Category Archives: Postmodernism
To my thinking, THE CODDLING OF THE AMERICAN MIND is really two books which I would rate very differently and as such the average overall rating (three stars) is misleading. The first three chapters are excellent and I would rate that portion of the book as four or five stars. They delineate the root causes behind many of the disturbing trends one sees in the thinking and conduct of undergraduates today and analyzes these causes in terms of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). They distill their observations and recommendations into three lies and about nine pit falls in thinking CBT attempts to counteract. I found these ideas very helpful and continue to use them to analyze my own thinking. I will read these chapters over and over again.
I am much less sanguine about the second part of the book which provides anecdotes, supposedly in support of the early chapters. Reiterating the events at Evergreen State College was useful, but for most of the anecdotes and discussion, I found that the authors broke their own rules. They used labeling extensively without clearly defining their labels. Many of the labels were highly pejorative, yet as far as I could see the authors did not explain why the labels were appropriate. They seemed to engage in mind reading (another of the pitfalls) in that they seemed confident they knew what motivated the various non-university groups which they also seemed to blame for the anxiety-ridden undergraduate mindset.
When I finished and thought about what I had read, it seemed to me they were aiming for an “equality of blame” in their analysis of the anecdotes. This made no sense to me. The university administrations establish codes of conduct, enforce them, hire faculty, permit or exclude external speakers, and ultimately decide if they will support or not support teachers and students that are under attack for their views. Similarly the reading lists, course work, examinations, and grading are carried out by the faculty. Furthermore professors, by their own conduct and the way they approach questions provide examples to the students on how one should behave as one purses truth in an unbiased and objective manner.
It seems ludicrous to me to argue that outside forces or groups that have trouble even getting an invited speaker onto campus can share equal culpability for how students are turning out.
In summary, the early chapter are excellent and deserve a rating of four or five stars. The rest of the book, to my mind deserves only one or two stars. The average or overall rating, is perhaps, 2.5 to 3 stars.
Here are some additional links to columnists speaking about the sanctioning of Professor Tomas Hudlicky:
Barbara Kay at the National Post … https://bit.ly/2Vtq7Tx-Kay
Jordan Peterson at the National Post … https://bit.ly/3g7HbGK-Peterson
Chapter 9, “The Aberhardt Constant” From The Battle for Halcyon
I did not want to distract from the discussion of the facts around the Tomas Hudlicky sanctioning by talking about the “What If” questions in my writing. In this snippet from The Battle for Halcyon, the faculty are using what they know to gradually move the student body to think a certain way. The fictitious Professor Aberhardt appears before the university senate to complain that they are moving too quickly. As a sociologist he had developed a metric (called by others The Aberhardt Constant) for how fast one can change a subject’s thinking without the subject realizing what is going on. This, of course, is fiction but here is the dialogue:
“What’s all this about Darwin?” asked John Hobbs, wiping his pudgy face with a handkerchief.
Darwin Blackmore considered his colleague for a moment. John Hobbs was short and his extra weight made him look as if he did not have a waist.
Blackmore caught himself stroking his goatee and put his hands down on the conference table in front of him.
“John, I don’t really know what Aberhardt wants to talk to us about. He asked to meet with the Senate Executive Committee on a matter of some urgency. Since he’s a member of the Senate I couldn’t say ‘no.’ I have given him twenty minutes.”
The door opened and Blackmore’s pretty Executive Assistant, Bernice Le Blanc entered and closed the door behind her.
“Professor Aberhardt has arrived for his appointment. Is it convenient for me to bring him in now, or do you need more discussion time?” asked Bernice.
Blackmore looked around the table. “Shall I have him brought in?” Everyone was nodding. Blackmore turned and nodded to Bernice as well.
A few moments later, Bernice ushered Aberhardt into the conference room. Blackmore rose to shake his hand as Bernice left and closed the door behind her. Frederick Aberhardt was an austere man with a long thin face crowned with thin, wild, scraggly hair. His chin was defined by a brown goatee that was as wild as the hair on his head.
“Professor Aberhardt how good it is to see you,” said Blackmore. Blackmore hoped he sounded sincere.
Aberhardt took his hand, but only nodded in acknowledgement.
“Please have a seat at the table,” said Blackmore.
