01 February 2007

A walk in the park

One of the advantages of working for a company with enlightened policies is that it is "dog friendly." At least three of the staff have taken advantage of this, occasionally bringing their dogs to the office, and I tend to do this most often. In fact, the dogs are more often in the office than not, as they enjoy meeting people, and going for walks. My two dogs are of the Border Terrier breed, which is a hardy yet affectionate variety of pedigree, with the character of a mutt. They've been with us for eight years now, and act as unofficial "morale officers", greeting everyone who comes to the door, and snorking any spare items of tasty food which might accidentally fall to the ground.

Today in Vienna is a chilly 8° Celcius, with strongs winds but occasional sunshine -- ideal for a walk in the nearby Prater, one of Vienna's largest parks. It's a beautiful scene, stark and sere, with a few forlorn leaves waltzing past in the winter sunshine. Yes, that really is my clumsy thumb visible in the lower left corner of the image -- it's not easy to make a clean picture with two dogs straining at the leash.

The Prater is famous for the giant Ferris Wheel, or "Riesenrad", which featured in the Orson Welles classic movie, "The Third Man." It can just be glimpsed through the trees above, in an aspect which reduces its apparent "wheelness."

The main road leading in to the Prater is the "Hauptallee", which is lined with Horse Chestnut trees, now denuded of leaves. Each tree is sleeping for the winter, its photosynthesis enzymes largely inhibited by the cold.

Evolution and photosynthesis

A simple question occurs -- why do leaves fall (from deciduous trees?) What evolutionary advantage is conferred by this loss? One answer might be that the leaves could cause snow to accumulate more heavily in the branches, leading to breakages and subsequent diminution of the trees ability to photosynthesize in spring. Or perhaps the leaves represent a potential energy loss, due to the temporary breakdown of photosynthesis, and therefore this burden is reduced, because otherwise the task of maintaining circulation to all of the leaves (I'm assuming sap is circulating along with water to keep the leaves moist) could eat into the tree's stored glucose energy reserves. As an illustrative example, evergreen trees have a different leaf structure, which doesn't support snow accumulation in the way that a broad, flat leaf from a deciduous tree might. Evolutionary biology is fun, especially when you have no idea about what it all means....

Walking in the park is a great time for thinking, and reflecting on strategies and choices I face, in business and personal life. I find that maintaining a connection with the natural world of trees and parks (however nebulous) is helpful as a grounding process, to ensure that my decisions are optimal (as far as I can tell.) A brisk walk certainly helps with the oxygenation of the brain, although dogs are less interested in the speed of a walk, focusing more on the stops along the way, and the accompanying smells and opportunities to mark territory.

Grumpiness and Insecurity

I'm a little grumpy this morning, after pulling a muscle during weight training before breakfast. Then I found my company car park was occupied, which means regular trips to refresh the paid parking on the street. So I'm in the mood to tackle a topic which may raise a few hackles.

In recent months, I've been reading and thinking on the topic of atheism. First, I've been reading Richard Dawkin's excellent book, "The God Delusion." I really enjoy the writer's style, and find his arguments cogent, logical and well-founded in reality.

Digg presented a link to the Rational Response Squad, a young group of militant atheists who are challenging other atheists to "come out" on Youtube by blaspheming their religion of choice. While I understand their motivation, I'm not sure that it's the most productive approach, although it will certainly increase their media exposure -- which is why I guess they're not using their real names. I was brought up in a nominally Christian culture, and have attended a variety of churches on many occasions, but I don't feel it's necessary to denigrate other's choice of belief.

An obscure New Zealand theologian, Lloyd Geering, became well known for being tried for heresy by the Presbyterian Church. He rejects supernatural explanations of the divinity of the historical character of Jesus, yet remains a church minister and nominal Christian, while being as close to atheism as most Christian churches will tolerate (although this does seem to be an increasing trend among the thinking Church-goer.) His auto-biography, "Wrestling with God", is worth a look as the life story of an interesting and thoughtful thinker.

Dawkins has provided a useful scale of unbelief:

1. Strong theist. 100 per cent probability of God. In the words of C. G. Jung, 'I do not believe, I know.'
2. Very high probability but short of 100 per cent. De facto theist. 'I cannot know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.'
3. Higher than 50 per cent but not very high. Technically agnostic but leaning towards theism. 'I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.'
4. Exactly 50 per cent. Completely impartial agnostic. 'God's existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.'
5. Lower than 50 per cent but not very low. Technically agnostic but leaning towards atheism. 'I don't know whether God exists but I'm inclined to be sceptical.'
6. Very low probability, but short of zero. De facto atheist. 'I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.'
7. Strong atheist. 'I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung "knows" there is one.'

I'm probably around a 6 on the scale, but may change as I near death (despite recognizing the flaws inherent in Pascal's Wager. :0)

If I were to apply a label, I guess I might call myself a Bright.

My own tendency is towards a more Buddhist philosophy, which interestingly has much in common with modern atheism, rejecting supernatural explanations for phenomena, and denying the existence of "miracles." While some Buddhists may worship the Buddha as a divine being, I believe most of us view him as an enlightened man, who left behind a very effective and powerful philosophy. I certainly equate the traditional view of a Sky-Father (Odin perhaps?) with more recent innovations such as the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who seems to have just as much evidence of existence.

Faith is the keyword most often used by religious apologists, in order the justify their irrational thinking, and of course Dawkins sees this as a species of disorder -- a "faith sufferer" being one who has been infected by a powerful virus of the mind, a "meme." However, I feel that faith is a word that we should not allow to be wholly appropriated by the Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Jew -- as I have faith in the evolutionary capacity of humanity to adapt to even the difficult conditions which our overuse of natural resources has caused. I particularly admire Dawkins' spirited advocacy of the Great Ape Project, which proposes a type of United Nations Rights Charter for higher animals, such as gorillas and orang-utans. As a vegeterian since 1978, I share many of the views of the Project's founder Peter Singer, who propounds an ethical yet humanist view of the world which seems very Buddhist to me -- the idea that we can have compassion for all living creatures.