10 June 2006

Leaps of faith

There’s been some discussion on the Dilbert Blog about whether sceptics and believers require the same leap of faith. For example, here's a comment from Omar:
It does require faith to believe in both the existence AND non existence of God. And by faith here, I mean a leap from the place were the evidence ends, to the place where you draw the conclusion.

I think that there IS an important difference here. Basically, claiming that God does not exist is inductive, whereas it may be argued that claiming that God does exist involves a leap of faith. Let’s have some explanation of a couple of terms before we go on.

Deductive means that the conclusion of an argument is necessitated by the premises, as in the typical syllogism:

  • All men are mortal;
  • Socrates is a man;
  • therefore
  • Socrates is mortal.

Induction is an argument in which the premises of support the conclusion but do not ensure it, such as:

  • All observed crows are black;
  • therefore
  • All crows are black.

Generally, a careful sceptic will make an inductive argument about the existence of God, something like this:

  • No evidence of the existence of God has been observed;
  • therefore
  • God does not exist.

Note that this is not a deductive proof of the non-existence of God. It does not exclude the possibility of some future proof, but it does take current evidence and base a generalisation on it. The typical response of a modern Christian believer is that belief in God does not require proof, but faith, and no amount of ‘missing’ evidence can disprove anything, let alone God. These two positions can coexist with little more trouble than the usual tension between believer and non-believer: on the basis of the lack of evidence the sceptic sees no reasonable grounds to believe, while the believer claims that ‘reasonable grounds’ are not the point.

Less sophisticated believers and sceptics will make more ‘aggressive’ statements which have absolutely no validity, such as saying that no proof of God constitutes a disproof, or that since there is no disproof, that constitutes some kind of proof. It would be wrong, however, to think that either of these positions require a ‘leap of faith’, since that would be synonymous with ‘faulty logic’ here. A ‘leap of faith’ happens elsewhere.

Going back to the more sophisticated positions, it may be true, as Omar suggests, that faith begins where evidence ends. An inductive argument about all crows being black may require faith in the sense that it assumes that all the non-observed crows will be similar to the observed crows. But one should be careful talking about ‘faith’ here, since the word has far wider religious connotations, and conflating faith based on evidence and faith based on belief would seriously muddy the waters of discussion.

The inductive argument cannot be said to require a ‘leap’ either, although we can still distinguish between strong and weak induction, an example of the latter being as follows:

  • I always hang pictures on nails;
  • therefore
  • All pictures hang from nails.

That may well involve a ‘leap’, but it is still based on evidence, and is as such inductive rather than faith-based.

The believer, on the other hand, makes a leap of faith because they believe regardless of the evidence. They may well describe their faith as precisely ignoring the lack of evidence, such as saying that God wants you to believe freely with an open heart, rather than requiring some qualified evidence-based belief.

Both positions may arguably be valid, but they do not require the same ‘faith’ or the same ‘leap’.

It might be, however, that a believer may base their belief on a different kind of evidence (the evidence of the heart, for want of a better way of expressing it). And if that is the case, then they might also claim that their belief does not require a leap of faith, because to them it is self-evident. Asking a sceptic to take their word for it and therefore to believe, would be asking the sceptic to make a leap of faith, which no sceptic would be prepared to do. In fact, rather than saying that both sceptics and believers have to make a leap of faith, I’d be tempted to argue that neither do.

25 May 2006

Animals

We have been looking after sick animals for as long as I can remember. At one point in Weston - before we went to Portugal, so it must have been ‘83 or ‘84 - we found a seagull with a broken wing on the beach one evening as we were walking the dog. Jenny - the dog - was running around ‘chasing’ gulls, which really meant racing towards them at full tilt to make them scatter in a cloud of feathers and cawing. But this one gull didn’t move, and Jenny was clearly perplexed by the way it just sat there. We christened it Gertie and took it home, nursing it for several weeks. Gertie became like an exotic pet of sorts; we’d shut the dog inside the house and take it out into the garden, and let it potter around. As its wing healed, catching it to take it back indoors for the night became increasingly tricky. One evening it managed to hop over the wall onto the road, which was luckily quiet, and Les had to run after it trying to catch it before it got into trouble. Half way up the hill it managed to get airborne, and we were all sad but thrilled to see it go. I have a memory of the house opposite in the sunset, and a seagull stood on the chimney - my mother swore it was Gertie come to say good-bye.

