Thursday, June 30, 2005

the bear

My wily tutoree Min-sung is getting older. He's slowly moving into that preteen zone that presages the beginning of Attitude and Rebellion. It's nothing bad yet, but I can see it coming as he tries, in ways both gross and subtle, to avoid doing whatever the task is at hand. Children are always testing boundaries, but the behavior gets more pronounced beyond age 10, I think.

Like most kids, Min-sung has reached a point where he is expending more effort at avoidance than in actually doing the work at hand. The result, as was true with the high schoolers to whom I taught French in America, is often hilarious. Today, for example, I mentioned the idea that bears won't kill you if they think you're dead (I have no clue whether this is really true, but Aesop says it is). Not interested in following my train of thought, Min-sung immediately shot back:

"But what if it's a friendly bear? He thinks you're dead, so he becomes sad, then digs a pit in the ground, throws you in, then buries you alive?"



proof that God hates me

I had a very nice walk up Namsan Wednesday night. I started at the unusually late hour of 10:30PM. Quiet walk. Not too many folks out. The stairs were still unlit at some points, which wasn't cool. Mosquitoes were flying patrols everywhere, radioing back and forth about us blood-bags.

I got back home, sweaty as always but relieved to have the air conditioning already cranked up. Stripped out of my drenched clothes and just... air dried.

So there I was, gloriously naked, when the desire for a glass of milk hit me. I lumbered over to my kitchen cabinet, opened it up and searched for my milk glass. Saw it on the top shelf, where I'd placed it the other day to stop some plastic plates from sliding down. I prop the plates on their sides, you see, and sometimes they don't stay up.

I removed the glass and one rebellious plate slid out, did some sort of twirl as it fell toward me, then struck me edgewise right on the Johnson.

"Son of a bitch!" I announced.

I've never experienced attempted penile beheading by flying saucer before. One doesn't normally expect domestic violence to erupt out of one's kitchen cabinet, but such was the case this evening. I now view my plates with more suspicion than usual.


Wednesday, June 29, 2005

women and Skippy take down Cruise

It's been enjoyable to watch bloggers pick Tom Cruise apart after his series of televised meltdowns (none of which I had the chance to see, thanks to my lack of a TV).

The Maven rips Tom a new one here.

Annika posts a hilarious animation about the Cruise/Lauer exchange here.

Finally, Skippy has a must-read post about Tom and how Tom is a lunatic but not gay.


"Batman Begins": the review

I saw "Batman Begins" over the weekend. Quite entertaining. Very much a Big Hollywood Production: lots of fire, explosions, special effects, and even a couple car chases.

What struck me most about "Batman Begins" was the music, which is chock-full of violins on speed. This wasn't a Tim Burton affair, and I don't think the composers for the new film (among them, Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard) were up to Danny Elfman's sweeping orchestral standards. But I do think my brother Sean, himself a professional cellist and occasional composer, would have appreciated the at-times frenetic score.

The principals are all good in their roles. Christian Bale (who gives Batman an exaggerated, Clint Eastwood-style voice when he's wearing the Batsuit) is the right actor to portray inner torment, and props go to Michael Caine for finally producing a watchable Alfred. Liam Neeson continues his string of swordsman roles, Cillian Murphy is a decent Scarecrow, Morgan Freeman is in fine form as Lucius Fox (Batman's version of Q), and Katie Holmes is competent-- if a bit too young-- as Bruce Wayne's sort-of love interest. Of special note: Rutger Hauer, who appears as a minor bad guy, looks damn old. I still remember him as the ruthless, superhuman replicant in "Blade Runner."

Except for the ice-blue training scenes in what is ostensibly Bhutan, the movie is mostly sepia-toned, just like the movie posters. This was an interesting departure from the blue-steel, "Blade Runner"-ish looks of the first two Burton Batman flicks, and a welcome return to seriousness after the turds grunted out by Joel Schumacher.

The movie was largely in keeping with the Frank Miller/David Mazzucchelli graphic novel, Batman: Year One. We see a younger Jim Gordon (ably played by Gary Oldman), though unlike the graphic novel, the movie doesn't explore Gordon's marital difficulties. We see the vulgar, corrupt Detective Flass, a hulking footballer in the comic but portrayed as fat and nasty in the movie. Flass undergoes an unpleasant, hanging-upside-down interrogation by the Batman, which is reminiscent of a scene from Frank Miller's true Batmanic masterpiece, the 1980s-era The Dark Knight Returns.

The special effects were serviceable. For me, the best FX moments involved the Scarecrow's hallucinogens. The Scarecrow gets a dose of his own medicine at one point, and his vision of the Batman will leave little kids weeping for days.

As with any Hollywood action flick, there are huge holes in logic. This Batman's no murderer, but he blasts heedlessly through the city with little regard for innocent lives and property. We're also not quite sure how Bruce Wayne, Alfred, and Lucius Fox are able to keep the Batman operation a secret from the world, especially after the complete (and to me, unexpected!) destruction of Wayne Manor.

As a fight choreography junkie, I'll have to join the ranks of critics who complained about the abominable editing of the fights in "Batman Begins." Let's see the moves, man! What we got was reminiscent of Richard Donner's editing of the final fight between Mel Gibson and Gary Busey in "Lethal Weapon." That fight, which took three days to stage and involved four different martial arts, ended up looking like two pissed-off neighbors attacking each other after a wife-swap gone bad. The fights in "Batman Begins" almost all had that same feel.

But the story and acting more than made up for these minor complaints. Although this was an action flick, the essence of "Batman Begins" was, as Liam Neeson's character put it, the "journey inwards." Korean audiences might not relate to America's fascination with telling and retelling stories about our comic heroes, but I found this movie a worthy addition to the Batman canon, and quite possibly the best of the Batman movies thus far.


5:30AM meditation

You know the old joke about the dog named Sex?

Well, fuck that. I'm gonna buy a Doberman and name him Diarrhea.

Diarrhea, come!

Oh, shit, no-- stay, Diarrhea, STAY!

Diarrhea, shake!

And now... Diarrhea, ATTACK!!

What will you do when I unleash my vicious and unstoppable Diarrhea!?



infestation discovered

I should have realized that my perfect dwelling at Smoo couldn't have been all that perfect. After hearing some mysterious scratching and gnawing sounds over the past few weeks, I decided to locate the source of the racket. Listening carefully, I realized the critters were directly under me, under the bed. I grabbed the spray, took hold of the edge of the mattress, took a deep breath, then heaved the mattress onto its side, not quite knowing what to expect.

To my horror, a pair of these came charging out (scroll down):

Damn pests.

I beat them both to death with a shovel mere moments after I shot this pic of them.

You know what they say: where there're two, there're hundreds.


Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Ave, Joel!

Not only has Joel been posting up a storm at his creative writing site, but he's also started a welcome new tradition in the spirit of the Gweilo Diaries' Girl Friday: welcome to Girl Monday!

I'm curious to know what Sunhang thinks about this, Joel.


Namsan in the dark

My walk tonight took me up the wussy route but down the stairs, as always, since that's the way back home for me. A good portion of the stairs was unlit this evening; I'm not sure why. Thank goodness for Seoul's light pollution, though: simply slowing down and staring hard enabled me to find the steps with little problem. Didn't trip once.

God, I sound like a ninety-year-old.



One of my favorite courses at Catholic U. was titled Issues in Interreligious Encounter. Toward the end of the semester we had a guest lecturer, Rabbi Blank, who along with being a rabbi was also a psychotherapist. Rabbi Blank expressed extreme distaste for the phrase "Judeo-Christian," since in his opinion there was nothing truly tying Judaism to Christianity, the latter's theology and ecclesiology having fundamentally diverged from the former's.

I disagree with Rabbi Blank because I see plenty of Jewish tropes woven through the New Testament. The Catholic Church also retains rituals and a liturgical style that call to mind old Jewish rituals. If any Christians have diverged from the Jewish path, ritologically speaking, it's Protestants. In their attempt to "get back to the roots," Protestants have, ironically, missed by a mile. As my pastor once said to me, "Jesus wouldn't recognize today's Christianity."

Of course, as my pastor knows only too well: Jesus was Jewish.


Monday, June 27, 2005


Early this evening, I lumbered over to the corner store to buy some milk so I could make my quasi-French, almost-coq-au-vin meal again for dinner. Inside the store were three old ladies: the proprietor, who knows me well, and her two wrinkly old friends, both of whom were plump, one of whom was toothless.

Toothless Grandma saw I was buying milk and immediately started in. "Don't buy milk! It'll only make you fatter! Buy watermelon instead!" I waited patiently while the store owner rang up my purchase, and nodded absently as Toothless G extolled the virtues of King Watermelon. (Being toothless, she probably recommends watermelon and other soft, easy-to-masticate fruits to everybody.)

It sucks to think up rejoinders only after you've left the scene of your humiliation. It sucks even more when your Korean isn't good enough to think of them fast enough, so you feel doubly humiliated because, effectively, you've proved to yourself that you're a fucking retard.

But considering the nasty nature of the comebacks I finally thought up, it was probably best for all concerned that I was-- am-- retarded. I'll have to think twice, now, about whether I want to purchase abuse along with my milk.

