Category Archives: Thinking

Posts in this category deal with thinking about something, rather than doing something about it. One may argue that thinking is a form of action and that it is possible to think while carrying out other actions. If this is on your mind: calm down and relax. Chill, if you will. I’m on your side… honest.

Throwing Stones and Lifting Swords.

Why are there so many holy wars on the Internet? It seems that whenever there is a choice to be made, people will defend their choice with more fervor than necessary. We’ve got Tabs Vs. Spaces, Vim vs. Emacs, Mac vs. PC (a classic)—the list seems endless.

Whenever I formulate this question, people respond by pointing out: “It’s the Internet,” as if it were some sort of tautology. Isn’t there a reason for this? Is the human race doomed to bicker over insignificant matters until they become zealous battles? In my city, people die because of a disagreement over the neighborhood they live in.

This not “just the internet,” and this is a serious matter.

That’s not to say that people are dying over web browsers and computer brands. I only mean to suggest that perhaps these disagreements are futile in most ways: there as so many problems in the world, and so many solutions. There are so many important things in the world, but we dedicate hours to laying out the comparative merits of tabs and spaces.

I feel foolish, dirty, and dissatisfied.

If a person is making art, then their art-making is important to them, right? If my art is making websites, why should my art hinge on whether or not I use Arial or Helvetica? Or—rather—why is the choice to use Arial treated like a crime? Would a community of painters oust a member for using house paint?

You might be saying to yourself right now, “But Key! Arial is just a knock-off of a better font—people only use it because it comes with Windows.” If you believe your stake in the politics of the past should be the sole dictator of every typographic (artistic) decision, then you’re part of the problem. It is as if you were to say: “You shouldn’t use burgundy because it is dark brown masquerading as red.” Is one color better than another?—what does this even mean?

(Besides, perhaps Arial would be the best choice for me because everyone can read it, and I want people to read my work without problems. Wouldn’t Arial be a reasonable choice for that purpose?)

Again, I feel ridiculous, filthy, and unfulfilled. It is as if I’m screaming from a mountain top at the top of my lungs, but—alas—the world is sleeping. Maybe I am sleeping?

A professor once told me it was important to test theories by applying them to the theory itself—doing so would show you how solid (or flimsy) the theory is. So today I’m setting up my own battle: the war against holy wars. See how ridiculous that sounds? It shows that the world is more complicated than picking a side and drawing a sword, and so I beg of you to lay your swords down.

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Religulous, or “Bill Maher’s Excellent Adventure.”

Today I want to look at Bill Maher’s aggressive atheistic (or agnostic, I am not sure which) manifesto Religulous. In it, Maher starts and ends standing upon the prophesied site of apocalypse: Megiddo, in Israel. He, standing at the end of the world, informs the audience that religion is a dangerous force. Maher urges the under-represented minority of atheists and agnostics to make themselves heard, to “grow up or die.”

As I watched Maher’s trek across the world and his odd (but common) method of arguing with devout theists, I couldn’t help but think, “There is something else going on in this film. Something strange.”

Is this film Bill Maher’s soapbox? Of course it is—ever since ABC canceled Politically Incorrect, Bill Maher has used most of his media pull to exercise his first amendment rights. This movie, however, does something special. It turns Bill Maher into the object of debate. In Religulous, William Maher Jr. is not presented as the tenacious, impenetrable, and witty television icon we all know and love (or, perhaps, love to hate). Instead we are confronted with a Bill Maher who out-talks his opponents, never relents, and receives flack for obvious reasons.

Andrew O’hehir explains: …I gently tried to suggest to Maher [that] his scattershot and ad hominem attacks against many different forms of religious hypocrisy don’t add up to a coherent critique, and he’s not qualified to provide one. Any serious theologian from the mainstream Christian or Jewish traditions would have eaten his lunch for him, and that’s why we don’t see anybody like that in this film for more than a second or two. It would seem Maher used the Religulous project as an opportunity to reduce the religious world into a sideshow attraction and poke fun at them.

It is odd that most of the interviewees were left pleading “no, no, no” and trying to get a word in. In Religulous, the interviewer sees the most airtime—his subjects often take a back seat. If Religulous is a documentary, then what is it a documentary of? As Roger Ebert explains, This review is going to depend on one of my own deeply held beliefs: It’s not what the movie is about, it’s how it’s about it. This movie is about Bill Maher’s opinion of religion. Often the film looks as if it were lifted directly from Maher’s brain—thoughts of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments included.

The camera work often grabs Bill Maher in a documentary fashion for short periods of time only to cut to a shot that includes the boom and another camera. This self-aware style only draws more attention to the true subject of the documentary: it documents Bill Maher’s documentary, if that makes sense. It is as if someone were to film a full-length behind the scenes documentary of Spinal Tap. Religulous is a meta-documentary, to word it in the most ridiculous way possible.

