Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Blame

When my wife gets a cold, she tries to identify the culprit who gave it to her. Was it that teenage bagboy who sneezed at the grocery? Or, perhaps, the irresponsible co-worker who coughed without covering her mouth. Maybe it was the old geezer with the sniffles in the bookstore, who was browsing through the same magazines my wife was looking at.

Someone must be blamed. The villain must be found.

I’ve been thinking about blame today because we here in Central Florida are experiencing a fiery spring. Throughout the area, dangerous brushfires are raging, and there’s no rain in sight for at least four or five days. About twenty miles from my house, 500 people were mandatorily evacuated from their homes; 300 more were asked to leave voluntarily. Other cities nearby are battling their own conflagrations.

Looked at in the greater scheme of things, a relatively small number of displaced persons can’t compete in the disaster olympics with the thousands killed, hurt, or rendered homeless by the cyclone in Myanmar, or the earthquake in China. Anyone with a shred of humanity, who doesn’t see the world as a collection of ethnic teams, feels for those people. But I have to confess that, one-worlder though I be, there’s a level of “reality” to the disaster here that those others lack. I smell the smoke in the air, hear the pleadings of local newscasters urging their listeners to flee, see the scared looks on the faces of neighbors. Yes, I feel great sympathy toward those poor people in Asia, and will contribute what I can to help them. But they don’t shop at the very same stores that I do; they don’t eat in the very same restaurants; they don’t put up with the very same governmental incompetence. Their misfortunes don’t — as illogical as I know this sounds — enrage me.

Fires are actually necessary for the environment. A number of plants, some of our native Florida pawpaws and orchids among them, get a competitive advantage only when other flora are cleared away. Longleaf pine, with its fire-resistant bark, will not flourish except in areas that have frequent low-intensity burns. Scrub habitats, filled with all those messy, eyesore plants, would wind up being hardwood oak forests if it weren’t for frequent fires; the huge trees would shade out the understory. All the critters who depend on these environments would have a tough time, if it weren’t for the flames.

But, of course, eco-friendliness is no comfort to a family watching their home getting enveloped in a blaze.

Apparently, a few of the fires — not those in my immediate vicinity, but others in bordering counties — were set by humans: arsonists or just plain idiots. There’s almost a tone of relief in the TV announcements that, just as we all suspected, some of those fires were started by human agency. There will be persons to blame, villains on whom to vent our community anger.

Being an atheist during a natural disaster is an existential experience. Despite scientific advancements undreamt of by past generations, there are some things in this world that can’t be controlled, that have to be accepted with reluctant resignation. It’s a sad and scary feeling; I’m not the master of my fate. Yes, I’d love to be justifiably infuriated, but at whom, at what? Only “nature” is the culprit, and, not being an actual entity, it’s blameless. All living things are both victims and victors in its endless cycle; that family in the $2 million house is no more “worthy” of sympathy for getting displaced by the fire than the scrub jay who would be displaced without it.

On the other hand, the theists amongst us do feel that there’s a causative entity, a super-intellect, a maker of cyclones, earthquakes, and fires. The blame is not, of course, his; he’s all good. The homosexuals, the libertines, the infidels, the “others” are responsible for the catastrophe. Even those who don’t take an accusatory position have to admit that “God works in mysterious ways.” Somehow, their supernatural sneezing bagboy is behind the calamity.

To think that some intelligent force is accountable for the tragedies that beset humanity, is, to me, a far sadder and an infinitely scarier explanation than knowing we’re each of us alone in a wild and seemingly random world.

16 comments:

Will "take no prisoners" Hart said...

I have no idea if there's a more powerful life force than myself or not. How could I? I am, however, quite comfortable in criticizing the Christian, anthropomorphic conception of a supreme being. I mean, how preposterous is that? Homo-sapiens are, at best, the 19th or 20th hominid that has inhabited this planet. And, because of this, we're led to believe, what, that the 18 or 19 previous species were only rough drafts of sort. And the fact that it took 4 billion years for God to finally come up with this idea, "Yeah, man in my image. That's the ticket!" But, seriously, though, an energy of some kind, something transcendent - granted, not likely but, hey, who am I to give the definitive nyet.

John Morales said...

