Thursday, June 01, 2006

Whewell on the Moral Faculty

A persuasion that moral good is something different from, and superior to, mere pleasure, is requisite to give our preference of it that tone of enthusiasm and affection which belongs to virtuous feeling. To approve a rule as right, is different from liking it as profitable; to admire an act of virtuous self-devotion as we are capable of admiring, is a feeling so different from the apprehension of any usefulness the act may have, that the comparison of the two things is altogether incongruous. The moral faculty converts our perception of the quality of actions into an affection of the strongest kind; nor can we be satisfied with any account of our moral sentiments which excludes this feature in the process. Thus, as we hold the affections to be motives of an order superior to the desires which have reference to ourselves only, we maintain the moral faculty, the conscience, the affection towards duty, to be a principle of action of an order superior both to the duties and to the other affections. Without the acknowledgment of this subordination, the language and feelings of men when they compare the claims of personal pleasure, of social affection, and of duty, are altogether unintelligible and absurd.

William Whewell in Sir James Mackintosh, On the Progress of Ethical Philosophy, chiefly during the XVIIth and XVIIIth centuries, William Whewell, ed., Fourth edition, (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1872) xxxv-xxxvi. Whewell has in mind the hedonistic utilitarianisms of Paley and Bentham, which is why he emphasizes both the need for something more than pleasure and the need for something more than utility. I was happy to come across this in the library today. Because it is in an editorial preface, it's the sort of thing that might easily be overlooked even by people who study Whewell's moral philosophy (not that there are many people doing that anyway). In any case, it means that I won't overlook it if I write a paper on the subject, as I've been thinking of doing.

Proving Before Defining

We have all run across him before. He's the guy who says, in response to every argument for something's existence (let's call it "X"), "You have to define X first." And then the argument gets diverted into word-chopping discussions of how to define X, before we even know whether there exists any X worth defining.

Most people have difficulty dealing with this word-chopper, because his point seems initially plausible. I would suggest, however, that this plausibility is merely apparent. It is simply wrong. To argue for the existence of X you don't need a definition of X. What is more, it is irrational to make such a claim, because the reverse is true. We can only define a thing if we know what sort of arguments could be made for its existence (or nonexistence). Any other sort of definition is merely stipulative definition of the term -- and, since we can stipulate as we please, the only thing worth arguing over when it comes to stipulative definitions is whether they are unnecessarily misleading in the context. (Not, of course, that you need to define "X" first even verbally -- that can come after the argument for X's existence, because it isn't necessary for the argument itself.) The only time anyone defines before they prove is when it's important for a premise of the argument -- a premise, not the conclusion.

This point might might be made clearer by an example of good practice in this regard. When Suarez in his Metaphysical Disputations argues for the existence of substantial forms, he begins by arguing for their existence, and ends by defining them. And it is easy to see why. The existence of substantial forms is not obvious; it has to be proven. But what we can say substantial forms are will depend on the sort of arguments we can give for them. All we need to do this is to have a vague notion of the sort of thing you might apply the label 'substantial form', so that you can determine the right sort of premises. Then, when you have shown that something of (more or less) this sort exists, you can look at the reasons you gave in order to give a proper definition of 'substantial form'. Since you already have the arguments for its existence in hand, you can use these to define the term in a non-arbitrary way. If you do it any other way, you have to (with magical intuitions, apparently) hit on exactly the right definition from the get-go. (This is a reason why the word-chopper mentioned above is often someone arguing for the negative: if you convince people that they can't ever prove something's existence before they've defined it, you've made it very, very difficult for them to prove that anything exists. If their definition is a little off -- e.g., part of it is confusing things that shouldn't be confused, or they have made a mistake in the precise formulation -- then it could block all their attempts to argue for its existence, even if what they are trying to prove exists along with good arguments for its existence.)

Another example is arguments for the existence of God. Thomas Aquinas is often criticized for arguing for the existence of a certain sort of thing (e.g., a first cause), and saying, "And this all men call God." But Aquinas, as is often the case, has the right idea. From a philosophical perspective, what you need to examine when you're examining whether God exists, is whether we have any reason to think that anything that would more or less be the sort of thing we would call 'God' exists. Once this is in hand you can look at the details of what sort of thing, precisely, this divine thing is. This is exactly how Aquinas proceeds.

