Category Archives: Philosophy of Culture

The information economy vs. the know-how economy

The term ‘information economy’ is often used to describe what countries like Canada, the U.S., and so on are supposedly into or entering. Yet, when I look around, what sort of jobs do I see that are in demand? Skilled trades.

The term ‘information’ is too vague – what is in demand is more like ‘know-how’. Know-how means acquisition of skill, which takes time. It manifests in the form of a lawyer, doctor, electrician, undersea welder, and so on.

Non-skilled or lesser-skilled trades seem to be becoming less common due to a) outsourcing and b) roboticization and computerization.

The appropriate response is not to build a ‘broad base of vague information’ but instead ‘focused skilled trade + learning techniques’.

Biology as technology

The idea is old, and it is fashionable to deride it in a sense (i.e., Paley’s arguments, commonly thought to have been refuted).

Yet, it seems so obviously right in a sense (Dennett picks up on this, and starts using ‘design’ and so on to describe biological systems, where design is understood as a process without some intentional thought process behind it – design anyways).

A good trick in design is to start simple (as it is commonly believed organisms did) and then iterate, testing the design at multiple steps along the way. This seems to be what happens with organisms through evolutionary development, as far as our limited understanding of these things goes.

Furthermore, it seems like a very useful metaphor, because technology is a predominant aspect of our time.

Organisms are technological ‘artifacts’, yet of unfathomed complexity and probably making use of unknown causal ‘mechanisms’ (understood broadly as cause-and-effect systems – for example, before electromagnetism was discovered, the use of this by certain organisms would not have been known by biologists at the time).

By understanding this, it might help people to understand what biology encompasses.

 

Buildings as organisms

Buildings as organisms. This thought occurred to me while visiting Sainte-Chapelle, where they are repairing and replacing the glass, lead, and statuary.

Just like an organism, there are iterations of building (painting, and so on), which retain or enhance the building’s form.

Alternately, you could think of buildings as part of an ‘extended phenotype’ of organisms (us).

Either way, they participate in processes similar to organisms.

Science fiction as science

While accidentally coming across a popular science-and-technology magazine recently, I was struck by how much the articles on science and technology weren’t about the actual achievements of the scientists and engineers, but about what those achievements might be in the future. This is something echoed in many other journalistic accounts of science. I.e., much ‘science’ reporting is actually a kind of science fiction, where the hopes and beliefs of the writers are projected onto what has actually been achieved in the science.

The basic projected narrative is: “We are constantly making significant scientific and technological breakthroughs, which are continually transforming society. This is just the latest one.”

That this is a fiction can easily be seen retroactively – almost always, what is reported doesn’t happen. The supposed achievements fade away, to be replaced with other breathless accounts of breakthroughs, and so on.

Of course, sometimes significant breakthroughs do happen, but it is difficult to sort these out a priori. Indeed, my sense is often these changes occur more quietly – they just arrive one day, and work, and change (albeit often in minor ways) some aspect of everyday society.

Considerations on the Argument from Natural Evil

The argument from natural evil typically goes something like this:

  1. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.
  2. This kind of God would not allow natural evil to exist, where natural evil is understood as pain or suffering that isn’t caused by human choice.
  3. Natural evil exists.
  4. Therefore, there is no God as so defined.

How should a Christian respond?

If you think that Christianity should be and properly considered is robustly empirical and practical, then it is reasonable to wonder whether these sorts of theological arguments, important as they may be in pointing to conceptual inadequacies or tensions, are in some way missing the point of what is important about the phenomenon in question.

Consider. It is as if someone, noting the belief in gravity, also noted the seeming theoretical incompatibility between relativity theory and quantum theory, and concluded that, therefore, gravity did not exist. The correct response, it seems, would be to say that, whatever gravity turns out to be, what is relevantly important about it is real and so therefore overcomes such theoretical puzzles that are involved in relativity theory and quantum theory. It might be that gravity turns out be multiple phenomena, or it might be that our current conception of the ultimate nature of gravity is incorrect in some other way (and this is true about most everything). Regardless, our notion of gravity does important work. We know that gravity in some important sense exists, whatever it might turn out to be.

