Saturday, November 30, 2013

Quid Est Veritas?

First off, I love science. 

Through observation and experimentation, we have come to define and understand our natural world. We understand the paths of planets and of comets and the anatomy of all sorts of plants and animals. We are able to diagnose and treat a number of medical conditions; we can land a mobile robot lab safely on the surface of another planet.

Of course, this is all possible because we are dealing with empirical evidence.  We can observe and test the physical, allowing us great understanding.  Mankind has had much greater difficulty, however, with defining philosophical ideals like valor, justice, or love. Still, in spite of our inability to truly and consistently define these concepts, we remain not only collectively convinced of their existence, but mystified by them.  In fact, the ancient Greeks actually created deities to personify many of these ideals.  Many great philosophers have written at length on these matters, and inquiries continue to cycle through works of literature, music, and art with varying depth, from the Shakespearean soliloquy to Haddaway's ubiquitous question of 1993. 

Ecce Homo ("Behold the Man"), Antonio Ciseri, 1871
From a philosophical (or even theological) standpoint, the greatest question has to be that of truth.  Before one can tackle "true love" or "true goodness", one must answer how to know what is true.  Certainly, Pontius Pilate was not the first to ask, "what is truth?" - but his inquiry is probably the most well known, being recorded in the Gospel of John and thus in just about every hotel nightstand in the United States of America.  Scholars debate Pilate's motivation, but in any case, there is no record of a response to his question.

As I hope to finish this post yet this week, I must keep things rather basic.  With that in mind, there are two main philosophical camps concerning this question, based on whether one considers truth (to the degree it exists) to be relative or absolute.  If one man considers something to be true, is this based on his own mind and perception, or is he either right or wrong about a universal standard? Is our reality truth? Or, as Morpheus famously asked in The Matrix, "what is real?"

Morpheus is indeed illustrating a position of philosophical realism, that although perception may create a false reality - there is in fact another reality, a universal truth that remains true even if unknown or rejected.  I, like most theists, gravitate toward this school of the absolute. Plato illustrated this same concept with an allegory of the cave and shadows of reality, coming to the same conclusion: while truth exists independent of our perception, our definition of the real is often warped by our own experience.  But how does one mine the true from the untrue?

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, speaking through his fictional character Sherlock Holmes, proposed that "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."  Although I agree that the truth is often considered improbable, I must also admit that such a statement is only plausible coming from a fictional super-detective.  The ability to ascertain truth from clues and observation is limited, in the case of a police detective, to that which one can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.  Even if he or she correctly identifies the guilty, there must be evidence, and it must be admissible.  It must be properly obtained within the confines of the law.  In short, it may not be enough to know truth - one must be able to relay it to the minds of others by means of producing something they will accept. 

Although it follows the lines of Sherlock's sentiment, I prefer the allegory set forth by Tolstoy: "Progress consists, not in the increase of truth, but in freeing it from its wrappings. The truth is obtained like gold, not by letting it grow bigger, but by washing off from it everything that isn't gold."  In the age of the internet, Tolstoy seems even more a genius.  We have instant access to all means of "information", but as anyone can post just about anything, fool's gold abounds. If you wish to "prove" any position, a simple Google search will reveal at least one or two supporting sites. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, or Mark Twain can be attributed with any quote you wish, instantly endorsing your favorite ideology.

While these "wrappings" are evident in all forums, perhaps none is as dangerous as those done in the name of religion.  To again quote Tolstoy, "it is terrible when people do not know God, but it is worse when people identify as God what is not God." Christianity (like most religions) centers on the word of God being absolute truth, with God being the only pure example of the ideals humans universally seek, including justice and love. Unfortunately, even divine revelation is subject to limited perception and is thus often warped and misinterpreted, both knowingly and unknowingly.

Without question, any biblical scholar must devote himself to study, but even among a small number of genuine truth seekers there will be conflict.  I know of some who believe God has condoned the practice of (earthly) capital punishment, for example, while others are convinced that Christians are called to oppose the practice and defend life.  In both cases, I respect those positions and know they were not arrived at lightly.  As I wrote about several weeks ago, it is quite possible to have two people from the same congregation with conflicting interpretations of the account of creation that begins Genesis.  Many groups consider the Bible to be inerrant, some do not. Reading the same book, some will be inclined more toward pacifism than others.  Some will argue against the consumption of alcohol, some will lean more Arminian, some will insist a pre-tribulation rapture must take place.  Everyone's theology is a little different.

