Thursday, April 17, 2014

I want to write a novel

Once before, I jokingly wrote a list of my "life goals", one of which was to write a novel.  I am actually serious about that particular goal, but I've been taking my time about it.  I figured I'd start after this blog died, but for some reason that's not happening.  So I'll do it while the blog's still alive.

Here's where I'm at.  I have not written anything.  I do not have any plot ideas.  I do not know what genre I want--either sci-fi or "literary" fiction.  I have some character ideas and structure ideas, but they're pretty vague and haven't been written down.

I do not have any particular end in mind.  Traditional publishing?  Self-publishing?  Keep it all to myself?  I have no idea.  Maybe I'll only make it part way through and decide that writing books is unenjoyable.  I'm not terribly optimistic, because I figure most people who set out to write books have higher hopes than outcomes.

It's hard to tell how good my writing is.  I've had this blog for many years, but being well-practiced doesn't necessarily make me any good.  To really improve my writing I'd need some sort of feedback, but all the feedback I get as a blogger is thoroughly biased.  Furthermore, it's far from clear that writing skill in short-form nonfiction transfers over to long-form fiction.  Basically the only thing I do know is that I am not afraid of a keyboard or a blank page, for whatever that's worth.

Step one: Write this post as a pre-commitment strategy.
Step two: Start collecting any character ideas I have, and try to think of plot ideas.
Step three: Report back in a month
Step four: ???
Any thoughts?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Christian doubt

When I grew up in Catholicism, I was never taught to think that doubt was a bad thing.  In fact, doubt was a good thing, ennobling even.  Doubts were something that everyone experiences.  Why then, is it said that Christianity is all about faith, dogma, and purging all doubt?  Where does this image come from?

Let me tell you what happened next.  I started doubting Catholicism.  And even though I was never taught that doubting was bad, I knew that the particular way I was doing it was bad.

What I was doing was reading on some arguments against Catholic beliefs, comparing them to the arguments for it.  I knew that changing my mind on so many things all at once was impossible, so I considered each issue independently, one at a time.  I worried about the consequences of deciding one way or the other, but I tried not to let that affect my judgment.  Finally, I collected my many thoughts and tried to draw some overall conclusions on Catholicism and God.

In my mind, this is more or less the proper way to deal with doubt, so why did I know in my gut I was running afoul of some rule of my religious upbringing?  The truth is that doubt was accepted in the Catholicism I grew up in, but only if the doubt fit into a specific narrative.  Doubt was not an epistemological tool, but a personal struggle to be overcome.  This is a fundamentally negative depiction of doubt.

Even the supposedly positive narratives about doubt are fundamentally negative.  When doubt is seen as ennobling, it's the same sense in which a chronic illness is seen as ennobling.*  It's not the doubt which is good, it's that we respect someone who maintained (or even strengthened) their faith despite their painful struggle with doubt.**  When everyone is said to have doubts, this is not a way of saying that doubts are good.  It's a way of saying that Christians are not Mary Sues.  Christians are imperfect (being afflicted with doubt and sin), and thus relatable.

*Even when someone literally has a chronic illness, I do not think we should see it as ennobling.
**This is largely how Catholics saw Mother Teresa's "Dark Letters", in which she expressed her struggle with doubt.

This isn't just my personal experience growing up, it's a pervasive narrative about doubt within Christianity.  To show this, I will pull out quotes from the top three page hits for "Christian doubt" (bold emphasis all mine).

1. A letter to William Lane Craig:
Natalie: When my best friend told me she was struggling, I figured it was just a phase and started thinking about what books to recommend to her. But then something hit me that had never really been an option before—what if Christianity really isn’t true?

My intuition is still that it is, but I am in dire need of your help—someone whom I know has a strong faith as well as a strong philosophical background. What advice could you offer me, my best friend, and the non-believers we know to elucidate Christianity and rekindle our faith?
Craig: I find that when folks are struggling with doubt, the doubts can balloon all out of proportion, so that their belief system comes to look rather like those maps of the world which show a country’s size according to its economic wealth rather than geographical area.
 2. Dealing with Doubt in our Christian Faith:
So what can we do if we find ourselves struggling with doubts about the truth of Christianity? Why do such doubts arise? And how can we rid ourselves of these taunting Goliaths?

