Monday, December 24, 2007

Quote of the Day: The Rational Credentials of Western Civilization

(((Terry Eagleton's rediscovered Christianity/Catholicism; you can take the communist out of Catholic Ireland, but you can't take the Catholic Ireland out of the commie; the rational credentials of western liberals established in the blood of innocent Iraqis -- talk about someone else dying for your redemption . . .)))

In an interview with the Times about his recent Verso essay on the Gospels, noted Marxist literary-cultural critic Terry Eagleton is kind of forced to say something about his thinking about religion in general, and Jesus in particular. But I'm not going to quote that stuff. I'm more interested in a distinct, albeit closely related, set of comments on Amis and Hitchens, but in a way about Dawkins, as well.

There is an element of panic and even hysteria in the way that people are waving their rational credentials. What Amis is really talking about is a war between barbarism and civilisation. This is an old theme. It takes different forms, and now it's taking this one. If by civilisation you mean a West that's at present killing hundreds and thousands of innocent people in Iraq, then the smugness of that is extraordinary.

I wanted to stop with just that first sentence, in part because it speaks so clearly to the anti-religious attitude of so much secular progressivism, these days, but the importance of it isn't really evident until you get to the rest of the quote. "Smugness" isn't really what he wants, there, I think; maybe, "hypocrisy," or just "inconsistency." Do you have to be barbaric to protect civilization? The same people who I suspect would assent to this would have none of Lenin. Which seems odd to me. Lenin's bad because he was a communist. But, you know, it's ok for us because we're for democracy? Extremism in the defense of liberty is, as they say, no vice.

For myself, if we're going to claim we're civilized, that means being civilized regardless of whom we're dealing with. Otherwise, get off it and admit you're essentially being clannish and xenophobic.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Quote of the Day: O, God, You Are Soooooooo Big!

(((More Alfred North Whitehead; nonsense is nonsense, as Lewis said, even when you talk it about God; maybe there's a reason the "God of the philosophers" doesn't make any sense at all to people who aren't philosophers)))

Among medieval and modern philosophers, anxious to establish the religious significance of God, an unfortunate habit has prevailed of paying to Him metaphysical compliments. (Science and the Modern World, 179)

So, yeah, God must be able to do anything, and God must at the same time be infinitely good, and so both desire to stop evil and be able to stop evil. So, what you think is "evil" actually isn't.

Yeah, that's intuitive.

God knows everything, even what hasn't happened, yet, and what might happen but won't, etc. etc., so God can know that you will do something that results in, say, the deaths of millions of people, but won't stop you. Also, God hereby knows non-existent things (things you haven't yet done aren't yet real; things you never do are never real). He doesn't have an opinion about them, mind you. He knows them.


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Quote of the Day: im in ur bibul, rewritin ur storiez

(((LOLCat Bible; genius; Matthew; annunciation and stuff)))

In the spirit of the season. You know. Sort of.

Da burth of Jesuz Christ

18 Now, teh burth of teh Christ was liek dis: After Marry and Joseph waz all "We's gonna get marrieded, kthnx", but before dey could had hankiez pankiez Mary was all pr3ggerz from Teh Forse.19 Joseph was liek "I has virjn - NOOOO dey be stealin my virjn! Must hied hur".20 But when he was tihnkin, zomg, a WallCat frm Ceiling Cat was liek, "Oh hai! I'm in ur dreemz, givin u messij. Don't be scairdy cat. Take Mary as ur wife - is virjn. But teh Forse is strong in tihs wun, lol! HoverCat is on hur, givn hur feetus, srsly.21 "And she gonna made a son, and you gonna call him Jeezus, cuz he save kittehs frum bein bad kittehs. Kthxbye."22 So all dis was all did cuz Ceiling Cat had sed it wud be. His proffet was all liek:23 "Hay guise, look! teh virjn iz all preggers, and dey gonna call him Immanuel", dat be joospeek for "Ceiling Cat wit us"24 Then Joseph waked up, done wat teh angel frm Ceiling Cat tolded him to, and was all liek "U wit me now lol" at Mary.25 And dey didnt has teh HARBL GOES WHERE!?!? til affer dey gets a son and calleded him Jeezus. Ktnx.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Quote of the Day: Mao Inspired W?

