Friday, September 28, 2007

The Great Scheme of Things

I know it's been a while, well, not quite two weeks, but now that I'm in the AARP category, I'm like Uncle Joe (from Petticoat Junction), movin' kinda slow. And, well, starting on the new semester, observing the High Holy Days and now Sukkot, and my 50th (shudder) birthday, along with my son's 14th, all take their toll. Do not ask for whom they take their toll, they take their toll on me.

But I do want to share some MySpace goings-on here, if I may. And I have to say that I have had some very distinct, and some downright off-beat honors in my half century on this earth, but this one has just blown me away. A poet called Voo has written a poem about me, which she has posted on her MySpace blog. If you want the background on how this came to be, you can click here to go to a post I put up on my MySpace blog where I explained it all, and from there you can find a link to the poem itself. Just remember to come back here for the rest of this post.

Or if you want to cut out the middleman (that's me) and go straight to the poem itself, here's a direct link to The Great Scheme of Things. As I wrote on my other post, I am touched, thrilled, honored, flattered, flabbergasted, humbled, overwhelmed, amazed, enthralled, embarasssed, grateful, and absolutely in love with the poem that she wrote. And once again, I want to say, Thank You, Voo! And here's the general link to her blog, which is called The House of Voo. I do want to recommend all of her poetry, not just the one poem she wrote for me.

Now, as if that weren't enough, on the very same day another poet, Daniel Yaryan, put up a post with the heading, Inspired by MySpace poet "Lance Strate"...!!! I'm not sure what's going on here, maybe one of those celestial or astrological things, or maybe some small cosmic rebalancing of the scales for turning 50, maybe the universe is just trying to cheer me up and get me to stop feeling old and tired. I just don't know. But I do know that I am doubly flattered by this, and wrote about it on another post on my MySpace blog, which you can read if you click here.

And once again, there's a link from my page to Yaryan's poem, or you can go directly to WE RETREAT BACK INSIDE. Either way, please do remember to come back here afterwards for the rest of this entry. As I wrote on my other blog, I am grateful to have played some small role in Daniel's creative process, and humbled by his generosity in identifying me as the source of his inspiration for this work. So now let me say, Thank You, Daniel! And here's the general link to his blog, which is called FUTUREMAN PROPAGANDA. I do want to recommend all of his poetry as well, not just this particular entry.

Now, regular readers of my Blog Time Passing (I think there may be 1 or 2 out there) may recall that I started my second blog this summer to play around with some poetry. I make no claims and have no pretensions about being a Poet with a capital P, or an Artist with a capital A, I'm just out to have some fun, and play with language even more freely that I do here on Blog Time Passing, where at the very least I feel obligated to make some kind of sense, and deliver some kind of intellectual content.

And the poetry I've posted has varied in content, some of it silly, some of it spiritual, some of it personal, and some of it media ecological. How could I avoid writing about media ecology, after all? If I forget thee, O media ecology, may my right brain wither!

So, there have been media ecological poems mixed in from the beginning (easiest way to see an entire listing is to click on the Writing and Poetry tag towards the top of each of my poetry posts. And just recently, I posted a trio of media ecological poems.

The first was a poem about blogs and blog culture, especially as it exists on MySpace. And as a play on the name of my MySpace blog, Lance Strate's BlogVersed, I called the poem Blog Versus (and this is the fourth poem that plays with that blog name). So, this was the poem that inspired Yaryan to come up with his own poetic take on the Blog Wars theme.

The second was a short and silly verse entitled Yo! Yo! Johann! Mainz Your Own Business! which of course is about Gutenberg's invention of the printing press.

And the third I called In the Age of Show Business, which is dedicated to the memory of Neil Postman. Neil passed away just before Yom Kippur began four years ago, and he was in my thoughts when I recited the Kaddish last Friday and Saturday at services at Congregation Adas Emuno.

