Friday, December 28, 2012

Getting God and Satan wrong, from Voltaire to Dostoyevsky

Voltaire, the French Enlightenment's man of belles lettres, bon mots and more, once said:

"If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him."

Meanwhile, Dostoyevsky, in his Grand Inquisitor story, would have us believe similar, but in a more existential vein.


Mark Twain, in "The Mysterious Stranger," got nearer the truth, though he wasn't headed in that direction.

Contra Simon Critchley's take on Dostoyevsky, the truth is staring him, Doystoyevsky, Voltaire and others in the face.

Metaphorically speaking, if one wants to be religious, and with any sort of world religion, whether monotheistic or not, it's Satan you have to invent, at least as much as God.

It's Twain's Satan the nephew of Satan who chides humans for belittling animals because they allegedly don't have "the moral sense," for example on how Twain is headed down the right pathway. Whether Satan in western monotheism, Kali for Hindus, maya for Buddhists or whatever, concretizing an evil principle seems to be a necessity once a religion reaches a certain point.

After that, of course, in the Western monotheistic position, things get more fun. It's only after that point of development that the vengeance of god, and the tag-along thirst for vengeance of his believers, really gets to take off.

The perfect example of this is Dante.

Everybody reads the Inferno. Those who are more intrepid move on to the Purgatorio and usually sputter out about halfway through. NOBODY reads the Paradiso.

Well, almost nobody. I forced my way through it the first time I read the Inferno and then moved on to the Purgatorio.

So, sorry, Voltaire and others. For entertainment value and more, we'd find ourselves, at least metaphorically, compelled to invent Satan if more people didn't think he metaphorically (or still really, for monotheistic/dualist fundamentalists) exists.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Great 'Carmina Burana'

Great, great interpretation, choreography of the video aside. Lively tempo, but unlike, say, Ozawa, never rushed anywhere.

That said, on the video? Members of the chorus and orchestra walk, stroll or run through scenic areas of Paris. Especially with the new year coming, it's great to hear and see.

A lot of classical fans on YouTube seem to like Seiji Ozawa's version, but it seems rushed in spots. "Fast" does not necessarily equal "dynamic." And, related to that, it doesn't always "breathe" well.

This version, on the other hand, has good tempo as well as volume dynamics. It's pensive without dragging too much in slow spots.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Actually, I will dispute tastes in classical music books

Symphony: A Listener's GuideSymphony: A Listener's Guide by Michael Steinberg

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Subjective and a conservative "playlist"

I got this book nearly a decade ago, and valued it a lot at the time. I hadn't seriously used it in quite some time, then, while reviewing some books I had just read, decided to post one about it.

When I got online, I first noticed the comments in the line of "It's too bad that 'Composer X' gets omitted."

But, this is a book about music, I was thinking, and "de gustibus non disputandum" will always be the rule in the arts.

Then, I started looking through my current collection of nearly 500 classical CDs and said, "Whooah, there."

First, Steinberg appears to operate with a narrow definition of what is a symphony, perhaps. Why else is Rachmaninov's "Symphonic Dances" omitted, for example? Or Hindemith's "Four Temperaments" or "Symphonic Variations"?

On symphonies themselves, where is Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms"? Or anything by Schnittke, the best symphonist of the last third of the 20th century? Or Malcolm Arnold? Or Nicolai Myaskovsky, a great contemporary of Prokofiev? Or Ernst Krenek? Or Szymanowski? Or Hovhaness, as "pop" as he may be to some?

And why so much Haydn?

In other words -- and this is why Steinberg's book started falling like a rock for me — his "playlist" is quite conservative. I don't think either Boston or San Francisco (he served as orchestra program annotator in both places) are that conservative musically, so why is he?

I mean, someone could do a separate volume just out of all the 20th century composers he omitted.

As my title notes, this is an in-depth book for what it covers, but it fails in what could have been a great didactive exercise. I moved my classical music boundaries beyond 1900 through dint of my own open-mindedness, but sure would have loved the help of a book like Steinberg's that analyzed more 20th century symphonic works.

If your "playlist" is stuck where many heartland American classical listeners' may be, then this book could be just for you. But, if you want to learn a lot about modern symphonies, skip it.

View all my reviews

Tough-talking thoughts on "The Ground of Being"

Or, to riff on a professor at my old conservative Lutheran seminary, "The Ground of Bullshit." (He claimed historical-critical theology was a bucket of warm shit.)

My thoughts, and ire, are piqued by three recent Christmas-faith columns in the New York Times, two of them previously blogged about in these pages.

In the first, Simon Critchley gives the usual crappy reading of Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor that Dostoyevsky himself gave us. No surprise that Critchley works with continental philosophy, since it gave us the dreck behind "Ground of Being" in the first place; Critchley explicitly embraces the "death of god" idea. Anyway, I show how both he and Dostoyevsky are wrong here.

In the second, Britain's chief rabbi says, in essence, cognitive science and evolutionary psychology show the need for religion not only in past and present but in the future. I've already shown how wet he is.

The third, about which I had not blogged before, is here, as MoJo Dowd at the New York Times lets her column get hijacked by a liberal priest.

