Face Book

Busy morning.  I like it when I find myself working in a groove that doesn’t give me time to think about what isn’t working.  Not today.

Over a foot of snow is now lying like a serene comforter over everything outside.  Fluffly, white, very beautiful—if you don’t have to go out in it.  I am a snow humbug.  After learning to drive and struggling through a few winters way back then, I quickly lost my love of snow.  Pain in the ass.  Would be nice to look at, but go out in it?

Anyway, yesterday I had a snow day from work.  So I took care of a lot of pending stuff, including laundry.  This morning I’m finishing up the pending stuff.  I wrote a new book review and emailed it off to my editor.  And I am busily building a…


Yes, indeed.  One more bit of distraction to make the writing of great literature a bit more difficult to get to.

Not really.  Once the shiny wears off, it’ll be much like the other online pages I now have, like my MySpace Page and my Shelfari Page and my LinkedIn Page…

I’d been told, though, that all the “serious” people were on Facebook, as opposed to MySpace, and I must admit that so far that seems to be true.  I’ve found many more of the sorts of folks I’d wanted to link to on MySpace but couldn’t, because they weren’t there, here on Facebook.  So cool.

I really should just sit back now, though, and see how many friend invites I actually get.  I’ve cast my net to many and sundry and various to at least establish a friend list, but I ought to go write some fiction and let this thing churn.

On another front, I finished a couple of new books for review.  Jack McDevitt, who is a very nice man and a reliably entertaining writer, had Ace send me his most recent, The Devil’s Eye.  It was a quick, enjoyable read, smart people’s SF, and I intend to do a few paragraphs for the Post.

I finished Ian McDonald’s collection Cyberbad Days last week.  I already wrote two reviews of it and sent one off.  I’ll add it to the one I do for Jack.  I need one more for the roundup…

Have to go to work today.  The sun in shining, it’s a tad warmer.

I’m rambling here.  But what the hell.  Last night we watched episode #2 of Lie To Me, the new series with Tim Roth as a specialist in lying.  All the scientific acumen of his cinsiderable gifts are applied each week to determine who is lying and, more importantly, what about.  I can’t help wondering how much grief this show might cause among people who, after a few episodes, will start applying some of these techniques in their own lives.  Calling someone out for a lie can be a dicey proposition.  Even when we know they’re lying, how often do we know why?  And how often would calling them on it do the slightest bit of good?

I don’t know.  I’ve wrestled with this one for decades.  But it’s an amusing show.

The thing about these new shows—and there are several of them that all rely on the heightened experience of a trained observer, like Bones, The Mentalist, Eleventh Hour, House—is that while I applaud the foregrounding of rational observation and and a hardnosed skeptical approach to life these series embody, you have to realize that the degree of observational skill these characters bring to the task is the equivalent of an expert martial artist.  Most people are not that observant.  And even when they are, how many people know how to correctly interpret what they’re observing?  It’s the thing that made Sherlock Holmes both fascinating and alienating.  Holmes explained early on in the series that he refused to remember any detail that did not directly bear on his chosen pursuit—which meant he was, in this instance, unaware that the Earth moved around the Sun and, now that Watson had told him so, he intended to forget it as quickly as possible.  It made him strange, weird, offputting, and Conan Doyle played on that skillfully.  It’s the one thing the Basil Rathbone portrayals got wrong and expunged and the thing that Jeremy Brett brought to the forefront, which makes the Brett portrayal superior.

In the case of House, who is in many ways a direct copy, it just makes him obnoxious.

And not really a very good doctor…

Shelfari Time

I’ve been wasting time over my Shelfari page.  I opened it quite some time ago,posted a few titles, gathered a few friends, and then forgot about it till recently.

Since high school I’ve kept lists of the books I read.  Silly, maybe, but my memory is weird and occasionally I need something to trigger it—like the title of the book I know I read ten years ago.  What surprises me is that once I remember the book—remember actually reading it—a good deal of the book re-emerges from the cracks into which the details have fallen over time.

But there are gaps in the lists.  Like other things of the sort, I’m inconsistent, and in some cases I’ve lost the lists.  So I’ve been painstakingly reconstructing my reading history.  I decided that Shelfari is as good a place as any to keep these lists. Who knows?  They may be of interest to others.

But it has been kind of fun tripping through all these old memories.

What I’ve decided to do, though, just to keep me honest, is to list only those books I do in fact have a clear memory about.

