Monday, 30 December 2013

13 of 2013

I've been clutched by the desire to write a year-in-review post and, being who I am, I'm listing media. (I'm departing from just books because I've started watching more tv shows and movies.)

TV Shows

1. Supernatural

I could have listed Game of Thrones or Andromeda, if I were simply choosing based on whether I had watched and enjoyed them; I think I've seen the first season of Game of Thrones three times now, and it remains one of the most compelling fantasy TV shows--or even fantasy movies--that I've seen so far, and while my enjoyment of Andromeda was more mixed, I thoroughly enjoyed both the overall idea of the show--a diplomatic version of the Pax Romana--and the characters Andromeda/Rommie and Trance Gemini (as characters and as thought experiments). But I've got to choose Supernatural. I might even mention Once Upon a Time, which was compelling at least in its repeated undercutting of the "happily ever after" idea and its surprising second season twist on Sleeping Beauty.

I have an appetite that only The X-Files has come close to really satisfying. I started to watch Supernatural in a half-hearted attempt to appease that appetite, and found that it was something worth watching all on its own. Those first few seasons were atmospheric in the particularly wonderful way of being their own atmosphere: the mix of classic rock, staticy radios, dive bars, abandoned buildings, and strangely filmic ghosts worked well together to make a feel which was distinct. That atmosphere faded out as the series went on, and Supernatural did become an inferior show, but I'd still say that other show it became was also worth watching, at least some of the time, because of its secondary characters. I, like everyone else, I think, got frustrated with the show's habit of killing off it's most interesting characters, sometimes even permanently, but I suppose the good thing about the Senecan death rate is that it prompted them to make more wonderful characters. The best summary I heard was this: "For a show that hated women, it had some of the best female characters."

Books (fiction)

2. The Golem and the Jinni

I've written about this already (link). But it really was wonderful--for me.

3. The Homeward Bounders, by Diana Wynne Jones

I've written about this one, too (link). It took me a while to work into it, and it struck me as bizarre that Diana Wynne Jones has two books with Middle Eastern (and fairly Orientalist) young girls who are the avatars/manifestations of divine beings and, therefore, have magical powers. (cf The Lives of Christopher Chant.) I liked both characters, though, and Homeward Bounders wound up being pretty excellent.

4. Paper Towns, by John Green

Paper Towns is one of those books for which I made bad decisions regarding bedtimes and schoolwork. I wouldn't say it's so fantastic as some people say it is, but its fairly transparent themes are ones that I think are important: our repeated failure to imagine other people as complexly as they deserve, the sorts of selfish motives which bungle our empathy, the foolishness of the idea that love can fix certain problems, the way some people's brokenness is close enough to hurt us but still too far from us to fix, the importance (or, anyway, omnipresence) of artistic creation. If you pick it up and start feeling uneasy about how much it looks like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl story, be assured that it doesn't end up that way. John Green has joked that the alternate title is The Patriarchal Lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Must Be Stabbed in the Heart and Killed.

5. The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy

When I'm at my least charitable, I want to use this book as a litmus test to see if someone is worth my time or not: if someone finds the book annoying, they have failed it. The novel is an extended observation of an insufferable man's death, in which the man becomes more insufferable as he is in pain. But, for me, anyway, my irritation about this man came out the other side as compassion for him, and that seems to be the whole exercise of the book; that, and a commentary of the social norms of dying. Even the mere observation that something so un-social as dying has its norms is an observation that makes the book worth reading, in my opinion.

This quotation stuck with me: The awful, terrible act of dying was, he could see, reduced to those around him to the level of a casual, unpleasant, and almost indecorous incident (as if someone entered a drawing-room diffusing an unpleasant odour) and this was done by that very decorum which he had served all his life long. He saw that no one felt for him, because no one even wished to grasp his position.

6. The Collected Fictions of Jorge Louis Borges

I presume I have written enough about this (link).

Books (non-fiction)

7. Why Marx Was Right, by Terry Eagleton

I've written about this one already, too (link). I'll note, though, that the reason on this list was not that I enjoyed the book terribly much, nor that I couldn't put it down, nor that I found its main thesis compelling (the first two are untrue, and the third is true in a very limited and qualified sense). The reason it's on this list is because I've found its secondary (or even tertiary) ideas fruitful. The post I've written enumerates the most interesting and summarizable of those ideas.

8. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, by Andrew Solomon

This encyclopedic treatment of depression is well worth reading for anyone who has depression; I don't think it especially pulled me out of depression, but it helped me understand depression, whatever that is worth. I suppose that other people who seek to understand depression would also find it helpful. This tome is simultaneously thorough and engaging, which may make up for its length.

One distressing thing about it: parts of the book led me to believe that there was something worth my time that I could wrest from my depression, something like a combination of compassion, empathy, and perspective, a sort of moral capability that was hard to develop otherwise. And then it told me that many people with depression fail to get this benefit, that they become morally cramped people, that the moral capability is something you still have to work for. That was disheartening; part of realizing that I'm not as good and moral as I'd like to be is wanting to be a better person, a generally good impulse, and it's distressing when that impulse is frustrated.

9. The Dynamic of Faith, by Paul Tillich

Since I just finished this book last week, it may be too soon to put it on the list. (That's why I haven't put Home on it, even though I found it tremendously good. Eve Tushnet's review of it is worth reading [link].) Further, I wasn't entirely convinced by Tillich's argument; too much of it derives from how he's chosen to define words, without any argument about why we should understand those words this way. But I think I can tentatively justify it's inclusion for a few reasons: in Tillich's "Protestant Principle," I found an articulation of why, precisely, I am compelled by Protestantism for which I myself hadn't been able to find the words; I found answers to particular questions about what faith is which might be useful in those arguments that sometimes happen about whether or not atheists have faith, what systems count as religions, etc.; and I was actually engaged enough by a book of theology that I overcame my cynicism about it. Maybe it'll be a gateway book; maybe from here I'll go on to somebody like Barth.


10. The Beasts of the Southern Wild

This is an absolutely wonderful movie. You'll encounter reviews of it saying that it romanticizes poverty; don't listen to them. The answer to that charge is either, "No, it really doesn't," or "Yes, and it ought to, and it must"; I'm not yet sure which it is. The film is about a little girl named Mudpuppy who lives in The Bathtub, the swamplands on the water side of a giant levee. For the first third of the film I was mainly in horror about what I perceived as the poor parenting Mudpuppy was receiving; by the second half of the film I found myself desperately in love with the screwed-up and misguided adults around her. (The transition time was maybe the most startling.) These are a people who can't trust the system trying to help them because that system has betrayed them so many times before, and as much as I understand the officials representing that system, I can't fault the people of the Bathtub for refusing that help, either.

But the movie is also about the mythology of childhood--not that childhood has become sort of a myth in North America, though that is also true, but the way certain children make myths out of their lives, are reliant on the strange and screwed-up and ignorant people around them for the resources they need to express their moral feelings. And in that sense, the on-going metaphors of the film--the flood, which is real, and the monstrous Aurochs, which Mudpuppy believes/imagines are stampeding towards them from the Antarctic--are very compelling.

A friend of mine said of the movie, "I learned so much about strength from an eight-year old."

11. The Fingersmith

I don't know what to say about this (or whether it ought to go here or go under TV Shows, since it's one of those two-part BBC mini-series). But I still feel like The Fingersmith edges out Catching Fire, which I almost put here, so I suppose I must account for it.

I can't really even say what it is I liked about it: I almost never go in for the whole "the character you thought was innocent was actually jaded/compromised in an unexpected way, and the character you thought was compromised was innocent in an unexpected way" schtick, maybe because the idea of innocence seems so weird to me, but here it worked surprisingly well. Perhaps it was the theme of reconciliation that caught my interest, and the compelling way that people hurt those they love for selfish and cowardly purposes. Who will you hurt in order to escape a life that is killing you morally? What harm will you do to save your soul--and, of course, can you save your soul by doing harm? I don't think The Fingersmith even begins to answer those questions, but at least it asks them.

It does becomes dangerously close to have the standard sorts of problems that depictions of same-sex relationships tend to have--the "love that can never be" theme, etc.--but I think that it does manage to dodge a few of them and it manages to hobble on despite the rest.

Short Fiction-ish

12. "A Collection of things I like in order", by Sunny Chan

I often think that including things written by people I know is cheating, but I'll do it anyway. I have almost nothing to say at all about this piece, except that it's fantastic and a must-read and all of that good stuff. If you've ever thought that there's nothing poetic about academia, then let this put that error to rest. (link)


13. Postmodern Jukebox

What's this, you say? Christian is putting music on a list like this? I almost thought he had no ears, he's so indifferent to music. Not so!, I say. I just don't talk about it much because I haven't the vocabulary.

There's something super-catchy about Postmodern Jukebox's songs. They do covers of pop-songs in the musical styles of the past (or the gauche present): a jazz "Thrift Shop," a "Just (Tap) Dance," a swing (?) "Gentleman." And, since the lead singer is female, their bluegrass cover of the terribly misogynistic "Blurred Lines" comes off in her voice as inspired by a common misreading Adrienne Rich.