A very nice post!

Salient for me:

Anyone with a shred of humanity, who doesn’t see the world as a collection of ethnic teams, feels for those people.

There are 6.6+ billion people on Earth, and we at most know a few thousand.

I think it's human nature to mourn more the more you empathise with a person, and those you know are easier to empathise with, and those you love...

To think that some intelligent force is accountable for the tragedies that beset humanity, is, to me, a far sadder and an infinitely scarier explanation than knowing we’re each of us alone in a wild and seemingly random world.

As you've alluded to in the post, evidence shows theists ascribe the good to God, the neutral to Nature, and the bad to anti-God.

Heh.

yinyang said...

I blame the people who thought it was smart to build flammable houses. ;)

Brendan said...

Even more annoying than the human instinct to ask: Who can I blame? is the American instinct to ask Who can I sue?

Being a rational person means being able to say, every once in a while, Shit happens.

iambilly said...

One of the really big problems is the increasing interface between suburbia and wildlands. People want to have homes which are in the forest, but they don't seem to realize that, when the forest burns, the house does too. One thing local fire companies have done up here in PA (and I have seen done at wildfires) is decide before the fire happens which houses can be saved. Oddly, when the house survives (either because the house had a protective area around the house, or the firefighters created the barrier), the homeowners rarely thank the wildland firefighters, they thank their deity. The ones who lose their house, though, blame the firefighters. Every year there are court cases brought about because a fire company or incident commander decides a house is too dangerous to protect. If the house survives, thank God. If it burns, sue somebody. Gaaah.

John Evo said...

On the other hand, the theists amongst us do feel that there’s a causative entity, a super-intellect, a maker of cyclones, earthquakes, and fires.

And not just the theists, I'm afraid. Anyone who buys into any supernatural explanations.


Again, it's natural in our society to focus on theists and especially Christians, but even here there are plenty of others who don't attempt to apply reason in every situation.

The Exterminator said...

Will:
... who am I to give the definitive nyet.
Maybe you can't give the definitive nyet, but you can certainly refuse to buy into the definitive da.

John M.:
As you've alluded to in the post, evidence shows theists ascribe the good to God, the neutral to Nature, and the bad to anti-God.
Very nice summing up.

Yinny:
You are definitely my favorite teenage cynic.

Brendan:
I'm not sure that Whom can I sue? is worse than Whom can I blame? At least when one sues, he or she is looking for financial recompense for damages; the motivation may be disgusting, but the suer is hoping to be reimbursed for something. When one blames, he or she is merely looking for a scapegoat -- but for what reason? There's a philosophical hatefulness in the latter that's missing, somewhat, in the former.

(((Billy))):
You're right, of course. Homeowners assume that firefighters will always opt to protect all property, even over their own lives. The homeowners are wrong, but that doesn't stop them from being pissed off, or complaining about "inefficient" service.

The people they should be most pissed off at, though, is themselves. Here in Florida, scrubland -- the very habitat that most needs fire for its nonhuman inhabitants to survive -- is exploited over and over for development opportunities. So, in a way, the developers and their ignorant customers are to "blame" for buying homes in areas that are likely to burn.

Evo:
I'm not convinced that the article you linked to offers supernatural explanations. It may well be that some creatures do sense coming earthquakes, tsunamis, and storms better than humans can. I'm reserving judgment on that one. In any case, I definitely wouldn't call the alleged predictions in the Times report "supernatural." Actually, they're natural phenomena, although as yet unproven.

John Evo said...

Oh, I'm agnostic on many issues concerning the heightened sensitivity of animals.

But when you start point to frog migrations 5 days before an earthquake - well, you need to have really strong scientific evidence before I'm going to bother paying any attention. Since that evidence doesn’t exist, there is no reason for me to give it any credence.

Maybe "supernatural" is a bad word. How about "woo"?

Don't forget one of our founding scientific principles - you can't prove a negative. So we may never know for sure that frogs didn't start hopping in part because they were so sensitive to the environment that they "knew" something big was about to happen. But you can say there is absolutely no evidence for such a thing.

