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Thursday 24 November 2016

Five Reasons Why It's Not About Things I Don't Like, So Stop Telling Me That It Is

There's this common accusation being thrown around the place a bit like a happy little monkey playing with a pile of faeces : that people are protesting the results of elections just because they don't like them. As though we are no better than naughty children hurlding toys from a pram. I've almost given up, since such people seem hell-bent on ignoring reality, but let me try and explain one last time why this is really, utterly, wrong.

1) Protests Are Inherently Democratic Even When You Lose The Vote, You Twerps

If you really value democracy as you oh-so-conveniently insist that you do, you ought to welcome dissenting opinions. Oh, sorry, did you actually just want a tyranny by majority, not a society which values freedom of thought ? My mistake. Obviously I must have been crazy to assume that I still had the right to protest and disagree when a vote went against my preference. I guess I'm just supposed to swap my moral principles after every vote. Because you lot totally would have accepted any result and not contested it, right ? Oh, wait, you wouldn't. And no-one would have told you that you couldn't, because that's how a democracy is supposed to work. I happen to think that calls for a second Scottish independence referendum are a dreadful idea, but you don't hear me telling Nicola Sturgeon to put up or shut up. And yes, you have the right to tell me I'm just a whiner, but seriously, would it kill you to actually listen to my arguments first ?

I'm not making any claims to respectful discourse with this post. It's more of case of total exasperation because respectful discourse doesn't seem to be having any effect.

2) General Elections Are Not The Same As Referenda So For The Love of God Please Stop Pretending That They Are, And "The Love Of God" Is Just An Expression So Don't Anyone Dare Tell Me I'm A Religious Nutter Or It Shall Go The Worse For You

You don't hear me protesting the results of general elections. I don't go around saying, "PUT THE LABOUR PARTY IN CHARGE EVEN THOUGH THEY LOST THE VOTE !" Why ? Because that would be stupid in a way that protesting the non-binding Brexit referendum isn't. A general election is binding; the only way to overturn the result is through a new election if no party or coalition succeeds in forming a government. The results of a general election can (mostly) be counteracted at the next one anyway, and the complex series of checks and balances limit how much the government can do and largely prevents tyranny by majority. So for the next few years, I continue to have my say as does everyone else, and the results aren't set in stone. There's no need for me to question the validity of the vote itself*, but when the government makes an unpopular choice you most certainly do hear people protesting. And if there's a suspicion of electoral fraud, you get to hear about that too. In both cases you don't hear people saying, "shut up, it's the will of the people".

* Though we do also get plenty of discussion about whether the "first past the post" system makes sense given that it's producing results which are now very different to the popular vote. And that's fine, because reasoned discourse is not the same as saying, "quit your jibber-jabber".

Let me expand on that in the vain hope that it might make a bit of difference. Whereas with a general election my views usually get some level of representation and influence even if my party doesn't win, this doesn't work with the crude nature of a binary referendum choice. So if I don't like the result I've really no option but to protest. It's true that we usually elect governments with less than 50% of the total electorate supporting them - but it's also the case that the opposing views are still represented in Parliament, and such decisions can be reversed a few years later. When, however, I see a legally non-binding decision made by around 37% of the electorate being treated as irrevocably decisive which will do massive economic damage to our country, then why in the world shouldn't I protest ? All I ever hear in response is, "will of the people".

It's an absurdity to take the virtues of democracy to such an extreme. You wouldn't let drunk people vote to jump into a volcano and you wouldn't cry out "will of the people" for a suicide cult. Sorry, but 1.7 million (4%) is not a decisive number considering the level of regret expressed afterwards and the numbers who didn't vote - and no, it's not sensible to pretend that the non-voters are happy with the result either way, because that's putting words in people's mouths and nothing could be less democratic than that. When we have to make a decision as complex as this one, we need much stronger safeguards than in a normal election  - but we've opted for the opposite, choosing to rip out all the seatbelts, neck a bottle of whiskey and floor it in the hopes that a magical wizard will save us, or something.

The depressing thing is that no-one listens to these arguments. They just say "you're being a whiner". Well you're damn right I'm whining. The problem is you're not listening to the reasons why I'm whining.

3) For The Last Bloody Time, Freedom Of Speech Does Not Mean Absolute Freedom From Consequences, You Muppets

There's freedom of speech and then there's being idiotic. Neither democracy nor freedom of speech are virtuous when they're taken to extremes - which in no way whatsoever invalidates their tremendous value in normal circumstances. Just as you wouldn't let drunk people vote to jump in a volcano, you also wouldn't let someone knock down your door and start insisting that you join the Church of Enlightened Dentists. You wouldn't deny the Church of Enlightened Dentists the right to exist (well some of you would) but you'd damn well object if they had rights to come and go wherever they wished. So does a newspaper really have the right to repeatedly print provable lies, or a political campaign the right to print lies on the side of a bus and drive it up and down the country for months on end ? When did freedom of speech become freedom of fraud ? Is that no longer a criminal act ?

4) These Are Not Normal Times

The unusually extreme nature of the stakes in the current crop of political disasters demands an unusual response. We aren't talking about cuts to local libraries or increasing class sizes by 3% here. In the UK, we're talking about breaking up economic and political relations with a massive financial bloc established over decades. You cannot pretend that simply accepting this as, "oh look, the government made another lousy decision but never mind we'll vote 'em out next time" makes any kind of sense. This is a generational decision with profound effects for everyone. It is not the same as a regular parliamentary decision, so please stop pretending that it is.

In America, things are even worse. It's true that reason two does not apply here, so ordinarily I wouldn't be advocating things like the petition to have the electoral college make Hillary Clinton president. In a nutshell, they've chosen a near-insane populist whose campaign was replete with misogyny and racism so blatant that it's energised neo-Nazis. It's absurd to think that this demands the populace simply bow down to the usual disappointment that every losing side experiences at every election, because the possible consequences are just too high. Democracy is complicated - so yes, in some extreme circumstances it does make sense to protest the result of a vote (TLDR version : Hillary won the popular vote !).

Not that I'm suggesting the system is rigged. I'm suggesting that even if the votes are fairly cast and counted, there are some results so extreme they should not be accepted without question.

5) It's Not About Things I Don't Like, It's About Objective Reality

I don't like the new Star Wars movie very much. I also don't like the colour pink or wasps or tomato-flavoured anything, and I'm not overly-fond of peanuts either. Please try and get it through your thick, silly heads that these things are subjective. While I am actually certain that I don't like these things, I can't ever be certain that they are inherently bad. You can't say that tomatoes have an inherently bad flavour, because this is an opinion, not a fact. Sometimes, what starts out as an opinion ("I think that X will happen based on observations of Y") can be transmuted into a fact ("we saw X actually happen and proved that it was due to Y") based on evidence. Other things, like opinions on the virtues of tortoises and daffodils, will remain forever opinions - they are based only on feelings, not evidence.

