Sketches on Atheism

An offensive, appalling waste of time

humanismThere’s an absurdity in calling oneself a humanist. The hat, which I’m proud to wear, solicits polarised emotions that are not easily reconciled. Here’s the rub: I loathe humanity, but at the same time I am also her greatest cheerleader. I’d build, without even a moment’s hesitation, an entire museum around a single human hand, and right next door I’d erect a mausoleum to house its pair. My heart beats faster every time I watch a space launch, and it breaks in two every time I turn on the News. I am at once amazed and horrified by our species, and so it should not come as a surprise to learn that what I consider one of the most astounding moments in human history is also the fountainhead of one of its greatest ever blunders; a missed opportunity which I, as a card-holding humanist, lament every time I pass some tax-exempt temple raised to some invisible, magical sky being.

Eyes forward because the astounding part of this double-headed tale is truly quite remarkable, and it begins with an extraordinary champion of the human species; a magnificent uncle who ninety generations ago opened his mind and accidently found himself holding the formative shape of physical reality. It sounds grand, and I’ll admit only a precious few even know his name, but my accolade is by no means an exaggeration. That man was Yāska, the Vedic grammarian and author of the Nirukta; a technical treatise on etymology, lexical categorisation, and the semantics of words.

An unlikely hero, but a hero just the same.

Unawares of what he would soon discover, Yāska’s work began as an urgent response to a very real problem: the spoken language of his day had drifted away from the almost perfectly preserved Vedic language alive in the ancient Vedas (orally transmitted canonical scriptures, the formative creation myths of Hinduism) rendering entire passages of the hymns obscure at best and unintelligible at worst. In Yāska’s day, as noted by the Buddhist author Jayarava, there were no books, no dictionaries or grammars. “One met texts orally, and could only study them once they were memorised.” Yāska’s solution to the problem was beyond brilliant and would go on to form the foundation of contemporary studies in cognitive linguistics and semantics, including phonetics, grammar, syntax, lexicography and morphology. It was Yāska who first categorised nāma (nouns), ākhyāta (verbs), upasarga (prefixes), and nipāta (particles and prepositions). He created ontological categories to describe actions (bhāva) with past, present and future connotations. He formulated grammatical aspect, the murta, which identified perfective and imperfective situations. In all, it was Yāska who first looked at the entire lexicon of language and wrestled it into a system of understanding which we still use today.

An uncommon man to say the least, but his true stroke of genius came in the seemingly elementary conclusion that words, not sentences, were the fundamental carriers of meaning; that is to say, the primary element, or prakṛti, of reality. wordsWords, Yāska saw, were the smallest indivisible unit, where clusters of words arranged in a certain way following strict grammatical systems (laws) formed a sentence whose meaning (although intended) was entirely unique to its constituent parts. It sounds intuitively simple, almost childish, but Yāska had arrived at atomism, and he did it eight generations before the Greek philosopher, Leucippus, asked one of the most important questions ever asked: If you break a piece of matter in half, and then break it in half again, how many breaks will you have to make before you can break it no further? Leucippus called his answer, the Atom. Yāska saw the same thing, but called it the word. Arrange words (like the atomists’ atom) in a certain way and one external meaning is derived. Arranged in another way the same words produced another meaning altogether. Linked to suffixes and prefixes and the meaning of the sentence would change again, and reality with it.

Now, the fact that a 7th Century B.C.E Vedic grammarian almost grasped the nature of the observable universe not only blows my mind in the best possible way, it also fills me with a certain indescribable rage. It makes my skin crawl to know that ninety generations ago our grandfathers were on the right track, asking the right questions and driving headlong toward understandings that (after being dismissed by Aristotle) would not again be tickled until the English Chemist, John Dalton, discovered “lumpy particles” in chemical experiments conducted twenty-seven centuries later. It makes me furious to know that despite the monumental efforts of this giant of proto-science (and the work of the Greek atomists who followed 250 years later) our collective popular culture instead continued on down the wrong path; the path of superstition and supernal promises built upon lies and fabrication. It bends me completely out of shape to know we have wasted ninety generations interpreting and re-interpreting gibberish spoken by mad men masquerading as prophets to forever unseen deities when the foundations of Naturalism were first scratched at one hundred years before Nebuchadnezzar figured Babylon might look a hell of a lot better with some terraced landscaping.

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123 thoughts on “An offensive, appalling waste of time

  1. a) Extremely interesting and b) I lament with you. The fact that the Vedas have been out there and that we reinvent it under the pseudo “cutting edge” is evidence that we are deliberately forgetful and not very smart. Where is intelligence in this?

