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Tag Archive: Meaning

Alan Keyes Schools a Journalist on the Distinction Between Principles and Particulars

Posted: Friday, September 28, 2012 (1:12 pm), by John W Gillis


Alas, how different the world might be today if that 2004 Illinois U.S. Senate race had turned out differently:

 

The video provider labels this “A strong argument against gay marriage”, though I would be inclined to call it something like “A simple elucidation of the fundamental error of gay marriage”.

For what it’s worth, Alan Keyes is the only presidential candidate I’ve ever donated money to (in the 2000 election), though I very well may have donated to Rick Santorum this year if he had been the GOP nominee.

I love the look on Obama’s face when they cut to him near the end. It looks like he’s hoping he won’t get called on. He’s clearly out of his league with Keyes intellectually, but intelligence, unfortunately, does not win elections: politics does. And don’t we know how much craftier a politician Obama is than Keyes. Keyes never really had a chance as a politician, but he sure elevated the conversation.

Update: Video fixed, I hope.

The great danger that bedevils any powerful heuristic or interpretive discipline is the tendency to mistake method for ontology

Posted: Friday, September 30, 2011 (1:57 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Friday, September 30th, 2011:

David Bentley Hart, from an On The Square article today over at First Things, on the inherently epistemologically-limiting nature of intellectual methodology, and the dangers of ignoring that fact:

The great danger that bedevils any powerful heuristic or interpretive discipline is the tendency to mistake method for ontology, and so to mistake a partial perspective on particular truths for a comprehensive vision of truth as such. In the modern world, this is an especially pronounced danger in the sciences, largely because of the exaggerated reverence scientists enjoy in the popular imagination, and also largely because of the incapacity of many in the scientific establishment to distinguish between scientific rigor and materialist ideology (or, better, materialist metaphysics).

This has two disagreeable results (well, actually, far more than two, but two that are relevant here): The lunatic self-assurance with which some scientists imagine that their training in, say, physics or zoology has somehow equipped them to address philosophical questions whose terms they have never even begun to master; and the inability of many scientists to recognize realities—even very obvious realities—that lie logically outside the reach of the methods their disciplines employ. The best example of the latter, I suppose, would be the inability of certain contemporary champions of “naturalism” to grasp that the question of existence is qualitatively infinitely distinct from the question of how one physical reality arises from another (for, inasmuch as physics can explore only the physical, and the physical by definition already exists, then existence as such is always “metaphysical,” or even “hyperphysical”—which is to say, “supernatural.”)

This interesting little aside into the role of methodology in the intellectual life got me to thinking about the role of religion in the academy. It seems to me, when you get right down to it, that the idea of methodology serving as a definition of the limits of knowledge, thus marginalizing thought which falls outside the methodology as non-knowledge (or “un-scientific”, as one hears it imprecisely put today), is essentially a superstition. Superstition, after all, is nothing more than a belief that a methodology (i.e. cult), whether in act or incantation, will cause effects which in reality are quite independent of their alleged explanations, despite appearances to the contrary (superstitions that did not appear to “work” some convincing proportion of the time would, of course, never have been held). This is not merely a conflation or confusion of correlation with causation (though it certainly can involve that), but an actual belief in the power of allegedly explanatory phenomena, which misdirects the intellect away from its proper end, which is the contemplation of truth. That’s a fancy way of saying that people are deceived by their own cleverness, and so take their eyes off of God.

The history of true religion, be it Christianity or the Israelite religion that spawned it, is a history of struggling against and overcoming the superstitions of pagan religions, and of pointing to the one, true, un-manipulable Cause. It’s ironic that the Yahwists of yore could be denounced essentially as atheists for their rejection of the cosmology, cult, and attendant morality of pagan religion, while their modern descendants are reviled as “religious theocrats” by people often calling themselves atheists, who are practitioners of a methodology (cult) believed to be bringing relief (salvation) to the human condition, but which superstitiously claims both to explain things clearly beyond its competence and invalidate ideas beyond its scope, furthermore is based on a cosmology of Original Violence, or intrinsic struggle – with its resounding similarity to pagan mythology – and is producing in its wake a social morality that resembles nothing so much as pagan hedonism.

It’s been said often enough that wisdom depends on an apt understanding of the meanings of words. Our society could benefit greatly from a non-obfuscatory working definition of religion.

Idealism Unencumbered by Reality: Obamacare, pt.1

Posted: Saturday, January 2, 2010 (6:03 pm), by John W Gillis


obamagig George Orwell, in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” said: “Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” There is no more apt description of the political discourse that has defined the “healthcare” issue in this country over the past year. Now that we’ve seen what the Democratic leadership has proposed for legislation, would it be out of line to suggest that someone might owe Joe Wilson an apology?

