"It’s all about me."

- Dennis Potter

"Censors do what only psychotics do, which is to confuse reality with illusion."

- David Cronenberg

"Editors have an uncanny ability to find what you feel is most important, and cut it out."

- Claude Chabrol

"Team sports are good for teaching kids how to feign enthusiasm and harbour resentment."

- Charlie Brooker

"When your skin is the only thing you feel truly proud of, it’s become a prison in itself."

- Charlie Brooker

God (Part 1)

In this philosophical phriday, I'll be writing about what I consider the least useful of any branch of philosophy.

Some of the greatest minds in the world have expended vast effort in trying to prove their version of their religion's god existed.

In 6000 years recorded history, the result has been...half a dozen rather unimpressive arguments. This in itself I find remarkable. Less effort has been spent searching for proofs of hypotheses in economics, engineering and biology - and it takes a towering expert in any of these fields to conclusively refute any of them.

And yet, there's not one theological proof which stands against an ordinary person asking obvious questions.

You don't believe me? Here are the first three.

  • The Ontological Argument: God is the greatest thing imaginable. To exist is greater than to not exist. Therefore god exists.

There are so many things wrong with this - every generation seems to find new flaws.

Why define god that way at all? What about all the other attributes - eternality, creation, self-creation (whatever that means), justness, wrath, deserving of worship, the obsessions with sex and genocide - are they part of this total greatness? Why?

Why is it greater to exist than not? And what do we mean by existence anyway? Plenty of languages don't even have a corresponding verb, and if an argument can only be made in certain languages, isn't it just the result of some grammatical confusion?

If god's the greatest thing imaginable, what exactly are you imagining if you try to imagine it? And seeing as it's such a vague notion, can't you just imagine something even greater?

If greatness does entail existence, shouldn't that mean the greatest milkshake imaginable must also exist? And the greatest everything else.

  • The Cosmological Argument: The universe must have had a beginning, therefore it must have been started by something, therefore that thing must be god.

This shows the problem that most proofs of god have - even if you accept the premises and the reasoning, it doesn't prove what they want it to prove.

Assuming for the moment the universe did have a beginning, why did it need something existing before that to make that beginning? And wouldn't that thing need a creator too? If it didn't, on what grounds can you insist the universe did?

Brushing all that under the carpet, you still need to justify giving all those other attributes to this nebulously defined creator.

  • The Teleological Argument: Things have a structure. Structure is the same as design, therefore there was a single designer. Therefore the designer was god.

I like this one, because every single link in the logical chain is broken. Structure isn't the same as design - if it were, that cone-shaped heap of sawdust that forms under the plank of wood you're sawing would be deliberately designed that way, by you. Which means you could design it to fall into a cube if you chose.

Even if we accept the reasoning that there is a designer, as with the cosmological argument, there's no reason to identify it with the christian god. Or any god that anyone's ever believed in, or could have believed in.

It demonstrates the question surrounding all metaphors: When do you stop applying it?

Say god is like an architect. But architects don't actually build what they plan. And they aren't immortal, incorporeal, or their own fathers. And buildings are made of pre-existing material, not created out of nothing.

Buildings aren't made by a single act of labour - they're co-operative, so maybe there's a swarm of creator gods out there. Some buildings are incompetently made, and their makers usually make lots of them. Perhaps the gnostics were right and the devil made the universe?

The thing is, it's that way with all the metaphors - god as builder, parent, gardener, judge, friend, king, whatever. Whenever you say 'God is like an X', you have to snow it with a seemingly neverending list of qualifications - ways in which god is not like an X.

God is like a loving parent. But he won't stop you stepping out into traffic, or cook for you, or give you advice beyond what was written thousands of years ago by some bronze age goat herders. Also, he probably didn't have sex with your mother.

He won't even change his plans to help you - prayer consists of asking him to intervene in the world for your benefit...but only if it's part of his plan - only if he was going to do so anyway.

This is known in theological circles as the 'Death of a thousand qualifications', and it leads some thinkers to posit a god who is so totally alien that language, evidence and thought simply don't apply. And then talk like they've proven such a thing exists.

