Archive for October, 2014

Believing in Angels

Guardian Angel

Guardian Angel

I am thinking of believing in angels.

The question I have is whether there is anything at all in occult philosophy, hermeticism, mysticism, theosophical ideas, magic, Kabbalah, angelology, Rosicrucianism, or any of that kind of thing. People study it, of course, and some people study it in mainstream academia — but as a matter of historical or cultural interest. Some few of those academics get caught up in it, such as Guénon, who became a Sufi, but generally people get an interest about these ideas without coming to hold any of these ideas.

Why don’t they hold them?

Because alchemy is not as effective in the “real” world as chemistry. Because astrology allows fewer accurate predictions of future events than astronomy. Because physics has been more testable than metaphysics. Materialism and naturalism are seriously successful.

How do you define “success”?

Success means being able to do things in the world, to predict future events from current conditions, to control the outcomes of situations more effectively than leaving things to chance. Our world was not built based on our knowledge of spirits, past life regressions, the vibrations of crystals, or the formation of tea leaves at the bottom of a cup. If you want to know something, then the methodology of science is the way to go.

Is science our Platonic cave?

If so, the cave is air conditioned and heated, has hot and cold running water, indoor plumbing, electric lights, refrigerated food, and the internet.

You are making a good case.

Yes, I think so.

But do you think that there is any kind of knowing that is not empirico-logical knowing? Or, in other words, are there alternative modes of logic or rationality?

I can’t see how. One can have an opinion on anything, but knowledge is that which can be demonstrated or rationally justified.

Can I know my wife loves me?

Do you mean, can you prove it beyond any doubt? I don’t think so. Can you prove it beyond a reasonable doubt? I think that is entirely possible. Proof does not have to mean mathematical proof in every case, but that admission does not entail that there are alternative rationalities.

What about things you cannot prove? What about the claim that Bach made better music than Justin Bieber?

Again, even though there is an element of taste (about which there is no disputing) involved, there is still a reasonable argument to be made that, assuming by “better” you mean (at least) more enduring, more culturally influential, that Bach made better music than Justin Bieber.

Not a completely knock down argument, though.

No, but a solid, reasonable claim.

Should I believe in angels?

Why should you? Have you ever seen one?

Did you see how little damage happened to my car last Friday when I hit a dear an near full speed on the interstate? I can’t help but think my Guardian Angel saved us.

You could help it, if you tried. You could say that your own quick reaction time and cool head, coupled with the geometry of the impact, etc., minimized the damage to your vehicle.

I suppose I could. But what if I really think an angel intervened on our behalf in that situation? Am I being unreasonable?

It would seem so. You are adding to the explanation more than is sufficient to explain the event.

I am not sure it is explainable.

We’ve just explained it. Look, if your Guardian Angel helped you out of the jam you were in, how did he…I’m sorry, is it a he?

No.

She?

No. It’s not like that. But you can say “he”.

Okay, if your Guardian Angel helped you out of the jam you were in, how did “he” do it? He did it by phenomenologically slowing things down for you, thus increasing your reaction time; by keeping you calm; by engineering the geometry of the impact in such a way to mitigate the damage to your vehicle. So why not just subtract the angel part? You’d have the same thing anyway.

Look, as you well know, I am not the most calm, cool-headed person you’ve ever met. My eyesight, especially at night, is not what it used to be. I was traveling fast. The deer was just there, all of a sudden. My vehicle by all rights ought to have been near-totaled. And my wife and I should be injured. But we are not.

Luck?

Hey, talk about believing things that are not susceptible of scientific investigation!

Okay, you are right. How about coincidence?

Again, not empirical, right?

Right. So I will stick with this claim: If we had the whole thing on tape, had you and your car wired to sensors and analytical devices sufficient for the assessment, we’d be able to completely reconstruct the event and causally explain every aspect of it.

“Sufficient for the assessment.” But what if there are no instruments sufficient for the assessment?

Maybe it is all an effect of quantum uncertainty, but quantum uncertainty, itself, is an empirical and rational framework for understanding. No angels. No ghosts. No gods.

What if it is just way more enjoyable to understand the world around me as filled with spirit beings of various sorts.

You mean, besides, angels, sprites, nymphs, faeries, demons, ghouls…that sort of thing?

Yes.

Really! You’ve never seen any of these things.

I’ve never seen an atom, either.

You could.

I’ve never seen a quark.

You could.

No, I could only see effects of the purported quarks. And it gets worse with superstrings. But scientists talk about them all the time.

Because they fit with the mathematics.

