I personally made the above image of the crossed-out robot to symbolize “AI Free Zone,” in order to stick it on my website. It took me days. Shucks, using AI, it probably would have taken mere seconds. But then that would have defeated the purpose. (And try explaining that to a robot.)
For years we’ve been hearing about the steady approach of the age of artificial intelligence. It sounded to me like dystopian sci-fi but I was too busy listening to old Bing Crosby LPs to spend any real time worrying. I bet the same goes for you. Then, whoops, I go look at Twitter and everyone’s talking about ChatGPT, which has come out of the “OpenAI” project (and it turns out that project is not so “open” anymore). In this and other incarnations AI is coming online but fast and it’s a highly commercial proposition. It’s about ready to do your job, supply your news, buy your house and play pretty melodies of its own composition on a banjo while you retire to another realm entirely.
You don’t hear as much about it as you should in the mainstream press, but then, by the time you read this, AI itself might be writing all those stories about the Trump indictment and the price of eggs, and supplying evidentiary photos and videos to boot. One of the things we’re going to have get used to most quickly is that AI does not merely have the ability to generate false news (on an unutterably massive scale) but because this ability exists it will be increasingly hard to persuade any critical mass of people (remember them?) of the undeniable truth of any actual news. And you thought it was hard enough already to keep track of which conspiracy theories have come true, which ones will come true in six months, and which ones will take another couple of years. The existence of AI will demand a much larger set of file folders to separate each day’s mis-information, dis-information, mal-information, and that rare but potential actual plain information. The good news is that AI can print all the necessary labels for you.
Do you want to listen to music composed by AI, or read stories and poetry written by a machine, no matter how seemingly beautiful and compelling? I don’t. I think the very concept has a strong scent of evil about it. Yet, I’m fully anticipating that anyone who thinks like me will very soon be regarded much like a member of some primitive tribe in the wilderness who thinks that having his photo taken steals his soul.
But advanced computerization is not really the problem. It can achieve amazingly good things, like new medicines and more evocative emojis. The problem is to whose service the technology is ultimately devoted. Is it for average Joes? Well, it’s not an auspicious time to be born as an average human being. Populations have been in decline in many societies across the globe, and this extinction syndrome is spreading. Notwithstanding this, humans continue to be under attack at the beginning of their lives, with abortion, and at the later stages, with euthanasia, and increasingly at points in-between, with judgments being made about the worthiness of life for people afflicted with any kind of suffering that defies easy cure.
And since multiple generations of schoolchildren have been taught that humans are responsible for world-ending global warming, many self-identifying homo-sapiens are inclined to believe that the universe would be better off without us.
Enter artificial intelligence, which promises to be able to do many of the things that used to be the sole bailiwick of the human animal, and the average Joe and Jill are soon going to be wondering what they’re even here for. They won’t be the only ones wondering. AI becomes the latest tool which the powerful possess to corral the regular folk into being controllable citizens.
Somebody once wrote:
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
That was some pretty good stuff someone came up with, before the computer, before the typewriter, before the ballpoint pen, before paper. That notion of the human being having been made in the image of God has been a touchstone; it has not made this world perfect, but it has been invoked countless times to reverse great injustice and horrible cruelty. Even if you’re an atheist, you need some rationale that asserts a special sanctity to human life, or else everything becomes utilitarian, and people are valued only for what they can do, instead of simply for what they are.
Artificial intelligence is going to test such notions to an extent they’ve never been tested. And it’s screaming into the station at about 200 miles per hour. The only thing the techies seem to agree on is that the engine has no brakes. And they built it!
* * *
But never fear. Anytime you need a goofy little article by a flawed piece of flesh and blood on music, occasionally one about a book or a movie, maybe with a bit of topical commentary, and a good indigestible swirl of half-baked philosophizing, this human will be somewhere in the vicinity of this website writing one (or at least thinking about it).
That is, until my plug gets pulled, by AI, or the real Big Guy—whichever comes first.
In New York City a few days ago, a deranged and homeless 61-year-old man pushed a 40-year-old woman directly into the path of an arriving subway train, causing her immediate death. It’s far from an unprecedented crime, and the New York news has been filled with disturbing events for some time now, but this was one of those incidents that rises above the stream and engages people’s sense of horror for a little more than the typical 10 minutes. The woman was by all accounts an exceptionally lovely and decent person, and one who actually did voluntary work on behalf of the homeless. The man pushed her in front of the train without warning and for no reason at all. Later he publicly confessed the crime, shouting to reporters, “Yes I did. I’m God, I can do it.”