I may not listen to Postmodern Jukebox as much as I listen to some other groups, but I'm nonetheless excited about what they do.

Friday, 20 December 2013

Writing the Stories I Want to Read

One of the pieces of writing advice I ignore the most is roughly this: "Don't worry about how people will receive your work. That kills creativity." I am terrible for worrying about reception. The worst. And it's not just particular readers; I want to please all readers (who I know). This poses a serious problem, because I know people who could probably never agree on a single book they both thought was tolerable, let alone likable. I'm stuck trying write something that both does and does not have strong romantic elements, has no emotional issues superfluous to the main plot but also has well-developed characters with interesting lives outside of the plot (and, furthermore, there is no discernable linear plot anyway), and is both experimental and widely accessible. I very much need to stop worrying about reception if I want to write anything.

To help me follow the advice I should be following, I fall back on another piece of advice: "Write the story you want to read." A lot of people have said versions of this piece of advice; I'm most familiar with Stephen King, Diana Wynne Jones, and C. S. Lewis saying something of the sort, but according to Google it's Toni Morrison who said it most explicitly. At any rate, this seems like great writing advice. It also isn't going to work for me, I don't think, and with much the same results.

The trouble is that I like a lot of different kinds of stories. Often after I've read them I'll think, "Oh, I would like to write something like this." What I'm tempted to do is try to write something that is a bit like all of them bound up together. I sometimes say things like, "I might write something that's a cross between Madeleine L'Engle and C. S. Lewis," and that's not too unthinkable. But other times I'll say, "I plan to write something that's a cross between Diana Wynne Jones, Linda Medley, Don DeLillo, and Tom Stoppard," and that is unthinkable. I can't write something that is both immediate and detached; I can't write something that has an adventurous linear plot and has an unconventional narrative structure; I can't write something that has postmodernist deconstructed characters and has highly engaging and very recognizable characters. But I like--no, adore--both sides of those dichotomies. I do really enjoy reading books with unconventional structures and books with conventional structures. I like the first because it has an unconventional structure, and the second because it doesn't. But I cannot actually have both, even if I'd like to.

The obvious solution is for me to just pick one side of each pair and write a story like that, promising myself that the next thing I write will have the other. Another solution is to oscillate, within the same story, between each side of the pair. This last solution might not work for the characters, but it would possibly work for the other two elements, if well done. However, the first solution requires more deferral of pleasure than I'm good at, and the second solution may require more skill than I currently have.

This problem has more urgency now than it usually does, and on the same topic, I have an announcement to make. Starting some time in January (I'm not entirely sure when), an on-line serial publishing platform is having its beta-launch, and I'm slated to be one of its initial writers. So I am getting started on a novel that I will be publishing in instalments on-line. I'll provide links to the relevant websites as they become available/relevant, but in the meantime it might be fair to warn you that I might let this blog die a slow death after all. Between my regular life stuff, writing a novel, and working on promotional and auxilary material for my novel, I may no longer have time to post here. I recognize that I haven't been posting very much for a long time now anyway, but if I were you I wouldn't be surprised if I posted here even less...maybe not at all. We will have to see how much time I have, whether this novel pans out, and whether I have anything I want to say that I feel is most appropriately said here. There are some drafts of posts on my hard drive which I might be able to touch up some time. Be assured that the blog will stay up and that I will still be reading other people's blogs as before. Whatever happens, thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

An Apology to Certainty

In the time since I've written these posts advocating for less emphasis on certainty and more acceptance of uncertainty (link and link), I've moved on my position a little. I have not moved a lot, and I wouldn't feel any more comfortable formulating some kind of Statement of Personal Philosophy on this topic right now, but I feel like it's worth noting that I have encountered particular oppositions to my way of thinking and they are having an effect. A slow effect, but still an effect.

I thought I would round up a few of the things which have made me re-think my position on the subject in lieu of trying to articulate anything coherent. My purpose is so that, if anyone really wants to change my mind, they'll be able to see what kinds of things have traction on my thinking.

1. The conversation I had with Iota in the comments of this blog post. (link)
Iota has convinced me that, however useful I find postmodernism for my own thinking, it's probably not useful to expect other people to find it useful. Moreover, Iota pointed something out that it took me far too long to acknowledge: I need to reconsider my suspicion or anxiety that reducing certainty is the best method of reducing the general unpleasantness of society. Specifically, I am committing an error that I find appalling when others commit it; in the same comments section as my conversation with Iota, a number of people made claims about necessary (or at least overwhelmingly likely) progressions from one kind of belief-state to another. So, for instance, someone argued that Protestantism leads by necessity to postmodernism, and then on to relativism. But this is obviously untrue; you cannot posit necessary psychological progressions like this, particularly not when there is a lot of counter-evidence. You need to take other people's experiences seriously, and positing such progressions fails to take other people's experiences seriously.
Anyway, Iota did not make a parallel between my idea that certainty-->lack of hospitality-->jerk-ness and the grouchy Chestertonian Catholic's idea that Protestantism-->postmodernism-->relativism-->moral degeneracy, but by pointing out that my progression is faulty, Iota put me in a position where I could notice that parallel myself.

2. Real people
Following up Iota's comments, I noticed that I have friends who are certain (about some things, anyway), and manage not to be jerks. In fact, their very certainty makes them even more accepting of uncertainty in others, or so it seems. (It is also possible that they are just nice people, irrespective of how they hold beliefs. But it doesn't seem that way.)

3. Richard Beck's "Doubt and Universalism: Being Hopeful and Dogmatic"  (link)
This post is a short one, so I suggest you read it if you want a sense of what I'm talking about. The gist is that Beck is not so much a dogmatic universalist, absolutely believing that all people will go to Heaven eventually; rather, Beck calls himself a polemical universalist, because he'll argue for universalism without being sure of it. He says that if the Christian God exists, then universalism is the only position which is coherent. But Beck isn't entirely sure God exists. His certainty is in the validity of the if-then statement. It's an argument I find convincing, but I was more struck by Beck's ability to claim he's a polemical [insert position], and I think this way of constructing a belief is helpful, however religious or irreligious that position is.

This might not seem like something designed to inch me toward certainty, but it is. Being fairly confident in an if-then statement is at least a kind of confidence, and I ought to admit that. At the same time, it allows for action despite uncertainty; I may not know whether proposition A is true or false, but I sure do know that if proposition A is true, then result B will happen, while if proposition A is false, then result C will happen. That gives me something to work with, to plan for. So it makes me feel more comfortable with certainty, while giving me a way of articulating what it is I want out of uncertainty. If Beck's post hadn't done the second thing, I maybe wouldn't have accepted the first so readily.

4. Kathleen Mulhern's "Trinitarian Spirituality, 18: Believing in the Right Direction"
If you aren't Christian, this entry won't do much for you. But it has done something for me.

What K. Mulhern's posts in the middle of her series on the Trinity has indicated is that Trinitarian Christianity is invested in a God that is self-revealing. Specifically, if Christ is God incarnated on Earth, then there is something self-revealing about God. Oh, certainly there's a lot about God that remains mysterious, but it does seem that God would like us to know at least some of God's qualities. If God wants us to know at least some minimum of religious knowledge, then I presume it must be possible. This disrupts my tendencies to via negativa and analogous non-religious ways of thinking about knowledge.

5. Black holes
If the last post was rather religious, this one is rather nerdy. In the Philosophy of Mathematics course I took during my undergraduate degree, we were introduced to quite a few theories, including what's called realism or Platonism (numbers are real things that exist either in the Realm of Forms or as extensions of mathematical principles), nominalism (mathematics is an abstraction or approximation of reality relationships; this has an Aristotelian history), or fictionalism (mathematics is a fiction/metaphor we have found useful). My response was pretty much that fictionalism > nominalism > realism. I knew from the outset, though, that the big hurdle which fictionalism had to handle was the fact that math had predictive powers (most attempts to explain this with fictionalism turn fictionalism into nominalism). Most people describe the predictive powers by saying that bridges don't fall (because engineers use math and math works), but I always thought of Stephen Hawking's work on black holes.

The story generally goes that Stephen Hawking took some physical laws, crunched the numbers rather a lot, and then predicted that black holes must exist. Until this time, no one had the slightest idea about black holes, but when astronomers checked, they found evidence which suggested that they exist. It turns out this story might not be accurate, but the general lesson remains the same: physical laws are consistent and therefore predictable, and this predictability scales pretty well. We'd live in a pretty weird world if all this predictability was just a fluke.

So, black holes remind me that a lot of stuff is knowable, and I try to remember them when I start getting too skeptical.

6. Richard Beck's "Gracious Doubt" (link)
You know those times when you encounter something--maybe something a friend says, or a passage in a book, or what-have-you--which shows you, clearly and without compromise, a way you've gone wrong? That's what this post was to me. It is, yet again, a short post, so feel free to go read it.

