Friday, November 21, 2008

Friday, November 14, 2008

Does Religion Make You Nice? Does Atheism Make You Mean? By Paul Bloom

Religious people are nicer to others, i.e. more charitable, because they think someone, i.e. God, is always watching them; surveillance makes be behave morally.

And in the god-fearing US, this is empirically true: religious Americans are nicer, i.e. more charitable—and happier—than their atheist counterparts.

But in godless Scandinavia, people in general are nicer to each other.

According to Paul Bloom, religion offers us
a. factual beliefs, such as the idea that there exists a single god that performs miracles, and
b. moral beliefs, like the conviction that abortion is murder.
c. There are religious practices, such as the sacrament or the lighting of Sabbath candles.
And there is

d. the sense of community that a religion brings with it—the people who are part of your church, synagogue, or mosque.

Perhaps the positive effect of religion in the real world is tied to this last component. Perhaps humans are social beings, and we are happier, and better, when connected to others.

The Scandinavians have a strong sense of community, whereas in America, community is reserved for the religious, that is, American atheists are often left out of community life by their religious counterparts, so are less happy.

So, religion might make you happier to be part of a community and, therefore, more generous to the other members of that community, but belonging to a religious group (or any other group, of course) can lead to indifference—or worse—toward those outside of that group.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

New Historicism as Self-Fulfilling Process

From "The Six Essentials: Minimal Requirements for the Darwinian Bootstrapping of Quality" by William H. Calvin (Journal of Memetics <>).

History as a Darwinian Process

History qua history—what it includes, what it leaves out, and how these change over time—provides us with a memetic example of these six essentials at work [i.e. (1) pattern—(2) a copied pattern—(3) with occasional chance variations, (4) variations that compete for limited space, (5) the competition being biased by an environment (= natural selection), (6) new variants occurring preferentially around the more successful of current patterns (= the inheritance principle)]. Of the many happenings, some are captured in patterned sentences that describe who did what to whom, why, and with what means.

Some of these patterns are retold (copied), often with little confusions (variation) and conflations (superpositions). Alternative versions of stories compete for the limited space of bookstore shelves or the limited time of campfire storytelling. There is a multifaceted environment that affects their success, the association of the described events to those of everyday life. In particular, the environment contains mental schemas and scripts; as Aristotle noted and all four-year-olds demanding bedtime stories seem to know, a proper narrative has a beginning, middle, and end—and so "good stories" fare much better in the memorized environment. (Especially those conveyed by historical novels that strengthen the narrative aspects!) Finally, because historians rewrite earlier historians, we see Darwin's inheritance principle in action: new variations are preferentially based on the more successfully copied of the current generation of historical stories, and so history has a drift to better and better fits to language instincts (such as chunking and narratives) because current relevance is shifting and ephemeral.

After many generations, only those stories of timeless relevance are left alongside the likely-ephemeral contemporary ones. Quality emerges, in some sense, as in the way that the nine-part epic tales studied by Misia Landau (youth sets out on a quest, fails, returns, sets out again with a helper, survives a new set of trials and tribulations, finally succeeds and returns home, and so on) seem to have emerged in many cultures from the retelling of simpler narratives, generation after generation. Our modern origin stories, the anthropological scenarios about human ancestors during the tribulations of the ice age climate changes, are even said to follow the epic template!

Can history, as we know it, run on a reduced set—say, without the inheritance principle? (Imagine storytellers always reviewing a videotape before telling the story again, so variations were always done from an unchanging "standard version.") Certainly, a pattern that copied and varied, with retelling biased by resonances with current memories of the current population, would be impressive—but the anchoring of the center of variation to the standard version would keep stories from drifting very far and prevent the recursive bootstrapping of quality.

Suppose that, instead of eliminating inheritance, we loosened the environmental influence—say, individuals' memories for unique episodes faded within a year. The often-told tales would simply drift, adapting to current concerns, losing those of the antepenultimate generation. It would be about like the whale songs that drift from one year to the next. What you would lose, lacking a good memorized environment that persisted a lifetime to overlap several generations, would be shaping up of quality (those timeless stories with universal relevance, the resonance with episodes recurring only twice in a lifetime, and so forth).