I also want to acknowledge another, different kind of loss here, that of a virtual friend. I knew her from MySpace, and she often posted comments here on Blog Time Passing, as well as over there, and I enjoyed reading her own blog here on blogspot. For some reason unknown to me, she suddenly deleted her MySpace profile last week, along with her blogger blog, in effect eradicating her virtual presence, at least as far as I know. To be honest, I am worried about her wellbeing, and just hope that this withdrawal from the virtual world does not reflect something more serious in the physical world. And I do miss our exchanges of messages and comments. The friendship was virtual, the sadness is real.

It seems that there is never joy without some sadness present as well, but the compensation is that there is never sadness without at least some small cause for joy. And that, I suppose, is the way things go, in the great scheme of things.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

I'm a Lumberjack and I'm Okay

Going by the convention that your birthday begins at midnight, at the start of the day, as I begin this entry I am less than half an hour away from turning fifty, 50, the big FIVE-OH! And I know that everyone older than me is going: so what? big deal! I wish I was 5o again! And then there are the young'uns who are horrified at the thought. And I admit, it has gotten to me a bit. I thought I was doing okay for a while, but with a difficult and draining summer, I've found myself battling depression, and this particular birthday is one of those round numbers that serve to underline the fact that I'm not getting any younger, I'm no spring chicken, I'm past my prime, well into middle age, into my silver years, now entitled to my very own AARP card (hey, the discounts aren't bad!).

So it goes. And the rational part of myself tries to remind me that the number is entirely arbitrary, that I will be no different in, yikes, 22 minutes now, than I am right now. But we human beings live and die by the symbol, don't we, and right now it feels closer to the latter than the former.

So what? Didn't someone once say, life begins at 50? Must have been one of those sixties things. Who did say that, anyway? Hmm, let's do a quick Google search and... no luck! But here are some funny quotes from a page about aging:

"Maybe it's true that life begins at 50... but everything else starts to wear out, fall out, or spread out."
- Phyllis Diller

"The cardiologist's diet: If it tastes good spit it out."
- Unknown

"By the time a man is wise enough to watch his step, he's too old to go anywhere."
- Billy Crystal

"I don't feel old. I don't feel anything until noon. Then it's time for my nap."
- Bob Hope

"We could certainly slow the aging process down if it had to work its way through Congress."
- Will Rogers

"Don't worry about avoiding temptation... as you grow older, it will avoid you."
- Winston Churchill

And I remember Bill Clinton turning 50 while he was in the White House, and being asked how it felt. His response was, it's better than the alternative. And that's for damn sure, in fact, let me raise a glass and drink some beer to everyone I've known who has not made it this far. To you, my friends.

And to me. *hic*!

Well, now it's nine minutes to go, and I suppose I could be thinking of all the things I had wanted to accomplish by the time I was 50, and either congratulate myself for achieving them, or bemoan the fact that I never got to do them. But the truth of the matter is that I never thought much about celebrating my 50th birthday before, never actually thought I'd make it this far. I recall Mickey Mantle saying something like, if I'd known I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself. I can second that one. Oh, well.

Oops, only six minutes left. Let me go get another drink and we'll celebrate the moment together.

No beer left, but I do have some Scotch, so I've having some, on the rocks (I know, I'm a wuss). Scotch is about right for 50, anyway. So, it's four minutes to go. Make that 3.

Isn't the sense of time here strange. On the one hand, it's like it's happening right now, and you're here with me, in the moment. On the other hand, this can only be read well after the time it was written. Oh well, 2 minutes to go.

Why am I blogging now. Well, to tell you the truth, no one else is awake here at home, so you're my only friend. Thash rite, yer the only wun hoo reeelly undershtandsh me! Oops, just one more minute of not being 50. Tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick and thar she blows. It is done.

One Half of One CENTURY!

Well, happy birthday to me! Boy, this really sucks! More Scotch. Actually, I was celebrating a bit the last few days, celebrating my last days of not being 50. Now, what's to celebrate?

