Saturday, September 30, 2006


In response to this post, Anactoria writes:

I can understand your opinion on atheism. But agnosticism is intellectually cowardly? You're taking away all of my choices! :P How is it "intellectually cowardly" in your opinion?

First, I should say that it's not a coincidence that I think theism is the only tenable choice. I'm a theist. I don't think atheism is philosophically tenable and I don't think agnosticism is intellectually courageous enough, but that shouldn't surprise anyone. I believe that what I believe is the best thing to believe. That's why I believe it. If I thought atheism was tenable I'd be an atheist. If I thought agnosticism was a valid position, I'd be an agnostic.

My problem with agnosticism is this: Agnosticism is the position that we can never know with certainty whether there is a God or not. Which is fair. But we can also never know with certainty whether there is a spoon or not. We can never know for sure if our senses are trustworthy, we can never know for sure if reason is reliable. When it really comes down to it, we can never know anything for sure. But if we want to do anything in this world we need to decide to believe in something. If we want to have any intellectual life at all we need to decide to trust our senses or our reason or tradition or something.

Skepticism is philosophically valid, but it seems paralyzing to me. And at the root of that paralysis I find cowardice. I feel like that kind of skepticism is grounded on a fear of being wrong. But any intellectual work has the danger of being wrong. Intellectual honestly means that we need to be open to being corrected if our error is pointed out to us, but—to me—intellectual courage means that we can't just remain positionless in the mean time. Eventually, you need to believe something.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Old Friends

This week I got an unexpected communication from my best friend through high-school. Although Jon was my Best Man at my wedding, and I still think of him as a best friend, we rarely see each other, and anyone who knows me knows how bad I am at keeping in touch, even with the people I really care about.

Jon, it seems, has been secretly reading Jan's and my blog without leaving comments. So he knows (roughly) what I've been up to even if I didn't know what he has been up to.

And what he has been up to, apparently, is a trip to Europe (again). Lucky bugger.

I also checked an old-and-rarely-used e-mail address and found a newsletter from another friend of the slightly less old variety. My former room-mate Zachary and his wife Robin are living in Texas. The last time I spoke to Zachary about his plans for the future he was hoping to go back to Africa and pursue self-sustainable farming. It seems that they are starting the journey to Africa in Texas, doing an internship with WHR and gaining some experience that will help them live out their dream. Awesome!

Meanwhile I'm still in Winnipeg and I'm surprised how happy I am about that. I'd love to tour Europe and I really admire Zachary and Robin for their dreams, but I like where I am today. Working with the youth at St. Margaret's is unbelievably rewarding—repeatedly surprisingly rewarding. And I'm loving my life as a graduate student. I'm taking nothing but English classes, and I couldn't be happier about it.

Monday, September 25, 2006


The Edge to Bono: I don't want to be on the news. YOU want to be on the news.

Via Chris

Friday, September 22, 2006

Harry Potter and It Was All a Dream

The seventh Harry Potter book is rumoured to be completed, except for editing and a title. Here's the text in its entirety:

Harry Potter woke up.

"I had the strangest dream!" he said. "I dreamed that I was a wizard, and the world was full of magic!"

"Oh sweetie" said his mother. "There's no such thing as magic.

OR IS THERE!?!?!?"

The End.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


I'm taking five courses this semester:

History of Critical Theory
Should prove to be very interesting. So far we've talked about Plato's and Aristotle's thoughts on literature, its purpose and its use. The prof is the kind of atheist whose opinion is based on ignorance, but he does know what he's talking about with critical theory, so that's good.

Medieval Lit: Heroes and Heroines
Really good class. It starts with Bede and ends with Malory. Some of the texts I've already read, but it's still a great experience. The prof is hilarious, and really knows his stuff, and likes correcting the translation in our text. He is prone to randomly breaking into Latin or Greek or Old English or French.

