Sunday, March 30, 2008

A challenge to Joe

This post follows that posted last Sunday, March 23

Dear Joe, I hope this finds you and your family well. My wife and I have been extra busy lately with our planned household move, and I'm neglected my blog. But today, while going through boxes from the attic (to decide what to throw away, what to donate to charity, what to try to sell, what to keep), I remembered my comment in last Sunday's post (made on Thursday, March 27) to Tom Sheepandgoats, in which I made a joke:
I forgot to ask Joe whether there really is a new book out titled The Dawkins Delusion. Have you heard of it? I guess I should amazon it....Yes, lists The Dawkins Delusion?: Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine, by Alister E. McGrath and Joanna Collicutt Mcgrath...Oh, no! Joe'll probably start quoting it to me now.
I guess the italicized sentence wasn't a joke at the time, actually, although I meant it good-naturedly.

What I got to thinking today was that it need not be an annoyance for you to quote the McGrath & McGrath book to me (as it certainly is, generally, whenever anyone quotes the Bible to me). I am already on record (in a comment on Tom's blog) that my third reading of Dawkins's The God Delusion will be a critical reading, with me suspending my belief as much as I can and challenging his arguments.

The McGraths have presumably read Dawkins very critically indeed, so arguments they make against his position would be good for me to consider as a tool to assist my own critical reading....

So, if you read their book and feel inclined to quote one or more of their arguments against Dawkins, well, then feel free to do so! I'll consider what they (and you) say and do my best to respond in an intelligent and fair manner.

Thank you much, Joe. I appreciate it.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

What we like to do for fun

This dialogue follows that posted Saturday, March 22

From Joe to Moristotle

You smiled...I thought at best you would roll your eyes.

I think we both think that each other's words are empty. Not really sure about your religious tracts comment. I could accuse you of reading atheist tracts. Fact is we both look at the same facts and interpret them differently.

As for Leviticus and Numbers, The Mosaic (Moses, Leviticus and stuff) Covenant was temporary. The New Covenant is a relationship with God, through Christ.

You said responsible parents can know how to raise their question is how? What is your guide? Do you use past experience? Society norms?

I have started my quest reading your blog. Lot to read through. I do thank you for offering opportunities to strengthen my beliefs and study more about what I believe. I will try not to make you repeat yourself.

What else you like to do for fun? I know you like to read and watch movies. You have any other hobbies? Do you like are in a good area to like college sports. Are you a Tar Heels fan?

From Moristotle to Joe

First, thanks for asking what else I like to do for fun. I had been just about to ask you whether you planned to watch the basketball game between Arkansas and North Carolina this evening. While I do hope that Carolina wins, I wouldn't call myself a fan. I don't like to watch any sports events. I hope Carolina wins only because I work with a lot of people to whom it's important, and they would be in a better mood tomorrow if Carolina won. Plus, Carolina is "supposed" to be the best this year, and a lot of people would be really dejected if they didn't play in the championship game.

But bottom line is that I think collegiate athletics have gone way too far when it comes to money and fanaticism. Same for professional sports. All are emblems of a trivial popular culture. Actually, my attitude is not new. I felt roughly the same way when I was a high school student. At a basketball game I attended as a senior (I guess), I was struck by how mindless seemed the wild roaring of each side for its own team. I think I was then under the sway of some classical Greek ideal of competition not as defeating an opponent but as attempting to be the "best you can be," where you can as sincerely congratulate members of the "opposing" team as you can the members of "your own" team. And you can feel as sorry for any participant's failure as you can for that of another.

I don't know whether the way I do gardening qualifies as a hobby, but I generally enjoy messing about the yard, doing the things that are necessary to keep it looking good and so on. Also, although it isn't necessary, I very much enjoy taking out bird feed every morning and taking in the feeders at night that a raccoon or possum might otherwise attack. Of course, I enjoy watching birds visit the feeders. I even enjoy watching squirrels trying to get at the food. There was one the other day draped around the long thistle feeder, eating as much of the minute grains as it could. I don't begrudge these little creatures their food, however they can get it.

