By Human Intelligence I Mean…

I haven’t yet written a symphony
And my poetry? Crude, simple verse.
My theorems, my physical theories
And technologies, frankly, are worse

I question the meaning(s) of living,
And I question the Meaning Of Life…
Do my shortcomings say I’m not human?
That’s the viewpoint of some (take my wife*).


(**I can quote Henny Youngman, though.)

So, yeah, this is a followup to yesterday’s. In the comments over at NPR, Gleiser is challenged by his colleague Barbara King for his claim that dinosaurs were “stupid”. He clarifies that he means human intelligence, rather than animal intelligence:

By human intelligence I mean the ability to create symphonies, poetry, theorems, physical theories, technologies, to be able to question the meaning of existence and the meaning of intelligence.

Of course, I am reminded of the scene from “I, Robot”: Detective Del Spooner asks (mostly rhetorically) “Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot take a blank canvas and turn it into a masterpiece?” Sonny replies, simply, “Can you?”

Does Life Have A Purpose?

What does it mean to be alive?
What is life’s purpose, if any?
Material stuff that wants, that strives,
To turn its one self into many

What does it mean to have an urge?
What does it mean to struggle?
Must we ensure that our gametes merge,
Or is it ok just to snuggle?

What does it mean to have purpose or plan?
Who choreographs for the dancer?
These questions have plagued generations of man…
Most of all, cos we don’t like the answer.

This was just a bit of musing in response to a piece (Does Life Have A Purpose?) by Marcelo Gleiser at NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos & Culture blog. In particular, my verse is inspired by this bit:

The essential difference between the living and the non-living is the urge for preservation. Life is a form of material organization that strives to perpetuate itself.

For those who don’t click through, my comment from there:

In my opinion, the vocabulary of the article is a bit misleading, albeit clearly not intentionally so. In the same sense that “design” in nature leads creationists to infer a “designer” (when in actuality, the process of natural selection suffices), terms like “want”, “urge”, and “strive” perpetuate the notion of a functionally dualistic “self” that drives the process of life. When the larger view (across time and environment) is taken, natural selection discards those individuals whose actions were less conducive to survival and reproduction in their particular environments; those whose behavior matches what we now call “purposeful”–wanting, striving, urge-driven–were the ones more likely to live long enough to reproduce.

“Purpose” is imposed on us from outside. Our mentalistic vocabulary claims this purpose as our own–even when we expand “us” from just humans to all living things. The struggle for life is not always a “struggle” in any meaningful sense, but the phrase we have chosen to describe it.

Bottom-Up Vs Top-Down Morality

The pope is opposed, as of course are the bishops;
The church says they’re living in sin.
But the priest gave his blessing; their parents approve,
And St Christopher calls it a win.

The position, long held by the Catholic Church
Is incredibly bitter to swallow—
But as Gandhi has said, when the people do lead,
The leaders are forced, then, to follow!

Their supporters are Catholics—family and friends—
And God works in mysterious ways
Their trials have drawn the two closer to God…
I just hope he approves of the gays.

A fairly sad (to me, anyway) story from NPR, in which two married (to each other) women are awaiting a Supreme Court decision to determine whether they will be able to stay in the US.

Ok, the first thing is, they are a wonderful couple with a fantastic story, well worth reading. Really. Their families accept them, their clergy have blessed their union… they have twins on the way. It’s really beautiful.

Oh, yeah… Fabiola is Peruvian. If they were heterosexual, this would not be a problem, but since both are women, Kelly cannot sponsor her spouse for permanent residency status. So, they might have to have the twins in Peru.

Ok… at this point, I had begun a verse telling their story. The above is not that verse. See, I was thrown for a bit of a loss with this bit:

“She’s my best friend, she’s the love of my life,” Morales says of Costello. “We knew that we were going to be together forever — always together, we could do anything, and guided by God.”

The women say they are sustained in times of vulnerability, including Morales’ struggle with multiple sclerosis, by family and their strong Catholic faith. They attend Mass weekly at a nearby church, and a priest gave a blessing at their wedding.

They wear matching gold St. Christopher medals on necklaces, and pray together daily.

“We understand that the Catholic Church maybe still has to change a little bit more to love everybody, like people like us,” Morales says. “But we have found support from the Catholic Church. Not everybody is against gay people.”

Costello, who says she has become more devout since meeting Morales, adds: “As my Dad always says, we are all God’s children.”

Bully for them, I say! But… but, damn. Their parent, their families, their local clergy, and of course themselves… are all supportive of their situation, while the larger Catholic Church is not. Nor is the US government, at least not yet.

Once again, it is not the individuals within the church who are the problem. Individuals are human, and as such, make exceptions (well, sometimes. Maybe even often) when they are called for. It’s the institution that is sick.

Against that nagging voice deep within me, I am hopeful. I am hopeful that some day I will see the institution itself dragged kicking and screaming into a position with which a great number of its members are already comfortable. Failing that, I suspect that the institution will die, shedding good people like Kelly and Fabiola, their friends, their family, and their clergy.