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  2. It’s enough to make us weep…
    I lament our loss of intelligence…
    but i also lament our ability to fix what is broken, feed the hungry, stop war…
    find peace…
    “We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.”― Charles Bukowski
    our inability to see that what we have is each other…instead of “damning each all to hell” or blowing each other up for beliefs…
    we still have so very far to go…

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  3. Gorgeous piece of writing my friend. You had me racing over the words and flipping every once in a while.–> a magnificent uncle who ninety generations ago opened his mind and accidently found himself holding the formative shape of physical reality.
    We missed a turn, you are right.

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  4. You might find it hard to believe, but yesterday I’ve sent an email to somebody asking to tell me more about the exact piece of history you are describing here today. He had hinted at it, I wanted to know more and could not find it. I’ve always found Leucippus’ discovery inspirational. Thank you ever so much for writing about this. 🙂

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  5. Interesting. You have encouraged me to read something I barely got started on nearly a decade ago before setting it aside all this time. It’s about how our brains work and that connection with religious experiences we may have. It’s by Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili called, “Why God Won’t Go Away”. Are you familiar with this one John?

    Also, have you read anything by Rene’ Dubos?

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    • Regretfully no, and no. Does Dubos have your recommendation? “Why God Won’t Go Away” is a great title, though. It conjures images of bad vaccine programs and hopeless bureaucracy.

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  6. I know little of that distant uncle of whom you write, but I got the gist of it very well. I have to quote an excellent little poem by e.e. cummings thus:-

    all ignorance
    tobaggons into know
    and trudges back up ignorance again.

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  7. Another excellent post my friend. I wonder where these time periods and stories come from. Do you scour the histories and hop upon them after much searching, or is it a little more random? Either way, keep it up.

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    • Yāska is an old friend. I actually discovered him researching Dmitri Mendeleev (author of The Dependence between the Properties of the Atomic Weights of the Elements: the first published periodic table containing 60 known elements). Mendeleev predicted the existence of eight new ones, and to these theorised elements (since discovered) he gave Sanskrit prefixes (eka, dvi, and trio) to honour the ancient Indian Vedic grammarians, namely Yāska. That sparked my attention… Yāska who?

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      • It was Aristotle too whose flat-Earth theory officially flattened the world for many centuries – I’m not quite sure why the Catholic Church picked him of all Greek philosophers as their “patron deity”. There were plenty of Greek philosophers who held a round-Earth view.

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      • Now hold on John. You’ll have a staunch foe if you try to soil that guy’s name. He might have been on the wrong track, but he helped teach everyone who came after how to think well, how to use logic. Of course he was very much influenced by his predecessors, but he certainly took it and ran with it. He helped teach me how to think, and not just about scientific matters. That’s pretty darn influential if you ask me.

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      • Oh LOL! If one considers that the Greek philosophers (and scientists if one thinks about it) didn’t have telescopes, microscopes and similar measuring apparatus and were only using the means of the mesocosmos to formulate their theories, one has to hand it to each of them. And after all from that perspective, all their theories were valid and well thought-out.

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  8. I could never understand why people prefer superstition over science. Then I realized I already knew the answer; Superstition is easy, science (i.e. knowledge and understanding) takes work.

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  9. Certain writers, when read, make me want to pack up my pencils, my neurons and my half-formed insights and go home. What keeps me in the game is the realization that I am a humbled member of the same club, which is why the secret signs hold such meaning and value for me. Better to stay, clutch my pencils to my chest and soldier on, taking a moment to wave across the teaming, blinking masses. You, Sir, are one of those writers, and this is that wave. Great post.

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  10. I’m sad and frustrated too – I just had a kid at my house who thinks the story of Noah’s Ark is absolutely true. I learned the same BS as a kid, and I told him that there is no scientific evidence for Noah or his ark – it’s all mythology. He said there is scientific evidence because he saw something about it on the teevee. It was very hard to hold my tongue, because he’s only 8. I told him he can believe what he wants, but there is just no evidence, and I left it at that, and changed the subject. The sad thing is that the parents of this child took him out of the public school system and put him into a Catholic school to give him a better education. Planting seeds of doubt is all I can do.
    BTW, John, if you don’t recognize my avatar, this is “Tabitha” – but you can call me by my real name, Tara.

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    • Tabitha! I didn’t recognise you with the new hairdo! Looks great 🙂

      Poor kid. I went through all catholic schools but never did i have anyone try and tell me the stories were real. In all reality everyone simply ignored the OT. It was only recently, after moving to Brazil, did i start to hear that Americans actually believed that nonsense. I thought it was a joke at first.

