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Friday, October 21, 2011

Variations on a Theme by Shakespeare, Lewis and Kreeft

I was playing with different topics today and it occurred to me that I have not yet explained this blog's title. I have hinted at it and I think I may have even used it somewhere (though I can't find the post off hand) but I haven't ever posted on why I call it "Heaven and Earth Questions". In Hamlet when Horatio sees the ghost he is confounded more because ghosts don't fit into his understanding of the world, than because of any normal fear of ghosts. Hamlet responds with : "There are more things in heaven and earth. Horatio, than are dreamt of in  your philosophies." I read Hamlet quite a few times with out ever noticing that line. In fact, the line was pointed out to me by Dr. Kreeft in one of his lectures (he uses the line quite a bit and at this point I have no idea which lecture I heard it in first so let me just give him general credit).

Dr. Kreeft's point, building off of C.S. Lewis' work on the character and weaknesses of modernism as well as his own work, is that there are really only three possible relationships between an individuals epistemology (the study of what is know and how it can be know) and ontology (the study of being or of what is). Either there are more things in heaven and earth (in reality) than are dreamt of in their philosophy (their epistemology), there are the same number of things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy, or there are fewer things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in their philosophy. Crudely speaking - and I am already anticipating a few grumpy notes from post-modernists out there- the post-modernist holds that there are fewer things; the modernist, that there are the same number of things; and the pre-modernist, that there are more things in heaven and earth. 

For the post-modern, reality is a really tricky concept (and possibly an entirely meaningless word) to begin with. The post-modern approach tends to downplay reality as unknowable and therefore unreal. For many, many reasons, they have abandoned anything like a correspondence theory of truth (truth is when a proposition corresponds to reality) and then operate out of a desire to establish ones own "working" reality which they seem to simultaneously think must also be a fundamental illusion. However it plays out it will work out to a belief that reality, to the extent that it is a meaningful word, is smaller than the conceptions of each individual.

The modernist holds on to that initially exciting yet ultimately deadening idea that human achievement will one day be able to explain absolutely every aspect of reality and offer something like a scientific proof to verify those explanations. You hear lines like "if science can't prove it then it doesn't exist" from them. Here in America we have a very common religious form of this modernism which claims instead "if the Bible doesn't prove or affirm it then it isn't real". Both are modernist by this model. The claim boils down to the belief that human reason is capable of explaining or describing every aspect of being; that there are exactly as many things in heaven and earth as are dreamed of in philosophy. Thus prior to meeting the ghost, Horatio is a sort of proto-modernist.

But the pre-modern believes that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in his philosophy; that reason works but isn't comprehensive. The pre-modern believes there is more to the world than what we can figure our. This does not mean (as I find many athiest apologists have construed it) that the pre-modernist gives up on trying to understand or that they believe that reality can't be known. "It is the glory of God to conceal a thing; but the honour of kings is to search out a matter." (KJV) Instead, the pre-modernist believes that there is always going to be more to know, that reality is fuller, more complex, more meaningful, more beautiful than we can comprehend - there will always be more to discover.

That is why I named the blog "More things in Heaven and on Earth". By now you must know that I am, or at least am trying to become, a pre-modern. Thus the title reflects my belief in infinite depth and breadth of the universe, of reality, of the cosmos, of the question and of the answers. There is bottomless joy in the search for truth because the truth is always being found and will never be exhausted.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

And the Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

About three quarters of the way through one of my notebooks is a reminder that "science fiction and philosophy would be a good blog post". I remembered to write this without it.

I am completely and unrepentantly partisan in favor or genre fiction. A friend asked me the other day why genre fiction gets such a bad rap in literary circles and as I launched into an answering diatribe it occurred to me that I am not precisely balanced on the subject. And I am alright with that. There are enough people out there fighting for the sanctity of "realist prose", and enough of them still occupy positions of power in various prestigious universities that I am able to feel as though I am still supporting the underdog in my defense of genre. Granted we are seeing more and more "sci-fi and fantasy" courses in English departments and I even know - oh frabjous day -  an instructor at the Naval Academy who was teaching a course on modern graphic novels (these are really long comic books like Watchmen and Persepolis for those of you who are not quite as immersed in geek culture).

