Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Philosophy Quiz

I just took the “which great philosopher are you?” quiz. I have a few comments about the questions.

The first one asks, “Do we have a soul that is separate from our body?

My answer would have been, “the body is the manifestation of the soul in this reality/universe, and the soul is independent of the body, but in this reality/universe the soul is, practically (although not essentially), identical with the body.” So, the question of “separate” doesn’t really work for me. It’s not separate here, but yeah, I guess if we look across all the realities and times of the various levels of creation, the soul is separate, since it is independent of the body, and continues in other realities after the body perishes in this one. So, what answer do I give?
The quiz gives thirteen possible answers, and the four that seemed closest to my understanding were:

b) Not really. The Human body is the best picture of the human soul. Or
c) No the word “soul” makes no sense, there is only “being” or
d) Yes, a “soul” is the form of every living thing.
f) Yes, an immortal one.

I went with the fourth of those, although I didn’t like saying “yes” to the idea that the body and soul are separate.

The second question asked, “Is there ever such a thing as the objectively “right” thing to do?
My answer would be yes, there sometimes is a “right” thing to do. I think there are standards of right and wrong existing outside human values or invention, and I think we “discover” those when we “invent” them in a way that corresponds to the natural or objective “right” thing. I look to the authentic scriptures revealed by Manifestations of God as the standard by which we determine what is “right” action, but that's still an imperfect standard, especially because Manifestations of God tend to use fallible indicators like human language to describe “right” to us. I'm also not clear on how much "noise" gets into the message filtered through the Manifestations of God, based on Their setting in a historical and cultural context, or the human personalities of the Manifestations. So, in figuring out what we believe about what Manifestations of God tell us also depends partly on our rational intuition or our spiritual intuition (our tendency to naturally recognize what is good and bad). That said, for the vast majority of things that we tend to think of as being “right” or “wrong” I think we’re just following social conventions, which tend to be set by the most powerful persons in our cultures. In those cases, “right” is a social construction rooted in intellectual fashions and habits rather than any reflection of a deeper moral reality in the universe.

Okay, so which answers come closest to my thinking on this one? Again, the quiz-makers give us thirteen choices. This time again four of these looked appealing to me:

b) Yes and it is based on rational intuition
e) No, there are no morals beyond those set by the most powerful rulers
l) Yes and we naturally recognize what it is as human beings
m) No, just the product of customs and habit.

I went with the choice that agreed there are “right” actions (at least in some cases), and that those are “naturally recognized” by us (at least some of us).

The third question asked “Can we ever really know what the world is like outside of ourselves?” The key to that question is what is meant by “really know” and here I guess my answer depends on how I understand that phrase.

The answers that intuitively appealed to me were:

a) Yes and we can build a clear picture of it through empirical science
f) Only God knows so our only mission is to know God.
g) No, we have only our inner “ideas” about what the world is like
h) No, we can only know things as they appear not as they are in themselves

I went with “only God knows” since that seemed less open to contradictions than the other answers (a and h, which both seemed correct to me, seemed in contradiction because they depended on a different understanding of “really know” about “the world” whatever those mean.)

Number 4 was easy. The question asked, “what is the most important purpose of our lives?” There were many fine secondary goals in life, but the primary root was almost nailed by the response “to develop faith and get close to God.” I would have said “to improve our knowledge and wisdom, and in particular our spiritual insight, which is akin to “knowing god,” and to transcend our desires and habits to follow the rites, or obey the laws, or submit to the greater good in a way that defeats self-interest and pride, which is akin to “worshiping God.” Every day I say (in prayer) to God (and most importantly, myself), “Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee,” so I’m pretty clear on what I think my purpose in life is, at least in a general and vague sense.

There were a couple other questions as well. Some of the potential answers were pretty funny.

It turns out the quiz says I’m most like Søren Kierkegaard. That doesn’t surprise me. Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure Abū al-Faḍl Gulpāyigānī wasn’t a part of the great philosopher pool from which I could have been identified. I would have liked to know who I was most like after Kierkegaard. I would have liked this quiz better if it had given me a result of 50 great philosophers rank-ordered by how similar my thinking was to each of them. Am I 80% like Kierkegaard, or 90% or 70%? And how close am I to John Stuart Mill, to William James, to Immanuel Kant, to Maimonides, to Paul Tillich, to Reinhold Niebuhr, or to John Rawls? I generally like those guys. And how far am I from Ludwig Wittgenstein, Friedrich Nietzsche, or David Hume? I'd like to know.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Snow in late March

We've just had a few inches of sticky wet snow last night, and as always, a snow in the spring is a lovely thing to see.  The snow clings to the trees and flowers.  I guess I've seen five or six significant snowfalls between March 25 and April 15 over my life so far, and they are always a treat.  We tried to go sledding, but the snow was so sticky we just spent more of our time throwing snowballs at each other or rolling balls of snow down the hills so they grew as they rolled.  
I took some photographs around our neighborhood, and made a page of images showing them, along with some other pictures I took back in February.  The pictures are at this page.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Christians and Poverty

I've been looking for books that would exhibit some of the attitudes and beliefs of early Christian social work pioneers. Then, while I was doing that, I collected some other books that I thought might interest one of my advisees who will be doing an independent study with me on theology and service to the poor. I used RefWorks, a tool that is like EndNote, to collect the reference information for some sources that were available in Illinois (thank goodness for I-Share and the UIUC library!). I'm trying to encourage students to use RefWorks or Endnote to get their citations right, but now that I see the results here, I'm not so sure this is exactly what I wanted. Anyway, I'll share the list of books here:

Barnett, , & Barnett, H.,. (1972). Practicable socialism; essays on social reform,. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press.

