Category Archives: Epistemology

The True Miracle of Christmas

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
– John 1:11-13

This Christmas season I’ve been thinking about the whole question of the dogma of the Virgin birth of Jesus, and how important that is to the Christian faith. The most basic question is, what is the basic reason for believing that Jesus was born without his mother ever having had sex with anyone? Besides proving that one’s belief in the Bible narrative is stronger than one’s trust in a scientific understanding of such matters, what might be the point in such a belief?

I don’t toss out the rhetorical jab against scientific thinking in complete cynicism. I have many friends, on line in particular, who consider my faith to be somewhat suspect because I don’t prioritize a doctrine of the Bible’s “verbal plenary inspiration”: essentially the belief that the complete factual flawlessness of the Bible needs to be the starting point for any discussion of Christian belief between believers. This teaching is loosely based on one verse in Paul’s epistles (II Timothy 3:16) but more essentially it is based on a medieval understanding that any rational argument requires some sort of fixed starting point, and that is what the Bible is supposed to provide us with. Belief in the Bible’s reliability in this way was important to medieval monks in the same way that belief in the fixed position of the Earth within the universe, built on a firm foundation placed there by God himself (Psalm 104:5), was important to their attempts to rationally analyze the motions of the planets and stars in the sky. And for Protestants, who tossed aside the foundational function of church councils and papal decrees, this role for the Bible became even more critically important.

Thus one argument for believing in the virgin birth of Jesus is that it goes with the broader collection of things that Christians have historically believed in. Thus the argument would go that to consider oneself a truly believing Christian one must consider every word of the Bible –– especially the New Testament, and within the New Testament especially the message of the Gospels –– to be beyond factual reproach. This would mean that one should never dream of questioning the veracity of Mary’s reported reply to the angel in Luke 1:34. So believing for the sake of believing as a starting point for discussion among Christians has its own relevance and importance… but is there more to it than that?

One huge part of the question has been the idea that there is something essentially “yucky” about sex, and for Jesus to have been a perfect human being he could not have been, like everyone else, the product of such a yucky process. This is not a directly biblical teaching (though it is perhaps implied in some interpretations of I Corinthians 7:7), but it runs very deeply in Christian tradition, particularly in the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo. In his Confessions Augustine makes it clear that as a young man he was deeply troubled by sex, in that he had a very difficult time thinking with his “big head” rather than his (ahem) “little head”, and when he became a believer God delivered him from this “curse”. Thus one of the principle blessings of Christianity, according to Augustine and his followers, was to deliver us from the power of sex. But for those not ready or willing to become completely sexless beings there was always marriage. There the yuckiness of sex could be “redeemed” by its function of making lots of new members for the church.

One of the big questions of the Protestant Reformation was whether this Augustinian perspective on sex could be rejected outright. Besides allowing priests to marry, part of Luther’s basic emphasis seemed to be that sex (within marriage at least) was not merely a regrettably necessary means of procreation, but wonderful gift of God unto itself. From an Augustinian perspective, which the Catholic Church clung to dogmatically at least until the time of World War 2, this sort of perspective opened the door to all sorts of problems. It was only with the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that the Catholic Church started to admit that Protestants might have some legitimate points in these (and other) matters. Shortly after this council the Pope Paul VI declared that as long as sex was only practiced between people who were married for that purpose, only done in a vaginal penetrative way, and not utilizing any “artificial” means of preventing pregnancy, it could be done for its own sake rather than primarily as a means of making babies. But the whole question of how sexlessness relates to Mary’s perfection as the mother of Jesus has not been substantially re-thought since then. Nor has there been a significant Protestant tradition of promoting the beauty and potential for deep spiritual experience within sex that would counter-balance the Augustinian tradition in this respect. For Christians of all sorts with advanced enough English skills to understand the lyrics, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah remains something of a guilty pleasure. Thus Jesus’ mother still needs to be seen as a virgin.

A completely different perspective on the matter has to do with the ancient understanding of the biological workings of sexual reproduction and the role of fatherhood therein. In simple terms the ancients, at least as far back as Aristotle, believed that within each potential mother there was a reserve of some bloody mass that provided the material from which babies could be made, and then there was this milky stuff that came out of potential fathers which contained all the pattern information necessary for baby-making. When this male-determined pattern properly imprinted itself on that bloody mass within the mother-to-be’s uterus the miracle of pregnancy would begin. If this happened in the optimal way it would result in a strong and healthy male child. If the “imprinting” of the sperm upon the bloody stuff was a partial miss, the result could be a female child, or a baby with some other sort of birth defect (the Ancient European perspective, not mine!). If it missed entirely, pregnancy would simply fail to happen. The point was that every sperm was seen as having all of the data necessary for making a baby, and thus the essence of what makes the baby who he or she is was believed to come entirely from the father’s side.

On the basis of this understanding of biology the church fathers who gathered for the second official church council, in Constantinople in 381, added a clause to the Nicene Creed stating that Jesus was “begotten of the Father before all worlds”. In other words the perfect pattern for Jesus, ready to be imprinted onto the bloody stuff with Mary, was already up in heaven with God, fully conscious and ready for action, before the world was made. This was part of the understanding of how Jesus could really be God. From there once this pre-existing and fully conscious pattern was able to sexlessly stamp itself onto the bloody material within Mary the fact of Jesus’ complete humanity and simultaneous complete divinity became a reality. Except we have since discovered that biologically it doesn’t work that way…

I’m still sort of amazed that Gregor Mendel was never tried as a heretic, since his scientific discoveries, published while he was a monk on the payroll of the Catholic Church, totally exploded the reasoning behind this dogma that had been a core teaching of the church throughout the Middle Ages. Maybe it was that they had just got done “rehabilitating” Galileo for daring to point out the church’s mistake in insisting that the Sun revolves around the Earth rather than visa-versa, so they didn’t want to challenge any scientists for a while. Perhaps it was just that the offices of the inquisition had too many other fish to fry at the time. Perhaps they actually never heard of this Czech monk until it was too late and he was already dead and gone. Whatever the case, by proving that fathers and mothers play equal roles in determining the genetic pattern of their offspring, and that this pattern cannot exist prior to the sperm uniting with the material within the mother, he completely undermined part of the core theological reasoning behind belief in the virgin birth, and he was never made to pay for this arrogance.

But then what remaining idea could there be for believing in the virgin birth if we dismiss the reliability of belief for its own sake as , the idea of sex being inherently yucky and fatherhood consisting of imprinting pre-existing patterns on stuff in the mother? Speaking strictly for myself, while having a bit of residual respect for Christian tradition for tradition sake in spite of its epistemological limits, the main point remaining in the idea of the virgin birth is Jesus’ message of completely breaking with the tradition of alpha male power. To state it in the sort of terms that have recently become acceptable as basic “locker room talk,” Jesus was not the heir of a long line of “pussy grabbing winners.” In fact he completely rejected everything this tradition stood for. This is the true miracle of Christmas; so miraculously unexpected that many today are still unable to conceive of it as such.

The Jews, at Jesus’ time in particular, were looking for a sort of ultimate macho man Messiah, who could do like Gideon and mobilize a tiny army, against all rational odds, to overcome all the oppression that the people of JWHW faced. The rest was details. The fact that Gideon managed to have 70 sons from his “legitimate” wives, and more on the side (Judges 8:30-31) went with the territory. Conquering heroes were entitled to all the women they wanted. Why wouldn’t the same apply to the long expected Messiah?

That is not to say there weren’t some mixed messages involved the Jews’ Messianic expectations. The “hymn of the suffering servant” in Isaiah 53 in particular seriously messed with their testosterone-stoked images of a conquering hero. But even Isaiah painted this suffering Messiah as being a bit of a bad ass when he had to be: ready to bring revenge against all those who had made life miserable for the Jews. Isaiah laid this out in chapter 61, where the second verse says that the Messiah’s job is “to proclaim… the day of vengeance.” Then along comes Jesus, who the local folks hoped might be the sort of conquering leader they were looking for. Everyone is stoked for a major declaration as this local boy goes into the synagogue and takes his turn to read the worship text, which happens to be the very portion of Isaiah which tells of the vengeance proclamation. Everyone waits with bated breath he reads the part leading up to it, about good news to the poor and recovery of sight to the blind and all that, but then right when he gets to the part they were most interested in –– the vengeance part –– he rolls up the scroll, gives it back to the attendant and sits down!

Jesus went on to teach the sort of stuff we have recorded in the Sermon on the Mount: All the people he regarded as blessed were those who alpha male competitors would label as losers. Rather than taking vengeance, love your enemies. Chill out and trust God the way the grass of the field does. How is this guy supposed to free us from our Roman oppressors the way a messiah is supposed to do? Turns out that isn’t at all what he is about. He’s rather come to free us of our own need to think of ourselves as “winners”.
Jesus’ point is to set the whole question of “being a winner” aside; to completely adopt the form of a servant so that his followers can do the same. He was deeply passionate about going after those who misrepresented God as a nasty, demanding ogre, or who tried to turn a sleazy profit off of people’s desire to know God; but for everyone else the point of his teaching was for people to accept forgiveness in spite of their failures, and to pass that forgiveness forward in terms of forgiving others. As his “beloved disciple” John summarized the matter in the introduction to his gospel, quoted from at the beginning of this piece, Jesus gave us the right to be God’s children, but this is completely not a matter of passing on the sort of macho heritage based on the power of (sexual) aggression that Gideon and company represented: “not of blood [the presumedly biologically female bit], nor of the will of the flesh [the presumedly biologically male bit] nor of the will of man [the macho aggression factor], but of God.” In other words John is saying that God gives those who are truly his people the capacity to act outside of the control of their “selfish genes”; to live a life not programmed by their “pussy grabbing” urges.

This was not written as a description of Jesus, however, but of his followers, to whom he gave the right to become children of God. John’s point here was not to emphasize Jesus’ supernatural heritage, nor his mother’s sexual purity, but the essence of his followers’ relationship with God. The core question is whether we are ready to live beyond our urge to associate ourselves with the alpha male thing that Jesus so definitively set aside. What do we need to believe about Jesus and his biological origins to live according to the sort of values that John points us towards? Then on the other side of the question, for those millions of professing Christians who are using that label primarily as a means of advancing their macho power interests, what good does a profession of belief in Mary’s virginity (either at the strategic moment, or perpetually thereafter) do them before God?

I do not claim to have special access to God’s own perspective on such matters, but the more I consider these issues the less worried I become about being accepted as sufficiently orthodox by those who set out to conquer in Jesus’ name.

Meanwhile my wish for the season is this: may the true miracle of Christmas –– the defeat of the alpha male drive thing within each of us –– come into the lives of all those who truly wish to be God’s children, towards the end that someday there truly may be peace on earth, and among God’s people in particular.

Leave a comment

Filed under Epistemology, Holidays, Sexuality, Skepticism

Uncle Ben and Other Myths

There has been a lot of talk over the past month about the versions of “truth” that have been coming out in debates between US Republican presidential candidates. Veteran conservative columnist George Will summed up the current atmosphere with the opening sentence of a scathing review of a book by one of his fellow News Corp. employees last week: “Donald Trump is just one symptom of today’s cultural pathology of self-validating vehemence with blustery certitudes substituting for evidence.”

Politicians in general have had a “challenged” relationship with “truth” since forever, but this season the syndrome has gotten to the point where somewhat educated people on the political right are shaking their heads in disbelief at some of the things their candidates seriously seem to believe. People in other parts of the western world are generally reassuring themselves with the belief that this is just a show for the satisfaction of the craziest 5% fringe of the American population, and that the populace as a whole would not be crazy enough to elect one of these people as leader of the most militarily powerful nation on earth. I’d like to think so myself, but when I was 18 years old my country elected Ronald Reagan as president, and since then I’ve made a point of never underestimating the ignorance of the common man there.

There are effectively two things that are more important than competence and awareness of an outside world to Republican primary voters, and thus to their would-be presidential candidates: guns and “Christian values”. To have any hope of being nominated these people need the approval of both the NRA and the NRB: the National Rifle Association and the National Religious Broadcasters. To get those approvals you can’t be too interested in truth as such. For both you have to put fears and presuppositions way ahead of investigation and critical thinking skills of any sort.

So one of the front runners is now a blustering business man who has always instinctively known that what those with money are willing to pay for is more important than what is sustainable or capable of increasing the public well-being, and who has thus made a career of putting image ahead of substance.

The other is a retired surgeon whose personal priority is to stay as far as possible from the poverty he grew up in, who knows that both seeing patients through high risk procedures and getting fans to pay to hear his story requires a skill in instilling confidence in them, regardless what the facts of the matter are. So he has become something of an expert in delivering that sort of hopeful message to patients and paying clients.

Last week’s major trivial dispute between liberals and conservatives had to do with interpreting the various statements that Dr. Carson has put forward as fact over the years. There have been essentially 5 issues on which he has been particularly challenged, each with its own ideological implications. To take them in the order they occurred in his life:

  1. He claims to have attempted to kill someone with a knife as a teenager, marking a turning point in learning to deal with anger issues by way of his religious faith.
  2. He claims that during his high school years he met with the US military commander of the forces in Viet Nam, and that in association with this meeting he was effectively promised a place at West Point Military Academy.
  3. He claims that there was a write-up in a student newspaper about his superior moral character as a student at Yale when he was they only one to do a re-test for a psychology exam that was actually given as a gag.
  4. He has asserted a continuing personal belief that the great pyramids of Egypt were originally build by the biblical character Joseph, son of Jacob, as grain storage facilities.
  5. He denied his ongoing association with a dubious company making herbal remedies for cancer, which he gave speeches to endorse after he had been treated for prostate cancer.

The Daily Mail’s picture of the portrait of himself and Jesus which Carson has on his wall at home.

The spin put on each of these issues has been rather amazing. Suffice to say that neither the Koch-financed Carson campaign with its Fox News support group, nor the American left blogosphere will give you any sort of reliable picture of what has happened in Carson’s life and thinking since the mid-sixties. To understand where he is coming from and how far he can be trusted, there are a few cultural genres which it helps to understand:
– the ghost written autobiographical American Dream rags-to-riches tale,
– the evangelical “personal testimony” tradition in both African-American and Adventist churches,
– the paid motivational speech by the “successful black man” who made it up out of the ghetto (usually as a professional athlete, but on occasion through other exceptional skills),
– the motivational sermon from Old Testament narratives of God saving his people,
– the classic “alternative medicine” or “miracle cure” sales pitch.

What all these have in common is that their “honesty” is not based on what the ancient Greeks called “logos”, but rather on some form of “mythos”. They can be honest in the same way as Shakespearean histories and dramas: they provide the audience with important life lessons about the human experience, existential purpose and causes they can believe in, even if they tend not to get all of the historical details right. This is the sort of world that Ben Carson has been living in for the past generation, since he escaped the ghetto.

The promotional picture for a biopic about Carson, starring Cuba Gooding Jr.

But there are distinct risks involved in this sort of mythical “honesty,” especially when its genres are not acknowledged and its “factuality” is taken too seriously by speaker and audience alike. The important thing is to keep things in perspective. So let’s look at the contexts these statements come from, consider the message they are attempting to give, and decide what sort of risks there might be in believing them.

I read Carson’s autobiography, “Gifted Hands,” years ago, when someone close to me was going under his knife. At the time he was not considering a retirement career in politics yet. He was mostly trying to do as much as possible to secure his place in the upper class, and trying to establish something of a legacy for himself as a humanitarian on the side. If reading ghost-written motivational autobiographies is sort of your thing I can recommend putting this book on your list. If you want to take the lazier version of the task of finding out about his non-political understanding of himself, I’d recommend sitting through the hour and a half of his Mannatech promotional speech from a decade ago on Youtube.

Bear in mind that this is a company that quite literally sells sugar pills as a cure for cancer, to the tune of over $200 per customer per month; that in the 5 years following the speech on this video, the company was sued by the state of Texas for sleazy business practices, and their products were discredited by researchers at Carson’s own Johns Hopkins University; but he continued to give pep talks to their sales force at least until 2013; yet in the famously “media biased” MSNBC Republican debate he denied any association with them.

In this speech Carson skillfully endorses the company’s integrity without making any direct factual claims regarding their products. In between he tells now familiar stories from his childhood, the tale of his frightening experience with prostate cancer, and above all he gives multiple testimonies to the healing power of prayer.

One of his cleverly placed applause lines is about the impossibility of maintaining political correctness, which largely overshadows the point of the narrative he packed around it: that he started off majoring in psychology, and while he still plays with psychoanalysis on an amateur level, he switched over to neuro-surgery for purely materialistic reasons –– he wanted to go where the big bucks were. To put it in his own words, “I hated poverty! …In a way I think maybe that was a good thing, because it drove me. At times when I might have been willing to give up, it drove me to go on, because I didn’t want to go back there.” It’s important to recognize the power of such hatred as the unifying principle of his biography. We’ll come back to that.

Carson’s personal testimony of redemption begins with his parents’ divorce and his subsequent academic difficulties in primary school. In this video version he adds a few other condemnations of his father beyond the fact that his mother discovered him practicing bigamy. Carson here claims that his father keeping another wife and kids on the side was only “the straw which broke the camel’s back” after his father’s more traditional ghetto sins of drinking, drugs and financial mismanagement. Some straw! Makes one wonder how much the facts of this story vary depending on the interests and political proclivities of his audience.

In any case, as he consistently tells it, his first major turn-around in life came from his mother’s God-given wisdom to keep he and his brother away from television and require them to start reading and reporting to her on library books. In the middle of that success story he hits on many of the standard Bush II era GOP talking points: believing that those who work hard and live smart always succeed, insisting that welfare is an evil and disempowering force in people’s lives, complaining about the damage that malpractice litigation and the insurance industry were doing to the medical profession, and suggesting that people other than lawyers need to be more actively involved in the legislative branch of government. Then, building from his overall narrative of struggling with anger issues and egotism as a high school student, (at approximately 54 minutes into the video) he comes to the famous tale of attempting to stab another teenager to death with a camping knife. From there he tells of locking himself in the bathroom to work the situation out with God, reading heavily in the book of Proverbs, and gaining mastery over his temper from that point on.

There are plenty of historical doubts about this one: Carson has recently claimed that his would-be victim is still alive, a member of his family, and in somewhat regular contact with him to this day. That would narrow it down to his brother, one of his Bostonian cousins on his mother’s side… or, as some have suggested, a figment of his imagination. At the end of the day though, this doesn’t seem to be all that critical an issue. Another African-American hero coming out of the ghetto and succeeding in life through his unique skills is Professor Cornel West. Dr. West speaks of being intellectually saved by being sent to school in “the vanilla side of town”, but spiritually being saved by receiving the love of God by way of his family and those at Shiloh Baptist Church. With less specifics given in the matter, West speaks of having been a gangster before meeting Jesus, and now being “a redeemed sinner with gangster proclivities.” In each case, if the hero in question wants to think of himself as a formerly murderous would-be gangster, as long as there are no victims of this gangster past still in need of compensation and closure, do the details really make any difference?

In Dr. Carson’s case the problem is not so much what he did or didn’t do in the years just after he hit puberty, but how he continues to moralize against those who are still stuck in the poverty he was able to escape from –– something Dr. West refers to as being “niggerized”.

The same sort of consideration would apply to Carson’s claims of having been offered a “scholarship” to West Point. Since no students at West Point pay fees or tuition of any sort, it would be fair to say that every student in the history of that institution has been there on a “full scholarship” in some sense of the word. As the student leader of the army ROTC at his high school, with high grades to boot (facts that investigators have not disputed), during the time when the army was trying to lure in as many new promising young leaders as possible to replace those lost in Viet Nam, it would be rather surprising if his professional army supervisors did not try to convince him to stay in the service, promising him the moon and the stars in terms of education in the process. The fact that he never applied, and therefore no offers on paper ever would have been sent to him, are rather beside the point. The fact that his way of describing the episode sounds rather clumsy at best to anyone who knows how America’s institutions of tertiary military education work is also beside the point; it can easily be written off as a ghost writer’s misunderstanding in his attempt to build a legend about the subject. The major question is what Carson was trying to prove in even raising the subject. Perhaps that in spite of his lack of actual adult military experience he was interested in and committed to the culture of the military industrial complex, in case any conservatives might otherwise have doubts about the matter. There seems to be little doubt regarding the truth of that underlying fact of his value orientation here at least. The rest is trivial details.

Was it true that Carson was the only one who fell for a practical joke of being told to sit an especially difficult “make-up exam” for a basic psychology class, with no chance to study? Quite probably. What does such an anecdote say about him –– both that he fell for the joke and that he mixed up so many of the details in retelling the matter afterwards? Perhaps that he was supremely self-confident already then, and that his exaggerated self-confidence is thus more than just “surgeon syndrome” –– the effect of his career on his personality. It also shows a lack of interest in principles of fairness for those who are struggling. After all, if people like his classmates would have been just as honest and hard-working as him…

But it is the last two questions that raise the most serious questions regarding Dr. Carson’s honesty and potential political leadership capacity. Regarding his theory on the pyramids, this shows either a complete lack of respect for scientific expertise –– of the academic, peer-reviewed sort –– in an area of scholarship somewhat distant from his own. It is rather disturbing for a “man of science” to have so little awareness of and respect for other scientific disciplines. For him to base his conclusions on all scientific claims outside of the field of medicine on their compatibility with a literal interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and pre-modern Christian traditional understandings of such things, does not speak very highly of his ability to assess new and process new information. If he, as president, would treat the perspectives of experts in economics, constitutional law, military intelligence, natural resource management and/or domestic infrastructure management with the same aloof disregard with which he relates to experts in Egyptology, the resulting catastrophes could be too horrible to contemplate! On the other hand, if Richard Dawkins is correct, and Dr. Carson really doesn’t believe all the scientifically absurd things he says ­–– he only says them because he knows that is what his less educated Christian fundamentalist followers want to hear –– that might make the case even worse.

And that brings us back around to the matter of Mannatech. In all fairness, Dr. Carson’s speech linked here was given before this company’s scandals properly came to light, and we don’t have any evidence of how he might have changed his tune in this decade after it had been legally and scientifically established that those who were paying his speaking fees there were hucksters of the least respectable sort. But we do know that in spite of this new information he continued to accept payment to speak at their sales meetings in recent years, and that he really couldn’t claim to have done so out of sheer ignorance regarding their operations. Nor, having so thoroughly endorsed their corporate philosophy in this video, and having continued to take their money, could he credibly claim that his face on their web page was some sort of unauthorized use of his image that he hadn’t had time to look into yet.

This points to what is perhaps the corest of Carson’s core values: hating the experience of poverty and doing everything in his power to insure that he never has to experience anything like it ever again. Part of that is keeping actual poor people at a distance and moralizing against their “lifestyle choices” which keep them poor. Part of it is continuously doing high paid publishing and speaking gigs to further feather his retirement nests, even when such gigs might call his intellectual and professional credibility into question. Yes he has generously donated money to try to encourage academic performance in America’s disadvantaged middle schools, by making sure that the best performing students get a prize with his name attached. Yes, he has spoken eloquently about Christian values pointing to some things more important than money. But all the while he has remained focused on being one of the rich who keeps getting richer, while having no qualms about letting the poor get poorer and explicitly blaming those in poverty for their own problems. He continuously faces the challenge of synchronizing this compulsion to “build bigger barns” with the message of Jesus, but fortunately (or unfortunately) for him there are plenty of “prosperity gospel” preachers out there to help him square that circle. The sacrifice they are most likely to ask for in return is in terms of surrendering his intellectual integrity to support their simple answers to complex problems –– things like curing cancer with sugar pills.

Running for president seems to be something Dr. Carson has allowed others to talk him into. He is useful to the oligarchs in terms of supporting their message that the rich should be allowed to get richer and the poor should be allowed to get poorer, and if he can further cement his place as part of the new oligarchy through this gesture, earning a few extra millions in the process, what’s to stop him? None of his major backers really expected anything more than that out of his campaign. They’ve really already got their money’s worth out of him, but if they can keep milking his message for another six months or so, so much the better for them. And if against all expectations he actually does become president (American voters have made crazier decisions) given how little he actually knows about the job, the seasoned oligarchs don’t figure that he’d be too hard to control.

It is those factors, rather than the details of Carson’s teenage rage, that people really need to be paying attention to. Put another way, he admits in the Mannatech video to having an ongoing tendency to take what others see as crazy risks. Given this risk-taking tendency of his, his lack of awareness of how so many non-medical things work, his pathological fear of poverty and his moral condemnation of the poor, how willing should we be to risk him becoming commander-in-chief of the world’s biggest military, and the chief executive of the world’s biggest economy? From there, what kinds of potential tragedies are we talking about if Americans vote to let “Jesus take the wheel” in this sort of way? I rather hope we don’t have to find out.

Leave a comment

Filed under Epistemology, Politics, Pop culture, Religion

Fresh Apologetic Challenges

The academic year has now drawn to a close. I’ve been accordingly occupied with a number of issues in relation to the finale season, and of course there have been other life transitions to distract me lately, but I’ve had plenty of philosophizing on my mind that I’ve been planning to write about. Let’s see if over the next week I can get caught up a bit here. Now I have no more excuses for not working some of these things through here.

One of the most important things from last month that I want to do some “thinking aloud” about here is what I was trying to say in the last university post-graduate seminar I attended this month. It was my turn to offer a critique of my colleague Lari’s presentation, and I don’t think I really did it justice. I also believe that the subject in question deserves to be discussed with a broader audience than in our little research group. Lari will be making other public presentations of his material, but I hope he doesn’t mind my spreading my take on it to the little collection of readers I have here.

The basic topic of Lari’s paper was the alternative strategies that Christians (and other theists) can use to counter the most recent variations on the Occam’s Razor argument: the claim that all god-concepts can be quite thoroughly explained in terms of the operations of a Hypersensitive Agency Detection Device, that no further explanation is necessary for them, and that they should therefore be dismissed as irrelevant.

As the argument goes, we humans are instinctively prone to attribute random occurrences to some sort of agent or intelligent being. Not only are we ready to assume that consciousness exists outside of ourselves; we are prone to see evidence of conscious activities in all sorts of places where, on closer examination, we can actually be relatively certain that they don’t exist: What looked like a monster posed to attack me from my closet was actually just a pile of dirty laundry. The noises coming from the attic are not ghosts, but old timbers contracting as they cool in the night air. No one stole my keys; I just misplaced them.

In terms of evolutionary theory, it is better for our imaginations to be hyperactive in this area than for them to be insufficiently active to identify potential enemies and allies.  As with a fire alarm at home or in a public building, it is better to have dozens of false alarms than to have the alarm system “not notice” one actual fire. Thus our mental programming, designed to detect other “agents” in our environments, tends to be a bit high strung, causing us to see intentionality and strategic thought in many things that we later realize were entirely random or accidental matters.  The question from there is, how well are we able to identify all of these “false positive readings” for things we take to be the activity of other minds after the fact; and if these tend to go undetected, might they essentially explain where all of our beliefs in a spirit world “out there” come from?

In its most aggressive form, this argument asserts that the most common intuitive reasons people have for believing in God all come back to dependence on their ability to detect “agency” –– the results of conscious actions committed by others –– in the world around us; an ability which is inherently flawed. Therefore, since spiritual beliefs are easily explained away as the products of the buggy “agency detection devices” that are programmed into each of us, it is most rational to reject all spiritual beliefs out of hand.

Lari’s argues, quite fluently, that in broad terms there are two strategies for committed theists to use in countering this sort of argument: We can either claim that we have entirely separate –– and more “respectable” –– reasons for our beliefs in various spiritual entities and phenomena, or we can claim that our agency detection device programming is not as faulty as its critics are prone to believe. The former style of argument he refers to as an internalist-evidentialist strategy; the latter, an externalist-reliablist strategy –– as good of names as any. From there he contends that both strategies can be useful, but whereas the evidentialist strategy makes it easier to construct reasonable sounding counter arguments, the reliablist strategy while more difficult to defend, may provide a more useful tool in terms of defending the faith of the average active church member, given the number of believers whose faith really is based on a combination of traditions they have been socialized into and the function of their agency detection devices.

