Saturday, March 01, 2014

Those Pinheads Still Tantalize

Most of my close friends know that I'm pretty good at making mountains out of molehills, but I'm beginning to think that I'm something of an amateur in that department when compared to some. When I was a history major in college (yes, they did have colleges as long ago as all that, though we had to write our notes in the sand with sticks) my medieval history professor was fond of saying that most medieval theological speculation amounted to disputations about "how many angels could dance on the head of a pin". Although I'm not going to ask my alma mater for a refund of my tuition money, I found out later that the question was not about pin heads but about needle points, nor was it a genuine medieval debating point at all but a lampoon of such debates invented by Isaac D'Israeli in the 19th century (though based, no doubt, on the genuine question, posed by Saint Thomas Aquinas, whether several angels could occupy the same space at once). This is not to deny that some medieval scholars worried about some rather bizarre things. Whether Christ was a hermaphrodite, for example, or whether there be excrement in paradise, were both genuine "talking points" among medieval theologians. I am not a medieval theologian (though some who deny that I am a theologian might not be so quick to deny that I am certainly close to being medieval) but I have certainly wondered about some extremely finial details in my own line of work. In spite of some small training in languages, however, I find that grammatical questions have lost some of their luster for me. This lackluster state was brought into higher relief for me recently when I read the following comment on a friend's blog:
In Luke 18:14 we read, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” (From the parable of the publican and the pharisee.) Now what has happened here? Is the “justification” of the publican—a type for all sinners—a definitive act, or has he only entered into a process which is less than complete? If it is the latter, how do you account for the perfect tense of the participle “justified,” and indeed, what would be the point of the parable?
The question seems to be about justification: does it happen all at once, or is it a process? That is indeed an interesting question, in my opinion. Does the text from Luke, however, really support the assumption that one or the other possibility can be ruled out by means of an appeal to the grammar of the sentence used in the story? The author of Luke is a slightly better stylist than the authors of the other Gospels, but his attention to grammatical detail has never struck me as something to make a Really Big Fuss about. This question seems to make a rather bold claim about what the author of Luke might mean by employing a perfect tense rather than the imperfect. I'm not sure whether an aorist would have made things any clearer (in the sense of making the question less pressing, since the aorist would be pretty ambiguous by comparison, but see below), but the whole thing seems rather like claiming that an undergraduate is intentionally exploring new depths of existential angst by purposely employing both present and past tenses in a five page essay on the writings of Swift.

Well, OK, that was a dumb comparison, because the person who wrote the question is not an undergraduate and is indeed asking a good question. I'm just not convinced that the written Gospel narratives, which are arguably drawn from an oral tradition, make their theological claims in such delicate, if not cryptic, ways. Funky parables are bad enough--why complicate things with subtle points of grammar as well? Is there meant to be some kind of gnosis here that I'm missing?

The same Inquisitor posted another question to the same blog, along the same lines, about a passage drawn from Saint Paul:
In Romans 5:1-2, we read “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand…” The Greek participle is not perfect but only aorist, I admit; but the results are clearly perfect: we have peace, we have obtained access, we stand. How do you interpret this verse?
I certainly do not dispute the fact that "How do you interpret this verse" could be an interesting question, but to make the point of the question hang upon this kind of point (get it? Point? Pin point? Come on, it's funny!) of grammar is, well, pointless--though it has helped untold numbers of academics earn their tenure in departments of religious studies I suppose, and that's no infinitesimal point these days.

These sorts of questions, to me, sound like sola scriptura on steroids--we must make careful sense out of every jot and tittle in the text, the question seems to say, else we utterly fail to make the case for our interpretation. My own experience with the Scriptures has been rather different. It seems to me that doing justice to the text must always move forward in the context of the tradition and the magisterial authority of the Church. This does not mean that we cannot pay close attention to textual questions, of course, but it does mean that sola grammatica is not a good interpretive principle. If it really is one: I don't want to attack a straw man here, and questions on blogs are not necessarily reflective of entire hermeneutic communities. But they might help to explain how at least some people approach their questions about things other than religion, and that could prove rather unfortunate, it seems to me.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Grumpy Conservative or Progressive Feminist--You Make the Call!

My daughter has been given an assignment in her physical education class (7th grade) that involves working out something called a "jump routine" with three other girls. A jump routine seems to be something like a cheerleading routine for people who don't like the connotations associated with the word "cheerleading". There is a very complicated set of scoring criteria. I can't remember how many categories of 1-10 point grades are to be awarded for this two minute drill, but they filled an entire page and gave me the impression that visitors from the Olympic Selection Committee will be secreted away in the audience somewhere. The girls must choose some music and work out the choreography of the routine as a group, and they will perform it in front of their class and their teacher.

