Saturday, December 12, 2009

Global Warming

Here's the main body of a letter from Frank de Jong to a newsgroup I belong to.

"Climate change is again at the top of the global agenda. Hopefully this time the nations of the world will take concerted action.

Two points:

1. Conventional wisdom states that addressing climate change will cost huge amounts of money. The climate change defenders say it would be money well spent, while the climate change deniers say it would be a waste of money. But this entire premise is incorrect.

Climate change can and should be addressed at zero cost, by using the tax structure as a policy tool, through tax shifting, i.e. untaxing jobs and business and up-taxing resource use, land values and the privilege of polluting. Green tax shifts are revenue-neutral and cost taxpayers and governments nothing. In fact they benefit the economy by rewarding value-added, labour-intensive, resource-efficient, clean production and punishing ecologically destructive manufacturing and life styles.

2. Switching the source of government revenue from personal incomes and business profits to levies and fees on the use and abuse of the global commons, should become policy whether climate change exists or not. There are multiple benefits to green tax shifting, including more jobs, a more prosperous economy, less sprawl, more walkable neighbourhoods, increased economic viability of local food and clean energy, resource conservation, nature preservation, less poverty, less cancer, heart disease, diabetes and asthma.

These points obliterate the arguments of the climate change deniers by presenting a fiscally responsible, politically attractive market mechanism that will address climate change by dramatically reducing the human impact on the Earth without unfair subsidies or punitive compliance legislation."

I think he has some good ideas here. What do you think?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Limits of Logic

In yesterday's Demented Diary entry I posed a riddle and promised the answer today, but the DiaryLand entry page is down, so the answer will have to wait until tomorrow.

Here's the riddle.

Once upon a time a certain king offered to open his castle to any visitor who could provide the doorkeeper with a logically meaningful statement of what he wanted to do in the castle. If the visitor's statement was true, he was tobe granted the privilege of completing his business. If the visitor had lied, he was to be executed.

A certain visitor told the doorkeeper, "I'm coming to the castle to be executed for lying about why I'm here." The doorkeeper let him in.

The executioner was puzzled. If the visitor is not executed, he would have lied so he would need to be executed. But if he is executed, he would have been telling the truth so he can't be executed. So the executioner consulted the royal wizard.

Here was the wizard's advice. Execute the doorkeeper for admitting the visitor who had not provided a logically meaningful statement of his purpose.

Now, as pointed out by a couple of loyal readers of my Demented Diary, a better solution would have been to get the king to take everybody out for a round of margaritas.

I think everyone knows by now of Kurt Godel's Incompleteness Theorem proved in 1931, even though nobody understands it and everybody tries to draw implications that simply aren't there. It states that there's no such thing as a premise set that is both complete (all statements within the bounds of the premises can be proved either true or false) and consistent (no statement within the bounds of the premises can be proved both true and false).

An obvious corollary is that within the bounds of all human knowledge there are truths that can't be proved. Theologians are welcome to make any sort of hay they please out of this. Theology is nothing but hay that's already been used by livestock anyhow. If you can't know something, the best thing to do is quit worrying and go join your buddies for a drink.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Cops and Folks

A black professional person gets arrested by a white policeman for breaking into his own home. Racism? Well, maybe.

But there's often a totally different side to such stories.

The police receive a report of a disturbance of some sort. They have to respond, because that's what they're being paid to do.

When the officers get to the scene, they have to start somewhere, usually by trying to interview anybody they can find, sometimes even people who know nothing about wat's going on, and they need to obtain the precise identity of everybody they talk to, so that the same people will still be findable if any follow-up investigation is needed.

But citizens often do not realize this, and get upset because they think the police are hassling them, and often the policeman's interview technique is not exactly according to Emily Post. So a scuffle ensues.

Here's an incident I was involved in about 1970 or 1971 or thereabouts. I lived in a neighborhood that was not always uniformly peaceful, and drove a Fiat 124, a car that needed frequent maintenance.

