Tuesday, May 11, 2010


It's spring here at Thistlemoor where I live. Last Friday was sunny and warm but thunderstorms arrived in the evening, so Saturday was rainy, cold and very windy. The wind took down a Horse Chestnut tree Aesculus hippocastanum. This species is native to Europe but there are several species native to this region and we tend to call them Buckeye trees. The tree has suffered from some sort of canker disease killing one half of it's split trunk. I knew the tree was unstable, but resisted cutting it down because I love the candlestick blossoms so. The tree in full bloom on the ground was quite a finale! The canker disease has become widespread in Europe. It's quite worrisome that so many of our fine tree suffer so many diseases.

Sunday night we had a hard frost. The date of the late frosts isn't unusual, but it does seem that plants are further along than the used to be when the frosts come. Last year frost killed the Mulberry leave for the first time I remember, and Sunday's frost did it again. I notice dark leaves of frost damage all around, but as it always is spring is an explosion of growth.

My niece is planning a wedding here in June. I'm trying to do my spring planting, but there are always so many things to do in between the rains. The grass grows so fast and keeping it mown takes time away from the planting. There always seems such urgency this time of year.

In my last post I thought to write a post about how artist and creative types can make a living in these times of the Internet. It's a pregnant subject, but despite thinking about it quite a lot and collecting a list of links, I don't have much to offer on the subject.

The frequent complaint about my writing is that I'm too prolix. This blog has so little traffic that hardly matters here, except for the realization that it gets some traffic. Recently at a social network site I frequent a fellow from Kenya complained about the length of my post saying that it costs a lot of money to access the Internet there. The thread in question was a highly speculative topic on the nature of causes and lost causes. My post at slightly over 600 words didn't seem that damn long. But as this social network has few participants the stinging realization was that nobody was interested in what I had to say--lol.

A somewhat new arrival on the Ugandan blog scene is Freethought Kampala. I love the blog, it's thoughtful and very well done. Soon after Freethought Kampala was inaugurated the 27th Comrade arrived in the comments to contest mindless atheism. I have an enormous affection for the 27th Comrade, high among the reasons is he reads my posts. The emergence of Ugandan blogs is something I've watched with interest. From the beginning the 27th Comrade has been a frequent commenter and linker to the blogs. He's been a consistent booster but he's not afraid of being contentious. I'm not sure what got him banned from Freethought Kampala, whether it was the contentiousness of his comments or simply the length of them.

Anyhow, back around the beginning of May James Onen had a post at Freethinker Kampala, My Article In The Daily Monitor Newspaper which I wanted to comment on. But having been recently chastised about the length of my posts, I thought it better to make my comments on a post here. I then set about avoiding doing that post. Meanwhile the 27th Comrade and I have been arguing back and forth at his blog over posts that are essentially extensions of the debate begun at Freethinker Kampala.

The 27th Comrade's posts are very much worth reading, but it takes some time to do so, not just because of their length but the dept of thought in them. I certainly am not sufficiently educated in philosophy to really do his ideas justice in my comments, but when has my ignorance ever prevented me from talking? Nevertheless, in our back and forth, especially on this post it seemed only fair for me to try to develop some of my thoughts here instead of in his comments. And that prospect reminded me of the comments I wanted to make in re James Onen's post.

Onen had an op-ed published in The Daily Monitor on the subject of witchcraft. Included in his article was a challenge:
Anyone who thinks witchcraft works should contact me and collect two million shillings upon a successful demonstration of this so called black-magic.
The danger I see in the challenge is just what qualifies as witchcraft "working"? What came to mind was an observation the anthropologist Gregory Bateson--surely a freethinker--made about the matter:
I believe that all spells, meditations, incantations, suggestions, procedures of sympathetic and contagious magic, and the like, do indeed work--but they work upon the practitioner (as does "psychic energy"). But I presume that none of these procedures has any effect at all upon any other person unless that other participates in the spell or suggestion or at least has information or expectation that such spell or procedure has been performed.

But where these conditions are met and the other person is partly aware of what is being done and aware of its purposes aimed at himself or herself, I am sure that magical procedures can be very effective either to kill or cure, to harm or bless.
It's probably too simplistic a way of making the point, but a challenge like James Onen's taking Bateson's view into account, ought to be careful to make sure that ringers are excluded from the demonstration.

