A Glut of Tradition

How many times I have written and rewritten some version of this post, I cannot say. At this point I do not even know what all of my reservations with this post are: that this is self-pitying, perhaps, or self-indulgent, or just a waste of time? I’ll publish this, I think, to keep myself honest, so that if I ever start getting too big for my britches you can link me back to this, say, “So, did you ever solve this problem?” And I’ll publish it so that if you feel the same way you’ll know that you aren’t alone. Not that seeing another person struggle the same struggle has given me any comfort that I can recall, but there are some people who are consoled by the idea. And, hey, I doubt some Silicon Sophia will resurrect us all in her microchips one day, but if it ever happens I suppose she can use this to improve her simulations.

A black and white image of a man standing before library stacks, holding a large number of books along one arm.

“Scene from the State Library” by State Library Victoria Collection

Near the beginning of this blog I had a crisis of sorts: what is the point of having opinions at all, let alone sharing them online, given how little I really know? I am far behind in the game of understanding the world. What makes me think I could ever catch up? I resolved this to some extent at the time and I mostly forgot about the affair. I regained a sense that I might stagger toward some understanding–albeit a limited understanding–and that this process might be instructive for someone or other. A little while later I had so regained my confidence that I tried to explain in a more systematic way the thinking I had been doing. Sure, this was provisional, trying on ideas rather than arguing for them, but that was more than I had been comfortable with previously. Alas, for the last year the sense of futility has returned, powerfully so, and for a more robust, theory-informed reason.

It began, however, with excitement. I had stumbled upon a suite of philosophy blogs into which I fell headlong; Speculum Criticum Traditionis and Digressions & Impressions are two notable examples. The one I’ve already mentioned here, and which prompted me to start reading Alasdair MacIntyre, is Amod Lele’s Love of All Wisdom. Lele is a comparative philosopher of a strongly synthetic bent; although more inclined to analytic philosophy than to Continental philosophy, he has the latter’s interest in putting Western and non-Western philosophical traditions into conversation. If you click through and look at his blog’s marquee you’ll see five representatives of the traditions he in particular is working through: Śāntideva, Aristotle, G. W. F. Hegel, Confucius, and Martha Nussbaum. What I found particularly exciting about his work is what he calls the “methodological MacIntyre,” referring to the way in which Alasdair MacIntyre adapted the work of Thomas Aquinas and, more importantly, Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos to consider how to decide between incommensurable philosophical traditions.

I’ll explain.

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The Oblivious Nerd in Three Constructs

In this post I’m going to do at least two things. One of those things will be to gather together and lightly compare some concepts which I’ve encountered in the past few years and which seem to bear some similarity to one another. While these ideas do not perfectly map onto the “nerd” stereotype, they all intersect with it, at any rate. Another of those things will be to discuss my own relationship with those concepts, mostly how I can (or can’t) understand myself in light of them. If I do a third thing, it will only emerge out of the other two: I might incidentally illuminate my understanding of the concepts better and maybe, just maybe, illuminate them better for you. Also, I will talk a little more about austim, though I hope you don’t take this to suggest an equivalency between being autistic and being a nerd.

(My apologies for any formatting errors in this post. I am working from my tablet and switching between unfamiliar, seemingly glitchy apps.)

Image of a long-haired brunette woman, outdoors, pushing her tortoiseshell glasses up her nose and contorting her face into a stereotypical nerd squint

“I ❤ Nerds” by Hada del lago

Analytic Cognition and Social Cognition

Let’s begin with analytic cognition. I first encountered it through Connor Wood, who summarized some research on cognitive styles at Science and Religion. Wood describes two basic cognitive styles, identifiable both by brain scan (different areas light up) and by thought patterns: analytic or task-specific cognition prefers thinking about abstract casually-interdependent concepts while social or default cognition prefers thinking about interpersonal relationships and social norms. Only one cognitive style can be active at a time, so if you’re engaged in analytic cognition your social cognition will suffer, and vice versa. Furthermore, as much as everyone can switch between the two styles, a person who is good at one is usually (though not always) not so good at the other. This is construct has both a psychological and neurological component, in that it both describes certain kinds of cognition in abstracted terms and links them to certain regions in the brain. On the psychological side, there does not seem to be much reason for a person who is thinking systematically to therefore be less competent at thinking socially; the reason for this appears on the neurological side. When I first encountered Wood explaining these idea, he was using it to account for how rude and emotionally stitled Richard Dawkins and his ilk seems to be: because they think very analytically, it does not seem unlikely that their social cognition is comparatively weak.

