24 April 2007


On to the fifth major field of philosophy: Political Philosophy or Political Science, “The branch of knowledge concerned with politcal activity and behaviour.” (OED). The overarching questions of this enquiry are:

Is Utopia possible? What is the best form of government?

Some other questions that are relevant to this study include:
- How should societies be organized?
- What laws should civilizations legislate and enforce?
- Are people basically good or evil?
- How much do people need to be restrained?
- How much freedom should citizens have to do whatever they please?
- Should the government legislate, dictate, or restrain religion or religious practices?
Instead of answering particular questions this week, here is what I would like you to do. Describe your concept of the ideal state.
Start simple and build up the details. Begin by describing the form of government. Who would rule? How many people? How would they be organized? Explain whether your system is a known form of government—monarchy, dictatorship, democracy, republic, oligarchy, anarchy, etc.—or if you think you have invented a new form. Next, explain the role of the individual in this system. Then begin getting into specific results of your system. What would you do for education, laws, punishments, judicial system, etc? Would you legistlate your ethics—in other words, make laws enforcing your personal morality?
If that task seems too overwhelming, try this one instead:
Write a new Bill of Rights. List ten or so basic rights that you believe all people should have. Make a general rule, but then also (this is important!) explain how you would apply this general right to specific situations. In other words, suppose that you retained the “right to free speech.” How would you apply that to hate speech? Public or media profanity? Libel?
You get the idea.
Please add other thoughts as they come to you, including descriptions of utopias you may have encountered in movies or literature.

Do you think Utopia is possible?

What kind of government do you personally believe the Bible suggests or commands?

Have fun.

18 April 2007

Pluralism: Will the true God please stand up?

Admonit asked in another post, "If there is a God, which one?" I thought I'd start a new thread rather than adding another lengthy comment there, because this one veers somewhat off the original topic.

I believe there is only one God, and that all the monotheistic religions believe in that same one God, though they may call him by different names -- Yahweh, Jehovah, Allah, Vāhigurū (the latter is the one personal and transcendent creator god of Sikhism). And they all may believe in or experience different attributes of God. Our human minds are limited, so we can only comprehend a small fraction of what God is like. It would stand to reason that different peoples over time in attempting to understand God as he has revealed himself to them have described him in different ways, like the blind men describing the elephant (one says it's like a rope, because he is feeling the tail; one says it's like a tree trunk, because he is feeling one of the legs, etc.).

We in the Judeo-Christian tradition believe that God has revealed something of himself to us through Scripture (though certainly not all of himself; even all the books in the whole earth couldn't contain all there is to know about God). Christians also believe that God's ultimate self-revelation was through his Son, Jesus Christ. While they do put us in somewhat of a unique position with respect to understanding "which God" there is, these things don't exempt us from the same limiting factors that all people of various faiths are bound by, namely finite minds further clouded by sin. We are like the blind men with the elephant when we read Scripture. Some of us (Christians) see great prophetic passages in the Old Testament (or "First Testament" as some Christians choose to call it so as not to offend Jews) and perceive that those texts are surely talking about Jesus of Nazareth. Others of us (of the Jewish faith) see the prophetic texts -- e.g., about the Suffering Servant -- as referring to the nation of Israel. So who is right? Or are we both right in some sense? I think we both need each other for a full understanding and interpretation of Scripture. And perhaps we Jews and Christians also need devout Muslims and Sikhs and others to elucidate other aspects of God that our sacred texts and traditions might not have taught us about. And likewise Muslims and Sikhs need us to tell them what we've learned about the good news of redemption through Christ, among other things. I think it is arrogant of any of us to say we have "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God." Even if Christians do have a corner on the truth (which I don't think we do), it certainly won't win us any hearing with others to go about claiming that they are wrong and need to believe the way we do.

