Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Pungent Prose

The hard-boiled detective story comes with an expectation of clipped, world-weary narration, and Michael Chabon doesn't disappoint:

The knot of his gold-and-green rep necktie presses its thumb against his larynx like a scruple pressing against a guilty conscience, a reminder that he is alive.

Another example, shortly thereafter:

The Sitka Saturday afternoon lies dead as a failed messiah in its winding rag of snow.

More important than cynical posturing, however, is the liveliness of the prose. Good writing, really good writing, is invention, combining words and phrases in new ways. It's a safe assumption that the words "dead as a failed messiah" have never before been so arranged.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Genesis of Books

Even 150 pages in, it's obvious The Yiddish Policeman's Union is a mighty feat in world-building. Essentially a Jewish murder mystery, it takes place in an alternate universe where the Arabs actually did drive the Israelis into the sea in 1948, and the Jewish refugees were given a godforsaken stretch of coastal Alaska to live in for 60 years. It's a great historical what-if, and that's just the background.

But background is ever so important. Alan Moore's Writing for Comics, written in the 80s before Watchmen became the gold standard of comic books, described world creation as the first element of a story, before plot and character, for the environment would lay down the rules and devices from which everything would follow. This is sound advice for writing fiction in any medium. Michael Chabon understands this (and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay proved he knows a thing or two about comics to boot) and he must have had a merry time dropping the Jews into Alaska and seeing how their society and broader history would develop.

Take the ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jews. Something of a marginal group in our world (this much I gathered from a production of The Chosen I recently saw), in Chabon's Sitka, Alaska they comprise a robust criminal underworld. Our anti-hero, Detective Meyer Landsman, and his partner Berko need to speak with a Hasidic crime boss, and to get to him they go to the most powerful non-Hasid Jew in the Hasid territory of Verbov Island--Zimbalist the boundary maven, powerful for his mastery of intricacies of the Hasidic dogma of the eruv:

Landsman has put a lot of work into the avoidance of having to understand concepts like that of the eruv, but he knows that it's a typical Jewish ritual dodge, a scam run on God, that controlling motherfucker. It has something to do with pretending that telephone poles are doorposts, and that the wires are lintels. You can tie off an area using poles and strings and call it an eruv, then pretend ont he Sabbath that this eruv you've drawn--in the case of Zimbalist and his crew, it's pretty much the whole District--is your house. That way you can get around the Sabbath ban on carrying in a public place, and walk to shul with a couple of Alka-Seltzers in your pocket, and it isn't a sin. Given enough string and enough poles, and with a little creative use of existing walls, fences, cliffs, and rivers, you could tie a circle around pretty much any place and call it an eruv.

This isn't a heavy-handed plot device, but an element that arises naturally from the rich environment Chabon has created. We can conveniently gauge its being organic to the reality of the story by looking at a real-world example that ties in (oh ho!) nicely with this discussion:

The key to this kind of scene-setting is not to take it too far. For a whole world cannot be shown in one book, only the relevant sections. Chabon, though, as I wrote awhile back, is great at only supplying the reader with just enough information. He plays a balancing act of informing while acting as if it's all common knowledge anyway, leading to some great deadpan exposition:

In the corner by the door stands the famous Verbover Clock, a survivor of the old home back in Ukraine. Looted when Russia fell, then shipped back to Germany, it survived the dropping of the atomic bomb on Berlin in 1946 and all the confusions of the time that followed.

If anything the creation of an alternate history is more difficult than that of a whole new world, for its plausibility will always be weighed against that which actually happened. And this is just the setup on which a narrative will stand! I'm eager to see how it plays out.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Programming Note

I'm in danger of flogging a dead horse on the God issue, so I'm going to back off of C.S. Lewis and Christian apologetics for the time being. My latest read, already over a hundred pages in, is Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, a decidedly different animal. I'm sure I'll have plenty to say on it.

Wayward Christian Soldier

I've been coming down pretty hard on C.S. Lewis the past couple weeks, so in this last entry I'd like to come back to what it was I found so attractive about his writing in the first place. This takes me mostly back to The Screwtape Letters, for in flipping between Screwtape abd Miracles, I find that Lewis, like many a great thinker, is at his best posing questions rather than answering them.

Miracles is a prescriptive document, and a narrow one at that. It is brilliantly argued, which is both its greatest strength and fatal weakness. The excerpts I've posted are part of a largely, internally, consistent and original way of thinking about a subject as old as thought itself.

