Monday, June 19, 2006

The Queen and the Philosopher

One of the most famous rulers of Sweden was Queen Kristina (often spelling in the English way, "Christina"). She not only governed Sweden during an era that was historically important, but she also interacted with some of the most important people of her time.

In 1646, she began to write letters to Rene Descartes, the French thinker who almost single-handedly began modern rationalist philosophy. They discuss love, ethics, God, and creation; she is interested in his Roman Catholic views: she is, like 99% of Swedes, Lutheran.

In 1648, she will play a leading role in the negotiations which bring an end to the Thirty Years War, and bring peace to Europe. The negotiations are held in a church in Germany. Some people praise her for bringing peace; others will condemn her, because the war ended badly for Sweden. Until this time, Sweden had been very powerful in European politics and economics; after this time, Sweden will be less significant.

In 1650, Queen Christina invites Descartes to Stockholm, so that they can discuss philosophy together. She wants to meet with him every morning at 5:00 am in a poorly-heated room in her palace; in order to do this, he must arise at 3:30 am, because the house where is he staying is more than an hour's journey away. He contract pneumonia and dies.

After a series of secret letters to Jesuits, discussing the Roman Catholic faith, she abdicates in 1654, and travels to Rome, where she officially converts to Roman Catholocism and meets with the pope in 1655. She will remain active in European politics, travelling through France, Sweden, Italy, and elsewhere. She will continue her interest in philosophy, and the impact of philosophy on astronomy, carrying with her the influence of Descartes.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Jewish Women - Makers of History

To consciously scan history for women who made a difference is a project worth doing; whether or not there is some patriarchal bias in history, the point stands as valid that history has been shaped by men as well as women. This is true in all areas of history; today we'll draw our examples from Jewish events. Some reminders:

It was a woman who ...

Risked her life to protect Moses at a time when Egyptians were engaging in "ethnic cleansing" by killing Hebrew baby boys.

Protected the Israelite spies in the city of Jericho, gave them information, and helped them to escape, making possible the Israelite invasion.

Led the Israelites to victory in battle, advising and eventually replacing the military leader Barak.

Kept the prophet Elijah alive by giving him provisions when there was no other food to found.

Crystalized the concept of devotion in the words, "wither you go, I will go, and your God will be my God."

Risked her life, confronting the Persian king to whom she was married, to save her nation from destruction.

Was cited by Jesus as demonstrating altruism when she donated an absolutely small, but relatively large, sum.

Shattered an alabaster container to pour perfume on Jesus, a radical act at the time.

Wetted the feet of Jesus with her tears, in a symbolic gesture.

Embraced the concept of mystery and elucidated the concept of the divine incarnation.

The women listed above changed history, and had they not played the roles they did, our culture and civilization today would different beyond recognition - all manner of art, music, philosophy, and politics would have taken radically divergent paths without the influence of these historic Jewish women.

Categorizing Worldviews

Different scholars develop various systems for keeping track of beliefs; here's one:

You can picture this as a 6 x 10 grid, with six worldviews on one axis, and ten topics on the other. Each cell in the spreadsheet would then contain a statement about what one of those worldviews has to say about the topic.

The six worldviews are: Christianity, Islam, Secular Humanism, Cosmic Humanism, Marxism-Leninism, and Post-Modernism.

The ten topics would be: theology, philosophy, ethics, biology, psychology, sociology, law, politics, economics, and history.

Try to sketch this chart for yourself, and fill in the cells. Then ask yourself: Could there be more worldviews? Who are the authors and texts that define each worldview? Are there better ways to keep track of worldviews?

Judging the Quality of a Speech

On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address, a speech which is not only significant because of its historical context at the turning point in one of the most important wars in the history of the world - and the single most noteworthy war in the history of the United States - but which is also a masterpiece of language.

Lincoln was sandwiched between several other speeches which were given that day by other politicians. These other speakers each spoke for approximately an hour, making a long day of it. Lincoln, by contrast, probably took about two minutes for his oration!

Editorializing about the event, The Chicago Sun wrote: "The cheek of every American must tingle with shame, as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States."

Today, textbooks around the world cite Lincoln's work as a paradigmatic example of the English language!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Playing Victim

One distinctive aspect of our civilization is its concern for those who are vulnerable in society. Our culture has been marked by this trend ever since Moses, who gave special legal advantages to the weaker classes: widows, orphans, the poor, and the foreigners. This is the basis for many aspects of modern social structures, including welfare systems, and extends even to sports: American love to "root for the underdog" when a lesser-known team takes on a powerful opponent.

As Nietzsche pointed out, other cultures do not share this inclination: other cultures consider it appropriate to exploit the poor and weak, and to take advantage of those who are vulnerable. Outside of our civilization, it is considered an unusual thing to want to help those in need. Some varieties of Hinduism and Buddhism even reject the idea of relieving the suffering of others, because they have been fated to endure such suffering to pay off the sins of their previous lives. By helping them, you would be helping them to unjustly escape their punishments, and condemning them to suffer more in the next life because they didn't suffer enough in this one.

Although it is generally a good thing that our society wants to help those who are defenseless, there is one drawback: our society can be fooled into helping those who merely claim to be victims, but who in reality suffer no disadvantage.

To be sure, it is not really a big problem if a man takes a meal from a homeless shelter when he's actually not so poor. It may be immoral, but society isn't harmed by his deception. He has exploited our society's desire to help the weak, but the damage to society at large is not great.

Another example of this principle is the trend of faking "hate crimes". Desiring to help those who are oppressed by racism or cultural prejudice, our society wants to prevent crimes based on a person's skin color or nationality. But some individuals have seen a chance to exploit this system by filing reports of crimes which never took place, in order to gain sympathy for themselves and their political causes.

