Thursday, July 31, 2008

Bible Talk: the Book of Job

Some of you know the basic story of Job: he was prosperous, then lost everything he had, but he persisted in honoring God. For his perseverance, God repaid him double what he lost.

That was, at least, the story I was told when I was growing up. There is more to it, of course. As the asshole says, "It's a little bit more complicated than that." (The tl;dr version of this post is at the bottom, after the dashes.)

It starts with "the adversary" (the first appearance in the Bible of the word "Satan") saying to God that Job is only pious because he is prosperous. If he were no longer prosperous, he would curse God to His face. So, Job goes from having thousands of livestock, hundreds of slaves, and ten prosperous children, to having nothing at all but his wife. Then he gets sores all over his body. (Maybe it's leprosy. I dunno. Back then, every skin disease was leprosy.)

Three of his friend show up, to try to comfort him. They do a terrible job of it. They provide a shining example of the worst way to comfort a friend who has just lost everything and now looks like something out of a zombie movie. The dialogue is kind of like this:

Job: "Fuck this shit. I wish I had never been born. I wish I were dead. Compared to this, being dead would be awesome."
Friends: "Well, God disciplines those who have done wrong. You probably did something wrong, and he's teaching you a lesson."
Job: "No, I didn't. Some friend you are."
Friends: "We mean it. Why would God be unjust? Your children probably did something that made them deserve to die. If you were totally blameless, this wouldn't happen to you."
Job: "I didn't do anything, though. Seriously. And how can you defend yourself before God? He's, you know... God."
Friends: "Yeah, he probably knows more than you do about what you've done wrong. God kills wicked people all the time. He wouldn't do this if you hadn't done something wrong."
Job: "Okay, you know what? You guys are full of shit. Bad people prosper all the time, and good people die too soon. Also, you are terrible at this. Worst. Comforters. Ever."
Friends: "But..."
Job: "No. Look. I will name for you a dozen things I could have done wrong, and I swear that I did not do any of them. Now, I want to know why God did this to me."

So then God shows up, and he is sassy as all get-out. Nowhere in the Bible is he this sassy.
"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements--surely you know! ... Where is the way to the dwelling of light, and where is the place of darkness, that you may take it to its territory and that you may discern the paths to its home? Surely you know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great!"
Oh, snap!

Job doesn't respond with much more than, "Okay, I'm just going to shut up now. I thought I knew what was up, but I don't."

God finishes by turning to Job's friends and saying, "And you guys! You're even more wrong than Job is! What the hell is wrong with you?" And then he gives to Job double what he had lost. And they all lived happily ever after.

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The story that many people take away from this is that God will pay you back when he takes things away from you. In my opinion, though, these people are not paying a lot of attention to the rest of the story. What I take away from it is this: "Sometimes bad things happen to good people, and it's nobody's fault. If you're asking, 'What did I do to deserve this?' then you are asking the wrong question, because God does not work the way that you think he does."

Now, I hope you can see how this might be vaguely related to philosophy. Even if you don't, it is relevant to some of the things I will be writing about in the coming weeks.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Adventures in Ethical Relativism

http://www.qwantz.com/archive/000096.html

Let's get one thing out of the way right now: if you ask me, T-Rex is subscribing here more to egoism than ethical relativism. I'm not going to talk about egoism right now, but one of its biggest problems is that it is in a separate volume from ethical relativism in my Encyclopedia of Philosophy. They weight, like, five pounds each. It's kind of a hassle.

Moving on. Ethical relativism comes in many flavors, and they all taste bad. Let us start with T-Rex's flavor, that if A thinks it is right (or wrong) to do X, then it is right (or wrong) for that person to do X. If you believe this is true, then it is right for me to punch you in the face in order to convince you that it is false.*

The comic later gets into a different flavor of ethical relativism: there is considerable uniformity to moral standards across cultures, such as condemnation of homicide and cruelty. Granted, in some cultures, there are some circumstances where you are obligated to kill someone (e.g., vendettas and honor killings), but to kill a person without justification is always a no-no.

The issue becomes a little confused at the end of the comic, where T-Rex says that there are people out there who are okay with just about any atrocity you can name. If he wants to continue believing in his brand of ethical relativism, he will have to accept that there are people out there who think it is right to do things he thinks are wrong, and that he cannot judge them for this. I do not think this will last long, because when one gets down to it, one finds that there are people in this world who think it is right to do things that are unequivocally wrong.

For more on ethical relativism, I refer you to this excellent discussion.

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* - Or is it? I leave this as an exercise for the reader.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Pi Approximation Day

http://www.qwantz.com/archive/000955.html

Today is 22/7 in international dating, which is Pi Approximation Day, a day to celebrate failure approximations of success. Because failure is just success rounded down.

On the surface, it sounds like a silly idea, but it actually contains some nuggets of wisdom: some people have a lot of things that they want to do, but they never try, because they are afraid of failing. Eventually, you have to realize that when you start doing something, you are going to suck at it, but you also have to go through those first stages if you ever want to get good at it. In the meantime, you have more experience than those people who have never tried.

The most obvious example here is in athletics. Suppose that you are not a very athletic person, and never have been, but you want to join your school's cross-country team. You show up to every practice and every meet, you try your hardest... and you're just not very good. Perhaps you are the worst on the team, the one they give the "Most Improved" trophy to at the end of the season. Now, if you really want to become good and win some races, you could continue running every day for the next year, and compete with next year's cross-country team. But even if that doesn't interest you, you are still a better runner than you were before, and you are probably in better physical condition than you were before.

Ze Frank has an excellent video on this subject. He calls these ideas we never use "brain crack," because they provide us with some kind of comfort when things get rough. He goes on:

"Some people get addicted to that brain crack. And the longer they wait, the more they convince themselves of how perfectly that idea should be executed. And they imagine it on a beautiful platter with glitter and rose petals. And everyone's clapping for them. But the bummer is most ideas kinda suck when you do 'em. And no matter how much you plan you still have to do something for the first time. And you're almost guaranteed the first time you do something it'll blow. But somebody who does something bad three times still has three times the experience of that other person who's still dreaming of all the applause. When I get an idea, even a bad one, I try to get it out into the world as fast as possible, 'cause I certainly don't want to be addicted to brain crack."


So, today, I suggest you do at least one thing from the following list:
  1. Think of the things you have done in your life that you failed at and/or weren't very good at, but that you are better for having tried.
  2. Go and do something that you have thought of doing for a while, and get that brain crack out of your brain. (This blog happens to be my own attempt to rid myself of the brain crack.)
  3. Approximately eat pie (perhaps by smearing it all over your face), or eating an approximate pie, such as a tart or a quiche.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Revival!

You may have noticed (okay, you probably didn't) that I have not updated in two months. When I started this blog, at the time, I thought that I had enough spare time in my life to update this once a week. It turns out that I didn't. But I do now!

So, my current goal is to update twice a week: I will post something from Dinosaur Comics, and then I will post about something else vaguely philosophical from popular culture. I am currently looking at postmodern attitudes toward religion as expressed in popular music from artists such as Tori Amos and Trent Reznor. However, I reserve the right to post about things that don't have to do with philosophy, but I will try to be sure that it is interesting. (Or else, why would I post it here?)

After about a month of this, I will be convinced that I can maintain this schedule, and then I will start advertising and stuff, and saying, "Tell your friends!" For now, though, I am like, "There isn't much to see here. Though I appreciate that you enjoy what is here."

So. Stay tuned.