Money

 anthropology, Philosophy, Religion  Comments Off on Money
Oct 192017
 

The first epistle to Timothy is frequently misquoted as “money is the root of all evil.” The actual quote (plus context) is:

9 Those who want to be rich, however, fall into temptation and become ensnared by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. By craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. 11 But you, O man of God, flee from these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness (1 Timothy 6:9-11).

Pedants will correct you if you come out with the misquote, but I actually like the misquote by itself. I’ll explain.

I’ll start by saying that the epistle is quite right in saying that the love of money leads people astray. I’m impelled to this topic by my post today on Gerrard Winstanley in Book of Days Tales: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/levellers-and-diggers/  Winstanley was the kind of leader who comes along once in a while and asks, “Have you really read the Bible – ALL of it?” Many people get attracted to Christianity because they follow leaders who pick and choose the bits of the Bible that suit them and explain away the bits they don’t like. So, we’ve got televangelists in the US who preach that their flock should give them a ton of money and they will be rewarded in turn. As Ray Stevens once asked, “Will Jesus wear a Rolex on his television show?” Of course not. Jesus preached the importance of the spiritual over the material, but a lot of so-called Christians didn’t get the memo apparently.

Winstanley was what I would call a true “Bible-believing Christian” – not what politically motivated scum think that phrase means. Winstanley looked at the early church and saw a group of believers living together communally, and sharing everything they produced for the betterment of the community as a whole. If they earned money, they pooled it. If they produced food for a living, they shared it. Everything was held in common. The Acts of the Apostles is very clear on this point. The Pastoral Epistles, which include 1 Timothy, come out of late 1st or early 2nd century attempts to codify what the church was all about. I’m reasonably certain that these epistles are treated as “minor” these days, not just because they are short and lacking in the sophisticated theology of Paul’s epistles, but also because they preach socialism as inherent to the Christian way of life. Heaven help us !!! Socialism ???? Well, in my oh-so-humble opinion, capitalism and Christianity are mortal enemies, even though I’m happy to go along with the general idea, espoused by Max Weber, that puritanical Protestantism was the breeding ground of capitalism in Europe.

To be fair, it was Weber’s contention that the puritanical aversion to the love of money was what bred capitalism in the first place. He argued that the Puritans saw it as their Godly duty to work hard, which led to financial success – BUT . . . they could not spend their hard-earned money on frivolity, so it grew and grew. All they could do is re-invest it in their businesses. Bingo – you have capitalists. Fair enough. There have been some thoroughly decent Christian capitalists. The Cadburys are a great example. Their Bournville factory and model village were paragons of how a capitalist industry could be both profitable and profit the workers. But it was, still, a master/worker system. The Cadburys were Quakers, but the Quaker ideology of consensus and sharing did not extend to their business model. They were the bosses and made the rules.

Without the proclivity towards love and fellowship enshrined in Acts and 1 Timothy, capitalism simply breeds greed. You don’t need capitalism to breed greed, however. 1 Timothy was written well before capitalism came along. The uneven distribution of wealth is the key issue. Rich and poor have existed for millennia.  The rich are rich because the poor are poor. Karl Marx saw this clearly but his words got perverted as Jesus’ words did. So-called Marxists are no better than so-called Christians. Even “communism” is now a dirty word because of the likes of Mao and Stalin, even though it is patently obvious that the early Christian church was communist in the basic meaning of the term: work together, live together, and share equally – no rich, no poor.

The inherent problem nowadays is that everyone wants to be rich, so that the ideas of sharing and equality are anathema. Put simply, a lot of people (not all) are happy with inequality as long as they are on the plus side of the ledger. And, all the time that the people with the money have all the power things cannot change. Matters are not helped by the fact that the poor, while not happy with their personal situation, are happy with things in general as long as they are given hope that one day they will be on the plus side of the ledger themselves. Hence, you have poor people voting for Trump who promised riches for all. Riches for all cannot happen in an inherently unequal system. Someone has to be poor. Duh !!! But fair shares for all can lead to a comfortable situation for all.

Clearly in the capitalist situation the LOVE of money creates all kinds of evils. But there’s more to it than that. The existence of money itself is a problem. Some foragers (hunter/gatherers), notably the Bushmen of the Kalahari, have become legendary for their indifference to money. They don’t need it and see no point in accumulating wealth of any kind. The world provides them with food, clothing, and shelter. What else would you want? Need food? Pick fruits and vegetables or hunt for meat. Need clothes? Weave some cloth from natural fibers that you collect. Need shelter? Cut down some trees and build a hut. They live in a modern Garden of Eden.  Of course, they don’t have cell phones and cars and dishwashers and whatnot, so most modern people would not want to live in the same way. Just as well, because the contemporary world cannot support the current population through foraging alone. We need modern agriculture to survive, and, even so, millions barely do.

Where the idea of domestication of plants and animals came from is fiercely contested among anthropologists. It was certainly independently invented 5 times, and maybe more, and the impulses were probably different in each case. What we do know with absolute certainty is that domestication led to social inequality in all manner of ways. I won’t wear you out with the details now. In a (very small and limited) nutshell, with domesticated plants and animals you get social divisions between sedentary agriculturalists and nomadic pastoralists, cities, divisions of labor, war, empires . . . and vast inequalities. In the process, the development of a medium of exchange becomes inevitable. Very simple economies can use barter or other forms of exchange of goods that do not require money. But the more complex a society becomes, the more it needs money as a neutral intermediary. If all I do is raise vegetables, I cannot rely on finding a person who has something I want or need who will barter that thing in exchange for my vegetables. But if I sell my vegetables for money I can use that money to buy the things I want/need. Money greases the wheels, but it’s also a trap. When money becomes an end in itself and not a means to an end, the game is lost. Marx knew this.

Marx distinguished between “use value” and “exchange value” and that to me is a crucial distinction. Use value is the inherent purpose of a particular product: clothes keep you warm; soup nourishes you. Exchange value is the price in money someone is willing to pay for a product. So, a $5 shirt is equivalent to a $5 meal IN MONETARY TERMS.  They are not the same at all when viewed according to use value, but exchange value evens them out. Without money this equivalency cannot exist. Furthermore, in a society based on sharing through loving-kindness, there is no need for such a medium of exchange. You can parse this fact in many different ways, but at heart money is a problem whether it is a product of inequality or the cause of it. Whichever way you look at it, money is a problem. Money reduces everything in the world, including people and ideas, to a common denominator. The worst equation of all in my mind is the expression, “Time is money.” NO !!!!! Time is time. Capitalism equates time and money, but they are different – very different.

The sting in the tail of this analysis is that there is nothing that I or anyone else can do to change the system at this point. Even if I were able to effect an enormous cultural revolution that would set the world on a path of sharing and cooperation – which I can’t – we’d still be stuck with money as the basis of the system, and as long as money exists its weaknesses stay with us.  Apart from anything else, the existence of money breeds greed. It’s built in. So, for the moment I’ll disagree with 1 Timothy slightly and say that the love of money does indeed breed all manner of evils, but money itself is an evil to begin with.

To be continued . . .

