Sunday, September 25, 2011

Telling Stories

Whenever we tell a story, we are being intentionally selective in the details we include.  I am right now sitting in the common room of the Divinity School at Yale.  There are people in the corner opposite me having a conversation.  There are several people at tables working on various things (I can’t tell what from my vantage point).  Occasionally someone walks thru.  Even though I am narrating events in this room, I am not telling a story.  There is no point to the narration, no movement, no plot.  I could sit here all day and list everything that happened in this room and we would have an extensive amount of observations about life in the common room at a divinity school, but not a story.
Likewise, if we wanted to describe a “science” or “philosophy” of something, we have to be selective. If we wanted to make some sociological conclusions about divinity school students based on my rambling observations of a day in the common room, we would need to choose particular observations and organize them in a particular way to come up with anything that made any bit of sense or held any significance.  We would need to look for patterns of behavior or something else that we could use as an organizing paradigm.
The same would be true of history.  A list or cataloguing of events is not really a history.  History attempts to explain why events happen, and to do that you need to be selective, look for patterns and connections, causal relationships, etc.
What I think this all gets at is that the universe in its raw form is simply too much to take in.  Which seems at first a very trivial statement, but I think it is one of extraordinary importance.  We can’t simply observe and soak in everything that happens around us, we need to organize it all in some useful way.  We make stories, scientific theories, philosophies, histories, etc., all for the sake of organizing and simplifying a literal universe of data that we could not otherwise make sense of.
Now, in light of what I said the other day about a subtle circularity in logic, I want to observe that the same kind of subtle circularity exists in almost every other “organizing scheme” we might develop.  When we narrate events, why do we choose the details we choose?  Because those details form the structure of the story we want to tell.  In other words, the story in its totality is already in some sense assumed by the details that make up its parts.  I think we could say the same of all our methods of organizing our experience of the world- they are all intentionally selective, and in the process of being selective are to some extent assuming themselves.
What does this say about how we organize data?  Does this mean all our reasoning is fallacious and that we can’t know anything?  If we just stopped here it might be taken that way, but I certainly hope that this is not were we stop.  I have written plenty of times on this blog about the idea of coherence, and I think it is the key to understanding how reasoning can function.  In a way, I am working with the ideas of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, though there are plenty of ways in which he and I would strongly disagree with one another.  But he at least provides a starting point for us, which is the idea that we, functionally, must organize data.  The world is too much for us to take in as a brute reality, we have to organize our experience of it into some sort of system of understanding, some sort of paradigm.  That understanding or system can take a variety of forms, be it a story or narrative, a rigorously logical philosophical system, a strenuously tested scientific model, a quasi-mystical/otherworldly perspective, or perhaps some other way of thinking.  What matters, at least so far as this post is concerned, is not so much the form that it takes as that it “works”: that it makes sense of our experience and puts it all together into some sort of worldview that we can operate out of.  When it fails to do this, whether because of an internal “inconsistency” or because we encounter new experiences that we cannot make sense of in our old way of thinking, we are forced to abandon our understanding and seek out another one, a remarkably unnerving or “shaking” experience for many if not most of us.
That these understandings or paradigms in some sense assume themselves is, I think, a natural product of their selectivity which I think serves to underline our subjectivity.  Here is where Kant, who has given us a starting point, and I would diverge (or at least I diverge with some of his interpreters, I’m not as clear that Kant actually says what I’m about to attribute to him).  The “Kantian” view would be that we all have a common set of mechanisms for forming our understanding of the world and thus can come to some sort of “objective” understanding.  My own view is that our understanding of the world is much more individualized, that the selectivity required to tell a story or form a theory is rooted in our own individual, subjective selves and the viewpoint associated with that self, not an inborn or innate system of categorization.  So we all in some sense “assume” the story we tell because we are the ones telling and crafting it.  Is this fallacious?  Is this “subtle circularity” damaging to the credibility of our systems?  Perhaps, but I don’t think it needs to be.
This “subtle circularity” has the potential to be damaging if we make a leap to the claim that our assumptions objectively reflect reality.  If I make the claim that the story I tell is the only story that can be told about the day in the common room then I committed an error, the “subtle circularity” which guided my telling of the story has become a fallacy.  If I acknowledge that the story I am telling is one among several then the assumptions which shaped it are no longer damaging, they are merely acting to set off this particular story as its own story.
It is important to note here, as I wrap this post up, that what I am arguing for is very strictly an epistemological limitation.  I am not attempting to make any metaphysical claims about the nature of reality or truth via this argument.  There is much more to say about that, but it will have to wait for another post.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Saturday Morning Brunch