Don't get me wrong: I understand Toothless G's perspective. She's old. She's Old School. She thought she was being helpful, not abusive. She believes, as most Koreans do, that age confers rank, and Rank Has Its Privileges. Younger Koreans usually know better than to mouth off, but grannies can do whatever the hell they want. For me, as a youngish American, to give Toothless G a talking-to would have been a shocking, possibly humiliating experience for her, and it's doubtful I'd have been welcome back to that store, since she's the owner's friend.

I haven't mastered the Korean art of slipping in a barb with a smile, especially not in Korean. I can do it on occasion, but it feels as phony as it is. Young women here are far more talented at it than young American women, who tend to be blunt in an almost manly way. That changes, though, when young Korean women age into the "adjumma" phase of life. Once you're in your mid-40s, everything curdles. You begin practicing to become a mouthy, pushy old grandma. By the time you're a prune, as these two daughters of Yoda were, you're primed to insult anything that sloshes fatly through your door. A huge American amoeba must have been too hard a target to resist.

Oh, for a shotgun.


right in the butticle

Ass injection: the visual.

Oh, and two-headed kittie. I want one. Or is it two?


postal scrotum: Christian antisemitism redux redux

S writes back:


Thanks to you and your readers regarding the rise of the Religious Reich and the antisemitism of Protestant denominations in America. I must admit that I was somewhat surprised to see the discussion drift from antisemitism to a discussion of Bush. While I have heard claims that he is against Jews, I am not aware of any evidence to substantiate the claim. Actually, one of the few things that Bush has done which I unequivocally approve is to try to break racial barriers in the political appointments and offices.

I do not think that the increasing power of the Religious Reich is a new thing. In fact, I heard a radio presentation with President Jimmy Carter, himself a Southern Baptist and evangelical Christian, wherein he described a planned and concerted effort over a period of approximately 20 years to cosolidate power within the evangelical churches into the most conservative branches, while simultaneously integrating the group into local politics and eventually into the core of the Republican Party. Brother Jimmy was not happy about it, either. The only significant change that I have seen during the Bush White House is that lifelong moderates are dropping out of the party. The slow growth has reached the point where there is little place for a moderate in either party. Perhaps the moderates should band together and create a new party. I have no idea what to call this party, though. Maybe the Mods?

But enough of that. Observations and question- we have a measurable increase in religious practice, especially among evangelical branches. This may be another 'Great Awakening' or not, but the increase is there, and it is high profile- meaning in the press and in the mix of politics. Given that this is so, do you think that said increase necessarily predicates an increase in antisemitism? I found an interesting article here that attempts to explain some of the roots of Christian antisemitism. In summary, it states that many Christians pass judgement based on far too little real knowledge, and that some of the New Testament writers, among them Matthew, frequently portray Christians as the good guys in their stories, and Jews as the bad guys. If this is true (and I am not Christian, so I'll accept it as theory) then I'd have to say that the answer is "yes." Given that members of the R.Reich tend to be biblical literalists and tend not to be well informed about the realities of Jews, I think that there IS a natural tendency for antisemitism to increase as more people are actively influenced, socially and politically, by the increasing message of Christian Fundamentalism. It sucks, but I think that it is true.

An associate whom I'll call Hawke also offers some insight:

In answer to your question 'Why do Christian sometimes hate Jews?' I assume that you really mean to ask 'What is the biblical justification that Christians use to hate Jews?' Many members of the Religious Right (I think that your use of Reich is needlessly inflammatory) believe that Jews were ultimately responsible for the death of Christ. I suppose that it would be inconvenient of them to blame Rome. This argument is specious on a number of levels, both religious and factual, but it is the justification that I have most commonly heard. Discussion about this very matter was triggered when 'The Passion of the Christ' was released and dubbed antisemitic.

One final observation: The mother of a good friend of mine pointed out that Christian justification for anything is just that- justification. She said that 'It's all in there' and if you go looking through the Bible, or the Koran, or the Torah, and you are seeking justification for a particular viewpoint, chances are you'll find it. This reflects the ingenuity of human self-righteousness more that human righteousness.

With regard to supersessionism- I find it hard to judge what the intent was based on my limited knowledge. My impression, though, is that Judaism has been a well-spring for many religions and has shaped Western law as well. I see no indication that just because one rose from the other, one supplants or is superior to another. Of course- it is not my faith so it is relatively easy for me to say that. I imagine that Christians may have a problem accepting that Judaism is just as valid a path to God, provided that you can keep your feet on the path. They fall subject to the 'There is only One Path to God' mentality that makes so many Muslims a pain in the posterior.

BTW- I like the use of 'supersessionistic' in the article. It seems right, but I am sure I have never encountered that word before.

Opinions and observations welcome,


I apologize if it seemed off-track to bring Bush into the discussion, but it struck me as topical, given the debate America is having about the "direction" in which we're going, and whether there really is a case to be made re: creeping theocracy. And like your associate Hawke, I was struck by the term "Religious Reich," which I agree is inflammatory, so I think I was responding partly to that term.

In this post, I'll focus my reply more specifically on theological and interreligious issues.

Readers of this blog know my stance about "what religion is" is primarily empirical: religion is as it is practiced. I'm currently reading Wilfred Cantwell Smith's classic, The Meaning and End of Religion, and he supports my conviction in spades. It's impossible to pinpoint some sort of "essence" to religion, or to define any particular tradition simply. Is Islam a religion of peace? If we view the question empirically, we see there are millions of peaceful Muslims and millions of militant ones. Islam isn't fundamentally one thing or another. The same goes for Christianity: of the Americans who were shouting about nuking Middle Eastern Country X into a sheet of glass immediately following 9/11, I'd wager a healthy majority of those folks considered themselves pious Christians. Is Christianity a religion of peace?

What makes this question even more complex is that people approach it from different angles. For instance, some view the question diachronically. Christianity today is largely a peaceable religion, as evidenced by the proportionate lack of violence from over 2 billion adherents. You can find exceptions to this (say, in Ireland, Nigeria, and elsewhere), but on the whole, it's no longer a violent crusader religion. Chrisitanity has changed over time.

For others, the diachronic approach is disdained in favor of a "static" view of history. Consider that the crusader mantle seems to have been taken up by some forms of Islam, which view the (Christian) West's transgressions in terms of old grievances needing to be redressed. Of course, not all Muslims think in these terms: many historians of Islam will be quick to note that Islam also had schisms early in its history, and has produced radically nonviolent strains such as Sufism. Unfortunately for peaceable Muslims, however, Islam remains in the news because so many modern adherents cleave to a 7th-century worldview. As a matter of simple fact, international terrorism in our age is almost exclusively Muslim*.

You mentioned a measurable increase in religious practice, an increase occurring more in the evangelical wing of American Christianity, and wondered whether this might translate into increased antisemitism. My profs at CUA noted a squeezing out of the Christian mainstream, and I think there's merit to your observation about a rise in less moderate forms of Christianity.

More antisemitism? I think it's possible, but again, it's a complicated situation. American Christian denominations are large, so sweeping characterizations of several million people have to be viewed with caution. Even within a given denomination, there will be major differences between, for example, members who hail from the city and members who live in rural areas. Is rural Methodism the same as urban Methodism? There are other demographic issues to consider as well: black Christians tend to vote lib/Democrat, but lean socially conservative on matters like gay marriage**; poor and rich Christians will think and act differently regarding certain issues, etc.

Religious conflict happens all the time on a low-grade level in the States. Islam is a swelling demographic in America, being one of the more overtly missionary religions, but it's competing with evangelicalism and even a small but burgeoning Buddhism. I have no idea how all of this is working itself out; I'll have to do some research on the subject. One interesting link I found is a Unitarian Universalist report*** here, which states that

Since 1965 there have been waves of immigrants, but many people don't see the religious traditions the immigrants have brought, now making us the most religiously diverse country on earth. The U.S. now has more Muslims than Presbyterians or Episcopalians, and probably as many Muslims as Jews. Now there are over 300 Buddhist organizations in Los Angeles including temples, lay orders, and social organizations.

Fortunately, most religious conflict tends to occur and be resolved in the arena of religious pluralism and secularism. Competition serves, to some extent, as a check and balance. We Americans walk a finer line than they do in France, where secularism arguably gets taken to extremes (e.g. the recent banning of wearing overtly religious symbols-- a move originally focused on Muslim veils, but having ramifications far beyond that), because American secularism is tempered by our collective religiosity. The result has been and will be a steady trickle of little religious conflicts. That's the price we pay for our way of life. I think it's worth it.

I'd agree that a lot of Christians remain thoroughly uneducated about other religions. I wonder how many anti-Islamic Christians can even name the Five Pillars, or have taken the time to read some of the Koran, or know a few highlights from the life of Muhammad. Such Christians seem to think that what their pastor says is sufficient, which to my mind is a dangerous way to live: it explains why fundamentalists of all stripes sound brainwashed.

Another question arises, though, regarding Christians who have studied other religions and exhibit no change in attitude about them. These are people who retain their supersessionism or exclusivism by choice-- who have, in fact, made an informed choice to continue believing as they do. Are such people arrogant to believe as they do, or are they simply sincere in their belief? Is it inconsistent for the Pope to condemn homosexuality, or is this more or less what should be expected from a man in his position and with his authority? Christian thinker Alvin Plantinga deals with this question at some length (from the exclusivist's point of view), and I've written reactions to him here.

