Saturday, July 05, 2008

Where To Now, St. Peter?

Song by Elton John. Images of Gettysburg

I took myself a blue canoe
And I floated like a leaf
Dazzling, dancing
Half enchanted
In my Merlin sleep

Crazy was the feeling
Restless were my eyes
Insane they took the paddles
My arms they paralyzed

So where to now St. Peter
If it's true I'm in your hands
I may not be a Christian
But I've done all one man can
I understand I'm on the road
Where all that was is gone
So where to now St. Peter
Show me which road I'm on
Which road I'm on

It took a sweet young foreign gun
This lazy life is short
Something for nothing always ending
With a bad report

Dirty was the daybreak
Sudden was the change
In such a silent place as this
Beyond the rifle range

I took myself a blue canoe


From the New York Times:

JERUSALEM — A three-foot-tall tablet with 87 lines of Hebrew that scholars believe dates from the decades just before the birth of Jesus is causing a quiet stir in biblical and archaeological circles, especially because it may speak of a messiah who will rise from the dead after three days.
If such a messianic description really is there, it will contribute to a developing re-evaluation of both popular and scholarly views of Jesus, since it suggests that the story of his death and resurrection was not unique but part of a recognized Jewish tradition at the time.

The tablet, probably found near the Dead Sea in Jordan according to some scholars who have studied it, is a rare example of a stone with ink writings from that era — in essence, a Dead Sea Scroll on stone.

It is written, not engraved, across two neat columns, similar to columns in a Torah. But the stone is broken, and some of the text is faded, meaning that much of what it says is open to debate.

Still, its authenticity has so far faced no challenge, so its role in helping to understand the roots of Christianity in the devastating political crisis faced by the Jews of the time seems likely to increase.

Daniel Boyarin, a professor of Talmudic culture at the University of California at Berkeley, said that the stone was part of a growing body of evidence suggesting that Jesus could be best understood through a close reading of the Jewish history of his day.

“Some Christians will find it shocking — a challenge to the uniqueness of their theology — while others will be comforted by the idea of it being a traditional part of Judaism,” Mr. Boyarin said.

Given the highly charged atmosphere surrounding all Jesus-era artifacts and writings, both in the general public and in the fractured and fiercely competitive scholarly community, as well as the concern over forgery and charlatanism, it will probably be some time before the tablet’s contribution is fully assessed. It has been around 60 years since the Dead Sea Scrolls were uncovered, and they continue to generate enormous controversy regarding their authors and meaning.

The scrolls, documents found in the Qumran caves of the West Bank, contain some of the only known surviving copies of biblical writings from before the first century A.D. In addition to quoting from key books of the Bible, the scrolls describe a variety of practices and beliefs of a Jewish sect at the time of Jesus.

How representative the descriptions are and what they tell us about the era are still strongly debated. For example, a question that arises is whether the authors of the scrolls were members of a monastic sect or in fact mainstream. A conference marking 60 years since the discovery of the scrolls will begin on Sunday at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where the stone, and the debate over whether it speaks of a resurrected messiah, as one iconoclastic scholar believes, also will be discussed.

Oddly, the stone is not really a new discovery. It was found about a decade ago and bought from a Jordanian antiquities dealer by an Israeli-Swiss collector who kept it in his Zurich home. When an Israeli scholar examined it closely a few years ago and wrote a paper on it last year, interest began to rise. There is now a spate of scholarly articles on the stone, with several due to be published in the coming months.

“I couldn’t make much out of it when I got it,” said David Jeselsohn, the owner, who is himself an expert in antiquities. “I didn’t realize how significant it was until I showed it to Ada Yardeni, who specializes in Hebrew writing, a few years ago. She was overwhelmed. ‘You have got a Dead Sea Scroll on stone,’ she told me.”

Much of the text, a vision of the apocalypse transmitted by the angel Gabriel, draws on the Old Testament, especially the prophets Daniel, Zechariah and Haggai.

Ms. Yardeni, who analyzed the stone along with Binyamin Elitzur, is an expert on Hebrew script, especially of the era of King Herod, who died in 4 B.C. The two of them published a long analysis of the stone more than a year ago in Cathedra, a Hebrew-language quarterly devoted to the history and archaeology of Israel, and said that, based on the shape of the script and the language, the text dated from the late first century B.C.

A chemical examination by Yuval Goren, a professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University who specializes in the verification of ancient artifacts, has been submitted to a peer-review journal. He declined to give details of his analysis until publication, but he said that he knew of no reason to doubt the stone’s authenticity.

It was in Cathedra that Israel Knohl, an iconoclastic professor of Bible studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, first heard of the stone, which Ms. Yardeni and Mr. Elitzur dubbed “Gabriel’s Revelation,” also the title of their article. Mr. Knohl posited in a book published in 2000 the idea of a suffering messiah before Jesus, using a variety of rabbinic and early apocalyptic literature as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls. But his theory did not shake the world of Christology as he had hoped, partly because he had no textual evidence from before Jesus.

When he read “Gabriel’s Revelation,” he said, he believed he saw what he needed to solidify his thesis, and he has published his argument in the latest issue of The Journal of Religion.