After we came back from Portugal the was a dehydrated rook we looked after for a while, and lived in the outside toilet that we had. There was nothing else wrong with the fellow, but the summer had been unbearably hot, and the bird had clearly had a difficult time. To begin with it didn’t move around much when we went to in feed it, as it simply didn’t have the energy, but it soon built up strength and made it clear that it wanted its freedom.

And we acquired a kitten that was being tormented by some kids when my mother sent me out to take it off them, saying that it was ours. It turned out to be a real sweetie, and used to fall asleep in the hood of my dressing-gown. There’s a photo somewhere.

My mother acquired another cat when they saw a white thing motionless by the side of the road. On examination the found that the cat had got its head stuck in a tin can, which they pried off. Since then I’ve always crushed any empty tin cans…

But there's always a darker side.

Up in Cumbria, one of the cats went missing and I found her in the field next door, dead from rat poison, as far as we could tell.

And one evening I was out with a few friends - we were heading off to a pub to play pool or something - and the guys in the car in front hit a rabbit (or was it a hare?). I demanded we stop, and got out to look for the animal. Its back legs were broken, and a couple of us stood wondering what to do. The guys in the first car came back, joking about hitting a rabbit, until they saw how earnest I was becoming. Because by that point I was looking for the heaviest stone I could find…

I don’t know if that was the ‘right’ thing to do, just as I don’t know whether killing the nestling yesterday was the ‘right’ thing. I couldn’t leave either there to simply suffer and die slowly. I suppose I’m writing this now because of the doubt, although at the time I could see no other way out. But yesterday I knew that, if I did what I felt to be necessary, I would be haunted by that act for years to come, just as I can’t forget the evening of 15 years ago when I killed a rabbit with a stone. In the end, the best I can say is that even if I did the ‘wrong’ thing, I didn’t do it lightly.

24 May 2006

Judgement

Was just walking home, and round the corner from where I live I came across a nestling in the middle of the pavement. A few metres ahead, a woman with a child in a pram had stopped to look at it too. She came back and we had a brief conversation about what to do with it. The fall seemed to have broken one of its legs, and it didn’t have the strength to stand, let alone fly. We agreed that it would have been better it hadn’t survived the fall. Eventually, the woman carefully picked it up in a paper tissue, and moved it to the side of the pavement where it wouldn’t get stood on accidentally. Then she left, saying that she hoped it wouldn’t take long. To die, she meant.

Me, I didn’t leave, but stood watching it struggle. Its mouth opened and closed soundlessly as it lay on its back stretching its wings. It tried to roll over, but only got as far as its side, one wing flattened underneath it.

I couldn’t just leave it there to gradually starve to death or be carried off by a cat. So I made my judgement, and did what I thought had to be done. I killed it.

12 May 2006

Cynical Optimism

With my recent forays into the Tool debate, I have been able to define my outlook on life a little more precisely. Years ago I used to say that I was a ‘cynical optimist’, which I defined as someone who had little faith in people, but who thought that things were so bad that it could only get better. That’s a fairly naive view, and I pretty much stopped classifying myself as such. However, after thinking about my intellectual and emotional response to the Tool debate, I’ve had to conclude that I am indeed a ‘cynical optimist’, but I mean something else by it now.

I know, matter of fact, that the majority of the population of the planet are morons with their heads inserted up their own flabby posteriors. Little else can explain religious fundamentalism, George Bush and the European Common Agricultural Policy, to name a few of my pet peeves. Anyone who reads what I write on this site will know that I have a very low opinion of the ‘general public’ and tend to make proclamations about ‘the end of the Enlightenment’ and its basic ideal of using reason to further humanity. I’m about as cynical as they come in that respect.

