If Only…

If she puts up a fight…

If only she wouldn’t have struggled
If only she wouldn’t have fought
If only she hadn’t defended herself
If she’d just given up, as she ought

If she does not…

If only she’d put up a struggle
If only she’d put up a fight
She should have defended her honor
Allowing them just wasn’t right

Seems every choice she has is wrong. What about…

If only they hadn’t attacked her
If only they’d just let her be
If women were simply respected
She’d be living, and they might be free

Cuttlecap tip to Greta Christina, and of course to Taslima

Hunting The Gene For Evil

We’ve got the killer’s DNA
And you know what that means—
We’re going to look for evil
In some broken set of genes

We’re on a search for evil’s cause
And here’s an added plus:
We’re looking for an answer
That will distance him from us.

So, yeah, I’m behind the others on this (the Cuttlekids are still here, so I’m having fun in meatspace), but it seems there will be a search for answers in a place pretty much guaranteed to find something utterly meaningless and useless… which is exactly what is wanted.

You already know I think most of the public hypothesizing has been an exercise in self-protective othering; we see a monster who looks remarkably like us, and need to distance ourselves from him. Whether we blame the removal of prayer from classrooms (good people like us who want prayer would never have the sort of evil in our souls that could cause behavior like this), mental illness (the outsider label of choice for centuries), or an unfortunate genetic predisposition (it’s not his fault; he’s just different from us normal folk), we are pursuing an explanation that allows us to look for blame rather than cause.

There are abundant causes we can point to in the environment–but those are things that apply to the rest of us, as well as the killers that make the headlines. Mind you, most killers don’t make the headlines. We usually kill people by ones and twos, and hardly ever make the national news. Chicago, today, hit 500 homicides (oops–499 and counting); New York is on track for a 400-homicide year. We know that New England has the lowest regional rate of murder, and that the South has (by far) the highest. This is not a genetic difference, this is a difference of cultures, of economics, of education. But these are differences we could actually look at meaningfully, with an eye toward making changes. Maybe that’s why we’re looking at genes instead.

Far better to have something that we cannot change, that allows us to blame someone else, than to find something we *can* change if we accept that there are no monsters, just people like ourselves, and that it’s normal people, not monsters, who are killing one another by the thousands every year.


I thought I was all set, not wanting anything for cephalopodmas… then a reader sent in this pic, of a cuddly little thing in a display of vintage teddy bears…
It’s just so cuddly!

Christmas, Present

‘Twas the night before—really, the name doesn’t matter—
The goose we’d be roasting just couldn’t be fatter;
We’d trimmed out the tree, feeling ever-so-jolly,
The mistletoe shimmered, and so did the holly
The Yule-log was glowing; each flame, and each ember
Reminded us all it was late in December
In the house, we were warm, but it can’t be denied
While inside we were cozy, ‘twas freezing outside

This Christmas was different from Christmas of old
We were safe from the dark; we were safe from the cold
We were safe from the worries of Christmases past
Why, our worry was whether the cookies would last!
No honest Bob Cratchit, no poor Tiny Tim
No crutches to show us his future was dim
No polio, measles, pertussis, or poxes,
Just bountiful dinners and brightly wrapped boxes

The wine wasn’t mulled, and the rum wasn’t buttered,
The double-glazed windows weren’t, technically, shuttered—
They held out the wind, and they held out the snow,
So the house remained cozy at twenty below
A cold that the furnace could easily handle;
No fire was needed, ‘cept maybe a candle.
Though the ancients knew this was the longest of nights,
When the sunset arrived, we just flicked on the lights

Our Christmas, our solstice—midwinter, or Yule
Is the work of the present, not past, as a rule;
We spend it with those whom we love, as we should,
We invited them here. And, you know… that is good.
They are here cos we love them. No need to apply
The religious proscriptions of eras gone by
We’re not at some church, out of blind obligation,
But home—where the heart is—in fun celebration

Nostalgia is nice, but the malcontent masses
Are looking behind them with rose-colored glasses
At Christmases, really, that never existed—
Their view of the past is a little bit twisted—
Dickensian stories with outdated morals
Cannot be the answer to modern-day quarrels
If you have a view of what Christmas is for,
And see my view is different… don’t call it a war!

