Of Sign, Symbol, and Culture

In 1977 I was passing through Chicago with my family (I was just finished my first year of High School), we’d gotten off the train and were wandering around downtown Chicago prior to renting a car and driving up to Wisconsin to visit grandparents (both my mother and father’s family lived south of Madison in a small town and a farm … for kids, the farm was way way more fun). There was something of a kerfuffle near city hall. Seems some KKK boys were having a parade. Do you think that parade would be allowed today? I’m doubtful.

A decade or so later, PBS had a hour long program that I recall about four small sub-cultures in retreat. French speaking Quebec and their separatist movements, the Basque, and two others which escape my memory. At the end, they had an editorial verbal essay about how cultures often go to separatism and similar gestures to maintain a cultural identity in the large wash and mix of our modern Babylon.

Seems pretty obvious that events and symbols which evoke pride in accomplishments past are one of the obvious means of doing that. Sometimes these symbols are not quite untarnished, but it seems uncharitable in the extreme that those who hold to those symbols are not remembering the good, but the bad instead. That some evil and some insane men cling to those same symbols on account of the tarnish does not change that we should remain charitable.

Hitler was not a good man. In fact, in the 20th century he was one of the top ten in the “most evil” category. However, during WWII the Wehrmacht (literally Defense Force) especially the Heer )(army) were unparalleled as a fighting force. If you consider the quality of armed services from officers to privates of any of the services in WWII that the Wehrmacht was unquestionable by a large margin far far better than the rest. It is a sign of how ashamed of Hitler’s regimes great crimes that this is not remembered positively at all in the modern era. In part that is because Germany is not, like some other cultures, in danger of losing their identity. We Westerners are somewhat puzzled when Russians want to bring back their memories of Josef Stalin, who joins Hitler in that top evil ten list; but who while he brought them so so much pain and suffering with his endless purges, mass executions, imprisonment and enslavement of his own people also lead them through a time of testing. For those who want to remember and honor him do so, in spite of his evil, but because of the great things that they in his time accomplished by modernizing their nation and surviving and overcoming by dint of pure stubbornness that superior Wehrmacht noted previously.

Similarly many in the South remember the Civil War and their brief fight for independence in the same manner. All but a few of those who would fly that flag are not concentrating on the evils of slavery but on the valor and bravery on the battlefield. They recall that they were few against many and they stood. They recall they were greatly outnumbered, had far less industry, and little commerce when compared with the Union and yet their armies fought far far better man for man, and their quality of leadership/generalship far exceeded that of the Union. Being proud of such as that is not a bad thing. It is in fact, good. Seems to me we should be charitable to those who would fly that flag are doing it for those reasons and not assume instead that they are evil or insane.

Today’s repudiation of the flag of the Confederacy is uncharitable. It is a sign that Americans, at least those in the opinion generating elite, have lost our typically enthusiasm for the stubborn underdog. It is a sign that that the liberal cultural elite no longer believe in the multi-cultural values that they used to profess.

But this is a failed essay. John Adams derided Thomas Paine as a wrecker and not a builder. He (Paine) could point out the flaws in a government and raise people to insurrection, but he was not a builder. He had no interest in suggesting a better path, of building a new better place. Like Mr Paine, this essay fails, because I don’t know how to reverse this, admittedly, horrific trend on the left, our tendency these days to exclude from conversation those ideas found wanting. How are we to return to people to can at the same time, know that slavery is wrong, but at the same time welcome men and women who want to honor their brave honorable predecessors who wore the Gray.

Kinda Dumb, Question Remains, Intentional or Not?

So, this sort of thing is going around in many ways all over. Succinctly put (from here):

If you want to feel depressed about the future of American politics, Obamacare confirms an unnerving phenomenon that has been well-documented by social scientists: more and better information has almost no effect on the political mind.

It’s some sort of mirage apparently to the left, who remains convinced that it is just a misunderstanding that divides right and left. Which is apparently their premise, but I can’t believe they actually believe that.

It is a common practice in many sciences, especially physics, to start with a toy, highly abstracted model to demonstrate the essence of a concept. Let’s posit two parties, positions, “political minds” (whatever the heck that might be), call them the dog party and the cat party. Let’s pretend the dog values exactly one thing, equality and that the cat also values exactly one thing, freedom. A perfect communist utopia would be exactly what the dog, in this example would find the ideal. It is their goal. The cat party on the other hand would look at the (mythical perhaps) wild west as shown in movies as their ideal. It is their goal. Then you present both with a “Obamacare”, a large complicated healthcare plan that has costs, benefits and so on. Learning more and more about it is going to not change the dog or cat perceptions on the benefits of this plan one bit. This shouldn’t be unnerving at all. It is clear, those who value equality would like Obamacare as it shifts more resources from the “haves” to the “have-less”, it equalizes things. Those who value freedom would see this is one more diktat from people who should be mindin’ their own bizness and gitten out of theirn. Learning more about it, isn’t going to convince them one bit that it looks any better.

The thing is, those like the poster, Mr Klein all know that the left and right don’t share the same value structure, that they don’t evaluate “goodness” of programs and political situations with the same cost/benefit matrix. Our political system, for better or worse, is naturally bi-cameral. This means that to get any say at all, you align yourself with the “team” whose actual or declared (… which in a perfect world is aligned somewhat) cost/benefit matrix for evaluating “goodness” of decisions is best aligned with yours. Those like Mr Klein know this.

Question is, why pretend otherwise? I dunno? Any guesses?

Ethics to Ponder

Monday Mr Burgess-Jackson posted a short ethics question:

You are a doctor. You have five patients, each of whom is about to die due to a failing organ of some kind. You have another patient who is healthy.

The only way that you can save the lives of the first five patients is to transplant five of this young man’s organs (against his will) into the bodies of the other five patients. If you do this, the young man will die, but the other five patients will live.

Is it appropriate for you to perform this transplant in order to save five of your patients?

I’d like to propose a variant, because I don’t think the doctor (“do no harm”) should ever consider this as given.

Consider the ethics of both patient and doctor.  Let’s change the patient in question (the one) slightly, the one patient is elderly and has been diagnosed (and checked by two independent doctors) with early onset Alzheimer’s which is and will progress. The patient does have very healthy organs. He has been tissue typed, matched, and have contacted, corresponded, befriended and dined with the five recipients in question. Then he goes to the doctor and request that the organs be taken to save lives now.

Consider the ethics from both from the point of view of the doctor and patient.

Should the doctor perform the operation? Is it appropriate for the patient to request this operation?  Was the patient’s request appropriate?

The patient is (and doctor) are Christian. Is this suicide or sacrifice? Charity or selfishness.  Dying so that others might live, or just avoiding the degradation and life of your sense of self decaying? Should it go forward in the context of Christian ethics, which opposes euthenasia?

Confused About The Other PoV

Well I’ve come to a point where I’ve been far enough from the abortion debate, which the Philadelphia kerfuffle has brought back to the front burner, that I feel I can’t muster a coherent argument for abortion at all. So, what I’m going to try to do here is mention the two or three points/arguments that I know for that case and see if anyone out there can fill in the gaps or offer argument not mentioned that are stronger. Continue reading →

Continuing Musings on Government and Spirit

Much if not most of the hard divisions between right and left these days goes back to the often mentioned (by me) Habermas/Ratzinger debate. Mr Lieter has tossed a book into the fray, which was discussed in First Things. Mr Lieter questions the practice of government protection/privilege of religion, alas apparently without establishing a clear victory for the Habermas side of the debate previously noted. This continues the prior essay in which I started out in the essay with the idea that thinking personal moral beliefs (which we will abbreviate in the following as EMS for ethical/moral/spiritual which in turn follows Dimitru Staniloae’s book which notes that spiritual = moral/ethical far more closely than in Eastern than Western thought patterns). One of the discoveries, for me, was that my assumption on the start of penning that former essay was that the American assumption with which I was raised, namely that personal EMS notions do not mix with legal/state ones is likely flawed. However, I did not address or question (yet) the fitness of that the separation question (or for a future essay perhaps whether the suspicion that I have that the correctness of this separation is a key aspect of the left/right divide).

