It had to happen at some point…
My sister and her loud, obnoxious friend were watching “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” one night. My friend’s sister saw a unicorn and remarked on how “cool” it was, and proceeded to ask a stupid question. To her defense, she preceded the question with the admission that it was a stupid question.
She asked if unicorns were real, bear in mind this woman is a grown adult, and a college graduate. To my surprise and dismay, I was the only one who laughed, apparently she was serious, and no one slapped her for me. And then my sister, the erudite intellectual that she is, shrugged and said “well, they are in the Bible”.
I stopped laughing at that point. My sister is also a non-pork eating Muslim convert who used to be a non-beef eating Krishna before she became a born-again Christian after leaving the Catholic faith. At one point I think she was entertaining becoming a Mormon, at least she had a book of Mormon on her and was hanging out with their ‘elders’ an awful lot. Basically, she hasn’t met a religion she didn’t like.
She is also an anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorist with a constantly coughing daughter and all-around airhead, but enough of that (Did I mention that she works in a school, as a teacher’s assistant? Shudder). I had to pipe in at that point and assure them both that unicorns were not real and never were. She retorted that I didn’t know that. I said it was very unlikely, and if it was, where was the evidence? She remarked that they could all be dead, like the Dodo bird. I pointed out that we have good evidence that the Dodo bird existed, we have none for the unicorn. Again, she said, they’re in the Bible.
At that point I should have said “So what? There’s a lot of silly stuff in the Bible.” It has a talking Donkey in Numbers for crying out loud. But even assuming that the Bible was not meant to be taken literally(it wasn’t), Kosher laws are equally silly because bats are not birds (Leviticus) and their laws are barbaric by modern standards because it says if you want to make a slave yours for life to put their head against a door and drive an awl through their ear (Exodus).
Anyway, she kind of dared me to look for myself, and I’m not afraid of a debate so I did. With Google as my friend I quickly found some of the supposed entries and took it upon myself to look them up. In certain translations of the Bible it is rendered as Unicorn, but even in all the cases where it’s mentioned it is never described in good detail.
Usually it is mentioned in the context of real animals, often beasts of labor like Oxen and other livestock. When I pointed out that in the NIV the unicorn is rendered as things like “wild Ox” she just countered that “the white man changed the translation”. I think she was trying to be funny but I wasn’t laughing.
A little history lesson might help…
In the ancient near east, perhaps a few centuries (maybe even millennia) before the Hebrews of Israel became a major power in the middle east there were a people called the Assyrians. They were like the Romans of the ancient near east; they laid siege to cities, they had an empire, and they admired strength.
Some of the earliest depictions and descriptions of what might be called a unicorn were found carved on Emperor Ashurnasirpal II’s palace and Esarhaddon’s stone prism. The animal was called by them a Rimu and thought to be an Aurox (a now extinct species of bull with long, symmetrical horns, often appearing as a single horn in profile.
The Rimu was the perfect symbol of unbridled strength, and became a sort of mascot for Assyrian nobles. Enter the Hebrews who, like the Assyrians, spoke a Semitic language. The Hebrews, like the Assyrians, spent time living in the near east both before and after the Babylonian exile and no doubt either came contact with either Assyrian architecture or Rimus or both.
The Hebrews, like the Assyrians, respected the strength of the Rimu (whatever it was), and used it as a symbol for unbridled power. Amazingly the authors had a word linguistically related to the Rimu and an animal that sounds similar, the ‘re’em’.
No English translations will say Re’em, because it’s a foreign word, in an archaic form of a foreign language, and no one honestly knows what the hell it was. Similar words, found in other languages of people living in the same region (like the Akkadians, also a Semitic people) are often translated as “wild oxen”.
When books like Numbers or Psalms were translated first from Aramaic, the gentiles (the Greeks in the case of the Septuagint, one of the first canonical biblical texts) encountered words like Re’em, they had to find something analogous that would not completely throw off the readers.
It just happens that at the time Hellenic people had an animal like a unicorn in mind, which was also, like the Aurox, famed for strength and defiance. Strabo (63/64 BC – ca. AD 24), a Greek historian, mentions "a very fierce animal called the monoceros which has the head of the stag, the feet of the elephant, and the tail of the boar, while the rest of the body is like that of the horse; it makes a deep lowing noise, and has a single black horn, which projects from the middle of its forehead, two cubits in length."