Consider that notions of God’s goodness, foresight, and benevolence are built up out of Christian experiences of providence, non-chance coincidence, the ‘Holy Spirit’, and so on. Arguments against Christianity of the above sort gain much of their perceived import from the mistaken notion that Christianity is primarily built on abstract theological speculation, when that sort of theology is, properly and as a matter of historical development, rather a result of consideration of a significant empirical base.

I.e., even if an argument such as the one above succeeded, it would only succeed in displacing a theological aspect, not the evidentiary bases that undergird that theological movement.

Truth and interpretation

Any map of reality is so because of a purpose. That is, the map was designed to be used for a purpose – otherwise you could just substitute the reality, and forget the map.

Consider a topographical map, which shows elevation lines roughly corresponding to the actual geography. Now consider that the map might also have various colours on it. A person, looking at the map, might think: this map is claiming that the terrain in this spot is coloured such-and-such. However, if so construed, the map’s claim might be false – when looking at the terrain from an airplane (say), a person might not typically see the terrain as coloured the way the map has it. Does this mean the map is false in this respect?

No. Any map comes with an intended way the map is to be used – what appears on the map has to be translated and applied in a certain way. It is only if it is reasonable that this kind of map be interpreted as having colours which are accurate when a human would look at the terrain in such-and-such a way, that the map not having those colours would be equivalent to the map not saying something true. Any representation requires interpretation, and this means an understanding of the representation’s intended limitations.

The term ‘map’ can be used as shorthand for any account, or representation, of reality. Consider historical work as presented by certain ancient Greek writers. Sometimes, they would present a scene or event in a way that they thought would best capture its emotional significance or presumed import. (Often, people creating movies will do something similar, combining characters or changing chronology in order to better capture what they think is important about a story in the format they have. It’s not unique to ancient Greek historians.) If the reader thought they were presenting things in precisely the chronological way it happened, then they might think the writer was saying things that were false. Yet, if the writer did not intend for it to be so received, and if a typical reader of the day would not so receive it, then it follows that the historical account was not saying things that were false – rather, it is being badly interpreted by the contemporary reader.

This is a problem in general with old writing, where what the writers (and transmitters) of the account might have thought important may not be the same as what we might tend to think is important.

Stained glass windows and the language of light

One development that oft goes unremarked in the evolution of church buildings is lighting. Consider how lighting interplays with a common architectural feature of churches, stained glass windows. When there is low lighting inside a church, but daylight (say) outside, the stained glass windows are illuminated, creating (usually) beautiful pictures. When there is more lighting inside the church, this effect is reduced.

Historically, churches would have been lit by candles, torches, and so on. Not only would there be beautiful images lit up by the external light (which is symbolic in the context as well as beautiful), but inside the church would be candles and so on. This internal sort of lighting is generally more conducive to spiritual contemplation, and so on – the kinds of states churches generally are created for.

Now consider a common type of ‘modern’ church. It is lit up by rows of fluorescent lights, which often make it feel like an office, say. What is the language of such illumination saying to the person inside the church? Now consider the lighting at a typical Starbucks – which is better? Why?

Anti-culture

Edward Feser discusses act and potential, among other things, in these two lectures:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1Dkp1U9pek

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-O40N4nNGUc

What’s most interesting to me isn’t Feser’s arguments for a kind of goal-directedness in physics, say, or the deconstruction of New Atheist conceptions of certain classical arguments for God, but rather the surrounding decor. The room is incredibly bland. The architecture, lack of sculpture, paintings, there is nothing. This is not unique – it is typical of the standard environment in which university classes are held. It is like all culture has been removed from the academic environment. It is as if they are surrounded not by a culture, but an anti-culture.

Neutrality and objectivity

Neutrality is not objectivity. It is quite possible, and common, that being neutral between two positions entails being non-objective.