My son and I sometimes play Boggle, and I used to play Scrabble and chess quite a bit, but it's been a long time. Sometimes I'll try to sneak a few pieces in on my wife's jigsaw puzzle.

I actually enjoy just doing the daily chores, making the bed, preparing breakfast, making the dinner salads, keeping the place looking tidy. I don't believe in life after death. I see that the present life, whatever its condition, is precious and ultimate. That includes the present life of others, human or otherwise. Thus, I try to do good. My sense of authentic self demands it. I suppose that my attitude is that such life is holy.

Now back to the beginning. Did you really think that I would "roll my eyes"? Please tell me a little more about what you were thinking when you wrote the original sentence about "uncaused First Cause"; that is, why did you (apparently) think even at the time that I would not be impressed by it?

I don't agree that we both think that each other's words are empty (in general). I was commenting only on one particular phrase you used. Please don't overgeneralize. That's rather like hurling rocks back at me. Try to be more responsible.

Joe, it's almost impossible for me to believe that you're serious when you ask how can responsible parents know how to raise their children. Are you that unread? If you don't know the answer, then I certainly don't have the time to explain it to you.

My "religious tract" comment came from my own experience with such literature, in which highfallutin, philosophical-sounding phrases are bandied about in a display of presumed wisdom, and it's hard to tell whether the author really believes it or is just trying to console the readers of such publications. I can't be sure from your response, but you seem to be implying (or trying to give the impression) that you have never read such things.

The recent books of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, as well as Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason and Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian—all of which I have read and am fairly certain you have not—are not "tracts." Your tossing "tract" back to me (as though it were a ball and you hoped I'd fumble it and it would bounce up and fall through the hoop to score you a point) does not flatter you. (Do you own a dictionary? The American Heritage Dictionary defines "tract" this way: "A distributed paper or pamphlet containing a declaration or appeal, especially one put out by a religious or political group.") If you can't rise above that sort of playground brawling style, then I really don't wish to participate, and you should go find someone else to work off your testosterone with.

Reading opposing points of view (such as my blog) for the purpose of strengthening your own beliefs....Please, if you would, do let us know how it goes. If you want to note progress in comments on particular posts, go ahead, as I'll be automatically notified that you've done so and will see your comment.

From Joe to Moristotle

Wow, I have asked you twice now about how you raised your kids. How did you teach them right and wrong and you still have not answered. You could have easily said: Joe, I read this book or that book, or I raised them based off my experience of how I was raised. No, I am not asking for your advice on how to raise my kid...just curious on how an atheist knows right from wrong, and how that translates to raising their kids.

Uncaused First Caused relates to the explanation that the universe just didn't happen, that an Intelligent Creator started it. I assumed tone from your email...because it seems like you are getting frustrated, or at best you feel I am wasting your time. I know tone is really impossible to deduce from email, so please forgive me for making an assumption on your tone. I am not really in the business of impressing you. I am just trying to figure out more about what you believe. It seems our emails always turn into saying something, you telling me I am wrong and I don't read enough, me stating something I did read, you telling me how that it's ridiculous, etc.

I am not trying to win points with you or beat you at a game. I do not own a dictionary...I just go to

From Moristotle to Joe

Joe, the way I'm feeling at the moment is that I don't see any future in our continuing to try to discuss this. We seem to rub each other the wrong way. Or at least you sure rub me the wrong way; I can't tolerate your taunting, take-no-prisoners style of debate. (That's what I had in mind by referring to your testosterone. You strike me as a particularly "alpha" male, and I've never liked the type.)