The folks at the ground level have got it right. Their own priest blessed their same sex wedding. Their family and friends approve. I suspect that they don’t care that I wish them well, but I do. The higher levels of the Catholic Church, though, disapprove.

From the bottom up, people are people, and they are good. From the top down, the Catholic Church is inhuman, and does not recognize love, nor happiness, nor family.

I can only hope the US government sides with reality and not with the church.

Why Can’t You Just Meet Me Halfway?

I love to start fires; it’s just what I do—
I’ve started them all over town—
But recently, folks have begun to complain,
And they’re working on shutting me down.

I’m just having fun, but they say that it’s wrong;
I’m a danger, or that’s what they say
I want lots of fires; they’re screaming for none:
Why can’t they just meet me half way?

I’ve asked them to sit and negotiate terms
But they’ll call me “extremist”, I’ll bet—
They’re ranting and raving; I’m asking politely…
Just how many fires can I set?

Cuttlecap tip to Dana, under the radar.

Call Me Crazy, But…

It’s difficult, looking for just the right word,
So it’s tempting to get a bit lazy;
And critics of someone’s behavior might claim
The behavior they’re seeing is crazy.

Unless there is reason (most often, there’s not)
To suspect that the cause is insanity,
You’re dissing the mentally ill with your slight,
But the group that’s at fault is humanity

Now, why should I bother? It’s only a word—
No reason to make such a fuss—
But it matters, which people you label as them
And which ones you label as us.

Hey, maybe I’m over-reacting a bit;
Your intentions were perfectly nice
And maybe you think there’s no need to complain…
But maybe you need to think twice.

And no, I’m not telling you what prompted this.

A Rare And Beautiful Thing

I know, I know.

I’m not really here–but you know what happens; as soon as you say “I’m taking a break“, something shows up you just have to respond to.

In this case, it’s NPR’s 13.7 blog, asking the big questions about “defining our place in the universe“:

A widespread critique of science is that it tells us that the more we know, the more insignificant we are. It’s the famous after-Copernicus blues: everything went downhill ever since Earth was moved from the center of the cosmos. Since then, the Sun was pushed out from the center too, our Milky Way galaxy is but one among hundreds of billions of others in an expanding Universe. Even the atoms we are made of are less that 5 percent of the total stuff out there.

It’s the old “science tells us we are the insignificant product of a series of random accidents”, but (hey, it’s NPR’s 13.7 blog) written rather better than the average.

And the nice thing is… having been writing this blog since, what, October of 2007? Yeah, I already have a response. I know my place in the dance of the universe.

Or, as the 13.7 people conclude:

In a complete reversal of the “we are cosmically insignificant” discourse, the more we learn about the Universe, the more precious we — and all of life — become.

That Time Of Year

…. You may have noticed my posting has slowed a bit. I’m making it official, so that I don’t feel the pressure to try to put something up every day; this is the time of year when my grading all starts coming in at once, and won’t stop until mid-May. So I need extra time in meatspace for a while.

Hey, at least this year I’m not waiting until the horrors of anxiety attacks overtake me; this may actually be a step in a very positive direction. Anyway, don’t worry about me. I’m just busy.

Too bad it’s during National Poetry Month. But life is what it is. You can buy the book instead, if you like. Or submit something as a guest poet. And I will probably have a few things to post, just because that happens. But don’t expect much for a while.

See you on the other side.

Positive Story On Atheism In Rwanda

I prayed to God to help me
But He didn’t lift a hand;
The bible holds the answers, though,
And now I understand:
I shouldn’t look to God for help
To save my son or daughter…
Cos God, if He exists at all
Is on the side of slaughter.

I think maybe I have simply read too many stories about atheists. I have come to expect that either the story will be about the global mistreatment of non-religious, or the stigma attached to atheism, or a story where atheists are clearly the baddies (do I need to link to one of those?)

And then, this. The story of a horrible genocide, of people faced with unimaginable events, asking God for help and finding none. Of looking around and concluding that no God exists to ask for help.

“He doesn’t exist. I decided to not waste time any longer. And if he exists, I don’t see any difference between him and genocidaires,” he says sternly. “He’s a God who ruthlessly murdered innocent babies, a God who proudly committed terrible massacres in the history of mankind.”

The article’s author refers to the stories in Exodus (12:29-30), not as a dusty ancient text, but in the here and now, in the stories of Rwanda:

To understand the verse well, this is what really happened: There was a funeral in every home in Egypt. Women were crying and every family was forced to bury its own dead because friends were also burying their innocent little ones. If you don’t understand it yet, think of what this tragedy would do if that large scale infanticide was committed in Rwanda – starting from your own family.

These Rwandan atheists don’t need to imagine. In the words of one:

“I read what happened in Ntarama, Bugesera. Killers were smashing babies on the walls in the house of God. Why couldn’t that omnipotent God cut off the hands of those genocidaires to rescue the babies who were innocently smiling at the killers? Why? I wouldn’t be surprised when someone reputed to kill infants chose to close his arms.”

