Be Wary of the Intellectuals

What are the intellectuals of society saying today? Whatever it is, and I’ll let everyone think about that for themselves, be skeptical of their conclusions and what they want YOU to do.

I’m reading Thomas Sowell’s book Intellectuals & Race. Technically, on audio book. As usual, Sowell has crafted a treatise so rich in research and analysis, that’s it’s impossible to grasp it all on just one read or listen. But I wanted to write out a few salient points already coming to the forefront.

A quick perusal of history can show that the intellectuals of any certain era – though often well-meaning – can be wrong, so wrong, so incredibly wrong that their sophisticated language and eruditely argued theses can end up sounding like a steaming pile of balderdash to the generations which follow.

Sowell goes deep into the progressives of the early 20th century to see how the intellectual class latched on to the eugenics movement with prominent individuals such as Madison Grant, Margaret Sanger, and others providing the intellectual arguments for eliminating the inferior races. Madison Grant’s book The Passing of the Great Race went on to be the book Hitler referred to as his bible. Grant was not a fringe nut. No, he is described as one of the leading thinkers of the progressive era. He was very much mainstream, greatly admired by many politicians and leading thinkers of the day. As Sowell points out, Grant died in 1937 and never got to see what his ideas about race led to the Holocaust just a few short years later.

So goes the intellect. The soft sciences have created a myriad of highly educated individuals who have crafted many, well-meaning schemes to radically change societies, from Czechoslovakia, to Yugoslavia, to Pol Pot and his Killing Fields in Cambodia, and many more. The list of long and the destruction left in their wake is vast.

It got me thinking about today. What are the intellectuals of 2022 thinking, writing, and speaking out about? Where is social theory, in the hands of today’s intellectual class, leading us? What are the burning questions? The issues constantly being debated, pushed, rationalized, and upheld as the only logical way forward? (CRT, anyone?) What will the future generations say about the intellectual class that erupted on the new millennium? My fear is that they will not be kind.

It makes one pause and wonder about one’s own limitations to see the way forward. If someone claims to know the way to utopia, well, I’ll probably head in the other direction, especially if my common sense alarm keeps going off.

I still have a ways to go in Sowell’s book, but it’s a good one, and I recommend it.

Upon Reading the First Half of Atlas Shrugged

645,000 words. 1200 pages. Ayn Rand’s classic epic, first published in 1957, is not for the faint of heart. It requires time, patience, and – in my opinion – a thoughtful demeanor to allow it to resonate.

I’ve been wanting to read it for years. I had even bought a paperback copy and had it sitting impressively on the shelf for five years. A few months back, I decided that it would be my goal, my task, my yearlong commitment, if need be, to actually read the thing.

Well, I’m nearly halfway through it. And my thoughts?

It’s remarkable. The prose is not the most elegant. It can get bogged down at times with a lot of details. But my goodness, it’s easy to see why this novel has had such a profound impact on the 20th century. And reading this with pandemic America and runaway bureaucracy and businesses struggling to find workers as the backdrop, it is almost frightening to realize how this book saw into the future.

First the terrific title. What would happen if that which holds the world on its back (Atlas) decided to shrug with indifference one day? What would happen if the innovators were forced out of the market? What would happen if the great men and women of industry would cease to produce? What would happen if the visionaries of society would no longer – or perhaps more precisely – no longer be allowed to pursue their dreams? What would it do to prosperity? How would it affect society?

There are some truly remarkable passages that I have dog-eared so I can revisit at some point. Some that have sparked writing ideas of my own. Others which are stewing in my mind as I try to understand their philosophical underpinnings.

This is a book of passion: passion for work, passion for love, passions between two of the remaining pillars of industry who will not be bullied into kneeling to the alter of sacrifice for the common good. Because they know, that sacrifice for the common good never achieves its goal. It’s the great debate of intentions vs results. Intentions to improve society mean nothing if those actions actually end up destroying it in the end. You know, the old saying, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

There are some amazing speeches in this novel. A couple I wouldn’t mind memorizing myself and developing them into dramatic soliloquys. The messages of these speeches are unmistakably modern. Speaking directly to the vast entrenched bureaucracy which has been conditioned to ignore such messages and warnings.

