Wednesday, July 30, 2008

God's third party

The most poorly understood philosophy about God is pantheism. To pantheists, God isn't the creator of the universe, God is the universe. To other people, this sounds more like a semantic trick than a coherent philosophy, as if pantheists are simply calling the universe by a different name, without making any unique statements about reality.

Curiously, many self-described pantheists almost seem to agree with that characterization of their beliefs., for example, approves of Richard Dawkins's description of pantheism as "sexed-up atheism." According to the website, "our beliefs are entirely naturalistic, and compatible with atheism, humanism and naturalism. Also with those forms of paganism that see magic and the gods as symbols rather than realities."

Hard-nosed skeptics find pantheism infuriating. They don't know how to deal with a system that renders proof irrelevant. Not that all traditional theists claim their beliefs are provable. But the statement "God exists" at least qualifies as a truth claim. The statement "God is the universe," on the other hand, merely redefines God as something which even atheists admit exists. Yet a fellow blogger makes a strong case that pantheism and atheism do in fact differ in their beliefs about reality:
The major difference lies in the appreciation for existence. What is existence really? Is it some random backdrop in which we find ourselves or is it an integral part of who and what we are?

Pantheists are generally philosophical Monists [who believe that] everything is 'one thing' and all comes from the same source. All things within the universe are interconnected....

The ultimate difference lies in what each side considers the basic substance of the universe to be like. The atheist conceives of nothing but subatomic particles whizzing about or random quantum fluctuations while the pantheist imagines a fundamental well-structured ground of being.
In practice, there is a fine line between pantheism and the views of traditional believers. Western forms of mysticism have challenged the simple assertion that "God exists." To the mystics, God is beyond existence in the usual sense. Many of them have come to think of God as the totality of everything, including, but not limited to, the universe. This view is called panentheism. It's pantheism with an extra syllable, which apparently makes all the difference as to whether it's acceptable to mainstream Judaism and Christianity.

The raison d'être of pantheism concerns two interrelated questions about the universe. Why does anything exist? And why is the universe that does exist capable of producing conscious beings--in effect, becoming aware of itself? Theistic philosopher Roger Scruton ponders this second question in a recent essay:
Dawkins writes as though the theory of the selfish gene puts paid once and for all to the idea of a creator God -- we no longer need that hypothesis to explain how we came to be. In a sense that is true. But what about the gene itself: how did that come to be? What about the primordial soup? All these questions are answered, of course, by going one step further down the chain of causation. But at each step we encounter a world with a singular quality: namely that it is a world which, left to itself, will produce conscious beings, able to look for the reason and the meaning of things, and not just for the cause. The astonishing thing about our universe, that it contains consciousness, judgement, the knowledge of right and wrong, and all the other things that make the human condition so singular, is not rendered less astonishing by the hypothesis that this state of affairs emerged over time from other conditions. If true, that merely shows us how astonishing those other conditions were. The gene and the soup cannot be less astonishing than their product.
Since atheists have no answer to the question of why anything exists, all they can do is neutralize it by asking "Who created God?" But the idea of an uncreated Creator as the conscious source of everything raises fewer questions than the idea of an uncreated universe which happens to have the properties needed to become conscious of itself.

It's no wonder so many atheists fall back on the hypothesis of multiple universes, even though an infinity of time and space in which anything can happen is little different in effect from an infinite Creator. Others pretend the question isn't objectively meaningful. "The world exists because it exists," they say, and they go on to suggest that our ability to come up with such questions must have evolved in our primitive ancestors.

