Freeing our minds from the slavery of the verb ‘to be’

Originally I intended to call this essay ‘Why e-prime is such a great idea’. Then I realised that conflicted with one of my aims for the essay – to write the whole thing in e-prime.

A man named David Bourland invented the notion of e-prime as a means of making language easier to understand. E-prime differs from English in only one respect – that it omits all use of the verb ‘to be’ and its synonyms like ‘to exist’. In e-prime one can mention those verbs by putting them, either stand-alone or as part of a phrase, in quotation marks. A mention, as opposed to a use, quotes something from a foreign language – in this case English. So please don’t write me remonstrative letters about my using the forbidden verbs inside quotes. I didn’t use it. I mentioned it.

I discussed e-prime in my 2014 essay ‘On language and meaning’. In this new essay I aim to further explore the capabilities, benefits and limitations of e-prime, and to take up the challenge of writing a whole essay in that language. I will have to cover some old ground again. But I aim to make most of it new.

Why bother?

First, let’s ask: ‘why bother?’ It sounds like a lot of trouble to take over an apparent triviality. We might also fear that avoiding that verb would make language too difficult to use, given the depth of its embedding and integration into our language. It crops up almost everywhere. One might as well try to ban using the letter ‘e’.

In the next paragraph I will suggest reasons for bothering, but first I want to say that most uses of the verb create no trouble at all. When my beloved partner calls out from the other end of the house ‘Are you there Andrew?’, I know she means ‘Can you hear me, and if so can you please let me know’. If I reply “I’m in the garden”, she knows I mean that I can hear her, that she can find me in the garden if she wants to talk to me, or she can call out again and I could come to see her, if wanted.

Compare the simple clarity of that exchange, expressed in either English or e-Prime, with the verse 3:14 of the book of Exodus “And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM”. Nobody knows what that means. Pragmatists like me say it means nothing. But that has not stopped theologians like St Thomas Aquinas from writing hundreds of thousands of words of dense (and in my opinion, meaningless) prose trying to explain what that sort of thing means. The same thing happens when they try to explain that the consecrated wafer “IS the body of Christ” and that “God IS the Father and God IS the Son but the Father IS NOT the Son”.

This sort of nonsense doesn’t only come from Christians, Jews or Muslims. The Vedanta school of Hinduism, with which I feel great affinity, says that “We ARE all God (Brahman)” and “This world IS Brahman’s dream”. Buddhism, with which I also fellow-travel, says “There IS no persisting self”. One can criticise the opacity of these statements as fairly as those of the previous paragraph. I think I could possibly translate the latter two into e-Prime, and thereby render them more intelligible, but I’d need another essay for that.

The other day, while idling time away on the internet, I could not stop myself reading the entirety of a blazing row between two strangers on a philosophy discussion forum about a statement by the twentieth-century mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti that “The observer IS the observed”. I find some of Krishnamurti’s writing helpful and wise, but I confess I have no idea what he meant by that one. Yet those two internet users thought it worth their while to insult and berate one another, despite never having met, for page after page because they had different interpretations of Krishnamurti’s meaning.

Even Bertrand Russell, who generally took a pragmatic approach, and has the respect of most philosophers and many others, sometimes used the verb in obscure ways. He wrote an essay entitled “It Seems, Madam?? Nay it IS”. Hamlet first uttered that phrase, to his mother. We can translate it as “It may merely SEEM to you, Mum, that I constantly feel miserable, but I can assure you that I really DO constantly feel miserable”.

Russell’s essay sought to attack the Idealist philosophy, which to some extent denied the difference between “appearance” and “reality”. Russell wanted to say that some things that ‘seem to be the case’, really ‘ARE the case’, for instance that “Edinburgh REALLY IS North of London”. But unlike Hamlet’s use of ‘it is’, I don’t think Russell or anyone else can explain his use of ‘REALLY IS’ in that Edinburgh sentence, and I find myself wondering confusedly what he meant. When confronted with such statements, I always ask myself, “How would a world where that ‘REALLY IS’ the case differ from one where it ‘only’ seems that way to anybody that ever attempted to find out, in the past present or future?” We can only answer “It would not differ in any way that we can understand, or that means anything to us”.

By the way, whether there ‘is’ a difference between appearances (or experiences) and ‘reality’ generates numerous ferocious debates amongst philosophers. People have destroyed friendships, lost families and fortunes over this meaningless question. One might view it as the modern-day version of Aquinas debating whether two angels can occupy the same space.

The disease of misused ‘is’ extends beyond philosophy and religion. Even the smallest children suffer from it. Consider the difference between ‘You are behaving like a jerk’ and ‘You ARE a jerk’. The first can serve as a loving remonstrance, and an encouragement to behave more sweetly. The other condemns the person for life. Even a three year-old, unacquainted with big words like ‘behave’, understands the difference between ‘You smell of poo’ and ‘You ARE a poo’.

Or in morals and law: ‘You have done an evil thing’ condemns strongly, but ‘You are evil’ condemns for life, with no hope of rehabilitation. Once they elect me king, I will forbid judges from pronouncing character judgements on convicted felons in their sentencing speeches. They may only pronounce judgement on the actions of the convicted felon.

In short, I claim that eschewing at least some uses of ‘to be’ can bring psychological benefits as well as benefits in clarity and morality. I also suggest that, when you read a sentence you do not understand, it might help to search it for obscure uses of that verb. If you can find one, perhaps you will discover that all the trouble stems from it, and conclude that the problem of understanding lies not with you but with the writer.

I hope that convinces you to least consider the potential benefits of reducing one’s use of the verb. As to the other obstacle I identified above – of the potential difficulty of training oneself away from an habitual use of the verb – listen to some of a three-part interview from 1997 with David Bourland himself, saved here on Youtube. I have not yet listened to all of it. But I listened to several minutes and it delighted me to realise that he did not use the verb at all. Yet he speaks so clearly, in a warm, colloquial way, like an old-style raconteur. That should suffice to show that omitting the verb would not make language more stilted and academic. Indeed, to me the opposite seemed to occur.

The verb ‘to be

The verb ‘to be’ infests English more than its equivalents do other European languages. When I started learning French at the beginning of high school, I found it odd that we had to say ‘I am Andrew’ as ‘Je m’appelle Andrew’, which literally translates as ‘I call myself Andrew’. But now it seems to me to make more sense. As Humpty Dumpty pointed out to Alice, what people call someone merely labels them. We don’t need anything beyond that. We don’t need to get into that quaint, English, overcomplicatedly metaphysical (and indefinable) concept of ‘existence’ just to introduce oneself.

One could also say ‘On m’appelle Andrew’ which means ‘people call me Andrew’ (literally: ‘One calls me Andrew’). Even better. French – one, English – nil.

What do the English mean when they say ‘I am hungry’? That sentence makes no abstract metaphysical statement. It just means they feel hungry. Again with the French, they say ‘j’ai faim’, which literally translates as ‘I have hunger’. Okay, a bit weird, but makes more sense than to declare some sort of equivalence between oneself and an adjective ‘hungry’. My father used to make fun of this English language oddity by replying, whenever one of his children said that (as we often did) ‘Hello Hungry, I’m Dad!’.

Or the weather. Which makes more sense to you: ‘It is sunny’, or ‘Il fait du soleil’, which literally translates as ‘It makes sunshine’?

Let’s not overly eulogise the French though. Any culture that can take a simple sentence like “Explain that to me” (e-prime) or “What is that?” (English) and express it as “What is this that this is?” (“Qu’est-ce que c’est?”) has no grounds for complacency.

Famous quotes with and without the dastardly verb

Let’s look at some well-known examples from literature.

Think of the infamous ‘To be or no to to be, that is the question’.

Just because Shakespeare lived long ago and has plays in all the high school syllabi, he gets a free pass on this atrocity that has confused poor innocent schoolkids for centuries, as they try to find a meaning in the silly statement. Once they receive an explanation, they usually think ‘why didn’t he just say “shall I kill myself or not?”, as he meant exactly that’. But they think it silently, because criticising Shakespeare begets not good marks at school. By the way, that sensible, unpretentious translation qualifies as perfect e-Prime.

Or “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”. Note that the English verb ‘to be’ in archaic form conjugates second person familiar as ‘thou art’, so ‘art’ doesn’t belong to the language of this essay. Again most listeners, right back to Shakespeare’s day, thought he meant ‘I can’t find you Romeo. Tell me your location’. But no, Shakespeare played a silly game of words, using the word ‘wherefore’ to mean ‘why’, so that the sentence means ‘why are you named Romeo?’ Which makes no sense, even with that translation, because Juliet had no problem with his first name but with his last name. She should have said ‘why do you belong to the Montagues?’ [The family that hated Juliet’s family, and vice versa]. David Mitchell exposed this silliness with excruciating wit and precision in an episode of ‘Upstart Crow’, but I thought of it before he did. Or at least before he produced that excellent comedy series. In any case, both ‘Tell me your location’ and ‘Why are you named Romeo [Montague]’ qualify as e-Prime.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’ translates very naturally as ‘Everyone acknowledges that a single man in possession of a good fortune must want a wife’. Easy-peasy.

