Philosophy, religion

21 questions I would ask the Christian God

Imagine you could ask God anything…what would it be?

Here are my 21 questions I would ask the Christian God*:

  • Why does bad food taste so good? Why is chocolate so irresistible, whereas vegetables taste bland? If you made a carrot taste of chocolate, and chocolate taste of carrot, I’d be fit as a fiddle. Also, why does the nicest food in the world have to come from suffering dead animals and also give us cancer?
  • Why make your existence so ambiguous? If your aim is to get people to believe in you, just drop in and say ‘hey’ once in a while. Leaving the world to look exactly as it would if there were no God is a risky game.
  • Why are so many of your followers absolute bellends?
  • Do you actually have a problem with homosexuality? If so, isn’t it a bit creepy you care so much about what people do with their genitals? If you don’t have an issue with it, why not make that clear in the Bible instead of leaving ambiguous passages that would be used to oppress minorities for thousands of years? Same question for women and slavery.
  • Why have you allowed four Transformers movies to be made? You’re meant to be a loving God.
  • If we have freewill, and we act badly, isn’t that, well…a design flaw? Don’t want to point fingers or anything…
  • What’s the deal with the devil? Like…is he real? If so, it’s kind of super irresponsible to give him the kind of free reign he has. If he’s just a character, he’s a bland villain. What’s his motivation? To try and fight an all powerful God and be a general dick? I just don’t believe it, you know. Maybe a writers class would help…
  • On a similar note, if a thick person raised in a religious family never questions anything, he goes to Heaven, but if a smart person can’t find sufficient reason to believe, they go to Hell? Does that make being smart a hindrance and being dumb an advantage? Isn’t that a bit stupid?
  • Do you know what I’m going to pray before I pray it? If so, is there any point in me praying? Also, why don’t you just do good things without us asking? When you have the power to stop terrible things happening but don’t, that’s kind of being a dick. Like, watch Spiderman, that explains the whole ‘power and responsibility’ thing.
  • Speaking of which – spiders…what the actual fuck were you thinking?
  • Why evolution? That’s a really slow and cruel way to get to the point we’re at. More than 99% of species that ever existed are now extinct. Why not just make us as we are now and save a few billion years? Also, doesn’t evolution totally retcon Genesis?
  • Similar point, why make animals that rely on eating each other? Why aren’t we all made vegetarian? If animals have to eat each other, why make them conscious of their pain?
  • Have you ever thought about issuing a statement about all those things ‘done in your name’? Good PR I would have thought.
  • Will there ever be a sequel to the Bible? Sequels are all the rage these days. Don’t worry, it doesn’t even have to be as good…just needs to be bigger. Maybe you could build up to a Religious Cinematic Universe and have Jesus team up with other religious figures (not naming names because…frightened) to fight off immorality, or fig trees.
  • The Book of Revelation…what’s that all about? Can deities get high?
  • Why didn’t you send Jesus in a time when there were video cameras as opposed to a time when we have to trust written sources? That way intellectually challenged half-wits wouldn’t be able to deny there was at least ‘a Jesus’ (well, some of the loons might say it was holograms or staged or something, but you can’t convince everyone.)
  • Also, Jesus kind of thought the world was ending soon…he did, right? I’m not judging, we all make mistakes.
  • Do you actually care when privileged people in the West pray for trivial things? We would totally understand if you wanted to spend time helping out impoverished nations and fighting infant mortality instead. I imagine it’s like having one child asking for a loan for a lamborghini whilst you’re caring for his terminally ill brother!
  • Do you like being praised? People constantly telling you how great you are (and going pretty crazy whilst they’re at it) could get awkward, I imagine.
  • Bourbon or custard cream?

 

What questions would you ask God?

*These are, of course, tongue-in-cheek. I’m full aware that on coming face-to-face with an all-powerful being I would be awe inspired and probably shitting it. 

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Philosophy, religion

Why conspiracy theories are usually nonsense

The older I get and the more thought I give the world, the more I realise conspiracy theories really irk me. Not because of the content, per se, but rather in the thought processes that generate belief in conspiracy theories. In fact, I think many conspiracy theories exhibit the absolute WORST in human reasoning (namely anti-intellectualism, disinterest in evidence, over-simplification and arrogance.)

Let me begin, however, by adding a caveat. A belief in a conspiracy isn’t stupid in virtue of itself, there may very well be good reasons to believe that a conspiracy has taken place. Heck, we can point to numerous examples throughout history whereby things we would call a ‘conspiracy theory’ have proven to be exactly as conspiratorial in nature as could possibly be feared.

No, what I’m talking about are the many beliefs that fall under the term ‘conspiracy theory’ that are entirely without merit. The beliefs where the ‘evidence is out there’ if you only ‘wake up and open your eyes’ – when conspiracy theorists say this, they seldom mean a peer-reviewed journal!

So let’s look, step-by-step, at the dangers of conspiracy theories and why they represent the absolute nadir in human critical thinking.

Firstly, conspiracy theories encourage anti-intellectualism. After the election of a president who doesn’t believe in global warming and who thinks women should be punished for having an abortion, now more than ever we have to fight against a sinister growing voice that encourages us to disregard experts and simply go with our gut. Conspiracy theories almost always rely on the complete disregard of the views of celebrated professionals in a field (someone who has worked hard and earned the respect of their peers) under the pretence that they’re part of the cover-up. Anti-vaxxers don’t trust medical health experts, global warming deniers don’t trust scientists, Jesus myth propagators ignore leading historical scholars etc.

And what is the voice of experts replaced with? Crappy, poorly researched websites and hours of mind-numbing YouTube videos by someone who is unlikely even to have a degree in the subject they are talking about (let alone be respected by experts in the field.) Under the guise of ‘free-thought’ conspiracy theorists open themselves up to a wealth of information which has had no validation from someone with authority on the matter, and the theorist themselves are almost always going to be unqualified to truly discern the reality from the bullshit.

