BBC: Dutch rethink Christianity for a doubtful world

Posted by Anti Citizen One on August 5th, 2011

It is part of the mainstream Dutch Protestant Church, and the service is conventional enough, with hymns, readings from the Bible, and the Lord’s Prayer. But the message from Mr Hendrikse’s sermon seems bleak – “Make the most of life on earth, because it will probably be the only one you get”.

“Personally I have no talent for believing in life after death,” Mr Hendrikse says. “No, for me our life, our task, is before death.” BBC

Nietzsche “Myths”, Was He a Proto-Postmodernist?

Posted by Anti Citizen One on June 23rd, 2010

I heard an interesting podcast by Brian Leiter on four common myths in the perception of Nietzsche’s philosophy. I agree that Nietzsche was not an anti-Semite, and I could not have said it better myself! But I disagree with this other points to a greater or lesser extent. I will address two points as one: are the concepts of the superman and the will to power central to Nietzsche’s philosophy? Leiter argues they are not significant because they are not present throughout his writing, particularly when compared to the transvaluation of all values. I disagree that they are not central because these three concepts are related and refer to Neizsche’s meta-ethical view. At the risk of oversimplification, the superman’s main (or only) attribute is to perform the transvaluation of all values using the will to power. I believe statements concerning one of these “the superman”, ToAV, WtP can be rewritten using either of the other two forms of terminology.

This point of view is supported by the ToAV not being directly mentioned in Thus Spake Zarathustra, but the superman is used exclusively in that book. The underlying message in Nietzsche’s works is broadly the same. He just chooses terminology to suit the style of the work but the development of thought and his themes is continued. These various terms refer to the same core idea. Academics probably prefer the ToAV over the superman because they rate his esoteric Zarathustra below his other, more academic friendly books. In conclusion, Nietzsche’s meta-ethics is a central theme, and these three forms of terminology are all facets of the same concept.

Incidentally, it is probably not appropriate to discuss what it and isn’t “central” to Neitzsche’s philosophy, because this assumes his philosophy is a system or unified in some way. This is the opposite of what he intended. “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.” (Twilight) But we can ask which of his ideas have had the most impact.

Was Nietzsche a proto-postmodernist?

Leiter argues Nietzsche was not a proto-postmodernist and claims postmodernists have read too much into Nietzsche’s “man is the measure of reality”-type statements. I tend to disagree, and not just because of Nietzsche’s sustained attack on idealism and objective truth, which arguably opened the door to postmodernism. His views of language and some of his methods are not only compatible with postmodernism, they outline some of the foundations of postmodern thought. Unfortunately, this issue is complicated by the diverse views within postmodernism.

In “The Twilight of the Idols”, both the preface and the chapter “The Problem of Socrates” have an almost deconstructionist approach. He states that the author’s views on the subject were addressing a topic that was unknowable and therefore not to be taken literally.

“The consensus of the sages must show us the truth.” Shall we still talk like that today? May we? […] These wisest men of all ages — they should first be scrutinized closely.

Judgments, judgments of value about life, for it or against it, can in the end never be true: they have value only as symptoms, they are worthy of consideration only as symptoms; in themselves such judgments are meaningless.

Moral judgments are therefore never to be taken literally: so understood, they are always merely absurd. Semiotically, however, they remain invaluable[…] (The “Improvers” of Mankind)

Nietzsche then sets about uncovering psychological, historical and ideological assumptions in the texts. He does this by close analysis of two short sections that provide insight to the overall problem. The first is the physiognomist Zopyrus telling Socrates he was a moral monster and Socrates responded, “You know me, sir! But I overcame them all”. The second section is Socrates’s last words “To live — that means to be sick a long time: I owe Asclepius the Savior a rooster.”. Neither example is taken using the literal meaning, but are seeds that provides insight into the underlying contradictions in the text. This method of close reading of text to find the text’s framework is very much in agreement with deconstructionism.

Nietzsche’s view of the inevitable reinterpretation of history in the Gay Science, aph 34 (quoted below) is similar to the never ending postmodern reinterpretation of texts – this is what I think he refers to as “retroactive powers”. On the other hand, Nietzsche’s view that only great men, presumably those who participate in the ToAV, can revalue history. Would Nietzsche consider scholars as great men? mmm, probably not. I suspect Nietzsche considered history is only being reinterpreted by the creation of new values that provide a perspective to view existing texts.