Objectivity means making the relevant facts clear, giving relevant interpretations and the reasons for these, and then also giving one’s interpretation of those facts, and then the reasons for that interpretation. These last two steps are important so that a person can evaluate what is presented better – this notion of objectivity is why, in some scientific journals, scientists disclose any possible conflicts of interest. In so doing, a reader may better evaluate what is presented.

So, if two people are debating, and one is engaging in propaganda and intentionally trying to obscure facts, while the other less so, then being neutral between the two debaters is not be to objective – rather, if being objective, one should point out the former debater’s obfuscations, even though this entails no longer being neutral.

What I find frustrating is the pretense of objectivity. This is found, often, in textbooks or other books intended for an academic audience, say. The authors often do not present their own views, cloaking these under the pretense of objectivity. Yet, it is precisely the opposite of objectivity to do so. I would much rather a textbook where the author states their views, and even argues extensively for them. To be non-objective, on the other hand, would be to intentionally distort or occlude relevant facts, omit important responses to a given position, and so on. None of this is incompatible with presenting one’s view. (The pretense of objectivity also often makes for more boring reading.)

Arguments, in terms of their actual merit, often gain considerably by being more objective – the arguer is forced to understand the relevant facts, the responses to various arguments, the counter-responses, and so on. (Rhetoric is another issue.)

Representation, truth, and art

Selected quotations from a conversation here:

“If you look at [the representationalist work …], in a sense it’s a lie. This is coloured paste on canvas that is trying to represent something that it is not. It’s a falsehood, it’s an illusion.”

“You’re right, what’s on the left is a lie – it’s something trying to be something it’s not. While on the right [an abstract expressionist work], it literally is the painting. The painting is what you’re trying to see […]”

“And so there is a kind of fundamental truth that was upending 2,000 years of tradition. How radical, how brave, how heroic is that?”

As far as reflecting a certain justification for abstract expressionism, this sounds plausible. Let’s stop pretending, and get down to what these objects (of art) are. On reflection, however, I think a more appropriate question is “How silly is that?”

Consider “This is coloured paste on canvas that is trying to represent something that it is not.” This is basically tautological, i.e., a representation almost always is about something it is not. Consider that when I say “The sun is shining” there is a representation achieved through the movement of air over vocal cords, leading to vibrations in the ambient air, which in turn lead to complex causal processes within a listener’s ear and brain, and so on. What determines whether I am saying something true or not is whether this phrase corresponds to a state of affairs – i.e., whether the sun is shining. It is irrelevant whether the movement of air and so on is the same thing as the sun shining. The sort of statement above misses the whole point of representation, i.e., thinking or talking about or understanding things without having to have the actual things present. That’s why we represent.

Of course, thinking of art objects in terms of those objects, and not in terms of what they are representing, might have some interest. It is not, however, because they are more ‘truthful’. If anything, they are less truthful, because they tend to be less capable of expressing complex ideas or scenarios which in turn are capable of being true or false.

On art

Preliminaries: ‘art’ is a word, attached to a concept (or number of concepts). If a word is used in a certain way, the concept attached to that word will reflect that usage. If you start to change how a word is used, the associated concept will start to change as well. Of course, you can reject a certain usage.

(One trick in science (i.e., figuring out the cause-and-effect processes in the universe) that has evolved is creating new words. Scientists typically do this by combining Latin or Greek base words to form a new compound. The advantage to this is that you don’t get confusing cases where existing concepts might be mistaken for the new concepts, the latter of which are created in light of new discoveries and theories about how that part of the universe works. (It’s not this simple.))

So, if there is a debate over whether something is art, the debate is not about what a word could mean (it could mean anything) or what it does mean (although this is relevant), but rather what it should and can mean. To ask what it should mean is to refer to some purpose for the word. To refer to a purpose is to ask what’s important about the world for us, and how a word might be used relevant to that.

So, a debate about a word like ‘art’ is often a debate about what is important about the world. What we think is important in the world is informed by what we believe to be true or real. So, if people have differing views on what is real, it isn’t surprising if they think a word should be used in different ways. The other main reason is if people have differing interests related to how a word is used – for example, if using a word one way helps one person, but is neutral or hinders another person, then their views on how the word ought to be used may diverge.