But, since you are insisting so, I'll say that we raised our kids many years ago and I don't remember very well what we did. I don't believe we read them Bible stories. We probably read some Dr. Spock. We had moral sensibility (humans have it as an evolved species; evolutionary biologists are studying it now) and we tried to reinforce it in our children. We were also educated people. Our daughter (as she revealed to me a month or two ago in a comment on one of my posts) decided "as a kid" (probably fifth or sixth grade) that there was no god, but I know few people more considerate and good than she is. My son seems to be agnostic; he likes to "believe in the possibility of God" and appreciates some wonderful music that its composers' attributed to their sense of "God." He, too, is a fine, upstanding, sensitive, considerate person. So, Joe, try to lose your parochial, self-serving opinion that atheists have to be bad people.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The thankful natives of America

This dialogue follows that posted Thursday, March 20

From Joe to Moristotle

"How does God explain anything?" God is the uncaused First Cause. I don't see how science can explain the beginning of the universe. In fact, the law of cause an effect and the law of entropy seem to point to a creator showing the universe has a definite beginning and something caused it. I of course believe that God caused it.

Science cannot explain the irreducible complexity of the human eye. Darwin himself said: To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree possible.Origin of Species [p. 155]

Fanatic religionists just show that the world is full of hate. Hateful people operate under the guise of a religion. Religion is also responsible for good causes: Salvation Army helps millions of people; City Union Mission in Kansas City helps homeless people and is run by local churches; countless other services including shelters, food pantries, home building, etc. are led by religious groups. You cannot lump religious people in with all the people doing bad things in the name of religion.

"And morality doesn't depend on God either." What does morality depend on, then? Society? If it feels good, do it? What is right for you may not be right for me?....this doesn't work. How did you discipline your children when they were growing up? Wouldn't you just say, sure, kid do whatever you want?

From Moristotle to Joe

Joe, forgive me, but I had to smile at "the uncaused First Cause," for those are just empty words, signifying no meaningful intellectual content. The "law of cause and effect and the law of entropy" certainly point to no such thing as a creator! I suspect you've been reading too many religious tracts.

Your passage from Darwin was quoted out of context. That was a rhetorical passage to emphasize how marvelous indeed it is that natural selection did bring about the marvelous mechanism of the human eye.

Yes, not all religious people are bad, of course not. And churches, synagogues, and mosques do provide useful charitable services. Unfortunately, these activities are used as evidence that religious dogmas are true, and that is invalid. And neither, of course, do evil religious activities prove that religious dogmas are false.

But here's what I said: "We'd all be much better off without the magical thinking and parochial arrogance characteristic of religion." That arrogance leads to something that even "good" religionists think is beneficial: evangelical proseletyizing, going out to be "missionaries." The natives of North, Central, and South America, were just tickled pink for the Europeans to come over and slaughter them if they didn't let themselves be baptized....

Here's the kind of answer to your morality challenge that I think you (as a Bible believer) can appreciate: You don't agree with some of the moral rules of, say, Leviticus 20 or Numbers 15. On what basis do you disagree? I agree with you that, of course, responsibile parents don't tell (or let) their children to do whatever they want. But responsible parents can know that without having had anything whatsoever to do with religion.

Have you made much of a study yet (if you intend to) of the many personal disclosures I've made on this blog that bear on my now being an atheist? I don't intend to repeat myself unnecessarily. I say as much as I have here because our interchange will make a good sequel on my blog to the interchange I posted on Thursday. Friday's post, by the way (a quotation from Bertrand Russell), seemed pertinent to your challenges to this particular sceptic me. Thanks for providing the occasion for that one of Lord Russell's observations.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Bertrand Russell's famous china teapot

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

– Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

From Russell's essay, "Is There a God?" The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Volume 11: Last Philosophical Testament, 1943-68, ed. John G. Slater and Peter Köllner (London: Routledge, 1997), pp. 543-48.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

How did this all start?

From: Joe
To: Moristotle
Just so I have a better understanding of what you believe. How did this all start? How did we get here? How did the universe begin? You believe that there is no God. How do you explain some of the complexities of how the universe works?

