Friday, September 21, 2007

Deus ex machina

Here's a classic. "State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha sued God last week, seeking a permanent injunction against the Almighty for making terroristic threats, inspiring fear and causing 'widespread death, destruction and terrorization of millions upon millions of the Earth’s inhabitants.'" Unfortunately for Chambers, a response was anonymously submitted to the clerk of the Douglas County District Court arguing that the defendant is immune from earthly laws and that the Douglas County District court lacks jurisdiction. "Attempts to reach Chambers by phone and at his Capitol office Thursday were unsuccessful," and one suspects that similar attempts to elicit a comment from God will be similarly fruitless.

The response from "God" was entirely appropriate. Chambers is one of the modern-day exponents of the nearly defunct literary tradition of apostrophe, defined "via Latin from the Greek apostrephein, meaning to turn away, a digression. Used to describe a moment when a speaker turns away from the main line of discourse, usually in order to address a real or imagined person and usually with an intense emotion that can no longer be held back." An example of apostrophe can be found in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

For Brutus, as you know, was Caesar's angel.
Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him.

One of Chamber's chief preoccupations is apparently turning away from the legislature and addressing himself to anybody who will listen -- or rather to the press in the gallery.

A self-professed "defender of the downtrodden," Sen. Chambers is known for liberal ideals: He is a firm opponent of the death penalty, and introduces a bill to repeal Nebraska's capital punishment law at the start of each legislative session. It remains one of his primary goals while in office. Chambers has also long advocated on behalf of David Rice and Ed Poindexter, who were convicted of the murder of an Omaha police officer, but whom Amnesty International considers political prisoners. He has also pushed to recognize University of Nebraska student athletes as state employees, due all of the benefits of those jobs. However, his push was eventually thwarted by state legislators and the governor as it was revealed that acknowledging student athletes as employees would jeopardize the University's NCAA standing.

What literary term should be used to describe "God's response" to Chambers? The term deus ex machina may apply. "The Latin phrase deus ex machina has its origins in the conventions of Greek tragedy. It refers to situations in which a mechane (crane) was used to lower actors playing a god or gods onto the stage."


Blogger Paul said...

I remember Ernie Chambers in the Senate (Nebraska is the only state with a unicameral legislature.) when I was stationed at SAC HQ. Kind of nice to see that some things don't change. He's still playing his role of liberal, black legislator in what may be the most conservative white state in the country. Most Cornhuskers I knew kind of liked him.

I'm a bit concerned that he's not answering the phone, however. Perhaps God didn't like him as much as his fellow Nebraskans!

9/21/2007 08:42:00 AM  
Blogger jj mollo said...

There is a theme in Jewish literature where the protagonist rails against God, out loud and personally, making pretty much the same points. Job was, of course, an honored exception.

9/21/2007 08:54:00 AM  
Blogger wretchardthecat said...

I think Chambers should take the reply from "God" in good part. The easiest way to turn classical drama into another genre is to depict someone answering the literary apostrophe. When Mark Antony declares, "Judge, O you gods, how dearly Caesar loved him," he really doesn't expect an answer. If an answer had been heard booming down at that moment, the crowd with Mark Antony at the forefront would have been running in all directions.

Doubtless Chambers didn't expect a reply from the defendant. If I were a literary man continuing the story, however, I'd introduce an attorney claiming to represent God. If Chambers wants to sue God, then presumably God exists. And if God exists, then he is necessarily entitled to a lawyer.

As a plotline it is not as wacky as it seems. We are all familiar with the NGO "Friends of the Earth". There are not a few lawyers who will claim, with a straight face, that they represent Mankind, Gaia or even History and we never ask to see the client in person. One gets the impression that Al Gore occasionally presumes to speak for Nature and for future unborn generations. So why can't God have a lawyer?

9/21/2007 08:56:00 AM  
Blogger John Aristides said...

God should counterclaim for libel.

9/21/2007 09:07:00 AM  
Blogger wretchardthecat said...

John Barrow noted that some theories maintain that the human brain evolved to solve religious questions long before it was employed to solve formal mathematical ones. Rigorous logic, as we know it, is a fairly recent historical development while natural language and religious discourse are far older.

Whatever the truth of that proposition, it seems true that human beings very naturally put themselves in a relationship with the larger universe. Who would have guessed in the 1950s, when Marxism was at its intellectual height, that the first decades of the 21st century would be dominated by the Islamic Jihad?

9/21/2007 09:12:00 AM  
Blogger Andrewdb said...

The St. Thomas More Center might be a good NGO to appear on G-d's behalf.

A friend used to represent the Vatican Library in a copyright case. She much enjoyed announcing her appearance to the court as "Mrs. X of the Y firm, for the Vicar of Christ on Earth"

9/21/2007 09:16:00 AM  
Blogger wretchardthecat said...