Enough already, I hear you saying. What about the lumberjack? Ah yes, I'm glad you reminded me of that. Okay, here's something to celebrate. A couple of weeks ago, we were all out on the patio behind our house, my daughter was swimming all day in the large blow up pool we had there, my son was in there for a bit too, we had a little barbecue dinner right there, it was a beautiful night, so we lingered out back until finally going inside.

Maybe half an hour later, the wind had suddenly started to blow real hard, and then I heard an enormous crash, the whole house shook, tiles fell off of the ceiling in the kitchen, and my first reaction was to make sure everyone else was okay, of course. It took a while to figure out what had happened, but basically there was a dead tree on this little patch of territory we have under the patio (we live on a hill), and the trunk had cracked and it broke, falling against the side of the house.

The bottom part of the broken tree landed right in the swimming pool, right where my children were not too long ago. Needless to say, they could have been killed, we all could have been killed. Miraculously, not only were we all safe indoors when it happened, but the house itself did not seem to be more than superficially damaged. I said a traditional Hebrew prayer of thanks to God for preserving and sustaining us, and especially the children.

So, we were left with a broken tree leaning against the house, the other end in the swimming pool, which had lost a good amount of water, but was still quite full. Being a bit short on funds, I said I would buy a chainsaw after the next paycheck, and take care of this myself. To be honest, I have never even been near a chainsaw before. My entire knowledge on this subject comes from having seen the original version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and from the Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness movies.

And I know there are those who will laugh at the fact that I felt intimidated by this, but what can I say, I grew up in an apartment building. And it was a rather large tree leaning against the house, and I was concerned about it falling on me when I cut it, or falling and damaging something else. And there was a bad combination of lots of water from the pool, and electricity around. So anyway, obviously, I survived the experience, all my limbs are intact, and now I can say that the one thing I wanted to do before I was 50 was use a chainsaw, and I have fulfilled that goal. Hindsight is truly a kick in the head.

So, anyway, what with cutting logs and all, and using them to flatten down the sides of the pool to empty the water out (which I did yesterday, finishing the job today after everything had dried out overnight), I was balancing on the logs (albeit not very well) and felt like I was a kid again, playing at being a lumberjack (log rolling and jumping from log to log as they moved down a river was a staple of cartoons when I was a kid).

So, I have discovered that life as a lumberjack begins at 50, or right before. And that brings to mind the famous Lumberjack song from my all-time favorite television comedy group (and not too bad in the movies, either), Monty Python's Flying Circus;

and now for something completely different, or slightly different, anyway:

and now for something a little less similar, machinima style:

and another machinima version:

these guys were really brilliant, and well-educated. Here's them doing a German version:

and just to show that there is life after 50, or 60 even, here are the surviving Pythons at the 2002 George Harrison Tribute. There's a bit of extra material to begin with, but just wait and they'll go into the Lumberjack song once again:

And that about sums it up, I am a lumberjack, and I am okay, now, being 50-years old. Fifty, man, who'd a thunk...

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

From 9/11 to 5768

It's a rainy day in New York City this September 11th, six years after the 9/11. Every anniversary of that day of death and destruction is sad, but this year the heavens seemed to have opened up to add their tears to our own terrestrial ones. I'm not going to try to duplicate or imitate the mainstream media coverage of the anniversary, or include photographs as reminders of that day. It's all burned into our memories, I would think, and if not, that material is readily available elsewhere. And as with all things, so much emphasis and repetition starts to drain events and memories of their meaning.

Instead, I went back through my e-mail messages to find the ones I posted on the media ecology listserv at that time (this was before we switched over to our current host). I found that I had posted the following message to our virtual community on the evening of September 11th, 2001, at 8:00 PM, with the subject line simply reading WTC:

I heard the first report in New Jersey on the car radio, newsradio
broadcasters talking to eyewitnesses by telephone. At first, they thought
it might have been an accident. During one conversation, the second plane
hit, and they weren't sure what happened, whether it was an explosion, or
a helicopter that got too close. I saw the plumes of smoke where the
World Trade Center used to be. I can't believe the twin towers are just

I know there are people on this list who were much closer to ground zero,
and I pray they are all well.