"Choose some music". Seems benign enough, you say to yourself. I will be the first to admit that I have been a lazy, though not, I think, negligent, father in this case, because I did not know anything about this assignment until my daughter asked me to burn a CD for her with her group's dance music on it. That was when I first discovered that the tune to which they would be jumping around and giggling is Jason Derulo's "Talk Dirty to Me". Although the title did not inspire much confidence in me, I have already downloaded enough music for her on iTunes to know that titles often--if not usually, these days--bear little or no relation to the actual content of the song. If it can really be said that songs these days have any content. But some spark of Divine Illumination prompted me to check out the lyrics to this song before burning the CD. So I went to the website A-Z Lyrics, and after reading through the words to the song it was not surprising to me when I finally noticed that the way they were laid out on the screen made them look like a large erect phallus, because the song is mostly about phalluses. Erect phalluses. Erect phalluses being used in a variety of different ways, but mostly ways that are not really appropriate for 12 and 13 year old girls to be dancing to. Here is a sample of some of the lyrics:
Dos Cadenas, closed the genius
Sold out arenas, you can suck my penis
Gilbert Arenas, guns on deck
Chest to chest, tongue on neck
International oral sex
Every picture I take, I pose a threat
Boat or jet, what do you expect?
Her pussy so good I bought her a pet
Anyway, every day I'm trying to get to it
Got her saved in my phone under "Big Booty"
And so on, and so forth. When I asked my daughter what she liked about this song, she said "It's catchy, and I like the chorus." I wasn't really sure what the "chorus" of this song was supposed to be--there is a section where he says "Talk dirty to me" over and over again (hence the title, I suppose), but it didn't really stand out very much, and even if it did, well there's a song called "Hey Jude", but not one called "Nah nah nah nah nah nah nah".

So to make this short story even longer, I told my daughter that she could not use this song, and she complained that it is a group project and the choice is not up to her. "And besides", she pointed out, "The teacher approved it already."


The teacher approved it?

I confess that my visage betrayed, somewhat, my skeptical attitude.

"Don't lie to me with that mouth," I said.

"She did, and anyway we have to do it on Thursday. It's all decided!"

I found it inconceivable that any teacher would approve this song for use in the classroom, so I decided to write to the teacher myself and let her know how I felt about the piece. In my email to her I pointed out that my daughter had told me that the song had been approved by a teacher, and that I thought this could only mean that the teacher had not noticed the lyrics, so I reproduced for her the ones you can read above. I then ranted for a while about the image this presents of women and young girls serving as mere instruments of male pleasure and that I did not think it salutary to have the public schools turn a blind eye to the degradation and objectification of women. The teacher wrote back to me, and I reproduce for you here the full text of her reply, completely unexpurgated:

Please just have her change it.

That's it. No "Dear Mr. Scrutator", no "Hi,", no name signed at the bottom. Just that one line exactly as you see it above. In response to my 603 word email (which I will happily make available to any interested party) explaining why I found it important that she intervene in this situation. (Well I'm Mr. Scrutator not Mr. Pithy.)

Now I'm sure gym teachers are very busy and can't be bothered with minor administrative decisions like keeping pornography out of their classrooms, so I wrote back and pointed out that my daughter had expressed the opinion that she didn't really need my approval because the teacher had already said it was OK. Kids can be so charming when they are in the grip of adolescent hormones. I also took the liberty of pointing out that, at least in my own opinion, it was hard to see why a teacher would approve of this song. I speculated a little: the teacher might not have known the lyrics and omitted to vet them, which is not very good oversight, but at least it's not as bad as knowing about the lyrics and not giving a shit, either because you don't think they're pornographic or you don't care that they are. That's much more worrisome, and I said so. Which prompted her to write to me and say:

Those are some serious accusations please feel free to come in anytime.

So I guess I'm supposed to chaperone my daughter's gym class if I want some reassurance that they're not dancing around to pornographic music. I guess the teacher's job ends once the lesson plan is finished.

In the end my daughter's group picked a different song. She could not remember either the name of the song or any of its lyrics, interestingly, but she did say that it was something by Justin Timberlake. I suppose there's some small consolation in that--his songs are disgusting too but for different reasons.

So here I am wondering whether I overreacted. For what it's worth, my wife did not think that I overreacted, and she even likes Robin Thick's "Blurred Lines" INCLUDING the video. But it's difficult for me to escape the worry that I'm just being an old conservative fuddy-duddy. I took up the matter with one of my colleagues who is both a woman and a progressive, and she also thought I was fully within bounds to react the way I did. But I'm still wondering about this.

