"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Friday, January 30, 2015

A Palate Cleanser

I think the market is a great green god....

Because I have more to say about Thomas Lessl and Galileo and science and modernity.  But as an interlude, a word from Charlie Pierce:

Sooner or later, it's up to the voters to decide to stop being stupid about their own self-interest, and to stop falling for scams about how the Poors and Browns are the ones stealing all their money.
Yes, but since that particular scam has been run since at least the days of Reconstruction, and since even now the "preferential option for the poor" is to make them rich (or else blame them for not being rich, because morals), and it is still news to people that Dr. King was murdered during his leadership of a march for economic, not just racial, justice....

Well, don't expect that situation to change anytime soon, despite the very best efforts of Senator Professor Warren; who is, after all, only one Senator.

The fix is in; and animus towards the poor and against the minorities (now "illegal immigrants" represent that rising tide which will swamp all our boats; but even that term is not about race, because it's never about race) is bone deep in America, and digging deeper every year.

The prospects for peace are awful.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

How should we then understand?

"In Carl Sagan's rendition of this legend these anti-Copernican scholars are not merely transformed into 'skeptical ecclesiastics' but--for added dramatic effect--high officials of the Church.  Sagan accomplishes this embellishment by borrowing an illustration, a painting by Jean-Leon Huens that was originally used in a National Geographic rendering of the legend. Instead of scholars Huens shows two cardinals adorned in scarlet robes and skull caps.  One puzzled-looking ecclesiastic in the painting's foreground is actually shown squinting into the eyepiece of Galileo's instrument.  It is the other Cardinal who depicts the anti-empirical church.  A caricature of haughty religious dogmatism, this fellow stands nearby, his nose slightly elevated, hands folded across a plump belly, peering with nonchalant disdain at a sketch of the moon held up to him by an animated Galileo.  The faces of the Cardinals are pallid, bathed only in the dim and greenish glow of the moon.  But Galileo's face is illuminated by a distinctly different light.  As if it reflected the sun itself, Galileo's countenance burns with intelligence and just the slightest hint of righteous anger."--Thomas Lessl*

I was simply going to read this article linked at Thought Criminal, but I couldn't resist noting how its examination of the "Galileo legend" also examined popular thinking about science and religion; and not, as it turns out, just popular thinking.

Begin with this quote:

…examination of the Galileo legend suggests that the scientific culture embraces an ideology of progress that has its roots in a positivist vision of history similar to the one popularized by August Comte in the nineteenth century.  Such tales depict science as the vanguard of an evolutionary movement whose march toward the future advances even in the face of bitter opposition from a religious competitor which is destined by nature to be replaced by science.  Evolution necessitates a struggle for survival, and thus science’s progressive character can be shown in its ability to outbid religion for existence.  Religious culture, by contrast, must then be shown to exhibit features which make it unsuited for survival in a changing human environment.   If science is the culmination of evolutionary progress then other knowledge cultures must be shown to be antiquated.  Thus science is almost never demarcated against commerce, government, or art.  Only other cognitive cultures such as religion and occasionally philosophy can serve as suitable antagonists.

By making Galileo the definitive founder of modern science, this tradition creates an exaggerated sense of division between secular science and other intellectual traditions.  If scientists can construct the origins of science in a way that makes it appear to have arisen out of whole cloth, completely distinct from the other currents of western culture, they can also assure that its institutional autonomy will be respected by outsiders.  Science’s honor belongs to itself.
The legend is that Galileo was punished for heresy; that he barely missed the fate of Giordano Bruno; and that his story presents us with a parable of the conflict between science (reason) and religion (superstition).  I leave it to Mr. Lessl to give you all the particulars of the legend and its transmission; I'm interested more in the implications of that legend for the modern understanding of science, and of religion.  (What he has to say in passing about the limits of empiricism, limits identified by the historical truth of Galileo's story, is fascinating; I'd like to spend time just exploring it.)

Lessl develops the idea that the legend of Galileo became central to how science understood itself, and even to how we understand modernity.  Does that seem like an exaggeration?  Then consider this quote from Bertrand Russell which Lessl provides:

He is therefore, the father of modern times.  Whatever we may like or dislike about the age in which we live, its increase in population, its improvement in health, its trains, motor-cars, radio, politics and advertisement of soap—all emanate from Galileo.  If the Inquisition could have caught him young, we might not now be enjoying the blessings of air-warfare and poisoned gas, nor, on the other hand, the diminution of poverty and disease which is characteristic of our age.