Of course, it was almost impossible to know much of substance of what was being proposed until the 2,000+ page monstrosities were actually submitted as bills – documents our elected representatives wouldn’t even have read before voting on. For months, the public “debate” consisted of little more than partisan posturing from both major parties – save for some genuine disagreements over public funding of abortion, and the so-called “public option” insurance plan. Despite the constant “healthcare” rhetoric, the real target of political muscle-flexing is the medical insurance industry. Admittedly, questions around requirements for treatment rationing did arise while the public option was still on the table, so perhaps actual healthcare questions may come back into play at some point.

It is impossible to draft coherent policy without a sound understanding of the issues at stake, and it is impossible to understand the issues at stake without coherent definitions of the terms of the debate. The thing that bothers me most deeply about this obvious boondoggle is the almost total lack of interest – among politicians, journalists, or the general public – in making sure the issues are understood before taking a position or making a decision. As usual, we are, collectively, satisfied by an idealism unencumbered by facts, or by any kind of reasoning from ideas to consequences. I fear an economic train wreck coming, masquerading as yet more self-righteous do-goodism, and arrogating ever more power over people’s lives to the state. This is not reform, it’s simply the entrenchment of Big Brother.

The ideal at issue can be summed up as the universal right to healthcare. That sounds great, but what does it mean? In order to get from ideal to sound policy, all three terms (universal, right, and healthcare) need to be understood – not only insofar as their general implications through historical usage would suggest, but also precisely how they are being circumscribed by the current context. We are far from any useful common understanding of any of this. In discussion, this ideal is sometimes modified to propose that everyone has a right to adequate healthcare. The “adequate” modifier is a step in the right direction, recognizing at least that there is not a lately discovered unlimited right to whatever we call healthcare, but at the same time, it really just adds a fourth term to the question requiring resolution. If we don’t know what adequate healthcare is, how can we craft policy to achieve it?

The central term of the debate, healthcare, is so vague and ill-defined that it can mean whatever anyone wants it to mean at any given time, and it invariably does – and you can be sure that trend will continue. Not one of the main actors in this debacle would dare to publicly define exactly what constitutes “healthcare;” they’ll simply proclaim loudly that it must be reformed! It must therefore be noted that the central idea of President Obama’s primary domestic priority is a weasel word which nobody actually understands, or can articulate coherently! This is a textbook example of how a commitment to a vague concept can be abused for unrestricted leverage in policy determination. The point, after all, is not actually healthcare (whatever that means), but “shaping the future of America.”

I am reminded of a saying that I must confess I once accepted as axiomatic (as does virtually everyone on the progressive left): that the rich get richer while the poor get poorer. No doubt the poor, like everyone else, sometimes do get poorer, and there are indeed scenarios where the above dynamic would hold true (e.g. with land grabs by the wealthy, or other usurpations of finite resources). But the saying is usually invoked as a denunciation of wealth growth in a capitalist context, where it makes absolutely no sense. As American wealth has grown, all but a tiny fraction of the populace has seen their standard of living rise to levels simply unimaginable to the vast majority of those whom history has called the poor. It turns out that a rising tide does indeed lift all boats, whether the progressives like it or not. The problem is that all boats don’t rise equally, and envy perceives this lack of uniformity in progress as an injustice, despite the fact that the process is actually working for everybody. Thus, it is an envy-occasioned blindness that gives rise to the mischaracterization of universal but uneven improvement as being a case of “the poor get poorer.”

Likewise, the actual problems in our healthcare system, and/or our healthcare delivery system, hardly seem to me to be of crisis proportion (after all, our healthcare system, by and large, is excellent, and the envy of the rest of the world). I agree that is prudent to be concerned about the rate of increase in healthcare costs proportional to the rest of the economy, but a large part of that cost increase is traceable to the technical revolution in the medical field, which is making more and more treatments available to people, yet which do not – and cannot – come free. Twenty or thirty years ago, we spent much less on medical costs, but we got much less in return. I don’t see anyone trying to turn back the clock on medical technology.

Because of the prevalence of third-party payers, whose role ends up encouraging the over-use of medical resources for non-critical and even frivolous problems, and who in turn have to bundle increased usage costs from both non-critical over-use and constantly emerging technological advances into their own pricing structure, consumers encounter premium increases that may not reflect their own usage of the healthcare system, eventually reaching levels that are economically disruptive, and even pricing them out of the market. We can talk about subsidizing these costs, but unless the causal issues are addressed, the costs are merely being shifted from one pocket to another.

