Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Life Coach Recommends Obsessive, Idiosyncratic Behaviour to Earn Immortality by Word Coinage

Dateline: TORONTO—Melvin Meister’s Labour of Fame Organization, founded in 1973, has been vindicated over forty years later, as the Oxford English Dictionary added the word “smeelian” to its account of the English language, in recognition of the life’s work of one Mr. Meister’s acolytes, Anita Smeelie.

Considered the philosopher of fame, Mr. Meister founded his organization to convince people to dedicate themselves to a single pursuit throughout their life, however bizarre their preoccupation might be, for the purpose of becoming so personally associated with that practice as to acquire a kind of immortality by compelling the guardians of language to coin a word in their honour.

Mrs. Smeelie spent 38 years wearing unseasonal clothing in Canada. In summer she wore multiple layers of sweaters and coats, and in snowy winter she wore shorts and T-shirts. Crucially, she filmed herself daily to prove her topsy-turvy lifestyle. An anthropologist came upon her archive of films on YouTube and wrote an article about “the smeelian demonstration of liberty, by systematically and steadfastly rejecting the proper response to the environment.”

Mr. Meister explained his philosophy at a press conference. “Fame is silly,” he said, “so you have to be silly to become famous. But what’s even greater than fame is legend. To become a legend, you must devote yourself to an idea, as the movie Batman Begins said. The idea’s merit is inconsequential, since any idea can eventually seem inspired and apt, because circumstances are always changing.

“Think of Cervantes’ character, Don Quixote, whose legend is memorialized with the word ‘quixotic.’ The character became immortal because Cervantes wrote a long book hammering home his point about the silliness of the medieval myth of honour. Cervantes’ only error was that his character outshone him and so he wasted the opportunity to become immortal himself, by living as a real-life Don Quixote.

“By contrast, Giacomo Casanova wrote up his myriad sexual exploits and became personally famous for them, so that his name is synonymous with ‘womanizer.’ Rabelais scored a double victory, since his works compelled fans to speak both of what’s ‘rabelaisian’ and what’s ‘gargantuan,’ since his character Gargantua was so forcefully depicted in his satires.”

Mr. Meister stresses that the fame-seeker’s ideal can be preposterous or embarrassing, as it was in the case of sadism and masochism, practices inspired by the literary works of the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

“Duns Scotus only had to be a committed medieval Christian theologian to earn himself the title of ‘dunce’—as in the dunce cap worn by slow-witted students who are sent to the corner of the classroom by the complacent humanist teacher.”

According to Mr. Meister, “social critics are bound to find some obsessive behaviours pertinent when they scrounge for materials to illustrate this or that notion that pops into their head. That’s why I tell my pupils to add their idiosyncrasies to the societal slush pile. If they stay true to their bizarre ideal, steadfastly recording their faithfulness for posterity, one day someone will stumble on the work and coin a word to preserve their essence for all time. That’s the road to real immortality.”

Indeed, Mr. Meister contended that YouTube and the internet at large function as repositories for records of cranks’ life work, the hope being that their videos or writings will one day be relevant and compel others to think of their authors as legendary.

Mr. Meister currently has dozens of long-time pupils, one of whom, Leon Snodgrass, has for twelve years given an “Eskimo kiss” to everything that has ended up in his immediate vicinity.

According to his journal, Mr. Snodgrass once found himself in a garbage dump and commenced to rubbing his nose on every piece of garbage in sight. Despite the repulsive odors, he powered through and successfully “greeted” everything in the dump, because of his “single-minded dedication” to his ideal.

What that ideal is is anyone’s guess, but Mr. Snodgrass hopes that someone someday will guess right, in which case he’ll have won his immortality.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Clash of Worldviews: Eastern and Western Christianity

MODERATOR: Welcome to Clash of Worldviews. This evening our topic is Eastern Orthodox Christianity and how it stands apart from the Western church. To discuss this matter, we welcome conservative Catholic Lindsey Rowe, postmodern cynic and skeptic Heather Fogarty, and philosopher and Eastern Orthodox theologian David Rolls-Royce Spleen. Welcome to the panel. Lindsey, perhaps you’d like to start us off by telling us briefly what you think the chief difference is between the Eastern and Western churches.