As far as he goes with that, I have little argument with Lari’s analysis. My problem is with the way in which these arguments attempt to address epistemological questions in abstraction from their ethical implications. I categorically reject the idea that we can search for some ultimate truth about the existence of God separately from practical questions of how we should live and what the purpose of our lives should be. The whole issue of “respectability” within epistemology as an end unto itself –– as a holy calling regarding which philosophy takes on the role of a priesthood of sorts –– is effectively a continuation of the Hegelian tradition, and I firmly believe that Kierkegaard’s critique of this tradition makes a legitimate point, especially when it comes to questions of what it means to believe in God.

There are two particularly famous Kierkegaard quotes that sum up the issue rather succinctly:

“If Hegel had written the whole of his logic and then said, in the preface or some other place, that it was merely an experiment in thought… then he would certainly have been the greatest thinker who had ever lived. As it is, he is merely comic.” (Journals, 1844)

And then,

“What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is to find a purpose… to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die.” (Journals, 1835. Emphasis added.)

Kierkegaard’s primary critique of Hegel concerned the old German’s lack of basic humility in his epistemological perspective. Acknowledging our fallibility is a very necessary starting point in these matters. There are two challenging aspects of the philosophical search for truth that we, as humans, are never going to overcome: our finitude and our biased personal perspectives. Any honest philosophical inquiry needs to keep these limitations in mind throughout the process; not claiming to have found infinity within oneself, nor to have found a level of truth that isn’t based on what we can discover within our human limitations. Those who turn to either philosophy or religion as a means of trying to escape life’s uncertainties and ambiguities fundamentally miss this point.

If, however, we set somewhat more modest goals for ourselves of determining what truths are worth acting on, and what sorts of actions are justified on such bases, both philosophy and religion can provide useful guidelines for choosing a course of action. (Many will disagree with me about the usefulness of either. For some of them philosophy might provide a useful framework for discussing the matter at least. For the rest, c’est la vie if they disagree.)

jack and jillTo follow on Lari’s choice of hypothetical character names, let me illustrate this with a story of Jill and Jack: This couple first met at a student gathering one fine spring day, and over the subsequent weeks they began dating. This took some courage for Jill in particular, as she was just getting over the rather bitter ending of a previous dysfunctional romance with Joe. Jack, however, showed himself to be a kind, respectful, funny, intelligent and seemingly emotionally mature sort of guy, so in spite of her wounds and fears Jill decided to keep seeing him. Then one night Jill had an especially vivid dream, in which she saw herself and Jack as an old couple snuggling together on a porch swing as their grandchildren arrived for a weekend visit. Jill believed that this dream was somehow prophetic; that she and Jack were just meant to be together.

When she told Jack about this dream though he seemed a bit skeptical, and perhaps a bit intimidated even, as though his new girlfriend might have a few screws looser than he had first realized. Nevertheless he deeply appreciated her otherwise quick wit, her sweet smile, her gentle affectionate nature, and her overall sense of style, so he too wanted to keep the relationship going. Some months later an occasion arose where Jack thought it would be appropriate to take Jill to meet his family. Jack’s parents were immediately smitten with Jill, and made every effort to make her feel completely at home with them. Jack’s mother, June, in particular wanted to get in some one-on-one time with this sweet thing her son had brought home, so she asked Jill to come help in the kitchen. While the two ladies were in there alone together, June suddenly became rather confused mid-sentence and then collapsed on the floor. Jill instantly reacted to the situation with complete composure, kneeling down next to the older woman and trying to revive her. June soon came back to consciousness and apologized, making excuses of being overly excited and not having eaten properly that day, but Jill could see that things were not entirely right. She immediately yelled for Jack to come in and told him, “I believe your mother is having a stroke. We need to get her to the hospital right away!” As it turned out, Jill’s diagnosis was entirely correct, and getting June into immediate treatment prevented any major damage from resulting from the incident. She was thus able to make a quick and complete recovery. Jill’s rapid and well-informed reaction had saved her from suffering paralysis and loss of speech, and may have even saved her life.

Jack’s gratitude to Jill for saving his mother in this way seriously intensified his feelings for her and his commitment to her. Two months later he asked her to marry him. She enthusiastically agreed.

Now the question is, was it wise for these two to believe that they had found a true love that was just meant to be?

In Jill’s case her original decision to entrust herself to Jack was based on a naïve belief in the power of dreams. To try to defend the general validity of seeking guidance from one’s dreams is a rather difficult and problematic matter to say at the least. This can be associated with all manner of superstitions that can ultimately cause all sorts of problems in one’s life, to say nothing of the relational conflicts that could arise if Jack wouldn’t happen to share such beliefs with her. On the other hand though Jill’s dream might still be seen by a non-believer in the magical power of such things as a subconscious indication of how much healing Jack had succeeded in bringing about in her life. Thus even if there was nothing prophetic about it, the dream could be taken as a sign that he really was good for her. Her epistemological premise for believing in the value of the relationship may well have been flawed, but it is possible that the conclusion which it brought her to could have been the right one, and perhaps even “true” in a practical sense.

Jack’s more careful and skeptical consideration of the value of their relationship may be easier to rationally defend on some levels. It was not dependent on any magical concepts or superstitious beliefs as such. To the less romantically inclined he could justify his decision to marry Jill on the basis of the significant practical value of having her around, as seen in the way she saved his mother. Did that prove beyond doubt that Jill was the ideal woman for him and that they were destined to live “happily ever after”? In itself of course not. Telling that story to Joe would by no means be enough to convince him that he had made a mistake in letting Jill go. But even so, this experience, taken together with Jack’s other reasons for appreciating Jill, provided him with as good a rational justification for making a romantic commitment as people can really expect to find these days.

None of this excludes the possibility that within a few years Jack and Jill would end up driving each other crazy and getting divorced. If that were to happen inevitably both of them would have to reconsider the thought processes that led them to believe in their relationship to begin with. If either were naïve enough to believe that their reasons for choosing each other were matters of absolute rational certainty, a marital crisis could end up shaking their personal existential foundations in really horrible ways. But even in that case we wouldn’t have enough information to say that marriage was a mistake for them. One or the other might well have made later mistakes to screw up what otherwise would have been a beautiful thing for both of them. Whatever the case their epistemological premises for believing that they belonged together were not the best determinant of the validity of the proposition, nor a particularly strong indicator one way or the other regarding the strength of their future marriage.  (There’s also a lot to be said these days for people daring to love each other in spite of all of the risks involved, but that’s another essay.)

So how does this relate to the question of our grounds for believing in God? One aspect of the matter is that neither an externalist-reliablist strategy nor an internalist-evidentialist strategy –– neither “a sense of God’s presence” nor attempts to prove His existence on the basis of historical events and the like –– is entirely foolproof. Our means of knowing by way of such means are always going to be flawed, and we need to acknowledge that.  But more importantly, we need to acknowledge that faith can have significant value even when it doesn’t have an epistemologically “respectable” basis.  A lot really depends on what you do with that faith.

Let’s go back to Jack and Jill. One significant risk for their relationship would be if Jill would somehow start expecting Jack to live up to all of her wildest dreams –– daydreams and night dreams. Getting angry at him for not living up to such an impossible standard would be a certain recipe for disaster in their relationship. Just as bad would be if Jack were to start seeing preserving their families’ health as one of Jill’s essential roles in the relationship, thus (perhaps secretly) feeling bitter against her whenever a family member would get seriously ill. Those aren’t the sort of things that their decision to join their lives together should have been based on, but then again many couples have married based on similarly irrational expectations. If, however, based on their differing epistemological premises, they were able to form a mature, caring, supportive commitment to each other’s happiness, the inherent flaws of their respective epistemological processes need not become an issue.

Likewise when it comes to faith, magical expectations and false certainties can do all sorts of damage. Thus I believe that addressing these practical concerns may in fact be more important than justifying the foundations for one’s faith.

In Lari’s seminar paper he mentioned an old quote from a particular Finnish “Christian Democrat” politician that he and I both happen to be acquainted with. Some years ago this fellow made a public statement to the effect that God had caused a particular volcanic eruption in Iceland as a way of getting Europeans’ attention. This sort of rhetoric rang true with enough people here were this guy has now been elected as a member of parliament here! I would pretty much expect such foolishness in the United States, but not in Finland. I know this fellow to be fairly well-meaning and relatively harmless character overall, but the idea that he might seriously believe that his job is now to try to pass laws to keep Finns from doing “sinful” things so that God doesn’t cause natural disasters… is more than a little disturbing to me.

The question is not one of whether this politician is epistemologically justified in believing in God, but whether he is justified in politically attacking what he sees as the sinfulness of others on that basis. Or perhaps that question needs to be expanded a bit: Does he feel called to fight against things like greed, hate-mongering, lack of caring for the poor, and the destruction of the environment, because of the ways in which such sins can be seen to have a destructive impact on the lives of others; or is he more interested in keeping too many people from enjoying the wrong sorts of sex as a means of magically preventing earthquakes and volcanoes and such? From there comes the question of what sort of justifications various sorts of believers would have in voting for (or against) a political party characterized by such positions.

By Kierkegaard’s standards these would more important questions to consider than that of whether or not, in the abstract, one is justified in believing in God. At the very least I am convinced that abstract arguments regarding justifications for believing in God have little value without their ethical implications being taken into consideration.  From there I’m prone to see the internalist-evidentialist vs. externalist-reliablist discussion as a matter of relatively minor concern.

But then again, if some academic theologians are able to get grants to study such things I wish them all the best with their endeavors. 🙂

1 Comment

Filed under Epistemology, Ethics, Religion, Respectability

Eternal Begetting

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, light from light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made…

With Christmas coming up I have to admit that I’ve always found this passage from the Nicene Creed, defining the details of the Church’s teachings on the virgin birth, a bit troubling on a number of levels. What does it actually mean in literal, concrete terms? What is its authority based on? How does the authority of this creed compare with the authority of the Bible? Is it still possible to believe this in any literal sense? What does it say about someone’s faith if they don’t believe it? What does it say about their standing within the Church as an organization if they don’t believe it?

The process of fathering a son is something I know a little about in practice. As most parents have known for quite some time, it has to do with sufficiently well-timed intercourse culminating in male orgasm occurring within the vagina. Once that happens, biologically speaking, the father’s reproductive work is done. Any other contributions to the “begetting” process have to wait until next time. So what the heck is this “eternally begotten” process all about? I agree that the begetting process is at its best when it is not done too quickly, but stretching it out eternally? How is that possible, even for God?

Obviously a divine eternal erection was not what the delegates to the Council of Nicea 1680 years ago had in mind with this phrase. Painting a picture of God as the ultimate copulater would have been the furthest thing from their minds. Of all the fourth century church fathers St. Augustine had the most to say about the matter of sex, due primarily to his sense of guilt issues regarding his pre-conversion sexual hedonism, but he was far from the only one to consider sex to be “yucky” and inherently sin-producing, if not directly sinful. The image of God in the Christian Church of the fourth century was anything but sexy. Likewise their honorary titles as “church fathers” had nothing to do with their sex lives as such. So what were these stodgy old bishops on about with this eternal begetting shtick?

My own first-begotten son, chilling with the cat after a family dinner to celebrate Christmas.

My own first-begotten son, chilling with the cat after a family dinner to celebrate Christmas.

The only way to make sense of this attribute for Jesus is in the context of an antiquated understanding of reproductive biology, based on the teachings of Aristotle. In simple terms, Aristotle believed that the best analogy for what the sperm does to the bloody reproductive material found within the woman is what a signet ring does to hot wax, or what a branding iron does to a cow’s ass: it sets a distinct pattern on the material there, making it conform as much as possible to the father’s trademark design. Where the mother contributes the basic raw material; the father was believed to contribute the complete functional design for the new person. Using another analogy, the mother provides the clay; the father’s sperm “sculpts” it into a person.

Furthermore, according to this way of thinking, the male “imprint” brought about through copulation is never an entirely perfect one. The better the “begetting” goes, the more like the father the resulting child turns out to be, but human men never entirely get what they want in this regard. Since a man can’t actually see the target that he’s shooting at in there, sometimes his liquid branding iron misses its target entirely, and no baby at all results. Sometimes it hits the target indirectly, or not completely square on, resulting in a baby that less perfectly displays on the pattern that the father’s ejaculate was trying to imprint. Some little details end up missing sometimes. According to Aristotle (and Aquinas) that is actually where little girls come from: slight mishaps in the process of men trying to father sons.

But God being God, as the church fathers saw it, He was not limited in his pattern-setting to that one critical, passionate moment where the sperm hits the bloody stuff; God could keep on “re-branding” Jesus and re-establishing the fatherly pattern in him throughout his life. This process of producing the paternal image in the bloody material substance found in his mother would not be limited to just getting the girl pregnant; it would be an on-going from before the time of Mary’s birth until after the time of Jesus’ death. The virgin birth was just one incidental step along the way; God was and is continuously re-shaping Jesus to make him more completely typical of the divine.

Except that reproductive biology really doesn’t work that way. Aristotle and his students were fundamentally wrong about how sex works, and how light works and how souls works for that matter. We now know with a fair amount of certainty that the pattern for the baby comes in equal parts from mother and father, and as products of the begetting process, daughters are not somehow partially defective sons, but complete human beings unto themselves, demonstrating just as much begetting success as any son does. Both in pattern and in physical substance, children are a combination of their fathers and their mothers. Asserting otherwise is just factually, and in many respects morally, wrong.

So there’s really no getting around the fact that the Nicene Creed is based on a complete, and rather sexist, misunderstanding of reproductive biology. Mendel’s work in genetics in the late 19th century essentially proved this. So now what can we do about it?

To start with we have to deal with the issue of the presumption of authoritative flawlessness in ancient religious texts in general. Fundamentalists’ frequent favorite verse in the Bible, which I had to memorize at about 12 years old, is 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction and for instruction in righteousness.” This verse is taken as proof that every word in the Bible must be taken as flawlessly straight from God. But there are more than a few problems with such an interpretation. Strictly speaking, the “scripture” that St. Paul was referring to here would be the Jewish Torah; so rather than emphasizing the flawlessness issue, what is really being addressed here, in context, is the matter of maintaining respect for the Jewish scriptures among the increasing Gentilized body of Christian believers. Beyond that there is one other reference in the Bible to something being “God-breathed” (as the better translations have it in 2 Timothy): Adam’s human soul (Genesis 2:7). If we don’t consider human souls to be inherently flawless, in terms of logical consistency we shouldn’t take the turn of the phrase in 2 Timothy to indicate that Biblical writings are inherently flawless either.

But setting aside the literal meanings and proper hermeneutics for the moment, according to church tradition, due in large part to religious people’s emotional need to feel “sure” about things, the idea of “God’s inspiration” giving authority to the official pronouncements of the church underpins the whole concept of “sound doctrine,” which provides the grounds on which systematic theologians and “canon lawyers” of various sorts professionally distinguish between “orthodoxy” and “heresy”. Acknowledging that the core assertion of the Nicene Creed is based on nothing but a scientific mistake that was broadly accepted as fact in fourth century culture fundamentally screws up this whole system! If you can’t trust divine inspiration to keep the teachings of the Nicene Creed flawless, how can you trust the flawlessness of the canon of the New Testament, which these same church fathers progressively adopted over the course of the generation following the Council of Nicea? If you can’t trust Nicea, what can you trust?

Even more fundamental than that though, how do we go about making sense of Christology and the doctrine of the trinity when our most foundational and authoritative statement on those subjects is based on a complete scientific misunderstanding? We’re talking about a much bigger conundrum here than just the early church’s flat earth assumptions and misunderstandings of the physical locations of heaven and hell; we’re talking about the core understanding of who/what we worship, and why!

It’s sort of like getting down to filling in the last ten numbers on a rather difficult sudoku, and then realizing that somehow you’ve ended up with two sixes in the third column; somewhere along the way you’ve made a basic mistake, and seeing how far back you have to go to undo that mistake can be a very frustrating and aggravating process. What we know for sure here is that the description of how the relationship between God the Father and Jesus, the Son, works in the Nicene Creed is based on a fundamental biological misunderstanding. How far back we have to go from there to straighten out this mess has yet to be properly determined.

I’m not going to offer my personal revised solution to this theological puzzle in this blog entry. I think it would be most fair to leave it open as a doctrinal question and allow leading members of each particular confessional tradition to offer their own dogmatic solutions. I thus ask each reader’s help in putting this matter forward to those they accept as theological leaders to see what they are able to do with it. Skeptics, meanwhile, can play with this consistency issue in the Christian tradition in whatever way they find most amusing.

For my part, I will close here by offering a few related personal meditations, for what they’re worth, for you to ponder over the remaining days of the holiday season:

  • Certainty in matters of faith is over-rated. As good as certainty feels, there are always things about life that we can’t know for sure, and that apparently God doesn’t want us to know for sure. That doesn’t mean we should give up on further developing our understanding in theology any more than we should give up on physics or biology; but it does mean that in theology, as in natural sciences, we need to be careful how seriously we take the “laws” we discover or formulate, and we need to remain ready to have reality keep surprising us, in both positive and negative ways.
  • Humanity is a marvelous puzzle unto itself. In thinking about the core theological mystery of Christmas –– how God could become man and still remain God –– we inevitably need to come back to the question of why we are so occupied with “god questions” to begin with, and what makes each of us (potentially) valuable as individuals to begin with. We still haven’t got the concept of how God’s breath makes each of us a living soul figured out entirely. That’s something we need to work out in more detail before we can finalize our Christological dogmas it would seem.
  • Love doesn’t have to make sense to be valuable. In fact love hardly ever makes sense, but that doesn’t stop it from being the most valuable aspect of the human experience, and the strongest predictor of personal happiness in our lives regardless of our religious persuasions. The core message of Christmas, and Christianity in general, is that in spite of how screwed up we are, we are still loved, and that in turn should give us a capacity to love each other and live at peace with each other regardless of the other’s flaws. Granted, some people totally do not deserve to be loved. Since when is that a surprising realization? No, we will not be able to love everyone in the world without destroying ourselves in the process, because none of us have the capacity to make everyone else’s problems our own. The point is rather that we can at least get beyond issues of who deserves to be loved and who we can profit from lovingly connecting with. God’s love, shown through the life and death of Jesus, should give us a broader perspective than that.

And with those matters to mull over, I wish all of you a pleasant Christmas and a joyous start to the New Year.

Leave a comment

Filed under Epistemology, Holidays, Love, Religion, Sexuality

My Ascension Agnosticism

Something that few other than those of us whose work is related to religious matters realize is that we are currently in the week between Ascension Day and Pentecost. In other words we are in that time of year that commemorates that period of uncertainty that hit Jesus’ followers a month and a half after his execution and after the thrill of his grave being empty, because after 40 days of visions of Jesus in his post-death state –– sort of physical and non-physical at the same time –– they had watched him levitate up through the clouds, after which they received an angelic message: “He’ll be back later, now get busy!”

But get busy with what? The closest thing Jesus’ followers had to a leader after his aerial departure was Peter, and for all his bluff and bluster this guy still felt more at home in a fishing boat than he did leading a worship service or holding an outreach strategy meeting.  The rest as well were really just trying to figure out whether this Jesus movement thing was worth bothering with any more or not. Their messianic hopes weren’t going to be realized in the ways they had first hoped for anyway: There wasn’t going to be a new system of civil government in Jerusalem right away anyway, which is what a lot of them had in mind when they signed on. The other-worldly ideas that Jesus had talked about still seemed more than a little abstract to them. They had watched Jesus rise up through the clouds, but in many respects they were stuck trying to work out for themselves the answer to the basic question: Which way is up?

Painting by Alexey Pismenny

Painting by Alexey Pismenny

That may sound like a silly question, but in so many ways it remains critical and indeterminate matter for most believers still today. I mean, to start with the obvious, the whole concept of the earth being a spinning sphere –– not really recognized at Jesus’ time but fairly self-evident to anyone who has been through elementary school or travelled internationally by air these days –– sort of screws up the idea of “up” pointing in any given direction within the solar system, our galaxy or the universe. So from that perspective, where did Jesus go?

The basic physical perspective of his followers at the time was pretty clear in this regard at least: After defeating death Jesus’ body had taken on a miraculous form that the empire could no longer kill. He then went to someplace on the other side of the clouds, where his father’s kingdom lies, to gather an army of angels together, and to commission the building of some sort of concrete homes and offices for his followers who were to have significant positions of authority in his kingdom up there. From there their general hope was that he would be returning with his celestial armies of angels in a few weeks, or months… or years… to set things right in the lands God had given to Abraham seed, and then take all of his true followers to the grand and glorious kingdom physically up there somewhere, which he had ascended up to supervise building on. The rest was details to be worked out and revealed when his actual coming would occur; they just sort of had to trust him on that.

Obviously some aspects of that perspective were very much wrong: We have now thoroughly explored the regions on the other side of the clouds, littered that area with satellites and sent out investigative equipment thousands of times further from the earth than the highest clouds, all without encountering any distant kingdom up there as those in the early church would have expected we’d find. Likewise since the ascension there have been hundreds of generations of believers in Jesus, each believing that they would most likely be the ones to experience his glorious return from wherever he went when he levitated off that Jerusalem hilltop way back the –– each eventually facing the disappointment of dying like those before them. Obviously they misunderstood some parts of the system and God’s long-term plan in the matter. How deep did that misunderstanding really go? Did they have any of it right? Troubling questions for those who still choose to identify as followers of Jesus.

The things that these original followers of Jesus knew, or at least clearly and strongly believed, not on the basis of faith and speculation but  on the basis of their personal sensory experiences, were that Jesus’ body had not remained dead, that they had actually seen him in this post-death state, and that a reliable group of witnesses among them had watched as, a month and a half after coming back from the dead, Jesus did his levitation through the clouds thing. Speculations by historical scholars since then that the gospel reports were fabricated simply as a means of maintaining the cult revering this visionary martyr of one of the Jewish restorationist movements of the time don’t come across as particularly credible. To repeat the familiar argument, these apostles all allowed themselves to be put to death for what they believed rather than changing their story to make it more politically acceptable. That doesn’t sound like the actions of cons or fakers.

So there isn’t a credible argument to be made that the whole thing was a giant scam right from the start. Claims that they were the victims of an incredible mas psychosis also seem a bit historically problematic. Somehow they all saw something after Jesus’ execution that gave them a profound existential certainty about the matter of Jesus as the great victor over death, whose side they definitely wanted to be on. Nor do we have any viable reason for doubting their soundness of mind in doing so.

But though we can’t dismiss the apostles as cons or flakes, nor can we credibly belief that everything these guys held as true was the absolute, God’s honest truth of the matter. I find it disingenuous either to claim that they were intentionally deceitful or collectively schizophrenic on the one hand, or to claim that their perspectives –– even those recorded in the New Testament –– were infallibly accurate on the other. There were more than a few things that they didn’t understand, that didn’t work the way they anticipated, and regarding which they were just factually wrong.  So somewhere here we have a disconnect to be rectified, and I’m honestly not sure exactly how and where. All we can know is that somewhere around the ascension ––  somewhere between the sincere eye-witness testimonies to the resurrection and the shared belief within the early church that Jesus had physically taken off to go up there somewhere to work on the material logistics necessary for his return –– we have a breakdown in the narrative credibility. We don’t really have any good answers as to where Jesus would have gone, in what material sense, other than that he just went away, and that opens up a few cans of worms of its own.

Every effort I’ve seen to square this circle involves a fair amount of epistemological bluff on one side or the other, strongly influence by the faith position taken by the person offering the answer. Either they are dismissing the whole account as myth and fabrication, or they are holding to the absolute accuracy of the historical account in the book of Acts as a matter of personal faith. I believe the truth must be somewhere in between these two positions, but I cannot be sure where. So this makes me a proper agnostic with reference to the implications of the story of the ascension: I don’t know what exactly happened that day and how the tale came to be recorded as we have it; and so far I don’t know of anyone whose claim to know about this matter I can take particularly seriously at this point in my philosophical and spiritual journey. Fortunately I’m not one to be particularly afraid of mysteries. Not knowing which way is up has become a fairly familiar experience for me, and I’m almost at the point of being comfortable with it.

There are essentially two important practical matters of faith relative to the ascension that make the story relevant beyond the expectation of Jesus coming back through the clouds in a reverse action sequence of his departure: First we have the matter of believing that Jesus lives, even though he is not with us here on a day-to-day basis. Second we have the matter of taking Jesus as an example of life after death so as to give us hope of someday having life after death ourselves. Let me unpack those a bit.

One of the technical differences between a religion and a cult, sociologically speaking, is a matter of how long it has been since the departure of its founding leader, whatever title that leader is known by. Any new religion begins by revering some particularly charismatic character that walks among us and seems to have all the answers. People live in awe of this individual and turn to him (inevitably it has to be a him) for moral, spiritual and political guidance. Obeying the word of this leader is considered more important than thinking for oneself. It is only two or three generations after this leader’s departure from the scene that his followers start to digest his teachings and experiment with thinking for themselves on the basis of the principles introduced in those teachings. Moving beyond the blind subservience phase to the responsible representative phase is an important aspect in any religion’s maturation process. In this regard Christianity really has been no exception. For the faith to mature into a significant cultural force, its followers had to start thinking for themselves. Some Christians still aren’t capable of thinking for themselves much, but in order for us to at least have a fighting chance at doing so Jesus had to leave to give us the space to do so.

Beyond that the matter of the soul living on, as I’ve been contemplating for the past month, gets rather complicated in Christian theology, and in any other thoughtful perspective on the matter. A bit of exegetical research makes it quite clear that Jesus’ early followers did not have any concept of a soul existing without a body: “the resurrection” was to be a physical matter of each of God’s people receiving back their bodies in their most essential form, though perhaps without their most painful and troubling limitations such as handicaps and diseases. The whole idea of one’s soul being separable from one’s body came rather later in the writings of St. Paul. This is actually one of the primary evidences for the “Apostles’ Creed” predating the “Nicean Creed”: whereas the latter confesses to belief in “the resurrection of the dead”, the former carefully specifies that this is a matter of “the resurrection of the body”.

Jesus’ post-resurrection body was seen as the primary example of this principle; he was, in both St. John’s and St. Paul’s words, “the firstborn from among the dead” (Revelation 1:5, Colossians 1:18). But this was not merely to be understood as a matter of experiencing the joys of earthly life in some semi-detached immortal manner indefinitely, but rather of the potential for experiencing a world beyond this one, which Jesus continued on to. Jesus’ ascension was thus an important aspect of expanding believers’ concepts of possibilities for a life beyond the present one.

I’m not going to use this space to try to change anyone’s personal beliefs about how life after death might work. That’s not the sort of thing blogs are suited for –– even long-winded ones like mine. I would rather like to emphasize something that on one level or another all of my friends from various branches of Christianity, deism, agnosticism, Judaism and other world religions can probably relate to: The key to my soul having relevance beyond the limits of my skin is love. When I love someone, and/or I am loved by someone, that creates in me, and beyond, me a sense that I am relevant to more than just myself. It is this sense of security in one’s broader and deeper relevance that psychological researchers tell us is the strongest corollary to a subjective sense of happiness in this life. Ironically it is this sense of connecting with others that financial ambition tends to rob people of on all sorts of levels.

Having the security to love and be loved regardless of our acknowledged failures and limitations, and regardless of how it relates to our evolutionary biological motivations, is in many ways the core element of the Christian message, but I’ll make everyone uncomfortable by saying that I don’t see this as something Christians should try to lay an exclusive claim to. In fact for Christians to claim exclusivity in such a message rather defeats the purpose of the message. Exclusivity is a matter of setting advance limitations on who we are willing to connect with; on who has the rights to our love in one sense or another. There can be value to that in terms of sexual exclusivity, for instance, but when it comes to shared participation in God’s love there is little excuse for exclusive claims to such love. The foundational premise here should be that God has made all mankind in his own image, and therefore none are to be categorically excluded from the sphere of his love. There is even less excuse for violent attack on those who fail to meet one’s exclusive religious standards.