Secondly, conspiracy theories are rarely supported by compelling evidence. I suspect this is where most contention will come in because for someone engrossed in the world of conspiracies and who consumes the conspiracy media, it probably looks like there is an abundance of evidence. Problematically, however, this evidence is rarely peer-reviewed or widely accepted by those in the know. Occasionally a professor in botany might come out as an anti-vaxxer and, despite 99% of scientists disagreeing, the theorists all of a sudden become interested in experts (whilst carefully ignoring the broad scientific consensus). However, in such a situation the evidence seems to be merely a nice extra and expedient as opposed to vital.

And, annoyingly, conspiracy theories are almost always impossible to prove wrong – they tend to just consume evidence. For example, there might be a wealth of evidence that global warming is taking place, but that can simply be hand-waved by ‘that’s what they WANT you to think.’ In Stephen Law’s excellent book ‘Believing Bullshit’, he explains how being an unfalsifiable belief is not a strength using the example of creationism and evolution. Creationism is essentially unfalsifiable because creationists always amend their beliefs to fit the evidence (which is distinctly different from amending their beliefs FOLLOWING the evidence.) Evolution could be proved wrong, however, simply by finding human remains in the wrong geological strata. The fact that no such thing has been found is a strength of the Theory Of Evolution, not a weakness. After all, I could say there’s an invisible, pink unicorn running around outside and I guarantee you, you won’t be able to ‘prove’ that’s not the case – but that doesn’t make it a reasonable thing to believe!

Thirdly, conspiracy theories tend to over-simplify complicated situations into easy-to-digest narratives. Why ponder the social and economic climates that lead to any particular class voting in a certain way at a general election, when you can instead just say ‘the illuminati did it.’ Why read through hefty scholarly articles on the historical Jesus to get a sense of what can or cannot be attributed to him when you can simply believe it as written or deny it as myth altogether. This broad kind of simplification is lazy and uninformed. It would be remiss of me (and rather hypocritical) to over-simplify why people believe in conspiracy theories, but one can’t help but feel that it attracts a certain kind of person who can’t make much sense of the world without the theories. In fact, one suspects for some people a crazy, purposeless world is so frightening that believing in an evil world order pulling the strings is more comforting. Believing that companies deliberately make us ill may be easier to accept than the fact that disease will always exist and affect us.

In fact, the simplification just leads to a complete lack of nuance. For example, I myself am very suspicious of the way some pharmaceutical companies are run and question just how much money determines how long we’ll live. Equally, I find myself rather unsettled by the current US Administration’s relationship with Russia. The world isn’t all sunshine and roses – money talks, power corrupts and it’s vital that we acknowledge that. However, we must do this in a reasonable, nuanced and mature way. Questioning how much money is a determining factor in our health quality is quite different from suggesting Big Pharma is purposefully giving us cancer. The latter is an unsupported gross oversimplification but, perhaps, an easier narrative to get our heads around.

Paradoxically, as well as over-simplifying, some conspiracy theories actually over-complicate issues – they provide an explanation for something that already has one. For example, one looks at the Brexit chaos of last year and it’s pretty clear what happened. A Conservative government, to ease party tensions, ran a referendum which everyone assumed they would win, then turned into a shock result which the politicians weren’t prepared for. That’s a pretty easy and obvious explanation for the momentarily destabilising events that followed the vote. However, if you believe in the Illuminati, you must now provide a further explanation as to why this series of events took place as they did – a series of events that already has an explanation now needs another! And, as most of us know, a rational conclusion would be to invoke Occam’s Razor and shave away the unnecessary explanation altogether. (Quick side note on the Illuminati – when conspiracy theorists constantly point to lyrics and symbols in music videos as ‘signs of the Illuminati’, I can’t help but imagine the strange circumstances of landing a job in the Illuminati PR department where your job is to get the message out there…but don’t be noticed. That’s one hell of a brief, right?!)

Conspiracy theories can also be extremely dangerous. An obvious example would be failing to get your child immunised against a life-threatening disease, but there are less obvious examples too. For instance, if you believe that the President of the United States is just a puppet for some grand shadowy organisation, then that may well make you apathetic to voting. After all, what does it matter, they have the same agenda anyway. However, as we have recently had the misfortune of finding out, electing the wrong President can have huge ramifications for people’s lives and indeed the preservation of the planet for future generations.

Finally, conspiracy theories, from my anecdotal experience, seem to foster a strange arrogance in its followers. I guess it’s a fundamental problem of any belief system which sees itself as significantly more ‘enlightened’ than the dumb masses, but it really manifests itself with conspiracy theorists. People, many of whom may have had no further education at all, keep bemoaning the ‘blind sheeple’. In fact one gets the sense that this too is part of the appeal of conspiracy theories, it’s rather soothing to one’s ego to think you’re in a significantly more informed place than the rest of the world (it’s essentially like getting stuck in a teenage mentality forever).

It also can create a strange mindset whereby a conspiracy theorist starts believing conspiracy theories simply because they are conspiracy theories. At that point you know that all reason is out of the window and the person has succumbed to an almost religious-unquestioning (all, ironically, in the spirit of so called ‘free-thought’.)

Conspiracy theories are also dangerous because they can often be deceptively compelling. In fact, Stephen Law describes conspiracy theories as an ‘intellectual black hole’, ideas that once you believe, are very hard to shake off. And let’s be honest, if you watch hours of YouTube videos propagating this or that conspiracy theory, it’s likely to eventually become convincing, assuming you don’t have the relevant knowledge to question the claims. A good example is a conspiracy video called ‘Zeitgeist’ which suggests, among other things, that Jesus was a myth. If you watch the video completely uninformed on the study of the Historical Jesus, it’s likely to be very compelling. There’s a clear narrative, patterns are shown and before you know it, you’re sucked it. In this particular instance, however, I did my dissertation on the Historical Jesus and was, thankfully, informed enough on this issue to realise that a lot of Zeitgeit’s claims aren’t just wrong, they’re positively ludicrous.

But it does raise an interesting question; how does one seek to determine truth in this confusing world? Learning what sources to trust is a fundamental rite of passage if you want to understand the world at all. Ideally we would all become experts on every issue but due to the lack of time and, perhaps, capability, that’s off the table. So, instead, we are forced to trust the word of others on most issues we believe, and we’re all acutely aware that this is not a foolproof system. After all, what if Galileo had trusted the consensus of his time?

