an obession with first principles

Healthcare – Wow

Posted: Friday Mar 18th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Dialogue, In the News, Philosophising, Politics | View Comments

Providing health care is like building a house. The task requires experts, expensive equipment and materials, and a huge amount of coördination. Imagine that, instead of paying a contractor to pull a team together and keep them on track, you paid an electrician for every outlet he recommends, a plumber for every faucet, and a carpenter for every cabinet. Would you be surprised if you got a house with a thousand outlets, faucets, and cabinets, at three times the cost you expected, and the whole thing fell apart a couple of years later? Getting the country’s best electrician on the job (he trained at Harvard, somebody tells you) isn’t going to solve this problem. Nor will changing the person who writes him the check.
Atul Gawande, The New Yorker

This entire piece is incredibly well done. I encourage you to read all 8 pages of it. This is also how editorials will continue to make money: by writing this well.

Law and Deuteronomy

Posted: Monday Mar 7th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Blasphemy, In the News, Politics | View Comments

I find it incredibly laughable that any modern person considers either the formative or contemporary laws of the United States of America to be in any way similar to those found in Deuteronomy. Whatever rhetoric might persuade about a country being the new Israel and the civic documents its stone tablets looking at the actual documents you better immediately see a giant disconnect. Looking at contemporary ideas of justice and law:

The disparity between Deuteronomy’s commandments and those that one might extract from their policies could scarcely be more stark. The new right-wing bible reads, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of America, so be sure to extract every dollar from your operations so that you don’t end up as one again.” Christopher B. Hays

But if one actually looks at Deuteronomy:

But the warnings to the whole nation are similarly stern: The people are told to “put these words of mine in your heart and soul… and teach them to your children… so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land.” If not, “curses will come upon you,” and the rest of ch. 28 graphically describes them. Essentially, the Bible advocates that Israel must embrace a moral sustainability akin to the ecological sustainability to that we moderns think more about. ibid.

There is certainly no morality left in either politics nor economics. There is no construction of a shared civilization or culture, let alone a shared space. Everything today is about “me and mine.”

America has some serious problems; a recent study of developed nations by the International Monetary Fund ranked America near the bottom in income inequality, food security, life expectancy at birth, and level of incarcerated population; all of which reflect the scandalous lot of the poor. Yet the reaction to the recent economic crises from many quarters has been to slash the safety net that keeps such inequalities from being even worse.

Many in politics who clutch onto the good book are seriously endangering their fellow Americans as well as many fellow Christians. But they don’t actually care, so long as their tax bracket doesn’t change. Utter disgrace.

Remembering Rev. Gomes

Posted: Wednesday Mar 2nd | Author: JohnO | Filed under: In the News | View Comments

Don’t misunderstand me — I don’t despise patriotism — but there is no salvation in love of country. There is salvation only in love of Jesus Christ, and if you confuse the two, the greatest defeat will have been achieved. first sermon post 9/11

On Feb 28th Reverend of Harvard’s Memorial Church, Professor Peter Gomes passed away. We have all lost something. I will always remember the few times I have seen him speak at his introductions to the Noble Lectures.

Literalism Fails the Question of Intent

Posted: Sunday Feb 13th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: In the News, Philosophising, Power | View Comments

But nowhere in the original Constitution does it say that the federal courts have the power of judicial review. Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers suggests that the federal court has this power, but it wasn’t until 1803 that the Supreme Court actually ruled that this power existed. Hence, a contradiction: Hamilton, a constitutional framer and author of the beloved Federalist Papers, asserts that a power that is not explicitly written in the Constitution exists and a court rules in his favor — and then, all these years later, Tea Party constitutionalists use that power to invalidate a federal healthcare law on the basis that it violates the Constitution!

Literalism, in any form religious or political, adopts the text as it stands for the purposes and intents of its interpreters. It forgoes any original intent of the author(s). If it did just this without asserting that the literalist interpretation is The One and Only True Interpretation – I would be fine with it. But the blatant disregard for the original setting and other writings than the one in question, combined with their rhetoric just sicken me.

On top of that, if the ideal the Tea Party espouses ever was realized, it would just mean the states would have more authority to suppress rights.