LINDSEY: Well, in a nutshell, the main difference is that Catholicism is authentic Christianity, its traditions deriving from Jesus and the apostles, whereas the more mystical, Gnostic, and individualistic flavours of East Orthodox Christianity are heretical.   

SPLEEN: Those “flavours” are actually shared with the early Church fathers, before Christianity became tainted by its connection to the Roman Empire. The main difference, then, is that the Eastern Church is for Christian insiders, while Catholicism represents exoteric Christianity, the religion for less-serious Christians.

LINDSEY: Need I remind you that the Western Roman Empire ended long before the Eastern one, so if anything, the secular empire tainted the Eastern Church, not Catholicism.

SPLEEN: Not so. Precisely because the prosperous Eastern Empire lasted until 1453, it provided the stability for sophisticated theological thinking in the Eastern Church. Moreover, the Eastern Empire was, of course, the Byzantine Empire, which was culturally more Greek than Roman. Christianity was enriched by Greek philosophy, but poisoned by Roman pragmatism, and so although the Western Roman Empire ended in 476 CE, Emperors Constantine and Theodosius I had already identified Christianity with that empire, leaving Catholicism with the burden of having to deal with Rome’s collapse. The Holy Roman Empire, therefore, had to debase itself to appeal to a lower class of believer, to the unwashed, illiterate peasant.

LINDSEY: Did Jesus lower himself by tending to the prostitute and the leper?

SPLEEN: No, but Catholics aren’t divine, so they typically haven’t withstood secular temptations with Christ-like resoluteness. Instead, they were typically corrupted by the power they held over the helpless masses of medieval Europeans, and that power infected their version of the gospel message.

MODERATOR: And what are the differences, then, between the two creeds?

David Bentley Hart,
inspiration for David Spleen
SPLEEN: Catholics submit to the institutions and traditions of their Church, because the Catholic Church had to divinize itself to maintain social order in its Dark Age. That would have been fine had the Catholics retained an institutional memory of the practices of the Church fathers. But that memory was lost and yet the masses needed something to look up to, a light at the end of the tunnel, and so that light became the very Church hierarchy that failed them, since the Catholic leaders grew arrogant and complacent instead of seeking wisdom from Christianity’s founding fathers. That wisdom was preserved mainly in the East. The Catholic corruption prompted the Protestant Reformation, but Protestants’ emphasis on faith and the unenlightened individual’s right to his or her interpretation of the Bible meant that their sect would depart even further from the early Church practices and thus from Jesus.

LINDSEY: The Catholic Church, that is, the Western communion of believers rather than the material institution, is divine in so far as it’s informed by the Holy Spirit and it upholds the traditions passed from Jesus to Saint Peter.

SPLEEN: But that Spirit evidently came and long ago went from the West, because Western Christians often lacked saving gnosis. The Catholic hierarchy took advantage of the weakness of those living in the ashes of the Western Roman Empire, and that’s reflected in the Catholic view of Jesus’s purpose on earth. Both Catholics and the Protestants who splintered from them say that Jesus came to offer his life as a sacrifice to pay the penalty for everyone’s sins, which is supposed to be good news because it leaves Christians with little spiritual work to do. On the contrary, Christ was supposedly the only one who could satisfy God, because he was perfect and God himself, and so Christians merely need to submit to Christ to enable him to live eventually in their hearts. Unfortunately, this is only a garbled, exoteric rendition of the true Christian message.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Documentary Film Teaser

To the left is a teaser picture of something I've been working on. It's the introductory sequence of an Adam Curtis-style documentary tentatively called "The Horror of Life's Meaning: From Eastern and Western Religions to Liberal Humanism." The movie pulls together some themes from my blog and adds some ideas I haven't written about yet, especially with regard to monotheistic religions, and it will be around three hours when it's done. By "Adam Curtis-style" I mean that it's mainly a collage of archival clips with music and me talking in the background.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Calling All Human Robots: Don’t be Too Introspective at Work!

