Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Dawkins' Style II

Previously I defined offensiveness as a major part of Dawkins' style. I believe I alluded to the possibility that this is what the more lauding (and therefore less laudible) reviewers may have been refering to when they said he was witty. One of the particularly noticeable parts of his "wit" include his analyses of passages he selected from various religious works or explications.l These are full of grand phrases and exaggerated criticisms. What these analyses almost invariably lack is, most surprisingly, analysis. That is, he doesn't exactly engage with the material, discuss it's points, or draw from it in any way. In the words of a professor, he doesn't explicate--in fact, if I were a TA grading this book as a paper, I would be forced to deduct significant marks because he refuses to explain his discussion of the passages he quotes. Therefore, I title this post as the second characteristic of Dawkins' style:

Lack of Explication

On page 17, Dawkins' presents a passage from a religious text (unfortunately, I returned the book and didn't write the passage down--foolish me). He then analyzes it in the following manner: "Every sentence drips with intellectual and moral cowardice!" He then moves on. Now there's something very important to note here, and that is that, if given only his analysis, the reader can have absolutely no idea what Dawkins' is criticizing. He gives no reasons for how he came to this conclusion. Instead, he treats the matter as though he were pointing out a simple fact, as though the reader has likely come to that conclusion herself and will immediately concur. At the very least, he expects that the reader could detect the "intellectual and moral cowardice" upon going back to the passage.
Now, you might claim, that's not fair. You haven't given us the passage; maybe it is obvious. This is true, and this is why I said, "foolish me." I wish I could give you the passage, and you could see for yourself how less-than-obvious the yellow was. That is hardly the point, however; the point is that he doesn't explicate.

On page 64, he calls an arguement "This grotesque piece of reasoning." If I recall correctly, he was here refering to an explanation of suffering. Perhaps the author pushed the reasoning a little far, or articulated it in an insensitive way. However, it was hardly "grotesque," neither in the actual meaning or the newer one (ie. disgusting). More importantly, he doesn't actual discuss what he thinks is wrong with the passage; he simply calls it grotesque and then says it's "a typical piece of theological reasoning." So he 1) calls one example 'grotesque,' without explanation, and then 2) casts all theology in the same light, without explanation.

On the next page (65), Swinburg's quotation--"Too much evidence might not be good for us"--incenses Dawkins. He rages about it for a few lines, yet in all his upset he doesn't once tell us why it makes him angry. Now, I can guess at why, but that's the thing: it's only guessing. I can't actually deal with his argument, since he never articulates it.

Here I have primarily dealt with explication in the English-major sense--how he does not explain what the quotations he has chosen say. He doesn't pull apart the language and show how he gets his analysis. He gives a quotation, and then he gives a value-judgement. In all of the above cases--and more--he doesn't even remotely deal with the content or the style (and the adjectives he uses seem more style-related than content-related). As a reader, I am at a loss as to where he gets his conclusions. Now, Dawkins is a scientist. The principle of the scientific method is that hypotheses must be theoretically disprovable (this is the primary problem with M-theory). If Dawkins doesn't give explain his analyses, I have no way to disprove them, even theoretically. Therefore, in this book, Dawkins violates the very principles he so vehementally espouses.

I hope that was clear. If not, think of it this way. If you were to write a paper, you'd be asked to show your process. That way, readers could tell how you got there, and would be able to agree or disagree based on something other than your word. They'd therefore be more likely to believe you. Dawkins doesn't show his process. Where does that leave him?

In fact, this doesn't even begin to cover "lack of explication." He often makes assertions, not based on passage-analysis, that he utterly fails to support or explain. That, however, will show up in other posts--likely both Dawkins' Style III and assorted Disputing Dawkinses.

Go to the Dawkins Directory

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Random Stuff

1) Do you know what's awesome? When you edit a part of your Blogger blog layout (say, a list of links), and save it, the little button fades from yellow to brown. It's just so cool to watch.

2) You know what's also awesome? The Dark Knight. Insanely good. A superhero movie that challenges its characters in ways other superhero movies haven't before? One where the bad guy's character, while insane, is way more believable than "he went crazy because he was ambitious and then took some super-testosterone in an experiment that made him hyper aggressive/blended his mind with a ruthless AI armature set/fused with alien synthetics that feeds on his jealousies/got slammed by solar radiation and dumped by Jessica Alba/is saddled with some unfortunate mind-bending powers and a government operative father who hates him for it"? One which isn't hung up on origins and is more concerned with choices? And choices made by civilians, not just "heroes"? One which doesn't entirely indulge in scientism? Giving it a little thought, I'd have to say that when they said they planned to "rekindle" the Batman franchise, they delivered their promise. With interest. I don't care what anyone says or how well they argue, from this point forward DC movies utterly and finally own Marvel. Case closed.

3) And there are other awesome things too! Like videos on YouTube: Christian the lion.

Friday, 25 July 2008

The Ant War

Just a brief note on something I saw at work the other day...