“I’m used to lecturing, so I’ll stand,” said Aberhardt.
Blackmore felt his face getting warm. The pompous swine!
Blackmore turned toward the others and cleared his throat as he tried to regain his composure. With long practice, he made his face impassive.
“Friends, it gives me great pleasure to welcome the distinguished Professor Aberhardt to our council chambers. He is one of the most eminent sociologists of our time. He has written the book The Sociology of Democratic Governance, which received the President’s Award shortly before we were dislocated. Even before the award, the book had become obligatory reading in all serious sociology and political science courses.”
He turned to Professor Aberhardt. “Welcome to our meeting, Frederick. Please tell us about the urgent matter you wanted to talk to us about.” Blackmore sat down and leaned back in his chair.
Aberhardt had a surprisingly loud voice for a thin man and glowered at his audience with piercing eyes.
“As Darwin has said,” began Aberhardt, “I am the pre-eminent sociologist at Halcyon. I’m here to warn you that you are taking a dangerous course. As I listened to our senate deliberations over the last few weeks, it has become clear to me that we are contemplating taking more direct action to bring resisters or rebels into line. WE MUST NOT DO THAT.”
The shock of Aberhardt’s shout, made Hobbs, who had begun to doodle on his note pad, drop his pencil on the floor. He frowned at Aberhardt and shifted his position.
“I’m not sure I follow you, Frederick,” said Blackmore in a soft voice.
“In my book, The Sociology of Democratic Governance, I go to great lengths to define what has subsequently been named the Aberhardt Constant.
“Perhaps you should explain, Frederick, since not everyone here has read your magnificent work recently.”
Aberhardt’s eyes bored into Blackmore, as if questioning whether or not he was being mocked.
Blackmore gave him his most reassuring smile.
Apparently satisfied, Aberhardt went on. “Many governments in the past have tried to direct the thinking of their subjects. They have used force and coercion. Although they appeared successful for a time, they ultimately failed. Why?” Here he thrust his index finger into the air.
“They failed because coercion achieves outward compliance, but had no control over what happened in the minds of their citizens. Thus, their thoughts unmodified, the subjects became increasingly rebellious until the opposition gained power to revolt.”
“Through our empirical studies we know better. We encourage people to express their opinions. We welcome them. When they criticize us, the nature of their criticism tells us to what degree our persuasion is working. By using the media, the arts, and education, we can change the prevailing public opinion in the direction we want at a rate given by the effectiveness of these tools. I have measured that effectiveness. That rate is defined by Aberhardt’s Constant. As long as we only make changes at a rate less than this time constant, then the average person, even though he grumbles about some of the things he sees going on, doesn’t become alarmed enough to take action because the change is happening slowly. He doesn’t realize that his opinion is being incrementally being shifted for him by unending repetition in the direction of the next behavior modification step through school, through television and every other thing in his environment he sees or hears. We can study him, poll his attitude and opinions, and if one message doesn’t work, we’ll try another. We can always measure our effectiveness because he’s willing to tell us what he likes and what he doesn’t like.”
Blackmore shifted in his seat uncomfortably. He heard Lydia Pendergast beginning to tap her foot on the floor.
Maybe I shouldn’t have sat down. Now that Aberhardt has the floor he could go on and on.
Aberhardt continued. “This gradual thinking modifcation works splendidly as long as we don’t go too fast. Some changes are so significant and so difficult, we actually have to wait for a new generation to grow up under our tutelage to achieve change. But, here is the critical point.
“If we try to go faster by coercion, then not only will we build up the subject’s resentment, but by its very nature, coercion causes the subject to hide his true feelings from us. When that happens we no longer accurately measure public opinion…” Aberhardt again stabbed the air with his finger for emphasis. “And so we will be governing in a vacuum, being forced to use stronger and stronger measures to maintain compliance until the system collapses in a revolt or an unwelcome opposition party.
“All of this is explained in my book …
“Yes, yes, yes!” muttered Lydia Pendergast. “We know all that.”
Aberhardt glared murderously at Pendergast.
