Saturday, March 28, 2009

Love And Life

Following on this post from ER on the Holy Spirit, I was amazed at the near-synchronicity of listening to the Ray LaMontagne song "Empty". It contains the following lyrics:
There's a lot of things that can kill a man
There's a lot of ways to die
Yes and some already dead who walk beside you
There's a lot of things I don't understand
Why so many people lie
Well it's the hurt you hide that fuels the fires inside you

The entire song is about regret, specifically the regret that results from not having leaped at a chance at real love - for whatever reasons - and now living in the shadow of that lost chance, being reminded all the time of what could have been ("If through my cracked and dusty dimestore lips/I spoke these words out loud would no one hear me/Lay your blouse across the chair/Let fall the flowers from your hair/And kiss me with that country mouth so plain/Outside the rain is tapping on the leaves/To me it sounds like they're applauding us/The quiet love we make").

Life without love is not really life. We Christians affirm that real love - not the stupid and beaten-down discussions about the differences between the ancient Greek words for love, but the reality of human bonding that exist in so many different forms in our world - comes from God. Sex can be explained away as part of our simply being human beings with the urge to procreate. But love? More than chemistry. More than habit. It's strange and has no explanation. Whether the love of a parent for a child, the love of a friend for another friend, or two people who share so much of themselves they become one in their twoness. It makes no sense.

Yet it is so real, we can die without it. Our lives can become empty. If the Holy Spirit is life - as we Christians affirm - then this Life is nothing more or less than the quickening power of Divine Love. Each moment we are held up by a love so powerful it defies human understanding, the love that accompanied those words, "Let there be . . ."

When I hear fundies chatter about "hell", I wonder if they really have any idea that hell exists in a form with which all of us have some familiarity - the loss of love. It isn't sitting around in hot coals being poked by characters out of a Science Fiction movie. It's the utter and complete lack of love. That is at the heart of the cry of abandonment from the cross - the sudden realization that where there was once love, now there is . . . nothingness.

If being a Christian means anything at all, it means we have to live as if we know this love is a very real thing. We have to show this love to the whole world. We have to offer to a world that lives with this nothingness at its heart something to fill that void, that vacuum. In big and small ways, that is Christian mission and ministry. It isn't answering questions, or getting our words and phrases right. It's about loving the world, without having to offern any explanation as to what that love is, or even why it should be done. Without love, there is no life, so what choice do we have?

Saturday Rock Show

Usually labeled "progressive metal", the Swedish band Pain of Salvation really isn't classifiable. One of their releases, Scarsick is a hardcore, rage-filled, but also quite humorous rant against George Bush's America. I wouldn't be sure what to call them. The genesis of this song is as follows:
Before the release of "BE", Pain of Salvation had "God's Answering Machine" on their website. You could call in and leave a message to "God", whatever that word meant for you. This song is a collection of 20-30 of the most emotional and deep messages left on that machine.

Maybe not "deep", but certainly most interesting. Listen carefully, because some are heart-breaking, some are pointed, a couple are quite funny, and one is in Japanese!

If you could call God and leave him a message on the Divine answering machine, what would it be?

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Some Questions For Feodor

I intimated below that music is important to me (you may have guessed that already). It is the art form I am most familiar with, playing a couple different instruments and singing. I part-time as a mobile disc jockey (weddings, etc.). I own near to 500 CDs and am running out of room where to keep them. My interests range from the sublime (Mozart, Schubert, Coltrane, Yes) to the insanely unclassifiable (The Mars Volta, Pain of Salvation, Stravinsky). My first question is a general one - what is the place, if any, of music in your life? What do you listen to while reading, say, or doing something quiet? Is Miles Davis or Debussy more conducive to a romantic evening? Some early morning fare for me range from Pat Metheny through Vangelis to Ravi Shankar.

I am asking as a way to get to know more about you, if at all.

