Spritzophrenia

humour, music, life, sociology. friendly agnostic.

Posts Tagged ‘sociology’

Why Does Existence Matter? Simondon and Ontology

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 16, 2012

I’ve been reading about Gilbert Simondon, a French thinker (1924 – 1989) who has been very influential on the Continent, but is only just becoming known in the English-speaking world. I’m wondering if I can use his ideas to help me in my studies.

Using sociology I try to understand what a human being is, and how they are constructed by social forces (or how they construct themselves). Discourses of gender, for example, help construct us as male or female. Simondon spends a lot of time discussing what an individual is1.

Rather than understanding an individual as a static unchanging being, Simondon suggests individuals are a process which is part of a system. “Individual development is a constantly changing and fluid, ‘non-linear’ process” (Harvey et al, 2008: 4). He also thinks we are fundamentally relational beings. Simondon thinks we are permanently in relationship, and that our being can only be defined by our relationships.

The term “individuation” describes the process of how individuals are created from “pre-individuals”. Debaise says Simondon refers to a “preindividual nature”, by which it seems he really means “being” rather than the natural world of plants, rocks and seas (Debaise, 2012: 3). So we are individuated (‘created’) as a process in a system of being. I originally thought that for Simondon individuals have multiple selves, or parts, but this may be a misunderstanding on my part.

existence

Simondon is talking about ontology, which is the study of being, or existence. I think it was Sartre who said, “The biggest question is why anything exists at all.” He’s right; if you start to ponder why the world is ‘there’, it can get very tricky. Ontology is not just about the fact that things exist, it’s also about the nature of their existence. Ontology asks, “At the deepest, most core level, what kind of a thing is a person?”. If we think a person has a soul, we could ask, “What kind of a thing is a soul, and how does it interact with the world?” If you’re not comfortable with the word, just replace ontology with “existence” whenever you see it.

And here is my question: Why does it matter what the existence of humans actually is? How does being able to describe the “being” of a person make a difference to me as a sociologist? To sociologists or scientists, people who are trying to understand the world, does it really matter? I could just say, “People exist, we know that, let’s move on to something else”.

Here is a second, related question: If ontology does matter for doing sociology, how do I connect ideas about ontology to ideas about how society works? How would knowing the essential nature of a person (or group) affect how I theorise their actions? Does knowing that a person is not a static thing, but a process of individuations make any difference in how I think about their gender? (There are at least a couple of feminist articles on Simondon that suggest some social scientists think it does make a difference.) If you have any ideas I’d love to hear them.

Here’s what I think ontology could mean for social theory:

In the next few months I am going to be interviewing a number of men who will tell me about their lives. Instead of understanding these men as unchanging, fixed “souls”, I can analyse them as a developing process, who are in relationship with their world. Their gender, for example might not be fixed but changing over time as they relate to other men and women. What I believe someone actually is will affect my interpretation of their social world.

Here’s another idea. Elder-Vass (2012: 144) suggests that a theory of ontology can explain causality – how someone causes things to happen. I can cause the water to flow by turning a tap, for example. Socially speaking, ontology might explain how a parent can “cause” the development of gender in a baby by their words and actions. Or a church can “cause” a man to be excluded.

Perhaps I’ve answered my question. But I think there’s more that could be said. Do you have any ideas or comments?

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Notes
1. For Simondon individuals aren’t necessarily humans. Other things (cars, rivers, elephants) can be individuals too. The idea of non-human individuals, and technics, have been hugely influential on Actor Network Theory, Latour et al, and the philosophy of science. This part of Simondon’s theory is less important to me at present.

References
Debaise, Didier. (2012). What Is Relational Thinking? Inflexions. 5.

Elder-Vass, Dave. (2012). The Reality of Social Construction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harvey, Olivia; Popowski, Tamara; Sullivan, Carol. (2008). “Individuation and Feminism.” Australian Feminist Studies. 23(55).

Salmonella Dub – Conspiracy Dub. Great New Zealand band.

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Posted in ontology, Philosophy, Sociology | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

Agamben, Exile and Compassion

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 24, 2011

Today I worked outside with others on a spontaneous project to create an outdoor stage for our New Year’s party. It’s summer solstice, the longest day. The sun was hot, the sky, cloudless. I made a salad while others prepared the evening BBQ. Recently I’ve been studying fresh social theory in between working.

I want to share several paragraphs from my reading with you, and explain what they mean to me. Hopefully my thought process won’t be too muddy.

