Monday, 29 September 2008



Retreat was good. It gave me a lot to think about--and a lot to rethink. Perhaps I will later give a longer explanation of what I mean; perhaps not.

I am concerned about the work I have to do, so I've given an essay I previously wrote and will continue on homework. I don't know how often I will be able to publish (as I said already). I'm really thinking I need to prioritize.

Philosophy of Mathematics Paper

This is a paper I wrote for my Philosophy of Mathematics class a few years back. I'm including it because it is entirely secular and any non-religious readers I may have might want something of a non-religious nature. The paper discusses the fictionalist view of mathematics against a realist view. Fictionalism claims that mathematics is a fiction. Realism claims that mathematical objects (the number 2, for instance) are real. There are sub-schools of each. I am here defending fictionalism. If you are interested in finding out more about each, you can look at my Works Cited or you can Google/Wikipedia keywords.
Applicability and Mathematical Predictions:
Can Metaphors Save Fictionalism?

Bridges stand and mathematics tells us how. The applicability of mathematics to the physical world is fictionalism’s largest obstacle, and philosophers of mathematics frequently debate whether mathematics’ ability to describe and explain the physical world is enough to defeat the fictionalist agenda. In this paper I will attempt to address this problem briefly; however, I think the problem of applicability covers more than just that bridges do stand, but that bridges will stand. Mathematics is used as more than just a descriptive tool, but as a predictive one as well. That a fiction—fable, metaphor, novel, or heuristic—can describe what happens in the world is one matter and the more easily addressed. Whether it can predict what will happen is another matter and the less easily addressed. If fiction does not have predictive abilities analogous to those of mathematics, then fictionalism cannot be an accurate account of mathematics. I will argue in the course of this paper that what I call a metaphorical-heuristic approach to fictionalism will demonstrate how fiction can predict the world, and how any discrepancy between fiction’s and mathematics’ predictive capabilities are not fatal to the analogy.
Defeating what I might call brute fictionalism is fairly easy because of the descriptive applicability problem. Brute fictionalism would say that mathematical propositions are true in terms of the fiction in which they exist, this fiction being the particular mathematical canon in use. These same propositions are not true in any other contexts, especially the context of the real world, in the same way that the proposition “Wemmick doted on his father” is true only in terms of the fiction Great Expectations. The mathematician does not need to be committed to the existence of mathematical objects outside of the fiction because the truth predicate is simply limited to the terms of the fiction. Mixed contexts create a serious problem for this view. Consider that mathematical analysis of wind pressures, traffic weight, material strength, and mechanical advantage can determine why a particular bridge fell when it did, or that measuring the dimensions of a piano and the doors of a house will determine the best way to move the piano into the living room from the driveway. The problem here is that mathematics, in order to apply to the real world, must be in some sense true outside of the mathematical ‘fiction.’
A more subtle form of fictionalism would allow mathematical propositions to be in some sense true outside of the mathematical fiction, or canon. I call this metaphorical-heuristic fictionalism, which is really just a loose grouping of Yablo’s mathematics-as-metaphor and Balaguer’s mathematics-as-heuristic ideas.[1] I am aware that these are not precisely the same view, but they have enough in common that they are equivalent for my purposes: both take mathematics to be a useful tool that gets to some truth outside of itself in explaining the real world while not being literally true. Yablo describes mathematics as a metaphor, where a metaphor “is an utterance that represents its objects as being like so: the way that they would need to be to make it pretence-worthy—or, more neutrally, sayable—in a game that the utterance itself suggests.”[2] Yablo’s metaphor is a phrase that literally means something to which the speaker is not committed, but also means something non-literal to which the speaker is committed, in such a way that the audience should understand this duality. Mathematics on this view is then not literally true but non-literally true. Balaguer describes mathematics as a heuristic device: “mathematics is relevant not to the operation of the physical world, but to our understanding of the physical world.”[3] Mathematics is not actually true to Balaguer, but simply beneficial to our comprehension of the world. This view is of course different from Yablo’s; Yablo gives some kind of truth to mathematics where Balaguer is more indifferent. However, the point of overlap that I am concerned about is that both focus on mathematics’ ability to help us understand what is going on in the real world without making literal claims of truth. I would tend to side with Yablo on this question, but I do think the idea of a heuristic is relevant to this approach.
The metaphorical-heuristic approach could address the mixed contexts problem because it is not true only within the context of its own fiction; rather, it models a true proposition of the outside world while still remaining fictional. When we analyze why a particular bridge is falling apart, it is useful to look at the forces acting upon the bridge in terms of mathematics; however, the mathematics needs only act as a heuristic device or metaphor for those forces, and not refer to mathematical objects existing in some non-causal way.
In “Mathematics and Bleak House,” John P. Burgess objects to a metaphorical approach to fictionalism on grounds that I think are generally ill-founded.[4] Burgess’ objection to metaphor runs as follows: “Metaphor is of course not a genre of fiction but a figure of speech, and I think that to speak as Yablo does of a metaphor running on for volumes and volumes and volumes is to stretch the concept of ‘metaphor’ well beyond the breaking point.”[5] Whether or not Yablo’s metaphor is past the breaking point aside, the approach to fictionalism that I am suggesting is best does not require that the metaphor “runs on” for so many volumes because mathematics need not be one massive metaphor; it is a series of metaphors. Each mathematical object and each relationship is a separate metaphor.[6] This would satisfy all of Burgess’ requirements of fiction: some metaphors are attributable to authors and some are traditional; some metaphors are recycled and altered over time; some entities reappear from metaphor to metaphor and are “beings of a different order.”[7] While metaphor may not be a genre of fiction, it is an element of fiction and perhaps fiction is a metaphor: William Golding was not committed to the literal truth of The Lord of the Flies, but he was committed to the society it was supposed to represent.[8] I generally find Burgess’ objection to metaphorical fictionalism faulty, and will continue to use it.
So metaphorical-heuristic fictionalism can explain how a fictional mathematics can describe and explain physical events and objects. It is less obvious that fictional mathematics can predict events in the physical world. An argument that such mathematics cannot might follow two general routes. The first is that the analogy between fiction and mathematics is not accurate. We can and often have safely assumed that mathematics can predict physical phenomena. When civil engineers build bridges, they can fairly accurately predict how long the bridges will stand; when NASA technicians launch spacecraft, they can fairly accurately predict how long it will take for the shuttle to exit the atmosphere; when artillery-man fired their canons, they could generally determine where the shells would land. Using mathematics to determine any course of action almost always requires that the mathematics has some predictive power over not just its own propositions, but events in the real world. Where mathematics fails to predict something accurately, it is often not the fault of the mathematics itself but a poorly measured or unnoticed variable in the equation. Fiction, on the other hand, seems upon first examination to lack this predictive power. The Mouse that Roared, anti-fictionalists might argue, has never given political scientists the tools to predict European politics and The Lord of the Flies has never given child psychiatrists an accurate predictive model for playground society. Since fiction has never predicted the future, anti-fictionalists might argue, it is more likely that the fault lies not with some mistake in the variables, but the fiction itself. Because prediction is crucial to the question of the applicability of mathematics, and because fiction cannot accurately model the predictive capabilities of mathematics, fictionalism of even a metaphorical-heuristic variety cannot work.
The second argument against fictionalism on grounds on predictability explains why there is this disconnect in the analogy. The problem may rest in the idea of construction. Fiction is constructed. Specifically, metaphors and other heuristic fictions are constructed to describe something which already exists. This means that they are reactive, and, intuitively, a reactive system is not designed to be proactive or predictive. For instance, a common metaphor like “a growing number of these leaks can be traced to Starr’s office”[9] is coined simply to describe some event in the real world that is easier to say and understand than the more literal alternative of “leaks can be traced to Starr’s office with increasing frequency.”[10] It has no predictive power. If mathematics is only designed to be a heuristic in understanding mathematics, then it can only react to knowledge we already have. No new knowledge can necessarily be modeled by mathematics, and therefore mathematics should not be capable of prediction. Since mathematics clearly is capable of prediction, it must be more than a reactive construct, and so it cannot be a fiction of any stripe, brute or metaphorical-heuristic.
Neither of these approaches is fatal to fictionalism, and I will demonstrate this with examples of accurate predictions that assorted fictions have made. To use one of Balaguer’s examples,[11] Animal Farm accurately models the history of the Russian Revolution. However, it also models the history of many other communist or popular revolutions that occurred after its publication, such as those in Cuba, the Congo, and Iran. The specifics are not the same on a literal level, but they are metaphorically fairly accurate. Another of Orwell’s books, Nineteen Eighty-Four, concerns the development of Newspeak in Oceania, which seems prescient of the rhetoric of modern politicians and propagandists, and the telescreens are remarkably similar to the camera-surveillance common in modern urban culture. Mary W Shelley wrote Frankenstein long before life’s creation by artificial means was possible, but now that it is, many of the philosophical debates in the text concerning responsibility, ownership, and parentage are relevant, and its more metaphorical meanings are mapping the course of discussion on pollution, nuclear energy and weapons, GE, and AI. More personally, Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella foreshadows the psychology of many unrequited lovers since his text’s publication in the late 1500s, and Lord Byron’s Don Juan modeled the melancholy individual that the author would become only after writing the epic poem. A brief survey of English literature demonstrates that fictions have made accurate predictions, contrary to the argument outlined above.
The problem with the anti-fictionalist argument here is that a reactive construction can, in theory, make predictions. So long as the system that the metaphor or heuristic describes is organized and at least moderately understood, the metaphor or heuristic should be able to make those predictions. Consider code-breaking. If a series of information encrypted into a certain code is used to create a code-translating procedure, then that procedure should be able to break another series of information encrypted in the same code and to accurately encrypt information into the code. The procedure should be able to predict how a certain piece of information would appear when encrypted, even though it is a reactive construction. There is no reason to believe that a reactive construction cannot make predictions about an organized system.
The anti-fictionalist might then misguidedly object that some fiction can make somewhat accurate predictions some of the time, but that this is still not sufficient to posit an analogy between fiction and mathematics because most fiction makes mostly inaccurate predictions most of the time, and the some fictions and the some of the time are mostly not somewhat accurate, but entirely inaccurate. I agree that most fiction makes inaccurate predictions, but I do not agree that it is fatal. Most fiction is admittedly imperfect, even metaphorical ones. Creating a mathematics that is as near to perfection as is theoretically possible has been the occupation of millions of skilled thinkers for thousands of years. No metaphor and no piece of literature have had such a devoted parentage. We cannot expect the sorts of fictions that we are dealing with in metaphor or literature to even approach the degree of perfection that mathematics has reached. Instead, we must imagine a theoretically ideal fiction that has had hundreds of wise and gifted authors tinker with it over thousands of years so that it has reached a state of true genius, capable of many predictions of both the vastly political and intimately personal. At this point we may say that this fiction is comparable to mathematics. Of course, such a fiction does not exist, but, very importantly, it could exist. On the other side, just as imperfect fiction fails to predict the world accurately, imperfect mathematics also fails to predict the world accurately. Imperfect mathematics is hard to find, but it has existed; it must have, since mathematics is occasionally refined when certain methods of proof are discredited. In these cases, the imperfect mathematics would occasionally make erroneous predictions.
Even this theoretically near-perfect fiction could conceivably make false predictions, the anti-fictionalist might say, and the anti-fictionalist would be correct if the fiction had as its subject matter human activity. This is because authors often choose as subject matter problems that are not even theoretically predictable. Presumably, the majority of applications of mathematics are theoretically predictable. There are perhaps exceptions in quantum physics and social sciences, but generally people use mathematics to predict events that have only one physically possible outcome. The goal is to figure out what that outcome happens to be. The subject matter of most fictions, however, has more than one physically possible outcome. I am assuming that humans, and possibly though not necessarily animals, have free will. This means that until the point a decision is made, that decision is undetermined and therefore unpredictable. This does not mean that likely decisions can not be predicted, but the actual decision cannot be predicted with perfect accuracy. Since each fiction will contain at least dozens and potentially millions of decisions, the final result is much harder to predict with perfect accuracy. If a fiction were written that contained no free will decisions at all—say a fiction concerning the life of a particular particle in a particular environment—then that fiction can be expected to make accurate predictions about the actions of any particle that exists or will exist in the real world that has the same properties and environment. That no one has written such a fiction does not mean that it could not theoretically exist. It just means that no one has been motivated to write that fiction because it is boring or unfit for sale or, likely, both.[12] The upshot of all of this is that fiction would be analogous to mathematics if it had the same devoted parentage and the same subject matter. The fact that it has neither does not mean that it theoretically could not have either. An ideal fiction about a theoretically predictable subject could then be a working analogy for mathematics.
A crucial objection that fictionalism must face is applicability problems, and while mathematics’ descriptive and explanatory abilities are incorporated into metaphorical-heuristic fictionalism where they are not in brute fictionalism, an anti-fictionalist might object that fiction does not share mathematics’ predictive abilities. I believe that fiction does make accurate predictions some of the time, and those times it does not are not fatal to the analogy because fiction is further from the ideal than mathematics is and because the chosen subject matter of fiction can be predicted with complete accuracy even theoretically. Fictionalism, even of a metaphorical-heuristic variety, has other tough objections to face, such as Burgess’ accusations that the difference between fictionalism’s account and realism’s account of mathematics is essentially meaningless,[13] and these objections may well be fatal. However, it is my understanding that metaphorical-heuristic fictionalism can adequately face the applicability problems concerning description, explanation, and prediction.

