Monday, January 31, 2011

It Shall Be You

I have been completely derelict in my obligation to press on with pages from Walt Whitman's 1855 edition--the first--of Leaves of Grass.

I don't wish to have a full month pass without presenting at least one page, so here is page 30.
If I worship any particular thing it shall be some of the spread of my body;
Translucent mould of me it shall be you,
Shaded ledges and rests, firm masculine coulter, it shall be you,
Whatever goes to the tilth of me it shall be you,
You my rich blood, your milky stream pale strippings of my life;
Breast that presses against other breasts it shall be you.
My brain it shall be your occult convolutions,
Root of washed sweet-flag, timorous pond-snipe, nest of guarded duplicate eggs, it shall be you,
Mixed tussled hay of head and beard and brawn it shall be you,
Trickling sap of maple, fibre of manly wheat, it shall be you;
Sun so generous it shall be you,
Vapors lighting and shading my face it shall be you,
You sweaty brooks and dews it shall be you,
Winds whose soft-tickling genitals rub against me it shall be you,
Broad muscular fields, branches of liveoak, loving lounger in my winding paths, it shall be you,
Hands I have taken, face I have kissed, mortal I have ever touched, it shall be you.

I dote on myself . . . . there is that lot of me, and all so luscious,
Each moment and whatever happens thrills me with joy.
I cannot tell how my ankles bend . . . . nor whence the cause of my faintest wish,
Nor the cause of the friendship I emit . . . . nor the cause of the friendship I take again.

To walk up my stoop is unaccountable . . . . I pause to consider if it really be,
That I eat and drink is spectacle enough for the great authors and schools,
A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.

To behold the daybreak!
The little light fades the immense and diaphanous shadows,
The air tastes good to my palate.

Hefts of the moving world at innocent gambols, silently rising, freshly exuding,
Scooting obliquely high and low.

Something I cannot see puts upward libidinous prongs,
Seas of bright juice suffuse heaven.

The earth by the sky staid with . . . . the daily close of their junction,
The heaved challenge from the east that moment over my head,
The mocking taunt, See then whether you shall be master!

Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sunrise would kill me,
If I could not now and always send sunrise out of me.

Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n

Gustav Mahler, 1860-1911.

I have listened off and on to Gustav Mahler's Symphony Number 2, the "Resurrection" symphony, since I was eighteen. In fact, part of the libretto from the symphony's fifth movement has been with me all that time in a special way. I'll explain in a bit....

Here's a nice video of the end of the symphony's fifth movement, recorded in 1974.

Below, in German and in English, is the libretto of the fifth movement. The beginning of the libretto comes from Die Auferstehung by Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock.

Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n
Wirst du, Mein Staub,
Nach kurzer Ruh'!
Unsterblich Leben! Unsterblich Leben
wird der dich rief dir geben!

Wieder aufzublüh'n wirst du gesät!
Der Herr der Ernte geht
und sammelt Garben
uns ein, die starben!

O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube:
Es geht dir nichts verloren!
Dein ist, ja dein, was du gesehnt!
Dein, was du geliebt,
Was du gestritten!

O glaube
Du wardst nicht umsonst geboren!
Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten!

Was entstanden ist
Das muß vergehen!
Was vergangen, auferstehen!
Hör' auf zu beben!
Bereite dich zu leben!

O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer!
Dir bin ich entrungen!
O Tod! Du Allbezwinger!
Nun bist du bezwungen!

Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen,
In heißem Liebesstreben,
Werd'ich entschweben
Zum Licht, zu dem kein Aug'gedrungen!
Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen
Werde ich entschweben.
Sterben werd'ich, um zu leben!
Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n
wirst du, mein Herz, in einem Nu!
Was du geschlagen
zu Gott wird es dich tragen!
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you My dust,
After a brief rest!
Immortal life! Immortal life
Will He who called you, give you.

To bloom again were you sown!
The Lord of the harvest goes
And gathers in, like sheaves,
Us together, who died.

O believe, my heart, O believe:
Nothing to you is lost!
Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
Yours, what you have loved
What you have fought for!

O believe,
You were not born for nothing!
Have not for nothing, lived, suffered!

What was created
Must perish,
What perished, rise again!
Cease from trembling!
Prepare yourself to live!

O Pain, You piercer of all things,
From you, I have been wrested!
O Death, You masterer of all things,
Now, are you conquered!

With wings which I have won for myself,
In love’s fierce striving,
I shall soar upwards
To the light which no eye has penetrated!
Its wing that I won is expanded,
and I fly up.
Die shall I in order to live.
Rise again, yes, rise again,
Will you, my heart, in an instant!
That for which you suffered,
To God will it lead you!

When I was eighteen, I bought a CD of Vince Guaraldi's score for A Boy Named Charlie Brown. In those days, CDs came in their regular jewel cases and also in long cardboard packages with the cover art. So when I bought the Charlie Brown CD, I had this long picture of Charlie Brown standing on the pitcher's mound in baseball hat and glove, looking rather resigned to frustration.

I don't remember when, how, or why it occurred to me to do this, but I trimmed the cardboard to roughly 5"x7" size and then, at the white space up top, typed the following, taken from the libretto:
With wings that I have gained
Shall I soar aloft
In love's ardent striving
To the light which no eye has pierced!
I used an old electric typewriter and typed those lines. That typewriter came with me to college and helped me compose many a paper, although word processing technology and computer labs were starting to become better and better as I made my way toward graduation.

Believe it or not, I was never quite sure of why I thought to pair these words from the libretto with that image of Charlie Brown on the mound. I suppose I was making a statement that I, soon to be off to college, was poised to fly from angst-ridden suburban awkwardness to a more definite sense of self and personal achievement. At any rate, I was very eager to leave my parents' home and be part of a university learning and social community.

From where I am now, I rather doubt I've soared to the light which no eye has pierced. But I have soared, and my eye has seen plenty that I never could have imagined 20-plus years ago. And, perhaps, soaring in love has brought me to more and better light than anything else before.

I still fly today, if not soar.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Torley: Atheists Don't Know When Not to Kill

Yeah, as I have indicated before, the line between metaphysics and BS is often quite thin and tawny.

Uncommon Descent's resident philosopher, Vincent Torley, argues that Atheism cannot provide a sensible code of ethics because Atheism ain't metaphysical.

Let me say at the outset that I just might agree with Torley that Atheism "cannot provide a sensible code of ethics." Of course, I'm also not sure that theism, strictly speaking, can provide a sensible code of ethics either.

We are, after all, concerned only with the reasoned belief in, or the reasoned rejection of such belief, the existence of gods. By gods, I mean divine entities such as are named as objects of worship by believers in Western religious traditions.

I admit to being a hack philosopher, but it seems absurd to me to state that developing a sensible code of ethics has anything to do with the existence or non-existence of deities. I'll email Torley with a link to this post. Perhaps he'll explain.

On the other hand, "sensible" is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. For example, Christianity's fundamental principle of the inherent sin of human beings seems to me both absurd and baseless. Sensible or not, Christian ethics derive from the teaching of their holy books. Jewish ethics derive from their holy books. Ethics in Buddhism are based on the teachings of the Buddha.  Secular ethics tend to be based on accepting social contracts. Thus, there are plenty of moral philosophies for either the Atheist or theist to draw upon.

