Brooks | It’s Not About You…

My friend tipped me off to this column written by David Brooks, It’s Not About You. I agree with much of what Brooks usually writes, and I thought this was a very good piece.  Right on the money on many issues. One small part struck me as not quite right. Even though I agree that many people look outside and find a problem that summons their life, I’d a resist the leap to the other side of the coin and affirm what seems to be existentialism.  When he says, “Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling. Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling,” I take that to be a little more of an affirmation of existentialism than what I think is good for people.

I think it takes both a look at the problems that compel you and a look at the self to see if you are a good fit to even tackle those problems. I think that is more ideal and leads to less dissatisfaction when you find out you did not have the gifts and skills and personality to handle some problem that captured your attention.  I think our calling is both derivative of who we are, the experiences we have as well as the compelling circumstances that present themselves to us.  When someone says they are working out of their strengths, I think this is similar to what I’m getting at.  I’d much rather have some identification of what those are and then match those with the problems that capture me.  None of what I’m saying should detract from us also being able to grow and develop and particularly work on weaknesses we have in a variety of areas ranging from our own personal character to skills needed for particular problems or jobs.  But, I am saying that at the onset of the important choices that confront us in contributing to the world, it is important to reflect on who it is we are.  What are my strengths and weaknesses?  What kind of personality do I have?  Are there any particular gifts, talents and abilities that are unique to me and that I bring to the table that match well with problems now and in the past?  What are my range of passions and things that don’t compel me? What unique experiences have I had that have formed and shaped me?  What unique contributions have my family and close friends given to me?  I’d also add that religious truths about who we are and the purpose and place we have in the world are a necessary factor to consider.

I’m a little torn on some of this because on one hand I think we (parents, education, religious institutions, etc.) don’t do a good job of helping young people be reflective and understand themselves, but on the other hand the world is pretty complex and getting more complex, so young people are confronted with a lot even at the exit of college.  I think these are a couple of the contributory factors that lead to the postponement of what many psychologists consider adulthood to the late 20’s and early 30’s.  So, I think we need to do better at helping them understand better who they are, but also challenge them to explore a variety of experiences particularly in college and post-graduation to see what is the best fit to bring their fledgling selves to and begin to develop into satisfying the calling that fits some essence and strengths of who they are.

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The Murder of Dr. Tiller

A few weeks ago Dr. George Tiller was shot and murdered while handing out bulletins in the church he attended in Wichita, KS. Scott Roeder has been charged with the murder and awaits trial. I don’t want to use the space here to argue for the positions for or against abortion although I’m against abortion. I want to write about the issue of whether Scott Roeder or those like him are or could be ethical in killing abortion providers. The point I want to make is that this action and others like it are not ethical and should not occur. Scott Roeder, if guilty, should face the full extent of the law.

Let me start by handling some comments or ideas that may bump heads with my view. First, some not associated with the crime but are anti-abortionists are saying, “He got what he deserved.” The thought I’m assuming here is that even though they would not kill an abortion provider themselves, they still think that Tiller in this case deserved to be murdered or death for providing abortions. What I really think is being said here is akin to the “eye for an eye” principle stripped away from any legal setting. Dr. Tiller provided abortions, which is taken as the killing of another person, therefore, apart from what is the legal process involved to change abortion law and the minds of people, he is deserving of death for those actions. Here is a good example of what is seen as a disconnect between what many anti-abortionists see as law or morality upheld by God and the current laws in our pluralistic society. There definitely is a difference between the two. Efforts to overturn current abortion law may be attempts to bring the two together. But, none of that justifies the efforts of one or a few to murder another individual. We’ve heard it said “two wrongs don’t make a right” or “the ends don’t justify the means”. In this case it is not ethical for an individual or a few people to murder someone for murdering others, especially in a nation or state that provides other means to change the current law regarding abortion.

This issue allows me to elaborate on how I think we should distinguish between vigilantism and due process of law. Since our country does provide the means to change or repeal laws in a civil and just manner, Scott Roeder is a vigilante. He is someone who took “the law” into his own hands, and in one act became judge, jury and executioner. Our system of jurisprudence attempts to separate these components out to arrive at timely justice. So not only does our system allow for concerned citizens to participate in elections of representatives to change law along with other legislative means, in the justice system we divide powers up as a means of checking the power that can accumulate with a judge or a jury (think of posies formed to hunt criminals or lynching to catch an execute African-Americans) or the executioner. It also implements a system to allow cases to be presented on each side and representatives of those cases to argue about the issue at hand instead of the people themselves fighting it out in the streets. All this allows for individuals who have a claim against injustice to remove themselves somewhat from the actions against them and see the person behind injustices with the hope of possibly forgiving them and hoping the best for them. On one hand, this in no way diminishes the justice that is sought but helps people be able to turn the other cheek. On the other hand it allows a place for the proper role of government to rule and protect civil society from sliding into chaos.

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T/F Film Fest Refest

Stacey and I had the opportunity to go to Columbia, MO the weekend of Feb. 27-Mar. 1 for the T/F Film Festival.  The “T/F’ stands for “True – False”.  We really enjoyed the event, even though it was like an icebox as far as weather was concerned.  I wanted to explain what the intention behind the title True – False, and spend a few posts sharing my thoughts about the films I viewed over that weekend.