Some things in politics are very much of the latter category. Others, however, are very much in the realm of evidence-based opinions. For example, the claim that we could leave the E.U. and spend £350 million per week to fund the NHS instead of paying membership fees. This was a particularly well-crafted piece of bullshit, a.k.a. "post-truthism". First, we're not spending that much on E.U. membership anyway. Second, it completely ignores the enormous economic benefits that being an E.U. member brings - the drop in the value of the pound even at the mere prospect of our leaving cost us more than our total membership fees ever had. Third, it mixed evidence-based (though wrong) arguments with a purely subjective opinion : who says we'd spend the membership fees on the NHS ? The Leave campaigners weren't going to be in a position of authority after the vote. This mixture of evidence and opinions creates something that's extremely difficult to refute. Fourth, the reaction of Nigel Farage afterwards is pure, utter bullshit. Not a day had passed before this overblown claim, along with the other major factor of promised immigration controls, were openly admitted by the Brexiteers to be wrong before they were simultaneously trying to blame someone else. The logic here equates simply to aaaaarrrrghhh. You had the whole campaign to distance yourself from these incredibly blatant lies, but you waited until after you won and you market yourself as more credible than the phoney Westminster establishment ????!?!?

Then there's Trumpy McTrumpface. Oh, where to start ? At least Nigel has some principles - i.e. xenophobia - but Trumpy has truly none. As a pure populist, he says whatever it takes to win popularity in his immediate environment. He flip-flops to an unprecedented extreme*. You can't argue with someone who doesn't care what the truth is. You certainly shouldn't vote for them, because you have absolutely no friggin' clue what you're voting for. And again, OK yes, normal elections do feature lies and bullshitting, but to this extent ? To this level of blatant, open admission that both Trumpy and Nigel said they only told little tiny fibs to help them win ? I think not. At least some Trumpy voters have been upset by some of this, whereas some Brexiteers just don't seem to give a damn.

* And somehow it's Clinton who's seen as corrupt and untrustworthy ! Don't get me started... 

So OK, fair enough, there are some aspects of the current situation I don't like because of purely subjective feelings. But there are also a good many reasons I'm complaining which are objective facts. I'm sorry that you don't like them, but facts are facts. Rejecting reality and substituting your own is great on a T-shirt but it's a lousy lifestyle choice. Constantly appealing to racists and assorted other bigots throughout your campaign and then denying you're a racist - oh yes, good job. Well done, you've mastered the art of post-truthism. Yippdee-frickin'-doo.

Conclusion :Aaaaaaarrrrggggghhh.

It's one thing to say I'm whining about the results because I don't like them. That is true, but like all bullshit, completely misses the point. To say I'm only whining because I don't like the results is just plain wrong. In that context, when you tell me to shut up and accept the result, I hear, "I don't want a debate, I want a tyranny by majority". When you tell me that you don't see this behaviour after a normal general election, I hear, "I don't understand that democracy is actually quite complicated and I probably shouldn't be allowed near sharp objects." When you ignore the blatant lies told throughout the campaigns or defend them in the name of freedom of speech, I hear, "It's OK to tell lies to get the result I want". And when you completely ignore objective reality and scream "will of the people !!!" without even listening to the counter-arguments, all I hear is, "I want mob rule !". Oh yay, what a bright and rosy post-truth future we can all look forward to.

Sunday 20 November 2016


Foreign excursions are a lot like busses : nothing for half the year, then three come along at once. So, hot on the heels of the Portugal/France trip came a short northerly jaunt to the northern wastes of Denmark.

...or at least to the modern, vibrant metropolis that is Copenhagen. Having had a paper just accepted and a relatively favourable referee's report on another, this was strictly a social call with not a conference in sight. I even limited my internet access to my extremely primitive smartphone. Total science detox FTW !

Scandinavian countries are getting a lot of attention lately as socialist utopias. In fact, practically any European country looks like a socialist heartland compared to Trumpland 'murica; it's just that the Scandinavian lands are rather more equal than others so there's a tendency to pick them as the obvious point of comparison. Actually, the Czech Republic is a technologically advanced nation which also has tremendous income equality, it's just that the salaries are all ridiculously low compared to the lands of the Northmen. I guess 'muricans don't have much truck with that comparison.

Anyway, I'm not going to harp on about the politics after a three-day jaunt, but it does need to be said that Copenhagen is not a cheap destination. In particular it does not seem to cater for backpackers and budget travellers at all. We stayed at a hostel because hotels were prohibitively expensive, and while in some ways it was very nice, and not even remotely comparable to that vile thing in Grenoble, one could hardly call it a utopia.

Not my photo, but it's accurate. Clean, modern place which is well maintained and equipped.
Physically, everything about the hostel was very nice. But it felt like what would happen if a budget airline decided to run a hostel : everything basically works, it's clean and efficient, but industrial. It isn't like running a B&B like a really good hostel is. It also charges for absolutely everything, including bedsheets which annoyed me intensely. Come on, I'm paying for a place to sleep. That's the whole point. Bedsheets are not an optional extra. And who the hell carries around their own bed linen for crying out loud ?

Breakfast was nice, but that cost extra too and wasn't cheaper than anywhere else. There were lockers but you had to pay extra for... that's right, a lock. Lockers without locks, I kid thee not. Lordy. At check-out time they even asked us to put the bed linen in a laundry bin - yeah, it's a hostel, but it wasn't cheap and it left me wondering what on Earth the staff were doing that I was paying them for at all. Apparently being warm and not dying of exposure is a privilege. It didn't help that we were sharing a room with an obnoxious dude who watched Jason Bourne movies on his phone without bothering to use the headphones and liked the temperature set to 27 C.

BUT on leaving the hostel and accepting the fact that the Danes wouldn't know what a "bargain" is if it phoned them up to offer them a buy-one-get-one-free deal on longboats, Copenhagen is a lovely place. The public transport is not as good as Prague's, of course, and it's rather less intuitive to use, but it works. We didn't use it much though, because the city is tiny and easily explored on foot.

We didn't actually go in anything touristy in the city, though we did try. Tivoli Gardens was closed, since we seemed to have arrived in the changeover period from the Halloween to Christmas seasons. We tried a planetarium but decided the ~£17 entry price was rather too high for a 30 minute presentation, and anyway if it came to it I could just draw pictures of galaxies on the street and shout loudly at passers-by. Astronomy busking, it's a new thing.

What we did see a lot of were cafes and bars, all of which are excellent. The highlight was definitely this place, reportedly the third best pub in Copenhagen. We were actually looking for a cafe because it was 11:30am and we wanted cake. What we got was a borderline debauched Friday night party that presumably hadn't stopped from the night before. Everyone was wasted and the place just oozed Christmas. It was pretty much impossible to dislike it. Naturally, the idea of hot drinks and cake went out the window and got replaced with beer in order to save a sense of self-respect. Later, we compensated with the best cheescake in the entire world.

Other highlights include the Street Food center, a relatively affordable hipster-esque collection of food stalls in a great big hall. We had to sit outside, but service was quite quick on Friday. Not so on Saturday afternoon, when it was slower than the bowel movement of a constipated sloth. Eventually we took our hard-won spoils and huddled around a fire constructed on top of an oil drum, as is the hipster way.

