Meat eaters in developed countries will have to eat a lot less meat, cutting consumption by 50%, to avoid the worst consequences of future climate change, new research warns.The fertilisers used in farming are responsible for a significant share of the warming that causes climate change.A study published in Environmental Research Letters warns that drastic changes in food production and at the dinner table are needed by 2050 in order to prevent catastrophic global warming.
The Meanings We Made, Our Need
Does Facebook make us lonely by stoking the embers of our narcissistic tendencies and forcing us to engage in a 24/7 cycle of self-presentation? Well, opinions differ, but the important thing is, at least it gives us an opportunity to yammer about Facebook some more.
The Things Which are Caesar’s
What is most disturbing is that it is almost impossible to imagine an Islamist-influenced system protecting the religious rights of skeptics, agnostics and atheists. Blasphemy, satire, independent scholarly investigation of early Islamic history, or merely a profession of fundamental skepticism about faith in general (and not simply Islam) are all likely to remain criminal offenses. Protection for apostasy and conversion are another key test of real religious freedom.Religious freedom was not generally well protected by the old dictatorships, and all the evidence suggests that the policing of independent thinking will intensify in the new systems. This means that there is a whole class of citizens virtually guaranteed of being denied its fundamental rights, and of being persecuted by Islamist-influenced regimes: agnostics, atheists, apostates and skeptics. Unless, of course, these individuals keep their mouths shut.Professed commitment by Islamists to pluralism and tolerance is almost always framed in terms of faith. It seems beyond the scope of their imagination that, while people may belong to various religions, any sane person would question the very notion of religious belief, and view all religious claims with rational skepticism.Yet without genuine religious freedom and pluralism, real freedom and equal citizenship will be illusory. What Islamists, and many other Arabs, have yet to accept is that in order for freedom of religion to be genuine, it must allow the freedom to reject faith entirely and to promote non-religious perspectives.
Got to be a Joker, He Just Do What He Please
At this point in my life and career, I simply can’t understand or abide literary snobbery. How can anyone who loves books not take heart in seeing so many new readers huddled up with a novel? Whether it’s “Harry Potter,” “The Hunger Games” or “Infinite Jest”—does it really matter? These days, when reading fiction seems like an endangered activity, why should we begrudge the success of any book, especially one that stirs such passion with younger readers?
Sure, Katniss Everdeen might be a bit less nuanced and compelling than, say, Scout Finch, another adolescent caught in a hostile and alien world. And when it comes to a story about a character fighting for survival in the war-torn wilderness, it doesn’t quite match the haunting beauty of Charles Frazier’s “Cold Mountain.” But maybe when the millions reading “The Hunger Games” have finished the trilogy and are searching the shelves for their next foray into a dystopian universe, they will discover another great bestseller of the past, perhaps Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” or Orwell’s “Nineteen-Eighty-Four.” You never know – it could happen.
That’s the beauty of reading for pleasure. When you turn the final page and shut the book, that heady blend of sadness and joy you feel can quickly ripen into a hunger for more. I like to think of bestsellers as a gateway drug. Once you’ve found one you love, books will forever hold a special allure. All comers welcome. No special education required.
I inherited my love of reading from my mom, who as far back as I can remember always had thousands of books, mostly new age stuff and pop fiction. The easy access to books and the regular trips to bookstores probably had more of a lasting, formative effect on my character than the particular deficiencies of the countless hack authors I read, so yeah, I tend to be one of those who are just glad when people perform a solitary, contemplative activity like reading.
But that’s about as far as I take it. Defenders of popular taste like Hall and the kitschfinder generals who take haughty exception to his argument both seem to agree on the desirability of a progressivist ideology in literature; the critics sound like martinets in their insistence that reading is a self-improvement chore, an exercise in moral instruction and empathy, an intellectual eating of vegetables, and the apologists largely agree, hesitantly raising a finger to add only that popular novels can serve as a booster seat for those whose intellectual development doesn’t yet allow them to see out into the full horizon of human potential, and as such shouldn’t be completely dismissed.