The point is general, and fits many different fields of thought. You don't define until you prove, because the proof is the only thing that keeps your definition rooted in reality. Rarely, if ever, is it rational to try to define X before having shown (or assumed) that X exists. (The only cases in which it would be are ontological arguments, and those would only be relevant if sound ontological arguments weren't question-begging, which they are.)


Jason Kuznicki has a post worth reading on a recent Utah polygamy case. I agree with him that the law in question is utterly absurd, and for similar reasons: marriage springs from the people, not from the state. The most the state can do is decide what it will recognize as marriage for the purposes established by state interests (e.g., facilitating inheritances, encouraging care for children, protecting spouses from abuse, etc.). It has no say on whether something may be counted a marriage or not by those who are in it (at least none without usurping the privileges of the people).

* Some good posts on the atonement at Adrian Warnock's blog, 42, Connexions and verbum ipsum.

* Richard Chappell presents a Vellemanian view of life in Living as Storytelling.

* At "Evolutionblog" Jason Rosenhouse has an interesting post on Dembski's theodicy. As you may recall, Alejandro Satz had a post on the subject about a month ago. Both are worth reading. Some of the comments made by commenters on Jason's post, on the other hand, show just why people need to read up seriously on the subject before they start pulling things out of various dark places; because there are a lot of things said that show considerable ignorance of the arguments on both sides.

* G. K. Chesterton's birthday anniversary was May 29. Celebrate the occasion by visiting the American Chesterton Society webpage, or re-read Chesterton's exquisite The Man Who Was Thursday. From The Ballad of the White Horse:

"Out of the mouth of the Mother of God,
More than the doors of doom,
I call the muster of Wessex men
From grassy hamlet or ditch or den,
To break and be broken, God knows when,
But I have seen for whom.

Out of the mouth of the Mother of God
Like a little word come I;
For I go gathering Christian men
From sunken paving and ford and fen,
To die in a battle, God knows when,
By God, but I know why.

"And this is the word of Mary,
The word of the world's desire
`No more of comfort shall ye get,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.' "

* Since it's Justin Martyr's feast day, it seems appropriate to link to works of the the second-century philosopher-saint. From his Discourse to the Greeks:

These have conquered me--the divinity of the instruction, and the power of the Word: for as a skilled serpent-charmer lures the terrible reptile from his den and causes it to flee, so the Word drives the fearful passions of our sensual nature from the very recesses of the soul; first driving forth lust, through which every ill is begotten--hatreds, strife, envy, emulations, anger, and such like. Lust being once banished, the soul becomes calm and serene. And being set free from the ills in which it was sunk up to the neck, it returns to Him who made it. For it is fit that it be restored to that state whence it departed, whence every soul was or is.

* Part I of the History Carnival is up at Aqueduct, with the second to follow Monday. I especially recommend the discussion of Jews and Muslims in the Middle East at "Brian's Study Breaks" and So Who Was Our First President? at "American Presidents Blog".

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

South Park and Religion, Part II

Continuing the discussion of South Park and religion. As Don noted in the comments on the previous post, I need to clarify my claim about "Stone and Parker being no friends of organized religion of any kind". This is perhaps overstated, since the primary target for their criticism is not organized religion as such, but institutions, particularly those that seek to impose beliefs. Stone and Parker are actually quite friendly even to religious beliefs they think are insane; and this comes out clearly in the second episode I will discuss. As with the other, I will summarize it and briefly comment. (This one is harder to summarize, because much of the story is carried by the musical portions, which admit of no easy summary -- I don't even try. You can find transcripts for almost all South Park episodes online, so if you are interested in such matters you can look it up yourself.)

2) All about the Mormons (episode 712). In this episode, a new kid, Gary Harrison, comes to South Park from Utah. Gary is a sort of all-American boy: he was state champion in wrestling and in tennis, had a 40 grade point average at his old school, and has been in two national toothpaste commercials. Naturally, the South Park kids dislike him from the first moment they meet him. They decide that Stan Marsh should beat him up. When Stan confronts Gary, however, he is disarmed by Gary's overwhelmingly polite charm, and ends up being invited to dinner.

