Sunday, July 29, 2012

Larry Tanner Says Goodbye

As of today, I am retiring Textuality permanently. The site will remain online, but it will no longer have new posts.

I decided on my morning run to end the blog. It was a sudden decision, but several percolating factors led to it:
  • My dissertation writing and activities are ramping up, which make less time for thoughtful posts.
  • I've now said much of what is and has been inside me. I don't have much to say right now that's new.
  • I'm also not jazzed up about some issues like I used to be. The issues that grab me now have to do with real, meatspace life. I want to focus my mind and energies on home, work, and just living.
  • I have distant plans to collect and publish my favorite pieces together in book form. This would be for vanity's sake, not for money or anything like that.
In short, this is a good time to move ahead into something different.

Thanks to everyone who has read and commented here. My sincere and best wishes to you for cool lives, fun with loved ones, love and joy, mind-blowing discoveries...and great music and poetry.


Friday, July 27, 2012

No Evil Before Creation, No Evil After

The philosophical washing machine. It cleans dubious concepts until they look like "ideas you really ought to consider."

Philosophically-minded theists may think Alvin Plantinga dispensed with the logical problem of evil for all time back in the 1970s.

I disagree, but even if it were true, then we would have several more ways of looking at the problem of evil. In other words, it's still a problem.

Philosopher J. L. Schellenberg lays out the case for a new logical problem of evil. Basically, it runs like this:
1. God is the greatest possible being.
2. God's reality is entirely to be distinguished from that of any world.
3. Prior to creation (whether ‘prior’ be taken logically or temporally) there
is no evil in God of any kind.
4. There is evil in the world.

The fourth statement is logically inconsistent with the conjunction of the first three.
Schellenberg's reasoning hinges on statement #3 and the concept of prior goodness. Given #3 and the previous two statements, he says, what should have happened is "no evil before creation, no evil after."

But that's not what happened. We got evil. Therefore, something is wrong. Maybe it's with the way we think about God. Maybe it's the way we think about evil. Maybe it's our logic. But something's gone awry.

The whole paper is worth reading and thinking about. Some atheists will carp that the existence of God or something like God is asserted without evidence. They would be right, but the point of the game, as it were, is to assume God exists. Over 1,500 years of philosophical rumination on the question of God's existence forms the implied backdrop of what Schellenberg is doing.

Yet the really interesting comment comes at the very end, where Schellenberg suggests that maybe our idea of God is just wrong:
It is only because of its own special way of filling out the more general religious proposition I have elsewhere called ultimism – the idea that there is a reality triply ultimate: metaphysically, axiologically, and soteriologically – that theism gets into such trouble. Take away the assumptions of ONTOLOGICAL INDEPENDENCE and PRIOR PURITY and the game is on again – though it is likely to be a very different game.

This option, of beginning again, perhaps more humbly, with UNSURPASSABLE GREATNESS alone, is not one that atheists often mention. That is because atheists are usually also metaphysical naturalists, and thus opposed to all religious ideas. I think this orientation is mired in error. In part this is because I think we humans are still at the very beginning of what may be an extremely long process of religious adventuring on our planet. If that is so, and if I am right about the seriousness of the problem evil presents for theism, then not only should we be prepared to let go of God. We should also gird ourselves for religious explorations and discoveries not yet dreamt in any philosophy.
Schellenberg sure seems to be advocating a different kind of deity, super-great yet part of the world and not all-good. I'd love to get a theist's take on Schellenberg's proposal, but to me it seems that he unfairly thinks atheists--even metaphysical naturalists--would automatically reject the idea in full.

I consider myself a metaphysical naturalist. I would love to hear the argument for the existence of Schellenberg's unsurpassably great god that is part of the world and not all-good. I don't see right now how such a good would conflict with metaphysical naturalism, but it sure seems like such a god ought to be apprehendable and comprehensible. If so, my desire for empirical verification could be satisfied.

But this is my critique of Schellenberg: he doesn't address at all how we might get to his god, logically or empirically. He simply asks us to entertain the fluffy idea of "beginning again."

This is a problem because we atheists are always being called militant and hyper skeptical and disagreeable. So, if I'm not going to be a close-minded atheist, well, how exactly should I "begin again" with a workable god concept? You're the deep thinker, Schellenberg, so pony up with the goods. Again and again, we're advised to just close our eyes and imagine the best possible dude of all, and that's God.

No, it doesn't work that way. I reserve the right not to take the God idea very seriously until someone can offer evidence stronger than thinking about God really hard.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

God's Violence and How to Avoid Facing It

Which dummy is speaking?
I recently posted on the human cruelty sanctioned by God--and, indeed, indirectly perpetrated by Him--in biblical passages such as Joshua 6:20-21.

Some of God's defenders point out that God can do what He likes with human life, as all life "belongs" to him. This apology is special pleading par excellence. As a student of literature I note that no other single character in all of fiction or history has been praised for violently and indiscriminately taking back what he has freely given.

Other God-defenders insist that those who were killed--including non-military, children, the old, the ill, and even livestock--deserved what they got. They did something, or didn't do something, and so God was morally justified to make Israel his instrument of genocidal brutality.

Biblical scholar Peter Enns suggests, following one of his mentors, that difficult passages such as Jericho can be rendered less problematic if the Bible is understood as God letting His children tell the story. He explains:
The Bible is what happens when God allows his children to tell his story–which means the biblical writers told the story from their point of view, with their limitations, within the cultural context in which they wrote.

When children tell the story of their father or mother, parents are typically delighted by how much they get and the childlike way that they see the world. But they are also well aware that children miss a lot when they tell the story, and invariably refract the complexities of family life through their own youthful vision.

It’s not a perfect analogy, I know, but roll with it: Think of how young boys talk in the schoolyard about how great their father is. They are ways of telling the story to make sure everyone knows they have the best dad around.
No, it's not a perfect analogy. And, uh, it's hard to roll with. I'll summarize some of the difficulties I have with Enns's approach, but here's a bit more of his explanation:
When God lets his children tell the story, the way that story is told is deeply and thoroughly influenced by the “rules of the schoolyard”; in the case of the Old Testament that means ancient tribal societies that valued in their people and in their gods such things as taking land, vanquishing (i.e., killing or enslaving) their foes, and generally bragging about who has the best gods and the best kings.

That is how people thought, and this “rule” is stamped all over the Old Testament. This is a way of understanding why the Bible behaves the way that it does. It bears the marks of the limitations of the cultures.

Bear in mind this is only an analogy, but if we want to extend this to the New Testament, we can think of the teachings of Jesus as a more “mature” telling of God’s story. Jesus tells the story in a way that is more in line with who God is (“you have heard it said, but I say to you…”). Such things as land acquisition and killing and enslaving enemies is no longer part of God’s narrative.