Here's the nut graf of that one:
I believe differently now than 30 years ago. First, I do not expect to have all the answers, nor do I believe that people are really looking for them. Second, I don’t look for the hand of God to stop evil. I don’t expect comfort to come from afar. I really do believe that God enters the world through us. And even though I still have the “Why?” questions, they are not so much “Why, God?” questions. We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not.
Really? I can flip that on its head, and say that how we are with one another in suffering and dying reaffirms the brotherhood of mankind while, quite possibly, once again showing that Christian attempts to explain God's theodicy flop on the floor like an 86-year-old newlywed Hugh Hefner not taking Viagra.

A bit more seriously, saying "I don't know why" ultimately leads to Yahweh's answer to Job: "I'm god; you're not. Therefore, I don't have to explain myself to you, so STFU."

Now, none of these used the phrase "The Ground of Being," made popular in mid-20th century US liberal Christian theology by Paul Tillich, but its vein of thought ran behind all three in some way.

As part of "process theology," if you will, it's an attempt to get an Eastern-type immanence imparted to the monotheistic god while yet avoiding pantheism, panentheism or similar.

But, it's still bullshit.

It's bullshit in two ways.

First, per physicist Wolfgang Pauli, the phrase is "not even wrong."

Second, per philosopher (including philosopher of language) Ludwig Wittgenstein, any discussion of any "Ground of Being" is nonsensical.

And, it's upon that angle that I shall concentrate.

First, capitalize Being all you want, process theologians, it's still not a personal noun. As an editor and writer, I can tell you it's a gerund. Yes, it's a noun, but a verbal noun of a status. It's not a concrete noun. Capitalize it all you want, you can't change that fact.

Look! Here's the ...

"Ground of Dying." (Process theology meets Kali in India.)
"Ground of Football-Loving." (Process theology comes to Texas.)
"Ground of Digesting." (Process theology meets food addict.)

Etc. ad nauseum.

Anyway, for anybody not a process theologian in denial, you get the drift. "Being" ain't a person, ergo ain't a personal divinity.

Well, a diehard process theologian might say, "What about 'Ground'?"

Nice try.

Yes, "ground," when lowercase, is a concrete noun. But, anybody advanced into Piaget's abstract thinking phrase knows that it, when capitalized and used like this, is metaphorical. (As is true in general with capitalized nouns from process theologians and New Agers.)

Beyond that, if you want to worship "Ground," process theologians, it's called "Gaia"; join the New Agers.

As for phrases that "transcend boundaries," per the Wikipedia entry on "Ground of Being" linked above ... so does "eternal male orgasm," or, to properly capitalize it, "Eternal Male Orgasm." But, even a triple-Hefner dose of Viagra doesn't make that one any more real than "Ground of Being."

Basically, religious existentialism too often jumps off the verbiage cliff, and here is a clear example. And, it's more than that. Just as more conservative Christians basically postulate a "god of the gaps," well, "Ground of Being" has the same function for liberal-critical Christian theologians.

Again, nice try. It sounds more intellectual. But, it's no more real, and it's no more intellectually substantive, than the ideas of your conservative brethren.

Besides changing the third-word gerund, I could also change the first-word metaphorical noun.

We would have "Sky of Being," or "Ocean of Being," or "Bayou of Being," or "Iceberg of Being," etc. Again, silly. Or, if you want me to hew more closely to "Ground," we could have "Soccer Pitch of Being," from sports, or "Peat Moss of Being," or "Quicksand of Being."

Actually, in expressing how I feel about process theology in particular, and modern liberal-critical systematic Christian theology in general, "Quicksand of Being" sounds about right.

Your mileage may vary.

Update: Some Facebook dialogue helped me to see more of where I was really heading with this post, especially vis-a-vis Dowd's priest, who was writing in light of the Newtown mass shooting.

And, beyond criticizing the Ground of Faith, it's a warning shot related to that old Gnu Atheist word "accomodationism."

Sometimes, that's not a four-letter word, but potentially an actual problem for some secular humanists.

Let's take Dowd's priest or Chritchley. I could do interfaith fundraising for Newtown victims' families with them, or whatever. However, if I were asked to speak at a memorial service for Newtown victims with them, even if the service had no fundamentalists or conservative evangelicals, if they made comments like here, I would have to publicly respond.

No, I wouldn't use the word "bullshit" at an event like that. But I would "call them out," politely but firmly.

And the one person with whom I was in dialogue? I have the feeling he would not.

And so, "accomodationism" is not always a four-letter word.

And so, too, while I'm not a Gnu Atheist evangelical, and can readily mock their stupidities, Gnus aren't always wrong, either.

The theodicy of liberal Christians is, in its own way, just as anti-humanistic as that of conservative Christians. As is the reincarnationist theodicy of Hindus and the reincarnationist atheistic "theodicy" of Buddhists.

Secular humanists should never forget that.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Stacking the deck on faith at Christmas, part two

Jonathan Sacks is worse, far worse, than Simon Critchley, who was the focus of my immediate prior blog post.

Sacks, in Britain, is chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, so his claims, overblown as they are, are not Christian-specific.

First are the obligatory nods, wrong ones, to neuroscience and behavioral psychology. Mirror neurons are overblown, Mr. Rabbi. And Kahnemann's fast-vs-slow thinking has little to do specifically with religion. (Indeed, in orthodox Christianity's past, many an alleged which was burned as the stake based on "fast" thinking; religion has no monopoly on slow thinking.)

That's why this is dreck:
If this is so, we are in a position to understand why religion helped us survive in the past — and why we will need it in the future. It strengthens and speeds up the slow track.  
Sachs, content to quote pop science when it suits his ends. But, when it comes to the empirical basis of science, not so fast! For these claims, and those that continue later in his paragraph, like this:
It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray.
He is perfectly content to make these claims without a shred of evidence, of course.