The fire was necessary because it was - and I can't stress this enough - bloody cold. A deep, penetrating cold that could freeze the bones off a mammoth. Those hardy Danes might no longer be sailing across the North Sea on campaigns of conquest, but stand-up paddle boarding at these temperatures is still respectably bad-ass in my book.

Then there was Christiania, which sounds like it should be a hotbed of church-goers singing songs about Aslan or something. It isn't. It's some sort of uber-hippie commune which reminded me a lot of Teufelsberg. I don't particularly care for the hippie lifestyle, but the artwork's kindof cool to look at every once in a while and it didn't take itself too seriously. Though 10am on a weekday morning is probably not the best time to visit, since it was deserted.

But while Denmark may be widely known as the currently happiest place in the world to live - it looks nice enough to me, couldn't say anything struck me as mind-warpingly awesome though - it's the older, more... adversarial Denmark that I'm more interested in. The one that sent boatloads of large, angry, improbably-bearded men across the seas bent on raping monasteries and looting women, or something. Oddly enough, modern Denmark doesn't seem to go in for promoting that aspect of their ancient culture very much.

Or at least Copenhagen doesn't. However, the nearby town of Roskilde is home to the Viking Ship Museum, which is well worth a visit. We were fortunate to see it in the snow.

The town is pretty enough, though everything apart from the museum was shut on Sunday. The museum houses the remarkably intact remains of five Viking ships, sunk over 900 years ago to block the entrance to Roskilde's port. Some were trading ships, others were warships. The largest was the inspiration for the famous Sea Stallion, a seaworthy reconstruction on display outside the museum along with several others.

But while the Vikings were great explorers and artists - not least of their artistic achievements being their ships themselves - one panel in the museum does not pull any punches when it comes to the more brutal aspects of Viking culture. The past is indeed like a foreign country. Many things are similar to modern Western behaviour, but in other aspects they were totally alien. I'm not a fan of trigger warnings and safe spaces in general, but I'll warn you that this one is not for the squeamish out of simple common courtesy. It's as grisly as anything you'll see in the History Channel's Vikings.

Full size image here.
Was this savagery due to the toxic religious thinking of the Norse ? Certainly, to a degree. But as we're seeing today all too clearly, people will believe arbitrarily stupid things that fly in the face of the evidence that have little or no relation to deities or other religious ideas. We probably have a lot more in common with the Norse than we like to admit; if we don't believe Odin will punish us any more for our misdeeds, the belief that other people are lesser than us is alive, well, and as dangerous as ever.

Returning to Copenhagen we indulged in yet more craft beer, particularly Tor's Hammer (although it's actually barely wine). A 6am start into the chilly wastes to board a 9am flight was pretty unpleasant, but Thor was merciful to his acolytes and blessed the day by making it hangover-free. All in all, Copenhagen is a lovely place but if I ever go back it will be for a short visit in a hotel booked well ahead of time.

I'm going to end on a dismal and uncompromising note, because I must. Throughout these European jaunts I can't but help think what in the f"*@!ing hell is wrong with the people who want to put freedom of movement in jeopardy ? There are plenty of wonderful places in the world, and you want to put access to those at risk ? The Schengen area hasn't caused economic or cultural collapse across Europe, even in countries where the economic systems are very different (just compare typical salaries in Germany and the Czech Republic, for example). We should be talking about continuing the progress we've made in tearing barriers down. Instead we're talking about putting them up again, giving in to the same old tired fears about foreigners we've always fallen for. Only now we have a more potent form of propaganda : bullshit. Modern racism is cloaked in talk of border or population control and achieving economic parity and accusations that it's all the left-wing liberal elite being intolerant and making a fuss about nothing, or utter bollocks about Drumpf magically not being a racist because some non-white people voted for him. Well, screw you. As we enter this next dark chapter in our history, don't you dare say I didn't warn you. Don't you fucking dare. You will though. You people never learn. You care nothing about the truth, only your own twisted narratives. Your closet racism is a stain on humanity. Yes, the left wing extremists are a problem : but they are as nothing, absolutely nothing compared to the generations of xenophobia, racism, misogyny, wealthism and general bigotry fostered by the right. The idea floating around that it's the left who've created the situation we're in makes me feel physically ill. We were the ones who warned you about this for years, and now you're trying to blame it on us. The hell with that.

Could I be wrong ? Oh God I hope so.

Wednesday 16 November 2016

This Is Not How Liberty Dies

Not so long ago I would have happily chuckled away at this, secure in the knowledge that for all its imperfections, the older, weirder, but far more functional form of British democracy was clearly superior to the Yankee madness across the pond. Making fun of those more powerful than you is how any civilised society is supposed to work. A certain smug superiority could be justified, at least at the level of jovial, superficial banter between countries with a complex history. A harmless little joke that only offends those who are pathetically easily offended.

Alas, we live in a different and altogether stupider world than the one we had so very recently, but the internet is quick to adapt and summarise the situation.

There have been many knee-jerk reactions written to how it is that Drumpf, a misogynistic pig with about as much talent for diplomacy as a necrophiliac elephant that's just had a cattle prod rammed up its backside, could possibly be elected leader of the free world. Some of them are oh-so temptingly simple to believe.

Ah, so it's really all due to wealth inequality, and not Drumpf's abject racism and misogyny at all really. Alas this theory does not seem to hold water. As this BBC report (well worth reading in its entirety) comparing Drumpf and Brexit makes clear :
In the UK the gap was wide - around three-fifths of graduates voted to remain, while 63% of non-graduates cast a vote for leaving. In the US it was more nuanced - only just over half of college graduates voted for Mrs Clinton and only just over half of non-graduates backed Mr Drumpf. 
Moreover, in other respects the claim that it was the "left behind" who took Mr Drumpf to victory does not match the evidence. In the UK those who voted to leave often had few, if any, educational qualifications, but also tended to be on lower incomes. Around two-thirds of those with incomes of less than £20,000 ($25,000) a year voted to leave, while around three in five of those earning more than £40,000 ($50,000) backed staying in the EU. 
But Mr Drumpf was not particularly successful among low-income voters. In fact, just over half of those with incomes of less than $30,000 (£24,000) voted for Mrs Clinton. Conversely, those on more than $100,000 (£80,000) a year only preferred Mr Drumpf by the narrowest margins. 
Mr Drumpf's campaign messages may have enabled him to reach out to voters with few, if any, qualifications for whom social issues such as immigration are often a particular concern. However, it appears he was less successful at mobilising support among those who might be thought to be economically left behind.
Both Drumpf and Brexit appealed to the older, more racist generation. Both appealed to the less educated, but less so in the case of Drumpf. This is especially surprising - if anything, I would have expected the situation to be reversed. The E.U. is after all a fiendishly complex organisation and it's easy to take its enormous benefits for granted. In contrast, I'm flabbergasted that anyone with even a high school primary school nursery level of education could look at this evil cross between an Oompa Loompa and Robert Kilroy Silk and ever think, "yep, that hideous thing up there could be President".

It was absurdly obvious to just about every other country that this was a bad idea - only "American exceptionalism" gave Donald the chance he needed.