[1] Stephen Yablo, “Apriority and Existence,” in New Essays on the A Priori, ed. Paul Boghassian and Christopher Peacoche (New York: Oxford U. P., 2000), 198-228; Mark Balaguer, “A Fictionalist Account of the Indispensable Applications of Mathematics,” Philosophical Studies 83, (1996): 291-314.
[2] Yablo, “Apriority,” 213.
[3] Balaguer, “Fictionalist Account,” 298.
[4] John P. Burgess, “Mathematics and Bleak House,” Philosophica Mathematica 12, no. 3, (2004): 18-36.
[5] Burgess, “Bleak House,” 21.
[6] We are already aware that mathematical notation is symbolic. ‘2’ in no way visually suggests duality, and ‘=’ does so only metaphorically in the representation of two equal line segments.
[7] Burgess, “Bleak House,” 22. Burgess argues that fables, having these attributes, are better comparisons to mathematics than metaphors or novels, but I think that metaphors fulfill these requirements. Various famous writers coined their own metaphors which have since been reused, while other metaphors—“the leg of a table”—are traditional. Metaphors are adopted and adapted frequently, like fables and mathematical theorems, and they contain recurrent and alien entities: reservoirs of abstract objects—patience, courage, and self-control, for instance—appear very frequently and are certainly “beings of a different order.”
[8] Burgess also objects to the term heuristic, but that rests primarily in his definition of it, which differs radically from my own. To Burgess, a heuristic fictionalist says that mathematicians have always meant mathematics to be understood non-literally. Most mathematicians do not intend this, and Burgess argues on these grounds that revolutionary fictionalism, which seeks to mend mathematics, if preferable to heuristic fictionalism. Since this is not my definition of heuristic fictionalism, this objection hardy applies to my version. Anyway, as Yablo demonstrates that people use metaphors frequently without knowing that they are using them non-literally, Burgess’ objection does not seem relevant even in terms of his own definition. Since the purpose of my paper is not to criticize Burgess’ understanding of fictionalism, however, I will not dwell on this point.
[9] Yablo, “Apriority,” 214.
[10] Of course, ‘growing number’ is not the only metaphor in that sentence: ‘leaks’ and ‘traced’ are also metaphors, and ‘Starr’s office’ is a metonym.
[11] Balaguer, “Fictionalist Account,” 306.
[12] Even if I am wrong in assuming that free will exists, human decision-making may well be beyond human understanding, and thus beyond human ability to construct, if only because of the number of variables that are unnoticed or improperly measured. Not only does this seem likely to me, I also think that human behaviour, if not free, would still only be predictable with a perfected mind-reading device, be it neurological or psychic. And if this does occur, then good fiction will be able to make accurate predictions and the analogy is strengthened. Whether human activity is unpredictable because of mental privacy and therefore a theoretically unpredictable subject, or human activity is predictable via mind-reading and therefore a theoretically predictable subject, my argument remains in the same position as it would if humans had free will.
[13] Burgess, “Bleak House,” 35.

