Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Hypatia's Revenge

Speaking of that Pew survey:

On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith.

Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.

“Even after all these other factors, including education, are taken into account, atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons still outperform all the other religious groups in our survey,” said Greg Smith, a senior researcher at Pew.

That finding might surprise some, but not Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, an advocacy group for nonbelievers that was founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

Zing!

Monday, September 27, 2010

If the Mountain Won't Come to Muhammad, Fuck It, He'll Invent His Own Mountain



The religious message is "less clear when you wear an Om and you have no idea what it means," says Prothero. "Smooshing the Buddha together with a cross and star of David has a clearer message of someone who is spiritual and doesn't belong to one religion."

He adds that even though all of these symbols may be floating through the fashion world on shiny gold bangles or set with diamonds, people should be religiously literate and know what the symbols they're wearing stand for. "I'm torn. Sometimes I do get annoyed when venerable religious symbols get dumbed down, but when has it never been like that? Besides, all religions are just different paths up the same mountain."


Of course, those who claim that the world’s religions are different paths up the same mountain do not deny the undeniable fact that they differ in some particulars... It is to deny that those differences matter, however. From this perspective, whether God has a body (yes, say Mormons; no, say Muslims) or whether human beings have souls (yes, say Hindus; no, say Buddhists) is of no account because, as Hindu teacher Swami Sivananda writes, “The fundamentals or essentials of all religions are the same. There is difference only in the nonessentials.”

This is a lovely sentiment but it is untrue, disrespectful, and dangerous.

Hee hee. Hope those two can work out their profound differences! Anyway, blatant contradictions aside, I'm actually sympathetic to the devoutly religious who have to see meaningful symbols of their beliefs used as trendy accessories by airheaded celebrities and fashionistas. I mean, I'd be willing to bet that 99% of the time, when you see someone "smooshing the Buddha together with a cross and a star of David", the "clearer message" you're actually getting is one of a vapid twit who doesn't understand anything about any of them, but ooh, shiny bauble look purty, must have, must have!

While I'm being generous toward my bête noire here, let me also concur with a typical complaint you hear from traditional quarters regarding this buffet-style spirituality: it also can encourage a sort of dilettantism, a shallow tendency to stay right where you are and look for various concepts and themes to basically wall yourself in, to tell yourself what you want to hear. Sort of like how allowing high school students to set their own curriculum might lead to them concluding that the Twilight series is the pinnacle of all fiction and there's no need to try anything that doesn't cater to the way they feel right here, right now. One of the possible benefits to picking one faith/tradition and sticking to it is that you're forced to grapple with issues and concepts and rules that might not appeal to you or make sense initially, and out of that, a new kind of understanding might result, if not acceptance. Growth through struggle. Too many of the spiritual-not-religious types are complacent and looking to avoid struggle, having already settled into a comfortable niche, and are now just looking to accentuate it with exotic accoutrements.

The Old College Try

Joseph Epstein:

Intelligent people who hadn't gone to college began to feel a great hole in their lives, and those who had gone could usually be relied upon to hide from them what is all too sadly the truth: they really haven't missed all that much. Paul Goodman, the 1930s radical who became something of a guru during the student rebellions of the late 1960s and early '70s, used to enjoy saying that all going to college meant was that in doing so a person showed how badly he or she wanted to succeed in society as currently constituted. Going to college entails a large expense, lots of useless work, and the acceptance of endless onerous, preposterous trivialities, all of which, Goodman liked pointing out, showed that any young man or woman who was willing to put up with this nonsense could be expected to put up with the even greater nonsense of boring and meaningless work later in life. College, in this view, functioned chiefly to turn out useful, moderately high-level drones, finely honed tools of capitalism.

...Of course, undergraduate education is only ostensibly about producing the sound paper on T.S. Eliot or the Renaissance or the Reformation. What it's really about, or at any rate is supposed to be about, is the development of young minds, teaching them how to think independently, how to combine common sense with proper skepticism, the whole given a fine texture by the attainment of an at first widened and later (after college, acquired on one's own) greatly deepened culture. But what percentage of the 65 percent of Americans who regularly participate in one form or another of higher education do you suppose derive anything resembling such things from their education? I would set it at somewhere between 1 or 2 percent, though that may be too generous. Most people come away from college, happy souls, quite unscarred by what has gone on in the classroom. The education and culture they are presumably exposed to at college never lay a glove on them. This is the big dirty secret of higher education in America.

This doesn't mean that their having gone to college isn't worth it. Not at all. On a strict accounting, a college education, expensively priced though it nowadays generally is, probably pays off as well as any investment. Endless studies show that young men and women who attend college earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more over a lifetime than those who, for one reason or another, do not go to college. Why should this be so? For the same reason that degrees in journalism, master's degrees in business, and other (shall we politely say?) not strictly necessary degrees make for success: because, that is, people who have already paid for these overpriced appurtenances wish others to do so, forming a (not so) little group of those who have already pledged the fraternity.

I had an artist friend in high school who said he wanted to go to college even though he didn't need it for his career plans, "just for the college experience". (He wasn't a drinker, or even overly social, so I guess he was referring to the intellectual aspect.) I think I know what he meant; I still enjoy looking through the course offerings that come in the mail from all the nearby colleges and daydreaming about possibly taking the classes that catch my eye if time and energy will ever allow. But dabbling in the odd class with no real remunerative potential would be good enough for me; I know too many people who invested four-to-eight years and tens of thousands of dollars into their education, only to end up with meaningless jobs they hate, a mountain of debt on their backs, and no capacity for intellectual curiosity or enjoyment anymore.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Titus Androgynous

Via PZ, this is funny:

In western countries in particular, a few years ago beards were often confused with a segment of society that reflected rebellion, namely the "hippy" movement of the 60's and 70's. It was felt that we should not in any way resemble those that reflected an attitude like this, or the drug culture that went along with it. We have to separate ourselves from that, and to have a beard a few years ago could be confusing, especially to an older generation of people at that time that were especially repulsed at the conduct of those of the younger generation. Even though we are some 30 or 40 years removed from that situation that existed during the late 60's and early 70's, it has been proven by experts that some people on some subconscious level do not trust a man with a beard. The underlying message that some get from a beard is that if you have one, you have something to hide, as if you are hiding behind the beard. I have even heard that idea expressed in sales courses that I have taken for secular activities. Beards are discouraged by some sales trainers because of the subconscious message that some people receive from a person with a beard, and some feel that a person without a beard generally speaking has a more professional appearance than a person who does.

...In the 1950s, in the the USA, beards were widely unpopular among the general public and most men who wore one were immediately perceived as beatniks (and later, hippies). In that American, Cold War climate, a young man who didn't sport a military-esque brush cut and bare chin was out-of-hand labeled a communist or homosexual.

Beatniks, commies and homos, oh, my! But wait a minute...so, acting too stereotypically feminine will get a man accused of being queer, but sporting a beard, the quintessential symbol of masculinity and testosterone...also means you're a gender traitor? Damn, they've got us coming and going, don't they? Sort of like how they used to say that a witch could present herself as a beautiful young girl or a repulsive old hag. If I didn't know better, I'd think all this paranoia was reflective of some weird psychological turmoil on the part of the accusers.

In all honesty, one of the greatest things about living among such uptight reactionaries is that they make it so easy to be subversive. No need to actually do anything confrontational or destructive, just let your facial hair follow its natural course!

Speaking of which, here's another slander I've heard a time or twenty in my life:

Paul, the apostle, said something similar in 1Cor 11:14 about long hair being a dishonor to a man... Obviously Paul's words were intended for his militant Roman contemporaries. That society started the cropped military haircut and clean-shaven face to keep lice to a minimum and avoid giving an enemy something to grab, in a skirmish.