See, part of my mis-spent youth was my senior year in high school.  I managed to cut two-thirds of it.  I was so utterly bored with school.  The thing was, instead of the usual adolescent running around looking for trouble, most of those days I spent at the local library.  (I was so totally a nerd and didn’t really acknowledge it—after all, I played keyboard in a band, I had cool friends, I dressed…well, let’s not go there.)  I’d enter the building, find a corner where I fell least observed, and read abook.  It really did get to a point where I was reading a whole book every time I sat down there.  I ran through those titles we all have come to know and love as Classics.

I do not remember vast swathes of those books.  I read them, sure.  But.

Partly, despite the fact that I had a post graduate vocabulary, most of those books were over my head.  I mean, I read Ulysses during that time, but I didn’t remember much when we entered the reading group for it a few years ago.  It was like an entirely new book.

So I’m being selective what I put in my Shelfari shelf.  If I remember the story, the characters, good parts of the experience, I list it.  If I draw a blank, even though I know I read it, I’m leaving it off.  For now.  So while I knkw I read most of Charles Dickens (acquiring my first major burn-out on an author) I only clearly recall some of them.

So I will have to reread Dickens.

And Conrad.  And DeFoe and Fielding and Galsworthy and Wharton and…

Not a bad prospect, actually, but I may not get through it all.  There are other books.  I have a stack on the floor of my office I ought to read to review.

Such problems!

What has emerged, making this list, is the major divide.  A lot of science fiction.  No surprise there.  I’ve always drifted toward it by preference, I’ve always gotten more out of it than most other forms of literature.  But then there’s history.  A lot of history.  Some science.

Zero poetry.  Never been a big one for that.  I’ve tried, but frankly, with one or two exceptions, most poetry just leaves me flat.

Anyway, I have been wasting time with this.  There are things I need to do.  I’m doing them.  But not as quickly as I should.

But dip in to my “library” and take a gander.  It’s instructive.  Of what, I don’t know.

All in all, I’m estimating that to date I’ve probably read maybe 4,000 books.  I’ve got about that many in my personal collection.  Could be more.  Don’t know how many of them are going to end up on the list.  But it is a way of organizing my memory.

Kind of fun.

Peter Banks

You wonder where they go sometimes, and then you stumble on a recording on an obscure label (of course, all labels seem obscure these days) and you think, “Damn!”

I treated myself to a new album this week.  Peter Banks, Reduction.


Peter Banks.  Let me do a little raving about Peter Banks.

Way back when my hormones and my ears synched in perfect openness and my future musical tastes became established, I discovered a small band (at the time) that I have since come to think of as seminal.  Yes.

No, really, the band Yes.  I’ve written about my affection for Yes elsewhere.  For the purpose of this article, let me repeat only a couple of details.  Yes becamse emblematic for me of everything that might be possible in the rock idiom (even though later I came to believe that they really weren’t a rock band, but only used the aesthetics of rock to advance a broader kind of music).  The first tune I heard, late one night on the radio, was a short little thing called Sweet Dreams, which sort of nailed my brain to a plank and infused me with a euraka-like recogntion.

The guitar player on that cut was Peter Banks.

I have come to realize that some musicians are just rough fits for certain bands.  There were two players in the early Yes that went on to do amazing stuff—Peter Banks and Tony Kaye.  Kaye was the original keyboardist for Yes.  (He reappeared later, with the Trevor Rabin line-up on 90210.)

Now, the first two Yes albums featured both these musicians.  Banks left, replaced by Steve Howe.  Kaye recorded the third Yes album—called The Yes Album—and then left to be replaced by Rick Wakeman.  History proceeded.

You wonder about people like Banks and Kaye. Both left a band that later broke into the mega bigtime.  What happened to them?

Well, the two of them formed a unit that many people heard as a kind of Yes rip-off, a band called Flash.  Flash had a couple of hits, they were popular on the college radio circuit, and did a lot of touring.  There was a Yessish flavor to their music, but really it was more that Banks, the leader, took the path that Yes veered from when he left.

I have Peter Banks’ first solo album, which had such players on it as Phil Collins, Jan Akkerman, John Wetton, and others.  All instrumental, which is exactly my kind of thing.

Kaye left Flash, founded a band called Badger, which did a few albums, then a band called Detective, and then became a session player.  I lost track of him until he reemerged with the reconstituted Yes in 1983.

Banks sank even further out of sight for me.

Then I stumbled on an independent cd called Instinct in 2001 or ’02.  Instrumental again.  I noticed a few other discs, and all I could think was “Where did these come from?”

So I broke down and bought another one, this one, Reduction.  I’m listening to it now.

This will be one of my regular rotations for writing.