Works Cited

Balaguer, Mark. “A Fictionalist Account of the Indispensable Applications of Mathematics.” Philosophical Studies 83, (1996): 291-314.

Burgess, John P. “Mathematics and Bleak House.” Philosophica Mathematica 12, no. 3 (2004): 18-36.

Yablo, Stephen. “Apriority and Existence.” In New Essays on the A Priori, edited by Paul Boghossian and Christopher Peacoche, 197-228. New York: Oxford U. P., 2000.

Friday, 26 September 2008


How good are you?

Ask yourself this question. How much are you worth? How valuable are you? You might want to ask me to specify in what realm I mean, but let's forget that. Just answer generally. How good are you?

I was talking a bit to my mother about a book by Mary Jo Leddy called Radical Gratitude; particularly, I was drawing from a particular passage that I find important but have a very hard time applying sometimes. My mother was particularly intrigued by the concepts involved, and by the little additions I added, and has apparently been spreading it to other people--though I'm not sure how they've received it.

Interestingly, these ideas dovetailed with a theme my church's minister presented in the sermon last Sunday. He articulated them in interesting ways, and I think I want to discuss what these ideas are and what implications I have here...

Leddy's book seeks to reform our private and public lives through advocating that we be radically grateful. This sounds simplistic, but if followed the way she encourages, the results are far-reaching. What interests me is this passage:

"We get the message that it [the products we own, the money we have, etc.] is never enough. But it doesn't stop there. It stays with us even when the shopping seems done for a while.
"Slowly but surely this message transmutes and transforms us at other levels of our being:

"I don't have enough
"becomes I am not enough
"becomes I am not good enough

"To say 'I am not enough' is to acknowledge a generalized sense of powerlessness. It is all those feelings that gnaw away at the hopes we have treasured: I can't do much about it. It won't make any difference if I try. It's just impossible. Why should I care anyway? That's the way things are. He'll never change, he's always been like that. She'll never make it. We'll never make it. They're losers. We're losers. You can't on the whole system. Don't waste your time.
"To say 'I am not good enough' is to admit a vague feeling of guilt. It is those feelings that claw us from the inside out: Who am I to say? I've never suffered that way. I should have done more. I could have done more. I shouldn't have said that. I don't have the right to tell anyone what to do. We have to clean up our own act first. It must be my fault. It must be America's fault. It's up to us."

She goes on in this vein, and this is connected intimately with the consumer culture of which we are a part. Note that, while she writes in an American context--hence her blaming America--I think it still applies in a Canadian one. Among her solutions to the problems of our society is this passage:

"... one has already been given the most fundamental necessity, the gift of life. When we stop taking this first gift for granted then we can begin to experience the radical liberation of gratitude.
"--Rather than wasting away from a fundamental sense of dissatisfaction with oneself, a person can begin to realize that the life he or she has been given is enough to begin with, enough to go on.
"--Instead of being comsumed with a sense that we should always be more--more caring, more successful, more loving, more talented--we can be sustained by the awareness that the gift of life is enough.
"--As we set some limits on the spirit of craving and dissatisfaction which holds us captive there is an almost simultaneous liberation of a new sense of power.
"--To say I am enough is to say that, just as I am, with all my strengths and weaknesses, I can make a difference. This is teh beginning of a new sense of power.
"--This is also to say I am good enough, which is the beginning of liberation from the vague guilt that paralyzes us in the culture of dissatisfaction.
"--This awareness begins to transform us at other levels of our lives and we can begin to say I have enough with a happy and free spirit."

I like to rephrase it this way: You were made by God, as you are at this very moment. This makes you infinitely worthy, as you are right now. Of course you have room to improve. Of course there are numerous ways in which you do not live up to the models of good people. And this is relevant; you should strive to be better in all those things that are worth perfecting. Yet this does not mean that you are not enough as you are now. You are still a creation of God, and you should value yourself accordingly.

In the sermon the other day (almost a full week at this point in writing), the pastor drew on a passage in Phillipians 1, where Paul calls the body of Christians "saints." In being a sibling in Christ, we have all achieved sainthood. Granted, we may be fallen and miserable saints, but we are saints nonetheless. That is to say, we have the potential to work wonders in the name of God.

Consider this as you live your life. Everyone around you is a creation of God: treat them accordingly. You are capable, right now, of doing anything of value. Act accordingly. The path does not require that you begin ready to face the end; the path is there to make you ready. So get started.

This sounds awfully preachy, and I certainly don't live up to these standards. But I am beginning to try. I am becoming comfortable with the incredible power that rests in me, as it rests in all of us. I must now determine what it is that I am meant to do with it.

Perhaps we ought to begin, all of us, right where Jo Leddy starts us. We begin in gratitude. We must be grateful for that one thing most of us overlook. We must be grateful for ourselves, for who we are right now. There may be many things--many, many things--that we do not like about ourselves, but if we try, we may begin to see those things that are good, those potentials we do have. If we are grateful for those, then that is perhaps the point at which all the rest becomes easy.

Or not. To paraphrase Dumbledore, the easy path is not always the right one, and some day we will be asked to choose. Let us all hope that we choose the right one.

God bless,

English Clergyman

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Change of Plans


Well, I may not be here all weekend. I had been planning on updating some this weekend, but apparently not any more--provided all goes as planned. I may go on retreat, which is a new experience for me and not necessarily one I'm comfortable with. However, you have to go out of your comfort zone, and I hope to maybe bring something back from there.

Anyway, I'll be gone for a while longer than advertised. And I'll be missing the street party, too, but that's fine, as I hadn't wanted to go in the first place.

Later, all,

English Clergyman

Monday, 22 September 2008

I Regret to Inform You


It's my unfortunate duty to inform you, readers, that I will not be as posting as often as I did the past few months; that is to say, I will not be posting as often as I would like. It seems real life (apparently known as meatspace to techies of old, and as rw to MMO'ers) has intruded. I have an abundance of activities to perform, and so I cannot spend uncounted hours constructing posts and arranging layouts and linking directories and finding references and all of the other diverse attentions involved in maintaining this blog. This makes me sad. I seem to have fully jumped on to the Blogging Revolution, but, alas, I cannot give it all of my heart. I have other endeavours as well. One of them, unfortunately, is reading far more than my brain can absorb. Far, far more. It's ludicrous, actually, how much I am expected to read. It's absolutely ridiculous.

