Archive for the ‘Life Musings’ Category

Animalia Commonalis: Truth, Suffering and Ethics

April 19, 2020

All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them. (Galileo Galilei)

Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth. (Buddha)

The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable. (James A. Garfield)

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident. (Arthur Schopenhauer)

Why do we want so desperately to know whether there is life elsewhere in the Universe when we treat so much human and non-human life on this planet with such disdain?

blue turtles on brown sand

Photo by Jolo Diaz on Pexels.com

I’ve written briefly here about what makes homo sapiens special.

We know that species other than ours exhibit some of these qualities:

  • Problem solving
  • Sophisticated memory
  • Ability to plan
  • Tool use
  • Culture
  • Ability to act contrary to instinctive behaviour
  • Belief in gods of one sort or another

As far as we know, the last item on the list is unique to us. This could mean either that there are gods of some kind or that we have a tendency to mistake certain types of patterns for gods.

What of the second to last? We are not purely instinctive creatures. Without that, we would never have developed Science, mathematics, technology.

But there exist humans with a severe mental handicap who cannot participate in anything approaching the “lofty intellectual heights”. Neither can young children.

For children, this is only transient you say. Rightly so. Children mature.

Not so for someone with a severe mental handicap.

Perhaps questions like “what makes us special?” or “what sets us apart from other animals?” are less than useful.

Perhaps it would be better to ask instead: What do we have in common?

Animalia Commonalis popped into my head when I was writing this post. By this latin-sounding (but not real) phrase, I was trying to capture this idea: The Commonality of Animals.

Of course, there’s a continuum of complexity of animal life starting from self-replicating molecules (RNA, DNA), to viruses, bacteria, fungi, insects, reptiles, fish, birds, and mammals like us.

Just limiting ourselves to mammals, all have:

  • A common body plan. Animals as diverse as whales and bats share the same basic skeletal structure and organs.
  • An apparent desire, or at least a strong instinct, to care for their young.
  • The ability to feel pain, to suffer.

The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being? (Jeremy Bentham 1789, in An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation)

Bentham said this more than 200 years ago!

Where on this continuum from viruses to us does the ability to suffer begin? Dogs don’t pass the mirror test whereas pigs do, but few would say that a dog cannot suffer.

Do bees feel pain or is the avoidance of harmful stimuli purely mechanical with no pain response? It seems that no-one really knows the answer yet.

I’ll be honest and say that right now I’m more concerned about dealing with the more obvious and well-documented suffering of mammals, birds, and fish by our hand. The “low hanging fruit”. Even choosing not to consume one of these groups is a big win at this point. The jury is still out for me regarding insects.

Think occasionally of the suffering of which you spare yourself the sight. (Albert Schweitzer)
Whether starting from the idea that not consuming animal products may be healthier for us, from worrying about the environment and sustainability, or from a concern for the welfare of animals other than ourselves, one can eventually be led to the realisation that what we once did only to people taken out of Africa to America and to other “civilised” countries, we are now doing to other species, but worse.

The time will come when men such as I will look upon the murder of animals as they now look on the murder of men. (Leonardo da Vinci)

Speciesism is just a generalisation of racism beyond the borders of homo sapiens.

In my view, along with Climate Change, Speciesism is the defining issue of our time, and we will be judged by future generations on how we responded to both.

But whereas Climate Change is an existential crisis, Speciesism could be thought of as a battle for the collective “soul” of homo sapiens.

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated. (Mahatma Ghandi)

On Being Special

January 19, 2020
sunset person love people
source: Josh Willink (pixels.com)

I’ve had some conversations in recent times that have ended in disagreement over the question of whether members of homo sapiens are more important or special than members of other animal species.

But what do we mean by special?

Relationships with other beings, human or non-human, make the participants special to one another.

Particular things about us make us special, e.g. tool use, intelligence, culture.

The holy books of some religions and other ideological traditions often claim that humans are special, perhaps even chosen in some way.

It’s important to distinguish between these different types of special-ness.

The first type is subjective and derives from a shared history, an emotional bond. For some people, the death of an animal can be as devastating as the loss of a relative or human friend to someone else. There’s no right or wrong in that. It just is.