These are the three 'classical' arguments, and they're still in use today, especially the teleological. For the next three, tune in for part two.

"The notion of objectively ordering works of art seems bizarre to me."

- Roger Ebert

"There’s always tomorrow for dreams to come true unless you’re a conservative, then all dreams will come true yesterday"

- Lance Mannion

Boc Boc Boc

Recovering now. And after two weeks of itching and burning, swelling and shooting pains, having the intellect of a tea-partier and the sleeping patterns of a male lion...I think I know what it is.

It's most likely what I originally thought it was, but the doctor said no it wasn't. It's what I've had twice before, what the nurse and pharmacist said it probably was...and what killed all the aliens in Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles.

Shingles. In other words, more or less...

Chicken pox.

So I'm sure all the antihistamines, fungicide and penicillin did some good - in treating whatever other nasty things were waiting in the background. But an antiviral would have been nice.

Anyway, as soon as the red bits and dry bits are fully cleared up, I won't be infectious anymore...and I can start on that post-40th-birthday life change thing I've been meaning to catch up on.

"A goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid."

- James Watson

"Good novels are written by people who are not frightened."

- George Orwell

"The taboos of a society may well reveal its deepest preoccupations."

- JG Ballard

"When people fall in love with what seems to be a perfect theory - a set of rules - and they love those rules more than they love people or places, they start to see the messy reality of life as interfering with the imagined beauty which exists only in their texts."

- Naomi Klein


The wonders of a mysterious bacteriological lymphatic infection. Something new every day.

Seven days ago it was a big bruise-like rash on the forehead. Then it was joined by a swollen lymphnode under the right ear, followed by swelling along the jaw.

Since then, all these have been gradually receding, but there have been days of stabbing earaches, and days of sudden headaches. I'm getting through the cocodamol at an impressive rate.

Today, there's a sore but unraised rash on the temple..and my right eye is swollen half shut.

I'm on 2000mg of penicillin a day, plus clotrimazole for the rashes and the usual triad of metformin, simvastatin and fibrazate for the presumably underlying diabetic condition.

Odd how you only notice your own body when it goes wrong.

"Suffering here is a product of what we admire and consider prosperous and desirable there."

- Saskia Sassen

"I remember the exact moment in my childhood when I realized that nobody would ever spend money solely to tell me they wanted to give me something for nothing."


"The internet makes you stupid."

- Internet Rule #77

Message from the Sick Bed

"Things just seem to keep cropping up don't they?"

Last week I was feeling vaguely ill. Yesterday I had a mysterious bruise-like lump on my forehead and a swollen lymphnode under one ear.

Today I've got a neat line of swelling down the right side of my head, and I'm living on penicillin and cocodomol for the constant ear- and head-aches.

The doctor says this is all due to my diabetes-weakened immune system. Which is due to too many cakes as a teenager.

So the message is clear. Instead of spending my youth snacking while studying all night, I should have been playing soccer and shagging, with the other boys.

"In heaven, all the interesting people are missing."

- Frederich Nietzsche

"It is better for a leader to make a mistake in forgiving than to make a mistake in punishing."

- Muhammed

"Something is missing."

- Paul Morley

"To hold on to your seriousness is quite an achievement in an age of silliness such as ours."

- Mark Simpson

"It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all of the answers."

- James Thurber

"He let himself see everything, he let himself write it down, then he let himself publish it."

- Stephen King

"There’s nothing about not caring about someone which means you have to treat them in a uncaring fashion."

- Dan Savage

"Any country that has sexual censorship will eventually have political censorship."

- Kenneth Tynan

"The ink of scholars out-weighs the blood of martyrs."

- Muhammed

"Ritual is never without a purpose."

- Johnathan Meades

"Many of the best things in life are terrible."

- Neuroskeptic Blog

"People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they never use."

- Soren Kierkegaard

What's the Magic Word?

There's a fairy story which I'm sure you're heard. It's about a princess who's visited by an evil dwarf-like creature, who promises her whatever she wishes...provided he takes her first born child. She agrees, thinking she can cheat and keep the child when she eventually has it. Of course, all her security magically fails and the baby (a boy, inevitably) is kidnapped.

