Barrel Strength

Over-Proof Opinion, Smoothly Aged Insight

Barrel Strength - Over-Proof Opinion, Smoothly Aged Insight

The Jesuit Relations and other accounts

The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents: Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in North America (1690-1791)  is a marvelous collection of letters written by the Jesuit missionaries in New France to their patrons and religious superiors in France. The writing is clear, vivid and simple.

One is entranced by the absolute gulf in comprehension between the European Catholic intellectuals and their would be converts, who are called Savages, Hurons, Iroquois, Abenaki, and so forth, but never as Indians.

The Hurons tell them of their idea of sun and moon and comets, to the sly amusement of the know-it all European. They tell the Jesuits of their idea of the afterlife, where the souls of the hunters hunt and trap the souls of the elk, deer and beavers in the happy hunting grounds. “What happens to the souls of the dead animals,” asks the Jesuit, “do they go to a further heaven.?” The Indian has no answer for this and like questions. He has never thought about it. The Indian has never thought about it because systematic inquiry into nature is not what he does or can do. If Father Sun and Mother Moon beget a child, which is dark, there is no contradiction between the luminous nature of the parents and the and the darkness of the child. It just is. Everything is a “just so” story (rather like evolution – but nevermind).

The depictions of Indian warfare and cruelty never vary: they are in constant warfare, and their behaviour is cruel in the extreme. Here is a short story from 1649. A war band of Tobacco Indians had left a village around Chambly, Quebec to seek out a war party of Iroquois, who were thought to be outnumbered and on the run. Consequently their own village was defenceless.

It was on the seventh day of the month of last December, in the year 1649, toward three o’clock in the afternoon, that this band of Iroquois appeared at the gates of the village, spreading immediate dismay, and striking terror into the poor people, – bereft of their strength and finding themselves vanquished; when they thought themselves to be conquerors. Some took to flight; others were slain on the spot. To many, the flames, which were already consuming their cabins, gave the first intelligence of the disaster. Many were taken prisoner, but the victorious enemy, fearing the return of the warriors who had gone to meet them, hastened their retreat so precipitately, that they put to death all the old men and children, and all whom they deemed unable to keep up with them in their flight.

It was a scene of incredible cruelty. The enemy snatched from a Mother her infants, that they might be thrown into the fire; other children  beheld their Mothers beaten to death at their feet, or groaning in the flames, – permission in either case denied them to show the least compassion. It was a crime to shed a tear, these barbarians demanding that their prisoners go into capacity as if they were marching to their triumph. A poor Christian Mother, who wept for the death of her infant, was killed on the spot, because she still loved, and could not stifle soon enough her Natural feelings”.

-Father Paul Ragueneau

You can talk all you like about European settlement of North America, its depredations upon the native people both deliberate and inadvertent, such as smallpox and other “childhood” diseases which reduced their numbers by 95%. It was a catastrophic disaster for them, and they still have not recovered. But would any rational person hold that the endemic, cruel and mutual exterminations – and the psychological damage it did to both perpetrators and victims alike – constitute a model for how a society should be run?

In Christianity, only one person was crucified, in order that cruelty be abolished. The religion founded on the crucifixion of its founder has not completely triumphed, as we all observe. Can anyone doubt, however,  that Christianity marks a permanent and irreversible improvement in human behaviour, when compared to the universal and compulsory group savagery of what came before?

“Love is the only engine of survival” – Leonard Cohen

Being brought up short

Those not familiar with the English language might wonder about what “being brought up short” means: having one’s moral failings being called to one’s attention. It is a painful and humiliating experience, for those with a conscience. For those without a conscience, it is just an attempt at shaming, if that.

In two different places this week, I observed institutions “brought up short”. One was Matt Ridley’s column in the Times, in which he describes three different instances in the same month of science playing fast and loose with facts to achieve political ends: attempts to ban nicotinoid-based insecticides, faking evidence for global warming, and official blathering about extreme weather. Each one of these instances either concerned faked evidence, or where no evidence existed and the institution had spoken as if it existed.

The second was the blast in the National Post this morning about the CBC, the people’s broadcaster, whose views represent the Volvo-driving classes to the exclusion of all others.

Someone recently observed that the CBC is not about Canadian programming but programming Canadians to its enlightened view of how the world should work.

Nothing in this morning’s NatPost rant is different from anything conservative bloggers have been saying for years. The only novelty is that the view was expressed in a large national newspaper. When such views leave the Financial Post editorial section for the regular editorial section, I shall be even more impressed. If such views ever show up on the Globe and Mail’s editorial pages, I shall swoon in a transport of shock.

This brings me around to an opinion I saw yesterday in Ricochet which seems to encapsulate the views of our unelected governors in the mainstream media:

Many reporters and editors loathe how aware people have become of the journalistic process. They can barely conceal their anger at having the public (largely conservatives) challenge what, when, and how they cover the news. Their sins of commission have been understood for decades, with a heavy thumb on the left side of the scale for either cultural, institutional, or ideological reasons. Lately though, the media’s sins of omission are more deadly to their reputation and future — and being called on them has the press in a white-hot fury.