Here’s the thing.  Banks didn’t play this well when he was with Yes.  I’m sorry, but he didn’t.  He didn’t find his own voice, his skill level, until he left.  Then it was like, where did this guy come from?  The playing he exhibited with Flash was rawer, gutsier than what he did with Yes.  The playing on his solo albums is intrictae, sophisticated, nuanced.  Nothing like what he did with Yes.  Perhaps nothing like he could do with Yes.

I have the same reaction to Tony Kaye when I hear his other work.  He was a basic keyboardist in Yes, competent but nothing memorable.  With Flash, with Detective, with Badger, the guy would really play.  When he rejoined Yes, it was like all that surprising skill disappeared.

Peters Banks seems to be doing all his albums in his own studio, completely solo, these days.  So here and there you find some excess, some bars that perhaps ought to have been cut, a track that lasts maybe a minute too long, things like that.  But nothing that, for me, diminishes from the work.  This is a musician who has finally found his groove, so to speak.

Usually with bands you have the opposite reaction—there are musicians who simply never sound as good in any other context, that once removed from The Band they lose something.  In this case, it may be that Yes and what it tried to accomplish was so specific that only the absolute perfect musicians for that aesthetic would work, and everyone else could only ever be just placeholders until the right players could be found.

Whatever.  There are a couple other Banks albums out there.  Not much.  But if they’re as good as what I’ve heard so far (I’m listening to Reduction as I write this) then I won’t complain.  Too much.

New Sheriff In Town

It’s like Clint Eastwood has come to town and all the bad guys are hiding under the tables or in closets. President Obama is striking down one stupid rule after another his predecessor left behind.  It’s a martial arts level kung fu pen-fest, signing (or consigning) the detritus of ignorance from the last eight years into the dustbin of…

Well, his overturned the international gag rule concerning abortion information.  He’s undoing the restrictions on stem cell research.  He has ordered Gitmo shut down within a year and a panel to look into what to do with the detainees.

Before the vacillations of moral outrage erupt over the gag rule overturn, it should be considered how absurd and cowardly a ban on talking about something actually is.  And I don’t mean from a national security perspective.  Clearly, some information is sensitive in that sense and should not be publicly disseminated.  But in the case of the gag rule, we’re talking about something that is, for all intents and purposes, Public Knowledge.  If you know what to look for, anyone can find this information and not be arrested for having it.  Yet grown men and women have been constrained from talking about it in the performance of their duties as doctors and nurses.

What part of “choice” do the enemies of choice not understand?

Anyway, not to beat a dead horse, but for the moment those days are over.  What needs to happen now is for a sensible policy concerning reproductive rights to come to the fore as quickly as possible.  Obama declared that his philosophy is to reduce the need for abortion.  I’m with that.  But that means offering people options.  Abstinence Only is one option out of many, and certainly not for everyone.

Things will only get harder now.  He’s declared himself willing and able to follow through on campaign promises.  His enemies will begin to retrench and we had all better be prepared for the circus when all this hits the courts.

Obama won by eight million votes.  Granted, he had a major victory electorally, but demographics shift tectonically, and that eight million vote majorty—twice the size of Bush’s last (presumed) victory—is not that big a buffer.  If Obama’s programs for the economy move forward in a clear and convincing manner and things improve there, he may well get to do the rest of his agenda without a lot of fuss.  But we can’t bank on that.  The economy is a mess for two reasons—it was heading for a crash anyway because it’s been running on ether for a long time and Bush policies exaccerbated the results of the crumble.  Even is Bush had run a fiscally decent administration, the downturn was looming.  Consumerism is not a sensible engine for economy stability because it suffers from cyclic and inevitable exhaustian: people can’t buy that much all the time, forever and ever.  Sometimes you need a break.  And that doesn’t even start on the problems with resource and energy costs.

I’m keeping my opinion on the optimistic side for now.  I think there’s an iron will in the man which will bowl over all but the most entrenched and insidious opposition.  Ignorance alone may not do it.  So we have to watch out for the really smart ones who know enough about their subject to throw the kinds of roadblocks in his path that seem to make sense.

Keep an eye on John Boehner, House minority leader.  He’s laying the groundwork for a nasty trap Obama could walk into.  He’s coming across all reasonable at the moment. He has a knee-jerk Republican stance on tax increases and he supported No Child Left Behind.  He also supports school vouchers, but calls them “opportunity scholarships.”  I believe he is also opposed to stem cell research and, being an Ohio Republican, is doubtless a pro-lifer.  I could be wrong about him, but…

In any event, kudos to Mr. Obama.  He seems aware that he has to beat the ravening mob to the table with better information in order to get a jump on the Ignorance Posse.  Let’s hope he can keep up the pace.  I’ll give it six months before the Republicans start trying to filibuster his proposals.

It’s not over yet.