Psychologist Tasha Eurich is the leader of a “boutique executive development firm that helps companies—from start-ups to the Fortune 100—succeed by improving the effectiveness of their leaders and teams.” This is according to the bio in an article at Harvard Business Review, in which she reports on studies she’s done on different kinds of self-awareness and argues that the philosophical kind of introspection is counterproductive.  

Counterproductive Introspection

She distinguishes between internal and external kinds of self-awareness. The former “represents how clearly we see our own values, passions, aspirations, fit with our environment, reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses), and impact on others.” The latter kind “means understanding how other people view us, in terms of those same factors.” The two kinds of self-awareness are independent, and she finds that “internal self-awareness is associated with higher job and relationship satisfaction, personal and social control, and happiness; it is negatively related to anxiety, stress, and depression,” while “people who know how others see them are more skilled at showing empathy and taking others’ perspectives.” She also finds that experience and power hinder self-awareness, since they can make people over-confident, but effective leaders can compensate for that by increasing their external self-awareness, that is, by seeking reports on their character and behaviour from those who are liable to be honest, such as family members of long-time friends.

She also argues that introspection, or “examining the causes of our own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors” doesn’t always improve our self-awareness, since most people think about themselves “incorrectly.” The incorrect or ineffective way, she says, is to ask why questions, as in, “Why do I like Employee A more than Employee B?” or “Why am I so against this deal?” The problem with this type of question—which happens to be quintessential to philosophy when asked about meta issues—is that we have little access to our unconscious thoughts and so instead of discovering the mental facts, we’re liable to invent answers to flatter ourselves or rationalize what we wish were the case. Our confidence in the answers we find to those why questions is due to our innate biases and our tendency to think fallaciously—especially when our inner worth is at stake. Another problem with introspective why questions, she says, is that they invite “unproductive negative thoughts.” She finds that “people who are very introspective are also more likely to get caught in ruminative patterns.”

The alternatives to why questions, she says, are what ones. So instead of asking, “Why do I feel so terrible?” we can ask, “What are the situations that make me feel terrible, and what do they have in common?” Instead of, “Why did you say this about me?” we can ask, “What are the steps I need to take in the future to do a better job?” Instead of “Why wasn’t I able to turn things around?” we can ask, “What do I need to do to move forward in a way that minimizes the impact to our customers and employees?” These what questions are more productive, she finds, because they have definite answers and foster open-mindedness. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Donald Trump, the Antichrist, is “Close Enough to Christ,” said Evangelical Leader

Dateline: LICKSKILLET, KY—Evangelical Christians are supporting President Donald Trump, because “he’s probably the Antichrist and that’s close enough,” according to evangelical leader Leon Birdbrain.

Evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump to be president, and polls indicate that they haven’t wavered in their enthusiasm for President Trump and the GOP despite the opinion of a growing majority of Americans that, because of his “many scandals after only one year as president” and because of his “manifest unfitness for high office, Mr. Trump is easily the worst president in U.S. history,” as one national poll concluded.

This has led political scientists and pollsters to wonder why Mr. Trump can still count on his base of evangelical Christians even though his behaviour is obviously unchristian. According to the president’s many critics, his mendacity, sexism, racism, bigotry, narcissism, and personal wealth all indicate that Donald Trump has no interest in even appearing to care about the Christian message, and yet the most vocal American Christians flock to Trump and to the Republican Party, which has so far shielded Mr. Trump from impeachment proceedings. 

Mr. Birdbrain, a televangelist in Kentucky and author of 4,012 books on evangelical Christianity, held a press conference in which he announced that he believes evangelicals support Donald Trump precisely because they think he’s “not just a God-awful president and an abysmal human being,” but “the Antichrist in the flesh.”

When asked why so many supposedly earnest Christians would intentionally cheer for the Antichrist, whereas the New Testament is widely interpreted as preferring Christ to Satan’s earthly representative, Mr. Birdbrain said, “The Antichrist is close enough. I mean, we’ve been waiting a long, long time for Jesus Christ to return. It’s been over two thousand years and the Bible says he was supposed to come back before the first generation of his followers died. He’s evidently been delayed, to say the least, and many Christians now are getting impatient.