And, this is why I actually prefer fundamentalists at times compared to the more liberally religious, who will dip their toes into the waters into behavioral psychology, or biblical archaeology, then dive full in to a 2-inch-deep pool while pretending it's not a 2-inch-deep pool.

Related to this just above, while Robert Putnam has had some good sociological observations, he too is overblown. And, as for religious persons' contributions to charity, that one is way overblown. (For one thing, if church operations, etc., count as charity ...)

Beyond that is the dreck of claiming that all of these findings from evolution, about the nature of altruism, along with fast-vs-slow thinking, etc., find their "summa" in organized religion.

Nonsense. Given how fast organized religions have, in just the past two centuries, and within different liberal or conservative strains, stripped their gears on the morals of slavery, women's rights and gay and lesbian rights, to take three biggies, show that Sachs is, per Wolfgang Pauli, "not even wrong."

And beyond that, on slavery? In both UK and US, much of the push for abolition was from secular sources.

Stacking the deck on faith at Christmas - and on afterlife in general

Simon Critchley has a very interesting column from the "Stone" op-ed series in the New York Times.

In this particular offering, he seeks to defend Jesus as offering truth rather than bread, and does so based on a great passage in literature — Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor from The Brothers Karamazov.

An interesting column, but don't the "true" religious lust for "bread," too? Look at how the afterlife is framed — while religious literature, from the Christian Bible through both Jewish and Christian religious commentary, on to Islam and elsewhere, the afterlife is framed in terms of gratifying individual desires.

Now, those desires may not all be "bread" in a material sense, but they are all so in an individualistic sense.

Look at early Christian theology, or some rabbinic Jewish thought, about the saints/blessed getting to look "down" on the accursed as part of heaven. Vengeance in general fuels fundamentalist monotheism, and already in this life. How often do we read speculations from such types of not just some recently deceased person going to hell, but how bad of a hell they will get?

It's probably related to the same evolutionary psychology that leads us to be more sensitive to negative information and results than to positives. And, it often makes for better reading.

Look at Dante. "Inferno" is a hell of a lot better reading, pun intended!, than is "Paradiso." ("Purgatorio" falls in the middle, yes.)

Or look again at that Christian bible, or deuterocanonical books, like Maccabees. Or Christian church fathers, or the Protestant Reformers, or anywhere in between. The torments of hell are always described graphically, physically and concretely. Heaven? Other than waves at "sitting in the bliss of god" and other metaphysical nonsense, and after dismissing crudely physical harp-waving, Christian writing about heaven is pale and weak.

Islam does better, but that's because it goes down the materialist route (even if the proto-Quran in Syriac offered "72 raisins" rather than "virgins") of sensuality and wine. However, even then, it fades.

But, beyond that, go even older.

After the Greeks separated Hades into places like Tartarus and the Elysian Fields, we see the same.

The punishments of Tantalus, Sisyphus, etc., are diabolical. But mythic Greek writing about Elysium? Blech.

My desire for vengeance, if there were an afterlife? It would be if Mark Twain were right in Captain Stormfield, and the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells were permanently cut down to size for all eternity.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Our Atomic Lives


Our atomic lives can never be fused.
No nuclear furnace of love
Whether erotic, companionate or both
Can fuse two hydrogen’s into one permanent helium.
Nor can the deepest Pythian friendship
Save perhaps in the rarest of cases
Keep two bonded lives from some fissile shock;
Alone we are doomed to be.

Alone we are doomed to be.
But is that really true?
No doom has been pronounced upon us.
Our aloneness simply is.

Beyond this, the real, awful aloneness,
Is not the aloneness from others, but from our own selves.
Alienation is always, finally, internal.
For both introvert and extravert.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Seward - Great new bio

Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable ManSeward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man by Walter Stahr
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Excellent read, especially in light of the new Lincoln movie

I had never read a full bio of Seward before, and this was great.

First, looking near the end of his life, I did not know he was such a conservative on Reconstruction. Indeed, while not a racist like Andrew Johnson, he fully supported the generally conservative nature of his approach. He appears not to care much for the fate of post-war Southern blacks, and also, ironically at least, fretted about too much federal intervention in states' rights. It made me wonder if he would have tried to influence Lincoln that way, had Lincoln lived.

Oh, and other things that kind of connect to the Lincoln movie?

Apparently, a fair amount of bribery was used to get the treaty of purchasing Alaska approved by the Senate; shades of 13th Amendment passage. (And, speaking of, which the movie doesn't tell us, Kentucky's Rep. Yeaman? Was named minister to Denmark for his vote swap; that's a pretty big payoff.)

Anyway, beyond that, it's stuff like this, and other stuff by Seward's "Karl Rove," Thurlow Weed, that make this a very good read.

View all my reviews

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Are great philosophies in danger of being made into pop psychologies?

Like friend Leo Lincourt, when he alerted me to this Julian Baggini column on that subject, I didn't even know there was (even if "only" in the UK) a "Live Like a Stoic" week.

Right there, I'd say, yes, that's in danger of making a philosophy of life into pop psychology.