It’s like a boy who grows up to be an adult, gets a job, and has a family of his own. Now ask him to tell his father’s story. The son’s life experiences have brought him to a deeper knowledge and appreciation of his father’s experiences, and the story will reflect that.
What problem does the "schoolyard rules" approach solve? Well, it suggests that God really didn't do as much killing as the Bible says. It also indicates that He wasn't in full support of all the killing perpetrated by the Israelites.

OK, so maybe God ain't so bad. But wait. God's exoneration comes at a heavy price, for now we have to wonder how credible "His children" actually are. What else did they exaggerate? Could they have outright fabricated a story or even several stories?

Other problems: Did God approve of some killings and not others? Which ones? Was he OK with the killing of children but not livestock? How do we know?

More problems: Did God let His children tell the whole story or just parts of it? How do we distinguish God's telling from His children's telling, since they both use human language? Is it merely a matter of using the schoolyard rules approach when God does something that makes us uncomfortable?

Even more problems: Are other holy books from the world’s many cultures also re-tellings by God’s children? When re-tellings contradict, how do we adjudicate between them?

These are serious issues. Now take a look at the second section I quote. We see clearly that Enns has the ultimate concern of dropping the "OT" and getting to gentle Jesus. Jesus offers, Enns implies, a truer (what else could "mature" mean?) account of who God is and what He does.This approach reflects a longstanding Christian paradigm wherein the Hebrew Bible prefigures the New Testament. In other words, nasty genocidal God points the way to fatherly God sacrificing himself/his Son out Yes, love.

Hold on, for Houston, we have more problems. The teachings of Jesus are themselves re-told by the gospel writers. Are these to be viewed also by schoolyard rules? Should we then apply the same questions of credibility, structure, and speaker identification to these teachings?


Despite his cautions on using the analogy, Enns provides no clear statement of how it unambiguously succeeds. We're given the idea that it helps us to accept God's violence but this idea gets us nothing but momentary, visceral relief. Indeed, if we think about it, God's exoneration is passed off to the Israelites. Those kooky Jews were telling tall tales.

I suspect that momentary, visceral relief is all many believers want. Many will not pursue thinking about schoolyard rules and what their truth would entail for the Bible, biblical criticism, and belief.

Sometimes I wonder why people don't just make it easier on themselves and become deists. That way, they could just believe in a supreme being and dispense with having to maintain the authority of the Bible/New Testament.

If you want to believe in the Bible/New Testament, you simply have to accept that God is a huge douche and Jesus is a surly prick--these aspects are inextricable from the characters. Against the plain readings of the Bibles in their original languages and in their many conjoined historical and linguistic contexts, you cannot maintain uniform conceptions of God the loving father and Jesus the meek savior. The conceptions don't hold.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Postmodernism Translator

James T. Kirk using the Postmodernism Translator to learn deep thoughts from the French.

Over at Why Evolution Is True, Jerry was having trouble with a paragraph from postmodern scholar Bruno Latour. I happen to speak postmodern, so the table below gives Latour's sentences on the left and my liberal translation on the right.

Latour Tanner
In religious talk, there is indeed a leap of faith, but this is not an acrobatic salto mortale in order to do even better than reference with more daring and risky means, it is a somersault yes, but one which aims at jumping, dancing toward the present and the close, to redirect attention away from indifference and habituation, to prepare oneself to be seized again by this presence that breaks the usual, habituated passage of time.

As to knowledge, it is not a direct grasp of the plain and the visible against all beliefs in authority, but an extraordinarily daring, complex, and intricate confidence in chains of nested transformations of documents that, through many different types of proofs, lead toward new types of visions that force us to break away from the intuitions and prejudices of common sense.

Belief is simply immaterial for any religious speech-act; knowledge is not an accurate way to characterize scientific activity.

We might move forward a bit, if we were calling “faith” the movement that brings us to the close and to the present, and retaining the word “belief" for this necessary mixture of confidence and diffidence with which we need to assess all the things we cannot see directly.

Then the difference between science and religion would not be found in the different mental competencies brought to bear on two different realms—“belief ” applied to vague spiritual matters, “knowledge” to directly observable things—but in the same broad set of competences applied to two chains of mediators going in two different directions.

The first chain leads toward what is invisible because it is simply too far and too counterintuitive to be directly grasped—namely, science; the second chain, the religious one, also leads to the invisible but what it reaches is not invisible because it would be hidden, encrypted, and far, but simply because it is difficult to renew.
Religious people take "leaps of faith" [in talking about the substance of belief]. But it's not just fancy, meaningless talk, and it's not trying for mere poetry or emotion. Instead, it attempts to articulate the wonder and extra-ordinariness of the present moment, of its present-ness. Where the events of our lives could be seen indifferently and as mundane happenings, in a religious frame the events are grand and worthy of amazement.

Religious knowledge--that is, feeling sure that God exists, is watching, and is at work--is not like knowing in everyday life. It is, rather, a heroic assertion and a point of view that finds new and beautiful ways, every day, to confirm that assertion. The assertion, perspective, and continual connecting of the two make the knower a supremely open-minded learner.

Religious belief therefore transcends ordinary speech. Language cannot convey the complexity of what the religious seeker is actually doing and learning in active seeking. Neither is the word knowledge appropriate to the learning done by anyone who actively looks at and in the world.

Current discussions of religion and science might progress if we all shared a more nuanced understanding of the difference between "faith" and "belief."

The more nuanced understanding would help locate the real difference between science and religion: the different cognitive skills and ideological commitments each brings to bear in inquiry. Science and religion are, in other words, different ways of knowing and and of advocating for personally held values.

Science orients the thinker to the invisible reality that only mathematics and high-powered instrumentation can access. That reality is far from us and behaves in ways we often find counter-intuitive. Religion also orients the thinker to the invisible, but this invisible reality is the now, the unique present. It's here and close, but only momentary and unrepeatable.

Latour's prose is dense, but not inscrutable. Unfortunately, it's hard to be overly impressed with the logic of his grand--and beautiful--claims for what religion is, does, and knows.

For Latour, to be religious, to think in the religious mode, is to elevate oneself and the now. One is introspective and amazed to be part of a singular narrative in time. Every facet of one's life now is imbued with higher meaning and purpose. And exercise of religious thinking is equally noble and equally important compared to the exercise of scientific techniques.