The presence of these third-party payers has also distorted the pricing models of the healthcare providers themselves, inflating the pricing of direct payment markets to sometimes ridiculous levels, effectively eliminating the option of patients paying directly for as-needed a la carte care from providers, as had been the almost universal practice until very recently. This is part of what frosts so many young people who would prefer to stay out of the health insurance market (and who are likely to be forced now to take on these spiraling prices of the third-parties, both directly through premiums, and indirectly through taxation), that the costs for services for those without insurance plans are far and away higher than the insured indirectly pay through their third-party payer. Those who are uninsured not by choice are in an even worse situation. Simply requiring open accounting of provider pricing could go a long way in empowering cash customers (i.e. patients) in search of a fair deal.

The fact that the Democrats tried so hard to include a “public option” in the reform package demonstrates clearly that they do not understand the problems inherent in third-party payer systems, fail to see how sound risk management on the part of payers can limit those problems, and somehow still fail to grasp how much more distorted (not to mention corrupt) the market would be with an increased role for public agencies. It’s not that problems don’t exist in the delivery system; it’s that the Democrats seem bound and determined to make them worse in the name of making them better.

If the basic practical problem is that “healthcare” has become too expensive, there is absolutely nothing in the structure of the proposed reforms that will ameliorate that – in fact, all the guilty parties involved in this know full well that costs will increase. The Chief Actuary at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has suggested that, with the Reid bill in place, healthcare spending, as a percentage of GDP, will increase from 17% to 21% over the next decade. Nice reform. I also have to assume that this estimate is not assuming overall economic damage, due to the irresponsible tax increases associated with this plan, shrinking the projected GDP, which would almost surely raise the percentage of that GDP spent on government regulated healthcare to an even higher percentage.

If, as it appears, the primary objective is to make “coverage” available to more people, the obvious first step should be to repeal the anti-competitive 1945 McCarran-Ferguson Act, and the second step should be to set up supports for policy portability. What we get instead are Constitutionally dubious proposals to wreak havoc on the medical insurance industry, which appear so poorly thought out that it makes me wonder if this plan is really intended as a time bomb to get a nationalized program in place through the back door of private sector collapse. OK, that’s paranoid. Still…

And, of course, the one surefire way to realize immediate, significant healthcare cost reductions for everybody, tort reform, is, as always, nowhere on the Democrat’s radar as far as I know, despite the fact that, again, everyone involved knows what a real difference this would make. What a disgrace.

Fraudulent? Does That Matter?

Posted: Monday, September 1, 2008 (12:29 pm), by John W Gillis


Few things make me feel like I was born on the wrong planet as much as the blatant denial of the meaning and authority of reality – that is to say, the reality of objective truth. This is truly a malady of modern human reason, and it seems to be rampant – maybe even epidemic. There are days I’m sure I’ve seen everything, then there are days, and I think this is one of those days, when I’m almost afraid to look out the window at the world for fear of the lunacy I might encounter.

I came across a startling statement in a Boston Globe article a couple months ago or so, which I decided at the time to let slide without comment, but the story reappeared last week, and fits too well into a pattern with some other recent stories, suggesting that we have inadequate cultural resources at our disposal, on account of our social penchant for subjectivism, with which to deal seriously with personal fraud.

The statement came from a 71 year-old Massachusetts woman named Misha Defonseca, in an article discussing her ongoing troubles with an American publisher named Jane Daniel, in which Defonseca offered what she must have thought was a serious explanation for fabricating the story behind a book she wrote at Daniel’s urging. Defonseca claimed to have been a young Jewish girl who escaped the Nazis and was raised by wolves in the Ukraine, among other adventures. The book was huge commercially in Europe, and was even made into a film in France, but the story was a complete fabrication. Defonseca isn’t even Jewish, never mind the bit about the wolves.

Defonseca’s troubles with Daniel don’t really interest me – it is a tawdry story without any redeeming characters – but her explanation for the fraud she perpetrated floored me when I read it in the Globe:

“This story is mine. It is not actually reality, but my reality, my way of surviving,” Defonseca said in a statement released by her lawyers.

What on earth is that supposed to mean? Not only did a 71 year-old woman think this statement up, but her lawyers apparently thought it could somehow garner sympathy! What if they’re right?