At this stage in my life, I am coming to a place of trying to live well within a pluralistic society. I have seen too much hatred and war between people of different religions to think that vigorously defending our differences is worth it. I'd rather look first for our common ground and engage in respectful dialogue about our differences from there. While I expect to go to my grave still believing in Christ as Lord, and the Bible as the Word of God, I still want to learn from my neighbors of other religious traditions rather than view them as "projects" to work on (those Christian tracts about how to witness to Jehovah's Witnesses or Muslims or Mormons used to intrigue me, but now make me cringe). My church upbringing taught me how to interpret Christ's statement of being "the Way, the Truth, and the Life," the One through whom "no one comes to the Father" without. But I'm open to the possibility that our interpretation might not be 100% correct. Are there not others who can relate to God as Father without knowing Christ? Or perhaps it is through Christ that they are enabled to come to God, even though they are not aware of his mediatorial role. (See Romans 2.) I'm more inclined to believe the latter.

I had some neighbors across the street from me who were Sikhs and were very friendly. They were pretty assimilated into American culture and didn't wear the turban or kirpan, but their relatives who visited them from time to time (and to whom they introduced me) did. My pleasant encounter with these Sikh neighbors has given me a curiosity about the Sikh religion. It was fascinating to read some of the stories about its founder Guru Nanak and find them quite similar to stories about Jesus in the Christian Bible. It made me wonder whether Guru Nanak might have been Christ in the flesh again. Jesus rose from the dead and is at the right hand of the Father, but who says he cannot appear in our presence again (as he did with the disciples after his resurrection) and perhaps even be unrecognized as the incarnate God again (as he was on the Road to Emmaus)?

I found a very good articulation by Diana L. Eck of what I think is a good way of relating to those of other faiths. Worth quoting in its entirety here:

"The plurality of religious traditions and cultures has come to characterize every part of the world today. But what is pluralism? Here are four points to begin our thinking:
• First, pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity. Diversity can and has meant the creation of religious ghettoes with little traffic between or among them. Today, religious diversity is a given, but pluralism is not a given; it is an achievement. Mere diversity without real encounter and relationship will yield increasing tensions in our societies.

• Second, pluralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference. Tolerance is a necessary public virtue, but it does not require Christians and Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and ardent secularists to know anything about one another. Tolerance is too thin a foundation for a world of religious difference and proximity. It does nothing to remove our ignorance of one another, and leaves in place the stereotype, the half-truth, the fears that underlie old patterns of division and violence. In the world in which we live today, our ignorance of one another will be increasingly costly.

• Third, pluralism is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments. The new paradigm of pluralism does not require us to leave our identities and our commitments behind, for pluralism is the encounter of commitments. It means holding our deepest differences, even our religious differences, not in isolation, but in relationship to one another.

• Fourth, pluralism is based on dialogue. The language of pluralism is that of dialogue and encounter, give and take, criticism and self-criticism. Dialogue means both speaking and listening, and that process reveals both common understandings and real differences. Dialogue does not mean everyone at the “table” will agree with one another. Pluralism involves the commitment to being at the table -- with one’s commitments."

17 April 2007

What is the world made of?

Admonit asked us to think about: What is this world made of, ultimately or fundamentally?
(I posted my reply in the wrong place... apologies for the duplication)

I am also interested in the evolution of people's ideas about what the world is made of. I'd love to know more.

Since I rambled, here's my short answer on what, as i understand it, physics says about the question:

Long ago, Democritus said: the world is made of Atoms & the Void.

This was an incredibly fruitful proposition, but now, in its pursuit, atoms & the void have lost their independent existence.

These days, quantum physics suggests answers like:
The world is made of energy.
The world is made of information.
The world is made of correlations.

here's my long answer:
For millennia, physicists have been calling the smallest piece of any given element an “atom,” meaning INDIVISIBLE. But in the late nineteenth century it began to appear that all atoms themselves were made of a few common materials. You can build a Lego house with only one kind of building block, you can write a message in Morse code with only two kinds of symbols, and you can construct the hundred-odd elements of which the world (and we) consist from architectural arrangements of only three kinds of particles. Gold and oxygen, lead and helium, arsenic and calcium--they are all made of the same three things: electrons, protons, and neutrons. In itself, an amazing discovery.

