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I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Universe is out to ‘Get Me’.

Prompted by a recent discussion with Q on this Blog about a Godless Universe I thought that I would muse for a bit on that feeling we have probably all experienced – that the Universe is out to ‘Get Us’.

But think about it for a second (or maybe two). Just how reasonable is that statement?

Try this experiment the next time you’re out and about on your daily travels. If you see a rock laying on the ground go pick it up (if you can) and look at it for a moment (or two). Now think about this: Does the rock have any benevolent feelings toward you or is it malevolent? By now you should be feeling quite silly – standing there in a public place wondering at the intentions of a rock toward you. But you should also see the point that I’m trying to make (I hope).

The rock, clearly, has no intentions either good or bad toward you. It’s a rock. Rocks don’t have feelings or intentions only living creatures have those. Now think a bit wider. Is the Universe benevolent or malevolent? Is that question substantially different from the rock question? The entire Universe is basically a collection of big rocks orbiting stars scattered through an enormous area of space. The Universe isn’t alive (though it obviously has life contained within it) so how can it have any intentions towards you – and just think of the amount of hubris needed to consider whether the entire Universe actually cares about your well being one way or another.

Take it back down to a smaller scale. Is the Earth benevolent or malevolent? Well, parts of it are pretty nice but other parts are too cold, too hot, too dry and so on. Does the rock, the Earth or the entire Universe care one way or another about your well being? The answer is no. They don’t because they are incapable of caring. They are dead objects. They have no intentions either way. They are all indifferent to you (and me too actually). They are neither benevolent nor are they malevolent.

So next time you think that the Universe is out to ‘Get You’ pause for a thought and look around for a rock to question.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Is The Meaning of Life 42?

It’s one of THE big questions – and maybe even THE question:

What is the Meaning of Life?

How many times have we heard that question? How many times have we all asked it, and pondered the possible answer?

Well, I must apologise up front and tell you something – I’m not going to answer that question here today. Sorry. I know for a moment there you might have thought that I’d come across the answer to Life, The Universe and Everything (maybe during a particularly random Google search) but no I haven’t…. at least not yet.

What I want to think about here is not the possible range of answers (at least not right away) but the question itself: What is the Meaning of Life?

OK? All thought about it for a few moments…? Did you spot, maybe for a brief moment, the ‘other’ question hiding in the shadows? This other question is often overlooked despite the fact that it’s actually bigger than the original question. It’s this:

Is there a Meaning to Life?

Do you see what I’m getting at? Asking what the Meaning of Life is… begs the question about the existence of any meaning. Without a ‘Meaning’ we obviously can’t ponder on what that meaning is. So then – Is there a Meaning to Life?

It’s a very good question and one I think we shouldn’t shy away from. After all if there isn’t any meaning to life we can really cut back on the time and energy being devoted to finding it. Just think of all of that extra brain space we can devote to something other than meaning seeking? People do seem to spend quite a bit of time/energy looking for meaning. After all look at the alternative – a drab meaningless life. What fun is that? (BTW – have you noticed how a meaningless life is always characterised as ‘drab’? As if you can’t have a colourful meaningless life. I mean, what’s all THAT about).

Generally speaking there seem to be several alternatives to the Meaning issue. For example:

You can assume that there IS a Meaning and spend the rest of your time searching for it - though this is often hard on a career and family commitments.

You can assume there IS a meaning and pick up one ready made from your local ‘Meaning’ market. These Ready Made Meaning (RMM) packages come in different flavours – Religions, Philosophies and Political Ideologies. You basically pick the one that suits you best. Once fully absorbed these RMM’s can reduce a great deal of stress and make some people very happy indeed.

You can of course assume that there is NO inherent Meaning to Life – and decide to create one to wile away the time. This might be viewed by those with an RMM as a dangerous (and pointless) thing to do. After all, why go to the trouble of creating your own meaning if nice shiny RMM’s already exist?