His nut graf, like a good sermonizing-type column, is at the end:
Stoic week has a valuable part to play in getting people to think more about how the deepest issues in their lives might not be just local psychological difficulties but concern more profound questions about how to live. But please, let’s not reduce all that’s true, good and beautiful to techniques and interventions to cure the blues and put smiles on our faces. Seek first what is true and of value, and then whatever happiness follows will be of the appropriate quantity and, more importantly, quality. 
He's right, and in more ways than that.

Philosophies of life have never been about "achieving of happiness." In fact, many of them, certainly including but not limited to Platonism, have sharply questioned what happiness is, whether it is achievable, and how central it and its pursuit should, or should not, be to human life.

Psychology does none of those things.

The true meaning of Hanukkah?

Contra this New York Times guest columnist, the true meaning of Hanukkah is not that the Jews resisted the Seleucids (instead of a magic menorah).

Rather, here's some of the truer meanings of Hanukkah:
1. That in Big Religion, like Big Business, luck is as important as anything else. I of course am using luck in the sense of contingency and nothing metaphysical. Had the Maccabees lost one or two battles (entirely possible) or had Rome not told Antiochus Epiphanes to get out of Egypt, thereby triggering events that led to the Maccabee revolt, Judaism might be a "backwater religion" today and Christianity never even have come into existence. (Some other Messianic Jewish cult might have taken its place, though.)

2. It helps to have good scriptwriters. Between the canonical Book of Daniel and the deuterocanonical books of Maccabees, the Maccabeean party within rebelling Jews (did you know that the revolt had factions?) come off smelling like roses. The fact is that the ancestors of the Pharisees were ready to make peace when Jews were guaranteed religious freedom, but the Maccabees insisted on fighting for political freedom, too. That, in turn, probably fueled an impulse toward Messianic Judaism less than a century later, when a Roman, name of Gnaius Pompeius, or Pompey the Great, ended the brief experiment with Jewish political freedom.

3. It helps to have good scriptwriters, part 2. Although we're not sure, it's likely that a fair percentage of Jews in Palestine were comfortable with Hellenizing.

4. It helps to have good scriptwriters, part 3. Again, we're not sure, but a fair amount of Jews of 164 BCE likely held beliefs ascribed to the Sadducees in the Christian New Testament — including that there is no such thing as an immortal soul because it is not mentioned in the Torah (Penteteuch, books of Moses) and that's all the canonical scriptures there are. However, by the time of the turn of the eras, it's clear that, while not yet a fringe position in Judaism, it was certainly moving that direction.

Of course, going back to books such as Haggai and the first part of Zechariah, where a failed early post-exilic revolt against the Persians, at the same time Darius I overthrew Cambyses, gets shoved under the rug, the Tanakh is full of "good" scriptwriting.

And, on another era of Jewish history, the New York Times just gets it wrong in this column, perpetuating a myth.

It's nice that Spain is making an (albeit limited) effort to welcome back Marranos, but most of the "Marranos" in New Mexico and Texas reportedly are NOT crypto-Jews from 500 years ago, but rather, Hispanic converts to Adventist sects of 100-150 years ago. In fact, I believe I first read about that ... in a NYT column!

Friday, December 07, 2012

#StarTrek: Did the transporter kill Kirk?

Massimo Pigliucci, over at Rationally Speaking, actually raises this stimulating question, with the introductory device of an iPhone app that lets you play around with philosophy.

The theoretical question raised by the app is (as I understand it; per co-blogger Ian Pollock, see comments):

Put James T. Kirk on a transporter. Only, somehow, two different Kirks are simultaneously spit out on the other end. Is the original Kirk dead, or not? That, of course, would be a philosophical question even with a normally functioning transporter spitting out just one Kirk — is the post-transporter Kirk really the same guy or not? But dual Kirks on the other end intensify all the thought experiment questions.

The app offers several different answers for users to choose:
A) Kirk dies, a Trekkie cries
B) Kirk is Kirk1, or Kirk2, whichever you like
C) Kirk is (Kirk1 and Kirk2) before and after
D) Kirk is (Kirk1 and Kirk2) only after transport
E) Kirk is Kirk1 and Kirk is Kirk2, adios transitivity of identity
F) It’s “indeterminate,” in your favorite flavor
G) It’s “nonsense,” colorless, green and sleeping furiously
H) Insoluble paradox
I) Unsure which way to go
J) Huh? What’s this all about?
K) My favorite response isn’t listed (comments please)

And, so far, a definite plurality is opting for A. That's my answer, too.

But, I'm taking the game further. In a long response, I added further thought experiments. What follows is an edited version of those comments. If anything here isn't clear, go to the original post and read things in context as necessary.

The original Kirk is dead, and each of the two twins is individualized from each other.

Ian then raised the issue of actual vs. replacement Mona Lisa paintings, and in light of a classical philosophy thought experiment used by Dan Dennett and others as an intuition pump, raised the whole cell replacement issue. Assuming we want to concentrate on brain cell replacement, my comments focus on that.

Per Ian, the "replacement factor" of cells is fuzzy (assuming we're concentrating on brain cells, even, for simplicity's sake).

In one sense, the replacement of one brain cell by an outside process and not a natural degeneration of a cell with replacement by one theoretically identical due to natural regenesis is to create a different person, if you'll allow me a Forrest/Greene type eternally branching personhood rather than universes idea. My thinking Thought A rather than Thought B makes me a different person. That's whether it's voluntary (per Susan Blackmore and her excellent Zen meditation questions on consciousness) or a Clockwork Orange involuntarism.

