Monday, 1 June 2020

Picture Post 55: Making Assumptions

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Martin Cohen

A Twitter friend of mine posted this image with the comment: “Believe in your limitations”.

I wasn’t sure what to make of that, but he explained that he was being “quietly subversive” which I took to meaning gently mocking religious iconography. That aside, though, I think the image does illustrate something important about the way our minds process images. The traffic lights are not, in fact, the Buddha's eyes, yet the impression that they might be is so compelling that it makes us re-evaluate the Buddha himself.

I say ‘himself’, as Buddhas are traditionally male, indeed in some cultures being female is formally an inferior state and an obstacle to following the Buddhist philosophy. Of course, being male or female might not actually have any implications for the ability to transcend this world and reach ‘nirvana’ – yet for centuries such quick assumptions have prevailed.

Which brings me back to this image, because it illustrates nicely the way that we link things that in reality are completely unconnected, due to them fitting a strongly preconceived ‘pattern’. Such assumptions are not necessarily good or bad. But perhaps we should be on guard against them. Which maybe fits with my friend‘s cryptic comment after all.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Trading Lives Without Anger

Heinrich Hoerle, 1930, Monument to the Unknown Prosthesis
 Posted by Allister Marran
The COVID-19 crisis has brought into sharp focus modern man’s ideological belief that he has mastered science and medicine, and has so defeated—or at least delayed—the intrusions of the Grim Reaper.  Our misplaced belief that medical science can cure any ailment means we want to try to save everyone—and when we cannot, there is dismay and fury.
Centuries of loud, proud pronouncements from researchers, scientists, and the medical community, of sound progress being made in the battle against age-old enemies like cancer, malaria, tuberculosis, and innumerous mortal ailments has lulled us into a false sense of security—a perception of invulnerability and ultimately immortality.

What happens, then, when death becomes an inevitable choice?  What if the choices set before us are choices which must choose death in any event?

Whilst the achievements of medical science cannot be overstated, and are undoubtedly impressive, our somewhat conceited overestimation of our ability to stave off death indefinitely has led us to a crossroads today which opens up the social, spiritual, and philosophical question of where to draw the line, who to try to save, and at what cost—if death is indeed inevitable.

At logical extremes, there are two distinct, divergent—apparently incompatible—viewpoints that could be held and debated. In the context of the coronavirus, or COVID-19:
Firstly, that we should lockdown indefinitely, or until a treatment or vaccine is found, saving every life we can at any cost.

Alternatively, when the cost becomes too high, to start trading the lives of the old and the sick for that of the starving young and poor.
There have of course been many pandemics, and COVID-19 is just be the latest contagion in a long line of similar illnesses that have ripped through the human population over the last hundred or so yearsstarting with the Spanish Flu in 1918, and continuously assaulting us before retreating and coming back again in different forms and kinds.

There is a difference this time, however.  The connected world and social media has allowed the world to track the progress of the disease and monitor its devastation, and the real-time outrage has been swift, palpable, and highly publicised.

A minister who has presided over countless funerals told me recently that there has been a perceptible change in the emotions expressed when family and friends come together to bury loved ones.  The old markers of grief and the grieving process are replaced with anger and fury today. 

But our fury has no object; it is just the way things work.  There must be a middle road—to save who you can, but allow those whose time has come to leave.  A realisation and philosophical embracing that our time on earth is finite, which in turn adds value to the little time we do have.  To say goodbye without anger or pain or fury, because after all, shouldn’t your last memory of a departed one be tinged with memories and feelings of love, not hate?

Monday, 18 May 2020

The Sweet Fruits of Authenticity

 Posted by Lina Scarborough
Think of the most authentic version of yourself. What do you see? Perhaps someone who has more than what you currently do—more skills, more money, more possessions—like a house and a car. Or perhaps more time and will power to pursue passions, or better relationships and fitness levels.
In other words, it would be a ‘sage’ ideal of oneself, travelling into a future point in time to when one has acquired success and achieved milestones.

But if I think of my most authentic version of myself, I am a young child again. A girl, around 8 or 10 years old, running through the forest park near home, gathering berries with my mother. The thorns pricked so very badly, but I was stubborn enough to throw myself into the bushes anyway. I had enough experience getting scratches from our cat to treat them nonchalantly anyway.

As I child, I never knew what exactly I wanted to become. I had fleeting ideas—a kindergarten teacher (out of a learned fear of any maths more complex than numeracy). A butterfly scientist (quickly shot down by mother dearest, a no-nonsense Russian gastroenterologist). The closest I had to a ‘dream’ was to travel the world, trying every ice-cream flavor on the planet, including funky ones like squid ink (yes, it actually exists, it’s called Ikasumi ice-cream). But as life would have it, I developed an adolescent onset of lactose intolerance.

All I knew was that I wanted to become an adventurer. I wanted to be like the cool heroes I saw in video games and animations, pirates and space cowboys, princesses with magic powers with a loyal band of friends—and importantly, a sense of mission. I pictured myself as a female version of Indiana Jones, or a kind of Lara Croft, but I was born too late. It seemed like everything cool and exciting had been explored! And no one would pay me to live a life like Indiana Jones!

Of course, that’s not true. At least the first part isn’t. The discoveries and environments of adventure have simply changed shape. Instead of conquering the wilds of Peru, the modern-day explorers pave the way in nanotechnology, AI, and all kinds of other scientific adventures.

Alas. I am no nano-butterfly brain surgeon. That world is not for me. Thus, the closest you’d get to the old-fashioned type of adventurer would be an astronaut or a game ranger, but these too are exceptional, rather than easily attainable paths.

Apart from that, all kinds of life factors impact the reasons behind our choices. Do we choose our jobs, partners, even mundane things like the kind of clothes we wear or the music we listen to, out of authenticity to ourselves, or out of society and family, or peer-pressure? Of course, for most people, their motivations will fall on some spectrum of a blend of authentic and forced choices.

The next question that is begged though, is whether or not authenticity is a good thing. Consider; if Hitler’s authentic version of an ideal world was one of mass genocide, is that a good thing? Obviously not.

This is one of the reasons I wished my peers—millennials and younger—would not place such great value on the individual—or even worse, the individual’s fleeting feelings. Too little authenticity, and we may very well land up in a cult-like dictatorship; too much, and we lose a great part of what it means to be human. No man is an island entire of itself; an overused, but wise quote. To be entirely authentic is to discredit how those we love and fear, admire and detest have and can shape us. It discredits the bond that is formed along the way.

