Look: I am eager to learn stuff I don't know--which requires actively courting and posting smart disagreement.

But as you will understand, I don't like to post things that mischaracterize and are aimed to mislead.

-- Brad Delong

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Friday, January 8, 2010

What the Hell?!? Friday

The fact of the matter. Or not.

Americans like to think of themselves as individualists who make up their own minds. But based on what?

Thus asketh Barry Goldman, in an L. A. Times Op Ed piece, printed on January 3, 2010.  Let's tag along with him.

I once asked my Aunt Mary what her beliefs were on the subject of life after death. She said: "Whatever Jews believe, that's what I believe."

The first of many mysteries we are about to delve into is why a Jewish matriarch would have a name - a grand old name, mind you - that is generally reserved for Irish Catholic girls.

Aunt Mary's view was that there were people whose job it was to consider such things. She was not such a person herself, but she was completely confident that the guys assigned that task were doing their job, and it was all written down in a book somewhere. If you were sufficiently interested, you could look it up.This view is in decline.

I know nothing about Mr. Goldman, but based on the previous four sentences, I will lay 13 to 1 odds he is a conservative.

A new poll by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life concludes: "Large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions. Many also blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects. And sizable minorities of all major U.S. religious groups say they have experienced supernatural phenomena, such as being in touch with the dead or with ghosts."

Not to mention voodoo and santaria.

What is striking about the Pew study is not the prevalence of superstition and hocus-pocus, alarming as that is. It is the feeling that we are free to choose from a broad, cafeteria-style menu of superstitious hocus-pocus. Charles Blow in the New York Times called it the construction of "Mr. Potato Head-like spiritual identities."

I've never been exposed to this theory before, but having watched "Toy Story" many times with my grandchildren, I do find that the idea of Mr. Potato Head as spiritual advisor is not totally without merit.

Christians, for example, do not believe in reincarnation. At least not according to theology classes in the seminaries.

I'm pretty sure Mr. Goldman got this information from his Sainted Aunt Mary.  Oh, wait . . .

But the population likes the idea. And people like the idea of being Christians too. So they just choose to believe in both. It is a kind of democratization.

Suspicion confirmed.  Conservatives hate democracy.  But what I think is really troubling him is less that our vagrant theological cafeteria nibblings are of  questionable intellectual value, and more that we are willing to question authority.

People feel entitled to make choices about things that used to be within the exclusive purview of the priestly class. That's fine, I suppose, and consistent with our American mythology. We like to think we are a nation of individualists who make up our own minds.

That is a very salient point.  Every Catholic kid I ever knew, and that includes me, though the voyage of self-discovery is far from over, had some questions about authority.  Priests and nuns taught us about sexual morality.  This is like have a vegan teach you how to gut and dress a freshly-killed elk.  Further, the Pope is (or was) infallible, but sometimes issued a Bull (with no apparent sense of irony) that was inconsistent with some prior Pope's Bull.

But what are the limits to this inclination?

I've been a limit-prober for a long time; another voyage with several more legs in the itinerary, I'm afraid.

I'm thinking of the story of an elementary school classroom that couldn't determine the gender of the class bunny rabbit and decided to resolve the question by vote.  The point of the bunny story is that some questions do not belong to the class of issues that can be resolved by vote. Their answer is  not a matter of opinion, even majority opinion. There is a "fact of the matter." You don't get to make it up.

Since Mr. Goldman is evidently not a Christian, it is entirely possible that the he is unaware that the question of the divinty of Jesus  was settled at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. by a vote of approximately 297 to 3.  I didn't get to make that up.   But I digress.

But now the whole notion of a fact of the matter appears to be going away. We no longer trust the guys in the seminaries to determine which ideas are inside and outside the community of faith. We feel entitled to make our own decisions.

The seminarians, who only ever offered dogma anyway, have had rather a bad run the last couple of decades.  I'd just as leave trust my own judgment, thank you very much.

Fair enough; the facts with respect to spiritual matters have always been somewhat elusive.

The first unabashedly sensible statement in the entire article.  Don't hold your breath waiting for another.

But now many of us feel entitled to decide which scientific ideas to accept. Scientists have their ideas about, say, the age of the Earth or evolution by natural selection, and other people have other ideas.

In the absence of prior knowledge I would have concluded at this point that Mr. Goldman believes in the realities of a billion (give or take a bunch) year old earth, evolution, possibly even global warming.  However, we know he's a conservative, so science is, probabalistically speaking, out the hypothetcal window.

And, sadly, here was his last opportunity to direct the text into something rational - like trying to convince his readership that science is valid and verifiable, while faith is merely taken on faith.

According to this new view, neither has any more claim to legitimacy than the other. There is no fact of the matter. We get to decide what gender the bunny is, and we get to decide what age the Earth is.

At the council of Nicea, they would have eaten the bunny (very likely disclosing its gender in the process - the cooks weren't fools) and decided the age of the earth was whatever you get from adding the ages of the patriarchs in Genesis to the duration of other biblical events.

It's a free country.

You think so?  Let's take a vote.

This is genuinely scary. And it's scary in a new way.

In days of yore, there was considerable comfort in being excusively scared in the old ways: rape, pillage, plague, drought, pestilence, floods and volcanos.  Those horrors are as nothing compared to the terror of sacrificing orthodoxy to the ravages of individual thinking gone wild. We can certainly agree on that!

For the last several thousand years, large groups of human beings enjoyed consensus about the big questions. We may have believed that the universe rested on the back of a giant tortoise and the tortoise rested on the back of an elephant -- and that belief may not have been borne out by more recent advances in astronomy --

Hmmmm.  Goldman might believe in astronomy - a science.  This complicates things.   Besides,  he's gotten the earth-on-a-tortoise theory all wrong. First off, It's a turtle.  And, more importantly, it's turtles all the way down.