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      • My son is an atheist who loves Greek and Egyptian mythology, so it’s not so easy for him to find friends who appreciate the same things he does in this “Christian Nation”.

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      • I can see the problem. Finding playmates who’re on the same page would be a little tough. The problem, as i see it, in America is that people are far too open about expressing their religion. It’s not the same in Australia, or even here in Brazil. You generally keep it to yourself, meaning you don’t have to baffle at people saying Noah survived a global genocide conducted by a loving god who didn’t mind drowning babies.

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      • Sorry about pitching in here too. When we were kids (in the 80’s) there wasn’t even that much of this stuff around in parochial South Africa. It started escalating only in the 90’s and by now it’s like a fever. Hyper-successful indoctrination of a generation. Scary and worrying.

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      • I’ll chime in too. It’s a relatively recent phenom. here in the U.S. as well. The things you hear about are largely from the Bible belt, though there are pockets in the rural west as well. The Bible belt is just plain weird as far as religion goes, but even there not all that long ago it was considered gauche to pick fights about religious beliefs. Evangelism has a long history there of course, so I’m not saying it didn’t exist to some degree. But the way it’s infected politics now is a relatively new phenomenon. Still, if you ever visit the U.S. you would do well to visit the South, since that’s where you’ll be treated the best. Go figure.

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      • I have been to the south. Drove a van from Miami up to Washington. Great trip. Savannah was brilliant. At least along the route i took i didn’t encounter anything particularly odd, but then again i wasn’t looking for it. My atheism only found a voice after moving to Brazil and seeing the damage it does here and learning about evangelicals in the States meddling in politics and education. After George W. i couldn’t really stay silent.

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  11. Jesus H…How the hell do you write this shit!
    I can sit for a day on a single piss willy paragraph. And this is nonfiction to boot.
    I learn more in a ten minute read of one of your posts than scouring the internet for days.

    Write a book for the gods’ sake…

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      • Author John Creasey holds two interesting records. One for the most amount of submissions before being accepted by a publisher -it is around 700 and the other for the most prolific crime/ mystery writer with over 600 titles ( Not sure on this). He died in 1973.

        I wish I had Creasey’s balls, although I could probably recite every standard rejection letter ever written.
        Want to share what it’s about?

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      • I have a few. Most recent is some of the stuff in this blog. Before that was just a silly sci-fi tale full of gods, bankers, celestial auditors, hedge funds and the earth going into receivership. I had a radio play produced in Australia for the ABC but that went completely south. i was here in Brazil, it was being produced there in Melbourne, and the director did things that still leaves my brain doing little summersaults 🙂

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      • I would very much enjoy reading your sci-fi, It sounds delightful! Can I find it out in the world, or do I need to beg you for a copy?

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      • I would want to read the earth going into receivership now that the whole world is in debt anyway! And avail the book, maybe I might just become a sci-fi fan

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      • The earth actually goes into receivership on a celestial scale…. the universe is run like a giant stock market and local consulates (run by supernal beings) trade like brokerages. The consulate on earth hadn’t done a very good job and our portfolio was in a shambles.

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      • Sorry, but that part is performed by a Stella Blaster (a 26 cubic kilometer black ship) that simply annihilate star systems using Logic bombs. Architects then come in (which you can do) to redesign the space with the atomic building blocks left over. It’s a pretty silly story 🙂

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      • Silly stories are fun sometimes, they take away the seriousness from life and coming from you, it must be loaded with sarcasm, humour and imagery.

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  12. …such is human nature. We’re not overly far removed from our primal fears and desires and wishful thinking. These exist in order to protect us, physically or psychologically. Try contemplating death and nothing happening after that – i.e. the simple cessation of your existence and see if it doesn’t elicit some emotional response.

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  13. Fascinating. As I was reading, I wondered if it were man’s flirtation with language that is driving our philosophical drive for meaning. To communicate with one another we want to know not only what the words and combinations mean but also the speakers intent. Was he speaking gibberish to get me to laugh? Was she being contradictory on purpose to get me to think? Was he…? Was she…? A beiginning learner of and language struggles with simple words mean, then struggles to grasp phrase and sentences, then similes and jokes, and so forth. It is a constant stetch for meaning.

    It is not a huge extension to consider the meaning of our existence.

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    • Disagree. The concept of an a-tom, an indivisible unit of something, was first formulated there. That Yaska did it for language rather than physical matter hardly – er – matters. It’s a huge insight.