To idealise authenticity or one’s own feelings is to firmly isolate oneself inside one’s head and tape one’s eyes and heart shut. We will always need a guiding entity to determine whether our motivations—sincere as they might be—are actually good and truthful to goodness or not.

I used to be exceptionally good at dance and gymnastics. I was the lead in several school productions. I had forgotten this. After my mother’s passing, I dropped all forms of artistic expression. I stopped dancing and writing and playing piano for almost 10 years, and pursued a career I rationalised was safest for my economic well-being—but not one that was aligned to authentic self—to the curious, ever-exploring and gleeful child in me.

Perhaps that is why God had me fall in love with a man like my husband. Someone who firmly believes that following one’s passion will, eventually, lead to financial stable means. Eight years ago, he perchance opened a book on elephants and mammoths. Today, he’s awaiting the response to his PhD submission on the dwarf elephants of Sicily.

As the decade-anniversary of my mothers passing nears, God rest her soul, I reflect on how I came to be where I am today, and where I, at the tender age of a quarter-century, am headed. My choices have often not been authentic, mostly out of fear of failure and hardship. Both I have received nonetheless, in various portions; I might as well be as brave as the child I was, unafraid of the thorns in pursuit of the sweet, sweet berries of truth and earnest passion.

Monday, 11 May 2020

Zen ‘Koans’: What Is the Sound of One Hand?

Busy Busy Beggar (Aizu Museum, Waseda University)
Posted by Keith Tidman
‘Two hands clap and there is a sound; what is the sound of one hand?’
The puzzle above long ago entered popular culture, and is familiar to many: The question’s origins date back to one of the most influential Zen Buddhists, Hakuin Ekaku, whose life straddled the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Zen name for such a puzzle is koan — a paradoxical anecdote, dialog, or question. The idea is that koans permit thinking to escape the bounds of rationality and instead embrace intuition-like ways to awaken enlightenment and arouse spiritual development. It’s a realm where logical reasoning is shown inadequate, to be suspended. By pondering the mystery of koans, contemplative monks absorb Buddhist teachings — letting go of the strictly analytic method to understanding, and instead learning to accept ambiguity and paradox and the absence of just one truth.

There are more than 1,700 classical koans, amassed over many centuries in China, Japan, and elsewhere (Thomas Cleary, Secrets of the Blue Cliff Record, 2002). Each one is a meditative device aimed at prompting the deep awareness that comes only from an open, freed-up mind. The interpretations of koans are often not obvious or clear-cut, their ambiguity making multiple alternative insights possible. In turn, these insights might lead to additional questions, inviting further reflection.

As far as the pursuit of open-mindedness and intuition goes, the following aphorism was offered in the Diamond Sutra:
‘Out of nowhere, the mind comes forth’. 
The observation originated in a 9th-century Sanskrit document, translated into Chinese, which was among thousands of scrolls hidden in ‘The Cave of a Thousand Buddhas’, evidently a library concealed to protect its contents.

Here’s another koan, perhaps less well-known outside of Zen circles:

Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind. One insisted, ‘The flag moves’. The other equally insisted, ‘No, it is the wind that moves’. They argued back and forth but couldn’t agree. The Zen master Huineng was passing by and, having overheard the two monks, said, ‘It is not the flag moving. It is not the wind moving. It is your mind moving’. 

In this koan, the minds of the first two monks were riveted on the flapping flag, becoming increasingly obsessed with the issue of whether the flag was moving (the observable world) or whether it was in reality the wind that moved  (an invisible force acting on the observable world). Huineng’s point is that the two monks’ minds had become agitated over a minor distraction, consumed by binary, either-or thinking, instead of being in the restful state fostered by Zen Buddhism. Huineng reminded them to move beyond the diversionary tug of who was right or wrong — as both were seeing only partial truth — and instead calm their needlessly restless minds, caught up in the argument.

This anecdotal koan is less enigmatic, but likewise offers a valuable insight into human behaviour:

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling. Coming around a bend, they met a woman in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection. ‘Come on’, said Tanzan, at once lifting the woman and carrying her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night, when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. ‘We monks don’t go near females’, he told Tanzan, ‘especially not young and attractive ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?’

‘I left the woman there’, said Tanzan. ‘Are you still carrying her?’

The account has various interpretations. One version is not to let the past consume you, such that an out-of-control preoccupation crowds out of the mind all else of greater value, including the present — forfeiting immediate experiences. Ekido was plagued by the niggling urge to judge and conform, unable to let go of re-litigating over and over whether Tanzan had violated the literal monastic code of conduct.

In doing so, Ekido succumbs to stepping outside of mindfulness, sacrificing what’s transpiring in the here and now. Meanwhile, Tanzan had moved on. Sometimes, moral codes are cloudy, even appropriately flexible in interpretation and application in order to bend to circumstances. As in this case, the right ‘moral’ choice may have been to break momentarily with convention in order to do a kindness — a higher good.

Another ‘paradoxical anecdote’ offers a different insight: 

Nan-in, a Zen master during the Meiji era, received a university professor who had arrived to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. ‘It is overfull. No more will go in!’ ‘Like this cup’, Nan-in said, ‘you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?’

Here, the need to let go of — to unlearn — long-held, unaccommodating beliefs, preconceptions, biases, expectations, knowledge, and presumed wisdom is a prerequisite to opening the mind to learn new and different things. The paradox is that arguably the professor might not be able, no matter how sincere his intentions, to disassociate from a lifetime of learning — unable to empty his metaphorical cup.

This is another classic koan:

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger racing after him. Coming to a precipice, the man caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away at the vine. Just then, the man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

The man faces inevitable death on all sides, trapped by a hungry tiger above and one below. He also faces the two mice, whose gnawing on the vine bodes increasingly dire outcomes. The man chooses to live in the moment, enjoying the luscious strawberry. It is a moment of sublime happiness. Seeing the tigers on each side, the man sees his life similarly bracketed: Before life he had nonexistence and after life he will return to nonexistence, for eternity. He is left with the present. We might similarly conclude the best option in life is to grasp that singular moment in which we relish the ‘strawberry’.