One of the commenters on the article made me laugh with his purse-lipped insistence that escapist books are not harmless, because they isolate readers from having an “authentic” human experience. I would humbly suggest to the gentleman that he is the one living in a fantasy world if he thinks superficiality, falsity and escapist desires are not omnipresent, authentic aspects of everyday life among the ham-and-eggers; perhaps he should put down the classic literature and go hang out in a shopping mall for a while if he really wants to peer into the heart of the human condition.
I’d just like to see someone point out that the majority of human beings are unreflective and dull, always have been and always will be; that even professors of literature can be inept messes in their personal lives; and that maybe just maybe we should rethink our habit of yoking together morals and aesthetics. Be sincerely glad for the presence of those whose taste completely differs from yours; they provide you with more opportunity to differentiate yourself.
It is the Cause, It is the Cause, My Soul
The man with a tumor has no choice but to do what he does. I do have choices, which I make all the time. Yes, my choices are constrained, by the laws of physics, my genetic inheritance, upbringing and education, the social, cultural, political, and intellectual context of my existence. And as Harris keeps pointing out, I didn’t choose to be born into this universe, to my parents, in this nation, at this time. I don’t choose to grow old and die.
But just because my choices are limited doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Just because I don’t have absolute freedom doesn’t mean I have no freedom at all. Saying that free will doesn’t exist because it isn’t absolutely free is like saying truth doesn’t exist because we can’t achieve absolute, perfect knowledge.
Okay, that’s good, right there. Good points. Now, hold up a minute; let’s just look closer at what we mean by “choice” and “free” will, and then we should be— wait, what are you…? Hey, no, don’t… aww, c’mon, really, don’t say th…! Aww, man…
But the strange and wonderful thing about all organisms, and especially our species, is that mechanistic physical processes somehow give rise to phenomena that are not reducible to or determined by those physical processes. Human brains, in particular, generate human minds, which while subject to physical laws are influenced by non-physical factors, including ideas produced by other minds.
…We are physical creatures, but we are not just physical. We have free will because we are creatures of mind, meaning, ideas, not just matter. Harris perversely–willfully!–refuses to acknowledge this crushingly obvious and fundamental fact about us.
Sigh. It looked so promising for a moment there.
The fundamental faith of the metaphysicians is the faith in opposite values. It has not even occurred to the most cautious among them that one might have a doubt right here at the threshold where it was most surely necessary – even if they vowed to themselves, “de omnibus dubitandum”.
It might even be possible that what constitutes the value of these good and revered things is precisely that they are insidiously related, tied to, and involved with these wicked, seemingly opposite things – maybe even one with them in essence.
Another recent Big Think guest, philosopher Alain de Botton, might disagree with the metaphysics of Buddhism, but he shares this core belief – that beneath our often horrible outward behavior toward one another, there exists a set of shared human values such as kindness, compassion, and value of children – and that our biggest challenge as a species is not losing track of them.
Of course if you believe that, at their core, people are violent and competitive and cruel, then neither argument is likely to interest you much. But if you agree that hatred, anxiety, greed, and jealousy are secondary and deeply destructive aspects of our nature, then – after survival – finding some reliable method to control or eradicate them – and thereby liberating our better angels –becomes pretty much the only worthwhile human pursuit.
Metaphors, they’re so interesting. The neatness and poetic symmetry of a well-constructed one can create an intellectual glamour that we mistake for truth if we’re not careful.
Like here: what does it mean to say that our positive actions and values lie “beneath” our horrible outward behavior? Why would “good” and “bad” behaviors be so conveniently two-tiered? Or again, with the idea that at our “core”, we are either positive or negative, with the other being a “secondary” group of characteristics. Either way, we get the implication that originally, human nature was simpler, purer, “better”. Our negative tendencies are accretions that have built up over time and need to be scraped away. Depth equates to profundity.
