Untranslatability And Rubik’s Cubes

Are there really untranslatable words? If so, could a language be entirely untranslatable and if so (again) how? I’ll start with Rubik’s cubes and move on to saudade and sisu.

I never managed to solve the Rubik’s cube. The closest I can get is three sides. I refuse to cheat by reading up on how to do it, and I don’t know how many people who can do the cube have cheated in that way. However, certain things can be seen to be true of the cube which don’t depend on knowing how to do it. One of these is that it’s impossible to do five faces without the sixth also being done. If that were so, at least one face of a sub-cube would have to be the wrong colour for it ever to be complete. That said, there could be other versions of the cube, maybe prank ones, which did have a subface the wrong colour for them to be doable. It’s more than that too. Cubes can be easily dismantled and put back together again, but unless you reassemble a cube in a fashion you know for sure is a possible arrangement of squares you could reach from the completed state, the probability is that you will have put it into a position from which you can’t get back to the original state unless you just take it to bits again and try to put it into such a condition. This is because only one arrangement in twelve can be reached from the perfect starting state. The number of possible arrangements, although vast, is only one of twelve sets of such arrangements, and none can be reached from any of the others. The branch of maths known as group theory can be applied to cube-solving and these permutations, whose sets have been referred to as “orbits”.

Now for language. When one “does” language, one is attempting to express oneself clearly in a way which can be understood by others, or perhaps by oneself although Ludwig Wittgenstein would have a lot to say about that particular idea. It’s a process which reminds me somewhat of Rubik’s cubes, and in fact there are notations for cubes which are rather language-like, though somewhat restricted. They’re not going to be able to describe the world as a whole so much as the very restricted but still gigantic world of The Cube. A string of letters and punctuation, upper and lower case, can be used to describe how to turn the parts of a cube to get it to a particular point, such as F, U, L, R and D for Front, Up, Left, Right and Down, and so on. Other versions exist, such as ones referring to clockwise and anticlockwise rather than using the apostrophe to indicate anticlockwise, but translation between them is easy so this is not what we want. If, however, there’s a way of comparing the transformations of a cube to the communication of ideas, we might be onto something. If there was a scrambled cube in a different orbit and the aim was to get it into a particular pattern which was inaccessible to another orbit, the same string of letters would be fine as a way of instructing someone how to twist the sides, but the end result would be different and communication would have failed. This seems much more promising. Now imagine this. There’s a community of language users whose languages are each based on the cube and how to turn it, and the instructions for getting from the completed cube to the patterns are used as words to describe concepts for which the patterns are metaphors. For instance, twisting the middle layer to produce horizontal stripes from a complete cube becomes a word meaning “stratified” and turning the cube in a manner which produces a chessboard-style arrangement becomes a word meaning “chequered”. A completed cube has a special, simple word and comes to mean “clean” or “perfect”. Nobody from the twelve communities has ever seen cubes from the others, but their language uses the same words. These words will fail to communicate for quite some time, but the set-up is quite artificial and closely resembles Wittgensteins Private Language Argument (PLA).

Wittgenstein often wrote philosophy in quite an aphoristic way. One of the things he asked us to imagine was that we each carry a matchbox with us which contained a beetle which we never show anyone else. For all anyone knows, a matchbox could be empty and when someone says “beetle”, they’re not referring to anything. If we imagine twelve communities each with a differently arranged cube, it does become easier to understand from an outsider’s perspective that “doing the Rubik’s cube” means something both different and the same for each group, and it differs from the beetle in a matchbox situation because everyone in a particular social group can see everyone else’s cubes in that group, so it isn’t the same as a private language. Wittgensteins argument is that an essentially private word which could not be defined in terms of other words cannot mean anything because there’s no way to distinguish between it seeming correctly applied and actually being correct. I also suspect that Wittgenstein is rather too much of a logical positivist for my tastes, something which oddly I haven’t seen anyone else say. That is, he means that meaningful statements have to be axiomatic, logically derived or verifiable by the senses, and in terms of philosophy of mind that would make him a behaviourist, which involves the denial of all purely subjective mental states. That said, he did say useful things and the PLA is not just about logical positivism, and may not even apply to our dozen secret Rubik’s cube communities.

Wittgenstein also said that if a lion could speak, we could not understand him. If you hear a conversation between two people about a soap opera you’ve never come across, you might hear them referring to people like Vera and Ena as if they were real people. I used to have aunts called Ena and Vera. As a child, if I’d never seen ‘Coronation Street’, I might have heard some people on a bus going on about what was happening between Vera Duckworth and Ena Sharples and wonder why I’d never heard of any of that going on between my aunts (and I must admit right now that I’m curious about any story lines which might have involved both of them but I can’t remember). I wouldn’t understand the conversation, but I might think I could. Something even further removed from my experience would be talk of the “offside rule” and the “five-yard line”, which I think is what they call certain things in soccer but I have no idea what they are and I couldn’t participate in such a conversation. Or could I? Is there a way of manipulating talk about those things which means I could fake it? If I could fake that, are there whole fields of discourse which are fake? But leaving that for the time being, the more different someone’s world is from yours, the harder it is to understand what they’re saying, and this seems to be what Wittgenstein means about the lion. It’s been said that the apparent difficulty some non-neurotypical people have in empathising is not what it seems. The process of empathising seems to involve the faculty of placing oneself mentally in the other person’s position and imagining what it’s like for them, and the idea is that a non-neurotypical person doesn’t have difficulty in doing that, but once they’ve done it they’re not similar enough to the other person to succeed in imagining them accurately. It isn’t because they don’t go through the same process as anyone else. I personally tend to think being on the “spectrum” is more about salience than the primary absence of theory of (other) mind(s), but this could lead to such circumstances. In such a situation, you can imagine someone saying “I want to eliminate world hunger” and doing so by trying to wipe out all animal and fungal life on the planet. The initial statement, “I want to eliminate world hunger” is in English, but that doesn’t help most people to understand its full meaning. If everything about that person’s mental world is sufficiently different from our own supposèdly shared one, the fact that they were speaking English wouldn’t even matter, and in a sense it would be untranslateable. But the reason is that it would take too long to outline their assumptions and views for it to be practical. Given enough time, it could be done.

Non-Cantorian set theory was a response to Russell’s Paradox: whether the set of all sets which are not members of themselves is itself a member of itself. This paradox led to older notions of set theory being thrown out, or at least placed into question, and a new set of axioms arose in response aiming to avoid this paradox. All are expressed using predicate and propositional calculus notation and most are quite easy to translate into English. My grasp of maths is rather weak and also patchy. I noticed, for example, that I could often understand the content of the first and final year BSc maths syllabus at my university but not the second year. Nevertheless I don’t have a huge problem understanding Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory. Here’s a fairly easily translatable axiom from that known as the Axiom of Extensionality:

∀x∀y[∀x(z∈x<=>z∈y)=>x=y]

That is, “for any x, for any y, for any x, z being a member of x if and only if z is a member of y entails that x is equivalent to y”. This bare-bones “translation” of the above sequent is of course rather opaque, but it can be disentangled and simplified to read “two sets are equal if they have the same members”. The next few axioms are similarly translatable until one reaches the sixth: the Axiom of Replacement:

∀A∀w1∀w2…∀wn[∀x(x∈A=>∃!yφ)=>∃B∀x(x∈A=>∃y(y∈B/\φ))]

This is difficult even to type – I had to resort to using HTML directly to write the above line. It means that the image of a set under any definable function will also fall inside a set. That isn’t an immediately clear thing to say to most non-mathematicians. The above is also an axiom schema rather than just an axiom, meaning that it’s a metalanguage referring to the language used to write the axioms themselves. It also occurs to me that there might be an issue with the use of the cardinal integers in that because Russell’s Paradox is itself applicable to the foundations of arithmetic, so it could presumably be profitably expanded to consistency with Peano’s axioms of number theory. “∀w1∀w2…∀wn” also refers to a countably infinite number of items, so in practical terms this is inexpressible unless you just say something like “and so on, forever” or “ad infinitum“. This kind of thing takes most people into a realm where English, and probably most natural languages, are inadequate to describe something but which is nevertheless not antilanguage. It isn’t anybody’s fault that this can’t be expressed clearly in English as far as I can tell.

