- Fri, 17:09: Okay, peeps, am I the only person NEVER to have seen The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews? Didn't see last night's version either. :-)
Salon has published another of those articles — you know, the ones where some clueless ignoramus presents his biased interpretation of what atheism means and then proceeds to flog the New Atheists for their imagined sins. This time, it’s Sean McElwee bashing away at What Hitchens got wrong: Abolishing religion won’t fix anything. And here’s his premise:
The fundamental error in the “New Atheist” dogma is one of logic. The basic premise is something like this:
1. The cause of all human suffering is irrationality
2. Religion is irrational
3. Religion is the cause of all human suffering
The “New Atheist” argument gives religion far, far too much credit for its ability to mold institutions and shape politics, committing the classic logical error of post hoc ergo propter hoc — mistaking a cause for its effect.
Tellingly, he can’t quote any prominent New Atheist say any such thing — or for that matter, any atheist at all — but he does quote a reporter from the Independent, Bernard Lewis, and Terry Eagleton on the wickedness of Hitchens, and of course Hitchens himself was rather bellicose and I concede that he might have promoted some hyperbole…but I don’t know of any specific quotes, and certainly no one I know follows that illogical chain of reasoning above.
I’d also agree that abolishing religion (wait, does any reasonable atheist propose abolishing religion?) would not fix everything, but educating people away from irrationality would certainly fix some things. We have a more moderate vision of the affliction that is religion than McElwee credits us with, but at least we can still recognize some legitimate distinctions, unlike him.
The impulse to destroy religion will ultimately fail. Religion is little different from Continental philosophy or literature (which may explain the hatred of Lacan and Derrida among Analytic philosophers). It is an attempt to explain the deprivations of being human and what it means to live a good life. Banish Christ and Muhammad and you may end up with religions surrounding the works of Zizek and Sloterdijk (there is already a Journal of Zizek Studies, maybe soon a seminary?). Humans will always try to find meaning and purpose in their lives, and science will never be able to tell them what it is. This, ultimately is the meaning of religion, and “secular religions” like philosophy and literature are little different in this sense than theology. Certainly German philosophy was distorted by madmen just as Christianity has been in the past, but atheists fool themselves if they try to differentiate the two.
So religion is just like philosophy and literature, and philosophy and literature are just instances of this peculiarly vague monstrous amalgam McElwee wants to call “religion”? Do science, philosophy, and literature have at their heart an unevidenced concept that defies everything we know of reality, an elaborate and ultimately nonsensical premise around which theologians build intricate fantasies that contradict one another and all human experience?
The man libels philosophy and literature, and puffs up myths and lies with a credibility they do not deserve. For shame.
The National Reconnaisance Office has launched a new spy satellite with a logo that is rightfully mine. Or at least, I ought to steal it. I’d really expect our security agencies to exhibit a little more subtlety than your stock comic-book supervillain.
Looking back at November, it seems I had fewer dreams that month than any month I can remember. And I have no idea why.
No matter. I’m still tossing my dream tweets together here to see if they make more sense when rubbing up against each other this way.
November’s guest stars included Caroline Kennedy, Robert Silverberg, Jay Lake and the doctors and interns of Seattle Grace Hospital …
I dreamt I was about to do a reading and @jay_lake wheeled in a cot so I could tuck in with the audience as if sharing a bedtime story. 30 Nov
I dreamt I was in a hospital for tests, and my nurse handed me a needle and told me to find a vein and draw my own blood. I told her … no. 30 Nov
I dreamt I took an intensive writing course, which was great, but my teacher could only speak Spanish … and so we had some difficulties. 29 Nov
I dreamt I peered outside in search of deer, and instead saw a large lizard, at least six feet long, ambling along. Which didn’t seem odd. 27 Nov
I dreamt a woman was being attacked by a crowd in the UK, and I intervened to save her — but when I looked around after, she’d disappeared. 27 Nov
I lost one of last night’s dreams because I have no idea what my scribbled note, meant to act as a memory catalyst, means: MACY’S DREAM BOOK 23 Nov
I dreamt I bumped into David Kyle and Robert Silverberg at Worldcon. We hugged and wouldn’t let go, as if we knew it was the last time. 23 Nov
I dreamt I visited a museum in darkness, deliberately so. We we meant to touch the statues and imagine them. Only then did the lights go on. 22 Nov
Razib Khan poked me on twitter yesterday on the topic of David Dobbs’ controversial article, which I’ve already discussed (I liked it). I’m in the minority here; Jerry Coyne has two rebuttals, and Richard Dawkins himself has replied. There has also been a lot of pushback in the comments here. I think they all miss the mark, and represent an attempt to shoehorn everything into an established, successful research program, without acknowledging any of the inadequacies of genetic reductionism.
