Thanks to a lot of work from my wife, I have a blog again. My long-standing parableman.net domain name is forwarding to this blog, but it's really hosted at parableman.com. The ektopos,com domain names no longer work, for either blog that I had at that domain. Since the Ektopos server got shut down, my previous two Parableman blogs have had no home. I will be gradually adding that material in posts with the original dates as I get a chance, to try to preserve the posts that I think are worth preserving. All older posts will appear earlier than this post, since they will be given their actual dates. I'm not sure I will try to transfer all the comments. Some posts are outdated and time-sensitive or keyed to events that are no longer current, and I will at least not prioritize that stuff.
I’m part of a Facebook group that discusses the teaching of philosophy, and every once in a while someone says something that I really want to comment on, but it would move enough away from the conversation and be very long and just feel out of place. I found myself writing a very long comment this morning about something that I think should be preserved, but I ended up not posting it to that conversation, because it’s really off point and probably wouldn’t be appropriate to pick out one side comment and turn it into a lengthy issue. But I think what I have to say about it is worth posting, so here it is.
The conversation was about a student who engaged in inappropriate behavior in class to support (but not actually defend) his view that morality is connected with religion. He actually stood up and looked around at the class to assert his view, as if he could win people over by the sheer force of saying it. One of the commenters pointed out that movies like God Is Not Dead probably fuel perceptions of a liberal and secular bias in philosophy classes, and to someone who has seen that movie and has no familiarity with philosophy they might think philosophy classes are actually like that and see this kind of behavior as an appropriate response. (Hint: philosophy classes are usually nothing like what that movie portrays, and this kind of behavior is totally inappropriate in a philosophy class.)
Someone else came along and mentioned a case where her insistence on using proper terminology led to a student’s parents accusing her of inappropriate bias in her teaching. That’s unfortunate when that happens, and I actually think in the case these parents were pushing back against they were wrong. But the case started from something preventable that I think would predictably lead to that perception in a lot of people.
I just read a thoughtful post on the Pop Culture and Philosophy blog about the concept of balance in the Force in Star Wars. I’ve been struggling to understand that concept myself as I’ve been reading through a lot of the Star Wars comics, both Legends canon and new canon, and thinking them through in light of the movies, Clone Wars show, and Rebels show. I don’t think the post I linked to has it right, but I’m linking to it as a thoughtful piece trying to come to grips with this issue. A quick Google search revealed quite a number of other views on this, again none of it seeming to me to get things quite right. So I wanted to put some of my own thoughts on this into writing, however, so here are some rough musings attempting to put many months of thought on this into something somewhat digestible.
Here are several things that didn’t make a lot of sense to me, when put together:
We were at the bookstore yesterday looking through the science fiction and fantasy section, and I decided to get the one-volume Chronicles of Narnia edition, given that several of ours are falling apart or not even around anymore, mostly because of the efforts of one particular child. Most annoyingly, it has the wrong order of the books, so I had to write the correct order in the table of contents so the kids know what order to read them in.
Now I have good friends who like to support the publisher’s chronological order for reading these books, and I don’t really hold it against them, but they’re simply wrong. The books should be read in the order of publication. Sometimes people point to a letter Lewis wrote suggesting that it can be read in chronological order, and there really are times when you can appeal to authorial intent to establish something in the canon of the fiction. For example, Dumbedore is gay and always was. How do we know that? The author said so. Period. She made the fiction, and she can tell us what’s true in it. It’s her intellectual property, and she has the right to say what’s true in her fiction.
But this is a separate question. Lewis was trying to dissolve a dispute between a mother and child about what order to read the books in, and the reason he gave was silly. Here is the letter he sent to the child who wrote to ask about this:
The Supreme court released a bunch of opinions yesterday. One of them isn't all that interesting to me, but a little exchange on a side point caught my attention. From the SCOTUSBlog writeup:
In a five-page concurrence, Justice Kennedy went out of his way to raise concern over the proliferation of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, bemoaning the extent to which "the conditions in which prisoners are kept simply has not been a matter of sufficient public inquiry or interest," even though "consideration of these issues is needed." Thus, he concluded, "[i]n a case that presented the issue, the judiciary may be required . . . to determine whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them." Justice Thomas responded in a rather curt, one-paragraph opinion, noting that "the accommodations in which Ayala is housed are a far sight more spacious than those in which his victims . . . now rest," and that "Ayala will soon have had as much or more time to enjoy those accommodations as his victims had time to enjoy this Earth."