Historia abscondita–Every great man has a power which operates backward; all history is again placed on the scales on his account, and a thousand secrets of the past crawl out of their lurking-places–into his sunlight. There is absolutely no knowing what history may be some day. The past is still perhaps undiscovered in its essence! There are yet so many retroactive powers needed!

Nietzsche’s view of language is at least sometimes in agreement with postmodernism. He claims words are often “error and arbitrariness” that obscures what things are (Gay Science, aph. 58). The name of a thing can finally eclipse the thing, making a name what actually “operates as the essence”. This replacement of reality by a sign code is referred to as hyperreality by postmodernists. This arbitrariness of words is also mentioned in Thus Spake Zarathustra: “Are not all words made for the heavy? Do not all words lie to the light ones?”

I do not claim that Nietzsche was a postmodernist, and he probably would have objected to the movement and labelled it as “decadent”, because of its assumption that all authority is to be held in suspicion merely because it is in authority. This attitude is effectively ressentiment and is therefore not life affirming. He states in Ecce Homo:

I do not refute ideals, I merely draw on gloves in their presence.

Postmodernism is an attempt to uncover assumptions and frameworks in ideologies – with the tacit assumption that this destroys all ideologies. Unlike postmodernists, Nietzsche doesn’t claim he knows the ideals are false a-priori, but he proceeds to test them using many of the same methods that were adopted by postmodernism.

Anti Citizen One

PS I feel slightly intimidated by Brian Leiter’s obvious knowledge of this topic and professional status… I wonder if I will be shot down one day…

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Posted by Anti Citizen One on April 22nd, 2010

I finished Pullman’s “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” in a few hours reading. It is certainly an original and subtle subversion of institutional religion, even compared to His Dark Materials. I don’t want to spoil the style and plot but I think I can say it is a retelling of the gospel story. It has many slight twists which make it a perfect book for fans of postmodernism. Competition between truth and history is explicitly discussed. Most of the famous stories are included but modified to make them more naturalistic; meaning they occur in a manner that is consistent with everyday experience. There are many references to events and artistic works that have since occurred. I detected hints of the medieval history of the church, Plato, Blake, Kierkegaard (Abraham And Isaac) and perhaps a discrete hint of Monty Python (“Penny for an ex-leper?”).

I was playing with the idea of listing gospel messages that are contrary to mainstream contemporary Christianity. Well, Pullman did it better than I could!

Anti Citizen One

Kees van Deemter: The importance of being vague

Posted by Anti Citizen One on March 16th, 2010

Q: Is vagueness anathema to science?

KvD: Put a magnifying glass to many scientific concepts and you find vagueness.

New Scientist

Note to self: subjectivity does not necessarily mean knowledge is impossible…


PoMo Musings:- “History”

Posted by on February 11th, 2009

Written History is a subjective faction/fiction that is constructed according to the agenda of its author – who creates a narrative account that may or may not correspond to the facts-as-they-are.

The anxiety generated by an acknowledgement such as this – is that as the mists of time ever seperate us further from the events – so too are we further removed from that “evidence” which ought to be most compelling.

Review: The Real God (part 3)

Posted by on October 22nd, 2008

In this part of my review I wish to briefly explore Harries discussions on the postmodern view of language. He is attempting to describe the views of Anthony Freeman the postmodernist theologian who has ceased to believe in a supernatural or transcendent God – seeing Him rather as being a projection of human ideals. Much of postmodernism has its roots in relativism, subjectivism and a sort of late Wittgensteinian Philosophy of Language.

A simple exposition of this philosophy goes like this:

mind is a social reality and language a public phenomenon. We see mothers bending over their prams making noises at their babies. In due course the noises are reciprocated and come to be recognized as talk. Soon this talk becomes internalized as thought. But the talk is prior and public and this enters into the very soul of our thinking. Because language is a public possession, written texts are particularly important. How those texts are intepreted or read still depends very much on the interests and outlook of the readers and these in turn will reflect the ineterests and concerns already built into the language that we use to intepret the texts. If we say we want to find out what a particular text really means, we are stymied, for the language we used to interpet it ourselves is a given, which will shape how we read…

Harries, again somewhat suprisingly is not completely anti-pomo. He accepts a certain degree of interpretative and cognitive relativism. However he rejects total scepticism and abandonment of truth and meaning notions – correctly suggesting that such a position would dissolve philosophy into just one of many methods of literary criticism.