Before I continue, let’s get one thing clear: I am saying that understanding genes is fundamental, important, and productive, but it is not sufficient to explain evolution, development, or cell biology.
But what the hell do we mean by a “gene”? Sure, it’s a transcribed sequence in the genome that produces a functional product; it’s activity is dependent to a significant degree on the sequence of nucleotides within it, and we can identify similar genes in multiple lineages, and analyze variations both as a measure of evolutionary history and often, adaptive function. This is great stuff that keeps science careers humming just figuring it out at that level. Again, I’m not dissing that level of analysis, nor do I think it is trivial.
However, I look at it as a cell and developmental biologist, and there’s so much more. That gene’s transcriptional state is going to depend on the histones that enfold it and the enzymes that may have modified it; it’s going to depend on its genetic neighborhood and other genes around it; it’s not just sitting there, doing its own thing solo. And you will cry out, but those are just products of other genes, histone genes and methylation enzymes and DNA binding proteins, and their sequences of nucleotides! And I will agree, but there’s nothing “just” about it. Expression of each of those genes is dependent on their histones and methylation state. And further, those properties are contingent on the history and environment of the cell — you can’t describe the state of the first gene by reciting the sequences of all of those other genes.
Furthermore, the state of that gene is dependent on activators and repressors, enhancer and silencer sequences. And once again, I will be told that those are just genetic sequences and we can compile all those patterns, no problem. And I will say again, the sequence is not sufficient: you also need to know the history of all the interlinked bits and pieces. What activators and repressors are present is simply not derivable from the genes alone.
And I can go further and point out that once the gene is transcribed, the RNA may be spliced (sometimes alternatively) and edited, processed thoroughly, and be subject to yet more opportunities for control. I will be told again that those processes are ultimately a product of genes, and I will say in vain…but you don’t account for all the cellular and environmental events with sequence information!
And then that RNA is exported to the cytoplasm, where it encounters other micro RNAs and finds itself in a rich and complex environment, competing with other gene products for translation, while also being turned over by enzymes that are breaking it down.
Yes, it is in an environment full of gene products. You know my objection by now.
And then it is translated into protein at some rate regulated by other factors in the cell (yeah, gene products in many cases), and it is chaperoned and transported and methylated and acetylated and glycosylated and ubiquitinated and phosphorylated, and assembled into protein complexes with all these other gene products, and its behavior will depend on signals and the phosphorylation etc. state of other proteins, and I will freely and happily stipulate that you can trace many of those events back to other genes, and that they respond in interesting ways to changes in the sequences of those genes.
But I will also rudely tell you that we don’t understand the process yet. Knowing the genes is not enough.
It’s as if we’re looking at a single point on a hologram and describing it in detail, and making guesses about its contribution to the whole, but failing to signify the importance of the diffraction patterns at every point in the image to our perception of the whole. And further, we wave off any criticism that demands a more holistic perspective by saying that those other points? They’re just like the point I’m studying. Once I understand this one, we’ll know what’s going on with the others.
That’s the peril of a historically successful, productive research program. We get locked in to a model; there is the appeal of being able to use solid, established protocols to gather lots of publishable data, and to keep on doing it over and over. It’s real information, and useful, but it also propagates the illusion of comprehension. We are not motivated to step away from the busy, churning machine of data gathering and rethink our theories.
We forget that our theories are purely human constructs designed to help us simplify and make sense of a complex universe, and most seriously we fail to see how our theories shape our interpretation of the data…and they shape what data we look for! That’s my objection to the model of evolution in The Selfish Gene: it sure is useful, too useful, and there are looming barriers to our understanding of biology that are going to require another Dawkins to disseminate.
