Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Augustine and the Limits of Knowledge

About two and a half years ago, I wrote this post about Augustine and his famous work City Of God.  Unfortunately, at the time, I was reading a copy I had borrowed from the library and I never really got more than halfway through it before I had to return it.

Several months ago I purchased my own abridged version of City Of God and finished it.  To my annoyance, some of the parts that were cut out, based on the brief descriptions of their content, looked like they would be of interest to me and I shall have to see if I can find the full version online so I can read them.

At any rate, one of the things that provided me some amusement was reading what Augustine got so horribly wrong, particularly when he spoke with such authority and assurance about the Earth. 

Thus, in Book XVI, Chapter 17, Augustine declares that "Europe and Africa together take up one half of the world and Asia the other."

Augustine evidently did not know how vast Asia was, as he writes of an Assyrian ruler who "subdued the whole of Asia except India."  Evidently, the ancient Japanese, Chinese, Koreans and Indonesians erased their conquest by the Assyrians from their historical records!

Our learned Christian scholar, in Chapter 9, also dismissed "the nonsense about their being antipodae, that is to say, men living on the far side of the earth, where the sun rises when it sets for us...that is utterly incredible."

He goes on to add "it does not follow that the other hemisphere of the earth must appear above the surface of the ocean; or if it does, there is no immediate necessity why it should be inhabited by men.  First of all, our Scriptures never deceive us, since we can test the truth of what they have told us by the fulfillment of predictions; second, it is utterly absurd to say that any men from this side of the world could sail across the immense tract of the ocean, reach the far side, and then people it with men sprung from the single father of all mankind."

So, by adhering to closely to his holy book, Augustine effectively rules out the existence of Australia and the Americas and the people who inhabited them, sprung from common human ancestors, though of course not a Biblical Adam.

I'll have more on Augustine's City Of God to add in the coming days.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Well, Isn't That Special?

One of my Facebook friends, presumably Catholic, posted this picture today.

From a Catholic point of view, this photo of a very young child kneeling in devotion likely elicits geysers of warmth and fuzziness.  Isn't it so inspirational!

I, on the other hand, being an atheist, have a totally different perspective.  Was she told to kneel like that solely for the purpose of taking the picture?  Was she just imitating what she saw other people in the church doing without knowing the reason for it?  Even if it was spontaneous, she is way too young to have developed an intellect capable of determining for herself whether what she has been taught to do in a church really causes some deity in the heavens to smile down upon her.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

There Can Be Only One?

When my wife and I met with Nino and his wife Lily, one topic I raised was Taiwanese independence. 

I have long been of the opinion that the people of Taiwan should have the right to determine their own destiny, and if that means being a de jure rather than a de facto independent country, then so be it.

If only it were so simple.

The problem lies with the government of the Peoples Republic of China on the mainland across the Taiwan Strait.

From the website of the PRC's embassy:

"There is only one China in the world, and Taiwan is part of China."

Well, that doesn't leave much room for ambiguity!

"The lingering civil war which was imposed on the Chinese people in late 1940s and more importantly the intervention by foreign forces against the reunification of China led to a temporary state of separation between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits after the People's Republic of China was founded. But the status of Taiwan as part of China's territory has never changed, nor has the Government of the People's Republic China ever given up its jurisdiction over Taiwan."

While I don't claim to be an authority on Chinese history, I do know quite a bit.  When you look at maps of the territories controlled by the major Chinese dynasties for nearly two millennia, starting with the Han and up to the Ming, no Chinese ruling dynasty exercised any control over Taiwan.  The island would not factor at all in Chinese history until the Manchu invasion in the mid-17th century, when Ming loyalists expelled would be Dutch colonizers and established a government in exile that lasted roughly two decades.  The Manchu Qing invaded the island in 1683 to quash the Ming loyalists but did not take serious steps to integrate Taiwan into its empire until the latter part of the 19th century.  Alas, by that time, Japan had modernized and adopted an expansionist foreign policy.  After crushing China in the Sino-Japanese War, Taiwan was ceded to Japan in 1895.  The Qing dynasty that had ruled Taiwan largely as an absentee landlord for little more than two centuries would itself be toppled in 1911.  Taiwan would remain a Japanese colony until the end of World War Two in 1945, when it was taken over by the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-Shek.  After losing to the Communists, Chiang and the remnants of his government fled to Taiwan in 1949.

Therefore, it has been about sixty three years since a mainland based Chinese government exercised any authority over the island of Taiwan.

