I’d never eat your shoe

June 30th, 2016 — 9:38pm

A sudden plosm creates echoes. Later i exhume the body of an old pet, and notice that the chickens are all gone. So now is the time for wine and music… the blood on my fingers.. picking up the guitar the snow begins to fall, cooling my mind like a song.

Several days at home with my daughter, who has a fractured tibia. We do puzzles together. It’s winter now so I endlessly am chopping and carting wood, avoiding the weather, being sat on by my cats. Me and my million progeny extend to the horizons.

The world is suspiciously paused. Half the people think they want a revolution because they read about it in the paper. The world is sinking, but ever so slowly. People only notice it at the fringes.

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View along the bluff trail

When walking in up in the Victorian Alps near Howqua, with some friends last spring, i was listening to the ravens and their strange half-human language which has been echoing around those mountains for millennia.  Suddenly i felt light headed and as i sat down i fainted and drifted off into a dream for all eternity.  Coming around with my friends shaking me, i looked at the mountains around me and felt completely confused as to what part of my life i was supposed to be living. It rushed back eventually and then i spent the rest of the walk worrying that i’d faint and embarrass myself again. But the experience of my identity unravelling like that was on the whole really refreshing. What i liked was the heady feeling of unconcern for my own mortal wellbeing. It’s a truism but once you’re dead you really don’t worry about being dead – the terror of death is a burden for the living alone.

Such a short holiday.. soon Sanskrit will take up all my time again. I was reading David Godman’s pages again this week and perhaps what i’ll do eventually is translate the Arunachala Mahatmyam. When I imagine myself in India again it’s either in the mountains or somewhere south.. these are always strangely lucid dreams, full of odd psychic vapours.

My other fascinations abound and are squeezed into these holiday periods.. recording music, reading about all the minerals in the world, and the metals, following the damn politicians..

 

Comment » | drunken, inchiki news

Gaia is born of freedom

June 23rd, 2016 — 3:07pm

Freedom is a very basic personal instinct. I think all creatures want to be free, free from fear and desire, free from hunger and pain. The protection of key personal freedoms has been central to the rise of civilisation, and this has continued in modern societies through activities like the abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women. We now believe that freedom is a basic human right and human happiness and social cohesion is dependent on it.

gaia

Img: earth wind Map

But we are even now not entirely free – and much of what we do in life is really an effort to procure more freedom than what is granted to us at birth by our society. So gaining power over others has become the primary means to exercise more personal freedom. This drive to acquire power is the basis for the market  – as money grants us material freedom so earning money becomes in theory a freedom creating exercise. Freedom of mind is more elusive but either quenching or ridding ourselves of desires can be described as a method of freeing ourselves from them, and so becoming happy. By engaging in such activities, we express in our everyday lives the truth that greater freedom is a good thing, whether we think much about how we obtain it or not.

The struggle for personal freedom has been continuing since the first microbe ate another to make some space in the warm purple soupy ocean of the Archaean earth. Evolution is simply the playing out of these desires through time, with the reward for chance innovations being an enhanced domination of other species. Even though the struggle of evolution was undertaken nearly blindly by its competitors, it delivered us our bodies and the supporting natural world around us. The survival games of a market economy continue with this model. So long as a level playing field is maintained, market economies harness the same desires for freedom that are the drivers of evolution to encourage innovation. The 20th Century has demonstrated the amazing facility of capitalism to create the most efficient systems to feed, house and entertain the human population of the planet, nearly all driven by the self-interests of everyone involved. As an engine to drive evolution or humans technological powers forward, there seems to be nothing better.

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Img: John Lurie Art.

The creation of corporate entities has added a level of coordination in this activity, but the principle is the same. Corporations act within the system as if they were individuals, but with desires that are tailored to their individual business model. The drive for increased power and freedom is the same – but it is like a ghost desire, articulated in the objectives and raison d’être of the organisation. It is hard to hold the individual greed of humans accountable – except in a few instances of corporate tycoons whose personal agenda is embodied in the company they lead (Murdoch, Koch brothers et al). John Poynder noticed in the 19th Century that corporations “have neither bodies to be punished, nor souls to be condemned” (referenced here by John Quiggin) but do reflect the amalgamated desires of the actual bodies of a subset of the human population.

