Thursday, December 30, 2010

Hot News from the Boneyard

We bone-watchers have been having lots of fun lately. And in the last few days we get two announcements together, which might or might not mean something, nothing or a great deal. The expansion of man and his relatives around the world has any number of fascinating stories to tell, and we are only just beginning to hear them. Too many are gone for ever, sadly, because so much of the Earth doesn't preserve its bones, but the tales that have lived will one day be harvested and we will sit enthralled as they tell us who we were.

We already knew something about Denisova, where a few months ago a bone from a little finger and a tooth were sequenced, and more or less determined as an Eastern neanderthal. But that was with mtDNA, which is passed down the female line and gives less, or at times less accurate, information. The nuclear DNA has now been sequenced and the interpretation is that it's from a distinct type of hominid, neither sapiens nor neanderthal, hitherto unknown.

So, 40,000 years ago in the Altai mountains (emblematic, they gave their name to the Altaic language family, which might not exist, but if it does it includes Turkish, Mongolian and Kyrgyz) in southern Siberia (which is an odd way to describe it; I thought the point of Siberia was that it was all north, but apparently not).

So it seems there were three hominids living close together at approximately the same time. It's the coetaneous business that wrenches the paradigms a bit. Also the fact that whoever these creatures/people were, they must have arrived by a more complex route than wandering out of Africa through Israel. At least a different route.

So are they descended from a population of heidelbergensis that moved East around 600,000 years ago? And what happened to them? Well, the second question is easy to answer. They were mortal. They died. They interbred with Homo sapiens in the area, however, and some of their DNA is preserved, at least in some people from Papua New Guinea. Who woulda thunk it, indeed?

Then we get this story from Israel. The newspapers are saying that the cradle of humanity might have been the Holy Land, rather than East Africa. Well, it may sell newspapers, but it's not what the team is actually saying.

The Qesem cave near Tel Aviv has produced a few teeth which look like Homo sapiens but have been dated at 300-400,000ka, twice as old as the earliest known 'us' (from Omo in Ethiopia). The dating looks sound enough, but the attribution to sapiens is very uncertain. In fact they don't attribute it to Hom sap at all, but they do say that the teeth are more similar to teeth from Skhul/Qafzeh, which are believed to be human, than to Neanderthals.

The comments of the team are based exclusively on the morphology of the teeth; no genetic material has yet been analyzed (or even recovered, as far as I can see). If it is, however, and they do turn out to be very old Hom sap, then it's going to get very interesting trying to work it all out. Fortunately, I'm just a spectator in all this, I don't have to think, only enjoy the show.

Monday, December 27, 2010


"It was probably the floating that got her, she thought. Her thoughts went where they would, touching the surface of many things, going down a few brightly lit alleys, understanding what they saw instinctively and deeply. The true past was there along with an imagined one, together with memories of dreams, and the possible futures combined with impossible ones, and they all mixed with a false present to create something that might have been wonderful if she had been able to get up and physically live it. While she floated she could believe it was real, that it had been, that it was, that it would be, and there were no contradictions, no bad bits, nothing went wrong, nothing mattered.

She could travel the world on a floating carpet. She could revisit any place she had been to, relive any experience she had had there, and it would be perfect. Her memory was sharp, every detail stood out, she could see clearly the stonework on monuments she had paid little attention to, the goods on display in shops and stalls that had not interested her as she passed, the way the sun lit up a corner of a room where she had been present at a meeting, the way it went down on a beach she had been to on holiday with someone who had left her long ago, the detail of the shadows it cast in a bedroom she would never see again. She could move through streets she had seen once years before and they were as familiar to her as the streets of Camden Town; she could drift among the spires of ancient cathedrals at the heart of mediaeval cities, or across the rooftops of skyscrapers and apartment blocks, and observe the activities of the people below as they walked and ran, bought and sold, stopped and talked, rested, played, or stole, looked happy, worried, interested, morose, busy, bored or dangerous. She could read the feelings on their faces, she knew where they were going, where they had come from and why, and she knew where she had seen them all before, and if they had spoken, what they had said to each other.