When the media was a kind of hermetic priesthood, they controlled what Americans read and saw. If the Washington Post or the New York Times didn’t cover a story, you could bet it wasn’t going to be on the evening news. If they didn’t cover a story real people were interested in, they could put it down to news judgment. There was no effective recourse and nowhere else to get to the story. They know their business model is under existential threat, but they’ve practically declared war on the majority of their potential customers.

….The legacy media largely produces a product they and their friends want. “Another gushing Hillary article? Can’t WAIT!” “Gosh, what Americans really need is another story on how we’re destroying the Earth and how global warming will kill our kids.” “Is Obama a great President, or the greatest President?” Legacy reporters and editors desperately miss that power to mediate the national dialogue.

Putting it all together, I observe a decline of the values which sustain the institutions on which we depend for science, news, and justice. We are concerned about the decline of science, and we are concerned about the decline of guardian institutions generally, but we are more concerned about the decline of culture which infuses all these institutions with vain, shallow, narcissistic, amoral, atheistic  people who think they are no better than meat machines, and behave as they believe they are. This kind of decline in people makes me think Christianity has a valid point.

As Saint Leonard Cohen said

When they said: repent, repent,
I wondered what they meant.

American Thanksgiving and Puritan Geopolitics in the Americas

 

Puritan Settlement

The painting “Desembarco de los Puritanos en America,” or “The Arrival of the Pilgrims in America,” by Antonio Gisbert shows Puritans landing in America in 1620. By Antonio Gisbert (1834-1902) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Summary

The first winter took many of the English at Plymouth. By fall 1621, only 53 remained of the 132 who had arrived on the Mayflower. But those who had survived brought in a harvest. And so, in keeping with tradition, the governor called the living 53 together for a three-day harvest feast, joined by more than 90 locals from the Wampanoag tribe. The meal was a moment to recognize the English plantation’s small step toward stability and, hopefully, profit. This was no small thing. A first, deadly year was common. Getting through it was an accomplishment. England’s successful colony of Virginia had had a massive death toll — of the 8,000 arrivals between 1607 and 1625, only 15 percent lived.

But still the English came to North America and still government and business leaders supported them. This was not without reason. In the 17th century, Europe was in upheaval and England’s place in it unsure. Moreover, England was going through a period of internal instability that would culminate in the unthinkable — civil war in 1642 and regicide in 1649. England’s colonies were born from this situation, and the colonies of Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay and the little-known colony of Providence Island in the Caribbean were part of a broader Puritan geopolitical strategy to solve England’s problems.

Analysis

Throughout the first half of the 17th century, England was wracked by internal divisions that would lead to civil war in 1642. Religion was a huge part of this. The dispute was over the direction of the Church of England. Some factions favored “high” church practices that involved elaborate ritual. The Puritans, by contrast, wanted to clear the national religion of what they considered Catholic traces. This religious crisis compounded a political crisis at the highest levels of government, pitting Parliament against the monarchy.

By the beginning of the 17th century, England had undergone centralizing reforms that gave the king and his Parliament unrestricted power to make laws. Balance was needed. The king had the power to call Parliament into session and dismiss it. Parliament had the power to grant him vital funds needed for war or to pay down debt. However, Parliament had powerful Puritan factions that sought not only to advance their sectarian cause but also to advance the power of Parliament beyond its constraints. Kings James I and his son Charles I, for their part, sought to gain an unrestrained hold on power that would enable them to make decisive strategic choices abroad. They relied, internally and externally, on Catholics, crypto-Catholics and high church advocates — exacerbating the displeasure of Parliament.

Both kings continually fought with Parliament over funding for the monarchy’s debt and for new ventures. Both dissolved Parliament several times; Charles ultimately did so for a full 11 years beginning in 1629.

 

 

europe_circa_1600 (1)

Europe in 1600

Spain was England’s major strategic problem on the Continent. Protestant England saw itself as under constant threat from the Catholic powers in Europe. This led to problems when the people came to see their leaders, James I and his son Charles, as insufficiently hostile to Spain and insufficiently committed to the Protestant cause on the Continent. In order to stop mounting debt, shortly after taking power James made the unpopular move of ending a war with Spain that England had been waging alongside the Netherlands since 1585. In 1618, the Thirty Years’ War broke out in the German states — a war that, in part, pitted Protestants against Catholics and spread throughout Central Europe. James did not wish to become involved in the war. In 1620, the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, a relative of Spain’s King Philip III, pushed Frederick V, the Protestant son-in-law of England’s King James, out of his lands in Bohemia, and Spain attacked Frederick in his other lands in the Rhineland. The English monarchy called for a defense of Frederick but was unwilling to commit to significant military action to aid him.

Puritan factions in Parliament, however, wanted England to strike at Spain directly by attacking Spanish shipments from the Americas, which could have paid for itself in captured goods. To make matters worse, from 1614 to 1623, James I pursued an unpopular plan to marry his son Charles to the Catholic daughter of Philip III of Spain — a plan called the “Spanish Match.” Instead, Charles I ended up marrying the Catholic daughter of the king of France in 1625. This contributed to the impression that James and Charles were too friendly with Spain and Catholicism, or even were secret Catholics. Many Puritans and other zealous promoters of the Protestant cause began to feel that they had to look outside of the English government to further their cause.