There's a theatre camp at the park where I work, and I overheard from the kids that there was a massive ant battle. Well, I had known there was a carpenter ant infestation nearby, so I just assumed that there had actually been two. The kids showed me the battlefield, and it was indeed littered with little ant corpses. The teacher and most of the kids mourned a little, which was surprising and heartening. Two girls asked me why they would suddenly start fighting, and I explained that ants are territorial. Because food can sometimes be scarce, ants are 'programmed' to try to destroy any nearby colonies. Often this results in large battles and the wholesale destruction of both colonies. I had almost said that, in this, they were remarkably human, but I decided they were two young for such cynicism and, really, that way of thinking is terribly unhealthy. The Cold War did end without nuclear holocaust, right?

Ants are interesting things. I was given ant-extermination literature at work so that I could deal with the ant problem, and learned some things about carpenter ants. They will have six different castes of ant in their nests. Their nests, tunnelled into wood, are called "galleries." A single queen establishes a parent gallery, and then other colonies are started as the population grows. In this sense they really are imperial. Unlike other ants, however, the queen does not usually reside in the parent nest, but either goes out starting new colonies or forages in the nearby area. This means exterminators have a harder to eradicating carpenter ants than other kinds, since servant ants cannot bring the queen toxic food and destroy the population at its source.

I also had the luxury of seeing aphid farms on trees and weeds at work. Since none were on seedlings or plants we want, but instead plants we don't and mature maples that can handle the low populations, I saw no need to exterminate them. It is really interesting, watching the ants scurry about the aphids. I'm led to wonder whether they herd them to new food sources when the local one runs out. I had read that this does happen, but I don't recall how reliable my source was. I certainly didn't see that sort of activity when I was watching them.

Incredible things, ants. Very interesting.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Disputing Dawkins II

I realize that Dawkins lays down groundwork before this, but I will get to that, I think, in the "Style" segments, because most of it consists of 'lack of explication.' Instead, I will get to one point which is both crucial and ultimately faulty. That point is this:

Argument for The Spectrum of Probability

Dawkins wants to argue that the existence of God is terribly improbable, and that we should therefore not believe in God. A believer's first objection might be that God is not terribly improbable; a believer's second objection might be that, even if God's existence was improbable, that should not necessitate our unbelief--or, more accurately, our belief in God's non-existence. I will get to these. My first objection, however, is that God's existence ought not be measured in probabilities at all.

The first challenge to objecting to Dawkins' claim that we can determine roughly how probable it is that God exists is that he makes no argument in favour of it. In other words, I have no actual proofs or logical process to dismantle. We ought, in spite of this, to look a bit at what Dawkins does say.

"Let us, then, take the idea of a spectrum of probabilities seriously, and place human judgements about the existence of God along it, between two extremes of opposite certainty." (pg. 50)

The thing that I truly enjoy about this passage is his use of the British "judgement" over the American "judgment"; generally I prefer British spellings, and this is certainly no exception. Other than that, of course, I find the passage unfortunate and ludicrous. The thing is that this passage is preceded with not an argument, as the "then" at the beginning would generally indicate, but simply the assertion that he does not reject the idea of determining the probability of God.

The only attempt he makes at persuasion, other than mentioning his personal feeling that indeed this method is useable, is to reason by analogy. There is a considerable hazard in reasoning by analogy; analogies work only along the lines in which the two objects compared actually bear resemblence. I do not know enough logical terminology to make myself clearer, so I will use an example.

"People's personalities are like icebergs; the part you see is only/less than 10% of the whole. That an iceberg seems long and narrow on the surface does not mean that the iceberg is not broad and roundish beneath the water. Similarly, a person who appears to be narrow-minded and ungenerous may in fact be revealed as open-minded and generous after getting to know him."

So far, the analogy works. People and icebergs are similar in discrepency between appearance and reality. Now let's watch the analogy break down a little.

"When icebergs break from the iceflow, they float away to melt in warmer waters, never returning to their origins. Therefore, when people--who are like icebergs--leave their parents' home, they will not last nearly as long as they would at home, and they will never return."

I'm sure any reader will agree that this is a silly arguement, and will be able to point out that, as far as population movement is considered, people and icebergs vary significantly and therefore what is true of icebergs is not also true of people. I am not trying to insult anyone's intellegince with this example. I want to make clear where the reasoning by analogy succeeds and where it fails, and an easy example should help more than a complex one. I hope I have succeeded.

So let's move on to Dawkins. He essentially argues, if it can be called such, for the Spectrum of Probability by calling on Russell's teapot, the Quest unicorn, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. For those who have not heard of these and are not interested in searching Wikipedia, here is a rundown of each.

Russell's teapot: Bertrand Russell once posited the existence of a teapot orbiting the sun that is too small and too far from Earth to be seen by human technologies. He then went on the claim that if he told people that they ought not doubt its existence because it could not be disproven, those people would think him mad; if ancient books and powerful institutions, however, instilled in our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents that this is true ever since they were children, people would think one mad for claiming it can be disproven.