To look at the reactions, Bill Maher “plays to his base” of non-believers, pisses off the religious, and irks anyone with formal training in the Philosophy of Religion. The film, then, documents just how he has pleased us, his manner of pissing us off, and the process of irking us. I enjoyed it for these reasons, but if I were to take Maher’s arguments seriously (as seriously as the phrase “Grow up or die” implies) I would have hated it.

The World Is a Knee-Jerk

I am sure that I am not alone when I say that I feel in the dark. Not only does the future of the United States seem murky, but what ability I possess to trust my fellow man seems to be crumbling more than it ever has in the last eight years. No doubt this is because of our economic situation, but I am more concerned with the portrayal of “truth” and our ability to recognize it. I know it sounds crazy to think about the abstract when brick and mortar are on the line, and we all face unemployment. We must remember that we live in a time where we can trust neither Lehman nor AIG, McCain and Obama dig into one another on the World’s stage, and a home loan can drive a person to suicide—the truth is just as important as ever. We must ask ourselves: can we trust our “superiors?” How can we select people to trust? How can we recognize the truth at all?

Take the Presidential Campaign as an example. Both sides seem to take for granted that the majority of voters are ignorant and uncritical. The McCain campaign has called Senator Obama “dishonorable,” “dangerous,” and “risky.” Thirty-five seconds is too short a time to get at the truth—to prove that Obama is dishonorable. If John McCain himself flew to my home just to tell me, “my advertisements are meant to inform the voters about the issues,” I would laugh a hearty laugh and slam the door in his face. The McCain camp, then, is only trying to push my buttons. Then again, is there anything more to language than pushing another person’s buttons?

If the American people demand facts, politicians present things in a fact-like way. The problem is that many things are complex enough that they can look false from one perspective and true from another; truth doesn’t look like a fixed thing. To expect real “facts” is a tall order. Who is going to verify these facts? How can we trust the fact checkers? Can we say anything that is impervious to doubt? What would the undeniable truth look like anyway?

If a potential voter demands empathy on the issues, the candidate tries to “show empathy”. How do we know that the candidate really cares about Darfur? Even if he (she) does, he still has the enormous burden of making people believe it! Trust, faith, and beauty are the case here. How could a presidential candidate inspire trust? They could do it with images; they could do it with what strikes the viewer as beautiful, or what simply “looks right.”

All we have left are our impressions of things.

CNN has taken the focus group in an peculiar direction with their reaction meter that looks somewhere between a biometric meter and a seismograph. Both images (of bio-metrics and seismographs) make sense here. During each debate so far, CNN-selected Ohio voters keep their fingers on a dial and record their reactions (negative or positive) as they happen.

This sends a strong message: not only do the words of each candidate need attention but we ought to keep a close eye on the opinions of our “peers.” Are we expected to gauge our reactions by using CNN’s added bio-meter? Or are we supposed to formulate our opinions based on all of the information combined?

Indeed: our impulses, our feelings, our impressions of people, our initial thoughts are what the politicians play like fiddles. This isn’t news. Perhaps you’ve experienced empathy and admiration for Senator McCain when he claimed to have postponed his campaign to help on Wall-Street; this emotion could stick to your ribs and remind you of just how much you love John McCain. Just how long this feeling will last has something to do with: (1) McCain’s word choice, (2) the opinions of political pundits, (3) the opinions of friends and family, and (4) where you place yourself within that mess. We end up reacting—for better or worse—just as we all have in the past.

The world is a knee-jerk. Our partially-involuntary reactions to the world outside drive the stock market down, cause riot in the streets, and keep pollsters employed indefinitely. What we must do, then, is try to figure out what truth could even mean in this world of ours.

A Market For Philosophy?

Now that school is over, I have been attached to Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. As many students have warned in the past, it is a difficult read and confusing at times. I have never come across an “easy philosopher” (the phrase sounds a bit naughty to begin with), so the difficulty isn’t a problem. I enjoy a challenge, and I know a few kind professors willing to defend old Ludwig if I so desired. In the end, an understanding of representation in language is worth the sweat-droplets that are sure to accumulate on each page.

What, however, is the pay-off for the average joe—or what W.V.O. Quine calls “the man in the street?” Enlightenment? An understanding of dead Greece, Rome, Germany? A sense of what sort of life they should live? Strength of character? I cannot commit to any number of these answers. One pattern to found in philosophy is in the saying, “nothing is sacred.” Other students would strike pre-emptively in philosophy class, sinking their teeth into the current philosopher of note and looking to draw blood. I tend to sit back and wait for Kant to do the dirty-work for me—his tooth is still sharper than mine, especially against David Hume.