(((Sardonic Economist article on management lessons to take from Mao; helping bad managers stay at the top; getting away with having no idea what you're doing and driving a company/organization/country into the ground)))

Yeah, the article has its irritating aspects, but there is this sort of bizarre but interesting tone of genuine admiration that doesn't quite seem reducible to grudging respect for a ruthlessly efficient dictator, which is about all one would expect from the Economist. Curious. But maybe I'm misreading it. In any case, there's this gem, which remains a gem whether one likes talking about Mao this way or not . . .

Perhaps for the struggling executive, this is the single most important lesson: if you can't do anything right, do a lot. The more you have going on, the longer it will take for its disastrous consequences to become clear. And think very big: for all his flaws, Mao was inspiring.

Mission accomplished!

I loved the punchline to the first part of the same paragraph even better, but I can't be the least bit ironic about it:

Under Mao, China didn't drift, it careened. The propellant came from the top. Policies were poor, execution dreadful and leadership misdirected, but each initiative seemed to create a centripetal force, as everyone looked toward Beijing to see how to march forward (or avoid being trampled). The business equivalent of this is restructuring, the broader the better.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

NuTV: Really Actually Truly Actually Real

(((Reality TV; tortured semantic gymnastics; CourtTV-->truTV; the really real and the actually actual; "Truthiness TV" already kind of taken)))

CourtTV is now advertising that they are about to become (on January 1) truTV. Their tagline is, "Not reality. Actuality." Because "reality" TV has forced the notion of "reality" into such contortions that we have to use another word to mean real things.

Er, wait. I mean, we have to use another word to sell the same crap as if it were more real than "reality TV." Right. That's it. "Actuality TV" = "(Really real) reality TV."

What enquiring minds really want to know, though, is when FOX New Channel is going to change their name to "Truthiness TV."

Quote of the Day: Mr. Sodomsky [sic] Knowingly Exposed Himself

(((child pornography; expectations of privacy when you hand over your computer to a third party for maintenance, repair, or hardware installation: specifically, you have none; is the name "Sodomsky" a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy?)))

The Pennsylvania Superior Court states, in overturning a ruling on the admissibility of files discovered by a Circuit City tech in the process of installing a DVD burner in the defendant's PC:

Our result in this case is consistent with the weight of authority in this area. If a person is aware of, or freely grants to a third party, potential access to his computer contents, he has knowingly exposed the contents of his computer to the public and has lost any reasonable expectation of privacy in those contents...
This is plainly bullshit. As Ars Technica notes:
When you drop your PC off at Circuit City for a hardware upgrade (and you do use Circuit City for all your hardware upgrades, don't you?), you probably don't expect the techs to rummage around your hard drive, dredging up "questionable" files and showing them to law enforcement.

Okay, back up. What happened? In short, Sodomsky (o, to change that name!) left his PC at Circuit City for installation of a burner. The tech installed the hardware, then searched Sodomsky's computer for video files to use for testing the burner. He saw video file names that indicated pornography, and then, as AT puts it, "Richert clicked on one that had listed a male name and an age of 13 or 14 and found a video he believed to contain child pornography." He then called the police, who seized the computer and arrested Sodomsky when he came to pick up the laptop.

In the use of what seems to me an important (and telling) phrase, the Court observes that the tech was testing in a "commercially accepted manner," insisting further that "The employee testing the burner was free to select any video for testing purposes, as appellee had not restricted access to any files. Therefore, Mr. Richert did not engage in a fishing expedition in this case..." (emphasis added).

It could be added that you can burn any file to a DVD, not just movies, so using this logic, the tech was precisely free to search for any file, not just a video file, so he had in effect the run of the customer's computer. So, wait, is it possible that the court's decision is vitiated by its ignorance of basic technological aspects of the case? Declan McCullagh, in the C|Net article linked above, notes that the Court's decision refers to "codecs" as "Code X." Clearly, the court knows next to nothing about either burning DVDs or playing or encoding videos. The end result is a decision that says that computer store installation or repair techs have unfettered access to your computer, and whatever they find is admissible in court against you.