She could go down and join them, appearing suddenly as another face in the crowd, another shopper, walker, passer-by, one more element in the scene that was being played out eternally in the place she had chosen to be. she spoke to the people, renewed friendships, mended relations that had broken down irrevocably, and exhibited effortlessly blinding repartee to good-looking men who had left her to go back to their attractive but stupid wives. She could pick up cheaply bits of statuary and furniture that she had wanted for ages, and this time they would not be fake, damaged or hugely overpriced. She haggled confidently and successfully, and what she bought was of exquisite taste and never turned out to be the wrong colour for the wallpaper.

The weather was perfect, it would even rain in Timbuktu if she wanted it too, and she had known sunshine in Manchester in March, and the restaurants in Monte Carlo served the finest lobster all year round and the man she was with would always pay. Their conversation would be easy and intimate, he would fall in love with her, he would have none of the defects that most men seemed to have and she would do or say none of the stupid things that always led to the tension, misunderstanding, confusion, suspicion, mistrust and distance which finished every attempt at a serious relationship that she had had. While she floated, and manipulated this other mind, it was easy. There were no hazards, no one remembered things she wanted forgotten, no one noticed things they shouldn’t have, no one interpreted anything other than in the way she intended, no one wanted anything she wasn’t able to give, no one hid anything that mattered from her, making her guess what she had to say or to do or to offer or to be, and getting it wrong.

Susan often liked to be alone while she floated. She could have people around her, as background, as a form of company, to serve her, but not to require anything of her or even be aware of her, not to judge her, speak to her, block the sun, or have any memory of her unless she wanted them to have it. At times there is nothing like having an entire Caribbean beach to yourself, with a bar and a barman who laughs at everything you say, understands why you are there and when you need another chilled rum, and never closes until you want to leave. A beach of white sand and clear green water, both apparently limitless, and a hammock that doesn’t turn itself inside out every time you move, and a in the distance children having fun, people walking and laughing happily, but never between you and the water, old men at the bar telling jokes that are just funny enough, and talking about local matters with just the right level of interest, and a hundred yards away, a hotel with a good restaurant and a comfortable bed for when you are tired of doing nothing. Not that she needed to sleep when she was floating. Rest, yes, often, but not sleep.

And at other times she visited people. There was times when she had to revisit someone, at a specific moment and in a specific place, to have the conversation they should have had, to do what they should have done but did not, to change a single detail of the encounter, a phone that rang, or that didn’t, a taxi that came too early, a wedding ring that should not have existed, a doubt in the mind of one of them that ruined everything else, a painful tooth, a badly chosen dish, a missed implication, a moment of fear. So many things that could matter so much and change entire lives, and how easy it was when she floated to make a small adjustment and everything was all right again. How easy it was.

She could invent the future, too. She met people she wanted to see again, and they enjoyed each others company in the ways that she wanted. She saw people she had not seen for a long time, lost friends from her youth, colleagues promoted out of the firm, attractive neighbours who didn’t seem to look at her carefully enough, and they would be as successful as she wanted them to be, as happy as she chose, as attentive as her whim might decree. And they always paid for dinner.

Once she had identified the best, and only bought the best, the floating was without any limits. She could visit the origins of the universe, and contemplate the Big Bang. Here there were fewer details, but it was full of immensely powerful points of light, and infinite darkness, and exploding colours of pure energy which should have swallowed her up but she was protected by her belief in her own invincibility. Nothing could touch her when she was floating. She saw hydrogen atoms go past her at the speed of light, and neutrinos drift by on their way to the end of time, she saw everything that would ever be, and everything she would ever experience, but, like in dreams, it was gone from her the moment she returned to herself. But to know it was there, and that she could see it, was wonderful. The feeling did not disappear immediately with the knowledge, and she could hold onto it for a while as she returned to life.

She could go to the end of the universe, and found it relaxing, but not interesting. The entropy of the universe rose until there was complete uniformity of energy and substance, everything that had ever existed was distributed so evenly that there seemed to be nothing at all. Nothing moved, nothing shone, and the nothingness, which was infinite, was expanding constantly to fill an even greater infinity which arose around it to accommodate it. It was not quite dark, it was possible to see the nothing, but it was not lit with any form of light. There were times, rare times, when she would visit this place, to escape from everything, to escape even from the floating itself. To enter dreamless sleep.