But as Lewis's ideas are so particular, they brook absolutely no compromise or alternative, leading to a gross lack of self-awareness that makes them endlessly frustrating to an outsider. Lewis devotes a whole chapter, "Christianity and 'Religion'" to separating his idea of Christianity from the rest of the "Pantheistic" belief systems. He uses the testimony and martyrdom of the early Christians as proof of Jesus's historicity and divinity, while not bothering at all to bring up the similar convictions of the original Mormons. He dismisses other purported miracles while saying that "we seldom find the Christian miracles denied except by those who have abandoned some part of the Christian doctrine." It takes considerable audacity to remove Christianity from the realm of religion, and then to feign humility by calling it "mere."

Yet even this intolerance has its upside. For Lewis is almost as contemptuous of popular Christianity as materialism, leading him to write something like this:

Many a man, brought up in the glib profession of some shallow form of Christianity, who comes through reading Astronomy to realise for the first time how majestically indifferent most reality is to man, and who perhaps abandons his religion on that account, may at that moment be having his first genuinely religious experience.

That allowance of possibility, as opposed to a clearly and logically articulated single path, is most appealing, and while not ultimately a large part of Lewis's thought, it greatly informs The Screwtape Letters, if only because it is not making a positive argument but, through its sharp irony, identifying the undesirable.

The book is filled with countless barbs that sting because they are so true.

In civilised life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far short of a blow in the face.

All mortals end to turn into the thing they are pretending to be.

The safest road to Hell is the gradual one--the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.

The relationship itself between Screwtape and his "dear" Wormwood provokes an especial revulsion, with its airs of tenderness masking a wholly power-driven and literally consumptive parasitism:

My dear, my very dear, Wormwood, my poppet, my pigsnie,

How mistakenly now that all is lost you come whimpering to ask me whether the terms of affection in which I address you meant nothing from the beginning. Far from it! Rest assured, my love for you and your love for me are as like as two peas. I have always desired you, as you (pitiful fool) desired me. The difference is that I am the stronger. I think they will give you to me now; or a bit of you. Love you? Why, yes. As dainty a morsel as ever I grew fat on....

....Your increasingly and ravenously affectionate uncle,

These are resonant because they are easily recognizable in one's everyday affairs. The shudder one feels--should feel!--when reading it is a call for vigilance in one's own life, lest one should find oneself falling into such an arid, often unconscious, mode of thought.

This is a more useful, more universal, application of Lewis's dire warnings at the end of Miracles, and doubtless one Lewis would disagree with vehemently. But I daresay no thinker or philosophy should ever be accepted wholesale, and Lewis is no different--to his credit. I find C.S. Lewis inscrutable, reactionary, and often wrong, but he is also eminently well-written and capable of great insight. This much can be said about Christianity, too, which Lewis would likely agree is the highest praise I could offer.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Hazy Grace

Up to this point, C.S. Lewis has been ostensibly building an argument in favor of miracles, but at book's end he seems to have given up trying. Having made the case (or tried) for such events, Miracles's final chapters deal with the particular miracles of the Christian faith: the Virgin Birth, the various acts of Christ, and the Resurrection and Ascension. They are less justifications than elaborations, symbolic exegeses on their relevance to the Christian doctrine as a whole. Thus they are a philosophical Rorschach test: the Christian-minded will likely find the writing transcendent; the rest of us, a curiosity.

To the materialist, for instance, asking "whether Christ was able to do these things only because He was God or also because He was perfect man" is so much angels dancing on pinheads. One may as well ask if Jesus is terrific or awesome.

This isn't to say these chapters are entirely without insight. At one point Lewis appears to hold similar opinions on the magic world of imagination as Salman Rushdie:

If we are in fact spirits, not Nature's offspring, then there must be some point (probably the brain) at which created spirit even now can produce effects on matter not by manipulation or technics but simply by the wish to do so. If that is what you mean by Magic then Magic is a reality manifested every time you move your hand or think a thought.

Except Rushdie didn't need to resort to spirits and hokum to make his point.

The problem, as always, are his premises. Lewis has made plenty of assumptions throughout the book, but the ones here at the end are truly staggering. At one point (page 208) he makes an offhand remark about clothes being a result of The Fall, which assumes there was a "first family" of Adam and Eve who lived in a primordial garden and were tempted to eat a bad apple by a talking serpent. Lewis has not yet made quarrel with evolution and cosmology, and yet he here gives credence to an obviously fantastical creation myth. Is it real, or isn't it? How is "Human death, according to the Christians... a result of human sin" when every single organism that has ever lived has died? Did The Fall really happen, or not?

Factuality is in fact of little priority to Lewis, except when it isn't. At one point he leans on Jesus's quasi-historicity:

From a certain point of view Christ is 'the same sort of thing' as Adonis or Osiris (always, of course, waiving the fact that they lived nobody knows where or when, while He was executed by a Roman magistrate we know in a year which can be roughly dated).