Unless . . . you tell them not to run around your computer for files? Even if this is commercially accepted practice, that by no means makes it either legally acceptable, or widely understood, and it strikes me as very odd for the Court to engage in this kind of reasoning. Why isn't the store required instead to tell you that that's what they'll do and give you an opportunity to establish limits within which they are allowed to work? Or, better still, why don't they have, using this case as an example, a standard process that includes a file on a flash drive, which they can insert in the USB [drive] port and burn straight from that drive to test the burner. No use or viewing of the customer's files is required, nor is any copying of files (beyond necessary drivers, user manuals, help files, etc.).

Finally, it's not at all clear what the rationale is for the tech's selection of a video to use for testing. I would argue that his selection of the particular video was itself a fishing expedition. Why does his spotting a file name that seems to indicate pornography give him the right to open that file? Well, it doesn't, unless you say there is no reasonable expectation of privacy, which position I think I have already established is based on specious, indeed pernicious, reasoning.

Let's think analogically: if I spot what appears to be meth lab equipment through the window of a neighbor's house, do I then have the right to sneak into their house to examine the equipment, then grab it to hand it to the cops if I think (rightly or wrongly) that it actually constitutes meth-manufacturing equipment? Surely not (although I might in that case call the cops and tell them I think my neighbors are making meth, but then we would need more evidence for a warrant than my thinking I saw equipment through the window). Let's go a step further and suppose that my neighbors have given me the key to their house so that I can let them in if they lock themselves out. Have they then given me the right to use those keys if I spot through the window what appears to me (ignorant bugger that I am, never having made meth) to be meth equipment? I don't think so.

The long and the short of it is this. First, there are holes everywhere in the Court's logic. Second, I can't believe I'm only seeing coverage of this right now in C|Net and Ars Technica. Third, um, don't be a stupid lUser when you take your computer to Circuit City: set up passwords and guest access and protect your files, since, let's face facts, it's a little bit like trusting the parking garage attendant with your keys. I mean, do we really think this is the first time this tech or some other has accidentally discovered porn on a customer's computer?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Quote of the Day: Joe Knows Witches

(((Nigeria; African Evangelical churches and practices; hunting child-witches; witch hunting and "deliverances" no more "essentially" Christian than sharia tribal honor practices "essentially" Muslim)))

Pastor Joe Ita of Liberty Gospel Church in Eket, Nigeria sez:

We know how they operate. A witch will put a spell on its mother's bra and the mother will get breast cancer. But we cannot attribute all things to witches, they work on inclinations too, so they don't create HIV, but if you are promiscuous then the witch will give you HIV. [ . . . ] We are the only ones who really know the secrets of witches.

Yeah, it kind of sounds funny, if you haven't been reading the horrifying descriptions of child mutilation and murder. Rich churchmen like Joe make tons of money charging parents for the "deliverance" of their children from witch-spirits. Of course, it turns out it's not enough to kill the children:

Parents don't come here with the intention of abandoning their children, but when a child is a witch then you have to say "what is that there? Not your child." The parents come to us when they see manifestations. But the secret is that, even if you abandon your child, the curse is still upon you, even if you kill your child the curse stays. So you have to come here to be delivered afterwards as well.

My point about sharia has always been that there is nothing "essentially" Muslim about it. It's not the Qur'an, and in fact early Islam was precisely all about overcoming certain aspects of tribal bullshit, like, for example, the abandonment and murder of female infants. Not that Muhammad was modern, just that murdering a woman for being raped is not some integral part of Qur'anic or even Muslim logic, without which the whole thing would fall apart or be unrecognizable. This witch hunting strikes me in a similar way:

Although old tribal beliefs in witch doctors are not so deeply buried in people's memories, and although there had been indigenous Christians in Nigeria since the 19th century, it is American and Scottish Pentecostal and evangelical missionaries of the past 50 years who have shaped these fanatical beliefs. Evil spirits, satanic possessions and miracles can be found aplenty in the Bible, references to killing witches turn up in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Galatians, and literal interpretation of scriptures is a popular crowd-pleaser.