So, let’s follow a bit with the idea that the core notion in many if not most of the societal debates we are having right now hinge on the place in public square for personal or communal EMS thought. The two extreme positions in this debate are those which maintain that EMS is required or that it should be completely divorced from the public square, law, and government. There are arguments for both, but what is missed is by the extremists is that alternatives exist. But first, let’s examine the actual not pretended extremes. Far too often both sides are guilty of painting a straw man extreme as the nominal “other” side. But alas, for both sides, more moderate positions exist on both sides at which points the debate should be centering but isn’t. Perhaps because demonizing the opposition is far easier than confronting more reasonable ideas.

So we are going to identify six “positions” in the Habermas/Ratzinger political spectrum. There are two extreme straw man positions, there are two extreme positions which are held by many (not straw men) and there are two moderate positions on each side. Habermas and Ratzinger in their debate argued around the two moderate positions, btw.

The extreme H (Habermas) position is to insist on complete divorce/separation from the ethical/spiritual and government. Those things which are moral or ethical should not be used as reasons in government or law. Examples of this are rampant. Just witness the allergic reaction by some to incidental expressions of religion by government (10 commandment or Christmas displays for example which might occur on state properties). This side would hold that your particular ethical/spiritual/moral beliefs are personal. They shouldn’t be used as arguments or even mentioned in the halls of state (in Babylon after all where particular notions must always give way to abstract or consequential ones, which are all that are left after the ethical/spiritual ones are removed from play). What then is the extreme straw-man H stance, that would be the one where expressions of public EMS beliefs are illegal, where priests get sent to mine minerals in Kolyma in the archipelago. It is a real historical non-fictional existence, just one that nobody reasonable on the H side of the debate is actually advocating, hence it’s a straw man.

That same (dominant) voice would hold that the other extreme is some sort of theocratic backwoods unenlightened, inwards looking space. But this isn’t so. That too is a straw man. Yes in fact there have been mono-religious oppressive states.  So what?  This is the bogey man raised by many arguing against the R case, but again it’s a straw man. What then is the extreme R position that isn’t a straw man? I don’t know. Nobody debating against the R position argues against it, they move directly to the “theocracy” bugbear. Few, if any, in the US argue for anything I’d identify as a extreme R position? Comments or assistance in this regard might help some, I have a weak suggestion below … is that right?

So then, what in fact is the opposite number. Well, read the debate. What is the normal moderate Ratzinger state? It is one where the government realizes that the spiritual/moral/ethical life is *required* for a Democratic state to continue. What then is concluded? Just that therefore the members of that same state should find it natural to foster an environment where that life is encouraged and nurtured so that their society might prosper.

In some countries (very few in number) the religious beliefs of its constituents are predominantly of the same faith. This isn’t the case in Babylon, a community in which people from many nations, many people come together in one society. So the question at hand for those honestly participating in the H/R debate is to consider what these two states look like, for in fact they aren’t as different as one might pretend, the only difference is quite minor.

Both states (the moderate H and R) are by the thesis the argument are democratic. They have similar institutions, the only difference is that the H position holds that independent ethical/moral/spiritual (EMS) institutions are not required to keep the democratic regime functioning and the R position is that they are required. The extreme H position is that the EMS institutions, should be held at arms length, the moderate one that they should be given no advantage and not protected (the extreme straw man H position is that EMS institutions should be held as harmful and perhaps made illegal). The R extreme is that EMS institutions have legal standing and powers, the moderate R position is that that members of the society should realize that these institutions are essential, need to be protected, fostered, and nurtured and as noted, the extreme straw man R side is an actual not pretended theocracy.

So now that we have set the stage, …. the next essay might consider how this might affect our actual debates if cast from a moderate on moderate stances instead of straw man on moderate in either direction.

Olson’s First Rule Applied

Murphy’s law and others give not exactly hard and fast guidelines for prediction of events and interpretations. My (just coined as such) first Rule is the following

Conventional Historical Wisdom is always wrong.

In what follows this will be applied to the third rail of historical discourse … vis a vis to suggest that the Jewish narrative concerning the Holocaust is wrong. This may or may not be a historical third high voltage line as suggested above, but there are blogging/pirate rules that state any you mentions Nazis loses the argument … and Nazis will be noted in this piece.

For a long time references to the Holocaust have bothered me, in that the focus on that particular feature of German/Nazi atrocities has overwhelmed our historical recall of other Nazi (and concomitant Soviet ones). When one recalls mass murders in the mid 20th century …. with rare exceptions only one thing will be recalled and the others minimized or forgotten. This is wrong. Do not misunderstand, the fault for this lies with historians, teachers and educators … not with the Jewish people. Their memory, their remembrance is apt and warranted. What is not is for the rest of us to forget that this was just a small part of a larger horrific picture.

If, in a recent non-mass killing like that at Columbine, if 10 persons had been killed of which 4 Muslims had been killed if conventional wisdom called this an attack on Islam that would be wrong. It would not be wrong for Islamic faith communities to remember this in their own way. It would however be wrong for everyone to do that. Similarly remembering the mass murders of the 20th century in Eastern Europe as being only about the Holocaust would also be wrong.  This is however, the conventional story.

Continue reading →

Attempting to Make It Sensible

Recently, in a links post, the difficulty for the Western individualist to make sense of the Afghan legal ruling, which allowed that a young girl who was incarcerated for the crime of being raped might be released if she married her rapist, was noted. There was a query of how this might be understood which was not undertaken by anyone, and the following attempts to discern this and some discussion follows.

Our Western society, unlike most of the historical past world and we are informed by anthropologists some 80% (by population) of the current world centers itself on the individual and locates status primarily with wealth. By contrast the rest of the world centers itself not on the individual but the family (perhaps extended) and status is primarily located via a shame/challenge calculus. This legal ruling doesn’t “compute” from a I/W society but makes some sense from an H/S perspective.

In an H/S society normative social intercourse (how one moves through society and interacts with people) is structured differently. A well defined list of men whom a women is “not allowed” to have sexual intercourse with is defined, fathers, uncles (?), and brothers for example. Social movement of people is structures so that a women might never isolated (in the absence of other women) with a single male with whom sex is taboo. Putting oneself in a situation where that occurs is the primary law which the young woman noted above broke, the evidence that this occured was the rape. In our society a woman is so frequently alone in the presence of a non-taboo restricted male that the realization that societies exist in which to do so is non-accidental is hard to imagine. Armed robbery is an intentional act and never accidental. In part, because one can’t accidentally or thoughtlessly commit armed robbery this can be deemed a felony transgression. In a society in which being alone with another man (for a women) is just as non-accidental as armed robbery is how blaming the rape on the victim is justified.

That however isn’t the site of the difficulty I have with the crime as given and its rectification. Many, if not most crimes, have a instigator and a victim. We in our I/W society see rape as a crime of violence comitted by a man against a women. Is rape, in an H/S society, a crime of violence or something else? Individuals are not seats of motivation like in the west, so who (or what) in this particular case is the instigator and the victim? If the young woman, considered as an individual, is not the instigator (or victim) then what part does this judgement against her lay, on what basis is it calculated? Do answers to those questions make it clear(er) why marriage to the rapist might allay the crime?