I got home just after dark one evening, and decided it was just about time to do a valve adjustment, which was supposed to be done with a warm engine. So I opened the hood, went indoors and got out my tools and strung my drop-light, and a police car rolled up and the officer got out and said he wanted to talk to me.

So I said, "Hey, I live here, this is my own car, and I'm adjusting my valves, not stealing it! What's this all about?"

He told me he was responding to a disturbance in the neighborhood, and since I was the only person out and about, he needed to check me out. So I showed him my drivers license and vehicle registration and said I have no knowledge of any disturbance. Eventually he was satisfied and he left.

Well, it turned out later that there had been a gang-fight in somebody's front yard two doors over from my house, and it had apparently broken up just a minute or two before I had gotten home. I knew nothing about it until the next day, and even then, only rumors and hearsay.

I suppose if I had been just a bit more upset and the officer had been just a bit more trigger-happy, I could have been arrested. Oh by the way, the officer and I were both white, and as far as I know the gang fighters were also all white, whatever difference that makes.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Wholly Buy-Bull

As an undevoutly irreverent Christian, of course I revere the Bible as my traditional mythology. In fact, once when I was very small I even read it cover to cover, an exercise in monumental boredom for which I was highly praised by the Sunday school teacher. You see, I wanted to find out for myself the truth of that cute little ditty that we dutifully sang every Sunday morning. Unfortunately, the experience was so mind-numbing that I never really did grasp the proof of that wondrous truth. The Bible sounded like so much hogwash, but I was such an ignorant fool for thinking such a thing.

Then, several years later, I decided to try to understand the Bible. For this wondrous venture in utter futility, I turned to the preacher, a grandiose visage in his gorgeous vestments, claiming to have received Profound Knowledge by the magic of Apostolic Succession, standing in the pulpit and proclaiming all sorts of wonders. Even with all his patient help and support, the Bible still sounded like badly written mass confusion and this Apostolic Succession business was beginning to sound like a bunch of charlatanry, but I was such an ignorant fool for thinking such a thing.

Try to imagine reading the Bible without the background of a Christian upbringing but with knowledge of the mythological background of the societies in which the various parts of the Bible were first written. Basically, the Bible seems to describe a sort of development of the God idea from the initial concept of the primitive tribal war god. Ancient tribes used to carry large wooden or golden idols into battle as good-luck charms. Some ancient tribes (perhaps the Hebrews were first, I don't know) figured out that they could dispense with their idols by simply proclaiming to their enemies, "Our True God is more powerful than all your false gods because He is strong enough to carry Himself into battle and what's more, He is magically invisible to you. We are the only ones who can see him!" Of course, they won all the battles because they didn't need to use up half their soldiers lugging their stupid gods around.

The Bible appears to be just loaded with bad ideas. Let's begin at the beginning. (Where else?) In Genesis 1:26 man has been given dominion over everything in sight, justifying environmental destructiveness. In Genesis 2:21-23 woman is created as a mere accessory to man, justifying male domination. Throughout Genesis, God is consistently portrayed as a bungling ham-fist who just can't quite get his creation to run right and keeps needing to destroy portions of it and start over. The created beings are consistently rewarded for groveling in abject obedience and punished for exercising their powers of rational thought. For example, check out Genesis 22:1-12, where Abraham is getting ready to sacrifice Isaac. Anybody who thinks even for a moment that some sort of god is ordering him to slay his own son is certainly navigating with a bent rudder.

The highlight of Exodus is the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17), that favorite document of the Righteous Reich. The first four of these commandments have nothing at all to do with moral values, they're nothing but expressions of primitive tribal superstition. Two of the other commandments have no meaning outside the bounds of one specific family heirarchical structure. The other four, worthy though they may be, are too small in scope to form any sort of general code of moral behavior. So this is the bit of drivel that's gonna keep guns out of schools? Yeah, right.