Undaunted Pendergast continued. “Halcyon is a closed, controlled environment. We have broken down many of the institutions that have caused us so much grief. We know that religion poisons everything and so we have been careful to make the practice of religion a private affair, excluded from all public discussion, and so thanks to our excellent management, religion has almost disappeared. We won’t have any Martin Luthers rocking our boat…”
“Undoubtedly that has been an excellent development,” said Aberhardt.
“We have suppressed the family,” continued Pendergast. “Isn’t that important?”
“It’s true, that suppression is very important for sociological evolution. The stable family is a sociologically self-contained unit which means we don’t really know what ideas are taking root there. They don’t need us to care for them. In our new order, we create state dependency by ensuring there are almost no close familial relationships…”
“Exactly my point,” interrupted Pendergast.
“Let me continue,” interrupted Aberhardt in turn, “the subjects now look to Halcyon to raise their offspring. If they are sick they come to our doctors. If they are depressed they talk to our psychologists. At every turn we are able to influence them. These are all excellent steps but with our current actions we are jeopardizing all of our progress…”
“Really Frederick, I’m sure you’re right about the basic facts and your theory is brilliant,” said Trevor Huxley cleaning his glasses. “But it will take twenty or thirty years to make the kind of changes we want if we follow your infinitesimal steps, even given the rather substantial control we have over the Halcyon media, the few artistic endeavors we have left and of course our educational activities. We simply don’t have twenty years. This army of Apemen we have heard about could be here any day now and we need to make sure that everyone is on board. We can’t have any disunity. We can’t have our decisions questioned. Only the strong will survive and we need to govern strongly.”
“Besides,” added Pendergast, “your problem Aberhardt is that you’re working through social influences. Biology is more fundamental than sociology. Give me the right neurotransmitters and I can make our people believe anything you want.”
“Enough,” said Darwin Blackmore. He stroked his unruly goatee. “Thank you Professor Aberhardt for you valuable and insightful discourse. I will weigh your suggestions as well as those of Professor Pendergast and Administrator Huxley carefully.”
Aberhardt scowled. “You’re not going to take my warning seriously, are you?”
“Nonsense,” said Blackmore. “You have given us much food for thought. As I recall, Aberhardt’s Constant is a constant in name only and can be increased; perhaps you and Dr. Pendergast should have more discussions. With the right kind of psychopharmacopeia one could make the changes much sooner and so modify the magnitude of the Aberhardt Constant. Thank you for your time.”
Blackmore’s best smile was wasted on Aberhardt’s back as he stomped out.
As the door slammed, Pendergast muttered, “When I make this work, we’ll have to rename it the Pendergast-Aberhardt constant.”
Blackmore, ignoring Pendergast’s mumblings, went on:
“I have one more item to discuss. Do you remember after the first Halcyon River expedition returned and reported about the City of the Dead? There was a fellow on that expedition, Albert Gleeson. Subsequently because of his bizarre religious ideas, Jonathan Boyd, the psychiatrist at Halcyon Medical Center, decided he was delusional and needed to be protected. Boyd sedated him because of his illness, but then Gleeson mysteriously vanished from Halcyon. He reappeared on the Second Halcyon River expedition, and then after that disaster, joined the rebels in the new colony. Well I have reliable information that he has secretly returned to Halcyon.”
“Is this a problem?” asked Huxley. “After all he is only one person. I presume there is only one, am I right.”
“No, he’s not a problem,” said Blackmore. “Indeed, now that we know he’s here, he’s even less of a problem, but still this colony he and his fellow rebels have set up is an annoyance. Furthermore as Professor Aberhardt has so eloquently pointed out, we persuade people to our way of thinking through the media, the arts, and through education. But this colony is beyond our reach on all three fronts. We want to mold and shape our society by controlling the story that everyone believes. Who knows what peculiar ideas, indeed, what dangerous and inimical ideas they may come up with, in the absence of our guidance. We can’t lose control of our conditioning program because of these uncontrolled upstarts.”
“So what do you propose?” asked Pendergast.
“Propose? I propose we watch him discreetly. That way we can locate all of his contacts. We may not need to do anything, but if he does cause trouble, we’ll pick him up. Now if we have no further business, I still have some excellent wine in my cellar that I think we should try.”
Since high school, one way or another, I have been associated with universities. First as a student (undergraduate and graduate), then as a Postdoctoral Fellow, as a research collaborator, and also as an Adjunct Professor. I have also participated in academic pursuits such as writing and refereeing papers. Organic Chemistry was my focus and through that discipline I met many fine people.