Whatever we do and don’t know about what lies beyond death and “beyond the clouds”, we can be quite sure of one thing: building a capacity to love in ways that overcome our natural violent and competitive inclinations is an extremely beneficial way of exercising one’s faith. It builds a sense of personal satisfaction in life. It is conducive to building a sense of harmony with those around us, and it lends credibility to any claims we may wish to make regarding our love for God. By loving others I know that I am able to transcend the limits of my body. I am able to become part of someone else; part of something outside my own skin; something that gives my life value beyond the simple physical pleasures and pains that it involves. This enables me to live at peace with what I don’t know about the historical and physical details of the ascension. This even enables me to live at peace with the false certainties that I hear fellow Christians proclaiming on the basis of their personal Pentecosts. And if some people find my attitude towards their would-be certainties offensive and condescending, I do my best to love them anyway.



Filed under Epistemology, Happiness, History, Religion, Science, Skepticism

In Search of Aristotle’s Soul (Book 3)

So now we reach the final entry in Aristotle’s deliberations on the soul –– on what makes living things live, and what makes us human. In book three he continues on with all of the lines of thought begun in the previous two books, exploring areas that we would call neurology, psychology, epistemology and metaphysics –– in such a way, actually, where it is unlikely that he would have any defenders these days who would stand by all of his final conclusions in any of these four fields. Even so, he makes his mistakes in such a way as to open up all four subject areas in interesting ways for further speculation and development.

Regarding what we would call neurological phenomena, his basic conclusions are that there logically cannot be any more than five senses, and that the purpose of each of these senses is to help us identify “the good”, which, in each case, is in fact good by virtue of its concord, pleasing ratio, or overall balance. “That is also why the objects of sense are pleasant when the sensible extremes such as acid or sweet or salt being pure and unmixed are brought into proper ratio; then they are pleasant” (part 2, 6th paragraph).

He rather leaves open the question of whether this balanced goodness is something inherently good of itself, of if it is good as a means of preserving human life as such. It is possible that he sees the value in human life in its connection with some greater good beyond itself, revealed in such inherently virtuous things as harmony and balance; it is possible that he would see harmony and balance as instrumental goods which we take to be good because they preserve human life. These days we’re more prone to accept the latter way of looking at things: we have developed preferences as a species which are conducive to our continuation as a species, including the Goldilocks factors of not too hot, not too cold / not too hard, not too soft; and on that basis we are prone to see such things as good. It might be overly charitable though to assume that is what Aristotle had in mind. His medieval interpreters at least were more likely to read into his work an understanding that getting close to Godliness, in the form of the ultimate form of forms, is what makes human life valuable, and that a natural attraction to harmony and balance is part of God’s way of drawing us unto himself through the senses he has given us. It would seem then that Aristotle’s own perspective would be closer to that of the Thomists that of the Darwinians.

Was Baby Bear's bed the best  for Goldilocks because it was closest to the preferences she had acquired through the process of evolution, or was Baby Bear's bed best because her senses told here that it came closest to the Platonic ideal for such things?

Was Baby Bear’s bed the best for Goldilocks because it was closest to the preferences she had acquired through the process of evolution, or was Baby Bear’s bed best because her senses told here that it came closest to the divine “Platonic ideal” for such things?

Beyond that, when it comes to the function of the empirical senses, Aristotle sticks to the old “it takes one to know one” concept –– only like can know like. In other words just as only women can really understand women (and to the extent that men can understand women it is by way of getting in touch with their own “feminine side”) and only Greeks can really understand Greeks, so only that which has sound within it can perceive sound, only that which has color within it can perceived color, only that which has sweetness within it can perceive sweetness, and so on. Thus, “error is contact with the unlike; for that is the opposite of the knowing of like by like.” This presupposition that there must be some common element between the perceived and the perceiver, which functions as the basic means of perception, leads to some other interesting conclusions later on. Suffice to say, on a neurological level there is no particularly good reason to continue to hold to such a belief with reference to our senses. Appreciating the smell of roses does not imply that one is a partial rose, or that one’s nose bears particular similarity to a rose, anecdotal evidence not withstanding.

From a psychological perspective Aristotle comes to some interesting if mistaken conclusions regarding the interrelation of different cognitive functions in both humans and simpler-brained creatures. How do sense perception, imagination, desire, opinion, speculation, strategizing, practical judgment, moral conviction, argumentation and strength of will all relate to each other? Which of these can we identify in the behavior and interaction of other animals, and which are uniquely human capacities (perhaps also exercised by the gods we bear resemblance to)? Suffice to say, Aristotle’s speculations about where the border lies between human cognitive function and cognitive functions common to other animals –– like his speculations on many topics related to the natural sciences –– demonstrate a lack of experimental data on the matter. In particular on this question it seems clear that if he ever had a dog he would have seen many of his mistakes readily through the human/canine interaction. Me being very much a dog person, I find it hard to trust the psychological perspectives of those who aren’t, but I’ll set aside my biases on that one for the time being.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of all this speculation on animal versus human psychological function though is his assertion that animals cannot have opinions, because opinions inherently involve beliefs, beliefs inherently involve convictions and convictions inherently involve reasoned arguments (part 3, 7th paragraph). Besides a lack of familiarity with animals, this also clearly shows the early stage in the evolution of democratic government that Aristotle was exposed to in his day as well. In modern party politics throughout the western world we regularly find that opinion formation as a cognitive function, far from depending on rational argument, tends to be the polar opposite to rational argument! The two phenomena come very close to being mutually exclusive in many cases. If you don’t believe it, attend any rally of “social conservatives” anywhere in the world and try to identify any factors which are both rationally argued and strongly held matters of opinion within their rhetoric…

This person is entitled to an opinion, but it would be rather absurd to claim that this opinion is in any sense rational...

This person is entitled to an opinion, but it would be rather absurd to claim that this opinion is in any sense based on rational argument…

But let’s set that aside and move on to the question of epistemology as such –– Aristotle’s perspective on the soul’s capacity for knowledge and what in general counts as knowledge. Here things start to get chewy. Besides the “like knowing like” premise mentioned above, another basic factor in Aristotle’s theory of knowledge is that the empirical perception “is never in error, or admits the least possible amount of falsehood” (part 3, 10th paragraph). In other words you should always trust your eyes more than your imagination. That is not to say that we always correctly process the data that our senses give us, but we should trust that sense data as a reliable starting point for access to a world beyond ourselves. Yet this leaves an important issue hanging: where does sensing end and interpretation begin? Clearly Aristotle was unaware of blind spot phenomenon and so many other forms of scientific evidence which now tell us that our sense experience is far more actively constructed within our brains than what we realize as we go about our day-to-day routines. Would he have remained as firmly epistemologically committed to empiricism had he known? Perhaps not. It’s hard to say.

In fact for all his naïve trust in his eyes and ears and mouth and nose, and especially in his sense of touch, Aristotle considered there to be more to life, the universe and everything than just the physical. One of the areas in which he remained a committed disciple of Plato was in terms of the doctrine of forms. And here his teaching on one aspect of the human soul –– the nous or mind –– becomes rather intensively metaphysical and mystical.

The mind, as Aristotle sees it, has an analogous function to the physical senses. Whereas the sense of vision provides a sense of connection in the soul’s experience between the light that is “out there” and the light that is within the eye, and the sense of touch provides a sense of connection between the textures and temperatures of the external world and those within the body in the soul’s experience; so the mind provides the soul with a sense of connection with the world of ideas, or Platonic forms. “As the hand is the tool of tools, so the mind is the form of forms” (part 8, 3rd paragraph).

The difference between the mind and the senses, however, is that the senses, in order to function, are dependent on the physical presence of the stimuli they are designed to detect; the mind can connect with things that are not at all physically present. And since it can have a sense of things that are not physically present, it follows for Aristotle that the mind would itself be inherently non-physical. In order to function as a bridge between like and like in the experience of the soul, mind needs to have the same non-material, spiritual, perhaps even eternal essence as the forms themselves. This “spiritual sense,” if we can call it that (not Aristotle’s or his translators’ term, but my synopsis of his treatment of the nous), is then intermixed with the living physical aspects of the soul, but it is ultimately something greater than the physical.

Part 5 of book 3 is one of the shortest and most central to the argument on this point. It comes back to the hylomorphism idea of “matter” and “cause”, or what we today would tend to think of as “hardware” and “software” as necessary elements within the soul, but it gets a bit deeper and more mysterious than that: “[M]ind as we have described it is what it is by virtue of becoming all things, while there is another which is what it is by virtue of making all things. This is a sort of positive state like light… Mind in this sense of it is separable, impassible, unmixed, since it is in its essential nature activity… When mind is set free from its present conditions it appears as just what it is and nothing more: this alone is immortal and eternal.”

Mind as such is only regarded to be a part or a function of the human soul. Humans, like lower animals, also have appetites. When we suffer from “weakness of will” those appetites overpower our “form of forms” minds, but when we overcome our moral weaknesses and live according to the ideal form for human dignity we become more than mere animals. We hook into something unmovable and everlasting. While imagination and appetites may be misguided, “mind is always right” (part 10, 3rd paragraph). While physical needs and empirical senses involve constant motion, “the faculty of knowing is never moved but remains at rest” (part 11, 4th paragraph). This makes the moral law within a matter of still greater magnificence than the starry heavens above: Whereas the heavenly bodies (from the standard ancient perspective) are in constant aesthetically pleasing circular motion, mind as such is inherently and essentially at rest within us. It is an element of “unmoved mover” within each of us that makes us at one with the deepest principles of the universe. Such a bold metaphysical claim about the most rational part of the human soul is fascinating, to say at the least.

From Aristotle's perspective the stars are always in motion, but true mind is always at rest.

From Aristotle’s perspective the stars are always in motion, but true mind is always at rest.

Aristotle concludes his discourse on souls as such with a discussion of the ways in which empirical senses improve the quality of life for all animals. This again provides an interesting mix biological folk wisdom and non-systematic zoological analysis. It concludes by saying that for animals touch is the minimum sense which makes life possible, whereas the other senses are necessary “not for their being, but for their well-being.”

For further investigation as to what makes humans human from Aristotle’s perspective, there is also book 7 of his “History of Animals” to be considered, with its extensive misinformation regarding human sexuality and reproduction –– and I mean serious misinformation, like saying that for a woman’s labia to be moist and swollen reduces the possibility of conception, so to increase the chance of making babies the man should avoid letting the woman get too wet! He furthermore suggests that for recreational sex where conception is not desired rubbing in some extra lubricant like cedar or olive oil should do the trick!

It is from within this same highly scientific chapter (3) of this work that medieval thinkers arrived at their formula of male embryos developing into human beings capable of thought and action faster than female embryos –– “ensoulment” happening at roughly 40 and 90 days into pregnancy for male and female fetuses respectively. A careful reading, however shows Aristotle actually presents this as a rule of thumb at best, with many exceptions and variations admitted.

With all this funky speculation and blatant misinformation regarding what souls are, where they come from, how they interact with the human body and so on, it becomes a little embarrassing to have so much of Christian doctrine and Western tradition based on such teachings, but there we have it. So what should we do with this pile of speculations now that we see them for what they are?

In closing here it’s worth going back to the beginning of the books on the soul to remind ourselves what the main point of the exercise was to begin with –– the thing that Aristotle set out to promote as inherently valuable in writing about the soul.  We find that from the very first pages of book 1 through with his mystical discussion of the mind in book 3, Aristotle promotes rational thought as the greatest source of human value: Genius must be promoted and preserved; people who are somewhat lacking in rational skills aren’t all that significant unless they play a significant role in enabling genius to flourish. Other forms of soul clearly exist, but the important part of one’s soul is that which facilitates the greatest experiences of the mind. That part he sees as important and eternal; the rest, fleeting and disposable.

It’s worth further backing up to consider the pre-Aristotelian ancient Jewish understanding of the basis of life and life after death, which forms the other particularly deep root for our western concept of the soul. This was less based on the concept of a disembodied soul having fellowship with God than on a glorious final day when the bodies of the faithful will be reassembled according to the requirements of their souls so that there can be a wonderful extended life on that basis. The “resurrection of the body” was thus a very key part of the earliest church teaching about the afterlife, because the idea of any other type of afterlife didn’t really make sense from their cultural perspective. The idea of being “present with the Lord” without any body to be present in was a rather later development in St. Paul’s teaching, reflecting his progressive interaction more with Greek ideas and less and less with Rabbinical Jewish ideas.

Even so, Aristotle’s world view seems to have been closer to the ancient Jewish perspective than to the modern western concept of individual immaterial souls going on to face reward or punishment after death in some disembodied state. For him the substance of the individual soul is the body that houses it, without which it is essentially meaningless in most senses. The part of the soul that he sees as not dying with the body is the “mind,” which as such is not tied to the ego of the person in whom it functioned. This “mind” is the unmoved, unmovable, non-material spirit substance which is uncomfortably attached to one’s restless, hungering, lusting and aching human soul and body. It might be compared to a quantity of precious metal suspended within a lump of ore. Once the lump of ore has been broken down and that precious metal has been liberated, the continued existence of that metal, mixed together with the metal from other lumps of ore, would not necessarily imply the continued existence of the pattern for the lump of ore it came from. So it would seem to be with Aristotle’s teaching on mind and soul: The everlasting, ethereal mind we each have within us will continue on after the body which houses it and the dimensions of soul it is mixed with have broken down, but there is no reason to believe that this mind will continue to be identifiable as “my mind” in its “liberated” state. Adjusting Aristotle’s teaching on the soul so as to reinforce the church’s teaching on the soul which evolved thereafter thus seems to have required a fair amount of Thomist creativity.

Thomas Aquinas giving a listen to Aristotle on matters of the soul

Thomas Aquinas giving a listen to Aristotle on matters of the soul

It could be argued that the last philosopher to unsentimentally follow something resembling an originally Aristotelian perspective on the soul –– considering all other parts of it than the capacity for intellectual greatness to be relatively disposable –– would have been Nietzsche. From a bastardization of his teachings then came the somewhat ignorant and arrogant spectacle of Fascism, treating particular people as outright disposable because they lacked the sort of soul elements that those in power considered to be worth advancing. This shocked the world enough so that for the last few generations at least we’ve been looking for a broader basis for human value than just gratification of the egos of some self-appointed master race.

But if we set aside Aristotle’s concept of the nous/mind –– a rational capacity to connect with all of the transcendent truths of the universe –– as the one eternal and valuable thing about the human soul, his style of reasoning gives us little reason to believe in an eternal soul in any other sense either.

So this leaves us with three rather complex unsolved puzzles:
– What should we make of the “eternal soul” concept once we stop basing it on a misunderstanding of Aristotle?
– What non-Greek basis might there be for considering human life to have some universal value to begin with?
– And in this state of uncertainty, how to we go about setting ethical standards concerning practical issues related to the beginning and ending of human lives?

It has also been said that the essential difference between philosophers and scholars of other fields is that, whereas at the end of the day scientists, theologians, historians and the like are uncomfortable to leave a question unanswered, philosophers are more uncomfortable if at the end of the day they leave an answer unquestioned. With that in mind perhaps I should just be philosophical about this matter and leave those three questions standing for now. I leave it to you, dear reader, to suggest the next answers to be questioned in this journey of soul discovery. Meanwhile, if you can help it, try not to lose too much sleep worrying about what sort of soul you may or may not have.

Leave a comment

Filed under Epistemology, Ethics, History, Human Rights, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science, Sexuality

In Search of Aristotle’s Soul (Book 2)

aristotle1Continuing on with my efforts to grasp the basic principles of ensoulment that religious thinkers over the years have borrowed from Aristotle, I now move on to Book 2 of the man’s work on the subject. It starts out with Aristotle basically saying, “enough on those other old farts; let’s get down to business on analyzing the subject itself.” This dives pretty directly into what the professionals in the field these days call “Hylomorphism”: how the essence of what something is relates to how its form or shape is determined.

To put it in Aristotle’s terms, there are three ways in which what we might call “things” can exist: 1) they can exist as entirely physical objects (like the pillow I am using for back support); 2) they can exist as formal patterns (like this blog itself, which you are probably reading without any physical object having been transferred between you and I); or 3) they can exist as a combination of the physical and the formal (like my computer, and actually most other things around me to one extent or another). In these terms every living being is a category 3 thing –– a composite –– a combination of material substance and formal, functional (we would say genetic) design. So the soul, as Aristotle conceptualizes it, is more or less identical with a living being’s functional genetic design –– the category 2 aspect of our basic being. Thus Aristotle’s summary definition for the soul is, “substance in the sense which corresponds to the definitive form of a thing’s essence,” or in simpler terms (in Smith’s translation), it is “‘the essential whatness’ of a [living] body.”

From there the distinction comes up between the realized and potential function of a given composite (category 3) item. Can we refer to an apple seed, for example, as having a soul –– as a living thing? Well… potentially. But how is that seed being a potential apple tree different from a pile of snow being an actual snowman which just needs assembly?

ikea snowmanThe difference of course is that the apple seed contains within itself all of the pattern information necessary to produce an apple tree. It still needs lots of soil and rain and sun and time, but the “whatness” in terms of the basic model and all that is already there. The snow, on the other hand, does not contain the information within itself of how it could be packed together to form an abstract representation of a human being; that has to imparted to it by some crazy individual like myself.snowman karhusuo

In this regard Aristotle considers seeds to have soul in a sense that corpses and porridges do not. From our modern perspective we could say that the DNA is still there, (and thus cloning might still be possible), but it no longer either actually or potentially meets the two classical Greek standards for being alive that Aristotle subscribes to: independent movement and sensation.

Aristotle concludes his sketch of the basic nature of the soul in general in the first chapter of book 2 by once again concluding that, at least in its most basic sense, the soul cannot exist in any disembodied form: “[T]he soul is inseperable from its body, or at any rate […] certain parts of it are (if it has parts) for the actuality of some of them is nothing but the actualities of their body parts.”  Yet within that sentence we see him hedging his bet a bit, which he actually continues on with as the work progresses. Some aspects of soul, he speculates, might not be “actualities of any body at all. Further, we have no light on the problem of whether the soul may not be the actuality of its body in the sense in which the sailor is the actuality of the ship.”

(These days we would use the driver and automobile analogy for soul and body in that sense, but back in Aristotle’s day sailors and ships was the best he could do.)

He goes on to expand on this by saying that in plants, lower animals, more intelligent animals and humans alike we find “soul” in a sense of some combination of “the powers of self-nutrition, sensation, thinking and movement.”  Can these be distinguished from one another? A problematic endeavor, yet right away Aristotle comes back to his basic reason for studying the soul to begin with: considering what it is that makes the glories of thinking possible for us. “We have no evidence as yet about mind [nous] or the power to think. It seems to be a widely different kind of soul, differing as what is eternal from what is perishable. It alone is capable of existence in isolation from all other [soul-based] powers.

Aristotle is thus, while trying to remain as “scientific” as possible, starting to explore two different meanings for “soul” in the human context: the design of the body and the driver of the body, and trying to figure out how the two essentially relate to each other. Regarding both, however, he reaches the conclusion that they are not physical substances like air (breath) or blood per se, but rather the “formulable essence of something that possesses a potentiality of being besouled.”

He goes on to build something of a hierarchy of biological of soul functions. He basically concludes that plant souls are capable of little more than the “nutritive” functions of self-perpetuation through acquiring nutrients from their environment, growing, reproducing and dying. Other, slightly more advanced life-forms are also capable of sensing or feeling things. It would seem, however, that sensing and feeling are only revealed and relevant when the organism in question also wants things; thus what Aristotle calls the sensory and the appetitive aspects of the soul tend to go together with each other. At their most primitive even the simplest of animals (and though Aristotle didn’t recognize them as “wanting” in such a way, perhaps many plants as well) manifest desires for food, suitable temperature and moisture conditions, avoidance of pain and sexual opportunities. The next level of soul activity Aristotle recognizes then is the ability to physically chase after the objects of our desires through physical motion or locomotion. Above that though, in a category limited to mankind and “possibly another order like man or superior to him” is the power of thinking proper: mind. The extent to which this property of mind is a separate matter from the rest of the soul, and the extent to which it is universal even among humans, are questions regarding which Aristotle’s answers seem to be tentative at best.

Aristotle soul functionsTo state again what is obvious to all who have studied the subject even superficially, in Aristotle’s day, and for the next 2000 years thereafter, there was no distinction made between “science” and “philosophy” in the way we now distinguish between them. So it would be a gross anachronism to say that Aristotle goes back and forth between “playing scientist” and “playing philosopher”; he didn’t see any sort of distinction between the two. These days we tend to take such a distinction as self-evident, perhaps creating more problems than we solve in doing so, but that’s another long story unto itself.

In any case, given our contemporary way of looking at such things, we can say that from our perspective Aristotle goes back and forth between the scientific, biological view of soul, considering it as both the “life-principle” –– sort of like what we’re hoping to find on Mars –– and the philosophical view of soul as “the miracle of consciousness” and cognition, enabling us to somehow connect with the world around us in ways that, near as we can tell, no animal is capable of –– formulating, theorizing, exercising artistic imagination, etc. This leads to a fair amount of ambiguity and inconsistency; sometimes he seems to be dogmatically saying that the miracle of consciousness is merely a manifestation of biological processes, and sometimes he seems to be dogmatically saying that consciousness has to be a spiritual phenomenon that must have its origins in something beyond the material.  He doesn’t really seem to be sure. My sense is that for this reason his modern interpreters are all able to find ideological reflections of themselves in his text.

There is also a third sense of soul that Aristotle tosses into the mix: that of purpose or end for the life of the individual organism. Why do plants and animals and us “higher life forms” keep struggling to go on with this process called life? Because our souls make us do so. This “natural law within us” (a term used by Medieval philosophers, not Aristotle himself in this context at least) in this sense operates as follows: “[F]or any living thing that has reached its normal development and which is unmutilated […] the most natural act is the production of another like itself […] in order that, as far as nature allows, it may partake in the eternal and divine. That is the goal towards which all things strive” (ch. 4, 2nd paragraph). In other words the continuity of life is something of a spiritual principle that all living creatures instinctively attempt to take part in, giving their own lives meaning in the process.

Thus we can say that the soul is the cause and source of the body in at least three distinct senses: it is the design principle behind the body, it is the driving force in the body, and it is the teleological destination giver for the body. In this last sense, “Nature, like mind, always does whatever it does for the sake of something, which something is its end. To that something corresponds in the case of animals the soul and in this it follows the order of nature; all natural bodies are organs of the soul. This is true of those that enter into the constitution of plants as well as of those which enter into that of animals. This shows that the sake for which they are is soul” (ch. 4, 5th paragraph).

From there Aristotle goes into a long “scientific” rather than “philosophical” discussion of the functions of “lower” aspects of the soul in terms of its nutritive and sensory aspects. Much of this amounts to a historical curiosity in terms of early theories regarding aspects of neurology that Oliver Sachs has marvelously popularized the current scientific understanding of in recent years. This includes, among other things, Aristotle’s speculation as to how vision works given his premise (which I quoted last time) that there is no credible reason to believe that light actually travels. Another classically mistaken “scientific” premise which he states here is that the soul within animals in general “is due to the action of the male parent” (ch. 5, 9th paragraph). This corresponds with his acceptance in Book I (end of chapter 2) of Hippo’s argument that the soul as such cannot be contained in the blood, since “the primordial soul” comes from the father’s seminal fluid, which is a non-bloody liquid.

Another would-be scientific statement here, which has fascinating poetic potential in spite of its failure in scientific terms, is, “Voice is a kind of sound characteristic of what has soul in it; nothing that is without soul utters voice” (ch. 8, 12th paragraph). He goes on to say that to speak of the “voice” of musical instruments is a metaphorical use of the term, and to speculate about the multiple natural functions of the respiratory system, before further expanding on this idea: “Voice then is the impact of the inbreathed air against the ‘windpipe’, and the agent that produces the impact is the soul resident in these parts of the body. […] What produces the impact must have soul in it and must be accompanied by an act of imagination, for voice is sound with meaning […] not merely the result of any impact of the breath, as in coughing.”

So, from Aristotle’s perspective, if you are looking for some core physical location for the soul within the body, don’t search between the ears or in the heart, but rather look down the throat.

Most of the more “philosophically interesting” questions relating to the “higher levels” of the soul are reserved for book III, but one last matter worth considering in book II here is the starting comparison between sensation and knowledge. Both are soul functions that can exist either actively or passively/potentially. Thus being a seeing being can either mean that the brain is actively registering incoming light at given moment in question (Aristotle had the technical aspects of this all screwed up, but that’s beside the point), or it can be the opposite to blindness, indicating a fully developed capacity for such function. The same with hearing; it can be an active process of “using your ears” or it can be merely the opposite of deafness. So what about thinking? Well, as Aristotle puts it, “We can speak of someone as a ‘knower’ either (a) …meaning [she/he] falls within the class of beings that know or have knowledge, or (b) when we speak of [her/him] who possesses a knowledge of grammar,” thereby having a capacity to absorb knowledge of other sorts. The former has what we might call a neurological potential to develop knowledge; the latter has what we might call a culturally adapted potential. These in turn then imply a third category for those who actually know stuff that is somehow worth knowing, like math, biology, politics, etc.

So from there Aristotle wishes to consider what the proper role of the teacher is. “What in the case of knowing or understanding leads from potentiality to actuality ought not to be called teaching, but something else.” I take it for granted that there are semantic aspects of the question of choice of terms here that are going to get lost in translation, and which probably weren’t particularly clear to Aristotle’s own students in the original Greek either. The point though is to stop and consider what sort of change the teacher is attempting to bring about in the student. Is he trying to do something analogous to farming –– burning off or ripping out what is naturally growing in the field and replacing it with the sort of seed that he has in mind; then helping those seeds to grow in order to yield the desired crops? Or is the teacher’s work more a matter of nurturing and coaching the student to develop and more efficiently use what he already has within? Aristotle seems to be leaning towards the latter option. He also seems to be resisting the idea of educational interaction in the sense that the teacher and student would learn from each other, or that the teacher would himself learn in the process of teaching: “[I]t is wrong to speak of a wise man as being ‘altered’ when he uses his wisdom, just as it would be absurd to speak of a builder as being altered when he is using his skills in building a house.”

But once the learning has taken place, the difference between sensing and knowing is that “what actual sensation apprehends is individuals, while what knowledge apprehends is universals, and these are in a sense within the soul. That is why a man can exercise his knowledge when he wishes, but his sensation does not depend on himself; a sensible object must be there.”

This opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities for further speculation regarding the inherent connection between the knower and the known. Does it really “take one to know one” in a definitive sense? Can only Greeks understand Greeks; only men understand men; only dogs understand dogs, etc.? If so, does that mean that for everything we are able to understand, there is necessarily some part of that object of understanding within ourselves? Does this make some degree of pantheism a prerequisite for epistemology?

For the answers to these and other fascinating questions, tune in next week…

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Epistemology, History, Philosophy, Science, Spirituality

A Theological Alternative to the Creationist Dogma

I’ve been on vacation from my writing here for the past week and some, but during all the time I’ve “been away” I’ve been thinking of giving some sort of response to the Creation Museum’s big debate between Ken Ham and Bill Nye this month. That event seems to have served no other purpose so effectively as to drive a further wedge between sincere Christian believers and sincere seekers for truth. I doubt that I can undo such perceptions to any significant extent, but I’d still like to give it a try.

It’s easy to write off Creation Museum front man Ken Ham as a flake on all sorts of levels. He basically holds to a position which states that “true Christian belief” –– an existential reliance on the teachings in the Bible –– requires that we accept the Bible as an infallible all-purpose guide to everything we really need to know about life, the universe and everything; and that any information which contradicts his understanding of the Bible must be categorically false. Among Christians worldwide this is by no means a majority position. The equivalent position regarding the Qur’an is still the orthodox majority position among Muslims, but among Christians Ham’s position is that of a shrinking minority who more or less explicitly self-identify as Fundamentalists. But regardless of demographics involved, the question deserves to be asked: Is it fair for Ham and company to assert that biblical literalism regarding creationism the one true form of Christianity from which all others have drifted? I don’t believe so, and my decision not to believe so is not something I acknowledge to be a retreatist or fall-back position based on the Fundamentalist position being so untenable in a scientific age.

As a theist I'm the first to admit, the slogan "God's way" has historically been used to market lots of seriously funky stuff!