Firstly, Giorgio Agamben speaks of global populations being transformed into a vast, “planetary petty bourgeoisie… in which all the old social classes are dissolved” (Agamben 1993: 62). Class is an important term many sociologists use. I think of myself as “middle class”. If I worked as a factory labourer I might be “working class”. What I find intriguing is that Agamben suggests that classes have become so blurred that there is now only one planet-wide class. There is now no individuality, late-modern capitalism has made us all the same. This is a radical suggestion, but one I find resonating with the idea of the 99% as a single class – the majority of the world who do not have significant economic and political power.

exile

It is noteworthy that Agamben titles his chapter “Without Classes” (Agamben, [1990] 1993). For those in his enormous petty bourgeoisie even death itself cannot grant them an individuality, as Agamben writes:

The fact is that the senselessness of their existence runs up against a final absurdity … : death itself. In death the petty bourgeois confront the ultimate expropriation, the ultimate frustration of individuality: life in all its nakedness, the pure incommunicable, where their shame can finally rest in peace. Thus they use death to cover the secret that they must resign themselves to acknowledging: that even life in its nakedness is, in truth, improper and purely exterior to them, that for them there is no shelter on earth. (Agamben, [1990] 1993)

Agamben’s most famous term is homo sacer. Homo sacer is an old Roman term for a person who has been banished so far from society, that they can be killed by anyone. However, they cannot be “sacrificed” to the gods, as this would make them a part of the community. (As an aside, I’m also thinking a bit about death in preparation to tutor a summer course on death, dying and religion. It starts in three weeks.)

As noted above, even death cannot give homo sacer an individuality separate from the rest of the vast petty bourgeoisie. But all is not lost, for “this also means that the petty bourgeoisie represents an opportunity unheard of in the history of humanity” (Agamben, [1990] 1993: 65). In spite of the pessimistic prelude, Agamben finishes on a note of optimism. Again, I see the Occupy Wall Street movement as providing that note of optimism for the universally petit-bourgeois 99%.

Someone who is homo sacer can also be considered an outsider and an exile in my view. Diken & Laustsen talk about “exile” as a social state, not a physical one (Diken & Laustsen, 2005, p. 153). The exile could be sitting in the same room as everyone else, but has chosen not to be “integrated” with society.

The distinguishing mark of the ‘exile’ is not sheer physical movement, but ‘the refusal to be integrated’, a kind of ‘spiritual’ exercise. The exile is the one who is determined to remain ‘nonsocialized’, as a singularity that is present but not represented, ‘in, but not of the place’. The exile only accepts relation in the form of a nonrelation, integration through the condition of non-integration (referencing Zygumunt Bauman, 2000: 207-9).

From time to time I feel exiled from my social groupings. One time several years ago this coincided with a general frustration with my music performance. It was at this point, that I renamed my musical project “xhile”. It doesn’t take much to make me feel like an exile. Just a couple of days ago a house where I thought myself welcome decided to exclude all non-residents. They had good reason for it, but I still felt hurt when included with the general lot of untrustworthy people. For the last few days I’ve been doing more participant observation with our local “occupy” movement. I’ve been literally homeless and penniless, sleeping on the streets while I await my welfare to come through. (I have applied for jobs, little has eventuated as yet). As it happens, I was able to squat a building on my own one night, and I am currently allowed to camp in a community garden. Nevertheless, this experience of exile has made me ponder. I have been thinking of some of the homeless people who were part of the Civic Square occupation before it ended, and wondering if they are homo sacer, people who are so completely outside of society that they could be killed with impunity. However, I am also homo sacer, and I understand that Agamben thinks most people have now moved into this category.

This leads me to think of compassion and praxis, something that academics are not always known for. One of the things sociologists sometimes do is interview people to find out how they see the world. One of the most famous current sociologists, Pierre Bourdieu writes of interviewing:

I would say that the interview can be considered a sort of spiritual exercise that, through forgetfulness of self, aims at a true conversion of the way we look at other people in the ordinary circumstances of life. The welcoming disposition, which leads one to make the respondent’s problems one’s own, the capacity to take that person and understand them just as they are in their distinctive necessity, is a sort of intellectual love: a gaze that consents to necessity in the manner of the ‘intellectual love of God,’ that is, of the natural order, which Spinoza held to be the supreme form of knowledge.” (Bourdieu, 1999, p. 614)

I too, in my interviews last year felt such compassion and intellectual love, and I can say my informal interviews with those in the occupy movement, combined with the challenge of Agamben’s ideas, have led me to something of a conversion of the way I look at other people.

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Troops of Doom | Tension

References

Agamben, Giorgio. ([1990] 1993). The Coming Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre et al. (1999). Understanding The Weight of the World. London: Polity Press.

Diken, Bulent, & Laustsen, Carsten Bagge. (2005). The Culture of Exception. Sociology facing the camp. London: Routledge.

Posted in Sociology | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Disappointed with Occupy – Again

Posted by spritzophrenia on December 1, 2011

*Names are changed*

The first time I visited our local Occupy site I was going to write about it, titled “Disappointed With Occupy”. Me, my partner and baby visited the site on a sunny day. One person, a 40-something scragglybeard in the information tent was friendly and articulate. He had to leave to attend to other matters. The other person sitting in the information tent – a 20-something scragglybeard British tourist? – only deigned to look up from his book to talk to us after I asked him a question.

I’ve been to two meetings since. One was a “general assembly” – which gave me some hope that the movement might have something worthwhile to offer. About 80 people were at that. And a “people’s parliament”, now renamed “people’s forum”. Damn good they renamed it, because the 20 or so mostly under-30 people who gathered could hardly be called a parliament. That was nice, we talked about what kinds of changes to New Zealand’s parliamentary system we could imagine. It was small, young, but hopeful. And yes, the guy who sat next to me did smell.