I suppose what I managed to mess up was this: in feeling demeaned by those who were certain, I (sometimes) became antagonistic against certainty itself. In trying to make space for uncertainty, for doubt, I wasn't at all interested in making space for certainty. I recognize this now as uncharitable. I suppose this post did not really move me on this issue, so much as remind me that I needed to adjust my emotional response. And, possibly, offer an apology if I ever demeaned anyone myself. In which case, I'm sorry.

Which isn't to say I'm OK with people getting on their high horse against doubt, which is still a big issue.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Church in the Catacombs?

In the article "Church in the Pub?," Hans Boersma from Regent College discusses what he thinks is wrong with the recent phenomenon of holding church in pubs and other secular spaces. His argument boils down to his dislike of holding Holy Communion in the pub, because the distinction between the supernatural and the natural ought to be marked. I think this might be a little inconsistent with his nod to a broad understanding of sacramentality--that is, that all the world's sacramental--but I'm inclined to think that 1) he isn't really invested in broad sacramentality and 2) you could argue that precisely because of broad sacramentality you need to perform specific sacraments in a marked manner to heighten the experience or awareness of their specific sacramentality (he doesn't make that argument, but I could comfortably supply it for him).

The core of his argument isn't really what caught my eye in the article, though. This did catch my eye:
It’s not as if we need cathedrals to worship God. However, I do take issue with the dismissive attitudes that comes across in the article [describing churches in pubs] toward celebrating the liturgy in church buildings. When, because of persecution, we celebrate communion in the catacombs, we’re suffering. Meeting with God in such environments is incongruous with our understanding of who he is and what we’re doing together in this liturgical celebration.
Catacombs seem, to me, to be the worst example he could have chosen to make his point. If you couldn't hold the Eucharist in a cathedral, I can't think of a better place than the graveyard to hold it. The Eucharist, after all, is a celebration of a botched death, an execution that didn't take. It's a promise that death will not be meaningless, and that it will not be permenant, but that it will happen, and that's a promise that only means anything at all amid the dying. Catacombs seem to be exactly congruous with a robust understanding of the Eucharist. (And, in fact, this should become truer the more conservative you are: Chesterton speaks of tradition as democracy with the dead, after all.) For goodness sake, lots of Christians, even now, hold celebrations in graveyards on purpose.

I'm a little bit convinced that the atmosphere matters to the proceedings, and for this reason I'd be inclined enough to eschew pubs, but if you really want a setting that is congruous with the sacrament, then I have some settings I'd which to suggest to Regent College: Hastings Street, Vancouver General Hospital, and Riverview Hospital. I don't think there's anything wrong with suffering a little when we celebrate Communion (so long as that suffering is something we've chosen ourselves), if only so that we can appreciate the fact that we're celebrating communion with the suffering.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Which is the Genre for You?

I used QuizFarm to make a quasi-personlity test to determine which genre would give you the most opportunities to express your worldview and explore the questions that you find most interesting, as per this point (link). It's not, of course, supposed to indicate which genre you prefer; I submit that you might actually be more inclined to dislike examples of your best genre because they'll touch on the questions you're interested in, and there's a good chance they'll do so in ways that bug you. (For instance, Philip Pullman dislikes the Narnia books because he thinks they address the right questions in terrible ways.)

In general, I tried to make questions about the kind of beliefs you have--what the beliefs are about, how you think about them--more than what your opinions are. After all, coming-of-age novels usually have something about protagonists adopting or rejecting their society's conventions, but the author could prefer either adoption or rejection. Westerns have a spectrum of stances on morality, from very grey morality to black-and-white morality, but they are almost always interested in whether people do (or can) make moral decisions in tough situations. So I tried to make sure my questions were about the general shape of that opinion rather than its specific content, unless that content really is a part of the genre (for instance, if you're going to write a horror story, you must think that something is worth being scared about).

Months ago I wrote a version of this quiz which you'd score with pencil-and-paper. It was a much different format (multiple choice), so I hope no artifacts from that previous format interfere with the one QuizFarm gave me. This new format has yes/no questions keyed to one particular result each. This means that you could, in theory, get 100% on all eight genres (or 0% on all eight), which wasn't true of the other format. In this case, I had to try to make sure there's enough differentiation between the genres that a participant would be highly unlikely to prefer more than, say, three genres. Hopefully giving a spectrum rather than merely Agree/Disagree will add a bit of differentiation. I guess if you get 0% on all of the genres, you likely have nothing to say.

If you take part, bear in mind that any score lower than 50% counts as negative. Of course, this is supposed to be for fun, not a diagnostic test. And this is not supposed to indicate what kind of story I think you should write, if you want to write one; the point is to figure out more about your own (or another's) worldviews, not to determine what a good story is!

The quiz is here: link.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

An Apology to Authenticity

I have perhaps been unfair to what I've been calling the Polonius virtue. While, when I started out writing about it, I said that I thought you could likely build an argumentative robust version of it, I haven't been doing the best job of keeping that in mind. Instead, I've generally been thinking of people who adhere to the Polonius virtue as being pretty seriously mistaken. Of course even thinking that they're mistaken might be kind of strange, since I first came up with this idea in the context of Moral Foundations Theory, and there are real questions about whether moral foundations (or values) are even opinions anyway, at least in the sense that we think of them; we don't seem to choose which foundations matter to us. But I still want to make a case for valuing authenticity to oneself, in some shape or another.

To recap, I suspect that authenticity is value that a statistically significant proportion of humans care about. One version of this is the Polonius virtue, so called because of this line from Hamlet, spoken by Polonius: "This above all: to thine ownself be true, / And it must follow, as the night the day, / Thou canst not then be false to any man." To whit, it is a moral good to be true to yourself, a proclamation taken to mean many things. I think the problem, in fact, is that it's taken to mean so many things, and so many of those things are silly that I forget that some of them may not be so silly. For instance, I won't apologize for thinking that acting "true" to your every impulse is a good thing; hardly anyone can believe that if they keep in mind how many times people have conflicting impulses. But I think there might be one possible reading which isn't so silly: you shouldn't lie about yourself to yourself.

If you want to navigate the world with much hope of success, it will be much better if you are honest about yourself. This isn't a claim that there is some deep, immutable self to which you might be honest, nor is it even a claim that there is a temporary but nonetheless coherent self-of-the-moment about which you might be honest. I can fully recognize that I'm conflicted, that I'm partially opaque to myself, etc. and so forth, and still say that I tend to feel certain ways about certain things (so, for instance, I am afraid of heights, I have depression) and that I tend to do certain things (so, for instance, I usually articulate inchoate emotional content in logical, procedural ways). If I'm going to make it, I ought to know all of this about myself.

Another take on it: I need to recongize when people around me are making demands of me which don't honour the ways in which I differ from their ideas about what humans are. I typically see drives for authenticity as being a little anti-conventional, and I think this insight--that people do make demands of you which just don't mesh well with your personality, your needs, your cognitive style, etc.--is where that anti-conventional attitude might come from. Sometimes the dominant narrative just won't work for us; we aren't all or always so easily caught up in our culture's folkways. Being honest about this does seem rather important, at least as a condition of other goods.

And, for goodness sake, this is precisely the sort of thing I've been hoping other people would start adopting (particularly ones I think of as being uber-logical, disembodied rational types, like the Less Wrong people--and that may be unfair caricature, as well). I guess I've been an advocate for particular version of the authenticity ethic and I didn't even know it. Which is ironic in the technical sense. I'm a perfect example of what can go wrong if you aren't aware of yourself: I spent most of my life with dysthymia and I didn't even know it. Had I known it, things might have gone much better for me. And I'm also a decent example of what can go well if you are aware of yourself: I knew in advance that I was going to have a depressive breakdown, and I got a medical leave in time to weather that storm without damaging my academic career. So this specific kind of authenticity ethic is one I'm deliberately cultivating.

I think there are a few ways the Polonius virtue can go wrong, however. The first is when knowing yourself becomes an excuse to remain static. The second is when people start generalizing about what people are like; this can be a case of thinking other people are more like you than they are, or in can be a case of reasoning out from beliefs you have about human behaviour, even when it does not correspond well with the evidence/other people's experiences. The third is using an authenticity ethic to support selfish behaviour. The fourth (perhaps a superset which contains the third) is privileging authenticity over other goods. I'd explicitly disagree with what Polonius actually says: you can be true to yourself (whatever you take that to mean) and still be false with other people. (The most obvious example is that you could lie, and know you're lying.) And I think a lot of the metaphysics or anthropology that people build around the authenticity is unfounded .As an example, you could say that Freudian psychoanalysis is a huge and erroneous mythology built out of the valuable recognition that we are opaque to ourselves and spend a lot of time trying to repress/suppress our desires so that they correspond with societal norms.

Another way it can go wrong, too, is that we can fool ourselves into thinking that we know ourselves when we don't. Smart people prone to introspection are, apparently, really bad for this: smart people are terribly good at rationalization, and trick themselves into thinking they know their own mind. I'm inclinded to think that a fairly good knowledge of psychology--maybe not formal education but at least some commitment to following academic psychology, rather than folk psychology--would help people in this, but maybe not. That might just improve the plausiblity of their rationalizations, not improve the accuracy of their rationalizations. Really, awareness of the limitations of self-awareness is a kind of honesty to oneself, isn't it?