What is the primary importance of art? Is it ‘refocusing ideas‘? Or is it perhaps conveying notions of the Good – of Truth, Beauty, and Virtue? Where one stands on this to an extent will depend on what one thinks is real, and where one’s interests lie. For example, much of contemporary art holds to the idea of only subjective truth, is intentionally ugly (while saying it isn’t), and intentionally tries to destroy the sorts of things that would tend classically to be considered as virtuous.

So, if you think that a primary purpose of art is to explore, express, or better understand the Good, then much of contemporary art is either not art or is poorly done art. However, if you eschew these notions as ‘fuddy duddy’ ideas, or what have you, and instead think that the primary purpose of art is contextual novelty, say, then these sorts of works may be considered not only veritable art but art of high quality.

In the end, then, many debates over definitions come down to ontology (theories of what there is) and interest politics (what is advantageous to whom). Since many art critics, in this case, may be wrong as a group in terms of their ontology, and have certain interests which diverge from many others, it may not always be the soundest idea to listen to their theories of what art is supposed to be.

The basic idea with religious ‘faith’

‘Faith’ in religion, and particularly in Christian religion, is a central word, and as with most central words in, say, a language more broadly speaking (such as ‘know’), contains multiple meanings and works in various directions.

For the word to start to make some sense to a secularist, however, it might be useful to start at this point: faith can refer not to belief that God exists, but rather to belief in a specific version of God’s character. This is a more natural way of using the word in everyday language – as in ‘I have faith that someone will show up at a certain time, because I have had repeated experiences in the past where they have done so’. The basic idea here is one that basically everyone acts on in day to day life – habit or character is inferred from behaviour, and so one has warranted belief that someone will probably act in such-and-such a way in the future.

This leads to the next question: how would one know that God has a character or something like it (is person-like) and discern what that character is?

There are 3 main areas of evidential support typically cited in Christianity, as far as one’s own experience goes. The first is providence – the idea that, usually in retrospect, one can see a pattern or logic to events in one’s life, even though at the time it might have seemed like there wasn’t. The typical Christian idea here is that God has an intention – a forethought or will – for how things will turn out (but that the actual turning out of things in that way depends on human choices). Through repeated experiences of these sorts of things, and developing a better ability to listen and communicate with God (through various practices) one can then better align oneself with and allow for God’s providence, and so build a sense of the sort of God there is.

The second is ‘coincidence’ – seemingly unlikely events where things come together in a certain way. These are distinguishable from providence in typically being noticeable at the moment. Christians attribute these sorts of coincidences to God, or angels which are proximate representatives of God’s will. Similar to providence, through repeated experiences and developing an ability to notice God’s feedback to one’s own thoughts through these sorts of coincidences, one starts to build an evidenced concept of what sort of character God has.

The third main source of evidence is ‘religious experience’ – experiences of the ‘light of Christ’ or the ‘Holy Spirit’, for example, or even just of a general sense of ‘goodness’ that is perceived to indicate the presence of some divine aspect.

Although the three sources of evidence discussed above have to do with the specific nature of God or divine reality, they also work as evidence that there is a God – another reason why the word ‘faith’ is often run together on these issues. Interestingly, in Kreeft and Tacelli’s Handbook of Christian Apologetics, of the 20 arguments for the existence of God, only the third source of evidence above is mentioned, in argument 17.

‘Faith’, then, in the context discussed above more properly refers to the character of a relationship – having faith in a specific notion of God, say, because of evidence of his character that has built up in the past.

 

Church as symbolic

Much of what occurs at church (in a Mass, say) is symbolic. (It can also be sacramental, which is at least symbolic.) Therefore, to understand what is going on in a Mass, it helps to understand the symbols.

Symbols point. So, much of church architecture or of, say, a Mass, is referring to things beyond itself. It is like a book, that can be read (and read with different interpretations).