His aspirations and dancing prose notwithstanding, Latour ultimately fails to make his case. Religious thinking and talk, by his characterization, are little more than very deep navel gazing. They are solipsistic exercises, the dramatic cry of one unable to escape time, and thereby death. In Latour's ornamented formulation, religious introspection re-states William Saroyan's famous quote: "Everybody has to die, but I always believed an exception would be made in my case." Religion is the fantasy invoked to come to grips with the fact that no exception will be made.

The Why Evolution Is True crowd notes, as I do, the rhetorical game Latour is playing: "science" is the standard, and Latour wants to bring religion up to or--even better--past the standard. Science has a presumed preeminence and authority he wants conferred also to religion.

It's a silly game, and unnecessary. Religion can be very beautiful. It can make one introspective, and it can yield breathtaking insights into one's life and one's moment. It can help one question common sense and one's own prejudices.

But religion really isn't like science and today bears no relation to it. There's no basis for comparing the two.

Religion is not about truth or knowledge, even self-knowledge. Rather, religion is about understanding, about feeling rationally justified to hold a certain view. The key here, as far as I can tell, is "feeling rational." We're not talking about pure rationality but emotional sanctification with the idea that one is intellectually attuned to forces at work in the universe.

Religion taps into an enticing fantasy, the fantasy of somehow knowing something. But it's just a fantasy. It isn't true, not in the sense of modelling, observing, or schematizing a phenomenon.

I wish people could be OK with that, with the fact that religion isn't true. After all, they can still go to church. They can still pray. They can still observe the rituals and special days. They can still read holy books and discuss teachings. They can still imagine heaven. They can still contemplate hell.They can still fantasize about knowing, all by themselves, deep secrets of the universe.

Religion does not need to be true for people to be interested in it, inspired by it, educated by it, moved by it. But it needs to be true if people are going to learn about the universe and about people.

And it's not true, so let's not ask it to be, and let's not try to extract knowledge where there is none to be had.

In the end, Latour's prose and point are ineffectual because they misguidedly inflate religion into areas it cannot influence. A reformed postmodernist myself, I hope my prose and my arguments are more compelling than his indulgent apology for the unsubstantive.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Kill 'Em All: God's Prerogative

The Biblical World notes an interesting discussion over Israel's capture of Jericho.

The story is well-known for the part where Joshua and the Israelite circle Jericho, blowing trumpets until the city's walls come tumbling down. My kids used to have a Veggie Tales video that framed the story as one of "doing it God's way, not your own." The vegetable Israelites trusted God by obeying the bizarre orders of Joshua. They brought down veggie Jericho and immediately made their way to the Promised Land.

Not recounted in the kid vid, and hardly ever in polite company, is the actual Biblical story. For example, here's Joshua 6:20-21:
20. And the people shouted, and (the priests) blew with the trumpets; and it was when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, that the people shouted with a great shout, and the wall fell down in its place and the people went up into the city, every man opposite him, and they took the city.

21. And they completely destroyed all that was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep, and ass, with the edge of the sword.
This is, of course, an orgy of genocide and slaughter. It's indiscriminate--excepting the household of Rahab the harlot, whose aid of Israel is rewarded by their being spared. And it's all God-sanctioned: consider that what arouses God's anger is the later actions of one Achan, who does some looting in Jericho and sets back Israel's army. Achan pays for the crime with his life.

Now, some apologists bleat that Jericho had been warned beforehand. The city foolishly decided to oppose Israel; therefore, God was moral and Joshua was moral and Israel was moral to fuck up absolutely everyone and everything in Jericho.

Today, however, we can hardly accept such a feeble excuse. We know it's unfair to expect a city to surrender to an invading force. There's no way to reconcile the specific events recounted in the this chapter with an all-powerful, all-smart, human-loving deity. Surely such a God could have found a safer, saner method for achieving his divine purpose? For example, why not whip up a wall of sand--Exodus-style--on either side of Israel as they simply pass through Jericho unharmed?

But no, the God-apologists need to protect their idea of God by blaming the victims. Or, as John Piper does, the divine defenders just say genocide is fine...when God does it:
It's right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.

God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God's hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs.

So God is God! He rules and governs everything. And everything he does is just and right and good. God owes us nothing.
"May I have another?"
Hallelujah, John! God can fucking kill anyone, anytime. He can stomp and maim until he's satisfied that He's killed enough. Heck, he can juggle the freakin' corpses and gargle their bones, and by definition it would be morally good and right.

And what's more, whatever the hell he decides to do to you, me, your little baby, your dear Aunt Sally, or whomever: we all should just thank him. He owes us nothing.

Piper's demented view is not far off from that of the odious Jewish convert, Jacob Stein. Stein believes that the Holocaust was essentially God's response to the Jewish Enlightenment in Europe.
It is true that I am implying that generally the victims of the Holocaust were sinners who were deserving of their fate however I believe that this is in fact obviously true and we will honor their deaths by learning from this.

In my opinion, the Holocaust is one of the strongest proofs of the truth of Judaism.
Stein has nothing to say about what the other millions of Nazi victims did to deserve their fate. Neither does he explain why American Jews, hardly known for orthodoxy, were spared. All he knows for sure is Haskalah-therefore-Holocaust. Bravo, Stein!

Piper and Stein agree that God uses human brutality to make his holy will known and to achieve his divine design in the world.

It's easy enough to dismiss abhorrent views such as those of Piper and Stein. Most of us, however, are unprepared to tolerate indiscriminate killing, genocide, and wanton violence. This is a good thing.

But come back to the Veggie Tales video I mentioned before. Remember what the decent little tomato and funny cucumber say: the right thing to do is what God tells you to do.

What they don't say is that God has sometimes told people to do some pretty awful and wrong things, if you believe there is a God to tell anybody anything.

Let me close with a modest proposal to leave vegetables for cooking and eating, leave God and the Bible in the fiction bin where they belong, leave moral decisions to rational minds, and leave genocide and slaughter altogether.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sam Cooke's "Blowin' in the Wind" (and Political Soul)

Just discovered Sam Cooke's fine cover of the Dylan classic. I like what Cooke does with the accents.

Well, I can't do political soul without something from Marvin Gaye:

How about a great one from Stevie Wonder?

Heaven Can Wait

Warrant sang that heaven isn't too far away. In reality, you have to transform yourself.

Is heaven real?

No, of course not. There is a popular book claiming otherwise, but we have good reason to give the book little weight.

First, consider what something real is. It has a material existence. A microbe, a star, a color--all of these can be talked about as presences in the universe. If a color is the one questionable item in the above list, remember that it's a wavelength on the electromagnetic spectrum. So it is physical.

What about love? Love is traceable to chemical impulses in the brain affecting physical processes in the human body. Therefore, love too has a clear and direct connection to materiality.

