Monday, January 4, 2021

'Writing was sympathetic magic'...

Today, in high-information environments, people may see writing as "logorrhea," or worse, a force of destruction and entropy. Writing can cause something simple to destabilize and to become unnecessarily complex.

But in low-information environments (and especially long ago), people have been amazed by writing and grateful for its contributions.

Writing seemed to make an idea immortal.

"To the ancients, writing was wizardry. ...the discovery of a method to project one’s self beyond a single life span seemed nothing less than miraculous." Leonard Shlain. The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. New York: Penguin/Compass, 1999.

This also seemed to reinforce the truth of a myth. If the myth had seemed true enough to begin with, writing the myth made it tangible and permanent and thus made it seem more real. Writing something seemed to make it true.

"First-century people just didn't have the same sense of factuality that we do, or of writing either. Writing was sympathetic magic, we should remember: writing something down was to an extent making it so, it was a creative rather than mimetic act..."
John Updike. Roger's Version. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.

"While the story of Christ was in many ways a typical hero myth — the virgin birth, the supernatural acts (miracles), the rebirth into immortality — in one respect it was unique: it claimed not to be a myth at all. It claimed to be history. Traditional societies do not distinguish between myth and history in the way that we do. Mythical events were not thought to have literally happened; yet in another sense they were true, as if they had. ‘These things never happened, they are always’, wrote Sallust sublimely (86-34 B.C.). Conversely, historical events are always mythologized (the Trojan war, for example). It is as if what literally happened is less important than what metaphorically happened. But the two are combined to create what ‘really’ happened.
When the story of Christ was held to be history, its events literally true, myth suffered a blow. It began to acquire its modern meaning of something unreal, imaginary (as opposed to imaginative) and merely fictional. At the same time, truth and reality began to be measured by their literal truth and reality. Literalism began with Christianity."
Patrick Harpur. The Philosopher's Secret Fire: A History of the Imagination. p. 81.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Metacognition and faith

I stumbled across an old note to myself. It was Stanley Fish's 2009 review of Terry Eagleton's book, in which examples of "theological questions" are proposed, such as: “Why is there anything in the first place?” “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?” Eagleton's position (as Fish portrays it) is that these questions are valuable as a sort of art form. They are not intended to address matters factually and attain an instrumental goal; we have science for that. Religion is not after facts. It is trying "to tackle what is at stake” (in Eagleton's words); it has something to do with humility and hope that properly ought to come prior to the search for facts.

It occurs to me that a question like "Where do our notions of explanation...come from?" is difficult to answer by any method — never mind the science-vs.-religion debate — because it is an attempt to use consciousness, reason, and language to interrogate and defend itself. A living being can't pick itself apart to learn more about how it thinks and moves. It has to take certain basic parts of itself for granted.

I wonder if what is being said here is that religion pursues a type of metacognition? and that "faith" is a type of humility that exposes the metacognition we do or don't have and can or can't develop? Here is "metacognition" explained by Tom Nichols:

Students who study for a test, older people trying to maintain their independence, and medical students looking forward to their careers would rather be optimistic than underestimate themselves. Other than in fields like athletic competition, where incompetence is manifest and undeniable, it’s normal for people to avoid saying they’re bad at something. As it turns out, however, the more specific reason that unskilled or incompetent people overestimate their abilities far more than others is because they lack a key skill called “metacognition.” This is the ability to know when you’re not good at something by stepping back, looking at what you’re doing, and then realizing that you’re doing it wrong. * * * The lack of metacognition sets up a vicious loop, in which people who don’t know much about a subject do not know when they’re in over their head talking with an expert on that subject. An argument ensues, but people who have no idea how to make a logical argument cannot realize when they’re failing to make a logical argument. In short order, the expert is frustrated and the layperson is insulted. Everyone walks away angry. — Tom Nichols. The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. Oxford University Press, 2017.

(Overestimating one's own ability has been called the "Dunning-Kruger effect," but independently of the psychologists who studied it, it might simply be called a lack of metacognition.)

But often these primary assumptions cannot be questioned very thoroughly or for very long, and what we end up with as the product of "faith" is not humility but arrogance. Partly because: We begin with certain identities, and as a result we see what we want to see in the world. Even when we say we're trying to interrogate our beliefs, sometimes all we're doing is massaging data to reaffirm them, and we are deluding others and perhaps even ourselves.