I would just add by means of a clarification that although language is public and in turn shapes our ways of thinking this should by no means be used to suggest that speech is thought, or that absence of speech indicates absence of thought. (I could write much more here on my theories of unthought-thoughts and vocal-thought-thinking-thoughts or about the conscious and unconscious but I will digress.)

I will finish with a quote from Anthony Freeman that illustrates what one may call a postmodern view of religion – it is this view which Harries is ultimately attempting to challenge with recourse to realist arguments.

“A false distinction within Christian doctrine itself between an essential core and a negotiable husk. In presenting the faith to this generation I am bound to be presenting a different faith from that which my forefathers presented. Not just a different interpretation of the same essential core, but a different faith. This is because there is no essence of inner core. The interpretation is not like taking the shell off a nut. It is like peeling the layers off an onion: the interpretation goes all the way down. All is intepretation. That is the essence.”

Review: The Real God (part 1)

Posted by on October 8th, 2008

Here is my long overdue book review on Richard Harries “The Real God“. Published in 1994 it is a short work on the philosophy of religion and basic theology by the then Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries. The full title of the book is The Real God: A response to Anthony Freeman’s God in Us. Thus this may be seen as being part of a dialogue, however to Harries credit it is not necessary to have first read the other book in order to make sense of this work.

This book is essentially a Realist apologetic for Christian belief and its remit is neatly summed up in the blurb by the question “If God exists, how can we know this?”

Immediately this should get materialist atheists and varying degrees of agnostics interested as the question seems to imply discussion on the physical and empirical basis of theistic belief. This should also interest students of “language games” who may wonder at the degree to which Harries seeks to straddle the science-religion divide. (Note this is really a false dichotomy – as Wittgenstein rejected the notions of islands of discourse – similarly in terms of hypothesis and narratives of origin religion and science have somewhat overlapping interests).

Significantly though this book was not written with the average Dawkins supporter in mind – and predates the “God Delusion” by some years. It may be interesting and informative to compare the different God-hypothesis both authors present (but thats a whole ‘nother task!)

Primarily as noted this book was a response to Anthony Freeman’s “God in Us”. Freeman was an Anglican priest and member of the “Sea of Faith” theological school who argued from a postmodern perspective about the human origins of religion. He eventually left the institutional church after
arguing that God as a metaphysical entity was not real, but that God was a projection of human ideals.

The Sea of Faith network have been variously described as Christian Atheists and Christian Humanists. Though as befits a postmodern school of thought they evade precise definition by virtue of holding many differing views without proferring any particular orthodoxy. Perhaps the most important position they do hold in common is that irrespective of the divine or human character of religion, the reality or non-existence of a deity, religion can play a positive role both personally and socially.

Harries responds to this with the intent that he is going to present a realist thesis on God. And although I have more sympathy for arguments that come from a via negativa (a negation of talking about the attributes of God) and am described variously by many as an anti-realist, I must confess that I enjoyed Harries arguments and style of writing.

He begins by exploring the character of God. What type of a person or being is he? Interestingly he is not concerned with obscure theological points (like how many angels can dance on a pinhead) but with human projections of divinity. He argues quite sympathetically that one of the prevailing themes in modern secularism and irreligiosity is liberation from an oppressive judgemental and rule-weilding God. And then goes on to propose that the projection of the divinity that we make (as reflected in art, prayer and theological themes) changes with society. Thus at different stages of history God the creator dominates moreso than God the judge etc. An example he gives is the Medieval triumphalism of God the King – an image that has less impact, significance and relevance to the modern mind.

This interesting chapter serves to illustrate that the conception of God is multifaceted as indeed is our experience of religion. And thus it is a reminder both to the individual believer, to the unbeliever who has left religion and to the religious institution itself that theistic-themes need to be constantly re-explored, re-invigorated and re-described.

Over a series of posts I will continue this review focusing on the various themes that Harries presents, and particularly at those themes that are of interest to this blog, and finish with some of my concluding thoughts.