As a theist I’m the first to admit, the slogan “God’s way” has historically been used to market lots of seriously funky stuff!

The fundamental issue is that I don’t believe that authoritative positions of “absolute certainty” about what “God’s way of doing things” is relative to “man’s way of doing things” are what God had in mind to give us. If he had intended for us to have such a perspective I think he would have arranged the world and the history of man’s religious experiences significantly differently. In contrast with this, though the vulnerability of uncertainty is something that many people come to religion (and to science) hoping to escape from, an essential part of the message of Jesus is that this vulnerability is part of the human condition that God has chosen to share with us, and something which we need to have the courage to embrace and to share with each other.

Before going any further here, let me clarify that I am not attempting here to further demonstrate to non-believers why I consider God to be worth believing in. I would ask those who have serious doubts about that matter to address discussions of their differences of perspective to my various essays here more directly related to that question. I have posted a few such essays in recent months, and I intend to further address that matter in the weeks to come, but this entry addresses a rather different topic. What I wish to talk about here is why, on the working assumption that there is a God, I still believe Fundamentalists such as Ken Ham are fundamentally wrong in their approach to determining what sort of character God is, and what he expects of humans who would hope to please him. The sort of dialog I’m hoping for in response to this particular essay is one with folks who would wish to defend different means of relating to and serving God than what I suggest here; perhaps with those who still cling to one particular form of fundamentalism or another. Fair enough? OK, on we go.

Let me start by taking the discussion back to the times when essentially no one attempted to question the premise that the book of Genesis provided all of the foundational information we need to understand the origins of the universe and mankind’s place in it –– what Fundamentalists would call the “good old days”; what many others would call “The Dark Ages” –– roughly from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries of our calendar. The authoritative Christian hegemony of that era was strong enough so that defensiveness against non-believing perspectives essentially became redundant. Thus the intelligentsia of the age, those who managed to build careers out of finding things to argue about between themselves, were more occupied with questions of what we can know with certainty about God’s nature than with fighting off skeptics as such.

In the later part of that era, following the innovative writings of Thomas Aquinas, one aspect of that project was to attempt to harmonize Aristotle’s understanding of the relationship between physics and metaphysics with the Genesis narratives, which effectively gave rise to the creationist dogmas so important to Ham and his followers today. It should be pointed out though that this was actually something of a later adaptation of Islamic thought that Christian intellectuals inadvertently picked up on during the time of the Crusades. It is also fair to say that, advanced as he was for his time 2300-some years ago, Aristotle’s grasp of physics and related matters had some significant failings to it that these days any bright school kid can point out, so his ideas are no longer the best horse to hitch our intellectual wagon to for purposes of harmonizing physics and metaphysics.

The Medieval stuff I’m interested in comes from further back, in the more strictly Christian contemplative traditions that were around before the Thomist system of proofs of God’s existence was developed.

Another disclaimer is in order here by the way: my area of specialty is not medieval philosophy or medieval theology as such. My comprehension of the original Latin these documents were written in is pretty basic and rusty, and my own academic research is focused much more on phenomena within the past couple of centuries. So it wouldn’t take much for someone to outdo me in this particular field. What I can claim is that I know enough about that era to appreciate a bit of the wisdom of those back then who laid the groundwork for how we do philosophy of religion still today, and to spot the BS of those who claim to be representing and defending “eternal truths” which have their roots in this era. But beyond that if someone wishes to correct my understanding of the details involved, or dispute my interpretation of the overall trends in question, I welcome your input. Now back to the subject at hand.

239335To deal with the issue of scriptural certainty we have to take the discussion back at least as far as Peter Abelard. Students find the story of Abelard’s tragic biography and his post-castration love letters to Heloise particularly memorable, but in terms of philosophy he is best remembered for his classic Sic Et Non, where he demonstrates that simply relying on the authority of the scriptures and the sayings of church fathers without stopping to critically analyze what they are talking about is not only intellectually lazy and dishonest, but inevitably self-defeating in the long run. In this regard attempting to discover the true nature of God through authoritative second-hand accounts is a particularly problematic endeavor.

The authority of scripture on this matter is best regarded in terms of what the church fathers originally called it: the canon –– a measuring rod or a benchmark by which to measure other phenomena, in particular the experiences of God’s presence felt in prayer and worship and in serving his people (and among God’s people the poor in particular). From this perspective, worshiping the Bible itself (or any other holy book) rather than using it as a means of building, enriching and evaluating one’s spiritual experiences and practices, is a particularly bass ackwards way of “doing religion”.

Once this is realized, the seeking pilgrim soon comes to understand that if there is one thing God didn’t tend to provide us with, it’s certainty about matters of faith. Functional certainty is a human goal in terms of which we are continuously attempting to reach the point where they can set aside the troublesome task of actively thinking about things.  We hope to settle questions in our minds so that we can forget about them, relax and devote our energy to other things. That is a worthy goal in engineering for instance –– a well-designed device is one where the user can functionally forget about how it works and just move on to the process of using it without having to think about it. When it comes to theology however, God does not give us such a luxury. We can never get to the point of completely comprehending and mastering the divine essence so that we can then functionally just forget about it, or else it ceases to be divine. If we could capture God in a formula he would no longer be God.

Beyond that, the stated point of Christianity in particular (and to one extent or another other religions as well) is to teach us to love and respect each other. (I trust this is self-evident to all who have studied the matter as far as actually having read through the New Testament at least, but if anyone needs me to proof-text this out for them just write and ask.) To this end, as social theorist Jeremy Rifkin points out, uncertainty and vulnerability are essential elements for enabling empathy –– and thereby love –– to function in practice. In this regard I believe that Frank Schaeffer is also entirely right in referring to theological certainty as a “death trap”. Our natural desire to have complete certainty in our understanding of the transcendent, and to dominate one another through some absolute understanding of theological truth, is actually about as opposite to the message of Jesus as any theological concept could be.

The path of searching for peace with God and each other through the words and work of Jesus without pretending to certainty that God never meant us to have –– humbly serving one another rather than using the teachings of the Bible as means of attacking one another –– is one that the Orthodox Church can claim to have followed more consistently than the Western Christian tradition has, but there are plenty of important exceptions to this rule on both sides. Accepting the limits of our knowledge –– even (or perhaps especially) knowledge we claim to have received through infallible revelation –– and living a life proscribed by the humility that this implies, is a tradition that can also be traced as a minority position through the history of Western Theology as well, from the monks who transcribed the writings of the “Desert Fathers,” to the writings of John Scotus Erigena and the meditations of Blaise Pascal, on into the 19th century writings of Kierkegaard and those he in turn inspired. Nor can the east/west cross-pollination seen in and brought about by Dostoevsky’s novels be ignored in this context.  Of course those who have wished to use Christian doctrine as a Machiavellian tool for political manipulation have consistently labelled all of these thinkers as heretics, but that’s sort of beside the point. Their influence has been frequently ignored, but never silenced. (For an interesting overview of the subject, have a look here.)

In contrast to this, Ken Ham, representing the Fundamentalist, biblical literalist creationist perspective, claims that we need to have absolute certainty about everything written in the first book of the Bible in particular as having come entirely by God’s special revelation to Moses, or else we lose certainty about all sorts of critical matters like how marriage is supposed to work, what counts as sin, why people die, why nudity is problematic, etc. Because of the need for a sense of certainty in these areas, Ham and his comrades refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of any information that contradicts the world view presented in Genesis. From there it becomes a rather transparent process of looking for viable excuses to interpret the data of the material world according to this ideological perspective. Thus the emotional need for certainty and control within a religious framework is at the heart of his argument. The resulting intellectual dishonesty in the process of interpreting the data of natural sciences is merely a by-product of this problematic ideology.

Ham's slide depicting his perception of the moral risks entailed in not being a creationist

Ham’s slide depicting his perception of the moral risks entailed in not being a creationist

If we turn the priorities of Christendom around from an emphasis on social control to an emphasis on enabling compassion, as many of us believe the priorities should have been all along, the certainty argument goes out the window. Rather than seeking for a justification to stone those who we consider to be less holy than ourselves, we begin seeking for means of gaining acceptance for them, and ourselves, into the sort of club that by rights shouldn’t have people like us as members. Rather than focusing on controlling other people’s sex lives, we begin to focus on preventing people from being sexually abused and sexually objectified, and beyond that on building the sort of caring community that equips people to experience the sort of personal intimacy in which sex finds its greatest expression. Rather than basing medical ethics on abstract concepts of the value of life, we base our medical ethics on showing compassion and communicating to each individual that his or her life is personally important to us.

Pope Francis was not looking for excuses to set aside creationism when he wrote in his epic letter Evangelii Gaudium of “practical relativism” being a greater risk than “doctrinal relativism”. The pontiff is telling his flock that rather than worrying about losing a sense of absolute doctrinal certainty, they should worry more about the sort of relativism where they end up “acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist. It is striking that even some who clearly have solid doctrinal and spiritual convictions frequently fall into a lifestyle which leads to an attachment to financial security, or to a desire for power or human glory at all cost, rather than giving their lives to others in mission.” (§ 80) In other words doctrinal absolutes are far less important to the Church in fulfilling its basic mission than believers having an experience of joy in being able to serve as an instrument of God’s mercy for others.

When the priorities of the Church slip from such a foundation, it amounts to what Pope Francis calls “spiritual worldliness”, based on carefully cultivated appearances and thus, “not always linked to outward sin; from without, everything appears as it should be,” yet far more dangerous to the mission of the church than any outward moral failures. (§ 93) This takes the twin forms of “gnosticism” and “promethean neopelagianism”: a detached form of religious experience without relevant application in serving others, and a trust on one’s own sense of moral power and religious superiority. “A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyzes and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. […] It is impossible to think that a genuine evangelizing thrust could emerge from these adulterated forms of Christianity.” (§ 94)

I am in no way a supporter of any doctrine of papal infallibility, but on these matters Pope Francis comes across as having a far clearer grasp of the essence of the Christian message than Ken Ham does. When we build from that sort of moral foundation described in Evangelii Gaudium motivations for twisting geological and biological data to fit one’s ideological “scriptural” premises are greatly reduced. Our message no longer depends on proving to ourselves that we have the right gnostic code –– the correct system of passwords for getting into heaven and staying out of hell that others need to learn from us in order to have the same hope we do. Nor does it leave us with anything to prove in terms of our having a superior moral code that we can expect everyone else to live up to. Once we reach that point of simply desiring to overcome our selfish barriers to truly loving God and each other certainty about the details of the physical origins of the universe is no longer an emotional issue. If it turns out that the stories in Genesis are based on ancient folk legends which allegorically explain something about how people over 3000 years ago believed that God expected them to relate to each other, nothing about our essential message fails on the basis of such a discovery.

If God’s top priority was for us to keep each other in line in terms of recognizing traditional moral standards as eternal and unchanging, there would be no point in the message of a suffering savior. God would merely have sent a team of angelic messengers with official declarations of the divine will and flaming swords to deal directly with those who resisted their message. There would have been no need to dignify human vulnerability and frailty with God taking on such a form. On the other hand, if God’s top priority were to convince us to treat each other with love and respect regardless of one’s status within various human power struggles, he would have driven this point home for us by himself taking on the form of a humble servant –– sort of like Jesus…

Thus I conclude that the message of Christianity is not about guilt, justice, retribution and forensic certainties; but rather about embracing frailty, experiencing empathy, showing mercy and finding redemption through deep, undeserved interpersonal connection. In order to communicate this sort of message it is not necessary to pretend that we have an absolutely reliable technical understanding of the prehistoric origins of the earth and the universe which must remain impervious to all evidence to the contrary. On the contrary, such an assumption of certainty tends to be rather counter-productive in that it entails a belief that certain people have a God-given right to dictate to others a set of standards regarding every area of life for them to live up to, which in turn goes directly against the Gospel message of humble service.

Good news: One does not need to believe that the event depicted here, happening roughly 5000 years ago, explains the existence of the worlds great canyons and the limits of biodiversity that we find among humans and animals in the world today in order to have a capacity to accept forgiveness and to forgive and care for others in return. Just in case you were wondering...

Good news: One does not need to believe that the event depicted here, happening roughly 5000 years ago, explains the existence of the worlds great canyons and the limits of biodiversity that we find among humans and animals in the world today in order to have a capacity to accept forgiveness and to forgive and care for others in return. Just in case you were wondering…

Thus to reject the Creation Museum’s theological premises is not a matter of submitting to the superiority of a non-theistic premise; it is a matter of putting the teachings of Jesus ahead of a lust for power and an emotional need for certainty. I would encourage all who wish to be counted as followers of Jesus to adjust their perspectives accordingly: “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.” (Philippians 3:15)


Filed under Education, Empathy, Epistemology, History, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science, Skepticism, Spirituality

In Search of the Sweetest Sorrow

E. H. Sothern &  Julia Marlowe in Romeo & Juliet-The Balcony Scene-Photo-B&W-Resized“Sweet sorrow” –– the random comment Shakespeare gave to Romeo about his feelings at leaving Juliet once they had established direct communication about their mutual crush (sorry, it’s hard for me to take their “epic love” more seriously than that, despite the tragic extent they took things to) –– is often taken to be the epitome of an oxymoron –– the basic archetype for such later linguistic absurdities as “business ethics,” “military intelligence” and “Microsoft Works”. On further contemplation, however, to me it makes perfect sense for sorrow to be sweet. Let me unpack that a bit for you.

As I begin this essay the subject for the day in the photo project I am playing along with this month is “sweetest”. I’m trying to avoid the cliché of submitting some cheesy would-be advertising photo of something sugary, so I’ve been thinking about how I might approach the theme in a way that can visually communicate something deeper than that. What is the true essence of all of the different things we take for sweetness? What makes a baby’s smile sweet? What makes the smell of a fresh spring meadow sweet? What makes a lover’s embrace sweet? What do we really mean by this word? I don’t subscribe to my summer school professor’s school of thought in saying that when a word has so many and such varied meanings we should take that as evidence that it has no meaning at all. But can we really get down to the very essence of the concept of sweetness in a way that we can identify some superlative for the category?

StrawberriesLet’s go back to the literal meaning of the term: sweetness is the pleasurable sensation sent to the brain by a certain collection of sensors on the tongue which are designed to detect the presence of sugars in our food. Sensing sweetness is a matter of simple evolutionary advantage: being able to guess with reasonable accuracy, without necessarily even being conscious of the process, which foods have the greatest likelihood of providing our bodies with readily burnable fuel. The positive sensation of tasting something sweet is nature’s way of telling us, for instance, that strawberries are likely to be more useful to our bodies than rowanberries as a source of energy. There are plenty of less sweet foods that our bodies can convert into sugars (and then fats) quite readily, but in evolutionary terms the instant-burn capacity of sugars is very useful for our bodies to be able to identify, and for us to be attracted to.

summer school 218Figuratively speaking then, sweetness might be said to be that which stimulates a positive emotional sensation that we can associate with being energized: something which increases our capacity to go forward, to face challenges, to overcome obstacles, to thrive in life. The “sweet” is that which fuels our passion for life and keeps us from giving up.

The analogy also seems to work in the sense that many things we experience as sweet don’t necessarily “work” in terms of actually providing us with emotional energy to get stuff done; they just give us a good feeling like they might have increased our energy levels, even if they haven’t. The world of media marketing contains many forms of “artificial sweetener” in our day-to-day experience. Or we could say that much of the “sweet” emotional stimuli we experience do not translate into a healthy capacity for action. Without going too far into psychological theory on the matter, this involves the media in question hyper-stimulating our immediate emotional responses purely for the sake of having these emotional responses immediately hyper-stimulated. In other words some films, video games and concert experiences do to our emotional response centers in the brain what triple chocolate fudge cake does to the taste buds on the tongue: blasting them with more stimulation than the rational mind knows what to do with as an end unto itself, entailing a certain number of health risks in the process. Just as that intense chocolate cake experience doesn’t improve one’s capacity for athletic performance, the “sweet” experiences of media events don’t really make us more productive workers, better friends to those around us or more loving family members; they just give us a sort of abstract thrill for its own sake.

In the commercialized society that we live in the “sweetest” of manufactured consumer experiences are given to the rich and dangled like a carrot in front of the poor: a positive incentive to keep them plodding onward. Or in many cases it’s more sinister than that: These addictive hyper-stimulating experiences are given to whoever wants to try them, who might someday have something to offer in return, in exchange for surrendering their freedom and entering into a cycle of debt. The poor are not encouraged to wait for gratification, just surrender their freedom in order to get it. In fact poverty these days can be defined in three essential ways. In ascending order of severity:
–          Lack of “normal” access to the “sweet things” in life,
–          Lack freedom due to debt,
–          Survival risks due to a lack of means to pay for health care and other basic needs, frequently blamed on their addiction to “sweet things” beyond their means.

In some ways this brings to mind the paraphrased version of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism that I’ve been teaching to 13-year-olds (as part of the world religions section of Finland’s national religious education curriculum) this month: 1) Life is a process of suffering. 2) You suffer in life because of your desires. 3) By overcoming desires and attachments in life you can overcome suffering. 4) Following the rest of the teachings of the Buddha can enable you to overcome desires and attachments. In some ways I deeply respect their ethic of escaping from the addictive behaviors we all tend to drift into and the pain we cause ourselves in the process. I would also agree with their assessment that when you open the door to life’s sweetness you also open the door to all of life’s sorrows. But I would flip the moral of that connection the other way around: Rather than rejecting life because it hurts too much, I recommend finding the sorts of sweetness in life that make the sorrows of life truly worthwhile.

buddhaThe best word we have for that process of embracing life in all of its messiness and painfulness, because in spite of those things there is something truly magnificent about life as such, is thriving. In this regard the reason I have for remaining a Christian rather than converting to Buddhism is because, in spite of all the sorrow I’ve experienced in life, I still would rather thrive with all my sorrows than attempt to escape from the thriving that causes them. In fact one of the messiest and most painful parts of life as we know it is one of the things that Buddhism, in spite of its escapist emphasis, still strongly recommends embracing: compassion. This word is usually used to designate the (theoretically) less self-interested end of the spectrum of emotional experiences we designate as love. All of them make life painful and uncontrollable; all of them play an important role in making life worthwhile.

Thus the sorrows associated with love –– embracing the pains and lack of control that go with forming connections with others, in spite of all of the others’ problems –– are the sweetest, most energizing thing we can find in life. Feeling shared sorrow somehow helps us know (or at least believe) that there’s something real in the connection, strengthening us in turn to work for the good of others, and producing the most important possible sense of happiness that we can experience within ourselves in the process. In short, there is nothing sweeter than the right kind of sorrow. If you don’t know what I’m talking about you really need to try it more.

This is not to say that all sorrow should be seen as sweet. Some sorrow is caused by our own stupidity, or by attempting to connect with people who are not capable of such connection; of loving us in return. This is not to say that feeling compassion for those who themselves have no capacity for compassion is necessarily a waste; it just means that hurting ourselves through building up expectations that by loving we can make people and things different from what they are can be a wasteful sort of suffering to put ourselves through. It is the same as many mundane forms of suffering that we go through due to our own stupidity at times: the suffering of food poisoning from eating improperly stored or preserved food, the suffering caused by car accidents when people don’t pay sufficient attention to basic safety precautions, the suffering that goes with frostbite or pneumonia from not dressing warmly enough on Arctic winter days, etc., are all fundamentally wasted forms of suffering. The only use they have, besides potentially eliminating you from the gene pool, is to teach you not to do the sort of things which caused you to suffer in such cases. Sometimes, however, it’s difficult to draw the line between learning from our mistakes and daring to love in spite of knowing that it will cause you pain, and just being stupid.

Highway Car WreckSo fully recognizing the risks involved, but knowing that without love life becomes largely meaningless, I continue my quest in search of life’s sweetest sorrows. Some particularly sweet sorrows that I’ve experienced thus far in life –– besides the romantic sort and those having to do with parenting –– have been the ones I’ve experienced as a teacher in helping young people adjust to the challenging process of becoming adults; or those I’ve experienced in various aspects of interfaith dialog, helping those of differing religious backgrounds recognize that people who don’t share their convictions are still worth befriending and caring about. Then there are the sorrows that I have shared with millions of others throughout the world regarding victims of nature’s or humanity’s cruelties, ranging from the Haitian earthquake victims to child soldier of sub-Saharan Africa to girls in Pakistan who wish to get an education beyond what religious extremists there feel is proper for them. I really don’t want to avoid susceptibility to these sorrows, as they draw out and bring together all that is sweetest and most noble about us as humans in general.

Malala - the iconic girl whose suffering the world in now particularly anxious to share and end.

Malala – the iconic girl whose suffering the world in now particularly anxious to share and end.

Obviously we each have personal limits as to how many such sweet sorrows we can imbibe in how deeply at any given time. Just as obviously, part of the point in consuming such sweet sorrows is to work on overcoming the causes for them. Romeo’s “sweet sorrow,” for instance, was a matter of motivating him to overcome the obstacles to him and Juliet being able to remain together. The sweetness of my sorrow regarding girls in Pakistan who bravely desire an education involves a hope that through a global focus on the problem we might be able to overcome it. Both hopes might be equally tragically naïve.

We are also prone to hunger for the sort of sorrows which, ironically, don’t draw us too far out of our comfort zone –– sorrows that help us feel we are part of a virtuous effort to overcome evils that we actually had no part in. It is easier to embrace the sorrows of those who suffer from natural disasters than it is to embrace the suffering of those whose poverty is compounded by our own greed and/or carelessness. It is easier for Americans to embrace the sorrow of children being denied access to clean water, healthy food and education in Pakistan due to tensions caused by religious extremism than it is for them to embrace the sorrow of children being denied access to clean water, healthy food and education in Detroit due to the collapse of the industrialist economic infrastructure there. It is easier for Europeans to embrace the plight of child soldiers in Africa than to embrace the plight of suicidal teenagers in their own countries. Confronting the causes of others’ suffering within ourselves is far more difficult than confronting causes of suffering for which we cannot hold ourselves responsible. In terms of the basic analogy here though, the latter form of sorrow may be sweeter, but the former is probably more nutritious for us.

Detroit public schools: a form of suffering Americans find more difficult to connect with for some reason.

Detroit public schools: a form of suffering Americans find more difficult to connect with for some reason.

I cannot claim to have mastered the art of selecting the sweetest forms of suffering yet. I’m actually not entirely sure that such mastery is possible. I am sure, however, that suffering is part of the sweetness of life, and struggling to avoid suffering entirely cuts off all possibility for human thriving as well. I would encourage each of you to fully embrace the sufferings that enable us to thrive as humans, and I would ask any of you who has especially profound insights as to how to find the best forms of suffering for each of us to please share them with me. Let’s keep doing the best we can from there.


Leave a comment

Filed under Aesthetics, Education, Empathy, Epistemology, Freedom, Happiness, Love, Philosophy, Pop culture, Purpose, Risk taking, Sexuality, Spirituality

Generally Speaking…

There is both a certain danger and a necessity in making generalizations. There are certain people who tend to miss that point at both ends of the spectrum. This tends to make communication rather difficult at times.

By the way, did you happen to notice that all of the above three sentences are in themselves unsubstantiated generalizations?

Let me toss out a few more:

  • Professors usually to wear eye glasses.
  • Peugeots are prone to electrical problems.
  • Kids who grow up in ghettos often get involved in a criminal underground economy.
  • Children who move between different countries and cultures during their school years tend to develop a stronger sense of empathy than those who remain in one place during those years.
  • Many Muslim women are victims of domestic violence.
  • Many Eastern European women are prostitutes.
  • Very few people die at over 100 years old.

All of those generalizations tend to hold true to one extent or another in everyday life. To deny the evidence in support of any of those propositions is to stick one’s head in the sand. But likewise, to base one’s evaluation of any given individual on such facts is blatantly stupid. Let’s analyze each of them more specifically, in reverse order.

Burns 100The last bullet point there was part of a quip from the sharp elder comic George Burns once his own age got up into triple digits: “If you live to be one hundred, you’ve got it made. Very few people die past that age.”

It ruins a good joke when you have to explain it, but I’ll do so anyway: He was equivocating on purpose. When we say that few people die at over 100, what we generally mean is that the vast majority of the population still tends to die much earlier than that. This does not mean that those who live to over a hundred are less likely to die within the next ten years than those who are in their 80s or 90s. Actually the opposite is very much the case, and Burns knew that only too well. He knew his body didn’t work as well as it used to and it wasn’t going to last forever. Another of his memorable quotes is, “Everything that goes up must come down. But there comes a time when not everything that’s down can come up.” This may or may not be related to his earlier observation that “Sex at age 90 is like trying to shoot pool with a rope.” But I can still enjoy his joking attempts to deny his mortality, considering the fundamental honesty behind it. I don’t, however, respect the way other people equivocate in less fundamentally honest ways on the significance of facts regarding human societies.

That would go for the case of associating Eastern European women with prostitution. When we say that “many are prostitutes”, the truth of the matter is that among the sex workers of the western world, a disproportionate number of them do come from formerly Communist countries in the eastern part of Europe, which is still desperately struggling to fight its way out to the economic shambles left after the collapse of their variations on Marxist economics, and to overcome the kleptocracies which have folllowed. The fate of these working girls has become a cliché of American television drama of the past decade or two, and it can also be seen on the streets of Helsinki and many other cosmopolitan cities (or so “they” tell me; I haven’t done any first-hand investigation into the matter).  There is nothing to be gained in denying that this is happening.

There are three potential applications for this information: For those who agree with Raskolnikov’s condemnation of the institution of prostitution in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, or who are otherwise concerned about the trafficking of young women into “first world” brothels, knowing that a major concentration of these evils takes place in Eastern Europe can be strategically important in the process of fighting against them. Then using the same sort of thinking somewhat to the opposite intent, sexual predators who are shopping around to get the biggest “bang for their buck” might focus their acquisition efforts on women from that part of the world in order to increase their odds of success. But the worst sort of application to put this sort of information to is to start categorizing all women from these former Communist countries as suspected prostitutes. The offensiveness and inaccuracy of such a generalization cannot be over-emphasized. If you don’t intuitively see the problem with that sort of thinking I’m not sure what can be done to help you.

The same applies to many generalizations about Muslims, including the one that their women tend to get beaten: Just as it is true that many women from Eastern Europe end up becoming prostitutes, it is true that many women in Muslim homes end up getting beaten by their husbands or other male authority figures. In neither case do we need much “sociological imagination” to find a cause and effect relationship between the status in question and the problem being manifest: We can easily see how intense economic pressures combined with a cultural trends towards the sexual objectification of women could lead to many women from Eastern Europe getting trapped in a life of prostitution; and we can easily see how a religious emphasis on cultural conservatism for its own sake ––maintaining Arabic social norms from 1400 years ago as manifestations of “God’s eternal will” for mankind –– combined with an understanding that women rightfully need to be kept in submission to men, would lead to a higher risk of women being physically abused. It would even be fair to concentrate efforts on reducing spouse abuse in general on women from particularly culturally conservative Muslim communities. Denying problems there is in no one but the abusers’ interest. But it is certainly not acceptable to label all Muslim husbands as suspected wife-beaters or to label all Muslim wives as likely victims of abuse.

Resisting this “because you’re X, you must also be Y” urge, even while digging out new and unrecognized connections between the factors X and Y in question, is an on-going challenge in social sciences in general. The whole point in studying human behavior –– on an individual level, on a micro-communal level, on a macro-communal level and/or from a historical perspective –– is to identify risk factors in order to avoid or overcome them, while at the same time recognizing the “evitability” of all such risks. We can choose what we do with our lives; we can choose how we weak handplay the cards we are dealt. Like Poker, life in general involves a degree of “luck,” but it is largely a matter of skill. Yet in either case for someone to a claim that random factors of “the luck of the draw” are irrelevant to the game merely shows that the person making such a claim has no understanding of how the game works.