The protons & neutrons together make up the nucleus, which is a hundred thousand times smaller than the atom as a whole. The electron is even tinier. The atom--and thus you and everything that is built from atoms--is mostly as empty as the skies.

Meanwhile Einstein showed that space and time are not independent & eternal but are all part of one thing, which we now call spacetime (special relativity, 1905). Then in General Relativity (1916), he showed that space--emptiness--is affected by what is in it. Spacetime is bent by matter.

But it gets weirder and more amazing. In 1928, Dirac discovered that light could spontaneously become a particle of matter and a particle of antimatter--for example, an electron and a positron. Matter is spontaneously created out of light. It happens all the time and it can go the other way too: if a electron finds a positron, they will annihilate each other in a burst of light--matter becomes light.

This all goes to verify Einstein's famous statement of 1905 that matter and energy are different forms of the same thing
(E = mc^2).

Similarly, when the huge accelerators send sub-atomic particles crashing at each other, where you might expect fragments of broken particles, instead you find a host of NEW particles, far more and bigger than could fit inside the supposedly smashed particle. Matter is created out of the energy of the collision.

So... what is the world made of? "atoms" are not the final answer, and neither, really, are "elementary particles," which can endlessly be turned into each other or created out of energy. (So we don't even need to go into quarks, which are the constituents of neutrons and protons!)
Maybe "energy" is an answer.

But it can't be the whole answer, because one of the facts of quantum mechanics is that things seem to be changed by, or to depend on, observation. As to what that means, or if it means anything, there almost as many perspectives as there are quantum physicists. But the fact is that our most fundamental theory of "what the world is made of" has this feature, that it seems to say that matter on the atomic scale instantly reacts to being observed.

Many of the new wave of physicists who are interested in information theory would say that INFORMATION is what the world is created out of. Their motto is "IT FROM BIT" ("it," as in "i saw it. it was right there" and "bit" being the smallest piece of information, 1 or 0). I wish i could explain this whole point of view, but i don't come close to understanding it, so i can only mention it for the interested mind.

Finally, other physicists have, in wrestling with quantum mechanics, come to the conclusion that the most fundamental thing about the world is CORRELATION--that correlations between objects are more fundamental than the "objects" themselves, which change when they are observed, etc. The most dramatic correlation of quantum physics is the phenomenon of entanglement, where a particle that has once interacted with another particle, no matter how far they ultimately separate, acts as if it is responding to measurements done on its faraway friend.

You can see why people begin to think religion and quantum physics have something to say to each other, and i definitely caught echos of quantum physics in the two beautiful posts on "the epistemological role of love" and "we are what we behold." Not to mention the world beginning with "LET THERE BE LIGHT," or "IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD."
A disclaimer, though: it always seems to be a mistake to tie religion down to science, because science will always change.

Philosophy post 4: AESTHETICS

Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" from

On to the forth major field of philosophy: Aesthetics, or “The branch of philosophy which deals with questions of beauty and artistic taste.” (OED). The overarching questions of this enquiry are:

What is Art? and What is Beauty?

There are three tasks for you, dear students and other readers, this week. Please add other thoughts as they come to you, including descriptions of your favorite works of art; artistic decisions you have had to make in painting, drawing, writing, composing, song-writing, etc.; or experiences in art museums or other locations where irreconcilable differences in taste have made you ponder the nature of beauty.

1. Try to come up with a workable definition of Art. As more definitions are posted here, we should debate among them. Perhaps you want to think of your favorite painting, sculpture, piece of music, song, poem, novel, etc. & try to define it in general terms, then see if your definition covers all possible works of art.

2. Try to come up with a workable definition of Beauty. What qualities or characteristics does an object, person, or action need to possess in order to be rightfully termed beautiful? Are these essential or accidental properties (see the Intro book, p. 32)? Do they change throughout time, place, culture, or individual? If so, is there a fundamental common denominator beneath the shifting specifics, or not? If so, what is it?

