Monthly Archives: November 2012

Two poems on a single theme

“The Two Trees,” from The Rose, by W. B. Yeats:

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Loves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the wingèd sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile,
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For all things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.

“Bond and Free,” from Mountain Interval, by Robert Frost:

Love has earth to which she clings
With hills and circling arms about–
Wall within wall to shut fear out.
But Thought has need of no such things,
For Thought has a pair of dauntless wings.

On snow and sand and turf, I see
Where Love has left a printed trace
With straining in the world’s embrace.
And such is Love and glad to be.
But Thought has shaken his ankles free.

Thought cleaves the interstellar gloom
And sits in Sirius’ disc all night,
Till day makes him retrace his flight,
With smell of burning on every plume,
Back past the sun to an earthly room.

His gains in heaven are what they are.
Yet some say Love by being thrall
And simply staying possesses all
In several beauty that Thought fares far
To find fused in another star.

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Take ‘Em Away / Our Town

Two songs with essentially the same tune:

“Take ‘Em Away” by Old Crow Medicine Show

and “Our Town” by Iris DeMent

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The Kalam Argument

The next argument for God on my list is the Kalam Argument — the argument that the universe cannot always have existed and therefore must have been created. Kreeft & Tacelli summarize it as follows:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause for its coming into being.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause for its coming into being.

In establishing the first premise, K & T rest content with the dubious assertion that most people “outside of asylums and graduate schools” consider it obvious — a one-liner which (to quote C. S. Lewis, who was speaking of someone who had named his country after himself) “was meant to be witty but really only showed his conceit.”

For the second premise, the argument is as follows:

  1. Time elapses finite step by finite step — one day at a time.
  2. No number of finite things can add up to something infinite; therefore, it is impossible for an infinite amount of time to elapse.
  3. But if the universe is infinitely old, an infinite amount of time must have elapsed before the present.
  4. Therefore, the universe is not infinitely old.

So something must have caused the universe to come into existence. And that something must be outside of the universe, non-spatial and non-temporal in nature, and must therefore exist eternally. But is the cause personal? Can we really call it God? K & T argue that it must be personal.

Suppose the cause of the universe has existed eternally. Suppose further that this cause is not personal: that it has given rise to the universe, not through any choice, but simply through its being. In that case it is hard to see how the universe could be anything but infinitely old, since all the conditions needed for the being of the universe would exist from all eternity. But the kalam argument has shown that the universe cannot be infinitely old. So the hypothesis of an eternal impersonal cause seems to lead to an inconsistency.

Is there a way out? Yes, if the universe is the result of a free personal choice. Then at least we have some way of seeing how an eternal cause could give rise to a temporally limited effect.

I was very impressed with this part when I first read it, since it’s the first real argument I’ve found for the paradoxical idea of free will — of causation without determinism. If the rest of the kalam argument holds, then, yes, it would seem to follow that the universe must be the result of free will. It must have been caused by conditions which could just as well not have caused it — by conditions which did in fact hold for an eternity without causing the universe to come into existence, but which then suddenly did cause the universe to come into existence. (The very same conditions, mind you. Nothing changed. Nothing could have changed, since we are talking about non-temporal things here.) This sounds an awful lot like complete gibberish, a gross abuse of the word cause, but it nevertheless has two things going for it: (1) it fits with many people’s intuitive idea of “free will” and (2) it seems to be the only way out of the corner the kalam argument paints us into.

But is the kalam argument valid? Here are a couple of criticisms.


Does everything that begins have a cause?

Certainly it’s common sense that every change has a cause, and that the change from no-universe to universe should be no exception. But in fact it’s not clear that the logic of change and causation really applies in this particular case.

If the universe (that is, the system of space-time and matter-energy) had a beginning, that means that time itself had a beginning. The commonsense idea of causation (which is what is being appealed to here) is that any given change must have caused by something which took place before the change occurred. But if we’re talking about the creation of the universe, there was no “before the change occurred.” The logic of causation — that B was preceded by A, and that B would not have happened if it had not been preceded by A — simply doesn’t apply here. No time, no causation — at least, not as we understand it. There may of course be some obscure atemporal mechanism which is analogous to causation, but if that’s what we’re talking about K & T need to make a case for it; it’s not enough to appeal to the common knowledge of all non-institutionalized persons.


Does time need to “elapse”?