The “he” in the first sentence is Galileo, from whose brow all modernity sprang like Venus from the brow of Zeus.  And they say mythology is an ancient practice irrelevant to modern understanding.  As Lessl notes:  “A  science that sprang from Galileo’s head would owe nothing to any other institution or intellectual culture, while remaining indispensable as the source of modernity’s greatest benefits.  A perfect balance is accomplished here [in the passage from Russell].  Science needs society, and thus should offer it its wealth.  But science owes nothing to society, since it sprang up under its own power.”

I am reminded again of the singular genius of Walter Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz.  The church preserves human knowledge after a holocaust unleashed by science.  The church even recovers modern science when a monk is the first person to understand the principle of generating electricity and using it to power a light bulb (which he also invents; although it’s an arc light, not a vacuum sealed bulb).  Eventually science recreates the conditions for holocaust, and the church, in the form of a handful of monks, leaves Earth for colonies in space.  Science, as ever, owes nothing to society, even as it destroys it twice.  Religion, on other hand, offers society both an alternative, and continuation.  It is in the world and not entirely of the world.  Science, entirely in and of the world, still imagines its place is above the world, and superior to it.  Human arrogance loves to be fed, no matter the consequences.

And interestingly, Galileo’s fate seems to have rested in the hands of a small group of academic critics:  his peers, in other words, who resented his efforts and their results.  Never, ever, cross swords with your professional colleagues:  not, at least, in certain settings.  Forgiveness is the hardest act of all, and apparently the least natural to humans.  “It is helpful to think of this in the most personal terms possible:  Galileo’s science nullified the life’s work of a majority of the natural philosophers then in the employ of the Italian universities.  Lives, careers, and reputations were at stake for these secular academics, but this would not have been so for the clergy.”

Ox.  Gored.  Whose.  Or, as Deep Throat put it:  “Follow the money.”  Always wise advice.

One reason for this continued view of Galileo’s trial is that “It serves as a reminder that non-scientists—and those of a religious bent in particular—cannot be trusted to subject their judgments to the rigors of scientific discipline.”  I’ve encountered this on websites (especially the deep thinkers who toss out Plato and Aristotle with the Hebrews and the first century Jews, since both are products of the Bronze Age), and it prevails in academic settings where any expression of religious belief can be career poison.  I met a pastor who worked in Europe in a non-ministerial capacity.  He said he kept his ordained status, even his relationship to the church, a secret because in the academic and professional circles he worked, such a status would be career ending.  Today one is simply not allowed to be rational, if one is religious.  I’ve been told my thinking is obviously flawed since I have a seminary degree.  I’ve been told this, however, by anonymous and small minded people on the internet.

So it goes.

I don't want to recreate and discuss the entire article.  It is quite fascinating, especially as it details how much modern popular thought is shaped by a mythology which its adherents find abhorrent when that term is applied pejoratively to religion.  I’ve actually encountered people who deride my citation to Mendel because he was a 19th century figure, and so out of date.  Yet Galileo continues to be the font of the modern world, and the first proof against the vile superstitions of religious belief (and all the better that his opponent is the Roman Catholic church, as that feeds the latent Protestantism in Anglo-American culture, with its lingering opposition to all things “Papist”.).

I should just mention one of the last themes identified in this story:  that Galileo represents disinterested objectivity, while religion represents emotional adherence to faith, which becomes “believin’ what you know ain’t so.”  This is the last redoubt of the religion v. science battle:  that the former is irrational because it is subjective, the latter wholly rational because it is objective.  Post-modernism had, I thought, marked “paid” to the idea of objectivity (Kierkegaard eviscerated it in the mid-19th century; then again, that was the 19th century, we are modern now!), but still it lingers on, as does logical positivism, a zombie idea that truly won’t die.’  Or:  “Though classical positivism has long been dead as a philosophy of knowledge, the widespread following that the Galileo legend seems to enjoy suggests its persistence as a philosophy of history.”

Without any reference to Kuhn, Lessl points to a number of studies indicating even scientific research is guided by “an emotional commitment to a particular research outcome.”  After all, curiosity itself is an emotion.  The article also references the story of the “church officials” who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope; except they weren’t church officials, but secular academicians with a vested interest in rejecting Galileo’s ideas.

On and on it goes:  this legend is reproduced and repeated by such luminaries as Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking; by Fred Hoyle and Isaac Asimov.  And why not?  It is a story that very much supports a particular view of the privileged place science must hold in modern society:  a privilege it earns by resting its history on mythology.  (And the citations to Einstein and Hawking illustrate the perils of popularizing science in order to make it "accessible."  The value of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan and Bill Nye deserve even more reconsideration.)