So age and racism seem to have played their part (as the new maxim goes, not everyone who voted for Leave/Drumpf was a racist, but everyone who was a racist voted for Leave/Drumpf) but education made only a small difference and income equality practically none.

Then there are the claims that it's all the Democrat party's fault, a claim which, though time will tell, does not look like it stacks up. For starters, Clinton won the popular vote - by a very narrow margin, but a win nonetheless. EDIT : At the final count, by 2.9 million - a sizeable win, in fact a record for winning the popular vote but losing the election.

No, the axis doesn't start from zero. It doesn't matter -  DEAL WITH IT.
Bernie Sander's diehard fans* are even now clamouring that Bernie would have won it and that it's all the Establishment's fault. That doesn't seem to stack up given that Hillary did actually win the popular vote, and as this opinion piece makes clear, it's by no means at all clear that Bernie would have succeeded as well against Drumpf as was often claimed. Bernie may be a very well-intentioned man but he's not the Messiah. Similarly, the idea that third party candidates and disillusionment with Hilary are singularly responsible also look difficult to maintain given her win of the popular vote. It's all too easy to believe a reason with a clear, consistent narrative, but these theories are not substantiated by the facts.

* "Bernie or bust" was always a stupid slogan, given that it implied option B was somehow a sane choice.

It's simply too soon to say what the real causes are - the votes aren't all even all counted yet. No doubt most of these claims will have some merit, but it looks unlikely that there was a single cause. Wealth inequality doesn't seem to have played much of a role; turnout was down but wasn't ultra-low; Hilary may have been disliked but not to the extent popularly supposed; third-party candidates once again didn't really do a great deal; fake news was a thing but doesn't seem likely to be wholly responsible because again Hillary won the popular vote. Which also trounces the idea that it's all politically correct "social justice warriors" who are responsible, with people just being sick of being told what to think, or desperate to kick the Establishment in the proverbial gonads no matter the consequences. None of these really stack up because again, and I insist on emphasising this point, Hillary won the popular vote.

The most disturbing result is that the majority of Drumpf supporters appear to be old white men - the unpleasant prospect that this election was won not by the disenfranchised but by people who are genuinely bigoted at heart, despite reports to the contrary, looks disturbingly real. And that's sad.

Only time will tell if that's the case. There is, however, one overwhelmingly clear lesson that should be obvious to everyone : democracy is complicated.

Oh, we'd like to believe it isn't. It's supposed to be the will of the people and that's the end of it. But it isn't - it never has been and it never will be, because that's fundamentally impossible. Even ancient Athenian democracy was hardly truly direct, happy as the free men of Athens were to ignore slaves and women. The Roman Republic used a complex election process where the votes of the different social classes were weighted differently, with those of the plebs being gradually diluted until it was worth so little that hardly anyone bothered to use their vote. By the end, the vote from the plebs weren't even tallied.

Modern democracy is rather fairer and in some ways simpler : every adult gets an equal-weighted vote. Oh, there are some exceptions like prisoners, but these are generally a very small fraction of the population. But we don't get everyone to vote on every issue because that's a crap idea : it didn't work for the Athenians and it won't work for us.

So the modern solution is (mostly) representative democracy in which we elect people to vote on our behalf. The question then arises as to what we mean by representation. Do we want them to be souless vessels into which we pour our own desires and expect them to pander to our every whim ? Or do we want them to always do whatever they think is best for us, thus representing our interests rather than our desires, regardless of what the electrorate actually wants ? Do we really want them to just express the "will of the people", or do we want them to think more deeply about not just what the people want but why they want it ?

Obviously, the answer is a little from column A and a little from column B. You don't want your representative to hear your opinion on what the precise interest rate should be, but you definitely want them to listen to your pleas to keep the local library open. Some matters are best left to experts and some to generalists. On the expert matters, representatives (who are at least generally more expert than the bulk of the populace) still have to listen to you - they need to know what aspects of life you want improving - but it's largely up to them to figure out how best to accomplish that*. Voters still exercise a more blunt form of power over the details of how officials choose to act by being able to remove them their position come election time, but they have little or no direct control of the day-to-day process.

* This is why I don't like coalition governments. There's always a large degree of negotiation in modern democracies, but in my opinion coalitions shift the balance too far away from the pledged policies in favour of compromise, leaving the voters with no idea what they're actually voting for. This is especially bad when the parties have strong ideological differences, but perhaps more sensible when they're like-minded.

For example, if you claim immigration is out of control, it's the politician's job to figure out if this is really true and how to address it. Maybe it really is out of control - but maybe this is just a scapegoat to explain high unemployment which is actually due to other factors. If so, it's the politician's job to address those factors, not necessarily to cut immigration just because Joe Bloggs thinks it's a good idea when it clearly isn't. Politicians are (to an extent) supposed to get you what you need, not what you want.

It's a bit like calling a plumber. You may have your suspicions as to why the house was flooded and you should certainly point out the blocked sink, but you'd also expect the plumber to notice other factors. Like the local river bursting its banks.

What we're seeing with the rise of Drumpf, Brexit, and to some extent Jeremy Corbyn, is a shift in the expectation that politicians will do right by us toward the simpler, cruder notion that they should bloody well do as they're told. We've ended up with this bizarre form of unpopular popularists - especially bizarre since Hillary Clinton is more popular than Donald Drumpf. They say things a lot of people would like to see done with little or no regard for whether those things would be a good idea, or much in the way of searching for the deeper underlying causes which, if addressed, would be just as effective at addressing people's concerns.

First, the fact that Hillary won the popular vote but Drumpf handily won the election shows us yet again that modern democracy is complicated. Just like in the last UK general election, where we saw massive differences in the numbers of seats gained by different parties with similar numbers of votes. You have to campaign in the system you've got, and if there's one clear lesson here, it's that Hillary, the Green party and UKIP alike all failed to do that - while the SNP succeeded triumphantly. Plausibly, Drumpf's victory is less about moral or inspiring messages and more about pure political strategy devoid of any ideological cause. Anyone claiming that democracy shows you nice and clearly what the "will of the people" really simply does not understand the process.

Then there's the fact that not everyone votes. Much has been made of the non-voters by those on both sides of the issues, but the reality is quite simple : we don't know how those people would have voted. Presuming they're happy with whatever the result is is nightmarishly stupid when, for example, practically every poll shows that most people are opposed to Brexit. The only way to be certain of their intentions - the ONLY way - is to have compulsory voting with an abstain option. That would explicitly allow people to declare that they're satisfied with the result either way. Anything else and you're just guessing from your own biases, which is not remotely sensible.

What we've also got an awful lot of is, "you're only complaining because you don't like the result", as though it had somehow hitherto been considered entirely normal to accept the result of a vote no matter what.

Votes do not change issues of moral principle. If you genuinely believe abortion is murder, then a vote legalising it won't stop you protesting it - and no-one would expect you to. If you don't like who wins an election, you don't stop disliking them - and no-one expects you to suddenly become OK with their plans you might find morally reprehensible. So yeah, I'm complaining because I don't like Drumpf and Brexit, but would I expect their supporters to just shut up if the votes had gone the other way ? Oh hell no.