Mr. Knohl is part of a larger scholarly movement that focuses on the political atmosphere in Jesus’ day as an important explanation of that era’s messianic spirit. As he notes, after the death of Herod, Jewish rebels sought to throw off the yoke of the Rome-supported monarchy, so the rise of a major Jewish independence fighter could take on messianic overtones.

In Mr. Knohl’s interpretation, the specific messianic figure embodied on the stone could be a man named Simon who was slain by a commander in the Herodian army, according to the first-century historian Josephus. The writers of the stone’s passages were probably Simon’s followers, Mr. Knohl contends.

The slaying of Simon, or any case of the suffering messiah, is seen as a necessary step toward national salvation, he says, pointing to lines 19 through 21 of the tablet — “In three days you will know that evil will be defeated by justice” — and other lines that speak of blood and slaughter as pathways to justice.

To make his case about the importance of the stone, Mr. Knohl focuses especially on line 80, which begins clearly with the words “L’shloshet yamin,” meaning “in three days.” The next word of the line was deemed partially illegible by Ms. Yardeni and Mr. Elitzur, but Mr. Knohl, who is an expert on the language of the Bible and Talmud, says the word is “hayeh,” or “live” in the imperative. It has an unusual spelling, but it is one in keeping with the era.

Two more hard-to-read words come later, and Mr. Knohl said he believed that he had deciphered them as well, so that the line reads,
“In three days you shall live, I, Gabriel, command you.”

To whom is the archangel speaking? The next line says “Sar hasarin,” or prince of princes. Since the Book of Daniel, one of the primary sources for the Gabriel text, speaks of Gabriel and of “a prince of princes,” Mr. Knohl contends that the stone’s writings are about the death of a leader of the Jews who will be resurrected in three days.

He says further that such a suffering messiah is very different from the traditional Jewish image of the messiah as a triumphal, powerful descendant of King David.

“This should shake our basic view of Christianity,” he said as he sat in his office of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem where he is a senior fellow in addition to being the Yehezkel Kaufman Professor of Biblical Studies at Hebrew University. “Resurrection after three days becomes a motif developed before Jesus, which runs contrary to nearly all scholarship. What happens in the New Testament was adopted by Jesus and his followers based on an earlier messiah story.”

Ms. Yardeni said she was impressed with the reading and considered it indeed likely that the key illegible word was “hayeh,” or “live.” Whether that means Simon is the messiah under discussion, she is less sure.

Moshe Bar-Asher, president of the Israeli Academy of Hebrew Language and emeritus professor of Hebrew and Aramaic at the Hebrew University, said he spent a long time studying the text and considered it authentic, dating from no later than the first century B.C. His 25-page paper on the stone will be published in the coming months.

Regarding Mr. Knohl’s thesis, Mr. Bar-Asher is also respectful but cautious. “There is one problem,” he said. “In crucial places of the text there is lack of text. I understand Knohl’s tendency to find there keys to the pre-Christian period, but in two to three crucial lines of text there are a lot of missing words.”

Moshe Idel, a professor of Jewish thought at Hebrew University, said that given the way every tiny fragment from that era yielded scores of articles and books, “Gabriel’s Revelation” and Mr. Knohl’s analysis deserved serious attention. “Here we have a real stone with a real text,” he said. “This is truly significant.”

Mr. Knohl said that it was less important whether Simon was the messiah of the stone than the fact that it strongly suggested that a savior who died and rose after three days was an established concept at the time of Jesus. He notes that in the Gospels, Jesus makes numerous predictions of his suffering and New Testament scholars say such predictions must have been written in by later followers because there was no such idea present in his day.

But there was, he said, and “Gabriel’s Revelation” shows it.

“His mission is that he has to be put to death by the Romans to suffer so his blood will be the sign for redemption to come,” Mr. Knohl said. “This is the sign of the son of Joseph. This is the conscious view of Jesus himself. This gives the Last Supper an absolutely different meaning. To shed blood is not for the sins of people but to bring redemption to Israel.”

The reason this story would not "shake the world of Christology is because we Christians are very aware that what we call the Old Testament does, indeed, contain passages predicting that a suffering Messiah would die for the sins of the people, and that His suffering and death and ressurrection would lead to the redemption of Israel.

Isaiah 53:

The Suffering Servant

1(A)Who has believed our message?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
2For He grew up before Him like a (B)tender shoot,
And like a root out of parched ground;
He has (C)no stately form or majesty
That we should look upon Him,
Nor appearance that we should [a]be attracted to Him.
3He was (D)despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and (E)acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face
He was (F)despised, and we did not (G)esteem Him.
4Surely our [b]griefs He Himself (H)bore,
And our sorrows He carried
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of (I)God, and afflicted.
5But He was [c]pierced through for (J)our transgressions,
He was crushed for (K)our iniquities;
The (L)chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by (M)His scourging we are healed.

6All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.