So, what to make of the koan, at the start of this essay, asking about the sound of one hand? The point is that a koan is dynamic and transformational, in the sense that it is, to recall the words of philosopher and Zen monk G. Victor Sogen Hori (in Zen Sand, 2003):

‘…both the object being sought and the relentless seeking itself. In a koan, the self sees the self not directly, but under the guise of the koan. . . . When one realizes (‘makes real’) this identity, then two hands have become one. The practitioner becomes the koan that he or she is trying to understand. That is the sound of one hand.’

In today’s world, heavily influenced by the ubiquity of the scientific method, analysis, quantification, and logic, people are heavily swayed by this way of thinking in which society seeks insight, knowledge, understanding, and even wisdom. But despite the significant contributions such approaches make available, they overlook and even obscure key aspects of the world and life. Perspectives on what motivates our thinking, our relationships, our values, our connections to the planet, our happiness, our fundamental nature, our intent, our enlightenment, and our potential.

In this way, the ancient koans — with their emphasis on intuitiveness, open-mindedness, and spirituality — are still able in the modern era to inform, inspire, and guide these vital human interests.

Monday, 4 May 2020

Picture Post # 54 No Standing Still

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Tarawa lagoon, at Antebuka

The world, in the photo, is angled to the left, as if it might slip away.  A boy is suspended between sea and sky. 

Like Zeno's arrow, which is frozen in time and space, and is never able to reach its target, the boy has become a snapshot -- the permanent impression of something transitory. 

In reality, he soon plunges into the water.  In reality, there is no freezing of time and space.  There is no standing still.  There is no Pause button to press as our world hurtles towards the future.

Monday, 27 April 2020

The Curiosity of Creativity and Imagination

In Chinese mythology, dragon energy is creative. It is a magical energy, the fire of the soul itself. The dragon is the symbol of our power to transmute and create with imagination and purpose.
Posted by Keith Tidman

Most people would agree that ‘creativity’ is the facility to produce ideas, artifacts, and performances that are both original and valuable. ‘Original’ as in novel, where new ground is tilled. While the qualifier ‘valuable’ is considered necessary in order to address German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s point in The Critique of Judgment (1790) that:

‘Since there can also be original nonsense, its products [creativities] must at the same time be models, i.e., be exemplary’.

An example of lacking value or appropriateness in such context might be a meaningless sequence of words, or gibberish.

Kant believed that creativity pertains mostly to the fine arts, or matters of aesthetics — a narrower perspective than today’s inclusive view. He contended, for example, that genius could not be found in science, believing (mistakenly, I would argue) that science only ever adheres to preset methods, and does not allow for the exercise of imagination. He even excluded Isaac Newton from history’s pantheon of geniuses, despite respecting him as a great man of science.

Today, however, creativity’s reach extends along vastly broader lines, encompassing fields like business, economics, history, philosophy, language, physics, biology, mathematics, technology, psychology, and social, political, and organisational endeavours. Fields, that is, that lend themselves to being, at their creative best, illuminative, nontraditional, gestational, and transformational, open to abstract ideas that prompt pondering novel possibilities. The clue as to the greatness of such endeavors is provided by the 16th/17th-century English philosopher Francis Bacon in the Novum Organum (1620), where he says that:

‘By far the greatest obstacle to the progress . . . and undertaking of new tasks and provinces therein is found in this — that men despair and think things impossible’.

Accordingly, such domains of human activity have been shown to involve the same explorative and generative functions associated with the brain’s large-scale neural networks. A paradigm of creative cognition that is flexible and multidimensional, and one that calls upon several features:
  • an unrestricted vision of what’s possible,
  • ideation, 
  • images, 
  • intuitions,
  • thought experiments, 
  • what-if gaming, 
  • analogical reasoning, 
  • metaphors, 
  • counterfactual reasoning, 
  • inventive free play, 
  • hypotheses, 
  • knowledge reconceptualisation, 
  • and theory selection.
Collectively, these are the cognitive wellspring of creative attainment. To those extents, creativity appears fundamental to defining humanity — what shapes us, through which individual and collective expression occurs — and humanity’s seemingly insatiable, untiring quest for progress and attainment.

Societies tend to applaud those who excel at original thought, both for its own sake and for how it advances human interests. That said, these principles are as relevant to the creative processes of everyday people as to those who eventually are recorded in the annals of history as geniuses. However, the creative process does not start out with the precise end (for example, a poem) and the precise means to getting there (for example, the approach to writing that poem) already known. Rather, both the means and the end product are discoverable only as the creative process unfolds.

Above all, imagination sits at the core of creativity. Imagination is representational, of circumstances not yet real but that nevertheless can evoke emotions and behaviours in people. The world of imagination is, of course, boundless in theory and often in practice, depending on the power of one’s mind to stretch. The American philosopher John Dewey spoke to this point, chalking up every major leap in science, as he boldly put it in The Quest for Certainty, to ‘a new audacity of the imagination’. Albert Einstein’s thoughts paralleled these sentiments, declaring in an interview in 1929 that ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’. Wherein new possibilities take shape. Accordingly and importantly, imagination yields ideas that surpass what’s already supposed.

Imagination is much more, however, than a mere synonym for creativity, otherwise the term would simply be redundant. Imagination, rather, is a tool: freeing up, even catalysing, creativity. To those ends, imagination entails visualisation (including thought experiments, engaged across disciplines) that enables a person to reach out for assorted, and changing, possibilities — of things, times, places, people, and ideas unrestricted by what’s presumed already experienced and known concerning subjective external reality. Additionally, ‘mirroring’ might occur in the imaginative process, where the absence of features of a mental scenario are filled in with analogues plucked from the external world around us. Ultimately, new knowledge and beliefs emerge, in a progressive loop of creation, validation, application, re-imagination.

Imagination might revolve around diverse dominions, like unconstrained creative thought, play, pretense, the arts, allegorical language, predictive possibilities, and imagery, among others. Imagination cannot, however, guarantee creative outcomes — nor can the role of intuition in human cognition — but imagination is essential (if not always sufficient) for creative results to happen. As explained by Kant, imagination has a ‘constitutive’ role in creativity. Something demonstrated by a simple example offered by 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes:

‘as when from the sight of a man at one time, and a horse at another, we conceive in our mind a Centaur’. 

