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rrneck's Journal
rrneck's Journal
December 24, 2011

I think you might be asking an unfair question there.

Traditional religions shouldn't claim any direct contribution in the advancement of empirical knowledge a la creation science and all the rest. It's not really fair to demand that of religion and at the same time lambaste it for involving itself in matters beyond its ken.

Scientific and technological developments depend on the cooperation of people not only within cultures but across generations. If cooperation didn't feel good, we wouldn't have done it. Religion helps facilitate that sense of cooperation. Other ways might have been developed, but they weren't. And I don't mind so much. I've never been comfortable with the idea of "non overlapping magisteria". To my mind they overlap constantly - within each of us. The struggle to reconcile one with the other has resulted with some of the greatest accomplishments and failures of the human race.

As someone who has little understanding or use for mathematics I find it interesting that mathematical infinity is described as something other than real numbers but nevertheless is useful in calculation. At the same time, the concept of god is considered infinite but is expressed in emotional terms and is useful in understanding our motives, as are most of the concepts of religious faith. Certainly heaven and hell are considered emotional states continued into infinity. Isn't it interesting that the concept of infinity finds its way so easily into both our understanding of the world and our understanding of ourselves?

In mathematics, "infinity" is often treated as if it were a number (i.e., it counts or measures things: "an infinite number of terms&quot but it is not the same sort of number as the real numbers. In number systems incorporating infinitesimals, the reciprocal of an infinitesimal is an infinite number, i.e. a number greater than any real number. Georg Cantor formalized many ideas related to infinity and infinite sets during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the theory he developed, there are infinite sets of different sizes (called cardinalities).[1] For example, the set of integers is countably infinite, while the set of real numbers is uncountably infinite.

Attributes of God

1 John 4:16 says "God is Love." D. A. Carson speaks of the "difficult doctrine of the love of God," since "when informed Christians talk about the love of God they mean something very different from what is meant in the surrounding culture."[11] Carson distinguishes between the love the Father has for the Son, God's general love for his creation, God's "salvific stance towards his fallen world," his "particular, effectual, selecting love toward his elect," and love that is conditioned on obedience.

The infinity of God includes both his eternity and his immensity. Isaiah 40:28 says that "Yahweh is the everlasting God," while Solomon acknowledges in 1 Kings 8:27 that "the heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you". Infinity permeates all other attributes of God: His love is infinite, his powers are infinite...

The development of linear perspective is one of the hallmarks of the Renaissance. It is a visual representation of infinity and evidence of an outward looking into the world after hundreds of years of emotional introspection and mysticism in Mideivel Europe. The need for order, balance, clarity and harmony was an expected response to the difficulties experienced with sectarian wars and increasing population density and mobility that brought with them appalling living conditions and inconveniences like Bubonic plague.

In about 1413 a contemporary of Ghiberti, Filippo Brunelleschi, demonstrated the geometrical method of perspective, used today by artists, by painting the outlines of various Florentine buildings onto a mirror. When the building's outline was continued, he noticed that all of the lines converged on the horizon line. According to Vasari, he then set up a demonstration of his painting of the Baptistery in the incomplete doorway of the Duomo. He had the viewer look through a small hole on the back of the painting, facing the Baptistery. He would then set up a mirror, facing the viewer, which reflected his painting. To the viewer, the painting of the Baptistery and the Baptistery itself were nearly indistinguishable.

[font color="grey" size="number" face="fontname"] Pietro Perugino's usage of perspective in this fresco at the Sistine Chapel (1481–82) helped bring the Renaissance to Rome.[/font]

The need for accuracy in perception of the world around us is obvious in the development of linear perspective. But the introspective metaphor of using a mirror to view the works of our creation as we peer through a hole behind them so that we may better understand the world around us is difficult to escape in Brunelleschi's demonstration.

