Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Is logic necessary to reality? I wonder...

I have been having a random, but very interesting, discussion on another blog, and I thought I'd post some of my thoughts here, to see if there's any feedback... feel free to point out any inconsistencies in my thinking; I'm sure there are many!

My main point (as a good Kierkegaardian ;-D) is that any discussion of God inevitably falls into the realm of the "illogical." Faith, being a leap into the "absurd," implies that God is beyond any human reasoning. God is, for us, the ultimate paradox (especially the God-man, Jesus Christ). But what does this mean?

To quote another theologian-blogger (who is far more advanced than me!), the problem with classical metaphysics, when speaking about God, is that "it begins by speaking about a human attribute (power or potency) and then raises this attribute to the Nth degree and applies it to God. But then we are actually speaking about ourselves first, and not God. And when we start by speaking of ourselves, it is never clear that we ever end up actually speaking about God."

I agree with his point, but I would take it one step further: This inability to perceive whether we are actually speaking about God also applies to logic itself. Since logic, as traditionally understood, is fundamentally a human endeavor (of the mind), logic is insufficient as a final arbiter of God's reality.

It is said that reality is always logically consistent. This seems to be the case up to a point, but in some recent areas of study (quantum physics, for example) people are finding that what we call logic starts to break down. Phenomenologically, logic also runs into serious trouble. I think that must be infinitely more true with God...

Now, it could be that we just don't grasp some deeper consistency of logic that has yet to be discovered, but I don't see much difference between saying something is illogical, and saying something is logical, but we just have no idea (yet) how it can possibly be logical.

In fact, I see two dangers in making the latter statement -- not only are we potentially talking about ourselves rather than God, but if we say that reality (including God) is always logically consistent, then we are also implicitly making God dependent upon logic, whether we intend to or not.

Logic does not cause reality. But if we assent to that, then we should not assume that reality is limited to logic. I would say, instead, that reality causes "all the true axioms that logic depends on" and more. Maybe that's a cop-out, or maybe I'm arguing semantics; I don't know.

I suppose it really comes down to whether logic is necessary to reality. I'm not convinced that, at least when speaking of human logic, this is the case. Though I'm not sure what other kind of logic there might be besides human logic.

Anyone have thoughts on this?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Zizek on the current economic crisis...

This excerpt from a recent article by Slavoj Zizek is, I think, quite intriguing:

"The financial meltdown has made it impossible to ignore the blatant irrationality of global capitalism. In the fight against Aids, hunger, lack of water or global warming, we may recognise the urgency of the problem, but there is always time to reflect, to postpone decisions. The main conclusion of the meeting of world leaders in Bali to talk about climate change, hailed as a success, was that they would meet again in two years to continue the talks. But with the financial meltdown, the urgency was unconditional; a sum beyond imagination was immediately found. Saving endangered species, saving the planet from global warming, finding a cure for Aids, saving the starving children . . . All that can wait a bit, but ‘Save the banks!’ is an unconditional imperative which demands and gets immediate action.

The panic was absolute. A transnational and non-partisan unity was immediately established, all grudges among world leaders momentarily forgotten in order to avert the catastrophe. (Incidentally, what the much-praised ‘bi-partisanship’ effectively means is that democratic procedures were de facto suspended.) The sublimely enormous sum of money was spent not for some clear ‘real’ task, but in order to ‘restore confidence’ in the markets – i.e. for reasons of belief. Do we need any more proof that Capital is the Real of our lives, the Real whose demands are more absolute than even the most pressing demands of our social and natural reality?"

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A bit about Rene Girard's theory of mimetic desire: Part 3

So, back to Rene Girard and mimetic theory... (which I just realized I misspelled in my previous posts! Whoops!)

Previously, I briefly described Girard's theory and the explanation it provides for human violence. Now, I want to look at Girard's description of the manner in which the biblical narrative, culminating in Christ, actually represents the reversal of violence. Again, my source is Depoortere's Christ in Postmodern Philosophy.

Girard claims that the Bible describes a "gradual exit" (to use Depoortere's words) from the cycle of violence that is interwoven within ancient myths and religions, and, in fact, all of human culture. While this may seem spurious, given the amount of violence contained within the Bible, Girard asserts that unlike other ancient stories, violence in the Scriptures is presented as worthy of condemnation rather than praise. In Greek and Roman mythology, for example, murder is seen as simply part of the destiny of relationships between gods and men. In the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, however, murder is roundly condemned.