When he arrives at the Harrison household, he enters a world very different from any he has ever known. The Harrisons are engaged in Family Home Evening, a time when they turn off the television and just entertain each other with games, stories, and music. At one point in the evening, the Harrisons are ready to read a story from the Book of Mormon; but, on finding out that Stan has never heard of Joseph Smith, they instead decide to tell the story of Joseph Smith. Smith's story is told throughout the episode in a musical format in which the lyrics are punctuated by lines that are at the beginning ambiguous between 'dum, dum, dum, dum, dum' and 'dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb', but which soon enough become less ambiguous. Parker and Stone stay fairly close to the real storyline, although (as one might expect) they aren't afraid to diverge from it on several points in order to underline the general theme that Mormons as astoundingly credulous.

Stan returns home from the Harrisons, profoundly aware that his family has nothing like the strong bonds that unite the Harrisons. (When he asks his father, Randy, why they don't have Family Home Evening, his father replies that they do -- they just call it Friday Night Kegger.) When it comes out that the Harrisons have been talking religion to Stan, Randy angrily sets out for the Harrisons' house to beat up Gary Harrison, Sr. for trying to indoctrinate his son into being a 'religious kook'. However, the experience of Stan repeats itself with Randy: completely disarmed by the Harrisons' good-natured civility, he comes in for a snack. The Harrisons apologize profusely if they seemed to be pushing their religion on Stan, because that wasn't their intention. As Karen Harrison says:

Randy, the last thing we want is for people to think we're pushing our religion. We know there are a lot of beliefs out there and ours just works for us.

Randy's anger now defused, his curiosity awakens, and he asks the Harrisons what Mormons believe, which leads into another musical retelling of part of the story fo Joseph Smith. Randy comes back to the Marsh household with the news that they will be having dinner at the Harrisons' and that the Marshes are going to become Mormon.

The Marshes start up a Family Home Evening in imitation of the Harrisons. Stan, who is fairly consistently portrayed throughout the South Park series as level-headed and logical, is having considerable difficulty with some of the elements of the Joseph Smith story he has been hearing. When the Harrisons arrive, they tell the story of the lost 116 pages of the Book of Lehi, which, according to Gary, Sr., proves that Joseph Smith was for real. Stan, however, is stunned by it, asking, "Mormons actually know this story and they still believe Joseph Smith was a prophet?" When told that it is a matter of faith, Stan can't hold himself back:

No, it's a matter of logic! If you're gonna say things that have been proven wrong, like that the first man and woman lived in Missouri, and that Native Americans came from Jerusalem, then you'd better have something to back it up. All you've got are a bunch of stories about some asswipe who read plates nobody ever saw out of a hat, and then couldn't do it again when the translations were hidden!

The Harrisons are unphased by this, saying that the Marshes can believe whatever they want, with Gary, Jr. even shouting a Hooray for their freedom to do so. Stan is fed up, so scolds the Harrisons for trying to weasel their religion into the discourse by being so nice all the time.

The next day, however, Gary, Jr., responds in kind:

Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don't care if Joseph Smith made it all up, because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that's stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you're so high and mighty you couldn't look past my religion and just be my friend back. You've got a lot of growing up to do, buddy.

He then ends with swearing, thus (finally) earning him the respect of other kids. (A recurring theme in South Park is a sort of child's poetic justice in which kids who don't usually swear demolish their opponents by swearing precisely because they don't usually swear.)

A few brief comments. One of the notable things about this episode, and is fairly common in South Park's treatment of religions generally, is that, setting aside the obvious insinuations of absurd credulity, the rank and file of the membership is portrayed in a very positive light. (This is also seen in the Scientology episode, in which Scientologists who aren't celebrities or in the inner circles are portrayed as friendly, upbeat, likable people, despite believing crazy things.) The idea is that the LDS way of life, however irrational one considers it on the speculative level, makes an immense amount of sense at the practical level: it strengthens family ties, encourages improvement in moral character, advocates helping other people, and places a powerful and needed emphasis on kinship and friendship.

This sums up, to an extent, the general attitude of South Park to religious belief. A lot of it is weird. But in a sense this doesn't matter. Our relationship with members of these religions is not to be determined by the internal consistency and evidential basis of the religion, but by a more public set of factors: the role they play in increasing the cohesion of society, in inspiring people to seek the morally right, in the way in which the religion improves the private and public lives of its individual members. People who lose sight of this are not contributing to progress, because they are losing sight of the fact that there can be no progress unless there is a moral direction for it. And attacking people for something that, at least in their particular case, underwrites a moral way of life is the very antithesis of establishing a moral direction for progress. This is not to say that all views are the same, or that they are all equally good -- the unsparing and repeated references to the Mormon belief that Joseph Smith was a prophet as 'dumb, dumb, dumb' is enough to make that clear. But it's a matter of keeping one's priorities clear.

