of radiotherapy in another city. And then survive the chemotherapy I might have to do for the rest of my earthly days. Thank goodness for the focus that immanent death brings or the logistics would be impossible to manage.

But as the logistics of treatment have to be among the least interesting subjects I could imagine…this post will be more of a meditation on life and death.

It probably doesn’t mean very much to most people, but the very fact that you were even born is probably the most astonishing coincidence you are even capable of imagining. Here’s what I mean.

Your dadLet’s face it. Your Dad whacked off. If he’s around to own up to it, he might even admit that he did it a lot. But the fact that your father was around to whack off during the last few decades of all the decades of human occupation of this planet by beings with the human genome is flat out amazing. Now his whacking off isn’t amazing; it’s anything but. But think for a moment how many spermatozoa that particular male in that particular generation wasted; on his palm, the ceiling, sheets, socks, watermelons, or beloved pets. Trillions would Human_semen_in_handsbe a conservative estimate. YOU could have been any one of those. But you weren’t…you were the lucky one. And it gets even more unlikely that you won the sweepstakes. Somehow he met your mother…the possessor of the rest of the genetic material that will ultimately define you.

Then came all the social miracles that led to them having sex in a manner that permitted conception; whether it was rape, consensual, a prophylactic failure or anything beyond wishful thinking, somehow millions and millions of spermatozoa found themselves in your mother’s vagina heading for that month’s egg in a greatly expanded but microscopic scene from It’s a Mad. itsamadworld-completeMad, Mad, Mad World. And one of those obsessed fortune hunters, Phil Silvers or Mickey Rooney perhaps; maybe Buddy Hackett, got there first and breached the citadel, slamming the door after him.

And then came nine months of sheer luck. Most pregnancies are not even noticed and end spontaneously, many are aborted or end in miscarriage; yours was one of the unimaginably unlikely few that ended in a birth. You defied all the odds and made it to that wretched state we call “life”.

Like ‘em or loath ‘em, you’ve got to look in awe at your fellow humans (and yourself) with something akin to awe just for being here. They can be stupid, venal, brutal, tiresome, or mohandas_gandhivicsecretthey can be Albert Schweitzer rolled up in Ghandi and Einstein with the sexual appeal of a collage of Victoria Secret models crossbred with Rita Hayworth, and their individual characteristics would be only microscopically more amazing than the simple fact of their sheer existence. That’s life.

And then there’s death.

death

That, we don’t know shit about; except that in a few unsubstantiated cases, once the threshold’s been crossed, there ain’t no comin’ back. Hamlet was wrong in the first part of his big soliloquy: “To be or not to be?” Really short term thinking, for the Great Dane. NOT to be is where we’ll all end up. He had it right, though, when later he referred to “The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn no traveller returns”. And we are all travellers with a one way ticket to that bourn.

twain censorship

THIS IMAGE WAS SPECIFICALLY CHOSEN FOR ALL OF YOU WHO GOT UPSET AT THE PICTURE OF MY DICK

Mark Twain occasionally spoke of death. (There was very little he didn’t occasionally speak of. More than writing, that’s what he did for a living.) Although his correction of mistaken news reports of his death (actually, it was his brother who was very ill, but alive in London at the time) he is often misquoted. What he actually wrote: ‘The report of my death was an exaggeration’ was every bit as witty. He was somewhat more philosophical but no less witty when he also said “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

Twain was making an implicitly atheistic observation. The one quip dismissed the nonsense of the promised Christian afterlife, either the glory and eternal boredom of sitting at the right hand of god, the greatest underachiever and mass murderer the universe has ever spawned, or the sick theories concerning the conditions of eternal damnation. And speaking as one who can’t lower (despite years of trying) his intellectual standards to accept one jot, let alone a tittle, of the religious dogma force-fed to him by a succession of nuns, priests, and other bullies, anything resembling an afterlife holds no fear whatsoever…for much the same reason as expressed by Mark Twain.

That, of course says nothing about the other religions and their versions of the afterlife; but that means nothing either. Not one of their “theories” has the slightest evidence to support its contentions and there is no reason whatsoever for accepting their bald statements as anything more than delusion and wishful thinking. No, the truth is, the truth has to be that death is exactly like the other billions upon billions of years we spent NOT being alive. Oblivion. Nada. Niente. Rien. Kosong. And that is not to be feared.

For me, death, especially if it comes soon, is to be regretted. I have a four your old boy I love to distraction, and oblivion will rob me of the opportunity to see him grow; to graduate from school; to have his first girl or boyfriend; to marry and have a family and be successful. Moreover it will rob him of a father; a father’s support and guidance and love. I won’t be aware of this while its happening, of course, but as I shuffle off this mortal coil, you can be sure that it is those thoughts that will be the source of any tears I shed.

But before I leave this meditation having definitively concluded that oblivion, blessed nothingness, is the inevitable end of life, I should point out where my doubts lie. I have had a classic “near death experience”.