We experience time as “passing,” but actually (according to one theory) time is just another dimension, not fundamentally different from the spatial dimensions. A particular dimension can be infinite, even if it is not possible for any actual thing to traverse an infinite distance. No “traversing” needs to have taken place.

A temporally infinite universe is no more or less problematic than a spatially infinite one. Of course the latter is problematic as well, since there are philosophical problems with the idea of an actually existing infinity. All in all, I think I agree that the universe probably has to be finite (I’m not entirely confident in that judgment) — but K & T’s particular argument for its temporal finiteness is not a good one.

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The Argument from Aesthetic Experience

After a break of a few months, it’s time to get back to my project of evaluating Kreeft & Tacelli’s 20 arguments for God. Since I’m not feeling up to plowing through the Kalam Argument at the moment, I’ll jump ahead a bit to the shortest argument in the series: the 17th, the Argument from Aesthetic Experience.

Here it is in its entirety, as it appears in K & T’s book:

There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Therefore there must be a God.

You either see this one or you don’t.

And if you don’t (this is what the “argument” not-so-subtly implies), you’re a philistine. If Bach’s music doesn’t move you at a metaphysical level, forcing you to rethink the ontology of the universe, you are obviously incapable of appreciating the full power of his art.


Well, I readily grant that I am a musical philistine, one who has received more genuine pleasure and inspiration from third-tier rock-and-roll acts than from most of the greatest music ever composed. After several unsuccessful attempts to cultivate a taste for classical music, I wear my Midas-ears, if not with pride, at least with a certain resignation.

(Bach himself may be the one exception. When I give his music my full attention, the reaction it induces in me is extraordinary, though I’m not sure I’d call it “aesthetic.”)

Anyway, I’m not one of the people who automatically “see this one.” I’m not even sure it’s intended to be a serious argument. Does anyone really believe that God’s existence somehow logically follows from whatever intense aesthetic experience they may have had, or is this just a way of saying that Bach is awesome, an upmarket version of “Clapton is God”?

At the risk of making a fool of myself, I’m going to give K & T the benefit of the doubt, treat this as a serious argument, and try to make sense of it. Even if the argument is mostly just a joke or a pose, the fact that people can be expected to get the joke — the fact that people naturally understand the underlying idea that the existence of awesome things proves there is a God — suggests that this line of thinking has some grounding in common sense and may therefore be based on some underlying, unarticulated logic.


Here are some possible ways of unpacking K & T’s elliptical little syllogism.

  1. Our capacity for intense aesthetic experience, especially when induced by things that have nothing to do with inclusive fitness, makes no evolutionary sense. Therefore we must have been created with said capacity by a God, perhaps as a means of increasing our happiness or of giving us intimations of heaven.
  2. Intense aesthetic experience is spontaneously interpreted in otherworldly terms, and we naturally reach for otherworldly metaphors when we try to describe it. Instincts generally have some grounding in the way things really are.
  3. Bach was a serious Christian who dedicated all his music to the glory of God. So were many other great musicians and other artists. That has to mean something.
  4. The feelings that Bach induces in some people are so powerful and so unlike ordinary feelings that it is reasonable to hypothesize that they come from some out-of-the-ordinary — supernatural, even — source.
  5. The existence of God is part of the content of some aesthetic experiences. They are as inseparable from the idea of God’s existence as a visual image of a tree is inseparable from the idea of that tree’s existence. No bridge of induction from one to the other is necessary.

If anyone has any other ideas for possible “Bach, therefore God” arguments, I welcome comments. I’ll try to evaluate the various arguments in a later post.


Filed under God, Music, Philosophy

Is universal suffrage effective?

Since the enfranchisement of women in 1920, have the decisions of the American electorate tended to be better or worse than those it used to make before women had the vote?

Of course it’s impossible to give a definitive or objective answer to that question, but in an attempt to get something at least marginally more objective than my own personal impressions, I looked at the results of the popular vote in presidential elections both before and after the passage of the 19th amendment. Wikipedia’s Historical rankings of Presidents of the United States article lists the results of 16 different surveys in which historians were asked to rank the presidents from best to worst, and I used those results to decide whether the decision made by a given popular vote should be considered a good one or a bad one. A “good” president is one who made the first or second quartile in every single survey in which he was considered; a “bad” president is one who never made first or second quartile; “average/disputed” covers the rest.

