Friday, November 26, 2010

Philosophy: Freedom as Limits

We are only free in that we have limits.

What do I mean?

A little over a month ago, I wrote a post on homosexuality, and on what I see as a mistake in how the debate about it is usually conducted. I got many responses to that post (protip: if you want your blog to get a lot of hits, write on something controversial) and, in response to one of those, I wrote a comment about the relationship between genetics and choice. 

As I said in that comment, genetics are, in one sense, predetermining of the kind of people we will be. It might seem, then, that where genetics controls us, freedom is absent. Yet, I contend, there is a much more complicated relationship here, and, speaking more broadly, a much more complicated relationship between limits in general and freedom. 

Typically, we think of freedom, and consequently choice, as the ability to be free from constraints. Often, this is a metaphysical reflection on a political reality. A person held back by the law from driving 100mph down a busy street is not, in one sense, free to perform that action. And there is some truth in this, an utterly predetermined being, with no choice whatsoever in its course of action (for example, a rock) would in no sense be free.

However, there is a flipside to this. In having limits, I have something to act against, and that in turn actually gives me choice. Take the above mentioned case of genetics - genetics gives me a certain sort of body, and that body gives me limits (I can't fly or run faster than a locomotive), yet at the same time it is only in terms of that body that I can make many of my choices (whether to type and this computer or go for a jog for example). Without the limits of a body, the choices of physical actions would be meaningless. Likewise, the law may prevent me from going 100mph (without consequences) but this in turn means I'm free to cross the busy street without fearing a car barreling over me at 100mph. 

This last case also relates to a further point, that limits not only make us free, but they make us free to flourish. This is particularly true in the case of morality. Whatever your views to the objectivity of morality, anyone would agree that a person who feels protected from murder will be more likely to thrive (even though the choice of murdering another is thereby cut off to him). 

Further, if we have in mind any view of human nature in which men are fallible and liable to fall into grave immorality, whatever system or training helps that nature to take hold of its passions and become thereby better able to follow morality, even though it blocks off the former bad choices, creates in the man another kind of positive freedom.

Thus, freedom, at least for humans, seems to always exist in light of limits. Limits are a precondition for genuine choice1
1. I cannot claim these ideas as my own, though the specific expression of them, especially in terms of embodiment, is. I'm not sure exactly where I've picked up these notions, but I am aware that I have heard similar views advocated at various times and do want to give those individuals due credit to the best of my ability. It seems to me that Kant espouses something like this view in the last section of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, though typical of Kant it is written in very obscure language that makes it hard to be sure. I've further heard a discussion of the difference between negative freedom (freedom from restraints) and positive freedom (freedom for a kind of action) given at certain times. One case was a Mars Hill Audio discussion, and another was in a discussion of the ideas of Phillip Blond. Finally, my wonderful Bishop and pastor Todd Hunter espoused a similar idea in a sermon while talking about training in virtue. This in turn, I am told, comes from Aristotle and can also be found in Anselm (and no doubt Aquinas). 

Book Review: Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein 1960 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel 

After finishing The Forever War, it seemed appropriate to pick up and read the book which, in many ways, had been its precursor.  Starship Troopers is considered by many to be the origin of the "space marine" genre (though the titular troopers are actually army) and also criticized by many as being, supposedly, favorable to fascism.

I can't speak for it's views on fascism, but I can see how it started a genre. The book is a fascinating piece of world creation, and chock full of ideas. It's important to know coming in that these ideas are the point of the book. Certainly, Juan Rico, the narrator, is a definite character whose fate you care about, but the narrative is not about an exciting story, and at times gets bogged down in long philosophy or history lectures on the part of his instructors. The first time I picked up this book a few years ago I ended up getting bored with it while Rico was still in training because I'd been expecting an exciting war story. 

 I really don't see fascism in the book, though it was decidedly pro-military and critical of free democracy.  Heinlein dedicates the story "to all sergeants everywhere who have labored to make men out of boys." And that, ultimately, seems to be the theme of the story. Juan Rico begins as a young man, unsure of himself, mediocre in school and unthinkingly following his friends, and bit by bit the military takes him away from this. 