Reflecting Again

Posted: Sunday Feb 6th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Dialogue, In the News, Philosophising | View Comments

t. The challenge of the democratic, developed world is a quieter rebellion: against a bankruptcy not just of the pocketbook, but of meaning. It’s not to take a stand against a dictator, but to take a stand against an unenlightened, nihilistic, hyperconsumerist, soul-suckingly unfulfilling, lethally short-termist ethos that inflicts real and relentless damage on people, society, the natural world, and future generations…

Some say it’s impossible. Me? I believe that in a world of bogus prosperity, what’s impossible is for the status quo to stand. Stop Dumb Growth

I have to say I agree. Value (what makes true wealth, not just dollar signs) is no longer disseminated to the people. The people must now create their own value and wealth. And I can say those in my generation are beginning to do that. Many are returning to the roots of physical creation by building and fashioning. Often, very high end items. Many are taking to their own kitchens rather than eating in restaurants – again. making specialty food. Fewer, but some, are going so far back as to grow their own food. And even more people of my generation are becoming entrepreneurs eschewing any large institution as their employer or chief guardian of value and wealth.

The large question on my mind is what will happen in the bridge of our generation and the one before us. Will half attempt to hold up current institutions and be crushed? Will everyone move out of the way and let them fall? What will rise to replace them? “May you live in exciting times” indeed.

Hypocrisy Defined

Posted: Monday Jan 10th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: In the News | View Comments

That’s what we’re meant to believe, anyway. But we know it is not true. This culture, this habit, of eliminationist rhetoric is not happening in a vacuum. It’s happening in a culture of widely-available guns (thanks to conservative policies), of underfunded and unavailable medical care, especially mental health care (thanks to conservative policies), of a widespread belief that government is the enemy of the people (thanks to conservative rhetoric), and of millions of increasingly desperate people (thanks to an economy totally fucked by conservative governance).

The shooting in Tucson was not an anomaly. It was an inevitability.

And as long as we continue to play this foolish game of “both sides are just as bad,” and rely on trusty old ablism to dismiss Jared Lee Loughner as a crackpot—dutifully ignoring that people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators; carefully pretending that the existence of people with mental illness who are potentially dangerous somehow absolves us of responsibility for violent rhetoric, as opposed to serving to underline precisely why it’s irresponsible—it will be inevitable again.

Let’s get this straight: This shit doesn’t happen in a void. It happens in a culture rife with violent political rhetoric, and it’s time for conservatives to pull up their goddamn bootstraps and get to work doing the hard business of self-reflection.

This is one problem the invisible hand of the market can’t fix for them—unless, perhaps, it’s holding a mirror.
emphasis mine. Let’s Get This Straight

It is irrelevant to say that conservative policies are “wrong” or “right” – only that their policies and ideology were entirely in affect in this situation and thus they cannot blame any other policy. I think the article linked to above captures it perfectly.

Modern Method

Posted: Wednesday Jan 5th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Historical Method, In the News, Philosophising | View Comments

Despite what conservative fundamentalists and liberal fundamentalists have said in the past about the high theological stakes of historical research, the central concern of modern scholarship is not history. The issue turns not on the historicistic intellectual program that animated modern scholarship in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries but rather on the cultural character of modern criticism as an institutional outgrowth of the progressive German Enlightenment
Legaspi at The Bible and Interpretation

Michael hits upon something so central I cannot express how many conservative friends I have seen step right into it. The idea that the only way of talking, or knowing what we’re talking about is the historical-critical approach to biblical studies. And because of that we must fight the (according to them) so-called experts who deny what we profess. We must come up with alternate explanations on which to base, even prove, our faith.

(Tangentially, as a programmer this reminds me of Joel Spolsky’s Fire and Motion article in which he states that large companies continue to come out with *Shiny* *New* and *Better* versions of things that already worked as cover fire in order to get smaller companies to waste time implementing things they don’t have to. In this case, some of the faithful are entirely distracted by another task which they ought not to be bothered with.)

What actually happened is the wool is being pulled over the Church’s eyes:

As the eighteenth-century roots of modern scholarship show, the real point of separation between modern biblical criticism and the confessional modes it was designed to replace is not an intellectual evaluation of what history says the Bible is but a political and cultural orientation toward the question of what the Bible is for.

His argument continues that the inability of the Catholic, and Protestant (he doesn’t mention Orthodox, but we might as well) churches to retain a shared hermeneutic and central meaning for the Bible allowed the Bible to be spoken of by another, the enlightenment scholar. And many of these scholars were involved with the Church directly, indirectly, or clergy. All this brings us down to our present day.