Moving on to Leviticus, we see in chapters 18-21 an example of primitive tribal hatred at its finest. The Egyptians and the Canaanites are being accused of all sorts of strange and uncouth misdeeds just so the Children of Israel can pride themselves on being ever so superior in giving themselves laws against these things. But some of these proscribed practices are, like who cares? Leviticus 20:13 demands that gay people be put to death. What sense does that make? Why should I even exclude gay people from my circle of friends, let alone hate them or commit acts of violence upon them?

Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Judges are a total crashing bore, filled with monotonous genealogies, more utterly senseless laws and commandments, and tribal battles in which the Children of Israel smite their neighbors and rape women and murder children, all with the blessing of their tribal god as long as they perform the correct rituals of cruelty to animals thinly disguised as sacrifices.

Ruth is sort of a cute little story except for its poor literary quality and maddeningly crummy readability.

In the Books of the Kings (called I&II Samuel and I&II Kings in most Protestant versions of the bible) we see the beginnings of anything that can be historically verified. This historical period begins about the middle of the 11th century BC, a time in which, elsewhere in the Near East, non-religious humanist philosophy is making its debut, with its moral standard based on Love Thy Neighbor As Thyself and its intellectual standard based on Seek And Ye Shall Find. (Betcha didn't know these ideas originated outside of any religion, didja?) Nowhere in the Books of the Kings do we see anything substantially resembling this level of enlightenment.

In I&II Chronicles we see little more than a stale and eminently unreadable rehash of earlier books. Skip them and you aren't missing anything.

Ezra and Nehemiah appear to be mere extensions of the Chronicles, just as badly written and just as historically inaccurate, although several passages in Nehemiah have been historically verified.

Esther is the Hebrew version of a widespread legend of passionate intrigue and assassination. The Persian and Babylonian versions are much more well-written and lots more fun to read.

Job is an incredible fantasy story that portrays God and Satan playing games with each other, apparently not with a full deck. Do you really want to believe in that sort of God? Oh by the way, when I was in college I did my Religion class term paper on the Book of Job. I got an A+ on it, not that anybody cares.

Now we come to the Psalms. They are, for the most part, rather nice poetry, and some of them sound pretty good set to music. Musical arrangements of many of the Psalms are published in Psalms Made Singable edited by Keith Shafer, available from Church Music Services. The ideas found in the Psalms, however, are vaporously devoid of substance.

Proverbs and Ecclesiastes contain a few bits of reasonably good advice here and there, but if you're a basically sensible person you're probably following that advice already. Besides, the good advice is so thoroughly interspersed with meaningless sequences of random words and Rah Rah God cheerleading that it's hardly worth wading through to find it.

The Song of Solomon would be pretty nice to sing while strumming upon your dulcimer outside your lover's window on some romantic moonlit night. Hey guys, try it sometime! You'll probably send the poor lady into gales of uproarious laughter.

Now we come to Isaiah, the most glorious aggregation of gobbledygook I've ever seen in a single setting! Isaiah appears to be a conglomeration of several ancient myths and legends, with all sorts of grandiose imagery of God and all the Celestial Attendants, gruesome scenes of the horrible things that happen to disobedient folks, wondrous visions of the delights that await the righteous, and vast quantities of incomprehensible nonsense. Much of this imagery is taken to be a prediction of the coming Messiah, although to me it looks like the typical fortune teller's ploy of predicting everything in sight, then whatever happens you'll have gotten something right. A rather interesting highlight is the phrase in Isaiah 7:14 where the English translation (King James version) reads "Behold, a virgin shall conceive". This accurately follows the Greek Septuagint version. The Hebrew version translates as "Behold, a young woman shall conceive", and a similar Persian myth says "Behold, an independent woman has conceived". Scholars more knowledgeable than I am disagree as to who mistranslated whom. I suppose the unreformably male-supremacist Children of Israel, speaketh they Hebrew or Greek, had no comprehension of what an independent woman could ever be. To Isaiah's credit, at least he slips in a few small pleas for social justice, the first mention in the Bible of this radical new idea that had already been a mainstay of most non-religious humanist philosophies for several centuries.

Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel are more or less similar to Isaiah except the mystic imagery is a bit less gaudy and the social justice theme is a bit stronger. In the Episcopal Church we do many of our standard Bible readings from these books, primarily because of the social justice issue.

Daniel is a fantasy myth similar to many other Near Eastern myths of the period. Daniel 1:8-15 is sometimes used as a biblical justification for a vegetarian diet, but most of my vegetarian friends don't seem to depend on biblical justification.

Hosea, Joel, Amos, and Obadiah are short but rather dull little treatises about largely nothing. Well, I suppose there are a few pleas for social justice and fairness, but they're embedded in such monumental hogwash that they're easily overlooked.

Jonah is another fantasy myth with many parallels in Near Eastern mythology.

Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi could probably be accidentally left out of the Bible and hardly anybody would notice. This is rather sad, I think, because it is in these books that most of the Bible's calls for social justice and fairness are stated most eloquently.

Some versions of the Bible, including the one we officially use in the Episcopal Church, contain a group of several books called the Apocrypha. If your Bible does not have the Apocrypha, fret thee not, for thou doth be indeed not missing much.

Did Jesus Christ ever actually exist on earth as a living person? Well, I suppose he probably did, but you certainly can't tell it from the Gospels. They're nothing but rather sloppily written accounts of just another warmed-over version of the same stale old man-god myth that has been a recurring staple of eastern and central European and Near Eastern mythology since time immaterial.

Here's the story. One of the gods decides to come and live on earth in human form. He causes some poor unsuspecting virgin to conceive and bear him, typically under very humble circumstances such as perhaps in a stable, where a makeshift bed is fixed up for him, perhaps in a livestock feeding trough. The birth is announced by various celestial means, such as a magnificent star, or choirs of angels on high. Visitors come bearing such unlikely gifts as gold, frankincense, and myrrh, suitable for a god, I suppose, but of no conceivable use for a normal baby. The sacred birth catches the attention of the local king, who then, perceiving a threat to his dynasty, has all boy babies in the kingdom put to death. However, the newborn man-god escapes via a mystic warning delivered to his earthly parents. The typical man-god myth generally contains very little detail of his childhood and youth. Then, in adulthood, he rounds up several disciples, typically twelve, although the number varies in some versions. He then goes around performing the same old miracles that are the stock-in-trade of every myth-maker, preaches the same old stuff that is already a part of existing philosophy, and retells the same old parables that everyone already knows by heart. Then he gets arrested by the local ruler, often through the perfidy of a disloyal disciple, and is put to death by some gruesome means such as crucifixion, but then he is resurrected and spends a few days strolling around and chatting with his disciples, then zooms off to Heaven or Valhalla or the Land of Happy Hunting or wherever.

The writers of the Gospels certainly had no shortage of source material because several dozen of these man-god myths were already familiar to Greek-speaking people of central and eastern Europe and portions of the Near East, and they could always place the scene of the action in some unfamiliar place like Palestine. Read the Gospels sometime with an ancient map of Palestine in hand. It's good for a lot of laughs. For instance, in the fifth chapter of Mark Jesus steps off a boat directly into the Country of the Gadarenes, about thirty miles from the nearest body of water big enough to float a boat. Wow, man! Jesus Christ Superstar of the Olympic broad jump team! And then when he's in that country he encounters a guy who's infested with demons and he casts out the demons and causes them to enter some pigs, a species that has never existed in that country because they can't survive the climate.