The video footage is unbelievable. I can't help noticing the similarities
it has with films like Independence Day, and I wonder if our
computer-generated disasters didn't somehow play a role in making this
nightmare manifest. MSNBC had a background visual, behind two separate
windows, that repeated the collapse of the 2nd building over and over every
few seconds, and I found it nauseating. So much slick video, all the
"America Under Attack" logos, so soon into the special disaster coverage!
And so many cable channels like MTV turning their programming over to
network news. Local coverage dominated the NYC network stations, so it
was good to get the big picture from these other stations' network feeds.

So much on technology here. Skyscrapers, jets, cell phone calls from
hostages, the loss of local broadcasting with the collapse of the 2nd
tower, but not cable, and UHF stations, many public, broadcasting the feeds
of the major stations. Telephone service disrupted. And the Internet all
but unaffected! Perhaps it really could withstand a nuclear attack. Maybe
the terrorists are attacking the wrong target?

I just heard the local CBS station reporting on significant people on the 4
flights. Everyone named was from TV or professional sports.
Media/celebrity logic. The lack of information on casualties is chilling.

They just reported that police stopped a truck filled with explosives
under the George Washington Bridge.

I'd welcome seeing others' accounts and reactions.

I found another message to the listserv dated September 16th, 2001, which began:

I am still in shock, and have had a hard time doing much else than watch
the television coverage these past days.
I then mentioned some of the people we knew who had been lost, which I am going to omit here. The rest of the message went as follows:

The local coverage has devoted considerable time to
the desparate family members and friends who are searching for their loved
ones, describing them, displaying flyers and pictures, pleading for
information. It is heartbreaking.

Flags are being displayed everywhere now. We had two, so we put them up on
the front and side of our house. The thick black smoke that replaced the
twin towers in the skyline that we see from across the Hudson has faded to
a thinner, white cloud. Commercials are being reintroduced, along with
regular television programming. Is this the all-clear signal?

I posted a poem on my MySpace poetry blog about 9/11, and you can click here to go that page and see it in that context, in its proper layout (which I wasn't able to duplicate here because blogger doesn't have the indent commands that MySpace does) along with the comments people posted about it there, and my responses. But I'm going to include it here as well:

what followed

following the shock and the panic
the desperate race to collect the children
and huddle together in what once was
the safety of the home
the black curtain of smoke
rising in the distance
the horror replaying replaying replaying on TV
(but cable only, the networks knocked off the air)

following the exodus, stuck in traffic
the tiny sliver of an island sealed off
like some bad sci fi movie

following the chaos and the confusion
the mad rush to the supermarket
the cries of disbelief and anger
the first of many tears

following the day of madness

came a long moment of silence
a time of stillness
a quiet never known before
in the city of cities
no cars on the road
no planes overhead
no people rushing to work, or play
the ever-present buzz was gone
the white noise replaced by black silence

and all that could be heard
was a whispered accounting:

one brother
one husband
one son


On September 17, 2001 (which was my 44th birthday), I posted another message to the listserv:

There were a lot of tears in Temple tonight as we observed the beginning of
the year 5762, a span of time that roughtly coincides with the entirety of
the history of writing, of written history, and of what we at times call
the history of civilization. It is customary to say at this time, may
you be inscribed in the book of life for the coming year, and I can think
of no better wish to send out to you all than this. Live, that we may
reverse eviL.

As I recall, my colleague Paul Thaler, then from Mercy College, now at Adelphi University, liked that last line, "Live, that we may reverse eviL," (without the final capital "L") so much that he quoted it in his keynote address at the New York State Communication Association's annual conference.

