Letters June/July 2022,Nicole Scott,Free Inquiry

Free Inquiry Pronoun Future

S. T. Joshi (“Pronoun Follies,” FI, February/March 2022) is in a state about the campaign to replace the third person singular him/her with the plural they—even for singular references to appease the transgender community. He would have been in a real tizzy a few centuries earlier when the singular ye was similarly replaced by the plural you as the normal second person singular pronoun, as well as being used in its plural sense. The lesson of history is that languages change over time and often not for the good. But it’s something we language lovers just have to put up with, since, with language usage, the weight of numbers tells in the end. So I have had to bite my tongue as “beg the question” (assume what was to have been proved) has degenerated into meaning simply “raise the question”; and, even more horribly, “to all intents and purposes” is well on the way to being replaced by “to all intensive purposes” in the common phraseology.

However, Joshi is totally wrong when he rails against split infinitives. There is nothing inherently wrong about split infinitives in English. True, in Latin, which was the model for the grammarians who made up the rule, you never split an infinitive. But that was for one very simple reason: the infinitive in Latin is a single word, so you couldn’t split it even if you wanted to. In English, the infinitive is two words (“to go”) so we have the luxury of being able to choose which word order conveys our meaning most felicitously: “boldly to go,” “to boldly go,” or “to go boldly”? Even those heroic sticklers for correct English usage, H. W. and F. G. Fowler, in their 1908 book The King’s English, concede that in some sentences the split infinitive version is the best. They give this example: “Our object is to further cement trade relations” conveys the meaning exactly, while both alternatives (“Our object is further to cement trade relations” and “Our object is to cement further trade relations”) are clumsy and ambiguous. Shakespeare may have only split an infinitive once (“Sonnet 142”), but the great writers who were not averse to the practice include Donne, Pepys, Burke, Johnson, Lamb, and Wordsworth to name but a few. This is not to say every split infinitive is a literary gem. Each one must be judged on its merits, to carefully assess whether it is optimal or not.

Ian Robinson

President Emeritus

Rationalist Society of Australia

I sympathize with S. T. Joshi but don’t agree with him. Grammar errors made my teeth grind for decades, but over the years I came to understand that the rules of grammar are transitory and follow language usage. They don’t determine it.

While it is true as he says that ambiguities can come from errors of grammar, it is also true that those ambiguities are removed as usage settles. Who now complains of the horrendous grammatical blunder of “I was given a pair of skates for my birthday”? Obviously the subject of the passive verb “was given” must be the gift, not the recipient. Correct usage would be “A pair of skates was given to me.” But so what?

The accepted usage in the case of pronouns is likely to be decided by common usage rather than any rule, and since the use of the plural pronoun case was already common before the gender issues became current, it wouldn’t surprise me if that usage wins out. If someone doesn’t like it, I hope they get over it soon.

Don Martin

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

I was dismayed to see S. T. Joshi’s pedantic screed against pronoun recognition in your publication. I don’t know who Free Inquiry is trying to court with such tone-deaf articles, but I guarantee you it is not the readership you want. I have subscribed to this magazine for decades, even having an essay published in one of your issues. But I recently let my subscription lapse precisely because I thought the voice of Free Inquiry was becoming stuck in its ways—an old boys’ club of mostly male, mostly older authors. To renew my subscription and have Joshi’s out-of-touch essay staring me in the face was quite a disappointment. I don’t know that I’ll be renewing again unless some of your authorship changes. If Free Inquiry wants to remain a relevant, contemporary publication, it needs to get some younger voices on board.

Jen Nichols

Portland, Oregon

 

 

Overpopulation

Sometimes I believe we are way overthinking the overpopulation issue discussed at length in the February/March 2022 issue of Free Inquiry (“What Gives Overpopulation Its Legs?,”by Karen I. Shragg). It’s a simple matter of human will and the irresistible urge to reproduce in every living thing on this earth. Why should humans be any different? We can’t stop ourselves. If humanity has a headstone, it should read: “We couldn’t stop ourselves.” Just because we have huge brains, nothing is guaranteed, as we can judge by our inability to control digital technology. What we have here is an earth and a civilization brought to the brink of disaster by optimistic humans. Whether it’s technology or overpopulation, it is the optimists who keep getting us in trouble, but the optimists always have an optimistic view of their failures and a surefire way to save us.