She begs with the creature, but he's adamant - she made the contract in full knowledge, and now she's paying precisely what she agreed.

There is a loophole though. If she can say the creature's name, he loses his powers, the contract is void, the princess gets to keep her wishes and she gets her son back.

The name, of course, is "Rumpelstiltskin". Once she learns the name and says it to his face, he can scream and rage as much as he likes, but he's as trapped by the letter of the contract as she was. The contract, it seems, is more powerful even than a supernatural being that has great power over the physical world.

Words are the strongest magic of all.

Word magic, and in particular the magic of names, is a superstition that's persisted for millennia - and it's still around today.

When ancient Greek and Roman armies claimed new towns, often the only difference it made to the lives of the locals was a notice placed in the town square, informing them that they were now part of an empire. But it seemed to work - they believed it.

When the Julian calender was switched to the Gregorian, there were actual riots on the basis that several days had been magicked out of existence by the stroke of a pen - and people thought they'd been cheated out of a part of their own lifespans.

Even now, when state and county lines are redrawn, residents protest at being displaced from one side to the other of an imaginary line.

In Arthur C Clarke's short story "The Nine Billion Names of God", the universe gets literally switched off when all the names of god are calculated by a computer, owned by an obscure order of monks. The monks don't even need to read the output, the assemblage of vacuum tubes has no consciousness of what it's doing, and it doesn't seem to matter that this is done by a few dozen people on a mountain on one unremarkable planet. When the final permutation of written characters is printed, the stars start to go out.

This is obviously a thinly disguised version of the talmudic superstition that when all permutations of JHV are worked through, creation ends. The wordgames of the kabala and biblical skip codes aren't a million miles away. In alchemy, saying the right words is as important as having the right chemicals.

Fantasy literature is a place where hidden cultural superstitions can be more openly explored. In Ursula le Guin's "Earthsea" series, the hero can only defeat the monster he created by figuring out it's name - which is of course his own name. There's also a realm where word-based sorcery doesn't work because things have different names there. In Terry Pratchett's Discworld, you can only defeat the monster if you can bring yourself to say it's name. In "Alice in Wonderland" there's a forest which is spooky simply because things don't have names there at all.

Language is slippery and constantly changing, as is the reality it tries to describe - or control. But we seem to have a persistent belief that if only we can find exactly the right words, they'll describe and control the world in exactly the right way. And they'll be so perfect that even when word and world have changed over centuries, the formulation will still work exactly as well.

This of course is why we have legal documents in tortuous legalese. And indeed the majority of philosophy which consists in trying to tie down the precise meaning by finding exactly the right form of words - in the hope that, tied down tightly enough, the words will merge with the reality, permanently.

It's also why we have the constantly refuted article of faith that our holy books are both clear and eternally true...if read in the original language. And we believe this even when we know that the original documents have been lost, and the ones we have are partial copies of copies of copies.

The Hebrew of the old testament sometimes is just plain incomprehensible - or 'obscure' as theologians delicately put it - but there are thousands of devout believers who devote their lives to the assumption that if only they read the text closely enough, it will become clear.

Sometimes they go mad and write books on how if you read a parable about sheep backwards and make anagrams from every third letter, it predicts their favourite historical events.

It's all very well to smugly note the superstitions about word magic and say you're beyond them. But what about the American constitution? A set of supposedly inviolable super-laws, which determine which non-super-laws can be passed. The failure to (for instance) separate church from state is evident, but if you want to fight the spreading power of lunatic evangelical groups, the constitution is a major line of defence.

When politicians debase language with feelgood cliches and vacuous non-distinctions, we keep hold of reality by reasserting genuine, meaningful language, and using it for our own slogans and polemic.

Perhaps word magic isn't just a superstition we're better off without. Perhaps it's a necessary part of human consciousness - the price of the capacity to categorise the world and conceptualise our interactions with it. A by-product of being able to think at all.

"We have somehow created for ourselves languages that are just a bit too flexible and expressive for our brains to handle."

- Geoffrey K Pullum

"The lesser of two evils is still evil."