Amid this complex constellation of Continental powers and England’s own internal incoherence, a group of Puritan leaders in Parliament, who would later play a pivotal role in the English Civil War, focused on the geopolitical factors that were troubling England. Issues of finance and Spanish power were at the core. A group of them struck on the idea of establishing a set of Puritan colonial ventures in the Americas that would simultaneously serve to unseat Spain from her colonial empire and enrich England, tipping the geopolitical balance. In this they were continuing Elizabeth I’s strategy of 1585, when she started a privateer war in the Atlantic and Caribbean to capture Spanish treasure ships bound from the Americas. Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay were part of this early vision, but they were both far too remote to challenge the Spanish, and the group believed that the area’s climate precluded it from being a source of vast wealth from cash crops. New England, however, was safe from Spanish aggression and could serve as a suitable starting point for a colonial push into the heart of Spanish territory.

The Effects of Spanish Colonization

Spain’s 1492 voyage to the Americas and subsequent colonization had changed Europe indelibly by the 17th century. It had complicated each nation’s efforts to achieve a favorable balance of power. As the vanguard of settlement in the New World, Spain and Portugal were the clear winners. From their mines, especially the Spanish silver mine in Potosi, American precious metals began to flow into their government coffers in significant amounts beginning in 1520, with a major uptick after 1550. Traditionally a resource-poor and fragmented nation, Spain now had a reliable revenue source to pursue its global ambitions.

 

spanish-colonies
Spanish Colonies in the Carribbean

This new economic power added to Spain’s already advantageous position. At a time when England, France and the Netherlands were internally divided between opposing sectarian groups, Spain was solidly Catholic. As a result of its unity, Spain’s elites generally pursued a more coherent foreign policy. Moreover, Spain had ties across the Continent. Charles V was both king of Spain and Holy Roman emperor, making him the most powerful man of his era. He abdicated in 1556, two years before his death, and divided his territories among his heirs. His son, Philip II of Spain, and Charles’ brother, Ferdinand I, inherited the divided dominions and retained their ties to each other, giving them power throughout the Continent and territory surrounding France.

Despite having no successful colonies until the beginning of the 17th century, England did see some major benefits from the discovery of the Americas. The addition of the Western Atlantic to Europe’s map and the influx of trade goods from that direction fundamentally altered trade routes in Europe, shifting them from their previous intense focus on the Baltic Sea and the Mediterranean to encompass an ocean on which England held a unique strategic position. The nearby Netherlands — recently free from Spain — enjoyed a similar position and, along with England, took a major new role in shipping. By the middle of the 17th century, the Dutch had a merchant fleet as large as all others combined in Europe and were competing for lands in the New World. Sweden, another major European naval power, also held a few possessions in North America and the Caribbean. (This led to curious events such as “New Sweden,” a colony located along the Delaware River, falling under Dutch control in the 1650s and becoming part of the “New Netherlands.”)

England’s Drive Into the New World

In spite of its gains in maritime commerce, England was still far behind Spain and Portugal in the Americas. The Iberian nations had established a strong hold on South America, Central America and the southern portions of North America, including the Caribbean. Much of North America, however, remained relatively untouched. It did not possess the proven mineral wealth of the south but it had a wealth of natural capital — fisheries, timber, furs and expanses of fertile soil.

However, much of the population of the Americas was in a band in central Mexico, meaning that the vast pools of labor available to the Spanish and Portuguese were not present elsewhere in North America. Instead, England and other colonial powers would need to bring their own labor. They were at a demographic advantage in this regard. Since the 16th century, the Continent’s population had exploded. The British Isles and Northwest Europe grew the most, with England expanding from 2.6 million in 1500 to around 5.6 million by 1650. By contrast, the eastern woodlands of North America in 1600 had around 200,000 inhabitants — the population of London. Recent catastrophic epidemics brought by seasonal European fishermen and traders further decimated the population, especially that of New England. The disaster directly benefited Plymouth, which was built on the site of the deserted town of Patuxet and used native cleared and cultivated land.

After its founding in 1620, Plymouth was alone in New England for a decade and struggled to become profitable. It was the first foothold, however, for a great Puritan push into the region. In time, this push would subsume the tiny separatist colony within the larger sphere of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This new colony’s numbers were much higher: The first wave in 1630 brought 700 English settlers to Salem, and by 1640 there were 11,000 living in the region.

Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay were different from nearby Virginia. Virginia was initially solely a business venture, and its colonists provided the manpower. New England, by contrast, was a settler society of families from the start. Both Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay were started by English Puritans — Christian sectarians critical of the state-run Church of England. Plymouth’s settlers were Puritan separatists who wanted no connection to England. Massachusetts Bay’s colonists were non-separatist Puritans who believed in reforming the church. For both, creating polities in North America furthered their sectarian political goals. The pilgrims wanted to establish a separate godly society to escape persecution; the Puritans of Salem wanted to establish a beacon that would serve to change England by example. Less known, however, is that the financial backers of the New England colonies had a more ambitious goal of which New England was only the initial phase.

