The meaning of life (seriously- well, almost seriously)

Mother and son

A year or so ago a friend of mine asked me a series of questions, to each of which I happened to know the answer.  After I’d told her everything she wanted to know about whatever trivial subject she was asking about (it must have been a trivial subject for me to have had all the answers,) she asked, “okay, what’s the meaning of life?”  I laughed.  She pressed me on it.  I decided to play along.

My wife, Mrs Acilius, has cerebral palsy that affects her arms and legs in a big way, but her cognitive abilities hardly at all.  So a wheelchair and a trained dog can fill in for everything she needs to make her way in life as an independent person with a professional career.  At about the time my friend insisted that I craft an answer to the question “What is the meaning of life?,” I’d been spending more time than usual involved with her dog and his training, and was thinking that there might be some kind of deep cosmic significance in it.  So I took a shot at the question based on that.

Maybe, I said, it’s something to do with a reciprocity between care and need.  Mrs Acilius’ relationship with her dog has a meaning to her that a relationship with a human whom she or some social services agency paid to perform the same tasks wouldn’t have.  She and the dog both need each other and both care for each other.  A paid human attendant might need a job, but might not need her; she might need the help the attendant provided, but might not need the attendant.  In other words, the need that goes toward making a relationship meaningful isn’t just what the parties in it need from each other, but that they need each other.  And what completes that meaning is that those who need each other care for each other.

This came back to mind this afternoon as I was reading an article on 3 Quarks Daily about the value of children’s lives relative to other people’s lives.  The author, Thomas Rodham Wells, tries to fit children into a utilitarian moral scheme where they are “special, but not particularly important.”  I am not a utilitarian, for many reasons, some of which I explain here.  I do think that Mr Wells’ article is well worth reading, not only because he is a most sophisticated utilitarian, but also because his article can help to flesh out the idea that the meaning of life can be found in a relationship between care and need.

For Mr Wells, children are special because of their extreme neediness:

Children are special in one particular, their extreme neediness. They have quite specific often urgent needs that only suitably motivated adults can meet, and the younger they are, the greater their neediness. That makes children’s care and protection a moral priority in any civilised society – there are lots of things that aren’t as important and should give rightly way to meeting children’s needs. As a result, children create multiple obligations upon their care-givers, as well second-order obligations on society in general, to ensure those needs are met.

Yet the fact that you should give way to an ambulance attending an emergency doesn’t mean that the person in the ambulance is more important than you; only that her needs right now are more important than you getting to work on time. Likewise, the immanence of children’s neediness should often determine how we rank the priorities of actions we want to do, such as interrupting a movie to attend to a baby’s cries.

However, the special priority neediness confers on children’s needs is not to be confused with extraordinary value.  Indeed, children are, other things being equal, less valuable than are adults:

People’s lives get more valuable as they ‘grow up’ because part of growing up is having more life to live. The greatest part of the value of a human life, as opposed to that of a merely sentient animal like a mouse, relates to the development of personhood. Persons are what children are supposed to grow up to become. Persons are able to relate to themselves in a forward and backward looking fashion, to tell a story about where they have come from and where they are going, to determine how they should live, and so on. Persons are able to relate to other persons as independent equals, to explain and justify themselves, to make and keep promises, and so on. Personhood in this sense normally rises over the course of a life, peaking generally around the mid 50s, the traditional prime of life, before beginning to decline again.

The trouble with our attitude to children is that the less like this idea of a person they are the more valuable children’s lives are supposed to be. The younger and more inchoate their minds and the shallower their ability to relate to themselves, others, or the world the more important they are held to be and the greater the tragedy if one should die. Of course I don’t deny that the death of a child is a tragedy for her parents, I’m quite convinced of the depth of their anguish. But the fact of their grief that doesn’t address the issue of relative value. Is it really the case that the death of a baby is an objectively worse thing to happen in this world than the death of a toddler than the death of a teenager than the death of that middle-aged accountant?

The death of an adult person is a tragedy because a sophisticated unique consciousness has been lost; a life in progress, of plans and ideals and relationships with other persons, has been broken off. The death of a young child, is also a tragedy, but it seems a comparatively one-sided one, the loss of an tremendously important part of her parents’ lives.