Another passage from Nichols' book:

...a 2014 study of public attitudes about gay marriage went terribly wrong. A graduate student claimed he’d found statistically unassailable proof that if opponents of gay marriage talked about the issue with someone who was actually gay, they were likelier to change their minds. ... It was a remarkable finding that basically amounted to proof that reasonable people can actually be talked out of homophobia. The only problem was that the ambitious young researcher had falsified the data. ... As Konnikova put it in her examination of the fraudulent gay-marriage study, confirmation bias is more likely to produce “persistently false beliefs” when it stems “from issues closely tied to our conception of self.” These are the views that brook no opposition and that we will often defend beyond all reason, as Dunning noted: Some of our most stubborn misbeliefs arise not from primitive childlike intuitions or careless category errors, but from the very values and philosophies that define who we are as individuals. Each of us possesses certain foundational beliefs — narratives about the self, ideas about the social order — that essentially cannot be violated: To contradict them would call into question our very self-worth. As such, these views demand fealty from other opinions. Put another way, what we believe says something important about how we see ourselves as people.

The "foundational beliefs" might be some identity, intrinsic or cultural. They might be tied to an organized religion. But, I imagine, they might also be a set of assumptions that are harder to pin down to any one "thing." We sometimes try to prove a point for the sake of proving a point, and the way it forms and buttresses our identity is a downstream effect.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

On deciding to act (quotes)

"Unawareness is the root of all evil."
Anonymous Egyptian Monk. Quoted in Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham. The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning. (1992) New York: Bantam, 2002. p. 68.

"Although self-awareness, by itself, does not lead to behavior change, it is foundational."
Doug Silsbee. Presence-Based Coaching: Cultivating Self-Generative Leaders Through Mind, Body, and Heart. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008. P. 51.

"One simple criterion for distinguishing authentic intuition from ego projections or wishful thinking is that the real stuff is delivered as invitations, not demands. The words 'You should do...' or 'You must do...' are not part of intuition. Rather, intuition is your soul saying, 'Please consider...' or 'Will you...?'"
Sharon Franquemont. You Already Know What to Do: 10 Invitations to the Intuitive Life. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2000. p. 5.

As a character decides whether to jump into a well:

"Khalil is listening; he hears its whispers; he thinks its soft enticements are his own wise thoughts. He believes he's deciding — but all he's doing is listening to the whisper of the well."
John Speed. Tiger Claws. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2007. p. 162.

"You sit down at the computer and say, 'What am I supposed to do?' The regular gamers in the room have to explain: 'You're supposed to figure out what you're supposed to do.'"
Steven Johnson. Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005. p. 42.

"What's intellect?"
"Well, intelligence. Aql." I nod. "Aql nazari. A talent for imagining. And aql amali. A talent for doing."
Uzma Aslam Khan. The Geometry of God. Clockroot Books, 2009.

"Yet when the time comes, I am not able to pull the trigger. I tell myself that the strategy works generally, but might not work with this hand. I cannot, by thought, generate the feeling of conviction that the laws of probabilities are actually in effect and that betting a bad hand occasionally is preferable to always folding. I cannot convince myself that what I know to be correct is actually correct."
Robert A. Burton. On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2008. p. 114.

"...if people do things for lunk-headed, backward-looking reasons, why wouldn't we also do things for significance-seeking, self-actualizing reasons? If we're predictably irrational — and we clearly are — why couldn't we also be predictably transcendent?"
Daniel H. Pink. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Canongate, 2010.

"To come to man's estate it is not necessary to get oneself killed around Madrid, or to fly mail planes, or to struggle wearily in the snows out of respect for the dignity of life. The man who can see the miraculous in a poem, who can take pure joy from music, who can break his bread with comrades, opens his window to the same refreshing wind off the sea. He too learns a language of men.
But too many men are left unawakened."
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Wind, Sand and Stars. (1939) Translated into English by Lewis Galantiere. London: The Folio Society, 1990. p. 195.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Douglas Adams: On preferring the term 'atheist' over 'agnostic'

Douglas Adams was once interviewed by American Atheists on the use of the word “atheist."

In England we seem to have drifted from vague, wishy-washy Anglicanism to vague, wishy-washy Agnosticism…if it further turned out that this kind of legalistic, cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back, Clintonian hair-splitting impressed him [God], then I think I would choose not to worship him anyway.