Brace, C. L.,. (1885). Gesta Christ, or, A history of humane progress under Christianity. New York: A.C. Armstrong & Son. (chapters 9, 21, 29, 31, & 32)

Brace, C. L.,. (1967). The dangerous classes of New York and twenty years' work among them. Montclair, N.J.: P. Smith.

Brace, C. L., & Brace, E.,. (1894). The life of Charles Loring Brace chiefly told in his own letters. New York: C. Scribner's Sons.

Chalmers, T.,. (1821). The application of Christianity to the commercial and ordinary affairs of life, in a series of discourses. New York: S. Campbell & Sons.

Chalmers, T.,. (1821). The Christian and civic economy of large towns. Glasgow: Printed by J. Starke for Chalmers & Collins.

Chalmers, T.,. (1911). Dr. Chalmers and the poor laws: A comparison of Scotch and English pauperism and evidence before the committee of the House of Commons,. Edinburgh: D. Douglas.

Chalmers, T., & Masterman, N.,. (1900). Chalmers on charity; a selection of passages and scenes to illustrate the social teaching and practical work of Thomas Chalmers, D.D. Westminster: A. Constable and Co.

Davis, T.,. (2007). Red letters : Living a faith that bleeds. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook.

Gurteen, S. H. (1882). A handbook of charity organization. Buffalo: The author.

Gurteen, S. H. (1883). How paupers are made; an address on the prevention of pauperism ... Chicago:

Gurteen, S. H., & Charity Organization Society of Buffalo. (1879). Hints and suggestions to the visitors of the poor. Buffalo [N.Y.]: Published by the Charity Organization Society of the City of Buffalo.

Hamlin, C. (2006). William Pulteney Alison, the Scottish philosophy, and the making of a political medicine. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 61(2), 144-186.

Katz, Michael B. (1996). In the shadow of the poorhouse, revised edition. New York: Basic Books.

King, M. L., & Carson, C.,. (1998). The autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Intellectual Properties Management in association with Warner Books.

Niebuhr, R., & Robertson, D. B.,. (1967). Essays in applied Christianity: The Church and the new world;. New York: Meridian Books.

Schweitzer, A., & Campion, C. T.,. (1949). Out of my life and thought: An autobiography. New York: H. Holt.

Schweitzer, A., & Joy, C. R.,. (1967). Albert Schweitzer; an anthology. edited by Charles R. Joy. Boston: Beacon Press.

Sider, R. J., & Gay, C. M. (1997). Rich Christians in an age of hunger - revisited. U.S.: Christians Scholar's Review.

Taylor, G.,. (1913). Religion in social action,. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co.

Taylor, G.,. (1936). Chicago Commons through forty years. Chicago, Ill.: Chicago Commons Association.

Teresa, , & Benenate, B. (1997). In the heart of the world: Thoughts, stories, & prayers. Novato, Calif.: New World Library.

Teresa, , González-Balado, J. L., & Playfoot, J. N. (1985). My life for the poor. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Tillich, P.,. (1966). On the boundary; an autobiographical sketch. New York: Scribner.

Tillich, P.,. (1971). Political expectation. New York: Harper & Row.

Tuckerman, J.,. (1838). The principles and results of the ministry at large: In Boston. Boston: J. Munroe.

Tuckerman, J.,. (1839). Christian service to the poor in cities, unconnected with any religious denomination a series of extracts from "the principles and results of the ministry at large" in Boston, U.S.

Tuckerman, J.,. (1971). On the elevation of the poor; a selection from his reports as minister at large in Boston. New York: Arno Press.

My student will actually be reading about half of these, and I guess I will too. Hopefully I can blog about some of these in the coming months.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Oxford Comma

I'm always encouraging my students to use the Oxford Comma in their writing.  It seems like a losing battle here in America, where people omit that last comma in a list, but I beg my students to do it, at least for me.  My friend Amy Wharton may not know this, but she gave me a CD with a catchy song in it that seems to ridicule my concern.  The video that goes with this ("Oxford Comma" by Vampire Weekend) is worth watching.  It has crude language, and may not be suitable for all audiences.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


I'm fond of unusual animation, and I'll share a few interesting cartoons here in today's post.

First, here is one of my favorite commercials from my childhood, featuring the voice of Ken Nordine, who gave us Word Jazz and Now Nordine.

