Sunday, April 29, 2007

The light

Philosopher Stephen Law writes about a debate with Bishop of Edinburgh Brian Smith about whether "Jesus Christ is the way the truth and the life." Law highlights Smith 's core position:
In our quietest moments, [Smith] said, each one of us – yes, even a cynical atheist – is aware, deep down, of a light. It’s an awareness of something fundamentally good, of a yearning to be something better than we are. This something is... Jesus.[1]
Law wonders,
How do you respond to that? Get all logical and sceptical on him, and you come across as a coarse bully, someone insensitive to one of the deepest insights available to humanity, an insight that, yes, even a cynic like me has, though I might try to deny it.
Law offers his response and asks, "How could I have done better?"

I don't know if my answer is better, but here it is.

Smith's position is fine, up until the very last word, which should be omitted and replaced with a question mark: "This something is...?" What is this "light"? What is this awareness? I have my suspicions, but I don't know. Maybe it's trivial, maybe it's important. But if it really is important, we shouldn't just guess, we should know.

Whatever this feeling is, human beings are feeling it, and it is therefore a human feeling, susceptible to the full range of human investigation. Let the philosophers argue, the scientists scrutinize, the poets rhyme, the polemicists exult and condemn. Let even the advertisers bullshit, the business executives commercialize, the pundits bloviate and the politicians speechify. And what the heck, it's a free country, let even the theologians... well... do whatever it is that they do.

We must not, however, grant theologians a monopoly on this feeling. Whether they are speaking in intimate whispers or thundering from the pulpit, we must not let them demand that this feeling must be Jehovah, Abraham, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha, or Krishna. We must not let them demand that to be an atheist is to deny this feeling. We must not let them demand that science cannot talk about this feeling: If human beings can feel it, science can investigate it. We must not let them offer guesses and speculation as truth and certainty. And, most importantly, we must not let their remarks escape critical scrutiny simply because they wear funny hats on Sunday.

Even if this feeling is about something real, even if this feeling is important, it's a thin foundation indeed, far too thin to support the massive edifice of lies and bullshit churches and theologians have erected for millennia.[2] It's no wonder that theologians evade critical scrutiny: When subjected to the most superficial scrutiny, 99% of theology—and the professional careers of the priests, bishops, popes and theologians who promulgate it—is revealed as egregious bullshit: God talk does not explain, it mystifies. Perhaps 100% of theology is bullshit; perhaps there's philosophical gold somewhere in the 1%. Regardless, not only does no mode of thought deserve a monopoly a priori, theology has demonstrated a posteriori time and again its incompetence to monopolize anything—even bullshit.

It's a free country, and if it pleases you to call yourself a theologian, and do whatever it is that theologians do, you're free to do so. Who knows, maybe something good will come of it: Who knew that a queer pain-in-the-ass too-smart-for-his-own-good painter, Galileo, would usher in a new mode of thought, science, that would lead to centuries of technological and social progress? Maybe theology, all evidence to the contrary, really does have potential.

But "potential" means "you ain't worth a damn yet." Religion and theology have no claim on this feeling as their own exclusive magisterium. Theologians are just as entitled as anyone else to ask the question, but they are not entitled—not now and perhaps not ever—to answer it with Smith's unquestioning confidence.

Update: Due a (hopefully temporary) failure of reading comprehension on my part, I mistakenly attributed Bishop Smith's position to Professor Richard Swinburne in Law's original post. The references have been corrected.

[1] Since Law does not put these words in quotation marks, he's probably paraphrasing Smith's actual remarks.

[2] It's arguable that this feeling is a latecomer to theology, after logic, sensibility and the ravings of schizophrenic "prophets" have entirely lost their credibility as theological support.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Let's cough it up

Arthur Silber, our modern Jeremiah, the conscience of the blogosphere, literally lives and dies by us, his readers. So let's show him the love and appreciation he truly deserves.

I welcome our new corporate overlords

The GE Presidential Debate (what follows is a highly tendentious summary of a liberal-bias review):
MSNBC, owned by weapons-maker General Electric, opened Thursday night's debate with the unavoidable topic of Iraq, and unavoidably allowed each of the eight candidates on the stage to address it. Two of them, Congressman Dennis Kucinich and former Senator Mike Gravel, spoke in favor of ending the war... The other six Democrats on the stage Thursday night... made clear that they oppose serious steps to force a swift end to the war. ...

[GE spokesman Brian] Williams could come up with nothing to accuse Kucinich of. "You were against the war before being anti-war was popular," he said. "Why do you think you don't have more traction?" Kucinich gave an optimistic response on gaining traction. He may very well be right that he is gaining traction. But I wonder if his answer would have been different had this question come at the end of the debate, because Williams answered his own question by proceeding with much of the debate as if Kucinich and Gravel were not on the stage. ...

GE immediately put [Gravel] in his [place], and when he got a chance to speak much later he said he was beginning to feel like a potted plant on stage.

The next series of questions were about domestic policy, and focused largely on divisive issues like abortion. GE skipped Kucinich and Gravel. Then came health care question, which skipped Kucinich and Gravel. ...

GE next asked each Democrat what the worst mistake was they'd ever made. This was not terribly enlightening, except perhaps by comparison to the upcoming Republican debate in which GE will likely ask the candidates what the worst mistakes are that Democrats have ever made. ...

[F]ormer Senator Edwards was asked to criticize oil companies' profiteering and refused. Gravel was skipped. And Kucinich was finally called on, about health care. He was given about 20 seconds but nailed it.

This time around, Kucinich was skipped but Gravel was called on. GE asked him to name three enemies. He replied that it was absurd to think we had any enemies while we spend as much on our military as all other nations combined. "Who are you afraid of, Brian?" he asked the nearest representative of the military industrial complex, which he accused of running not only the government, but also "our culture." ...

Williams asked which candidates supported impeaching Dick Cheney. Kucinich's hand was the only one, or one of the few, raised (again, I couldn't see, but I'm guessing Gravel raised his hand too). ...

Kucinich... raised his hand during Obama's turn to challenge the Illinois Senator on his refusal to oppose nuking Iran. Gravel jumped into the exchange as well. But Obama refused to take the option of aggressively nuking another nation off the table. ...

There were, quite stunningly, no questions about which of the new presidential powers these candidates would use if elected. Would you, as president, spy on your political opponents without court warrants? Would you detain people without charge? Would you use any secret prisons? Would you torture? Would you disobey laws? Which ones? Would you announce your intentions in "signing statements"? Would you engage in any aggressive wars? Would you launch any wars not declared by Congress? Would you ever intentionally mislead Congress? Would you lie to the public about matters as grave as hurricanes, wars, and spying? None of these topics came up.

Plenty of accusations against Democrats did arise. Why, Williams wanted to know, are Democrats labeled as less able to protect us? Well, they aren't in polls, but they are by weapons makers. Williams asked what these candidates would do in response to an event like 9/11, but he didn't ask that simple question. He asked how they would use the military overseas to respond to an attack like 9-11. The candidates who got that question did not challenge its unstated assumptions. Clinton, in particular, sounded exactly like Bush.

Stop or slow down?

A driver (a Californian, most likely) is pulled over by a cop for running a stop sign.

The driver says, "Why are you pulling me over? I slowed down, didn't I?"

The cop pulls out his nightstick and starts hitting the driver with it.

"Ow! Stop!" yells the driver.

The cop asks, "Do you want me to stop, or do you want me to slow down?"
The Iraq war supplemental doesn't ever demand we stop the war in Iraq. Ever. Only that, at some point in the distant future—after we've spent yet another $124 billion and killed another couple hundred thousand Iraqis (and another couple thousand Americans)—we maybe think about slowing down a little.

"Tell you what, Neville, a year from now, assuming nothing unexpected happens, we'll think about only invading half as many countries and slaughtering only half as many civilians in death camps."

"Hallelujah, Adolph! Truly we must rejoice that we have turned a corner!"
Oh yeah. I'm fucking thrilled.

This should be... interesting

... of course I'm using "interesting" in the sense of "so stupid it'll make your eyes bleed."

Best-selling Author Will 'Prove' God's Existence
[B]est-selling [gag! barf!] author Ray Comfort... offered to prove God's existence, absolutely, scientifically, without mentioning the Bible or faith. ...

[Kirk] Cameron... will speak on what he believes is a major catalyst for atheism: Darwinian evolution. The popular actor stated, "Evolution is unscientific. In reality, it is a blind faith that's preached with religious zeal as the gospel truth."
These are the guys who think the banana is "the atheist's worst nightmare."

(The banana has, of course, been extensively engineered by human beings using artificial selection.)

Thursday, April 26, 2007

We are well and truly fucked

Our democratic institutions have failed, and it's very important to understand that the most critical democratic institution, the free press, failed utterly before 9/11. If you don't believe me, see everything that Bob Somerby has written for the last six or seven years. Ignore his irritating style and frequent hobbyhorses; his documentation is impeccable and his conclusions inescapable. So it goes.

It only because of the tiniest weakness of Dick Cheney's will that we escaped blatant totalitarianism. Had he pushed just a bit harder, he could have quite easily implemented a totalitarian regime immediately after 9/11. Our political system does tend to promote those with weak character, but a sufficiently intelligent, ruthless person can find a way to rise. Our congress will not protect us, our courts will not protect us, our police and military will not protect us, and our press will not protect us. So it goes.

Arthur Silber correctly identifies the root of our national flaws in the character of our citizens. It is not just our misogyny and homophobia (in the literal sense: the irrational fear of being homosexual or being thought of as homosexual), but our thoroughly martial, violent character, hardly surprising for a nation conceived in slavery, grown in genocide, and marked since by ceaseless aggression and intervention. It is no excuse that the rest of the world, historically, has been no better. So it goes.

Silber's analysis is correct, but I think his suggested remedies are—with all due respect for a man I admire tremendously—naive.

