Paul Graham on what can’t be said

I love ideas, data, speculation, experiments, and plans.

I also love arguments, refutations, and attempts at persuasion.

And I think what I love the most about the United States is the general legal consensus that outside of inciting people to acts of terrorism, one is allowed to say what they wish without government censure. In this sense, I am and have always been a free-speech absolutist. If somebody wants to make the case that a grave sin is actually sane and good, I’ll hear it. If somebody wants to claim that mega civilizations can control galaxies for energy and call it science, I’ll listen to Michio Kaku:

But, how free speechy (I think I made that up) are we?

Paul Graham suggests a test for your own free speech absolutism by positing a test for moral fashions:

What scares me is that there are moral fashions too. They’re just as arbitrary, and just as invisible to most people. But they’re much more dangerous. Fashion is mistaken for good design; moral fashion is mistaken for good. Dressing oddly gets you laughed at. Violating moral fashions can get you fired, ostracized, imprisoned, or even killed.

If you could travel back in a time machine, one thing would be true no matter where you went: you’d have to watch what you said. Opinions we consider harmless could have gotten you in big trouble. I’ve already said at least one thing that would have gotten me in big trouble in most of Europe in the seventeenth century, and did get Galileo in big trouble when he said it—that the earth moves. [1]

It seems to be a constant throughout history: In every period, people believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you would have gotten in terrible trouble for saying otherwise.

Is our time any different? To anyone who has read any amount of history, the answer is almost certainly no. It would be a remarkable coincidence if ours were the first era to get everything just right.

It’s tantalizing to think we believe things that people in the future will find ridiculous. What would someone coming back to visit us in a time machine have to be careful not to say? That’s what I want to study here. But I want to do more than just shock everyone with the heresy du jour. I want to find general recipes for discovering what you can’t say, in any era.

This particular test is useful. Are my ethical standards determined by the cultural fads or careful reasoning? Christians have a tendency to feel that the Holy Spirit and deep study have prompted them toward some new ethical insight that really is just a way for them to stop being at odds with the dominant culture (sad). But my version is this:

Could you listen to the views of somebody from any time period or culture, insofar as they are not inciting terroristic or mob violence, and not want them silence, jailed, or executed?  

Obviously, this is context specific. Church services aren’t the place for giving heretics a voice, children’s classrooms aren’t the place for letting philosophical cases for sexual deviance be made, and so-on. But I think this test for free-speech absolutism is key. Am I, then, a free-speech absolutist?

Gloria Steinem and Moral Insanity

For Thomas Aquinas, sanity was one’s intellectual capacity to grasp first principles and reason from them. 

For the ancient Hebrews, killing children for fertility is Molech worship.

For Gloria Steinem, neither of those are a negative:

“Are you kidding me? Listen, what causes climate deprivation is population. If we had not been systematically forcing women to have children they don’t want or can’t care for over the 500 years of patriarchy, we wouldn’t have the climate problems that we have. That’s the fundamental cause of climate change. Even if the Vatican doesn’t tell us that. In addition to that, because women are the major agricultural workers in the world, and also the carriers of water and the feeders of families and so on, it’s a disproportionate burden.”

Steinem does, to her credit, depart from other elements of the hard-left zeitgeist. But the paragraph above is nuts on several levels ranging from the commonly accepted definition of the patriarchy as a European phenomenon, the location of major population explosions, the nature of climate models, the question of whether or not children have rights, and the disjoint in her rhetoric between children and their cause. 

Reflections on Abraham

Abraham and Melchizedek in the Loggia di Raffaello in Vatican City.

What is a father?

Genesis presents Abraham as being the father of many nations.

The whole Bible presents the Israelites as the ‘sons of Abraham’ on multiple occasions.

The New Testament, in particular, presents anybody with appropriate faith in God (whatever that means…but usually faith in Christ) as a child of Abraham.

This is significant for many reasons, not the least of which is that the father in the Bible is a figure for the accumulated wisdom of the past in a way that is indicative of a divine voice:[1]

See: Proverbs 1:8,10,15; 2:1; 3:1,11,21; 4:10,20; 5:1,20; 6:1,3,20; 7:1; 19:27; 23:15,19,26; 24:13,21; 27:11; 31:2.

Why does this matter? Abraham’s story in the Bible could be read as a representation of the ideal life of goodness in a post-catastrophic world. Or in question and answer format:

Q: In a world where evil, disaster, and death are a given, what does it mean to seek the good God has for us in the world?

A: Look at Abraham.

The New Testament does not shy away from this answer, despite having Jesus as an example. Jesus, in John 8 points to the works of Abraham. Paul in Romans 4 and Galatians 3-4 points to the faith of Abraham. Hebrews is largely about Abraham’s patient faith in God. And James 2 points directly at the good works of Abraham as exemplary even for those after the resurrection of Christ.