But Torley apparently thinks that people cannot make sense of ethical principles without a theory of reality, that is, without metaphysics:
Moral atheists need an ethical code to live by (don’t we all?), and the Golden Rule sounds like a pretty good place to start. But “Do unto others” makes no sense unless you know who the “others” are. To figure out that, you need metaphysics. This is modern atheism’s Achilles’ heel. You need metaphysics to tell you why it is wrong to kill someone in a coma, or for that matter, someone who’s sleeping. You need metaphysics to tell you why baby killing is murder. You need metaphysics to tell you why a killer should still be punished, even if he is arrested 20 years after his murderous act. Notions like “capacity,” “entity” (or “substance”) and “personal identity” are unavoidable in these contexts.

The problem with these metaphysical notions for a modern atheist is that from a materialistic standpoint, they lack justification. These notions are not supplied to us by the senses, and they cannot be scientifically validated. If the scientific method is your ultimate way of deciding what’s true, then you will have to discard most of the language we commonly use when talking about human beings (especially in an ethical context) as so much metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. But doing that leaves you with a paper-thin concept of what it means to be human. In everyday situations, a modern atheist will probably manage fine, but outside the realm of the normal, his/her ethics will go astray very quickly.
Unfortunately, I find Torley's argument above to be conceptually loose in some cases and just wrong in others. So much so, that it's hard to do anything more than shrug the shoulders and ask the philosopher to start again. But I'll give it a go now. Torley's statements are broken out and boldfaced.
Moral atheists need an ethical code to live by (don’t we all?).
Yes, we all live by an ethical code. Our every action, choice, and thought has an ethical dimension. In other words, to live is do ethics. As far as I can tell, "needing" an ethical code has nothing to do with atheism or theism. Rather, it has to do with being a conscious human agent, and in this sense we actually don't "need" an ethical code because we already have one. What Torley means in his statement, I think, is that we also need an external, culturally or socially-based set of rules that define virtuous and prohibited behavior. I agree that this type of externally imposed ethical code is a practical necessity.
“Do unto others” makes no sense unless you know who the “others” are.
This is patently false, but let's be clear about Torley's argument, which is that we have no reason to treat other people as we ourselves would like to be treated unless we know which beings on Earth qualify as other people. Thus, according to Torley's reasoning, if we know that women are not fully people, we have no obligation to treat them as we men would treat ourselves. If we think that black people or democrats are inferior to us, we have no reason to behave toward them as we would want to be treated ourselves.

So how is it that we learn who the “others” are? The same way learn what “do unto” means, by personal trial and error and by external social influences. I see no reason here not to follow the example of language acquisition: we are born hard-wired to acquire ethics, and we are taught the practice of ethical behavior through family and communal living.

Torley overvalues metaphysics, a subject that is poorly defined and may be impossible in any case. We can see this over-valuation by looking at two example statements:
Do unto flowers as you would have them do unto you.

Do unto cats as you would have them do unto you.
These are perhaps strange statements, yet they drive the point that in “Do unto others,” the operative consideration is how we ourselves wish to be treated. Thus, “Do unto others” can make functional sense even if one doesn’t know who the “others” are or what a flower or a cat is.
You need metaphysics to tell you why it is wrong to kill someone in a coma, or for that matter, someone who’s sleeping. You need metaphysics to tell you why baby killing is murder. You need metaphysics to tell you why a killer should still be punished, even if he is arrested 20 years after his murderous act. Notions like “capacity,” “entity” (or “substance”) and “personal identity” are unavoidable in these contexts.
In my understanding, metaphysics (whatever it is) is not so prescriptive as Torley seems to suggest. For example, why not murder someone in an coma? Because someone in a coma is still a person and people have intrinsic value (metaphysics), which therefore makes it wrong to kill that person and so dismiss their value (ethics). Rather, as a theory of reality metaphysics does not itself prescribe ethics but is used as a basis supporting for ethical arguments.

In addition, we need more than just metaphysics to understand why behavior X is wrong or right in a particular situation. We need epistemology, semantics, and psychology too. If we want to delve into arguments for why or why not kill entity Z--if that's the debate of the moment--many factors will come into play on all sides of the debate.

I am not denying that people and philosophers use or even need metaphysics, but I think we need to talk about metaphysics in context.
The problem with these metaphysical notions for a modern atheist is that from a materialistic standpoint, they lack justification. These notions are not supplied to us by the senses, and they cannot be scientifically validated.
Let's assume Torley is correct. Notions like "capacity" and "personal identity" cannot be scientifically validated. Why would this be a problem? Why would rejecting the idea that gods exist preclude accepting terms of evaluation and distinction?

What Torley doesn't seem to understand is that Atheists by and large are comfortable with concepts that lack scientific validation. We can talk about, say, the "worth of a human life" without embarrassment. Yet, we're also unafraid to recognize that we're dealing with subjective terms and levels of personal comfort. We're not dealing with absolutes--subjective terms, in my understanding, are by definition not absolute--and we're not dealing with dogma.

My point is that Atheists have metaphysics, just like everyone else. We all have, like it or not, a theory of reality. Like with ethics, to live as a sentient being is to develop a theory of reality.

But notice above that Torley shifts his argument to be not so much anti-Atheist as contra-materialism. I don't think it's true that from the materialist standpoint, abstract terms such as "personal identity" lack justification. Rather, a sense of "personal identity" receives justification from whatever human attributes or properties one associates with an individual human being. It's a category that eventually ties down to the material.

The materialist caution on an idea such as personal identity is very simple: don't mystify it. Don't make personal identity mysterious and "undefinable," willy-nilly. Simply throwing one's hands up and saying "I am more than just my body and more than my body and mind!"--well, this is unjustified unless we can formulate a reasonable definition of "more."
If the scientific method is your ultimate way of deciding what’s true, then you will have to discard most of the language we commonly use when talking about human beings (especially in an ethical context) as so much metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. But doing that leaves you with a paper-thin concept of what it means to be human.
See my comment to the bit just above.
In everyday situations, a modern atheist will probably manage fine, but outside the realm of the normal, his/her ethics will go astray very quickly.
Uh, okay.

I realize that the links above do not serve to counter Torley's point, which is that "outside the realm of the normal," the ethics of the Atheist will "go astray." But I don't think Torley has much of a point to which to respond! I mean, what exactly is "the realm of the normal"? What is "astray"?

Through these links, I am making the only real point that can be made: even religious authorities, people who should definitely be in firm possession of the "sensible code of ethics" that Atheists must lack (according to Torley), go "astray" all the time. I'd wager that Atheist and theist populations "go astray," whatever that means, with fairly equivalent frequency. If so, then what are we really talking about here?

I Don't Believe in Bibles: The A-Bible-ist

"I don't believe in Beatles. I just believe in me. Yoko and me."
I'm probably more of an a-Bible-ist than an Atheist.