3. Is Beauty subjective or objective, absolute or relative? In other words, if two people are standing in front of the same work of art and one says, “This is gorgeous!” but the other says, “This is hideous!” and both are expressing their sincere, heartfelt, natural responses, is one right and the other wrong? Or is beauty truly just “in the eye of the beholder”? Then, if it changes from person to person, what is it? Can it truly be said to exist?

Here are some of my thoughts:

I personally hate making definitions. They are confining, artificial, debatable, divisive. For example, I started to write this definition of art: “I believe that a work of art, to be classed as such, needs to show excellence in the technical skills proper to that medium (such as rhyme, meter, figures of speech, & imagery in poetry; rhythm, dynamics, tempo, articulation in music; etc.) and an ineffable expression of spirit or imagination or creativity on the part of the “artist” (the “interpretation” in a musical or theatrical performance; the “vision” in a painting, and so on)” or something like that. I kind of life that definition, but then I immediately thought of exceptions. What about aleatoric music? That does not require “skill” in the traditional sense, or perhaps requires a new kind of skill, and certainly does not express the composer’s inner soul or anything like that. Yet I can admit that a composition such as Terry Riley’s “In C” is indeed a work of art, and that it contributed something profound to the history of music. And that listening to it or performing in it can be a moving and meaningful musical experience. And what about works that require no skill, but are innovative and “make a statement,” such as the famous toilet. Is that art? If not, why not? Who gets to say? So then, would my definition of art be “Any work that the artist declares to be art”? That just pushes the problem away one degree, because we still have to figure out what/who an artist is and who says he gets to be one. That, of course, just forces us into a circle: “Art is that which an artist makes; an artist is one who makes art” just like “Veger is he who seeks the creator; that creator is he whom Veger seeks” in Star Trek.

So what other directions could we take? Perhaps a reader-response theory, that art is anything which people appreciate as art. Or a Christian point of view, that art is anything created by a person in response to his identity as a subcreator made in the image of a divine Creator.

I almost prefer to take individual items and discuss their relative merits and demerits on a case-by-case basis. But what then am I judging them against except my own taste, and in the case of some fields such as literature, my own knowledge of traditional value-judgments of works by critics?

Here’s a subjective suggestion: “Art is any work of human creation that lifts the thoughts or feelings of an observer out of their quotidian track and forces the contemplation of places, situations, emotions, or images not associated with the observer’s physical location and habitual cognition, through the creation of those places, situations, emotions, or images by a skillful worker in the media of paint, sculpture, words, music, dance, film, etc.”

The OED has this definition: Art = “The expression or application of creative skill and imagination, especially through a visual medium such as painting or sculpture; works produced in this way.”

But couldn’t both of those, mine & the OED’s, apply to advertising (a image of a scantily-clad couple on a beach creates in me the idea of a romantic vacation in the Bahamas, and suddenly I simply must purchase that trip package) or news (a story of a massacre forces me to contemplate the suffering of 32 families I have never met)?

And did you notice how the OED one privledges the visual? What about aural and written and tactile arts?

Can you come up with a definition that describes & defines art and nothing else? Have fun trying.

And read these articles and previous posts, please:

1. "Pearls Before Breakfast": If a great musician plays great music but no one hears... was he really any good?

2. The Aesthetics of Coffee

3. Faithful Aesthetic Arts

4. Art as Covenant Naming

5. Musings on Art Criticism

6. Giving Thanks for art

7. Intentionality in Art

8. Good Books on Aesthetics

Pablo Picasso's "Portrait of Dora Maar" from

13 April 2007

Blogging as Spiritual Formation

A friend recently drew my attention (via his response to it in his blog) to a post on "Blogging as Spiritual Formation" over at NextReformation. The article by Paul Fromont referred to in that blog post is now over here.

