Friday, November 30, 2012

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Freedom vs. Fate

In In Defense of the Accidental, the German Odo Marquard addresses the perennial question of human freedom. What is freedom? Is it possible? Doesn't causality or necessity, by God or nature, preclude human choice? Doesn't Fate determine us? Marquard says no:

What makes a human being free is not zero determination--the absence of all determinants--or the superior force of a single determinant, but a super-abundance of determinants...By codetermining man, each of them--so to speak--guarantees him latitude (distance) in relations to the others, and protects him from the sole determining clutches of a single power, in the face of which he would be powerless, on his own. The principle is: "[Divide and escape!]."
In the sense that there is not one fate for each of us, but rather many conflicting fates--many chains of causation, interacting with one another--human freedom exists in overdetermination.

American philosopher Daniel Dennett agrees, sort of, maybe. In Freedom Evolves, Dennett attempts to reconcile causal-determination (e.g. the laws of physics) with human agency. He does so partly by arguing that real-world causation is so complex that it might as well be indeterministic.*

*(This is a simplification of Dennett's argument, and in any event, he also claims that indeterminism doesn't help get you to freedom. The essence of his position rests on a categorical distinction between talking about stuff qua agents vs. talking about stuff qua stuff.)

Fate vs. freedom seems like an important subject. I don't mean capital-F Fate, with the three old crones on their spinning wheel of Destiny as in Greek fables, or the unidentified force for good which guides Scott Bacula through history on Quantum Leap, or the Force of Luke and Darth. I think we can meaningfully talk about "fate" without assuming authorial metaphysics. All I mean by "fate" is the vast set of events which lie outside my control, the fact that very nearly everything which happens in my life happens in spite me rather than because of me. (I.e. Marquard's titular "accidental.")

Like, what could be more relevant to my life than the question of whether my life could--or can--be different than how it is now? Where things get tricky on this question is when you think about how the very answer I give to this question--"I am free," "I am fated"--affects the answer. Because it does: fate-believing people act fatalistic, and freedom-believing people behave freeishly. As Henry Ford said, "Whether you believe you can do something or you believe you can't, you're probably right." The self-referential nature of this pickle is kind of like the weird, logical slipperiness of the paradox "This statement is false."

Per psychologist Julian Rotter ("row-ter"), this is pretty much what happens with most people: "People with an internal locus of control believe that life outcomes are largely under personal control and depend on their own behavior. In contrast, people with an external locus of control believe that their fate has less to do with their own efforts than with the influence of external factors." This is part of a principle known as "reciprocal determinism," according to which a person, their behavior, and their environment all interfere with one another, like bumper cars running into each other. Like Marquard's overdetermination, reciprocal determinism creates indeterminacy through conflicting determinisms. Whether or not indeterminacy is helpful to those who hanker for human freedom is a separate question, but it's certainly comforting to think about.

My own suggestion on all of this is that we don't know whether we're free--not necessarily because freedom is inherently unknowable or anything, but just because we don't really seem to be clear about what "freedom" means per se, outside of specific contexts like prison. But what seems most useful, if maybe not true, is the advice of an old teacher: "Fate governs, but broadly." Maybe like the false choice between nature vs. nurture as the determinant of who a person is, the choice between free will and fate is an illusion: fate sets the rules and limits, and human freedom navigates within them.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Temple Grove, upcoming Green-Scare related Environmental Action novel by Walla Walla author Scott Elliott due out in May of 2013

Deep in the heart of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula lies Temple Grove, one of the last stands of ancient Douglas firs not under federal protection from logging. Bill Newton, a gyppo logger desperate for work and a place to hide, has come to Temple Grove for the money to be made from the timber. There to stop him is Paul, a young Makah environmentalist who will break the law to save the trees.