My feeling is that accusations of arrogance lead to a completely useless, endless debate. Exclusivists from different religions can call each other arrogant for not respecting the other's tradition. Within a tradition, pluralists and exclusivists can call each other arrogant for taking stands that seemingly disrepect the other's position. I see a rhetorically even playing field and nowhere to go.

For me, the question of arrogance pales beside the question of actual damage, and it's one of the reasons why I'm a religious pluralist. I think exclusivism does in fact cause suffering, and history bears me out on this. Perhaps exclusivism can arise after an honest and prayerful study of the scriptures, but my response to that is, "Well, go back and study again!" It's true, as you say, that you can pull whatever you want out of the scriptures; that's both their glory and their danger. I think exclusivism results from a facile, lazy hermeneutics-- it doesn't take much mental effort to be a literalist: just adopt a literalist position and sit there. It does, however, take effort to treat the scriptures as a truly "living word," i.e., something growing, changing, and even dying over time. Such a stance, the "living word" stance, redefines right and wrong as something you have to perceive moment by moment, not some rule from a cosmic rule book which you blindly follow in the same manner now and forever. I have little patience for literalism.

You mentioned antisemitism in the gospels. This is one of those topics that gets covered in theology classes. Many modern, mainstream Christians are uncomfortable with it and don't want to deal with it directly. Jesus is often portrayed as engaging in theological debate with Jewish sects like the Pharisees and Sadducees, especially in the synoptic gospels, and "the Jews" come in for a real beating in the Gospel of John. I took a course on that so-called Fourth Gospel, and one of the interesting things to learn was that the Greek phrase hoi ioudaioi, "the Jews," might not have been a catch-all moniker at all, but might have referred only to those Jews in competition with the Johannine community.

[See also my long review of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ, here, and check out this link re: the Johannine Passion narrative.]

It can't be denied that John's high christology takes Jesus' divinity in the direction of what would eventually become trinitarian theology. The word "trinity" itself never appears in the Christian Bible, and is at best only implied by certain scriptures (cf. the Great Commission at the end of Matthew, which includes what some insist is a "trinitarian formula," but which by itself isn't****). At best, the Fourth Gospel is describing a "binity," because Jesus appears to be stressing his unity with God the Father. Such a theology would put off many Jews and would ultimately reinforce the division between more traditional Jews and those who were to be widely known as Christians (the word does occur in the New Testament).

Overall, I'm not too worried about trends toward antisemitism in America, but I think your questions are worth further research and thought. Antisemitism isn't going to go away anytime soon, that's for sure. And while I'd hesitate to say that life is all roses for Jews in America, it's much better here than it is in Western Europe. Thanks for the email.

*This bears discussing, too, in a separate post. I'm suspicious about arguments that use poverty to justify Muslim terrorism, because if it really came down to a question of poverty, we should, in theory, see international Hindu terrorism, international sub-Saharan African terrorism, etc. But we don't. Why not, if poverty is so crucial a factor?

I suspect the reason is that, while poverty probably does play some role, it's only a small part of a larger network of causes of terror. A more significant factor, in my opinion, is ideology. Not religion: ideology. Religion is woven into the ideology (cf. Wahabist Islam), to be sure, but the knee-jerk urge to blame religion misses the fact that most adherents of the major religious traditions (including Islam!) are average Joes just trying to get through the day.

Making the effort to parse causes is important. It takes work; the lazy route is to posit something that sounds plausible, like poverty, and pretend the issue's been settled. As this blog has argued, we're in a war of the mind, and ultimately, some minds will have to triumph over other minds. This can't be done merely through violence, because you haven't beaten your opponent if you've only managed to beat him down. In fact, there's something to be said for ultimately transcending the notion of "opponent"-- an act that Christians are enjoined to do.

**Democrat and Republican campaigners are keenly aware of this, too.

***One glaring error in the report is the statement, "Buddhists have one god, but not the Jewish/Christian/Muslim god. They do not equate the Buddha with the creator god." The final sentence is true, but the first sentence is, on the whole, false. While I've talked about theistic undercurrents in Buddhism on this blog, I think theism is absolutely the wrong way to characterize Buddhism as a whole. Folkloric Buddhism has its gods; Pure Land Buddhism tends to treat the Amitabha in a way recognizable to Protestants (salvation by grace through faith, as one of my profs joked); but even these examples aren't enough to make a convincing argument that Buddhism is theistic.

However, the other side of the coin is that many Buddhists, not attached to name and form, have adopted some species of God-language in dialoguing with Christians and Jews and other theists. Zen thinker Abe Masao does this. Thien monk Thich Nhat Hanh regularly traffics in God-language. And there are Zen teachers who are doubly men of the cloth, like Robert Kennedy and William Johnston-- both of whom are ordained Catholic priests as well as Zen roshis, and who have an obvious commitment to their God-language.

****Matthew 28:19-20. "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." The text in boldface is considered a trinitarian formulation, but I don't think scholars have much evidence that the phrasing was explicitly trinitarian in intent.


Sunday, June 26, 2005

postal scrotum: what I blog about

The Maven writes:

Re: Your Blog Content

Forgive me if I am speaking (or in this case, writing) out of turn. If you were to just focus on one theme for your blog, it would be doing a great disservice. There are many different facets to each of us as a human being. We are more than just our gender, our career, religion, marital status etc.

I enjoy flitting from one end of the spectrum to the other, with the yin/yang of the profane/profound. Obviously, I subscribe to that school of thought that they are both entangled into each other. Scatologically speaking, I think I can stand toe-to-toe with you; and although I recognize you are light years ahead of me theologically/philosophically speaking, I feel there are times I can contribute some lucid thoughts/responses to your deeper posts, and the other times, I sit and watch your posts and others' responses to them evolve. Half the time, I laugh until I just about soil myself; and the other half the time, I feel a new wrinkle or two forming in the mush between my ears.

Additionally, I believe that Mr. Hwa might also be a good paradox re: the women and shit observations you made.

PS: For what it's worth--I don't think there's ENOUGH shit stories in your blog:)

Pungently yours,

I think you've outdone me in the scat department. I have yet to blog my own fart.


Wandering to Tamshui

Jason's blog, Wandering to Tamshui, gets a new sidebar image! Behold:

Wandering to Tamshui

As you requested, man: tits, a Formosan black bear, and Elvis.


Saturday, June 25, 2005

postal scrotum: Christian antisemitism redux

Andrew R. writes in about Christian antisemitism and Bush:

Hi Kevin,

Sorry to hear about the teeth and contacts. Hang in there.

Re: "Christian anitsemitism"

You wrote, "I don't have any clear answer to the question of the Religious Reich, because my feeling right now is that Americans are, on the whole, divided about whether this is as big a problem as some make it out to be."

The 'antisemitism' is often a cultural issue, not a religious issue. Most of the antisemites I know (especially the more casual ones) are driven by cultural...issues - and "religion" is the high-fallutin' flag they wanna wrap themselves in. Because they're just looking to have someone not to like, and they picked a pretty standard target - out of laziness more than anything.

You wrote, "Perhaps it is, but if so, there's still a question of whether the rise of religious conservatism is something that can be firmly pegged to the tone of Bush's administration."

Keep in mind that "the rise of religious conservatism" is mostly a newspaper generated fallacy. The majority of issues and events put under this label were well on their way to maturity during Clinton's reign. So the "rise" is due more to reporting, than actual change.

And again, the super powers of Bush are not a religious issue, but a culture issue. Folks voted for Bush not because he was a churchy fellow, but because his overall platform included the answers folks were looking for. Sure, killing bad guys in the Middle East was a popular stand to take (and not a religious issue) - but the other promises (kept or not) were what a lot of people wanted to hear.

Having said that, yes, the current Supreme Court (which Bush didn't appoint) just made a serious blow to the USA (no more property rights). The list of other complaints against the gov't overall can be long, but keep in mind that Clinton did his fair share to do all sorts of bad things on his watch that were under-reported (the removal of privacy via HIPPA legislation comes to mind).

But the bottom line regarding the President (current or other) is that he's not some unholy sorcerer able to change the mood of the country. Although folks who don't like him - 92% of journalists - sure like to say that. The bad gov't decisions were going to be made regardless of which party is in the White House.

And since most bad decisions are actually made (and proposed!) by the 100 people in the Senate, the folks whining about the Evil Bush need to spend some time in civics class.



6 2 5

I've completely missed out on the Yu-Gi-Oh fad. Whenever I see or hear the term, I always think of today, June 25, known to Koreans as yuk-i-oh, six-two-five, pronounced "yu-gi-o."

On June 25, 1950, the Korean War began. My mother was 7 years old, and she still has nightmares about it. The war shattered millions of lives and the country was a smoking ruin when the war ended in July of 1953. Mom lost two brothers.

In the decades that followed, the South Koreans built their country back up into something truly magnificent. While it's easy for us expats to complain about aspects of South Korean life that don't satisfy us, it's advisable to put difficulties into perspective and marvel at how far South Korea has come.

