Sunday, March 24, 2013

Chinese Materialism and Wildlife Poaching

Over the past decade, tens of thousands of elephants have been killed in central Africa for their ivory, making for a loss of 62% of the forest elephants in that part of the world. Here’s an example of what’s been happening: “About a year ago, poachers attacked a family of forest elephants in central Africa. The biologist who witnessed the attack told us that wildlife guards were completely outgunned. In the end, an elephant mother, riddled with bullets and trumpeting with pain and fear, was left to use her enormous body to shield her baby. Her sacrifice was for naught; the baby was also killed.” The authors of this NY Times article goes on to describe an elephant corpse he saw in Africa: “The elephant’s face was a bloody mess, its tusks hacked out with an ax--an atrocity that is often committed while the animal is alive.” What happens to the baby elephants when their mothers are killed? The young don’t “develop secure social relationships when living in a state of terror, or mourning slain family members--and elephants do mourn. When mothers are killed, babies still dependent on their milk die slowly from starvation, heartbroken and alone.”

The reason the wildlife guards in Africa are outgunned by the poachers is that the demand for ivory has skyrocketed over the last decade, and so the suppliers are highly incentivized to do whatever they can to obtain the ivory to sell. Most of this demand for ivory is in China. In the past, only the super-rich Chinese or Europeans could have afforded ivory, but with the recent rise of China’s middle class, thanks to its booming manufacturing industries, many more Chinese can now afford ivory, including many young people (see here). Ivory is used as a status symbol for the newly rich (see here). According to a 2007 International Fund for Animal Welfare study, 70% of Chinese people don’t understand how ivory is taken from elephants: they assume that the ivory grows back so that the animal doesn’t have to be killed. Thus, there are campaigns, such as one featuring the basketball player Yao Ping, to educate the Chinese. Ping participated in a similar campaign against shark fin soup in China, which likewise was highly sought by the Chinese middle class as a way to show off their new found wealth. The insatiable demand for ivory or shark fins drives up their prices, so that owning or consuming these commodities indicates the owner’s high social status. According to Ping, the campaign against shark fin soup has worked, so he’s optimistic that within 10 years, owning ivory will be as shameful as eating the soup in China (see here). By that time, most of the elephants will have been killed, though, and irreversible damage to the elephant population may already have been done.

In any case, according to the evidence cited by the Wikipedia article on shark fin soup, the demand for the soup has been lowered mainly in Hong Kong, but is rising from the middle class in mainland China. Indeed, I’d expect that an education campaign alone will not curb China’s demand for products made from endangered species. After all, if the demand is from the newly-rich middle class, including many young people, it’s unlikely that most of these consumers are ignorant about how ivory is taken from elephants. If they’re rich, they have access to the internet where the facts are just clicks away. According to the 2011 IFAW study on ivory poaching, ‘Despite the price increase, demand continues to rise as ivory is promoted as having “inflation-proof investment value” and that possessing and gifting ivory demonstrates status’ (sic). Ivory is thus bought as “white gold.” The 2012 NPR article, cited above, corroborates this point: “China's housing and stock markets have both taken hits, and the nation's super rich are looking for other places to invest their cash.” Wealthy Chinese investors who are looking to park their money in highly valuable commodities aren’t likely uninformed about endangered species, because they’re educated and sophisticated enough to have made that money in the first place and they’re making a strategic business decision about where to invest it.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Childhood Innocence and the Outsider's Humility

Have you ever been overwhelmed by a child’s cuteness? Maybe you had an urge to pinch the kid’s pudgy cheek or to hold her tiny fingers. What’s most precious about children, I think, is their innocence, but what exactly is that? And what can childhood innocence tell us about how we adults ought to live?