Next, here are a couple excellent examples of music videos from Sally Cruikshank, whom I saw at Webster University back in 1986 (I think Julie Mell was with me). Cruikshank has a friendly presence on YouTube. First, enjoy this catchy song:

Then admire this, one of Cruikshank's very early works:

Next, you can admire this patriotic short cartoon from the mid-1970s. Ah, the Bicentennial:

And here, some of my earliest encounters with the music of Phillip Glass were provided by the PBS program Sesame Street:

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Spring is here

Well, this is the week that Primavera (primus ver)—Spring—bursts forth here in Springfield. I rode my bike back from the office on Tuesday with a t-shirt on. Our maple trees came out in flower on Monday and on Saint Patrick's Day (Tuesday) they were pretty much in full bloom, not that maple tree flowers are spectacular or anything. They look like tiny red or yellow fuzzy spikes. Our forsythia will bloom tomorrow, I think, as the buds are yellow and big. The crocus flowers were blooming a week ago, or earlier.

It's Spring Break. I've been working on catching up on giving students feedback on their papers, and I've been reading—some academic stuff for papers I'm writing, and some interesting stuff I just wanted to read. I just listened to a great song on the radio driving home from a friend's home tonight. It's Airborne Toxic Event's Sometime Around Midnight.

I had a nightmare a couple nights ago where I was in the future, and people were watching, for entertainment, people being voluntarily decapitated. It was like a game show where contestants were getting their heads cut off, and trying to maintain a smile as their heads were cut off. I guess it was understood that before irreversible death set in the heads were reattached to the bodies and no permanent harm or scarring would result. I was horrified. The horror was mostly at the empathy I (as a human) was feeling for the "contestants" on the show. I couldn't understand why they were doing it. What leads to such dreams? I am a pessimist about most popular entertainment, and I suppose the dream was a manifestation of my fears about where cultural trends were headed. I think I had been considering something my father mentioned this weekend when he visited, that in some ways the Romans were more barbaric than the "barbarians" who overran the Empire, and of course one of the most famous aspects of Roman evil was their pleasure in watching public executions and gladiatorial combat. The theater of the cruel. And I'd also been reading about Maimonides and his ideas about martyrdom. He thought it was wicked to seek out martyrdom, and one was morally obliged to avoid martyrdom. He was working against the Masada Complex in Jewish culture. All that could have contributed to the dream. Or maybe it was in some way precognitive. Just tonight a friend showed me a film Frank Miller's Sin City. It featured a decapitation, and it was, I thought, presented as a form of theater of the cruel, an exercise in immediacy, savagery, and brutality to elicit strong feelings of horror and disgust at a deep emotional level, forcing the audience to reject what we were witnessing and turn away in panic at our own animal enjoyment of the violence (I didn't feel much enjoyment). But I don't know, maybe it was just an amoral artistic exercise reveling in violence. Bread and circuses. But, like my dream, there were scenes reveling in violence. In my nightmare I was horrified that people would cheerfully submit to a "game" of being decapitated. Here, a day later, I was horrified by an artifact of my culture that "entertained" by showing a hero possessed mainly by the desire to torture evil-doers.

I was reminded of that first Mad Max film where Max finds the gangster who killed his wife and child, and ties him up next to a bomb, and lets him have a saw, and tells him that he has time to saw off his limb and escape before the bomb goes off, and the murderer is begging for mercy, and the film is constructed so we are supposed to feel satisfaction, because Max is getting revenge and the criminal is quailing. And yet, if we stop and reflect, this is extra-judicial killing, itself a form of evil and murder. But evidently satisfying feelings for revenge is like satisfying feelings of hunger or thirst. It's a deep physical need. But one that does not provide long-lasting satisfaction.

Back to that idea of decapitation, I was also thinking of martyrdom. I try to read Baha'i history on almost a daily basis, and there certainly is plenty of shi'ite martyrdom imagery in the Baha'i writings. Most Baha'is know about Baha'u'llah's vision of the Maid of Heaven when he was stuck down in a dungeon, but what about Ali-Muhamad (the Bab) and his vision of the Imam Husayn's bloody head? And I do think of our modern Baha'i martyrs as heros. Many of them were modern, well-educated, materially successful persons who could have renounced their faith to save their lives, left Iran, and then rededicated themselves to the Faith once in safety. That might have been what Maimonides suggested they ought to have done. But they refused to recant, and they died, even as recently as the 1980s. I met the son of one of these martyrs, and he was not really very happy about his parent's choice. I got the impression, although he didn't actually say this, that he would have rather that his parent had followed the advice from Maimonides. And going willingly to one's execution, with a smile on one's face, that is an ideal for religious people who take faith and God's commandments seriously.

Yet, there was my dream, where people were doing this for "fun" to entertain others or prove their own extreme abilities of self control and pain tolerance. Anyway, it's odd what one will dream about. I have disturbing dreams about once or twice a week, and they usually wake me up between 5:30 and 6:30, and I can never get back to sleep after them, so I just get up usually.

Here, I've embedded a video of that song I liked so well.