June 25th isn't a day of celebration, but it is a day of remembrance.


postal scrotum: exchange with Sperwer

Sperwer, my occasional critic re: matters Buddhist as well as my benefactor re: matters optometric and dental, wrote the following after reading my post on mind:

Damn, damn, damn; you write so well about this stuff that now you've got me thinking about it

I replied (here slightly edited):

High praise indeed! Many thanks.

I emailed my favorite prof at Catholic U about the subject and we talked a wee bit about Hindu and Buddhist views of mind as compared to views found in the West. I suspect that an East-West comparative essay would have to start at absolute Square One, because Indian thinking has, I believe, a very different point of departure from Western when it comes to "mind." Consider the Hindu notion of "cit," or consciousness, which isn't merely personal but also has a cosmic resonance not found in the standard Western philo lexicon (maybe Western New Agers will expand the concept of mind, but they're likely borrowing from Hinduism et al.). Especially in post-Upanisadic thinking, you get the "tat tvam asi" theme over and over-- big Self is identical to little self.

There are some issues I didn't adequately address in my blog essay. One of them was a strong rebuttal by Dr. Vallicella re: whether Cartesian substance dualism was really positing a "ghost in the machine," as Gilbert Ryle called it. According to Dr. V, that's a mischaracterization, and those who refute the ghost are refuting a straw man. I need to examine Dr. V's argument more closely and get back to it.

Thanks, in the meantime, for the moral support.

Sperwer then wrote this academic gem of a reply:


I think you're right about having to start at square one for the east/west perspective. Just for starters while "The Western philosopher would say that the Taoist is talking about qualia," I think the Taoist would be utterly non-plussed by such a statement.

While qualia and the Tao both may be ineffable, etc., etc, I think that's about all they have in common. Tao/nibbana is NOT a "property of sensory experience by virtue of which there is something it is like to have them"; they are "reality" "pure and simple" (?!). Qualia is a technical term that has little, if any, significance outside the parochial matrix of the narrowly conceived western mind/body problem.

You are on the mark, though, with your comments on the equivalence in ancient vedic thought of self and Brahman. There's a great book by Steven Collins called, I think, Selfless Persons that does a wonderful - albeit difficult to follow - job of tracing the evolution of this idea in the vedic literature and showing how its main intra-vedic transmutation - which resulted in the renouncers getting the upper hand in spiritual valorization over the brahmin ritualists - set the stage for the Bud's taking, as it were, the next step and chucking the very notion of self as some kind of substantial thing, either in the personal or the universal sense.

In a very general way, I think it could be said that buddhism sidesteps the classic western mind/body problem insofar as it holds that all dharmas are radically conditioned phenomena about which, on a theoretical level, it is unnecessary, meaningless and profoundly dangerous to think they have any substantial existence.

The real principal problem for the buddhist, of course, is accounting for continuity, identity, etc. if one otherwise accepts their radical conditioned phenomenology. Collins has a lot of good stuff to say about these topics too; in fact, as you might surmise from his title, that's the real focus of the book.


I'm happy to have such high-quality correspondents. It's one way I learn.

I'd agree that the philosophical Taoist would likely be nonplussed by qualia. By the same token, so would the Buddhist, especially if both are thinking in nondualistic terms. The verb "to experience" is dualistic because it implies an experiencer and the thing experienced (or more simply, the experience). The mind-body discussion, even in the monistic camps, doesn't attempt to transcend a subject-object metaphysics.

Some of this is understandable, especially if we're trying to talk science. Science operates in a highly dualistic mode: observation, repeatability, verifiability, analysis, induction, deduction, etc. But whether any of this is metaphysically relevant to the Taoist or Buddhist is a different question. I'd like to flesh this out a bit more in later posts.


postal scrotum: Christian antisemitism

A friend writes in on an uncomfortable subject:


I have recently run across several references to antisemitism being espoused and taught by various denominations of Protestant churches in America, including the Presbyterian. While I have encountered many individuals who despise Jews, including some relatives and parents of friends, I had not considered that this was an active policy of mainstream Protestant Christianity. I was most recently reading this article, which, on page 2, cites specific denominations. Another denomination mentioned was the Disciples of Christ, to which one of my oldest friends, the FH, and his family belong. I have never noticed anything other than respect from them towards Jews.

As a one-time (and perhaps nominally current) member of such a religion, I am wondering what your experience is with antisemitism in church. As someone who doesn't eat pork, I have occasionally been mis-identified as being Jewish. This has most commonly had a noticeable negative effect on my interactions with people here in the American South. For the record, I should note that I do not belong to any organised religion, but am not atheist or agnostic.

Do you think that the increasing religious fervor and rise of the Religious Reich within the US will, by nature, involve an increase in antisemitism? Another thing that has always puzzled me is that I do not understand why Christans sometimes hate Jews. Was Jesus not a rabbi of the Pharisees? This would make him naturally opposed to the religious hierarchy of the temple priests, but he would certainly be 100% Jew, up to and including all common lifestyle and practices of the time. This is like people from New Jersey hating Bostonians because the Bostonians are not American. Please enlighten me, if you can.

I am also copying FH, as I have besmirched his church in this listing.

Many thanks for your opinions and observations.


I don't have any clear answer to the question of the Religious Reich. Americans are, on the whole, divided about whether the Religious Reich is as big a problem as some say it is. Perhaps it is a problem, but if so, can it be firmly pegged to the tone of Bush's administration?

My own post-election contention was that Bush got reelected not for his religious stance, but for his stance on the war on terror. Kerry wasn't sufficiently clear about what he felt we were doing in the world. Are we, indeed, at war? As a nation, we still haven't settled this question, but I think most Americans lean toward "Yes." This leaning, along with aggressive and scarily organized Republican campaigning, propelled Bush into his second term.

Bush himself makes no bones about having religious convictions, and doesn't shy away from religious language in many of his speeches. Perhaps this does affect the tenor of public discourse, but to what degree it does so, I don't know. Religious conservatism has always been a big part of American culture; how internationally visible it is, though, may depend on the times.

I'm disturbed by Bush's advocacy of the marriage amendment (I don't think he's talked about it much recently, has he?). It's evidence in favor of the claim that he's foisting a religious agenda on the populace. But I respect cool-headed conservative arguments to the effect that we're not really looking at a creeping theocracy: that may be too paranoid a reading of the trends. Religious Reich? For me, it's an open question. I'd say there's reason to be cautious, but I'd also advocate not bringing Hitler into the equation (I know you're not seriously doing that; my comment is more for the general populace, which often seems prone, collectively, to thinking in extremes).

Moving on to larger themes...

Antisemitism is one type of intolerance found in American society, one type among many: we've also got racism, sexism, ageism, etc. I tend to think that it's not nearly as big a problem now as it used to be, and that it's nothing compared to European antisemitism-- an issue that Europeans have yet to deal with seriously.

Strangely enough, quite a few fundamentalist Protestants align themselves with Israel based on their interpretation of the Christian scriptures. These Protestants believe that Jerusalem with be a major arena in the final cosmic battle and somehow see the Jews as key. This doesn't indicate any respect for Judaism, mind you; such Christians still view Jews through a supersessionist's lens.

And that's really what you're asking about, I think, when you write: "Another thing that has always puzzled me is that I do not understand why Christans sometimes hate Jews." Theologically speaking, many (if not most) Christians cleave to some type of supersessionism. The New Testament supersedes the Old. The very adjective "New" implies this. Jesus says, "I will show you a new way," and this has been taken to mean that Jesus, though himself a Jew, was breaking theological ground.

Personally, I don't agree with supersessionism, though it's hard to deny that Christian scriptures seem to support it. The history of the early Jesus movement, initially involving so-called "Jesus Jews," shows that the evolving proto-Christian theology wasn't consistent with what most other Jews believed about God. This divergence became more pronounced as, over the following centuries, the Church established itself, began combatting heresies, and formulated a trinitarian theology based on a particular interpretation of the scriptures.

Interpretation is key here. Many modern, anti-supersessionistic Christians can find creative ways of reinterpreting the scriptures so that they aren't as adversarial as they sound. Other modern Christians, perhaps out of respect for Judaism and the Jews they know, will simply reject such scriptures out of hand. That rejection is also based on an interpretation and evaluation of the scriptures. However, it's important to note that millions of Christians probably have Jewish friends and haven't seriously pondered the theological implications of their friendships.

The Catholic Church's stance toward non-Christian religions is officially inclusivist as of the Second Vatican Council, in the mid-1960s. Catholicism claims that Christianity enjoys a "special relationship" with Judaism, and characterizes this relationship as that of a younger sibling to an older one. I disagree: I think it would be better to view the relationship as between mother and child, which to my mind implies the rejection of a supersessionistic attitude.

Protestant responses will vary from church to church, but also from individual to individual. Extreme fundamentalist Protestant churches might have some members who are, on a personal level, very respectful toward Jews and Judaism, even while their pastors preach something different to the masses.

I feel that I'm outside of most such theological discussions, though, because they require reading the scriptures in a way I find impossible: I'm not a scriptural literalist. This isn't necessarily an advantage-- meaningful dialogue does require at least stepping into and becoming familiar with the conceptual world of one's interlocutor. If I'm unwilling to make the effort to view the scriptures the way a literalist does, it's doubtful I'll be able to make any points that will impress him or her. It works in reverse, too: if the literalist insists on browbeating me with scripture, I'll walk away unimpressed because s/he never tried to employ any reasonable empirical arguments.