There is no easy answer I can think of, but I will say this – Galileo thought critically and used evidence to challenge the prevailing views of his day. He was using reason and applying the scientific method to change minds. This attitude to me seems much more in spirit with the scientists and experts of our day, than of conspiracy theories. We have to ask ourselves this question: Are we to become so cynical and shaded that we disregard all expert opinion under the belief that everyone is coerced and has an agenda, so our only refuge for information is unqualified internet bloggers? Or can we maturely do our best to humbly accept the expert advice of those we have no reason to distrust, always with a healthy dose of critical thinking, to come to a nuanced and informed view of the world? I know which I’d prefer.

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Film, Musicals

La La Land Review: Is it possible to be in love with a movie?

La La Land isn’t just a great movie, it’s joy encapsulated. A beautiful piece of art which is romantic and uplifting, finally chiming with a melancholic poignancy that doesn’t betray its spirit of optimistic escapism, but is happy to have a modern understanding of what this means. In essence, it’s a ‘feel good’ movie that doesn’t suffer from the ailments that label usually entails.

La La Land is the kind of movie if you told me you liked it, I would struggle to forgive your apathy. For me, it isn’t just the best movie I’ve seen for a long time, it might even be my favourite movie I’ve ever seen. This is a fairly bold claim for a film I’ve only watched twice, but the mixture of charm and technical proficiency makes it an irresistible delight, medicine for the soul in an otherwise depressing world climate.

Nominated for a staggering fourteen Oscars, La La Land is the story of two struggling artists, one an actor, one a musician, both looking to achieve their dreams in a world where the odds seem stacked against them. The story of Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) taps into universal themes which we can all relate to – who hasn’t struggled with balancing real life whilst yearning for the childhood dreams we grew up with? Although harkening back to the golden days of Hollywood, it’s a message that may well resonate with millennials acutely.

The magic of La La Land is that this story takes place in a musical. Not, however, the self-aware sort that is fun but trashy (Mamma Mia, Rock of Ages etc.) but instead an unapologetically old fashioned singing and dancing marathon. From the very first opening number it’s not demanding a ‘knowing smile’ but expects you to accept it and come along for the ride. In that sense it’s not going to convert non-musical lovers but why should it? The fact La La Land doesn’t think it needs to justify the magic of musicals is one of its most endearing traits. It’s in love with cinema, every frame attests to that, but its particularly enthusiastic in its love of musicals of the past and that passion oozes off the screen.

And what a musical it is! Each number is memorable, perhaps not in a show tunes way, but in how it propels the story forward and in how exquisitely the cinematography and choreography come together to make the most magical cinematic sequences. The film is packed with stunning set pieces – a Broadway like opening during a traffic jam, a whimsical dance among the stars and a seven minute montage to name but a few – and if just one had appeared in a lesser film they would elevate it considerably. But, put together, it’s an embarrassment of riches, sequence after sequence of pure silver screen delight.

Yet, to the film’s credit, it’s the emotional journey of its lead characters you are left thinking about by the time the credits roll and that’s down, in huge part, to the film’s two actors. Ryan Gosling is charming and reserved as Sebastian, completely selling his character’s obsession with jazz. And Emma Stone…she is out of this world. I’ve always thought of Stone as a good actress, heck she’s even good in those otherwise shitty Amazing Spiderman movies, but in La La Land she gives a career defining performance. During several moments her acting broke my heart, perhaps best demonstrated during her solo number towards the end of the film which, in both screenings I saw, had the cinema in complete silence, hanging on every line. The fact that director Damian Chazelle is clearly passionate about the story of these two characters’ lives is part of what elevates the film from pure homage to something with its own soul and purpose.

And then of course, there’s the ending. I’m going to get into spoiler territory now so if you haven’t seen it and you want to remain unspoiled, go and see it (seriously, you won’t regret it!) and then come back and read the rest.

Still here? OK.

So La La Land is essentially a movie of two halves. The first is pure romantic fantasy, the kind of ‘boy meets girl’ love story that we expect from an old fashioned musical. The second half is something a bit more real as we see the pressures of everyday life test and strain the relationship. It all ends five years later with both having achieved their dreams. Mia is now an actress but is married to another man with a child, and she accidently stumbles into Sebastian’s club which the two had discussed during their relationship (he even calls it Seb’s, as she had suggested.)

There’s then a seven minute musical montage where we see the fantasy ending had they stayed together and grown old. Once the fantasy is over we see Mia leave the club, but not before exchanging one final glance at Sebastian. Geez, I get emotional just thinking about it – it’s kind of soul wounding. But it’s what this sequence means that is so powerful, and puts a whole new light on what proceeded it.

At first it feels like a ‘life’s a bitch’ ending, they achieve their dreams but miss out on the ‘love of their life’, but actually I think it’s a lot more nuanced than that. The ending doesn’t undermine the beauty and romance which proceeded it, it just doesn’t pretend those things can always continue. Those moments the characters shared were important and wonderful at the time, and nothing can change that, not even now it’s over. In fact, during that time, both had encouraged each other to achieve their dreams – their relationship provided the matrix for both of them to go on and succeed, and perhaps it ended exactly when it needed to. Even during the fantasy of the musical montage, Sebastian doesn’t own his club when he stays with Mia.

Are their dreams and relationship mutually exclusive? Maybe. It’s kind of beside the point. Sometimes relationships break down and it’s not easy to see why. The point is what they had was magical but it didn’t work out. However, that doesn’t take away from what it was, and from those times something wonderful flourished. It perhaps solves the problem I have with a lot of romance movies. I would consider myself a romantic person, sure my love life isn’t anything to boast about, but I always enjoy the portrayal of love onscreen. The problem, however, is often love is portrayed as the only goal – romantic love is the only truly happy ending. You can see this in something like Beauty and the Beast (a film I love almost as much) in the journey of Belle. At first she begins with these huge ambitions that the people around her can’t understand, she wants adventures in the great world out there, but because she falls in love with the Beast that’s all put aside as if it was merely wrong-headed – she’s in love now, that’s all that matters.

La La Land manages to provide the perfect answer to this problem. It’s romantic but not delusional, capable of exploring the single power of love without demeaning every other goal. As the two characters look at each other for, perhaps, the last time there’s no signs of bitterness. Sadness and regret, maybe, but both of them know what they shared hasn’t been and cannot be undone. For a brief moment their love was the axis of the world, the most important thing in all creation, and the fact it is now over doesn’t make it untrue.

