A fall election “irresponsible”?

So says he of little patience for little people, John Baird. Yes, yes, Mr. Baird, it would be so irresponsible of us to be forced to consult with the public on matters of governance, wouldn’t it?

I guess there’s nothing quite as responsible as governing by fiat!

culture, education, favourite person, justice, media, minority rights, politics, racism, Things We Should Know, United States

I Have a Dream…


August 28, 1963.


This is an audio recording of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. giving the “I Have a Dream” speech during the Civil Rights rally on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.

Not much I can add, except that I urge everyone to keep the dream alive, every day.

Source: Internet Archive.

atheism, christians, creationism, evolution, media, religion

False Compromise: The Purpose of Purpose

The New York Times Op-Ed page on Saturday posted a piece by Robert Wright, author of The Evolution of God, on the possibility of common ground between creationists and evolutionists, or, more basically, the religious and the atheists. Even more basically, I believe he has missed the point of human existence entirely, or at least that part of human existence that is explicitly social. Rather a strong indictment, I realize, but let me explain…

Before I begin in earnest, a caveat or two: First, Wright’s book, referenced above, seems by all appearances to be  an interesting exploration of the history of religion, for the most part, so I wouldn’t consider him an apologist or someone attempting to rationalize the validity of creationism.  Second, I appreciate his apparent attempt to reconcile or at least dial down the rhetoric between creationists and atheists – can’t fault the intent, but I sincerely differ with him on the method.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter. Wright, somewhat curiously, see the potential for detente in the acceptance by both parties of the idea that morality, or the ‘higher purpose’ reflected by the development of moral definitions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, can be seen as universal constants that exist outside the normal course of evolution, or something that may have predated human society. In his own words, Wright describes a conversation with psychologist and atheist Steven Pinker:

As Mr. Pinker once put it in conversation with me: “There may be a sense in which some moral statements aren’t just … artifacts of a particular brain wiring but are part of the reality of the universe, even if you can’t touch them and weigh them.” Comparing these moral truths to mathematical truths, he said that perhaps “they’re really true independent of our existence. I mean, they’re out there and in some sense — it’s very difficult to grasp — but we discover them, we don’t hallucinate them.”

Mr. Pinker’s atheism shows that thinking in these cosmic terms doesn’t lead you inexorably to God. Indeed, the theo-biological scenario outlined above — God initiating natural selection with some confidence that it would lead to a morally rich and reflective species — has some pretty speculative links in its chain.

But the point is just that these speculations are compatible with the standard scientific theory of human creation. If believers accepted them, that would, among other things, end any conflict between religion and the teaching of evolutionary biology. And theology would have done what it’s done before: evolve — adapt its conception of God to advancing knowledge and to sheer logic.

Those of us who are interested can see the inherent flaw in this proposed compromise: introducing an invisible, unverifiable causal relationship to an accepted and observed phenomenon is unnecessary and constitutes an abrogation of the scientific method. One can hear Occam’s Razor plummeting toward us as we read.

The ultimate reasoning ere seems to be that Wright (and others) need an answer for why evolution (the example given) happens the way it does; what is wrong with the way the question is being asked is that the scientific ‘why’ is fundamentally different from the spiritual ‘why’. One seeks to explain cause-and-effect logically, while the other seeks to understand what the purpose of a phenomenon is – eminently comforting to those who cannot accept the idea of a random, disordered, chaotic universe.

To me, the essay echoes what I could call the “Von Daeniken Sydnrome”, after the author Erich von Daeniken, who postulated, very simply, that pyramid construction could only have been accomplished through the timely assistance of visitors from outer space. The basic premise of this is that humans lack the ingenuity and skill necessary to develop such an engineering marvel. Wright dismisses the possibility that phenomena like altruism could have developed independent of outside ‘cosmic’ influence, due to the fact that altruistic actions cause imbalances – if I give you my last apple because you are hungry, I gain nothing. Am I being influenced by the cosmic morality of the universe by making such a sacrifice?

