Tuesday, December 25, 2007

A Tribute to Bulat Okudzhava

In 1965, I visited the Soviet Union on Ohio State's Russian Language Study Tour--the second ever to that country. At the age of 19 and a second-year undergraduate, I was the youngest on the tour. I had begun studying Russian in Valley Forge High School in 1961, and this was a defining event in my life. But I won't go into those memories here. I just want to pay tribute to an old pleasure of mine--the great Russian bard/poet Bulat Okudzhava (Булат Окуджава).

Around 1970, I came into possession of a record of Bulat Okudzhava's songs. It was of poor sound quality, but the cover touted him as the "Soviet Bobby Dylan", so I didn't much care about his voice or the scratchiness of the recording. Bulat Okudzhava was frowned-upon by the then Soviet authorities, and that made his music all the more attractive to me. The lyrics were beautiful, and I played the record incessantly in the apartment that I shared with two fellow students. Finally, not being able to take it anymore, one of my roommates threw the record album under the seat cushion of our sofa when I was out, and one of us broke it when he sat on it. I was shocked, but there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn't replace the bootlegged copy. I didn't hear his songs for another two decades.

Fast-forward to 1997. That was my next trip to Russia--a much-changed Russia from 1965. Now I was in my 50s, and I was attending a conference of linguists in Yasnaya Polyana, the ancestral home of the Tolstoys. We stayed in an old Soviet-era hotel, which, while broken-down and crumbling, still had blaring loudspeakers playing during the day. In Soviet times, they might have played martial music, news, and propaganda. Now, it was rock music. But the organizers of the conference had thoughtfully hired a "bard" to entertain us. He brought his guitar and serenaded us in the evenings. All the older Russians seemed to know the lyrics of the folk songs, and they sang along.

Finally, knowing that I was an American who spoke Russian, the bard asked if I would like to hear any particular songs. Naturally, I asked him if he knew any Bulat Okudzhava songs. He looked at me strangely at first (because who wouldn't know those songs?) and smiled. Then he told me that Bulat Okudzhava was his hero and that he would have a Bulat Okudzhava concert for me the next night. And he did, and I loved it. Everyone sang my old favorites, especially my all-time favorite "Paper Soldier" (Bumazhnyj Soldat). It was a night I will never forget.

The next day, we trekked to visit Tolstoy's grave. I caught up with the bard to thank him again, but he wouldn't speak to me. I didn't know what was wrong, and he simply would say nothing. He just stared at the ground and walked ahead. Then I was pulled aside and told that Bulat Okudzhava had died the previous night, as the bard was treating us to the concert. The bard was so depressed that he vowed never to play another Bulat Okudzhava song. He was crestfallen that Bulat had died in Paris, not on Russian soil. Later in the trip, my wife and I visited Bulat Okudzhava's ancestral home on the Arbat in Moscow. There was a store at the ground level, but the young people there claimed never to have heard of Okudzhava.

My point in bringing all this up here is that I have just discovered a web site for Russian bards (http://bard-cafe.komkon.org), and they have free downloads of his songs in MP3 and RealAudio formats. So, I just want to recommend them to you. Even if you don't know Russian, perhaps you will enjoy the haunting melodies. If you do, you will be treated to some of the greatest poetry in the Russian bard tradition. I recommend all, but particularly the second (Paper Soldier) and the fifth (Black Cat). Enjoy.

And here are some translations of his lyrics by Alec Vagapov, especially my favorite:


Once there lived a soldier-boy,
quite brave, one can’t be braver,
but he was merely a toy
for he was made of paper.

He wished to alter everything,
and be the whole world’s helper,
but he was puppet on a string,
a soldier made of paper.

He’d bravely go through fire and smoke,
he’d die for you. No vapour.
But he was just a laughing-stock,
a soldier made of paper.

You would mistrust him and deny
your secrets and your favour.
Why should you do it, really, why?
‘cause he was made of paper.

He dreads the fire? Not at all!
One day he cut a caper
and died for nothing; after all,
he was just a piece of paper.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Do Laps Exist?