Christianity gets a taste of its own medicine with Islam, however. Islam is also supersessionistic; the Koran is God's final revelation, and Muhammad is the Seal of the Prophets, i.e., after Muhammad there is no one. A lot of Christian-Muslim tension stems from this supersessionism.

To put the antisemitism problem in perspective, then: I think a problem exists in American society, and it's also a function of certain kinds of Christian theology. I do think, however, that America on the whole is a friendlier environment for Jews than Western Europe-- France being the current poster child for widespread antisemitic violence. Europe already had a tradition of Christian antisemitism; it's now experiencing a wave of Muslim antisemitism thanks to the influx of so many Muslims (especially from North Africa, but also from places like Turkey). While America is home for many Muslims, its strong tendency toward secularism is tied to an equally strong (perhaps paradoxical?) tendency toward religiosity. The effect, at least so far, has been a tolerant pluralism. The nature of that pluralism is hard to identify: are we tolerant because of our religious convictions or in spite of them*? Islam in Europe is encountering what many believe to be something of a spiritual vacuum: European Christianity has appeared moribund to cultural critics for some time**.

Antisemitism, no matter where and in what forms it appears, should be combatted. I'd love to see the day when theists disavow supersessionism, but I doubt that'll happen anytime soon, if ever. That means we're bound to hear some Christian somewhere condemn the Jews for not having heeded the gospel and "taken up their cross." Antisemitism stems from more than theology, of course; the term usually connotes "anti-Judaism" but can also refer to a type of racism. Either way, it's one of the more cancerous "isms" out there.

*Check out Harvard University's Pluralism Project website. The project is run by the inimitable Diana Eck. I need to stick that on my sidebar.

**According to survey results found here, about 70% of the French are catholic, but of that proportion, only 10% call themselves regular practitioners. Around 50% are occasional practitioners, while 10% are out-and-out non-practicing. The linked article also notes that the number of people claiming to belong to a non-Catholic religion is rising strongly.


postal scrotum: the mystery man writes in!

I got this email today:

Hi Kevin! This is Hong Hwa, the guy who surprised you by yelling at you when you were doing what you do best--gobbling tasty Korean snacks...;-) "공자 앞에서 문자 쓰기는 싫지만... 옷깃 만 스쳐도 인연이라는데", I think how I ran into you is nothing short of extraordinary.

I was actually about two hours early for my appointment and I was walking aimlessly. While doing that one of my favorite bloggers appeared in front of my eyes just out of blue. What's the probability of that happening? Methink much lower than a total stranger shouting out your name.;-)

Anyway, if I may introduce myself briefly, I am a Korean economist, who is currently unemployed but will be going to the UAE to teach Management, which I have never studied formally.... So I guess that makes me a pretty mediocre but unique academic.:-<

Anyway, I would continue to enjoy your blog entries and will try to make comments (and not just lurking behind) but let me offer my two cents' worth about your blog:

  • I guess you know very well why your blog is much less popular than Marmot's Hole, for example, and I am not sure if that is what you should strive for.... I think yours is much better by the way. All those comments to Marmot's entries, which are fine by themselves, reminds me of those halcyon days of soc.culture.korea.... Perhaps you are too young to know what I am talking about.:-<

  • But... despite the fact that I am pretty tolerant and accept very diverse points of view, I also don't think your combination of low-brow scatological humor and very high-brow philosophical discussions works well.

  • I guess it's my natural prudishness coming to the fore, but I think you can be pretty wacky and funny without all that scatological humor (although I am afraid that has become your trademark of sorts.)

  • Be assured, however, you'd always have a loyal reader in me and happy blogging.

    Oh, yeah, I want more of those entries that mercilessly expose so-called English teachers....

    Hong Hwa

    Yes, I've known for a long time that I'm doomed to low numbers because my blog reflects my interests. When we met, you said my interests were "diverse," which I think is a natural thing to say. One of the subtexts of this blog, however (to the extent that the blog should be taken seriously at all!), is that my interests really aren't that diverse: we divide the sacred and the profane in our minds, and it's that division which creates the "prudishness." I consider it an artificial boundary. Perhaps the boundary has its conventional uses, but it's also somewhat problematic.

    You're very tolerant, which is cool, but others aren't. Semi-scholarly folks might appreciate discourses on the nature of mind, but find themselves turned off by the shit stories*. Shit-lovers might fall asleep while slogging through the denser, more academic posts. I'm not out to convert the prudes or enlighten the scatologically inclined, but I know that my favorite people are those who move freely and easily across those artificial boundaries. That's my target audience. If I catch more than just them, tant mieux.

    So I'm dooming myself to low numbers by following my interests and not worrying about how better to "market" myself. If I concentrated only on one theme-- say, politics, or in my case, religion-- I'd doubtless gain a larger, more constant readership. But it'd also be a less diverse readership, in terms of both the types of people who visit my blog, and what each visitor's own interests are.

    As for "so-called English teachers"... there are some great blogs devoted to English teaching out there. I haven't blogrolled them (not out of dislike, mind you; I simply follow my own meandering path when it comes to blogrolling), but I'd recommend that you visit them. They'll give you hope that it's not all doom and gloom!

    I don't know that I've exposed any English teachers, per se. I think hagwons and universities don't do their faculty or students any favors by hiring uncertified, shitty English teachers: it makes the real, professional teachers look bad, and compromises student learning. At the same time, I've known some uncertified folks who've turned out to be great, instinctive teachers, far more engaging than I am.

    Anyway, as my friend Max noted, we can all stand to improve as teachers; the process of learning should never stop.

    One comment re: the Marmot. He's one of my daily must-reads. Robert (whom I've never met) is a fellow Hoya, so we've got that snob connection. Unlike me, he went through GU's School of Foreign Service, so I wouldn't claim that he's crafted his blog for the sake of increasing traffic. As an SFSer, Robert is genuinely, deeply interested in the subjects on which he writes, and he does a great job of providing balanced, intelligent commentary (though with too many typos, dammit! DAMMIT!).

    While I'm happy to hear how much you like my blog, I also know that Robert puts out higher-quality material, and that quality speaks for itself. He deserves every hit he gets.

    It was great meeting you, HH, even if briefly. You seem like a very upbeat guy, and I hope the UAE's weather doesn't get you down. Good luck with your upcoming job, and thanks for writing in.

    *I think some of my favorite work fuses the highbrow and the lowbrow.


    postal scrotum: Kevin of IA!

    Everyone's favorite blogger, Kevin of the late, great Incestuous Amplification, writes me from his undisclosed location (somewhere between Liz Hurley's buttocks):

    I think in fairness to your readers, it would be prudent to disclose your past.

    I ran across the attached photo while I was NOT watching a Japanese Porn.

    Obviously you've decided to get rid of the perm in your transition to employment which doesn't involve unloading on schoolgirl's faces...and in retrospect that seems like it was the right call.

    Perhaps I'll make my return to the blog world with an expose and shot-by-shot analysis (no pun intended) of your heart-breaking performance as Japanese Thug #3 in Anal Secretary.


    True to form, Kevin provides the incriminating pic:

    Yep. That's how I look when I come. It's also how I look when I meditate. Coincidence?

    We'll be awaiting your blogospheric return with balls on. Knew you couldn't stay away.


    postal scrotum: un peu de poulet...

    The Maven writes with regard to my Meisterwerk:

    If you add chicken pieces to the red wine, mushroom, and bacon sauce, you'd have coq au vin (pretty much--change the oregano to thyme). Delish! One of my fave foods!


    Jelly also wrote, and noted:

    Hey. I liked your food pic, but it looked kinda gelatinous.

    I must've used too much agar.


    Ave, Jason!

    Damn, that previous post on mind wore me out. I've got a little over a week of vacation left to me, so it's crunch time for Uncle Kevin. No more large posts for a while. The mental hemorrhoids need time to deflate.

    I did, however, want to note the arrival of what looks to be a very good Taiwan-related blog: Wandering to Tamshui, by none other than Jason Wright, who's sent me quite a few emailed comments, most of which I've posted here at the Hairy Chasms.

    About his new blog, Jason says:

    I've noticed there are a lot of Asia-centered blogs out there that deal with the politics, culture and occasional ridiculousness that can be found in individual countries (e.g. The Marmot and The Big Hominid in Korea, Sinosplice and Peking Duck in the PRC, and JaPundit in Japan), but outside of a few good part-time blogs (like A Better Tomorrow, The Taipei Kid, and The View from Taiwan) I have yet to see a blog dedicated to Taiwan's politics, history, and cultures and how they all add up to that beautiful little turd--er--leaf-shaped country known mostly as Taiwan.

    I hope this newbie's attempt at a blog will at least be a step in the right direction. I hope to keep this site updated regularly with links to Taiwan-related news articles, analyses, and (god forbid) the occasional translation.

    So kick back, pop open that bottle of Taiwan Beer, and enjoy!

    Welcome to the jungle, indeed! Go give Jason your undivided attention.


    Friday, June 24, 2005

    toward a Hominidal theory of mind

    A quick word of thanks to Dr. Vallicella and the various commenters on his blog who have helped me begin to organize my own thoughts on the age-old "mind-body problem."