- Penn Gilette

The Pyramid of Stupid

I would like to introduce you to Kapitano's Law of Professional Competence: For every one person employed to do something professionally, there are a hundred amateurs doing it much better...and a thousand who completely suck at it.

This is why most published novels are rubbish, and most stories you read on the internet are even worse, but a few net stories are outstandingly brilliant. You could spend your whole life reading excellent self-published net fiction and never read a dead-tree book again...if only it didn't take your entire life to find all the good stuff.

It works for music, political analysis, humour, philosophy, and I rather suspect, porn.

Take this utterly execrable net article - and the unintentionally hilarious textbook it rips off. Both are about "how to do english proper" - how to write and speak in that mythical language called "correct English".

John Gingrich begins his article with the title: "20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Gets Wrong". It's not auspicious when an article on prescriptive language use gets it's language use wrong before the first paragraph. This is one of those titles that you only understand because you know the cliche that's being misused. Strictly speaking, I don't think it's even meaningful.

I was going to go through all the errors the author makes, but I just don't have the time or strength. In short though:

Of the 20 grammatical mistakes listed, 17 aren't grammatical at all - they're mistakes about the meanings of words, not the structure of sentences. And of these, four actually are mistakes:

  • "Moot" means 'open to discussion' or 'not yet decided', not 'irrelevant' or 'undecidable'.
  • "Affect" is a verb, "Effect" is a noun...plus a different verb. You can affect a person, which is to have an effect on that person, or to effect a change on them.
  • A "disinterested" experiment is one where the experimenters don't have a personal stake in the outcome. But a disinterested glance is pretty much the same as an "uninterested" glance.
  • A "continual" interruption happens frequently. A "continuous" noise happens only once but doesn't stop.

The rules about "Who" and "Whom" were never clear or consistent, and "Whom" hasn't been part of even high-register English for at least 50 years.

It is one of those cases where, if you were an educated young person a century ago, you learned one set of abstract rules in the classroom, and a completely different set of inconsistent rules for use everywhere else.

"Whom" in the classroom was for ablative personal pronouns, whereas outside it was for accusative, dative and sometimes relative third-person animate pronouns - in other words, it replaced "Him" and "Her" but not "He" and "She".

Just in case this is starting to make sense to you, remember that English was taught as though it were a coded form of Latin, and in Latin the dative case corresponds to the English prepositions "to" and "from", and the ablative to "by", "with" and "for". Except when it doesn't. However, in pre-Roman Latin "with" was the since-vanished instrumental case, and in modern English "to" is dative but "from" is ablative.

Perhaps if those old schoolmasters had remembered that English isn't derived from Latin at all but from Old High German, we'd have better grammar books now. Or not.

Gingrich thinks "'May' implies a possibility. 'Might' implies far more uncertainty". I've never heard this one before. "May" and "Might" are both auxiliary verbs indicating uncertainty, but "May" is also used for permission, which Gingrich doesn't even mention.

We may be early.
We might be early.
May I go?
You may go.

His carcrash of an explanation for "Which" and "That" manages to completely miss the point that "that" actually has four different meanings, one of which it shares with "Which" - to introduce clauses. And clauses are made subordinate or not with commas, not changing conjunctions as he seems to think.

The cars which were stolen crashed.
The cars, which were stolen, crashed.
The cars that were stolen crashed.
The cars, that were stolen, crashed.

The old pedentries of "Whether" and "If", "Fewer" and "Less", "Further" and "Father", "Since" and "Because" are there. And he declares that "Impactful" isn't a real word because, even though the readership understand it, someone made it up. Perhaps he thinks "Snafu", which he uses, wasn't invented by anyone?

I'm a teacher of English, and you know what makes my job most difficult? Stroppy students, moronic managers, terrible timekeeping?

Well yes. But apart from that, it's textbooks written by idiots who think real English is a bag of rules which a bunch of Victorian academics pulled out of their rectums to (seriously) give themselves a subject to teach. Books which can't even keep their imaginary rules straight, and can't follow them in the text.

That, and students who've read this rubbish and need deprogramming before I can teach them anything.

“Dubito ergo cogito."

- Rene Descartes