My second question I ask because I seriously respect your opinion, even when we differ. The following song our little "praise band" will be performing as the introit, I suppose one could call it, to Easter Sunday service. I will be playing acoustic guitar and singing lead (lyrics will be below). Discounting genre, should that be something that doesn't appeal to you, I would like to know what you think. Lisa is actually using that theme - "Let The Day Begin" - throughout not just this service but the entire Easter season. Myself, the whole litany of persons are a list of "the world" that God so loved - from new born babies to dreamers in bars to the scorned and forgotten to the successful. But, I'm a crazy liberal so what do I know?

Here's to the babies in a brand new world
Here's to the beauty of the stars
Here's to the travellers on the open road
Here's to the dreamers in the bars

Here's to the teachers in the crowded rooms
Here's to the workers in the fields
Here's to the preachers of the sacred words
Here's to the drivers at the wheel

Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Now let the day begin
Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Now let the day begin, let the day begin

Here's to the winners of the human race
Here's to the losers in the game
Here's to the soldiers of the bitter war
Here's to the wall that bears their names

Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Now let the day begin
Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Let the day begin, let the day begin, let the day start

Here's to the doctors and their healing work
Here's to the loved ones in their care
Here's to the strangers on the streets tonight
Here's to the lonely everywhere

Here's to the wisdom from the mouths of babes
Here's to the lions in the cage
Here's to the struggles of the silent war
Here's to the closing of the age.

Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Now let the day begin
Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Let the day begin

Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Let the day begin
Here's to you my little loves with blessings from above
Now let the day begin, let the day begin, let the day start

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Some Points In An Argument, Part II

Pressed for time today. It seems with the kids on Spring Break, my routine is thrown all out of whack!

Philosophy is the disciplined, intellectual pursuit of understanding. Its most basic question, not coincidentally, is also what could be considered a religious one - Why is there something rather than nothing? The earliest westerners to earn the posthumous label "philosopher" attempted to address this question, and their scraps and fragments, and the reminiscences and summaries of later chroniclers still survive.

Philosophy has survived in the west through many permutations. For a very long period - from the rise of Christianity through the early modern period - it was indistinguishable from theology. Their concerns were intertwined. The great minds of metaphysics and ethics, logic and knowledge, were also churchmen.

In the early modern and modern era, there was a definite break, as it was thought possible to pursue questions of knowledge and social order without reference to God.

Like all human intellectual and artistic pursuits, whether they are science or literature, poetry or architecture, philosophy exists at any given time as a captive of the zeitgeist within which its practitioners live and breathe. "Philosophy" never exists apart from the particular men (and a few women) who philosophize. The questions they ask are usually thought, at the time, to address the most basic questions humans then living can ask.

Considering, then, philosophy as nothing more or less than a contingent human intellectual affair, reflecting certain criteria thought to be "philosophical" without any general definition of what that might entail, a question arises. As all the various human pursuits mentioned above grow and change, some even dying out (who writes epistolary novels anymore?), I have to wonder about the habit in philosophy of considering such disparate individuals as, say Aristotle and Kant, Ockham and Derrida, Parmenides and Heidegger, or Descartes and Quine, as discussion partners, contemporaneous with one another? Why is it that is considered perfectly sound and even intellectually acceptable to peruse a 12th, 16th, or even 19th century philosopher for clues to our contemporary condition when to do so, for example, in physics or biology would hardly be thought worthy of intellectual consideration?

It is for this reason that I approach the history of western thought historically. That is to say, Abelard, Duns Scotus, Montesquieu, and Whitehead (to name just a few) are important as markers in a tradition, to be sure. But markers are all they are. They give us a snapshot of questions and proffered possible responses to those questions at any given time, while not necessarily offering anything substantive to our current dilemmas. As any cursory reading of Rorty, say, or Cornell West, or Charles Taylor (a Hegel scholar of exacting proportions) will show, while some thinkers from different times and places are offered as giving insight (for Rorty is it Nietzsche and Heidegger, although his contemporaries Thomas Kuhn and Donald Davidson are among his biggest discussion partners; for West it is the socialist tradition, as well as the African-American tradition stemming from W.E.B. DuBois as well as the Frankfurt School; for Taylor, Hegel is the beginning, but so are others who wrestle with our current dilemma of identity, and how that is reflected in social organization), they also are quie clear they are addressing the here and now, the krisis offered by the collapse of western metaphysics and the possibility for a post-Enlightenment humanism, secular, prophetic, or Catholic (Rorty, West, Taylor) that addresses our conundrum in our own dialect.

