Friday, May 04, 2012

Untangling The Web II: Notes Toward A Medium Opus VIII

It was nothing to find a glaring contradiction in the thought of a major philosopher. In fact, it's the easiest thing in the world. As I explained to my thesis adviser - who knew Popper and was impressed with my thesis - the goal was to move from this reassessment of the structure and nature of Popper's thought to a consideration of Popper and Kuhn, as well as Paul Feyerabend and Imre Lakatos, on what science is.

In The Copernican Revolution, one long-standing issue with which Kuhn deals is what, precisely, was at stake as astronomy moved from pre-Copernican to Copernican views of the heavens. One thing most assuredly was not even a question, nor would have been understood to be such, was whether or not the Ptolemaic cosmology offered a more accurate representation of the Universe. It was a particular conceit, particularly in the 18th century, to consider Copernicus' De Revolutionibus nothing less than a complete shift not only in astronomy, but in the way we human beings understand the universe and our place in it. Actually reading Copernicus, however, should disabuse anyone of such an idea.

Since Ptolemy, astronomy had been a thoroughly quantitative science; by the early 16th century, it had developed to the point that the equations used to describe the movement of the planets against the background of "fixed stars" might not have been recognizable, yet was clearly within the parameters set by Ptolemy. The increasing complexity of the equations involved was a result of attempts to account for observed variations in the purported regular motion. Of acute concern was what is known as the retrogression of Mars. As Mars moves across the sky, at irregular intervals, it appears to move backward against the fixed stars. Other issues, from slight variations in the periodicity of Mercury to similar, yet less frequent and small, retrogressions of Jupiter and Saturn, had led to the creation of what were called "cycles" and then, added to these, "epicycles", sometimes several piled upon one another as repeated observations invalidated previous attempts to resolve observed irregularities.

In their simplest terms, the cycles and epicycles were mathematical representations of variations on the assumed circular motion of the planets within their "spheres". Rooted in a Platonized Pythagorean dedication to the "perfection" of the heavenly realm, this insistence on understanding the movement of the planets within "spheres" that traced perfect circles led astronomers to include calculations in which the spheres appeared to circle round particular foci, then the center of these alternate movements also became foci for further "epicycles". Copernicus offered a couple simple suggestions. The mounting number and complexity of cycles and epicycles was clearly far too complex to make the construction of tables of planetary motion - needed for everything from calculating the planting and harvesting of crops through regularizing calendrical conventions to calculating certain holidays - so Copernicus suggested shifting the earth from the center to a position in orbit around the new center, the sun. In so doing, dozens of cycles and epicycles dropped away, and Copernicus offered the promise of more precise calculation in the future.

At no time had Copernicus suggested that the Sun was the actual physical center of the solar system or universe. Indeed, had such a notion been ascribed to him (the work was published posthumously, in large part because it took him so long to redo the new calculations), it would have been unintelligible to him. Astronomy had nothing to do with the structure of the heavens. It was a way to calculate the movement of pinpoints of light human beings used to determine the passing of the seasons and years; the cosmos was as God created it, with the heavenly realm a place of perfection, with God - not this or that heavenly sphere - at the center. It took over a century for the full implications of Copernicus humble suggestion for clearing away the rubble from mathematical astronomy to be felt.

Along the way there was the not unimportant fact that the promise of better predictive results from streamlining away dozens of those epicycles didn't pan out. In fact, reverting to earlier tables, with the earth at the center and all those circles around circles around circles, rendered more accurate observable results, at least in the case of Jupiter and Saturn, than Copernicus' innovation. Furthermore, most astronomers were wary of the innovation, not because it violated some theological or philosophical conviction, but for the far more mundane reason that people don't like innovation.

At no time during the century and a half of the working out of Copernicus' theory did anyone consider that the developing theory of the structure of the heavenly spheres (as they continued to be called) prove either that the previous view was "wrong" in that it did not correspond to the way the universe was "really"; nor did they believe the new discoveries demonstrated that the developing science of astronomy now had a more accurate "picture" of the universe. This popular notion - that the Copernican Revolution succeeded because it offered a more accurate representation of the "real" structure and shape of the solar system - is mistaken for one simple reason: no one actually involved in the controversies of the century and a half from Copernicus afterward would have understood the issues in those terms. 

The broader implications, for Kuhn's narrative, should be clear enough. Elaborating on them in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn makes the exact same point Popper had made: Science is not about representing to us the way the world "is". Rather, science is the construction of mathematical and verbal models, which themselves exist within interlocking, contingent frames of reference (here, Kuhn fell back upon the idea from psychology of Gestalt) for which there exists no outside arbitrator to decide how accurately they represent "the world". Language, it seems, even the mathematical sciences, do not "represent" anything; science uses the tools available, including language, broader social understandings, and the various rules of social interaction and discourse, to make clear, in terms that are always contingent and sometimes unintelligible across the barriers of language, society, and time, how we understand the world. This description of science is little different from Popper's. The difference between the two men - and Popper's essay in Criticism and The Growth of Knowledge is one of the most condescending pieces of writing from one scholar to another I've read - was Popper's assumption that the rules of logic and mathematical rationality were constants that were the bones upon which the contingent structures of science hung. Kuhn, on the other hand, while certainly not disparaging rationality, made the point over and over again, that this was never a matter under dispute. His was not an attack on science or human reason. It was, rather, a description of the scientific enterprise that made clear something in which both men believed: Science does not represent "the world".

