Friday, August 12, 2011

interview with Kwame Anthony Appiah

Quite interesting, lengthy interview with Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosopher whose writing is engaging and lively:

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Some Reflections on Contemporary Church Music

In a recent philosophy class of mine, discussion somehow turned to contemporary church music. Opinions on the subject were varied, with one student bemoaning the “me”-focused and mindlessly repetitive nature of the songs, and another student defending them as (at least sometimes) promoting heartfelt worship and devotion to God. Everyone seemed agreed on the danger that such music can cross the line from being of genuine religious value to being a matter of mere emotional self-gratification.

I understand the concern. I was raised on the great church hymns, and while some contemporary praise songs seem to me powerful, few carry the meaning of those hymns. (And some seem to have no meaning at all!) I regret that my children probably won’t learn the hymns as well as I did.

The problem, for me, is captured nicely in a song we sing at my church periodically, a spruced-up and modernized version of the hymn, “Take my Life and Let it be.” The original is beautiful, a humble prayer of one longing to be used and filled by God. Here’s the first verse:

Take my life and let it be
consecrated Lord, to thee.
Take my moments and my days;
let them flow in endless praise,
let them flow in endless praise.

After a few verses, the contemporized version adds the following interlude:

I am yours, set apart for you
I am yours, hungry for your truth
Take my life, you are all I live for
I am yours.

The shift in mood seems to me subtle and profound, and it works completely against the spirit of the original hymn. Suddenly I’m “set apart” for God, and God is all I’m actually living for. While the original states much in the future tense—as the last verse says, “Take myself and I will be ever, only, all for thee” (emphasis added)—the person singing this interlude seems to have already got it made. To my mind the humility of the original has completely disappeared, and perhaps the honesty has, too.

Contemporary church music can be wonderful and spiritually uplifting; but I’d say that the danger my students highlighted is real.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

More Fuel for the Teleological Argument

The teleological argument for God's existence points to various features of the natural world and tries to make the case that God (or at any rate a cosmic designer) must be responsible for them and hence must exist. There are of course many versions of the teleological argument, but speaking generally, that's how they work.

The features that these arguments point to range from the intricate detail found in the fundamental constituents of physical reality, to the incomprehensible vastness of a universe which is somehow hospitable to us.

I recently came across a splendid website which gives an interactive "Scale of the Universe." It gives you a glimpse of the relative size of the constituents of the universe (from atoms to viruses to planets to stars), and of the universe itself. The site is both extremely informative and mind-blowing. What you see there raises the question: how can a universe that is at once so vast and yet composed of almost infinitesimally small building blocks have come to be purely as the result of chance?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bad Academic Writing

You may have noticed that Bethel Philosophy blog entries aren’t coming out as regularly as they did in the fall. Blame that on an extremely busy January term and spring semester! But we’ll still post things once in a while.

Our topic for today is academic writing. I think it’s fair to say that philosophers are very often models of clear academic writing. They frown on needless complexity and the use of jargon for its own sake. Of course, not all philosophers fulfill these ideals, and some don’t even try. But as a group, philosophers tend to deal in careful and precise argumentation, and this leads to clarity of expression that is not always found or treasured in other academic disciplines.

Still, bad academic writing can be fun to read, if only in small doses. Here’s an enjoyable article by a journalist named Robert Fulford, who laments the tendency in some quarters to think that opaque writing is a sign of intelligence rather than confusion. He calls the use of jargon in service of academic-sounding nonsense, “pomo-babble.” He gives some wonderful examples, including this one:
In the logic of colonialist representations, the construction of a separate colonized other and the segregation of identity and alterity turns out paradoxically to be at once absolute and extremely intimate.

(That sentence is pulled from an actual book on globalization.) As Fulford puts it, “To commit a sentence like that is to subtract from the sum of human knowledge.”

If you’d like to compose your own pomo-babble but don’t know how, you can now do so with help from the Writing Program at the University of Chicago. When you go to this website, you make a few choices and it churns out an “academic sentence” for you. Impress your friends and family! Not your philosophy professors though, because they can usually see through this sort of thing.