Another example of this might be APL – “A Programming Language”. Like my other favourite programming language, FORTH, APL has been described as a “write-only programming language”. That is, it has the reputation of being fairly easy to write but impossible to understand once written. I disagree with this assessment of FORTH because giving words names which make sense and inserting comments, as usual with coding, will lead to code in FORTH making sense to other people. For instance, “: CHARSET 127 32 DO I EMIT LOOP ;” has a series of English words in it, the first just being the label for what you’re going to call that word, which could therefore be named something clearer like “ALLTHECHARACTERSINORDER”. APL, though, is not the same because it uses symbols rather than letters and is very pithy.

(~10001000∘.×1000)/10001ι1000

will find all prime numbers lower than a thousand. It makes sense if you know APL but wouldn’t be easy to express in English.

Most of the time the problem with setting these over into English or most other natural languages is that they take a lot longer to express when translated. Whereas I’ve described what the above does in APL, I haven’t set out the algorithm using words because it would be much longer and the question of maintaining comprehension arises because of attention span. This feels like a bit of a cheat to me because the weakness is to do with something which could be extended with practice, at which point the sequents would be understood. The idea of untranslatability to me would be a language which simply cannot be translated no matter what, and to illustrate these I can finally get round to talking about the likes of saudade and sissu.

Saudade is a Portuguese word which is often said to be untranslatable, although it can be described roughly as “longing”, “nostalgia” or “missing”. I don’t speak Portuguese but the words used in English are insufficient because they don’t express the strength of feeling involved. I’m wondering if it expresses first stage bereavement, where there’s denial that something or someone is gone for good. Welsh has a similar word, “hiraeth”, and German has “Sehnsucht”, which although it doesn’t strike me as untranslatable, I find myself thinking the word in German rather than English when I try to do it in my head, so maybe it is. This might mean it can’t be translated into English but can be into other languages which do have the same concept.

Sisu is a Finnish word meaning something like “steadfastness” or “perseverence”, or perhaps “foolish bravado”. I’ve only ever puttered around in the foothills of Finnish so I can’t comment much on this. Finnish also has a word for Schadenfreudevahingolino. When coming across words like this, it can be easy to be hypnotised by the pride someone might have in their culture or language which stops one from being able to think of a word. Even so, sisu seems to me to describe the quality one might need to succeed in giving birth vaginally, or perhaps to push through the wall during a marathon. but maybe I’m wrong.

A recent popular word of this kind is the Danish hygge, which I perceive as being a synonym for Gemütlichkeit – a kind of homely cosiness. Other words claimed to be untranslatable include mångata, sobremesa, toska and itsuarpok – Cynthia’s reflection on the water which looks like a street heading towards her (Swedish), the convivial feeling after a meal (Castilian), gloominess/ennui/lugubriousness (Russian), waiting impatiently for something to turn up (Inuit). Considering the first, the idea of multiple reflections on a methane ocean of objects in the night sky of Titan would extend this meaning, perhaps allowing for a whole series of roads to different moons and planets, and I could perhaps invent a word for that but I’ve been able to describe what it would mean already in English. Itsuarpok is a particularly useful word in these days of constant deliveries of stuff we’ve bought online. Could there be an entire language consisting of such words though?

Jorge Luis Borges once wrote a story called ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ which is pretty amazing but rather than go into that now, I want to talk about just one aspect of the story, which is disconcertingly vertiginous and rather like an earworm. The nations of Tlön, which appears to be imaginary in the story, are idealist in the sense that for them the world is not a collection of objects but a succession of separate dissimilar acts. Thus their language is based on verbs rather than nouns, a sample phrase being “hlor u fang axaxaxas mlo” – “upward behind the onstreaming it mooned” or “the moon rose above the river” (Tlön isn’t Earth). In the Northern Hemisphere though, the languages are based on a different principle: that of the monosyllabic adjective. Thus the moon is described as “pale-orange-of-the-sky” and “round-airy-light on-dark” depending on the impression given. Two different sensory impressions can be mixed, such as the cry of a bird at sunset. Hence there is a vast number of nouns, including all those found in English and Spanish in the sense of being direct translations, but none of the speakers gives them any credence as they are transient impressions. Both of these types of language, particularly the second, correspond closely to the idea of untranslatability, although there would be times when coincidentally translatable words would turn up in the languages, and it would be alien to the spirit of the story to exclude such words. Incidentally there’s plenty more in the story than that but I don’t want to veer off-topic.

Dolphins have been said to transmit sound pictures of their perceptions in order to communicate. Although I find it hard to credit that anyone would be able to demonstrate that this is in fact really happening, it’s still an interesting idea, and given that a picture is worth a thousand words, would seem to be untranslatable. A similar idea was pursued by the poet Les Murray in his ‘Bat’s Ultrasound’:

Bat’s Ultrasound

Sleeping-bagged in a duplex wing
with fleas, in rock-cleft or building
radar bats are darkness in miniature,
their whole face one tufty crinkled ear
with weak eyes, fine teeth bared to sing.

Few are vampires. None flit through the mirror.
Where they flutter at evening’s a queer
tonal hunting zone above highest C.
Insect prey at the peak of our hearing
drone re to their detailing tee:

ah, eyrie-ire; aero hour, eh?
O’er our ur-area (our era aye
ere your raw row) we air our array
err, yaw, row wry—aura our orrery,
our eerie ü our ray, our arrow.
A rare ear, our aery Yahweh.

Then again, a series of pictures could just become like a pictographic script with stylised images, although this wouldn’t necessarily impose syntax on it. It might get quite difficult to express certain abstract concepts in it unless a ‘Darmok’-like approach was taken, with abbreviated descriptions of well-known myths and fables. Even in English this could become hard to make sense of. One might say “The Fox And The Grapes”, referring to Aesop’s fable whence the idea of sour grapes originates, and there’s also the concept of “sweet grapefruit”, which is a reversal of the same which however has no associated fable as far as I’m aware. Hence one could proceed to refer to “the hound and the lemon” to refer to a situation where having something which is worthless is subjectively perceived to be of greater value in order to conceal the cost from oneself.

To conclude then, it does in fact seem that several kinds of practically untranslatable languages are possible. There could be languages which refer primarily to experiences which are outside those of most humans, as with the other Rubik’s cube orbits. A species whose dominant sense was smell and whose vision was poor might use a fairly untranslatable language, because for example it would have “insmells” rather than “insights” and wouldn’t “regard” anything so much as “scent” it, and beyond that have a whole world of sensation as rich as our visual one but entirely based on odour rather than light. Or it might have a magnetic sense which could be even harder to relate to. Or, there could be languages which simply take too long to translate for the human attention span, so they could be in principle but not in practice. There could also be languages which have developed metaphors and formed words and phrases as depicted in ‘Darmok’, where the dependence on shared narrative culture is so strong that it’s impossible to make sense of them. Or, there could be languages which combine two or more of these things.

One thing, which I find quite unsatisfactory, is that I haven’t been able to articulate clearly what I would think of as the ultimate case of an untranslatable language – one which does the same job as natural languages as we know them, but based on entirely different principles. The closest to these is the putative delphinese, using sound pictures, but I wonder what else is out there and how it can be made sense of, if at all. Or is it just that the relative obscurity to the Anglophone (or even Pirahaphone or Ubyxophone) mind in which these languages would operate makes them inconceivable to us?

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Racism In Politics

A couple of recent affairs currently in the news have revolved around two different kinds of racism and a few thoughts on how to respond to them. These are, of course, Trump’s recent racism against congress members and the accusations of anti-semitism in the “U”K Labour Party.

Donald Trump, as I’m sure you know, recently said of four Representatives who were also women of colour, that they should go back where they come from. All four of them are American citizens although one is originally from Somalia. He later confounded this unacceptable behaviour by tweeting that “I don’t have a racist bone in my body!” and a crowd chanted “send her back!” of Ilhan Omar at a public meeting, to which Trump was seen to nod, I presume in agreement. He stood there for fifteen seconds and didn’t condemn them. The Republican John McCain interrupted a speaker who described Barack Obama as a Muslim and took away her microphone to condemn that statement.