I suspect that the idea that lives are to be valued because of their narrative content is more defensible than the idea that actions are to be valued because of their net contribution to the amount of pleasure (minus pain) in the world, and so I say that Mr Wells’ utilitarianism is more sophisticated than is the garden variety of that school.  Still, like other utilitarians he ends up putting lives in order by the rank of their worthiness to live.  In the Book of Genesis, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob specializes in this sort of ranking and presumably carries it out according to some rational plan, but I think it is safe to say that the job of the God of Genesis is unlikely to come open any time soon.  Failing that, the only scenarios in which it is at all necessary to rank particular lives by worthiness of life that are at all likely to befall any of Mr Wells’ readers may be battlefield cases where time is extremely short and highly-developed ethical codes are of little use.

Still, reciprocity of need and care, the potential for such reciprocity, need for a person rather than for anything one might get from that person, these are all narrative concepts, and all involve the kind of growth and strength upon which Mr Wells places such a premium.  Even a utilitarianism much cruder than his, which would be blind to these concepts, would still highlight the requirement that the needy person also have the ability to answer the other’s need for such a relation to have importance.

One of the weaknesses with the idea that The Meaning of Life is to be found in a reciprocal relationship between need and care is that people’s actual experience of moral reasoning in cultures around the world has many more than one dimension.  Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has recently attracted a good deal of attention with a model of what people are actually talking about when they talk about right and wrong, a model that operates on 6 dimensions.  One of these dimensions, an axis running from care to harm, is predominant in the thinking of many in Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (WEIRD) circles.  Indeed, classical utilitarians do not recognize any other component to morality than care and harm.  Looking beyond the WEIRD world, though, we find that, while humans in all times and places tend to agree that it is usually good to care for others and bad to harm them, they also place great importance on other concerns as well.  Professor Haidt arranges these other concerns in five further dimensions of moral reasoning: loyalty vs betrayal, sanctity vs degradation, fairness vs cheating, liberty vs oppression, and authority vs subversion.

To go back to the example of my wife and her service dog, I think we can bring all of these dimensions to bear in explaining the superiority of a canine companion over a human employee.  Compare the direction of loyalty in the relationship between dog and handler with the direction of loyalty in the relationship between client and employee.  Dog and handler are loyal to each other.  Unless something has gone very far wrong, that loyalty is typically deep and untroubled.  Between client and employee, however, there is a complex network of competing loyalties.  The client and employee may or may not develop a loyalty to each other.  The employee, however, must also be loyal to whoever is paying his or her wages, who may be the client, but more likely is a social services agency, an insurance company, etc.  And in a capitalist economy, an employee cannot avoid being both cheated and oppressed unless s/he throws aside all loyalty to his or her employer and clients when negotiating wages and conditions of employment.  That isn’t to deny that this suspension of loyalty, like the suspension of disbelief when watching a play, can sometimes in the long run strengthen what was once suspended, but the sheer complexity of loyalty as a phenomenon within the marketplace does mean participants in the marketplace have a harder time building up loyalty as a virtue than they do when participating in other institutions.

In the matter of sanctity vs degradation, the reciprocity of care and need that the dog offers the handler brings sanctity into settings where a client and a human attendant might have to make a special effort to avoid degradation.  Sometimes a dog helps a handler to dress and undress, to bathe, and to do other things during which the handler is exposed and vulnerable.  The handler does the same for the dog, and the dog looks to the handler for every need.  Therefore there is nothing degrading about receiving such service.  Human attendants are usually trained to be respectful and inclined to be so, but even so, there is something demoralizing about the helplessness one feels when asking for help from someone to whom one can offer no comparable help in return.  Again, a qualified professional with the average amount of human compassion will minimize that demoralization, but some trace of it is always there.  With the dog, you are building a loving relationship in which both canine and human find something that can only be called sanctity.

As for fairness vs cheating and liberty vs oppression, the dog avoids the problems inherent in an adversarial economic system to which I alluded above.  This is especially the case in a program like that which has provided Mrs Acilius with her current service dog and both of his predecessors, Canine Companions for Independence.  CCI is funded by donations and operated largely by volunteers; clients pay only their own personal expenses.  Of course, it functions within the USA’s economic system, so it isn’t altogether a utopian scheme.  For all that Mrs Acilius is given to telling her dogs that they are “angels from heaven,” they are in fact bred and trained using wealth produced in our capitalist system, with all its characteristic virtues and vices.  But I would say that CCI’s philanthropic structure maximizes those virtues and minimizes the accompanying vices.