Rejecting gods, after all, is fairly trivial. The important realization is that the Bible is not authoritative as a moral, historical, or "spiritual" work. It's not a hard realization to come to, if one is willing to explore the issues honestly, but it can be a difficult realization to accept because acceptance has implications in one's views of most everything in the world, including oneself.

Those of you not from a Jewish background need to understand that the Jewish Bible is not the Christian Bible. The Jewish Bible includes the Torah, the books of the prophets, the other writings, and the Oral Torah. Christian and Islamic traditions have a different conception of the Bible's books, their order, and their significance. These latter traditions also reject the authority of Oral Torah. For modern Jews, however, Bible and Talmud emanate from the same authoritative time and space--Mount Sinai. Some others include the mystical writings of the Zohar as a third set of instructions given directly from Sinai.

I accept none of this, as I came to recognize and accept that the Bible (whether Jewish or Christian) was inconsistent, unreliable, and often contemptible. To be fair, I find there to be much beauty and wisdom in the Bible, too. Nevertheless, we as a society are ill-served by allowing the myths surrounding the Bible to stand uncorrected. The Bible isn't from God, it's not of "divine inspiration," it's neither inerrant nor infallible, and it's not a paragon of morality.

I have written before about the impossibilities in the Bible. I have talked a bit about its moral insufficiency. I have talked about textual inconsistencies. Today, I want to provide guidance for more information on the Bible's failed prophecies, scientific inaccuracies, and historical inaccuracies.

1. Failed Prophecies
First of all, as the people at TalkOrigins explain, predictions of the future can be fulfilled in many ways:
  1. Retrodiction. The "prophecy" can be written or modified after the events fulfilling it have already occurred.
  2. Vagueness. The prophecy can be worded in such a way that people can interpret any outcome as a fulfillment. Nostradomus's prophecies are all of this type. Vagueness works particularly well when people are religiously motivated to believe the prophecies.
  3. Inevitability. The prophecy can predict something that is almost sure to happen, such as the collapse of a city. Since nothing lasts forever, the city is sure to fall someday. If it has not, it can be said that according to prophecy, it will.
  4. Denial. One can claim that the fulfilling events occurred even if they have not. Or, more commonly, one can forget that the prophecy was ever made.
  5. Self-fulfillment. A person can act deliberately to satisfy a known prophecy.
There are no prophecies in the Bible that cannot easily fit into one or more of those categories.
For much more on biblical prophecy failure, see Farrell Till's illuminating article, "Prophecies: Imaginary and Unfulfilled." Till is an interesting guy. He has more articles on the subject of prophecy here.

2. Scientific Inaccuracies
As religious apologists are wont to tell us, the Bible is not a science book. Of course, they immediately turn around and tell us it is a reliable source of scientific information.
Exhibit A: The Bible is not a science book, yet it is scientifically accurate. We are not aware of any scientific evidence that contradicts the Bible. We have listed statements on this page that are consistent with known scientific facts. Many of them were listed in the Bible hundreds or even thousands of years before being recorded elsewhere.

Exhibit B: Though the Bible is not a science book, when it touches on scientific matters it is either completely accurate or non-contradictory, and often demonstrates remarkable fore-knowledge. There are many scientific facts mentioned in the Bible that were not understood by man until centuries after the Bible was written.

Exhibit C: The Bible is not a science text-book. Nonetheless, whatever the Scriptures mention is always scientific. Notice these accurate Bible statements: "It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants are as grasshoppers" (Isa.40:22). This verse clearly shows that the earth is round, even though man did not "discover" this fact by himself centuries later after this was written. "He [God]...hangeth the earth upon nothing" (Job 26:7). The earth is held in orbit around the sun by the law of gravity. but it is not fastened to anything material. Notice the truth in this biblical statement: "through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen [the physical universe] were not made of things which do appear" (Heb 11:3). In plain language, this verse says that God created the physical, material, tangible, nonphysical essence--out of spirit or spirit essence.
The amazing fore-knowledge of the Bible just ain't so when examined honestly. A case in point is that "circle of the earth" bit, which refers to the horizon and not to the idea of a spherical earth. Besides, the Bible makes plenty of mistakes. For a good, albeit cursory, assessment of the Bible's scientific errors, see RationalWiki. Also see "Was the Bible's Cosmology Ahead of Its Time?"

3. Historical Inaccuracies
No one, not even me, would be surprised if we were to learn that some--many, even--named characters in the Bible corresponded to real people. In fact, I'm sure many events are based on historical happenings. Nevertheless, the Bible is inaccurate in several places. I recommend visiting The Scripture Project for a review of these.

Some notables:
  • Daniel 1:1--The third year of the reign of Jehoiakim would be 606 BCE, at which time Nebuchadnezzar was not yet king of Babylon. It was 597 BCE that Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem for the first time (without actually destroying it). By that time Jehohiakim was dead and his son, Jehoiachin, was ruling. (From TSP)
  • Deuteronomy 7:1--These nations [i.e., the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites] were “greater and mightier” than the Israelites, who according to Exodus 12:37 and Numbers 1:45-46 already had numbered several million. So the region, according to the bible, must have had a population of more than twenty million! (From TSP)
  • James 5:17--Three and a half years without rain? Hmm....
  • Joshua 8:28--forever, huh?
What's the point? The point is that there are many other books out there, and many of them are more deserving of time, reflection, and commentary than the Bible. There's no need to fetishize one book or one narrative. Our lives and our minds are too precious and too short to be invested in the cultic outgrowths of Bibical interpretation.

As for me, I don't believe in any book. I just believe in my prerogative to read and love as many as I choose and as many as I am able.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Don't Mess with Genius, Be a Genius

Turn off the fucking iPhones!

It seems Keith Jarrett, my favorite musician, made quite a scene recently at Carnegie Hall. Apparently, Keith was performing one of the solo piano concerts for which he is famous. These are long-form improvisations. He walks on stage and simply begins playing. As you can imagine, it's a practice of great concentration and awareness.

Keith is notorious for scolding and lecturing audiences, but he especially cannot brook coughing or picture-taking during his performance.

On this night at Carnegie Hall, however, the coughing and picture-taking were too much for Keith. He walked out.

One audience member recalled:
So he comes out, and you really get the feeling he's TRYING to be sympathetic and trying to reflect in his personality that which you hear in his music. The first set was fine. The second set started with two tunes that made Cecil Taylor sound like Lawrence Welk, fantastic conception, execution, everything..then comes like the most beautiful ballad you ever heard. Maybe 5 or 6 people in the upper deck of CH were coughing normally. It's like the whole joint starts turning over to the dark side of the force, it's stunning. I was disturbed for a couple of days after being a part of this - so close to the perfect Divine experience, then so disappointed..I can't imagine that Keith wants people to leave with this impression..

Although I've seen it many times, it became increasingly clear as to what Keith is trying to do when playing these concerts. He's trying to create a pristine world where the absolutely only sound, surrounded by total concentration, is super beautiful music. This is a fantastic goal, and he reaches it much of the time, which in itself goes down as some of the great moments in human cultural history.
Another report, from Fast Company of all places:
It seems, for Keith, improvisation is as much a methodical process as a magical one. He sits thoughtfully in front of the piano, almost meditating. His hands on his lap. He gazes at his keys. He slowly raises his hands. And gently places his finger tips on the ivory, almost teasing them, before finally unleashing his full weight and seismic energy into them. At that moment, we are transported. As he reaches various peaks on this journey, Keith rises up from his seat into a horse stance, leaning over his keys, as if to look inside the belly of his howling piano.