This year, Rosh Hashanah begins tomorrow evening, September 12th, 2007, and it represents, again, a very welcome affirmation of life following this day of mourning and remembrance. The new year will be 5768, and while Rosh Hashanah is a religious holiday for the Jewish people, the Jewish New Year, it is also considered the birthday of the world, and in a sense belongs to everyone. And this oldest of calendars, as old as writing itself, also belongs to all of humanity. Plus, in our new age, where among other things, Kabbalah is embraced by many non-Jews, this is a time of hope and reflection that all can share in.

We are accustomed to a calendar where the old year ends and the new one begins shortly after the winter solstice, and we therefore employ metaphors where spring represents youth, and winter old age. But the Jewish calendar represents an alternate way of punctuating and representing the solar cycle, one that is not entirely alien as it also coincides with what we refer to as the school year, which begins in the fall, climaxes, in a sense towards the end of spring, and tapers off in summer.

With all that in mind, I wrote another poem where I tried to capture that different sense of the yearly cycle, and to personify it. I used subtle references to the Jewish calendar and holidays, so as to leave the sense of spirituality open to interpretation, allowing non-Jews to relate to this more easily than would be possible if I had been more specific. Again, you can click here to see it on my other blog, along with comments, but I will also include it below:

Head First

Head first, she emerges
newly born from the womb of eternity,
takes a breath, and trumpets her arrival,
crying, here I am, here I am!

Her name is carved
on the great Tree of Life,
whose trunk is a winding,
ever-widening scroll,
and so begins the cycle of renewal,
first days, a time of awe, and reflection,
summer's end, and lessons newly begun.

The infant suckles honeyed milk
at her mother's tabernacle breast,
she is fed from the first harvest,
meals prepared for her in the year now gone,
she is schooled in ancient, sacred knowledge,
beginning in the beginning with the very first utterance,
she learns the secrets of the ox-house line.

In winter, she comes of age,
it is a time of trials,
as she takes her place,
a daughter, dutiful and diligent,
kindling lights to defend against the darkness,
conquering the cold night with courage and compassion,
now sound, and strong, in mind, and soul, and heart.

Come spring, and she is crowned as Queen,
rejoicing as the waters part to let her pass,
celebrating freedom and fertility,
delighting in life,
reveling in sacrament,
entering into the covenant of love,
sowing seeds for the harvest to come,
consecrating herself to the future's conception,
she is eager to bear her burden.

As summer arrives, weariness sets in,
she feels heavy with the passing of days,
sadness for all that she has left behind,
but, as well, she feels the warmth of wisdom, and
contentment with all that she has achieved, and accomplished.

It is time to slow down, to rest,
to prepare for the final labors,
so that she may welcome
the daughter, yet unborn,
who will take her autumnal turn,
head first, into creation.

And so, on this sad day, I want to wish everyone a good year, a sweet year, a happy and healthy year, and as we say on Rosh Hashanah: May you be inscribed in the book of life for another year!

Thursday, September 6, 2007

On Media Literacy and Media Ecology

I reported on a media literacy conference, held at the end of May and beginning June, in a series of posts here (Screenings and Conversations, More Conversations, Last Round of Screenings and Conversations), which was sponsored, in large part, by the European Observatory of Children's Television (OETI), headquartered in Barcelona. OTEI puts out a periodical, PaideiaTV, and I completed an e-mail interview for them a few days ago, and thought I would share some of my answers here.

PaideiaTV: What path and motivation have led you to your present work?

Me: I have always had an interest in intellectual and creative activities, and found that higher education was a good environment for me to pursue my interests. As an undergraduate at Cornell University, I was introduced to some of the key concepts that form the basis of the media ecology intellectual tradition, such as the approach to understanding media and technology of Marshall McLuhan and Jacques Ellul, among others, along with general semantics and linguistic relativism, and cybernetics and systems theory. My studies continued as a masters student at Queens College of the City University of New York, where I was introduced to other key thinkers such as Walter Ong, Harold Innis, and Walter Benjamin. And I completed my doctorate at New York University working with Neil Postman, who first formalized media ecology as a field of inquiry. I firmly believe that the media ecology intellectual tradition offers the best approach to understanding human history in its entirety, as well as understanding our contemporary situation, and providing insight on how we might makes things better for the future.