The Quest Unicorn: Camp Quest, which could be called a radically liberal organization if there ever was one, encourages its campers to try and disprove the existence of an invisible, inaudible unicorn that cannot be felt, smelt, or tasted. This is related to the Invisible Pink Unicorn, which has the wonderful attributes of being both colourless and colourful. Camp Quest, of course, was trying to train its campers to be atheists. Don't let anyone tell you that atheist indoctrination doesn't exist.

The Flying Spaghetti Monster: The FSM is the diety of the parody religion Pastafarianism. The religion was founded by a student of a Kansas school to protest the decision by the school board to require Intelligent Design be taught as an alternative to evolution. He crafted a wonderful story of revelation incorporating pirates and Eight I'd Really Rather You Didn'ts. While the Quest Unicorn was a parody of God, Pastafarianism is a parody religion.

Dawkins brings these up to demonstrate this point: we are willing to discuss how probable it is that Russell's teapot, the Quest Unicorn, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster exist, so we ought, by the same token, be willing to discuss how probable it is that God exists. No one can "prove" that any of the four exists or doesn't exist using traditional empirical, or even logical, standards. Therefore, reasons Dawkins, it is perfectly fair--and possible--to try to determine God's probability.

I do not want to make a straw man of this argument. Dawkins is not claiming that we can put a precise number on it. That would truly be absurd. Among other things, the spectrum is a continuum, and the human mind is quite simply incapable of conceiving the difference between, say, 98% and 99%, let alone 98.888...% and 99%. Dawkins is suggesting, I think, of a sort of range in which with think the probability lies, being constantly refined by incoming evidence. This is much more reasonable, and something we do frequently in other cases in our lives.

The problem, instead, lies in the analogies. None of the three Dawkins gives resembles God closely enough for this analogy to bear out. This is why.

Russell's teapot: It is certainly the case that we are, with today's technologies, incapable of proving the teapot's non-existence. In fact, it is possible that we are even theoretically incapable of disproving the teapot's existence, since absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. However, the teapot is unlike God in a few significant ways.

First, you'll notice that "today's technologies" feature importantly in the premise. If our astronomical technology improves, we may be able to actually find Russell's teapot. I suppose Dawkins will claim that, if a future astronaut were to see a piece of servingware out the window of a future spacevessel, it could always be a hallucination. That being said, it could, eventually, be possible to scientifically verify the existence of Russell's teapot in the future, given the requisite increase in technology. I really doubt that this can be said of God, and I will argue that in the next point. The difference here is that even if you cannot in theory disprove beyond all doubt the existence of the teapot, you could still theoretically prove its existence, if it exists; the existence of God, alternately, even if true, could not be proven using scientific methods, as far as I am aware.

Second, we can measure the properties of a teapot. We cannot measure the properties of God. Despite the volumes written on theology in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, no one in any of these religions--or no one who really represents any of these religions--claims to have a real idea of what God is or looks like. It would be ridiculous to assume one could. Most of the properties attributed to God include the prefix 'omni-,' or include the word 'ultimate,' or are related to themes like 'infinity,' 'eternity,' or 'perfection.' Notice that these all preclude the very possibility of measurement, which requires some sort of limits. Believers frequently believe that God's existence encompasses, and then exceeds, all reality. My point, then, is that in the case of the teapot, we know what we're looking for. We have examples of teapots to analyze. We can use our examples to determine how quickly the celestial teapot might be moving, how far it may be from the sun, how it might have arrived there, etc. When we don't find pieces of china in the predicted locations when we know we could possibly stumble across it, we can then talk about the probabilities of its existence. However, when we can neither experience the entirety of God, nor be certain that we would recognize whatever part of His presence we might experience, the resemblance breaks down.

A summary of why Russell's teapot can be discussed in terms of probability and God perhaps may not: not only could we theoretically find the teapot some day, but we also know what we're looking for. Put differently, if we never find the teapot, this is not because we never could find it in the first place or that we might not be recognising it when we see it; if we never "find" God, or evidence for Him, it could be because we never could find evidence in the first place or that we might not be recognising it when we see it.

Quest Unicorn: In this case, we cannot be sure that we could ever find the unicorn, if it existed. Further, we're not sure what it looks like or how to measure it when we find it. In these respects, it bears greater resemblance to God than the teapot did. However, it still differs in an important respect. It is entirely contained within the dimensions of reality of which we are aware. It exists along the planes (cubes? supercubes?) of space and time. Not only this, it presumably has a concrete location in both, and absences in both, instead of filling all of both. God, as He is described by most religions, exceeds all of these measures, as we discussed before. Therefore, assuming it is possible to ever come up with a probability for the Unicorn's existence, this may not necessarily transfer to the case of God. It is my understanding that probabilities, as we understand them, refer to things that happen entirely in our world--certainly they refer only to things that our comprehensive faculties can grasp. I'll refer you to the original quotation, and you'll notice that "human judgements" are in fact the measure. In other words, if you not only have little idea what you're talking about, but aren't even capable of conceiving the places where you would have to look to find it, it's pretty unlikely you could determine a probability for it's existence. While the unicorn at least would exist in a way with which we are familiar, God may not.