It’s a haunting statement, even from a lunatic, because we can actually understand his logic. “I’m God”—I possess the power of life and of death. That woman was alive, with friends, family, energies, affections, things to do, a future; he just gave her a quick push and now she no longer exists in the material realm. He delivered death, to be sure. Unlike God, however, he does not have the power to give life. That’s where his logic breaks down. He can neither create life where none is manifested nor resurrect what once was living. Dishing out random death is a cheap and evil imitation of God. But it does get people’s attention. This man should have been receiving compassion and help—in the form of mandatory treatment as needed—as should countless other broken human beings wandering the streets of New York City and similar places. Allowing them the right to horribly degrade and destroy themselves in full public view is not compassionate, as if that should even need to be said; and yet this society is so off the rails that it does need to be said.
Nevertheless, that statement of his—“I’m God, I can do it”—has been lingering in my mind, and it has seemed to me that he is far from alone in that aspect of his derangement. There are a lot of mad things going on in the world. And two particular afflictions which have descended upon us in very recent years can both be seen to be springing from extremely arrogant and ham-handed attempts to take the place of God.
The first, I would suggest, is the COVID-19 virus, and its associated global dislocations. When it first emerged in Wuhan, the desperate attempts at cover-up undertaken by the Chinese regime were strong evidence that it had escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where it was well known that they were experimenting with coronaviruses. At this point—over two years later—the continued refusal of the Chinese regime to release all of their data, along with the total global failure to identify a natural origin, make it a lead-pipe cinch that it did indeed come from that laboratory. If the Chinese regime could provide strong evidence to the contrary, they would assuredly have done so by now. The conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies (who have unlimited resources!) some months ago that they couldn’t come to a conclusion on the origin of Covid-19—because the Chinese weren’t being open enough!—is laughable to the point of obscenity, and is alone reason to burn those organizations to the ground and build something superior in their place.
Yet for everything that has happened due to COVID—five and half million deaths and counting, the disruption of every aspect of human activity—there remains a stunning lack of interest in identifying the true cause of the disaster and taking action to prevent a repeat of something similar or even worse. We fight amongst ourselves about masks and lockdowns and vaccine mandates, and meanwhile as far as we know there are continuing experiments being done in China (and other places) on dangerous viruses, to enhance their transmissibility and lethality. It is as if we just accept that this is OK. Or, at least, it’s probably OK; it just doesn’t rise to the level of real concern. Time is much better spent yelling at each other about masks. Well, maybe it is OK: maybe that experiment that went wrong has been worth all of the deaths, the suffering, the damage to societies all over the world. After all, the smart people seem to think so. In 2012, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States anticipated such a turn of events and said it would be worth it. Addressing the risks of gain-of-function viral research, he said:
In an unlikely but conceivable turn of events, what if that scientist becomes infected with the virus, which leads to an outbreak and ultimately triggers a pandemic? Many ask reasonable questions: given the possibility of such a scenario – however remote – should the initial experiments have been performed and/or published in the first place, and what were the processes involved in this decision?
Scientists working in this field might say – as indeed I have said – that the benefits of such experiments and the resulting knowledge outweigh the risks. It is more likely that a pandemic would occur in nature, and the need to stay ahead of such a threat is a primary reason for performing an experiment that might appear to be risky.
However, there’s no evidence that this pandemic came from nature, despite the continued attempts to obfuscate by the Chinese regime and others who have an incalculable stake in evading blame. So it seems the wrong bet was placed. The consequences of this kind of experimentation going awry have now been felt, and are continuing to be felt and to multiply. Should we not be asking, and very, very loudly: Was it worth it? And what can we do to prevent it happening again?
Yet other than a precious few, those in a position of responsibility in our societies don’t seem to be asking these crucial questions at all, and the rest of us in the seething masses seem satisfied enough to continue being consumed with our distractions. The man who made that statement in 2012 about how it would all be worth it is currently the Chief Medical Advisor to the President of the United States, and someone we all know very well from listening to his advice these past two years about how to protect ourselves from this escaped gain-of-function experiment.