This just is racism. There’s no argument about the definition here, no ambiguity and it’s not really even an evaluative statement to call it that. In the past people have been proudly racist and scientifically racist, and they would agree with that epithet – it isn’t always used as a pejorative term, although clearly most people would see it as pejorative. Trump said later that he disagreed with the chant but of course “he would say that, wouldn’t he?” is the obvious response there whether one agrees with him or not. I’m not sure I agree with Omar in describing him as fascist because other words do just as well and don’t have the same history, although I’m open to that interpretation, but it would clearly just be a neutral, objective description of this behaviour as racist, and there isn’t really any arguing with that.

That leads me to wonder about the BBC, who are not calling it racist. The BBC is supposed to be an unbiassed, neutral institution, and it seems to me that not calling this racist is a form of bias. The coverage I’ve heard doesn’t paint it positively but they have not come out and stated unequivocally that it’s racist, and this makes me wonder. It also made me curious about how the BBC described apartheid in South Africa, segregation in the US and the behaviour of the Nazi party at the time. There is a risk inherent in exploring the last because comparison to the Nazis is clichéed and lays one open to criticism, but I can’t recall them describing apartheid South Africa as a racist régime. I think they should have. It isn’t okay to be silent about something like this, not just in the sense of not reporting it but also in the sense of not describing something accurately. It’s a little similar to false balance.

Furthermore, it’s even more depressing to note that only four Republicans censured Trump for his racism.

I want to turn now to “I don’t have a racist bone in my body!”. I am racist of course. That doesn’t mean I’m pro-racist so much as that I’m aware of racism in myself and the need to strive to reduce it. Racism is a bit like sin, as well as actually being a sin, in that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God is a healthy attitude for two reasons. It means one isn’t worse than anyone else, and it means that residual wrongdoing is more likely to continue to be addressed if one suspects oneself of being racist. The point at which one declares oneself as non-racist rather than anti-racist is the point at which one’s racism will never reduce. Many people see this as insulting but it isn’t so much an insult as a recognition that nobody’s perfect, and not in the sense of shrugging one’s shoulders and planning to continue negligently in the same way. It means nobody’s perfect and therefore everyone should work on improving their thoughts and behaviour to be fairer and more compassionate. It seems to me in particular that a white person claiming not to be racist is like a man claiming to be feminist.

I’m pretty sure I’ve covered this before but it probably bears repeating. There’s a fairly widespread concept of racism which asserts that non-whites can’t be racist because of structural issues with society, such as the plundering by white people of the rest of the world causing gross inequality during the imperial age and the ongoing practice of that policy by other means today. I’m not making that claim, but it’s clear that the issue of white racism is more important than most other forms of the prejudice, and as far as a white person is concerned racism is in any case universal, whether or not it’s because they’re white. The other issue would be about whether racism occurs among non-whites. I think it’s pretty clear that it does, although it very often seems to be against other ethnic minorities, at least in white majority countries. Looking at racism again in a non-evaluative sense, where racism could be seen as something which just exists as a phenomenon rather than something which is condemned, although obviously I do condemn it, it is, like most or all other forms of prejudice, an error of inductive inference. Inductive reasoning is the use of more than one example to draw a tentative conclusion. For instance, “all swans are white” generally worked in Europe and North America until the people living there learnt that there were black swans. It’s always logically possible that inductive reasoning will be proven false. It’s necessary to use inductive inference in order to function properly, so we continue to do it. The situation is somewhat complicated by the fact that there are false propositions about othered ethnicities which have no evidence supporting them, but we do generally draw inferences based on imperfect information, and that means we will always be racist unless we’re drastically neurologically compromised. I suspect, for example, that someone with advanced dementia or severe learning difficulties would not be racist because they’re simply not making persistent inferences at all. Hence we just are racist, and in particular white people in white-majority countries are extra racist on top of that due to structural and institutional racism. For instance, we might not expect someone in a position of authority to be black because of various social factors preventing them from reaching such a position, but that assumption is nonetheless racist, and also important to notice in oneself.

Moving on, just before eliciting the racist chanting, Trump accused Omar of being anti-semitic. I don’t know the details of the accusation, but it brings me to the second concern which is in and out of the news a lot: accusations of anti-semitism in the Labour Party. I do actually believe it’s possible that there is a particular form of anti-semitism among Labour Party members if they, for example, believe in the idea that there’s a Jewish conspiracy supporting global capitalism, and this is of course completely unacceptable. The reason I believe this is possible is that a very large number of people joined the Party in the last few years and it seems to me probable that at least a few of those would be conspiracy theorists of one kind or another. We don’t want conspiracy theories, racist or not, because they distract from deeper problems. But I don’t want to get into the issue of whether anti-Zionism is automatically anti-semitic or not because there’s a way of broadening the issue which is likely to make it more neutral. Anti-semitism is of course a form of racism. At the same time, governments often pursue policies which violate civil liberties, and Israel is one of these countries, as is Egypt, which I understand also restricts movement from the Gaza Strip into their territory. So there are two issues here: possible racism in political parties and support of oppressive policies and action by other countries which are considered allies of the United Kingdom. Consequently, I propose, and in fact I’m pretty serious about this and would like to pursue it as a possible more neutral response to accusations of anti-semitism.

There would seem to be no good reason not to undertake an independent investigation into racism and dealings with oppressive activities by allies of Britain in all major political parties in this country: the Lib Dems, the Tories, the SNP, the Greens, Sinn Féin, the DUP, anything you like. This would include anti-semitism in the Labour Party, and although Muslims are not an ethnicity, Islamophobia in Labour and the Tories, and, well, whatever counts as racist. It would avoid the tactic of appearing to accuse others of something just as a distraction from one’s own wrongdoing and it would in any case address serious issues across the political spectrum which need to be addressed regardless of anti-semitism. We shouldn’t just be concentrating on one kind of racism. Then there are the dealings HM Government has with in particular Sa`udi Arabia, a notorious violator of civil liberties and also highly anti-semitic. Pupils in Sa`udi schools are taught that the ‘Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion’ is a genuine Jewish document and the government officially believes in a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. If we’re going to condemn the Labour Party for being anti-semitic, even to that extent, does it not also make sense to condemn the Conservative Party for promoting trade agreements with an openly anti-semitic government like that of Sa`udi Arabia? It’s simple consistency.

That’s all I’ve got to say today really. That there should be a country-wide investigation into all forms of racism in all major British political parties and those in the Six Counties, and also into their dealings with oppressive régimes, including anti-semitic ones, and that the BBC should call a spade a spade and describe Trump and the Republican Party as racist, because it’s a matter of fact and not an example of bias or evaluation.

On Not Writing What You Want

Yesterday’s post mentioned ‘Islamic Societies And The Great Transformation’ a dissertation I wrote back in the day which was pretty lacklustre, although it was helpful to write it and gave me a few insights which I still use today. It got me thinking of the tendency to write something other than what you want to, which plagues at least me and probably lots of people, so I launched upon a new post on that subject, only to find that I wasn’t saying what I wanted to say in it! This, then, is the second attempt at covering that subject.

I’ve written three dissertations in my time, and probably would’ve written more if I was less scattered about how I approach things. None of them ended up saying what I wanted, and in fact they also all involved me selling myself short. But did they?

When I was about twelve, my voice used to have a whistle register. That’s the pitch range above falsetto which for example Minnie Ripperton uses in her 1975 song ‘Lovin’ You’. Apparently it’s also used by Ariana Grande and Mariah Carey. Unsurprisingly, the effect of testosterone on my larynx led to me losing that range of my voice as far as I can tell, but when you lose an ability, it doesn’t always go in quite the way you might expect. In a phenomenon similar to phantom limbs, the impression I had was that it was still there but I just needed to clear my throat sufficiently to reach it. This was of course an illusion and it makes me wonder what other apparent abilities one might feel are just beyond one’s reach which are in fact well beyond it. An example of this might be one’s magnum opus. Maybe one just doesn’t have a work in one, or even well-expressed thoughts, but it could well be that they would seem to be something which if you push yourself just that little bit more, you’d get there. Well, maybe you wouldn’t.