PaideiaTV: What fundamental difference is there between Media Literacy and Media Ecology?

Me: They really are two very different kinds of concerns. Media Literacy is often characterized as a movement, and is specifically concerned with education and schooling, and with practical approaches to educational and media policy, to teaching and curriculum development, to developing mastery in media production and/or instilling a critical approach to media reception. Media ecologists share these concerns, and media literacy has traditionally been seen as part of the media ecology tradition, although many of those who are associated with media literacy seem to be unaware of the foundations laid by media ecologists such as Marshall McLuhan, Edmund Carpenter, Walter Ong, Neil Postman, among others, during the 1950s and 1960s.

Media ecology, on the other hand, is not a movement, but rather an intellectual tradition with roots in antiquity, one that starts to take form in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and coalesces following the Second World War. Media ecology casts a much wider net than media literacy, as the concept of "medium" and "media" is used in the braodest sense to include all forms of technology and technique, all codes, symbol systems, and forms of language and communication, and all kinds of contexts, situations (e.g., the classroom as a medium) and systems. Media ecologists often prefer a philosophic approach to understanding these phenomena, engaging in forms of cultural history as well as extrapolations concerning the future of communication, consciousness, and culture. While there is a wide range of interests and methodologies associated with our field, many media ecology scholars focus on the big picture in their scholarship, in contrast to individuals more closely associated with media literacy.

While we have a strong common ground in our interest in media education, media ecologists would particularly emphasize understanding the history, nature, and effects of different media and technologies, understanding how speech is what defines us as a species, how the rise of cities and complex societies is intimately tied to the development of writing, how the modern era begins with the invention of the printing press with moveable type in 15th century Europe, and how electronic media such as television and the internet have moved us into an entirely new era of history. Our concern is with the differences that make a difference, and that is why media ecologists sometimes object to the term, "media literacy," because it implies that different media can all be subsumed under the same heading of "literacy," and ignores the fact that "literacy" (which means "lettered") actually refers to one specific category of media, those in which an alphabet is used to create written documents. The distinction between the written word and television, radio, and movies, for example, is lost when we refer to all of them as involving "literacy," and all of them as comprised of "texts" that are to be "read" in some manner. While it is understood that "literacy" is a useful metaphor for dealing with school boards and officials who do not really understand why media education is important, there is a sense in which the term "media literacy" is an oxymoron, and actually using the term "media literacy" suggests that a kind of "media illiteracy" is present. But I want to emphasize that there is no quarrel with what the term represents, only this particular choice of words.

PaideiaTV: In a society where audio-visual and media culture is more and more relevant what place does education occupy, and should occupy within this culture?

Me: Education is central to every culture, or else the culture fails to reproduce itself and dies out. But education for most of human history was a function that was dispersed throughout the society itself, and that was carried out simply through the child's interaction with elders, and though more formal relationships such as apprenticeship. It was only after the invention of writing that schools were in turn invented as a mechanism for teaching individuals how to read and write. And while the nature of schooling has varied widely over the centuries and across cultures, the basic connection between literacy and schooling has remained. The introduction of a variety of different communication technologies over the past two centuries have gradually eroded the near-monopoly that schools held over education, so that for some time now schools have been competing with other educational institutions collectively known as the mass media, and the new media. Competing and losing the competition, I should add, because children start learning from the media at an earlier age than from schooling, spend more time with the media than in the schools, and prefer their mediated experiences to sitting in a classroom. And they learn more from media, although the value of what they learn is a matter of some debate. So too is the question of how the schools should respond to this situation. Some media ecologists argue that schools need to become more like the media in order to appeal to children, capture their attention, and provide an education more relevant to contemporary social conditions. Others argue that schools need to serve as a counterbalance to the prevailing media biases, and try to preserve the literate culture that they are associated with, even if it is a losing battle, because all that we value about our world today is a product of literate culture. Either way, there is consensus on the need to teach children the historical context for understanding our contemporary media environment, to teach critical thinking and decoding skills, and to teach something about how technology works and how messages are created. But this requires a solid grounding in arts education, including the literary arts, as well as comparative religion.

