Monday, December 31, 2007

Sunt Lacrimae Rerum

I've just returned from a trip to the American Philosophical Association's annual meeting in Baltimore, where I served as a member of a search committee. We interviewed candidates for a new faculty position in the philosophy department at Ohio University. It was exciting to get to talk to some of the best and brightest up-and-coming young philosophers, but the excitement was tempered by the fact that, in the end, there is only one job to offer and some people are going to go home still looking for work.

But that wasn't the only thought tempering the excitement. The other excitement-tempering thought is a moronic administrative decree that constrains all employment searches at Ohio University. Check it out:
For full-time presidential appointments, there must be at least one candidate from an underrepresented group in each interview pool or the search will not be approved by the Dean, Vice President or planning unit head.
The expression "full-time presidential appointment" is just administrativese for any job that the president of the university has to approve before the hire is finalized, and as such it includes all new faculty hires. So the policy defined above requires that any and every faculty search must include a minority candidate, regardless of said candidate's qualifications relative to other candidates in the pool.

To see how idiotic this policy is, just imagine a candidate pool that consists of, say, 20 applicants. Imagine that three or four of the applicants are from "underrepresented group[s]". Imagine that, of these 20 applicants, you can only bring three or four to your campus for detailed interviews. Now imagine that the top three or four candidates are all white men. Suppose that the three or four minority candidates are all at the bottom of the pool in terms of qualifications for the job. The policy requires that you bring at least one of them to campus anyway, even though you know full well that you have no intention of hiring any of them.

This is not only a remarkably stupid policy, it is a cruel and immoral one as well. When one brings a candidate to campus for an interview, one must treat them like any other candidate: taking them to dinner, talking to them about their work, listening to their lecture, inviting them to teach a class, introducing them to the whole department and to the dean, giving them a tour of the town, etc. All the while it is entirely possible that the candidate will assume that there is a reasonable possibility of obtaining the job, and some candidates may even begin to make provisional plans about the future. And yet the whole thing is a sham, one that the candidate can never be privy to, for if you told the candidate the truth, said candidate would never accept any invitation to campus. If the candidate knew that it was a complete and utter waste of time and effort (not to mention money--the candidates and the department both incur rather substantial monetary losses during this process), surely the candidate would seek employment elsewhere. Indeed, any sane candidate would avoid accepting employment in an institution with such misguided and unethical administrative procedures.

Now it is, of course, fully possible that some minority candidate will be among the top three or four candidates, in which case the minority candidate will be invited to campus without any compulsion or coercion being applied to the hiring unit. That administrators think otherwise is further evidence of the banality of the administrative mind, and its prejudice and bigotry as well, since to put in place a policy that requires people to do what they ordinarily would do as a matter of course is to assume that people will do the wrong thing unless required to do the right thing on pain of punishment. Such paternalism would ordinarily be rightly shunned in academia, but for some reason it is endemic among certain university administrations.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Pain Before Pleasure

There are two formative events having to do with color vision that I can remember from my childhood. The first is the fact that my family did not own a color TV until 1966, and so we would make an annual trek over to the house of my aunt and uncle who did own one so that I could watch The Wizard of Oz in color (at least those parts of it that are actually in color). Not that there's anything wrong with that! The other event was my reading, in the fall of 1968, a wonderful science fiction book for children called The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey. In this book the eponymous hero chronicles his journey of self-discovery as he runs away in search of the boy who had previously owned him. What struck me the most about the story when I was a kid, and the only part of it that I can still remember today, is the fact that this robot began the book with black-and-white vision, but at about the mid-point of the story he gets a color-vision camera installed in his head so that he can see in color. I'm not sure a book like this could be published today, for reasons that I will describe below.

Philosophically these two things have little in common. Indeed, they don't have much to do with philosophy either, really, but they put me in mind of the problem of qualia, particularly with respect to colors. When watching The Wizard of Oz I was always blown away when Dorothy got to Oz and everything was suddenly in beautiful, sickeningly over-saturated Technicolor. It was like walking out of the Shadowlands into Reality. And then, just two years after getting color TV myself, I read the story about the robot who finally got to see colors and I constantly tried to imagine what it must have been like to make that transition. (Shades of Frank Jackson [see Journal of Philosophy 83 (1986) 291-295].) Aristotle, famously, at the very beginning of his treatise on metaphysics, noted that vision is the most precious of our sensory modalities, and I have sometimes thought that color vision is a particularly delightful manifestation of that specific modality. I have no idea what it would be like to see, for example, the wavelengths of light that a bee can detect, but after my rather chromatically eventful childhood I think I can say with some confidence that I would rather see in color than in black and white. Perhaps it is really true, as some have averred, that one learns to appreciate something all the more when one comes to be familiar with the privation of the thing (more dreck from my childhood: "they've paved paradise, put up a parking lot...you don't know what you've got till it's gone", etc.). I have no particular reason to envy the bee her capacity to find flowers by detecting the ultraviolet light reflected from them; having never experienced such a thing I am unable to feel the privation. But if I were to wake up tomorrow morning seeing what Dorothy saw in Kansas in The Wizard of Oz, I would be heartbroken.