    I title this post "toward a theory" because by no means will it satisfactorily establish anything about the nature of mind. I'm not a philosopher of mind, nor am I an accomplished meditator experienced at plumbing the depths of my own consciousness, nor am I well-versed in neuroscience, psychology, or other cognate fields.

    With all that going against me, I now sally forth to lay out my own tentative position on what the mind is.


    This essay deals not so much with the question of a mind's particular properties and functions as with its basic nature. Nevertheless, it might be a good idea for me to lay out a brief sketch of what I consider to be the properties and functions of the mind.

    The mind is the source of mental phenomena. This means the mind is the source of feelings, ideas, sense-impressions, and memories (we ight also include language). It's also the source of reason and other forms of cogitation. It's the source of things like attentiveness and focus. In the everyday world, we often hear that "the body follows the mind." This could be taken to mean that the mind is the source of behavior, which in one sense means it's the source of one's will, one's desires. But some behaviors that result from the mind's burblings aren't necessarily traceable to will. The mind is, arguably, the source of those unwilled behaviors as well. Notice that I didn't say the mind is the same as the brain-- an issue I'll touch on briefly near the end of this essay.

    Now-- onward.


    There are several competing theories of mind, but of the greatest interest to me are those rival theories that, on the one hand, declare mental phenomena to be non-material, and on the other, declare mental phenomena to be entirely a function of matter. The general terms for these two rival positions are substance dualism and materialism. My own position, which I'm still fleshing out, I'll label as nondualistic materialism or materialistic nondualism. This may correspond roughly with established "-isms" like epiphenomenalism and neutral monism.


    The philosopher René Descartes is often cited as one of the main proponents of substance dualism. Descartes posited two major categories of things: res cogitans and res extensa, which we might loosely translate as mental phenomena and physical phenomena. From the Cartesian standpoint, neither is reducible to the other.

    One reason, perhaps the strongest reason, for believing this to be the case is the existence of so-called qualia, which might be thought of as elements of personal experience.

    In philosophical Taoism, we learn that "The Tao that can be talked about is not the eternal (or true) Tao." There is no discursive approach to (ultimate) reality. To know it, you can't read about it. You can't hear someone else's account of it. You have to experience it for yourself. This is true whether we're talking about the taste of chocolate, the pain of an ear piercing, or a kiss.

    The Western philosopher would say that the Taoist is talking about qualia. Qualia are radically subjective (the singular form of the word is quale, pronounced something like "kwah-lay"); some would call them "private." The philosopher would agree with the philosophical Taoist that qualia are essentially intransmissible, ineffable. One can try to communicate qualia linguistically, and our imaginative faculties do provide the ability to "reach out" and try to empathize, but it's rare indeed to capture the reality of an experience just from words alone.

    What's it like to experience a nine-gee turn in a fighter jet, for example? We can try to imagine it, but unless we actually have the experience, we can't know what it's like.

    So there are objective facts, such as "Chuck Yeager pulled a nine-gee turn in that jet he was testing yesterday," and there are qualia-- only Chuck Yeager and other pilots who've pulled nine-gee turns can know what that's like.

    I said qualia are radically subjective, though, and this is important. Of the pilots who have pulled nine-gee turns, can we say that they all experienced the turns in exactly the same way? We can't, and because we all have different sets of accumulated experience, there's good reason to believe our experience of the same phenomena can never be exactly the same.

    So-- with qualia being radically subjective, ineffable mental phenomena... it's possible that facts and qualia are substantially different things. The substance dualist would say that they are, and this is one important reason why the substance dualist rejects the idea that mind has a material basis.


    I think there are major problems with the argument from qualia. First, I question their radically subjective nature. Second, I think that, if we agree that qualia are radically subjective, we can then do nothing useful with the concept. Third, there's the question of the trustworthiness of qualia. Let me discuss these objections in turn.

    First objection: I have reason to believe that qualia contain an objective element because people, as a matter of everyday discourse, "relate to" each other. We've often heard it said after someone's expressed a problem: "Oh, I can relate to that," or "I know how that feels." This isn't accomplished through telepathy; it's accomplished, I think, through the fact that experience, far from being merely subjective, has something of the objective about it.

    If qualia were absolutely unique from person to person, how would we be able to say "I can relate to that"? Emotions like sympathy and empathy would make no sense in the face of my qualia's supposed radical subjectivity. It would be impossible to ask anyone to "put themselves in my shoes" if we were certain that our own experience was absolutely unique.

    While I don't want to deny the uniqueness of anyone's perspective, I think it might be better to conceive of qualia in terms of Wittgenstein's "family resemblances." By this I mean that, while my experience of stubbing my toe won't be exactly the same as yours (even if we stub our toes in exactly the same way), the experiences nevertheless contain common, overlapping traits. We all flinch after touching a hot iron because we feel the iron's heat in mostly (not roughly) the same way. Despite minor variations in our personal wiring, our qualia will be similar enough that we can speak reliably to each other about our experiences. Similarities in reports of "peak" experiences lend credence to the idea that it's not merely an objective external reality to which we are responding, but also that the human sensorium contains certain more or less "standard" features.

    In fact, we usually trust that similar situations produce similar experiences, evoking similar thoughts and emotions. This is how the producers of Coca Cola market their soda's formula to billions of people, and it's how Hollywood relies on plot formulae to churn out its films. If Coca Cola and Hollywood proceeded on the assumption that everyone's internal reality was unfathomably subjective (and by extension, unfathomably diverse), they'd never make a profit off their products. The contention that experience is essentially a private phenomenon fails to explain why we constantly make these sweeping assumptions about others' behavior and inner life.

    Imagination also plays a role in experience. How many of us have ever actually ridden on a flying horse? I'd wager none, but does this stop us from imagining that swooping, whooshing experience and perhaps having a small taste of what it would be like? When we read Harry Potter novels, are we all plunged into completely different imaginary worlds? I think not. It's not merely the objective text that prevents this, but something internally standard as well that keeps us on roughly the same plane as we experience the unfolding of JK Rowling's plot.

    I don't mean to detract anything from the Taoist's original contention. I agree: experience has to be experienced. But experience isn't as radically subjective as all that.

    In fact, I'll end this first objection by noting that the issue of qualia's intransmissibility might not be some sort of metaphysical limitation: it might be a merely technological one. If we are able to develop devices that allow us to "plug into" someone else's mind and experience what they do-- i.e., see what they see, feel what they feel, etc.-- the case for qualia's "privacy" will be severely weakened. (I wrote on this a while ago: see here, and scroll down to the conversation about chocolate.)

    Second objection: This is related to the first. If I take seriously the idea that qualia are radically subjective, I can't use qualia to construct arguments applicable to people other than myself. This is, in my view, a major flaw in the argument from qualia, and it hovers dangerously close to out-and-out solipsism.

    The substance dualist doesn't really want to go the solipsistic route: he believes there's an objective reality, that there's more than just res cogitans. But if qualia are so intensely private, and there's no way to bridge the gap between "first-person and third-person ontology," then how is substance dualism not, in effect, a kind of idealistic monism or even solipsism? One has plenty of reasons for believing there's something going on inside one's own head, but one can never be sure about anyone or anything else. How practical a stance is this?

    Third objection: This is related to the previous two objections. If I am truly locked inside my head, unable even to verify the objective existence of a world beyond my skull, I have nothing against which to check the reliability of my sense data, my qualia.

    As Dr. Vallicella and others maintain, a quale's esse is nothing more or less than its percipi: a sense-datum's being is nothing more or less than its being-perceived. Fine. But suppose I'm an amputee who has a recurrent "phantom limb" experience. Such cases are common: a patient reaches over to scratch an itch that, effectively, isn't there. With no recourse to objective reality, how can one differentiate between truth and illusion? In the instant one reaches over to scratch, one is unable to make the distinction. Similarly, hallucinogens, which alter brain states and produce twisted images and perceptions, show that qualia can be chemically manipulated.

    The inherent unreliability of qualia makes any argument based on them somewhat suspect, because the substance dualist seems to be at a loss to explain where qualia come from, and he provides us no means by which to substantiate them both to ourselves and to each other. The substance dualist believes there's a res extensa, but can't argue from the inside of his skull to the outside world. The argument from qualia, multiply flawed, leads nowhere.


    My own stance is more in line with materialism (also called physicalism). All the properties we associate with mind, all the things we call "mental activities"-- are epiphenomenally related to matter. We can think of the history of mind as a chart:

    Matter > Life > Mind

    I'll tell you a story. It's not one that everyone agrees with, but bear with me.

    First, there was matter. As matter interacted with itself, certain complex and repeating patterns began to appear. Some of those patterns exhibited emergent behaviors, such as self-replication. Thus it was that life arose epiphenomenally from matter. Life was an emergent phenomenon. Then, as patterns of life gained even greater complexity, mind arose from life. The End.

    Please note that the above chart doesn't make clear that mind is a subset of life, and life is a subset of matter. The chart might give you the mistaken impression that matter disappeared when life arrived, and that life disappeared when mind arose. Perhaps a better illustration might be a three-tiered pyramid, with matter at the bottom, life in the middle, and mind on top. The lowest tier cannot disappear, and the pyramid metaphor makes clear that matter is the basis of life and mind.