Well, we might have many parallels with ancient Rome, but I'm pretty sure modern hygiene and grooming have rendered the lice issue largely irrelevant. And we blow our enemies up with robot planes from the safety of a control center far away from the battlefield, so I don't think hand-to-hand combat is as prevalent as it used to be, either. But that's okay; like I said, hidebound traditions make such easy targets. And at least we don't have to worry about being crucified for undermining social cohesiveness anymore.

And speaking of that, I find it most amusing of all that these people have no problem worshiping a savior who is constantly portrayed as having...long hair and a beard. Imagine the mental strife that would result should they be additionally forced to admit that a man born 2,000 years ago in Palestine wouldn't have looked like a white Westerner.

Friday, September 24, 2010

In The Depths of Their Humanity, All I Saw Was Bloodless Ideology

One come a day, the water will run
No man will stand for things that he had done
Hurrah!

- Jane's Addiction

I'm not telling you anything you don't already know, but the perpetually aggrieved Bill Donohue is a steaming, whistling little teakettle of a man, forever boiling over one thing or another. What is it this time, Bill?

The pope did not go far enough. Radical atheists like the British Humanist Association should apologize for Hitler. But they should not stop there. They also need to issue an apology for the 67 million innocent men, women and children murdered under Stalin, and the 77 million innocent Chinese killed by Mao. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were all driven by a radical atheism, a militant and fundamentally dogmatic brand of secular extremism. It was this anti-religious impulse that allowed them to become mass murderers. By contrast, a grand total of 1,394 were killed during the 250 years of the Inquisition, most all of whom were murdered by secular authorities.

Yawn. Same old, same old. I've heard this so many times it's starting to sound in my ears like the way adults talk in the Peanuts TV shows: Mwuh mwah muh mwah mwah mooah. Hitler an atheist? Nope. Stalin and Mao primarily driven by radical atheism? Pick your favorite response.

But let's leave Mr. Donohue to his angry jitterbug on the stove burner and take a closer look at the more interesting theme here. One thing all three of those famous monsters actually had in common with Christianity was a belief in the teleological progression of history toward utopia, as well as in the redemptive, cleansing power of blood and violent sacrifice. Biblical scholars are united in saying that Jesus, assuming he actually existed as a historical person, was just one in a long line of Jewish apocalypticists. I know they don't tend to emphasize this in devotional readings for some reason, but the entire point of his ministry was to prepare anyone who would listen for the coming end of the world, with violent retribution for all whom he felt deserving, followed by endless paradise. Since then, whether it's based on visions of heaven, the classless society, or living in perfect harmony with nature, this idea that the ends justify the means pops up repeatedly throughout history. Utopia is waiting just around the bend, right after we get through the great purification by flood, fire, earthquakes or mass murder. It honestly has nothing to do with religion or the lack thereof. It's an abstract concept of perfection that isn't exclusive to anyone in particular.

As I've said before, I expect that we're in for some hard times in the next few decades as the glory days of life in America fade further into the past, and we face choices over how far we're willing to go to maintain our privileged position in the world, especially as nations like India and China look to get some of our standard of living for themselves. Perhaps some more equitable, balanced lifestyle will be the end result of our downward spiral, but human nature being what it is, I'm not optimistic. And because of that, I don't see any reason to gleefully anticipate the chaos and upheaval that may come. Hell, I'd be happy to be wrong. For me, a rule of thumb is that if you're so attached to your ideological convictions that you would rather see widespread suffering on a massive scale than to have to revise those convictions, if you can envision that sort of suffering while feeling smug over having accurately predicted it, you might just be the kind of zealot we're talking about here.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Ink-Stained Retch

With 17½ hours of work adorning my body, I've spent a fair amount of time hanging out in tattoo parlors, seeing some, uh, interesting artwork on some, uh, interesting people. But via Radley Balko, this link contains some of the funniest and/or most horrifying imagery I've ever seen. Most definitely, do not click through if you're on a work computer.

Most of us only use the term "trouser snake" metaphorically. Oh, wait, it has wings. I guess when that dude says he's gotta go "drain the dragon", he really means it!

A Place For My Stuff

Morris Berman:

Even the anti-chic can be made chic. A Canadian magazine, Adbusters, became somewhat famous for ridiculing the need to be chic. It is now one of the chicest journals around–“underground chic,” as it were. If you are not aware of this publication, you are definitely out of it, and not as good as the people who are aware of it and read it on a regular basis. You are leading a diminished, unchic life.

This brings us to the causes of chic. If it really is as frivolous as it looks, why are we all doing it? Why does all of life finally boil down to high school? Alfred Adler, the psychoanalyst whose major concepts were “superiority complex” and “inferiority complex,” argued that the two were intimately related: the desire to be superior masked a deep sense of inferiority. If I care that much about being chic, it must be because I know, on some level, that I am terribly unchic. And this feeling of being inadequate, which dates from infancy, can finally never be overcome; which means that chicness is infinite: you can never be chic enough. Malraux was right: we never grow up.

I had just the other day mentioned a book by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter that examined this topic in detail (even criticizing Adbusters as well). In a nutshell, their argument was that while we typically condemn profligate consumption as something the mindless sheeple do to try to be like everyone else, the driving engine of it is actually the urge to differentiate oneself from everyone else by having different, cooler stuff (which always has to be replaced as the bovine masses eventually lumber onto what was once your exclusive territory). But buying more stuff, whether it be off-brand tennis shoes from Walmart or anti-name-brand shoes from Adbusters, only reinforces the idea that our personalities are defined by the stuff we have (or lack), an idea that the neo/post/whatever/capitalist system we have is perfectly placed to exploit.

That said, I also think the image of the perfectly self-contained, self-aware, unflappable person is largely a myth. Perhaps a useful one to hold up and strive to emulate, but a myth nonetheless. We're social creatures who mostly derive our pleasure from the earthiness of our social environment, not the thin air of life on an intellectual mountaintop. Not many of us are rugged enough to stand being completely out of step with our friends and peers; most of us would feel twinges of insecurity and self-doubt if we couldn't find reassurance and agreement somewhere. The attempt to wean ourselves off of defining ourselves by our material possessions is difficult enough; that of trying to consistently value intellectual principle over social acceptance is almost certainly a pipe dream.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fuckin' Media, How Do They Work?

Violent J learns how the infotainment sausage gets made:

To be honest with you, at one point—and this is what’s insane—they took my response to one question and edited it so I looked like I was responding to another question. And what’s scary to me is that this is Nightline. This is a respected piece of American journalism, and they were full of shit. That just makes me think, 90 percent of what I watch is full of shit. I couldn’t believe what they did with us, with the $10 million thing. He was so clever, the way he was saying, “No, no, no, Violent. I never said that, Violent.” It’s so clever what he’s doing—it was so clever! Then they had me sitting on the edge of my chair to make it look like I was getting mad. In reality, that was my response to another question. It was just so clever the way they did that.

Mick Foley had a similar experience with ABC's 20/20 years ago, figuring that his own savviness and the presence of WWE's own video crew would prevent his interview from being altered, spliced and taken out of context. He was wrong.

You might say, oh, who cares if some rappers in clown makeup and professional wrestlers get mocked or misquoted? They're idiots anyway, right? But as he said, it's scary when you see an article written on a subject you actually happen to know something about, and you're appalled at how badly written and ill-informed it is. Then you have to consider how often that must be the case when you don't know much about the subject, and have to depend on people like this to inform you. It's a wonder we share as much common reality as we do.

No Viet Cong Ever Called Me a Faggot


Let me emblazon it here, in bold type, for the record: GAY PEOPLE SHOULD NOT BE DISCRIMINATED AGAINST. Period, full stop, the end, roll credits. Therefore, it logically follows that they should be able to pursue any form of employment they want, even in, say, the military.

However.

It really strikes me as sad and pathetic that this is what leftist, uh, progressive activism in this country has been reduced to.

Singing sensation Lady Gaga threw the full weight of her stardom Monday behind efforts to repeal a US ban on gays serving openly in the military, decrying it as "against all that we stand for as Americans."