Flying Spaghetti Monster: This one, of the three, bears the greatest resemblance to God, and is the hardest to dismiss. For one, it is possible to claim that the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists at least partly outside of this reality in the way that God may. The FMS may not be constrained by time and space--I'm not sure about Pastafarian "doctrine," but I will assume for now that they give the FMS most of the attributes of the Abrahamic God, for safety's sake. So why does the analogy not bear out? Well, it may not be a case of the analogy is imperfect. It may be a case that what Dawkins claims about the FMS isn't true.

For one, Dawkins claims that we'd be willing to discuss whether the FMS probably exists. Personally, I don't think I am. I do not believe the FMS exists. If I were forced to wager on it, I'd wager against. But this is not because I think I know what the probability is. Despite Sager's (I think it was Sager) refusal to commit to believing or disbelieving in aliens, I would imagine he'd be able to wager one way or the other if he were forced to (say he has to make a decision between two courses of action; if he takes course A, he will if aliens exist or will live if they do not, while if he takes course B, he will live if aliens exist or will die if they do not). That doesn't mean a probability exists or not; it just means that he has to make a decision and so will make one anyway. My disbelieving in the FMS has nothing to do with probability. It has to do more with intuition--and faith, but I hardly expect you to buy that before recognising that you are of a faith yourself.

But say you push this. Say I am weasling out of this and that, in fact, I do think that it is more probable that the Christian God exists than that the FSM exists, even though I claim not to think so. Maybe I truly believe that I don't think this, but my psychology is muddled and I in fact do. Perhaps it is similar to how I implied that you have a faith whether you know it or not in the previous paragraph. Let us, for the sake of arguement, say this is the case. I would then like to pint out that to claim something is more probable than something else is completely irrelevant to how probable it is on its own. For example, take the following typical puzzle: "John is taller than Jane. Carl is taller that Jane. Mark is taller than Carl, but not Audrey. John is taller than Audrey. Is John taller than Carl?" You can answer this puzzle fairly easily. But what if the final question were replaced with "How tall is Jane?" Obviously you cannot know for sure; in fact, you have no idea at all. But maybe you object that this analogy doesn't work, because height does not have limits...these people could be as small as ameoba or as large as planets. Probabilities, however, are bracketed squarely between 0% and 100%. Fine, I say. How about this: There are two girls (or guys, if you prefer) to whom you are equally attracted in all ways. You are contemplating which to ask out; they are sitting in ear shot of each other, and you can only ask one out--to ask the second out if the first rejects you would insult both of them, and that would ruin any chances with either in the future. You decide, then, to ask out that one which will more probably say yes. Therefore, you choose Bobby, who will be more likely to say yes than Sam (notice gender-neutral nicknames). However, this does not necessarily entail that you know, or really have any idea, how likely it is that Bobby will accept. It's not even necessarily the case that you have any concrete idea why it is more likely. Certainly you don't have to have calculated the probability out for each and then determined which is greater numerically.

You can now step in to object that this isn't really a half-decent probability. This is too subjective; this is too intuitive. Well, perhaps. But I feel the same way about God (Yahweh, Theos, Allah, whichever you prefer) vs. the FSM. You don't need the numbers to say, "Really, I feel Yahweh is more likely to exist than the Flying Spaghetti Monster." And this is all Dawkins can claim people do. I don't think many people feel that they're willing to produce evidence as to why the FSM does not exist. They just feel that it isn't. Maybe it has something to do with this common sense stuff that Dawkins dislikes. Maybe it has to do with the Holy Spirit, a particularly useful entity, at least as far as philosophical arguement goes, which is likely why Dawkins never brings this up (I'll deal with why it's potentially dangerous for Dawkins at a later date). Maybe it has to do with alien thought rays, or the influence of the Tao, or inclinations to a Platonic Truth. It certainly doesn't have to be mathematical probabilities, somewhere between 0% and 100% and adding up to no more than 100. Probable may in fact be more metaphorical than technical language, something like the inverse of phycist's use of 'God' to mean 'laws of the universe' that Dawkins laments so much. We use mathematical language to discuss intuitive notions (or metitative truths).

As I think I have fairly demonstrated, Dawkins attempts to reason by analogy. This is simply not adequate. The first two analogies do not accurately compare, and the third doesn't prove his point anyway. Actually, none of them do. In all three cases, Dawkins says that people are willing to discuss these entities' probabilities of existence. In no way does Dawkins make a legitimate case that we are actually allowed to do so under the laws of logic. Even if reasoning by analogy were valid in these cases, it wouldn't mean anything--the cases he is making the analogy with only prove that people are willing to talk about it, regardless of whether they should. Dawkins ought to know this. His argument actually depends on the majority being wrong.