Even if you think the "tribe/s" question is/are American and/or Scottish evangelicals and pentecostals, the point remains the same. Further, in Africa, there are not the same mitigating political, social, and cultural factors that at least prevent freaks who think their children are witches from burying them alive. Most of the time, anyway.

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Doping: It's not Just for Cyclists Any More

(((Steroids in major sports; naming names; test for real or drop the pretense)))

So George Mitchell released his report, counting 89 drugged players. That's really all? Wouldn't it be interesting to see the trends? But that would take real testing, wouldn't it, to really know the extent of the situation and the way it's changed over time. It's pretty obvious, too, that we can only expect more of it in the future, since high school and college athletes are doping like never before.

The FT notes:

Several players were angered that Mr Mitchell opted to disclose names in his report even though the evidence was based on limited sources.

Of course, there's one easy way to fix that thing about sources, if the players really care about this: genuine, effective testing. Like the way cycling actually busts people and bans them from the sport. Of course, a lot of people would say that doping has destroyed cycling's potential for growth, and that they would be better off if they were more like MLB and just pretended to test. Or gave up on banning performance enhancement altogether. There's that.

But if people are going to talk the talk about how awful steroids are, then they need to walk the walk. I frankly don't believe the athletes are worried about false positives with WADA/UCI-type testing. I believe they're worried about genuine positives.

On the other hand, it's also clearly an arms race: testing vs. advances both in the performance enhancing techniques and in masking their use. One wonders if fighting it like this is really worth the effort.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Quote of the Day: Wash That Mitt Right out of Your Hair

(((neuroscience; marketing; politics; mind-reading; electorate of one; appealing to emotion at its most basic, anti-democratic level; the truth about modern political campaigns: they're marketing campaigns, duh)))

"I'm looking at a package of shampoo the same way I'm looking at my next leader."

Turns out some former MIT students have developed some cool stuff that lets them essentially read your mind while you're playing a video game, watching tv ads, or, say, listening to politicians. So the same tricks they use to make a bottle of shampoo appeal to you at a pre-rational, sub-conscious level, they will be using to "help" you "decide" who to vote for.

"Political marketing is a fairly pure analog to commercial marketing," says David Remer, chairman of Lucid Systems. "I'm looking at a package of shampoo the same way I'm looking at my next leader."

Well, I guess that's one way of conceptualizing democratic political processes. Habermas is rolling in his grave, of course, but he's old-fashioned, anyway, and believes a public sphere is something more than the neocapitalist market applied to voting for candidates.

This isn't any better:

Mr. Westen, a clinical psychologist who specializes in personality disorders, is author of a 2007 book "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation." In his studies, which have involved placing partisan voters in brain scanners, he found that when voters look at pictures of candidates or listen to their statements, the regions of the brain associated with emotion are more engaged than the regions governing thought. Instead of detailing a ten-point health-care plan, he says, politicians would be better off talking about health care in moral terms.

Right, because morality should have nothing to do with thought, and neither should voting or the processes of public engagement that lead up to it. It's about truthiness, not truth. Your gut—which is actually located in your brain—already knows the answers; you're just waiting for a politician to say what you already believe.

Shaolin Temple: The Fist of Love

(((Shaolin Temple; Buddhism and kung fu/wushu; trash talking with monks; could have and maybe should have been quote of the day, but it's not)))

China is trying to organize a wushu competition parallel to the Olympic Games and is all miffed that the Shaolin monks won't participate. The Chinese government, which of course wants to divorce the practice of kung fu completely from any spiritual anything, can't understand why Buddhist monks won't play along? The article quotes one of the monks:

Clad in saffron Buddhist robes, Dechao insists that real kung fu monks don't fight. They meditate and practice kung fu to reach enlightenment. "Every fist contains my love," says the 39-year-old Dechao, also known as Big Beard.