Later on he waves away such concerns, arguing Christianity's explanatory power makes it right:

Whether the thing really happened is a historical question. But when you turn to history, you will not demand for it that kind and degree of evidence which you would rightly demand for something intrinsically improbable; only that kind and degree which you demand for something which, if accepted, illuminates and orders all other phenomena, explains both our laughter and our logic, our fear of the dead and our knowledge that it is somehow good to die, and which at one stroke covers what multitudes of separate theories will hardly cover for us if it is rejected.

This premium of all-encompassing explanatory power over actuality is not so surprising. The book all along has been a sustained argument against Naturalism and, implicitly, empiricism and inductive reasoning. Lewis says as much in an Epilogue that is positively rife with paranoia:

And when you turn from the New Testament to modern scholars, remember that you go among them as a sheep among wolves. Naturalistic assumptions, beggings of the question such as that which I noted on the first page of this book, will meet you on every side--even from the pens of clergymen....

In using the books of such people you must therefore be continually on guard. You must develop a nose like a bloodhound for those steps in the argument which depend not on historical and linguistic knowledge but on the concealed assumption that miracles are impossible, improbable, or improper. And this means that you must really re-educate yourself: must work hard and consistently to eradicate from your mind the whole type of thought in which we have all been brought up. It is the type of thought which, under various disguises, has been our adversary throughout this book.

I'm sure my own biases keep me from noticing Richard Dawkins's or Christopher Hitchens's less subtle blots of self-righteousness, but there is something deeply troubling about someone who so ferociously insists on eradicating a particular mode of thinking, particularly that--observation--which really is the basis of how we make sense of the world. The idea that the world and our senses and judgment are not to be trusted has all the hallmarks of a cult mindset.

It's a rather nasty ending to a book which up until then was calm and measured, if not convincing, though I suppose the faithful will find it a passionate defense of faith and piety. That's relativism, which Lewis abhors, but it's the best he'll get from me. I'll have some closing thoughts on Lewis in my next post.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Frame Down

The last true argument in Miracles concerns probability, with the vaunted skeptic David Hume serving as C.S. Lewis's foil. The results, however, fail to convince. They do so for some of the same reasons as before, as well as their inability to come up with a satisfying alternative.

Hume, we shall recall, had no place in his metaphysics for the miraculous:

'...[N]o testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavors to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments, and the superior only gives us an assurance suitable to that degree of force, which remains, after deducting the inferior.' When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

Humans always defer to the weight of experience, the credibility and number of witnesses, and other such factors in evaluating the truth of claims. A miracle, in violation of the principles experience establishes, are excluded by definition.

Lewis's objection is rooted in his supernaturalism, which holds that Reason--the lynchpin by which the Naturalist worldview is formed--exists only due to a force outside/beyond Nature that we call God. This assumes the Natural system is not closed and self-contained, which undermines Hume's basis for objecting to miracles:

If we stick to Hume's method, far from getting what he hoped (namely, the conclusion that all miracles are infinitely improbable) we get a complete deadlock. The only kind of probability he allows holds exclusively within the frame of uniformity. When uniformity itself is in question (and it is in question the moment we ask whether miracles occur) this kind of probability is suspended.

What Lewis is doing is casting doubt on the means by which we understand how the world operates. Of the reasons men believe in the Uniformity of Nature, he lists 1) like animals, we are creatures of habit, 2) we don't assume Nature will act differently because there's nothing to be done; these, he rightly notes, "would be just as effective in building up a false belief as in building up a true one." The history of discarded scientific concepts, which were arrived at through greater than normal observational rigor, tells us as much.

The third reason is that we would find a universe of irregularities "profoundly repugnant" and "detestable." Though Lewis doesn't say so, such a world would in fact be crazy, with observable physical phenomena occurring with no discernable reason or regularity. It would drive people mad, as the architects of the United States's torture policy knew all too well.

Because of his dismissal of the Naturalist's explanation for Reason--a curt disgust with the possibility of natural origin that is the root of his objection to Naturalism--Lewis says there is in fact no grounds for considering our faith in uniformity true, and that a sustained belief in natural order can only be held by admitting a God shares our "repugnance to disorder."

But this is no solution either. For Lewis's worldview requires miracles: "you have no security against it." What we are given, instead of a truly ordered system, is one that only appears so but at any moment can be rendered otherwise. Lewis analogizes God's miracles to a master artist who knows when to bend or break the rules to create a masterpiece--whereas novices don't know the rules and pedants refuse to deviate from them--but such capriciousness, employed on reality itself, comes off less like an artist and more like a tyrant who upholds the law until it becomes inconvenient.

Such a belief is detrimental to scientific inquiry. Lewis has already stated outright that,

The whole mass of seemingly irregular experience could never have been turned into sceientific knowledge at all unless from the very start we had brought to it a faith in uniformity which almost no number of disappointments can shake.

