What Gorgias Would Say to Sisyphus

On Sunday the pastor at Christ Church preached on kairos and God’s time; specifically, the notion of the kingdom of God as “already and not yet” simultaneously. While I don’t disagree, I want to offer another take on kairos and the personal importance of that word to my own philosophy.

For this I draw on Gorgias of Leontini, one of the most underrated ancient philosophers (unfairly maligned for over 2 millenia because of Dumb & Dumber, ie Aristotle & Plato). From Gorgias and the Sophists we get the concept of the “kairotic moment,” loosely meaning “seizing the opportune opening.” Originally a sports term (archery), the Sophists applied it to rhetoric to mean the key moment in a debate when you trip up your opponent or drive him into a logical corner.

(more…)

Dangerous Knowledge

I guess I’m on a philosophy film kick. The latest was the BBC’s Dangerous Knowledge, a documentary on mathematicians Georg Cantor, Ludwig Boltzmann, Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing — four geniuses whose neuroses drove them fatally mad. It’s debatable the extent to which their respective theories made them insane — the film obviously plays this up for dramatic purposes — but it’s an intriguing film and not overly technical.

One of the ironies here is that I learned of this film via some people with deep antipathy towards postmodernism, despite the fact that these four helped unravel the modern project and clear the conceptual space for postmodernism. For me, it’s impossible to ignore the links between these mathematicians at the turn of the century and the postmodern philosophers at the close of the century. The key is recognizing that the quests for certainty, universality, and totality that were under assault in science & politics — climaxing in the existential refutations that were World Wars I & II — were being assaulted in logic & mathematics via Cantor & Co.
(more…)

Examined Life

I finally got to see Examined Life, a pseudo-intellectual documentary that aims to make philosophy a tad more accessible. The film uses some of academia’s rock stars to talk shop outside of normal confines, which is interesting, but probably still of limited appeal.


We get, in order:

Cornel West on philosophy
Avital Ronell on alterity
Peter Singer on applied ethics
Kwame Anthony Appiah on cosmopolitanism
Martha Nussbaum on justice
Michael Hardt on revolution
Slavoj Žižek on ecology
Judith Butler on disability

No truly weak spots among the line-up, and all have at least a few stimulating nuggets. See it if you get a chance.

Where Gay Apologists Go Wrong

I really hesitate to write this post, but a confluence of factors has prompted me: Carrie Prejean’s Miss America drama, the CA Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold Prop 8, and a friend’s thoughtful response to that decision. Furthermore, now that I am done with C.U. I am free to write my opinions without fear of institutional reprisals (25 demerits and dismissal/expulsion).

When we talk about gay marriage, I think it’s best to drive straight to the heart of the issue. By that I mean that gay marriage, while an interesting subject in itself, is usually just a red herring: nobody who sanctions homosexuality will be opposed to it, and some who condemn homosexuality nevertheless won’t be opposed to gay marriage (I was once one of these for a long while). So the thorniest issue isn’t really marriage first & foremost, but homosexuality itself.

The friend I referenced in my first post is Bryce Bahler, who — it’s worth noting — was tremendously generous enough to host me for a day or two when I hitchhiked to Seattle. Bryce is also in charge of Facebook’s “Believers for Equal Rights” group and a staunch defender of gay rights. In light of the most recent Prop 8 news, he wrote a very good essay on why, as a Christian, he feels compelled to affirm homosexual believers. (I’m unsure, by the way, if this link will work if you’re not “friends” with Bryce on Facebook, but try it anyway).

Bryce’s note stirred up the usual responses, which often includes great consternation & befuddlement from the Cedarville crowd. I have a lot of sympathy for that kind of reaction, having spent most of my life with that mindset. I find Eugene Cho to be among those who’ve articulated this viewpoint in the most compassionate & thoughtful way possible. 

Yet I diverged from this path more than a year ago as a result of a paper I wrote for a C.U. Bible class on human anthropology (the professor, while disagreeing with me, nevertheless gave me an ‘A+’). I entered my research with an open mind, though with certain biases, but when it was all said & done I concluded quite differently than what I expected. You can read that paper in full right here: “Romans 1:26-27 and the Pauline Condemnation of Homosexuality” (pdf).