While the PRC government is adamant that the island should be reunified with the mainland, with every year that passes by, the number of people in both real and relative terms in Taiwan who never lived under a mainland based government grows ever larger.  During that time, martial law and one party rule in Taiwan has given way to democracy.  Why should the people of Taiwan want or be expected to reunify with an authoritarian one party dictatorship?   It's like telling an orphaned child that there is no choice except to go live with a drunken, belligerent uncle he or she has never met but who has a reputation for abusive behavior.

In a perfect world, the PRC government would announce that if the people of Taiwan voted in favor of being their own independent country, the PRC would respect their wishes.

Unfortunately, the mainland is a prisoner of its "one China" policy.  Even if some enlightened leaders of the Communist Party privately were willing to recognize an independent Taiwan, they could never advocate such a position publicly.  For six decades, the Communists have indoctrinated the people of mainland China in the unwavering position that Taiwan is an integral part of China.  Just about every major nation has what I call "the bullshit story it tells itself."  It's a national mythos that a government and its people tell themselves to make them feel special. For the PRC, a good deal of the Communist Party's legitimacy derives from its position on Taiwan and it has to make a constant show of actions and announcements to show that it is working towards the goal of reunification.

The other part of the problem was that for decades after fleeing the mainland, Chiang Kai-shek maintained that his was the sole legitimate government of China.  Chiang even harbored ambitions of retaking the mainland by force.   Perhaps, had Chiang offered to recognize the Communist government on the mainland in return for recognition of Taiwan independence, history might have turned out differently, though I recognize this is purely conjecture.  Then again, Chiang based his legitimacy on being the sole legal ruler of China, and just like the PRC, the Nationalists on Taiwan were a prisoner of their own "bullshit story."  In his pro-American independence tract, Common Sense, Thomas Paine rhetorically asked with regard to British rule of the American colonies, shall an island rule a continent?  By the early 1970's, Chiang's government faced this same dilemma as the United Nations gave the China seat to the Communist mainland.  Despite having all of the trappings of a state, Taiwan was no longer recognized as one except by a couple of dozen poor countries in the developing world whose recognition was purchased with large dollops of foreign aid.

The current position of Taiwan on its political position is best summed up as follows:

"The Republic of China was founded in 1912 on the Chinese mainland. At that time, Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule as a result of the 1895 Treaty of Shimonoseki, by which the Qing court ceded Taiwan to Japan. The Nanjing-based ROC government began exercising jurisdiction over Taiwan in 1945 after Japan surrendered at the end of World War II.

The authorities in Beijing have never exercised sovereignty over Taiwan or other islands administered by the ROC government in Taipei. There are differences of opinion among ROC citizens over whether it is best to maintain this status quo indefinitely or work out a different relationship with the Chinese mainland. Regardless, they share the conviction that their future must be based on freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and that only they have the right to decide their own future."

It is, in my opinion, a reasonable position that ideally would be accepted if Taiwan were negotiating with a reasonable party.

Instead, the status quo resembles the Joker's line from The Dark Knight, with an unstoppable force, being mainland China, butting heads with an immovable object, which is the desire of the overwhelming majority of the people of Taiwan not to submit to mainland rule.

I don't claim to know what the future holds for Taiwan.  I suppose the independence minded people of Taiwan hope that the longer they avoid coming under mainland rule, the greater the chance that changes in the mainland will one day result in the mainland willing to recognize the island's independence.  On the other hand, the mainland likely anticipates that with each passing year, it's military and economic power compared to Taiwan grows larger and larger, until finally the people of Taiwan will have to bow to the inevitability of reunification with the mainland and accept a status along the lines of Hong Kong's One Country Two System's model.

My question would be "Why must there be only one China?" After all, there is no such thing as one German nation. For nearly half a century, there were two Germanies. While East and West Germany reunified in 1989, Austria is also a German country. No one today seriously maintains that Austria should become part of Germany. Prior to the German unification in the 1870's under the kaiser, the Germans were used to living under a multitude of separate dominions.  The idea of a single German reich did not even become a realizable goal until Adolf Hitler annexed the Sudetenland from Czechoslavakia and incorporated Austria into Germany in 1938.  As even the most casual student of history knows, this One Germany did not outlast the Second World War and the idea itself has been consigned to the ash heap of history. 