The animal Strabo was describing was no doubt a Rhinoceros, a creature that most Europeans would have marveled at, because they only live in Asia and Africa. To say that such an animal was a unicorn is taking a mythical creature and bending an historical narrative to give it merit. It presupposes that unicorns were real and looks for something to substantiate it. It is intellectually dishonest because it has a bias for the conclusions regardless of the facts.
There is no evidence that unicorns were ever real, on the other hand all evidence suggests that the myth of the unicorn began as ignorant people misunderstood descriptions of real animals.
It’s actually much worse than all this though, and my sister’s assertion that unicorns are in the Bible is laughable for more reasons than the ones I gave.
The reason why arguments from the Bible are notoriously weak is much more than just because the Bible is notoriously wrong about a lot of things. It is more than the fact that it is filled with a good deal of unsupported episodes indistinguishable from fairy tales. It is a bad place to find evidence, but any argument from the Bible is a circular one. I have a book, it says that I am the king of the universe. How do I know it’s right? Because---it says so.
That’s what the Bible does. When you look at it that way you realize that a single book is insufficient evidence. You may say that it’s old, that it was written by enlightened scholars, or by god himself. I will counter that just because something is old does not make it true, that a sole testimony is not enough, and that to use the Bible for proof of the Bible is circular. More evidence is needed.
It is seriously frustrating to have to use so much reason and analysis to refute something as ridiculous and concluding that a mythical creature was real if a fiction book claims it. I should not have to waste up my time looking up something so silly and turning it into a research project.
We should simply know that we live in the real world, a world with material truth and evidence. We should recognize and respect that. Until then, people like me have to put people like my sister in her place by actually using our brains and not buying into a past generation's fancy. I refuse to live in a world where ignorance abounds, it will be a world filled with willing idiots unless we make an effort to correct it.
It would be bad enough if the gripes I had with the show were just limited to this show, but the same techniques and tendencies I’ve noticed are being used on shows like Caprica and Stargate: Universe. I know I’m going to take flak from the resident SF fan community here, so I’ll put on my flak jacket in advance now. I stand by my statements and opinions though. I never liked the new Battlestar and never can, I tried and failed to get through an episode let alone a season. Let’s see if I can make some sense here…
1)Spastic zoom-ins, shaky cameras, and poor lighting - I don’t know if the directors are doing it for dramatic effect or just to be annoying, but it annoys the heck out of me. I want the camera people to invest in a tripod, and the epic zoom-ins limited to a hundred per episode. While they’re at it, invest in lights and pay for better looking actors. I’m not the most artificial person in the world, but seriously, there must be better looking people in the future piloting starships.
2)Doom and gloom, fatalistic melancholy, wrist slitting imminent - It turns out it’s very easy to tell when the cast and crew are a bunch of sad puppies. It’s not even the look on their face or the stuff they talk about, it’s the music. There is none, except for maybe a few militaristic trumpeting chords during their idea of an action scene or some archetypal sad notes for an apparently sad scene, it is a silent show. It does not communicate with my soul, and certainly does not engage my mind. It doesn’t surprise me that the characters never smile, crack jokes, dance, sing, or show any emotion other than anger, anxiety, and more anger. These people need to hear some music, either that or shove these bastards out of an airlock and put them out of their miseries.
3)This is intense drama, intense drama here! - The show tries way to hard to be a hard core drama. It had tense characters in crowded ships giving each other sideways glances and talking behind each others’ backs. It’s just like my grandma’s soaps but without the good looking women and sex. As it turns out, even with all the sound and fury, very little is actually happening on the show. There is a lot of bark, but little bite. Some shows have mastered the art of drama, they have not, I don’t care about their characters at all and wouldn’t mind seeing them all blown up. If they’re all that represents the remains of the human race we have obviously reached an evolutionary cul-de-sac.
4)Yawn - The show is advertised as an action-packed, space battle filled saga. The show just drags on forever without any action, and when it does, the scenes are depicted poorly and are short or just lame. A show doesn’t need to have action to be good, but a show like Battlestar Galactica, which is meant to be an epic space opera, needs more pew pew and less yap yap.