To summarize: the rationale for doing work that some would simply call evil on its face—fiddling in a lab with viruses to deliberately make them more contagious and more deadly—was that it was scientifically necessary in order to “stay ahead” of a similar virus appearing in nature. But how “ahead” were we, for all this experimentation, when COVID-19 did emerge? Two years into it, the best U.S. and global medical scientists are still utterly failing to come up with a way to end the pandemic and its associated miseries. And since it’s all but certain it didn’t come from nature, we can add that scientists have also failed to come with a way of stopping the very menace that scientists themselves created in a laboratory.
Simply put, this is unacceptable. These gain of function experiments which have cost the world so much constitute a clear example of recklessly and stupidly playing at being God. They create new and lethal pathogens which no one can prove that nature would ever generate on its own. Yet, instead of outrage, it is as if a fog has descended on everyone’s mind. We argue and brawl on the sidelines while the architects of the disaster supply us with brickbats to use against one another. Why are people so far unwilling to rise up and demand a certain end to this horrific research, in China and anywhere else it may occur, and for accountability from those who created and (we can only assume) accidentally released COVID-19?
One reason, I’d suggest, is that science itself is today held up as something to revere, and never to question. Yet science is merely a method of acquiring knowledge through experimentation, and through trial and error. It is a tool: an effective one, but one which has no consciousness of its own. Science as such possesses no inherent rightness or morality or concern. It is up to us to impose and expect those things of those who use the tool, i.e., those who practice science. As with any tool, it can be used for good or for evil. You can worship science if you like—and it seems many do—but you would be just as well off in worshiping a rock. Just like the rock, science as such has no knowledge of you, and has no salvific quality in and of itself. The rock can fall and crush you and it will never know or care. It is exactly the same with science. And scientists who believe themselves to be qualified to operate on a God-like level are deeply wrong and they are among the most dangerous people on Earth today.
This fallen world possesses countless diseases already. Science should not be put to work in devising new, Frankenstein viruses that no one can understand or control. It is appallingly arrogant and plainly evil to do so. How about devoting those brains and resources instead to creating broad spectrum medicines, therapeutics and treatments aimed at making people well? That, God knows, is the proper business of scientists.
The second example of an affliction of very recent years that I’d suggest has sprung from a false sense of being God is the amazingly successful movement to abolish the concept of biological sex. The idea that maleness and femaleness are simply social constructs has been around for a long time, of-course, brought up intermittently by lovable kooks. But the lovable kooks have turned into therapists, doctors, teachers, administrators, bureaucrats, lawmakers, judges, and much more. This doesn’t make the abolition of biological sex any more sensible or based upon fact. A denial of reality on that scale, for an individual or a society, can only end in catastrophe. We are already seeing the blowback in terms of an increasing number of those who “transitioned” since the hysteria began on this subject seeking “de-transitioning,” but the abuse inflicted upon their bodies and minds by ready and willing medical professionals will never be completely undone.
There used to be a line you’d hear—I’m sure it’s out of fashion now—that goes something like: “God doesn’t make mistakes.” There are variations. “God don’t make no junk.” But lucky us: we’ve moved on from all that kind of thinking now. Another mantra used to be, “Love yourself.” Also there was the idea of demanding others to “accept me as I am.” All of these concepts can be abused, but they all are getting at a fundamental truth. You are neither born useless nor broken. Everyone is precious and has a purpose and worth in the eyes of his or her Creator, and should likewise be valued by others. When it comes to sex, there have always been girls or women who favored more “masculine” styles or pursuits, just as there have always been boys or men who have inclined towards the “effeminate.” This is not even to talk of sexual behavior, which is, after all, another subject; this is simply about personality and identity. There’s nothing wrong with being a butchy female or a flamboyant guy, or anything along the spectrum. There never has been anything wrong with it. People get made fun of, naturally, especially as schoolchildren, but it’s the people making fun who are in the wrong.
Or at least that’s how decent people used to think. We’ve forgotten all that now. Now, being a somewhat masculine female or a slightly feminine male is something that is all wrong; in fact it’s something that needs to be fixed. You need surgery, hormones: you need to shape up! Chop off the breasts, slice up the genitals, get the silicone, swallow the chemicals: get right, get happy! Now kids are being raised to look in the mirror—even as toddlers!—and question if they’re in the right body or not. (And I thought childhood in the 1970s was hard.) This is all so utterly crazy and cruel that no amount of browbeating and politically correct intimidation should ever force anyone to accept that it is in any way right.