One of the videos somewhat popular to share in the wake of the court decision that Brexit requires a parliamentary vote is the following :

What utter bollocks. The independent judiciary is a cornerstone of liberty, not a means of a suppressing it. The same people crying out that Brexit is the will of the people are the same ones denying Parliament the right to vote on it. Do you idiots not understand that what you're doing is voting for tyranny by allowing leaders to overthrow laws without due process ? That is how liberty dies. Not through an extremely careful system of checks and balances refined over many centuries, but through the complete and reckless disregard for lawmaking through representative democracy - it's not supposed to be about tyranny through majority. So no, I will not shut up because I do not like the result. I will keep speaking, loudly and often, because that above all things is the whole basis of a democratic system of government. People who claim that democracy is dying because other people have the right to protest shouldn't be allowed to handle sharp objects.

The charge is sometimes made that people don't contest the results of general elections as strongly as they do the Brexit referendum. This is true, but for very good reasons : the voting system is completely different. In a UK general election we choose our representatives - we do not make binding decisions advisory reccommendations so that what should be a highly complex decision (what should be the nature of Britain to the European Union ?) is reduced to an absurdly over-simplified binary choice (should Britain be a member of the European Union ?). We vote knowing that, while our representatives have made specific promises they should try to keep as much as possible, we also know that isn't always possible. We expect to get something close to what they promised but only fools think the elected government will get to do whatever it wants - it's rare indeed that a government has a majority that strong. And when we don't like the government we can vote for someone else in a general election - as opposed to in a referendum, where it seems some people vote for the opposite option just to give the government a bloody nose, apparently stupidly oblivious to the fact that the vote has frickin' consequences. And in a general election vote, we damn well do not expect marginal victories to give the government a free hand to do what it likes.

Then there's the issue of freedom from versus freedom to. Should people get the freedom to inflict their lunacy on others or should other people be granted freedom from their lunacy having any impact on their lives ? Should they be free to discriminate on the basis of race and gender or should they be free from having to suffer this ? I overwhelmingly favour the latter. The voters in Britain and America have - marginally at best - chosen the former.

Which is the main weakness of democracy and why Drumpf's election is utterly batshit terrifying, if it wasn't obviously so already. Voters can and do choose lunatic options. The will of the people can be bloody stupid. Have we not, perhaps, let this go too far ? You let children bang their heads and scrape their knees, but you don't let them wander off the edge of a cliff or eat dog poop. The bitter reality is that large numbers of people have no idea what's good for them - because they're misinformed, lied to, or just plain idiots.

What we're witnessing here is the strange development of unpopular popularists. Drumpf lost the popular vote and is largely reviled as a human being. Yet he's undeniably a popularist in that he'll say whatever it takes to get elected, regardless of the consequences. The fact he lost the popular vote doesn't change the fact he said what he said to win votes. That's (one reason) why he's terrifying : he'll do whatever it takes to win popularity even if that course of action is bloody stupid. Even if he doesn't believe what he's saying half the time - and he changes position to a degree which is scarcely credible - that doesn't make the situation any better : rather, it threatens four years or more of Brexit-style nonsensical decisions, and that's a best-case scenario.

This, then, is how liberty dies : when democracy becomes tyranny by majority and no better than mob rule. When the right to protest is derided as going against the will of the people. When decisions are taken solely to give the people what they want without any regard for what they actually need, with no attempt to understand the deeper reasons for their genuine concerns. When the media are allowed to get away with telling outright, provable lies plastered on giant billboards and busses. When absurd conspiracy theories are allowed to run rampant and free speech is taken as meaning you can say whatever the hell you want in any and all circumstances regardless of the consequences. When bullshit becomes so prevalent that the Oxford dictionary declares "post-truth" to be the word of the year. When freedom to supersedes freedom from at any cost. When all attempts at dialogue are abandoned and democratic votes are given absurd, absolute power. When the idea of negotiation and compromise are abandoned and the advice of experts is held as some elitist plot, and the knee-jerk responses of the masses are allowed free reign, and the checks and balances of a careful, moderate system are labelled as enemies of the people.

Sunday 6 November 2016

It Might Be Angels Instead

Jonathan Black's real name is Mark Booth, because no-one really has a surname
of Black. This does not bode well.
A  little while ago I reviewed Dean Burnett's excellent layman's guide to neurobiology, The Idiot Brain. That was a self-declared attempt to de-mystify the workings of the brain, explicitly showing that while indeed our ignorance of the brain currently surpasses our knowledge, it's hardly as though we have no idea at all. The basic processes can be explained through the motions of electrons and chemical transfers. Not much need for anything mystical.

The Sacred History is essentially the opposite of that. In fact it's diametrically opposed : just about the most opposite it's possible to be. Rather than being due to rational, measurable phenomena like atoms and toasters, Black's answer is that it's all, when you get right down to it, "because God".

You might wonder why I'd even read such a book as this.

Many of you definitely shouldn't read this book or even try and come with a hundred miles of it. It'd drive you insane. Indeed, on more than one occasion I wanted to spit in Black's eye, punch him in the nose and shout, "you're f**ing stupid, Black !". Others of you might be interested in this for insights into why people come to wholly irrational conclusions and reject science. That's a worthwhile perspective to be sure (though there are probably shorter books you could read for that), but it's not the main reason I decided to give this a go.

Although I've defended religion against militant atheists many times, it's not often I give my own agnostic tendencies free reign. But sometimes it's important to ask the big questions, the ones that can't be answered. At its worst, I found this book to be a big steaming pile of effluence. At it's best, I found it to evoke some profound questions. And I found the opening intention, "What if the claims of the world's religions were true ? Is it possible to give an account of creation which is creationist but cannot instantly be dismissed by scientists ?" to be provocative enough to peak my interest.

Astonishingly, the answer very quickly became a firm, "no, of course not, that's incredibly stupid." But not always for the reasons you might think.

At his best, Black does try quite hard to reconcile the scientific world view - which very obviously does work, clearly - with the mystical. He rejects the idea of literal six-day Creationism, because obviously that's hopelessly stupid, and often seems content with not having to take religious texts literally. If there's a divinity at work, it must be causing things to occur in exact agreement with scientific observations. I don't think Black ever disputes the usefulness of science in its ability to measure the material world.

Beyond that things get tricky :
What the third or spiritual eye sees may lie outside the physical world, but that isn't to say that is is inconsistent with what the other two eyes see. Rather, it opens up a new dimension which weaves in and out of the physical world. It's important to bear this double vision in mind as we come to consider the creation. Here, mystics and scientists are, I believe, looking at the same series of events. They are merely looking at them from very different points of view.
What we have here is a notion that is unscientific, not anti-science. Just as it's unscientific to say, "I don't like cheese", whereas it would be anti-science to say, "I don't eat cheese because I think it's a sentient form of life which holds racist views". The problem is that strictly speaking it's true that science has very little to say on certain matters, some of them very important and others less so (the personal enjoyment of cheese versus the nature of justice), and this makes it very ambiguous as to whether or not science can "dismiss" a non-literal religious perspective. It can dismiss it in that the religious perspective has absolutely no relevance to the scientific one, just as cricket umpires don't make their decisions based on the current price of trout. It can't dismiss it as being inconsistent - to simplify, the divine could be what directs the rational forces at work in the Universe rather than acting to contradict them. Religion addresses why, science deals with how.

