Meet Old Shuck, My Black Dog

I suspect almost everyone has a black dog in their life. I have Old Shuck, the legendary beast of East Anglia. I didn't always call him that, but he's been around my entire life. Which was confusing, because prior assessments on the presence of the dog suggested that he was not there. But I knew he was. In fact, it wasn't until quite recently that I could give Old Shuck a name and understand him. Perhaps like most people, at times the black dog has kept his distance, or remained small. At other times he has been bigger, and sometimes he is very, very big indeed. Whilst he has visited multiple times in the past year, in quite recently, I have never seemed him loom so large. Thus, it is opportune to put finger to keyboard, and compose a few words about this beast, silent and invisible to others, but so very loud and very present to me.

Rights and Freedoms

We all like to be able to do all sorts of things, some of which are not always permitted. For many things, we need, and expect, to have rights and freedoms. According to the various national anthems, Australians are "one and free" and the USA is "the land of the free and the home of the brave". According to the anthem Rule Britannia, which is not heard often in recent years, "Britons never, never, never shall be slaves". Political and social commentators have promoted a concept referred to as "the open society", which is characterised by humanitarianism, equality, and political freedom. Many people have spoken about "inalienable rights", that is, rights that can never be denied. Others speak of "God-given" rights. There is a European Convention on Human Rights, and much legislation in most countries explicitly or implicitly includes rights.

Many years ago, the United Nations issued a Universal Declaration of a bill of rights. But it would be virtually impossible to get world-wide agreement on a set of rights. Several countries disagree with some of the rights proclaimed in the Universal Declaration. Most rejections relate to religion.

Contemplations on Suicide

"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy."
-- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (1942).

One may question, in a contemporary view, Camus' association of the matter of suicide as the fundamental question of philosophy. Disciplinary boundaries move over time, and increasingly there are pragmatic reasons why philosophy is increasingly associated with foundational matters of epistemology, ontology, and logic; even if there were no humans alive these matters would still, in potential, exist. The matter concerning suicide is perhaps more a matter of normative moral reasoning and situational ethics, coupled with questions on the psychology of life. Camus would disagree, of course. He takes issue with the argument of the importance of ontology, for example, by citing how quickly Galileo abjured it when his life was at stake. But regardless if one shifts the disciplinary boundary, the importance of Camus' statement from a subjective perspective cannot be under-estimated. As is well known, Camus argues that existence is absurd, without innate meaning, and in this regard he does certainly raise an ontological challenge, not to the individual, but to existence itself. Suicide then becomes a symptom to the meaningless, the recognition that life is not worth living. Faced with objective meaningless, Camus asserts authenticity where the subjective, even recognising their own limits, creates meaning in "revolt" against objective absurdity. This is, quite obviously, prior to the linguistic turn in philosophy which now locates the greatest meaning as being generated through the relationship of trust and promises between authentic people.

The Year of the Rat: From Buddhist Pilgrimages to Extinction Events and Land-mine Detection Awards

In the opening paragraphs of Camus' The Plague Dr. Bernard Rieux spots a dead rat on the landing, the first sign of the plague that is about to sweep the city of Oran. That is how we associate rats in our culture, and have done for hundreds of years. They were assumed to be the bearers of the Black Death of the 14th century that killed an estimated 150 million people in Europe and North Africa. "How now? a rat? Dead, for a ducat, dead!", writes William Shakespeare in Hamlet. "You dirty yellow-bellied rat", James Cagney famously said (and is paraphrased) in the 1932 film "Taxi!". We exclaim "rats!" when things do not go our way, we don't "rat" on our friends, although we might "smell a rat", we can fight "like a cornered rat", and if things are looking bad it's always "the rats that desert the sinking ship", perhaps to avoid "the rat race". We'll need the "The Pied Piper of Hamelin"! Plague-bearing, dirty, unpleasant, selfish, and desperately violent survivalists, we best be rid of them. That is how we, in the Western world, have been brought up to percieve the rat.

Other cultures have a different perspective. From the Vedic tradition, the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha, remover of obstacles, has a rat (or mouse) as a mount. It is noted that in part this may represent an impediment to control (the Sanskrit word for mouse is derived from the root to steal) as rodents are a threat to village crops. It also suggests that ability to penetrate the most secret of places. In Rajasthan, in north-western India, there is the Karni Mata Temple also known as "the temple of rats", where 25,000 black rats are revered as reincarnations of the descendents of the Karni Mata the warrior-sage of the 15thC CE.

In south and east Asia where a Lunar calendar is employed, the rat is the first animal of the Chinese zodiac which cycles through a 12-year cycle of animals and the traditional five elements. This past year, from January 25th, 2020 until February 11th, 2021, is the Year of the Metal Rat. The year 2020 is also associated in popular culture with the Cyberpunk roleplaying game which meant, in my mind at least, that this was the Year of the Stainless Steel Rat, recalling the series by the author Harry Harrison. Indeed, in Decmeber I ran a virtual conference with this title which attracted authors, computer security experts, gamers, cultural aficiandos, and politicos from around the world. A publication of proceedings is forthcoming.

