Random Observations #3 (Updated)

May 3, 2013 at 7:54 pm (Icepick) (, , , , , )

So many things have changed since I was my daughter’s age.

  • There’s one fewer planet in our Solar System now.
  • There are a lot more planets known now, all outside our system.
  • When I was her age, we went to the Moon; these days we have to hitchhike rides to low Earth orbit from the remnant of our one-time mortal enemy.
  • Which means that all those planets are just that much farther away now.
  • The brontosaurus is no more, replaced by the more taxonomically correct apatosaurus.
  • The disposable diaper.
  • The mores and morals of the country.
  • The socio-economic and demographic structure of the country: we’re a lot more like a Third World country these days in so many ways.
  • Extremely powerful computers are so common that they’re hardly remarked upon anymore – except by people roughly my age and older. We remember when computers of any power were much less common than toasters, not more common than radios.

UPDATE: wj makes the following additional, excellent point in the comments:

I’d add ubiquitous cameras. It’s not just that everybody has a cell phone with a camera . . . and seems to use it constantly. It’s that cameras seem to be in every public space, and running most of the time. No doubt this is handy for police trying to track criminals. But it means that you have to get a long way into the country to have any chance of any privacy in your life.

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City of Fights

March 3, 2013 at 10:03 pm (By Tim) (, )

Yet another element of modern (I almost wrote that lamentable word, “civilized”) life that is Bad For You:

City lights.

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They cause cancer, because sleep patterns are disturbed, and, well, Science has discovered that anything that is not just like Cro-Magnon life 40,000 years ago causes cancer.

This article enthuses over the new Paris that is proposed to be not so well-lit. There IS something to be said for Paris in, say, 1591 (one of my favorite years), when it was appropriately dark at night. Henri IV was on the throne, and all was right with the world. And it was a lot simpler to knife your opponents in a back alley and throw the bodies into the Seine at 2 AM. I don’t know if the French did anything similar, but at Venice in the same period, the Doge had special soldiers who collected the murdered bodies from the canals every morning. The average was about eight—a dozen or more on good nights.

As a traditionalist, I say, turn off those damn lights and bring back stilettos. They’re much quicker than cancer.

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Is Religion Necessary? [UPDATED!]

May 2, 2009 at 7:13 pm (By Amba) (, )

As previously quoted, Nassim Nicholas Taleb seems to think so[bold = emphasis added]

[B]eyond the current mess, I see no way out of this ecological problem, except through that tacit, unexplainable, seasoned, thoughtful, and aged thing crystalized by traditions & religions —we can’t live without charts and we need to rely on the ones we’ve used for millennia. Le 21e siecle sera religieux, ou ne sera pas!

And so, in similar terms but more words, does Gagdad Bob:

So it seems that we must seek a proper balance between letter and spirit. Many people reject religion because of an early experience of too much letter, not enough spirit. But then they might get involved in some new age nonsense, which is all spirit and no letter. However, spirit itself, like any other energy, is neutral; if it isn’t guided by a nonlocal structure of unchanging truth, it can just as easily lead down as up. You can find yourself on a slippery slope that leads all the way down to a slippery dope such as Deepak Chopra, who embodies the paradox of pure “slime without substance.”

Put this way, organized religion itself is a “necessary evil,” as it were. While necessary, we must not confuse it with that to which it points, or else we are simply engaging in idolatry by another name.

*   *   *

[T]he other day, I was having a conversation with a friend who is a dyed-in-the-wool-over-his-own-eyes atheist — one of those people who is just completely tone deaf when it comes to religion. I mentioned how I had long since abandoned philosophy for theology, and he asked why — what do you get out of it?

Of course, I had no way to explain it in his earthly terms, i.e., to somehow fit it into his little world, which obviously excludes the realm of spirit. I mean, there is surely spirituality there, as there is in any normal person’s life, but he doesn’t see it as an autonomous realm, just a derivative one.

Oddly, this is obviously the real world in which humans live — it is the quintessentially human world — and yet, this type of person rejects the human world for a lower one, while still trying to maintain their humanness. I suppose this can work for a generation or two, but at some point, the thread that links us to our civilizational source will be snapped, and that will be the end. Then it will just be a matter of waiting for the Islamists to finish the job, as in Europe.

Anyway, this friend asked me what I “get out of theology,” and I tried to answer. I pointed out that, first of all, the whole thing is an ongoing surprise to me, and that it is not even as if I chose it; rather, it has chosen me. I said that it was like entering this huge, magnificent intellectual cathedral that was perfectly adapted to the human psyche. . . .