A trickier one: ‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ becomes ‘All happy families resemble one another [or, seem similar]; each unhappy family suffers for a different reason’. The e-Prime translation differs from the English one on a literal basis, but has the same meaning. The e-Prime version states explicitly the meaning that the English version veils behind poetic abstraction.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, …..’ translates as ‘On a bright cold day in April, as the clocks struck thirteen, Winston Smith, ….

Gosh, for that one we only needed to change three words and a punctuation mark. Orwell’s brilliance as a writer shows in how sparingly he uses the dreaded verb. Indeed, the second sentence of 1984, the one starting with ‘Winston Smith’, does not use the verb at all! It seems to me that avoiding the verb makes writing more alive, more active. It has a similar effect to choosing active voice over passive – a practice whose benefits people acknowledge almost as universally as Jane Austen’s dictum about rich, unmarried men.

Incidentally, Orwell’s brilliance comes through again in the book’s chilling ending:

He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.’

Not a ‘to be’ or a ‘not to be’ in sight! Take that, Shakespeare!

In fact, I think most great short quotes do not contain the dreaded verb. Consider:

Do you feel lucky, punk

Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn’ {I know, I know, he never actually said that!]

A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do

No man needs just a little salary

You can’t handle the truth!

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine

You played it for her, you can play it for me. Play it, Sam!

I cannot deny the greatness of “I’ll be back”, done, of course, in an Austrian accent. But perhaps General Macarthur said it better (and earlier) with ‘I shall return’.

Gordon Gekko’s famous ‘Greed is good’ threw me a bit. I started to wonder whether we cannot talk of vices and virtues in e-prime. How does one translate ‘Patience is a virtue’? After some reflection I realised that those uses of ‘to be’ belong to the mode ‘Class Membership’, amongst the eight broad modes of how one can use ‘to be’. In English, one says ‘X is a Y’ to indicate that the item X belongs to the class Y. For instance ‘Rover is a dog’. In mathematics we would write this as Rover∈Dogs. In e-prime we could say ‘Rover belongs to the set of dogs’. Similarly, ‘Greed [and patience] belong to the set of virtues’. The first comes from Gekko, not me. I don’t think he’d agree with the second.

Or perhaps he meant ‘Cultivate your greed. Feel proud of it, not ashamed.

Different uses of ‘to be’

Class membership, together with five other modes of using ‘to be’, creates no problems at all. I’ll list the six uses:

  • Class Membership. Example: ‘Ariadne is an architect’. Translation: ‘Ariadne  belongs to the group of people we call “architects” ’.
  • Class Inclusion. Example: ‘all cats are animals’. Translation: ‘All members of the group we call cats belong to the group we call “animals” ’. In mathematics, we use the “subset of” symbol ⊆ for this, writing “cats⊆animals”.
  • Predication. Example: ‘the cat is furry’. Translation: ‘The cat has fur all over
  • Auxiliary Active. Example: ‘the cat was sleeping’. Translation: ‘The cat slept’.
  • Auxiliary Passive. Example: ‘the cat was bitten by the dog’. Translation: ‘The dog bit the cat’.
  • Location. Example: ‘the cat is on the mat’. Translation: ‘The cat sits on the mat’ or ‘The mat has the cat on it’.

The extra words in some of the translations may seem clumsy to some. But in practice, just like when one translates from German to English, one aims to translate a whole paragraph rather than just a sentence. That gives more scope for strategic manoeuvering, which generally allows a more natural, flowing translation. Sentence-by-sentence translations from German to English sound truly awful, as the infamous example of the English libretto of Haydn’s ‘Creation’ oratorio demonstrates.

Disallowing the auxiliary active seems to lose a nuance of English. We think of ‘I was jumping’ as having a different meaning from ‘I jumped’. The former describes something happening (me sleeping) while another thing happens as well, eg ‘I was jumping when I tripped and sprained my ankle’. The latter describes a completed action, eg ‘I jumped over the bar without disturbing it’. In technical grammar language, we call the former the ‘past continuous’ and the latter the ‘simple past‘ or ‘preterite‘.

In latin languages we call the past continuous the ‘past imperfect’. They implement it by changing the ending of the word, so that ‘je saute’ (‘I jump’) becomes ‘je sautais’ (‘I was jumping’). Note that French does not introduce any auxiliary verb such as ‘to be’. Instead it just alters the verb ending. The use of ‘was/were’ as an auxiliary verb in English may delight us as one of its many quirks, but it really has nothing to do with the verb ‘to be’. We could just as well use ‘made’ or ‘did’ as our auxiliary verb, as in ‘I did jumping’. Or we could invent new verb endings to signify the past progressive, eg ‘I jumpeding’. As another alternative we could mimic the way many slang expressions work, omitting common words. We could say ‘Me – jumping, right? I tripped. Yaah! Sprained ankle. Gross!

This demonstrates that in some uses of ‘to be’ it serves merely as a connector, and fell into that role by pure chance. Because we have learned the language with it in that role, we find it difficult to get by without it. We can easily fix that, by inventing new word endings as above, and/or by using slightly longer or slang constructions in some cases. Or we could allow ourselves to use ‘to be’ in those constructions, because those uses do not cause problems with logic, clarity and depression.

To me it seems easier to avoid all use of the verb, for the same reason that some people become vegetarian even though they only really object to meat from animals with unhappy lives. We find it easier to avoid all of something than to constantly have to investigate whether the particular instance facing us belongs to the acceptable class of that sort of thing. I practice vegetarianism for that reason. E-prime takes that pragmatic-vegetarianish approach to intermittently-troublesome verbs.

The troublesome uses

Two classes remain, that generate all the difficulty. Those uses inspired Bourland, and to some extend his mentor Alfred Korzybski before him, to favour constraining the use of the verb. Let’s list the two classes:

  • ‘Existence’. Example: ‘There is a God’ or ‘There is no God’.
  • ‘Identity’. Examples: ‘This is Freya’. ‘That is a kangaroo’.

“Existence”

Existence’ presents the biggest problem. Let’s reflect first on why people care whether ‘God exists’. I think they care because of what they expect God to do. Someone brought up to believe in hell may hope God does not ‘exist’, meaning they hope that they will not suffer eternal torture for eternity after their death. In that sense I think I can fairly say that I hope, and believe, that the God that the teachers and priests taught me to believe in as a child does not ‘exist’. This means I hope no cosmic dictator will sentence me to an eternity of suffering. On the other hand, someone who longs for those that suffer in this life to receive comfort and reward after death, may believe, or want to believe, in a God that will make that happen. I think that, when they say they ‘believe in God’ they mean they believe that people will receive that comfort and reward.

It may not need pointing out, but I’ll do it anyway: one may hold both of those hopes or beliefs. One may hope for a God that does not send people to hell, or even allow them to end up there, and at the same time hope for a God that will comfort and reward sufferers. Neither putative divine characteristic necessitates the other. I would like to think that most members of official religions hold both those hopes. But I feel sad to see that so often contradicted by the many powerful clerics that rail against ‘sexual sin’ (even including contraception practised by a couple who married in a church) and forecast God’s displeasure and punishment as a result. But perhaps most lay members of religions hold the life-affirming beliefs, and mostly only the power-broking clerics in their religions criticise and deny them. I find it encouraging that most Roman Catholics have never even heard of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, let alone know or care about the many rules that that group of old men say God made. People who’ve never heard of the Congregation may know it by the informal name people used for it in past centuries – the Inquisition.

Yet many people do care, or say they do, about whether God ‘exists’, even if it has no consequences for them. More generally, some people passionately assert that they care whether material objects ‘exist’. Some philosophers debate with passion intensity whether a cup inside a wooden cupboard ‘exists’, in a sense that means something more than simply that if we opened the cupboard door, we would see the cup and could get it out to drink some tea with.

I see such opinions, regardless of how passionately people hold them, as deluded. Saying you believe fervently in X does not mean that you do care, if you can’t explain the meaning of X. It may mean instead that you care fervently about something that relates to what you label as X. The ex-RC may care fervently that nobody gets tortured for eternity. The Believer in Cups cares fervently about having something to drink their tea out of. They think they believe in something more than that, but they don’t.

Now I know that sounds arrogant and silly. Who gave me the right to tell other people what they really think? In my defence, I point out that I don’t claim to know what they think. I only claim to know what they don’t think – a much easier exercise. I don’t believe anybody can believe a claim that neither they nor anybody else can explain. If somebody says to me ‘I believe that nhjkn sdhg futf’, I feel entitled to say ‘I don’t think you really believe that’. I suppose my statement relates to their purported belief, not to their mind (which I cannot see). I claim, not that they don’t believe that, but that nobody can believe that, because it does not belong to the category of things that we can believe or not. We cannot believe or disbelieve the colour purple, because it does not belong to that category. Only what we call ‘propositions’, or ‘claims’ can belong to the category. To qualify as a proposition, a string of symbols or sounds must satisfy a long list of formal characteristics, including things like containing a verb. The colour purple does not count as a proposition, neither does the symbol string ‘nhjkn sdhg futf’ and neither, in my opinion, does the statement ‘I believe a God exists that will never again interact with the world’, or ‘there is a cup in that cupboard but there is no way we can ever detect that it is there’.