The numbers represent elections, not presidents, and the popular vote is what counts. For example, Andrew Jackson only served two terms but is counted three times because he won the popular vote in three different elections; George W. Bush, who also served two terms but only won one popular vote, is only counted once. Candidates who won the popular vote but never served as president (Samuel J. Tilden and Al Gore) are ignored, since we have no way of knowing how good or bad they would have been at the job.

Here’s what the resulting numbers look like:

Prior to 1920, the voters made “good” choices 59% of the time. After the enfranchisement of women, that figure dropped dramatically to 33%. There are numerous reasons to take those numbers with large quantities of salt — the pre-/post-1920 division is too simplistic (women in a few states were enfranchised much earlier), there are innumerable confounding variables which can’t be controlled for, and the underlying data about presidential “goodness” are inherently subjective — but it still gives one pause for thought.

But even if the data were indisputable — if, hypothetically, it could be conclusively proven that universal suffrage tends to produce poorer decisions than male-only democracy — I doubt it would matter to most people. The case for universal suffrage (and for democracy generally) is rarely put in utilitarian terms. (There are presumably few who honestly believe the absurdity that holding a popularity contest in which everyone’s opinion is given equal weight is the most effective way — or even an effective way — of ensuring that good leaders are chosen.) Most Americans take it for granted that women’s suffrage is a good thing, not because they think women are better at making decisions, and that we will be better governed if women are involved in choosing our leaders, but because they have come to think of the franchise as a basic human right, to be granted indiscriminately as a matter of principle regardless of the consequences.


Details, for those who care:

The good presidents represented in the above charts are: Washington (2), John Adams (1), Jefferson (2), Madison (2), Jackson (3), Polk (1), Lincoln (2), Cleveland (3), Theodore Roosevelt (1), Wilson (2); and, after female suffrage, Franklin D. Roosevelt (4), Truman (1), Kennedy (1), and Lyndon B. Johnson (1). The average/disputed presidents are: Monroe (2), Van Buren (1), Grant(2), McKinley (2), Taft (1); and, after female suffrage, Eisenhower (2), Reagan (2), George H. W. Bush (1), Clinton (2), and George W. Bush (1). The bad presidents are: William Henry Harrison (1), Taylor (1), Pierce (1), Buchanan (1), Garfield (1); and, after female suffrage, Harding (1), Coolidge (1), Hoover (1), Nixon (2), and Carter (1). The following presidents (mostly bad) never won the popular vote and so are not counted: John Quincy Adams, Tyler, Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Hayes, Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, and Ford. Obama is also excluded because his overall performance can’t be judged until he has finished his term.

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Lon Milo DuQuette

I don’t tell fortunes, but the study of fortune-telling methods has been a hobby of mine for a long time, so when I saw Lon Milo DuQuette’s Book of Ordinary Oracles on sale for a couple of dollars at a secondhand bookstore, I figured why not.


Mr. DuQuette is, apparently, something of a big shot among people who think magic is spelt with a k. Wikipedia says that he’s the U.S. Deputy Grand Master of Ordo Templi Orientis, an Archbishop of the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, and a faculty member at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies; according to the blurb on the back of the book, “He has studied the occult for over 30 years, and is in great demand as a lecturer.”

So, whatever the merits or lack thereof of his field of study, he ought to know it inside out, right?


As the title suggests — and the subtitle: Use pocket change, popsicle sticks, a TV remote, THIS BOOK, and more to predict the future and answer your questions — Mr. DuQuette’s book is primarily about whimsical non-traditional divination techniques using things you probably have around the house. However, he does also deal briefly with more time-honored methods, like tarot cards and the I Ching.

I first began to suspect his expertise when I got to the tarot section and was treated to a rather garbled history of the cards. The author implies that the 22 trumps (sic) were used by themselves in a popular Italian game, Tarocchi, and that this game was later combined with “a Turkish card game called Mamluk” to create the tarot deck. He uses all the right words here, but misunderstands the connections in a way that reminds me of the student history paper (qv) that says “The Ides of March killed [Caesar] because they thought he was going to be made king.” But at least he gets the basic idea right — that tarot was created in 15th-century Europe and incorporated older playing cards used by the Mamluks — instead of saying the cards came from ancient Egypt or something, which is what a lot of tarot writers do. The bar for accuracy is pretty low  when it comes to the history of tarot cards, and it’s not like you need to know anything about their history to read them effectively anyway.


