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Condensed Thoughts

1) According to one thinker, the best evidence we have that our current understanding of space and matter are incomplete is the existence of consciousness. Consciousness is somehow non-spatial yet it must be contained in space (unless we propose that it exists is some other dimension). Contrary to current thought then, perhaps consciousness is not non-spatial. We only think that it is because our current understanding of space is incomplete. Matter is also a problem. Somehow matter has the power to produce consciousness: it has certain conscious-causing properties. But we haven’t the slightest idea how this is possible. Hearts and kidneys are also organs that are made up of cellular material but they don’t produce consciousness. Only brains, as far as we know, have this power. But brains are just as material as anything else. So we must not fully understand what matter is if our current understanding of it cannot explain how it has this power.

2) “Certainty” seems to have at least two meanings: one psychological and one philosophical. In some contexts certainty is but a mere psychological state, one that bears no relation to what one knows or a thing’s truth-value. For instance, two thinkers can be equally certain about mutually exclusive claims (the sun will rise tomorrow vs. two suns will rise tomorrow). Here certainty is just a confidence level in the truth of some claim. One can be more or less certain.

Certainty also plays a role in some theories of knowledge. These theories hold that knowledge can be obtained if and only if there are arguments that logically rule out all possible alternatives except one. On this account, certainty about some proposition is just another way of saying that that proposition cannot possibly be false. If some proposition cannot be false, then one is certain about the truth of that proposition. And on some accounts, only if one is certain can one have knowledge. Here certainty cannot be more or less. Having certainty is just being able to logically rule out all the alternatives.

3) One of the reasons why I cannot frequently watch and listen to political media is because at least ninety percent of what is said is spent attacking or defending against the outrageous claims made by others from across the spectrum. This is how it goes. Mike makes some overly harsh or unjustified claim. Rather than ignoring the claim, Rachel from the rival news organization feels compelled to comment on it–most likely because it serves as an easy target and thus as easy political points by straw-manning the opposition–but possibly because she wants to stand up for what she sees as the morally right thing to do. Twenty minutes of that particular show is then spent on demonstrating the obvious falsity or inappropriateness of said claim (which usually involves hiring a guest commentator to help further spell out the obvious). Mike has a few ways he could respond: by (1)  rescinding or apologizing for his claim, (2)  clarifying his claim, or (3) ignoring Rachel’s comments entirely, awaiting for the day when Rachel (or someone of her political party) makes an outrageous claim for him to trash. Usually the last option is taken.

Given that there are a limited number of profit-producing news stories–and given that the political media is now a ferocious animal that never sleeps–the resort to this pattern of commenting on the outrageous is  more than frequent. What else, after all, could they focus on? Well, lots of things. But again, those things don’t earn them ratings. So the political media ends up propagating the same vicious cycle, the result being that political discussion becomes linked in the minds of the ordinary viewer with something akin to religious warfare.

Political Polls: Their Influence and Unreliability

I have long supposed that political polls (1) had the power to affect the results of an election and (2) that they were specious. An article that suggests that these points are true: Polls gone wild.

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Justice with Michael Sandel

“When we came together some thirteen weeks ago I spoke of the exhilaration of political philosophy and also of its dangers: about how philosophy works and has always worked by estranging us from the familiar, by unsettling our settled assumptions. And I tried to warn you that once the familiar turns strange, once we begin to reflect on our circumstance, it’s never quite the same again.

Why do these (philosophical) arguments keep going even if they raise questions that are impossible ever finally to solve? The reason is that we live some answer to these questions all the time. In our public life and in our personal lives, philosophy is inescapable even if it sometimes seems impossible.”

— The concluding remarks of Professor Michael Sandel in his lecture course Justice, given at Harvard University and offered freely on the World Wide Web at http://justiceharvard.org/

In Defense of Progressivism

One central tenet of contemporary conservatism is traditionalism. Put crudely and generally, traditionalism is just the view that we ought to take our history seriously. More specifically, it is the view that we ought to respect and preserve the ideas, beliefs, and practices of those that came before us: we ought to respect and preserve that which our forefathers lived and died for. I do not find anything obviously objectionable about this view. The problem with traditionalism is not that it promotes history or calls us to preserve and respect the views of past thinkers, but that it often results in a status quo bias.