I sometimes like to participate in discussions on the CARM bulletin board, because it is a good place to take the pulse of religious mentality. Lately, atheists and theists have been debating the relationship between logic, God, language, and reality. It seems to me that people are confused about whether the objects that we discuss with language really exist in an "absolute" sense. I have always thought that the word lap is an especially interesting word to consider in discussions about reality, because laps are physical, yet ephemeral, objects. You can see the full thread at CARM, but here is one of my little contributions to that discussion:

There are at least three aspects to language that we need to keep separate:
  1. Linguistic symbol (e.g. spoken or written form)
  2. Reference (things being talked or written about)
  3. Meaning (that which allows us to link symbols to reference)
Language is conventional, but it was never "invented" by anyone. Humans and other animals have always had communication systems, but human language evolved. Like other primates, we still have a "call system" (laugh, scream, cry, etc.), but we combine it with gestures. Some of us think that complex gestures in combination with spoken "calls" may have evolved into our very complex linguistic capability.

When we ask whether a statement is "true" or "false", we are necessarily talking about a conventional expression--one that is contingent on the beliefs of the people engaged in dialog. For a dialog to carry off, the people engaged in it must share beliefs about the linguistic forms they are using. No linguistic expression can exist without that agreement or the context in which the expression gets produced. So it doesn't make sense to argue over whether linguistic expressions were true or false before humans existed. Linguistic expressions themselves can only exist in conversational contexts. They have no significance outside of that context.

Do things exist independently of human cognition? They do, but not in the way most people think they do. Reality is a bit like linguistic expressions in that the way we parse it is entirely conventional. Take, for example, the word "lap". Do laps exist? They represent a configuration of a human body. Laps appear when we sit down and disappear when we stand up. There was a time when no laps existed, and none would exist today if all humans were to stop sitting. What would a "lap" mean to an ant or a snake? Neither creature has a body that can sit.

So, are "laps" absolutes in any sense? They exist in the outside world. They are part of reality. But they only exist as constructs in the minds of beings with human-like experiences.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Naastika and Swastika

Here is a further explanation of the title of this blog. As a linguist, I have studied quite a few languages in depth, although my most fluent foreign languages are Russian, French, and Spanish. In the early 1970s, I was a graduate student at Ohio State University, and I was naturally interested in Sanskrit, the literary language of the Vedas. So I took some Sanskrit courses, studied Panini's work (Panini being the greatest of all ancient linguists), and even studied a little Yoga. For those who don't know it, Sanskrit is part of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family, which also includes Germanic languages such as English.

The Sanskrit word asti means "it is" in English. The suffix -ka attaches to verb stems to form nouns, so the word aastika (आस्तिक) would literally correspond to "being" or "beingness" in English, but a better translation might be "orthodox". The word naastika (नास्तिक) is the negation of this. So it means "unorthodox" or "heterodox". These words are related to the Sanskrit word swasktika (स्वस्तिक), which is a symbol of "well-being" or "lucky charm" in the Hindu religion and some other ancient cultures (See Roman mosaic image). The root contains the word su "good" and asti. The German Nazi party co-opted the symbol as their own before the period of WWII, so the name and the sign carry a hefty stigma in modern Western culture.

It has always intrigued me that the ancient Hindu tradition was far advanced over other classical civilizations in many subjects, particularly linguistics. The Greeks are credited with creating the first purely alphabetic writing system, but their linguistic theories never came close to the genius of Panini's Ashtadhyayisutrapatha (literally Book with Eight Chapters) or simply the "Ashtadhyayi". It was Panini's work that ultimately gave rise to modern linguistic theory in the 19th century, although Western linguists have too rarely given it credit.

What is most interesting to my "unorthodox" viewpoint is that the Naastika tradition includes the Carvaka school of atheist materialism, which died out sometime in the 14th century. The school was founded by Brihaspati, who wrote the now-lost Bārhaspatya-sūtras, which were written sometime in the early BCE centuries (Mauryan period). To those who see atheism as a new phenomenon that has gotten a lot of "buzz" in the beginning of the 21st century, we should remember that atheism has been a part of human history since the beginning. Unlike the religious traditions it has rejected, records of atheism and their impact on society have either not been recorded or have been destroyed by those who cannot stand the idea that sane human beings could reject belief in gods.