There is no way for human beings to represent with anything like accuracy or even approximation "the world" precisely because "the world" is an open system; science, limited by the fact that it is a human construct with all sorts of factors both within language itself as well as extraneous factors, clarifies particular matters of interpreting and understanding the world without ever making the category error that it, somehow, "describes" the "world".

I offered this as the topic I wanted to explore for my dissertation, and my thesis adviser told me to go for it. The only reason I didn't entered the world on July 10, 1997. The happiest decision I ever made was turning my back of the above because I had this beautiful tiny bundle of new person for which to care.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Untangling The Web I: Notes Toward A Medium Opus VII

All the while I was taking classes at CUA, I was also searching for a suitable topic for a Master's Thesis that would serve as a good starting point for a dissertation. I arrived at the conclusion that I wanted to reconcile the irreconcilable: The philosophies of Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn could not seem more different. At the same time what each said seemed, at least intuitively, correct. How could this be possible?

Much of the first half of the 20th century in philosophy were consumed with the question of Truth. By this, they weren't concerned with whether or not something was factual or not; rather, the question was, and remained for a long time, a variation on Kant's dilemma in The Critique of Pure Reason: How is it possible that human beings represent to themselves the world in such a way that correct judgments both about the world and human action in the world can be made with any reliability? The assumption behind Kant's query was that the world, whatever that word might be, existed independently of human beings. In order for the world to be intelligible, this manifold noumenal world had to be rendered in to discrete phenomenal events through a series of epistemological structures within the human mind. That human beings only receive their impressions of the world mediately, through their senses, the world as noumena is ultimately this shadowy whole; our encounter cannot penetrate to what Kant called the Thing-in-Itself, but rather had to settle for understanding that our knowledge claims were always only about our sensory impressions of the phenomena filtered through a series of categories that gave shape, form, and substance to our experience.

The big shift, however, between this (admittedly rough) sketch of Kantian epistemology was where intelligibility was rendered. For Kant it was the categories of synthetic judgment within the human mind. In the early 20th century, it became language. Back in the dim, dark 1980's, reading up on the background to Adolf Hitler, I remembered reading that Vienna, from roughly the 1880's through the beginning of the First World War, was an even greater hub of exciting experimental discussion than Paris or London or Berlin. In particular, the focus became human language. The pre-Great War epitome of this was, of course, Sigmund Freud, for whom the words we use can be clues to unlock our hidden, repressed desires. After the war, a group of philosophers, impressed by Freud's explorations of the way language can render the unconscious intelligible, sought to expand the way it was language that offered a way for common intelligibility.

Impressed with the way science, particularly physics, had made huge strides in the first two decades of the century, they thought it was by clarifying what it is science does, and how it does it, that the way language creates intelligibility could create the conditions for understanding how we human beings make sense of the world. They became known as the Vienna Circle. Their way of doing philosophy was called "logical positivism".

Their first order of business was, strange enough, not to clarify our understanding of science, but rather to declare what words were, by their very nature, unintelligible. Along with pretty much the whole vocabulary of theology, such words as love and freedom and justice were simply dismissed as inherently unintelligible, therefore of little to no interest to philosophy. Not winning a whole lot of friends, they then declared, through a series of essays and monographs, what it was scientists did and how they did it. Not a single physicist of whom I'm aware jumped up and down upon reading, say, Otto Neurath's understanding of protocol sentences precisely because, despite an overstated devotion to science, the logical positivists weren't speaking about science.

When Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery first appeared, however, many scientists, and not just physicists, at least nodded their heads. Describing the scientific enterprise as the careful accumulation of a series of data, as defined by strict experimental guidelines within an ordered, intelligible theory that provided an hypothesis for which an experiment served as a falsifying test, I can't imagine a more succinct description of the scientific enterprise.

At the heart of Popper's discussion was the question of intelligibility and the relationship between science and truth. Early on in Logic, Popper states quite explicitly that no event in the world can falsify any sentence. Setting forth, very thoroughly and carefully, the rules that limit and determine the structure, function, and method of scientific theories and what constitutes their testability, Popper is adamant that, like that old joke about the tortoises that make up the universe, it's sentences all the way down. This position - that the meaning of scientific theories was entirely conventional, limited only to the definitional limits set forth within the theories themselves - was one from which he ever wavered. 

Later in his career, Popper published an essay in his collection, Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach entitled "Epistemology Without A Knowing Subject" in which he argued, quite forcefully, that he was now and always had been a philosophical realist, and that his theory of science was little more than an elaboration of that dedication to the most basic principle of realism: the world is intelligible, and we human beings approach true knowledge as we eliminate false understandings through rigorous adherence to the principles of science. Nothing, however, could be more wrong. A philosophical realist is dedicated to the idea that the world outside human experience exists with its own integrity. One of the corollaries of realism is what is known as the correspondence theory of truth: Our representations of the extra-human world are true if and only if there is a direct, one-to-one correspondence between these representations and that external reality. Yet, Popper was quite clear, and adamant, that scientific theories, and the sentences rendering them both intelligible and testable, were mere conventions; he was further clear and adamant that there was nothing "out there" that could falsify any sentence human beings made regarding the world.

This was a rather glaring problem, to say the least. While Popper was clear that he was not a positivist, his own description of science made it clear that he was, indeed, just that. A curious kind of positivist, to be sure; he was disdainful of the work, for example, of Rudolf Carnap*, perhaps the most respected of the logical positivists whose Meaning and Necessity was perhaps the greatest attempt to create a grammar and semantics within philosophy that was limited to logical coherence. Most people don't even read Carnap anymore, but at the time the disputes between Carnap and Popper hinged precisely on Popper's rejection of Carnap's wholly logical attempt to render human language intelligible.