Secular vs Religion and the Public Square

On and off again I refer to the little book published that consists of the debate between Jurgen Habermas (eminent German philosopher) and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict). The title of this book is Dialectics of Secularization. Mr Habermas opens, sets the stage and gives a brief argument (streching 30 pages of a small format book) … and Cardinal Ratzinger replies in like length. This book is published by Ignatius Press (2006) and is quite inexpensive (and available on Amazon). It was, of course, originally published in German.

The Question:

Does the free, secularized state exist on the basis of normative presuppositions that it itself cannot guarantee? This question expresses a doubt about whetherthe democratic constitutional state can renew from its own resources the normative presuppositions of its existence; it also expresses the assumption that such a state is depenedent on the ethical traditions of a local nature.

Mr Habermas takes the affirmative, and of course Mr Ratzinger the negative. Continue reading →

Bleg Bleg: Otello/Othello

This weekend my wife and I witnessed a performance by Muti and the CSO of Verdi’s Otello. Superlatives fail me (that is I can’t express in words adequately (with superlatives) how the performance was received by myself).

However, I have not read (the Shakespeare) or heard or read much on the ethics of the Iago/Othello/Desdemona, uhm, kerfuffle. Any recommendations for good commentary by people of insight? One co-worker noted that the “Venetian” Shakespeare plays get short shift in the modern world, because they steer to close to unsafe waters (Shylock as Jew and Othello as Moor (Black)). 

Anyhow your recommendations would be appreciated.

Of Belief and Reason

Frequent commenter at this site, the Jewish Atheist recently noted that he’d written an essay on his blog. In this post, he coins two categories of belief, which he coins “load bearing” and “cosmetic”. Roughly speaking, to my reading, load bearing beliefs are those you can support via the epistemic methods to which he ascribes (and perhaps assumes either are our should be universal) and cosmetic ones are those which, knowingly or unknowingly, dishonestly hold as the reason for your belief but which under inspection are not really the reason.

Alasdair MacIntyre has a book (actually several) titled Whose Justice Which Rationality, which offers some interesting perspective on this issue. For much of the time, what you might title “cosmetic”, irrational, or “not the real reason” a person holds a belief, what is really going on is that they are working from different premises. Ethical differences cannot often (or even usually) be resolved by logical analysis.  Continue reading →

The Tenth C and a Possible Left/Right Separation

One of the ongoing themes that I endeavor, with little success, is to identify critical ideas on which the progressive/left and conservatives (and for that matter libertarians) differ in their views of political and social matters. If have the good fortune to have two liberal/progressive dialog partners here. In recent conversations over the last few months this difference has arisen and I wonder if this point of difference is applicable to a wider groups, i.e., right/left, and significant.

The key point in to consider is that the progressive/left in question has abandoned  the 10th Commandment while the right has not. The 10th commandment speaks against coveting one’s neighbors possessions. A simple ethical generalization of this is that this is an injunction against considering one’s economic condition by comparison with ones neighbor. Continue reading →

America’s “Original Sin”

Mr Schraub talks race. Before I get to the claim that slavery is America’s “Original Sin” I’d note that Mr Schraub says that the toxicity of being labeled racist makes “true dialog” about what constitutes racism impossible. ‘Cept that’s not really true. Racism is pretty a pretty simple thing to define. Racism is when one makes decisions or assessments based on race, e.g., voting for Mr Obama on account of his racial makeup. And yes, that makes most “race” activists racist themselves, which on reflection is quite obvious. Those who are conscious and likely to notice race are those more likely to make decisions based purely on that. Racism is felt quite universally to be a bad thing, yet given its prevalence, especially amongst those most vocal about the evils of racism and the neutrality of the definition given, perhaps what Mr Schraub is hinting at is that we need a better discussion of why racism is wrong. If one were to assume that the progressive/left is more racially conscious than the right … and therefore more racist is born up by the data linked last week that highlighted the finding that Black elected officials when elected from a mixed race district were more likely to be Republican than Democrat and those who were Democrat were more often from majority Black districts. In past conversations, Mr Schraub noted that race theorists indeed are aware that their work might serve to heighten and strengthen malign race consciousness that they hope to combat. Yes, but the personal imperatives of personal employment in their chosen field seems to defeat that idea quite handily. 

However, the primary point of this essay is to examine original sin in the context of American history.

St. Augustine of Hippo is perhaps the primary theologian influencing thought regarding Original Sin in the Western strand of Christian theological thought. There are a lot of parallels between that theology and strands of thought about slavery and race in America. Both notions suffer however, from the same sort of mistake. St. Augustine, in summary, taught that Adam’s primordial sin in the garden passes on to all of us. Adam as proto-human committed the sin of disobedience. All men, from birth, share in that guilt. From this viewpoint then, the importance of Penal Substitution and Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross becomes a linchpin of Western soteriology. 

This is however, a quite unnatural way to view justice. If my father steals, I and my children do not share in his guilt. The weight and import (the guilt if you will) of his crime, legal or moral, do not pass to his children. We don’t even consider that in sexual crimes, if a child results, that the child of that act is legally or morally impugned or tainted by that act (well, we don’t justifiably view the child in that way). This is the crux of Augustine’s error.

A better way of viewing Original Sin, which is the prevailing view in the Eastern/non-Augustinian strands of Christian theology, was that we do not inherit guilt or sin from Adam. What we inherit is his exile. Adam, by not being repentant, was cast from the Garden and God’s presence. The consequences of that are estrangement from God and death entering the world. He was exiled. We, as his descendants, share his exile (and to the point, not his guilt). To look at the example from a criminal point of view as was done above, if my parents were exiled as a result of my father’s crime, then I grow up in that place of exile. I inherit the consequence, that is my residence, not the guilt or blame. I and my children are not accountable for this act. From a theological perspective this means in the East, it is the Resurrection which is the dominant soteriological event, not the crucifixion. 

Take this back to the notions about American, race, and slavery. Guilt is, contra-Augustine, not heritable. The social conditions and ethnic consequences do exist. However, nobody living today is accountable for the actions begun in the 16th century by Bartolomé de las Casas and the social mechanisms that unfolded from those social/economic innovations. Perhaps it is the prevalence of St. Augustine’s error found so prevalently that allows those who consider slavery America’s “Original Sin” implies that guilt and things like reparations logically follow. They, alas, don’t. 


Sing of Liberty

David Koyzis has been writing about oppression, here and here.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Declaration that the purpose of government is to preserve and protect Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. While it is pretty clear what Life meant, and that Happiness for Jefferson ran along Aristotelean lines, which is to say along the lines of something like eudemonia. But Liberty … now there is a tricky word. In colonial America, historian David Hackett Fischer in a book everyone should read (or at least have as a reference) Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (America: a Cultural History), identifies four folkways or distinct communities in colonial America. These folkways had very different about almost every aspect of life but in particular they all had distinct and non-overlapping ideas of what the word Liberty meant. Alas, while I say (and really think) this is a great reference book it turns out my copy is at work … and not here at home where I’m writing this so some of this is going to be from memory. Continue reading →

Adulthood and Free Will

Brandon on that very serious blog, Siris (a spelling mistake I made long long ago) offered this interesting post some time ago. I had linked it with the intent of writing a little later, and later finally has arrive. That post as well, links back to this one originally, which expands the argument posed by Brandon a little and (twice) offers that quantum mechanics has not had anything to say about determinism. I think that’s wrong, and the paper by one of my favorite mathematicians (Conway) which I blogged a bit about demonstrates the case that Physics offers regarding determinism. But … to the main point, I think this misses an essential point which might be termed the divide between childhood and adulthood. 

