25 October 2012

On Republican Gaffes, God Sanctioned Rape, and the Dangers of Divine Plans

Well what do you know, another month goes by, and another Republican politician in the United States confounds the public with his views on rape. Last time it was Todd Akin who showed his ignorance of human physiology when he asserted that women physically cannot fall pregnant if it is ‘legitimate rape’, which then has people wondering what the corollary to this term could possibly be (illegitimate rape?). This time we have Richard Mourdock from Indiana, who dropped this interesting quote during a debate:
“I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realise that life is that gift from God, and I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.”
Mourdock is an anti-abortion candidate, which is an odd enough concept that begs us to consider the converse side; a pro-abortion candidate. But in this instance he was outlining why he believes that abortions performed after rape should be outlawed, and the only time such procedures be allowed is when the mother’s life is in jeopardy.
Now I find the abortion issue to be a contentious one at the best of times, but moving past the inherent grey areas that this inevitably invokes, I can’t help but think that the backlash faced by Mourdock because of his words is a somewhat undeserved and hypocritical reaction by a lot of people who would generally consider themselves a Christian.
Don’t get me wrong here; I think that the idea of a divinely sanctioned rape reaches for the heights of absurdity. But that being said, the view he is expressing is far from inconsistent with mainstream Christians thought.

How many times, upon hearing some bad news, or even in general discussions with Christians, do you hear the plan of a god invoked as the ersatz explanation. We may find it hard to face the capricious nature of things such as cancer striking down people seemingly at random, and thus hope to find solace in some reason for this happening. But the fact of the matter is that some things in this world are not only beyond our control, but also beyond meaningful interpretation.
By this I mean that not everything has a purpose, and though it might seem easier to bear the hand that life has dealt us if we are willing to take on faith that everything has a purpose, this view not only has the bulk of history working against it (why I ask you was the holocaust necessary?), but it also has a lot of dangerous implications.

If you do take the view that a god does have a plan, and that we are all slowly meandering through life on paths set in advance by the almighty, then you have to accept the full implications of this position. If there is a plan, then things such as rape, cancer, murder, the holocaust and so on; all these things must be a part of this plan. After all, if they weren’t a part of the plan, then surely they would have had a massive butterfly effect on things by now.
Not only do I find the divine plan way of thinking unsatisfactory, and uncaring, but I also see the inherent dangers in living your life on what is essentially an amusement park ride; where you have no control, and are just along for the trip.
Something that can be used to retroactively permit and explain any action can also be used in the present to justify any future actions. This is where the danger lies. Accepting things that have happened as a part of a god’s plan strips you of any responsibility of your own; it leads to fatalism, and to an acceptance of whatever situations arise.
The idea of a divine plan is untenable at the best of times, and dangerous at the worst. It can offer consolation, but as we have seen in the case of Mr Mourdock, it can also offer a twisted sense of justification and acceptance after the fact.

Let me know what you think in the comments, especially if you are a Christian (or otherwise) who hold to the view that everything happens for a reason.

19 October 2012

Dad Tip: Teaching Evolution

[I am thinking this will be a semi-regular thing on my blog now. Sure I am not the greatest Dad in the world, and my experience is limited to a single son; but at the end of the day every little step along the way is an important one, and perhaps some of my experiences will have merit beyond my own doorstep. Let me know what you think in the comments below.]

In my six odd years of having a son, I have discovered that one of the hardest things to try and explain to him is the concept of evolution. I see this as a bit of a problem, as being a dinosaur nut like his old man, evolution is vital to his understanding of these creatures.
From our recent trip to the Melbourne Museum, where Harrison could finally tell me most of his favourite dinosaur's names. #DadPride
This problem can be doubly difficult because at its most basic level, the theory of evolution is a very simple concept, however it relies on a lot of concepts and grounding that is just out of reach of young children.
Saying to your child that evolution is how animals change over time to adapt to their surroundings can lead to a lot of misunderstandings of how exactly they change, and how they adapt. I often found myself getting exasperated trying to explain through simple examples such as a giraffes neck; explaining how having a longer neck helps them reach higher food, but then being sure to stress that the individual didn’t get a longer neck because they want one, but that their children, if born with a slightly longer neck, will pass that trait on down.
Before you know it, your explanation has gone on longer than you wanted it to, and has included too many new words and concepts for your child to really stick to the point.
Don’t get me wrong, my son is one bright kid. Ask him what light is made of and he has two answers; a joke one (light is made from torches), and the real one (light is made of photons). It is just that getting kids’ minds to work on the scale of evolution takes a lot of mental effort on their part. Kids very rarely want to think of the consequences of their actions beyond the days play, let alone the consequences of animal’s actions across the generations.
Over the years my son’s understanding of the natural world has progressed quite well, and I am very proud when he talks about biological features as evolved, and ponders what their purpose is in helping the animal survive. But it was just the other day when we were discussing evolution (yes this is what my son and I do sometimes) that I hit on a better way to explain it to him.
I don’t quite recall how we got onto the subject, but I shocked Harry by telling him that our dog was descendant from wolves. Now perhaps this isn’t the most surprising fact for a child, but consider my dogs appearance:
This is why when i write of my dog, i often put inverted commas around the word 'dog'....
 That’s a wolf?!” He exclaimed (with an inflection well worthy of an interrobang).
I explained that back when man was still living somewhat in the wild, we domesticated wolves for companionship and to help make our lives easier.
I reminded him that a lot of traits in animals can be inherited from their parents (he is aware that he got half his DNA from me, and the other half from my wife, but luckily he hasn’t asked how they got mixed yet…), then asked him what would happen if we picked the ‘nicest’ wolves, got them to have babies, and then keep picking the nicer, friendlier, ones to have around us. He was pretty quick in understanding how these traits could be selected, and bred into the population. It was working a treat.
Next example I used was the domestication of the cow. I explained how we domesticated them from Aurochs, creatures that were twice as big, and quite nasty customers. Picking the smaller, more docile ones each time and having only those in your paddock, I was able to show how this selection can likewise change a population over time.
Perhaps I should have caught onto utilising artificial selection as a way of explaining this long ago after all Charles Darwin, the great man himself, used this introduction to his theory of evolution in On the Origin of Species.
Once this fundamental concept is understood, it is pretty easy to cross from artificial, to natural selection. All that has to be explained then it how animals in the wild aren’t selected by people because of the traits they want to propagate, but instead the individuals are ‘selected’ by nature, because they are the ones that survive better and have more kids.
It is a great feeling to see that you have successfully explained something to your kids, when you see that little click of comprehension, and the pride they feel having learnt something new. The only thing that worries me now is that he is garnering all of this information at a rate that much exceeded my own at his age. If our generation isn’t careful, these guys will be taking over in twenty to thirty years……