The 27th Comrade uses fairly formal reasoning. This has advantages and disadvantage. One of the advantages is that there is a structure to follow. A disadvantage for me about it is that I'm not well-versed in formal logic and I'm not so sure formal logic really applies to some of the rhetorical uses he put it too. Anyhow this post from Feburary, It's The Axioms, Friend provides a good introduction to his approach. Meanwhile 70 or so posts later I'm think in the weeds. The 27th Comrade has referenced Goedel's Incompleteness Theorems, here, and in a more recent post insists on completeness, here. In the first case it seems to me that he's using Godel's theorems as a sort of analogy. In the second case my sense is that completeness is more narrowly defined than to the circumstances it's being applied. In any case there's a technical level of the posts which I'm really not competent to address except in a clumsy way.

In looking up the post on Axioms, I noticed that I commented about Bateson on that post. Something that's become evident in our discussions is we both find hard materialism, a mechanistic view that reduces everything to physical bodies subject to impacts and displacements results in some horrible thinking. The 27th Comrade goes after this line of thinking in his formal way. I wanted to say a bit how I come at it, and the thinking of Gregory Bateson is a touchstone to me.

Bateson was opposed to mechanistic thinking about life, but he also opposed supernatural explanations. A central topic in my conversations with The 27th Comrade has been the intersection of Darwinian theory and the new atheism.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck is primarily known these days for a fallacy concerning inhertiance of acquired characteristics. But he was an important proponent pre-Darwin of evolution. Prior to Lamarck for most naturalists a hierarchy was assumed with God at the top. Mind emanated from the top down so to speak. Lamarck retained the order of life, but as Bateson observed in his book Mind and Nature:
A Necessary Unity:" The unity of epistemology was retained in spite of a shift in emphasis from transcendent Logos to immanent mind.
As I understand the 27th Comrade this idea of immanent mind makes not sense to him. Nevertheless, Bateson provides a critique of materialism from this perspective.

Bateson proposed six criteria of mental process in his book "Mind and Nature." He goes into some depth, but I'll just list the criteria here:

1. A mind is an aggregate of interacting parts or components.
2. The interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference, and difference is a nonsubstantial phenomenon not located in space or time; difference is related to negentropy and entropy rather than to energy.
3. Mental process requires collateral energy.
4. Mental process requires circular (or more complex) chains of determination.
5. In mental process, the effects of difference are to be regarded as transforms (i.e., coded versions) of events which preceded them. The rules of such transformation must be comparatively stable (i.e., more stable than the content) but are themselves subject to transformation.
6. The description and classification of these processes of transformation disclose a hierarchy of logical types immanent in the phenomena.
Bateson wasn't so sure of the actual content of his criteria, but felt sure that the idea that some structuring of "epistemology, evolution, and epigenesis is possible." My sense, and it's not terribly informed, is that these criteria have been met by some scholars favorably, but perhaps most contentious being the recruitment of logical types into the final criteria. That is a matter I suspect the 27th Comrade has some very useful things to say.

At this point it's clear that I've written long and haven't gotten very far, the very complaint I so often hear about my writing. I'll get around to saying more about Bateson's alternative critique of maerialism if the 27th Comrade thinks it at all interesting. But to close out this session I wanted to briefly go back to the subject of witchcraft "working."

Frequently when I think of prayer I think of some purpose like "Oh Lord, Won't You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz." Heathen that I am, generally the prayers I endure politely in silence are ones spoken by fundamentalist Christians. I may not be quite fair but the words that stand out to me are with hands up "Lord,just, just just . . ." and my mind tends to fill in the gap with "titillate me!" But this is not the only sort of prayer. The prayers in my prayer book of youth are remarkable to the extent that they are designed to "work upon the practitioner." The sort of work to be effected is a change in perspective to a wider and less selfish view; for example, "Lord make me an instrument of thy peace ..." What I notice about prayer of this sort is that it's not necessary really to believe in transcendent Logos to feel relevant to a person. Even a dyed in the wool atheist can find the change in perspective such prayers offer valuable. Even atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens talk about feeling a sense of the noumenous. Such a sense it seems is an apprehension of relationship.

Bateson points out that prayer works so well for oneself we are easily tempted to apply prayer to what we want out there. He thought when we do this we move from religion to magic. What I think is often lost on unbelievers like me is the nuance and essential validity of much religion and prayers which help us to see ourselves as part of it, that is in relation to a universe of relations, are a fine example of what we miss. Separating real religion from magic is not just for the religious, but something more of us would do well to take seriously.