Simplicity and purity are often found together in these metaphors, and they usually signify truth, as does the equating of “ancient” with “wisdom”. Long ago, things were pure and uncomplicated and everyone was content, but somehow… of course, all these tropes are just derivatives of one of the sturdiest myths that mankind ever invented, that of the fall from grace. There’s even a hint of Gnosticism in this particular case, with the idea that our better angels are trapped in this fallen state, awaiting liberation.
Like you may have learned in geometry class, when the given you start with is flawed, none of the steps in your proof are going to make up for it. I kind of feel that way about metaphorical constructs that are so obviously deficient.
As for the ridiculous idea that good and bad are so neatly distinguished and capable of being separated in order to elevate one and eradicate the other, well, there’s an old story of a Taoist farmer that’s pretty good as far as myths go. Good turns to bad and bad turns to good; the changes have no purpose and no end.
The Skin of Three Centuries
And while I shall keep silent about some points, I do not want to remain silent about my morality which says to me: Live in seclusion so that you can live for yourself. Live in ignorance about what seems most important to your age. Between yourself and today lay the skin of at least three centuries. And the clamor of today, the noise of wars and revolutions should be a mere murmur for you.
Born in 1978, I’m a millennial in name only. I’m really a Luddite. I don’t get technology, and for a long time I tried to convince myself I didn’t want to get it. My view on the latest cyber advances was lack of interest and occasionally hostility. I imagined that this rejection marked me as an iconoclast or a rugged individualist. A real man listens to Led Zeppelin and doesn’t listen to Led Zeppelin on iTunes — that sort of thing. Now, thanks to that mulishness and vanity, I feel like a clamshell of a man, outdated and struggling to communicate with the rest of my cohorts’ fancy smartphones. At the age of 33, I’ve been left behind.
…From Friendster to PDAs, iPods to Facebook, I avoided dialing up or jacking in like my jean jacket and Marlboros depended on it. It was an image cultivated to look cool. But now the only image I’m left with is a deeply uncool one. I’m missing out on cultural conversations. I’m missing out on music and videos. I’m missing out on ideas that can be fired around the globe at the speed of thought. I’m missing out on social change that’s been enabled from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park. I’ve never even seen an Angry Bird.
…The truth is that all the beepers and cellphones and video game systems and VHS (and DVD) “movie machines” weren’t the vain consumerist crap I pretended they were. They weren’t the passing fads of the bourgeois. They were the foundation of a language that almost everyone in my generation has learned to speak and one that younger members of our cohort were simply born knowing. It’s the language of adaptability, of being so willing to learn and discover a new device that you never need directions to it. All of this stuff was about communicating. With each other. With machines big and small. With people in other countries. Come to think of it, communication was never my strong suit, either.
Dude, if it’s any consolation, you’re every bit as melodramatic and emo as any teenager, so maybe there’s life in your old bones yet. Settle down, stop wailing and learn what the term “Luddite” really means. In fact, look it up on that there newfangled Internet machine you use to write your monthly column on.
Histrionics aside, it sure does amuse me that anyone old enough to know better would actually think that there’s nothing interesting to talk about in this great big world of ours but the latest soon-to-be-obsolete gadget, or the trendy means of conversation. Really, man? You feel isolated because you don’t walk around all day with your flickering attention span confined to the alphabet soup messages floating across a palm-sized screen? Be glad. Verily, I say unto you: the world doesn’t actually revolve around the relatively tiny cliques of the Internet-famous and their hangers-on, hard as that may be to believe. People aren’t any more witty or intelligent on Facebook and YouTube, and it’s highly doubtful that you’ll be looking back in twenty years, sighing happily over fond memories of workplace small talk about this or that TV show.
And yes, of course we can give Simon the benefit of the doubt that, as always, he’s only trying to protect the integrity of his show by arguing against premature evaluation, being reductive, and distracting silliness, all of which can indeed sometimes get in the way of the message. But maybe he could do all of us the same courtesy by not presuming those who may amuse themselves with a “who’s cooler?” tangent don’t also recognize that this sort of thing is not the point of the show.