And you are absolutely sure that mathematics explains everything? Are there not qualitative aspects to reality that do not reduce to the quantitative? Is mathematics the only true language? Does mathematics really mirror reality?

It does seem fairly amazing how talking about the world mathematically helps you to predict, control, and do a lot of things you could not otherwise do if you talked about the world in another language, for instance, English.

A lot of things, yes. All the things we do? Hardly. In fact, the current craze to computer analyze every creative work misses the point of those works entirely. Physics didn’t explain why Socrates sat in prison awaiting his fate, and “digital humanities” will not help us engage any better with the Bard. Even gematria, the ancient practice of numerological analysis of texts, was not an end in itself. Even if it were to be mere projection, it still sparked reflection and insight. And even more simply, the stories of ancient myths were probably never meant to be taken literally (although some people did take them that way and some still do). They were heuristics to insight and wisdom.

They were a load of rubbish. They were attempts to explain the world that, as it turned out, were much worse than the way we explain the world now. It’s that simple.

So the imagination should be suppressed? But wasn’t it the imagination that kick-started the quest to understand in the first place?

Okay, if you want to put it that way. But we’ve moved on from those ancient stories. They perhaps were a ladder we needed to climb up, but now that we’re up we can safely kick it away.

Do you think we’ll ever find we can kick away science?

Never.

But if our scientific, technological framework is — and this is undeniable — threatening the very existence of the planet, i.e., if we’ve come to a crisis point, would you agree that we might need another way to think and understand if we are going to get through this ecological disaster?

No. Science will find a way out.

That is a risky bet. Science — and it is very complicit with capitalism — has organized the world in such a way as to foreclose — as you are doing now — on alternative frameworks. And that, in itself, bears a significant responsibility for our present disaster. There is — by definition — no morality attached to either modern science or capitalism. And why not? Because real morality cannot be quantified, algorithmized, or productized. And what goes for ethics, goes double for spirit.

Yeah, listen, you may as well throw out this computer you are working on because it was science that gave it to you.

Well, I very well may have to when the power goes off for the last time.

Such a pessimist!

You think I am crying “wolf”?

Yep. Well, no. You aren’t making it up. You believe it. But then again you believe in faeries and sprites.

I didn’t say I did. I was asking.

Well one thing I do know: if you are right about the impeding apocalypse, it won’t be faeries or sprites that save us.

I know. Only a God can save us.

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To Vote or Not to Vote

I saw one of those picture-posts in my Facebook stream this morning that read, “When you skip voting, it’s not rebellion. It’s surrender.” As one might imagine, there was a great deal of discussion in the comments section. The overwhelming majority of the responses held that if you do not vote, you do not have the right to complain about the government. Following on the heels of this claim is the implication that one has not just a right to vote but a responsibility to vote.

I side with the minority on these claims. I am stunned by how easily people will say that if you do not vote you lose the right to voice your concerns. I thought my right to liberty (including liberty of conscience and speech) was inalienable. That means neither you nor I can abrogate this right – no matter what. This right was “endowed by the Creator” — or, if you don’t like the theological flavor of that claim, we could say: We just have these rights. Period.

So my voting or not voting is immaterial to my right to say whatever I think about our government. You have zero right to silence me on the basis of my not voting. You can disagree with my ideas. You can argue against them. You can simply decide to not take them seriously. But there is no valid argument for silencing me, including an argument on the basis of my voting record.

Just to underline: you have nothing to gainsay this. So stop.

Second, if I have a right to vote, I have the correlative right not to vote. But this requires some reflection.

Voting rights, as they stand, are not inalienable. That means, someone or some group might try to curtail or eliminate this right. In fact, groups try all the time (right, Republicans?). Putting aside cynical politicking (okay, Republicans?), we generally accept that those under 18 may not vote, those with a felony conviction (in some cases) may not vote, that you must be a citizen to vote, that you may vote only once, etc. There are restrictions on voting. So voting rights are limited, which makes voting seem more like a privilege than an inalienable right such as freedom of conscience. A privilege granted by whom? By those currently in the government (legislative, executive, judicial).

So if I am granted this privilege by the powers-that-be, must I exercise it? Am I required to vote? Would it be just in a free society to order people to vote and punish them if they don’t?

And vote for whom? Those on the ballot only, or should write-ins be allowed (as they are today)? If write-ins continue to be allowed, and you force everyone (well, those you deem worthy of the privilege anyway…) to vote, and if everyone irritated by having to vote when they don’t want to comes down to the polling place and writes in their vote for their wise Aunt Sadie or whoever, what would we have then? Would that really be meaningful? Wouldn’t we have more or less the same result if those who didn’t want to vote for one of the party candidates or for a write-in candidate who has zero chance of being elected simply stayed home like they wanted to?