I hope I have at least partially convinced you that the ‘existence’ sense of ‘to be’ has no meaning. It may have a practical sense, as in ‘Unicorns do not longer exist’. But that just means I believe that, no matter whether we searched from here to kingdom come, we would never find a unicorn. If we want it to mean more than that, as those argumentative metaphysicians feel they do, we face disappointment.

If you still feel you believe otherwise, take this challenge: If you think the sentence ‘The cup is in the cupboard regardless of whether anyone can ever know that’ has meaning, ie qualifies as a ‘claim’, try to explain the difference between a world in which the claim holds and one in which it does not – without talking in circles.

“Identity”

This mode of use covers a multitude of sins. The above “This is Freya” really just communicates a name. No philosophical notion of identity gets carried along by it. We can think of it as an instruction: ‘When referring to this person, use the name “Freya” ’.

It gets more philosophical with statements like “George Orwell is Eric Blair”, or “Batman is Bruce Wayne”. Taking the first one, we know it means “The person known to his friends and family as Eric Blair wrote ‘1984’ and other famous works using the pseudonym ‘George Orwell’ ”. We could argue for ever about whether ‘Eric Blair’ means the same thing as ‘George Orwell’. I say it doesn’t. But such arguments count for nothing but idle amusement. We needn’t care about or wish to know anything other than that the man named Eric wrote under the pen-name George.

What about the mathematical concept of identity or equality? In mathematics we learn about ‘equations’ and ‘identities’, both of which use the equals sign ‘=’, which some people think of as resembling ‘is’. Let me show you an example:

x2 – 2x + 1 = 0

We might express that in words as ‘x is a number that, when we square the number, subtract twice the number from that and then add one, we get zero’. It tells us that the number to which we have given the alias ‘x’ has that property. Only one number has that property: the number 1. So the equation tells us that we gave the alias ‘x’ to the number 1.

Importantly, the equation does not say that the two things on either side of the equals sign “are” the same, ie “are identical”. Such a claim would make no sense. We can easily see the differences: for a start the thing on the left has seven characters excluding spaces, while the thing on the right has only one. A metaphysician might retort “But that’s just the labels. The two things with the different labels are the same.” To which I reply “can you explain what ‘are the same’ means?”. To which they can only answer “No”.

Mathematicians use the equals sign in two slightly different ways. I showed above the first way. We call that an ‘equation’ and we use it to work out what number x stands for.

We call the other use an ‘identity’. For example:

x2 – 2x + 1 = (x – 1)2

This holds true for any value of x, rather than just for a specific value that we want to find. We can easily explain the meaning of this equals sign in e-prime too. The identity says that, no matter what value x has, we will get the same result if we use that value to evaluate the left-hand side of the equation, as if we use it to evaluate the right-hand side.

It all works out simply, clearly and logically, as long as we don’t try to get metaphysical about it. If we do make the mistake of venturing into metaphysics, we find ourselves asking “Am I the same person that I was when I was five years old?”, to which we should reply “Come back when you can explain what your question means, and I’ll tell you the answer”.

Process metaphysics

I want to put in a plug for something called ‘process philosophy’. One might sum it up as something like “Things don’t ‘EXIST. They HAPPEN”. Or alternatively: “Objects? Bah! Stuff and nonsense. Only by thinking of the universe as a PROCESS can you begin to understand it”.

This notion goes back at least three thousand years. Heraclitus famously said “You can never step in the same river twice”. Alan Watts said something like “You ‘are’ just what the universe is doing at this particular place and time”. It delighted, but did not surprise me, to see that the above-linked Wikipedia article on process philosophy includes Alfred Korzybski – David Bourland’s mentor – in the list of paradigm-breaking thinkers that favoured this way of looking at things.

I’ll show another of my favourite quotes on process philosophy, from some famous physicist (I forget who): ‘an object is just a slow process’. I love that saying, even though it contains an ‘is’. I’d translate it into e-prime as the recommendation: “Think of objects as slow processes”.

Bertrand Russell’s chum, Alfred North Whitehead, wrote the most about process philosophy. I like some of what he wrote. But he did tend to get in over his head with word long, deep, abstract word salads of questionable meaning. I think Heraclitus and Watts said it better.

Let me tell you my plan

My dear, long-suffering readers – if any of you still remain – I appreciate your attention to this point. I expect the question gets ever louder in your mind: “Andrew! Do you have a point?

Well, thank you for asking! I do have a point, or at least I’ve managed to find a sort of a one in the course of this long, verbal ramble. The point takes the form of a plan. I made the plan only for me. But you may like to consider adopting some of it too. I will tell you what I plan to do, and why.

I plan to try my very best to eliminate uses of ‘to be’ in the ‘Existence’ and ‘Identity’ modes from my language. They cause nothing but trouble.

For the other six uses, I will aim to use them less, but with varying degrees of intensity. Let me list them in decreasing order of how intensely I will seek to avoid them:

  • I will most strenuously avoide the Auxiliary Passive. I can think of cases where that mode provides useful nuances: ‘He was bitten by a werewolf’ has a different feeling to ‘A werewolf bit him’ – it moves the focus from the biter to the one that suffered the bite. But I think we can achieve those nuances without using ‘to be’. I would say ‘He got bitten by a werewolf’. In primary school they taught me to avoid the words ‘get’ and ‘got’, and that I should regard them as vulgar. But I now feel old enough to disagree. I find them tremendously useful words, and for me, ‘got bitten’ describes the event much better than ‘was bitten’. Remember process philosophy. A bite happens. And no word communicates happeningness (process) better than ‘got’.
  • Location. Like Auxiliary Passive, this sounds too passive. I also find it too vague. The statement ‘The cat is on the mat’ doesn’t even tell us whether the cat still lives. It could refer to the cat’s corpse lying on the mat. So let us instead say ‘The sat sits on the mat’ (or even ‘is sitting’, since I do not propose to ban the Auxiliary Active) or ‘The cat’s corpse lies on the mat’.
  • Predication. I can’t see much excuse for this either. For me, ‘The cat has long fur’ and ‘You look red (or You’ve gotten sunburnt)’ work much better than ‘The cat is furry’ and ‘You are red’ (Hello Red, pleased to meet you!). In particular the ‘look’ forces acknowledgement that looks can deceive, and perhaps only a trick of the light makes me think you’ve gotten sunburnt. Plus, we’ve already covered how, for the sake of psychological balance and world peace, we must say ‘You are treating me nastily’ (please stop) rather than ‘You are nasty’ (condemnation and life sentence).
  • I have no objection to the Auxiliary Active type. I find it difficult to avoid, and trying to avoid it blocks fluency. Since the ‘am/is/are/was/were’ in such cases serves only as a connector and does not purport to have any formal meaning – any more than the “t” in the French “qu’a t’il dit” (“what has he said?”) means anything – we introduce no ambiguity by using it. Nevertheless, I find it more lively and direct to say ‘As she lay sleeping, the poisonous spider crawled over the mattress and up onto her cheek’ than ‘She was sleeping, when the poisonous spider …..’. Or perhaps ‘As she slept…’ works better still.
  • I’ve decided that Class Membership and Class Inclusion cause no harm. They have clear meanings and present no apparent potential for ambiguity. Further, translating sentences using those modes to e-prime can make sentences longer, as we saw with the above examples. I’ll relax about using those modes. But I’ll still keep an eye open for opportunities to replace them with an e-prime phrase when the latter sounds shorter and sweeter.

There you have it. Two modes banned. Three avoided where possible, and three avoided only when convenient. Perhaps I will call that strategy e-half-prime, since it would cut out only about half the uses of ‘to be‘ and its fellow travellers. Once I have mastered the skill of speaking and writing in e-half-prime, misunderstandings will no longer occur, wars will cease, universal joy and harmony will come ever closer.

I’ll let you know how I go. If it fares well, perhaps I can persuade you to join me. If not for the whole kit and kaboodle, perhaps just reducing your uses of ‘to be’, to give your language a fresher, clearer, more direct feel. Remember, if you can’t say it in e-half-prime, perhaps you’d better not say it (or at least you’d serve no purpose by saying it).

Try it. You might just like it.

And if it achieves nothing else, it will prevent us from ever saying that a child “is” naughty, that oneself “is” an inadequate failure, or that somebody, anybody, no matter how rotten their behaviour, “is” evil. Not Scott Morrison. Not Peter Dutton. Not even Donald Trump.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, October 2019

PS I have searched this essay for all uses of the various versions of ‘to be‘ that I could think of. I found plenty, and removed (translated) them. Perhaps I have missed some. If you find any, please let me know so that I may remove them. You will have my sincere gratitude.

