The secular world of Harry Potter

After reading the latest book in the Harry Potter series (#6 in the series called Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) I got involved in discussions with serious aficionados of the series as to what might happen in the upcoming book, which will be the last in the series. I made my predictions but they were scorned by these experts since they knew I had not read the earlier books 1, 3, 4, and 5. (I had read #2 a few years ago.) The Potter mavens said that since the author had planned the books out carefully as one long, coherent story, what I was doing was like trying to predict the end of a whodunit after skipping two-thirds of the plot.

I had to concede the justice of the criticism and so the last few weeks I have been reading the entire series and am now in the middle of my last unread book, #5 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I am now well on the way to Harry Potter geekdom, though I will never reach the uber-geek status of some. It has not been a sacrifice on my part since the books are well written and I have been kept up many a late night because I could not put the books down. Clearly J. K. Rowling knows how to spin a good story.

What has struck me in reading the books in rapid succession over a short period of time is how secular and rational the world described by the books are. This may come as a surprise given that they are about witches, wizards, hexes, curses, and all kinds of magic that violate pretty much all the known laws of physics.

But while the world of Hogwarts is one in which magical phenomena are everyday events, it does not seem to be at all religious or irrational. So far not a single character has revealed any religious inclinations and there have been no prayers or any form of organized worship of any kind. Sunday seems to be just another off day. I cannot remember even seeing the word “god” used, even as an involuntary exclamation or a swear word.

Christmas does occur in every book but it seems to be true to its pagan origins and is celebrated as a secular holiday, with decorations, Christmas trees, feasting, and the exchange of presents, but with no indication that there is any religious significance to it. The closest that anything came to Christianity was a mention of the carol O Come All Ye Faithful which has references to Jesus and god, although if one is not a Christian you would not know this since the words of the carol are not given in the book. Clearly the world of wizards and witches and goblins and other assorted characters has no need of god.

Even the magic that is done seems quite rational. While the laws of physics as we know them seem to be routinely violated, the fundamental methodological principle of causality (that phenomena have causes that can be investigated systematically) remains intact. Spells are highly structured and prescribed and you have to do it in a particular way to achieve the desired result. Potions have to follow specific recipes to be effective. Deviations from the rigid rules of operation result in aberrant results, the source of much of the humor and drama of the books. It seems as if everything, even magic, follows laws that govern their behavior, and everything seems quite rational. One gets the sense that so-called “intelligent design creationism” (or IDC), with its emphasis on unknown and unnamed agents acting in innately unknowable ways, would not get a warm welcome in the rationalist atmosphere at Hogwarts. IDC ideas would have a tough time getting into their curriculum.

Many fundamentalist Christian groups object to the Harry Potter books because they are drenched in sorcery and witchcraft, which the Bible supposedly condemns. (Scroll down this site for some negative reviews.) They say that the books lure young children towards sorcery, which they identify with devil worship.

I think these critics are making a profound mistake. Nowhere do the characters, either good or bad, do anything that can be remotely described as worshiping anything. Good and evil are represented by people such as Dumbledore and Voldemort, not by deities.

The religious fundamentalists, if they want to object to the books, should be focusing on the fact that, as far as I can tell, the whole wizarding community consists of a bunch of thoroughgoing atheists.

POST SCRIPT: SCOOP – The name of the ‘intelligent designer’ revealed!

In an earlier post, I mentioned how the so called ‘intelligent design creationist’ (IDC) people were extremely careful not to identify their intelligent designer, using various circumlocutions to avoid doing so. I thought it was pretty obvious that the intelligent designer was god and said so. But I now realize I was wrong. Reading the Harry Potter books, the truth suddenly came upon me in a flash when I realized that nearly all the wizards and witches also carefully avoided giving a name to someone and kept referring to him as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”

The intelligent designer has to be Lord Voldemort. Remember, you read it here first.

The joy of free thinking

There is scarcely a week that does not pass without some interesting new scientific discovery about the nature of life. You open the newspaper and read of observations of light emitted by distant stars from the very edges of the known universe, light that must have been emitted almost at the very beginning, over ten billion years ago. Such research puts us in touch with our own cosmic beginnings.