..."Equality is the prime rib of America," she told the crowd. "But because I'm gay I don't get to enjoy the greatest cut of meat my country has to offer."

..."Doesn't it seem to be that Don't Ask, Don't Tell is backwards?" she asked, observing that gay soldiers who "hold and harbor no hatred, no prejudice, no phobia, are sent home" while "homophobic" troops remain on the job.

"If you are not honorable enough to fight without prejudice, go home!" she said in her fiery 20-minute speech before hugging veterans who had been dismissed by the US military because their sexual orientation was disclosed.

That's right, kids. If you can't kill foreigners in their own country with an open mind, if you can't respect the cultural traditions that you're in the process of undermining and destroying (along with their physical infrastructure), well, you can just stay home and keep that hateful attitude all to yourself, buster! Uncle Sam wants you to blindly follow his orders and blow official Enemies of the State (this week) to smithereens as tolerantly as you can! A Pakistani villager can take pride as he stands in the smoking rubble of what used to be his home, with the charred remains of his livestock strewn all about, knowing that it was an out-and-proud lesbian who piloted the remote-controlled drone that turned his young sons into pink mist. It gives that man hope -- assuming he doesn't die soon from malnutrition, tribal warfare, disease or despair, that is -- that such a world is possible.

I swear by the wine-stained balls of Bacchus, I can't take seeing one more liberal/lefty whine about how this unfair policy is "hurting our military's readiness." Oh, is it? Well, good. It's about fucking time we started trying to accomplish that! I want to "hurt the military's readiness." I want to see the offense budget slashed by 65%. I want to see leftists quit cowering in abject fear of being accused of insufficient loyalty to the troops. I want to see several hundred of our military bases around the world closed. As a moral issue alone, this should take precedence over everything else. Yes, you should be able to serve. The question is why you would want to, knowing what it is that your country's military is primarily involved in doing.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Isn't It Ironic, Don'tcha Think

Jim Gorant:

As odd as it may seem, Michael Vick may be the best thing that ever happened to the pit bull. He gave the forum to discuss this and make it possible to get the message out there that these dogs are not what they've been made out to be in the headlines, that they really are just sort of dogs. And a lot varies from each one to another and then how they're raised and socialized and all of these issues that go around them. You can find the sweetest, most loving pit bulls in the world and you can find other dogs that are as mean as you want.

I've often noted the same irony myself. I spent a decade involved in pit bull rescue groups with my ex, rehabilitating and adopting out a couple dozen dogs and keeping several ourselves (which all stayed with me after I split with her). The most stubbornly antagonistic, narrow-minded people I ever had to deal with were the members of my own family, who were firmly convinced that the stories they'd read and the yellow journalism TV shows they'd seen were all they needed to know; these dogs were rotten to the core and it would only be a matter of time before they ripped my throat out just to watch me die. That only began to change after Vick's case made the news, when they finally got to see the dogs as victims rather than cartoonish monsters.

Nevertheless, I still would laugh uproariously at any calamity to befall that scumbag. Maybe that doesn't speak well of me, but hey, I never claimed to be into all that Christian forgiveness business.

Fleurs du Mall

Micah White:

Can capitalism exist without its foundation of heterosexual monogamy? Is polyamory inherently revolutionary? To all these questions we must answer: capitalism is a master of recuperation. What first shakes it, soon motivates it, later strengthens it. We will never know which tactics bring it down until we try.

To rupture the consumer myth will take more than protests in the streets and boycotts of consumer goods. It’ll require a fundamental shift in the structure of society, a revocation of our libidinal investment. Whether that’ll take the form of polyamory or simply neighbors getting to know each other remains to be seen.

Huh? What difference would it make how many people you sleep with if your spending and consumption habits remain the same? What sort of consciousness shift is this supposed to bring? I mean, check it:

The U.S. economy is predominantly driven by consumer spending, which accounts for approximately 70 percent of all economic growth.

If you want to be revolutionary, stop spending money you don't have on shit you don't need. If you want to be sexually revolutionary, stop pumping out more little consumers. Period.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Saturday Shuffle

  1. School of Seven Bells -- I L U
  2. Against Me! -- Spanish Moss
  3. Meat Beat Manifesto -- Repulsion
  4. Greg Ellis -- Form 4
  5. Einstürzende Neubauten -- Morning Dew
  6. Social Distortion -- Ring of Fire
  7. Nobody -- Hip$ters
  8. Dreamend -- Magnesium Light
  9. Charlotte Gainsbourg -- Master's Hands
  10. Son Volt -- Down to the Wire
  11. Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke -- Pilgrimage of Lost Children
  12. Blackeyed Susan -- None Of It Matters
  13. My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult -- Spotlite Hooker
  14. Rasputina -- Olde Dance
  15. The Vines -- A Girl I Knew
  16. Clutch -- Opossum Minister
  17. Gomez -- Machismo
  18. KMFDM -- Juke Joint Jezebel
  19. Mazzy Star -- Into Dust
  20. Michael Nyman -- Against Constancy
Let's see Peter Jason Rentfrow find the common thread in that.

Friday, September 17, 2010

I Refute Voltaire Thus

So, my parents have gotten into the whole "raw milk" thing, thanks to some quack doctor they went to see. Just to make sure I didn't space out through science class all those years ago and hallucinate about the whole reason we started pasteurizing milk to begin with, I did some looking around on the Internets. This made me laugh...

Food scientists can hardly believe that so many consumers have turned their back on one of the most successful public health endeavors of the 20th century. In 1938, for example, milk caused 25 percent of all outbreaks of food- and water-related sickness.

...and it also reminded me of a recent righteous rant by Ed about an outbreak of pertussis in California, related to the trendy anti-vaccination movement.

See, there's a part of me that appreciates this on some meta-level, the counterintuitive "victim of our own success" phenomenon. Science has done such a good job of freeing people from having to worry about dying from contaminated food and drink or formerly terrifying diseases that they've become complacent and ignorant, enough so to become contemptuous of their benefactor and deny that they ever needed its help in the first place. Of course, public policy deserves a lot of the credit as well, and it, too, has ironically helped breed a superbug of stupidity in the form of so many Joe Republicans, convinced that they never got nothin' from no one and don't see why they should have to pay taxes to help anybody else. Indeed, how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have so many thankless, functionally retarded children.

And if you need further proof that history is not progressive but cyclical, not a steady advance of knowledge and compassion but alternating periods of high-minded cosmopolitan and knee-jerk provincial values, consider the fact that Upton Sinclair's famous exposé The Jungle was written in 1906. What do you think the reception would be for a book like that today, 104 years later? An earnest portrayal of the hopeless plight of the working class, the corruption of unregulated business and the need for social programs, written by an unabashed !socialist!, of all things?

Progress? Age of Reason? I laugh in your face.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Musical Mysticism

Let's fall in love with music
The driving force of our livings
The only international language
Divine glory, the expression
The knees bow, the tongue confesses
The lord of lords, the king of kings

- Mother Love Bone


In keeping with this, we find that the interest inspired by philosophical and also religious systems has its strongest and essential point absolutely in the dogma of some future existence after death. Although the latter systems seem to make the existence of their gods the main point, and to defend this most strenuously, at bottom this is only because they have tied up their teaching on immortality therewith, and regard the one as inseparable from the other; this alone is really of importance to them. For if we could guarantee their dogma of immortality to them in some other way, the lively ardour for their gods would at once cool; and it would make way for almost complete indifference if, conversely, the absolute impossibility of any immortality were demonstrated to them. For interest in the existence of the gods would vanish with the hope of a closer acquaintance with them, down to what residue might be bound up with their possible influence on the events of the present life. But if continued existence after death could also be proved to be incompatible with the existence of gods, because, let us, say, it presupposed originality of mode of existence, they would soon sacrifice these gods to their own immortality and be eager for atheism. The fact that the really materialistic as well as the absolutely sceptical systems have never been able to obtain a general or lasting influence is attributable to the same reason.