16 October 2012

Write What You Know

Write what you know. This is often advice given to people who want to write, but don’t quite know where to start. Some may have ambition to spare, but can’t quite get things rolling, or when they do, they find it careening off in a direction that they are unhappy with. To write what one knows is supposed to help corral ones prose into a direction that they can competently remark on, and give a detailed, and hopefully cogent, piece of writing at the end of the day.
This, like many things, is all good in theory.
I love writing, and I want to write more and more as the days go on. I find myself in the curious situation of wanting to write, and (I think) improving my writing every day, and yet I have nothing to write about. I am not in school or university anymore, I don’t have a job that requires me to utilise any of the things I have been learning about the proper application of the English language (indeed, I have been told to tone down my use of ‘big words’, lest people don’t know what I am talking about).
So in the past when I didn’t want to write, I had essays demanded of me. Yet now when I have a desire to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard), I have an annoying lack of venues to expend this on.
That is of course, how things look on the outside. Luckily for me, there is this wonderful thing we call the internet, and the proliferation of tools now available to help me write and put my words out there, regardless of the lack of interest, and lonesome chirping of crickets that await me.
But again I face the conundrum of what to write.
So far I have managed to fill the page with three hundred words of blather, yet a growing word count doesn’t give the same sense of satisfaction as it did in the old days, when I judged my writing solely on its ability to reach the teachers prescribed word limit. Now I want my writing to have a purpose.
So I fall back on to the mantra of writing what I know, only to realise that like a more true to the point Socrates, I know next to nothing. I am aware of the limitations of my knowledge, but this awareness doesn’t really offer any further avenues for me to traipse down.
I know a little about a lot of things, but there are a lot of things I know little about. Two statements that appear very similar, but paint contrasting pictures.
Perhaps this is why for my last NaNoWriMo I focused on a science fiction setting. True there can be a lot of reality packed into such tales; they are after all generally populated by people, with the same virtues and vices known to us. But at the end of the day if you are so inclined you can cram your story full of spaceships, robots and other such distractions in order to invent your own field of expertise. In this sense it is now only important to know what you write, as once thing that is paramount for such self-contained and speculative worlds is a firm sense of consistency.

And so, with my ersatz relaunching of this blog the past day, I will seize this opportunity to refocus the purpose of my blog more explicitly. It is not just an outlet for my thoughts, or a place that I can share some latest news story with my unqualified opinion. Rather it is a place for me to indulge in my passion for writing, and hopefully to help me find what it is I should be writing about.
Thus I am taking a somewhat converse and convoluted position from the title of this post; I am writing in order to find out what I know, so that I can write more effectively.
I hope this will be in some way enjoyable for you too valued reader, and look forward to hearing from you, should the need arise.

15 October 2012

Here It Goes Again

Well, this was quite a hiatus for me from the world of blogging. It has been a tumultuous time of late, working two jobs for a while, buying a house, and so on. And sometimes once you have broken the chain, it is hard to but the links back together again, so for a while I gave up on updating this blog. Slowly the postless days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months, until before you knew it I had gone five months without a single post springing forth from my clumsy fingers.
Sure I had material along the way, and wrote some half-arsed posts on the new Spiderman film, or our recent robotic mission to Mars (yes NASA, take that; I am claiming everything you do for humanity as a whole), but none of it ever manifested as an actual resolve to posting.
Slowly I began to lament my lack of blogging, and worse yet, I realised that whenever I did post next, I would have to explain my absence (which I recall doing multiple times in the past; not a good sign). Not only that, but my first post back should surely be a momentous one; one to distract from my previous neglect. And so I was further dissuaded from posting by my own eccentricities, but then today I had an epiphany.
Who cares?
My blog isn’t really that important, hell it isn’t even that good; it’s just my inner musings, distorted and extracted from my mind by my novice writing abilities for the public to see (but for most of them to ignore entirely). So why was I bothering to worry about the reception my new posts received?
The important thing after falling off a horse isn’t to vault back on Cossack style it’s just to get back on the damn thing, no matter the fashion.
So here I am, dusting off the reins, and strapping myself back in.
Hopefully some of you out there are looking forward to this, perhaps you enjoyed my posts in the past, and as I had no real talent or expertise to let wane over my absence, you can be assured that the same quality (or lack of it) will remain in future posts.
I’m looking forward to it.

[Interesting sidenote: During my hiatus I was still getting around 15 daily views of my blog, so if anything at least this break has provided me with a nice benchmark to winkle out the bot visits, and focus on the people really drawn to my musings.]