Blogging Orthodoxy 8: Levity and the Great Adventure

I while back I started a series called “Blogging Orthodoxy” which documented my Newman Center’s reading group as we worked our way through Chesterton’s grand treatise, “Orthodoxy”. This series dropped off during my blog’s long hiatus but now that I have finally gotten around to blowing the dust off all my old posts, it feels only right to finish the series.

In fact, all that remains is to put a capstone on the project and I can easily do that in the hour I have before I head out to my parish’s annual retreat. Here it goes….

Chapter 9: Authority and the Adventurer

It is hard to overstate the effect that a book like Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” has had upon my life. Of all the books that gradually took me back through the doors of the Church, this was the lynch pin. The point at which I knew that something had to be done. Faith had to be lived. Passivity was no longer an option.

Even revisiting the book seven years later, Chesterton’s conclusion was powerful. Reading the last lines, I could feel my group intently anticipating the inevitable finale. But this time, as the conclusion came, those same words felt very different.

“His Mirth”

The words that shocked me as a non-believer fell lightly this time around. Chesterton’s conclusion was still profound but it was no longer abrasive. When once the image of the mirthful Christ had come into my imagination like an thundering army,  it was now like a returning hero being welcomed home. I could feel the same emotions all around.

In fact, there was very little discussion of this final section within the group. It felt as though nothing more needed to be said. The book had ended and we were left with a sense of anticipation. Something was about to happen. And, in fact, it did.

A year passed. Spirituality grew. Friendships formed. Our patron, an inimical Dominican Friar, was able to raise up a thriving young adult community that would be the envy of a much larger parish. Even our weekly reading session grew to become a bit of an institution among the Catholic young adults in North Seattle. Much has been learned and looking back, I find myself reflecting on where it began, our reading of “Orthodoxy”.

Much has been said about the line that ends “Orthodoxy”, and certainly the image of God’s levity is what I remember when thinking back on the book. However, among all the very spiritual images conjured by the author, perhaps the plain message of the chapter is lost; the message that, in order for our struggles to transcend our own personalities, we must first acknowledge an authority over ourselves who competent to judge us. Our lives might be adventures but only if we acknowledge One greater still who can act as an author.

At one point in my life I would have balked at this sentient. I am a natural contrarian and the concept of authority does not come easy to me. But I think that it was this lesson that I did indeed learn over my last year working with the Newman center. There is a time for trust. There is a right place for faith. Once one accepts the authority of the spiritual, the worldly struggles that were at one point meaningless and setbacks that at one point seemed insurmountable become simple features in a larger story. When one wanders aimlessly even the slightest breeze feels like a cruel and irrational blow. Once a person has the right direction even the strongest headwinds can be braved with ease.

I return to the question of authority today, as my Parish bids farewell to the Dominican Friar who had been our group’s leader and the founder of our book group. Certainly it has been the pattern of modern Christian communities to crumble once their founder is reassigned and I can sense that there is a similar fear that our community will slowly break once separated from its founder.

Far from me to be an optimist but I am more encouraged than most. The spirit that brought our community together and animated it is more than the force of one saintly soul. The authority that directs us forward is much older. The adventure that has bound us together is much deeper. We hear the great laughter Chesterton described and its prospect is as terrifying as it is terrific. We are traveling for that end alone and the force of that prospect binds us together as a community even if we do indeed physically drift apart.

And so, the task is set. The path is before us. The adventure is upon us and I believe still that we have the courage to see it through to the end.

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Off to retreat….

 

 

 

 

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The One Word Turing Test

A friend forwarded me a math riddle over the weekend :

Imagine: You and an artificial intelligence are to be subjected to a test. Each of you will anonymously submit a single English word to a (human) judge, who will try to determine which response came from a human being (as in a Turing test). Whoever is judged a human shall live; whoever is judged a machine shall be destroyed.r6zbqvs2-1402296443 (1)

What word would you choose?

The trick, I think, is to realize that you are trying to psyche out the human judge – not the computer rival. This means finding a word that is subtly evocative of a human experience that would be hard for a computer to guess.

In other words, it would have to be a word associated with a human experience that nonetheless is not widely talked about in literature, history, or other media that a highly intelligent AI could search through. If we wanted to use a Venn Diagram we could express the problem like this:

TuringTest

This is not an easy task since, to be effective, the word would have to be on the edge of humanity’s ability to effectively express its own nature.

Any suggestions? What do you think are the most human words in our language?

The Vanity of the Ivory Tower

This year’s most important academic paper, at least according to Steven Pinker,  has just been published in Behavior and Brain Sciences: Political Diversity Will (still) Improve Social Psychological Science. The inimitable Jonathan Haidt strikes again, this time complementing the banal observation that academia is overwhelmingly progressive with the profound conclusion that this progressive bias is indeed having harmful consequences to the development of the field.

To quote Haidt’s abstract, the paper has four main points:

  1. Academic psychology once had considerable political diversity, but has lost nearly all of it in the last 50 years.
  2. This lack of political diversity can undermine the validity of social psychological science.
  3.  Increased political diversity would improve social psychological science.
  4. The under-representation of non-liberals in social psychology is most likely due to a combination of self-selection, hostile climate, and discrimination.

All of which are backed by copious sources and examples. All points are devastating and should, if fully heeded, shake America’s perceptions of the academy to the core. As the British might say, it’s a fair knock out.

Jonathan Haidt

Jonathan Haidt

At this point I should make a rather obvious confession. Sure enough Haidt’s paper is timely and well-researched, but it nonetheless told me nothing that I didn’t already believe. I make no claim of objectively on this subject. I have, since my first encounter with it, found the modern academic approach to social science to be a corrupt. The culture seemed too vain to grapple with its critics and too slothful to address new and interesting questions. It was like an echo chamber useful only in flattering the ideological preconceptions of its tenured participants.