The early Christians were, ironically enough, called atheists by the Romans because they refused to recognize the state gods. In somewhat the same way, I call myself an atheist because, as far as the common conception of God in my culture is concerned, I am. I don't believe in any sort of personal god, which, as I keep asserting, is the only kind anyone is really interested in, and I myself am not interested in a god that has to be defined out of existence to be kept away from the prying eyes and grasping hands of science. But it's always worth repeating, I think, that I don't even consider the existence of God or the lack thereof to be all that important. It's fun to argue about, in a mental exercise, intellectual sparring sort of way, but as the man just said, the only reason anyone even cares is because their ideas about personal immortality are all caught up in it. I'm not aware of any cultures that worship anything like the omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent Christian God without a corresponding belief in personal immortality (though perhaps I should check with Pascal Boyer again and see if I forgot some), but some schools of Buddhism have managed to hold a belief in personal identity surviving physical death without any deity being involved. The thought of death, the knowledge of its inevitability, gives us all pause at the least, if it doesn't inspire outright fear. We want to believe that it's not really the end for us. Everything else flows from that. In keeping with that, I feel that disbelief in the "self" is far more radical than mere atheism, and more relevant to the heart of religious belief. If you're not going to experience any reality except life in this world, and the most God is ever going to bother revealing about himself is vague images to thrill superstitious old ladies in the form of a stain on the wall, a burnt section of their waffles, or writing on a cat, then all that existential angst disappears in a puff, and all the tons of paper wasted on tortured attempts at theodicy can be used to start fires in cold weather.

But continuing with our themes of personal identity, life, death and nineteenth-century German philosophy, here's an interview with Nietzsche scholar Julian Young that touches on a type of immortality I can fully endorse:

How did Nietzsche’s ideas about music affect his philosophy?

“Without music life would be an error” is a great T-shirt slogan, but its meaning is far from obvious. Here is how Nietzsche glosses his aphorism in a letter from 1888, the last year of his sanity:

"Music … frees me from myself, it sobers me up from myself, as though I survey the scene from a great distance … It is very strange. It is as though I had bathed in some natural element. Life without music is simply an error, exhausting, an exile."

Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy, dedicated to Richard Wagner, is constructed around the duality between the “Apollonian” and the “Dionysian.” Apollo stands for intellect, reason, control, form, boundary-drawing and thus individuality. Dionysus stands for the opposites of these; for intuition, sensuality, feeling, abandon, formlessness, for the overcoming of individuality, absorption into the collective. Crucially, Apollo stands for language and Dionysus for music. What, therefore, music does is to–as we indeed say–”take one out of oneself.” Music transports us from the Apollonian realm of individuals to which our everyday self belongs and into the Dionysian unity. Music is mystical.

Since the human essence is the will to live–or for Nietzsche, the “will to power”–the worst thing that can happen to us is death. Death is our greatest fear, so that without some way of stilling it we cannot flourish. This is why musical mysticism is important. In transcending the everyday ego we are delivered from “the anxiety brought by time and death.” Through absorption into what Tristan und Isolde calls the “waves of the All,” we receive the promise and experience of immortality.

Later on, Nietzsche realized that not all music is Dionysian. Much classical music, based as it is on the geometrical forms of dance and march, is firmly rooted in the Apollonian. Yet as the 1888 letter indicates, he never abandoned the musical “antidote” to death. Without music, life would be anxiety and then extinction. Without music, life would be an “exile” from the realm of immortality.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Lowbrow But I Rock a Little Know-how


If I told you my taste in movies, would you be able to tell me what kind of music I listen to? How about my favorite reading material, or taste in television?

Peter Jason Rentfrow can — and it’s no parlor trick. The Cambridge University psychologist is lead author of a new study that finds a person’s entertainment choices tend to share certain basic characteristics, which may or may not be immediately obvious.

...The highbrow/lowbrow split, which has dominated cultural criticism for the past century or so, remains alive and well: The researchers report most people gravitate toward one dimension or the other. But Rentfrow and his colleagues also identified an area of common ground. (Hint: It’s occupied by Oprah).

...After analyzing the data, the researchers concluded that people’s aesthetic tastes can be broken down into five “entertainment-preference dimensions.” They are: Aesthetic (which includes classical music, art films and poetry), cerebral (current events, documentaries), communal (romantic comedies, pop music, daytime talk shows), dark (heavy metal music, horror movies) and thrilling (action-adventure films, thrillers, science fiction). The first two fall under the general heading of highbrow, while the final three are labeled lowbrow.

...For instance, “individuals who enjoy the aesthetic entertainment factor, which may be regarded as abstract, dense and demanding, tend to be creative, calm, introspective and in touch with their emotions,” they write. Those who are drawn to dark entertainment genres tended to rate high on intellect and extraversion, but low on conscientiousness and agreeableness; they “may generally see themselves as defiant, reckless and immodest.”

In contrast, “It appears as though the psychological characteristics most central to individuals who prefer the communal entertainment factor are rather similar to the defining characteristics of that factor: pleasant, lighthearted, unadventurous, uncomplicated and relationship-oriented,” the researchers add.

I seem to be split between highbrow and lowbrow, with my enjoyment of watching professional soccer being the only thing I can think of that would qualify as communal taste. But I'm a little skeptical that there's much of a common thread to be found between movies and music by Rob Zombie on the one hand, and the complete works of Mozart on the other. Or, to use an example from a recent post, books by Isaiah Berlin versus escapist fantasy novels. And where does an exceptional TV show like The Wire fall within this framework? Even Amazon can give suggestions based on individual purchases as to similar music, books or movies you might like, but this seems to suggest there's a way to find deeper connections between tastes despite what seem to be wildly disparate surface appearances.

Correlation, Not Causation

Having successfully shown that he doesn't understand the nature or effects of linking, Nicholas Carr has decided to turn his critical attention to the brain-damaging effects of search engines.

Search engines’ function of providing us with information almost instantly means people are losing their intellectual capacity to store information, Nicolas Carr, said.

The author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, claimed that the web was depriving our mental faculties of the regular workouts they need.

He told the BBC that the internet meant people now found it harder to concentrate, for example when trying to read a book.

Right. I'm sure our addictions to overwork and accomplishment have nothing to do with our difficulty concentrating, not to mention the thousand-and-one other shiny objects and stimuli brought to our attention every day. And oh, how far we've fallen from the glory days of intellectual stimulation, when all we had to do for entertainment was watch TV and listen to our Walkmen. But didn't those supposedly erode our attention spans too? Listening to the doomsayers, I'm surprised we're able to do much more than drool and follow moving objects with our eyes after all these decades of technological bombardment of our fragile psyches.

But let's leave aside the implausibility of studies being able to see significant effects on cognitive function in the short period of time that people have been using search engines. Just ask yourself the next time you start to type in a query: how would you have gone about trying to find this information before we had Google to use? Would you have driven to town to search for a needle of information in the haystack of a bookstore or library? Would you call some smart friend of yours, assuming you knew anyone who might have the answer? Or would you have just idly wondered for a moment before shrugging and forgetting about it?

And do you use this kind of information-gathering tool in the same way as a kid in school cheating on a test by copying off his neighbor's paper? That is, do you simply look for the answer you need, write it down and promptly forget about it, learning nothing? Or when you search, do you find yourself following one or more of those, uh, brain-rotting links to more information on the topic than you even suspected existed? Who doesn't have bookmarked pages of valuable information that was stumbled upon by accident? Who doesn't have favorite writers online that they only found by following their nose (or perhaps we should say clicky finger) one day?

Clearly, something has impeded Carr's ability to gather and process information, but I suspect that whatever it is, it predates the Internet.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Who Are You Going to Believe, Me or Your Lying Eyes?