Tonight was my fourth visit to the Occupy Wellington site. Tonight I wanted to stay, to help “occupy”, to see what it was all about. To talk to people. To enjoy the cameraderie. Participant observation and all that. I arrived about half an hour before sunset, at the tail end of a beautiful summer’s day.

I want this to succeed. I identify as one of the 99%. I want this to grow and to reach all the boring middle class people like me.

tents

Not a photo of the local lot. Too many tents

Wednesday 8:30 pm:

Seems like no-one is here. There are far more tents than people. I counted the tents: Thirty-five. There are a few dry patches of dirt where tents had once been. I’d heard the greenhouse tent had blown over in the recent wind. The “marae” tent that we were shown on our first day is no longer there. There is no information tent. But at least there is a nice large courtyard area with some plastic chairs. The site is tidy enough.

It’s just after dinner time, I ask if I can stay the night, and am eagerly welcomed by Barry, the scragglybeard who first welcomed us a few weeks ago. The kitchen staff washing up offer me food, but I’m really not hungry. I give them apples and oranges to share around. I don’t need a tent, I have a “bivvy bag” so I can sleep in the open. Nevertheless, they think there is a tent free and will see if I can use it. Nice.

I spread my gear out in an open space, and then wander around. I decide to read the protest signs hung along a fence. One says something like, “You will not get us to go away”. I felt it was kinda confrontational. Right now, I think this movement needs to be welcoming. Fortunately there are welcoming signs too. I wander back.

Dave comes over while I’m lying on my bivvy bag and tells me that a tent is free. “Just move the stuff in it to one side and you can use it”. I thank him. I’m quite happy sleeping out on my own, but decide to move into the tent. There is a lot of bedding, a pack and a guitar with only two strings. I am happy I will have warm padding to lie on in my sleeping bag.

Once I am settled I ask myself what I am doing here. I come up with two main reasons:

– I don’t like our democracy being controlled by the rich.
– I don’t like the gap between rich and poor, I want to help the poor.

That’s what I would say to an outsider. I’m mainly here to be involved, to support something I *think* might be important, to learn more. I reflect on the “Occupy” movement. I’ve read a lot about it, both local and international. Somehow when I first heard about it the whole concept seemed exciting and just resonated with me. I wanted to be involved.

But it’s boring.

It’s boring.

I wander out again. It’s getting dark now. No-one much talks to me. Let’s face it, there’s no-one much around. Eventually I talk to a Maori “security guard” in a fluoro vest. I only mention his ethnicity because I want to note that the group is not all whiteys. The guard belongs to the occupy group, not the council. I found him hard to understand, tho’ he was very friendly. He said something about the camp being “locked down at midnight.” He let me know there was no drink or drugs on site, but “if you want to drink, we do it over there”, pointing to seats not far away from the camp with a conspiratorial snigger. He did tell me what Occupy Wellington was all about: “It’s all about love.” Can’t argue with that.

The camp is right beside a public thoroughfare – as it should be. A sporadic stream of people walk past, many avoiding the camp altogether by walking far away. A few stop and look at the signs. Four 15 year-olds turn up and sit along the edge of the camp. A couple of occupiers chat to them. The teens seem interested, and have heard of occupy. One of them asks, “Excuse me for being… I don’t watch the news. Did National win?” The election was four days ago. When she discovers the result, she abuses John Key.

I decide these novice teens are not going to help me get any sense of the movement so walk back inside the camp where half a dozen people are gathered outside the kitchen tent in an uncomfortable circle. Some seem friendly, although no-one speaks to me. Most are silent, or doing random verbal “jazz” freestyles while listening to one or two people chat.

“Andy”, another bearded chap in shorts who I met at the people’s forum the other day walks past and says Hi to me. He’s genuinely friendly and a welcome relief from being ignored. But he moves on and after ten more minutes of being ignored I wander off alone to my tent again.

Eventually I decide to read my book and manage to find enough light near the entrance to the camp. There another young guy is noisily chatting to a man with a foreign accent who has stopped to see what’s going on. Noisy guy is mostly telling him about his view of the world, rather than listening. Apparently if the USA spent all its defence budget on education the world would be “sorted out in no time”. I can’t concentrate on my book (a highly political critiqute of society by Giorgio Agamben, which I thought appropriate). The tourist leaves and a few friends arrive to say hi to noisy guy. NG quietly boasts of “dumpster diving” recently in Porrirua, Johnsonville and Churton Park. I wonder if he has access to a car to get to these suburbs which are fairly distant from the central city. He tells them Moore Wilson’s [supermarket] is supposed to be good but was cleaned out when he got there. I heard someone else mention that he got food from the Hare Krishnas tonight. I wonder what the state of food and donations to the camp is, if they are reduced to going through the rubbish or begging from dubious religious charities.

I give up and wander back through the camp. I notice a dim light on in the kitchen. I am about to check it out when I notice the only people there are a couple cuddling intimately. I decide to go back to my tent.