Yet he would propose a worldview in which irregular experience can be dismissed as a miracle, beyond our understanding, when the history of inquiry tells us exactly the opposite: a bright flash in the night sky is not a sign of God's wrath, it's an exploding star, whose company we'll be joining in a few million years. God didn't bring the Black Plague down on Europe, rats did. Lewis's appeal to the miraculous, so much more articulate than these primitive notions, is less an argument from ignorance than an argument for ignorance.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

You Should Not Believe This Sentence

I've got a long entry on Lewis and Hume in the works, but I want to take the necessary time on Hume. I do want to throw up this curious nugget, from earlier in Miracles:

All records of miracles teach the same thing. In such stories the miracles excite fear and wonder (that is what the very word miracle implies) among the spectators, and are taken as evidence of supernatural power. If they were not known to be contrary to the laws of nature how could they suggest the presence of the supernatural? How could they be surprising unless they were even to be exceptions to the rules? And how can anything be seen to be an exception till the rules are known?

Lewis is here pushing back against the argument that because the ancients had so comparatively little understanding of how the universe works they were more predisposed to accept the miraculous. It's an interesting observation, at the same time accurate in its fashion--a miracle needs rules in order to break them--but also grossly negligent in its implications.

The truthfulness of the claimed miracle is never in question (certainly the Virgin Birth and Resurrection aren't), and so one could easily construe this to argue that a supposed miracle is true precisely because it is so contrary to accepted knowledge. For here a miracle is not a miracle in spite of its violation of our sense of the way the things work, but precisely because of it. The credulity this way of thinking cultivates, needless to say, is manna from Heaven to the world's charlatans and snake oil salesmen.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Imagine There's No Heaven

Debates over the rightness and wrongness of theism are well-worn, and even for one who likes to engage in them they can be occasionally tiresome. Kudos to C.S. Lewis for taking stabs at an original argument. Having once been an unbeliever himself, he is aware of how much his book makes the unsympathetic reader's eyes roll:

'I know exactly what this man is going to do,' he murmurs. 'He is going to start explaining all these mythological statements away. It is the invariable practice of these Christians. On any matter whereon science has not yet spoken and on which they cannot be checked, they will tell you some preposterous fairytale. And then, the moment science makes a new advacne and shows (as it invariably does) their statement to be untrue, they suddenly turn round and explain that they didn't mean what they said, that they were using a poetic metaphor or constructing an allegory, and that all they really intended was some harmless moral platitude. Were are sick of this theological thimble-rigging'. Now I have a great deal of sympathy with that sickness and I freely admit that 'modernist' Christianity has constantly played just the game of which the impatient sceptic accuses it.

Lewis takes the most unusual tack not of defending the Bible's more outlandish episodes or dismissing them as mere metaphor, but making a virtue of their being metaphors. For figurative language is not simply a poet's indulgence but crucial to everyday speech:

But very often when we are talking about something which is not perceptible by the five senses we use words which, in one of their meanings, refer to things or actions that are. When a man says that he grasps an argument he is using a verb (grasp) which literally means to take something in the hands, but he is certainly not thinking that his mind has hands or than an argument can be seized like a gun.... [A]ll speech about suspersensibles is, and must be, metaphorical in the highest degree.

A characteristically sharp observation, albeit one that mistakes the tree for the forest. Figurative speech plays a strong role (see?) in our speech and writing, but always to augment meaning, never to replace. The terminology is always well-defined, and the imagery is not taken literally: no one thinks the wave of democratic protests spreading across the Middle East is the same kind of wave that just hit Japan (well, almost nobody). And yet, Jesus Christ is regularly taken to be the son of an old man in the sky. More than that, a considerable chunk of the United States's population believes, for instance, that God created man as is, no evolution involved.

Lewis rightly dismisses such crude thinking, but argues that the wild stories and images are necessary because God is so far beyond our comprehension that only metaphor will suffice, and to this end enlists a number of them in his cause. In a particularly clever metaphor-within-a-metaphor (a meta-phor?), humanity are like erudite limpets in an aquarium who, having glimpsed their owner/God outside the tank, can only describe him in relation to his not being a limpet.

This is all interesting as far as it goes, but it's still an evasion of what God is actually supposed to be, if he exists (a mighty if Lewis takes entirely for granted). Again, we know democracy--self-governance by a given population--"exists," but as an idea, as a concept. What is God, then? What is Jesus and the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection supposed to be? Lewis will have nothing of the abstraction of God that I considered when reading The Screwtape Letters. Definite God must be, yet this is the closest we get to a definition:

....[I]n addition to the physical or psycho-physical universe known to the sciences, there exists an uncreated and unconditioned reality which causes the universe to be; that this reality has a positive structure or constitution which is usefully, though doubtless not completely, described in the doctrine of the Trinity; and that this reality, at a definite point in time, entered the universe we know by becoming one of its own creatures and there produced effects on the historical level which the normal workings of the natural universe do not produce; and that this has brought about a change in our relations to the unconditioned reality.