My first "knock-out mutation" sounds, of course, like what we try to train scholars to do ("Avoid secondary sources! Read the original!"), while my second is merely an exaggerated version of the ahistoricism of preliterate societies (the Navajo emigrated from the Yukon to the American Southwest about 500 years ago, but this great migration has been lost to them, recovered only through a linguistic and genetic analysis of the Athabascan peoples). History, however, is not merely the retention of facts: it involves detecting patterns and attempting to understand them -- and this involves making good guesses and refining them. That intellectual endeavor is, I suggest in How Brains Think, another full-fledged Darwinian process.

Competition between concepts is, of course, one of the ways in which science advances; evolutionary epistemology treats this as a Darwinian process. The advance of science differs from ordinary history because the environment biasing the competition between concepts involves a broad range of testing against reality.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Croesus pushing his barrow (of money)

"All Blacks: Time for the greats to stand up and be counted in Cape Town" by Peter Bills.

"Smith was asked about the pressures of trying to build a new-look All Blacks side and keep winning every Test match during that process. Images of Croesus trying gamely to push his stone up a hill came flooding to mind as Smith outlined the philosophy behind the task."

Sports journalism: home of the cloche, the mashed metaphor and paronomania. I think he means Sisyphus, does he not? (See Odyssey 11.593—and

[Sisifo, by Titian (1548-49)]

In his archaic rugby primitivism about greats and great emotion, Bills summons up the shade of Camus's Sisyphus, condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a rock up a mountain, only to see it roll down again—in the spirit of its concluding clou: "The struggle itself . . . is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

[Croesus Receiving Tribute from a Lydian Peasant, by Claude Vignon (1629) ]

Croesus is more apposite to modern mechanised rugby—renowned for his wealth and for receiving tribute from doting colonials (see

Monday, July 28, 2008

The retronarrative of (r)evolution(/evilution)

We don't seem to be able to shake the idea that we live like we read (I blame sacred texts). Debates about evolution are prey to this idolus tribus (human illusion):

"Evolution doesn't, in fact, tend to perfection: it goes with what works and tinkers with it later. [Hence the foibles of] the [human] mind: our meagre reasoning capacity is an afterthought, spatchcocked on to the ancestral systems that have the reins where practical decision-making is concerned. If only our higher mental functions could dominate; alas, the lizard-brain parts have seniority" (Review of Kluge by Gary Marcus and The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow).

Umm. Evolution = accident and no value, i.e. no narrative except in hindsight, thus ≠ design and/or providence/progress, i.e. there is no god in the machine, no font of sacred or secular values, even if it fits our retro narrative.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Neverending Store-ree!

a.k.a. eν οίδα ότι ουδέν οίδα. "I know that I know nothing," says Socrates, according to Plato ("I know nothing," said Sergeant Schultz, meaning the same thing, being as he was a acknowledged Sophist). Thankfully, I too find myself in that position. But what is that nothing that I know?

By a Lacanian twist, the idea of the real, i.e. the Thing itself, springs to mind. But you can't know that. In other words, you can't know the Thing - it is not a thing at all: no-thing (these Continental punsters!). Or what about Heidegger's Nothing, with which we come into contact through the experience of anxiety? I know that feeling; that's what life is about, isn't it (putting aside joy for the moment)? When the world of Fantastica is devastated by the Nothing in the stab in the groin when you conceive a child, or less fatally, in the summons from the IRD or some other tug of your string by the faceless masters.

But seriously, this confession of ignorance is the premise of maieutics: the craft of intellectual midwifery, for want of a better word (from the Greek μαιευτικός [maieutikos]: pertaining to midwifery). The Socratic method is premised on the idea that the truth is latent in every reasonable human being but has to be "given birth" in response to questions or problems ( Or to put it better, on the idea that truth doesn't reside in the entrails - or bowels - of the teacher (only to be read once they're dead - or in their carefully guarded excretions).