Blogging, advertising, voting, writing one's "representatives" and demonstrating are completely ineffective. No actions of the tiny minority of the population both capable of sophisticated abstract thought and possessed of a truly universal humanistic ethic can overcome the propaganda of the now unified commercial mass media and the mass movements of fascist Dominionism and Christianism, and the absolute power of the wealthy elite. As Tim Kreider so eloquently states:
History has shown that [protests] accomplished jack shit. Protests are an obsolete tactic, routine and impotent now, and the media renders them invisible by pretending they never happened, anyway. Letters to our elected representatives have the same effect on public policy as prayers to Jesus do on cancer.
Or as Kurt Vonnegut has Harrison Starr put it, "Why not write an anti-glacier book?" (An ironic metaphor given global warming.) We can vote all we want, but our elected representatives know that they are answerable not to us, but to those who fund their campaigns and who, with a word to Maureen Dowd and Chris Matthews, will with lies and bullshit eviscerate any candidate who might even think about compromising their absolute power. So it goes.

The economic elite has decided to abandon any notion of ethical and economic progress in favor of mindlessly raping our national economy and our global environment, and offhandedly killing not only our own sons and daughters but any sufficiently weak brown people available to violently demonstrate our "manhood". The rapine and slaughter is so pointless (how many billions of dollars can a person usefully spend?) that the inescapable conclusion is that the economic elite, possessed of virtually unlimited power, has found that this power has not made them happy, has not assuaged the neuroses and pain which drove them to become powerful and wealthy. They are thus savagely taking revenge on the world that has so wronged them by making them rich. And perhaps we—especially we Americans—deserve such retribution: It was we ourselves who made these twisted and desperately unhappy people wealthy beyond the dreams of Croesus. So it goes.

There's no hope of restoring our country's greatness: We have never been great in any moral sense, only violently powerful. There's no hope of establishing any greatness, or even moderating our intrinsic evil. Not only our economic overlords but the nation itself is too powerful, almost absolutely powerful. And it is inevitable, inescapable that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The only hope to which a thoughtful, humanistic American can reasonably aspire is to work for a more graceful degradation, to insure that, as we slowly destroy ourselves, we do not take the rest of the world with us in a nuclear holocaust, and that we retain a shred of national dignity (as did Great Britain) and not devolve into chaos and kleptocracy (as did Russia).

It is inevitable that millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of people are going to die, both in the pointless wars squabbling over first the remaining oil and then later the remaining unpolluted fresh water. Hundreds of millions more will live in desperate misery, displaced by these wars and by the consequences of the inevitable global warming. It is logically and physically possible to prevent such immense tragedy, but it is politically impossible to do so. This is the best case. The worst case is that all of humanity, and perhaps all life on Earth, dies in a nuclear holocaust. So it goes.

You can either live with the inevitability of this tragedy or you can't. If you can't, your only alternative to setting yourself on fire on the steps of the White House is to live in a big city. Reside in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, etc. (or any large city in any country); you will probably die sooner rather than later, or, at best, live as a miserable refugee. There is no better way of escaping moral culpability for an enormous tragedy than to be among its victims.

If you can live with this tragedy—even if you don't approve of it, but you might as well disapprove of earthquakes—then start looking for a way out. Just moving to a third-world country will not help, though. They're going to be just as fucked as anyone else, perhaps more so, and as not only a non-citizen but guilty by association of wars and global warming, you'll be the last to receive any charity.

Don't bother learning Chinese, or Arabic, or Hindi. The Islamic states are already screwed, and China and India will have at best only a fleeting moment as superpowers before they're overwhelmed by global warming and their own regional wars.

There are some things we can do to soften the decline of America and the world. Possibly the most important is to keep up the challenge against the Islamists, Christianists and Dominionists. Members of these mass movements, and any political leaders beholden to them, are the most likely, given their apocalyptic theologies, to simply nuke the world just for the fun of it. We must not only pressure these fanatics directly, but challenge and encourage the religious moderates to pressure them—it is only by means of persuading religious moderates that these fanatic mass movements can become a real threat to the survival of humanity.

Vote Democratic. The Democratic party is a creature of the economic elite just as is the Republican party. There is, however, a dialectical struggle within that elite, between the Republicans, who want to destroy the country as quickly as possible, and the Democrats, who want to destroy it more slowly. We're fucked either way, but the Democrats will at least sweet talk us and use more lube. The Democrats are also not nearly as beholden to and infiltrated by the Christianists as are the Republicans.

Write. We marginalized bloggers are not going to change the world, we're not even going to stop the obviously insane war in Iraq or prevent the next one in Iran, but at some point, after everything collapses, people will be looking for new ideas and ideologies. History is littered with unemployed, marginal bums (e.g. Marx) whose ideas later shaped civilization. We can at least bestow our ideas on the future.

In the meantime, live as your conscience dictates, and don't be afraid to live well and happy. We are all snowflakes in the avalanche. The best of us have no more objective right than the worst to impose our ideal of civilization on the unwilling masses. We can merely act as we will, live as we will, speak as we will and let the chips fall where they may. So it goes.

Arthur Silber is back

Arthur Silber is back, just as pissed off, and just as damnably right as ever.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Impeaching Cheney

This is not a prank: Kucinich announces impeachment charges against Vice President Cheney. Woo fucking hoo! The articles of impeachment and supporting documentation can be found on Congressman Kucinich's website.

Kucinich plans a press conference for 5 PM (presumably Eastern time) today.

Update: The Washington Post has a bit of atrocious, slanted journalism on the story.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Atheist identity politics

The God Delusion: A philosophical and political investigation

Part 1: Atheist identity politics
Part 2: Contra-theistic philosophy
Part 3: Scientific speculation
Part 4: Anti-religious and anti-accommodationist polemics

Thanks to the Deacon at Subversive Christianity, I'm re-reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion now with my full attention. And I'm rediscovering just how really terrific a book it is.

Halfway through this careful reading, it's becoming clear that the book is about four things: Atheist identity politics[1], basic contra-theistic philosophy, scientific speculation about why—given the obvious falsity of the "God Hypothesis"—people still maintain religious belief, and anti-religious polemic.

Dawkins is explicit about what kind of book he's writing, and particularly for whom he's writing:
I suspect—well I am sure—that there are lots of people out there who have been brought up in some religion or other, are unhappy in it, don't believe it, or are worried about the evils that are done in its name; people who feel vague yearnings to leave their parents' religion and wish they could, but just don't realize that leaving is an option. If you are one of them, this book is for you. It is intended to raise consciousness—raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled. (p. 1)

It is the thread of identity politics, and a position on atheist identity I substantially agree with, which causes me to take offense when the book or the author is disparaged, either through direct insults such as "halfwit" or the sort of tendentious nitpicking that places a gossamer veneer of supposed "criticism" over insults.

It's not my intention here to rebut each such disparagement in detail; the intellectual bankruptcy of theistic criticism of this book is obvious, and reminiscent of historical attacks on the identity politics of other oppressed groups: especially women, racial minorities, and gay people.

Sidebar: It's worth noting that atheist politics are, while similar to, substantively different from other civil rights struggles where identity politics has played a substantial role. Other civil rights struggles were and are struggles for equality; atheist politics is explicitly a struggle for superiority, at least intellectual superiority: Atheism is better than theistic religion. One cannot be surprised when even religious moderates take umbrage at such a project.

Because all theology is entirely free of substance, criticism of religion must have at its core an attitude of mockery. Dawkins quotes Jefferson: "Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus." It is not that even the most sophisticated theology is mistaken in some subtle sense, but that all theology is so blatantly ridiculous that it staggers the rational mind that anyone could even begin to take it seriously.

I'm coming around to the view that my own outrage is inappropriate, and more a reaction to my own expectation that theistic thinkers should respect the substance of atheist arguments; given the lack of substance in their own thought, I think my expectations are unrealistic and my outrage misplaced: It's foolish and unproductive to be outraged when one can expect no better.

Atheism has both a sense of self-identification and a descriptive sense. One task of any work in identity politics is to proffer a definition of the descriptive sense and encourage people who fit the description to also self-identify with the term. Dawkins presents his view of what atheism is, makes it intellectually and morally palatable, and makes the alternatives (specifically theistic religion, agnosticism, accommodationism and religious moderation) intellectually and morally unpalatable. This is exactly the sort of task we would expect from a work on identity politics, and Dawkins delivers superbly.

We can easily read a specific position about atheist identity from the book:
  1. If you reject the God Hypothesis, you can call yourself an atheist.
  2. If you reject the God Hypothesis, you should (in the polemic sense) call yourself an atheist.
  3. If you call yourself an atheist you should be uncompromisingly anti-religion

The first intellectual task for item 1—and the topic of the first chapter—is to separate out a collection of beliefs and traits that have been traditionally associated with theistic religion and appropriate them as rational beliefs not dependent on the God Hypothesis. Dawkins does so by reference to the atheist trope of "Einstein's 'God'". Wonder and awe of the universe, an appreciation of its myriad mysteries, a rational humility at the limitations of our tiny, finite minds in apprehending and solving these mysteries: All of these are rational, sensible, scientific attitudes; they do not at all depend on an acceptance of the God Hypothesis[2]. In later chapters, he covers more the more complicated notion of ethics without the God Hypothesis.

The second task (unsurprisingly covered by chapter 2) is to state the God Hypothesis:
[T]here exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.
Dawkins presents an alternative view:
[A]ny creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution.

It's very important to understand Dawkins' God Hypothesis in the context of identity politics. The most severe criticism of The God Delusion is from H. Allen Orr. Orr asserts that Dawkins fails "to engage religious thought in any serious way." In one sense, this is a blatantly false charge. Dawkins does indeed engage religious thought in a serious way, substantively addressing the arguments of (among others) Aquinas, Anselm, and Pascal. These religious thinkers are, of course, not the whole of theology, but they ain't chopped liver either.