But that’s the head talking. It isn’t what I believe, but what I know. And the whole Tool debate has made me think more clearly about what I actually believe about people. And in that respect I have come to the unfortunate realisation that I’m an optimist.

When I meet someone, be it in person or on a forum, I immediately assume that they are as reasonable as I consider myself to be. I assume that we will be able to have a decent rational discussion, that we will find common ground, that if we disagree and I state my position clearly they will be able to come round to it, or identify the flaw in my argumentation that makes me reconsider. Sure, I have high standards, but I begin by giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. Of course, I’m imposing those standards on to other people, but I guess it’s impossible not to do so. But I don’t start out from a position of superiority. I don’t look down on others, who have to prove themselves worthy of my respect. Rather, I start out from the perspective that we’re all basically the same, and then the given individual either lives up to my expectations or doesn’t.

There's obviously a contradiction between these two perspectives. Practically what it means is that I am always surprised when I meet a complete idiot, especially if they are not merely dumb but offensive to boot. The cynical part of me ‘knows’ that most people are morons, but the optimistic part of me is shocked whenever I encounter an embodiment of that stupidity. And as such, instead of responding to an idiot by simply thinking, ‘Ah ha, another person I won’t bother to grace with my time’, I get angry that someone could be so stupid and start ranting. Meeting an idiot doesn’t so much confirm my cynicism as contradict my optimism.

I’m inclined to think that the tension between these two sides of my personality explains a lot about my behaviour in general. It definitely explains why I felt the need to respond to the many dolts in the Tool debate who took the view that “You suck if you think the new Tool album is anything but crap, because I know best.” The cynical side knows that this kind of comment is not worth the time it takes to read, but the optimistic side just had to fight back.

Tool, Flaming and Falsifiability

Well, I’ve been flamed and by, some definitions, engaged in a bit of flaming myself, over at Thought Mechanics. I do tend to take the bait, that’s true. But for crying out loud, all I wanted was a decent debate about the relative merits of Tool’s new album. But it’s reached the point where if I put up a post saying ‘come on, what happened to the debate’ I will have lost, in so far as that will elicit another response from the idiot Stefan, who will conclude that I have to have the last word, that I am a smart-arse trying to prove that I am smarter, and that he has won. So instead I will back off, because there is no longer any point. He will, of course, conclude that he has won because he has ‘shouted me down’ and I have given up. There is no possibility of 'winning' against - or countering, or responding to - such arguments.

Every viewpoint should meet the basic criteria of falsifiability. It should admit the possibility of counterexamples. If, as in the case above, everything that I do or say will prove my opponent right - in his view - then there is no longer room for any debate, and his view - not mine - is shown to be inadequate. Objectively speaking, he has lost. And I am not a smart-arse for saying so - it may be that I am a smart-arse, but for different reasons - because his argument has defeated itself.

I know that I argue in detail, at length, and that I try to do so persuasively. This does not, in fact, mean that I believe that I am right and you are wrong. One black swan will disprove the theory that ‘all swans are white’; I’m looking for the black swan in your argument, and hope that you will do the same to mine.

As far as the Tool debate goes, I’ll not go back until someone else has posted something worth responding to. In my last post I quoted Oscar Wilde:
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.

Of course, this too can be falsified. It just seemed to encapsulate the general tone of the debate well…

28 April 2006

10,000 Days, by Tool

It’s a cracker. Better than I expected, actually. Somehow, although 2001’s Lateralus has some great tracks, I never thought it was as good as Tool’s 1996 masterpiece Aenima. The progression wasn’t quite as marked as before, and even the greatest tracks didn’t seem epic in the same way that 'Push It' or 'Third Eye' from Aenima did. And this time round epic is back, and in a big way; although it might take a few listens to get into it all. 10,000 Days is, in my rather opinionated view, the best ‘prog’ album since Marillion’s Marbles in 2004, and the best album since Kate Bush’s comeback album Aerial last year.