A modern-day Christmas should not be the same
As the ancient traditions that share just its name;
These myths you’ve been handed? These stories you’re told?
I suspect you are less than two thousand years old!
Or even the hundreds, twixt Dickens and us,
That lets you see Christmas as worth all the fuss.
The Christmas you know hasn’t been here that long,
So it’s silly to think that we’re doing it wrong

And why should it matter what Christmas once meant?
Cos it’s ours now, to honor or just re-invent!
I’m keeping the family, losing the Christ,
Giving gifts (just a few, and those reasonably priced)
We’ll meet round the table, and not in the church
Feeling humbled, a bit, by our privileged perch.
So remember the past, but no matter how pleasant,
It can never compete with this Christmas, the present.

So Long As The World Is Ending…

It’s ok. We all know atheists have nothing to live for, anyway.

I found this verse while looking for something else. I had completely forgotten writing it, so I’m reposting it, on the chance that you have completely forgotten reading it. It was based on a comment overheard, about how “atheists have nothing to live for”. I tried my best to put myself in the position of someone who actually believes that…

You’ve nothing to live for, my atheist friend–
No hell or no heaven, to fall or ascend
When your time on this planet has come to an end
No reason at all to go on

If heaven and god are the myths you report
And you vow to be clear-eyed and not to distort,
Then life, as you know, is remarkably short
And nothing at all once it’s gone

You must be disheartened! I cannot conceive
The depression of people who do not believe
Where worm-food’s the most they can hope to achieve
And death is an ending, outright.

No cloud-covered heaven, its streets paved with gold
Where everyone’s happy, and no one grows old
The story that innocent children are told
To keep them from crying at night

No future past death; just the here and the now
Just the days and the nights that your life will allow
You could try to extend them, but no one knows how
No hope for a shot at hereafter

Just puppies, and babies, and flowers, and fun
Rainbows, and kisses, and seashells, and sun
Elephants, penguins, and whales by the ton
And giggles and childish laughter

Just cities that sparkle by day and by night
Forests and fields that may stretch out of sight
Eagles and airplanes and seagulls in flight
And water or wine in your cup

If you’re lucky, there’s children, and laughter, and tears
A chance to re-live all your heartaches and fears
Through their eyes—but it’s only for so many years
So you might as well just hang it up

No halo or harp-strings—and surely no wings
Just real-world delights, but no heavenly things
There’s music, but not from an angel who sings
Just your daughter, who plays you her song

No stuff to have faith in, just stuff you can see
No reason to hope or to wish it could be—
This view is pathetic, I think you’ll agree
Or maybe… just maybe… I’m wrong

If all that we have—all that life consists of
Is the love of our families and friends—just that love
With no hell down below, and no heaven above
Is that an intolerable end?

Suppose that this lifetime is all that we get
No heaven’s reward, and no hell for a threat
(And we’re not Blaise Pascal, and just placing a bet)
Should I pity my atheist friend?

There’s reason for pity; I’m wasting my time
Which from his point of view, is a horrible crime
If we get but one life, then I worry that I’m
Being foolish by waiting for more

The years, days, and seconds, they fly by so fast
Each heartbeat, one more that is now in the past
One life to be lived, and you know it won’t last…
So live it—cos that’s what it’s for!

Continuing That Thought…

My last post drew some wonderful comments, and prompted me to do a bit of whatever the cephalopod equivalent of navel-gazing is. Looking through some old posts, old comments, old links, and thinking of some recent funerals, got me wondering what sort of funeral I would want for myself. I used to have plans, actually, that included a Dixieland style jazz band and a party… but that was decades ago. After PZ posted it a while ago, I have Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Dirge Without Music” tacked up on my office wall–I found it comforting at the time, but I don’t know if it sounds right for my own funeral. I know that more than one person has requested to use one of my verses for their own memorials (one has recorded himself reading it, just for the occasion), so I’ll repost it here, and ask (in part because I have not decided, and I am looking for ideas–no rush, mind you!) what sort of readings, music, naked dancing, etc., you are mulling over for when your time comes.

The verse that some have chosen to accompany their memorial:

When we are dead, we’ll feed the worms
And other stuff that writhes and squirms
And if you cannot come to terms
With that—well, use your head!
There are no ifs nor ands nor buts:
Bacteria within our guts
Will start to eat us; that is what’s
In store, once we are dead.

Yes, life is short and full of toil,
And when we’ve shuffled off this coil
Our carcasses will start to spoil—
There’s nothing wrong with that.
Our share of fish or pigs or cows,
And all the chicken time allows,
Is done. It’s only fair that now’s
The worms’ turn to get fat.