But then something goes wrong. Something very ordinary happens. But just at the wrong time and in the wrong place.

Suddenly, at the height of the song, a few people decide to take out their iPhones--disengaging themselves from this mesmerizing and irreplaceable now-- and begin snapping pictures with obnoxious flashes.
At this point, so I hear, Keith walks off the stage, comes back, turns to the audience, and then walks off the stage again. This happens a few more times. Someone else comes out to ask the audience to refrain from photography. Then, Keith comes back and speaks to the audience:
"It's not that I don't like my picture taken. It has absolutely nothing to do with that. It's a process here. It's not something photographable. When people take whatever they take home with them, it's meaningless. BUT IT SCREWS WITH US."
People applaud.

"The toys are out there, but PLEASE." Then Keith finishes his plea: "Like, imagine back to some amount of time when photography demanded that you actually learn how to take pictures.
The writer of the Fast Company article took these statements as a welcome smack:
Think about what Keith is saying. It's not that we're just rude, inconsiderate, and self-absorbed with our little digital screens. There's something bigger that's at stake in our lives. Let me repeat what Keith said: "Imagine back to some amount of time when photography demanded that you actually learn how to take pictures."
The writer realizes that instead of spending time on blogs or on Facebook, a lot of us could instead be learning, growing, experiencing, accomplishing, doing. It's a great point.

Seek the presence of genius, and express genius. A pretty great lesson, almost regardless of how it was learned.

Wednesday Comedy: Maria Bamford

Maria Bamford is a more than just a distinctive voice. Her self-deprecating humor is second to none. Enjoy the following clip.

Friday, January 21, 2011

NFL Playoff Predictions, Championship Round (2010 Season)

Rex Ryan will need to keep his head if his Jets are to step forward and get past another arch-rival.

I continue to stink it up as a predictor of football games. But I will press on. Here are my picks for the NFL conference championship playoffs:
  • New York Jets at Pittsburgh Steelers: Jets 16, Steelers 24. I saw the Steelers winning last week, but who would have imagined the Footie besting the Hoodie? Now, my gut tells me the Steelers will get this one, but in a dogfight. I won't be surprised if Jets special teams help make the difference in their getting to the Super Bowl.
  • Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears: Packers 30, Bears 10. The Packers will beat down the Bears. I have no doubt.

So, yes, I predict a Steelers-Packers Super Bowl. Place your bets!

Everybody's Talkin'

Communication processes, whether signaling or responding to signals, are most everywhere that life is. For example, plants seem to have their own form of internet:
Ren Sen Zeng and colleagues at South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou, grew pairs of tomato plants in pots. The team allowed some pairs to form mycorrhizal networks between their roots. Plants connected this way can exchange nutrients and water, staving off the effects of drought. But Zeng wanted to know if the networks had any other function.

The team sprayed one plant in each pair with Alternaria solani, a fungus which causes early blight. Sixty-five hours later, they infected the second plant and observed how well it coped.

Plants sharing a mycorrhizal network were less likely to develop the blight, and when they did, symptoms were milder. They were also more likely to activate defensive genes and enzymes (PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0013324).

The first plant was signalling to its neighbour, Zeng says, and he has dubbed mycorrhizae "the internet of plant communities".
Why should we be surprised, then, if plants have intelligence, too?

Many of us know that animals communicate, but we might not appreciate the diversity of information that such communications can convey. For example, according to one researcher, the chirps and calls of American prairie dogs are actually a very sophisticated form of communication:
During his analysis, [Northern Arizona University researcher Con] Slobodchikoff noticed something: Even though the human call was consistently different from the other calls, there was still significant variation between the individual human calls. He began to wonder whether the little rodents could possibly be describing their predators — not just differentiating hawk from human, but actually saying something about the particular human or coyote or hawk that was approaching.

So he devised a test. He had four (human) volunteers walk through a prairie dog village, and he dressed all the humans exactly the same — except for their shirts. Each volunteer walked through the community four times: once in a blue shirt, once in a yellow, once in green and once in gray.

He found, to his delight, that the calls broke down into groups based on the color of the volunteer's shirt. "I was astounded," says Slobodchikoff. But what astounded him even more, was that further analysis revealed that the calls also clustered based on other characteristics, like the height of the human. "Essentially they were saying, 'Here comes the tall human in the blue,' versus, 'Here comes the short human in the yellow,' " says Slobodchikoff.
The video below has Slobodchikoff talking about prairie dog communication as true language:

Human beings, of course, are capable of true language. Perhaps the best account of how human language developed is put forth by W. Tecumseh Fitch:
[Charles] Darwin's model for language evolution, "musical protolanguage," suitably updated, provides a compelling fit to both the phenomenology of modern music and language, and to a wealth of comparative data. By placing vocal control at the centre of his model, Darwin availed himself of the rich comparative database of other species who have independently evolved complex vocal imitation, and he thus explains two of the features of human language that set if off most sharply from nonhuman primate communication systems: vocal learning and cultural transmission. The biggest missing piece in Darwin's model, as I see it, is a reasonable explanation of phrasal semantics (and the aspects of syntax that go with it), but this gap was filled by Jespersen by 1922. Together, these hypotheses provide one of the leading models of language evolution available today (for an enthusiastic book-length exploration see Mithen, 2005), and one that has been repeatedly re-discovered by later scholars (e.g., Brown, 2000; Livingstone, 1973; Richman, 1993). While many aspects of what has now become a family of models remain to be explored empirically (the issues surrounding sexual, kin and group-selection remain particularly unclear), this is a model worthy of detailed consideration and elaboration today. Most importantly, Darwin's model makes numerous testable empirical predictions (for example about the partially overlapping nature of the brain mechanisms underlying music and spoken language, and their genetic basis) that can be answered in the coming decades.
Human language, explained as an evolved capability, demonstrates the continuity and connection of homo sapiens with all other life forms on Earth. Indeed, in both language and intelligence, life forms seem to lie upon a continuum; as far as I can tell, there's no radical break between us and the rest of life on our planet. What's more, this seems like a good thing to me.

I don't like the suggestion, often voiced in religious teachings, that animals and plants exist specifically for the benefit and enjoyment of human beings. Plant and animal communication argues against this viewpoint.

Another, related suggestion also voiced in religious teaching is that human beings are caretakers and stewards of the world. Sounds benign, right? Sounds like the resulting actions would be generally good: care and respect for animals and plants, responsible use of energy and food, lower-harm disposal of waste.

Yet, historically we have never been unable to find reasons to use our status as caretakers and stewards to advance our own interests alone. The caretaker/steward perspective is horribly anthropocentric and arrogant. It allows us to walk into any home we want, whenever we want.

If we fancy ourselves moral and we actually care about living things, we can do a better job of codifying the limits of our power with regard to plants and animals. We can, if we like, just say "fuck nature" and do as we please. That's certainly an option and perhaps a tick better than being killing caretakers.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Wednesday Comedy: Bill Cosby

Hey, hey, hey!