 Posted by at 4:51 am

Education (2)

 Philosophy  Comments Off on Education (2)
Aug 142017
 

Over and over, nowadays, I read complaints that education is not practical, and these voices are getting louder and louder. What exactly does that complaint actually mean? I am more than a little tired of hearing that subjects taught in school or university have no practical application. “Why must I learn the Pythagorean theorem, or Latin, or (fill in the blank)? I am never going to use them.” Sure. I can’t remember the last time that I needed to solve a simultaneous equation outside my academic writing (and I haven’t done it much within my writing either). The great mistake hidden within this question is the unquestioned assumption that the TOPIC must be relevant to some life goal for the study of the subject to be “important.” One variety of this great fallacy I see all the time in the media is the assumption that the point of a university education is to get a good job, and the road to that goal is to study a subject that will enhance your career prospects, whether it be business studies, computer science, nursing, or whatever. History, Literature, Sociology etc. are, therefore just a waste of time and money because they can’t lead to a good job (except, perhaps, in teaching). Science and mathematics are on the cusp (political science too), not because they are perceived as intrinsically useful, but because they can lead to training that will be marketable.

Vocational subjects are certainly necessary: I don’t want to go to a doctor who does not have a medical degree, obviously. But there is much, much more to education than vocational training. In my oh-so-humble opinion, education (at least my kind of education) is about learning how to think, and to learn how to think the subject matter is not relevant.

Let’s start with the obvious. In business these days, especially in the US, the supposed path to a “good” job (that is, pays a ton of money) is, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree in business, and preferably a master’s. My first (not so obvious) question is: “How did the titans of 19th century industry succeed without any formal training in business studies (because such university programs did not exist)?” Answer: “They were smart, creative, imaginative people.” They didn’t get that way by studying pi charts or sales analysis in university. Actually, in many cases they had no formal education at all, but I’ll get to that later (probably in another post).

I will confess that teaching students how to think is a wretched enterprise – usually doomed to failure because it’s very poorly understood. But I don’t think we should give up because it is hard. That’s pretty weak kneed. The problem, as I see it, is not that teaching students how to think is a complicated endeavor, it’s that the vast majority of teachers don’t see this as their primary mission: they see communicating their subject matter as their main goal, whether it be social work, mathematics, Chinese language, or world religions. Generally, this is because they love their own subject matter (or are expert in it), and think that (at best) by simple enthusiasm they can convince their students of its intrinsic value. That ploy does not work. I can’t count the times I have taught an arcane subject with passion only to be met with bored stares. You really can’t make people care about what you care about by simple enthusiasm. Mostly you get laughed at or ignored.

Of course, it’s easy to get students to learn the rudiments of any subject by threats and intimidation – that is: “Learn this set of principles and be able to regurgitate them as needed or receive a failing grade.” Brilliant. This kind of mechanical “education” is worthless on any number of counts. Chief of these counts is that rote learning does nothing when it comes to applying the materials you have learnt. I taught English to dozens of university students in China who had, in theory, been learning the language for years, but what they had been learning (by rote) were the answers to standard grammar and vocabulary questions which they could reel off unerringly and score 100% on tests (and all had). But . . . they could not really speak English, even after years and years of such tests, because they had never encountered actual English speakers nor engaged in genuine conversations in English.

One simple conclusion you might draw from this basic example (which I could multiply many times) would be that less emphasis on theory and testing, and more on the application of principles taught would improve education. Maybe. But that’s not really what I am getting at. You’re not going to get much traction with that argument when it comes to conjugating Latin verbs or solving quadratic equations. There’s a deeper issue at stake – much deeper. For a great many years I taught subject matter without really thinking too much about why I was teaching it beyond the needs of the university and the department I was in. I argued, for example, for the need to make Fieldwork Methods a requirement for anthropology majors and the faculty readily concurred. The curriculum I put in place is still unusual for undergraduate anthropology programs in the United States in requiring a course in fieldwork. My reasoning was that anthropological theory was just a bunch of words without the experience of actually collecting and analyzing data for yourself – in the process seeing all the messy problems that data collection produces. I taught the Fieldwork Methods course under this aegis for 20 years, and I always began the course by explaining WHY it was required. Now we have the crux.

Maybe about 15 years ago I extended my ideas outward from Fieldwork Methods to EVERY class I taught. First lesson started with my statements as to why I was teaching the subject matter that I was teaching, and why I thought it was important. Every course had its own particular rationale, of course, but at heart there was one principle that was invariant: To help students to think critically. As I’ve already said, this is a thankless, sometimes futile, maybe impossible, task – but it was my goal – always. I stated it plainly so there was no mistaking my deepest intentions.

Let’s now take a step back. How many times in class did a teacher explain to you WHY you were learning a certain subject? If you ever questioned why you were learning a particular subject, what was the answer? The simple fact is that most teachers can’t give a coherent answer. I am sure that most teachers teach what they were good at in school, and can’t explain why they excelled at it or what excited them about the subject. For me, subject matter is utterly irrelevant. I’ve taught anthropology, history, sociology, chemistry, physics, biology, dance, music, anatomy, archeology, computer science, political economy, Biblical analysis, technical drawing . . . and on and on. I’ll teach whatever you want. I don’t care because it’s not the subject that’s important. I’m trying to spark creativity, imagination, and mental agility. I’ll do it using lab equipment, computers, novels, drawing boards or a piece of chalk (or nothing at all). Teaching in any other way is, to my mind, nothing but drudgery, and I’m not surprised if students rebel. Many of my students rebelled. Many just wanted to know what would be on the final test, and, if possible, wanted a neat list of all the answers to memorize so they could get 100%. With me they were plain out of luck. One student asked me on the first day what it would take to get an A in my class. He didn’t like my answer: “Be creative, imaginative, and intelligent. Impress me.” He didn’t.

To be continued . . .

Education (1)

 Philosophy  Comments Off on Education (1)
Aug 072017
 

This post is the first in a series on education which will, of course, sprawl all over the map.

In these days of vile politics preying on fear and bigotry amongst the general population I often hear the cry: “They need more education.” Really ???? That’s the solution? Somehow if people were “better” educated they’d stop succumbing to fear and make more reasoned judgments about who they elect, and what propositions they vote in favor of? It’s going to be hard for me to sum up all the flaws in that argument in a short post. In the simplest terms, “They need more education” is as sensible a statement as the phrase I see written on social media from one person to another all the time: “You should write a book.” Sure. Writing a book, finding a publisher, and selling hundreds of thousands of copies to eagerly awaiting readers is a breeze !!! Anyone who airily makes such a statement is clueless.

The hardest nut to crack here is to decide what exactly people mean by “education” followed by getting some grasp on why these people think it’s a good idea. Education comes in a host of flavors. Should we all learn more about certain subjects? Mathematics? History? Physics? Geography? Anthropology? Which ones? Which are most important and why? We can start with these questions before moving on to more challenging ones.