At the end of his discussion Lessl quotes Richard Lewontin, a passage I think deserves especial attention:

Either the world of phenomena is a consequence of the regular operation of repeatable causes and their repeatable effects, operating roughly along the lines of known physical law, or else at every instance all physical regularities may be ruptured and a totally unforeseeable set of events may occur. One must take sides on the issue of whether the sun is sure to rise tomorrow.  We cannot live simultaneously in a world of natural causation and of miracles, for if one miracle can occur, there is no limit.

Lewontin’s argument, that either the world is an Aristotelian (another Bronze Age thinker!) series of cause and effect, in which every effect, however small, can be said to have a cause, or otherwise the entire edifice of science falls because one miracle undoes all, is pure nonsense.  Life itself is miraculous, in the sense that we cannot explain why matter should be animate, and why animate matter should pass on animation, even as animate matter itself becomes inanimate.  And why?  When does animate matter cease its animation?  Because it can “no longer sustain life”?  That’s as circular an argument as you can find: it begins with no answer, and ends with no answer.  The answer simply is:  “Because it’s always been that way.”  My daughter is a miracle:  she is sui generis and irreproducible as well as irreplaceable.  Does this mean the universe ceases to make sense, or that it actually makes more sense.  On which subject must I take a position:  that my daughter is unique and marvelous to me, or that the sun will come up tomorrow?  Which is more important to me?

And love?  Do we explain love as simply cause and effect, as simply chemical reactions in neuro-transmitters?  What is love, then?  Why is it powerful, why do we devote so much energy to it?  Why art?  Why music?  What are the causal relationships that makes us musical, loving, artistic, curious, philosophical, religious?  The answers from the Lewontin’s of the world always involve a reductio ad absurdum:  we are religious because we fear death; we love because we mistake lust for something nobler; we create art because we like to keep busy; we are philosophical because we like to chase our own tails.

It is an answer which is no answer at all, and which simply wishes to foreclose the questions, because the answers are not as simple as even quantum mechanics; are not reducible to mathematics; because we run from the implications of Godel’s proof of incompleteness.  And we run, inevitably, to mythology:  especially the mythology which affirms our special place in the world, and sets boundaries between us and them:  whether "they" are people of different ideologies or religions, or simply of a different economic class.

I cannot let go of the fact that modern religion provides us with a stronger critique of poverty than does modern philosophy or modern science.

*I would just add to Lessl's analysis of the painting above, that Galileo is shown turned toward the light in the painting; the Cardinals look into the darkness.  Such things are not accidental; and imagery is a very powerful force in socialization; it always has been.

Or if they would just renounce Islam

...I'm sure E.O. Wilson would welcome them into his tribe.

White responded to criticism of her Texas Muslim Capitol Day plan in the comments on her Facebook post.

 "I do not apologize for my comments above," she wrote in one comment. "If you love America, obey our laws and condemn Islamic terrorism then I embrace you as a fellow American. If not, then I do not."
Well, since her objection is based on nationalism and not based on religion, that's okay.....

The Problem of Evil

"human kind Cannot bear very much reality"

It was Jan Sobrino's observations that, I later realized, brought the issue to mind.  There is so much discussion of evil in the world, and what causes it.  Too little, however, do we bother to examine the question of evil itself:  that is, what is "evil"?  Because reflexively, we think of evil as what is done to us; which excludes evil as something we do.

Let me give you a perfectly mundane example:  I walked into the kitchen as I was writing this.  The radio is in there.  NPR was running a story about business meetings, and it noted that the people who run meetings often don't realize they aren't doing it well.  But the people who attend the meetings report the meetings are not run well.  The problem, the story reports, is a lack of self-reflection by the people in charge of so many unproductive business meetings.

Not exactly an "evil," perhaps; but it nicely (and serendipitously) illustrates the point:  evil is what is done to us (bad meetings by poor leaders), not something we do (those who lead meetings don't think there is a problem).  What is missing is any sense of self-reflection, any sense that you and I are participants in the world, active agents rather than acted upon.  We shun, in brief, responsibility (which is, oddly, the root of "too many meetings":  multiple meetings diffuse responsibility and delay the need to make hard decisions).