I have been put in mind of all this by two separate episodes. First, there is this marvelous post from Fr. Al Kimel at his quasi-moribund site, Pontifications. There he writes of the contrast that he feels between good and evil, and the intensity of that contrast leads him to reject the Augustinian predestination that has come to dominate Reformed theology in particular but certain elements of orthodox theology (though perhaps not Orthodox theology) as well. And he speaks directly to my heart of hearts when he writes:
There are many days, too many days, when I do not know if I believe in God, when I do not know if God exists. But I do know whom I struggle to believe. He is the God made known in Jesus Christ. He is the God who is a holy communion of absolute love and gladness. He is the God who searches for the one lost sheep and upon finding it hoists it upon his shoulder and restores it to the flock. He is the God who turns his house upside down until he finds the one silver coin he has lost. He is the God who was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our inquities; by his stripes we are healed. This is the only God worthy of our belief. This is the only God deserving of our faith and adoration.
When I read that, I nearly wept. I am so there with him. Some may worry that this will lead to the universalism von Balthasar is sometimes accused of endorsing. If God is so all-forgiving, why do Christians tremble? Fr. Kimel answers with gimlet clarity:
I do not fear the God who is Holy Trinity. I fear my own freedom to turn from this God, to hide myself in an impenetrable egotism and despair which will forever close me to the roar of his love. I fear that my self-will will ultimately triumph over my desire for the supreme and ultimate Good. I fear that I am becoming, have become, a person who declares to infinite Love, “My will, not thine, be done.” I fear also the purifying suffering that I must endure, both in this life and beyond, to free me from my bondage to self and the goods of this world. But I do not fear the God of Jesus Christ. I know that if God does truly exist, then at the moment of my death he will meet me as the Crucified, still bearing the marks of his sacrifice on his hands. Judge and Judged, Priest and Victim, absolver of sins and victor over death—to this Jesus I entrust my future; to his Father I commend my spirit.
To see how all of this is connected to how I began--to color vision, privation, and, of course, my title--I turn now to the second recent episode that got me to thinking along these lines.

I happened to remark recently to an old friend that I always put off getting a Christmas tree until 17 December. Sometimes this is just a matter of chance--sometimes I just don't get around to getting one until then. But even when I think of it earlier, I still put it off, and my friend asked why. I answered that I like to keep Advent and Christmas distinct. Her response: "Why do you like to keep Advent and Christmas distinct? Pain before pleasure?" I was struck by her question. I don't really think of Advent as a season of pain, though it is indeed a season of penitence. So my initial reaction was to reject the question as not well-formed. I thought of saying something along the lines of "come now, Advent is a season of preparation, not of pain, we make use of it to give ourselves time to ponder the great mystery of the Incarnation, and the reasons why the Incarnation was necessary." But as soon as I thought it, I realized I could not say it, because the word "necessary" reminded me that things could have been different had humankind made a different choice. Although Advent is not a time of "pain before pleasure", there is certainly a kind of mental anguish that is rightly associated with the regret we all ought to feel over the tendency, so eloquently described by Fr. Al, that humankind exhibits, to choose wrongly. This mental anguish is only just balanced by what we have gained in return: our "happy fault", the "necessary sin of Adam" has gained for us a Redeemer beyond our wildest expectations. But, as Galadriel warned the Fellowship, our "Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all. Yet hope remains while all the Company is true."

We are in a rather wonderful position: we are fully aware of just what it means to be standing upon the edge of a knife. If we were not acquainted with sin at all--if humankind never chose wrongly--we would have no more sense of the value of staying true than we have of what it would be like to perceive ultraviolet light. Don't get me wrong--we might have some sense of it. Even though I do not possess any gold coins, I can certainly imagine the value of having some. I do not want to make a rather elementary mistake here, a mistake that my students often make. Some of my students insist that Good could not exist without Evil; when I ask them why, they always answer an ontological question with an epistemological answer--they always say that we would never be able to recognize the Good if there were no Evil with which to contrast it. I know that my own readers are far too sophisticated to make this mistake--it should be obvious that the Good can exist in the absence of any and all evil, since God existed before anything else did and he is perfect Goodness. Whether or not it is possible to comprehend what the Good is without first (or also) comprehending what Evil is is irrelevant to the ontological question, but it is an interesting question in its own right: if we had never experienced Evil, we may very well know what the Good is (since we would be experiencing it directly), but is it possible that we would fall short, somehow, of fully and completely understanding just how good the Good is? Is it at all possible that we have a more thorough appreciation for God's perfect Goodness just insofar as we ourselves fall short of it? Is our experience of God more like Dorothy's experience of Oz or more like Dorothy's experience of Kansas, and how would we ever be able to know the difference if we had not experienced both? If it is really true that I appreciate color vision more because I can imagine what it would be like to see only in black and white, then perhaps it is possible to appreciate God's loving kindness more if one has some idea of what it would be like to turn away from that loving kindness. My daughter, who was born in 2001, had never seen any black and white images until I showed her a DVD of The Wizard of Oz. She was startled and a little disturbed by the Kansas scenes at the beginning of the film and, interestingly, she didn't even know what to call them, how to describe them. She asked me "Why is it...it's all...why is it like that?" I'm not sure what she would make of The Runaway Robot, in which a reader must try to imagine the difference between black and white and color, but the author clearly expects his reader to be able to imagine just such a thing on the basis of some sort of experience of the two.