Unfortunately, I have failed at any semblence of brevity. While a shame, I think that this long exposition has been necessary. This is very close to the core of Dawkins' argument, and if I succeed in dismantling it, his whole enterprise will collapse. After all, if God's existence cannot be measured for probability, then God's existence cannot be enormously improbable. If God's existence is not enormously improbable, it is not irrational to believe that God exists. If rational people can believe that God exists (and if we believe that truth is valuable, as Dawkins seems to), then we cannot legitimately abolish belief in God, regardless of the evils it supposedly generates.

And I will point out that a sizeable number of the other "steps" in Dawkins' "argument" are faulty. I will deal with those later. I will even deal with them as though this premise were true. But I must emphasize that if I succeeded in proving that you cannot determine the probability of God, or at least that Dawkins does not demonstrate that you can, then it must follow that Dawkins' argument fails, as he builds from this premise. In fact, if a reasonable person could even think that you cannot determine the probability of God's existence, then his argument fails. This is why making this clear is of such importance.

Feel free to post rebuttals or calls for clarification. I cannot promise to respond, but I will try. I will promise that I won't dismiss any polite and well-argued objections, and that I will delete any impolite or not-argued objections. And I really don't expect any posts, since I suspect that only 2-4 people read this blog with anything even resembling regularity.

And this link goes to my Dawkins mission statement sort of page, in case you're wondering what's what. At some point I think I'll make a Dawkins-specific directory.

Well, good night, all, and God bless.

Go to the Dawkins Directory

Also Drumheller

My brother's sketchbook from Drumheller is at this link.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008


To the left here are swallows nests along the eaves of the variety store in Marianna Lakes (between Fort McMurray and Drumheller, really much closer to Ft. Mac).

And here is the largest dinosaur in the world, standing over the bridge in Drumheller. From his jaws you can see much of the city.

These plaster prehistoric creatures often stalk the streets of Drumheller.

This is a suspension bridge in Rosebud.

If you light the mineworks on this hill, the people on the other hill will light their hill, which will prompt the next hill's lighting, and eventually the Rohan will ride to Gondor's aid. Also, these are mine works on the other side of the suspension bridge in Rosebud.

These are the hoodoos. If you vandalize them, you could receive a fine of $50,000 or 1 year in prison. I fully approve.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum. This is the most wicked-awesome dinosaur museum in the world.

This dinosaur, though large, is actually quite peaceful.

I forget the name of this dude, but he's actually pretty awesome. I should point out that he is not, in fact, a dinosaur, but a ... synopsian? Related to a Dimetrodon, at any rate. I think "synopsian" is right. I'll look it up sometime and let you know, k? [Correction: synapsid, not synopsian]

These are axolotl. They are amphibians that are permanently larval, never maturing into adults. They can reproduce in this stage.

The badlands out back of the Royal.

A close-up of some cactus in the badlands behind the Royal.

A ridge-summit-mesa-whatever in Horsethief Canyon.

This particular shot was taken from the peak atop the right-hand ridge of the last shot.

A sepia shot of Horsethief Canyon.

A flowering cactus in Horsethief Canyon. It's a prickly pear, to be more specific.

This is Horseshoe Canyon, not to be confused with Horsethief Canyon.

A prairie dog above Horseshoe Canyon.

Another shot of Horseshoe Canyon.

This is a particular spur off of Horseshoe. You can see it's thicker with trees and vegetation. Most of the brush is rosebush, meaning this would be a spectacular sight earlier in the summer, when the roses are in bloom.

Beautiful country, the Alberta badlands.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

I'm Back!

I just got back from a weekend trip to Drumheller. I will blog about some of this awesomeness when it's more convenient.

Here's a brief run-down of some of the things I saw/did:
  • saw a Hutterite colony
  • saw some deer, a moose, a domestic bison, some hawks, some prairie dogs, some butterflies (but no pronghorn, alas)
  • climbed up the world's largest dinosaur
  • crossed a suspension bridge in Rosedale
  • crossed the eleven bridges to Wayne
  • visited the Royal Tyrrell Museum and walked the trail behind it
  • climbed down Horsethief Canyon
  • crossed the Beriot ferry
  • got a chunk of fossilized hardosaur bone for buying a t-shirt
  • climbed around Horseshoe canyon

Anyway, I'll tell a little of my adventures in time, and post some photographs. I hope you're all excited, 'cause I sure was!

Monday, 14 July 2008

Feminism: A Rant

But, you say, how can you encompass all of feminism in a single rant/blogpost?

Thank-you, I say. That is my point exactly.

Which is getting way ahead of myself.

So here's the deal: I feel like ranting about problems I had with a lecturer, once upon a time.