Blogging has bordered on spiritual formation for me at times. It's a way to examine my inner thoughts and formulate them in a way that makes me aware of them, sometimes for the first time. I've had the experience of discovering, as I'm completing a sentence, what I thought about something, or even sensing that something new has been revealed to me in the process (listening to God in prayer). Kind of the way journaling has done for me for years. But blogging forces me to be clearer about articulating my thoughts, as others will read them. I think the reason blogging becomes spiritual formation for some people these days is that it's a substitute for that kind of spiritual dialogue in person with people that humans have thrived on for millennia, as we live more and more isolated and technology-driven lives. But if one is isolated anyway, or separated by miles from friends who know one's spiritual weaknesses and strengths and yearnings best, then I think blogging within an attentive virtual spiritual community is a welcome substitute for small group conversation in a living room. However, I wouldn't want to use blogging as a way to draw any further away from having personal contact with spiritual friends. Sometimes I think it can have that effect. Perhaps more so than journaling at home alone could, because of the feedback which keeps us coming back to the blog. I am glad that I have my flesh and blood small group coming over to my house a week from Sunday. I'm planning to share my story with them, and we're going to have a conversation about technology, and I'll bring up the subject of blogging, among other things.

What do you think, those of you who have spent a good deal of time on blogs, either reading or writing them?

I've been wanting to start a blog on technology and faith but haven't done so yet (and wouldn't be able to drum up enough of a readership very quickly to get much feedback on this soon enough), so I'm posting it here.

10 April 2007

Is there a God?

and if so, which one? extremely important and (I believe) inevitable conversation has arisen as a tangent to our philosophy discussions: Is there a God? How can we know that He exists? I would like to ask all readers to share their experiences of God, with a few caveats:
1. Be respectful
2. Be kind
3. Be coherent
4. Be positive

If you are a firm believer in a God, please explain how you came to know that He exists (yes, I know that the phrasing of the question reflects my Christian understanding of God. I'm also a Presuppositionalist!)

Do you have any "proofs" or "arguments" for the existence of God?

Have you had any experiences of His presence? Would you describe them?

I am a bit of a follower of Kierkegaard myself: I think that proofs/evidences are helpful, but that neither rationalism nor evidentialism will bring the human mind and heart all the way to belief. A leap of faith is necessary. And, as a believer of the Reformed persuasion, I think the ability to take that leap is a gift of grace.

What do you think?

Here's a three-part poem describing some of my "experiences" of God's presence -- which I don't think I would have known how to interpret had I not already formed my position from which to evaluate all sensory and emotional data. Yes, that's cyclical. That's the leap of faith, again.



’81 yellow Buick station wagon,
monochrome April breeze—
scent of cigarette, scent of dusk—
oblivious family chatter.

But I, just baptized,
wear some thick shining Joy
wrapped around me
and pouring through my hollow spaces.


Small garret switchboard office,
lonely afternoon in shades of beige:
kneeling on a dingy industrial carpet,
bowing my head on an overworked armchair,
I see a fluff of linty stuffing straggling out
through a torn triangle corner,
touch the sticky scratched wooden arms.

But I feel Someone in this empty room,
seem to rest my head on His knees,
sense His hand’s weight on my hair, I think:
certainly a sudden joy burns through and past.

Love in the breathing shape of Him:
love like flesh,
like comfort if it came to me.


Brown paneled walls black in the twilight,
garish orange bedspreads in dormitory rows,
bleak winter view spread long and weary behind me.

“No, the Italian starts in the major
and the Scottish in the minor,” says my sister,
or maybe vice versa,
but neither of Mendelssohn’s
springtime sunlit symphonies
lifts the scent of death and loneliness
clouding me.

I stand here while the sun sets, and has set.

But somehow an unthought sureness
lies solidly underneath my old jabbering doubts,
unexamined and firm.
A walking with Him through grief
like any friend.
I could reach out and take His hand!
maybe I’ve been holding it this whole time.