What about an abstraction such as the number 4? Is 4 real? Yes, 4 can be encoded in material units: four sticks, four apples, four fingers.

Is heaven real?

Can we observe it directly and measure it? No.

Does it affect physical processes in the universe or in live beings? No.

Can it be encoded in material units? No.

Therefore, we are very justified in rejecting the idea of heaven.

But a popular book tells the story of a father, a pastor, telling the story of his son. Following recovery from a very serious illness, the son began to claim having visited heaven. The father and son both believe that the son visited.

The story is compelling. The father had been shaken in his faith. The son, so the father tells us, speaks with the authority of observation. What's more, as we so often get in stories of this type, the visitor to heaven comes back with knowledge "he could not have possibly known." We readers and hearers must take in the story and say, "Could it be so?"

Compelling as the story may be--I don't think it is, particularly--it's probably best not taken as evidence of heaven's existence. The story does nothing to bridge the gap from the idea to material reality. The human brain, awesome as it is, doesn't do a great job in helping us construct a full picture of reality or reconstruct remembered observations. Indeed, because we actively construct cognitive pictures, making us susceptible to all sorts of illusions, and actively construct memories, we ought to be especially wary of a second-hand retroactive claim about "observations" made in the mind.

Ultimately, the I've-been-to-heaven story is of a type we've seen since Moses came across the burning bush. It's 40 days in the desert. It's the light on the road to Damascus. It's Augustine opening his Bible. It's Bruce Wayne witnessing the murder of his parents. It's Iron Man escaping from terrorists in Afghanistan. The hero witnesses something amazing and becomes transformed into a different kind of person--a person with a specific mission and purpose.

That these stories help us little with establishing heaven is almost banal. The interesting question is what in our emotional make up drives us to feel compelled by them. Do we understand the father's doubt? His subsequent connection, through the son, with his god? Do we understand the son's recollection of a dream? His sense of being able to give something to his father, of being a source of power?

The impulse is to rally around the people and to partake in their transformation, not so much to believe the story. Surely, some people will believe the story and agree that heaven is real. But most folks, I think, will maintain an "I'm not sure" attitude while setting themselves in the community of people they think the father and son represent. The important thing to walk away with after a story such as the father and son's is "I'm a Christian, too," not "I really and fully believe in heaven."

The important thing is the transformation. That's what everyone sees. That's what everyone believes. That's what everyone feels. That's what everyone desires. And that's why the story compels.

But heaven still isn't real.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Happy Birthday, Dad

My father, a strapping young 17-year-old in 1954, South Philadelphia.
My father is 76 years old today.

To me, he is the epitome of a mensch. He is a good man, one of integrity and goodwill. Like my mother, he is a person with many qualities and values that I hope will stay in my children as they grow up. I hope, too, that I live up to the model he has given me.

Thanks, Dad! Good health and happiness to you today and always.

Monday, July 09, 2012

At Last, What Intelligent Design Theory Advocates!

Over at the Intelligent Design site Uncommon Descent, a commenter called Jerad has been asking what ID theory advocates for the origin of life and development of species.

His requests are often polite and specific:
I am not asking you for the designer’s name or address, just your idea about the methods and timing. We know quite a lot about the people who built Stonehenge: what they ate, some of their rituals, stuff you can’t get from just studying Stonehenge itself. There are lots of good books about prehistoric Britain if you’re interested. AND we do ask: why did they build Stonehenge? When? In stages or all at once? Why? Always WHY?? It’s what science does. Asks questions.

You asked me a few weeks ago about finding Stonehenge on Mars and I said: you bet I’d think it was designed. And then I’d immediately start asking those questions and looking for answers and more evidence. I couldn’t just let the deign inference sit there and be happy. I’d start digging. Quite literally in that instance in fact. I’d do some archaeology and look for the designer’s trash heap. I’d ramp up SETI trying to find a signal. I’d try and date the structure. I’d hypothesise (based on careful examination of the thing) about construction techniques. If someone left a Stonehenge on Mars I’d bet they left some other traces and evidence.
Here's a second statement clarifying what Jerad wants to know about ID:
I won’t ask about the designer but, surely, a core part of ID is when; when did the designer intervene. That at least should be answerable. That is the core difference isn’t it: Darwinism says: the ‘gaps’ were bridged by natural, observable processes. ID says: the designer bridged those gaps with knowledge and abilities we extrapolate from our own currently inadequate abilities. BUT, you haven’t said which gaps or when.
Although in that thread none of the ID proponents sketches out the narrative for origin of life and development of species, the comments give enough for a reconstruction. Here, then, is my summary of ID's theory of life:

Intelligent Design is a theory of common design. At some point in the distant past, an intelligent being released one or more organismic "seeds" on earth. Each seed presumably had been designed by this being--although I am not sure we can assume this--and introduced to earth for the purpose of living here. Although each seed is crafted to give rise to organisms with common features--such as teeth, eyes, brains, and so forth--they all represent different life forms. Some seeds are for plants or plant types. Some are for humans, some are for ostriches, some are for bears, some are for ants, some are for salamanders, some are for swordfish. And so on. 

The evidence of design is found at the microbiological level, where cells and cell processes indicate that they should have resulted only from a prior engineering and manufacturing process. The cells and processes of living organisms must have been planned by a being, then assembled and finished into an integrated whole. These integrated wholes were used to seed the earth with life. Without these seeds, earth would have remained forever a lifeless planet of water and rock.

Following the initial seeding, the organisms reproduced. Generation after generation, they grew in number and established various ecological balances in diverging populations across the planet. These balances shifted according to climate changes, as well as according to the dynamics of different populations growing, strengthening, migrating in or out, or contracting disease. Today, many of these populations are identified as species and subspecies, and various relationships among the species can be shown scientifically.

Current biology mistakenly views the relationships between species as the result of (1) common descent and (2) evolution via natural selection. Current biology errs because the level of microbiological complexity required for life to appear on earth could not have happened without an intelligent being placing seeds here. Therefore, common design better explains all of the evidence.

I hope the account above accurately reflects the theory. I expect I have the broad outlines but am off in particulars. I appreciate correction. Nevertheless, it's important to have an articulated ID theory because I, for one, am not satisfied with the following:
When we see a known adequate process that leads to reliable signs, we have every good reason to infer that like causes like, and to hold that in the teeth of any and all contrary metaphysical speculations and doctrines that do not have that sort of empirical warrant. In other worlds [sic], we are well within our scientific rights to insist on the credibility of inductive generalisation on signs that reliably point to known adequate cause.