Not at all. In fact, despite being deprived of a material benefit (the apple), I gain a social benefit (gratitude, positive assessment of my character by others) which may in fact far outweigh the short-term gain of keeping the apple to myself as you starve. Humans are social animals – their ways of interacting with one another have evolved just as they themselves have, but underlying all of the gradual changes to societal mores and values are certain constants that had to develop through interactive processes that involved the understanding of actions and consequences, positive and negative judgments by one’s ‘cultural peers’, and their gradual distillation into concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. These are social constructs, not universal, cosmically-bestowed moral commandments.

Human beings by nature are compelled to impose order on perception, be it physical or social, so it is only natural that a lack of understanding of ever-changing societal dynamics could lead to the imposition of a ‘supernatural’ influence on human morality. The problem is, imposing a cosmic absolute or the fulfillment of some purpose larger than ourselves on the expression of cultural rituals and ideas runs counter to the basic tenets of science as a human endeavor in its most idealized form. This is not a compromise, this is an attempt to impose meaning that isn’t there on emotions and cultural rituals that, ironically, make no sense to religious believers. It is another attempt to paint humans and the rest of the world as ‘special’ and ‘tuned into the universe’.

It is a curious and basic mistake for someone with the apparent credibility of Wright to make, and an even more curious one for a psychologist to make. The Cosmic Game Theory just doesn’t work for me, I’m afraid. I, and many others, have more faith in the ingenuity, resilience and adaptability of humanity for that idea to become more than a curiosity, or a hastily constructed backdoor to divinity.

Barack Obama, Conservatives, culture, Democrats, health care, Liberal, media, politics, religion, Republicans, Things We Should Know, United States

A Letter to A Neighbor

Dear America:

How are you? We’re fine up here. I’ve been looking at the news coming from your part of the world lately, and it’s beginning to trouble me a bit. As a Canadian, I, along with millions of your citizens, felt hopeful that the Obama administration would be able to pull you out of the morass you found yourselves in – a morass created by the subservience of previous administrations to the dual addictions of profit and power. I was under no illusions that November 5 would dawn on a country where everything was fixed, nor did I believe that 6 months, even a year, would be enough to enact real change. Nevertheless, I continue to keep an optimistic outlook on your future.

The strength of your culture has always come from the “melting pot” philosophy that was the guide for the many to unite into the one – everyone, regardless of origin, was an American, dedicated to the continued prosperity of the nation. It was the best example of a shared value – an ideal, of course, never achieved but at least remaining as a spiritual goal of the country. It was shared values that brought you together in the first place, united the first thirteen colonies, and continued until America was the world’s last superpower. Much of the strength and unity that was built was a result of perceived external threats; competing ideologies like Nazism or Communism that united you in opposition to an external threat. The problem is that there is currently no external threat that can compare to entire ideologies as represented by discrete nations or united movements. In physics, it is accepted that energy doesn’t ever go away, it just goes somethere else, and that is what has happened to the once-great beacon of liberty. In the absence of unified or concrete opposition, the energy that defined by opposition had to go somewhere, and, unfortunately, it has turned inward.

The conservative element in America has always been there, and they look upon particular times in your history as ‘golden ages’, times that were better than now, primarily because America was united, was strong, and had shared values (keep in mind, however, that these were rarely, if ever, golden ages for anyone beyond white males, but it is to be expected if that is the group that is reminiscing). The population went from “Russia? We’re not like them!”, to being unable to define themselves through opposition. Who’s next on the list? The people within your own country who disagree with you: “My neighbors, I’m not like them!” It’s always easier to define something by what it is not, and American culture is no exception.

Sadly, America, your citizens are just as proficient at creating divisions as they are at justifying them, in order to create a sense of identity. They dig in their heels and refuse to hear other opinions, because it takes them outside of their comfort zone, violates their own vision of their identity, so inextricably bound up is that identity in the persona of “America the Beautiful”. For the purposes of simplification and ease of rationalization, there is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘black’ and ‘white’, ‘victim’ and ‘victor’. There is no grey, just the heavily fortified extremes of the emotional spectrum. When people stop listening to one another, they stop learning, when they stop learning, they stop maturing, and when they stop maturing, they feel as if their own opinions are the only ones worthy of respect. In the country of the self-centred, the most selfish man is king.