What's more, the Bible consistently describes God as taking the side of the victim. Remember that Girard has hypothesized that the "scapegoat" is understood by human beings as a necessary sacrifice to alleviate violence. This does not, however, mean that the scapegoat was necessarily understood to be innocent. The victim's innocence was connected less to the victim, and more to the alleviation of the violence, or evil, or curse. The innocence of the victim her/himself is actually an idea that owes a great deal to the Hebrew understanding of violence, as it is described in the Bible. Rather than simply resigning to the need for the victim to exist, the Bible undermines violence by pointing out that the victim has done nothing wrong.

This is seen most clearly, of course, in the prophecies alluding to Christ (Isaiah 53, for example). Jesus' death and resurrection are a fulfillment of these prophetic messages describing God's immanent reversal of the violent system imbedded within human culture and human hearts. In Christ, God is telling humanity that the way to life involves abandoning violence and vengeance, and surrendering fully to God's love.

However, Jesus' message was not well received, to put it mildly. Rather than responding to Jesus' call to renounce violence, people actually turned their violence upon Jesus, making him into the ultimate scapegoat! It is this travesty - God as the ultimate innocent victim of violence - that reveals the root of human violence. So, the crucifixion is not just an event that reveals something about God, it also reveals something about us. It reveals our captivity to violence. This revelation of the structure of violence is, for Girard, a sort of evidence of Christ's divinity.

The resurrection, in turn, is not only Jesus being raised to new life (which is available for humanity as well), it is also the paradigmatic example of freedom from violence. When even death cannot succeed, violence has been stripped of its power. There is much more to say about this, but I want to stop and make a few brief observations:

First, some will no doubt question Girard's interpretation of Scripture. Clearly there are examples in the Bible where it appears that God either condones violence, or outright commands it. Girard's mythologically-oriented view of Scripture allows him to brush these aside as anomalies. This is a weakness, I think, but I will let you take that up with Girard by reading his books for yourself... ;-)

Second, and more pressing, I think, is the following issue: violence still exists - perhaps now more than ever - 2,000 years after Christ's death and resurrection. How do we deal with this? Girard seems to think that, in spite of continuing violence, the message of the Gospel is slowly working its way out in human history. He states, for example, regarding the longing for vengeance: "... longing for real vengeance is a luxury which can only be afforded in a society in which violence has already been curtailed..." However, I am not sure this is really the case.

It is extremely difficult to quantify how much violence may or may not have been alleviated by the Gospel versus the traditional cultural method of scapegoating. Certainly I prefer the Christian message of non-violence to other approaches. But it seems to me that if Girard's theory holds any weight, than we must also admit that most Christians have rejected, and continue to reject, the message of Christ's Gospel, which calls into question the validity of that Gospel. How transformative can a message be if no one cares enough to really take it seriously? This leads into questions of human will and agency, which I will not address here. Of course, this also leads us back to the ultimate question of hope: Do we believe that, in spite of everything we see around us, God really is in the process of redeeming the world? How we answer that is the surest description of the status of our faith.

At any rate, Girard's theory is quite impressive, and intriguing, and deserves further attention, if only for its expansive effort to account for the whole of human behavior and culture. That it is also a profound theory of religion is the icing on the cake, so to speak. :-)

Monday, November 10, 2008

quote of the week...

"As soon as God starts holding your hand and says that everything you are doing is fine, and 'I am with you in your complacency,' then the game is up." - philosopher David Wood

Friday, November 7, 2008

Let's talk about gay marriage...

I'm going to take a break from finishing my little series on Girard to say a few quick things about the issue of gay marriage. Obviously, it's a "hot button" right now, with the recent approval of Prop. 8 in CA, and other anti-gay-marriage initiatives passing in FL and AZ. But my main reason for writing this is not to support or oppose gay marriage per se. It is simply to point out some apparent logical flaws that no one seems to be discussing (at least not to my knowledge).

First, it seems rather clear that we are dealing with two different definitions of "marriage" here. Until people on both sides are able to appreciate this fact and deal with it more effectively, both pro- and anti-gay-marriage proponents will continue to talk past each other. One group (typically) sees marriage as an institution ordained by God. The other (typically) sees marriage as an institution organized by the state, to provide certain benefits to people who are in committed relationships.

There is "religious" marriage, and there is "civil" marriage. The two are not the same. But they have been conflated into one grand, amorphous image of marriage that is neither real nor helpful. Marriage, as traditionally practiced throughout history in nearly every culture, was and is a religious institution. It is important to the structure of society, yes, but it (to my knowledge - correct me if I'm wrong!) has almost always, everywhere, been primarily a religious ceremony based upon religious principles.