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      • Gip, I think Steve was agreeing. The two are indivisible; different faces of the same coin, where the coin is our search for meaning, be it physical reality or the tool (language) we use to understand that reality… and each other.

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  14. I think the problem back then is we didn’t have a system. That is, there was progress, but there was not method for progress, which enabled charlatans and the like to prosper. The scientific method is the key here: it has given us to measure progress and to establish what is vacuous and what is not. So maybe in the past we “got lucky,” in the sense that certain smart people would make great discoveries but there was no way for the less smart to know if they were in the right track, so those discoveries were destined to be lost eventually amid the rest of the crap.

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    • I couldn’t agree more, David. Although 250 years later and 5,000 kilometres to the west the Greeks arrived independently at atomism. There was probably no way of them hearing about Yāska’s work… or making the connection. You raise a good point, though. One that I hadn’t thought about before. By focusing on the philosophical aspect the Greeks really did fail pretty miserably in establishing something akin to the Scientific Method… something that could be applied to the daily life. If they’d just taken that step we’d be calling 500BCE the beginning of the Enlightenment!

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    • Ditto! We’ve always been scientists at heart. That’s why small children are such naturals. But we needed to codify that into a system as David says before any real momentum could be built.

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  15. In lamenting with you, I find myself faced with that paradox. I look at our lot and am disappointed and at the same time I wish for a society of men good enough to be supermen.
    Great post brother, if only I could borrow your prowess with words, I would go places!

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      • I’m always amazed at how little I know about Eastern history/culture. All the research I can do will never yield as much knowledge as I have about Western culture, being raised entirely in it. I’ve thought about doing a post about this….

        but anyway, who else is in this town square?

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    • I only heard of him first a few years ago researching Dmitri Mendeleev. He theorised the existence of 8 elements and gave them Sanskrit prefixes (eka, dvi, and trio) to honour the ancient Indian Vedic grammarians, namely Yāska. That caught my attention…

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  16. Now where would the fun be in not forgetting? How would you get to keep reinventing the wheel, and experience the surprise each time in watching it spin and propel stuff and transform itself into amazing feats of engineering, and weapons of mass destruction that wipe out entire civilisations to the point that people forget everything that came before? So this Yāska was the grand-papi-uber-father of standardisation (except for the ones that came before him that have also long since been swallowed by the mists of time)? His efforts are undoubtably commendable, however there are a series of events that seem to occur when someone decides that standardising a language and a grammar by putting pen to paper (or whatever the medium of choice may or may not have been at various junctures in history). Things suddenly become very rulesy, and words attain a level of power that can literally destroy the masses, whether psychologically or actually. Look at anything that has ever been written down in a book and passed off as fact and the word of law i.e. religion, science, the law. And it always falls under the banner of progress and change, and smartening-up and empowering the general thick-as-a-brick impoverished population so that you can create a workforce that understands what the hell people the people in charge are telling them to do. Damn right that people forget every time it back-fires and blows up in their face! (Of course there a many different angles I could have taken with this, but I like this one :))

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    • Interesting angle… Are you suggesting we should never have come down from the trees, or are you poking the fire just for fun?

      And you’re right, there was someone before Yāska: Śākaṭāyana, but all we know about him was what Yāska himself wrote.

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  17. This is a very sharp double-edged sword. As much as I am poking fun, I am also very passionate about the study of language and languages. I am also intently aware of what has repeatedly happened throughout history whenever language and it’s recorded use becomes the word of law, whether the conduit of that law is religion, academics, science, politics. Yes, there are massive innovations and leaps in learning and understanding that suddenly occur. However, as a result of the more recent Renaissance period many European languages, including English were standardised in order to exert national identity and thus political power against the church and the use of Latin and Greek, which up until that point had been the accepted universal languages of learning and political control. The thing with standardising a language i.e. making it the rule, then you naturally exclude all of those many many equally valid variations that do not fit the mould, who then become the new social underclass.
    Over five hundred years after Caxton printed the first book in English believing that he was resolving the age old problem of regional dialectal variations by creating a printed standard, all he did was create the beginning of a massive socio-political schism, that is only within the last couple of decades being recognised as being utterly incorrect and inappropriate, to put it politely. With BBC English being the last bastion of what was once considered ‘correct’ across the globe, in fact it still is in many ex-commonwealth countries.
    You cannot tell me then that this same scenario could not have possibly occurred during Yāska’s time.