10,000 Days starts off in much the manner I had feared, which is rather well. The two openers 'Vicarious' and 'Jambi' are fine Tool songs, layered and building in a way that only a few contemporary bands seem capable of. But they felt like what I was expecting, and somehow that wasn’t enough from a Tool album. It’s been five years since the last release, and I didn’t want the new album to merely do what was expected: I wanted it to surprise me. I wanted to be blown away, not think that it made a nice companion to Lateralus. And with the third track I got what I wanted.

Actually, the third track is the first of a pair entitled 'Wings For Marie (Part 1)' and '10,000 Days (Wings Part 2)'. There’s a lull of a kind between them, like gathering breath, but the two belong together, and if you want to import them onto your iPod you’ll need to use the ‘Join CD Tracks’ option to avoid a click between them. And together they clock in at 17:24. If 'Wings…' resembles anything Tool have done before musically, it’s the live version of 'Push It' from Salival, but this is still more mediative; lyrically, it’s probably the most personal thing they’ve ever been, apparently about the death of Maynard's mother. It’s long, elegant, beautifully rhythmic, and quite possibly the most ‘prog’ thing they’ve ever done. And the fact that the album is set up to lull the listener into a false sense of security with the opening tracks before engaging in such an epic is a stroke of genius. On a lesser album, 'Wings…' would be placed at the end, not before the half-way point; but by the time you’ve reached the second part, it’s clear that you’re not listening to a normal album with normal programming. This is an album which is meant to demand your attention, to snap you out of complacency, to break away from the formulaic, even when those formulas are (pretty much) unique to Tool themselves.

The next track 'The Pot' is similarly askew, beginning like some kind of a-cappella shanty which momentarily reminded me of 'Fiddle and the Drum' from A Perfect Circle’s eMOTIVe. The vocal is not quite like anything else we’ve heard from Maynard before, and is mixed louder than on the rest of the album, making it the dominant feature. The song itself is good, although after Wings… it feels like there’s a little something missing.

After that we come to the first segue on 10,000 Days, a piece called 'Lipan Conjuring', which resembles nothing if not one of Can’s 'Ethnic Forgery Series', this time with Buddhist monks as the subject. Or maybe Native Americans. Or some bizarre synthesis of the two. Whatever it is, it works, and it provides an effective break between the two parts of the album.

Then we’re back to another epic, this time 'Lost Keys (Blame Hofmann) / Rosetta Stoned', which come to a combined total of 14:57. 'Keys…' works like an introduction, with movie samples providing a narrative, while 'Rosetta…' features probably the strangest vocal Maynard has ever committed to record. I have no real idea of what it being sung throughout most of it; the voice is more like an instrument than it has ever been, and snatches of lyric float in and out of coherence. Odd references to previous songs from previous albums enter the music briefly, as if 'Rosetta…' is somehow the theme underlying much of the band’s previous work. It’s possibly the densest thing Tool have ever done, more wall-of-sound than song, and certainly comparable to the densest moments of Aenima. What it’s all about I haven’t the foggiest, but it’s tremendously good. Definitely one to play to scare your friends, or to illustrate why Tool are unlike any other so-called Metal band.

Things then seem to settle down a bit with Intension. I've heard this compared to A Perfect Circle, and although there is a certain similarity in the opening vocal, the music is more atmospheric that anything Maynard’s Other Band have done. The percussion is initially based around tabla rather than drum-kit, and as song builds there seems to be some drum programming going on - although I wouldn’t put it past Danny Carey to be playing like a drum-machine rather than using one.

With 'Right In Two' the tabla is back, and the album heads towards its conclusion. The lyric evokes the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, while the music hypnotically climbs towards a dramatic resolution. And then there’s the odd ambient/industrial piece 'Viginti Tres', and 10,000 Days is over, more than 75 minutes after it began.

My initial impression is that the new album is better than Lateralus by quite some way. I’m not in a position to compare it to Aenima yet, but then that was a masterpiece. Yet it certainly has more in common with the earlier record. All of Tool’s trademarks are here in abundance: rhythmic playing like no other Metal band, epic songs, ethereal voice, surprising arrangements and original programming. But it while it is arguably the most ‘prog’ album Tool have yet released, and also the most cohesive, my guess is that it will be less successful than Lateralus - which entered the American charts at #1. My reason for thinking this is that 10,000 Days is less bound by convention, and far less easy to pigeon-hole. It’s unlike anything else out there at the moment, and some people will undoubtedly decide that it’s cool to say it sucks. Others will find the it immensely rewarding; and I will definitely be among them.