First, we must always remember that sooner or later we'll probably all have to wrestle with doubts about our faith.
I know of a young man who had converted to Christianity, but who's now raising various objections to it. But when one looks beneath the surface, one sees that he's currently involved in an immoral lifestyle.
3. An interview with Greg Boyd, author of Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty:
Many today assume that doubt is the enemy of faith–as though a person’s strength is as strong as they are free of doubt. I argue that this common model of faith today is neither biblical nor healthy.
When we embrace a biblical model of faith, we no longer need to squelch doubt. To the contrary, we will find that doubt can sometimes prove beneficial in helping us grow spiritually and in keeping us honest in our relationship with God and others.
Sadly, many today think that people are “saved” simply because they espouse certain beliefs, apart from any consideration of how they live.  This is why research demonstrates that the vast majority of Americans admit to believing in Jesus (and a host of other Christian things) while also demonstrating that this belief has very little impact on how they actually live.
The reason I choose the top three hits on Google is to avoid cherry-picking on my part.  Note that #3 does not espouse the negative views on doubt that I grew up with, and in fact #3 rebels against such views.  Also note that #2 states that doubters are really trying to justify an immoral lifestyle, and this is not something I believed as a kid.  I conclude that some Christians have more positive attitudes towards doubt, and some have more negative attitudes.

I understand why Christians see doubt as a struggle.  I've seen similar patterns among questioning queer people.  But even if, in one situation, doubt is causing you distress, I think it is best to see doubt as a tool--neither good nor bad, only useful.  Doubt is a tool used to better align our beliefs with reality.  "Giving in" to doubts is bad if and only if the thing being doubted is justified and true.  Thus, the only way to know whether doubting is good or bad is to not have doubts!

(This topic was inspired by Greta Christina, but my perspective is entirely independent from hers.)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Currently reading

What have I been reading lately?

I read The City and the City by China Miéville, a mystery novel taking place across two city-states, but the city-states actually seem to be in the same location.  The unusual setting got far more mileage than I thought it would, but I didn't think much of the flat characters.  I would be willing to read more Miéville in the future.

I read A Perfect Vacuum by Stanislaw Lem, a collection of reviews of books that don't exist, mostly books of the postmodernist sort.  This format allows it to describe really fascinating books that probably wouldn't work in practice.  My major complaint is that Lem didn't use the premise to its full potential--most reviews simply summarized the books they were reviewing, without much actual judgment.  I would have liked to juxtapose the contrasting perspectives of the book's characters, the book, the reviewer, and the reader.

I read The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling, which is mainly an exercise in juggling lots and lots of characters and the dynamics between them.  The main plot arc is about class struggle and urban development politics.  I enjoy having lots of unsympathetic characters, so this was a book for me.

I just finished reading Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, which takes after the apocalypse, with the prior dystopia described through flashbacks.  The dystopia is a world where scientists are developing pigs that grow human organs, where sex slavery is common, and where the upper class (mostly researchers) live in compounds separated from an increasingly impoverished lower class.

I'm not generally a fan of speculative fiction, but I liked the parable of a coffee company that developed a coffee plants whose beans would ripen all at the same time.  This of course leads to rioting because all those coffee pickers are out of jobs.  It's funny how the technology leads to more efficient production, but ultimately harms the quality of life because it concentrates wealth.  One hopes that in the real world, as scientific technology progresses, political "technology" can keep pace.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Brief blogging break

Due to lack of time I will not update until April 15th or so.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Made in Criticalland

Massimo Pigliucci started a new blog Scientia Salon, which is already bearing fruits.  I enjoyed this essay by Alan Sokal (yes, that Sokal) about academic postmodernists and extreme social constructivists.  In the 80s and 90s there were many such academics claiming that science was entirely based on prejudices.  Interestingly, Sokal claims that they have now backed off from the most extreme views, particularly because they were upset at the way the Bush regime used postmodernism to justify its anti-science policies.

Sokal's primary citation for this is "Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern" by sociologist of science Bruno Latour in 2004.  I thought it was worth a read.