Just recently there was the discovery of the fossils a possible new Hobbit-like people who lived in a remote island in the Indonesian archipelago about 18,000 years ago. Then there was the discovery in China of an almost perfectly preserved bowl of noodles that is about the 4,000 years old. Discoveries like these shed light on how evolution works and how human society evolved.

Similarly, the discoveries that come from studies of DNA tell us a lot about where humans probably originated, how we are all related to one another and how, despite our common origins, the species spread over the Earth and diversified. The fact (according to the September 21, 2005 issue of The Washington Post) that we share nearly 99 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees, lend further strong support (not that it needed it) to the evolutionary idea that chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestry. (The approximately one percent difference, according to The Daily Show, is what causes human beings to kill each other!)

I enjoy reading things like this because it reminds me that we are all linked together by one great biological evolutionary tree, with the various animal species being our cousins, and even things like worms and bacteria being somehow related to us, however distantly. Some people may find the idea of being related to a monkey repulsive but I think it is fascinating. The ability of science to investigate, to find new relationships, to explore and conjecture and come up with answers to old questions as well as create new questions to investigate is one of its greatest qualities.

And for me, personally, being an atheist makes that joy completely unalloyed. Shafars (i.e., secularists, humanists, atheists, freethinkers, agnostics, and rationalists), as well as religious people who interpret their religious texts metaphorically and not literally, do not have any concerns when new headlines describing a new scientific discovery are reported in the news. They do not have to worry whether any new fact will contradict a deeply held religious belief. They do not have to worry about whether they need to reconcile the new information with any unchanging religious text.

On the other hand, the same news items that give us fascinating glimpses of scientific discoveries undoubtedly create fresh headaches for those whose religious beliefs are based on literal readings of religious texts, because each new discovery has to be explained away if it disagrees with some dogma. There are people who devote their entire lives to this kind of apologetics, to ensure that their religious beliefs are made compatible with science. The website Answers in Genesis, for example, is devoted to making Young-Earth creationism (YEC) credible. So it goes to great lengths to show that the earth is less that 10,000 years old, all the animals could have fitted into Noah’s Ark, and that dinosaurs lived at the same time as humans.

One has to admire the tenacity of such people, their willingness to devote enormous amounts of time, sometimes their whole lives, to find support for a belief structure that is continuously under siege from new scientific discoveries. It must feel like trying to hold back the tide. (See this site which tries to fit the astrophysical data received from light emitted by stars that are billions of light years away into a 10,00 year old universe model.)

Of course, scientific discoveries come too thick and fast for even the most determined literal apologists to keep up. So they tend to focus only on explaining away a few questions, the kinds of questions that the lay public is likely to be concerned about, such as whether dinosaurs existed concurrently with humans, the ages of the universe and the Earth, whether the size of the Ark was sufficient to accommodate all the species, how Noah coped with the logistical problems of feeding all the animals and disposing of the waste, how Adam and Eve’s children could multiply without there already being other people around or indulging in incest, and so on.

But the rest of us don’t have to worry about any of that stuff and so can enjoy new scientific discoveries without any cares, and follow them wherever they lead. It is nice to know that one can throw wide open the windows of knowledge and let anything blow in, clearing out the cobwebs of old ideas and freshening up the recesses of the mind.

It is a wonderful and exhilarating feeling.

The strangeness of George W. Bush

While Iraq unravels before everyone’s eyes, the White House administration devolves into incoherence under the weight of indictments (both actualized and pending) of its senior members, and finger pointing and blame for the debacle starts being spread around, it is time to look more closely at the curious role of George W. Bush in all this.