“So when we see the Antichrist, Donald Trump, in our very midst we figure, well, it’s only four letters away from ‘Christ,’ right? You take away the ‘anti’ and lo and behold, you’ve got the Christ. We’ve been waiting too long and Antichrist is close enough to Christ. That’s why Trump has my unconditional support and I know I speak for tens of thousands of my evangelical congregants.”

Leon Birdbrain went on to explain that he wears an upside down cross around his neck for similar reasons. “Once again, it’s simple: it’s close enough. You just turn the cross around 180 degrees and you’ve got the old-time cross, so I’m still in God’s good graces.”

According to Mr. Birdbrain, if President Trump does manage to destroy the planet, “it will be close enough. Christians have been waiting a long time for God to destroy human civilization to install his divine kingdom, so if the Antichrist accomplishes that in God’s absence, because of whatever’s been delaying Jesus Christ for so long, evangelicals will be fine with that. Either way, we’ll have a wrecked planet, so what’s the difference who pulls the trigger? Hopefully at that point God will finally step in to fix things and everything will be good as new. Like Satan, the Antichrist is being used by God anyway, so it’s all good.

“You can worship Christ or the Antichrist. You say ‘tomayto,’ I say ‘tomawto.’”

Monday, January 8, 2018

Is Jesus Lord or Legend?

Tom Gilson, “a Christian strategy and communication specialist,” according to his Amazon webpage, formerly with the Campus Crusade for Christ (now called “Cru” to avoid the connotations of “crusade”) and Ratio Christi has an article out in a Christian journal called Touchstone. The article extends C.S. Lewis’s infamous Trilemma Argument, which Lewis intended as a rebuttal of the liberal view that you can admire Jesus’s moral caliber but deny Jesus’s divinity. That’s a non-starter, according to Lewis, because Jesus called himself divine. Thus, there are only three options: you either have to grant that Jesus was who he said he was, namely God, in which case you become a Christian, or you must condemn Jesus as a devil or a crackpot, that is, as a liar or a lunatic. You can’t have it both ways and accept some of what Jesus says (his moral teachings) while rejecting other parts of the gospel narratives (the parts where he indicates that he’s God).

Except that of course you can do that. Lewis seems to have forgotten that those who deny the Christian claim that Jesus was God naturally aren’t going to accept the Bible as God’s inerrant Word. Indeed, over the last two centuries, critical as opposed to dogmatic Bible scholars have shown how the legend of Jesus’s divinity would have built up over the decades after his death, such that the moral teachings in the gospels might go back to an historical Jesus while the more radical theological statements would have been added later by the early followers who were struggling to understand how their dear messiah could have been executed on the cross as a common criminal.

Gilson’s Argument against the Legend Hypothesis

Gilson’s argument is meant to shut down this “Legend” response to Lewis’s Trilemma. So Gilson argues that the early Christians couldn’t have invented the whole character of Jesus, that is, the character of someone who is perfectly moral (selfless, self-sacrificial, and other-directed) and perfectly powerful. Jesus’s sacrifice was “unique” and incomparable, according to Gilson, because Jesus sacrificed himself intentionally and from the very beginning, before his human incarnation, according to Philippians 2. Moreover, says Gilson, Jesus never used his supernatural power to benefit himself. Instead, his moral character is shown in how he laid aside his divine powers to sacrifice himself and save humanity from certain death (due to our original sin which forces God’s hand on Judgment Day). “By perfection,” writes Gilson, “I mean that there is no flaw in the consistency of the storyline, with respect to Jesus never using his power for his personal benefit.”