This is still maddeningly vague: an "uncreated and conditioned reality" with "a positive structure or constitution." Small wonder that metaphor and the erudite limpets are so useful to Lewis's purposes, for they are quite lively, lovely images. But they are not convincing to one not already persuaded of God's existence. I think this is probably true of any argument on such matters; that many theories and ideologies are post hoc justifications for ideas we have already come to. But to someone who doesn't already believe in God, a sentence like "Even our sexuality should be regarded as the transposition into a minor key of that creative joy which in Him is unceasing and irresistable" is just so much pretty verbiage.

Again I stress how much I appreciate the originality of Lewis's argument. Rather than the emperor having no clothes, as happens when Biblical literalism crashes up against scientific progress, after Lewis, one is left looking at clothes in search of an emperor.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

To Infinity and Beyond

And still I write on Miracles. Part of what makes C.S. Lewis compelling to me--were he not so, I would not still be writing about and reading him--is seeing what is obviously a first class intelligence so misdirected. He can be so wrong and so right at once.

Take his approach to objections to Christianity based on the makeup of the universe:

If the universe is teeming with life other than ours, then this, we are told, makes it quite ridiculous to believe that God should be so concerned with the human race as to 'come down from Heaven' and be made man for its redemption. If, on the other hand, our planet is really unique in harbouring organic life, then this is thought to prove that life is only an accidental by-product in the universe and so again to disprove our religion.... This kind of objection to the Christian faith is not really based on the observed nature of the actual universe at all. You can make it without waiting to find out what the universe is like, for it will fit any kind of universe we choose to imagine.

This is true enough in itself, but it is an incomplete truth: it's bleeding obvious to someone not invested in Lewis's argument that it could just as easily be deployed against him. If the universe was empty but for the sun and Earth, that would be prime evidence that we are God's prized creation. Since it is in fact teeming with uninhabited celestial bodies, Earth's harbouring of (sentient) life is taken to be proof of God's existence. Lewis doesn't himself argue this--he's more concerned with Reason as a manifestation of God rather than the centrality of man to creation--but his logic is very similar: man is special, and can only be so because of God.

Lewis goes on to attack anti-theist arguments that deal with the universe's size:

Medieval thinkers believed that the stars must be somehow superior to the Earth because they looked bright and it did not. Moderns think that the Galaxy ought to be more important than the Earth because it is bigger. Both states of mind can produce good poetry. Both can supply mental pictures which rouse very respectable emotions--emotions of awe, humility, or exhilaration. But taken as serious philosophical argument both are ridiculous. The atheist's argument from size is, in fact, an instance of just that picture-thinking to which, as we shall see in a later chapter, the Christian is not committed.

The problem is the atheist argument from size is in fact a straw man. No one thinks galaxies are "more" important than the Earth. Materialism dictates that cosmically, nothing is more important than anything else. It just is.

Lewis gets this very wrong indeed, but like a student who flubs a sign early in a mathematical formula and sends the rest of his calculations far astray, he ought be given credit for having done the work anyway.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Thinking Into Walls

The reasoning of C.S. Lewis's Miracles is a frequent annoyance, and given the number of books I would like to read, I don't know how much more time I will invest in one that I want to less and less. But disagreeing with something is a lot more interesting than choir preaching, so I'd like to say a bit on what about this mighty apologetic grates so. Perhaps its chiefest failing comes near the beginning, where the foundation is being set; specifically Chapter 3, The Cardinal Difficulty of Naturalism.

By Lewis's reckoning, the fundamental distinction is between Naturalists, who believe the world operates entirely by material phenomena, and Supernaturalists, who believe in "something" that exists outside of Nature, has to do with the nature of Reason. The reason Naturalism fails is that it cannot account for the rise and existence of human consciousness and will. That a mechanistic system could result in an intelligence so decidedly un-mechanistic seems to Lewis a fatal chink in the Naturalist's armor.

The logic used is circuitous and frankly baffling, hinging as it does on such split hairs as the use of the word because and Cause and Effect vs. Ground and Consequent. But the nub of the argument is thus:

The Naturalist might say, 'Well, perhaps we cannot exactly see--not yet--how natural selection would turn sub-rational mental behaviour into inferences that reach truth. But we are certain that this in fact has happened. For natural selection is bound to preserve and increase useful behaviour. And we also find that our habits of inference are in fact useful. And if they are useful they must reach truth'. But notice what we are doing. Inference itself is on trial: that is, the Naturalist has given an account of what we thought to be our inferences which suggests that they are not real insights at all. We, and he, want to be reassured. And the reassurance turns out to be one more inference (if useful, then true)--as if this inference were not, once we accept his evolutionary picture, [33] under the same suspicion as all the rest. If the value of our reasoning is in doubt, you cannot try to establish it by reasoning.