Cadigan, Pat Cadigan

Pat Cadigan is a masterful storyteller.  One of her strengths is background nuance.  You know, filling in the bits and pieces of a world so that it stands up on its own and walks convincingly?  Layered on top of that are plots and characters that are among the most idiosyncratic and memorable in science fiction.

Besides which, she can be so damn funny, which science fiction sorely lacks.

Anyway, rather than post another blistering bit about the soon-to-over Bush presidency (and yes, I did watch his farewell speech and all I can say is, “Wasn’t that mercifully short?”) I thought I’d put out this link to an interview with the estimable Ms. Cadigan.

One Last Absurd Act…

The obsession the Right has had for lo these many years with people’s sexuality has received a final “gift” from the Bush Administration.

This is like grade school stuff.  It’s classic “If we don’t tell them about it, they won’t want it” thinking.

Many on the Right feel everyone should have the freedom to own weapons.  They think, implicitly, everyone is capable of proper usage of guns and that just because a certain number of individuals clearly intend to use them to the detriment of others, that that is no excuse to keep them out of the hands of everyone else.  They are supportive of education in proper use of firearms.

So why the different attitude toward sex?

I expect this question never to be answered in such a way as to be persuasive to those who think sex is something that ought to be left in the gutter and in the closet, who think that teenagers ought not be told about it in the vain hope that they won’t use it, but I am so utterly and profoundly tired of this infantile crap.

So you’re squeamish and you react negatively to words like “penis” and “vagina” and the idea of the one sliding into the other sends shivers of revulsion down your spine.  But oddly enough you probably don’t have a problem with images of gunshot wounds or swords cleaving limbs from torsos.  You have no problem with the idea of strapping someone to a chair or table and applying pain in order to extract information.  You’ve got no problem with dumping toxic waste into rivers or landfills as long as you can live apart from it in the style and manner to which you’d like to be accustomed.  You have no problem prosecuting a president for a blow job but one who has ordered the slaughter of hundreds of thousands based on twisted and erroneous information is okay.

Here’s the trade off—I won’t call you a sociopath and try to enact legislation to require you to seek psychological counseling if you would just get out of people’s sex lives!

Do you have any idea how much misery, suffering, and pain the ignorance of matters sexual causes, globally, every day because you, whoever you are who thinks this kind of repression is somehow moral, can’t stand the idea of people making love outside the bounds of your narrow moral vision?

In certain countries, where marriage is the norm for 11, 12, or 13 year old girls, there is an unfortunate and horrible physiological syndrome these girls suffer if they become pregnant.  Because their bodies are capable of intercourse and they’re dropping eggs, pregnancy is not uncommon, but because their bodies are not fully mature, it can cause a tear between the uterus and the bowel, which results in a constant leakage of waste fluid out of the bowel.  Over time, the condition festers, can often lead to plasmotoxosis and septisemia, probably an early death, but before that it cause these girls to begin to smell horribly.  They are then ostracized and cast out of their communities.  Before the absurdity of Abstinence Only informed our policies, American sponsored health organizations, like Planned Parenthood, were addressing that problem.  They couldn’t change the custom of early marriage but they could provide contraception and reliable education, and for a time they were making inroads in stopping this.  Bush’s people cut all that funding and now the problem is back in full.

Point  being, not all the services provided by these “evil advocates of irresponsible carnality” are for the purpose of allowing people to screw recreationally whenever they want—there are serious, serious health issues involved.

There are many such instances of unfortunate side-effects of sex which these policies have exaccerbated and I am fucking sick and tired of it!

So along with Bush and his cronies, I would like all you sex-aversive morons to kindly leave as well.  Many of us do not share your revulsion.

Enjoy your parting shot while you can.

End of rant.


I watched a good portion of Bush’s last press conference and couldn’t help thinking it was an audition for the part of a recovering junkie recently fallen off the wagon.  It wasn’t the words so much as the body language and facial expressions that held my attention.  Surreal?  Hasn’t the whole sad thing been surreal?

The question is, does any of it make sense?  You can disagree with presidents all through history, but in the end almost all of them served their presumed constituency.  Even Reagan.  Which is one reason so few of them end up with terrible legacies.  It was those who could not seem to define either their constituency or how to serve that constituency who have been relegated to the sidelines with bad notices.  Buchanan, who could seem to do nothing constructive even when faced with clear choices, and ended up leaving office with a divided nation on the brink of civil war, serving no one.  Millard Fillmore, who set the stage for Buchanan’s disastrous fence-sitting with the Compromise of 1850, a package of slave state laws that, rather than smoothing out sectional differences, exaccerbated them by not taking a uniform stand.  Hayes, whose entire administration was haunted by the finagling by which he gained the White House.  Nixon, who, although doing many positive things during his tenure, ended by nearly destroying the very democracy he had sworn to serve.

