Monday, August 30, 2010

Playing With Statistics - Humans, Violence and the 20th Century

I recently watched a presentation by Steven Pinker on the history of violence on YouTube. He makes the case that over the course of history, human beings have been steadily becoming less and less violent, contrary to popular claims that the opposite is true. He presents evidence to support his case and, on a macro-scale, I didn't find his presentation to be very controversial. It syncs with most people's intuitive sense of people from earlier times being uncivilized savages and steadily becoming more civilized over time. And the evidence supports this conclusion on large time scales, specifically on the millennial scale. In order to illustrate this fact he produces a graph that compares the likelihood of a man being killed by another man's hand in Europe or the United States in the 20th century--a notoriously violent century--with other 'societies' from earlier times.

And while I agree with his conclusion that on the millennial scale we have become much less violent, there is an inherent fallacy in this chart; he is not comparing apples to apples. Selecting the most violent enclaves of humanity at certain times in the past to compare to the entirety of Western Civilization--which spans nearly half the globe--is a comparison that tells us nothing about the relative levels of violence between time periods because you're comparing unalike entities in their respective periods. An interesting, relevant comparison might be between the most violent enclaves within 20th Century Europe and the United States--like maybe Compton and Auschwitz--with those earlier enclaves of humanity. The earlier savage 'societies' might still prove to be more brutal, but it would be a more honest and illustrative comparison at least.

None of which is to contest his general conclusion on the millennial-scale, but this illegitimate comparison bleeds over into his case for the century scale, which is much less convincing. In his presentation on the century scale he notes the gradual, consistent decrease over time in socially sanctioned forms of violence. And while this is certainly true, it is immediately glaring that he should choose to focus on one type of violence while omitting other types on the century scale. Why would he do this? Because on the century scale, if we start at the Enlightenment like he chooses to do (bizarrely), we see the decrease in all types of violence until the 20th century. Where only 'socially sanctioned' forms of violence and 'one-on-one murder' continued to decrease, but an unprecedented level of mass murder occurred, creating what could rightly be considered a whole new category of violence, representing a quick and drastic reversal of the general downward trend of total violence. But if you omit this monstrosity of the 20th century, then yes, you can make it seem as if the downward trend in violence continues uninterrupted on the century scale.

The graph he presented for his millennial case could also be adapted for the century scale, and made to be interesting and relevant by comparing 20th century Europe and the U.S. to 19th, 18th, 17th et. al. century Europe and the U.S. This would tell us something about the 20th century specifically and whether or not it was an anomoly in the general downward trend of violence, or whether it too was actually a century of decreased violence. The latter seems to be an utterly incredible, indefensible claim, and that is likely why Pinker chooses not to make it. And I suspect that such a graph would hardly congeal well with his thesis, with levels of violence not changing much for a few centuries after the Enlightenment, or trending slightly downward, and then jumping sharply upward.

His presentation seems to suggest that he believes not only that humanity trends--generally, over the long run--towards less violence, but that there are no blips along the way in this downward trend. That the trend downward is steady and virtually unceasing, without interruption. But the evidence of the 20th century defies this suggestion, and his misconstrual and avoidance of the pertinent comparisons and data speaks as loudly as the data he actually does present.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Dostoevsky, Prophecy and the 20th Century

In his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov Fyodor Dostoevsky explores the consequences of the atheism of the modern scientific age. He famously deduced that "without immortality, all things are permissible." Around the same time as Nietszche, Dostoevsky concluded that, if this was to be the paradigm that shaped the modern world then, taken to its logical ends, the modern world was a rudderless ship headed inexorably into an absolute abyss of despair previously unknown to humankind. Any modern scientific-minded man reading Dostoevsky's work at the time -- or Nietszche's for that matter -- might have taken this to be absurd alarmism. Fantastical melodrama by a passionate artist. The product of the overly active imagination of a devout religious person. Surely humanity need not cling to ancient superstitions in order to maintain moral order and fashion a just, tolerant, free society. Right?