It’s the perfect melancholic ending, one far easier to relate to and, perhaps, more important than ‘happy ever after’.

 

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Film

‘Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them’ – Review

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them is a charming slice of whimsical magic, beautiful and engrossing from start to finish, and probably my favourite ‘blockbuster’ this year.

Deadpool movie reviewThis surprises me, more than anyone, because I’m not really much of a Potter fan…never have been. I appreciate the movies, don’t get me wrong, and I totally understand why a whole generation fell for them, but I didn’t start watching the Potter series (for various reasons) until film six, which rather left me feeling that I was a bit too late to the party. Plus I always found the stories a little derivative of other fantasy fiction with a few too many MacGuffins for my liking.

Fantastic Beasts is, on the other hand, a different…well…’beast’ altogether. Whilst it certainly expands the Potter universe, it is also very much its own film. There are really obvious similarities to be made with The Hobbit trilogy in that both have a unique story to tell but are also products created for clear commercial gains. Yet whereas The Hobbit trilogy often felt like ‘Lord of the Rings but not as good’, the twenties setting, new characters and general tone of Fantastic Beasts means it doesn’t feel like an imitation of the Potter movies before it, but a movie very much with its own groove.

The similarities between Fantastic Beasts and The Hobbit trilogy also extend to their structure – both have an original story to tell but also surround that story with world building to tie their mythology more deeply into the movies that proceeded them. For Fantastic Beasts, the unique story is that of Newt Scamander and his suitcase full of fantastic creatures.

I’ve heard a fair amount of complaint about Newt, claims that he isn’t really a character and there’s not much too him, but I disagree profoundly. Newt Scamander isn’t provided a tragic origin story, nor is he the ‘chosen one’, he’s just a kind-hearted, slightly eccentric, often awkward character trying to do the right thing because that’s what he believes in. I’m not really that much of a Eddie Redmayne fan, but he completely won me over as Newt and I found myself totally endeared to his character. He’s certainly not devoid of motivation or depth, there are various references to his past that help form his character, but they are refreshingly simple and not overblown. To my mind at least, he’s every bit as fleshed out as Harry Potter himself was in his own movies, if not more so!

This particular story thread also risks feeling kind of slight – ‘his magical creatures have escaped and need to be found’ doesn’t scream high stakes – but Rowling’s screenplay squeezes out every bit of wonder from this concept. The high point is a trip into the magic suitcase itself which reveals the whole world which these imaginative creatures inhabit. The scene is played for full awe and there’s a sense of innocent, imaginative, child-like magic which transcends anything even the early Potter movies could capture. It’s in these scenes that you also get a sense of exactly who Newt is, and just how much he cares for these creatures.

This storyline is also helped by three great supporting characters; Tina Goldstein, her sister Queenie and Jacob Kowalski. The sisters complement each other because one, the good-natured Queenie, is very much defined by her femininity whilst the other, Tina, is more conservative and geeky (that’s probably too strong a word, but she’s certainly a ‘focused’ character.) Jacob is another great addition because he’s a muggle (or nomaj) and is able to offer a completely human pair of eyes to the strange workings of the wizarding world. What’s particularly refreshing about this group of characters is there is nearly no ‘wisecracking’ at all. In today’s superhero dominated landscape, heroes seem to fall into two categories; ‘constant wisecracks’ or ‘brooding’. These heroes, on the other hand, are neither, they are chipper but behave like people, not gag machines. They all, particularly Jacob, essentially feature as Newt’s companions throughout the film.

And I use the term ‘companion’ quite particularly because there’s no denying Newt Scamander’s story shares a considerable chunk of its DNA with Doctor Who (which, if you don’t know, I absolutely adore.) Redmayne’s eccentric British Scamander smacks of Matt Smith’s magnificent Eleventh Doctor (my personal favourite incarnation of the beloved Time Lord) and his suitcase that is bigger on the inside can’t help but bring the TARDIS to mind. I’ve always thought Potter and Doctor Who have a similar lineage, both are full of British eccentricity and world build in a way that avoids taking themselves too seriously…apart from when they need to. But Fantastic Beasts has more similarities still, heck even the eventual fate of Jacob feels distinctly Doctor Who in its execution. There were rumours that director David Yates was interested in making a potential Doctor Who movie and, whilst little more has been said on that, this is the closest we’ve got so far to a big budget Doctor Who movie.

The second plot thread is the one that must do the world building and is considerably darker in tone. It involves the Magical Congress of the United States, The Second-Salemers and Grindelwald. Whilst the Newt story is breezy and light, this plot thread explores child abuse and the terrible effects of suppression and denial of one’s own identity. This thread is probably the one that’s going to provide the momentum for the four (yes, four!) sequels to the movie and will almost certainly bring in a younger Albus Dumbledore not too far down the line. Thankfully this ‘B plot’ doesn’t jar with Newt’s, but instead provides the film a tonal dexterity that enriches every aspect of it.

It’s certainly this part of the movie, however, that brings the flaws that Fantastic Beasts does have to the table. There is a twist at the end involving Grindewald (and an actor who is fast becoming infamous) which both fails in execution and cheapens the development of one of the film’s main characters. It’s also the threads of this storyline which take over for the film’s third act and provides a largely consequence free, CGI laden final showdown which rivals some of Marvel’s laziest efforts and mostly sidelines Newt.

Yet, much like Doctor Who, Fantastic Beasts get so much right and is so endearing that it largely bypasses my critical faculties. On several occasions this movie made me feel, not just sadness (the ending has just the right kind of sentimental ‘farewells’ for my liking) but also awe at some of the amazing creatures and the imaginative ideas behind them. Sure, you feel the studio pressure now and then, but it’s still tangible that Rowling is passionate about these stories and still loves telling them, a passion which is infectious.