That is what design theory is about, and it is why in the end, once people realise what is at stake in rejecting it — driving the proverbial stake through the heart of scientific methods and empirical reasoning — it will prevail.
The above defends ID, claiming it makes reasonable extrapolations from observed reality. It also attacks modern science for being driven by unsupported assumptions about reality. For all I know, these arguments have merit; unfortunately, they do not answer the questions people want science to address: What actually happened way back then? How did it occur? What were the conditions and how else might things have turned out?

It is not enough to claim only "I infer design" because to infer design is to invoke a narrative. If X is the result of design, then some designer made X and brought X into being at a certain point in time. What's more, design implies intent: to some degree, X fulfills the designer's intentions both for what X is and what X does. It's not enough, then, to conclude design without also articulating the designer, the designer's purposes, and the historical conditions under which the design first appeared. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that design cannot be offered or accepted as a serious hypothesis unless it affirms a designer, argues purposes, and establishes historical conditions and parameters.

Because ID proponents tend not to provide the sorts of details that Jerad asks for, ID continually comes across as incomplete and pallid criticism. From the thread I link to, anyone might question how much experience Jerad has with the biological data. Nevertheless, one clearly sees that his position is one that encompasses a totality of known data. ID rests on almost pure induction and seeks--seemingly--to keep design from being entirely ruled out.

*  *  *  *  *

Years ago, as a theist starting to buy into the arguments for atheism, I looked to Intelligent Design for a reasonable alternative to atheism. I thought ID might give good reasons to think our world was not without God or gods.

But Intelligent Design failed right away. I realized quickly that it would not give me what I wanted, which was a plausible, clear, evidence-based explanation of the world--including reasons for keeping the idea of God/gods. After all, if there were a good reason to think intentional design was part of life's origins, then there was also good reason to think God could have been the designer.

Unfortunately, ID's proponents, sites, and books provided no scientific development of the theory. Few people, least of all biologists, were applying ID to a full range of data from fossils, genetics, biogeography, morpohology, and so on. One could not enroll in a biology program at a university and study with an ID theorist. One could not open an academic biological journal and read about current findings in ID.

I saw, then, that ID was marginal and almost completely static. In its efforts not to identify explicitly with religion and creationism, it offered no definite theory of anything. It argued that "Darwinism" had failed and that "materialism" had thoroughly corrupted the practice of modern science. But it gave no explanation or narrative of the first design processes and subsequent processes.

Well, now we have an explanation and narrative. Once it's properly tweaked by ID advocates, we can have a real basis for assessing which accounts of life on earth best fit all the data. One final takeaway, then, is that ID postulates not a simple creationism. In the end, it is creationism and an argument that creationism can be rationally and scientifically warranted.

I suspect that people who buy into ID do so because they want to hold onto creationism. Sure, I suppose there is reason to dislike or be unimpressed with evolutionary science, but I find it hard to believe that one accepts ID simply because one is anti-evolution. No, I think one accepts ID out of rational necessity: these are people who know the Bible falls short of truth, who despise the middling ground of agnosticism, and who are repulsed by atheism.

These are, I imagine, some very conflicted conservatives--people whose intellects are at war with their values.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Friday Awesome: Penny for Your Thoughts

The local paper reports:
A Massachusetts man who pledged to make the last mortgage payment on his home with pennies has fulfilled that promise.

After warning his bank, Thomas Daigle in April dropped off about 62,000 pennies weighing 800 pounds in two boxes for the final payment on the Milford home he and his wife, Sandra, bought in 1977.

He tells The Milford Daily News he just wanted to make his last payment ‘‘memorable.’’

He started saving his pennies when he moved in.

The optician says his wife laughed whenever he would pick up a penny he found on the ground and say it was going to the mortgage.

Daigle says he’s just glad to have the coins out of his house.
That reminds me....


Allan Sloan: Five Myths of the Financial Meltdown

We are about five years and one month past the financial meltdown, when America's largest and most prestigious banks could no longer hide the fact they were in big trouble--and were taking everyone else with them.

Fortune Magazine columnist Allan Sloan recalls:
It's hard to believe, but it's been five years and a day since the U.S. financial system's problems surfaced, and we're still not even remotely close to being able to feel good about the economy. My admittedly arbitrary start date is June 12, 2007, the day the Wall Street Journal reported that two Bear Stearns hedge funds that owned mortgage securities were in big trouble. At the time, things didn't seem all that grim -- in fact, U.S. stocks hit an all-time high four months later. But in retrospect the travails of the funds, which collapsed within weeks, were a tip-off that a crisis was afoot. Problems kept erupting, efforts to restore calm failed, and we trembled on the brink of a financial abyss in 2008-09. Things have gotten better since then, but still aren't close to being right.

There's a long way to go before the economy, and people, recover from wounds inflicted by the financial meltdown. The value of homeowners' equity -- most Americans' biggest single financial asset -- is down $4.7 trillion, about 41%, since June 2007, according to the Federal Reserve. The U.S. stock market has lost $1.9 trillion of value, by Wilshire Associates' count. Even worse, we've got fewer people working now -- 142.3 million -- than then (146.1 million), even though the working-age population has grown. So while plenty of folks are doing well and entire industries have recovered, people on average are worse off than they were. Bad stuff.
Sloan observes that only five years away from these shattering events, myth is already displacing reality (and some people wonder why I distrust the reliability of the gospel accounts of Jesus and such.)

Sloan reminds us of the facts. I'll just list them here. Go read the article.
Myth No. 1: The government should have done nothing.
Myth No. 2: The government bailed out shareholders.
Myth No. 3: The Volcker Rule will save us.
Myth No. 4: Taxpayers are off the hook for future failures.
Myth No. 5: It's the government's fault.

Sloan's article generated reaction. In a follow-up article, he brought out more facts and reasoning to deal with the rabble. First he deals with the cries over Myth #1, the myth that the government shouldn't have done anything:
Dozens of commenters said that cleaning up the mess should have been left to the private markets, which would have done things better than the Federal Reserve, Treasury, and rest of the government did.

What most of those people probably don't realize, though, and what I had no room to discuss in my last column, is that private markets took the first big swing at recapitalizing troubled financial institutions -- and struck out.
Other objectors told Sloan the government should have done something else. He dispenses with this line of thinking, too.
The alternate complaint -- that the government should have nationalized troubled institutions -- sounds plausible too. But that strategy stood no chance of working, regardless of how things played out in other countries. First, seizure would have resulted in endless litigation. Second, there were practical problems. For example, when I looked into the consequences of the government nationalizing Citi, I discovered (from independent third parties) that Citi most likely would have had to surrender lucrative franchises in several foreign countries that don't allow banks there to be owned by foreign governments.
A third complaint made to Sloan dealt with Myth #5, that the government was really to blame for the financial meltdown. Sloan explains why this is bunk:
The other widespread criticism was of my last point: that although the government lowered some mortgage loan standards, the debacle is primarily the private sector's fault. I was attacking the oh-so-convenient myth that private markets are blameless and pure, that the whole problem comes from misguided government efforts to help "those people" get homes they couldn't afford. Many commenters were, shall we say, displeased.