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The Study of Anglicanism, Excerpts

Along with my first-ever set of gaming dice I recently ordered and received The Study of Anglicanism (1988), an anthology, edited by Stephen Sykes and John Booty, of articles on Anglicanism. Three or so years ago my then-priest recommended it along with A Passionate Balance as a way of getting to know the tradition better. Now that I have begun to read it, I thought I would write brief responses to its articles.

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Photograph my own.

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Am I Autistic? Would It Matter?

Since the beginning of the new year I have realized that I might have high-functioning autism.[1] I am currently unclear about two things: how I would find out if I do and whether it would matter if I do.

This isn’t the first time I considered the possibility that I might be on the autism spectrum. When I was in undergrad I realized that certain of my traits–discomfort with eye contact, inability to interpret physical touch, minor social awkwardness, occasional bluntness and tone deafness, intellectual obsessions–were typical of autism or resembled symptoms of autism. But whenever I researched it I found that I didn’t have certain traits you would expect of someone who was autistic: not only did I pretend play a lot as a child, it was neither repetitive nor focused on a consistent topic; I am more than capable of interpreting tone of voice and reading implied content in speech; I am about average at interpreting body language; my verbal communication skills are better than usual. By my best understanding of autism at the time, I did not qualify, so I stopped looking into it and stopped thinking about it.

However, I’ve learned a bit more since then. One of the things I’ve learned is that autism is still poorly understood and that what traits are required for a diagnosis is up for (some) debate. Moreover, I’ve learned that adults have often found ways of compensating for symptoms of autism; if they learned these techniques unconsciously, they might not be aware that they are using work-arounds. This discrepancy between an ideal case of autism and what autism might actually look like prompted a particular Twitter user to create a list of traits common to people with autism that don’t appear in most diagnostic lists. It was her opinion that a person who exhibited half or more of those traits was autistic; indeed, there was one trait that she considered properly diagnostic, such that anyone who exhibits it is autistic regardless of how they answer the other items on her list.

I won’t be coy. I answered yes to the diagnostic question. When I first saw it I was very skeptical that the question was really diagnostic–indeed, I’m still skeptical[2]–but I took it seriously enough that I worked through her list. I answered for how I act right now and got exactly 50/50; if I answered for childhood, I would probably have had just over 50/50, but distributed differently. That was high enough that I started to take it seriously. Continue reading

Absolutist Pluralism

From time to time when I stake out pluralist positions on the Internet, I am accused of relativism. It took me a little while to articulate how pluralism does not necessitate relativism, but I think the more interesting point is that many morally absolutist worldviews in North America today are minimally pluralist. Conservative forms of Christianity offer some of the best examples. That’s what I want to outline in this post; in part, I hope to direct people here if I ever get into such an argument again. If you find this argument compelling, you can use it in this way too.

(If you prefer “moral realism” to “moral absolutism,” feel free to swap them in your head. I’ll be using “absolutism” because “realism” has way to many meanings, depending on the specific philosophical argument at hand, than I care to deal with here.)