This rests on two assertions:

1. The Naturalist position here presented casts doubt on the reliability of human reason.
2. With reason in doubt, the Naturalist position cannot be made (reason can't be used to prove that it can't be used).

What we have is a false dichotomy, (similar in fashion to Lewis's other, more famous Lord, Liar, or Lunatic trichotomy on the question of Christ's divinity), true on its own terms but falling apart when its assumptions are questioned. Reason is not blindly championed by Naturalists--the scientific method exists after all to thwart individual bias and human error. That it should be doubted then is no great surprise.

That human fallibility should be such an affront to Lewis's sensibility begs the question: if we cannot trust our senses to give us a reasonably accurate picture of the world, the position Lewis thinks is a consequence of Naturalism, what should we trust?

Lewis was, of course, not a Naturalist, and doesn't need to answer this. But his own position, after several wearisome pages of attacking Naturalism, qualifies less as an argument than magical thinking (emphasis mine):

But the Theist need not, and does not, grant these terms. He is not committed to the view that reason is a comparatively recent development moulded by a process of selection which can select only the biologically useful. For him, reason--the reason of God--is older than Nature, and from it the orderliness of Nature, which alone enables us to know her, is derived. For him, the human mind in the act of knowing is illuminated by the Divine reason. It is set free, in the measure required, from the huge nexus of non-rational causation; free from this to be determined by the truth known. And the preliminary processes within Nature which led up to this liberation, if there were any, were designed to do so.

In other words, God did it and that's all there is to it.

Frankly, neither explanation is completely satisfying. The materialist must maintain his own faith in science to show by experiment that consciousness--to say nothing of life itself--can arise by organic means.

But at least it articulates some sort of process by which consciousness could arise and is honest about the holes in its knowledge. Explaining everything by recourse to a force that just happens to be all-powerful and invisible, explains nothing. It pulls the answer out of thin air and leaves it to fall to the ground. It waves away inconvenient questions (if God can exist beyond the Universe, what's to stop something else from existing beyond God? If it's beyond our capacity to know, then why speculate on his intents at all?) while shrugging the shoulders.

To close this entry, I point out Lewis unintentionally demonstrates the ridiculousness of his position by summarizing with a quote by J.B.S. Haldane:

If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true . . . and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.

This recalls the opening chapter of The Men Who Stare at Goats, in which a character similarly conflates particle operation and human endeavor:

Am I ready? he thinks. Yes, I am ready.
He stands up, moves out from behind his desk, and begins to walk.
I mean, he thinks, what is the atom mostly made up of anyway? Space!
He quickens his pace.
What am I mostly made up of? he thinks. Atoms!
He is almost at a jog now.
What is the wall mostly made up of? he thinks. Atoms! All I have to do is merge the spaces. The wall is an illusion. What is destiny? Am I destined to stay in this room? Ha, no!
Then General Stubblebine bangs his nose hard on the wall of his office.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Apropos of the sarcasm post, here is one of my favorite ever Simpsons quotes, which in its fashion makes the same point I did:

Down to Earth

Yesterday I cracked open Lewis' Miracles to see what else he had to say on the subject of faith, and three chapters in the results are not encouraging. I'll have more to say when I've finished, but for now I'm of the opinion that his philosophy is much more engaging when filtered through the eyes of a cynical Hell-demon.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Hell on Earth

I can't think of any good way to start this other than to say that C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, in only a few days' time, has hit me like no other book has. Accordingly I'll try to be as analytical as I can, with the caveat that I'm still sorting out what I actually think.

The Screwtape Letters is exactly what its title purports it to be, letters from a high-ranking demon of Hell, Screwtape, to his nephew Wormwood, a journeyman tempter of human souls who is presently (in the 1940s) in the process of tempting a young Englishman away from God.

The book's ingenuity is immediately apparent. Being written from the perspective of a denizen of Hell, it thus provides a view into "diabolical" thinking, which by its nature is an inversion of righteousness, making the book a rare example of Christian irony. Understanding it can be a slippery task, for as Lewis notes in the Preface, "Not everything that Screwtape says should be assumed to be true even from his own angle," but that only enhances the book's irony, the way it illuminates through shadow, and how what isn't said is as important as what is. This amounts to no less than an articulation against (and therefore, for) The Good Life.