5)Is this a reboot, a continuation, or what the frak? - I’m all about continuing or resurrecting a series that has been forgotten, but I generally don’t like reboots. As far as I can tell the new Battlestar has diverged considerably from the canon of the original. Because I was never a huge fan of the original it’s a minor issue for me, but it’s an insult to SF fans to just revamp an old series, put a pretty bow on the top, and poop it out for the masses to lap up. The way they advertise the show it’s like “here, here, you love this show, you love this show, it gets great reviews!” I don’t give a frak, and the word frak, by the way, is also lame.
6)Plot? Who needs a plot? - As far as I can tell, each episode is a tightly wrapped little ball of random events, random quotes, and intense close ups on ugly actors and actresses. There should be something intrinsic to each episode, something to tie them together, something central and underpinning. This is why I can’t watch shows like Battlestar and Lost. Their writing plain sucks. From what I hear their executive producer Ron Moore is against the idea of plots and instead cares about characters. I care about characters too, just not his…
I think that six reasons are sufficient, although if I really think hard about it I’m sure I can come up with more reasons why I can’t stand the show. Something very afoul is afoot, and I can only hope and pray that the producers etc. stinking up classic SF shows cease lest they make all speculative prime time programs as disappointing. Let the hate mail come.
First encounters with aliens is a common motif in Science Fiction, and yet they always leave me feeling bitter. I often ask myself "why did they do that, why not this and that?"
"They just met an advanced alien civilization, of all the things they could have and should have done, why that?"
Often examined in these stories are the psychological impacts, or the political concerns, or the military anxieties. Often overlooked is the immense opportunity.
Any civilization capable of bridging the stars will be significantly more advaced than ours, make no mistake of that. Imagine all the ideas that would pour out of their brains if we cracked them open like a golden egg. I would ask them questions until I turned blue in the face and my tongue fell out, I would, otherwise I would regret not having done so for the rest of my Earthbound life.
In "The Demon-Haunted World" by Carl Sagan, we examine pseudosciences and conspiracies with the same kind of skeptical lens. We look at UFO claims.
Doctor Sagan was a well known and vocal skeptic, so he never received a shortage of mail from UFO "experts" trying to convince him and set him straight, "ask me anything" they would say. And so, clever Dr. Sagan would try to think of questions that any sophisticated civilization (a civilization, say, capable of bridging the stars) may find as simple as a word puzzle.
Questions such as Fermat's Last Theorem, or a cure for all known Earthly diseases, or a renewable source of energy. Of course, no one on Earth can asnwer those questions, so Dr. Sagan never got an answer. If you asked them something esoteric or generic, like "is there life after death" they would not be hesitant in reassuring us that there is.
One of the underpinning themes of the book is that there is never a shortage of snake oil salemen selling us fabrications that makes us feel happy, such as our dead loved ones still being with us. We readily buy into the lies because we secretly want to be placated, but just because something makes us feel good does not make it true.
Dr. Sagan's thought experiment was just a bit of playful juxtaposition, executed with a charm and wit typical of all of his musings. But let us, for now, conduct a different thought experiment. In a footnote Dr. Sagan remarks that
"It's a stimulating excercise to think of questions to which no human today knows the answers, but where a correct answer would immediately be recognized as such."
I'm inclined to agree. Furthermore, it serves a psychological need. A favorite pastime of children is asking questions, and they are joyous when receiving an answer. There is an immediate gratification when being answered, but that is a dangerous habit. Sometimes, absurdities and dogmas are often heralded as truth, a conspiracy theory is favored over no theory. That is not progress, selling untruth as truth is a disaster waiting to happen.
The process of asking the question itself may however satisfy some small intellectual need, and to the extent that we are inquisitive primates, there is no harm in generating playful thinking as long as we do not act irrationally on it.
Therefore, as the title posits, if we were to have the opportunity or privelege to ask an alien civilization no more or less than 10 questions, what could or should we ask them?