More interesting was the end of the world. The sun, brilliant red, expanding through space at tremendous speed, to engulf the Earth and boil it into its component particles, the heavy elements that had been born in the hearts of stars finally being destroyed in the heart of the dying sun, and returning to the hydrogen they had once been. This was entertainment for a Saturday night, and not old films on the television or clubs full of loud music and drunken children. It was a strangely satisfying sensation to contemplate this from within and to know that there would never be anything else ever again. She could watch it from the surface of the Earth or just above, and see the flames sweep over her and in a moment effect a purifying, total annihilation. The Earth whose death she witnessed was no longer inhabited by human beings, nor by any identifiable form of life. The patterns of the continents had changed so much that they were completely unrecognisable, and the very colours of the planet were closer to yellow and red than to the familiar blue and green. It was an old Earth, not ready for sudden death, but past maturity; an Earth that had lived, and had little more to contribute.

The night sky drew her at times, when she would rise up into the darkness to be among the stars, and look down on the sleeping world, that seemed to be at peace. She rose above the details, the suffering, the vice, the dark deeds in the streets, the illness and fighting in the houses, the loneliness, the poverty, the longing, and she saw only the comforting blanket of quiet and dark, and the equally comforting points of light that gave hope to those who needed it and dispelled the fears of the nervous. She could ride on the moon, see what it saw, explore its bright and rocky surface, stand at the night line with one foot in the dark and the other in the sun, when the playful mood was on her, climb the sides of craters and slide down into the dust, her skirt riding up behind as it had when she had gone down the slide in the park as a girl. She could leave the surface and rise to one of the Lagrangian points of the Earth and Moon, and sit there, motionless, feeling no gravity, drawn to neither of them, bobbing about in stable equilibrium. Another kind of floating, one the universe and the laws of physics created for her, she had no need to do anything. From that point she could watch both Earth and Moon, and contrast the light as it reflected from them, and compare the size of them- they looked almost exactly the same from where she was. She could not decide at those times whether she preferred the brilliant white of the moon or the cooler and more varied tones of the Earth.

She surfed on the rings of Saturn and whirled in the red spot of Jupiter, she rolled and bounced along the canals and rills of Mars, and walked on the cold mass of Pluto just so she could say she had. She climbed in the Himalayas and descended into the cones of volcanoes, she swam on the ocean floor in the Marianas trench and observed the strangeness that was life at those depths. She bathed within clouds and warmed herself in forest fires."

Friday, December 24, 2010

Abortion in Ireland

The European Court of Human Rights has declared something to the effect that Ireland’s almost total prohibition of abortion is not acceptable to it and must be changed in some way. The full judgement is here and is worth reading, as these things usually are, not least because it is being represented by frothing EU* sceptics (and I am usually an unqualified supporter of the frothing fraternity) as the EU imperiously ignoring democracy and the will of the people and decreeing law in an arbitrary fashion for its own ends. Much as I dislike the idea and the practices of the ECHR, it does not act imperiously or arbitrarily, and its decisions are based on the facts, the representations and the relevant law**, all carefully documented in the judgement.

The problems begin when quite a lot of that law was not made by the people it is being applied to, and when a lot of it only exists as a result of previous interpretations, by courts and commissions, of laws, regulations and codes which were likewise not directly passed by the people or their elected representatives. There comes a point where the judgements and decisions, however well considered and carefully and precisely anchored in law, are based on laws which should not exist, and are illegitimate for that reason.

Just to clarify my own position on this, although it’s not relevant to the points I’m making, I instinctively feel abortion to be a barbaric act unworthy of any society that claims to be civilized.

This is not a question of the tyranny of the majority, of ‘we can’t have that sort of thing’. The whole argument hinges on whether an unborn child is or is not a human being***, or at what point the transition occurs. If the foetus is human it must be entitled to protection equal to that of its mother (which would not necessarily preclude abortion in some circumstances). If it is not human there is very little to discuss. The argument is seldom set out in these terms (which might suggest that I am wrong to strip it to its bones, but I think not).

The Irish people stated clearly, with their own voice****, their desire to recognise the humanity of the unborn child, with everything that entails. It is because the majority hold the foetus to be human that the majority may impose its will on the minority in order to protect another group. So the question becomes again, ‘are the unborn human?’