7He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He did not (N)open His mouth
(O)Like a lamb that is led to slaughter,
And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.
8By oppression and judgment He was taken away;
And as for His generation, who considered
That He was cut off out of the land of the living
(P)For the transgression of my people, to whom the stroke was due?
9His grave was assigned with wicked men,
Yet He was with a (Q)rich man in His death,
(R)Because He had (S)done no violence,
Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.
10But the LORD was pleased
To (T)crush Him, (U)putting Him to grief;
If He would render Himself as a guilt (V)offering,

He will see (W)His offspring,
He will prolong His days,
And the good (X)pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.
11As a result of the anguish of His soul,
He will (Y)see it and be satisfied;
By His (Z)knowledge the Righteous One,
My Servant, will justify the many

Zechariah 3

Yeshua, the High Priest
1Then he showed me (A)Yeshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and (B)Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him.

2The LORD said to Satan, "(C)The LORD rebuke you, Satan! Indeed, the LORD who has (D)chosen Jerusalem rebuke you!
Is this not a (E)brand plucked from the fire?"

3Now Yeshua was clothed with (F)filthy garments and standing before the angel.

4He spoke and said to those who were standing before him, saying, "(G)Remove the filthy garments from him " Again he said to him, "See, I have (H)taken your iniquity away from you and will (I)clothe you with festal robes."

5Then I said, "Let them put a clean (J)turban on his head." So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments, while the angel of the LORD was standing by.

6And the angel of the LORD admonished Yeshua, saying,

7"Thus says the LORD of hosts, 'If you will (K)walk in My ways and if you will perform My service, then you will also (L)govern My house and also have charge of My (M)courts, and I will grant you free access among these who are standing here.

The Branch

8'Now listen, Yeshua the high priest, you and your friends who are sitting in front of you--indeed they are men who are a (N)symbol, for behold, I am going to bring in My servant the (O)Branch.
9'For behold, the stone that I have set before Yeshua; on one stone are (P)seven eyes Behold, I will engrave an inscription on it,' declares the LORD of hosts, 'and I will (Q)remove the iniquity of that land in one day.

Zechariah 6

11"Take silver and gold, make an ornate (N)crown and set it on the head of (O)Yeshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest.

12"Then say to him, 'Thus says the LORD of hosts, "Behold, a man whose name is (P)Branch, for He will (Q)branch out from where He is; and He will (R)build the temple of the LORD.

13"Yes, it is He who will build the temple of the LORD, and He who will (S)bear the honor and sit and (T)rule on His throne Thus, He will be a (U)priest on His throne, and the counsel of peace will be between the two offices."'

There's much more. I welcome a discussion.


From Rebecca Bynum:

One who, as non-specialist, observes contemporary philosophical trends, may discern two opposite and contending views of reality which chiefly concern the location and genesis of evil. On the one hand, is the traditional Judeo-Christian view, but which may also encompass, broadly speaking, Oriental traditions such as Confucianism, Taoism and to some extent, Buddhism, which locate the origin of evil internally, that is, within the selfish human heart. In this view, man is born with the potential for good and for evil within himself. It is the task of the mind to distinguish and then choose between these contending tendencies or principles through contact with the outer world, and by making decisions within that reality, to move toward the good and eliminate the evil internally. In this way character is developed and the soul made more solid and real.

On the other hand, is the viewpoint that man is born in innocence and essential goodness and that it is outside forces which primarily engender evil and cause internal discord. In this view, the human decision-making process mainly concerns distinguishing good from evil in exterior reality, and thus the intention and effort to do good in the world is the primary factor determining righteousness and well-being. On this side, Islam rests squarely along with material secularism but, there is a marked tendency in many Christian churches and Jewish synagogues toward this viewpoint as well.

A good summary of the first viewpoint is found in John Milton’s Areopagitica:

“Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather:
that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary. That virtue
therefore which is but a youngling in the contemplation of evil and knows not
the utmost that vice promises her followers, and rejects it, is but a blank
virtue, not pure; her whiteness but an excremental [superficial] whiteness…Since
therefore the knowledge and survey of vice is in this world so necessary to the
constituting of human virtue, and the scanning of error to the confirmation of
truth, how can we more safely and with less danger scout into the regions of sin
and falsity than by reading all manner of tractates and hearing all manner of
reason? And this is the benefit which may be had of books promiscuously read.”[1]

The concept of “purity” in Islam is almost entirely material. It concerns strict material conformity to Islamic ritual and strictures (thought to be the embodiment of God’s will), but largely leaves the interior world, which is such a focus of Eastern and Judeo-Christian thought, alone. Morality and conformity are one and the same in Islam.

And the source of impurity is thought not to lie in the human heart, especially not the Muslim heart (only Muslims are thought to be born in innocence while non-Muslims are born in guilt), but in forces outside; thus the focus on female virginity and the fear touching “unclean things” (pork, dogs, urine, feces, dead bodies, non-Muslims, etc.). The thinking is these material contacts affect the soul and its destiny.

By contrast, in the Western tradition of opposing superstition, “There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man.”[2]

In other words, according to Jesus, it isn’t what goes into a man’s mouth, but rather what comes out, that makes him unclean. He was ever concerned with the inner man, not with ritual (this remark came in response to criticism of his failure to observe ritual washing) or outward displays of piety and it is this emphasis on personal inner purity and morality, or rather on the effort made toward inner purity, that has characterized the Western moral tradition ever since.