Below are my reflections on some of the passages that indicate that Genesis means for us to see Abraham as an example of the good life:

Genesis 12:1-3

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (2) And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. (3) I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

In the passage above, we see that there is an implied condition. Abraham must go to be made into a great nation. That Genesis presents the promise as fulfilled shows that we’re meant to see Abraham as a man who kept a covenant with God. Incidentally, he also took the offer out of self-interest. I’ve written about this before.

Genesis 17:1-8

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, (2) that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” (3) Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, (4) “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. (5) No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. (6) I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. (7) And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. (8) And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”

Here, God’s covenant is made more explicit. It’s called a covenant and in it Abraham is promised to be a father of nations. But what is the condition, “walk before me and be blameless.” The reader is to understand that Abraham actually did do this. God promises to make Abraham very fruitful here, which hearkens back to Noah and Adam as the first man and the second first man. While I don’t quote it, the covenant above includes circumcision, which appears to be a civilizational curtailing of sexual obsession. “You’ll be fruitful but there is a limit to that.” I suspect that circumcision goes back to Genesis 2:22-24 to indicate that sexuality is a blessing and a limitation. Abraham is to be the father of many but that understanding is that his sexuality and those of his children be limited by the wound and healing power of marriage.

Genesis 24:1

Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years. And the LORD had blessed Abraham in all things.

And this passage shows that by the end of it all, Abraham had been blessed by God in all things. He kept the covenant as best a man can in the circumstances (fallen nature, a barbaric world, and a pagan worldview). And so the indication is that if a reader/listener to Genesis wants to experience the blessing offered to humanity in Genesis 1:26-31, being like Abraham is a stable method of doing so.

This is the affirmation of the Old and New Testaments, of prophets, apostles, and Jesus.

Footnote

[1] Obviously, fathers can also be wrong which is why the Bible commends listening more than tradition, like Scripture and reason to know the truth.

How-To Even

Previously, in the formerly current year, many people expressed their inability to even.

Here are two examples pulled from a quick twitter search for the phrase:

In this tweet, we read about a woman who is having an eye-brow problem and cannot even because of it.

 

In this tweet, an anonymous wo/man, who appears to protest ‘man-spreading’, ‘can’t even’ at the prospect of a Trump presidency. It’s hard to imagine the hysterics this individual is currently experiencing.

But I submit to you that you can. You can even. And here’s how:

  1. Stop publicly emoting about your inability to even. Simply note the emotion and ask, “How can I even solve this problem?”
  2. Write down what you will even do fifteen times a day, “I, so and so, will even do ‘X’.”
  3. Actually, start to even do the thing.

In three easy steps even you can even.

All sarcasm aside, it is certainly the case that saying “I can’t even” does affect how you think and act by effecting in you a static mindset or an ‘entity identity’. With your mindset so enslaved to that identity, your perceptions are aligned to reality in a fashion that no longer allows you to change.

 

A Psychology of Romance

Genesis 2:20-24 ESV The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. (21) So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. (22) And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. (23) Then the man said,“This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (24) Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

In Genesis 2, man is missing something. He is missing a fit companion. This is significant on several levels, not least of which that hermit like contemplation of God is not sufficient for human flourishing despite Adam’s unique possession of immediacy with respect to his knowledge of God.

But to the point, this is a passage that gives a mythological explanation of marriage. By mythological, I mean a story that tells a society what they need to know.

What does society need to know about marriage?

  1. It’s a transcendently inspired institution. It is not necessary for our biological functioning, but it enhances, ennobles, and enables our animals selves to build worlds beyond what seems possible.
  2. It hurts. Adam must undergo a loss to get married. This is true of women as well. You cease to be a member of your previous household, your romantic options are limited to one, and your private time is curtailed. Marriage is a wound.
  3. Marriage solves the problem of loneliness. Despite Adam’s marriage story being a story about a wound, Adam finds Eve to be “flesh of my flesh.” She completes him. And the story does say that God “closed up” Adam’s wound.
  4. In the sense above, marriage is like any choice. A choice says, “No.” to millions of other options. But it opens up new possibilities. When you’re married you can build your own household, dynasty, or mini-civilization. You take on the power of God in that you can make children and fill/populate the earth as he did.
  5. You leave your parents’ household with all of their knowledge and can improve upon their errors and learn from the wisdom of another household. In this sense, marriage transmits the glories of civilization in a way that allows for persistent improvement.

All of that appears to be what this passage says…or something like that.

Brief thoughts on Eden

In Genesis 1:1-2, God creates chaos and starts to bring order into the world.

In Genesis 2, the author is retelling the creation story. You can tell because Adam and Eve are made on different days, and Adam precedes the plants and animals. That’s not a contradiction any more than Jesus telling a set of parables about sheep, coins, and prodigal sons is a contradiction.

But anyway, the chaos/order motif is still present in Genesis 2. Man must tend the garden (Genesis 2:15). There is a wall (garden means ‘enclosed region’). The waters, which represented chaos in Genesis 1:1-2 are present but flow out of the garden (I suspect we’re supposed to suppose that that’s how the serpent got in).