But you could reasonably argue that this is merely a linguistic slip-up, and the important point is the compatibility of the two world views. The most interesting aspect of the book are the philosophical parts. Black notes the two great world views are essentially materialism and idealism. Materialism is the idea that only objective reality outside are skulls is real, and indeed that our very minds arise from the motions of atoms and electrical forces and whatnot : matter over mind, if you like. Idealism doesn't mean that you want to save the rainforest or support democracy or adopt a hippo* : it's the idea that our so-called objective reality is influenced by our minds, that what we think can be more important that the material world. "Mind before matter", as Black puts it.

* Though Black does make an interesting case for a connection between believing in idealism and being an idealist.

Of course, the two ideas needn't be taken as absolutes and I suspect that most people probably fall somewhere between the two, albeit mostly closer to the materialist perspective these days. One could argue that our minds do have some limited control over their external environment by allowing us to physically interact with them. Or conversely, that our minds exist independently of the atoms in our brain but our perspective is affected by the crude nature of our senses.

I have more sympathy for the notion of idealism than you might suspect. For starters, I have no truck with the notion of a purely deterministic Universe - I have free will whether you like it or not, regardless of whatever any theory says. This is even scientifically justifiable, with quantum theory (as Black correctly points out) being very explicit in the inherent uncertainties of reality. But I'd feel the same if quantum ideas had never existed. Similarly, it's popular with some hard-line materialists to believe that the flow of time is an illusion. Well, tough, I can feel it flowing damnit, so I don't much care if that's rational or not.

Whether the Universe is deterministic or time flows are topics which are at least available to scientific study. On a more personal level and less rational level, I've long been fascinated by dreams - particularly lucid dreams. I learned to have these as a teenager after reading a very short book on the subject. Although there are various techniques one can use to induce them - even technological solutions - the basic idea is very simple, albeit time consuming. You just have to think about dreams a lot (recording them in a diary is a good start) and want to have one. It took me a few weeks to have a lucid dream but that's really all there is to it.

Do Scientists Dream of Electric Gods ?

Dreams challenge our everyday notion of consciousness. Initially, I just wanted to have something like a holodeck in my head - a reality I could experience which I could control. That is one aspect of lucid dreaming. Like everything else, it's a continuum.

In ordinary dreams I'm usually in the first person as myself, like an actor in a really weird play. Events happen, choices are made, but I have no control over them. It's a very different experience from ordinary consciousness. Sometimes I'm in the first person as someone or something else. At other times it's more like I'm seeing things from a third person perspective, like watching a movie but with more of a sense of being the characters involved as well as watching them, yet with no more control over the situation. I experience being the puppets, not the puppeteer.

Then there are dreams where I'm aware that I'm dreaming but still have no control over the events, or I merely speculate that I'm dreaming. Is the character in the dreams that I experience in this sense really me ? Or is my brain witnessing my own unconsciousness ?

The classic lucid dream is one where I'm both aware of the dream and in control over it. Usually the degree of control is rather limited - one can make deliberate, wilful choices, or perhaps fly or make things disappear, that sort of thing. But trying to alter the entire dream usually either breaks the lucidity, or wakes me up. Often, paradoxically, I gain more control by surrendering control. I know that makes no sense, but it happens anyway.

At the most extreme level there are what I call hyper-lucid dreams where the control is a godlike absolute. On rare occasions I experience a palpable sensation of my own brain generating the environment I'm experiencing, down to the level of every twig and leaf in exquisite detail. This is a sensation I cannot adequately describe - it must be experienced. In these cases I'm often able to choose to wake up, in which case there's no sharp transition of my consciousness - I go from being in the dreamworld to the real world as though I walked through a door. The sleeping me was identical to the real me. In a few cases I'm able to opt to remain asleep. I don't like doing this though, because I have no idea how much time is passing in the real world*.

* Recently I experienced one such dream after waking up for a while, so I was able to check the time before and after the dream. It was 15 minutes. How long it felt like in the dream I couldn't really say, but certainly it felt longer than 15 minutes.

Other characters also follow a spectrum just as much as lucidity itself does. Usually, characters in my dreams are mere shadows in terms of their behaviour. Sometimes my dream self plays the roles of multiple characters, flitting from one to another though never being many at once. At other times other characters are much more fully developed and independent of my own awareness. In one very recent hyper-lucid dream, a character directly asked me if I realised I was actually just talking to myself. This is common enough to see in fiction but very strange to actually experience.

While awake, my thoughts and my self-awareness are interchangeable. While asleep, the sense of self becomes a much more ephemeral thing. My thoughts can express themselves as independent characters, without being connected to my sense of self at all, even if that self-awareness is just as pronounced as in the waking world. Sometimes, as well as having dreams-within-dreams now made famous by Leonardo di Caprio, I have a "conscious" imagination within the dream. That is, I imagine I'm controlling the dream but I'm not really - other characters aren't subject to the choices I make. Like many aspects of the dreamworld, this description is crude at best. I'm not even sure it's linguistically possible to properly describe the experience. It's like my sense of self and imagination have each been broken into separate pieces.

Or to put it another way, that's why I'll never ever try mind-altering drugs.

Sorry ladies, but separating my awareness from my thoughts, breaking my consciousness into separate pieces and having absolute control over my own internal reality is enough for me.

But Is It Real ?

Given all this, I think it's entirely rational to speculate as to the nature of the mind. Certainly, it could be that the mind is nothing more than the actions of particles within the brain by some ferociously complicated process. But why is is considered so ridiculous to propose that our sense of self is actually just some shard of a much greater "cosmic mind", a "spark of the divine" with reality an "objective illusion" as Black calls it ?

Answer : it isn't. But it is unequivocally unscientific. Yes, everything could be an illusion or a simulation, but it isn't possible to test this scientifically. One could use this hypothesis to explain any otherwise tricky phenomena, thus getting us nowhere. We have no way of knowing if literally everything we see isn't really the dream of something much greater than ourselves. In terms of analysing the world around us though, it's useless.

And the "we're all living in a simulation" idea, which seems to be an increasingly reoccurring theme on the internet these days, is just a modern manifestation of old mystical notions. It's simply been redrafted in a way that militant materialists are marginally more comfortable with. Even the very term consciousness has mystical overtones. But computers ? Mere machines. We know about computers, we understand computers, with think we can build artificial intelligence => someone else has probably built an AI => we're all living in a simulation. It's exactly the same idea as that of a cosmic mind, just with a crude and ineffective attempt to strip it of the supernatural elements. It lets the materialists off the hook of having to concede that minds are all-important while simultaneously but stealthily acknowledging that minds are all-important. It's just replacing one god with another.