I start this conversation realizing that we have different beliefs...I am just trying to understand your position better.
From: Moristotle
To: Joe
If you really want to know, I ask you to please read from the past year's entries on my blog. You can do that selectively, ignoring entries on other subjects.

But I can ask you one simple counter-question: How does God explain anything? How do you explain God? Positing God as an explanation for anything is not helpful. God is simply unnecessary. And morality doesn't depend on God either, anymore than explanation does.

And, of course, fanatic religionists have been (and still are) responsible for much murder and pillage (including pogroms against Jews, the Inquisition, murders of abortion-clinic staff members, and not just bombings and beheadings by Islamic jihadists). We'd all be much better off without the magical thinking and parochial arrogance characteristic of religion.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A history not of God, but of the idea of God

Karen Armstrong's 1993 book, subtitled "The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam," has the misleading but catchier title A History of God. She herself refers in the Introduction to "this history of the idea and experience of [emphasis mine] God in the three monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam" [p. xix]. She admits that God might not really exist and that she wished, "when I was starting out in the religious life" [in the 1960's], that she had been told to "deliberately create a sense of him for myself."
The human idea of God has a history, since it has always meant something slightly different to each group of people who have used it...Indeed, the statement "I believe in God" has no objective meaning, as such, but like any other statement only means something in context...[E]ach generation has to create the image of God that works for it. [p. xx]
Note that sly little word has, as though one could not do without an "image of God"! Buy that assumption and you've piled a load of baggage on yourself.
The same is true of atheism. The statement "I do not believe in God" has meant something slightly different at each period of history. The people who have been dubbed "atheists" over the years have always denied a particular conception of the divine. Is the "God" who is rejected by atheists today the God of the patriarchs, the God of the prophets, the God of the philosophers, the God of the mystics, or the God of the eighteenth-century deists? [p. xx, starting immediately after the previous quotation]
I'll have to see, as I begin to read the next 399 pages of Armstrong's book (not counting the sixty additional pages of glossary, notes, suggestions for further reading, and index), whether I have the patience to continue reading, the patience to concern myself with the creations of mankind's religious imagination qua mental constructs.

And I'll have to see whether I detect in myself any need parallel to Armstrong's to "create a sense of him for myself." For several months now I have much enjoyed the freedom from any such sense whatsoever. If it's "obvious" to some that God exists, it's just as obvious to me that there's no such X.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Defenses of dogmatic belief

Dogma demands authority, rather than intelligent thought, as the source of opinion; it requires persecution of heretics and hostility to unbelievers; it asks of its disciples that they should inhibit natural kindness in favor of systematic hatred.

The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic.

Heretical views arise when the truth is uncertain, and it is only when the truth is uncertain that censorship is invoked.

– Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

The first quotation is from p. 466 of The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, the second from "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish," one of his Unpopular Essays, 1950, and the third from his essay, "The Value of Free Thought."

Monday, March 17, 2008

"It was once convenient to think biblically..."

Throughout the day Saturday (in Ian McEwan's 2005 novel), Henry Perowne continues to reflect on our post-Darwinian, post-9/11 world:
He turns the corner into Paddington Street and stops in front of the open-air display of fish on a steeply raked slab of white marble. He sees at a glance that everything he needs is here. Such abundance from the emptying seas. On the tiled floor by the open doorway, piled in two wooden crates like rusting industrial rejects, are the crabs and lobsters, and in the tangle of war-like body parts there is discernible movement. On their pincers they're wearing funereal black bands. It's fortunate for the fishmonger and his customers that sea creatures are not adapted to make use of sound waves and have no voice. Otherwise there'd be howling from those crates. Even the silence among the softly stirring crowd is troubling. He turns his gaze away, towards the bloodless white flesh, and eviscerated silver forms with their unaccusing stare, and the deepsea fish arranged in handy overlapping steaks of innocent pink, like cardboard pages of baby's first book. Naturally, Perowne the fly-fisherman has seen the recent literature: scores of polymodal nociceptor sites just like ours in the head and neck of rainbow trout. It was once convenient to think biblically, to believe we're surrounded for our benefit by edible automata on land and sea. Now it turns out that even fish feel pain. This is the growing complication of the modern condition, the expanding circle of moral sympathy. Not only distant peoples are our brothers and sisters, but foxes too, and laboratory mice, and now the fish. Perowne goes on catching and eating them, and though he'd never drop a live lobster into boiling water, he's prepared to order one in a restaurant. The trick, as always, the key to human success and domination, is to be selective in your mercies. For all the discerning talk, it's the close at hand, the visible that exerts the overpowering force. And what you don't see....[pp. 184-185]

