Saturday, May 10, 2014

Via, Veritas, Vita

Argument 1
(1)  Meaningful communication presupposes the existence of rationality
(2)  Rationality presupposes the existence of knowable universals
If meaningful communication exists, then knowable universals must also exist.

Argument 2
(1) Universals must be either proven rationally or revealed
(2) Universals cannot be proven rationally
If universals exist, they must be revealed

If meaningful communication exists, then knowable universals have been revealed

If knowable universals have been revealed, certain truths about these universals will be apparent to everyone.
(1) Stasis
(2) Change

Universals ultimately refer back to these two characteristics. On the one hand, we need some solid ground upon which to distinguish identities. This is stasis. It's a practical necessity of any form of communication or conceptualization. We must assume, for instance, that the word "hope" has a certain restricted or static range of meanings. On the other hand, this word "hope" can have no meaning at all unless we relate it within a context of other words. This contextualized meaning of hope is thus inevitably in flux, depending on the context in which it is couched. Indeed, its meaning may well change dramatically over time. This relational, contextual, ever changing quality is also central to any universal.

But this is all rather abstract. What pulls us as humans into these truths? What connects us with truth on a personal level--thereby making truth a genuinely relevant, indeed a moral question?

Jesus said "I am the way, the truth, and the life". Notice how this statement neatly unifies the cardinal features of stasis and change while simultaneously pulling in humanity to an otherwise unknowable realm. Jesus is the original identity (or stasis) both in the abstract and personal sense.  The personal identity of Jesus necessarily implies his relationality, however and this powerfully captures the contextual, ever changing and growing aspect of universals.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Head-Heart Dualism and the LSAT

Like Job, many reach a point in their spiritual journey where they can say of God "I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You" (Job 42:5 NASB).  Unfortunately, many others never get past the hearing part and end up either leaving the church or becoming hypocrites. They get the head knowledge but never heart knowledge of God--an intellectual understanding but never a personal experience.

Clearly a head knowledge is insufficient; one must also have heart knowledge, and this point is accordingly hashed and rehashed countless times in Bible studies, sermons and general Christian conversation. In fact, some conservative Christians grumble that head knowledge is being dangerously downplayed these days. Their concern often seems overblown, however. After all isn't a true heart knowledge of Jesus (aka "genuine/authentic relationship) the only thing that matters?

 Now I've been studying for the LSAT recently, and one principle that comes up frequently is the distinction between sufficient and necessary conditions. With this principle buzzing around in my mind, I can't help but propose the following: If a person has a true heart knowledge of God, then they must have a head knowledge of God

Importantly, it is still true that you can have a head knowledge of God without a true heart knowledge, but without a head knowledge of God, one cannot have a true heart knowledge--instead, one might have a false heart knowledge of God!

We can conclude, therefore, that that any promotion of heart knowledge that leaves head knowledge out in the cold is a counterfeit.  While we should continue to remember that a head knowledge of God is not sufficient for a genuine Christian experience we should also remember that it is definitely necessary.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

The College Crises?

Let me make a rather mundane observation: US healthcare is in serious trouble and a big part of the problem is the rising cost of healthcare. Now with that glaringly obvious fact fresh in your mind, consider the following from this week's Economist: "The price of college has risen more than four times faster than inflation since 1978, easily outpacing doctor's bills". To put that in perspective, consider the following (Mark Perry)

Granted, these stats are based on the full sticker price--which many students do not pay. In fact, what often happens is that colleges will only charge the rich and upper-middle-class the full sticker price while they give generous scholarships and discounts to the poor. This is basically price discrimination or tuition redistribution, depending on your point of view.

These caveats aside, the question remains: why has college become so expensive? Some 40-50 years ago, people went to college to get a quality education and graduate with meaningful degree. Today, people are going to college for the same reasons, but I have a very hard time believing that education today is measurably better or the degrees significantly more meaningful. One might actually argue the reverse, as the Economist article also points out that "Students are more than twice as likely to receive "A" grades now than in 1960". Now that's just scary. Who out there really thinks we are twice as smart as the folks going through college in 1960? Sadly the real implication is simply that passing college classes is easier now-->less studying-->shoddy education, and degrees are accordingly easier to obtain-->increasingly meaningless degrees.

I still think college is worth it, but the extraordinary increase in college tuition seems strangely overlooked compared to all the attention devoted to healthcare costs. In addition to healthcare reform, perhaps we could also use a good dose of education reform.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Advice, Hugs and the NNT

Some observations:
  1. Unsolicited advice is almost never helpful. If your friend, family member, or random stranger has not asked you for advice, chances are extremely close to 100% that they are not going to gain anything from your wisdom and may even be harmed by it
  2. Even when people ask for advice, they frequently go ahead with their plans regardless of what you say. Let me be clear: some people who ask for advice are genuinly seeking advice and will take what you say to heart. However, many others are really just asking to (a) get your approval to go ahead with their decision or (b) ask for the sake of asking because "that's what circumspect people do"
  3. Giving advice to people who are really open to following it is actually quite scary. Who are you to be influencing some major decision anyway?
  4. Regardless of how open or closed off a person may be to your advice, giving them a hug is almost always helpful. 
  5. In evidenced based medicine, there's a well-known concept called the Number Needed to Treat (NNT). Basically, this represents the number of patients you need to treat to be sure that at least one will benefit. Thus a low NNT is a good thing. 
  6. Applying the NNT to Advice versus Hugs yields the following rough estimations based on my personal case studies: NNT for Advice = 10; NNT for Hugs = 1 
Here's a picture Christy found to help illustrate this blog