There are lots of things about this pragmatic view that one might find to disagree with. What's noteworthy, however, is how thoughtful it is. Since the emphasis is perpetually on the improvement of everyone's life -- on "loving your family, being nice and helping people," as Gary puts it, or on "Love your neighbor. Be a good person," as Fr. Maxi put it in the Red Hot Catholic Love episode -- the stance challenges everyone to work for everyone else's good, and to make the primary standard of social acceptance not whether others believe as you do, but whether they act admirably. It sets up a real place for religion (however strange others may think it) in civil discourse, which is guided by precisely this end: to aid people in being better human beings. It's possible to argue, from many different positions, that this isn't quite adequate in some way; but it's not possible, I think, to argue soundly that this view is obviously absurd. In fact, quite the opposite: it's a lesson about admiring and respecting people even when you think they have completely missed the boat as far as their beliefs go.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

South Park and Religion, Part I

There's a Guardian essay by Julian Baggini on Simpsons and philosophy. The article is mostly about what might be called philosophy of religion. It has started me thinking about another animated show that reallly does engage seriously -- it is paradoxical to say that -- with religious issues, without requiring much reading into the matter at all, namely, South Park.

Now, to understand the South Park take on religion(s), one has to recognize a few things first. The first and perhaps most important of these is that South Park episodes are, each and every one, thrown together at the last minute. This means that the execution of the episode is usually rather slapdash. Because a lot of the actual animation is stylized, it's usually not to the visual detriment of the show (which has never aimed for high animation production values anyway), but it does mean that that the quality of the episodes varies considerably. On the other side, because they do things last minute, Stone and Parker are able to revise out bad ideas even at the last moment; and thus even the worst episodes usually have some redeeming features, in terms of humor and serious thought.

The second and more obvious things that has be recognized is that South Park is Rabelaisian about everything it discusses. Most people who find South Park offensive find it offensive not because of any positions explored by Parker and Stone in the series but because they are turned off by the rude and crude of much of the presentation. But South Park is rarely merely rude and crude in its humor -- although occasionally it comes close to being so.

South Park has dealt with religious matters on multiple occasions; and when it does so, it rarely does so in the generic way the Simpsons does. The quality of these episodes varies considerably, as one would expect. Two of the better ones are Red Hot Catholic Love (episode 608) and All About Mormons (episode 712). The most famous episode dealing with religious matters is the Scientology episode, Trapped in the Closet (episode 912); but its general approach to Scientologists is actually very similar to the Mormon episode's approach to the Latter-Day Saints; the primary difference between the two episodes being that Scientology provides more room for making fun of the self-importance of celebrities. So I'll just take the first two and summarize them with some comments.

(1) Red Hot Catholic Love (episode 608). This, which I think is probably objectively the best of all the religion episodes South Park has done, opens in the midst of the molestation scandals. At South Park Catholic Church, Father Maxi announces that it's the time of year when bishops and priests from around the country are organizing the Young Men's Catholic Retreat, which this year will be a river cruise focusing on the theme of Jesus as the Navigator of our lives. After Mass, a bunch of parents get together, worried about this whole idea; they decide that they are not letting their children go on a cruise with a bunch of priests. Since they no longer trust even Father Maxi, they get a counselor who specializes in determining whether children have been abused. When the counselor speaks to the children, they all describe Maxi as "nice," "cool," and "compassionate" -- that last one is significant in light of how the episode unfolds -- and are completely bewildered by some of the more explicit questions the counselor asks. In the meantime, the parents all decide that they are fed up with the Catholic church because of the scandals, and agree to become atheists. Later on, as the kids are trying to figure out what some of the counselor's questions meant, Cartman hits on the idea that, since when we eat through our mouths we defecate through our butts, perhaps if we eat through our butts we would defecate out of our mouths. The kids aren't convinced, but Cartman manages to do it. (Yes, this is all heading somewhere.)