I was in a Canadian Lit class and we were reading Edible Women by Atwood. There's a character in that book, whose name I don't remember, who the lecturer referred to as a proto-feminist. "What," I hope you ask, "is a proto-feminist?" Well, according to the lecturer, a proto-feminist is someone who came before the Women's Rights Movement of whatever decade that happened (ie. First Wave), and who isn't really a feminist all the way. In the case of this book--ooh, I think the character's name is Ainsley, but I could be wrong--the character is not a feminist because she wanted to get pregnant.

See, according to this lecturer, feminists are non-essentialist. They believe that all differences between men's and women's roles are societally imposed and not 'natural.' They seek to destroy these artificial distinctions, or break everything down into grey areas. Any true feminist, therefore, will refuse to be shuffled into these prescribed relationships; any women who does adopt a societally-imposed role willingly cannot be a true feminist.

One of these roles is "mother."

Ainsley wants a child, and seeks a man to provide the raw material. She does not, at first, seek a husband, though later she does. Despite all of her applied feminist ideologies, the sole fact that Ainsley wants to be a mother, which she believes essential to truly being a women, is sufficient to make her only a proto-feminist, and not a full-fledged feminist. According, at least, to this lecturer and the brand of feminism that she espouses.

As far as I'm concerned, this is idiotic.

Why? Because there are many, many other versions of feminism than this. Read Cixous if you don't believe me. Read Haraway. Read Rich's "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Read vitually every feminist poet you can find. Watch The Vagina Monologues. There are many feminists who want not to destroy the male/female dichotomy, but to place just as much value in the female half as is traditionally placed on the male half (and, for some of them, decrease the value on the male). These feminists think pregnancy is a wonderful thing. And why not? Surely bringing a child into the world is a wonderful (if painful) experience.

I'm not saying there is no value to the destructuralist or non-essentialist approach to feminism, but what really irks me is that it was taught by this lecturer as the only legitimate form of feminism. That seemed ridiculous to me. There are other perfectly legitimate women's movements in the world, and all were dismissed by this single and possibly destructive form. I mentioned Cixious, who suggested "writing the female body." You can also look at Islamic feminist movements who have adopted the veil as a political symbol. That I seem to know more about feminism than my lecturer was one thing; that not one person in an entire class composed largely of female students did not object was even more disturbing. Why were these students not bouncing in their seats, arguing ferociously for a fairer version of feminism? Are they not proud of their womanhood? Perhaps they were bored by the class and didn't care to bother. This apathy seemed endemic to that particular class. Still, there were a few vocal women in the class, and these all supported this dogmatic and stifling limitation on feminist thought, at the very least by not interjecting.

"But why," you may ask, "did you not say anything, if you know so much?"

Most guys, unless they are of a very argumentative nature, do not venture to speak about questions of feminism in an audience of women. It has been most men's experience that any male voice that dares speak about women will be torn from the throat that emitted it. Look, too, at what I would have to say about it: I would be protecting these social roles, safeguarding them against the liberation movement. I would be therefore be supporting chauvinistic, phallological institutions for my own piggy benefit. So I chose not to speak.

Really, I shouldn't have cared. I should have shouted the lecturer down. That sort of intellectual hegemony should not have been tolerated. I don't want to define feminism for anyone, but it's not fair to throw around the label "proto-feminist" as though anyone has the right to decide who is a feminist and who isn't. I had a Romantics professor once who quoted Mary Wollstonecraft as saying that anyone who thinks men and women ought to be treated equally is a feminist. I suppose there is a school of thought that thinks equality means "exactly the same," but we'll just ignore them for the time being, understanding that equal really means "of the same value." In that respect, almost everyone is a feminist.

Take home message, then: don't let anyone tell you that feminism does not support being a mother. In fact, do the courageous thing and argue about it. Even if you're a guy like me.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Dawkins' Style I

In my previous post concerning Dawkins, entitled "Disputing Dawkins I," I looked more at Dawkins rhetorical ploys more than his argument. Here, I will again look at his rhetoric, but this time not in the sense of, "How does he try to convince?" but more like a book reveiw, or, "Is his style any good?"

One of the primary features I noticed about his style will nicely double as the subtitle of this post.


Dawkins spends some time discussing the level of respect that he ought to level toward religions. His conclusion seems to be, "Some, but not much." By this he seems to mean, about the same as the average person affords political views (which is less than traditional good manners suggests). As usual, his semantics are a bit slippery and I'm having trouble deciding what he means by "respect," but I'll let this pass, since it's a digression from my point. This discussion of respect come before the caveat at the end of his introduction that he will not deliberately offend anyone, but he also won't "don kid gloves" when discussing religion. Fair enough. This is how he ends the chapter.

Then he opens the following chapter with this gem (page 31):

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a mysogonistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomanical, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

These are literally the first words following his claim that he will not be intentionally offensive. Do I need to explicate this? Since one of my up-coming criticisms of Dawkins is his failure to explicate anything he criticizes, I suppose I will. He calls the Judeo-Christian God "the most unpleasant character in all fiction." Perhaps he has not read about or heard of Cthulu, Pennywise the Clown, Flagg, or goodness knows how many baddies that fiction, and the horror genre in general, has produced. That being said, he's got to realize that, even if his litany of insults is true (and that's fifteen adjectives and four nouns), this is an exaggeration.