The Continuum of "Needs" and "Wants"

There are many discussions between the difference of needs and wants, from personal satisfaction and happiness to the aggregate social benefits. Certainly there is much in our political economy which actively encourages the idea that the path to happiness is to be achieved by having a bigger house (and more houses, and especially more land), a powerful car or three, expensive clothes, and the various trappings of luxury, such as being surrounded by gold and marble.

The earliest recorded advocacy of hedonism comes from Siduri in "The Epic of Gilgamesh". It basically suggested enjoy the sensuality of life, and don't worry about other things, specifically in the case of Gilgamesh, give up your quest for immortality. The Epicureans gave a more nuanced version, that we should seek a life of simple pleasures (especially intellectual pleasures), cultivate friendships and avoid conflicts (they didn't participate in politics as a result). It from the Epicureans that one witnesses the development of the many versions of utilitarianism and consequentialism etc.

Whilst both argued in favour of living in accord to nature, there is a stark contrast between the quasi-hedonistic Epicureans and their quest for "ataraxia", the freedom from disturbances, and the Stoic quest for "eudaimonia", happiness through the control of one's mind, virtuousness towards others, etc. The Stoics argued that this control and virtue could be achieved independently of wealth or poverty, sickness and health, etc. The the Peripatetics argued against the Stoics on this matter, with Aristotle suggesting that some external goods were necessary for virtue and control and beyond that the Delphic Maxim of the Golden Mean applied, i.e., moderation. This is clearly close to the teachings of Gautama Buddha in the Noble Eightfold Path against the extremes of self-mortification through austerity and the coarse addictions of sensual pleasures.

Philosophical Summaries: Marcus Aurelius' Meditations

Expressed in over forty thousand words and separated into twelve "books", the Meditations by the Roman Emperor (161 to 180 CE) Marcus Aurelias has been recognised as one of the major contributions to the philosophy of Stoicism even if almost certainly written for his own consideration during a military campaign, rather than for wider publication. Indeed, the earliest manuscript title in Kione Greek was "ta eis heauton" ("to himself"). In particular, in these days of a devastating and ongoing global pandemic there has been a revised interest in Stoicism and especially Aurelius' Meditations.

With the exception of Book I, it is difficult to discern a temporal, logical, or thematic order, although some attempts have been made (e.g., Gourinat, 2012). Writing for himself has meant that they are written in an unassuming manner, even for an Emperor. But it also means that the books do seem to lack a sense of development; one often finds a returning to questions that have been previously considered, with a new angle, but similar dispositions. Whilst there is often pithy insight to be gained from these considerations, their repetition does lead one to consider whether Marcus was documenting his own attempts to use Stoic philosophy to stave off the challenges that it must confront with depression from the past, anxiety of the future, dissatisfaction with the natural world, and discontent with the behaviour of oneself and that of others.

The Case for Veganism

Veganism is the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products as far as is possible. A vegan diet uses only plants and hence no animal foods, i.e. no meat, no fish, no dairy foods, no eggs and no honey. Vegans also avoid the use of animal products such as leather, feathers, fur and wool.

Some people become vegans because they do not want to exploit animals. Some people become vegan for health reasons because some research has linked vegan diets with lower blood pressure and cholesterol and lower rates of heart disease, type 2 diabetes some types of cancer and some research has given evidence that a balanced vegan diet is useful in combatting diabetes and arthritisi. Some go vegan for environmental reasons - giving up animal products lowers carbon emissions; also to produce food for an omnivore uses about five times the amount of water food produced for a vegan uses.

The vegan diet contains four food groups: (i) grains (ii) vegetables (iii) fruit and (iv) legumes, nuts and seeds. In addition vegans should take a source of vitamin B12 (e.g. a tablet). For a balanced diet one should eat from all four groups.

Some Concepts of Progress

There has been a lot of discussion about the concept of progress for many years, and the topic is still controversial.

There are lists of the benefits from the progress we have made over the past few centuries, and there is a lot of dissent about them.

The idea of progress might seem to be straightforward, but it has its subtleties and its contradictions.

What is Progress?

Religious Freedom and Religious Charities

There is much talk at the moment about "religious freedom" in Australia, and there is about to be a great deal more. The Federal Coalition government, pledged a Religious Discrimination Act in the last election, and in recent weeks we have witnessed the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, declare that he is seeking a bipartisan approach to the Act with discussions with the leader of the opposition, Anthony Albanese. From all accounts the bill can be expected very soon; indeed a month ago a draft was prepared with suggestions that it would be presented to parliament in mid-August.

Mysteries of Fundamental Physics

While the science of physics is able to explain an enormous amount of things about the world, there are still enough mysteries to keep physicists busy for a long, long time. I will talk about mysteries relating to fundamental physics. Fundamental physics explains the rest of physics and provides the basis of chemistry.

Fundamental physics is just one small part of science, but discovering solutions to its mysteries can reveal new kinds of scientific knowledge.

Creationists say that the existence of scientific mysteries demonstrates that all science is unsound. This is their argument against the theory of evolution.

Some aspects of science may be hard to understand or believe. But, at a time when there are so many global problems that cannot be addressed without scientific guidance, the many groundless alternative beliefs and fake news are a threat to humanity.
It would help humanity if more people had some idea about scientific mysteries and the large body of science that surrounds them.


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