Such imaginative, metaphorical playfulness being the stuff not only of absorbed, undaunted children, of course — though they are notably gifted with it in abundance — but also of freethinking adults. Adults whose minds marvel at alternatives in starting from scratch (tabula rasa), or from picking apart (divergence) and reassembling (convergence) presumed reality.

The complexities of imagination best nourish what one might call ‘purposeful creativity’ — where a person deliberately aims to achieve a broad, even if initially indeterminate outcome. Such imagining might happen either alone or with the involvement of other participants. With purposeful creativity, there’s agency and intentionality and autonomy, as is quintessentially the case of the best of thought experiments. It occasions deep immersion into the creative process. ‘Passive creativity’, on the other hand, is where someone has a spontaneous, unsought solution (a Eureka! moment) regarding a matter at hand.

Purposeful, or directed, creativity draws on both conscious and unconscious mechanisms. Passive creativity — with mind open to the unexpected — largely depends on unconscious mental apparatuses, though with the mind’s executive function not uncommonly collaboratively and additively ‘editing’ afterwards, in order to arrive at the final result. To be sure, either purposeful or passive creativity is capable of summoning remarkable insights.

The 6th-century BC Chinese spiritual philosopher Laozi perhaps most pithily described people’s capacity for creativity, and its sometimes-companion genius, with this figurative depiction in the Teo Te Ching, the context being to define ‘genius’ as the ability to see potential: ‘To see things in the seed’ — long before germination eventually makes those ‘things’ apparent, even obvious, to everyone else and become stitched into the fabric of society and culture.

Monday, 20 April 2020

Cardinal Pell: Natural and Inalienable Rights

The Church of St Cyriac, Lacock, by GB_1984
Posted by Richard W. Symonds

The principle of the presumption of innocence is of extreme importance, and the case of Cardinal George Pell has implications for the respect for—and security of—this principle.

That one is considered innocent until proven guilty is a vital pre-condition for our survival and well-being within a civilised society. Undermining such jurisprudence can lead to catastrophic miscarriages of justice which ultimately threaten our humanity—in fact, yours and mine.

The accused is not required to defend or prove their innocence—it is for the accuser to prove guilt—beyond reasonable doubt. It is one of the foundational legal principles—a bedrock of our civilisation: 'The burden of proof is on the one who declares, not on one who denies'. Or Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat in the ancient Latin.

Presumption of innocence is a legal right of the accused in a criminal trial, and an international human right embodied under Article 11 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A just law must be a fair law, which punishes the guilty, not the innocent. Presumption of innocence is an immunity against unjust accusations.

In the case of Cardinal George Pell, a disturbing and dislocating miscarriage of justice has been exposed within Australia's justice system—and presumption of innocence was almost lethally compromised and undermined.

A basic history of events—a timelined chronology if you will—would help:
July 16 1996 — Bishop George Pell is appointed Archbishop of Melbourne. A former choirboy later testifies that the bishop molested him and his friend—both aged 13—in the vestry of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne that year, after Mass.
March 26 2001 — Archbishop Pell becomes Archbishop of Sydney.
October 21 2003 — Pope John Paul II makes Archbishop Pell a Cardinal.
February 25 2014 — Pope Francis appoints Cardinal Pell as his Finance Minister — Prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy.
April 8 2014 — One of the choirboys dies aged 31, of a heroin overdose, without alleging the molestation by Pell, in fact telling his mother he had not been abused by Pell.
August 5 2014 — Victoria police establish a task force to investigate how religious and other non-government organizations [NGO's] deal with abuse accusations.
June 18 2015 — The surviving choirboy gives his first statement to the police, claiming sexual abuse by Cardinal Pell.
December 23 2015 — The Victoria Police task force appeals publicly for information relating to allegations of sexual abuse while Cardinal George Pell was Archbishop fo Melbourne.
March 1 2016 — Cardinal Pell testifies by video link from Rome, to the Australian child abuse inquiry. Pell is critical on how the Church has dealt with paedophile priests in the past, but *denies he had been aware of the extent of the problem.
October 19 2016 — Victoria police go to Rome to question Cardinal Pell, who hears details of the choirboy’s abuse allegations against him for the first time.
June 29 2017 — Police charge Cardinal Pell with multiple counts of historical sexual abuse. This makes him the most senior Catholic cleric to be charged in the Church’s abuse crisis. Pell denies the accusations and takes leave of absence from the Vatican to return to Australia to defend himself.
July 26 2017 — Cardinal Pell makes his first court appearance on charges that he sexually abused multiple children in Victoria decades earlier. Details of the allegations are not made public. Pell vows to fight the allegations.
May 1 2018 — A Magistrate commits Cardinal Pell to stand trial. He pleads not guilty to all charges.
May 2 2018 — A Judge separates the charges into two trials; the first dating to his tenure as Archbishop of Melbourne, and the other when he was a young priest in Ballarat during the 1970's.
December 11 2018 — The jury unanimously convicts Cardinal Pell on all charges in the Melbourne case.
February 26 2019 — A suppression order forbidding publication of any details about the trial is lifted. Prosecutors abandon trial on the Ballarat charges.
March 13 2019 — The judge sentences Cardinal Pell to six years in prison, on five sex abuse convictions, in which he must serve 3 years and 8 months before he is eligible for parole.
August 21 2019 — Victoria Court of Appeal rules 2–1 to uphold the convictions, but there is ‘stinging dissent’ by that Court's leading criminal law expert.
The High Court, Australia's top court, in an unusual procedural move, agrees to hear Cardinal Pell's leave to appeal, and his actual substantive appeal, concurrently.
April 7 2020 — All seven judges of the High Court of the Australian Court of Appeal quash the conviction of Cardinal George Pell. In a volte-face, they unanimously agree the appeal has succeeded, dismiss all convictions, and release Cardinal Pell immediately—after he spent 13 months in high-security prisons. 
In overturning the jury's decision of December 2018, the seven High Court judges said the jury, ‘acting rationally on the whole of the evidence, ought to have entertained a doubt as to the applicant's guilt with respect to each of the offences for which he was convicted’.

There was ‘a significant possibility that an innocent person has been convicted, because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof’. The High Court referred to what it called ‘the unchallenged evidence of the opportunity witnesses’ at the 2018 trial, which suggested there was cause for doubt.

This case has attracted world-wide attention for good reason.