Medical science can only attempt to answer the question of whether an unborn child satisfies certain criteria for being human; it cannot, except very broadly, define what those criteria should be. This is not a scientific matter, but a moral one. Ultimately it is a matter of opinion. The defence of human life is taken very seriously by people of all political persuasions, and where they can, they ensure that the actions of their rulers reflect the importance that attach to the matter. The fact that not everyone agrees on the details only means that it is more important to discuss them. There is general acceptance that murderers are human, but considerable division on the question of whether their right to life remains absolute after the act of murder is proven.

It is unlikely that slavery would have been abolished in the Empire, or in the US, if some people had not defended the unfashionable idea that slaves, or those considered as potential slaves, were equal in humanity to the people enslaving them, regardless of economic or any other arguments. Bartolomé de las Casas prevented the enslavement of Indians in Spanish territory by arguing precisely that before King Felipe II (and by winning the argument he inadvertently started the Atlantic slave trade, but that’s the way it goes).*****

The point I'm trying to make here it is that is not a matter for the ECHR, but for the people of Ireland and their representatives, as is abortion law in Britain similarly a matter for us and for Parliament. The fact that different peoples and societies reach different conclusions of the humanity of the foetus shows that there is no obvious overaching truth in which to base a principle of law that is outside democratic control. Meanwhile, babies in Britain will continue to be killed and women in Ireland will continue to have their lives turned upside down and in some cases ruined, and those whose opinions have caused these things to happen will continue to search for an authority which can take the responsibility out of their hands. But there probably is no such authority, and it isn't the ECHR.

*Yes, I do know the ECHR is not an organistion of the EU.

**Article 8 of the Convention on Human Rights, of which much has been made in the judgement, is here. It is hard to see how it has been breached by Irish law, because Irish law itself has not been breached but that's judges for you.

***A referendum was held in 1983, resulting in the adoption of a provision which became Article 40.3.3 of the Irish Constitution, the Eighth Amendment (53.67% of the electorate voted with 841,233 votes in favour and 416,136 against). Article 40.3.3 reads as follows:
“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”
****We all like to dehumanise the people who we fear or despise, or who remind us of our inferiority, or inconvenience us greatly. History is full of examples, as is the modern day, and it is as common in modern Europe as in the more lawless parts of Africa over the last 30 years, in Nazi Germany or during the bloody persecutions of Elizabeth I, although perhaps less institutionalised and, thankfully, with less extreme results, at least at the moment. But it is only human to value ourselves more than others, and to attempt to rationalise any decision we take or opinion we hold, whatever the original reasons behind our choice.

*****In fact, being a clever chap, he presented a legalistic argument, rather than a strictly ontological one. He persuaded the King that the Indians, as residents in his lands, were his citizens and entitled to his protection. The conversation, which took place over many days and involved large numbers of lawyers and courtesans, each with their own interests, among which the discovery of moral truth is unlikely to have figured highly, must have been particularly fascinating.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Don't Shock a Flat-liner

I used to play golf with a cardiologist. A specialist in pediatric cardiology, recognised as an expert in his field. This was more than 15 years ago and he was over 50 then. A great chap and a fine doctor, but he wasn't in the best of form physically, and when he felt any kind of weakness in his general state, or an irregularity in his palpitations, he would gasp, grab me intensely by the arm and say, 'you don't think it's my heart, do you?'*

The point of which anecdote is to illustrate how we can lose all grasp of objective reañlity when we feel a powerful emotion like fear.

One thing I remember learning from him was the title of this post. He didn't put it that way, and he wasn't complaining about the TV (actually he was using it as a metaphor for some philosophical argument, the details of which I have forgotten). Anyhow, when the monitor goes 'beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep' in a medical drama, everyone rushes for the defibrillator, shouts things like 'charge to 360', 'stand back' and the patient bounces up and down like a dying halibut, this, though very dramatic, does not, apparently, reflect reality.

Here and here someone who knows about these things explains why not, and what really happens, and here someone else explains the conflict between the search for two different forms of dramatic tension, and how it might be resolved.