Grabbing my drink, I leave the camp and sit looking at the city buildings, the lights of distant Petone and the colourful seafront walkway. I tell myself that it’s pointless being there if I don’t talk to anyone. I try and work up courage to talk. But first I must pee. The council have continued to lock the public toilets at night, so I walk along the waterfront to the park and pee on a bush. I hope no-one sees me, as I don’t want to bring the movement into disrepute. This is why I’ve walked a reasonable distance from the camp.

There is no wind. Therefore, no electricity from the tiny camp wind turbine. I see it absolutely still. Dead. Where are the people who are active on the Occupy web site and facebook page? Are they even here? Lack of electricity would suggest not.

I return.

10:07 pm.

I have a short, humorous conversation with six people out on the main drag in front of the camp. I finally start to be included, although they are mostly interested in talking among themselves. Comfort zone, why should they talk to a newbie, even though I’m trying to smile and joke.

It turns out several of them aren’t actually sleeping here tonight. Just visiting. One has just come back after a week and a half away. “It was better when there were 40 people here”, says one twenty-something woman. I ask how many are here now. They don’t know. I think they said twenty.

They all talk loudly about where they will go to grab food. They leave for a cafe uptown. They don’t invite me with them. “Nice meeting you”, says another young woman as she leaves. “Was that a meeting?” I ask. She dissembles. I wasn’t even aware she had noticed me.

I go back to my borrowed tent. Alone. Bored.

If the police wanted to raid, there would be about 5 people on the site right now.

And I wouldn’t care.

EDIT: I have since returned and lived onsite for four days. I begin to share about that experience here

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The Exploited | Fuck the USA

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Shermer on Belief: I Want To Believe

Posted by spritzophrenia on September 30, 2011

Perhaps, dear reader, you can tell me whether Michael Shermer applies the concepts in his new book to his own ideas. Essentially, The Believing Brain (2011) says that we create beliefs and then find evidence to reinforce those beliefs. On those terms, Shermer’s statement is also a belief, and Shermer is merely finding evidence that supports his idea and ignoring other possibilities. I want to know if Michael Shermer raises this problem and answers it.

Shermer‘s book seems to be a good read. His essential point is “Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism.” He uses neuroscience, psychology, history and some sociology to explain what people actually do. So far, so good. There are various chapters with stories of people who believe in things like ghosts, ufos and God. He uses Leonard Mlodinow for beliefs on cosmology, and Mlodinow scratches his back in return, providing one of the publisher’s reviews on the cover of Shermer’s book. If you find this blog interesting, you might also like my review of Mlodinow and Hawking’s book.

However, I’d like your help, because I simply don’t have time to read The Believing Brain in its entirety yet and I have to return it to the library in two weeks. In that two weeks I have to finish writing about 10,000 words so reading Shermer in depth just ain’t going to happen yet. The problem: If our brains create beliefs, and then we find the evidence to support these beliefs how does Shermer know his idea is true? He may simply “want to believe” that his ideas are correct and conveniently only look at evidence that supports him. Even the idea of “looking for evidence” is a belief itself, a belief about how one best discovers “knowledge”. I don’t think– from my brief look so far– that Shermer addresses this. I may be wrong. Can you tell me if Shermer talks about this?

believe

If he doesn’t, I think it might undercut much of what he says, because deciding how we find truth and know truth is not a simple question. And some people don’t even think there is a “truth” to be found. The epilogue is where Shermer talks about what he thinks is the best method to find the truth, which he says is science. He writes, “What makes science so potent is that there is a well-defined method for getting at the answers to questions about the world – a world that is real and knowable.” Notice the assumption that the world is both real and knowable – this is philosophy, not science. He continues, “Where philosophy and theology depend on logic and reason and thought experiments, science employs empiricism, evidence and observational experiments. It is the only hope we have of avoiding the trap of belief-dependent realism.”

I may be reading too much into it, but it seems Shermer doesn’t like philosophy much. This is sad, because as I pointed out above, he doesn’t seem to realise how much of his own point of view actually depends on philosophy, not science. I was surprised to find no mention of Thomas Kuhn’s ideas, let alone Bruno Latour’s or even Karl Popper’s “falsifiability” even though I suspect the model of science Shermer is using is based on the latter. This is a constant surprise to me: Scientists who seem to have absolutely no awareness of the philosophy or sociology of science which their discipline is based on.

Let me say at this point, that I love science. I trained in it in my undergrad degree, and I’m so grateful to live in a world where we have things like cars, medicine, and the computer on which I’m typing this. What I don’t love is scientism, the view that almost turns science into a religion. Scientism says that science can solve anything, including things which science just isn’t built to solve. Shermer concludes his book with the statement that the truth is out there and that “science is the best tool we have for uncovering it.” I will conclude by quoting him with a small modification: “In the end, I want to believe. I also want to know. The truth is out there, and although it may be difficult to find, science is one of the best tools we have for uncovering it.”

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King’s X | Believe (Great song! Lyrics.).

Posted in agnostic, epistemology, Philosophy, Science, Sociology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Your Opinion: My Blog and Privacy?