Fantastic Beasts ultimately benefits from not being based on a book, paced more like a film without a long middle which has largely nothing to do with the first or final act, a problem for most of the Potter movies.  Rowling’s first screenplay is a real triumph and proof, if proof is needed, that the Potter universe still has plenty of magic left up its sleeve. It also achieves the impossible and makes the prospect of a further four films not just seem bearable, but something to look forward to. If the future films in this saga are as fun, charming and magical as this one, then consider me a full convert to the wizarding world of Harry Potter.

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Politics

The people have spoken – and it’s awful

Today the American people elected a racist, misogynist, unqualified reality TV star as their next president. A man who said he wanted to ban all Muslims from entering America, who bragged about paying little tax and who admitted to thinking women who have abortions should be punished.

american-flagFor many this Trump victory came as a surprise but, having experienced Brexit, we Brits were in a unique position to expect the unexpected. Before June 23rd Brexit seemed an extreme right-wing pipe dream. Surely there was no way the UK would go against all sound professional advice and damage our economy in some bizarre attempt to ‘make Britain great again’. Yet, here we are, several months down the line, working out how and when to legally trigger Article 50 in a way that doesn’t totally leave us in the lurch.

So, when the polls were indicating Clinton had the lead, and the populist Trump had no real chance, alarm bells were certainly ringing. And when I checked my phone at 4:30am this morning, and saw the ‘shock’ election results nearly played out, it was a familiar feeling. Once again the political elite have been kicked in the teeth and the populist outsider has surpassed all expectations. This is a new world.

The reasons for Trump’s success are numerous and I’m sure only a removed history student of the future will be able to fully account for all of them. Right now, we are far too close to events to truly gain an objective vantage point to view them from. But, to state the obvious, the reason he won was because people voted for him. He rode a wave of anger, frustration and anti-establishment sentiments, very much a similar fuel as the one which stoked the flames of the Leave Campaign here.

What is most alarming about this particular wave of passion is it’s completely indifferent towards reason and logic. Vague nationalistic sentiments and uniting against common enemies seems to be a far more powerful motivator than sound arguments or debate. As many have pointed out, we are living in a ‘post-truth’ world. ‘The British public have had enough of experts’ said Michael Gove, and many Americans felt exactly the same as they voted.

It seems that many people have realised that there is a political elite who may not always have their best interest at heart and a status-quo the political class preserve which doesn’t necessarily benefit the poorest among us. This is all reasonable enough. But, in the rejection of the elite, the baby has been thrown out with the bath water, and there has been a rejection of experts and academics along the way. A nasty virus of anti-intellectualism has infected the heart of public opinion, which makes reasoned debate impossible.

‘Screw the rich elites’, the public cheers. Quite right. ‘Let the people take control.’ Yes, brother. ‘Screw the academics who have spent years studying’. Wait…’Ignore the experts with their fancy knowledge.’ Oh no. Hang on. You wouldn’t ignore the advice of a doctor when it came to your health would you? ‘Damn right. Corrupt big pharma serving bastards.’

In the rejection of sources we would usually consider wise, a black hole of authority has been created, and those who can shout the loudest and whip up public sentiment are the ones who fill the void. In such circumstances, mob rule can take hold.

You only have to look at the reaction of some of the Brexiteers to the recent judges’ ruling that for the British Government to activate Article 50 they need a vote in parliament. People were whipped up into a frenzy and national right wing leaning rags were behaving quite shamefully even by their low standards. The ruling was a legal decision, and yet the reaction was brutish and inflamed – as if the law itself could not hold back the raw populist power of the 52%. Who were these legally trained experts to tell the public how the law should be applied?

A tell-tale sign of populist movements like the ones in both Britain and America is the replacement of arguments with repeated phrases. When every objection to Brexit was labelled ‘Project Fear’, regardless of the legitimacy of that concern, we should have known we were in trouble. When a presidential candidate simply repeats a meaningless phrase such as ‘making America great again’, it’s scary when that appeals to the masses. The latest repeated phrase is when government ministers are asked to outline what kind of Brexit they are pursuing and they reply something glib about ‘not revealing your hand in a negotiation’. Not only is the analogy flawed (in a business negotiation the people the negotiator works for would have instructed what they wish to gain), it’s really just a tired soundbite to avoid answering the question altogether.

And we’re told, time and time again, that those who vote for the likes of Trump do so out of economic desperation. They are people who have been left behind by the current political system. Yet, I don’t know about others, I can’t help but feel some contempt for those who vote for a nasty bully who talks of building walls and longs for the good old days where protesters could be brutalised. In a way, I almost think it’s patronising of the liberal elite who make these claims to think that these people don’t know exactly what they’re voting for. Maybe Brexit was complicated enough for it to be unfair to label those in favour of leaving as xenophobic or short sighted, but the Trump campaign has shown its true colours on multiple occasions.

Right now there are claims of a ‘whitelash’, that the vote was a reaction against the struggle for equality between races in America. According to exit polls (and yes, I’m wary of ever trusting a poll again!), 60% of all white voters voted Trump. And it wasn’t just the poor working class who we are told don’t know better, he performed well across all genders, ages and education levels of those 60%. I’m not suggesting that racism (or any form of malice) was the defining factor in this election, but things certainly seem considerably more insidious than it just being a ‘cry for help’ from the poorest in society.

Ironically, much like in the case of Brexit, those working class who did vote as a protest against the current system are the most likely to become victims of their own decision. Just as the poorest Brits will be the ones most affected by inflation and suffer decreased disposable income, the poorest Americans may well be hit hardest by Trump’s seemingly uncompassionate politics. Yet this doesn’t excuse those who voted. Much like the Texan who shot an armadillo and ended up in hospital because the bullet bounced off into him, it’s hard to feel sorry for a voter who puts so many minorities at risk knowingly.

And perhaps what scares me most is the people who say they feel disenfranchised and unrepresented might actually be unreachable. Some voters are opposed to modernisation and globalisation altogether, which both feel like inevabilities. Besides demagogues like Trump with empty promises, no-one else seems to have an answer as to how to reach these people. Neither centre-left nor centre-right are able to appeal to them, and the more radical left (embodied by the likes of Corbyn) fare even worse still. Right now there doesn’t seem to be an antidote to the current wave of dangerous populism.

