Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Liberals and anarchists and post scarcity oh My!

Well I’ve read waaaay too much of the culture to keep everything straight, so this post will probably veer into the very general. Anyway I think the culture novels are a fascinating kind of window into a world of post scarcity. The message seems to be, post scarcity economies breed anarchists with extreme boredom, which must be satisfied by liberal doo gooder interventions to help others. I think this is a really interesting end result. In “Player of Games” one of the characters remarks that “we don’t live in an age of heroes anymore.” With sufficiently advanced technology what are we to do with ourselves? Are we to descend into a complete Dionysian hedonism? Or will that ultimately fall short of what we want? The culture feels the need to justify and support its own hedonism and as a result they engage in countless interventions through their contact consortium.

The beauty of it all is that Ian M Banks is not a heavy handed moralizer like Rodenberry and his ilk. Banks keeps everything rather crazy by switching POVs in insane ways and by creating massive, tragic conflagrations. Basically it’s a good thing he’s a brit otherwise these novels wouldn’t work. He has a sick sense of irony and he just works it to utterly depressing proportions. Chris noticed how he uses a vignette format to just drive the reader crazy and man is that awesome.

Last but not least I think the culture novels provide a very odd answer to Camus. Why do we not commit suicide? The Culture says “Well you can have a whole lot of fun, or fight a war, but if you’re bored you can always use the euthanasia gland to kill yourself,” An answer properly fit for Mr. Banks.

Substantive post, Look to Windward

As I was reading Look to Windward, I cam across the same problem I have with the majority of the science fiction genre. Even though I start on page one, I feel like I have opened the novel right in the middle and have absolutely no idea what anyone is talking about. I personally need a little more background information and a little less of the author assuming I know what they hell he was writing about. But that is clearly just a personal bias I have, since I don't have any experience with science fiction outside of the readings for this class. Aside from the fact that I spent most of the novel being confused, I did actually enjoy reading it, or at least my interpretation of what I was reading. I'm sure I will be disproved in class today when I realize what I though was going on wasn't really happening. One point that Banks made that I found very interesting was when Huyler and Quilan are discussing the actual reason for the mission and what Quilan is expected to do. Personally, I found Quilan's character slightly annoying, in the way that he was willing to complete a mission that he had no idea what was going to happen and then kill 5 billion innocent people, simply because he was depressed and wanted to die. I found it hard to buy that reasoning, or even feel sympathy for him as a character throughout the novel.

However, the conversation that arose when they were discussing the motives behind the mission made me think of another discussion I had in a different class. Huyler is trying to justify what they are about to do, kill 5 billion innocent people as revenge, and he says that any culture recognizes this kind of trade. “They cost us that; we cost them that. They recognize that sort of revenge, that sort of trade, like any other civilization. A life for a life.” It occurred to me that this sort mentality is exactly how we think about war today, and have thought about it for a very long time. We had a similar discussion in my War and Personal Responsibility class the other day. Is anyone really innocent in a time of war? Are the five billion people that Quilan is supposed to kill guilty simply because they were complacent in what happened during the war all those years ago and have done nothing to make up for it since then? In my class, we had a discussion about whether Americans today are equivalent to the Good Germans during WWII; ordinary citizens who never harmed anyone but never did anything to stop what was happening.In a sense, complacency equals guilt. I think the ending of the novel proves that Banks does not believe this to be true and does not feel that those who do nothing are just as bad as those who did everything. This parallel did not occur to me until the end of the novel, when I finally had most everything straight in my head about who was who and what was going on.

Additionally, I would have liked a little more background on the war, the Chel people, and the Culture. I had a hard time figuring out why the Chel were so blasé about the fact that they needed to kill all these people, and what exactly the Culture had done during the war that would have justified such a severe reaction. It was hard for me to empathize with the Chel people throughout much of the novel. Hopefully in class today, someone will be able to shed some light on the background story so that I can better appreciate the novel itself.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

My Problem with PTJ’s Post

So unlike Chris I haven’t had the free time to write a delightfully detailed rebuttal to PTJ’s post. However I figure I can at least provide a “short” (700-1000 word not that short for most but compared to chris?) post in response.

So the meat of prof’s argument is that science and God, are as Doria claims, “parallel ways” and that the two are categorically different, therefore they should not concern one another. According to PTJ, I and Chris’s attack on Russell’s tolerance of belief in the face of scientific reason is invalid in this case. I do not agree. Science and God are not parallel in a social context. Faith is a subjective personal attribute that defies rationality and is pretty near impossible to convey through language. Language exists in the rational interpersonal realm. Thus when you try to convey faith to someone you sound like an irrational imbecile.