Posted by spritzophrenia on August 27, 2011

I’d like your advice. On my mind recently has been the question of how to handle the tension between sharing personal stuff on my blog and my professional career.

As you know, I’m embarked on an academic career, at least for now. Like many other academics, I like to share a little of what I’m learning or questioning here. It’s inevitable that my students, colleagues or people studying similar fields internationally will come across these works-in-progress eventually. That’s fine, I only see benefit in that.

However, I also like to keep this blog interesting, and at times I write quite personal stuff. See this post, for instance, where I expose my own moral failings. Also, as a teacher I need to be careful not to let my personal opinions colour my teaching too much. But my personal opinions expressed here on, say, paganism might contradict what I teach in class.

Most of you guys seem to appreciate the mix of interest, humour, personal and thoughtful I try to aim for. But is sharing personal stuff like this likely to cause me problems, either with sniggering students sharing my secrets, or snooty professors seeing an intellectual sap because I don’t just talk about “ontological empiricism”? (Family Guy quote, right there.) 1

While I’m asking, do you like the music videos I post? I do it most of the time, I’m just curious if anyone listens.

question

On a completely different note, Meal With a Muslim time is rapidly approaching. Has it been a year already? It’s also the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Maybe start thinking about who you could invite for coffee or a meal?

1. Thanks to Jared in the comments below for pointing out the correct quote. My brain remembered “ontological existentialism”, and I only saw that Family Guy episode last night. 😀

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This song has been going around and around in my head these last days. Have a listen, it’s beautiful and profound.
Lauren Hill | Forgive Them Father

Posted in personal, Sociology, Your Voice | Tagged: , , , , , , | 15 Comments »

The Multiverse is a Dead Parrot? Is Atheism In Trouble?

Posted by spritzophrenia on August 26, 2011

Is the Multiverse theory dead? If so, what implications might this have for belief in g0d?

I’ve written on cosmology from time to time. Recently I picked up Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, which does a far better job of explaining M-theory than Hawking and Mlodinow’s recent book. At this point I need to send a public shout-out to Lunagrrrl, who sent me her copy of The Grand Design, which I previewed here. I had good intentions of reviewing it again, but I can’t add much to what I wrote. Get Greene’s book and skip to chapter thirteen instead, it’s much better.

The words below were originally posted last month by Santi Tafarella in his blog, Prometheus Unbound. I think this is worth sharing. Go check out the comments on his blog too.

Santi writes:

parallel multiverse

In 2008, cosmologist Bernard Carr of Queen Mary University of London, told a science journalist for Discover the following:

If there is only one universe, you might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.

Carr said this because our universe appears to have numerous wildly improbable properties hard to explain by chance (especially if our known Big Bang universe is the only roll of the cosmic dice, setting its cosmological constants). Put bluntly, the cosmos appears to have been designed, and with very particular purposes in mind.

In whose mind?

Well, God’s of course!

Like an apple tree following its genetic imperatives, the universe appears to be following the imperatives of its cosmological constants. It apples galaxies, carbon-based life forms (like apple trees), and minds (like our own).

On planet Earth alone, there are 7 billion minds right now and counting.

Whooda thunk it?

Maybe Someone did.

The Discover article gave examples that illustrate our universe’s mind-boggling good luck (or creation by God, if the multiverse doesn’t come to the rescue of atheism). Here’s one:

The early universe was delicately poised between runaway expansion and terminal collapse. Had the universe contained much more matter, additional gravity would have made it implode. If it contained less, the universe would have expanded too quickly for galaxies to form.

The 2008 article that Bernard Carr was quoted in also noted this:

The credibility of string theory and the multiverse may get a boost within the next year or two, once physicists start analyzing results from the Large Hadron Collider, the new, $8 billion particle accelerator built on the Swiss-French border.

Now, fast forward to 2011. What’s the status of string theory and the multiverse in light of the data that has come in from the LHC (Large Hadron Collider)?

Answer: Not good.

Atheists, are you listening?

Theoretical physicist and mathematician Peter Woit of Columbia University, discussing this summer’s String 2011 Conference at his blog, writes that at past conferences they:

. . . often featured a call for progress towards making predictions that could be tested at the LHC [Large Hadron Collider]. With LHC data now coming in, [opening speaker David] Gross acknowledged that this had been a failure: there are no string theory LHC predictions.

None.

As for what the String 2011 Conference’s opening speaker, David Gross, said of the multiverse, here’s Peter Woit again:

Surprisingly, not a word from Gross about anthropics or the multiverse. I assume he’s still an opponent, but perhaps feels that there’s no point in beating a dying horse. Susskind isn’t there and oddly, the only multiverse-related talks are from the two speakers brought in to do public lectures (Brian Greene and Andrei Linde, Hawking’s health has kept him from a planned appearance). So the multiverse is a huge part of the public profile of the conference, but pretty well suppressed at the scientific sections. Also pretty well suppressed is “string phenomenology”, or any attempt to use string theory to do unification. Out of 35 or so talks I see only a couple related to this, which is still the main advertised goal of string theory.