PPS You can read some other people’s opinions on e-prime at the following links:


Grace

What is grace? I think of it as a sort of beauty associated with movement. A dance can be graceful, but a symphony or a painting cannot. They have a different sort of beauty.

It can also refer to human interactions. When done tactfully and considerately, leaving nobody feeling awkward, or worse than they need to feel, they are graceful. Somebody that deals with others in a way that is unnecessarily rough and hurtful ‘lacks grace’.

I think there may be a connection between these two. I’ll think about that later. But for now let’s think about the grace of movement.

I am a huge fan of graceful movement. It doesn’t just have to be dance, which is often designed to be graceful. It can be found in the most unexpected places.

Since my third year of high school I have enjoyed physical activity and being fit. In my youth that included going in cycling and running races. In later high school I trained hard on my bicycle, and the fitness gained from this equipped me to win our annual school cross country race. That then put me into the team for the inter-school races for our region – the Southern Districts of New South Wales. I was at a Catholic school and I think we competed against the other catholic and non-government schools in that region.

I nearly always came third in these inter-school competitions. There was a boy from another Canberra school that came second. I think his name was David Rowe, but I am not sure. What I am completely sure of is that the winner was always Andrew Reardon, from Saint Patrick’s boarding school in Goulburn.

I didn’t see much of Andrew in those cross country races. Just a pair of heels disappearing into the distance as soon as the starting gun went off. If we were running on trails in the pine forest, as we often were, my only goal was to keep him in sight so I could follow his route and thereby avoid taking a wrong turn.

In summer we would have inter-school athletics. I was chosen to represent my school at the middle distance events, of which I usually chose the 1500m and 3000m races. Again I usually came third, but this time I got to see Andrew Reardon in action from closer quarters, and not just from behind. We often raced on lovely, smooth grass 300m tracks that belonged to the richer private schools. A 3000m race was ten laps, which was enough time for Andrew to get to being on the exact opposite side of the track from me – 150m ahead – so I could see him running from the side. And what a gorgeous sight it was! He seemed to just float over the ground in an effortless manner with a grace that words cannot describe. It felt like watching a gazelle or a cheetah in a David Attenborough film, except that cheetahs are sprinters and would probably keel over if asked to run further than 400m.

Any feelings of envy or competitive resentment just leached out of me, as I just felt so privileged to watch this graceful performance. One would say it was poetry in motion if it hadn’t been said a million times before. But the loss of my competitive urge didn’t make me slow down. Rather I increased my pace so that the distance between us didn’t get to more than half a lap and thereby degrade my view of this majestic performance. I imagine Andrew was just cruising at what was a comfortable pace for him, while I was gasping and spluttering. I expect he could easily have accelerated and lapped me quite soon had he a mind to do so. If so, it was a demonstration of the other sort of grace to not subject me to that humiliation. Noblesse oblige.

What was it about his running style that touched me so? I want to say rhythm and symmetry, but that has a connotation of mechanistic, and it was anything but mechanistic. Relaxation was another key aspect, and machines are not relaxed. Andrew looked like he was playing, or floating. It was like a Brandenburg Concerto in vision. You had to be there.

Thereafter I worked on making my own running style as relaxed, symmetric and rhythmic as I could. This wasn’t just vanity. I also believed that running that way would use less energy and allow me to run faster. Perhaps it worked a bit. I did get much faster over the next few years, and some people were even kind enough to say that I had a ‘nice running style’.

The last I saw of Andrew Reardon was in late 1980, when I saw him on telly, which was showing a NSW schools championship athletic meet at Hensley Field in Sydney, which was then a lovely, smooth grass track (now it’s synthetic). It was a 1500m event, which he won reasonably easily, I think in about 3:52. Watching it on telly, without being distracted by my own attempts to run, I could revel in the joy of this exhibition of perfect movement. It was great.

I sometimes wonder what became of Andrew Reardon. Did he become a farmer, as many of the boys at that rural college might have done, or did he move to the city and become a businessman? Did he grow a middle-age paunch as most men do (Oh no!), or did he keep himself trim? Does he still run?

Shortly thereafter I was struck by the running of another Andrew – this time the Australian representative Andrew Lloyd. I saw him on telly, I think running some national championship meet, at perhaps 5k or 10k. He too had a beautiful, relaxed style, seeming to glide along as if his feet weren’t even touching the ground. I remember he was wearing a cap, which runners would generally avoid as an encumbrance, and making it hard to dissipate heat. But it didn’t seem to trouble him. He looked so cool!

In my university days I trained sometimes with athletes at the Australian Institute of Sport, since that was in Canberra and so was I. So I got to see Andrew Lloyd up close while training, and to admire his easy style.

He was involved in a horrible road accident in the early 1980s in which his wife was killed and his elbow was smashed. When he recovered, his elbow was, if not fused, swollen and difficult to move, so his style became lopsided and a bit awkward. But he was still very fast. I think he won the City to Surf a few years after that.

Grace is not a pre-requisite for being a fast runner. Contemporary with Lloyd was Laurie Whitty, a runner with a famously ungainly style, but who won national championships and represented Australia. One of the most famous ever distance runners was the Czech Emil Zatopek, who apparently had a very ungainly style. There is not much film of him running because his heyday was in the fifties. Australia’s most prestigious 10k race is named after him because he won in the 1956 Melbourne olympics and apparently really liked Australia.

Have you noticed that the lululemon logo looks very similar to a capital Omega: Ω? It also looks a bit like the emblem on the Torres Strait islander flag.

In the early eighties I was heavily influenced by a book by Percy Cerutty, who coached a number of brilliant Australian distance runners, including Herb Elliott, who held the world 1500m and mile records and won the 1500m at the 1960 olympics in Rome. He advocated a very nature-based training regime, involving only natural foods – mostly raw – and running on sand hills, beaches and in forests rather than on athletic tracks. But the most memorable – to me – aspect of his philosophy was his claim that through too much soft living, adult humans had forgotten how to move naturally. So to learn how to run properly, and fast, we should watch how other animals do it.

Cerutty disdained symmetry. I don’t know what he would have thought of Andrew Reardon. Percy thought human running should have different modes like a horse – trot, canter and gallop, in order of increasing speed. While trotting is symmetric and may be suitable for marathons, cantering and galloping are not, and he thought they should be used for distances of 10k and shorter. I remember running on the beach when on summer holidays trying to imagine myself as a two-legged horse and transition from trot to canter and then to gallop as I sped up. It seemed to work but maybe it was all psychological. If you imagine yourself galloping then you feel fast and, to some extent, that makes you go faster.

I remember seeing some visiting African athletes jogging about in tracksuits on the training track in Canberra, while preparing for a race on the main track that was next door. They just looked so flexible and bouncy, as if every movement was joyful play. That was another manifestation of grace.

Enough about athletics. That is just one example of where grace can crop up unexpectedly. It is there in hurdling and high jump and pole vault as well as in running. Maybe we could even see it in shot put, but we might have to look a little harder.

Grace seems important in Zen, although it doesn’t seem to be identified or named as such. In the Japanese tea ceremony, great importance is placed on the way one moves in preparing the tea, in serving it, and in how one drinks it. I love the way the cup is offered with both hands and a bow, and is received in the same way. This translates to the way that business cards are presented, and even how purchases are handed across in a shop. I try my best to remember to participate in such small but special rituals. When in doubt, use two hands and make a slight bow!

I have never mindfully raked pebbles as Zen monks sometimes do, but I imagine grace plays a role in that as well – watching the intricate patterns made by the pebbles as they are disturbed by the rake tines and then resettle in their wake.

I think if we look hard enough we can find grace in many things that move around us – humans, other animals, trees and bushes in the wind, even inanimate objects. I try to find this when I feel disheartened. It helps a bit.

I think again about the role of grace in human interaction. The grace is in the speech acts, in the words said, the tone in which they are said, and in accompanying gestures and facial expressions. I suppose all of these are movements. On a simple level, they are movements because speech comes from movement of body parts – lips, tongue, larynx, lungs – and of the intervening air that carries the sound waves. On a more abstract level, they are movements because they are expressed over time, and movement is defined in terms of time. They cannot be captured by a still picture – although a skilful snapshot can hint at it. Even more abstractly, they are movements of emotion – a communication of feeling from one being to another.

I would like to cite an example of a well-known graceful interaction, but my memory fails me (I imagine there are lots from Barack Obama. He is a very graceful person). Nevertheless, we all know what they are and have witnessed and valued them. They catch our attention particularly in difficult circumstances – when somebody turns aside aggression or insult, or rejects a crude suggestion, without aggression and without making anybody feel bad. When somebody finds a way to include somebody that is excluded by their difference, without making a big deal of it. When somebody finds a way to show solidarity and support for somebody that is grieving, without patronising them or putting them in a position where they are obliged to respond.

Then there is grace shown by somebody under extreme pressure – be it their own tragedy, anger, fear or anxiety. When they surprise us by expressing and taking care for things beyond themselves and their worries, despite all.