These first words goes beyond not donning kid gloves. The description is obviously and avoidably offensive, and completely unnecessary for his argument. Anyone who reads this passage must see the offensiveness of it to someone who believes in, and in fact worships, "the God of the Old Testament"; either Dawkins is deliberately insulting, regardless of his claim not to be, or he is insensitive to the point of sociopathy.

This is simply a taste of his deliberate offensiveness. Here's a little more:

  • pg. 5: "...dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads..." When's the last time someone called you a ____-head and meant it kindly?

  • pg. 16: "...exposes the weakness of the religious mind." Not only do most people no longer use the definite article for a group--imagine the horror such a phrase as "the female mind," "the African mind," "the plumber mind," or, for that matter, "the atheist mind," would provoke--but refering to a whole demographic as weak-minded seems, well, a little offensive.

  • pg. 20: "religious readers will be offended by what I have to say, and will find in these pages insufficient respect for their own particular beliefs (if not the beliefs others treasure)." The parentheses' contents, an implication that religious readers are unsympathetic to the religions of other readers, were unnecessary. I was certainly offended on behalf of any Muslim readers for his disgusting comments about their practices and beliefs (see last bullet for an example).

  • p. 36: "I suppose that, in the ditzily unreal intersection of theology and feminism, existence might be a less salient attribute than gender." I think he just called feminists ditzy. He claims that his consciousness has been raised by the feminists, but the use of "ditzy" to describe self-affirmed women belies that claim quite a bit.

  • p. 252: "Obnoxious as that doctrine [that Jesus asked Judas to betray him] is..." This is about the third time he calls a person or belief "obnoxious." I'm not really even sure what he means by this. It's seems to me that he's just throwing in insults that he feels like using.

  • pg. 253: calls some particular belief "barking mad."

  • pg. 308: of Islamic children, "nodding their innocent little heads up and down while they learned every word of the holy book like demented parrots." The movement from "innocent little heads" to "demented parrots" was harsh, that's for sure. I can see where he draws the imagery from, but I think most people would agree that there's something wrong about that.

It seems, to me at least, that this is not simply discussing religion with the same respect would of politics or artistic expression. These are deliberate insults that neither advance his argument nor fit, as far as I can tell, under the category of "wit," of which the reviewers on the book jacket claim Dawkins has an abundance. I stand by my previous claim--either Dawkins is intentionally offensive, or he is insensitive to the point of sociopathy. I suppose there are other options, such as idiocy or a Canadian-English/England-English translation barrier, but I'm not convinced by these.

Yet again, this does not disprove Dawkins argument. What this post does do (I hope), is provide some indication why any religious person has the right to be blindingly furious when someone calls this book "amazing," "witty," or "a must-read." Containing as it does blatant stereotyping, hateful language, and an open disrespect for, not people's religions, but people's feelings, self-worth, and sanity, I am horrified to read people's unconditioned support for this book. Had he stuck to his argument I would not be nearly as upset about this book as I am. He has the right, I suppose, to argue against religion. He does not have the right to slander religious people in this way.

And so, to all supporters of Dawkins, heed this warning: if you ever support this book in my earshot without the caveat that the descriptions he uses are appalling, I will publicly accuse you of hate crimes against all religious peoples.

Go to the Dawkins Directory

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

The Tipi


At work we have a tipi. It went up a month or more ago, but I didn't take pictures until very recently. For no reason at all, here they are:

Disputing Dawkins I

The Power of Rhetoric

Well, I've been wallowing around, waiting to get access to the computer and, to be honest, the courage to attempt to articulate all that I see wrong with Dawkins' so-called argument. I will begin with the Word document I made of the first chapter or so.

As the McGraths pointed out in their book, Dawkins uses extensive rhetorical devices in addition to logical argument. I hadn't the time nor the patience to examine every sentence for this, but let's look at an early one for a taste of it. This passage comes in the introduction--spread over pages 5 and 6, to be precise.

Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument, their resistance built up over years of childhood indoctrination using methods that took centuries to mature (whether by evolution or design). Among the more effective immunological devices is a dire warning to avoid even opening a book like this, which is surely [pg break] a work of Satan. But I believe there are plenty of open-minded people out there: people whose childhood indoctrination was not too insidious, or for other reasons didn’t ‘take’, or whose native intelligence is strong enough to overcome it. Such free spirits should need only a little encouragement to break free of the vice of religion altogether.