That's a major point of divergence from pantheism, which attempts, however imperfectly, to bridge the gap between theism and atheism. Its tenets superficially resemble those of atheism, but it has a greater appreciation for the mystery of existence. The consequence of viewing existence as one interconnected whole, of which conscious beings that can reflect on the matter are an integral part, and not just a byproduct, is subtle but real.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Apt author

A woman once told Stephen King that she enjoyed his anthology Skeleton Crew but skipped the section where he explained how he came up with the stories. "I'm one of those people," she said, "who don't want to know how the magician does his tricks." Recalling the experience later, King remarked, "I am not a magician and these are not tricks." (Nightmares and Dreamscapes, p. 675)

I suspect many authors would disagree. But it speaks volumes about King's outlook, a key reason he's one of my favorite writers. I went through a phase reading rival fear-meister Dean Koontz before I realized he was all technique and no soul. With King, I'm barely conscious of technique even though his books are more powerful than Koontz's.

These thoughts came back to me recently as I read "Apt Pupil" from Different Seasons, a collection of novellas with a more serious bent than his horror fiction. Three of the novellas have been made into movies, two of them quite excellent: Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption. But I never got around to reading "Apt Pupil," partly because of the unfavorable reviews the movie received, and partly because I doubted King could handle a subject as weighty as the Holocaust.

I am pleased to report that "Apt Pupil" brought into focus all the things I admire about King: his vivid imagination, his sharp attention to detail, his perverse sense of humor, and his mastery at crafting a battle of wills between two characters. But I was also impressed that he tackled material this challenging. He not only had to present a believable Nazi, he also had to confront the question of what makes people evil, all the while telling a compelling story about two unsympathetic characters surrounded by idiots.

The story is set in the 1970s. A pampered suburban youth named Todd Bowden discovers that an elderly neighbor of his is an escaped Nazi commandant named Kurt Dussander. Instead of turning him in, Todd blackmails him into recounting his hideous crimes. Todd once did a research paper on the camps and greatly impressed his teachers, who don't realize he is fascinated by the subject for all the wrong reasons.

The story tempts us to ask which character is more evil. Though Dussander has done worse things than almost any human being alive, Todd has ghastly potential. King depicts both characters as lacking in guilt but filled with fear, haunted by the threat of exposure. Dussander, unlike Todd, rationalizes his actions, giving the standard line about having been just following orders. Todd is simply a sneaky bully who puts on a public face of being a nice, well-adjusted kid.

Even I, a grandson of Holocaust survivors, almost found myself rooting for Dussander. He's smarter and more charming than the boy, and since he begins the story as victim, I had to marvel at the way he maneuvers the situation and turns it to his advantage. It is easy to forget that his cold rationality is in many ways more frightening than Todd's sick perversion. King exploits this deceptive quality of fiction by not letting us get to know any of Dussander's victims until late in the story.

Another question left unanswered is how much Todd's descent into violence is influenced by Dussander. He might have become that way on his own, but we can't be sure. His most obvious internal change surfaces when he privately rationalizes his lack of attraction to his girlfriend by thinking she must be secretly Jewish. (The real reason is that he has violent homoerotic fantasies which take the place of ordinary sexual feelings.) Did he get his anti-Semitism from Dussander, or was it there to begin with? His liberal parents show no signs of prejudice but are trapped in a world of empty platitudes that keep them from seeing what's in front of them. Joseph Reino's book Stephen King (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1988) explains:
King is not saying that benign and "liberating" clichés are inherently wrong or that they cause Todd's inclination toward social misbehavior. Rather, his gothic perspective is that benevolent philosophies, reduced to thoughtless aphorisms and innocuous clichés, are utterly powerless against the boy's adamantine malevolence. (p. 123)
There are political overtones to the story, set at the end of the Vietnam War. Dussander defends himself by accusing America of hypocrisy: "The GI soldiers who kill the innocent are decorated by Presidents, welcomed home from the bayoneting of children and the burning of hospitals with parades and bunting.... Only those who lose are tried as war criminals for following orders and directives" (p. 130). Here and elsewhere, King hints at the idea that Americans tend to have a sense of incomprehension at evils committed by other countries yet fail to see the parallels when the evil is homegrown.

The introspective nature of the story may help explain why the movie (set in the 1980s) didn't work. Ian McKellen gives a fine performance as the aging Nazi, and some of the early scenes are very effective. But the movie quickly becomes artificial, contrived, and tasteless--all the qualities I worried the novella would exhibit.