So, in a church a candle is not simply to generate light – it usually symbolizes something else, such as the light of God that dwells in a human. And so on. Often, the symbols are compounded – that is, one symbol takes on meaning in reference to another symbol (for example, incense gains some symbolism because it rises upwards – but that refers to another symbol, that of upwards as where divine reality is, and so on).

If one does not know that much of what is occurring is symbolic, and then have some understanding of the symbolic language, churches or Masses, say, lose much of their meaning. It is like reading a book where one does not understand the alphabet or language in which it is written – or where one doesn’t even realize that the ink splotches on the pages refer to anything.

It is not only like reading a language, it is also like learning a language – building up a conceptual repertoire and connecting those to symbolic references to the things those concepts are about.

Is religion important?

Religions are, basically, answers to the question “How ought I to live?” or similarly “What is the Good life?” Every television show, movie, book, and so on, contains some (implicit or explicit) answers to these questions. This is one reason why media often is at odds with various kinds of religious ideas – they are overlapping in what they are doing.

Religions store up a body of ideas, beliefs, and practices that are believed to be answers to those questions. Within a religion, there are usually many different kinds of traditions, churches, services, and so on – many different ways to answer that question – although these answers may be more similar than answers compared from within a given religion and within some other tradition.

It seems to me that the way to figure out how good of an answer a given approach is (and different approaches may be better for different people in different circumstances), is to look at the people practicing it. (I am thinking here of more organized answers, such as religions give, and then secular answers as well.) Basically, does it work well on the whole – does it work better than the alternatives available? Does it work well for this sort of person, but not this?

This requires some exploring – actually seeing what the fabric of a given person or peoples’ lives are like, and then comparing one approach (whether ‘religious’ or not) to another. It is often not easy to do this, and it is not largely theoretical, it is empirical. That is, one must go out and see whether certain approaches work, and how well, and for what kinds of people.

Economic arguments

The non-monetized economy involves more value than the monetized economy – substantially more value. Many arguments are made in terms of ‘economic’ – i.e., monetized economic – benefit or detriment. It follows that this sort of argument will be incomplete, and often will be significantly incomplete – i.e., most of the loss or gain following from such-and-such policy may be in the non-monetized economy.

The problem with the non-monetized economy is that it is difficult to quantify. The monetized economy is relatively easy to quantify (measure the money being exchanged). If there were a way to estimate and then quantify in a comparable way the non-monetized economic impact, that would make responding to monetized economic arguments easier, it seems.

Practice and proposition

Seth Roberts, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at U.C. Berkeley, says:

It is better to do an experiment than to think about doing an experiment, in the sense that you will learn more from an hour spent doing (e.g., doing an experiment) than from an hour thinking about what to do. Because 99% of what goes on in university classrooms and homework assignments is much closer to thinking than doing, and because professors often say they teach “thinking” (“I teach my students how to think”) but never say they teach “doing”, you can see this goes against prevailing norms.

Religion isn’t just a set of propositions, but is more a set of practices. Intellectuals like to focus on the propositions, because they are good at manipulating abstract symbols, arguing about them, and synthesizing them with other sets of abstract symbols (or showing that there are seeming contradictions between the sets, say).

The problem for intellectuals is two-fold:

1. Religion is more about a practice, like learning a musical instrument, than it is a set of propositions. To understand religion, then, one must do, but this is scary for intellectuals because a) it is often outside their area of core strength, and b) it entails the possibility of changing who they are.

2. Many of the propositions associated with something which is largely a practice often to an extent are nonsensical until one starts the practice. Only then do the propositions begin to make sense. This is because the practice involves creating new conceptual categories, and so on. When learning singing, for example, one’s teacher may say all sorts of things that use English words and are grammatical, but which one does not really understand … until one starts doing the various practices, at which point the propositions start to take on a (new) meaning.

Some of the best academic work involves the academic doing: an example of this is Mary Carruthers’ work on medieval memory, where she undertook to learn various techniques about which she was writing. This process changed her understanding of the plausibility of the techniques, and helped guide her in understanding the meaning of what the people using the techniques were saying.

