Book Burning

September 13, 2010

Why do we feel such an instinctive abhorrence for the act of burning a book? Last week the Reverend Jones, a fundamentalist preacher in Florida, USA, declared that he was going to burn copies of the Koran, allegedly in protest against “fundamentalist Islam.” (As though that is in some ways worse than fundamentalist Christianity.)

He joins the ranks of other noted book-burners down the ages: fine, upstanding folk like Adolf Hitler, Uncle Joe Stalin, and of course we can’t forget Mao Tse Tung and his “cultural revolution” which attempted to destroy Chinese culture in its entirety. Burning books goes back to the third century BC when books were burned by the Qin dynasty in China, and scholars buried alive for dissent. The practice is a long standing Christian tradition—the Spanish Inquisition burned the Koran wherever it was found.

Many people have commented on the Rev. Jones’s planned idiocy, but I haven’t read or heard anyone who actually gets the point. It is generally agreed that whilst burning the Koran is legal, it isn’t desirable for a host of reasons, such as: it will inflame Muslims and increase radicalism; it will be a recruitment wet dream for Islamic terrorist organisations; it will trigger retaliatory action by even moderate Muslims, and so on.

What they miss is the fundamental stupidity of the notion that you can destroy an idea by burning a book that contains it.

I think that what Messrs Hitler, Stalin et al had in common was a shared delusion that by burning a book they could make the ideas contained therein somehow vanish. This, of course, is not what happens. The physical book may be destroyed, but the burning (or banning) draws attention to the ideas rather than destroying them, and those ideas often go on to destroy the book-burners (which is what they were afraid of in the first place.)

The way to destroy an idea is to show that it is not true in matters of fact and its arguments are not logically valid. This is extremely difficult in the case of religious works because they are supposed to be the word of an infallible supernatural being. Pointing out that some of the “facts” revealed by the deity are provably wrong doesn’t phase the faithful in the slightest. They merely move the goalposts and assert that the questioned passages are allegorical and not to be taken literally, and logical inconsistency is an artifact of our poor human brains that are not able to understand the grandeur of God’s plan.

The only way to combat this sort of psychosis is to repeat the obvious to the faithful calmly and often. Perhaps, once in a thousand times, the seed of doubt will sprout and you can convert someone to sanity. I know this works because I was once a devout Christian (at about the age of 13) and now am not. Faith was defeated by critical thinking.

Perhaps we should inundate the moron Jones with emails explaining that snakes can’t talk, the dead can’t walk, and water cannot be turned into wine without the added ingredients of sunshine and a grapevine.

“Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.” – Heinrich Heine

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License

Football Folly

March 2, 2010

I don’t like soccer. There, I said it. There are 100 days to go before the start of the World Cup, and already the hysteria is mounting to stratospheric heights. Why is this game so popular? I just don’t get it. “The beautiful game” consists of twenty grown men running after a ball (the other two just stand around and loaf in the goalmouths); if anyone dressed in a uniform of a different hue comes within five yards they lie down and squeal for their Mummies. People actually pay to witness this? Sometimes the entire game goes by without anyone scoring a goal, then they decide the outcome by a “penalty shootout” which is really a sort of lottery. Why don’t they just save everyone the trouble of having to put up with ninety minutes of tosh and just flip a coin in the beginning?

Anyway, a bunch of men in dresses, a.k.a. the Catholic Bishops of South Africa, are so excited they have taken time off from buggering choirboys to come up with this gem:

Almighty God,

creator of all, as people from every nation gather with excitement and enthusiasm for the 2010 World Soccer Cup may South Africans be good hosts, our visitors welcomed guests and the players from every team be blessed with good sportsmanship and health.

May your Spirit of fairness, justice and peace prevail amongst players and all involved. May each contribute in his own positive ways to prevent, control and fight crime and corruption, hooliganism of any kind and exploitation and abuse, especially of those most vulnerable. May those far away from home and those in their families find much joy in this occasion to celebrate the beautiful game of soccer and the beautiful game of life according to Your plan for the common good of all.


I have to state that my gast is well and truly flabbered. This nonsense is almost as bad as the game itself although, mercifully, it doesn’t take an hour and a half to read. Its sentiment is so banal, its language so saccharine that it is almost impossible to suspend disbelief long enough to parse its meaning.

What is the point of it? Do they believe that if they don’t burble this rubbish God will cause an outbreak of hooliganism? God has a “Spirit of fairness, justice and peace”, does he? Where do you get that from? Kindly quote chapter and verse. The players are supposed to “prevent, control and fight crime and corruption, hooliganism of any kind and exploitation and abuse”? I thought that’s what the fuzz are for.