A dangerous chase into the wilds of Olympic National Park ensues, revealing a long-hidden secret that inextricably links the two men. Joining the pursuit are FBI agents who target Paul as an ecoterrorist, and his mother, Trace, who is determined to protect him. Temple Grove is a gripping tale of suspense and a multilayered novel of place that captures in taut, luminous prose the traditions that tie people to this powerful landscape and the conflicts that run deep among them.

Scott Elliott is associate professor of creative writing and English at Whitman College and author of the novel Coiled in the Heart. He lives in Walla Walla, Washington.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The 2012 National Book Award Winners

Young People's Literature 

Goblin Secrets 
(Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of
Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing)

David Ferry
Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations
(University of Chicago Press) 

Katherine BooBehind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity 
(Random House)


The Round House
(Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers) 

Elmore LeonardMedal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

Photo by Dermot Cleary.

Literarian Award for Outstanding Service  
to the American Literary Community 
 Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr.

Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

UW president's tactless "real job" comment to poor students

Since I'm basically a pundit, my main job consists of whinging about the failures of others and endlessly describing all the things that are wrong with the world. There are robust economic reasons for this: in terms of producing stimulating content, it's easier to tear down someone else's movie or book or statement than it is to produce my own. That is, derivative content is easier to produce than primary content (see for example here).

Fortunately for yours truly, there are plenty of asinine things said and done which merit criticism. A big one is President Obama's shifty/abusive use of drone bombings, which I wrote about (here) earlier this week.

Another, less horrific (but more local) controversy is U. Washington president Michael Young's comment at a Q&A Session following his annual address that poor students might need to get a "real job" if federal funding for Pell grants falls through.

Deepa Bhandaru et al responded (here) in the UW paper by criticizing Young:

We were appalled at Young’s insensitivity to the reality that undergraduates face, given the number of our students who work so hard at real jobs in order to make ends meet and put themselves through college.

They also discussed an ongoing dispute between the university and student employees who receive tuition waivers as part of their pay. Formerly, student fees had been included in student employees' pay, but at that same Q&A session president Young reportedly reaffirmed his intent to go to court in order to shed the UW of that obligation.

William Dow joined the kaffufle with his op-ed (here), which takes Young to task for his "real job" comment. Dow spends an awful lot of time unpacking the implications of this phrase, calling it "loaded with ivory-tower ignorance" and claiming that it signals that Young considers Pell grants a low-priority.

It was only slightly less insulting than when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney advised Ohio students to borrow money from their parents — “if you have to” — in order to start a business.

 But the proles could only beat up on their illustrious leader for so long before UW Associate Vice President Norm Atkins replied (here) with a defense of Young's remarks. Atkins claims that Young's statement has been taken out of context and its meaning has been inverted:

The comment about getting a job was inserted into the question as an option as undesirable as dropping out or taking out loans. These were presented as unacceptable options to a vibrant financial aid program that relies on federal Pell grants as its foundation. In no sense was President Young telling students to get a job — he was suggesting that having to get a job in lieu of financial aid would be an impediment to continuing their education.

The force of Atkins reply is somewhat diminished by problems with his evidence. He supplies Young's sentence in which the infamous "real job" phrase occurred (“I’d just embellish that by heaven forfend [sic] get an actual job.”), but since it's incoherent (at least in Atkins' op-ed), it's not particularly helpful in parsing out Young's meaning. Added 11/10/12 at 9:40pm: evidently "heaven forfend" is not an incoherent typo, but means "heaven forbid." (Whoops.) So Atkins' full-quote of Young's original sentence is coherent, but is also evidence of Young's snide contempt (not evidence of Young's benign intent, as Atkins claims). Atkins also supplies a link to a page which putatively shows video recording of Young's comments, but it's incorrectly formatted and doesn't work:

Your correspondent was unable to find Young's comments on Youtube via searching. And, as Dow points out, while Young's address is posted on the pivotal Q&A session is "conspicuously unavailable."