In concrete terms I have seen this over the course of the summer in the little research project I’ve been working on with alumni from the schools I’ve been teaching at for the past decade and some. In one sense or another almost all of these young people can be labelled as “multi-cultural,” meaning that their up-bringing has reflected a mix of various “cultural” –– national, regional, linguistic and/or religious ––traditions. This multi-cultural up-bringing is the hand that each of them has been dealt. It inevitably has a direct effect on enabling them to make certain sorts of choices and preventing them from making others. My research has repeated the findings of many others in this field in demonstrating that one of the strongest effects of such multi-cultural childhood experiences, particularly in terms of exposure to a vast variety of traditions and lifestyles through global mobility, is that the young people in question develop a broader human perspective: They become much more capable of “putting themselves in the other person’s shoes” than others who lack their range of experience in this matter.

This is as much of a “fact” as any of the social sciences are capable of producing. It provides particularly useful information for analyzing what sort of parameters the young people in question are making their decisions in. It shows how social cause and effect work in this sort of context. It does not, however, determine what sorts of careers these young people are ultimately suited for, nor does it conclusively define the character of any given young person whom I have been speaking with on the matter. Either to deny the factuality of this dynamic or to attempt to re-state it in a more deterministic fashion would be a grave mistake.

This applies to all general statements regarding human identities and interaction, including those regarding places like Florida where the legal system now seems to have declared open season for the killing of young African-American men. The facts of the matter, sociologically speaking, are that darker skinned residents of that state, and of the United States in general, are far more likely to have grown up with reduced economic opportunities compared with their lighter-skinned “peers”. As with all sociological facts, there are vast numbers of exceptions to the general rule on this, but the correlation between skin color and poverty is more than strong enough to make it register as a significant social dynamic. Likewise the correlation between being raised in poverty and “alternative economic activity” –– a.k.a. “a life of crime” –– is quite well established, with the same qualifications applying. On this basis it is not entirely irrational for Floridian white people to have a certain degree of fear of the local black population. This in turn has been used to justify the actions of particular white men (struggling with their own personal insecurities) such as George Zimmerman and Michel Dunn, considering young black men like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis to be a such a serious threat that, when these black boys commit such heinous crimes as walking through the wrong neighborhood late at night or playing a car stereo too loud at a gas station, the rational course of action for the white man is to take out a gun and kill them.

Does this sort of thinking have a basis in fact? To the extent that the information they base their stereotypes on is factual, yes, it does. Does that make it morally justifiable? Of course not. Am I justified in considering Floridian culture in general to be morally depraved on this basis? That is a more complicated question, but I am perfectly at peace with myself in joining Stevie Wonder in boycotting the state until further notice, whether or not it makes any difference.

The issue here is that, besides the problems inherent in making generalizations in general, there is a matter of using these generalizations as a basis for denying the basic value of some people as people. If we look at people primarily in terms of abstract general categories we can put them into –– such as “highly skilled,” “extremely punctual,” “rather introverted/extroverted,” “emotionally (un)stable,” “(un)trustworthy,” “aggression prone” or “creative” even –– and if looking at them in terms of those characteristics keeps us from seeing them as human beings with whom we share an certain basic God-given essence (whether or not you take that literally), regardless of how factually well-founded those general categories are, we’re in morally dangerous territory.

In this sense people are not like cars. Regardless of how emotionally attached to their vehicles some people get, our fellow human beings still belong in a different category from our beloved machines. Thus there is much less moral risk involved in pointing out general characteristics of particular sorts of automobiles than there is in itemizing general characteristics of particular sorts of people. In terms of empirical evidence it may be less true to say that Peugeots are prone to electrical problems than to say that the Irish are prone to drinking problems, or that the Finns suffer from repressed emotions; but I am still more comfortable speaking in generalities about the former, because there is less of a risk of making assumptions against any individual’s human value on such a basis.

The car with which I learned about Peugeots' propensity to have electrical problems.

The car with which I learned about Peugeots’ propensity to have electrical problems.

That being said, valid generalizations, with the proper level of scientific caution and moral restraint included, should not be rejected out of hand as de-humanizing. To deny that some combination of genetic factors, religious influences, environmental restraints and patterns of socialization –– “culture” in the broadest sense of the word –– shapes who we are as individuals in some validly generalizable ways, for fear of these generalizations being used as a means of de-humanizing others, tosses out whole nurseries full of babies together with the bath water. Not only are these generalizations frequently useful in terms of diagnosing the cause of social malfunctions, thus enabling us to deal with them more effectively; when understood in context they really shouldn’t be considered a threat to individual integrity or human value. When someone uses a sociological or cultural-anthropological generalization as a means of de-humanizing someone else whom he considers to be significantly “other” than himself, it is not necessarily that the generalization lacks factual legitimacy so much as that the person utilizing the generalizations in such an abusive way lacks moral integrity.

Prof. Ken Robinson: glasses.

Prof. Ken Robinson: glasses

I could go through the ways in which this applies to all of the above-mentioned generalizations, but let me instead skip forward to the first item in my bullet-pointed generalizations at the beginning of this essay: Professors tend to wear eye glasses. This is a rather trivial observation, but in general I believe it holds true. Of course there are exceptions: The new rector of the University of Helsinki, whom I met for the first time a couple weeks ago, needed no optical assistance in reading his remarks to a visiting delegation or looking people in the eye while chatting at the reception which followed. Well over half of the professors I have ever met, however, lack such physical capabilities. There are in fact valid cause-and-effect reasons for this phenomenon. Professors in general tend to be 1) older academics, 2) selected on the basis of extensive, eye-straining reading and writing work, and 3) less prone to “real life” interaction than analytic speculation. In terms of the first two factors I speak in part from personal experience: as I work my way up into higher academic status from being a mere high school teacher with a master’s towards a doctorate and maybe thereafter professorship, I find that both the age that is creeping up on me all the time and the text work which I must do in the process make reading glasses ever more of a necessity for me. I will never make the professor level without needing glasses quite badly. In terms of the third factor here, I would site Sir Ken Robinson’s famous first TED Talk as evidence of the claim that professors tend to be socially awkward, and I appeal to my readers’ broad cultural experience as evidence of the general correlation between wearing eye glasses and feeling socially awkward. As I am being partially tongue-in-cheek here I don’t think any further evidence is necessary.

Rector Jukka Kola: no glasses

Rector Jukka Kola: no glasses

The reason that this observation is not particularly well-published, I believe, is not that it fails to hold true, or that the statistical likelihood of professors to wear glasses can be written off as a coincidence; but rather that professors are not particularly proud of this fact and beyond that it lacks functional relevance. If there were some contract negotiations for professors in which optometric services were being considered as a work-related expense, this issue might have some practical relevance, but I’ve never heard of such a thing happening. What is more likely is for professors to be critiqued for generally being old, out of touch and selected according to particularly abstract criteria, with a tendency to wear glasses as a potential marker of any of the three. Since professors generally don’t care to have attention called to these factors, and since professors are the gate-keepers as to what gets published and what doesn’t in the field of social sciences in general, it is unlikely you will find any academic literature on the subject.

But regardless of all that, what harm is there really in noting that professors tend to wear glasses? If we accept the generalized image that professors tend to be rather funny old people in general, and that they are no less valuable as people for their eccentricities, is there really any further risk in making a general observation about their need for glasses? I wouldn’t think so. The risk comes when the human value of “the other” is genuinely being called into question, and when their right to participate in society and even their right to live are being seriously questioned. That isn’t about to happen on the basis of professors wearing glasses. The greatest risk professors as such tend to face, as Ken Robinson points out, is not being invited to dinner parties, and their eye glasses really have nothing to do with that.

So what should I say in closing? How can I generally sum up these generalizations? I hope that academics in general continue to recognize the general value, together with the general limitations, of speaking in general terms. In more specific terms, I hope that the professor whose general misconceptions I’ve been shaking my head at for the past couple weeks reads this someday and recognizes its implications in terms of his theories’ lack of viability… someday… but not yet. Beyond that I hope that the students I am teaching, my fellow university students and my readers here can all recognize that, in spite of my obnoxious manner at times (as defined by certain cultural norms) and my tendency to slip into abstract generalities at other times, I really do mean well, and I really do respect each of them as significant individuals… at least in a general sort of way.

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Epistemology, Ethics, Respectability, Tolerance

Postmodern Prefixes and Postscripts

I’m still in a season of correcting tests and grading essays as the major component of my working week. In this process this weekend I’ve run across a number of essays in which the expression of moral positions is somewhat weaker than I would hope for, which conclude with the words, “but that’s just my opinion.” As we’re talking about 15-year-olds here, I can cut them a certain amount of slack on this one, but I can say that even at that age no one gets a higher grade for adding that qualification.

There are a number of variations on this qualification that are commonly used these days, however, which have varying impact on the impression of intelligence they give:

  • “As near as I can tell…”
  • “As far as I know…”
  • “As I see it…”
  • “In my (humble/honest) opinion…”
  • “It seems to me…”
  • “Your mileage may vary.”

Most of those have become common enough in on-line discussions to have been reduced to acronyms already.

One time some years ago, in the days before Facebook and IRC groups even, I was at this international student conference where, in informal dinner table conversation, I used the expression “as I see it” (or something to that effect), and one of the other fellows at the table smiled and referred to my expression as “the postmodern prefix”. His implication was that there is a certain epistemological and moral risk involved in qualifying absolutely everything as relative to one’s personal viewpoint, and the early 90s buzz word of “postmodernism” seemed to be an attempt to do just that.

In order to completely escape from such a cycle of moral and epistemological relativity, however, we have to establish something as our unchanging, eternal standard for moral truth. There’s a word for that too: fundamentalism. Anyone who believes that they have found the final, eternal key to absolute truth –– which sets THE standard which all other claims to truthfulness must appeal to in order to be legitimized –– is a fundamentalist with regard to that particular position. Most fundamentalists arrive at their understanding of absolute truth as the result of believing in some particular brand of religious revelation or another, but not all of them. There are many non-religious people who get a sense of epistemological and/or ethical vertigo if there isn’t something that they can “just know that it’s true”, and so they lay a claim to belief in “science,” in some vague sense of the word, as the key to all truth and knowing.

Fundamentalism has become something of a curse word in modern society, and for good reason. People who believe that they hold the final understanding of truth, and that this justifies any and all actions they might take against all those who would challenge their understanding of truth, regardless of what that understanding of truth is based on, tend to be very dangerous people. To point out fundamentalist tendencies among those who hold foundational beliefs that you disagree with is one of the most overused forms of political polemic these days. So does the 15-year-old who concludes a weak essay with the words “that’s just my opinion” deserve credit for at least taking a stand against some form of fundamentalism that may have been trying to suck him in? To put it in ironic terms, in my opinion no, he doesn’t. Can I justify my grading criterion here without setting myself up as some sort of fundamentalist? I hope so. Let’s see.

In autumn of 2010 I went to a TEDx event where we watched a live video stream of Melinda Gates, among other people, talking about their visions for saving the world, and each of us was asked to pose for a mug shot holding a statement of what sort of Utopian future we would like to work our way towards. I still abide by the one I wrote that evening: “In our future all children will be taught to stop and THINK about the difference between FACTS, OPINIONS and MYTHS, and duly respect all of them!” I believe that there is a definitive difference between these three categories, that all of them are valuable, and that the differences between them should be respected.

My official Utopian vision

Working through those backwards, a myth is a narrative that isn’t necessarily true in a historical sense, but which provides those who believe in it with a sense of identity and moral direction. One of the most powerful myths I know of these days is the one that President Obama was not really born in Hawaii: that it was either in Kenya or the Philippines, depending on which conspiracy theory tastes best at any given moment. The point here is that there is something about the president’s identity that just doesn’t feel properly American to many people, and so they need a narrative that justifies this uneasiness. While the foreign birth theory doesn’t have any particular factual backing, it does coincide with some very real feelings of uncertainty some Americans feel about the direction their country is going: one where being white doesn’t count for as much as it used to; where human rights include basic education and health care for everyone, not just those who can afford it; where setting norms for people’s sex lives is no longer considered to be part of the task of government. Those sorts of feelings require some sort of narrative to help people make sense of the frightening loss of familiar, and so it becomes important to formulate a myth about the president being a Muslim foreigner. Duly respecting this myth is thus a matter of seeing what sort of role the myth is playing, understanding why people need it and recognizing that when these needs are great enough there is nothing that can be done to “bust” such myths.

Opinions are things people provisionally choose to believe as a matter of taste. A reasonably good example of an opinion is the one I got myself in trouble for this week: that Justin Bieber is basically the cultural equivalent of other disposable pretty boys in pop over the years –– like Frankie Avalon in the sixties, Shaun Cassidy in the seventies or Jordan Knight in the eighties –– for those who are too young to remember the twentieth century. I don’t have anything in particular against such pretty boys. I see where they have their own commercial function and where they provide a certain sense of cultural identity and mutual objectification as part of what Freud called the latency phase of psycho-sexual development. I don’t personally have much use for such performers, but obviously I’ve never been part of their target audience. My opinion on this matter also includes the provision that such pretty boys don’t really deserve to be compared with artists from those eras who have stood the test of time, such as the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac and U2. I believe that there are also serious musicians whose greatness will be remembered in the current generation as well; I just don’t believe that Bieber will be among them. In other words, in my opinion there’s nothing particularly great about this young pop star. There are those without my gray hair and X-chromosomes, however, who have a very different view on the subject… and frankly they’re entitled to their opinions as well.

Such opinions might affect many of our day-to-day decisions about such things as what forms of noise we each surround ourselves with, but they shouldn’t form the basis of our moral judgments regarding whose rights are worth defending or what sort of world we leave to future generations.  Opinions need to be respected, but kept in their place. As important as beauty is in the world, it is not acceptable to destroy people, their life-support systems and their life’s work simply because they don’t suit your taste –– because in your opinion they happen to be ugly or useless.

Fact is a more philosophically problematic field to concisely define, but for purposes of ninth grade essay grading, and everyday moral life, I would define facts as established and dependable understandings of cause and effect, and of the current state of affairs brought about by such dynamics. For example, It is a fact that the burning of hydrogen gas produces water vapor. It is a fact that the majority of the earth’s population subscribe to one variation or another of the Abrahamic religions, and such people establish their moral values accordingly. It is a fact that the polar ice caps are thinning on a year-to-year basis because of human activity on this planet.  It is a fact that the wealthiest thousandth of the people on earth control over eighty percent of the world’s economic resources. It is a fact that if we destroy this planet we are not in any position to move on to a different one and start all over again. It is a fact that when these facts are taken to be merely matters of opinion very bad things happen. These are all things we can be sure enough about to quite securely base our actions on them without the uncertainty factor involved in the underlying facts being a major consideration. Dismissing such facts as mere opinions, or arguing about these facts rather than doing something about them, where appropriate, is not acceptable.

Bertrand Russell famously said, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” There is some truth to that in that the more you know, the more you realize that you don’t know. This is not to say, however, that being unable to answer basic questions with confidence is a sign of intelligence. There is wisdom in being able to avoid taking your opinions overly seriously, and being able to change them in the light of better information. There is also wisdom in recognizing that our formulation of the facts that affect our lives will always be somewhat limited, and we should be ready to recognize that our previously accepted factual understandings will frequently need to be adjusted or nuanced to a considerable degree. For that matter it is also important to recognize that facts can be variable and still be facts. For instance it is now a fact that I am officially recognized as an EU citizen as well as a US citizen. Last year that was not the case, but that doesn’t make it any less a fact today. But with all of those qualifications in place, facts should not be reduced to matters of opinion; and moral action should be related to fact, not merely reduced to matters of opinion or myth. There are differences to be respected, and those who don’t bother to stop and think about such matters earn less of my respect than those who do.

I continue to put a serious effort into getting more people to recognize these distinctions. That’s not just my opinion; that’s a fact. Whether or not that’s of any importance in the big scheme of things might be more a matter of opinion at this point, and you’re quite entitled you your own.

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Epistemology, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Pop culture

The Burden of Proof Thing

One of the classic fallacies recognized in philosophy is the argument from ignorance: You can’t prove it, therefore it isn’t so. Or just as often, you can’t disprove it, therefore it is so.

There are truckloads of things in this life that none of us can never know for sure: whether or not your boyfriend/girlfriend is contemplating cheating on you, whether a student actually did his own homework, what country your jeans were made in, whether some hacker has been looking at your private correspondence, whether Shakespeare actually did all his own writing, whether there are other planets with intelligent life on them in the next galaxy over…  On all of these things we sometimes have to take scientific or strategic wild-assed guesses, or SWAGs for short.

For any given SWAG that we operate on the basis of, there will almost always be some smart ass who will harass you about the matter, saying, “You can’t prove that!” or “How could you possibly know?” And of course in the final analysis many times we can’t know. Nor is it always possible to determine what level of doubt is reasonable even. Is the best policy to charitably believe what we are told as coming from good faith investigation unless proven otherwise, or is it best to assume that self-appointed authorities are full of crap unless they can prove that they know what they are talking about in some clearly repeatable scientific sort of way?

John Locke prescribed a particular method for determining which premises were trustworthy and which weren’t in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding: First one is to collect evidence concerning the matter in as thorough and unbiased a way as possible, corresponding with whatever empirical data is at one’s disposal. Second, one is to weigh the probability of the proposition in question based on that evidence. And then finally one is to adopt a level of confidence on the matter which corresponds to the certainty that the evidence at hand provides. But this unjustifiably assumes that such a thing as neutrality is possible on such matters. Locke was a devoted Protestant theist, and as such he automatically assumed that his belief that the New Testament was reliable was perfectly rational, but that the Catholic doctrine of trans-substantiation wasn’t. Not being able to see how his perspective contained just as many biases and unjustified assumptions as the next guy’s made his system a lot less useful than he thought it was.

Of course the most controversial SWAGs these days have to do with the foundations of religion. Is there a God out there? Is there a spiritual realm beyond the material world we live in? Do the scriptures of my religion flawlessly, or even somewhat reliably, show us what God expects of us? Suffice to say, final rational proof on any of these questions, of the sort that demonstrates that all who disagree with you are idiots, is not forthcoming on any of these questions. So the question then becomes, whose responsibility is it to prove that they are right, with the assumption going against them until they are able to do so?

If it is important to you to convince the people of his village that this young man does not get the advice he offers from the spirits of their ancestors, it's up to you to prove it.

If it is important to you to convince the people of his village that this young man does not get the advice he offers from the spirits of their ancestors, it’s up to you to prove it.

Let me start laying out my own views on this matter with a view that most westerners will agree with fairly readily: If I’m trying to take power over your day-to-day life and convince you that you need to change your pattern of living to conform to my tastes, or if I am trying to convince you that the authority structure which I have decided to submit myself to has to be the one that controls your life as well, the burden of proof falls on me. This does not mean that either the religious or the non-religious assumption has the higher moral ground; it merely means that the party which is attempting to limit the behavior of others has the responsibility to explain why their behavior must be limited. If I am telling you that you should not be allowed to smoke in public places, it thus falls to me to prove that it would be harmful to others if you were to exercise the freedom to smoke as you please wherever you happen to be. If I want to insist on you being required to salute my flag, it is up to me to prove that this ritual plays a valuable and irreplaceable role in creating a sense of national solidarity and our shared cultural values will be less reliably realized if you fail to do so. If I want to prevent you from performing your preferred prayer rituals in some public space, it is up to me to demonstrate that these rituals cause significant harm or loss of freedom to others. In each case, the one who would take control over the other has the burden of proof to establish why the limiting of the other’s freedom is necessary.

This does not relate to the bigger religious questions of the existence of God or the spirit world or the reliability of some given faith, however, unless those views are being used as a means of attempting to take control over the lives of others. It must be acknowledged that religion has frequently been used for such purposes, and that such thinkers as Machiavelli strongly recommended the practice even; but that does not mean that this is part of the basic nature of religious belief in general, nor does it mean that religious perspectives are more liable to be used as the basis of coercion than non-religious ones. If anyone would care to make such a claim, the burden of proof is on them. It takes more than anecdotal evidence from Khomeini’s Iran and Calvin’s Geneva to prove such a case, especially when we have Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia on the other side of the balance. But in the case where an Islamist party is campaigning to make the closing of businesses for daily prayer times as a matter of civil law, and that women should be fined for indecency of they show too much leg or cleavage in public, then yes, the moral burden of proof falls on them to demonstrate that there is a need for such laws. If they are basing these laws on an understanding that there’s a god out there who gets seriously pissed when things are not done so, it becomes their responsibility to prove such a proposition to the satisfaction of any skeptics who will be required to live by such rules.

This too needs to be qualified, however. Complete consensus on moral and legal matters is a rather unrealistic standard to hold any society or system of government to. Just because not all skeptics can be satisfied does not mean that governing beliefs are inherently illegitimate, be they based on religious or any other ideology. There is still a practical value in the level of conformity embodied in the adages, “When in Rome, do as the Romans,” and “When insane, do as the sane do.” The concept of human rights was introduced as a means of limiting the extent to which the majority can exercise power over minorities that they don’t like, but within those limits there is a fair amount of room for the standards that the community operates according to to be set by the principles of the majority, be they secular, deeply religious, nominally religious or agnostic. The point I am making is merely that the act of using an ideology as a means of controlling others is a factor that, philosophically speaking, causes someone to take on a certain burden of proof. In cases where neither religious nor secular ideas are being used as a means of usurping control over others, neither takes on a moral burden of proof in this regard.

So then in terms of establishing mutual understandings about underlying principles of reality for purposes of philosophy of science or applied ethics, how should we go about looking at these matters?

When it comes to the philosophy of science, actually, in the way it is practiced today this is somewhat of a mute question. Science is, in practice, a communal understanding of how we can go about fruitfully investigating various aspects of the dynamics of the material world. Whether there is a spiritual realm beyond this is sort of a moot issue as far as the scientific investigation itself goes. Just as when you are investigating the proper techniques of French cuisine you don’t need to take ice hockey strategy into consideration, so when you are doing most forms of science the potential existence of a spiritual realm is not particularly relevant. The exceptions are when we are trying to discover scientific causes for things that seem easier to understand in non-scientific terms, like why people heal faster from sickness and injury when they feel loved, or how we can determine whether or not people are capable of exercising moral choice in their actions. For some this also includes questions of the origin of life and consciousness, and the claims of different religions to be able to explain such things in non-experimental ways based on concepts of divine revelation within their faith. In these cases, when religious believers wish to impose their religious understandings on the process of investigating our material universe and theorizing about its dynamics and origins, they certainly do take on an extraordinary burden of proof in doing so. Likewise pure materialists who wish to demonstrate that there are in fact no important questions about life as we know it that cannot be answered in scientific terms take on a particularly heavy burden of proof in making such claims. Overall though, this field is not necessarily any more burdensome on religious people in terms of proof issues than politics is. The practice of scientific investigation is not one that needs to take a stand on the existence and dynamics of the spiritual realm one way or the other.

In the realm of personal ethics –– determining what I must do in order to think of myself as a “good person” –– there is so much disagreement regarding the underlying principles of what it is that makes particular actions right or wrong that the question of God’s role in the whole matter can easily get lost in the shuffle. It would be fair to say that whether or not there is a God, all of us suffer and benefit from a combination of nature and nurture when it comes to the “gut reactions” that determine more about our moral behavior than our ethical ideals do. That leaves each of us, if we want to be rationally ethical in the way we life, with a personal burden of proof to ourselves in terms of finding grounds for believing –– in “good faith” –– that the ideals we claim to believe in are true, useful and sustainable. Sometimes, we all must admit, we get a bit lazy about this process –– doing whatever feels good at the moment, or naively believing what our priests or cultural gurus tell us without stopping to think things through. Or like Locke himself, we chose to believe that the beliefs we were raised with are fundamentally rational and objective, even if in practice we should know better.

In my maybe not so humble opinion on the matter, there’s a lot to be said for being humble on purpose in this matter. We need to recognize that we will make mistakes and we need to believe that doing the best we can with what we’ve got will end up being worth something in the long run. Believing that there’s a just but merciful God out there evaluating the whole mess we get ourselves into but being ready to accept us in spite of ourselves when we cry out for his mercy is the best way I know of to go forward with such things. I have my reasons for believing that this is an honest thing to believe, but even if I’m wrong it’s still more functional than most. If I’m right about the basic things then the God out there is big enough where he doesn’t need me to defend his honor or to prove to others how great he is, and ultimately it’s him that’s in charge of judging everyone else, not me. If it turns out that I’m wrong, well I’ve done my best to be fair and honest about things, so I just have to hope that that counts for something.

Yet some want to prove to themselves, and those around them, that in some abstract sense their approach to the metaphysical principles they base their beliefs and morals on is in better faith than the next guy’s. It would be unfair to say whether this practice is more common among theists or anti-theists, but the most recent examples of such that I’ve seen have been tentatively presented from the anti-theist side. In particular there’s this one by my virtual friend James.

James has this thing for abstract logic, so to look at the question in good faith he wants to consider it in the most purely abstract terms possible: thinking of the question of the existence of God(s) entirely separately from any cultural preconceptions whatsoever. That in itself is a rather problematic premise since our minds really don’t work that way; but moving on, his best effort at a purely abstract argument for starting with the assumption of the existence of God is that given all of the mutually exclusive definitions possible for divinity there would seem to be pretty good mathematical odds that one of them might exist. This, however, boils down to a fruitless game of perpetual disputes over definitions, not providing anything worth basing ones further contingent beliefs on. The argument he offers in turn for starting with the assumption that there is no God is that the more carefully you define the nature of the sort of god you are will to accept as God, the further you decrease your odds of finding such an entity “out there.” Thus it may be safest not to assume that there is such a thing “out there.”

I’m frankly not sure how this relates to the real comfort and sense of purpose that some get from believing in God, and the sense of freedom and open possibility that others get from not believing in gods. It’s hard for me to believe that anyone’s starting default position on the subject is actually going to be set without any reference to these existential emotional factors. We obviously become what we receive the most reinforcement at becoming in these matters. If our primary experiences of religion are negative, we learn to avoid all that such religion stands for. If our primary experiences of religion are positive, we learn to cling to those beliefs as a key part of our frame of reference in shaping our personal identities. Clearly there is more to the cognitive validity of various religious beliefs than just the cultural conditioning factors, but the power of these factors is foolish to deny for those on either side of the question. This will set the de-facto default setting that each of us in fact has to work with; the rest is tactics in the power struggle between these default settings.

So what it comes down to is this: if you need me to accept your premises as grounds for our interaction, the burden of proof regarding the validity of your premises lies with you. If I need you to accept my premises as the grounds for our interaction, the burden of proof lies with me. If we can interact without having to agree on the matter, neither of us shoulders a burden of proof. And as long as we can accept that the other has certain rights regardless of how much or how little she agrees with me, the risks involved in being in the minority of convictions on such matters is manageable. And if each is secure enough in his/her convictions so that we don’t act as though the truth of the matter might hinge on whether or not we win the argument or a holy war on the subject, these bitter arguments and holy wars over such matters can be kept to a minimum.

And if you can’t accept that, it’s up to you to prove me wrong.  🙂


Leave a comment

Filed under Epistemology, Human Rights, Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality, Tolerance

The Borders of Bigotry

I got labeled as a bigot once last month.

To the best of my knowledge this is a fairly rare event. I’m quite frequently labeled as a bastard, a slob, a hard-ass, a space shot, a fantasy merchant and virtually every other negative epitaph that is commonly associated with middle-aged divorcees, religious thinkers or ENTPs. “Bigot” usually isn’t one of them.

The occasion was one of the debates over gun control that I got entangled in post-Sandy Hook. My interlocutor was presenting a variation on the naturalistic fallacy to argue against restrictions on what are commonly called assault rifles. I’m not sure where he got his figures, but he made a claim that there are somewhere between 5 and 10 million AR-15s in private use in the United States. Thus, he argues, given how few people actually end up getting killed by them, there’s obviously nothing wrong with keeping such high-end killing machines at home in private hands.

How much "prejudice" am I entitled to regarding these gentlemen?

How much “prejudice” am I entitled to regarding these gentlemen?

Now like I said, I’m not sure where these figures came from, or if they take into account all of the AR15s which were purchased in the US, just because that’s by far the easiest place in the world to get them, by private armies from countries that supply the US with drugs –– the Central and South American countries that actually have higher gun violent rates than the US –– which have since been illegally exported from the US. But even if it is true that one in 15 US households is equipped to blow the s**t out of a crowded restaurant, I don’t see any rational reason why they need to be so equipped. I would go as far as to say that those who feel a need to own such equipment, for whatever psychological reasons they may have, should be justifiably subjected to deeper official scrutiny than the rest of the general public merely on the basis of their compulsion to be so massively equipped for violent action. And this, dear friends, is what is said to qualify me as a bigot.

