Why Interfaith Dialogue is Bound to Fail

As this NYT piece reports:

“In quotations from the letter that appeared on Sunday in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading daily newspaper, the pope said the book “explained with great clarity” that “an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible. In theological terms, added the pope, “a true dialogue is not possible without putting one’s faith in parentheses.””

Finally, someone understands! Don’t get me wrong, I would love nothing more than to reconcile fundamental theological differences, but the nature of theology is such that reconciliation is not possible, from a strictly logical point of view.

True interfaith dialogue is logically impossible because theological views are truly comprehensive, that is, they underlie every belief held by their believers. In other words, theological views are fundamental–they cannot admit of any contradiction or falsity, or else the believer’s entire belief system is undermined. To admit even the possibility of one’s theological beliefs as false, or that there could be other true theological beliefs, is to in some ways to cease being a believer.

Dialogue, in its Socratic sense, is not possible unless there exists some points of agreement. But theological views, by their nature, cannot admit to any agreement with other, different theological views. If one’s belief system is founded on that the Christian God is the only true, real God, then one cannot have a dialogue, in the true sense of the word, with someone whose belief system is founded on the existence of a non-Christian God.

In other words, if theological views are theological views, then they must be all encompassing. And if they are all encompassing, they can never admit the possibility of another all-encompassing belief system. This is what the Pope means by “putting one’s faith in parenthesis,” because without creating some room, no matter how small, that one’s theological system does not encompass, the dialogue is DOA.

Pessimistic? Undoubtedly. But I’ve always been annoyed by people’s neglect to truly consider what “respecting” other people’s beliefs really mean. As Simon Blackburn points out, one cannot have respect for another’s beliefs if those beliefs are (to oneself anyways) patently false. One can tolerate, from a purely political sense (as in, not persecute), a false belief system, but there can be no respect for it.

This ultimately brings me to my conclusion: religion cannot never completely co-exist within a secular society, because it is in the nature of religion to be fundamental, comprehensive, and all-encompassing. But if the laws of a secular society are to be legitimate, then they must justify themselves to everyone, non-believers included. And if they are to be justified to non-believers, they must be justified on secular grounds.

In the end, there can only be a consensus with tension, and that tension will never go away


A Portrait of the Vampire as a Pre-Adolescent Girl

If you are going to see only one movie based on a book adaptation this year about the relationship between two young people, one of whom is a vampire, let that one movie by Let the Right One In. For the love of God and all things good, do not go see Twilight…

Unless your significant other is so turned on by the guy who plays the male protagonist that she will be mentallying projecting his image on (what is most likely going to be a much inferior) your body that you’ll get laid…

Which if it resembles the book in any way at all, means that you won’t get laid. So please, skip Twilight, and see Let the Right One In instead.

What is Let the Right One In, or as it’s called in its native Swedish tongue, Låt den rätte komma in. Already an astute and ironic reader will have made a mental note about this: namely, that it is foreign, and that it will have subtitles. And this very astute reader will have also assumed certain things, correctly I’d say, about me: namely, that I am one of those people who enjoy, without irony, arty foreign movies with subtitles that are released by independent distributors and shown only at a select number of theatres.

But I would ask the astute reader to, for a moment at least, put aside those justified condescensions about people who enjoy foreign language arthouse cinema and give this film a honest, open-minded chance. Because it has much to offer, and this is a point I cannot emphasize enough, it is leaps and bounds better than Twilight.

The plot is simple: Oskar, a 12 year old Swedish boy living in the tail-end of the 80s, shortly before the Wall came down, is constantly being bullied at school, collects newspaper clippings of murders, and someone whom you know, if not intervened upon, will exact Columbine-style revenge on his high school one day–this same Oskar meets Eli, a 12 year old looking girl who moves in next door in his run-down aparment complex with what appears to be her father, and then proceeds to duct tape all windows with heavy cardboard to block out the light.

You can see where this is going: it is obvious that Eli is a vampire, a 200 year old vampire that happens to be trapped, both physically and emotionally, in the body of a 12 year old. Two outsiders, though for different reasons, develop a budding friendship, but complicated by the fact that one of them needs to drink blood everyday.

It really is a simple story, but the movie loses nothing from this classic premise. The devil, as they say, is in the details. The movie gives a sympathetic and realistic portrayal of what it is like to be a couple of 12 year olds, socially awkward, alienated, and outcast. It depicts, with subtlety, the kind of working-class despair in working-class towns at the tail-end of the Cold War. The movie also does not shy away from the violence that inevitably comes with being a vampire, though such violence is always treated very realistically, without making it stylish. There is also great attention paid to what exactly it would take, from a logistical point of view, to extract blood from a victim as to make the whole process as efficient as possible.