So ISIS is evil, and Al Qaeda, and religious belief in general, because all true religious belief is fanaticism (the Sam Harris postulate, let's call it).  But nationalism is not evil, nor a source of evil, not even when it destroys social orders and leaves other nations open to the predations of fanatics, religious or otherwise.  Tribalism is good so long as it is our tribalism, because then, of course, it isn't tribalism at all (and so E.O. Wilson imagines we would all be holding hands and singing "Kumbayah" by now (with no reference to God, of course!) were it not for religion (which has made absolutely no moves toward ecumenism in the last century or so, right?.  Honestly, if these people would just read the scholarship on fundamentalism alone, they'd understand fundamentalism is a response both to the modern world and to ecumenism, which is part of the modern world.).  Tribalism itself is evil, and we are not evil:  they are!  Nationalism is the assertion of privileges for our tribe.  Seldom do we see it as the excuse to inflict evil on others.

We see our support of the systems which "reinforce present structures of injustice, oppression, and exclusion" as evil only if we pay attention to what our support does; so we don't pay much attention.  Instead, evil is the fault of someone else:  corporations; the Koch Brothers; Republicans; FoxNews.  There is always a catalog of evil-doers, and we are never in it.  So whatever Stephen Weinberg does for his family is not evil but merely ethical, because Stephen Weinberg couldn't stand one moment of self-reflection on the consequences of what he thinks is an ethos, at all.  He cannot bear it, so he will not do it; he pronounces himself good, and is done with it.

But how different is he from the rest of us?

Some of this is what can be fairly labeled "boundary work," and is well explained this way:  "This is who we are, and that is who you are--behave accordingly."  To do this we create "artificial boundaries in a field which is 'naturally' continuous."  Distinctions between religious fanaticism and the demands of either nationalism or capitalism are actually hard to maintain; the fields can be said to be "'naturally' continuous."  But we can't have that, because that implicates us in evil; so we must establish boundaries.  And any attempt to break down those boundaries, disturbs us.

So in Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, neither slave nor free:  but there is forgiven and unforgiven, and that is something that must be earned.  Why else do we read the anointing in Luke as a story of a woman weeping over her sins, rather than trying to seduce a customer?  Do we find it easier to participate in a movement for her empowerment (and so release from the forced life of prostitution as the only option for a woman with no family support?), or do we demand she earn our forgiveness, and God's?  Ah!  Are we evil now because we condemn this woman?  Or are we simply insisting she "behave accordingly," and entering a roomful of men and touching one of them, indeed washing his feet with her tears (body fluids!) and drying them with her hair (which Paul tells us should be bound, not free!) is not appropriate, and certainly not Godly,  behavior?

How easy it is to say:  they are evil, but we are good.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Log and the Speck

Something about Danish figurines just completes this post....

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and the mujahideen who resisted the invasion caught the attention of Charlie Wilson who decided they needed U.S. help.  Did the Soviets invade in the name of the Russian Orthodox Church, or Christianity?  No, of course not; the Soviet Union was officially atheist.  Did Wilson support the mujahideen in the name of Christianity or Islam?  Of course not; the United States is officially without a national religion or church.

Much later, George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan.  Did he do so in the name of Christianity or the Methodist church?  No, he explicitly stated the conflict in Afghanistan was not with Islam or on behalf of Christianity.  He invaded to eradicate Al Qaeda, the successor group to the mujahideen.

Bush also invaded Iraq, an officially secular nation, in order to avenge his father, or because of WMD, or just because.  Reasons didn't much matter for that one, except in no case was the reason religious.  In each case, in fact, the reason was nationalism: the Soviets wanted to tighten control over Afghanistan, the U.S. wanted revenge for 9/11, and the U.S. well.... just wanted to knock off Saddam Hussein.

And now we face Al Qaeda as an international force, where once it was confined to Afghanistan.  And a successor to Al Qaeda in Iraq is ISIS, who fights in the name of Islam; or so it says.  What can be said is that both groups refuse to fight in the name of nationalism.  Huh.  Imagine that.

And yet according to the insights of Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and now E.O. Wilson, the problems in the world are all the fault of religious belief?

How big is that piece of lumber in their eyes?  I think it's blinded the lot of them.

Well, I'm glad somebody finally figured that out!

I am not suffering fools gladly this afternoon.

John Dominic Crossan, a Jesuit priest trained in literary theory, studied deeply in anthropology and archaeology and, at a time when other people would be retiring to rest on their laurels, produced two dense tomes on the life of Jesus of Nazareth, based as much on those two subjects as on historical knowledge, and a book on the early years of the Christian church.  He went on to write two, slightly more "popular" books about Jesus and Paul, resting both more heavily on Biblical archaeology than on anthropology.