PaideiaTV: How is it possible to incorporate Media Ecology into education, both formal school education and non formal – Boy Scouts, day camps? What methodological perspectives are put into practice?

Me: We have to begin by having the students analyze the situation they find ourselves in. If it's formal schooling, let's start by talking about the classroom. What are the rules, both the ones that are formally acknowledged, and those that are unspoken but generally known by all? What would happen if someone violated those rules? Why is the classroom set up the way it is? How would things be different if it were set up in a different configuration? Or, if there were different furniture, lights, etc.? Every situation brings with it a learning opportunity where we can ask, why do we do the things we do here, and what about this situation shapes the way that we feel, think, and act? And we can start to ask these same questions in relation to the way we experience a newspaper, or television program, or website, or the way we talk on the telephone or instant message someone online. This kind of approach could work equally well outside of the school. Also, we could explore the problems of memorization, or how to organize a group to perform coordinated actions without recourse to written instructions. A more traditional project would be researching the history and characteristics of a particular medium or technology, or touring a factory, or interviewing people who work in a particular media industry. It is also possible to engage in ethnographic research, observing people's media usage, as well as one's own. One particularly interesting exercise requires individuals to go on a media fast, avoiding all media use, mass media, new media, perhaps even telephones, possibly even reading and writing (with an exception made for school assignments), and then to write up their experiences.

And there you have it. Of course, it will probably sound, and look a lot better when it's translated into Spanish, although the publication will also include the original English. I probably should have included something about analyzing the fact that this was an interview, one conducted by e-mail which means it was not so much an oral interview as it was a kind of written examination, but that it will appear in a form that suggests a conversation, but it will appear that way in a typographic medium.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Proof That God Exists

If the title of this post led you to believe that I was going to provide you with proof that God exists, I suppose I better state right up front that this is not the case. And I probably should apologize for knowingly you misleading you as well, if you in any way feel that you have been misled by this. I can assure you my intent is not a malicious one, but rather that I feel a bit of play in not out of bounds even when approaching a serious subject.

This post has its origins in a bulletin board discussion on MySpace, one devoted to Judaism, where the topic had to do with whether it was possible to prove that the Torah is true, and that God exists, and whether atheists would ever accept such proof (one of the participants in this thread identified himself as an atheist, another was a strong believer). Anyway, what follows is my own extended comment on the subject, which brings up some themes dealt with in previous posts here on the subject of religion and Judaism in particular. I should add that the comments on proof and truth are pretty basic for anyone who has studied logic, rhetoric, or the philosophy of science. Anyway, here goes:

I just was looking through this thread, and thought I'd drop a few comments in. For one, the words "proof" and "true" mean different things in different contexts. For example, if you are working deductively as you would in a mathematical or logical system, then you can evaluate the internal consistency of your argument, as in, for example, the classic syllogism, all men are mortal, Plato is a man, therefore Plato is mortal. But this says nothing about the validity of the initial premise, and it would be just as true to say that all men are immortal, Plato is a man, therefore Plato is immortal, or all men are green, Plato is a man, therefore Plato is green. Religions of the book, that is religions grounded in literacy, and Judaism is the first in any real sense, tend to seek this type of internal consistency, trying to eliminate contradictions. But no evaluation of the first premises, there is a God, there is only one God, etc., is really possible, all you can do is accept or reject them.