Strawson’s argument in brief attempts is:

(a) It’s undeniable that the way you are initially is a result of your genetic inheritance and early experience.

(b) It’s undeniable that these are things for which you can’t be held to be in any way responsible (morally or otherwise).

(c) But you can’t at any later stage of life hope to acquire true or ultimate moral responsibility for the way you are by trying to change the way you already are as a result of genetic inheritance and previous experience.

(d) Why not? Because both the particular ways in which you try to change yourself, and the amount of success you have when trying to change yourself, will be determined by how you already are as a result of your genetic inheritance and previous experience.

(e) And any further changes that you may become able to bring about after you have brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial changes, by your genetic inheritance and previous experience.

I offer the following rejoinder, without denying the premise or argument the conclusion is wrong. That is to say it is only true if you are a child and choose to remain a child. 

Adulthood comes when we accept the cards we are dealt as belonging to ourself and assuming that responsibility for those cards. One stakes the claim that your actions are in fact yours, for better or worse. Fate, the devil (made me do it, upbringing or genetics …. all fall into the same bin. Your words and actions are yours. By accepting that as a premise you put away childish ways. 

On Opinion and Quality of Judgement

Recently I was asked my opinion on anthropogenic global warming. In the ensuing discussion, there was criticism of my rejection of “the majority opinion of ‘experts'” as a good or valid method to base my position. Having rejected that, I was asked by what means, if not the majority of experts, would I personal espouse as how to base your belief or understanding of the truth behind a matter which is in contention. In the following, first I lay out a number of different methods that people use to form opinions, next I briefly describe the two methods I try to follow.  Continue reading →

Safety, Growth, and Virtue.

Regarding my “brief points” post the other night, I had this comment from Boonton to which I promised a response, 

Not quite following your safety net thoughts. Are you saying that Europe innovations more than the US and that’s because the US has a bigger safety net? I’m not really seeing how that is. Or are you saying that the US has a smaller safety net and innovates more than Europe? I think we should differentiate between types of safety nets. Compare unemployment in the US with labor’s relative dominance in Europe. In the US you get fired you get to collect unemployment (usually). In Europe its very hard to get fired. I would argue that the latter type of safety net probably squashes more innovation since once you get a job you’re quite comfortable and businesses don’t want to risk giving someone a job unless they are 100% sure about him. Likewise businesses seek to secure their markets in order to provide for secure employment. Market upstarts and disrupters are hardly welcome in this type of social arrangement.

There are indeed (at least) two types ‘types’ of safety nets at work. One involves companies and employment and the other involves personal safety nets. The EU allows more of both, that is it is harder for companies to fail and for individuals to lose their jobs and at the same time social personal safety nets are much more prevalent, e.g., unemployment, social security, and health care.  There are two points to be made here. One is that in the US as compared to the EU social and cultural differences that encourage the lessening of corporate safety nets are the same impulses that minimize the personal nets as well. The second point to be mad is that the greater levels of productivity and innovation in the US as compared to the EU is supported by the shallower safety nets. The underlying lesson for those (primarily on the left) who keep pushing to increase our personal and corporate safety nets are trying to sail the strait between Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla being the risk (or inevitability) of lower productivity and Charybdis would be the gamble that promises made cannot be sustained by future productivity and growth. The EU has alas it seems run into both. In the following we will concentrate on the arguments and logic over the second, the personal safety net.

The argument of why the two nets are connected is implicitly contained in the argument for why a lack of safety net leads to higher productivity.  In graduate school the advisor of a friend of mine once remarked when asked what makes a good experimentalist, “The trick is not avoiding mistakes, but making your mistakes quickly.” The point being is that innovation in the US is less due to some amazing ability of Americans to innovate but instead that banks don’t keep failing businesses afloat and that companies are don’t keep making the mistake of continuing employment of poor employees as willingly. Yet that doesn’t explain another datum. In Fault Lines, Mr Rajan points out that while the EU and the US publish roughly the same number of academic papers, those published in the US are cited far much more. The academic environments are quite similar, but the individuals in those academic environments are by and large products of their respective cultures. 

Consider two very different indigenous cultures from different environments and the individuals which are products of the same as an illustrative example. Consider those people who are products of a tropical Tahitian paradise and those who are dwell above the arctic circle. Those individuals from an arctic environment must spend a good deal of effort at sustaining subsistence. Diligence, care, and attention to small environmental details are required to acquire food and avoid inclement weather. Conversely little effort is required in a tropical paradise to obtain the minimum required for sustenance. If one were to suggest some metric for measuring diligence, industry, and the ability to endure hardships. Let’s call this measure, as a leading phrase, “virtue”. Then plot our measure of (this) virtue the two societies there might be no (or at best very minimal) overlap. That is to say, the most industrious paradise dweller likely has less virtue than the least virtuous arctic representative. Personal virtue is in a large part a product of environment. 

If this argument doesn’t convince, consider the English succession (and I’d be willing to bet that this is mirrored in the history of ruling families in nations and regions that I don’t know as intimately). Time after time, a king (a “good king”) would rise to power, such as a Henry II. Raised in a school of hard knocks he was a tough and effective ruler. His children had “all the advantages”, which as it turned out ended up to be not quite so advantageous. The point is hardships teach us. Failure is instructive and a motivator. Comfort and the absence of tests leaves one less likely to push. 

The point is that the difference in industry and productivity of the respective academic environments might perhaps be linked to a cultural requirement of a higher level of the same virtue noted above in the US because of its smaller personal safety net. 

A SCOTUS Ruling Question

So, minors can’t be given a life sentence. A kid under 18 commits a completely heinous and extensive serious of assaults and he’s by law now going to be out again at some point? Do you think that’s a good idea?  He just has to “not kill” his victims, say he “just” rapes girls and amputates their arms and legs. Still think he shouldn’t get a life sentence? Is that a useful or meaningful restriction? 

Our Unhappy Political and Religious Discourse

From a comment:

In Mark’s post-modern relativistic world it appears almost impossible for anyone on the right to say anything untrue. Likewise there’s almost nothing Obama can say that can’t be ret-conned into a lie.

In the above, the accusation leveled at myself is likely a charge made reflexively whenever Mr Boonton (or likely any number of interlocutors from the left) sees someone on the right suggesting that a phrase or word can be taken in more than one way. This is noted in the wake of the particular history of post-modernism/quasi-Derridan theories of language and as a result of the rejection of the same by conservatives. The ironic thing here is that the accusation of this sort attempts to at the same time defend relativism, i.e., multiple meanings while at the same time force a particular meaning to be established.

Foucault and Derrida, as is my understanding, suggest that fixing and setting the meaning of words and phrases, fixing the primary hermenuetic if you will, is an act of power and that furthermore there is no intrinsic meanings for things beyond being an expression of power. While this is undoubtedly a simplification at the same time has the problem of getting the matter exactly wrong.

Meanings are fixed … but their particular assignment to particular words is not. When one says something the intention, the meaning is the one thing which is fixed and not a thing captured or expressed fundamentally in and via particular words. The act of speaking and then of hearing is a distortion on the original meaning (or web of meanings) which is being expressed. Conversation is one aid to the exercise of transmitting this which allows one to correct and refine the transmission. This is of course an exercise made more complicated by the fact that the idea reflected back is itself distorted by the act of expression by the receiver. If speaking is a lossy transmission of one’s thought to another. When you converse and try to get your meaning across, discussion is the act of trying to correct the image of your idea into another’s mind through the quadruple layers of distortion (thought -> spoken words then perceived words -> thoughts with a reflection).