As I have said before, I do not feel that it is a very useful exercise to try and find out what public figures are ‘really’ like in private. One should simply judge them by their public actions and consequences and their official role in it. And when it comes to Iraq, the picture is clear, even if the image of the person behind the decision is not. The policy was flawed, the attack on Iraq was based on lies and deception, and since he was the President and had to authorize all the decisions, he has to be held responsible for the results and be taken to task. For any substantive purpose, it does not matter what Bush is ‘really’ like. [Read more…]

The mess that is Iraq-4: Why things fell apart

One of the peculiar things about history is how the great powers of any given era do not think that the lessons of history apply to them, that somehow the present conditions are so qualitatively different that there is little to be learned from the past, because the old rules are not applicable anymore. And by ignoring the lessons of history, they suffer the consequences.

This particular administration seems to have not avoided this kind of hubris. In fact, it seems to have been even more arrogant than its predecessors, even to the extent that it thinks it could create its own reality.
Patrick Cockburn, longtime observer of Iraq and a correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent writing in the October 1-15, 2005 issue of the CounterPunch newsletter draws upon some of the lessons from history that might have been useful if they had been fully considered.

One of these lessons is that there have always been two countervailing tensions in Iraq. There are the traditional suspicions and tensions that divide the Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish communities. But these divisions have been countered by their greater joint dislike of foreign occupiers. This fact, that uniting to repel an occupying force tends to trump internal divisions, has been an almost constant factor in colonial history in many countries and yet it always seems to come as a surprise to the new occupying forces.

Cockburn points out that when the British captured Baghdad in 1917, they eventually faced an uprising from the Iraqis that left 2,269 dead and wounded occupying British and Indian troops and an estimated 8,450 Iraqi’s dead. Cockburn points out that “highly informed British officials in Baghdad at the time underestimated the fact that, however much Shia and Sunni disliked each other, they hated the British even more.”

But while the first major rebellion against the British in 1920 took nearly three years to come to fruition, it took only three months for a rebellion on a similar scale to occur following the 2003 invasion. Cockburn says that the vast majority of Iraqis did not support Saddam Hussein and did not fight for him, thus leading to the initial ‘cakewalk.’ But he adds “Strangely, the Americans and the British never seem to have understood the extent to which the occupation outraged Iraqi nationalism, though anger might take a different form in the Sunni and Shia communities.”

Support for Cockburn’s position comes from this secret survey recently commissioned by the British Ministry of Defence (and revealed by the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph) which found that the majority of Iraqis support attacks on UK troops. Keep in mind that British troops are supposed to have better relations with the local population than the Americans.

According to the Telegraph report:

The survey was conducted by an Iraqi university research team that, for security reasons, was not told the data it compiled would be used by coalition forces. It reveals:

  • Forty-five per cent of Iraqis believe attacks against British and American troops are justified – rising to 65 per cent in the British-controlled Maysan province;
  • 82 per cent are “strongly opposed” to the presence of coalition troops;
  • less than one per cent of the population believes coalition forces are responsible for any improvement in security; (my emphasis)
  • 67 per cent of Iraqis feel less secure because of the occupation;
  • 43 per cent of Iraqis believe conditions for peace and stability have worsened;
  • 72 per cent do not have confidence in the multi-national forces.
    The opinion poll, carried out in August, also debunks claims by both the US and British governments that the general well-being of the average Iraqi is improving in post-Saddam Iraq.

The opinion poll, carried out in August, also debunks claims by both the US and British governments that the general well-being of the average Iraqi is improving in post-Saddam Iraq.

As Cockburn points out, the extent of the dislike for the occupation forces can be seen by the reaction of bystanders to the killing of American and British personnel. In the well-publicized incident in 2004 when American contractors bodies were mutilated in Fallujah “they were mutilated not by the insurgents who killed them but by townspeople, day laborers waiting by the roadside for a job. The same savage joy was visible on the faces of the Shia crowd setting fire to the British armored vehicle in Basra on September 19 this year.”

Then just last month, on September 10 in an incident which received surprisingly little news coverage and was confirmed by the US military only on October 23 “Four US contractors for the US military were killed in Iraq last month, the military says, confirming an attack that a British newspaper said saw two of the men murdered in front of a jeering crowd.”

The report goes on:

At least two of the men were dragged alive from their vehicle, which had been badly shot up, and forced to kneel in the road before being killed, it said.