Many of us who were little kids in the 1970s knew of and liked Bill Cosby. His animated series, Fat Albert, was distinctive for being a cartoon presentation of African-American inner city kids. Each of the Cosby kids was unique and vivid, but none came off as fake or as a punchline. For an unfortunate contrast, see the way vintage cartoons like Tom and Jerry or Bugs Bunny portrayed black people.

In the 1980s, I bought one of Cosby's stand-up comedy albums and liked it very much. I wouldn't say the jokes were straight-ahead funny, but I loved hearing the stories. Cosby's voicing was such that it helped me imagine the facial expressions he must have used.

The clip below was a favorite when I identified with the kids. It's still great now that I identify with the parents!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

My Shalom Bayis: A Birthday Wish

In Judaism, Shalom Bayis signifies an ideal in family life encompassing the spousal relationship and general tranquility in the home. In practical terms, the ideal is realized both through kind words and avoidance of harsh speech: more of the first, less of the second.

What I want most of all for my birthday--I am 41 years old today--is Shalom Bayis. This is my pet ideal for 2011. I want to to make more shalom, "peace," in my home and in my sphere of influence, my neighborhood, my work, my blogosphere, and so on. My birthday wish, therefore, is to practice and teach the peaceful arts better than I have before.

Unfortunately, Shalom Bayis also endorses a patriarchal ideal in traditional Judaism. The husband is always and only head of the home. The wife, although essential and esteemed, is always secondary. Husband and wife are partners and obligated to each other, but their roles and public positioning are distinct and never coequal.

For this reason, I hereby co-opt Shalom Bayis for my own sensibilities and will implement it in my own way. Neither Judaism nor Yiddishkeit stands above me (or below me) as an authority on Shalom Bayis. I say thank you very much for the concept, and I will now employ it as I see fit.

And, yes, this is a peaceful stance. I am genuinely grateful for the concept of Shalom Bayis. It focuses my mind on what a peaceful home might really be, on what makes peace, and on what I consider home. But Shalom Bayis is my responsibility and my work. It doesn't belong to Judaism or to Jews. It belongs to me, and so I have lots of work to do and little time to worry about how others define their world.

Fortunately, I already have much peace in my life and in my home especially. My lesson of the past year, however, is the realization that I can create peace. I can make more than I have done before.
  • I can use the language of action to show my love and gratitude for my family.
  • I can use my words wisely by speaking when I should and remaining silent when speech is unnecessary.
  • I can work harder and longer.
  • I can eat less and I can eat healthier.
  • I can exercise more frequently.
  • I can walk mindfully and purposefully.
  • I can cook meals for the family.
  • I can visit friends and family.
  • I can laugh more and remember happiness.
  • I can become slower to anger.
  • I can reduce spending.
  • I can read and write more, and with greater diversity.
  • I can share new experiences.
Peace is one more lesson in a life that certainly does get better and better.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Permissive Versus Demanding Parenting

Amy Tan, whose story "Two Kinds" fictionalizes Chinese parenting and children who experience it.

Amy Chua, a professor at Yale Law School, writes in the Wall Street Journal that high demands and an emphasis on academic achievement produce happy and successful children in the long run. Chinese parenting, she says, exemplifies this demanding model, which is contrasted with the more nurturing and permissive Western style of parenting:
What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something—whether it's math, piano, pitching or ballet—he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.
At the level of parent-child interaction, the contrast in Chinese and Western parenting styles is remarkable:
The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable—even legally actionable—to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, "Hey fatty—lose some weight." By contrast, Western parents have to tiptoe around the issue, talking in terms of "health" and never ever mentioning the f-word, and their kids still end up in therapy for eating disorders and negative self-image. (I also once heard a Western father toast his adult daughter by calling her "beautiful and incredibly competent." She later told me that made her feel like garbage.) Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight As. Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best. Chinese parents can say, "You're lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you." By contrast, Western parents have to struggle with their own conflicted feelings about achievement, and try to persuade themselves that they're not disappointed about how their kids turned out.
Chua advises Western style parents to assume their children are strong and behave accordingly, rather than worrying about the self-esteem of the kids:
Western parents worry a lot about their children's self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child's self-esteem is to let them give up. On the flip side, there's nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn't.
She also says that "Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything. The reason for this is a little unclear, but it's probably a combination of Confucian filial piety and the fact that the parents have sacrificed and done so much for their children." Finally, she observes that
Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences. That's why Chinese daughters can't have boyfriends in high school and why Chinese kids can't go to sleepaway camp. It's also why no Chinese kid would ever dare say to their mother, "I got a part in the school play! I'm Villager Number Six. I'll have to stay after school for rehearsal every day from 3:00 to 7:00, and I'll also need a ride on weekends." God help any Chinese kid who tried that one.
Chua sums up the difference as one of values:
Western parents try to respect their children's individuality, encouraging them to pursue their true passions, supporting their choices, and providing positive reinforcement and a nurturing environment. By contrast, the Chinese believe that the best way to protect their children is by preparing them for the future, letting them see what they're capable of, and arming them with skills, work habits and inner confidence that no one can ever take away.
Chua does not hide that she feels Western parenting is kinder but ultimately allows children to fail as adults. Western parenting leaves children vulnerable and bereft in a brutal world.

Of course, not everyone agrees that Chinese style parenting is as successful and superior as Chua claims. At The Last Psychiatrist, the writer criticizes Chua confusing awesome for crazy:
You/she'll say that the Chinese discipline is what makes the kids successful, but that's silly.  Given that her husband is a Jewish American equivalent to her Chinese Americanness, why isn't their daughters' successes the result of Jewish fathering? Chua would say that she's the one who made her practice, but she's at work all day just like he is, right? I get that she yells more, ok, mission accomplished, but as a technical matter she's not there all the time, the kids have to be self-motivated, and that self-motivation came not just from the mother, but from growing up in with those parents. Unless she's arguing that the father is pretty much irrelevant? Oh, that is what she's arguing. Sigh.

What Chua believes has made her kids succeed isn't just that she makes them work hard, but that she is allowed to yell at them.
And the money quote:
That's why it's in the WSJ. The Journal has no place for, "How a Fender Strat Changed My Life." It wants piano and violin, it wants Chua's college-resume worldview. Sometimes it has no choice but to confront a Mark Zuckerberg but they quickly reframe the story into the corporate narrative. "The Google boys were on to something, but to make it profitable they had to bring in Eric Schmidt..." The WSJ is operating well within the establishment, right wing, artists-are-gay and corporations-are-not context. It wants kids who will conform, who will plug into the machine (albeit at the higher levels), it wants the kind of kids who want the approval of the kinds of people who read the WSJ.

Amy Chua thinks she wrote an essay and published it. Wrong. The WSJ wanted this kind of an article and they chose one from the thousands available.  They chose hers-- a woman's-- because if this same article had been written by a man it would have been immediately revealed as an angry, abusive, patriarchal example of capitalism.