You can see the problem here. Too much choice. Firstly you have to decide if you believe that there IS a Meaning to Life, then you need to choose what to do about it. This is far from simple. For instance, how exactly do you decide if there is a Meaning of Life or not? That alone could take a lifetime. Then, once you’ve made that decision, you need to make a choice of the available options. Again, that’s not a particularly easy thing to do. What if you make the ‘wrong’ choice & spend decades believing one thing only to find out that you were wrong the whole time? What if you initially decided to go off & look for a meaning only to discover, too late, that there isn’t one and that you could’ve had a life time of partying instead? Bummer.

Of course if you chose a RMM and it turns out that there actually isn’t a ‘real’ Meaning of Life you haven’t really done that badly – Ok, you might have missed out on a bit of partying but look at what you gained in the process: Peace of Mind and maybe a slice of Happiness. That’s not a bad deal when you think about it. Maybe this is why RMM’s are so popular. It looks like I haven’t actually answered either question – but then I doubt if you thought that I would. I mean, if I REALLY knew the Meaning of Life I’d write a Best Seller. However, I hope that I’ve raised a few interesting questions for you to ponder and maybe the next time someone asks you about the Meaning of Life challenge their assumption that there IS one – and see where it leads.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Born of a Virgin?

"The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." Thomas Jefferson (1823)

A majority of Americans -- and a larger percentage of Christians -- believe Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary and did not have a human father a Newsweek poll recently showed. Seventy-nine percent of Americans and 87 percent of Christians said that was their belief. Fifteen percent of Americans and 8 percent of Christians said they did not share that belief. Results of the poll on beliefs about Jesus are included in a Dec. 13 2004 Newsweek cover story on "The Birth of Jesus." Researchers with Princeton Survey Research Associates found that 93 percent of Americans think Jesus Christ actually lived and 82 percent think he was God or the son of God. Fifty-two percent of respondents said they believe Jesus will return to Earth in the next millennium, and 15 percent said they believe he will return in their lifetime.

Yet St. Paul does not mention the virgin birth anywhere in his writings. It would seem reasonable to assume that if Paul had known of the special conditions of Jesus' birth that he would have mentioned them in one of his epistles. In fact, the opposite appears to be true: he seems to have thought that the birth was natural and conventional:

Between 49 and 55 CE, he recorded the first known reference to Jesus' birth. In Galatians 4:4, he writes:

"But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law." If he had been aware of the virgin birth, he would have undoubtedly replaced "woman" with "virgin", or made some other change to show that the birth was miraculous. This passage was written some 45 years before the gospels of Matthew and Luke were written, and 55 to 62 years after Jesus' birth.

In about 57 CE, he wrote his only other reference to Jesus' birth. In Romans 1:1-3 he writes: "I Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle and separated onto the gospel of God...concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh." The phrase "of the seed of David" strongly indicates that Paul believed Jesus to be the son of Joseph, because Matthew traces Jesus' genealogy from David to Joseph. The phrase "according to the flesh" implies a natural, normal conception and birth.

A further interesting twist is this:

Most liberal theologians believe that the author of the Gospel of Matthew (or someone who supplied the writer with source material) scanned an unknown ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. He found what he believed to be a reference to Jesus' birth. It was in Isaiah 7:14. This has since become a famous passage; it is often recited at Christmas time. He simply copied it into Matthew (1:23) as a method of showing that prophecies in the Hebrew Testament were fulfilled in Jesus' life. As it happens, the Greek translators had made a mistake. When they were translating the Hebrew writings into the Greek Septuagint and similar translations, they converted the Hebrew word "almah" as the Greek equivalent of our English word for virgin. "Almah" appears 9 other times in the Hebrew Scriptures; in each case it means "young woman". When the scriptures referred to a virgin (and they do over 50 times) they always used the Hebrew word "betulah". So, Isaiah appears to have referred to a young woman becoming pregnant -- a rather ordinary event.

Now those who know me or have read parts of the Blog know I’m an atheist. So why am I writing about the Virgin Birth? It’s partially because though I don’t actually believe in God (and much else to do with Religion in general) I do find certain aspects of it rather interesting – the Virgin Birth being one of them.

So… Was the tale of the Virgin Birth simply started by a mistranslation? Was it used to later bolster the divinity of Jesus? Does it really matter?