There’s room for all kinds of Wire fandom, after all, and if he’s arguing for first-time viewers to ignore those tangents and stick with a show until its entire structure can be built, it’s probably not a good idea to discourage them from even bothering by telling them to straighten up and dictating the terms of what he thinks that appreciation should be. Otherwise, it’s not a TV show you should be making; it’s a civics class.
Let’s return briefly to a different part of that deluded Andrew Sullivan article:
If you go to the second floor of the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., you’ll find a small room containing an 18th-century Bible whose pages are full of holes. They are carefully razor-cut empty spaces, so this was not an act of vandalism. It was, rather, a project begun by Thomas Jefferson when he was a mere 27 years old. Painstakingly removing those passages he thought reflected the actual teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson literally cut and pasted them into a slimmer, different New Testament, and left behind the remnants (all on display until July 15). What did he edit out? He told us: “We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus.” He removed what he felt were the “misconceptions” of Jesus’ followers, “expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves.” And it wasn’t hard for him. He described the difference between the real Jesus and the evangelists’ embellishments as “diamonds” in a “dunghill,” glittering as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” Yes, he was calling vast parts of the Bible religious manure.
History is never so precise and tidy, of course, but I’m awestruck by the extraordinary symbolism of Jefferson’s action. And since I’ve been on the topic a couple times recently, I thought I’d elaborate on why that is.
I’ve been reading Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve this week. With the historical record of the events in question being somewhat sparse, a lot of the book consists of speculation and creative writing, and as such, some of the parts that have struck me the most have been the background details that Greenblatt uses to flesh out the story — brief references to things like the arrest and execution of Giordano Bruno, or passing mentions of ordinary villagers arrested or denounced to the Inquisition for nothing more than a sarcastic joke that could be construed as heretical. The stifling intellectual climate is chilling to contemplate, and yet, it would continue for another few centuries from the point described. We all know the basic facts of the history of religious persecution, but that kind of knowledge can quickly become a superficial recitation of dry facts that cast no shadow across the mind. You really have to immerse yourself in detailed examples every so often to feel the weight of it in your bones.
As I’ve stressed a few times, the intellectual freedom and security that allowed someone like Jefferson to confidently trim the Bible to his liking was not a natural outgrowth of Christianity; it was a product of Enlightenment ideals giving primacy to reason. Whatever the simplification here for the sake of clear narrative, whatever the criticism of rationality that could be offered, the important point is that in the two and a half centuries since, it has become accepted as the most basic common sense that you are free to attempt to persuade others of the truth of your religious views all you want, but it’s unthinkable that you should try to use coercive force in the event that you fail. Christianity had almost 1500 years to establish that state of affairs, should it have been desired, and yet fire and sword were still the main instruments of persuasion. At some point, if you’re honest, you have to acknowledge that this was a feature, not a bug.
The separation of church and state, enshrined in the highest law of the land, was a seismic shift, one of the most important events in Western history, as far as I’m concerned. Religion had been domesticated by the state. Christian might no longer made right. They were forced to swallow any antinomian urges they had and accept the right to existence of heretics and infidels.
Safe to say, it was a wild success and a popular one as well, so much so that tolerance is widely presumed by many progressive, educated people to have been an original component of religious belief per se, all along, and Jesus is presumed to have been the earliest proponent of just such an enlightened, non-sectarian, universal humanism, despite ample evidence to the contrary. You get the impression humankind once lived in harmonious agreement on something like Aldous Huxley’s perennial philosophy, but power-hungry priests and ignorant zealots led people astray into sectarian strife, which was never what any founder of a religion intended.
Now, some have said to me, as long as the end result is a kinder, gentler society where everyone gets along, what’s the harm if they’re fuzzy on the details of how they got there? Why kick up a fuss about it and risk giving offense? I respond: because truth matters for its own sake. Because it’s not innocently mistaken to sweep aside the unseemly parts of Christianity or the significance of the religious/secular divide, it’s flat-out dishonest. Because this isn’t even an irresolvable argument about the finer points of metaphysics; this is a simple case of what did and didn’t happen in history, simple enough to be explained in grade-school textbooks. Because good-natured geniality predicated on mistakes and falsehoods is not as stable or enduring as I would like it to be.