*    *    *

As you know, Mrs G has converted to Catholicism. Not only that, but quite a few of my readers have either returned to Christianity or undergone formal conversion, and for that I am humbled and eternally grateful. But what about you, Bob? What are you? And what are you waiting for?

I am not a Christian, in the commonly understood sense of the term. I have to acknowledge that up front. Now, some of you are no doubt thinking to yourself, “Ha ha. Yes you are. Stop kidding yourself. You just haven’t realized it yet.” I won’t argue with that, but please indulge me. The point I would like to make is that, while not Christian per se, I am surely on a Christian adventure. An extraordinarily deep one, I might add. It has been ongoing for the past, I don’t know, eight or nine years, and just keeps getting more compelling.

In a way, I feel like the earliest Christians, who, after all, were not “Christians.” Rather, they were simply people having a Christian experience that later came to be known as “Christianity.” In fact, I’m thinking of calling it that myself. But the point is, this is what makes these early writings all the more compelling. No one was telling them the “correct” way to think. They did not “believe” in religion, but were undergoing religion.

And yet, I hold back. Why?

*    *    *

[W]hat you are seeing is a purely spontaneous production chronicling the encounter between me and Christian truth, which I believe, in a certain way, gives it more weight than it might have if I were simply reciting dogma as an “insider.” While some of what I say might sound dogmatic or authoritarian, I must again emphasize that I am not in my right mind when I’m saying it. Rather, I not only try to write about what I know, but what I don’t know. That is, I try to “write beyond myself,” so to spook, so that I am as genuinely surprised as anyone else at what comes out. Boo!

It is very important to me that I reach people who aren’t religious, but still have an impulse to be — especially people with the “Jesus willies.” I think that I would be less convincing if I were simply coming from a Christian perspective. In other words, perhaps I can be analogous to the disinterested scientist who explains how global warming or reductionistic Darwinism are bogus. People get enough of the normal evangelizing, and, as often as not, it backfires. But when a disinterested person with no vested interest is doing the selling, it may be more effective.

What I hear both these provocative minds saying is that at least for now and the foreseeable future, we don’t have any adequate alternative to traditional religion to keep us on track, connected to our nonmaterial source of raison d’être and perspective and guidance.  So even though we may have outgrown the cosmology, we still need the counsel and the consolation.  Break the old vessels, spill the wine.

It’s a funny feeling, though.  Whatever-it-is spoke to humanity in childlike terms humanity could understand.  Now that science has shattered the medium, what happens to the message?  And how do we accept that we’re growing up intellectually faster than we are emotionally?

UPDATE:  We’re not the only ones talking about just this, just now.  Stanley Fish writes in the NY Times (and gets 655, count ’em, high-level comments to date):

In the opening sentence of the last chapter of his new book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution,” the British critic Terry Eagleton asks, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance — science, reason, liberalism, capitalism — just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed. “What other symbolic form,” he queries, “has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?”

Eagleton acknowledges that the links forged are not always benign — many terrible things have been done in religion’s name — but at least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions . . .

In a phrase I suspect is destined to be oft quoted, Eagleton says, “[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.”

Read the whole thing.  This is shaping up to a verdict, or a consensus:  we could shed religion now, but we’d better choose not to.  It’s strange to make a conscious choice to believe the no longer believable (the Biblical cosmos is to the actual cosmos we are discovering as a small child’s drawing is to the Sistine ceiling); maybe related to what Jack Whelan of After the Future calls “second naiveté.”

We cannot live as the ancestors lived, but the rationalist prejudices of the moderns caused much that our premodern ancestors valued to be discredited and lost. Our job now is to retrieve the lost gifts, and to adapt it to our life now lived in circumstances unimaginable to the premoderns. [ . . .]

We no longer can maintain a “first naivete”, which is the state of the believer before critical consciousness. We must search out what has been forgotten or lost with a second naivete, which is the attitude toward the superrational that is childlike in its receptivity, but, because we must travel lightly, shrewd in its judgments about what is necessary and what superfluous.

Read that whole thing, too.

(P.S. Agnosticism — admitting we don’t know shit — still seems more honest and more reverent to my temperament.  But like Cal in the comments, I’m not sorry to be surrounded by people who aren’t like me.  Being in the gaseous state myself, I’m glad some people are solid.)

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