"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Watch the doughnut, not the hole

Mark Joseph Stern makes an excellent point:

Now the Liberty Counsel has filed an angry, rambling application to the Supreme Court that is little more than an anti-Obergefell rant dressed up as a legal document. The fact that Davis’ lawyers couldn’t tone down the animus for long enough to pen the application is distressing but not surprising. More and more, it’s beginning to look like the Liberty Counsel is taking Davis for a ride, using her doomed case to promote itself and its extremist principles. Davis has certainly humiliated and degraded the gay couples whom she turned away. But I wonder if, on some level, she isn’t a victim, too.

To fully understand his point, you should know Ms. Davis' lawyers have actively advised her to defy the court's orders.  That is what we lawyers call "unethical," a word that means you probably shouldn't be practicing law and, at a minimum, should have your license to practice in federal court revoked.*

No one wants to think of Kim Davis as a victim.  She has humiliated individuals; her personal life has been splashed across the internet; her husband has responded belligerently to death threats (no surprise, actually; I'd do the same for my wife, except I'd have to buy the gun first.).  She hasn't done much to deserve our sympathy.  And, you will say, she's walking into this with her eyes open:

“I owe my life to Jesus Christ who loves me and gave His life for me. Following the death of my godly mother-in-law over four years ago, I went to church to fulfill her dying wish. There I heard a message of grace and forgiveness and surrendered my life to Jesus Christ. I am not perfect. No one is. But I am forgiven and I love my Lord and must be obedient to Him and to the Word of God. I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage. To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience. It is not a light issue for me. It is a heaven or hell decision.”
She may be sincere in her belief, but she's being taken for a ride by her lawyers.  I could see that, and all I know of this case is from news reports.  I haven't read any of the pleadings, but just what gets reported made it clear to me the lawyers in this case were political, not legal.  They shouldn't be allowed into a court of law; and now it appears they are actively putting their client at risk.  It is perfectly clear they have never pursued this case for their client's interests, but only for their own.

She'll be the one paying the fines and going to jail (if it comes to that).  Sure, maybe they can crowd source the fines (for a while); but nobody can go to jail for Ms. Davis.

This does not make her innocent; but she is being misled, and abused.  Our internet ire should land on her lawyers, more so than it does on her.  She will eventually fade from our attention.

The all but anonymous lawyers will move on to their next victim.

*not the same as losing your license to practice law.  Federal courts require application and licensure before you can appear before them, a "license" the Federal court can revoke.  They don't like people playing games in their system, and they don't have to put up with it.  Lawyers can lose their ability to go to federal court, but can still practice in states where they are admitted to the state bar.  If that doesn't happen to these lawyers, it still should.  Their actions are indefensible.

Does anybody really know what time it is?

Does anybody know what Rand Paul is talking about?

"I think one way to get around the whole idea of what the Supreme Court is forcing on the states is for states just to get out of the business of giving out licenses," Paul said. "Alabama has already voted to do this, they’re just no longer going to give out licenses. And anybody can make a contract. And then if you want a marriage contract you go to a church. And so I’ve often said we could have gotten around all of this also in the sense that I do believe everybody has a right to a contract."
First, best I can tell, Alabama is still issuing marriage licenses (can't be married without one!).  Second:  marriage has always been a contract under civil law.  Marriage licenses just allow  the ordering of that contract, the registration of it, and prevention of bigamy.  It also allows the state to determine paternity, and assign responsibility for children of the marriage, as well as ownership of property from the marriage.  Which is why Alabama Probate Clerks issue marriage licenses; marriage often ends up involving probate.

So if states "get out of the business of issuing marriage licenses," what happens to all that property and family law?  Not to mention health laws and tax laws?

Is this guy really that big a moron?

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Unphilosophical Investigations

I've never gotten around to reading Philosophical Investigations (I prefer the more fragmentary works, lectures notes, etc., published posthumously), but this quote is marvelous, if only because I love coffee and I like Wittgenstein:

“Describe the aroma of coffee—why can't it be done? Do we lack the words? and for what are words lacking?—But how do we get the idea that such a description must after all be possible? Have you ever felt the lack of such a description? Have you tried to describe the aroma and not succeeded?” Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations.
The Slate article is good, too, although I could do without the back-handed slap at "bloviating deconstructionists."  Then again, analytical philosophers are engaged in a constant feud with Continental philosophers; although I've always thought of Wittgenstein bridging that gap somewhat (which is yet another way of reading him, and yet another controversy about how he should be understood.  Oh, read the article, you'll see what I mean.)

I'm always asking my students to describe a flavor, and then asking them why they can't.  It has something to do with composition and rhetoric, of that I'm sure.....

Blessed are....