So in a way, you can call this movie a realist vampire drama. Another way of putting it is that the movie features realistic characters, one of whom happens to be a vampire. And it takes seriously the question of what life would be like as a 12 year old girl who has the need to drink blood everyday. If you take away the vampire element, the movie is like a modern update of My Life As A Dog, another Swedish movie adapted from a book that came out in 1985 (see a pattern yet?)

And the best thing about the movie is undoubtedly the developing relationship between Eli and Oskar. It would have been easy to go with the forbidden love angle, as Twilight does so artlessly (as it crudely reduces the relationship between the two protagonists into a simple metaphor for miscegenation, fear of losing one’s virginity, etc). The relationship between Eli and Oskar is beyond sex, because the sexuality is incidental to their relationship. There is a scene in which they both lie naked under the sheets, but this scene is presented intimately, but erotically. But in a Hollywood movie, this scene is virtually impossible because it raises the spectre of that which cannnot be mentioned: children’s sexuality.

Second, the relationship between Eli and Oskar bypasses gender altogether, as Eli asks Oskar at one point whether he would still like her if she was not a girl. Obviously this question contains symbolic meaning whose nature is only clear to the audience, but not to Oskar. Yet in this moment of dramatic irony, Oskar innoncently asks: are you a boy? And just as soon as this question is posed, he says it doesn’t really matter what Eli is. It is little touches like this that make this movie sweet, yes, sweet, something you normally do not expect from a vampire flick.

Perhaps the best way to think about this movie is to see it as a contemporary fairy tale, but not the Disney kind. Because like all fairy tales, Let the Right One In is a story about children and the inevitably dark, sinister undercurrents that lie beneath. The technical aspects of the movie really reinforces this, as the palette is almost entirely white, which makes the rare and sudden gushing of blood that much more visually stunning as you see the almost black-ish red blood flow across the immaculately white snow. The cinematography really captures winter, and certain long shots really establish the mood quite effectively.

So please, I urge you, see this movie instead of Twilight. And see it before the inevitable American remake defangs (pun intended) all that is good about the original.

The Center Cannot Hold

And do you know why? It’s because there is no such thing as the center. Which makes the whole post-election punditry on whether America is a “center-left” or “center-right” nation completely incoherent and meaningless.

Simple geometrics will suffice: directionality only makes sense if there is a fixed point, but if the fixed point is defined by its relationship to directionality, then the whole exercising of fixing a center becomes circular.

Kind of like how political “analysts” circle-jerk each other, and the result of so much collective ejaculation is somehow treated as “conventional wisdom.”

Let’s examine how the center is fixed in American political punditry: usually “analysts” define the center as the middle point between two extreme ideological spectrums. Yet what no one ever mentions is that ideological extremes shift over time, thus the center shifts with them. Yet what is considered “left” and “right” is defined in their relationship to the center, but the center is somehow defined in its relationship with the “left” and the “right.”

So the center cannot hold because there can be no such thing as the center in an ideological sense. There can only be multiple ideological positions, but to characterize these positions along a spectrum is misleading and circular.

In other words, these motherfuckers should be out of a job, but instead they occupy positions in leading newspapers and disseminate their incoherent positions from a pedestal.

Shuffling off Your Mortal Coil, Explained

Alternative title and main thesis: the fear of the unknown as a reason to fear death is based on bad epistemology.

I couldn’t phrase that to have quite the same ring as Shakespeare was able to, but then again, I am only an amateur philosopher-wannabe.

Nevertheless, Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, I think, neatly sums up why most (maybe not all) people fear death: they don’t know what happens when you die. To put this in very abstract terms: people fear death because they have no epistemological access to death.

Sounds plausible, except it’s completely wrong.

Myth: We don’t know what happens when people die.
Fact: We do know what happens when people die.

Elaboration: Death is the complete cessation of all biological functions. The mechanics are fairly simple: some phenomenon occurs that cuts off oxygen to the brain, and if this lack of oxygen happens for long enough, your brain ceases to function, and when it ceases function, it shuts down your entire biological process. And presto, death!

The 799 pound gorilla in the room: Do you got soul? And not just the kind with which to get funky either, but the kind that is a common feature of Abrahamic religions. Some common characteristics are: an incorporeal substance apart from a physical body that persists forever, regardless of what happens to the physical body.

I don’t want to say definitively that the soul, as characterized thus, doesn’t exist, but I’m going to say that when you take into consideration all available evidence, it is highly unlikely that the soul (characterized thus) exists. So if you believe this, which I think you should have good reason to, then you can’t really claim that you don’t know what happens during and after death, because science has pretty much figured out what death is, completely.

So what do we know: we know that, absent the extremely improbably existence of a soul, death consists entirely of the cessation of all biological functions. It is as simple as that. There is no great epistemological quandary here, so I think it is bad faith to say that one fears death because one doesn’t know what happens after death. Of course one knows what happens after: nothing! That’s the definition of death.