At Diocesan headquarters, Maxi has called a meeting about the scandals, which have begun to take a serious toll on attendance at Mass. Maxi voices the concern that if this continues they might lose almost everyone; but he is shocked that the priests think the problem is that children are reporting the cases rather than that the cases are happening at all. When he insists that the problem here is sexual misconduct rather than the reporting of it, he finds that all the priests are assuming that everyone (including Maxi himself) have done it. Angrily, Maxi tells them, "We are here to bring the light of God, not harm the innocent!" but when he realizes that he's not getting through, he decides that he has to go to the Vatican and report such a terrible problem personally. At the Vatican, however, he finds that things are no better; and again has to repeat, to the disbelieving ears of Cardinals from Italy, Morocco, France, Britain, and the alien planet of Gelgamek that he thinks the solution to the problem is for priests not to engage in sexual misconduct. When told that it is not considered wrong in the "Holy Document of Vatican Law," Maxi replies that this only means that the Holy Document of Vatican Law needs to be changed; the behavior should be wrong, and, if necessary, priests should be allowed to marry. However, he is told that the Holy Document of Vatican Law simply can't be changed, because no one knows where it is. It's somewhere in the Catacombs, guarded by terrible traps; but that's all anyone knows. Maxi decides that he must find it, at whatever danger to himself. Searching for the Holy Document of Vatican Law, Maxi comes across an old man who tells him that only a man whose heart is truly with the Lord will find it; Maxi manages to evade all the traps and find the document.

In the meantime, back at home, it becomes discovered that Cartman's method of eating is healthier than the normal method; and the newly atheistic parents have a dinner party in which they talk at great length about how much better their lives are now that they are atheists, and about how "a bunch of stories about people slaughtering goats" has no relevance to the modern world, and about how atheists are persecuted in our society, by (for instance) having to say 'under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance. All the while, since they are eating by the Cartman method, they are defecating out of their mouths.

At the Vatican, Fr. Maxi returns with the Holy Document of Vatican Law, asking them to change it now so that it reads that priests are not allowed to have sex with boys. The Cardinals tell him, however, that the Pope has decided that they will ask "the highest source." Fr. Maxi is very impressed by this for a moment, but is considerably less so when he finds that "the highest source" is the great Queen Spider, who simply refuses to allow the document to be changed. At this Maxi loses his cool completely:

Alright, that does it!!! I've had enough!!! You people have completely lost touch with the outside world! You sit in this big room with your Gelgameks and your Queen Spider, and none of it applies to what being a Catholic is all about!!

When the Cardinals bring up the Holy Document of Vatican Law again, Maxi replies, "To hell with the Holy Document of Vatican Law!" He does what any God-fearing Catholic would do under the circumstances: he burns down the Vatican. When told that He's killed Catholicism, Fr. Maxi replies:

No I didn't! All that's dead are your stupid laws and rules! You've forgotten what being a Catholic is all about. This... book. You see, these are just stories. Stories that are meant to help people in the right direction. Love your neighbor. Be a good person. That's it! And when you start turning the stories into literal translations of hierarchies and power, well... Well, you end up with this. People are losing faith because they don't see how what you've turned the religion into applies to them! They've lost touch with any idea of any kind of religion, and when they have no mythology to try and live their lives by, well, they just start spewing a bunch of crap out of their mouths!

The atheist parents at home have been rejoicing at home as they watch the Vatican burning on TV; but they are stopped up short at hearing this last line, because they have quite literally been spewing a bunch of crap out of their mouths. Because of Maxi's speech, the parents return to the fold. When Stan asks if this means that they will have to go to church on Sundays again, his father replies, "No, it means we get to."

A few brief points. One of the things Parker and Stone are good at is portraying a mood. It would be easy enough to point out that the 'Holy Document of Vatican Law' doesn't exist, that molestation of children and sex outside of marriage is clearly a sin by Catholic standards, that the Cardinals of the Catholic Church don't take orders from Queen Spider, or that there are no Gelgamek Catholics. But the point of all these divergences from fact is not to give a rigorous depiction of the scandals, but to portray a mood, and the mood is that of someone who is utterly bewildered by the actual hierarchical responses to the actual scandals. For such people, the response might as well be decided by people from Gelgamek or by appealing to a web-spinning spider, for all the sense they could make of it.