The status quo bias critique has been applied in various fields of discourse in specific ways. It has a general form however. Generally speaking, a status quo bias is the preference for a tradition just in virtue of it being the norm. Therefore, the general formulation of the status quo bias critique states that it is irrational (or unjustified) to oppose the change of a tradition merely in virtue of it being a change (instead of, say, opposing change because of consequential considerations).

It is my view that a status quo bias will often lead to the view that a particular set of ideas or texts—whether political, religious, or otherwise—are infallible. This works in reverse as well: the acceptance of any idea or text as infallible will often lead to a status quo bias. This will then lead to the opposition of any attempt to change or improve upon such ideas or texts. Any proposal that implies that such ideas ought to be ignored, challenged, changed, or compromised will also be opposed. This opposition will not be grounded in concerns for consequences, justice, practicality, nor in the search for further understanding, but only on the grounds that such ideas and texts, as they were conceived and written in their particular time and place, are infallible (or nearly so) and exhaustive and thus in need of no alteration.

It will come as no surprise that this view is in direct opposition to progressivism. Progressivism states that any modification to a particular idea, text, or practice can only be justified by reference to something beyond tradition, by reference to something beyond the status quo. Progressivism states that to say that something is the case or that something has been the case is not an argument for why something ought to be the case. Progressivism recognizes that traditions themselves often result from reform, that is, from the breaking of previous traditions. Progressivism also does not recognize the existence of eternally infallible ideas or texts because it does not take for granted that the particular ideas, beliefs, rules, and regulations of a particular age and culture will be justifiable or applicable to a later age and culture. In this regard, progressivists are anti-Platonic: they reject the eternal fixation of ideas in favor of a contextual or situational approach.

It was during the late nineteenth century that progressivism became linked with American pragmatism, perhaps the only school of philosophy that is uniquely American. Everything stated above about progressivism is true of pragmatism. In many ways, pragmatism was the application of Darwinian theory to our ideas, beliefs, and practices. It is no accident that pragmatism was birthed but a few decades after the publication of On the Origin of Species. Like Darwinism, pragmatism couched its language in terms of adaptability. It taught that our ideas, beliefs, and practices were only good insofar as they helped us get along in the world, insofar as they were useful, insofar as they helped promote our current goals and interests. As our environment will inevitably change, so will our goals and interests. Therefore, so must our ideas, beliefs, and practices.

This is the problem, says the pragmatist, with overstating our dedication to particular ideas, texts, and practices of the past. This is the problem with infalliblism. This is the problem with traditionalism. History has shown us that the justification of particular philosophical, political, religious, and moral beliefs of the past—while ever serving as a guide for our future—can never guarantee their justification in the future. This may be because the past beliefs were never justified to begin with (e.g. slavery) or because their justification was not universal and is no longer applicable in a different age and culture.

On this view, traditionalism itself becomes justified by reference to progressivism. Why should we study history? Why should we respect, and if necessary preserve, the views of our forefathers? Because doing so will have positive consequences for our future; because it will help us weed out the beliefs and practices that are no longer justifiable; and ultimately because it will further our understanding as to what it means to form a just society.

One reason why so many residents of the United States have become so suspicious of progressivism is because they see it an enemy of constitutionalism. Because progressivism promotes the changing of our beliefs and practices in light of new situations, they think that it may eventually lead to the destruction of the constitution itself. I offer four responses.

(1) We have already modified our constitution in light of various new circumstances. Such amendments are widely considered to be improvements upon the text and are far from undermining the text itself. (2) As such, we already recognize that our constitution is neither infallible nor exhaustive. The constitution was written and ratified by a select group of individuals who drew from the resources of their own minds and the minds of previous thinkers. But just as the ideas of John Locke, Adam Smith, and Rousseau are neither infallible nor exhaustive, neither are the ideas of Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. (3) The American constitution is itself evidence of the country’s progressive origins. It was not by upholding but by breaking with the traditions—traditions that were viewed as unnecessary and unjust—of the Old World that allowed America to breathe. (4) Finally, there may come a time when the constitution will need to be rewritten entirely. But this should not, by itself, be a cause for alarm. All this may mean is that our views on justice, freedom, and so on have evolved to the point where the views of a group of individuals in the eighteenth century are no longer applicable to some future society. We should not be concerned with preserving tradition if it is recognized that such a tradition is immoral, unjust, or irrational.