Victorian Lit
A pretty good course, but I think it's the dud of the year. The material is interesting, and the prof is pretty good, but it's aimed a little low (I think it's actually a second-year course). Regardless, I'm reading stuff like Tennyson and Browning, which is cool.

American Literature since 1900
I've never really studied American literature, so this is mostly new for me. Which is cool. All kind of people I've heard of but never read. The prof is a very nice fellow (I haven't yet heard him tell anyone that they are wrong), very enthusiastic about his subject, and very likable.

Hybridity and Literary Imagination
An honors seminar that is proving very interesting. The prof is a published author and poet, who teaches creative writing courses and is very interested in the Metis. The course is focused on hybrid race culture and language. We're reading novels, books of poetry, memoirs, essays, rants and reflections. I mentioned it here.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

I don't believe in Atheists

I don't believe in atheists.

Sure, I know there are plenty of people who claim to have had a personal experience with atheism, but I just don't buy it. I think they're just expressing their own personal need to disbelieve in something.

Scientifically, it is impossible to prove non-existence. That means that, from a scientific perspective, you actually can't prove that there aren't elves living in my apartment. All you can do is offer counter-examples—you've never found any elves. At the best, a scientific enquiry can convince us that it is very unlikely that there are elves in my apartment.

The logical reason for this rule against proving a nonexistence is simple. Just because you haven't seen it doesn't mean its not there. To use a slightly less fantastic example: Herman Melville was convinced that the "Blue Whale" was a myth, and that the sperm whale was undoubtedly the largest creature on earth. He had never seen a blue whale. Many scientists of his day agreed with him. Yet blue whales do exist. Likewise, logically, scientifically, the fact that I have never seen an elf does not mean that they aren't here. Even if there was absolutely no evidence for the existence of elves, it is not logically possible to rule out the existence completely.

As for God, the same applies. Even if there were no evidence whatsoever for the existence of God, the basic rules of logic say that it is not possible to rule out his existence completely. But there is evidence for God's existence. People may debate the interpretation or the validity of that evidence, but it does exist. The testamony of multitudes beyond counting is evidence. The existence of this world is evidence. The concepts of good and evil, and the fact that human beings understand them, are evidence. There is evidence scattered throughout the universe.

I can accept that this evidence is unconvincing to some people. I can accept agnosticism as a philosophical position. I happen to think that it is an intellectually cowardly position, but I believe it. But atheism is simply not tenable. To say with certainty that no God exists displays either arrogance or ignorance.

And I just don't buy it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Hybrids, Mongrels and Half-Breeds: Racism in Language

Language carries with it more complexity than many of its speaker are consciously aware of. Those who have devoted themselves to a scholarly study of English are, it may be hoped, more conscious of this than most, but even so tend to underestimate the depth of meaning and the varied emotional associations with the words we use.
We cannot simply accept the term “hybrid” to refer to human beings without some acknowledgement of the history and what we may call the emotional baggage of the word.

Thomas Huxley preferred the term “mongrel” to “hybrid” because he believed that hybrid implied a cross of two different species, but that mongrel was more accurate to refer to mixed types of a single species. In light of the history of the polygenist/monogenist debate on human origins we would perhaps do well to avoid using terms which imply a specific difference among humans. However, to us, “mongrel” is a far more offensive term than “hybrid”, since it firstly is now used almost exclusively to describe dogs and secondly is associated with an idea of unknown, unknowable and therefore somehow disreputable heritage.

It is significant that the second of these negative associations with the term “mongrel” itself reveals some assumed value judgements. Darwin’s legacy is, in part, a conviction of the importance of “good breeding”, and a belief that unknown or unreliable ancestry is itself a negative commentary on a person. In Annette, the Métis Spy, Joseph Collins, describing Little Poplar, comments offhand that he “would not have a dog unless [he] was sure about his pedigree” (Collins, 109). This attitude toward breeding and its application in a description of a human being’s worth is a legacy of Darwin which still remains for us today.
To return to the idea of language and its implied meanings, consider the use of language and the value judgements implicit within the words used to describe racial categories. In Annette, Collins employs a kind of animal nomenclature to the native population, which was common in his time and continues to present itself today.

