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Semiformalishmaybe

I was waiting for your hand

A dreamed moment - Years of silence, forgotten portions of the self step into view and proclaim themselves, "I am here and worthy of attention". Their cold hands warm when clasped, accepting donated heat from other parts of me as they recall and regret the absence. Another component to tune, another instrument in an orchestra, but things feel fuller even now.

Really, just a sensation.

Some news of which you should be aware:

  • I am very pleased to see that earmark reform seems to be effective, even if many prominent Dems oppose it. It's not that I think earmarks necessarily only (or even usually) fund unworthy projects; rather I think that they're a poor mechanism for doing so (more resembling patronage or institutional corruption than what our democracy could be). When there are worthy projects, they should be supportable in ways that permit accountability, and ideally permit separate voting. The Line-item veto was one approach to this problem, a flat ban on earmarks (which is what the combination of Obama's intent to veto and current largely-Republican efforts not to introduce them in the first place amounts to) is another. I believe that those liberals who (willingly or unwillingly) support the Democratic party should stop electing people who are earmark-friendly - the goals of liberalism should not be alien to good governance.
  • Newt Gingrich proposes abolishing the EPA - he dislikes the regulatory role it plays (because it costs jobs? because he doesn't understand the importance of maintaining a habitable biosphere?) and would like to replace it with something that would just offer carrots for biofuels (most of which are only viable because we have our agricultural policy very wrong and oversubsidise corn). I find Newt's ideas here uniformly terrible. It is worth sacrificing as many jobs or as much efficiency as it takes to avoid widespread environmental destruction. There is some inherent trade-off, but regulation is necessary.
  • Earlier this month, Tunisia's government fell after the opulent lives of many ruling elites were revealed by Wikileaks, and their dictator fled to where many dictors go, Saudi Arabia. The remaining political establishment is scrambling to implement reforms in order to avoid their own ouster. The success of this (combined with similar revelations about policy and lives of the powerful from Wikileaks, and generally high existing levels of tension) inspired mass-protests in Egypt, where the decades-long state of emergency's rules were tightened - political rallies banned, mass arrests, opposition parties (the ones that are not illegal) found their headquarters surrounded and began hunger strikes, etc. Egypt has been politically fragile for awhile - it's hard to know what the longer-term effects of this will be - is there enough popular support to oust Mubarak? The United States is (predictably) taking a nuanced stance here - it's theoretically in favour of democracy and popular sovereignty, but it's enjoyed close ties to the existing government and knows any popular government would probably be very anti-western and may end the long peace Egypt has had with Israel. More surprisingly, the US has decided not to keep quiet on the developments, calling both for moderation from the protestors and for engagement by the government. Playing it safe is something best done quietly, in my opinion - if the US is going to get involved by nudging either side, it should pick a side or at least have a clear position/goal it's willing to push. Getting involved without a direction will alienate whomever is left in power after the dust clears. Note that a few other regional governments are starting to see protests in the same vein.

Major topic, thoughts inspired by more things touched on by Wael Hallaq's book - Certainty.

Certainty is a major topic in human nature - we always want it when we can get it because it lets us close an open topic and think about other things. Sometimes this closure is real (absolute certainty), sometimes it's just functional (functional certainty). In science, we mainly have varying degrees of functional certainty - we are students of nature, and are always open to new data, but when our theories are strong enough that they seem to predict/fit all the data, and no simpler theories that do the same show up, we stop looking and consider them functionally certain. Any absolute certainty lies outside the realm of science - empiricism offers no path to anything stronger. Many faiths offer (what they claim should be) absolute certainty (whether dogma is this or not is a complex matter), either because they don't require the sophisticated distinction or because things that claim to be absolutely certain are more closed and thus more satisfying than functional certainty.

