Arts & Letters Daily - ideas, criticism, debate

God & Tsunami:

Arts & Letters Daily has picked up on the latest echo of an eternal debate. It arises each time there is a natural disaster of particular magnitude. The debate forms around the question, "If God exists, and is both all powerful and good, how can evils such as this disaster occur?"

The technical term for this, in philosophy and theology, is theodicy. Partisans of atheism generally argue that the disaster in question proves the nonexistence of a benevolent, all-powerful God; partisans of theism generally argue that the question is misstated. Arts & Letters Daily has collected arguments on all sides: An anti-God argument from the UK Guardian (which is to be expected), a pro-God argument from the Wall Street Journal (likewise), and also arguments from the India Telegraph and Australia's Sydney Morning Herald, which is by the way one of the world's finest newspapers.

The Journal piece points out that Voltaire made the same argument in 1755, following an earthquake off Lisbon. It is, as I said, an eternal debate.

And yet, that very fact astonishes me. It seems to me that the Bible itself addresses the question directly and at length, in a fashion that is largely set aside by theists and apparently ignored by atheists. This very question is the subject of the Book of Job.

Then answered the LORD unto Job out of the whirlwind, and said,
Gird up thy loins now like a man:
I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me.
Wilt thou also disannul my judgment?
Wilt thou condemn me, that thou mayest be righteous?
Hast thou an arm like God?
Or canst thou thunder with a voice like him?
Deck thyself now with majesty and excellency;
and array thyself with glory and beauty.
It seems to me that the proper argument from a belief in the supernatural is to assert the supernatural. Indeed, this answers not only the crisis posed by the question of earthquakes, but that posed by the sciences:
The vulgar metaphysics we all carry round with us includes the vague idea of a self, an “I,” imagined as a little homunculus crouched inside our heads an inch or so behind the eyes, observing and directing all that goes on in our lives. It seems probable that this is as false as the medieval notion of the sky being a crystal sphere. Yet if the self is indeed an illusion, then what is to prevent that dissolution of all values foreseen by Nietzsche? .... The deconstruction of self is not a new thing, of course. It has been 250 years since David Hume, by the rigorous application of pure reason, concluded that neither the inner world of the self nor the outer world of physical matter could possibly exist. Hume then turned and laughed at himself and at what he had accomplished: "This sceptical doubt ... is a malady, which can never be radically cur'd, but must return upon us every moment, however we may chace it away ... Carelessness and in-attention alone can afford us any remedy. For this reason I rely entirely upon them; and take it for granted, whatever may be the reader's opinion at this present moment, that an hour hence he will be persuaded there is both an external and an internal world..."

Although the neuroscientists are chasing the self through ever narrower and darker passageways of the brain, they have not caught it yet, and there are good reasons to believe they never will. Roger Penrose’s book about fundamental physics offers one of those reasons. Physicists have been pursuing matter for much longer, and with much more fruitful consequences, than neuroscientists have been pursuing mind, yet still the nature of physical reality eludes us. What is the physical world composed of? If you make it through the 1,000-odd pages of Penrose’s book, through the explanations of tensor calculus, Clifford algebras, spinors, twistors, Riemann surfaces and Feynmann propagators, you may have an inkling, but that is all you will have. If you can’t hack all that heavy-duty math, you won’t even have an inkling, ever.
The point is not that science is wrong, but that human wisdom is limited: what science cannot find is not untrue, but beyond human understanding. The "hour hence" restores belief in the external and internal worlds for the same reason described by Edward Abbey, himself no friend to religion:
In metaphysics, the notion that earth and all that's on it is a mental
construct is the product of people who spend their lives inside rooms. It is
an indoor philosophy.
Try it on the mountainside, or by the angry sea.