Friday, March 14, 2008

"Well, no, I don't believe that"

During lunch yesterday with a friend of my own age, I mentioned that I am reading Bertrand Russell's 1945 A History of Western Philosophy, and he in turn mentioned having read Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian. I asked whether the book had influenced him, and he said he had long been an agnostic. I asked what "agnostic" meant to him, and he said "just not knowing, one way or the other, whether 'God' exists. I don't know. But," he added, "I do not believe that there's a personal god. If 'it' exists, it hasn't any interest in human affairs."

I said that perhaps he's atheist with respect to that particular brand of god? He didn't acknowledge it, which I took as an indication that he might need to think about that for a while to become comfortable with the label. (It didn't occur to me until later that I might have told him Dawkins's remark that we are all atheists when it comes to most of the gods mankind has believed in.)

Then we got to talking about whether or not our children "believe in god." I told him that my daughter recently wrote me (in a comment on my blog) that she had concluded as a kid that there's no god. And my friend told me a little story about his own daughter:
When she was three years old she had a friend whose family belonged to a fundamentalist church. One day she told us that her friend had invited her to go to church with them. She wanted to know what we thought. We told her fine, go ahead if she wanted to. So she did and went pretty regularly. She seemed to enjoy going.
    But came the time (three years later) when her friend's mother asked her whether she would like to join the church.
    Our daughter said, "I thought I was already a member."
    "No," they said, "there's a requirement for membership."
    "What's that?"
    "You have to believe."
    "You have to believe that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Personal Savior."
    Our daughter hesitated not a moment before answering, "Well, no, I don't believe that."
    She never went back.
This six-year-old knew what she believed—or didn't believe, at any rate. I didn't ask my own daughter what "as a kid" meant in her case, but when I read her comment I imagined her when she wore a pair of fairly large-rimmed eyeglasses and seemed particularly independent and inner-directed. That might have been about sixth or seventh grade, but I'm not sure. I hope she'll read this post and let me know!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

"The actual, not the magical..."

Brain surgeon Henry Perowne, in Ian McEwan's 2005 novel, Saturday, has, under his daughter Daisy's direction,
read the whole of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary...
    They had the virtue, at least, of representing a recognisable physical reality; which could not be said for the so-called magical realists she opted to study in her final year. What were these authors of reputation doing—grown men and women of the twentieth century—granting supernatural powers to their characters? He never made it all the way through a single one of those irksome confections. And written for adults, not children. In more than one, heroes and heroines were born with or sprouted wings—a symbol, in Daisy's term, of their liminality; naturally, learning to fly became a metaphor for bold aspiration. Others were granted a magical sense of smell, or tumbled unharmed out of high-flying aircraft. One visionary [in McEwan's own novel A Child in Time] saw through a pub window his parents as they had been some weeks after his conception, discussing the possibility of aborting him.
    A man who attempts to ease the miseries of failing minds by repairing brains is bound to respect the material world, its limits, and what it can sustain—consciousness, no less. It isn't an article of faith with him, he knows it for a quotidian fact, the mind is what the brain, mere matter, performs. If that's worthy of awe, it also deserves curiosity; the actual, not the magical, should be the challenge. This reading list persuaded Perowne that the supernatural was the recourse of an insufficient imagination, a dereliction of duty, a childish evasion of the difficulties and wonders of the real, of the demanding re-enactment of the plausible. [pp. 95-97]

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Rational animal?