And atheism is, both in their lives and in the article, a positive factor. It concludes (but please read the whole thing!):

Having a conversation with an atheist makes you realise how little you know about your own religion.

“You do not need religion to know what is wrong and what is right,” says Ndahiro. “In fact, what religious people do practice is not morality. I consider a moral action as that which is free from promises like a heaven or fear of hell.”

According to some atheists, people are using religion as an excuse after failing to find solutions to their problems. For instance, you should have seen many genocidaires asking for forgiveness saying they were tempted by the devil.

“If we believe that, then we have intentionally made our powerful minds weak,” says Musoni. “That’s what atheism is all about: Using our minds to the utmost to benefit from the fruits of the world.”

Composing, Decomposing, Recomposing.

I was walking the cuttledog this evening when a refrain passed through what passes for my consciousness. I instantly recognized it—it was something I wrote maybe ten or fifteen (maybe 20!) years ago, part of an unfinished song.

At one point, I had written maybe 8-10 verses to this song (it’s kind of a ballad, but not in traditional ballad format; it’s a story of a relationship that goes from romantic to tragic to worse), and was actually quite proud of it (“happy” with it is not the right word for the subject matter of this song).

And then, something happened on the technological front that had ramifications I had not considered. Computers stopped using disks (I was going to say “floppy disks”, but they hadn’t really been “floppy” for quite some time). With everyone else, I made the migration over to bigger hard drives, to zip drive backups (remember those?), to CD-R backups, and all that jazz. And at some point (if I knew which point, it wouldn’t be a problem), this song stayed on a disk and did not make it to a hard drive. (Not the worst loss—I had a sound file of my then-infant daughter’s laugh I used as an alert; it was lost in the move to my first laptop, and I would gladly give a kidney if anyone could get it back.)

So I still have this song. Somewhere. On a disk. Among the hundreds of disks in my office, probably, or at my home, less probably. Mind you, I have no disk reader. Nor would that disk have been labeled in such a manner that would let me know it was the one. So, really, I don’t have this song anywhere.

And I don’t remember it. Hadn’t really even thought about it in at least a couple of years, to tell the truth. But really, it would be worth finishing—so I am embarking on a bit of an experimental journey. I composed this song, and it has since decomposed. And now, I am trying to recompose it. I am not the person I was ten or fifteen years ago—hell, I’m not the same person I was when I started this post—so I honestly don’t know if what I end up with (assuming I end up with something) will be anything close to what I would have written back then. But I am going to try to keep track of my progress, and attempt (who knows how successfully) to distinguish between what I remember from back then and what I come up with afresh this time.

And frankly, I will be disappointed if it comes out “meh.” Back then, I really thought this was good.

So… what have *you* lost in the great march of technology? Could you get it back? Will you try?

PS the working title of mine was always “only her eyes were blue”. So if you see that come up in the next few weeks, months, or years, that will be it.

We’re All Gonna Die!

We’re all gonna die! We’re all gonna die!
And it’s only a matter of time.
We’ll live on in memory, and then not at all
(and it’s not any better in rhyme)
The meek and the mighty, the great and the small
Will be gone. So the message is clear:
Since you won’t be immortal, you’ve no time to waste;
Get the most from your life while you’re here.

A strange day today… lots of death–and yet, none of it today.

Radiolab (on our local radio, at least–the episode was from 2009) had 11 meditations on death and dying. Listening, I found out things I did not know about myself–mostly, that I had very strong opinions on most of the segments, and that I disagreed (again, strongly) with a good many of their guests.

As I drove along, I took a bit of a detour in order to hear the whole program. I found myself driving a road I had not traveled in many years, not since my kids were small, and I was driving cuttleson to a friend’s house. I passed that house, and remembered that this kid… a boy from my daycare, whom I had read stories to while he lay on his cot… this boy had died in a fire, at the age of 19, a few years ago, overcome by smoke as he tried to reach the door.

One of the Radiolab segments, long time readers will not be surprised, reminded me of my brother’s death. My brother continues to make a difference, years after his death, in very specific ways–in my classes, in programs he started at his work, in community projects he initiated and contributed many hours to, let alone in the memories of his wife and children, who must miss him even more than I do.

Perhaps my favorite segment reminded me of the big picture. I will likely not be remembered in a century… but it is possible. I will almost certainly not be remembered in a thousand years… but some are remembered from a thousand years ago, so it still possible. This segment took a longer view. A hundred million years. Our species will, in all likelihood, be gone. Most of the species we know–perhaps all of the species we know–will be gone. My book will be transformed to carbon–342 sheets of paper-thin coal, the verses long gone. (Ok, that doesn’t bother me–not so much as the segment’s assertion that Mozart will be gone, presumably along with Beethoven, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, Louis Armstrong, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Justin Bieber).

We are all going to die–not just individually, but as civilizations, and as species. We won’t last forever.

Like the sidebar says… Since the music plays so briefly… can you blame me if I dance?

XKCD comic, “time robot”

(image, XKCD, of course)