Theologians and garden-variety apologists for religion frequently resort to the cuttlefish defense against the criticisms of atheists; i.e., spilling an tremendous amount of ink in the hope that their attackers will get lost in the impenetrable abstractions and convoluted knots of logic. But unfortunately for them, the basic principles of Christianity have been boiled down to their simplest form for the sake of reaching across language barriers and converting heathens the world over, and it’s pretty clear what it means to be a Christian: All humans carry original sin. God sacrificed his only son to offer you a way to escape this burden. Accept this offering, proclaim Jesus as your savior, and profess your belief in the reality of his death, resurrection and eventual return. If you refuse, there will be the most severe consequences imaginable.
See, there’s no wiggle room there. This is the essence of Christianity, the very thing that gives it an identity, that makes it not-Islam, not-Judaism, not Hinduism, etc. Jesus’s death and resurrection were historical events that only happened once. There is no other path to free yourself from the wages of sin, and only false prophets will tell you otherwise. You cannot change these core elements without doing violence to the story. There is no honest way to square such a provincial, dogmatic worldview with the broad-minded Enlightenment inheritance we’re so fond of.
Thus when I hear professed Christians like Mary Elizabeth Williams talk about respecting the equal validity of other faiths like it’s a self-evident truth, along with touchy-feely postmodern glurge about everyone’s personal truth being different and yet still true, I think, well, you don’t appreciate what a chasm Jefferson opened up in the intellectual landscape. You’re trying to have it both ways without understanding what either of them really mean. You can’t legitimately call yourself a Christian if you don’t accept the very basic rules of membership. If you find them distasteful, if you have to remove or reimagine the core aspects to make them palatable, then have the fucking integrity to admit you’ve outgrown your religion, and put it away along with all other childish things. Quit dressing up the old bones in new clothes and give them a decent burial.
I respect Christianity as a worthy opponent in the Nietzschean sense and so make the effort to take it seriously even if it means the impossibility of reconciliation; it stuns me to see the insouciance with which its supposed adherents treat it.
Pining for the Fjords? What Kind of Talk is That?
Speaking of bridges, I fully support Chris Clarke’s idea to collapse the Rainbow Bridge and replace it with a metaphysically sturdier one.
I got a different card with my dog’s ashes a few weeks ago, actually. It started off with a paraphrase of Tennyson’s line — “To have loved and then said farewell is better than to have never loved at all” — which I suppose was reworded because saying “To have loved and lost” sounds too painfully final. Euphemisms; never a good sign for intellectual honesty.
It went downhill from there. Today he is as he was in his youth (hopefully not his early puppyhood when he had parvo and served briefly as bait for dogs learning to fight). Green grass, butterflies flitting among flowers, shining sun and other assorted awesome alliterations. He awaits my arrival, of course, but knowing how worried he got whenever I was gone for even several hours, I hate to think that he’s going to have to possibly wait another few decades. Plus, if it’s eternal summertime there, I’m going to be pissed. I fucking hate hot weather. Are we sure this isn’t hell? How is this supposed to be comforting?
Anyway. It’s signed, “Your pet in heaven.”
I don’t mind it too terribly, even when people try to offer schmaltzy condolences in person. I don’t pay close attention to whatever strangers and casual acquaintances are babbling about anyway, and grief gives me a solid excuse to be even more taciturn and aloof. The sheer awkward ineptitude of such generic, prepackaged attempts at sympathy almost makes me laugh, if anything. But I do find myself gritting my teeth when my vet, who I consider to be a friend, always whispers “Now you’re at peace” to them. No, he’s dead. He’s not anything. No more, bereft of life, an ex-dog. Peace has nothing to do with it. There’s only me and the maelstrom of emotions, warlike in their intensity, that rush to fill the sudden void.