Terms like “brave” and particularly “squaw”, while within their literal etymology carry no negative connotations (just as “wench” simply means woman, and even “nigger” just comes from the Spanish for “black”) carry associations based on the way they are used. Squaw comes almost directly from the Algonquin word for “woman”, yet as it is used by Collins it carries a particular meaning. “Squaw” is used as “cow” or “sow” or “hen”, it is an animal nomenclature that fundamentally reinforces the otherness and ultimately the inhumanity of native peoples. The native women are not called “women”, because the word “woman” means “white woman”.

The term “half-breed” —used almost exclusively to refer to the Métis in Annette— also carries with it to us —and almost certainly to Collins— a whole series of value judgements. In zoological nomenclature, a breed is a subspecies with viably distinct population. Referring to the Métis as “half-breed” implies that the decomposition thesis (as advanced by Edwards, Thierry, Arnold, Nott and Gliddon) is accurate—that “French” and “Indian” are permanent races, but that the mix of these two races is destined to eventually die out or revert back to one of the original sources. “Half-breed”, as a term, denies any permanence to the Métis.

Language isn't neutral, and it absorbs the associations we bring to it. So words for groups we distain in society come to be insulting words, and are eventually deemed inappropriate for their original use (words like "dumb" and "retard") for example. The problem, then, is twofold. First we must use words that do not carry implied mockery or condemnation, and secondly we must not attach mockery or condemnation to the new words we use.

And in relation to the issue currently at hand, I still wonder. Is my course on "hybridity" poorly named?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Hybridity and Darwin

Conventional wisdom tends to be that Charles Darwin was a clearsighted scientist who overcame the superstitious prejudices of Fundamentalist Creationists. But there were some pretty good reasons why many Christians disliked Darwin and his theories, and history has shown that some bad things have come from Darwinism. But more on that later.

In this post I gave some history of hybridity and European approaches to the idea of human race and how that relates to the definition species.

The central issue between polygenists, who argued that human races were in fact different species with different origins and monogenists, who argued that human races were all a single species with a single origin, became the definition of species. The traditional definition of a species was a group that produced fertile offspring.

Charles Darwin changed that, and one of the results of his theories was to eventually end the polgenist/monogenist debate. Darwin argued that the definition of species was a permiable and mutable. He gave examples of plants and animals traditionally classified as different species which nevertheless produced fertile offspring. It is crucial to Darwin's theory that animals can in fact, through generations, produce a new species. Darwin argued that the polygenist/monogenist argument was insoluble, but essentially irrelevant, since whether different ethnic human groups were classified as species or varieties or races, there was no essential difference between them.

Darwin did, however, beleive that eventually the "lower" forms of man would become extinct, saying that "when civilised nations come into contact wiht barbarians the struggle is short".

Through all this time, the strongest opponant to a polygenist theory of human origins was a Biblical one, the Biblical account of the creation of man (ie Adam and Eve) was (and is) clearly monogenist, and in undermining a Biblical account of creation, Darwinism also undermined a thoery of human racial and ethnic differences that asserted a single origin of human races.

After Darwin, many people chose one of two positions to support their racism: either Darwin's own position that humans shared a common ancestor, and whites were the furthest evolved, while blacks were least removed from apes, or the position that despite their ability to produce fertile offspring this was not sufficient to prove a specific unity (and there was no particular reason under Darwinism why all human being should necessarily gave a common ancestry). Darwin's theories lent scientific credibilty to both of these perspectives.

Darwin did effectively end the debate of poly/monogenists, but only by sidestepping the issue. Eugenics and Nazi race policies were a direct result of Darwinism, and a logical extension of his ideas.