Fr. Maxi's approach to the subject is clearly on the liberal side (one notices this from the moment he suggests marriage for priests as a partial solution); but it's noteworthy that it is a genuinely Catholic approach. What makes Fr. Maxi the hero of this episode is that he truly believes that the Catholic Church is there to bring the light of God, that he truly believes that Catholic thought is relevant to everyone, and that he acts out of a genuine compassion and desire for the right. One of his admirable qualities throughout the episode is that he lets no web-spinning get in the way of recognizing the importance of people. This episode took a lot of criticism for portraying Catholic priests as alcoholic child molesters, but it's actually a story of a virtuous Catholic priest fighting ecclesiastical corruption for the good of the Church. (There were also people who criticized it for the burning of the Vatican; but I think such criticisms are indications of a need for different priorities.) The portrayal of Fr. Maxi isn't the portrayal of a saint -- Fr. Maxi may share with St. Peter Damian a refusal to stand for corruption in the Church, but he's no Peter Damian; nonetheless, it is the portrayal of a hero, and a genuinely Catholic hero at that. Catholics could do worse than take Fr. Maxi's protest as a motto: "We're here to bring the light of God, not harm the innocent!"

Stone and Parker are no friends of organized religion of any kind; but it is interesting how critical they are of atheists who aren't willing to extend a modicum of respect to those with religious sensibilities. The great irony of this episode, which makes it one of the better-designed episodes in the series, is that Fr. Maxi's speech, an attack on forms of Catholic obfuscation that drive people away from the Church or make them think it irrelevant to their lives, falls hardest not on the Catholics but on a certain type of atheist, the kind who pride themselves on their rational superiority over religious believers, who are contemptuous of people who live their lives according to a mythology and yet have substituted it with nothing but "spewing crap out of their mouths."

All in all it's a thought-provoking episode. That's long enough for a post. I'll talk about the Mormon episode in another post at some point.

Part II

Cohen's List

Via Cliopatria, I came across this post by Dan Cohen on the top ten philosophy syllabi at Syllabus Finder. It's quite interesting. Cohen is struck by how diverse the topics are in comparison with history, but I suspect that this is simply a matter of the size of philosophy as a discipline. Philosophy covers everything from here to the edge of the universe and back again, ten different ways simultaneously. What strikes me is all that is lacking. There are a number of ways in which philosophy as a matter of practice tends to be divided: problematic (philosophy of religion, of science, of art, etc.), historical (ancient, medieval, early modern, etc.), regional (Chinese, Russian, Anglo-American, etc.), cultural (Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Marxist, etc.), scholastic (Aristotelian, Platonist, Kantian, etc.) and so forth. Regional, scholastic, and cultural divisions play very little role in the organization of curricula in general; they occasionally peek their heads through, but tend not to be fundamental. This leads to obvious deficiencies -- lack of serious exposure to Chinese philosophy, Sikh philosophy, the complex courses of various philosophical schools, etc. But it does have the advantage of making it easier to organize a department and a set of stable course requirements. The lines of organization tend to be problematic and historical; this gives you a way to cover everything (in a very, very general way) two different ways, and when done properly this works very well. What I notice about the list is that there are no purely historical syllabi (no ancient, medieval, or modern courses), although several blend the historical and problematic, as one might expect. The breakdown is roughly into two intros (which are mixed, as most introductory courses are, but tend problematic, as most introductory courses that are not explicitly designated historical do); two aesthetics courses; and six social/political courses. This is rather unbalanced, perhaps almost as unbalanced as the history list's domination by American history. Of course, it isn't possible to say what any of it means without knowing something of the psychologies of typical Syllabus Finder users -- what percent are students and what are instructors, what they tend to use Syllabus Finder before, etc.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Valley of Darkness

From Joseph Bottum's recent post at First Things:

It’s as though nearly everyone wants to use the Holocaust for something: to advance some modern political purpose or thicken some contemporary moral claim. The temptation is almost overwhelming—and understandably so, for Auschwitz truly is a lesson, and it seems to demand that we apply that lesson, here and now. It seems to demand that we change our lives, here and now.

In itself, that ought to be a warning. The examples are endless: A few decades ago, the anti-Western Soviets declared that the Nazi death camps demonstrated Communism’s superiority to the bourgeois West; a few years ago, a popular anti-Christian historian wrote a book claiming that the Holocaust proved that organized Christianity must dissolve itself. If the Holocaust merely confirms you in the stands you already have, then you haven’t learned the lesson of the Holocaust.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Poem Drafts

The first is a redraft (old draft here); the second is new, using the Sikh holy city as a symbol.