What lies at the heart of our justice system is Lord Sankey's 'golden thread' which runs through criminal and common law: Guilt must be proved by the accuser's prosecution beyond any reasonable doubt. This undoubtedly did not take place in before the High Court judges intervened this April 2020 to make just the injustice.

It is better many guilty go free rather than one innocent is wrongly convicted and jailed for a crime they did not commit.

The Cardinal is entitled to be presumed innocent because that is what the Presumption of Innocence is all about—innocent until proven guilty.

Beware the spirit of the age. Alan Ryan, a professor of politics at Princeton University, sounded the alert thirty-two years ago: ‘Natural and inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have fallen into disrepute, along with a faith in reason and reason’s dictates.’

Monday, 13 April 2020

When the Punishment Does Not Fit the Crime

By Seth Stancroff 

Do many capitalist societies today impose relatively harsher punishments for crimes committed by individuals of low socioeconomic status? If so, how does this fact affect popular theories of just punishment?

It would seem that many of these theories (such as retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation) must fail when applied to these societies. That this really is the case can be illustrated with a simple example:
Two individuals commit the exact same crime in the same American city: they both crash into parked cars while driving under the influence of alcohol. Both of these crimes result in the exact same amount of damage, the levels of intoxication are the same between the two offenders, and this is the first offense committed by either person. 
However, one of these individuals is a high-powered businessman and the other is a middle-aged, relatively poor single woman with no living relatives and two young children. Both individuals are arrested and brought to the police station where they are put in jail with bail set at $5,000. The man immediately bails himself out and hires a team of experienced defense attorneys. 
The single mother, on the other hand, is too poor to post bail herself and knows no one who could help her. Because she is forced to sit in jail for the weeks preceding her trial, she loses both of her jobs which had been the only sources of income for her family. When the trials roll around, the man’s attorneys convince the judge and jury that he should not be held responsible for his action, and he is given only a fine. However, the publicly-appointed defense attorney for the woman, perhaps too over-worked to have been able to consider her case carefully, fails to offer any convincing defense on her behalf. She is sentenced to three years in prison.
I think it should be clear that in this case, the theory of retribution fails to offer a legitimate justification of punishment. Because the offenders in the story are given extremely different punishments for the same crime, at least one (or both) has been given a punishment that, morally speaking, breaks from the jus talionis, or “eye for an eye” principle and thus does not serve any kind of true retribution. In this case it is likely that both punishments would be considered morally inappropriate. One on hand, the woman in the example is punished before she is even found guilty of a crime by being forced to stay in jail as a result of her inability to post bail. On the other, the wealthy man is given a more lenient punishment only because of the resources to which he has access.

How about deterrence? Jeremy Bentham asserts that “General prevention ought to be the chief end of punishment, as it is its real justification.” Turning back to the example offered above, it becomes clear how Bentham’s deterrence model fails to justify punishments in capitalist societies in which punishments are functions of economic class. The man’s punishment in the hypothetical case would challenge Bentham’s idea that punishments should prevent future crimes from being committed because it would surely allow other wealthy people in the society to think that as long as they can hire expensive attorneys, they will be able to behave recklessly without much consequence. On the whole, a deterrence theory of punishment would not be able to explain how, for wealthier people who get relatively lenient punishment, those punishments have any deterring effects.

Finally, the rehabilitation theory maintains that punishment should include measures aimed at reforming offenders. That is, in giving punishments, societies should keep in mind the ways in which the punishments will allow offenders to change themselves or be changed so they can peacefully re-enter society. Plato conceives of punishment in such a way; he imagines that to suffer punishment is to suffer some good, and evading punishment is often a worse path to go down. Interestingly, it seems that when punishment practices are functions of class, wealthier people who can pay their way out of punishments are actually deprived of opportunities to reform. The man in the above example surely should have had a chance to think about the harms he caused through his crime, and would, for rehabilitation theorists, have been made better off had he had such opportunities.

All this paints a rather dismal picture of punishment and the attempts to morally justify it in the real world. But what would happen if certain measures were put in place in these capitalist societies that guarantee a fair system of punishment? For example, what if cash bail were determined in a manner proportional to the offender’s income (or simply abolished)? What if every defendant were required to use state-appointed attorneys, and what if implicit biases against poorer people were accounted for? It seems that if all these kinds of issues could truly be taken care of (and whether this is even possible is certainly up for debate), punishment would perhaps not exist as a function of economic class.

However, even if all this came to pass, it still would not mean that society’s response to crime would escape the influence of socioeconomic status. That is, even if the processes surrounding punishment were made completely just and equal, the social and economic inequalities that can lead individuals to commit crimes would still exist. This fact alone would still lead to sections of the population committing certain kinds of crimes in greater proportions than others, and being punished for it. For this reason, it seems that before punishment can truly become morally justifiable in capitalist societies, the social circumstances that lead individuals into confrontations with those institutions as well as the institutions surrounding punishment also have to be made just.

Monday, 6 April 2020

Picture Post #53 The Courage to Stand Alone

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl

Florence Airport, January 2020

How we perceive images depends on how much we ‘cut out’ of them, or ‘cut in’ to them. When things get isolated in an image, the reading we attribute to it, changes. Still, we may want to make a distinction between an image that has a so-called ‘life of its own’ and images that purely illustrate. What is the difference?

In these current weeks, in regard to the quarantine of the COVID-19 virus, we can clearly see that the interpretation of images depends on what our mind perpetuates. We read images in regard to a situation and laugh, cry, or skip intrepidly to the next one. They serve as a momentum to a specific state of mind.

The above image of the lonely girl with a suitcase at a big airport might illustrate many situations. If we would write COVID-19 below the photo, we would grasp it. Alike the slogan: stop child-abuse, or ‘we do not leave anyone behind’, serving as a slogan for an air company. The picture of the little girl is therefore adapting to our purposes.

If we see and understand solely what we want to see, do we mostly fail to see, or understand? Maybe, for pictures and videos whose purposes cannot be exchanged, are rare. With a vast cybernetic landscape to attain to, how come the illustrative production is so high, while images that take a life of their own seem to lack?

Then are we ourselves merely illustrative, rather than unique to situations?