For Popper, definitions, like sentences and axioms and theories and hypotheses and the rest of science, are all conventions. Setting forth criteria for universal intelligibility, the great project of the end of Carnap's career, would make scientific advancement impossible precisely because it would make no room for the conventional nature of the language of science. I planned on solving this problem, in essence, by making clear through a detailed look at both claims in the two different works - and Popper's adamant insistence on his own consistency - and offer the view that, in fact, what Popper called "The Third World" (the world outside human control and reason) was little more than the sum total of the basic statements not yet falsified by scientific experiment. He as much as admitted this to be the case, although, again, denying he ever said such a thing. From here, I hoped to move toward reconciling Kuhn and Popper on the question of science, the world, and the matter of truth and reality.

*If you ever have insomnia, pick up Open Court Publisher's Library of Living Philosopher's volume on Carnap. You may never finish the 1000 pages, but you will enjoy long nights of dreamless, uninterrupted slumber.

Getting Medieval On Your Ass: Notes Toward A Medium Opus VII

Every story has a through-line. In this case, it's the relationship among all this disparate stuff, always with one eye not only on how it all fits together, but how "making sense of the world" is done. When I arrived at the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America for the fall semester in 1995, I discovered their through-line was simple enough: human understanding peaked at the University of Paris and St. Thomas; the whole narrative structure of their approach both to the history of philosophy and its product became intelligible once you grasped that.

Whether general survey classes - in four semesters, from the pre-Socratics to Rorty and Searle - thematic courses (moral philosophy from Aquinas through Kant to Mill), or seminars (Aristotle's Politics, Heidegger's Being and Time, even Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil) the point all along was to show that, for all its vaunted successes, thought after Aquinas was, as some theologian said of St. Augustine's influence, merely footnotes.

This was driven home to me in a seminar I took on Isaac Newton's Principia. If it seems odd to read one of the major texts of post-Renaissance science in a philosophy class, you probably shouldn't feel bad. I took the class because it was offered, because my concentration was the philosophy of science, and because I needed to get a handle on the particulars of certain key points in the history of science if getting to my own point - making Popper and Kuhn work together - was going to work. For those not familiar with it, the Principia is the single text that created what most people think of when they consider "physics". Indeed, the so-called "Laws of Motion" are introduced at the very beginning by way of making clear the axioms Newton will be using throughout as he works through various mathematical problems related to bodies in motion (if you ever idly think of cracking Newton's opus to see what's inside, you should bone up on your geometry first; most of it is just that).

After these "laws" are introduced, he goes on, in the first section, to demonstrate their usefulness. One of the problems he addresses through careful application of these laws concerns the precise definition of curvilinear motion. The laws work far better for calculating such motion - useful for astronomers who are trying to figure out planetary motion, as well as artillery gunners for calculating what angle to set their pieces; who said math wasn't practical, right? - when one, as Newton states in an early lemma, or problem, considers the areas of the triangles formed by (a) the path of the body in motion; (b) some arbitrary, stationary point; (c) the distance between these two at successive time intervals, as proceeding to infinity. In other words, demonstrating the greater precision for calculation inherent in the Laws includes assuming something - a set of potentially infinite objects - that for centuries was firmly denied any reality. We came to that particular problem, and a fellow student - who went, where else, but Aquinas College - started in (and here I'm not quoting, but paraphrasing from memory), "But, Aristotle made clear in the Physics [quoting book, chapter, and line] that this is impossible. Newton just jumps in and says its necessary. How is that possible?" The professor began to explain that, while Aristotle indeed proclaimed an actual infinity to be impossible, Newton here only states that one should "imagine" this set of triangles going on to infinity. The student, continued on for a bit until finally asking the question that I couldn't imagine anyone saying: "Doesn't this invalidate Newton's work?" 

"Last time I checked, Newton was right and Aristotle was wrong," I said. Several eyes turned to me. 

The young man, so earnest and full of Aristotle and St. Thomas, started quoting both of them, and I shook my head. "You do understand that Newton was right." He entered, yet again, in to a long quote session, impressing himself with his ability to cite and quote passages from these gentlemen from memory. I think the oxygen level in the room fell long enough for him to shut up, so I tried another tack: "Are you suggesting that the history of western science, from the 17th century until now, is flawed because Aristotle insisted that an actual infinity was impossible? Because, see, if you insist that Newton 'cannot' do what he has done in the way he has done it, then you are insisting that western science, rooted in calculus that takes potential and actual infinities seriously, is wrong despite its evident success."

Like discussions on the internet, my point was lost on this young man who was so intent on repeating, yet again, what Aristotle had said. When the day came to turn in our papers - I have to be honest and admit I have no recollection of what I submitted; I got an "A" in the class, though, not that it means that much - I saw the title of this young man's: "To Infinity And Beyond". Thirty pages revising and extending his original in-class remarks. I was in the presence of a certain kind of brilliance; I was also in the presence of near-insane myopia.

Part of figuring out the world includes using the best available tools to do the job. There is little doubt that the work of Aristotle was important as well as influential. There is little doubt that his qualitative discussions of motion and rest, of time and space, are well-written, concise, and intelligible. This was the first time, however, I met anyone who didn't understand that he was wrong about, well, pretty much everything when it came to these matters. I wouldn't use a chariot to get around, not because there's something inherently wrong with a chariot, but because there are better modes of transportation available. I might study the construction of a chariot, admire the simplicity and economy of the design of so versatile a vehicle, but I wouldn't use one, or recommend its use. So, too, my thoughts regarding philosophers. I can admire the subtlety of Aristotle, the poetry of Plato, the precision of Ockham, the moral fervor of Kant all the while understanding that they have little to no relevance to our world. Trying to consider them as anything more than museum pieces demonstrates, for me, a fundamental failure to take them seriously; it also demonstrates a failure to take our world seriously.