What should we say about those who do not vote? Do they not vote because they are apathetic, lazy, disenchanted, cynical, contented, accepting, wise, rebellious, forgetful, incompetent, statement-making…? What? I don’t think you know, do you? It is certainly not one thing that keeps people from voting.

So whether voting is a right or a privilege, a citizen must be free to vote or not, and without punishment if she chooses not to vote.

But what about this fear: If voting is a privilege granted by the powers-that-be, and if people do not take advantage of that privilege, won’t it be likely that the privilege will be taken away?

There are certainly anti-democratic forces at work that would like to end all voting once and for all. To call voting a privilege plays into their hands, and so it is important to see voting more as a right — an inalienable right. As such, it cannot (legitimately) be taken away or given away, for that matter. Whether anyone votes or not.

So I would say that militating for the right to vote (i.e., fighting for something already ours) is a worthy cause. We’d be out in the streets if the powers-that-be were to try to take away our right to vote (which, by the way, is — by definition here — impossible: our taking to the streets would be our “vote” in that case). Whether you then go ahead and vote, given the current system, is immaterial to that fight. The right is ours. Period.

There is an argument to be made about the efficacy of voting (see this post from 2008). We must consider how much voting becomes a substitute for democratic engagement. We must consider, too, how much of a role big money plays in elections.

There are plenty of good reasons not to vote.

What about the “lesser of two evils” argument? Candidate A may be horrible, but A is far less horrible than B. Is that a good (enough) reason to vote? Isn’t the lesser of two evils still evil? Can one be faulted for not wanting to do evil?

Well, perhaps one can. If our backs are to the wall and all our choices are bad, one cannot be faulted for choosing the least bad option, even though it is still bad. But what if our backs are not against the wall? What if there are options besides complicity with certain evils? Wouldn’t working — in whatever ways, great or small — against the broken system be at least as good (if not better) than surrendering to it? Is taking the time to write a blog post, for instance, giving a reasoned opinion on not voting worth the same as a vote in the current system? Could it even be worth more? What if we were deny the equivalence of “citizenship” and “voting”, to think that we, indeed, have responsibilities, but responsibilities as citizens and not just as voters? One might be a responsible citizen and still not vote. 

To be clear, I am not arguing that you should not vote. I am arguing that if you do not vote you still have the right to voice your dissent and criticism of the government. I am arguing that you do not have responsibilities qua voter, but that you do have responsibilities qua citizen (and qua human being, for that matter). I am suggesting, too, that not voting is a form of vote, and that it can be (but, alas, is not necessarily) an act of civic responsibility.

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Bad Reporting

As I write these words, there is a shooting incident ongoing at the Canadian Parliament. Here is a headline I hate (from CNN):

There is no evidence yet that the shootings are linked to Islamic extremism.

Seriously?  

First of all, CNN is reporting on what it does not have evidence of. I am going to to way out on a limb here and say there is a lot that CNN does not have evidence of.  

Second, what exactly is meant by the word “yet” in this headline? Do they have some reason to anticipate that they will have that evidence? If so, then it seems that, in fact, they do have at least some evidence for the claim. But they don’t, so the word “yet” is unjustified.

And then why mention “Islamic extremism” when attacks like the present one can be carried out by all sorts of groups or none.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I hope they get this situation controlled in short order and get to the bottom of it. And let the chips fall where they may. But CNN is way out of line with this headline at this point.

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Karl Barth’s Failure by Matthew Rose | Articles | First Things

 But we are living through the unraveling of the Christian metaphysic, which began with a rejection of classical theism, proceeded to abolish purpose from the material world, and is now eliminating the rational and moral nature of man. In order to recognize this metaphysical demolition for what it is—one can scarcely repair what one misunderstands—Christians are no more helped by Barth than by theological liberalism. Both collude with secular reason in denying our capacity to attain knowledge of the highest things. We will be immeasurably better served by recognizing, as John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio, that our “crisis of meaning” stems from failing to defend the ability of reason to know “the ultimate and overarching meaning of life.”

Read more from this thoughtful essay on Barth: Karl Barth’s Failure by Matthew Rose | Articles | First Things.

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Church Decline and Karl Marx | “Sublunary Sublime”

 Here’s what Marx got right—profoundly, overwhelmingly, admirably right: capitalism is unforgiving to “conservatives,” those who care about neighborhood, Church, family, loyalty, tradition.

More: Church Decline and Karl Marx | “Sublunary Sublime”.

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A conversation about nothing?

What’s new?