Someone I know who recently watched the 1966 movie "A Man for All Seasons" based on the life of Thomas More was impressed enough to look up the reviews. Some of the more "modern" reviews expressed horror that a man could be misled by a ludicrous belief in the existence of God or right and wrong to choose death over high office. There was none of th admiration for his principled stand which made Thomas More an icon to earlier generations, even among agnostics and atheists.

I was not surprised. Even atheists used to believe in something from long force of habit, and men who stood for something resonated with them, even if they despised what More believed in. Today many are comfortable believing in nothing. The Brussels Journal once explained that "enlightened" Europeans who see God as an imaginary being have no objection to seeing Islam taught in schools because Allah is yet another imaginary being. What can be the harm in one more? It's all the same.

That's all very well, but I wonder how long an "enlightened" person can maintain this supreme indifference without becoming slightly imaginary himself. In the last analysis we expect that we ourselves will be taken seriously in a universe in which we declare everything else a joke. And maybe that expectation is even less realistic than Chambers' lawsuit with God. We can't be an exception to our own rule. A world in which nothing is worth standing for is one in which we are not worth standing for either.

9/21/2007 09:38:00 AM  
Blogger PeterBoston said...

So why can't God have a lawyer?

Because God has the good sense to not associate with lawyers.

9/21/2007 09:45:00 AM  
Blogger RWE said...

A piece on TV explained Chambers' reason for the lawsuit.

Believe it or not, it is meant as a protest against frivolous lawsuits!

One of those typically absurd lawsuits developed and Chambers was so incensed that he filed one that he thought even more frivolous.

Now, based on the information supplied here, one wonders what kind of lawsuit a liberal would call absurd.

After all, the "Hate Crimes" concept is based on liberals becoming so incensed at the inequities of the law - when it is applied to their own sacred cows - that even they want something done about it.

9/21/2007 11:24:00 AM  
Blogger Marzouq the Redneck Muslim said...

Maybe Humans pondered where they came from before they even mastered fire.

The Most High is a figment of human imagination?! Oh.... those sophisticated Europeans.

Funny thing, in a sad way, when I think of all the pain, mayhem, death, suffering in the name of the Most High. Maybe those sophisticated Europeans tired of it after the 300 year War and 100 year War? And that is why the Socialist State is now their "savior"?

Now it is said their very civilization is under threat from Muslim religious fanatics. How Ironic.

I spoke with some Hollanders on vacation in Dixie recently. I suspect their vacation is reconnaissance when they told me emmigration from Holland is setting records.

I guess if there is truly a clash of civilizations, segregation is the best solution. I guess I'll have to prep my tent and prepare for desert living if this is true.

Salaam eleikum, Y'all!

9/21/2007 11:53:00 AM  
Blogger John Aristides said...

Isn't it more likely that our brains evolved to solve environmental problems?

And that a combination of animism and narrative framing -- which you learn in Psychology 101 are the default (childhood, pre-education) cognitive characteristics of humans -- isn't it more likely that such natural heuristics developed because they were nominally more successful than the undesigned alternatives? As an explanation of religious thinking, is that not sufficient?

9/21/2007 12:35:00 PM  
Blogger John Aristides said...

A world in which nothing is worth standing for is one in which we are not worth standing for either.

Wretchard, this is something of a straw man. There is more than one alternative to a belief in a beneficent Almighty. The belief that "nothing is worth standing for" is just one of them, and not a particularly popular one at that.

The more pressing problem is not nihilism as an end state; instead, like the old saying, "You've got to stand for something, or you'll fall for anything."* It's the "falling for anything" part that can be pernicious.

*Okay, it's an Aaron Tippin song.

9/21/2007 12:51:00 PM  
Blogger LarryD said...

So why can't God have a lawyer?

Because Satan already has them all?

Modern "liberalism"/"Progressivism" has pretty much turn into nihilism, which is exactly why Europe has nothing to offer young Arabs spiritually or emotionally. Which sets them up as fodder for the Radical Muslims

9/21/2007 02:23:00 PM  
Blogger wretchardthecat said...

"A world in which nothing is worth standing for is one in which we are not worth standing for either."

Wretchard, this is something of a straw man. There is more than one alternative to a belief in a beneficent Almighty.

Someone, I forget who, said that if God didn't exist we would have to invent him. I think this is true in the sense that we have to live for something. That something may be the traditional notion of God or it may be something else. We have gone through many thousands of names of God. But whether we find meaning in the trees and the wind; in the Theory of Everything, a love that transcends all things or in any other goal of our choosing, the wiring in our brains demands of us a reason to be.