Let me clarify my position on this matter just a tad: I am not saying that those who feel a need to own assault rifles should be categorically labeled as insane or clinically paranoid and delusional, or even as inherently bad people. I recognize that while many assault rifle owners may have been convinced by advertisers to acquire such equipment as a means of compensating for certain insecurities about their masculinity, this would not necessarily be the case for all of them, or necessarily even the majority of them. For those who wish to use such equipment as toys –– to periodically blast the hell out of inanimate objects as a form of emotional release –– I don’t see this as any more harmful or dangerous than drag racing: As long as it is restricted to the confines of secure areas where it doesn’t endanger the general public, fine by me.

What I am saying is that I find the whole idea that certain people feel a need to be equipped to kill large numbers of other human beings to be deeply disturbing, and I believe that those who feel such a need should be subject to enhanced official scrutiny on that basis alone.

Jerry: hero of a generation or two

Jerry: hero of a generation or two

I do not think of this as being equivalent to racial profiling, discrimination against religious groups or even enhanced scrutiny of those who follow particular styles of music.  Of these examples I consider the last to be the closest though, and in that regard I would be willing to be scrutinized on the basis of my tastes if that’s what it came down to: I happen to deeply appreciate many aspects of the artistry of the Grateful Dead, and I consider Jerry Garcia’s death of a heroin overdose to have been one of the greatest cultural tragedies of the 1990s. But unlike many (most?) other even moderate “Dead Heads”, I have never experimented with any form of pharmaceutical recreation beyond basic alcohol. Even so, I recognize the cultural connection between this band and a certain sort of drug culture, so if I were selected for a random drug test on the basis of my taste in music in this regard I would feel rather cynical about it, but I would not take it as a violation of my basic rights. I wouldn’t be inclined to accuse the police of bigotry for checking.

It’s sort of like police having breathalyzer patrols out more heavily on Friday and Saturday nights. It’s not as though everyone who drives on those evenings is considered to be a likely drunk, but among those out on the road at such times there is a far greater likelihood of finding drunk drivers than among those in commuter traffic on a Tuesday afternoon, for instance; thus it makes a certain amount of practical, pragmatic sense for the police to run such patrols at such times. And if I’m pulled over and asked to blow at such times I don’t take offense at it. I certainly would never accuse the officer with the breathalyzer of bigotry just for being at it on the weekend!

Just as it would be absurd to accuse a cop of bigotry for breathalyzing random drivers near a bar on a Saturday night, it would also be absurd to call it bigotry if law enforcement were on the lookout for abusive forms of pornography among those with large dildo collections… or to be on the lookout for those with violent tendencies which could put the public at danger among those who collect particularly powerful killing equipment.

Charlton Hesston’s “cold dead hands” shtick, sponsored so effectively by the NRA, makes the siege mentality among gun owners –– and defensiveness regarding their identity as gun owners –– a far more emotional issue than the consumer identity of any other product line I can think of; and the higher powered the killing equipment they feel a need to possess, the higher the emotional pitch of their argument seems to get. So on that level it doesn’t really surprise me to find myself labeled as a “bigot” by a self-appointed representative of AR15 owners. Even so, it might well be time to reconsider how we use the word “bigot” and who is justifiably labelable as such.

One place where this has come out in broader public discourse over the past few weeks has been in relation to the battle over the political confirmation of Chuck Hagel as President Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defense. Hagel is openly critical of American expansionist neo-colonial wars in the Middle East, and thus those factions of the right wing press and the Republican Party which have the deepest commitment to such military adventurism have made a committed point of labeling him as a bigot. Why?

Chuck_Hagel_Iraq_5-635x357Well, he’s actually given them two excuses. First of all, as a military veteran and a resident of what is now called a deep red state, Hagel has apparently been socialized into a fair amount of homophobia, and 14 years ago he let a certain amount of that fly by joining in on a Republican attempt to block the appointment of an openly gay man, politically active in support of gay rights causes, to the minor post of ambassador to Luxembourg. Hagel has publicly retracted his statements of that time, but it would still seem reasonable to assume that he retains a certain amount of edgy suspicion towards those of the LGBT persuasion; and visa-versa.

That seems to be a side issue however: Those who are particularly concerned for gay rights tend to be concerned with respect for human rights across the board. The core issue for those who prioritize this issue is to insure that people are respected as people, regardless of factors that are beyond their control, such as their race, their gender, their national origin, their tribal identity and, yes, their sexual orientation. One of the primary means by which people tend to lose their basic rights most commonly and most thoroughly is through military expansionism, by whatever excuse it is carried out. Hagel’s personal priority is clearly limiting military expansionism; driving home to his fellow Americans the lessons of the Viet Nam war that he learned better than most. That gives him a common cause with the main current of the LGBT community, for which they are largely willing to look beyond his past indiscretions and lingering suspicions. As has often been the case, Senator Barney Frank has been the one to express this most eloquently. What seems to remain at issue is efforts by those who stand to profit the most from military adventurism to stir up these animosities and suspicions, which the people concerned have largely worked through already, to keep Hagel out of a position where he could cramp their style.

The more significant bigotry charge against Hagel is in relation to “anti-Semitism” purportedly reflected in his critical stance toward military expansionism by the state of Israel. Here too his critics have been able to use Hagel’s own choice of words against him: In 2006 he is quoted as referring to the unquestionably powerful pro-Israeli lobbyists on Capitol Hill as “the Jewish Lobby.” It  makes it harder for Hagel’s allies to draw a distinction between sensitivity to “Jewish concerns” and unquestioning support for militant Zionist expansionism when Hagel himself blurs the line with his careless choice of words.

That being said, there is a distinction to be made there, and the Jewish-American journalist to whom Hagel made this unfortunate statement actually defends the legitimacy of Hagel’s viewpoint in context. In order for Israel to be a sustainable project, and for it to eventually develop stable and respectful relations with its neighbors (which may not be possible until its Arab neighbors run out of oil in any case, but it is still worth hoping for), they need to start treating the Arab minority among Israelis and displaced Palestinians overall as people worthy of respect as people. Creeping further and further into Arab held lands with Jewish settlements, and backing up this expansion with the Israeli army being ready to fire on anyone who throws rocks at the “settlers” is a policy well worth critiquing. Hagel’s willingness to say so is one of his chief merits.

The elephant in the middle of the room here is actually the pro-Israel American Christian Evangelicals. Among other places this is fairly clearly laid out in Barbara Victor’s book on the religious dynamics behind the GWB presidency: “The Last Crusade”. In short, there are numerous American Christians who believe that the re-establishment of the state of Israel is a sign that Jesus Christ will be coming back very soon, that as part of this process Israel needs to completely control all lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea at least, and that supporting the state of Israel is one of the most important ways for believers and believing nations to earn God’s favor. This is combined with a strong suspicion that the UN (and/or President Obama) represents the interests of the Anti-Christ. Among Americans who uncritically and unquestioningly support Israel’s expansionist policies, this sort of Christians is a more potent political force than secular Jews hoping for a secure homeland for their people.

But back to the topic of bigotry: We all have been raised with our own suspicions about “the Others,” whoever they may be. The question is how well we are able to critically reconsider our prejudices in this regard, and what sort of heuristic devices we can use without diminishing the human value of others.

Backing off to a less emotionally charged example: last summer I bought the cheapest semi-reliable looking car I could find with a larger than average amount of cargo space. As it happened, this one turned out to be a Citroen. I’m still driving it, but it has a snowball’s chance in hell of getting through the basic safety inspection next month, so I’m just seeing how much I can still get out of it before throwing it away. This is in fact the fourth French car I have owned, not counting one I helped my son pick out, and I can say that it has strongly confirmed certain preconceptions I have about French cars in general. In particular I believe now more than ever that the basic electrical systems in all French cars are inherently unreliable. There are about a dozen little electronic controls on my car that work intermittently at best (seat warmers, intermittent wipers, electric windows, dashboard lights…), and a few months ago it actually had an electrical fire –– smoke and flames and all –– which, with some help from charitable passers-by, I managed to get extinguished quick enough and repaired far enough to keep it drivable. But I still pass on the practical advice to whomever it may concern: if you’re going to buy a French car, be prepared for electrical problems.

You can actually barely see the fire damage.

On the surface you can actually barely see the fire damage.

Does that mean I hate the French or their cars overall? Not at all! Under similar circumstances I would still consider buying yet another French car some day; I’d just be prepared to experience electrical problems with it. Does this count as a prejudice? Perhaps. Does it have a rational, empirical basis? I’d say. Could it be overcome in the light of new evidence? I believe so: if Peugeot, Renault and Citroen get their collective act together with quality control in this regard, and consumer testing starts to demonstrate a surprising new level of reliability, I could overcome my generalized suspicions on such a basis. Should I feel guilty about my current frame of mind on such things then? Please.

Now what about when this relates to groups of people? There is one very fundamental difference: whereas cars only have instrumental value, we have good reason to postulate that people have inherent value. In other words people aren’t just valuable for what use we might find for them; people have value in and of themselves. There is something very close to an ethical consensus that those who don’t believe this are not to be trusted. This is one of the defining elements of bigotry: dismissing the overall value of particular groups of human beings based on preconceived notions and generalizations about what “they” are like is as good an explanation as any for what makes someone a bigot.

But that does not mean that all heuristic analysis of fellow human beings is inherently immoral. I have complete respect for Indonesians as persons, but if I were to be scouting for promising basketball players I probably wouldn’t spend much time in Indonesia, given that the average height of men there is about 20 cm shorter than most other countries. If I were recruiting high-rise construction workers I might show somewhat of a preference for indigenous Americans, as I understand they are significantly less susceptible to vertigo than those of other ethnicities. Even in these limited examples individual excellence or personal limitations should not be overlooked of course, but the main point is that the generalized capacities in question are perfectly acceptable heuristic devices so long as human value is not assessed on such bases.

Heuristic analysis of functional capacities and risk factors relating to different groups of people –– especially when it is based on consumer decision patterns that they demonstrate –– is not a matter of calling the human value of such individuals into question. Thus I have no sense of guilt over feeling less comfortable with people for whom AR15 ownership is an important part of their identity than I do with others who find the mass distribution of such killing technology to be rather problematic and disturbing. I am equally at peace with my relative unease with extreme body modifiers, porn addicts, show wrestling enthusiasts and street racing participants. I recognize that such lifestyle choices do not eliminate the human value of such individuals, and there are undoubtedly many wonderfully warm, kind and stable human beings within all of these categories. But I still find such lifestyle decisions to be both inherently dangerous and potentially symptomatic of deeper psychological issues. I see no bigotry in suggesting that social workers and law enforcement personnel should pay particular attention to the behavior of those who make such lifestyle decisions –– especially to those who are emotionally attached to their assault weapons.

On the political side, I really cannot say whether Chuck Hagel is more or less prone to bigotry than the average former Republican Senator. I suspect less so, but that, I admit, may simply reflect my own prejudices. The point is that he has demonstrated a clear recognition of the human value of both gays and Jews –– those he has been accused of being most bigoted against –– and he has firmly committed himself to working with both groups towards reducing destructive stupidity and unnecessary aggression in US military policy. While that goal may be more Utopian than bringing about lasting peace in the Middle East, it is still good to see someone intent on making sincere efforts in that direction at leastFor arms manufacturers and their political allies to attempt to block such efforts at restraint and re-thinking in the name of “exposing a bigot” is the height of political immorality.


Filed under Epistemology, Ethics, Human Rights, Politics, Priorities, Racism, Social identity, Tolerance

The Great Santa Debate

(This is based on an entirely true story, but given the limits of memory and the need to make it accessible to an international audience here the names have been Anglicized and the events simplified in places and embellished in others. If you happen to know any of the kids in question you can ask them freely and they can set you straight on some of the details here.)

Coming back to school after the Christmas break, the first class of the calendar year for class 9B, at 9:00 Monday morning, was religious education with yours truly. We had been debating questions no less weighty than the meaning of life and death, and who gets to say whether or not other people get to live or die in cases of euthanasia and abortion.  I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for them; that’s just too heavy a subject to throw at kids the very first thing after their Christmas holidays. And in all honesty I wasn’t 100 % in sync with academic routines myself, so I thought I’d try to make more of a lightweight game out of the lesson.

The kids in the B class are some of my favorites to teach in that, even in such early morning classes, they tend to be active participants without any intellectual pretensions but with strong maturity for their age, regularly coming up with interesting, outside-of-the-box ideas. So I decided to have them debate a completely random topic just for the sake of practicing informal debating techniques.

I swung my arm towards the middle of the group, counting 6 students on one side and 8 on the other. “OK, we’re going to divide into two teams from here, but Oscar, you come over to this other side.” They cooperatively went into motion to form the groups I designated. “As a matter of fact, Oscar, why don’t you take charge of this team? Your task is to put together an argument to convince the others that there really is a Santa Claus.” A slight groan and roll of their eyes. “And Sandra, you can take charge of this team and together you can argue the case that there is no such thing as Santa Claus.” A bit of a bobbing of heads and mildly pained expressions from that side. “This won’t affect your grades, but one of the skills you really need to develop is to be able to argue a position even if you don’t actually believe in it. So this is as good a subject to practice on as any.”

“So are you trying to teach us to be hypocrites?” Jonny asked.

The kid is sharp. I tried to give him an approving look as I replied, “No, it’s more that in order to think through your own position thoroughly it helps to be able to understand what the rational objections and opposing views might be. If you can’t but yourself in the other guys shoes, so to speak, you won’t be able to think through your own beliefs carefully and critically.” He didn’t look completely convinced, but he saw enough consenting nods around the room where he decided to let it go at that.

“So is 5 minutes enough to put together your opening arguments?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Oscar said, speaking for the rest.

I set to work on logging some basic information in at the teacher’s desktop terminal, and looking up a few funny Santa Claus articles to pass around after the debate. Oscar took his group out into the hallway to plan their strategy. After a bit more than 5 minutes I called them back together. I didn’t have a coin with me to flip to decide who would go first, but after limited discussion we agreed to put the pro-Santa side up first. The sort of looked around at each other nervously and Oscar finally spoke out, “Well, we have a few different ideas. What do you actually mean by Santa ‘being real’?”

“Ah, good question,” I replied. “That’s something where you guys get to define your own terms as to the position you are defending in your opening argument. So you tell us what you think it means for Santa to be real.”

By way of background, they would have had plenty of cultural material to draw on. There was the Finnish film that came out a few years ago to provide an alternative cultural context for the myth. There is the national broadcasting network’s Santa Claus hotline on the morning of Christmas Eve each year, for kids to call and speak with the man himself on the air before he takes off to start making his deliveries. There are the abundant sources within Finnish literature to draw on. And then there are the various imported cultural reinforcements of these perceptions, ranging from the original 19th century poem attributed to Clement Clarke Moore  to Tim Allen’s take on the matter in the 90s. And then there is the classic clipping from the New York Sun of 1897 which made famous the expression, Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. The question was, which material could they build the best argument on?

Apparently Oscar and Nick had the idea of working from the perspective of trusting the factuality of video documentation and the like, but Edith had the idea of working more from an idealistic perspective, more related to the reply to Virginia: “It’s like Santa is this ideal figure that takes on human form whenever someone puts on the suit and properly steps into the role.”

Not everyone had a clear picture of what she was talking about, so I tried to help her flesh out the idea a bit. “Remember at the Christmas concert you all sang John Lennon’s ‘So this is Christmas’?”  There was a general round of nodding and eyes rolling painfully at the memory of so many changing voices looking for the pitch in the sing-along where the regular pianist had called in sick. It didn’t make it any easier for them when I tried to hum and scat the first few bars. “So you all recognize that song as the same one that the former front man of the Beatles wrote then?” Again, general nodding. “Well what is it that makes what you sang that night the same as what came from Lennon? There wasn’t anything there that actually physically came from him. There wasn’t any sheet music in his handwriting. But you still are willing to say that it really was his song that you were singing. Could Santa Claus be real in the same sort of way that that song is real and recognizable no matter who sings it?”

Nick looked over at Oscar and back at Edith and said, “OK, we’ll go with that argument.”

Jonny’s body language made it quite clear that he had a problem with that. “That’s impossible to disprove then!” he proclaimed.

“Not necessarily,” I commented, wanting now to be fair in the sense of being an equal opportunity offender to both sides. “I mean the whole idea of ‘Joulupukki’ has actually changed a lot in the time I’ve lived in Finland. How many of you read the ‘Miina ja Manu’ books when you were younger?”

“I still have them,” Anna volunteered.MM joulu

“I still read them,” Robbie piped in.

“So you remember the one about Christmas Eve?”

“Sure, of course,” came many voices.

“I remember when I first came to Finland and started learning the language I was surprised by how different the image of Joulupukki there was from the image of Santa Claus that I grew up with. It has the big guy in a runnerless, more traditional Laplandic sled, being pulled by just one reindeer, which didn’t actually do any flying. So from there you could argue that there isn’t really such a consistent idea of Santa Claus for the actor to step into even.”

Sandra turned towards Oscar’s group and said with aplomb, “OK, yeah, what Huisjen said.” I’m not supposed to let her get away with those sorts of protocol violations, but I couldn’t help joining in with the giggles that went around.

“But what does this have to do with learning about religion and stuff?” I heard Dustin muttering.

“Well it could sort of relate to the different ways people believe in God,” Missy quietly said in reply.

IconNicholasI didn’t actually have that in mind when we started the class, but it was interesting to see how things had moved from there. We were getting close to the bell ringing, so I tried to steer towards some summary points that wouldn’t kill the conversation. “You remember the icon of St. Nicolas that we saw in the Orthodox Church that we went to visit a couple months ago?” Strong nods of assent on that. “Well he was clearly a real guy, and he had a strong reputation for kindness to children. Somehow a bunch of different legends took off from there and people sort of adapted these legends to their own cultures and needs. Digging out the different levels of ‘real’ from there can be an interesting challenge, if you’re into such puzzles. Obviously it’s scientifically impossible for all of the legends to be true [passing around a few copies of this article] but that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to them.”

The bell rang while I was giving that spiel, so I waved them out from there with a “see you next time.”

Pretty much all of these kids have just last summer been confirmed into the religious identity that they were baptized into as babies. They are all more or less still in the process of deciding what they actually believe about religious matters. There is a delicate balance question as to how far I can, as a teacher, go in either reinforcing or questioning such beliefs. I consider it to be a small victory though whenever they start to actively discuss such matters among themselves in such a way that would indicate serious thought about the matter.

How much of what we believe, and how many of the standards that we set for ourselves and each other, have arisen from generation after generation of adaptation and embellishment of traditions and legends, resulting in rather inconsistent and incoherent positions that we pass on to others in less and less coherent forms? When we dig down through all of the myths and legends looking for the “truth” underneath, what are we really hoping to find? What are we afraid of finding? What might we be willing to accept as true regardless of how disconcerting it may be for us to start with?

At some point within the class I tried and failed to bring in the question of Žižek’s chicken joke from one of the videos I had watched on line over the holidays. It basically goes like this: A man goes to his psychiatrist and says to him, “Doctor, I’m still afraid of being a piece of grain, and being eaten by this giant chicken!” The doctor says to him, “Now Fred, we’ve been through all this, and you know that you’re not a piece of grain and that you’re too big for any chicken to swallow.” “Yes,” Fred replies, “I know that and you know that, but does the chicken know that?”

From there Žižek goes into the question of worrying about synchronizing our public behavior with what we assume other people believe, and how in some ways this becomes inevitable for us. One classic example of this is the question of true belief in Santa Claus: parents don’t want to forsake the tradition for fear of cruelly disillusioning their children, and children will deny that they are naïve enough to believe in Santa, but they don’t want to raise the issue for fear of disappointing their parents. Nor is this sort of interaction limited to the young, the religious, the consumerist or the communist; it seems to be everywhere.

But in pointing this out Žižek is not suggesting that we drop all culturally conditioned unbelievable beliefs, but rather that we look for “a better chicken”: a less harmful set of illusions to interact with each other on the basis of. And the more credible our “chickens” are, the healthier our interactions on these bases are likely to be.

Now I realize that this level of philosophical discussion might be a little much even for very bright 15-year-olds, but I’d still be willing to bet that the kids of class 9B will probably end up with “better chickens” than many of you. Or might that just be one leg of my own chicken?

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Epistemology, History, Holidays, Philosophy, Religion, Respectability

Book Review: James’ Gospel of John

One of my more interesting virtual friends whom I have never met is James David Audlin. He was referred to me by a mutual friend who saw us both as strongly interested in philosophy, writing, personal spirituality, music, intercultural relationships, theology and comparative religion. It also turns out that he is a “dog person” and a long-term expat from the US who is rather frustrated with our home country’s human rights record at home and abroad. So yes, he and I have hit it off fairly well.

James is a former clergyman of a liberal Protestant persuasion who, after a bit of globe trotting, has settled in Panama these days. He apparently makes just enough off of book royalties from the various novels and poetry and essay collections that he has written over the years to provide for a simple life among the poor there, using the Internet pretty much daily to stay in touch with the “developed world”. As a divorced grandfather he has found a widowed local grandmother there to share his life with, and they officially married during the past year. James’ new wife is a Jehovah’s Witness, but according to him that group is far more mellow and dialog-oriented in that part of the world than their stereotype in the US and Europe. So in spite of cultural differences and technical challenges they seem (from this distance) to be quite happy together.

This year James has been working on finalizing a long-term project of his: an extensive re-formulation of the Gospel of John. Now to explain my perspective on this project, because there are so many Jameses in the gospel itself, I will have to switch over to referring to my friend James by his surname: Audlin.

The "mockup" for James' book's cover

The “mockup” for James’ book’s cover

Audlin is comfortable in his Greek and basic Aramaic skills, and back in his seminary days the bug of historical redaction critique got under his skin, so this project goes way back for him. As he figures it, the text of the fourth Gospel has at least 3 or 4 layers to it, and if it could be “restored” in the same way as the Sistine Chapel –– stripping away the extra layers and touching up the older layers underneath –– it might provide an even more beautiful and striking portrait of Jesus. The risk, however, is that he might end up “restoring” this portrait more along the lines of what was famously done this year to the portrait of Christ in Borja, Spain this year.

frescopicThis well-meaning labor of love on Audlin’s part stretches to some 600 pages in total, 120 of which are the “reconstructed gospel” itself, with 60 pages each for the Greek text and the English translation thereof, on pages facing each other. This is preceded by an 80 page summary of what was driving him and what sort of methods he is attempting to follow, and then there are over 350 pages worth of commentary and theoretical justifications for his conclusions in rearranging the text as he has. It takes a fairly serious commitment to such matters to read such a tome; one can only imagine what sort of effort it took to write it!

The starting premise here is rather uncontroversial in one sense: If you take the Gospels to be human creations based on some form of contact with the divine then the human mistakes they may contain, and the puzzles of how they came about in their current form, cease to be a threat to our faith and they turn into a fascinating puzzles. The different names given to key characters, the strikingly different chronology and the inclusion of entirely different episodes than the other three gospels make the Gospel of John a particularly fascinating puzzle. It almost seems as though someone dropped all of the pages in the manuscript on the way into the publisher’s office, leading to its page order getting scrambled, with a few of them lost. What if we could get things back in the “proper order”? It also seems as though someone in the second century may have done a re-edit of the text to put it into its current form. (Audlin suggests Polycarp of Smyrna as the most likely suspect.) What if he tried to take out some politically offensive elements and add in some more “orthodox” elements in the process? Would there be some way of undoing this process? Like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, Audlin has a sense of having nothing to lose, so he’s decided to give it a try.

Actually this reminds me of two different personal perspectives I have regarding research challenges. To start with redaction critique has always reminded me of the passage in book 3 of Gulliver’s Travels where the hero is among normal sized people for a change, who are so lost in their own theoretical world that they’ve lost all contact with practical realities. In particular it brings to mind the classroom in which a blind professor is trying to instruct a group of blind students as to how to tell the difference between colors of paint based on texture, consistency, smell and taste; but unfortunately their investigations into such sciences were in a rather “imperfect state” at the time when Gulliver had his chance to observe. So it seems when it comes to those who attempt to make a living at this sort of textual analysis.

Over the years I’ve done a fair amount of text editing myself, and it would be fair to say that I’ve developed my own relatively distinctive way with words in the process. But no matter how well someone might know my style and pour over texts that have my linguistic fingerprints in them, I have never met anyone that would presume to even hazard a guess as to which paragraphs and which sentences there were my own contributions and which parts were entirely from the authors’ original text. If they did I could readily confirm the “imperfect state” of their speculations, and this would likely prove too frustrating for them to continue with the method. But when it comes to Bible scholarship based on the early 20th century German tradition, they’re willing to give it a go pretty much continuously. Audlin is merely stretching the boundaries of this bizarre field of academic endeavor here.

So how might an ambitious newcomer to the game of redaction critique set about determining –– in terms of the above analogy –– which colors are which? He would have to employ some general theory of what the original author was trying to say and how he was prone to saying it, and how the style and message of the later editor would have significantly differed from this. This in turn involves identifying the main characters in the story, and reaching some conclusions about their relationships to each other, and the author’s relationship to each of them.

In the Gospel of John this provides a rather fascinating challenge. Is Nathaniel the same character that the other gospels call Bartholomew? Is Alphaeus the same fellow as Clopas/Cleopas? Is the sister of Mary, mother of Jesus seen at the crucifixion in John the same lady as the mother of the sons of Zebedee seen at the crucifixion in Matthew? And how are we to sort through all of the Johns, Jameses, Judases, Simons, Josephs and especially Marys that crop up in the tale?

To cut to the chase here, Audlin has concluded that the “Da Vinci Code” theory is correct: Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and furthermore this Mary is actually the same person as Mary of Bethany, who is also the same person as the woman at the well in Samaria in John 4, and the same person as the prostitute who came to pay homage to Jesus by perfuming his feet in the house of Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7. To take this counter-intuitive leap to even greater heights, Audlin further theorizes that Mary was a single mother when she met Jesus, that she had worked as a temple priestess/prostitute previously (which her “five previous husbands” would have been a cultural reference to), that Lazarus would have been her son rather than her brother, that by her Jesus would have fathered John Mark, who went on to be the author of the second gospel, and that the “beloved disciple” on whose recollections the Gospel of John is based is none other than Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead.

Anointing of Jesus' FeetTo briefly summarize how he reaches all of these conclusions is a bit beyond my skills as a writer, but in many ways it relates to the second research challenge that this work brings to mind: About 7 or 8 years ago my son got me interested in tracing back our family’s roots in the Netherlands, and as it turned out, with recently published records on line, I was able to get much further in tracing my male lineage than anyone of my father’s generation ever had. But in these newly digitalized records from the 19th century there were plenty of confusions with first, second and third cousins sharing the same first names, and with family names changing as my pauper ancestors’ families acquired new farms that had family names attached to them. Also it seems that many of my ancestors from the 18th century were semi-literate at best, and the official records of their marriages, children’s baptisms, funerals and inheritance bequests often varied between 4 or 5 alternative spellings for both their given names and their surnames. Top that off with the fact that official surnames for Dutch peasants were effectively non-existent prior to the Napoleonic era and you start to see what sort of puzzle I became engrossed in for that time.

I know, for instance, that my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s name was Jan Hendrik, that his son was Arend (or Arent, depending on where you look), and that his son was again Jan Hendrik, and that his son in turn was Arend Jan. I know that within these clans there was something of a moral duty to keep other men’s names in circulation as well, including Fredrick, Gerrit, Albert, Willem, Derk and Lucas. What I still haven’t figured out though is who the original Hendrik in the lineage was, how closely the other Huisjens of the Ommen area were related to my family before they died out, whether my great-great-great-great-grandfather’s brother, who changed his name when he married into money, has any living male heir who would share my paternal bloodline still, and whether or not there were any associations between my ancestors and their village’s tiny Jewish community.  Even if I were completely fluent in Dutch and intimately acquainted with the geography, parish histories, economic history and local legends of the Overijssel, I still wouldn’t be able to do much more than speculate about many of these questions. The various speculations that Audlin tosses about in the process of his investigations into the Gospel of John strongly remind me of some of my earlier speculations in this personal genealogical project. The level of uncertainty in Audlin’s project appears to be much greater though.