It’s important to understand that she did not make the story up to publish in a book for profit; she had been telling the story for years to anyone that would listen. She has spent half a lifetime feeding off the attention her “fantasy” has attracted her (not to mention the large sums of money earned over the past decade or so), and yet now that her hoax is revealed, she shamelessly tries to cling to her story by subjectivizing the grounds for judging her actions. As long as she wants the story to be true, she figures she can continue to perpetuate it at some level, denying any culpability, with no concern for the many people she deceived, no sense of genuine repentance, and no apparent understanding that the truth matters. By her own words, her life has become so intertwined in this lie that she cannot extricate herself.

In a world in which the public order has repressed religious authority as being unreasonable and oppressive of individual freedom, we see in this embarrassing episode the worst elements of religious self deception and irrational, delusional pretense coming to expression in the hope-forsaken framework of the psychologized modern mind, with its pathetic appetite for self-esteem and “affirmation,” trapped in a prison of relativistic subjectivity that is incapable of distinguishing fantasy from reality. Reality (that is, the truth) plays such an inconsequential part in her chosen shade of existence that she will likely go to the grave without ever comprehending the evil she has contributed to the world through her shameless dishonesty. But perhaps even sadder is that she has completely lost her own self in the process.

This is, after all, not her story at all, even as she so desperately wants to believe it is. It is the story of someone who never existed, the story of no one at all. It’s the story of nothing – it’s not even a story; it’s a fraud – it’s not real. Her story, indeed, can never be known, because her existence has been emptied out meaninglessly, replaced by a fraud that has no reality, no existence. No one will ever know her, because her story can never be told; eternally lost in the fog of deceit and moral corruption, she doesn’t even know herself.

Truly, the saddest thing about the indulgent “identity” culture of modernity’s narcissistic bent is that identity can never be found in the mirage of self-seeking, only lost:

Thus says the LORD:
What fault did your fathers find in me that they withdrew from me,
Went after empty idols, and became empty themselves?
Jeremiah 2:5 (NAB)

Somewhere, there are those who, as young Jewish girls, did go through the horrors of Nazism, who must feel nothing but shame for this woman, who cannot manage to be ashamed of herself.

The Heart of the Matter (part 2)

Posted: Saturday, May 10, 2008 (11:40 pm), by John W Gillis


My last post ended up focusing on the need to understand the nature of the problem of pornography, but what I’m really trying to get at is seeing how people are shaped by the ideas they encounter and absorb, how this is particularly true of children, and how this generality might be applied to the concrete situations parents find themselves in when confronted with the need to make decisions regarding their children’s involvement in pop culture, with its attendant mores.

I take it for granted that everything we encounter in life, including everything we encounter in pop culture – from the pornography I mentioned, to music, movies, news product, sporting spectacles, etc. – is pregnant with ideas. That’s really not saying much more than that everything has meaning (a radical enough idea these days). I suppose I am pointing to that which is beyond the competence of empiricism to grasp; to what the poet would see in something, even if the scientist were oblivious to it.

Since I’m concerning myself primarily with pop culture, I will use an illustration drawn from it: Almost 35 years ago, the Haight-Ashbury (San Francisco) rock band Jefferson Starship published a song called Ride the Tiger which included the following verse, near the end:

It’s like a tear in the hand of a Western man,
he’ll tell you about salt covered in water.
But a tear, to an Oriental man,
he’ll tell you about sadness and sorrow,
or the love of a man and a woman.

Have a listen: [audio:http://maybetoday.org/wp-content/audio/ride_the_tiger.mp3]

Had this verse come from an Oriental man, I suppose it should have been taken as an insult. But coming from Westerners, it’s just another example of the self-loathing that afflicts liberal society. Either way, it’s a rather silly sentiment: overblown, and lacking any indication of meaningful interaction with either of these cultures. All the same, as clumsy as it is, it makes an important point – and one that is readily discernible.

No, it has nothing intelligent to say about Western and Oriental cultures, but it does say something important about different ways of approaching understanding, reiterating what I said above regarding the limits of empiricism. The dichotomy it posits could actually be pretty reasonably (if much less lyrically) restated as one between modern secularism and traditional society, but if the band had peered within traditional Western culture looking for the deeper meaning beyond the sterile, clinical superficiality of chemical analysis, they would have encountered historical Christianity, which would have forcefully challenged many of the assumptions of their own superficial antitraditionalism – it’s so much less demanding to get romantic over a past that has no claim on you…

So, even in this brief illustration, we can see how several layers of meaning emerge from the encounter with this song – and we’re only scratching the surface of it: examining a short lyrical excerpt, while completely ignoring the aesthetic elements of harmony, melody, and rhythm. Still, its meaning can be usefully analyzed.