I have chosen to read it slowly. I’m glad I did. I’m always eager to continue, but I also like to pause and allow it to ruminate. That’s a mark of a truly great book.

As I wade into its second half to truly discover “Who is John Galt,” I can’t help but thinking, with a sigh, where is John Galt? The world of 2021 might need your services.

(Full review when finished – Give me a few months.)

The Future of Discrimination: White Male

I’ve been waiting for this article. Perhaps there have been others espousing similar points of view, but leave it to some brilliant graduate student of philosophy, of all things, to express what I’ve been guessing at all along: the blame the white narrative is getting much more pointed.

Here’s the article if you want to read it. Not at all a surprising addition to the back list of of Huntington Post. You may want to read it before eating, though it might prove an effective means of losing one’s appetite. HUFFPOST South Africa

If you want to be spared the gross negligence your eyes may suffer while reading it, let me summarize. This forward-thinking philosophy student is posing the question of whether it’s time to put a moratorium on white male voting. This is coming from the post-Apartheid South African context. The reason for disenfranchising the white males, even for a period of 20 years as she suggests, is to redistribute wealth that white males have stolen over the years (stolen through capitalism, cronyism, white male privilege and other such ways, I suppose) so that a fair and equitable society can emerge. It would be a positive, long overdue step to help right the wrongs of the past.

I’ve seen this coming, this philosophy, this radical departure from sanity. And it won’t take long for some far-flung politician to pick it up and throw it in the debate arena. The push will be slow and steady until one government, undoubtedly democratically elected, will inch towards compensation, demanding a wide range of actions meant to address historical grievances against the white male.

In full disclosure, I am a white male. I’ve lived the last twenty years in different cultures, working alongside people from all backgrounds, creeds, and ethnicity. I’ve been in schools where diversity isn’t lauded, it’s a simple backdrop of life. My first child was five years old when she finally realized that all her friends had black hair. There is a movement in the world, there are people in the world, there are day to day interactions in this world which have come to the point where differences and backgrounds and colors and creeds and social envy means nothing because everyone is treated the same.

This is what real progress looks like. I’ve seen it, and yes, I know the world is not a dreamy-eyed utopia and it never will be. There are problems. But hearkening backwards looking for villains who happen to be white and male is the essence of anti-progress. You do not compensate historical grievances by stripping people of rights. You can not further progress by ripping apart one of the modern world’s founding tenets of progress: universal suffrage.  I just wish a certain graduate student would realize that philosophy is dead if this is the best you can come up with. Heaven help us if this is the future of education. Heaven help us if this is the future of our world.

Perhaps I’ll discover it was all a mistake. A piece of brilliant satire. But I doubt it, because I knew it was coming.

On a brighter note, this world of ours continues to be an unending source of new writing materials. I guess I should thank her for that. Now let me get to work on that new play. A satire, perhaps.

A Jaunt into Philosphy 4: The Mind-Body Problem

Here’s my last in my short series on philosophy. 

Another philosophical dilemma is the mind-body problem. Do humans have a mind separate from their physical bodies or is life merely composed of twirling particles and matter?  The latter view is called materialism; this belief contends there is nothing besides our physical functions.  Everything we experience including our thought processes is simply a response of the brain’s nervous system (Burr and Goldinger 320).

In contrast, a dualist is someone who believes there is a non-physical mind creating a causal effect between the body and the mind.  A materialist will counter that the existence of a non-physical mind cannot be proven.  However, the dualist puts great value in defending the idea of the mind because it can affect how one views the concepts of free will, morality and immortality (Burr and Goldinger 320).  For some, explaining away consciousness as a mere chemical response does not satisfactorily explain all human experiences. Perhaps we will never be able to explain scientifically why the mental realities of life seem so different to the physical realities around us (Nagel 36).