As it does with loyalty and betrayal, the market introduces complexity into the experiences of authority and subversion.  So an employee is under the authority of an employer and sometimes under the authority of the client, but occasionally is required to give the client direction.  This need not be an especially frustrating complex of roles, but it does make it difficult to see how there can be any great moral significance in any particular phase of it.  The relationship between dog and handler, however, is one in which the lines of authority are crystal clear.  And it is the mutual need and mutual care that keeps those lines of authority functioning.

So maybe my response to my friend wasn’t quite as silly as any response to the question “What is the meaning of life?” must initially sound.  I’m not planning to work it up into a scholarly project of any sort, because I’m not actually the sort of person who wants to have an answer to that question, but I’ve posted it here for what it’s worth.

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A long comment at 3QuarksDaily

A moment ago, I posted a very long comment in response to a post by Quinn O’Neill at 3QuarksDaily.  Ms O’Neill’s post was a response to criticism that she had received after saying, in an earlier piece on the same site, that the most effective strategy for increasing the likelihood that schools will teach a biology curriculum based on sound scientific research might not consist of atheists making displays of personal hostility toward religious believers.  Much of the criticism Ms O’Neill received was based on the premise that anyone who questions the efficacy of such displays has betrayed the holy cause of Science and opened the gates to the Satanic hordes of Creationism.  In her response, Ms O’Neill felt obligated to reassure everyone that she is a True Unbeliever who renounces religion and all its works, and said among other things that she does not “believe that science and religion, as worldviews, are compatible and I don’t believe that evolution is logically compatible with theism.”  I had to respond to that statement, and did so at a length that is really quite unreasonable for a blog comment.  Here it is:

“I don’t believe that science and religion, as worldviews, are compatible and I don’t believe that evolution is logically compatible with theism.”

That sentence includes some pretty broad terms.  I grant you that a religious sect which demands that its followers believe the earth to have been created in October 4004 BC is not likely to be pleased by the findings of geology, or biology, or astronomy.  But what about a religion like Confucianism, which, to the extent that it represents a worldview, does so not by preaching doctrines but by guiding its followers through ceremonies and structuring their social relations?  Where is the faith/ reason battle there?

To the extent that “religion” is a meaningful category, I suspect that its defining features have far less to do with the belief systems that many religions  have than with the social bonding that they all promise.  I’m inclined to agree with James P Carse, longtime professor of religious studies at New York University, who in his 2009 book THE RELIGIOUS CASE AGAINST BELIEF argues not only that religious can get along perfectly well without having belief systems attached, but that their belief systems often keep religions from achieving their real value, which is their ability to bind people together into communities that endure for many generations.

Professor Carse’s argument may seem odd, but if we draw an analogy with science I think we can see more clearly what he’s driving at.  The point of science isn’t to uphold certain doctrines or theories, but to challenge all doctrines and theories with evidence and logic.  A scientist who would rather defend a pet theory than face the facts that cast that theory in doubt isn’t making the most of science.  Likewise, religious believers who wage holy war in the name of militant ignorance in order to protect a cherished belief aren’t breathing life into the past and binding the present to the future; they are condemning past and present to the contempt of the future.

So “religion” is a problem.  “Theism” is a problem, too.  So far as I can tell from the Oxford English Dictionary, “theism” was first coined in 1678 by Ralph Cudworth as a contrary to “deism.”  While deists affirmed the existence of some sort of god but denied that the god they believed in had communicated directly with the world, Cudworth wanted a word to name persons who, like himself, believed in divine revelation.  Later it was used as we would now use “monotheism,” and presented as a contrary to “polytheism” and “atheism.”  Nowadays “theism” sometimes embraces polytheism and deism, and is defined in smaller dictionaries as “belief in a deity, or deities, as opposed to atheism.”

Does this attitude actually exist?  Is there, anywhere in the world, anyone who, as a matter of pure intellect, simply believes that there is at least one deity in existence?  I suspect not.  On the contrary, it seems likely that every person who would sincerely agree to such a proposition would also be a supporter of some particular religion, and of various other ideas and practices that come bundled with that religion.