That said, what replacement rate is necessary to say we've killed off the old Gadfly and created a new one? In the brain stem, or even the cerebellum, might be pretty high, eh? But, in the cortex, or a crucial noncortex area like the amygdala, might be pretty low, eh? Even without "replacements," I'm now thinking of Phineas Gage. Did his unfortunate accident kill one person and create another? (See what a thought experiment monster you've created!)

On the other hand, certain types of strokes have shown that (with the destruction of old neurons but without replacement of new ones) even the cortex can be quite plasticene. So maybe, like with the Star Trek transporter, the "replacement factor" involves "rate" by time as well as "rate" by ratio.

With Mona Lisas, though, I'd at least lean toward Ian. There, at least, we have a difference that makes no difference, to quote Spock and get back to Star Trek. Whereas, a transportation mechanism is going to make a different Ian, subtle as the differences may be.

That said, suppose an ambassador at the final end of the transportation has never met Kirk in person before. He has no way of knowing how much or how little the process changed this person, who I'll call Kirk-1.

But, wait, wait.

Spock would know any subtle difference, right?

However, Spock is also getting beamed to different spots, so Spock-1 would, even subtly, have different recollections of Kirk before his latest transportation. (See, you've created a second thought experiment monster.)

So, what if Scotty-Prime has never been transported? But, with Kirk's latest transportation, it was a bit less fail-safe than normal. Let's say Spock's was, too, but not so badly. So, can Scotty-Prime convince Spock-1 that Kirk-1 is ... "problematic"?

And, to throw a bomb in the mix ...

Per a Peter Singer, should we then euthanize Kirk-1?

Thursday, December 06, 2012

The genius of Schittke

I finally figured out how Alf Schnittke gets the sound, in the Tuba Mirum section of his Requiem, that sounds like a mix of electronic bending of male voices and high schoolers singing into sousaphone mouthpieces. The bass guitarist in the rock band setup that's part of the orchestration is playing a slide.

And, this is actually a good interpretation, at least of the first four sections.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Stravinsky vs. Prokofiev on neoclassicism

Igor Stravinsky/Wikipedia
Igor Stravinsky more than once said he did not want the label of “Neoclassical” applied to his music.

In part, I suspect it was some professional jealousy and rivalry with Sergei Prokofiev, who first got the label from his 1916 “Classical Symphony.” In a post about Albert Camus and how he disliked the label “existentialist” for his works, I similarly said it was probably in part due to professional rivalry with Jean-Paul Sartre.

But I also said it was because he wasn’t so much an existentialist.

Ditto with Stravinsky.

His early works, like “Firebird” and “Rite of Spring,” we’d call Late Romantic, or Expressionist, or similar, right?

But, what about, say “A Soldier’s Story”? Couldn’t we call it Neoclassical?

We could, but even if the label fully fit, Stravinsky was moving further back in time, at times.

“Symphony in C” and “Symphony in Three Movements” both seem to combine Expressionistic elements with Neoclassical ones. But if you look at something like “Symphony of Psalms,” you realize we’re in different territory.

With a nod of the head to Paul Hindemith, I’ve called that territory Neobaroque. Given that Stravinsky would go on to do things like setting Shakespearean sonnets to music, one could even argue for the descriptor of Neorenaissance.

Of course, Stravinksy, over a long and productive career, changed his stripes more than once, and so is harder to label artistically than is Camus.

But, if we are to put a label on him, either Neobaroque or Neorenaissance is much more accurate for the Stravinsky of post-World War I days than is Neoclassical.

I actually favor the Neorenaissance labeling, myself. It’s not such much based on his later musical structures as it is on his instrumentation. On one listening to “Symphony of Psalms,” the fact that he uses no violins sunk in, and I thought back to the viol-family dominance before the later Baroque. His strong use of woodwinds, including modern ones like sarussophone in “Threni,” underscore this. (In case you’re wondering, a sarussophone is somewhat like if a saxophone and a bassoon had sex and produced a child.)

Interestingly, I did not know that Ernst Krenek also did a setting of Lamentations.

Fall Foliage Feelings

Some poetic thoughts inspired by late fall in Texas …


The trees have gotten a little more bare;
A few more leaves just fell.
The weather, poised on a knife’s edge of impending change
High winds rise, fall, rise again and change direction,
While clouds mass, then dissipate,
And skies darken hither and yon.
A clear, bright sun hits a cobalt blue canvas,
Framing the fall-tinged red oaks’ leaf-dying beauty.
Poignancy, introspection and bits of melancholy
Are the hoped-for fruits of a leaf-dying soul —
Autumnal moods for autumnal days
In a sometimes sadness-gilded autumnal life.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Existentialist or absurdist? Understanding Camus

Albert Camus/From Wikipedia
Albert Camus consistently rejected the label of “existentialist” for himself, preferring that of “absurdist.”

I’ve always thought that, in part, there was a jealousy dynamic involved. He didn’t want to be under the “umbrella” of the same descriptive label as was Jean-Paul Sartre. This parallels why I see Igor Stravinsky not wanting to be called a “neoclassicist”; that label was already hung on Sergei Prokofiev; see here for more on that.

That said, it’s arguable that there are differences between Camus and Sartre, and that, as well, Camus knew his own writing better than anybody else, and should be allowed for his own labeling. (Exactly the same argument applies to Stravinsky vs. Prokofiev and, in fact, I have a similar blog post up.)