He continues:

I don’t see what belief has got to do with it. I believe or don’t believe my four-year-old daughter when she tells me that she didn’t make that mess on the floor. I believe in justice and fair play (though I don’t know exactly how we achieve them, other than by continually trying against all possible odds of success). I also believe that England should enter the European Monetary Union. I am not remotely enough of an economist to argue the issue vigorously with someone who is, but what little I do know, reinforced with a hefty dollop of gut feeling, strongly suggests to me that it’s the right course. I could very easily turn out to be wrong, and I know that. These seem to me to be legitimate uses for the word believe.
By contrast, he says:

I do not believe-that-there-is-no-god. I am, however, convinced that there is no god, which is a totally different stance...I don’t accept the currently fashionable assertion that any view is automatically as worthy of respect as any equal and opposite view...God used to be the best explanation we’d got, and we’ve now got vastly better ones. God is no longer an explanation of anything, but has instead become something that would itself need an insurmountable amount of explaining. So I don’t think that being convinced that there is no god is as irrational or arrogant a point of view as belief that there is. I don’t think the matter calls for even-handedness at all.

The interview was reprinted in:

Douglas Adams. The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time. New York: Ballantine, 2005. (With a 2003 introduction by Terry Jones.) pp. 96-97.

Related: I like this excerpt from George Yancy's interview of Todd May in the New York Times (October 2020).

Yancy: If those who believe in the supernatural are mistaken epistemologically, do you feel that you have a responsibility to tell them that they are wrong or is it fine to allow religious believers to embrace beliefs that you would argue are false?

May: To me, whether or not to argue about the correctness of belief in the supernatural is very much dependent on context. For instance, I do volunteer teaching in a maximum-security prison, where faith among the incarcerated men often plays an important role in sustaining them psychologically. It would be unethical for me to try to argue that they’re mistaken. They adhere to different religions, they know that I’m an atheist, and so we sit around a table (or did until Covid-19 arrived) and discuss philosophical ideas together, often comparing how their different beliefs might incorporate or reject these ideas.

Alternatively, if someone is using religious faith to diminish others, challenging the correctness or coherence of the faith itself might be a justified form of confrontation. And for very different reasons a philosophical discussion of the supernatural would be a proper place to challenge religious belief.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Faith: Its purpose and limits (Quotes from others)

Hegel said: “With this possibility of knowing God the obligation to know Him is imposed upon us.”

But it may well be impossible to know God.

Some people say that faith is a type of certainty. An Israeli man quoted by Amos Oz: "You cannot separate faith and certainty. They are one and the same. In my vocabulary they are synonyms." Simone Weil: "In what concerns divine things, belief is not appropriate. Only certainty will do. Anything less than certainty is unworthy of God."

Others steer away from certainty. Jim Wallis, an evangelical pastor with the social justice organization Sojourners: "Real faith, you see, leads us to deeper reflection and not -- not ever -- to the thing we as humans so very much want: Easy certainty." Frank Schaeffer puts it this way: "atheism and fundamentalist religion," though "ideological opposites," nevertheless "often share the same fallacy: truth claims that reek of false certainties. I also believe that there is an alternative that actually matches the way life is lived rather than how we usually talk about belief. I call that alternative "hopeful uncertainty."

It isn't to the benefit of any ideology or practice to allow us to achieve certainty, for then we would abandon the quest it had assigned to us. If we achieved certainty in faith, religion would have made itself obsolete. "Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. ... But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion..."

But what can religion do for us? Does it tell us that we are broken — and then try to fix us, or inspire us to fix ourselves, or give us the tools to make things better? G. K. Chesterton: "When the world goes wrong, it proves rather that the Church is right. The Church is justified not because her children do not sin, but because they do." As stated by someone Christopher Phillips quoted: "Socrates tried to do the right thing at a time when everyone else was doing the wrong thing. And you know they were all doing the wrong thing in retrospect, because their civilization crashed and burned. As long as just one person is willing to do the right thing amid a sea of badness, there’s reason to hope. Socrates’ life and death, from what I’ve been reading, were modeled on a sense of duty that was ‘faith-based’ — he had faith in people to do the right thing, at least over the long haul, even if over the short term most are acting foolishly. If we don’t all act out of a similar faith, how can we ever hope to see light again in dark times?"

Is the project always incomplete? Leslie Dewart: "For faith is always coming-into-being, it is never quite fully faithful, it is always on the way, hence never perfect and achieved. And if faith is a mode of existence, then Christian theism is a way of life."

And we are never introduced to the whole God?

Frederica Mathewes-Green: "People newly coming to church should have an unfamiliar experience. It should be apparent to them that they are encountering something very different from the mundane. It should be discontinuous with their everyday experience, because God is discontinuous. God is holy, other incomprehensible, strange, and if we go expecting an affable market-tested nice guy, we won't be getting the whole picture. We'll be getting the short God in a straw hat, not the big one beyond all thought."