The Brothers Karamazov was written in 1880, just before the start of the 20th century which was the bloodiest century in the history of mankind. Death camps, gulags, communist killing fields, the unleashing of the atomic bomb. The 20th century saw modernity reaching its logical conclusions at an astonishing rate. The rise and reign of various brutal regimes fueled by various fundamentally anti-human ideologies was not an incidental occurrence (and neither was the fact that the opponents of such regimes were, primarily, Western Christian nations). It was not simply an unfortunate coincidence that a bunch of brutal dictators happened to rise to power as technological advances made mass killing more efficient--though that certainly played a significant role. The stunning thing about the 20th century is not the insanity of it, but that there was no insanity to it. It was the direct outworking of the cold scientific rationalism of modernity. It wasn't modernity run amok, but it was modernity taken to its proper logical ends. It's this fact that separates the horrors of the 20th century from those of the rest of human history. That and the sheer scale of those horrors. And it was precisely this inevitable conclusion that Dostoevsky foretold with such insight and precision.

Modern man -- perhaps subconsciously recognizing that the 20th century was not an accidental by-product of 'modernity', but in fact was a direct outworking of its fundamental premises -- was quick to search for a new paradigm. That new paradigm was to be 'postmodernity'. Epistemologically the postmodern paradigm says that traditional canons of truth and knowledge no longer hold sway, as those canons themselves are not subject to verification but rest upon various unfalsifiable presuppositions. It says that all metanarratives of 'truth' are suspect, including the scientific foundationalism of modernity. Postmodernity rejects traditional metaphysics.

As I have written elsewhere the postmodern critique of modernity isn't exactly something that modernity itself was not already aware of. Foundationalism always rested on various presuppositions, and was never assumed to be an avenue to absolute truth. However, the postmodern critique does serve to bring this fact to the surface and expose it, where many modernists would prefer that it remain hidden from view. As such the postmodern critique is not without value, but I'm hesitant to say that it really constitutes the large paradigm shift that many claim that it does. As David Hart says, "perhaps postmodernity is simply modernity made fully self-aware." Indeed.

All of which is to say that the postmodern man hasn't successfully evaded modernity. We are still very much a modern world, and especially a modern society. The only true way to avoid the undesirable consequences of modernity is to recognize what was wrong with modernity -- as practiced -- in the first place. And it wasn't its epistemology. It was its incidental -- not contingent -- rejection of the Christian God. Of course modernity would claim that such a rejection is merely an outworking of its scientific rationalism, but nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing about the modern epistemological paradigm was ever incompatible with the Christian claims of truth, once that paradigm is properly understood and its own inherent limits and boundaries are clearly delineated.

But that is not to say that a previous acceptance of the Christian God always resulted in a culture free of violence or iniquity. Certainly not. It is to say that the degree to which Christ is truly declared, proclaimed and followed has a direct correlation to the upward moral mobility of society. The 20th century, being the culmination of a widespread European rejection of the Christian narrative of truth, revealed the consequences of that rejection. And while much of Europe, probably recoiling from the horrors of the 20th century, has embraced a brand of 'moralism' or 'humanism' -- which is essentially a co-opting of Christianity, sans Christ -- and in so doing has tempered some of the more egregious manifestations of modernity, ultimately only a return to Christ himself, full and in total, is the only way to put to bed at last the ugly specter of modernity. So it is up to us to show that what they have decided to call 'humanism', is really a stripped down, neutered version of Christianity, and that it is actually this shadow of Christianity that is granting them some degree of respite from their otherwise doomed existence.

I have the dubious 'privilege' of viewing the events of the 20th century in hindsight, and making what I feel is a somewhat insightful analysis of their significance. The amazing thing about the work of Dostoevsky's, beyond the obvious force of the art itself, is that it was utterly prophetic in its moral vision. He was able to see what I see with even greater clarity and without the benefit of hindsight. Through a glass clearly.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Akira Kurosawa's 'Ikiru' At The Billy Wilder Theater

Last night I was fortunate enough to attend a showing of Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru; one of a series showings of Kurosawa's films by The Archive of UCLA, as a centennial celebration of his unparalleled career. Kurosawa has long been my favorite director, bar none, so I was excited to learn about this opportunity to see some films of his on the big screen for the first time. Though I was also somewhat disappointed to learn that this series of showings was Part 2, with Part 1 showing many of Kurosawa's best and most entertaining films such as Seven Samurai and Rashomon. I suppose I should simply consider myself lucky to get the chance to experience any of his films on the big screen.