I can see a crying need in the West for the general public to have a better grasp of mathematics but I’m not certain at all how to achieve that goal. Simply taking more classes in mathematics is not going to help. Most of my college students had a blind spot when it comes to mathematics and their eyes would glaze over when I introduced even the most basic of mathematical equations in my classes. They were all required to achieve a certain level of mathematical competence on entry or in their first year, but it did no good. Simply taking classes is not the answer.

Knowing more than the most basic arithmetic is not only useful in such arenas as personal budgeting and planning, but also in more arcane areas such as statistics which forms the cornerstone of climate science, medicine, polling and the like. For example, when my wife was pregnant at age 36 doctors told us that she should have amniocentesis because the risk of Down syndrome in babies doubles for women over age 35. DOUBLES. Wow !!!! This is actually completely useless information unless you know the statistics that this statement is based on (and can interpret them). If the normal chances of having a Down syndrome baby are 1 in 10, then doubling would mean 2 in 10. That’s a pretty serious increase and one would be foolish not to take note. But if the normal chances are 1 in 10 million, then doubling would be 2 in 10 million. I certainly wouldn’t waste my time worrying about those odds. This reminds me of a favorite saying: “Lottery tickets are a tax on the stupid.” Some people will blow $100 per week on $1 lottery tickets because they have 100 times more chances of winning than buying just 1. True. But 1 versus 100 out of tens of millions are just not great odds. They fall back on the old chestnut, “Someone has to win.” Also true; but it’s not going to be you. The odds are heavily against you no matter how many you buy. If you take the same money weekly and invest it in indexed stocks you will be a guaranteed winner, but few seem willing to take that lack of risk. Education might help there, but I doubt it.

Many people continue smoking or eating fat-strewn diets etc. on the grounds that they had an uncle who smoked 2 packs a day and lived to be 90 (or whatever). What is their brilliant conclusion? This one case “proves” that statistics are useless. Rubbish. The statistics are not saying that EVERYONE who smokes will get cancer or heart disease. Many do not. But the CHANCES increase if you smoke. Are you willing to take the risk? I wouldn’t be surprised if these same people go to casinos even though it is a statistical CERTAINTY that they will lose more than they will win over time. Casinos get rich on this public ignorance. I will concede that some people like the atmosphere of casinos, and don’t mind losing because they like the thrill. Fair enough. I don’t.

I will also point out that you need to understand statistics to use them wisely. They have no end of problems in themselves (sampling error being the prime one), and their interpretation is not simple. For example, statistics can tell you about correlations but are silent about causation. I can tell you from statistics that 9 out of 10 New York businessmen wear black shoes to work. I can’t tell you WHY.

Enough about mathematics. What about other subjects? Being a professional anthropologist I could tout anthropology as an antidote to xenophobia, bigotry, racism etc., but I know very well that it isn’t. At my university it was a general education requirement that all students take a course from a list called “Other World Cultures” most of which were anthropology classes. It was great for my department’s numbers but I doubt that taking an anthropology course changed anyone’s behavior. Racism etc. are deeply held beliefs that are generally rooted in family and cultural experiences. Anthropologists and biologists have shown over and over that there is no biological basis for racial classifications. The concept of race is a cultural prejudice. Will pointing that out to students eradicate racism? Of course not.

Maybe you believe that getting people to think more clearly in general is the great panacea. Also a huge problem. Many people believe that thinking clearly means “thinking like me.” For starters, that’s the last thing I want as a teacher for many reasons. I want my students to think for themselves, not to think the way I think. About the only thing that ever made me angry as a university lecturer was having a student agree with me because he/she thought I would like it. I didn’t. I was more than happy to have students disagree with me, but . . . they had to support their arguments.

Here’s the meat of the problem. What is thinking clearly? Reasoning comes in a host of flavors too. Logical reasoning is only one and it is not always applicable. Nor is reasoning from self interest (the bane of classical economics). There is a good case to be made in economics and anthropology that self interest is NOT the normal driving force in culture, although it has its place. Pundits are frequently puzzled as to why people vote for candidates who are quite obviously going to work against their self interest. Are these voters blind or stupid or both? Not at all. For many people self interest is secondary to other values. Whether we find these other values important or relevant is a judgment call, not a matter of clinical logic. Candidate A’s policies will help me directly whereas Candidate B’s will help a number of other people, but not me directly. Must I inevitably, therefore, vote for Candidate A? By no means. If I think that the needs of the people that Candidate B will help are more important or urgent than mine it would make sense for me to vote for Candidate B. To vote for Candidate A out of self interest also requires that I trust Candidate A. Here intuition and experience may play as large a part as logic.

I’m going to have more to say on the subject of education if coming weeks, but this should serve as the appetizer.

To be continued . . .

 Posted by at 4:39 am

Home

 Philosophy  Comments Off on Home
Jul 172017
 

In my last post I said that Mandalay is home to me, and I promised that in my next post I’d muse on what “home” means to me. Well, I tend to keep my promises. My idea of “home” is not like most people’s because of my life circumstances. I should begin, however, with parsing the word “home” because without that we’ll get nowhere.

We use “home” in many different ways in English. In some of the languages I speak, notably Italian and Spanish, you can differentiate between “house” and “home,” but the distinction is generally blurred and the common word for “house” (casa) is commonly used to mean “home” as well. “Vado a casa” or “me voy a casa” should be translated as “I am going home” not “I am going to a house.” Here is a significant stepping off point. Is the house where you live right now your home? I think for most people that’s a minimally acceptable assertion. If I ask you, “Where are you going?” and you reply, “I’m going home,” I take no more from that statement than the simple understanding that you are going to the place where you live – now. You need much more context to change the idea to something deeper. For example, the old hymn, “Lord, I’m Coming Home” (title of one of my books), means that when I die I’m going to heaven: my true (spiritual) home. Likewise, if I ask, “Where is home for you?” I’m not asking where you live right now, but where you consider to be your place of belonging – sometimes phrased, “Where are you from?”

I imagine that for most people the answer to the question “Where are you from?” is very simple. A few of my friends have lived all of their lives in or near the place where they were born, and in some cases their parents were born there too. For them the answer to the question is easy. For others it’s slightly more complicated, but not much more so. Many people I know were born and raised in one place, but then moved to another as adults and settled there. Their answer to the question can be a little more hedged, therefore: for example, “I was born in Atlanta but I’ve lived in New York most of my life.” In this case Georgia is probably home in a deep sense, but New York is home for all current intents and purposes.

So . . . where am I from? There things get sticky. People seem determined to place me somewhere, but they are misguided. I am not from anywhere. I was born in Buenos Aires to a Scottish father and an English mother. My elder sister was born in England, and the middle sister of the family was born in Buenos Aires. I am the youngest. When I was 2 years old the family moved from Argentina to Eastbourne in England, my mother’s home, where we lived with her aunt for almost 5 years, and then emigrated to South Australia. Therefore, by the age of 6 I had lived on three continents. We lived in South Australia in several locations for 8 years, then moved back to England, eventually landing in Burnham in south Buckinghamshire. I lived there for 5 years, then moved to Oxford for 4. After that I was a bit adrift for a while but landed in Leamington Spa for a year. Then I emigrated to the United States.