Every time I’ve written a dissertation it’s ended up feeling that it falls short. This is partly because the subject matter has always been different than what I intended. It makes sense to push oneself beyond the familiar in writing or other creative activities, to be sure, but if this happens in the wrong way that unfamiliarity, far from being stimulating, ends up putting the writer in a realm which she simply doesn’t care enough about to do more than a workaday, unspectacular job. That job might well end up appealing to other people, even a huge number of them, but that doesn’t mean she can identify with it, that it belongs to her or that she had a sense of control over it. This is the contrary position to feeling that something is just beyond one’s reach when it’s really completely impossible to achieve because in that case one still feels ownership for it even though it isn’t really there, like a lost limb. It’s the feeling that although it was well within one’s abilities, it doesn’t feel like part of you. If someone were to criticise it harshly, it would stand no chance of upsetting you on a deep level because one doesn’t care enough about it. There is a neurological analogue to this in the conviction some people have that certain body parts are not theirs. On the whole, we all probably feel something like that when we consider the bodies of strangers, but we may disagree on which limbs are part of ourselves.

The mention of the word “care” brings Heidegger to mind. His idea of Geworfenheit, “thrownness”, is about that which matters to one. This could also be linked to the soul-destroying job – paid work which only seems to involve tasks which one doesn’t care about. This could happen in a time-serving sort of way, where one writes, for example, what people want to read, what has a ready market, for some time, building a reputation, and on having reached a certain status is then able to do one’s own “thing”. My Masters dissertation, ‘A Comparison Of Dialectic And Supervenience’, serves to illustrate how this can go wrong. Supervenience is a philosophical concept about the relationship between mind and body and also between ethics and description, among other things, and is crucial to the attempted solution to the mind-body problem known as Anomalous Monism. Without going into detail, I’m one of the few people who has done much significant work on the concept of supervenience and if I hadn’t dropped out of academia, I can easily see myself having become some kind of recognised authority on it, particularly in the area of philosophy of mind. The only trouble is that I don’t believe in anomalous monism at all. I’m panpsychist, and that could be characterised as the opposite position to anomalous monism. I can envisage a path never taken in my life where I advocated anomalous monism solely for career reasons and was deep down a panpsychist, but recognised that it would be imprudent to say anything to that effect. One coping mechanism for such a situation would be to lie to oneself, in my case to talk myself into believing that anomalous monism was correct, and I wonder if I’d done that if some kind of God of Philosophy, maybe Athena, would have struck me down by making it impossible to publish anything on the matter, due to the possibility that although I might argue that position well, the reviewers would be able to intuit unconsciously that there was something not quite right about my work. The question then arises of whether that particular intuition could ever be examined in such a philosophical framework, or whether it would simply go unacknowledged.

Naturally, none of that happened, and I’m free to continue to believe in panpsychism and subject myself to what’s been called the “argument from incredulous stare”, though that applies to modal realism – the idea that all possible worlds are actual and this one is just where we are located. That said, a particularly stark situation is known to arise among religious ministers, where clergy lose their faith but continue to practice as ministers because so much of their lives is invested in the Church, such as an income, accommodation, friendship and, I hope, the more rewarding parts of their jobs.I now have to ask myself whether this passage is itself getting away from me. I hope it isn’t.

In the Simpsons episode ‘Bart Gets Famous’, Bart gets known for his accidental catchphrase “I didn’t do it” as ‘The “I Didn’t Do It” Boy’. He finds it impossible to escape from this reputation and attempts to comment on the state of the rainforests on a chat show, to which the host irritatedly responds “just say the words”. The details of that may be wrong, but there’s a strong tendency for the media to package people into a particular persona and it can be very hard to forge a new one. One can get lucky and find a match between what one is moved to create and popular appeal, but there should be some kind of match between who one really is and what one puts out there, because people can have excellent insincerity detectors and not being able to churn the stuff out is a serious problem. It has to come from you, and that means you have to be the right kind of person. It might be that the kind of person you are is simply one who can fake sincerity and consciously build a persona, and there will be people out there to help you if that is who you are, but this is in fact paradoxically a form of sincerity. You can be entirely fake in such a way that your very fakeness is who you are, in which case you are not fake at all. A fairly innocuous example of that might be camp. Perhaps that’s who Julian Clary really is, and the jokes about him secretly having a wife and children are in a way a reference to that.

Another aspect of this is the way in which one’s work takes on a life of its own when it leaves one’s fingers. Writing letters used to be a marvellous example of this. One might write a very emotive missive, stick it in an envelope and post it into a pillar box, and as that envelope dropped from one’s grasp there could be a sense of crossing the Rubicon. The postal service prides itself on not allowing anyone to intercept the mail. What’s done is done, and there followed a growing sense of anticipation or forboding concerning the imagined consequences of one’s letter. This could apply to a love letter, hatemail, a CV or so-called “blackmail”. It still works today with online communication except that the response is often far more immediate. The same would also be true of written creations submitted to a potential publisher. But the feeling of casting a message in a bottle onto the waves doesn’t end with the submission. If it’s accepted, or if something goes viral, one has lost control of the consequences and it takes on a life of its own. You can never grasp the skein of cause and effect, wrap it up neatly into a ball and stow it away unobtrusively into your sewing bag. In fact, if you have a contract you are legally constrained from even trying, and if it’s gone far enough, with J K Rowling for example, the livelihoods and careers of thousands may depend on your work. This very consequence can be deadening, I would imagine, and lead to just the kind of inauthenticity which can kill.

All this could be seen as a form of loss of control of the creative process, but such a loss is also essential. I can imagine throwing paint at a canvas and, if my talents were in that area, finding inspiration to produce something representational from the results. That also applies to writing. On re-reading a first draft, one can become aware of patterns or aspects which one had no intention of creating but which are doubtless perceived, and then choose to augment them and make them look deliberate. An audience for one’s work also works in this respect because they can sometimes contribute to one’s creation by critiquing intelligently and enthusing about aspects of it which they have in a sense created themselves by reading one’s inkblot. This means something like the audience being an extra member of the band (thinking of the Simpsons again) might sound insincere but is pretty close to the truth.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide if this post is really mine or not, and if it really belongs to me.

Islam And Civilisation (and Boris)

In the ‘noughties, Boris Johnson wrote a book, ‘The Dream Of Rome’, about the Roman Empire, comparing it to the EU in a positive way, in which he argued for Turkey joining the EU as a way of bringing them out of what I presume he regarded as the “Dark Ages”. It was, as I understand it, a pro-EU book, seeing the organisation as a successor to the Empire, which he would prefer included Turkey as a representative of the Eastern Roman Empire, so the context is rather interesting and makes me feel he’s an opportunist who is saying he’s pro-Brexit when in fact he isn’t. There are various explanations for this but rather than go into them, I want to talk about another aspect of this book. In it, he describes Islam as putting the Muslim world “centuries behind” the West, which he appears to mean both intellectually and socially.

I don’t know much about the book concerned and I’m not about to swell Boris’s coffers by buying and reading it, so I’m necessarily going to be poorly informed by misrepresentations. It also seems a little unfair to dredge someone’s past to find something to defame him in this way, because after all this is in a book which I’ve been given the impression advocates for the EU, and clearly he’s not doing that now, so why would we expect him still to believe that Islam holds back progress? Maybe he didn’t even believe it then either. Having said that, his “letterbox” comment, though made in a context which supported freedom of dress, would certainly seem to suggest that he is at least passively Islamophobic if not actively so. The book itself purports to look into why the Roman Empire worked and the EU doesn’t, to which my answer might be, to the extent that it doesn’t, that the Empire was a more unified political entity than the EU. Oswald Moseley was of course very much in favour of a European Union as a kind of homeland for white people, so the idea of being pro-EU is by no means an essentially liberal one, but I’m getting too much into speculation here. The argument appears to be that the EU was born out of weakness but the Empire out of strength. The EU is a coalition of fading imperial powers, whereas the Roman Empire was more like the United States, based more on confidence and strength.

To a limited extent I’m qualified to comment on this because I wrote a dissertation on ‘Islamic Societies and the Great Transformation’ in 1986. It was by no means particularly marvellous, well-researched or accurate, but it does mean I know more than nothing on this particular topic although a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and I’ve already talked a lot about Dunning-Kruger. In this work, I attempted to apply theories of liberal democracy, Marxism, the rationalisation thesis and anomie to Islamic societies, with particular reference to a possible discrepancy between their scientific and technological development on the one hand and what we would perhaps perceive as their social conservatism on the other, and my conclusion, which I think was quite forced, was that they couldn’t be applied and that they worked in an entirely different way than these Western ideas could come to grips with. As usual with dissertations (I’ve written three), I really felt I didn’t do myself justice and it came out quite shallow and facile, which is partly because I got stressed out by how much was riding on it and partly due to being in a hurry. But I don’t want to get into personal stuff too much here because I’m trying to address his ideas with mine and it would pull me off-topic.