My take on this is not that of Charlie Pierce.  To the secular world, this announcement by Pope Francis can seem patronizing and paternalistic, and even the demand for contrition can seem too much.

But this applies only to Catholics, not to all women in the world.  If you want the official blessing of your church, this is what you do.  And it doesn't seem like much to me, considering we are all called, if we are Christians, to be contrite and to humble ourselves before God.

I'm a little perplexed when people think the Pope should not be Catholic, but rather should agree with them and then, if possible, be Catholic; and if not, just don't be Catholic.  It kind of ignores the reason he's the Pope in the first place.

I also think this is a great deal more movement on abortion than I ever would have expected.  Then again, having known women who were getting abortions, I understand this as I think Francis does:  as a pastoral care issue.

The Pope is determined to restore some of the pastoral office to the Holy See.  He can't be the Pastor-in-Chief to the Roman Catholic world, but he is, I think, going in the right direction.  People who seek the blessing of their church in reconciliation need to come with contrite hearts (otherwise what's the point of the blessing?  What good does it do you?).  But they also need to know their church will accept them, that the blessing and the reconciliation is available.

Seems to me that's the heart of the gospel message.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Government: Does Anybody Here Understand How This Thing Works?

Can't wait to see their education policies....


"I'm going to have Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx, come work for the government for three months," the Republican presidential candidate said at a town hall event in New Hampshire.

"Just come for three months to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and show these people." Christie said that 40 percent of undocumented immigrants in the country did not cross the U.S. border with Mexico, but instead came into the country legally on visas. "

We let people come into this country with visas and the minute they come in, we lose track of them," he said. He suggested the FedEx model would prevent immigrants from overstaying their visas.

"We need to have a system that tracks you from the moment you come in and then when your time is up—whether it's 3 months or 6 months or 9 months, 12 months, however long your visa is—then we go get you and tap you on the shoulder and say, 'Excuse me, it's time to go,'" Christie said.
(Because FedEx has custody and control of a package from the moment it is given to them, to the moment it is delivered.  Likewise, the Federal government will take custody and control of immigrants on visas until their visas expire.  The government already does that:  we call them "prisons."  Visas; does anybody understand how they work?)


"And I think this election is largely about the idea -- the idea of America is slipping away in front of us. When it comes to immigration policy, what I’ve experienced and seen is that a smart immigration policy makes our country stronger; a dumb one makes us weaker. We’ve got a dumb one today," Jindal said.

"Yes, we need to secure our border. Stop talking about it," he continued. "I think we need to insist that folks who come here come here legally, learn English, adopt our values, roll up our sleeves and get to work."
(And by borders, do you mean all borders?  Because it seems to me only the East Coast and West Coast are left to propose walls for.  I guess once the walls go up, FedEx will have an easier time telling which of us get to stay.)


Republican presidential candidate and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said on Sunday that a wall along the border between the United States and Canada is a "legitimate issue" to consider.
(No.  Seriously.  Canadians look just like us!  Well, not like Bobby Jindal, but you know what I mean.  It's the only way to be sure we keep their socialized medicine north of the border.)

Or, they just don't want to.

Rowan County Chief Clerk Kim Davis' lawyers filed an emergency appeal late Friday asking the Court to grant "asylum for her conscience" and allow her to continue to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples, according to The Associated Press.
(Because why shouldn't she be allowed to do her government job in the way she sees fit, and damn the rule of law! Except when the rule of law allows her to do her government job as she sees fit.  After all, it's her constitutional right to draw government pay and refuse to work for it! Is this a free country, or not?  And can the law grant asylum to metaphysical concepts like "conscience"?  Inquiring minds want to know!)

Sunday, August 30, 2015

"No matter, never mind."

"Mind" is a metaphysical concept.  So is "consciousness."  Which may be why it is "the hardest unsolved problem in science."  And why "solving" it so resembles the effort to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity:  i.e., it wanders "off into fantasy realms of higher dimensions with little or no empirical connection to our reality."

Which, you will note, violates the fundamental premise of science.  Just like metaphysics does.

Philosophers, especially philosophers of religion, and theologians, have gone to great pains in the last 100 years to jettison "classical" metaphysics.  One effort to replace it was with a non-metaphysical metaphysic based on the work of Alfred North Whitehead after he gave up on mathematics and logical positivism thanks to Kurt Godel and Ludwig Wittgenstein.  That effort spawned "process theology," which never got further than a few American theologians, best I can tell.  We have to discard metaphysics because physics, above all, won't allow it anymore.

But we still have to solve the problem of consciousness, which is related to mind, which "arises" from a brain, so it must be physical, which makes it science-y somehow.