Fortunately, Wikipedia has a very good page on absurdism. The best part is that it offers a nice comparison chart of basic issues versus both secular existentialism (Sartre) and religious existentialism (Kierkegaard), as well as against nihilism.

I like absurdism because it sees more grays and fewer blacks-and-whites in life. But, it’s not nihilistic, which, well, sees all blacks!

Versus existentialism in general, absurdism says life may have meaning, not that it necessarily does. But, more “positively” than secular existentialism, it also says that the universe may have inherent meaning, but we can never know that.

That said, I’m not sure how much Camus believed that, and he wasn’t the only literary or philosophical absurdist, to be sure. Personally, I’d nuance that statement to say, “I don’t think the universe has inherent meaning, but I can’t prove it doesn’t.”

Also, versus both types of existentialism, absurdism says, don’t expect any guarantees, even on an individualized attempt to create personalized meaning out of life.

That, of course, was part of Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus.”

In turn, in that book, he first articulates the philosophy of revolting against the absurd, which finds its ultimate articulation in “The Rebel.”

Here is where Camus and Sartre parallel each other on the issue of “authenticity.”

For Sartre, it’s about being authentic by creating an authentic meaning for life. For Camus, it’s about the authenticity of one’s revolt.

And, as a result, Camus tells us that a life without hope is not necessarily a hopeless life.

And, along with Camus’ general terseness of writing, that’s part of why I admire him as an author in general and definitely hold him on a higher level than Sartre. A play like “No Exit” aside, Sartre simply doesn’t seem to have a visceral grasp of modern absurdity the way Camus does.

For additional thoughts on and interpretation of Camus, not necessarily agreeing with what I have written, see this site from Swarthmore. For some of Camus’ pithier insights, see this page of quotes.

And, go here for my thoughts on Camus' birth centennial.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Texas fall color on display

A beautiful red oak in Rosebud, Texas, with my judicial
and skilled, if I may say, use of Photoshop.
I was worried, earlier this year, that ongoing semi-drought was going to gut fall colors this year in east and central Texas. Instead, it looks like the year is, at least in selected spots, supplying perfect fall colors.

Without going into all the details, the lighting was from the right back, in other words, partially backlit, which is what you want.

Photoshop work, without giving away details, involved some dodging, some burning, some of the highlights/shadow command, moderate application of, and proper settings for, Photoshop's HDR toning command, then my usual combo of Gaussian blur and unsharp mask to finish.

Does AI engage in behavioralism? Chomsky says yes

Noam Chomsky, a long and persistent critic of artificial intelligence, says yes, or that it at least engages in the equivalent thereof, as related in this extended interview with the Atlantic.

If he is right, and I think he’s at least in the right ballpark, I think this arguably explains why AI, for all its self-touting, is the biggest research science and technology failure this side of peaceful fusion power. Indeed, progress on the two shares a remarkably similar arc.

Noam Chomsky/From The Atlantic
The interview is indeed worth a read. It’s in-depth, and as the Atlantic editor-reporter notes, it’s rare these days, because everybody wants to interview Chomsky on political topics, not scientific ones.

Beyond his “behaviorist” comments, he suggests AI researchers, and at least some people in fields such as his own cognitive science, are still doing research on mind and intelligence at what might be called the wrong level of abstraction. It brings to mind Dan Dennett’s comment (ironic at times, given Dennett) of “greedy reductionism.”

It also brings to mind Paul Davies’ book “The Eerie Silence,” which criticizes SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, for various blinders it may be wearing in its search.

Chomsky, in the interview, also veers at least a bit into his home turf of linguistics. As part of that, he doesn’t have a lot of good to say about Bayesian statistics.

He says there are better ways for us to try to understand the “noise” with which we are bombarded on a daily basis.

I have to agree from a different, folk-level point of view.

To me, Bayesian statistics seems like “the hip thing” for pop and semi-pop observers of human cultural sociology. All it needs is a new book by Malcolm Gladwell.

From there, he ties linguistics back to cognitive science. And, hits the nail on the head, in my opinion:
It's worth remembering that with regard to cognitive science, we're kind of pre-Galilean, just beginning to open up the subject.
He notes that, with the likes of Paracelsus, natural philosophy before Galileo, in the hands of the likes of Paracelsus, was quasi-experimental. It had certainly become more empirical than the philosophical speculation of the Greeks. But, things like the null hypothesis, or the idea of using any particular hypothesis to direct experimentation, weren’t fully there.

Chomsky goes on to question issues related to algorithms. Again, I broadly agree with him. In a more technical way, certainly, than me, he appears to question the issue of claiming that mental processes in general, and especially those that would give us what we would call an intelligent consciousness, can be reduced to, or framed in terms of, algorithms. Indeed, when asked about it, in relation to some particular research and mental modeling, he specifically rejects the need for algorithms.

It sounds like in both cognitive science and artificial intelligence, if not already, Chomsky could soon become about as controversial as he is on U.S. foreign policy.

But, don’t stop there. Chomsky, getting into his theories of language, and with a nod to Wittgenstein, argues that something analogous to language could be used as part of new attempts to understand bodily systems, such as, say, how the immune system works. It’s true that biology already talks about things such as “signaling,” but in the past, it’s seemed to use these words and phrases anthropomorphically, and Chomsky is saying, “take the next step.”

Anyway, I’m just scratching the surface of my analysis, both in terms of how much of the interview I’m analyzing and how much analysis I’m putting forth. Go read the full thing yourself.