A writer of futuristic fiction is concerned about where things are headed
As a writer of futuristic fiction, I am driven by “What if …” questions. Since universities have played such an instrumental role in our culture in molding the sequential generations, naturally enough, some of the “What if” questions deal with trends or potential trends I have observed in higher education.
In my novel, The Halcyon Dislocation, the movement and isolation of a hypothetical University of Halcyon to a parallel world sets up an experimental literary sandbox. One can ask the question, what would the university elites do if they had the opportunity to channel the thinking of their students in any direction they chose? What would they choose? How would they get there?
What would university elites choose if they could mold student thinking in any direction they wanted?
One of the problems that plagues science, indeed culture and politics as well is the question:
If I can do something, how do I determine if I should do that very thing?
The “can” is usually determined by data, experimentation, and collective scholarship, but the “shoulds” remain elusive since they depend on the question of objective right and wrong which is inaccessible to data and experimentation. In the absence of an objective right or wrong, the answer often becomes: “Because I have the power and I want to, I will do it and no one can stop me.”
The danger then, for universities, is the tendency to becoming factories of conditioned students rather than nurturing educated students who have learned to thoughtfully consider opposing points of view in humility and respect.
Becoming factories producing conditioned students, rather than educational institutions that enable students to thoughtfully consider different viewpoints with respect, is one of the dangers universities face
The antidote to this tendency to become ever more efficient conditioners of students as our manipulative skills and technology increase, is to make sure opposing voices (including religious voices) are not only allowed to speak, but are heard and considered. Free speech is the best safeguard against conditioned speech.
A Recent Example That Hits Close to Home
I know of Organic Chemistry Professor Tomas Hudlicky by his fine reputation. He wrote, and had accepted a paper in Angewandte Chemie (along with the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Angewandte Chemie is arguably one of the two best journals in chemistry). However, after the Twitterati ignited a Twitter storm (Twitter Gewitter?) everything changed for Professor Hudlicky, According to an article in the National Post by Peter Shawn Taylor, the accepted paper was withdrawn by Angewandte Chemie, the two referees were taken off the referees list (I’m sure as volunteers they have better things to do with their time) and the editor was suspended.
I respectfully suggest you read the whole paper, as I did, or at least read up to page 4, along with Note 2 which seemed to cause all the offense and then think about discussing the points Professor Hudlicky is making.
The text of the paper if it’s still available … Hudlicky Paper
In my view, the proper way to proceed is to have everyone, first read the paper, then present their best arguments in respectful discussion. A view or position that is not permitted to be questioned, is likely indefensible. If the case for the other side were compelling, why not make it? Is that not the mission of universities to encourage students to properly discuss opposing points of view with respect and leave the final convictions that come out of the discussion to the students? Apparently not.
My book club is reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life; An Antidote to Chaos. As part of this reading program I have been listening to various interviews of Peterson and a recent one, taken from a talk and interview at Lafayette College , caught my particular interest.
After a lengthy and colorful introduction by the moderator, Peterson posed a question to the audience. I am going to tell you what I heard in my own words, but I highly recommend you listen to his comments for yourself.
In my paraphrase and summary, his preamble and question went like this:
So called “right wing thinking” is concerned about establishing hierarchies (which are necessary for survival and for society to function), while “left wing thinking” focuses on equality and fights for the bottom tier of the hierarchies that have been established (which is also necessary).
He went on to say that we know where “right wing thinking” crosses the line into extremism: when they claim one group (usually their own) is intrinsically superior to other groups. Peterson then asked the question: Where is the line for extremism on the left?
He went on to answer his own question. The line is crossed on the left when their zeal for equality for the lowest tier in a hierarchy causes them:
- To focus on equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity
- To compel a certain kind of speech and thinking because it’s the only way to get people to comply with their demand for equality of outcome.
What Has This to Do With the Old and the New Testament?
Note: I’m not especially interested into entering into political discourse, important as that may be, but I am interested in how Peterson’s comments affect my thinking about the history of Judaism and Christianity described in the Old and New Testaments. I will confine my remarks to that subject.
