Saturday, June 19, 2010

Flanagan and Classifications of Atheism

The Unpublishable Philosopher, discussing Mary Midgley's attack on the New Atheism (or perhaps it is better seen as another attack on Dawkins, with whom she has a long-running feud):

One cannot argue effectively against a religious worldview in isolation since religious believers will have other justifications for their beliefs, and explanations for why their views are not undermined by science. Thus, a complete attempt to refute a worldview must involve giving good reasons to replace these alternative sources with other sources and replace their views about meaning, morality and human life with non-religious views. Interestingly, there is at least one New Atheist who attempts to do this, and that is Owen Flanagan in his The Problem of the Soul.

It's nice to see someone actually mentioning Flanagan, who seems largely unknown outside of very narrow philosophical circles; and it would indeed be an improvement if more people read him. But I find the classification of Flanagan as a New Atheist odd. He's an atheist, of course, but that means nothing; there are atheists and atheists. Flanagan's 'quietist' atheism (to use his word) does not ever really sound like anything suggestive of anyone who typically gets designated with the label 'New Atheist', and he was recently, for instance, a signatory to the Neo-Humanist Statement of Secular Principles and Values, and Neo-Humanists are generally highly critical of New Atheists. Indeed, that was one of the reasons Paul Kurtz wrote the Neo-Humanist Statement in the first place. Now, Neo-Humanists are big-tent people, so there is a spectrum of views involved, and that means that there is a spectrum of possible sympathies with New Atheists. But even if Flanagan, the broadly Buddhist Neo-Humanist atheist interested in the possibility of a naturalized spirituality (or, as he has also called himself, "a Celtic-Catholic-quasi-Buddhist atheist"), has expressed explict sympathy for the New Atheism somewhere that I have not come across, it would not follow that he is best seen as a New Atheist. Flanagan is likely in a different camp altogether.

Flanagan provides a good example of why one should be careful with classifications when talking about anything so amorphous and different from person to person and group to group as atheism certainly is. This goes for critics and everyone else; it makes little sense to treat modern atheism as a monolithic position rather than as a cloud of many different droplets carried by currents in many different directions.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Fraud, Part III

This is the final part of an extended poem draft. Part I, Part II.

How subtle are the gods! But cleverness and doom
are partners hand in hand. The treachery of gods
to gods will bring an end. The fraudulence of gods
will sprout with fiercest force, and to them bring a night.
The honor of the gods must ever be maintained.
By treaty and by troth we net the world around;
by covenant we rule, by word that never dies.
In this our power lies, the truth within our blood,
and bale of fate are those who pass the bounds of trust,
though they be gods on high. You sing for joy for Freya.
This is a righteous joy. But sorrow in its seed
in joy's own birth was sown. Now hear, and hearing, dread:
Because the gods with cheat have turned the word of trust,
the evening doom will come. Because dishonor ruled
though but a moment's time in Aesir's thought and deed,
and of dishonor's fruits the gods have all a taste,
the evening doom will come. Because by rot of troth
all gods have tasted joy, the twilight doom will come.
Because by death of truth the gods have kept their joy
the death of gods will come. Because with trick the gods
have countered covenant, a number marks our days.

And all in silence heard. Then hammer-bearing Thor
with lightning in his eyes rose up with stormy wrath.

Who here knows not the source of all our new-found woe?
Of all the gods, who sowed the seed that birthed this course?
One god holds all the blame: red Loki is his name.
Hear now! The doom begun it may not be undone
but by the pain of one who made it to be born.
With iron born of stars let Loki now be bound,
with steel from heaven far that subtlety confounds,
that in these holy halls the doom may be forestalled.

What fools are now the gods who clamor for my pain!
To such I give no thought but merciless disdain!
Who were the ones who begged my aid in saving spring?
All through the razor-edge of cleverness all sing
of all the lovely joys of spring-encircled Freya.
Are cowards newly found behind high Asgard's wall?
If death will come, no bond will stay that ceaseless doom;
on all of us it falls like evening in its gloom.
But you will still have spring! Raise up your song and sing
and face the mask of death that nears with every breath.
And I, I spit on all who seek to pass the blame
so that the coming death might never on them fall.

Not even gods can stay the fate we now will face.
Our truth is now corrupt and we will not repent
and give the spring to Hrim. The twilight doom will come.
But slowed its steps may be and fate at walking pace
may march its stayless march. The flame has broken bond,
corrupted holy troth; let flame in steel be bound
and space against the night the gods will have from Loki.