Many of these presidents could be said to have ruled by the maxim of “It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time.”  But surely, one could say, they had to have some idea that they weren’t doing a particularly good job.   Watching Bush defend himself in his last press conference sort of denies that.  He doesn’t seem to get it.

In response to a question about his actions with Katrina, he wondered aloud if he could have done something different, like maybe land Air Force One in New Orleans or Baton Rouge.  Does he really not understand that his appointment of a subpar administrator to FEMA and the gutting of FEMA’s budget over the previous several years led to the Federal Government’s inability to effectively respond?  Once the levies broke, what could he have done differently?

He brags about his AIDS effort, but said nothing about his continual subversion of anykind of sensible prophylaxis policy regarding either Africa or the United States—where the distribution, education of use, and implimentation of rational clinical practices might have gone toward stemming the spread of AIDS (condoms among other things) he boasts that he has helped close the barn door after the horses have fled.

(I don’t want to minimize the benefit of his increased funding for drug programs in Africa—it is a very big deal.  An especially big deal for a president whose base oncludes people who exhibit retrogade thinking about matters of sexuality, some of whom see AIDS as divine punishment.  But it’s still after the fact.)

His eyes drifted around the room as if searching for something.  Then abruptly he would focus on a reporter and get aggressive about “What would you have done?”

It is clear that he can’t wait to go home.  He’s all but moved out of the White House and Obama is all but actually running the country.

I did not feel pleased that Bush is leaving.  Relieved, maybe.  But basically I feel sad.  About the whole thing.  That he’s out of office is all to the good at this point—he’s made himself effectively useless—but I can find no space to gloat.  In my opinion he ought not to have been re-elected in ’04.   I am sad for the country.  And by extension for the world.  Bush has left a huge mess.  No matter how hard Obama works, we ought not to expect more from him than that he stop the plummet.  Recovery is another matter.

Bush’s presidency is marked by bully politicking.  He badgered people, bullied them, threatened them, fired them when they got in his way (if he could), allowed his subordinates to practice the most vicious form of “not invented here, it’s not welcome” ideological triage I have ever seen.  Many of the people who stood up to him over 8 years are finding places in the Obama administration (the former general who told them all that they were underestimating the troop levels that Iraq would require is about to be head of the Veteran’s Administration—he was forced to resign after Rumsfeld complained about him and his “defeatism”) and these are quite a roster of competent men and women.  It was as if Bush couldn’t stand anyone in his administration who could do their job better than he could.  The Valarie Plame affair, which has yet to be satisfactorily resolved in my mind, was the most blatant form of this mindset in recent memory.

And we have on record his vice president declaring that he approved water boarding as an interrogating method, claiming that they had a memo from the OLA that it was not a violation of international law.

Bullies.  Small minded people.  Narrow in scope, broad in prejudice, with a notion about what the world ought to be like and be damned what it actually is.

And George stands before all, vacillating, uncertain, at times clearly wishing he was somewhere else, other times on the offensive, beligerant, cracking bad jokes, and making excuses for policy decisions the problems with which he seems not to grasp.

I cannot imagine the dinner table conversation in the Bush household once he’s home.

And there are Republicans out there who believe he has done well, that they can regain their dominance (not Newt Gingrich—for all that I find his politics the polar opposite of mine, I do not underestimate his intelligence or perception—who says the Republicans threw their success away with both hands), that they are simply misunderstood and this current rise in Democratic fortunes is an abberation.

They must believe that Americans like war, like tax system that favors the wealthy and provides no services or relief for the poor, that an educational system that basically discounts schools and children who don’t come up to their standards and then refuses to acknowledge that they exist is a good system, that people who know how to increase a bottomline by shipping jobs and money offshore are somehow patriotic, that….

And that health care is only for those who can afford it directly out of their own pocket.

We should ask if we are collectively that stupid.

The Bush Administration played a shell game over 8 years, one that played on the public fear of labels (it’s Socialism!) and class resentments, that played on an inability to separate truth from facade, that banked on the general lack of understanding about the difference between morality and ideology, that frightened us into turning blind eyes to the most basic abuses of our national values (torture is torture, I don’t care how many towers They knock down),  that relied on our inability to count.  At the end, what did they leave us with?