A dying horse. Isn’t that sad? And remember: as goes string theory, so goes the multiverse.

And perhaps even atheism. As uber-atheist Jerry Coyne noted recently at his blog, how the multiverse debate pans out among physicists has unmistakable consequences for the God question:

[M]ultiverse theories . . . represent physicists’ attempts to give a naturalistic explanation for what others see as evidence of design.

But here’s how Peter Woit describes the String 2011 Conference summary by Jeff Harvey:

In Jeff Harvey’s summary of the conference, he notes that many people have remarked that there hasn’t been much string theory at the conference. About the landscape, his comment is that “personally I think it’s unlikely to be possible to do science this way.” He describes the situation of string theory unification as like the Monty Python parrot “No, he’s not dead, he’s resting.” while expressing some hope that a miracle will occur at the LHC or in the study of string vacua, reviving the parrot.

That the summary speaker at the main conference for a field would compare the state of the main public motivation for the field as similar to that of the parrot in the Monty Python sketch is pretty remarkable. In the sketch, the whole joke is the parrot’s seller’s unwillingness, no matter what, to admit that what he was selling was a dead parrot.

And, as for Scientific American’s recent coverage of the multiverse hypothesis, Woit is critical:

One might be tempted to criticize Scientific American for keeping this alive, but they just reflect the fact that this pseudo-science continues to have significant influence at the highest levels of the physics establishment.

The multiverse is pseudo-science. Really?

Based on what Bernard Carr said in 2008, and what Woit reports of the goings-on at the String 2011 Conference and in Scientific American, should this alert us to the possibility that atheism itself might be quietly trending in the direction of Monty Python’s dead parrot?

Monty Python | Dead Parrot Sketch

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Posted in atheism, cosmology, Philosophy, Physics, Sociology | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 26 Comments »

Religion and War. Or, “What Makes Me Happy”

Posted by spritzophrenia on August 23, 2011

Which is the most violent religion in the world?”, I asked my class recently. No doubt you have your opinions, but these people say that the religion now responsible for most wars is in fact Nationalism. That’s right, they argue that government-sponsored promotion of our “nation” is actually a religion that commits blood sacrifice by sending our young men and women to war. Sound crazy? Gaddaffi’s Libya is currently being taken over— by nationalist causes?— with the support of NATO powers. We’re near the 10th anniversary of 9/11, closely followed by the anniversary of ten years of US-sponsored war. Maybe we should consider what they say?

Here are some excerpts:

Americans live in a culture that is as religious as any that exists. In this article we contend that nationalism is the most powerful religion in the United States, and perhaps in many other countries. Structurally speaking, nationalism mirrors sectarian belief systems such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam and others that are more conventionally labeled as religious. It happens that nationalism also satisfies many traditional definitions of religion, but citizens of nation-states have religious reasons for denying it. We argue that both sectarian and national religions organize killing energy by committing devotees to sacrifice themselves to the group… Although our examples come mostly from the United States and its majority sectarian faith, and although generalization is risky, the principles we describe are broadly applicable to other enduring groups, defined as groups for which members are willing to give their lives.

… The familiar claim that a religious view of the world is characterized by a moral opposition to violence ignores a more complex reality in which faiths that most deeply bind the commitment of devotees are structures for organizing killing energy. This is true both for religions that aggressively kill the Other in the name of a deity or deities and those that pledge their devotees to self-sacrifice when confronted with violence. We shall argue that violent and so-called non-violent religions are structurally indistinguishable from a certain perspective.

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Click to see bigger pic.

what is really true in any community is what its members can agree is worth killing for, or what they can be compelled to sacrifice their lives for. The sacred is thus easily recognized. It is that set of beliefs and persons for which we ought to shed our own blood, if necessary, when there is a serious threat. Rituals that celebrate this blood sacrifice give expression and witness to faith. Sacrificial death thus defines both sectarian and national identity. This is the first sense in which both are species of religion…

On the whole, we misunderstand the genuinely religious character of American patriotism and the violent character of genuine religion. What distinguishes nationalism from sectarianism is not group logic, for both are religions of blood sacrifice. What distinguishes them is historical location. In the West Christianity once could kill and ask others to die in the name of its particular god. In some places it does this still. But in general in the West the power to compel believers to die passed from Christianity to the nation-state, where it largely remains…

Americans traditionally regard the nation-state as the domain of unassailable force and religion as the domain of unassailable truth. This separation of faith and force is markedly unstable and collapses completely in wartime…

If nationalism is religious, why do we deny it? … [The nationalist] god is inexpressible, unsayable, unknowable, beyond language. But that god may not be refused when it calls for sacrifice. …

Some citizens openly speak of the American flag as sacred. Can we disregard the impassioned testimony of others that it is not, and neither is the nation it represents? …

To understand how war is ritual sacrifice, recall that the raw material of society is bodies. Organizing and disposing of them is the fundamental task of all societies. The social is quite literally constructed from the body and from specific bodies that are dedicated and used up for the purpose. The enduringness of any group depends at least partly on the willingness of its members to sacrifice themselves for the continuing life of the group. The creation of national or sectarian religious sentiment depends on a common secret, which is that the underlying cost of all society is the violent death of some portion of its members. …

Does that push any buttons for ya? Respond below.