(more…)

Brief Discursus on Luck

I’m told that good Christians don’t believe in luck. I am not a good Christian. But I am one, and I do believe in luck. In fact, misunderstanding luck may lead to illogical reasoning and illogical behavior.

Luck is simply this: the improbable becoming actuality. The modifiers “good” & “bad” are not absolute, but do express the degree to which the now-actual was previously improbable.

I heard a lady on TV the other day talking about getting mugged/robbed/assaulted while shopping in a grocery store. She ended her interview with a TV-made quip: “You know, you think you’re safe when you’re shopping for groceries, but now I know you’re not.”

This is what happens when you don’t understand luck. You say, and believe, stupid paranoid shit like this. Local news, of course, feeds off confusing people over the probable vs. improbable. The correct conclusion is, “Damn, it was extremely unlucky for me to get clubbed in the noggin while shopping for oatmeal.” 

Likewise, it’s really bad luck when you’re flying over the Hudson River and a pterodactylesque pigeon flies into the jet engine of the airplane you’re riding on, but it’s mildly good luck that you and your compadres escape this pigeon-induced disaster with nary a scratch.  The wrong conclusion is, “Pigeons are a menace to society that must be annihilated”/”Commercial airplanes are an extremely unsafe way to travel.”

This post dedicated, with affection, to Alice in Chains.

Books Read in 2008

I tried to read a book/week again, which seems very reasonable, but fell short once again. I’m about halfway through a dozen other books, which I’ll probably just finish & count for ’09. Under each category, they’re listed in the order I read them. Incidentally, the first book I read in 2008 was The Audacity of Hope by Mister Obama. (more…)

The Fragile Absolute

I’m currently working my way through Slavoj Zizek’s The Fragile Absolute: Or, why is the Christian legacy worth fighting for? Coincidentally, The New Republic just published a scathing critique of Zizek by Adam Kirsch entitled “The Deadly Jester: Why Slavoj Zizek is the Most Despicable Philosopher in the West.” Cute title, huh?

I am not all that far into this book yet, but Zizek has lived up to his reputation so far. I’ve been particularly intrigued by his claim that “the Communist project was… not radical enough.” By which he means that Marx tried to keep the teleology of capitalism — that is, “completely unbridled productivity” — while discarding the framework in which that “mad dance of [the] unconditional spiral of productivity” can only play out. This a priori commitment to the Unlimited finds parallel in what Wendell Berry calls “Faustian economics.” In pure capitalism, there can be no limits because its “eschatology of profit” (Ben Kleis’ words) forces a perpetual quest for More. The insatiable need for more profit fuels the never-ending drive for higher productivity, greater efficiency, and newer markets (“the more profit you make, the more you want”).

(more…)

God’s Murderers

A couple weeks ago I wrote a paper on Nietzsche’s Madman and his pronouncement of the death of God. While researching I came across this passage by Bernard Martin, which is certainly not what Nietzsche meant by “God is dead” but is interesting nonetheless.

It is necessary to kill God! … One can, in all good conscience, kill God, for the true God does not himself be killed. He is beyond all deicidal tendencies. And yet, it is necessary to kill one’s God! 

It is necessary to kill the God that we have learned! God is not learned. And if I have learned something about God, I can be certain that this is not truly he. The instruction that I received about God in my childhood was perhaps necessary. But today the God learned in my childhood no longer has any meaning. I am no longer young, and I need another God, the true God! Thus I must kill the God learned, even if it means that I can no longer proceed!

It is necessary to kill the God that I devise! The God that I dream up is never God. The thoughts that I am able to come up with concerning him never begin to express his majesty. My understanding can be extremely cultivated, yet the God that I imagine is always inevitable other than what he truly is. So I must kill the God that I have imagined and conceived, or I will risk remaining in a sterile and permanent thought. This God that I have imagined must die.