"Crawford Notch" by Thomas Cole

09 April 2007

Philosophy post 3: METAPHYSICS

On to the third major field of philosophy: Metaphysics. Metaphysics, according to Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, is “The science of the principles and causes of all things existing; hence, the science of mind or intelligence. This science comprehends ontology, or the science which treats of the nature, essence, and qualities or attributes of beings; cosmology, the sciences of the worlds, which treats of the nature and laws of matter and of motions; anthroposophy, which treats of the powers of man, and the motions by which life is produced; psychology, which treats of the intellectual soul; pneumatology, or the science of spirits or angels, etc.” It also may include discussions of “the existence of God, his essence and attributes.” Webster goes on to say that these divisions are not really in current usage, and that metaphysics tends to deal with immaterial existences. Here’s a more modern, manageable series of definitions from
- The branch of philosophy that treats of first principles, includes ontology and cosmology, and is intimately connected with epistemology.
- The branch of philosophy that examines the nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, substance and attribute, fact and value.
- The philosophical study of being and knowing.
- The field in philosophy that studies ultimate questions, such as whether every event has a cause and what things are genuinely real.

Here are three overarching questions for the week:

1. What is this world made of?
2. What else exists outside or besides this physical universe (that we experience with our senses) and which is apprehended by something other than our senses?
3. Does this material realm really exist, and in what way(s)?

Have you ever watched a movie or read a book/story in which this world was not all there was? Maybe the protagonist found him/herself in a parallel universe, in a spiritual realm, in another time (and is that really another world??), in an imaginary location, etc. Did you ever consider if these places were theoretically or actually possible? Did you ever wonder why our imaginations long to jump outside of our earthly existence, and if this might be a proof of other worlds?

Philosophy students: Please post a response to at least two of the following questions/discussions. Be thorough: when responding to one of the points below, respond to every query, not just one. Add other thoughts as well as they come to you. It’s a good idea to browse some of the recommended websites on your syllabus to get ideas. Others besides students are, of course, more than welcome to join the conversation.

1. Think of a book or movie that presents another world besides this terrestrial existence. The Matrix is off limits, since we’re using that as our in-class example. Describe the following: a) the ways in which that world differs from ours; b) the ways in which it resembles ours; c) how the character(s) get there; d) how the character(s) perceive/interact with/effect that world; e) whether/how much they remember it if and when they return to this realm; and f) if/how much/in what ways that world has an effect on or an interaction with this one.

2. Describe Plato’s Allegory of the Cave in your own words. Explain what each level symbolizes or represents. Compare this story to either The Matrix or Narnia: The Silver Chair or another work of fiction. Talk about what elements of these stories might be true. How does our world exist, and how do you know it does? What does it even mean to exist?

3. Explain what your personal beliefs are about metaphysical realities. What else exists, besides things you can see, smell, taste, touch, and hear? How do you apprehend these objects/beings/entities? How do you know they exist? In what sense do they exist? Do you think you could get to them/go there/experience them? How? When? Are these beliefs all parts of your religious creed, or do you have any other metaphysical beliefs or speculations?

While I am not including questions about them, there are other aspects of metaphysics that I would love to see discussed here, such as:
- Is there an entity which has an eternal, self-sufficient existence? What/Who? How?
- How did this physical world come into being? What/Who did it come from?
- What is this world made of, ultimately or fundamentally? [Louisa, would you grace us with a little bit of physics here if you have a moment?]
- Does man have an eternal soul or some other kind of eternal existence? If so, is that existence also eternal back into the past, or only on into the future?
- What does it mean to be? What is the relationship between being and becoming?
- What is the relationship of the Arts to Metaphysics? Is it part of the job of artists to try to depict realities beyond the physical? How can they even attempt such a task? Also, in what sense does a work of art exist, and in what sense do its qualities exist?

01 April 2007

April Poem of the Month

Since this is my philosophy month, here's one with a Platonic perspective. Comments/critique/responses welcome.


If all I touch is shadows, every sight
like fog on focused visions, each sweet taste
an after-taste, and songs just aging echoes—
what exponential ecstasy awaits!
Imagine: Here, the ocean’s westward music
drives me mad; I weep for marble’s whiteness;
and the slightest wind-blown scent of rose
winds labyrinths and mist-fronds of delight—
but There! if There, the body’s narrow windows
burst to banks on banks of lake-lit glass,
how much more perfect will a flower be,
its flimsy Type fulfilled; belief at last
as much more certain as each rock more real;
and my substance-senses one with all that they reveal.

~ Admonit