Orr's criticism is, however, in some sense accurate:
You will find no serious examination of Christian or Jewish theology in Dawkins's book (does he know Augustine rejected biblical literalism in the early fifth century?), no attempt to follow philosophical debates about the nature of religious propositions (are they like ordinary claims about everyday matters?), no effort to appreciate the complex history of interaction between the Church and science (does he know the Church had an important part in the rise of non-Aristotelian science?), and no attempt to understand even the simplest of religious attitudes (does Dawkins really believe, as he says, that Christians should be thrilled to learn they're terminally ill?).
But just because you're accurate doesn't mean you're right.

The question is not whether or not Dawkins does address these topics, but whether he should do so. If Dawkins were really, as Orr titles his review, on "A Mission to Convert"—especially those with "serious" (snort) theistic belief systems—then perhaps he should have. But Dawkins specifically disclaims this intention. Sure, Dawkins would like it if "religious readers who open [this book] will be atheists when they put it down." (p. 5) But he also recognizes that this intention is "presumptuous optimism."

Orr asks for too much, and he does so in the intellectually dishonest manner (so loved by creationists, Dawkins' personal nemeses) of tossing out sound-bite questions that require long substantive answers and then objecting to sound-bite responses as frivolous. No single book—indeed the life work of no single author—can address every form of religious bullshit ever promulgated. No single book can address in "serious" detail the "methods [of childhood indoctrination] that took centuries to mature." (p. 5)

And are these sound-bite questions even relevant? As Aloysius succinctly puts it:
Asking people to pay more attention to sophisticated theology is like asking them to spend an afternoon reading your Buffy fan fiction which finally and for all times works out a consistent theory of souls and dimensions in the Buffyverse.

Read as atheist identity politics, though, these issues are irrelevant: You can call yourself an atheist just by virtue of rejecting the God Hypothesis; if you're interested in learning about more "sophisticated" theology, well, Dawkins is happy to share his opinion of such theology with you (as expected, he has nothing kind to say), but it's not Dawkin's job to rebut them; it's up to such sophisticated theologians to actively persuade you.

Dawkins is
aware that critics of religion can be attacked for failing to credit the fertile diversity of traditions and world-views that have been called religious. Anthropologically informed works, from Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough to Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained or Scott Atran's In Gods We Trust, fascinatingly document the bizarre phenomenology of superstition and ritual. Read such books and marvel at the richness of human gullibility.

But that is not the way of this book. I decry supernaturalism in all its forms, and the most effective way to proceed will be to concentrate on the form most likely to be familiar to my readers—the form that impinges most threateningly on all our societies. (p. 36)

If a reader is unsatisfied that Dawkins has not disproved every conception labeled as "God" ever written by anyone anywhere, well, too bad. That's a task Dawkins disclaims. If you want to find out one way to call yourself an atheist, and one intellectually sound conception about what it means to be an atheist—to "decry supernaturalism in all its forms"—then this book will satisfy you.

[1] I'll have to write more on why identity politics are important. Stay tuned.

[2] It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that Einstein and other scientists, as well as more-or-less secular philosophers (notably Spinoza), use the word "God" to label beliefs that really have nothing to do with the God Hypothesis; the word has a strong hold on our language. For an interesting take on the hold that "God" has on our language and minds, see Greg Egan's notion of "The God Who Makes No Difference" in his novel Permutation City.

Dawkins' own application to Einstein of the label "pantheist" is, in this vein, a bit of a misnomer; many self-described pantheists not only label "everything" as "God", but also attribute typically theistic properties to this everything, notably a distinct consciousness and teleology. But this objection is just a semantic quibble: Dawkins is eminently clear about what he means.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Truth™

Three challenges to truth

Part 1: The Truth™
Part 2: No truth
Part 3: Truthiness

The foundation of non-bullshit metaphysics is the discussion, construction and defense of the notion of "truth". What is this notion?

We can first look at the cognitive/linguistic job for which we employ the notion of "truth". Regardless of of the specific word we use, we still want some word to denote this job, and "truth" is at least as good a word as any other, with the advantage of historical use.

The first job we want to do is discuss distinctions. Thus the notion of truth defines the notion of falsity: If we discuss something as true then it follows that we discuss something else as false—we are making a distinction. The second job we want to do is discuss universal distinctions: If we discuss something as true for someone, somewhere, at some time, we discuss it as true for everyone, everywhere, always; likewise for falsity.

These are not the only cognitive/linguistic jobs we want to do, but we have perfectly good words, sanctified by historical use, to label those other jobs. The most important of these jobs is to discuss non-universal distinctions; we label that job as "opinion".

Since truth refers to a specifically cognitive/linguistic job, it follows that truth and falsity are properties of statements or sets of statements, in the extended sense that we can discuss particular states of mind or neural states in the same sort of language we use to discuss written or spoken statements in a natural language such as English. Mind/brain states are physical, symbolic representation with a vocabulary and grammar, just like statements in natural language.

There are three challenges to this job, hence three challenges to truth.

The first challenge to truth is the "modernist" notion of The Truth™. The Truth™ is a challenge to ordinary small-t truth because it attempts to over-determine truth by privileging a particular context evaluating statements.

We know from Quine et al. that no statement even has meaning, much less truth, by itself. To understand a statement, we need a context. There are two important contexts: the intensional and the extensional[1]. The intensional context governs how we interpret the statement, how the words or concepts or mental states hook up with other mental states. Examples of components of this intensional context applied to natural language statements are dictionaries, thesauri, and grammars. Another example of an intensional context is an axiom set, such as Peano's arithmetic, coupled with the grammar of propositional calculus. The extensional context is just the real world.

The Truth™ is a challenge to truth because it privileges a specific intensional context as true (and thus implies that alternative intensional contexts are false), and therefore the evaluations made under the privileged context become not just true (i.e. true in that context) but The Truth™, as all other contexts are false.

For instance, it is an ordinary truth that "2+2=4" is a theorem of the intensional context of ordinary integer arithmetic. When this intensional context is used to evaluate extensional reality, it is true in the sense that if you put two stones in a jar, and then put two more in, and then count the stones in the jar, you will count to four.

To construct an obviously absurd example, The Truth™ would declare ordinary integer arithmetic a privileged "true" context. Thus "2+2=4" is not just a truth about arithmetic, or a truth about some particular set of stones in a jar, but The Truth™. Of course, once we start applying the underlying concepts of our arithmetical context to other extensional realities, such as the motion of the hour hand of an ordinary 12 hour clock, we start running into silly contradictions: "7+8=15" is a valid statement of ordinary arithmetic and a true statement about stones in jars, but "7+8=3" is a valid statement of modulo-12 arithmetic and a true statement about the position of an hour hand.

Obviously, the statement "7+8=15" means different things in different intensional and extensional contexts; we are entirely justified in considering the same set of symbols to represent different statements in different contexts.

I constructed the above example specifically to highlight the absurdity, but the concept of privileging an intensional context crops up time and again in more subtle ways. For instance modernist meta-mathematics privileged the abstract conjecture-proof intensional context, making alternative contexts false (or at least marginalized as non-mathematics). Postmodernist[2] mathematicians are now exploring a rich vein of alternative contexts, including computational, representational, and probabilistic mathematics[3].

The most historically egregious example of privileging an intensional context to establish The Truth™ is privileging specific cultural and religious contexts to establish The Truth™ in the realm of ethics.

It is a straightforward truth that people in Western societies approve of democracy, a truth in the sense that it is unproblematic that even an alien species observing us from galaxy NGC 6745—regardless of their particular characteristics, assuming only they were able to rationally discuss the subject at all—would conclude that common approval of democracy is a true statement about the people in Western societies.

However, if we arbitrarily privilege this particular social/cultural context as the true context, then "democracy is good" becomes not just a truth but The Truth™; if a society or culture does not embrace democracy, then their own context is false. Likewise for Christianity or Islam, sexual morality and driving on the right-hand side of the road.

Any time you hear someone talking in terms of The Truth™ (you can actually hear the capital letters and the ™ symbol), look carefully and you'll see they're always privileging some particular intensional context for establishing The Truth™.

The Truth™ is fundamentally a challenge to truth because small-t truth is always dependent on intensional context. (The context dependence does not entail subjectivism, though, because context is a particular subjective state, it is not established by particular subjective states.[4]) There is no way of establishing the truth of an intensional context, in the sense of applying to contexts the job we expect of "truth". Specifically we have no basis other than the arbitrary (non-universal) imposition of a context to distinguish a true context from a false one. Thus in making the distinction we just push the arbitrary non-universalism around; we don't eliminate it.

The Truth™ fundamentally, then, is revealed as bullshit in the philosophical sense: Using truth-language while being fundamentally indifferent to truth.

[1] For the purpose of this discussion, we will presuppose the notion of scientific realism, that a real world exists independent of our minds and—usually directly but often indirectly—causes our perceptual experiences. All the same sorts of conclusions, however, apply mutatis mutandis to Phenomenalism, with perception standing in for extension, from which we can construct the notion of scientific realism.

[2] Postmodernism will get its share of criticism in the next installment: "No truth".

[3] See A Glance at Postmodern Pedagogy of Mathematics (h/t to philosophical bits).

[4] My apologies: This comment is the soul of (bad) obscurity. I promise to clarify in the future.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

D’Souza’s utter puztiude

An atheist professor's magnificent smackdown of freedom-hating totalitarian theocratic uber-putz Dinesh D'Souza's contemptible misrepresentations of atheism.

I shudder to contemplate the kind of twisted, perverted sort of person that admires D'Souza's work.

Theistic and atheistic ethics

Peresozo makes a good point and mentions the theist charge that atheists are unable to account for evil. But is the atheist account really deficient? And against what standard could we call it deficient?

Peresozo's comment raises several fundamental questions. We want to know not only why there's evil, but how to think about it and what to do about it. A simple causal account of evil is itself deficient; what we really want is an account of ethical thinking we can use in practice. Thus we can recast the question: Are atheistic accounts of practical ethical thinking deficient? Are theistic accounts sufficient?

Taking the second question first, I submit that theistic accounts of ethical thinking are themselves deficient, consisting of at best content-free platitudes, sometimes incoherence, and at worst moral nihilism. The theistic causal accounts of evil entail either that God is not omnipotent or that we don't understand good and evil; in either case, the accounts don't help our ethical thinking at all.