The problems are various. The process of abridging the plot for screen time makes certain elements seem arbitrary. The racial aspects of Nazism are largely ignored. Most significantly, the film softens the character of Todd, depicting him more as a confused kid who gets in over his head than as an unrelenting psychopath. This change leads the movie to have a very different ending than in the novella.

I suppose the producers felt that audiences needed to be able to relate to the young protagonist, but it creates an imbalance that obscures the story's message about the nature of evil. The film can't even decide what exactly Todd and Dussander are guilty of doing. There are several confusing scenes that leave us unsure whether the two have been murdering animals or simply imagining doing so.

I had the feeling the filmmakers were interpreting the novella as a typical horror story because it was written by Stephen King. They underestimated the source material, a thoughtful fable with something valuable to say about the world. King applied his talents as an entertainer to a subject requiring more depth, and he would not have succeeded if he were merely a magician doing tricks.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The chicken-and-egg of language

Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist involved in research into the human mind, but he is also an unabashed popularizer whose books are full of pop culture references (especially comic strips). Apart from a few tedious sections, The Stuff of Thought: Language As a Window into Human Nature (recommended to me by a fellow blogger who merely read an article about it) is one of his best books. It applies a scientific perspective to a favorite subject of mine, the relationship between language and thought. But it does it with style, exploring a range of Americana from the semantics of Bill Clinton's lies (a topic that has already received far more attention than it deserves) to the grammar of profanity. I find the following hard to read without smiling:
Woody Allen's joke about telling a driver to be fruitful and multiply but not in those words assumes that Fuck you is a second-person imperative.... But Quang makes short work of this theory. For one thing, in a second-person imperative the pronoun has to be yourself, not you--Madonna's hit song was titled "Express Yourself," not "Express You." For another, true imperatives like Close the door can be embedded in a number of other constructions:

I said to close the door.
Don't close the door.
Go close the door.
Close the door or I'll take away your cookies.
Close the door and turn off the light.
Close the door when you leave tonight.

But Fuck you cannot:

*I said to fuck you.
*Don't fuck you.
*Go fuck you.
*Fuck you or I'll take away your cookies.
*Fuck you and turn off the light.
*Fuck you when you leave tonight.
(pp. 362-3)
The book's overarching theme is how the human mind influences the structure of language. Like most linguists, Pinker largely dismisses the notion that the influence goes the other way. That notion is the basis of the controversial Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which predicts, for example, that if you grew up speaking a language like Hopi, which lacks verb tenses, you would end up with a different perception of time than if you grew up speaking a language like English.

Pinker discusses some of the alleged evidence for this hypothesis before disposing of it. For example, one Mayan language has no words for left and right. The speakers orient themselves using the mountain slope where they live, with the words "upslope" and "downslope" corresponding roughly with south and north, respectively. Researchers found that the speakers have trouble distinguishing left from right but can locate north and south after having been spun around blindfolded while indoors!

Pinker spoils the picture by revealing that another Mayan people with the same aptitudes does have words for left and right. Apparently, since both groups spend most of their lives outdoors, they have a stronger sense of north and south than we do but little use for the concept of left and right. The absence of those words from the language of one group is an effect, not a cause, of the group's traits.

Distinguishing cause and effect is the subject of the book's most fascinating chapter, where Pinker explains how the whole concept of causality, so central to our common experience, is tantalizingly hard to define. We perceive the flow of time as consisting of nothing but causes and effects, and this intuition is deeply entrenched in language. But "the world is not a line of dominoes in which each event causes exactly one event.... The world is a tissue of causes and effects that criss and cross in tangled patterns" (p. 215). The challenge of identifying which causes are most relevant and guessing what would have happened if not for certain events--effectively imagining an alternate universe--underlies everything from scientific knowledge to moral responsibility.

One of his examples is President Garfield's assassin, who argued that "The doctors killed him; I just shot him." The wound was potentially nonfatal, but the doctors were wildly incompetent even by the standards of their day. Did this get the assassin off the hook? The jury didn't think so, and they sent him to the gallows.

A more recent example came in the aftermath of 9/11. Insurance companies were pledged to reimburse for each destructive event. But was the destruction of the Twin Towers one event or two? This question held billions of dollars at stake.

Questions like these are almost unanswerable because the world, contrary to our perceptions, is a continuum without clear boundaries between things. This dichotomy can be seen in the two categories of nouns, count and mass. Count nouns are words like book, which you can count: you can talk about one book, two books, etc. Mass nouns are words like jello which lack that property. You can't talk about one jello or two jellos; there's just jello.

Curiously, some mass nouns, like furniture, refer to material that should be countable. (We get around this problem by talking about "pieces of furniture.") And many nouns can perform both roles: rock is a mass noun in the sentence "The ground is made of rock" and a count noun in the sentence "I'm holding two rocks."

Speakers will occasionally transform a count noun into a mass noun by imagining that something discrete is made up of an amorphous substance. Pinker's example is the distasteful statement "After he backed up, there was cat all over the driveway." His point is that the count/mass distinction doesn't force us into any particular way of thinking, because we can escape that thinking by manipulating the language. But the distinction does reveal how we choose whether to view matter as a collection of objects or as a lump of "stuff."

I've only mentioned a fraction of what the book covers. With each topic, Pinker builds on the thesis that language reflects more than affects our minds, which can see past the constraints it imposes on us. (You might think this undercuts the point I made in my post "The cage of language," but actually I think it reinforces it.) Identifying these constraints helps us understand how we perceive the world and thus provides a way for us to transcend those perceptions.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

More bigotry chopping

[If you visited this blog Monday morning, you may have seen a post appear and disappear. What happened was that I decided to use the post as the basis for a letter to the Washington Post. I immediately received an automated email from the paper telling me several guidelines, among them that they would not publish my letter if I had posted anything similar to a website. I quickly deleted the blog post, though the paper's staff subsequently told me I could reinstate it as soon as the letter was published, and today it was. Here is the original post.]

At a 2000 conference, James Watson asserted that dark-skinned people have stronger sex drives than light-skinned people. "That's why you have Latin lovers," he said. "You've never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient." When I first read about this incident, I was sure he was jerking people's chains. Only gradually did I learn that he has a long history of defending theories linking race with behavior and intelligence. But in a recent column, Henry Louis Gates argues that Watson is not a racist but a "racialist."

I'm familiar with the term "racialist." White supremacists use it all the time to describe their own beliefs. But I've never before heard anyone in the mainstream suggest it is distinct from racism. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it was coined in the early twentieth century to describe British and South African discriminatory policies. The word racism emerged later, in reference to doctrines of the Third Reich. There was no essential difference between the two words (and according to many dictionaries, there still isn't). Racism simply became the more popular of the two.

But the meaning of racism has changed with the social climate. Few people today openly espouse racist beliefs. Instead, the perception is that racial prejudice lurks inside many people without their necessarily being consciously aware of it.

According to some observers, virtually everyone is a little racist. Blogger Julian Sanchez recently elaborated on this point: "It's the subliminal reaction of the manager looking for a new cashier who, for some reason he can't articulate, just doesn't think the minority candidate seems quite trustworthy enough." Megan McArdle considers this argument overkill: "With civil rights, we were asking people to slay dragons. Now we're asking them to spend the rest of their lives exterminating mosquitos." And it puts those accused of racism in a Catch-22 where denying the charges is practically tantamount to admitting to them. As Geoffrey Nunberg remarked, the statement "I'm not a racist" has come to sound like "I don't have any homosexual anxiety."

Not everyone takes such an extreme perspective, but most people these days do think of racism as more of a mindset than an ideology. The latter is reserved for the older term racialism. But you'd think it would still be considered at least a form of racism.