What perchance does this have to do with the title selected for this particular essay? Well, in our political discourse peculiar (particular?) assumptions are made about what phrases mean which are normally misinterpreted by the other side and which make our discourse more contentious than it would normally be. One of the common irritants between parties then aligns along the continual frustration which this engenders. One says a thing to express one idea and by the other’s reaction and comments it is clearly misunderstood. Furthermore as one clarifies and attempts to more clearly state and restate the original point one either gets nowhere or the act of restatement is interpreted as an attempt at “changing” what one originally said.

On Manliness

Today in a BSA related discussion the following statement was made,

…and that’s without even getting into the dubious idea of “manliness” — the idea that there is one right way to be a man.

and to this I have to agree with the BSA. There is in fact only one right way to “be a man”, this is not a multiple choice exam. Examine for a moment, the BSA Scout Law:

Scout Law

A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly,
courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty,
brave, clean, and reverent.

which pretty much nails it. One has expressed manliness by (a) being a man and (b) living those 12 virtues.

There is no “alternate” or “other” way to be a man.

Meta-Ethics, Memory, and the Torture Question

The topic of torture and Christian ethics is now a heated discussion topic at Evangel over at the First Things blog cluster. I’d like to ask a (perhaps naive) question about torture. Where is the harm located? What ethical principles are being violated by torture?

Sixteen years ago, I contracted appendicitis and was in the hospital three days recovering from surgery. During that recovery, I was receiving intravenous pain medication (Demerol I believe) to ameliorate discomfort after the procedure. One one occasion my wife returned to the room after being out for some hours running errands. She asked me if I had any telephone calls in her absence. I replied in the affirmative. She asked who and inquired about details about what had been discussed. I had no clue. The pain medication had severely impacted my ability to retain memory of events. It is likely that if not present in the modern pharmacological arsenal there are drugs which completely block short/long term memory formation these drugs could quickly be developed given modern technology and reasonable expectations of the abilities of modern medical technology.

So my question is the following: How does memory relate to harm? Does memory have anything to do with the harm or wrong which we associate with what is wrong with torture?

An interrogator uses “waterboarding” or similar techniques which do no lasting physical damage. The subject breaks under the stress and confesses and talks freely for hours for questioning afterwards. Is the harm or evil we associate with that occurrence changed if the subject is incapable of recalling that it occurred? What if both the subject and the interrogator have no memory of the event … that only in some small corner of intelligence archives exist transcripts of the event afterwards. Does that change the moral calculus or not? Why?

What does continuing to say that this act is wrong imply about your meta-ethics? Are there non-deontological arguments that still hold this to be wrong? For it seems to be that consequential arguments against using this sort of drug and method is likely very weak, i.e., the consequences afterwards are negligible and are likely outweighed if there are any appreciable benefits.

Because They Are No More

Today the church remembered the “slaying of the holy infants”, a voice heard crying in Ramah. Today living in as we are in the period of late modernity in the shadow of the great ideological killings of the 20th century (and likely waiting in the lull before the great ideological murders and atrocities of the 21st) this remembrance has no little relevance to our life today.

A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.
– Matthew 2:18

Recently I viewed the Polish film-maker Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyn. Like the verse above (and unlike much of the remembrance of the atrocities of the 20th century) the focus is not on the event and the slaying but on the impact on the families and specifically the mothers (and women married to those ) who were killed.

This raises for me a question, to which I will not offer any answer. When we remember the slain would it be better for our remembrance to concentrate our attention not on the specific details of those slain and their particular lives but to focus instead our attention on Rachel, i.e., the mothers and wives of those slain. For example, in our recent US history, the 9/11 monument and memorials to not denote and focus on those who were killed but those who mourn and are left behind?

On the New York Show Trial

Apparently we are heading to a New York show trial of a infamous Guantanamo Bay resident. Some years earlier, a famous essay by Hannah Arendt to whit, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, which highlighted another show trial. In that former trial, to the discerning observer if not to the general audience, political ethics and the public/personal normative framing were highlighted. The prospects seem low, especially given the pre-trial protestations of an assurance of a guilty verdict by Mr Holder, of any such public debate and discussions about political ethics on the public stage. Earlier I queried an interlocutor in conversation over up-coming civil show trial what was his evaluation of the considerations involved in the detainment, processing, and treatment of illegal combatants.

Who are we talking about here. The subjects we are discussing are illegal combatants according to Geneva definition. They use both methods of combat proscribed by the convention and they do not wear uniforms. Furthermore many if not most of those detained are either foreign nationals, al Qaeda or Iranian commandos, fighting not in their own country or in their countries defence.

  1. One of the considerations is that these prisoners do not have a right of a writ of habeas corpus. This, and myself not being a lawyer had to look this up, is the right of a person to request (or demand) a hearing in a court. This of course, begs the question … what court? Putting a person before a court assumes you know what law will apply to them, for law and legal proceedings define the court to which one will be judged. The US high courts do not judge Catholic ecclesiastical law. What jurisdiction and what laws have these men broken, for it seems logical that it is the courts that set up those particular laws under which they should be tried.
  2. Will these men have a defence council? There seems to be at least one consideration on that matter, which is not being widely discussed, especially by the left … I challenge you to find a left/leaning progressive blog discussing this contents of this post (HT: Doug at Stones Cry Out).

    For instance, in the trial of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers, prosecutors were required to turn over to defense lawyers a large amount of intelligence information. Documents from that discovery production, which were never supposed to be provided to anyone outside the defense team, were later found in an al-Qaeda hideout. Let me say that again, confidential documents from a trial in New York were later found in the hands of al-Qaeda

    Does this matter? If not, why not? If it does, what procedures are now in place to prevent a repeat of this?

  3. These men captured, at the very least, are combatants out of uniform. The importance of this cannot be overstressed. Uniforms are there for a purpose. And that primary purpose is to make soldiers identifiable targets in wartime so in order to protect civilian life. It is far harder to accidentally target civilians when the enemy is identifiable. For all the thousands of remarks made, especially by left leaning commentators, on civilian casualties in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel … I’ve very rarely once seen blame squarely where it belongs, on those who are not wearing uniforms and are staging military operations in civilian locations, like communities, hospitals, schools and places of worship. How those who are captured who engage in these activities has some influence on how easy it is for others to follow suit.
  4. It has been said that the rule of law, not arbitrary behind the scenes adjudications should apply to these individuals. To that, we all might agree. However, there is no body of law presently in place to do so. Yet, we are rushing to trial in the absence of the same … with an “assurance” of a guilty verdict. Exactly how does that work?
  5. Police enforcement could indeed “catch” more criminals if it didn’t have to rigorously follow laws requiring and directing the treatment and standards of evidence. Soldiers on the battlefield have a different set of priorities and directives. In part this is because of the criminals being sought by the police are not as dangerous or as organized. Many if not most, do not ultimately resist arrest and few criminals are suicidal individuals with access to HE munitions. This is related to the prior point. The body of law and courts which judge these individuals must take into account different standards of evidence than is required in civil courts.
  6. Stepping back for a moment. Take for example, a hypothetical individual under trial. Imagine him to be a Saudi national, captured by US commandos in Pakistan who was a commander that has has fought and directed operations in Afghanistan and in other countries. What court should judge this man? Under what statues? Abstract this for a moment. You have a John Doe, caught by operatives of Nation A in the territory of Nation B. He has directed illegal terrorist and non-Geneva compliant operations in Nations C, D and E. Compare to Eichmann in Jerusalem. Jurisdiction is anything but clear.

OK. Here is an additional exercise for the reader. The above points were numbered for ease of reference … not by priority. There are two questions. What points did I miss. Are there considerations not mentioned here? What about the order of importance of the above points. What considerations take priority? What considerations are not so relevant?