“Killing one of the men with a rifle round fired into the back of his head, they doused the other with petrol and set him alight,” the newspaper report said.

There is a very strange coda to this story that cries out for further explication. These contractors were not alone but were actually being escorted by a US military convoy but “US soldiers escorting the convoy were unable to respond quickly because the hatches on their Humvees were closed.”

History tells us that military occupations breed resistance. The longer the occupation, the more determined and widespread the resistance becomes.

You can learn from history or you can ignore it at your peril. People who think that they can control reality are likely to choose the latter option. And the current administration seems to belong in that camp.

POST SCRIPT: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

trail of dead1.jpg I am not sure how many of you have seen Luis Bunuel’s classic 1972 absurdist comedy with the above name. On the surface it deals with the repeated attempts by a group of sophisticates to get together for a meal and having it repeatedly disrupted by a series of increasingly improbable events, while beneath the surface it is a satire on social manners and hypocrisy.

The main narrative segments of the film are separated by scenes in which the characters are shown walking determinedly down a remote road on a hot sunny day. These walking scenes have no obvious connection with what went on previously or came later. It is not clear where the people are coming from or where they are going, but they walk with a sense of purpose. Each repetition of this sequence makes you laugh more at the sheer pointlessness of it all.

When I saw this photograph over the summer, it felt vaguely familiar but I could not pin it down. Now I realize that it reminded me, both literally and metaphorically, of that film from long ago. A group of determined people resolutely going nowhere…

The mess that is Iraq-3: The reasons for the invasion

The one question that everyone keeps puzzling over in analyzing the Iraq debacle is why? Why did the US attack Iraq? It has become increasingly clear that the Bush administration had long wanted to invade Iraq and was just waiting for an excuse to do so. The events of September 11, 2001 was seized by them as a means to persuade the public to support them in their mission, although we know now that the case making the links between Iraq and September 11 was fraudulent.

The reason most often proposed by the administration, that the invasion was an important part of the war on terror, can be dismissed since we know that despite strenuous efforts by the administration, the purported links have proven to be next to non-existent.We also now know that the other “official” argument, that Iraq had or was on the verge of acquiring WMDs, is also false. So other reasons must be at play and people have been resorting to all kinds of speculations.

The following is a list of the many other reasons that have been speculated about by various people: the control of Iraqi oil; the need to establish a strategic and long-term military base in the Middle East since Saudi Arabia was asking the US to leave its soil; Iraq as the first step in a successive series of invasions of other countries such as Iran and Syria so that eventually the US would control the entire region; to act in Israel’s interests and disarm an enemy of Israel; to bring democracy to Iraq; to project US power and show the world that the US had the power to invade any nation it wanted to, thus cowing any other nation’s ambitions to challenge the US in any way; to prevent Saddam Hussein from switching to the euro as a reserve currency for oil purchases, thus threatening US financial markets; an opportunity to test the new generation of weaponry in the US arsenal; to finish what was seen as unfinished business from the first Gulf war in 1991; to avenge the alleged attempt by Iraq on George H. W. Bush’s life; to enable George W. Bush to show his father that he was tougher than he was; because George W. Bush, despite his efforts to avoid actual military service himself, was enamored of the idea of being Commander in Chief and dearly wanted to be a ‘war president.’

We see that the possible reasons span the range of political, economic, strategic, personal, and psychological. We may not know the actual reasons for some time but my own suspicion is that there may not be a single or even two or three reasons for invading Iraq. It may be that there were many groups with differing agendas jockeying for influence in Washington and the one action they could agree on as to invade Iraq, even though they each had different reasons for doing so. This might explain the incoherence of the administration’s case for war. Policies based on bad reasoning often occur because while everyone can see the flaws in the rationale proposed by others, they do not criticize it too strongly since they want the action to be taken for other reasons. So none of the rationales are really subjected to tight scrutiny. While each argument for the action is weak, the fact that many people can agree on the action itself makes the action seem more reasonable that it really deserves to be.