Nation states are very similar creations, as they also seek the greatest possible freedom for themselves. It’s just we tend to view them more benevolently as they are supposed to put the rights and wellbeing of their citizens first – places like North Korea are exceptions.  Nations have an interesting relationship to corporations, as taxation is essentially parasitic, yet its legislation is existential. The drive by corporations to reduce government power is a blind pushing back against these hindrances, in accordance with the desire for increased freedom.

This might go on indefinitely. However a problem emerges when the environment which these entities operate within becomes suddenly closed. This can be demonstrated by placing yeast in a jar. Previously harmless by-products (alcohols) which used to be carried away suddenly become concentrated. The yeasts go on multiplying and competing with each other and producing these contaminants, not realising that they all face the same existential threat. Thus they poison themselves en masse once they reach a certain concentration. Portions of human society have been in similar scenarios through time, for instance on Easter Island where all the trees, then all the written records were burned for firewood as society collapsed. As the population has grown, the whole of human society is now effectively in one jar now, with climate change being the most pressing hazard resulting at present. Because the same problem affects all inhabitants of the planet equally, and there is no way for one person’s activity to avoid it (space colonies still being too difficult), so we find that the struggle against one another, as created by market capitalism, does nothing to help us innovate away from the apocalyptic end game.

In this situation, nature does not select against one or another of us, nature selects against all of us. The only solution which actually guarantees our continued freedom is clearly one that reduces our freedoms. It is a solution which supersedes the market economy but requires the coordination of our activity as if we were a single organism. But in doing this, there is no alternative but to restrain the personal freedoms which are so highly valued by each of us.

This dilemma, of subverting personal freedoms for the good of the whole, is not entirely new to us. We are familiar with the operation of the principle in some areas of civilised life already, and it is forced on us by nature herself – every creature has an instinct that runs against their personal freedom when rearing its children, for instance. But we are not used to it affecting our right to compete with one another. Ever since we have been free of slavery or serfdom or debilitating poverty, we have expected to be able to use our work and cunning to obtain what is best for ourselves and our family, to increase our freedom at the modest expense of those around us. It seems counter to the very trend of modern society to slip back into the shackles of a controlling overlord. If we do not fight against it at a personal level, it will certainly be fought by corporate entities and nations for whom the freedom to compete and dominate one another is as natural as it is to the male lions of the herd or the sharks in the ocean.

Perhaps we should prefer the feminine instinct to protect the herd against the greater existential threat, than to continue to allow infighting for its dominance. In any case, I do not think that the engine of innovation which is the market economy should be shut down. However it needs to be subsumed within a system that places first the good of the whole, second to the good of its individual parts. This system’s reason to exist is the creation and preservation of the ideal state for human affairs. While we inhabit a single planet, it must be a single entity, as we are a single species and there can be no unmetered competition with it, which reduces our ability as a species to compete against the trials given to us by the reality of the universe. I expect that climate change is only the first of the threats that humanity as a whole must face, and continue to face in new and unexpected forms in the future.

The shift in reference which needs to accompany this change in the organisation of humanity can be compared to episodes in the evolution of the species. In fact it seems that every great leap forward has been accompanied by a similar gestalt moment – the realisation that the whole must become more than the sum of its parts. The movement from protozoa to eukaryote is one such shift, the movement from single cell to multi cell organism, the socialising of animals into groups, and finally civilisation itself – are all shifts upwards in the level of coordination. At each shift, there has been a loss of freedom at the level of the individual component. It is unavoidable. But the benefit is clear and in some instances it has been necessary to ensure survival.

Humanity is at this juncture now. Climate change poses a certain kind of existential threat but it is only one part of the general threat which is a product of our own success – the limitation of the earth’s resources to sustain us all. The threats that are now coming our way occur on a different dimension to that on which the market economy works. They are essentially unseen externalities to the players in the capitalist game, as the actor – humanity as a whole – is simply assumed to continue to exist in the estimations of corporations or nation states. There has never been a serious threat to it, so there is no capacity to respond to such threats should they come from the system itself. Humanity’s interests can only be mandated through a new superstructure which must be applied to the entire society. Fortunately, the technology for this superstructure has just been invented.