Anthony Gottlieb:

No group of believers has more reason to be sure of its own good sense than today’s professional scientists. There is, or should be, no mystery about why it is always more rational to believe in science than in anything else, because this is true merely by definition. What makes a method of enquiry count as scientific is not that it employs microscopes, rats, computers or people in stained white coats, but that it seeks to test itself at every turn. If a method is as rigorous and cautious as it can be, it counts as good science; if it isn’t, it doesn’t. Yet this fact sets a puzzle. If science is careful scepticism writ large, shouldn’t a scientific cast of mind require one to be sceptical of science itself?

There is no full-blown logical paradox here. If a claim is ambitious, people should indeed tread warily around it, even if it comes from scientists; it does not follow that they should be sceptical of the scientific method itself. But there is an awkward public-relations challenge for any champion of hard-nosed science. When scientists confront the deniers of evolution, or the devotees of homeopathic medicine, or people who believe that childhood vaccinations cause autism—all of whom are as demonstrably mistaken as anyone can be—they understandably fight shy of revealing just how riddled with error and misleading information the everyday business of science actually is. When you paint yourself as a defender of the truth, it helps to keep quiet about how often you are wrong.

...At the end of her book “Science: A Four Thousand Year History” (2009), Patricia Fara of Cambridge University wrote that “there can be no cast-iron guarantee that the cutting-edge science of today will not represent the discredited alchemy of tomorrow”. This is surely an understatement. If the past is any guide—and what else could be?—plenty of today’s science will be discredited in future. There is no reason to think that today’s practitioners are uniquely immune to the misconceptions, hasty generalisations, fads and hubris that marked most of their predecessors.

...Happily, there is another way out of the impasse between fallible science and even-more-fallible non-science. The contest is not a zero-sum game: the shortcomings of science do not make it rational to believe cranks instead. It’s a fair bet that many of today’s scientific beliefs are wrong, but only your grandchildren will know which ones, and in the meantime, science is the only game in town.

Well, yeah. Seems like an unnecessarily roundabout way of arriving at that conclusion, but okay. I'm not sure how many people there are who hold some belief in the infallibility of today's science; I certainly don't know any myself, and I suspect a lot of them have straw sticking out from their raggedy shirtsleeves and pantlegs in any event. Too often, though, when you hear someone placing emphasis on the imperfect nature of science, it's being used as a way of trying to keep a foot in the door so that their preferred illogical, irrational belief can sneak back in.

You're at some large gathering. Noisy, crowded, lots of things to pull at your attention. You hear what sounds like a familiar voice in the general din, turn and see someone through the haze and crowd, standing with her back to you, and recognize her as your friend. You decide to mischievously surprise her with a sly pinch on her ass. One close look and one stinging slap to the cheek later, you realize your mistake. If you're René Descartes, the lesson you take away from this, and one that is for some reason treated with the utmost respect and gravity by important thinkers for centuries to come, is that your senses can be misleading and therefore can't be trusted to give you absolute certainty. But how do we know that the senses can mislead us? By further application of the very same senses. You realized that wasn't your friend after getting close enough to see her shocked face and hear her voice more clearly as she yelped in outrage, using the same eyes and ears that initially gave you the wrong impression. There's no other method for obtaining that information.

In the same way, we discover our mistakes in science by continuing to apply the same standards of evidence and rationality. There is no divine revelation, no thunderclap of sudden awareness from out of nowhere that clues us in. It's true that there is no absolute certainty (or at least no way for us to know of it, if you want to throw a bone to Kant here), but science has the reputation it does because it's repeatedly proven itself to be the best way we know to get reliable, practical understanding of the reality we inhabit. Whatever shortcomings or failures it has to own up to do not mean the door is open to any incoherent fantasy or wishful thinking being just as epistemologically valid.

Wu Wei


Strangely, Bush's most impressive real achievement in that period was in tamping down the domestic backlash against Muslims.

I'm surprised she, of all people, keeps repeating this. The only thing he "did" to keep it tamped down was to be a white Republican president. The wingnuts I know brush off his public statements about Islam being a religion of peace, etc. as something he had to say to appease liberals, not something he really meant. (No, I don't know why they think he had to appease them on this particular issue when he was perfectly content to rub their noses in their own cowardice and uselessness otherwise, but that's what they tell me.) They kept a lid on it themselves because they trusted the white, Republican, Christian cowboy to keep them safe. Once he was gone, the reactionary id came sproinging out like a paranoid, racist jack-in-the-box.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

We Also Know There Are Known Unknowns

Chris Graham:

The problem for the librarian, no less than for the career consultant, the occupational health and safety supervisor, and the beleaguered investment banker, is that the notion of a “work-life balance” is a terrible false dichotomy, the Marxist equivalent of giving all your chips away before the deck is even shuffled and then borrowing from the dealer to buy a round for the table. It is manifestly impossible to divide one’s life into neat or even approximately spherical compartments (how many New York Times crossword puzzles have been completed with a “Eureka!” exclaimed while on the family dog’s midnight promenade), and the decision to deny the obvious is generally employed by those who actually know better, which is why they are forever unsatisfied with the level of the scales. While it is plainly true that one can read a book more or less closely (substitute a beach blanket and a daiquiri for a pencil and a desk), it is equally true that something of everything we read is retained, to be recalled, by chance more often than design, on some or another future occasion, a dinner conversation, a tutorial essay, or a game of Trivial Pursuit. As every student who has written an examination knows all too well, it is impossible to predict when the most felicitous recollections - legend has it, the essential ingredients in the making of a “Congratulatory First” – will occur, but the chances are most assuredly increased in direct proportion to the number of books we read.

Even, just for pleasure.

As Heywood once said about spelling ability, I would say about intellectual ability -- there's no substitute for always having your nose in a book. The more you read, even if "only" for pleasure, the more you're exposed to different ways of thinking and expression, to references that lead to further illumination after striking your curiosity. I'm continually surprised at how many forgotten words, phrases, passages, books, and blog posts spring to my attention from somewhere deep in my subconscious at just the slightest oblique trigger. The more you read, the more stuff you have in your mental basement waiting to be hauled out and dusted off.

But the phrase "reading for pleasure" itself has a little bit of a sneer to it, an implicit conviction that stuff we really like isn't good for us, and vice versa. The "blood, sweat and tears" school of intellectual achievement. The angry, suspicious ghost of John Calvin, hostile to anything pleasurable, warning of idle hands - or minds, as the case may be - doing the devil's work. But as Graham says, we often don't know what's going to make the deepest impression on us, what's going to become an important hub in a wheel of thoughts. I've read scholarly books that I honestly can't say enhanced my understanding of a subject at all, whereas there have been comics documentary, graphic nonfiction books that have given me those "Eureka!" moments he mentioned. And I will always name Calvin & Hobbes as one of my biggest intellectual influences.

Even then, I don't mean to sound like I'm saying that it's tolerable to read less weighty material as long as you manage to achieve some practical result from doing so. Sometimes, you need to just read for fun. For the entertainment of a good story and language. For the pure, exuberant fuck of it. I mix my serious reading with Forgotten Realms fantasy novels or Simpsons comics all the time.

And really, I've found that nothing makes reading feel like work more than a terrible writer, regardless of the topic. If you're really interested in a subject, and you find a writer who can make it come to life with engaging prose, well, then! You've got it made. I remember reading one of Isaiah Berlin's books in a veterinarian's office once, and she asked me if I was reading it for school or something. When I said no, she gave me the most incredulous look and asked why I would bother. I guess it would have been insulting if it hadn't been so funny, the way she almost acted affronted by it. Why would anyone think or read if they weren't being forced to?! Oh, well, her loss.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Mama Weer All Crazee Now

One of these kids is doing his own thing
C'mon, can you tell me which one?
Can you guess which kid is doing his own thing?
Before my song is done?
And now my song is done.

- Sesame Street

On the Daily Show the other night, Jon Stewart and John Oliver discussed Terry Jones, the would-be Koran-burning pastor, by comparing him to other "lunatic" Christian preachers.