Life is very properly a journey in finding out both who you are and who you want to be, but this is in a holistic and especially a spiritual sense. Allowing your body to be mutilated by unscrupulous quacks in the name of “fixing” some mistake allegedly made by your Creator is not a path to happiness, but rather an exercise in self-hatred. People, and children most of all, should not be encouraged to hate themselves. They need to be encouraged to hold themselves in high regard, despite the inevitable confusions that are part of growing up. And they need—what’s that word?—oh yeah, love.
The other notion in vogue—that people can simply call themselves by any gender or invented gender they like regardless of their biological reality—is obviously even more absurd, although at least bodies aren’t wrecked by it if it goes no further. But compelling others to use patently false pronouns and other deceitful language is an assault on truth that seriously impoverishes and demeans us all.
At the root of these problems, again, is a failure to acknowledge the role of God, and to instead take it upon oneself, or to be taught that one needs to take it upon oneself. But we didn’t create ourselves, and taking knives and chemicals to supposedly make our bodies match our identities is like trying to use a hammer to bang a snowflake into a better shape. It is destruction and not creation. Those who are at the present time successfully selling this hideous lie to helpless children ought to rethink it, or failing that, find themselves some millstones and a sea to swallow them up.
In all of the above, and much more besides, things seem so wrong these days. But in the long-term, the terrible conceit inherent in presuming oneself to be God and acting accordingly always brings its punishment upon itself, and a correction occurs. As someone once sang, “There’s a law, there’s an arm, there’s a hand.”
Of-course what one longs for is an ultimate correction, so we can’t make the same mistakes over and over again.
That, I guess, is still somewhere beyond the horizon.
“The person will get into the capsule and lie down. It’s very comfortable.”So says Philip Nitschke, he of the organization Exit International, which has developed a device called the Sarco. It is a lovely, blue, pod-shaped machine. You get in, get comfortable, answer a few questions on a computer screen, and then press a button which causes the interior of the device to be flooded with nitrogen gas. Within 30 seconds you’re expected to be even more comfortable—if unconsciousness equates to comfort—and in 5-10 minutes you can look forward to being dead as a doornail. Luxurious indeed!
It has reportedly passed legal review in Switzerland and could go into operation in 2022. You’ll be able to have it delivered to your home, or some idyllic pastoral setting, or even—the better to reduce transportation costs—right beside your pre-dug grave. After all, it seems sensible to make the whole thing as easy as possible. Back to Philip:
Currently [in Switzerland] a doctor or doctors need to be involved to prescribe the sodium pentobarbital and to confirm the person’s mental capacity. We want to remove any kind of psychiatric review from the process and allow the individual to control the method themselves.
It’s a wonderful world, and getting more so every day, it seems. Just for fun, I wonder if someone might start up a competing service. In this case, someone would come to your house, but without having to carry the blue Sarco suicide pod with them. They wouldn’t have to bring anything. They come in, sit beside you, and talk to you. And they listen to you, to anything you want to say, about your suffering and your hopelessness. When they do speak, it is to remind you of the immeasurable value of seeing the sun rise on another day, of breathing in the air, and of your own incalculable worth as a human being. They get to know you, and to know the things that encourage you and move you. They return regularly, and help you squeeze every drop of value from the remaining days of your precious life. In so doing, they also reap a rich reward and are themselves immeasurably improved.
But, let’s face it, that’s all quite a bit of effort. Better the blue pod: no muss, no fuss—just the nitrogen, please!
The practice of euthanasia has for some time been spreading in the Western world. This is at the same time as birth rates (and not only in the Western world) have been shrinking well below replacement level, making the extinction of particular nations and cultures something that is coming down the track with the steadiness of a freight train. As this syndrome seems to affect societies more intensely as they become more affluent, it may well turn out to be the final solution for the whole human race. Imagine!
Activists devoutly fight for the right to die, and the right of others to kill themselves without compassionate interference. And at the other end of things, activists passionately fight for the right to eliminate babies in the womb before they can take a breath for themselves or see the sun rise even once, and all this even as the population is headed for catastrophic aging and decline.
What is the source of this kind of unnatural hopelessness that is afflicting entire societies? Is it only short-term comfort and convenience that matter? Is there no higher purpose? If so, then what’s really the point? Why not just put in an order for the lovely blue pod right now? Skip whatever suffering remains; avoid those repetitive trials and obstacles. All in all, it’s most likely better not to have been born (as in the recent court decision in the UK).