Here are some posts that caught my eye this week:

Justin Taylor wrote about the latest controversy surrounding Pat Robertson.  Perhaps I have just noticed it more this time, but this seems like the first moment that mainstream evangelical leaders have openly rebuked the guy.  Which is both good and bad.  Good that someone is finally saying "we really shouldn't pay attention to this nut."  Bad, or perhaps interesting, is that of all the ridiculous and controversial things he has said, it was a comment about divorce that brought the full wrath of evangelicalism against him.

From the Her-Meneutics Blog is a post about Christian education that I found particularly insightful.

From the Internet Monk comes an interesting post about the difference between a philosophical view of moral development and a psychological one.

A couple articles of note:

First, I found this article on the discovery of new planets (several of which may be inhabitable), coupled with the announcement of a new deep-space vehicle by NASA this week particularly interesting.

Second, this video on the exploitation (and even enslavement) of poor Londoner's was particularly disturbing to me.

Enjoy, let me know what you think, and let me know if you saw anything else of interest on the web this week!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Critique of Pure Logic

When I was in high school taking math, the thing I hated more than anything else was doing geometric proofs.  Not because I didn’t understand them or couldn’t get them right (which was, in fact, my problem when we moved on to trig...) but because they were so bloody meticulous.  I could usually see the solution pretty early on, but writing out every step to get there was such a drag and a bore and I hated it.
In college I was introduced to symbolic logic, which is effectively doing “proofs” with a sentence by replacing its clauses with symbols.  My professor, who remains one of my favorite teachers ever, was convinced solving logical proofs was the greatest thing any human being could aspire to do.  I had to disagree (actually, even though I respect this man tremendously, we didn’t agree on much of anything...).  Learning the rules of logic was extraordinarily useful, but it was not what got me going in the morning.
Logic was touted to me by my very analytic professor and a few others as a way of thinking objectively.  It was as if logic put limits on reality.  Which was an interesting notion that I never really dwelt on until very recently.  For whatever reason, I was thinking about the kinds of proofs we did in that logic class or in the geometry class I took in High School.  Some of those proofs were designed to “prove” the very rules we used to solve other problems.  In thinking about that process, it occurred to me that you can only “prove” one rule at a time.  Further, when you do that you assume other rules are true so that you can solve the proof.  It is as if the rules of logic are the supporting beams of a structure.  You can perhaps take one beam out at a time to inspect it, but if you do more than that the structure becomes unstable.  There is no such thing as starting a logic problem from complete scratch with no rules whatsoever.  It just wouldn’t work.  To me at least it seems that the implication of this is that the system of logic is dependent on itself, that the full system in some sense assumes itself.  There is, in other words, a subtle circularity to any system of logic.
Now by invoking the term “circular,” which is a term generally associated with fallacious reasoning, I seem to have just thrown logic out.  That is not actually the move that I would like to make, but I want this realization to be the kind of starting point for the next move I do intend to make.  So even though this post is insanely short compared to how much I normally write, here is where we end for now.  Later on I will consider how we might “redeem” logic as it were from the apparent problem we have uncovered.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Prayers for Peace on 9/11

This is the form for the prayers of the people we will use tonight at ECY as we remember the national tragedy of 9/11 ten years ago today:

One: From words and deeds that provoke discord, prejudice and hatred,
All: O God, deliver us.
One: From suspicions and fears that stand in the way of reconciliation, 
All: O God, deliver us.
One: From believing and speaking lies about other peoples or nations,
All: O God, deliver us. 
One: From cruel indifference to the cries of the hungry and homeless, 
All: O God, deliver us.
One: From all that prevents us from fulfilling your promise of peace, 
All: O God, deliver us.
One: To the freedom and forgiveness we find in you, 
All: O Risen Christ, deliver us.
One: To the tough task of loving our enemies,
All: O Jesus, deliver us. 
One: To joyful service in your name,
All: O Servant of All, deliver us.
One: To the promise of a new heaven and a new earth,
To the wholeness of justice,
To the power of your peace,
All: O Holy Spirit, deliver us now and in the days to come. 
One: Deliver us from our brokenness, we pray, O God, 
All: and by your grace and healing presence deliver us to You.  
Period of silence during which prayers and petitions may be offered.
Closing Prayer Charge our lives and our churches with the power of your peace, O God. Overcome our fears and self-deceptions with the promise of your presence. Make us signs of your generosity and justice. Light us each day with hope, we pray, so that we may walk in your truth and be love in your Name. Amen.
- Adapted from the World Council of Churches

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Saturday Morning Brunch

It's not morning anymore, I know.  But I couldn't get to it this morning, I had other things to do.  Like play Irish folk music at a pub (not kidding).

So unsurprisingly late, here is a summary of some blogs and articles I have read this week that I find interesting:

First, from Rachel Held Evans, is a pair of posts that I personally resonated with quite a bit about her "journey" in search of a spiritual home.  As someone who is not quite sure what "category" I fit in either, I had quite a bit of empathy for how she feels here and here.  I also found reading this from someone else (and not merely thinking it in my own head) comforting in many ways.

Second, from the New Ways Forward blog, is another pair of posts, the first about the necessity of having a safe place for "doubt," and the second about the danger of seeing doubt as a virtue.  Together I think they make an interesting pair.  I'm not quite sure where the balance of the two leaves us, though I think good points are made in both posts.  Would be very interested to hear what some others think about this issue.

Next, David Fitch wrote a very interesting post about a phenomenon that I have seen a good bit of in my experience with Southern evangelical churches, which is the church-plant-turns-into-"mega-church"-with- a-personality-cult-surrounding-its-leader phenomenon.  I find it very difficult to talk to people who have been swept up in this phenomenon because of the "personality cult" aspect of it and I think Fitch does a better job explaining why this is dangerous than I have ever personally done, so I will in all likelihood defer to him from now on whenever this issue arises.

From the Her-meneutics blog comes an interesting reflection on the difference between "love" and "attachment" which I found helpful and suspect others might too.

A few articles that caught my attention this week:

An opinion piece on Republican political tactics (especially tea-party tactics) that appeared in the New York Times.  Its very long and obviously very one sided, but there are some very interesting and insightful points in there which are worth considering.

An interesting set of maps showing the "global impact" of 9/11 put up on the BBC's website.  Particularly I was struck by the Guantanamo Bay map, which shows the countries around the world whose citizens the United States has imprisoned since 9/11.  This strikes me as a stunning case of "American Exceptionalism."  What is also interesting is to notice which countries have not had their citizens imprisoned- you can see some clear indications, I think, of what parts of the world are outside of what America considers its strategic sphere of influence, and notice that most of those countries are economically "under-developed."

On a lighter note, there is this article from the Onion about a new GOP strategy in next year's election.

And my favorite news article of the week is this one about a drunk Elk in Sweden.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Some Political Recommendations:

In relation to the already begun election cycle in this country (I feel like we can actually say campaigning has been going on for four years in preparation for this election), and in light of the disaster that has been the last decade and a half of American politics, I have a few recommendations for radically transforming the shape of our political landscape:

1.  Constitutional amendment limiting terms in office for legislators.  I’m thinking something to the effect of this:  “No person shall serve more than twelve years as a member of Congress.”  That’s 2 terms as a Senator, 6 terms as a Representative, or 1 term in the Senate and 3 in the House.  No more than this for anyone, let’s not have career politicians anymore.