And from the holy house, the city of the gods,
the god of flame was thrown and bound with chains of steel
beneath a serpent's tongue, that for a little while
the twilight might delay before the horns of war
ring out in holy Asgard. Then Naglfar will sail;
its pilot will be Hrim, who will tear down his wall;
then Loki will return and consummate his war,
and vengeance will destroy, and flame devour, the gods.

A Dream

Like many academics, I often dream about things relating to academics. I have had, for instance, the common dream in which you are teaching and suddenly realize that you are teaching wearing nothing but your underwear. I'm not sure what it says about me that both times I have had the dream I looked down, sighed, and continued teaching. And I've had dreams about philosophers and the like.

I had an odd dream last night. I was passing by a classroom that was full of students. On the desk there was a pile of syllabi on bright yellow paper, but no professor in sight. To be helpful, I went in and distributed the syllabi. I noticed that the syllabus said that the course was on the Eucharist. So, since the professor was still not here, I gave a speech introducing the course.

First I asked if anyone knew what the Eucharist was. Nobody did, or at least nobody had the courage to say they did. So I talked about the bread and the wine and the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. I don't remember anything more specific than that, except I then said how the course was going to be on the history of views about the Eucharist, and gave some examples (I think I mentioned St. Paul and Aquinas, but I'm not sure that that was actually in the dream, or just my memory supplying examples of things that I would have meant if I said these things when awake). In the midst of discussion an elderly black lady with big glasses, very dignified and intelligent-looking, came in; she looked a little bit like the Oracle from the first Matrix movie, and a little bit like the little old lady with big glasses in the movie My Cousin Vinny. I assumed she was the professor, but it turned out she wasn't. She was, I think, some sort of administrator. But she raised her hand and insisted very strongly that if the course was going to cover the history of views about the Eucharist, it would have to talk about Berengar and some other name I don't remember. And I agreed, and, because I was sleeping in a very uncomfortable position, I woke up.

Rainbow Passage

This report, about a scientific study showing that people can guesstimate a man's upper body strength from his voice with a fair amount of accuracy, has been making the rounds. I was more interested in this paragraph, though:

The participants next spoke a certain sentence in their native language that was recorded. The American students, for example, were instructed to say, "When the sunlight strikes raindrops in the air, they act like a prism and form a rainbow." This sentence includes every sound in the English language.

The sentence very clearly and obviously does not include every sound in the English language. There is neither a long or short 'oo' sound, for instance; and while the letter y occurs, it doesn't make its quasi-consonantal y sound (as in the beginning of 'you' or 'year'. You won't find j as in 'jump' or g as in good. So lots of sounds in the English language are missing.

But it's often interesting to see why someone makes a mistake like this. The claim is not made in the actual paper. (As a side note, why don't science journalists actually provide links to the papers they are talking about? In this day and age there is no excuse for not linking to papers that are available to the public online. This tiny little change would massively improve online science reporting.)

As the paper notes, however, the sentence is the first sentence of the Rainbow Passage. The Rainbow Passage is a public domain text that is widely used for articulation drills, speech recognition testing, and language studies because the whole passage provides a very broad selection of English-language sounds. I doubt any linguist would insist that it includes every sound you ever hear in the English language, but it does include all the ones you are likely to hear in ordinary conversation. More importantly, it is what is called a 'phonetically balanced' or 'phonemically balanced' passage, in which the sounds, or phonemes, are found in proportions fairly similar to those in which they are found in ordinary conversation -- very common sounds are very common in the passage, less common sounds are less common in the passage. So the reporter, apparently trying to pin down why a particular sentence was used, seems to have confused the first sentence of the paragraph with the whole paragraph.

The Rainbow Passage is as follows:

When the sunlight strikes raindrops in the air, they act as a prism and form a rainbow. The rainbow is a division of white light into many beautiful colors. These take the shape of a long round arch, with its path high above, and its two ends apparently beyond the horizon. There is, according to legend, a boiling pot of gold at one end. People look, but no one ever finds it. When a man looks for something beyond his reach, his friends say he is looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Throughout the centuries people have explained the rainbow in various ways. Some have accepted it as a miracle without physical explanation. To the Hebrews it was a token that there would be no more universal floods. The Greeks used to imagine that it was a sign from the gods to foretell war or heavy rain. The Norsemen considered the rainbow as a bridge over which the gods passed from earth to their home in the sky. Others have tried to explain the phenomenon physically. Aristotle thought that the rainbow was caused by reflection of the sun's rays by the rain. Since then physicists have found that it is not reflection, but refraction by the raindrops which causes the rainbows. Many complicated ideas about the rainbow have been formed. The difference in the rainbow depends considerably upon the size of the drops, and the width of the colored band increases as the size of the drops increases. The actual primary rainbow observed is said to be the effect of super-imposition of a number of bows. If the red of the second bow falls upon the green of the first, the result is to give a bow with an abnormally wide yellow band, since red and green light when mixed form yellow. This is a very common type of bow, one showing mainly red and yellow, with little or no green or blue.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Fraud, Part II

This is the second part of an extended poem draft. Part I.