It is for these reasons that I find progressivism to be, at its core, a wholly American philosophy. It is a great irony of history that traditionalism and nationalism have become so tightly linked in a country whose origin and primary philosophical contribution was and is based on principles that are inherently anti-tradition. If the United States of America is a great nation, it is not because of its adherence to tradition but because of its refusal to identify itself with any one particular tradition. If the United States is a great nation, it is because of its wholesale rejection of the very idea that tradition can be good without qualification.

The Conservative Bible?

So apparently Conservapedia has decided to construct their own version of the Bible. Their argument and motivation for doing this goes something like this. Bible translators are, by and large, university professors. The majority of university professors are political liberals. Therefore, the Bible has been shaped over the years by politically liberal attitudes. The aim of Conservapedia then is to combat this liberal influence by constructing a more conservative-oriented translation.

Those not familiar with the issues involved in biblical translation might wonder how translators could shape the text in such a way so as to promote their own political agendas. So let me address a couple of those issues that translators face and where Conservapedia thinks they have gone wrong.

First, there is the problem of deciding which English words to use in place of their Greek or Hebrew (original) counterparts. This is a problem any translator faces of any text, whether they are translating Spanish to German, German to Greek, or Greek to English. Conservapedia blames “defective” Bible translations for using various liberal-biased wordings. For instance, instead of combating harmful addictions by using the word “gamble,” some translations use “cast lots.” This and various other changes of a similar sort are unconvincing, however. For one, it is not the job of a translator to combat addictions. For two, if the purpose of using “gamble” instead of “cast lots” is to combat addictions, that is clear evidence that one’s language choice is based upon the promotion of a particular contemporary agenda. Thus, far from solving the problem that they set out to solve, Conservapedia is actually just adding to it. And third, would the use of “gamble” really help combat addictions? If we replaced “cast lots” with “gambling,” this would seem to promote rather than condemn gambling in light of the fact that the people of God do this quite frequently in the OT.

Another “corruption” said to be contained within some modern translations involves the usage of gender inclusive language, such as “brothers and sisters” instead of “brothers” or “fisher for people” instead of “fisher for men.” (One might wonder why Conservapedia would so readily admit that the fight for gender equality that lies behind the decision to use gender-inclusive language was and is a fight instigated by liberals). For my part, I have no problem with including or excluding gender-inclusive language. Excluding it is certainly more faithful to a literal translation of the text, but then again, including it doesn’t affect much of anything, especially if the translators make note of when they are using it (as any good study Bible does). I should also mention here that Paul often uses “brothers” when referring to his congregations. But even he likely means “brother and sisters” seeing as he taught equality between the sexes in all facets of life. So in these instances, the gender-inclusive language is probably a more accurate rendering.

The second problem translators face is the problem of deciding what the original biblical manuscripts actually contained. For instance, we have over five thousand different NT manuscripts, some consisting of entire books, others consisting of small, hand-sized fragments. The problem is that these manuscripts are not the originals but copies of copies of copies, and so on. To compound the problem, these manuscripts do not agree with one another. When scribes copied these manuscripts, they often made unintentional mistakes and intentional changes. Translators have the difficult task of looking through all of these manuscripts and attempting to determine what the originals looked like and what later scribes added or subtracted. So when creating modern Bible translations, the translators have to make a decision whether or not to include a number of disputed passages. Any respectable Bible (usually study bibles) will always footnote or bracket the disputed passages.