Rudolf Bultmann wrote his magnum opus explicating the Gospel of John in a manner thoroughly German in its erudition and scholasticism, a book that is a meditation on that gospel in its place in Biblical scholarship (his footnotes are dense discussion with other scholars at a level the text of most books never reach) while simultaneously holding a discussion with Kierkegaard (he directly cites and quotes Philosophical Fragments several times) and the work of Martin Heidegger, one of the most influential philosophers of the last two centuries.  He quite holds his own with Heidegger.

There is an entire branch of sociology, itself a science, devoted to the study of religion.  Anthropology, another science, is equally interested in the subject, from a scientific point of view.  And now comes E.O. Wilson, a sociobiologist, and rather than follow in the footsteps of Dom Crossan and steep himself deeply in the sciences of anthropology and archaeology or even sociology before he speaks, writes a book about what he thinks is wrong with religion in the modern world.

What is is about ignorance that makes people think they are so smart?

N.B.  The Meaning of Human Existence?  Really?  I haven't seen a title that arrogant and ill-earned since Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained.  What is it about ignorance and arrogance that they so often go walking hand in hand?

Let Us Now Praise Non-Famous Men

"What can we do to take the crucified people down from their crosses?"

From a link provided in comments below:

According to Jon Sobrino of San Salvador's Central American University, compassion must have the central place in the life of the Catholic university. College students and universities themselves must learn to embrace the "preferential option for the poor."Sobrino argues that if the Catholic university is to exist in a world of massive suffering and not function simply as an "ivory tower," it must be committed to the poor. Far from paternalistic philanthropy, the preferential option entails solidarity-identifying with the poor, being converted by them, and participating in movements for their empowerment. If the Catholic university does not actively side with the poor in appropriate ways, it will tacitly side with the status quo and reinforce present structures of injustice, oppression, and exclusion.
You want radical thought, there it is.  From a Catholic theologian and Jesuit priest; not from Bill Maher or Richard Dawkins or Stephen Weinberg.  Sobrino's thought is centered on the question "How should we then live?" and his answer is:  in a way that doesn't side with the status quo and reinforce injustice, oppression, and exclusion.  It is a way of thought he derives from his Christianity, not in spite of it.  You want to curse the darkness, you can join the way of the world:  of the Mahers and the Dawkins and the Harrises.

You want to light a candle, you want to truly do the difficult work of effecting good in the world:  you take up the challenge of Sobrino and Gutierrez and Romero and MLK and even Francis I, or anyone else who truly challenges the world as it is at such a fundamental level, and you look at your place in the "present structures of injustice, oppression, and exclusion."  And consider how it is you see them at all, and from what perspective, and why they are there, and what the alternatives are.

You don't have to be Catholic, or attend or work for a university, or even be Christian, to do it.  But it is much harder, and a much worthier effort, than listening to the babble of the world.  Even the Gentiles can do that much.

If only education were a unitary thing....

I'm cribbing this from Charlie Pierce, but if you want a reason to keep universities in the hands of the church (no, I'm no advocating all colleges and universities revert to religious hands, just arguendo), this presents you with a good one:

But it doesn't take much sleuthing to uncover the Republicans' distaste for the centers and institutes dotting the UNC landscape that were created to explore issues of poverty, civil rights, the environment and energy policy. Places like the Center for Work, Poverty and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. Central University's Institute for Civic Engagement and Social Change. The board of governors has 34 such centers under scrutiny. Why? The explanation is found in a paper published two weeks ago by conservatives at the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy-a nonprofit named for Art Pope's father. The paper is entitled "Renewal in the University," and it sings the praises of academic centers which "restore the spirit of inquiry." But not centers that look into poverty. No, they are the problem, writes author Jay Schalin, because they threaten "thousands of years of Western thought." What we need instead, Schalin argues, is to replace such disruptive centers with new centers paid for by rich people like Pope-"privately funded academic centers" that reinforce for students the traditional values of "liberty" and "free-market economics."
I would exhaust my day looking for examples in the "thousands of years of Western thought" that are examinations of the problems and solutions to poverty, starting with the Greeks (who were making statues of the poor, to draw attention to the failures of Greek social order), coming up through the work of Dr. King and Dorothy Day (to name just two).  The bulk of those arguments would be from, or informed by, the Christian church, an institution also responsible for the very idea of a university system.  William Buckley famously argued that the university should return to its religious status in order to regain its moral authority.  I never really agreed with him, but at least he was more sensible than this.