All very good questions… and I do like asking questions…

[Please note that parts of this Blog were shamelessly stolen from various websites after a Google search and could be completely wrong. I rely on those who have MUCH greater knowledge of the Bible to put things right as necessary]

As J.S. Spong, Episcopal Bishop of Newark, NJ, wrote: "In time, the virgin birth account will join Adam and Eve and the story of the cosmic ascension as clearly recognized mythological elements in our faith tradition whose purpose was not to describe a literal event but to capture the transcendent dimensions of God in the earthbound words and concepts of first-century human beings."

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Money well spent?

World military spending in 2003 increased by about 11 per cent in real terms. This is a remarkable rate of increase, even more so given that it was preceded by an increase of 6.5 per cent in 2002. Over two years world military spending increased by 18 per cent in real terms, to reach $956 billion (in current dollars) in 2003. High-income countries account for about 75 per cent of world military spending but only 16 per cent of world population. The combined military spending of these countries was slightly higher than the aggregate foreign debt of all low-income countries and 10 times higher than their combined levels of official development assistance in 2001. ... There is a large gap between what countries are prepared to allocate for military means to provide security and maintain their global and regional power status, on the one hand, and to alleviate poverty and promote economic development, on the other. The main reason for the increase in world military spending is the massive increase in the United States, which accounts for almost half of the world total.... In the absence of [appropriations for the new war on terror, and on Iraq], US military expenditure would still show a significant increase, but at a much slower rate, and world military spending would show a rise of 4 per cent rather than 11 per cent in 2003.

In Fiscal Year 2004: The US military budget was almost as much as the rest of the world’s. The US military budget was more than 6 times larger than the Russian budget, the second largest spender. The US military budget was more than 30 times as large as the combined spending of the seven “rogue” states (Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan and Syria) who spent $13 billion. It was more than the combined spending of the next fourteen nations. The United States and its close allies accounted for some two thirds to three-quarters of all military spending, depending on who you count as close allies (typically NATO countries, Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan and South Korea) The seven potential “enemies,” Russia, and China together spent $134.2 billion, 34% of the U.S. military budget.

Putting this a little into context: The United Nations and all its agencies and funds spend about $10 billion each year, or about $1.70 for each of the world’s inhabitants. This is a very small sum compared to most government budgets and it is just a tiny fraction of the world’s military spending. Yet for over a decade, the UN has faced a debilitating financial crisis and it has been forced to cut back on important programs in all areas. Many member states have not paid their full dues and have cut their donations to the UN’s voluntary funds. As of December 31, 2004, members arrears to the Regular Budget topped $357 million, of which the United States alone owed $241 million (68% of the regular budget).

Does anyone else think that this is a truely crazy way to proceed. We spend vast amounts of money on weapons of destruction (mass or otherwise) and at the same time people starve to death or die for want of fresh drinking water. How can we expend so much time and effort on perfecting ways to kill people more efficiently and still say that we value life highly? Are our value systems SO far out of kilter that we can’t see the contradiction in this?

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Watching you… and you and… especially you.

Since 2003, the license plate of every car driving into central London during weekdays is filmed as part of a program to reduce traffic congestion. In all, there are at least 500,000 cameras in the city, and one study showed that in a single day a person could expect to be filmed 300 times.

On the Underground network's main Central Line, an east-west trunk that cuts across London and carries 166 million passengers a year, about 500 cameras, installed in 34 stations, feed into a central system.

The CCTV User Group says one study has put the number of cameras across the United Kingdom at seven million. The country's enthusiasm with CCTV can be seen in Croydon, a suburb south of London, where 331,000 residents are watched by 500 cameras with zoom lenses.

Even many of the private cameras in place at banks and offices have been incorporated into the overall system, called Camerawatch, which is monitored by police. Similar systems are used in other busy London areas, such as the Oxford Street shopping district, around government offices at Westminster and at popular tourist areas.

The technology has become popular and widespread, with the result that Britons are by far the most watched people on earth, with one camera for every 8 people, according to recent estimates.

Legislation requires authorities to clearly signal where cameras are in operation, yet as many as 80 percent are thought to break this rule.

Does that make you feel safe? Does it make you feel secure…?