The second type can be tested; other species use tools, have high intelligence and some may even have their own kind of culture (e.g. humpback whales).

Although a person of faith is unlikely to agree with this, the third type must be supported by evidence, and since, as Carl Sagan reminds us, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, this is a difficult requirement to meet.

Humans are meaning creators. Relationships are central to being human and meaning is often created in relationship with others; not always, but very often; some do choose to find meaning in solitude.

My father’s health was in decline late last year and more rapidly before my eyes in the first week of 2020. However, his death on January 7 2020 has not changed my view of the special-ness of homo sapiens relative to other species.

Dad was special to me because he was, well, my father. We had an emotional connection, a shared biological and social history, a relationship spanning more than 5 decades. I am in the process of mourning his loss. This does not necessarily imply that we or members of homo sapiens in general are special in any other sense.

We are free to choose who to become. If we are special in any sense, it is due to the responsibility we have to accept the human condition and to leave the world better than we found it, irrespective of the fact that we will not be around to see our legacy.

…but what is not possible is not to choose…if I do not choose, that is still a choice. (Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism)

A Eulogy (for Dad)

January 19, 2020

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I gave a eulogy at my Dad’s funeral six days ago. Before the transcript of the eulogy below, I want to make some preliminary background remarks.

My father, Kelvin Benn, was born on May 14 1931 and died on January 7 2020 after recurrent bouts of pneumonia. He had emphysema and a rare blood cancer that a small fraction of patients with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma present with.

After the usual indignities of being a hospital patient, falls in and out of hospital, being on oxygen, and having intra-venous antibiotics a couple of times, Dad began eating less and became increasingly unwilling to take medications. The intention was still to try to get him well enough to be able to leave hospital and go into a nursing home. The reality is that he had lost the will to live by late 2019 and certainly by early 2020.

I spent time with Dad in hospital from January 1 to January 6. We said our goodbyes. I felt there was a good chance I would never see him again. I returned home, uncertain of his future, intending to return again soon. My wife, kids and I had a few days planned in Melbourne from January 8. I thought that if Dad’s condition deteriorated I would at least be able to get back to him (in Tasmania) at short notice. He died late in the afternoon of January 7…

My mother died in 2002 after failed heart valve replacement surgery. Dad married again in 2006. Dawn (dad’s wife) gave a eulogy followed in turn by my sister Julie and I. In the last part of the eulogy, Julie and I took turns reading short extracts from a few of my father’s short funeral sermons that resonated with both of us.

What comes through from these extracts is a focus on relationships, a requirement for personal responsibility, freedom and the necessity of choice, a consideration of the consequences of our actions, and a mandate to do good whenever possible. This resonated with my sister and I and aligns with my own philosophical position, derived from existentialism and consequentialist ethics.

It also gives me some hope for the future of our species that an atheist and a Christian can agree on so much.

What follows is the eulogy I gave at Dad’s funeral on January 13 at Pilgrim Uniting Church in Launceston. My theme was commonality, something we desperately need to focus more on if we are collectively to survive the decades to come.


It’s easy to focus on the differences between people. Dad and I were different in many ways. But we also had a lot in common.

We were both in The St John Ambulance Brigade from an early age, attending sporting and other community events as first aiders, and both becoming cadet sergeants.

Along with the anchor tattoo, Dad also had the S-J-A-B tattoo to prove it!

We both studied at theological college, and enjoyed having philosophical discussions.

We both took our work seriously.

Further to Julie’s comments, Dad often used to say that rights come with responsibilities. As a teenager, mostly I would just internally groan at that…

However, I’ve found myself increasingly saying this sort of thing in recent years to my kids and others, along with: “That music is too loud!”

Then one day, I realised that I had become my father. 🙂

Something I also remember as a young teenager was that if I was ever rude to my mother, out would come the belt!

Of course, those occurrences were few and far between! 😉

Dad’s work as a Uniting Church minister kept him well occupied and, as Julie noted, when he wasn’t out preaching or providing pastoral care, he was often up working late in his office, especially on Saturdays, preparing the sermon for the following day.

Even after retirement, Dawn can probably relate to Dad not straying far from the office for long periods!

Some of my favourite memories of Dad are from beach holidays in the seventies, the two of us body surfing or snorkelling.