When I was 12 (in MY day...) I was listening to music by such groups as the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, and the like. The Stones are probably the edgiest of the three, but they're arguably not very edgy. But they were certainly edgier than, say, Elvis Presley. When I compare
Wise men say
Only fools rush in
But I can't help
Falling in love with you
I met a gin-soaked bar room queen in Memphis
She tried to take me upstairs for a ride
She had to heave me right across her shoulder
Cause I just can't seem to drink you off my mind
I'm left with a feeling that, although things had "moved on", as it were, they were still arguably in the same ball park. But I can't help thinking that some sort of line has been crossed, that we're not only not in the same ball park any more, we're not even playing the same kind of game. I've been looking around at lyrics for a while now and "Talk Dirty To Me" is just the tip of a very disgusting and vile iceberg, an iceberg in which women and young girls are treated as literally nothing more than blowjob machines for young men who want lots of money and lots of visceral pleasure in their nether regions or they won't be satisfied. (They can't get no satisfaction, it seems.) And their lyrics attest to their attitude that this is what women "really want" anyway, so why not make them do it when they pretend otherwise. This is the world that my daughter wants to aurally immerse herself in, and I find it rather disturbing.

There are rumors about our middle school--rumors that are believed by students, parents, and teachers--to the effect that oral sex is also just the tip of the iceberg there. There is a lot of sex of other kinds, and lots of experimentation with drugs. This middle school is not one in which deprivation has driven kids to find bizarre forms of escape, it is one in which the students are mostly suffering from affluenza. So I'm putting my foot down and I'm not letting her listen to this kind of stuff. I am a grumpy conservative, but I'm also enough of a progressive feminist to think that young girls can do better things with their minds than listen to this crap. And there's certainly no point in putting money into the pockets of vile, self-styled artists who promote a worldview in which women are not persons but tools and whose contribution to culture is not merely negligible but downright negative.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Pragmatic Truth

I recently heard a lecture by a renowned philosopher of science on pragmatic approaches to truth, and it raised some interesting questions for me. On his account, which is grounded in his reading of Peirce, James, and Dewey, "truth" as a predicate has different meanings depending upon the "domain of discourse" in which it is applied. He takes as basic what he calls the "scientific" or "factual" domain, in which "truth" basically means correspondence in Tarski's sense.

But he identifies three other domains in which that sort of correspondence conception of "truth" will not work. For example, we can say that it is "true" that Sherlock Holmes lives at 221B Baker Street even though it is not a fact in Tarski's sense. This is dubbed "literary truth", and we are told that it is the overall literary context that determines which sentences are "true" or "false" in this sense.

So the literary domain is one area in which we need a different notion of truth from "scientific" or "factual" correspondence. This seems fair enough to me, though I would add that it seems as if one might be able to find another route for defending the acceptability of sentences like "Sherlock Holmes lives at 221B Baker Street" without actually proposing a model of truth in which the sentence is regarded as "true" in a technical sense. But literary truth is not the domain that I found most interesting.

The other two domains, ethics and religion, caught my attention to a much higher degree. In ethics, he suggested that "truth" be understood in a progressive sense. "Weak ethical truth" he ascribes to those propositions that are universally, or nearly universally, accepted by all human communities, with the proviso that these be propositions that have to do with the enhancement of human involvement with social projects regarded as fundamental. I will add that the talk that I heard was just a popularized presentation of a much more sophisticated argument made in a book-length treatment of the matter, and that is why this definition of "ethical truth" seems so thin and cartoonish. A fuller case is made for it in the book.

In addition to "weakly ethically true", however, propositions can be "strongly ethically true" if they lead to a progressive enhancement of the body of propositions that are successful and enhancing human involvement in fundamental social projects. One can imagine any number of objections to this notion of strong ethical truth, starting with what it is even supposed to mean. But although I was interested in the ethical domain more than in the so-called "fictional" domain, I confess that it was really the fourth domain that I found most interesting.

The religious domain has its own conception of truth drawn from the sociology of religion, in which the stories told by religious movements are described not as propositions that can be either true or false but as "myths", stories that have some underlying message or instruction or exhortation. I am not an expert in the sociology of religion, but my own (limited) familiarity with the literature suggests to me that "myth" is an invented category devised precisely in order to give some account of why religious sentiment is as widespread as it is given the implausibility of the literal truth of its claims. In short, my impression has been that saying something like "Myths are neither true nor false in the literal sense" is simply shorthand for saying "The claims of religion are obviously not factually true, but they guide the lives of millions of people and communicate deeply held values and foster important practices, so we may regard propositions within the religious community as not open to factual dispute in any important sense." Whether this view is adopted for paternalistic or diplomatic reasons seems hardly relevant: the important thing, it seems to me, is that the factual claims of religions are never taken seriously as factual claims, because those who study the sociology of religion are, usually, not theists themselves and so take it for granted that any claim about a deity that presents itself as a factual claim will necessarily be false.