Here Dawkins creates a dichotomy for us. The first category is made of "dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads." The second category is made of "free spirits." The faith-heads are religious, the result of indoctrination, who likely won't read the book. Dawkins also indicates, through negative definition, that the faith-heads are closed-minded. Look at this wording: "But I believe there are plenty of open-minded people out there." This is a shift from the first, strongly implying that the open-minded people are a different sort from the faith-heads. If it were a sonnet, it would be called a volta. The second category, the free-spirited people, are open-minded. They are intelligent, or have resisted their "childhood indoctrination," or didn't receive such brainwashing. Those who fit in the open-minded people category, therefore, are already resisting religion by the time they read the book. "A little encouragement" will allow them to break into the free pastures of glorious atheism, escaping from the sheep-pen of "the vice of religion."

Notice what this does: it primes the unsuspecting reader to think of themselves in terms of this dichotomy. The reader can choose between being religious, closed-minded, unintelligent, and brainwashed, or being open-minded, intelligent, independent of thought, and a fledgling atheist. Further, Dawkins almost seems to say, "If you finish this book without having turned atheist, then you are not open-minded and your native intelligence is not strong enough to overcome the intellectual abuses your parents brought upon you." Well, he does say this, but it's all implicit. And if the reader doesn't watch out for this, if the reader thinks the introduction is "safe", if the reader doesn't employ critical reading and just let's the meaning sink it...then the reader will be forced to make a decision between one of the two camps.

What this all leaves out, of course, is that the possibility exists that you could be an open-minded, intelligent, religious person--or, for that matter, a closed-minded, unintelligent, atheistic person. Or, really, someone who falls somewhere else. And I must point out that this part of the book comes before he even hints to a reason why he would consider religious people to be closed-minded. This, then, is not a culmination of a line of thought, but what he opens with.

Let's ask these questions, to which I don't have answers: What does he mean by open-mindedness? What does he mean by "native intelligence"? What methods of immunization would a Christian reading his book have? Does Dawkins suspect that critical reading, or the questioning of motives, methods, and assumptions be among those resistences?

My overall conclusions about this paragraph are fairly simple: Dawkins here attempts to divide his audience between a set of dichotomies that are heavily weighted to one end. (If you know anything about the creation of dichotomies, you won't be surprised to find that all the negative sides correspond, and all the positive sides correspond.) Dawkins then invites the reader to pick one side of the dichotomy by either being convinced by him or not, and he dresses up the side that is convinced to look much prettier than the other side. Easy as pie. Luckily for me, and unluckily for Dawkins, I wasn't fooled.

All of this discussion does not come close to suggesting that Dawkins' argument is faulty. Instead, I begin with this close reading to indicate how Dawkins primes his audience to believe what he wants to tell them. If you are among those who believe(d) what Dawkins writes, and wonder how you could be so convinced without there being any argument at all, as I claimed previously, will claim now, and will substantiate later, then rest with this knowledge: Dawkins had brainwashed you with clever rhetoric, but if you read my words and the words of many others who have seen through his tomfoolery and prestidigitation, you can break free of the vice of Dawkins altogether.

Go to the Dawkins Directory

Thursday, 3 July 2008

The Mosque

As I posted earlier, my father and I visited a mosque last Saturday.

To be fair, I don't know if I can properly call it a mosque. The sign says "Islamic Centre," so there may be a difference. I couldn't tell you. Regardless, we read in the paper that they were having an open house, so we decided to drop by. It was an interesting experience.

When we got there, we were directed to some Mediterranean food brought it by the diverse cultures attending the mosque. Next to the food were piles of pamphlets and booklets. One of the men there engaged in conversation with us, and become our de facto emmisary into the mosque. We had some conversations about the demographics of the community, various beliefs, and common misunderstandings. He also took us into the centre and showed us around.

Much of what he told me I already knew from my course on Islam in Religious Studies (my minor, incidentally), but it was interesting to hear the subtle variations and also some things I'd never thought to ask in class. He talked about the Muslim economic system, which I think is very interesting. Because usery is prohibited in Muslim law (and, incidentally, prohibited in Jewish law and strongly discouraged in the New Testament), the economic system does without interest, bonds, or any other arrangement that makes money with no work or risk attached. Other sorts of investments, particularly stocks, equities, or other equal-risk partnerships, are allowed. I'm usually imagined that the Mennonite Credit Union worked in a similar way. I'd be interested to find out.

There were some pretty cool things to be seen: a digital read-out on the wall with the five times of prayer (six with the optional), many little kids playing hide-and-go-seek, Arabic writing on the ceilings/walls (of course), lines on the floor oriented to qabba (sp?). We were also told of the new development happening as a shared project between the Islamic Centre, the hospital, and two Fort McMurray churches to create a health-spiritual complex in the near future.

Anything else to report? I got a pamphlet which reminds me a lot of those ones I get from Christian events or groups sometimes, but instead of "proving" the validity of the Bible, it "proves" the validity of the Qur'an. And I got a free English translation of the Qur'an, which is exciting. I think I've posted on this part already.

I suppose that's all for now.


English Clergyman

EDIT 04/08/08: It is a mosque.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Forest Fire Video

I'm now attempting to post my forest fire video again...

For reference, see previous post.
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