Monday, 30 March 2020

Making the Case for Multiculturalism

Posted by Keith Tidman

Multiculturalism and ‘identity politics’ have both overlapping and discrete characteristics. Identity politics, for example, widens out to race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, national origin, language, religion, disability, and so forth. Humanity’s mosaic. It’s where, in a shift toward pluralism, barriers dissolve — where sidelined minority groups become increasingly mainstreamed, self-determination acquires steam, and both individual and group rights equally pertain to the ideal.

This situation is historically marked by differences between those people who, on one hand, emphasise individual rights, goods, intrinsic value, liberties, and well-being, where each person’s independence stands highest and apart from cultural belonging. And, on the other hand, the communitarians, who emphasise a group perspective. Communitarians regard the individual as ‘irreducibly social’, to borrow Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s shorthand.

The group perspective subordinately depends on society. This group perspective needs affirmation, addressing status inequality, with remedies concentrated in political change, redistributive economics, valuing cultural self-worth, and other factors. Communitarians assign primacy to collective rights, socialising goods, intrinsic value, liberties, and well-being. In other words, civic virtue — with individuals freely opting in and opting out of the group. Communitarians and individualists offer opposed views of how our identities are formed. 

But the presumed distinctions between the individual and community may go too far. Rather, reality arguably comprises a coexistent folding together of both liberal individualism and communitarianism in terms of multiculturalism and identity. To this point, people are capable of learning from each other’s ideas, customs, and social behaviour, moving toward an increasingly hybrid, cosmopolitan philosophy based on a new communal lexicon, fostering human advancement.

The English writer (and enthusiastic contributor to Pi’s sister publication, The Philosopher) G. K. Chesterton always emphasised the integrity of this learning process, cautioning:

‘We have never even begun to understand a people until we have found something that we do not understand. So long as we find the character easy to read, we are reading into it our own character’.

Other thinkers point out that cultures have rarely been easily cordoned off or culturally pristine. They contend that groups have always been influenced by others through diverse means, both malign and benign: invasion, colonialism, slavery, commerce, migration, flow of ideas, ideologies, religions, popular culture, and other factors. The cross-pollination has often been reciprocal — affecting the cultural flashpoints, social norms, and future trajectories of both groups.

Globalisation only continues to hasten this process. As the New Zealand philosopher of law Jeremy Waldron puts it, commenting on the phenomenom of cultural overlap:

‘We live in a world formed by technology and trade; by economic, religious, and political imperialism and their offspring; by mass migration and the dispersion of cultural influences’.

How groups reckon with these historical influences, as groups become more pluralistic, deserves attention, so that change can happen more by design than chance.

After all, it’s a high bar to surmount the historic balkanisation of minority cultures and to push back against the negativism of those who trumpet (far too prematurely) multiculturalism’s failure. The political reality is that societies continue to reveal dynamically moving parts. Real-world multiculturalism is, all the time, coalescing into new shapes and continuing to enrich societies.

Multiculturalism in political philosophy involves acknowledging and understanding the fact of diverse cultural moorings in society and the challenges they pose in terms of status, equality, and power — along with remedies. Yet, in this context, the question recurs time and again: has the case really been made for multiculturalism?

The American philosopher John Searle, in the context of education, questions the importance of ‘Western rationalistic tradition’ — where what we know is ‘a mind-independent reality . . . subject to constraints of rationality and logic’. Adding: ‘You do not understand your own tradition if you do not see it in relation to others’.

Charles Taylor, however, sees multiculturalism differently, as an offshoot of liberal political theory, unhampered by heavily forward-leaning ideology. This aligns with postmodernist thinking, distrusting rationalism as to truth and reality. The merits of scepticism, criticism, subjectivism, contextualism, and relativism are endorsed, along with the distinctiveness of individuals and minority groups within society.

Advocates of multiculturalism warn against attempts to shoehorn minority groups into the prevailing culture, or worse. Where today we see rampant nationalism in many corners of the world — suppressing, tyrannizing, and even attempting to stamp out minority communities — eighty years ago Mahatma Gandhi warned of such attempts:

‘No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive’.

Monday, 23 March 2020

COVID-19: Let It Be

Miguel Opazo, Pest, 2017
Posted by Thomas Scarborough and Martin Cohen
Jeffrey Kluger, the editor at large for TIME magazine, observed last week, ‘There’s nothing quite like the behavior of panicky humans.’  He was writing in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Is the panic -- or should we say, alarm -- justified?

The initial response to the disease, although stumbling and slow in some respects, was by and large the correct one: get a fix on the disease.  What are we dealing with?  What is its character?  The next steps, then, were textbook containment and mitigation.  Since then, of course, the pandemic has developed other dimensions, though not as a direct result of the disease. Rich Lesser, the CEO of a global management consultancy, wrote in Fortune magazine last week, ‘It started as a health crisis, within days became a real economic crisis, and is now on a swift path to becoming a massive fiscal challenge.’

There would seem to be two assumptions in the early -- and continuing -- response to the pandemic: under no circumstances sickness, yet if there is, complete control.  All over the world, we find language which reveals an ‘uncompromising’, ‘relentless’, and ‘aggressive’ approach -- an ideal plan which is not to make any concessions to the disease.  And always, in the statistics, one finds a column marked ‘deaths’, to which all control would seem to defer.  The aim is zero deaths, zero deaths, zero deaths.  In fact the biggest opprobrium for any government in the midst of the pandemic is the death rate.

The COVID-19 pandemic has two important features: the seriousness of the pandemic, and the character of the disease.

About the seriousness of the pandemic, mortality stood last week at about 3% -- if one calculates the ratio of total confirmed cases to deaths.  Yet for a number of reasons, this is quite uncertain.  For example, various academic papers have estimated that more than 80% of cases are undetected.  This reduces 3% to 0.6%.  Some place mortality far lower -- the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine placed it at 0.14% last week.  The World Health Organization calculated that in China, the 'real' mortality rate for ‪COVID-19‬ was 0.7% of reported cases, where only 5% of cases were reported. That's a 0.035% death rate.