I went to North Carolina where I was married and attended graduate school for the Ph.D. I lived in Chapel Hill for 4 years, and spent 1 year doing fieldwork in a fishing village in the Tidewater region. Then I moved to Long Island, New York, for 1 year, got divorced, and settled on the campus of the university, where I was an assistant professor, for 3 years. Then it was up to the Catskills where I married again, bought a house, had a son, and all of that “normal” stuff for 27 years (with a year’s sabbatical in Santa Fe, New Mexico). When my wife died and my son went off to college I retired and moved to Buenos Aires. I’ll get to that part in a minute. After 4 years there I moved to China for 2, Italy for 2, and now I live in Myanmar.

So . . . where is home? Where am I from? The deeply truthful answer is nowhere, but I’ve had different answers throughout my life. If you want a general answer to those questions it is “Not here.” For a while Buenos Aires was a strong contender, and my location there is certainly deeper than any other place I have lived. It’s impossible for me to describe fully the feelings I had when I landed there at age 58 after a 56-year absence. The minute I stepped into the terminal at Ezeiza airport and got a taxi into the city I knew I was HOME – finally. It’s impossible to explain. It just felt RIGHT. Some deeply embedded memories must have been stirred. The sounds, sights, smells, feelings of the city resonated with me completely.

The food brought back memories of my father’s and mother’s cooking when I was a boy. Milanesa and spaghetti with tuco were mainstays for dinner and El Libro De Doña Petrona was the only cookbook we had besides our battered version of Mrs Beeton. I had made sure I had milanesa as my first meal when I arrived. I also got some yerba mate and a mate gourd and bombilla early on because the smell of mate is the smell of my boyhood. Drinking yerba replaced tea and coffee in Buenos Aires, and still does. I carry my thermos and all the accouterments all over the world with me. Sometimes it’s a bit of a challenge getting yerba, but I’m never without a supply. I brought 2 kilos with me in my very limited luggage when I flew to Myanmar. I’ll do without a suit and dress shoes, but not yerba.

Tango music will make me cry in a heartbeat, and the dance in the milongas and in the streets generally captivates me. If you have not seen tango in the streets of Buenos Aires you have not seen tango. Show tango in the theaters, and ballroom tango are not tango. The tango of the people of the streets is the real deal, as the music of an orquesta tipica with a front line of bandoneons – if you can ever find one. Traditional tango is a dying art.

Everyone called me Juan the minute I arrived even though for 56 years I had been called John. Juan is on my birth certificate but my mother always hated the fact that I had to have a Spanish name when I was born and changed it to John the minute we arrived in England. She registered me as John at my first school, and for some reason I’ve never had any trouble getting a UK passport, and such, as John even though my birth certificate says Juan. Back in Buenos Aires I got an Argentine DNI (identity card) and passport as Juan Alejandro, and since then I’ve insisted on being called Juan.

It was an enormous wrench leaving Buenos Aires 4 years ago, but I knew I had to leave for several reasons, even though my friends begged me to stay, and have sent me heartfelt messages periodically ever since. The main reason I wanted to leave was that it’s very difficult to get anywhere from Buenos Aires. My son was intent on traveling in Asia after college and I wanted to catch up with him. But flying to Hong Kong or Tokyo is a 3-day affair from Buenos Aires. It made a lot more sense for me to move to Asia for a while. After that I figured I would spend 2 years on a different continent, travel around, then move on. So far, so good – with a few bumps in the road. It’s been China for 2, Italy for 2, and now Myanmar. In the process Argentina is fading more and more from my consciousness. Argentina is still bedrock, but it’s not as deep as I thought it was. In Mandalay when people ask, “Where are you from?” I respond “Argentina” automatically. It makes sense to say that, and I feel it. But, in reality, Argentina is no more home to me now in a profound sense than anywhere else. I have no home. In truth I never have had, and never will have, a home. In some ways that gives me the kind of freedom that few people have. For one thing, you can’t be homesick when you have no home. There’s nowhere I yearn to be.

Of course, there are plenty of platitudes like, “Home is where the heart is” and the like, but they are just platitudes with no real meaning for me.

The big question for me at the moment is, “Where next?” In truth, I have not the slightest idea, and that’s a bit troubling if I set my mind to it. Usually I don’t. The larger question will come at some point, “Where will I choose to settle for the long haul?” I’m healthy, and my body keeps up with me. But that will change at some point. For now I am just being pragmatic and thinking only about the present. I’ll let the future take care of itself. Wherever I land it won’t be HOME, but I’ll manage.

 Posted by at 12:54 pm

Kipling and Mandalay (2)

 anthropology, Philosophy  Comments Off on Kipling and Mandalay (2)
Jul 082017
 

This post is my second in a three-part series on Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Mandalay” which is rarely read aloud simply as a poem but has been transformed into a song several times, most popularly in a rendition by Oley Speaks which was made famous by the Australian bass-baritone Peter Dawson. My first post about the poem, which includes the Dawson version, is here:

http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/kipling-and-mandalay/

The poem is easily made into a song because it has a ballad form and was included in Kipling’s collection Barrack Room Ballads (1892): poems, all in some kind of ballad verse form, intended as accounts of the army experience during the heyday of the Victorian British empire as seen through the eyes of the common soldier. The mood of the poems is one of honoring salt of the earth types who did all the hard labor, the bleeding, and the dying to build the glorious empire, yet got none of the credit. “Mandalay” is not exactly completely in that vein but is told from the perspective of an ordinary soldier, once billeted in Burma, who remains captivated by the country in comparison with the ugliness of London. Here’s the full poem again:

BY THE old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay! “
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay ?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green,
An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat – jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen,
An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,
An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:
Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay…

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow,
She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo!
With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.
Elephints a-pilin’ teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!
On the road to Mandalay…

But that’s all shove be’ind me – long ago an’ fur away
An’ there ain’t no ‘busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay;
An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
“If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.”
No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay…

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,
An’ the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?
Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and –
Law! wot do they understand?
I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay…

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there ain’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay !

In contrast to Peter Dawson’s early 20th century version, here’s Peter Bellamy’s version (1975), the entire poem (not snippets) set to a variant of the shanty tune “Ten Thousand Miles Away:”

Bellamy set many of the Barrack Room Ballads to music, and then compiled them on an album of the same name. Around this time Bellamy was an acquaintance of mine and I booked him at a folk club in Oxford. Afterwards, among other things, we talked about how he was trying to change entrenched beliefs about Kipling. At that time Kipling was largely dismissed as an old-fashioned Victorian colonial whose poem “White Man’s Burden” was seen as summing up his patriotic, ethnocentric view of Britain as the arbiter of global morality and civilization. Here’s the first stanza (try not to puke):

Take up the White Man’s burden,
Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile,
to serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness,
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half-devil and half-child.

This is, indeed, Kipling’s philosophy – no mistake. But we can cut him some slack. It is not the sum total of his philosophy. And . . . he was a product of his age: the Victorian Age whose industrialism, colonialism, and subsequent prosperity were generally viewed by the English well-to-do as the pinnacle of civilization. A few – a very few – were not able to turn a blind eye to the concomitant slavery, degradation and poverty of the laboring masses at home and abroad, but Kipling was not in the forefront of this movement. Nor was he in the rearguard either. He was somewhere comfortably in the middle. A nuanced reading of “Mandalay” reveals this middle position.