But along comes the pragmatist, who says that we should go farther than calling the claims of religions "myths", we should define a domain of discourse within which the claims of religion are actually true, though "true" in the technical sense that is specific to this particular domain of religious discourse. So the pragmatist proposes a definition of "religious truth" that runs parallel to the definition of "ethical truth" sketched above, but that is clearly intended to be quite distinct from the correspondence version of truth found in the "scientific" or "factual" domain. On the pragmatist conception of truth, a proposition P is "weakly religiously true" just in case there is a community with a religious practice R and an extension of that practice, R*, such that R* involves the affirmation of P and the transition from R to R* would be religiously progressive. A proposition P is "strongly religiously true" just in case P is weakly religiously true and the practice of affirming P would be retained in any indefinite sequence of of religiously progressive modifications of R*. Although this project may sound anti-realist in its orientation, the pragmatist argues that it is really a realist view of truth and one is prepared to believe it in this case because, frankly, the "scientific" or "factual" domain is explicitly treated as fundamental. That's where "real" truth lies.

So as I think about this proposal I have, on the one hand, great admiration for the adroitness on display, not just in the talk but in the book version of the argument. Indeed, the book version makes for fascinating and compelling reading, and I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone interested in contemporary pragmatism. I think that this particular pragmatist has done about as good a job as could reasonably be expected of anyone trying to defend this point of view. On the other hand, I also found myself wondering about the precise motivation for this conceptual scheme, given the pride of place given to the so-called "factual" domain. I wondered, for example, why it wouldn't just be a lot simpler to say "Look, Jesus did not literally rise from the dead. That proposition is literally false. The people who believe it have false beliefs, and false beliefs cannot count as knowledge. Nor does it help matters to say 'The Resurrection is a metaphor for sacrifice, redemption, and kenotic love, and it is successful primarily because it is such a very powerful and motivating metaphor, so we ought to keep the image in our religious culture', because that is tantamount to saying that false belief and ignorance are useful tools for the common involvement of humans in their social projects. Instead, we should just abandon these propositions--indeed, we ought to abandon religion altogether and replace it with something else."

Come to find out--as the expression around here goes--our present pragmatist actually does make that very recommendation, in a sense. He does not endorse the elimination of religion in the sense that Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris do. He thinks that religion does play a valuable role in society, a role not unlike the roll played by beautiful art and literature. It expresses humanity's deepest longings in a metaphorical and artistic way, and that is a function worth retaining. The rub is that he thinks that, in an ideal world, that function will be gradually taken over by institutions other than religion. Institutions such as art and literature, for example. And he thinks that religion is "progressive" just in case it makes clear to its adherents that its claims are not to be taken literally and are to be used only for humanistic unitive purposes. Presumably that sort of thing could indeed be accomplished by plenty of institutions other than religion, and our present pragmatist thinks that, if all goes well, religion will indeed not so much disappear after the manner of extinction called for by Dawkins but will, rather, evolve in a Darwinian way into something really quite different from religion as we know it today. And that will be a Good Thing.

For the theist, I suppose, all of this will seem somewhat paternalistic. The Christian believes in the literal truth of the Resurrection, not some metaphorical kind of analogous truth. Indeed, St. Paul famously argued in defense of the literal truth of the Resurrection, claiming that if it were not literally true Christians would be the most wretched people on earth. So clearly the theists themselves take these propositions to be literally true, and importantly so. What good does it do to pat them on the head and say "There there, your beliefs are 'true', don't worry" when what you really mean is "Your belief is false, but we're going to let you hang on to it for a while because it makes you useful to society, docile, and pleasant to be around, but as soon as I can find a way to make you useful, docile, and pleasant without you committing yourself to falsehoods we're going to go that way instead"? Having dealt with the problem myself I can imagine being a little nervous about "literalism" in religion, especially when the context is something like creationism, so I'm not saying that I don't sympathize with someone who wants to find a way to parse the propositional content of religions into what ought, and what ought not, to be taken as literally true. But I would stop short of claiming that none of the propositions can be taken as literally true, if only because that would open me up, quite rightly, to the charges of question begging and special pleading.

So my puzzlement consists in a picture of truth in which everybody knows that "factual" truth is fundamental, and that the pragmatic model of "truth" in these other domains--fiction, ethics, and religion--is not really what anybody really means by "true" but we're supposed to hang on to this model anyway rather than coming right out and saying that the claims of religion are false or that ethical judgments are relative to the cultures that make them or something along those lines. In short, I'm not sure what the philosophical payoff is supposed to be in seeing truth in this way, short of finding some way of not coming off looking as obnoxious as Dawkins or as uninformed as Harris when talking about religion. The model is an elegant one, but its central component--the retention of the word "true" as the predicate for consistency, usefulness, or success within a domain--strikes me as useless. I've been wrong about this sort of thing before, though, so I stand ready to be corrected.