Well, let's see. Most of the bad mortgages were made to supposedly qualified borrowers, without pressure from the government. Lenders required little in the way of down payments or credit checks; they wanted to juice up their loan volume. Credit-rating agencies gave AAA ratings to trash, to keep fee income flowing. Yield-hungry investors snapped up garbage that bore the agencies' imprimatur. Private enterprise all the way.
Sloan closes by reminding all of us just how bad it was five years ago.
Credit default swaps and other esoterica spread the problems worldwide, magnified losses, and put even the soundest institutions at risk. That's because if giant, less sound institutions had failed en masse, they would have defaulted on their obligations to their sounder trading partners.

We also need to remember that for all the criticism (including mine) of particular tactics, Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke bailed out the U.S. financial system at no net expense to America's taxpayers. An impressive achievement.

Instead of a discussion about what happened, we've gotten into a government-vs.-free-market shoutfest. These fragmented days, many people tend to see things in black and white terms, in ways that reinforce what they want to believe. The real world is more complicated than that. Black and white have their places -- but to understand the financial meltdown, you need to see some gray.
To me, the big takeaway is that the financial meltdown was caused and magnified by bad business and poor regulation. And although the crisis was mitigated by cooperation between business and government, we still need lots of partnership, transparent decision making, and cool-headed leadership on both sides.

We need business to step up and we need government to stay involved and proactive.

I'm Dreaming of Some White Christians

I mentioned recently that I was all "meh" on religion these days. It's true. I don't feel inspired to comment on matters of religion and atheism right now. Part of the problem is that I very much want to say something original. I want to get into issues. I don't simply want to link to stories or other blog posts, and I don't want only to point and laugh at religious beliefs.

Here is a story worth thinking about, an advertisement for a "white Christians" gathering in Alabama. MSNBC reports:
A three-day whites-only religious conference — which will conclude with a flaming cross — in Lamar County, Alabama, has some residents upset at the racist implications while the minister complains that his freedom of speech is being violated.

"Yes, we believe that the Europeans and their descendants are the chosen people of God," according to the website for Christian Identity Ministries, which is holding the event with Church of God’s Chosen. "We believe this, not because we think that the white race is superior, but because there is overwhelming proof in support of this belief. We do not back down from this belief, because we are certain."

Some local residents learned of the July 4-6 gathering after the group posted fliers promoting their fourth annual pastors conference, announcing "All White Christians Invited," according to a report by WBRC in Birmingham.

"It was put up throughout the town in the middle of the night. (It was) when everyone was asleep without the permission of the business owner," said Tyler Cantrell, manager of Norris Music in nearby Winfield, Ala., the report said.

According to the flier, the three-day conference, being held in a rural area, will end with a "Sacred Christian Cross Lighting Ceremony."
From this story, the feature that strikes me first is the distinction:
  • European Christians (and descendants) are God's Chosen.
  • European Christians are not superior to Christians of other races.

My Jewish background gives me some perspective on the "chosen" issue. The teaching from the rabbis was always that "chosen-ness" was a bad use of terms. God honored Israel by giving the Torah to them, and through them to humankind. They told us that being Jewish was not a matter of superiority but a matter of priority: we were the first to know God and His Holy Law, and to know a mission for ourselves to be a light unto the nations.

Now, this ministry says that Israelites (and by extension, modern Jews) have been replaced by European Christians. Co-opting the chosen-ness idea is hardly new. I once attended a speech by Louis Farrakhan that claimed Black Americans were chosen. The DNA of Abrahamic religions seems to hold this pernicious idea that a single swath of people has more of God's favor than other peoples.

While it's not surprising that this group claims the mantle of God's favor, it is unexpected that they insist not to be racist. There is "progress" here, in a sense. They seem not to conceive of Black people as the enemy. They seem not to consider Jews, Muslims and Asians to be lower or lesser humans. In the Alabama flier, the "Sacred Christian Cross Lighting Ceremony" reads to me as a specific attempt to divest cross-burning from its associations with KKK and their anti-Black terror campaigns.

Is the ministry racist? Of course. But they certainly are conflicted. They like being white and feel it's pretty cool. They may even feel as though the world-at-large doesn't (or no longer, to put the matter into narrative form) value racial whiteness as it should. Yet they also sense the moral wrongness of racism. They want racial coherence and perhaps insularity; they also tolerate the diversity of the world beyond their group. And so, they bury their racism by downplaying how great it is to be white and chosen--it's the "Mo' money, mo' problems" argument.

That tolerance has ugly limits, though. This ministry is fully certain that it stands closest to God's favor and intentions. It has "overwhelming proof." I wonder: If you are a Christian and you think this ministry is wrong, how do you go about showing them? How do you refute their "overwhelming proof," and how do you know that you are not the one who's wrong?

Let's close by hearing some of the comments on the story. One person says:
Alabama. 'nuf said.
This, of course is not helpful, although we all get the joke. I think the good thing that atheist criticism can add here is to ask whether this event is strictly provincial. We atheists ask whether the exclusion of this group is really so different from exclusive practices that are normal to mainstream Christianity: exclusion of women, homosexuals; the insularity of church leadership; the place of Christians generally at the top of the holy heap, above Jews and Buddhists and atheists.

Another comment:
These people obviously didn't get what Jesus was trying to say.
Riiiight. Because Jesus was saying what YOU say he was saying.

But let's continue. Here's the inevitable tu quoque:
And did the Black Caucus or The Black Law Students Association get the message too. Or maybe you need to attend a meet of the African Americans For the re-election of Obama and ask them if they got his message. Don't tell me you don't know of all of these organizations. Maybe you know the Black Panthers then. This is just the same people doing their usual racist things....but they are not whites...Right!

So tell me I am racist now....I'm not black and I am tired of everyone like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton telling me I'm racist because I'm white and not black too......get over it. We are not all black here it this country. Just look at the President....he's not all black either. Is he?
Here's the history buff chiming in:
Overwhelming proof? Really? Don't know how to break this to you Rev, but "the white race" (my ancestors) were pagan until they were dragged kicking and screaming into Christianity; ever heard of Charlemagne? Charlemagne, or "Karl the Butcher" as he was lovingly known by the Saxons, force converted Western Europe just as Jesus torture and murder. So tell me, with that history, and being that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam originated in the middle-east, and each of the three claim to be God's "chosen" people...what could possibly be your overwhelming proof...ROFLMAO!!!
One more comment on how one bad Christian group does not Christianity make:
There is no such thing as a All white Christian gathering. If your not reaching out to all... your not reaching out at all.