However, let us assume, for the moment, that there is some point in talking about “theism” and “theists” in the very broad sense of agreement with the proposition that at least one deity exists.  Is it true that this proposition is not “logically compatible with” evolution?  Surely not.  An ancient Greek like Hesiod would fervently agree that at least one deity exists; however, in his THEOGONY, Hesiod describes the origin of the physical world as a spontaneous process that predated the birth of any gods, and frames the origins of the gods within the processes of nature.  It is admittedly unlikely that science will show Hesiod’s claims to be factually sound.  However, they are not only logically compatible with evolution, but are in the strictest sense of the words a story about evolution.

What about monotheism?  Is it logically inconsistent to say, on the one hand, that a single personal God created the world and rules over it, and on the other hand to say that life as we know it is the result of an evolutionary process.  I don’t presume to know why you think that these ideas are logically incompatible, but I can think of some other people who hold them to be so.  What I say next is directed at them, not at you.

In the early modern era, the idea took hold that the physical world operates like a machine.  It came to be widely expected that, given adequate knowledge, it would always be possible to predict what output would result from any given input.  In time, this idea became so familiar that it was fashionable to claim that reason could function only if events in the world were all predetermined.

When determinism of this sort reigned supreme and nature appeared to be a grand machine, theologians often described God as a grand machinist.  For thinkers like Jean Calvin or William Paley, reason demanded determinism and so faith demanded a God whose plans were complete before the creation of the universe and were bound to be realized in every detail. For people still invested in these theologies, evolutionary theory is profoundly disquieting, since it suggests a world in which events not only need not be predetermined to be described rationally, but in which many events may be in principle impossible to predict.  Obviously, quantum mechanics is a problem for them as well.

Is an unpredictable world logically incompatible with monotheism?  It seems not.  Not only was the idea of a universe that operated like a machine as alien to the ancient Hebrews as it was to everyone else before modernity, but the idea of a God who has nothing to learn from nature is absent from the record of their religious ideas preserved in scripture.  At several points in the Hebrew scriptures God changes his mind in response to appeals from the prophets and patriarchs.  Evidently these men, members of nature as they are, have told God something he did not know.  As a result of what he learned from them, God alters his plans.  These passages were a scandal in the early modern era, but they don’t seem to have bothered the Jews before the West had its encounter with mechanistic determinism.  Now that evolutionary theory and quantum mechanics have shown that reason can get along quite well without determinism, why should the idea of a God who can learn from the world and change his mind as a result of that learning bother any believer?

The crusader

The other day, I posted about James P. Carse, a longtime professor of religious studies who reminds us that religions are not reducible to sets of beliefs, and who argues that the tendency to treat them as if they were is responsible for much evil in the world.  I was reminded of Carse’s arguments yesterday when I was looking up the latest links on my favorite filter blog, 3quarksdailyThere was a link to a piece by Richard Dawkins, “The Faith Trap.”  Dawkins considers the case of a clergyman who has ceased to believe inb the doctrines of his church.  Dawkins holds that the only honest course for such a clergyman is to give up his job and look for another line of work.  Non-theistic belief of the sort associated with writer Karen Armstrong won’t satisfy Dawkins:

To the trusting congregation, Karen Armstrong would be nothing more than a dishonest atheist, and who could disagree? You can just imagine the shocked bewilderment that would greet a ‘ground of all being’ theologian, if he tried that on with churchgoers who actually believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, and died for their sins.

Notice that clause, “who actually believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water, and died for their sins.”  Apparently, Dawkins believes that acceptance of those and similar propositions is an essential condition for qualifying as a Christian. 

Further on, Dawkins writes:

What other career, apart from that of clergyman, can be so catastrophically ruined by a change of opinion, brought about by reading, say, or conversation? Does a doctor lose faith in medicine and have to resign his practice? Does a farmer lose faith in agriculture and have to give up, not just his farm but his wife and the goodwill of his entire community? In all areas except religion, we believe what we believe as a result of evidence. If new evidence comes in, we may change our beliefs. When decisive evidence for the Big Bang theory of the universe came to hand, astronomers who had previously espoused the Steady State Theory changed their minds: reluctantly in some cases, graciously in others. But the change didn’t tear their lives or their marriages apart, did not estrange them from their parents or their children. Only religion has the malign power to do that. Only religion is capable of making a mere change of mind a livelihood-threatening catastrophe, whose very contemplation demands grave courage. Yet another respect in which religion poisons everything.