Fine. So what's the problem? The problem is: The United States is not a nation where the laws are based primarily upon religious principles. Religion has always played a part, to be sure - after all, this nation was founded by Westerners who were steeped in the Christian tradition. Some took their faith more seriously than others. But they all agreed that religion would not be the guiding force behind the new nation. Rather, they relied primarily upon the enlightenment ideals of liberty, individuality, and justice. (We can argue about the capacity for those ideals to be realized without religious faith, but that is presently beside the point.)

Since the United States exists within the tension created by the "wall of separation" that is meant to keep religion from exercising undue influence over the state, a couple of things follow:

1) In a country where everyone can claim the freedom to equal treatment, sooner or later, a minority group of people who feel that they are being treated unjustly, with less liberties, will ask for the same "rights" as the majority.

2) In deciding whether or not those people deserve those liberties, the primary deciding factor cannot be religious beliefs. We who take our Christian faith seriously may not like that, but that is the way it is. Some Christians think we would be better off if our religion determined the laws - they want to live in an "American theocracy" of some sort. Personally, I think Scripture, history, and plain good sense tell us that would be a bad idea.

So, to make a long post short, at some point in the history of the U.S., "marriage" morphed from being primarily a religious event into something that is primarily a civil event. In fact, I would suggest that the vast majority of American marriages today are less religious than civil in nature. Whatever the case, when that began to happen, it opened the door to that same civil freedom being potentially available to anyone else in America. So, ironically, married religious people who want to ban gay marriage are in a catch-22: The very fact that they want the government to give them civil rights as married couples is the same desire that made it possible for gay marriage to become the issue it is today.

My tentative solution to this is probably not going to make anyone completely happy, but here it is: Separate the terms, and re-define marriage using two terms instead of one. "Civil marriage", unless a compelling non-religious reason can be found, should be available to all who seek it. There are those who think they have compelling non-religious reasons... I beg to differ with them, primarily because they deal in straw men, red herrings, and question begging.

As for "religious marriage" (Christian or otherwise), each religion has always retained the right to perform their ceremonies as they see fit. Many Christian churches will not marry same-sex couples, and that is their right. Other Christian churches will. But ultimately the debate in the Christian Church over gay marriage is an "in-house" issue. What the state decides about civil marriage for gays, lesbians, or anyone else is not our primary concern. If the Church can't get our own house in order, we have no business trying to dictate the actions of someone else's house... unless we have strong reason to believe that (to use a played out metaphor) they are going to burn their house down, and all the houses in the village with it.

But, since the jury is still deliberating (at least for the anti-gay-marriage folks) on whether gay people in the U.S. even really pose a threat to our society at all, it is disingenuous for Christians or other religious folks to attempt to limit civil marriage under the guise of defending religious marriage. More could be said about this, much more, but that is my rant for tonight.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A bit about Rene Girard's theory of mimetic desire: Part 2

In my previous post, I briefly introduced Rene Girard's theory of mimetic desire, and described the process of imitation taking place as each person seeks to fill what they lack within themselves by imitating another, or many others. That we all do this seems to be easily established. But what is the outcome of our human mimesis (imitation)? One of the primary, and most damaging, outcomes, says Girard, is violence. Here, again, I am taking quotes from Depoortere's book:

"In all the varieties of desire examined by us, we have encountered not only a subject and an object but a third presence as well: the rival... the rival desires the same object as the subject... the subject desires the object because the rival desires it."

Here we see the beginnings of Girard's take on violence. Because we all seek to imitate someone else, a person we take as a model, it is inevitable that conflict will arise. Why? Because now two people are seeking to possess the same object, and since all objects are finite, they cannot be possessed by everyone equally. Many times, the same object cannot be possessed by two people at all. This experience creates a conflict of desires. As Depoortere puts it: "... if I can get rid of the other [the rival], I shall be able to [acquire] the object that will provide with the fullness of being. But, of course, the other thinks the same of me..."

So, according to Girard, all forms of human violence can be traced back to this primordial conflict, which is something that evolved in humans beyond the level of mere instinct. Unlike most (if not all) animals, who fight over needs based in instinctual desires, we fight over any object (including other persons) that we think will give us a more fulfilling existence. Violence is, unfortunately, birthed from mimetic desire.

But there is more. Says Girard, at some point, two early ancestors of humanity fought, and one killed the other...