As Julie also noted, holidays like those at Port Hughes were good times too, even if my first jetty catch was a puffer fish!

Another fond memory is from 1998, when Dad and I stayed up until the wee hours in Mallala watching a meteor shower as the Earth ploughed through the debris left by a comet.

Dad had a good sense of humour.

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In an email to me in 2016 he said:

“I have a few things I want to share with my GP …  Will let you know if he thinks I may not live to be 100 after all!!”

When he was in hospital recently, a measure of his wellness was the frequency of his witty remarks.

Dad gave a Probus club talk in 2015 titled “Strange Things that Happen at Funerals”. In one anecdote from that talk he says:

One day the undertaker picked me up to conduct a funeral for a man he knew, so I asked him to tell me something about him. “What was he like,” I asked. His answer stunned me: “This is the first decent thing he has done in his life,” I was told. “What about his family,” I asked. “They are all the same”, he replied. So, I thought I had better used the old, sterner burial service. Afterwards the family came up to me and said, “Lovely service, Father.” It just goes to show that you can never tell how people are going to react.

Like many fathers and sons, Dad and I had our disagreements and at times we hurt each other with words.

However, in a 2015 email exchange, in which we had disagreed on matters of belief, he said:

“Unless we are willing to be open to change, our thinking can only become stagnant. The older we get the more we realise how little we really know…or we have wasted a life. It has been a great blessing that we have always been able to be open and honest with one another.”

I’m sure there are times we could have been even more honest and open, but the point is to intend to do better.

I don’t think it would be a misrepresentation to say that Dad emphasised the social justice and pastoral care aspects of his faith.

He genuinely cared about people. The idea that “God is Love” became more important to Dad as time passed.

Julie’s daughter, Kate, recently found some of the funeral sermons Dad wrote. It seems appropriate to finish by reading some excerpts that resonated with both of us. At a time when so much of the world is divided, Dad’s words seem especially relevant.

“In our troubled world today we are witnessing what happens when over zealous people force their misguided views on others… We need to be aware of each other’s differences so that we will not make the fatal mistake of believing that we are right and God is on our side.

We come into this world and pass through it, leaving it either a happier & better place or a sadder & sorrier place. The choice is ours and so are the consequences of our choice.

Nobody else can live our life for us and nobody else can be held responsible for the way we live it. Freedom to choose & responsibility for actions are the two sides of the same coin.

Life is all about relationships and building relationships makes demands on us. Good relationships are costly. We are all far from perfect but we should always be striving to be better than we are.

As we think about somebody else’s death we cannot help thinking about our own life, and our accountability…to help people to become more loving, more forgiving, more compassionate, more honest, more understanding and more tolerant, more in tune with… one another.”

Thank you Dad for your life of service to others.

Dark horse

October 19, 2019

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source: ABC (https://ab.co/35R72OW)

This week we learned of the many Australian race horses every year being slaughtered for pet food, supplied as food for greyhound racing industry dogs, or exported overseas for human consumption.

The ABC 7:30 Report’s 45 minute story is heartbreaking to watch. Some scenes are reminiscent of documentaries such as Dominion or Earthlings.

Undercover video aired by ABC combined with branding on the horses and access to official databases provides damning evidence of a system out of control.

However, the language used by racing officials to describe the horses as property provides an insight into the mindset that gives rise to this behaviour.

As I sit here in a food court, a television screen shows a horse race underway…

…and the Melbourne Cup is only a couple of weeks away.

How many animals will be injured and euthanised trackside or considered no longer useful to punters and sold off to be discarded via an abattoir, despite years of training and thousands of dollars of winnings?

But it’s not only elite horses that deserve a better end.

Untold numbers of ordinary, gentle creatures not only meet an early end in abattoirs but often live their short lives in confined squalor.

That’s speciesism in action.

African Swine Fever: with a whimper…

October 15, 2019

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.

(T.S. Elliot)

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source: https://ab.co/2IQVbpS

ABC News today reports that a woman has been deported back to Vietnam for trying to bring 4.6 kg of uncooked pork into Australia via Sydney airport.

Sigh. Apparently some people don’t read the news. Or just don’t care…

The Australian Pork Chief Executive Margo Andrae is quoted as saying:

“I’m outraged that someone thinks they can bring 10 kilos [sic] of pork products in their suitcases and not declare it and risk our entire $5.3-billion industry.”