Prior to the development of linear perspective imagery was rendered flat as an object in itself and was the hallmark of medieval art. This is not because the artists of the time had no notion of perspective, they just had no use for it. They were using imagery to express something other than an empirical understanding of the outside world. The art of the time was used to investigate and express a spirituality that we today cannot possibly imagine. In fact, that lack of spirituality may be one of the more troubling aspects of the human experience in modern times. The cultural tools we have traditionally used to investigate our inner selves have become little more than ideology factories more interested in market share than introspection. Certainly, much of what troubles our modern lifestyle is a sense of anomie that permeates our relationships with others.

It seems that the change from representational to iconic imagery has been cyclical, much like humanity's search for some sort of balance between what we know outside and what we feel inside. From the development of contrapposto in Greek sculpture to the image of Christ in the chapel of San Marco's Basilica which, I can attest from personal experience, still works. As I turned for one last look in the chapel before I left I saw the image of Christ looking down on me exactly as it had for hundreds of years and it gave me, an unrepentant iconoclast, chills.

It seems to me that cycle continues today. Compare this image from the twelfth century with a work by the modernist painter Frank Stella from 1959. Both are objects rather than a window into another space. If the first is an object to be used to prompt an emotional response in tune with the prevailing spirituality of the time, could a stereotypically modernist painting be understood as an object to prompt the same emotional relationship to spirituality?

[font color="grey" size="number" face="fontname"]Mary Magdalen announcing the Resurrection to the Apostles, St Albans Psalter, English, 1120-1145.[/font]

[font color="grey" size="number" face="fontname"]Frank Stella, Enamel on canvas, 84 x 109 in. / 213.3 x 276.8 cm., 1959[/font]

The Stella, much like the Psalter before it, was produced at the height of the zeitgeist of its time. It too was designed as an expression and a glorification of that spiritual paradigm. Medieval cathedrals were built to be an expression of heaven on earth and modern architecture seems to be designed to perform the same spiritual function. The nature of that spirituality, to me, is troubling. It is a barren and forbidding sense of being that is becoming increasingly untenable given the environmental problems we have created through the ill considered use of technology.

To my mind religion, as a systematized expression of faith, is just a tool designed to do certain things. One might say we can have faith in a deity or in a process and the practice of expressing that faith results in consequences that can be a blessing or a disaster. Sometimes I think that the only difference between the two is how long we cling to one or the other far beyond its utility until it becomes a liability.
December 22, 2011

Could be.

The Matrix movies were Hollywood action blockbusters that tried to support a veneer of philosophical depth and failed to carry it through. They were roundly panned with each iteration for not following through on their promise of producing any real insight into the human condition but rather falling back on vague elliptical expressions of existential angst. The first movie was, philosophically speaking, the best not because of any insight it might have offered, but that it playfully tinkered with the movie viewing experience. That plot device was much more effective in creating a vehicle for martial arts special effects than any deep philosophical insight. I enjoyed all three movies and consider them well done but they are not good art.

African Americans also figured prominently in the casting of the films, and the symbiotic relationship between Hollywood and academia as manifest by West and the Warchoski brothers revolves, as it usually does, more around marketing than philosophy. Actors are cast in no small part for their demographic appeal and the presence of African Americans in the movie had little to do with the plot and much more to do with marketing. The inclusion of West no doubt served to help add a veneer of gravitas and depth to a movie that had none but used the history of racial problems in this country for easy emotional kitsch. As for West, I doubt he agreed to appear in the films without knowing how it was being demographically cast, and appearing as a powerful political figure in a culture of embattled African Americans fighting for survival against machines whose designer is a white guy with a white goatee and a white suit and whose nemesis is a black woman whose role in the system is to destabilize it with free will was no doubt an interesting choice for a black theologian.