Or does it make you feel spied upon?

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Grand Illusion

Have you noticed that people can sometimes believe the craziest things? There are people out there who believe that the world is flat. There are those who believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone crazed gunman and those who believe that we never landed on the Moon. Most of these beliefs are harmless, just like the childish belief in Santa (yes, he’s actually a fabrication – sorry kids) others unfortunately are not so innocent.

Take for instance the belief, the illusion, that there is a hierarchy of humans based on the colour of their skin. Can you think of anything crazier than that? I mean the idea that skin pigmentation is in any way connected to the worth of an individual – how truly bizarre. Would you judge a person on the colour of their hair or their eyes or the socks they were wearing? It makes about as much sense. As MLK said “Judge not by the colour of the skin but by the depth of the character” – or something like that anyway.

Humans are a really strange bunch when you think about it. Take what is probably our Grandest Illusion – Religion. Many people believe that God (in various forms and guises) not only created the entire universe, not only the entire world, but also took the time and effort to produce every living thing on the Earth including themselves. Many people believe that they can talk to God and that He talks back. Not only that but that God listens to them and will make their wishes (technically called prayers) come true. Though sounding rather bizarre such a belief is, generally speaking, fairly harmless. It’s only when believers get together in groups that things can get – well, fractious.

Unfortunately different groups of believers often have different ideas about God. Some of these differences can be quite fundamental – while others can be extremely subtle even to the believers themselves. But the problem is not that disagreements exist – I mean, we’re talking about people here – but that all sides think that they are right. Indeed not only are they right (and by extension the ‘others’ are wrong) but that believers with different ideas about God are somehow dangerous and must be dealt with. Such ‘dealings’ can often be very tense indeed. The stronger the belief is, the tenser any confrontation can get. It is not unknown for physical violence to occur.

Obvious not every religious belief can be right. Even if there is a God not all interpretations of His will can be correct. We are, after all, human and therefore fallible (and BOY are we ever fallible!). But they can all be wrong. Think about it for a second. Imagine a universe without God in it. Would we be able to tell the difference? Would it make any difference? Now go one step further (OK a whole LEAP further) and imagine a world without the concept of God – a world without religion. It’s not that simple at first but once you get the idea it gets easier. Imagine a world without religious persecution. Imagine a world without the concept of sin. Imagine a world based on rationality, logic and evidence. Of course this imaginary world wouldn’t be a utopia – we’re still talking about humans here – but would it be a better world? That’s a good question and one, unfortunately, none of us will ever know the answer to. Unless some kind of miracle happens (that was a joke BTW) we are going to live on a largely religious world into the foreseeable future. Maybe in 10,000 years time the only people who will even recognise the word ‘religion’ will be historians of particularly arcane practices but somehow I doubt it.

I fear that humanity is innately too irrational to shake off the idea of God and I fear that it will be the end of us. We are a clever species but we are also an incredibly stupid one. We have developed the knowledge and reason to develop nuclear weapons yet we have retained the irrationality to use them against people who don’t believe as we do. I am coming to the opinion that belief in God is a Grand illusion – a Grand Delusion – that as a species we would be better off without.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Blessed are the Whistleblowers

‘The Emperors New Clothes’ was one of my favourite childhood stories. You probably know it (no?) but it goes something like this:

A vain, none too bright but powerful Emperor of a small European State (always handy for this kind of story) was persuaded by an unscrupulous tailor that his beautiful new clothes were actually invisible – though made of the finest quality. His courtiers were too afraid to tell him that he was actually naked so, being none too bright he came to believe it and proudly showed off his new wardrobe to everyone. He even led a procession through his capital to show off when a young boy (who knew no ‘better’) pointed at the naked Emperor and declared that he was wearing nothing but his skin. With that public pronouncement the ‘spell’ was broken and the Emperor became a laughing stock.

That little boy has long been a hero of mine. He saw through to the reality of things and spoke out about it. Of course, being a child, he was innocent of any possible consequences. The Emperor could have had him and his family killed for Treason. But luckily the vain Emperor had lost all credibility and nothing bad happened (that I remember anyway).