And I have to maintain friendships, too, which involves time. A lot of time, actually. I don't mean that my friends are having crises and I have to have long talks with them. I'm a guy, so that's not a huge issue. I just mean that, in order to actually maintain some sort of friendship with a person, you have to hang out with them regularly. It's pretty basic, right? Otherwise they'd feel unwanted or lonely, and that means you're not doing a very good job at being a friend. And this takes a lot more time than I'd have generally assumed.

And I'm involved in things with Navigators, and this actually takes a fair amount of time. Last Saturday, for instance, I helped one of the Navs leaders fix up her house--a bunch of us did. I fixed a shelving unit with the help of another guy. My work in Fort McMurray paid off, I guess, in that I now have the handiman skills required to do that sort of thing. I can swing a hammer well, which isn't something I've always been able to do. I enjoyed that, I really did--but it took five hours of my weekend, all things said and done.

I have to start saying 'no' to things. I can't do as much as I'm doing now, and expect to remain sane. I'm looking at more on my plate, as well, in student departmental government, in the next few weeks. This could be a problem. So I have to go easy.

Which means I need to think about how I'm going to manage my time. And one of the things I have a problem with is spending excessive amounts of time on-line, particularly on Blogger. Like writing this particular entry, for instance. These means that while I still intend to update sometimes, I cannot do it as often, or spend as much time on each post. If I do spend time on a post, I have to break it up over the course of days to really craft that sucker...and that means fewer posts.

The point is, to anyone who is reading blog (not many, but more now than before), I regret to inform you that I won't be as post-happy as I used to be. It is a sadness, and a regret, but there isn't much I can do about it.


In other news, a blog I follow posted this interesting article...

I love religion; things like the lifestyles revealed in the linked blogpost therefore make me scared, sad, confused, and hurt. Why must people be so stupid? Why?

Friday, 19 September 2008

Religion or Spirituality: Aboriginal Peoples and a Choice of Vocabulary

[My apologies if you find this essay boring. I wrote it for a Rels class once--The Religion of Native Peoples--and I had thought some people might find it interesting, either because they themselves trouble over whether they should call themselves religious, or because they might want to know what we actually do in religious studies. This would answer both questions poorly, but would give at least a start at it.]

In a world describing itself as secular, where faith’s role in society is questioned, the debate over religion has challenged the use of the word itself. Not only are there those who eschew anything outside of rational materialism, some people who refuse to refer to themselves as part of a religion still engage in what others would call religious actions or beliefs. Many American Aboriginal people describe themselves as ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’. There are a number of possible reasons for this, primarily involving historical and theoretical connotations. Specifically, associations of the word ‘religion’ with colonization, dogma, and the separation of the sacred and profane have led some North American Aboriginal people to describe themselves as ‘spiritual’ and not ‘religious.’

The Aboriginal people preferring ‘spirituality’ over ‘religion’ could be acting in a trend popular to many people across many demographics. ‘Spirituality’ is defined by David Yamane in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society as “a quality of an individual whose inner life is oriented toward God, the supernatural, or the sacred” (Yamane, 492). As William James contrasts personal experience with inherited tradition, many people are making distinctions between spirituality and religion. Spirituality is considered to be pure, while religion is corrupted by social, political, and economical influences; spirituality is considered to be between the sacred and the individual, while religion originates from human traditions and interferes with direct connection to the divine (492). Both practitioners of spirituality and researchers of it have assumed this distinction: Dean Hamer, a molecular geneticist who has studied the possible inherited predisposition to faith, says that “the self-transcendence scale tries to separate one’s spirituality from one’s particular religious beliefs by eschewing questions about belief in a particular God, frequency of prayer, or other orthodox religious doctrines or practices” (Hamer, 10). Hamer needs, in the course of his research, to identify a trait that is not determined by the content of religious traditions, and so his search for a distinction is expected; however, that he calls this trait ‘spirituality’ rather than ‘religiosity’ implies that he connotes the word ‘religion’ with the doctrines and dogmas of a particular tradition and not only with an individual’s relationship with the divine. Therefore in both popular and academic realms, ‘religion’ is coming to necessarily connote connection with a particular tradition’s details while ‘spirituality’ refers to an unmediated relationship between the individual and the sacred. Some Protestant evangelical groups in Canada are avoiding the word ‘religion’ and privileging the word ‘faith’ in order to disassociate from this idea. It is possible that Native peoples are engaging in this understanding of these words.

Many faiths originating and developing in Western Asia and Europe have centralized authorities—institutions such as the papacy, synods, or schools of law, texts such as the Torah, the Bible, or the Qur’an, and individuals like ayatullahs or bishops—which define them as religions in the religion-spirituality dichotomy. Alternately, the religions of some Native peoples do not have similar centralizing authorities over sacred practices and beliefs. For instance, according to Professor Marie-Francois Guédon, traditional Inuit have local spiritual leaders—healers or shamans—that give guidance to the community (‘Far North’). There is no authoritative text, office, or individual that can make decisions for all Inuit everywhere, and so ‘spirituality’, under the above definition, may apply more aptly to this relationship to the sacred than ‘religion’ does. Similarly, the Dené people all have access to gifts involving relationship between the individual and the sacred and tend to have individual rituals rather than group rituals, though communities do have healers (Rabinovitch, ‘Eastern Sub-Arctic’). This again indicates a connection to the sacred world on an individual level, with no external institution or office mediating or interfering with it. Thus it is possible that Indigenous individuals who call themselves ‘spiritual’ but not ‘religious’ could be observing this difference.

Even accepting the distinction between ‘spirituality’ and ‘religion’, it is not so clear that Aboriginal people are not religious because of centralized authorities in some peoples and the presence of received tradition in all cultures. Certain groups have a centralized authority or figure, especially since European contact. Many people, especially among the Inuit, have converted to a form of Christianity (Guédon, ‘Western Sub-Arctic’), and thus follow a Western Asian tradition with a central authority—in this case, the Bible. Many of the Six Nations people, though not the Mohawk, follow Handsome Lake’s Code, based on the teachings of a Seneca prophet known in English as Handsome Lake (Rabinovitch, ‘Woodlands’); the teachings of a single individual could reasonably constitute a central authority. If ‘religion’ is distinguished from ‘spirituality’ by the presence of a central authority, then some Native traditions and many Native individuals are religious.

Not only do some peoples adhere to a centralized authority, but most maintain inherited traditions, which are distinguished from personal experiences in William James’ theory and from spirituality in modern understanding. These traditions, though not located in a central office, still normalize individuals’ understandings and practices through generations. Stories and practices are passed down through generations, and though they sometimes change (Gill, 131), they still exert influence into the lives of practitioners. The elders are charged with this knowledge and ensure its continuation; within the Cree people’s Six Core Values, which are inherited tradition in their own right, is the necessity of listening to elders (Rabinovitch, ‘Eastern Sub-Arctic’). Another of the Six Core Values is the gift of language, and included in this idea is that language is meant to teach the Cree ways of life (Rabinovitch). That listening to elders is important and that there are ‘Cree ways of life’ indicate the presence of inherited tradition. Thus ‘religion’ may apply just as well as ‘spirituality’ in many or all cases if the distinction between the two words is one of inherited tradition with centralized authority versus personal unmediated experience. There must be other reasons, therefore, for choosing ‘spirituality’ over ‘religion’.