I don’t know whether it’s the same sort of grace. Classifications rarely matter anyway. But it seemed worth mentioning.

I resolve to try to be more graceful in my relations to other living beings, rather than just in how I run.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, August 2019

PS I just remembered cricket. I couldn’t send this off without mentioning the joy of watching a truly graceful batter. How they can deal with a heavy red projectile fired at them at up to 160 kph by a small, subtle flick of the wrists that sends the ball to the boundary for four runs. Watching really good batting is like watching a brilliant dance. It’s not for nothing that cricket enthusiasts, more than in any other sport I know, keep photos of their heros in action – in the execution or the aftermath of one of the wide variety of elegant shots available to them.


Against baiting muslims

Recently I have come across numerous instances of muslim-baiting. I use that term to describe the practice where somebody that hates Islam talks or writes publicly about obnoxious passages of Muslim scripture – in the Quran or the Hadiths – and imply that Muslims must either agree with them, in which case they are horrible extremists, or reject them, in which case they are ‘not proper Muslims’.

Aggressive anti-muslim advocates like Andrew Bolt and Pauline Hanson sometimes focus on passages in the Quran or the Hadiths that advocate beliefs or describe actions that are considered abhorrent in modern, liberal Western society – things such as demonising gay people, advocating the slaughter of infidels, endorsing wife-beating, and Muhammed allegedly marrying a six-year old girl.

The anti-muslims seek to confront moderate muslims with this and force them to choose between their religion and their acceptance in society. The argument goes that, if the person endorses those passages of scripture they are a menace to society, but if they do not then they are not a proper muslim, and are being dishonest.

I will come shortly to why that tactic is unfair and dishonest. But first let’s look at what it could possibly be aiming to achieve. Presumably, since the provocateur abhors Islam, they do not want to force the person to move towards the radical extreme of Islam. The only plausible aim I can see in the tactic is the hope that the muslim will suddenly realise what a terrible religion Islam is, reject it on the spot and become adopt a secular or Christian worldview.

How many people do you know that have done that?

I know none, and have not heard of any either. In my experience, human nature is such that, if somebody aggressively attacks something that is a key part of your world, be it your religion, your family, your political persuasion or your football club, you will dig your heels in, forget any doubts you may have had about the thing being attacked, and associate even more strongly with it.

If that observation is accurate, then these attacks, by people claiming to be champions of Western or Judeo-Christian Values (both of which I consider to be misnomers, but that’s a different essay), will just entrench the importance of Islam to immigrant populations. Not only that, but by deriding moderate versions of Islam as cognitively dissonant at best and dishonest at worst – ‘not true Islam’ – they put pressure on moderate muslims to become extremists.

In other words, the results of such mean and ham-fisted efforts by the ‘defenders of Western values’ are the exact opposite of what they would say they are aiming for. Dumb tactics indeed! Tactics that would be cheered on enthusiastically by the fundamentalists of Daesh and Al Qaeda, as they drive moderate peace-loving muslims towards the clutching arms of the terrorists.

Now let’s turn to the fairness of such attacks. Are they consistent with how we treat other belief systems? Do we, in particular, aggressively demand that moderate Christians publicly state whether they endorse the Bible’s advocacy of stoning adulterers (Leviticus 20:10) and disobedient children (Deuteronomy 21:18-21) and executing gay men (Leviticus 20:13)? Or, if we want to be charitable enough to accept the common view that the Old Testament no longer applies, having been superseded by the New, do we ask them whether they support Paul’s invocation ‘slaves, obey your masters’ (Colossians 3:22) and ‘wives, submit to your husbands’ (Ephesians 5:22), and rejoice in the statements attributed to Jesus: ‘I came not to bring peace, but a sword’ (Matthew 10:34) and ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple’ (Luke 14:26) and ‘Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them’ (the “moral” of the repulsive Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30).

Turning from Christianity generally, to its largest denomination – Roman Catholicism – are RCs asked to choose between agreeing with the church’s campaign against condom use in countries afflicted with AIDS epidemics on the one hand, and complete abandonment of their religion on the other?

The answer, of course, is No. Neither Roman Catholics nor Christians are treated as dangerous subversives in Western cultures. Sure, there are a few over-excited atheist demagogues that might wish they were, but even when their criticisms are perfectly good ones – such as that it is child abuse to teach children they will burn forever in hell if they don’t believe in Jesus – the people making the criticisms are regarded as extremists, rather than those they are criticising.

I know plenty of progressive Christians – you know, the ones that believe the central message of their religion is to love one another, and that anything in the bible or their church’s teaching that can’t be interpreted to be consistent with that should be ignored. They are generally good people. On average they seem to be no worse than those that don’t subscribe to a belief system with dodgy bits in its older scriptures. As long as they don’t claim that the Bible was dictated by God word-for-word to its writers, and transcribed and translated without error, there is no inherent contradiction in that stance. Their religious belief does not entail a need to live in perpetual cognitive dissonance.

It is good that most non-Christians in Western society display this tolerance towards moderate Christians. It is odd and unfortunate then, that the same tolerance is less often extended to moderate muslims. Forcing people whose religion is a crucial part of their life to choose between becoming a violent extremist and abandoning their faith is bad tactics, uncharitable and just stupid, whether the religion is Christianity, Islam or something else. Perhaps if there were a religion whose central tenet was seriously harmful, such an approach might make sense. We might for instance class Nazism in the Third Reich as a state religion, in which the central tenet is the sacredness of the German fatherland and people, whose triumph over all the inferior races must be secured. In such a case it would be reasonable to try by all reasonable means to persuade people to abandon it. But religions like that are very rare. So rare, in fact, that I had to break my own rule of never using Nazis as an example, because in this case it was the only example I could think of (Sorry, Mr Godwin).

The reason I am writing this is that I have recently seen criticism from ‘the right’ of what it alleges to be double standards on ‘the left’ in defending Muslims on the one hand while criticising Christians on the other. They say the left is hypocritical for criticising hard-line Christians that attempt to impose their views about issues like abortion, same sex marriage and assisted dying on society, while sticking up for immigrants that belong to a religion that the critics say has even harder-line views on those issues.

That criticism is based on a mistake, which is understandable, but which would not be made if the critics would only apply the good old Principle of Charity to their opponents’ arguments – ie to consider the range of possible interpretations of the arguments and choosing the most sensible one, rather than the one that is silliest and easiest to knock down (a straw man).

Certainly I criticise hard-line Christians that try to impose their views on society, for doing that. But I do not argue they should be forced into silence, sent back to where they came from (originally Europe, in most cases), or treated as second-class citizens, denied the right to build places of worship. And I don’t criticise moderate Christians at all for their religion. Yet these same critics want to exclude Muslims from our country and control those that are here, without stopping to ask what their beliefs are or to see whether they keep those beliefs to themselves or impose them on wider society. All that I and others ask for is that Muslims be given the same courtesy that Christians are given – of being judged by what they do and say as an individual, rather than simply by their membership of a group out of which a tiny minority has behaved in a nasty manner.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, July 2019


Dogma, in religions and other places

Most people are familiar with the dogmas promoted by powerful religious institutions such as the Roman Catholic church, evangelical protestant churches and some branches of Islam. The institutions claim they have sole possession of the truth, direct from God, and that anybody that does not agree is a heretic, someone to be avoided, and who may be punished.

Dogmatism is annoying, anti-social and causes a great deal of misery, both for people growing up under the power of the institution proclaiming the dogma and for some of those that interact with them.

It’s also pretty well recognised. One need only mention religious dogma and heads start to nod. People know what you’re talking about.

Despite the negative connotations the word has for most people, the leadership of the RC church does not object to the term and still uses it as a core part of its teachings. They invented the term, and use it without shame to describe propositions that the church says RCs are obliged to believe. When I was an RC I never thought to ask what happens if one does not believe a dogma. It seemed too impertinent. But now when I research it, the answer that appears fairly consistently across different RC sources is that it is not a sin to disbelieve the dogma, as long as you don’t say so aloud, because that might encourage somebody else to disbelieve it. That would be heresy, which is a grave sin, punishable by an eternity in hellfire. A few centuries ago, the punishment was lighter – a mere burning at the stake.

Although the RC church invented the word ‘dogma’, it is not the only institution to proclaim dogmas. There are plenty of dogmas in evangelical protestantism, and some variants of Islam are heavily dogmatic. Perhaps non-RCs would reject the application of the word ‘dogma’ to their essential beliefs, given the pejorative sense in which the word is mostly used these days. But it would be hard to argue that concepts such as ‘biblical inerrancy’ or ‘justification by faith alone’ are not dogmas for some protestant sects.
It would be a mistake to equate dogma with religion, because most religions are not dogmatic. It is just our misfortune that the three most dominant religions of our world: Roman Catholicism, Evangelical Protestantism and Islam have many adherents that assert an obligation to believe the relevant dogmas.