But if science cannot answer these questions, what remains except religion? In these great mathematics and terrible physics, we have girded ourselves up like men. We cannot answer, now or ever. In that yawning gap, faith forms: and we have no answer, no more than Job was answered by the whirlwind, or Loddfafnir by Odin:
It is best for man to be middle-wise,
Not over cunning and clever:
No man is able to know his future,
So let him sleep in peace.
Sleep in peace. Happy New Year.

John Henry

Mike Mulligan:

Here's a bit of a departure for you.

While visiting family over the weekend, my mother -- my son's grandmother, that is -- produced a copy of what she says was my favorite book as a boy. This was Mike and Mary Anne - Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, originally published in 1939. It is apparently eternally popular, and has never been out of print since that date.

It is the story of Mike and his steam shovel, Mary Anne, who worked on the Panama Canal together. As gasoline and diesel powered excavators come into the fore, Mike tries to find a place for himself and Mary Anne. He finally enters into a competition in which they dig out the basement for a City Hall, only they dig so fast that Mary Anne can't get back out again. So, a smart fellow turns her into the furnace for the new City Hall, and Mike gets a decent gov't job maintaining her. It is, in that way, the classic New Deal story.

But that isn't all it is.

I haven't thought of that book even once in my adult life. But sitting there, listening to my mother read it, I realized what it was: it's the legend of John Henry, with the steam engine as the hero.

John Henry said to his captain, "A man ain't nothin' but a man.
"But if you'll bring that steam drill round,
"I'll beat it fair and honest, I'll die with my hammer in my hand
" -- but I'll be laughing --
"'Cuz you can't replace a steel driv'n man."
Now ain't that something?

The Blogger's Tsunami Challenge | Loaded Mouth

Engagement Rings:

I see on checking the Blogger's Tsunami Challenge today that a brave young man has decided to take two gambles at once:

I just donated $1000 to the red cross, via amazon's one-click donate page, as a direct result of your challenge. To make it an interesting story, please consider it the "DeBeers Matching Fund"... I'm just about to buy my girlfriend an engagement ring, and I know she'd not mind me getting her a slightly(!) cheaper one, for the much greater benefit of the victims. She's pretty cool like that. I hearby challenge any future grooms with balls and money to do the same.
The mind boggles on several counts. Grim's fiancee was won with an engagement ring that cost US$12 -- a sterling silver ring done with Celtic knotwork that Grim himself wore once upon a time. The lady in question, now my wife of some years, wears the thing on a chain around her neck as it is far too big for her hand. We were grad students at the time, but she put aside any hope of financial prosperity and married me instead. Such women are too rare.

Love knows the victory, they say. Happy New Year to you all, and may Love find you, and abide with you, all the days of your life.

Lthrnk Chllng

Charity & Leathernecks:

I changed the "Leatherneck Tartan" button at the top right to point to the Tsunami Blogger Challenge, in case any of you should wish to keep track of it. I put it there to keep track of the Spirit of America "Friends of Iraq" Blogger Challenge.

Grim's Hall was never intended as a fundraising device, although from time to time I do like to post links to worthy charities. We don't do blog ads or tipjars here, though I see nothing wrong with either. I just think of this blog as a Hall, a gathering place for friends and warriors. We do things by the old code at Grim's Hall. This is my home, not a hotel: nobody will try to sell you anything, and nor will I accept payment in exchange for hospitality.

For that reason, I'm always a bit reluctant to post requests for reader charity. I do it anyway. The one part of the webpage that hasn't changed from the very beginning is the tagline: "A weblog on politics, ethics, mythology, history, and the heroic life." Charity is an important part of all of those things, and particularly the last.

I find as I get older that it's getting harder to live "the heroic life." There are two reasons for this. The first is the problem of age. It was easy as a youth to believe in "eating and drinking heroically." Now, I find that even at the greatest feast I eat moderately; and a grand bout of drinking only makes the head hurt, while one's thoughts turn to the long-term viability of the liver.