How subtle are the gods! And yet more subtle flame!
Thus Loki took the moonlight, the blindness of the snow,
the heartlessness of cold, and mixed them with his fire,
that madness might take shape, the handiwork of gods.

Work on, fine horse, with speed, O Svalthifari swift!
Work on, and shift these stones, with steady pace work on!
The day is nearly done, the winter nearly passed,
but Hrim will blessing have, and springtime in his bed,
for one and one alone of all the stones is left!
And have I not long dreamed of pouring down my joy
upon her lovely form, and have I not recalled
with every working night for months that came and went
without a rest or cease, the first fair sight I had
of she who haunts my dreams. Such sweetness and such light
would I not crown with gold? The gods in foolish troth
a concubine would give for but a simple price;
but she is more and more, the finest of the gods,
inspiring awe and love. The work was hard and long,
but nothing to compare with flawless, fairest Freya.
And almost are we done! Work on, work on, work on!

Then Loki took his work, the frenzy born of flame,
and sent it through the air. It curled around like scent,
it trickled forth like breeze, and reached the titan-steed
who breathed it deep inside. And madness flamed in eye;
it flecked the jaw with foam; the steed with phantom fears
was seized and overcome, and fled, and dragged the stone
until the leather broke. And off it went like wind.
And Hrimir, crying out, in vain did try to calm
the frenzy of the horse, and when the horse was lost,
he seized the strap that held the final piece of wall
and pulled with titan pull, as giants pull, and strained,
and moved the stone an inch and then an inch again
and did not cease to pull. But far the frenzied horse
had dragged the heavy stone and when the giant reached
again the gap of wall, the day and sun were gone,
and winter reached its end. The ground grew rich with frost,
its gentle shards spread out to farthest edge of sight
in thick and snowy growth, for sinking to his knees,
his head upon his hands, the giant Hrimir wept.

And thus with joy the gods returned to holy Asgard.
Their songs above the bow brought colors to the world
beyond mere mundane hues; and spring herself in light
was crowned upon the hill and harps were played with notes
of which we only dream, to celebrate the wall
and fairest Freya saved. But Odin on his throne
in dread and dark did brood. The ravens at his side
were silent as the night. One eye looked forth through time
and saw the endless years. No joy was in his face.
And from his throne he went in cloak of shadowed night
and stood in grim and gloom amidst the dance of Asgard.
'O gods!' the father-god did shout, and silence grew
and spilled out on the green until the breeze itself
was waiting for his word. The wisest god then spoke.

(to be continued)

The Fraud, Part I

This is the first part of an extended poem draft.

A quick and subtle flame along the course of time
now licks and burns its way through endless years and days
to bring the gods to death, the gods themselves in Asgard.
The power of this flame, which, first a seed, will grow
to wreath the worldly Ash with burning vine of fire,
a god himself, is Loki. He warned the gods of men;
they steal the right of gods; they take and rape and cheat
at will; such darkness holds their rotting, hollow hearts.
But gods did never heed the father of the flame,
for they were given hope that more might come of men
by counsels sent from Odin. Thus he, with cunning way,
conceived alone a war between himself and all
who stood against his word; a war none knew but he.

The citadel of gods was once unringed by wall;
it trusted to the hearts of those who dwelled within.
But as the gods had grown in power on the earth,
and as the giants fled before the thunder's might,
they wished a surer peace, not courage but a wall,
that heart-strength need not rise but rest instead at home,
must now protect fair Asgard. The subtle god of flame
convinced his fellow gods to enter into faith
with one renowned for craft, a giant known as Hrim.
If Hrimir could by art a wall of flawless form
around the endless bound of Asgard's precious frame
exact in winter's time, then Freya, pure and fair,
his concubine would be. 'For surely,' subtle fire
said to his fellow gods, 'it is beyond all craft.
But he will try it yet, for who will pass a chance
to have the spring-sweet Freya? The word of gods will hold,
the wall will swiftly rise, yet Freya will be safe.'
But now the end of cold draws near with ceaseless tread,
a march of winter dread, for Hrimir with his craft
upon a godlike horse, called Svathilfari fair,
had drawn the stones and laid each one in flawless place;
the winter nearing end, the wall was nearly done,
and all the gods then feared the loss of spring-sweet Freya.