Nevertheless, the wizened guardians of the literary canon are still debating The Lord of the Rings and Asimov's Foundation series. Let them bicker, history is on our side (well, mine anyway). But just in case it isn't; or in case I haven't made enough grumpy retorts to a nebulous literati, let me explain why and how I think that science fiction is the most philosophical of all genres (including realistic fiction).

Philosophers are huge fans of hypotheticals. Generally there is some attempt to make a hypothetical sound more impressive or intellectually worthy by calling it a "thought experiment" - this might also help with funding humanities departments - but ultimately the game is to imagine an unreal situation with it's own sets of rules for the purpose of playing out a theory to see how it might work in the absence of real world complications. And I think that this is a wonderful thing; hypotheticals give us all the opportunity to test something without having to worry about irrelevant details. A while ago I mentioned an ethical dilemma involving a train and several groups of people. The point is to imagine a situation in which someone's morality comes to the fore in a clear way. It does not matter that the situation is incredibly improbable, what matters is that it is a test case for at least two different ethical systems.

In science fiction, the author gets to do the same thing. What better way to explore philosophical anthropology than to imagine a world in which artificial intelligence is on a par with or even surpasses our own (Aasimov's Robot books)? If you want to expound a pre-modern cosmology in a way that modern thinkers will be able to understand how could you improve on a contemporary professor being shanghaied into a trip to mars (C.S. Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet)? Is there a more effective laboratory for investigation into the implications of a  perfect signifier-signified relationship than a novel wherein the enemy alien's doomsday device is an entirely accurate language (Samuel R. Delaney's Babel 17)? And how could there be a more thorough thought experiment into the cosmological implications if Plato's theory of the forms and their impact on multi-verse theory than a book about intellectual monks under attack from a world more distantly emanated the good (Neal  Stephenson's Anathem)? I could go on; and on and on and on.

Science fiction gives a writer the ability to imagine the specific set of circumstances which would most clearly demonstrate their own innate philosophies and world views. Of course when that is all they use the novel for (in fact when anyone uses a novel for much of anything other than as a medium for good story), they tend not to write very good books. But what if the author is a philosopher? What if they are writing not in order to preach a philosophy but to tell the excellent stories their philosophies inevitably produce? Some authors certainly are mere preachers - though sometimes they preach well - and some are tremendous story tellers and not very good philosophers (I would but Heinlein into this category). But some authors are genuinely both. Philosophers with a knack for recognizing a good story and the skill and craft to tell it well. It is probably going too far to call them philosopher poets but that would point in the right direction. That is why I find science fiction so intriguing, beguiling, thrilling and ecstatic.

Also laser guns, robots, space ships and aliens.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Golden Mask

So this post is one of those "being vulnerable because I am doing something I don't do well" deals. Having a friend who actually is an excellent poet and a circle of friends who write this stuff on a semi regular basis turns out not to have made my brief attempts in the arena any easier. Ah well, I'd better just take the plunge:

The Golden Mask

I tell a tale to turn from unknown truth; too long known
and seek instead a kindergarten color wheel.
Your palette is too subtle; your pastels strained my eye
I never could connect with grays and browns
and purples faded, washed in detail, tassels, minutia,

Instead I long for fairy queens and war,
for melodies, trombones and marching bands.
The cross, the stone, the bread, the cup, the fish
smother my soul with a nuanced earthquake devoid of Flame.

But quiet winds, drifted from English pipes
to children's minds are lightning from the sun,
and dragons and ships and warriors and crowns.
a whispered wardrobe starts a carousel.

Such simple themes must overwhelm my eyes
with red and blue and brassy green and gold
And that fierce name by which I loved Him first
is Love and Death and Joy without renoun.

"My King is coming, riding on a fawn;
I could not love Thee till I loved Aslan"

By - me

Be gentle.