The second is the problem of experience. The more you learn and the older you get, the harder it is to believe that anything you do is heroic. Every day I read about, talk to, or exchange emails with men whose lives are far more heroic than mine has ever been. I have been brave. I can remember mornings hiking alone over the tops of snow-covered mountains, with all the trees sheathed in ice, so that at sunrise it was as if the world was made of gemstones. I have fought, and dared, and done much. But aside from the stories, what good has come from any of it?

There is so little that we can do for those half the world away. Even if my duties would let me go, I have no skills that would help anyone. Beyond first aid, I know no medicine. I can dig and fill, and lash things with rope, but I am not trained in electricity or plumbing.

But there are those who are, and many of them are rushing to the aid of the peoples injured in this disaster. It is a very small thing to offer them a parting gift, some small money to speed them on their way, or to purchase medicines to use when they arrive.

A small thing, but not nothing; and a thing done for people you have never met, and never will. Some would say it is still no more than duty; indeed, some would say it doesn't even meet the duties we owe. Some ethicists have raised high standards on such questions, although others have said otherwise.

Regardless of whether you consider it a duty or a glory, no one will make you do it. It is a free choice made for noble reasons. If you are choosing the heroic life, such choices are the stuff of it.

I will not say that anyone who does not give has failed his duty. I will, however, praise those that do.


Charity Challenge:

Blogger Tas has started a Tsunami Blogger Challenge, which has the modest goal of $5,000. The notion is that I should post some sort of challenge, which of course I will do. Anyone donating at least $50 may request that Grim compose a poem on a topic of their choice, except for such topics as honor forbids.

Since the terms of the challenge allow you to donate to the charity of your choice, send evidence of your donation to tas at loadedmouth dot com. He will apply it to the chart. Anyone who decides to donate because of reading this post, please drop me an email or leave a comment to let me know what you want your poem about.

Grim is not the best poet living today, but you can see a small sample of poems I've written by clicking on the links toward the bottom of the sidebar.


USPACOM Aids the Stricken:

There is finally an official press release from DOD on the forces deploying to aid those in the path of the tsunamis. Via the Sage I see that the USAF has its own story. One of InstaPundit's readers noted that the Air Force is going to be among the first on the ground with aid. I want to take a moment to recognize this fact and credit the airmen for what they do.

The first aid is often the most important in disasters like this: not only to provide drinking water, which is critical, but to prevent the outbreak of disease. A plague on top of a disaster is the natural course of human history, and can easily claim more lives than the initial blow. These deaths are largely preventable, and few are better at preventing them than the US military.


Revolution & Disaster:

The Associated Press carries a report of two hard-fought revolutions, interrupted by the recent quake:

Two of the world's longest-running civil wars are being fought on land devastated by Sunday's earthquake and tsunamis. In one conflict, the tragedy showed hopeful signs of bringing the two sides together; in the other, it appeared to be hardening the divisions.

Immediately after the quake struck, the warring sides in Indonesia's Aceh province agreed to put hostilities on hold, while government and rebel spokesmen in ethnically divided Sri Lanka accused each other of mishandling the response to the disaster.
What follows is a good analysis. I have little to add to the discussion of the Tamil Tigers or the Aceh rebels, but I would like to point out that there is a third revolution struck full-on by this event. The insurgency in southern Thailand will prove to be heavily influenced by the tsunamis, which made their landfall in the three southernmost, Muslim majority provinces of Thailand.

The government of Thailand has rushed aid to the region, using military helicopters to ferry it by air. The King of Thailand's grandson was killed; the king has donated 30 million baht (about $750,000, as I estimate it) from his own funds to the reconstruction. The latest news in English can be found at The Bangkok Post and The Nation. The former is a newspaper really aimed at the expat community in Thailand; the latter, a paper of the Thai upper class.

Much of the reports of the dead have focused on the resorts, where many Westerners seem to have been killed. The Swedes in particular had 1,500 of their citizens reportedly missing as of this writing. It appears -- stunningly -- that twice as many foreigners as natives may have died in Thailand.

