Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Because I'm just not busy enough

This year I intend to participate (successfully) in NaNoWriMo; i.e., I intend to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November.

No, this isn't a particularly bright plan. But it's not the stupidest possible plan, either. The month of November will end before this quarter's paper-writing season begins (at least, as I procrastinatorially understand the quarterly paper-writing season).

I invite others to join me in my madness. (If you need a writing-buddy, look me up under "flyingricepaddy".)

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Duty, duty: what hast thou dunst?

1. From Kant's Critique of Practical Reason:
Duty!--you sublime, grand name which encompasses nothing that is favored yet involves ingratiation, but which demands submission, yet also does not seek to move the will by threatening anything that would arouse natural aversion in the mind and terrify, but merely puts forth a law that on its own finds entry into the mind and yet gains grudging veneration (even if not always compliance), a law before which all inclinations fall silent even if they secretly work against it: what origin is worthy of you, and where does one find the root of your noble descent that proudly rejects all kinship with inclinations, the root from which to be descended is the irremissible condition of that worth which human beings alone can give themselves? (Ak. 5:86)
2. William Wordsworth's "Ode to Duty":
Stern Daughter of the Voice of God!
O Duty! if that name thou love,
Who art a light to guide, a rod
To check the erring and reprove;
Thou, who art victory and law
When empty terrors overawe;
From vain temptations dost set free;
And calm'st the weary strife of frail humanity!...
Ew, ugh, ick, OK, stop.

3. Ogden Nash's "Kind Of An Ode To Duty":
O Duty,
Why hast thou not the visage of a sweetie or a cutie?
Why glitter thy spectacles so ominously?
Why art thou clad so abominously?
Why are thou so different from Venus
And why do thou and I have so few interests mutually
in common between us?
Why art thou fifty per cent martyr
And fifty-one per cent Tartar?

Why is it thy unfortunate wont
To try to attract people by calling on them either to
leave undone the deeds they like, or to do the deeds
they don't?
Why art thou so like an April post-mortem
Of something that died in the ortumn?

Above all, why dost thou continue to hound me?
Why art thou always albatrossly hanging around me?
Thou so ubiquitous,
And I so iniquitous,
I seem to be the one person in the world thou art
perpetually preaching at who or to who;
Whatever looks like fun, there art thou standing
between me and it, calling "you-hoo".

O Duty, Duty!
How noble a man should I be hadst thou the visage of
a sweetie or a cutie!
But as it is thou art so much forbiddinger than a
Wodehouse hero's forbiddingest aunt
That in the words of the poet, When Duty whispers low
"Thou must," this erstwhile youth replies, "I just can't".
I think that "albatrossly" line must be something like what Kant meant by the "sublime".

(If you don't get the joke in the title, you have yet to be exposed to "Look Around You". In which case you have a duty to get over to YouTube right now.)

Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope

My copy of Jonathan Lear's Radical Hope arrived in the mail the other day.

The first of the many cool things about the book: you can't tell from the product shots that you find online, but the dust-jacket is shiny. The spine is all silvery and metallic blue, and I doubt that it will ever lose its status as the most attractive book on my shelf.

I've mentioned this book before: it deals with the collapse of traditional Crow culture, and how the Crow dealt with that collapse under the leadership of Plenty Coups. Lear has an online essay about the book. Quick description of the problem the book addresses:
If we were to have the historical bad luck to be living at a time when our culture was collapsing, what would it be to face such a disaster with courage and integrity? This turns out to be an incredibly difficult question to answer. Precisely because one's culture is collapsing, one can no longer turn to the received tradition of what counts as courage or integrity: for that tradition is part of what is collapsing. In the case of the tribes of the northwest plains, they had understood courage in terms of warrior honor; but intertribal warfare had become impossible. How can one face courageously the fact that it is no longer possible to live courageously — at least, as courage has been traditionally understood?
I haven't finished it yet, but I can say that the first third of the book includes some of the most chilling philosophical writing I have ever read. This stuff gives me the creeps. It's awesome.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Shelley: atheistic champion of reason

It's common in some quarters to associate atheism with rationality. Sometimes people can make a decent case for this. But, for others, it's just a dull prejudice which, on occasion, moves them to say some silly things.