For those who drift along with the prevailing modern tendency to locate the source of evil in the outer world, many feel a strong social responsibility to stamp out corruption wherever it may be found so that it may not spread iniquity among the populace.

This concept is especially strong in Islam.

Those people, like the bureaucrats making up the various Human Rights Commissions, now sprouting all over the Western world, think of themselves as fighting evil and protecting society, even if by doing so they reduce grown men to the status of children.

Who can forget the interrogation of Ezra Levant before the Alberta Human Rights Commission and how he refused to assume the position of a child, instead insisting on his freedom as a publisher and as a man to examine the news of the Muslim riots over the Muhammad cartoons (and to publish the source of that controversy - the cartoons) as he, a newspaperman, saw fit?[3]

The Alberta Human Rights Commission (and several others, notably the British Columbia Human Rights Commission which is just finished hearing the case of Mclean’s magazine and Mark Steyn) seeks to impose a middle ground between two diametrically opposed systems of thought in the interest of social harmony.

They do so using the excuse that the act of publishing these mild cartoons, which were the cause of world-wide violence and threats of further violence by Muslims, or that of pointing out, with alarm, the current demographic trends in Europe, would directly cause prejudice against Muslims in Canada. In short they seek the suppression of speech and the press in order to promote social harmony and create in society the virtue of temperance. As Milton writes,

“How great a virtue is temperance, how much of moment through the whole
life of man! Yet God commits the managing so great a trust, without particular
law or prescription, wholly to the demeanor of every grown man…God uses not to
captivate under a perpetual childhood of prescription but trusts him with the
gift of reason to be his own chooser.”[4]

Islam is emphatically opposite: God does give law to man to make him temperate and to create a perfect utopian society; and the fact is, material secularism provides no basis with which to argue that virtue should not be encouraged or even prescribed by law.

At the same time, “human rights” are imagined to be some kind of absolute and yet an absolute without any logical grounding in transcendent absolute. They just “are” in the way that the catagories of haram and halal just “are” in Islam - a basis of morality, and yet, when two “human rights” contend, as in this case, where the right to freedom of the press and freedom of speech come up against the right not to be offended which is almost, at least according to the HRCs concerned, indistinguishable from the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of religion, then, if the goal is to make both rights compatible, one or the other must bend.

Thus, human rights are not absolute at all and can easily be erased “at the drop of a law.”[5]

Another problem with the effort to modify a fundamental human right like freedom of the press and freedom of speech is there is no practical stopping place of restraint between complete freedom and total suppression, as explained by Alexis de Tocqueville:

“If anyone could point out an intermediate and yet a tenable position
between the complete independence and the entire servitude of opinion, I should
perhaps be inclined to adopt it, but the difficulty is to discover this
intermediate position. Intending to correct the licentiousness of the press and
to restore the use of orderly language, you first try the offender by a jury;
but if the jury acquits him, the opinion which was that of a single individual
becomes the opinion of the whole country.

Too much and too little has therefore been done; go farther, then.

You bring the delinquent before permanent magistrates; but even here the
cause must be heard before it can be decided; and the very principles which no
book would have ventured to avow are blazoned forth in the pleadings, and what
was obscurely hinted at in a single composition is thus repeated in a multitude
of other publications.

The language is only the expression, and if I may so speak, the body of the
thought, but it is not the thought itself. Tribunals may condemn the body, but
the sense, the spirit of the work is too subtle for their authority. Too much
has still been done to recede, too little to attain your end; you must go still
farther. Establish a censorship of the press. But the tongue of the public
speaker will still make itself heard, and your purpose is not yet accomplished;
you have only increased the mischief.

Thought is not, like physical strength, dependant on the number of its
agents; nor can authors be counted like the troops that compose an army. On the
contrary, the authority of a principle is often increased by the small number of
men by whom it is expressed. The words of one strong-minded man addressed to the
passions of a listening assembly have more power than the vociferations of a
thousand orators; and if it be allowed is the same as if free speaking was
allowed in very village.

The liberty of speech must therefore be destroyed as well as the liberty of
the press. And now you have succeeded, everybody is reduced to silence. But your
object was to repress the abuses of liberty, and you are brought to the feet of
a despot. You have been led from the extreme of independence to the extreme of
servitude without finding a single tenable position on the way at which you
could stop. (…)

“In this question, therefore, there is no medium between servitude and
license; in order to enjoy the inestimable benefits that the liberty of the
press ensures, it is necessary to submit to the inevitable evils it creates. To
expect to acquire the former and escape the latter is to cherish one of those
illusions which commonly mislead nations in their times of sickness when, tired
with faction and exhausted by effort, they attempt to make hostile opinions and
contrary principles coexist upon the same soil.”[6]

Certainly, when we Americans gaze across the Atlantic, we see many nations “in their times of sickness” which seems to have lost their way, are confused, and forgetful of their own origins and identities. They have been uprooted from their Christian past and material secularism provides no ultimate defense against parasitic Islam. Secularists claim to be able to find the answer in human rights, but as we have seen, if these rights are not grounded in transcendent value, they are meaningless.