Were we to ask a question about the luminiferous ether, say, as a serious proposal in physics; if we were to offer the perspective of proponents on the various humours as they impact human health; if we considered the relative proportions of the heavenly spheres in astronomy - we would be thought anti-intellectual in the extreme, and rightly so. Yet, philosophers who believe it possible to adduce a possible solution to certain contemporary questions from the writings of someone writing hundreds of years ago in a different language, social and cultural context, and addressing wholly different questions with a whole different set of assumptions lying behind his writing is thought to be not just legitimate, but occasionally profound.

I guess I'm just anti-intellectual because I think there is something fundamentally wrong with this entire approach.

Ask Obama A Question

You can submit a question to the President here. The on-line Q&A will be Thursday morning.

Here's mine. You can vote for it, as the President will likely be answering only those questions supported by the most people:
What resources will your Administration commit to enforcing an enacted EFCA, allowing for organizing in anti-union industries and even whole areas of the country?

On The Press Conference

The reviews are in, and the press didn't fare so well. While there might be many instances of incompetence I could cite, I think Chuck Todd's question, thoroughly taken apart by Matt Yglesias stands head and shoulders above the rest.
Todd: Some have compared this financial crisis to a war and in times of war past Presidents have called for some form of sacrifice. Some of your programs whether main street or Wall Street have actually cushioned the blow for those that were irresponsible during this economic period of prosperity, supposed prosperity that you were talking about. Why, given this new era of responsibility that you're asking for why haven't you asked for something specific that the public should be sacrificing to participate in this economic recovery?

Let's start with that first sentence. "Some"? Who is this "some"? Why do you cite this anonymous group saying something that is erroneous, Chuck? Is it possible you don't know the difference between, say, a war and an economic downturn? If you do, then the question displays a remarkable amount of intellectual dishonesty. If you don't, you might want to go back and do some studying before you try to ask a question. Just framing the issue in this way - it's like we're at war, only we're not, so people who are suffering have to give up more so they can have more, or something - betrays a lack of any serious thought. Todd was being . . . OK, I'll just say it. Todd was being stupid.

One revealing confession was made by Andrew Malcolm, as reported by Media Matters for America.
Tuesday morning The Ticket examined the White House's current political strategy and asked the question who would show up at Barack Obama's second nationally-televised news conference that evening: the president or the senator?

The answer: Neither.

Professor Barack Obama showed up.

And if you remember one of those required college lecture courses in the large auditorium at 8:10 a.m. listening to a droning don, and how it felt, slumped in the cushy seats having skipped breakfast for an extra 13 minutes of ZZZZ.


this news conference seemed anticlimatic. (See video below.) At times the president appeared to be mailing in his delivery.


The result for anyone who stayed for the entire presentation was another lengthy, somber less-than-animated sales pitch for the need to spend trillions to jump-start the economy...

He can't even summon up the energy to follow along - it's all a boring early-morning college lecture, rather droll, don't you know.

We are a nation in a time of economic crisis, with a President who refuses to be stupid, do stupid, or treat the American people as if they are either stupid or need to be coddled. He speaks at length on substantive issues. He speaks knowledgeably about substantive issues. And one reporter, who was formerly a shill for Laura Bush, can't even sum up the energy to pay attention because it is so dull. Sounds like professional fail to me, but what do I know?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Some Points In An Argument, Part I (UPDATE)

This is part of an argument - hopefully respectful - I am attempting to have with Feodor. Time constraints limit me to only making a general sketch of my points, in hopes that clarification may come in comments. If you aren't interested, so sorry, but I consider this important enough to address at a bit of length and on its own.

Over here, I wanted to make clear what my philosophical position was, after having been tagged an "empiricist". Feodor's retort, which I blithely but unfairly, made sport of, was that there is little difference among various schools of thought that cannot be traced back to certain common sources (in this case, to the contract theory of Hobbes). In what follows, I wish to make my position vis-a-vis this particular assertion clear, without belittling contrary points of view. That is to say, I will attempt to make my own position clear without assuming it is "the right one to have", whatever that may mean.