Here's an example from a Wired article on "the New Atheism" (via Paul in comments):
Oxford University is the capital of reason, its Jerusalem. Logic Lane, a tiny road under a low, right-angled bridge, cuts sharply across to the place where Robert Boyle formulated his law on gases and Robert Hooke first used a microscope to see a living cell. A few steps away is the memorial to Percy Bysshe Shelley. Here he lies, sculpted naked in stone, behind the walls of the university that expelled him almost 200 years ago -- for atheism.
So, Boyle, Hooke, and Shelley are cited as champions of reason? Well, Boyle and Hooke (both of whom were Christians, as it happens) are all right, though they're not the best a person could come up with.* But Shelley? The author implies that Shelley's atheism shows how rational he was. But Shelley was a great Romantic poet, part of a movement that was, in large part, a reaction to the unconditional veneration of reason (and associated ideals of the Enlightenment).

A quick glance at Shelley's The Necessity of Atheism (which led to his expulsion from Oxford) suggests two things about his thoughts on religion. First, the tract is hardly a showcase of reasoned argument. Second, Shelley wasn't an atheist:
This negation [that there is no God] must be understood solely to affect a creative Deity. The hypothesis of a pervading Spirit co-eternal with the universe remains unshaken.
The term "atheism" used to be used quite a bit more loosely than it is nowadays; nowadays, we'd probably say that Shelley was a pantheist. (Coincidentally, I'm currently reading On Religion, by another prominent Romantic, Schleiermacher. In that book, Schleiermacher defends a conception of religion which is probably more or less identical to Shelley's belief in a "pervading Spirit co-eternal with the universe". Both Schleiermacher and Shelley seem to be fond of Spinoza, who was another famous pantheist who used to get labeled as an atheist.)

* It seems to me that Kant trumps pretty much everyone else in this regard. Of course, Kant doesn't fit into the setting of the article, because he taught at the University of Königsberg, not Oxford. (And this, I'd say, suffices to show that the University of Königsberg has more right to the title of "capital of reason" than does Oxford, based on this principle: If X is the place where Kant worked, then X is the capital of reason.) Plus, Kant was a theist (albeit not much of one).

Monday, October 16, 2006

Richard Dawkins: faith is evil

Some more confused ideas from the Dawkins interview:
I think there's something very evil about faith, where faith means believing in something in the absence of evidence, and actually taking pride in believing in something in the absence of evidence.
Actually, a lot of believers think that there is plenty of evidence for their beliefs. Some creationists, for example, will say that it takes more faith to be an atheist than a creationist. I think they're wrong about the evidence, and wrong about what faith is, but in any case Dawkins' characterization of faith doesn't fit this substantial section of the religious populace. Anyway, moving on:
And the reason that's dangerous is that it justifies essentially anything.
Technically what I think he's talking about is believing things without justification. So I suppose he's saying that it's evil to believe things without justification.

There are two problems with what Dawkins says here. The first is that this doesn't have much to do with religion: most cases of unjustified belief have nothing to do with religion at all. The second is that unjustified belief (in and of itself) isn't evil or problematic or even optional. The most rational among us can justify our beliefs only to a point--eventually justifications run out. As per the namesake of this blog:
If I have exhausted the justifications I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: "This is simply what I do."
Of course, having an unjustified evil belief is evil--but that's because the belief is evil, not because it's unjustified. So, let's cut to the kernel of insight which Dawkins provides: evil things are evil.

Dawkins provides some examples of such evil beliefs, and then goes on to discuss the role of faith in society (the bolded emphasis is mine):
If you're taught in your holy book or by your priest that blasphemers should die or apostates should die -- anybody who once believed in the religion and no longer does needs to be killed -- that clearly is evil. And people don't have to justify it because it's their faith. They don't have to say, "Well, here's a very good reason for this." All they need to say is, "That's what my faith says." And we're all expected to back off and respect that.
I'm not sure how Dawkins could possibly think that last sentence there is true. Hereabouts, nobody is the least bit expected to respect the notion that blasphemers and apostates ought to be killed. And while my knowledge of the cultural norms of Britain is somewhat limited, I'm pretty sure the same goes for Dawkins' side of the pond as well.
Whether or not we're actually faithful ourselves, we've been brought up to respect faith and to regard it as something that should not be challenged. And that can have extremely evil consequences. The consequences it's had historically -- the Crusades, the Inquisition, right up to the present time where you have suicide bombers and people flying planes into skyscrapers in New York -- all in the name of faith.
Well, we are expected to respect some forms of faith, and let some forms of faith go without challenge, at least at a political level. Dawkins has apparently convinced himself that this ideal of mutual religious respect extends, without qualification, to those "evil consequences" he lists. This is simply false, obviously bizarre--maybe Dawkins should turn his critique of unjustified belief against himself.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Richard Dawkins on literalism

Richard Dawkins has an interview in Salon promoting his new anti-religious book. He makes a number of claims against religion (in all its forms). None of them is particularly good, and I've got something to say about them all. But I'll start with a relatively easy one:
Dawkins: [Some people who were raised religious] remember reading their holy book, and they take it literally. They really do believe it. Now, the moderate ones don't really believe it, but they have taught children that faith is a virtue.
So, the first claim I'd like to address:

Believers who don't interpret their religious texts literally don't really believe in those texts.