“[G]et into the capsule and lie down. It’s very comfortable.” So goes a civilization. No dramatic climate catastrophes or nuclear conflagrations required. What a relief!
Yet, I just wonder if that last person, right after pushing the button for the nitrogen, will for a fleeting moment recall a flash of—oh, say something along the lines of Deuteronomy 30:19, and experience one nanosecond of terrible regret.
For all the wokeness going around, we truly need to wake up, and with unseemly haste.
Yet one more appreciation of the great Leonard Cohen, this one from yours truly at First Things:
Leonard Cohen was a Canadian, but he was the poet laureate of another nation: a nation of souls by turns sensitive, lost, alienated, ecstatic, bitter—souls seeking truth through the fog of modernity. Cohen was one of those rock-era poets (and arguably the only genuine poet among them) who sounded like he knew something of the utmost importance, even as he spent most of his time sidestepping … (click here for the rest)
Do you believe that looking at yourself in the mirror makes you smart? Do you tend to presume that other people whom you see looking into mirrors must therefore be very smart? You may fail to see the connection between mirror-gazing and intelligence—let alone wisdom—but there’s a school of scientific thought that employs it as a yardstick in judging the intelligence of animals. Coming across this idea recently (not for the first time) made me decide, in consultation with my dog, that it was time to clear it up once and for all.
The theory goes something like this: Chimpanzees can be coaxed to examine themselves in the mirror. They can identify odd things put by scientists on their faces as being on their faces, and can even be seduced into playing around with make-up, hats and funny glasses. It has yet to be proven but perhaps—given sufficient patience and the right equipment—they can eventually come to enjoy such rewarding pastimes as injecting themselves with botox or collagen. Scientists tell us that this all proves that they are self-aware, just like human beings (self-awareness being understood as “the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals”).
Dogs, by contrast, commonly ignore their reflections in mirrors.
Dogs, by contrast, commonly ignore their reflections in mirrors. So, we are told, they lack self-awareness, and this puts them on a lower rung of intelligence as compared to chimps or any other creature that can recognize and be fascinated by its own image in the looking-glass.
Yet, merely by observing my own little dog and making logical inferences based on her behavior, I am convinced that this is the boldest nonsense.
Let’s consider how dogs can be observed to deal in general with two-dimensional images of living beings. Anyone who’s owned a dog will likely have observed these things, but I’ll talk about my own dog, a small female mutt named Billie. Like many owners, I directed her attention to a mirror for the first time when she was quite young — still in puppyhood. And she reacted as most dogs will on first looking into a mirror: she seemed to think she was seeing another dog, and struck a playful stance as she would with most real dogs. She lost interest pretty quickly in the dog in the mirror, however, and trying to attract her attention to her reflection in mirrors on subsequent occasions fell flat. Pointing to her image in a mirror would at best make her sniff the exact spot I pointed to, as if there might be something good or edible there. You would think from her behavior that her own image was completely invisible to her, for all the attention she paid to it.
At the same time, like many dogs, she has proven capable of recognizing images of animals on a television screen. She will pay attention to a nice nature show with good images of interesting animals for several minutes (before falling asleep). On a few occasions she has approached the screen to sniff at especially exciting animals. So it’s quite clear that she recognizes the animals as being animals and on some level wonders as to their reality. She has also reacted with evident interest (signified by perked up ears and close visual attention) to still images of, for example, the face of a wolf or of a cat or even of a person she knows. She therefore has no great difficulty in recognizing what such two-dimensional images represent. (She has no interest in images of rocks or buildings or other inanimate things.)
The inescapable answer is that she does recognize it, and recognizes it as being herself, and for that very reason considers it to be of no interest whatsoever.
But how then can she be so oblivious to her own image in a mirror, which can only be more lifelike than any image on an electronic screen? The inescapable answer is that she does recognize it, and recognizes it as being herself, and for that very reason considers it to be of no interest whatsoever. She is interested in what another animal might do, but quite logically she has no curiousity whatsoever about what she herself might do, and she possesses no scintilla of vanity regarding her own looks.
About a year ago it occurred to me at some idle moment to try the mirror test one more time: she being much older and calmer, and me being slightly wiser as to how to give her directions. I placed her on a chair she couldn’t escape from, directly facing a mirror a few inches away. Getting her to look into the mirror would not constitute success; only getting her to look directly at herself would count. Using the most careful and calm words and gestures, I am of the belief that I actually briefly succeeded. “Look at you, look at Billie.” For a few moments, at least, I saw her look directly into her own eyes. She held her own gaze long enough for it not to have been a random thing. But other than that she had no obvious related reaction. She then turned to look at me, and wagged her tail slightly. If she could speak, I think she would have been saying, “OK … now what?”
And “Now what?” is precisly the unanswerable question. There is no utility to Billie in looking at her own reflection. She is aware it is herself—i.e. she is self-aware—but in the absence of vanity or neuroticism about her appearance, there is simply no response for her to make to it. The image of herself in the looking-glass may as well be invisible.
In anticipation of writing this reflection on reflections, I harassed Billie by putting her in front of a mirror one more time. This time I wasn’t trying to get her to look pointlessly at herself; I was just trying to get an appropriate photo to go along with the piece of writing (as you have to accompany everything on the internet with a picture or else it doesn’t exist). Billie kept turning her head to look at me as I took pictures, because she now expects to get treats when she poses for pictures (she works for peanuts: dry roasted, unsalted). I didn’t want her turning to look at me, so this was a bit of a problem. It was solved when she caught a glimpse of me in the mirror. She was satisfied to keep her eye on me there for a little while — long enough to take a series of shots including the one at the top and the one below here.
So she watched me in the mirror to keep herself informed as to whether I was reaching for a treat. In other words, she used the mirror entirely appropriately, understanding its function and purpose. She knew that the reflection of me was a true representation of me, in real time. Her own reflection continued to be of no interest whatsoever to her.
I have to conclude that this is not evidence of a lack of intelligence or “self-awareness,” but evidence instead of the employment of exceedingly practical sense and the total absence of useless vanity.
I don’t know if—overall—chimpanzees are “smarter” than dogs or not, but I think this comparison of the two animals’ behavior with mirrors demonstrates only one thing for certain: the moral superiority of the canine. Unless, that is, vanity is now officially listed among the virtues rather than the vices.
And if dogs possess this moral superiority as compared to chimps, the same equation does not come out very well for the only slightly less hairy ape writing these words.
And just to prove that there is indeed nothing new under the sun, the above conclusion is mirrored, after all, in Lord Byron’s famous “Epitaph to a Dog” from 1808.
Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
BOATSWAIN, a DOG,
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead Nov. 18th, 1808.
The Bible tells stories, that’s all; except that these stories cause tidal waves and earthquakes: the mountains leap, the mighty fall. (You just need to have the patience to watch it unfold.) Continue reading Happy Passover→
A few years back I wrote in this space about a public school in New York City that was utilizing the Hindu concept of karma to teach good behavior to its students, as evidenced by prominent signs both outside and inside the school referring to karma and relating it to specific behaviors. That was the Robert F. Kennedy school (PS 169) on the upper east side of Manhattan. The ultimate point of my piece was to highlight the double standard inherent in this vast official employment of a Hindu religious concept in an American public school, whereas posting the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes would have brought speedy intervention by those who are out there trying to protect young and impressionable minds from any Judeo-Christian influence. Why would the latter amount to a “state establishment of religion,” while plastering the entire school with postings about karma was regarded as entirely benign? I concluded that I didn’t really have a problem with the karma stuff, if it worked, but I did have a problem with the message implicitly being conveyed to students that Hindu religious concepts are fine to teach and follow, while the banned Judeo-Christian ones must be somehow toxic. Continue reading Karma Comes Up Short for Robert F. Kennedy School→
It was a passing thing, the merest of blips in the constantly gushing torrent of news, if even by chance one happened to have noticed it at all. It was simply this: Two widely reported celebrity deaths happened in quick succession, and both persons died at the age of 69. The first was the pop-music legend David Bowie, who reportedly died on January 10th, and the second was the actor Alan Rickman, who we’re told died on January 14th. (Both were also Englishmen.)
Marking Remembrance Day in Commonwealth nations, Canadian poet, songwriter and singer Leonard Cohen recites “In Flanders Fields,” a poem written in 1915 by John McCrae. (Below via YouTube, courtesy of Legion Magazine)
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
It is in returning to that poem written during the “war to end all wars” that so many across the English-speaking world mark the sacrifices of soldiers not only in that war but in those that came after it, and those that keep coming. The 20th century was notable for the great technological progress made by humankind, and much of that progress was speedily employed to bring death on scales hitherto unheard of, both in the fields of war and in the realm of state tyranny. On reflection, we would realize it’s always been that way: people just got especially good at it in the 20th century. Is there any reason to think the 21st century will prove an exception to the trend?