First we need to consider the voice of the poem. Who is talking? Is it really a demobilized British soldier or Kipling himself? I’d have to say it is a bit of both, with Kipling in the foreground. Kipling was born in India, but, as was normal for the children of British colonials, he spent from ages 5 to 16 at school in England. Then, because he lacked the academic ability to get a scholarship to Oxford, and because his parents lacked the resources, his father found him a job as a journalist in India. After a stint in India he traveled extensively on his return to England in 1889, which included his brief stay in Burma, involving his unrequited passion for the “Burma girl” he saw at the Moulmein pagoda which I mentioned in my previous post, and which is undoubtedly the underlying thread of the poem. He did also fall in love with a geisha in Japan on the same trip, so one does have to wonder how much exactly the Burma girl meant to him: enough apparently to dedicate a poem to her memory.

Let’s accept, however, for the moment, the poetic fiction that the voice of the poem is that of a British soldier yearning to be back in Burma, rather than a love-sick young journalist-cum-poet. I’ll forgive Kipling his slightly amateurish effort at conveying a Cockney accent (or whatever it is supposed to be). But . . . in the poem Kipling betrays his ignorance of Burma which he knew only slightly. For example, he calls elephants “hathis” which is the Hindi word, not the Burmese one. He talks about the “Great Gawd Budd” by which I assume he means Buddha. The fact that the Burma girl is Buddhist is fair enough; Burma is home to a long and deep tradition of Theravada Buddhism, which is strongly rooted in Mandalay. There are monks everywhere, all the time. Would a Burma girl kiss a statue of Buddha? I very much doubt it. Furthermore, the Buddha is not a god. Buddha was a man, highly venerated to be sure, but a man nonetheless. Then we come to the question of whether a Burmese woman would forsake Buddhism for a common English soldier. Here I am a little torn. It rather depends on whether you think a Burmese woman would be attracted to an Englishman (of any sort) and, if so, why she would. Furthermore, would she throw over her culture for the sake of that love? These are not easy questions to answer.

If an Englishman were simply dropped out of the sky into Burma before there was any colonial presence, or, perhaps, any knowledge of Europeans, I’d say the chances of an attraction would be minimal, but that’s just speculation. It’s not something we can know. As it is, the British army, whether officers or common soldiers, represented money and power. Money and power are attractive (to some people). There’s also got to be a fantasy element here, whether it be Kipling’s or his fictional soldier/narrator’s. Why wouldn’t a beautiful Burmese woman be mesmerized by the kisses of an Englishman?

These are just juvenile fantasies. The more troubling aspect of the poem to me is its brazen notion that Victorian England is all strait laced and Puritanical, but, Burma is free and easy going (“there ain’t no Ten Commandments). Really? Burma has no moral principles such as don’t lie or cheat, and honor your father and mother? You’d have to be blind, deaf, and stupid to think that. Of course we can soften this judgment by asserting that this is the British soldier talking and not Kipling. But you’ve got to believe that a man who can call colonized people “half-devil and half-child” does not hold a high view of the ethical strictures of their culture (no doubt bred of ignorance).

So, all right. Kudos for depicting an ordinary soldier as sensitive to the differences between London and Mandalay, and further kudos for suggesting that this soldier prefers what Burma has to offer over England. But let’s not delude ourselves into believing that what the soldier thinks Burma has to offer really exists, or is more than just a recognition of his privileged position in a colonial situation, which is much better than his status at home. London women know him for what he is, Burmese women don’t.

In my next post I’ll compare various song versions of the poem. After all, it was the song, as performed by Peter Dawson that inspired me to move here in the first place.

To be continued . . .

 Posted by at 6:50 am

Kipling and Mandalay

 anthropology, Philosophy  Comments Off on Kipling and Mandalay
Jul 052017
 

People of a certain age know Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Mandalay” to one degree or another, maybe just snippets. I knew bits of the poem from a very young age because my father would occasionally sing snatches of the song, “Road to Mandalay,” created out of the poem by Oley Speaks and popularized on a recording by Peter Dawson:

For decades this was all I knew of the poem and had no idea that it is a mere shell of the original. Even though I knew nothing of Mandalay other than what the poem tells us, it’s fair to say that this was a prime reason for me wanting to come here. Here’s the whole poem in its original version:

BY THE old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay! “
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay ?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green,
An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat – jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen,
An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,
An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:
Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay…

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow,
She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo!
With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.
Elephints a-pilin’ teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!
On the road to Mandalay…

But that’s all shove be’ind me – long ago an’ fur away
An’ there ain’t no ‘busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay;
An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
“If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.”
No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay…

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,
An’ the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?
Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and –
Law! wot do they understand?
I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay…

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
O the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay !

You can see that the Speaks/Dawson version is merely the first and last stanzas with the meat and substance of the original missing.

Kipling wrote “Mandalay” around March 1890, when he was 24 years old. He had arrived in England in October the previous year, after seven years in India. He had taken an eastward route home, traveling by steamship from Calcutta to Japan, then to San Francisco, then across the United States. Rangoon had been the first port of call after Calcutta; then there was an unscheduled stop at Moulmein. Kipling wrote the following at the time about Burmese women:

I love the Burman with the blind favouritism born of first impression. When I die I will be a Burman … and I will always walk about with a pretty almond-coloured girl who shall laugh and jest too, as a young maiden ought. She shall not pull a sari over her head when a man looks at her and glare suggestively from behind it, nor shall she tramp behind me when I walk: for these are the customs of India. She shall look all the world between the eyes, in honesty and good fellowship, and I will teach her not to defile her pretty mouth with chopped tobacco in a cabbage leaf, but to inhale good cigarettes of Egypt’s best brand.

At the time Mandalay was the former royal capital city of Burma, which was part of British India from 1886 to 1937, and a separate British colony from 1937 to 1948 when it became an independent nation. Moulmein is the Anglicized version of (present-day) Mawlamyine, in south-eastern Burma, on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Martaban.

British troops stationed in Burma were ferried to and from Mandalay on the Irrawaddy River by paddle steamers run by the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC), hence the Irrawaddy was known as the “road to Mandalay.” Rangoon to Mandalay was a 700 km trip each way. During the Third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885, 9,000 British and Indian soldiers had been transported by a fleet of paddle steamers (“the old flotilla” of the poem) and other boats from Rangoon to Mandalay

Kipling claimed that when in Moulmein, he had paid no attention to the pagoda his poem later made famous, because he was so struck by a Burmese beauty on the steps. This chance encounter is the real core of the poem shrouded in the sentimental longing of a British soldier for Burma following his ten-year stint in the army and subsequent return to the squalor of Victorian London. There’s a lot to the poem and to Kipling’s ambivalent colonialism inherent in it. In my next post I’ll add to the welter of words concerning Kipling, the British Empire, and Mandalay.

To be continued . . .