Let me just add that he closes by saying something else I agree with, and that I read Steve Toulmin saying 15 years or so ago: Scientists still need philosophers of science challenging them, now perhaps more than ever.

‘Old souls’

I still remember the first time I heard this phrase. I had been active in a social organization some time, and an older gentlemen, older than me by several years, and also with more service time, came up to me and asked for how long I had been involved, and I told him.

He responded that he was surprised I didn’t have more service time myself because I generally seemed like such an “old soul.”

Well, I’ve been thinking about that phrase more again recently.

Are there things such as “old souls,” and what do different people mean by that?

Now, regular readers of my pages know that I’m a secularist and a metaphysical naturalist. So, unlike some people, my definition of what might constitute an “old soul” is not based on someone being wise beyond his or her years due to particular lessons they learned in a past life, how much in general they remember from a past life, or anything similar. Nor, contra a religion like Mormonism, do I believe it’s because my soul had a special place on the planet Kolob. Nor, Scientologists, do I believe I have a soul with special connections to the Thetans. Nor, western monotheists, do I believe god specially smiled on my soul in the womb or whatever.

Of course, I don’t believe we have “souls.” We have personalities, generated by our genes causing brain development, which then produces a mind that interacts with the external world and further develops based on such interaction.

Nonetheless, metaphysically denatured, I do believe in the idea of “old souls.”

Reflecting back, I was one early in life.

In my religious household, where as a preacher’s kid, I and my siblings were going to Sunday school and church every week, by the time I was 8 or 9, I didn’t want to sit in Sunday school with the other kids my age. I wanted to be in the adult bible studies class.

Now, why that is, is a good question.

In my particular case, I believe life experiences were partly the issue. By the time I was that age, I was already “aged,” hurt and cut more by the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” than the typical American kid in a middle-class family. I had no real friends, only acquaintances. My No. 1 love was reading nonfiction, at several grade levels above my own. So, of course I had no interest in being with kids my age.

That said, the reading skills were not “outrageous fortune,” but rather a genetic gift. Also largely in my genes, whether gift or not, was my tendency toward introversion. A bit of tendency toward introspection was already accompanying that.

The thought about old souls, and how they may be formed and developed, leads to several additional questions.

First, given the background of “old souls” like me … how reliable of a marker is this for the possibility of some sort of child abuse, bullying by peers or both?

Second, how do we better nurture childhood old souls? And adult old souls, for that matter?

Third, how do genes contribute toward this, and in what ways? Are their genes that code for what we would call “maturity”? Or “sobriety,” broadly used?

Fourth, to what degree do old soul types overlap with highly sensitive personality types?

In an America of 315 million and counting, where many old souls may be introverted at times, even “retiring” at times, how do we get them, or us, more involved?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

So, how good is #Faitheist? What’s it about?

Chris Stedman/Via Center for Inquiry
If you’re not familiar with that name, it appears to have been something largely coined by Chris Stedman, now the recently published author of a book by that name, which is what this blog post is all about.

First, some personal identification.

Regular readers of this blog, or at least the part of it that deals with religion, philosophy and metaphysics, know that I normally don’t have a lot of use for the New Atheist, or Gnu Atheist, “movement.” I consider them too confrontational, for one thing. I consider them too … fundamentalist, to be wry, secondly. Third, unlike them, I have no desire to “evangelize” religious America, let alone conduct an intellectual browbeating quasi-jihad.

Well, that’s where Chris generally comes from.

That said, is Faithiest the book about branding Faithiest the idea as well as telling Stedman’s own quite interesting journey, which includes his gay sexuality and coming terms with that while spending part of his time growing up in a conservative evangelical church?

Well, two different reviews have two different takes.

First, at Skepticblog, Daniel Loxton has a quite sympathetic review

Here’s the heart of Loxton’s review:
Like his other writing and interfaith work, Stedman’s book calls powerfully for a more compassionate, more nuanced, more accepting dialogue between people of faith and people who have none. Given the strong anti-theistic sentiments common currently in movement atheism and the atheist blogosphere, this has not too surprisingly made Stedman a somewhat controversial figure in atheist circles. Some place him as part of an established narrative—a proposed distinction between atheist “firebrands and diplomats.”

“We need both,” it is often said, “firebrands and diplomats.” Working together—the soft sell and the hard sell, the good cop and the bad—these complementary approaches may do more to bring down religion than either prong of the attack may accomplish on its own. “We’re all part of the same movement,” say these voices. “We all want the same thing.”

But that’s just it. We don’t all want the same thing.

The radical function of Stedman’s Faitheist is to underline that rarely-stated truth. Atheism is actually not a duopoly of firebrands and diplomats. These two types of evangelists no more describe “both kinds” of atheist than “country and western” describes “both kinds” of music.

Stedman explicitly rejects “the demise of religion” as a goal he does not share, and rejects the firebrands versus diplomats dichotomy as well. “I believe how pushy should we be? is the wrong question,” he writes. The better question is how do we make the world a better place?
I would agree with all of that, with one notable exception that is to Loxton’s one claim.

I’m not any kind of atheist evangelist myself, whether a firebrand or a diplomat. Now, if Stedman is (I don’t know about Loxton) then I part company with him there, and if “Faitheist” is part of a soft sell version of atheist evangelism, no.

Instead, like Garbo, respect my boundaries, both as an individual and as a member of society (no creationism in public schools, etc.) and I otherwise want to be left alone, and leave you alone, too.