Epistemology is the study of knowledge.  Beliefs about knowledge range widely from pondering whether anything can be known to questioning whether we can know anything other than that which we know through our senses.  Rationalists believe that reasoning can be used as the sole source of knowledge. Modern philosopher Descartes and his axiom, “I think, therefore I am” is explained by Burr and Goldinger to mean “Whatever is perfectly clear and distinct to […] reason cannot be doubted and so must be true” (442).  Descartes’ statement does seem profound.  Of all the creatures that roam the earth, humans are seemingly so self-aware that we can realize that we are asking ourselves how aware we really are.

Empiricism states that we can only know what we can experience with our senses.  An empiricist would say that the certainty espoused by the rationalists say nothing at all about actual real-life fact; even science, they contend, merely points to probabilities but is limited when forced to produce facts (Burr and Goldinger 442-443). Philosophical skepticism speaks to yet a grander scale.   Just as Socrates went around to knowledgeable men only to discover that they really didn’t know anything, so philosophical skeptics question whether we can really know anything at all.  Burr and Goldinger state that skeptics may not refute that knowledge is possible but may challenge anyone who claims to have knowledge (443). The most radical level of this type of thought is solipsism where someone believes that nothing else exists in the world except for one’s own mind (Nagel 11).  The skeptic’s argument about doubting existence can spiral on and on.  However, most people – possibly even philosophers – at some point seem to acknowledge that there is something beyond our own minds even if the ‘what’ is not always clear.  This leads to many arguments debating the existence of God and the value of many different scientific pursuits.

A Jaunt into Philosphy 3: Absolutism vs. Relativism

Here’s my third attempt at philosophy. This one on absolutism vs. relativism.

Can it be determined that some actions are right and other actions wrong?  Can one culture’s traditions be morally inferior to that of another?  For example, a western person may look on in strange curiosity when a Vietnamese family gets together to celebrate the ngay gio or death anniversary of a loved one.  At the same time, a Vietnamese may wonder why an American makes such a fuss about their child’s birthday.  Is one better than the other?  Are they equally valid due to different cultural upbringings? Are they both actually pointing out the same moral principals in just different ways?

Relativism and absolutism are terms used by philosophers when discussing morality and society.  Relativism is described as each society having its’ own set of principles based on their culture and beliefs.  As the example in the previous paragraph shows, it is easy to see that different societies value different moral practices.  This is called social relativism. Ethical relativism builds on this principle by stating that any society’s ultimate moral principle is as valid as any other society’s principle (Burr and Goldinger 180-181).  This sets up a crucial conflict between ethical relativism and ethical absolutism which states that there is only one correct ultimate principle or set of principles.  This philosophical conflict has many ramifications in how someone might view abortion, punishment, education or the environment

In the modern world, the buzzword democracy emanates loudly throughout the world.  Leaders claim that democracy is every country’s destiny and possibly even their divine right.  Philosophers look at state and society and try to ask the big questions about the nature of democracy and its underlying political philosophy. They wonder about claims of one form of government being morally superior to that of another (Burr and Goldinger 269).  For example, in the often used statement “…with liberty and justice for all”, a philosopher might try to define liberty.  Can it mean different things to different people?  Can there be limits to liberty?  Why?  What is justice and can it really apply to everyone equally?

All of these questions lead to many very important issues which are discussed and debated every day.  Can there be true justice when some people are rich and others are poor?  Some say that an equal and just society should provide equal opportunity for everyone to succeed.  Others would take it a step further and say that equality of outcome is what is needed.  Everyone actually needs to be the same intellectually and materially for there to be true equality. When looking at the world, Nagel wonders if anything can and/or should be done about the tremendous economic disparity between the very poor and very rich nations (79).  The questions framed by philosophers are profound and difficult, but the practical application of the suggested answers to these questions result in very real consequences to our global community.

Can someone be too open-minded?

(Here’s a little different kind of post for today. I like to dabble with philosophical thought and societal issues from time to time. It helps me process. Here goes.)

What does it mean to be open-minded? Or narrow-minded? Or closed minded?