I'm not interested in adjudicating that particular dispute, but I'm interested in (1) its very existence and (2) the particular reasoning used in each case. There's a correct moral principle behind each justice's point (just retribution for a heinous act and ensuring we don't ourselves do evil in how we treat those who do evil). It seems as if this might be a case where we can't satisfy either concern without going against the other concern, so we have to decide which principle we'll give more importance to. These two justices end up on opposite sides on that question.
I once thought David Hume's reasons for being skeptical about scientific laws were inconsistent with his arguments against miracles. He argues that we can't know about scientific laws or causes, because all we perceive are one thing happening followed by another thing happening. We don't perceive any causing, just the things we take to be cause and effect. Our taking it to be cause and effect is thoroughly irrational, Hume says, and thus we know nothing about whether there are any causes or scientific laws. For all we know, a ball you throw into the air could come back down, as you expect it, or it could turn into a bird and fly away. We expect it to do the former, but there's no reason we have to think it can't do the latter.
Hume goes on to say that we should never believe in miracles, because you should always proportion your belief to the evidence, and there is zero evidence for miracles. He rules out the very possibility of miracles, it seems, and he does this in the very same work where he has spent so much time setting up worries about whether our entire scientific understanding of the world might be wrong, leaving us with the result that, for all we know, basketballs might turn into seagulls and fly away. How can he consistently say both of these things?
But then I read Hume more closely in subsequent readings, and I came to the conclusion that Hume's approach is consistent after all. What he says in his skepticism about science is that we don't know there are scientific laws of the sort that we believe in if we think one thing makes another happen. He also says that, for all we know, unexpected things that would seem to violate the laws of physics that we believe in could be possible. But he does go on to give a pragmatist account of why we might as well believe in scientific laws anyway, since it's served us well so far, and it's not as if we can help it anyway. It's also not as if we have a choice.
But then in the miracles chapter, he gives a careful argument. He first defines probability as how often something happens in our own personal experience. Then he says that, if you haven't experienced miracles, it follows that miracles have zero probability. But why, then, could he say that plants could sprout legs and start walking around, as far as we know? Isn't that like a miracle? But he's careful here. If we believe that a plant did such a thing, we'd be believing in a miracle. We shouldn't do that, because it has zero probability. It's never happened, in my experience, so I should think it has zero probability. At the same time, I can't rule it out. So it's not impossible, as far as I know. If I did witness it, I'd have to proportion my beliefs with the evidence I then had. But as it is, I shouldn't believe in such things. I should just believe in their possibility, but I shouldn't allow for anything more than zero probability.
The key here is in defining probability in terms of how often it's happened in your experience, while defining possibility in terms of whether it's consistent with your experience. Something could then have zero probability but be well within the realm of possibility. So, because of that, I came to think that Hume's view was indeed consistent, even if it's a strange set of views.
But now I've become convinced again that there's a deep inconsistency in Hume's approach to these two issues. It has to do with his willingness to extend pragmatist arguments toward functioning the way we ordinarily do with respect to the scientific skepticism he begins with, while not extending pragmatism toward functioning the way we ordinarily do with the issue of miracles. He accepts our ordinary views on scientific laws, even though he insists that such beliefs are irrational and not grounded in anything more likely to produce true beliefs than crystal-ball gazing, at least as far as we can be sure. He relies on the testimony of other people in order to believe in regularities in nature that he can rely on to live his life. He refuses to accept the testimony of other people when it comes to miracles, however.
Every now and then I come across someone claiming that the word "literally" is now being used as a self-antonym. In other words, it is being used to mean "figuratively". Consider the following sentences:
1. And when he gets into the red zone, he literally explodes. (from a football announcer)
2. [Tom Sawyer] was literally rolling in wealth. (Mark Twain)
3. [Jay Gatsby] literally glowed. (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
4. [A certain Mozart piece was] the acme of first class music as such, literally knocking everything else into a cocked hat. (James Joyce)
As you can see, this isn't that new a phenomenon. It goes back at least a couple hundred years. There seems to be an incredible amount of outrage about it in certain spheres. Vice-President Joe Biden gets made fun of a lot for his excessive use of the term this way. But consider the following sentences:
5. When he gets into the red zone, he really explodes.
6. He was really rolling in wealth.
7. He really glowed.
8. The piece of music was really knocking everything else into a cocked hat.
Those sound perfectly fine. The word "literally" and the word "really" both normally indicate some genuineness to something. Yet both are used in situations where it's not really or literally the way it's being said to be. Both are wrong, if the words are being used literally. But they aren't being used literally. They're being used as intensifiers. He doesn't just glow. He really glows. Saying he literally glows is doing something similar.