The Billy Wilder theater is located in the Westwood district of Los Angeles, near UCLA, on Wilshire boulevard and is a phenomenal little venue. Consisting of a single screen with stadium seating and exquisite picture and sound quality. The Archive continuously presents showings of various older films at the venue, and if you ever have the chance to see anything there I highly recommend you do so. This particular series celebrating Kurosawa's career still has a couple showings remaining, including Kurosawa's adaptations of Macbeth and Dostoevsky's The Idiot.

Onto the film itself. I own Ikiru on Criterion DVD and have seen numerous times. I have always considered it one of Kurosawa's best, and this viewing only heightened my view of it. All of the major movements of the film are handled deftly and with characteristic depth. Given a thumbnail sketch of the plot--an older gentlemen learns that he has months to live and seeks to find meaning in life--it would be easy for the film to come off as trite or banal. But it doesn't at all. The characters are so rich and the events are so well observed that it has an immediacy and poignancy that more contemporary takes on the same subject lack. Not to mention the sheer strength of Kurosawa's craft serves to elevate the entire project.

Weight is added to the proceedings by placing them against a backdrop of a broad critique of the modern bureaucratic state, and the relatively trivial nature of modern work in general. Something that is as relevant today as it was when the film was made in 1952. The montage near the beginning of the film--shot from a first-person perspective of a group of peasants lodging a complaint with City Call and getting the proverbial bureaucratic run around--is hilarious and ingenious.

The 2nd act consists of a desperate Watanabe attempting to 'truly live', but not really knowing how to. And so opting for a binge of gambling, drinking and the social scene. After his adventures prove hollow he latches on to a young female co-worker who seems very 'alive' to him. As he attempts to determine why and how it is that she is 'so alive', he has an epiphany when she reveals that all she does is "work and eat". Which is, of course, what Watanabe thought was the whole problem to begin with. The difference in this girl, he discovers, is that she finds value in the work that she does.

The extended third act where the protagonist's wake is intercut with scenes from the last few months of his life, and the various attitudes and shifts in tone that take place among the bureaucrats in attendance, climaxing with a pledge by all to live up to the excellent example set by Watanabe is executed with precision. The next move by Kurosawa, showing these same bureaucrats months later entrenched in the same dreary, ineffectual business as they were before, is harrowing and depicts the absolutely unavoidable magnetism of bureaucracy for inefficiency and impotence.

Luckily the example of Watanabe himself saves the film for utter darkness, offering a luminous example that we could emulate, even though the bureaucrats in the story were unable to do so.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Historical Inaccuracies and Anti-Christian Bigotry in Film

Why do secular champions of modernity feel the need to fabricate false histories in order to depict Christianity as especially brutal, intolerant or anti-intellectual? You would think that in the history of Christendom there are plenty of legitimately objectionable occurences to decry without making stuff up. A few months ago David B. Hart wrote a brilliant piece in response to the release of Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar's Rachel-Weisz-starring film Agora in which Christians are depicted as particularly intolerant, brute savages who were opposed to the advancements of Greek science on philosophical grounds, and for that reason murdered the secular, Greek scientist-philosopher Hypatia and destroyed the Great Library of Alexandria. Hart goes on to point out that this 'history' is an utterly fabricated narrative with virtually no foundation in any evidence whatsoever. And, in fact, the evidence that there is paints an entirely different picture altogether.

The key points being that while Christians did in fact murder Hypatia, it wasn't because of her intellectual, scientific pursuits (which were also engaged in by Christians and which Christians did not object to), but because of her role in a political dispute in the city. Of course this doesn't make the act any less heinous or objectionable, but it does refute the narrative context of the supposed reasons for their actions. That is to say; it wasn't their Christianity (clearly), or their hatred of secular science that drove these people to such lengths, but rather specific local, political conflicts of the sort that have occured since the beginning of time, and have been engaged in by people of all faiths and those of no faith. Anyways, Hart's piece describes all of this much more fully and ably, so read that.