He asserts that the first printing press didn’t arrive in Istanbul until the mid-nineteenth century, and that liberal democracy couldn’t develop in Islamic societies because capitalism couldn’t do so either. I wish I knew more than I do about his argument. Islamic societies are, according to him, inherently less tolerant and more violent. The conflicts which exist between the Islamic world and the West are not due to Islam and Christianity but Islamic and Roman values. The most interesting assertion is the one about capitalism and liberal democracy.

Marxism says society traverses several stages, starting with primitive communism, then some time later proceeding through feudalism and capitalism finally to communism. Many argue that governments using Marxist-sounding rhetoric are not in fact Marxist because they transitioned immediately from a feudal to a nominally communist system, which brings with it a number of problems, such as those arising from the pre-revolutionary education of such societies. The issue with Islamic societies is rather different because they theoretically undermine commodification before it even starts through identifying the banking process as usury and forbidding it, and to some extent the provision of compulsory zakat provides a kind of welfare system, although this kind of thing existed in the West too before the likes of income tax. Thus there are ways in which at least at first glance capitalism cannot function in an Islamic society, and if you believe that capitalism is essential for liberal democracy, that would presumably imply that you also believe liberal democracy is incompatible with them. The question is then, how would capitalism foster liberal democracy? The welfare state could be seen as having a role in increasing the stability of society, as there might be less crime or unrest if there’s a safety net, and the welfare system built into Islam would seem to afford that. Perhaps more promisingly, having a stake in the economic system such as home or share ownership or having a paid job might lead one to have more personal interest in a stable society, and I presume the argument is that only banks able to turn a profit are able to afford this because they can then lend money at interest, allowing ambitious and ultimately lucrative projects to be pursued. But even if this is true, it doesn’t mean the system as it exists now is still doing that because my perception of it is that it’s rigged to syphon money from the poor to the rich, which could be expected to destabilise democracy through the likes of rioting and vandalism, but oddly, doesn’t. I honestly don’t understand why this is. Nonetheless it could be that historically, capitalism did in fact nurture the idea of individual rights and civil liberties. Whether this is significant is another matter.

In fact, in both Mediaeval Europe and today’s Islamic societies, there are a series of contracts and loopholes which lead to interest being charged. For instance, loans can be construed as the rental of money and there’s a system of three contracts none of which violate Islamic principles in themselves but which together allow Western-style banking. The same system evolved independently in Europe. Moreover, shortly after the Islamisation following on from the Hejira, a mercantile economy developed in those countries and persisted for several centuries.

The matter of the printing press may be a good point but it’s hard at first to see a link with Islam. The invention of movable type is a major stage in the dissemination of information as it brings down the prices of books dramatically and puts them within the reach of the peasants, or at least the middle class. They also led to the translation of the Bible into the vernacular and thereby the Reformation. It’s easier to print non-cursive scripts, so for example Gothic was printed in the fourth century CE and the Diamond Sutra was printed in the ninth Christian century. Arabic script doesn’t lend itself easily to printing because it’s essentially cursive – each of the twenty-seven consonants has more than one form and many have four according to their position in the word, and they often have to be linked to each other. There are also other subscript and superscript signs used to indicate the likes of the presence or absence of vowels or the case of a noun. Turkish was only officially written in Latin script from 1926, so the absence of a printing press in Istanbul until the late nineteenth Christian century is not surprising. However, Urdu newspapers, which use a different version of the Arabic script, were written cursively by pen (and then presumably copied) into at least the 1980s and are mass-market publications, so the barrier may be artificial and of course this is about the use of the Arabic script rather than Islam itself. The script works quite well for writing the Arabic language itself, and would also work well for other related languages such as Hebrew and Maltese, but despite the nationalistic insistence on using Arabic script for certain other languages such as Urdu, formerly Turkish and Malay, it doesn’t work as well for them. Studies have also shown that even proficient readers of Arabic take longer to read texts than adept readers of languages written in the Latin alphabet because they need to assimilate more diacritics. Hence it could be said that poor literacy is built into cultures which primarily use Arabic script, particularly for non-Afro-Asiatic languages, and there could be elements of information-hoarding and antilanguage in its use. This presumably would impact on the social development of Islamic societies which use the Arabic script, and in such societies it does have a privileged position which could be exclusive in a similar way to Latin in the Roman Catholic church and mediaeval Europe. Nonetheless there are Islamic societies which don’t use Arabic script for their vernaculars, such as Albania and the largest of all, Indonesia.

The Arab world was of course the repository for much knowledge which would otherwise have been lost to the world with the onset of the European dark ages. Probably most star names apart from Bayer designations (such as α Centauri) have Arabic-derived names such as Thuban and Betelgeuse, so clearly astronomy was very significant and relatively advanced at this time. The Indian use of zero and place value entered Europe via the Arab world, which considerably advanced mathematics. Arabic medicine also pioneered the use of non-biochemical compounds as drugs, and paper was also used, having been taken from China, before it reached Europe. Hence technologically the Arab world was ahead of Europe technologically most of the time until the end of the Middle Ages in Europe, meaning also that the Middle Ages themselves are a solely European phenomenon as it doesn’t apply, for example, to China or Mesoamerica either. There’s a lot of debate about the causes of and causes of the end of the Dark and Middle Ages, one suggestion being that they were caused by the adoption of Christianity by the Empire which led to a loss of civic virtue and focus on the afterlife and ended in connection with the Reformation.

It is the case that countries with a majority of Muslims are more likely to have a large number of creationists compared to most other countries, and this does have practical consequences. For instance, the treatment and understanding of cancer and antibiotic resistance depends on accepting evolutionary theory, but in some Islamic countries the teaching of evolution has been removed from state school curricula. However, the same problem exists in the United States, so this can’t be seen as a specifically Islamic issue. Oddly, the predominant belief among Islamic creationists is the least sustainable option of Old Earth creationism, which has to maintain that mutations do not significantly influence living things even over hundreds of millions of years. I would suggest that this means there’s a major disconnection between different aspects of biology in places where this is maintained to be true. You can have young Earth creationism, which although obviously untrue doesn’t need to explain why mutations don’t have a major influence on the course of life, and you can have young Earth evolution, though nobody actually seems to believe that, but you cannot possibly sustain old Earth creationism. It’s by far the most absurd option of the four. In situations where women in particular are denied full participation in society, there will be a waste of potential which could disadvantage a country or skew its research and development in a particular direction because it isn’t informed by the distinctive experience of women.

There are, of course, democratic Muslim-majority countries such as Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, but it isn’t clear that democracy implies liberal democracy. Democratisation has sometimes led to the imposition of what many Westerners would perceive as the more oppressive aspects of Shari`a law such as stoning and execution for homosexual acts and adultery, the amputation of limbs for theft, or the prohibition of alcohol. However, in countries such as Pakistan, which were originally under the British Raj and didn’t exist as a separate political entity, there was no specific national identity and Islam has been employed to create this. This also leads to a situation in some places where just as we might identify opposition to what we see as the more negative aspects of certain countries with Islam as a negative force, Muslim-majority countries are opposed not only to the colonialist legacy of the West but also to its liberalism as part of Western identity. The social development which was able to occur in the home countries of the imperial powers didn’t take place to the same degree in countries which happen to have Muslim majorities because of the stagnation imposed by colonialism. In a Christian parallel in non-Islamic colonial countries, there is more official homophobia because of the Western creation of laws to that effect.

When a society is apparently far away or “othered” as Islam tends to be to WASPs, we tend to generalise. In fact, although Islam does pride itself on its unity there are open and closed interpretations of the faith. Where a conservative interpretation of organised religion has been allowed to dominate, the result is often disastrous. Some might say that this is seen in the US, formerly in Ireland, and also in both Israel and certain Muslim-majority countries. The situation in Israel, which is officially secular, is potentially without connection to the ethnicity of its citizens but more to do with both the secular pursuit of power and the conservative religious approach within Judaism, which neither condemns Judaism as a whole nor the Jews, and those same problems are replicated in Muslim-majority countries. For instance, in Turkey the situation hasn’t so much risen due to Islamic fundamentalism as the tendency of a party to grab power, which then established a precedence and an imbalance which made that approach seem more acceptable.