*I did try to answer him on occasions, but it didn't matter much what I said. The point is that a man who is frightened wants a friend to tell him he's at his side and there's no problem. It doesn't matter that the subject is an expert on hearts and the friend knows nothing about them.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

On Contempt for Office Boys (and Girls)

Every time I have anything to do with civil servants I feel a primitive urge to lay about me with something sharp in one hand and something blunt in the other. It's not simply that most of the paperwork they require you to do is unnecessarily complicated and time-consuming; it's not just that governments both local and national absolutely love to make you ask permission for every little thing, and pay through the nose even if they refuse to give it to you; these things are not directly the fault of the people you actually deal with, as the ones who create these systems are hiding in mediaeval palaces bought with public money and with armed guards on the doors.

No, what brings out the Viking in me is the laziness, incompetence, incivility and contempt with which people who do trivial bits of paperwork for a living treat the public which pays them and that they are there to serve. They have absolutely no idea of what it means to earn a living, of what it is to have your work assessed by someone who is wondering whether you are worth paying any more, to attend to clients who are paying for a service and expect to be satisfied, to have to turn up on time, leave late and work through your coffee break because there are things to be done, to see income depend on the time, effort, quality and quantity of the work you do. In short, they have no idea what it means to work in the productive economy. And they have absolutely no concept of the value of other people's time. If you try to explain any of this they look at you strangely, completely mystified. Most of them are socialists, obviously, because for them money really does appear to grow on trees.

I'm speaking of Spain, and on this occasion of the office for foreigners, but my experience in other deparments, and in England, has been very similar. I paid someone to do the paperwork for me, and only turned up for one part of the process for which they insist you come in person. Since it consists of stamping a piece of paper I have no idea why but they like to make you waste as much time as possible. In my case a couple of hours.

Most of the people who need to get or renew papers are economic migrants who can't pay an adviser and have to do it themselves. There was a group of Rumanians who clearly worked in the fields or on building sites and had spent the entire morning waiting to be called and 'processed'. There was some kind of computer problem, but no one was trying to solve it, no one was taking responsibility for it, no one was keeping the waiting public informed, no one was apologising. They just exchanged looks and snide remarks, not always sotto voce, about how people had no patience and how stressful it all was. And then they dismissed the Rumanians with 'you'll have to come back on Monday'. It's not the paperpushers who have lost a day's pay which they can ill afford, travelled to the city to be ignored for hours, and now have to convince the boss to let them lose another day's pay so they can try again next week. They don't care, because they do not understand service or money. And as I say, you can't explain these things. A lifetime in the civil service leaves you unable to understand what work really is.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

You Know you Want One

Since the need to earn a living has been getting in the way of blogging these last few days, I offer you this gratuitously cute picture of a young cousin to keep the thing ticking over. Picture dangled by its paws with cries of 'ooo' and 'aaaah' from here.

Update: Since some people need convincing, here is another image. I WANT ONE OF THOSE, AND I AM ONE OF THOSE

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Colours of Snow

Note: this was written on Sunday night.

It snowed on Thursday night and Friday morning. The farm when we arrived was 6 inches deep in snow, which I had never seen before (the house is very cold in winter and we don't come much). The country looks beautiful under thick, untouched snow. The sky was blue and bright, there was no wind and there was a brilliance and stillness about everything you rarely experience. The country isn't silent, as some people fondly imagine; it's filled with the calls and flappings of birds, the chirpings of innumerable insects, the bangings and scrapings of rabbits, hares, foxes, wildcats, wild boar and others careering through the undergrowth, the wind in the trees, even the hum of electricity in the wires. I never take music or a radio when I go out walking (unless the Athletic are playing, of course) because you miss half the fun; you're not really there.

The snow showed up clearly the furrows in the fields, and even the cross patterns, with one set made by the plough and another by the sowing machine, and also the wobbly bits where the tractor driver was in a hurry to finish and get home. Snow-covered and with the low sun, they are much clearer than in high summer.

The sunset on Friday was magnificent, a swirling mix of blood reds, flame oranges, sizzling yellows and the shade of pink that can walk into a bar without being laughed at. All set near the horizon between a deep blue sky adn a pure white landscape. The photo is a poor reflection of the reality as we saw it, and if you painted it no one would believe you.