Should we die young, or old and gray,
The laws of nature we’ll obey
And spend our heat in mere decay,
Replenishing the Earth;
“Three score and twelve” may be our years
For love and laughter, hope and fears
And then—mere smoke—life disappears;
No heaven, no rebirth.

And with no heaven up above
Nor hell we ought be frightened of
It’s best we fill our lives with love,
With learning, and with fun!
Don’t waste a lifetime while you wait
For halo, wings, and pearly gate—
This is your life, so get it straight:
You only get the one!

I’ll have no moment lost to prayer,
To cleanse my soul and thus prepare
For passage to… THERE’S NOTHING THERE!
Those moments, all, are wasted!
I’m only here a little time
Before it’s bugs and worms and slime;
I’ll eat and drink my life so I’m
Delicious when I’m tasted!

What are *your* plans?

No Atheists At Memorials For Children?

The Los Angeles Times is running an interesting opinion piece, tying the memorial for the Newtown victims with church-state separation issues (among other things). It’s worth reading, and worth commenting on. They 1) note the ecumenical nature of the service, 2) assert that a non-religious memorial would have been somehow incomplete and off-putting, and 3) note the lack of complaint by atheist groups about the inclusion of religious text at a memorial held at a secular school. It’s as if they are surprised that atheist groups haven’t reacted to this funeral like, say, the Westboro Baptist Church has. (The WBC is not mentioned in the story.)

I was moved to comment at the LA Times site:

A few years ago, my atheist brother died; his atheist children and atheist siblings, myself included, were offended by, but did not object to, blatantly religious elements at his memorial. I could have gone on at length about how my brother’s good works grew from his atheism, from his understanding that he, not some god, was the power that could make the world better for the children he loved. That his actions, not prayers, made a difference.
His friends and neighbors knew he was an atheist, but not everyone did, and (it is the dominant, privileged culture, after all) christian messages were featured by many of the speakers. From the perspective of my brother’s children, this was inappropriate. I agree. But it would also have been inappropriate for us to choose that moment to make a stand. There was something far more important happening–we were comforting one another, knowing we would never see my brother, their father, again.
The fact that there are no explicitly atheistic elements at a funeral does not mean there are no atheists there. It does not mean that atheists don’t find some of the religious messages inappropriate. We (I speak for myself, at least) recognize that this is how the religious grieve. We let them, as we wish they would let us. It would be nice if my own funeral were non-theistic… but at that point, I won’t be able to control what happens.

What are your own thoughts? I was limited at the Times by character count, and perhaps by the need to speak to a different audience than reads here. Feel free to respond, both here and there.

Mechanism, Contextualism, And The Limits Of Brain Science

Over at NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog, Alva Noë writes about “Science And The Allure Of ‘Nothing But“, a topic near and dear to my hearts. Reductionism in science has led us to some frankly silly stances, but stances held and strongly defended by major players, and (probably, but I have not counted) a majority of those working–for instance, Francis Crick’s claim that “you are your brain”. We fetishize the brain–not a week goes by (or so it seems) that we don’t see some trivial aspect of human behavior get the official stamp of approval because some researcher has located an area in the brain associated with… lying, or love, or awe, or fear, or jealousy. Mind you, we already knew these things existed–indeed, the vocabulary of the “mind” long preceded our ability to look meaningfully into the brain, and so it makes no sense whatsoever to think that such a phenomenon could only (or even reasonably) be defined within that three pound mass of goo.

What Noë does not say (it is a piece for the general public, after all) is that a large part of our brain fetish has to do with the dominance of a philosophy of mechanism, wherein we use the metaphor of a machine (typically a clockwork, but Noë uses a car in this essay) to understand whatever it is we are looking at. We see how the bits go together, how this machine varies from that one in important ways, but that they are similar in others (averages and ideals are very important in this metaphor), and how some parts control other parts. The brain is a controller of sorts in this model.

Mechanism, however, is not the only philosophical stance science may use. Contextualism, or functional contextualism, looks at things through an entirely different perspective, asking different questions and demanding different answers. Rather than a machine, the metaphor is a behavior in its context–running is never just running, for instance, but exercise, or escape, or hurrying, depending on context. The same behavior or feature might be adaptive in one context and not in another, or different behaviors or features might exploit the same resource. Natural Selection is best framed contextually (which might be obvious by now), as is radical behaviorism and its offshoot molar behaviorism. As the article puts it:

You are not your brain. You are a brain, in a body, situated in an environment, an environment that includes other people, artifacts, as well as mere physical stuff. And when you are living, then you are in continuous interaction and transaction with the surrounding world.