Thoughts on the Use of Guns for Self-Defense

We often hear that guns do not kill people. People kill people, and guns are sometimes needed for self-defense. Today, I found this story of how a man saved his life by his timely use of a gun. It was clearly one of those cases that becomes a statistic--a defensive use of a gun. The twist was that his assailant was allegedly his own wife, and he killed her:

Police said that the couple was involved in a dispute, and afterward, Karen Dion grabbed a shotgun and fired it at her husband. Gary Dion then retrieved his own firearm, and, after being confronted by his wife, who still had her shotgun, he shot and killed her, police said.

Domestic violence is so common in our society, and people often have serious lapses of judgment. Had this home had no guns, perhaps the couple would have resorted to knives or baseball bats. Or maybe that woman would still be alive today.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

5 Reasons to Reject Belief in Gods

I offer the following as 5 major reasons to reject belief in gods. They are in order of ascending importance, in my opinion. My goal is not to present a logical proof that gods don't exist, but to give some positive reasons from practical experience why people ought to reject belief. Also, I intend these as applying to all gods, not just the Christian god.

1) Divine silence

If gods were imaginary, then one would expect them not to come around at all. Gods do not intervene in human lives in any objectively detectable way. Usually, the topic of "divine silence" is associated with the Problem of Evil, the issue being why God does not intervene to thwart evil behavior. But no god even drops by to say "hello" in public places. They almost always appear only to private audiences, making their appearances look like private delusions. The point is that gods behave as if they didn't exist. They can only be detected through indirect personal experience, which is how humans communicate with all imaginary beings.

2) God of Gaps

Gods have always been used to explain natural phenomena, but scientific advances have literally stolen their thunder. We now have good non-theistic explanations for natural phenomena such as thunder. Religion often fights tooth and nail to preserve incorrect religious explanations that science has debunked. God always retreats in the face of advancing knowledge. Yet all religions still use gods to explain some phenomena that science has yet to provide answers for, e.g. what reality was like before the "Big Bang". The bad track record that religion has for explaining things should be taken as evidence that religion is unlikely to have any correct explanations.

3) Bad god detection record (failure of revelation)

Humans make phenomenally bad god detectors. They have dreamed up thousands and thousands of gods in their history, and religion exists in all human societies. The problem is that it is not the same religion. Clearly, people are prone to making up false gods and attributing miraculous behavior to them. Moreover, all religions spread from a single geographical location and spread from there to neighboring territories. If there were some objective collection of true gods, or a single true god, then one would expect the same revelations to crop up simultaneously in more than one place. The distribution of religions suggests that they are largely based on human contact and human traditions. Most believers simply believe in the gods that their parents taught them to believe in. If gods truly existed and people were able to detect them, then one would expect that there would be more uniformity of belief in the world. Even within monotheistic religions such as Christianity, there are myriads of competing ideas about what God is like.

4) Argument from Evolution

This is primarily an argument that undermines belief in creator gods such as the Christian god. Until evolution theory was developed by Darwin and others, the apparent design of things in nature seemed one of the best arguments for the existence of gods--as intelligent agencies that designed things in nature. The theory of evolution destroyed that argument, since it was now clear how natural "designs" could have arisen by unintelligent natural selection.

5) Brainless minds

Gods are usually immaterial beings that do not have physical brains. Science has discovered that every mental function that goes into making up the mind is directly linked to physical events in brains. If minds are fully dependent on brains, then it is unlikely that they can survive the death of the brain. Most religions assume that minds are immaterial things that can exist independently of bodies, but we would expect thought not to be so dependent on physical activity in a brain if that were true. Moreover, the evolutionary purpose of brains seems to be primarily as a guidance system for bodies--to help bodies avoid danger. So it is unlikely that minds would even exist but for the existence of bodies and brains. Gods, as spiritual unembodied minds, are therefore unlikely to exist.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


I have started this blog to communicate the thoughts and ideas of my online persona Copernicus. Copernicus is the internet handle I like to use when I post religious and political comments on various sites on the web. I consider myself a strong atheist in that I do not just lack a belief in gods, but I believe there to be good positive reasons to reject belief in gods. More on that to follow in later posts. My political viewpoint is liberal. Professionally, I am a linguist who works in industry. In 1973, I started out my career as a theoretical linguist in academia, but I switched to natural language processing and artificial intelligence in 1987.