What is not going on here is the use of these words as self-antonyms. The seventh sentence above does not mean "He doesn't really glow." That sentence means something very different. Nor does the third sentence mean "He doesn't literally glow." That sentence also conveys something different. These words are being used as intensifiers. Saying "he doesn't literally glow" or "he doesn't really glow" is not intensifying the sentence "he glows". But 3 and 7 are intensifying it. So the word is not being used to mean its opposite, in either case.
The word "literally" is not being used to mean "figuratively". If it were, then we would expect 3 to be synonymous with:
9. He figuratively glowed.
But the two are not synonymous. 3 would not be used if you intended to be talking about the linguistic properties of the word "glowed". A sentence like 9 is commenting on its own language. A sentence like 3 is doing no such thing. Furthermore, 3 has the intensification that 7 has. 9 does not. These sentences are not at all equivalent. If the word "literally" were being used to mean "figuratively" then they would be synonymous. What's actually going on is that the word is being used as an intensifier, the same way the word "really" gets used. That's not at all the same thing as being used to mean "figuratively". I suppose you might say that the word "literally" is being used figuratively. But that's not the same thing being used to mean "figuratively".
This is the fourth post in an ongoing series of reflections on the gospel of Mark, which I haven't been very good at keeping up with. I think at this point I might just abandon it, because the long list of posts I had ready to go disappeared with my hard drive when it failed, and I'm not excited about figuring out again what I wanted to do. Also, I was doing this as I was working through the first half of Mark in a Bible study group that I'm not able to attend this semester because it meets while I'm teaching. I wanted to gather together some of the thoughts I did save in a draft of a post a number of months ago, though. Perhaps at some point I'll decide to do some more of these now and then, but this will be the last I expect to do for now.
What I wanted to do in the post I had saved as a draft was to consider two subtle clues even in the beginning of the book of Mark that run counter to a prevailing view among scholars. A number of respected scholars have claimed that Mark represents an early portrait of Jesus from a time before what the scholars call a higher christology had developed. The idea is that Jesus wasn't perceived to be anything other than the Messiah at first, and eventually he came to be identified as God. This usually puts John's gospel as the height of the high christology, at least within the New Testament itself. They might still consider the creeds a step or two beyond that.
I don't want to challenge the idea that theological understanding developed over time. Nor am I interested in arguing that every nuance to the Johannine portrait of Jesus is in the synoptic gospels, never mind in Mark, the most simple of the synoptics by many measures, including with regard to theological statements. What I want to point out is that the gospel of Mark has two important references even in the first two chapters (in Mark 1:3 and 2:10) to things that entail, but do not make explicit, a fairly high christology.
What is the role of scripture in worship? If scripture is to be our sole infallible guide to Christian practice as well as theology, what does that mean for worship? Since I'm writing this to enter it into the first Carnival of the Reformation, it's probably worth linking to a good summary of the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Wikipedia's entry should serve that purpose well. What I'm interested in establishing in this post is what bearing that doctrine has on worship, both private and communal. Some readers may consider some of my conclusions suprising, but I think they come right out of scripture. There are so many elements of contemporary worship that seem to me to use a non-scriptural basis and even undermine what scripture says about worship. Some of these are subjects of common complaints, but I think the ones I'm zeroing in on are not the most common complaints about the worship of our day. I do think they're some of the more serious ones. If we take scripture seriously, as the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura requires, I think we'll need to change much of how we think about worship, including the role of scripture in worship, though how it will need to change will depend on our background and our current practices.
I've been covering pacifism, just war, suicide, euthanasia, cloning, abortion, and capital punishment in my classes, and I've been thinking a lot about the "playing God" argument that arises in all these issues. It also plays a major role in arguments against contraception, which Wink and I treated not too long ago. What exactly is this argument supposed to amount to? The one underlying feature to the different versions I can think of is that somehow God has given us certain responsibilities to do but has withheld from us certain things to do, and it's playing God to do the latter. But which things would those be, and why those things? The different realms God is said to have exclusive rights over have been anything involving when someone might die or come into being, any way to affect the characteristics of someone as they come into being, and other issues related to life and death. A helpful analogy, though, is to consider groups like the Amish who make this argument not just about life and death but about many ways in which we live our life. They apply it to certain kinds of technology, though I've never been able to find a consistent standard behind their choices of which kinds of technology to use and which not to use. Knitting needles and computers are equally human-developed technology. But those of a more moderate persuasion who will still give such an argument seem to me to limit it to these life and/or death issues and to using technology to modify something seen to be fundamental to God's prerogative in giving and taking life (and determining what form such life will take, which is why cloning and genetic engineering are part of this).
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.