The "free will" defense to the Problem of Evil entails that God cannot or chooses neither to prevent evil nor promote good: We are, rather, free to choose one or the other. This is not a bad defense of theism, but removes God from our moral reasoning, making morality our problem, not God's.

The "greater good" defense entails that although some things appear evil, they are really in the service of a greater good. In which case, all our language condemning and praising acts seems at best entirely metaphorical; a realistic view would entail a Panglossian approval of everything. We can still make pseudo-moral judgments—and it's part of the greater good that we do so—but such judgments are not about good and evil per se (since everything is for the greater good) but about who-knows-what else. And again we are back to figuring out for ourselves what all this ethical thinking is really all about.

Both defenses throw morality back into the realm of purely human reasoning. They may (in the usual Swinburne-style non-explanation explanation) "account for" what we call evil in the sense of explaining why there is evil, but neither defense at all accounts for our actual practical moral reasoning. So it's not clear that there's any standard at all against which the atheistic account might be judged "deficient".

Of course, atheism per se does not do anything but describe a lack of belief in a God. Atheism just constrains explanations and thinking, but as noted above, it does not place any more constraints on our moral reasoning than theism in the face of the Problem of Evil.

There are two ways atheists tend to look at the world: naturalistic physicalism[1], a fundamentally monistic view, and naturalistic dualism: That the universe is composed of physical stuff (the stuff that we ends up interpreting as matter and energy) and, in this context, ethical stuff (probably a subset of mind stuff). The dualistic view has the advantage of very simply accounting for the words "good" and "evil" as naming this ethical stuff. However, I've never been persuaded to this view: This ethical stuff or mind stuff seems very elusive.

Scientific physicalism entails that our moral reasoning is about something physical: Either some kind of physical substance or some physical arrangements of this substance. Since there doesn't appear to be any kind of good or bad matter or energy or quantum states, we have to look to arrangements. And the obvious place to look for these good and bad arrangements is to look at those arrangements of matter we call minds, which entails meta-ethical subjective relativism, that our ethical thinking and language fundamentally names states of mind[2].

Peresozo raises the obvious objection: This view entails that our judgment of Hitler (or Cho) is merely that their actions are "not to [our] taste." But why should this be an objection at all?

First of all, I the characterization of ethical beliefs as "taste" is misleading, and trades on the equivocation fallacy of similarity entailing identity. According to MESR ethical beliefs are, similar to tastes, subjective, but "tastes" are precisely those subjective beliefs we do not condemn differences in others[3]. It is less prejudicial to say that our judgment of Hitler[4] is that his actions meet with our violent subjective disapproval.

Thus we can say that if Hitler's acts did not meet with our violent subjective disapproval, we would not call them unethical. Well, of course. But so what? His actions do in fact arouse our violent subjective disapproval. Why should we be concerned with the acts of fantasied possible worlds or alien species in which the actual here-and-now facts do not apply?

As Peresozo notes, if ethical beliefs are about mental states, there will be conflicting ethical beliefs. It is a fact that some people approve of Hitler's actions. It is a fact that millions (if not hundreds of millions) of Muslims actually cheered the attacks of 9/11, indicating their hearty approval. Millions (if not hundreds of millions) in America and the West naturally disapprove of both Hitler and bin Laden. According to MESR, none of these people are objectively mistaken: Since our ethical beliefs do not fundamentally name facts about objective (outside the mind) reality, there is nothing to be mistaken about.

How are we to deal with such conflict if objective truth discourse is simply inapplicable? Well, we can deal with ethical conflict in precisely the same way that we do in fact deal with it here and now: Propaganda and negotiation. Democracy. At worst imprisoning or killing people with objectionable beliefs and fighting wars. Institutions and techniques that do not fundamentally use objective truth discourse.[5]

Given this view, the account of evil offered by naturalistic physicalism is trivial: We evolved minds which make value judgments; to the extent that we make different value judgments, a person with one value judgment will label as "evil" the differing judgment in another. There is no "problem" of evil, there's no unexplained phenomena, and naturalistic physicalism entails precisely what we do in fact see: that we use propaganda and negotiation discourse, rather than objective truth discourse, to resolve our ethical conflicts.

The bar that theistic morality raises to atheistic ethical discourse is entirely illusory. The ethical bar, however, that atheistic philosophy raises to theism is considerable.

[1] I prefer the term naturalistic physicalism to scientific materialism; if quantum mechanics makes anything clear it is that our ordinary intuitions about matter are not applicable to fundamental physical reality, and naturalism is a superset of scientism, avoiding the connotation of science as a process that relies only on public facts. I personally tend to use science and naturalism more-or-less interchangeably.

[2] I.e. whatever physical characteristics of our brains on which our abstract concepts of states of mind supervene.

[3] Tastes are those beliefs we also do not condemn in ourselves. Internal ethical conflict is as important a consideration as external conflict; I'll write more on this topic later.

[4] Note that for any Abrahamic theist who gives any intrinsic weight to scripture, which in both the Old Testament and the Koran has God explicitly ordering genocide, the condemnation of Hitler is not a condemnation of his acts themselves, but only of his authority to act in such a manner. Again we see that at least Abrahamic theism does not raise much of a bar that atheistic ethical discourse must surpass.

[5] Except in the senses that we want to determine what in physical reality what it is we're actually subjectively judging, and to determine what people's ethical beliefs actually happen to be.

Friday, April 20, 2007

To bear with unbearable sorrow

Dinesh D’Souza seems to feel that a time of mourning and tragedy is clearly the appropriate time to get some licks in on those damned atheists. Presumably, though atheism doesn’t appear to be a source of great comfort to the community of Blacksburg, Virginia (more on which later), D’Souza’s God and His great and unknowable plan were around there somewhere, mourning Cho Seung-Hui’s misuse of his free will in order to slaughter people and loving the misanthropic lunatic all the same. Yes, I can see how faith in the non-interventionist but loving and don’t-you-dare-be-mad-at-Him-because-you-can’t-know-His-plans God would be a great comfort.

Wait. No I can’t. But that’s my own issue. I’m not one to cast stones at whatever gives people comfort in a time of grief and confusion. Religion has a great deal of utility in providing shelter against incomprehensible fear and horror, as well as being a wonderful method of comforting the grieving. I don’t find it necessary, but that’s me. “To each their own” has its appropriate uses, and this seems to be one of them.

D’Souza uses an interesting rhetorical trick, though. He’s casting the Problem of Evil on its head, using it as a metaphysical stick against atheism, rather than its typical target, theism. Say what you will about his (specious) thought, the man’s a damned decent writer, and I tip my hat to him putting the shoe on the other foot. The flaw comes in his approach however. As a devoutly religious individual, D’Souza sees no other way for atheism approach grief, or the Problem of Evil, than as he would as a Christian.

Atheism does not invoke itself as a metaphysical governing philosophy, other than to say, “there’s no God we can comprehend or know” – and really, all the atheist does is add one more God (the Abrahamic one) to the list of gods most other people don’t believe in – and proceed on its merry way to figure everything else out on its own. But D’Souza can’t seem to comprehend that (indeed, as a devout Christian, such thinking is likely completely alien to him); atheists must rely upon some sort of metaphysical order, and so he seizes upon scientific materialism as the end-all-be-all of the atheist’s moral and cognitive schema. And since scientific materialism cannot account for Why Evil Happens, atheism must therefore be fundamentally flawed.

I shouldn’t have to point out the venial flaw in that logic to a learned audience. But, somehow, I have the sneaking suspicion that I do. Atheism does not entail scientific materialism, even when the two dovetail nicely. Atheism doesn’t need to account for the Problem of Evil because it does not lay claim to an underlying metaphysical order, does not ascribe characteristics to itself or its object (indeed, it lacks an object to begin with), and does not subscribe to an overarching narrative (unlike the forms of theism to which the Problem of Evil is usually applied, like Christianity). A Mysterian attitude seems appropriate here: Evil is something that happens, for many reasons, many of which we cannot comprehend or perceive. That we know it exists is enough. We can delve into the psychological factors that motivated Mr. Cho, and thereby understand him, but we can never truly learn why he did what he did. Ascribing that final motivation to another agency, like Satan, is simply an admittance of being uncomfortable with incomplete knowledge.

Atheism simply removes God from the equation. We don’t need to appeal to His (or Her, or Its, or Their...) authority in order to make sense of the world and feel secure in the midst of its insanity. Atheists in Blacksburg (if there are any) are deriving comfort from the same human means and agencies that everyone else is: The outpourings of empathy and collective grief, the coherence of a community drawn together by mutual sadness. Whether that community invokes God or not, they are coalescing around the same tragedy and using the very same deeply, profoundly, and ineluctable traits that make us gloriously human. I, for one, take great comfort and pride in the irrepressible potential for resilience and compassion within humankind. And that’s all the metaphysics I need.

[James Elliott is the proprietor of Often Right, Rarely Correct. This essay is original to The Barefoot Bum—ed.]

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech

I'm late on this. I don't watch TV and I don't read newspapers (even online), so I'm always at least 24 hours behind on this sort of thing. I also lived in Littleton in 1999, with teenage children at school less than a mile away from Columbine High. This is an especially emotional topic for me. I don't think anything useful can be said about this tragedy, nothing political, nothing philosophical. Not now, not ever.

So I'll reprint (with permission) the only actually useful thing that anyone's said concerning this tragedy.



Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés

Each person, depending on their innate physical and emotional constitution, is affected differently by sudden shocks and catastrophic events. Symptoms of having been shocked may differ also. Thus, over a period of time, if you of the inner circle, that is, an eye-witness, a victim, or a survivor, or a person who lost a loved one, or had a loved one seriously injured, or other close-in relationship, you may find yourself having one or more of the following reactions. These are normal reactions to sudden shock. When one has been involved in a critical incident, the body, mind and heart, and some believe too that the spirit and soul, are shocked as well. The most time-tested remedies in my clinical work in post-trauma recovery are outlined right after this list of reactions:

Physical Reactions:
o Sleep disturbances including inability to sleep
o Lethargy, such as sleeping too much
o Exhaustion, fatigue
o Changes in appetite, digestive disturbances
o Feeling numb
o Crying
o Desire to comfort and be comforted physically
o Nightmares, night terrors
o Loss of memory
o Trembling, inner or outer
o Nausea
o Heart arrhythmia
o Pain in heart, not an organic disorder, but caused by sorrow
o Aching bones, not an organic disorder but caused by sorrow
o Headache, migraine

Behavioral Reactions:
o Hyperactivity
o Poor concentration
o Refusing to talk
o Startle reactions while awake or asleep
o Isolating, wanting to be alone.
o Wanting to just sit, or just stare
o Trying to help in any way one can, to the point of exhaustion
o Hyper-vigilance, watching, listening, being unable to be at rest

Psychological Reactions:
o Loss of sense of time
o Feeling distraught and helpless
o Feeling that things are not real, as though in a dream
o Inability to recall sequences or trace all of one’s steps
o Feeling the future has been lost forever
o Desire to comfort and be comforted psychologically
o Feeling one should not cry
o Wanting to scream or screaming-weeping
o Inability to attach importance to anything but this event
o Flashbacks
o Nightmares
o Intrusive thoughts
o Over-reactions to mild to moderate irritations
o Recurrent dreams
o Horrified Anger
o Broken Heart
o Insecurity about the future
o Feelings of fear
o Feelings of guilt
o Feeling one cannot stop crying
o Blaming of others, individuals, groups, passionate outbursts
o Marked frustration with how long everything takes
o Marked frustration with rescue workers, the bureaucracy, anyone who tries to help
o Marked Frustration with any who break promises to help, or who are perceived to not be telling all the truth, or who are perceived to be withholding critical information, or who are giving out platitudes or being condescending
o Ongoing violent fantasies
o Anxiety
o Mild to profound depression
o Amnesia
o Thinking no one can ever understand, no one can ever help.
o Keeping secrets about what one might have known beforehand
o Blaming oneself.
o Deep dread about hearing any more terrible news.

Spiritual reactions
o Desire to comfort and be comforted spiritually
o Questioning God, being angry with God
o Not wanting to hear any spiritual counsel
o Wanting very much to hear spiritual counsel
o Praying non-stop
o Feeling God has abandoned everyone

These are normal reactions, and they can be painful. And going through them, trying to pinpoint each and find ease for each, is part of the direct healing process. No one can instantly cleanse these thoughts and feelings, though I wish we could, for I know they can tear at the heart, mind, soul and spirit. For some persons, after tragedy, they know immediately what they think and feel. For others who are numbed, they not know where and how they stand with the events and with themselves for weeks and months afterward. Being thoughtful and watchful of one’s own processes is a good endeavor, and to take steps to help oneself as, and if, needed.

For those close in to the tragedy, the numbness you feel is your psyche protecting you, taking away for a time, the profound overwhelm of all that has occurred. For the first days after such enormous shocks, it may almost feel as though time has stopped. As though you are no longer here. As though maybe you are dead too. This is because horror and tragedy throw us into a process and lock us in for a time. For most who have suddenly lost a beloved person, ‘a descent’ is not too strong a word for the process. To many, it feels like a big iron gate has closed behind them and that life will never be the same again.

There is an indirect healing process that takes place underground at the same time, and that is that time passing is a great healer too. Time is the indirect healing partner. As time goes on, there is also blessing news… and that is, that grief is a process that has a beginning, a middle and not exactly an end, but a release from that trapped place where you may have felt burdened relentlessly. Eventually that eases and dwindles. You will daily live and laugh and love life again, more and more … it will happen.

As time goes on, less and less, and with longer and longer spans of time in between, will you be taken backward in time to very briefly, but deeply, grieve anew. For most of us, we do not ‘get over’ such heart-wrenching events. We learn to live with them. We learn to live with the aftermath of irretrievable loss. We learn to live with losses that feel they took our souls from us and our desire to live life as well. But the innate life force is ever sending out strong impulse to live again, and it will help us see meaning, and new calling in life sometimes too, as we gradually climb back up to vital and vibrant life in every way.

Please take up all, or any of the following ways to help yourself and know too, that many many strangers, as well as those close to you, are focusing in this very moment on supporting you over the miles, saying strong and ongoing fresh prayers for your hearts and souls to find their ways and to be made whole again.

o Within the first 24 72 hours, do strenuous exercise alternating with relaxation. Continue to move daily thereafter. This will alleviate some of the physical reactions, and give your body a way to discharge additional physical and emotional reactions as they accumulate in the coming days.

o Keep busy, do not sit and do nothing. Feeling displaced, angry, sad and bewildered are normal reactions. Do not tell yourself that you have lost your mind. You haven’t. But it is as though a huge wind has blown through unsetting all order. Order will return. A new order. One you decide as you decide it, in your own best interests.

o Talk to people - talk is one of the most healing things you can do. Tell your story as you see it. Although some have learned to keep their most precious thoughts and feelings to themselves, they may not realize that by talking now, they also give others permission to talk out their thoughts and feelings too… and thus to go that much farther in healing. This may be the first time some persons will receive encouragement to speak. It doesn’t matter whether one’s talk is broken or cohesive… telling one’s own story is what matters. People who have been deeply hurt, may tell their stories over and over again, many times before they lose their massive charge of pain.

o If you can, listen to others’ stories, for sometimes giving comfort is a way to help healing of both teller and listener as well. There are many ways to listen, including being silent together, including a hand on an arm, an arm around a shoulder, an embrace while the other person just leans quietly or weeps. There are too, those inimitable words that the soul understands perfectly, which are not said with voice, but with nods of the head and with the eyes; gentle understanding eyes.

o Don’t allow anyone to push you by insisting, “It’s over now, we have to move on.” In grief, the psyche has entered a deep learning and transformative process. The news media cycle is not your healing cycle. Neither is your drummer any who are not very well developed psychologically, nor those who become understandably fatigued with the ongoing cycles of grief. Listen to yourself and to wise others who have come through a great something themselves, and mostly recovered. It is a paradox and an issue of compassion for self and others: To tend to what is wounded til healed, while going on with new life as well. Yes, ‘life goes on,’ as some will say, but the emphasis should be on Life! not on hurrying. A wound to the spirit and psyche is like a wound to the body. It takes time to heal from the bottom layers upward.

o Feelings of loneliness and deep feelings of longing toward loved ones now gone can be partially mediated by being with those who understand from the ground up, that is, other people, who have gone the way you are going now. Thought it can seem like this never happened to anyone else and you are alone, there are others in the world, on the internet, at certain groups who know exactly what you are experiencing, and they can be of great comfort. Seek it and take it.

o Each time you tell your story, each time you create a symbolic act, each event memorialized, each thoughtful new barrier set to help prevent ever again what tragedy occurred in your world, each time you think back to the tragedy in order to analyze and learn something valuable, each time you receive someone’s caring, each time you reach to comfort others, you will be healing yourself.

o Try not to cover up your feelings by withdrawing or by using alcohol or drugs. Talk your feelings out. As many times as you need to. There is no shame or selfishness in this. You have been through alot. Sometimes after a tragedy, some are inclined to try to self-medicate with whatever is close at hand. But this is not a time of negating. Your psyche is stronger than you know. This time, despite the horror that began it, will be a time that will bring much to you, much that will be useful for the rest of your life.

o Reach out to others. They really do care. Be good to yourself and let others be good to you too. Often, the most healing comes from just allowing others to bless your life anew, and you theirs. I tell the people I meet with who have suffered great tragedies, but who often ask what they can do to help others. I tell them, be kind. People who suffer greatly will most often forget all the words that everyone said during these first days, but what will remain forever engraved in memory, are the kindnesses others offered during those first few days and weeks. Kindness somehow seems recorded by the body, by the mind, the heart, the soul and the spirit; every part of the person registers kindness.

o Spend time with others. Do not isolate yourself. You can find yourself laughing sometimes, even as you grieve. That is not blasphemy: it is the Life Force trying to surface again.

o Ask other people how they are doing. Remember they may be shy to tell a stranger, or even a friend or relative, of their burden unless they are asked, and often more than once in order to gain more of an answer than ‘Fine,” when they are somewhat to a lot less than fine.

o People can become fatigued from this business of grieving. Grieving is hard work and as numbness wears off and the psyche delivers back images and impressions of the original traumatic event, it can burn up much energy. Rest, take good care of your body. Feed it decent food. Soothe and energize the body. It’s alright to take time out. it is not negligent not to want to listen anymore. For now, for a while, or ever. Everyone reaches capacity in the grieving process. Pay attention to what your body and mind need, and secure it. Healing is not a straight line, it is a zig-zag line, sometimes two steps back and three steps forward. Stay with it. There is no one right and perfect way. There is your way. Trust it. Others may offer ideas too. Consider them, take what you need and leave the rest.

o If you find at any time that you feel stuck in endless anger, or want to isolate yourself endlessly, or have unabated anxiety, or continue to be hyper vigilant, have intrusive thought, flashbacks, thoughts of hurting yourself or others, nightmares or other sleep distresses, over-reactions to run of the mill events…. seek professional help.

o It is not a character flaw nor a failure of self hood to seek psychological, physical or spiritual assistance. Understand that severe, sudden shocks to the body and mind can throw off chemicological balances in the body. Sometimes the body needs medicine to help to recover the chemical equilibrium that influences sense of self and sense of ease with the world. Talk therapy with a therapist trained in post-trauma recovery is useful to untangle thought processes that often become jammed by prior pressure to respond to too many sudden and strong stimuli all at once. Therapy is also a place to speak the thoughts you would prefer not to speak more publicly or to friends or family. It also is a place of learning to create new life as you now wish it to be, with insight and vision.