It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.

– Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

The quotation is from "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish" in the collection Unpopular Essays.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Thought for the evening

I mean by intellectual integrity the habit of deciding vexed questions in accordance with the evidence, or of leaving them undecided where the evidence is inconclusive. This virtue, though it is underestimated by almost all adherents of any system of dogma, is to my mind of the very greatest social importance and far more likely to benefit the world than Christianity or any other system of organized beliefs.

– Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

Lord Russell was a British philosopher and logician, and an excellent writer. He was awarded the 1950 Nobel Prize in Literature. The quotation is from Russell's 1954 essay, "Can Religion Cure Our Troubles?"

Monday, March 3, 2008

What discounts the many discounts the one?

At lunch today with four of my old friends (an atheist, an agnostic, a monotheist, and a polytheistic neopagan—see the Wikipedia article on the Ásatrú movement), I brought up the subject of religion by asking the atheist, "So, have you gotten religion?"

"No, I haven't," he said, possibly a little taken aback.

"I didn't think you had." I reminded him that he had told me some years ago that he was an atheist, but he didn't seem to remember it. I told him that his admission had made an impression on me and had been, along with Sam Harris's The End of Faith, a source of support in my own decision.

The neopaganist, who (like me) majored in philosophy, cited Bertrand Russell for having said something along the lines:
I approve the monotheist's reasons that there aren't many gods, but the reasons equally weigh against there being even one god.1
Later, this friend said he couldn't run down the actual quote, which may be apocryphal. "A philosophy professor of mine long ago once referred to it offhandedly. As nearly as I can remember, here is the gist of the argument: Monotheism is the most nearly correct religious system because, mathematically, the number of gods it worships (i.e., one) is closest to the actual number of gods in existence (i.e., zero). Or words to that effect."

The monotheist, who manages to be so without being particularly hospitable to religion (as my Jehovah's Witness friend Tom Sheepandgoats says he isn't either), shared what appears to be another version of Russell's quip:
If you understand why you discount all the other gods but yours, then you understand why I discount yours as well.
He said he found this on some newsgroup or other at least ten years ago, credited to someone named Ken Hall. He said he himself likes to use a modified version of this on particularly staunch churchgoers he happens to meet:
If you understand why you don't accept any other church's dogma, then you will understand why I don't accept your church's dogma either.
The agnostic was quiet during lunch, but afterwards she sent me seven or eight links to related articles. But those are for another day....
  1. The atheist commented that he'd heard on talk radio years ago the quip that
    Unitarians believe there exists at most one god.
    He said it's attributed to Alfred North Whitehead (Bertrand Russell's co-author of Principia Mathematica).

Sunday, March 2, 2008

"If Perowne were inclined to religious feeling..."