A trillion dollar deficit (the Iraq War was supposed to be over in a few months and cost around 50 billion dollars, after which the Iraqis would pay for their own security); a collapsed financial system (the plunder was abetted by lack of oversight, a further underfunding of the SEC, and a Free Market trade policy that saw foreign pillage of American industry); an educational system that teaches less and tests more, leaving many kids out in the cold in terms of what they actually know (those states or districts which have turned this around, many of them have dropped out of No Child Left Behind); and an energy policy that is playing catch-up, spurred not by governmental leadership but by those entrepreneurs who, here and there, actually have a conscience; the United States of America’s lowest moral standing in global politics since Vietnam.

It may be that Bush wanted to be president to show Daddy that he was all growed up, but that only explains so much.  It may well be that his only mission was to reseal the archives that might have told us Bush Senior’s role in Iran Contra, which W did almost immediately after his first inauguration.  But then what?

I think Bush found a love of campaigning.  That’s what his tenure has been marked by.  Constant campaigning.  Adminstrating, not so much.  Bush loved winning and to win you have to campaign.  Actually running things, he’s never been very good at.  But making the touchdown…he could do that.  And he gloried in it.  Better than anything else, and he fell into doing it naturally.  He was a better campaigner than Kerry.  Better than McCain.  Better than anybody.

But the campaign is over now and he has to explain the trail of destruction he’s left behind.

One last note about voters.  We have suffered enough from a misplaced Common Man syndrome.  Americans seem to disdain intellectuals, especially politicians who display some sophistication.  George W. Bush possessed all the common touch one could hope for.  Obama is clearly an intellectual.  Bush read 40 books last year.  Obama has written two of his own, and everywhere he goes a book is not far away.  I’m not sure if the signifcance can be measured, but I for one am weary of ignorance in power.  I hope we never get seduced by the image of being able to have a beer and brat with a presidential hopeful again.

In This Corner…

Recently I engaged in yet another cycle of debate with someone who insists that science is a religion.

This is a tiresome argument on one level because it is one with all sorts of things that fall under the category of “I know it when I see it.”  But on another level, it’s a rather interesting question.  Not that science itself, as practiced by people who understand it or appreciated by those who don’t practice it but at least have a grasp of its nature, is a religion, but certainly people make religions out of all sorts of things.  So the question arises, what are the necessary and sufficient constituent elements of religion?  And which of those constituent elements does science (a) possess or (b) lack?

On the one hand, I’d like to be able to shut down the folks that blithely,without thought, make that allegation, that science is a religion.  On the other hand, I am interested in the psychology of religious adherence.

It would be easy to say the one element both share is Faith.  One has to believe that something is efficacious in order to base one’s thoughts, ideas, or life on the principles embodied by a given discipline.

I dismiss this out of hand because a lifetime of rubbing up against religious folk has convinced me that, for many (especially those who make this particular argument) faith alone is not sufficient.  It’s not enough that you express a belief in a religious philosophy, you have to demonstrate it.  You can’t sit at home on Sunday and be a good believer, you have to show up where the others can see you being a believer, and mouth the words they all mouth, and show them that you believe.  Ironically, of course, this is proof of a sort, something faith is supposed to do without.

Faith wavers, but that alone does not make it unreal, so it is clear that people put their faith in many things—family, friends, money, political ideologies, the Lottery, the fact that the sun will appear in the morning—but these things do not constitute religions.  (One can jokingly make a case for any of them, but there are no churches associated with most of them except by the longest stretch.  I’ve made the case before that sports constitutes a religion—people get passionate about it, build great cathedrals for the practice of it, attend services regularly, and argue doctrine [designated hitter, college basketball ranking for the finals, etc]—but obviously, though some folks treat it that way, they do not believe regular observance at football or baseball games will get them to heaven after death.)

Religious faith is supposed to stand regardless of challenge.  The kind of faith science engenders requires that adherents be willing to ditch a belief if it is proven wrong.  Semantics aside, that’s a clear difference.

But religion embodies things other than faith and that’s where it gets thorny.  Why isn’t science a religion?

Does it have a priesthood?  You could make a case for that.

Does it have associated ritual?  Yes, certainly—peer review if nothing else.

Does it have worshipers?  Fans, certainly, and I suppose you could say that any collection of amateur devotees can be said to worship something if they go far enough.

Does it demand worshipers?  Ah, well, depending who you ask….

To what end would the worship of science lead?

Do worshipers derive the same sort of warm comfort from science as they might from religion?

We’re getting into questions of sociology now.  Which leads to a question of intent.

Do scientists actively seek to build a community of worshipers?  I would say not.  Supporters, yes, but they prefer supporters who understand what they’re supporting.

Do scientists insist that the trappings of science be inculcated in daily life?  Like, for instance, rosaries or St. Anthony medallions, crucifixes on bedroom walls, a Bible in the house?  Do they argue over which trappings are important?