The history of the word ‘religion’ could have contributed to Indigenous people’s avoidance of it. In most Native American languages, there is no word that translates as ‘religion’ (Gill, 8). This word, or any translation of it, was first introduced by European colonizers. In this case it was considered equivalent to Christianity, and so neither colonizer nor colonized used ‘religion’ to refer to anything the Aboriginal people did or thought. The colonizers then committed “flagrant violations of their [the Native people’s] privacy and way of life” (8) by outlawing important rituals (Rabinovitch, ‘Eastern Sub-Arctic’), kidnapping children and putting them in residential schools (Rabinovitch, ‘Plateau’), and interfering with their use of sacred land (Rabinovitch, ‘Plains’). Much of the time, the colonizers committed these transgressions in the name of ‘religion’. These events have unfortunately given ‘religion’ a negative connotation. As a result of the misunderstandings and initially narrow definitions of religion, Native people have generally avoided using the word ‘religion’ in reference to themselves (Gill, 8). The word ‘spirituality,’ offers a possible alternative, which they have accepted.

Beyond its history, certain assumptions in the word ‘religion’ do not accurately describe Aboriginal practices and beliefs. In its chapter on ‘Sacred’, the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society defines religion as “that which has to do with the sacred” (Bailey, 443), which is elaborated in the chapter on Émile Durkheim, who pioneered the theory that religion is the “system of beliefs and practices relative to the sacred, ones that united their followers into a moral community” (Nielsen, 147). These ideas of religion operate on the idea of ‘the sacred’. The sacred is difficult to define. The Encyclopedia defines it as possessing four characteristics: it is special to the point of being unique when experienced; it is important to the point of being all-demanding; it is fundamental to the point of being primordial in human consciousness; it is dynamically communicated while being ineffable (Bailey, 444). In its chapter on Durkheim, however, the Encyclopedia defines it as that which is part of universal truth, as opposed to the ‘profane’, which are activities or objects that are routine or not a part of universal truth (Nielsen, 147). Thus religion, according to this line of thought, is that which concerns those things that are not routine, fundamental, ineffable, all-demanding, and part of universal truth. Religion operates on the understanding that there is a difference between the sacred and the profane. If this is religion, then Aboriginal peoples, who usually have no such distinctions between sacred and profane, have no religion.

Indigenous peoples can be seen to have no distinction between sacred and profane. Words that, in English, denote either the sacred or the profane no longer do so in Aboriginal languages: ‘spirit’ refers to distinctly sacred entities, but its Dené equivalent also means insects, eels, worms, dragons under the mountains, and a number of other beings (Guédon, ‘Far North’). The Dené see all animals as people, and there is no ‘sacred land,’ as in a church, because all land is sacred; along the same lines, the land of the dead is located in ‘real’ geography (Guédon, ‘Western Sub-Arctic’). Almost universally, according to Gill, the items contained in a medicine bundle are commonplace: feathers, bones, plants, rocks and pebbles, and other items frequently found outside of large cities. These fairly simple items, however, are very important. The owners understand that the items in the bundles may heal, provide certain power, or aid in hunting, war, or love. Further, they believe that the bundles are alive (Gill, 49-50). Similarly, the peoples of California did not distinguish between animate and inanimate, or natural and supernatural, because all things had residual creative power (Rabinovitch, ‘California’). There is no distinction between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ objects, actions, or places because everything is sacred and nothing is profane.

If there is no distinction between the sacred and the profane in a society, then there is no religion under Durkheim’s definition. It is clear that a culture with no recognition of the sacred has no religion, but in this understanding, a culture with no recognition of the profane also has no religion. Religion, as a word that describes something, requires that there could be something outside of it. If there is nothing outside of religion, then such a word is meaningless. Since religion is often defined as “that which has to do with the sacred”, if there is nothing that has to do with the opposite of sacred, or profane, then there is no religion. Aboriginal peoples believe that everything is sacred, and therefore there is, to them, no religion. It makes sense in this light for them to regard themselves as spiritual—engaged with the spirits in the world—but not religious—heavily engaged in the parts of life dealing with the sacred and not the profane.

There are problems with this understanding of religion, as well. Many other traditions that consider themselves religions make no distinction between the sacred and the profane. Pious Christians who stress God’s immanence often see all objects in the world as part of God’s creation and therefore sacred; Muslims affirm that all things, including animals, rocks, and mountains, have souls and worship God for all time, though only human and jinn souls have the ability to deny this (Jahanbakhsh); Buddhists believe everything is part of the same illusion. The Christians and Muslims in these examples consider all things to be sacred, and the Buddhists in the example give this distinction no meaning. However, all of them developed within societies that did make this distinction, so that they deny it is relevant within their context. Aboriginal traditions developed within a context that did not make these distinctions and thus ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ had no relevance until European contact.

None of these explanations will account for every Aboriginal person who prefers ‘spiritual’ to ‘religious’, but the whole set of connotations arriving with the word ‘religion’—colonization, centralized authority, dogma, distinction between sacred and profane areas of life—has acted to make it unpopular with many people, both Native American and immigrated. It would be unfair to assume that those who choose to refer to themselves as ‘religious’ include this connotations in their self-image, or to assume that all of these connotations—particularly those involving central authority or dogma—are necessarily inferior to their opposites. However, these connotations cannot be ignored and, in light of them, it is easy to understand why people seek alternative vocabulary.

Works Cited

Bailey, Edward. “Sacred.” Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Ed. William H. Swatos, Jr. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 1998.

Gill, Sam D. Native American Religions: An Introduction. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2005.

Guédon, Marie-Francois. “The Far North – Where Land and Water Do Not Mix.” Ellis Hall, Kingston. 21 Sept. 2007.

Guédon, Marie-Francois. “The Western Sub-Arctic – Athapaskans Rebuilding Identity.” Ellis Hall, Kingston. 28. Sept. 2007.

Hamer, Dean. The God Gene. New York: Doubleday, 2004.

Jahanbakhsh, Forough. “The Qur’an.” Ellis Hall, Kingston. 4. Oct. 2007.

Nielsen, Donald A. “Durkheim, Émile.” Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Ed. William H. Swatos, Jr. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 1998.

Rabinovitch, Shelley. “California and the Western Coast – The Forgotten Peoples.” Ellis Hall, Kingston. 16 Nov. 2007.

Rabinovitch, Shelley. “The Eastern Sub-Arctic – Algonquians of the Swamplands.” Ellis Hall, Kingston. 5 Oct. 2007.

Rabinovitch, Shelley. “The Eastern Woodlands – Where Democracy Was Born.” Ellis Hall, Kingston. 30 Nov. 2007.

Rabinovitch, Shelley. “The NW Plateau – Fur-Trading Peoples.” Ellis Hall, Kingston. 2 Nov. 2007.

Rabinovitch, Shelley. “The Plains – More Than ‘Dances With Wolves.’” Ellis Hall, Kingston. 26 Oct. 2007.

Yamane, David. “Spirituality.” Encyclopedia of Religion and Society. Ed. William H. Swatos, Jr. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press, 1998.
[1] Primarily Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, though also Zoroastrianism and other less prominent traditions.

Thursday, 18 September 2008


It’s lonely out here
past where the railroad ends
through swinging saloon doors
out in the gasping hills
where the crowd smells only gold

Here where we draw our own landscapes
draw water among the cacti
draw pistols from sagged belts
draw lots in broken straw
draw lines on our dusty faces

The sky burns for us
the town doesn’t care who we are
troubles are solved in the rush of oil
conflicts on scabbed knuckles
hatreds from barrels in a dry dawn
I wrote this'n when I was particularly frustrated with the necessity of returning to Fort McMurray, a town that I sometimes view, perhaps unfairly, perhaps not, as uncaring and violent.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The God of the Physicians (A Glosa)

like one of those slow diseases
of the joint or the bone
that doctors diagnose in terms you recognize
as bigger words for dying.