Of The Hero and the Act

John Mark Reynolds takes another tack on the question regarding the heroes in our midst and not in the distant past, although he mentions at least one of them as well.

One approach to the question of the hero is to start with the particular. That is to say, before you have a hero, you have heroic acts. The acts of our heroes are, one might suggest, those momentary flashes, those instances where the ecstatic is made plain for the outside observer. And here the term ecstatic refers to eks – static, the taking oneself outside of oneself. He, in the act, transcends the ordinary and the merely human and displays something more. For it is in these actions a glimpse of the possible, the true, the good, or the beautiful is made plain for the ordinary observer.

Our popular heroes then are people who are gifted enough to regularly display these transcendent moments, normally only in their field of endeavour, such as the football arena of the Brett Favre example used in the prior posts by Mr Reynolds. These individuals, our athletic and artistic heroes regularly perform inspiring acts. Yet, at the same time today’s press revels in revealing that these people have feet of clay and makes no bones about exposing their weaknesses and foibles.

Socrates was informed by the oracle at Delphi that he was the “wisest of men.” After some deliberation and discussion, he arrives at the notion that his wisdom consists of realizing, in part, that being an expert in one thing does not confer expertise outside of the realm in which one is skilled. And this is essentially the equivalent error wherein we attribute excellence and heroism to a ball player off the field of play. This is not as stupid as it sounds. To acquire that level of excellence and expertise requires a number of virtues including diligence,  perseverance, and other qualities of character which are indeed excellent virtues. Yet, the fame and fortune comes with a host of temptations and lures which often bring vices which overshadow or at the very least discolor those same virtues. Achilles excellence at war likely was not accompanied by similar excellence at law, at medicine, or in the nursery. Likewise excellence on the athletic field does not transfer or imply to excellence in ethics.

The first suggestion would be that not fall into the common error regarding our heroes is we confuse the moments which give us glimpses of the good and ascribe that same goodness to an otherwise ordinary man. But there remains a problem. When a scrambling Brett Favre zipps a frozen rope across the grain, a Steve Nash fires a no-look pass in transition, or a Hillary Hahn unfolds a flawless effervescent cadenza … it is that act itself which we should laud, idealize, remember and fixate upon … and perhaps the person not so much.

The other problem, for the Christian, is how to frame and to put into perspective this glimpse of the good, the true, or the beautiful into the framework of virtues extolled by Gospel, Beatitude, and Psalter.  Bridging the gulf, if gulf exists, between that athletic or artistic moment and living a life of love, charity, apatheiea, and humility … is at the very least an exercise for another essay.

Dependent vs Interdepenent

In recent discussions around the term Dependent Rational Animals, a book I hope to return to reading and not just skimming the first few chapters, commenter Boonton and I went back and forth a bit over the use of the term “Dependent.” Mr Boonton argued for inter-dependent instead of “dependent.” In those discussions I had argued that dependence of all necessarily implies interdependence so that the insistence of the “inter-” was superfluous.

But, on reflection, I think that this is wrong. Preferring the term dependent to interdependent is more than an acknowledgement that dependence (of all) necessarily implies inter-dependence. In one of his objections it was pointed out that dependence brings to mind a wife and children depending on a wage-earner. Yet this is exactly right. We are all exactly like the child or the wife depending on others for so much. The notion that the provider in that situation is not dependent is the crux of my mistake. Humans are social creatures. We depend on social interactions to bring out the human nature in each of us. The independent wage earner with a flock of dependants who look to him for sustenance is the myth. There is no (truly) independent person. This isn’t to deny ethical/moral autonomy and independence as a thing to esteem and to acknowledge. But that independence is contained within the context of a network of social and physical dependence.

For further grist for the mill, I refer to this excerpt from a publisher’s blurb on the aforementioned book:

n Dependent Rational Animals, Alasdair MacIntyre compares humans to other intelligent animals, ultimately drawing remarkable conclusions about human social life and our treatment of those whom he argues we should no longer call “disabled.” MacIntyre argues that human beings are independent, practical reasoners, but they are also dependent animals who must learn from each other in order to remain largely independent. To flourish, humans must acknowledge the importance of dependence and independence, both of which are developed in and through social relationships. This requires the development of a local community in which individuals discover their own “goods” through the discovery of a common Good.

H1N1, Vaccinations (and Abortion)

H1N1 vaccinations are a subject for debate. One might ask, will they be required of students? Or of other organizations. “H1N1 required” pulls up a list of links. If I was more playfully disposed, I think this might be an interesting venue to push the argument in a real legal challenge by refusing to disclose vaccination (or not) of myself or (more likely) my children. Vaccinations of a variety of sorts are required for school attendance. Where and why the challenge? Because the abortion “right to privacy” is exactly the same right that is not protected by the school system (and thereby the government’s) right to demand vaccination.

Now normally I get a flu shot and will likely get the H1N1 and the seasonal flu shot this year … and so will my kids. But that in itself is irrelevant to a challenge. Typically with vaccination requirements the parent is required to prove vaccination with a doctors affidavit. This is the part I would refuse. If abortion is legal, it should not be legal for the government to require vaccination. The argument is the same. Abortion is therefore legal because a woman has a right to the disposition of  her body. Vaccination is programming of our immune system and clearly part of your body. Requirement of vaccination therefore is just in this case the state violating that right that abortion establishes.

In prior discussions on this point, the argument was put forth against it, that abortion and vaccinations differ in that getting a vaccination is for the public good and is not very harmful to the recipient. I’m not sure what bearing that has on the argument, but one might point out that children too are required for the next generation and are in general public good.

Howzzat Supposed to Work Anyhow?

Regular commenter JA offers today the following observation:

However, I would (and do) distinguish between tribalism for minority “tribes” and tribalism for the majority in the most powerful nation on Earth. Black pride, Jewish pride, Mormon pride, Catholic pride — these, while (and this is where I probably disagree with Sharansky) still falling short of the ideal of universalism, can be useful for societies which contain them. It’s when the primary group of a powerful society shows too much tribalism that it becomes dangerous. But, again, I think universalism is ultimately best.

A few remarks might follow from this. (I might note that these remarks stem from the book Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, by Nathan Sharansky) Continue reading →


Well, I’ve a little time tonight, having got my post out. So … a little links+remarks? See if I can’t stir the discussion pot a little.

  1. Jim Anderson wonders if stochastic methods are used for pitch selection. Which begs the question, how much are stochastic methods used in any strategy situations. In war, other sports involving strategy, and politics? It seems to me that if a primary objective is not being out-guessed by the opponent that explicitly relying on a random element to aid in strategic selection would be good.
    I frequently tell my kids that a coin toss is an excellent method of helping you make a decision if you cannot choose between two alternatives which to you seem equal. After you flip, if you don’t like the choice tells you of course … you should of course go with what you want to do and not be ruled by the coin. The coin in that case has demonstrated to you an unconscious preference. But if you’re OK with the coin … go with it. Your time agonizing over a decision is time not wasted any longer.
  2. A question asked, that Mr Obama should answer. He has a healthcare plan, but it’s secret. He has a plan to a nuclear free-world, but it’s secret. But that latter part needs to be outlined a little more explicitly especially as Iran is moving closer to a device of their own. Actually regarding his healthcare non-plan, he has posted of course on the White House site a thing which some call “a plan.” However it is not actually a plan. It is a list of criteria. Maths people talk of solutions for problems needing a demonstration of existence and uniqueness. For Mr Obama’s criteria there is a missing demonstration of existence (and uniqueness is not a requirement). His critics of course offer that existence is not possible given that particular set of criteria. Given that is a primary objection, the missing demonstration is problematic. The same holds true for his nuclear free plan. More here regarding nuclear Iran.
  3. Land reform. Land ownership and property rights are a vexing problem for much of the world. We in America forget that we went through not a little time of tribulation in the 19th century over land reform.
  4. As a father of two teenage (well, technically my youngest hits the big 13 in December) … I’m hoping this suggestion is wrong and furthermore is not a model which they will find need to follow. Fortunately Hollywood is not the source of all social narratives and examples. Actually seeing how often they get the narratives and a realistic description on film of the religious America wrong, it is likely that the situation may not be as dire as the it seems.
  5. Well, prison rape is indeed a problem. However, I’d offer that anyone who actually makes a claim to be Christian that hoping that rapists get raped in prison is not a problem, in that it isn’t for what we hope (for anyone). Hammurrabi is right out, no eye for an eye. We hope for only for repentance. 