We are always seeking? Deepak Chopra: "Many doubters have said that God was invented so that these ferocious instincts can be kept in check. Otherwise our violence would turn on us and kill us. But I don't believe this. The oldest hunter lurking in our brains is after bigger prey, God himself."

The quest is difficult. It is had to do what we are doing, to find what we wish to find, and to retain it and act upon it as if we really believe it. The character Pi says in Life of Pi: "Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?"

We don't always control the process. Cary Tennis: "faith can neither be argued into or out of someone but must arrive and depart according to its own capricious schedule."

And the history of religion and faith, too, is ongoing. Nicolas Berdyaev: "Everything existential is history, dynamic force, destiny, man, the world, are history, God is history, a drama which is working itself out." Working itself out, or perhaps not working itself out, or working itself farther into a hole, but in any case, ongoing.

Where do beliefs about God — God's existence or nonexistence or anything else we might think about the subject — come from? Do they spring from a preexisting philosophy? Or do religious opinions come first, and do those opinions produce our other kinds of philosophy? We don't know. Dale B. Martin: "It seems to me that all arguments about priority — that one's theology is simply a reflection of one's ideology or vice versa — are fruitless. How can we possibly know the answer to such a question? How could we ever sort out so exactly the intricate workings of another person's mind, when we can never be sure why we ourselves believe certain things?" It seems safe to say that everything we believe influences everything else we believe, even if we cannot identify a first cause. For that reason, we should be careful about what beliefs we cultivate. John A. Hardon: “[Vladimir] Solovyev's [1853-1900] fundamental premise was that Orthodox (true) doctrine about Christ is the only sound basis for truly Christian society. What a person believes about Christ determines his concept of the human community.” Judith Plaskow: “Once images become socially, politically, or morally inadequate, however, they are also religiously inadequate." The explorer Freya Stark said: "There can be no happiness if the things we believe in are different from the things we do."


G. W. F. Hegel. Reason in History: A General Introduction to the Philosophy of History. Translated by Robert S. Hartman. Indianapolis: Library of Liberal Arts, Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1953. (Originally 1837.) p. 16.
Amos Oz. In the Land of Israel. (1983) Translated by Maurie Goldberg-Bartura. USA: Harcourt, Inc., 1993. p. 153.
Simone Weil. Quoted in Deepak Chopra. How To Know God: The Soul's Journey into the Mystery of Mysteries. New York: Harmony Books, 2000. Introductory quotation.
Jim Wallis, quoted in "Without a Doubt." Ron Suskind. New York Times Magazine. October 17, 2004. pp 46ff.
Frank Schaeffer. Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don't Like Religion (or Atheism). Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2009. Prologue, p. xiii.
Ursula K. LeGuin. The Left Hand of Darkness. (1969) New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2004. p. 72.
G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1925. p xiii.
“Tarah,” quoted in Christopher Phillips. Socrates in Love: Philosophy for a Die-Hard Romantic. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2007. p. 173.
Leslie Dewart. The Future of Belief: Theism in a World Come of Age. New York: Herder and Herder 1966. p 64.
Frederica Mathewes-Green. At the Corner of East and Now: A Modern Life in Ancient Christian Orthodoxy. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1999. p 149-150.
Deepak Chopra. How To Know God: The Soul's Journey into the Mystery of Mysteries. New York: Harmony Books, 2000. p 14.
Yann Martel, Life of Pi, p. 297
Cary Tennis. Answer to the question "I'm a Christian turning agnostic" in his advice column "Since You Asked..." February 24, 2006. Accessed February 25, 2006.
Nicolas Berdyaev. The Divine and the Human. London: Geoffrey Bles, 1949. Foreword, 1944-45. p v.
Dale B. Martin. Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990. pp. 145-146.
John A. Hardon. Christianity in the Twentieth Century. New York: Image Books, DoubleDay, 1972. p 182.
Judith Plaskow, Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990. p 135.
Freya Stark, quoted in the Columbia, Mo., Daily Tribune, quoted in The Week, Oct. 14, 2011. p. 21.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Do we perceive things as they are, or as we are?

Reviewing some passages I transcribed 10-20 years ago on this subject.

One possible worldview is: The external world exists as exactly-whatever-it-is, and we perceive it and interpret it.

"Here is the argument. Outside our heads there is freestanding reality. Only madmen and a scattering of constructivist philosophers doubt its existence. Inside our heads is a reconstitution of reality based on sensory input and the self-assembly of concepts."
— Edward O. Wilson, Consilience

"Consciousness, by which I think [he]...means apprehension, is a state of a mind, and does not include its object (say, a body) as a part of itself."
— W. D. Ross. The Right and the Good. (1930) London: Oxford University, 1946. p. 71.