Milton argues that freedom of expression is given by God and can therefore not be removed without transgressing the divine mandate. Freedom of expression is freedom of thought and thought and imagination are the only means mortal man has to escape crushing material reality. Freedom of thought is where real freedom lies.

But, even if the authority of Christ is removed, there are still more arguments to make in favor of freedom of speech and the press that can be derived from common sense knowledge of human beings.

“[I]f it be true that a wise man like a good refiner can gather gold out of
the drossiest volume, and that a fool will be a fool with the best book, yea
without a book, there is no reason that we should deprive the wise man of any
advantage to his wisdom, while we seek to restrain from a fool that which being
restrained will be no hindrance to his folly”[7]

“If therefore ye be loath to dishearten and utterly discontent, not the
mercenary crew of false pretenders to learning, but the free and ingenious sort
of such as evidently were born to study and love learning for itself, not for
lucre or any other end but the service of God and of truth, and perhaps that
lasting fame and perpetuity of praise which God and good men have consented
shall be the reward of those whose published labors advance the good of mankind,
then know, that so far to distrust the judgment and honesty of one who hath but
a common repute in learning, and never yet offended, as not to count him fit to
print his mind without a tutor and examiner, lest he should drop a schism or
something of corruption, is the greatest displeasure and indignity to a free and
knowing spirit that can be put upon him.”[8]

There will be those who argue that to regulate speech for the common good is but an inconvenience for the few who would bring disharmony and agitation to the masses and that the majority of people will be blissfully unaffected but, such turns out not to be the case.

Freedom of expression, which is simply the "clothing" of freedom of thought, is the cornerstone and basis of all real freedom and it is exactly that freedom which is targeted by Islam, which, as is widely known, prohibits any criticism of itself by prescribing death for blasphemy (criticism of Islam or Muhammad) and for apostasy (leaving Islam).

Thus, if Muslims can succeed in disallowing criticism of Islam in the West through the use of hate speech legislation, they will have effectively bound the Western world philosophically and imprisoned the Western genius, so Islam’s ultimate ascendancy will simply be a matter of time.

Thus, the line must be drawn at freedom of speech and the press or it cannot be drawn anywhere.

A key strategy for Muslims and their sympathizers is to seek to elevate “freedom of religion” to a level of transcendence over the more fundamental freedom of thought and speech. Of course, the full and free exercise of the Islamic religion, would carry with it the supremacy of Islamic law over Infidel law and over Infidel territory, a situation the American Founders could not possibly have contemplated.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Bela Lugosi's Dead

Trent Reznor singing Bela Lugosi's Dead along with Peter Murphy and his band.


Thursday, July 03, 2008

My Problem Of Evil

From Thomas Dalrymple at the New English Review:

As someone who has spent much of his life investigating the darker sides of human existence, either as a tourist of civil wars, or as a doctor working among criminals and misfits, I have a weakness for books with the word ‘evil’ in their title. I am still trying to understand, or at least make sense of, what I have witnessed, seen and heard, and have failed to do so to my own satisfaction. And so when I gave a talk recently in a bookshop for which my reward consisted of any book I wanted from the shelves, I chose The Myth of Evil by Phillip Cole, instead of the most expensive volume I could find.

Dr Cole is a philosopher who argues for the uselessness, indeed the harmfulness (I almost said the evil), of the concept of evil. And I confess that, though I have sometimes had a strong sense of being in the presence of evil, I have had some slight difficulty with the meaning of the concept myself. What exactly does it mean? Can we, ought we, or must we, do without it, philosophically, ethically, psychologically and sociologically?

Cole argues that the concept is redundant both as a description and as an explanation of human conduct. In fact, he says, its main use or function, when stripped of its unsustainable pretensions to describe or explain anything, is to frighten populations into acquiescence to the extension of power over them by ruling elites whose legitimacy might otherwise be called into question. For it is not common values or characteristics that unite political entities such as states in the modern world, he says, but common enemies, who are either wholly imaginary or whose power and malevolence are much exaggerated.

Indeed, he continues, the concept of evil is responsible for much harm (again, I almost said evil) in the world. The reason for this is clear. When we say of someone that he is evil, we are saying that he is a being of a quite distinct category from ourselves, such that normal ethical limits and restraints do not apply in the way that we must deal with him. For evil is the ultimate – well, evil, and must be destroyed by any means possible. Without the concept of evil, then, we would be much less likely to treat people evilly.

Is there any way that we can infallibly distinguish between what (or who) is evil, and what (or who) is merely bad? Or is evil just the extreme end of a moral spectrum?

This would not entail that evil did not exist, just as the fact that, in any human population, there is a continuum of heights does not mean that there are no tall men. The fact that there is a continuum of haemoglobin concentrations in human blood does not mean that no one is anaemic. But it does mean that we should have to give up the search for the defining characteristic of evil as a positive force in the world, as if it were something wholly distinct and sui generis.

The acts that we are prepared to describe as evil must be morally reprehensible in themselves, do practical harm to others, be done from choice and with malevolence, and usually be characteristic of the agent rather than impulsive or exceptional to his character.