The process of rebuilding offers many opportunities to address underlying ills. Since the economy has been swept away anyway, you might as well put it back the way you'd like it to be. Both the Thai and the US government seem to recognize the opportunity.

It seems, in one way, petty to think of political opportunities in the wake of disaster. It is anything but that. The opportunity here is not some small partisan advantage, but a hope of peace found amid the wrack. To turn a disaster into a revolution -- not of blood, but of hope -- is the highest act of man. It offers a glimpse, fleeting but true, of the luminous spirit within.


Charity & Goodwill:

There's more of the former than the latter, these days. In the event that you should wish to exercise some toward the survivors of the Great Christmas Quake, CareUSA has a setup. The Red Cross / Red Crescent has another. I imagine that those of you who attend religious services regularly probably have a way of your own to donate. Most likely you know others as well.

In addition, you are providing aid through the official government agencies. Australia's government is taking the lead in Indonesia, with USPACOM focusing on Sri Lanka and Thailand.

But this kind of aid is "stingy," according to U.N. Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland, who said that

[T]he United States and other Western nations were being "stingy" with relief funds, [and] there would be more available if taxes were raised.

"It is beyond me why are we so stingy, really," the Norwegian-born U.N. official told reporters. "Christmastime should remind many Western countries at least, [of] how rich we have become."

"There are several donors who are less generous than before in a growing world economy," he said, adding that politicians in the United States and Europe "believe that they are really burdening the taxpayers too much, and the taxpayers want to give less. It's not true. They want to give more."
I strongly suspect that almost none of you needed me to post the links to charitable organizations. From the recent Spirit of America fundraiser, Doc Russia and I learned how extraordinarily generous the readers of our blogs can be. Probably every one of you has taken time to find out how to give, and has already given what you can. You did so in spite of having just given to Spirit of America, and at the Yuletide, when disposable income is already earmarked for gifts for others.

It's no surprise that the U.N. feels we are being "stingy" by not turning over more of our wealth for them to control. In the end, it is far more likely that a dollar donated to Spirit of America will do good, than any dollar spent by any U.N. bureaucracy. You have reason to feel good about what you have done.



I went to bed too early last night.

It seemed quiet when I laid down my head. This morning I wake to find that my email has swelled to bursting. There are two events driving the majority of it. Both of them are earthquakes.

One was a physical earthquake.

Thousands of people are dead across the coasts of Asia, killed by monster waves set off by an underwater earthquake off the coast of Indonesia.

The quake sent massive waves, up to 10 metres high, across the Indian Ocean: west to the Maldives, north-west to India and Sri Lanka, north into the Andaman Islands and Thailand and east to Malaysia, leaving more than 5000 feared dead in seaside towns and villages.

It measured 8.9 on the Richter scale, making it the fifth most powerful since 1900, striking at 8am local time yesterday (midday in Melbourne).
The other earthquake was in China:
Up to 50,000 workers upset over mistreatment by local security guards clashed with police in a town in China's Guangdong province, throwing rocks and bricks and torching four police cars, a Hong Kong newspaper said on Sunday.

The unrest was the latest in a string of riots and clashes in rural China, all sparked by seemingly minor issues, that have highlighted discontent over rampant corruption and abuse of power and a growing rich-poor gap.
Christmas was peaceful, but the Feast of Stephen (as the song says) is turning out to be anything but. The first matter in particular is of concern, as the US Navy and Marines will mobilize across the Pacific Command to provide relief to the stricken. This won't get the kinds of headlines Iraq does (when did you read about the aid we've been providing to the Philippines this month, in the wake of their catastrophic floods?).

In spite of the disinterest of the elite -- and in the face of real danger from the perils that affect all places recently struck by storm and flood -- our sailors and Marines will be out there, doing good. When you are thinking of the deployed this holiday weekend, think of the ones out in the Pacific, too. Not many do, but they're as far from home as anyone.