Anyway, Eden represents a sort of ideal picture of the correct composition of chaos and order, potentiality and actuality.

It’s important to see Eden as a picture of the promise to God’s people as well, and the Bible gives us that, but in Genesis 2, Eden isn’t that yet. For instance, when Adam is put there there is something “not good” (Gen 2:18).

I think there’s a moral/spiritual application of the Eden story which we often overlook about how we manage our families, property, work space, and so-on. There will be a measure of unrealized potential in any well-ordered space. If you over-order a garden (let’s say by mowing it down) it’s not longer beautiful nor fruitful. But there’s less chaos. If you let a garden overgrow too much, perhaps there will be no safe fruit left.

So there’s a picture of something like, “in the space which God gives you, you’re responsible for ensuring that it is orderly in a fashion that does not destroy it’s potential but brings new potential out of that place.”

Of course, every choice to create order in a room or in your life is saying no to millions of other choices. But each new choice can be made in a way that makes space for new chaos/potential to be discovered. There are Proverbs about this very thing:

Proverbs 14:4 Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.

Proverbs 24:27 Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house.

Without an ox, there’s no ox cleanup (less chaos), but there is more work.

If you build yourself a house where you can relax and chill before you order your field in a fashion in which working it is convenient, you may not work.

And here are some OT laws about this:

Leviticus 25:1-7 ESV The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, (2) “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the LORD. (3) For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, (4) but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the LORD. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. (5) You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. (6) The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired worker and the sojourner who lives with you, (7) and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food.

 

What is my calling?

Briefly, Jesus outlines the calling for every Christian here:

Mark 12:29-31 ESV Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. (30) And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ (31) The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

This isn’t a very specific answer, but it’s a very significant one.

It’s in response to Jesus being asked what the most important part of the law is. Why would somebody ask that? Because they’re hoping to trip Jesus up or they’re hoping for some sort of permission or endorsement of their current way of life. In the case of the Israelites of Jesus’ day, they were looking for laws connected to overthrowing the Romans or perhaps gaining public honor through religious ritual (Matthew 6:1-18).

But the most important thing, before you start looking to do some “world changing” or “personally enriching task” is to learn to appreciate God and to bring well-being to your neighbor.

From the outside in?

The pattern we typically set for people who wish to be more like Christ is this:

Start from the inside out.

It’s not unreasonable. Jesus says roughly that to the Pharisees:

Matthew 23:25-26 ESV “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. (26) You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

And I think the advice in generally sound. But, sometimes people’s desire to be like Jesus is evidence that the Holy Spirit is already working on the inside and they need something to do to actualize the potential God is putting there.

First, a passage from Proverbs:

Proverbs 24:30-31 ESV I passed by the field of a sluggard, by the vineyard of a man lacking sense, (31) and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns; the ground was covered with nettles, and its stone wall was broken down.

What the passage is getting at is that the sluggard won’t even care for his own property. And the problem with the sluggard is a spiritual problem. But it would seem that taking care of the outside, the literal outside of his house (his field), might help his inside. And Proverbs does mention something like that:

Proverbs 24:27 ESV Prepare your work outside; get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house.

The meaning is very practical, but it may have a spiritual application as well.

If so, for some Christians, especially young men and women, maybe the first steps in discipleship might really be things like:

  1. Clean your apartment.
  2. Clean out your car.
  3. Change your oil.
  4. Get out of debt.
  5. Get to work/class on time.
  6. Groom yourself.

One somebody turns their life into something resembling order, it might be easier to help them overcome something like despair, arrogance, porn, or anxiety.

#Science: The Uses of Garlic

I typically try to relocate based on a particular crime statistics.

But believe me, those can be fudged. If you were a criminal on the census or the wing of the FBI gathering crime stats, you would under report incidents to increase the presence of viable prey.

Now, how is this connected to garlic? I eat a lot of garlic, I season eggs, steak, chicken, steak, eggs, and steak with garlic. But I’ve never seasoned stakes with it. Why? In my experience it hasn’t worked.

And while trolling the health study database, I found this:

Vampires are feared everywhere, but the Balkan region has been especially haunted. Garlic has been regarded as an effective prophylactic against vampires. We wanted to explore this alleged effect experimentally. Owing to the lack of vampires, we used leeches instead. In strictly standardized research surroundings, the leeches were to attach themselves to either a hand smeared with garlic or to a clean hand. The garlic-smeared hand was preferred in two out of three cases (95% confidence interval 50.4% to 80.4%). When they preferred the garlic the leeches used only 14.9 seconds to attach themselves, compared with 44.9 seconds when going to the non-garlic hand (p < 0.05). The traditional belief that garlic has prophylactic properties is probably wrong. The reverse may in fact be true. This study indicates that garlic possibly attracts vampires. Therefore to avoid a Balkan-like development in Norway, restrictions on the use of garlic should be considered.

My life makes so much more sense, now. Nearly every experience of senseless violence of which I’ve been a victim is not senseless, but directly related to being scent-ful.

Stay safe out there, folks.