This is not a new game, this is a very old game. It has the same familiarity as games like "what would you wish for if you had a genie or a fairy in front of you?". It is a game that will end with about the same results. Many magazines and periodicals have columns with all kinds of experts; relationship advice, sexual suggestions, astrology, business. People are curious, they have questions to ask and lives to base their answers on.
However, this is a game that is not merely limited to the fantastic. There very well might be an alien civilization somewhere in any one of the hundred billion suns of our galaxy, or in one of any of the many other countless galaxies. We may, perhaps, one day, find them, or become engaged in dialougues of some type with them.
When the time comes we may be able to ask our silly questions, and based on the answers we receive, we may take the next step beyond a race of primates clinging to our rock on the edge of a vast nowhere. Any answers to these questions(if there are any), would be a gift to our race, and change our planet forever.
It is rather embarassing to live in the only country of the industrialized world, the richest nation in terms of gross national produce, without free health care.
One of the biggest obstacles in organizing some kind of government run health care system, let's be honest here, has always been the conservative right. Ironically many government run institutions like the military, NASA, and the IRS, despite their shortcomings, still manage to accomplish far reaching and complicated goals.
I can understand the fear of big government, and the annoyance with beurocracy, but not everything run by the government has to be evil and corrupt. Rather, it's the very same corrupt, inept, incompetent, insanely rich, reactionary old conservative farts in Congress who are too greedy to pay their lion's share of taxes.
The commercial health care system has been cleaning house, health premiums have gone sky high over the years and CEOs have gotten so filthy rich from the enterprise that they are able to lobby congress and buy senators.
And that is why this health care bill will fail. Some of the anti-health care guys don't know what Obama was trying to extend to us. Some don't even know what the difference is between Maoism/Socialism/Communism/Marxism. They actually think that all the terms are mutual and synonymous. What Obama wanted to give us was exactly what the right wing is always complaining about. They say that they love capitalism and a free market. Obama was gonna give them competition, a public alternative to the ridiculous, pathetic excuse that we have for health care now.
The Republican party decided to kill the bill before it even took off, no matter what they would vote NO as a matter of stubborn hard-headed die hard party alliances, even though Obama was reaching out his hand to them. They made all kinds of back alley deals with the Democrats, paid off Obama, and got him to change the bill, so that now it resembles nothing of the original bill. This may be a step in the right direction, but it's a stutter step and it will cost us dearly. Too little, too late. The democratic party is being too weak, Obama went way too soft.
The only good thing about this is that less people will be paying to live out of the pocket, but there will still be unhealthy Americans.
Eat healthy, excercise, and still die a few years before a Canadian or an Englishman or a Frenchman. Thank your state senators for that too.
...end of rant
... et idem
indignor quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus...
I spent less than half of my life as a Roman Catholic, and while I look back on those years, I can only do so from an admittedly biased point of view. The whole experience was not terribly unpleasant, I rather miss some of the artwork and the sense of community. Some of the priests were very well educated, and charming, and friendly; I even still remember (and miss) some of the hymns.
While I regret that I cannot relive those years, I am not so much sure that I would like to now, with the experiences that I have today I cannot go back and re-convert as it were, it is too late. There is perhaps at least some small compensation in the fact that by my formally abandoning religion it was one of the most singularly liberating and enjoyable experiences of my life, and while I was once a hypocritical follower of a system I fundamentally did not believe in I am now no longer under such...persuasions.
Most of my education was spent attending private Catholic schools (grades second to twelve), I was to later find out that the main reason behind the decision to send me to parochial school was not for reasons of religious observation but because they were thought to be superior to the public schools in the area in which we were residing (in that regard I agree wholeheartedly and feel very privileged for the opportunity). By that time of course I was far from devout, and just about everyone around me seemed to regard all of religiosity with the same air of suspicion, or at least a dull and almost stoic lack of enthusiasm (which was by High School of course, teenagers are rebellious by nature).
That realization was accompanied, in my adolescence, by a number of epiphanies; some small and some significantly large. These realizations shattered my faith or as I prefer to think of it, my nearly lifelong pedagogical indoctrination) and ultimately lead to my abandonment of adherence not only to Roman Catholicism, but any organized religion and indeed any notion of any god. The epiphanies and resulting deductions lead me to assume skeptical standpoints of most matters, including the occult, pseudosciences, and UFO-ology among other things. As some would say, I can be open-minded, but not so open-minded that my brain should fall out of my head.