o If you are a parent, help your children by listening, listening. Just because your young adult children are silent, or just because they laugh or go out with friends or say everything is fine, does not mean they are without need of your special regard. The psyche often splits in two during eye-witness sudden trauma. It is a healthy adaptation. One side of one’s nature goes on functionally, while the other part is drowning in bewilderment, helplessness or sorrow. Do not hesitate to gain psychological advice and therapy, both for yourself and your child. Therapy at its best is educative, teaches about how the mind and behavior and spirit actually work together, or don’t, but can, with a few adjustments and conscious good will.

o In the ensuing days, find things to do that feel rewarding or refreshing. These need not be big things, but things to offer some small balances to the tragedy you have been through. It is alright to live fully, even though precious others have died. In fact, it is exactly right to decide to live fully in honor of those who could not. There is to be no guilt for moments of happiness or celebrations. Moments of happiness are, again, the Life Force erupting in your service.

o When you feel bad, find a person to talk to, and to cry with, to tell of your anger and other helpless feelings. Don’t keep it inside. You are vulnerable in these moments; take care to not over-indulge or self-medicate with substances, or other mind-numbing addictions, or trying to lose oneself in unprotected sex.

o If you have had spiritual practices, your spiritual beliefs will definitely help you through. Cleave to them in full. For those who have been dispirited by some inhumane religious person long ago, do not hold yourself away from this kind of healing for your spirit. Instead, consider seeking now people of spirit who love the soul; there are many of them in the world, some in organized religions and some who wander freelance in this wide world. Ally with them. They often have special balm.

o I would just mention this last, also…. for some it is good to develop a category in one’s mind called something like “God’s business,” for some things will never make sense. Evil things are by definition insensible. And some things, some events, some outcomes, will forever only be “God’s business.”

We all wish to be brave and strong in the face of disaster. We all wish to be looked up to for our endurance and our efforts to help others. If you truly care for humanity, be sure to include yourself in their numbers, by giving your own inner feelings and thoughts the voice and the dignity they and you so deeply deserve.

This protocol letter for victims, survivors and witnesses to massacre and disaster, Recovery and Normal Reactions To Sudden Loss, Injury, and Catastrophe; Copyright ©1970, 1999, 2001, 2006, updated 2007, Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D., All Rights Reserved, is printed here under Creative Commons License by which author grants permission to copy, distribute and transmit this particular work under the conditions that the use be non-commercial, that the work be used in its entirety and not altered, added to, or subtracted from, and attributed with author’s name and copyright notice. For other uses, contact copyright holder.

[copied from The Moderate Voice, via skippy—ed.]

Hi, my name is James, and I'm a social scientist.

I have a confession to make: I am a social worker. At least, that’s what it says on my job description and my diploma. I prefer to use the “old-fashioned” term for my degree – social welfare – because I acknowledge that “social work” gives many people a poor taste in their mouth and inclines many towards dismissing my work. As one commenter put it, we’re considered (and there’s a fair bit of truth here) the “lowest rungs on the academic ladder.” Even more open-minded folks have a tendency to dismiss social sciences, even of the more rigorous ones, as disciplines that can’t make up their minds whether they want to be sciences or liberal arts.

A social worker’s education is about one-half counseling (in practice and theory) to one-quarter public policy and one-quarter research. It’s an odd hybrid between psychology, political economy, and sociology. And I’ll admit that I had to work my ass off to garner the benefit from two dedicated research professors and did a lot of the political economy work on my own; there’s a real bias towards counseling currently in my profession. That said, there are social workers (typically those who go into PhD programs like UC Berkeley’s) who identify as such and do a lot of disciplined, rigorous research into social issues.

Often times, social sciences are disparaged because their work cannot give us the same kind of causal relationships one can garner from physical sciences. But then, this is precisely the point. Recognizing that most of our research will end up being correlational, rather than causal, social scientists have developed a fair number of methodologies in order to provide accurate data. My personal favorite is the “mixed” study design, integrating quantitative (X subjects out of Y sample for Z criteria) with qualitative (narrative, interviews, patterns, etc.) methods. In social welfare programs, we are held to far stricter statistical analysis standards than many other social sciences, such as political science or economics (anything less than p = .05, I was taught, makes results unreliable). We do this precisely because there are so many conflicting and interacting factors when one is discussing social and psychological issues.

It was this acknowledgment of and attempt to account for and integrate these complex factors into our research and methods that attracted me to social work, and keeps me interested today. We call this “systems theory:” Everyone (or group of individuals) has multiple factors at work upon them on many levels. The evaluation of any action, from individuals, groups, or even ethnicities or nations, needs to take into account the interaction of psychological, social, cultural, religious, economic, environmental, historical, and psychological factors. When dealing with human interaction, it is borderline intellectually dishonest to attempt to boil down anything to one causal or explanatory factor.

This is not an easy thing for a lot of people to do. Man, by nature I believe, pursues simple causal relationships. I’ve termed this the “simplicity seeker impulse,” allowing humans to comprehend, categorize, and evaluate data in easily organized schema that can be accessed swiftly. My suspicion – and there’s certainly no ethical or isolated way to prove this that I can think of in my casual moments – is that it is a survival skill to maximize reaction time. This is the impulse that allows us to categorize swaths of people (“Poverty causes gang-membership”) as opposed to recognizing more complex social and psychological interactions (“Lack of rewarding work may cause individuals to seek validation from other external sources”). We see this at work constantly among pundits and academics who wish for their work to be consumed by a broader audience. More disturbingly, it is a prevalent attitude among political leadership that make decisions with far-reaching applications and consequences. It is, frankly, simpler to construct broader explanations that can be digested swiftly and easily.

But simpler doesn’t equate to more accurate. When one is talking about real human lives, it seems to me more sensible to take the time and attempt to account for as many factors as possible before making a decision; similarly, that decision must address as many of those factors as possible. I am not advocating a form of thought wherein every possible correlational factor must be considered and evaluated and statistically established before a decision is reached. This is simply an outgrowth of what used to be a profoundly American form of pragmatic, classically liberal thought: approach everything with a degree of skepticism, especially one’s own certainty.

[James F. Elliott is the proprietor of Often Right, Rarely Correct. This essay is original to The Barefoot Bum -- ed.]

Monday, April 16, 2007

Ethics and speech

I hold meta-ethical subjective relativism, that all of our ethical beliefs are fundamentally subjective: the properties of goodness and badness name only states of mind, not properties of objects outside our minds. Things aren't good and bad in themselves, there are only subjective, mental facts about what people approve and disapprove of.

This position entails then that to the extent that there is such a thing as a social ethic, it comprises more or less complicated statistical properties of individual beliefs. Thus the only way to change social ethics is to change the individual ethical beliefs of a large number of people. And the best way to change individuals' beliefs is by speech[1] (the deprecated alternative is to simply imprison or kill everyone who has or lacks a particular belief).

Therefore speech has an ethical component. Indeed most speech, even speech not intentionally directed at ethical belief (i.e. propaganda), has some sort of ethical component, at the very least indicating some degree of the author's or characters' approval or disapproval of the depicted activities. Even news reports, supposedly purely descriptive, often betray an ethical bias in the language used to describe. It takes considerable discipline even in science to remove ethical biases and only describe the world.

Of course, we should not adopt an overly simplistic evaluation of the moral content of speech, nor a simplistic, over-literal model of how it actually affects its listeners' moral beliefs. But it does appear to be the case that clear societal ethics do emerge from the cacophony of millions of voices.

Ethical criticism of speech is, of course, a form of speech, indeed of propaganda. The recent conflict over Don Imus' racist remarks is a good case in point. It is instructive to note that the conflict played out exactly the way we would expect in a free society. Had CBS/MSNBC been fined by the FCC for Imus' remarks, I would have been quick to object: It is not, nor should it ever be the government's job to regulate speech. The counterargument contains exactly two word: First Amendment. Full stop. The members of society evaluated Imus' remarks as ethically wrong, and, using nothing but social pressure in the form of speech, marginalized his racist content to the point where his sponsors no longer considered it in their interest to amplify his views.

With regard to my previous essay, there are two moral questions: What sort of sexuality do we want people to have, and how do we want people to relate to other? It's difficult to have no opinion: even the opinion that our sexuality and relationships should be left to chance and genetics—and that to tolerate with approval all the sorts relationships that ensue—is a particular opinion; to have no opinion, one would affect no preference at all between ideal anarchy and inflexible totalitarianism.

Consent and personal responsibility, although important, cannot be the end of our ethical discourse. Consent must account for the range of choice; the concept is vacuous in the absence of or severe restriction of choice: A chattel slave "consents" to slavery because he has chosen it over death, and thus takes "personal responsibility" for his choice. Liberty—especially in our society of complex interlocked dependencies—is not just a narrowly negative concept, the absence of physical coercion, it has by tradition and history become, like it or not, both wider and positive: There are other forms of coercion than violence, and we have positive obligations to make available a wider range of options, encourage (and thus define) wise choices and discourage unwise choices.

It's not even that we have real obligations ("obligation" is just a metaphor) so much as that, with six billion of us (and more on the way) crowded on a planet that can support only tens or hundreds of millions without complex technological specialization) we actually do affect each others lives by all our speech, even by our silence. One can escape these obligations only by abandoning empathy, and becoming indifferent to the suffering of others.

[1] In the broadest sense of communicative behavior, including speaking, writing, pantomime, television, movies, video games, etc.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

On pornography

The Apostate is justly contemptuous of much of the content of pornography and the sex trade. There's much there to arouse the disdain of the thoughtful and sensitive, but the Apostate earns our philosophical admiration by not jumping to easy conclusions, e.g. that porn should be banned or even condemned as the cause of our sexual and emotional ills.

Like many other social phenomena, porn exists in a feedback system with individuals' sexuality. It is absurd to believe that porn is a pure symptom, that it has no causal effect whatsoever on its consumers' sexuality and emotional state and most importantly, on their subjective morality; everything that one experiences affects his or her mental equilibrium. Likewise, it is absurd to believe that porn is a simple cause, that its consumers are blank slates and accept literally whatever porn happens to pass before their eyes; because likewise everything affects one's mental equilibrium, and porn is only one of millions of influences, which include those (as yet unknown) ineluctable characteristics supplied by our genes.