This is supposed to show how unlikely it was that the gospel writers invented Jesus’s character out of nothing, because everyone knows that power corrupts, so Jesus’s heroism is extremely counterintuitive. The gospel writers must have been Shakespearean geniuses to have conceived of such a fictional character. And Gilson doesn’t scruple about positing four separate gospel authors, to make the fiction seem all the more miraculous, as if the fiction had to have been created four times. Gilson acknowledges that “For the Gospel authors to have produced generally compatible pictures of Jesus would be no surprise: we can certainly assume that they worked interdependently, borrowing sources from each other, relying on common tradition, and so on. In the end, though, they all worked independently to some degree, and yet they all produced a character of unparalleled power and self-sacrifice, with no mar or imperfection of any sort.” Still, Gilson says that if Jesus were a fiction, “all four sources just happened to come up with a character of moral excellence beyond any other in all history or human imagination” (my emphasis). That’s contradictory, so Gilson is trying to have it both ways. If the synoptic gospels are interdependent, which they are, it was no accident that those gospels so closely resemble each other. They didn’t “just happen” to retain Jesus’s character. Luke and Matthew read it in Mark, and John’s likely independence explains why Jesus’s character in that later gospel is so different from the Jesus of the synoptic narratives. Whereas the synoptics are muted about Jesus’s divine role, in John Jesus is much more open and verbose about his relationship to the Father.

Gilson next shows how unlikely it would have been for the fiction to have developed by something like the Broken Telephone game, to have been orally transmitted before it was written down, and for the early Christian writers to have been motivated by the human need to avoid cognitive dissonance. According to Gilson, if the gospel narrative developed by word of mouth, adding distortions over time, we can’t say that the narrative developed in a “community of faith,” that is, within group of believers who were interested more in protecting their religious faith than in getting at the historical truth like Sherlock Holmes.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Clash of Worldviews: The Sexual Harassment Epidemic

MODERATOR: Good evening, viewers, and welcome to another edition of Clash of Worldviews, the show that interrupts the consumerist propaganda to present you with a discussion of philosophical issues of interest mainly to alienated cynics who surrender their capacity for happiness for a slender chance at enlightenment.

Tonight we have with us Queeneta Woods, noted African-American lesbian progressive feminist, and Fred Gulpa, the radical alt right blogger, and they’re here to discuss the wave of sexual misconduct allegations that appears to be cleansing American culture, especially its entertainment industry. Queeneta, have you been surprised by these allegations that dozens of mostly older male Hollywood executives and actors have sexually harassed or abused women in the industry?

QUEENETA: I’m not surprised that so much misconduct has occurred, but for some of it to come out all at once is unexpected. We need to listen to women who have the courage to come forward not only to accuse their abusers but to stand against the patriarchal society that’s made excuses for this exploitation, because the abusers’ professional work happens to be profitable for their company. Women have been sacrificed on the altar of private profit, and it’s a wonder when morality takes center stage.

FRED: When you say the women should be “heard,” is that just a euphemism for saying that they should be automatically believed? Is it possible for a woman to make up a crime out of jealousy or to seek petty revenge against a man after their relationship didn’t pan out? Or are women always right and men always wrong because of patriarchy?

QUEENETA: Those deflationary scenarios are logically possible but unlikely, because American society is indeed patriarchal. Men are in charge, power corrupts, and so men tend to abuse women when they can, not the other way around. Sorry if the truth offends your masculine sense of entitlement, but the days of white male supremacy are numbered.

FRED: Isn’t it a little early for you to be contradicting yourself, Queeneta? If our days are numbered and women are coming out of the woodwork with charges of male sexual abuse, how can this also be a patriarchal society as opposed to a fading, postmodern nanny state for spoiled sentimentalists?

QUEENETA: The women who have publicly named their abusers are only the tip of the iceberg. The abuse happens in all businesses and even in ordinary households whenever a man feels entitled to dominate a woman.

FRED: Just for the record, you’re not religious, are you? I mean, you don’t believe there’s any God, afterlife, immortal spirit, or anything like that?

QUEENETA: Of course not. Those are elements of ancient patriarchal myths that have been instrumental in oppressing women by rationalizing the economic inequalities that benefit the male theocrats that supposedly represent their gods.

FRED: Right, so how could the prevention of social domination even be possible? Why shouldn’t we expect only cause and effect, force and submission in social relationships? Where is there room for freedom anywhere in nature?

