Burning in the City

March 5, 2012

Nearing on the end of Augustine’s The City of God, I continue to be entertained by Saint A’s withering sarcasm towards his ‘opponents,’ i.e., the pagans, and his dogmatic torturing of ‘rationality.’  One man’s rational is another man’s fanaticism.

In this later book, Number XXI, he is discussing the nature of eternal torment meted out to the sinners after the Second Coming, and dealing with difficult ‘scientific’ issues, e.g., how can a sinner’s body continue burning for eternity?  After all, would it not be consumed after a while?  Augustine uses a fascinating argument, what I call the argument from ignorance, which essentially states, “You [pagans] cannot explain everything we see in the world – we are all ignorant of things.  Therefore, you should not object to my assertion that God performs miracles.”  Doesn’t make a lot of sense, but then, it’s a line of reasoning heard today, as are so many things the Saint says.  Rick Santorum comes to mind often when I read him…

Here, the Saint makes an interesting point about the relative authority of texts:

But, as I said in the eighteenth book of this work, we are not obliged to believe everything contained in the historical records of the pagans, since their chroniclers…seem to be at pains to differ from one another …But we are free to believe, if we so choose, those reports which are not in conflict with the books which, as we have no doubt, we are obliged to believe.  XXI 6: Not all marvels are natural; many are devised by man’s ingenuity, many by the craft of demons 

Obviously, it’s all clear and simple which texts ‘we are obliged to believe.’  Following on, Augustine discusses many ‘marvels’ that are generally accepted as true, although they seem laughable to us.  So, he argues, if you accept them, you might as well believe me too.  Certainly, the miracles God performs are no more absurd than these ‘marvels.’  But, of course, he does believe in some of those marvels:  He’s not just being funny.

…My purpose here is to demonstrate the kind of marvels recorded in profusion in pagan literature, and generally believed by our opponents, although no rational explanation is offered, whereas the same people cannot bring themselves to believe us, even though rational grounds are produced, when we say that Almighty God is to perform an action which lies outside their experience and contravenes the evidences of the senses. … XXI 8:  The omnipotence of the Creator is the ground of belief in marvels

 Marvelous things are abounding in the world, and, really, is a man rising from the dead so much more remarkable than some of the animals and natural wonders we come across?  At one point, he cites the numerous volcanoes in Italy, mountains that burn continuously without being consumed!  And, my goodness, Fire turns stones white, but turns wood black!  And charcoal, which is created when fire consumes wood, cannot itself be destroyed by fire or earth!  Thus, people put charcoal under stone property markers, knowing that it will never decay, so that if the stone markers are moved, they can prove the original location!  What a weird manner of pre-scientific reasoning…Fire destroys, so there must be something magical about charcoal which will not be further destroyed.

…For in any case, I have sufficiently argued that it is possible for a living creature to remain alive in the fire, being burnt without being consumed, feeling pain without incurring death; and this by means of a miracle of the omnipotent Creator.  Anyone who says that this is impossible for the Creator does not realize who is responsible for whatever marvels he finds in the whole of the world of nature.  It is, in fact, God himself who has created all that is wonderful in this world, the great miracles, and the minor marvels that I have mentioned…The nature of eternal punishment: XXI 10

The salamander was thought to have the ability to live in fire – that’s strong!- and so become the symbol of the French kings. Later, the amphibian was shown as a fire-breather. It shows up on several facades in New York City, most notably here on the Alwyn Court building, which is swarming with them.

Weather of the Mind

September 17, 2010

I work right next door to Century 21, a fabulously popular discount department store, famous all over the world.  At one time or another, I have gone through various levels of involvement with the store.  For periods of weeks or months, I have visited it daily on my lunch hour, usually buying a few shirts, a belt, socks, or during some stretches, a different pair of shoes each week.  Now, I never go there.  The thought of walking in there bores me stiff.

What changed?  Why did it change?  Oh, you can say I just “got bored,” but why?  Is there some time-dependent mechanism involved?  Can we quantify it, at least for me?  Is it an accumulation of small things adding up to a big, final, ho hum?

Consider all the similar changes that happen over shorter time scales – a month, a week, a day…an hour?  We seem to have no control over them, we just react to them.  Or are simply aware of them.