I have begun to suspect that we have an instance here of God's divine providence. I quoted from The Lord of the Rings above, but really the more appropriate text from that author here would be the AinulindalĂ«, in which Eru effects a transformation of the musical theme that results in Melkor's malicious interference having, in the end, an effect Melkor did not intend, an effect that was ultimately good. God knew, before we fell, that we would fall; but although the fall itself is not a good thing, a good thing came of it: we got to see God literally face to face in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and we got to experience God's love in more ways than we would have been able to experience it had we not fallen. If we had not fallen, we would never have experienced God's mercy, his compassion, his forgiveness, nor would we have witnessed his example of abandonment of self in the service of others. Though we are worse off, in one sense, for having fallen, we are better off, in another sense, for if we "remain true" we are blessed (makarioi hoi katharoi tĂȘi kardiai), and will see God.

So I do not say that Advent is "Pain before pleasure"; rather, I say that Advent is the pain that makes the pleasure more clear, more present. We sing, at the Easter Vigil, of the "necessary sin of Adam"; Adam's sin was not "necessary" in any deterministic, Predestinarian sense. It was necessary in a wonderful and good sense: necessary in the sense that, without it, we would not have needed the Incarnation. Just as Plato, in the Gorgias described pleasure as the process of satisfying a privation, I suggest that God's love is the more clearly seen and appreciated by the person who has turned away from it and experienced the sorrow and desolation of sin and then turned back to God in repentance. This is not to say that one ought to turn away from God in order to experience his love more intensely! Far from it! St. Paul was already warning against this idea in his letter to the Romans: it would be wrong to sin all the more that grace might abound. Rather, the intensity of spiritual feeling experienced by the penitent is the good that God can bring out of the evil that we do when we turn away from him, it is his transformation of our disharmonious themes into ever more beautiful music.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The No. 1 Lady Amazon Book Reviewer

That would be "Harriet Klausner", who has written (so Amazon.com claims) 15,358 book reviews for Amazon.com since 22 November 1999. That's an average of 5.2 book reviews per day, by the way, which makes Harriet Klausner either one of the most prolific readers on the planet or else one of the most thinly disguised marketing strategies ever designed by the pulp-fiction industry. And she's not just the No. 1 Lady Amazon Book Reviewer, she's the No. 1 Reviewer overall, her next closest competitor being "Lawrance M. Bernabo", with 6666 reviews written since 30 August 2000 (a mere 2.5 book reviews per day).

I'm shocked--shocked!--to find that some of the writers of comments to "Harriet Klausner's" reviews suspect that she is either not a real person, or not a single person, or just a bored librarian banally copying blurbs off the backs of third-rate detective novels as they come in to her library (the vast majority of her reviews are of detective novels, and her average rating is five stars). Imagine Amazon.com doing a thing like that, just to help publishers sell books. It's downright...commercial!

Full disclosure: "Harriet Klausner" did not actually review The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. Too bad: if she had, I'm sure she would have given it a well-deserved five stars.

Oh, and I am Reviewer number 45,693.

Ouch.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Utter Collapse of American Civilization

From today's New York Times:
None of the leading presidential candidates majored in Latin. Hillary Clinton studied political science at Wellesley, as did Barack Obama at Columbia. Rudy Giuliani had a minor brush with the language during four years of theology at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn when he toyed with becoming a priest. But then he went on to major in guess what? Political science.

How things have changed since the founding fathers.

Of the 7,000 books originally in Thomas Jefferson’s library, only a couple of dozen are still at Monticello. The rest were sold off by his descendants, and eventually bought back by the Library of Congress. The best-thumbed of those remaining — on a glassed-in shelf in Jefferson’s study — is a copy of Virgil’s “Aeneid.”

Jefferson started learning Latin and Greek at age 9 at a school in Virginia run by a Scottish clergyman. When he was at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, a Greek grammar book was always by his side. Tacitus and Homer were his favorites.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Bringing Out the Big Guns

If you thought that the arguments of such intellectuals as Danniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins were the biggest threat to the rational status of religious belief, you've been reading the wrong books. Those guys are kindergarteners compared to this guy.

With brainiacs like him arrayed against us, what's there to worry about?