Which is where this comes full circle. Amy Chua thinks she's raising her kids the Chinese way, but she is really raising them to be what the WSJ considers China to be: a pool of highly skilled labor that someone else will profit from. On second thought, that is the Chinese way.
I'm mixed on the Chua article. In the abstract, her philosophy makes a lot of sense and I wonder if my parenting shouldn't take a more Chinese approach. On the other hand, the specific parenting and spousal behavior she describes is rather abhorrent to me. I'd be pretty pissed if my wife mimicked me sarcastically.

Ultimately, the article and the strong reactions to it touch upon many issues of modern parenting. But with parenting, as with most everything, there's no help but self-help.

NFL Playoff Predictions, Divisional Round

New York Jets fans will fulfill their destiny to become totally unbearable should Mark Sanchez (right) and the Jets defeat Tom Brady (left) and the AFC #1 seed New England Patriots.

Since I did so well last time (hey, I did get the Ravens and Packers calls sort of right!), here are my picks for the NFL divisional playoffs:
  • Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers: Ravens 16, Steelers 20. This will be a physically punishing game on both sides and in all phases. I expect--but don't want---some big injuries on both sides.
  • Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons: Packers 24, Falcons 17. The Packers are Super Bowl bound, I believe. I hope the Falcons can pull this off because if the Patriots were to reach the SB, the Packers are the team that would concern me most. Atlanta is a great team, though, and I think they could win this game and go all the way. In fact, I'll predict here and now that the winner of this game will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
  • Seattle Seahawks at Chicago Bears: Seahawks 10, Bears 28. No way the Seahawks win this one.
  • New York Jets at New England Patriots: Jets 17, Patriots 41. I can see this being a very close game decided by the final possession or a total blowout with the Pats crushing the Jets. But I think the more likely scenario is that Belichick and Brady will deliver issue an epic beatdown of the Jets. The game may be personal to Ryan (and virile cornerback Antonio Cromartie), but it's all business to Belichick and Brady. Ryan and co. need to learn to keep their traps shut, and America will enjoy watching Rex mumble dejectedly through a teary post-game press conference.

But I'm no Jets hater. So, for all fans of the Jets and Feet-a-saurus Rex:

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Snow Comes In, World Turns 'Round

Another blizzard in New England.

Big snowstorm here in Massachusetts (as elsewhere in the US). Beautiful, delicate, maddening.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wednesday Comedy: Joan Rivers (Surprise!)

I have not been and am not a great fan of Joan Rivers's comedy. Yet I saw a very interesting documentary on her called A Piece of Work. My impression of her was that she is rather a tragic figure, desperately needing professional (and maybe personal) validation and approval. This comment, from a review of the documentary, seems apt to me:
The filmmakers probably didn’t need to force their way into that habitat, because Ms. Rivers, who, with her daughter, Melissa, starred in a television movie about her husband’s death, seems to have few boundaries. It isn’t that she overshares on an obvious level — there are many biographical details that never even come up — it’s that no other “Joan,” no private self, seems to be lurking beneath the mask. Given the single-mindedness with which she pursues her career — Melissa Rivers likens that career to a second child — you have to wonder how any other Joan could have survived. It’s no wonder that when Joan Rivers asks a radio host, “Who is the real me?” it feels like an honest question.
Rivers is both fragile and impossibly tough. I wish her happiness and deserved self-satisfaction.

Here's a video of her recent act.

And here's a nice one from loooong ago.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Israel's God: A History

Tablets from the Enuma Elish, the ancient Babylonian creation myth.

I have been a long-time fan of Evid3nc3's video series on his de-conversion from evangelical Christianity.

His latest installment, derived from his reading of Karen Armstrong's A History of God, talks about the history of the monotheistic god, Israel's polytheistic past, and the ongoing construction and re-construction of the Bible.

The narrative here touches on several themes that have come up in my series on James Kugel's How to Read the Bible. One theme is that we can look outside the Bible and see how its contents have many historical connections and sources. Another theme that while the Bible on its own is fairly dry, its history and evolution is exceedingly interesting. A third theme goes to the question that Kugel asks, which I'll paraphrase as what do we do with the Bible once we know (and perhaps believe) the hypotheses about its origins and development? Do we use it as the basis of religious worship and daily living? Do we consider it alongside other religious works of other cultures, that is, as interesting and valued but not as communicating a special truth about the nature of the universe?

Like Evid3nc3, I felt the second path was probably correct. Once I realized and accepted that it was unreasonable to take the Bible seriously as an authority on the nature of the universe and my personal obligations in the world...well, it became impossible to look at Judaism or religious figures the same way as before.

Related to the above video is another from earlier in Evid3nc3's series.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Liu Xiaobo: Drink of the Martyrs

Liu Xiaobo
Here is a powerful, swirling piece from Liu Xiaobo, a poet and literary critic. He is the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. China has forbidden him to travel to the award ceremony, which was held on 7 January in Oslo. This poem, from "Experiencing Death," was translated by Jeffrey Yang from the Chinese. In 2012, Yang will help bring out a book of Liu's poetry, called June Fourth Elegies.

from “Experiencing Death” 

I had imagined being there beneath sunlight
with the procession of martyrs
using just the one thin bone
to uphold a true conviction
And yet, the heavenly void
will not plate the sacrificed in gold
A pack of wolves well-fed full of corpses
celebrate in the warm noon air
aflood with joy

Faraway place
I’ve exiled my life to
this place without sun
to flee the era of Christ’s birth
I cannot face the blinding vision on the cross
From a wisp of smoke to a little heap of ash
I’ve drained the drink of the martyrs, sense spring’s
about to break into the brocade-brilliance of myriad flowers

Deep in the night, empty road
I’m biking home
I stop at a cigarette stand
A car follows me, crashes over my bicycle
some enormous brutes seize me
I’m handcuffed eyes covered mouth gagged
thrown into a prison van heading nowhere

A blink, a trembling instant passes
to a flash of awareness: I’m still alive
On Central Television News
my name’s changed to “arrested black hand”
though those nameless white bones of the dead
still stand in the forgetting
I lift up high up the self-invented lie
tell everyone how I’ve experienced death
so that “black hand” becomes a hero’s medal of honor

Even if I know
death’s a mysterious unknown
being alive, there’s no way to experience death
and once dead
cannot experience death again
yet I’m still
hovering within death
a hovering in drowning
Countless nights behind iron-barred windows
and the graves beneath starlight
have exposed my nightmares

Besides a lie
I own nothing

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Kugel's HTRTB (Part 7): Enter Fundamentalism

The Fundamentals, a twelve-volume publication that defended the Christian faith and was the foundation of the fundamentalist Christian movement.
We continue to read through the subsections of Chapter 36 in James L. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now.

In the last subsection, we pondered Kugel's question:
[N]ow that the genie is out of the bottle and modern scholarship has discovered everything it has discovered about the [biblical] text's original meaning, what is to become of the Bible?
In the present subsection we start to answer the question from the standpoint of Protestant fundamentalism--Kugel later will deal with other standpoints.