So in future I will try to be fairer to this ethic, and recognize that it probably has a place, when articulated in a certain way and when it is not burdened with baseless metaphysics. In retrospect, it seems appallingly obvious that, at minimum, being honest with oneself about oneself is pretty important to proper functioning. We've just got to pair that with the twin insights that 1) we can never really know ourselves entirely and 2) we are constantly in flux.

And I'm sorry if I offended anyone with my callous dismissal of authenticity as a moral good.

Monday, 4 November 2013

"American suburban fantasies of manliness are used by real killers"

I have no time really to write a blog post, but I thought some of you might want to read this article: "Jesus, meth, and masculinity." Andrew Brown of the Guardian explains how John Eldredge's Wild at Heart, an American evangelical handbook to normative Christian masculinity, has become the official handbook of La Familia Michoacana, an especially brutal Mexican drug gang known for decapitation. It makes sense; the logical end of normative masculinity is unfathomable violence. But of course Eldredge is horrified by this turn of events. I don't have time right now to talk a lot of about how masculinity and Christianity make terrible bedfellows, but I don't have to: I've done it before ("Feminine Christianity"), and a bunch of people have done it better than I have ("Mark Driscoll makes pacifists fighting mad"). And of course it's nothing new that the somewhat silly daydreams of privileged people are horrific when acted out: I love pirates, for instance, except when they're real and contemporary.

Wild at Heart does happen to be on my bookshelf, though I haven't read past perhaps the fifth page or so. It is the only book I've actually flung across the room, and I made a point of leaving it where it landed for a few days before putting it away. I do not want to own it anymore. I want to be rid of the thing. But I do not know how to get rid of it. Donating it to a used bookstore seems like a bad idea because then someone might read it, and this seems like a worst-case scenario to me. Destroying the book seems like the best alternative, but the idea of book-burning gives me serious willies. Perhaps I should try to make some sort of craft out of it, but I'm not really sure what I'd make. (I'd like to make something like this, but I haven't the skillz.)

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Which Myths Must Be True?

(This post is jam-packed with ideas and sources which I'm pulling together; I apologize in advance if it's a little dense. That's not a humble-brag; I am sincerely sorry conditional on your discomfort.)

An atheist friend once told me that the thing which frustrated him most about most of his atheist friends is that they didn't seem to understand that everyone has a mythology. His mythology is that birth is traumatic and then life is a downhill run to the grave. Other people have other mythologies: maybe it has something to do with the struggle between reason and conservatism, or maybe it's about the universe's basic indifference. Not everyone is aware that they have one. But everyone has one nonetheless. (To be fair, I don't think it's just his atheist friends who don't get this. A lot of Christians, for instance, think that non-religious people can't have a mythology; you'll have heard this as, "If there is no God, the world has no meaning.")

So that's a fair question to ask yourself: what's your mythology? I suppose we could think of mythologies as metanarratives, the big stories which make sense of all the little stories: Marxism's class struggle, Christianity's life-death-and-resurrection of Jesus Son of God, the Enlightenment's slow dawn of progress. But I don't know that all myths have to be big. The zodiac comes to mind: I know people who care about their sign, who understand themselves in light of that sign, but I don't think they believe the zodiac is the big story which gives meaning to all of the little stories. Myths can be medium-size stories which give some meaning to our experiences, but not all of the meaning. (In other words, you don't have to be a hedgehog to have a mythology; foxes have mythologies, too.)

Ambaa at the Patheos blog The White Hindu wrote a post a few months back called "Krishna is a Myth; Jesus is a Myth," arguing that it doesn't matter whether or not religious myths are historically true or religious figures were historically real; rather, what matters is how those myths and how those figures' teachings impact your life. It's the wisdom tradition that matters, she says. She speculated that insistence on historical reality was generally an attempt to claim religious supremacy. I commented to disagree with the motives she ascribes to Christians who believe that Jesus is historically real (counting myself among them): in general, the idea is that Jesus must have been real (and crucified, and resurrected...) in order for the Christian wisdom tradition to make any sense. So while many Christians probably do use Jesus' historicity in order to insist that Christianity is the one true and good religion, I think the theological (if not always emotional or social) motive for this belief is just that most Christians think that Jesus' historical reality is necessary to make Christianity coherent. The Christian wisdom tradition just doesn't make sense otherwise.*

However, I must say that the mythical truth/historical truth distinction is one that many Christians make. In particular, many Christians (I don't know about most) think that Genesis is not literally historically true; it really is a myth in the more anthropological sense. I know that some conservative Christians have argued that if we say Genesis isn't literally true, then soon we'll be saying Matthew isn't literally true, either; this may be a stretch, but certainly Ambaa is arguing for something like that. So there's another question: what parts of Christianity are necessary, and which are optional? Which parts must be history?

Or, a better way of putting that might be, which parts of my mythology require historical, scientific, logical, philosophical, or otherwise external justification in order to be sensible/useful/helpful? Which myths could still be useful and good if false? And which myths must be true?

(Technically I mean, "Which myths must be true in order to function as myths?", but that's far less pithy.)

In case you think that all myths must be true to be useful, I humbly submit that that's nonsense. Lots of really tenuous myths are helpful if they help you articulate something about yourself that you otherwise couldn't articulate. Freud, for instance, produced a massive mythology which has no real empirical basis, but some of his language--id and ego, repression--and some of his overarching concepts--the difference and relation between the conscious and unconscious minds--have been incredibly useful, at least until we came up with better language. And certainly science education has thrived on basically-flawed metaphors; when our best ways of understanding the universe is a set of advanced equations, you have to teach myths. I've written about how useful the idea of introversion has been to me; I was able to use that term to better articulate my needs and experiences. However, I am lucky: the concept of introversion does a very good job of articulating my experiences, but I know it that it doesn't help most people articulate their experiences. The fact that most people are ambiverts rather than introverts or extroverts suggests that the idea doesn't have much value as a scientific explanation of human behaviour generally. This does not change the fact that it has value as an explanation of my experiences. Introversion, as a myth, does not need to be true to be useful.**

This doesn't even get into the problems about what truth is, or what kind of truth we're talking about, and the distinction between "in order for this myth to be useful it must be true" and "in order for this myth to be useful I must believe that it is true." We have to tackle the nature of truth alongside the question, but I'm not getting into it again here.

So I have a lot of questions which I intend to ask of myself and I encourage you to ask of yourselves:

What is your mythology? And what are your myths?
Which myths could still be useful and good if false?
Which myths must be true?

(And let's remember that the map is not the territory...except when the map precedes the territory.)

*I had a Religious Studies professor in undergrad who said that one particular problem has plagued Hindu-Christian conversations: Christian participants often do not realize that, when they are explaining Christianity, they are not distinguishing between Christianity's Incarnation and Hinduism's avatars, allowing the Hindu participants to think Christianity is basically a kind of Hinduism. As a result, the Hindu participants would often just try to absorb Christianity into its exuberant polytheism without realizing that Christianity really does not work like Hinduism does. The reason this problem is a big one is that it afflicts conversations in which the participants are trying to get along; the problem results in the participants disagreeing about the best way of getting along (conflating Hinduism and Christianity vs. observing their differences). I think Ambaa's post fits well in this tradition of mutual miscommunication (if it is a tradition at all, and not something my prof made up).
**As it happens, there might be good empirical evidence to suggest that there is something going on at the level of the brain that folks have called introversion, to do with well-measured things like the brain's arousal to stimuli. But when people use the terms introvert and extrovert, they rarely use them in the neurological sense.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Postmodernism-Tapeworm Analogy

EDIT 31/10/2013: I made a silly mistake; it's hookworms, not tapeworms, that are beneficial to humans. That being said, tapeworms are still not detrimental to humans.

I just saw an article at Patheos entitled "Many Post-Moderns Have the Intellectual Equivalent of a Tapeworm in their Minds," which was pretty much certain to get my click-through. Here's why: I'm sure the author means that postmodernism is an intellectual parasite, some kind of malefic being which devours cognitive sustenance before the thinker in question can digest it, so I was primed to disagree with the author's intent, but NOT with the title, because tapeworms aren't actually detrimental to human hosts. They're actively beneficial!

First, they don't consume enough of our nutrients to harm us; only anemic or severely malnourished individuals would suffer any harm from a tapeworm. Second, for reasons not yet fully known to science, people with tapeworms have no allergies. There's evidence to suggest that deliberately infecting oneself with tapeworms will cure you of allergies. This is because they aren't parasites but symbiotes; just as we've evolved to have a special relationship with dogs, we've also evolved to have a special relationship with tapeworms. Third, you'll have a permanent friend. About the only downside to hosting a tapeworm is that it's pretty gross when the tapeworm tries to leave your body (something it will only do if it is starving, and that will only happen if you are starving), and this can be easily avoided by encouraging it to remain in your body.