In U.S. News and World Report, the University of Georgia revealed that a resident assistant in a dormitory had filed nine police reports, claiming to have been the victim of nine separate attacks because he was a homosexual. When the police began to investigate the incidents, he confessed that he had faked them, because he wanted to create the impression that homosexuals were victims.

The French newspaper Le Groupe National carried the story of Edward Drago, a student at the College of New Jersey, sent death threats to himself, and to a homosexual student group to which he belonged. He confessed to faking the death threats, trying to get publicity for his student club.

At St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, a lesbian student used a razor blade to cut her own face; she reported to the police that she had been attacked. When the police discover that she had faked the attack, she told the U.S. News and World Report that she had done it in order to help raise funds for a pro-homosexual student group.

The same article revealed that a lesbian at Eastern New Mexico State University told the police that her name had been posted by an "anti-gay hate group", and that she had then later been physically attacked because her name was publicized. The police discovered that she had posted the list herself, that there was no "anti-gay hate group", and that she had faked the physical assalt as well.

In joint reporting between World magazine and AZcentral web news, it was revealed that a lebsian had hired a homosexual man to beat her, so then she could tell the police that she was the victim of a "hate crime".

In a California high school, a student faked a series of "gay-bashing" incidents, including grafiti on lockers and cars, and eggs being thrown at students and their houses. The Los Angeles Times discovered that these actions had actually been done by the school's Gay-Straight Alliance.

Because this tactic of gaining sympathy is based on our culture, it is found outside the U.S. in other countries which share our cultural roots. In England and Europe, the police have reported faked hate crimes.

One of our civilization's strengths is its conern for the down-trodden, and we should not give up this precious aspect of our society. But we must be aware that it can be exploited by political groups, who present themselves as vicitms in order to gain sympathy - and power.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Other Van Gogh

Most of us are familiar with Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch painter. Less famous is his relative, Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker, who was brutally murdered on November 2, 2004.

Theo van Gogh was murdered because of his art. He had made a documentary film about the treatment of women in Islamic societies. He questioned whether it was appropriate for Muslim leaders to continue to repeat advice, found in the Qur'an, that husbands should beat their wives if they wives fail to obey. Theo van Gogh also documented how Islam prevented women from attending school and gaining an education.

On the morning of his death, Theo was riding his bicycle to work. Muslim gunmen, who were waiting for him, opened fire; he was hit several times, and fatally wounded. Not content with killing him, the assassins stabbed him with a knife, and then used the knife to attach a five-page note to Theo's body. The note stated that the governments of Europe were the object of "jihad", and listed specific government leaders in Holland who would be targeted for assassination.

It seems that more than one member of the van Gogh family produced turbulent art, and faced a tragic death.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Arguing about Darwinism

Most of us are by now familiar with the usual discussions about evolution: the hard-core Creationists dogmatically assert that the universe as we know was created in six twenty-four hour days, six thousand years ago; the hard-core Darwinists dogmatically assert that life was spontaneously generated out of lifeless random chemicals billions of years ago. This type of debate has been going on for approximately two hundred years now.

Is there a third option? Increasing numbers of professors are embracing a view which, through observation and induction, frames the hypothesis that life is not the result of random coincidences.

At universities and colleges like Princeton, Stanford, Berkeley, MIT, Vanderbilt, Duke, Tulane, and all eleven of the Big Ten schools, professors in departments such as Astro-Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Genetics, Embrology, Dendrology, Bio-Chemistry, and Quantum Mechanics are being attacked by university presidents and administrators because they are skeptical about Darwinism.

Five hundred of them signed a petition, stating that they "are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged."

Althought they are being punished for questioning the claims of Darwinism, this group of researchers may be opening up a "third option" in a debate that has been locked up between two sides.

Who Are You?

When asked, "who are you?", many people will reply with "I work at IBM," or "I live in Detroit," or "I write software," or "I come from Wisconsin." But these answers don't really address the question. (You may recognize the comedy bit from the movie "Anger Management".) If you tell me what you do, or where you live, that doesn't really tell me who you are.

In Denmark, in the 1840's, the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard struggled with this question. He decided that the real answers to these questions lay in the meaningful and significant choices you make. Who you are is shown by how you make decisions, and the most consequential decisions are made in the context of relationships. Kierkegaard would happily grant that, if you are standing by yourself in front of a machine, faced with the question of "Coke or Pepsi?", you can indeed make a free choice; but it is not a significant choice. The meaningful decisions are those which impact other humans, and which impact your relationship to those other humans. Those decisions reveal who you are.

So Kierkegaard would answer the question "who are you?" by saying, "I am a friend, a brother or sister, a son or daughter, a neighbor, etc." The answer to "who are you?" is not found in your education, your job, or your athletic record. It is found in the way you interact with other humans. Granted, you may interact with them in the course of your job, your education, or your athletic involvement.

Kierkegaard also points out that the ultimate relationship is one's relationship to God. The manner in which you deal with God shows something about who you are. Kierkegaard is known as the founder of existentialism.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Avoiding Fascism

In the course of analyzing fascism, we noted that fascism avoids free market capitalism. This kind of laissez-faire economics is not compatible with the fascist's desire for control.

We also learned that fascist politics are dominated by militarism; instead of the political process directing the military, the military controls the political structure. In the words of the famous French leader during World War One, "war is too important to be left to the generals."

These two general principles can be applied to the United States. If we continue to allow our economy to function freely, without interference or regulation by the government, and if we make sure that our politicians direct the military, instead of the military directing the politicians, then we can avoid fascism.