All these conditions are dimensional rather than categorical; we still have not found the essence of evil, if there be one, that distinguishes it from the bad, the very bad, and the very, very bad.

And yet moral categorisation is not wholly dimensional. We do not say of a serial killer who kills twenty victims that he is twice as bad, morally, as one who kills ‘only’ ten.
While on my peregrinations through civil wars I saw terrible things on a scale incomparably greater than anything I saw in medical practice, and yet I saw things in medical practice that caused the word evil to reverberate in my mind. To give only one example: a man was so jealous of his successive girlfriends that, in order to ensure that they attracted no one else, he threw acid in the face of the first and ammonia in the face of the second, maiming them for life. If anything could be called evil, this surely could, and should, be.

But what is the use of the word ‘evil’ here, beyond severe moral condemnation? Does it help to explain anything? Dr Cole tells us that it rather inhibits attempts at understanding than contributes to it.

We use the word ‘evil,’ says Dr Cole, to fill in the inevitable gap (or black hole) in our understanding of deeds that seem to us to be quite outside the normal human repertoire. This is because any set of explanatory factors that we may use to account for such deeds never accounts for them totally. Thus, when we find that a certain form of bad behaviour is much more common among people of a certain background or with certain formative experiences, there nevertheless remain many people who are from the same background or have had the same formative experiences who do not behave in like fashion. So there is a gap; and the gap remains however we refine or multiply the factors that we use to explain the behaviour.

Evil rushes in where psychology (or sociology) fails to tread. But, says Dr Cole, evil itself fails to explain anything.

He uses as an example the notorious and brutal murder of the two year-old James Bulger by two ten year-old children, John Venables and Robert Thomson. Both of the culprits came from highly disturbed and indeed sordid backgrounds, in which there was a lot of violence, emotional instability, excessive drinking, etc. The statistical connection between such a background and violent criminal behaviour is clear; but what the two boys did was nevertheless exceptional (murder by children, even from the worst circumstances is very rare).

The press called them monsters, and demanded that they should be locked away for the rest of their lives. But if they were monsters by birth, not only did this seem to reduce their moral culpability (for monsters by birth have no choice but to be monstrous), something must have accounted for their monstrosity: genetics, birth injuries, chemicals in their environment and so forth.

To invoke Satan, as many still do, is merely to postpone the problem: for why does Satan wish to corrupt humanity? He is a rebel against God, of course, but why, given his angelic constitution, did he rebel? If he was differently constituted from the other angels, that is to say was created distinct from them, he is not to blame for his rebellion, or not wholly to blame. Was he misled in turn by an ur-Satan, who tempted him to deviate from the path of God? We are faced here by the prospect of an infinite regress, in which we never reach the origin of evil.

In his discussion of the emblematic case of the murder of James Bulger, Dr Cole sometimes confuses things. He is highly critical (as many others have been) of the trial of the two boys accused of the murder according to the procedure that would normally have been used for adults, which he thought was traumatic for them and failed to recognise that they were still children and therefore not fully formed from the point of view of their character.

The confusion is twofold. First, a trial is not a therapeutic manoeuvre designed to do the accused some good. It has quite other purposes. The fact that a solemn trial was inevitably traumatic for the children was not, in itself, sufficient reason to avoid one. Second, although the children were not fully-formed as human beings, they were nonetheless moral agents. They lied to the police, and tried to throw the blame on each other, in quite cunning and sophisticated ways, indicating that they knew that they had done wrong and had something to hide. They knew perfectly well that stealing a child and smashing it to death with rocks was wrong.

But on the larger point on this case, Dr Cole is surely right: to have dismissed them as irredeemably evil, or possessed by evil, would have been mistaken and cruel, as is proved by the fact that the children subsequently turned out well, much better in fact than they would have done had they never committed the murder, for they received intense and humane attention thereafter.

As the writer of a book on the case, Blake Morrison, put it (I quote from memory), ‘It was a pity they had to murder James Bulger to get an education.’ I don’t think I have read a more succinct and damning indictment of a society and its educational system than that, and no doubt it does not apply only to Liverpool, England. (The fact that the children turned out well suggests also that the trauma of the trial was not as great as supposed by its critics, or may actually have done the children some good. Not every experience we don’t like or want is bad for us.)

Now Dr Cole extends the lessons of this case to all human evil, if I may call it such for lack of a better word, whatsoever. Venables and Thompson were redeemable precisely because those who looked after them thought they were redeemable and did not consider them as evil by essence; by extension, everyone else who commits evil is redeemable, though perhaps with more difficulty.

I am not sure this holds. Venables and Thomson were redeemable relatively easily because they were so young when they committed their crime. They were carefully abstracted from the kind of social environment in which they would have been encouraged to commit further violence. Rather unusually for someone who is a hard-liner on the question of crime, I found myself in agreement with the lenient party in this case, who argued that they should be set free, with supervision, at the age of 21.

But the case is not a typical one. Most murderers, torturers, rapists and so forth are not 10 years old, but adults. And what Dr Cole, who is of a very different political stripe from me, does not appreciate is that his naturalistic account of evil (to the effect that what is called evil requires no special understanding beyond that we apply to all other human traits and conduct) does not lead to conclusions that he would easily find acceptable.