The disturbing content of much pornography should, I think, justly give pause to even its most ardent defenders; on the other hand, the all too often simplistic condemnation of pornography should give pause to its more thoughtful critics.

One very obvious and critical problem in the discussion of sexuality in general is the almost total lack of scientific study of sexuality. There are seminal studies, Kinsey, Masters and Johnson, but the point of seminal studies in science is to fertilize additional study, not to stand alone as absolute proof. By analogy, it is not Eddington's single observation of relativistic light-bending (an observation later found not probative) which conclusively proves General Relativity, it is the millions of experiments subsequently performed by the scientific edifice begun by Einstein. Likewise, had a scientific edifice been established around Kinsey's research, it would be the body of that research which would have separated what was true in Kinsey from that which was mistaken. Such an edifice was not built, and intellectuals even today can rely on little else but Kinsey's decades old research.[1]

Whenever you have a feedback system, with no clear hierarchy of cause, if you want to affect the system you must identify neither the most visible nor the most labile component, but rather the component where changes will be most magnified by the feedback processes.

What little scientific research exists suggests that every individual's sexuality is very stable, whereas his or her morality is quite labile. It is much easier to affect what a person sincerely approves and disapproves of than it is to change what he or she finds sexually exciting. Studies on pedophiles and rapists (and also—in of course a much different moral context—homosexuals) bear this out, as well as the tendency of consumers of pornography to focus on particular fetishes or narrow genres.

It is also clear to any student of history—and readers of Marx—that individual morality follows economic conditions. The bulk of both secular ethical philosophy as well as theology consists of justifying the moral superiority of the economically powerful, and the most obvious predictor of both political and moral revolution is when the government and the economically powerful become estranged. Again, we witness some evidence for this hypothesis in the context of the sex trade by the fact that indigenous prostitution sharply declines in those countries with both economic fairness and stability.

Another blatantly obvious factor in this context is that the social and economic dominance of men over women has definitely existed for millennia, and might stretch even farther, to the millions of years, even to our pre-human ancestors. This is a long enough time period that the idea of sexual inequality is almost definitely entrenched in our social structures, and may have even a genetic component. I am not one to indulge in the naturalistic fallacy, and neither tradition nor genetics is in any way a justification of objective morality, but facts are still facts, and cannot be changed merely by wishing them away.

The above is, admittedly, a thin basis for speculation. The most obvious starting point is to encourage serious scientific research into sexuality.[2] Absent such research, no conclusions can ever be reached with any degree of confidence. Thin though the factual basis, speculation is my privilege as a philosopher.

Sexuality does not appear labile, especially in adulthood, and all scientific study shows that children are labile in general, their minds positively optimized for the task of learning. It is thus critically necessary to begin honest and frank discussion of sexuality as early as possible in childhood. We should no more leave to chance and idiosyncratic parental influence whatever environmental influences affect a child's sexuality than we should leave to chance that which affects his or her morality. How can we expect our children to have a healthy, satisfying and fulfilling sexuality when the dominant paradigm is that sex is like smoking: Horrible, dangerous, and permitted to adults only because of the excessive cost of suppression, that "sex is so dirty and disgusting that it should be done only with someone you love very much."[3]

Sex is a primal need. Pornography and the sex trade (stripping, prostitution, etc.) fills that need where it is unmet by other means. It is therefore critically necessary to both legalize and legitimatize the trade itself so that criticism can be focused on objectionable content. Prohibition didn't reduce the number of drunks, it merely increased the number of gangsters and blind people, the unfortunate victims of poisonous wood alcohol. So long as parts of the sex trade remain illegal and the rest condemned in whole, it is impossible to have a differential effect on the content of that trade.

Because morality appears considerably more labile than sexuality, the criticism of the content of the sex trade would be more effective if focused on the moral context of sex work, rather than its specifically sexual content. For instance, one practice of some BDSM pornography which addresses the specific moral context is explicitly portraying the negotiation of consent prior to sexual activity.[4]

Lastly, the importance of economic factors cannot be exaggerated. Almost all forms of oppression, from sweatshops to sex slavery, have at their heart economic injustice. Working for both economic security and fairness cannot help but discourage all forms of sexual oppression.

[1] Furthermore, sociological research in general (with notable exceptions) seems often to not really "grok" the scientific method. Its practitioners all too often exhibit pseudo-scientific reasoning which, when not absurdly hyper-positivist, cannot be called anything but theological. I strongly suspect that such pervasive errors of reasoning are due in no small part to the inclusion of sociology in the humanities, where its practitioners have become intimidated by the Philosophy department's at best half-hearted endorsement and at worst venomously contemptuous dismissal of scientific epistemology. (It is no accident, I suspect, that physical scientists dropped "philosophy" from the origins of science in Natural Philosophy.)

[2] And, per footnote 1, work to place the scientific humanities, sociology, anthropology, psychology, etc., on a firmer scientific footing, eliminating the fallacious positivism and theology. It might too prove necessary and beneficial to convict much of academic philosophy of High Treason against rationality for their resistance to scientific epistemology.

[3] The quotation is from memory, and I'm unable to quickly determine its correct attribution. I suspect Carlin.

[4] This practice is cited only as an example; I lack sufficient expertise to endorse or condemn the specific genre or its practices.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Not a single tear

I cry not a single tear for the firing of Don Imus. Unlike The Rude Pundit, I don't have any hesitation or second thoughts; I'm unequivocally and unashamedly happy this racist cracker has been fired.

"Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one," says A. J. Liebling, and he's right. The man who owns the soapbox—the publisher, not the speaker—is responsible for the speech. MSNBC and CBS did not fire Imus just because a lot of people complained. They were in no way "forced" to fire him. These corporations are controlled by cold-hearted men and women who know the value of a dollar (and, sadly, little else). They believed that it was in their own interests—not his, not ours—to take their microphone away. They are no less justified in censoring Imus than they are in censoring me. (No matter how politely I ask, neither MSNBC nor CBS has yet seen fit to give me a nationally syndicated radio show.)

Don Imus has not been silenced. He has the same voice that every American has. He has lost only a bullhorn, a bullhorn he didn't pay for, a bullhorn that was lent to him because he served its owners' purposes, not because he "deserved" it by virtue of his freedom of speech. If Imus wants to buy his own radio station, or start a blog, or stand on a soapbox in the park, he's as free to do so as anyone else.

Imus's firing does not in any way imperil my own freedom of speech—at least not any more than any editorial decision by any publication ever in the history of the republic. I own my own soapbox; Google, which owns Blogger, is not my publisher but my carrier. And a common carrier cannot (aside from speech that is per se illegal, such as conspiracy or treason) ever censor content; were it to censor one blogger, it would be ipso facto be responsible for the content of all the others, by virtue of not censoring them.

Authority and veracity

In the domain of science, we must carefully and explicitly differentiate between authority and veracity. A statement is authoritative if it is, as a whole, accepted at true. A statement is veridical if some part of the statement has propositional content (or can be mapped uncontroversially to a proposition) and that part is also true.

For instance, it's authoritative that, "I believe 'Albert Einstein invented the theory of Relativity.'" The existence of this belief is foundational (i.e. properly basic or self-authenticating): I know that I believe some statement merely by virtue of the existence of that belief. The statement would be veridical if and only if the part with "stand-alone" propositional content (i.e. 'Albert Einstein invented the theory of relativity') were itself true absent the qualifier of my belief.

In science, experiments (public science) or experiences (phenomenal science) are authoritative by definition, but they are never assumed to be veridical. It is always a mistake in science to believe that any experience is foundationally veridical; the veracity of any experience is always a conclusion, never itself an authoritative fact. On the other hand, all experiences as experiences—including those experiences we conclude are hallucinations or illusions—are properly basic, self-authenticating, foundational and authoritative.

It is a tautology that using an epistemic method such as science which accepts experience as its sole foundation will always lead to the conclusion that most of our experiences are veridical. It is not, however, a tautology that a compelling account (evolution) will emerge to explain not only why most of our experiences are veridical, but also reinforce the principles which separate veridical from illusory experiences.

People, even scientists, are mostly inept at separating out experience as experience from our naive ontological interpretations of those experiences. Even a very superficial survey of cognitive science (or a reading of Quine) shows that our conscious minds (i.e. those mental events/brain structures associated with language processing) are not fed experiences, but are rather fed mechanical ontological interpretations by our preconscious and subconscious minds. Our conscious minds do not see a bunch of green and brown pixels; by the time our conscious minds are even aware of the outside world, our preconscious minds have already made the evaluation and supplied our conscious mind with "tree".

Even our conscious mind, which has, after all, been around for hundreds of millennia longer than we've understood the scientific method, mostly makes naive non-scientific ontological interpretations. Even so, our "unscientific" naive ontological interpretations at every level are mostly veridical, again by virtue of brute-force evolution: Organisms whose brains make certain kinds of non-veridical errors tend to get eaten by tigers.

It takes both considerable mental effort as well as strict mental discipline to override our naive ontological interpretations. Even scientists, engineers, police detectives and artists, all of whom must apply this effort and discipline in their professional work, tend to slip into unscientific thinking when they're "off the job".

Even worse, even on the job, even scientists do not really know how to think scientifically in general. I work with no small few scientists in my job, and I've concluded on the basis of my observations that most scientists simply learn by rote a set of rules about how to think about their area of specialty. These rules happen to be a good scientific way of thinking, because they've been established by people who can think scientifically in general, but most scientists seem unable to generalize those rules in a philosophical manner. In their defense, scientists are much more easily persuaded by a truly philosophically scientific argument than the average person.

To perform a scientific analysis we must do two things: We must accept the authority of experience, but we must reject a priori our naive opinions about the veracity of the experience. We must differentiate between the experience as an experience (authority) and our naive ontological interpretation of that experience (veracity).