Concern for poverty is far more "traditional" in Western thought than concern for liberty; and especially for "free-market economics."  On the latter, the best response I can point to (still), is Dr. Swift's "Modest Proposal."

I only fear Mr. Schalin would miss the satire in it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"New Styles of Architecture, a change of heart..."

"The system that generates anxiety cannot relate to steadfast love."--Walter Brueggeman

This clause was enough to make me pay attention:  "In a world of scarce resources...."

And already we're back to Solomon and the theology of scarcity v. the theology of plenty (which alone puts the lie to the atheist chestnut that the scriptures are Bronze Age (or Iron Age, opinions vary) texts with no relevance to modern existence.  Then again, modern atheists are merely evangelicals insisting their position on God is the only one that should be allowed; that it another argument, but its also quite certainly an argument from scarcity, an argument for a theology of scarcity.)

Southern Beale quotes that from the American Enterprise Institute, who uses the opening rhetorical twitch to argue for, of course, limited use of scarce resources to actually help, you know, people.  But that is always the point in the theology of scarcity:  people are too damned expensive!  Other things must be protected first, especially, in the modern worship of the market as a great green god:  money. Because, you see:

In a world of scarce resources, a slightly higher mortality rate is an acceptable price to pay for certain goals — including more cash for other programs, such as those that help the poor; less government coercion and more individual liberty; more health-care choice for consumers, allowing them to find plans that better fit their needs; more money for taxpayers to spend themselves; and less federal health-care spending. This opinion is not immoral. Such choices are inevitable. They are made all the time.
Especially by the people in power.  Consider these quotes as a partial response to the presumption of AEI:

People nowadays interchange gifts and favors out of friendship, but buying and selling is considered absolutely inconsistent with the mutual benevolence which should prevail between citizens and the sense of community of interest which supports our social system. According to our ideas, buying and selling is essentially anti-social in all its tendencies. It is an education in self-seeking at the expense of others, and no society whose citizens are trained in such a school can possibly rise above a very low grade of civilization -- Edward Bellamy

The ultimate aim of production is not production of goods but the production of free human beings associated with one another on terms of equality. -- John Dewey

I confess that I am not charmed with the ideal of life held out by those who think that the normal state of human beings is that of struggling to get on; that the trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other's heels, which form the existing type of social life, are the most desirable lot of human beings -- John Stuart Mill

The gross national product includes air pollution and advertising for cigarettes, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors, and jails for the people who break them ... It does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of thier education, or the joy of their play. -- Robert F. Kennedy

We must recognize that we can't solve our problems now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power....[What is required is] a radical restructuring of the architecture of American society. -- Martin Luther King, Jr
Start with Bellamy's idea of education that must be something other than an education in buying and selling.  He calls that "an education in self seeking at the expense of others, and no society whose citizens are trained in such a school can possibly rise above a very low grade of civilization."  No education today reflects Dewey's idea:  "the production of free human beings associated with one another on terms of equality."  Education today is all aimed at getting a job, and being a consumer and a producer of goods, at seeking at the expense of others.  The most desirable lot of human beings is reflected back to us in "The Wolf of Wall Street" or the celebrity of Donald Trump and the Kardashians.  As Robert Kennedy points out, the GNP does not allow for the health of our families; indeed, the AEI says it can't:  resources are too scarce.  Triage must be performed.  Some must die, and so decrease the surplus population.  People are too expensive; the are just too damned many of you!

As my friend at Thought Criminal never tires of pointing out:  what atheist position is going to champion the ideals of Bellamy, Dewey, Mill, Kennedy, or King?  Stephen Weinberg fancies himself a moral avatar because he is brave enough to admit his selfishness, that he cares first for his family and then for his friends and really not at all for society at large.  Ethics understands this as an entirely unethical stance (has Weinberg even read Crito?); Weinberg proclaims it the new basis for ethics.  O brave new world, that has such ignorant creatures in it!

Let not the wise boast of their wisdom,
nor the valiant of their valour;
let not the wealthy boast of their wealth;
but if anyone must boast, let him boast of this:
that he understands and acknowledges me.
For I am the LORD, I show unfailing love,
I do justice and right on the earth;
for in these I take pleasure.
This is the word of the LORD.

