Politics, philosophy, religion, and other things

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"The Trust" by Ellen Bryant Voigt

The NYRB has an article by Charles Simic on Robert Padgett, with whom I wasn't familiar, and one of my favorite poets, Ellen Bryant Voigt. It's a nice little overview of their work (I'm definitely going to read some of Padgett's poetry), but I mainly wanted to use it as an excuse to post one of the poems by Bryant that Simic discusses.

Something was killing sheep
but it was sheep this dog attended on the farm—
a black-and-white border collie, patrolling his fold
like a parish priest. The second time the neighbor came,
claiming to have spotted the dog at night, a crouched figure
slithering toward the pen on the far side of the county,
the farmer let him witness how the dog,
alert and steady, mended the frayed
edge of the flock, the clumped sheep calm
as they drifted together along the stony hill.
But still more sheep across the glen were slaughtered,
and the man returned more confident. This time,
the master called his dog forward,
and stroking the eager head, prized open the mouth to find,
wound around the base of the back teeth—squat molars
the paws can't reach to clean—small coils of wool,
fine and stiff, like threads from his own jacket.
So he took down the rifle from the rack
and shot the dog and buried him,
his best companion in the field for seven years.
Once satisfied, the appetite is never dulled again.
Night after night, its sweet insistent promise
drives the animal under the rail fence and miles away
for a fresh kill; and with guilty cunning brings him back
to his familiar charges, just now stirring in the early light,
brings him home to his proud husbandry.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Plantinga's Warranted Christian Belief Pt. 1

One of the reasons I initially began studying philosophy was through studying Christian apologetics. Apologetics has a long history, and many eminent theologians have written apologetic works. However, it is unfortunately true that a lot of the bestselling contemporary apologetics books are really bad. So it's worth paying attention to the good ones. This is why I decided to read Warranted Christian Belief, by Alvin Plantinga.

Plantinga, a philosopher at Notre Dame, is one of the most well-known and interesting writers in contemporary philosophy of religion. He was one of the earliest proponents of "Reformed Epistemology." According to this view, it is within the bounds of rationality to believe in God, and even to be a Christian, in the absence of proofs or evidence for these beliefs. More recently, he has published a three book series laying out a complete epistemological system. The last book in this series, published in 2000, is Warranted Christian Belief (WCB).

Essentially, this book is an application of his epistemological theory to Christianity. Thus, it is not directly a book of apologetics--at least as traditionally conceived. Apologetics, which literally refers to a defence or apology for a doctrine, focuses on responding to two types of objections. The first, which Plantinga calls de facto objections, are objections to the truth of Christian belief. The most well-known de facto objection is the problem from evil--which if successful is a proof that God doesn't exist.

The other kind of objections are de jure objections. These objections do not attempt to show that Christian beliefs are false, but that there is something irrational, unjustified, or unwarranted in accepting Christian beliefs. For instance, if I formed the belief that the Seattle Mariners would win the World Series next year, not because I thought there team was really good, but just from sheer fandom, we would say that I don't have any warrant or justification for that belief. However, that is not the same thing as saying the belief is false, as it could end up being true.

In WCB, Plantinga proposes to just focus on de jure objections. The reason he gives for this is that he thinks both the critics and defenders fail to show that Christian belief is, or is not, true. Thus, we must decide whether we should, or should not, or whether it is permissible to accept Christian belief in the absence of certainty.

This seems to me like an interesting question. Like Plantinga, I don't think that the atheist or the theist have really shown adequate de facto reasons for belief. However, I've tended to assume that the appropriate response is agnosticism or a form of modest atheism. So I'll go through this book, somewhat corresponding to the sections, and put down my thoughts and responses.

I'll address Part 1 in my next posting on the book. In it, Plantinga asks whether there even is a question about the justification of Christian belief. If, as some have claimed, Christian beliefs, and religious beliefs in general, are not propositional, then the question as to the de jure nature of Christian beliefs doesn't exist.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Poetry: Marie Howe

Marie Howe is one of my favorite poets. Unfortunately, she only publishes a book every ten years--literally. 2008 is one of those years, and here is a poem from her just published collection, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time.