This leads me to the conclusion that every believer inevitably has at least a position or two that is in error, myself included. Even with the best resources, humans can't help but make mistakes. Absolute truth most certainly exists, but no one can claim to know it completely. There is an important distinction to be made, though it so rarely is: absolute truth exists, but your perception (or mine) of what it is may not be entirely correct. A disagreement on one's biblical position is not equivalent to disagreement with the word itself, only to an interpretation of it, and if we can be honest with ourselves, many of the details are relatively inconsequential. 

Seek God. Seek justice, seek truth. Accept that we will all fail to comprehend these fully. To err is human, but fortunately for us all, there is divine forgiveness.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Dream of Anarchy, or, Strange Women Lying in Ponds

If there is one thing that political liberals and conservatives can agree upon, it is that the government is inefficient, misguided, detached, and morally deficient (they will, of course, differ on which actions are good and bad, as well as defining the ideal).  Recent polls clearly indicate that Americans are unhappy with Congress in particular, currently at a nine percent approval rating.  While I would agree that our current elected representatives are historically poor, I acknowledge that even in the best of times, government is rarely popular.  As G.K. Chesterton put it, "The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all."

This is not really surprising; it's practically human nature to question and even resist authority.  Especially in a culture that emphasizes individuality and competition, rules are often viewed as roadblocks to success and happiness.  To some degree, we are all guilty of justifying unlawful actions; I myself often mentally rewrite posted speed limits with what I believe to be the de facto limit, perhaps five mph more.  Business leaders may be pressured to ignore regulations in pursuit of greater profit, just as athletes are often pressured to use drugs or other banned substances for greater performance (leading to more money and fame).  However, in all of these cases, cheaters still desire the law to limit others; merely rebelling does not make one an anarchist.

In fact, it's rather difficult to define the positions of an anarchist, just as it is nearly impossible to define anarchy itself.  In popular use, anarchy is used often in place of "chaos", but the etymological definition means only "no ruler", just as a monarchy means "one ruler", typically a king.  But perhaps, old woman man, you are perfectly content with your anarcho-syndiclist commune?  Is this not itself a system of government, with a ruler?  How is any order possible at all without a government (and is a government possible without a "ruler")?

"We started off trying to set up a small anarchist community, but people wouldn't obey the rules." - Alan Bennett

Simply put, if rules need to exist, then a ruler needs to exist; this is really the central point of the social contract theory and the writings of Thomas Hobbes.  Certainly, there will be disagreement on the best system of government, but my point is that even those that advocate "anarchy" really aren't: they often are using the idea as an antithesis to the system they wish to dismantle without giving much definition to the alternative, one that will certainly still involve some measure of rule.  Another individual or group may consider that new system barbaric, and the dislike for government continues.

Of course, I do not typically converse with anarchists, nor do I personally advocate a totalitarian, Palpatinian rule.  The political discussions I see in our present age are from slightly more moderate positions, arguing for more or less government intervention in a number of issues.  I believe such discussions are healthy and necessary to any republic in which the public has a voice in their representation.  The only real conflict I have in such conversations (other than that they are often less than civil and amount to name-calling) is one of dealing with mankind's inherent flaws: advocates for strong, centralized government often do so out of a concern for what society would become without such oversight, given the state of man, while those that advocate less government control do so out of a concern for what a ruler would or could do to a society, given the state of man.  If "corporations are people", then are not governments people, too? 