- Fred Phelps, famous for his "God Hates Fags" obsession and for taking his congregation of Midwestern bibletards around the country to picket people's funerals for attention.

- Pat Robertson, famous for...oh, hell, just go read one of the many "Greatest Hits" compilations floating around out there.

- Jeremiah Wright, famous for being Barack Obama's former pastor, and for suggesting that the HIV virus might have been deliberately created as a government conspiracy against black people, which isn't quite as crazy as it sounds given other black experiences with government doctors. He also claimed that white people generally have no sense of rhythm, the crazy bastard. But what really pissed people off about him, and what prompted Obama's public renunciation of him, is when he suggested that the September 11th attacks were motivated by American foreign policy. Oh, no he dih'unt! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

Stewart is probably the best pundit we have, and as I said before, I don't expect him to be a radical firebrand, but sometimes this faux-evenhandedness really grates on my nerves.

...adding, what Glenn said.

Chain Chain Chain

Scott Rosenberg:

Links have become an essential part of how I write, and also part of how I read. Given a choice between reading something on paper and reading it online, I much prefer reading online: I can follow up on an article's links to explore source material, gain a deeper understanding of a complex point, or just look up some term of art with which I'm unfamiliar.

There is, I think, nothing unusual about this today. So I was flummoxed earlier this year when Nicholas Carr started a campaign against the humble link, and found at least partial support from some other estimable writers (among them Laura Miller, Marshall Kirkpatrick, Jason Fry and Ryan Chittum). Carr's "delinkification" critique is part of a larger argument contained in his book "The Shallows." I read the book this summer and plan to write about it more. But for now let's zero in on Carr's case against links, on pages 126-129 of his book as well as in his "delinkification" post.

The nub of Carr's argument is that every link in a text imposes "a little cognitive load" that makes reading less efficient. Each link forces us to ask, "Should I click?" As a result, Carr wrote in the "delinkification" post, "People who read hypertext comprehend and learn less, studies show, than those who read the same material in printed form."

This appearance of the word "hypertext" is a tipoff to one of the big problems with Carr's argument: it mixes up two quite different visions of linking.

...For Carr and his sympathizers, links impede understanding; I believe that they deepen it. Back in 1997 Steven Johnson (in his book "Interface Culture") made the case for links as a tool for synthesis -- "a way of drawing connections between things," a device that creates "threads of association," a means to bring coherence to our overflowing cornucopia of information. The Web's links don't make it a vast wasteland or a murky shallows; they organize and enrich it.

...Links, you see, do so much more than just whisk us from one Web page to another. They are not just textual tunnel-hops or narrative chutes-and-ladders. Links, properly used, don't just pile one "And now this!" upon another. They tell us, "This relates to this, which relates to that."

Thank you. I remember reading about Carr's campaign a while ago and being mystified. I've always loved the ability to link, for aesthetics as much as the extra informational content. Prose is able to flow much more smoothly when you don't have to break it up in order to add a long-winded, explanatory parenthetical aside, and I find footnotes in a book to be far more distracting than links on a webpage.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Easiest Post I'll Ever Write

Digby:

Did any of us think that we'd be reading this from the ACLU under the Obama administration?

Yes.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

At Least It's an Ethos

Julian Young:

What, according to the fourth Meditation, is wrong with modernity? It is, Nietzsche observes, vulgar (gemein) and money-grubbing, its denizens exhausted by overwork so that the typical demeanor of the passer-by in the city street is one of being 'harried'. This is partly because, whereas formerly we looked at life from the eternal point of view, we now live in a newspaper (media) culture which barrages us with the events and agitations of the moment. Modern culture is permeated by boredom, 'industrious boredom' -- because presumably (a) work is what we do nearly all of the time, and (b) modern work practices are intrinsically unsatisfying. That we are bored work-slaves generates a specific kind of art, in particular theater. It is forced to become a 'lascivious antidote' to the worker's exhaustion and boredom. What the audience wants - and gets - is 'bedazzlement, not art'.

...This is what modern German sociologists call the Erlebnisgesellschaft: the society of the frenzied quest for 'experiences', for cheap thrills. Without a communal ethos to give aspiration and meaning to one's life, the only way of keeping boredom at bay is in the frenzied search for cheap thrills.

What, however, is actually wrong with 'post-modernism, with being dominated by the 'critical-historical' spirit? Why should such a spirit be culture-destroying? What is wrong, Nietzsche says, is that by presenting us with a smörgåsbord of lifestyle options but with no evaluative ranking of them, it produces a mood of irony, cynicism and bewilderment which turns us into spectators rather than actors. Our culture becomes 'senile' since the critical-historical spirit destroys life's 'plastic powers' -- its ability to employ its past so as to nourish its future.

It's kind of funny to see how the first paragraph describes one of the four essays of Nietzsche's Untimely Meditations. Not very untimely anymore, is it? Who hasn't complained like that at some point? Hell, some people have made a literary name for themselves doing it.

And yet, although I don't substantially disagree with any of the observations, I've never been sympathetic to what I see as the excessively romantic, backwards-looking mentality that almost inevitably accompanies them, especially when it becomes tangled up in some form of nationalism. Young's book attempts to situate Nietzsche's thoughts on religion within the context of nineteenth-century German völkisch thought. Of course, we all know what the negative aspect of that tradition eventually wrought upon the world. And how else can you see Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin's current "restoring honor" project but as the last-ditch attempt of the American völk - i.e. white, socially conservative, middle-to-lower-class Protestants - to stave off their inevitable demographic decline (their cultural decline having been ongoing for a long time now)? Clearly, the answer is not to band together with people who look, talk and dress like me in hope of finding some sort of strength through homogeneity.

Are we just too knowledgeable and sophisticated now to go for these sorts of communal identifications or grandiose ideas? Have we reached a point where "existential meaning" for us simply amounts to living as comfortably as we can while giving as little offense as possible, tiptoeing through life in order to arrive safely at death, having been pleasantly amused, distracted and sated along the way? We can't think our way back to naïveté or innocence, just like how it's futile in my late thirties to daydream about recapturing some of the optimism and energy of my late teens. Those days are gone, and we have to move forward with what we know.

Have we ever even had an American culture, for that matter? Aside from the aforementioned white middle-class American Dream, which would have still probably been too shallow, pedestrian and money-grubbing for someone like Nietzsche, has there ever really been a binding myth that could be said to constitute the American identity? I guess what I'm asking is, is there really anything to regenerate in the first place? Or, speaking of Berman, did he have it right in his The Twilight of American Culture, and those of us with different values and visions are just going to have to retreat into semi-solitude, in the society but not of it?

Waste Not, Want Not

I really don't see what all the fuss is about here:

Long before she became the latest fascination of the political press and the cause-of-the-moment of the Tea Party movement, Christine O'Donnell (R-D.E.) was appearing on news outlets large and small extolling the sins of not just sex but masturbation.

The Delaware Republican, who is challenging Rep. Mike Castle in the state's Senate primary and has earned the financial backing of a portion of the Tea Party movement, made an appearance in the MTV series "Sex In The 90s." Entitled "The Safest Sex Of All," the episode was ostensibly geared towards understanding the importance of abstinence. But O'Donnell's guidance went a bit further. Masturbation, she argued, is not a moral substitute for sex. "The Bible says that lust in your heart is committing adultery. So you can't masturbate without lust."

"The reason that you don't tell [people] that masturbation is the answer to AIDS and all these other problems that come with sex outside of marriage is because again it is not addressing the issue," she extrapolated. "You're just gonna create somebody who is, I was gonna say, toying with his sexuality. Pardon the pun."