Some nights, long after we'd gone to sleep, our drunk father would wake us all up and order us to clean the kitchen. We'd stumble down to the counters and the dishwasher, blinking in our pajamas, dimwitted from sleep and embarrassed to look at each other. Let's do this quickly, someone would say, and then it will be over. And we'd get started--one wiping the counters, one sweeping, one washing pans, one drying, one stuffing the overflowing garbage into bags.

Sometimes that was it. We'd be back in our beds within the hour. Some nights, when we were done cleaning the kitchen, he'd say, Now clean the basement. We'd look at each other--was resistance worth the trouble tonight?--and without another word, head down the basement stairs.

One of those basement nights--was it one or two o'clock?--in a spirit of rising determination, we decided to sing. What did we sing? Some old Christmas carols? Did the boys sing too? It seems that all 8 of us did--picking up the broken toys, pulling the little school desks into rows again. Our father stood at the top of the basement stairs holding out his arms like Moses, saying to our mother--Listen to them singing. See? They're happy. They want to do it.

Sometimes, after we'd cleaned the kitchen and the basement, he'd say, Now clean the garage. And one of us would finally say, It's a school night Dad--and our spiritual victory, so carefully wrought and contained, would shatter--his fist would come down--we'd argue and scatter, and he'd rage around until he tired of it.

The night went on and on. One night when he woke us all up, I asked the kids to sit down in a circle at the foot of the front stairs. We're just going to say No--if we're like Martin Luther King--if we all say no together, we'll win. Don't argue. Don't talk. Just hold hands.

Was I seventeen? Sixteen? My brother was a year older--tougher I thought, able to endure much. And when our father slapped the belt against the wall he didn't flinch. But when our father pulled one of the little girls to her feet--It's ok, she said, it's ok--I can take it--he was already walking towards the kitchen, kicking the back hall door open and the circle broke--the rest of us, one after the other, slowly getting up.

Justice before love, I'd say years later. What I meant was justice was love. That's what I thought then. What did I know? I would have sat there a long time, no matter what our father had done.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Battlestar Galactica

Political bloggers like Battlestar Galactica so I thought I'd give it a try. Overall, it's been good, but disappointing. I've also been watching HBO dramas such as Oz, The Wire, and other shows such as Homicide and in comparison BG is superficial and unrealistic. It wants to examine current political issues, especially those relating to the war on terror, but at least through the second season hasn't really said anything interesting.

Anyway, here are five things that annoy me about Battlestar Galactica:

1) All the major romantic relationships involve women tempting men. Sharon and Helo. Sharon and the Chief. Tigh and his wife. Gaius and 6.

2) "Fracking"? Still sounds stupid and is jarring.

3) All the political dissidents are terrorists. They might be justified, or have the right aims, but they all use violence. This isn't surprising as there evidently isn't any government beyond the executive office (and an ineffective Quorum), and so no recourse to democratic means of change.

4) Somehow the 12 Colonies were able to develop the technology to create AI without a hint of developing a philosophy to go along with it. There is a lot of talk about how the Cylons are machines ("toasters"), not human, etc., but this is a starfaring people, one who you would think have grappled with the idea of non-human persons, and at least have people who claim that the Cylons are persons. But even the empathetic people on the Galactica seem unable to even think beyond the non-organic nature (which doesn't even apply to the human-like Cylons) of the Cylons. Why is this?

This last one is the most annoying. The biggest emotional conflicts the characters have is coming to terms with the "humanity" of their opponents--and this conflict rings false because there is no sense of why they are so prejudiced against the Cylons--why they are not just evil, but also not persons.

Monday, January 14, 2008

As was said on some anynomous blog comment

If nothing else, blogs, and especially blog comments, have proven the fact that you can find a liberal or a conservative or anyone else that disagrees with you that have said pretty much any outrageous or stupid thing you might wish or expect.

We already know this. Therefore, please, if you write an article describing the reaction to some event, just don't bother quoting them. I don't care what some guy who emailed you said, and just because I'm a liberal doesn't mean that he or his views or invective is representative of what I said or believe.

yeah, I'm talking about you NY Times Public Editor.