 

Comment » | essay, green, open democracy

Renovations

June 20th, 2016 — 2:05pm

Taken some new portraits of me as a poetaster, and making images as part of general renovations to the ‘poem library’ and other parts of this site.

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Tortured or disgruntled?

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On the red chair in the blue room.

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With books. Do I look poetry enough?

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Too Lord Byron?

Comment » | drunken

making sense of things past

June 14th, 2016 — 9:28pm

I recently had a clear out of my notebooks which i took when traveling in 1997-8-9 and filled with poetry and drawings (most are not publishable – but some of the o.k. ones are in the ‘poem library’ part of this site).

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The ‘little red notebook’ and Schrÿfbloks.

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Schrÿfblok scribblings.

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The “little red notebook” which has a few poems and lots of other dreamings.

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Self portrait aged 20.

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Poems..

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Leunig influences.. yearnings for simplicity.

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Psychedelic scribbles.

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Being a nerd, I designed castles. Later I recreated them as ‘Doom’ levels.

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Lines improving Somerset Maugham’s “The razors edge”.

*

I spent these travel days on my own trying to make sense out of life. I was heavily influenced by eastern ideas and the amount of meditation that i did put me in a completely different state of mind to any other time in my life. I can’t even really touch on those days with writing – they are gone but they are always deeply present in me.

 

Comment » | enlightenment, inchiki news, poem, whimsy

tram #3

June 6th, 2016 — 3:34pm

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It has been a while since i saw the guy and the girl on the tram. This time i only caught the end of their conversation before they got up abruptly and left.

***

“So there can only be one observer in a coherent system of knowledge” said the girl with the orange hair.

“All particulars must be either observed or not observed, but never both. And to say what kind of knowledge we have of a something, it is essential that we know if it is observed, and to discover this we must have a single clearly defined observer.”

“Is this because you have been reading about Schrodinger’s cat?” asked her friend.

“No it’s not just that. The cat helps. I mean, the alive/dead state of the cat wave form collapses when it is observed. We know that. But it is the same with anything.  The moon doesn’t even exist when i look away.”

“How can that be?”

“Well there are two ways. Firstly, because the collapse of the wave form. But more importantly, it all goes back to how i know anything.”

“You see, in the beginning, when i was a baby, there was just a stream of sense data. It was sense data and the knowledge, the only piece of knowledge i think we have, of existing. It’s not even knowledge, just a sort of being, it comes before thought.  It comes before observation. Because this stream of sense data.. it’s like the number plane, it just keeps coming. And at some point, i suppose, we are able to say ‘well that’s different’. We notice something has changed. And that probably is our first observation. So it goes “i exist ===> i observe (a change).  The opposite way to Descartes actually.”

“And this sort of thing must go on for a while, and all the while importantly the tape is running, so we are recording somehow, we have memory. And then we notice something and we realise that have noticed it before and that’s the first ‘ah’ moment. It’s importantly different to just floating on the stream. Maybe it happens in the first few days when we notice the pattern of our mother’s heart beat and everything swelling with it. So it’s our first pattern recognition event. And it’s our first real knowledge.”

“But we are making a leap already,without even noticing it, we are leaping into knowledge of the future. For we are going to assume, something having occurred before, and it happening again, we are going to be ready for it to happen in the future. We don’t know, of course, this is the problem of induction. There is no certainty. We cannot even know, it is the first fear perhaps, that our mother’s own heart beat won’t even continue. It seems regular, it seems to always be going on and on. We don’t know. Although in time, in the mind of a tiny baby in the womb, perhaps it comes to be taken for granted. And so we come to rely on patterns and we start to map out the future from the past.”

