Van Gogh and “freethinking”

May 30, 2008

One of my favorite quotes on “freethinkers” – a term which I find to be a misnomer at worst and not broadly applicable (i.e. not applicable to all who bear the label) at best – comes from a letter written by Vincent Van Gogh in response to his brother Theo:

Freethinker, that is really a word I detest, although I have to use it occasionally faute de mieux [for want of anything better]. The fact is that I do my best to think things through and try in my actions to take account of reason and common sense. And trying to belittle someone would be quite contrary to that. So it is perfectly true that on occasion I have said to Father, “Do try to think this or that through,” or, “To my mind, this or that does not stand up,” but that is not trying to belittle someone. I am not Father’s enemy if I tell him the truth for a change, not even that time I lost my temper and did so in salty language. Only it did no good, and Father took it amiss.

It should be said here that Van Gogh’s point of view was decidedly different than mine: marked by criticism of religious organization, as in the sentence directly following – “In case Father refers to my saying that, ever since I have acquired so much dessous les cartes, I haven’t given two pins for the morality and the religious system of the clergy and their academic ideas, then I absolutely refuse to take that back, for I truly mean it.” (Van Gogh did have a similar position to mine in one respect, however – his father was also a minister.)

What appeals to me so much about this quote is that it sets out a perfectly reasonable position that cannot be assumed solely by the “freethinker” movement (i.e. atheists and agnostics). A Christian like myself can certainly try to think things through and account for reason. As much as the claim is made, reason and logic are not the sole property of “freethinkers,” nor are they the only group to utilize them, and it is worth stating that fact whenever necessary.

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Is ensuring someone’s salvation an intrinsic good?

May 24, 2008

In the comments of Ed Brayton’s blog, an argument was set forth regarding abortion and hell, which I will summarize as such:

  1. Most Christians believe that babies are not responsible for their salvation and so go to heaven if they die before a so-called ‘age of accountability.’ (Premise)
  2. Abortion kills unborn babies at a point where they are not morally culpable for their salvation. (Premise)
  3. Individuals going to heaven rather than hell is an intrinsic good. (Premise)
  4. Therefore, abortion results in an intrinsic good by ensuring the salvation of aborted babies. (from 1-3)

If it’s not completely apparent how tendentious and simplistic this is, let me spell it out.

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On slippery slope arguments

May 10, 2008

There are some arguments which I will likely never be persuaded to use. One such method of argumentation is the slippery slope (SS):

  1. If A occurs, then B will necessarily (or very probably) occur.
  2. If B occurs, then C will necessarily (or very probably) occur.
  3. [Repeat conditional premises as necessary]
  4. C is an undesirable event.
  5. In order to prevent C, it is necessary to prevent A.

SS arguments are very commonly fallacious, even though it is a matter of content and not form that makes them so. (A philosophy professor of mine pointed out, quite rightly, that they are simply extended forms of modus tollens and, less commonly, modus ponens.) This tendency toward fallacy is one of the main reasons I dislike them, and I believe that this tendency is due to the utter difficulty in thoroughly establishing the necessity of any given event.

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Transparency

May 9, 2008

After seeing this post (and corresponding image), a thought occurred to me: the problem with Wikipedia is not merely that the information contained within is any less reliable than “closed” encyclopedias* but that the process is totally transparent. It might be claimed that the methodology itself is flawed, but that seems implausible: the main difference is that traditional encyclopedias exercise editorial power before publication, whereas Wikipedia exercises it throughout the publication process (because all content is public, even content which has been removed but remains in history as proof that someone tried to publish such-and-such content). The process of editing is entirely transparent to everyone, which has resulted in some interesting observations about the politicization of the editorial process. (Is anyone really surprised?)

Granted, I don’t know that I consider Wikipedia reliable – I definitely won’t allow my future students to use it as a primary source, although I will probably tell them that it is good to consider as a compendium of information that should be verified through other means – but I think that transparency is in many ways a good thing, not merely because of the unorthodox authorship of the encyclopedia but also because it’s good for others (especially students, I think) to see the process by which information is deemed accurate and reputable (and hence, knowledge). If it’s ugly and full of complications, then all the better for our view of knowledge, not worse: we’ll start to get the idea that knowledge, like many things, is fundamentally a struggle between competing individuals. Such empirical information is invaluable to the critical mind.


*Linguistic observation: Encyclopedia is one of those odd words which has a plural ending (sing. -pedium) but which is never conjugated as a plural, as some would have us do even when words like media which often function as singulars rather than plural.


Language and morality

April 4, 2008

Cross-posted at Docere Est Discere

As a part of my current degree program, I am currently enrolled in a class entitled “Applying Writing Theory” in which we study various rhetorical and writing theories, including some discussion of grammar specifically. Today, we covered the first two chapters of a book entitled “Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace,” the first on avoiding confusing language (which reminded me of the amusing saying, “Eschew obfuscation“) and the second on correctness. The latter got me thinking about two fairly different subjects: language and morality. Read the rest of this entry »


What not to do when clarifying an association

March 15, 2008

One big problem I notice frequently with people is that people want to take grammatical rules of word structure and universalize them. When we see an ending on a word, we know what that ending means from other words, and we attempt to apply the meaning to the word in question. This isn’t a bad idea, but it can backfire.

Case in point, from comments left on Ed Brayton’s blog:

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Stretching credulity: On an exegesis of Matthew 8

February 28, 2008

I like to get information from a number of different sources from time to time, and one source that I like for its general fairness is Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars (fair warning: Dispatches is heavy on adult language and topics). Brayton is much further left politically than I, but he’s got a good head on his shoulders, and he often denounces irrational criticisms from those on his “side.”

Case in point: Ed posted about some rather poor logic a few days ago, and a commenter going by the name “Priya Lynn” jumped in. Ed (and other commenters) thoroughly criticized many of his/her positions, but I was interested in a site he/she listed called Would Jesus Discriminate?

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