14 April 2006

God's own truth

Oh no, another long comment from the Dilbert Blog. This time the topic is the errors and inconsistencies in the Bible, and people who believe that the Bible is the literal word of God.

I didn’t read through all the comments posted over there, but what I did read was more worrying than the original topic. Why would anyone want to argue that the errors in the Bible prove that it’s all a load of rubbish? And why would anyone want to say that any books discussing the same errors are just a liberal (not a dirty word in Europe, btw) attempt to undermine Bush’s voters? None of this has anything to do with the point.

The fact that there are errors in the Bible is, quite frankly, passé. It should be utterly uncontroversial. There are whole sections missing from what most people now consider the definitive versions, namely the Apocrypha. These were once considered as much a part of the text as the current canon, but were edited out at a later date because they seemed inconsistent - in fact, they were included in the earliest versions of the King James Bible. There are entire disciplines of scriptural study looking into the origin, consistency and meaning of the Bible. For example, religious scholars have for centuries concerned themselves with hermeneutics:
The rationalist Enlightenment led hermeneuts, especially Protestant exegetes, to view Scriptural texts as secular Classical texts were viewed. Scripture thus was interpreted as responses to historical or social forces, so that apparent contradictions and difficult passages in the New Testament, for example, might be clarified by comparing their possible meanings with contemporaneous Christian practices.

So there is nothing new about any of this. After all, The King James Bible is a English translation. And if a text is translated, say, from English into German, and then back again, the new English text will contain countless discrepancies from the original source. It is factually impossible to regard the Bible as the literal word of God when what we mean by ‘The Bible’ is an English-language translation, the standard version of which dates from more than 1,500 years after Christ is supposed to have died.

As far as I know, Muslims do believe that the Koran is the word of God, and accordingly any translation is merely a stepping-stone to the real thing. And again, as far as I know, they have a proof, and a test - the language is supposed to be so beautiful that it could not have been written by humans, and there is a age-old challenge to disbelievers to write something more beautiful. For better or for worse, the Bible has never been like that, and even less so since Martin Luther made the translation of the Bible into the ‘common’ language one of the defining points of Protestantism (and how many of you Catholics have a Latin or Greek Bible at home?).

What I’m getting at is that no-one with any awareness of the study of scripture would find anything here to get fired up about. Pointing out that there are errors and inconsistencies in the Bible should make absolutely no difference to a believer’s faith, any more than a list of clumsy sentences by Shakespeare would undermine the fact that he was the greatest writer of English to have ever lived.

I’m reminded of a song on an embarrassing CD that I own. It has the inspired lyric, “I keep my Bible in a bucket of blood so that I don’t get corrupted by its lies.” It struck me when I first heard it that the only people to get quite so angry about the Bible are fundamentalists and Heavy-Metal singers. They mutually offend each other, the Bible being kicked back and forth like a football, only neither side scores a goal, because both sides miss the point. The Bible is above all this, as a text, as an object of faith, as a means to God. I’m not religious, but it seems clear to me that reducing it to the mere words on the page, for whatever reason - either for their truth or their falsity - is to bend it to someone’s will, rather than letting it speak for itself.

I’ll end with a little thought-experiment, in the form of a quotation from that favourite fundamentalist scapegoat, Marilyn Manson: “Do you love your guns? God? Government?” Look at that list carefully: if you see nothing offensive in the associations being made, and no actual criticism of the Bible itself, then there there’s hope (he says patronisingly). But then, you probably couldn’t see what all the fuss was about with the errors in the Bible, either.

11 April 2006

Free Will and Determinism

Been a while since I posted anything on The Dilbert Blog, but today’s topic got me going, so here you are: a typical Matt rant.

Here’s my take on the whole free will thing, for what it’s worth. And I’m going to start by talking about Leibnitz.