The action of Ian McEwan's 2005 novel, Saturday, takes place on February 15, 2003—post 9/11 and pre-invasion of Iraq. Neurosurgeon Henry Perowne, after his very long Friday at work, awakes some hours before dawn, rises, and is surprised to find that
he doesn't feel tired, despite the hour or his recent labours, nor is his conscience troubled by any recent case. [p. 2]
Standing at the bedroom's
centre window, [he pulls] back the tall folding wooden shutters with care so as not to wake [his wife] Rosalind. [p. 2]
After several minutes at the window,
the elation is passing, and he's beginning to shiver...He turns from the window to reach behind him for a thick woolen dressing gown where it lies draped over a chair. Even as he turns, he's aware of some new element outside, in the square or in the trees, bright but colourless, smeared across his peripheral vision by the movement of his head. [p. 17]
After thinking first meteor, then comet, he moves to wake Rosalind to see it too:
He's moving toward the bed when he hears a low rumbling sound, gentle thunder gathering in volume, and stops to listen. It tells him everything. He looks back over his shoulder to the window for confirmation. Of course, a comet is so distant it's bound to appear stationary. Horrified, he returns to his position by the window. [p. 18-19]
His mind fills with memories and fantasies of being on board an airplane headed for a crash.
It's already almost eighteen months since half the planet watched, and watched again, the unseen captives driven through the sky to the slaughter, at which time there gathered round the innocent silhouette of any jet plane a novel association. Everyone agrees, airliners look different in the sky these days, predatory or doomed...The plane emerges from the trees, crosses a gap, and disappears behind the Post Office Tower. If Perowne were inclined to religious feeling, to supernatural explanations, he could play with the idea that he's been summoned; that having woken in an unusual state of mind, and gone to the window for no reason, he should acknowledge a hidden order, an external intelligence which wants to show or tell him something of significance. But a city of its nature cultivates insomniacs; it is itself a sleepless entity whose wires never stop singing; among so many millions there are bound to be people staring out of windows when normally they would be asleep. And not the same people every night. That it should be him and not someone else is an arbitrary matter. A simple anthropic principle is involved. The primitive thinking of the supernaturally inclined amounts to what his psychiatric colleagues call a problem of reference. An excess of the subjective, the ordering of the world in line with your needs, an inability to contemplate your own unimportance. In Henry's view such reasoning belongs on a spectrum at whose far end, rearing like an abandoned temple, lies psychosis. [pp. 21-24]
Later, when the family are up, at last the news informs them:
It's a cargo plane, a Russian Tupolev on a run from Riga to Birmingham. As it passed well to the east of London a fire broke out in one of the engines....[pp. 51-52]

Saturday, March 1, 2008

"Into the region where the pineal lay..."

Saturday (2005) was the first of Ian McEwan's novels I read, sometime back in 2006, soon after it became available on the Library of Congress's "special media" for the visually handicapped. It didn't seem to have made that big an impression on me. Now, after having read seven of his other novels (including Black Dogs twice), I'm curious enough about why to read it again. I've been supposing that reading McEwan requires a special receptivity, something I had to develop through reading. That may be true, but I can't yet define it.

Before I picked the book up again, I couldn't even have told you that the main character was a neurosurgeon. But neurosurgeon Henry Perowne is, and in the very first pages McEwan describes Perowne's whirlwind Friday of surgeries, including a long operation on a young woman with a tumour (I'll follow the text's British spelling) "deep in the superior cerebellar vermis":
Andrea's operation lasted five hours and went well. She was placed in a sitting position, with her head-clamp bolted to a frame in front of her. Opening up the back of the head needed great care because of the vessels running close under the bone. Rodney leaned in at Perowne's side to irrigate the drilling and cauterise the bleeding with the bipolar. Finally it lay exposed, the tentorium—the tent—a pale delicate structure of beauty, like the little whirl of a veiled dancer, where the dura is gathered and parted again. Below it lay the cerebellum. By cutting away carefully, Perowne allowed gravity itself to draw the cerebellum down—no need for retractors—and it was possible to see deep into the region where the pineal lay, with the tumour extending in a vast red mass right in front of it. The astrocytoma was well defined and had only partially infiltrated surrounding tissue. Perowne was able to excise almost of it without damaging any eloquent region. [p. 13]
The year 2006 was the tenth after my own five-hour brain operation in the region where the pineal lay. And my tumor lay even deeper than Andrea's, in the pineal itself. My neurosurgeon was able to remove only about 85% of mine. And there was enough damage to the eloquent region of my mid-brain to leave me—apparently permanently—unable to overlay left and right images closely enough for my brain to resolve them into one.

Maybe ten years had not been enough time away from my own brain's invasion for me to read about a brain surgeon and abide a lasting impression....