On a canoe trip, when I was about fourteen years old, I was turned over and caught in some rather treacherous rapids. Being a strong swimmer, I was at no time afraid. I even recall enjoying the underwater ride, looking through the surface and at the dim and filtered sunlight above as I followed the river at breakneck speed. Eventually I felt myself in need of a breath and calmly turned and swam steadily toward the surface. A little surprised, but not frightened to find that my efforts to climb to the surface produced absolutely no upward progression, I redoubled my efforts. Still nothing. I recall making one effort after another and continuing to find myself pulled inexorably downstream, several feet below the river’s surface. Oddly, I felt no fear at any time. Nevertheless, there came a definitive moment. I realised all at once that I was not going to survive. I knew, I knew with certainty that reaching the surface and life was no longer possible. With a more profound conviction than normal life is capable of providing, I knew and accepted that my life as I knew it was over. And I was right.

It was at the moment of acceptance of what appeared to be inevitable, that life as I knew it ended and I began my short-lived journey into another realm. I experienced all the characteristics of a near death experience; I left my body and could see my former shell sweeping downstream, I began to dissociate from common reality; I felt my second or astral body hurtling upwards; I saw the intense light and was just about to enter it. But this is the important aspect: it was the most joyful, peaceful, total happiness I can even imagine. The bliss included an absolute sense of certainty and anticipation of what was to come and that what was to come was good, positive beyond any possibility of description. Thus when my (physical) feet hit a rock and I stood up and inhaled earth’s atmosphere my first reaction was: “SHIT!” For several moments I experienced a wrenching, profound sense of unbearable loss. Friends tell me they held me up but had the sense that I was actually trying to dive back into the river. Then the fear hit. I realised how close I had come to dying and suffered the usual shock; in a few hours I was back to normal. But that other realm never left me…it’s still there and it’s always with me.light

I have experienced that precise sense of otherworldliness, certainty, joy, and anticipation at other times at a somewhat more diluted level; this has almost always been under the influence of hallucinogens. Part of me insists that there’s something to this, and that there is a realm beyond this one, and that realm is characterised by spiritual beauty and joy.

BUT

That is anecdotal evidence. Others have experienced it and described it similarly. Still anecdotal. I have unquestionably experienced it and I can testify to it. Still anecdotal.

So let me leave this meditation at this….I will die. So will you. But I see my inevitable death as a rest, a dreamless sleep in which nothing happens. It is not specifically a good thing unless it relieves suffering. But it cannot be described as bad for the person who is dead.

On the other hand, there is the off chance that the anecdotal evidence is accurate (and I lean toward my anecdotal experience rather than that of others, only because I trust my memory of the experience more than other’s memories and then their descriptions). In which case: JACKPOT! Off chance, but who knows? Either way….no harm.

But before I go, let me offer the following: If there is such a thing as infinity, and we can expect to confront infinity when we die, let us remember that a working definition of infinity is “that amount of time during which everything that can possibly happen will happen”.

That means that in what will seem like the blink of an eye, you will be born as Casanova, Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe, or Mick Jagger. It’s just a question of a near infinite number of atoms randomly achieving that configuration. And in an infinite span of time that’s inevitably going to happen. With my luck I’ll be born as Stuart Sutcliffe.

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Morality, politics, and fuzzy thinking

Left is left and right is right,
but when the twain DO meet…

Pagun
VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – While the left/right model of socio-political analysis is somewhat deceptive in its over-simplicity, it remains a generally useful shorthand for describing the political landscape in very broad strokes. Nevertheless, it would perhaps be more useful to look at the left/right continuum as existing on a crescent as opposed to a straight, flat line, with the extreme ends of the continuum curving downwards and toward one another until they meet. The extreme left – Soviet-style communism, therefore becomes very similar to the extreme right – Nazi-style fascism. So just as the radical fringes of both ends of the continuum become increasingly similar in their determination to control the lives of citizens, the political posture at which the left and right remain the most distinct is at their moderate positions. On a crescent-shaped model, the moderate position of either side is where the left and right are at their greatest distance; at both the centre and the extreme ends, the positions tend to approach one another. When they meet and form a circle, the political zeitgeist is totalitarianism, and left and right becomes a distinction without a difference.

Fortunately, neither the radical left nor the reactionary right, except for a few genuine sociopaths, advocates for the logical extreme of either side. Although the spectrum is more realistically plotted on a crescent than a straight line, the points don’t touch and the two remain distinct.

As the conservatives in North America become more emboldened, they move steadily further to the right and embrace more and more extreme views. In the news and in the media generally, including the blogosphere and social media, the rhetoric, at least, has become so extreme that for most people to compromise and seek some middle ground would necessarily require them to assume a position that, even twenty years ago, would have been seen as borderline fascist.