This seems to wreak havoc with our normal ideas on the nature of the self.  Is our personal mentality simply a mental landscape over which storm fronts and high/low pressure areas shift endlessly, on their own power?  Reason seems to have a small part to play, and is present only because we have abstract language to talk about all this.

I come back to my bedrock conviction that people are more like plants than they like to think.  Free will exists, but there’s less of it than we pretend.  We are just organisms in an environment, responding and surviving.  Even our mental life, about which we are so proud, is hardly of our “own” creation.

Children of Bentham

January 21, 2008


In our consumer culture, we are all children of Jeremy Bentham. The greatest spokesman for the “philosophy” of Utilitarianism, he is with us through his descendants – Peter Singer of animal rights and euthanasia fame; all those economists fretting over “consumer confidence” indices – and in our minds, we economic men, tirelessly striving to better ourselves, increase our hedonic sum, maximize our utility, search for the best buy, get the greatest value for our money, as we bump around the atomized society of rootless individuals in the great pinball game of the free market, what Borges was perhaps satirizing in his short story, “The Lottery of Babylon.”

Bentham posited that there was nothing of value but pleasure. All of man’s life is a search for pleasure, a shunning of pain. Pleasure is the good. When we claim to act for altruistic reasons, or when we point to people who seem to willingly forgo pleasure for some “greater” good, he informs us that, in fact, this renunciation confers pleasure on the actor, so he is right after all. (Not unlike the thinking of Nietzche, who saw in the “slave religion” of Christianity a sly grab for power. What we call “passive-aggressive” in our therapeutic age.) Examine as you like every oddball, difficult, pain-producing situation: you will always find that the person involved is getting something out it, some secret or not so secret pleasure.

Well, nowadays, we don’t think about the hedonic calculus so much, that philosophy that claims that since pleasure is THE VALUE, the GOOD is simply the action that increase the sum total of pleasure (happiness) for the world. So, do what makes the greatest number more happy. Not a bad course in most cases, but the reasoning is awful. Anyway, along the way, pleasure got translated into money, because, after all, pleasure is so subjective. How do you measure pleasure? We can measure what people pay, or say they will pay, or have paid in the past for this or that, and since money has value, and people don’t usually spend their money carelessly, we can assume that the willingness to pay more means that something has more value for the buyer, and so is giving that person more pleasure. Simple, so simple. We can then construct economics as a science of maximizing value, i.e. pleasure, and thus our consumerist world is born! Everyone is pursuing happiness (Is this what the writers of the Declaration meant?) and buying their pleasure on the free market. Our consumer culture exists for no other end than to allow all to maximize their hedonic sum of utility/pleasure!!

The fact that Jeremy Bentham bequeathed his embalmed body to a London university – there it is in the picture, with his head!  sitting in a glass case in the lobby – would seem to give away the secret that something is clearly WHACK with this point of view. Like some monomaniac intellectuals who have solved the problems of humanity – “Just grant me this, and everything else follows..!” – he bends the facts of the world to fit his formula. Does he tell us what pleasure is? Why are so many disparate things called pleasure? Why assume that they are all one unitary thing? Isn’t he defining everything in a way that he can call it pleasure. (Sort of like believers who tell atheists that there is a God, and no matter how the atheist argues, the believer will point out, he thinks, that the atheist is describing God. Laws of nature, that’s God. Evolution, that’s God. Big bang…) Cite any human behavior involving free will, and Bentham has a way of “proving” that it is motivated by a desire for pleasure. In the end, he is proving that people want the things they want, don’t want what they don’t want, and are happier when they get what they want. We all knew that already.

His system is fundamentally a crackpot construction, but it has been taken very seriously. Worked out to its logical end, it yields a deeply inhuman brutality that can justify anything because, in the end, the sum total of happiness will be increased (…if I kill your handicapped daughter, end your life early so you don’t consume valuable resources, etc.) Another example of reason run amok.