    Other analogies are illustrative. Just as computer software requires hardware to be run, so it is that mind requires matter to exist. However, the software/hardware analogy doesn't address the epiphenomenal nature of mind, because software didn't evolve out of hardware, whereas I would contend that mind did evolve out of matter. Nevertheless, the analogy points out the most important thing: if there's no matter, there's no mind there. Matter is logically prior to mind: it has to come first. More: matter is necessary for mind.

    My stance is informed by the progress we continue to make in science, both with regard to what neuroscience tells us about the brain and body, and to the work being done on artificial intelligence (AI) by luminaries like Ray Kurzweil (with whose thought I'm only now becoming familiar; just a few weeks ago I had little idea who he was).

    Science, as yet, can't conclusively prove that mind is inseparable from matter. As I see it, science is building a case for materialism, and is doing so on multiple fronts. Perhaps Kurzweil is right to speak of what is currently happening in the field of AI as "reverse engineering" the human brain.

    However, I don't see mind as reducible to matter, if by this one is trying to claim something like "the mind's activity can be comprehensively explained through simple physics." No, it can't be thus explained. In the computer analogy, one can see that software and hardware need each other, but that they operate according to qualitatively different rules. As Robert Pirsig notes in his book Lila, a software specialist doesn't have to know everything about hardware to do his job. The same is true, in reverse, for the hardware specialist.

    I would submit that, while mind isn't reducible to matter, it does absolutely depend on matter for its existence. The problem of "interiority," of subjective experience (qualia again) isn't yet solvable, but might be in the future.

    I can't prove mind's absolute dependence on matter to you, but I can lay my argument out this way. Science's breakthroughs in the fields of human cognition (neuroscience, psychology, etc.) and in AI are all predicated on materialistic theories of consciousness. It's obvious to scientists that substance dualism is, scientifically speaking, utterly useless. You can't form theories leading to developments in artificial intelligence if you're already convinced that mind isn't material. It's a non-starter.

    And as the science advances, each advance represents another piece of evidence for the materialist's case. The substance dualist's arguments, on the other hand, first focus on what hasn't yet been explained, and then posit non-material consciousness (whatever that might mean) as the best, and perhaps only, way to make sense of the inexplicable. For the substance dualist, the case is open and shut. As far as he's concerned, there's simply no way to establish that mind isn't immaterial. It's a strategy that opens the door to a lot of hocus-pocus, in my opinion. This is similar to a "god of the gaps" approach in evolutionary theory: the theory hasn't explained everything, therefore those gaps in the explanation indicate the work of God.

    Except the gaps keep getting smaller, don't they? Religion, whenever it tangles with science on science's own ground, always ends up in retreat. History is replete with examples of this. Substance dualism, a stance generally favored by the religious, has done nothing but make claims. Denial and refutation seem to be the only things on offer from the dualist's camp. The only proactive contribution to the discussion has been the positing of immaterial mind.

    A scientist, however, would like to see and explore this "mind independent from matter." Is this possible? If the dualist claims that the mind, by its very nature, is not apprehensible by science, then this is little different from Carl Sagan's argument about "the dragon in my garage" from his book The Demon-haunted World. To wit:

    Now, what's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all? If there's no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I'm asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so. The only thing you've really learned from my insistence that there's a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head. You'd wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me. The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind. But then, why am I taking it so seriously? Maybe I need help. At the least, maybe I've seriously underestimated human fallibility. Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded. So you don't outright reject the notion that there's a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you're prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you. Surely it's unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative -- merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of "not proved." (italics added)

    I think Sagan has a point. The substance dualist walls himself off from even the possibility of having his view empirically contested, insisting that the mind is so radically other, causing physical changes through an incomprehensible-- yet somehow possible-- process, that it is totally immune to scientific proof or disproof. In the meantime, the dualist offers no positive arguments for his thesis. All the while, science continues to reveal the intimate relationship between physical processes in the brain-body suite, and mental/cognitive processes. At the same time, science, unlike substance dualism, remains open to the possibility that its own assumptions about the nature of mind may be quite wrong. Substance dualists, by contrast, too hastily trot out the dangers of mule-headed scientism, but do so while adopting a stance immune to discussion.

    As I wrote earlier:

    To date, science has not discovered a disembodied consciousness, which makes me lean toward the high likelihood that consciousness is not disembodied. Cut off a person's head-- are they still conscious? In what way? How do we know? Where is their consciousness, if no longer "in" their body? A substance dualist can provide no useful, verifiable answers, whereas a naturalist can say "cessation of physical function entails cessation of consciousness"-- which is likely true, given the millennia-long lack of reanimated corpse and ghost attacks.


    I've dealt with substance dualism, so let's move on to materialist critiques of Ray Kurzweil's brand of "strong AI" materialism, a school of thought that considers truly sentient (not merely ostensibly sentient) machinery possible.

    One prominent critic of Kurzweil is John Searle, himself a materialist. Searle believes Kurzweil's "strong AI" is founded on a false assumption: that non-biological, functionally equivalent parts can be assembled to produce something conscious. Searle isn't a substance dualist, but he does argue that only biological entities can have minds.

    Searle's most famous argument against the possibility of conscious machines is his 1980s-era "Chinese Room" thought experiment. There are several versions of this argument, which generally goes something like this:

    Imagine a room in which you find a man. He's got a complicated rule book with him, whose purpose is to help him interpret symbols-- Chinese characters, in fact. The room has two slots, one for input and the other for output. Someone outside the room slips in a piece of paper with Chinese characters on it. The man in the room then consults the book, which tells him to respond to the Chinese characters he receives by writing out a different set of Chinese characters on another slip of paper, and passing these characters out through the output slot.

    Searle's point: outside the room, it looks as though an actual, written conversation in Chinese is happening. But inside the room, the man manipulating the slips of paper has no clue what he's reading; he's merely using the rule book (analogous to a computer algorithm) to determine how to respond. At no point is the man (or his rule book) demonstrating anything like true "understanding."

    Searle is attacking the syntactic nature of computer programs and contending, via his Chinese Room argument, that consciousness isn't present in this setup, and never can be.

    Kurzweil has, of course, responded to this charge, and it's worth quoting here. Here is what he says in the context of a debate about the meaning of IBM's Deep Blue, a computer program that played chess against world champion Garry Kasparov:

    It is not at all my view that the simple recursive paradigm of Deep Blue is exemplary of how to build flexible intelligence in a machine. The pattern recognition paradigm of the human brain is that solutions emerge from the chaotic and unpredictable interplay of millions of simultaneous processes. And these pattern recognizers are themselves organized in elaborate and shifting hierarchies. In contrast to today’s computers, the human brain is massively parallel, combines digital and analog methods, and represents knowledge as highly distributed patterns encoded in trillions of neurotransmitter strengths.

    A failure to understand that computing processes are capable of being—just like the human brain—chaotic, unpredictable, messy, tentative, and emergent is behind much of the criticism of the prospect of intelligent machines that we hear from Searle and other essentially materialist philosophers. Inevitably, Searle comes back to a criticism of “symbolic” computing: that orderly sequential symbolic processes cannot recreate true thinking. I think that’s true.

    But that’s not the only way to build machines, or computers.

    So-called computers (and part of the problem is the word “computer” because machines can do more than “compute”) are not limited to symbolic processing. Nonbiological entities can also use the emergent self-organizing paradigm, and indeed that will be one great trend over the next couple of decades, a trend well under way. Computers do not have to use only 0 and 1. They don’t have to be all digital. The human brain combines analog and digital techniques. For example, California Institute of Technology Professor Carver Mead and others have shown that machines can be built by combining digital and analog methods. Machines can be massively parallel. And machines can use chaotic emergent techniques just as the brain does.

    My own background is in pattern recognition, and the primary computing techniques that I have used are not symbol manipulation, but rather self-organizing methods such as neural nets, Markov models, and evolutionary (sometimes called genetic) algorithms.

    A machine that could really do what Searle describes in the Chinese Room would not be merely “manipulating symbols” because that approach doesn’t work. This is at the heart of the philosophical [sleight] of hand underlying the Chinese Room (but more about the Chinese Room below).

    It is not the case that the nature of computing is limited to manipulating symbols. Something is going on in the human brain, and there is nothing that prevents these biological processes from being reverse engineered and replicated in nonbiological entities.
    (italics in original)

    Kurzweil's "strong AI" tends in the direction you might imagine: the merging of people and machines. His position in the mind-body debate might be described as "functionalist," insofar as he believes that non-biological materials can reproduce brain functions and eventually be their equally conscious equivalent.

    Imagine a world in which "wet circuitry" exists. Your brain is severely traumatized, so you're taken to the hospital and a chunk of your brain is scooped out and replaced with this wet circuitry, which has been designed to replicate your brain functions. Voila-- cognitive abilities restored (even though you're missing a bunch of engrams that were lost in the brain trauma)! Is such a world possible? Kurzweil would say yes, and so would I. Will we live to see it? No, of course not. But the important question is whether such circuitry will possess the functional equivalents of mental phenomena like intentionality and so on. Kurzweil and I would say, Why wouldn't it?


    Despite my materialist leanings, I don't believe that the mind is exactly the same as the brain. We're still trying to understand the biology of consciousness, and there's reason to believe that consciousness, while primarily rooted in the brain, is also distributed through the body. I'm not wimping out and suggesting that the mind is also something other than brain and body; I'm merely suggesting that the physical elements of mind might include more than just the brain.