There are many interesting things about this, but at the moment, I want to focus on the dispute about the spirituality of kung fu practice, and about the bizarre attitude of some of the purely athletic practitioners, who insist that "Our goal is the medal[. . . . ]The monks in the temple do it as a hobby." This is mainly ignorant, but also an odd sort of denigration of tradition in the form of taunting Buddhist monks. For what, exactly? That they think kung fu as spiritual practice is different from kung fu as athletic competition aiming at honor? You can say they're wrong, you don't "believe in" Zen, or whatever, but to say that they practice as a "hobby" is just stupid.

The author of the article notes that the Shaolin abbot declining to participate in the competition organizes his own shows with ticket prices at $32. But I honestly don't see the contradiction. The point is not just that it's not about violence. The point is that it's not about competition.

Let's admit that if they did participate, we would all note that even the great monks of Shaolin came to hand out the smackdowns at a competition. If they lost a lot, we would say how they're pretenders. If they won, we would say they just wanted to show off, and the fact that they participated shows that there's nothing spiritual about it. So even if we don't buy the distinction made by the abbot (which I admit I do), I don't see anything in here that's incentive for participation.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Quote of the Day: Footnotes to Plato

(((More Whitehead; that quote you've all heard or misheard part of; how to be Platonic)))

Most of us have at one time or another, and perhaps many times, heard or read some allusion or reference to the famous statement of Whitehead about Western philosophy. But I suspect we often mistake or perhaps merely oversimplify his point. So, let's try a little context.

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars [and earlier philosophers? like Aristotle? or like Proclus? Ficino?] have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them. His personal endowments, his wide opportunities for experience at a great period of civilization, his inheritance of an intellectual tradition not yet stiffened by excessive systematization, have made his writings an inexhaustible mine of suggestion. (Process and Reality, 39)

There's something sort of retro-Renaissance about this, on the one hand: let us go back to the horse's mouth and start over. But on the other hand, he's really right in several respects, perhaps most especially in the simple observation that Plato was freer than we are. He had a much smaller and less systematized tradition or set of traditions to deal with, and maybe most importantly, there was not the tradition of philosophical writing and scholarship that we have now, where philosophy can only properly be philosophy if it is, frankly, dull. And in any case, it cannot be ambiguous, especially not deliberately ambiguous. That is for poets, and don't we Know that Plato hated poets? And yet, Plato wrote what amount to plays, not treatises, even if there are treatises of sorts to be found in them.

So, if we want to be truly Platonic, and there are good reasons to want just such a thing, perhaps we need to throw off the shackles of disciplinary, and particularly scholarly, custom.

Oooh, scary.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Quote of the Day: Whitehead on Baconian Empiricism

(((Alfred North Whitehead on radical empiricism; the naivete of Francis Bacon; how induction isn't always everything it's cracked up to be.)))

Francis Bacon and the modern scientific method. New Atlantis, you know, and the Novum Organum of induction. Among philosophers and historians of science, Bacon's thinking on induction is considered impossibly naive, but that naivete lives among those who think science is simply some Other Thing, divorced entirely from our, I don't know, normal?, ways of doing things. Simply, purely rational, grounded entirely in unbiased observation. Empirical. As opposed to, say, metaphysics.

[Already in metaphysics], the method of pinning down thought to the strict systematization of detailed discrimination, already effected by antecedent observation, breaks down. This collapse of the method of rigid empiricism is not confined to metaphysics. It occurs whenever we seek the larger generalities [i.e., when we do science]. In natural science this rigid method is the Baconian method of induction, a method which, if consistently pursued, would have left science where it found it. What Bacon omitted was the play of a free imagination, controlled by the requirements of coherence and logic. (Process and Reality, 4-5).

In fact, science has advanced considerably since Bacon, but it is awfully hard to argue, it seems to me, that this advance has not been as much in spite as because of Bacon. Perhaps more, depending on how much actual influence one grants the Novum Organum. The truth is that science simply has not progressed by means of Bacon's purist empiricism, because that's not how science advances. I think most scientists know this. I think many lay admirers of science find it much easier to presume that science is somehow the "opposite" of religion, and so must therefore be purely rational and purely empirical (as if these also were the same thing). The truth, alas, is more complicated.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

How To: Not Be a Scientist

(((Evolution vs. creation; science vs. religious belief; (anti-)religious discrimination; "persecution" of believers for not abandoning their beliefs in the face of scientific evidence . . . even when they're scientists.)))