It is necessary to kill the God of my faith! Throughout my life I have been devoted to God with all my soul. In spite of appearances, I am still devoted to him with all my soul. But what must die is the God of my faith. My faith cannot reach God, and my theology, no matter how orthodox, will never be able to be a durable and absolute theology. And if I claim it because one day I make it on my own, then I am condemned to no longer understand what it is about. God is not dependent on my faith. He is, that’s all. I must acquiesce in killing the God of my faith!   

From If God Does Not Die (pg 19-20) as qtd. in “The Graveyard Theology” by Vernon C. Grounds in Is God “Dead”? (pg 32).Speaking of Nietzsche, I was at Barnes & Nobles and ran across Benjamin Wiker’s 10 Books That Screwed Up the World. Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil was in there, along with Marx, Darwin, Freud, etc. It’s basically fundamentalist anti-intellectualism masquerading as serious scholarship. I almost laughed out loud when Wiker said Nietzsche’s madness & then death was a result of his profound atheism and not, say, of syphilis-induced dementia. 

Intuitive Abortion Arguments

Many Pro-lifers love arguments based on intuition: show someone a photo of a fetus (always a fetus, never a blastocyst), and they’re supposed to intuitively feel that this is a person worth saving. So too with their photos of an aborted fetus, proffered in the hopes that America will legislate based on that which we find icky. Here’s my own emotional plea:

This is a zygote. It costs Americans ~$300 to kill a zygote.

This is an Iraqi girl. It costs Americans ~$1.5million to kill an Iraqi girl.

Which is more valuable, the zygote or the Iraqi? Which has more dignity? If you had to kill one, which would it be and why? How many deaths of one justify the loss of the other? 

The intuitive argument is thus: can you really honestly look the little Iraqi girl in the eyes and tell her she is worth no more than a diploid cell? That “what it means to be human” is simply to have a genome? 

Some (many?) of you now undoubtedly think I’ve “crossed the line.” So think carefully: what is that line, precisely? And why have I transgressed? And do your answers to those questions give clues to what’s wrong with the abortion debate and what to do about it?

Interventionism for Fun and Profit

Yesterday I came across this Congressional Research Service report listing “Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2004.” I took the data and made a graph:

It would appear Presidents Clinton & Bush enjoy playing chess with armed forces. It will be interesting to see the updated report through the present year since the first 5 years set us on pace to out-do the military extravaganza of the ’90s.
(more…)

America’s Political Cannibalism

Today’s Nader Newsletter gave prominence to a column by Chris Hedges entitled “America’s Political Cannibalism,” mostly because of this paragraph:

This is a defining moment in American history. The next few weeks and months will see us stabilize and weather this crisis or descend into a terrifying dystopia. I place no hope in Obama or the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is a pathetic example of liberal, bourgeois impotence, hypocrisy and complacency. It has been bought off. I will vote, if only as a form of protest against our corporate state and an homage to [Karl] Polanyi’s brilliance, for Ralph Nader.

The whole thing is worth reading, including the comments. One “Eric J-D” seems to nail it:

My concern about Hedges is that his so-called “radicalization”–if that is what he is currently experiencing–looks a whole lot more like dystopian, nihilistic despair than a truly radical diagnosis of and engagement with the situation obtaining in the present. The former tends to greatly overestimate a number of things: 1) the present “weakness” of the capitalist system, even in moments of systemic crisis; 2) the extent to which the mass-imposition of a neo-fascist order is possible; and 3) the revolutionary possibilities of the present moment.

As someone occasionally guilty of doing all three, I concur. Also, several commenters rightly point out that the greater Karl (Marx) anticipated Polanyi’s comments by nearly a century (dehumanization, man-as-commodity, etc). 

Mostly though, I think Hedges is right. Voting for Nader is probably the right thing to do. But look at it this way: voting for Nader and deliberately not voting are both symbolic gestures, whereas voting for Obama is an effectual gesture. Both symbolic gestures are largely ignored (in the case of conscientious non-voting, ignored simply because it’s indistinguishable from apathetic non-voting). I’m voting for Obama based on this principle: an effectual gesture, even one less than ideal, ought to be preferred over a purely symbolic gesture.