    There's a lot more to this mind-body debate than I've covered here. My own point of view is close to Kurzweil's, but it's also in agreement with Searle insofar as both Kurzweil and Searle see human consciousness as arising epiphenomenally from matter. All three of us are materialists in that sense. But I side with Kurzweil over Searle in believing that functionalism has merit: non-biological elements can and will be assembled to produce machines that can pass the Turing Test and be perceived as truly conscious. Searle's Chinese Room argument attempts to show how a machine might cheat the Turing Test, but I think cheating the test is impossible, and assume Kurzweil does, too. The substance dualist won't be convinced, of course. A machine could pass the Turing Test, exhibit all the signs of conscious activity, and still the dualist will insist, in the face of strong evidence, that the jury's out. This insistence will sound increasingly puny as progress continues beyond the threshold of human intelligence.*

    Substance dualism strikes me as an untenable position for the reasons I've already given. The argument from qualia is unconvincing because of the very nature of qualia: if they are indeed radically subjective, then no meaningful claims can be made about other minds. More than that: I don't think qualia are entirely private and inaccessible, because human beings are wired in similar ways to have similar experiences and modes of experience (taking into account cultural mediation, etc.). We daily assume that we can relate to each other, which undermines contentions about radical subjectivity.

    Substance dualism also fails to produce any constructive arguments on its own behalf. It can't present us with an examinable immaterial mind, nor can it do more than make untestable, unprovable claims about this mind. In the meantime, science, proceeding on materialistic assumptions, continues to make progress in fields like neurophysiology and AI. How is this possible if those assumptions are fundamentally wrong? The substance dualist's notion of "mind" truly is little more than Sagan's dragon in the garage: veridically worthless.

    I see mind as rooted in and inseparable from matter. No matter, no mind. Cut off a person's head, and that person's no longer conscious. Introduce certain hallucinogenic chemicals into someone, and you give them hallucinations. Watch a person age and experience dementia, and you'll see firsthand how the brain's deterioration exactly parallels the mind's deterioration (cf. also the story of Phineas Gage, the poor bloke who suffered a massive head injury and literally became a different person afterward). Mind is built upon matter.

    But I also believe that mind retains its own distinctiveness and isn't simply reducible to matter. The hardware/software analogy makes this clear: mind is inseparable from matter, but follows qualitatively different rules from it. And just as an ocean wave relates nondualistically to the ocean, possessing its own distinctiveness while fully integral to the greater whole, so it is that mind relates nondualistically to matter. There's no need to radically dichotomize the two. This, then, is what I'm calling my theory of materialistic nondualism.

    *There are solid ethical reasons to be wary of Kurzweil's vision. A good critique is Bill Joy's essay "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," to be found in the collection Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in the Matrix, edited by Glenn Yeffeth. Joy sees frightening difficulties associated with the three major technologies of our time: genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics. All three technologies can produce catastrophes because they all deal with (potentially) self-replicating products. Joy gives us a spooky quote from George Dyson: "In the game of life and evolution there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines." The point being made is blatantly Darwinian: humans will lose if forced to compete with machines for space and resources.

    UPDATE: The fusion of people and machines has been happening for a while. Here's one of the latest examples: a man with robotic arms controlled by his mind. Intentionality meets the machine! A qualia-related quote from the article: "Eventually tiny sensors in the fingertips will allow Sullivan to feel texture and temperature." Feel! I'm not sure a substance dualist can explain how this is possible. Make this case into a thought experiment: how intrusive will the prostheses of the future be? Artificial eyes? Artificial optic nerves? Artificial brain neurons? Artificial brains with intentionality?


    Ave, Skippy!

    Skippy writes a fantastic, thorough, balanced post about the American project in Iraq, putting into words many of my own doubts about our long-term goals. Skippy was pro-war while I was against the war, but we share certain common views. As I blogged long ago, we're in the thick of it now, so we can't simply pull out: it's not that simple. In his post, Skippy explores the current US administration's myopia, and addresses one of my deepest fears re: the future of democracy in Iraq.

    For those who don't know, Skippy is a Canadian with strong conservative leanings, a keen interest in politics and a solid historical perspective. His conservatism makes me inclined to take his critiques of American conservatism (and the right-leaning blogosphere) quite seriously. Give his post a read.


    Thursday, June 23, 2005

    wut i ate D othur daie

    When I make my creamy shrimp sauce, there are two major, parallel steps: (1) in a skillet, we get the garlic, onion, parsley, mushrooms, and shrimp jumping in some olive oil, along with salt, pepper, white wine, and spices like oregano and basil; (2) in a saucepan we whip up a basic Béchamel sauce, adding a wee bit of salt and pepper.

    The above dish crossed over from Italian to French, I think, because I had no parsley and relied on a rather large amount of red wine. Plus, as you can see, there were no shrimp: the above is bacon and mushrooms. The results were fantastic. I'd thought about chopping the bacon into pieces, but keeping them whole, as it turned out, wasn't a problem. I'll be making this sauce again soon.


    ripped lens

    Here's a pic of my ripped contact lens. It had dried out, so I reconstituted it with a splash of water. Enjoy.

    I chucked the lens in the trash after taking the pic. Not one to hoard my ordinaries.


    rencontre avec un fana

    Earlier today, as I was waddling toward my private tutoring engagement in Apkujeong (and right after I'd bought a chocolate waffle), I heard someone behind me say, "Kevin!"

    The voice didn't sound familiar, but the person sounded like he knew me. I turned around and saw a beaming gentleman-- definitely not someone I knew. "I'm a fan of your home page!" he said. He was back in Korea for a bit, and said he had just been wondering whether he was going to be meeting any of the bloggers he reads-- I remember him mentioning the Holy Binity of Marmot and Oranckay. "Not ten days in Seoul, and I meet you!" he smiled.

    I asked him whether my blog's shit humor was turning him off; he said that it was fine with him. Good! That's as it should be! My target audience realizes that the holy and the unholy are not-two, so I think this gentleman might well be a wandering sage, as are most or all of my three regular readers. I have no truck with the uptight. Fuck notions of purity and propriety. Well, no-- don't fuck them hard, because they have their uses. Please fuck them gently.

    My fan is off to what sounds like a terrific job in the United Arab Emirates; I wish him well and hope he is inundated with UAE poontang. I don't know if the gent is married; I didn't have a chance to ask him, as I had to hurry off to my illegal* tutoring engagement. But even if he's married, I still hope he's regularly assaulted by wave after wave of bearded clams. Or at least by the thought of wave after wave of bearded clams.

    Mr. Fan, I've already forgotten your name because I never got a business card from you and I, at age 35, have a memory like a sieve. Feel free to write in any old time, and I might post your letter for all to see.

    *Actually, Smoo is aware I have this engagement, and they appear to be tolerating it. I don't think my contract specifies whether permission to do outside work must be written; the only question is whether condoning constitutes permission. If push came to shove, I assume it wouldn't.


    why to view Wikipedia with caution

    A wiki is a web page that can be edited by many people. Some wikis (I think that's the correct plural) allow anyone off the street to edit; others require passwords and encourage a certain clubbishness. Wikipedia is, in theory, open to anyone who thinks they have the scholarly know-how to produce a decent encyclopedia-style entry on a given topic. Later on, if some reader determines the entry isn't satisfactory, the reader can edit the entry. Wikipedia works on the assumption that successive edits occur on something like the honor system-- i.e., in a spirit of trust and collegiality.

    In academe, you've got "peer review," which is generally-- but not always-- a good idea. If your academic peers are truly peers, then you can expect reliably thorough and trustworthy reviews of your work. This is how it usually goes. If, however, you find yourself surrounded by dumb shits in your department, you will feel, as they say in academe, fucked. Perhaps I'm being idealistic, but I tend to think that fuckage in academe isn't an enormous problem (I can hear chortling... shut up). Even if you're ideologically opposed to a particular academic camp, it's unlikely that you, as a professor, will read a paper by the opposition and think to yourself, "What drooling moron wrote this unreadable, inarticulate piece of shit?"*

    Wikipedia is a different story. It allows anyone-- not just known experts-- to craft entries. Controversial entries can spawn what have come to be known as "edit(ing) wars," in which information is radically changed to reflect the often aggressive agenda of the most recent editor. The sad side effects of edit wars are (1) they erase history by eliminating previous submissions, and (2) the overall trustworthiness and authoritativeness of Wikipedia articles suffer.

    I use Wikipedia as a matter of convenience, but I agree with Dr. Vallicella that the service should be treated with circumspection. It's not something I would cite in a serious research paper, though I'd have little trouble citing it in a blog post.

    If you're a Britannica snob, there's another reason to look down on Wikipedia: the Encyclopaedia Britannica would never waste its pages on a disquisition about lightsaber fighting styles**.

    *I realize that many professors do, in fact, think this-- and even say it aloud when reading the work of a fellow scholar. But they don't mean it literally: the complainer isn't seriously questioning the writer's IQ. Or so I believe.

    **Full disclosure: being only 50% Britannica snob and something of a Star Wars geek, I enjoyed the lightsaber combat entry.