Modern biblical criticism is not a rival to the kind of religious faith once invested in confessional Bibles; it is a successor to it.

Factually, I must agree with this assessment. On the ground, however, I must disagree. Especially within conservative circles, the modern critical method is glanced long-side, waiting for the moment it betrays them. Within the more liberal theologically, a theistic viewpoint is either presumed or left behind – but the approach to a solution of society’s ills is to be found within a modern critical method (whether it be liberation, gender issues, or sexual issues). I can say this from first-hand experience being in a program recently. There is very little confessional biblical study (and if there is, I haven’t seen it be very interesting. Most people just talk at one another than actually dialogue [see the problem in the Anglican Communion]). And this growing divide leads to an inevitable question for society:

The question today is not ‘What is the real cultural valence of the Bible I grew up with?’ but rather, after the decline of Christendom and the long, slow deconversion of elite culture in the West, “Why have a Bible at all?”

To this question theologians no doubt have differing answers. Historical critics, I fear, have no answer at all. As Max Weber said in his lecture on science as a vocation “academic prophecies can only ever produce fanatical sects, but never a genuine community.”

When I have to answer this question I return first to the early traditions of the Church. I cannot support the modernist hermeneutic. The Church, always and everywhere, has remained solid in her hermeneutic based on allegorical interpretation of Scripture, apostolic tradition, the self-checking of the Church in her teaching (which is a fantastic apparatus in such a diverse body) and the experience of her members in life and religion. The modernist approach (as I have argued before) cannot impart value as the teachings of the Church have done from the beginning:

If Weber is right, then the social ambition of the modern critical project has largely failed: Wissenschaft cannot sustain a genuine community because, unlike traditional religious belief, it cannot decide what is ultimately worthwhile for us to know

The Hitchens Brothers

Posted: Saturday Sep 25th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Dialogue, In the News | View Comments

Great interview. Perhaps they ought to settle their family issues before they write more.

Rally to Restore Sanity

Posted: Monday Sep 20th | Author: JohnO | Filed under: Anthropology, In the News | View Comments

The idea is brilliant. Jon Stewart is brilliant and has been on his game for a long time. I realized two things while watching the show.

First, I am not surprised by the outrage on all sides of the political and moral spectrum. As I posted yesteday if we are paying attention to what is going on it makes sense. The “facts” are all the same. Unemployment is high, senators are doing an awful job, no one trusts the government, and Wall St just wants to make more money. Each of these fringe groups are giving their own interpretation – what these facts mean – thus creating a platform of belief. Even having a “scientific worldview” means nothing in this context. Because analytics (science) cannot offer interpretations it can only point out facts. The fact that unemployment is a certain number means nothing to analytics, to science. It means something to us as humans because people aren’t making money to feed themselves and their families and that will have larger repercussions.

The reason all these groups (Tea Party, Libertarian, etc) are popping up is because there is no meaning, no values in the current systems. And as the current systems and institutions are all guided by modernist objectivist thought – I have to agree with them. In the religious sphere this also applies. The same reason is Why younger evangelical Christians are moving to the Catholic Church. Their shallow evangelicalism is based on arbitrary values and methods which are unfounded with historic orthodox Christianity. So they’ve sought meaning elsewhere.

Once it is recognized that modern objectivist thought (the current of thought pushing science and analytics) offers no meaning, no interpretation, no values (nihilism) that current of thought will cease to drive our societies and institutions. This conclusion has already been reached in philosophy – hence the rise of post-modernism. Unfortunately for this movement it is largely a reaction which enables each and every individual to “discover” their own meaning and value largely untethered by any community or restraint. I see a decided lack of responsibility within post-modern strain of thought: as valuable as it is for showing the lack of modern thought. Post-modern thought is the necessary conclusion of modernism. Wall St’s actions of greed is entirely understandable, just as the Tea Party is in a post-modern construct. This is why it is important to know the history of thought, philosophy.

The retort to these groups is not: “But these are facts, just listen to the facts.” They are not operating in a scientific/modern/objectivist world devoid of meaning. You cannot assault a worldview from the outside. Very few people are capable of seeing the world they live in, let alone able to think from a different one to witness the differences. People choose a worldview because it makes the best sense of the evidence to them, it corresponds to their values. The way to retort is to see what they value and enter into a dialogue. Just being able to have the dialogue is a victory.

And the second thing I learned: Bill Clinton still has his mojo.