“How It Will Happen,” Bronwen Wallace

I was reading a book on modernity,
and it told me that God wasn’t just dead;
He was justifiably executed by philosophy.
He’d been buried next to Santa Claus’ cenotaph
and the Easter bunny’s empty grave.
As a transcendental notion He eases
the Oedipal husk of childhood grudges
but in a healthy society religion haunts
old men’s minds; it warps and seizes
like one of those slow diseases.

I had to ask myself whether the author
of that book, who’s long exhaled his last,
realized that Descartes’ radical doubt
fell short of the mountainous monks who floated
beneath the frenzy of their ego-less thoughts.
Easy enough to say that author died alone,
joining no ancestral procession, but the geneticist
measures his spectres in levels of carbon
monoxide hallucination and the neural drone
of the joint or the bone.

Long dead is the mysterious world;
now answers tame as easily as early dogs.
Neurologists preach an epileptic Muhammad,
meditate on posterior superior parietal lobes,
and convert to transcranial magnetic stimulation.
Now Jesus Christ will anaesthetize
Lazarus with the suppressed proletariat,
and Donne’s holy agues are simply common
colds and pneumonia and I realize
that doctors diagnose in terms you recognize.

The homilies are now irrational
numbers, higher powers are exponents,
and thinkers on the problem of evil
suggest democracy and capitalism as cures.
Unsolved mysteries aren’t numinous
but symptoms of simply not trying,
and instead of nirvana or rapture
the modernists propose lack of brain
function, expiry, or flat-lining
as bigger words for dying.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Being Christian In Public

This evening I volunteered at the Navigators booth at Clubs Night at my university. Navigators is an international Christian fellowship organization that focuses on personal growth in Christ through participation in smaller groups and on community involvement. I was at the booth for about an hour and twenty minutes, and during this time I discovered something I hadn't known before.

I have never been publically Christian.

I mean, I've been in situations in which I was in public, Christian settings. And I've revealed to lecture and seminar classes that I'm a Christian. My Facebook page says I'm a Christian--I actually changed the settings so it's in my Basic Information page on New Facebook. It's not like I scratch fish into the sand and refer to Rome as Babylon. But I've never been in a situation where I am immediately and publically announcing, at least by association, that I am a Christian, where otherwise people would generally assume that I was not.

Because that's something I've noticed about university, or at least my campus--if you do not give any indication that you are religious, people will assume you are atheist by default. This is especially true if they think you are intelligent. This means that most people who know me only somewhat do not necessarily know that I am a Christian, so when they meet me at the booth, say hello and then read the booth sign, they give this awkward double-take. It is almost as if they think, "Oh! I didn't think he was one of those people. How awkward." And the conversation proceeds with this careful lack of mentioning that I am there with a religious group.

And I could be totally cool about it and say something like, "Yeah, I'm here with Navigators. It's a small fellowship on campus, are you interested?" It's definitely possible to play it cool and still bring up the fact that it's a Christian group. But no. I play it awkward. And I don't do my job as the booth person.

This all intersects with my extraordinarily uncomfortable relationship with evangelism. I find traditional approaches the evangelism annoying and ineffective, and I find some of the theological underpinnings to evangelism...let's say patronizing. On the other hand, I cannot argue with the theology behind it. Given that Christianity's salvatory claims are true, I should certainly try to spread them. It would be selfish not to.

To an extent, this booth presented itself as an evangelical dilemma. I could stand by the booth looking as welcoming as possible and wait for people to talk to me; I could go out into the passing crowd and engage people directly. The first would likely yeild fewer interactions; the second would give me the appearance of a pushy preacher. It's my fear that the latter drives people from the Church more than brings people in, but I don't know that the passive approach works well, either. The problem focuses around the hugely negative connotations and expectations of evangelism in general.

I have no conclusions or messages to draw from this experience, other than that I discovered a new way in which a Christian identity can be discomforting socially and that I may not have given myself fully to that identity. Well, I know I haven't--who has?--but I'm even further from it than I thought.

Maybe I should go buy a cross on a cord to wear around my neck.

Clumsy (Flash Fiction)

I remembered in the fifth grade after her mother died how she was clumsy, falling down stairs or putting her arm against the stove or sometimes even cutting towards herself with knives and slicing her hands. I never saw her do these things, but she told me when I asked her about the evidence on her arms and hands and face at lunch time.
We went to the same high school after that, but I rarely spoke to her. We both remembered playing regular kid games in the elementary school yard before it wasn’t cool to play with girls anymore, but somehow those times were over. I did notice that the bruises were still there, but I was older then and had a few things figured out.
I came home after university to figure out what I was doing and found out that her alcoholic father had died. She showed up to one of the church groups and I thought we were really connecting again, but she had this new boyfriend who didn’t know she was going to the Bible study. We couldn’t do anything together because of him, though I would have liked to and I thought she might have wanted to as well. I noticed that she always wore sweaters and turtlenecks and that her hands were pretty rough, and I was even older and thought I had a few more things figured out.
One night she was quite upset about something and she let me take her home. We were lying together on the couch in the dark when she finally told me that she wanted to leave her boyfriend but was scared. I told her that I would take care of her and we were married a few months later. The lights were out that night but I could still feel the smooth burns and rough scars. I thought I had understood something.
Three years later, I’m lying in the hospital and have no idea if either of our children will survive because she set the house on fire, and I wish I had known that she had started cutting herself the day after her mother’s funeral.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Tomorrow's Villanelle

I seem to always hear, ‘My, how you’ve grown,’
when talking with parents’ friends, who repeat
until I feel my age is not my own

but instead memories I have on loan,
a ‘When I was as young as you’-like bleat
I seem to always hear as ‘how you’re grown

since I last saw you, taught you,’ in that tone
that writes my past back to my baby teeth
until I feel my age is not my own,

or with old friends I pretend to still know
I’ll reminisce and from their shifting feet
I seem to always hear, ‘My, how you’ve grown

away from us,’ where the stories have flown
to younger crowds, who play my former beat
until I feel my age is not my own.

Other birthdays come, and from each milestone,
in the under-thoughts when my brain’s voice greets,
I seem to always hear, ‘My, how you’ve grown,’
until I feel my age is not my own.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Poem in Conversation


Where the remote Bermudas ride
In th’ ocean’s bosom unespied,
From a small boat that rowed along,
The listening winds received this song:

“What should we do but sing His praise
That led us through the wat’ry maze
Unto an isle so long unknown,
And yet far kinder than our own?
Where He the huge sea monster wracks,
That lift the deep upon their backs;
He lands us on a grassy stage,
Safe from the storms, and prelate’s rage.
He gave us this eternal spring
Which here enamels everything,
And sends the fowls to us in care,
On daily visits through the air;
He hangs in shades the orange bright,
Like golden lamps in a green night,
And does in the pomegranates close
Jewels more rich than Ormus shows;
He makes the figs our mouths to meet,
And throws the melons at our feet;
But apples plants of such a price,
No tree could ever bear them twice;
With cedars, chosen by his hand
From Lebanon, he stores the land;
And makes the hollow seas that roar
Proclaim the ambergris on shore;
He cast (of which we rather boast)
The gospel’s pearl upon our coast,
And in these rocks for us did frame
A temple, where to sound his name.
O let our voice his praise exalt
Till it arrive at heaven’s vault,
Which, thence (perhaps) rebounding, may
Echo beyond the Mexique Bay.”