Have you ever took a minute to think about what those terms actually mean?

I came across a person’s profile the other day (I can’t even remember the website) and this person described herself as open-minded, and for the first time I wondered exactly what that meant. I, myself, am a person who has a head full of opinions, but I always consider myself open-minded. I’m willing to listen to what others have to say. I don’t ignore facts. Is that what this person was saying? It’s not the impression I got.

I got the impression that open-mindedness in this person’s mind meant that “I won’t judge you no matter what.” Everything and anything is okay. And so I posed myself this question: Can a person be too open-minded?

If open-mindedness means that whatever-whatever is all right, you could basically dump everything and anything into that person’s head. What’s the beauty of that?

So many people are afraid of stating what they believe because they might be deemed by others as judgmental or it might be “offensive”. I personally can’t live in such a way that my brain is nothing but a fluorescent light on a warm summer night, welcoming all kinds of creepy crawly things. My life needs to be grounded in things that I believe in. Things which I believe are good for both me and my kids. Things I believe that help society, and build a better future for everyone. Not everyone will agree with me about what those things are, but I’m okay with that.

Do I care what other people do and think? Not really. That’s up to them.

Do I think that certain ways of raising kids or looking at the world are more beneficial than other ways of looking at the same things? Absolutely. So does that mean that I should be looked upon as a judgmental and close-minded person. I don’t think so.

This, of course, explains the trap of the “judgmental” stereotype. We’ve seen this many times in the media over the past few years — someone feels offended because someone else thinks differently from them. They feel like they are being judged or their actions criticized. But the reality is, sometimes offense is brought upon oneself and it doesn’t originate with another person.

When disagreement happens, offense is not a necessary outcome.

Let me say that again: Disagreement doesn’t have to create offense.

I accept the fact that I disagree with some people. But I would also be happy to be that person’s friend. Sometimes no offense was meant and no offense should be perceived. Sometimes disagreements should end with shaking hands and going out for coffee.

Now let me be clear. There are, of course, times when real offense is obvious. No one should have to tolerate a spiteful racial epithet or a hurtful gender slur. This is not what I’m talking about.

But our society has become so super-sensitive that any type of belief that goes against the popular thinking of the day or that pierces the ear of the mainstream media is quickly brandished as narrow-minded. (Which, ironically, automatically makes the open-minded people seem less open-minded.)

Hopefully, we can come to respect each other, regardless of beliefs, actions, or religious backgrounds. We spend so much energy in this country being offended, that it could be spent more productively on just living our lives and trying to be graceful, loving people who respect each other’s differences and opinions.

There’s no need to become so open-minded that we don’t believe in anything. There’s no need to be so open-minded that we start to close our mind.

And, by the way, if you disagree with this post, I won’t be offended. We can still be friends.

Getting what we earn. Nothing more.

Each new school year I am confronted with a new crop of students who tend to think they deserve what they have not earned. Now don’t get me wrong, I have incredibly motivated students who do earn a lot. But it’s never enough. And here is, invariably, where the situation arises.

After I return a test we always go over it point by point so the students understand their mistakes and to verify that I have not made any mistakes in correcting it. Unfortunately, I do tend to make mistakes. The students are quick to point them out when it benefits them but are more reluctant to bring it up when I marked correct an item which is clearly wrong.

But once again, let me clarify. I have very honest students and I believe that in 90+ percent of the situations that the students point out an error which is not in their favor. I always thank them for their honesty, and then I adjust the score lower.

Without fail they say something like, “but shouldn’t I get it right for being honest” as if their honesty should be rewarded. Can you imagine a society in which people only were honest if they were rewarded for their behavior? I think you can see how disastrous that would be.

But the additional point beyond the honesty issue is the question of why they think they should deserve a point for a question they answered incorrectly. Where else in life would that logic hold?

Knock down nine pins during a bowling game, write it down as a strike and see if your competition will mind?

In baseball an umpire rules a batted ball a home run. On challenge the video shows that it should be a double, but the opposing manager agrees to let the home run stand because it was an honest mistake by the umpire?