Friday, March 07, 2014

The Examined Life: conclusion

We live in an era of increasingly blind fundamentalism on the one hand and unthinking post-modernism on the other. Why? Because few of us are living an examined life--few of us have taken the time to see whether our stated beliefs match our actual beliefs. In my own life, I have concluded that living the examined life inevitably requires a firm actual and stated belief in universal truth even though such truth cannot be derived from human logic alone. While I agree that this conclusion hardly constitutes a good stopping point in the examined life, I have hopefully shown why it is an essential starting point.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Examined Life: 3

Most people agree that some level of certainty matters (they live somewhere in the middle of the diagram below)

But I've noticed that many people (including myself) often spend time on the extreme postmodern side when it's convenient. When I don't like a particular belief, for instance, I become an extreme postmodern and pull out some deconstructive methods to show why the belief is ridiculous. The moment I find something I do want to believe in, well, then I stop being a postmodern and that belief is just...self-evident! I could just as well criticize the "self-evident" beliefs I want to believe in. I just don't want to.
My point here is that we cannot simply accept a modicum of certainty on principle. We must also come out and specify what we are certain about an why. And the reasons better be more convincing than personal perference. After all, if personal preference is my only reason for believing one thing and not another, who am I to say that child sex trafficking is evil? I may have great personal certainty about my belief, but does this strong personal conviction make it true--for everyone? If so, what should I make of the child sex trafficker's personal conviction--is his personal conviction that child sex trafficking is not evil also true for everyone?

But here's the problem: postmodern philosophers are not stupid. Their consistent skepticism can tear everything down, including the stuff you would rather not tear down (like self-evident truth). They have arrived at a morally untenable level of uncertainty simply by faithfully following rational human inquiry wherever it leads. Pure logic just can't get you to goodness, in other words. You can't get morality from math.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Examined Life: 2

Okay, so belief is important, but how much certainty should we invest in our beliefs? Usually we tend to think of certainty as a bad thing--something we ought to question. On the other hand, we see uncertainty as a generally good thing--something we ought to embrace.

We think of certainty like this...

 And we think of uncertainty like this...

Of course, we are okay with personal certainty--"hey that's great if it's true for you; I'm happy for you" just not the absolute/universal flavor--"hey stop stuffing your religion down my throat; let me live my own life".

We call this kind of thinking Postmodernism:
  1. "...has at its heart a general distrust of grand theories and ideologies..." (Oxford Dictionary)
  2. "...characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power..."(Encyclopedia Britannica)
  3. "...a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality...."highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person" (PBS)
  4. "an overarching term for skeptical interpretations of culture, literature, art, philosophy, economics, architecture, fiction, and literary criticism" (Wikipedia --can't forget Wikipedia right?)
According to these definitions, the spirit of postmodernism has a preference for questioning, skepticism, and uncertainty. That's clearly not all bad. After all, who wants to be a narrow minded little fundamentalist who shuns uncertainty like the plague?  But how far does postmodernism go? It depends on who you talk to, but the main point to recognize is that extreme questioning, skepticism, and uncertainty are totally unworkable in real life (and also incoherent i.e "there is absolutely no absolute truth" and "absolutely everything is relative" are both self-contradictory statements).

We want real life to be authentic, consistent, thoughtful, and (perhaps most important) compassionate, but extreme postmodernism directly undermines these values. How can the radical postmodern skeptic passionately promote the cause of Amnesty International, for instance? On what grounds should AI's metanarrative of social justice be exempt from critical deconstruction? We could certainly argue that such a deconstruction might reveal structural oppression even within AI, but would not our conception of structural oppression also be open to criticism? Where would we stop? This is the problem with extreme postmodernism: there's no stopping point where we can take a break from the neurotic spiral of criticism to go out and help our groaning world.  If such a point did exist in extreme postmodernism it would not last for long, being just as liable to criticism as everything else.

So basically, "postmodern social conscience" is an oxymoron. A person who tracks down, arrests, and prosecutes a child sex trafficker could not also consistently and authentically believe that "absolutely everything is of relative value". Why not? Because confronting and combating this evil would involve limiting the sex trafficker's freedom, but there would be no justification for such limitation of the sex trafficker's freedom if your moral persuasion is truly and purely relative, no more valid, in other words, than the sex trafficker's. In fact any kind of compassionate social action basically involves leaving your individualistic bubble and directly interfering with the life of another person. You just can't do that if you deeply believe in your heart of hearts that no moral viewpoint is superior to another, that all truth is relative or personal.

Here is the bottom line: we cannot fight evil without appealing to moral standards that transcend relative or personal truth. If we want to fight evil, we cannot say "Nah, I don't know; I'm not sure such terrible evil exists or ever did exist; I can't be certain people are really suffering all that much. Besides, who am I to impose an intervention anyway--what do I know?" NO! Horrendous evil and unimaginable suffering certainly DO exist in this world and we are responsible for resisting whenever and however possible.

In conclusion, extreme postmodernism is unlivable and therefore hypocritical, the height of inconsistency. In a manifestly messed up world where evil is running rampant, we cannot be uncertain about everything; we cannot say that all truth is purely relative or personal. People who do say this cannot actually believe it. There's a disconnect, in other words, between their stated beliefs and their actual beliefs. Whatever we end up claiming to believe in, it should not be nothing, for that position is either hypocritical or outrageously, unconscionably apathetic.