QUEENETA: What are you talking about?

FRED: You said power corrupts, men have the power, and so they’re dominating women, and you want that to stop. But to what end? You can’t be against domination in general, since that would require an appeal to the supernatural. No, you just want the domination to switch directions: you want women to start dominating men, which is just what’s happening in our feminized, late-modern society. 

Monday, January 1, 2018

Surgeons are Heroic for facing Blood and Guts without Puking, says Surgeon

Dateline: WHYNOT, NC—Surgeons are responding to the criticism that they’re vain and overpaid, by asking the critics how they would like it being elbow-deep in blood and guts.

“Most jobs involve manual labor or typing away on a computer,” said Lance Falcon, chief surgeon at Gory Hospital in Whynot, North Carolina. “Few have to face the horror of blood and guts on a daily basis like a surgeon. Even soldiers kill rarely and usually from a distance, as they look down the barrel of their gun.

“But a surgeon has to behold the appalling spectacles of pulsating human organs and gallons of blood, and to withstand the revolting stenches of the body’s interior which would make the average person vomit at first contact.

“How would you like to have your hands deep inside a disgusting pile of guts and to know that one wrong knick with the scalpel can kill the patient?”

According to Doctor Falcon, a heroic personality is needed to stomach a surgeon’s duties, which not only justifies the surgeon’s lavish pay, but explains his or her typical arrogance and smugness.

“Doctors are jerks,” said Milly Milton, a housewife who was rushed to the hospital in 2013 when she broke her arm in a horrific book-reading accident.

“The doctors that saw me were aloof and condescending. They all have perfect physiques and they’re handsome and brilliant to boot. And of course they’re rich, so it’s doubly sickening to have to go to the hospital. First of all, you’re injured, so you’re in pain. Second, you’ve got to endure the presence of doctors with their off-putting God complexes.

“That’s why a hospital might as well be a haunted house in hell. It’s a nightmare knowing that the only way to heal your wound or to cure your illness is to go through this infuriating gatekeeper of health, this smart, handsome, rich guy who lords it over you, letting you know that if you’re lucky he’ll deign to give you a couple minutes of his precious time to fix your arm. The average male doctor is a model of human perfection, setting aside his personality disorder; it’s like he’s sucked up all the physical health, beauty, intelligence, and riches in the world and he begrudgingly returns a portion of health, at least, to his patients.”

Doctor Falcon was Miss Milton’s lead doctor.

“Milly may complain about my demeanor,” he said, “but how would you like to have this stranger come into your place or work, her arm all gross and mangled like she’s some slaughtered character in a horror movie? How would you like having to inspect that shattered arm, the bone shards peeking through the torn skin, the blood dripping all over the place?

“Would you be able to take those mutilated fragments of arm in your hands and join them back together good as new, without fainting or throwing up or collapsing in terror from such a proof that we’re all worm food in the end?”

Whereas critics like Miss Milton wonder why doctors can’t just treat the injury or illness “without being a dick about it,” Doctor Falcon maintains that doctors develop a pompous, disdainful personality like a thick skin or suit of armor, to withstand their “daily parade of blood and guts.”

However, the irony that modern healers tend to inadvertently abuse their patients with their galling egotism may be short-lived, according to economists.

“Computers and robots are coming for those white collar jobs, just as they’re taking over the blue-collar ones,” said Wallace Poindexter, pseudoscientist at the Bean Counter Institute in Anchorage, Alaska. “More and more diagnoses and even operations are handled by machines without the need of human intervention. As artificial intelligence is improved, robots will be able to perform even complex surgeries, making adjustments as complications arise.”

Of course, robots aren’t sickened by the prospect of being covered by a stranger’s blood and guts, and assuming that robotic surgeons can be programmed not to fear the existential implications of the human body’s fragility, they might one day replace human surgeons and save both patients and human doctors from their respective burdens.

Miss Milton, however, is skeptical. “Whose bedside manner would be worse, that of an arrogant prick of a male surgeon or of a cold and calculating, inhuman machine? I’ll have to ponder that one, because the answer is far from obvious.”