Of course it seems AmenĂ¡bar's film specifically is likely the result of inertia; a facile acceptance of poor history. The interesting, broader theme is the stake that the champions of modernity, of the rationalism of the Enlightenment, have in pitting the 'light' of secular science, knowledge and progress against the 'darkness' of intolerant, ignorant and violent 'faith'. That is, how this narrative ever was introduced and widely accepted uncritically to begin with. Especially by focusing on an era of history where such an opposition was completely unknown. Where pagans, Jews and Christians did science and philosophy side by side. It's an anachronism based on the decidedly modern 'conflict' between the two--though that too is often largely exaggerated or fabricated.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Social Benefits of Evil

The Non-Problem of Evil

In philosophical discussions on the existence God the issue of the 'problem of Evil' often arises. When it does it is most often presented as a challenge to the believer, usually in the form of something along the lines of 'if God is all-powerful and all-loving, then why does suffering exist?' The implication being that if God were all-powerful and all-loving he would necessarily see to it that suffering was eradicated from this existence.

I don't see any reason that this should be the case. Clearly this argument presumes to know what God knows (which we don't know), and presumes that the optimal world is necessarily one where no suffering is permitted to exist. There simply exists no reason to believe that this is the case, given our limited human knowledge. Perhaps, for all we know, the salvation of a single human, through an act of his own will, is a good that outweighs every ounce of suffering and evil that has ever occurred. We don't have the means of adjudicating God's righteousness, so 'the problem of Evil' for the believer is no problem at all. At least not in the sense of being a legitimate objection to the merits of the Christian faith. Evil is, of course, a problem in another sense. That being that it is, well, evil, and as such is the enemy of God. But this is not what is meant by 'the problem of Evil' when brought up by skeptics and critics of faith.

The real question seems to be how does the the materialist, the rational scientific modernist, the secularist account for the existence of evil? And, if they recognize its existence at all, what means do they have for addressing that problem?

Like the Christian the committed nihilist is faced with no real problem. 'Evil' is merely a human delusion, just like 'goodness', 'truth' and 'justice'. So the nihilist seems to be off the hook. However, very few non-believers are avowed nihilists, and even some of the ones who claim to be hold beliefs and values that run contrary to their nihilism. But for the true nihilist 'Evil' is easily and fully explicable.

Thus it seems that the 'problem of evil' is really only a 'problem' for one specific group of people: atheists who affirm the existence of virtues, vices, rights, wrongs, good, evil, oughts and ought nots. They must account for how anything could possibly be evil (or 'good') rather than just be. One would think that after Nietzsche rightly deduced that nihilism is the logical consequence of atheism over a century ago moralizing atheists would be in the minority. It turns out this is not the case. Most atheists exist in just this state of flagrant, unreflective self-contradiction. Very few heartily embrace all the consequences of their unbelief. Others at least attempt to address the problem by accounting for 'the problem of Evil' on materialist grounds.

So how does the strict materialist account for the existence of 'evil'? They recognize evil to be real, they simply define it as aberrant behavior from particular socio-biological, mutual-benefit norms that have arisen in nature. That is to say that they believe that we, highly evolved primates that we are, don't murder each other as a norm because we realize that if we murder someone, someone could then justify killing us. So in our own self-interest we make decisions that will more likely be beneficial for ourselves individually, and then for our tribe, and then for our species. These social norms and aberrations somewhere along the line became our 'morality', which was then codified in various tracts of religion. So then, the materialist has accounted for 'evil'. 'Evil' is: individuals who behave in unfashionable, socially unacceptable ways. The ultimate 'evil' in a materialist calculus appears to be akin to being a geek in high school.

Clearly this distinction is meaningless and the materialist has no means by which to construct a system of ethics or morality that aren't ultimately wholly arbitrary. For a moment let us ignore the inherent vapidity of the materialist account of evil and grant their social conception of it. If 'evil' is a collection of aberrations to social norms then what is 'good'? Society itself, of course. Which is the history of the 20th century, as a response to this conception of good and evil; Totalitarianism, Marxism, Communism and various social utopianisms attempting to fashion society to their various whims, at any cost--including the cost of the sanctity of human life. Society owes no allegiance to individual human life, society exists only to serve itself and its own ends, whatever they may be. Society itself is the end game. And, working within this framework, this is the exactly correct, logical conclusion to draw.