I thought about the points Peterson made, and it struck me how this analysis parallels what I see in the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, when primarily describing God’s dealing with His chosen people Israel, he clearly sets up hierarchies: indeed he set up a political one and a religious one each of which acted as a balances to the another. This structure enabled the Israelites to survive despite encountering many enemies and suffering under the afflictions they caused whether it be slavery in Egypt or captivity by Babylon. Even under the heel of the Roman Empire, their identity and cohesion as a people was preserved. When I look at it, the hierarchies in their culture and in their relationship to outsiders contributed positively to their survival and cultural cohesion. However, there was potentially the possibility of crossing the hierarchical line that Peterson articulated.
When Jesus came, he seemed to turn everything on its head. He came in at the lowest tier—as many thought—the illegitimate son of a Galilean carpenter. Yet Christ, while not destroying the Jewish hierarchy, taught that to be a leader in His Kingdom, the leader has to be servant of all. This seems very much like fighting for the lowest tier.
Given Peterson’s analysis, it’s striking to me how Christ came to restore a sense of balance to the hierarchies and keep the Jewish people (and hopefully Christians as well) from crossing the line into extremism where “chosen people” comes to mean “as a people we are superior.” This has been helpful to me because it shows a natural progression in the Old and New Testaments and shows how hierarchies and fighting for the lowest tier are both essential for balance.
Disclaimer: I know Professor Peterson has delivered some lectures on biblical topics. I have not listened to any of them.
©Peter Kazmaier 2018
A short time ago my teaching pastor, Bruxy Cavey was teaching on Three Beautiful Words (God is Love) from I John 4:8 (if you’re interested in this critical message you can download the podcast for free).
After the message, as is the custom in our meetings, the floor was opened up for questions. A query was texted in by Peter (not yours truly) and from memory the gist of the question was:
A speaker on TV said that God being loving and being omnipotent was a contradiction. If God were loving, he would fix the world to take away evil and suffering. Since he doesn’t that means either he can’t (therefore he’s not omnipotent) or he won’t (therefore he’s not loving). This has bothered me a lot. How would you answer this?
Now when I encounter challenges like this, I like to think through them and this is the reason for my post.
Thinking about the definitions
Omnipotence is a theological term that describes God’s power as creator and sustainer of all things. I don’t believe it is ever used in the bible but rather is used by theologians to describe the sum of the teaching on God in the bible on the subject of His power and sovereignty.
Before one can examine the claimed contradiction, I think it is useful to understand the word “omnipotent.” The TV speaker and I likely agree that omnipotent means “all powerful” but does that mean that there are no actions that are inherently impossible even to an all-powerful being?
I think the answer to that question is “no;” there are actions inherently impossible even for the omnipotent.
For example, the following actions are inherently impossible or necessarily limit the scope on omnipotence:
1. Actions that violate the law of non-contradiction: God can’t make it rain and not rain on the same spot, in the same sense, at the same time. Choosing to make it rain means He has already chosen against making it “not rain.” The decree and its complement come as a single package.
2. In any creative process, full omnipotence is limited to the first decision. After that, all future decisions are constrained by what has already been chosen. Often subsequent choices are impossible because they violate earlier choices.
3. Omnipotence tells us what God can do, not what He will do.
Allow me to elaborate on points 2 and 3.
In any creative process, full omnipotence is limited to the first decision
As a writer I see this principle in effect whenever I start a novel. When my page is blank I may write anything I like. Perhaps:
“In a galaxy far, far away …” or
“He found the body after midnight on the moor.” or
“When Dolores opened the letter, she knew her life would never be the same again.”
After the first line, my omnipotence as a writer has shriveled enormously. I can no longer do what I want. Everything I write afterwards has to be consistent with what I wrote before. I think God faces the same limitation of particularity. When he chooses a certain course in creation, the contingent choices have to be self-consistent. When He steps into time, what He can do now, is constrained by the choices already made.
Omnipotence tells us what God can do, not what He will do
Omnipotence argues that God could lie. What prevents Him from doing so? He could put the lying words together, but choses not to because of His character. We have the same kind of power: we can all formulate a lie, but in our better moments we chose not to. This argues that there are some things God could do, but does not do them because they conflict with His essence or character.