A certain self-described "Bible-believing Christian" is suing the famous Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for dismissing him because he refused to subscribe to "Darwin's theory of evolution" (as if he might have been okay with, say, Lamarckian evolution). This is a little bit like saying it's discriminatory to not hire an Evangelical or Fundamentalist Christian to perform abortions at a clinic. Or to not hire me to preach at your church. I can read the Bible with the best of them, and speak better than most. But you might say I'm missing a crucial piece of the overall weltanschauung.

The fundamental discriminatory issue is whether Abraham, the man in question, could reasonably have performed his duties absent at least some general assent to evolution as the central reigning biological paradigm, one with broad, indeed, nearly unanimous, scientific assent. The Massachusetts agency that dismissed the case ruled that he could not.

But there are also other ways to consider it, namely, a general sense of basic scientific competence. Abraham complains that this condition, subscribing to "Darwinian evolution," was not in the job advertisement. But why should it be? If I advertise for a physicist, I don't ask them if they believe the earth revolves around the sun.

Oh, you say, but there's dispute about evolution as a "fact." No, there's not. Not from anyone who has any idea what they're talking about. The best traditional-theistic answer so far, "intelligent design," essentially argues that evolution is not "random" (which is not what evolutionary theory says, anyway), nor does it advance by way of natural selection, but that it was planned out by God like a series of dominoes lined up to fall in order. Never mind that this doesn't actually say very much, or that it's flawed for a variety of reasons. Notice instead that it essentially assents to the fundamental idea of evolution. The rest is all gobbledy-gook: bad undergraduate philosophizing masquerading as science, sounding enough like creationism to pull in "Bible-believers," and enough like science to piss the rest of us off.

What strikes me about this case is that evolution is perhaps a lot like global warming. We sat through years and years of obfuscatory pseudo-science funded mainly by the energy sector and other conservative hacks, and spewed out incessantly and self-righteously in the face of broad scientific consensus, and designed to prove that there was no consensus, or that such consensus as there was rested on mediocre and PC-motivated science. Now, however, we finally have none other than George W Bush admitting that there's a problem. What changed? Well, it wasn't that anyone proved the hacks were hacks. I don't know. Maybe it just became painfully obvious what bullshit it all was, but surely the urgency of the peril if global warming-naysayers were wrong played a role.

Evolution is like the weather, this way. The problem is that the reality of it is much less urgent, much less in our faces. What problems go unsolved if some people continue to not "believe in" evolution? But this reality does not change the other reality, that evolution, indeed natural selection, has achieved consensus, despite a bunch of confusing claptrap designed mainly to reassure those people who already want to believe in God instead of in evolution (as if this were not a false dilemma). This does not mean that we won't find something better to replace natural selection or even evolutionary theory as we now have it (although I suspect it's the Copernican revolution of biology).

But it does mean that anyone who considers themselves a scientist has to have something better to say than that they believe in God if they're going to reject evolution. It is simply not a scientific answer. And anyone who gives it as an answer casts doubt on the quality of their scientific thinking, and indeed on whether we ought to think of them as a scientist at all.

It's a little bit like trying to work for Newton and insisting that the earth rests immobile at the center of the universe, because that's clearly the implication of the passage in Joshua when the Sun stands still. Newton wouldn't just have fired you. He'd have laughed at you and smacked you all the way out the door. And Newton believed in God.

Quote of the Day: Whitehead on Dogmatic Irrationality

(((Alfred North Whitehead; science as a mixture of rational and irrational behaviors; no, seriously: irrational; what today we might call "scientism" as the "self-denial of thought.")))