“Does a doctor lose faith in medicine and have to resign his practice?”  Some do, I’m sure, though not in the sense Dawkins wants to invoke.  If we define medicine as a set of beliefs to which one either does or does not subscribe, then it would be strange if a doctor were to cease to subscribe to those beliefs.  But of course no one really thinks of medicine that way.  Medicine is a collection of practices, communities, and institutions, which are more or less generally supposed to achieve certain results, and which are more or less generally supposed to be worthwhile both in themselves and in light of those results.  There are indeed certain beliefs that come easily to people engaged in medicine, but those beliefs are at most one aspect of medicine, not the essence that makes it what it is.  The same description might be applied to farming or to astronomy. 

Taking up that description, we can revisit Dawkins’ question.  Does a doctor lose faith in medicine and have to resign his practice?  I suspect any number of doctors do just that.  One enters a profession because one has some idea of what the work of that profession is in itself and what results such work can be expected to achieve.  After some years in medicine, a doctor might very well discover that his or her initial ideas were unrealistic, and that s/he is not willing to continue with the practice of medicine.  So too might a farmer or an astronomer decide that s/he would be better off in some other occupation.   

If we think of a religion, not as a set of propositions to which certain people all assent, but a collection of practices, communities, and institutions, which are more or less generally supposed to achieve certain results, and which are more or less generally supposed to be worthwhile both in themselves and in light of those results, then we might find that members of the clergy are not so different after all from other professionals.  For some people, belief in the truth of a particular creed or notion might be one of the goals of religion; it would be very strange indeed if this were the whole function of a religion for any sizeable number of its adherents.  However prominently particular beliefs may figure in debates between adherents of various religions, in attempts to defend particular religions, and in power struggles within religions, the vitality of religion does not come from agreement with any given set of propositions, but from the bonds it sustains between people.  I’ve come to know a great many deeply religious people in the last few years, and I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of these who seem to spend any time dwelling on the dogmatic beliefs of their traditions.   

Dawkins provides a rather amazing example of what I like to call “the Academic We.”  This is a construction in which a professor-type uses the first-person plural to describe the state of knowledge or opinion among some unspecified group of people.   Dawkins claims that “In all areas except religion, we believe what we believe as a result of evidence.”  Do we really?  Sixteen centuries ago, Augustine pointed out that we believe a particular man to be our father and a particular woman to be our mother based on authority, not on evidence.  Readers of Augustine have had no trouble since coming up with any number of other vitally important beliefs that come to be widely accepted without any evidence whatever.  Vast numbers of people believe in racist ideologies, for example; on what kind of “evidence” could those beliefs possibly have been formed?

Will the Manhattan Project Always Exist?

3quarksdaily is mostly a filter blog, but they do run some original material. For example, here is an intriguing piece about the nature of historical memory.

Terry Eagleton’s “Reflections on the God Debate”

eagleton bookVia 3quarksdaily, an interview in which Terry Eagleton discusses his book, first published this March, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.  In his introduction, the interviewer quotes Eagleton as saying that the “New Atheists” (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc) “buy their rejection of religion on the cheap.”  In the interview, he enlarges on this point, claiming that Dawkins and his ilk reduce religions to sets of propositions and behave as if arguments for and against these propositions were grounds for accepting or rejecting religions.  So far from being new, this approach represents positivism at its most naive.  They ask only, “What do the believers say about their creeds?,” never “What do believers accomplish by saying what they do about their creeds?”  For Eagleton, the life of the religion is in the relationship between beliefs and actions, and it is a ruinous mistake to treat a system of religious beliefs in the same abstract way that we would treat the propositions in a geometric proof.  Indeed, this is the same mistake fundamentalists make:

NS: You say he emphasizes a “propositional” account of religious faith above a “performative” one. But how far can one go believing in God performatively, through political acts, before it becomes a proposition?

TE: All performatives imply propositions. There’s no point in my operating a performative like, say, promising, or cursing, unless I have certain beliefs about the nature of reality: that there is indeed such an institution as promising, that I am able to perform it, and so on. The performative and the propositional work into each other. But it is a typically positivist kind of mistake to begin with the propositional, just as it would be for someone trying to analyze a literary text, which is basically a performance. Somebody who didn’t grasp that would be making a root-and-branch mistake about the kind of thing being confronted. These new atheists, and, indeed, the great majority of believers, have been conned rather falsely into a positivist or dogmatic theology, into believing that religion consists in signing on for a set of propositions.

(more…)

Why are there 60 minutes in an hour?