“And then there is the great event, that first death which we all experienced. The heartbeat ends, the darkness is blown away, the cold rushes in, and we are born.  What a bittersweet thing, to lose that heartbeat, and yet discover that we still have one of our own. What can be left to discover after that…”

There was a sudden jolt and everyone on the tram was knocked over, the girl dropped some books, which spilled over the floor. I dropped a coffee i was holding and after i finished apologising to the old lady with the dog, i noticed that her friend had already helped her to put them back in her bag. Then it was her stop and they both got off.

I saw them again the next day though, and they still seemed to be talking about induction. This time the boy was talking.

“All observations are based on the knowledge that ‘I am observing’ which is derived from those first few months of life.  It is all built up from the earliest beginnings, with thoughts such as “when I open my eyes, the light arrives”. All this knowledge is inductive, we still haven’t got any further than that first step of noticing the stream of sense data. We just have a steadily growing bank of past experience to draw more complicated reference to.  It is impossible to get past the supposition…”

The girl interrupted.

“But the stream is still there, the sense data. And this is the important thing, this is the only thing that is real. Everything else has been built up out of nothing. And so this is why unobserved entities simply can’t exist. They have no reason to exist. There is no grounds for them to exist. The cat doesn’t even exist until it is observed.”

“what about other minds then?” asked the boy

The girl thought for a minute and then replied.

“Consciousness is not an observed entity. Consciousness shares its character with that first thought, “I exist”. So the grounds for the existence of other minds is stronger than for other sense data. It is like discovering our own reflection in something. Other minds are not ordinary matter.”

They walked away then and i have not seen them again since.

Comment » | tram

spring break breather

April 2nd, 2016 — 8:51pm

Thank god for spring break. So i can come here with some wine and finish or continue the thought i started ten years ago. It has got busy around here with the house full to the brim with kids and lots of uni work to do and also real work and then things to get drunk and poems to write or songs and all my thoughts are in a fragmented but happy kind of state.

Wine and mosquitoes in this room. New songs from BJM on the headphones. Bass ripples into the night through expensive compressors and space echoes.

सर्वकामक्रोधौ त्यक्त्वा गयोगी जीवन्मुक्त .. Sanskrit notes in my diary, i spend so much time on this now. My fabulous teacher McComas Taylor is in the paper today cause they are trying to cost cut in the school of Asian Studies, just like they did in the school of music.  Higher Education and research funding is really dire in Australia at the moment.  My Sanskrit notes sit alongside sedimentary sections of the Worange point formation from a field trip near Eden, NSW. It was a great trip, we saw more placoderm bones, some beautiful Devonian point bar channel deposits, perfectly preserved ripples, mud bombs and root casts. Also there was a storm out in the Tasman and the waves were really huge and crashing all around us spectacularly on the red cliffs there.

I am also Reading Russel for philosophy, who’s unseemly calm air I find strangely disconcerting. So in my final essay I argue (with Descartes) that the only a-priori knowledge is “I exist” and all else is induction.  I will take this argument a lot further one day.

Thinking about quantum computing, after talking wtih Michelle Simmons, and I think one of the great things these computers will be able to do is to do causality backwards really well. Rather than needing to iterate through and run from all possible initial states of a causal system to find the one which matches a current state of affairs, quantum logic will be able to pick out the initial state really quickly. This will be great in the natural sciences for running the clock backwards. I think there will just be a real sense in this kind of computing power when we finally use it, that we are reaching into a really mystical otherworldly magical kind of knowledge of things, far in advance of how our brains can ever know or conceive. It’s going to be great.

I am desperate to record some songs – I have lots of short bits with the kids chatting or screaming in the background. Need a solid block of time to use some of the nice kit i have now. So frustrating cause in my 20s when I had endless expanses of time i was too poor to have any equipment. In the meantime it’s all about the new BJM songs..

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Look at this prawn that was in the sunset last week.. I am using Gimp to do all the editing work, just like Reaper which i use for music and GePHi for my network graphs.. i love (and support) free/open software in all its flavours.

 

Comment » | inchiki news

Meditations on the primes

January 7th, 2016 — 3:47pm

ONE

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The first number is really all the numbers. It is the infinite one. Indivisible, or infinitely divisible. One way of conceiving of it is a bright light, streaming in all directions, with no shape and no source. It is also like pure being, pure certainty.