We are nearing our conclusion here, but it is important to make one point clear.  It is important to wrestle with what these and many other people thought if one has an interest in understanding, say, how human beings have asked and answered questions regarding why things exist, the nature of the good life, the best possible society for achieving the end of realizing our common humanity.  One should never dismiss them, most of all if one has no knowledge of what they said, or the way they said it, precisely because such things are clues to the larger question of how different human beings in different societies make sense of the world around them.  Trying to make them contemporary commentators, however, does violence to their thought as well as trivializes our current reality, essentially insisting it is in no way different from times far removed from us in time and space and the particular differences of history.  Disregarding these differences demonstrates, for me, not only a lack of clarity, but a lack of seriousness.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Self-Taught Can't Be Done: Notes Toward A Medium Opus VI

The year between my decision to study philosophy and actually entering graduate school I learned that if a person who represents himself in court has a fool for a client, an auto-didact has a moron for a student and an ignoramus for a teacher.

Ignorance has never been a deterrent in human affairs, so why should I be any different?

Reading through the essays in Criticism and The Growth of Knowledge, it became clear to me that if I was going to figure out what my subject was all about, not only would I have to go back and re-read Kuhn, there was this other guy I was going to have to read. The fact that Karl Raimund Popper wrote a lot during his very long life wasn't intimidating. More books? Bring them on. At the same time, the specific criticism Popper made of Kuhn in his essay in Criticism demonstrated to me that Popper just didn't understand Kuhn. At no time did I think it odd that I had absolutely no basis upon which to lay such a claim, and even less understanding of the questions and issues at stake. 

So, there was Popper. There was one of the editors of the volume, whose very long essay - "The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes" - demonstrated that he was yet another person of interest on the matter. Other, somewhat related subjects appeared.  For example, there is what is called the sociology of knowledge. This is addressed generally, as in Peter Berger's The Social Construction of Reality or specifically, such as David Bloor's Knowledge and Social Imagery* or Steven Shapin's A Social History of Truth.

Popper's Logic of Scientific Discovery was an immodest work by an immodest thinker. If anything characterizes Popper's entire career as a philosopher, it is a palpable, smug satisfaction that he exists in a world of fools, some of them quite dangerous**. Dismissive of pretty much everyone from the 19th century neo-Kantians through the Vienna Circle Logical Positivists (whom, he insisted, didn't understand what he was doing) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (in a sarcastic footnote early in his magnum opus that is an example of ur-snark anyone writing on the internet should admire), Popper not only argued that was setting forth a clear understanding of scientific practice and knowledge, but precisely because science was the one true way to Knowledge and Truth, he was setting forth the only path to Knowledge and Truth. The rest of his career, everything Popper wrote with the exception of his The Open Society and Its Enemies was dedicated to defending the basic structure he set forth in his first, major monograph.

Popper's description of science is simple enough to summarize: Using the deductive method (as opposed to induction, assumed since Bacon's Novum Organum to be the logical method of the emerging sciences; the Logical Positivists, who reigned as the philosophical definers of science, were particularly enamored of it), scientists construct theories out of a series of basic statements (a technical term he introduced that far too many people confused with the "protocol sentences" of the Logical Positivists; more on these later) along with specific criteria for falsifying their theories (as opposed to verifying theories, the preferred approach of, you guessed it, the Logical Positivists; if you're detecting a theme here, you're spot on). The work itself is long and detailed, including a very long section on the roll of probability, particularly in regards to quantum mechanics, in falsification, but this suffices for the major points to which Popper would return again and again. And again. And again.

My problem, which I didn't even know I had, was figuring out what, precisely, all this meant. What are the stakes in these competing visions of the scientific project? What is the relationship between these abstruse musings on the nature of human knowledge and understanding and my own, still whispered, questions regarding what any of it might mean for figuring out how it related to all this other stuff I'd learned at seminary, and other concerns including shaping it in to some coherent whole.

Lacking any context for really understanding the stakes and issues, I had, in a sense, been introduced to yet another conversation in yet another language, been taught a few words so I wouldn't be completely lost, yet thought I was ready to jump right in. When I started graduate school in the autumn semester of 1995, I had no idea that pretty much everything I'd taught myself the previous year would vanish in short order, leaving me with . . . well, that's for more posts.

*I discovered a great go-to publisher for titles in philosophy and history of science is University of Chicago Press. Many academic publishers have specialty imprints or specialize in certain topics. I learned very quickly to scan through the catalog from UoCPress for something new and interesting.

**While in the midst of graduate studies, a now-famous work entitled Wittgenstein's Poker was published.  Musing on matters of contemporary philosophy, the title recalls the one, infamous encounter between Popper and Wittgenstein, each of whom held the other in contempt for what each believed to be the other's idiocy.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The Kitten-Burning Trap

Poor Dan.

Had I read some conservative blogger bemoan all those callous, unfeeling liberal bloggers who care not a whit for women who suffer under various legal or traditional regimes of terror, my response would have been quite different. As with the whole kitten-burning phenomenon (original link to slacktivist post suffering from link rot), puffing up one's chest in moral indignation over something about which one can do nothing proves nothing, costs nothing, risks nothing, and gains only an enlarged sense of one's superiority.