While various kinds of ‘experts’, media, and ‘modellers’ have been plugging in figures as high as 10% for ‪Corona virus‬ fatalities, one professor of public health, John Ionnidis of Stanford University, suggests ‘reasonable estimates for the case fatality ratio in the general U.S. population vary from 0.05% to 1%’.  Compare the lower figure.  He explains his reasoning, too, saying that the one situation where an entire, closed population was tested was the Diamond Princess cruise ship and its unfortunate, quarantined passengers.
‘The case fatality rate there was 1.0%, but this was a largely elderly population, in which the death rate from Covid-19 is much higher…’  
Writing for Stat magazine, he adds,
‘Projecting the Diamond Princess mortality rate onto the age structure of the U.S. population, the death rate among people infected with Covid-19 would be 0.125%.’
If we assume that the ‘case fatality rate’ among individuals infected by the virus is 0.3%, and 1% of the U.S. population gets infected, this would translate to about 10,000 deaths. This sounds a huge number, but is within normal flu toll.

Even the one thing everyone agrees -- that we have to flatten the curve to spread out the load of cases (and avoid overburdening health services) -- Ionnidis casts doubt on.  Spreading the infections out over a longer period of time is better?  Not necessarily.  It ‘may make things worse: Instead of being overwhelmed during a short, acute phase, the health system will remain overwhelmed for a more protracted period.’  For Ionnidis, the policy response, not the virus, is the perturbing part, as ‘with lockdowns of months, if not years, life largely stops, short-term and long-term consequences are entirely unknown, and billions not just millions, of lives may be eventually at stake.’

The point is that fatalities, although they are tragic and traumatic in every case, are comparatively small, although, the numbers sound alarming given the large population which may be affected.

As for the character of the disease, it has some well-defined features.  It is now certain that it is far more dangerous to those who are more advanced in years, from about age 60, certainly from age 70.  It is far more dangerous for those with pre-morbidities, or compromised health, or concurrent infections, among other things.  This makes the picture far more varied than the simplest scenario of containment and mitigation.  Also, methods of containment and mitigation themselves are very varied, and may be greatly helped with fairly simple -- and far from extreme -- measures.

Given this brief survey, and assuming that it is broadly true -- what would the philosophers have said?

The Delphic maxim proclaimed, ‘Nothing to excess,’ while Aristotelian philosophers emphasised the Golden Mean -- the middle way between extremes of excess and deficiency.  Socrates said, ‘Choose the mean, and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible.’  In short, they sought a general holism.  With this in mind, they might well have cautioned us against a reductionist response to the crisis, and to take all factors into account and to balance them.  Protect the elderly, defend the vulnerable, comfort the distressed, yet for the rest, accept the tragic inevitability of illness and death among us, maintain the life and pulse of society -- and let it go.  Let it be.

A more holistic view suggests, too, that we should think, not only of the present pandemic, but of the past and the future.  As with all pandemics, there is a bigger picture.  Where have we come from, that this has happened to us now?  Where are we going to, as we shape the society of the future?  And what if it had been worse?  Pandemics are always embedded in background conditions.  One needs to consider economic and financial systems, urban planning, health care, lifestyle choices, communications -- in fact, the entire order of the day.

Above all, it is a reductionist response which drives us to the totalising ambition of no illness, and certainly, zero deaths -- and in the midst of this, the suppressed premise of our age: preserve life at all costs.  Less than a hundred years ago, religious congregations all over the world would pray for healing through God’s angel of death, if he should so will.  That prayer has now been expunged.  Death is not a constant companion today, as it sometimes was in the past, but an enemy to be defeated at all costs.  If only one knew what one were hoping to save.  It would seem that not many do -- and that in itself may be a large part of the panic, the alarm.  There has to be a way of living that triumphs over stalking death.

It remains to be seen whether ‘the behaviour of panicky humans’ can be sustained today.   At the moment, we are all locked into a more or less unified response to the pandemic, by the decisions of governments the world over -- and they in turn are judged by their peers.  

Monday, 16 March 2020

POETRY: A Greater Question (concerning the new coronavirus)

Posted by Chengde Chen * and Yingfang Zhang
Part II 
“Genetic engineering technology is designed to enable genes to cross species 
barriers.” – Martin Khor, New diseases as viruses break species barriers… 

The people in the Doomsday horror are speculating:
Is the virus destroying mankind man-made?
If so, by whom?
Some suspect China, while others, America

But a greater question is if science can do it
If it can, won’t the disaster happen sooner or later?
Hiroshima/Nagasaki was a continuation of atomic physics
Chernobyl was what nuclear technology had entailed

When scientists said they didn’t do it this time
It meant they had been able to
So, whether it was man-made this time, or by whom,
Has been a relatively–secondary question!

If it has been possible, then it is inevitable –
A fatal car-crash for the driver is a matter of time
If we still can’t see science is such a car for mankind
What does it matter if it happens this time or the next?

* Chengde Chen is the author of the philosophical poems collection: Five Themes of Today, Open Gate Press, London.

Monday, 9 March 2020

Does Power Corrupt?

Mandell Creighton leading his group, ‘The Quadrilateral’, at Oxford University in 1865. (As seen in Louise Creighton’s book, The Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton.)
Posted by Keith Tidman

In 1887, the English historian, Lord John Dalberg-Acton, penned this cautionary maxim in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton: ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. He concluded his missive by sounding this provocative note: ‘Great men are almost always bad men’. Which might lead one to reflect that indeed human history does seem to have been fuller of Neros and Attilas than Buddhas and Gandhis.

Perhaps not unexpectedly, the correlation between power and corruption was amply pointed out before Lord Acton, as evidenced by this 1770 observation by William Pitt the Elder, a former prime minister of Great Britain, in the House of Lords: ‘Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it’. To which, the eighteenth-century Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke also seemed to agree:
‘The greater the power, the greater the abuse’.
History is of course replete with scoundrels and tyrants, and worse, rulers who have egregiously and enthusiastically abused power — often with malign, even cruel, brutal, and deadly, consequences. Situations where the Orwellian axiom that ‘the object of power is power’ prevails, with bad outcomes for the world. Indulgent perpetrators have ranged from heads of state like pharaohs to emperors, kings and queens, chancellors, prime ministers, presidents, chiefs, and popes. As well as people scattered throughout the rest of society, from corrupt leaders of industry to criminals to everyday citizens.

In some instances, it seems indeed that wielding great power has led susceptible people to change, in the process becoming corrupt or unkind in erstwhile uncharacteristic ways. As to the psychology of that observation, a much-cited Stanford University experiment, conducted in 1971, suggested such an effect, though its findings come with caveats. The two-week experiment was intended to show the psychological effects of prison life on behaviour, using university students as pretend prison guards and prisoners in a mock prison on campus.