Only time will tell with Taiwan, though my gut tells me that the island will eventually move towards some kind of unification with the mainland, though it will likely take the form of some kind of economic integration, with political integration being contingent on the mainland adopting democratic reforms such as allowing multiple political parties and popular elections.  The mainland could also attempt to take the island by military force, though hopefully cooler heads will prevail on both sides.

Friday, July 06, 2012

The Philippines/Taiwan Trip - September 3-5, 2011 - There And Back Again

Saturday, September 3rd, was our last full day in Taipei.  The day's itinerary would take us to the northern party of the city. 

First stop, the Miramar Entertainment Park, which boasts the largest movie screen in Asia.  We rode the MRT line from the Technology Building station a couple of blocks west of our hotel north to the Jiannan Road station, which is just a short walk away from  the Miramar Entertainment Park  Its other main attraction is an insanely large ferris wheel, and below is a picture of the view you get from the Jiannan Road MRT station.   Unfortunately, the wife and kids are just silhouettes, but you get an idea of the size of the ferris wheel. 

And naturally, we rode the ferris wheel.

As you can see in the background, there's quite a view from the top of the ferris wheel.

After the ferris wheel was finished, the dilemma we faced was what to do next.  For a building called the Miramar Entertainment Park, there really wasn't much there that was particularly entertaining.  Turns out the movie theater there was showing Harry Potter The Deathly Hollows Part 2 in 3-D, so the kids said they wanted to see it, even though they had already seen it back home in the US in 2-D.  I relented, since there really wasn't anything else to do.  But first, we had to attend to our stomachs so we walked across the street to another building that had lots of restaurants in it.  We ate in an Italian restaurant, the name of which escapes me, though the food was satisfying.  Then we walked back to Miramar to see the Harry Potter movie.

For the evening, the next item on the agenda was to take the bus to the National Palace Museum, which houses a large collection of Chinese art and artifacts that the Guomingdang brought over with them to Taiwan when they fled the mainland.  On Saturday evenings, the museum is open free to the public after 6:30 p.m.

I had planned for us to take the bus there from the bus stop on Beian Road across from the Jiannan Road MRT station.  Based on my reading, it looked like the number of the bus that takes you to the museum was supposed to stop there.  So we waited, and we waited, and we waited, as bus after bus passed by or stopped that had a different number.  Finally, after about a half hour had passed, a small bus with the number stopped and we got on.  I told the driver we wanted to go to the National Palace Museum and away we went.

The route took us through the Ziqiang Tunnel and the ride lasted about 10 or 15 minutes.  By the time we got there, it was already dark and it was about 7:30 p.m.  I asked the bus driver what the fare was and for some reason he seemed confused and told us not to worry about, so the ride didn't cost us anything.

So in we went.  There were lots of intricate lacquer curio boxes on display.  Another exhibit that I remember was a recreation of what would have been a study room in a Qing official's home.  I also recall a series of paintings or drawings that told a story.  To my annoyance, my daughter kept complaining that she was bored.  I understood that the museum wasn't exactly her kind of place, but that since we had done things that she wanted earlier in the day, it was her turn to let her mom and I have some time to do things that we wanted to do. 

Before we knew it though, it was already approaching 8:30, and the museum was getting ready to close.  In our brief time there, we only managed to view the exhibits on the first floor.

I managed to get this shot of the outside of the museum at night before we made our way to board our bus.

When we got back to the stop near the Miramar Entertainment Park, we decided to have dinner before heading back to our hotel.  The Italian restaurant we ate at earlier for lunch was closing when we got back, so we ended up dining in a different restaurant in the same building called the Royal Host (amazingly, my daughter remembered the name!).  Both my wife and my son were quite tired and nodded off before our food was brought to our table.

We also took a couple of shots with the ferris wheel in the background at night.

And with that we took the MRT back to Xinyi and trudged back to our hotel.

The next morning we checked out and were driven back to Taoyuan Airport.  I snapped a photo of this building we passed that looked interesting, though I don't know what it was.

UPDATE: As Nino helpfully informed me in the comments section, this interesting building in neoclassical Chinese is the Grand Hotel.

Finally, back at the airport, I watched as our EVA Air plane was being made ready for the flight back to Hong Kong.

By the time we got back to Hong Kong and checked into our room at the Regal Airport Hotel, it was around 4 p.m.  I was hoping we could do something, like maybe do a dinner cruise while watching the Symphony of Lights presentation in the harbor.  I even called and made reservations for us.  But the wife and kids fell asleep.  I figured it was best to let them get their rest and by the time they woke up, it was already too late to ride the Air Train into Central to pick up our tickets and board the boat (luckily, I didn't have to give my credit card info when making the reservations!).  So we ended up walking over to the airport and eating dinner in an Italian restaurant that served pretty good food, though again I can't remember the name of it.