Leibnitz’s view of cause and effect is that they are, in themselves, unconnected. What we call a cause does not lead to what we, with our teleological world-view, call an effect. They are simply events, occurrences. What holds these two things together, according to Leibnitz, is God, who has created a pre-established harmony between all things. Here's an example from Wikipedia:
An apple falls on Alice's head, apparently causing the experience of pain in her mind. In fact, the apple does not cause the pain - the pain is caused by some previous state of Alice's mind. If Alice then seems to shake her hand in anger, it is not actually her mind that causes this, but some previous state of her hand.

I mention this for couple of reasons. Firstly, to illustrate cause and effect may not be as simple as most people assume. The statement ‘X causes Y’ makes assumptions about the nature of the world, and those assumptions may be substituted for others - indeed, with no difference to what we see in the world around us. I will still associate the apple falling on my head with pain - all I must do is discard the notion that the apple ‘causes’ the pain.

Secondly, Leibnitz ascribes the actual relationship between a supposed cause and effect to God. While this may seem somewhat preposterous with the example of the apple, most everyone in the Christian world (I can’t vouch for the others) is perfectly familiar with this concept. ‘God moves in mysterious ways’, we say, meaning that some event cannot be understood by our usual appeals to ‘simple’ cause and effect, or indeed free will. It’s a form of shorthand for explaining how some absurdly fortuitous event came to take place - how, out of the multitude of possibilities, the right person seemed to be in the right place at the right time for the right thing to happen to them. This common phrase simply means that a certain series of causes and events seems best understood as have been aligned by God. And of course, this is not dissimilar from the whole Intelligent Design argument (don’t worry, we won’t be going there).

If we think about the example with the apple, the same explanation can easily be applied - the wrong person was in the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong thing to happen to them. But this too can easily become ‘the right thing’ - Alice is knocked unconscious by the falling apple, then falls in love with the nurse who tends to her. A seemingly bad series of events leads to a good result, and the best explanation we can offer is those mysterious ways of God.

Now my point here is not that I think that God is responsible for a pre-established harmony, but rather that there is, if we look closely, something indefinable - mysterious - about cause and effect, in particular in how it relates to our lives. We have a very localised common-sense understanding of cause and effect - the apple causes the pain - but the moment we start to look further afield - to the wind blowing, causing the ripe apple to fall, hitting Alice on the head when she only paused under the tree to tie her shoelace which had just come undone - that common sense understanding of cause and effect begins to break down into something which we generally struggle to understand. Leibnitz, and the familiar phrase mentioned above, called that indefinability ‘God’. The essence of Leibnitz’s argument about pre-established harmony is taking this oddness of wider, less-localised causality, and applying it to supposedly ‘simple’ causality - in effect saying, ‘There’s no such thing as simple causality - we can’t even understand why an apple falling on a head causes pain!’

In the discussion about free will and cause and effect, this is the level at which we have to pitch the argument. ‘X causes Y’ it isn’t; you’ll get a better idea of the problems and implications of causality if you remember the notion that ‘God moves in mysterious ways’.

Someone might object that Alice chose to bend down under that tree and tie her shoelace, but how do we know? What does ‘choice’ mean? A proponent of the determinism (such as me, I guess) would say that she thought she chose, meaning that she was unable to see the near-infinite complex of causes which led to that action. That complex of causes is mysterious, indefinable and imperceptible to our human perception of the world, and in everyday parlance we are happy to call it ‘choice’, or to ascribe purpose to God. But these are short-hands for our limited perspective sensing something it cannot grasp, and seeking to describe it.

Free will, in its common everyday usage, is no better than ‘choice’, in my view. It is simply a (natural) inability to understand the wider causes and effects. We ascribe it to ourselves, as the ‘highest’ intelligence we are aware of, and are sceptical of applying it to supposedly ‘lower’ life-forms, whose determinism we think we understand. But I’m sure that in some way a cat ‘thinks’ it's thinking, thinks it has free will - from its own perspective - and most likely ascribes the same level of intelligence to us. The late, brilliant, Douglas Adams supposed than mankind was only the third most intelligent species on the planet; naturally, the more intelligent species (dolphins and mice) were aware that humans were less intelligent, but humans were unaware of the fact - assuming themselves to the the only intelligent creatures, and the only ones with free-will.