The T/F title is a bit of an indicator of what type of film one might expect at the festival.  The movies are documentaries with touches of drama.  The T/F aspect tries to envision a film that presents a message that rings true to us, but may also capture the tension or troubles that are mixed into arriving at that truth or accepting that truth, i.e. falsity gets mixed into our lives and sometimes its really hard, if not impossible, to exclude things that are false from the package we get.  Let me write about the films and maybe that will shed some light on this.

For this post I’ll quickly share about Waltz with Bashir.  This was unlike all the other films I watched during the weekend.  It was mostly animated.  This mode of presentation is a great example of the T/F dichotomy in action.  First the subject is very serious.  It was about a massacre the occurred in Lebanon in 1982 at the hands of Christian Philanges and dispondent Israeli forces.  The animated medium cast the tone as comical because that’s what we’re used to fromt this medium, but the subject was deathly serious.  The medium is helpful in depicting the surreal aspect that it takes on as the main character is trying to remember this event, but seems to have blocked it out of his mind.  The animation serves to create  dream world plumbing the characters mind and memory of the event.  That dichotomy gets at the heart of T/F.

I found Waltz difficult to follow and not rising to the point of really helping me feel the tension of why someone would want to suppress the travesty of such an event.  Although the animation allowed many ideas and recreation to occur of an event that was not caught on film, it fell short in being the vehicle that pulled me in.  In my mind a major oversight was not giving really any context to the subject of the film.  Maybe that is an oversight on my part in not being up to snuff on international affairs in the 1980’s, but I think to appeal more widely and allow the audience to start off on the same page, it would have been beneficial.  [spoiler] The story pulls an animated twist at the end by changing to actual footage of the carnage left in the wake of the massacre.  This does cause a deeper empathy for the plight of the Lebanese as the victims of this.  For me, it also raised the question as to why the Israelis did not act?  That is the sad part.  Whether the character wanted to block the event out or not, how could you not act to save these people.  The truth-humanity is valuable enough to overcome bias and tragedy, false- that the people deserved it even though many resisted.  I’d recommend renting Waltz but nothing further.

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No, No with the PoMo?

Tomorrow our department will be having their monthly colloquium in which we discuss a variety of topics.  We will be doing a follow up discussion on the ideas presented by a recent speaker on campus, Tony Jones.  Tony is a speaker/writer/leader in the emergent church movement.  The emergent church movement has its advocates and detractors.   I’m sure we’ll talk about both tomorrow.  I just wanted to get some thoughts down and out for potential response.

First, let me say some about what I take to be admirable qualities of the emergent movement.  A common element is their denial of certainty as a criteria of knowledge.  This is in response to rationalism that required that we be certain of something before we can say we know it.  I tend to think we can know something but not be certain of it.  There are some senses of certainty that deserve some distinction, but I’ll wait on that.  Second, I applaud the common element that speaks against science being the sole arbitor of what we know as well.  Science as a discipline, although highly successful in getting at knowledge, is not comprehensive in delivering knowledge to us.  As much as these don’t straw men rationalist or scientist, these critiques go through.

My complaints are as follows.  First and this strikes more directly at comments Tony made, if emergent thought requires the tenets of postmodern thought that places emphasis on the individual situated in an epistemic environment that cannot determine anything to be objective because they cannot get outside of that situatedness, then I have some issues with implications and self-reference.  The latter first…how does this avoid skepticism of others and the world in general?  On the face of it, if the individual cannot know anything that is not processed through the lens of them being a subject situated in the world.  In conversation with Tony, this was something he pointed out as being a fundamental component of the postmodernism involved in his view of the emergent movement.  I don’t want to paint broad strokes with that, but that is what he conveyed to me.  If the subject cannot get beyond their subjective situation, how do they know they are situated in a world at all?  I’m not advocating the opposite end of the spectrum for  a direct realism, but some form of critical realism might suffice to give us both a substantial subject and a substantial world that can both be known.

The implication from that is that there is no objective claims to be made about the world.  In conversation I raised the point that if theology is temporary, one, how do we know that we are not really adhering to vodoo and, two, how do we know it’s temporary?  Tony said that we cannot know the answer to the first question.  The second cannot be answered because there is no way to objectively confirm there is something in the first place that changes, thus marking its temporal change.

These are a few thoughts that need some more elaboration, but at least they are out there.