Let me try to explain with a metaphor — always a dangerous thing, but especially dangerous because I’m going to use a computer metaphor, and those things always grip people’s brains a little bit too hard.
In the early days of home computing, we had these boxes where the input to memory was direct: you’d manually step through the addresses, and then there was a set of switches on the front that you’d use to toggle the bits at that location on and off. When a program was running, you’d see the lights blinking on and off as the processor stepped through each instruction. Later, we had other tools: I recall tinkering with antique 8-bit computers by opening them up and clipping voltmeters or an oscilloscope to pins on the memory board and watching bits changing during execution. Then as the tools got better, we had monitors/debuggers we could run that would step-trace and display the contents of memory locations. Or you could pick any memory location and instantly change the value stored there.
That’s where we’re at in biology right now, staring at the blinking lights of the genome. We can look at a location in the genome — a gene — and we can compare how the data stored there changes over developmental or evolutionary time. There’s no mistaking that it is real and interesting information, but it tells us about as much about how the whole organism works and changes as having a readout that displays the number stored at x03A574DC on our iPhone will tell us how iOS works. Maybe it’s useful; maybe there’s a number stored there that tells you something about the time, or the version, or if you set it to zero it causes the phone to reboot, but let’s not pretend that we know much about what the machine is actually doing. We’re looking at it from the wrong perspective to figure that out.
You could, after all, describe the operation of a computer by cataloging the state of all of its memory bits in each clock cycle. You might see patterns. You might infer the presence of interesting and significant bits, and you could even experimentally tweak them and see what happens. Is that the best way to understand how it works? I’d say you’re missing a whole ‘nother conceptual level that would do a better job of explaining it.
Only we lack that theory that would help us understand that level right now. It’s fine to keep step-tracing the genome right now, and maybe that will provide the insight some bright mind will need to come up with a higher order explanation, but let’s not elide the fact that we don’t have it yet. Maybe we should step back and look for it.
I’m in New York with friends. Doing things. See you tomorrow, or possibly even Monday.
Surely you didn’t think that just because we’re not home for Christmas, Mark wouldn’t want to get a tree…and decorate it in his usual subtle and restrained manner…
It’s a lovely little thing, only just grazing the ceiling. We spent the evening decorating it, and greeting two inn guests, poor things, who managed to struggle here even through the positively ridiculous cold. It’s 23 degrees out there, and VERY windy, and getting colder, most likely.We’ve got all the faucets in the inn dripping, so the pipes don’t freeze. I wore long underwear and fingerless gloves all day, and never went outside, except for one minute helping get the tree out of the car. Brr!
Life is so hectic at the moment that I’m barely able to get a blog post out a month. I’d like to blame the kids, but really I’ve spent most of my time playing and discussing and giggling over the worst cricket game ever made. Ashes 2013:
I’ve also recorded a new episode of Writer and The Critic with my lovely co-host Kirstyn McDermott. That should be dropping into people’s RSS Feeds or equivalent in a couple of days. And I have been reading. Quite a few books actually. Here’s what I thought of them.
Books You Should Go Out and Buy Right Now and Read!!!!!
I’m going to say more about this book on a future episode of Writer and The Critic, but in short I loved it. It’s a crime novel set in the 80′s that involves communism, the Occult and a soupcon of Chasidism (it’s the first novel I’ve ever read that references Qlipha. Madonna would be proud!). Dawn is a fucking awesome character. Not because she’s in your face or wields katanas or ‘takes no shit from anyone’. But because she’s angry – justifiably so given her fucked family situation – and it’s her anger and frustration that fuels the narrative. There’s no redemption here and no sweet endings. Instead what we get is a short novel with the impact of a sledgehammer to the face.
Trucksong by Andrew MacRae
Just like the Mamatas this book isn’t about redemption or happy endings. And like the Mamatas there’s an anger that drives the narrative (though nowhere near the intensity of Love Is The Law). I’m generally not a fan of post apocalyptic novels, I think Cormac McCarthy’s The Road says everything that needs to be said about what happens to society after the shit hits the fan. But with Trucksong I make an exception. Partly it’s because of the world building on display. The post cyberpunk vibe of self aware trucks and gigacities and the fusion between body and silicon. This is the only novel you’ll ever read that has trucks shagging each other. But really I loved this book because on a sentence by sentence level the writing is beautiful and the language – the ocker-isms that litter the novel and the neologisms – give the story a genuine sense of place. This is Australian science fiction at its best.