There is also the question of what constitute Islamic values. It’s perfectly valid within Islam to emphasise principles such as justice, freedom and respect for human life and base one’s political approach on those. Just because stonings, executions, corporal punishement, sexism and homophobia are done in the name of Islam, that doesn’t necessarily mean all Muslims want that or that the stress on the role of Islam in public life needs to focus on those. However, it’s problematic for many Muslims for us in the West simply to see them as “backward” and not having got to our “enlightened” state yet. That would be to presume that Islamic societies will evolve in the same direction as the West has, and not only does that not follow, but also there’s a case for that being kind of racist. I say “kind of” because although I would see Islam as a protected characteristic, I don’t see Muslims as a race and don’t think they would want to see themselves that way either. Islam is for the whole human race. Nonetheless it does reflect a form of discrimination against a certain group to exhort them to become more liberal.

Secularism, or at least things done in its name, can also be oppressive. This can be seen in China with its current persecution of not only Uighur Muslims but also Falun Gong practitioners. It’s easy to argue that this isn’t true secularism, as that involves the equal treatment of all belief systems, but it could equally well be argued that what’s done in the name of Islam is not true Islam, so this leads to a kind of stalemate. It’s also been noted by certain citizens of Muslim-majority nations that when Shari`a law is implemented it has a disproportionately negative effect on women, gender and sexual minorities and religious minorities, including non-believers. If this is also linked with democracy, this would constitute the tyranny of the majority and ignore the possible value of experience and judgement gained by working in government, having instead simply allowed it to be dictated by a particular interpretation of Islam. And this interpretation strikes at least me as odd, because the Qur’an says “there is no compulsion in religion” and advocates for the tolerance and perhaps equal treatment of Christians, Jews and even the Sabaeans, who were not monotheist. There is some problem with this though, because as represented by the Qur’an, the beliefs of the people it refers to as Christians don’t correspond to mainstream Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox Christianity as it’s understood today.

But I have to confess to a feeling of discomfort in talking about any of this because it feels like I’m telling Muslims how to practice their faith, and also probably presuming a lot more than I actually know about Islam. Boris Johnson doesn’t seem to have the same kind of hesitancy in his pronouncements, and as we have seen recently from a certain prominent head of state that can constitute a major problem. But to conclude, I suppose I’d say the following. Islam clearly did not historically hold back scientific and other intellectual progress. The practice of creationism and possible failure to exploit its human resources as fully as the West might hold it back at least economically, but that may not be so much the result of Islam as colonialism and a search for national identity. Also, we should be wary of imposing a preordained path on the future of the Islamic world just because we consider themselves to be ahead of them in some way, and be aware that what we perceive as Islamic may be just one interpretation of many, which may suit us if we wish to other them.

Popping over to Cynthia’s

Fifty years ago today, Apollo 11’s Saturn V rocket was launched from Cape Canaveral towards what most English speakers call “the Moon”. The US government had also tried to include the Soviet Union in the mission, but Khrushchev turned them down. I can’t remember the first landing at all although I do remember listening to the reel-to-reel tape recordings my father had of the whole mission. It was very much in the air of my early childhood and I do remember later ones, in particular the last one, Apollo 17, and I’ve had the experience I expect many people share of looking up and thinking, there have been people walking around up there.

I need to get a couple of things out of the way first. One is the issue of nomenclature. I call “the Moon” Cynthia and refer to her in the feminine, just as I call Earth Earth as a proper name, not “the Earth”, and use “she”. I also use gendered pronouns to refer to all planets in the Solar System. First the names. Although the word “moon” usually refers to the body most closely associated with Earth in her orbit around the Sun, she’s arguably not really a moon at all and the word “moon” is also used to refer to any natural satellite of a planet. Using it specifically as a proper name is parochial, and makes it seem special in a way which restricts our perspective on the Universe. A restricted perspective contributes very much to our predicament as a species. Every other moon in the Solar System has a name or a serial number. As far as I know, there are no serial numbers in use right now but there used to be before certain objects got names, for example 1979J1, the first moon of Jupiter discovered in 1979 by Voyager 2 now known as Adrastea. Therefore I call “the Moon” Cynthia, which is one of several options in the Greco-Roman tradition, including Selene, Diana and Artemis. In fact there’s a planned mission called Artemis right now, which plans to return humans there by 2024. I chose the name Cynthia because I have a slight preference for Greek over Latin, which I realise is not reflected in my name, but in any case it’s an epithet of Artemis, meaning that she was born on Mount Kynthos on Delos in the Cyclades. Artemis and Diana are hunting goddesses, presumably because it was easier to hunt by the light of the full “moon”. It really grates with me, incidentally, to call her “the Moon”. This does reflect a Western bias, but then we don’t use the Chinese terms to refer to planets in English so I don’t really see this as a problem.

And also I refer to her as “she”. I do this with all planets and moons in the Solar System, using the gender of the associated deities. This means that of the oft-mentioned objects, Venus, Earth and Cynthia are “she” and the rest “he”. This is not because of personification, although being panpsychist I believe that consciousness is present in all matter and therefore that in some sense they are all conscious. I realise it makes me sound like Francis of Assisi. The reason I use gender to refer to celestial bodies is to subvert the idea that pronouns are specifically associated with people of particular gender, and I also do it with other referents such as ducks, cats and dogs because the unmarked noun for each is, in these cases, female, female and male respectively. I don’t use the word “bitch” at all, so this means it sounds like I misgender female dogs but the real reason I do that is to restore grammatical gender to the English language and reduce its human significance. Hence there’s no astronomical significance to it, it just tends to be more noticeable.

The other issue that comes up a lot regarding Cynthia is whether humans really went there. The answer is, of course, that they did, six times, and that twelve people walked on her. The website clavius.org is the usual place I direct people to when they ask because they do an excellent debunking job, but I would put people who doubt in the same category as flat-earthers and creationists, and of course flat-earthers are more or less constrained to deny the visits too. I’m not going to spend much time on this except to observe a few things. There are laser reflectors there placed by Apollo astronauts used by observatories to measure the distance to them from Earth, although there are also two from the Lunokhod automatic rovers put there by the Russians, so in theory the Apollo ones could’ve been put there without humans doing it. In general the astronomical community is aware of these and some of them will have done it, which I think reflects one issue which might explain why people doubt the landings: they feel excluded from academia and perhaps envy the supposedly well-educated, and are therefore unlikely to know any professional astronomers, and of course there’s the Dunning-Kruger Effect that the less one knows about something, the less one realises how much there is to know about it. A few other things I find somewhat baffling. Some of these are the claims made about photographs having crosshairs disappearing behind objects, the absence of stars and the presence of letters on rocks. I’m not by any means an expert photographer. In fact, I take fewer photographs than most other sighted people in the world because I don’t use mobiles much and don’t own a working camera nowadays, but even I know the answers to those. You wouldn’t expect to be able to see stars in a fully sunlit scene like those in the Apollo photographs because if the exposure, aperture or whatever (see, I told you) was sufficient to show them, the glare from the surface would bleach all the details out. Similarly, you can’t see crosshairs in front of brightly-lit rocks because of the glare, and the likes of the letter C on them is pareidolia – seeing patterns where there are none of significance. The Van Allen belt argument is also easily explained by the route the spacecraft took and the short time they spent in the belts and there would in any case have had to be a huge conspiracy involving hundreds of thousands of people at a time when people didn’t trust authority with no whistleblowers. But I don’t want to go on too much about this because it’s been allowed to dominate things already, except to say one more thing: many doubters believe there was only one apparent landing rather than six and for some reason are also aware of Apollo 13, so they’re not that reliable.

I mentioned above that “moon” may be an inadequate word for Cynthia, which is a bit unfair because the original referent was her. She has various oddities which don’t apply to the other bodies associated with planets in this solar system. The mass is about 1/81 of Earth’s, which if Pluto is not considered a planet is far larger than any other mass ratios. The largest moon:planet ratio is about 1/4500 for Triton and Neptune. Among the inner planets only Mars has moons, and those are temporary captured asteroids about the size of the Isle of Wight. This worries me.