By Sunday morning most of the snow had gone, and only little patches of ice were left where some weight had compacted the snow; on the paths, tyre marks from the farm vehicles; in the fields and the hills, our own footmarks; and everywhere trails of little white dots that were the frozen pawprints of rabbits.

It's all gone now, and we just have cloud, wind and a bit of rain. Mud on the paths makes it difficult to walk. We are sitting by the fire, which seems the only thing to do. The logs are damp, so they spit from time to time, and the gamekeeper and I have differing views about how to build and maintain a fire, but it's burning, and later we'll cook dinner on it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Under Martial Law

Rabbit tracks in the snow
Note: this was written on Sunday evening and is unamended (in other words I haven't done any research, or even read the papers).

Anyone who came here looking for enlightened and enlightening comment on the Spanish air traffic controllers' strike will, I fear, be disappointed.  I have beenb deep in the country these last few days and have no internet access, and little interest in the real world. I only found out about it by chance as I took a radio to listen to the football.

Don't believe anything you read in the British press, by the way; I guarantee they will know even less than I do about it.

The facts appear to be as follows: the air traffic controllers' union called, for Saturday, an illegal and abusive strike, deliberately causing utter chaos at the start of what is for many people a five-day holiday here. The (socialist) government responded by declaring a state of alarm, as set out in the Constitution, for the first time in democracy. It's a rung or two below a state of emergency, and in this case involved pacing Spanish airspace under martial law, and the controllers under military discipline and at the orders of the military high command. By refusing to work they would be liable to court-martial. They quickly scuttled back to work, but the state of martial law will last for two weeks, and they may ask permission of parliament to extend it over Christmas and New Year, in case the union gets ideas again.

Those who didn't work on Saturday, the majority, will be investigated and may be disciplined or charged and they could be held personally liable for the losses they have caused to the airports, airlines and passengers.

The opposition, centre-right, Popular Party has expressed its support for the decisions the government has taken, although it reserves the right to slag them off about it later when it's all over.

So much for the facts. The rest of this post is speculation, unless I can be bothered to do some research.

I don't know what the controllers were complaining about, but since they earn a lot of money and are almost impossible to sack they don't have much to complain about, and they don't have the sympathy of the public, 90% of whom would kill to have their problems. I couldn't say whether the threat to law and order or to the economic activity of the country was really great enouh to justify placing civilians, even greedy, irresponsible civilians, under martial law, but it seems an extreme reaction.

The opposition was quite right to support the government now, but they will make great political capital out of it later. Among other things because a home office minister said that it was the dutry of an opposition to stand by the government, forgetting that when Spain went to war in Iraq, and was later attacked by Islamic terrorists, his party and himself, then in opposition, did not support the gover4nment but played a nasty game of politics with national security.

The current opposition is genuinely centre-right, not remotely extreme, but it has inherited a little DNA from the Falange, which it is not allowed to forget. The governing socialist party has democratic roots, but it has some Marxist DNA, including recent intromission, and still has extreme factions within it. Even so the Popular Party, had it taken this decision to impose martial law, would have been called fascists and tyrants, and would have faced calls for civil unrest from the very people who have, in fact, taken that decision themselves. This will be pointed out at length later on by the opposition leader when it can no longer be construed as frivolity or disloyalty.

Btw, the prime minister, Zapatero, has disappeared. He hasn't been seen from start to, well, to whatever point we are now at. The party leaders, the real leaders, have clearly told him to stay indoors and to keep his mouth shut. It could not be clearer. He's barely competent at reading scripts, shaking hands and wearing suits for the cameras; when the time comes for real government they lock him in with his toys and tell him to leave it to the grown-ups.

The Ashes

If the purpose of life is cricket, then the purpose of cricket is to win the Ashes. To beat Australia is the summum of human activity. It is why we are bipedal, it's why god gave us opposable thumbs and an open glenoid process.

Life is a metaphor for cricket. Life is something the cricket lover does during the off-season, which happily has all but ceased to exist now. The true cricket fan, it is said, ias the man who notices in October that his wife left him in May. nowadays, unless there is simultaneous civil war in half a dozen countries, he will never notice at all.