If an academic wants to collect data about a religious practice, he must either begin the practice himself, or rely on what people who have done the practice themselves say. If the latter, he probably won’t really understand what they are talking about, but it is at least a step closer to figuring out the truth than logic chopping an unfamiliar set of abstract symbols on his own.

Also see here.

Poetry and technique

While studying poetry, I found two singular facts:

1. I found most of contemporary poetry that I was studying to be poor – lacking in an important sense. Even that which was dazzling in its use of various techniques. It was, more or less, a waste of time except in terms of the negative lesson it taught (whatever that might be).

2. As suggested, there was an intense focus on poetry as changing technique – how can we experiment and create new forms by changing the techniques? Let us follow these seemingly arbitrary criteria to create a new poem about this random subject.

Yet, there was little discussion as to the root and nature of poetry – what does (did) it do? What is it supposed to do? I.e., what’s the point? To merely say that there is a point is to say something which from a certain perspective is dangerous, I suppose, because it is normative.

Thinking more about techniques, however, led me back to the reasons for those techniques. Why does poetry pulse? Why does it alliterate? Why does it invoke vivid visual, auditory, tactile, and so on, imagery? How did this come about – how was it used traditionally?

The importance of the techniques is in changing the state of the reader or listener. Alliteration, imagery that draws on the senses, and so on, all combine to put the reader in a specific sort of state where they can then experience or understand the ideas the poet has captured in his poetic writing. What kind of state? I seem to know this intuitively, but it is difficult to describe – it is a state where certain kinds of truths can be grasped. What kind of truths? Important ones. Mythical ones, perhaps.

My guess is that poetry in its purest form is a part of religion (or vice versa). I think that this is why I sensed that contemporary poetry was lacking: it has largely attempted to detach from religion (understood in a very broad sense – religious exploration as has occurred throughout human history and pre-history) – from exploring the ideas and experiences that religion is about (such as truth, beauty, virtue, and connected, sensing-of-divine, or even holy, sanctified, or mystical states), and from doing so in any coherent tradition of religious thought or symbolism.

In short, I feel like contemporary poetry, like much of the arts, is cheating people of the most important potential aspects of the craft. To the extent that art in general has done this (and often instead veered toward art for the form of art), this explains why the quality of cultural artifacts has largely declined in many spheres – the artists have detached themselves from what art is about, so of course we get poor art as a consequence.

(In reality, there is probably a large amount of high-quality art being made right now – but it is obscured due to the way that a person like myself hears about new art. Basically, the standard gate-keepers keep the really interesting art out.)

Mere myth, literalism, and truth

Is it literally true that the second person of the Trinity rose from the dead? Rose where – towards the atmosphere?

What does it even mean to claim that these sorts of things are literally true – is it rather that the question is misguided?

I think: the way that these things are comprehended must in some sense be symbolic …

Yet, that sounds like it is presuming a non-symbolic way of knowing which is standard. Do we have a dominant and non-symbolic, ‘literal’ way of knowing against which this can be contrasted? Note that scientific representations are necessarily representations, or symbols. In this sense, scientific models aren’t literally true. Yet, of course, they are literally true. It is literally true that the cat is composed of molecules. But both ‘cat’ and ‘molecule’ are symbols, an interface for dealing with reality.

I’m not sure what work the word ‘literal’ is doing in many cases. Consider: a) Is it true that the cat is made of molecules? b) Is it literally true that the cat is made of molecules? Is there a difference? Not usually: when we say that the cat is made of molecules, we usually mean that it is literally made of molecules.

What is the word ‘literal’ adding in some cases? It seems that the word ‘literal’ now often operates as something that could be paraphrased as: is this claim something that, when understood by interpreting the words in a conventional scientific sense, is true? For example, if the second person of the Trinity rose from the dead, we are to understand this in terms of the physical models of the universe that we have developed through science. The person must be made of something which has a corresponding representation in physical science (molecules, electrons, and so on), and the word ‘rose’ must map on to some other corresponding representation in physical science, such that we can say that something ‘literally’ moved somewhere.