Anyway, another major German speculation from the pre-Nazi period that Audlin has bought into is that Jesus as the God-man was something that Saul of Tarsus basically invented when he reinvented himself as the Apostle Paul, Jesus’ ambassador to the non-Jews; and that underneath this motif you can find a tale that is more authentically Jewish and historical.  Whereas the other gospels were written under Paul’s influence from the start, as this story goes, John started out with eyewitness accounts that originally weren’t so corrupted by Paul’s viewpoint. Jesus was just a fantastic moral teacher, a legendary local miracle worker and a friend of the poor –– a campaigner for “truth, justice and the Davidic way,” but without so many other Superman-like characteristics.

Alright, that theory inevitably means that there are certain things about the presumed divinity of Jesus that Audlin’s going to leave out on purpose because he’ll assume that they are later innovations on the text and he’s shooting for the “original”.  How does it end up working? In some ways not so bad as conservatives might expect.

Reading the actual gospel text in Audlin’s rearranged version is actually a rewarding aesthetic –– perhaps even spiritual –– experience unto itself. Though, for reasons given above, I’m not able to take it as the new benchmark in Johannine scholarship as Audlin might hope, taken more as a creative work of literature based on ancient texts –– read with the same sort of open-minded appreciation one would bring to a new musical based on the life of Jesus, for instance –– the text does have a punchy dramatic flow to it in this new form.

It is divided up into four acts, each with their own coherent themes and story lines within the overall plot. Much of it actually makes a lot of sense: for instance taking the final section of chapter 14 in the received text, ending with the words, “Come now, let us leave,” and putting it at the end of the whole Last Supper monolog rather than in the middle, makes complete dramatic sense. Many other sermons and debate sequences in the text receive a certain added impact through Audlin’s dramatic touch in rearranging the order of the text.

Where things run thin in terms of keeping the drama moving in a steady fashion –– where Audlin believes that the redactor has chopped out important parts that would have been necessary to the poetic flow of the original –– he patches in some bits and pieces from the Gospel of Mark and from some rather obscure papyruses. This provides one extra miracle to go together with the teachings of Jesus –– getting grain to instantly grow and ripen before his followers’ eyes by scooping out handfuls of Jordan River water and tossing it on the shore –– but other than that there are no significant surprises here. Overall one gets the impression that if Audlin doesn’t already have a musical score ready to play in the background as this text is being performed it wouldn’t take him long to write one.

Audlin is also kind enough to emphasize the way in which this gospel has Jesus repeatedly saying I AM in ways that imply a unique connection with God in terms of God’s self-description to Moses from the burning bush (Exodus 3:14. He points out quite correctly that within the text the narrator never refers to himself in the first person, adding to the mystery of his identity, but also leaving the expression “I am” to be used almost exclusively by Jesus. The only other character who utters this “I am” is the man born blind that Jesus heals: All of the townspeople see him afterwards and say to themselves, “No, that can’t be the same blind dude that always sits by the gate begging,” to which the formerly blind fellow says quite emphatically, “No, I AM the same guy!” But this is only possible for him in the narrative because of being so directly and powerfully touched by Jesus’ “I AM”. And the “blasphemous” implications of Jesus claims before the Pharisees that, “before Abraham was, I AM” (8:58) couldn’t really come out more come out more clearly than they do in Audlin’s version of the text.

In fact in spite of his efforts to dispose of Pauline “God-man veneers” in this gospel reconstruction, the resulting portrait of Jesus is one that ever more strongly brings to mind the famous claim of C.S Lewis that Jesus does not leave us with the option of thinking of him as just a good man: he must either be a stark raving madman: a psychotic megalomaniac on the level of someone who thinks of himself as a fried egg; or he must be the most cynical psychopathic con man that the universe has ever known; or he must be who he says he is: the unique, divine “anointed one” of God, sent to provide salvation to all who believe in him. Sounds pretty God-man-like to me!

So while I don’t agree with many of his starting assumptions or final conclusions, I greatly appreciate Audlin’s invitation to dive in and play with these ideas found there. Speculating about Jesus’ family relations, for instance, is almost as much fun as speculating about my own ancestry. For instance less radical than Audlin’s speculations would be the idea that Jesus grew up staying in touch with two sets of cousins: one set by way of Joseph’s brother’s family down in Judea, and another by way of Mary’s sister’s family in Galilee. These cousins could have accounted for as much as half of his original band of twelve disciples, and their immediate contacts could have accounted for the other half. Wouldn’t that be interesting! Such speculations aren’t particularly important theologically, but they’re interesting in their own way, and many of them I’d never stopped to think about before looking at Audlin’s version of the text.

But for some that is not as interesting by half as the possibility of shattering long-standing traditional ideas, such as Jesus being celibate, or Mary being a perpetual virgin, or even the well-established legend of John, son of Zebedee being the primary witness for the text of the Gospel of John. Trying to stake out his own radical ground in appealing to those interests is a big part of what Audlin seems to be doing here. That may or may not be the best way to start a conversation on the matter: many who could most benefit from reconsidering their presuppositions on such matters will be too offended –– or too tingly at the idea of having some new “scholarly critique” to toss at their traditionalist Christian opponents –– to actually stop and consider such matters. All in all then I’d be rather (though pleasantly) surprised if this work reaches a particularly wide audience.

So if you are the sort of person who likes intellectual literary analysis puzzles and theological speculations for their own sake, if you are not particularly thin-skinned about your presuppositions concerning the text of the New Testament and if you are facing a serious shortage of reading material for 2013 otherwise, I can heartily recommend Audlin’s new project as something to occupy yourself with. I don’t see it as earth-shatteringly important piece of scholarship in the sense that I don’t expect it will start any new major international debate among historical Jesus scholars, and I rather doubt that the target audience for such a work is as broad as my friend James might expect or hope, but for what it is and for those few who fit into the sort of reader profile I’ve outlined here, this is a fascinating reading project in its own sense. If you play around with analyzing Audlin himself as part of joining him in analyzing this gospel that would be fair game, and that makes the reading experience all the more interesting.

And whether or not you fit into this sort of profile, I wish my readers here one and all a very Happy New Year!

Leave a comment

Filed under Epistemology, History, Linguistics, Religion


In recent weeks I’ve had a few people politely and privately comment on my blogs that they would like to follow them, but that the writing is in fact a bit too difficult for them. This is disappointing to me in a few respects, and I will make some efforts to improve in this regard if I can do so without “losing my voice” in the process.

Part of my point in starting into blogging to begin with, if I’m honest about it, was looking for ways to market my book designed to teach philosophy to teenagers. The book is regarded by many as a fairly successful attempt to put complex philosophical ideas into interesting and relatively easily accessible English for those who are not looking to go pro in the field of academic philosophy. So the point of the blog was originally, at least in part, to give free samples of the sort of language I use to explain philosophy in the book. But as my blog has sort of taken on a life of its own it seems I’ve sort of drifted away from that purpose.

My most popular entries here have been those which tackle religious or political concepts that outsiders find to be mysterious and incomprehensible on some level, but which they still want to understand in order to follow what people who are into such things are talking about: “Objectivism,” “Angst,” “the Rapture,” “Meritocracy,” “Pro-life,” etc. But these blogs tend to run well over 2000 words each, involving more intellectual lifting than the average non-academic wants to do as a leisure activity. Thus for one of my blogs to generate over a hundred hits makes it a pretty big hit by this page’s standards.

Compare that with my old friend Jim. Though we haven’t met face to face for nearly 30 years now, during which time our few mutual interests have sort of faded, Jim remains a friend. Jim has also become an amateur blogger in later middle age, but unlike me he is doing it “right”: He publishes about a blog a day, averaging something like 200 words each; usually brief rants against Democrats spiced with anecdotes of his day to day life as a grandfather and candy salesman. No one can accuse Jim of getting too complicated or intellectualized about his blogging, and thus all in all he manages to reach a much larger audience than I do.

Now I’m not really jealous of Jim. His blog reflects the simplicity and the group conformity inherent in the life path he has chosen, which in many ways I can respect in spite of how different it is from the life path I have chosen. The question is, regardless of the differences between his approach and mine, what can I still learn from my old friend? How can I make my blog ideas –– and perhaps my life in general –– more simple and accessible to “normal people”?

I decided to start with something that was easiest to relate to in Jim’s post-election comments this month: he talked about sharing traditional Lebanese vegetarian recipes with families of friends of his daughter. Jim is nothing like vegetarian himself, and not particularly health-conscious even as near as I can tell. He considers no-meat Fridays as part of Catholic tradition to be a Godly thing, but Mondays without meat for environmental or humanitarian reasons to be positively Satanic… but that’s beside the point. Jim’s mom is Lebanese, and the Lebanese are known for having one of the nicer forms of peasant cuisine to work its way into the American blend, so his discussion of such matters piqued my interest.

The dish he was talking about is based on lentils and rice: rather familiar culinary territory for me. Combining grains and legumes to get a whole protein is one of the basic vegetarian nutrition principles I am well familiar with, and lentils are the fastest cooking dried legume I know of. One basic bachelor lunch I’ve done more than a few times is to toss some lentils and 10-minute parboiled rice into a sauce pan with the appropriate amount of water to soak into them, plus about a half cup or so extra, and once the basic ingredients have softened up enough I season the quickie casserole with a packed of instant cup of soup mix of one sort or another. It’s cheap and cheerful, and usually keeps me going for a good while before I start getting hungry again. So doing such things “right” –– i.e., from scratch, and in a healthier form –– was of significant interest to me, and I could trust that Jim’s mother’s recipe would be a good contribution to my repertoire in that regard.

The name for this traditional delight, Jim tells me, is m’judra. While I was waiting for him to type out the recipe as we chatted one night I started looking for other evidence of such a concept on line. The closest thing I found was “mudra”, a collection of Hindu dance moves. Jim assured me that the two concepts are entirely unrelated.

The first surprise with this recipe was that it calls for about an hour’s worth of cooking –– more than four times as much as I’m accustomed to putting into my lentil foods. He suggested leaving things to soak to cut down on that time, but that wouldn’t actually help much in my case. Even so, with my open floor plan apartment it’s not a serious hardship to have something cooking in the kitchen area while I’m typing, reading or watching videos for hours at a time in the same room. So I even if I couldn’t do it for a quick lunch I could still try it for a dinner experiment for one some night.

The main ingredients are about a pound of brown lentils mixed with rice and fried onion. I usually go with red lentils more on a day-to-day basis, but I wanted to try it his way at least once. He also recommended brown rice rather than the long-grain white stuff I usually use for convenience. So I went shopping before trying this out. Unfortunately the local gro here only carries two sorts of lentils: red and green. So I decided green would have to be close enough. They were a sort of brownish green anyway.

The starting point was to put the lentils into the pot with about twice their bulk in water, and to add a relatively small amount of rice, as a glue of sorts, once the process was at about the half-way point. Since the recommended cooking time for brown rice as a side dish is actually far longer than that for lentils I went ahead and put both of these right in at the start. The water seemed like a very small amount, and indeed I did have to keep adding during the process, but perhaps my “vigorous boil” was a bit more vigorous than what Jim’s mom used to do operate at.

The next step was to dice and fry up the onion in oil, and to mix the onion and oil in with the rest. Jim said to get the onion nearly black, and I thought that might be a bit of overkill, but in frying on high I actually got closer to his instructions than I intended to. That part was actually seemed to be fine though. The idea seemed to be that with my glasses off I wouldn’t be able to tell what was lentil, what was rice and what was onion. It was all one homogenous looking brown mass.

The challenge really came with the spices: salt, pepper, cinnamon and allspice. I thought I had all of those, but it turned out that allspice was missing. Normally I keep allspice in the house for Christmas baking if nothing else, but I had not bought any since returning to Europe from Africa in May… so I decided to improvise. I substituted some “Christmas cookie spice mix” that I had for the cinnamon and allspice, and the ginger and clove in that mix turned out to have a bit more kick than anticipated. I saved the dish (for my solo eating purposes) by adding a little molasses to take the edge off, and at that it actually ended up going down quite nicely with a bottle of Christmas beer I happened to have in the fridge. What it lost though was its simplicity and Lebanese purity. I’ll have to try again in that regard.

In other areas of life as well I struggle to find a proper balance between simplicity for its own sake and the sort of complexities that I trust to bring safety, convenience and efficiency into life as I know it.  Let’s not even bother discussing how dependent I am on electronic gadgets and fossil fuels; I’m as hopeless as any white man in such things. What I really want to work on is finding the right balance in terms of reducing the intellectual complications that tend to dominate life as I know it. Can I ever get my life down to the same level of mental simplicity as my friend Jim? Do I really want to even?

Rather than seeing things in terms of tales of the virtues of our ancestors that we need to find our way back to (Jim’s conservative perspective) –– or in terms of some broad narrative about the primitive prejudices, superstitions and ignorance of our ancestors that we need to overcome (the archetypical political liberal perspective) –– I see our societies as a complex mix of both. I’m thus unable to divide the world up into good guys and bad guys, angels and demons, super-ego and id factors so easily as my friends with more monolithic world views. So I’m continuously complicating what they see as simple issues with what they see as impurities or unnecessary added ingredients. This keeps me from being able to write the sort of pure and simple polemics that both friends and foes would be able to use to conveniently categorize my ideas.

This cattle ranch, currently for sale outside of Great Falls, Montana, is actually bigger than the whole Gaza Strip.

One place where my tendency to “complicate issues” has got people on both sides angry at me in the past week is over the Gaza issue, where I don’t see either side as having the high moral ground or as deserving of my public support. At the heart of the matter is the fact that both Hamas and Israel consider themselves to have a God-given right to this silly little piece of land smaller and more naturally unproductive than some Montana cattle ranches. If either would effectively admit that their claims to that territory are based on ethnocentric hubris rather than an unquestionable divine command –– opening the way for them to find some other stretch of God-forsaken mountain and desert terrain to live on –– or if both could come together and say, “Fine, leave us in peace and you can have this stretch of land over here for as many generations as your descendants care to stay there. Don’t you let any of your people attack us and we won’t let any of our people attack you,” the hostilities could be done with this week already. Neither side has demonstrated the integrity to do either of these things though.  Meanwhile the Gazans seem to have an obsession with turning themselves and their children into martyrs –– in both literal and figurative senses –– and the Israelis seem to be more than ready to assist them in this process. To say that they deserve each other would be callously cruel to both, yet in some basic sense quite true.  All I can say for sure is that the situation it is too complicated for me to take up the moral cause of defending those on either side.

A slightly less complex issue perhaps, but one I likewise do not presume to take sides on, has to do with developmental projects in the Philippines taking place at the expense of traditional ways of life. A former student of mine called this subject to my attention this weekend and asked me to sign an on-line petition on the subject, which I am not yet ready to do. Basically it seems that a major economic infrastructure development program has been rushed through official channels and forced onto the local people through a process of eminent domain seizures.  The protests against this could very well be a worthy cause to support, but based on what little I know I am not ready to assume that I know what is best for the Philippine people in terms of what their leaders should and shouldn’t be allowed to do to encourage economic development and to provide basic services for their citizens. It could well be that government officials there are taking bribes from business interests to allow them to build industrial complexes and tourist infrastructure that could end up doing the common people more harm than good, but then again this could also be a means of increasing these people’s life expectancy by ten years or more through better health care, more dependable income and a more nourishing diet. I’m really not in a position to say, and compared to other environmental and human rights crises in the world I am aware of, this doesn’t seem to be among the most critical. But with further information I reserve my right to change my mind about the subject later on. That’s the way things go for us complicated people.

Yet there is one form of simplicity that I treasure more than virtually any other joy in life: interaction with children of all ages. The highlight of my Thanksgiving week this year was in fact sitting and doing barnyard imitations with a 4-year-old, and being called back for endless encores. From newborns to teenagers, every phase of childhood and youth provides its own rewards for adults who have the inclination and opportunity to interact with those at such a level. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or expensive, though teenagers in particular seem to be easily tricked into thinking otherwise. The main point is that life is continuously moving forward for all of us, and appreciating the opportunity to make the simplest forms of human contact along the way –– especially with those who are likely to continue on with it long after we are gone –– is one of the experiences that makes the process of life most rewarding.

So as we once again find ourselves racing into the Christmas season, I would like to encourage all of you to stop and consider the combination of complexity and simplicity that the holidays are bringing into your lives. Don’t try to simplify your life by making crude generalizations about people and things you don’t really know that much about; and don’t let the simple basic pleasures of life, like the time you spend with those you love, get unnecessarily complicated. In all your Christmas shopping and partying don’t get tricked into trying to prove something about yourself through some artificial forms of ostentation, and remember to appreciate the value of those around you, from the closest loved ones to the most complete strangers. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.

I might consider my old friend Jim to be a complete jerk when it comes to politics, and he might well feel the same about me, but underneath all of that crap there is a kind-hearted fellow that tried to keep me interested in doing art photography and with whom I could commiserate over our difficulties finding girls to go out with back when I was in my late teens and he was in his early twenties. If I can still make basic human contact with him regardless of all of the complications that try to come between us, I believe my life will be far richer for it. If there’s something I can learn from him in terms of connecting with other people in a more simple and straight-forward way via this medium, so much the better.

To those I have alienated with my unnecessary complexity, I’m sorry, and I will try to improve. That doesn’t mean I’ll be willing to join into causes that I see as more complicated than you do, or that I’m willing to convert to your particular brand of religious experience, but it does mean that I want to better learn to keep such complications from isolating us from each other. If within those limits you feel like you could help me with this process, I’m quite available to consider whatever hints or instructions you have to offer.

Leave a comment

Filed under Empathy, Epistemology, Love, Priorities, Tolerance

KE part 6 (Epistemological considerations regarding our sources of confidence)

Continuing on with the re-edit version of this series, before I get to evaluating connection I believe it is necessary to take into consideration some of the epistemological factors related to choosing our sources of confidence. When I set out to improve myself –– to find a valid justification for my self-confidence –– should that be a matter of learning to please God more, or somehow helping the evolutionary process to advance, or being more of an authentic individual, or promoting some form of social good? When it comes to deciding which of the four points of the compass (the transcendental, the material, the individual existential or the social) one is ultimately going to base one’s sense of value and morality on, is there really a rational way to choose?

There are plenty of people out there telling you what to believe. How do you decide which ones are right?

I pointed out last time that there is a fair amount of ethical risk involved in each of these approaches, and that all of them can be misused. But regardless of the risks involved, regardless of whether or not we can be sure about such things, we need to find some basis for proving to ourselves that we are worth something. To be truly self-actualized, as Maslow calls it, we need to have some sort of target in life that we can justifiably consider worth shooting for. So the task here is to consider how we can go about determining which source(s) of confidence are most trustworthy, sustainable, admirable and efficient in terms of actually making people happy.

To start with, we need to recognize that, if we are going to be honest with ourselves, a certain amount of uncertainty is somewhat inevitable here. As I wrote for my son years ago,

There is in fact no conclusive system for evaluating metaphysics which does not itself depend on some metaphysical presupposition. This is what philosophers refer to as tautology, also known as circular reasoning. If for instance I say that God is the ultimate source of reality, and I know this because God has shown it to me, that says nothing to an outsider. I might just as well say that I am the most important person in the world, because I say that I am, and as the most important person in the world I have the right to say so. It may be a legitimate statement of faith, but logically it proves nothing. Yet outside of starting from such assumptions there are no grounds for proving that any system is the best.

So how do we avoid sinking into the quicksand of confusion on this one? First of all we need to recognize that at some point we will have to just “dive in” in spite of our uncertainties. This is what Kierkegaard called “the leap of faith.” Since we can never have absolute certainty in advance when it comes to choosing a foundation for building our personal value on, eventually we just have to dive in and try something. If that first attempt doesn’t work out it’s likely to hurt like hell, but hopefully it will still leave you whole enough to try another alternative. The good news is that it is probably fair to say that of those who are sincerely seeking for this sort of purpose, more often actually find something that works for them than die in the frustration from searching in vain.

Of course that doesn’t mean that what works for some individual is beyond doubt the final metaphysical truth of the matter. We know that because we can see how different people actually find workable purpose and confidence for themselves at all four points of the compass I’ve laid out, and in the final metaphysical analysis obviously not all of them can be right. I’m not saying that it makes no difference which premise you base your confidence on, or that they are all equal when it comes to truth value, or that the dangers I pointed out in relation to each given foundation are not real. But rather than jumping into the process of justifying my personal preference on this matter, I want to lay out some useful rules of thumb on the matter of making such commitments.

So how do we go about deciding which foundation is “close enough” to start with? I’d suggest beginning with the following:

Consistency / Coherence
If you’ve studied a little bit of epistemology, you know that there are two primary ways of judging the truthfulness of any given proposition: the extent to which it fits together with other things which we accept as true, and the extent to which it is able to avoid self-contradiction. The former is called correspondence theory and the latter, coherence theory. Since theoretically we want to begin with an open mind here as to what foundation our starting “facts” that set the standard for the factuality of other things will come from, we should probably avoid using the correspondence theory as a starting point here. So that leaves us with coherence to look at.

You might call this Sudoku logic: if you can’t continue by the rules of the game without putting the same number twice in some row or column, you know there is a mistake in there somewhere. Likewise when some person’s ideological position leads them into self-contradiction––saying that certain things are both morally required and morally forbidden at the same time––you can pretty much tell that they’ve got something in the wrong place.

We have to be careful not to judge too quickly here though: any moral position will involve difficulties and paradoxes, and if some position seems to just fall together without any such challenges that is not so much a sign that it is true as a sign that it is superficial. Any system can be kept consistent by avoiding its application to the messy process of human experience; and if it isn’t applicable to deeper aspects of human experience, it’s unlikely to be of much value as a source of confidence. Some capacity to deal with internal tensions must be part of the value of any meta-ethical starting point. The way Kierkegaard put it, “a thinker without paradox is like a lover without passion.”

Another rule of thumb that can be applied to choosing what to believe in has to do with whose word you are willing to take on the matter. Like many decisions in life, you want to ask various people who have tried the different alternative “products” that you are considering “buying.” But you need to be careful about this, because many who will try to win you over to their own way of thinking will do so as a way of trying to get your money, for instance. Others will try to convert you to their way of thinking as part of a personal power trip they are on. If you can catch these signals they can serve as valuable warning signs. It’s always best to avoid following the recommendations of hypocrites if you can help it. But on the other hand many wonderful people can be sincerely wrong, and some real sleaze balls can randomly end up as representatives of beliefs that have a lot of value to them, so don’t take this as the final standard of what to believe.

The role of the belief in the person’s life

Grossly generalizing here, among sincere recommendations for a belief the most unreliable ones tend to be those coming from someone who has converted to the belief in question either in their late teens or early twenties. This usually means that they turned to this belief as a means of becoming an independent adult and/or as a way of drawing a line under the painful mistakes they made as adolescents. That can make any belief system look better in the eyes of the convert than it really merits. Slightly more credible than this, but still rather unreliable is the testimony of those who have remained faithful to their childhood beliefs without ever seriously questioning them –– who have never seriously considered the possibility that their parents were wrong about key issues. On other hand, the more serious a set of crises a person can get through without having to radically change his or her belief system in the process, the more it says about the genuine value that belief system has for the person.


A viable source of confidence will decrease rather than increase your need to attack others.

One final factor worth mentioning is that those who have a serious hatred towards those who believe, act or look different from themselves should not be trusted. One characteristic of a workable set of foundational beliefs is that it enables the person to act secure and civilized around those who don’t share his/her beliefs. This sort of personal confidence enables the individual with a functional belief system not to feel threatened by those who see the world differently. This is what we call tolerance. In short, the less tolerance you see among believers in a particular system, the less likely it is to have much value, and visa-versa.

All this is based on the premise that your source of confidence is something you actually choose. It’s fair to say that this is something the vast majority of people –– even well educated people –– never really stop to think about that seriously. For most people the things they pursue as sources of confidence are things that they are socialized into by their families, their schools, their religious communities, their local peer groups or some combination of the above. It might be rather idealistic to believe that any of us genuinely choose our beliefs and our career paths. But I have to agree with Kant on one basic thing here: if we’re going to have anything called “ethics” we’re going to have to postulate some basic capacity for people to choose what they do with their lives. “Ought” implies “can.” And since on that basis I’m willing to postulate that people can choose, at least somewhat, how they are going to live and what goals they are going to pursue, I would hope that they would choose carefully and wisely; and dare to admit their mistakes and revise their choices if necessary. It is the capacity to make such decisions for oneself that qualifies a person for the elite status that Maslow calls self-actualized.

In any case, though intellectuals of many sorts tend to believe that this sort of existential autonomy is the highest form of happiness, as I’ve said already, I really don’t see it that way. First of all, I don’t believe that in practice a person’s level of happiness depends so much on how intelligent she/he is or even how important she/he is seen as being. I believe there is something greater than confidence as a source of happiness: connection. This includes, but is not limited to, all of the different emotional and spiritual experiences we call “love.” Explaining what I consider that to entail will be the subject of the next (and for now probably the final) installment in this series here.

Leave a comment

Filed under Epistemology, Ethics, Happiness, Philosophy

The Objectivist Mutation

I discovered some years ago that I found Ayn Rand’s followers distasteful. I also discovered that among capital P Philosophers her works are rarely taken seriously, but she still has a very loyal following who consider her to have been the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. There is nothing special about her in this regard; there are hundreds of hack writers and self-appointed gurus with diehard fan bases out there. Life’s too short to pay attention to all of them.

But Ayn Rand’s problem can no longer be ignored. Her fans have already done too much damage not to be taken seriously. And since the Republican Party vice-presidential candidate announced last weekend has been not only an Ayn Rand disciple but one of her evangelists –– confessing that she is the reason he got into politics to begin with –– it is time for everyone to take a serious look at what this ideology has to say for itself.

Rand’s disciples refer to themselves as “Objectivists”. The basic idea behind this name is a claim that they alone see human realities for what they really are. They have thus made an “-ism” out of being objective. It was with this sort of absurdity in mind that Jacques Derrida fought tooth and nail to prevent his concept of Deconstruction from being known as “Deconstructionism”. With all due respect to Taoism, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, those quasi-religious movements which have sprung up in the last century or two –– which by their name indicate that they are dedicating themselves either to the teachings of some new guru or an abstract idea which their guru defines as meaning something different than what, if anything, the term would indicate to the proverbial man on the street –– commonly known as “-isms”, tend to be like cheap muesli: mostly nuts and flakes.

From what little I have read of Rand’s works directly, I heartily agree with the recent article in The New Yorker stating that she belongs “in the crackpot pantheon of L. Frank Baum and L. Ron Hubbard”. But like members of any other self-respecting cult, her followers will tell you that the only way you can really appreciate her genius is to read a good deal of her writings for yourself, rather than second and third hand accounts like this one. I will not try to stop anyone who is so inclined, and I will not claim to be any sort of Rand scholar. My point here is merely to say why I refuse to take the Rand cult particularly seriously in intellectual terms, but why I believe that people should take the threat of Objectivist politicians very seriously.

For anyone who wishes to argue back against my points here, I ask that you would not use my site here to evangelize for Rand in the sense of broad spectrum spam or advertising for her writings. (Those who are truly interested in such matters can find more than they will ever want to know at As is the case with all other cults as well, the discussion of the internal minutiae of their beliefs is quite endless, and I really don’t want to go there. Nor, given the disclaimers I have already made, do I wish to address ad hominem attacks against my credibility in saying anything about this subject. I would ask that you merely try to keep me honest by showing where I might be building a “man of straw” in summarizing Rand’s perspectives, or showing where the ideas I consider here are more defensible than I give them credit for.