In fact, it seemed impossible that the insulated self-assurance of modern social science departments would be able to endure in the long run. The bubble would eventually have to pop. The center would not hold.

But, of course, my predictions about the fate of academic culture were entirely wrong. When I first arrived at college shortly after September 11th 2001, I was convinced that the relativistic and paranoid multiculturalism preached breathlessly to the incoming freshmen was entering its twilight, destined to be destroyed in the wake of the World Trade Center attack. Instead, that relativism thrived and expanded through all areas of academic life. I was convinced after leaving my undergraduate education, that the petty and hyper-sensitive campus culture would remain consigned to dorm rooms and the peripheries of small college towns. However, it was not many years before I heard “homophobia” being ascribed to anyone who held to traditional beliefs on marriage and broad discussion of “hetero-normativity” and “male-privilege” on prime time network television.

Conservatives make much about the “liberal media” but I noticed relatively little time is spent on the even more left-wing culture in academia. I have never understood this. To the extent that America is becoming a progressive culture, and to the extent that the media is a De Facto progressive institution, they are because they are downstream of ideas and training developed in academia. Academics matter, and the culture that rules those academics matter even more. Conservative or moderate Americans alarmed by progressive victories, might put more time into the study of Aristotle.

I suppose what’s most interesting is that we have put so little investment into understanding academic culture itself and how it might effect the outlook of those we elect as our teachers. Part of this might be a question of privilege. The only people who could perform this research would be academics themselves and who wants to really put their own bias under a microscope? Haidt is doing yeoman’s work broaching this topic, but perhaps the biggest problem with the ideological uniformity he describes is that academia has been unable to ask serious questions about itself. It is possible to live in an echo chamber and still not know the sound of one’s own voice. Similarly, the vanity of the ivory tower might be the greatest obstacle in producing serious research regarding its own true nature.

How to Suck At Your Atheism

A few years back I came across a rather condescending web-comic by the ordinarily entertaining “The Oatmeal” entitled

“How to Suck at Your Religion”

The comic was tirade of anti-religious stereotypes and inspired a bit of anger on my part, not the least because I felt that the jabs were not only untrue but altogether unworthy of the author who should have known better.

Indeed, there have been Catholic responses, most notably here, but at the time I felt that a more direct counter-punch was in order. So, I began to set my pen to the obvious counter-point : “How to Suck at Your Atheism”.

Needless to say, constructing a web comic was much more difficult than I had anticipated. Although I had drawn the outline and the first draft of the panels while recovering from surgery, it took me almost 2 years to complete the entire production.

Once you start on a project it’s hard to stop and although I am satisfied in the quality of the production, I have to admit being a little embarrassed about the final message. This must be the most condescending straw-man laden argument that I have ever made. My only excuse is that it was written (if not entirely produced) in anger and meant as a satirical response to equally condescending source material.

And, if nothing else, it’s just a bit of good fun…

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Just so I don’t get called out, there is an accompanying set of footnotes. The permalink can be found here https://datadistributist.wordpress.com/how-to-suck-at-your-atheism/

-Footnotes-

  1. This panel refers Dawkin’s advocacy of rational dialectic between secular and religious individuals. His speech at the 2012 “REASON” rally betrayed this conviction when he called on atheists to mock and bully religious individuals.
  2. Bill Maher has been one of the highest profile atheists since his 2008 film “Religulous”. His opposition to vaccinations has been well-documented. http://www.salon.com/2015/04/25/bill_mahers_bizarre_anti_vaccine_rant_stop_calling_these_people_kooks_and_liars/
  3. Dawkin’s has mentioned his opposition to fairy-tales at The Cheltenham Science Festival. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/professor-richard-dawkins-claims-fairy-tales-are-harmful-to-children-9489287.html
  4. Tyson has voiced his opposition to philosophy as a discipline several times. https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/05/12/neil-degrasse-tyson-and-the-value-of-philosophy/
  5. The science-meme revelers are indicative of many of the threads on the Facebook page : https://www.facebook.com/IFeakingLoveScience
  6. The Atheism Bohr Atom is used by the American Atheists http://www.religioustolerance.org/atheist6.htm
  7. The slavery panel references the well-documented scientific racism of the 19th and early 20th century
  8. There is a general reference to internet fights between left and right-style atheists.
  9. Christopher Hitchens advocated for the Iraq War and was one of the war’s biggest defenders. Subsequently, there were soldiers who did enlist due to his advocacy. One of those soldiers famously perished in 2007 http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2007/11/hitchens200711. Hitchens transformation from geopolitical commentator to anti-religious firebrand occurred at roughly the same time.
  10. This is a reference to the history of the French Revolution when the idealistic atheist Maximilian Robespierre turned draconian tyrant in an attempt to strip traditional and religious culture from France. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximilien_Robespierre
  11. The relative body count between the 20th century communists and the inquisition has been well documented not least by García Cárcel, (inquisition) and Jean-Louis Panné (communism).

https://datadistributist.wordpress.com/how-to-suck-at-your-atheism/

Dismantling The Cult of Confidence, New YouTube Channel

I gave a lecture this last weekend on the application of probability theory to modern epistemology. It outlines a lot of my own thoughts about the mistakes in public discourse when we talk about the  confidence and certainty. This was delivered at the Socratic Forum for Thought in Seattle Washington:

This blog hasn’t been updated recently since I haven’t had time for writing during my Grad program. However, recently I have participated in several debates and delivered some lectures on topics corresponding to this blog’s subject matter. I am starting a new YouTube channel to host these videos although everything I upload will be re-posted here.

The channel:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCdHT7KB1gDAXZYpPW71fn0Q

A previous discussion between me and Jersey Flight can be found here: