The new history books in Belgian schools start with a brief discussion of the different ways to view time. Twelve year olds’ first chapter won’t be about Ancient Greece anymore, that’s moved one spot. Instead, they start learning about progression v. digression; linear v. cyclical; finite v. infinite. Interesting! Although I’m having some second thoughts about the classification of the contemporary Western view on time as linear, progressive and (virtually)infinite…

Linear. Years go on and on. Going from the 31st of December to the first of January adds another year to our collection. Yet, our weeks always go from Monday to Sunday and start over again at Monday; months and seasons follow each other, but once their cycle of twelve or four is over, they start again. Every year we have the same special days like Eastern, May First and Christmas. People are at home, come together with family or friends, prepare sometimes for days ahead. Children, students and employees look forward to their day off. We all start our lives as needy and helpless creatures and many of us end-up in a similar way.

It seems to me that the linear view of time is highly popular in history classes in contemporary Belgium, not necessary in our society as such.

Progression. Even though people around me are materially and intellectually well endowed, many of them fear the future. Our parents who are in their 50s fear for their pensions. We, in our 20s, are afraid that we won’t be able to find a steady job, buy a house and settle happy and safely like our parents did. Conservatives fear cultural degradation, liberals fear an attack upon their freedom rights and socialists fear the demolition of a carefully build 20th century welfare system.

Economic uncertainty and cultural changes have made people lyrical about the good old post-WW II 20th century.

Infinite. Time itself probably won’t stop soon, but that doesn’t mean that our view on history is infinite. The end of times according to physics is far away. The end of humanity might be closer. The end of my life even closer. Death of others, diseases or other horrible things might not kill you, but will make history stop from your point of view. Grandparents, parents, I, children and grandchildren, those are in some respects my limits.

Infinity is only accepted in a vague theoretical way. Every aspect of our life and even our conceptions of things we somehow conceive as infinite are always limited.

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“Sauf le nom” or “On the Name” by Jacques Derrida. The translation of the title could also be “But the name”. Does God only has his name or everything but his name? Whatever title we use, the word or name “God” is central in this little book. It’s a dialogue about language, negative theology, spiced with lovely quotes from Angelus Silesius.

The text is written after Derrida missed a conference on Negative Theology. Basically, negative theology says that you can only define God in what it is not. From this point of view, Derrida wrote a dialogue on the name “God”.

The sentence “God is this and that” presents us with a list that gets immediately destroyed by negative theology. Now, prayer is speaking to God and letting Him speak to you. It’s addressing the unreachable beyond the name. It is this reaching-out that destroys the name. Every attempt in the negative theology turns itself into dust. But since the name is its own medium for destruction, it has to float around. Destruction is only possible through itself, but, it’s like an immortal man cutting off his own limbs, at some point you simply don’t have the means anymore and it has to stop. The difference here is that there doesn’t seem to be an end-point.

The name “God” is used as a medium that is supposed to bring us to something beyond the name. The problem is that nothing seems to get through alive. Derrida quotes multiple parts of Angelus Silesius. One of them is quoted twice and it seems more relevant than Derrida makes it in his discussion of the quote. It says “You can’t reach the sun with your arrows. I can take the eternal sun at gunpoint with mine.” The cited fragment doesn’t say that he can hit target, he can only aim, reach-out. And just like with God, every attempt of actually reaching-out with be self-destructive.

Moving towards the impossible makes living valuable. Reaching out to God is the most extreme way. But in general, when goals are set within the boundaries of what is considered possible, there is no real action or progress.

There are two ways to view language. The formal way, it’s to catch, tame and limit names in order to make their use easier. And then there is the more complex view of a language with a history, a language that is constantly changing and his unexpected relations and elements.

These two ways of viewing language are connected with a different view of what naming does. What is it to give someone a name? Is it a formalization that will bring someone within the realm of speech? Or is it an attack on its otherness, an imposed limit?

I didn’t talk about every topic in the book. There is Heidegger, love, death, different manners of speaking etc. My interpretation might be different from others in many ways. Derrida is a mad-man… A brilliant madman, but a madman nevertheless.

Blaise Pascal has written extensively on religion. His Pensees and Lettres Provenciales against the Jesuits are interesting sources of his religiosity. I’ll explain some of the arguments that Pascal gives, including Pascal’s wager argument. This latter argument is, in my opinion, the only one of the classic arguments that Dawkins hasn’t really been able to destroy fully in his book The God Delusion. I’ll come back to that later.