I certainly don't want to be one of those shallow atheists who have no idea what "serious" religious thinkers have said on all sorts of weighty issues, so I checked with one of the most widely-known and respected authorities of all time, Thomas Aquinas, and after seeing what he had to say, well, I'm afraid that even Ms. O'Donnell might be looking a little too bleeding-heart-liberal for my taste with meek disapproval like that:

St. Thomas Aquinas went so far as to consider masturbation as more evil than forcible rape. His reasoning was that even though forcible rape might cause injury to another person, it could still result in procreation and therefore could not be peccatum contra naturam (a crime against nature), whereas masturbation was definitely against nature since it could never result in procreation. Aquinas no doubt had this text in mind when he wrote in the 13th century that "right reason declares the appointed end of sexual acts in procreation."

It's not just teabaggers who have allowed liberal propaganda to cloud their moral vision here, though. Look how many versions of Matthew 19:12 use obfuscatory language to mislead their readers about what Jesus was asking of his followers! Thank goodness Origen, at least, has provided us with a heroic example for all good Christian men to aspire to.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Selfless, Selfmore

Kurt Keefner:

Noë wants to break down mind-body/brain-body dualism, which is commendable. But in so doing, he verges on breaking down subject-object dualism: he wants to project mind out into the environment so our bodily-external tools become a part of us. I am reminded of when Sweeney Todd picks up his razor for the first time in years and cries “My arm is complete again!”

Still, I wouldn’t want to dismiss Noë’s extension of the mind completely. Perhaps without using the pernicious concept of mind, we could speak of different senses or extensions of the self. The core sense of self would be the living organism; in its environment, but distinct from it. The next sense of self would incorporate non-living parts of the self, such as the hair and nails. Here the cat’s whiskers serve as a biological analogy to the blind man’s cane. The third level of self would include our clothing and jewelery, which form part of our ‘person’. Fourth might be the tools we use naturally, such as a fork or a pencil and paper. One could take this further and include the things one identifies with, such as family and country – although such identifications are often problematic. Although there would be a solid notion of the person (conscious and bodily) as the primary sense of the self, we could be flexible about the boundaries for different uses of the word. I think this way of speaking would be more intuitive than super-sizing the mind. A framework along these lines would be flexible enough to handle tough cases: the amputee’s prosthetic limb is intimately part of his self insofar as it is strapped securely to him and responds to electrical stimulation from within him, unlike any other tool currently in use. At the same time, if the artificial limb were to be crushed, the amputee would not himself be hurt.

The definition of self along these lines would be a fascinating thing to explore. I would not want to dismiss the idea that some sense of the self can be larger than the bare organism, especially given the way technology will surely extend the self in decades to come. But I believe it is essential to preserve the idea of the natural person, especially in the face of a Cartesian materialism which would divide and destroy it.

I wonder if he's aware how much exploration of this idea has already been done by Buddhist thinkers?

Show Your Work

Most of us have seen the movie Weekend at Bernie's, right? Two guys going through all sorts of wacky hijinks in order to convince people that their dead boss is still alive, while going to hilariously desperate lengths to deflect any close scrutiny that might reveal the truth?

For some reason, I was reminded of that movie while reading this screed from Anthony McCarthy about religion and science.

Why is anyone paying attention to what Stephen Hawkings or most other scientists say about religion except on the basis of their presumed authority? And it’s the flimsiest kind of authority on the topic, based in a reputation gained in an entirely different field of study. As far as I have been able to see, Stephen Hawking has never published a scholarly paper on the subject in a reviewed journal so it’s not even passed that level of testing. Perhaps if he had tried his ideas in that academic realm he might have avoided limiting himself to one, very crude assumption about religious thinking, believing that all of it is as unaware of the vicissitudes of the study of religious questions as he obviously is.

Anyone who has read even a little of the rigorous, formal literature around various religions, would know that the contemporary critics of religion almost never have the slightest knowledge of what serious people have said on the topic.

Nameless contemporary critics "almost never" know what nameless "serious people" have said about it, eh? Well, that was most certainly, uh, precisely vague! As has been said many times before, it's amusing to see how they don't even bother trying to disguise this ridiculous double standard. The most unsophisticated, uneducated professions of faith are always accepted as valid and genuine; the most simpleminded believer is accepted to have had some meaningful experience of the truth of God's existence. No one would think of scoffing at the faithful for daring to speak of their beliefs without having spent years in seminary first. Yet skeptics are constantly told that they must display intimate familiarity with the most irrelevant nuances of theological reasoning, from Augustine to Niebuhr, in front of a panel of judges who can hardly be said to be impartial, before their objections will be treated as "serious". And you should be ashamed of yourself for suspecting that this is all just an elaborate exercise in keeping the goalposts in constant motion!

But lest you think I'm unsympathetic here, let me hasten to assure you that I know all too well what it is to suffer from this sort of doctrinaire purism. My sophomore-year geometry teacher, mathematical fascist that she was, repeatedly refused to consider the ornate brilliance of my thirty-step proofs, dogmatically insisting that I had failed to establish my given! So I fully appreciate how tiring it must be to have to listen to these philistines nattering on about how you need to provide some evidence that we should even take the idea of an invisible deity seriously to begin with before we can move to discussing all his/her/its glorious attributes.

Okay, seriously though, fine. It's simple, really -- put up or shut up. Devise whatever standardized religious literacy test you want. Name whoever you want as a "serious" source for us to familiarize ourselves with. I guarantee you there won't be any problem finding an atheist who can ace it. Hell, we can start with an agnostic like Bart Ehrman right off the bat. Anything else you want to complain about?

Not a single law of science is anything other than the product of human thought. Not a single one of them has been developed except within a realm which excludes everything but what we can discover of the physical universe. I believe that exclusion is based in our experience and the extension of our logic, which, itself, is a means to address our experience of the physical universe.

...A passage in the Book of Isaiah that often comes to mind when thinking about this topic, is when God is said to have said, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,". Whatever else people have held about God, no matter how much of our limited minds and thoughts and even our crimes and injustices we have attributed to God, even the most anthropomorphic religion holds that God is not a human being. To think that God would be required to follow our laws of science or, indeed, any possible actual mechanisms of a universe created by God, is rather touchingly naive in a way that even the “ignorant goat herders” who are believed by the incredulous to have written the Bible were able to surpass.

Ah, yes, that's the good stuff. Science and our conceptual ability are limited to being able to understand the "physical" universe, which we experience through our senses. God is beyond all that. God is like Emily Dickinson times infinity, hiding in a closed room he/she/it never leaves, slipping cryptic notes out every so often, written in a private language that can only be understood via mystical communion by those already inclined to believe in him/her/it. So how, then, asks the skeptic, are you, a fellow human with a similarly limited brain, capable of perceiving this mysterious "beyond"? What is this God you speak of, if he/she/it is too enormous to be caught in the puny little conceptual nets we humans are limited to using? And even if you claim we can't look directly upon God in all his/her/its mind-shattering majesty, what discernible effects does this God have in the universe we live in, and what do they have to do with our cultural standards of morality? If even that's too much to ask to see, well, could you at least tell me how an incomprehensible, imperceptible God is distinguishable at all from a nonexistent one? Can't you point to some sort of common, shared experience we can use as a foundation for further discussion?

"Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe..."

Moving along.

It seems to be an emotional need of the new atheists to believe they have disposed of the question of purpose but most people seem to be unimpressed with that artificial substitute for reason. And that’s only one of the questions that we, mere mortals, have about the universe which we find ourselves in. I am more convinced as I see us destroying ourselves, to a large degree with the products of science and technology, that unless we include questions of purpose, justice, rights, morality and other entirely non-scientific features of human thought and culture, that science is inadequate in itself to ensure our continued existence.

I'm not sure who these nameless people are that think science alone is going to solve all of our problems independent of ethical or practical considerations, but assuming there are some out there somewhere, I'll agree, he sure put them in their place. But once again -- whatever solutions we come up with are going to have to come by way of communication over a shared experience. I'm not interested in what your particular favorite holy book says. I'm not going to take your word on the validity of the supposedly mystical insights you've had if you can't even begin to express them in some form others can understand and relate to. And I don't care how many religious authority figures in history have advocated the Golden Rule as a general ethical principle if I can reason my way there by myself.