This arises in distinctions like "ontological" or "metaphysical" (what exists) against "epistemological" (what we know).

"These are the four elements present in awareness: metaphysical, epistemological, mystical, and moral dimensions — four ways of revealing, or "translating," the mystery of the Divine and applying it to our human condition. First, the metaphysical, as grounded in the transcendent One, is limitless vertical truth. The epistemological, or what we can know, is moment by moment a horizontal reality pointing to its vertical Source. The mystical, from the horizontal into the boundless, is the spacious verticality of the Divine. Finally, the moral combines transcendent vertical awareness with the horizontal — appropriate attitudes and actions in everyday life. In its spiritual expression, developing from its moral character, awareness is love in action, and the attributes of limitless sensitivity, kindness, compassion and mercy — actual acts of living.
Wayne Teasdale. A Monk in the World: Cultivating a Spiritual Life. Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2002. pp. 198-199.

Another possible worldview is: The sensations, emotions, and values we attribute to nature might be not in nature itself but in ourselves.

"We think that the grass is green, that stones are hard, that the snow is cold. But physics assures us that the greenness of grass, the hardness of stones, and the coldness of snow, are not the greenness, hardness, and coldness that we know in our own experience, but something very different. The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of a stone upon himself."
— Bertrand Russell. Quoted in David Berreby. Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind. New York: Little, Brown, and Co. 2005. p 141.

"Nature gets credit which in truth should be reserved for ourselves, the rose of its scent, the nightingale for his song, and the sun for its radiance. The poets are entirely mistaken. They should address their lyrics to themselves and should turn them into odes of self-congratulations on the excellence of the human mind. Nature is a dull affair, soundless, scentless, colorless, merely the hurrying of material, endlessly, meaninglessly."
— Alfred North Whitehead, quoted by Robert Ornstein, The Psychology of Consciousness (1972)

"The spiritual and emotive quality of nature does not reside in brute facts but rather originates from the transmutation of these facts into new values by human imagination and fantasy."
— Rene Dubos, Beast Or Angel?: Choices that Make Us Human. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974. p. 197.

But what are we?

We could have evolved without consciousness.

"Consciousness, in survival terms, is an irrelevancy. It is perfectly possible to conceive of a world inhabited by all sorts of life-forms, from the simplest bacteria to the most spectacularly cerebral of creatures, in which there never stirred a single conscious feeling or experience. In fact, such a world could be imagined that was outwardly indistinguishable from our own. It might appear to be full of diversity, sophisticated behavior, intelligence, and even wit and charm, and yet involve no subjective experience, no inner feeling of being, whatsoever.
Many attempts have been made by evolutionary biologists to explain why consciousness should have come about and what possible advantage it might have bestowed on its owners. For example, it has been suggested that being conscious allows us to understand how other members of our social group feel so that we can better interact and communicate with them. Consciousness, it is sometimes said, helps us to see the world from each other's point of view. But the circularity of this argument is readily apparent. It might indeed be a survival advantage to appreciate how the other fellow feels if conscious feelings and experiences are already a fact of the world, but this offers no explanation of why consciousness should have come about in the first place. Exasperated by their failure to discern an obvious purpose for consciousness, some researchers have dismissed it as peripheral and almost accidental — an inconsequential spin-off of the brain's other activities."
— David Darling. Zen Physics: The Science of Death, the Logic of Reincarnation. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. p 172.

Consciousness — or, at least, the 'I' who is conscious — may be an illusion.

"If the ego were to disappear, or rather, to be seen as a useful fiction...the thinker would be seen to be no more than the series of thoughts, and the feeler no more than the feelings."
— Alan Watts, Nature, Man, and Woman, p 70-71

And maybe these "things," these other beings that we perceive in nature, are part of us.

"[Among the foragers,] only a fool would imagine himself as somehow exclusively a human being. Through language and artifice one could recall and vivify the primal linkage (we might call it an evolutionary connection) to other forms of life, animal and plant. Language and art underscored Homo's bestial and vegetal identity, a hyphenated identity: 'I can be a frog or a fox and still be a person.'"
— Calvin Luther Martin, In the Spirit of the Earth: Rethinking History and Time. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. p. 18.

Here is another angle to tackle the question: The world includes that which is and what we perceive about it. Is there a distinction between what-exists and what-we-know? Maybe, maybe not. The other angle is that there is something else beyond these matters, outside this world.