The doom now rumbles near; it roars upon the ear;
it measures out the fear of Asgard with its beat.
And what is thus to blame? The subtlety of flame,
and Loki is his name, the captain of deceit.
So let his hands be bound, so let his arms be pinned,
with steel that flames confounds as penalty for sin.
For he, the fatal foe, has promised Freya fair
to titan born of snow and lost her in his dare.

And who is this that speaks with darkness and with rhyme
in mimicry of speech on tongues of gods sublime?
Some farmer's bastard-brat upon a dirt-packed floor
has poured his stinking breath out like a flippant fool.
You did not thus protest when first I had proposed
the building of this wall without your god-born hands
encased in sweat and dirt; and Freya for a thrall
the gods in their demands did promise for the work.
You gave your word yourself; and Odin gave his word;
and Freya, too, was heard the treaty-words to tell.
So pin us all to stone and bind us all as one;
I bear no blame alone. So let us simply let
this treaty lapse and fail; for are we not the gods,
beyond all force and spell? We are beyond all reach.

The honor of the gods must ever be maintained;
our word must iron be through suffering and pain,
unbroken and unlapsed, for there our power lies,
that truth is in our blood, the truth that never dies,
the troth that never fails. All covenants are ours,
all boundaries of old. But gods without the spring
may scarcely be called gods; the youth that wreathes our brows,
refreshment in our thoughts, are all in Freya's hands.
A promise we have made, but flame did also speak,
and one more promise laid, that Freya would be safe.
Let Loki keep his bond, or Loki will be bound.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Links for Thinking

* Michael Gilleland looks into the questions of what texts support the anecdote about Fustel de Coulanges's question, "Do you have a text to prove it?"

* Jonah Lehrer has a nice little article on reductionism.

* I think Steven Pinker usually bungles things when he's trying to write for a popular audience, but this essay criticizing some of the complaints that new technologies are making us stupid makes some good points.

* D. G. D. Davidson discusses Villiers's Tomorrow's Eve, which is a classic I haven't read yet, and apparently should. He also mentions the short story, "The Sandman," by E. T. A. Hoffman, which is available in translation online.

* An Anglican vicar has a little fun with a medieval law, still on the books, that gives her the authority to summon the men of her village to archery practice. (ht)

* Brendan noted, in response to my link to Guedelon, that there's a medieval fortress being built in the Ozarks.

* Science fiction detective novels.

* Pierre Wagner clears up confusions about analytic philosophy. (ht)

* James V. Schall, On Re-Reading the Apology

* Jonathan Spence on China and the West in the seventeenth century.

* Leon Botstein discusses Bard College's summer reading program.

* Jesus was struck by lightning in Ohio last night and went up in flames. Styrofoam, wood, and resin burns well. In any case, the comedian Heywood Banks wrote a fairly well-known comedy song about the statue.


* Home library design. (ht)

* An exchange about Flannery O'Connor.

Monday, June 14, 2010


James Kushiner notes that today a number of Eastern churches celebrate the Prophet Elisha, and that the story of the children and the bears is explicitly raised in a number of Eastern liturgies. I seemed to remember that I had a poem draft on the subject somewhere, and so I do, one in which, of course, it is an allegory, although I am not sure it would be obvious any longer who is meant by the children:


I fear the bears
will be eating children soon,
so much mocking is in the air;
these little children,
playing beside great rivers,
posturing as adults,
when asked for reason
respond at once:
'Baldpate, baldpate.'

Yes, the bears
will be full soon.

And I hope
the mocking will soon stop
for children
are bad for the stomachs
of poor, innocent bears.

That Passes Soon as Flowers Fair

The Love Unfeigned
by Geoffrey Chaucer

O yonge fresshe folkes, he or she,
In which that love up groweth with your age,
Repeyreth hoom from worldly vanitee,
And of your herte up-casteth the visage
To thilke god that after his image
Yow made, and thinketh al nis but a fayre
This world, that passeth sone as floures fayre.

And loveth him, the which that right for love
Upon a cros, our soules for to beye,
First starf, and roos, and sit in hevene a-bove;
For he nil falsen no wight, dar I seye,
That wol his herte al hoolly on him leye.
And sin he best to love is, and most meke,
What nedeth feyned loves for to seke?