Tuesday, November 30, 2010

For Non-Theological Philosophy

It used to be, in Western society, that a philosopher was also a theologian, and a mathematician, and a literary critic. A philosopher was just about anyone who wrote for a living who wasn't also a poet, and sometimes someone was both a philosopher and poet, like Dante, for example. It's not well-known that Galileo wrote commentaries on Dante, but in his time it didn't seem strange -- he was a learned man, everyone agreed on that. Why shouldn't he write commentaries on Dante? The fact that the philosopher Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century, and Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz in the seventeenth and earlier eighteenth centuries, were also leading mathematicians of their day, did not seem at all remarkable to their contemporaries -- they were philosophers. Who else but a philosopher should lead the way in math? The fact is that the term philosopher meant something very different back then, it referred to a learned man, and a learned man was expected to study all fields of learning. The division of labor which makes it seem strange that an astronomer is also a literary critic, or that leads some people to claim that a biologist like Richard Dawkins is not competent to write on theological matters, because he is a biologist, is a recent intellectual habit in our society, not more than a few centuries old.

Nowadays, a philosopher is -- what? Philosophy is a rather ill-defined term today. I think it's defined negatively, by the things which it is not, by the disciplines which have broken away from it. Philosophy is no longer astronomy or chemistry or mathematics, although the combination of philosophy and mathematics lasted somewhat longer than the combination of philosophy and some other fields. (A philosopher can of course still be an astronomer or a chemist. The difference is that now it would seem odd.)

Theology has not yet completely broken away from philosophy, or should I say, philosophy has not yet completely freed itself from theology. This is good for the reputation of theology and bad for that of philosophy.

One of the chief tasks of theology, a task which has grown steadily in importance over the past couple of centuries as atheism has begun to spread like wildfire, is to KEEP THINGS MURKY.

CLARITY is an archenemy of religion. And so when you make some clear points in a public forum about religion, and it's clear as well that you have the Abrahamic religions in mind, and above all contemporary Christianity in the US, there's a fairly good chance that some theologically-minded individual will come along and accuse you of having said something which does not apply at all to the Upanishads. And it's not unheard-of that this individual would be a professor of philosophy. Faculty in both philosophy and theology will bore and infuriate you with long speeches closely resembling sermons, and they'll make things even worse by enthusiastically quoting people like Nietzsche and Freud. Nietzsche hated, hated, hated theology and was crystal-clear about that, Freud took for granted that his stuff was not to be mixed up with that stuff those jokers down the hall in the theology department were instigating. Both Nietzsche and Freud underestimated how low theologians would stoop. They're like that repulsive booger which has attatched itself to to the end of your finger, and you shout in horror and shake and shake your arm and hand but it stays stuck there.

Life can be confusing under the best of conditions, and when it comes to philosophy there is often the difficult attempt to re-define certain things most of us take for granted, there are often long or rare words and texts in many different languages. But don't let the long words and various languages of theology fool you, philosophy does not have to be lumped in with theology. Schopenhauer, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Adorno, Sarte, Derrida & co are atheists, they aren't having any of that stuff -- although some of them do often cite authors of the time of the Christian hegemony, also known as the Late Ancient, Medieval and Renaissance eras, and show how substance and sense con be separated from the obligatory religious goobledeegook of those times.

With recent theology, the division of labor has proceeded to the point, I fear, that the goobledeegook has become their whole profession. Kierkegaard may mark the end of the era where philosophy and theology were still combined. (Karl Barth, Karl Barth! they're shouting. No. I really don't think so.)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Some Things I Wrote in a Moleskine Recently

In what follows, additions or changes to the original journal entry will appear [in square brackets], with the exception of the names of chess players, where I will follow the same rule as in this chess log, referring to Player A, Player B and so forth. The reader should not assume that Player A below is -- or is not -- the same person as Player A in that blog post. Rather, in each new blog post in which I excerpt chess logs, I will start over again from the beginning of the alphabet.

I dreamed I was trying to return a stolen shirt to a store in a mall, stolen by someone else although I was wearing it. The sales staff would not or could not understand that it was not just an ordinary return. At one point I was an angry young black man, [In waking life I am neither young nor black. I do have occasional fits of rage, but I've recognized that this a problem, and I'm getting treatment for it.] stripping off the shirt and shaking it, angry and bare-chested, at the sales staff, who continued to fail to understand, or to pretend not to understand, that someone had stolen the shirt, instead blandly continuing to inquire if I wanted an exchange or a refund or what. The shirt resembled [my favorite shirt, a] long-sleeved blue shirt with horizontal pinstripes.