Sure. Outraged, yes.

But again, the talk is all about risk to the industry, not about the consequences for the millions of gentle creatures who may be exterminated in the process.

Imagine if we treated the human carriers of infectious diseases the way we treat livestock who may not even yet have been infected, let alone those who have.

That’s speciesism in action.

African Swine Fever: two little things…

October 10, 2019
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source: https://ab.co/339veJU (ABC)

In most commentary about the current African Swine Flu outbreaks in 50 countries, we tend to hear is this kind of thing:

  • it has been reported in around 50 countries;
  • it has a high (80% to100%) mortality rate in pigs but does not affect humans;
  • there is currently no vaccine;
  • it’s expected that 25% of the world’s pigs will be wiped out by the end of 2019;
  • it’s currently several hundred km from Australian shores in Timor Leste;
  • pork prices are increasing;
  • farmers would be compensated if they had to kill all their pigs in the event of an outbreak.

From ABC News:

African swine fever is spread when pigs come into contact with contaminated pigs, pork products, feed, ticks, and infected material such as syringes.

The disease can be found in pork products even if they’ve been cooked or frozen.

It can also be transmitted via humans wearing contaminated clothing and boots into an area where uninfected pigs are kept, resulting in infection.

and

“There’s no vaccine, there’s no cure, if my farm was to get it, all my pigs would be destroyed”

What’s interesting is what is we don’t hear much about.

We don’t hear much talk about the likelihood of the disease mutating in pig populations such that it crosses over into our species. Perhaps swift pig population destruction is a reason not to worry about mutation. Perhaps the virus genome is just too stable. But is it wise to be complacent?

Such is our hubris.

We also don’t hear much about the tragedy of the pigs who are “culled” or “destroyed”.

That’s a sign of our speciesism.

Why do we want so badly to know whether there is life elsewhere in the Universe when we treat so much (human and non-human) life on Earth with such disdain?

Wombat stoning and other insults

October 7, 2019
11572152-3x2-940x627source: https://ab.co/2LQ8ysw (ABC)

A South Australian Aboriginal elder recently defended the killing of wombats by throwing rocks at them until they die (aka stoning) as a “cultural practice” used to obtain food…

…in the 21st century…

He was cited by the ABC as saying that:

This has been part of our culture and the way we’ve gone about it for thousands of years.

Hmm…

Stoning is an ancient tradition for adultery in Judaeo-Christian cultures, and still is in some Muslim majority countries…

…and how many of us in western democracies (whatever they are now) consider that to be a Good Thing?

On the flip side, killing animals without first stunning them is yet another tradition in some religious cultures…

…and in case you were wondering: no, I don’t think throwing rocks would count as a method of stunning.

Generally, when I hear “tradition”, I translate it in my head as “the way we’ve always done things around here” or simply, “just because we want to”.

Tradition can be harmless and even fun.

But, when your “tradition” is combined with careless treatment of sentient animals or the environment, other than making me angry, you should also imagine me sticking my fingers in my ears and uttering:

la la la la la la la la la la…

When you’re ready for a civilised conversation, let me know. Maybe then you can join the United Federation of Planets, er, People.

Until then, don’t bother me with your “it’s tradition” nonsense.

And please, please, please don’t expect me to respect your harmful tradition.

Postscript: Since I first wrote this, another aboriginal elder has spoken out to condemn the action and a 10 daily article claims that this “…has sparked a national debate on what’s culture and what’s cruelty.” While debate is always healthy, is there really anything much to debate here?

“Divine” Hitch

September 30, 2019

There are often moments when I desire inspiration from Christopher Hitchens, one of the most eloquent public intellectuals of our time.

I watched this interview tonight, recorded after his diagnosis with oesophageal cancer. It came from a slightly surprising (at least to me) source, but I found it to be rewarding and classically Hitch:

500 visual variable star observations

June 11, 2019

Last night’s binocular observation of eta Carinae was my 500th visual observation submission to the AAVSO International Database (AID).

eta Car BDJB 2019

An extremely modest number really, compared with other observers over a similar timeframe.

But still, somehow a nice milestone.