60 years ago the popular theory was that brain cells reached a critical mass (much like the "trigger" for a nuclear bomb.  We do love our metaphors, especially if they sound scientific!) and "became" conscious.  Arthur C. Clarke wrote a story about it happening with enough telephone exchanges, the connections of the phones standing in for the connections between brain cells.  Essentially the same idea fuels science fiction tales of world-wide defense computers that "wake up" and decide to destroy all human life in order to enact "peace."  It's been a favorite meme for decades.

And it's utter bollocks.  As well as an attempt to escape metaphysics by pretending the solution to consciousness, or mind, or "soul," isn't metaphysical.

A commenter at Religion Dispatches tried to argue that "mind" arose from the brain, but "soul" was some outdated religious notion.  But "soul" is no more understandable apart from the body than mind is apart from brain.  When we speak of "soul" we were always speaking of the animating force of the body, of what is different between a sleeping person and a corpse, why one will eventually awaken and move, and the other will never move again.  Soul as the essence, the inviolable and eternal person we might now call "personality" started in the West not with religion, but with Socrates.  He gave us the dualism of soul and body, leading to the modern critique that soul cannot be known apart from body and so cannot claim a separate existence from the body.  But of course soul cannot be known apart from the body, any more than "mind" can be known apart from the brain.  Whether soul can exist apart from body is a metaphysical question (and not necessarily a religious one).  Whether it can or not, body cannot exist without soul, without some animating process, some "spark", some motive factor.  Because once that factor is lost, the body begins an inexorable decay.

And yet some still think "consciousness" can be "uploaded" into a computer, because computer=brain; somehow.  Or it will; someday; when our technology finally catches up with nature.

Utter bollocks, and not something most serious thinkers take seriously.  But the idea that the computer somehow reflects our brain, our mind, is still a seductive thought; and it's a metaphysical one.  Why is a sleeping person different from a corpse?  We have known since the dawn of humanity that sufficient damage to the body can cause the animating force to fail.  It doesn't have to go anywhere, but where did it come from?  Why can't we reproduce it?  Mary Shelley knew enough to cloud her Frankenstein's efforts in mystery:  he used alchemy and something that was probably magic to give life to his monster.  It wasn't a lightning storm, otherwise the galvanic response of frog's legs would re-animate corpses around the world.  Where does the "spark of life" come from?  How is it only living things can pass it on?  We can grow cells in a laboratory, keep them alive for years in an artificial environment.  But if they are not alive to begin with, there's nothing we can do to re-animate them.  Why not?

The distinction between living and dead is the same as it's ever been:  between something that will move, and something that will never move again.  We've become more aware of the subtleties of that line, of the difference between corpse and coma, but we've done nothing to erase that line, to change it, to understand how to reverse it.  We speak of "life" but we still speak of something that is not entirely physical; known physically, but not understood physically.

The same way we speak of "mind;" the same way we speak of "consciousness."

Metaphysics is dead.  Long live metaphysics.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Let us now praise famous men

Jimmy Carter is, by and large, remembered as a failed President.  We remember him for MEOW; we remember him for "malaise"; we remember him for the failed effort to rescue the hostages in Iran.  We honor him now for what he's done since he was President.

We don't remember him for the Camp David accords which,even through changes in Egypt's government, including a revolution, the election of a President allied with the "Muslim Brotherhood," and the deposition of that president, has still maintained peace between Egypt and Israel.

We all agree peace in the Middle East is a chimerical goal, that it cannot be achieved; and yet one President achieved it, between two countries, and it has held.

And what we remember is the sweaters.  Then again, who is giving Pope Francis credit for the rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba today?

So it goes.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Do I have to draw ya a picture?

Unsurprisingly, this just gets funnier:

“The book includes cartoon drawings of a woman masturbating and multiple women engaging in oral sex,” he writes. “If the book explored the same themes without sexual images or erotic language, I would have read it. But viewing pictures of sexual acts, regardless of the genders of the people involved, conflict with the inherent sacredness of sex.”

Right, because the book is dirty and has boobies in it.
Well, no; the problem is, the book has PICTURES in it!  I can read about hot sex (get this kid a copy of The Story of 'O', stat!  Believe me, the language in that book is anything but 'erotic.'  I, er, have a friend who told me.), but I can't see it!  Because God doesn't care about words, God only cares about pictures.

Which is funny, because according to some Jewish traditions, any depiction of the human form violates the laws of Moses, since humans are made in God's image, and the image of a human is a depiction of God, which is strictly forbidden.

And I guess that could get us into God having sex in those pictures.....

My mind is just not right, sometimes.  Anyway, what's funny here is the distinction we draw between pictures and words.  If I pull a potboiler novel off the shelves of a bookstore, the kind of thing cranked out every month under the same author's name (nobody is that prolific!), you'll stumble across a fairly explicit sex scene every three chapters or so.  Nobody blinks.  Now, film that same scene, exactly as presented in the novel, and suddenly you get an "R", if not NC-17 (or whatever replaced "X") rated film.