In this plan, Massachusetts was to provide profit to its investors, but it was also to serve as a way station from which they could then send settlers to a small colony they simultaneously founded on Providence Island off the Miskito Coast of modern Nicaragua. This island, now part of Colombia, was in the heart of the Spanish Caribbean and was meant to alter the geopolitics of Central America and bring it under English control. It was in this way that they hoped to solve England’s geostrategic problems on the Continent and advance their own political agenda.

Providence was an uninhabited island in an area where the Spanish had not established deep roots. The island was a natural fortress, with a coral reef that made approach difficult and high, craggy rocks that helped in defense. It also had sheltered harbors and pockets of fertile land that could be used for production of food and cash crops.

It would serve, in their mind, as the perfect first foothold for England in the lucrative tropical regions of the Americas, from which it could trade with nearby native polities. In the short run, Providence was a base of operations, but in the long run it was to be a launchpad for an ambitious project to unseat Spain in the Americas and take Central America for England. In keeping with Puritan ideals, Providence was to be the same sort of “godly” society as Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth, just a more profitable one. Providence Island would enable the English to harry Spanish ships, bring in profit to end disputes with the crown and bolster the Protestant position in the Thirty Years’ War.

 

plymouth_colony

But while Massachusetts Bay would succeed, Providence would fail utterly. Both Massachusetts Bay and Providence Island received their first shipment of Puritan settlers in 1630. Providence was expected to yield immense profits, while Massachusetts was expected to be a tougher venture. Both were difficult, but Providence’s constraints proved fatal. The island did not establish a cash crop economy and its attempts to trade with native groups on the mainland were not fruitful.

The island’s geopolitical position in Spanish military territory meant that it needed to obsessively focus on security. This proved its downfall. After numerous attacks and several successful raids on Spanish trade on the coast, the investors decided in 1641 to initiate plans to move colonists down from Massachusetts Bay to Providence. Spanish forces received intelligence of this plan and took the island with a massive force, ending England’s control.

Puritan Legacies

The 1641 invasion ended English settlement on the island, which subsequently became a Spanish military depot. The Puritans left little legacy there. New England, however, flourished. It became, in time, the nearest replica of English political life outside of the British Isles and a key regional component of the Thirteen Colonies and, later, the United States. It was the center of an agricultural order based on individual farmers and families and later of the United States’ early manufacturing power. England sorted out its internal turmoil not by altering its geopolitical position externally — a project that faced serious resource and geographical constraints — but through massive internal upheaval during the English Civil War.

The celebration of the fruits of the Plymouth Colony’s brutal first year is the byproduct of England’s struggle against Spain on the Continent and in the New World. Thus, the most celebrated meal in America comes with a side of geopolitics.

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Allah is dead #2

Rebecca Bynum’s “Allah is Dead: Why Islam is not  a Religion” is dense with exact head-shots at Islam. She makes the points as a theologian and philosopher, those two professions which are superfluous in the Religion of Peace.

A few quotes to stir your interest:

Real faith is in fact the great emancipator, for faith properly defined is the actual living connection between the individual believer and his divine source of light and love….Faith is the mechanism that allows man to search for God, which is to say, to search for reality. Islam, on the other hand, is the destroyer of faith and the bestower of delusion, creating nothing but the most profound unhappiness, born of absolute denial, among its adherents. The idea that God would actually desire human happiness is utterly foreign to Islam, for according to its doctrine, Allah does not value the individual except for his contribution to the collective….

So what the Islamic system has done is usurped the place of God in the lives of its believers. It has made a spiritual God unnecessary. The Islamic system is all one needs to know and obey. (pp 48-49)

Muslims are always accusing every other religion and idea of social organization of idolatry: worshipping man-made law (by obeying secular governments) , worshipping the Trinity, believing in the chosenness of the tribes of Israel. Yet the ultimate idolatry they commit, in Bynum’s view, is the idolatry of Islam, the rendering superfluous of God for the system which is Islam.

Note also that for Islam, religion and social organization are identical concepts.

Bynum’s essential insight. in my view, is that the definition of God goes to the very core of this struggle with Islam, for it in turn defines the nature of civilization, and one’s understanding of reality.

In Christian thought God has created an intelligible universe, in which we have a place. Hence science is possible. He has also created  creatures who have the autonomy to disobey Him; hence the prayer line from Jesus “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven” recognizes that God’s will is not done on earth all that often. Autonomy, love, capacity to commit wrong: these are the basic features of the human condition, according to our view, but the first two are denied in Islam, and the third is defined in terms of robotic obedience to outward standards of conformity. Islam wants us to belong to a hive mind.

The Christan God loves us, and asks that we grow in love, towards our Creator and towards other people in consequence. Hence the two essential commandments uttered by Christ Himself.

Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the Prophets.” (Book of Common Prayer, p.70)

Bynum again:

We fought both World War 2 and the Cold War in large part to bring the enemy to his senses….Man’s relation to the state was actually a secondary consideration.