After the incident with the shirt, I continued down the hall in the mall, and came across Tim Allen sitting on a couch. Gradually it became apparent that Tim was one of several people sitting on a couch, and that they were all wearing face paint somewhere between circus-clown and Hollywood-Indian. They were sitting very wide-eyed, and very still, as if portraying carved figures. They looked a little scary. Then there were very many Native Americans storming into a house, perhaps a model house on the mall grounds, or a partial model house. I was concerned that I might have been part of what incited the Native Americans to anger. I was also concerned that they might inadvertently trample me in their headlong stampede or turn angrily on me.

Then I was pretty much out of their way and [nevermind who] and I were sitting on the ground and she was rubbing my shoulders. I groaned and she was concerned she might be doing it wrong, but I assured her that they were moans of pleasure and relief.

[End of dream log.]

[My Free Internet Chess Server rating rose to] 1305 after [winning] 3 straight [games] from Player A. ([Who was rated] a little under 1100.)

I'm at Barnes & Noble now. In the men's room, someone wrote on a stall wall: "Empty your mind/And you will attain peace" and underneath that someone else wrote: "Empty your bowels/And you will attain relief." I think the 2nd one is more profound. It's certainly more site-appropriate.

[there follows in the notebook a very bad attempt at the beginning of a sketch of the escalator in the Barnes & Noble. I've always been very bad at drawing, but lately I'm trying to see whether frequent practice might change that.]

When I was a teenager [in the late '70's], I was disappointed that no-one ever initiated me into Dungeons & Dragons. [I didn't realize that it was a game that anyone could buy in a store; from the way the few players I knew acted, I assumed that it was more of a secret society into which one had to be initiated.] Just now, near the bench where I was writing, were two full-grown pudgy geeks of the type which remind me why I should be very, very grateful that there never seemed to be time enough, or that I was never deemed cool enough when I was a kid for that D&D initiation to happen. Harsh? Fuck 'em, I'm being real. Game Stop was the name of the store in front of which the geeks were hanging, loudly speaking Geek. Game Stop? With truth in advertising, they'd call it Girl Repellent. Or just Repellent. [Yeah, I know I play chess. But I don't play it in person. Harsh? Maybe so. Don't some people think I'm as geeky as can be? No doubt some do.]

I had to quickly walk out of the Barnes & Noble to the bench near Game Stop in order to resist the temptation to buy STILL MORE MOLESKINES! A family walked by on the way into Barnes & Noble. One of the children was a toddler saying "Hi, hi!" to everyone they passed. Cute as could be. Maybe she very recently learned to say "hi." Several young ladies walked out of the store just as this family was going in. They exchanged "Hi!"'s with the adorable little toddler. One of the ladies said, "Aw, I want one!" That lady is to babies as I am to ever more Moleskines. [I gather that it's pronounced as if it were an Italian word, with a syllable for each vowel: "Mole-uh-skeen-ay."]

Sunday, November 28, 2010


In his latest contribution to the Huffington Post, entitled How Should Religion Behave in Public? Amarnath Amarasingam takes the obligatory swipe at the "New Atheists" (I still don't know what's new about them except that several authors of pro-atheism books are making the bestseller lists at once) as follows:

"While the writings of the New Atheists are a natural evolution of a cultural struggle, from the perspective of the scholarly study of religion and theology, their collective studies disappoint. They typically look at the most common examples of religious belief and practice provided by organized religion and conservative Christians, and then reduce a highly complex phenomenon -- religion -- into jejune explanations and conclusions. It's evident in the very titles of their books that the New Atheists overreach: Religion poisons everything (Christopher Hitchens); religion is a delusion (Richard Dawkins); religion is a spell that must be broken (Daniel Dennett) and needs to be ended (Sam Harris). Again, theirs is a natural reaction to the past and current abuses of organized religion, but not surprisingly, just like other cultural pendulum swings, it too is an overreaction both emotionally and scholarly."