Unfortunately, the evidence of human nature changing for the better seems a little hard to come by. And on the other hand the evidence for weapons of war of maximum lethality getting into the hands of those eager to employ them is all around, both in the headlines and between the lines of stories that get little attention.
McCrae’s poem, more resonant with each passing year, will continue to echo and frame new sorrows. There is something about what occurred in Word War I that foreshadowed later catastrophes. But the existence of such poetry reminds us that, as long as we can still seek worthy words to say, all is not lost.
Yours truly is not a particularly friendly guy, as his friends would readily attest. My dog, a fourteen pound mutt named Billie, is quite different: a friend to anyone who makes eye contact with her. She is also quite different in the level of concern she’s capable of showing to unknown passersby. Life in the big city involves walking past countless individuals in states of relative disrepair; these include the addicted, the mentally ill, the disabled, the genuinely homeless and those who (for whatever reason) find setting themselves up in a busy location with the right begging schtick to be a worthwhile occupation. Billie will greet anyone who greets her, and has taken time for some I’d certainly rather walk right by.
So there has been another act of nihilistic mass murder in America, this time at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, where nine people were shot to death yesterday before the murderer himself was killed. And so there are many people crying, there are some people praying, and there are some taking sides in the political argument over gun control. Continue reading Paying God Back (in Oregon)→
Since when is racism the same as nihilism? He shot those people because they were black, it’s as simple as that. It has nothing to do with atheism or anything else you used to distract from that.
Well, I differ. Accounts indicate that Dylann Storm Roof was a depressed, messed up 21 year-old who previously had black friends, who had drifted into isolation, and had contemplated out loud the idea of attacking a college. I don’t find him to be a credible harbinger of a resurgence of old fashioned white supremacism. The white supremacist narrative was the channel his sickness took, but as evil as that is, it was not the root of the sickness. Continue reading Racism versus Nihilism→
It’s happened again—it happens every time, and there is no simple obvious solution that would prevent it from happening in the future, but it still needs to be said that the very worst thing that can be done in the aftermath of an act of horrific nihilistic violence such as occurred in Charleston, South Carolina a few days ago is to publish and propagate the “manifesto” of the perpetrator. This individual, a few moments before murdering these innocent people, had nothing but his own demented ramblings and photos of himself in his bedroom playing with a gun. By committing the mass murder, he has elevated this garbage in which he wallowed to the level of international news, for millions to peruse. How many similar sick souls are out there who are now encouraged all the more to take the same steps? We all should dread to think. Continue reading Manifestly Wrong: Charleston, the Media, and Nihilism→
Some female priests of the Church of England are reportedly advocating that liturgical texts ought to be changed to sometimes refer to God as “She,” instead of “He,” on the basis that God has no gender, and that to consistently refer to God as “He,” as has been traditional in Christianity, conveys the idea that maleness is somehow more divine, and that women are therefore lower on the spiritual ladder. Continue reading God: She, He, Or Gender Fluid?→
Researchers at Kwansei Gakuin University in Japan have been investigating whether rats are helpful to one another in times of trouble, and to what extent it might be said that they possess powers of empathy. To that end, they performed a series of experiments with rats in cages separated by a door that the rats could learn to open with their paws. They demonstrated that, in ordinary circumstances, a rat would not open the door to enable entry for another rat in the separate area of the cage. However, if the other rat were in distress—specifically by virtue of struggling in a pool of water—the rat in the dry area would tend to figure out how to open the door and allow that distressed rat inside to safety. Continue reading A Rat in Need …→
Pew Research Center study just came out finding a decline in the percentage of Americans who say they follow an established religion, and an increase in the percentages who claim to be either atheist or agnostic or “nothing in particular.”
The singer George Jones died two years ago. His widow Nancy Jones was recently interviewed, and she revealed something of what his final moments were like. He had been hospitalized for five days suffering with fever, blood pressure and respiratory problems. Nancy reports that over the course of those five days his eyes were closed, and he didn’t speak. Then, while she was talking with one of the doctors at the foot of his bed, he suddenly opened his eyes and said, “Well, hello there, I’ve been looking for you. My name’s George Jones.” And then, only moments later, he passed away.
Nancy is convinced that George was talking to The Man Upstairs. “I know in my heart he was talking to God and he has gone to heaven,” she said.