(Thanks to my brother for informing me of this; he's told people that they shouldn't accept food from him if they've complained of allergies, because he'll likely try to cure them with tapeworms.)

So! Yes, I agree. Postmodernism is a tapeworm in your brain! It makes you less allergic to things you'd otherwise react badly toward, and it does not prevent you from ingesting ideas whatsoever.

Disclaimer: I do not consider myself a postmodernist and I do not encourage others to be postmodernists. I do strongly encourage people to learn about postmodernism, to recognize its achievements and respect it for those achievements (eg. its role in anti-racist activism, cf bell hooks), and to adopt the better of the tools which postmodernism has given us (eg. deconstruction, the idea of culture). In a sense, house a little postmodernist!you in your mind to be one of the many philosophical angels on your shoulders.

And actually engaging with the article at all: I don't know what Mark Shea is talking about. Pretty much every postmodernist I know or have heard of is extremely well-educated, in both the senses of "erudite" and "good at thinking."

Saturday, 28 September 2013

A Perfectly Viable Story, of a Minor Kind

A Review of J. M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year

Coetzee is one of those excellent novelists of whom I have not read nearly enough. I bought Diary of a Bad Year as a present for myself after my undergraduate degree and hadn't gotten around to it until now. I'm glad I finally did read it, though I think I'm better equipped to read it now rather than after my undergrad.

If unconventional novels aren't your cup of tea, then you might not enjoy Diary quite so much as I did. It has three sections that run parallel to one another: the base of the book is a set of essays, called Strong Opinions, by the protagonist, an elderly author and professor who may or may not be a fictionalized version of Coetzee himself; the next section is a set of reflections by the protagonist on his relationship with his typist, Anya, a shockingly attractive Filipina woman who lives in his apartment complex; the third section is Anya's account of the essays, her relationship with the author, who she calls Senior C, and her live-in partner Alan, a ruthless businessman. The trick is that each page is literally divided between these three sections; the essays run along the top, the author's reflections run along the middle, and Anya's reflections run along the bottom.

Plot is minimal. Anya and Senior C gradually figure out their working relationship, but still fail to understand one another; Alan becomes jealous of the time Anya spends with Senior C; it slowly becomes clear that Alan has hatched some kind of scheme regarding Senior C. That's about all that happens. The main interest in the novel (for me) comes from two things.

First, I enjoyed the essays themselves--mainly political, occasionally aesthetic or mathematico-philosophical--and the place they held in the novel. At first, anyway, they are clever and acute (if sometimes tremendously wrong) but still seem a bit oblivious; since the reader also encounters Anya's commentary on the essays, there's something undefended, exposed, unawares about them. Toward the end of the novel, the character of the essays change; they become more reflective, less bold, more...human, perhaps? Perhaps I enjoyed them because I am (or at any rate was) an academic; even in their error, I feel a sort of affinity with their project, and I enjoyed seeing them soften, seeing them shaped by the characters' lives, seeing their concerns shape the characters' lives.

Second, I enjoyed the degree to which the characters failed to understand one another. All three principle characters had different ideas about what their relationships with one another were; all three characters also failed to understand the other characters ideas. This was ultimately enjoyable, but at times horribly frustrating, because as much as Senior C might be wrong about some things (he is usually wrong when he talks about mathematics), Alan's critiques of Senior C's essays are even worse; he badly misunderstands philosophy, making category errors all of the place. To an extent, this is an academic's nightmare and dream: the reader proves the necessity of the academic's work by failing to understand these ideas, but at the same time and by the same token proves the futility of the academic's work, as well. The character who, by the end, became perhaps Senior C's best reader, to my surprise and joy, was Anya, the pragmatic under-educated typist who proved to be smarter than she seemed (or, very possibly, became smarter in her time with Senior C).
And it's unclear whether Anya or Alan understood Senior C's personal motives at all; Alan seemed to think that there was a love-triangle going on, which is possible but so incredibly boring, while Anya thought that there was something sexual but much more innocent going on, which is also possible, but we don't get many clues from Senior C regarding his attitude toward Anya by the end of the novel.

I don't want to say much more because I'm afraid of spoiling--this isn't a novel that can easily be spoiled, since none of its effects rely much on surprise, but there are a few things which maybe ought to be discovered alone. However, I'll note that there some ideas in his essays that might stand to be discussed, and I may do that on this blog. He certainly has produced some interesting ideas. In the meantime, I'll drop two quotations from the essays for your consideration:
So Nietzsche's dictum needs to be amended: While it may be so that only the higher animals are capable of boredom, man proves himself highest of all by domesticating boredom, giving it a home.
These are pages I have read innumerable times before, yet instead of becoming inured to their force I find myself more and more vulnerable before them.
Alas, I don't think Diary of a Bad Year will be quite pass that last test.

EDIT: I should note that the title of this post is a quotation from the novel, describing a story Senior C contemplates writing but ultimately doesn't write.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Some Things For New Visitors

If you're here from the Turing Test, and you're trying to get a very quick sense of who I am and how I think, you might find the following posts useful:

"Are You Taking the Right Test?", or, The Non-Participating Participant; How I Did the Ideological Turing Test All Wrong
"Finding Linguist Tells," which is about assessing Turing Test entries based on phrasing or vocabulary use. I don't think it's a very good method, but I propose a study that could allow us to use linguistic tells more effectively.
"An Enemy of Utopia For Utopia's Sake," in which I talk about Marxism. The bit about being unable to predict what society will look like after radical change is related to why I don't think we can tell, from our present position, what legalized and public polygamy would look like in a Western, generally secular, increasingly feminist society.
"Marriage as Genus, Marriage as Genre," in which I talk about how I think about marriage.
"What Genres Mean," an index post which will connect you with the posts which generated prompt #3 in this year's Turing Test. (See, in particular, the Other People's [Insert Genre]s Series.)
"Envy for Sisyphus," which some people might point to as the post that most defines my thinking at the moment. Benefits from prior knowledge of Camus.

"To Exist is to Differ, Part One" and "Part Two," which I would point to as the posts that most define my thinking at the moment.
"Notes on Depression Index," which is a directory of my writing on (in) depression.
"A Christian Lit Nerd Reads the Bible," which isn't even on my blog; it's a guest post on Unequally Yoked, from years back. It does a decent job of describing (if not defending) how I read the Bible. This might be of interest to Turing Test readers in particular.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Are You Taking the Right Test?

or, The Non-Participating Participant; How I Did the Ideological Turing Test All Wrong

Note: I wrote this a while ago, sometime in August. On the 19th I touched it up a bit but made no substantial changes, and scheduled it to post on the 20th.

I participated in this year's Ideological Turing Test at Unequally Yoked, or at any rate I made a submission. I am not so sure now that I truly participated.

As usual, the ideological positions were Christian and atheist (though activity in the comments made it seem as though the real lines were between Christian and non-Christian rather than atheist and non-atheist), but the topics were euthanasia and polygamy. In comments someone said that he did not think Christians and atheists would differ on the issue of polygamy: both groups would oppose it. As a Christian who supports at least the legalization of polygamy, if not its unqualified practice, I was a bit amused and intended to disagree with him, but because I wanted to write a submission I thought I should disguise the grounds for my disagreement so I wouldn't give myself away. Thus I replied that even if Christians and atheists wound up on the same side of the issue, what would be interesting is the reasons they gave for their conclusion. Indeed, it might be even harder to argue for the same conclusion with different reasons because your own reasons for that opinion would cloud your judgement. Even though this was a disguise for my actual reasons for disagreeing, I did think it was true. (Update 19 September 2013: Most atheist entries have supported polygamy while most Christian entries have opposed it.)

I'm no longer so sure it is true after all.

In writing my entries, I did what I did last year: I wrote a Christian entry that I largely agreed with, but I was conscious of adding more Christian-culture stuff than I normally would (in other words, I pretended it was something I wrote for fellowship and added more Bible stuff); and I wrote an atheist entry that was mostly what I think I would believe if I were an atheist. This last means that I write mainly my own opinion with all of the Jesus stuff excised and some stuff I stole from my atheist friends to paper over the gaps. I'm sufficiently used to doing something like the latter anyway when writing academic papers. Most of the influence Christianity has on my thinking is what I would call a deep Gospel mentality: I don't really back things up with Scripture and theology, at least aloud, so much as try to inhabit Gospel-based values enough that my reasoning and actions will be consistent with Christ's teachings. You can disagree with this method on whatever grounds, but at any rate it's where I am and that's all that matters for this post, because it means that I can generally converse on an abstract or practical level with non-Christians and the difference between my Christianity and their non-Christianity only shows rarely.