Finally, it should be noted that the mobile infantry of Starship Troopers is a voluntary corps. The book is critical of conscription armies, and in many ways this is what sets it apart from The Forever War. It's not as simple as Starship Troopers being pro-military and The Forever War being anti-military. The one is about a volunteer army fighting to defend its homeland, the other about a conscript army fighting for reasons unknown. One is Vietnam, the other World War 2. Both authors have interesting perspectives (though I don't agree fully with either) and, though Haldeman did criticize the book for being too pro-military,  both share a mutual respect.

This is another one I recommend to pick up. Oh, and I'm told it's nothing like the film. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Book Review: The Forever War

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman1
1976 Hugo Award Winner for Best Novel and 1975 Nebula Award Winner for Best Novel 

Awhile back I did a review of another Haldeman book, Camouflage, another award-winning novel which I found extremely underwhelming. Needless to say, I was somewhat worried in approaching The Forever War. At the same time, all the summaries of the book I'd heard made it sound extremely interesting. The basic concept is this - a physicist, William Mandella, is drafted into the military to fight an alien race which has attacked human vessels, but who no one has ever seen. The war begins, and due to time dilation, a few years of war time for Mandella become thousands of years back home. As Mandella returns home, he must deal with the isolation the war has brought on him. 

Haldeman himself is a physicist and a veteran of the Vietnam war, so I also thought his experience should add well to the story. So how would things turn out? On the one hand, an interesting concept and a writer who knows his subject; on the other hand, a very underwhelming book by the same author.
When the book first started the worst seemed confirmed. The military training the characters went through was absurdly over the top in the lack of care showed by the soldiers's superiors (live ammo training, etc.) and the book looked like it was going to sink into the juvenile use of sex so many sci-fi authors seem to fall into. 

Thankfully, I stuck with the book, and my initial impressions were completely wrong. With this story, Haldeman undoubtedly knows what he's doing. Even the sex that initially worried me was, as my friend pointed out to me when I was half-way through, far too deliberate to be "juvenile" and ended up playing an extremely important role in the alienation experienced by the characters. 

I'm still not sure what I think about the stories ending, but either way it's not really important.  The book isn't so much about a narrative, but about the effects of the Forever War on Mandella and the Earth. We follow him closely, and in many ways experience with him the disillusionment and alienation of the war. 

This is an excellent book, and in many ways it feels like a science fiction book ahead of its time. I recommend it to those interested in creative uses of science fiction tropes and in a soldier's perspective on war. 
1. I actually listened to this one as an audiobook and the reader was quite excellent. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Life: NaNoNoWriMo

I'm afraid I'm going to have to throw in the towel on NaNoWriMo (Making this then, for me, NaNoNoWriMo). My time is pretty well consumed with school. Hopefully next year, or maybe I'll do National Novel Writing Summer (which doesn't really exist, but it should). Better luck to the rest of you out there who are doing this.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Philosophy: The Insolubility of Moral Dilemmas

In the law department at UCLA, they have a saying that says "hard cases make bad law," or so I'm told.1 The general idea, as I understand it, is that if you try and tailor-make laws to fit the bizarre borderline cases, you'll end up with laws that fit almost no one. This principle notwithstanding, modern moral philosophy seems to go straight to thorny cases2 to test any moral theory. The thinking behind this seems to be based on the idea that a moral theory is higher than mere legal issues, and should be able to handle all problems.