“The beautiful game of life.” Just wait while I wipe the vomit off my chin. There, that’s better. They can’t possibly be dim enough to really believe that God has “a plan for the common good of all”? Sorry, all you dead Haitians and Chilians, earthquakes are just part of God’s plan for the common good of all.

Bah! And humbug! Perhaps I can go somewhere between June 11 and July 11 where they have never heard of bloody soccer. Or bishops.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

On Intelligent Design

October 16, 2009
J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee

I have been reading Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee.  It includes a short homily entitled On Intelligent Design, which contains this surprising, in view of its authorship, statement:

I continue to find evolution by random mutation and natural selection not just unconvincing but preposterous as an account of how complex organisms come into being.

Apart from his personal incredulity, Mr Coetzee offers no argument or evidence against mutation or natural selection.  He does not deny that evolution takes place, just that it does not make the grade as an “account of how complex organisms come into being”.  This is fortunate because the evidence for evolution actually occurring is overwhelming: to deny it is akin to denying gravity or believing that the Earth is flat.  He does, however, go on to state that he disbelieves in a personal god who answers prayers and punishes evildoers, but he does believe in some creative intelligence:

It does not seem to me to be philosophically retrograde to attribute intelligence to the universe as a whole, rather than just to a subset of mammals on the planet Earth.

Whether or not such a view is philosophically retrograde is a question for philosophers.  As an ordinary person, I  regard the statement as nonsensical.  Why would anyone ascribe intelligence to the universe as a whole rather than, say, a grain of sand, or a pine tree, or a 1967 Valiant Safari?  All are collections of matter and energy that obey well-established physical laws and show no signs of intelligence at all.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

So far, so bad.  Mr Coetzee then challenges those who believe evolution is responsible for the biodiversity that we see to answer this question:

Why is it that the intellectual apparatus that has evolved for human beings seems to be incapable of comprehending in any degree of detail its own complexity?  Why do we human beings typically experience awe—a recoil of the mind, as if before an abyss—when we try to comprehend, grasp, certain things, such as the origin of space and time, the being of nothingness, the nature of understanding itself?  I cannot see what evolutionary advantage this gives us—the combination of insufficiency of intellectual grasp together with conciousness that the grasp is insufficient.

OK, I’ll give it a try, and if it comes out the way I think it might, the answer to the question may very well go some way towards explaining Mr Coetzee’s incredulity.

Firstly, the question itself is a non-sequitur; evolution does not depend in any way on the capacity of the human brain to understand itself.

Secondly, not every attribute of humans confers an evolutionary advantage.  Take as an example the mess that is the human upper respiratory tract, which is still optimised for an animal that moves on all fours.  Bipedalism has conferred more of an advantage than the disadvantage of a flawed, dangerous respiratory system.  The flaws in human design are some of the strongest arguments against intelligent design.

The entire question betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what evolution actually is.  To ask “why” evolution produces this or that feature in a species is to assume that it is goal-oriented, that it is working toward some purpose.  It isn’t.  Over time, the changes that “work”, or cause the organism to have a higher chance of surviving and reproducing are passed on, those that impair the organism are not.  There is no goal or even direction to evolution.  The egotistical notion that humans are the topmost twig of the evolutionary tree is simply wrong; it is quite conceivable that we might die out and have our place taken by some currently ill-regarded species which better adapts to conditions than we do.

Humans evolved to survive on the Earth.  That they were successful in that endeavour is evidenced by the fact that we human beings are here to discuss it.  In order to survive we had to have a firm intuitive grasp of our environment on the scale of our prey and potential predators. There was not, and still isn’t, any evolutionary advantage to be had by an understanding of quantum mechanics or relativity, because the effects of those phenomena are only evident at scales very different to those required for human survival on Earth.  Our individual lifespans are measured in decades; we have no intuitive understanding of the billion year time spans over which evolution takes place.  The very small, the very large and the very long ago are beyond the capacity of our brains to grasp, because there is no evolutionary reason for us to grasp those concepts.

It is because these things are intrinsically so alien to our everyday lives that we experience the “recoil of the mind”.  We cannot imagine the distances to the galaxies (or even the stars in our own galaxy), the size of a subatomic particle or the age of the Earth; these things do not fit into our imaginations; they must be expressed in a way that allows us to perform calculations and make predictions, but we can only understand them in a dry, intellectual way not intuitively as we understand the parabola of a thrown rock or the acceleration of a falling coconut.

Perhaps this is why Mr Coetzee and others instinctively find the notion of evolution preposterous.  Because they cannot intuitively grasp the time scale involved, they imagine that all this happened in a time scale they can imagine, which would be preposterous.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.