What I’m getting at is that the idea of free-will stems from the limits of our own perception of cause and effect. We conceive of ourselves as having free-will, but a creature more intelligent than us would most likely not - although they might very well be aware that we think we do. We ourselves are no longer convinced, as we look more and more into genetics, biology, psychology, and so on to find explanations for behaviour and actions.

But free-will is not dead, just a hypothetical default. If we find an acceptable alternative, we employ it. If a court of law determines that a murderer is insane, he or she is not punished in the same way as someone who is considered to be in full control of their senses. On the argument I’ve put forward above, the sane person is no more in control than the lunatic; only in the case of the lunatic we have a ‘simple’ explanation - a simple cause, if you will - and with the sane person we do not. But the court still acts ‘as if’ the sane person is in full control, ‘as if’ they have free-will. Whether they ‘actually’ do has no bearing on the functioning of the court and the world in general. There would be no anarchy if everyone became a card-carrying proponent of determinism; indeed, it might be more complicated if everyone became a proponent of absolute free-will. Nothing would be changed, anymore than, to the naked eye, the world looks any different if we use a Ptolemaic system (the sun goes round the earth) or a Copernican system (the earth goes round the sun); but the finer details will be more precise.

In my view, everything about the scientific perspective leads to determinism, and free-will is at best a metaphor. It is an important one, which, when no simpler, more practical explanation is offered, has a fundamental role in the functioning of society. Yet while there is nothing more to it than an ‘as if’, there is nothing simplistic or debasing in recognising that determinism is the only adequate description of the world; Leibnitz, after all, equated cause and effect with God.

04 April 2006

Unemployment

Before coming to Germany, I was unemployed in Britain for a couple of years. Wasn’t much fun, but one event seems to encapsulate it fairly well…

I stayed around in Lampeter (where I went to uni) for a couple of years, applying for jobs in cheese factories, that sort of thing. I had no money, but had decided that I could buy one second-hand CD from Hag’s Records every two weeks; I didn’t smoke, hardly drank, and still that was all I could afford. But Hag had a deal where you could make a one-time payment up front, then rent a couple of CDs at a time for £1 each; if you then decided to buy them, the CDs would be £1 cheaper than the cover price. Very fair, and a godsend for a music nut like me in a time of unemployment.

(Great man, Hag, an ex-student, and stood for election as the local Labour candidate in the 1998 election when Tony Blair came to power and Labour put an end to 17 years of the Tories… He didn’t get elected, ‘cos Lampeter was in the Plaid Cymru heartland—that’s the Welsh national party—but came a good second.)

On the occasion I want to talk about, I borrowed Mark of the Mole by The Residents, a special edition of the CD which included Intermission—music played during the intermission of the tour they did at the time—and sleeve notes explaining how you should programme the CD if you wanted to listen to the two mixed together as they were meant to be. This was the first Residents album I’d heard, and I was perhaps more than a little influenced by the middle-aged assistant in Hag’s Records, whose view was that the Residents were, well, “Weird but not wonderful.”

He—I think his name was Bob—or Dave?—was a big Can fan. Another remark of his was that he only regretted selling the records he had of two artists—Can and Captain Beefheart. I now have everything Can ever recorded, although I’ve yet to catch up on the Captain. Another great comment of his was on Björk, something like, “Her name is like the sound I want to make when I hear her music.” Beautifully opinionated, which no doubt appealed to me, even if I didn’t always agree—soon after that Björk released Homogenic and I was hooked; and he hated Jethro Tull (“Why would I want to listen to a multi-millionaire who dresses like a beggar and jumps around on one leg?”), who are undoubtedly the band who have endured most throughout my constantly-changing record collection. On one occasion I think I got the better of him—Hag had just got in a special edition of Tabula Rasa by Einstürzende Neubauten, with two bonus eps and an interview disc. Being inclined to check out anything German at the time, I borrowed the CD, loved it, and went back to Hag’s to buy the thing. Hag reckoned it was probably just the price of a double-album, and gave it me for about £14. You could have picked the assistant’s jaw up off the floor. He thought it should have been three times that price as a limited special edition, and that I’d just got the deal of the year. I was chuffed. Anyway, back to the story.)