If he feels that academicians are insufficiently involved in the culture at large surely he could find some segment of the culture with more gravitas than Bill Maher and the Warchoski brothers with which to engage. Of course it might be argued that the culture is such that the only way to involve oneself in it is to use avenues like that I daresay Ken Burns would return his phone calls. While his methods leave room for discussion regarding his motives, they are beyond doubt lucrative. He has written enough scholarly books to try his hand at a screenplay but chose instead to work in front of the camera and the microphone. Say what you will about politicians and actors, one trait they both share in abundance is narcissism, a trait not necessarily admirable in a theologian or an academician.

Central to the issue is not the career of Cornel West. If he wants to cash in that's fine with me, that's the American way. What is at issue here is an awareness of divided loyalties. The value of introspection and cultural structures that foster that impulse is to help people understand why they do things and who they do them for. When those structures begin to conflate their own self interest with the interests of those they are designed to serve devotees wind up serving the systems themselves rather than people. Thus, when a religious organization involves itself in politics the members of that organization have two conflicting objectives: management of a government that should fear them and fealty to a religion that demands their respect. The end result is that the religion gains tremendous power over government and by extension the people it governs.

The confusion regarding the motives of Mr. West are emblematic of the problems of the relationship between religion and government. While we may argue that the direct involvement of academia with the public may or may not be a good thing, his methods certainly seem to be emotionally self serving and lucrative. And as with the motives of Mr. West, the motives of religion are controversial because they depend less on any easily discernible benefit for all, but rather on a sort of plausible deniability that is also self serving and lucrative.

December 20, 2011

You can go out

but you gotta come back.

A novel is incoherent without syntax. A painting is useless without formal cohesion. Music without proper pitch is just noise. Every transcendental moment is coupled to a moment in real time. The process of artmaking could well be described as the switching from the transcendental to the physical and back again. Without empirical physicality transcendence is wasted, without transcendence there would be no reason to move in the world. Life is experienced between those two states.

I've never been one to put much stock in the "artist as shaman" mystique. Each and every one of us is not only capable of the movement from transcendence to physicality, we can hardly avoid it. I see no difference between the artist in his studio or the scientist in the lab. The dancer and the carpenter are, as far as I am concerned, one and the same.

The "facilitators of transcendence" otherwise known as today's spiritual leaders have just found a way to sell people something they've already got. The only thing they're making in this world is money. They offer an easy way to produce a transcendent experience and the only the only way it can be manifest is the support of a corporate organization designed to feed off people's emotions. A tennis player that smacks a hot forehand one inch over the net has a more transcendent experience than most anybody kneeling in a church.

I have great faith in the human desire to make the infinity of the transcendent experience a physical reality.

December 14, 2011

Well, I might be insane but I'm not a thief

and that will be the thief's position in the matter. Just like you say that if you don't want to get shot, don't steal, the thief is saying if you don't want it stolen, don't have it around. Someone who steals for a living has a, shall we say, flexible concept of private property.

When the thief goes to work and you defend your property, you guys are just going to have to work it out between you in about three seconds. The issue that you will be settling is who is most willing to die for the stuff - or who is more willing to kill for it. And that metric will depend on the level of desperation each of you has about the need for the stuff and the resulting amount of force each is willing to bring to bear to secure it.

If a thief is willing to kill for the stuff, and the homeowner is willing to kill to keep it, who has the moral high ground here? It's easy to say the homeowner since he or she obviously worked for the money to pay for it. But it's not that simple. Ask yourself these questions: Would I steal to secure medication to keep my wife alive? Would I kill for it? Who would I kill? Those questions are a variation of the Heinz Dilemma(1) based on Kohlbergs stages of moral development(2).

All of these scenarios regarding whether or not to shoot the thief assume the thief is a loser lowlife crook moral deficient. The terms get flung around a lot: thug, goblin, etc. But as current events would show, there is a growing level of serious income disparity in this country, and many who were once upstanding homeowners have been transformed into deadbeats who walk away from mortgages through no fault of their own because the richest 1% turned the housing market into a casino with a rigged roulette wheel. The greatest number of bankruptcies in this country are caused by medical expenses. The cases of big pharma charging exorbitant prices for medications and manipulating patent regulations to maintain profit margins are no secret. Given the rising social and political turmoil in this country, the Heinz dilemma is much less of an abstraction than it might at first seem to be.