500th

I’ve also submitted more than 100 DSLR photometry observations to AID. Again, not many in comparative terms.

eta Car LC BV

The light curve shows the last ten years of visual and B band data along with the 169 (in purple) visual and DSLR eta Carinae observations I’ve made during that time. The red trend line shows the steady rise in eta Carinae’s brightness that has been going on for decades now.

Between VStar, work, and life in general, I don’t get a lot of time to observe these days, but I try to make each observation count.

For anyone following Strange Quarks, you will have noticed my preoccupation with other things in recent months.

Indeed, my last variable star blog post was regarding a southern nova  in March 2018.

This pre-occupation is taking its toll in various ways on me and those around me.

Vegan Activists: you’re doing it completely wrong

April 16, 2019
The sleep of reason brings forth monsters. (Francisco Goya)

Although written for Canberra, the Australian National Capital Right to Protest Guidelines say this:

Our democracy recognises this right which is subject to the general law and must be balanced against the rights and interests of others and of the community as a whole.

Of paramount importance are the protection of public safety, the maintenance of peace and the facilitation of fair and equal access to public areas.

Recent protests by vegans in Victoria, NSW, and Queensland were the opposite of this, certainly compared to the well-organised and anticipated Climate Change school strikes held around Australia or the rally against live export.

You’re frustrated. You feel a sense of urgency. You’re impatient.

But as The Conversation said last week, vegan activists: you’re getting it wrong.

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Credit: Ellen Smith/AAP, source: The Conversation

If you wanted to confuse the message with the medium, you’ve done it.

Pissing people off is not the answer.

Invading people’s privacy is not the answer. Would you tolerate that in reverse?

Those who said they had a burger instead of a salad for lunch that day in “retribution” for your action were just being inflammatory too.

But then, why do we expect others to be kind to us if we don’t lead with kindness and consideration?

I resisted using the term “vegan” for a long time because of negative stereotypes and an expectation of perfect compliance, preferring to say “I’m taking a plant-based approach”. I still like that better, even if it is more awkward.

Of course, the questionable actions of one group of humans is independent of what’s true or false in the world.

So, you want people to watch Dominion?

No-one really should want anyone to watch Dominion, even though I think its message is important.

Earthlings and later Dominion horrified and upset me. There are plenty more to choose from, including the Land of Hope and GloryCowspiracy, and What the Health?

Some people will respond to direct action or documentaries.

Others will be completely turned off by in-your-face approaches.

Some may prefer to read more matter-of-fact resources like those of the RSPCA or books like The Ethics of What we Eat.

Others will prefer a combination or none of the above.

I have a certain sympathy for the cube of truth, but even there I have concerns.

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Source: http://tiny.cc/amj64y

I’ve spoken with activists in Adelaide’s Rundle Mall.

You’ve all seemed like nice people.

But sometimes, I hear you use phrases like “convert to veganism”.

The temptation to adopt that attitude must be strongly resisted.

You shouldn’t be trying to convert anyone to anything. That way lies dogma and an analog of religious zealotry.

Sure, engage people in conversation, encourage people to think about what they believe to be true about the world, cast doubt on the validity of traditions and long-held beliefs.

That’s just plain old skepticism and the aim of movements like street epistemology.

It’s not up to you — or anyone — to tell people what to think or how to live.

Above all, show compassion for the people you engage with (people are animals too), as well as the non-human animals you are trying to save, a path I have not always trod well.

I’ve chosen to try to eliminate the use of animal products. I feel compelled to.

Others choose to reduce the use of animal products in various ways.

It all helps.

Doing nothing is less tenable the further down the track we go.

I thought it was interesting that Grill’d had their first Meat Free Monday not long after the vegan protests. Voting with our wallets may ultimately be more effective than direct protest.

Honestly though, I’d rather not write about this stuff at all, but I still feel the need to get it off my chest. I’ve written more here.

I’d rather be writing about the recent amazing black hole image, variable stars, computing history, even the evils of religion. But this topic still occupies me.

In general, I’d just like to get on with trying to live a meaningful, enjoyable life.

Finally, as I’ve suggested in several other posts, to gain some perspective, watch Pale Blue Dot. Or watch it again if it’s been awhile, as I do.