Authoritarian Followers

October 5, 2007


Sometime ago, I heard a radio interview of a Harvard troglodyte named Harvey Mansfield as he discussed his absurd ideas about manliness and gender. I have since learned, thanks to an excellent Salon.com column by Glenn Greenwald, that he is a right-wing extremist who believes that the prez is above the law. In that column, Greenwald makes the following remark:

I’ll leave it to Bob Altemeyer and others to dig though all of that to analyze what motivates Mansfield and his decades-long craving for strong, powerful, unchallengeable one-man masculine rule…

Well, I followed that link to Mr. Altemeyer’s study of authoritarian followers, and it is fascinating! Have you ever felt the sinking depression I feel when confronted with a rigid, dogmatic, authority-loving, robot follower who spouts slogans and seems to be impervious to simple logic? Wondered how the hell he or she can think that way? Well, Mr. Altemeyer, a professor of psychology, has, and he studied them in depth. He calls them [high scoring] RWAs for right-wing-authoritarians. In his book, which is quite funny as well, if you can believe it, I found the following passage [emphasis added by me] which knocked my socks off:

Intrigued, I gave the inferences test that Mary Wegmann had used to two large samples of students at my university. In both studies high RWAs went down in flames more than others did. They particularly had trouble figuring out that an inference or deduction was wrong. To illustrate, suppose they had gotten the following syllogism:

All fish live in the sea.
Sharks live in the sea..
Therefore, sharks are fish.

The conclusion does not follow, but high RWAs would be more likely to say the reasoning is correct than most people would. If you ask them why it seems right, they would likely tell you, “Because sharks are fish.” In other words, they thought the reasoning was sound because they agreed with the last statement. If the conclusion is right, they figure, then the reasoning must have been right. Or to put it another way, they don’t “get it” that the reasoning matters–especially on a reasoning test.

Why does this grab me? Well, I couldn’t have thought of a more pithy way of summing up the exasperation I feel when I hear some citizens or politicians talk, read columns by chattering “experts” and pundits in the paper, and, on the thankfully rare occasion, hear commentators spout forth on TV. (It’s rare because I don’t watch TV.) Yes, some people just don’t get that reason matters!

But my experience with jury duty has led me to believe that anyone can reason…if they think they have to. That is, when they realize that they won’t get out of the room until they can convince the others of their point of view, they resort, a last resort, it’s true, to reason. In that situation, they feel reason does matter. Perhaps in the rest of their lives, they have the luxury of ignoring it. It’s useless to argue with such people unless circumstances back you up, i.e., present the dogmatist with an argument he can’t shout down.

Curmudgeon’s Breakfast

July 26, 2006

Some things (people) that I hate:

  • Cellphones with loud, obnoxious rings
  • People who talk on cellphones in a loud voice, all the time
  • People who look like crazy street people because they are talking on a cellphone that is plugged into their ear
  • Not getting as much sleep as I want
  • Being told I sleep too much
  • People who can’t construe a simple logical argument
  • People who assume that personal experience defines all intellectual propositions
  • Eternal optimists who will never acknowledge that their optimism is misplaced
  • Eternal pessimists who will never acknowledge that their pessimism is misplaced
  • People who are neither optimists nor pessimists, but are not realists
  • People who think people are divided into ‘two groups’
  • Political fanatics
  • Religious zealots
  • People who claim to be agnostics, not understanding that to refrain from believing is to be a non-believer
  • Vulgar rationalism, i.e., crackpot materialism cum atheism
  • Dostoyevsky’s writing style
  • People who think that Nietzche is the greatest philosopher in Western thought
  • Ayn Rand
  • The state of contemporary publishing
  • ‘Conservatives’ who cite Adam Smith but have never read him
  • 99.9% of what’s on TV
  • Being told that by not watching TV ‘I am missing lots of good stuff’
  • Advertisements before movies when I am in a theatre
  • Movie trailers

One for Our Side!

January 14, 2005

Yesterday, a judge in Cobb County Georgia struck down a law that mandated stickers on high school biology textbooks with the following message:

“Warning this text contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact. Students should approach this material with an open mind, and examine it critically.”

He ordered that the school board remove the stickers immediately, and said that they constituted a violation of the establishment clause, i.e., the separation of Church and State. Bravo, judge!