Fundamentalism, Kugel observes, emerges in the late nineteenth century as a reaction to modern biblical scholarship, the German "higher" criticism that developed a picture of the Bible's human sources and human fallibility. The fundamentalist stance, that the Bible is literally true and the product of divine inspiration, has remained fairly consistent to present day from its origins and from its articulation in the twelve volumes of The Fundamentals, published between 1910 and 1915.

I must say here, however, that as a matter of convenience my summary oversimplifies this stance. I advise the curious reader to learn more about The Fundamentals from appropriate primary and secondary sources.

I also want to pause at the idea that fundamentalism is a reaction to modern scholarship and developments. Sociologist Alan Wolfe, in reviewing a new book by Oliver Roy called Holy Ignorance, hones in on a different model of fundamentalism:
Over the past few years, a number of theories have been offered about the rise of fundamentalism. Roy proposes the most original — and the most persuasive. Fundamentalism, in his view, is a symptom of, rather than a reaction against, the increasing secularization of society. Whether it takes the form of the Christian right in the United States or Salafist purity in the Muslim world, fundamentalism is not about restoring a more authentic and deeply spiritual religious experience. It is instead a manifestation of holy ignorance, Roy’s biting term meant to characterize the worldview of those who, having lost both their theology and their roots, subscribe to ideas as incoherent as they are ultimately futile. The most important thing to know about those urging the restoration of a lost religious authenticity is that they are sustained by the very forces they denounce.
Now, I have not read Holy Ignorance, but if I understand Wolfe's summary correctly, the key difference between reaction and symptom is one of necessity. Fundamentalism, the thesis seems to be, is an expected if not inevitable consequence of cultural shift. It is not so much a critique of the shift as an acknowledgment that certain desired cultural norms and values are being disenfranchised, in part or in whole. Fundamentalism is the attempt to insulate these norms and values, to prevent them from being altered or scrutinized.

I personally am not yet comfortable with subscribing to Roy's thesis, via Wolfe, but it's worth considering and gives an interesting perspective on the question, what is to become of the Bible? From the fundamentalist perspective, I think, the very emergence of the question is part of the problem. Fundamentalism is both a product/symptom of this sort of question and a desire to eliminate that question, to remove it as something that could legitimately be asked.

In this context, it is perhaps less surprising to observe with Kugel that both fundamentalism and modern biblical scholarship emerge as Protestant phenomena. Earlier installments of this series have mentioned, albeit briefly, the Protestant beginnings of modern biblical scholarship. Fundamentalism, however, emerges not just to oppose modern biblical scholarship but also to resist the troubling questions and conclusions of both science and arguments from reason (as distinct from divine revelation).

Yet, conservative as fundamentalism is, it does not completely align with the approach of the Bible's ancient interpreters. The fundamentalist assertion "that almost everything Scripture says is literally true" departs from the traditional approach in an important way, for ancients viewed the Bible as a text that often hides its most important messages and true meaning. The fundamentalist drive for literal meaning would have been considered myopic to the point of debilitation by ancient interpreters.

Fundamentalism, Kugel says, starts from the idea "that Scripture speaks directly and literally to us today, without any need for traditional interpretations or ideologically motivated expositors dragging the text hither and yon." This starting point is not so far from that of modern biblical scholars, who also have sought to view the Bible apart from traditional interpretations and ideologically-motivated exposition. The difference between the fundamentalist path and the modern scholars' has been that modern scholars have read the text with a more historical emphasis. We could express the modern stance by re-writing Kugel's voicing of fundamentalism: "Scripture speaks directly and literally to us today about the world of its original production, reception, and dissemination." Modern scholars have thus seen the text as an instrument for learning about the culture(s) that produced the Bible.

Fundamentalism therefore has interesting connections and departures from both ancient and modern approaches. We have seen several ironies already. Fundamentalism is conservative yet avoids the approach of the ancients; it shares a modern distaste for unaware artifice and for ideology yet rejects modern inquiry into textual function and history. And in another irony, fundamentalism maintains an important link with the past:
Yet, in the broad perspective, the fundamentalist stance--occasional anti-intellectualism and all--has succeeded in preserving much of what is most basic about the Bible, the ancient approach to reading it. By contrast, what now seems naive is precisely the liberal faith that, despite their abandonment of a good bit of that approach, the Bible can somehow still go on being the Bible.
Thus, we are back to Kugel's question on what is to become of the Bible now that we know what modern biblical scholarship says about the Bible's original meaning. It seems at this point that Kugel suggests that the Bible cannot remain the Bible unless it is understood as its ancient interpreters understood it. That we have the intended understanding of Kugel here seems supported by how he closes this subsection, noting that both liberal and conservative strains in Protestantism lose a bit of the Bible:
What liberals and conservatives generally share (although there are, of course, exceptions) is a profound discomfort with the actual interpretations that the ancients came up with--these have little or no place in the way Scripture is to be expounded today. Nidrash, allegory, typology--what for? But the style of interpretation thus being rejected is precisely the one that characterizes the numerous interpretations of Old Testament texts by Jesus, Paul, and others in the New Testament, as well as by succeeding generations of the founders of Christianity.
So, we're left with the sense that the fundamentalist approach to modern biblical scholarship is rather unrealistic and intellectually isolationist (I am trying to be polite), while the liberal approach bowdlerizes the Bible. Not a great choice.

In the next subsection, Kugel examines more liberal approaches to the Bible, beyond only liberal Protestantism, and how they have dealt with modern biblical scholarship.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Can Science Explain Art, Music, and Literature?

The people are revolting, Roger. Better get used to it. But it was good to be king, wasn't it?

At Big Questions Online, Philosopher Roger Scruton thinks science is out of its element when it attempts to explain art, music, literature, and human senses of beauty:
We don’t understand the plays of Shakespeare by conducting surveys and experiments. We don’t interpret The Art of Fugue with an acoustical analysis, or Michelangelo’s David with the chemistry of marble. Art, literature, music and history belong to the ‘human world’, the world that is shaped by our own consciousness, and we study them not by explaining how they arose but by interpreting what they mean. Explanation has a method, and it is the method of science. Interpretation goes in search of a method, but is never sure of finding one.
I am, of course, a humanities guy. But who says we can't understand  Shakespeare through surveys and experiments? Yes, certainly, one important way we engage art is by interpreting what a work means, but we can learn much by developing explanations of how works arise. I don't understand why Scruton wants to make humanities and science non-overlapping magisteria.

I am also puzzled by his picture of humanities interpretation as a humble discipline of "doubt and hesitation" and science as "certainty":
Over the last two decades, however, Darwinism has invaded the field of the humanities, in a way that Darwin himself would scarcely have predicted. Doubt and hesitation have given way to certainty, interpretation has been subsumed into explanation, and the whole realm of aesthetic experience and literary judgement has been brought to heel as an “adaptation,” a part of human biology which exists because of the benefit that it confers on our genes. No need now to puzzle over the meaning of music or the nature of beauty in art. The meaning of art and music reside in what they do for our genes. Once we see that these features of the human condition are “adaptations,” acquired perhaps many thousands of years ago, during the time of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we will be able to explain them. We will know what art and music essentially are by discovering what they do.
Whenever people want to criticize or denigrate science, they invariably characterize it with the flaw of certainty. They suggest it is hubristic, pronouncing to hold answers it does not really have. This criticism misses the mark. More often, the critics assert scientific certainty where the scientists themselves do not. For instance, in the quote above, Scruton presents Darwinism as claiming to offer definitive, over-arching explanations of works. Unfortunately, we find not one citation to examples of literary Darwinists making this claim in Scranton's entire article.