"There is some commotion. But no, [the victim] does not move anymore. He does nothing anymore... The other apes break off their fights and come to take a look. A circle is formed around the deceased. Silence... Time after time, the same happens. There is total disorder, a lot of aggression and violence; and suddenly... someone is killed. Violence stops, and everybody comes to take a look at the deceased... Suddenly, disorder disappears and an ordered structure comes into being: a circle around the deceased. Moreover, disorder and violence do not return immediately. The circle dissolves, and the apes take up again their daily routine. Rest has come back in the group."

Here is where Girard's theory, in my opinion, becomes very interesting. Essentially, as he describes it, what develops in the early stages of human evolution (pre-historical human society) is a response to violence that takes on the form of a victim. The killing of just one person halts, at least temporarily, the violence brought on by the mimetic conflict. And so, we have the birth of the "scapegoat."

What is the scapegoat? The scapegoat is the further development of the human need to escape the violence created by mimetic desire. The scapegoat is experienced as something that alleviates violence. So, it becomes possible for early humans to take the next "logical" step - if a scapegoat halts violence, then designating a scapegoat beforehand might actually prevent violence from occurring.

It is Girard's hypothesis that such an understanding of human development can explain nearly every aspect of human culture. Religious rituals, for example, are one of the oldest known human activities. What do all these early rituals involve? Some sort of sacrifice. Why? Because it was understood that sacrifice somehow halts violence (in this case, the violence of the gods, as experienced in natural suffering). This evolutionary response is so deeply ingrained in human beings that it affects us all, even without our realization.

Girard's theory has many profound potential applications, which I will not address here. But, in my third and final post, I will summarize Girard's connection of mimetic theory with Christ (for Girard is, in fact, a Christian). Christ, he states, is the reversal of violence. More to come...

Saturday, November 1, 2008

A bit about Rene Girard's theory of mimetic desire: Part 1

I've been reading a new book by Frederiek Depoortere, Christ In Postmodern Philosophy, which describes the various Christological impulses found in the writings of contemporary thinkers Gianni Vattimo, Rene Girard, and Slavoj Zizek. It's enjoyable and highly readable, if you are interested in any of these thinkers and how they might relate to the Christian religion. I am well into the section on Girard, and I thought I'd post a bit about his "mimetic theory," which is an anthropological theory that I find fascinating and, overall, quite compelling. Here are a few quotes from Girard (and my comments) that describe "mimetic theory," taken from pp. 35-42 of Depoortere's book:

"There is nothing, or next to nothing, in human behaviour that is not learned, and all learning is based on imitation. If human beings suddenly ceased imitating, all forms of culture would vanish."

"Mimesis" or "mimetic" basically means imitation/to imitate. All humans imitate other humans. Why do all humans imitate other humans? Because we all lack something, and we look to others who we think might help us fill this lack. Girard calls this something "being," which indicates that who we are, and who we might be, is not something directly accessible to ourselves. We need others to help us ascertain that which we lack. This might be something physical, emotional, educational, vocational, rational... we all seek ways to become more than what we currently are, whether we realize it or not.

"[A person] desires being, something he himself lacks and which some other person seems to possess. The subject thus looks to that other person to inform him of what he should desire in order to acquire that being. If the model, who is apparently already endowed with superior being, desires some object, that object must surely be capable of conferring an even greater plenitude of being."

So, each of us looks to another (or many others) to find that which we seem to lack in ourselves, and then each tries to imitate the other in an attempt to fill what is lacking. However, in doing this, a person will slowly begin to come into conflict with the other, because now they are competing for the same fullness of being. We will return to this in Part 2. There is also the realization that, each time, the object one finds does not ultimately satisfy all that one lacks. So there is the danger of a person endlessly desiring some object (a HUGE problem! Whatever we objectify essentially controls us...), which can, in its radical form, actually turn into a desire NOT to find the object. Girard poetically describes this search:

"A man sets out to discover a treasure he believes is hidden under a stone; he turns over stone after stone but finds nothing. He grows tired of such a futile undertaking but the treasure is too precious for him to give up. So he begins to look for a stone which is too heavy to lift - he places all his hopes in that stone and he will waste all his remaining strength on it..."

In other words, we humans are prone to place so much hope in finding something that will satisfy all of our desires that we may actually look for ways to develop patterns of thought and/or behavior that actually make it impossible for us to find that thing we think will satisfy - because of the fear that when we find it, it won't actually fulfill what we lack after all. So we build up structures that, in effect, keep us from finding what we're really looking for. This has many intriguing connections to religion that I won't explore here, but leave for you to consider.

Additionally, though, there is an even greater danger that stems from human mimesis. It is violence. And that will be the subject of Part 2...