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Source: Lawrence OP at flic.kr/p/kxTYRQ

I can give an abstract case for a pluralism compatible with an absolutist view of what’s good for humans: Imagine there are sixteen types of people in the world, but there are thirty-two ways of doing something (earning a living, say). It might be the case that for each type of person a different way of doing something is best. Nonetheless, it does not follow from this that all thirty-two ways of doing something are good. A full half of them might, by objective standards of value, be bad for people at the same time that many of them are legitimate. Moreover, it may be objectively the case that for people of any given type, one way of doing something is best. However, I think this abstract case too readily allows a person to project their ideas about pluralism onto it. Specific and unexpected examples, I suspect, will work best to drive the point home. The examples I want to use are vocations and complementarianism. Continue reading

Are Jones’s Theological Worlds Comprehensive?

Edit 5 May 2019: I have changed my position on the exclusion of negative problems in social organization, which I expand on in this post.

I have mentioned W. Paul Jones’s theological worlds construct more than a few times here. It is one of the constructs I use to help me understand why other people believe and assume the things that they do. But I’ve also expressed concern here about two potential problems that arise out of Jones’s very Christian emphasis: a) how useful is it to apply Jones’s construct to non-Christians and b) how comprehensive is his set of Worlds?

To an extent that last question is an empirical one which will be difficult for me to answer; Jones’s method involved surveying hundreds of people and I do not have the resources to do the same. But there is another way to attempt to answer the question about comprehensiveness which, I have discovered, might also help make his constructs more useful for non-Christians. After a bit of thought I think I have been able to schematize his Worlds so that they do, or at least might, cover all possible sources of anxiety and obsession about the human condition.

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Stephane Lollivier at flic.kr/p/DnhB8H; I spent a while trying to find a Creative Commons image of a garrison town with a wooden palisade in boreal forest, but no such luck.

Let’s start with that human condition: human life is characterized by a) individual humans with their own internal dynamics b) embedded within and enmeshed with an environment which includes, but is not limited to, the facts of time and space, of the Laws of Thermodynamics, and so on, and c) associated with other individual humans (even if only their own parents) in ways more or less organized. The internal workings (understood both physically and psychologically) of any given human, which I will call human nature, has various requirements (ie. sustenance, medicine, narrative), some of which that person can only attain from the surrounding environment; when humans organize themselves into institutions, they usually do so with the purpose of making it easier for themselves to meet these needs through collective action. These organizations are necessary because it is often difficult for people to meet their needs either within themselves or through interaction with the environment. Even when it is not difficult to meet these needs alone, there is no guarantee that it will remain easy.

Therefore there are three places where crises may arise for any given person: in the environment (which, again, includes all contingent and all necessary features of existence, such as time and space and the laws of physics), in the person’s own internal workings (which might be generalized human nature or a specific person’s unique nature), or in human organization. Indeed, while all problems must necessarily involve elements of each of these three aspects of human existence, an individual person may experience one of these as being more responsible or more ultimately responsible in comparison to the other two.

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Guilt and Shame in the Colossus of Rhodes

One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was the Colossus of Rhodes, an iron-framed and brass-covered statue of the titan and sun god Helios, which stood in the harbour of Rhodes, Greece. Built in 280 BCE, it was the tallest statue of its time at 70 cubits high (about 33 metres or 108 feet). Contrary to popular depiction, it likely did not straddle the mouth of the harbour. Nonetheless, it would have been an impressive sight to any sailors approaching the city. Greek myth animated another bronze colossus in Crete named Talos: either Hephaestus or Daedalus made the automaton on Zeus’s behalf in order to defend Europa, queen mother of Crete. He had one vein in his metal body, which ran from his neck to his ankle; it was fastened shut with a single nail. When the Argo approached, with Jason at the helm, Talos tried to repel it and Medea used her sorcery to dislodge the nail. His ichor ran out of him like molten lead and he died. The Cretan word talôs is equivalent to the Greek hêlios, meaning the Sun, which is the subject of the Colossus of Rhodes. Much later the Romans made further bronze colossi: the Colossus of Barletta, the Colossus of Constantine, and the Colossus of Nero.

Coloso_de_Rodas.