 

 

 

 

 Posted by at 10:51 am

Teaching in Mandalay

 anthropology, Philosophy  Comments Off on Teaching in Mandalay
Jul 042017
 

So now I’m settled into my hotel, know my way around, and have started my second week of teaching at KGI. It’s time now to settle into a routine that suits me and is not too repetitive. I should begin daily Burmese language lessons for example, but I’m being a bit lazy about that at the moment. I don’t want to start any kind of formal or informal lessons because I don’t want any more of my time locked into a schedule than necessary. As with China and Italy there’s no absolute necessity to learn the vernacular because my work situation is English only, and I do not have to conduct much business outside of work, and what little I do I can transact with people whose English is passable. Even so, I should press on with some studies on my own not least because Austronesian languages have a structure, vocabulary, and writing system that make you think outside Indo-European norms. Once you’ve dealt with measure words, particles, and the like you never look back. This brings me to my topic for the day: the ethical dilemmas of teaching science in English to Burmese primary students.

Up to this point, since I retired from being an anthropology professor, I’ve been hired to teach ESL and a little bit of subject matter. In China my duties at various schools mostly involved teaching English language but there was also an expectation that I would supplement language lessons with some kind of enrichment classes focusing on Western history and culture. In Italy I taught quite a range from world history to English literature, information technology, and chemistry along with English language classes and standardized test prep. None of this bothered me in the slightest. My Chinese students studied English language and culture because they wanted skills that would help improve their job prospects, and in Italy the secondary school curriculum I plugged into was mandated by the state. In Myanmar things are rather different. I am teaching science at an English only private school for the first 4 primary levels.

Parents in Myanmar send their children to fee-paying private schools if at all possible because the state supported schools are well sub-par. Not all private schools emphasize English language by any means, but there is stiff competition among those that do because English language skills are seen as one avenue to success in employment in Myanmar or overseas. All well and good. Teaching Chaucer to Italian 16 year olds was in my opinion idiotic, but the state set the curriculum and I saw nothing intrinsically wrong with teaching about Medieval England even though the subject matter was a little advanced for their age. My qualms began when I started teaching science to Burmese 6 and 7 year olds. Contrary to typical Western unthinking popular belief, physical science is not an avenue to THE TRUTH, but, rather, a system of thinking that brings with it enormous benefits, but also enormous problems – physical and philosophical. Factories churn out mobile phones that can do a lot of good things; they also pollute the world. The physical problems are well known; the philosophical ones are more hidden. Western physical science is a worldview, a belief system if you like. It is not an avenue to ALL truth, nor is it the ONLY avenue to truth. It is not even an avenue to solutions to fundamental human problems like how to mend a broken heart.  It is a powerful system, but one with limits: profound limits that few people recognize. In a way Western physical science is like the Japanese shinkansen: the bullet train. It’s very fast and efficient, and gets you to places very quickly and smoothly. But . . . it runs on rails, so it can only take you to certain places. You can’t go to new places without building new tracks. Your legs, on the other hand, can take you pretty much anywhere, admittedly slowly and with effort, but more or less anywhere. I’d say that if you want to get from Tokyo to Okinawa, the shinkansen is your best bet, rather than walking. But you can walk it. If you do have the time to walk it, furthermore, you’ll see many things you’ll miss if you speed along by train. You can also take detours that prove valuable.

When you travel the shinkansen you have to buy a ticket which then allows you to travel to certain destinations with ease. Graduate school training in science does the analogous thing for the budding scientist. Graduate training shows the neophytes where the tracks lead. Rarely does anyone question the need for tracks or the value of following them to certain destinations. It happens but it’s very rare.

Last week my classes were mostly about class rules and such, but on Friday I began seeing classes for the second time and got down to subject matter. Physical science that I am teaching is distinctly Western. One of the first things that the textbooks all explain is how to classify things in the world. Things are matter or non-matter, living or non-living etc etc. Matter has mass and volume. Living things grow, move, respond and reproduce. And so on.  This is not remotely an Asian way to classify things.

Asian languages typically use measure words which you must use when you count things and they classify the world in a distinctly non-Western way. Chinese measure words, for example, divide the world into things that have joints (bamboo and trains), things that are flat and useful (tables and credit cards), small animals (rats and rabbits), small things you read (books but not newspapers), and on and on. What would science be like if we used this classification system? It would look like ancient Chinese science which was blended with what we think of as philosophy and religion. Not useful you say? Then how come they invented compasses and gunpowder and printing which Europeans knew nothing about until they went to China? Could Chinese science have developed in uniquely different ways from Western science if it had been left alone? We’ll never know, although some physicists in the West have gained insight by studying Asian philosophy, and some Western medicine is learning from Chinese traditional medicine. Several singing coaches at my former university in New York swore by a Chinese herbalist in the Bronx who cured them of throat problems that Western physicians were powerless to treat.

So . . . here I am embarking on teaching Burmese children Western science. Is this right of me? As an anthropologist I am troubled.  The lame response is that if I don’t do it someone else will. True enough. But should I be aiding and abetting in this enterprise? I guess I’ll figure that out as I go along. Actually, my contract only runs until September with a chance to renew until February. So, teaching 160 students for a few months is not exactly going to alter the world. Neither is one person becoming vegetarian going to stop the exploitation of farmed animals. Nonetheless it is a principled stance. I suspect ere long I will start to be subversive. Maybe I will begin to inject doubt and/or Burmese ways of seeing the world as I learn more about the culture.  Too early to tell as yet. But those who know me as a teacher know that being subversive is second nature to me.

And so to bed . . .

 

 

 Posted by at 3:54 pm

Natural Science versus Social Science

 anthropology, Philosophy, science  Comments Off on Natural Science versus Social Science
Jun 152017
 

My title is slightly misleading because I am deliberately setting up another bogus dichotomy to use to explore the nature of academic inquiry in general. Starting mostly in the mid- to late 19th century, universities began splitting into departments whereas before that time academic disciplines were only very loosely defined and scholars quite often meandered over what are now considered separate disciplines. In the 17th century, general secular inquiry was usually called “philosophy” and what we now call physical science was termed “natural philosophy.” Two disciplines from that era that could not, and cannot, keep to their own corners were what we now call mathematics and physics. Isaac Newton studied the physics of motion, for example, but the mathematics at his disposal to do what he needed to do was inadequate so he developed differential calculus. Pure mathematics is not a science, physics is. It’s a bit of a muddle isn’t it? Was Newton a physicist or a mathematician? He was both and neither. He also messed around with Biblical studies and alchemy. True genius cannot be confined in a single box.

My university used to have three Liberal Arts divisions – Natural Science, Social Science, and Humanities – plus conservatories of the Fine Arts. The divisions are fairly standard ones, but dividing up human inquiry and knowledge in that way has all kinds of nasty consequences. They were divided up that way as much for budgetary reasons as for intellectual ones, and there were always problems. Psychology was adamant about being under the umbrella of Natural Science because the faculty mostly worked in experimental, rather than clinical, psychology and fought endless battles with other faculty and the administration about that status for reasons of turf, funding, and prestige rather than intellectual ones.