The first Test at Brisbane was inconclusive, but it was the Aussies in the end who had to fight out the draw, in a game they had a good chance of winning at one point. Both batting sides looked good; both bowling attacks looked weak. By the time I can post this you will know the result of the Adelaide Test and so will I*, but whatever happens, England will have started it the happier, more confident side.

*Just found out. Now that is what cricket is all about; reminding Australian cricketers they are human. Nice one the chaps. Btw, I checked, and my wife hasn't left me, though I sometimes wonder why not.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Truth in Philosophy

Truth is always constrained by its field of application. The purpose if science, if not always of scientists, is to tell us something about the science itself. It may also be used, with extreme caution, to suggest to us something about the world.

Mathematics tells us nothing about the world. It tells us only about mathematics. When we say that something is true in mathematics we mean that it has satisfied a large number of conditions, all of which relate only to the mathematics itself: it is derived from the axioms; it makes transparent use of rigorously manipulated assumptions to go from one step to another; it is general is scope, or defines the limits of its scope if it isn’t general; it subjects itself to rigorous criticism, and openly allows others to analyse and criticise it...  then we call it true, but only in the context in which it has validity.

It is logically consistent in its own terms- which it sets out and defines unambiguously- and within its limits of application- likewise described and defined unambiguously.

This what all good science does, but in mathematics it is relatively easy to satisfy the conditions in the previous sentence (or at least it is relatively easy for others to see if we haven’t, which keeps us honest). There is also very little motivation (though it is non-zero) for doing bad mathematics. It many fields it is not so easy to spot the errors, and there can be much greater motivation to unilaterally, and discreetly, relax the conditions.

The soft sciences, the humanities, and philosophy would be taken much more seriously if they applied these conditions to their own research, but sadly, too many of the practitioners in these fields are not even aware that they need to define truth in a way that can have meaning in the field and be consistently used as a test of whether they have in fact discovered anything new, and what it actually tells us, as opposed, for example, to spouting meaningless waffle.

Truth in philosophy can only be absolute, or perhaps it can only exist at all, if its terms are rigidly defined, those definitions are respected at all times, the logic that is used to analyse those terms in terms of one another is both coherent and transparent, and the scope of the results, the limits within which they can be said to be true, are clearly identified. This is perfectly possible, but only a very good philosopher can do it and still produce anything new and interesting.

Spinoza got himself in a terrible mess because, by choosing definitions of his terms which appealed to him at the outset, he had to reduce so much the range of applicability of his results that they tell us nothing useful about God or man as most of us understand him.

Kant did a better job of it, which shows it can be done. But these days it doesn’t make you money, or bring you fame. So most ‘philosophers’, ‘intellectuals’, and ‘thinkers’ that become known are nothing of the kind. People have very little idea of what an intellectual really is, because they don’t appear on television.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Prettiness and Beauty, and the Difference Between Them

I post this because of a chance remark made by a commenter on this thread at the Language Log, responding to a comment of mine: 

Prettiness is not a degree of beauty. It is a distinct quality, one that few know how to possess, and few to recognize. Prettiness is beautiful, as innocence is beautiful, courage is beautiful, but it is not beauty.. The beauty of a beautiful woman is debilitating. It produces in the normal man the same effect that any apparently impossible challenge will. A sinking of the heart. A surrender. It can only inspire great men to great things. Beauty has caused men to create music and poetry in imitation or homage, it has caused countless acts of bravado, some epic, some heroic, many destructive, it has filled minds to the exclusion of all else, it has ruined characters, emptied pockets and ended lives but it has never caused love. Prettiness alone speaks to the heart, and our humanity responds to it alone. Prettiness alone, the prettiness of the girl in the bar, can make an ordinary man want to go out and conquer Persia. It is not consciouness of beauty that makes us human, but of prettiness. Without it there could be no human love. It is what we are meant to see in our children. It is not the reasoned sacrifice of one soul for another in the name of God, nor the unthinking protection of an animal for its young. We need more than instinct, which we think we can control, and less than the love of God, which we cannot attain. So we have prettiness which can inspire anyone to anything.

Spanish has no word for 'prettiness' as I have described it, and it is  likely that few languages do, which means it is not a concept universally understood, but even so I am prepared to defend my interpretation.