Thus sung they in the English boat
An holy and a cheerful note;
And all the way, to guide their chime,
With falling oars they kept the time.
--Andrew Marvell, 1621-1678

The Ellice Swamp

In Perth county’s weedy puddle
from sagging barns, Rostock, Kuhryville,
a fleet of orange tractors grunts an unsung melody
and the manured wind does not care:

“How do we deserve this soil,
pulled from the water field by field,
archipelagos edged by culverts,
turned back to swamp with rain?
Here the water tastes like coliform
and the cows’ feet are wet
in the hollows from which our grandparents
took more than Europe’s family farms could afford.
Do we deserve this eternal well
which bubbles up among our crop
and invites the geese to rest when headed south,
once our plows have passed?
Yes, the fruit takes to this ground,
yellow pears come with yellow jackets,
hard sour crabs hang like tempting cherries,
the blinding corn is green and tall,
in autumn scarlet fires the beans,
pumpkins defy the garden and spread across the lawn,
and apples grow enough to spoil on the branch
and intoxicate the sparrows.
Yes, the cedars, maples, willows grow
and ample old woods dot the marsh,
but it all has the musk of pigs, cows,
chickens, workhorses, and sweating earth;
in the muddy ground are contained
those who first divided land from the water table.
Moserville’s headstones and the town names
mark those buried under St. Paul’s Lutheran care.
Do we deserve this earth that swallows
histories, hours, evenings, lives,
that sits beneath the horizon
and lets us earn each day?”

From the combines this song is not heard
between the farmers’ jokes and complaints
and continues for all time.

Journal #10: Contraries Meet in One: Conjoined Twins as Symbols of Conflict Resolution

The Lives of Amphibians and Chimæras:
Journal #10
Contraries Meet in One:
Conjoined Twins as Symbols of Conflict Resolution
Recalling the two-headed hermaphroditic proto-people, the dual-self women, and the difficulties of a single text (or city) containing seemingly irreconcilable views, I turn to two sources, one I’ve discussed already and one I have not: the poetry of John Donne and conjoined twins.

“Oh, to vex me, contraries meet in one:/Inconstancy unnaturally hath begot…” So Donne opens Holy Sonnet 19, and it seems at first a description of the metaphysical conceit: “vexing” “contraries” “unnaturally” brought into “one”. Instead he discusses his constant inconstancy in religious devotion, which is not so contradictory as the language may appear. But I think we can use the metaphysical conceit to propose a temporary solution to our problem of the internally inconsistent work: in writing a text with divergent viewpoints (as Bakhtin insists we must, if we are prose-writers), we are committing an act of ‘yoking by violence together’ those languages. Just as the reader of a metaphysical conceit can work through the logic of the comparison, so a reader, with the ability to examine every view, work through the connections and comparisons and thus resolve the inherent contradictions. This does not mean that the languages will necessarily sit comfortably with each other in the text; it means that the reader can perhaps propose a solution, having seen from each person’s point of view. (This, of course, requires that the reader try to understand and then resolve them.)

A similar analogy that I have been slowly getting to all this time: conjoined twins. These are twins who are physically attached at birth, and sometimes share major organs. I shall here dispel two opposite misconceptions: 1) the twins do not have the same mind or always know what the other is thinking, nor 2) do they always argue. They sometimes agree and sometimes disagree.

Brittany and Abigail Hensel are dicephalic twins currently living in Minnesota; dicephalic means that they share their entire torso, appearing to be ‘two-headed’ (‘two-headed’ is inaccurate; because any person has only one head by definition, there is no entity which could have two heads… ‘one-bodied twins’ might be more accurate). Because of their physical state, they are forced to come to resolutions on decisions about which they do not necessarily agree. According to an interview, they argue a lot,[1] though other sources claim that they do so only rarely now that they’re older. Despite their many differences of opinion, they have learned to resolve conflicts most people cannot imagine facing.

I thus suggest we look to the Hensel girls not simply as an example of resolution but as a symbol of ‘contraries met in one,’ of heterglossic voices in a single text.[2] They are lessons in living together in spite of disagreements—even ones never resolved. I think that the Hensel twins, and cooperative conjoined twins in general, are emblematic of the necessity and possibility of different voices finding resolution in a single body.[3]
[1], accessed Dec. 6, 2007; for more information, search their names on Google or in YouTube.
[2] Apparently their mother dislikes it when people talk about them as anything but persons, but I refer back to Journal #8: symbols can be real people and vice versa.
[3] I really hesitated about putting this journal on my blog. I was concerned about bringing excessive publicity to the twins discussed here; certainly I would not enjoy being unwilling blog-fodder or the subject of various philosophical debates and lewd speculations. However, I am beginning to suppose it won't hurt them overmuch if I post this article, and may help others instead wrestle with their own experiences of duality and ambiguity. So I'm posting it. If I have caused ill, please let me know. And obviously I added this footnote afterwards. For new readers, refer to "journal series" under the list of themes to get the all 10 journals and the introduction.

Return of the Internet


Good news! We now have Internet! It may be a bit patchy yet--my housies are on wireless, as direct cable connection from the router is patchy at best--but I can at least expect Internet on a taking-turns basis, and finally connect this computer, with all of my fun files, to this blog. Which means more dumping, if I want to/get bored.

I don't know what I'll start with...we'll see. I could, and probably will, throw on some quick things for the time being, set up a chain of delayed-publishing things to get through the week while I work on some new content. There's a line of thought I've been developing out of Mary Jo Leddy's Radical Gratitude that has struck some people I've spoken to (well, OK, my mother) as pithy, and this was reinforced by this morning's sermon, so I might spin that out sometime soon. We'll see. Also, I may go back and update some previous posts, now that I have access to images that I hadn't had access to during the summer.

But I have to be somewhere at 6:30 tonight, and I do have some legitimate work to do, so I can't get too carried away...

Over and out,

The English Clergyman

Monday, 8 September 2008

Internet Failure

Apparently there is no Internet at my house. My housemates have arranged for it to arrive this coming Sunday. I have to use the computers in the library if I want to use the Internet. Hence, I will not be updating my blog often until then. I have all sorts of wonderful posts planned when that beautiful day comes, though.

Until then, I suppose I haven't much to add.


English Clergyman

Tuesday, 2 September 2008


I'm returning to my townhouse for school tomorrow, so likely no blogging tomorrow.

And then school on Monday. We'll see how it goes!


I am afraid to say that these are not among my best photos; certainly the second is out of focus, and that is a shame, because she had nice big mandibles, and the last is barely intelligible, since my hands were so unsteady trying for the supermacro necessary to capture the tiny brown jumping spider. However, I do like the harvestmen/daddy-longlegs--not a spider, but another kind of arachnid--in the first picture. These, again, were from the Pinery trip.

[Update 13/09/08: I met this fella a year ago at the Pinery.]


I was at the Pinery the day before yesterday, and had the pleasure of meeting these three caterpillars. I hope you enjoy these photos. They moved a lot and were therefore difficult to capture with the supermacro. The last one wanted on my camera. [Update 13/09/08: The first three photos are from last year; the first two are of a cecropia moth caterpillar. The remainded are indeed from the Pinery two days before the original creation of this post.]

Oh, and my mother's the hand model.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Dawkins Directory

Instead of actually writing another Dawkins-related post, I'm going to construct a directory to all of my Dawkins-related posts to improve ease of access. Then I'm going to hyperlink the Dawkins posts to this one, and add a thing on my sidebar to get you straight to this post.

If you haven't begun reading any of my refutation of Dawkins' The GOD Delusion, I'll direct you to my Dawkins-related mission statement. From that post you can get a sense of what the different categories of post are and work your way through them as you please.

Also note that I may have other posts concerning Dawkins, and yet haven't linked them here. That is because I wrote them before the beginning of my more organized and directed effort at refutation; that is, I wrote them during the reading of the book. They reflect more my state of mind than the book itself, and so will be left elsewhere. If you want to access them, click the "Dawkins" label on sidebar under "Themes" and scroll to the bottom.