Has the IRS ever said this to you: thank you for informing us that you under-paid your taxes. Since you were honest, you no longer owe that money.

Have you ever heard of the College Board saying this: I have to inform you that the 2100 you scored on your SAT was calculated incorrectly. Your actual score was 1500. However, since it wasn’t your mistake, we will let you keep the 2100.

The world doesn’t work that way and neither should the classroom. Students should be encouraged to be honest because people of integrity are honest. Students shouldn’t expect to get special treatment simply because the teacher made an honest mistake.

Many times the students say, “Well, Mr. So-and-so doesn’t adjust our score down when we are honest about a mistake.” Well, either he believes in unfair grading practices or he practices unwarranted grace. And while as a theological argument, the concept of unwarranted grace has its certain merits, it doesn’t belong in education.

Students need to earn their score.

The broader point here concerning our society at large is that we all need to take responsibility over our own education, our own achievements, our own successes, our own failures. Honesty is the first step – even if it hurts us in the short term. The next step is accepting the fact that we get what we have earned. No more. No less.

A Stab at Philosophy: The Problem of Pain and Evil

In this short essay, I would like to offer my view about God and the problem of evil.  I will start with the premise that God exists according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and I will look to show that the presence of pain and suffering in this world does not, as some contend, prove that God is not good.

If God exists and is a good and loving God modeled after the Judeo-Christian concept, then how could He allow evil to prosper, pain to exist and suffering to be wide-spread?  It is not hard to produce a long list of tragedies many of which are inexplicable in scope. The great tsunami of 2004 destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives and livelihoods in Sumatra alone.  The great cyclone of 2007 wrecked havoc on untold thousands in Myanmar.  If there is a God, especially a good God who holds the cosmos in His hands as many Christians may say, how could He have let this happen, and how could he not stop nature from causing such cruel disasters?  But not all disasters are natural.  Tens of thousands of children die each day around the world from preventable diseases.  Most of them live in Africa.  Strongmen with guns divert aid, pocket the money and watch their citizens die.  Terrible disease and famine strike down uncountable families.  Villages in Darfur, Sudan have been decimated; women raped and then slaughtered.  Humankind seemingly has little will or desire to step in and stop the senseless killing and violence.  Likewise, it seems that God is nowhere to be found.  For how can we pray to a merciful God when such pain is so widespread?

Sometimes we are not distant observers of pain.  There are many examples of suffering that happen around us each day sometimes in very personal ways. Often times these occurrences seem illogical and have no explanation at all.   B. C. Johnson, in his article The Problem of Evil, gives us a poignant example of a six-month old helpless baby being left behind in a burning house (137).  Johnson contends that God could not be good because He, assuming He is all powerful, could have stopped the fire and saved this life but did not.  Let us expand Johnson’s reasoning and see what other types of scenarios it could also apply to.  A lazy mother decides to go shopping and leaves her baby unattended in a car on an extremely hot day.  A toddler wanders into the kitchen and accidently pulls a boiling kettle down upon herself.  A man slips on the ice, hits his head and dies.   All of these scenarios, and countless others, have something in common.  Someone is hurt that didn’t deserve it.  There were no bad actions or evil intent on the part of the victims.  Even the boiling kettle incident, though caused by the actions of the toddler, was the result of a benign movement that caused indescribable pain, for she was merely reaching for things like she reaches for a mobile in her crib.  An action we as parents encourage.  How could something so simple turn out to be so bad, and where is God in these instances?

May it be taken for granted that there are few or possibly no palatable reasons why a six year old child has to die a painful death by fire?  This incident is not good.  It is a hollow statement to say that I continue to have faith in God’s goodness even though it seems like God did nothing to prevent this.  Johnson describes this type of faith as “confidence in a friend’s innocence despite the evidence against him” (138). Johnson would damn God’s goodness for allowing the child to die while he would call a theist nothing more than a stubborn person who ignores the evidence against him.  However, we need to examine this more closely.