The first argument says that all humans have always been looking for happiness. They have a certain knowledge of what absolute happiness is, some kind of memory. Yet, we notice on a practical level that it seems impossible to reach it. In this quest for happiness, the things around us (worldly things like power, scientific knowledge and sensual pleasure) aren’t sufficient, they’re too limited. In order to bridge the gap between the searching individual and happiness we need help from something beyond, namely, God. (N148)

Everything that isn’t directed at Christian love is merely a symbol. Love is the only topic of Scripture.” (N270)

Pascal doesn’t even mention the wager-argument in his list of proofs. He sums up: ethics, doctrine, wonders, prophecies and symbols (N402).
Ethics. God gives us a firm ground for the Good. It doesn’t mean that Pascal will take the Bible and other texts as literal and direct sources for his moral beliefs. It’s more like a recognition of the existence of love and the Good and its incompatibility with materialistic science. So there has to be something beyond matter and the scientific method.
Doctrine. By doctrine he refers to a large body of texts produced by a variety of intellectuals throughout many centuries (although Saint Augustine seems to have a special place). Historically speaking this collection of texts is changeable and considering the work Pascal puts in his attack on the Jesuits, he doesn’t take the idea of a “doctrine” as something that is 100% fixed for eternity and not open for discussion.
Wonders and prophecies are both a combination of information in the Bible and history. For example, Pascal discusses the announcement of the messiah and the role of the Jews in the Bible. The coming of Christ, his crucifixion and the lack of a Jewish country are proofs that the prophecies came true. About the wonders, Pascal says that they aren’t that clear because God only wants to show himself to those that are looking for him.
Symbols. Symbols are signs from God, but they only point towards something else. Unfortunately, some have taken these symbols for ends in themselves.

Now we finally arrived at the wager-argument. The argument is in his pensees merely an a propos, a by the way. At that time, Pascal was working on probability and managed to bring science and coincidence/luck/… together.

The wager argument goes like this:
There are two possibilities: either God exists or he doesn’t exist.
The relative probability of both is impossible to count, but let’s assume it’s 1/10 000 (it’s exact numbers are irrelevant).
God exists = infinite issue vs God doesn’t exist = finite issue.
(1/10 000 * infinite) > (9 999/10 000 * finite number).

The argument is not so much that you have nothing to lose. Because this finite number is the amount of time, energy and resources that you put in your religion while alive. The point is that no matter how much trouble you take in your belief and no matter how small the chances are, infinity will always be the better gamble.

Dawkins asks what the value is of such an argument in religion. Aren’t you supposed to belief in God? Instead of counting what is best for you?
There are plenty of places where Dawkins is attacking the idea of belief, emotions and intuition. It’s a bit odd to see how he is apparently asking here whether it’s ok to be religous on merely a mathematical argument.
Secondly, as previously mentioned Pascal highly values belief and emotions as well. Dawkins can attack the texts about love and the Holy Spirit in his typical psychological way, but the wager argument can’t be attacked for it’s lack of such – according to Dawkins – easy targets.

Dawkins goes on and points at other virtues besides belief (virtue ethics is btw something that he will dismiss later on in the book when he is defending consequentialism as the only proper ethical theory). Now, Pascal writes about love (N270) and the Holy Spirit as the essential part in the interpretation of the Bible (N367). Those are key in our moral beliefs. For Pascal, they probably can be viewed as synonyms. Yet, neither of them can be found in science. Now, the act of believing entails this reaching-out beyond science. To belief is to make this movement towards the infinite that includes the Good. I wonder what Dawkins’ metaphysics of virtues is…

The last point seems a bit more problematic. What about all the other Gods? Well, Pascal doesn’t write about most of the other Gods, he limits himself to Islam and Judaism. Of course, he tries to defend Christianity (and more specific, Catholicism) against the other religions. But even if we take all the Gods that have ever been prayed to in history, the argument of Pascal would still be in favor of belief in at least some religion. The argument is still the same, if you don’t belief, you have zero chance of eternity; if you do belief you can now be wrong in two ways, namely, there is no god or you’ve believed in a wrong God. Nevertheless, your chances are higher than zero.

This argument has never been about Catholicism (although does Pascal attack the protesters, Islam and Judaism at different instances). It’s only a proof of an infinite being, God, that allows humans to have an infinite after-life.

The most difficult thing about Nietzsche is his name.”

Too many bright people wasted their time on Hegel, let’s move on to something else.”

I only teach Ayn Rand because the funding of my American university highly depends on donations from a bank director who loves Rand. While in fact, she is a bad philosopher and an even worse writer. Europe does right in completely ignoring her.”

Today we will talk about my Karl Marx, my favorite!

The Ayn Rand professor is the only one who actually gave us texts and a lecture about the philosopher he clearly didn’t like. Nietzsche and Hegel only got the one sentence from each professor. Oddly enough, Marx wasn’t part of the lengthy reader.