I'll update as I write more.

General Statements
Mission Statement

Disputing Dawkins
I. The Power of Rhetoric
II. Arguement for the Spectrum of Probability
III. Argument for the Improbability of God's Existence
IV. Religions' Disconnection from Morality

Dawkins' Style
I. Offensiveness
II. Lack of Explication

Dawkins' Misrepresentation of Religion
I. Miracles

Dawkins Moment
I. Untitled
II. Memes

Tangentally Related
Following Rules

Zombi Attack!

As promised, I will write a brief response to The Serpent and the Rainbow. At some point I'll update the little bit in my recommended books section, but for now I'll give it its own post.

The back of the book puts it like this: "Zombis...the Walking Dead...a mystery that has long baffled, horrified, and tantalized Western imagination. In April 1982, ethnobotanist Wade Davis traveled into the Haitian countryside to research strange reports of men drugged, buried alive, and ultimately resurrected from the grave. Drawn into a netherworld of bizarre rituals and wild celebrations, he came face to face with a sorcerer-priest who introduced him to the dark secrets of voodoo potions, powders, and poisons. What began as a scientific quest ended in a spiritual confrontation--a terrifying journey of discovery across the border between life and death, between good and evil."

In his book The Serpent and the Rainbow, Wade Davis explores the culture of voodoo in Haiti, attempting to track down the origins of zombis. Over the course of his investigation, he locates the pharmacological agents behind the zombi phenomenon, but also discovers that the true origins lie not in a chemical event but the spiritual worldviews that pervade the vodoun religion of the Haitian countryside. Davis also undertakes to de-sensationalize the vodoun religion, a sentiment not shared by the publishers who wrote the comments on the back of the book, or, it seems, the reviewers quoted: "Replete with bizarre details to titillate the curious...Zombis do come back from the dead, and Wade Davis knows how" (Washington Post Book World). That respectful treatment notwithstanding, the book reads much like a movie, filled with strange and melodramatic characters, visual details and well-described settings, and some anxious situations and mystical events. Davis also grounds his sometimes incredible tale with forays into history, seeking the roots of vodoun secret societies in Haitian history, and into science, examining the potency of assorted natural toxins and drugs. Together these create an elaborate and well-rounded novel that examines the phenomenon of the resurrected dead through a vantage point that is historical, scientific, anthropological, and spiritual, all in one.

Now, I must emphasize that these are not the zombies of modern fiction (or the post title), rotting corpses staggering the course of their undeath, seeking to feast on the flesh (or brains) of their more vibrant relatives. Instead, they are zombis of the traditional sense--corpses resurrected by a voodoo sorcerer to be a slave of the sorcerer. At least, this is what American scholars thought zombies were. Davis shows this as a lie and explains the true function of zombis in vodoun society--for zombis play an institutionalized role in that society.

Don't get me wrong. This is not a dry academic read that is more based on "the facts" and not on sell-value. I think this would make an excellent movie. And most of the comments on the back of the book are true, from a certain perspective at least. I just don't think that "netherworld," "bizarre," "dark secrets," or "confrontation" are the best words to describe what happens, and these leave out the roles friendship, charity, personal hardship, and trust played in the novel. The secondary characters are real and engaging (as they should be, since they were real) and help create a living portrait of Davis' venture.

So I recommend this book to anyone, and expect that you may get any of a number of things from it: a scientific adventure story into one of the most intriguing pharmaceutical phenomena ever; an anthropologist's navigation through the secret network of Haitian spirituality and undergroung politics; a story of companionship in face of cultural divides; an analysis of a cultural mindset different from our own and an examination of that mindset's advantages; a philosophical treatise on the nature of death, and our relationship to it; a mystery tale filled with nighttime rituals, deadly poisons, and powerful secret societies.

If you read this book, you will embark on Davis' journey, after a fashion, and so I leave you with this declaration, quoted from the novel and from Dr. Lehman, who addressed Davis as his backers made their proposition to him at the beginning of his tale:

"Let me relieve you of any further suspense, Mr. Davis. ...We propose to send you to the frontier of death. If what we are about to tell you is true, as we believe it is, it means that there are men and women dwelling in the continuous present, where the past is dead and the future consists of fear and impossible desires."

Update as of 2 September: James Davis of God Online tells me that there is a movie version, indeed.

A Visit to Fair Verona

A Review of the Stratford Festival Theatre's Romeo and Juliet, 08 Season

I must begin with the caveat that I am not an expert theatre reviewer. Indeed, I hardly know where to begin, how to extricate the performance from the script, how to discuss good acting or poor staging. Regardless, I'll give it a shot and you can be the judge of the review's worth.

I had been warned on entering the theatre that this was not one of the Festival's best performances, and I was forced to agree--though I did not dislike it as much as some did. The female lead, Nikki M. James, was originally criticised for being inaudible; by the performance I saw, well into the season, she had remedied this and was certainly a vocal force on the stage. However, her performance--and Gareth Potter's, her opposite--were overshadowed by the presences of some excellent secondary characters: Peter Donaldson as a wise and articulate Friar Laurence, Timothy D. Stickney as an explosively powerful Tybalt, and Evan Buliung as a melancholic and capering Mercutio. Their performances built up the reality which surrounded the lovers, created the living environment and deadly circumstances required to break into the bubble the eponymous pair's mutual infatuation created. The only fault in the strong secondary performances is that the long speeches of Romeo and Juliet, though excellently blocked, felt weak in comparison. This is a hazard of Shakespearean drama in general, since the rambling dialogues are now harder to follow orally than textually and are not necessary to an audience familiar with the plot, so I do not fault the actors for having to work with material that is conducive to audience wool-gathering.

The set was professional, as usual. The warm rosy cobbles of the thrust-stage and the movable bridge spanning the back enterances both created the Veronic atmosphere and provided ample footholes for Romeo to play over in his evasion of authorities and friends. The single-palette set was also condusive to transformation with minial props and filtered lighting, so that the friar's cell was easily constructed with a counter of medicine's and moonlight-through-windows, and the tomb real and evocative.

Perhaps my largest fault with the performance was the anachronisms of weapon and costum. The opening sequences were the regular Shakespeare-reworked fare of the Festival: the original language is maintained, but the costuming is modern and the swords are replaced with guns. However, as Romeo, Mercutio, and Benvolio dress for the Capulet ball, they switch into the garb of Renaissance Italy, and until the authorities break into the vault to discover the lovers' bodies this costume continues. In this last scene, the costumes revert back into modern clothing (with Romeo and Juliet dressed in cunningly ambiguous costumes). I was unsure what the significance of this was. It does remind me of De Quincey's criticism of Macbeth; in this case, the chaotic, trangressive action is defined by the Renaissance, and the assertion and reassertion of order is marked by surroundings with which the audience is comfortable. Regardless, this did seem an odd decision to make.

Finally, my reaction to the musical selection was mixed. The accompaniment to the exploration of Romeo and Juliet's love was overly saccharine for my taste--it was too light and intruded too much. The music set to scenes of foreboding, however, helped create the atmosphere rather than demand it, and the fight scenes' rhythms provided the pulse necessary to draw the audience into the combat. In particular, the use of exotic battledrums heightened and controlled the experience.

Overall, I must say that this was the least satisfying of the four performances I saw over the past few days, but the story of Romeo and Juliet itself, combined with the strong secondary characters and the excellent staging, made this enjoying nonetheless.

And perhaps it was most fitting that it the air was filled with misty rain when I exited the theatre, given the mood of the play.
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