To give an idea of the kind of innocence I’m talking about, here are two real-life examples featuring my nephew who is almost two years old. I folded a paper airplane and threw it for him to see, and he loved to watch it soar and land. I did this numerous times, sometimes holding his tiny hand under the plane so he could experience throwing it, and each time he squealed with delight. He especially liked when the plane came close to crashing into something or someone. And here’s the innocent part: after several throws, he ham-fistedly tore off the corner of another piece of paper, scrunched it up, unfolded it somewhat, and with one hand threw it, crying out “Ha!” as he did so. The piece of crumpled paper went straight down, moving all of three or four inches, but he showed almost as much joy from the flight of his version of the airplane as from that of the others. And he did this several times. My nephew is at the stage at which he mimics what those around him do, so he tried to create and throw a paper airplane even though he didn’t really know what he was doing.

Another example: he likes to play with kaleidoscopes. His grandmother has a collection, placed far out of his reach, and sometimes when’s he in that room he points with both hands for someone to bring one down for him. I gave him one to hold and tried to show him how to use it, by holding another one, pointing it up into the light, looking through the lens, and turning the opposite end. He followed all of the steps but stubbornly insisted on undermining his efforts, by keeping his left hand around the rear end of the kaleidoscope so that his hand blocked the light. He pointed the kaleidoscope upwards, looked through the lens, but snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by placing one hand in just the wrong spot. And this wasn’t a one-time mistake. For some reason, he liked to hold the kaleidoscope in that way. We gave him a different one and again he covered the key area with his hand so that all he must have seen through the lens was his hand’s silhouette. Of course, he did all of this with a smile on his face, since as long as he’s not bumping his head on something he’s having fun.

What does it mean to say, then, that a child like my nephew is innocent? The point isn’t just that a child that young hasn’t done anything wrong; rather, a child can’t do anything wrong, because she’s not yet a self-controlling adult. A child lacks the language, knowledge, and experience to control her mind and body to the extent that she’d be considered free. Instead, she’s controlled mainly by her environment and especially by her guardians and caregivers. So she’s innocent for the profound reason that she’s not yet the sort of creature that could possibly be responsible for her actions. Instead of acting rationally or wisely, she plays and that’s how she learns. But this playing takes place within safe zones of the adult world, and it’s this contrast that makes a child cute and precious.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Are Atheists Religious?

One question that sometimes crops up in the debate between atheists and theists is whether atheists have their own religion. Should the atheist’s goal be to end all religion or would this amount to ending human nature? There’s much confusion in this sub-debate that goes away with just some rudimentary analysis, so once I clarify the question at issue I’ll address the question itself.

Note the difference between these two questions: “Does the atheist have a religion?” and “Is atheism a religion? Often, it’s the latter question that’s discussed. See, for example, this NY Times debate. The atheist typically answers this latter question by saying that atheism is just the denial that there’s a god or any other supernatural entity, so were that negative position to amount to a religion it would be a pretty paltry one. And the theist then responds by saying that the atheist is committed to more than just that denial, since the denial has positive implications. For example, if God didn’t create the universe and there’s nothing supernatural, the universe must have a natural origin; also, if there are no miracles, everything in the universe must have some mechanistic explanation. So is some religion implicit in the essential atheistic proposition that there’s no God? By this point, the theist has shifted from the latter question to the former one and has conceded that atheism by itself isn’t a religion. If we’re talking about implications of the atheist’s broader worldview, we’re asking whether the atheist is typically committed to some religion in addition to flatly rejecting theism.

What is Religion?

The next area of confusion has to do with the definition of “religion.” If the atheist rejects theism, and all religions are theistic, then of course the atheist can’t consistently have any religion. And indeed, one of the main definitions of the word assumes that a religion requires a set of theistic beliefs, such as the beliefs that a god created the universe and intervenes in that creation. However, this definition should provide little comfort for the atheist who maintains that all religions should be abolished, because there’s a notorious fact about religious studies which is that because religions are so diverse, religion scholars have little consensus about how to define "religion." For example, certain forms of Buddhism are atheistic. Just because a word is popularly defined one way, doesn’t mean experts or laymen interested in getting at the underlying truth have to follow the vulgar way of understanding the matter.