Difficult as it is, I try not to despair. Winston Churchill once said ‘The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter’, a sentiment which is easy to empathise with right now. Yet we must soldier on, accept democratic decisions and fight for what we believe is right. If democracy temporarily makes you lose faith in people, keep your faith in individuals. Support charities who do good works, campaign for what you believe is right and trust that this turbulent period of history can’t and won’t endure forever.

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Philosophy, religion

The problem with prayer

 

Do you pray?

You wouldn’t be alone. A survey as recent as 2013 found that six out of seven Brits believed that prayers could be answered.

But I’ve been thinking recently, how exactly would prayer work? As in, how would God actually go about answering your prayer?

prayer-beadsYes, if you haven’t guessed by now, this blog post is going to be highly speculative but I want to tackle it simply because people talk about prayer as if it’s simple, ask and receive, but a little bit of thought shows that the issues it raises are REALLY complicated.

In our society there’s such a lack of nuance and complexity, and issues are dumbed-down to the point that they have no meaning. We fake nuance but we seldom mean it. Sometimes when I hear a religious person say to me ‘God’s not some bearded guy in the sky’, I suspect they’re really thinking ‘he probably doesn’t have a beard’.

And prayer is one of those issues that is talked about in religious circles (and in the mainstream I suppose) with seemingly little thought as to what is really being said, so I wanted to try and ask a few initial questions to get my own mind rolling when contemplating prayer.

I’m not going to be discussing whether prayer works or how you would even know that a prayer has been answered. I’m sure we’ve all got a Christian friend who says something like ‘God blessed us with a new house’ and it’s not entirely clear how God could be involved in that at all (I’m sure the seller, your buyer, the estate agent and the removal men helped but, hey, why not imagine an all powerful deity contributed as well!)

I’m also not going to explore the ethical questions raised by prayer, such as why an omnipotent, benevolent God would interfere in the world to solve first world issues but entirely ignore the plight of the devastated in Syria or the masses who die in Third World countries from curable diseases. (Plus no-one could tackle those issues better than Tim Minchin does in this fantastic song about healing.)

I simply want to look at the question of how God would go about answering a prayer, and I’m going to do so through a fictional character called Bob.

Bob and the parking space

Bob had spent two years in a dead-end job and, after a particularly harrowing day, decided to take life by the horns and start applying for other jobs. After a while of no luck he stumbled across his dream job, an editorial position in the city. He was a little under-qualified but went for it anyway, what harm could it do?

A few days pass and he hears nothing but one fateful afternoon he receives a phone call, the phone call. The company want him in for an interview. Bob is elated, confident he can perform well in front of the interview panel. He lives quite far from the city so he sets his alarm a few hours earlier than normal, to give him time to drive in.

parking-spaceHe wakes up the morning of the interview but something awful has happened. During the night there had been a power cut, meaning his alarm had reset. Shit, he thinks, scrambling for his watch. He breathes a sigh of relief. If there’s no traffic, he should be OK. Unfortunately, there is a traffic jam and Bob all but gives up hope. But then, things start to get moving. He checks his watch. It should take him about 15 minutes to get into the city and his interview is in 20 minutes. If he can find a parking space nearby he might just be able to make it on time.

And then Bob does something which he doesn’t normally do. He prays. ‘God’, he says, palms sweating on the wheel, ‘I know I don’t pray much, but please, please let there be a space when I arrive’.

As he pulls up outside the offices, he can’t believe it. Right outside the front door is an empty parking space. “Thank you God” he exclaims, and heads off to his interview. Bob gets the job.

Let’s assume he is right (I know, big assumption!) and God arranged things so that Bob could get a parking space. There are several big questions to ask.

How exactly would God have arranged this?

So, assuming that God did intervene, and the parking space wasn’t always going to have been empty, what would God have done to ensure the space was empty?

Perhaps he changed the mind of the person who would have parked there otherwise (and anyone else who might have thought about taking it). But isn’t that a troubling idea? If God can change the mind of a person to suit his own agenda, then doesn’t that have terrifying repercussions for our freewill and autonomy? Can God simply change our minds at random? Unless you’re a Calvinist, and I assume most rational people aren’t, surely a God who has such little regard for humanity’s freewill is terrifying (and if you’re a Calvinist I guess it doesn’t matter what you think because you were always going to think that, there’s nothing you can do to change it and God thinks that’s good.)

So perhaps God intervenes in a more subtle way. Maybe, on these occasions, God intervenes by breaking the closed cycle of nature to influence events. It’s easy to say, but, when you think about it, difficult to imagine. How would she do it? If we use a really direct on the nose example, maybe he could increase the wind in such a way that it causes a tree to fall and land on the car at the home of the man who would have had Bob’s parking space otherwise. At least that way God doesn’t have to change someone’s mind directly but merely uses nature as a tool to manipulate events to her will. It’s still pretty terrifying but less so than a God who can change your thoughts.

But just looking at this question in the most basic way possible, it begins to show that answering prayers must be harder than simply agreeing or disagreeing to a request – God would have to interfere with the lives of other, unconsenting ordinary people to achieve his aim.

But there’s a bigger, more interesting question yet to come…

Has God just changed the future?

If God answers the prayer and ensures there’s a parking space for Bob, has God just changed the future? If Bob had never of prayed would someone else have had that parking space? Might someone else (let’s call her Mary) have ended up getting her dream job?

If this is the case, then God would be changing the future. Yet how would this work in practice? Might God give special preferential treatment to those who pray. Perhaps, if Bob had never prayed, he would have been late for the interview and Mary would have got the job. But, because Bob prayed, God changed the future to help out Bob. Poor Mary lost out because she didn’t pray. Is that fair?

Or, perhaps God being omniscient means he can see every possible future and actualises (or causes) the best one. But shouldn’t a loving God be doing this anyway? And wouldn’t it be unlikely that exactly what Bob asks for leads to the best possible future?

Most of us have watched enough Doctor Who to know that changing the future is a dangerous business. Changing one small thing (like Bob getting the job over Mary) could change history forever – at the very least it would certainly change both their lives, their families’ lives and the lives of the people around them. The consequences of this could echo further into the future. So, does God storm in breezily and answer prayers and to hell with the consequences for everyone else, or does she think this stuff through? Wouldn’t that make God like the ultimate Time Lord, having to work out which moments of time are in flux and which moments can’t be changed?