After watching each philosopher dig into the next (last), I wonder what point there would be to pressing onward with Philosophy. Better yet, I wonder what would be the gain from approaching Philosophy while outside of the classroom. Imagine that. A friend—named James for convenience’s sake—turns to me for advice, “I’ve lost my faith in God, love, myself. It’s hard to get out of bed, and I think of dying every morning. It is as if God wants me to suffer. Why does God want me to feel this way?” It might sound absurd to reply, “Let us turn to the defense of God’s existence put forth by Alvin Plantinga, so that you can be assured that evil and God are consistent with one another.” In fact, I think it would be absolutely absurd. How can you comfort someone with a proof? It just doesn’t seem to fit.

Every now and again I see an article in the New York Times or two discussing Philosophy and it’s prospects. Popularizing Philosophy in the United States seems, on the face of it, a tall order. What would you rather watch: American Idol or Plato’s Greatest Hits? I doubt Plato’s Meno on Broadway will draw the crowds that Radiohead’s last tour has.

Philosophy doesn’t appear to have relevance, but it I know it to have more actual relevance than it ever has before. Moral dilemmas crop up every day as our brand of technology becomes more viable and more real. We live in what is called an “Information Age.” It may be useful for the average person to be familiar with how justified beliefs might work.

There must be a way and, hopefully, we can figure it out together.

Arguing for the Truth

Anything can be said in the heat of argument—even more important, anything can be said and be taken seriously. The point, however, of arguing with anyone does not seem so clear, considering our methods. When I squint my eyes hard enough, most arguments seem more like contact sport than quest for truth. Today I consider what it means to argue, and I’ll do this from from an off-the-record perspective. That means I will not quote Wittgenstein just yet, but remember, this is only the beginning. (Some of you are thinking “Damn—I wanted some Wittgenstein.” You’ll get your chance soon enough.)

Let us make up a couple of characters for the sake of argument (about arguments): Daniel and Jennifer, husband and wife. Dan just tied the knot with Jen, and they’ve moved in with one another. They, unfortunately enough, have never lived together. Hell, neither of them have lived with anyone other than their own families. And oh, what a surprise—they’re arguing over chores.

”…that’s because you never wash the dishes,” an exasperated Jennifer exclaims.

Dan’s eyes widen—redden. She has plucked a chord. “You must be blind then,” he says.

”When I wake up, everyday, I see the same dishes sitting there. You never wash them!”

”That’s because I eat every day, damn it. I eat, I wash, I eat, I wash.”

Jennifer appeals to evidence of an empirical nature. ”You’re lying. I never see you do anything but sit on your ass,” she asserts.

”How could you? You’re not around when I wash them,” Dan retorts with an attempt to invalidate her evidence.

Most of us have heard this sort of argument many times before. It would be a lie to say that I have not participated in such an argument before (I’ll let you guess which side I’m on). I, then, put myself on the line when I ask: both sides think they’re correct, but do Jen or Daniel care about the truth at all?

My question sounds peculiar. It would be easy to say that Jennifer knows the truth, and she refuses to be lied to. Many would sympathize with her (in long telephone conversations where Jen chooses to vent her frustrations). We could say the same for Daniel: he knows the truth. Both Jen and Dan “know the truth,” so their argument is not meant to discover the truth but to convince the other of it. Truth looks like it is just the hammer used to strike the enemy.

How would such an argument be resolved? If he admitted defeat, what would he do? I suppose he could wash more dishes, but recall that Dan claims Jennifer is never around to see him wash the dishes. If he’s correct, Jennifer would still be discontent no matter what the outcome of the argument, since she would never believe that he has ever washed a single dish. Winning—for either side—the argument might change matters very little, but in the short term victory feels substantial.

In conflicts between husband and wife, father and son, friends, we believe a conflict will be resolved by our efforts. This rarely ever occurs. What could a person do to resolve it but back down and admit defeat?—this is not an option for most of us. The truth, which we claim to know so intimately, is not on the line. What is on the line is our dignity, the thrill of battle, and the sweet elation “that’s right, I sure told her what is what.”

This isn’t to say that both Dan and Jen wouldn’t be better of examining their lives to see what the truth of the matter is; I only claim here that “truth finding” may be something altogether different, something that is difficult to do in an argument—where “facts” are used as weapons. Philosophy, in light of this, might have no winners and only losers. It is, before all else, the pursuit of endless and painful debate. What is going on here, I wonder? Am I imagining things?

Forking it Over

As I scan the pages of Writer’s Market—digesting fluff advice and skipping from one market listing to the next as a fortunate stone does across a pond—I still imagine how life will be as a professional. “To churn out word after word at the drop of a hat (dime),” I wonder often, “am I made out for this sort of life?” There is a certain confidence this occupation requires, a kind of trust all ‘creative professionals’ must fork over. Indeed, there is true forking taking place here, but it is not a unique one.