A literal Biblical worldview, carried out with integrity to its completion leaves no room for racism, while Darwinism carried out with integrity to its completion necessitates an idea of racial superiority, as well as all the other evils of eugenics.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Storage Space

The human brain is like a computer. This is not a new insight.

We have long-term memory storage and short-term memory storage, and removable memory storage.

Since the development of writing, much of our information is stored in books, but even before this, the oral tradition functioned as a sort of removable storage. Information was stored inside the heads of poets. The tradition of storing information inside the heads of other people didn't end with the development of literature. To paraphrase my former professor Paul Dyck, new technology doesn't replace old technology, it just makes things more complicated.

I, for example, store a good deal of information inside Jan's brain. Things like what time do we have to be there, and how do we get there, and even what episode of Buffy is that from. And Jan, in exchange, stores information in my head. I ... can't think of what exactly, but I'm sure she does.


The term "hybridity", where it relates to race relations, is a very shaky one.

As some of you may be aware (but until this week I was not) as recently as 1974 there existed a debate as to the natural history of humanity and the origins of race. Simply put, it was suggested that different races were actually different species. Eighteenth century Europeans, when making a hierarchical scale of the animal kingdom separated different races as different species (and predictably placed themselves at the top). There was even some discussion as to whether Africans should be catogorized as being a species of ape.

Hopefully this is absurd enough to be surprising to most of us. The debate between monogenists and polygenists has, as Darwin predicted "die[d] a silent and unobserved death". Yet it did not do so before the end of this century.

"Hybrid", as a word, has a long and complex history. Originally a latin term for the offspring of a wild boar and a tame sow, for most of its history in English it has meant a mix of two different species. The 1828 Webster definition of hybrid was "an animal or plant produced from the mixing of two species". The use of the term hybrid to refer to humans, then, was originally a support of the idea that different races were in fact different species.

Thomas Huxley argued that instead of "hybrid", mixed-race humans should be called "mongrels", since "'mongrels' ... are crosses between distinct races, and 'hybrids' ... are crosses between distinct species." But "mongrel" to us (and frankly, probably to Huxley) has such a strong association with dogs, and such a connotation of unknown and unreputable breeding—as a word it is so loaded with value judgement—that it is a much too insulting term to apply to human beings.

What gradually became significant was the definition of "species". For many, the definition of a species was a group that produced fertile offspring. A mule is infertile, and thus we know that a horse and a donkey, despite their similarities, are indeed different species. So the question was asked, can the races of humanity produce fertile children?

To my modern eyes, this seems an absolutely absurd question, but it was in fact debated with seriousness. Some, like Edward Long attempted the evidentially indefinsable position that different races could not, in fact, produce fertile offspring. Some, like Charles White, denied that fertile offspring was the best definition of species.

Next, Darwin attempts to shed some light on the subject.

Call for Comments

For one of my classes this semester, I have to produce a few short response papers on readings about "hybridity". The course in called "Hybridity and the Literary Imagination", and it focuses on mixed race, mixed culture and mixed languages. The most familiar example of this in Canada is the Metis. The course focues on literature by and about all kinds of neither-one-nor-the-other situations, racial, cultural or linguistic.

I propose to write my first thoughts for this course on this blog. I want to use this blog as something of a sounding board. And that will work best if I get a lot of comments, pointing out flaws in my reasoning, holes in my logic and occasionally points I've made well.

Of course, I always like comments anyway, but when my post concerns "hybridity", I hope the comments will be many.

That is all.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

God and Ethics

Periodically, Elliot posts a link to one of the dozens of blogs he reads. To be honest, I usually ignore him.

But sometimes I follow those links. And sometimes I find that the blogger he's linked to is eminently worth reading. So I've been reading Real Live Preacher lately, and I sporadically check in on a few of the other people linked in Elliot's sidebar.

And very recently I've been reading Eve. For those who don't know, Eve is a Catholic and a lesbian who has chosen to be celibate as her way of reconciling her sexuality with her Catholicism. And I like Eve's post here enough that I think I'm going to add her to my sidebar.