In its use of this method [i.e., "the method of generalization"] natural science has shown a curious mixture of rationalism and irrationalism. Its prevalent tone of thought has been ardently rationalistic within its own borders, and dogmatically irrational beyond those borders. In practice such an attitude tends to become dogmatic denial that there are any factors in the world not fully expressible in terms of its own primary notions devoid of further generalization. Such a denial is the self-denial of thought. (Process and Reality, 5-6)

We might add that Whitehead also rightly thinks science properly understood is precisely a mixture of the rational and irrational, or maybe better put, of the empirical and the imaginative. But that's for tomorrow's quote. Maybe.

In the meantime, it is worth noting that materialism considered in this way is precisely such a self-denial of thought. And it is here that I am beginning to think that Searle gets one over on Dennett, but I admit I am reserving judgment on this, at the moment, philosophy of mind being not my field and me still wading through their fight.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Sean Taylor: Error or Irony?

(((Religious sports stars; Having your God cake and eating it (so to speak), too; What God does and doesn't do for us; Media and the use of celebrity religion)))

In the days since Sean Taylor was shot and killed in what appears to have been a burglary gone horribly wrong, I have noticed a trend at least in ESPN coverage. They really like to play the tape of him saying, "I've been blessed. God has looked out for me."

I suppose this is supposed to be poignant. And of course when any celebrity dies, every talking head trots out the religious platitudes, so I suppose this should be no different. Lots of Americans believe in God and believe in prayer. Fine.

What gets under my skin is this kind of crap—where the successful claim God's blessing has gotten them there. This is generally understood as humility, attributing to God what one could simply boast was the result of one's own skill or effort, and/or the skill and effort of other merely mortal beings (compare Lance Armstrong on overcoming cancer: it wasn't God; it was good doctors). But the end result is that you claim God's favor for yourself and your "side," whether that's a sports team (athletes who thank God when they win a game . . . what, the other side didn't offer enough sacrifices?), an ethnicity ("Gangs of New York" is great on this), or a nation-state (fighting in a foreign country, say, Iraq). Even if we thought they might be right, in what sense can this possibly be considered humble? God loves us because we are righteous, and we know that because we win. Otherwise, why would we win?

But then there are the backflips and other painful spiritual gymnastics forced on the faithful when they lose. God is testing them. Or, in its most radical version, God is simply asserting God's own authority. Because, as God, he occasionally has to prove he's God by being arbitrary and childish, instead of, I don't know, showing up and telling us not to be childish and arbitrary with each other.

So, God looked out for the 24-year-old Sean Taylor, until last weekend. But since God is ultimately responsible for everything, it has to have been part of God's plan. God blessed Sean Taylor, but then he didn't. He un-blessed him. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away, as Job says.

I like the book of Job. There are many things to like about it, including God's assertion that only God is God, and Job's insistence that it still isn't fair (and God agrees). But the God of Job is in no sense a reassuring God. The God of Sean Taylor precisely is reassuring, despite his unpredictable behavior. But how are unpredictability and unreliability reassuring? The God of modern Christians is the reliable rock on which we are supposed to build the structure of our lives, but the God of Job goes to great lengths to remind us that, to put it in the terms of Ecclesiastes, the sun shines on both the wicked and the righteous.

God is teaching Job a lesson. God is undermining Job's pride, and Job's experience is of hubris, the pride of understanding that goes before a fall. But who pays for Job's lesson? This has also always bugged me, like an itch I can't scratch. Why is it that Job's children die to teach him this lesson? And why does this have to happen to Job to teach us the lesson?

And then, well, why does it have to happen to Sean Taylor to teach us the lesson? I wish I could with confidence argue that it doesn't, but in any case I'm pretty well convinced that if there's a God as smart and as powerful as most religious people (and even most theologians) like to think, that God could come up with better, less devastating and costly ways to teach lessons.

So what are we to make of the incessant repetition of Sean Taylor's pious, Job-like utterance? The only thing I can figure is that we're supposed to think that Sean Taylor was a pious man who lived a full life and was loved by God even though God "took him home" at age 24 in a pretty nasty way. Or, as Joe Gibbs would seem to have it, we're supposed to learn from it: the world, even—or perhaps especially—with a Christian God running it, is unpredictable, unreliable, and a special gift that many humans in the world get a lot less of than others.

Perhaps this is even true, but how is it different from a Godless world?

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