It's not clear at this point what Young actually said, or meant to say, or how he said it. But given Young's position of power, and given the coherence of his accusers and the incoherence of his defender, this does not prejudice your correspondent toward giving Young the benefit of the doubt or toward sitting on the fence. It sounds like an old, powerful white dude said something Romneyesque about poor people, and he needs to own up to it.

PS: Your correspondent's partner happens to be a Pell grant recipient at the UW. You can read his analysis of UW philosophy (here), and stay tuned to his blog for his thoughts on Young's comments (coming soon).

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Obama on the Hanford Nuclear Site, Campaign Q&A, Somewhere in Oregon, May 18th, 2008

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE;  Every year the government promises to fund the Hanford Clean-Up Project in Eastern Washington, and every year they find a way to take away the funding, which results in a lot of lost jobs. Washington's current policy seems to be "the solution to pollution is dilution."


WOMAN;  What is your policy?

OBAMA;  Here's something you'll rarely hear from a politician, and that is, I'm not familiar with the Hanford Site. And so I don't know exactly what's going on there.  Now, having said that, I promise you I'll learn about it by the time I leave here on the ride back to the airport.

The Bible is like a newspaper?

Reading, at bottom, is really just another human ritual. We say that it's about meaning and communication--and we're right--but if a Martian anthropologist were to observe and describe human interaction with text, she'd surely talk about it in the same way that human anthropologists talk about religious or mating rituals among aboriginal peoples: "Well, they say that the ritual is about something called 'meaning' or 'information,' though when pressed they can't give a very clear explanation of what either of those things are. Anyway, one human will put certain ornate scratches on a sheet of paper, and later another will look at those scratches, and react in some way specific to which scratches were used."

I'm not suggesting that "meaning" isn't real. I say only that an internal account of reading ("Text conveys meaning between people") and an external account of reading ("Scratches are made and then reacted to") are quite different. As in religious experience, with reading there is "no knowing without going."

So, if reading is (in some important sense) just another human ritual, then it follows that conventions about how to properly do it are (in some important sense) arbitrary. Not arbitrary like "Do whatever you want," but rather arbitrary like the rules of soccer or chess. There's no deep reason for disallowing hand-use in soccer, but given the establishment of this rule, it's essential to the entire project of soccer that it be respected. There's no deep reason for why knights are the only pieces that can jump in chess, but once a rule, it becomes important. (See Wittgenstein's ideas on language as a game here.)

If the rules of reading are 1) fundamentally arbitrary and 2) nonetheless important, then how can we read the Bible? One answer is to read it like a newspaper: it's a description of events that really did occur in history, and the truth or validity of the Bible is basically a question of how closely its description fits the actual, historical events: either the universe was created in six days or it wasn't; either Jesus literally died and was resurrected, or he wasn't. One excellent reason to favor journalism as the model for how to read the Bible is that it seems to provide strong, clear rules of interpretation. Most people interested in the Bible want its words to really mean something in the same way that most players of chess want the rules of the game to be clearly defined, and not just be open to endless interpretation.

Another model is the novel: a psuedo-account of the world, which functions just like a lie except that (outside the text) the author disclaims factual accuracy: "This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to real people or events is purely coincidental." If the Bible is like a novel, then the meaning of the text lies in themes and metaphors, not factual accuracy. No one faults The Brothers Karamazov for its inaccuracy: the novel must be judged on its own terms.

Is the Bible like either of these? If it's like a newspaper, then it's clearly unreliable: the disagreements between the scientific account of the world and a literal reading of the Bible are legion (see here). And if it's like a novel, well, why is it important? There are plenty of great novels about the human condition, most of them lacking an entire bloody book on the intricacies of tabernacle-ritual.

I don't have an answer to these questions. It's not clear to me how to read the Bible or similar religious texts: what assumptions, conventions, rules, and contexts to adopt. But it seems important to recognize that newspapers and novels are not the only robust models for textual interpretation. It's easy to knock down a religious text for being inaccurate; a more difficult and perhaps more useful question is, In what way can this text become important or true?