Meanwhile, Simon Davis, guest-blogging at FreethoughtBlogs, the ground zero of Gnu Atheist bloggers, has a different take — one more critical, but not stridently so.

Davis first says he thinks Stedman overdramatized his encounter with an atheist group in Chicago.
The panelists I spoke to disagreed with Stedman that “Throughout the program, religion — and religious people — were roundly mocked, decried, and denied.” (p. 2) The panel format was chosen precisely so the discussion wouldn’t be one-sided, though there was one panelist who was vocal in her position that local humanist groups (of which one of the panelists was a member) were too supportive of religion. A month later, Stedman also hosted one of the panelists on the Chicago Public Radio show he was helping to produce at the time with IFYC, which seems like an odd thing for him to do if he felt this person would mock, decry, and deny the religious.
Interesting, to say the least.

Second, Davis points out a little bit of elision Stedman does of a famous Carl Sagan quote, while noting that the version he has, or similar, has floated around the Internet.

Ditto on this Sartre quote Stedman uses:
“That God does not exist, I cannot deny. That my whole being cries out for God, I cannot forget.”
Several commenters, including one French-fluent, say Sartre never said this. In fact, one calls it Stedman’s wish-fulfillment:
I think this is a key to Stedman’s thinking. My armchair psychoanalysis is he has a god-shaped hole in his psyche which he’d like to fill but can’t because he intellectually rejects gods. Religion is emotionally satisfying for him but intellectually without basis. Hence his interfaith work and his criticisms of anti-theist atheists like PZ Myers and the other gnu atheists. We reject the totality of religion while he embraces the emotional (and possibly the social) aspects. He likes religion (except for the god parts) so he’s angry at those who don’t like it.
I think that’s over the top. I like certain things about religion, and, in non-fundamentalist incarnations, don’t come close to hating it.

At the same time, do I wish that at least some of the metaphysical promises, or even the psychological ones, of religion actually were true? Yes, yes, and yes.

An atheist who claims with a straight face not to have any such yearnings is a Gnu Atheist squared.

Anyway, what spurred Davis was this post by Stedman at Salon, an excerpt from the book. Read it for yourself.

The one other important part, related to Davis, is where the word “faitheist” comes from, and per this post here, whether there is some “branding” by Stedman afoot.

My final takeaway from Davis is that Stedman, according to him, doesn’t actually personalize the book as much as he could. For example, Davis said he’d like to hear more of how Paul Kurtz influenced him.

Giving some ammunition in support of Davis and commenters there that Stedman is in a journey that is still very much in media res?

First, his own history. Per Davis, from the book:
In chapters 2-6, Stedman writes about growing up poor and attending a Unitarian Univeralist church before joining an Evangelical congregation in middle school right around the time that he realizes that he is gay. … After his mother discovers that he is gay, he begins to become a part of a more liberal Evangelical community that is welcoming of LGBTQ people.

He then attends a Augsburg College–a Lutheran school in Minneapolis–with the purpose of becoming a minister. It is in his first year there that he arrives at atheism “through intellectual and personal consideration.” (p. 84). This leads him to spend the rest of his time as an undergraduate with animosity towards religion, which has largely subsided by the time he graduates. After college he spends the winter in northern Minnesota town of Bemidji “working with Lutheran Social Services as a direct service professional for adults with learning disabilities” (p.108). He says it is during this time that “Though I didn’t have the words for it at the time, I was beginning to cultivate my Humanistic worldview.” (p. 109). Reading Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith is what convinces him to do interfaith work and move to Chicago where IFYC is based while attending Meadville Lombard–a Unitarian seminary.

Interestingly, even though he has both an undergraduate and a Master’s degrees from religious institutions where he interacts with diverse groups of people and studies the teachings of numerous religions, those teachings aren’t directly reflected in the memoir.
That is quite a journey, and as with humanism, if Davis is write, the book is poorer indeed for Stedman not showing more of the influences on him.

It also, again, could be an eyebrow-raiser as to the purposes of the book.

Second , the book is only 208 pages.

Third, Stedman’s a … young pup! He was only 24 when he wrote the book.

Fourth, we have the example, recently, of a Harvard student, one who had gained some prominence among young atheists, deciding she was no longer an atheist and instead becoming some sort of fideist Catholic.

Now, I’ll admit that, like with John Loftus, I may have a twinge or two of jealousy over Stedman. I’ll also admit that I’ve not read the book yet, but that I think Chris is a decent guy personally, and that he’s a Facebook friend.

That all said, because of my three caveats above, I’ll say that Davis probably, at least, isn’t all wrong in his review. Stedman may be dramatizing his journey a bit. And, there may be some “branding” behind that move.

I mean, his brief mini-bio on Amazon hints at why he might want to do that:
Chris Stedman is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, the emeritus managing director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, and the founder of the first blog dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement, NonProphet Status. Stedman writes for the Huffington Post, the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, and Religion Dispatches. He lives in Boston.
Let’s be honest. That’s heady stuff for a 24-year-old who might well be more ambitious than he lets on in polite company. Especially when he was writing for the On Faith blog back at least at 2009.

For more about his thought in general, here’s Stedman’s blog.

For the book’s website, including a biographical page, go here. There’s more biography at his CFI page.

Anyway, I am, as of this time, still of multiple mindsets about the book. It sounds interesting. But, while Davis cuts too hard, maybe it’s not as deep as it could be. And, per myself, maybe it is a “branding” book.