"Kabbalah invests these two words with cosmic, metaphysical significance. Yesh comes to refer to the created world, this one in which we spend most of our time. But yesh connotes much, much more than merely the material or the physical. It includes spatial, temporal, intellectual, even emotional reality also. The key notion here is that all the things of yesh have definitions, beginnings and ends, and, above all, boundaries. Living in the world of yesh is not bad — indeed, it's obviously inescapable and often beautiful. Yesh is only dangerous if you think that's all there is."
Lawrence Kushner, "A Kabbalah Lexicon" in I'm God; You're Not: Observations on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego. Jewish Lights Pub, 2010.

Complex or simple?

"Intelligence is: (a) the most complex phenomenon in the Universe; or (b) a profoundly simple process.
The answer, of course, is (c) both of the above. It's another one of those great dualities that make life interesting."
— Ray Kurzweil. The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. New York: Penguin Group, 1999. p. 118

Monday, July 13, 2020

Two books on the Italian castrati singers

Two books about the castrati.

Francis Toye (1952)

Toye finds "no necessity to discuss the physical aspect of the operation" but says it "was introduced into Italy either from Spain or from the Orient, was known in the twelfth century and common in the sixteenth when, owing to the difficulty of polyphonic music, castrati were preferred to boys in church choirs. They were associated with opera from its very beginning [in the 17th century] and the title-role of Monteverdi's Orfeo was sung by one of them." (p. 18) At first they played masculine roles; later, feminine. Goethe came to approve of castrati in feminine roles because they "emphasized the artificial conventionalism of the stage." (p. 19) Their singing voices "represented nothing effeminate but the tonic attributes of perpetual youth..." (p. 19) By the mid-eighteenth century, women were participating in opera nearly equally with castrati. "...the attainment of perfection in the art of singing was a castrato's whole life, and it was usual for him in old age to take pupils and thus hand on the experience." (p. 21) They did not provide merely "acrobatics" and "vocal fireworks" but also "the emotional and expressive element in opera seria." (p. 21) Toye adds that "many of the castrati lived normal and exceedingly active lives." (p. 19)
"In Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra, Rossini "first established the innovation of writing down exactly what the singers had to sing instead of conceding the latitude of embellishment and improvisation which they had for so long enjoyed. Rossini is said to have come to this decision after hearing the male soprano Velluti in Aureliano — almost the last appearance of a castrato in opera. Not apparently that he was so much dissatisfied with Velluti's performance as frightened by what might be the result had his music been left to the mercies of a singer with inferior musical training, one of the new now all-powerful tribe of primadonnas for instance." (p. 40)

Francis Toye. Italian Opera. London: Max Parrish and Co, 1952.

Patrick Barbier (1989)

Barbier opens his book by reserving judgment on the historical castration of boys (which was "never performed before the age of seven and rarely after twelve" (p. 12)):

There is no point today in reopening the case so often brought in the past against castration and those who practised it or underwent it. How can we judge a medical procedure which influenced the whole of western music for more than two centuries, now that we are so far removed from the conditions prevailing in the baroque period? How can the 'modern' mind, moderately influenced by the nineteenth century, understand how a particular period dared to seek pure and 'gratuitous' Beauty through a mutilation so 'costly' to the individual who was subjected to it? Above all, how can we adopt an attitude towards emasculation when no great castrato has confided his deepest feelings to us? Was the operation inflicted on him felt as a tragedy? Was it not sometimes sanctified by a voice and a 'nature' which overturned the traditional plan of the masculine or feminine condition? We know, for example, that when people expressed pity for them the castrati Carestini and Salimbeni burst out laughing: were they exceptional or fairly normal?

For the historian only one thing matters: the presence and triumph of the castrati for nearly two hundred and thirty years on the stages of Europe, and still longer within the Roman Catholic Church. The Italians were of course the promoters and the greatest 'consumers' of these singers. (pp. 1-2)

The Byzantine Empire began employing eunuch singers in churches (per Theodore Balsamon's 12th century Commentary on the Nomocanon) and subsequently it conquered Constantinople which had many eunuchs in the harem. (p. 7) There were also eunuch singers in Mozarabic Spain in the 12th century who increasingly influenced Catholic liturgy. (p. 8) Later, however, they were "an essentially Italian phenomenon in the sense that they were recruited and trained only in that country." (p. 174) In France, they were sometimes derided as "cripples," and in one instance "Luigi Rossi was forced into hiding, Torelli, the famous producer and creator of theatrical machinery, was imprisoned and some castrati only just escaped lynching." (p. 191)