All they are doing is trying to get news. That church (if you can call it that) been around for awhile and now they made front page on a left leaning site... wow.

Don't even try to associate all Christian with this ... All real Christians denounce this and so do I. It their deal not Christs.
There are more comments I could post, including the ones on how Jesus was dark-skinned and Jewish, on how we all came from Africa, and inroads to Obama/Romney. But it's time to sum up.

The takeaways from the story are (1) that co-opting earlier identities, narratives, and status (as in connecting myself or my group to Israel at Sinai) is part of what religion enables; (2) that overt, hostile racism and bigotry may be on the decline; and (3) we have lots of stock responses to stories like the "white Christians" gathering, but the gathering is really just one manifestation of what groups do (setting 'in' and 'out'-group boundaries) and of what seems endemic to Western religious thinking.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Long Strange Trip: The Song So Far (Q2)

As we come to the end of the another quarter-year, I see that it is again a year filled with drama--mainly professional and academic drama.

And so, I keep on truckin'.

I can't tell what will happen day-to-day:

But, I'm keeping it all together.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Book of Love

Family fun: We write our own book.
My middle child turned six years old this week. She's a very bright and sweet girl, self-assured and quiet. Like me, she's a homebody and an introvert. I have looked  closely at her this week. Her growing up fills me with more emotion than I think I can handle.

I get nearly as emotional concerning my two other children, but our relationships are different. The older girl is, by virtue of being first-born, the one whose growing up is most comfortable for me. As she grows, so do I: it's like we are on an adventure together. My boy, now four, is a wonder because of his autism. Although he's the baby of the family, I think of him as a little man and see his growth as just filling into what I know he will be.

Then there's the wife. She and I are getting older. We feel middle age coming on. Our lives are not monotonous or boring, but rather stable and muted. This is good. In her, I still see the girl who used to link arms with me when we walk, the girl who got a certain twinkle in her eye whenever she saw a baby. She's come a long way in managing her depression and setting herself up for a transition from stay-at-home mom to working woman. She's as beautiful as ever.

I've become all meh on religion. There's too much God and Jesus stuff in the house, but I have more important matters to think about than the biblical blah-blah. I know everyone in the family but me is a believer and a Christian, but I won't be surprised if the religiosity slowly tones down to nothing in the coming years. My presence in the house must pose questions everyone has either to ignore or face:
  • Why isn't there any evidence in favor of God's existence?
  • Why don't facts about the world/universe lend themselves to God as an explanation?
  • Why is there no good evidence of miracles?
  • Why is there no good evidence of the extraordinary events concerning Jesus, such as his birth, miracles, and resurrection?
  • Why do the so-called proofs of God's existence and the apologies for Jewish and Christian doctrines fail to complete what ought to be clear slam-dunks?
Besides, all the "God loves you" and "Jesus wants you to bleh" stuff butts up against the reality of Christian doctrine: You are a sinner who better beg for forgiveness. The more polite expression of the doctrine is that humanity is fallen and needs grace to be reconciled, but my formulation is no less accurate and may be the truer representation of attitude.

In short, I have the luxury of being meh about religion. Eventually, everyone will have a WTF moment on this. If anyone cares to share the WTF with me, I'll be ready to listen.

    Wednesday, June 20, 2012

    Why I Love Jazz and Why You Should Too

    The first jazz album I really liked was Take Five by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. "Blue Rondo a la Turk," the opening number, sold me. It was exciting, playful, shifting, artsy, adventurous, smart, swinging, and crisp. Like the album, that tune was a picture in sound: group sound, yet individual sound, too.

    The balance of group and individual, of vision and sound, is what makes jazz special. The group plays together, yet each one has a unique, foundational role. Each musician listens to the others, responds to them and lifts them. Any one may also have a turn (or more) to step out as an individual and explore the boundaries of song, sound, and group cohesion.

    As a listener, I traveled these boundaries with Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Archie Shepp, Evan Parker, and other innovators of the avant garde and free jazz movements. Their music was not always my favorite, but I heard beauty there. I heard effort. I heard space. I heard myself waiting for the next step.

    When I was a teenager, I gravitated to the big, classical guys: Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Errol Garner, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Tatum, Dexter Gordon. Their cassette tapes would go into my alarm clock, and they would play me to sleep. To me, theirs was Kerouac's night music, the music for those of us who wanted more...more night.

    Of all, the piano players were my favorites. I collected a ton of Keith Jarrett, whose solo concert album from Bremen and Lausanne changed me profoundly. How a man walked out and played and went on the way Jarrett did was amazing. So many of the pianists also moved me, and they continue to do so: Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Bobo Stenson, Marilyn Crispell, Irene Schweitzer, Paul Bley, Horace Silver, Vijay Iyer, Esbjorn Svensson, Ethan Iverson, Michel Petrucciani, Marcin Wasilewski, Hiromi, Brad Mehldau, and many others. All of these musicians are superb alone, yet they also mesh in group contexts.

    Jazz, to me, has never been about sitting to receive a work of art delivered by musicians. Instead, it is about witnessing and maybe even being part of a process. In ensemble settings, the players communicate with one another. They don't just play the number or present it. They don't just imitate the song as it is on an album. They don't give a packaged product. No, jazz musicians build a song. They pass it amongst themselves like a beach ball in the bleachers, but seriously enough. They dialogue. They converse. They elaborate. They customize.

    I love jazz because nothing else is so creative and diverse. I love jazz because it is what it is, and it lets me be what I am. Other music, which I love too, is not the same as jazz. Rock is image, ideology, and performance. Classical is architecture. Blues is real. Hip Hop is a relentless beat that can become anything from a heart to a gun to a sob to a confrontation. Disco is escape. Funk is wild and fun. Folk is private.

    But jazz is democratic. It's not a spectator sport for either the player or the listener. Indeed, the listener is a player in a way that simply is not so for other musics. In my opinion.

    I love jazz for the democracy, for the opinions it offers, and for opinions like mine it allows. If you don't love jazz, you don't love participation.

    But if you want to hear and be heard, you must love jazz.

    (For Eric Jackson, whose weeknight radio program on WGBH Boston has recently been scaled back.)

    The Plan Is Launched


    This past weekend, I was elected to the Executive Board of my local parent-teacher organization. The group supports enrichment programs for students, runs events to encourage parental involvement, and keep lines of communication going between parents and teachers.

