Sunday, March 29, 2009

"There are no facts, only interpretations."

The Nietzsche Family Circus is a great dadaist artwork that "pairs a randomized Family Circus cartoon with a randomized Friedrich Nietzsche quote". If you refresh the page enough times, you can come up with striking juxtapositions.

Here is one of my random results:

"Faith means not wanting to know what is true."

Friday, March 20, 2009

"Goodbye, Mary Poppins, don't stay away too long."

Here's a clever analysis by Matthew Moretz of one of my favorite movies, Mary Poppins (Stevenson, 1964). Father Matthew (an Episcopal priest) argues that the title character can be seen as a Christ-figure.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"Eeny, meeny, miny, moe..."

Here's a parable of nihilism. There is a group of blind men trying to describe something they've been told is an "elephant". One says it is like a snake, another says it is like a spear, another a wall, a tree, a fan, and so on. But each of them, unbeknownst to the others, is actually empty-handed and is completely bluffing. None of them are holding anything, but all of them are pretending to describe something anyway so as not to look ignorant. The "elephant in the room" is that there is nothing there. There is no "elephant".

This is, essentially, the point of Gus Van Sant's film Elephant (Van Sant, 2003). Inspired by the Columbine massacre and other high school shootings, Elephant considers the question of why a teenager would one day murder a dozen of his classmates. The violence comes "out of the blue" (the opening and closing images are a blue sky) without warning or provocation. And Van Sant's suggestion is that the "elephant in the room" is that there is no explanation for the violence. This is just the kind of thing that happens in our world. Things are random and meaningless, hence the film's final lines: "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe..." The killers have no reason for what they do any more than anyone else does.

After the Columbine shooting, there was much speculation in the media about the causes of the killers' rampage. Was it the music they listened to or the video games they played? Was it their parents' fault? Were they bullied by their classmates? Elephant rejects those explanations. Each of the main characters has more reason to shoot up the school than the actual killers do. The other students have alcoholic parents, get punished unjustly by the principal, are made fun of by other students, are accidentally pregnant, etc. But only two of the students turn out to be homicidal. The fact that these students do murder their classmates is just as (and no more) inexplicable than the fact that the other students do not murder their classmates.

This inexplicability is mirrored in the film's camera work. Almost all of the film is shot in long tracking shots which follow students as they walk through the hallways of the school. This gives the film a restless, searching tone. But when the camera stops moving, something interesting happens. The camera stands still and lets the action happen around it without focusing on anything in particular. The best example is a scene on the football field early in the film.

The shot starts with the shy and nerdy girl Michelle staring unexplicably into the sky. She then walks off screen, but the camera doesn't follow her. The shot continues to show the field. In the background some students are playing football. They move on and off the screen, but the camera doesn't follow them. This continues for several minutes, an excruciating amount of time for nothing to happen in a movie. Since there is nothing to look at except the football game, we watch that, but the players keep disappearing. We feel that there must be something happening just off screen, but we can't see it. There must be more going on here that we don't know about. Finally a student in a lifeguard shirt walks by and we follow him into the school.

This feeling that there is more going on continues throughout the film. On screen, there is no plot, no story, nothing really happens. But we feel like there must be more going on than we can see, maybe off camera. The elephant in the room, however, is that there is nothing else. This is life as it is. This is life in its meaningless randomness. This is the nihilism of Elephant.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

"Historically, many of the greatest philosophers have argued that homosexual acts are morally objectionable."

I haven't posted for a while, because for the past month I've been deeply immersed in my dissertation. And it looks like I'll be at that for a couple more months still. But something happened that I thought I needed to share with you. I accidently signed a petition asking the American Philosophical Association not to penalize Christian colleges for discriminating against gays and lesbians in their hiring practices. Twice. I accidently signed the petition, and then I did it again.

Actually, I signed the petition on purpose, but I tried to attach a comment explaining that while I didn't agree with discrimination, I did agree that the schools had the right of religious freedom and if the schools had theological reasons for discrimination, then they should be allowed to hire whoever they wanted. But the comment function on the online petition didn't work. So now it looks like I support the cause without reservation. Oh well.

Here's a link to the petition. It's actually a counter-petition in response to a petition asking the APA to censure the Christian colleges. Here's a link to that original petition. As discriminatory schools, it specifically mentions "Azusa Pacific University, Belmont University, Bethal University, Biola University, Calvin College, Malone College, Pepperdine University, Westmont College, and Wheaton College", many of which I would love to work for, and two of which I have already worked for.

Anyway, here are my comments on the counter-petition -- the one I signed but don't entirely agree with:

This petition's distinction between act and disposition is compelling. It says "Institutions can require their faculty to agree to abide by ethical standards that forbid homosexual acts while not ipso facto discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation." In other words, they are not technically violating the letter of the APA anti-discrimination policy. This should be enough to allow these schools to avoid official censure.

At the same time this distinction is somewhat disingenious in that a job candidate at most of the schools in question who was open about having a "homosexual orientation" and did not "repent" of that orientation would be disqualified for the job -- even if he or she promised to remain celibate and to abstain from "homosexual acts". In other words, many of these schools really do discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.

But for me this is an issue of religous freedom. As the petition points out, the discriminatory schools are simply "abiding by their long-standing and coherent ethical norms" -- despite the fact that, as I believe, their ethical norms have turned out to be false. Their position on homosexual acts is deeply grounded in their theological system such that they could not change their position without giving up their entire religious way of life. For that reason I believe these schools should have the right to discriminate based on sexual orientation.

This may or may not be a right we wish to reward with government funding (see my post on Prop 8), but a private organization such as the American Philosophical Association -- which was founded (according to the APA website) "to promote the exchange of ideas among philosophers, to encourage creative and scholarly activity in philosophy, to facilitate the professional work and teaching of philosophers, and to represent philosophy as a discipline" -- should allow for a diversity of moral viewpoints.

P.S. The petition's appeal to authority (quoted in the title of this post) is not exactly convincing. Most modern philosophers see appeal to authority as a logical fallacy. At the same time, it is fun to notice that many excellent philosophers have signed the petition. My favorite is Alasdair MacIntyre. Predictably all my Biola professors and collegues signed. Also: Peter Kreeft, Hugh J. McCann, Alvin Plantinga, Peter van Inwagen, Linda Zagzebski. Even my fellow Hume scholar Donald W. Livingston.