I’ve said before that one thing which would make it difficult for me to worship God would be if it could be demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that there was life elsewhere in the Universe, because I would then have to contend with a deity who had created a vast, empty Cosmos with us on just one planet in spite of all the countless others which exist. If it does turn out there’s anything special about Earth, this could lead to that conclusion. It doesn’t mean I’d stop believing in God, just that her ways would be not only beyond my own understanding but also absurd to me, so it’s more like a deal-breaker. Cynthia may be such an anomaly, because she’s responsible for the Van Allen belts. The magnetic field of our planet is generated by tides being raised in the iron-nickel core which then traps charged particles radiating from space, mainly the Sun, in belts around us. If we were to go to Mars or elsewhere, one way of protecting the astronauts would be to generate such a magnetic field to keep such particles away from them. The significance regarding living things generally here is that it prevents organisms from being killed by hard radiation. There are several things I’m unclear about with this. I don’t know, for example, if photosynthesis would be impossible on a planet without Van Allen belts because the upper layers of the ocean would be too irradiated, or whether organisms could survive underground running their metabolism on geothermal energy, or if ice would protect them. It’s also possible that a roughly Earth-sized moon orbiting what I might call a “warm Jupiter”, that is, one within the “Goldilocks Zone” at the right distance could be protected using the planet’s magnetic fields. As far as Jupiter himself is concerned, this constitutes a problem for any humans wishing to land on Io, Europa and Ganymede, all of which orbit within such a belt. Second-hand information regarding optimism about the idea of life on Europa in particular suggests to me that a thick layer of ice ought to be enough to keep life safe from such a threat.

Another oddity about Cynthia is that the gravitational pull of the Sun on her is stronger than Earth’s, which is not true of other bodies associated with planets elsewhere in the Solar System. Therefore, in a sense she isn’t so much orbiting us as that the two bodies are twisting around each other in their orbits around the Sun. This is another reason for not referring to her as “the Moon”, because strictly speaking she isn’t one.

I expect you know this already, but I’m going to mention it anyway. It appears that Earth was hit by a Mars-sized body now called Theia soon after being formed which chipped off the outer layer of this planet, leaving it to form into a separate globe. The density of Cynthia is only 60% of this planet, possibly because the lighter materials were nearer the surface. Theia was possibly originally a Trojan with Earth, meaning that she formed an equilateral triangle with us and the Sun. I personally wonder if she actually is Mars. Mars has a similar density to Cynthia’s incidentally, unlike Venus and Mercury, whose densities are similar to ours. If this hadn’t happened, Earth wouldn’t be much bigger than she is today, so life wouldn’t be ruled out for that reason, but if the Van Allen belts are essential, these would at least be weaker if they existed at all. There would be a weak pull from Theia but I don’t know how much difference that would make.

Gravity pulls apart objects less than 2.44 radii from a planet’s centre, which places a minimum orbital radius for a genuine moon orbiting this planet of 15562 kilometres. For that to exert the same gravitational pull as Cynthia, the mass of such a moon would only need to be about 1/600 of her mass. This is only a fifty thousandth of Earth’s mass, which places the ratio below that of Triton for Neptune. This makes the prospect of life on an Earth-like planet more feasible, but it still leaves a mystery: why have we got such a large associated celestial body?

There’s another mystery about Cynthia, which is that because she’s a four hundredth of the diameter of the Sun and four hundred times closer, solar eclipses are possible. This is apparently a coincidence, but it’s a very odd one because it means this may well be the only planet in the Milky Way where there are such eclipses. Elsewhere, moons will either blot out their suns completely or show a wide ring of the photosphere, but on Earth, although there are annular eclipses where some of the Sun’s surface shows, there are also total eclipses where only the corona, the solar atmosphere, is visible. This would make Earth a good tourist destination and it’s even been suggested that solar eclipses would be a good time to look for alien spacecraft!

As I mentioned before, the Artemis project plans to send more people there in the next decade. This opens up a further quandary for me. I’ve previously mentioned that the Doomsday Argument seems to establish a 50% probability of human extinction by about 2130. I’ve written about this elsewhere so I’ll just go through a few highlights of my argument. It partly depends on when you decide something is able to wonder if it’s one of the last people to be born, and also could be reinterpreted as a measure of whether the thought of human extinction is going to disappear rather than actual humans. The Singularity might be one way this thought could vanish without necessarily causing us to disappear, or a drastic increase in the longevity perhaps combined with a very slow reproduction rate could do the same. However, if I take the Doomsday Argument at face value, I have to conclude that Artemis will not lead to wholesale settlement of the Solar System or the construction of large space habitats, because the longer that goes on for, the less likely it is that the random sample of human existence which is my own life would be this early in human history. This thought opens up a new avenue of Artemis Hoax conspiracy theory.

There’s little doubt that if Artemis happens, there will be internet conspiracy groups which will claim that it’s faked. Strangely, there’s a corollary of the Doomsday Argument which leads to the belief that it will be a hoax, or that it will be half-hearted or abortive, or even that it predicts the imminent passing of our species before it can happen. This is how that thought works. If Artemis goes ahead, it could lead to lunar bases, and a jumping off point for human exploration and eventual settlement of other planets in this solar system. If this involves any large-scale construction of space habitats, settlements on Mars or the eventual terraforming of Venus and settlement there, this would have to be a short-term project. The “simple” act of rendering Venus habitable to an eventual population of a thousand million, less than today, with a generous generation time of four decades with mere replacement would only give the human race three thousand years more of history assuming Earth’s population quickly falls to zero. Projecting that backwards only takes us to the start of the Iron Age, so it’s not long and still means we’re near the end of human history. Space habitats have greater potential than terraforming or settling planets and moons, so this argument would effectively completely rule out their existence.

Early plans for visiting our nearest neighbour in space were somewhat different from what ended up happening. One idea was to send one astronaut who would spend a year or so building a lunar base which would then be inhabited by others. This would have given humanity a toehold on the place, but it wasn’t put into practice.

The trip there is only equivalent to ten circumnavigations of the globe. There are cars which have been further than the round trip. Although I don’t want to talk down the achievement, I do want to emphasise the idea that it might not be that difficult to go back. But there is one thing in particular which does make it harder than it seems.

Imagine you have a Betamax video recorder today which you want to repair. You’re unlikely to be able to find anyone easily who would be able to fix it or even find the necessary parts. Now suppose that repair person had only mended seventeen video recorders in their whole career, because there were only seventeen video recorders ever made. Suppose also, and this is probably true, that all the Sony employees who worked on designing and manufacturing Betamax recorders had moved on to other projects, retired or died. Your task would then be to manufacture a new Betamax recorder from scratch, and when you’d done that you still wouldn’t have a new TV set to hand you’d be able to plug it into, any video cassettes or even any TV signals which would enable you to record onto the non-existent video cassettes. This is basically the problem with going back. It’s really not that easy because it’s been so long that people need to start from scratch from a different starting position.

To conclude, I share the general frustration that nothing much happened after Apollo 17 and I see it as a general malaise of humanity, or a symptom of it, that we haven’t done anything since. But I would welcome going back, perhaps as the first step to something more.

An End Note

I word processed this one!

Polls and Replication

News stories tend to have certain features which don’t reflect reality particularly well. Firstly, they have to be stories. They have to abstract something from the mish-mash of daily events and turn it into a tale, often with a sensationalist climax. They also tend to be negative, with a few exceptions such as ‘Positive News’. That said, there are problems with the idea of positive news because not everyone will agree on what’s positive.

Scientific reports and research also have their share of problems, partly due to journalistic impingement. For instance, I find it more than a bit suspicious that the genus Homo apparently has so many species compared to other primate genera and wonder if it’s to do with the kudos which “discovering” a new species of human carries with it, along with publicity for the associated institution. There are now said to be seventeen species and subspecies, which given that there are two species of chimp, three of gorilla, two of orangutan and so on, seems a bit excessive.

The rest of this post has been lost. Sorry.

Let’s Change The World With Music

I can’t leave the idea of alternate Beatles timelines alone. It keeps bugging me. Because ‘Yesterday’ was a fun, light film, it didn’t go various places which it kind of should’ve done. The world it showed was an alternate timeline without the Beatles and I think four other, separate, differences, which we can presume had nothing to do with them, although two of them would’ve made a difference. What it failed to do, or rather, chose not to explore, is what other consequences would’ve followed from a world without the Beatles, and this bugs me because without the Beatles, our children would never have been born.