These ideas don’t make me happy, but the picture above right does. It’s the bookshelf in the study after one of my biweekly trips to the library. As Happygirl will testify, I pretty much jump up and down with glee when I have a pile with such titles as Stupa: Art, Architechtonics and Symbolism, Critical Discourse Analysis and Language Cognition or Foucault, Psychology and the Analytics of Power. I can see your eyes glazing over already 😉

There are 87 books in that photo, my current reading for two papers I’m writing. One is a Foucauldian reading of Western Buddhist meditation. A second is a paper on “civil religion”, the New Zealand state and nationalist wars. My interest in investigating civil religion and war was stimulated by Marvin and Ingle’s highly provocative article Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Revisiting Civil Religion, excerpted above.

Civil religion is an established, though contested, concept in sociology of religion. Very simply, it can be several related ideas, either a) a religion becomes a supporter of the state/political system or b) the state uses religion & religious symbolism to promote its agenda -think state prayers on Memorial Day/ANZAC day or the anniversary of 9/11. Or c) the state itself becomes a religion. The theory is debated, of course. I’m not sure I agree with it, but it provokes some interesting thoughts.

The concept of civil religion was not original to Robert Bellah, as one text asserts, nor even Rousseau although he’s generally credited with it. Nope, it looks like “Augustine’s discussion in book 6 of The City of God of Varro’s category of ‘civil theology’ ” started it all off circa 410 CE (Grosby, 2001: 114). Sociological concepts are sometimes much older than commonly thought.

So apparently if we support our nation, we’re religious, regardless of our personal beliefs.

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Does the idea of nationalism as a religion make sense? And, what makes YOU happy?
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One of my all-time favourite tunes, from a band I would see live ANY time.
Slayer | War Ensemble

Those of you who are curious to see the actual book titles can Click to see a bigger pic in yfrog.

References

Grosby, Steven. (2001). “Nationality and Religion.” In Guibernau, Monserrat and Hutchinson, John. (eds.) (2001). Understanding Nationalism. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Marvin, C. & Ingle, D. (1996). “Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Revisiting Civil Religion.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. (1996). 64(4), 767-780. http://www.asc.upenn.edu/usr/fcm/jaar.htm Web March 2011.

Posted in Sociology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Why Stay If You’re Gay?

Posted by spritzophrenia on May 25, 2011

A number of you said you’d be interested in reading the proposal for my Masters’ pilot study, “Why Stay if You’re Gay?” (Homosexual Participation and Identity in the Church) . Well, here’s the introduction:

Western society has undergone significant social changes around homosexuality in the last thirty years. In New Zealand the Homosexual Law Reform Bill (1986) decriminalised homosexual acts, more recently the Civil Union Act (2004) gave marriage-like rights to New Zealand gay (and other) couples wishing to commit in this way. In the same period there has been change around homosexuality and the church. While change in ‘liberal’ and ‘mainstream’ Christian churches has been ongoing for some time, there is evidence of greater acceptance of gay congregants in US evangelical (Falsani, 2011) and post-evangelical ’emergent’ circles. “It sounds so churchy, but I felt like God spoke to my heart and said ‘[homosexuality] is not a sin.” (Pastor Jay Bakker, cited in Lee, 2006). In New Zealand, similar changes are occurring; “Gay Christian Alliance is a group of gay Christians living in New Zealand who wish to spread the message that it’s OK to be gay and Christian” (2011).

I’ve come across a number of gay and lesbian people in the Christian Church. My particular question is why they stay– it seems fairly clear why one would leave. What do they get out of religious faith? What are their motivations? How do they see their identity as gay and Christian?

A couple of comments: It’s only the proposal for a short thesis (10,000 words). The full Masters’ thesis is around 40,000 words. Due to academic-speak some of it would need a bit more unpacking for those who aren’t familiar with the ideas. Also note that “sociology of deviance” doesn’t imply a moral judgement, it’s merely a way of talking about people perceived as different, and can be questioned in it’s own right.

Initially, I didn’t particularly want to study sexuality, or gays in particular. I want to study sociology of religion, this is merely a way in. Having said that, and having now read a number of studies by gay academics, it’s a fascinating area in itself.

To add to the ethical notes in the proposal, I can imagine lesbigays[1] saying somewhat tiredly, “Oh, here come the sociologists with their surveys again.” To be part of a minority means you get questioned by all parts of society, including academia. I have a number of lesbigay and trans friends, and sometimes I feel a bit weird “studying them”.

Lastly, here’s a humorous video I came across the other day:
Gay scientists discover the Christian gene

[1] “In this essay I am trying out the term ‘les-bi-gay’. I am aware that it risks the problems we had before: some people are not explicitly included, and some of those who are may feel at risk of incorporation by hegemonic male gayness.” (From a paper by Sinfield, a gay academic, 1997: 201)

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Is It May Already?

Posted by spritzophrenia on May 5, 2011

Hi all, and a special welcome to the new subscribers. It seems like an age since I last wrote from the land of Spritzophrenia.