Looking to the south, we see Barack Obama routinely accused of being a communist by the more vocal right wing; that he is a socialist has become common wisdom to such an extent that the Democratic Party has given up denying the accusation. The truth of the matter is that, had definitions of left and right not shifted so radically, Obama would be seen as a centre-right politician. The centre has moved so far to the right that even right-leaning moderates are now considered by conservative true believers to be unacceptably liberal. The very word “moderate” has, to the new conservatives, become a dismissive epithet.

conservative compassionAs the extremism of the right becomes more manifest, it becomes apparent that the parallel disciplines of moral/ethical philosophy and political science begin to overlap. As the favourite meme of the right – that right wing solutions are hard-headed, unemotional, practical ones – is put into play, the need for a moral analysis of those solutions becomes imperative. It becomes imperative because one of the salient characteristics of the doctrine of the right is that decisions ought to be made in practical, unsentimental ways; that is, morality ought to be left out of the equation and pragmatism is the appropriate paradigm for making political judgments. The view from the conservative standpoint suggests that, when making political choices, the truly rational person eschews the softer, sentimental impulses and opts instead to act upon purely practical, bottom line-oriented thinking.

This, of course, highlights the very reason some of us remain committed liberals. For the right, property values are paramount, whereas for the left, human values are where we prefer to focus.

The pursuit, acquisition, and retention of profit is the benchmark by which conservatives measure values, whereas for the informed liberal, that benchmark only has utility insofar as profit motiveit can act as a measurement of human wellbeing. At its most fundamental level, the contrast between economic conservatives and economic liberals is the difference between property rights and human rights. The problem is that these different paradigms don’t merely represent alternative priorities, hierarchies that are open to examination and discussion. For the new conservative, the benchmark represented by the core value – money – is so fundamental that trying to examine its validity is like trying to understand quantum physics explained in a foreign language.

Both liberals and conservatives, however, seem to forget that there is nothing inherently more emotional or impractical about making political and social calculations with human values rather than property values as the benchmark. It is only a matter of choosing whichprofit motive ii we, as a society, ought to be striving for; the thinking and reasoning processes are the same. In fact, the zealous inclination to protect and preserve the profits of an individual or corporation is every bit as emotional an impulse as, say, the equally fervent desire to provide a minimum standard of living for the poor. And yet the former is regarded as practical, rational, clear thinking, while the latter is seen as fuzzy, sentimental, and impractical.

It takes only a minor shift in perspective to realise that one can be practical, pragmatic, and hard-headed and yet focus on human values like poverty alleviation, minimum standards of living, universal health care, environmental protection, combatting climate change, access to education, and world peace. In fact, for many people it doesn’t take any shift all; a significant portion of society is employed in occupations that apply practical, pragmatic approaches and thinking to precisely those areas. Nevertheless, in popular discussion, the territory of rational, practical thinking has been ceded to those who advocate for property rights, even by those who advocate just as passionately for human rights.

And this is where moral philosophy comes in. Both sides seem to acknowledge that practical, pragmatic thinking is better or more desirable, at least when seeking to achieve goals; on that issue there is little disagreement. It seems that the crux of the disagreement is the question of just what those goals ought to be. The question of what human goals ought to be is one of the central questions of all moral philosophy, just as how to achieve those goals morally is a central question of all ethical philosophy.

COMPASSION-ACTION-HEADER

Without getting too deep into the weeds of moral philosophy, it is fair to say that most, and all serious, codes of moral human behaviour, from the religious to the secular doctrines, take the view that those actions that enhance the wellbeing of sentient creatures are inherently moral, and those which diminish that wellbeing are not. And that application of Occam’s razor allows us to offer the following proposition: A left wing political posture is inherently more moral than a right wing stance.

In virtually every instance where a choice must be made between profit and human wellbeing, the conservative choice will be in favour of profit. One need only follow any discussion of an environmentally threatening but profit-generating project. Just as a single example, in an instance where a pipeline that will, on the one hand, displace human beings and degrade the environment, further threaten endangered species, put people and their environment at risk of devastation in the event of an accident, but, on the other hand, will create profits for a corporation, the conservative will invariably argue vigorously for the latter course.

One need only listen to the passion and vehemence in those pro-profit arguments and consider the ad hominem epithets employed – tree-huggers, welfare bums, sheeple – to recognise that there is as much fuzzy, emotional, ideological thinking on the arguments from the right as we are accustomed to hear of in accusations routinely hurled at the left. There is very little clear, dispassionate, unemotional reasoning in those defenses of the conservative’s ultimate value. Nevertheless, even if the arguments were to be rational and devoid of logical fallacies, the position held, insofar as it assumes corporate profits to be a higher value than human wellbeing, would still be wrong. Within those parameters it is easy to see that the position of the conservative is a morally wrong one.

Given the forgoing, what is needed in the left/right debate is an acknowledgment on the part of the right that their arguments are not morally neutral or even capable of being made while dismissing morality as irrelevant. To argue for their fundamental underlying principle of profits over people is not to argue amorally; it is, quite frankly, immoral. The right cannot argue rationally that their views are more rational or that their reasoning is less emotion-laden; or they can, but it’s demonstrably not true. They can only argue that their fundamental values are different from those of the left. And every reasonable moral system in the history of human life on this planet agrees that their values are fundamentally morally inferior to those of the left.

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