Regarding the possibility of different ways of really believing in scripture, I'll just repeat this bit from this Real Live Preacher post:
That old man that you brushed aside? The one you called a liberal and a wishy-washy Christian? He spent the last fifty years with his hands and his heart in the pages of that sacred book. He has wept over it and searched for truth in its stories. His unanswered questions have increased every year until finally he knows nothing at all but the love of God and neighbor.

He knows something that you do not know.
So, yes, you can interpret scripture non-literally, and yet truly believe in it.

But there's a deeper problem with Dawkins' claim. Far from believing that only a literalist can really believe in a religious text, I'm actually inclined towards aliteralistism: the belief that literalists don't exist. At least, I believe that this is the case in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

My reasoning here is that there are verses in the Old Testament which cannot be interpreted literally. And by "cannot" I mean it's impossible--not wrong or awkward or silly, but impossible. Consider, for example, Song of Solomon 4:12 (I've chosen the King James translation, which is of course the most literalisty of all translations):
A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.
Interpreted literally, this verse means that there exists a garden, which is also a spring and a fountain, and that this garden/spring/fountain is the author's sister and his wife. It's not just false or silly or awkward, but (literally) impossible to suppose that the author of the verse is saying any such thing. (Just to be perfectly clear, I'll point out the problems here. For one thing, while springs and fountains are kinda similar, gardens aren't much like either of them--although a garden might contain a spring, a garden cannot be identical to a spring. For another thing, neither a garden nor a spring nor a fountain is a person; hence such an entity cannot be a member of a human family as a sister, and cannot enter the bonds of holy matrimony as a spouse. As for the claim that the author of the verse is married to his sister, that's a little weird, but there might be some precedent for that sort of thing in the Old Testament.)

So I can only conclude that, when it is claimed that someone is a literalist, that claim is necessarily false, and also crazy.

Either that, or the term "literalist" isn't meant to be interpreted literally, which would be cute.

(Via Jesus Politics.)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Academic update

I asked around about the format for the German exam, and decided that, at least for now, I can't translate quickly enough to really stand much of a chance of passing. So I guess I'll be doing in the spring instead. In the meantime, I've got some practising to do. Oh, joy.

(Why didn't I study up for French instead? I could take a French exam instead of the German. The French language puts its verbs in sensible places, doesn't make its basic vocabulary play 3 or 4 drastically different roles, plus I studied the bloody language for something like 8 years. Mais que je suis bête!)

In case anyone's curious, here are the courses I'm taking at the moment.

First up is one on the philosophy of religion, from Hume to Kierkegaard. This is largely about the demise of natural theology. Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling and Philosophical Fragments are on the syllabus. Yay, Kierkegaard!

Next is a course on Plato's Protagoras. Ancient philosophy isn't really my thing, but Socrates was one of Kierkegaard's things, so that gives me a reason to pay some attention.

Last is a course on Heidegger's Being and Time. Reading Heidegger is a chore--which you would expect, since he was German. Of course, I'm reading it in translation, but no matter how well you translate German writing, you can never fully cleanse the sentences of their intrinsic awfulness. Still, he is very cool, and so far the prof has been targeting what strike me as the extra cool bits (his writings on philosophical method, and the significance of anxiety).

Monday, October 09, 2006

Books! (Bücher!)

Tis the weekend of the local coop's annual used book sale, where pocket-book-sized paperbacks go for a quarter. A fricken quarter. Even in American money, that is absurdly cheap.

Following a pair of lengthy expeditions spent digging through trashy romance novels in search of gold, I think I've expanded my library by about 40 or so. My finds included a number of good Freuds (both Sigmund and Anna, plus an absurdly large biography on Sigmund), some all right philosophy (Husserl, Pascal, Montaigne, Locke, Marcus Aurelius), classic sci-fi (Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke), and some fiction written by snooty foreigners (Kazantzakis, Nabakov, Solzhenitsyn, Achebe).

Since I'm all into religion now, I picked up five carefully chosen exemplars of that category: Dianetics, Left Behind, the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavad-Gita, and Karl Barth's Evangelical Theology.