Such a confession returns us to the mystery with which Heidegger believes philosophy begins (which he takes from Leibniz): "Why is there something rather than nothing?" (see his essay "What is Metaphysics?," which title is his own sly in-joke: Who knows? I know that I don't. I'm not the Taxman: "Let me tell you how it will be . . ."

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Utility of Storms

Christopher Christian Sturm on "The Utility of Storms" (July 11): The Reflections on the Works of God in Nature and Providence for Every Day of the Year, tr. Adam Clarke (Baltimore, 1822) 322-23.

"We should consider the phenomena of nature so, that the wisdom and goodness of our heavenly Father may be clearly apprehended by our understanding, and make the deepest impression upon our heart: and this duty should appear to us the more indispensable, because it is so much neglected by a multitude of inattentive, ignorant, and ungrateful people. It is true, that God sometimes makes use of natural phenomena to punish the sins of men: but these particular cases do not prove that he does not propose chiefly, and in general, the benefit and welfare of the whole.

Universal nature affords incontestable proofs of this. At present, let us consider a single phenomenon, which is well calculated to convince us of this; and concerning which, we have great need to have our ideas rectified. Are we not, in general, accustomed from our youth to pronounce the words, thunder and lightning, with terror? Such is our injustice, that we never think but on those extremely rare cases, in which tempests have been prejudicial to a very small part of the universe: we shut our eyes against the great advantages which result from them to the whole of the creation. Alas! we should soon change our tone, if God, irritated by our murmuring and ingratitude, were to deprive us of the blessings which thunder and lightning produce. It is true, we are not capable of pointing out all the advantages resulting from them: but the little which we know may suffice to fill our hearts with gratitude toward our great Benefactor."

Hmm. What about Desert Storms—and Shock and Awe? Sounds a little like what Naomi Klein calls the "disaster capitalism" of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School—and the Jaws of Bouche and Hell-he-burnt-on (The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism). Can you hear, can you hear the thunder?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

William Ellis on an "affecting instance of infanticide"

A thoughtless thought-experiment

From William Ellis, Polynesian Researches, ch. 13 (

"We have long known that the Sandwich Islanders practised infanticide, but had no idea of the extent to which it prevailed, until we had made various inquiries during our present tour. . . . The Society Islanders buried the infants they destroyed among the bushes, at some distance from their houses; but many of the infants in the Sandwich Islands are buried in the houses in which both parents and child had resided together. In the floors, which are frequently of earth or pebbles, a hole is dug, two or three feet deep, into which they put the little infant, placed in a broken calabash, and having a piece of native cloth laid upon its mouth to stop its cries. The hole is then filled up with earth, and the inhuman parents themselves have sometimes joined in treading down the earth upon their own innocent but murdered child."

The principal grounds were apparently:
  1. "to satisfy hunger,"
  2. as a sacrifice to marauding sharks,
  3. out of "idleness" (because a child hinders their nomadic lifestyle or is sickly or cries too much).
Ellis continues his thoughtless thought-experiment: "The bare recital of these acts of cruelty has often filled our minds with horror, while those who have been engaged in the perpetration of them have related all their tragical circumstances in detail with apparent unconcern."

The tragical foibles of casual parents, ae? Who could imagine I would end up thus: interred in a "broken calabash," cries smothered with "native cloth" . . .

Monday, July 7, 2008

Vigilantes or vigilance?

In response to "March organiser demands action" at the Herald (

There has been a strong response from politicians, local and national, to calls for "vigilante" patrols in South Auckland to protect "Asians" from petty crime.

The Herald quotes
Peter Low:

The East Auckland importer said he had vigilantes in training to stop further attacks. Groups of 20 people attend six workshops teaching them martial art skills and how to handle various situations. Women were also being taught how to look after their handbags. He is hoping to have the groups patrolling South Auckland streets within the next few months. If authorities don't allow the vigilante groups, the AAG will consider hiring Triads, Mr Low said.

In fact, the whole brouhaha turns on a linguistic misunderstanding. Low meant to say "vigilance" - not "vigilantes." Just like he meant to say that citizens should "forearm" themselves, rather than "arm" themselves against threats to their person and property.