2.  Constitutional ban on political advertising.  You can campaign by making speeches, touting your record, debating, etc.  But no running ads.  Possible exception for yard signs and bumper stickers, they aren’t too annoying.

3.  Restructure the way Congress is paid.  Legislators will be paid a median (not the average) salary for their constituency with a housing allowance to pay for their DC residence.  Their office will be given a staff salary budget that is intentionally small.  No more chiefs of staff making 100K a year, no more 30+ person Senate staffs.  Outside sources of income forbidden (to prevent corruption).

4.  Requirement that members of Congress act as an official emissary of the United States at an overseas engagement at least once per term.  These trips will be paid for, so this isn’t a financial burden.  But it would be nice if people in Congress actually understood what happens in the world before they make decisions about what America’s role in the world will be.  And then they would all have some foreign policy experience.

5.  Ability of the president to veto particular amendments to a bill which add spending (in other words, pork-barrel amendments for pet-projects of legislators at home).

6.  Radically limit the access of lobbyists (particularly those representing any sort of industry or commercial interest) to all branches of government.  Ideally, ban them altogether, but this is probably not feasible.

7.  Encourage legislative advisors/researchers to have a degree in the field they are advising on, not in political science.

Essentially, my thought is we need to make the incentive to serve as an elected official the desire to actually serve, not the desire to have a career in politics or to get rich or to have a book deal when they are done.  Also, I think by making congressional representatives be, at least financially, on the same footing as the rest of us and forcing them to get out and see the way the world works outside their sphere of influence is more likely to encourage them to write good policy with real people in mind.  Limiting the access of lobbyists is another safe-guard for that in my opinion.  Rather than writing legislation based on the interests of corporations or industries or unions, they will be writing it based on their own experience and the knowledge of their advisors about what would make for sound policy.  I think these changes coupled with a ban on political advertising would radically alter the way political discourse happens in this country (and what the priorities of politicians would be) for the better.  Might also help our budget situation...  But I’m also not an expert in politics by any means, I’m more a cynic.  So those with more political knowledge and experience, I very much invite your comments.  Where am I being short-sighted or overly cynical?  What other suggestions might you have?

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Saturday Morning Brunch

In honor of a tradition in my house (which sadly isn't happening this weekend because my flat-mate is out of town), naming what I intend to be a weekly digest of interesting posts from around the blogosphere "Saturday Morning Brunch."

First, a little theme music, which I was introduced to courtesy of the New Ways Forward blog:

From my dear friend Andy Byers comes a post on discerning the will of God which, in Andy's typical fashion, challenges our popular notions of how this is done.  I found this very interesting.

Dug up from the archives of history, Don Miller (author of Blue Like Jazz) gives us an old recording of an interview with JRR Tolkien.

Author David Fitch introduces us to a new book by Scott McKnight.  The video is kinda cheesy and not very well produced, but I am quite intrigued to see what McKnight has to say...

From the Cryptotheology blog comes an interesting take on how to read Paul's epistles which seems to avoid many of the historical-critical questions of current scholarship.  Not sure what I think of it yet, but I am initially intrigued by this idea, would love to hear what some other people think.

An interesting news article buried a little bit under the over-sensationalized hurricane reporting and the unfolding events in Libya: new details emerging about CIA rendition flights.  I am particularly taken aback by the CIA's response to all of this, which is essentially to say "we don't care what anyone thinks, nor are we going to help you figure out what evil things were done."  Alarming.

Another interesting article, this one from the Yale Daily News.  Guess who the reigning champions of the Grad-Pro Intramural Soccer League are...

Finally, to close this out here is possibly the best advertisement for a social network ever (courtesy of Justin Taylor's blog):

Blog has moved, searching new blog...