Well, if you want to get technical: something does happen to your body (not you, the distinction is a very important one) dies. Depending on how people handle your death, you either start decomposing into the earth in which your body is buried, or your body is incinerated by fire and your body become ashes.

An aside: I have heard, on more than one occasion, avowed atheists who profess to commit to a scientific epistemology, argue that the soul can exist. I would normally think that someone who’s a committed naturalist would disavow substance dualism altogether, so the only explanation that I can come up with is psychological: they simply do not want to acknowledge that once your body dies, you die.

A qualification: Note that I did not say that the fear of death is wholly unjustified, but only that fear of the unknown is an insufficient reason to justify the fear of death. There might be justified reasons to fear death, but that’s stuff for another post.

Now the REAL Elections Can Begin

By which I mean the mad scramble for Congressional leadership positions after the general election. This is the dirty little secret that no one outside of the Beltway really knows, and the fact that most voters don’t know seriously undermines the democratic process.

Take, for example, the brouhaha over Henry Waxman’s challenging John Dingell for the Chair of the House Energy and Commerce committee. Why does this matter: it matters because committees are the crucibles of legislation. Legislation lives and dies in committee, and whoever controls the committee has a large say over what legislation gets to the floor and in what form it appears.

Therefore, leadership elections internal to Congress are of huge importance to public policy. Yet this process is largely opaque to the public, and the wheeling and dealing happen behind closed doors. Sure, Beltway insiders probably know what’s going on, but I would argue that most Americans don’t.

This is to their detriment and to the detriment of the entire democratic process. Internal Congressional elections are characterized much more by pure, naked political struggle than the general election, in part because actors are dealing with a much smaller set of constituents, i.e., their colleagues. And since this stuff isn’t being covered all that much in the media, and the people back home don’t know the significance of these elections, actors can get away with the secrecy.

Yet if leadership positions have a lot of influence over the eventual outcome of public policy, then how come we, the electorate, don’t get a say in who are in leadership positions? Where is the accountability?

America Should be More Ideological, Not Less

Now that the election is over, the punditry has found something else with which to occupy itself and justify its existence: determining whether Obama’s victory constitutes a shift in the American electorate’s political philosophy. Hence, all the back-and-forth between the left on right on whether this election is a mandate for their respective governing philosophies.

There is only one problem with this back-and-forth: it presumbes, without justification in my opinion, that the American electorate actually even thinks about governing philosophy, or philosophy in general, or even ideologically. I think E.J. Dionne Jr. hits on the head, though its meaning is what he intends, when he says that:

“Fundamentally, ours is a non-ideological nation.”

Before I cache out what I think the real implications of that statement, let me just offer a plausible definition of ideology. Keep in mind I define the term in an unloaded fashion:

Ideology: a set of comprehensive, internally-consistent normative beliefs about matters of public policy.

This is a relatively neutral definition, because it doesn’t presume any ideology is true or false, normativelly correct or incorrect, only that it must be comprehensive and internally consistent.

So when E.J. Dionne Jr. says that America is not a fundamentally ideological nation, what he is really saying, though he certainly doesn’t mean to say this, is that Americans generally have no sets of comprehensive, internally-consistent normative beliefs about matters of public policy. What Dionne Jr. means to say when he made such a statement is to praise this fact, because he intends “non-ideological” to mean a willingness to get things done and solve problems, i.e., that fabled American “pragmatism” which is supposed to separate real Americans from pointy-headed academics too stuck up on their Rawls or Nozick to really do something about the current tax system.

But already this is a false opposition, because even pragmatism is an ideology (in a non-controversial sense): it is a set of comprehensive, internally-consistent normative beliefs about public policy. If Americans truly subscribe to pragmatism, they have subscribed to an ideology. Yet there is very little evidence of this, because all the empirical research shows that the American people think about matters of public policy in any kind of comprehensive, internally-consistent manner.

When Obama and McCain go back and forth over their respective tax policies, what is really at stake here philosophically? Nothing other than what kind of distributive justice that the country should adopt. Yet neither candidates really framed the debate this way: instead, they both appealed to voter’s self-interest. Obama said that most of you will get a tax cut, while McCain said the opposite. Neither of them really articulated the philosophical debate underlying their overt political argument. And here a truly ideological voter (again, ideological in the unloaded sense) will have to decide what kind of distributive justice he wants the rest of the country to adopt. And this belief will have to be justified further with other, more abstract philosophical arguments. And on top of it all, this choice and its justifications must be internally-consistent and fit within the overall normative framework of the voter in question. Thus, the choice between two tax schemes is fundamentally an ideological choice: it forces one to decide based on a comprehensive, internatlly-consistent normative belief about a matter of public policy.