This became clear in the course of Kathryn Ryan's interview on RNZ's Nine to Noon programme this morning (though Ryan failed to pick it up and press him for a more idiomatic phrase). "Vigilantes" of course presses public buttons more effectively than "vigilance" - which is, in any case, what the police (and poilticians) would have us display in the face of criminals.

For Ryan's interview, see her page at NatRad (


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Te Ipu Pakore

Te Ipu Pakore: the broken vessel . . . I am forgotten as a dead man out of time: another ghost settler trapped between worlds, living by correspondences. I cannot return (to who knows where) because my vessel is broken on the shore; my mind holds nothing (I forget why, but it is happily so).

A view through the cornucopia of the Gate of Horn—though the landscape is not exactly plentiful . . .

This is the view from our cottage, now obscured by ti tree, flax and an eight-lane motorway, from what I like to think of as Te Ipu Pakore: Arch Hill.

* * *

Four centuries ago, the Wai-o-Hua, the dominant power on the Tāmaki isthmus with several thousand warriors, a federation of tribes formed under Hua-O-Kaiwaka and linked to the Te Arawa tribe Ngā Oho, build fortifications against invasion from the north. 178 years ago (c. AD1740), Arch Hill is the site of the decisive "Broken Calabash attack" on Wai-o-Hua by Ngāti Whātua-o-Kaipara. Ngāti Whātua hoped to take Te Ipu Pakore ("the broken calabash"), the principal water source for the nearby Maungawhau Pa and - for that reason, perhaps - a wahi tapu. The paramount chief of Wai-o-Hua, Kiwi Tāmaki, is killed and they abandon the pa for a last stand at Mangere. Ngati Whatua kill the warriors, take the morehu women as wives and establish mana whenua over Tāmaki Makaurau.

In 1820, the Ngāpuhi chief Hongi Hika acquires muskets and over the next few years attacks Tāmaki repeatedly. He destroys the Ngāti Pāoa and Te Kawerau-a-Maki settlements to the west of the isthmus; after a decisive defeat at the battle of Te Ika-a-Ranganui near Kaiwaka in 1825, Apihai Te Kawau, chief of the Ngāti Whātua, abandons the isthmus and takes his people into exile. When the ghost settler Dumont D’Urville visits in 1827, he is startled to find the fertile isthmus depopulated: "We did not notice any trace of inhabitants, nothing but one or two fires a very long way off in the interior. There can be no doubt that this extreme depopulation is due to the ravages of war." Ngāti Whātua cautiously return to the Manukau about 1836 and, out of fear of being overwhelmed by Ngāpuhi, invite William Hobson to site the colony of New Zealand’s capital on the isthmus in 1840.

With the coming of the hordes of ghost settlers, the spring and its stream become a gathering place. Women come to collect water and wash clothes, men to wash their horses, milk cans and tools. It goes rancid, falls into disuse and remains so until submerged in ashphalt in the 1960's.

* * *

Could it be that the scent of water is what attracts me to such places? I am a divining-rod, a body whose heartwood has never hardened? Or is it that water can find the level, as they say—something we find hard to do in life? It will not rest on permeable ground, but finds its nadir. To follow that scent peels back the occult layers of the palimpsest; the water, like magic ink, supplies the negative charge to draw out what the positivists would have stay hidden.

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,

Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,

Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

Like prolonged echoes mingling in the distance
In a deep and tenebrous unity,

Vast as the dark of night and as the light of day,

Perfumes, sounds, and colors correspond.

- Charles Baudelaire, "Correspondences," The Flowers of Evil, trans. William Aggeler (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

Here begins life by correspondence.

E. Cameron et al, A Field Guide to Auckland: Exploring the Region's Natural and Historical Heritage (Auckland: Godwit 1997).
A. Jamieson, "Volcanic Auckland," New Zealand Geographic 16 (Sep. 1992): 90-113.

R. C. J. Stone, From Tamaki-Makau-Rau to Auckland (Auckland: AUP, 2001).