Now we find ourselves fighting a war in order to answer the question, what is God and what is man’s relation to him? We might also state the question this way: what is reality and what is man’s relation to it?…

The struggle between the two different answers… will likely determine the future course of human existence. It certainly is a contest that has not stopped for over 1,300 years and there is no natural end to it, given that the belief system of Islam is unlikely to change. (pp-55-56)

By contrast with Christianity,

In Islam, man (in abstract) is not the measure of all things; one specific man is [Mohammed]. Islam puts man in place of God, the material in place of the spiritual, and the group in place of the individual; and for certain we see its fruits.” (p34)

Bynum’s book is available at your bookseller. I found mine at Amazon. Read it.

 

 

Allah is Dead: Rebecca Bynum on Islam

Rebecca Bynum is the author of a slim volume called “Allah is Dead: Why Islam is not a religion.” Every person concerned with what this thing is, ought to read it. Bynum characterizes Islam as something which is not essentially a religion, though it talks a lot about God, but as a totalitarian and essentially  immoral system of social organization which abolishes religion and morality, as we have understood those terms. The only thing left is material and outward obedience to a system, but which is deadly to all conceptions of an inner spiritual life.

Her point is that religion, properly conceived,  is taking a bad rap because many people conflate Islam with all religions and fail to understand why all religion leaves doors open that Islam declares to be shut forever. She calls it a “duck-billed platypus” of a religion, one so different from all others that its true nature is confusing to those brought up in any other, including secular humanism

I have spoken about this before. Robert Reilly’s The Closing of the Muslim Mind demonstrates the baneful effects of Islam’s conjecture that God is holding  together the entire universe at every instance and in every molecule. Everything, I mean everything, is God’s will. If I win the battle, if I lose the battle, if I torture you to death, or you torture me to death: it is all God’s will. Thus morality does not stand apart from history and judges it; morality is revealed in history, and whatever wins, is God’s will. Reilly demonstrates how Islam committed intellectual suicide a long time ago; Bynum shows how modern western society is so defenceless against Islam’s claims.

The most dangerous aspect of Islam is that it strikes western societies at the time when they have largely abandoned the Christianity that gave them the confidence to pursue science, and to assert human rights.

Our behaviour and our culture are shaped by our conception of the Deity. If God is in some sense knowable, and if he has established laws or regularities that govern the physical properties of the universe, then two things are open to us: theology and science. It is a fact that science as we understand it is the unique property of Christian civilization, precisely because priests and scientists alike believe in the rational intelligibility of nature. [Space does not permit arguing this truth at greater length. To those who do not believe it, I suggest they read more about the history of science]. To the extent that God is knowable, we can model ourselves on the loving, orderly, creative God who lets us find out for ourselves what the right path should be. Freedom to sin and freedom to find the truth are at the core of Christianity. We are not automatons.

These two doors onto the universe and what lies beyond it have been slammed shut by Islam. God is essentially unknowable in any sense,  he does not love us, and his rule is caprice. As we form ourselves on the idea of the good, and hence of the ultimate good, God, so we form our behaviour and culture. If Islamic rule at the patriarchal familial and political level is capricious, immoral, violent, and frenzied, it is merely the reflection of their idea of God.

In Bynum’s opening chapter there is a line about the Western reaction to these unpleasant truths:

As the light of truth shines upon reality and defines the outlines of evil, it is inevitable that some should mistake the bearers of this truth as the source of their fear, the fear of the necessity for a decision, and lash out at those defining the conflict as evil dividers of humanity. For as secularists and Muslims themselves learn about the truth about Islam’s bloody doctrine and history, they must each individually make a moral decision and this they wish to avoid at all costs ….In the absence of truth, there is no necessity for division; therefore, truth itself becomes the enemy and secularists and some religionists unwittingly become emotional defenders of lies.

Allah is Dead is a far better book than I can tell you about here. I recommend it for its clear and deep analysis of how much trouble we are in. The fault, in short, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves, and Islam is merely the opportunistic pathogen striking the body of western civilization, weakened as it is by a failure of belief.

 

 

The Nationalization of the Family

Your meme for today is the phrase Mark Steyn is touting as the catch-all explanation for Western cultural decline: the nationalization of the family.

My problem with Steyn is a complete inability to think of any better explanation when I read him.

The lure of cosmic cultural pessimism is strong, and the 20th and 21st centuries offer much confirmation that Western civilization is in the tank.

But for every Spengler, or David Bentley Hart, life offers rational optimists, like Matt Ridley. And to tell you the truth, I do not know where I sit between these uncomfortable prophets of doom and the dwellers in the sunny uplands of improvement.

The obvious point is that the physical circumstances of life are improving for all, and the cultural milieu in which we live is largely the wasteland of post-Christianity. And some react to the wasteland by going for the black and white certainties of Islam.

Multicultiuralism and anti-whitism have left us defenceless before the Ebola of religions.