Leonard Bohlman

Waterloo, Wisconsin

I was disappointed but not surprised that Karen Shragg doesn’t mention religion as a major cause of overpopulation. Both major religions forbid birth control. People say, “Oh well, most Catholics today practice birth control.” That may be true in developed countries, but the main problem is the developing world, where missionaries exploit the poor and forbid birth control. Every time the religion dominated Republican Party gets power, they reinstall the gag rule, which forbids discussion of abortion by U.S.-backed charities. I am always dismayed that the same people don’t want the excess populations to migrate here. I was not surprised by the omission; my main criticism of humanism is they don’t criticize religion.

Paul Donohue

via email

I must respond to the anti-human “overpopulation” article. The truth is: there is, and can be, no such thing as human overpopulation. The problem belongs not in the domain of education, environmentalism, naturalism, and so on, but in economics. What follows is a professional opinion of an economist with half a century of experience.

Let us begin with a simple question: How much is too much? An objective answer can only be found in sustainability. Every species of live beings exists in its bio-niche, whose resources are not endless and, therefore, can support only so many. For Homo sapiens, this natural limit is below 100 million. Billions of us can exist only because our species broke the prison walls of its bio-niche and became able to convert any available resources into something that satisfies its needs. This conversion is known as economy.

Our question can be now objectively answered. Human population is limited, first, by the sum total of available resources and, second, by our ability to convert them into means of supporting our existence. The first limitation is obviously removable. At any moment of history, available resources were limited indeed—but science and technology expanded that availability. Right now, space travel is ready to add asteroids’ and inner planets’ resources. In the foreseeable future, those of the entire solar system might be utilized; in more distant one, those of the entire universe might. If the doomsayers see any reason for progress to stop, that might easily result in overpopulation. But so far, there is no such reason with possible exception of global nuclear catastrophe. Would they offer it as a means to stop overpopulation?

The key word in addressing the second limitation is labor. This is what actually performs the conversion of resources. If the laborer produces more than is necessary to sustain his or her own existence, what remains—surplus produce in economists’ parlance—is what keeps us afloat. That’s why labor productivity is vitally important—and no limitations here are seen, either, for it is based on scientific and technological progress. Once again, can the doomsayers name any reason why it would stop?

But this is not enough. Ms. Shragg’s four-legged stool provides means and opportunities for growth. As any viewer of the Law and Order TV series knows, what lacks is the motive. Now we can see one. As labor productivity increases with progress, the sum total of surplus product grows faster than human population. Humanity becomes wealthier and has therefore more to finance progress, which results in further growth of labor productivity. This socioeconomic positive feedback is the omnipotent driving force behind the expansion of population.

That’s why there is, and never will be, any overpopulation—at large. Regional variances driven, once again, by economic forces are quite possible—but luckily for people, they can occur only under regimes that have real power over their subjects.

Edward Tesler, PhD

Buffalo Grove, Illinois

As a long-time population activist, I was happy with Karen Shragg’s essay—that is, until I came to her third leg, something she calls “fossil-fuel based neo-capitalism.” When she referenced Ozzie Zehner’s book Green Illusions, I knew she was off-base. Zehner’s work did indeed get fresh oxygen in Michael Moore’s Planet of the Humans, but that didn’t make it any more legitimate. That film was widely derided for its cartoonish depiction of renewable energy and electric vehicles. Several million people apparently saw this travesty of a film and believed its lies. I use the word lies purposely because many of the claims were easily debunked by actual scientists, and a lot of scenes were deliberately shot to hide reality.

The film barely touched on population as a solution and didn’t offer a single action related to population that a viewer could use to make a change. It does no good to point out that mining elements for batteries causes harm without also pointing out that the harm caused by the alternative, internal combustion, is vastly worse.