Perhaps you could get around this by saying God was always going to answer that prayer and therefore the future has never changed. But this raises the big question, if God knows everything we’re going to do, like pray to him, how can we possibly have freewill? One possible answer, put forward by Christian apologists like William Lane Craig, is that God knows what we’re going to do, but we’re not necessarily going to do it (basically we’re going to do it, but we’re not predestined to do it). This seems reasonable enough to me, but when it comes to God knowing what he’s going to do, surely that does deny him agency. God knew, for an eternity, he was going to answer the prayer? So God would never have willfully chosen to answer the prayer, he just would always have known he was going to…even when no-one even existed to pray. Ah, it makes the head ache!

You might try to get around it and say God’s omniscience is limited by freewill – even an all knowing God couldn’t know in advance what an autonomous person with true freewill will decide. This certainly weakens the definition of ‘all knowing’ that most religious people subscribe to, but it’s a bit more comprehendible. The trouble is, that would make God interactions with the world ‘well intentioned’ at best. She could intervene, but would have to cross her metaphorical fingers that it actually was for the best. Would it even be responsible for such a God to answer people’s prayers? Would it really be helpful or dangerous meddling?

It does surprise me that more Christian apologists don’t fall back on these questions when asked why God hasn’t answered a particular prayer. Instead of saying something glib like ‘God knew that wouldn’t be best for you’ (which reveals the egotistical centre of so much petitionary prayer), you could just say ‘God didn’t answer your prayer because it might damage the causal nexus and cause a worse future for thousands of others.’

The problem of prayer

If you’re waiting for an answer or a flowing conclusion then you’ve greatly overestimated me. I’m sure there are philosophers and theologians who have dealt with many of the questions I’ve raised far more authoritatively, but really I was just interested in raising some of the many issues thrown up by a God who interacts with the world.

Many of these questions are either too complicated for human minds, or they may just be questions which make no sense because they don’t correspond to any real reality.

It is a reminder though that when we talk of prayer, we tend to think of it as taking place in a vacuum. After all, what would be so hard about an all powerful God providing a parking space for one day? But when we think just what it would take for a simple prayer like that to be answered, then we might show a little more humility in exclaiming what a God has or has not done in our lives.

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Film, Gaming, Philosophy

Pokémon grow…up?

(Apologies for the tortured title!)

Pokémon feels like the craze that just won’t give up. When I was at school and the trading cards were huge, Pokémon felt like it was everywhere and yet, even then, I wouldn’t have dreamed that fifteen years later it would still be a ‘thing’.

And make no mistake, whilst I’m sure many kids are playing the game, a whole load of people from my generation are also playing it – clever ‘twenty-somethings’ whose opinions I respect have taken to the streets to collect fictional monsters.

I don’t want to retread tired arguments over whether this is a good or bad thing. For every person thinking it’s something an adult should be ashamed of, there are others who will point out that it encourages exercise, meeting up and is a celebration of the human imagination.

I’m more interested in the deeper question that is really brought up by those who denounce it as a legitimate form of adult entertainment. Because, make no mistake, that issue gets deep fast.

How can you talk about the legitimacy of Pokémon Go without having a view on the role of pleasure and happiness (in general) in a healthy adult life?

And how can you have an understanding of the role of pleasure and happiness in a human life without some kind of personal view on what you think the meaning of life is?

Pokémon Go may also just be a symptom of what some people are calling ‘infantilisation’, essentially the idea that adulthood is becoming increasingly infantile and stuck in a state of arrested development. It’s something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while so Pokémon Go offers a fantastic springboard into a quite fascinating topic.

 

Is ‘infantilisation’ a real thing?

Pokémon Go might be the finest piece of evidence yet that our generation is having a little trouble growing up, but it’s something that people have been recognising for a while.

What was the last film you watched? Was it a sophisticated adult drama or a recent blockbuster predominately aimed at kids?

What was the last book you read? Was it an acknowledged classic or the latest YA phenomenon?

What was the last TV show you watched? Was it an educational documentary or the latest piece of reality garbage to be commissioned? Perhaps you don’t even watch TV anymore but can make do with three minute YouTube clips.

When you start to answer these questions honestly it, admittedly, builds up a picture of a generation who, at the very least, doesn’t have the most sophisticated palette.

A huge part of this, it’s suggested, has been the rise of ‘geek culture’. So many of the blockbuster properties were once something a niche group (identified as ‘geeks’) were into, but now these properties (mainly superhero movies) are mainstream. Everybody knows who Iron Man and Captain America are now, and chances are you’ve seen at least one of their movies.

As someone who would identify as a geek, who loves superhero movies and Doctor Who, I often have to reflect on what that says about me. Yet even Simon Pegg, who is something of a poster boy for geek culture, has recently said comic book movies are dumbing us down.

Movies are not the only things accused of having been infantilised, however. Some have suggested the food we now eat is aimed at kids, with so many restaurants offering burgers and chips/pizza as the staple dish. And what about adult colouring books? Is the term itself something of an oxymoron?

And now we have Pokémon Go to add to the list, which has fully grown adults talking about the number of fictional animals they have captured on an app.

What, you may ask, might be responsible for this seeming arrested development?

Well one theory is that we begin living an ‘adult life’ much later now. A huge proportion of us go to university whereas a few decades ago we might have taken up a trade. Equally, with buying your first property being an ever increasingly difficult looking proposition, more of us are living with our parents for longer. This may be keeping us mollycoddled so we live a pseudo-adult life, plus it likely brings new financial benefits.

If you’re not paying off a mortgage or spending a high amount on rent, what do you spend your money on? Probably the latest phones, movies and game consoles. Perhaps consumerism itself is juvenile in nature (always wanting the next best thing), yet our lifestyles are becoming ever more comfortable with it.

So infantilisation is real then?

Well, probably, but not necessarily.

For infantilisation to be real, we would surely need to have a way to neatly delegate what is for children and what is for adults, which might be a harder job than initially thought.

So what make something childish?

A gut answer might be a thing is childish if it’s something you do as a child, but that seems too broad. There are loads of things we do as children that we continue to do as an adult. We eat, sleep and get dressed as children but it would be a strange view indeed that suggested those things are childish.