The learned jurist quite sensibly ruled that since the stickers referred only to evolution, not to the Krebs Cycle, the structure of DNA, the nature of the cell, or other established facts of biology, that this was a focused and unconstitutional attempt by one group to impose its religious views onto the public school students. I don’t know what arguments the lawyers made, but I hope they pointed out that evolution IS a fact! If it is not a fact, none of the rest of the material in the textbook is fact, which is implicit in the judge’s ruling. The poor understanding of science that runs rampant in our society makes it possible for people to trade on semantic slipperiness about the words ‘theory’ and ‘fact.’

In ordinary language, people use the word theory to mean a guess, a hunch, a supposition, or a reasonable hypothesis, but in science, that’s how theories start. Then they are reviewed and tested relentlessly by people who would often like nothing so much as to gain glory by disproving their colleague’s theory with a factual counter-example. (Contrast this with the religious-dogmatic point of view that arrives at a conclusion and then simply searches for reasons to support and justify it.) Theories that make the grade are finally accepted as facts, e.g. the Copernican Theory of the solar system, the Newtonian Theory of Universal Gravitation, the Lavoisier Theory of oxygen, and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by natural selection.

When a theory is a big, earth-shaking concept, our tendency to call it a theory lingers long after it has been proven again and again. We still talk about the Theory of Relativity because it is such an important concept with so many ramifications. For theories that aren’t so awe inspiring, we drop the theory moniker – nobody talks about Lavoisier’s theory of oxygen anymore because we all know that oxygen exists. We speak about the dead theory he destroyed, the Phlogiston Theory, and in this case, the word theory carries a negative connotation of an idea that was floated, and sank. Scientists are a hard headed bunch – they are not much interested in semantic controversy. That’s the purview of philosophers and dogmatic cranks, so they don’t have any difficulty with the false paradox that a theory, one that is accepted as proved, still is in some small way open to doubt because sometime in the future something that undermines it might turn up. How open minded of them! But know-nothings exploit this semantic difficulty, and the rigorous skepticism of the scientific community to try and further their absurd claims that evolution is just a theory, not a fact.

I bet that most of the people who want this sticker don’t have any problem with the fact of gravity, but actually, there’s probably more scientific controversy over this theory than evolution. Issac Newton never explained the nature of gravity, and he posited it as a force that acts over a distance without intervening material. The theory of the aether was junked at the turn of the 20th century with the Michelson-Morley experiment – space is just that, empty space. Pure and unadulterated. But nowadays, from what I hear about theoretical physics, everything, even gravity, has its source in particles. I won’t weigh in on this as it’s above my head by miles, but you catch my drift. Lets put warning stickers on physics texts, eh?

Against Revelation…for Mr. Brooks

December 1, 2004

Thomas Paine, in The Age of Reason, pointed out that the problem with revealed religion (for those who are not already wedded to the idea that it is the solution to all problems) is that only the recipeint of the revelation has any basis on which to vouch for its authenticity. Hmm…there’s a problem. More recently, Richard Dawkins pointed out that religion based on revealed truth leads to young men hijacking airplanes and flying them into buildings, because, after all, there is only one truth, theirs! Take that you nattering nabobs of relativism!And now, we have the educated Mr. Brooks, guiding us through the thickets of revelation in his latest New York Times column about the evangelist, John Stott. I must say, I increasingly find Brooks to be bizarre in a fascinating way. What does he mean, and what planet does he come from?