TWO

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By introducing two, we divide the one infinitely into a great grid. We have invented even numbers. Every other even number, half of all the numbers, will be a multiple of two, divorced from the whole.

Two is like a moment of doubt, clouding the certainty that existed with one. It seems to be associated with logic and daemons.

THREE

Dispersive_Prism_Illustration_by_Spigget

Three is the prism. It returns towards one, but two has created the separation. Colours are invented by three, and all the possibilities of aesthetics open up through multiples of three; 9, 12, 15, 18… Three creates many beautiful numbers.

FIVE

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Five seems to be connected to a lot of earthly life and humanity – the fingers on the hand, echinoderms (but not mollusca which are bilateral) – and it is the first number which seems to hint at the shape of the circle, the wheel.

SEVEN

Piano-keyboard

Seven planets (of antiquity), seven days of the week, seven whole notes in the scale. It is seen as a mystical number, I’m not sure where this comes from, perhaps it doesn’t occur in nature very often.  There are seven systems of symmetry identified in crystals, although no crystals seem to have a symmetry that is septile.

ELEVEN & THIRTEEN & etc

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I guess here we begin the path that is laid out by the Sieve of Eratosthenes. We seem to be out of our comfort zone with these large primes. Although there is an interesting musical scale using thirteen, but it doesn’t sound very musical for ears of this century.

An here is the interesting question about what is the meaning of the pattern thus described by primes?

No more number 9

On a slightly different topic, I’ve been thinking for a while that the base 10 counting system we use is really unnatural and unsuited for the future. In times to come, I wonder if we will come to prefer binary – some extrapolation of it like octal or hexadecimal.

We are already gaining a new familiarity with numbers like 64,  256 and 512,  thanks to the digital age of computers in which it is natural to count things like megabytes (1024 bytes).

Decimal only came about because of the number of fingers we have – those fleshy growths on your hands.  If we were squids it would certainly be different.

If humanity decides to use hex or octal as our counting system instead of decimal at some point in the future, it will be a bit like how during the last century or so most countries decided to use decimal counting instead of using feet and inches, for simplicity in an increasingly empirical world.

Hex seems the most likely candidate to me because it has an added compactness that comes about from the extra characters, yet there still arent’ too many symbols to remember. But here I think we run into a little connundrum.  Hex when it is used now in computers uses the latin alphabet for numbers 11-16 like thus: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,A,B,C,D,E,F.

It could become a little confusing to use e.g. the letter C to refer to 12 when for instance trying to sell eggs.  There may also be a problem during a transition period that that unless your hex number contains a letter it will look like it could be a decimal number.

So because of these problems, we will probably have to completely re-invent the symbols we use for counting. It might be a chance to create an entirely new set of symbols that are neat, efficient, and contain none of the ambiguities that you get from reading the numbers 6 or 9 upside down, or thinking a 1 is an ‘l’ (although it might be hard to change the symbol for ‘1’ as it’s so ubiquitous and commonsense).

The names of numbers might need to be changed too. It makes no sense to be saying ‘teen’ for numbers over 12 when we are not counting in decimal any more. Perhaps it’s another opportunity to borrow some neglected words from old cultures. For instance, here is one idea with some borrowings from Sanskrit..

one 1
two 2
three 3
four 4
five 5
six 6
seven 7
eight 8
nine —
ten — 
eleven —
twelve —
trini (13) —
catur (14)  —
puncha (15)  —
sasa (16) — 10
sasaone (17) — 11
sasatwo (18) — 12

etc..

Of course no-one likes change so the opportunity to introduce this system would probably only occur at the same time as some revolution is occurring, or new civilisation establishing itself and its identity.  Perhaps my great grand children will see to that.

Comment » | nerdy, whimsy

social media, pollution, bjm etc

December 18th, 2015 — 9:35am

After holding onto my old nokia for a long time I finally gave in and got a phone with a shiny screen, and noticed that my blog isn’t suited to devices. So i changed it for a while there, to make it easier to read on a tiny screen. But i’ve just changed it back cause it was too ugly like that. So, i’m sorry if you are trying to read this on a phone, this blog is for bigger screens. I notice that phones are getting bigger though, so perhaps technology will catch up with me one day.