After that, we called it a night.  Before we checked out of our hotel the next morning, September 5, the kids were able to get some swimming time in the hotel's pool.  With that, we checked in for our flight back to New York.   We had a moment of brief aggravation when we were told that we could not bring in our carry on a snow globe with our picture in it from the Ngong Ping 360 cable car ride from two weeks earlier for security reasons.  The helpful staff of Cathay Pacific were able to box it for me and check it in as additional, albeit very small, luggage that we would need to pick up at the baggage claim back at JFK Airport in New York.

When we arrived back home in New York, it was still September 5.  While you lose a day when you fly from New York to Hong Kong, the benefit of flying back to New York is that it is still the same calendar day thanks to the time zone differences.  Having made the trip two times previously, I wisely had scheduled a day off from work for September 6 so that I would be able to get some extra sleep and readjust to the local time.  And thus ended our third Asian vacation.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Philippines/Taiwan Trip - September 2, 2011 - Back To The Far Eastern Plaza Hotel

After we had our lunch at Modern Toilet, I was hoping we could visit the 2-28 Peace Park, which is located a few blocks east of the Ximen MRT station.  If memory serves though, the wife and kids were a bit tired and I think that was when one of my son's sneakers started to come apart.  So, we rode the MRT back to the Xinyi district and walked back to our hotel.

It was a hot afternoon, and it seemed the right time for the wife and kids to try out the Far Eastern Plaza's rooftop pool.

"We're swimmin' on top of the world, mama!"

For reasons I don't recall, I didn't end up swimming in the pool and wasn't there for most of the time.  I might have been checking my e-mails on one of the computers that were made available to hotel guests.  Actually, now that I think about it, I did check my e-mail to make sure that our plans were on for later in the evening with two very special guests (see below).

Of course, our trip wouldn't be complete without a picture of my wife in a swim suit with Taipei 101 in the background.

After the pool, we walked back to the Linjiang Night Market that we had visited the night before to buy new sneakers for my son to replace the ones he had worn out.  We also ate noodles from the same noodle stand and then headed back to our hotel so that the wife and I would have time to shower and get ready for a special meeting.

For those of you who have read through all of my posts on Taipei so far, you'll know that I often referenced Nino's blog My Kafkaesque Life for ideas on where to go in Taipei as well as other helpful information about the city.  I thought it would be a nice idea to invite him and his wife Lily to meet up with us at the Far Eastern Plaza's Marco Polo Lounge.   To my pleasant surprise, he accepted our offer.

While the bulk of my blogging is atheist related, for all the years I have been blogging, the only atheist bloggers I recall meeting in person were Adam Lee of Daylight Atheism and Shalini Sehkar (whatever happened to her anyway?) at a Center for Inquiry event in New York City a few years ago.  So, it was pretty cool to get to meet a blogger in Taipei whose blog was such a valuable resource for me.

My wife and I headed up to the Marco Polo Lounge around 9-ish local time to meet them.  I recall that the door to get into the lounge was a hidden door that the hostess outside pushed open for us, otherwise we might not have noticed it.  It sort of felt like walking into the lair of some James Bond villain.  The lounge was rather crowded and we couldn't get a table by the window for a view of Taipei at night like I had hoped, but you can't get everything you want, right?

A few minutes after my wife and I got settled in, I saw Nino and Lily come in.  I actually recognized her better, because I saw a few pictures of her on Nino's blog, whereas the few pictures of him on his blog generally show him from a distance or at an angle, probably because he is the one who takes most of the pictures. 

We had some rather pleasant conversation for about an hour and half or so.  Since Nino is from Slovenia, I told him about my grandmother who was Slovenian and came from a town on the Austro-Slovenian border and joked that we might be distantly related.  Nino and his wife talked a bit about their life and jobs in Taipei.  They seemed to get a kick out of my caricatures of ignorant American voters who believe that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim Kenyan commie atheist who wants to impose sharia law on the United States.

One of the lounge waiters was kind enough to take a group photo of us to memorialize the occasion.

I was glad they were able to meet up with us.  Besides having the opportunity to meet with a fellow blogger, it was also a nice little break from the kids for the wife and I and to hang out with some grown ups for a change!

And then it was off to bed with one more full day in Taipei ahead of us.