Let me begin by saying that the labels attached to various schools of philosophical thought tend to be attached afterward, although this is not always the case. The term "realist", for examples, has been applied to those whose thought, in some general way, follows on the tradition from Aristotle as filtered through his Arab and Roman Catholic interpreters, especially St. Thomas. There is a robust modern realist philosophy, complete with their own journal (The Review of Metaphysics). The problem, of course, is that not every contemporary realist would consider him or herself a devotee of either Aristotle or St. Thomas, nor would every thinker who follows one or the other - or perhaps a student of one of Aristotle's Arab commentators - would consider him or herself "a realist". A good example would be Alistair MacIntyre, whose After Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality? are attempts to recapture Aristotelian ethics as the best way to do ethics in the contemporary world. MacIntyre's work is especially interesting considering part of his argument for the efficacy of an Aristotelian approach to ethics is very post-modern, viz., that much of the steam of the Enlightenment project has long since vanished (MacIntyre, himself a long-time commentator on Hume, does have a bit of expertise on this matter), and is even counter-productive considering among the legacies of the Enlightenment are the Terror and the Holocaust, not to mention the multiple inhumanities of various Marxist states.

Since there is something a bit anachronistic about the use of labels, as well as misleading due to the ways various thinkers assign them to themselves and others, it is always a risky business to engage in the equivalent of name-calling. At the same time, there are good reasons why such labels have been attached to various philosophers in the past. By grouping people as disparate as, say, Descartes and Berkeley on the one hand and Hume and Smith on the other in different schools (rationalist and empiricist, respectively), and creating a demarcation between the thought of Immanuel Kant and those who came after (usually in a line starting with Fichte, moving through Schelling, then finally to Hegel) is a good way to organize, ex post facto, the way human thought changes. In these two ways, we have a way to start taking what various thinkers have to say seriously, by linking common traits and habits and assumptions on the one hand, and in rough historical terms.

There is a link between these two that I would like to amplify. Philosophical schools are not only linked by common concerns, assumptions, and even methods. They also tend to be linked in time. The rationalists tend to be lumped, in general, chronologically starting with Descartes. The empiricists usually count John Locke, then move through various British and Scottish thinkers. There are, obviously by the name, Hegelians and Marxists - the latter still cluttering up various university departments - and even the occasional positivist (Ernst Mach is often thought of as the first, with Rudolf Carnap being the most well-known and most tedious example of the genre). Each had a heyday of sorts, or at least a period when others of like concern could argue amongst themselves without a whole lot of recourse to explanation as to assumptions, methods, etc. Yet, as time has passed, so has the period in which these various schools were ascendant. Even though there are Thomists who use the label quite self-consciously, I would find it difficult to conceive of a "pure" Thomist for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is there is much in St. Thomas that is "dodgy", to use a favorite British term I like.

British empiricism, running roughly from the late-17th through the late-18th centuries, concerned itself with certain questions considered fundamental to the early-modern project - how is it we human beings can say we "know" something? Of what would such "knowledge", properly understood, consist? What is the proper organizing of human society in order that justice, as a commonly understood predicate of human society, can reign? Their starting point was pretty simple - what human beings "know" the acquire through their senses, primarily sight. Thus, only "empirical knowledge" (which Kant changed to "experience") owns the name in any way that is defensible. There are no "innate ideas", nor are there "clear and distinct ideas", as any skeptical critique demonstrates. Of course, Hume took such skepticism a bit further, applying it to empiricism itself, showing that even "empirical knowledge" gained through the senses hardly warrants the basis of a theory of knowledge.