Gates, incredibly, doesn't think so. He admits that he doesn't agree with Watson: "Watson's error is that he is too eager to map individual genetic differences (which do exist) with ethnic variation (which is sociocultural and highly malleable), and to provide a genetic explanation for ethnic differences." But despite some skepticism about Watson's motives, Gates refuses to call him a "garden-variety racist."

Gates avoids the question of why Watson would be tempted by racialist theories in the first place. One of Watson's comments in particular suggests that his beliefs do not stem from science: "people who have to deal with black employees find that [the belief that everyone is equal] is not true." That's nothing more than good old-fashioned bigotry, and it refutes the idea that Watson is an openminded truth-seeker interested only in the data.

Gates writes that his conversation with Watson has reluctantly convinced him that "the idea of innate group inferiority is still on the table." But why reach that conclusion simply because a great scientist does? Has Gates examined other views? Scientists are human like the rest of us, and, in principle, just as capable of believing erroneous things as anyone else.

When I read articles like this, I begin to wonder if we've all lost sight of what racism means. When we talk about it as a defect in thought or behavior, we forget that the intellectual justification for such attitudes was once widely accepted in society. That changed for intellectual as well as moral reasons, and we ought to remember what those are.

(Note: The title of this post is taken from an earlier post of mine, which happens to converge in theme.)

Monday, July 07, 2008


Ferris Bueller says, "A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself." But nobody can totally escape -isms, not even Bueller (who is basically preaching individualism). Still, many people find something ugly about the suffix, which is why they keep adding it to words to make existing ideologies sound more ideological.

Take Islamism. It's supposed to suggest the politicized, theocratic version of Islam that has taken hold in places like Iran. Journalists have been using the term for a while now, though I'm unaware of anyone who self-identifies as an Islamist. More recently, some bloggers have begun using the term Christianist to denote the politicized Christianity of some of the more extreme evangelicals in this country. Daily Kos defines Christianism as having the following goals:
1. The establishment of a state religion. This state religion, of course, is not to promote Christianity, but rather to consolidate power in order to achieve their second goal.

2. Legislation of their repressive moral agenda. The Christianists plan to destroy the system of checks and balances in the Constitution, and they plan to do this in the name of Christianity.
A definition like that isn't likely to go very far. It shows too much contempt for what it's supposed to be defining. (What person would ever admit to promoting a "repressive moral agenda"?) You can't expect the term to catch on without at least a pretense of neutrality. Other commentators, like Andrew Sullivan, have made more eloquent attempts to define the concept. Sullivan identifies Christianism with the Christian Right and argues that the proper response is not the Christian Left but a separation between religion and politics altogether.

So far there's no comparable term to describe a politicized Judaism. Partly this is an accident of semantics, since Judaism, unlike Christianity and Islam, already ends in -ism. "Judaismism" would never work, and neither would "Jewism" or "Jewishism." One blogger proposes "Judaicism," but even he seems to realize that it probably sounds too academic to catch on. He doesn't think it's necessary, anyway, because he thinks the term Zionism already fills that slot.

The problem is that Zionism is not in any way the Jewish equivalent of Islamism or Christianism. It began as a secular movement, primarily the work of activists who didn't believe in the Torah. Even the religious variety of Zionism, far more prominent today than it was in the past, is not inherently theocratic, and some of the most theocratic Jews today don't consider themselves Zionists and are hostile to the State of Israel, at least in its current form.

Zionism, in any case, isn't a politicized form of Judaism but a political movement aimed at advancing the Jewish people. That's why you don't even have to be Jewish to be a Zionist, any more than you have to be a woman to be a feminist. Islamism and Christianism are, in contrast, intrinsically forms of the religions that precede their -isms.

In the end, our language won't allow us to create a single word to describe Judaism's more theocratic sector. Maybe that's a good thing. It prevents people from lumping together different groups, one of the more unfortunate consequences of terms like Islamism and Christianism. The real problem with -isms is not that people believe in them, but that they make separate factions seem more unified than they actually are.