Another thing that I think they agreed on and sincerely believed was that invading Iraq would be easy. Cheney said he expected it to be a cakewalk and I think that in that one statement at least he was actually telling the truth. After all, the US had easily overthrown the Taliban government in Afghanistan and it was well known to intelligence sources that after almost a decade of war with Iran, followed by a humiliating withdrawal from Kuwait during the first Gulf war, and then another decade of debilitating sanctions, the Iraq military was weak reed, easily crushed by the powerful US army.

So dangling before policy makers was a tempting option: Invade Iraq because that would please all the different pressure groups desiring this action and cause them to support the president, achieve a quick victory, reap all the diverse benefits outlined above, and then bask in the political adulation that victorious military operations always brings to a nation’s leaders. It must have seemed at the time like a no-lose proposition. As an additional bonus, the people of Iraq would be rid of an autocratic leader, thus enabling the US to polish its credentials as opponents of dictatorships.

Thus one can see why the fateful decision was made to attack Iraq even if one cannot isolate a single specific reason. And the actual invasion of March 2003 was a ‘cakewalk’ as predicted, enabling Bush to first pose in a flight suit and then stand proudly beneath the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner on an aircraft carrier on May 1, 2003.

And that’s when things started to fall apart, as we will see tomorrow.

The mess that is Iraq-2: How could it have happened?

There is no question in the minds of any but the most diehard supporters of George Bush that what has happened in Iraq can only be described as a debacle. The only serious debates that are occurring now center around two issues: (1) How could this mess have happened? and (2) What is to be done now.

As is usually the case when a policy starts to go seriously wrong, people involved in it start to divulge previously confidential information in a way that seeks to deflect blame from themselves and put it on others. Current and former administration officials are currently leaking information all over the place, a sure sign that insiders have acknowledged that the policy is a failure and that the only thing remaining is to determine who gets saddled with the blame. It is usually in the swirl of charges and countercharges that ensue from such attempts at blame avoidance that one can try to piece together the truth from the debris. While doing this truth reconstruction, one has to be aware that all the people speaking out now have an element of self-interest in revealing what they want you to know.
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The mess that is Iraq

One of these days, the number of US soldiers killed will reach a milestone of 2,000. The media will take solemn note of this event. Of course, the very fact that the focus is only on US troop deaths is a measure of how insular the media coverage is. The 2,000 mark of non-Iraqi coalition forces (mainly US and UK) deaths passed 2000 sometime ago with no fanfare and is now approaching 2,200. (See here for current totals.) And, of course, the total deaths of the fledgling Iraqi security forces, presumably allies of the coalition forces, are not usually reported (although you can see the current number which is about 3,500 here), nor are the huge number of civilians killed by the ongoing war. Estimates of the last category currently lie between 26,000 and 30,000. And when one adds the injured to all these totals, one gets a sense of the immense cost of this war.

At a meeting last month, part of the Cindy Sheehan Camp Casey cross-country bus tour, at which I spoke, I showed a graph similar to this of the rate of non-Iraqi coalition casualties of the war, on which were marked so-called landmark events, things that were signaled by the US government as significant turning points in the war. The latest political move in this sequence, not shown on the graph, was the referendum on the new constitution in Iraq, another touted ‘landmark on the road to democracy in Iraq’, which occurred just this month. (Graph is from The Intelligence Squad Reports, where you can see the original graph.)

What was significant was that the graph is a straight line, showing that none of these events had caused any significant shift in the intensity of the attacks on the US occupation.

This struck me as significant because as many of you may have noticed, the deaths of US troops in Iraq has ceased to be a national news story in the media. It is now mainly a local story and is reported in the local media when a hometown soldier or marine is killed. Since this is a rare event in any given community, this may have led many to think that the violence in Iraq is abating and that all the political maneuvers that are so exhaustively reported are having a calming effect.

The website that tracks coalition forces deaths shows that far from abating, the rate of deaths goes on, a steady drumbeat of violence. In fact, the present month seems to have the highest rate of coalition forces deaths since January of this year.