We get into a fairly complex arena of interchangeable motifs.  Anything can be retasked for a purpose for which it was not originally intended.  So you might argue that while a religion always intended that its trappings be seen and used as objects in support of worship, this is not the case in science.  If people subsequently embue such things with an aura of religious potency, this is clearly a mis-use per the original intent.

So is it the continuation of original intent, allowing for slight modification over time, that informs a religion with its particular identity?  Perhaps.  This can also be seen as a transmission of ideas over time, which certainly science relies on as well.

We reach a point, again, where just about anything can be described functionally as a religion if we deconstruct it sufficiently.  By the same token, we can do the reverse, and argue that anything is merely a manifestation of community involvement in matters of importance to that community, which renders even religion as nothing more than a kind of tribal custom, meaningless outside the context of a given community, no different at all from politics, music, theater, art…or science.

Those who claim that science is a religion are not making anthropological observations.  They are engaging in an attempt to bring science to a level with religion, make it the same as religion, and thereby stripping science of any special capacity to challenge religious claims.  The fact that it really does get difficult to state a necessary and sufficient condition for what constitutes a religion makes it equally difficult to debate the point clearly for lay people.

The one element I have not mentioned is god.  (Forgive me, I always spell that with a small G because it is not, to my mind, a proper name.  It is a designation of a concept.  Which god?  Zeus?  Queztelcoatl?  Odin?  Vishnu?  They are all proper names for gods.  By the same token, I tend not to capitalize “human” for much the same reason.  It is a category.  Over time, the plethora of gods have gradually been subsumed into a concept, at least by many people, of one god, and yet…it is a category.)  The inclusion of god (or gods) into the make-up of all the foregoing descriptors inevitably characterizes those agglomerations of doctrine and ritual and architecture as religions.

There is no god in the necessary and sufficient descriptors of science or scientific practice.

Metaphorically, much literature alludes to false gods—money, power, certain idols, celebrity, etc.  But in all these it is implicit that the objects in question are not gods, but are only seen as such by those who are being judged as worshipers by those who disapprove of that worship.  Fair turnabout would then argue that if a religious person making that argument really believed that the bestowal of godhood onto one of these objects is sufficient to define it as a religion, albeit a false one, then you must admit that it is only such bestowal of godhood on the accuser’s object of worship that makes it a god as well—hence no actual deity, only the assertion of a believer.  Not wanting to open that particular can of worms, I think most religious people who condemn false gods admit, at least to themselves, that really the objects in question aren’t gods even to those who seem to be worshiping them.  At most they are distractions.

No, it is the assertion that there is an actual deity that separates the concepts.

But it does pose a most interesting question—is god real if no one believes in it?

The religious will say yes, absolutely.

The scientist will likely say probably not.  The scientist will say Show me proof.  If none is forthcoming, belief is not so much denied as never credited.

Functionally, then, we come to a clear difference.

And yet, the argument continues.  Why?  Because there is strife between them.  They both represent differing views of the Real.  Religion seems incapable, as a discipline, of regarding any challenge to its hegemony as anything other than a religion.  Religion can only be legitimately displaced by another religion.

It cannot be ignored.  It cannot be sidestepped as irrelevant.  It cannot be seen as obsolete.

Which it is not.  But for those who insist on categorizing science as a competing religion, there is very little traction out of their own extinction.  In my opinion, they have missed the point of both religion and science and have been conscientiously digging a rut for themselves ever deeper.

For the benefit of both, I believe, a sound distinction should be found.  Perhaps there is one that answers all the questions I’ve put forth here.  I am one of those who basically “knows it when I see it” and find it difficult to succinctly characterize the differences.  If it is, indeed, simply the inclusion of god in the mix, then there ought to be no argument between the two.  But it seems to me that there is something much closer to home embodied in the question.  There is an issue of consequence inherent.

By that I mean that the acceptance of one or the other discipline as a guiding principle is seen to have consequences in morality and ethics and, for one side, in the afterlife.  Setting aside the extremist position that so-called godlessness leads to rampant immorality (it is a hard thing to prove as no regime  has ever succeeded in stamping out belief in god, only particular manifestations of worship), the larger question is simply this: is the belief in other things not included or inculcated by religious practice (the universe as revealed through scientific inquiry) de facto counter-religious?  In other words, is the practice of science inevitably destructive of religious expression?  Conversely, is religious observance inevitably destructive of scientific inquiry?

If both are indeed religions, then the answer is likely yes. That would make them competitors, with contrary agendas.

But if there is a sound distinction (which I suspect there is), then the answer is no.

Given all these questions, I invite discussion.  I am curious.