Neurotwaddle

An important funding source for neuro-imaging via MRIs will no longer fund studies concerned with showing which parts of the brain light up when certain activities are engaged. The funding source is the James S. McDonnell Foundation.  The reason why it will not longer do so was given thus:

“Proposals proposing to use functional imaging to identify the ‘neural correlates’ of cognitive or behavioral tasks (for example, mapping the parts of the brain that ‘light up’ when different groups of subjects play chess, solve physics problems, or choose apples over oranges) are not funded through this program. In general, JSMF and its expert advisors have taken an unfavorable view of .  .  . functional imaging studies using poorly characterized tasks as proxies for complex behavioral issues involving empathy, moral judgments, or social decision-making.”

The heartland of neuroimaging has decided that areas of the brain lighting up tell us nothing about empathy, judgments, and decision-making. Bravo! Another blow against neurotwaddle.

The most significant critic of neurotwaddle, a man who is himself a physician and an atheist, is Raymond Tallis. Tallis has written several important critiques of materialist reductionism – the “we are nothing but a bunch of neurons” school, in which  Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Crick and their useful idiot Hitchens are to be found.

I found an article of Tallis’ on the same subject in the New Humanist magazine of January 2010. It is worth reading. Tallis finds all talk of neuroimaging techniques identifying “God-spots” in the brain as utter rubbish.

At first sight, it might seem that a humanist atheist like me should welcome the reduction of religious belief to tingles in parts of the brain. It will be evident now why I do not. The idea of God is the greatest, though possibly the most destructive, idea that mankind has ever entertained. The notion that all there is originated from and is controlled by a Maker is a profound and distinctively human response to the amazing fact that the world makes sense. This response is more, not less, extraordinary for the fact that it has no foundation in truth and, indeed, God is a logically impossible object.

How mighty are the works of man and how much more impressive when they are founded on an idea to which nothing corresponds! Cutting this idea down to size, by neurologising and Darwinising it, is to deal not only religion but also humanity a terrible blow. It undermines our uniqueness and denies our ability, shared by no other creature, to distance ourselves from nature. In defending religious belief against neuro-evolutionary reductionism, atheist humanists and theists have a common cause, and in reductive naturalism, a common adversary.

Readers will know I am not an atheist; I find greater truth in belief, and I find works like David Bentley Hart’s The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness  Bliss more persuasive than Tallis’ non-materialist humanism. For me, Tallis is on a narrow ledge between materialist reductionsim, which he rightly rejects, and belief in a supernatural ordering Creator, in whom we move and have our being. But that is possibly a matter of taste, and is certainly not a matter for compulsion. His attacks on neurotwaddle are more welcome because he is an atheist.

Here is David Bentley Hart on the issue of reductionism – the school of thought that asserts “we are nothing but _________ neurons, genes, dancing atoms (pick one)”.

 Once more, the physicalist reduction of any phenomenon to purely material forces explains nothing if one cannot then reconstruct the phenomenon from its material basis without invoking any higher causes; but this no computation picture of human thought can ever do. Symbols exist only from above, as it were, in the consciousness looking downward along that path of descent, acting always as a higher cause upon material reality. Looking up from the opposite direction, from below to above, one finds only an intraversible abyss, separating the intentional nullity of matter from the intentional plenitude of mind. It is an absolute error to imagine that the electrical activity in a computer is itself a computation….All computation is ontologically dependent on consciousness.” (p.223)

Ontologically” means “having to do with being itself”, an idea more easily rendered in Greek than English.

A parting shot from Hart:

The mechanical picture of reality, which is the metaphysical frame within which we pursue or conquest of nature, is one that forecloses, arbitrarily and peremptorily , a great number of questions that a rational culture should leave open”.

There are vast questions that should be left open. Raise a ragged cheer for a rational culture!

 

 

Those tolerant pagans

Few are more bigoted in European circles than the fashionably anti-Christian. How safe! How trendy! Gaia approves!. The Post reports the case of a Canadian Christian being  rudely treated by a group of self-styled Norwegian pagans.  Her internship with Norwegian wilderness outfitters who lead expeditions in the British Columbia.

“The Norse background of most of the guys at the management level means that we are not a Christian organization, and most of us see Christianity as having destroyed our culture, tradition, and way of life,” Amaruk’s hiring manager, Olaf Amundsen, wrote last month to Vancouver-area job applicant Bethany Paquette, the first in a series of bizarre, angry emails sent from company officials in Norway.

According to a complaint she has since filed with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal (BCHRT), Ms. Paquette’s Christian education cost her an “assistant guide internship” position at Amaruk.

She received a snarky letter back from the head of the outfitting group, who explained that, since they “embraced diversity”, they could not hire someone who had been to Trinity Western University. The rest of the management of the Norwegian outfitters piled on with further emails of derision and contempt.

A lack of irony is a marked feature of bigotry. And the more unconscious the bigotry, the greater the self-righteousness.

The human resources director of the Norwegian firm, Amaruk, sent this beauty:

 

And an hour later, Ms. Paquette received yet another snide note, this one from Amaruk’s human resources boss. “You are free to your own opinions and to live your life as you see fit, but you have no right to force your opinions onto others and control their innate behaviour,” it read.