In that sense I am no more biased against religion and God than I am to the Sasquatch, the Yeti, and the Abominable snowman, although I can agree that those are two arguments of a slightly different nature, in the case of Bigfoot most claimants at least display hoaky evidence, most people of faith resign their beliefs to faith and not evidence. I regard them all as somewhat charming, often entertaining, but approach them all with what I believe to be a very well warranted sense of cautious skepticism. As Carl Sagan was fond of saying, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
With that lengthy background and introduction behind me I can address the topic mentioned in the title. As you can imagine; when it comes up, or it is determined, or when I freely admit that I am an atheist a number of things might occur. In a group it may acquire a queer look or two, or an approving nod or grunt, but far too often I'm afraid, there is also a kind of gasp and physical withdrawal, usually accompanied with a frown or a shake of the head, as if I had just admitted to being the son of Satan himself.
I can attribute this apprehension primarily to misinformation (sometimes deliberately circulated, such sophistry in my opinion qualifies as defamatory hate speech, in this case a discriminatory targetting of atheists by theists) of the atheist position or misconceptions of what being an atheist means.
As a definition, it can vary from person to person and dictionary to dictionary, however among the more progressive of descriptions I agree wholeheartedly with and now use for myself: "someone who lacks a belief in a god or gods". Rather than attempting to describe atheism as a belief or a philosophy I belief that it is prudent and intellectually honest to instead treat it as an absence of a very particular kind of belief.
As far as viewpoints go it is hardly a controversial issue, although some people treat it as such. In the long history of debatable topics and philosophies I can certainly think of things much more divisive and controversial. There is, I suspect, a very long list of grievances and offenses that most people would find highly objectionable to say the least, and to me atheism does not and should not belong among them.
For one, no atheist has ever advocated setting themselves on fire for an atheist based anti-war demonstration, nor do we promote corporal mortification to simulate the pain felt by Isaac Newton when an apple fell on his head. We generally do not advocate the mutilation of an infant's genitalia, or the trial, torture, and murder of unbelievers in the laws of gravity. However, I digress.
Much of the misconceptions arrive from the erroneous perception that atheists are godless sinning heathens, hedonists, lustful malcontents intent on perverting societies and overthrowing religions. While there are, to be sure, some atheists who are very much against religion, outspoken in that respect, and opposed to all organized religions (I was once among them), that is not a valid representation of all atheists.
In the same sense that not all religious people are zealots and extremists, the average atheist is probably not only non-militant in their lack of belief but reserved for fear of persecution (most Americans when polled freely admit that they would not vote for a presidential candidate who happened to be an atheist - for a secular nation where church and state is separated by law that is a stunning revelation).
Interestingly, atheists are the fastest growing minority in the United States, ahead of Jews and homosexuals, and at around 10%, close to African-Americans. Far from a fringe group we total more people than the populations of dozens of European countries, and in the case of the smallest among them, more than their total populations combined.
Whenever my dirty secret is revealed, usually in groups of three or more where I have taken the position of defending the atheist position ( I half-jokingly say with my back against the wall) the others often either because of the peer pressure of the cultural norm or curiosity probe my intents and rationale, a number of questions come up. They all dig down at the matter of why I do not belief in a god, but they often can and do take different approaches.
As a method of critically analyzing a topic that is an area of debate as old as civilization itself, and one of the gravest of imports to many people of all proclivities, I assume the apologetic standpoint and use Socratic questioning to soften up the blows of the questions.
I prefer, whenever possible, to address the questions one by one because there are actually many clarifications that need to be made and many misconceptions to address along the way. The many layered onion of theist conceits (not used as a pejorative in this context I assure you, conceit is simply a word to denote a hardened position in this usage) go to the heart of modern culture.
Among the most persistent of these misconceptions is the idea that without a God there can be no morality and no reason to do good. I always find that as ironic because some of the greatest moral and ethical teachers, champions of the very idea of human goodness itself, made their cases for secular reasons and in the absence of a requirement for a belief in a god (but we shall cross that bridge when we come to it).
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