I became a population activist shortly after graduating high school in 1970. I got my vasectomy at age twenty-three after being turned down by several doctors who did not believe a young unmarried man could make such a decision. The procedure cost me $10 after Lane County, Oregon, paid the balance. In response, I have endowed three vasectomy funds through Planned Parenthood in Oregon and California. I also financially support World Vasectomy Day, a single day in which several hundred doctors provide several thousand vasectomies for free in over thirty countries every year. These are some of the things Zehner, Gibbs, and Moore could have mentioned to help people take action to reduce population growth.

Paul Scott

Cofounder of Plug In America and author of Radical: With Billions of Lives at Stake, What Would You Do?

Santa Monica, California

 

Karen Shragg Responds:

I want to thank each and every one of those who read and commented on my article. It is not an easy topic to tackle, but tackle it we must and with as much compassion as we can. I do appreciate your questions and apologize for any misunderstandings. I will try to address them here. Feel free to continue the conversation via my website at www.movingupstream.com.

I will take the challenge by Paul Donohue first. Bravo for holding my feet to the fire about religion. You are absolutely correct. The Catholic Church alone has much to answer for to this very day. In my defense, I wrote a whole chapter on that in my book (Move Upstream: A Call to Solve Overpopulation, Freethought House Press, 2015) titled “WWJD, What Would Jesus Do?” This article, however, was not about the reasons we are prolific, as much as it was that we are. Another reason we are so successful in increasing our numbers is simply our amazing ability to tackle the reasons we die with everything from storm warnings to a plethora of pharmaceuticals.

Leonard Bohlman asks a very pertinent question: Why should humans be any different as we all have an irresistible urge to reproduce? That is certainly one of the obstacles, but we have overcome other “natural” obstacles by using our mammalian brain over our reptilian brains. We have an urge to eat and eat everything that is edible. But when given other options, many have thought of ways to conserve resources and save species and not give into their urges to kill in the name of food. Hence the vegetarian and animal rights movements.

Edward Tesler, a fellow PhD, challenged that the very idea of overpopulation was anti-human. He also postulates, if I understand correctly, that if labor increases so will surpluses, ignoring that we will not be able to produce water or that our forests cannot continue to be cleared for our temporary benefit. I understand that the very idea of stating that there are too many humans on Earth opens the thought that anyone addressing it must be anti-human. The opposite is true. It is a very compassionate effort to have us wake up to the limits of growth on a finite planet, which was well articulated in the book Limits to Growth over fifty years ago and reprinted in 2004 by Meadows and Randers. I do suggest putting it on your reading list. If we do not come to terms with overpopulation, we as a top predator on a limited Earth will suffer more due to scarcity and fighting over resources than we already do.

 

 

Environmentalism

David Mountain’s article (“Greenwashing God: The Danger of Religious Environmentalism,” FI, February/March 2022) is well taken. Action founded in science, not religion, is the only chance we have as we face the suffering and sadness that will be brought on by the progress of the inevitable environmental change we have started.

Yet it continues to be religion that is inexorably driving us in that direction. Believers in God trust with blind faith that he will provide.  Over a billion Catholics are discouraged from family planning. It is considered one of the true “litmus” tests for a true believer to allow for pregnancy with every intimacy. God help us!

P.S. I have read many articles by Karen Shragg. Thank you for yet another.

Michael Murphy

Concord, Massachusetts

 

 

Accident or Intention?

I was quite impressed by David Jensen’s essay, “Are We Accidental or Intended? Thornton Wilder and the Antipathy toward Darwin” (FI, February/March 2022). Jensen’s critique of the environmental concept of “Mother Nature” and her “wisdom” is, to me, particularly important and relevant. It immediately reminded me of Aldous Huxley’s once famous essay on nature called “Wordsworth in the Tropics,” published as early as the 1920s. As Huxley says, in our civilization “it has been an axiom that Nature is divine and morally uplifting.” Of course, it is neither, but this quasi-religious doctrine has never gone away, and the more “Nature” is controlled and subdued, the more vigorously the doctrine is promoted, not only by environmentalists.