A thought: What if it is all about nothing? One big Seinfeld episode?

Nothing?

Yeah, nothing. Marx, in his XI thesis on Feuerbach said, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” What if that is wrong? What if that is not the point? Not to say that one can’t change or try to change the world in one way or another, only to say that this is not the point of it all.

And suppose that is right…does that mean it is all about nothing? What if Marx is wrong on both points? What if the point is actually to interpret the world?

If that is right, then almost everybody misses the point. People interpret, on a daily basis, aspects of the world that are of their immediate concern, of course. But hardly anyone interprets the world.

Maybe they should?

Then the point would be to change the world, would it not?

How so?

Because, as I’ve said, hardly anyone does interpret the world. And if it is right to say we all should – that the point is to interpret the world – then it implies this interpretation (that hardly anyone is interpreting the world) demands that we change it. And I am not sure that the point is to change the world.

So the point is not to interpret the world; the point is not to change the world; so what is the point?

Maybe there is not point at all….

Can you live like that?

I think, really, almost all of us do. Almost all of us do not live and act as if the world has a point. Again, I don’t think this implies that no one finds any meaning in anything, only that the whole thing is without meaning. Stop anyone on the street and ask what is the point of it all. Hardly anyone will have an answer (besides a pious Evangelical). But that does not mean they are all “living lives of quiet desperation.”

Is the point not moral? Are there not moral demands?

Again, I am willing to guess that most people are “regionally moral,” so to speak. They are concerned that their spouses and bosses and kids and plumbers and so on act morally, and at least because of that concern they try to act morally themselves. But they do not do all that might be considered a moral imperative.

What do you mean?

I mean most people give no thought to where their jeans are made, for instance. And of the ones that do know, the overwhelming majority wear them anyway…even though those jeans are made under conditions that it would be nearly impossible to call just.
I see your point…

A breakthrough!

…I just don’t know how to interpret it.

Look, I am considering the idea that morality is chimerical. The “shoulds” in life are phony. Even the ones that you might sentimentally want to hang on to…helping the poor, the downtrodden, the widows and orphans. The truth is that we’re all as good as dead. Nothing can change that.

So you are saying that because we are mortal we are not obligated to be moral?

I am saying you are not obligated to be moral. You decide to be moral (sometimes out of fear of reprisal, which moral philosophers will remind you is not moral).

So you can just treat anyone however you want?

You already do.

But some people treat others like dirt.

Yes.

But they shouldn’t.

You’ve chosen to be moral…but why haven’t they?

Because they…are…I don’t know…bad?

They are bad?

Yeah, bad. Bad people. Mean people.

And they shouldn’t be bad or mean?

No! Of course not!

What is that?

Because it’s, um, bad to be bad.

Naturally.

Stop that!

Okay. But you see what you are doing? You have decided that there are some ways that are bad and some ways that are not bad and then you decide that all people ought to agree with you. You are bringing in an abstracted point of view.

So what? My point of view is abstracted from our human propensities to greed, violence, and all -around shittiness. It is abstracted from what is in order to see what ought to be.

And what grounds this view? On what ground are you standing so you can see this? Holy ground?

Do I have to give you a lesson in the history of moral philosophy? There are lots of grounds that philosophers have offered that, while differing from each other, all end up in the same place: don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t treat others unjustly. It is a cumulative argument. If you deny the great weight of that cumulative argument, you are forced to say that stealing and lying and injustice are not bad.

Actually, I don’t think they are necessarily bad. They are possibly bad. And honesty, respect for property rights, and giving each his due is not necessarily good. They are frequently good, but not always good.

On what grounds to you distinguish “good” from “bad”?

On what pleases me, in the end.

Really?! That’s it?

I think, after having given it some thought, that’s it.

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Yosemite, Sam!

I upgraded this morning to Yosemite, and I am quite pleased so far. The look and feel is quite clean, and there were no issues (so far) with the switch from Mavericks.

I had problems with my (now next to) latest model iPad in moving from IOS7 to IOS8 over the air. It got really hosed (the thing seemed bricked, actually), but I got an Apple tech on the line immediately and he got me fixed up via iTunes in short order. I did have to do a factory reset, so there was a bunch of work to do to get my iPad back the way I had it set up. I did lose a little data, but not much. I have not updated to IOS 8.0.1 or 2 out of fear of having to go through all that again. IOS 8.1 is due out on Monday, and I’ll probably give that a go.

But I can recommend the Yosemite update as being pain-free, in my case. You can update a bunch of Mac Apps after you get Yosemite (Pages, Numbers, iPhoto, etc.).

Good luck!

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