And perhaps there's an ultimate evolutionary justification for man's search for meaning. It enables them to survive. The late Jose Diokno, one of the real heroes of the struggle against Ferdinand Marcos, gave me a copy of Victor Frankl's "Man's Search For Meaning", a book based on Frankl's experience in the Nazi concentration camps. A Wikipedia summary of his book says, "In a group therapy session during a mass fast inflicted on the camp's inmates trying to protect an anonymous fellow inmate from fatal retribution by authorities, Frankl offered the thought that for everyone in a dire condition there is someone looking down, a friend, family member, or even a God, who would expect not to be disappointed." What sets the decent man apart is that something always sits in judgment of him, even if that something is only himself.

And I think this is crucial to understand in today's epochal struggle with Radical Islam. The key to our survival as a civilization rests not in bombs, lasers or computers. It rests in finding something to believe in. Even if it is just ourselves. Because if we drift along thinking that "nothing matters" we have lost a key evolutionary advantage; we would have actually lost the conflict with Osama Bin Laden and lost it beyond recovery.

To survive you first have to be a man. And to be a man you must search for meaning.

9/21/2007 03:44:00 PM  
Blogger John Aristides said...

To survive you first have to be a man. And to be a man you must search for meaning.

This is such a large subject, and one very dear to my heart. I won't do it justice here, but let me make a couple points.

The salient issue is whether meaning precipitates out of aletheia, or whether it precedes aletheia (I'm using aletheia here to denote A and B theoretical truths). In layman's terms, is there a "higher" purpose? If not, is it possible to conceive and propose a higher purpose a posteriori (the famous "IS-OUGHT" chasm): knowing everything we can know, can we discern the direction we should take, can we communicate it when we do discern it, and can enough of us believe it to make it effective.

The data is pretty antagonistic to the "a priori purpose" theory. Almost every Archimedean point mankind has proposed has been subsequently exposed as fiction. Einstein killed the idea of absolute space and time, Godel formally proved the incompleteness of logic, Heisenberg showed that uncertainty is a fact of existence, etc. Einstein was particularly destructive because he demonstrated the fallacy of "the privileged perspective." Later, game theory demonstrated definitively that my good could be your bad, and that to talk about the system we needed to move "beyond good and evil." Nietzsche so feared the encroaching nihilism that he elected the paradigm of the ubermensch to be his perspective from which to newly measure the "good" and "bad." That's why his works are considered nihilistic -- the fact of nothing is already presupposed from page one. He was just trying to artificially preempt it.

Okay, so where does that leave us? If meaning does not precede reality, can it precipitate out of reality? Well, of course it can, so long as one selects a perspective, and then selects a measure.

And that is actually what I've been working on these past several years. Think about it like this: A man walks up to a conductor and asks, "Is this the right train?" The conductor responds, somewhat confused, "Well, it depends on where you want to go." The lesson: before one can obtain a correct answer to "Right or wrong?", one needs a measure, a goal, a desired destination, and a starting point, or perspective. This is obvious, right?

Well, it's the same for other questions of right and wrong, good and bad, etc. It depends on your objective, on what you value -- it depends on the context.

The existentialists and phenomenologists took this too far and argued that authenticity required one's values to be entirely independent -- radical in the sense that they must be uncaused by any external forces. But we don't have absolute freedom to choose our values because the minds doing the choosing sit atop relatively standardized hardware, which significantly restrains our options (e.g. most of us have a "moral instinct").

And that's kind of a hint, isn't it? Others came from Dawkins and his idea of the "selfish gene," and Wilson and his theories of sociobiology. I won't get into it here, except to say that what precipitates out of all this is not just a "measure" (it tracks closely with the Asian trinity of long life, many children and prosperity) but also two relatively compatible perspectives from which one can find meaning:
1) me and my kin (the selfish gene)
2) society.

The point is that once you have these perspectives in mind, remembering that they are first and foremost complex organisms, the objectives suggest themselves. And, once you know both your start point and your end point, if you have sufficient knowledge of the intervening spaces and the rules of the game, you can figure out how to get there. Thus, with enough knowledge you can judge right or wrong. With enough knowledge, you can find meaning.

It just takes a lot of work.

9/21/2007 05:09:00 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Why search for meaning if there is no meaning? What possible function could such a quest have unless such a meaning actually exists?

Aristedes, you mentioned Einstein, Godel, and Heisenberg, each one of whose theories are empirical. Your thesis only works if anthropocentric epistemology precedes metaphysics. But if we start with human knowledge we inevitably run up against a wall. It is a tautology. I don't have a privileged perspective, but God would, by definition.
Thinkers from Hobbes and Kant to the present day have been eliminating the universal through a semantic game they play with themselves.

Great post as usual Wretchard

9/21/2007 05:57:00 PM  
Blogger John Aristides said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9/21/2007 08:05:00 PM  

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