13 October 2007

The magnifying glass attitude

Peter Magellan, in a recent letter in New Scientist and on his excellent blog, Effing the Ineffable, advocates a symbolic magnifying glass to fill a need – We (atheists, freethinkers, rationalists and assorted brights) need a symbol under which we can unite, much like the Christian fish.

Peter Magellan's proposed "Rationalist Lens"

He calls this "an unambiguous alternative to symbolise all kinds of rationalist world views, not just atheism - which defines us by what we are not, rather than by what we are."

Magellan's stance contrasts with the Scarlet Letter of the Out Campaign advocated by Richard Dawkins as an answer to a need expressed by the irrepressible PZ Myers
"a logo for the godless"

Richard Dawkins' proposed "Scarlet Letter"

Myers says: Now, though, there is one possible option: the RDF has started the Out Campaign, an effort to get atheists to publicly and proudly declare their status. It has a slightly different meaning — it's not exactly a symbol of atheism, but more a symbol of the willingness to come out about your disbelief — but it's nice, it's simple, it's clean. It's a simple red Zapfino "A", the scarlet letter.

I am wholeheartedly for the magnifying glass, for a number of reasons.

Defining what we are is always preferable, I think, to what we are not. Advocacy stimulates and inspires, whereas defining from the negative adds legitimacy to the other side.

The question of whether God exists, any god, is irrelevant. The pathology should be the only issue, and in that, no person who believes in any god can refute the simple evidence stuck in the pudding of care. God is either supremely indifferent to what happens on earth, and to every living being, or sick enough that the greatest meanies who ever lived, including the greatest terrorists – are milktoasts in comparison.

If God exists, the very randomness of who and how the living suffer and do well should negate a reason to either give thanks or to say please. But that doesn't mean that it's worthwhile arguing with people who still think that their god will treat them differently.

The more effort one spends on refuting what can never be proven to exist, the less one can explore the wonders of what does.

Which brings me to the other reason I am so keen on the magnifying glass as a symbol. While I don't usually enter competitions, I entered the following earlier this year in the New Scientist/Australian Museum Eureka Science Photography competition just for the chance to express my feelings. (Though the winner of this and previous years' competitions, and other runners-up are far out of my league, so many of these gorgeous and inspiring pictures concentrate on the small.)

Veranda Space *

Outer Space isn't the last frontier. This picture was taken five steps away from my office, on the other side of the wall. It is both unique and usual in its shed skin, mummified life, eggs, silk, plant life and randomly beautiful 'design'. There are countless inter-related frontier galaxies that exist right here on earth, from the seas to the barely visible with the naked eye, to the Biosphere Mary E. White writes about in Earth Alive! From Microbes to a Living Planet. As for problems, no big picture can be understood without the small. Concerned about global warming? "Insects are the first things to go," CSIRO scientist Don Sands says. "They're the best indication of climate change that we have because the impact on them is almost immediate."

But who notices insects, except to squish them? Mostly people who were bitten with curiosity as kids, like the Chew family of Brisbane. Now more than at any other time, people are screened off from the natural world. Computers can't spark the insatiable curiosity that is the basis for a lifetime in science (and problem solving) anywhere near as well as a $7 magnifying glass and a shove outdoors.

* I love the fact that the shed skin in the foreground is from the larval stage of a (terrifying to curators) creature that even when full size, is noticeable more from the evidence it leaves behind than the sight of it. Like Ebola, it is part of the Great Unseen to the uninterested, but indisputably and importantly, real.


Anonymous said...

Hi Anna

Just found this post when somebody visited my blog from here. I'm ashamed to say I hadn't noticed it before. Many thanks for your positive comments!



anna tambour said...

A pleasure, Peter. You're not only a great thinker, but a wonderful communicator.