Wednesday, September 30, 2009

God, the deceiver

One of the brighter students in one of my classes was hanging around after class the other day and we began to talk about various kinds of idealism. I began to describe the views of Bishop Berkeley, who believed that there are only minds and ideas. That is, he denied that the physical world existed as a physical entity or collection of entities. She was really understanding the view and some of the intricacies of his theory.
So, I wanted to introduce some of the problems beyond the obvious counterintuitiveness of the view. So, I mentioned that Berkeley, as a Christian was committed to the goodness of God. But, I explained, Berkeleyan idealism committed one to viewing God as having endowed our minds with apparent sensory faculties that would naturally lead us to believing that a physical world existed, even though it doesn't on the view. This, I said, would make God into a deceiver.
She responded, "That's sort of like the problem with astrology."
Confusedly, I asked, "What do you mean?"
"You know, like the way that science tells us that the Universe is really old and about the Big Bang, but"
" Oh, you mean, astronomy," I cut in. "So, you mean that the Universe is really much younger, in spite of what science says?"
Then, I realized that she is a young earth creationist. Now, I have respect for this young woman's intellect and for her hard work and for her ambition to make something of her life.
But, even as I tried to explain to her that, at least as far back as St Augustine, serious Christians have thought that the creation accounts in Genesis cannot possibly taken literally, I was wondering whether it was pointless. I wanted to get her to see that if her religious beliefs require her to believe things that are clearly empirically false, she needs to consider the way in which she holds those beliefs.
But I also realized that when I tried to get them to see the value in seeking the truth, in being reflective, in examining our beliefs and lives, most of my students either don't pay any attention or have so sequestered their lives that some beliefs are not at all revisable.
And, I was sad.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Yesterday, having gone to Office Max to pick up some identity badges and a stamp for an upcoming conference my partner is planning, we stopped at a sandwich shop in the same strip mall to get some lunch. After we ordered and he had his sandwich, we sat down for him to eat and for me to wait for the grill to finish mine.
Across the aisle from us was a not atypical American family: two somewhat rotund thirty-somethings with what must have been their only child, a girl of three or four. As the parents ate their sandwiches and filled out a comment card, their daughter watched some cartoon involving moose and other animals on a portable DVD player that the parents had brought in with them.
Now, I am curmudgeonly in all sorts of ways, so this may sound like an old man grumbling about what we had to do without back when I was a child and had to trudge through the snow uphill both ways to school, etc. But, that's not really my point.
This little girl is being taught, as we all are in contemporary society, that we must be entertained at all moments, that we ought never to be bored, that we have a right not to be. The great and pessimistic philosopher Schopenhauer defined human nature partly in terms of our capacity for boredom. Alone among the animals—excluding, perhaps, those we have domesticated—we can have all our (basic) desires fulfilled, but when we do we become bored, a state that none of the other (non-domesticated) animals suffer. To be human is to be bored some or much of the time. And to deal with our humanity fully is to realize and deal with this fact about ourselves.
It's not an easy fact to deal with. I am reminded daily by my students who expect every lecture to be thrilling and entertaining from beginning to end—their expectations are not often met. I am reminded in my own case when I look for distraction or try to get through my work so that I can do something more fun.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Time for a random picture from my summer vacation

International Talk Like a Pirate Day is coming up, after all.

Reasons for leaving Facebook, part the second

Surely there are cases in which anonymity is a good thing. I'll leave you to supply those cases for yourself, but there is a pernicious sort of anonymity on the web, the kind that leads to trolls and others who post comments on fora, on blogs, on websites for no more reason than to cause aggravation in others and a delectable Schadenfreude for themselves. This very sort of anonymity infects even social networking sites, so that people who claim to be friends will post—from the distance of the web and the pseudo-privacy it affords—comments that they would never utter if they had to defend themselves or face another person as they did. This, I think, is another way that virtual friendship and communication can coarsen human relations and erode civility. We all have Tourette's now.
In the more personal case, I came to see people that I liked and respected acting (virtually) towards others in a way that took me from enjoying the prospect of seeing or talking to them to hoping I might never have to talk to them again. Comments directed at me never much bothered me; I bartended for five years, I'm gay, I teach college students, so insults and snide remarks I can handle. But seeing people pounce on innocent others and judge from the height of their digital tower, I enjoy not so much. Perhaps I'm oversensitive, but I don't need a website to provide me with that kind of interaction. I can get that much easier.
I remember once being told not to say anything that I wouldn't say within my mother's hearing. An apt corollary for the web might be not to type anything you wouldn't say to the person in person.

Social conventions

Yesterday in one of my classes a student sitting in the front row took out a Q-tip to clean his ears as I lectured. I know that there has been a lot of talk about the coarsening of American society in the context of screaming "you lie" during a joint session of Congress, portraying Obama as Hitler, the blatant racism of many of the tea-baggers—God, I love that phrase—and the town halls. But I really wonder in a world where men and women walk down the street picking their teeth and students clean their ears in class and no one ever removes their Bluetooth devices—seriously, you are not that important—what we should expect.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

In the midst of the every-Sunday preparation for the week's lectures I was just re-reading Appendix I of Hume's Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. I often disagree with Hume and there's a lot that I hope he is wrong about. But, there's almost no philosopher as invigorating to read.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Reasons for leaving Facebook, part the first

At the end of last week, I made a not very momentous decision to de-activate—only because one cannot delete—my Facebook account. Now, I am sure that almost no one, except for the anonymous readers who tell me that I am dumb, reads this blog, but in the next few days I will be talking about some of the reasons that I decided to delete my account.
Social networking sites (help to) turn friendship into a passive enterprise. Whereas a real friendship involves taking an active interest in another person, spending time with that person, putting effort into a relationship and more—that is, a friendship is an active endeavor—a social networking "friendship" involves occasionally reading the postings of another, reading another's status updates and acting as if this is a connection. (Of course, this allows for the extremely awkward moments when a friend or acquaintance brings up something posted months earlier and never personally shared and makes one wonder how the hell the other person could have known that.) If this is friendship, then I am friends with Paul Krugman, several extremely conservative Catholics and a number of politicians, none of whom would recognize me.
Friendship is work, as are almost all things worthwhile.