It's pictures that matter.

Because in the beginning was the Word, but the Word was not was the pictures that came later that were dirty.  Which has something to do with Proust and a squid, but I'm not sure why....

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Don't try this at home, kids

I was listening to Diane Rehm this morning, interviewing two writers who penned an Atlantic article about "political correctness" on college campuses (a term they never once tried to define, which I thought bizarre and a blotch on the work of a lawyer and a college professors, two professions where sourcing is vital to publication); and I'm thinking the whole time that one anecdote here and another there doth not a representative picture make.

And then some students at Duke got everybody's attention by objecting to reading the book Fun Home,  a graphic novel I've never heard of but which apparently would repay my attention.  Why do they object to it?  Not just because it includes scenes of "graphic sexuality" (no pun intended, I presume) but because:

Grasso and his peers imply that they’re being bullied when they’re encouraged to read Fun Home.
Precisely the kind of "trigger warning" mentality the authors of the Atlantic piece were complaining about.

I hate it when that happens.

Jacob Brogan is right about these students:

Much like Bruce in one of the book’s most famous sequences, they’re choosing to live their lives in narrowly circumscribed circles, willfully blind to the stories unfolding around them.
Which is not so much "politically correct" as it is extending adolescence further and further into adulthood, which is something that's been happening since as identified "teenagers" and then decided they could be "juvenile delinquents" and finally came up with the purportedly scientific category of the "teenage brain."

And yet science, of course, has nothing to do with culture, and is only concerned with Truth.  But I think if we're "coddling" students, it has less to do with "political correctness" and "helicopter parents" than it does with the root notion that childhood is to be protected at all costs, and the upper limits of childhood are to be extended further and further with each generation.

Maybe it has something to do with the fact we seem to be living longer; and we still worship at the fountain of youth culture.  At one point "Boomers" were the most important people on the planet; now it's Millenials.  It would seem the problem is far more fundamental than how a few identifiable groups are behaving.

The stories I grew up on were warnings about pushing children into college at too young an age, and breaking them with the sudden burdens of adulthood.  Now we seem afraid to let them take on the burdens of adulthood at all, and we push them into college while insisting they remain children.

And where it stops, nobody knows.

"All watched over by machines of loving grace...."

Some mechanists have conceded that a consistent machine could be out-Godeled by a mind, but have maintained that the machine representation of the mind is an inconsistent machine, but one whose inconsistency is so deep that it would take a long time ever to come to light. It therefore would avoid the quick death of non-selectivity. Although in principle it could be brought to affirm anything, in practice it will be selective, affirming some things and denying others. Only in the long run will it age - or mellow, as we kindly term it - and then "crash" and cease to deny anything: and in the long run we die - usually before suffering senile dementia. Such a suggestion chimes in with a line of reasoning which has been noticeable in Western Thought since the Eighteenth Century. Reason, it is held, suffers from certain antinomies, and by its own dialectic gives rise to internal contradictions which it is quite powerless to reconcile, and which must in the end bring the whole edifice crashing down in ruins.* If the mind is really an inconsistent machine then the philosophers in the Hegelian tradition who have spoken of the self-destructiveness of reason are simply those in whom the inconsistency has surfaced relatively rapidly. They are the ones who have understood the inherent inconsistency of reason, and who, negating negation, have abandoned hope of rational discourse, and having brought mind to the end of its tether, have had on offer only counsels of despair.

Against this position the Godelian argument can avail us nothing. Quite other arguments and other attitudes are required as antidotes to nihilism, and the Godelian argument can be seen as making this reductio explicit. And it is a reductio. For mechanism claims to be a rational position. It rests its case on the advances of science, the underlying assumptions of scientific thinking and the actual achievements of scientific research. Although other people may be led to nihilism by feelings of angst or other intimations of nothingness, the mechanist must advance arguments or abandon his advocacy altogether. On the face of it we are not machines. Arguments may be adduced to show that appearances are deceptive, and that really we are machines, but arguments presuppose rationality, and if, thanks to the Godelian argument, the only tenable form of mechanism is that we are inconsistent machines, with all minds being ultimately inconsistent, then mechanism itself is committed to the irrationality of argument, and no rational case for it can be sustained.
Via Thought Criminal I get this marvelous analysis of mechanistic thinking, of which these are the concluding paragraphs.  What a lovely way to start the day.

*The pessimism of the ancient Greeks:  the fundamental nature of the universe is chaos, and chaos is the state to which the universe must inevitably return.  Logos falls because Chaos is the true nature of the cosmos.