On the other hand, we can look at another article where we might expect to find scientific hubris. Here, for example, evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker favorably reviews the book, The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative, edited by Jonathan Gottschall and David Sloan Wilson. Pinker seems quite interested in literary Darwinism, so does the following make a claim for certainty?
For its part, literary analysis would surely benefit from the latest scientific ideas on human thought, emotion, and social relations. Fiction has long been thought of as a means of exploring human nature, and the current stagnation of literary scholarship can be attributed, in part, to its denial of that truism. The field’s commitment to the dogma that the mind is a blank slate and that all human concerns are social constructions has led it to focus on cultural and historical particulars, banishing the deeper resonances of fiction that transcend time and place. And its distrust of science (and more generally, the search for testable hypotheses and cumulative objective knowledge) has left it, according to many accounts, mired in faddism, obscurantism, and parochialism. For all these reasons, evolutionary psychology and literary analysis seem to be natural companions.
Here's a second quote from Pinker (the entire review can be found here). Again, is he declaring literary Darwinism as an infallible and exclusive method for engaging or explaining literary works?
The essence of science is not a subject matter or a set of experimental techniques, but the conviction that our claims about the world are not matters of personal taste or conviction but can be evaluated for their degree of truth. A consilient literary analysis should thus pursue some of the methods of science as well as its theories, and two of the contributions argue that hypotheses in literary scholarship can be as testable as those in the sciences.
Apparently, Scruton is enamored with the idea that music, beauty, art, and similar terms are mysterious. Science fails with humanities disciplines, he says, because the scientists don't really know what the subject is that they are investigating. Scruton argues:
Until you define what music is, and how it differs from pitched sound, for example, you will not know what question you are asking, when you inquire into its origins. Until you recognize that the human sense of beauty is a completely different thing from the peahen’s sexual attraction, you won’t know what, if anything, is proved by the sparse similarities.
Yes, we need good, comprehensive definitions. We need a standard vocabulary that we can share in discussing phenomena. And understanding differences is important. No doubt, music is different than pitched sound. Music involves selection and arrangement of pitched sounds. But I question Scruton's completely different than. Whatever we make of the relationship between music and pitched sound or between a sense of beauty and sexual attraction, I see no warrant for blocking off music or beauty as phenomena of radical difference, as if they have no connection whatsoever with sound or sex--as if, in other words, they had been divinely wrought and bequeathed to humanity.

Scruton, as I see it, plots art and beauty on the same continuum with gods, free will, and souls. Defenders tell us we cannot explain the categories on the continuum. The categories are beyond our full comprehension, exceeding our language, and greater than the real things that are otherwise their material substance (e.g., religious writings and commentaries, neurons, cells and organelles).

What's more, Scruton and like-minded thinkers advise us not even to try explaining such categories:
The attempt to explain art, music, literature, and the sense of beauty as adaptations is both trivial as science and empty as a form of understanding. It tells us nothing of importance about its subject matter, and does huge intellectual damage in persuading ignorant people that after all there is nothing about the humanities to understand, since they have all been explained — and explained away.
This argument is deeply flawed. I don't accept Scruton as an authority to tell us what disciplines and methods to take seriously. Ultimately, the test of disciplines and methods is the knowledge they produce. In his given examples on music and sense of beauty, Scruton finds the Darwinist explanations "absurd." Fine. That's his opinion. But we need not accept those explanations fully to understand that they (1) are out in the public domain, (2) have some legitimacy, and (3) will ultimately stand or fall based on the collection of more data and the performance of more work in the area.

Another truly odious charge is that a Darwinist line of art or literary study obliterates any other modes of explaining and interpreting. The charge is simply untrue. Humanities studies can be interested in both biological explanations and cultural ones. The development of singing, to take an example from Scruton, seems to me very interesting. I want to know about the biological impulses and struggles that singing expresses, and I want to know about the arrangement of pitched sounds. Why that arrangement? What makes it as powerful as it is? What are its precursors? How has it spread and changed in culture?

We can, I submit, both learn about art and learn from it. And we can engage art (whether painting, literature, or a sense of beauty) productively without mystifying or aggrandizing it. Scruton's position betrays intellectual authoritarianism and parochialism. It's a position of entrenched power fearfully struggling to maintain hegemony.

Seven Is Heaven


I just found out that my post, "Kugel's HTRTB (Part 4): Why You Read the Bible the Way You Do," hit #7 on the Biblioblog Top 50 for December 2010.

Thanks to all who made this happen, especially good Professor Kugel!

NFL Playoff Predictions, Wild Card Weekend (2010 Season)

Obligatory Jim Mora "Playoffs?!?!" image.

My picks for the wild card round:
  • New Orleans Saints at Seattle Seahawks: Saints 24, Seahawks 10. The Saints will play a consistent game and put it away in the 4th quarter.
  • New York Jets at Indianapolis Colts: Jets 16, Colts 31. This will look like a close game until the 3rd quarter, when the Colts pull away and the Jets stay flat.
  • Baltimore Ravens at Kansas City Chiefs: Ravens 23, Chiefs 20. This will be a bruising game. Flacco will keep the Ravens moving downfield for scoring opportunities.
  • Green Bay Packers at Philadelphia Eagles: Packers 27, Eagles 24. A field goal at the end decides this one. Rogers and Vick will shine.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

"Boy in Blue," by Kwame Dawes

A beautiful and terrifying portrait, this.

His voice is licked
but his dreams
are the artillery of words loaded
to uncoil our strength.
  --Michel-Ange Hyppolite

The words cluster behind your teeth;
close in, the smooth patina, deep brown,
of your face is alight with the effort:
you, boy, carrying the weight
of an old man; this body of yours
broken again and again by the accident
of your birth. I follow the slow
wave of your thick lashes, you are
counting the words, searching
your heart for the right music--
"Sometimes, I wonder why;
sometimes I wonder if
my mother did this--then I grow
dark, the world swallows light
around me, then I cry--only
sometimes, I cry, and then I laugh,
just like that, in a few seconds,
I laugh and I cry and I dream again.
A drum and incendiary tongues
darting through the low rafters
would be easier--a prophet speaking,
telling us the why of the moving earth,
the rubble of our city; even the priest
with his soft horse eyes, his mouth
moving quickly over my skin, even
that would be easier than this
silence; the dark streets of the city,
the heat in my skin, my mother
praying in the shadows, singing
from deeper than I will ever go;
and when I sing, I know how
to fly, and how to reach where
the water eases the spinning
in my stomach, and this blood
is not my enemy when I sing."
We leave you in the growing dusk,
the scent of rain is heavy in the air--
somewhere beside the broken palace,
the sky opens up, and the streets
flood--the sound of cataclysms,
so normal now--I imagine you,
like these children, dancing
in the deluge, naked as holiness.