Conservapedia’s claim is that liberal scholars encourage some of these disputed passages by including them in their translations. To use an example cited by Conservapedia, Luke 23:34a is a quote by Jesus that he says while looking down upon the crowd from the cross. The words are well known: “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” This passage, they claim, is disputed and not found in some of our earliest manuscripts. That is true. But they then go on to claim that this passage is a favorite among liberals but don’t cite any evidence for this being the case or for why this would even be the case. Presumably, this is a favorite among liberals because it seems to support the view that people are ignorant of their evil deeds and should therefore be shown mercy and perhaps given a second chance. Of course, this is just silly. If liberals want to support that view using the Bible, they have plenty of other undisputed verses to choose from, many of them coming from the same author of the book of Luke. (cf. Acts 3:17; 7:60; 13:27; 17:30 for other instances of pardonable ignorance. It should be noted that the theme of pardonable ignorance found in Acts and the general character of Jesus found in Luke are actually arguments in favor of the authenticity of Luke 23:34a. Not to mention, this passage is found in some of our early manuscripts and may just as likely have been deleted by later scribes as it was added).

In any event, why is Conservapedia combating what they see as a form of deception (including disputed passages) by using a form of their own (not including the disputed passages)? Why not do what most study bibles do with disputed passages: mark them with a footnote or bracket and tell the reader that this or that passage is disputed?

One of the major problems of this entire project is the fact that it is not conducted by learned scholars who have worked with these various manuscripts for decades, who have studied the required ancient languages for decades, and who have conversed with one another for decades. Rather, this is a project conducted purely by amateurs: amateurs who will have to construct their newly revised conservative translation either by relying on the very English translations that they despise (which would be ironic) or by heavily utilizing Strong’s concordance.

As Timothy Paul Jones—professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky—put it, this is merely a misguided effort to read contemporary politics back into the text by a group of individuals “who have probably never looked at an actual ancient manuscript.”

Sources:

Conservapedia

Yahoo

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Experience and Politics

09/04/2008 3 comments

I don’t normally write about politics but something has been intriguing me as of late: the idea of political experience and its relation to a candidate’s competency as U.S. President. As you may know, the lack-of-experience argument is perhaps the Republican’s central argument against Barack Obama in the current campaign. And ever since the announcement of the inexperienced Sarah Palin as McCain’s VP, it has been a central argument of the Democrats. It is interesting to note that the lack-of-experience argument is not new. It seems that Richard Nixon used this argument against JKF in 1960, George H. W. Bush used it against Bill Clinton in 1992 while Al Gore used it against the current president in 2000. But should experience be given such immense importance or is it perhaps, as some have suggested, overrated?

It turns out that a few of the more famous and popular presidents did not have much political experience at all. George Washington may have been a war hero prior to his presidency but he was not a politician. Someone of the likes of Thomas Jefferson would seem to have been much more qualified. But despite his lack of experience, Washington is generally considered to have been a highly competent and successful commander and chief. Furthermore, Abraham Lincoln, often considered one of the greatest presidents in American history, had less political experience than most U.S. Presidents before and after him.

And then on the other side, it is not too difficult to find past presidents who were quite experienced and yet were seemingly unsuccessful. The most significant example would perhaps be Richard Nixon. I do not think I need to develop this point more for it seems quite clear–from history and possibly common sense–that while political experience should be given some importance, it often tells us nothing about how a candidate will fair as president. Upon a more extensive review of history I also think it would become quite clear that other qualities play an equal or much larger role than experience in a successful presidency: qualities like integrity, intelligence, keen judgment, sternness, open-mindedness, and so on. Certainly some of these qualities can be learned, to an extant, from political experience but they are also things that seem embedded within one’s own character. Some people have them, some do not.

And as Time Magazine’s David Von Drehlet said earlier this year:

Experience…gets its value from the person who has it. In certain lives, a little goes a long way. Some people grow and ripen through years of government service; others spoil on the vine…

When Americans pass over the best-credentialed candidates because their heart or their gut leads them elsewhere, they are only reflecting a visceral understanding that the presidency involves tests unlike all others. They are, perhaps, seeking the ineffable quality the writer Katherine Anne Porter had in mind when she defined experience as “the truth that finally overtakes you.” An ideal President is both ruthless and compassionate, visionary and pragmatic, cunning and honest, patient and bold, combining the eloquence of a psalmist with the timing of a jungle cat. Not exactly the sort of data you can find on a résumé.