While The Matrix famously explores this purely technological scenario, Doctor Strange explores the older, mystical ideas in a surprisingly intelligent way for a comic book movie.
This isn't anti-science at all, unless you think that Elon Musk is anti-science - at least, so long as you don't go resorting to using simulation/cosmic mind as your explanation for everything. But it is most definitely un-science. It's a natural human effort to apprehend the nature of reality. Occasionally, Black manages to provoke these very deep questions in an intelligent way without ever denying scientific reality. I imagine that practically everyone thinks about this at least occasionally. People who think they're certain of the answer are scary, but people who never even ask the question are much worse.

Personally though, I couldn't think about this for any great length of time without going mad. As Black says, most of us have to just get on with living, most of the time. The point is that a belief in this "objective illusion" doesn't have to deny the scientific analysis of that illusion, it can simply be a "back of the mind" doubt about the nature of existence, not an all-consuming passion that it's all fake. As I've pointed out before many times, even if you accept materialism to the fullest extent, all you really are is this :

A warm, squishy, ~1.5 kg tissue soaked in blood. With that you're supposed to understand this :

Good luck with that.

Err, On The Other Hand...

Dreams are just one aspect of idealism and the one that resonates most closely with me personally. But throughout history, mystics have claimed to have had similar experiences in the waking world. The Sacred History explores the idea that idealism is correct, that these ideas are in some sense "real", and tries to tie them together to form a coherent narrative. The bulk of the book is given over to describing the history of the world according to myth. The stories are interesting enough when it's obvious they're not supposed to be taken literally, but unfortunately this idea is steadily abandoned as the book goes on.

I'm entirely comfortable with the idea that there's more to reality than materialism proposes. I haven't got the foggiest idea what the true nature of reality is; I just think it's interesting to consider from time to time. When going about my daily business I don't stop to ponder whether what I'm observing is really real or if it's all the fault of a divine but apparently very confused intelligence. Alas, Black does have the foggiest idea what the true nature of reality is, and this isn't merely unscientific, it is truly anti-science. If an unscientific statement would be, "I like hedgehogs because of their cute little noses", an anti-scientific view would be, "hedgehogs have seventy-six legs which is why they can't play badminton on a Thursday".

Black's idea is that the very nature of reality itself is shaped by our thoughts, and that human consciousness and even spiritual consciousness has evolved through time due to the actions of supernatural intelligences. While he claims that sometimes visions of mystical beings and whatnot happen in a spiritual realm which is normally inaccessible, which I could accept as merely unscientific, he also claims that sometimes these events happen entirely in the physical world.

And lo and behold... just like every single other book on the paranormal I've ever read (and there have been many over the years), his descriptions of these are unconvincing* and his citations are frankly appalling. If you want to say, "I'm being irrational but here's what I believe - I don't think these things can be analysed rationally" (which he does on many occasions), then fine**. But if you want to say, "here's the rational, measurable evidence for what I believe", then you've got to do better than a bunch of anecdotes.

* To say the least. One of his biggest problems is that he describes people having visions of angelic beings who apparently don't do anything. Besides convincing us of their existence, what the bloody hell is the point in that ? He even goes on at length about his friend who claims to see angels who told her to write a book. Oh yes, very divine I'm sure.
** I see no reason the Universe should work in accordance with the logic devised by some teeny-tiny squishy brains anyway, never mind the notion that even in materialism the existence of a larger, more complicated brain with a more developed consciousness is entirely logical. One simply has to take this to extremes...

Black doesn't understand this at all. He sets forth what he calls "the argument from experience", which probably sets a lot of alarm bells ringing as an obvious fallacy. Now, while it's not entirely true that anecdotes aren't evidence, Black takes this to an absurd extreme with no sensible justification. This is silly, but what's far worse is that he never even considers the possibility that he might be wrong. His argument basically amounts to :

Or, in his own words :
In the course of this book we are gathering evidence to show... that many people believe they are having spiritual experiences all the time. You may pray and sense your prayers are heard. You may have premonitions or meaningful dreams or other forms of otherworldly prompting. You may encounter coincidences which you sense are meaningful. You may fall in love and feel that it is meant to be.
Black at once declares that he cannot prove anything scientifically, then attempts to gather evidence to prove his position by the scientific method ! He fails miserably of course, because by it is by no means clear that "many people" means anything other than a miniscule fraction of the population. Even if it were so, he simply ignores the scientific idea that maybe this is just because of the workings of the brain, which are common to all. Nor does he address which people and mythic stories one should believe and which are genuinely crazy - he again says, "you just know". Which completely ignores the fact that many world religions are fundamentally incompatible - the Aztecs presumably "just knew" that their gods needed human hearts while the Mongols "just knew" it was their destiny to rule the world.

It really isn't very helpful, oddly enough.

The Sacred History is a frustrating mixture of the rational and irrational. Were it to be a wholly rational approach, we could easily defeat the arguments through counter-evidence. Were it to be wholly irrational, we could agree that the whole thing was unscientific and there'd be no conflict. But what he appears to be doing is cherry-picking when to attempt to be rational ("look at all these anecdotal stories, you can't just dismiss this !") and when to be irrational ("well of course the spirit world isn't a repeatable testable phenomena, angels don't work to a schedule"). Awfully convenient how divine manifestations haven't been captured on camera in this age of omnipresent smartphones and dashcams.

Worse still are his more direct attacks on science, which get steadily worse as the book progresses. By now it should be clear that I'm not follower of scientism - the idea that only scientific knowledge is correct or meaningful and that the objective world outside our heads is the sum total of reality. I admit that is one possibility but I also see nothing strange about other possibilities. Unfortunately Black tends (although for the most part he is quite careful) to somewhat confuse "scientists" with "followers of scientism", which are not at all the same thing. Science doesn't lead directly to scientism any more than religion leads inevitably to six day creationism. And of course he gets some very basic science just plain wrong :
Plants don't reproduce in the sexual manner characteristic of animals. Typically a seed breaks away to form a new plant. Scientists call this plant-like method of reproduction parthenogenesis... [Ummm... no, dude, seriously. I thought everyone knew that flowers are a plant's sex organs - that's school-level biology. Yes, some plants reproduce in this way, but so can some animals !]
There are only tiny scraps of evidence for the Big Bang and no evidence at all for what went before. [The evidence for the Big Bang is overwhelming. The classic mistake is to assume the term describes the creation event itself, whereas in fact it describes only the development of the Universe since then - from a microscopic hot fireball to a vast, cool cosmos. No other sensible interpretation of the data exists.]
...Michael as the archangel of the Sun and Gabriel as the archangel of the Moon, was a tradition not only in Christianity but in Judaism and Islam as well. [My word ! A common tradition between three religions derived from a common root in the same geographical area ! Amazeballs ! He makes the same silly claim at an even more extreme level from fairy stories in the British Isles, apparently oblivious to the fact that people were able to, you know, walk about.]
I suspect that militant materialists are not big readers of fiction. Deep down they may be suspicious of stories. They may see them as seductive and utterly contradictory to an atheistic world view. And they are right. [Dude, could you increase the bullshit level a bit please ? I need more verbal diarrhoea.] 
What, finally, are we going to trust - our own experience or the opinions of the latest crop of experts ? [...]