In Islam, there are various schools of jurisprudence - in modern times there are 4 large ones in Sunni Islam, 2 in Shia Islam. These schools differ in the kinds of logic and analysis they apply to read meaning from their faith. The idea of probable versus certain law is in most of them - the haditha and Quran are usually considered certain sources of law, while various reasoning about considered certainty reaches probable solutions. One interesting principle that applies to most schools - a verse that "the broad consensus of the people of Islam will never reach error", allows for more certainty than would otherwise be possible and lets early practice (when that consensus was possible - it is probably not today given how widespread and diverse Islam is) become normative. Any conclusion reached and then widely adopted during that period of consensus is considered a closed matter - it is absolutely correct. Other conclusions may be reopened. (Comparison: Ex cathedra papal statements, which are considered infallable and capital-c correct, versus ordinary papal statements which may define dogma but may be reversed). Islam being decentralised, those considered capable of interpreting the holy texts in a normative way are called Mujtahid, and the process of interpretation Ijtihad. Ijtihad is recognised as a duty for those capable - one may not necessarily reach the right answer (although under Islamic theology, there definitely is a right one); one is rewarded in heaven once for the effort and if correct once again for that. In traditional societies using Islam as a basis, the courts have a duty to find the best of the available rulings (and apply it), but all of them are considered potentially correct even after one is chosen - those performing ijtihad are not deemed wrong, even if the courts don't go with them.

Alien to Islam (as described so far - modern versions may vary): overturning of court decisions - once courts accept a ruling, that acceptance sets an absolute precedent if it was on a novel topic.

Accepting uncertainty in life - humbling and not always very satisfying. This is as true for individuals as much as institutions. Closing doors on alternatives: limits our ability to adapt to new information or more careful reasoning, but gives strength in simple interactions with others who disagree - often the person who cares more or who is more certain has their way, giving the careful and honest a disadvantage over those certain for bad reasons. Would we follow religious leaders who say "there probably is a god, we're not sure what he said but here's what we care about"? Would we follow political leaders who don't yet have opinions on everything under the sun? Maybe some of us would, but I suspect the certain get more followers.

I believe that absolute certainty is generally an ugly thing. Even in topics of pure logic, I refuse it entry into my worldview - I accept that those frameworks are useful, but I don't deeply believe in either proofs within them nor any application of such things to the world (this doesn't stop me from using them to think about things - they're too useful not to use, I just think about them a bit oddly). The only capital-T truth thing we can have is a pursuit of the idea of truth through empirical means. All else is either something we call truth for notational convenience or bluster.

Mostly unrelated:

  • Ratzinger on Liberation Theology. It's a really interesting analysis - unsurprisingly, Ratzinger's a deep thinker. I'm still thinking of his analysis of the sermon on the mount - I'd like to have some clarification on how "god siding with the poor"'s poor is conceptually different from the Marxian notion of the poor - apart from the exclusion of the lumpenproletariat from consideration (which may be a big deal), it seems they're (accidentally?) the same group. Perhaps the difference is in what it would mean to take sides with them - the Marxian praxis is probably different in many areas from the Christian praxis.
  • See also: Ratzinger's encyclial: Deus Caritas Est, Pope Pecci's Rerum Novarum, and Pope Ratti's Quadragesimo Anno. These deal with the church, social justice, and what political role the church should play with regards to various ideas of social justice.

Comments

Years of silence, forgotten portions of the self ...

I like this imagery. :)

The only capital-T truth thing we can have is a pursuit of the idea of truth through empirical means. All else is either something we call truth for notational convenience or bluster.

this triggers my "not a useful definition" alarm. i realise you're permitting "truth for notational convenience", but that is basically always what you're after. i guess the real point here is that when you declare something to be true, you have to be careful to qualify it. (instead of "there probably is a god, we're not sure what he said", you say "there is a god and he says this; we say so because saying so has useful consequences, and is permissible, etc.")
I believe the goals of empiricism are a bit different - maybe the kinds of conclusions made by science are also aiming for functional certainty, but they're made in pursuit of capital-T truth. It matters in an honest way whether the claims are correct.

Even if it is an empty one, absolute certainty (or absolute truth - not ready to tease them apart right now) is something that's a meaningful philosophical category. I recognise it, note that a lot of people want/do put a lot of things into it, and suggest that it belongs empty.

I think very few people would say that their notion of "the truth of god" is just because the consequences of that belief are nice. I think they'd agree with me that the capital-T truth of the existence of god is what matters (even if they will often make the rather lousy argument that they can't imagine morality/meaning in life without it).
sure, well, of course it belongs empty, with this construction.

in pragmatism class one of the textbooks was called The Quest for Certainty, and the whole deal was that the title is cautionary. i was not surprised. :P