Perhaps then something is childish if it’s designed specifically for children? But again, this doesn’t seem satisfactory. It seems possible to me that a writer could write a book aimed at children and accidentally capture something that draws adults too. Equally, if the creator of Postman Pat decided the show was for adults, it wouldn’t stop it being weird to assume that’s really the case. Ultimately art becomes separate from the creator, so this doesn’t seem sufficient.

Actually, when you think about it, there’s not a clear, easy way to determine between ‘childish’ and ‘adult’. This is not to suggest that such a distinction doesn’t exist, but it does remind us the distinction isn’t always easy to make.

What does it mean for food to be ‘childish’? Who’s to say that colouring in isn’t something adults should do?

Perhaps these distinctions have more to do with snobbery than reason.

And it’s important to remember the narrative that we’re getting increasingly infantile is one that’s hard to empirically show, but all too easy to argue with anecdotes.

One might argue, for example, that infantilisation is what causes people to read Rowling instead of Dickens, but that forgets that Harry Potter was celebrated because it encouraged people to read who otherwise might not be reading at all. It was actually the reverse of infantilisation – this is why we must be cautious when making assumptions about such things.

 

Is infantilisation necessarily bad?

However, let’s assume that infantilisation is happening. Is it necessarily a bad thing?

If we think there really is a way to distinguish between ‘adult’ and ‘childish’, is there a reason to think a childish life is a worse one?

Would making such a claim imply a telos (purpose) to life?

Because, if we’re being honest, (you might want to whisper this), isn’t life a bit, well, meaningless? Doesn’t all the evidence point to the fact that our very existence is a freak accident, we live this bizarre life and then we die (and probably, unfortunately, don’t ever come back)? What kind of purpose could you extend to a life when you see it in these terms?

Two goals I would think still worth pursuing are:

  • Help others. Alleviate their suffering and contribute towards their pleasure.
  • Live as happy a life as you can.

In a world where purpose is not clear to see, living as happily as you can seems as good a creed as any.

And so, if Pokémon Go is what makes people happy, why should we object to it?

I myself can attest to the joy I experience watching a new episode of Doctor Who, it’s a genuine high for me. Should I feel that excited by it? I don’t know, but it doesn’t really mater to me. What does matter is it makes me feel happy, and in that sense genuinely makes my day-to-day life easier.

I guess the question is does the source of happiness really matter, as long as you are in fact happy? (Assuming, of course, that the source of happiness is not harming others.)

Does a ‘childish’ source of pleasure count less than an ‘adult’ one, even if the chemical response in the brain that causes the feeling of happiness is exactly the same?

If not, then is infantilisation just a change and not really a problem?

This comes close to my own view but then the thought experiment of Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine comes to mind. The Experience Machine isn’t a million miles away from the idea of ‘The Matrix’, and is essentially a simulated reality which could be programmed to make you happy.

Would you prefer to be hooked up to the happiness machine or live a real life? If you choose the latter, then you are essentially saying that happiness is not the only intrinsically valuable thing – there’s a value to experiences which goes beyond how happy they make you.

This thought experiment is particularly potent in the wake of the first mainstream augmented reality game. Is Pokémon Go, and the way it blurs the distinction between real life and fantasy, just the first step towards the Experience Machine? Might augmented and virtual reality essentially offer us Nozick’s Experience Machine – might a virtual house, virtual world, heck, even virtual sex life one day be more pleasurable than the real thing?!

I don’t know, but it would feel somewhat counter-intuitive to say that those virtual experiences would be of the same value as real ones.

This is all a long way of coming round to the idea that perhaps what we need is not an ‘either/or’ approach but an approach of balance.

Should adults feel bad for playing Pokémon Go if it brings them happiness? Probably not, because happiness is something to be valued.

Should adults feel bad for playing Pokémon Go if it brings them happiness, at the expense of a well rounded adulthood? The answer to that is a bit more tricky (what is a ‘well rounded adulthood’?), but the answer might, in this case, be ‘perhaps’.

If a person spends more time on Pokémon Go, or watching Doctor Who, than, say, learning about the political system of their country, then that might be a problem (and let’s be honest, we all know a lot of people have probably plundered many more hours into a video game than they spent learning about the consequences of the recent EU referendum.)

But, here’s the thing, I rarely see evidence that those who play/watch ‘infantile’ things are in any way less engaged with the real world. It doesn’t follow that because I watch Marvel movies that I can’t also read political essays, or travel the world. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and as far as I’m aware there’s no evidence to suggest they’re often practiced exclusively.

Further still, there may well be a value to holding onto ‘childish’ things in a balanced adult life. For example, I find in Doctor Who an optimism and lack of cynicism which isn’t found in a lot of depressing and often nihilistic ‘adult’ TV programs. Plus a lot of things aimed at children ask really big questions because, after all, aren’t we most philosophical when we’re at our youngest, always asking how and why?

Adult dramas might be able to beautifully capture the minutia of a failing relationship breaking down, but kids stories are almost always about the fundamental forces of good and evil themselves.

Might it be that becoming an adult is not about rejecting what we enjoyed as kids, it’s just about widening what we consume? Playing Pokémon Go is fine, just make some time for looking over the news. Watching superhero movies is cool, but why not read a classic novel when you get back?

We don’t need to legitimatise children’s things and pretend they’re ‘adult’ (geek culture has often become ugly trying to do just that.)

Accept it, Pokémon Go (like superhero movies, like children’s books), is aimed at kids. And that’s fine. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it, just accept it for what it is. Have a balanced diet. Use your imagination. Perhaps those who snub all forms of childhood joy are those with the most limited creative palettes.

And if there is a problem about infantilisation, remember, it’s a problem for our entire generation, not just Pokémon Go players. So before you share a condemning meme ask yourself, what childish activities do you partake in? Have you ever face swapped using an app? Do you watch kid’s movies? Read YA fiction? Then you’re guilty too, and let he without sin throw the first stone as a wise man may have once said.

Otherwise we’re just like children in a childish exchange ‘I’m more mature than you’, ‘No, I’m more mature than YOU’ *blows a raspberry.*

And if you NEVER embrace your inner child then…why not? Maybe it’s you who has the problem.

 

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