While Amarasingam does not refute any of these atheist theses -- saying "Nuh-UH!" and calling someone's work jejune does not constitute a refutation. Not in my book, Sparky -- he at least lists a few of them accurately. This puts him way ahead of most of his theist colleagues posting in the Religion section at Huffington Post, even if all he did was look at a few book titles. This is progress.

And my attempt to pay him this backhanded compliment was not posted in HP's reader's comments, which leads me to think that young Mr Amarasingam may already be a Templeton fellow. Good for him!


In his latest go at squaring the circle, reconciling religion and science, on Huffington Post, Clay Farris Naff insists that God is real -- because so many people say that He is.

"In reconceptualizing faith," Naff assures us, "you can liberate God from the ancient traps of theology."

I'm much more interested in liberating mankind from this kind of theological doublethink. Nineteen Eighty-Fouris a powerful, terrifying novel, but doublethink and doublespeak and the Ministry of Love and "Two and two are as many as we say" remind me so much more of Christianity than of any Communist institution past or present.

By Naff's standards, witches and the laws of alchemy and astrology were real almost everywhere as late as the late 15th century. Lynn Thorndike gives a fascinating account of how prevalent such beliefs were in medieval society in Chapter XXII of Volume VIIIof the old Cambridge Medieval History, New York: MacMillian, 1936. Universities published annual astrological predictions, physicians were required to own astrolabes and handbooks of astrology and vie for astrological prowess with the theologians, most leading monarchs employed court astrologers, as even leading humanists such as Aeneas Sylvius, the later Pope Pius II, urged that they should.

A scant five centuries and change, and look how such superstitions have been almost entirely overcome, and who would argue that this is not for the good?

As with one superstition, so with another.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Too Funny For HuffPo!

Below are two reader's comments to Philip Goldberg's less-than-sane article on Huffington Post, Making Space For Sane Spirituality. The first comment, beginning "I don't know if," made it past the moderation. It's an answer to a comment from another reader, responding to another comment of mine in which I asserted that pro-religion and anti-atheism prejudice is everywhere, all around us.

The second comment begins with "It's like the old joke," and the moderation seems to have deemed it unfit to appear on Huffington Post's website. Although, as always, nothing with the HP moderation is certain: the old joke could appear at some later time, and the paragraph beginning "I don't know" could well vanish. Inconsistent? Unpredictable? A bit wacky? Why yes, the moderators of the readers' comment at Huffington Post are all of those things. And more.

[Comment1] I don't know if I have anything original or brilliant to say on the subject. It's all around us, it's plain to see: US Presidents being expected to end every speech with "God bless you all, and God bless the United States of America." "In God We Trust" on all of our money. The uncomfortable silence which is the usual response to any lunacy which is laced with Bible verses, as opposed to the minute scrutiny and nitpicking criticism which is the usual response to any irreligious utterance, no matter how reasonable. It's everywhere: here on HP, in mainstream media in general, in legislatures, school boards, sitcoms, billboards, everywhere. It's plain to see, but because it happens all the time, it usually doesn't seem remarkable, We're as used to it as we are to the sun rising every morning and setting every evening, and we tend to comment on it as little as we comment on anything else which happens all the time, because we're thoroughly used to it.

[Comment 2] It's like the old joke: a man goes to a doctor for a physical, the doctor asks him to describe his morning routine, he says, "I wake up, I urinate, I move my bowels, I vomit, I wash my face, I shower, I shave, I --" "Hold on a minute," says the doctor. "What was that part between moving your bowels and washing your face?" "Uh, let's see -- I vomit." "You vomit every morning? "Well sure I do, Doc. Doesn't everybody?"

If something happens every day, no matter what it is, people will start to think of as normal. If it happens every day for two thousand years --

Reality, Truth and All That

A reader's comment to Understanding the Truth of Advent by Acknowledging the Reality of Death, by Rev. Amy Ziettlow
on Huffington Post:

"Should we as Christian people and families cave in to the secular expressions of the season or should we call things what they truly are?"

Since when do Christians call things what they truly are? Isn't it pretty much a requirement that you DON'T do that?

I think Sigmund Freud would've just loved the way you started out your essay with mentions of the fictional characters of Star Wars and Harry Potter in the imagination of a young child, and then went on to insist that the stories of Jesus are of a completely different nature.

I think I can hear him chuckling in his grave. (No, not REALLY.)