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Thinking About Work

Industry vs Craft. Assembly vs Construction. Utility vs Excellence.

Two of the competing desires we have in the products we obtain and for that matter produce. We want things, in general, to be inexpensive and affordable. But we also want them finely crafted. Engineers have a saying, “good, fast, cheap … pick two.” Consumer products likely have a similar pithy phrase, but it doesn’t come to mind right now.  The point is intelligent consumers are driven between two competing desires. You want your purchases to be cheap. And you likely would prefer finely crafted items made by artisans, i.e., the highest quality. Yet the first implies automation, assembly lines, and mass production. That is how costs come down. The second requires skill, care, and a lot of human time and talent. In the days prior to mechanization and the industrial revolution, only the rich and powerful (and sometimes the artisans themselves) had access to these quality products. The reason for that was fairly simple, not everyone could have these things … and therefore only the few did. And like always, the rich/powerful get the good toys. There was no, and could be no way for a “better” power structure to make available fine goods made by craftsman to surround your life and leisure for everyone. With automation, the tide rises. While we can’t all get the hand crafted “things”, there is a continuum between mass produced and artisan quality products and basically all have access to an equivalent product in almost every regime today as the rich/powerful have available (pretty much everyone but the bottom billion … which are held in poverty not by goods not being “enough” to go around, but by other factors). Now today one natural place this line of thinking takes on is to consider these ideas in relation to healthcare. But there are other ways in which this could be examined.

Some far future speculative works, such as Star Trek, imagine a future in which the quality of mass/machine produced products are indistinguishable from an artisan’s work. These works of fiction often figure that work per se will fade in importance some what. Political, military, exploration, art and other venues open themselves up for human occupation. Work however isn’t useful primarily for its ends but the process, although most fruitful work has a end (a product) which is useful. Work provides:

  1. An end product, that is the direct result from the work you do. People extract satisfaction from that in a measure related to their estimation of the value of the product of their work (and the difficulty by which it was accomplished).
  2. A means by which our the web of dependency can be sustained. Alasdair MacIntyre entitled a book describing the human condition (and why we need the virtues) Dependent Rational Animals.
  3. In the process of work, we live and interact in a complex social network. The work process with extremely few exceptions is a social one. Every job brings us in to contact in meaningful ways with co-workers, bosses, people under us, vendors, customers and so on. 
  4. In any particular job, even those called “unskilled”, expertise is built up. We become skilled at that particular task through refinement and repetition. 
  5. With expertise, often comes pure enjoyment and satisfaction of doing a thing well, or even doing a thing which few can do.

Only the first of these is the “end” of labor. Depending on the individual each of these elements is felt more or less important. But all of these are present for each person in their labor.

Zbrodnia Katyńska and a the UN

During the last to night time basement biking sessions I’ve watched the movie Katyń, see here and here for more. In the context of the some of the conversation that arose today over my short essay on the UN some remarks come to mind. One commenter (JA) remarked:

This distinction is really just a symptom of the deeper distinction — the right, being more nationalistic, looks at the UN solely from a what-can-we-get-out-of-it point of view, while the left, being more humanistic, believes that the same principle that says a nation’s citizens should have a say in their government also says that the nations of the world should have a say in whatever passes for global “government.”

Yet this gets it backwards. Continue reading →

Lost in Translation

The The Notorious ŒV offers a bland suggestion that the left remains sympathetic to keeping The Unlearned Lessons Of the Twentieth Century yet unlearned. Having finished the class (except for a final paper which I plan to write this weekend) now I have the chance to return to reading Chantal Delsol’s two books that have been translated into English (the first linked above). The second, which actually was published first, is titled Icarus Fallen: The Search for Meaning in a Uncertain World. In the forward by the series editor, an surprising fact is asserted. The secular left and liberalism has had a little known assault which has been highly successful in the debate between left and right in the field of translation. They have managed to give the impression that outside of the Anglo-American world leftist thinkers are the dominant default. In turn, the Continent has been assailed in the main by liberal authors from the Americas, badly skewing our impressions of the status of the other. He gives a list of about a dozen or so French, South American, Italian, and German conservative thinkers and writers, each heard in their language but not translated. Chantal Delsol is another of these individuals. The editor notes the obvious, that one would have considered a distinguished influential woman political scientist/political philosopher (and in a field in which women are not just a little rare) would be a thing that feminists would celebrate. Yet, because her political philosophy is not left leaning … wham. No translations. No celebrations. No recognition (except perhaps a tacit nod to hypocrisy).

Ms Delsol is writing about the failed aspirations of the majority in the last century. She terms our age late modernity to strike a chord with late antiquity. For the last two centuries the progressive vision has been to stamp out poverty, injustice, war, disease and arrive at a radiant future. Even today, the left wing in American thinks that, yes, if only we pass this next reform (healthcare) then there will be no people dying for lack of care in America. There are two results to that sort of thinking. First, since, even if that passes, people will still be dying, injustice, poverty and disease will remain … yet another major reform will be critically required. And second eventually many will become disillusioned. Ms Delsol begins her book with an image of an Icarus who actually manages to survive. And asks, “he falls back into the labyrinth, where he finds himself horribly bruised but still alive. And let us try to imagine what goes on in his life after having thought himself capable of attaining the sun, the supreme good. How will he get over his disappointment?”

There are some who think that the mistakes of the past century to solve those problems were technical. That Icarus just “didn’t” get it right, like the hopey/changey Obamanoids who think that just if “smart people” get to make the right “wonky” decisions then the sun will be attained. Asymetrical information problems are not the least of their errors. The problems go deeper. Others are less optimistic, instead having an existential crises. Having rejected the foundational beliefs of the prior age and embarking on ambitious projects to save the world, finding that it is not a tenable project, leaves many in the late modernity grasping for alternatives.

In the upcoming weeks, one of the recurring themes will be to raise and discuss the points and arguments raised by Ms Delsol in her two books noted above, starting with Icarus Fallen. I’d encourage you to get them from a library and skim or read them yourselves (of failing that, tip me a few dimes and buy it with the provided links). It would at the very least enliven the discussion.

A Little Break from Politics, A Model of Will and Creativity

Recently I had a brief conversation with an office mate about some discussion on this blog regarding the noetic and the real. Transcendental and irrational numbers, such as Pi and ideas of continuity, are argued to have a different connection with the real than flying pink unicorns. My interlocutor (and, I should add, good friend) suggested that Wigner, in a rather well known essay, put his finger on one criteria we use sift the noetic universe for those objects there that have more or less connection to reality. That is to say, because of the unreasonable success of mathematics this gives rise to the (not unreasonable intuition) that mathematical ideas are more real or alternatively the more mathematically connected an idea is that it therefore has a larger “real” connection.