Yet, I doubt very much that most people intend this, when they say that the second person of the Trinity rose from the dead. Therefore, the phrase isn’t intended to be ‘literally’ true. Yet it isn’t intended to be ‘mere’ myth or metaphor – it is meant to be true. In what sense?

It is meant to be true in terms of a complex set of interlocking models and representations which have developed over thousands of years (probably longer than that), and broadly belong to the domain of ‘religion’, among other things. Most contemporary, secular intellectuals are not very familiar with these models. They think, rather, that to be true is to be ‘literally’ true. Since these claims don’t seem to be literally true, they are nonsense. The third option is that they are mere myths (symbolic for something that is literally true). Yet, most intellectuals don’t consider that they could be ‘mythical truth’ – something just as true as (or more so than) literal truth, yet employing a different set of representations or models.

(This is not to argue for a separation of mythical truth and literal truth. They must, somewhere, impinge and inter-map. The question is just where exactly this is to happen, and how to move from one set of representations to another.)

This is just to say that understanding certain things ‘mythically’ may be to create a better, stronger, more robust, and so on, relationship with certain kinds of truths, where these truths aren’t second-hand for ‘literal’ truths (although the opposite may be so in some cases).

So why do people often consider this movement to myth to be a retreat from truth? Probably because they are under the impression that people understood these things to be literally true in the past, but, in the face of disconfirmation through science, that people no longer consider them to be literally true. The problem with this theory is that, to a significant extent, there was no such thing as what is contemporarily understood as literal truth in much of the past, because the contemporary sense of ‘literal’ requires the various scientific representations that have been built up over the last several hundred years. Since these did not exist in the past, people couldn’t have understood these claims in a ‘literal’ way. Now that I think about this, it seems obvious.

Yet, there is something more to say about this. As peoples’ understandings of various words started to change to what we now call a ‘literal’ sense (a physical, scientific sense), they probably did start to carry that in all sorts of directions. Then, as science continued to develop, it became clear that these things weren’t the case in a ‘literal’ sense. So then they either had to disown the claims or say that they were “mere myth.” Yet, as we’ve seen, this is rather merely to internalize an epistemic error (the error of thinking that these stories, as originally told, were intended ‘literally’ in the contemporary sense, when they couldn’t have been, as the contemporary models that undergird what the word ‘literally’ now means didn’t exist).

Also see here.

Kreeft on academics

To the question:

If Christianity is intellectual, why aren’t more academics Christians?

(and presumably mentions something about being practical, logical, and scientific), Peter Kreeft answers (transcribed from here):

“Because academics are not practical, and not logical, and not scientific. In fact, if I were to list the 100 most absurd, illogical, impractical ideas in the history of the world, the one thing common to most of them is: you have to have a Ph.D. to believe them. […] To be rational is to think about reality. Reason is an instrument, like light, for bumping off of things. But academics are notoriously […] in-bred, self-referential, thinking about thinking, thinking about each other, thinking about theories. […] Academics are also very intelligent and very clever, and therefore they’re much better at hiding from themselves than ordinary people, because you can invent all sorts of little tables in your mental laboratory to do your little experiments on and hide your mind from the fact[s].”

There is another reason why academics tend to get things wrong: they tend to live separated from most of human society, and therefore are largely in the dark about a large swath of human experience, psychology, and social realities. Because they are unfamiliar with these sorts of things, it is easy for them to make mistaken inferences that are based on how things are occurring around them or what people around them think.

Even in the best of cases, reason is a fragile instrument. Put another way, a chain made by reason easily breaks, and sometimes it is difficult to even see what could be wrong about one’s given chain of thought. Coding offers a limited test-field for this: working within an environment made explicitly for human logic, it is still extremely easy to overlook mistakes in that logic. One can look at a piece of code several times, and be certain that there are no mistakes. Then try to compile or run it and – there’s a mistake! With coding, however, there is a fairly close relationship between the logic (the code) and reality (does the code do what it’s supposed to do when it’s run?). Most beliefs academics have are not tested in a similar sort of way.