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

So Maybe I'm Not an Historian

Recently I tried to write a blog post here about the interconnections of some cultural, political and economic phenomena of Western civilization in the 17th century, and failed. After taking a lot of notes and writing an unusual amount of drafts, I had to conclude that I was spinning my wheels, and I hit "delete."

That's unusual for me, and it was discouraging for a while. But soon after this attempt failed, I think I suddenly grasped why it failed, and so the whole experience was not a total loss. The problem, essentially, was that I was trying to write an historical article, when the pieces I usually write are much more in the form of personal essays. One of the first pieces I posted on this blog posted the question in its title, "Am I an Historian?" At the time I answered the question: yes. Ironically, that piece was clearly a personal essay. Now I think I would answer that question, no, I'm not an historian, or at most I'm rarely one.

Not that personal essays can't contain a lot of interesting and useful historical information. It's a matter of approach and form. An historical work, for example, might say, "On July 4, 1187, knights and foot soldiers of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem fought against Moslem forces led by Saladin near the town of Hattin in present-day Israel," and proceed to tell the story of that battle, with appropriate footnotes. A personal essay, on the other hand, might tell how the writer was made aware of the works of Steven Runciman,and how Runciman describes the battle of Hattin near the end of the second volume of his History of the Crusades, and how reading Runciman inspired the writer to seek out and read some of the medieval source material relating to the Crusades and work hard on improving his Latin and feel more keenly his lack of fluency in Greek, Arabic, Hebrew and other languages. The historical piece synthesizes the source material, the personal essay points out a better historian, in this case Runciman, who has already covered the subject, and attempts to communicate and make contagious the writer's excitement in reading the historian and some of the historian's sources.

I don't have any brilliant brand-new insights into 17th-century Europe and its colonies. If I wrote, "The new freedom which existed within the Dutch republic in the 17th century, freedom for example for painters and poets and other artists and thinkers to function as free agents, with no need for aristocratic patrons, as they had never been able to do previously in Europe, with the partial exception of Michelangelo, was paradoxically made possible by an economy which ran on colonial exploitation and slavery, with thousands of slave ships passing through the port of Amsterdam," that might be wholly or partly correct, but it would not be new; no-one acquainted with the cultural and economic history of 17th-century Europe would slap his forehead in amazement upon reading this passage, rising to his feet and shouting, "New worlds open up before me!" I stopped attempting to write that historical treatise because I realized that it would contain nothing new.

But I, like everyone else, am unique. And so in directly relating my experience to the reader, I may have a greater chance of telling him or her something original, something new. What may seem at first like egotism in the form of the personal essay, I, I, I, I, may reveal itself upon closer inspection to be modesty, the realisation that the author has nothing particularly special to offer BUT what is personal.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Heaven's Gate

Last night I dreamed I was spearheading an effort to expose a link between Heaven's Gate,the movie, and the Heaven's Gate-Hale-Bopp cult. In my dream I was trying to publicize the notion that perhaps there really had been no cult, that perhaps the whole thing was just more of the effort by Cimino's enemies to sabotage him and his movie. (Cimino's a scapegoat, like Barry Bonds in baseball. The manufactured outrage about them is used more to distract from than to solve problems endemic in their respective industries.)

With the rise of home video, more and more people were actually able to see Heaven's Gate, which is a masterpiece. Okay maybe it's not your thing and maybe some of the shots are orangy -- or maybe the orangy shots are just more industry sabotage, deliberately poor image transfer from the original film to video. I don't remember earlier video versions being so orangy -- but any reasonable viewer must admit that it's interesting at the very least. See it and compare it to the awful reviews millions of people heard about when the film was released and then vanished before more than a few thousand people had had a chance to see it and decide for themselves whether or not those reviews made any sense.

They certainly made no sense to me when I first saw Heaven's Gate on VHS in 1992, except as a concerted conspiracy to derail the career of a gifted man. The film looked liked a masterpiece to me. Similar to The Deer Hunter in a lot of ways, but better.