I am not aware of any pre-Christian religion that had obligatory beliefs. Judaism had many rules, but they were about practices, not beliefs. Even for worship, the injunction was to not worship other gods, or idols in particular. As long as you didn’t bow down or offer sacrifices to golden calves or statues of Ba’al, it didn’t matter whether, in the privacy of your own thoughts, you really believed Yahweh was the greatest god. In fact the Torah says nothing at all about obligatory beliefs, so far as I recall. Other pre-Christian religions, like Buddhism, the many variants of Hinduism, Mithraism, Zoroastrianism and the ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian religions also appear to set no expectations about their members’ beliefs.

Dogmas appear in places other than religions. Just as some protestants, while abjuring RC dogmas like the Immaculate Conception or Trans-substantiation, insist on their own dogmas, people who are opposed to all religions – the so-called New Atheists – can be as dogmatic as those they criticise. Classic New Atheist dogmas are things like ‘it is wrong to believe anything that cannot be proven to be true’, or ‘for all questions and human challenges, science is the best means to an answer’. For some militant atheists it even seems to be an item of faith that adherence to any religious belief at all must be a sign of stupidity. I know these dogmas because for a while I was a born-again atheist and subscribed to them. I used to listen to podcasts of debates between Christians and atheists about whether God exists, cheering on my side and hoping for the unconditional surrender of the other. Looking back, it seems such an odd thing to do. Neither the debaters nor their supporters in the audience ever changed their views one iota. Each side had their dogmas and stuck steadfastly to them. They may as well have both been shouting into the wind. But really I suppose they were just playing to their supporters. I believe such debates can never get anywhere because it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of a god, and any attempt to do either relies on presuppositions – usually unstated –  that one side will accept and the other will not.

I have not completely forsaken atheism. I am still atheist on Mondays and alternate Wednesdays. But I have forsaken the dogmatism that accompanies the more aggressive variants of atheism.

Dogmas manifest in wider circles than the theological and anti-theological. Other areas where they crop up are philosophy, politics, economics, psychology and sociology. People debate whether there is such a thing as objective morality, whether equality is more important than liberty, whether wealth really does ‘trickle down’ in a capitalist society, and whether most psychological disorders can be traced back to early childhood experience. Debates between evangelical christians and militant atheists seem mild and friendly compared to the vicious passions unleashed in a debate between a Berkeleyan Idealist and a Materialist acolyte of GE Moore about whether a tree that falls in a forest makes a noise if there is nobody there to hear it.

I’m not suggesting that none of those things matter. It matters very much what political and economic theories are adopted by governments. They affect many people’s lives. Even some sorts of philosophy have huge effects. One can trace the roots of many important social movements to the ideas raised by philosophers, such as the influence of Enlightenment philosophers on the American and French revolutions. It’s hard to see how the ‘actual existence’ or otherwise of impossibly distant galaxies could affect our lives, but other similarly meaningless topics, such as whether the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son, or just from the Father, have led to wars, the rise and fall of empires and many burnings of people that had the misfortune of siding with the wrong opinion.

The common element of dogmatic claims is not their capacity or otherwise to affect our lives, it is their total immunity to proof, disproof, or experimental testing of any kind.

There is no dogma about the law of gravity, no dogma of quantum mechanics or a doctrine of the periodic table. A good biology teacher will not demand that her class believe that cells of mammals have a nucleus containing bundles of DNA and little packets of RNA. A good mathematics teacher will not demand that the class believe that the method being taught for long division works. The teacher is saying: “Here is a method, or an approach to understanding something. Most people find it useful in getting important things done“. The teacher could add – but generally doesn’t bother – “If you don’t like what I’m teaching and want to go and invent your own method of long division (or theory of the elements), be my guest! I’ll still be here to help you learn this method if you change your mind.

It is both ironic and predictable that the claims about which we humans get most dogmatic are those about which it is least possible to be certain. When there is a high level of certainty – as with Newton’s Laws of Motion – there is no need for dogmatism. You can take it or leave it. More fool you if you leave it. But when there is little to no certainty available, as with doctrines of neo-liberal economics (or, to be fair, Marxist economics), doctrines of the nature of the Holy Ghost, or proofs and disproofs of the existence of god(s), people generally ramp up the dogmatism and turn the volume to eleven. They use dogma and noise to make up for their lack of confidence and inability to provide any concrete evidence for the proposition.

This has led to my strongest philosophical position being anti-dogmatism. No matter what proposition somebody makes, be it about religion, ontology, economics or politics, and regardless of whether I sympathise with the belief being promoted or not, I now instinctively react against it and look to debunk it, if it is made dogmatically. That doesn’t mean I don’t hold any opinions on those topics. I have loads. Some of them – mostly the political ones – I hold very strongly and am prepared to march the streets, donate to a cause and publicly argue to try to persuade people over. But I hope I never get to the stage of believing that I am unquestionably right about something and that those who disagree are unquestionably wrong. That seems a poor way to live. I have sometimes been like that in the past, but I think I am not now and hope I won’t be again. For me, unquestioningly accepting a dogma is the coward’s excuse for not thinking for oneself.

That is my opinion, which I acknowledge may be mistaken.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, April 2019


Thoughts about Death

I am on a coach that has just left Sydney, travelling towards the town where my parents live. I might say where my father lives, because I am travelling there to attend the funeral of my mother.

My mother died of a combination of advanced dementia and dehydration, as she had reached a point where she would not or could not take anything orally any more, be it medicine, food or water. Whether it was would or could, we did not know, because her brain had deteriorated to a state in which she was mostly unable to communicate. Dementia is a cruel illness. We know that, if she could have formed and expressed coherent wishes in her last months, she would have asked for assistance to end her life peacefully, because her advanced care directive states that in very clear terms. But our government, like many, is cruel – with heartless rules that forbid any such mercy, kept in place by theocratic politicians wishing to force their own dogmatic religious rules on others, and medical lobbyists who have been trained to, and train others to, see every patient death as a black mark on their career scoresheet, regardless of how much it might be wished, or how great the harm that is done to the person by prolonging their life, or the fullness of the life they have behind them.

But let us speak no more of policy at this time. My mother is now at rest, beyond the possibility of further harm from patriarchal, preaching politicians or scorekeeping medical lobbyists. For that I am thankful. Her last few days were peaceful, a contrast to her torment and confusion of the last few years. She finally came to a calm, dignified stop in silence, with no struggle. Keats’ wonderful phrase ‘to cease upon a midnight with no pain’ seems so apt, except that it was shortly after lunchtime. I was not there at the end, having had to leave her bedside to return to Sydney two days before her death. But three of Mum’s immediate family were there and were able to tell the rest of us how it went.

What moved me to start writing this note was looking out of the bus window, at the deep blue sky, an overpass soaring majestically over our road (yes, overpasses can soar, it is not compulsory to view them as ugly!), the bright-coloured lorries and cars, and the restful forests ahead. The thought presented itself to me that, though I am going to the funeral of my much-loved mother, life goes on and is full of beauty and sometimes even flashes of joy. She would be glad that I am appreciating the beauty of the day, feeling comfortable and content, at least at this moment, if not always.

Almost instantly I felt transported to the consciousness of somebody, a son or daughter, or a friend, travelling to my funeral, at some time in the future, and experiencing similar feelings. Yes, life will go on after I die and, there will be beauty, purpose and occasional joys for those that survive me.

And so it will continue, to the end of this world. But even then, it will not matter that this world has ended, because there will no doubt be other worlds orbiting other suns, some maybe even in other universes.

These expressions are inept, of course. I am so often too long-winded. I would do better to just say that I felt, in some inexpressible way, that this, this moment, this experience, is fitting, and that there will be similar fitting moments in relation to and after my death and for most other deaths.

Death is nothing to us. Then again it is everything, because without death there can be no life. It is a cliché to say so but nevertheless I will swallow my pride and admit that it is only the finitude of our lives, of our consciousness, that makes life meaningful.

My mother was a very good woman. But stay – I disdain the habit  of classifying people as good and bad, so let us instead say that she was a woman who did much good. In so many ways she enriched the lives of those around her. It is a great blessing that she has lived. So it must also be a blessing that she has died, because without dying she could never have lived. That’s looking at time backwards, but why should we not do that? Time is, after all, just a dimension, and the popular metaphor of the “arrow of time” that compels forward motion is much too militaristic for a peacenik like me

I will always remember her. In fact, since she died I have been flooded with memories, some that I didn’t know I still had. Perhaps in the later stages of her dementia my mind protected itself by blocking earlier memories of her, because the comparison between the person she had been and the state to which she was now reduced was too painful. But now those comparisons are gone and the gates have been opened. Mum is free at last. And now my memory has been freed and most of the memories are warm, strong and ….. just good.

It is fitting.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, August 2018

Post Script: If my memory serves me correctly, this is the first essay I have written about death. I expect it will not be my last. Death is a subject that interests me greatly, and which I often think about (but not usually in a bad way).

Post Post Script: The featured image for this essay is of the character Death from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. The image is copyright but I doubt Mr Pratchett (RIP) would have minded, as he had progressive views about death. I very much like the character Death in Discworld, because he is portrayed as being compassionate, which is how I think about death.