Uh, dudes, she merely sent an application for an unpaid position. Who is forcing opinions on others here? The macho fags of Amaruk or the Canadian applicant for an internship?

Everyone has 481 servants

Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist is an important book, which describes the effect on humanity of the burning of fossil fuels. Largely its effect is benign and constructive. It has largely abolished the grinding poverty of all ages before Europe in the 19th century.

Every one of us has more servants at our disposal than Le Roi Soleil, Louis XIV, who had some 481, I seem to recall from Ridley’s book. The point of burning fossil fuels is to increase the energy available to each man, woman and child on the planet, both personally in what one can consume individually but more importantly, systemically in what society can use, such as streetlights, elevators, subways, heating and air conditioning of public spaces.

I would like to dwell for a moment however on the downside of the life of ease brought to us courtesy of fossil fuel consumption. I am not for a second proposing that a more virtuous existence can be found – on a broad social basis –  by using less energy. Personal abstention may well by fine, such as living by a lake in Finland or Canada at a low level of energy consumption, and some tribes, such as Amish and Hutterites, manage with a much more selective uptake of technology. For me, and for billions of my fellow humans, living with less energy when you need it constitutes poverty. We all desire to escape from it, and the enlightened wish to rescue their fellow humans from the disease, ignorance, brutality, and hopelessness that seem to be the essence of poverty.

If Theodore Dalrymple is right in his many castigations of the culture of poverty in the British idle classes, there is something to be said for a more stringent existence. His argument is that the former white working class of England and Scotland has been ruined by technological change leading to unemployment, and then, by a process of subsidization of this idleness, made available by general modern levels of taxation, and the prosperity on which taxation depends, the welfare state is producing people who do not believe in anything, do not toilet train their infants, do not believe in education, deliberately make bad choices in their sexual partners and produce more welfare children by several absent layabout fathers, avoid marriage, do not pick up the garbage they leave in their front yards,  do not cook and do not know how to cook, and, in short, are engaged in terminal cultural decline, abetted by a middle class industry of social minders whose jobs would disappear if the lazy fuck-heads would get religion, sober up, put on a white shirt, and look for a job.

In essence,  Dalrymple’s critique of poverty in the United Kingdom is that it is a spiritual and intellectual impoverishment brought about by modern wealth, that can afford to keep 15% of the nation idle and dissipated, and do nothing about it. By doing nothing I mean: do not attack it directly with spiritual and rigorous measures, by shaming, by forced work, by authoritarian interventions, by evangelical Christianity.

Two works by authors of entirely different dispositions have also addressed this problem. One is the socialist historian Richard Tawney, whose The Agrarian Problem in the 16th Century observed that, in Elizabethan England, some 20% of the population were beggars, wandering the roads and committing crimes, and threatening the social order. Tawney decried the Protestant Reformation and the effects of enclosures – denying the poor access to common land on which to graze their animals or plant a crop – as the basis of the crisis. Monasteries and Catholic orders had done what they could to alleviate the condition of the poor. The same layabouts as populate the lowest classes today were not contained at home with television and alcohol in the sixteenth century. With the abolition of the alms-giving institutions by the Reformation, the underclass was set loose to wander. The second historian who has addressed the issue of what England did with its illiterate layabouts – albeit in a different time – was Gertrude Himmelfarb, an American, whose book The Demoralization of Society and others has argued that the “Victorians” have been unjustly maligned for their efforts to rescue the lowest classes of England by a program of virtue.

… the Victorian virtues – prudence, temperance, industriousness, decency, responsibility – were thoroughly pedestrian. “They depended on no special breeding, talent, sensibility, or even money. They were common, everyday virtues, within the capacity of ordinary people. They were the virtues of citizens, not of heroes or saints – and of citizens of democratic countries, not aristocratic ones.”[15] Himmelfarb has argued “for the reintroduction of traditional values (she prefers the term ‘virtues’), such as shame, responsibility, chastity, and self-reliance, into American political life and policy-making”

So does Dalrymple.

Once again I find myself starting out by thinking one thing and realizing that it is an error. Maybe, I thought,  the problem of a layabout lowest class could be fixed in an environment where there was less available energy, where obesity was a disease of the idle rich rather than the idle poor. Maybe, I thought, when people actually have to work to eat, the habits of virtue could be instilled. Yet a few minutes of thinking remind me that poverty is not a matter of lack of wealth – if it were it could be and has been fixed. Poverty is a spiritual condition. When everyone has a shelter, a television set, heating, and the possibility of education, the fact remains that a significant proportion of the population dwell in darkness, and seem to prefer to live that way.  They are subsidized to remain that way. Removing the subsidies would put them on the streets, like the sturdy beggars of Elizabethan and later epochs of English history were, without solving the problem.