In other news, I'm trying to prepare for the German translation exam which I'm planning on taking on Friday. I don't think I have the words to express how unbearable it is to read German--but that's OK, because Mark Twain did a fine job back in the day of describing The Awful German Language. An excerpt:
The Germans have another kind of parenthesis, which they make by splitting a verb in two and putting half of it at the beginning of an exciting chapter and the other half at the end of it. Can any one conceive of anything more confusing than that? These things are called "separable verbs." The German grammar is blistered all over with separable verbs; and the wider the two portions of one of them are spread apart, the better the author of the crime is pleased with his performance. A favorite one is reiste ab -- which means departed. Here is an example which I culled from a novel and reduced to English:
"The trunks being now ready, he DE- after kissing his mother and sisters, and once more pressing to his bosom his adored Gretchen, who, dressed in simple white muslin, with a single tuberose in the ample folds of her rich brown hair, had tottered feebly down the stairs, still pale from the terror and excitement of the past evening, but longing to lay her poor aching head yet once again upon the breast of him whom she loved more dearly than life itself, PARTED."
However, it is not well to dwell too much on the separable verbs. One is sure to lose his temper early; and if he sticks to the subject, and will not be warned, it will at last either soften his brain or petrify it. Personal pronouns and adjectives are a fruitful nuisance in this language, and should have been left out. For instance, the same sound, sie, means you, and it means she, and it means her, and it means it, and it means they, and it means them. Think of the ragged poverty of a language which has to make one word do the work of six -- and a poor little weak thing of only three letters at that. But mainly, think of the exasperation of never knowing which of these meanings the speaker is trying to convey. This explains why, whenever a person says sie to me, I generally try to kill him, if a stranger.
Reading that essay is pretty much a necessity for anyone who wants to study German without going insane.

Thursday, October 05, 2006


Baboon Palace makes its triumphant return to the blogosphere with a post linking to a music video for Danielson's Did I Step On Your Trumpet? I defy you to watch that video and not be put into a better mood.

It was a BP post from a while back (right after I converted, I think) that introduced me to the wonderful world of Danielson in the first place. Immer schon Excelsior!

Danielson's music is generally distinctively Christian (though Did I Step On Your Trumpet? is not obviously Christian). Of course, it's easy to miss that aspect of the music on a casual listening. This is mostly because it isn't awful.

Danielson remains pretty much the only Christian music I can stomach, excepting stuff written by people who are long dead. The essence of most of the other Christian music I've encountered has been nicely captured by the Wittenburg Door: Evangelical Mad Libs. See some concrete examples of this sort of depth and artistry here. One of those songs shows up fairly frequently at the church I go to--it's a weekly spiritual exercise for me to set aside my moderately snobbish sense of musical aesthetics for the duration of the service (though I had a brief respite the time we did Be Thou My Vision).

Here are five other examples of great Danielson songs (and great Danielson lyrics).

What to Wear
Goin' to a dance party with God!
Goin' dancin' with God!!
What to wear to the funeral!
Be Your Wildman
My loins say just one thing to me...
But my brain...
My brain says another thing to me!
But my loins...

I deserve to be dropkicked!
I deserve to be backdropkicked!
Dropkicked by my God, but he won't...
I deserve to be dropkicked!
Fathom The Nine Fruits Pie
Our Lord of the Dance will come!
Time to eat, time to eat! Come and get it, time to eat!
Love, and joy, and peace, and patience!
Kindness! Goodness! Faithfulness!
Gentleness and self-control!

Time to eat, time to eat! Come and get it, time to eat!
the lords rest
A certain day has been set!
And it's called "Today"!
Today with a capital "T"!!

Fire will test the realness of each man's fire will test the realness of each man's fire ...
(His banner over me is love...)
Can We Camp At Your Feet
I get down ...
from my sky ... high ... chair ...
to camp ... at ... your ... feet ...

With what can I get away?
Your love will have your way!
With us...
Your love will have your way!
I'm not sure if these are my favourite all-time Danielson songs, but there are listed roughly in order of increasingly preference. The first two are just hilarious, and make me grin. Fathom The Nine Fruits Pie is like a shot of pure, unadulterated joy, and makes me want to dance. And I wish songs like the lords rest and Can We Camp At Your Feet would show up in church, although the arrangement and Danielson's falsettos make that idea somewhat less than practical.

(The internets tell me Danielson will be coming to Chicago next May. Woo!)

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

One more stat

From a Time article:

If the parent pledges enough money or is a big enough celebrity or powerful enough alumnus, the break can amount to 300 SAT points out of 1600, which is as much or more than a typical affirmative-action preference would be. About a third of the kids at the typical élite university would probably not be there if not for those preferences.