Part 2 will deal with belief and disbelief, specifically with attempts to argue from design, and the psychology of belief and disbelief and its irrelevance to the notion of “proof”.

Part 3 will explore a postmodern analysis of faith.

Part 4 will deal with talking about that which we call “soul”, existential fulfilment of our lives here and now, and miracles and the laws of nature.

Part 5 will explore rationalism, the nature of scientific proof, relatvism, the eschatology of genuine “truth” with regards certain philosophical speculations and an apologetic for Christian Rationalism. Plus some concluding notes from me.

Review: Unspeak

Posted by Anti Citizen One on July 31st, 2008

Unspeak by Steven Poole

Another insightful book on the power of words and how they can be used to control how a debate is conducted – and ultimately the outcome of a debate.

[Unspeak] represents an attempt to say something without saying it, without getting into an argument and os having to justify itself. At the same time, it tries to unspeak – in the sense of erasing, or silencing – any possible opposing point of view…

So called “Unspeak” uses ideas we associate with words to control how we think about other idea. I suppose this is a standard technique in rhetoric. Once something is labeled with a word, that word brings associated value judgments to the bear. So to control vocabulary is to control thought. This is well known in politics and public relations.

Wolfowitz acknowledged that, according to international law, the US was in fact engaged in ‘occupation’, but still argued that they shouldn’t have ‘accepted that label’. In other words, he seemed to think that if they had simply called it something else – perhaps a mass sleepover – then no one would have noticed that the occupation was actually an occupation.

You may notice that the US and UK parliments do not have “wars” any more – at least they are not declared. We now are told we have peace keeping operations, liberation operations, etc. And the author points out the word “operation” has medical and beneficial connotations. How easy it is to accept another’s language!

The case of the ‘insurgents’ was a small triumph of journalistic resistance to propagandistic terminology.

… we should at the very least expect, and demand, that our newspapers, radio and television refuse to replicate and spread the Unspeak virus.

The book claims a small triumph against Unspeak was the media (or a subsection of it) rejecting the word terrorist – which instantly condemns the subject – and substituting the word “insurgent”. This word supposedly had no prior meaning so had no previous value judgments. This is a compromise between calling them “freedom fighters” or “terrorists”. The catch is the word “insurgents” previously had no meaning at all and so conveys no information. Is it the job of the media to invent neutral vocabulary? In the extreme they might invent a new word for everything to make everything “objective” – but this would make the media void of meaning.

Naturally, in such a book, it is impossible that I will not myself have committed barbarous acts of Unspeak. I leave it as an exercise for the interested reader to identify them.

I take it as a gauntlet thrown down! 🙂 The very concept “Unspeak”, subtitled “Words are Weapons” implies it is a bad thing and should be avoided. But the book does not say why “Unspeak” is bad! It also avoids the point that all words contain value judgments. “Unspeak” implies that some ideal “Speech” exists. It does not exist, as has been outlined many times on this blog. Invent a word and apply it to a set of “stuff” requires someone to do some valuation (see the Will to Power). What is needed is not a rejection of Unspeak but more critical thinking.

Anti Citizen One

PS “Do not all words lie to the light ones?” FN

Review: The Birth of Tragedy

Posted by Anti Citizen One on June 19th, 2008

The Birth of Tragedy discusses the world view and theatre of the ancient Greeks and how it applies to the culture of his day. Nietzsche borrows several ideas from contemporaries, notably Hegelian dialectic and applies it to Dionysus (thesis), Apollo (antithesis) and Greek Tragedy(synthesis). The Dionysian and Apollonian tendencies were both said to be an answer to the “wisdom of Silenus”.

…King Midas hunted in the forest a long time for the wise Silenus, the companion of Dionysus, without capturing him. When Silenus at last fell into his hands, the king asked what was the best and most desirable of all things for man. Fixed and immovable, the demigod said not a word; till at last, urged by the king, he gave a shrill laugh and broke out into these words: ‘Oh, wretched ephemeral race, children of change and misery, why do ye compel me to tell you what it were most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is beyond your reach forever: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But second best for you – is quickly to die.’

This idea was echoed more recently by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus – is a pointless task (or pointless life) better abandoned?