You may want to dismiss that because it is a religious text that makes a religious claim.  But tell me what Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris has written that is of greater moral value than that; tell me what Bill Maher has said which contributes more to the moral discourse of humanity than those words.  Is it better to be anti-religious, or to show unfailing love and do justice and right on the earth, and to take pleasure in those things than in one's own sense of cleverness?  Which is better: the pronouncements of AEI on how to deal with scarcity, the ramblings of Stephen Weinberg on what he imagines ethics are, or this "Bronze Age" text:

Woe to him who says,
"I shall build myself a spacious palace
with airy roof chambers and
windows set in it.
It will be paneled with cedar
and painted with vermilion."
Though your cedar is so splendid,
does that prove you a king?
Think of your father: he ate and drank,
dealt justly and fairly;
all went well with him.
He upheld the cause of the lowly and poor;
then all was well.
Did not this show he knew me? says the Lord.
But your eyes and your heart are set on naught but gain,
set only on the innocent blood you can shed,
on the cruel acts of tyranny you perpetrate.

Jeremiah 22: 14-17 (REB)

Both texts from the same book of the Bible; both rest on the authority of God, but not on presenting  the commands of God.  The king who dealt justly and fairly proved he knew God; but the world rewards the king who sets his eyes and heart on gain alone, ignoring the innocent blood he sheds ("In a world of scarce resources....") and the cruel acts of tyranny such greed must perpetuate.  Justice and fairness, after all, require constant self-reflection, constant regard for the other and constant evaluation of one's motives and actions.  Stephen Weinberg's ethic starts and ends with regard for himself.  The cause of the lowly and the poor is of no importance to him whatsoever.  How does he deal justly and fairly with anything?

The theology of scarcity is that there isn't enough now to go around, so we must hoard what we have and protect it from other claimants.  We must regard them as savages who have to be eliminated.  The theology of scarcity is that we cannot share, because to share is to lose.  The widow who fed Elijah during the famine should have saved her oil and meal for herself and her son; even though it probably would have run out, and they would have starved to death.  But who can know the future, and who can trust in a world that is actually abundant?  Better to trust that there will never be enough.

Better?  According to whom?

After a while the stream dried up, for there had been no rain in the land. Then the word of the Lord came to him: “Go now to Zarephath, a village of Sidon, and stay there; I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’ He went off to Zarephath, and when he reached the entrance to the village, he saw a widow gathering sticks. He called to her, ‘Please bring me a little water in a pitcher to drink.’ As she went to fetch it, he called after her, ‘Bring me, please, a piece of bread as well.’ But she answered, “As the Lord your God lives, I have no food baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a flask. I am just gathering two or three sticks to go and cook it for my son and myself before we die.’ ‘Have no fear,’ Elijah said, ‘go and do as you have said. But first make me a small cake from what you have and bring it out to me, and after that make something for your son and yourself. For this is the word of the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of flour will not give out, nor the flask of oil fail, until the Lord sends rain on the land.’ She went and did as Elijah had said, and there was food for him and for her family for a long time. The jar of flour did not give out, nor did the flask of oil, as the word of the Lord foretold through Elijah. 1 Kings 17:7-16 (REB)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Delusions of Godhood...again

I can be fairly accused of worrying too much about the ignorance of Richard Dawkins, but Thought Criminal sends me in search of Marilyn Robinson's review of The God Delusion.  The original is behind a paywall, so I have to link to a pirated version.  I promise to take only a few bites:

The odd thing about Dawkins’s work, considering his job description, is that it does not itself seem the product of a mind informed by the physics of the last century or so. A reader might find it instructive to start with his last chapter, in which he does acknowledge the fact of quantum theory and certain of its implications. This chapter is an interesting lens through which to consider the primary argument of the book, especially his use of physicality and materiality as standards for determining the real and objective existence of anything, along with his use of commonplace experience as the standard of reasonableness and — a favorite word — probability. He does this despite his awareness that the physical and the material are artifacts of the scale at which reality is perceived. For us, he says, “matter is a useful construct.” Quoting Steve Grand, a computer scientist who specializes in artificial intelligence, he offers these thoughts on the fluidity of matter: “Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that doesn’t make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.” Earlier, Dawkins attributes the origins of the illusion that we have a soul to the persistence of a childish or primitive tendency toward dualism — “Our innate dualism prepares us to believe in a ’soul’ which inhabits the body rather than being integrally part of the body. Such a disembodied spirit can easily be imagined to move on somewhere else after the death of the body.” Yet the image of deeper reality invoked by him here suggests a basis for the ancient intuition of the persistence of the self despite the transiency of the elements of its physical embodiment.