 Latour actually says a lot of great, quotable things about critical theory:
What has become of critique when my neighbor in the little Bourbonnais village where I live looks down on me as someone hopelessly naı̈ve because I believe that the United States had been attacked by terrorists? Remember the good old days when university professors could look down on unsophisticated folks because those hillbillies naı̈vely believed in church, motherhood, and apple pie? Things have changed a lot, at least in my village. I am now the one who naı̈vely believes in some facts because I am educated, while the other guys are too unsophisticated to be gullible: “Where have you been? Don’t you know that the Mossad and the CIA did it?” What has become of critique when someone as eminent as Stanley Fish, the “enemy of promises” as Lindsay Waters calls him, believes he defends science studies, my field, by comparing the laws of physics to the rules of baseball? What has become of critique when there is a whole industry denying that the Apollo program landed on the moon? What has become of critique when DARPA uses for its Total Information Awareness Project the Baconian slogan Scientia est potentia? Didn’t I read that somewhere in Michel Foucault? Has knowledge-slash-power been co-opted of late by the National Security Agency?
Of course conspiracy theories are an absurd deformation of our own arguments, but, like weapons smuggled through a fuzzy border to the wrong party, these are our weapons nonetheless. In spite of all the deformations, it is easy to recognize, still burnt in the steel, our trademark: Made in Criticalland.
Latour uses an extended war analogy, although it's not clear who he thinks his enemy is.  It's something something capitalism something.  He talks about reassessing our tools of war as the times change, which seems to really mean changing his epistemology to better fit the conclusions that he had already decided on.  He only knew his epistemology (ie scientific facts are purely social constructs) was wrong when other people used the same epistemology to come to conclusions he didn't like.  But okay, his epistemology was terrible, so it's probably a good thing if he gets rid of it.

A third of a way through the paper, it takes a sudden turn towards the incomprehensible.  I found it so baffling, that my mind could only interpret it as a series of non sequitur jokes.  So I laughed.  I feel the same way I do about many an unwanted commenter on my blog.  "It's not that I disagree with you, it's that I literally don't understand what I would be agreeing or disagreeing with!"

It begins with Letour introducing his solution to critical theory's problem:
What I am going to argue is that the critical mind, if it is to renew itself and be relevant again, is to be found in the cultivation of a stubbornly realist attitude—to speak like William James—but a realism dealing with what I will call matters of concern, not matters of fact.
Curiously, "matters of concern" and "matters of fact" are crucial to Letour's thesis, but they are not immediately defined, nor ever defined.  I can only guess at the definition based on contextual clues scattered throughout the article.

This is immediately followed by a long discussion of Heidegger's distinction between objects and things.  (I can see why Heidegger is famous for being so opaque, even compared to other philosophers.)  A handmade jug is a thing (which is a celebrated category), while a can of Coke is merely an object.  On first glance it sounds like Heidegger is merely conveying his prejudices, his romanticization of handmade objects.  Letour appears to agree.

But rather than dismissing the distinction between objects and things, as I would, Letour argues that objects and things have been complicated in the modern era.  For instance, when the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia had their disasters, they transformed from objects into things.  I don't know what conclusion Letour draws from this, because I cannot make sense of how he describes his conclusion:
My point is thus very simple: things have become Things again, objects have reentered the arena, the Thing, in which they have to be gathered first in order to exist later as what stands apart.
 Letour goes on to describe the current state of critical theory:
We can summarize, I estimate, 90 percent of the contemporary critical scene by the following series of diagrams that fixate the object at only two positions, what I have called the fact position and the fairy position—fact and fairy are etymologically related but I won’t develop this point here. The fairy position is very well known and is used over and over again by many social scientists who associate criticism with antifetishism.
To Letour's credit, he at least immediately defines what the fairy position is, though I don't understand his definition.  I'm not sure why it is necessary to observe the etymological relation between fact and fairy--perhaps in Criticalland, unlike everywhere else, etymology is destiny?

 Figure 2: I think that the dark circles represent "facts" and the white circles are "fetishes".  I think the circles on the left might be the "fairy" position, and the ones on the right the "fact" position?  I'm honestly not sure.  This is the first in a series of diagrams, none of which have captions.  I'll spare you from the others.

Letour goes on and on about this.  But to be honest I couldn't read the whole thing, because at this point my palm was in the way.  I'm not saying that Letour's article is nonsense because it's incomprehensible--papers in my own field, condensed matter physics, are also notoriously impenetrable.  But I get the sense that the underlying things being described are rather simple, and that nothing really justifies being so opaque.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Asexual story project

One of my cobloggers just launched The Asexual Story Project, which is a site collecting auto-biographical stories from people on the asexual spectrum.

And if this encourages you to take a look, I contributed a story which has never been told before.  It was actually nice to tell a personal story which didn't really have any sociopolitical point to it.  It didn't even have to represent all asexuals, because I mean it's just one of many stories available to read.