The Pietà taught music to uncastrated boys (integri) and eunuchs (non integri), and one day in 1782, the boys rebelled against the eunuchs in the dining hall because the eunuchs were given equal privileges. (p. 57) If students ran away from the conservatory, they would not be allowed to return. (p. 58)

He says: "The castrato voice differed from that of the normal male singer through its lightness, flexibility and high notes, and from the female voice through its brilliance, limpidity and power. At the same time it was superior to a boy's voice through the adult nature of its musculature, its technique and expressivity." (P. 17) However, boys were generally castrated first and then sent to musical training to find out if they could sing. "Castration," therefore, "was like a lottery from which very few emerged victorious...Some castrati in fact had horrible voices, shrill and strident." (p. 29)

Farinelli sang every day to Philip V, the Bourbon ruler of Spain, at the request of the Queen, who hoped that the music would cure the King's mental illness. The King seemed to recover, and Farinelli became his confidant. (pp. 203-204)

None left memoirs (p. 3), and they received quiet funerals. (p. 222)

He points out that eunuchs were regular human beings. Performers in general "had their moods, their weaknesses and their financial demands. The much talked about, long-standing image of the castrato as arrogant and capricious by nature [emphasis mine] makes no sense..." (pp. 107-108) (He adds that "if you didn't like the castrati that was enough to transform them very quickly into monsters" (p. 108), though it is unclear whether he means that people would portray castrati as monsters or if the castrati would behave in monstrous ways in reaction to being hated.) Similarly, some artists "knew each other well, appreciated and respected each other, while others were jealous and hated each other." (pp. 147-148) And "they were often accused of corrupting morals" despite being "no more inclined to sexual crime than other men." (p. 152) It is strange, then, that his final sentence is: "This adventure lasted for three centuries, defying all the laws of morality and reason to achieve the impossible union of monster and angel." (p. 242)

Chapter 6 (pp. 122-135) is about how Popes regulated the castration of boys.

Patrick Barbier. The World of the Castrati: The History of an Extraordinary Operatic Phenomenon. Translated by Souvenir Press and Margaret Crosland. Souvenir Press, 1996. (Originally: Histoire des Castrats, published in France by Éditions Grasset & Fasquelle, 1989.)

Sunday, July 5, 2020

What do people mean when they say humans are 'basically good'?

When people say that humans are "basically good," they might mean any of a few different things.

Intrinsically/naturally good

Some people might mean we are "created this way" by God, but a more scientific worldview can also attempt to identify intrinsic goodness. Social animals have to support each other or the group will not survive. This is studied in evolutionary biology. The term "reciprocal altruism" is used especially when some form of payback is expected — "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours”. A specific act may be done without expectation of reward, but the general rule holds true. Even "random acts of kindness" strengthen a society by distributing resources and building trust, so the giver benefits in a less-defined but still tangible way.

Intentionally/voluntarily good

Some empathy happens unconsciously because we have evolved to have those feelings, but some surely happens more intentionally. When we simply want something, philosophers call it a "first-order desire"; when we "want to want" something, it's a “second-order desire.” "Wanting to want" means we're critiquing and intentionally developing our own desires. (e.g. One might say: “Typically I’d rather mind my own business than reach out to a stranger, but I want to become the kind of person who is nice to strangers.”) To this end, we study philosophy, join groups (consider organized religion), and pay each other (consider customer service representatives) to be more pleasant and helpful than we would naturally be without those social supports.

Usually good (in practice)

People who make this claim are saying that — regardless of whether we are born good or choose to be good — we are kind and supportive to each other far more often than we are cruel and destructive. Consider how fragile trust is, and how, every time trust is breached, it takes a hundred or a thousand kind acts to rebuild it. We remember the times people hurt us, while we tend to overlook the thousands of times people are directly kind to us and the millions of ways they have been indirectly supportive from a distance. Though it may sometimes be hard to remember how many times people have been kind to us, a simple inventory will demonstrate this.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Coming to recognize interdependence

"Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please," said Marx; while, said Joseph Chilton Pearce, "to be fully 'human' is not just to survive physically, but to survive as a cultural creature."

In some cultures, this is more difficult and less obvious than in others. "Most contemporary Americans possess no stable identity," said Diana Butler Bass.

Nothing is inherited from the past, few family ties bind, and all forms of personhood must be chosen and, often, chosen again. It is not uncommon for an individual to live in several states, marry more than once, change religious traditions one or more times, and switch jobs or even careers. Because of this open-ended quality, life is an unfinished and unfinishable project, which leaves many wondering if meaninglessness is life's ultimate meaning. Human beings might be, in essence, homeless wanderers, aimless and without final direction. And this wandering, the constant roaming for identity and vocation, fuels random busyness — doing tasks, burying oneself in work, or becoming addicted to hobbies and sports to cover the sense that life may well be without purpose.

