Friday, August 31, 2007

hitchens on religion

Hitchens argues that "religion poisons everything" by demonstrating through numerous examples that the necessary stubbornness of faith obstructs that particular flavor of reason so essential to scientific progress, parliamentary democracy, and the defense and maintenance of the humanitarian values of the modern world. Although he never uses the word, the real culprit here is dogma: faith unavailable for revision under any circumstances. With a distinction between faith and dogma, we may be able to further bolster Hitchens' position. For, though Hitchens' critique is compelling in both its passion and its reason, his positive account of an areligious human society nevertheless rest upon two crucial articles of faith. In order to provide defense against his own arguments in a noncircular (and nondogmatic) fashion, Hitchens must emphasize that the foundational articles of faith in a humanistic society are not dogmatically held, and thus [can? - will?] not poison in the sense that religion "poisons."

The first article of faith upon which a humanistic society rests is faith in science. While all modern men share a deep sense that science makes progress, that science gets at the truth, that the experimental method is an effective sacrament against superstition and ensures access to the real, it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to characterize the exact difference between such hard-won scientific "knowledge" and the divinely inspired "knowledge" of the religious zealot. In particular, Hume's discussion of the problem of induction demonstrates that there is a kernel of blind faith at the heart of the scientific endeavor (faith that the past will correspond to the future (in matters of causality, or physical law, say), a kernel which cannot be justified or defended in any noncircular manner. [This problem bleeds beyond science, for even the most basic rules of logic (modus ponens, say, or conjunction elimination, even) cannot be adequately characterized in the object language without their use in the metalanguage ~ a practice which avoids charges of circularity only through the artificial stratification of languages (but which remains conceptually circular in a profound sense).] Perhaps we can describe this kernel of faith as an undogmatic kernel ~ if the future should ever cease to be like the past, then we will revise our (mere) faith in the scientific method (and inductive reasoning in general). Not that any of the modern atheists do demonstrate such a pragmatic take on science (or that this weakened position is even easily statable in these post-Kuhnian days), yet Hitchens seems closest to such a level-headed approach, a crusader (we can at least imagine as) unafraid to weaken his position from dogma to the end of leveling a better attack against his foe.

Unfortunately, the second article of faith upon which Hitchens' humanism rests is not so easy to dismiss. In fact, it may amount to several distinct dogmas, the abandonment of any of which could scuttle Hitchens' entire argument. The problem at issue is the very source of the humanistic values which Hitchens defends and which are quintessential to Hitchens' argument against religion. For it is precisely the anecdotal violation of these values to which Hitchens repeatedly appeals as evidence that religion is "poison." Unless these humanistic values have some independent justification, Hitchens' appeal amounts to little more than rhetoric, a swaying of the audience's emotions rather than reason. How to defend these values? Hitchens seems not to realize that a defense is needed, or that there could be any question about their content. In various passages, however, he does seem to trace their source ultimately to natural rights, reason, and conscience. In particular, we may state the underlying Hitchensian many-dogmas-in-one as (something like) there is a single consistent ethical system characterized by natural rights, supported by reason, and revealed in the conscience of every modern man, and furthermore it corresponds to the system of modern humanism. Such a brash formulation may well be a mere straw man facsimile of Hitchens' actual view, but it is hard to make sense of his arguments without some such principle. Yet once it is stated in black and white, it is easily apprehended as a very fragile principle indeed. The notion of natural rights is simply too weak and circular to do the job the modern humanist demands of it; reason cannot provide an adequate basis for any normative theory (as Sidgwick so elegantly demonstrated in Methods of Ethics - to say nothing of the problems inherent in providing a noncircular characterization of reason in the first place); and the thesis that a conscience unmolded by prior ethical education (a mere manifestation of tradition) would develop humanistic values is entirely vacuous and unsupported.

However, these two problems are impediments to any modern liberal theory of society. One does not condemn Hitchens for his failure to adequately address these stumbling blocks, rather one applauds him for providing such a convincing argument that the only identifiable flaws are those which even the greatest minds before him have failed to avoid.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

hurricane season

Once man looked to his own sins to imbue comets and plagues with meaning. Catastrophe must be someone's fault ~ and man, ever the masochist, takes himself as scapegoat.

Now, Christian guilt has been replaced with a purer form of sin; yet man, ever predictable, continues to imbue acts of chaos with meaning under the watchful eye of his priests. The blind rule of law is ever opposed to understanding.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

the liberal dilemma

On the one hand, the liberal acknowledges the fact of "reasonable pluralism": there are many systems of belief (and values, etc.), each equally compatible with observation, and thus none deserving of privileged status. Yet, given this pluralism, the liberal may not appeal to any notion of natural rights in his argumentation. For, the notion of natural rights depends upon superstition, and is thus particular to a given belief system (and thus cannot provide an adequate basis for an argument directed toward a pluralistic audience). The liberal thus cannot begin his argument from any vantage which assigns man a privileged status.

On the other hand, the liberal is dedicated to preserving this pluralism and, as such, must provide a justification for it somehow. The liberal, by definition, advocates a political system which protects the individual's freedom to belief systems, behavioral patterns, value judgments, and priorities of his choosing. Yet without natural rights, without endorsing a particular belief system, what foundation remains for defending this diversity?

How can the liberal move from the fact of pluralism to a normative mandate for its preservation? Between this Scylla and Charybdis the honest liberal must somehow navigate a delicate course.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Saturday, August 11, 2007

what is logic?