The Hell portrayed is not built on the usual forbidden pleasures. Far from it. They are to Screwtape and Wormwood but enticements to lead their quarry astray, with the end goal being an existence of sullen drudgery and discomfort, separated from God by being separated from all that is natural and joyous:

As this condition becomes more fully established, you will be gradually freed from the tiresome business of providing pleasures as temptations..... You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday's paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and out-going activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at least he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, 'I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.

Here is where Lewis' theology, though leaden with miracles and the Resurrection and other such pratter, is most robust. It offers not magical thinking, but a frame with which to view one's experience in order to live as best as one can. The Good Life is ultimately what Screwtape seeks to thwart. Thus God can be seen not as some vague father figure or even a properly existing entity, but as an abstraction, an allegory, that embodies man's best qualities, Love chiefest among them, to provide an example to which one may aspire.

It's powerful, powerful stuff. Yes, there is enjoyment to be had seeing the world through a demon's eye, which is doubtless the reason most people are drawn to the book in the first place. But taking to heart its implications, one can only stop and bring everything about how they live into question. Nevermind eternity and the afterworld, at best a conjecture: if this life is all that we have, then Hell, the only Hell we can know, is the strangling of potential and the waste of precious, precious time. Again, these words, leaping out in dire warning:

I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.

My original plan for looking at The Screwtape Letters was a relatively brief examination of C.S. Lewis' ideas, with a straightforward conclusion that he is wrong on the fundamental issues of theism and Jesus Christ, but had some good things to say regardless. Yet the book has exerted a strange hold on me: after going through it once I started on it again, with pen in hand to nail down what it's saying and what I want to say. It's stayed in my head, and its ideas swirled such that I actually had trouble getting to sleep last night. I'm not really happy with how this piece turned out, simply because I'm having great difficulty putting into words the ideas churning in my mind.

I still find the details of Lewis' Christianity unconvincing; but the broad strokes--that God and the Devil are concepts representing the best and worst of humanity--are deeply compelling. I don't know if that makes me a theist, or even a Christian even. But The Screwtape Letters has shaken me like nothing I can think of. I'm anxious to see where this new line of inquiry may take me.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Ill Humor

I've a piece on C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters that I should have up soon. It's a fascinating book, if fundamentally mistaken in its theology. Before tackling that, I would like to bring attention to one of its most astute oservations, concerning sarcasm. It's not referred to as such, but the definition is unmistakable:

But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy [God] that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it.

Perhaps the most annoying and pernicious quality of sarcasm/flippancy is how disingenuous it is. Discussion operates on the assumed good faith of both parties, that they mean what they say and their words can be taken at face value. When someone employs sarcasm for any great length of time it calls into question what it is he is actually trying to say. It's obvious what he isn't saying, but a single negative can imply any number of positives. This conveniently allows the sarcastic to disavow responsibility for his words, an act Rush Limbaugh, say, is well-practised in.

Rush is a useful example since his shtick--and by and large the conservative movement that's made him a millionaire--is based on spite of liberals more than any sort of positive value system, making his brand of humor distinctly mirthless.

One not even enter the realm of politics to find further examples. I am sure all know or have known someone of a profoundly negative and critical temperament. This drudge, when not griping outright about some minor infraction, speaks with knowingly inflated inflection, as if everything he speaks of is a bad joke. To him, it is.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Psy Oops

When it comes to film adaptations of books, I generally try to steer clear of the original. The book is often better, richer in content at least, and I want to be fair to a movie and enjoy it on its own terms. When it comes to The Men Who Stare at Goats, however, I missed out on the film when it was first released and hadn't much intention of seeing it until I read the book and decided to see it out of curiosity. I ought have heeded my usual practice, for the book is indeed the superior creation; the movie, a travesty.

Jon Ronson's book tells the impossibly true story of an obscure Army unit founded in the late 1970s on New Age principles. This unit, the First Earth Battalion, led research on mind mastery--including, supposedly, how to stun or kill a goat using only one's mind--that mutated in the early years of the George W. Bush administration into the psychological torture techniques employed in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. The paranormal research unearthed covers a surprising panorama of recent history, including such figures and events as Manuel Noriega, the Heaven's Gate suicide cult, the CIA's MK-ULTRA experiments in LSD, and the Waco siege. Much of this borders on the implausible, but for the most part it's true.

The movie, by necessity, isn't able to cast so wide a net, and so much of the material is condensed into composite characters and an invented storyline, with Ewan Mcgregor playing a sad-sack journalist who goes to Iraq to prove to his ex-wife that he's not a loser and stumbling into the conspiratorial weirdness by way of George Clooney's ex-Special Forces character. A great deal of the information on the paranormal research drawn from the book is delivered in haphazard flashbacks dealing with Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey's rival characters, who show up in the present day near the end of the movie.