I do not wish to recruit science to the cause of religion. My point is simply that Dawkins’s critique of religion cannot properly be called scientific. His thinking is reminiscent of logical positivism. That school, however, which meant to carry out a purge of language it considered meaningless, specifically metaphysics and theology, by subjecting statements to the “scientific” test of verifiability, plunged into all sorts of interesting difficulty, as rigorous thought tends to do. Dawkins acknowledges no difficulty. He has a simple-as-that, plain-as-day approach to the grandest questions, unencumbered by doubt, consistency, or countervailing information.

I don't disagree with Robinson's point, but there is nothing innate about dualism.  It is a Platonic concept, and rather peculiar to Western thought.  Perpetuated by the Church (as was Aristotle, who wouldn't have been keen on it.  When Aquinas folded "the Philosopher" into Catholic doctrine, he was writing at a level beyond the ken of almost everyone else in the Church at the time.  So much for "liberal" Christianity and the "true" Christianity found only among the people), it found renewed expression in Descartes' ventures into philosophy.  But Descartes' dualism was later derided as the "ghost in the machine."  Because dualism is not innate, it is cultural and philosophical. Language can be fairly said to be innate; we do seem to have, in Stephen Pinker's words, a "language instinct."  Dualism is a cultural artifact.

This isn't that hard to learn about.  Critiques of dualism are not new, and they aren't arcane.  Dawkins teaches at Oxford.  And yet he's completely clueless on the subject that is his current claim to fame.  Too bad I can't get tenure so I can spout nonsense and make money on it.  P.T. Barnum was right.

“There is something breathtakingly condescending, as well as inhumane, about the sacrificing of anyone, especially children, on the altar of ‘diversity’ and the virtue of preserving a variety of religious traditions. The rest of us are happy with our cars and computers, our vaccines and antibiotics. But you quaint little people with your bonnets and breeches, your horse buggies, your archaic dialect and your earth-closet privies, you enrich our lives. Of course you must be allowed to trap your children with you in your seventeenth-century time warp, otherwise something irretrievable would be lost to us: a part of the wonderful diversity of human culture.”

Dawkins is writing there of the Amish.   Robinson precedes that quote with a paragraph about Dawkins' apparent ignorance of "the history of modern authoritarianism."  Really, for an Oxford professor, Dawkins seems singularly uninterested in the subjects he writes about.  It isn't really hard to find out the Amish give their children the choice of staying in the community, or leaving.  They prefer members of their community stay voluntarily, not by force.  It may not be a choice you want to make, but it is one freely made by the children themselves (as free as any choice is made).  If Dawkins had a child would he begrudge the child's decision to, say, take monastic orders?  Again, these things aren't hard to find out, or too complicated to consider from more than one point of view; but it is all clearly beneath the research efforts of an Oxford don.

Call it breathtaking condescension, if you will.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

I think we all saw this coming

Amid a fledgling primary campaign, rural Iowa state lawmaker Joni Ernst crafted a quirky hardscrabble persona that propelled her to both the forefront of the race and, eventually, the United States Senate....

The truth about her family’s farm roots and living within one’s means, however, is more complex. Relatives of Ernst (née: Culver), based in Red Oak, Iowa (population: 5,568) have received over $460,000 in farm subsidies between 1995 and 2009. Ernst’s father, Richard Culver, was given $14,705 in conservation payments and $23,690 in commodity subsidies by the federal government–with all but twelve dollars allocated for corn support. Richard’s brother, Dallas Culver, benefited from $367,141 in federal agricultural aid, with over $250,000 geared toward corn subsidies. And the brothers’ late grandfather Harold Culver received $57,479 from Washington—again, mostly corn subsidies—between 1995 and 2001. He passed away in January 2003.
If you're doing the math that's an average of something over $30,000 per year for 14 years.  Not to begrudge farmers their subsidies, but imagine any family receiving that much in aid from AFDC or even unemployment benefits.

It would never happen, because such people need to learn not to depend on government "handouts."  But farmer's children can depend on them, get government jobs, be in the military, go to the U.S. Senate, and still rail against "government spending."

Yeah, I know:  same as it ever was.  Kinda hard to say you learned to "live within your means," though, when you had a government backstop of $30,000.00 a year that wasn't affected by how much you earned that year (at least not to the extent it would be for welfare payments).

Buh-bye, Joni.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

What Joni Ernst meant to say last night

It was her "Republican cloth coat" speech.

 You know you were thinking it. If you're of a certain age.....*

*I might as well explain that, and save you the trouble:  "And the bar is now buried below the level of the ground, and she says it was a "cloth coat Republican" speech, which is a reference that I understood, but which is lost on anyone under the age of 60."