Which is not to say that other worldly systems of belief are not without their own flaws. Certainly not. As much as we cherish our liberal democracy our ultimate 'good' is really pure, unadulterated choice. While freedom is certainly something worth defending and a solid foundation for a system of government, in itself it is not an ultimate good because it includes the freedom to make poor decisions. And often it includes the freedom of insulation from criticism of poor choices. However, this democratic notion of society supports other important, legitimate values, such as the value of each individual, justice and charity. While the social utopianisms squelch such notions, and impose hierarchal structures of worth on society. The state itself is the ultimate end and not the individuals who comprise it.

Defensible Genocide

Genocide can have demonstrable, obvious social benefits for those members of society who aren't themselves exterminated. For example, if there is a shortage of food or housing and you murder 10% of the population there should be a certain amount of higher available resources for there are fewer people consuming things, and whatever the dead had possessed now get distributed to their families which increase their own situation in life. If the genocide is of, say, the elderly or newborns then their deaths will also lighten financial and other types of burdens on their families. Not to mention that if the genocide is of those with 'inferior' genome sequences, then the remaining members of society will have better genes and thus be more suitable for all survival, procreation and societal functions.

Perhaps some materialist moral utilitarians would object on the grounds that those benefits derived are not worth the cost of human lives taken. Not to mention the psychological costs incurred by the family members of the dead. Even if they agreed fully that the act would be a boon to themselves in terms of their own comfort, and of remaining society at large, most would still prefer that such a vile and wicked act not take place. But such an objection--while certainly understandable given the outcries from a God-authored conscience--is not rational given the framework it is working within. Which is to say that utilitarianism makes no sense within a materialist framework. Clearly nature doesn't strive to make everyone happy all--or even most--of the time, and if we can only construct our morality as a reflection of our material, social 'nature' as is, then happiness can not be the point. Propagation of the species is the point. Society is the point.

Advocates of abortion often turn to evidences of the social benefits of abortion in order to attempt to justify the practice. Some such evidences are real, others are fiction. But even if 100% of the supposed social benefits were real and legitimate, the abortion advocate often proceeds completely unaware that one could advance the exact same argument in favor of infanticide, or really of any kind of genocide. Clearly the relevant issue is at what point an embryo constitutes a human life--if we believe in the sanctity of human life--but the fact that many abortion advocates feel that their strongest argument is a social one reveals the vapidity of that argument. Either social ends can be a legitimate justification of mass murder or they can not. If you don't believe that abortion constitutes murder, then you should make that argument and realize that the social benefits are entirely irrelevant even if you can prove that they exist.

Whether an act of genocide produces a net social benefit or a net social loss is immaterial when we recognize the sanctity of each individual human life. The sanctity of human life takes precedence over any particular social outcomes or configurations that we might desire. So even if the defense of life yielded particularly dire consequences for society, life still must be defended, because an individual's right to life trumps society's 'right' to construct itself as it sees fit. This seems obvious and intuitively true. Indeed, the vast majority of atheists would agree with this assertion when presented in such a way, or they implicitly affirm it in the way they live and the values that they actually hold. The problem for them is that they have no means for affirming the sanctity of life. Clearly 'nature' does not recognize the sanctity of human life, as death and extinction are the rule rather than the exception in nature. And if nature does not affirm it then neither can the atheist because nature is all that there is, and it is from nature that we must derive our 'morality', in their view.


It seems peculiar then that so many atheists should feebly cling to notions of the sanctity of human life, the value of the individual, justice and so on and so forth, while they recklessly attempt to undermine the foundations of all such notions. Society as an end in itself, the devaluation of humanity and the individual, nihilism; these are the proper, logical ends of a materialist scientific rationalism. Either embrace them or reject them. But if you reject them, realize that the alternative--the sanctity of human life, the value of the individual, equality, justice; the goods of compassion, charity and love; the evils of collectivism, hatred and murder--can only be properly understood and accounted for within a (minimally) theistic worldview. Realize that you are not only rejecting God but you are rejecting all of the associated concepts, values and ideals that were birthed and given meaning through a particular theistic worldview. Realize that you are, in fact, rejecting the sanctity of human life and the value of the individual as mere human delusions. Realize it and trumpet it proudly. Or realize that there are very good reasons that you aren't rejecting all of these things, even though such rejections are logical corollaries of your unbelief.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Opposition That Defines Us