The I Ching, though, is another story. Here Mr. DuQuette absolutely disqualifies himself as a competent commentator by showing complete ignorance of the fundamentals: the eight trigrams. Here’s a table of the trigrams from Mr. DuQuette’s book, with my annotations:

That’s right, he identified only one of the eight trigrams correctly. I’m still trying to figure out how he did that. I mean, either you know the trigrams or you don’t. If you know them, you get them right — or at least get most of them right — and if you don’t, you look them up and copy them down. You might make a mistake in copying, but you’d at least expect it to be a systematic mistake — copying the translations in reverse order, or transposing everything one space to the right, or something like that. But there’s nothing like that here. I have tried in vain to find any connection whatsoever between Mr. DuQuette’s mapping and the correct one. Was he reading the trigrams upside down? Did he read yin for yang and yang for yin? Did he list the trigrams in one of their established orders and the captions in another (for example, the Earlier Heaven and Later Heaven arrangements)? No, no, and no. This is a truly random pairing of trigrams with translations.

Is it possible that he thought he knew the trigrams without looking them up but made a few mistakes? I don’t think so. Mistakes are easy to make — I don’t think I could identify all eight trigrams from memory with perfect accuracy — but some mistakes are simply impossible for anyone with any knowledge at all. All-yang is Heaven, and all-yin is Earth; how hard can that possibly be to remember? At least he got Heaven right.

But complete and utter ignorance isn’t an adequate explanation, either. The trigrams themselves are listed in their standard order, for one thing. I couldn’t do that from memory, and I’m sure it couldn’t be done by someone who thinks the 坤 trigram represents a lake. And each of the eight translations is the correct translation for some trigram, so he at least knows that the trigrams are a set including Heaven, Earth, Fire, Water, and so on. Someone with no knowledge of the trigrams at all could never have produced this chart — but neither could someone with any knowledge of the trigrams at all! A paradox.

I’m beginning to think that the only possible explanation is that Mr. DuQuette did this on purpose, presumably just because he could, and because it’s fun to shit with one’s readers. I suppose a more charitable explanation would be that Mr. DuQuette is so utterly sincere that he consulted one of his “ordinary oracles” (flipping a coin, for instance) to determine which trigram was which, and was confident that the answers he received would be correct.


The kicker is that Mr. DuQuette ends his book with “The I Ching of Mi-Lo: A Highly Personal, Mildly Vulgar, and Not-at-All Scholarly Rendering of the Classic Text.” That’s right, this clown who doesn’t know one trigram from another, and doubtless doesn’t read a word of Chinese either, has taken it upon himself to translate the I Ching! Even with the “not-at-all scholarly” disclaimer, this is taking chutzpah to new heights. It would be like having Tom Sawyer (who thought the first two disciples called were David and Goliath) translate the New Testament.


What’s sadder than wasting 30 years of your life becoming an expert on the occult? Wasting 30 years of your life not becoming an expert on the occult.

Still, I suppose there’s something to be learned from Mr. DuQuette. The secret to being a successful fortune-teller is absolute and unshakable self-confidence, even to the point of chutzpah — an implicit trust in your own intuitions, and rules be damned. The Tzaddi-is-not-the-Star attitude. I used to lurk at a forum for tarot-readers, and they were always advising one another to “burn the little white book” that comes with the cards and explains what they mean. Mr. DuQuette is certainly a shining example of that ethos.

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Dark arts of rhetoric illustrated

In my post on the dark arts of rhetoric, I proposed the following rule:

If X is the real target of your scorn, don’t compare X to something worse; instead, find excuses to compare other things to X in a way that presupposes a negative opinion of X.

Today I ran across a perfect example of this technique (from a student essay, quoted with permission).

Psalmanazar was a complicated character. There was a sense in which he was a sort of 18th-century Ward Churchill, basing his entire life around fraudulently posing as a member of an exotic race. Yet there was more to him than that; Samuel Johnson — no mean judge of character — once called him the best man he had ever known.

Secret: The point here is to slam Churchill, not to say anything in particular about Psalmanazar. The reader sees “nuanced assessment” (of GP) when actually it’s an extreme assessment of WC.


Footnote for those not in the know: George Psalamanazar was an 18th-century European, probably a Frenchman, whose whole life was an elaborate hoax in which he posed as a native of Formosa. (Wikipedia sums him up best. “Occupation: memoirist. Known for: being an outrageous impostor.”) Ward Churchill is a professional jackass and former professor of ethnic studies whose greatest accomplishment to date has been getting tenure via affirmative action by pretending to be an American Indian.

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