However, while I am definitely a believer in the objectivity of morality, I'm not sure any good moral principle can handle any and all cases. The reason for this, I think, is the fallen nature of the world3. Specifically, the current world, the Old Creation, is broken. Things happen in the world that, if it were as it was meant to me, shouldn't happen. Morality, on the other hand, is in alignment with the New Creation, the world as-it-should-be. Since these two principles are in conflict, the fallen nature of the world simply will result in cases in which no moral decision can be made4.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't test moral theories at all, but it does mean we should not expect them to have definite answers to the tough questions - these aren't what they are built for.
1. A lawyer friend of mine has assured me that no such thing was said at her law school.
2. An example case - you are in control of a train that is out of control. The only option open to you is to switch the train onto another track. On the track you're currently on, twenty people are tied down and will die if you continue. However, there is a single individual on the other track that you will kill if you switch over (who is often made into Gandhi, Einstein or your true love to make things interesting). Which action is right?
3. My reasoning here is intimately tied into a Christian world view, and also likely very influenced by an Aristotelian picture. However, I'm fairly certain this principle could at the very least be expanded to a materialist world view. i.e. since the world is not fundamentally a moral reality, any moral system will inevitably come into conflict with it at times.
4. This is where law becomes important. Societies built with good laws help to build an environment where such cases are less likely to arise (you're less likely to have to kill to protect yourself from a bully, or to get a meal, etc.) and people are then able to act more in accordance with the Good. 

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Politics: The Real Bias of the Media

"The Media1 has a pervasive, absolute liberal agenda."

Sound familiar? Most of us have probably heard this claim levied at the media (or conservatism in the case of Fox). 

But is it true? Well, I think to a degree it is. No doubt many in the media do lean to the left, and whatever their intentions they cannot help but be influenced by their worldview. However, I do not think this is the most fundamental bias of the media.

No, the most fundamental bias in the media is a bias for sensation. Sensation gets attention. Attention gets money. That is why disasters, celebrity scandals and wars are its favorite topics. Moreover, I even think this is part of what often influences it towards progressivism, since progressivism overturns what is and is therefore much more sensational than "conservatism" (unless of course those conservatives are shouting and calling people Nazis).

1. I should note, that the very language of the Liberal Agenda, or any other generic mass noun "agenda" (the gay agenda, the religious right's agenda, etc.) is actually quite disingenuous as it implies that large, diverse groups of people have some unified agenda.

Theology: Sola Scriptura?

There are groups of Christians who seem to believe that Christian doctrine emerges independently from the pages of Scripture. This emerges anew for each individual in an absolute way. Tradition and authority, and often reason, are obliterated. Often, these people refer back to the Reformers, particularly Luther, as the ones who broke us away from our slavery to these twin evils. Never mind that Luther would not have agreed with them (despite his famous statement about "sola scriptura.") Naturally, this radically modernist viewpoint leads to a thorough disdain for high churches that do venerate tradition and authority.

Taken to this extreme, "sola scriptura" becomes utterly absurd. Scripture, authority tradition and reason are all important parts of proper theology. Protestant tradition holds scripture to be primary, but it cannot logically be untangled from the other threads.

New Testament scripture was written by Apostles, or those who directly knew Apostles. In time, these works were taken up by the majority of the church, and eventually canonized. The canonizing of these works was not random, but based on certain criteria, namely, the aforementioned apostolic authorship, general acceptance by the church, and, additionally, consistency with the whole of scripture.

So what do we have here? Scripture is first written by foundational authorities (however inspired by the Holy Spirit), then enters into the church by tradition, and finally validated by further authorities on the basis of good reason.

Thus, though we should indeed hold tradition, authority and reason to be subservient to scripture, to reject them, one truly must reject scripture. The Bible is part of our world, part of our history, an incarnate presentation of the word of God, and it cannot be removed from that fact.
1. This post is modified from a comment I made in a thread on Facebook.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Life: NaNoWriMo

November. It's a good month, happens to be the one I was born in, and of course there's Thanksgiving.

It's also NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo, that's National Novel Writing Month.  The goal is to write a terrible, sloppy, but complete draft of a 50,000 word novel in one month.

I'm going to give it a shot. Not sure how likely it is that I'll actually hit the goal. I'm in the middle of school, got a research project and several classes and those are of course priorities, but that won't stop me from trying.

Will you join me?