"Defining yourself in opposition to something is still being anaclitic on that thing, isn't it?" - David Foster Wallace

Recently I was skimming through highlighted passages of my copy of Infinite Jest and I came across this gem. At first blush--or at least once you've looked up the definition of 'anaclitic'--this seems to make a lot of sense intuitively. We can all instantly think of examples of particular types of people who do this. Reflecting on the concept a little more though, it's surprising just how pervasive a phenomena that this turns out to be. There seems to be a strong, though unhealthy, tendency in all of us to do this, at least on some level.

Some, of course, have a stronger inclination than others, and it's only in these extreme manifestations that the truth of Wallace's statement becomes most glaring. One of the best examples that leapt nimbly to mind was that of so-called 'Black leaders'. They primarily position themselves as vehemently opposed to all forms of racism and 'social injustice'. Certainly such a motivation is quite noble, and should be commended. Undoubtedly many such leaders are quite sincere in their desire to help victims of racism when they first begin their careers. But ultimately what seems to happen is that, in positioning themselves as against something rather than for something, their existence becomes defined and justified through the very racism that they decry. Indeed, their entire careers become dependent on the continued existence of that which they are supposedly fighting against.

In his biting satirical novel Black No More George Schuyler writes scathingly about 'black leaders' and 'race activists'.

While the large staff of officials was eager to end all oppression and persecution of the Negro, they were never so happy and excited as when a Negro was barred from a theater or fried to a crisp. Then they would leap for telephones, grab telegraph pads and yell for stenographers; smiling through their simulated indignation at the spectacle of another reason for their continued existence and appeals for funds.

While reading this I instantly thought of the likes of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Tim Wise and various other race-baiters of contemporary American culture, but this is certainly not a new phenomenon. Black No More was written in 1931.

In his essay titled Five Gospels But No Gospel N.T. Wright takes on the Jesus Seminar, questioning their historical methodology and presuppositions. He sees evidence in their work, specifically in their book titled The Five Gospels, that they presuppose a picture of Jesus, a picture that is fundamentally un-fundamentalist, and then attempt to fit historical interpretations of the words and life of Jesus into that picture. In setting themselves as diametrically opposed to Christian fundamentalism, the Seminar ends up guilty of its own brand of fundamentalism. Wright writes:

Frankly, both the desire to "prove" orthodoxy and the desire to "disprove" it ought to be anathema to the serious historian. The first of these is, of course, the way to what is normally called fundamentalism; the second, taken by at least some (and they are clearly influential) in the Jesus Seminar, is no less closed-minded, and in fact fundamentalist, in practice. Hatred of orthodoxy is just as unhistorical a starting point as love of it.

Of course one can think of many other examples of people defining themselves in opposition to something, and therefore becoming themselves depedent on that very thing. There are people who make a career of being an atheist, writing polemical anti-God articles, essays and books. The irony being that, if they were ever to succeed in convincing all people to renounce belief in God, they would in turn eliminate the need for their writings. The disillusioned, aging, hippy Vietnam War protestor with nothing left to rally against. The political hack who never fails to define his own position on an issue as the inverse of the opposing party's position, without any intellectually principled foundation. The serial protestor who will leap to the picket lines on behalf of anyone or anything without hesitation or reflection. The examples are endless, and even if not manifested in such extremes, we likely can recognize some tendencies of our own to define ourselves via the negation of something else.

The reason we do this also seems to be fairly obvious, and it's found in Newtonian physics. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Which is to say if racism is a strong force in your environment, then your opposition will need to be equally strong, and, even when that opposition is appropriate, it can engulf you in an unhealthy way. If fundamentalism was pushed on you with forcefulness, then your negative reaction to it will be equally strong, and in that push you are in danger of pushing right past objectivity. Also it's just much easier to point out the flaws of a another person or position than to advance a positive case for something that we believe in.