However, the quickly mounting, distressing maltreatment of ‘prisoners’ in the experiment by those in the authoritative role of guards — behaviour that included confiscating the prisoners’ clothes and requiring them to sleep on concrete flooring — led to the experiment being canceled after only six days. Was that the prospect of ‘abuse’ of which Burke warned us above? Was it the prospect of the ‘perpetual and restless desire of power after power’ of which the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes warned us?

In many other cases, it has also been observed that there seem to be predispositions toward corruption and abuse, in which power serves to amplify rather than simply instill. This view seems favoured today. Power (the acquisition of authority) may prompt people to disregard social checks on their natural instincts and shed self-managing inhibitions. Power uncovers the real persona — those whose instinctual character is malignly predisposed.

President Abraham Lincoln seemed to subscribe to this position regarding preexisting behavioural qualities, saying,
‘Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character [true persona], give him power’.
Among people in leadership positions, in any number of social spheres, power can have two edges — good and bad. Decisions, intent, and outcomes matter. So, for example, ‘socialised power’ translates to the beneficial use of power and influence to inspire others toward the articulation and realisation of visions and missions, as well as the accomplishment of tangible goals. The idea being to benefit others: societal, political, corporate, economic, communal, spiritual. All this in a manner that, by definition, presupposes freedom as opposed to coerced implementation.

‘Personalised power’, on the other hand, reflects a focus on meeting one’s own expectations. If personalised power overshadows or excludes common goods, as sometimes seen among autocratic, self-absorbed, and unsympathetic national leaders, the exclusion is concerning as it may injure through bad policy. Yet, notably these two indices of power can be compatible — they aren’t necessarily adversarial, nor does one necessarily force the other to beat a retreat. Jointly, in fact, they’re more likely force-multiplying.

One corollary (a cautionary note, perhaps) has to do with the ‘power paradox’. As a person acquires power through thoughtfulness, respect, and empathetic behaviours, and his or her influence accordingly flourishes, the risk emerges that the person begins to behave less in those constructive ways. Power may paradoxically spark growing self-centeredness, and less self-constraint. It’s potentially seductive; it can border on Machiavellian doctrine as to control over others, whereby decisions and behaviours become decreasingly framed around laudable principles of morality and, instead, take a turn to exertion of coercive power and fear in place of inspiration.

In a turnabout, this diminution of compassionate behaviours — combined with an increase in impulsivity and self-absorption, increase in ethical shortcuts, and decrease in social intelligence — might steadily lessen the person’s power and influence. It returns to a set point. And unless they’re vigilant, leaders — in politics, business, and other venues — may focus less and less on the shareable common good.

As a matter of disputable attribution, Plato summed up the lessons that have come down through history on the matters discussed here, his purportedly saying in few words but without equivocation:
‘The measure of a man is what he does with power’.
Although he doesn’t seem to have actually ever said this as such, it certainly captures the lesson and message of his famous moral tale, about the magic ring of Gyges that confers the power of invisibility on its owner.

Monday, 2 March 2020

Picture Post #54: Ghost Rainbow

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

26 February 2020. Three Anchor Bay, Cape Town. 33.906° S, 18.398° E.

Some call it a ghost rainbow. It has been described as a hollowed out rainbow, or the rainbow's eerie cousin. Sightings are said to be extremely rare -- and when ghost rainbows do appear, people are astounded. I said to a kayaker staring into the sand, 'See, a ghost rainbow has appeared.' He looked up. 'A ghost rainbow!' he exclaimed, and jumped up to tell a friend. His friend ran into a shed to pull out a large DSLR. This was a magical moment, surprising, striking -- perhaps never seen or imagined before by some of those who saw it.

Such things not only grab our attention. They ignite our reason. We begin to ask Why? How? What? When? But let us pause for a moment -- and turn our gaze inward. Did we ourselves conjure up the rainbow? Did we decide to be attentive to it, or to connect with it, to question or decode? Or did the rainbow lay hold of us? Did it commandeer the mind? In fact, is there ever anything in the world, which impels us, that is not like this rainbow? Whatever it may be, can we ever pretend to any other office than to serve and obey it? 

Monday, 24 February 2020

Poetry: Critique of Genetic Engineering

Posted by Chengde Chen *

“Genetic engineering technology is designed to enable genes to cross species 
barriers.” – Martin Khor, New diseases as viruses break species barriers 

Genetic engineering has a million benefits,

While I have only one reason against it.

But, any number multiplying a zero becomes a zero.

Science is supposed to support human existence;

If genes are written by all historical conditions of nature,

Isn’t quoting them out of context man outlawing himself?

The temperature on the Earth’s surface is within ±50ºC

A very small range in the grand thermometer of the universe,

But just the home for us – the creature of 37ºC – to survive.

Believers marvel at God’s arrangement, yet it’s only nature.

All existing species are adapters to this condition;

Those not, either never had a chance, or have been eliminated.


Should God, seized by a whim, play at “planet engineering”

Rearranging the order of the solar system, what would happen?

If Earth moved one step inwards to the position of Venus,

The mighty 480ºC would evaporate us into clouds.

If Earth moved one step outwards to the position of Mars,

The minus 140ºC would cast us into super-ice.

Earth is in our genes.

Genes are nature’s vertical memory and horizontal logic.

The process of adapting and eliminating carves all specifications.

The billions of codes are billions of doors and locks without keys,

Shutting out foreign viruses with DNA incompatibility

So we don’t catch cats’ flu, nor do dogs get our hepatitis.

Yet, manufactured genes come suddenly

Sharing no responsibility of history but short-circuiting species.

When transgenic pig organs are implanted into humans, 

Pig viruses also leap over millions of years to join us.

To gain medical benefits by dismantling the species barriers, 

It’s self-disarming to the bone or tying oneself up to WMD?

The biological world is a self-contained all-dimensional computer;

Messing up one sequence could throw the whole system into chaos,

Which is asking God to restart His creation all over!

So He’d rather we mess about with the planets than modify genes.

“If you must,” He may say, “modify Mine first to have a GM god 

To recreate the world, I’d need enhanced energy and perseverance.” 

* Chengde Chen is the author of the philosophical poems collection: Five Themes of Today, Open Gate Press, London.

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