So anyway, the lady who reinvented herself as Ayn Rand, wherever she got that name from, was actually born as Alisa Rosenbaum, the eldest daughter of a gentrified Russian Jewish family in St. Petersburg in the twilight of the Tsarist times. This apparently made her rather conflicted and escapist from the start. Her family had little in common with the Jews of Anatevka, but they were no friends of the Tsarists either. Her family was disrespected for their ethnicity, but they were still upper middle class and rising. During the upheavals of 1917, as Alisa was hitting puberty, the Rosenbaum family took refuge in among the Tatar Muslims loyal to the White Army in Crimea. That didn’t help much though; once Lenin was thoroughly in power the Rosenbaums lost everything. From this time forward little Alisa developed a serious hatred towards religion, towards collectivism and towards what she saw as the mediocrity around her. These hatreds went on to define her life in every relevant sense.

Alisa graduated from high school in Crimea before her family moved from their temporary refuge on the Black Sea back to their former family stronghold on the Baltic. Back in the town of her birth Alisa became part of the first cohort of girls to ever get a state university education in Russia –– one of the few advantages the Soviet system afforded them. To say she was ungrateful for this opportunity would be a colossal understatement. During these years, like many socially awkward and reactionary teenagers since, she was particularly drawn to the writings of Nietzsche. She also started to build Hollywood fantasy pictures of the United States in her mind.

As soon as she finished her basic 3-year degree, after some delay in getting the papers due to her bourgeois background, she started studying film and theatre. While doing so she started playing with the idea of renaming herself and creating a more thoroughly self-determined personal identity. A year into her film and theatre studies she managed to get permission from the Soviet authorities to visit her Chicago Jewish relatives and to briefly check out the American drama scene first hand. To say that she never looked back would be a colossal falsehood, but she certainly never remotely considered voluntarily returning to the land of her birth. This made her one of the very first Soviet “defectors” to the United States.

Quite soon after her defection Alisa Rosenbaum officially became Ayn Rand. A bizarre fluke of history reinforced her fantasy identity: Standing on a Hollywood street corner, looking like a cross between Betty Boop and Hillary Swank, this bombastic little Russian girl happened to catch the eye of the biggest of the big Hollywood producers as he happened to drive by –– Cecil B. DeMille. As it happened, DeMille’s mother was of Jewish descent (Freudian dynamics, anyone?), and he was just then in the middle of filming King of Kings, a grand costume drama about the life of Jesus, trying to depict the sufferings of the Jews of that period as sympathetically as possible. So he was actively looking for new attractive and still tragically Jewish looking extras for the project. This girl struck him as perfect for such a background role.

The problem was she didn’t quite see herself that way. She saw herself as a great writer who could provide DeMille with important new material. DeMille treated her with more respect than the average film mogul would show to a pretty young girl lost in a fantasy, but try as he might, he couldn’t really take any of the script ideas she sent him seriously.  But that really didn’t make any difference. She had her foot in the door in Hollywood, and through her bombastic style she managed to make enough friends there to have steady work as a costume assistant at least, and to find a husband who was willing to financially support her in the years to come. From there she went to work in earnest on developing her self-made identity as a writer.

Her first theater piece, Night of January 16th, wasn’t any great hit, but is was original enough in style to capture enough of the public imagination to turn a small profit on Broadway; but neither Rand nor the producers were especially happy with the compromises they had reached in terms of her hopes of the show serving as a vehicle to preach her new gospel of the glories of individualism. Her first novel, a semi-autobiographical work called We the Living, managed to catch one of the early waves of pre-Cold War hatred towards Communism that were starting to take shape. But from there one particular problem came to dominate her writing: her inability to “play well with others” became the basis of a radical campaign to justify herself and selfishness in general.

Her first major novel, The Fountainhead, was based on the assumption that creative integrity can never happen through collaboration with others, or based on sensitivity to the needs of others. That assumption is just blatantly false. But her magnum opas, Atlas Shrugged, is based on an even more blatantly false premise: that empathy is a roadblock to technical progress and that the route to an ideal society –– a technocratic utopia –– was by way of pure, unregulated selfishness. From there Rand’s fictional output dried up, and she proceeded to spend the rest of her life writing various types of non-fiction to try to justify the attitudes of her sociopathic fictional heroes, Howard Roark and John Galt –– who as imaginary friends became her closest philosophical allies.

Rather than going through the follies of her fiction in more detail than that, perhaps it is best to move on to the essence of Rand’s “philosophy” in her non-fiction. To modify a quote from an Australian cynic in an entirely different field, Rand’s ideas were both original and philosophically viable, but those ideas that were philosophically viable were not original, and those ideas that were original were not philosophically viable. Let’s look at her own 4-point perspective to see how this might be so.


“Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.”

The common philosophical designation for the sort of view espoused by Rand here “naïve materialism”: a foundational assumption that the material world as we know it –– atoms and molecules and the dances we’ve been told that they do –– is the basis for all other forms of reality. This is one viable way of looking at the nature of life, the universe and everything, but certainly not the only one. Nor was Rand the most eloquent and consistent spokesperson for such a viewpoint. In fact her reductionism in considering such matters is rather problematic. In particular she never really understood the basic argument presented in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: that the ultimate nature of “things in themselves” (noumena) is really unknowable for human minds; we can only know how things appear to us through our senses (phenomena). In other words Rand made no categorical distinction between the way she saw the world, and the way things really are. She assumed that those who saw the world differently than she did were living according to their “feelings, wishes, hopes and/or fears”, but if they could take her word on such matters they could be delivered from such deceptions. The possibility that she was projecting her own feelings, hopes, wishes and fears onto her disciples was never something she took particularly seriously.

Rand tried to defend her materialistic perspective by way of axioms –– statements which were not necessarily provable, but which need to be accepted as a basis for any argument, including arguments attempting to refute them. This in effect amounts to what Wittgenstein calls a “language game”: you can’t provide any argument that proves the existence of something beyond language without using language to do so. Thus it can be postulated that language is the ultimate reality of the universe, and by Rand’s definition this would be the ultimate axiom. All her other axioms effectively come back to this one. From there she goes on to blur the distinction between the linguistic representation and the ontological existence of particular objects, and of existence in general.

The problem there is that language is also the ultimate embodiment of a particular culture’s feelings, wishes, hopes and fears; and to the extent that concepts are translatable between languages, that only shows that the cultures that produced those languages hold particular feelings, wishes, hopes and fears in common.  Thus Rand’s concept of “objective reality” is ultimately self-defeating.


“Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.”

To the extent to which there is any legitimacy to that statement it is a rephrasing of Kant’s concept of the synthetic a priori: We take information given to us by our senses, make sense out of it through a process of mental codification, and then we build a set of functional rules for confronting our environment with on that basis.

But the problem here is that Rand slips into prioritizing yet another language game: “The fundamental concept […] on which all the others depend, is logic. The distinguishing characteristic of logic (the art of non-contradictory identification) indicates the nature of the actions (actions of consciousness required to achieve a correct identification) and their goal (knowledge)—while omitting the length, complexity or specific steps of the process of logical inference, as well as the nature of the particular cognitive problem involved in any given instance of using logic.” In other words, if you can put together a set of definitions that don’t prove themselves wrong, you’re being logical about things.

On the surface of it this would seem to be a matter of prioritizing the coherence theory of knowledge, according to which Rand’s hopes and dreams could be seen as having even footing with Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Marxism, Spiritism, etc., so long as things within the system are categorized in a relatively coherent fashion, and so long as its followers could live up to their professed ideals. In practice, however, this was not the case –– logical legitimacy among Objectivists is also based largely on correspondence with Rand’s particular concepts of the nature of reality. Competing theories and patterns of categorization were condemned by Rand as too emotional or mystical. Given that she was looking at the world through lenses of a Hollywood based level of realism, a fog of amphetamine addiction and world class megalomania, her assertions that her individualized senses and basic mental processes set the standard for objective reality become all the more absurd.

The problems with Rand’s theories thus far are relatively trivial and theoretical though. Practical problems and serious damage potential goes with what follows here.


“Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.”

To the extent that there is a legitimate philosophical point to this quote it lies in the strong echo of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics –– in the concept of personal happiness as an end unto itself and the goal of self-interest realized in a balanced and rational way. Aristotle was also big on the pursuit of personal excellence, which Rand was particularly keen on as well.

The starting problem here is that people are notoriously bad at predicting what will actually make them happy, and they are particularly prone to self-destructive behavior when they set no greater goal for themselves than personal happiness. Perhaps paradoxically, the thing that best increases our personal sense of happiness is a deep sense of connection with others, involving such anti-objectivist elements as gratitude, compassion, empathy and altruism.  The more of these you have, the happier you tend to be as a person.

To the extent that Rand herself escaped from misery and depression in life it occurred when she had a sense of connection with other people, but she wasn’t smart enough to see this as the cause. She thought her happiness was coming from the rational success of her individualistic ideals. If she would have seen the true source of what happiness she did experience it actually would have destroyed her theories on the matter. She would have had to admit that a radically self-sufficient and socially aloof character like her Howard Roark is rife with psychological impossibility –– and to the extent that Frank Lloyd Wright, her historical model for this character, experienced happiness in life, he too found it by way of social connection with his clients, co-workers, apprentices, family and other admirers; with his work being merely a means of bringing this about.

A slightly more nuanced explanation of Rand’s view on ethics explores the idea that the preservation of one’s own life, acting in an entirely volitional manner, is key to anything worthy of being called “values.” There is some truth to this: as Kant pointed out as part of his categorical imperative concept centuries earlier, some level of volition is a necessary element of anything worthy of being called ethics, and this is a capacity only known to exist among living creatures. (Whether a storm system really “decides” to destroy a coastal city or not is something we aren’t really equipped to determine, but for now let’s provisionally agree that it isn’t so.)  It does not, however, follow from there that sociopathic selfishness is the best means of preserving life or exercising volition. In fact choosing to love others and align our interests with theirs is in all likelihood a more reliable and fruitful exercise in both regards. As psychiatrist and neuroscience researcher George Vaillant points out, “Mammalian evolution has hard-wired the brain for spiritual experience, and the most dramatic spiritual experience is joy. Developmentally, the child’s smile, the kitten’s purr, and the puppy’s wagging tail emerge at the same time. These social responses are elicited by, and in turn elicit, positive emotion.” Negative emotions, like aggression and fear, are as developed in lower animals as in humans. But “the limbic system differentiates mammals from reptiles, and contains most of what we know of positive emotions and spirituality. Negative emotions help us to survive individually; positive emotions help the community to survive. […] Joy is connection.”

This leaves us with one more primary area of Objectivist thought –– the most dangerous one.


“The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, […] as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be […] a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.”

This aspect of Rand’s ideology is based largely on her mistaken understanding of the essence of human happiness as part of ethics, leading to a distorted minimalist perspective on the rights of human beings as such.

Rand actually wasn’t particularly consistent in her views regarding the prohibition on violence. She was fully in favor of the cowboys violently stomping out the Indians and Israelis violently stomping out Palestinians so long as some abstract concept of “civilization” and “advancement” was being promoted in these cases. What she really wanted was for self-aggrandizing sociopaths to be able to hold onto all that they had gained, regardless of the means by which they gained it –– not allowing for the re-appropriation of these resources for any purpose of serving “the public good”.

But let’s accept her theory here at her word. Consistently applied, is the principle of state non-participation in economic matters and its role being limited to the protection of private property and prevention of violent crime practically viable? In short, no. Besides the fact that there is no moral reason why the personal interests of the rich should be prioritized over the personal interests of the poor, there are many forms of human dignity and personal freedom that governments should be protecting for all. These would include freedom from enslavement in any form, the right to choose what form of labor one chooses to sell without the duress of one’s children’s lives being threatened if one does not submit to those who have hoarded all the available resources, the right of all children to have access to the sort of education that would enable them to contribute to society, and the right to believe differently from others without being attacked and persecuted for it. To protect these freedoms the government needs to play some sort of role in regulating the economy; in acquiring the means to protect the lives of children and to insure that every child is given a fair opportunity to achieve greatness, regardless of their parents’ limited resources.

The basic premise of Atlas Shrugged is that there are those who contribute more than anyone else to the advancement of civilization –– who figuratively carry the world upon their shoulders –– and they are entitled to all of the rewards they are able to acquire for themselves. When society tries to demand that they share these rewards with those they consider to be their inferiors, they have the possibility of just dropping the world from their shoulders and letting the system go to hell without them. This sort of risk/threat is unrealistic in all sorts of ways. First of all the possibility to rise up as a “self-made man” requires a social context in which what you have to offer is of use to those who might trade for it. Without a capacity to contribute to the happiness of others, and without an empathetic understanding of how the happiness of others is constructed, these “Atlases” really have nothing of value to offer to anyone else, and their fantasy of carrying the world on their shoulders is just that –– a fantasy. Their sense of entitlement is entirely in vain.

Beyond that, the human and material resources they take for granted in the process of realizing their grand schemes really cannot be taken for granted. There is no reason why they should have any access to such things unless they are genuinely providing benefit to all, and this mutual benefit needs to be structurally insured as a precondition for their empire building projects to be accepted as permissible. If they are not able to attain such permission from legitimate representatives of those with whom their businesses must interact, these “Atlases” –– better known as robber barons –– have been known to proceed by means of violent takeover of the resources they require.  Governments actually have a legitimate role to play in preventing that sort of violence from being exercised.

Those who are actually capable of “playing well with others” and realizing their dreams through the joy of social interaction don’t need to hoard resources and ignore the needs of others to be happy in life. On the contrary, they genuinely find fulfillment in contributing to the well-being of others, and doing so is far more important to them than individual monument building. That doesn’t stop some from compensating for what they are lacking in terms of interactive ability (including, but not limited to, sexual capacity) through a process of individual monument building, but that does not justify such a practice as a basis for societal reward structures. Governments should have higher priorities than defending these monumental manifestations of insecurity.

There is one limited sense in which I agree with the defense of Howard Roark that Rand wrote into The Fountainhead: the process of social evolution requires that certain individuals will be (correctly) seen in their own time as “freaks” or “mutants,” and broadly rejected as such before the advantage of the mutation they represent becomes evident. Thus broad social acceptance cannot be the basis for determining what is ultimately of value, nor can conformity with tradition, else progress could never happen. Freaks need to be allowed to stand on their own merits. Geniuses need to be given some space to experiment, even if no one else “gets it” for a long time afterwards.

The quote from “Fountainhead” engraved in stone at Disney World

But there’s a balance to all this: in evolutionary terms mutation is not an end unto itself. Just because someone doesn’t fit in doesn’t make them inherently virtuous or valuable. Most mutants just die off childless and are forgotten by the rest of society other than as objects of morbid curiosity. If they have some unique value it must ultimately be measured by the extent to which they make society stronger and safer for their own offspring and others they are capable of caring about. If they lack such a capacity for caring it is hard to say how much pity should be accorded to them.

Ayn Rand was definitely a freak of sorts. Her thought processes carried some of the mutations that came into the western intellectual genome through the works of such diverse thinkers as Machiavelli, Hume, Comte, Spencer, Nietzsche and Huxley; but into this she added her own freakish belief in the virtue of radical selfishness. While she never succeeded in passing on her physical genetic code, Rand did succeed in passing on these intellectual mutations to future generations, through the likes of the infamous banker Alan Greenspan, Justice Clarence Thomas,  rock star Neil Peart, talk radio phenomenon Rush Limbaugh, former presidential candidate Ron Paul, his more right wing son Rand (!) Paul, Senator Ron Johnson and, most disturbingly, current vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Time will tell whether this mutation will eventually die out before completely destroying American society, which is in dire need of solidarity rather than more justifications for selfishness. Let’s hope…


Filed under Empathy, Epistemology, Ethics, Happiness, Human Rights, Individualism, Philosophy, Politics, Social identity

Existential Verification

In the film “Awakenings” there is one particularly chilling scene where the young doctor investigating a group of catatonic patients goes to consult with an older expert on these cases. After learning more about the history of the patients in question –– how for over 30 years they had been cut off from the world and locked within their own shells as a result of a disease they had suffered –– the young doctor (Oliver Sachs’ persona, played by Robin Williams) comments somewhat rhetorically, “I wonder what if feels like to be them.”

The older doctor replied with professional confidence, asserting that they had no feelings because, “the disease did not spare any higher cognitive functions.”

“How do you know?” the young doctor asks.

“Because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.”

As the film goes on it then becomes clear that these patients’ higher cognitive functions really were not entirely destroyed by the disease after all, but the horror of their life was not entirely as the older doctor would have expected either.

How many things do you and I “know” for sure because we find “the alternative too horrible to contemplate”? This is what I would call existential verification: deciding that something is true because it comforts us to think so; it helps us make sense of our existence. It is a far more common phenomenon than any of us really care to admit, and the fundamental question is what do we do about it?

In the film example given above the older doctor was never directly confronted with his error. How might he have related to it if he had? It probably would have made his life very uncomfortable and caused him to wonder what other poor judgment calls he might have made just because of personal cognitive comfort concerns over the years; but it probably would not have crushed him, in that it wouldn’t have called his whole life’s work into question. Contrast that with the case of the poor butler in ­­­­­ Kazuo Ishiguro’s tender story, Remains of the Day, where his primary accomplishment in life –– his outstanding service to a Nazi sympathizing English lord –– had the effect of enabling Nazi Germany to continue a policy of appeasement and manipulation in its relations with Britain for some years into the 1930s. Could he admit to himself that his former employer deserved the historical disgrace that fell upon him, and that his own work had made the world a worse place rather than a better one? In the end, no he couldn’t. It is difficult to imagine that many of us could.

Kierkegaard speaks of the purpose of philosophy being to enable us to find a purpose “worth living and dying for.” Daniel Dennett claims that the key to happiness is “finding a cause greater than yourself and dedicating your life to it.” We all do the best we can when it comes to choosing such causes and purposes, but in the end the purpose itself invariably becomes more important to its followers than how rationally certain we can be about our chosen purpose in life.

How do we really know that a cause is worth fighting and suffering for?

This is true with regard to ideological issues ranging from political liberation struggles to environmental protection initiatives to education promotion programs to battles against infectious diseases. People become committed to these causes, and many times the world is better for them, but in the process they become unable to tolerate the suggestion that some of the premises on which their cause is based may be mistaken, or that the unintended negative effects of their efforts may be worse than the evils they have set out to fight against. This is tragic really, because good people can thus become locked into patterns of destructive defensive reaction.

Nowhere is this more true than in the area of religious conviction. Religion in general is such an incredibly powerful force in the world because it enables people to follow a particular direction with complete certainty and devotion for generation after generation, regardless of how much evidence there may be as to the error of their ways. It has been said that there is no act so horrible that it cannot be justified by religious means. Yet it is just as accurate a generalization to say that the starting purpose of all of these religious motivations is an effort to harmonize oneself with the ultimate powers of the universe and to find ways to serve a virtuous cause greater than oneself. So how can we preserve the noble goals and ambitions of these happy idealists while at the same time limiting the destructive potential inherent in their existential certainty?

I have no silver bullets for this one, but I do have a few practical suggestions. To start with, we have to remember that not everyone can be saved from themselves. Some people’s existential commitments to their chosen beliefs are more important to them than life itself –– their own or anyone else’s. Whether or not you consider them evil in this regard (and I recommend against it wherever possible), sometimes the best thing to do is to protect yourself and the rest of the world from these ideological fundamentalists by what ever means are at your disposal. Never trust someone who is committed heart and soul, beyond a capacity for reason, to an ideology you don’t share, particularly if it involves destroying those who disagree with it.

That being said, not all zealous ideologues are harmful or dangerous. Almost all of them have some honest reason for believing that they are on the right side and they are doing good, even if they are fundamentally blind and stupid in other respects. Yes, in a different setting they could easily have been Hitler Youth (or Putin’s contemporary equivalent) and they would have done lots of evil things, but for now they’re not generally doing anything worse than talking nonsense. No, they aren’t thinking carefully enough about things, but most people actually don’t. Just because they can’t be trusted doesn’t mean you have to go do something to stomp them out. If you automatically go on the attack against all who don’t share your beliefs, you are really no morally better than they are; probably considerably worse.

Beyond that, you might be surprised by how reasonable some people are capable of being sometimes. Even those who have been thoroughly indoctrinated and even brainwashed to believe whole heartedly in the most extreme dogmas, if you can make them feel emotionally safe without reference to their pet beliefs, and if you can sincerely ask them to explain some of the more inconsistent things about their beliefs –– respectfully, but still being honestly and persistently critical of weak arguments and explanations –– you might be surprised at how much rational thought they are capable of. Even if you know that you won’t be able to talk sense into all those who embrace wild beliefs, don’t go about thinking, “She believes in X, therefore she must be impossible to reason with.”

And above all, avoid being a hypocrite when it comes to accusing others of being closed-minded. No matter how obvious to you the logic and basic premises of your own belief are, if you can’t see how someone else could sincerely disagree with you and still be a good, honest and intelligent person, odds are you are very closed-minded. You need to be able to look at the grounds of your own belief just as critically as you look at the grounds of the next person’s. If you discover that the only reason you believe something is because for one reason or another you are scared not to believe it, it’s probably time to do some re-thinking. That isn’t to say that you have to forsake all of your traditional and provisional beliefs just because not everyone agrees with them; just if you want to be a morally better person than the average Nazi you have to accept the possibility that you are in error and be willing to reason with those who disagree with you without getting upset with them for disagreeing.

It is true that the most enviably happy people in the world are those who are able to promote what they believe in without having to get defensive and without having to feel conflicted about it. Mother Theresa, for instance, was an incredibly happy woman in the sense of being completely satisfied with her place in the world and completely at peace with herself. I believe she was fundamentally wrong about many things, but that didn’t stop her from being a wonderfully happy person who did a lot of good in the world. I would say the same for the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, Vaclav Havel and my own mother. All of these exemplary individuals have stood up in defense of their personal beliefs in spite of intense opposition –– deep personal suffering even –– without taking any of that personally. Any of them could be accused of being misguided, and it is a logical impossibility that all of their world views are correct, but anyone who would deny that the world is a better place because of each of these people –– or deny that overall each of them has lived a fundamentally happy and successful life –– is just plain wrong (and I’d be happy to argue out the case for any of them if someone wants to challenge me on one or two of them). Needless to say, I don’t want to take that away from any of them. What I’d ideally like to do is bring an end to the sort of unthinking existential commitment that turns some people into terrorists, “tea partiers,” tyrants or worse. Sometimes the line between these phenomena is not easy to draw.

I’d suggest that besides being rational about choosing what we commit ourselves to and remaining open to the possibilities of our own mistakes (both easier said than done) the best we can do is to prioritize spirituality over certainty. Rather than trying to take comfort in the power of our own ideas, we can take comfort in being able to deeply connect with something beyond ourselves –– our environment and other people in particular. That doesn’t mean that we should forsake our beliefs in the face of social pressure or that we ignore all of the problems we see around us. It means we basically say to our opponents, “I still don’t think you’re right on this one, but there are more important things than proving that I’m right and you’re wrong. There’s life out there for us to appreciate together.”

As a monotheist I believe that there are certain things only God knows, and he ain’t telling. We don’t know what the purpose is behind so many random things that happen. We don’t know how and when this world will end. We don’t know who will ultimately get into heaven. Those who claim to have final answers on these matters are either bluffing or crazy. Meanwhile those who don’t believe in one God out there in charge of the whole ball of wax have even less to be sure of than I do. The point is to learn to live with our uncertainties –– daring to believe that there is purpose in our lives, but also daring to believe we could just be wrong about many of the details, but that’s OK because we’re all part of something bigger than ourselves.

I can see where this might come off as empty platitudes, but I’m afraid that’s the best I can do for now no this one. Like I said, I have no silver bullets here. Even so, I hope this encourages honest self-evaluation and dialogue about how we decide that we know things for sure. So if you have some better ideas on the matter don’t hesitate to share them with me.

1 Comment

Filed under Epistemology, Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality

Truth, and other useful concepts

I’m going to try to make this a short one. I’ve probably been wasting too much time here on boring moral theory lately, and posting too irregularly as a consequence.

Last week I rattled on for a while about the value of building trust, but my theory faced a couple of serious challenges right away. First of all I got myself well and truly lost in one of Cape Town’s most notorious townships (a.k.a. slums): Gugulethu. Frankly I felt like an idiot. After dropping CVs at a couple of schools in the southern suburbs I started cycling back to False Bay without a map and I became more than 90 degrees disoriented to the east. And there I was, the sole white man within more than a mile’s radius, smack in the middle of the area where the most famous tourist murder of the decade took place, riding a vintage 12-speed touring bike that was in the process of breaking down on me, with a laptop computer case strapped on my back! In fact nothing bad happened to me other than a broken spoke and cracked axle on the bicycle: no theft or mugging, just people looking at me incredulously and children laughing at me. But for me to do a trip like that on purpose on the basis of trust in my fellow human beings would be more than just a little naïve.

But then I also ran into a bit of a crisis in confidence with some more prosperous, theoretically law-abiding and socially respected folks having to do with a rather flexible definition of truth in their sub-culture. Lying isn’t a sin; it’s just a normal part of doing business.

I was told the story of one enterprising young man from this group who ran a little underground business selling photocopied girlie magazines discretely in plastic bags to boys outside a middle school, except they were really just department store advertising magazines with the photocopied cover of a girlie magazine glued on. He didn’t have the slightest sense of guilt over frustrating these would-be self-abusers as he took their money, nor for stealing the “intellectual property” of pornographers; he just felt stupid about letting himself get caught by his customers’ older brothers.

But even when there isn’t an outright scam going on, there is always the matter of price negotiation where the truth gets stretched well beyond usability as a frame of reference: “How much are you charging for a double room?”


“Oh but we’re on a tight budget, and we’ve been paying 300 at other points along the trip!” (when money isn’t actually that tight and they’d been paying an average of 500 through similar bargaining tactics).

So rather than truthfulness, the key to earning respect in that culture is shrewdness and aggressiveness. Every conversation is a game, almost like chess, and if you don’t try to outsmart your opponent by stretching the truth, you’re not considered to be respecting your opponent’s intelligence.

And if honesty and straightforward cooperation are not functional virtues in such a culture, how can moral virtue be established? Easy: by following religious requirements to attain forgiveness and maintain a sense of solidarity with those within the faith. Religious observance makes an excellent substitute for functional honesty in such cases.

Now on the other extreme we have someone like I. Kant, saying that if we want our communication to have any functional value we nee to have a truth value in all of our words, because of words cannot be trusted there is little point in having them. So if we want to trust other people’s words, the basic moral principle of reciprocity says we need to always make our own words honest and trustworthy. This implies that lying is always an immoral act, under all circumstances. In spite of the fact that this idea is backed up by the teachings of Jesus as well, its impracticality has been pointed out many times, and frankly I’ve never met anyone who lives up to such a standard.

So the classic question of “What is truth?” that the gospel writer attributes to Pontius Pilate, is not only a question of epistemology and ontology; it is also a matter of communicative ethics, and the on-going conundrum of honest communication.

I toss this out as an open matter for debate between my readers here if any of you are so inclined. I don’t want to pretend that I have a final answer on the matter. The closest thing I have to a conviction on the matter is to say that in love –– in all of the different meanings of the word, right down to “love your neighbor as yourself” –– oppositional bargaining shouldn’t be the basis of communication. Love should be a matter of considering the other person’s interests and well-being as part of your own. That means you don’t try to get the better of the other person, because their good is also part of your good. So if you can’t be honest with someone you love, out of a socialized habituation to play bargaining games in all human relationships, your love will inevitably be weaker as a result. But then again, there are many who keep the old saw alive that “all is fair in love and war.”

And from there we come back to the questions of who is truly worthy of our love, who is genuinely capable of loving us in return (even on the level of honest respect), and how important is it to build trust rather than to shave the other guy’s profit margin?


Tomorrow is the first Sunday of December, and the second Sunday of Advent. I plan to go to some church not to compensate for my dishonesty, but to find new people to connect with in a spirit of mutual respect, and to get a sense of comfort in being part of something bigger than myself. Perhaps when that is done I will have something more “Christmassy” to write about. Meanwhile I wish you all as peaceful and loving a continuation to the holiday season as possible.


1 Comment

Filed under Control, Empathy, Epistemology, Ethics, Love, Philosophy