Perhaps, as Huxley suggests, the believers in the intentional goodness of Mother Nature should leave our civilized places, where nature has been “nearly or quite enslaved to man,” and go take a hike in real wilderness—Malaya or Borneo, for example, where nature is always “alien and inhuman, and occasionally diabolic.” And where “the sparse inhabitants of the equatorial forests are all believers in devils.”

Kaz Dziamka

Former editor of The American Rationalist

I enjoyed the article by David Jensen, “Are You Accidental or Intended? …” (FI, February/March 2022), including the literary information. As a realist, I have come to the conclusion that the particular combination of sperm and egg that was my beginning was accidental. A pregnancy may or may not have been intended, but there is no control over the exact unique DNA combination.

As to the “tenacity of theism and how people shrink from reality,” I believe this is based on aspects of the typical human brain-mind. The inherent interaction of the brain’s Conscious-Logical (C-L) and Instinctual-Emotive (I-E) circuits and their frequent conflict underlies this phenomenon. Our everyday interaction with the environment suggests a cause-effect model of the world, but before scientifically gained data became commonplace, the forces involved were mostly mysterious. Animistic/transcendent intent was imagined for all action by default. This C-L model helped to assuage the I-E fears of the unknown.

This process is still in force if one is averse to the implications of scientific models of the world. These models of science will never be complete. But we crave certainty in our explanations, and our imagined cause-effect possibilities are central to the concepts of accident or intention. Actions, only initiated by the unthinking I-E system, should be seen as accidents.

In ascribing evil intent to the uncaring accident of the great Lisbon earthquake, Hanna Arendt believed in the intentionality of natural disasters. This is akin to the Peruvian reaction described by Jensen.

Finally, the “depressing … unspoken dread (of Brother Juniper) that Darwin could have been on to something” is a common reaction. An indeterminate accidental future is more anxiety-producing than an intended one that could be ameliorated by action or prayer.

Uwe C. Koepke MD, PhD

Danbury, Connecticut

There is fallacy in the perception that Darwinism is equated only with evolution. That is promoted by those who wish to extinguish the concept of Darwinian thinking, which is in itself an evolution of thought that assumes that everything will evolve with the intellect of an evolving being. Our worldview will change with our own advancement, never to remain stagnant. Our intellects will mature with our technology. To many, this incites a discomfort at removing the obstacles of tradition and the minimization of accepted norms. Some may view this as a discontinuation of culture and not a melding of purpose. The ultimate demise of the agency model of theistic doctrine is a perfect example of an anti-animism that continues to grow in the collective consciousness in humans.

F. Edward Fisher

Chalmers, Indiana

David Jensen Responds:

Thanks to Kaz Dziamka for calling attention to Aldous Huxley’s critique of the supposed divinity of nature. Maybe it’s just the Darwin-tinted spectacles I’m always wearing when out in nature, but, yes, nature looks as uncaring and bleak to me as apparently it did to Huxley. The wilderness looked friendlier to me when I was a child protected by a vaguely religious perspective.

Thanks to Uwe C. Koepke for his reminder that another reason people want an intended world is that Darwin’s vision obviously provides no support for the efficacy of prayer.

Finally, I share F. Edward Fisher’s approval of “the anti-animism that continues to grow in the consciousness of humans.” His phrasing reminds me of Daniel C. Dennett’s contention that it was Darwin who initiated this “de-animization of the world.” Readers wanting to explore these issues further need to read Dennett.

It occurs to me that Darwin can be compared to Copernicus in an instructive way. Copernicus risked being disapproved of (and worse) when he raised the possibility that geocentrism might be a myopically provincial way of looking at things. Along came Darwin four centuries later with the far more demeaning suggestion that our favorite model of explanation might not address the heart of things either—that it might (in its typically over-extended form) amount to a provincialism even more laughably myopic than geocentrism but so much harder to give up that most people even today refuse to abandon it.