Turf is the key problem with academia these days. When you stake out your territory and give it a name you, more often than not, erect barriers to knowledge in other fields. My field of anthropology once shared a tent with sociology and geography, but those days are long gone. American anthropology as defined by Franz Boas (a geographer by training) merged 4 fields – human evolution, archeology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology – because Boas felt that to understand humans you needed to come at the study from a number of angles that sprawled over the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities. Over time these 4 fields staked out their own turf and no one these days covers all 4 (and many stick to one). My work overlaps the 4 fields a little, but not in a deep way.

The broad division that underpins a lot of thinking about academic disciplines these days is between quantitative and qualitative investigation. Broadly speaking this division separates the physical sciences (quantitative) from the humanities (qualitative). But this division is simplistic and misleading. There’s also a large number of disciplines, especially the social sciences, that don’t fit squarely in either camp. The common (mis)perception is that the physical sciences are quantitative studies that embrace THE TRUTH and use iron-clad proof to blaze the trail from victory to victory, whereas the humanities are qualitative studies that wallow around hopelessly in opinions that get us nowhere. People who control the money tend to go along with this notion. Similarly the popular conception is that physical scientists are all very smart people who study things that no one can understand, whereas humanist scholars are piddling around with stuff that anyone can understand (and also do — with a little training). I’m sorry to disabuse you but there are a great many very stupid natural scientists and some exceptionally smart humanists. Furthermore, humanistic studies, if done well, are no less arduous than scientific ones, and scientific theories can be understood quite well (not necessarily deeply) if you set your mind to it.

The great (uneven) divide that matters, in my oh-so-humble opinion, is between people who know how to think, and people who don’t. Academic discipline is irrelevant. All fields in a university – all – are populated with large numbers of faculty who don’t really know how to think. They can usually master an impressive array of information within their fields, which they can regurgitate at will, but that’s not the same thing as thinking. Good thinking, whether it is quantitative or qualitative, is very difficult but can lead to valuable insights.  Quantitative and qualitative methods really are fundamentally different ways of looking at the world, however.

In an (oversimplified) nutshell, physical science concerns itself with reducing myriad phenomena in the world to simple principles, whereas the humanities do the opposite. A poet or a novelist can take an event that looks simple and tease it out in a thousand directions until it is very complex. Newton took countless motions in the universe from the revolutions of the planets to a rock thrown into a pond and reduced them all to a few simple rules. Shakespeare and Keats took seemingly simple and basic human emotions such as love and anger, and explored their kaleidoscopic ramifications in the world. Both enterprises are equally worthy and equally rewarding.

Leaving the oversimplification aside for the moment, where do the social sciences fit? Rather awkwardly in the middle I’m afraid. They call themselves sciences because they’d like to think that they are reducing the complexity of human behavior to simple rules, but they’re not very good at it, and have not come very far in the past 150 years or so. Some of them, such as economics, have managed to use mathematics to come up with some semi-stable theories but there’s no real agreement within those fields as to how solid those theories really are. Otherwise, the enterprise of social science is not really in the business of reduction. It’s more of an exploration. Many people think that such exploration is pointless, but I beg to differ.

Let me ask a simple question. Where do new ideas come from? You might think that in the sciences they came from painstaking pursuit of certain experimental paths until the idea pops out. You would be wrong. Truly new ideas come out of nowhere. They are flashes of insight – aha! moments that get hit upon accidentally. Einstein claims to have come across the basics of Special Relativity when he was late for work one day and looking up at a clock wondered what would happen if he traveled towards the clock at the speed of light. Bingo – a new idea. If he traveled at the speed of light time would stop (for him).

Why can’t a chemist or physicist alight on a new idea whilst reading a novel or watching a movie? I’ve long felt that the climate was right for the development of theories of relativity in physics because relativistic notions were kicking around in painting and other arts, and some physicists were caught up in this milieu.

In my opinion, social science is in the muddle it’s in because it keeps being pulled in two directions: the quantitative and the qualitative. Some sociologists, for example, are extremely proud of their mathematical models and equations and sneer at those who engage in qualitative community studies, while the latter think the quantifiers are being mechanical and simplistic. What would please me would be if both sides were to see that they are two sides of the same coin. Social science is in the unique position of being able to embrace all ways of looking at the coin (as a whole, not as sides), but it doesn’t.

To be continued . . .

 

 Posted by at 8:16 pm

Religion versus Science — Yet Again

 Philosophy, Religion  Comments Off on Religion versus Science — Yet Again
Jun 132017
 

Today is the birthday of the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, and I celebrated this fact on my other blog: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/james-clerk-maxwell/  Maxwell was a towering giant alongside Newton and Einstein, even though his name is less well known among the general public. Physicists look up to him as much as to the other two. The thing is that he was a lifelong Presbyterian and an ardent believer in the main tenets of Christianity. How can this be? Don’t the pundits all tell us that we have to choose between religion and science? Maxwell shows us – profoundly – that natural science and religion, as commonly defined, are about fundamentally different things at most levels. It’s not a question of either/or; you can have both. An analogy from physics is germane.

As physicists probed deeper and deeper into the nature of light (largely because of Maxwell’s advancements as it happens) they came up with a disturbing paradox. Under certain experimental conditions light acts as a particle, but under other experimental conditions it acts as a wave. Which is it: wave or particle? The answer, which is not entirely satisfying yet, is that it is both; it depends how you observe it. The field of quantum mechanics, which in some ways solves the paradox, also opened up a can of worms that still leaves many physicists arguing about interpretations and precise definitions. But for the moment physicists in general are saying that the seeming paradox is not a real paradox. You have to jump to a higher level of analysis to escape the dichotomy. Those of you aware of Bertrand Russel’s paradoxes will know that he does a similar thing in logic. He jumps to a higher level. If you are completely lost in a maze after wandering around for hours, get someone in a helicopter to lead you out by viewing the problem from a higher level.

I am deeply heartened by people like Maxwell (and Newton and Einstein were not very different) who are able to have profound faith in science as well as profound faith in religion, and see no inherent conflict.

We have to be clear about what I mean by religion before I move on. I am not saying that all the claims that organized religions make via their scriptures are the essence of religion itself. Certain claims made in the Bible are patently absurd, and in many of these cases the application of science is quite legitimate. My common example is the claim in Genesis 1 that the sky is a transparent dome with water trapped above it that can be released by God through windows to make it rain. This is complete nonsense. To my mind, a greater challenge has continued to break as archeology shows repeatedly that the historical narratives in the Hebrew Bible, including the Israelite slavery in Egypt, the conquest of the Holy Land, and the existence of king David and king Solomon cannot be true as they are recorded. People have been troubled by the Genesis story of creation for centuries, but the histories, until recently, have seemed fairly reliable. My point is that the essence of religion lies not in cosmology nor history, but somewhere else. We can leave cosmology to astrophysicists and history to archeologists and historians and still have what is at the core of religion: spirituality.