Who cares that some American Christian sitting behind his desk somewhere denounces violence against women half a world away, in a land and society and under conditions with which he is completely unfamiliar, in which he has no real experience, and over which no amount of moral denunciation will have any effect? Color me singularly unimpressed by such nonsense.

It takes no balls at all to call stuff "bad" long distance, especially if one understands there will be no price incurred for doing so. Denouncing violence against women here at home, whether physical, psychological, or in some other fashion, still entails great costs. Not the least of them being the insistent denial that such things are as important as other matters, or that such concerns are either exaggerated or false; of course, if you try to shelter a battered woman from an abusive partner, that entails the very real risk of very real physical harm. Having been there, let me testify as to the dangers in doing that.

It takes no courage at all to be better than anyone else. So, um, who the hell cares?

That's the post I would have written. Not wishing to be seen as complicit in some fashion with violence against women, Dan made sure he said the obvious. Which means whoever the conservative blogger in question might be, that person won.

Let Me Be Laid Aside For Thee

The peculiar genius of John Wesley lay in two, related, ideas. First and foremost, he taught that we are not Christians in isolation; only in a community of shared accountability can the Christian life be lived with both faith and integrity. Pursuant to that stated desire was the insistence on occasional meetings that Wesley referred to as Holy Conferencing. While the specifics may have changed and even become institutionalized, the principle is still alive. From the local church conference each year through the quadrennial General Conference, currently under way in Tampa, FL, we people called Methodists gather to work together to discern the Spirit's call in our collective lives. It's clunky, filled with politics either bad or horrible, and occasionally devoted to trivia, but it's a system worth preserving.

Or so I thought.

Heading in to this year's General Conference, the emphasis was obviously going to be on the Call To Action report from the Connectional Table. While there is little disagreement over the need for flexibility and change in the denomination to meet changing circumstances, the hope, as always, was CtA would be a starting point for larger discussions regarding change within the denomination. In the meantime, other matters of no less import arose that, under different circumstances, should have prompted at least as much discussion.

Last year, the Judicial Council, the denomination's highest court, upheld the right of local clergy under appointment to withhold membership in a local congregation to any individual. I've read the decision several times and I'm still scratching my head at how they arrived at it, given our history, our Discipline, and our laws.

There are eight states where same-sex marriage/civil unions are legal. In none of these eight states can a United Methodist pastor under appointment officiate without the threat of losing his or her orders. Even if the couple in question are members of the pastor's congregation. Apparently, some within the denomination, who favor local clergy discretion when it comes to keeping gays out, don't trust it enough to allow pastors to perform perfectly legal ceremonies at their discretion.

Instead of dealing with these matters, CtA and an alternative called Plan "B" died in a bitter, divisive committee fight on Saturday night. One part of the "reform", however, passed today. No longer will clergy in full connection be guaranteed an appointment. In essence, the United Methodist Church has as much as admitted that accountability - which begins from the moment an individual approaches a member of the clergy to discuss a possible call to ordained ministry - has failed. Furthermore, without any word whether this same kind of reckoning will be applied to members of the hierarchy - the District Superintendents and Bishops - I'm curious how that might work. If it is indeed the will of the General Conference that local pastors be held personally responsible for various performance metrics, why not extend that? Who, then, would be the first District Superintendent to go to his or her Bishop with a list of underperforming clergy? Wouldn't such be a blatant admission of managerial, administrative failure? As a practical matter, the whole issue is fraught; absent the whole idea of accountability, it is little more than window dressing, although as a declaration that we as a Church body no longer adhere to one of our core principles, it is still pretty disheartening.

Later on this morning's session, some changes were made to the wording of the preamble to the Book of Resolutions, declaring God's grace is available for all. Since the church, as a practical matter, ignores this, I have to wonder why such a vote is a success. As a friend on Facebook noted, that it only passed with 57% of the vote, that's a stunning statement that nearly half those sent to our denomination's highest legislating body do not accept the Wesleyan understanding of prevenient grace.

I'm struggling at the moment as to what all this portends. Part of me hopes the worst is over, although one should never underestimate the stupid at things like this. My prayers for the United Methodist Church at the moment are simple enough: That we survive our best efforts to act like the crew of the Titanic first building an iceberg, then steering straight for it.

Our Thin-Skinned Tough Guys

A few things that are out and about make me wonder why anyone, anywhere, thinks we might yet rescue ourselves from our descent in to Fourth World status as a nation. The same folks who advertise themselves as the tough-minded men's men ready to make the hard choices and stand up to the enemies that surround us have difficulty not flinching when the guy sitting next to them reaches his arm up to smooth his hair.

Some folks are up in arms because the President noted that, when he was first a candidate for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney said he might well not send American forces in to Pakistan if it was discovered that was where Osama bin Laden was hiding. The President didn't call Romney a pussy or a wuss. He didn't say Romney hated America because he wasn't wearing enough flag pins on his lapel. He didn't even question Romney's provenance because his father was the native of another country. Nope, he merely noted something his opponent said, and made the point, none too gingerly, that folks should take candidates for public office at their word and words.

Then there are those poor put-upon Christians suffering because Dan Savage is telling people that some Christians are violent assholes. Because what Dan Savage did is, as everyone knows, exactly the same thing all those fags claim people do to them only worse.

There are large swaths of the American Right that are populated by such fragile creatures, its a wonder they leave their homes.