A pragmatist, by contrast, thinks this entire project silly. The questions asked by empiricists are not questions that are either interesting or particularly fruitful. Part of the reason for this attitude is the passage of time. Locke, Hume, Smith did not have the historical experience of the French Revolution and the ensuing Bonapartist counter-revolution. They did not have the intellectual legacy of Darwin and Mendel, of Freud and Nietzsche, of two world wars, of Einstein and Heisenberg. These historical facts and intellectual revolutions mean something for a pragmatist. Of what possible use is it to think that philosophy can pronounce judgment on "the Truth" as a philosophical concept, transcendent of time and space, in an age that recognizes the contingency of human agency? Of what possible benefit is there in insisting that "our" understanding of the good society is a glimpse of The Good as a transcendental, other than to congratulate ourselves on our cleverness, profundity, and insight? Does such a claim clinch an argument? Is it even possible to defend?

The big difference, then, between empiricism as a philosophical school and pragmatism as an ongoing project, then, is one not so much of "overcoming" the problems of the past, as it is recognizing them for what they really are - historical contingencies rather than glimpses of the Eternal entering time - and setting them aside. This does not mean there aren't important and interesting things for philosophy to do, or important questions still to be asked. The difference, however, is the insistence that philosophy needs to rid itself of the conceit that it sits in the place of Plato's philosopher-kings, a tribunal of last resort judging among various human intellectual and political and juridical pursuits, and proclaiming them either correct or not. It is the temptation to believe it necessary to ask questions, and seek answers, in such a way that the end result is something "beyond language" or even "beyond thought". The True. The Good. Even, The Beautiful.

If there is, indeed, something "behind" a sentence that makes it not just true, but "True", yet what "that" is cannot of its very nature be expressed, what possible good is done by making such a claim? If some form of social organization is not only just, but Just, yet what that is cannot be spelled out in words, has anything of value or insight been said?

The questions an 18th century British empiricist would still consider of vital importance, a 21st century American pragmatist shrugs his or her shoulders at, sets them to one side, and asks a completely different set of questions. Precisely because we do not live in 18th century Great Britain, but in the early years of the 21st century in America.

As for the road analogy - a 21st century road follows an 18th century road - I would counter that this is just factually inaccurate. Leaving north out of my hometown of Waverly, NY is New York Route 34, which begins in my humble village of origin, and winds up in Syracuse, after traversing through Ithaca and other scenic and not-so-scenic places. Along the way, about five miles north of Waverly, to the east about one hundred yards, is a parallel road, names "Old Route 34". At one time, Route 34 took a very different path, at least through this particular stretch of land, having been moved west ever so slightly, for reasons whether of smoothing the ride, engineering or whatnot. While the difference may seem trivial, it was certainly necessary enough to build an entirely new stretch of road slightly to the west of the original.

Similarly, New York Route 17, which stretches from New York City, travels up through the Catskills and across the southern tier of New York all the way past Jamestown, ending just to the west of Erie, PA, was superseded during the late 1960's and early 1970's by a four-lane highway of the same name. Opened early due to lack of funds to continue the project (as well as the pressure put on local communities due to the Watkins Glen Music Festival in 1971, forcing the highway to become a large parking lot from Bath to Binghamton), the four-lane, limited access highway became a suburban thoroughfare through the communities of Horseheads and Corning. For years, one had to go right through downtown Corning. Until, that is, in the 1980's, funds were assigned to build a by-pass. Similarly, one no longer has to stop at traffic lights in Horseheads, as a similar by-pass has been constructed so traffic can flow without the inconvenience of having to stop and start (as well as ridding the world of the speed trap on west bound Route 17 as one comes in to Horseheads and is forced, on an almost 90-degree blind curve to slow to 40 mph). In other words, over time, better ways of building roads are discovered that don't follow the old paths.