Okay so why doesn’t God end all wickedness and suffering right now?
I think this is really the heart of the question that bothered the texter, Peter, and I don’t have a full answer. Here is what I have: what would God need to do to fix all wickedness and suffering right now? I think we would have to change the role we currently play on this planet and wrest from us all impulses and desires contrary to His will whether we want to give them up or not.
One of my favorite fantasy book series is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time®. In it a group of gifted people, called channelers, have enormous powers over their fellow humans. One power they have is called compulsion. With compulsion they can make subtle changes the thinking in the ungifted or even the gifted they have overpowered. For example, a channeler might compel a highly competent general to make subtle mistakes in a battle that to lead to disaster. On the other hand, compulsion can be used to completely take over a person’s mind so that the compelled must worship the compeller and be willing to kill or give up their lives for him. In the books, compulsion was rightly seen as a great evil in all its forms because it turned humans into automatons.
If my memory serves me correctly, there was a vision in the last book in which all people were compelled to be kind, productive, generous etc. But their humanity was sacrificed to make them that way against their will. They were no longer human. The protagonist saw this compelled change as a great loss to evil.
I think this is the fundamental flaw in having God fix things right now—it would have to be done against our will and our nature and that action itself would be an evil even if the end were good.
So where does that leave me?
I believe God is fixing things (perhaps it might be more correct to say He has fixed things in Christ) but the full effect of the cure has not fully spread through the system yet. The need for the means and the end to be true and good means the process will take some time, but it encourages me enormously that God in Christ came down into creation as a man and suffered right along with us. He was born into a poor family, of an oppressed people. His father likely died when he was a young man. Finally, he was crucified as an innocent man, while dying for His enemies who did not value His death at the time. This gives me great hope that God deeply cares about our (and my) condition in this flawed and marred world filled with flawed and marred people.
One of my favorite pictures is the one shown at the head of this blog taken of a framed print in my home. In Michelangelo’s fresco of The Creation of Adam, God is seen as touching Adam’s finger ever so slightly. Through this lightest of touches, He is communicating His love, but also His gift of independence and free will. The touch is there so Adam can choose to move toward Him or away from Him. Alas, we have moved away. He pursues us, but the touch continues to be light to preserve our free will. It is always my choice whether I move toward the touch or away from it. If I have to choose between becoming automaton or having God work the process to bring us home when we are willing to move towards Him, I choose His timing and process.
A final comment on theologically-skeptical snipers
I must end this blog with a protest about theologically-skeptical snipers. I can’t directly complain about texter Peter’s TV speaker because I never saw the program, but I have seen many others like it. The speaker, in criticizing theism or Christianity trucks out some challenge and then leaves it hanging. In my experience, they never go on to say: “This is my world view and this is how I answer this question that I have just asked.” That would reveal that their own answers are at least as problematic as the Christian’s and thus leave them open to challenge. In other words, these skeptics are often not skeptical enough because they don’t challenge their own views along with the Christian’s.
In my mind, these speakers are like snipers who are happy to lie hidden in the brush taking pot shots at their opponents. As long as their own position is undiscovered they can happily fire away without taking any return fire.
If you are interested in these kinds of questions and you find the musings of a non-theologian, Science Fiction author helpful, why not check out my book Questioning Your Way to Faith? In story form, it discusses questions I have wrestled with, in the context of a respectful conversation between friends who profoundly disagree on the answers. ©Peter Kazmaier 2018
CBC’s Fifth Estate presented a series by Mark Kelley entitled War on Wheat. Personally, I have enjoyed wheat products all of my life and I have no reason to change. However, several members in my circle of family and friends have changed to a gluten-free diet and so I was interested in hearing Kelley’s perspective on the subject. I had another reason for listening. As a scientist I am interested in examples of how scientists interact with the general public. I hope to learn how I can make my own communication more honest, open, and effective.
Every news program has a point of view. From the title, from the arrangement of the segments, and from the questions that were asked, it was clear to me that Kelley had organized the program to convince the audience that wheat is good, that “science” is almost unanimously on the side of eating wheat, and that going gluten-free is a fad promulgated by “food evangelists.” Remember, I am saying this as a person who loves his slice of bread and has found no reason whatsoever to change. Read the rest of this entry