Phenomenalism, i.e. applying the scientific method to our private, internal experiences, presents some challenges. We absolutely cannot escape many of our preconscious ontological interpretations, especially those supplied by the substantial fraction of our brain which is the visual cortex. The best we can do is override our semi-conscious biases (especially confirmation and selection bias); we might also, according to tantalizing hints from the cutting edge of cognitive science, consciously affect to a limited extent the most abstract levels of our visual and auditory cortices.

Hence pure phenomenalism can take us only so far. To go farther, we must employ "public" science: the scientific method applied to shared phenomena (stated phenomenally, those direct, perceptual experiences which strongly correlate to our phenomenal interpretation of experiences of hearing others' language). Phenomenal (private) and public science feed back to each other: We can't do public science at all without a phenomenal base, but we can go farther with public science than we can with pure private phenomena. Most especially, we can differentiate between those experiences which appear to be shared (correlate with language experience), and those which appear to be idiosyncratic (anti-correlate with language experience).

All this being said, we are in a position to scientifically analyze an account such as the Deacon's Demon boy episode.

(As a side note, phenomenally, we are interpreting our own experience of reading the Deacon's words. We'll assume as unproblematic that we are accurately interpreting his words, and further assume that he is not intentionally deceiving us: We may interpret a report of an experience as veridical in the sense that we'll conclude the Deacon does actually remember experiencing what he says he remembers experiencing. We will, however, treat critically his ontological interpretations of those experiences.)

Of course, there's a limit on how far we can drill down: The Deacon did not record the episode with a video camera. We are also relying on a verbal account of a decade-old memory of his experience. Such indirection does not preclude an analysis, but it does alert us to look for scientifically established distortions that can occur because of this indirection.

We can drill down in his story and extract (omitting those items of verisimilitude which establish the veracity of his account) the results of unproblematic superficial preconscious ontological interpretation (suspicious characterizations or ontological assumptions are highlighted in bold):
I left my friends sometime between 11 and midnight, and started walking back to St. George's. I remember that there was a bright moon in the sky, and I was struck by how utterly quiet and totally deserted the winding streets were. ...

I turned into a long alley that was arrow-straight for perhaps a hundred yards before curving gently to the right. Three- or four-story walls, the windowless and doorless backs of buildings, lined the alley on either side. ...

I'd walked about half the alley's length when suddenly, just on the other side of its bend, came the most uncanny wailing I've ever heard in my life. I just can't find words to describe it. It was a sort of ululating cry heavy with despair, fear, and loneliness. I remember thinking at the time that I'd never heard such a mournful sound [since the Deacon remembers thinking, this sentence is properly a description of his experiences]. It stopped me in my tracks.

And then, from around the bend in the alley, came the source of the wailing. It was a boy, maybe 12 or 13 years old. His head was bent down, so I couldn't see his face. He had thick, uncombed black hair... and his clothes were dirty and unkempt. One of his shirt tails hung out over his pants. He was shuffling toward me in a pigeon-toed way... He held his hands (which were also incredibly dirty) under his chin and was wringing them in frenzied syncopation with his wailing. ...

Despite his club foot, the boy was lopping toward me rapidly. When he was about a yard away, I called out: "Are you okay? Can I help you?"

The boy stopped, the wailing ceased, and he raised his head and looked me straight in the face. One of his eyes was clouded over, opaque, white, dead. The other, wide open, penned me with a stare of overwhelming hatred and malevolence. The boy's face was twisted in pain and rage, and his mouth was twisted wide, showing broken and black teeth... And then he snarled at me...

I was so startled, so completely weirded-out, that I recoiled and stumbled back out of his way. He stared at me with absolute hatred for a second or two longer. Then the wailing and hand-wringing recommenced and he pushed past me and ran off, in that broken way of his, down the long stretch of alley I'd just walked.

And before I could reflexively spin around to stare at his back--he was gone. No more boy, no more wailing. Nothing. He'd vanished. There was no way he could've sprinted down the entire 50-yard or so stretch of alleyway in the couple of seconds it took me to turn around. Even if he had, I'd still have heard the wailing. Nor were there any windows or doorways he could've slipped through. He simply vanished, leaving the alleyway just as silent and deserted as it had been a couple of minutes earlier.
The bolded passages and elided conclusions certainly make the story vivid and interesting, but we must treat them with suspicion, and focus our analysis on our best effort to determine the experiences, not the immediate, unconsidered and naive conclusions (although we must also account for these secondary experiences (experiences of forming conclusions)).

We should first list those conclusions that we can trust. It's well known and scientifically established that people in general are good at recognizing the emotional content of expressions. Therefore, we can be moderately confident that the conclusions of hatred, malevolence, pain and rage in the boy—in the ordinarily human sense of these emotions—are plausibly accurate. We can conclude his physical description of the alley is accurate, as well as his reports of prosaic details such as the time of day.

There are other things we can conclude, though, that cast doubt on the veracity of the report, the memory and the experiences.

Most importantly, the Deacon is relating not just a memory, not just an almost decade-old memory, but a memory we can plausibly assume he has revisited with some frequency. It is again scientifically established that revisiting a memory can often adds vivid details to that memory. We cannot confidently conclude much from the mere vividness of his account that the original experience was as vivid.

The Deacon reports a "bright moon", but how bright? Full? Half? The level of illumination is critically important to determine the accuracy of the observation that "there [weren't] any windows or doorways he could've slipped through," or that the boy's expression in some way transcended the human norm. Shadows in low illumination can play funny tricks, and our evaluation of expression is definitely preconscious. Likewise, the acoustic properties of a long, even mostly door- and window-free alleyway can have a definite effect on our evaluation of sound.

Since the episode happened near a bend in the alleyway, it's plausible to suspect that the encounter might have happened not immediately before the bend, but during or immediately after the bend. This is precisely the sort of detail often elided by memory. This is an especially important consideration, given that the boy was wailing loudly; the Deacon would have heard the sound only so close only if the boy had coincidentally started wailing just before he encountered the Deacon.

Given all these things, supplying what is ambiguous or left unsaid, we can form a plausible, prosaic account of the Deacon's experiences.

The Deacon is walking home alone in the middle of the night, fatigued, perhaps mildly intoxicated (I don't know if the Deacon drinks; we can plausibly conclude, however, that he was not severely intoxicated) in a dark city (perhaps without streetlights?), a half or three-quarters moon (not all that much illumination). Furthermore, Jerusalem does not seem like a particularly safe city, so we can plausibly assume at least some degree of low-level apprehension.

He's walking through a supposedly door- and window-less alley, but can we absolutely rely on this evaluation? What's the orientation of the alley? Is one side shaded? Are there any obstructions or protrusions? He's either walking through this alley for the first time, or he has become used to it; neither case is especially conducive to the observation or memory of subtle details.

He hears an "uncanny" wailing and freezes in his tracks, but perhaps the wailing is farther away than memory recalls. He continues forward around the bend and only then encounters the boy. The boy is an unusual but otherwise prosaic person, blind in one eye and perhaps mentally ill. The general apprehension, the moonlight, the acoustics of the alley, the Deacon's general level of apprehension, and the boy's mental illness all conspire to heighten the spookiness and surreal quality of the actual encounter and the Deacon's evaluation of his facial and vocal expressions.

We can safely conclude from the Deacon's account that he is, at this point, scared shitless (and justly so!). Heart pumping, adrenaline flowing, perhaps in a state of near panic. This physiological condition is conducive neither to reliable memory formation nor an accurate time sense.

The boy has caused the Deacon considerable fright, so why should we assume that he follows the boy immediately? A perfectly natural reaction would be to run in the opposite direction. To follow the boy immediately he would have to anticipate the boy's mysterious disappearance, else why attempt to confirm it?

So perhaps the Deacon waits for an unknown length of time, just around the bend from the straight stretch of the alley. Perhaps he waits until the wailing abruptly stops, and then (showing more courage that I would have), steps back around the bend. The wailing might have stopped precisely because the boy had taken an unobserved exit, or perhaps he just stopped wailing and was momentarily obscured by a shadow, obstruction or some sort of protuberance. The Deacon, being merely courageous and not suicidal, does not make a thorough inspection of the alley, but merely glances, does not immediately see the boy, and, given his fear and the spookiness of the situation, sensibly moves quickly in the opposite direction.

I don't of course know what actually happened; there's not enough information to conclusively resolve this mystery. But consider: While critical of his interpretation, this account gives full weight and authority to the Deacon's experiences as experiences; it does not deny that he is fabricating anything of substance, either in his report, his memory or his experiences at the time. For instance, we are entitled to interpret the ontological statement that the boy "simply vanished" as an experiential statement, "I lost sight of the boy."

Furthermore, his emotional state of fear accounts for his immediate ontological interpretations, and his predisposition to theism (confirmation bias) accounts for the paranormal interpretation.

Of course, the Deacon's memory might well be perfectly accurate, and his experiences entirely veridical. But is that the simplest explanation which accounts for the actual facts? Remember, the actual facts specific to the story, the only basis we have for examining this episode, comprise our linguistic understanding of the Deacon's report of a memory of an experience.

If we accept his story as absolutely veridical, we call into question all our prosaic experiences regarding human-appearing experiences: People simply do not usually vanish into thin air. The simplest explanation of just our prosaic experiences is that people cannot vanish into thin air, which accords well with our scientific knowledge about things like the conservation of mass.

To accept the Deacon's report as thoroughly veridical, we are forced to explain not only the report and underlying experiences themselves, but we must also explain why those experiences contradict the interpretation of our prosaic experiences. We must not only explain why the boy actually did vanish, but also why human-appearing ordinarily don't ever otherwise vanish, since to accept the report as veridical we must reject the conclusion that human-appearing object cannot vanish.

As Hume notes, it is always the simpler explanation to conclude that either this singular memory, experience or even the report itself are somehow in error than to contradict the interpretation based on an enormously large number of consistent observations. Even if we were unable to otherwise find an interpretation consistent with our well-established understanding of scientific universals, we would still be more rationally justified in concluding the experience was a pure hallucination or (speaking only hypothetically; there's compelling evidence that the Deacon is an entirely honest man) the report was a pure fabrication.