Athena Shrugged

What does it take to be a Megan McArdle? I'm really, truly fascinated by this phenomenon. What kind of psychological contortions must you put yourself through in order to suffer this kind of humiliation on a regular basis without losing faith in your intellectual abilities?

Bear in mind, those are just examples from the last couple of weeks. She's been getting pantsed like this for years. There's a whole subgenre of the blogosphere devoted to razzing her. How can you possibly be exposed to that many people on a daily basis telling you in loving, annotated detail how completely full of shit you are without ever taking any of it to heart?

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Beating My Meat (Habit)

Hal Herzog:

The fact is, very few people are vegetarians; even most vegetarians eat meat. There have been several studies, including a very large one by the Department of Agriculture, where they asked people one day: Describe your diet. And 5 percent said they were vegetarians. Well, then they called the same people back a couple of days later and asked them about what they ate in the last 24 hours. And over 60 percent of these vegetarians had eaten meat. And so, the fact is, the campaign for moralized meat has been a failure. We actually kill three times as many animals for their flesh as we did when Peter Singer wrote "Animal Liberation" [in 1975]...I think the fact is that we're natural meat-eaters. And a lot of my vegetarian friends don't like that. But it's our biology and our evolutionary heritage. It's tough to fight that. That doesn't mean you shouldn't fight it. But most people lose that balance. And two-thirds of vegetarians eventually resume eating meat.

I don't mean to be an etymological extremist here, but it occurs to me that if you eat meat, you are, by definition, not a vegetarian. It's fine if you don't eat red meat, or you just aim to reduce your overall meat consumption, but that just makes you a selective eater, not a vegetarian. And, no, by the way, fuck all this pesco/lacto/ovo-vegetarian bullshit. Again, if you're a selective eater, just say so. Stop hyphenating about it. It doesn't clarify anything.

I've been vegetarian for about sixteen years, and I've never been tempted to give it up, nor has it ever felt limiting to me (although I've long wanted to start taking actual cooking classes to learn how to broaden my admittedly limited repertoire). I think that may be due to the fact that I never really had any hope for the persuasiveness of the moral case (though I firmly accept it myself), so I didn't fall prey to the disappointment so many new coverts feel when they realize that not everyone is going to be convinced by a pep talk and some pamphlets. People can rationalize damn near anything. If anything, it's more likely to make an impression on people when they consider the environmental cost of First-Worlders using up such massive quantities of grain to raise livestock for our meat-at-every-meal habit, a luxury that the vast majority of the world can't even begin to afford. Even that, I imagine, is likely to be a casualty of our inevitable decline in living standards over the next few decades. Just as we can't continue to burn through natural resources at such a breakneck pace, neither will we be able to keep eating like kings.

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus (Hopefully)

Have you ever noticed that when you're driving, anyone going slower than you is an idiot? And anyone going faster than you is a maniac? Why, I tell ya, folks, it's a wonder we ever get anywhere at all these days, what with all the idiots and maniacs out there. Because no one ever drives at my speed.

- George Carlin


Religious people have no real interest in Dawkins, whom they find extreme, clinical, mechanical, and monolithic.

I've noticed this a lot lately, this apparent unspoken agreement to make Richard Dawkins the official representative of Atheist Fundamentalism®. From Boteach and other religious believers to Matt Taibbi to random blog commenters, I keep hearing about how Dawkins is humorless, ignorant, strident and intolerant. But I read The God Delusion, something I suspect many of his critics did not, and I didn't see evidence of anything like that. The only real attempt I can recall from recent memory to actually engage in measured criticism of something he's said, as opposed to just repeating the same declarative insults, was this recent column from Gary Gutting, and even that, well...

I'd really love it if we could arrive at a common understanding that this sort of thing is not an argument. It's a psychological balancing mechanism, a way to position yourself as the voice of sensible, moderate reason, by drawing false equivalences between the fanatics on both sides of you (who are frequently invented if they don't already exist).

Friday, September 03, 2010

Our Father Who Ain't In Heaven

Calvin: Why do you suppose we're here?

Hobbes: Because we walked here.

Calvin: No, no. I mean here on Earth.

Hobbes: Because Earth can support life.

Calvin: No, I mean why are we anywhere? Why do we exist?

Hobbes: Because we were born.

Calvin: Forget it.

Hobbes: I will, thank you.

Rev. Robert Barron says that Stephen Hawking should shut up about philosophy and theology since all he knows is physics...and then proceeds to talk as if he understands physics based on the excerpt from Hawking's new book that everyone is talking about, where he says that science makes God irrelevant when it comes to the "how" of the universe's existence.

The classical philosophical tradition gives us an adage that is still hard to improve upon: ex nihilo nihil fit (from nothing comes nothing). Any teacher worth his salt would take a student to task if, in trying to explain why and how a given phenomenon occurred, the student were to say, “well, it just spontaneously happened.” Yet we are expected to be satisfied with precisely that explanation when it comes to the most pressing and fascinating question of all: why is there something rather than nothing?

'Tis a mystery. One that isn't solved or explained by postulating a God about whom nothing tangible can be said or understood. Why do you act as if you're owed an explanation for metaphysical puzzles anyway?

You and I are contingent in the measure that we had parents, that we eat and drink, and that we breathe. In a word, we don’t explain ourselves. Now if we want to understand why we exist, we cannot go on endlessly appealing to other contingent things. We must come finally to some reality which exists through the power of its own essence, some power whose very nature it is to be.

But that whose very nature it is to be cannot, in any sense, be limited or imperfect in being, and this is precisely why Catholic philosophy has identified this non-contingent ground of contingency, this ultimate explanation of the being of the universe, as “God.”

Three things:

1) Many Buddhists would be happy to explain to you how we can "go on endlessly appealing to other contingent things" to understand our existence. You'll notice I didn't say they will explain why we exist, which leads us to the next point.

2) The very question "Why do we exist?" is inherently invalid, resting as it does upon the unquestioned assumption that our existence itself is teleological by nature, something that is unclear and unproven, to put it mildly. "Purpose" is a human concept, a tool we use, not a built-in feature of life itself.

3) Anselm? Really?

Neologisms For Dummies

The fuck..?

Two weeks ago, best-selling author Jodi Picoult sent a Tweet in a fit of pique. Upon reading Michiko Kakutani's glowing review of Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom in the New York Times, the lady novelist took to her keyboard and typed out the following:

NYT raved about Franzen's new book. Is anyone shocked? Would love to see the NYT rave about authors who aren't white male literary darlings.

Then fellow best-seller Jennifer Weiner revved up her Twitter account, too, and posted about the breathless critical love of Franzen, whose book was still not out yet. She invented the Twitter hashtag #franzenfreude, which she describes thusly: "Schadenfreude is taking pleasure in the pain in others. Franzenfreude is taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen."

Weiner tweeted prolifically after starting the franzenfreude meme. "In summation: NYT sexist, unfair, loves Gary Shteyngart, hates chick lit, ignores romance. And now, to go weep into my royalty statement," she wrote on Aug. 19.

It's like watching Curly Howard with a paint can on his head and buckets on both feet, using an umbrella to duel with a potted fern. Has no one else noticed what Michael Schaub already pointed out?

Weiner probably does have a rough life, what with her bestsellers and the popular film adaptation of one of her novels a few years back. And I'm sure she's talented, but for fuck's sake, if you're trying to convince people to read your books, maybe coming up with the word "Franzenfreude" (which is literally "Franzen joy," and thus the fucking opposite of what she's trying to say) isn't your best sales pitch.

See, this is why I keep saying we should just use the English word "epicaricacy", which means the exact same thing. It might not have lent itself very well to a play on Franzen's name, but still, she could have been spared so much embarrassment.

And is it just me, or is a story containing a sentence like "So-and-so tweeted prolifically..." just absolutely guaranteed to end in tears of laughter? Is it even possible for Twitter to feature in a story without something atrociously stupid being said?