Nietzsche says there are three traditions that answer this question:

1) Dionysus, god of Wine and bringer of ritual ecstasy. His followers rejoice in life as it actually is including all tragedy and discord. Nietzsche closely identifies Dionysus with music, without words, as a mirror of the world in a similar way as Schopenhauer’s concept of music as pure will. In theater, Dionysus is linked with all tragic heroes caught in epic downfalls and myths. Reality is a subjective and is intuitively and instinctively understood.

The truly Dionysian music presents itself as such a general mirror of the universal will: the conspicuous event refracted in this mirror expands at once for our consciousness to the copy of an external truth. Section 17

Here the most profound instinct of life, that directed toward the future of life, the eternity of life, is experienced religiously — and the way to life, procreation, as the holy way. Twilight of the Idols

2) Apollo, god of the Sun and bringer of knowledge, reason, wisdom and plastic (visual) beauty. This movement flatly rejects Silenus and instead holds that man’s goal is to pursue knowledge which in turn leads to beauty, virtue and happiness. The lyricist takes precedence over the musician and the music only supports the words of the writer. The theater, characters become more like the audience and given realistic emotions. The protagonists are now intelligent slaves and cunning men and women while the classic heroes are parodied. This use of realistic characters often makes the story impossible to fit with the expected Apollonian outcome (intelligence/beauty is rewarded) so deus ex machina is used to resolve the story. This shift in style is attributed to Euripides and ultimately to Socrates. Mythology and subjectivity are destroyed and replaced by the theoretic, the objective and history.

“…hence the picture of the dying Socrates, as the man raised above the fear of death by knowledge and reason, is the sign about the entrance-gate of science reminding every one of its mission, namely, to make existence seem intelligible, and therefore justified.” Section 15

If we could conceive of an incarnation of dissonance -and what else is man? – then, that it might live, this dissonance would need a glorious illusion to cover its features with a veil of beauty. This is the true artistic function of Apollo… Section 25″

3) Buddhist tradition which, according to Nietzsche, agrees with Silenus’s nihilism.

Since it is impossible to reach either ideal completely, life and theater is said to be best understood as a synthesis of both the Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies.

For the more clearly I perceive in Nature those omnipotent art impulses […] the more I feel myself impelled to the metaphysical assumption that the Truly-Existent [Dionysus?] and Primal Unity [Apollo?], eternal suffering and divided against itself […] are compelled to apprehend as […] empiric reality. Section 4.

After Socrates, Greek taste shifts towards the Apollonian and Socraties (and his cronies Plato and Aristotle) and culture is still operating under the same system today. People are still considered as rational individuals who can detach themselves from the world they are observing. The problem with the Apollonian ideal is that it is fatally flawed – as any post modernist will tell you!

And as thou hast forsaken Dionysus, Apollo hath also forsaken thee; rouse up all the passions from their haunts and conjure them into thy circle, sharpen and whet thy sophistical dialectic for the speeches of thy heroes – thy very heroes have but counterfeit, masked passions, and utter but counterfeit, masked words. Section 10

As we reach the limits of philosophic reason and consider the boundaries of science, we realize that much of the world is not yet intelligible – and most likely will never be. This fundamentally undermines the claim of Apollonian view.

“If ancient tragedy was diverted from its course by the dialectical desire for knowledge and the optimism of science, this fact might lead us to believe that there is an eternal conflict between the theoretic and the tragic world-view; and only after the spirit of science has been pursued to its limits, and its claim to universal validity destroyed by the evidence of these limits may we hope for a rebirth of tragedy…” Section 17

By emphasizing the objective viewpoint of individual members of the public (rather than subjective view of heroes), Euripides thought the “public” on stage could be a better judge of the play.

But “public,” after all, is only a word. In no sense is it a homogeneous and constant quantity. Why should the artist be bound to accommodate himself to a power whose strength lies merely in numbers? Section 11.

This instantly reintroduces the subjective back into what is intended to be objective. We are instantly drawn back to the Dionysian.

There is a great amount I did not understand in the book as Greek culture is fairly obscure. The style of Nietzsche is more restrained as he mentions other philosophers without pouring scorn on them – particularly notably are Kant and Schopenhauer – who he later rejected utterly. He does identify Socrates as a target at this early stage in his writing.