Maybe the Hale-Bopp cult was a hoax. Maybe some producers who hate Cimino because he's not a yes-man, or because they see him as a dangerous loose cannon, or simply because he's too damn good at his job and he knows it, decided that his career was getting too close to back on track, and decided to plant a horrible subliminal message in the public's mind, associated with that movie. Maybe they hired an actor to play the creepy cult leader, told him it was a screen test or something, whatever, then they castrated him and 38 other people, dressed them in matching dorky outfits with sneakers, killed them and left them along with the "leader''s creepy tape to be discovered as the self-described Heaven's Gate cult, sexless, styleless, crazy, horribly sad all around, all just to make sure there was something else very unpleasant for people to associate with that movie -- even putting $5 in each of the victim's pockets for yet another subliminal association, because $5 is more or less what it would've cost in 1980 to get into a big-city first-run cinema to see Heaven's Gate -- unless you were a hack reviewer being paid to trash it, in which case you'd most likely seen it in a private screening before the first run, or some other big shot being comped.

Do I REALLY think that Hollywood big-shots castrated and murdered 39 people in order to create an unpleasant association with Cimino? Well...



...no, probably not. I don't think Hollywood is quite as bad as it enjoys portraying itself. Not quite as bad as, for example, the Hollywood of The Player,in which a producer not only gets away with murder, but murder actually gives a big boost to his career, makes him seem more serious and worthy of more respect. The Player is satire. (It's a great movie, though.)

But I do think that Cimino and Bonds are scapegoats in their respective industries, movies and baseball, and that what they were punished for is being uppity. They're employees, they're the help. Granted, they're very well-paid help -- but how many other peoples' pay is headline news? The nature of those two businesses is that you must pay a few uniquely-talented people something approaching what they're worth in order to offer your product to the public. Publicizing their pay is a distraction from how much money their employers make. Now there's a question people should be asking. There's the sort of question an uppity employee might pose in front of a live mike. Best to try to preemptively make them look bad beforehand.

And I do think that people take incompetent and/or dishonest reviews and other sorts of less-than-stellar journalism much too seriously, and that in consequence they think too little for themselves about the subjects of journalism, whether it's movies or baseball or politics or economics. That's my subject here: how easily opinion is molded by the media, which in turn all too often seems to be dancing on the strings of a few nasty plutocrats behind the scenes. How is Heaven's Gate less of a movie than The Deer Hunter,except as portrayed by Vincent Canby and a few other hack journalists? To take the example of a director-writer-auteur significantly sillier than Cimino, Oliver Stone, how is Stone's fun but silly old-fashioned Holly melodrama Wall Street,which got generally bad reviews and had a relatively short run in theaters before its second life as a perennial favorite on TV and video, any worse than his silly but fun old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama Platoon,released one year earlier, which reviewers generally praised to the skies and which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year? My face still scrunches into an incredulous sneer as I recall the pretentious film fans I knew in the 80's who praised Platoon so and were so contemptuous of Wall Street. To me they were silly in both cases. Well, I don't hang out with them anymore.

I really like Heaven's Gate a lot. Like The Deer Hunter, it evokes a subculture in America -- actually, in the case of Heaven's Gate, two subcultures -- and makes them feel like the viewer's whole world. Like The Deer Hunter it's full of great acting and superb visuals. Like The Deer Hunter, it's very long, but will reward your patience.

But I don't want to tell you what to think of it. I want you to make up your own mind about everything, including whether or not I know what I'm talking about on any of these subjects, and also about whether this or that movie is worth watching to begin with.

Monday, November 1, 2010

E - Readers

Recently I was in a bookstore, and I saw a sign saying "e readers," and, although I share some of the "Luddite" tendencies of some other bookworms when it comes to this -- that is to say, a powerful, visceral resistance to the idea of anything replacing traditional books, a horror at the suggestion -- suddenly I was curious, and I asked a store employee to show me how those things work.

And to my own great surprise, suddenly I became very intrigued. I have overflowing bookshelves and piles of books on the floor in most of the rooms of my house. And I like it that way, thank you very much. But I would save money with an e-reader as opposed to buying more conventional books, there's no doubt about that, and e-books would be easier to buy as well as cheaper, and I wouldn't have to think about getting a bigger house just to hold the books.

And -- the e-readers look a lot like the devices people used to read books on "Star Trek: The Next Generation." That's kind of cool. I wondered if they intentionally designed them to resemble the STTNG thingies in order to lure the middle-aged demographic, those slyboots.

But the main things which struck me when I was looking at the e-readers were, one, how much I liked them, and two, how much the whole experience reminded me of how, pre-Internet, I used to be so anti-computer, and how suddenly and completely the Internet changed that for me.

More news on this front as it happens.