What is at stake?

If Christianity is nonsense to you – not merely false, but something that you are largely unable to understand – then what is the consequence of that?

It seems fairly obvious that you will therefore be unable to understand the large bulk of Western culture – the literature, the paintings, the music. It will be boring and tedious, or just odd, or perhaps you will catch a glimpse here and there of what the author meant, but not much more.

If this happens, then barring another culture of equivalent stature replacing the Christian one that you cannot understand, you perforce enter into a cultural dark age.

Yet, there is no replacement culture – none that is Western, anyway – to supplant the cathedral of Christian thought and expression which has grown over the last millennia. The reason is that the new culture – that created in the wake of Christianity – is meagre and generally of very poor quality.

To be unable to understand Christian thought and expression – for it to consist of mere delusion and nonsense – is then to lose a great deal. There is therefore much at stake: either, one must be able to re-interpret Christianity so it starts to make ‘sense’, or one is lost in a dark age. It follows that most intellectuals nowadays are in a cultural dark age.

A mistaken inference based on technological progress

Because science and technology have been advancing, people gain a bias for what is more recent: the more recent the book, blog post, and so on, the more valuable it is thought to be.

The mistake: this does not apply to art or the humanities in general, i.e., it is fairly obvious that in literature, painting, music, and so on, things are not getting better. If anything, they are tending towards devolution.

A contemporary, pre-modern model for relations between the sexes

What is the traditional arrangement between the sexes? Some would look to what things were like in the 1950’s, say, where the man worked in an office or factory, and the woman raised children (until they went to compulsory schooling) and looked after the domestic sphere.

Is this really traditional? A cursory glance shows: it is not. The 1950’s model was a brief, transitionary phase, brought on by urbanization and industrialization, among other things. 50 years (or so) earlier, when most people farmed, instantiations of this sort of model were relatively rare. It would be curious to call something that was part of a brief, transitionary shift brought on by singular aspects of modernization ‘traditional’.

So what does a more traditional model look like? To go back to what was in play for thousands of years, that would be something like the farming model. Here, although there was division of roles between the sexes that emerged from more natural differences, both sexes were engaged in an endeavour which centred around the property. Both ‘worked’ and both spent significant time with the children, but in different roles.

What is a modern analogue to this? One answer: a family-owned business, operating out of the home, where the children are also involved.

Bruce Charlton’s Psychology of Political Correctness

Bruce Charlton – Professor of Theoretical Medicine at the University of Buckingham – has started publishing draft sections from a book on which he is working. The first installment starts:

Political correctness, or PC, is now pervasive and dominant in the West.

PC is not a joke, it is extremely powerful and extremely widespread – indeed hardly anybody among the intellectual elite, the ruling class, is immune – most are deeply complicit, even those who laugh at what they regard as the absurdities and excesses of PC.

(In ten years time these same individuals will be zealously defending these absurdities and regarding the excesses as middle of the road mainstream).

This is my sense as well. It is easy, when one hears that one is supposed to say “personholes” instead of “manholes”, say, to dismiss it as absurd – until one finds oneself, several years later, saying the new term.

I tend to focus on how political correctness is a contingent result of various interest groups exerting political power, but I think that Charlton is right to see a more fundamental thread to the general phenomenon.

Mature content

Much of entertainment that is marked as supposedly for “mature audiences only” is reflective rather of an immature mindset, i.e., an obsession with graphic violence and sexual imagery is conducive not to mature thinking on matters but rather to tawdry and sensationalistic presentations.

Instead of a “Warning: mature content” it should rather read “Warning: juvenile content”. The rise of sexual imagery and graphic violence in various entertainment products is part of a larger trend towards juvenile behaviour and thought-patterns on the part of supposed adults in society.

In this sense, “mature content” is a joke. Once you get that it is really immature, you can dismiss the explicit or implicit claims made by it for what they really are (unfortunately, one cannot dismiss its impact).