Here's a excerpt (with bold added by me):

In order to figure out if something is okay to do, you can't just ask whether people who seem like good upstanding citizens (according to some culture or subculture's definition of "good"!) want to do it. I mean... I know a lot of good upstanding citizens who wouldn't bat an eye if somebody shoved bamboo sticks up Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's fingernails. Doesn't make it right to do. Culture can't be the final word on moral truth; nor can individual inclination be the final word. This actually strikes me as one of the stronger arguments that if there is a distinction between right and wrong, it requires a Creator God.

I think she's dead-on.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

You Decide

I need to choose between two classes.

At first, I planned to list pros and cons, but I will let you my gentle readers decide what is a pro and what is a con.

Medieval Lit: Heroes and Heroines

  • The prof is hilarious
  • The prof is excellent (he won a prestegious teaching award this year)
  • I really like Medieval lit
  • I get to read Beowulf
  • I get to read the Dream of the Rood
  • I get to read Gawaine and the Green Knight
  • I've already studied medieval literature, and have previously read many of the required readings
  • It means my Tuesdays and Thursdays are pretty much solid class from 11:30 until 3:45
  • The Memoir

  • I've never taken a course on the memoir, and all of the readings are new to me
  • The readings look really good
  • I get to read Maus II
  • I get to read Miriam Toews' memoir of her father
  • I have another course with the same prof
  • It will be more of a discussion course than the other one
  • It means my Fridays are hell, solid class from 9:30 until 3:20.
  • First Day

    Today I had my first offical day as a graduate student. Some highlights:

    My American Lit. Prof: "Don't plagiarize. It's not worth it. It's not worth it. Seriously, it's not worth it. It's... it's just not worth it. You'll get caught, and it's not worth it."

    My Medieval Lit. Prof (who speaks with an English accent but is from New Jersey): "You must recongnize the excerpt, so for example if on your exam there is the excerpt 'ALAS!', you will have to tell me where it is from, and who said it..."

    Party for new grad. students, with free wine!

    There was a debate, and I sided with a Medievalist against a Victorian.

    I talked to a woman who's doing her Ph.d on "Japanese animation and cross-cultural influences". Her favourite author is Neil Gaiman. I like these people.

    I have an owie

    I got stung by a wasp on the tip of my finger.

    Tuesday, September 05, 2006

    Stream of Consciousness

    Had lunch at CMU today with Steph, Kinsey and Amanda.

    It was great seeing Steph again (and K+A, who I don't see nearly as much as I should—considering we live in the same city). She lives in Ontario, and was in Winnipeg very briefly for a working retreat with the MB conference of Canada, for whom she works about quarter time.

    What we really need is for her other job to have a conference in Winnipeg. That way she and Laura could BOTH come. And they should stay longer.

    Oh well, a lunch was better than nothing.

    It sucks that so many of my friends are now scattered to the four winds, and that I sincerely suck at keeping in touch (see above, re: Kinsey and Amanda). To my friends who don't live in Winnipeg: I miss you all and hope to see you all soon.

    Jan and I will be in Niagara for Christmas, so perhaps we can manage to see some Ontarians then.

    Paul out.

    Friday, September 01, 2006


    Perelandra, it seems is a sickly sickly cat. Currently, she is suffering from the sniffles.

    One of her eyes is watery, and she is sneezing a lot.

    According to our dear and glorious leader Google this could be a hereditary disease involving a misformed tear duct, or it could be glaucoma, or it could be an alergy (to food, or to us, or to her own fur). Or it could just be a cold.

    We've decided to wait and see if she gets better all by herself.

    In the mean time, she is much more affectionate and cuddly than usual. Like any of us, she wants to be held and loved when she is sick. She snuggles up to me when I am sitting down, but instead of trying to play fetch or headbutt me, she just curls up and cuddles. It's actually rather nice. Maybe we should always keep her sick.