Let me take you down where I’m going to. The Ruhrgebiet in the 1960s. My ex was a child living in Germany, having been born in 1960 (yesterday was her birthday actually). Her interest in English was piqued by wanting to understand English Beatles lyrics, and this grew until she eventually chose to read English Literature and Philosophy at the University of Tübingen, in around 1978. In the mid-’80s, she took advantage of the Erasmus scholarship scheme to come to England and study for a Master’s in Modern English Literature at the University of Leicester, my alma mater, and met me. In 1989, we got together and stayed together for around eighteen months. During that period, she met Sarada, who was teaching English at Moat Community college, and we were invited around to her and her partner’s flat for dinner. Sarada was nervous because she’d never cooked for a vegan before and got some mushroom paté, which I hated but pretended to like, so it could be said that our whole relationship was founded on a lie! This was in April 1990. In September, while in Invermoriston in the Highlands, my ex and I split but remained friends. Sarada also split up with her partner. In early 1993, Sarada, back from teaching in Madrid, and I got together and we married that year and had our two children, in 1994 and 1997, both now in their twenties, and we’re due to have a grandchild in a few weeks if all goes well.

None of this would’ve happened without the Beatles. Or would it? Is it possible that there would’ve been another stellar British band with such talent and creativity which my ex-to-be would’ve got interested in? Also, how could it have been that the Beatles hadn’t happened? I’m going to deal with this question first.

I don’t know much about the lives of John, Paul, George and Ringo. I do, however, know that Paul McCartney got his girlfriend Dot Rhone pregnant in 1962, but she then had a miscarriage. By that time, the Beatles had been to Hamburg but if the pregnancy had continued to term it’s probable that McCartney wouldn’t have stayed in the group. The question then would be whether it would have been a Pete Best-type scenario, with him being replaced by someone else, or whether it would just have meant that they would’ve fizzled out and split. If they had, it’s possible that the Rolling Stones wouldn’t have succeeded either because of the links between the two bands. Lennon and McCartney wrote their second single, ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’. Also, the Beatles got their manager and them together. Nonetheless, I think it’s feasible that the Stones could’ve been successful without the Beatles, and their image might also have been different as they were marketed as a contrast to them, so perhaps they would’ve been the alternate version. Or another band. Who knows?

Incidentally, there’s an odd anomaly regarding the Stones and Sarada’s and my tastes. They’re perfectly complementary. You can guarantee that if I like a particular Stones track, she’ll dislike it and vice versa. I don’t know why.

There was a period during which the youth of the day thought that music could change the world. If this is so, it could mean that certain absences or presences would alter the course of history on a global scale. However, one of the problems with this idea, at least in terms of popular music, is that it’s dominated by capitalism and marketing. There’s also the principle of ars gratia artis, meaning that whereas music might alter minor details on the scale of the oecumene, it shouldn’t have to do anything because it’s worth something in itself. That said, protest songs do exist and it’s in the area of protest that the value of music for social change is most significant.

I no longer bother to go to demonstrations. My initial reason for going on them, consciously at least, was that they would make a difference to government policy. I felt guilty about not going on the CND demonstrations in the early 1980s because I thought they could make a difference to the Cold War and the prospect of a nuclear Holocaust. Ironically, the person who made the most difference to that outlook was probably Stanislav Petrov, who saved the world in September 1983. This might actually make him the most influential person in the twentieth century, more so than Hitler or Lenin.

As I grew up, I started going to protest marches and the like, and came to conclude that they aren’t actually about changing the world in that way at all. Nevertheless, they do actually change the world and are worthwhile in other ways. First of all, it would make sense for the establishment to deny that they’re influential because it would make them vulnerable to direct action to change policies to which they’re committed. Second of all, there’s the final straw argument that a slight push could at some stage change things. However, neither of these are really the point of demonstrating to me.

Demos do the following:

  • Encourage people by making them feel less isolated.
  • Allow people to express their feelings.
  • Provoke protestors into going back into their communities to make changes by grassroots action.
  • Publicise issues.

Hence they do make a difference. However, I see them mainly as a form of street theatre, and as such completely valid. I don’t mean to detract from their value in anything I say here. It does, though, often mean that attending a demo or not is a matter of personal taste and not a moral decision.

Music, even pop music, can have similar functions. They allow us to express our feelings and they make people feel less isolated. ‘Saving All My Love For You’ by Whitney Houston is, in my opinion, a pretty naff song, but it does attempt to express the experience of being the mistress, immoral though that situation may initially seem. Less mainstream examples would be Tom Robinson’s ‘Glad To Be Gay’, and Bronski Beat. There’s a sense in which such songs are sung by young dudes carrying the news. Incidentally, I always used to wonder where they plugged in their electric guitars in an apocalyptic wasteland. In fact, pop music does all of these things, and I’m not even talking about Crass or Chumbawumba, so it is in fact possible for music to change the world, although like demos that change is intangible and not quantifiable. On a smaller individual scale, which amounts to a second set of intangibles, it makes a difference on an “our tune” level, or people meeting at gigs and bonding over music at parties or in bedsits. It does happen, in both these ways. It happened to us, in a very roundabout way.

Then there’s the “art vs science” aspect of all this. Popular music is in a sense an art, although with a considerable portion of conveniently forgotten dross which gives us the impression of a golden age which may never have existed. Sometimes I even like the dross, mainly for its associations in my own life. Other things are science and technology, but creative even so. It may or may not be the case that Edison and Swan both invented the filament lightbulb. In fact they didn’t because that honour belongs to Humphry Davy who made one using platinum wire, or possibly someone else, in the early nineteenth century. The idea of the filament light bulb was out there to be plucked, and artifice and genius was needed to perfect it, for example the removal of soot and the development of better vacuum pumps. If Edison had never been born, someone else would’ve invented a good light bulb and no-one would be any the wiser. If Lennon and McCartney had never existed, it’s unlikely that any Beatles music would, but possibly the Stones would, and if not them some other equally successful band. If Shakespeare hadn’t existed, the situation is hard to imagine due to the remoteness of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but there would undoubtedly have been other good and successful playwrights.

In political terms, although I tend to think in terms of impersonal forces influencing world events in a similar way to technological and scientific change, that would suggest that politics is more a science than an art. If politics is an art, though, the great “man” theory of history could be true, because there are then elements of personal creativity in politics. People don’t just happen to be in certain places and times, although this surely helps. Henry VIII’s establishment of the Church of England comes to mind as a counter-example. Although this was a manifestation of the Reformation in England, Martin Luther’s actions had similar results in the Holy Roman Empire at a similar time, though the details differ, as they would. This would also mean that Winston Churchill’s premiership during the War was irrelevant and that Chamberlain could’ve achieved a victory. Although I find that hard to believe, that may be the result of propaganda. Nonetheless I don’t accept it.

It could be that whether individual figures are important depends on the political leaning of the party. The Conservative Party, which portrays itself as supporting the freedom of the individual and almost certainly does support it in the case of the wealthy, might depend more on the personality of the leadership or other individual members than Labour. However, many people right now would consider Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership to be a significant factor in electoral success, if nothing else, and it could also be that the Tories set too much store, at least publicly, in personality. But this may be to focus too much on what happens in Parliament, and as my mention of demonstrations as a single example of many different processes happening in society at large shows, this may turn out to be less significant than it seems, regardless of whether one is left or right wing.

It’s been noted that the rich tend to attribute success to their own personal qualities and hard work, whereas the poor tend to ascribe it to luck. Both biasses are the result of one’s background, but it’s not possible to step outside that and comment from outside society on which is more valid. It would follow, even so, that the party of the rich, if that’s what the Tories are, would believe in individual effort and something like noblesse oblige and the party of the poor, if that’s what Labour is, would believe in less identifiably individualistic influences. I’m also aware of missing out a lot of other parties with other perspectives, and of more “extremist”, if that’s what they are, positions.

Nonetheless, I maintain that music does change the world. It changes how you see your life, for good or ill, and it changes how able you are to do something about the world. In this respect it’s similar to other aspects of public life such as political and social activism, and I’m not just talking about demos although they’re included in that. However, it shouldn’t have to be any of those things to have value, because it has intrinsci worth.