The Story So Far: Notes Toward A Medium Opus V

Last week, I saw a BBC report on the latest from the Cassini Spacecraft orbiting Saturn. I was struck almost immediately with a fit of nostalgia for that long ago summer afternoon when I first discovered human's initial close encounter with the planet. It was the awakening of a kind of curiosity inside me about the world, how we understand it, and how we may well not understand it. Over the years, I've ranged far and wide in my courses of study, prompted by concerns of the moment or long-standing interests, but at the heart of all of it is a simple desire to figure out a couple basic questions: How is it we human beings understand the world around us? Is it possible these things are connected in some way, ways perhaps that we overlook in our pursuit of different kinds of understanding? Is this understanding linked in any way that might yet prove fruitful for making our life together as over six billion people on this planet not just less hazardous, but easier for all?

So far, I've mentioned a few names, teachers I've had in class and instructors who have offered their works to the ages in print, that provide some of the clues I needed, either to understand the questions I didn't even know I had, or the information to move forward in answering the questions I was starting to understand. We'll encounter other names and ideas soon enough, as before in no particular chronological order, but always drawn together, for me, in the hopes of making sense of so disparate a phenomenon as human understanding.

I decided to start this because, after reading the stories of our latest discoveries around Saturn, I realized that something had come full circle for me. While much of what I've already written and will follow has been settled for me for quite a while, I thought a bit of self-reflection was in order, if for no other reason than to make explicit those links that, until now, had only been implicit. What better time than now? What better way than to tell the silly story of me reading a magazine one summer afternoon when I was a kid, and the surprising impact it had upon a large part of my life? I've learned a few things on the way, offered some clues as to the direction I'm heading, as well as some red herrings just to keep things interesting. Making clear why it is I have such a wide array of interests has always been something I thought I might do at some point; with the prompting I received that point has come, and moving forward I'm looking forward to making sense of it all.

At its most basic, my curiosity revolves around the related points of human understanding and human sociability. Making our world a more livable place for its inhabitants certainly involves understanding our world, yet how do we understand it? How is it possible to work together toward particular goals of common justice and humanity when it is quite possible we have no idea what we're talking about when we insist we understand all sorts of things about the world? Does that leave us without any resources for improving our common life, hoping perhaps to keep things from sucking so much (the position of Richard Rorty)?

There are keys, not the least of them being a lesson I learned, first from my father, then from life: A little humility can go a long way. Beginning with the premise that no matter how much we think we understand, (a) it might all be wrong; or (b) even if what we have so far isn't wrong, there is still ao much left to discover and learn and understand, should keep us from getting too caught up in our own wonderfulness at all the things we think we know. It is far better to expect to be wrong, if for no other reason than the happy surprise that comes with being proved right.

There is no special virtue in having a lot of stuff crammed in one's brain. I don't consider it a point of pride that my interests are broad, my reading at least somewhat more deep than the average person, and my ability to articulate my thoughts a goal toward which I work. On the contrary. Compared, say, to those who work with their hands, those who teach, or even those who work each day to improve our world just a bit through their work with and for others, being impressed with the ability to read books is hardly something one should bandy about as marking some special virtue. First of all, there are always those who read and understand those books better; second, and far more basic - who cares? The information and understanding is meaningless unless it serves a larger goal and purpose. Since this includes never resting or settling easy with the answers and solutions we have so far, closing one book inevitably leads to opening the next. And the next. And the next. No matter how much we might think we have it figured out, a point is going to come when we say, with St. Thomas when he was asked why he had given up writing his Summa Theologica: "It's all straw."

We should never become so impressed with our own accomplishments that we forget no one else is. We should never forget that most basic, important lesson that has come from a lifetime of study and work and living: None of it, not a bit of it, is about me. For that reason alone, I have little for which to be proud. I do, however, have some explaining to do.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Learning To Read: Notes Toward A Medium Opus IV

Systematic Theology may have been the pump that rendered my head far too large to carry around. A course on interpreting Scripture taken the very next semester was the antidote I didn't even know I needed.

Under the bland, rather presumptuous title, "Texts and Exegetical Methods", the class offered itself as an introduction to a variety of interpretive strategies, including using various extra-Biblical resources for exegesis. The professor who taught that class was a tall, thin, good looking, charming man named David Hopkins. I'd taken David's Hebrew Bible survey class and was more than impressed with his intelligence, wit, and teaching style. Looking forward to his class, I had no idea that David, being witty and intelligent, was singularly unimpressed by those qualities in his students unless they were amply demonstrated with output. It took very little time for me to realize his class was not going to be easy. For which I will be forever thankful.

The goal of the class is easy enough to understand: Take all that stuff you learn in the survey classes about different literary styles and historical criticism and the various other types of critical reading styles, and demonstrate them using specific texts. Along the way, I learned, for example, that the story in Genesis is not about Cain and Abel. Abel is, for all intents and purposes, a prop. The story is about Cain and God (which should be a hint to folks paying attention; if at least one of the characters in a Biblical story isn't God, you might not quite understand what's going on). I also learned that there is a passage at the end of the story of Lot fleeing Sodom that would be difficult to preach. David actually challenged us to preach a sermon on it: it's the passage where, hiding in the caves, Lot's daughters get him drunk and after he passes out, rape him. The children conceived this way become the leaders of the tribes that were the traditional enemies of the old Kingdom of Israel.