Patrick Cockburn, longtime observer of Iraq and a correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent has a long report in the October 1-15, 2005 issue of the CounterPunch newsletter that paints a dismal picture of the state of affairs in Iraq and suggests that despite the determined efforts by the US and UK governments to paint all these political developments as significant improvements, they may only be making things worse. He writes:

A deep crisis is turning into a potential catastrophe because President George W. Bush and Tony Blair pretend that the situation in Iraq is improving. To prove to their own publics that progress is being made they imposed on Iraq a series of artificial milestones, which have been achieved but have done nothing to end the ever-deepening violence. The latest milestone was the referendum on the new constitution – the rules of the game by which Iraq is to be governed – on which Iraq voted on October 15. The document was rushed through with the U.S. and British ambassadors sitting in on the negotiations. The influential Brussels-based think tank, the International Conflict Group, warns in a very sensible report that because the five million Sunni Arabs see the constitution as legitimizing the break up of the country the referendum will insure that “Iraq will slide towards full-scale civil war.”

Cockburn continues with a sobering and devastating assessment:

The need for the White House to produce a fantasy picture of Iraq is because it dare not admit that it has engineered one of the greatest disasters in American history. It is worse than Vietnam because the enemy is punier and the original ambitions greater. At the time of the invasion in 2003 the USA believed it could act alone and win.

It is a defeat more serious than Vietnam because it is self-inflicted like the British invasion of Egypt to overthrow Nasser in 1956…A better analogy is the Boer War, at the height of British imperial power, when the inability of its forces to defeat a few thousand Boer farmers damagingly exposed Britain’s real lack of military strength and diplomatic isolation. (my emphasis)

I will write more about Cockburn’s analysis of Iraq. It is not pleasant reading.

Debating tricks and defenses in the IDC debate

In the postings this week, I have been looking at the way that IDC people have been using language to blur crucial distinctions and to hide their true agenda.

In order to combat this, the scientific people have to be very careful and adopt two strategies. The first is to not let the IDC people control the vocabulary of the debate. The second is to constantly expose the long-term agenda of the IDC people.

In the first case, we should not let the IDC people pretend they are not talking about god when they refer to an ‘intelligent designer.’ If they claim that what they are proposing is science, we should demand that they, like any scientist who invents a new concept, produce an operational definition for their concept of ‘intelligent designer.’ Then we can compare their operational definition with that of an operational definition of god to see if we are talking about two different things or the same thing. For a definition of god we can tentatively propose (following the Oxford English Dictionary definition) “A superhuman person….who is worshipped as having power over nature and the fortunes of mankind.” But is this operational? An operational definition of god might be “an entity who cannot be detected by measuring instruments but is yet capable of influencing events in the natural world.” Of course, this definition does not rule out other entities like the devil and other spirits, so it needs to be fine-tuned. I am open to suggestions for improvement.
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Blurring distinctions as part of the ‘Wedge Strategy’

As I said in a previous posting, there is nothing mysterious about the practice of methodological naturalism. It is what we expect people to use in everyday life and anyone who did not do so and saw god’s hand behind commonplace daily events would be viewed as some kind of religious nut, even by otherwise religious people.

So given the fact that methodological naturalism is just a fancy name for something that people use in their everyday lives without even thinking about it, how do you set about discrediting it? How do you make it appear to be some weird and esoteric principle that is used by a scientific cabal to keep contrary ideas out?
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Methodological naturalism

If our car developed a strange and disturbing noise, we would take it to a mechanic to diagnose the problem. If, after trying out just one or two ideas and failing, the mechanic threw up her hands and said that she gave up because the cause must be something mysterious and inexplicable, we would very likely switch to another mechanic.

We would do the same thing with a plumber who gave up on trying to find the source of a leak or a doctor who gave up trying to find the cause of an acute pain after merely ruling out gas and muscle pulls.

We want each of these people to keep investigating, to try and find the reason for the problem and not give up until they have solved it. If any one of them told us that the cause was some supernatural power, we would quickly dump that person and find a new one, even if we were ourselves were religious and we preferred to have religious people as our doctors and plumbers and mechanics.
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