Anti Citizen One

Review: The Castle

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 26th, 2008

The Castle, by Franz Kafka, is the novel describing K.’s arrival at a village and his struggle to contact the officials who reside in an inaccessible Castle. The Castle is held in awe by the villagers but The Castle’s motives are illusive, as are the official’s identities, physical appearance and their communication skills. This is a world away from todays world of political propaganda and suspicion of authority.

K.’s engagement as the Land Surveyor is thrown into doubt when it is revealed as a rare mistake of the system. There is apparently no need of a land surveyor. His is offered the role of school caretaker but there is also no need of a caretaker. Incidentally there is an interesting piece on the BBC about finding meaning (or lack of meaning) in the workplace.

One of the only elements that keeps the readers sanity is K’s epic efforts to make sense of his situation. He is apparently very observant but still prone to occasional mistakes without complete information. There are lengthy monologues of the villagers explaining the ways of the village but sometimes I wish K. would just ignore them, for the readers benefit, and for his; they usually do not help him gain access to The Castle. He also seems to swing between being physically tenacious and physically helpless due to the snow – even the weather is kafkaesque in The Castle!

If I may abuse Kafka, I will paraphrase the whole novel as:

Landlady: It transpires that we have no need of a land surveyor.
K.: I want to talk to someone in charge about this.
Landlady: Your childish misunderstanding of the workings of the Castle are almost beyond belief and can only be because you are an outsider. Having an interview with an official from the castle is quite impossible. You will never be admitted to the Castle.

People’s actions seem meaningless to K. and to other villagers but are later explained as completely necessary and unavoidable to the participant. This is perhaps the point of the novel – if it has any. Hasty assumptions and generalizations on incomplete information lead to misunderstandings and despising (or feeling gratitude) without any real justification. This is all very existential and postmodern. This is similar to the shifting realities of the movie Rashomon in which it is clearly impossible for everyone’s version of event to be correct, but it is left unstated as to which, if any, is true. It also strongly reminds me of the X-Files episode “Bad Blood” where the two FBI agents recount their recent adventure in turn but misunderstand and half mock the other agent due to their subjective viewpoint.

An even greater overlap is with Gilliam’s movie Brazil. The insane decision making process of The Castle’s anti chamber is similar to Mr Warren’s barking of seemingly arbitrary answers to questions. There is a certain anonymity of the authority figures in both. Sam only reaches the Deputy Minister – not the Minister him/herself. Confusion of names is also a common theme: buttle/tuttle, sortini/sordini are routinely confused; in fact it is a central plot point for Brazil.

SAM: Excuse me, Dawson, can you put me through to Mr Helpmann’s office?
DAWSON: I’m afraid I can’t, sir. You have to go through the proper channels.
SAM: And you can’t tell me what the proper channels are, because that’s classified information?
DAWSON: I’m glad to see the Ministry’s continuing its tradition of recruiting the brightest and best, sir.
SAM: Thank you, Dawson.

One difference is The Castle’s authority is only maintained by the villagers deference to it’s authority. There is no mention of guards or prisons. Brazil is quite the opposite and takes its methods indirectly from Orwell’s 1984. There is also a hint of Gormenghast but expressed in The Castle as from the lowest rank rather than the highest. Steerpike easily subverts the bureaucracy and I wonder what would result if K. seriously attempted to infiltrate the castle, possibly as a semi-official messenger (through the same channels as Barnabas). I wonder if the Count of The Castle is a victim of bureaucracy as K. and the Earl of Gormenghast.

The writing style of The Castle is frankly rather painful. Rather like a river, it starts swiftly, windingly and clear. The story ends slowly and murkily. The blame cannot be assigned to anyone in particular, least of all Kafka as the book was published from an incomplete text that probably had been abandoned by the author. But was the author trying to frustrate the reader as K. is frustrated?

The closest experience one can have to conveniently experience the alienation of The Castle is to telephone a large company using a call centre and being put on hold. When you eventually get to talk to someone, they are the lowest underling and misinterpret your meaning (sorry to readers who work in call centres!). To apply a concept from the novel, how do you know you are talking to the company and not an impostor? There are people who have no business answering the phones in the call centre but they pick them up on a whim and one should not believe a word of their pranks!

Anti Citizen One