Now what does this have to do with the parallel ways? Well the parallel works so long as you restrict your God stuff to the subjective personal and your science stuff to the rational outer world. When one’s religious faith influences actions taken in the outer world you fall into dangerous territory. The two worlds are irreconcilable for a reason you see. When people start claiming that evolution is wrong because “god said so” we have an epistemological failure to communicate.

Chris and I wouldn’t be such secular assholes if those with faith kept to PTJ’s cultivated Weberian neutrality, but they don’t. Religion has always tried to make the lines perpendicular and the results have been disastrous. PTJ may be right that miracles exist outside of the scientific paradigm. If the only result was a renewal of faith then no one would care. But religious sillies have used this sign of miracles to justify their own idiocy in the real world. They claim that Katrina is an intervention of God rather than a byproduct of environmental destruction; they refuse medical treatment because God will save them. A refusal to acknowledge the natural law of the phenomenological world is a big freakin danger. Whether you believe in miracles or not, you will still fall accelerating at 9.81 meters per second squared if you jump from a cliff.

Now PTJ brings up a good point. A life dedicated to “shit happens” is no life at all. You should just kill yourself and be done with it. But there’s no reason why I can’t construct meaning in my life without the assistance of a God or an organized religion. As Camus says we are truly free when we acknowledge that there is no ultimate meaning, for then we are the ultimate arbiters of what that meaning is. Some of the happiest, most caring and moral people I know are atheists. They’ve fought all their lives against oppression and injustice and gotten very little in the way of accolades or material reward (well except for gains from collective struggle). These folks believe in science and reason and gravity and still live a life full of purpose.

I think part of the greatest danger to leading a meaningful life is organized religion. Unlike a personal philosophy constructed from community and personal input, organized religion is a whole set of beliefs sold as package deal. You can’t pick and choose what makes the most sense to you and your community; you just take the whole friggen box. That’s a danger as totalizing ideologies (Catholicism, Leninism, fascism, Hinduism etc.) are always the ones that claim complete truth and complete authenticity. Those with a monopoly on truth tend to take that into the real world and slaughter a whole lot of people. Nor are you allowed much of a choice in the matter. Unless you convert to a religion the adherent is usually inculcated from birth to believe and follow the dictates of the church/mosque/synagogue/temple etc. That’s no way to construct meaning. That’s brainwashing. You can’t truly believe in something if you have never sampled different fare on a level playing field.

Worst of all, organized religion often pits spiritual and godly knowledge within a sect of specialists. The priest or the rabbi hold a monopoly on proper meaning and can use that to discipline and manipulate those in their flocks. It destroys human freedom in the name of a God perpetuated by those in power. Now this is partially addressed by some of the mainline protestant denominations. Quakers, UCC’s (PTJs chosen flavor of Christ) and their ilk are pretty good about devolving spiritual knowledge to the laity. But even so I feel like it’s an impoverished philosophy. Only drawing from a single book? A big book indeed, but still only one source? Just doesn’t pace with common sense.

The only religious group I genuinely think is alright has got to be the Unitarian Universalists. They claim no official dogma and stake no claim to universal truth. Now I find their services kind of uninteresting, but some folk like them. I’d say my spiritual experience is out there in thick of it, fighting the good fight. There’s a certain joyous exuberance to it that’s hard to describe. But why I fight has a lot to do with thinking reasoned arguments, I may find a spiritual zeal within it, but I also provide arguments that can exist in the rational outer world on their own merits. Anyway that’s All I got right now.

Keep on thinking and always be skeptical of prophets.

Refection for Children Of God

Firstly, there has been a lot of impressions that the novel offered a simple idea of whether there is a god or not (see the two previous posts and comments. A more interesting angle was how did believe or the degree of believe affect the different members.
However, I really like the quote that was brought up in class "whatever the truth is, blessed be the truth". While this would probably be seen, and may have been written, as a religious statement, I see it as more of a statement of acceptence of the world and of its beauty, separate or with something religious. While goodness and truth were brought up in the conversation, they were discussed as founding blocks and intrinsically connected with theistic models of world view. While religion is the main theme, whether something is good or not can have absolutely nothing to do with religion, even in a theisticly questioning novel.

One thing I really did enjoy about these two novels was how differently they approached he fact of dealing with and finding of a new world. Although she went very little into the actual what would have happened on Earth as an effect of the discovery in terms of technology, business and exploration, I still found it refreshing. Immersed in Star Trek for my humans making contact literature, the amount of change on Rakath that occurred because of human landing at first felt very wrong, especially once Sophie started to directly influence the settlement she was with. What this really reveled to me is that the question is actually why not participate? In Star Trek, working on a non-warp drive world is considered interfering, while here it was presented much more as if Sophie was participating and doing her part.