The bottom line is that the flaws of government are our own flaws.  We elect people to represent us, and in spite of the naysayers, the American public gets it right: it elects prideful, selfish, immoral opportunists into office - who could better represent the American public? 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Nightmare Before Christmas

One of my favorite opening lines in literature, and certainly the one I recall most often, is the one that begins The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley (1953): “"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

As I have mentioned previously in my writings, I do not take this to mean that morality is not constant. Certainly, there are absolute ideals of good and evil that are recognized across borders and centuries, but there are also concepts that are embraced (or shunned) due to cultural ideas that are subject to change. Even the recidivist thief H.I. McDunnough summarized this duality (albeit hypocritically) by stating “There's what's right and there's what's right, and never the twain shall meet.” (Raising Arizona, 1987)

This past week I got to observe (the Protestant, American Midwest) society’s intricate dance around the holiday called Halloween. Because some religious conservatives object to the traditional holiday, there appears to be a widespread re-branding, not unlike the one these same people complain about come Christmas-time, with events having names like “Fall Party”, “Harvest Festival”, and the like. Of course, the events still have plenty of costumes and candy, they just won’t call it by its actual name so as to not offend – but come December, watch your butt if you dare say “Happy Holidays” or have a “Winter Party”. Apparently, it is acceptable to rename some holiday events, but not others.

Potty on, Wayne. Potty on, Garth.
Of course, of those people I know who may be opposed to celebrating Halloween, none suggest that dressing up in a costume, walking with one’s children through the neighborhood, or eating fun size Twix bars is inherently wrong. Surprisingly, none of them even refer to the redistribution of candy as an indoctrination of children toward socialism. As best I can understand, the objection is that the modern holiday, though commercialized and diluted, is derived from ancient, non-Christian rites, but again the problem must either be selective principle or historical ignorance.

While there are some similarities between Halloween and some Celtic pagan rituals (especially Samhain), these are commonalities due primarily to the time of year in which the holiday falls. Bonfires may have been lit with some intent or significance thousands of years ago, for example, but a church youth group lighting one in the 21st century is hardly a nod toward paganism; it is little more than a sign of the season turning a bit colder. In fact, many scholars believe that in spite of certain correlations, our holiday is primarily of Christian origin, as the very name is derived from “All Hallows’ Even”, which also spawned “All Saints’ Day”, “All Souls’ Day”, and its Latin American version “Dia De (los) Muertos”, or Day of the Dead.
Of course, the average trick-or-treating ten-year-old boy concerns himself with neither Celtic nor Catholic rituals, and adults will largely fail to complement the sights of skeletons and caskets with introspection on the certainty of mortality. It is merely a nation-wide dress-up day. Sure, we can take advantage of the North American contribution to the day by carving a pumpkin or two; pumpkins entered the Halloween narrative only in the last couple of centuries, as they were native to North America when Irish settlers brought a similar tradition with them (in Ireland, they carved turnips). And let’s face it, if it were not for this gourd genocide, what would we do with all those pumpkins? I’m sure handling this surplus La Tomatina-style could result in some serious injury.

But, if one is going to object to the holiday based on a tie to pagan symbolism or pre-Christian ritual, then why celebrate Christmas? While it does commemorate the supposed birth of Christ (scholars disagree on the time of year, and even the year), it has been well-documented that decorating a fir or other tree that lived through the winter (at or near the Winter Solstice) was a pre-Christian tradition. In fact, when Christmas was first celebrated (not until the mid-fourth century), it too bore little resemblance to the holiday we know today.

Even the typical Nativity scene (with Magi alongside shepherds in front of a pale-skinned newborn) is obviously errant according to the gospel of Matthew.  While I acknowledge that this is merely a harmless, cultural adaptation, it still puzzles me why certain foreign elements are largely accepted while other elements (even that are not actually counter to orthodox Christianity) are equated with evil (see "yoga", "karate", "meditation", "rock music", and "quesadilla"). 

Puritan pilgrims to the New World disapproved of celebrating Halloween, but they did not approve of celebrating Christmas, either.  The Puritans of today seem to be more selective.  While they largely disapprove of Halloween's focus on deception and trickery, they take no issue with the blatant hypocrisy of telling a child caught in telling an untruth that "if you lie, Santa won't be coming on Christmas Eve".  They take no issue with supporting a materialistic society that claims to work on merit but really only reflects the budget of parents and grandparents (subtly equating the notions of wealth and goodness).  They may just trample you when the store opens at 8pm on Thanksgiving Day.  But whatever you do, don't greet them with "Happy Holidays".  That's just wrong.