Social justice as cryptolect

My coblogger Queenie explains how "social justice" on Tumblr has been used as an excuse for bullying.  It's not really a problem specific to Tumblr or social justice IMHO, but it's worth talking about that specific case.  One of the problems Queenie identifies is the demand for perfection, the idea that we should never use any concept or word that is even slightly problematic.  As many people have observed, this results in a relatively fast language development on Tumblr.

While there are honorable intentions behind improving our language, one of the effects is that social justice language becomes a cryptolect*--a jargon used by a group in order to exclude outsiders.  Furthermore, people who do not share this language are immediately identified as outsiders, and subsequently attacked.  The consequences of this behavior goes against the spirit of social justice.  People should not halt all language development, but rather moderate it with the knowledge that there is an intrinsic benefit to sticking to established language.

*I considered several words here in place of "cryptolect", including "slang", "jargon", "argot", and "cant".  The connotations of "cant" seem to be closest, but unfortunately it has a second definition which is extremely negative.

To illustrate what language development looks like on Tumblr, I offer a few illustrative examples.  My first example is a case where I myself argued for changing our language.  I argued that "sexual" is not a very good way to refer to people who are not asexual, and that "allosexual"--a word which has been established on Tumblr--is a reasonable alternative.  Of course, not everyone is happy with "allosexual", and in fact the other week I saw someone argue that it was "confusing" and "a little appropriative".  As a third example, I refer you to arguments over the words "trans" and "trans*".  "Trans*" is meant to be more inclusive, but some people find it problematic.  I think few people get angry over that distinction though, since even trans people often aren't aware of the issue.

I don't mean to say that people are wrong to want to change our language.  These are not ridiculous issues; language profoundly affects the way we think, and the way we feel.  However, I wish to show that these arguments over language can often be quite specific and obscure.  (Of course, some of my readers are hip to Tumblr and are perfectly familiar with the examples I gave.  But try to see it from an outsider's perspective.  Wouldn't you grant that they are obscure?)  It is perhaps regretful that outsiders are unfamiliar with the language issues, but it is not the least bit surprising.

So if you get angry that people aren't hip to the cryptolect you've just developed, you may find that you are angry at everyone.  Unless you think it is productive to be angry at everyone, it may perhaps be worthwhile lowering your standards.  I think Tumblr people intuitively understand this concept, which is why they don't get angry about "trans" vs "trans*".  Even insiders often don't understand that issue, and of course we can't be angry at insiders.  I advocate extending this same attitude towards outsiders, even if you're less inclined to be sympathetic towards them.

Let me put this in the style of a social justice argument.  It's often said that "intention isn't magic": when people say problematic things, the fact that they didn't intend to hurt people doesn't magically erase the hurt.  Likewise, the social justice cryptolect has the best of intentions, but the intentions don't magically erase any harm that it might cause.  And as it turns out, it can be harmful, especially towards disadvantaged people.

In particular the cryptolect hurts people who don't have access to your particular internet community, and to people who are older.  Older people have lived through multiple iterations of language, and might have different associations with words than young folks do.  For example, it's well-known that older people are less enthusiastic about the word "queer", because it's a slur that was only reclaimed in the last generation.  And also recall that there are many reasons why people might not have access to Tumblr.  Perhaps they don't have the time because they have poverty-level jobs.  Or perhaps they feel barred from the community because of the very same bullying engendered by Tumblr's demand for perfect language.  And of course there are plenty of people who do have access to Tumblr but choose not to touch it, just as I choose not to touch Twitter.

In two of my examples, the problematic words were themselves words coined by internet communities.  "Allosexual" is known to originate on Tumblr, and "trans*" is the kind of unpronounceable word that you know had to come from somewhere on the internet.  These problematic words were themselves created in response to other words that were deemed problematic.  This demonstrates that even when you identify a problematic term, the term used to replace it may also be problematic.  Hopefully the replacement is an improvement.

What this shows is that if a word is problematic, that is not sufficient reason to get rid of the word.  Sure, the word has problems, but there are also inherent problems with getting rid of the word.  First, the word used to replace it will probably also have problems.  Second, you contribute to a cryptolect which makes your community more inaccessible to outsiders.  While this doesn't mean that we should never intentionally adjust our language, it does mean that we should avoid doing so unless there is a fairly good reason.  And keep in mind that every community thinks it has good reasons for creating its own lingo, but tends not to appreciate the reasons why other communities create their own lingo.

If you agreed with my argument, I'd like to point out that this is a situation where all options are problematic.  Keep the language we have, it hurts people.  Change the language, it hurts people.  No option is perfect.  We cannot demand perfection.