And just look at all these references to the Pharisees but not a single mention of the Essenes. The Pharisees were very prominent among the Greek-speaking Jews of Asia Minor, Greece, and Egypt, but barely noticed in Palestine. The Essenes were just all over the place in Palestine but almost unknown elsewhere. And this lovely little town of Nazareth is not mentioned in Roman maps and tax records of the era. It's very unlikely that the greedy Romans would have overlooked the taxation opportunities of any town big enough to have a carpenter shop. Oh by the way, the present-day town of Nazareth was founded in 135 AD as an unnamed community and received the name Nazareth in 254 AD. That oughta be enough to tell you that the Gospels were written by Greeks who had very little knowledge of the geography of Palestine and the customs of the Jews. Well, so much for trying to find profound truth in the Gospels.

The Acts, almost certainly written by the same author who wrote the Gospel of Luke, is a creative new twist on the man-god legend. It contains more of the same standard miracles of classic mythology such as speaking in tongues (Acts 2:1-11), healing (Acts 3:2-8 and Acts 5:15-16) and conversion (Acts 9:1-9), but it attributes these miracles to the human followers of the man-god after the ascension, a relatively unusual twist on the usual myth. The author also gets in a few of his own political views, such as communal living (Acts 2:44-45 and Acts 4:34-35) in seeming oblivion to the universal failure of communal living arrangements whenever they've been tried throughout history, and the idea of assigning underlings to do the real work while the high and mighty keep their delicate little paws clean (Acts 6:2-4). Not only that, but he includes a few actual historical people in his narrative, possibly at the request of those people themselves, so that we can't be sure what's fantasy and what's history.

The Epistles of Paul the Apostle are primarily flights of fantasy with all sorts of talk about salvation and redemption and all those other esoteric concepts of Christian dogma, but the one thing that really stands out is that this guy has got a rather serious circumcision fetish (Romans 2:25-29, Romans 3:30, Romans 4:9-12, I Corinthians 7:18-19, Galatians 2:7-9, Galatians 5:2-3, Colossians 2:11,13, and many many others). In addition, he seems to be some sort of sex-hating pervert (I Corinthians 7:7-9,32-34) like maybe he was some sort of nerd that women didn't like and he was jealous of the fun everyone else was having. He also expresses a negative view of the created world (I Corinthians 2:12) and bodily existence (Romans 8:1-3, Romans 13:14, and Galatians 5:16-21). He is a gay-basher (Romans 1:27 and I Corinthians 6:9), a male supremacist (I Corinthians 11:3,8-12, I Corinthians 14:34-35, Ephesians 5:22-24, and Colossians 3:18), a hair length fetishist (I Corinthians 11:14-15), and a hat fetishist (I Corinthians 11:4-7). To Paul's credit, he recognizes the legitimacy of human differences (Romans 12:6-8, Romans 14:2-6, and I Corinthians 12:8-11), and he recommends loving thy neighbor (Romans 13:8).

The other Epistles (including I&II Timothy and Titus, often erroneously attributed to Paul) are more flights of fantasy but with much less of Paul's weird hangups, although male domination rears its ugly head (I Timothy 2:11-12 and I Peter 3:1) with the interesting new twists that women should not wear jewelry and nice clothes (I Timothy 2:9 and I Peter 3:3) and widows shouldn't be allowed to have any fun (I Timothy 5:5-6). James is to be commended for recognizing that action rather than faith is what gets things done (James 2:14-26).

When Revelation was first published, it was uniformly denounced by the Christian community as the rantings of a madman. Emperor Theodosius insisted that it be included in the Bible so that he could use its freakish imagery to fabricate frightening boogeymen to spook the superstitious population into meekly accepting his tyranny. Hey folks, it's still the rantings of a madman.

I suppose I am misinterpreting the Bible. If that's the case, then maybe we ought to think about rewriting the Bible so people like me can understand it. If the Bible, as it stands now, is the inerrant Word of God, then God must be a miserable muddle-head. But I am such an ignorant fool for thinking such a thing.