If this is what I'm doing--fiddling what I think anyway around so that it sounds atheist, or anyway doesn't sound Christian--am I really participating in a Turing Test? Whether or not it is a sound strategy for winning this particular game is something time alone can tell (I suspect it isn't, because I know perfectly well that the kind of atheist I would be does not look much like the kinds of atheists that populate Leah's blog any more than the kind of Christian I am does not resemble the kinds of Christians that populate Leah's blog) but I still wonder whether my tactics achieve the ends that the Turing Test is supposed to promote. The goal, as I understand it, is to prove that you really do understand your ideological opposition's reasoning. That's all well and good...but are atheists really my ideological opposition? I don't think reality is anything so tidy. I agree with many of my atheist friends on a lot of matters, and I disagree with many of my Christian friends on the same matters. I might also say that social conservatives are the ideological opposition to my progressive beliefs more than any religious distinction, but I don't really think "conservative" and "progressive" are coherent groups. Other, idiosyncratic distinctions are even more important to me: tentativeness/certainty, for instance, or altruism/self-interest, or capitalism/anti-capitalism.

So if I were to really participate in this Turing Test, I might be forced to write an atheist entry that opposes at least polyamory, and maybe euthanasia. That exercise would force me to really understand both social conservatism and atheisms other than the one with which I'm familiar. However, since neither winning nor discovering whether I can fake atheism is motivating me to participate, I'm not going to change my entry now. (Reasons they don't motivate me: I'm not very competitive and I don't think this test is a terribly good indicator of whether I understand atheism. What is motivating me: I think writing games are fun, and I want to make sure there are some interesting entries in the Turing Test. There always are interesting entries, but I feel like I can contribute something that many of the entrants can't/won't contribute, namely a humanities-educated leftist Protestant Christianity.)

Or perhaps I would have to write an entry that still supported euthanasia and polygamy but from strongly rational materialist and maybe probablistic grounds; I would want to use arguments from Less Wrong and Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. I could participate in a Turing Test by pretending to be the kind of atheist I wouldn't be were I an atheist.

And this makes me wonder what other kinds of Ideological Turing Test could be run. In the context of Leah's blog, Catholic Christian/non-Catholic Christian comes to mind (but would that be Protestant or Orthodox?), as does conservative Christian/progressive Christian and transhumanist/non-transhumanist. Other lines that might interest me would be, say, liturgical Protestant/non-liturgical Protestant, or anti-capitalist/capitalist, or environmentalist/industrialist, or what have you. I guess I just don't think that the existence or non-existence of God or the divinity of Christ or what have you is really the place where the most publicly salient differences lie, and I'm using that to cheat my way through Leah's Turing Test (to whatever degree of success).

On the topic of cheating, I must also confess that I did put a bit of effort into making the atheist entry sound less like me than normal (at which I might have failed, but I hope not, since I think the entry sounds a bit brisque) and a bit more effort into making the Christian entry sound especially like me (at which I almost certainly succeeded). Given the fact that Leah's entries in the first iteration of the Turing Test were very clearly written in her own voice and included many of her public preoccupations, yet she passed the Turing Test with flying colours, I probably don't need to worry overmuch about whether or not my efforts to disguise or reveal myself will have an effect on the outcome. tl;dr: I don't think many people will recognize me anyway.

Update 15 August 2013

My entries having now been posted and the voters having commented on them, I should say that making the atheist entry sound less like me, or at least the way I went about making it sound less like me, was a mistake. Many people note that the voice sounds forced, and while I'm not entirely sure that's true (I don't think most people have a sufficient sense of just how idiosyncratic other people's language is, or at least their understanding doesn't reflect how idiosyncratic my language is, an issue which compromised people's assessments in the Ideological Turing Tests before), I will happily concede that the more particular complaints were likely valid. Some folks noted that the forcefulness of my piece's voice was at marked odds with how a person who held these opinions would probably write, and that's probably fair. I made the voice more confident because I thought that the recent tentativism kerfuffle would alert perceptive readers that ambiguity and tentativeness are kind of my trademark. While one person (Martha O'Keefe) does seem to have figured out that the Christian entry was mine along these lines, I was probably wholely wrong in this prediction otherwise; some voters say they have been using overconfidence as an indication that an entry is fake, which has the opposite effect as I'd been worried about. In other words, I'd have been better off risking recognition and keeping an uncertain voice, because recognition isn't much of a risk. (My narcissism cripples me again.)

More generally, I think that there was a problem with trying to strip an entry of my own voice entirely, in that it then lacks any coherent voice to hold it together. If I want to sound like not-me, I should have created an entire non-me persona to hold it together. I failed to do this, which likely explains a lot of the specific complaints people made. For instance, someone pointed out that it wasn't clear where my persona stood w/r/t libertarianism, anarchism, and liberalism. That complaint reflects a difficulty in my method: I stole the basics of the pro-euthanasia argument from my more anarchist friends, but I built those basics out in a way that is more appealing to me, a person sitting on the fence between anarchism and socialism (though I don't think the two are nearly as incompatible as most people think, and the anarchist friend of mine I know best would likely agree). And for an argument against the sanctity of life I stole and inverted an argument from some pro-life Catholics who were trying to convince conservative Catholics that pro-life theology entails more than anti-abortion and anti-euthanasia politics. What I didn't do is try to work out how this corresponded with the general persona I was(n't) constructing. So it's true that I didn't think through a persona who would hold these views, and as a result the presentation was likely sloppy. Of course, it's also possible that I'd have failed anyway; if the last Turing Test is any indication, the atheists at Unequally Yoked are not bad at all at sorting the real from the fake. It's hard to see how they might be so good based on last year's individual comments, which seem to me to have very faulty methods. But they did well, so either a) my skepticism in their methods might be misplaced, or b) the things that they say influence their decisions are post-hoc rationalizations of pre-conscious criteria which are very accurate, or c) the voters who commented do not accurately represent all voters, or d) a combination of a, b, and c, or e) something I haven't thought of yet.

This being said, I'm open to the possibility that I did a bad job at the Turing Test above and beyond making a poor choice regarding the piece's voice. I remember wishing I had a proof-reader before I submitted the entries, since I'd fussed with them for so long that I was no longer able to see whether they said what I wanted them to say. There are a couple of places where having a proof-reader would really have helped, I think, since particular passages are bivalent in ways I hadn't anticipated.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Satanism's Ethics (Are Kind of Boring)

Today's post will be my six-hundred and sixty-sixth, according to Blogger (this may be untrue in that I think Blogger counts unpublished posts, and I have a half dozen or so unpublished posts). In light of this, I will write about Satanism.

I can't recall the first time I realized that Satanists were 1) real and 2) people, though it was probably around my fourth year of undergraduate. I recall hearing a very touching story that a human resources worker at Queen's University told to my Christian fellowship about a student who was complaining about the struggles of undergraduate university; when the student said that she thought she was losing her faith, the HR worker asked what faith that was, and the student answered, "Satanism." The HR worker then proceeded to treat her with sympathy and compassion, despite knowing that this student prescribed to a worldview deliberately built in opposition to the HR worker's own beliefs. Somehow this story went a long way to normalizing Satanism for me.

That being said, at the same time Satanism seems really weird to me, because it embraces the metaphysics it opposes; unlike atheism, its vehement rejection is a kind of affirmation in that, although it flips all of the moral values, it nonetheless maintains the cosmological beliefs. (Also, it is amply and inaccurately represented in movies, especially in the 90s and early 00s.) So when I made myself a course-reader style package of miscellaneous materials one summer, I include some readings about Satanism from a Religious Studies/Anthropology anthology I got out of the library. I thought this religion-of-conflict might have yield some interesting insights into religion and/or culture. And what I learned is this: Satanism is actually kind of boring.

I'll be more specific, because I suppose certain aspects of Satanism are not so boring, and I'm sure there are Satanisms, so maybe certain varieties of Satanism are more intellectually robust. What I find to be so boring about Satanism, as described and examined in Edward J. Moody's "Urban Witches,"  is its core ethical system. Moody writes that Satanist virtues are simultaneously defined as 1) that which Christianity considers a sin and 2) natural human motivations:
The seven deadly sins of Christian teaching--greed, pride, envy, anger, gluttony, lust, and sloth--are depicted as Satanic virtues. Envy and greed are, in the Satanic theology, natural in man and the motivating forces behind ambition. Lust is necessary for the preservation of the species and not a Satanic sin. Anger is the force of self-preservation. Instead of denying natural instincts the Satanist learns to glory in them and turn them into power.1
Because of its emphasis on desires that are "natural" to some universal "man," these Satanic ethics remind me of what I call the Polonius virtue, the idea that acting authentically (or true to yourself) is a moral good. I've never found the Polonius virtue convincing because 1) it is not something I intuitively feel, 2) I've never encountered a justification of it, let alone a persuasive one, and 3) I do not believe in a coherent or stable self to which one might be obliged (and this last one's pretty lethal to any chances I might have of adopting the Polonius virtue).