Just think how brave adult whistleblowers are as they ‘go public’ with secrets our Governments and Businesses would rather we not know. These people are fully aware of the consequences of their actions – and still they go ahead. They face possible prosecution, jail or worse – and still they go ahead.

They are modern day heroes and I applaud them.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Is Torture ever OK?

It seems that everywhere you look these days there is talk of torture, not just in the usual 3rd World Regimes but in the apparently more civilised West. Indeed some are calling for a reappraisal of our attitude to torture following the tragic events of 9/11 and other terrorists attacks. But can torture ever be justified? When is torture OK?

It is easy enough to imagine a doomsday scenario where a known terrorist is in custody but the nuclear bomb his team have planted is still out there somewhere in a city of millions. It is easy to imagine that, however distasteful at first, the idea of torturing the information out of him is spoken aloud and acted upon. But consider this: How reliable would the information so extracted be? If the terrorist in question is suitably fanatical, probably not very. If he believes that he’s going to die anyway, why not lie and cause even more disruption, panic and loss of life? How would we know unless the bomb was found (or not)?

Look at it another way. What would the torture do, both to the person being tortured and those performing the torture? If the terrorist was sentenced to a long term in prison would the torture make him more likely or less likely to strike again if he was ever released? What effect would it have on the torturers? Would it brutalise them, make them into moral monsters? Is that a price worth paying to protect our freedoms?

What if the terrorist was actually a terrorist suspect? The authorities might think they have the right person but they may be wrong. It’s certainly not unknown for the police to arrest the wrong person – even when acting in perfectly good faith. Is it OK to torture a suspect knowing they might not be guilty and are merely unlucky? What effect would such an experience have on all parties concerned? Is there anything that could compensate a recipient of torture after they were discovered to be innocent?

Let’s widen it out a little more. You have three people in custody and are confident that one of them knows the location of the bomb. Successfully torturing them could save a million lives, but you have to torture two innocent people in the process. Is that OK? Do you traumatise two people to save a million? Is that a price worth paying? What if one of those innocent people was your sister, your lover, your friend? Is it still OK for them to be tortured to save a million lives? Or ten thousand lives or twenty… Just where do the sums balance?

What freedoms are we actually protecting using these methods? Would we still be living in a free and liberal society if we allowed torture to be legalised? The parallel with the European Witch-hunts is frighteningly easy to draw. Women under torture gave false witness in order to relieve their pains inevitably dragging in other innocents into the hands of sanctioned torturers. As the torture continued, evidence for a continent wide conspiracy grew fuelled by the imagination of the authorities and the pain induced ravings of the innocent. Is this what we wish for our future? A return to the dark ages? Is this where the protection of our freedoms is leading us? Is this the kind of world you want your children to inherit?

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Strange Heroine, Strange Fruit

Some might think it strange anyway - I however, as often, take a different view. Who am I talking about? Eve of course - as in 'Adam & Eve'.
As a child I always found this story rather confusing. Afterall, here was a woman enhancing the powers of her species by extending the boundaries of knowledge and she was supposed to be looked on as some kind of villain. Is it any wonder that I never 'got' religion. Even at that tender age I instinctively knew that it didn't make sense. To me knowledge was a good thing. Ignorance was, by definition, bad and willful ignorance...? Well, I don't like to use the word 'evil'... but...
In the story God casts out Adam (basically for being gullible & stupid) and Eve (for being willful & disobedient) for wanting to be 'as they are' - as God's - knowing the truth about things. Unfortunately Eve never managed to eat of the Tree of Life so we stayed mortal - but at least we are no longer ignorant (even if at the time we were ignorant of our ignorance). So I thank her heartily for that. In my mind she's a heroine and should be celebrated as such.
Anyone else fancy a bite of this juicy apple.......?
Quote of the Day:

Blinding ignorance does mislead us.
O! Wretched mortals open your eyes!

Leonardo Da Vinci
I finally gave in, after not too much badgering, and have created my first Blog. Whether it will last beyond a few months - well, that's anyone's guess. But, at least for the present, here I am and here I stand. I hope I don't end up offending or alienating everyone. Hopefully though, I will comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable - at least that's the plan.