There is a strange and fuzzy relationship between writer, written work, and reader. When a writer sits down to write, there is a sense in which the writer does not simply just dump thoughts onto a page—they think about who they’re writing for, what they’re writing for, how they want to be seen. In a sense, the act of writing has an effect on the person writing. I remember reading Orson Scott Card’s introduction to his classic Sci-fi “Speaker For the Dead.” He claims that, after creating an outline for the book, he found himself lacking the maturity to write such a book. It is only after several rewrites that he gained the mental maturity to write such a book.

Are the two entities separate: book and writer? The line is a marred one. The book creates the man while the man creates the book; it may be better to say that there is a reciprocation going on. Better still, we could say that books and people emerge and gain definition simultaneously. I could say that I don’t know who I am until I’ve lived life, until I’ve painted a great piece of art, until I’ve written a bestseller. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I am undefined until I’ve lived life, until I’ve painted a great piece of art, until I’ve written a bestseller.

Writing books, I think, is not a matter of just writing books. It turns out to be the path you walk on, even if you treat it as “just a job.” Like every good path, the ground underneath gives way a bit, leaving an imprint in the ground and a little dirt on everyone’s shoes: something is taken, and something is left over. Like it or not, I am changing with each word, and each word is changing with each thought.

Beginning my writing career will be a messy business. Other people—companies, magazines, journals, papers, publishers—will dictate the terms under which I write, the content they desire and, ultimately, whether or not my content is good enough. That is a vast amount of influence over my character that others wield. Then again, how is this situation any different from any other social situation? It seems that the conditions of the artists world are less foreign than is immediately apparent.

So which way should I fork, what must I fork, and who made the fork in the road? The Writer’s Market would lead me to believe that I must find, or make, a niche in the market. I can only assume that it takes a bit of fast-talk to convince an editor that a certain column is worth publishing—enter the query letter. What sort of person will I become if I succeed? If I fail? How will the act of writing inform my life, and the lives of others? I have already been “informed” that my previous/current work in ad-copy is the first sign of “selling out.” True or not—putting aside what “selling out” means in the first place—those words still have an effect on something.

In the next few months, I should tread carefully: there is a lot going on here that I want to take in.

Can God Be Spoken For?

When Christian evangelicals try to spread the word of God, they are often turned away or given dirty looks. “Why?” I asked myself, “they’re only trying to help people the way they know best.” Even if their help isn’t the right kind for me, it doesn’t hurt to talk things through—right? Two weeks ago, I was approached by a Christian couple, hard at work recruiting members to God’s flock. Instead of turning them away, I decided to see how a pair of intrepid young shepherds would respond to the ramblings of an incoherent crazy person.

They asked the usual questions (I paraphrase): do you know that Jesus Christ died for your sins? What is your relationship to God? What are you doing this Sunday? My answer to the first two questions began: to believe that God is some greater being who judges, loves, and thinks seems odd. Who does God worship at night, I asked. Himself? Someone greater? Us?

A person might take my question one of two ways (this is not exhaustive, however). They might think that I was hinting at some sort of recursive problem in place. If God is just a “thing” that knows everything and can do everything, then he is just a human being with special powers. Thinking of God in this way sounds a bit offensive, and it should be.

A second way one might take my question is to say there’s something wrong with a God that is an authority figure. To disagree with God, perhaps, is treason against the sovereignty of the universe and is worthy of punishment. In human affairs, totalitarian rulers all have opponents—in such a description, I’ll call Lucifer the condemned revolutionary in God’s kingdom. Could it be that God has no more grounds for punishment than Stalin?

Both readings of the problem with God share a common theme: anthropomorphism. There is something fishy about likening God to humanity. Genesis describes the moment God created Mankind in his image, but images are odd things. In all images, we could say, Man places himself into them. God’s grace, the evil of Lucifer, and the beauty of their eternal struggle—mankind sees itself in these images. Is it that God created us in his own image or that God is merelyunderstood in light of our own image? A little bit of both.

To make paint matters of divinity as Human matters on the scale of infinity seems short-sighted. In other words, we make God seem like “less” than what a God can be. I feel that God is so much more, if such a thing exists at all. Does God “love” in the conventional sense of love? Teach in the conventional sense of teach? Does God rule all of existence—what would it mean for something greater than us (in the the more “transcendental” sense of “great”) to do any of these things?

At this point, my new-found Christian friends seemed confused. Like a broken vinyl record, they reminded me that God looks over us, teaches us valuable lessons, and makes the impossible possible. And like a bad DJ, I would respond, “doesn’t make sense for God to ‘look over us’ or ‘teach us lessons'”—at least not in a conventional sense. The image of God is more than just a pretty picture that accords well with the human psyche. My words seemed to confuse them—to be honest, they were confusing me at that point as well.

What is God then? What could “it” be? I am sure our questions were, at that point, one in the same. I’ll save my preliminary conclusions for the next time. The punch-line is coming soon.