Behaviors and populations extend across both time and space, and interact with an ever-changing and responsive environment. This is the world we live in, and this is the world in which our vocabulary about lying, love, awe, fear, and jealousy (and everything else) came to be useful. And yet, it is the discrete mechanisms of this brain area or that, that we are currently trying to reduce our experience to?

I still have grading to do, so I have already written more on this than I have time to. I will close with something from a while back, inspired by the beautiful photos of macropinna microstoma from 2009. If we had this fish’s head, maybe we could look inward to understand ourselves. But we do not, and so if we truly wish to understand ourselves, I suggest we start looking around instead.

I have no eyes to look behind
And view my brain, much less my mind;
I cannot know your thoughts, and you
Are blind to what I’m thinking, too.
These are the facts; we can’t deny
We have no working “inner eye”
Nor any form of ESP;
Your thoughts cannot be seen by me.

The claim—that we can know ourselves—
Is countered by the miles of shelves
Of self-help books. Our knowledge hides
From where we’re told that it resides!
If we could simply take a look
Inside our minds, why need a book?
We’d never ask “How do I feel?
Could this be love? Could it be real?”

If God or Science offered me
Some cranial transparency
So you could see my every thought—
The change of mind; the urge I fought,
The censored comment never spoken,
Secret kept and promise broken—
What fabled treasures! Wondrous finds,
If we could read each other’s minds!

But we cannot. Make no mistake,
Our skulls and minds are both opaque
We do, instead, what we can do;
We read the things in public view
We see the song, the poem, the kiss;
Infer from these that love is this.
In turn, each element we find
We sum, and call the total “mind”.

If I could see inside my head,
(A place where angels fear to tread)
And see how thinking really works,
The jumble of selected quirks
And if (what wonders “if” can do!)
I saw inside your thinking too
I think that I should never see
What now makes up philosophy.

Blame And Self-Protective Bias

It’s a special kind of crazy when a bunch of kids get shot
When it’s labeled mental illness… and it’s not.
It’s a part of human nature we find frightening, and thus
We will do our best to label it… “not us.”
There are parts of our society which all could shoulder blame
But we’d rather hold responsible… one name.
We could build a safer culture, but you see, the trouble is
We deny that it’s our problem… cos it’s his.

Two thoughts, one on either side of the coin. Firstly, the number of people living with one form or other of “mental illness” (I use the term for convenience, while disagreeing with much of what it implies, but that is a looooong post for another time) is vast, and mostly invisible (nearly a quarter of the adult population in America, in a given year, deal with a diagnosable mental illness). Most of the people I have ever worked with have seen a doctor or therapist for anxiety or depression in the time I have known them. Longtime readers know that I, myself, occasionally lose the battle and need to retreat from the world.

So if we want to search for “mental illness” as a cause of any given incident, there are very good odds that we can find “evidence” in the recent past of any given individual. And such a finding would be essentially meaningless. It doesn’t predict such incidents, but does help to stigmatize mental illness, and does help to prevent people from seeking help, so as to avoid that label.

The other side of the coin… “human nature”–the vast spectrum of behaviors that encompass what we do–includes bits we are not proud of. Human nature includes heroism and barbarism; self-sacrifice and greed; cruelty and kindness. Human nature includes, without any need to assert “illness”, the ability to kill one another, as well as the ability to put oneself in harm’s way to save someone else. We love to give ourselves credit for the good things we do (individually and collectively), but do our best to distance ourselves from the bad.

And there is danger in this self-protective tendency. When we give ourselves credit, and deny ourselves blame, we paint an inaccurate picture of ourselves, and we deny the influences around us that led to our actions. We did good because we are good, not because of this or that factor. They (never we) did bad because of some innate evil, or flaw, or something that somehow allows us to think it could never happen to us. There is no need to look for reasons that we, as a culture, could fix, because good and evil are innate. And so we do not fix things we could. We say “when you blame society, you let the individual off the hook!” without recognizing that when we blame the individual, we let society off the hook.

If we do things because of innate goodness or evil, there is no need to act (indeed, trying to change things will be futile). If we recognize that we learn from and are influenced by our environments, if we recognize that human nature includes the ability for perfectly normal people to commit atrocities, then we can work to recognize the factors in our cultures, and we can work to change for the better.