The most interesting move that the Satanists make regarding morality is linking definitions 1 and 2 and explaining why what Christians call sins are actually virtues:
Satanic novices are taught that early church fathers deliberately picked on those aspects of human desire that were most natural and made them sins, in order to use the inevitable transgressions as a means of controlling the populace, promising them salvation in returning for obedience.
Were it not for this explanation, it would seem mighty convenient that everything Christians condemn is actually praise-worthy. The explanation itself is actually a not too different from things Christopher Marlowe was (probably falsely) accused of having said in the early modern period.2

I don't know why I was expecting something more interesting than this. I guess I thought that if anyone had a really wild and unexpected morality, it would be Satanism, but it turns out that it fits right in there with genetic determinism, pop-psychoanalysis, and what Walter Truett Anderson calls neo-romanticism (think hippies and New Agers), movements with an emphasis on the interior self as the source of morality and truth. It also has some things in common with existentialism, but it reminds me more of genetic determinism and pop-psychoanalysis. I presume more conservative Christian writers would say that it's boring because everything that's not the truth limits God, Creation, and humanity, or because anything that derives morality from the self cannot be as rich as something that derives morality from an institution/tradition/wellspring of all Being. But I'm not going that route: certainly there are lots of belief systems I consider to be factual wrong but still well-worked out and internally compelling (for instance, Nietzsche's immoralism). Satanism isn't that.

I suppose it's as pertinent to ask why I think this is boring as it is to ask why it is boring. I think it's boring because it has no room for growth or improvement. It's static and non-dynamic. The Christian vision (or, anyway, my Christian vision) of ethics involves a person striving to better themselves through action; it's not just that my past actions become increasingly more ethical, but that I change as a result of my actions. That self to which Polonius ethicists would say that I am obliged is shifting; how do I authentically act out a shifting self? Or how do I act out an internally conflicted self? Satanists seem to want to locate authenticity in desires and impulses, but these are not always consistent: I have impulses of charity as much as I have impulses of greed, and what of my desires to inhibit other desires? Authenticity to a certain self seems doomed or nonsense unless that self to which I am authentic is a deliberate self, that is, the self that I want or will rather than the self that I have. This kind of authenticity is not just more interesting but also quite simply possible, which can't be said for regular-old Polonius ethicism. I think there's still a lot of debate concerning what kind of self I ought to cultivate, though. Christians are already on top of this idea, but I'm sure Satanists could construct a more intellectually rigorous ethics on this model as well (if some haven't already constructed it); in order to do so, however, they could not appeal either to a dubious historical account of Christianity or to inherent desire any more, which means that they'd have to build a whole new set of justifications for the sort of authenticity to desire that they've been espousing. (Nietzsche would likely make a decent starting point for that kind of work.)

EDIT: I'm also kind of surprised that the justification given for lust is reproduction. That sounds, well, exactly like Christian doctrine about sexual attraction: it's good if it leads to reproduction. The Satanists aren't adding the corollary (it's bad if it doesn't), but even so, this similarity is striking. In other words, if Satanists define "lust" simply as "those feelings which are necessary for reproduction," then they have a really tame idea of what lust is, and don't seem to understand how the churches are using the word.

1  Of course, since this and one other article are the sources of my understanding of Satanism, and these articles are old enough, what I'm writing here may not apply to Satanism generally, or to the Satanism of any particular individual you (reader) may know. All of what I say applies only to Satanism as I, through Moody, describe it.
2  It's actually possible that Marlowe did say a number of the things that the Baines Note accused him of saying, but at the time he did so he was a spy for the English government, acting out the role of traitor and conspirator in order to gain information. So, in a sense, the government was condemning him for doing what it was paying him for doing. Little wonder if Marlowe did become seditious.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Kinds of Abandon in The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker.
Helene Wecker's debut novel The Golem and the Jinni is a lovely novel, even if it does read a little like the first novel it is (there's too much coincidence). As the back of the book explains, it is about Chava, a golem, and Ahmad, a jinni, arriving in New York City in 1899. Chava's master-husband wakes her for the first time minutes before his unsuspected death; when Chava arrives in New York, she is masterless. Ahmad has been trapped in a flask for centuries, and when he is released by a Syrian tinsmith in Manhattan he is still trapped in the human form given to him by the same Bedouin wizard who put him in the bottle. Assorted plotlines unfurl and characters develop, including members of both the Syrian and Jewish immigrant communities and including Yehudah Schaalman, a deadly Kabbalist sorcerer. In a sense it is a book about immigrants in America (Wecker says so explicitly), as the Golem and the Jinni are immigrants in immigrant communities, but the eponymous protagonists are also immigrants to a parody humanity, both trying to act human despite the ways in which their natures rebel against human constraints.

Chava and Ahmad become friends of a sort (though their first meeting is late in the novel, more than a third of the way through), bound by the fact that each of them is a mythical creature pretending to be human for fear that the humans around them, compared to whom both Chava and Ahmad are incredibly powerful, would quickly destroy them in fear and distrust. But they make poor, quarrelsome friends most of the time, because as much as both of their natures resist the humanity they are forced to take on, they resist in very different ways. Chava is a golem, a creature made to serve; without a master, she is aimless, and a quirk of the magic which bound her to her master now allows her (compels her) to feel the desires of everyone she encounters, and when she feels those desires she has an impulse to serve them. (With one exception: she was made to be sexually faithful to her husband.) Chava also fears running amok; whenever a golem gets a taste for violence, it is said, that golem will never stop. Ahmad, on the other hand, is a powerful jinni, a fire spirit once able to enter dreams, fly, and change his shape at will. He roamed the deserts and acted on his whims and desires without thought to consequence. While he retains some of his power, he is bound to human form and certain human vulnerabilities (and worse). And so while both struggle with being human, their desires are radically different: Chava hates the freedom of being human, while Ahmad hates the constraints of being human. Let me excerpt a passage for you (I admit it's a little long):
She shook her head. "You misunderstand me. Each golem is built to serve a master. When I woke, I was already bound to mine. To his will. I heard every thing, and I obeyed with no hesitation."
"That's terrible," the Jinni said.
"To you, perhaps. To me it felt like the way things were meant to be. And when he died--when that connection left me--I no longer had a clear purpose. Now I'm bound to everyone, if only a little. I have to fight against it, I can't be solving everyone's wishes. But sometimes, at the bakery where I work, I'll give someone a loaf of bread--and it answers a need. For a moment, that person is my master. And in that moment, I'm content. If I were as independent as you wish you were, I'd feel I had no purpose at all"
He frowned. "Were you so happy, to be ruled by another."
"Happy is not the word," she said. "It felt right."
"All right, then let me ask you this. If by some chance or magic you could have your master back again, would you wish it?"
It was an obvious question, but one that she had never quite asked herself. But then, couldn't she guess? What sort of man would take a golem for a wife, the way a delivery man might purchase a new cart?
But oh, to be returned to that certainty! The memory of it rose up, sharp and beguiling. And she wouldn't feel as though she was being used. One choice, one decision--and then, nothing.
"I don't know," she said at last. "Maybe I would. Though in a way, I think it would be like dying. But perhaps it would be for the best. I make so many mistakes, on my own."
She'd half decided to turn back toward Broadway; but then he said, "Do you remember what I told you before? That I was captured, but have no memory of it?"
"Yes, of course I remember."
"I have no idea," he said, "how long I was that man's servant. His slave. I don't know what he made me do. I might have killed my own kind." There was a tight edge in his voice, painful to hear. "But even worse would be if I did it all gladly. If he robbed me of my will, and turned me against myself. Given a choice, I'd sooner extinguish myself in the ocean."
"But if all those terrible things did happen, then it was the wizard's fault, not yours," she said.
Again, that not-quite laugh. "Do you have colleagues at this bakery where you work?"
"Of course," she said. "Moe and Thea Radzin, and Anna Blumberg."
He said, "Imagine that your precious master returns to you, and you give yourself to him, as you said you perhaps would. Because you make so many mistakes. And he says, 'Please, my dear golem, kill those good people at the bakery, the Radzins and Anna Blumberg. Rip them limb from limb."
"But why--"
"Oh, for whatever reason! They insult him, or make threats against him, or he simply develops a whim. Imagine it. And then tell me what comfort it gives to think it wasn't your own fault."
This was a possibility she'd never considered. And now she couldn't help but picture it: grabbing Moe Radzin by the wrist and pulling until his arm came free. She had the strength. She could do it. And all the while, that peace and certainty.
To be honest, I am more sympathetic to Chava's plight than to Ahmad's. Ahmad's desire is freedom, and his growth as a character is to move from moral nihilism to greater responsibility; his attendant fear is simply that he will lose his freedom. Chava's desire is to be servant to a master which will grant her certainty in her decisions, but her fear is more than just that she'll remain aimless; her fear becomes the dark parody of what she desires, that she will be servant to someone who would cause her to hurt others. And, indeed, this is precisely what the threat of running amok is to her: she would be servant to her own darkest impulse, the golem's buried but ever-present taste for violence. It's not just that I recognize both Chava's fears and her desires more than I recognize Ahmad's; I find the fact that what she fears is the logical extension of what she desires to be more interesting than Ahmad's simplicity.