Long ago, I had some conversations on free will (see this and this here and finally this). One of the issues regarding will, creativity, and genius is that the human if it is to be regarded as only a meat machine somehow constructs a semiotic (or semantic) scaffold and develops real noetic content in its internal states and thereby in its actions. A clock or even a computer does not in its internal machinations and actions manage to do this. A clock’s and a computer’s meanings are only derived through the agency of a being which has constructed this scaffold, that is the internal states of a clock do not render time unless it is viewed by a creature (like us) who has constructed the semiotic scaffold and does and can attach meaning to physical states.

In the above linked essays, which were admittedly in the form of explorations and not complete or even coherent ideas, the notion that one view of the human creative engine might be viewed as a aesthetic expert system linked/driven to/by a symbolic noise generator for a description of how it works. This engine itself is recursively driven, that is the problems it works on are posed by itself and indeed the programming and improvement of that same expert system is driven by its past results and working.

I’m going to modify that picture slightly and add an additional ansatz and see how that works. The symbolic noise might be viewed as a glimpse into the wilder universe, the one much less reasonable than the ordered one we inhabit, namely the noetic world. This leads me to the ansatz … that the noetic universe is real, just as real as the concrete material world a separate space with its own logic, laws, and evolution. Ideas, a thoughts, a symbols all can be just viewed as individual points (or events?) existing and defining a noetic universe. It is real, but it is a separate space. What we regard as “real” vs “imaginary” or more real vs more imaginary are just metrics for measuring movement or location in the noetic universe. In this view, the wild soup of noetic noise which drives our creative process is a window looking out at the welter and waste of the roiling noetic landscape.

In the material universe, life is a funny anti-entropic cluster of stuff. What would the analogue to life be in the noetic universe? Dawkins meme might be a microorganism in this realm. But microorganisms are not the only living things in our material world. More complex and more evolved, some (like us) are even intelligent. If a Dawkin’s meme is a microorganism in the noetic universe, what then would one call a thinking self-aware creature in that space? A demon or angel perhaps? And why would we expect that the windows to the other universe is one way?

I should add as a final note, a hat tip to Larry at Rust Belt Philosophy for helping trigger me to try to crystallize into essay form some half-formed ideas that have been batting around my noggin recently … which gave rise to the above essay.

On The Healthcare Bill and Christian Virtues

Fr. Jake offers a rhetorical question that nevertheless deserves a response.

I must admit to being simply astounded that anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ would be against providing health care for every child of God.

Unless you cut out the 25th chapter of Matthew, the parable of the Good Samaritan, the year of Jubilee, and various other big swaths of scripture, it is simply impossible to refute the clear message that God has a preferential bias for the poor.

This is dishonest rhetoric. It is true that the Christian eschatological hope is exactly, in part, what Fr. Jake yearns for here, that everyone have succor and find their peace. How could a Christian be against that? [An aside: The Good Samaritan? How is that about poverty? Who is poor in that story?]

Well, first of all it isn’t charity. It is charity when I give to the poor and for other causes. It is not charity when, by force, I take money from my richer neighbor and give it to the poor. The revenue gotten from taxation, while the IRS is in now way anywhere nears as corrupt or likely as rapacious as the average 1st century Middle Eastern Roman tax collector, is not my nor anyone else’s charity. If a person does not pay, like then, that person faces a jail sentence. Charity is a principal virtue for the Christian. Charity cannot be given when there is no choice.

Fr. Jake continues with some statistics, the origin which he may be unaware, which are dishonest as well. “46 million” in this country are without healthcare. If you take out the millions who can afford healthcare but, because they are young and/or foolish and choose to spend their money elsewhere, don’t avail themselves of it … are not part of the crises as is normally considered. They are not the “poor” to which the church fathers sought to aid and of which the Gospels preach. The 46 million figure also includes the illegal residents … which Fr Jake notes “are not covered under this bill.” so then why include them in the 46 millions? Why not use a more accurate figure, which has been estimated elsewhere but is far less than 46 millions. Or “It will not raise your taxes” … which (so far) remains true … unless you consider your employer’s provision of your current healthcare part of your remuneration for your services (which it is) … for that will in fact be taxed. So not raising your taxes requires a particularly narrow evaluation of what “your taxes” means.

Thus while he notes that “a lot of disinformation and likes” have been spread about HR3200. Well, well, a lot of disinformation has been spread in favor of the bill as well. The (pseudonymous) Czar of Muscovy blogging at the Gormogons, has read the entire bill … and found it lacking in many respects, i.e., has quite a number of unmet criticisms. In fact, one might offer, that there is enough here that is objectionable that one might offer that while anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ might like to see everyone receive the aid and succor for which their heart yearns … HR3200 is not in no way shape or form the sort of bill by which that goal might be reached.

Furthermore, while yes, detachment from material things is seen as a virtue. I would offer this post from long ago on healthcare in the more abstract. Or here where I wrote:

Fr. Schmemann suggests that counseling and care (of Christians by Christians) at the end of life is incorrectly motivated. What he calls for is that instead of looking at quality of life and extension of the same, the priority of a Christian as he nears the end of his days in this life should be martyrdom. Now martyrdom doesn’t mean dying spectacularly in defense of the faith. It means, essentially witness. In this context, martyrdom means that the end of your life should be sign, a witness of your life in Christ. Extension of life, for a Christian, should be the highest priority, after all there is the life to come. Your life should be an expression and witness to that fundamental ontological freedom.

Non Material Things

Jim Hanley at Positive Liberty is considering natural rights. He, like I, don’t think they exist. In fact, he goes even further, to say that:

I have been gently critiqued for being a materialist. I haven’t asked DAR enough questions to yet understand his critique, but I think it has to do with whether one can develop a meaning philosophical structure without importing some non-materialist concepts. Perhaps that is so. But I do believe that when we begin with a materialist understanding of our subject, homo sapiens, we can’t get to natural rights without importing, in a wholly ad hoc fashion, some non-materialist assumptions that lack a firm foundation.

and in comments elucidates:

I had indeed thought about your “patterns” argument. My response would be that I am not a nominalist. It is not the naming that makes it real, and it is debatable just how real the particular category we mean by the name is. But there are these particular animals that have real physical existence. We give the name bonobos to what we believe is a set of animals that are alike in a particular way, and do not give them name to all other animals that we do not believe are alike in that particular way. But whether or not our category accurately reflects the empirical reality of animal likeness/difference, those particular animals have material existence.

Whether the categories can be counted as real or not, well, I think we run into the problem of fuzziness of language. I think categories are real because we create them, and understand them as being nothing more than our constructs. That is, the proper referent of categories is not actually to the physical world, but only to our interpretation of the physical world, and they are real referents to our interpretation. If people want to understand them as directly referent to the physical world, then I would argue that categories in that sense are not real.

In earlier essays I had noted that there is a large category of real non-materialist concepts, namely transcendental numbers. This includes a number of un-measureable unobtainable, i.e., transcendental numbers like pi, e, the golden mean and so forth. These are in fact numbers which arise both in our natural cognition about numbers and similar mathematical reasoning and also arise naturally (repeatedly) in any number of mathematical representations of material measurement. More complicated mathematical concepts such as groups, mappings, metric, manifold just as do real numbers are both non-material and are real.

The demonstration that some real non-materialist things are real is not a demonstration that all non-materialistic concepts are as well. It just shows that being a non-material does not exclude the possibility a priori that the said same thing is not real. It is however a demonstration that there are definitely non-materialistic things that are real in a stronger fashion than the categorical reality to which Mr Hanley alludes. So what one seeks is an ontological distinction serving to demarcate and separate the non-real and the real non-materialistic ideas. For it seems plausible that there are non-material non-mathematical concepts that share a similar reality to the mathematical concepts noted above.