Could it be possible for God to intervene sometimes?  For all the babies who have died unjustly in fires, there are most likely the same number or more that have been saved – sometimes in a most miraculous way.  How often do we hear someone say ‘If it wasn’t for God, I wouldn’t be alive’ after an ordeal which nearly took their life?  How many times does a car miss a person by ‘mere inches’?  How many times has someone been shot and just barely survived because the bullet was not one inch further to the left or right?  What if a baby is saved in a fire?  Perhaps God intervened to raise the pitch of the baby’s cry just enough to be heard by the fire fighter or perhaps God protected the baby’s lungs from the smoke to allow it to survive long enough to be rescued.  If we blame God for the death of a child, shouldn’t we at least possibly consider giving God some credit when a child survives?

This doesn’t, however, adequately explain why God would allow some babies to live and others to die.  Some Christians may quote Romans 8:28 where the Apostle Paul writes that “all things work together for good…”  But this kind of reasoning and faith seems inadequate here.  There is no good caused by a baby’s senseless death, and I believe God is greatly pained by this event.  Then why let it happen?  Perhaps there is something else at play here.

Let us look at the Christian view of the world.  The world we live in is neither the world God intended nor the world which ultimately will endure.  The Christian views humankind and nature itself as a corrupted form of what will someday be perfected by God.  In the meantime, pain and suffering is a by-product of our fallen world.  This means that fire, an item which sustains life, also is an item of destruction and unfortunately may even take an innocent life.  Why God would chose to let one baby die while rescuing another baby is a perplexing problem.  It is easy to say that ‘God has His reasons’ or that ‘His ways are higher than ours’ but that provides little relief to a hurting mother.   This may be enough for some to argue that God’s inability or unwillingness to help every child in every situation proves that God is not all good.  However, this too doesn’t quite make sense.

The moral boundaries of good and evil are generally easily seen and understood by humankind.   God created these moral boundaries for humans.  However, God is not a human; therefore humanity’s moral boundaries do not apply to God.  One might counter that this is taking the easy way out, but if we take for granted that God is spirit, then how can we hold God to a human standard?  It sounds cruel to us, but there are many instances in the Bible where God destroyed people or let people die.  Even the great flood of Noah would have caused the death of many women and children.  Does this prove that God is cruel?  It only shows to me how much man thinks of himself.  It only shows to me that God sees the big picture and knows that what is happening now is not the end in itself; he chooses to use the laws of nature to His purpose whether it makes sense to us or not.

John Hick in his article The Problem of Evil describes how God never promised that our lives here on earth would be perfect and pain free.  He describes our lives here as the substance of “soul-making”, that the world “with all its rough edges” is where humans learn, strive and endure so as to be able to be “children of God” and “heirs of eternal life” (146).  Actually, what would life be like if we didn’t have trouble, trials, pain and suffering here on earth?  These tests of our soul seem to define the human experience for without them, how would we know what joy, laughter and love really is?  A world that Johnson envisions where God saves every child, where pain doesn’t exist would not be human at all.  In fact, it wouldn’t even be earth because the very laws of nature would no longer apply.

Hick shows how strange and drastic a world such as this would truly be.  The laws of nature would have to be suspended because gravity’s pull could cause no injury (147).  The child pulling the hot boiling water down upon herself wouldn’t cry at all – perhaps her skin would quickly turn to stone as to deflect the high temperature of the water.  Let us suppose that we lived in a world where pain like this did not happen.  The man who slipped on the ice and hit his head would stand up again and be fine.  In fact, he could throw himself off the Empire State building and find himself no worse for wear.   If God intervened and stopped all pain and suffering, the world as we know it would be gone.  In fact, it sounds as if we are describing heaven – the place that the God of the Bible promises to those who have become ‘children of God’.  It is illogical for us to demand that God provides a paradise for us now only so we can go to paradise with Him later.  This earthly evil does not necessitate that God is not good or even that God does not exist. We may not understand all that God intends for us on this earth, and we still may not understand why a baby dies in a fire, but would we want it any other way?  To say so, would be like taking the humanity out of humans.