We learn that politicians, mostly Democrats, and other liberal secularists don’t understand evangelicals because we take Jerry Falwell to be the exemplar of their ilk. Brooks then treats us to a mini-tour of evangelical thought as expounded by Mr. Stott, a world leader in the evangelical movement, who he says represents the real evangelicals, not the buffoons. Okay, he sounds thoughtful, but his ideas don’t seem much different than Falwell’s. Tellingly, Brooks cites Thomas Wolfe in his description of Stott’s tone – for these two pseudo-intellectuals (i.e. non-intellectuals who want to be seen as intellectuals) style always trumps substance. So, Mr. Stott has a spine of steel, and no doubt a fist of iron, albeit inside a velvet glove.Brooks tells us that Stott is quite “embracing” so that it is a shock, “especially to a Jew like me,” when it is clear that he won’t compromise on some things. Well! Is Brooks saying that he is the type of Jew that always compromises on everything, i.e., has no principles? Or is he implying that all Jews are without rock-solid principles? Neither makes for an appealing proposition. Or, to be more charitable, is he saying that as a Jew, he was shocked to find that there are evangelicals in the world who see him as a man sunk in sin and doomed to hell because he has not abandoned the false way of his Hebrew tribe…etc? Perhaps Mr. Brooks needs to watch Casa Blanca again, and pay special attention to the scene in which the local police chief announces that he is “shocked, shocked,” that gambling has been going on behind those doors. Where has he been, has he been listening while talking with those “hundreds of evangelicals,” he has met all over the USA? Those of us outside of the chattering classes know many religious people who vary from rock hard bigots to open minded spiritualists, and we are not shocked. Nor are we deceived.

Brooks goes on to discuss Stott’s dismissal of relativism. That’s an easy stance to take when all truth flows from (your interpretation of) the Bible. Stott is pro-death penalty and anti-abortion. Does Brooks mind that this is not only contrary to the position of the Pope – who at least has a morally consistent position, in a way – but that it is not based on anything but a preconceived notion? At least he believes in something, right? So did Hitler. And of course, we have, once again, the totally erroneous prejudice and smear that liberals, secularists, and rational people don’t believe in anything. Apparently, unless you are an anti-scientific born-again, you are awash in a sea of apathy, indifference, and anomie. Perhaps Brooks is, and perhaps that’s why he seems so drawn to these people.

Further on, he reveals that Stott is dead set against the “homosexual lifestyle.” How can anyone write that for a major newspaper? Does Brooks believe that being gay is a lifestyle choice? If he does, and if Stott does, shouldn’t they at least provide some evidence in support of that? Well, it’s in the Bible, they say, and I guess all those gay and lesbian people who say that they realized they were gay when they were in pre-teens are just making it up, or they were not sufficiently indoctrinated.

Mr. Brooks made his name as a “pop-sociologist” (his words) witing about self-indulgent yuppies. Perhaps he never did the work to learn real anthropology, sociology, or even history. Does he really feel that he is educating us with this fawning revelation of the nature of revealed faith? Has he not read any history? Even American history? These people have been with us always, and they were fulminating against the Bill of Rights and the Constitution in 1787 and they’re still at it. We don’t need Brooks to teach us the meaning and dynamics of faith and revealed religion – we have one of the best examples of what the worst of it can do in the destruction of the World Trade Center. These fundamentalist terrorists have ideas about truth, and how to find it, that are not much different than Stott’s – they just happen to have major political grievances against the USA as well.

When true believers meet and differ, they have no recourse but to fight to the death. Once we understand these people of faith (and I don’t make the mistake of assuming that all religious people are like this) what shall we do? The only thing they want is for us to give in, and be like them. They take no prisoners.

I have no gripe with people like Stott living in accord with their faith, but I do have two concerns about it:

  • When they are part of a growing political movement, I fear for what they may wreak politically, on me. After a few years of increasing power, will they start passing laws to put crosses in classrooms, say the Lord’s prayer before council meetings, etc? Maybe Brooks won’t mind because I’m sure they’ll allow non-believers to stand by silently, for a while, anyway. How far will they go? Is there anything about their point of view that councils restraint? No, when you’re right, you’re right!
  • It seems today that the only belief, the only values, the only principles that are respected as such are religious ones. What about the great intellectual/ethical traditions of the West that are not based on Christianity or Judaism (though they may be very influenced by them.) At the same time, nobody seems to have any notion of what science is, how it works, and what its value is. Intellectually, these people are deeply reactionary in the plain, objective, historical sense of it.

So, Mr. Brooks can waffle and maunder on about their faith, express his secret wish that he could be like them since they seem so strong and authentic, as opposed to the drippy people he has to work with, but let’s call a spade a spade. They have the right to be as they are, and if they get organized enough, they may well alter our constitution and jettison 225 years of our tradition of tolerance, pluralism, and secularism; and they have the right to dislike that tradition and to want to change it. But make no mistake about it, their aim is nothing less than to destroy democracy in the USA as we know it.