Source: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coloso_de_Rodas..jpg

I feel like I live inside a colossus of this type: a brazen image of myself, physically idealized, well-proportioned and gargantuan. It is hollow, and I stand inside it with the clear understanding that I am supposed to grow into it. I am supposed, somehow, to fill this statue so that it is merely my own skin. But I have no sense that this thing is possible, nor how to achieve it if it is. Instead I try to operate the colossus and speak from it like a puppeteer. Relying on the full extent of my scant ingenuity I try to create the illusion that I have done what I am supposed to do, or at least that I am in the process of growing into it. But I know better. I have made no gains in that direction. From within, the colossus rings as empty as it ever has.

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MacIntyre on Sophoclean Tragedies

Amod Lele of Love of All Wisdom, in the comments of my second to last post, “A Partial Apology for Liberalism,” recommended that I read Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Though I was skeptical for the first few chapters and I found some of the prose unclear, I wound up quite enjoying it. I’m not convinced of the demonstrative half of his argument, but I will discuss that in greater length later. Right now I want to focus on his discussion of Sophoclean tragedies.

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Source: UCI UC Irvine at flic.kr/p/dp67Vf

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On the Wonderful Properties of My Rabbit Aswan

Let this first sentence serve as a content warning for an extended discussion of suicidal thoughts and depression. If you are here looking for the undiluted saccharine, try this instead. Still, there will be pictures of and there will be affection for bunnies.

In the summer of 2015 I graduated from my MLIS program at UBC and, as you may already know, went to live with my brother and his wife in Toronto, Ontario. They owned–indeed, still own–two rabbits who I was excited to spend more time with: a bedraggled and affectionate cloud named Delphie and a distrustful half-dwarf named Baxter. To my great surprise, they had a third rabbit living in the bathroom when I arrived: a tiny starved white-and-caramel lop with outsized ears and feet.

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Aswan as a bathroom bunny. Picture copyright Christian Hendriks, 2015.

My sister-in-law had been walking home from her studio and found someone giving her away on the street, with a carrier and a bag of pricey rabbit pellets. Concerned that she would wind up in a stew pot or with some family incapable of caring for her, she took the little rabbit home. According to that previous owner, who could not bring her with him to his new condo, her name was Aswan.  Continue reading

A Partial Apology for Liberalism, or, A Partial Criticism of its Critics

Before I begin, a note is warranted: I will be dropping a lot of names in this piece and I want to put you at ease before you have to deal with them. I don’t expect that any of my likely readers will be familiar with most of the people I mention and I am trying to write specifically so that you can still understand what’s going on without knowing who they are. Anything I need you to know about them, I will tell you myself. I will also provide links should I fail in this endeavour or should I succeed in piquing your interest, but I do not intend for you to rely upon them. That said, let’s begin.

A statue of the Godd of Democracy, holding a torch aloft, behind whom are evergreen branches.

The Goddess of Democracy at UBC. Source: Carl Mueller at flic.kr/p/5cNvQY

A few weeks ago I found Love of All Wisdom, the philosophy blog of Amod Lele. There’s a lot going on with Lele’s work that I find interesting and compelling. An academic philosopher with a PhD in the subject, he describes himself as working in the Aristotelian, Buddhist, and historicist traditions and his work is wide-ranging, bringing a huge variety of both Western and non-Western philosophers to a problem. (His header has pictures of his major influences: Santideva the Indian Buddhist philosopher, Aristotle the ancient Greek empiricist, Hegel the German historicist, Confucius the traditionalist communitarian, and Martha Nussbaum the contemporary academic philosopher.) He also uses a few different categorization schemes for philosophies, two of which he’s organized into a quadrant system that I am thinking of adopting: integrity vs. intimacy and ascent v. descent. (If I was still at my old blog, I’d add it to my Taxonomies of Religions list.) His thought is new to me, but I admire his precision, erudition, creativity, and seriousness–a rare combination of traits in a thinker.

Although I would love to just list the things I’ve learned from Lele, what I want to focus on for this post is where his ideas intersect with those of other people whose thought I’ve encountered lately, who explicitly reject the anthropology, and therefore politics, of liberalism.* Continue reading