Weird the album was, but there were definitely some moments of wonder. At the time I thought most of the best moments were in the somewhat lighter Intermission part—it was my first Resident's album, you know?—I was on the cusp of my musical tastes turning a little odd (Can, Faust, Neubauten, Residents) but wasn’t quite there yet. And I listened to this album over and over, and it started to grow on me, but, somehow, not enough. I loved parts, but didn't ‘get’ others. And I decided that, on my one £7-CD a fortnight budget, this wasn't the one. I did what I now consider sacrilege, and made a taped copy, abusing of the fairness of Hag’s rental deal. And worse, I edited the almost 70-minute CD down to fit onto a 45-minute cassette, removing the parts I didn't ‘get'. Took the CD back, and borrowed something else, I don’t remember what. And this truncated corruption followed me to Germany when I got a job teaching English in the university of Jena.

In July 1999, The Residents performed in the Kulturarena in Jena, and I went to see the concert with Frank, an ex-student of mine. Though not a ‘fan’ at that point, I was amazed that in our city of 100,000 people in the old East Germany, we would get a band like that to perform, and there was never any question about seeing them live. They were touring Wormwood: Curious Stories from the Bible, and it was quite simply the most incredible concert I had ever seen. It still is—the next time I saw anything in the same league was Trey Gunn's guitar playing at the KTU concert in 2005, again Kulturarena. It was more like performance art than rock concert. By the end there was nothing more that the initially bewildered audience could do than to stand up and applaud. Both Frank and I came away fans. And I went home and dug out that cassette of Mark of the Mole, and a hunt began.

The 'horror' of what I had done—copying the CD, truncating it, and onto cassette of all things—finally began to hit home. I scanned the sales catalogue of EuroRalph, The Resident’s record company in Europe, but couldn’t find the CD I had heard not more than two years before. It was a special edition, and Mark of the Mole was normally released without Intermission. Intermission itself—a 20-minute CD—was released separately, and for almost the same price as the main album. That was no good! I wanted both—in one place, and in the right playing order! I had no computer at the time, and what is common now—ripping the CD in iTunes and making your own playlists—was unknown to me then. I could have bought both CDs and copied them onto a cassette (!) in the right order, but no. I wanted the CD I had once had in my hands, but had slipped through them, through the limitations which being unemployed impose, and through the greed of being able to copy and return. And I searched and searched and searched but could not find.

Fast forward seven years. A couple of weeks ago, I was browsing on Amazon and came across a new special edition of Mark of the Mole, beautifully packaged, including lyrics, and accompanied by Intermission on a separated CD. Purchase was instantaneous. Two CDs are now no problem in this age of the iPod. True, it wasn’t the actual CD I had quested after, but I could finally listen to the album in all its glory. And glorious it is too; an epic metaphor on the woes and prejudices of immigration, cast in an industrial mould with hints of folk and jazz. One of the finest CDs I have, without a doubt.

The title of this post is ‘Unemployment’, and to me finally managing to find Mark of the Mole has made me think about what that aspect of my life meant to me. That quest was the only lasting result. Before I came to Germany I sold off almost all my music and anything superfluous in order to scrape together enough money to survive the first few months. Now I’m surrounded by books, CDs and DVDs, and I’ve had a job for eight years. I may be bouncing along the bottom of my overdraft, but at least I know that if I don’t indulge and buy too many X-Files DVDs (oops! too late!) I can actually improve my financial standing. But that Residents CD somehow represents everything I associate with being unemployed; the limitation, the frustration, the misplaced opportunities, the bad choices. Everything good that happened seemed to come from outside: moving to Germany, teaching in the university. Listening to the album nine years after I last heard it is somehow like putting a full stop on a period of my life.