An adaptation of a long or detailed work can never capture all the contours of the original, but it needs to capture its spirit, and this is where the movie fails so badly. The outlandishness of the book's subject matter is helped immensely by Jon Ronson's dry, dry tone.

It was at this point that the battle between the two generals--Noriega and Stubblebine--shifted into the supernatural. Noriega took to tying black ribbons around his ankles and placing little scraps of paper in his shoes with names written on them to protect him against spells cast by his enemies. He was possibly walking around Panama City with the word Stubblebine secreted inside his shoe at the very moment that the general was trying to walk through his wall. How could General Stubblebine concentrate on passing through objects with that sort of craziness going on around him?

It's the straight-facedness that sells the lunacy. The movie contains all of the book's real-life oddities, but does little to give it any realistic grounding: Mcgregor and Clooney wander through the desert, are kidnapped, drive over an Improvised Explosive Device (the kind responsible for over 60% of U.S. military fatalities in Iraq), and live to walk around a military base with their IV drips in tow. This is to say nothing of the ludicrous ending, in which the whole base has its water supply spiked with LSD and Bridges and Clooney fly off giggling into the sun. The material was already strange enough without this lily-gilding.

This unseriousness is most fatally present in its treatment of the book's central conceit, that goofy paranormal research led to government-sanctioned torture:

Although this man was filled with the kindest of intentions and thoughts of peace, he was also, I would later discover, the inspiration behind a really quite bizarre form of torture undertaken by U.S. forces in Iraq in May 2003. This torture did not take place in the Abu Ghraib prison, where naked Iraqi detainees were forced to masturbate and to simulate oral sex with one another. It occurred instead inside a shipping container behind a disused railway station in the small town of al-Qa'im, on the Syrian border. It really was just as horrific, in its own way, as the Abu Ghraib atrocities, but because no photographs were taken, and because it involved Barney, the Purple Dinosaur, it wasn't greeted with the same blanket coverage or universal revulsion.

That's at the end of Chapter 2 in the book, whose second half is concerned with contemporary and historical abuses of power by the CIA, for which the deadpan humor serves as a useful counterbalance. The movie doesn't hint at any deeper issue until its third act, and resolves the problem of tortured detainees easily enough by freeing them during the aforementioned basewide acid spike. Then it has the temerity to turn Mcgregor into an unsung hero by having him report the abuses only to have the story dismissed as a joke because of the Barney the Dinosaur element. This is indeed what happened in real life, but by so largely skirting the issue for most its running time in favor of mere quirk, the movie is just as guilty, perhaps moreso, for its betrayal.

Occasionally, it gets it right and nails the tone of a given scene. George Clooney's demonstration of the Predator, for instance:

And then Pete produced, from his pocket, a small yellow blob of plastic. It had pointed edges and smooth edges and a hole in the middle. it looked like a children's toy, albeit one with no obvious means of being fun. Thi yellow blob, Pete said, was his own design, but it was an embodiment of Jim Channon's vision, and it was being carried right now in the pockets of the Eighty-second Airborne in Iraq, and soon, Pentagon willing, it would be in the pocket of every soldier in the United States Army. His blob, Pete said, "is friendly to the Earth, it has a spirit to it, it is as humane as you want it to be, the pointed bits go into people, it can snuff out your life in a heartbeat, and it looks a little bit funny. It is," he said, "the First Earth Battalion."

"What's it called?" I asked.

"The Predator," said Pete.

For the next hour or two, Pete hurt my chakra, in many, many ways, with his Predator.

Such scenes translate well to celluloid, but the movie is not consistent and never compelling, without any real purpose to its proceedings. Stare at it if you will, but it's certainly not stunning.

Countering the Phelps Clan

Today the Supreme Court made the obvious decision to uphold the First Amendment by siding with the odious Fred Phelps and his borderline-comically fanatic brood, known for protesting at gay and military funerals. Free speech includes hateful speech, after all, and any effort by the government to curtail unpopular expression, no matter how justified it feels, is gravely wrong-headed.

There remains, though, the problem of what to do with such unrepentant assholes; one of Ta-Nehisi Coates' commenters, JonF311, posted a lovely idea which--since it isn't turning up on Google--I'll just repost verbatim:

When Westboro Baptist protested the opening of a gay bar in Traverse City MI ten year ago, the bar had a rather creative response. They held a "sponsor a protestor" party, inviting patrons to pledge some amount of money for each minute a selected protestor continued his/her protesting. (It was a bitterly cold winter day). Some of the patrons even bought hot chocolate for the protestors to keep them going. And at the end of the event the bar informed the protestors how much money their presence had just raised for the HRC, and invited them back the next day.

When life gives you lemons, squirt citric acid into life's eyes.