I’m addicted to the ‘intellectual dry hump’ that is twitter. i like following Richard Dawkins, for his crisp logic and fearless online antics, Mat Johnson, one of the funniest and most insightful persons alive,  Anton Newcombe for insights into a beautiful music world which i wish i inhabited and Evelyn Enduatta who is an ANU anthropology student with a cool Yolŋu thing going on. I mention these folks to give a hint of the peculiar range of inputs that we can plug into on twitter. It is the magic of this social media phenomena which allows us to get sort of intimate with people who are global figures, or random strangers. I asked Anton the other day whether he could see any geminid meteors (such a nerd i am).  He said it was overcast in Berlin. That kind of little interaction is just pure gold to me.  But it’s not just about fandom gesticulating at their idols. It’s also about an exchange of consciousness which is not bordered like it used to be. Like the Dawkins feed – the springing back of forth of ideas is really potent. An argument is going on inside the mind of the humankind-animal and you can see it on twitter.  Reddit is also interesting, but with the forum structure it is less a stream of consciousness like twtter. I have been using it lately to post some new stuff.

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I am still in love with Earth Wind Map and the new layers which keep being added. Above is the sulfate pollution map which shows how most of this in Australia comes from the Mt Isa and Olympic Dam mines.  Below is El Nino, the big yellow streak in the tropical east pacific. Indian ocean is also warm right now which i read on bom might be allowing some moisture to get to Australia despite El Nino.

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what else? it is christmas and that is dreary. The days are very long. i am having a lot of trouble getting any poetry written, or music recorded.  There is a new tune i am working on – you can hear me playing it moments after i created it here. Actually, more than anything else perhaps, playing music makes me happy at the moment. the aliveness of a tune, its movement, is so seductive to the mind. when everything else is dead the music will live on..

 

Comment » | inchiki news

the blankness inside

October 5th, 2015 — 10:11pm

new poems.. like new leaves on trees soon to be felled. the darkness the darkness.. what is the simplest path now? the straightest path leads into emptiness ..

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the vast gasp of new verbiage heaping onto blogs, spilling from pages into vacant minds, pictures pouring into eyes.

the heart like a tickertape machine, printing painful and bloody sermons.

the great mind.. seething.. unseeing but knowing.. everything. it is coming soon.. soon.

happy happy sitting with an empty mind.. i hold my friends close to me.. i am the author of another old salty fish hanging on a sea breeze bleached post.

miraculous mercury – come to me – errors accumulate like grime in a filter.  a pocket calculator quietly adding.

better not to write. always better not. to write.

argues “myself in my head. with myself” “in my head” into bbq sauce, the black tar of neutrinos, untrapped, free to radicalise.

Scene 1: he flings his cape about himself and dissolves into smoke. or maggots. or yellow leaches. something. the smell of warm blood, or gearbox oil. it is hard to tell.

vacant lot. vacant car park. that one piece of gravel with a white paint mark, loose, lost and unfitting.

the cat. oh the unendurable misery of the cat!

 

 

2 comments » | drunken, green

the ethical dilemma of the vegetarian

September 1st, 2015 — 2:49pm

Life is suffering, said the Buddha. This seems to me to be true much of the time, and what is also unavoidable is that our aliveness causes suffering for other living things. Even the most careful of us will unfortunately step on a few ants and swallow some gnats (unless we follow very particular ascetic orders). At the very least we generally take up space on the planet that might have been used by someone else. This seems to be an unavoidable fact, but it does seem at first glance that we can at least diminish the quota of suffering that we cause in the world by not going out of our way to kill and maim things. Famously the Buddha advocated this, in a time when animal sacrifice for religious reasons was even more common than it is today). And one of the more obvious ways we still kill a lot of animals is by eating meat, so an easy fix to that is become a vegetarian.