Modern science, on the other hand, tends to work inductively, following the empirical method, which means starting with the facts on the ground, what is observable to the senses, building theories consistent with those facts, and testing them out over and over again to make sure they hold, are reproducible. And while scientists do talk about proving something true sometimes, they basically mean that it is highly probable, and that this is the best explanation they have come up with so far, but that explanation is always tentative and subject to further revision. Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science, argued that you can never prove anything true scientifically, because the possibility always exists of finding evidence to the contrary in the future. That's why everything is just a theory, including evolution, a point that fundamentalists have seized on and distorted to fit their agenda. What this does mean is that we can never achieve absolute scientific truth, but we can make progress by eliminating error, and thereby draw closer to the truth. And what this means is that any statement that cannot be tested and potentially falsified is not scientific. For example, if you cannot identify what evidence would falsify the statement that God exists, then that statement cannot be evaluated scientifically. It is simply outside of science's universe of discourse. And while not all atheists are scientists, part of the support for atheism comes from the fact that scientists simply cannot deal with the God hypothesis, and are able to go about their business, and are quite successful at understanding the world and making predictions about it, without the God hypothesis.

This is not to say that the atheists are right, just to say that their disbelief is entirely rational, and that scientism, by which I mean a belief and faith in science itself, has displaced theism for many people. Faith in science has been shaken in some ways, however, over the past half century, so it may also be a case of nihilism that leads people to reject the belief in God.

But one other point that I would make is that there has been a historical procession from what we might most generally term polytheism, otherwise known as paganism, animism, etc., to monotheism, to atheism. Tribal peoples as far as I know believe that spirits, supernatural beings, and/or gods exist all around us, they are legion, so to speak, nature personified as rivers, wells, ocean, trees, mountains, thunder and lightning, the sun, moon, stars, sky, etc. You might say that the default state is to see the sacred in everything, to be spiritual to the extreme, and to believe in a very concrete, immanent sense of the divine.

Judaism marks the first major transition from concrete polytheism to the more abstract concept of monotheism, one God who is transcendent rather than immanent, not in the world or any part of it, but separate from it, invisible and in a sense immaterial, by which I mean pure spirit, and abstract to the extremes of all knowing, all powerful, omnipresent, etc. The more we go over to this concept of the divine, the less personified and more distant God becomes. It is a very difficult concept to accept, which is why there are forms of monotheism that include relatively concrete intermediaries between God and humanity.

The trajectory from the concrete to the abstract coincides with the shift from oral cultures, societies that have no writing system at all or hardly use the one they have, to literate cultures where there is at least a class of people who know how to read and write—literacy facilitates abstract thinking, orality discourages it. Of course, it follows that Judaism is intimately linked to the aleph-bet and, as mentioned, is the first fully bookish religion. The problem that the founders of our religion had to face was not atheism, and in fact atheism would be all but inconceivable in oral/tribal cultures. No, the problem is getting people who are accustomed to concrete thinking and polytheism to think differently, more abstractly, in order to accept the concept of monotheism. Graven images were banned not only because they are an expression of polytheism, but also because they encourage concrete thinking and serve as rival to the written word.

But what happens when we continue to think ever more abstractly, as a consequence of becoming ever more literate (literacy having been encouraged, for example, through the invention of the printing press)? Well, the concept of allness, of everything-there-is, is highly abstract, but even more abstract is the notion of nothingness, the null set, zero, the vanishing point, etc. So, there is an evolution, if you like, from polytheism to monotheism to deism and atheism, as a natural procession.

Does this suggest that this same procession is indeed a progression, that we have moved forward in our thinking as we have conceived of the divine in increasingly more abstract terms, until we have abstracted God out of existence? It would be possible to make that argument, yes.

But it would also be possible to argue that monotheism is the middle ground between two extremes of polytheism and atheism, the moderate position, the mediator between two polar oppositions, and the ultimate synthesis between polytheism as thesis and atheism as antithesis.

Which returns me to the point that we have not found any way to prove any of this true, or false, at least so far. And I suppose that why we refer to religions as faiths.