It's all well and good to declare what's yours is yours and you are willing to kill to defend it. But what you have may not always be yours, and you may find yourself in the position of having to steal from others who have more than you to survive. Even a cursory glance at American history will tell you that. A morality based on wealth is a poorly founded morality and an unwise way to deal with others around you. Wealth changes hands, lives do not.

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heinz_dilemma

(2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kohlberg%27s_stages_of_moral_development

December 13, 2011

Never judge a man with a gun in your hand.

"But even with the issue of safety aside, the fact of the matter is my property is valuable. It cost me money, and thus by extension, part of my lifetime, to acquire it. My lifetime is precious to me. It is priceless. It is time I will never be able to replace. So when you steal property from me, you are essentially stealing a portion of my life from me."

What about instead of shooting him just hold him down and cut off his hand? That's what they do in much less civilized countries.

Your property, whatever it is, required a given portion of your life to acquire. It is excessively punitive to demand the entirety of someone else's life in compensation. And actually, compensation isn't the right word to use either because you aren't compensated for anything except for the violation of your principles. You actually gain nothing meaningful by killing him. You won't get to live any longer by ending his life. You won't get more or better property. All you get is the satisfaction of knowing that your principles are intact. You are, in effect, enforcing a solipsistic set of ideals with deadly force. Which is about the most selfish reason for killing someone I can think of.
December 12, 2011

Statistics are predictive,

but not individually so or in the face of unpredictable anomalies, like the vagaries of human emotion.

Sure it's an argument from emotion. That's the (fuzzy) point. That's how people think. If you put a thousand people in a room and convinced them that three of their number would be assaulted or killed, five hundred of them would go out and buy a gun tomorrow.

And indeed the predictability of statistics can be applied to an individual. That's how CCW laws and drivers licences work. But in those cases the statistics are wedded to individual experience and emotion. People will say to themselves some variation of, "I'm a good citizen so I get a permit." That's the real value of CCW laws. It weds education and positive individual action to political involvement. Some call it civic duty.

Statistics are of course important, but they really don't work all that well when it comes to changing people's minds. In fact, I've seen a few books and articles that seem to indicate that "just the facts" make people dig in their heels even if they've obviously been proven wrong. How many times does that happen around here?

Statistics can predict trends based on available evidence. But sometimes shit happens. And the arguments on both sides of the debate hinge on the unpredictability of future human behavior. It's either the pro gun, "I might get assaulted" or the anti gun "somebody might fuck up". Both of those possibilities and positions are much more emotion than objective fact.

For example, if the crime rate is going down fewer people are actually experiencing crime. So why are gun sales still climbing? I don't think it's because of a Democratic president. Especially since Democratic gun owners are the fastest growing demographic according to political affiliation (Gallup). But Democrats are much more aware of our future economic, environmental, and energy difficulties. Every progressive worth his salt believes in peak oil and labor unrest. I suspect that's what's selling all those guns. It ain't facts, its the heebie geebies.

December 11, 2011

About that "police blotter".

I don't mind it. Those stories serve as reminders of the reality of people's lives. Doors do get kicked in by multiple assailants. People do get carjacked. Sometimes the gun helps, sometimes it doesn't.

And by the same token, people do some profoundly stupid stuff with guns. They shoot themselves in the ass in the restroom. They wave them around needlessly. They leave them where kids can find them.

Discussion about what people actually do is how we learn about ourselves and others who have experiences with which we are not familiar. That's what people do. It's an important way for us to find common ground. When the discussion is confined to the abstractions of policy and statistics we stop thinking about people and we only defend pet ideologies.

I might suggest that if anyone wants to post human interest stuff, try to find news items that include some back story. That will give the tacticians something to figure out and the humanists something with which to empathize. Those on both sides of the debate can be both if we give them something to work with.

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