The End of Hell

Yesterday, our reading group did the last canto of Dante’s Inferno.  We reached the center, climbed the hairy haunch of Satan, and emerged to a place where above could be seen stars.  I’m told each volume of the Commedia ends with stars.

There is in this final fabrication a very science-fictional scenario which can easily be read as a depiction of a singularity.  All motion has ceased except for the flapping of Satan’s wings and the gnawing of his three mouths on the bodies of the ultimate betrayers, Judas, Brutus, and Cassius.  (As in most other places in the Inferno, Dante mixed post Christian Era figures with Classical forms.  He is talking about Reality, not denominations.)  Ice is everywhere, there is a brief description of the center of the earth being the point where all weight is drawn equally.  Time stops.

Dante seems to have grasped the notion that Absolutes embody extreme conditions, that the core of absolute evil will be a thing where the normal laws of motion, of sight and sound, of behavior all exhibit impossible manifestations.  All is in suspension.

Imagine cutting your finger.  Imagine the razor edge of a blade sliding through the flesh.  Now imagine that moment, frozen in time, always being the single sensation you experience, constantly, without beginning or end.  Eternity.  Pretty bad.  Now imagine being constantly eaten.

Now consider:  Dante’s theme is that all these people have done this to themselves.  Satan didn’t put them here, hasn’t manufactured these punishments.  The inhabits did it all on their own.  They are trapped in their own constructions.

To escape, all they have to do is imagine a way out of their own concepts and then accept it.

They can’t.

That is the blade through the flesh, tautologically locked into a continuous feedback loop.

Dante was not, furthermore, positing that the “truth” these folks turned their back on has much of anything to do with god or ecclesiastical law.  It is entirely to do with their concepts of what constitutes Reality.  By Reality, we mean that which we do in the world.

What has become clear through 34 cantos is that Dante was concerned not with the tropes of his poem, but with the realities of the denizens he introduces as he and Virgil descend toward Malebolgia.  This is not a religious work.  In this sense, it more closely approaches science fiction than fantasy.  The ghost in the machine which dominated the lives and decision-making of all these souls permeates the narrative like a Turing Test, set to determine which are aware, which are not, and which are aware of the alternatives and refuse to accept them.  Like some pernicious form of nano technology, these people have built their own torments.  Inferno is a parody of the Earth, of life, stripped down and fine-tuned to give the inhabitants what they have acted like they’ve wanted.  Traps, cul-de-sacs, isolation chambers, pain generators…

And the curious element that recurs throughout is how little they pay attention to anything outside their own small place in the pit.  Many resent Dante coming into their midst, seeing them, but then seem to forget about them as soon as Virgil takes Dante onward.

Inferno is a piece of psychology.  And the lowest pit is reserved for betrayers who used the excuse of the greater good in order to turn on a friend or leader.

Dante was a believer in self-retribution.  No matter what fate these folks suffered in life—and many landed in prison or were murdered or otherwise brought to ugly ends—the ultimate punishment is always the damnation of their own inability to see past their own corruption.  It is that which condemns them, which sequesters them.  You get the deep feeling that any of them could leave if they could just see.  But they can’t.  They are morally blind.

Some seem to prefer where they are.  They do not want to be “saved.”

Extending this, it would seem that Dante was of the (then heretical) opinion that achieving Paradise was something within our own grasp simply by making a choice.

Choice.  The ultimate punishment exhibited in Hell is Satan’s own.  He had questioned god’s decision to give humanity free will.  He argued that if given the authority he could guarantee humanity’s worship of god, that he would make the ideal boss.  He apparently didn’t get the whole notion of free will.  And in the end he reins over (or under) a realm occupied by people incapable of choosing any other path than the utterly solipsistic one  that brought them here.  He is stuck in the hole, plugging the way between what is now Hell and Purgatory, eternally in the presence of people who are there because they simply lack the capacity to be anywhere else.  They are chained to their devotions.

It is now January 5th.  2009.  We have witnessed the meltdown of everything we thought was a successful business model in this country—in the world—and there are no doubt people who have lost everything who don’t understand what brought them to this hill.  They had choices along the way to stop taking profits and invest in something real, but they couldn’t get off the ride.  Someone else, they assumed, would pay the price.  Well, someone else did.  But so did they.

Metaphorically, I find the parallels fascinating.  It’s almost tempting enough for me to attempt a fantasy to take advantage of the insight.  But then again, it’s not that deep of an insight.

What I will be interested in is what lies ahead, in Purgatorio.  Will it be peopled by the collateral damage of all the machinations of those in Hell?

Meantime, I’m writing a new science fiction novel.