Once they were allowed to teach about philosophers they actually respected, they were all great professors. Both Hegel and Nietzsche were taught by a different professor in another class. The American visiting professor was right, Ayn Rand is, as far as I know, completely absent in European universities. After reading some texts, seeing movies based on her book and listening to the lecture, I get why she is totally ignored.

Political and philosophical preferences make the classes more exciting and the university as a whole more interesting. It would be problematic when all the professors would have the same preferences. Luckily, this wasn’t the case at all. During my stay there was a Cold War between continental and analytic philosophers. Such fun!

Kazimir Malevich

Posted: December 20, 2013 in History/Philosophy

Malevich

Click.

A grey and shady gentleman surrounded by the powerful red of the primitive and pure naked bodies.

On the December the 16th, the world acknowledged the existence of Ukraine. After watching the news on Russia Today, The Young Turks and REAL News there are some things all of them agree on: there is a protest in Ukraine, the country has economic difficulties and the show by John McCain was, to say the least, questionable.

RT focusses on the chaos and economic difficulties the protests created. The protesters can’t do much more than screaming “revolution!” and “down with the president!”Experts Stephen F. Cohen (professor Russian Studies at NYU) and Mark Sleboda (professor International Relations at MSU) were both very explicit in their condemnation of McCain’s appearance. I wonder what the experts would say about the police brutality, the protester’s demands and the role of the EU and Russia. Unfortunately they were only brought in to state the things in the before-mentioned list of inter-media agreements.

TYT is a fun news show, but they seem to lack a strong body of journalist to feed them information. It’s a bit unfortunate how the host remarked that the Ukrainian people don’t want to be the satellite country of Russia. Besides that biased remark, they weren’t able to bring much news. Ukraine exists, there is a protest and since we are for democracy, we support the protest. I wonder what TYT would say about a party like Svoboda, who is currently part of the pro-EU demonstration, but has neonazi connections. Or what about the objections RT made about the huge blockades, chaos and negative influence on the economy? Are protests by definition something we should support?

The REAL News brought in an expert from the start. Associate professor Jeffrey Sommers of Wisconsin-Milwaukee focusses mainly on the role McCain plays. Just like the RT professors, but with a bit more body, Sommers explained how McCain missed the end of the Cold War. At the end of the interview, the host asks what the people of Ukraine need. Unfortunately, Sommers doesn’t get much farther than stating the awkward situation of Ukrain’s economy and the need to develop the economy. Again, we didn’t get much farther than the list of inter-media agreements.

The lack of information about the protests in Ukraine, combined with the constant use of so-called experts seems an example of the declining quality of the news organisations. The result is a variety of news shows that, in this case, mainly report three points that everyone could have come up with. RT bothers me in their biased selection of topics and words; TYT made a clearly biased statement as a result of their lack of information; and REAL News doesn’t manage to bring the information in the right format. I sometimes hear these stories how groups of journalists were specialized in specific topics and regions. Not only would they know how to get the information and analyse it, they were also journalist and thus managed to bring the information in a text to the broad masses.

A few years ago I had a first encounter with Slavoj Zizek through through his appearance on a Dutch TV show*. He is funny, provocative and interesting. I’m sure there is no need to introduce him. Sometimes he’s a bit silly. But at other times I’m surprised by his knowledge of various debates in contemporary philosophy. Unfortuantely, some of his writings are working on my nerves. I just read a short article in The Guardian by his hand* about the Mandela memorial and the fake sign language interpreter. Urrgg…

The conclusion is quite alright:

“[…] what he confronted us with was the truth about sign language translations for the deaf – it doesn’t really matter if there are any deaf people among the public who need the translation; the translator is there to make us, who do not understand sign language, feel good.

And was this also not the truth about the whole of the Mandela memorial ceremony? All the crocodile tears of the dignitaries were a self-congratulatory exercise, and Jangtjie translated them into what they effectively were: nonsense. What the world leaders were celebrating was the successful postponement of the true crisis which will explode when poor, black South Africans effectively become a collective political agent. They were the Absent One to whom Jantjie was signalling, and his message was: the dignitaries really don’t care about you. “

Everything before this is unnecessary blabla. He wants to express a political point. In order to do so, he picks a highly mediatized aspect of the event and interprets it so that it becomes useful for his point. It’s fun to read, but I don’t see any value in it at all. You can write about how former Western politicians were in favor of jailing Mandela, about the ideas  of Mandela and how they conflict with contemporary politicians who were present at the funeral, you can write about a variety of topics to support one point Zizek is trying to make here. You can even keep the exact same conclusion! But at least the article would have some valuable information and a line of reasoning that is not just witty, but also sensible.

* http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gw8LPn4irao

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/16/fake-mandela-memorial-interpreter-schizophrenia-signing?CMP=fb_gu