"It is the tracing out of relations between concepts on the assumption that along with each given or found concept is given its negative, and every other relation resulting from a transposition of its correlates. The latter postulate amounts to merely identifying each correlate and distinguishing it from the others without recognizing any serial order among them."

~ C. S. Peirce

fact and fiction

"Truth must of necessity be stranger than fiction . . . For fiction is the creation of the human mind, and therefore is congenial to it."

~ G. K. Chesterton

fragments of a long dream

An elaborate dinner party with family and friends in an exclusive restaurant's private room. I notice that a tentacle of the tiny squid I just cut up is still twitching and take this as a sign of the restaurant's quality and freshness of fish. The table is covered with whole fish of various exotic sizes and shapes. Although these appear to be just decoration, my attention is suddenly drawn to the fact that there is still some life in them. In fact, they appear to be eating each other. And, not in any modest manner; this consumption proceeds by twos and threes. One large fish manages to suck down two of its neighbors and a passing horsefly simultaneously through its stretched open mouth. Folded writhing, thick and eel-like bodies disappear smoothly into its maw. All of us at the table seem to be observing this sight with wonder, even glee. Another sign perhaps of the lavish excess of our restaurant. Suddenly, however, the mood changes. A severed boar's head leaps from below the table onto its surface and begins to devour fish, frothing at its jaws. We are under no delusions that the boar's head could possibly still be alive, and its spastic jaws offer a more threatening sight than the fish's stretched mouths ever could.

Soon we're all huddled in a corner. An entire cornucopia of severed animal heads beneath the table has begun to bounce and writhe, but the boar's head is by far the most dramatic. It's enthusiastic bouncing thrusts it again and again in our direction; we're juggling it in fear and screams from one to another, trying to avoid its spasmodic, random chomping.

Suddenly, the vision fades, and one of our number recalls that raw Red Snapper can be hallucinogenic. We all sigh in relief as we realize the entire event (beginning even with the still-writhing squid) has been a mass hallucination. Looking again at the table we see the elaborate live fish decoration was a mere painted tablecloth, and the frothing boar is a mere design in the carpet.

Driving all night, an elaborate university with archaic stone spires and large vaulted halls. A friend of mine administers an essential exam, hundreds must take it every hour thus, even in the middle of the night, they must distribute and grade tests. He comes into a room with the stack of exams, while casually flipping through them he notices one has an unusually low number grade and the letter grade of E. The graders are in a flurry over this exam; whether out of fear of what the student will do or deep concern for same's future wellfare they desperately regrade the exam in the hope the error has been theirs.

In the morning, walking the enormous campus grounds with my parents. Some festival is going on and we see a number of bizarre costumes and clusters of people watching street performers of various sorts. A young man walks up who I know is senior to me, but for some reason I cannot bring his name to memory. He is dressed in lederhosen and is clearly participating in the planned festivities. I introduce him to my parents in the awkwardly slow manner of one who hopes the other party will interject his forgotten name at the appropriate moment. He recognizes my Dad's enthusiasm for singing and, walking towards the corner of an enormous medieval gate upon which there is mounted a large plasma screen, begins singing. The brief refrain repeats and others seem to know the words. First my Dad sings along, but soon a crowd has gathered, most joining their voices to some degree. Clearly, we have become one of the festival's events. These are the words to the short refrain:

who can deny
that every grove of trees
should die

My senior has been toying with the monitor a bit and it comes to life broadcasting an odd scene as the crowd sings the above. On the screen, apes with intelligent eyes have been netted and bound into tree tops. Not thick trees, but actually bundles of sapplings bound together to form cages around the struggling apes. We see only these flimsy prisons waving precariously in the breeze, but the scene implies impending execution.

During the singing, I am puzzled by the word "should" in the refrain. Yet the passion with which all are singing it, a kind of sad resignation combined with righteous enthusiasm, somehow makes the word "should" bear the meaning of "will."

Friday, August 3, 2007


An elaborate hotel so vast that a circus has been able to pitch its big top in the lobby. On the run again from narcotics agents and various shadowy manifestations of parental authority I slip under the corner of the tent. As I am friends with the circus performers they aid my escape, and soon I am lost in the labyrinth of ladders, small wooden platforms, curtains, and rickety old pianos which make up the backstage area within the tent.

Curiously, everyone seems to carry iPOD like devices, all of which are equipped with the ability to produce tiny rubber stoppers. A necessity given that tiny holes (approx. a mm in diameter) appear in almost all pieces of glass. These devices are regularly used to stop these tiny holes, though frequently, say if the piece of glass in question is a wine bottle, not after they have been used for other purposes . . . .

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

the seventh seal

The spectre of death looms the more ominously the more his scythe fells with each stroke. The crusades have proved their futility ~ bankrupt of "honor" or divine support they are exposed a mere exercise in the erosion of conscience through the casual spilling of blood. Having found the Holy Land devoid of holiness, an errant knight staves off Death in the desperate hope that God will show his face. The plague ravages the land inspiring armies of flagellants to embark on vain pilgrimage. Blanket accusations, sincere contrition, and laborsome petitions to an indifferent God are ever on their lips. The sins of futile war are revisited even upon the homeland, and the knight's hubris drags the innocent with him into the pit, where the soft voice of God is never heard and the lamentations of the void echo upon deaf ears.

preface to "the gathering storm"

"I have adhered to my rule of never criticising any measure of war or policy after the event unless I had before expressed publicly or formally my opinion or warning about it."

~ Winston Churchill