A Tiger Pouncing

The light is a tiger pouncing,
a panther pawing, a lion roaring;
like waterfalls in their pouring,
its color thunders, unrelenting.

Rippling in the shadows
like a rumor in the city,
it leaps like glory's coming
in the rainbows of the flood.

The light on the wall is flowing,
shadow-playing, darkness-mousing,
leaping and lightly purring
as it panthers in my room.


Although the sea divides us
in Amritsar I stand;
my heart rests in the warmth
of nectar-golden sand.
In a vessel, clay and calm,
made by a guru's hand,
I feel blessing pouring down,
for in Amritsar I stand.

When time pools all around me
like some silent sarovar,
I am in Ramdaspur;
and, whether near or far,
my heart is by those waters
as they shine beneath the stars
around the golden temple
of blessed Amritsar.

When trouble overtakes me
I flee to the fort of steel,
I shelter in the city
with the sacred pools that heal,
I search for the jot of light
where the psalms of gurus peal:
this world is all mirage,
but Great Amritsar is real.

Links and Things

* An article that briefly gives some of Hedwig Conrad-Martius's work in phenomenology. Conrad-Martius was an important student of Husserl and friend of Stein who is little-studied today. This article is very critical, in part because it focuses only on some of her stranger claims; but much of Conrad-Martius's work influenced Edith Stein, whose positions are much less speculative and Romantic than Conrad-Martius's are. As far as I can tell it's the only easily accessible English resource on the web for Conrad-Martius's work.

* Marianne Sawicki has a nice lecture online summarizing Edith Stein's pre-conversion phenomenological work.

* In case you were wondering, the egg came first. Clayton reminds us of this 1992 Mind article on vagueness (PDF) by Sorensen.

* John Calvin died May 27, 1564. Scott Gilbreath has a summary of his life.

* Neil Sinhababu has a good post on morality and objectivity at "The Ethical Werewolf".

* The HTML of Siris as a graph. (Houyhnhnm Land is prettier, because it is less hodgepodge and more WordPress.) You can do your own at Websites as Graphs. It's slow but worth it. Aharef has the explanation of what the graph means. (HT: Pharyngula) I toyed around with it while typing up notes on Suarez's account of efficient causation.

* At "The Elfin Ethicist," Wilson has a post on fear and snobbery in academia that's worth reading. On a different but distantly related note, see Tim Burke's post Some Teaching I Have Known at "Easily Distracted".

* Don't forget that the History Carnival is coming up (June 1) at Aqueduct. If you have any nominations, send them to amy[at]amystevensonline[dot]com.

* One of the great philosophical works of the Middle Ages that just isn't read enough (one of many, I suppose), is Ibn Tufayl's The History of Hayy ibn Yaqzan (PDF). It's the story of a man raised by deer on a desert island who reasons himself into metaphysics and then into union with God. As a narrative, it's an interesting way to structure a set of philosophical arguments. Then, one day, he discovers to his surprise that he's not the only human being in the world when a holy man named Asal discovers him. Asal teaches him language, and discovers to his astonishment that Hayy is so wise already, having attained philosophically what Asal's religion symbolically expresses. (It is a standard theme of Islamic philosophy that the difference between philosophy and religion is that philosophy deals with realities for those who have the intellect for it, and religion deals with images and symbols of those realities for those who don't. We are a long way away from the Christian 'philosophy is the handmaiden of theology' view.) The two of them set out for Asal's home island so that Hayy might teach the people there. The expedition is a disaster. The people are mired in the senses and imagination, so they can't raise their intellects to the intellectual truths Hayy is expressing. He realizes that they can't think about such matters without symbols and images; so he recommends that they follow Muhammad's doctrine in the Qur'an as the only way they can reach spiritual truth, apologizes for his interference, and returns home. As the narrator says:

And when he understood the condition of mankind, and that the greatest part of them were like brute beasts [i.e., in not being able to handle rigorously intellectual truth in any direct way], he knew that all Wisdom, Direction, and good Success consisted in what the Messengers of God had spoken, and in the divine Law delivered; and that there was no way other than this, and that there could be nothing added to it....