Universities, privilege and hypocrisy

Via Jason Stanley, an Economist article about the "bastions of privilege and hypocrisy" that are American universities.
No less than 60% of the places in elite universities are given to candidates who have some sort of extra “hook”, from rich or alumni parents to “sporting prowess”. The number of whites who benefit from this affirmative action is far greater than the number of blacks.
We can probably discount sports scholarships as accounting for a fraction of that 60%, which implies that a solid majority of the student body at America's top universities were accepted (at least in part) for completely unmeritocratic, classist reasons. A majority.

I'd be interested to see what percentage of students in top Canadian universities are "hooked" applicants. I suspect we ought to be grateful that our major universities are public institutions and aren't completely beholden to rich alumni. Back at SFU I remember hearing that some visiting prof from some big-shot American university had remarked that the SFU undergrads were generally brighter than the ones at his home institution. At the time I figured that was empty flattery, but maybe it was just a matter of his usual students having more money than brains.

Two points from the article I found particularly curious.

You might imagine that academics would be up in arms about this. Alas, they have too much skin in the game. Academics not only escape tuition fees if they can get their children into the universities where they teach. They get huge preferences as well. Boston University accepted 91% of “faculty brats” in 2003, at a cost of about $9m. Notre Dame accepts about 70% of the children of university employees, compared with 19% of “unhooked” applicants, despite markedly lower average SAT scores.
I'm a bit more ambivalent about tuition waivers--it might be considered a relatively harmless job perk. But my objectivity is impaired here, since I'm hoping to be one of those academics someday. In any case, it's clearly outrageous (embarrassing, pathetic) that the applications of children of faculty should get preferential treatment.

Asian-Americans are the “new Jews”, held to higher standards (they need to score at least 50 points higher than non-Asians even to be in the game) and frequently stigmatised for their “characters” (Harvard evaluators persistently rated Asian-Americans below whites on “personal qualities”).
Well, this was the first I'd heard of that. I did some googling, and it turns out that race-based affirmative action policies benefit only non-Asian minorities, and admission "hooks" tend to go to whites.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Emerson quotes

I read Emerson's Self-Reliance yesterday. (In connection with Stanley Cavell's Cities of Words. "Self-Reliance" is one of many texts which Cavell addresses in that book. I was told Cavell's interpretations are "idiosyncratic". I'm beginning to suspect that that's an unnecessarily charitable way of saying "spurious".)

Anyway, some quotable quotes from Emerson.

On, of all things, whim:
I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.
And on Christendom (I wonder if he ever read Kierkegaard):
For every Stoic was a Stoic; but in Christendom where is the Christian?
And on an activity which I find periodically confusing:
Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view. It is the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul. It is the spirit of God pronouncing his works good. But prayer as a means to effect a private end is meanness and theft. It supposes dualism and not unity in nature and consciousness. As soon as the man is at one with God, he will not beg. He will then see prayer in all action. The prayer of the farmer kneeling in his field to weed it, the prayer of the rower kneeling with the stroke of his oar, are true prayers heard throughout nature, though for cheap ends.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Decider becomes the Definer

Q: If we called a tail a "leg", how many legs would a horse have?
A: Four.

It's a tricky question, because it can sometimes be difficult to remember that things are what they are, regardless of what we call them.

And torture is torture regardless of what the American President wants to call it--a point missed by the recent anti-terror legislation:
As provided by the Constitution and by this section, the President has the authority for the United States to interpret the meaning and application of the Geneva Conventions and to promulgate higher standards and administrative regulations for violations of treaty obligations which are not grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.
At times like this, when the American government has effectively legalized torture, it's important to find reason to laugh. I think the right note of absurdity can be found by comparing the legislation with Bush's attempt to rationalize it a couple of weeks ago:
This debate is occurring because of the Supreme Court's ruling that said that we must conduct ourselves under the Common Article III of the Geneva Convention. And that Common Article III says that there will be no outrages upon human dignity. It's very vague. What does that mean, "outrages upon human dignity"? That's a statement that is wide open to interpretation.
Bush vigorously protests that he doesn't have the foggiest clue as to what the Conventions might mean--and then the Senate goes and gives him the job of interpreting the damn thing. It's like something straight out of an episode of Seinfeld.

But comedy tends to walk hand in hand with tragedy. Consider how Bush continued his rationalizing:
And what I'm proposing is that there be clarity in the law so that our professionals will have no doubt that that which they are doing is legal.
But this new law is only as clear as Bush's own understanding of what might count as "outrages upon human dignity"--a matter which he professes to find utterly opaque and obscure. Where does this leave America's torturers? Imagine the plight of those poor souls who would practice sadism on behalf of the American people: the President had promised them peace of mind, but, alas, those hopes have now been cruelly dashed.