Still, if there’s not much expert agreement about what all religions have in common, perhaps there's little gained from asking whether the atheist is religious. Clearly, the answer depends on your understanding of religions. Mine includes the sociological studies by Emile Durkheim and Mircea Eliade as well as the work of existential theologian Paul Tillich. For Durkheim and Eliade, the essence of religion isn’t theistic belief, but the social practice of worshipping something held to be sacred. On this view, religion is a means of uniting a group around a common cause. Social unity is needed, of course, because society has many external and internal threats which loners can’t overcome. Genetic lineage provides some biological mechanisms for social unity. For example, parents usually form an emotional bond to ensure that they help to raise their children. But the larger the social group, the less sufficient these biological mechanisms and so social mechanisms develop to overcome the emergent challenges to group cohesion.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

RWUG E-Books on Google Drive

The PDF versions of the first and second installments of this blog are now available on Google Drive. Permanent links to these files can also be found on the right-hand side of this blog.


Sunday, March 3, 2013

Speculation, Scientism, and the Art of Wisdom

A speculation is a guess, a conjecture, a thrown-together bit of reasoning unsupported by enough evidence to make the conclusion reliable. We might speculate when we’re in a rush or when we’re not willing to think so rigorously about some question because the question doesn’t much interest us. That’s the proper idea of speculation, but there’s also a slanderous use of the word which lumps in all of philosophy, religion, and indeed the liberal arts or humanities in general--all discourses other than the exact sciences--with speculation or conjecture. Sometimes all nonscientific thinking is called mere opinion, meaning not just that this thinking is subjective and relative, that the thinking hasn’t passed scientific tests to earn the consensus of experts or even that the thinking is therefore comparatively unreliable. So much would be fair, but the slander here is based on the further assumption, supporting the “mere” in “mere opinion,” that because speculation in the humanities is unreliable compared to a scientific theory, that speculation is therefore worthless and ought to be dismissed outright. There’s a scientistic prejudice against speculation in secular, science-driven societies, and the prejudice is very revealing.

Scientism as the Modern Faith

This prejudice arose by way of standard tribal dynamics. Modern technoscientific culture--the rational opposition to authoritarianism, superstition, dogmatism, and elitism--began with the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, and this culture proved so economically successful, given its liberal applications in democracy and capitalism, that any opposition to it came to seem like a retrograde brake on progress. Christian Churches suffered the most from the ascents of modern science, engineering, and the attendant liberal values such as the equal worth of all rational, autonomous individuals. But eventually, beginning with positivism several decades ago, philosophy too suffered in comparison with science. People assumed that philosophy was idle and fruitless; that a science-driven way of life is self-evidently justified because of its material success; that philosophy of science is irrelevant because science works. Technoscience was considered part of the grown-up, public world, whereas religion and philosophy were dismissed as merely private matters in the sexist sense, which is to say that nonscientific speculation came to seem like a form of women’s work. In a free society, everyone was entitled to their private opinions, but if their opinions weren’t made public in the reliable scientific manner, those opinions were bound to be fruitless; they would empower no one and were as useful as the ravings of a lunatic, locked away in an asylum.

What actually happened here is that modernists ironically made idols out of technoscience and of the rational individual. Whereas reason and the evidence showed that we’re animals subject to the same irrational instincts as other species, producing our dominance hierarchies and worshiping our alpha males and their virtues, modernists like Descartes assimilated theistic dualism, drawing a metaphysical line between humans and animals so that the modern fruits of human nature could be placed on a pedestal. Religious traditions were savage hindrances, since all along we had the potential to be modern and liberated from Ignorance by Reason. The irony is that modernism was allowed to become so religious, so Scientistic, because we are exactly what science shows us to be. We naturally form religions out of what we ultimately value, and if nothing much mattered to us we wouldn’t go on living. Technoscience produced the modern standard of living and so naturally the social effects of the rational methods (capitalism, democracy, and effectively stealth oligarchy) came to be revered. When something strikes us as sacred, our tribe feels unified by our common relation to that cherished thing and so we demonize outsiders who fail to share our faith, who don’t see the greatness that we see. Critics of the modern philosophy and religion that spring up in science-driven cultures, critics who claim that there’s more to knowledge than what science provides and that there’s more to life than the use of the latest technology are dismissed as holdovers from inferior, premodern ages, as wallowers in woo.