We may need to challenge ourselves to contemplate and commit to our duties to each other. Placing ourselves in a cultural context, developing a sense of solidarity, and committing ourselves to a collective project is an important task. Christopher Phillips wrote: "Both Socrates and Oedipus believed that self-discovery was always related to the goal of advancing their respective societies. Digging into their past with no greater purpose or objective than past-dwelling introspection would have made no more sense to Sophocles' Oedipus than it would have to Socrates." The pursuit of feeling good about ourselves is not an end in itself. Someone might profit off luring us into that activity, but the broader society does not benefit. "I think self-esteem is a white invention to further separate one person from another," said Terese Marie Mailhot. "It asks people to assess their values and implies people have worth. It seems like identity capitalism."

Religion, too, is not only a goal for individual but for collective development. “The idealism of the young...if it becomes life-long commitment and action,” Jewish tradition holds, according to Eugene Borowitz, will “create a religious self.”

Of a Buddhist interpretation, Stephen Batchelor wrote:

Letting go, even momentarily and unintentionally, of that desperate and obsessive grip on self does not obliterate you but opens you up to a fleeting and highly contingent world that you share with other anxious creatures like yourself. This can be frightening; for the only certainty in such a world is that at some point you will die. You realize that your self is not a fixed thing or personal essence but a tentative and confused story hastening toward its conclusion. * * * ’Contingency’ is a concise and reasonably accurate translation of the Buddhist concept paticcasamuppada (usually rendered as ‘dependent origination’). Whatever is contingent depends on something else for its existence. * * * In eroding this sense of our own necessity, we come to see how the unprecedented and unrepeatable person we are emerges from a sublime matrix of myriad contingent events—no one of which need have happened either. Insight into the emptiness of self is achieved not by eliminating self but by understanding it to be contingent rather than necessary.

Our humanity, Joseph Chilton Pearce said, depends on accept[ing] the "tension of form and content" that is part of all being. We are terrified of our mortality and we withdraw into what we think of as a detached intellect. From this, what we call "culture" is created. But the denial of life is simply the victory of death; there's nothing "spiritual" to celebrate about it. We don't need "to abolish the ego, which would be like killing one's horse in the middle of a race." Rather what we need is "a shift of dominance, the true turning."

"Temptation," said the rapper Kendrick Lamar, "is just the feeling that you’re the most independent person on planet Earth." How will we resist that temptation and move toward interdependence?


Marx. Quoted in "Prep is Dead, Long Live Prep." Benjamin Schwarz. The Atlantic. October 2010. p 112.

Joseph Chilton Pearce. Exploring the Crack in the Cosmic Egg: Split Minds & Meta-Realities. New York: Washington Square Press, 1974. p. 84.

Diana Butler Bass, Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith, HarperSanFrancisco, 2006. pp. 228-229.

Christopher Phillips. Socrates in Love: Philosophy for a Die-Hard Romantic. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2007. p. 46.

Terese Marie Mailhot. Heart Berries: A Memoir. Counterpoint, 2018. p. 27.

Eugene B. Borowitz. Renewing the Covenant: A Theology for the Postmodern Jew. (1991) Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996. p. 94.

Stephen Batchelor. Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil. New York: Riverhead, 2004. pp. 8-9.

Joseph Chilton Pearce. Exploring the Crack in the Cosmic Egg: Split Minds & Meta-Realities. New York: Washington Square Press, 1974. pp. 213-214, 216.

Rapper Kendrick Lamar, quoted in The New York Times, quoted in The Week, July 11, 2014.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

'Surviving Autocracy': A search for new language

Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar said that "autocratic transformation" happens in three stages: attempt, breakthrough, consolidation.

In a new book Surviving Autocracy, Masha Gessen (they/them) says these terms apply to the current American situation. (Gessen was citing a 2019 prepublication manuscript of Magyar's The Anatomy of Post-Communist Regimes: A Conceptual Framework.) These terms, Gessen says, are better than "using the language of political disagreement, judicial procedure, or partisan discussion to describe something that was crushing the system that such terminology was invented to describe." What we are experiencing under Trumpism is not an ordinary political debate within the existing system. A new system is crushing the existing system, and we need new language to describe it.

These ideas, and very much more, in this book:

Masha Gessen. Surviving Autocracy Riverhead, June 2, 2020.