So while experience is likely never a bad thing, it is not the ultimate factor that separates the good presidents from the bad, the successful from the unsuccessful, as some would have us believe. If it were, we might as well pick out the most politically experienced individuals across the country and nominate them. There is obviously much more that goes into making a competent and successful president. And so long as the political parties keep up such a strong emphasis on a candidate’s experience–attacking those without it, praising those with it–many of the other qualities that are so important will remain overshadowed. And so long as this is the case, I think we are justified in claiming that experience is overrated, or at the very least, overemphasized. Is there a difference?

Further reading:

Time Magazine: Does Experience Matter in a President?

Presidential politics in America: is experience ‘overrated’?

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Categories: Philosophy Tags: , , ,

Abortion: the cards are still stacked

08/19/2008 8 comments

I watched the Obama-McCain interviews that took place at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church on Saturday. All in all, both candidates faired well. McCain tended to appeal to the heart of the American public while Obama addressed the head. Both approaches, I suppose, have pros and cons. But their overall performance is not what this post is concerned with. I am here to address the way conservatives–knowingly or likely unknowingly–have hijacked the abortion debate with obscure language. And such language has, as the title says, stacked the cards in the conservatives favor. Now, I don’t wish to place all of the blame on conservatives. The public at large–conservatives and liberals–has bought into the way we talk about abortion. But if the liberal is to have any chance of justifying his pro-choice position, he must change his approach. Here is the problem that was reemphasized during the Obama-McCain interviews:

The question is asked (as it was by Warren): when does life begin?

It seems like an innocent question, but the way it is set up and the way we, as Americans, tend to think of this issue, it leaves little chance for the liberal to give an acceptable response. The pro-lifer can simply state that life begins at conception. Therefore, the conclusion seems unavoidable that abortion is essentially the killing of an innocent human person and is thus no less wrong than the killing of an innocent adult human person. At this point the liberal is usually stuck defending the indefensible position that life doesn’t begin at conception or that an embryo or fetus is not human (or some may go on to talk about the rights of the mother, which does have some merit but also has problems of its own). But if an embryo or fetus is not human, the pro-lifer responds, then what is it? A valid question indeed if liberals are naive enough in the first place to accept the baiting by conservatives that the when-does-life-begin question actually has any relevancy whatsoever to the abortion debate. The fact of the matter is, it does not. Why? Because it is a biological fact that life begins at conception (not to mention that it is also a biological fact that such a life in a human mother is human). So asking a politician, “When does life begin?” is like asking them how many times the earth rotates around the sun each year. If asked that question, we might imagine a politician saying, “The answer is once a year, but so what” and that is the same answer he should give to the when-does-life-begin question: at conception, but so what?

Life begins at conception. The pro-choicer can and should admit this because once he does, the real question of importance can rise to the top: when does a human (or anything for that matter) become a person? Now this is an entirely different question from the one posed by Warren. At first, the question may be confusing because in everyday language we tend to use “human” and “person” interchangeably. But the distinction between them is significant. “Human” merely refers to the biological classification of a living thing. In our case, we are classified as Homo sapiens sapiens. “Person,” however, refers to the moral status of a living thing. Thus we can all agree that an embryo or fetus inside a human mother is indeed human. But is it a person? In other words, does it have full moral status i.e. the sort of moral status that makes deliberately killing it morally impermissible?

So let us now rephrase Warren’s question. The question should not be, “When does life begin?” but rather “When does personhood begin?” That question is not so easily answered and is indeed a philosophical (as opposed to a scientific) question. Perhaps Obama’s “answering that question is above my pay grade” response to Warren’s question is not so bad after all. We cannot simply say, as McCain did, that life begins at conception. It is not that easy. Otherwise we would have settled this issue long ago. So once the proper question is asked, the cards become equally stacked. Both the pro-life and pro-choice advocate can now make legitimate cases supporting their position without being confused and deceived by obscure and lazily asked questions like, “When does life begin?”


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