-- but at least there was widespread agreement.

Let me get this straight.  Skepticism, inquiry, and the rooting out of prime causes are pretty much irrelevant, as long as all the rubes have their magical stars in alignment.  Now I understand the Salem witch trials, teabaggers, Glenn Beck's viewers and the RNC.

Today it is not just the beliefs that are crumbling; the whole idea of agreement is crumbling too.

I blame Newt Gingrich.  Seriously.

As the cliche goes, people are entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts. The problem is we have no agreement on what constitutes a fact. Ghosts? Astrology? Global warming? Evolution? How about communication with the dead?
The biggest disappointment about communicating with the dead is the discovery that they are actually stupider than the living, as hard as that might be to believe.

We used to be a nation with a broad consensus. If you had a religious question, you asked a religious leader. If you had a scientific question, you asked a scientist.

Yes Mr. Goldman.  This is one of the classic errors in logic. It's called appeal to authority.  It likely also includes tinges of appeal to tradition.

Today, if you have a question -- say about whether your enthusiasm for vibrational healing gong baths is well placed -- you ask another gong bath enthusiast. There is no fringe so far out it doesn't have a website, and you can find it in milliseconds.

Other logical fallacies: OK, but wishful thinking is verboten.  I guess I can agree with that - at least I hope to.

We are becoming a nation of fruitcakes.

Possibly a valid conclusion, though nothing in the preceding text supports it.  Wouldn't some appeal to The Conservative Mind - the pillars of which are ignorance, prejudice, false choice and magical thinking* -  have been more convincing?   More likely though, I rather suspect that our fruitcake quotient is not much different now than it was in 2004, 1980, or 1692, though these are, admittedly, rather low benchmarks.

OK.  I've been having fun here.  But, seriously, what is the point of this article?  And what kind of a crank would be inspired to write it?  These mysteries I leave with you, gentle reader.

Barry Goldman is an arbitrator and mediator and the author of "The Science of Settlement: Ideas for Negotiators."

Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times

JazzBumpa is a smart ass, and author of this blog

Copright © 2010, Retirement Blues
Hat tips to Phila for discovering and dissecting the article in a different way , and J, who takes nothing on faith. 

* Nor am I making this up.  Read the first 25 pages Here.


J said...

I don't think Goldman's that conservative, jzb--probably moderate Dem. He appears to be an attorney. That said, I agree that his predictable op-ed appeal to tradition--- "Americans used to be smart, or responsible, or sane, but now they're not.."-- doesn't really fly. There were plenty of quacks (not to say rednecks, masons or the ...John Birch society) a hundred years ago.

Goldman's not entirely mistaken, however, with his remarks regarding the online proliferation of cults, superstitious sites,and quasi-mystical claptrap. That is happening to an extent.

I surf a few....offbeat sites at times. I don't have a problem with someone with a site dedicated to EA Poe, Lovecraft, or Pet Sematary, or even the Manson gals. But sometimes you click on some bizarre occultish thing, or sites where humans take astrology or tarot cards seriously, or rightist-conspiracy BS, masonry, neo-nazis who worship Odin, etc. Hillary's a lizard-headed demon from the Constellation Draco!! Sort of unsettling. Same with the new-agey types now obsessed with the mayan calendar hype.

Goldman appears to be troubled with the endless pluralism, the spiritual "smorgasbord". That's not necessarily conservative, is it? Even secularists have reasons to object to the supernatural-fetish, not to say the mainstream religious zombies.

Jazzbumpa said...

J -

I'm just having fun with it. That's why it's a WTH entry.

It amuses me to take jabs at conservatives - whether Goldman actually is one or not is moot. But he is displaying some of their more logic-defying characteristics, and conservatism and traditionalism have a lot of overlap, so that's close enough for this silly post.

The thing that strikes me, is that there are many ways he could have written an article that makes sense and means something, relative to cults, or religion in the modern world. But, instead, he goes off on this long, loony lament about the loss of consensus - which never really existed anyway. To Goldman, the strength of an idea is Meh! Sharing a common delusion is the way to go.

Seriously - WTH?!?


J said...

Well, he does refer to the Pew Study, so attempts to substantiate his points. Then he starts into the generalizations (about the only informal fallacy I note).

However I think Goldman's not entirely offbase with his point on ...populism for lack of a better term. In certain situations--medicine, engineering, even composing a symphony-- expertise is needed. Yet many Americans do make snap judgements about matters they know little or nothing about. So I think that's a fairly sound point, though Goldman tends to generalize (and not sure of his religion.....he sounds a bit churchly, jzb).

The AGW debate has brought this "insta-expert" phenomena out, on both sides. Some naive Fox-news style GOPers simply dismiss any and all claims of AGW out of hand, and that is wrong. Yet, some Gore-o-crats also tend to jump to conclusions. The right may be "more guilty" of jumping to conclusions, but the affliction's not unknown on la gauche.

J said...

Really Jzb , re-reading your post, it seems faintly...........romanish. Mary, as in like La Mamacita de Jee-zuss? Not the worst thing in the world, perhaps--but puzzling. Jzb the witty scoffer and skeptic, sneaking back into la Iglesia and El Papa's guidance? Whoa. Goldman may be wrong (or not entirely correct) but his mere name or weirdly named aunt should not in themselves render his writing meaningless, should it? nyet.

To be honest, I had brunch a few times at Cafe La Misa (and the cheesier anglican variety), and generally (not always) prefer to hang with catolicos than the usual WASP-zionist oafs and calvinist zombies. But there's a...wrong side to catholicism as well (ie the Roody Giuliani cat...)