 

 Affirmations of Humanism

 I keep vacillating on whether or not I am a secular humanist and should subscribe to Free Inquiry. I am definitely a nonbeliever with respect to both God and religion. However, like Dan Davis (“On ‘The Affirmations of Humanism,’”FI, February/March 2022), I don’t agree with all twenty-one Statements of Principle on the inside back cover. Interestingly, I also agree with much of what Laurence Mallaender has to say in the following article (“Secular Humanism in the Post-Enlghtenment Age,” FI, February/March 2022). My complaint has always been that secular humanism, in criticizing religions, spends too much time trying to be an acceptable alternative for nonbelievers who miss the discipline provided by religions. I think this has prompted secular humanists to try to substitute the twenty-one principles for the Ten Commandments. 

If you want to attract members and subscribers, you need to think about the kind of people who are nonbelievers. We don’t want, nor need, another bunch of rules to live by. We think logically and want to figure that out for ourselves. Woops! That sounds like another principle coming on. It’s okay. You can belong even if you don’t think logically.

Jim Murray

Green Valley, Arizona

Immortality

Edward Tesler (“Immortality: The Ticket to Survival,” FI, February/March 2022) prompts some interesting questions regarding longevity as a means of human survival and even the meaning of the concept. Consider the ability to learn new things: clearly there is a physical limit to the number of neurons and interconnections that can fit inside the skull. Yet life as we experience it involves continual learning, else we would be little more than the zombies of fiction. Even in our limited current life spans, our brains seem to deal with this by allowing old memories to fade away with disuse, presumably making room for the latest acquisitions. The “self” is thus like the view from a rear-facing seat in a moving train: the scenery of youth forever receding into the distance. With an extended life span, the train will just keep moving along, the window always presenting new views. Which of these is the “you” that is being preserved? Eventually, there would be no meaningful remnant of any original self. Is there any rationale for preserving this, versus ordinary offspring?

Robert Masta

Ann Arbor, Michigan

Re: “Immortality: The Ticket to Survival” (FI, February/March 2022).

I can see Chief Seattle of the Suquamish Tribe shedding tears of sorrow if he read what Edward Tesler wrote in his article: “Sooner or later, colonization of the solar system will become humanity’s only alternative to ending up as Earth’s inmates.” This is what that great man said to an assembly of white men:

The earth is not the white man’s brother, but his enemy, and when he has conquered it, he moves on. But all things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Teach your children what we have taught ours—that man belongs to the earth, not the earth to man.

He then predicted that the white man will contaminate his nest and someday suffocate in his own waste.

We humans discard a gazillion disposable items each day, and someday we’ll also dispose of planets after we trash them. In my opinion, we already have enough brainy people in space science, military and industrial technology, and finance. What we desperately need, before it’s too late, are people of wisdom like Chief Seattle.

David Quintero

Monrovia, California

Biblical Truth

Andy Rhodes is in good company when he focuses on the improbability of a compassionate god behaving as he does in “What Is the Likelihood That the Bible Is True?” (FI, February/March 2022). In The Age of Reason (1795), Thomas Paine wrote of “a book of lies, wickedness, and blasphemy,” and more recently in The God Delusion Richard Dawkins has observed, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.” However, Rhodes is mistaken to think that it is even possible that the Bible is true, for the simple reason that it is self-contradictory. Paine noticed this as did William Henry Burr, who produced his list of 144 Self-Contradictions of the Bible in 1860. By definition, such a book cannot all be true and, as Paine wrote, “If the Bible be not true, or the truth of it be doubtful, it ceases to have authority, and cannot be admitted as proof of anything.”

Martin Stubbs

London, United Kingdom

Erratum

There was a typographical error in the epigraph to “The Human Flower” on p. 52. “It’s” should have been “Its.” —The Editors

Free Inquiry Pronoun Future S. T. Joshi (“Pronoun Follies,” FI, February/March 2022) is in a state about the campaign to replace the third person singular him/her with the plural they—even for singular references to appease the transgender community. He would have been in a real tizzy a few centuries earlier when the singular ye was …

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