I don’t doubt for a moment that George Jones went to heaven (because if he went to the other place then the Devil really does have all the good music, and I don’t buy that) but I allow myself to idly wonder if it was specifically God he was talking to in that moment. Some others who’ve had similar very-near-death experiences and come back instead recall seeing a being or beings (familiar or not) who seem to be there to lead them onwards to that next level. No doubt an appointment with God is on the agenda, but, like Paul Simon said, you have to “wait in the line.” And I think on meeting God you’d understand that you don’t have to tell Him your name. So I do think George Jones was seeing an emissary, maybe something like a booking agent for the next world.
I am continually and genuinely perplexed when major Christian institutions—whether that be particular Protestant denominations or indeed the great Roman Catholic Church—seem to go out of their way to take official positions on matters of international relations that specifically run counter to the expressed security interests of the people of Israel. It is not at all that I think these churches ought to reflexively support the line of the Israeli government of the moment, but rather that I cannot understand why they feel obliged to put themselves out there officially on the given issue at all, versus merely doing what religious teachers are after all most qualified to do, which is to lead people in prayer for good and peaceful outcomes. Some of us Christians actually devoutly believe in the real power of prayer and conversely have much less faith in the power of bishops and priests to make accurate judgments on matters pertaining to hard-nosed international diplomacy, economics and military strategies. (Call us crazy.) Continue reading The Strange Inclination of Christian Church Institutions Against Israel→
William Tyndale (1494–1536) was the first person to translate the Bible directly from the Hebrew and Greek texts into English. His translation also formed the basis for the King James version, completed roughly 80 years later by multiple committees of translators. It’s been estimated that over 80% of the KJV New Testament is from Tyndale, and over 70% of the Old Testament. And since the King James Bible has been such an incomparably massive influence on the English language (almost a center of gravity since its publication) you could make the argument that no single individual has had more influence on the English language than William Tyndale. For his efforts, he was burned at the stake, as making the Bible available in the language of the common people was not a healthy occupation to be engaged in at the time. (Some may well be wondering whether it will be déjà vu all over again before very long, but that’s an altogether different kettle of fish.)
If Tyndale had set out to have an impact on the English language for centuries to come, he doubtless would have had no idea how to achieve it, and perhaps would have sat frozen at his desk, quill in hand, until his landlady threw him out on the street for being behind on his rent. No one could achieve a task so great by deliberately attempting it. The task he took on was monumental in itself, but at least specific: to put the Holy Scriptures into words that any English speaking person could understand. By performing this task to such a high standard, he simultaneously achieved things of which he couldn’t possibly have conceived.
It’s just a pity he missed out on all the royalties.
Tyndale’s original translations are available in the public domain, but the different spellings in common usage at that time make them laborious for the modern reader to get through. Fortunately, a scholar named David Daniell completed modern spelling editions of Tyndale’s Old and New Testaments some years ago, and here is a passage from the Gospel of Luke, chapter twenty-four:
On the morrow after the sabbath, early in the morning, they came unto the tomb and brought the odours which they had prepared and other women with them. And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre, and went in: but found not the body of the Lord Jesus. And it happened, as they were amazed thereat, behold two men stood by them in shining vestures. And as they were afraid, and bowed down their faces to the earth, they said to them: why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here: but is risen. Remember how he spake unto you, when he was yet with you in Galilee, saying: that the son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.
And they remembered his words, and returned from the sepulchre, and told all these things unto the eleven, and to all the remnant. It was Mary Magdalene and Joanna, and Mary Jacobi, and other that were with them, which told these things unto the apostles, and their words seemed unto them feigned things, neither believed they them. Then arose Peter and ran unto the sepulchre, and stooped in and saw the linen clothes laid by themself, and departed wondering in himself at that which had happened.
A happy and blessed Passover to all of those observing it from us at the CINCH HQ.
I’m a Christian, but I found fascinating a recent article in the Boston Globe on the exponential growth of the Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch organization. In the Boston area Chabad has grown from 7 synagogues to 26 over the past 20 years, but their growth has been nationwide and indeed worldwide. After the 1994 death of Chabad’s most recent leader, the by-all-accounts-inspiring Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, many suspected Chabad would fade away, but instead they have exploded, growing “faster in the last 20 years than in the previous century.” Where are their congregants coming from? Continue reading Chabad Making Old Things New→