And yet there are also other passages which strongly resonate with me :
There is no easy way out and no easy answer. The road is always fraught with the danger of death, but if we do not take that road we will die in our beds without ever having lived. We must put at risk what we value most or we will lose it anyway. Beyond a certain point there is no return. That point must be reached.
How curious then that it's on the basis of beliefs in this area, where we are unable to assert anything with certainty, where the evidence is most faint and open to interpretation, where any hypothesis is bound to be tenuous, that our opinions tend to be fiercest, most fanatical and intolerant, and failing to show the equanimity and generosity that ought to be the mark of a happy and mature quest for the truth.
I have tried to show that there isn't a simple choice between reason and faith. Religion is reasonable, based on the assumptions of idealism, just as science is reasonable, based on the assumptions of materialism. 
While we should try and reconcile religion with reason, what it cannot be reconciled with is materialism. If you concede that matter came before mind, you have conceded so much that there is nothing left worth defending... if the only meanings the cosmos has are the ones we invent for it, then the great claims of religion are false. If we came from nothing, the world's religions are worth nothing.
The latter expresses a running theme through the book, that only mind can bestow meaning. I find it as preposterous to consider this...

... and conclude that it definitely has no absolute, intrinsic meaning - as scientisim assumes - as I do to conclude that it's all about a big beardy dude in the sky who is inordinately concerned with whether I eat bacon or what I do with my genitals.

I despise both of these memes separately, and I could go on at length about why they're both dumb, but when you stick 'em together...
The assumption that there's no great cosmic mind is just that - an assumption. A leap of non-faith. Ordinary science doesn't concern itself with this in the least, it simply looks at the world and tries to explain the observations according to rational processes. Whether there's some higher power at work causing those processes and imbuing them with meaning is irrelevant. Only scientism explicitly believes against the existence of such a divinity - ordinary science doesn't give a crap about it. Science is apatheistic, scientism is antitheist.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the whole mystical approach to me is that it never addresses why bad things happen to good people. Occasionally this discussion does provide some thought-provoking inquiries, but it's never really resolved. The best anyone's ever been able to come up with is, "God is greater than us and has a plan beyond our comprehension". That I could accept if "bad things" meant stuff like the dishwasher breaking at an inconvenient time or being kept awake by the mating calls of sex-crazed owls. But it doesn't. It means atrocities and natural disasters that devastate whole communities of innocent people. It means evil people in positions of power such that innocents cannot avoid becoming victims.

Black's most outrageous comment concerns Hitler :
Later Hitler would have the Spear of Longinus... transported back to Germany, amid great celebrations at its return to the Fatherland. It remained on proud display in St. Catherine's church in Nuremberg until the spirits that had been empowering Hitler deserted him and he faced defeat.
Yes, that's a wonderful way to sum up the sacrifice of millions it took to bring that monster down. It was all due to the spirits, not the struggles of ordinary mortals at all. Screw you, Black. Your idea is repugnant and stupid. I find the idea of materialism both more sensible and comforting in this respect. As the Death of Discworld put it :

Justice doesn't need to be the result of capricious deities we have no control over. It could be purely our own invention, but that wouldn't make it any less real. Maybe this isn't the true answer - maybe there really is a non-materialistic answer to morality and justice, but I'm damn sure I won't believe Hitler rose to power through the actions of malevolent spirits or that the material war against Nazi Germany should be dismissed out of hand.

It Was The Best Of Books, It Was The Worst Of Books

It was a thought-provoking read. I enjoyed the mythological stories, they were well told. At times the philosophical arguments were clear, logical, and evoked some of the deepest questions. There was an earnest attempt to reconcile the scientific world view with those of the mystics, citing the strengths of each. From a literary perspective there were only minor irritations - the use of extensive footnotes is extremely annoying (I don't want to have to keep flipping to the end of the book), especially when they're mislabelled, and he has this bizarre and frequent habit of ending a sentence with an ellipsis for no obvious reason . . .

But content wise it's a strange mixture of the profound and the unbelievably stupid. When dealing with the biggest questions of all, no-one really knows the answer. For me neither materialism nor idealism provide satisfactory solutions. Perhaps my tiny brain won't ever be able to comprehend the nature of reality, but that's not satisfying either. We could use that attitude just as we could use the idea of the Universe being a simulation to try and avoid answering the question at all. Bugger.

While I'm happy to consider these radically unscientific ideas at a very abstract level, when it comes to specific details I find Black's concepts to be utterly lousy. He simply states, bluntly, that angels are doing this that and the other without the slightest bit of justification. That the nature of human consciousness has seen profound changes in the last few thousand years as though that's a certainty - when to me, the works of Homer, Virgil, Herodotus and the like seem to be compelling evidence that ancient peoples were essentially just like us.

So am I glad I read this book ? Yes, definitely. When it succeeds it succeeds very well, evoking the biggest questions of all. Even the most uber-materialistic of us ought to stop and occasionally ponder the fact that anything exists at all. It's a bizarre universe, full of supernovae and giraffes and Michael Heseltine. Is it inevitable that should be the case ? Is it all just due to chance without any greater guiding principle ? Why don't we have a Universe full of giant snails and rocket-propelled sheep instead ? Why are the laws of physics exactly as they are and not completely different ? Why does the Universe appear to work in such a rational way instead of spontaneously turning into daffodils every five minutes ?

That, to me, is the constant everyday miracle we all take for granted. Yes, one can invoke the anthropic argument that if the Universe was different we'd be different too, which is fine as far as understanding the details go. But when it comes to those deeper questions, I find it glib and shallow.

Is the book a masterpiece as the front cover quote claims ? Oh hell no. Idealism may be the key to some profound truths, but it's also the key to irrational thinking. Just as scientific extremism, devoid of the quantifiable compassion and other subtle human attributes, can lead to an insistence on dogma and rigid, inflexible thinking, so too can idealism lead to batshit crazy ideas like the one about how forests don't exist.

I completely agree with Black's idea that some things are measurable and others are not (can you quantify how merciful someone is or how good their research is ?), but he doesn't stick with it. The book steadily slides into the simpler, stupider notion that actually these mystical experiences are objectively real and measurable and that scientists just won't accept them. He seems to want to be rational just as much as everyone else does. That's perhaps an innate human tendency too - we want to believe in something greater, but we also want to be able to poke and prod it to make sure it's not just our own imagination.

So, unsurprisingly, a book that looks at some of the deepest questions fails to provide any satisfactory answers. It managed to provoke some very interesting lines of thought : How do we know we can trust our senses ? Why do we assume the Universe must be meaningful or meaningless ? Can anything be said to have a meaning without some conscious being to observe it ? What is the nature of our awareness and consciousness ?  Why does anything exist at all ? But for all that, large parts of the book are like wading through a swamp of sheer stupidity.

The effort to find a harmony between idealism and materialism ultimately completely failed, leaving me in the unusual position of declaring that I rather liked this crappy book. I can't give it more than 3/10, but it was worth reading. Perhaps the truth lies not in opposition to materialism or idealism, but orthogonal to both of them. Maybe we'll never know. Either way, these deep questions are driving me a little nuts, so if you'll excuse me I'm going back to my Star Trek marathon on Netflix now.