When Jesus answered the question of whether to pay taxes by making the famous pronouncement: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21), he was making much the same point that I am making. Taxes, war, pestilence, and what not are matters of the physical human realm that will be sorted out, one way or another, by humans in a physical way. God’s realm, the spiritual realm, cannot be approached in a physical way. It is qualitatively different. Therefore, if you are seeking answers to physical issues, use science; the Bible is no help. But if you are seeking answers to spiritual questions, science is no help. Let me clear, though. I am not proposing some kind of radical dualism – body versus spirit – even though my general advice is that if your body is sick go to a doctor, and if your spirit is sick seek a spiritual expert. Bear in mind, however, that there are good and bad healers whether their domain is the body or the spirit, and some ailments are incurable. No, I am saying that what we need is some kind of helicopter to fly above this maze so that we can see the dilemma more clearly. I’ll let you know when I find one.

To be continued . . .

Fear of Change

 Philosophy, Religion  Comments Off on Fear of Change
May 062017
 

FDR famously said that the only thing to fear was fear itself, and in the case he was referring to, the national economy and the stock market, he was certainly on the right path. I have discussed this topic in a previous post http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/what-is-faith/ and I do not intend to cover that ground again. But, FDR was addressing one kind of fear only: “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” What I want to discuss today is a different species of fear: fear of change. This is a different animal from the fear that FDR was talking about, but it is just as toxic, if not more so. I can’t speak for all cultures globally, but I think I can safely assert that the fear of change is extremely prevalent in the West, especially nowadays. The thing that makes fear of change so damaging is that change, of one sort or another, is inevitable. So if you are afraid of change you are going to live in a constant state of fear. Many, many people (especially politicians and advertisers) count on this fact to control people and to make money.

Change comes in many forms, obviously, and occurs at different rates in different spheres. Unfortunately, also, a lot of changes are not good. People who own houses, or cars, or computers, or whatever, know this very well. Things change by breaking down on a fairly regular basis, and can be a constant worry if you are inclined in that direction. Regular maintenance can assuage some of the fears, but not all of them. Things have a habit of breaking down, often at inconvenient times because you can’t guard against everything. The other problem in these cases is that change is always bad. Cars do not suddenly get better gas mileage, or need less oil. Over time they get worse, and the best you can do is to keep maintaining and repairing the car until finally your costs outweigh your benefits and you are better off coughing up the money for a new car. It is, however, alarmingly common for people to continue to pour money into a failing car because they don’t want to change cars. Mechanics are more than happy with this state of affairs.

The human body is in a constant state of change: minor and major. Like machines, the human body is in an unavoidable state of deterioration, otherwise known as aging. Regular maintenance is also a good idea for the body, but it cannot stave off the inevitable. We all know this, but some of us seem endlessly willing to give it a shot. This is also a realm worth a great deal of money. I’ll take a pass on wrinkle creams, hair dyes, balding remedies and all the rest of it. I’ll accept what changes occur over time, hopefully with an air of grace.

One of the biggest fears that politicians make much of these days is the fear of social change. Like all other change it is inevitable, but there is a whole branch of politics, conservatism, devoted to halting social change. Why anyone would imagine for a moment that such a thing is possible is beyond me. One of the most obvious facts is that even changes that people like, especially technological improvement, bring changes they don’t like. People like affordable, efficient international travel, for example, which was not possible even 50 years ago. Now you can hop a jet for a holiday just about anywhere, any time you want for not a lot of money. Well . . . just as you can fly off to a beach in Mexico or the Middle East for a suntan, or a splendid safari in Africa to see exotic wildlife, Mexicans, Arabs, and Africans can visit your country too, and, if they wish, stay. “Oh no,” you say, “we don’t want them to stay.” Well, did they want your forebears to stay when they colonized their lands, exploited the local labor, and stole all the resources?

There’s a fair wad of people too, especially in the US, that refuse to believe that the climate is changing. I wouldn’t say that science yet has a comprehensive grasp on the details of why the climate is changing, but to deny that it is changing is absurd, as is the denial that human pollution has an effect. I understand the financial pressures brought to bear by oil and coal producers to downplay the effects of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Very rich people get funny about losing money. But why sane people who have nothing at stake should accept the rhetoric is also beyond me – EXCEPT – people fear change, and denial is often the first line of defense.

In the medical profession it is a well-known fact that when people experience the early signs of serious problems, their first response is frequently to ignore them, or to attempt to explain them away as something benign and curable. This is not always the case, certainly. Some people think they are dying the first time they sneeze, and a number of people are perfectly sensible about health issues. But a substantial number of people ignore warning signs because they are afraid of what they portend. I’m sad to say that I’ve seen way too many people die because they ignored the early warning signs of conditions that were treatable but ended up being fatal because they were ignored.

Denial, apart from being potentially fatal, can also lead to absurd ideas. The 19th century was the great watershed era when change as an unavoidable fact of life claimed center stage, not least because this was the era of the Industrial Revolution which turned the world on its head. Theories of evolution abounded. I’m not just talking about biological evolution; evolution as an idea was taking hold across disciplines. In fact it proved productive in fields quite widely separated from biology well before Darwin got hold of the idea. Notably, the Grimm brothers did monumental, and lasting, research into the evolution of languages. Because some languages, particularly European ones, have evolved in a time span that is relatively short, and their development can be well documented, no one can seriously challenge such ideas as that Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese all evolved from Latin, and that Spanish split from Italian at some stage, and then Portuguese split from Spanish some time later.

When it comes to the evolution of language there can be little argument. There are a few people who would like to put a stop to language change, but the effort is futile. There are even academies across the world that attempt to control and regulate language change. Their efforts are futile also. When it comes to human evolution things get sticky. Some people want to deny the science. Why? Well, I gave some answers here in these two posts: http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/evolution-1/ and http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/evolution-2/ Now I’ll make good on the “to be continued . . .” at the end of the second post. In my opinion, a big component in the denial of biological evolution is the fear of change. Genesis lays out a world order that is good when it is unchanging. When humans meddle with that order, things ALWAYS go wrong. Adam and Eve started the ball rolling and it’s been downhill ever since. They set history in motion, and history is one continuous series of changes, almost all of which are bad (under these rules). The promise of the Messiah is the one bright hope because he will bring history (change) to an end. Until then we’re in trouble.

By these lights, the initial word order created by God at the beginning of time was perfect. Thus, all change is for the worst. This is the same kind of philosophy that you find all over the world in antiquity – once there was a Golden Age, but something came along to screw it up. People who fear change are completely in accord with this philosophy. Hence they cling to Genesis as their model despite strong evidence that the Genesis concept of the origins of the world/universe is absurdly false. Evolutionary theory is not just dangerous on moral grounds, according to strict evangelical Christians, it is dangerous as a total worldview because it values change. Evolutionary theory does not exactly say that change improves things; that’s a common mistake. Evolution is about adaptation and survival. But if you believe that humans are better than other animals, you can be persuaded to think that evolution creates improvement through change. Whatever the case, evolutionary theory argues that change is a good thing on a species level. If a species does not change over time it goes extinct. Change means survival.

So there we are. What’s it to be? Are you going to fear change or embrace it? Either way, it’s going to happen. Maybe I can put it in simple terms: embrace change and live; resist change and die. It’s that simple.

To be continued . . .