Some personal goings-on first. It’s less than 8 weeks until our baby is born. Happygirl is getting extremely round, and is somewhat physically uncomfortable, but all is well and as normal as these things go.

I found out two weeks ago that my younger sister Carol has cancer. She’s not quite forty years old, and it’s serious. It’s colon cancer, with some nodes in the liver and a tumor has spread to one ovary. She goes into surgery tomorrow to remove the growths, and within three weeks they hope to start 9 months of chemotherapy. Things are not good, but the doctors have also said it’s potentially cure-able. All is not lost. Needless to say, I was quite upset after she rang me. (You might want to go back to my short series on sickness and pain.) Strangely, in the last week I’ve become very confident that she’ll be able to beat this thing, and I feel peaceful. I don’t know how much stock to put in such feelings, but those of you who pray are welcome to do so. (Yes, I did.)

My postgrad sociology study is going very well, however there’s a huge workload which doesn’t leave me with much energy to blog. I do have a lot of thoughts, theories and mental meanderings to share with you, it’s just a question of when. I’ve just finished my thesis proposal on “Why Stay if You’re Gay?” (Homosexual Participation and Identity in the Church). Would you like me to put it up here for you to read?

sunrise woman

Among other things, I’ve been reading up on Queer theory. You may or may not know that the word “heterosexual” was only coined a couple of centuries ago. Some people (notably a chap called Foucault) argue that the conception of heterosexuality was very different before this. As part of les-bi-gay studies, the study of heterosexuality has emerged. Given that I’m studying gay Christian men for my thesis I find it enlightening to look at things from the other side, so to speak.

Here’s some thoughts from one writer (Richard Dyer, in a 1997 paper, for what it’s worth). What do you think of these?

Dyer considers heterosexuality and homosexuality are not acts, or an identity, but what we desire. “Heterosexuality is not man-woman coitus, but the desire for it and/or the fact of being identified by the desire for it.”

Here’s his list of five attributes of heterosexuals:
1. Difference is at the heart of sexual object choice.
2. Difference is conceptualised as oppositeness.
3. Difference is, in fact, power imbalance. (Eroticised power imbalance)
4. Sexuality has something to do with procreation. (For many religions sexual reproduction is the purpose of sexuality.)
5. Sexual practice is an affirmation of one’s identity as normal.

The notion of race is profoundly heterosexual. Race is a way of categorising bodies that reproduce themselves.

Society enforces a “compulsory heterosexuality” (Adrienne Rich).

So there we go. How do those of you who are hetero feel about these? Identify with any of it?

Till next time,

Jonathan

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Expanding the Mind

Posted by spritzophrenia on March 11, 2011

Apropos of nothing, here are some sites I enjoy. I used to have RSS feeds from them until I discovered how much bandwith my RSS reader sucked. Some of them I haven’t looked at in months, and it’s a salient reminder to return. In no particular order:

Science and Theology
Justin is a biologist who writes thoughtfully about religion and science.

“When I’m not watching sports or laughing at life, I enjoy reading and writing on science & religion/theology, with interests as of late that include brain/mind, evolution, the soul, and what it means to be human. I am deeply committed to science but believe that it is not the sole provider of truth. I resonate the most with the “scientist-theologians”, the most well-known being John Polkinghorne, Ian Barbour, and Arthur Peacocke. The pursuit is both an academic and personal one for me and I write from within the framework of Christian faith.”

Prometheus Unbound
Santi is an agnostic academic who quite happily skewers both atheists and the religious when it suits him. He’s good at referencing great literature. I read him regularly.

Huffington Post Religion
In an age when many newspapers no longer have dedicated religion reporters, it’s heartening to find such a good resource on a popular site. As I’ve said before, I don’t think religion or spirituality is going away anytime soon, much as committed atheists might wish it so. There’s articles on atheism here too.

reading

Guruphiliac
“Revealing self-aggrandizement and superstition in self-realization since 2005.” Reading this, you could be forgiven for thinking every guru on the planet is dodgy as fuck. I think the writers are probably followers of “Eastern mysteries”, but I appreciate their candid exposure of frauds.

Saudiwoman
Thoughtful blog by a Saudi woman. What more do I need to say?

The Piety that Lies Between
Eric Reitan teaches philosophy, and calls himself a “progressive christian”. He tends to write long posts, but it’s worthwhile stuff.

Mark Vernon
Another agnostic, Mark Vernon wrote After Atheism, a book I rather like. He’s an agnostic theist, or agnostic christian who writes about all kinds of cultural-philosophical stuff.

Barth’s Notes
One of the most respected news and investigative journalism sites on religion, particularly the more obscure stuff. He knows his subject, and is remarkably fair. I still have no idea what his personal beliefs are.

Dancecult: Journal of Electronic Dance Music Culture
Sociology and media studies for those who like dance music! Doof doof doof.

Alternet
When you’re bored with news from the big boys, get your news from the radical fringe. Who turn out to be not so radical or fringe-y after all. In fact, some of this looks eminently sensible and well-reported.

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