At its heart, the class was about reading. Rather than treat any particular text as "Biblical", as if that was enough information for getting on with, the reader needs to understand what kind of text it is. Reading different texts requires different interpretive tools and exegetical mindsets. Part of the exegetical task is understanding not only what questions to ask, but even more basic, what the text is NOT saying. Reading the Bible, like reading anything else, leaves us with nothing more than . . . text. It's right there in the course title, a big clue to some of us not quite smart enough to get it for the first couple weeks. In order to understand what questions to ask, we have to understand there are certain things, as text, the Bible does not and cannot say to us. It does not give us "facts". It does not give us "truth". It does not give us historical information or details on the lives of famous people. As a particular kind of text - a religious holy book that contains the stories and claims about who God is - these are the matters that should always be in the front of our minds when reading the Bible. Searching through the Bible for clues about, say, when Abraham might have made his journey to Palestine, say, or whether or not Job actually lived (I heard of a preacher who not only insisted that Job was a real person, a contemporary of Abraham, but that it says so right there in the Bible; I've searched in vain for that information, and anyway, I'm still waiting on the whole "Abraham" as a real, historical person) is a bit like rooting through property deeds at a county records office and asking if the people who lived in these houses were alcoholics, say, or if they were good parents. It is possible, in other words, to ask and answer the wrong questions. When we do that, we may not be committing some mortal sin, but we certainly aren't interpreting the Bible.

During the class, David would drop a few names that intrigued me. One was Gerhard Ebelling, not very well known except among some few rarefied circles in English-speaking theology studies. Another, Roland Barthes, seems far more the preserve of literary critics. Both offer not so much method as something far more basic - an awareness that reading is a playful, interactive activity. Even something as simple as a novel can offer a reader rich rewards who comes to the text seeking something, not just passing one's eyes over a page. Reading is a playful activity, in which human imagination is as engaged as the critical faculties. Not elaborating too much on the role these particular individuals played in his own approach to reading Scripture, David did seem to see, and offered to his students, the marvelous notion that reading the Bible could be surprising and fun. As long as one kept in mind that all we were doing was reading.

Few classes I took at seminary were more liberating, not least because the class wasn't geared toward providing a bunch of information. It was, rather, about inculcating a habit, a practice that engaged one's eyes and ears, one's imagination and critical faculties. At its heart, David's class taught us that we did not know how to read the Bible; here were some intriguing possibilities for moving forward. There was one vital piece of information, however, that hit like a ton of bricks. In an early paper I turned in, David came down pretty hard on me for ignoring certain historical trends in interpretation. I went to him - David was tough but fair, always accessible, and even at his most adamant always cheerful and friendly; needless to say, he remains one of the great teachers for whom I'm always thankful - and asked him about this and he told me, in no uncertain terms, that it is always necessary to be aware of the history of interpretation when making exegetical choices. Even if that history is disagreeable, we cannot ignore it for the sake of convenience.

It was a nice surprise, at the end of the course, to discover that, twenty-two years after my mother first taught me to make sense of the marks on paper, I was finally learning to read. It involves being attentive to the text on the page. It involves understanding that text may well exist within a history of its own. It may also exist within a history of interpretation, which may itself be involved in larger circles of understanding. Even if we can never know everything about that whole history of overlapping discourses, we should at least be aware they exist. These thoughts were swirling about me, and, in a bit over three years, I would put them to good use in a totally different context. If you want to understand why I do the stuff I do the way I do, you need to understand it has a history, and is part of larger historical discourses. A realization I owe to David Hopkins.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Finite Cannot Contain The Infinite: Notes Toward A Medium Opus IV

There is, perhaps, no single individual from the first half of the last century who transcends our typical categories of celebrity than Albert Einstein. Due in no small part to his own natural humility and accessibility - in later life, people in and around Princeton, NJ, would find him sitting on the porch of his small house, chatting with whoever might be passing by; parents would bring their children by for help with mathematics, into which he would dive enthusiastically, if not always successfully - Einstein seemed to radiate the exact opposite image of the buttoned-up intellectual, far afield from the concerns of the rest of us, even as his own area of study was understood, even as he admitted, by fewer than two dozen people.

Not long after my second semester in college began (that would have been January, 1984), I was in the bookstore in town. Ramming around the shelves, not particularly sure what I was looking for, or even why I was there, I stumbled, quite by accident, across a thick volume on the discount shelves. Entitled Einstein on Peace, edited by Otto Nathan and Heinz Norden, it was for sale for seventy-five cents. That, I thought, was a deal at any price.

I had no idea what I'd just done; reading through that book over the next couple weeks, sitting quietly in my dark dorm room, the only light the lamp on my desk - January and February in western New York, no matter the time of day or amount of sunshine, are very dark indeed - I entered a strange world that offered, I thought intuitively, a key to the puzzle I'd set myself to putting together a year and a half before. There was a link here between the questions proposed by that long-ago National Geographic article and my own, current, course of study and far more personal interest in politics. Nathan and Norden were the literary executors of Einstein's estate; after his death they gathered letters, essays, interviews, pamphlets, petitions he'd either written or signed, set them chronologically, and offered editorial comments, dates and other ways of setting context, to present the changing nature of Einstein's views on peace between and among nation-states. Perhaps best known, late in life, as both the instigator (on many levels) of the atomic bomb and the most visible advocate for the tiny but eloquent World Federalist movement (the head of the American branch of the World Federalists was a young California attorney; he won a seat in Congress in 1948 in no small part for his advocacy of reducing national sovereignty in matters of atomic armaments, and thirty-six years later was still in Washington as California's senior Senator, Alan Cranston). While I gleaned a lot of historical information from the work that has come in handy over the years, perhaps the biggest thing I got from the book was, alas, more questions: What was national sovereignty? Why were relations among states liable to break down? Was the logic Einstein used in his frequent arguments in favor of some kind of supranational mechanism for control of nuclear arms flawed in some way?