Primarily, there is the meaning intended by the lyricist – which has both explicit and implicit levels. Implicitly, we are being told that things (e.g. tears) carry within themselves meaning that point far beyond themselves, through representation of and association with other things (the details of which we don’t need to delve into). This is profoundly true, and is the important phenomenon called transcendence, which is very much the point I’m trying to make in this post – though I am more interested in showing how it is true of things like songs than of things like tears.

Explicitly, we are being told that Western man is shallow, and incapable of seeing the transcendent meanings embedded in things, but that Oriental man can see them. This claim is not true, although it must be admitted that Western man has been intellectually pursuing this very reductionism, which denies (and hence is oblivious to) the transcendent. Nonetheless, that project, while very popular in the academy, has not (yet) overwhelmed the West. Meanwhile, the Oriental societies that have modernized are at least as bad off as the West in this regard.

Beyond the meaning intended by the lyricist, we can also understand quite a bit about the lyricist himself: by understanding what was intended to be said, what was implied, what was assumed, and how much resemblance any of this bears to reality – as well as how it fits into its historical context. This understanding is contingent upon our ability – and willingness – to think critically about what is being conveyed.

This leads us to the subjective element in the encounter. Regardless of how well we may or may not grasp the author’s intent, we will bring to it our own set of understandings of associations and representations. We will encounter it within the context of our own experiences, and the piece may end up taking on it’s own quite personal transcendent meaning in our lives, depending on how it shapes new associations for us.

My immediate reaction to this particular verse, at this point in my life, is to roll my eyes at the romanticism of it, because I have become sensitive, in my own search for truth, to a much deeper and more complex core to Western culture than is suggested in this caricature. I’m also aware that the tendency toward empirical reductionism, to the extent that it is an influence in Western culture, is driven, in part, by a progressivist worldview that both delights in frivolous novelty, and disparages traditional values (and traditionalism per se). But this progressivism, which produces such culpably sterile empiricism, is also very much at the heart of the rock music culture from which this band seeks to express its criticism of it.

This is why they think they find wisdom in their romanticized view of Oriental culture, and are so enamored of it. It possesses progressivism’s requisite novelty, and allows them to embrace a premodern or traditional perspective without acknowledging it as part of a heritage having an ancestral claim on them – it allows them to embrace it from the position of a consumer, who buys it because he likes it. If, instead, they had plumbed the depth of their own cultural heritage, and seen that their fathers were ready to bequeath them a similar, and even superior, wisdom, their self-righteous rebellious adolescent routine would have come apart at the seams rather quickly.

However, I first encountered this song as probably a 14 year-old, in 1974, not as a grown man experienced (at least peripherally) in the contemporary battles of the culture wars. I was, first of all, quite captivated by the rollicking buoyancy of the music, the infectious backbeat, the crisp work of a guitarist I’d never heard before… I was more than willing to put up with almost any level of lyrical banality. I was certainly not prepared to think critically about the kinds of ideas being transmitted – it was just a cool song.

I can’t really say how much influence the verse in question had on the formation of my early understanding of the nature and character of Western culture. It probably somewhat reinforced pre-existing prejudices against traditional wisdom, but I can’t say for sure. I do know that I was never swayed to the opinion that Oriental culture held some kind of existentially superior position to the West, through a sort of quasi-mystical access to a deeper meaning or state of being, access that had been bureaucratized out of the grasp of entrenched Westerners – and that was not an unpopular opinion, most notably in the form of the Transcendental Meditation fobbed off on young hippie “mystics” by the soon-to-be-billionaire Hindu Yogi who used the Beatles as his shill.

But I was only skeptical, not wise. I might have fallen for it, had I sensed something in it for me. One thing I can say for sure: the image of the tear that can be intellectually reduced to chemistry, or allowed to witness poetically to certain truths about the unfolding of human history, has stuck with me for all these years. It is a resource I can call upon, warts and all, to help explain the transcendent value of ordinary things. It turns out it was more than just a cool song: it was, for better or worse, a tortured worldview seeking souls to abide in. We simply can’t consume without, in some way, becoming.

We always begin our encounter with a piece of music – and its encounter with us – with the objective presentation of the artist. Even when music is intentionally presented so as to have no explicit meaning, it retains implicit meaning from its creator, and before any digestion can begin to take place on our part, it is that objective meaning that we consume (assuming we can tolerate it to begin with!).

Needless to say, it is not all of equal worth, and a lack of discrimination on our part will surely lead to consuming some foul fare. It’s too simplistic to say that all that matters is what we do with it once we’ve consumed it; what “it” is, is determinative for what we can do with it. We are what we eat.