But what interests me most is how both of them desire a kind of abandonment. Ahmad wants to abandon himself to his own desires, be they good or bad; he wants to abandon himself to freedom. Chava wants to abandon herself to her master's desires; she wants to abandon herself to service. If each of them got what they wished, they would lose themselves. Chava explicitly acknowledges this--"I think it would be like dying"--but even Ahmad would dissolve into a sort of formlessness, being a shape-shifter and perpetual wanderer. He would not be recongizable. (To an extent this is a writer's trick; he would probably have a continued sense of identity, but his jinni name is kept from us because it's supposedly inarticulable by humans, and in the flashbacks to his time as a free jinni he did not appear, at least to me, to be quite as fully developed a character as when he was human; at any rate, it wasn't until he starts following humans and investigating them that he starts to differentiate from other jinn. I think this was deliberate on Wecker's part.) As much as Chava's nature and Ahmad's nature rebel against their current human condition, it is exactly that condition--not free of conscience or consequence, but free to make decisions nonetheless--which makes them characters. They gain identity by their humanity.

While The Golem and the Jinni is no allegory, the point is pretty plain. Chava and Ahmad are different in origin and different in ability than humans, but otherwise they are hardly different at all. This sense that being human is horribly uncomfortable, either because we rebel against the limitations our humanity gives us or because we rebel against the freedom our humanity gives us. Some people prefer one rebellion to another, but each fails. From what I can tell Wecker is not particularly religious, but I think that between Chava and Ahmad (but more Chava) some of the particular struggles and griefs of religious life are well represented. I saw much of my own fears and concerns in Chava, and while I do not feel that The Golem and the Jinni provided much way forward as far as those struggles go, I nonetheless found it an enormously satisfying read, not least because character-driven fantasy novels are so hard to come by.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

The Morality of Aliens, Dragons, and Dead Philosophers

or, Disorganized Thoughts on Moral Foundations Theory

A Moral Foundations Theory post

In this post I'm just catching together the topics that I want to bring up but don't have a coherent through-theme which might hold them together.

1. If moral intuitions can be wrong (which is a truism these days), should we even be talking about Moral Foundations Theory? Shouldn't we be talking instead about deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics, moral nihilism, immoralism, divine command theory, or other logical bases for morality? Aren't moral sentiments (for that's what the Moral Foundations are), well, sentimental?

On the one hand, yes. Moral Foundations are moral sentiments/intuitions, and since people disagree about them (that's the whole idea behind Moral Foundations Theory), they must sometimes be wrong for some people. Probably a rigorous and consistent moral philosophy would be better. But...

On the other hand, no. We can talk about morality not as moralists or moral philosophers but as psychologists and anthropologists and culture critics. I can take as my object of study not what I should do, but how people try to work out what they should do. An anthropology of morality is valuable. But I also think that Moral Foundations Theory, or anyway the sorts of things we might figure out when thinking about Moral Foundations Theory, can help in asking the moralist's questions. I cannot act morally without investments (see this post; as usual, Beck is my touchstone for all questions about the psychology of morality). It is good to consider what those investments are and how they operate. Moreover, my response to other people's morality is itself governed by morality; Moral Foundations are then data for my moral decision making.

2. The Moral Foundations tests I took (I took a few) all had a question which asked whether a person's mathematical ability might influence your moral decision. I'm curious about that question. I assume it's a question to determine whether a person is answering randomly; anyone who says that they do think a person's moral worth is linked to their mathematical prowess must either be answering randomly, lying, misunderstanding the questions, or morally alien. But that got me thinking: could there be a morality--an alien, orange-and-blue morality to be sure--that does value math in this way? Some sort of technocratic or narrowly meritocratic society? Actually, now that I write this out, it doesn't seem so absurd; fantasy novels assure me that some people (and cultures) assign a moral value to physical strength. Perhaps another person or culture could assign moral value to mathematical ability?

3. On the topic of orange-and-blue moralities, is such a thing possible? What would a truly alien morality look like? How could one identify it? Would we be able to even tell that it is a morality? (I suppose this might not be too far fetched; for a long time, existentialism struck me as really alien and Nietzsche's immoralism still does.)

4. I wonder how (and if) Moral Foundations Theory meshes with the classic Dungeons and Dragons' alignment system. This is the first time I realized it, but I suppose it would be best to think of Good/Evil as being moral and Lawful/Chaotic as being political; I've always thought of both axes as different ways of measuring morality, but perhaps they are the different branches of axiology. So are the Moral Foundations all subsumed under Good/Evil? This seems unlikely: freedom/oppression and authority/respect look like Lawful/Chaotic--that is, political--virtues as much as Good/Evil--that is, moral--virtues. As far as gameplay goes, it might make sense to replace the moral alignment chart with a simplified version of Moral Foundations Theory, but I suspect we would be even better served to overlay them. You could work out your alignment, and then work out your Moral Foundations. After all, "Evil" doesn't exist in the Moral Foundations; if you are an Evil character, perhaps the Moral Foundations you hold are the principles you fight against? How does acrasia (when people act against their own better judgement) fit into all of this? I'm at times tempted to dismiss the Good/Evil alignment axis on same grounds that Plato would: we cannot will evil. But at other times I know better: I do what I do not will, and I do not do what I will, and sometimes it seems that I do not will what I will, either.

5. And while we're talking about ancient Greeks and moral philosophy, I want to talk about the Euthyphro dilemma. The only reason I scored as highly as I did in the purity/sanctity measure is that I said that what God wills is good. They asked if whether God's feelings about my behaviour influences how moral that behaviour is, and I said yes. But I said yes because God wills what is good; I was not agreeing that what God wills is good simply because God wills it. So the creators of the quiz embedded the Euthyphro dilemma into this quiz: is the Good good because the gods admire it, or do the gods admire the Good because it is good?
But more simply, I think the question is misleading; God's will is not clearly accessible to us, so all we have to work it out is our morality anyway. The question isn't going to illuminate that reasoning at all. (I suspect. But there are tests you can do to see whether a question in a questionnaire contributes to the measure for which it is designed, so maybe I should reserve judgement until those tests are done.)

Purity Disgusts Me

or, Are My Results the Right Ones?

A Moral Foundations Theory post

After I took the Moral Foundations Theory test and got my results, I was tempted to feel pretty smug about those results. Of course I scored the way I did; the Moral Foundations I prefer are the better ones. (Confession: I succumbed to that temptation for a while.) As much as I talk about listening to conservative viewpoints openly, I admit that I have a very hard time practicing what I preach. Most conservatism strikes me as misguided (say, conservative economic policy) and some of it strikes me as horrible (anti-homosexuality rhetoric and policy). It takes a lot of effort to think about conservatism more charitably, but I can do it: I remind myself that I was once more conservative than I am, and I look to conservative thinkers who I respect (Eve Tushnet, for instance, whose opinions on homosexuality I would find pretty repellent were she not homosexual herself). Opposing same-sex marriage isn't always evil, I can convince myself to recognize; it's just misguided and uncharitable. Given my emotional investment in being leftist, seeing that my results were a slight exaggeration of the typical liberal results was something of a triumph for me; I had been worried that my conservative roots might show.

Eventually I remembered to try to think about the Moral Foundations from a conservative point of view. (In general, trying to think from another point of view is a skill/virture I want to develop.) And what struck me is this: conservative-me would argue that liberals were in the wrong here because all of the Moral Foundations are important. Morality is best understood as the maximization of all of the Foundations (or virtues, we'd be well off to call them). Unless you develop, follow, cherish all six of them, you have a stunted morality. Conservative-me doesn't hold purity higher than freedom or care, after all; conservative-me holds purity alongside freedom and care. Moreover, I talked in the last post of this series about how the different Foundations might shape each other or influence how we interpret the other Foundations. So conservative-me would say that conservative-me understands freedom, and understands care, and understands fairness, better than a liberal/socialist-me, because conservative-me interprets those concepts in light of purity, loyalty, and respect. Freedom can only be truly achieved if purity is achieved as well, and vice-versa.

Now, I think Beck's posts at Experimental Theology about disgust show how concerns about purity warp the other concerns rather than inform them: when we are working with disgust (and disgust is the engine that drives purity), we can't think straight about the rest of it. We infrahumanize those we associate with disgust, and once we do that, we stop applying all of those other virtues to them. Disgust is something we need to fight against in ourselves, and we cannot wage that particular battle if we value purity. However, listening to conservative-me's little soapbox sermon did give me pause: am I missing out on something? Should I value loyalty more? Should I value respect/authority more? Is it possible that there's something to this purity thing which deserves my attention?

The trouble is that my response to purity (as a Moral Foundation) is disgust. I sometimes catching myself curl my lip when I read anti-homosexuality rhetoric; racism is awful anyway, but when it's tinged with concerns about purity, I start to feel revulsion towards that racism. (Lovecraft's fiction is a good example of racism that is preoccupied with purity. cf "The Shadow Over Innsmouth.") So it's really hard for me to think straight about this topic. However, Beck's research seems pretty spot-on from what I can tell, so I'm not too worried that my dismissal of purity as a Moral Foundation is unfounded (heh heh). That said, I cannot dismiss loyalty or respect/authority so easily. I wonder how you might resolve this problem: I'm back at meta-ethics again.

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