One doesn’t have to go into which version of distributive justice is morally correct, because the democratic process is not fundamentally about who’s right, but what the majority wants. Now if every voter in American decided the election by thinking ideologically, I would have no problem with the process. But it is precisely the fact that most American voters did not vote ideologically–that is, did not vote based on a set of comprehensive, internally-consistent normative beliefs about public policy–that worries me.

It worries me because people are ultimately not thinking critically: they are not willing or unable to examine what their initial intuitions and emotions mean and carry them out to their logical conclusion. They might not want to, because carrying things out to their logical conclusion often yield counter-intuitive or highly unsettling conclusions, but if that the case, they must modify their initial intuitions or abandon them altogether. Either choice is surely much better than voting on half-baked, unthought-out, unarticulated, logically incoherent intuitions, because such a choice imposes itself on everyone else because that is what the democratic process is: it is coercing everyone else your own normative beliefs on all those who happen to be in the minority.

And this is precisely the reason why Americans must become more ideological, not less, because the more ideological their thinking is, the more they will consider and articulate what exactly their philosophical commitments are. This can get ugly, because someone’s comprehensive, internally-consistent normative belief system about matter of public policy could lead him to conclude, for example, that homosexuals do not deserve equal rights, or that government should never extend a helping hand to those who cannot help themselves, or that certain minorities do not deserve the same set of political rights, and so on.

But hopefully, this won’t the majority of the people. Yet this is something that a truly democratic society will have to consider. If one is truly committed to democracy, this is a risk that must be taken. But at least everyone will know that other people are taking decisions of public policy seriously and committed to really thinking about them. And it certainly might be the case, as Rawls articulated in Political Liberalism, that when everyone has come clean with his ideological thinking, people will find out that they have fundamental philosophical disagreements; maybe not everyone truly believes in life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Maybe this will even create a civil war.

Yet unless this crucial step is taken, our political discourse, and our public policy process, will always be less elevated and less meaningful than it could be. It will always be stuck in the world intuitions and emotions, liable to be manipulated by charismatic politicians (for good or bad; the good is inspiration, the bad demagoguery). The first step to a truly democratic, legitimate public policy process is for every citizen, EVERY SINGLE ONE, to really, truly, honestly, critically, and analytically think about what exactly his commitments are, why he has them, whether they are justified, and what he ought to change/abandon in order to have an internally-consistent belief system.

Because without this crucial step, we will never understand each other: I might not agree with your comprehensive belief system, but at least you and I will truly understand each other without the distortion and filtering that come with a media-dominated “analysis” (what a misnomer). Yes this is difficult, yes it requires a ton of time, yes it will require everyone to really probe himself (a task much more difficult than anyone can possibly imagine), yes it is exhausting, but no one said politics is a walk in the park.

And goddamit, if you are going to impose your beliefs on me through the democratic process, the least you can do is to tell me clearly what it is that you believe in!

At Last, At Last!

Although it seems heaven sent, we ARE ready for a black president

I couldn’t really grasp the sheer enormity of last night’s election results, because for one thing, I was drunk. But as I walked through the chilly, damp DC night, breathing the air cleansed by the rain, I sobered up. And by the time I got home, I was just beginning to realize, but not yet understand (and perhaps it will take me a very long time) what had just happened.

I can’t claim to understand what this means for African Americans, but as a minority US citizen, I am goddamn fucking proud of this country right about now. And while listening to my iPod on shuffle this morning at work, this particular 2Pac song comes up, and as soon as I heard the first drum beats and the piano riff, I suddenly just “got it,” seen the light so to speak.

And before you know it, I suddenly found myself choking up, eyes moist, nose sniffly, and vision blurring. I know, a very delayed reaction, seeing how people wept with joy in the streets last night. But somehow, listening to this song, at this particular moment in human history, suddenly made sense—-a moment of epiphany.

In a way, the circle is complete, because I heard “Changes” in 1998 at a time when my grasp of English was just getting somewhat proficient, and this is the first “popular” song I heard on the radio that really blew my fucking mind. I may not agree with all of 2Pac’s politics, and I may not even think he has a coherent and/or normatively correct ideology, but I will always, always, ALWAYS be grateful to 2Pac for instilling the first seeds of my social consciousness. And to think, a scant 10 years after the song was released, we’ve elected the first African American president in overwhelming numbers—-wow, my 13 year old self would not have been able to conceive of what that might mean. Could 2Pac? Could anyone?

Thus, for the first time that I can remember, for as long as I have been following politics (which is to say, as long as I have been able to think), I am genuinely, sincerely, and unironically happy with an outcome of the political process. This is the first time I’ve been able to willingly let myself participate emotionally, because every other time, I treat the process with a critical, skeptical indifference and/or disdain; either that or a kind of flip, ironic, post-modernist amusement.

Of course, those sentiments will return with time, as no human being is perfect. But for now, I am genuinely touched.