UPADTE: I realize this post is already too long and much too dull, but I just wanted to put up a quote from Richard Rorty that makes my point far better than I have been able to do. This is from pp.xxxviii-xxxix of the Introduction to The Consequences of Pragmatism:
The question of whether the pragmatist is right to be so sanguine [i.e., hopeful that the prospect of a post-Philosophical culture will be better than the previous] is the question of whether a culture is imaginable, or desirable, in which no one- or at least no intellectual - believes that we have, deep down inside us, a criterion for telling whether we are in touch with reality or not, when we are in the Truth. This would be a culture in which neither the priests nor the physicists nor the poets nor the Party were thought of as more "rational," more more "scientific" or "deeper" than one another. No particular portion of culture would be singled out as exemplifying (or signally failing to exemplify) the condition to which the rest aspired. There would be no sense that, beyond the current intra-disciplinary criteria, which, for example, good priests or good physicists obeyed, there were other, transdisciplinary, transcultural, ahistorical criteria, which they also obeyed. There would still be hero-worship in such a culture, but it would not be worship of heroes as children of the gods, as marked off from the rest of mankind by closeness to the immortal. It would simply be admiration of exceptional men and women who were very good at doing the quite diverse kinds of things they did. Such people would not be those who knew a Secret, who had won through to the Truth, but simply people who were good at being human.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Music For Your Monday

After Saturday's post on Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush, I got thinking about how much I love good electric guitar work. Not simple shredding - although that can be fun. Good guitar work, for me, is about more than technical prowess. It's about using tone and effects, constructing not just catchy hooks and chords, but building upon these basics to create a total effect. The total, in other words, is greater than sum of all the parts. It requires more than being able to move your four fingers really fast all around the fret-board. A guitarist should know something about the electronics of his instruments and how they contribute to the effect he is trying to make. He should know about building emotion through switching tones, changing the pallet of sound. He should also, I think, Have a certain clarity of sounds - I really am no fan of the kind of heavily distorted sound one hears on some overamplified Gibson guitars. Notes and effect get lost in the barrage of sheer sound.

Eric Johnson has been criticized for being far too much of a perfectionist. A friend of mine saw him in the G3 concert series, and said he spent almost five minutes between two songs tuning, saying nothing to the audience during the process. Yet, he manages to create multiple tones from his guitar in a single song. In this, one of my favorite songs from his debut solo recording (coincidentally named Tones), you can hear what I mean. This is "Bristol Shore":

There is probably no guitarist today who knows his instrument, and what he can do with it, to it, on it, and through it more than Joe Satriani. While certainly a shredder extraordinaire, he also constructs beautiful pieces of music that do more than showcase his technical abilities, but use those abilities for the purposes of the song. I am still saddened by the fact I lost my copy of Flying In A Blue Dream in one of my many moves over the years. There any number of cuts from that recording that make my point, but the title track, especially in its live version, show that he even has the ability to use feedback in a way no one since Jimi Hendrix has managed to do - make what is essentially a warning of electrical overload, in to something musical. Even with the volume, his tone is clear, there is nothing muddy - he manages to make this more than just a conglomeration of notes and sounds, turning it into a song.

I must admit a weak spot for the kind of guitar sound one heard in mid- to late-1970's music. Part of that, of course, is this was the music to which I was first exposed. Yet, I find it hard to imagine anyone arguing that, just at the level of pure sound, there is something not beautiful about the way guitars were amplified, in such a way as to cut through the mass of sound, and deliver what they were supposed to deliver - something emotive. I have always like Peter Frampton's guitar sound on his Comes Alive album, and my remastered CD brings this out even better than any vinyl recording of it I've heard. One of the best cuts is the lovely "Lines On My Face", again using multiple tone textures and even something as simple as altering volume to create a change in emotive quality. With the limits on technology, apparent especially now, it is really quite amazing what he could accomplish.

I need ideas for next week. Echo and the Bunnymen, maybe? Depeche Mode? Something different, to be sure.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Why Is Charles Murray On The Op-Ed Pages Of The Post?

The only answer to this question must be that pool of available right-wing, racist pseudo-scholars is very, very small.

Reading this - even the headline - was an exercise in discipline for me.

I suppose I could spend a whole lot of time showing that Murray either doesn't know that history might make all the difference in the world between European countries and the United States, or doesn't believe it is true. After all, this is a guy who wrote an entire book on the importance of IQ, which no serious researcher in neuroscience considers worthy of a second glance (and even his book, The Bell Curve, was deeply flawed research on any number of levels), so it might just be that he blithely types away, thinking he's saying something important when in reality he is just being really stupid.

I could do all that, or I could just say . . . Bwahahahahahahahaha!

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