If the connection between evil acts and the life experiences of those who commit them is so strong and intimate that it is morally exculpatory, in other words that those who act evilly can do no other, and if as a matter of empirical fact there is no procedure that can reliably reform them, then the case, in the name of public safety, for ferociously long and incapacitating prison sentences, until time has done its work, is made.

In other words, the connection between exculpation and penal leniency is a psychological one in the minds of penal liberals, not a logical one dictated by evidence and argument. The more circumstances ‘determine’ criminal behaviour, the more firmly ought criminal behaviour be repressed.

Only if we accept that there is something deeply mysterious about human freedom – are that men are free, despite our inability satisfactorily to explain exactly what we mean by it – can we dare to hope that neither ferocity nor prolonged incarceration will always be necessary for people to change.

But sometimes they will be necessary. That is why we shall always have to exercise judgement, and can lay down no hard and fast rules as if life could be lived out of a book of recipes.
As for the naturalistic theory of evil, it raises the hope, or rather the mirage, of a society so perfect that no one will have to be good (to use T S Eliot’s formulation). And that mirage has been responsible for as much evil as the concept of evil itself.

I confess that the problem is too difficult for me to solve. I am not philosopher enough – and neither, it seems to me, are most philosophers. I own myself defeated, but I shall go on using the word just like everyone else, as if its signification and implications were perfectly obvious.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Causality to
Solve the
Puzzle of

From Scientific American:

Quantum theory and Einstein’s general theory of relativity are famously at loggerheads. Physicists have long tried to reconcile them in a theory of quantum gravity—with only limited success.

A new approach introduces no exotic components but rather provides a novel way to apply existing laws to individual motes of spacetime. The motes fall into place of their own accord, like molecules in a crystal.

This approach shows how four-dimensional spacetime as we know it can emerge dynamically from more basic ingredients. It also suggests that spacetime shades from a smooth arena to a funky fractal on small scales.

Editor's Note: Click here for the web animations mentioned in the article

How did space and time come about? How did they form the smooth four-dimensional emptiness that serves as a backdrop for our physical world? What do they look like at the very tiniest distances? Questions such as these lie at the outer boundary of modern science and are driving the search for a theory of quantum gravity—the long-sought unification of Einstein's general theory of relativity with quantum theory. Relativity theory describes how spacetime on large scales can take on countless different shapes, producing what we perceive as the force of gravity.

In contrast, quantum theory describes the laws of physics at atomic and subatomic scales, ignoring gravitational effects altogether. A theory of quantum gravity aims to describe the nature of spacetime on the very smallest scales—the voids in between the smallest known elementary particles—by quantum laws and possibly explain it in terms of some fundamental constituents.

Superstring theory is often described as the leading candidate to fill this role, but it has not yet provided an answer to any of these pressing questions. Instead, following its own inner logic, it has uncovered ever more complex layers of new, exotic ingredients and relations among them, leading to a bewildering variety of possible outcomes.

Over the past few years our collaboration has developed a promising alternative to this much traveled superhighway of theoretical physics. It follows a recipe that is almost embarrassingly simple: take a few very basic ingredients, assemble them according to well-known quantum principles (nothing exotic), stir well, let settle—and you have created quantum spacetime. The process is straightforward enough to simulate on a laptop.

To put it differently, if we think of empty spacetime as some immaterial substance, consisting of a very large number of minute, structureless pieces, and if we then let these microscopic building blocks interact with one another according to simple rules dictated by gravity and quantum theory, they will spontaneously arrange themselves into a whole that in many ways looks like the observed universe. It is similar to the way that molecules assemble themselves into crystalline or amorphous solids.

Spacetime, then, might be more like a simple stir fry than an elaborate wedding cake. Moreover, unlike other approaches to quantum gravity our recipe is very robust. When we vary the details in our simulations, the result hardly changes. This robustness gives reason to believe we are on the right track.

If the outcome were sensitive to where we put down each piece of this enormous ensemble, we could generate an enormous number of baroque shapes, each a priori equally likely to occur—so we would lose all explanatory power for why the universe turned out as it did.
Similar mechanisms of self-assembly and self-organization occur across physics, biology and other fields of science.

A beautiful example is the behavior of large flocks of birds, such as European starlings. Individual birds interact only with a small number of nearby birds; no leader tells them what to do. Yet the flock still forms and moves as a whole. The flock possesses collective, or emergent, properties that are not obvious in each bird's behavior.

Read the whole thing.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Oh Yeah

There's a band playin' on the radio
And it's drowning the sound of my tears
They're playing "Oh Yeah" on the radio
Oh - oh - oh

Roxy Music - Live At The Apollo - 2001

Check out the beautiful background singing chick. My God, you have not forsaken me.

Babylon Sisters (Shake It)

Steely Dan (prize goes to the person who knows what a "Steely Dan" is). Actually, the prize will be a Steely Dan, if you really want it.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Tunguska Event -
What The Hell Happened?