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    • I can’t speak for him, but I’d hazard to say his intentions were inherently good. The Vedas were being lost and he responded, doing something no human had done before. Yes, I can see the problems in standardisation, but the positives (in my opinion) outweigh the negative… when viewed from the larger species-wide perspective.

      I know what you’re hitting at, though. It’s a valid concern. Out of an estimated 900 aboriginal languages in 1777, only 32 exist in Australia today. All those languages were entire cultures, lost. That is, without question, a massive loss to our species.

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      • Well we are just going to have to disagree this time. I think your piece is beautifully written, but your argument is flawed in my opinion. Whether his intentions were good or not we’ll never know. It is obvious from your summary that his was religiously motivated, even though you have made it quite clear that you abhor religiously motivated individuals. You claim that no human had done what he’d done before (that we know of), yet I would imagine that it would be very difficult to substantiate your claim in reality. And to then say that the positives far outweigh the negatives is like saying that it’s ok to condone hardship and quite often death in the face of innovation, particularly innovation whose motivation is based on religion! Honestly I am astounded.

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      • It’s quite clear the benefits outweigh the negatives. Imagine a world where every country has its own unique transport-safety regulations and yet international travel was frequent, indeed necessary…. It’d be bedlam. Like it or loathe it, human societies demand laws; it’s the nature of communal animals. You’re of course free to go and live the life of a hermit if you choose but the survival of our species has always been dependent on the group, not as lone, rogue individuals.

        Now I will grant that the development and adoption of a universal second language like Esperanto would have been ideal, and I’m baffled why it never happened, but that (to date) hasn’t been the case. If our species is going to survive this adventure we’re going to have to pull together and one day get the hell off this rock. That is our future… and that requires pragmatism and a promoted, celebrated commonality. The world you seem to be promoting is one where misunderstandings are common, wars flourish and mistrust is the order or the day.

        So Yāska’s work centered on the Vedas, so what? Those were the oral documents of the day. The beauty of his work was seeing through the hymns and arriving at a sense of the nature of the physical universe…. Something entirely unique to the source. He was a grammarian, a scholar, dare I say it, a humanist… not a priest. Was he the first-first? Probably not. Nouns, verbs and inflectional morphemes used to construct rudimentary sentences had been around for tens of thousands of years before him, and the inventors of cuneiform would have had to devised a rudimentary system or else it wouldn’t have worked. That system, though, was probably only known to other scholars. It was not shared. Information is power. The wonder of Yāska’s work was to present a system (he didn’t invent it, he merely categorized what was being used) to unite languages…. And for that I will most definitely honour him.

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      • It sounds like you have the world put to rights, so good for you. There are many different ways you can skin this cat, and your view is no more correct than my own. It’s just a point of view, valid in its own right in that it serves you, but it is not necessarily the view that is shared by the mass populace. Neither is mine, and I can bet neither was Yāska’s.

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  18. No matter how ‘civilised’ or ‘educated’ a society becomes the arguments between people are still the same: “My arm is thicker than your crooked leg…..I’m going to kick you with my crooked leg if you keep insulting me….Yeah? You dare and I’ll bash your crooked leg with my thick arm!”. Nothing ever changes, people have not changed in millennia no doubt, and you’re right that isn’t progress, but it’s exactly what we are doing now.
    Beliefs and value systems are fundamental to a person’s identity, as is language and it’s specific use, and when they are challenged in favour of a more universal model you can bet that it will get up close and personal and generally won’t go down very well.
    I don’t have to agree with your version of reality, but I can still like what you. And I do.
    What is clear to me is that your article is much less about an incredibly cool character that existed way back when, than it is to do with your own contempt against humanity for missing the point, and not being as advanced and as cohesive as it could be. Even I being the ‘deluded angry hermit’ that I am can see with utter clarity how things need to be in order for humanity to stand a chance of a better future, and I find it infuriating that so many don’t. It’s enough to make you want to send the B1 bombers out! However, this kind of change begins with the individual with the clarity of vision to make a difference. And hasn’t it always been that way? So what are you waiting for? 🙂
    Of all our recent exchanges I think this by far has been the finest. Not the usual ‘Hai ku’!;)

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  19. You say, “Yāska had arrived at atomism, and he did it eight generations before the Greek philosopher, Leucippus, asked one of the most important questions ever asked: If you break a piece of matter in half, and then break it in half again, how many breaks will you have to make before you can break it no further? Leucippus called his answer, the Atom. Yāska saw the same thing, but called it the word. ”

    So are you insinuating that 2 different people, in different time periods, saw, believed, figured out the same thing?? Weird idea–wonder where you got it? ; )

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