Five Autobiographies and a Fiction by Lucius Shepard.
Lucius Shepard is genuinely one of the best writers in the SF/F/H field. And I don’t mean that he writes really cool stories but that the actual writing has a depth and complexity that you simply don’t find in most genre work. This is a collection of six novella / novelettes. While I didn’t love all of the pieces in the collection, I was never disappointed by the writing. If you haven’t read Shepard before – and you really should – this is as good a starting point as any.
Honorable Mentions But Still Very Much Recommended
Time Travel. Martian kibbutzim. A robot Golda Meir. This short novel is extraordinary – a bizarre mix of Burroughs, Bradbury and PKD. And while the ending for me was a confused and surreal mess (I probably need to reread it), the questions it raises about how the Holocaust changed the Jewish people are thought provoking. In many ways it’s a very personal novel and possibly (though maybe not) you need to be Jewish or Israeli to get the full impact.
It’s described as a novel, but it’s more a novella. It’s my first taste of Daniel Woodrell and I’ll be coming back for more. It’s based on a true story of a dance hall in the Ozarks that burned down in the late 20s killing 42 people. The little snippets describing the goings on of some of the people who died in the fire are heart breaking. The language and lyricism of the novella might be off putting for some (I’d read a sample) but it hit the spot for me.
Maybe you need to be Irish to appreciate all the jokes, but I still found plenty to laugh at. I’d describe this as Ireland’s answer to Forrest Gump but that would be a massive insult to what’s a smart, satirical novel that even foreshadows the Global Financial Crisis. I’m still tossing up on the funniest bit of the novel – the bit where our main character is mistaken for Stephen Hawking or when he has sex on a camel. I’ll definitely be buying the sequel.
I didn’t hate it and at times I enjoyed it. But I’m not sure I totally appreciate what Harrison is doing here. Maybe after reading Empty Space the penny will drop.
I normally enjoy Fowler’s work but this simply didn’t do it for me. For a thriller it’s far too long and there are too many side steps and tangents. Just as I thought the book was picking up pace, the novel would stop dead to describe a part of London or reflect on the main character’s shopping habits. Unlike Joanne Harris’, who in the foreword questions why this book never found a market (given how AWESOME is it), I think I know the answer. It lacks focus and never seems to be entirely clear on what it wants to be. Because it’s Fowler it’s readable and at times enjoyable. But only read it if your a die hard fan of his work.
Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.
“Yeah, I made a mistake looking up Downton Abbey on IMDB,” I said.
“Well, I was trying to figure out where I knew some of the actors from. And I forgot that IMDB tells you how many episodes they’re in.”
“You dork. You’re just starting Season Two,” said Gini.
“I know! But it lied. It said that Limp Jesus appeared in every episode, but he wasn’t in the last one!”
“You know. The butler-dude with the limp. He’s gone, and now everyone’s talking about him like he’s Aslan.”
“He has a name! His name is Mr. Bates! Do you remember no one?”
“Yeah. There’s Lord Noble, and Bitchy Single Girl, and Snitchy Sister, and Dark Butler, and Cataract Girl, and….”
“You can remember the name of Aslan, but you can’t remember one name in the entire cast of Downton Abbey!?!?”
“Well, if there was a talking Lion-God in the cast of Downton Abbey, I’d remember his fucking name!”
Gini eyed me suspiciously. “I’m not sure you would,” she said. “I’m not sure you would.”
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.This entry has also been posted at http://theferrett.dreamwidth.org/358835.h
Nog informs Sisko that he’s had his bar mitzvah—er, that is, his Ferengi Attainment Ceremony, which means he’s now an adult, and he must become an apprentice. He chooses Sisko as the person to whom he wishes to become apprenticed—he wants to join Starfleet. Sisko points out that handing him a bribe (a bag full of latinum) won’t cut it. He has to apply to Starfleet Academy, get in, and graduate, and before he can do any of that, he—as a non-Federation citizen—has to get a letter of reference from a command-level officer. Like, say, Sisko, who says he’ll think about it. (Sisko tries to give the bribe back, but Nog insists on him keeping it.)