And She shall reign for ever and ever

It’s a busy time, the end of choir practice. It’s 9:05pm and I haven’t had my dinner. I need to put away chairs, don my cycling safety gear, unlock the bike and whiz back home to look for something to eat. Busy, busy, busy. So one is distracted, right?

And I found myself singing that famous line from the Hallelujah chorus

and She shall reign for ever and ever

Why were you singing that, Andrew? I hear you ask.

Well the chorus had been the last thing we were practising and, you have to admit (if you’ve ever heard it) that it’s very catchy. No wonder that GF Handel was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day.

No, not that, you respond – I mean, why ‘She’? Don’t you know that the official lyric says ‘He’?

Well actually yes, I do know that, which is why I was a little surprised to find that my subconscious mind, after deciding to make me sing that song, had also decided to make me sing ‘She’. I don’t know why it did. I think it may be because there’s a lovely alliteration in ‘She shall….’ that you don’t get with ‘He’.

But then I thought to myself, as I strode in a purposeful and manly manner towards my bicycle, why not She? Where does it say that God has a sex, and that it is masculine?

Now I know what you’re thinking: the Bible and the Quran are both full of He this, He that, Father this and Lord the other. That’s true, but you ask any theologically sophisticated Christian or Muslim whether God has gonads and I’m pretty sure they’ll say ‘Of course not!’ God is much too big and impressive, not to mention invulnerable, to have a collection of soft, funny-looking, easily damaged organs dangling annoyingly between his legs.

I think there are two reasons why male pronouns and nouns are used to refer to God in the scriptures of Middle-Eastern religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism), both of which are to do with cultural traditions and have no theological basis.

The first is that ancient Middle-Eastern cultures, like most all other old cultures, including English and American, are patriarchal and use masculine pronouns in all cases except where the person being referred to is definitely female. All sorts of interesting reasons for this can be discussed but, whatever the reason, we cannot doubt that that is the practice. In a sense, ‘He’ is just the way of saying ‘She or He’ in that language tradition. In the modern, progressive parts of the world, we are working to undo those traditions, because of their toxic effect on sexual equality. But that’s a modern phenomenon that occurred centuries after the King James bible, let alone the original versions written in the period 950BCE – 150CE (600-900CE for the Quran).

The second reason is more specific. In those patriarchal cultures, it was assumed that a figure of authority must be male. Yahweh / Allah was the ultimate Boss, so It was described as male, as the notion of a female boss would have just been too incomprehensible – and unacceptable – to consumers of the stories.

Neither of these reasons retain any validity in modern, Western society, so there is no reason to perpetuate the implicitation of masculinity that was adopted at the time of writing. In fact, there are good reasons to actively overturn that implication, as just another undesirable plank in the ugly edifice of male dominance.

There is one other reason that was suggested to me by a Roman Catholic friend, that is more concrete. That is that Jesus was a man. Let’s accept for now the biblical narrative that there was a single man called Jesus of Nazareth, on whom the gospel stories are based, and whose body housed the incarnate spirit of God. Then the worldly container for the spirit of God did indeed have an XY chromosomal pattern, testicles and a penis. But why should that make us think that the immaterial spirit that pre-existed that body, and survived it, also has those things. We are told that Jesus had a beard. Does that mean that the spirit also has a beard?

If God’s plan was to incarnate as a human and preach an important message, It had three options for a body in which to incarnate: as a man, as a woman, or as a human of indeterminate sex. In Palestine CE30, only one of them had any chance of success. Nobody would have taken a woman seriously, and someone of indeterminate sex would likely have been put to death as a perceived infraction of God’s laws. So the choice of Christ (the part of God’s spirit that is said to have incarnated as Jesus) to incarnate as a man was simply an expedient, and says nothing about the sex of Christ.

Christians pray to Christ – the spirit – rather than to Jesus, even though they may say Jesus because it sounds more friendly. Jesus was the incarnated man, and he only existed for about thirty years. It is Christ that the religion says is eternally in heaven, and to whom a Christian prays. And there is nothing to credibly suggest that Christ has a sex.

Are there any other reasons why God should have a sex?

Thinks.

I can’t think of any that aren’t completely silly. One that immediately comes to mind is that God is The Boss, and bosses are more often than not male (although personally I have been fortunate to have had at least as many female as male bosses in my work career, and there is no doubt about who wields the power in the reasonably-happy home I inhabit). We’ve already dealt with that.

Another is that God is portrayed as a Father. But again, the intent of this metaphor (metaphor because It’s not really a father – there is no divine sperm involved) is to convey that God has the same loving, guiding, protective relationship to us that a parent typically has to their child. The scripture writers just wrote Father rather than Mother or Parent because of the language conventions mentioned above.

Any more reasons? No, I’m afraid I can’t think of any.

On the other side, there are excellent theological reasons against attributing a sex to God.

According to 1 John 4:8, God is Love. Does love have a specific sex? No.

According to John 1:1 God is The Word. Do words have a sex? No.

According to the influential theologian Paul Tillich, God is the Undifferentiated Ground of Being. Do Grounds of Being have a sex (provided we don’t differentiate them!)? No.

According to St Thomas Aquinas, God is Pure Actuality. If we distill Actuality until it is pure, does it acquire a sex? No.

According to St Augustine, God is Goodness Itself. Does Goodness have a sex? No.

I can tell you don’t want me to go on, so I won’t.

Right, now that we’re all agreed that God has no sex, what are we going to do about the fact that nearly all the words written and spoken about God attribute masculinity to It?

This is my plan. Please listen carefully.

From now on, whether you believe in God or not, in every reference you make to God that is in a context where use of a sexed pronoun is natural, I want you to use the female form.

As you are all intelligent and attentive readers, you naturally understand that this is not because I think God has a sex and that sex is female. Rather it is that, even if this idea went viral, it would have no hope of balancing out the enormous number of references to God as male that are out there. So we’ll keep on at this until God references achieve sexual parity, and then we’ll think about what to do next. This is not, as Alan Jones or Donald Trump might claim, ‘playing with words’ or ‘political correctness gone mad’. It’s just using sensible language that recognises that women and men are equally human and equally capable of anything except for a very few sex-specific activities such as fertilising an ovum or gestating a baby human. It’s a step that subverts the subtle message that only a man can be a person of power and wisdom. It’s a small but meaningful step in the project of gradually dismantling millennia of male dominance and oppression. And who better to lead such a step than the religions that have historically been – and unfortunately in some cases still are – platforms for those that seek to perpetuate that dominance.

So, if you please, it’ll be:

‘Our Mother who art in Heaven….’, in The Dame’s Prayer.

‘And He shall reign for ever and ever….’

Jesus is the Son of Woman (note the preservation of the word Son for Jesus, on account of the real-life testicles on the body used for Christ’s incarnation).

‘And She looked down on Her creation, and saw that it was good’.

The hymns will need reworking too:

‘Hail Redeemer Queen divine’

‘Queen of Queens, and Dame of Dames’

Everything, except specific references to the body of Jesus of Nazareth, has to go, and be replaced by its feminine equivalent.

What nice, friendly, inclusive places churches will become when this is adopted. I would happily visit them and sing along to ‘God rest ye merry (gentle)women’ in a spirit of ecumenical solidarity.

I don’t want to pick unfairly on Middle-Eastern religions, even though, they being by far the most powerful ones, they can take it. So let’s pause to consider the others.

Non-Middle-Eastern religions seem to generally be less patriarchal than the Middle-Eastern ones. There are powerful goddesses in Indian, Egyptian, Native American, Norse, Greek and Roman religions. But in all cases the boss of the gods is male. Apparently there have been, through the twentieth century, groups of scholars that believed that ancient religions such as druidism worshipped an Earth Mother type deity as their main focus, but these beliefs have fallen into disfavour in academia, and start to look more like wishful thinking of survivors of the Peace and Love generation of the sixties, than historically accurate accounts. The only well-known religions – ancient or modern – in which the most powerful being is female are neopagan religions such as Wicca. Well good for them, I say. But they are a very small minority, and the male dominance of the other religions I mentioned at least lets the Middle-Eastern triumvirate that currently dominates the world off the hook a little.

But Andrew, you protest, you are not a practising Christian, or a Muslim, or a Jew, so why should you care what words they use to talk about their gods?

You make a fair point, dear reader. The religions towards which I feel the greatest affinity are Buddhism and Vedanta, neither of which have any connection with the Middle East. But although I am not a Christian, Christianity has a major effect on my daily life and the lives of those around me, through the enormous influence that Christian power-brokers have on our laws and social customs. So it is in my interest, and in the interest of anybody that wishes for a kinder society, for the average Christian, as well as the power hierarchies of the various Christian sects, to become more consultative and compassionate. I think the religion becoming less male-dominated and male-oriented would help in moving along the road towards that goal.