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But it’s never as simple as you think. As this article delights in pointing out, a vegetarian diet might easily still result in the deaths of many creatures who would not have otherwise died. The most powerful example given is that of mice, as millions of mice are poisoned every year by farmers growing grain. They aren’t killed humanely in abattoirs but poisoned – a particularly nasty way to die. When you start to think about it, many agricultural practices do result in animal deaths, especially if you count insects.  Moles get ploughed, badgers trapped, birds and kangaroos shot, fish poisoned by polluted waterways, not to mention the heavy death toll on insects, if anyone cares about them.

Obviously organic and sustainable farming goes a long way to reducing these impacts on other creatures – but it seems like there will always be some death associated with farming. What can the vegetarian realistically do? If animals are going to die anyway is there any real benefit in not eating animals outright? There are certainly some cases where animals are able to subsist on land that is otherwise quite useless to agriculture, which is part of an argument that George Monbiot, once a vegan, now uses to cautiously support ethical meat eating.

I was reading a bit of decision theory, and I think that there has to be an equation to sort this question out. Nothing too complex for me though.

S = s + s + s + s …

Let S be the sum total of suffering we cause though an act of eating. Let little ‘s’ be the suffering of those life forms who suffer through the act of us eating. So if we eat an ox then then the total suffering S = s where s is suffering of the ox, or if we eat some bread which causes the death of ten mice then S = 10s, or ten times more.  Here is the dilemma – for the vegetarian seems to be causing more suffering than the meat eater with this meal.

The difficulty is in what constitutes s, suffering. I think there are two main things at play here. Firstly, there are the events that are experienced which are ‘suffered’. Some events are worse than others – there are some ways to die that involve more suffering than other ways. We tend to prefer short and sharp ‘humane’ killing to deaths that are long and drawn out. We must also consider the quality and of life lived – the suffering caused by eating pork from pigs intensively reared in factories is higher than if the pigs had nice lives in a field, regardless of how they died. Perhaps also the duration of life is important – perhaps eating lamb is ethically worse than eating mutton. And an animal might not even have to die to suffer as a result of our meal – battery chickens producing eggs are an obvious example. To experience this sort of suffering might be worse than suffering a short sharp death following a contented life.

But we also have to consider sentience when considering the suffering of the life form – for it seems to be widely and intuitively believed that there is a spectrum, with humans at the top, and barely sentient bacteria or slime moulds or plants at the bottom. Killing creatures that are closer to the top is held to be worse than killing those at the bottom, and this is based on an intuitive idea of sentience. We believe that fly does not suffer as much as an ox when he dies, or at least that it does not matter as much to us. And even vegetarians have to draw the line somewhere, about what sentience is acceptable to kill, if they want to eat. For instance, a vegetarian is clearly happy to eat plants, which are dimly sentient, and would probably be unconcerned about eating bacteria, even though some bacteria are motile and quite complex. Algae is bacteria like this after all. Pescetarians draw the line up higher, above fish. Even meat eaters draw the line somewhere – above oxen but probably below dogs and whales and humans. Some more ancient cultures seemed not to have drawn any line at all.

So ‘s’ in the equation above is really a combination of at least these two things – the suffering experienced (se) and the rank of sentience that experienced it (st).

S = (se * st) + (se * st) + (se * st) …

The only way to truly calculate the the value of the meal is if we have perfect knowledge of the suffering inflicted and can scale sentience accurately. Unfortunately, calculating this in most circumstances seems to be an impossible task, and open to lots of argument.  But it would be interesting if we could measure these things accurately to discover whether a vegetarian diet still comes out on top most of the time. I think it often would – but I don’t think that it would all of the time.

abattoir-animal

[A gratuitous picture of offal which is unrelated to the merits of the argument. Although wouldn’t this be less offensive if these were mouse carcases?]

Vegetarianism at least has this appeal: it is a very easy ethical position to practice and understand. It at least excludes some of the most obvious ethical wrongs like eating factory-reared pork. The suffering caused by a vegetarian diet seems to be less direct – perhaps the farmer gets the bad karma for poisoning all those mice.  But I tip my hat to anyone who can improve the lot of other creatures by thinking about and tracing the ethical effects of all our eating – vegetarian or otherwise.  Like most things, there is a lot more to this question than is obvious at first glance.

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