Thanks to 3quarksdaily for posting about this article that answers the question “How did the Sumerians count to 12 on one hand and to 60 on two?”

Seeing is feeling is believing

Thanks to 3quarksdaily for linking to this report about how optical illusions and tactile experiences can influence each other.  Apparently the senses work together in more ways than cognitive scientists had previously realized.

Sons and World Power

A demographer would have seen it coming

A demographer would have seen it coming

Thanks to 3quarksdaily for linking to The New Left Review on Gunnar Heinsohn’s Söhne und Weltmacht (Sons and World Power.)  Heinsohn notices that when countries have more young men than they know what to do with, they often go to war.  In his book, originally published in 2003, he examines that correlation in depth.  Here is an interview Heinsohn gave to the Danish magazine Sappho in 2007.  The review and the interview are in English, the book is available only in German.

A novel interpretation of academic freedom

Thanks to 3quarksdaily for linking to this column by Stanley Fish.  I’ve copied four excerpts below:

My assessment of the way in which some academics contrive to turn serial irresponsibility into a form of heroism under the banner of academic freedom has now been at once confirmed and challenged by events at the University of Ottawa, where the administration announced on Feb. 6 that it has “recommended to the Board of Governors the dismissal with cause of Professor Denis Rancourt from his faculty position.” Earlier, Rancourt, a tenured professor of physics, had been suspended from teaching and banned from campus. When he defied the ban he was taken away in handcuffs and charged with trespassing.

What had Rancourt done to merit such treatment? According to the Globe and Mail, Rancourt’s sin was to have informed his students on the first day of class that “he had already decided their marks : Everybody was getting an A+.”

Later: 

Rancourt is a self-described anarchist and an advocate of “critical pedagogy,” a style of teaching derived from the assumption (these are Rancourt’s words) “that our societal structures . . . represent the most formidable instrument of oppression and exploitation ever to occupy the planet” (Activist Teacher.blogspot.com, April 13, 2007).

Among those structures is the university in which Rancourt works and by which he is paid. But the fact of his position and compensation does not insulate the institution from his strictures and assaults; for, he insists, “schools and universities supply the obedient workers and managers and professionals that adopt and apply [the] system’s doctrine — knowingly or unknowingly.”

It is this belief that higher education as we know it is simply a delivery system for a regime of oppressors and exploiters that underlies Rancourt’s refusal to grade his students. Grading, he says, “is a tool of coercion in order to make obedient people” (rabble.ca., Jan. 12, 2009).

It turns out that another tool of coercion is the requirement that professors actually teach the course described in the college catalogue, the course students think they are signing up for. Rancourt battles against this form of coercion by employing a strategy he calls “squatting” – “where one openly takes an existing course and does with it something different.”

And then:

Rancourt first practiced squatting when he decided that he “had to do something more than give a ‘better’ physics course.” Accordingly, he took the Physics and Environment course that had been assigned to him and transformed it into a course on political activism, not a course about political activism, but a course in which political activism is urged — “an activism course about confronting authority and hierarchical structures directly or through defiant or non-subordinate assertion in order to democratize power in the workplace, at school, and in society.”

Clearly squatting itself is just such a “defiant or non-subordinate assertion.” Rancourt does not merely preach his philosophy. He practices it.

How did Rancourt’s supervisors respond to his activities?

The record shows exchanges of letters between Rancourt and Dean Andre E. Lalonde and letters from each of them to Marc Jolicoeur, chairman of the Board of Governors. There is something comical about some of these exchanges when the dean asks Rancourt to tell him why he is not guilty of insubordination and Rancourt replies that insubordination is his job, and that, rather than ceasing his insubordinate activities, he plans to expand them. Lalonde complains that Rancourt “does not acknowledge any impropriety regarding his conduct.” Rancourt tells Jolicoeur that “Socrates did not give grades to students,” and boasts that everything he has done was done “with the purpose of making the University of Ottawa a better place,” a place “of greater democracy.”

Cuneiform tablets

A Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet in the British Museum

A Mesopotamian cuneiform tablet in the British Museum

Thanks to 3quarksdaily for linking to this article in The London Review of Books about an ongoing British Museum show called “Babylon: Myth and Reality.”  Apparently the exhibition concentrates on cuneiform tablets.  The article explains what we know about cuneiform tablets as a medium and speculates on what we may yet learn about them.