As a side note, I look at things like that from a (surprise) evolutionary perspective. Is there an advantage to genes that would warn of a natural disaster in advance? In this case, it would have to be a very specific genetic capability that is in tune to geological events (that is to say, that same mechanism couldn't be used for hurricanes or forest fires – at least in my thought experiment, I can’t see one).

So, in the line leading to today's frogs, did some survive at a higher rate than others because they were able to hop out of the way of Earthquakes?

Now this doesn't even take into account if there are any signals available to pick up on if a creature had such a capability. We'll set that "little" problem aside. (Our most sensitive high-tech equipment is unable to predict a coming earthquake).

Back to the evolutionary environment, I have trouble doing a thought experiment where some amphibians actually survived at a higher rate due to "predicting" an earthquake. 1st, how far does a frog hop in a few days? I would guess that jumping out of the range of a tremendous earthquake would be impossible. 2nd, for the "unequipped" frogs that get left behind "to die" - how many of them actually die because of an earthquake? You see the problem? If the earthquake doesn't act as a selective pressure then nothing happens evolutionarily.

The Exterminator said...

Evo:
Is there an advantage to genes that would warn of a natural disaster in advance?

I think that your view of evolution outlined here is pretty simplistic, and I doubt that you've expressed the subtleties of what you really know through years of reading.

Some genes link both positive and negative survival traits, or positive and neutral traits, or negative traits without which certain other positive traits would be impossible. Other traits may have once been useful, but aren't any longer. I don't think you can look at isolated behavioral phenomena and expect them all, at this exact moment in biological time, to necessarily be good survival strategies. Do you still have your appendix?

On the other hand, I agree that there's absolutely no evidence supporting any of the claims made in the article.

John Morales said...

Regarding the appendix ...

the chaplain said...

Oh, ye of no faith! I was assured by a lunchtime companion (on this very day, no less) that all of the signs and wonders Exterminator mentioned in this post were predicted in the Bible. Whaddya talking about with your scrubland story? Goddidit, plain and simple! No evolutionary or natural explanation is required. And guess what? Even though God did it and it seems terrible to us (especially to Ex who is pretty close to some of the hot action), it's actually very good because it means that the End Times are a-coming, brothers and sisters! Thus spaketh Brother XXX at the Fellowship of the Lunch Table!

John Evo said...

Ex, my many years of reading doesn't necessarily equip me (or even make me willing) to make my thoughts on something like this much clearer than I did! But as long as you agree that there is absolutely no reason to posit that any of these "signs mean a damn thing, then I'm satisfied.

Just out of curiosity, can you think of any selective pressures that would come to bear - FOR ANY REASON (not just that would detect a coming earthquake) to make an animals senses heightened to that degree? I honestly can't.

The Exterminator said...

John M.:
Well, throughout my blogging "career," I've written many posts to which commenters have added new ideas, embellishments, and addenda. But you're the first person to add an appendix.

chappy:
I was assured by a lunchtime companion ... that all of the signs and wonders Exterminator mentioned in this post were predicted in the Bible.
But was I, myself, predicted in the bible? I doubt it. My parents didn't even predict me, f'cryinoutloud!

Evo:
I can't answer your question; my biological knowledge is far too meager. There are plenty of events happening every day in the animal world that I can't think of. Fortunately for the animal world, the range of my imaginative capabilities is immaterial to evolutionary development.

PhillyChief said...

Great post.

I think the key word is frustration. Frustrated that your house burnt down? Blame someone. Frustrated that you can't figure out who to blame? Blame anybody, like those people you hate like the atheists, the gays, and the liberals. Frustrated you have to pay more for gas, or frustrated because you don't know why you do? Start praying and/or start blaming those people you don't like. Frustrated you don't know how life began? Make something up.

Woo is just another bit of nonsense to appease frustration.

Brendan said...

T. Ex.:

I'm not sure that Whom can I sue? is worse than Whom can I blame? ... There's a philosophical hatefulness in the latter that's missing, somewhat, in the former.

I take your point. I guess, for me, asking who can be sued implies asking who can be blamed, with the additional badness of looking to get paid for a happenstance.

Will "take no prisoners" Hart said...

Oh, I absolutely DON'T buy into the definitive da. Not at all. That's why I'm an agnostic. As to what I actually do believe, I think we're all just a computer simulation. If frigging that!!