I could go on at length (and I have) about the motivating factors behind the polarized and increasingly violent culture that has evolved: religion; political ideology; profit; race; gender identity and so on, but that isn’t necessarily the important thing – zeroing in on one or two background motivations is not the purpose of this letter. What is the purpose of this is to decry the dangerous combination of a lack of respect and an extreme, almost allergic sensitivity to criticism or even simple disageement. Your media isn’t helping (I’m looking at all of you, not just picking on Fox) by feeling and acting on the ‘necessity’ to amp up the emotion in everything to the detriment of the actual sharing of information that could empower the populace and nurture debate – is it a reflection of the extreme form of the current culture, or one of the root causes? I think it’s probably best not to look too closely at that chicken/egg scenario right now, this letter is already too long as it is.

So, America, my southern cousin, what do I suggest? I thought you’d never ask.

Respect is the number one suggestion I have. It is obvious that many Americans hold opposing views on health care reform, for example, but it shouldn’t be necessary to have armed police present at town hall meetings. Everyone needs to feel as if they are being listened to, and their opinions understood and respected. As an additional benefit, this is kryptonite to the radio and television hate mongers inhabiting your airwaves – fairness and respect are difficult to criticize. Paradoxically, my other suggestion, this one to your leaders, is that they currently have the power to make things happen, to make bold and historic strides, to make your citizens healthier and more prosperous – use it. The outreach program that preached inclusion is obviously not working. Learn from others who have had the hand of conciliation slapped away enough times to understand that cooperation is neither wanted nor realistic. Listen to the concerns of the public, take note of the feelings and desires of the populace, as befits a democracy, but ultimately, you must use the mandate given to you to enact solutions that are feasible, affordable, and create the most benefit. Your leaders have already stumbled, but that shouldn’t stop you from moving forward – we are all meant to learn from our mistakes, and your leader is particularly intelligent. Do what you can, for the benefit of the majority, because you can. The political benefits can be great, but the benefits to your society will be greater and more long-lasting. In short, defuse the emotional cries with understanding, defeat the hatred with respect, but ultimately, steer the ship as your people have chosen you to do, despite stormy waters ahead.

All this, of course, is my opinion. I share it with you because I look at you and see the potential for greatness, or renewed greatness, inherent in you. I would hate to see that potential go to waste because of internal disruption or, in the worst case, catastrophic partisan violence. Yer a good country deep down, and I know you mean well, but now is the time to act before this goes any further. You have been a good neighbor so far (I’m overlooking that whole 1812 thing for now), and it makes me sad to see you in such despair.

The sooner you all realize that your goal, a greater and more prosperous America, is the same, and you can all agree that the benefits of peace are more deireable than those of conflict, the easier it will be to bring America closer to her ideal. Naive? Probably, but sometimes things just need to be said. I feel better for having gotten this off my chest. I’m looking forward to continuing our friendship for a long time to come.

All the best,


P.S.: Stop picking on our health care. Seriously, it’s really pissing some of us off. It’s not perfect, but it’s ours, and for the most part, it works. Knock it off.


Mr. Brian’s stinky ride

This morning I was treated to the worst of Halifax.

Let me start at the beginning. Two weeks ago (August 1st), I moved from Halifax proper to Dartmouth. I officially stopped being a walk-to-work guy and became a commuter. Like our co-kloggers KevvyD, Flash, and dbfr, I am now a resident of foggy ole Dartmouth. I chose a new locale that is close to the Woodside Ferry, and thus far I’ve biked/walked to the Ferry every day. “What serenity! What fun!” I thought to myself.

Until this morning. This morning the ride became decidedly stinky. For you see, today the tide is very, very low at 8:00 a.m. Today, the raw sewage is exposed. Today, the smell of hundreds of thousands of toilets was exposed to my nose for the first time since the days before a certain sewage plant came online. To be frank: it smells like poop.

Not unlike the hard-working Mr. Tim Bousquet over at the Coast, I’d like to know why the fuck the sewage plant is still shut down, and what caused the failure. Mr. Mayor, you really do owe us an explanation. Make the report public already.