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Moral Properties and Mental Properties

I’ve been reading an article on realization.  Realization is a bit tricky to define.  As a matter of fact that is one of the problems that many people have against it.  It is most often used in thought and conversation related to philosophy of mind and mental properties specifically.  For example, broadly, “The mind is realized by the brain.”  More specifically, “Pain is realized by a certain region of the brain.”  One can see that we could get even more specific than this.  Mental realization finds its home in the outflow of functionalism in philosophy of mind.  Without getting into more details, realization in the realm of the mental, to me, seems a little more at home in that area than saying that moral properties are realized.  Realized by what?  Mental properties are commonly associated with brain functions.  But what about moral properties?  Since moral properties are properties associated with human beings do they also get realized by the brain?  The reason this seems out of place is that we know that moral properties are very often, not always, linked with external events.  So when someone murders another person, we say that person X committed the immoral act of murdering person Y.  The moral property linked to this event is the wrongness of taking someones life, and it is a property of the event that occurred which was brought about by a person.  The constituents of the event are X, the perpetrator, and Y, the victim.  So, where does the realization of the moral property occur and what does the realizing of it?  Mental properties have the benefit of seemingly having a physical object in which these properties can be attributed location and dependence.  Moral properties resist this.  Maybe moral properties are just a subset of mental properties and really are just masquerading as different properties.  The moral realist would like to think there is something more than this because they want to avoid a slippery slope to anti-realist subjectivist views of morality.  If we identify moral properties with mental properties, then we begin to get the feel that subjectivism will win the day because so much of our mental life is characterized by our own subjective thought life.  Maybe moral properties are just subjective thoughts like many of our other thoughts.  The moral realist who wants to maintain that moral properties are objective, normative, and possibly absolute and universal wants to stay clear of this possibility.  I think these are interesting questions for those that think that realization is a relation that holds in the real of moral philosophy.  My work over the summer is to look at a few people that advocate some notion of realization of moral properties and try to get clear on what they mean by it and then critique their views for coherence and reasonableness.  We’ll see if we can pin these moral properties down.

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2 Senses of Novelty

I’ve been reading Restoration of Reason by Montague Brown at a snails pace because I have little time for my own enjoyable reading.  I’m only 27 pages in, but something caught my eye with regards to a minimal requirement on most dissertations, the condition that some idea or other in the dissertation offer some novel or new contribution to knowledge.  The section I’m reading is about Fancis Bacon.  Bacon is depicted as a philosopher who follows the empiricist line and desires to free philosophy from the shackles of medieval thought and its ties to natural philosophy and move it towards a wedding with the flourishing natural sciences of the time.  All that aside, the thought in the area of art that Brown attributes to Bacon is that what makes art good is the introduction of something new.  That struck me because it finds its way into dissertation standards as well.  In order for something to be good it has to introduce something new.

As that stands, it is probably too strong of a statement.  Of course there are many things that are old that are good like the great pyramids or Egypt or the Great Wall of China.  I guess these would fit the bill because at the time and until today they are unique, and there is nothing else like them.  So their novelty is both in uniqueness and originality for longevity.

My question is, “Can we have something good that is not novel?”  Surely we can.  In a sense the examples I gave fit that description to, so it matters how narrowly we define “novel”.  A concern I have is that we can overlook the present and the past in our attempts to be novel.  It strikes me as importing our consumeristic ideology into our academic work when we set our sights on novelty.  Don’t get me wrong.  I think the pursuit of knowledge and truth and the elimination of falsehoods are extremely important, but in our pursuit of novelty, I don’t want to overlook what has went before and what is around us.  Forsaking these foundations and contemporaries in some sense can make our work mere novelties…in the contemporary sense of our work being gadgets or quick, cute fixes that attract the eye, but have no lasting effects.

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Misplacing Morality

As I have been considering my future and employment, I could not help but noticing the moral vacuum that has occurred as religious knowledge has dissappeared from the radar screen of the university.  It’s no secret that the university values knowledge in general, but especially knowledge that has been legitimated by the sciences, particularly the hard sciences.  I’m not going to try to spell that out further, but please insert the condition that the research and knowledge sought would be best and may need to have some sort of empirical tie in order to be legitimate knowledge.  That being said, you can see that religious knowledge is plagued by a variety of challenges.  First, for many religions they are not based on empirical findings or foundations.  The object of worship for many is in principle unempirical.  Second, it is difficult, not impossible, to begin to connect what kind of research could be done that has this empirical factor.  Although I think fallacious, the third factor is getting clear just what is a synthesized notion of religion with the fact that there is such a variety of religions and religious viewpoints.  We might call this the pluralist objection.  These are a few objections, not all.

The point I want to consider is that the removal of religious knowledge from the thought and study at the university begins to undermine the advancement of moral character.  This argument hinges on how tight we want to connect moral character with religious knowledge.  So, if the connection is tight, then it is easy to see how the the removal of religious knowledge as a legitimate pursuit would contribute to the decay of moral character.  This also assumes that our knowledge or beliefs have some kind of effect on our moral make-up.  Both of these assumptions are big, but granting them to be tight allows me to see a potential relation of how a university might have purposely or inadvertantly contributed to the moral decay of their own population and those that this idea affects.  Further, it allows me the opportunity to think about how the promotion, support and justification of religious knowledge is a means to bring about the valuing of moral character within the score of university thought and life.  I happen to think the relationship between morality and religious knowledge is strong, so as much as I help or advocate the promotion of religious knowledge, I promote morality.  The further question is whether this is a symmetric or asymmetric relationship?  Without much reflection it seems that it would be symmetrical.  As we promote the ideals of a moral character, or let’s say virtues, as something we can know and live out and in as much as those are definative of expressed in the variety of religions, we are indirectly supporting religious knowledge as well.

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