In 1905, Albert Einstein was an unhappily married, frustrated physics student, making ends meet as a clerk in a patent office in Switzerland. In his spare time he read the physics journals, and thought it would be interesting to offer his own views on some matters. He had been working on several different problems for a while and, finally, in three successive issues of the leading academic journal of physics, he published, first, a statistical analysis of Brownian Motion, what was thought to be the random motion of particles suspended in either liquid or gas. Einstein showed that, in fact, the movement was not random; there was a statistical regularity, once one examined the evidence closely. The answer Einstein offered was there had to be a force at work between the particles that operated at a level that was superceded once one moved from the very small setting of these particles. The second article considered the well-known but puzzling photoelectric effect. It was common knowledge among physicists that when materials are struck by light, the emitted electrons at particular frequencies. Einstein suggested that it was possible light, while being a waveform phenomenon might also be particulate, a bundle of specific energy that also had mass called a photon. It was when these photons hit the metal that, acting according to the laws of physics, the metal reacted and electrons were emitted, releasing not only energy but also mass in order to remain in steady-state.

The last concerned the problem posed by his solution to the photoelectric effect. How was it possible that light acted this way? How was it possible that materials, which were mass, reacted this way to light, which was energy? Einstein simplified many intersecting and contradictory possible solutions using Ockham's Razor - the simplest solution was probably right - and provided an equation, after much mathematical deduction, between mass and energy. In the process, by making the speed of light a constant as part of an equation concerning the most basic physical structures of the Universe, he went on to insist that the speed of light was a constant within all frames of reference. In other words, no matter velocity or acceleration, the speed of light - 186,000 miles per second - was always the same. It would be eleven years before the implications of this, what became known as the Special Theory of Relativity, were worked out. For the rest of his life, no matter what else Einstein would do, he was known for E=mc2, a formula that, while well known, was little understood.

Of the many virtues of Einstein's work here and later in life, perhaps the most important was his willingness to reduce the matters in question to their simplest, which would in turn create conditions for solutions that were not only logically foreseeable but also aesthetically pleasing. This insistence on the relative simplicity both of the problem and solution changed the way physics was understood, perhaps the greatest of Kuhn's paradigm shifts in the history of science. This quest for simplicity and elegance, rendering logic as necessary to understanding Einstein's thought as calculus, was also operative in his thoughts on the question of peace in world affairs. In particular after the Second World War, there was no small amount of discussion about control over both atomic armaments and the materials used in their construction and the engineering involved in their construction. Not long after the war, Harry Truman had industrialist and politically connected financier Bernard Baruch lead a small committee that would consider these problems and offer a plan to the UN Security Council. What became known as the Baruch Plan offered the gloss of international controls over the entire structure, from procuring nuclear materials to the creation and deployment of nuclear weapons in the hands of the UN Security Council; in practice, however, the entire plan was created to fail precisely because the other major powers, in particular the Soviet Union, would face massive violations of their sovereignty. A sociopath like Stalin, who didn't even trust those closest to him, was not about to allow huge numbers of American military personnel under the guise of the United Nations to wander freely through Soviet territory. The Security Council rejected the Baruch Plan before the ink was dry. 

Einstein understood the basic flaw in the Baruch plan slightly differently than did other observers. In 1905, he had started a revolution in science by making the one constant in the Universe the speed of light. Everything else, including time, was now a variable that could be altered as long as the key to the equation between mass and energy was intact. The equations, and the phenomena they represented, only made sense this way. After 1945, as Einstein saw it, the fundamental problem facing the world was the possibility of mass destruction through the use of atomic weapons in the hands of several nations with no realistic curb on their sovereign power. If that was the problem, the solution for Einstein was simple enough: alter the constants in current understanding in order to arrive at a simple, elegant solution. As Einstein understood it, his argument for some kind of supranational agency was to be limited to control over the material, technical expertise, construction, and deployment of nuclear weapons. Other matters in international affairs could be left to nation-states (although Einstein did note that, should such a mechanism be set in place, nations might well find it convenient to use as a way of settling disputes without the fallback of war that had become, even without nuclear weapons, devastating). Part of the key for Einstein was the creation and maintenance of an international force with both the authority and ability to intercede any time and place a nation might try to gain what would be the illegal understanding for building the Bomb. What, Einstein thought, could be more simple and clear given the massive destructive capability of such weapons?

Simplicity. Clarity. Elegance. These qualities were rooted in the belief that the Universe was intelligible in terms that, once reduced to their most basic were, in principle, available to anyone. Whether in physics or politics, the key was to rid ourselves of the baggage of superfluous nonsense, cut to the heart of the most basic problematic, and the questions and answers both would practically fall in to our laps.

It was difficult for a naive, young, idealistic, and extremely ignorant young man like me to articulate the fundamental flaw in all this. It was nearly impossible for a man who had all these qualities as well as a further one: I had no idea, at the time I was reading Einstein, how to articulate what I intuitively understood was the flaw. I just knew there was something amiss here. If a gun had been placed at my head, however, I wouldn't have been able to say what, precisely, that might be. Finding that flaw, being able to articulate it, became important to me, not least because right here, in this single volume in which a physicist ruminates on political matters, a big piece of the puzzle I had dumped on the table became clear. That puzzle - how was my innate interest in political matters related in any way to my growing interest in figuring out what the heck was up with things like science - had seemed impossible to put together.  No two realms seemed more different; Einstein, it seemed, offered an easy way of connecting them. Except, it was clear to me even though I couldn't have said why, I had discovered that the easy way was, in all likelihood wrong.

Virtual Tin Cup

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