    I am grateful for the chance to be a voice for quality educational programs and standards. As the parent of an autistic child, I will represent many more who want the system to reach out to their children too. Finally, the participation and networking will help me gain local notoriety as I work toward future involvement in the town's school committee and board of selectmen.

    Tuesday, June 19, 2012

    Hasidic Pedophiles and Pederasts. Yep, It Can Happen Here.

    Hey rabbi, check out the sexy boy in the third row.
    Crimes against children by adults who claim to live the word of God are not new. Many religions have demons, and the ultra-Orthodox Jews are no exception. Most deny it could happen in their midst. Child rape and molestation don’t fit their pious image.
    "The (ultra-Orthodox) Jews are no exception." That's the point. And by understanding that point, abuse of children and minors can be stopped everywhere.

    On the CNN pages, the following part of the story is the most interesting:
    The Hasidim in Brooklyn are a powerful voting block. That’s why District Attorney Charles Hynes is accused by victims’ rights advocates of going easy on alleged Hasidic child molesters and rapists. He’s been elected six times, and is accused of appeasing the rabbis in order to get their support and keep his position.

    Hynes strongly denies the allegations. In 2009, he established a program and a hotline to help victims called Kol Tzedek (“Voice of Justice” in Hebrew). But critics are outraged because he refuses to disclose the names of the men arrested through the initiative. The Jewish Daily Forward’s request for the records filed under the state’s Freedom of Information Law was denied.

    Hynes claims that revealing the names of the suspects could lead to the community identifying the victims and intimidating them. That decision raises concerns about the rights of the public, the legality of shielding the men, and the DA’s motives.

    Tuchman asked Hynes how he reconciles instituting a policy for the Hassidim, but no other groups, like the Roman Catholic Church. He says because “there’s never been any intimidation by priests.”

    In a May 16 op-ed, Hynes wrote:
    Since the inception of Kol Tzedek, we have made 95 arrests; 53 cases have been adjudicated, with a conviction rate of 72%.

    I stand by these numbers.

    The statistics show how absurd it is to suggest that we cover up, downplay or in any way “give a break” to sex offenders in the Orthodox Jewish community. Like any other defendants, they are often arrested in public by the police, and their court appearances are open and available to the public as part of the public record. I welcome scrutiny of these cases.

    The suggestion that I have ever condoned the practice of first seeking a rabbi’s advice before an Orthodox Jewish community member reports sexual abuse is a distortion of my record. I have never suggested that someone seeking the advice of a rabbi is then relieved of the obligation of reporting sexual abuse to the appropriate authorities.
    While some may persist in protecting the community ahead of justice for the young victims, there are signs of progress. On June 10, a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews held a meeting in Crown Heights to talk about combating child sex abuse. Hynes was on the panel. Some rabbinic leaders have said anyone with knowledge of abuse should go to the police and do not need to talk first with a rabbi. It will take the courage of the victims and the compassion of the community to make lasting change.
    Hynes ought to disclose names of people arrested through Kol Tzedek because ultra-Orthodox Jews are no exception. What's more, the interests of a single community do not outweigh justice for our society's most vulnerable.

    Monday, June 11, 2012

    Magical Thinking: Sometimes You Just Gotta Believe

    This past weekend, I chilled out on the couch with my kids. We watched a program re-telling "Jack and the Beanstalk." In this version, Jack receives the magic beans from a roadside vendor. The vendor advises that the beans only work if you believe in magic. The tale's hero, of course, believes in magic.

    The "you gotta believe" idea--what I call the magical thinking trope--appears a lot in kids' movies and shows. When a story uses magical thinking, the character who doesn't believe or who is skeptical always gets shown up by the power of belief. For instance, the heroine who knows in her heart there is a "diamond castle" that can be called into existence by singing a song--she will prevail. In another program, the skeptical character will eventually be forced to admit that there are powers beyond rational and scientific explanation.

    I don't see the point of putting magical thinking out on TV like this. Maybe it has something to do with an ideal of childhood--a time when magic seemed real and wonder abounded. But I think the producers have it wrong. Look at most any Bugs Bunny cartoon, universally smarter and funnier than today's kiddie pablum. In these animated shorts, humor comes from the fun of being able to violate reality. In the classic Bugs joke, he defies the law of gravity, but then notes he never studied law.

    Bugs cartoons play with magical thinking; they never take it seriously, and never promote it as a life value.

    The magical thinking of today's kiddie media comes with an ugly downside, too. When you tell the little darlings that magic is real you also tell them monsters are real. They have to accept both. The world of fairies and demigods by necessity includes sorcery and demons. The world of Jesus is the world of Satan. The world of the faithful is the world of infidels. You open their hearts to both wonder and terror; you cannot shut out the scary.

    In contrast, a world without magic is a world where power comes from the mind, the will, the body, the community, the resources, and the technology. Who manages these is best positioned to influence the world. There are no magic spells in this world, only knowledge and power. There are no hidden helpers, only one's friends and one's network. There are no gods to please, only a society to contribute to. There are no devils to resist, only bullies.

    There is both wonder and terror in this world, too. There is scary. The difference is that we are part of it all. In the magical world, the dram of good an evil happens on some other plane, hidden from us except for the magic that brings it out.

    There's no need for magical thinking. We can have fantasy movies without bolstering general superstition. We can dramatize positivity without advocating miracle-dependence. We can promote imagination and creativity without endorsing irrationality.

    Reality may be scarier than fictional monsters, at least at times and for some people. But reality is certainly far better than magic.

    Sunday, June 10, 2012

    Summer Reading

    Among my goals for the summertime is to read and finish several books. In no particular order, here are the ones I most want to tackle:
    1. How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clay Christensen et al. A book on principles of success in business, ethics, and life from a highly regarded Harvard Business School lecturer.
    2. The Art of Strategy by Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff. Game Theory in real life.
    3. Britain BC by Francis Pryor. An expert surveys what we know about ancient Britain and Ireland.
    4. Sublime Dreams of Living Machines by Minsoo Kang. A scholarly account of the automaton in the Western imagination.
    5. The Information by James Gleick. The story of Information Theory.
    6. Good and Real by Gary Drescher. Reconciling a mechanical view of the world with observations and issues in physics, ethics, and more. 
    7. The Obligation toward the Difficult Whole by Brian McHale. A former instructor of mine on postmodernist long poems.
    8. Morte d'Arthur by Thomas Malory. King Arthur's life, court, and death.
    9. Paterson by William Carlos Williams. A book-length poem on Paterson, New Jersey.
    10. Retrieving the Ancients: An Introduction to Greek Philosophy by David Roochnik. More than just Plato and Aristotle.