You've talked to Kennedy Assassination conspiracy theorists. You've heard about UFO's, and ghosts, and 9/11 Truthers, and reptilian beings living beneath the Denver airport. People are drawn to the mysterious. Sometimes, it seems, the stranger the explanation, the more likely we are to want to believe.

I defy you to go on YouTube and come back with even one real ghost video. Find me a video that shows the Jewish contractors who created the controlled-detonation that brought down the Twin Towers. Show me the footage of the mafia shooting Kennedy.

It ain't there.

But, you know what? There was one event that really happened, for which there is absolute rock-solid evidence, and, as yet, no reasonable explanation. The Tunguska Event, an explosion in the Siberian Forest of Russia, in the year of 1908, which was 1000 times the size of the Hiroshima Nuclear blast.

From Agence French Press:

PARIS (AFP) - A hundred years ago this week, a gigantic explosion
ripped open the dawn sky above the swampy taiga forest of western
, leaving a scientific riddle that endures to this day.

A dazzling light pierced the heavens, preceding a shock wave with
the power of a thousand atomic bombs which flattened 80 million trees in a
swathe of more than 2,000 square kilometres (800 square miles).

Evenki nomads recounted how the blast tossed homes and animals into the
air. In Irkutsk, 1,500 kilometres (950 miles) away, seismic sensors registered
what was initially deemed to be an earthquake. The fireball was so great
that a day later, Londoners could read their newspapers under the night

What caused the so-called Tunguska Event, named after
the Podkamennaya Tunguska river near where it happened, has spawned at least a
half a dozen theories.

The biggest finger of blame points at a rogue rock whose
destiny, after travelling in space for millions of years, was to intersect with
Earth at exactly 7:17 am on June 30, 1908.

Even the most ardent defenders of the sudden impact theory
acknowledge there are many gaps.
They strive to find answers, believing
this will strengthen defences against future Tunguska-type threats, which
experts say occur with an average frequency from one in 200 years to one in
1,000 years.

"Imagine an unspotted asteroid laying waste to a significant chunk of
land... and imagine if that area, unlike Tunguska and a surprising amount of the
globe today, were populated," the British science journal Nature commented last

If a rock was the culprit, the choices lie between an
-- the rubble that can be jostled out of its orbital belt
between Mars and Jupiter and set on collision course with Earth -- and a
, one of the "icy dirtballs" of frozen, primeval material that
loop around the Solar System.

Comets move at far greater speeds than asteroids, which means they
release more kinetic energy pound-for-pound upon impact. A small comet would
deliver the same punch as a larger asteroid.

But no fragments of the Tunguska villain have ever
been found
, despite many searches.

Finding a piece is important, for it will boost our knowledge about the
degrees of risk from dangerous Near Earth Objects (NEOs), say Italian
researchers Luca Gasperini, Enrico Bonatti and Giuseppe Longo.

When a new asteroid is detected, its orbit can be plotted for scores of
years in the future.
Comets are far less numerous than asteroids but are
rather more worrying, as they are largely an unknown entity.

Most comets have yet to be spotted because they take decades or even
hundreds of years to go around the Sun and pass our home. As a result, any comet
on a collision course with Earth could quite literally come out of the dark,
leaving us negligible time to respond.

"(I)f the Tunguska event was in fact caused by a comet, it would be a
unique occurrence rather than an important case study of a known class of
phenomena," Gasperini's team write in this month's issue of Scientific

"On the other hand, if an asteroid did explode in the Siberian
skies that June morning, why has no-one yet found fragments?"

NEO experts are likewise unsure about the size of the

Estimates, based on the scale of ground destruction, range from
three metres (10 feet) to 70 metres (227 feet).

All agree that the object, heated by friction with atmospheric
molecules, exploded far above ground -- between several kilometres (miles) and
10 kms (six miles).

But there is fierce debate as to whether any debris hit the

This too is important. When the next Tunguska NEO looms, Earth's
guardians will have to choose whether to try to deflect it or blow it up in
space, with the risk that objects of a certain size may survive the fiery
passage through the atmosphere and hit the planet.

The Italian trio believe the answers lie in a curiously-shaped oval
lake, called Lake Cheko, located about 10 kilometres (six miles) from ground

Computer models, they say, suggest it is the impact crater from a
metre- (three-feet) -sized fragment that survived the explosion.

They plan a return expedition to Lake Cheko in the hope of reaching a
dense object of this size, buried 10 metres (32.5 feet) in the lake's
cone-shaped floor, that reflected sonar waves.
But what if neither comet nor
asteroid were to blame?

A rival theory is given an airing in this week's New Scientist.

Lake Cheko does not have the typical round shape of an impact crater,
and no extraterrestrial material has been found, which means "there's got to be
a terrestrial explanation," Wolfgang Kundt, a physicist at Germany's Bonn
University told the British weekly.

He believes the Tunguska Event was caused by a massive escape of 10
million tonnes of methane-rich gas deep within Earth's crust. Evidence of a
similar apocalyptic release can be found on the Blake Ridge on the seabed off
Norway, a "pockmark" of 700 sq. kms (280 sq. miles), Kundt said.

That's the whole article. You can see how far scientists are from having an actual explanation for this eery event.

Here are some videos on the Tunguska Event.