And the same applies to Judaism and Islam. While their influences are minor where I live, there are parts of the world where their influence is intense. The people living in those regions would greatly benefit from those religions shedding some of their patriarchal orientation, and where better to start than to stop pretending that God is a bloke.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, December 2017


Challenging my prejudices, in life and in music

I try hard to be open-minded. I think I succeed at that reasonably well, but I still regularly get surprised at the discovery of a prejudice I didn’t know I had.

I don’t know whether it’s possible to rid one’s self of all prejudice – I suspect it’s not. If so, the best I can aim for is to be on the alert for prejudices, try to rid myself of them when I discover them, and try to always remember that any opinion I have – regardless of how carefully thought out it may seem – may be inextricably tied up with some prejudice I don’t yet realise I have.

The Wikipedia article on Cognitive Biases has a very long list of them. With so many opportunities to go wrong, it’s hard to imagine one can escape all of them.

There’s a popular phrase ‘It’s good to have an open mind, but not so open that your brain falls out‘. I don’t like that phrase at all. It is most commonly used by bigots in an attempt to defend their bigotry while at the same time appearing rational. Nobody’s brain has ever fallen out from being open-minded, either literally or metaphorically. However, the rankest nonsense phrases often have a grain of truth of them, and there is a grain of truth even in that one. It is that, in order to achieve anything with our thoughts, we need a framework within which they can operate, and that framework will be made of rules and suppositions that are accepted without evidence. I agree that we need such a framework, but what is crucial is that we acknowledge the existence of the framework, that it has no supporting evidence, and that we hence have no basis on which to claim it is better than any other framework. That doesn’t mean we should refuse to act on conclusions drawn within our framework. But it does mean that (in my opinion, which was derived within my mental framework!) it is a good idea to regularly examine and challenge our framework, and consider alternatives. Sometimes that may lead to a radical change in worldview, which opens up whole new vistas.

It may lead to a Christian becoming a Buddhist, or vice versa. It may lead to a Socialist becoming a Libertarian, or vice versa. It may even (heaven forfend!) lead to personnel exchanges between Platonism and Existentialism. I may have my own preferences about which of those and other sets of ideas most people aligned themselves with but, regardless of the outcome of any migrations of beliefs, I see it as good that people regularly examine their beliefs, so that belief migration becomes a commonplace possibility. If we know what our prejudices are, we have the power to change them. But we cannot change a prejudice we don’t even know we have.

Here are two of my prejudices. The first is that it is preferable for there to be less suffering in the world. I know it’s a prejudice. I know I can’t prove it. But I’m going to hang onto it, for now at least.

The second prejudice is that if I have observed two phenomena to occur in close conjunction many, many times then, in the absence of strong reasons to the contrary, I should expect them to continue to occur in conjunction in future. Every self-supporting person on Earth has this prejudice. But nobody even realised it was a prejudice until David Hume pointed it out in the eighteenth century – his famous ‘Problem of Induction’. If you don’t believe me, think of how you use language. You speak English to somebody – say it’s Bertha, expecting them to understand it, because they have understood English when you spoke it to them in the past. But why should the fact that Bertha has always understood spoken English in the past indicate anything at all about whether she will understand it in the future? You might object that you know that Bertha learnt English as a child, so you know she knows English. But then you are relying on the association between the events ‘X has learned English‘ and ‘X understands English‘, which has been reliably observed in the past, but why should that tell us anything about whether it will be observed in the future? Whatever objection is raised, I (or rather David Hume) can find an answer to it. But I’m still going to hang on to this prejudice.

Prejudice in Music

I had been thinking over this in the context of musical styles. It’s hard to think of any other human activity, the study of whose history is so riddled with the use of the word ‘shocking‘. The most casual observer probably knows about how Rap was considered shocking when it emerged in the eighties, ditto Punk in the seventies, how Rock n Roll was considered shocking when it emerged in the fifties, and how Jazz was considered shocking in the early twentieth century.

But the history of people being shocked by music goes back much farther than that. The history of classical music in particular is regularly punctuated by shocks when some innovator broke hallowed rules. Working back in time we have Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Debussy, Wagner, Beethoven, Haydn and Monteverdi as major disruptors of established musical conventions.

The following story from a radio music presenter made a big impression on me. They told of how they had been working in the archives of a classical music operation, listening to, classifying and cataloguing recordings. After having been doing this for a few weeks they walked past a studio in where music was playing over the loudspeaker. Appalled at the terrible, disorganised racket they were hearing, they asked somebody what the noise was. It was JS Bach! [For the non-classical music buff, JS Bach was a genius who lived from 1685 to 1750, in the ‘Baroque’ period, and is as revered a part of the musical establishment as it is possible to be] The reason it sounded so terrible and formless was that the music the presenter had been listening to non-stop for the last few weeks was all pre-Baroque, and hence operated within a framework of rules and norms that Bach’s music ‘broke’. If they had heard it a few weeks earlier they would have likely thought ‘how lovely!‘ or maybe even ‘that’s a bit old-fashioned!

I want to pick on Schoenberg, because on the face of it he might seem to go as far as one can go in breaking rules. The Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg rebelled against the tyranny of tunes having to be in a musical key, like G major or A minor. Although only classical pieces tend to state their key, with names like ‘String Quartet in E flat Major‘, nearly all pieces have one. Perhaps the most famous song of all, Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Yesterday‘, could have been called ‘Sad song in F major‘. Key changes do occur within a piece, but they have a big effect, because we become attached to the key in which the tune is set. That’s why key changes are often used towards the end of a song to build up the levels of excitement and energy towards a final climax.

Schoenberg’s project was to refuse to use any key at all, not even for one phrase at a time. To do that he invented his ‘Twelve-tone system’ in which he set a rule that every one of the twelve notes in a chromatic scale must be used exactly once within each short section of the piece (called a ‘tone row’). By giving every one of the twelve possible notes equal status, he prevented any note gaining prominence as the ‘Tonic’, the home note of a key. Unlike another famous Austrian, Schoenberg was very anti-racist: he wanted the black piano keys to get as much opportunity as the white piano keys in his pieces (note that’s a different use of the word ‘key’).

Here, from YouTube, is a Schoenberg piano piece using his twelve-tone system, for you to enjoy.

As I was musing over whether Schoenberg had achieved the ultimate in open-mindedness, I suddenly realised a hidden prejudice. Sure, he had proclaimed equality between all twelve notes. But a note is defined by a frequency – vibrations per second. So the number of possible notes is infinite, not only twelve per octave. Between any two different notes there are an infinite number of frequencies between them. In Western music, which is descended from Ancient Greek music, the smallest interval between two notes is a semitone, which means the ratio of the two frequencies is 21/12 or about 1.06.

In classical Indian music, the twelve Western notes are used, plus ten others, called ‘nadas’, giving twenty-two altogether, so that the average gap between adjacent permissible notes is just over a quarter-tone. A piece containing nadas sounds to a Western ear, which is not trained to understand those extra notes, like it is being performed on an out-of-tune instrument.

Here is a scale that goes up an octave in twenty-four quarter-tone steps (not exactly the same as an Indian scale, but closer to that than to a Western scale), then walks back down again. What does it sound like to you?

Quarter-tone scale.

For comparison, here is the same thing using just the twelve notes in the Western scale.

Chromatic scale (semitones)

Try to sing or hum along to first the Chromatic scale, and then the quarter tone scale. I’m a reasonably accurate singer and can do the first, but can’t even get started on the second.

But even writing music that includes nadas or quarter tones still involves a prejudice against the in-between notes. It’s just a smaller prejudice than Westerners like me have. I expect a piece involving eighth-tone intervals would sound just as weird to an Indian as one using quarter-tones does to us.

If we want to write music that is free from all prejudice, we need to go beyond Schoenberg, beyond Indian music, beyond even eighth tones, and write music in which each note can be any frequency at all, without limiting the choice to notes that are certain multiples and ratios of others.

I wrote a piece of such music. To be precise, I programmed a computer to randomly generate a series of frequencies and note-lengths and produce notes using those. I then produced another version of it, in which each note was rounded to the nearest semitone, so that only the twelve notes in the Western scale were used.

Can you tell which is which? They are both weird. Both break most of the rules we are used to. But one is a bit weirder, a bit more free, than the other.

 

Sound File Freda

Sound File Bob

Click here to find out which one is which.

The above is a long way from JS Bach, but is it free from any form of musical prejudice (aka structure)? No. For a start I have constrained the notes to be within the audible frequency range, even though it is entirely conceivable that notes that we cannot consciously hear may still have an effect on our body and thereby alter the sensory experience. I have also constrained the notes to not be very short or very long, in order not to frighten or bore the listener. The volume is also constant, rather than varying between notes, or even within notes. The shape of each sound wave is a perfect sine curve, whereas the wave shape could be allowed to change between and within notes too. That would not change the ‘tune’ but it would change the texture (‘timbre’ in musician-speak). I expect there are other prejudices in there that I have not yet realised.

I like most of my prejudices. I prefer Bach to Schoenberg most days of the week. But it’s good to challenge oneself every now and again with a bit of Schoenberg (or its equivalent), and then to occasionally challenge the Schoenberg with something even more radical.

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, July 2017