If I may borrow freely from the Wikipedia article on Theodore Dalrymple,  the pen name of Anthony Daniels,the problems look like this:

  • The cause of much contemporary misery in Western countries – criminality, domestic violence, drug addiction, aggressive youths, hooliganism, broken families – is the nihilistic, decadent and/or self-destructive behaviour of people who do not know how to live. Both the smoothing over of this behaviour, and the medicalisation of the problems that emerge as a corollary of this behaviour, are forms of indifference. Someone has to tell those people, patiently and with understanding for the particulars of the case, that they have to live differently.[15]
  • Poverty does not explain aggressive, criminal and self-destructive behaviour. In an African slum you will find among the very poor, living in dreadful circumstances, dignity and decency in abundance, which are painfully lacking in an average English suburb, although its inhabitants are much wealthier.[16]
  • An attitude characterised by gratefulness and having obligations towards others has been replaced – with awful consequences – by an awareness of “rights” and a sense of entitlement, without responsibilities. This leads to resentment as the rights become violated by parents, authorities, bureaucracies and others in general.[17]
  • One of the things that makes Islam attractive to young westernised Muslim men is the opportunity it gives them to dominate women.[18]
  • Technocratic or bureaucratic solutions to the problems of mankind produce disasters in cases where the nature of man is the root cause of those problems.
  • It is a myth, when going “cold turkey” from an opiate such as heroin, that the withdrawal symptoms are virtually unbearable; they are in fact hardly worse than flu.[19][20]
  • Criminality is much more often the cause of drug addiction than its consequence.
  • Sentimentality, which is becoming entrenched in British society, is “the progenitor, the godparent, the midwife of brutality”.[21]
  • High culture and refined aesthetic tastes are worth defending, and despite the protestations of non-judgmentalists who say all expression is equal, they are superior to popular culture.[22][23][24]
  • The ideology of the Welfare State is used to diminish personal responsibility. Erosion of personal responsibility makes people dependent on institutions and favours the existence of a threatening and vulnerable underclass.
  • Moral relativism can easily be a trick of an egotistical mind to silence the voice of conscience.[25]
  • Multiculturalism and cultural relativism are at odds with common sense.[26]
  • The decline of civilised behaviour – self-restraint, modesty, zeal, humility, irony, detachment – ruins social and personal life.[27]
  • The root cause of our contemporary cultural poverty is intellectual dishonesty. First, the intellectuals (more specifically, left-wing ones) have destroyed the foundation of culture, and second, they refuse to acknowledge it by resorting to the caves of political correctness.
  • Beyond and above all other nations in the world, Britain is the place where all the evils summarised above are most clearly manifest.

Even with 481 servants per person, as measured in terms of kilowatts of disposable energy, poverty is not being cured. Trying to fix poverty by wealth transfers alone is yet another case of what I call trying to lift the gross national product with a set of tongs. Some seeds fall on stony ground, as we are reminded by Jesus in another context.

Thomas Nagel again

Thomas Nagel shocked the philosophical world in 2012 with a book called Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False. I was reminded of him because of David Bentley Hart, subject of my last posting below.

Hart is a committed Christian and Nagel is an atheist. They are looking at the same mountain from different sides, one from the side of beginning to see what the mountain might really be, and the other from the side of a clear vision of what it is. For each, it is the mysterious mountain.

To Nagel, the question to be explained is whether the account given by Darwinists to man’s capacity for moral reasoning is true. If we have evolved, as everyone admits, then what is our capacity to grasp the difference between good and bad in any fundamental way? Oh yes we can tell the difference between pleasure and pain all right, but is pain really bad or have we just evolved to feel that way? The answer turns on what you mean by “really”.

Nagel got himself into trouble with some quarters by saying that we know that pleasure and pain are good or bad in themselves and we are so constituted that we know this difference really, not just because we have evolved to avoid one and seek the other. This is what is called a realist view: realist in the sense that we truly apprehend the world, and are not confused by demons who actually hold our brains in vats, while we experience this three-dimensional illusion of the world, à la Matrix movies.

Nagel concludes that the Darwinian picture must be incomplete.

The historical question is about our origins: What must the universe and the evolutionary process be like to have generated such beings? Both these questions seem to require some alternative to materialist naturalism and its Darwinian application to biology, but what are the possibilities? (at p.112)

To which David Bentley Hart would say to Nagel, “well done, you are starting to ask the right questions”. Hart takes a view that I share, namely that consciousness is primary and the material universe is secondary:

Once again: We cannot encounter the world without encountering  at the same time the being of the world, which is a mystery that can never be dispelled by any physical explanation of reality, inasmuch as it is a mystery logically prior to and in excess of the physical order. We cannot encounter the world, furthermore, except in the luminous medium of intentional and unified consciousness, which defies every reduction to purely physiological causes, but which also clearly corresponds to an essential intelligibility in  being itself”. (pp.297-298)

In brief:

  • physical explanations do not explain the mystery of being;
  • we cannot experience the world apart from consciousness, which cannot be reduced to material causes; and
  • the world is intelligible.

To which Hart would add, all religions, at all times, have asserted as much.

Below, on a related matter, Hart discusses his disappointments with the atheists: Dennet, Hitchens, and others. Hart’s style is high, wry and dry, and one could wish for a littel more oomph in the presentation, but he is bombing from a great height: the B-52 airstrike so high the newly dead never heard it.